The funeral for my father was well attended. It felt as though half the planet had come from as far away as the Core; many people had liked and known Kit’gar Gabriel and he would be sorely missed. That so many pilots, spacers, mechanics and traders had come to pay their last respects was almost overwhelming and my father would have been surprised as well as touched had he known how many beings cared about him.
“He had a good reputation for being fair and honest.” One of the older pilots told me. “You always knew that Kit would treat you right when you landed at his dock or needed repairs.”
“Your father was a great pilot in his day, Merly. We were all surprised when he suddenly decided to get married and settle down. Never saw him happier then when he was talking about his family.” A pilot named Kirtis told me.
I could only nod in reply, too choked up to reply.
People gathered in the morning in Bestine and then, in hired multi carrier speeders, we drove, in single file out to the dunes near the house my mother had loved so much. The black ribbons that had been attached to the speeders fluttered in the created wind as we travelled reminding me of Jyrki’s hair being whipped by the storm on Ando Prime. Even here I could not escape the images that had been indelibly carved into my memory. I was grateful when we reached our destination.
My father’s body lay wrapped in the traditional black burial cloths and was laid on a repulsor lift which was escorted to the site where he would be buried. At Bedi’s instance my father was to be laid to rest next to my mother’s grave.
“She was the love of his life.” Bedi had told me through her tears as we discussed this surreal subject of where to bury him after I had arrived home. “I knew that, I always knew that. It’s why I had to leave when I did.”
I had only nodded. I knew a little about unrequited love and the havoc it could wreck. I also knew that my father had loved Bedi as well and I had been glad they had been able to find each other again so many years after my mother had passed away.
The funeral was led by Merl Tosche, who, when he had learned of my father’s death, had asked for the honour. He had known my father a long time and they had been good friends. As neither Bedi nor I felt up to the job and Uncle Vahlek was still too weak, I was grateful he had taken on this task. He was a man of few words and the actual ceremony itself was fairly short and to the point, something my father would have appreciated as he had never been a man for long flowery speeches.
Once the official eulogy was given and the body lowered into its final resting place then covered first by stones so that it could not be dug up by scavenger animals and then with sand, people were given time to bid my father farewell in their own way. As family we had the right to go first but I chose to ignore this in favour of being the last. By the time my turn came a heavy silence had fallen over everyone and everything. I stood for a long time staring at the mound of newly piled sand. I was certain the most people who knew me were expecting a speech of sorts about how much I had loved my father along with a story or two about him but no words that made any sense came to mind. Instead, I simply wept silently, tilting my face forward so that my tears dotted the desiccated sands with their precious moisture. I stayed silent too long and I could feel the tension shift in the air as people behind me began to get uncomfortable. Grief, as ugly as it was, also had its own decorum and I was breaking the rules.
“Merly?” Bedi’s hand touched me lightly on the arm, reminding me that I was not alone and people were waiting.
I nodded, feeling my throat close and that terrible ache in my chest threaten to choke me whole. “Good bye daddy.” I whispered, “I am so, so sorry.” I had to cover my mouth with my hands to stop from saying more, to stop from sounding like a very little girl rather than a grown woman.
It was Bel who brought me back into the world by hugging me tightly. “It wasn’t your fault.” She whispered in my ear but I knew better.
Once I was finished speaking the last part of the funeral rites could begin, the laying of small tokens at the grave stone. Chulpas, carved from Jappor snippets or small stones, strung on a leather thongs where wrapped about the grave marker.
It was a man named Gaelyn Scharr who had carved the grave marker from a hard stone which could only be found in the strange cliffs that ranged far out beyond the Jundland Wastes. The Sand People called these strange rocks Heart Stones because they survived centuries of scouring sands and winds. They believed these peculiar stones had once been a part of the very soul of the planet and they considered them sacred, that they were powerful and full of magical properties. Settlers had picked up on this and had long ago begun to use the stones to mark the graves of their dead with them. What the sand people thought of this no one knew but the Tuskens never touched or disturbed any grave marked with Heart Stone.
One by one we stepped forward to lay these tokens of love and respect at my father’s feet when I set mine down I thought it ironic that the symbol I carved on mine said exactly the same thing as the one that Lord Vader had given me to lay on his wife’s grave.
I saw people’s questioning looks as I set the snippet face up so the symbol could be read but no one dared ask what it meant. I almost lost it then, faltering a little as I went to stand up. Thrawn, hidden behind the clothes and the mask of the Dantassi, laid a hand upon my shoulder giving me a touch of strength and understanding. He knew what I had carved and although he had disagreed with it, he respected my feelings. I had let my father down and he had died because I had not been fast enough or clever enough to see past the trap which Jyrki had set for me. I had told Jyrki that I had forgiven him for what he had done to me but I could not forgive him for my father’s death, I couldn’t forgive myself either. No matter what anyone said I would always feel responsible for what had happened even though it had been beyond my control. I wept then, tears coursing unabashedly down my face. I had loved my father dearly, despite our sometimes rocky relationship and now he was forever gone leaving a hole in my heart that I wasn’t certain would ever completely heal.
When the rites were complete we returned to Mos Eisley for the reception which was held at the docking bay. It seemed appropriate as this was the place my father had seemed the most alive. I wandered amongst the crowded rooms of the house and landing bay half aware that people spoke to me, nodding absently at their sympathetic touches and murmured words of condolence. Bedi had decided to have the affair catered so there was more food and drink than anyone knew what to do with but I couldn’t touch anything, I had no appetite and the very thought of eating made me ill.
Because there were so many people, the reception went well on into the evening. As family I was considered a host and required to remain for the duration for the entire event, just as were Bedi and Bel. I was grateful that all of the people who worked at the docking bay had offered to stay and clean up, making the work go faster than expected. When the last mourner left I let out a deep sigh, as though I had been holding my breath since I had first opened my eyes in the morning. It had been an utterly exhausting day and both Bedi and Bel, after much cajoling from me, retired to their respective bedrooms leaving me on my own to contemplate everything that had happened.
It had been, as funerals go, beautiful, at least this was what everyone had told me. I didn’t remember much of and had I been pressed for details the only thing that came sharply to mind was the scent of the hot sand and the haunted look in my uncle’s eyes.
Uncle Vahlek had been stoic and calm though his sorrow was plain to read on his drawn face. His wound, the one he had received saving my life, pained him greatly and he moved with a stiffness I wasn’t sure he would ever lose. The doctors on board the Judicator had been loath to let him attend but he had insisted to the point of being obnoxious and Thrawn had told them to let him go, promising that he would be returned promptly after the ceremony.
Navaari and Thrawn, dressed as Za’ar, had stayed near me, silent, imposing figures in full Dantassi clothing, even more impressive given how hot they must have been beneath the layers of clothing and their masks. Thrawn had felt it best to keep his face hidden and I had not disagreed. There were rumours that an up and coming art auction slated to happen in a couple of months might draw in prominent members from the New Republic so for Thrawn, the last Imperial Grand Admiral, staying out of sight seemed like a good idea. The New Republic had spies everywhere and it was no secret that Tatooine was home to their most famous member, Luke Skywalker.
If anyone had thought to question the Bone Traders’ presence at my father’s funeral they had kept it to themselves, after all my father had known many, many people, but I felt a certain easing of tension from the crown when neither of the Bone Traders had come to the reception. It seemed surreal to me that so many people would fear the Dantassi and I had to keep reminding myself that once upon a time I had been terrified of them as well. Most people had assumed they had gone off to hunt but I knew that their lack of presence at the reception was because, by then, they were in a shuttle on their way back to the ISD with Uncle Vahlek so that he could continue his healing treatments. I had not seen them leave and I wasn’t sure when or if Navaari or Thrawn would return. During the funeral there had not been any time to discuss what I or they would be doing next. I had assumed that Thrawn would get in touch with me when things had settled down. He knew when to give me the space I needed.
With house now oddly silent in the wake of the mass of people who had been there earlier, I stayed awake, sitting in the kitchen staring at the walls cradling a cup of tea in my hands. The tea had gone cold without me even taking a single sip. I was exhausted but I couldn’t sleep. This house and the docking bay were too full of memories. Everywhere I looked I saw either my father’s ghost or Jyrki’s shadow and I wasn’t sure which hurt more. It seemed strange to know that everything I was looking at belonged to me now because my father had left all he had owned to me. I had just shaken my head at Bedi’s words as she had told me this. I didn’t want the docking bay, or the houses that went along with it. I didn’t want any of it and I told her that.
“Wait a while before you make these decisions, Merly, you might change your mind.” Bedi had said.
But I knew I wouldn’t although I hadn’t argued with her. “Will you stay and run it?” I had asked instead.
“If you want us to.”
“It’s Bel’s home. It’s your home too.” I had countered. “I can’t live here or work here any more. I have a life away from this place now. I’ll have the papers amended to make you both co-owners then there is no more discussion about it.” I had spoken in such a way that she knew I was neither joking nor would I take no for an answer. Papa had not updated his will since after my mother’s death and I had been certain he would have wanted me to make sure that both Bedi and Bel were taken care of.
She had nodded, her expression a mixture of relief and sorrow. She had thought it was because of my grief for my father’s death that I had felt this way but the truth was that Jyrki’s ghost haunted me here more so than anywhere else and I couldn’t bear to be near any of it.
I had not told her what had happened on Nar Shadda or Ando Prime; all she knew was that papa had sent both her and Bel to Corellia to pick up a shipment while he had stayed at the dock to take care of some business. Call it a small holiday with some work on the side, he had told them, you could both use a little get away. He was gone by the time they had returned but it wasn’t unusual for that to happen so neither of them had thought much about it. He never told them the truth; that Uncle Vahlek had sent a warning that Jyrki had something terrible planned and they should all vanish for a while. I had guessed that my father had decided enough was enough and that if no one else would take of Jyrki, who was hurting his little girl, then he would. He hadn’t wanted to worry them but maybe he should have. When Jyrki had come to the docking bay to wreck havoc, he had found only my father and I guessed that papa had gone without much of a fight because the place had been left undisturbed giving no clues as to what had really happened.
I had learned from Navaari that Thrawn had told Bedi that papa had died from a heart attack while on Nar Shadda, brought on by what looked like a mugging and that the med team had not been able to save him. When pressed for details he had said he did not know, which at the time was the truth. Bedi and Bel had both had accepted this because the medical report had backed up the basic information. It hadn’t seemed necessary to go into the graphic, terrible details and now that Jyrki was dead, I wouldn’t have to worry about him going after the rest of my family. So what had happened on Nar Shadda and Ando Prime would stay a secret only four people would know. I wished it was as easy to forget as it had been to hide the truth.
Every time I closed my eyes to try and sleep I saw Jyrki’s face as the lightsaber’s blade pierced his body or my father tied to that awful chair in that terrible room. I didn’t know how to get past these images or the terrible nightmares that had me bolting awake, screaming almost every night. On Nirauan Thrawn had been there to comfort me when I had woken in this manner but on the ISD Judicator I had been alone because Thrawn was onboard his flagship, the Chimaera, a ship he would not let me board for reasons he would never quite explain. In the end I had not argued with him because I had wanted to be near my uncle who was still in recovery on the Judicator. Only after security had come running two nights in a row to see that I wasn’t being murdered in my quarters did I take the doctor up on his offer of sedatives but they didn’t really work as intended, they had just made me glassy eyed and vacant.
I sat for a long time in the kitchen of the house in Mos Eisley before finally making up my mind to get the hell out and go some place where I could think without interference from all of the ghosts which trailed around. I left a note to say where I was headed and why, packed enough things for a few days and caught the shuttle out to Wayfar. From there I walked to my uncle’s house where I was greeted by his little bearded jaxes who, although had been fed by the little care taker droid, pretended they were all starving.
I spent the rest of the night half dozing with Khavi purring contentedly on my lap. It was oddly comforting to be in the company of the little furry creatures my uncle doted upon. Since I had last been here their numbers had increased because Khavi had given birth to kittens that were now all grown up. Maddy and Mayhem still owned the house but now they had to contend with Nixi, Eira and Sja. If the little feline like creatures found it difficult living so far away from their natural home of Rori, which was the swampy moon orbiting Naboo, they never let on. Jaxes, my uncle had told me could also be found on Endor but the species on Rori were easier to tame. They made good house creatures, keeping away small rodents and bugs with their natural hunting abilities and they were affectionate companions when they chose to be. I was always happy when Khavi jumped delicately onto my lap and made herself at home, taking it as a sign of acceptance. I woke before sunrise and despite the fact that I had not really slept well, I felt more at ease and more refreshed than I had since Jyrki’s cryptic message had arrived on Nirauan. Grateful to have the place to myself, the day passed easily and I spent much of it crying or dozing intermittently.
Cleansing the spirit, Ma’kehla would have called this, I didn’t know about that but it felt cathartic to just cry with no one else around even though the comfort of another was a good thing. This time I understood that having time to say farewell to the ghosts of the dead was necessary. Grief was a terrible thing and I had experienced it from a very early age all the way through into my adult life. It seemed to me that half of the lessons I had learned were about how to cope with loss, not that I did a very good job of that, but for reasons I couldn’t explain it hadn’t dampened my own love of life any, in fact, if anything it had made me understand that life was fragile and precious.
I loved my uncle’s house; it was a place of peace and quiet. Out past Wayfar it sat at the edge of the sands near the rocky bluff. In the distance I could see the towers of Jabba’s palace and it was an impressive sight, especially at suns set. A few other hardy people had built out here but it was mainly still deserted and I was grateful for this. During my time on Tatooine when Lord Vader had banished me from his sight, I had spent a lot of time in this house and it had become my second home. My uncle had long ago given me a key-code so I could come and go as I pleased and given me free reign to decorate the lower bedroom as I saw fit. I was never been more grateful for this than now. When the day drew to a close, I sat outside on the stone veranda and watched the twin suns set. The last rays peeked over the hills behind Jabba’s Palace and lit up the sky in fierce colours of reds and oranges and for a moment it reminded me of the mountains, laced with drifting snow, on Ando Prime. The ache of what had happened on that planet returned and I wondered as I sat there in the quiet of the desert’s twilight if I would ever be able to get past what had taken place, what I had done.
Taking a life changes a person, Thrawn had once told me and he had been right. I had killed and I wasn’t certain I would ever be able to come to terms with all that had happened. As the last of the day’s light had vanished giving way to the night I looked up into the sky, searching for the first star and was surprised to realise that it wasn’t Jyrki or my father who were on my mind but Thrawn and suddenly I had missed him most of all.
When the air turned cool I went back inside to make something to eat and maybe watch some old Holo-Dramas that my uncle liked to keep around. The jaxes bugged me for food and, after both they and I had eaten, I lounged on the couch, dozing rather than watching some old Holo about unrequited love that I had stuck into the player.
Sometime after midnight I woke up, startled by a vague nightmare that involved Thrawn but I couldn’t remember it clearly once I was fully back in the world again. As I made tea to take outside so that I could sit on the carved sand-stone veranda and watch the night sky I wondered if I would ever be free of these nightmares which clung to me. Probably not, I thought as I wandered outside, wrapped in a thick poncho to keep the night’s chill at bay.
Chenini, a slender silver crescent, began to climb into the sky following her sisters into the dark blue, star covered blanket. It was rare to see all three moons in the sky at once and I knew that all over Tatooine the Sand People and the Jawas would be holding their various rites to celebrate the rare celestial occurrence. Both peoples were superstitious and the moons held their sway. For me it was as if Tatooine was finding its own way to say farewell to one of her fallen sons.
I sat, leaning back against the house outer wall, watching the third moon of Tatooine rise, cradling a cup of mint tea in my hands. The night was cool and the soft hiss of sand upon sand as grains snaked over the rolling dunes was a lullaby I had almost forgotten. Somewhere in the distance I could hear a herd of banthas lowing and it carried through the air like some mournful lament. I got up and wandered to the edge of the steps to see if I could catch a glimpse of them in the moons’ light but they were too far away, instead I watched as a lone figure walk through the sands towards the house, moonlight reflecting white where his face should have been. I stood stock still and waited, the cup of tea in my hands sending steam into the air like a beacon. I knew who it was without even thinking about it. I knew his walk; I knew the mask he wore and what he looked like underneath it. What I didn’t know was why he had come all the way out here in the middle of the night when he was supposed to be on board of his ship trying to re-establish the Empire’s rule on the galaxy.
I did not speak as Thrawn, dressed in his Dantassi clothes, his face hidden by the antique bone mask, with a small pack slung across one shoulder approached the house. If the trek from Wayfar had tired or even winded him he showed no signs of it. Keeping himself in shape was something he took seriously and for some reason this made me smile. I waited and watched as he untied his mask and held it in one hand. When our eyes met there was a moment of electricity but also a moment of uncertainty. Then after what felt like an eternity he spoke.
“Should you not be asleep?” He asked.
I stared at him and shrugged. “Sleep is overrated.” I told him as I sat back down, my legs dangling over the edge of the veranda. “Did Bedi tell you where I was?”
He shook his head. “You’re still wearing the necklace with the tracking chip. It made it easy to find you and I did not wish to wake your household up. It is quite late by the time I arrived on world.”
My hand went to the small, carved bone pendant slung on a slender leather thong. For a moment I played with it then with one swift sharp pull I tore it off and flung it as far away from me as I could. It disappeared in the sand. Thrawn’s expression as he watched me do this was unreadable but then he smiled and set his pack on the ground, coming to stand beside where I sat. We stayed like that for a long time not saying a word. In the moons light his face was all shadows and lines, more handsome than ever before and the glow from his alien red eyes even brighter than I remembered. He took my breath away, even now.
Eventually he broke the easy silence. “Kirja’navaar’inkjerii will not be impressed when he learns you threw away his clever little track A’myshk’a-where-ever-she-goes tool.” He said.
I shrugged. “He doesn’t need it any more. I don’t need it any more either.” I said, half expecting him to be cross, instead he just nodded. “So to what do I owe the pleasure of your visit out here in the middle of nowhere?” I asked.
Thrawn pulled off his gloves then reached for his pack out of which he pulled a small box. “I thought you might like to have this returned to you.” He said as he handed it to me. I did not need to open it to know what lay inside of it. My ma’arilite necklace, the one I had left behind when I had gone off in search of Jyrki and my family.
I sighed as I opened it, biting my bottom lip as I just sat staring at the small pendant, made luminous in the moons’ silvery light. Thrawn watched my face carefully misreading my expression. “Do you not wish to have it back?”
I shook my head and handed him the necklace, shifting and pulling up my hair so he could fasten it around my neck. “Yes, of course I do. I took it off because I was afraid to lose it but…,” I said with a sigh. “It’s just … well… we seem to do this a lot.”
I felt rather than saw him nod. “Yes we do. I sincerely hope this will be the last time that I have to return it to you after some unfortunate circumstance.” He said gently, kissing the nape of my neck to let me know he was done. I was surprised that his small kiss made me shiver.
I moved to face him, my fingers brushing the small stone that now sat at its rightful place about my neck. “Thank you.” I said after a long pause looking up into his face.
It was his turn to draw a deep breath. I could see a thousand questions flash through his eyes but he didn’t ask any of them. Instead he just smiled as he stood there, his arms folded across his chest, his face raised to the sky, his eyes closed, as though he were basking in the sunlight not that of the moons. Then as if deciding something he turned to look at me and asked, pointing at my cup. “What are you drinking?” He asked.
“Mint tea, would you like some?” I got up before he could answer and turned to go in and fetch him a cup but before I could take a step he reached out for me, catching my free hand in his.
“Wait.” He said as he jumped up on the veranda to join me, making the distance between us small. Suddenly, where there had been an air of quiet melancholy was now the decided tingle of something else, something electric. He watched my face carefully as if he could get all the answers he sought from simply looking into my eyes but when that failed he said, “We need to talk.”
“Talk?” I asked carefully taking a step back from him. “No, I don’t think so.” I told him, wrongly assuming he meant he wanted to hear the details about what had happened on Ando Prime. “There’s nothing to talk about.”
His fingers brushed a strand of hair which the breeze was playing with back from my face. “Oh yes, I think there is. We have much to discuss, my dear, especially about what will happen in the future.” He said with a slight smile, speaking in such a way that I no longer knew what sort of conversation this was supposed to be.
I frowned at this familiar game. “So you came all the way out here, in the middle of the night to give me back my necklace and have a little chat?” I asked.
His lips curled into a lazy smile. “Can you think of a better reason to come to Tatooine in the middle of the night?” He countered, taking a step towards me. This time I didn’t move.
“I hear the suns’ rise can be quite spectacular.” I countered.
“Hmmm, well perhaps our talk can wait until dawn then.”
I shrugged and glanced away from his gaze. “Shouldn’t you be on board your ship plotting the New Republic’s overthrow?” My words sounded a little sharper than I had meant them to.
“I am taking some leave time.” He replied, his words cool and business like. “You and I have some unfinished business and I wish to deal with it before things get too busy.” He spoke casually but there was a hint of need under his words. He moved forward again backing me up against the wall.
With the sandstone wall of the house at my back, I glanced up at him casually with just my eyes, “Unfinished business?” I asked.
His gaze on my face was intense. The air between us pulsed. “Call it reconnaissance if you like. I wish to find out more about this supposed art auction Bedi was telling you about and who better to ask than you?”
“Who indeed.” I murmured, understanding that, while maybe he did want to talk about serious things, this was his way of saying we needed time with each other and we didn’t have much of it left before he began the full push of his current campaign. Duty would always come first but I was grateful that sometimes I came a close second.
I suppose he saw these thoughts plainly written on my face, he was better at reading me than anyone else and he shook his head as if to tell me I was the one who was wrong. “You truly have no idea, do you A’myshk’a?” He said softly as he cupped my chin with one hand, raising my face up to meet his.
“Probably not.” I said with a slight shrug, not all that sure what he meant but not wanting to ask either. “But does that matter?”
There was a lengthy pause while he considered his answer, “No and if I were to be honest, perhaps it is part of your charm.” He replied thoughtfully then, before I could say anything else, he kissed me as though he had not seen me in a hundred years. I was surprised by the sudden ache of need which shot through me. Grief, it seemed, could be overruled after all and I ignored the cup of tea which fell from my fingers to shatter on the stone floor beneath us in favour of returning his passionate kiss.