It was the small hours of the night when I woke up bathed in cold sweat with a scream on my lips. My heart pounded in my chest as though I had just been chased through Beggar’s Canyon by Tuskens. For a long terrible moment the nightmare, which had me shaking, sank its claws deep into my brain refusing to let me go but the raspy tongue of a jax licking my hand brought me back into the real world. I sighed and sat up, reaching to scratch Khavi between the ears and smiled as she purred softly, rubbing her head against my hand. She always seemed to know when I was in distress and it was always she who was first at my side when I woke from a bad dream.
I got out of bed stiffly dislodging the other jaxes who had curled up around my body. I was still tired but I knew there would be no going back to sleep so I decided to go make a cup of tea instead. Khavi and Sja followed me up the stairs, their tails high, making little chirping sounds which meant they hoped to be fed.
“It’s two am.” I told them as I wandered into the kitchen, surprised to see my uncle there.
He smiled. “Jaxes know nothing of time, Lei’lei they know only love and food. You can give them a little as a treat.”
I nodded stifling another yawn and dropped a handful of food in their bowls.
“Bad dreams?” Uncle Vahlek asked as he poured me what looked like a brandy.
I nodded again as I sat at the table across from him and cupped the glass in my hands.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
With a shrug I said, “It won’t help.”
“Are they about Jyrki?”
“No. I don’t dream about him anymore, at least not that I remember.” I said. “No, now my dreams are about the Emperor and sometimes about Za’ar.”
“I see him sometimes, but he’s not the same man, I mean he is but he’s different as well. I know it’s Palpatine the aura is unmistakable but the face and the body are younger, changed.” I sighed and downed a mouthful of the brandy.
Uncle Vahlek watched me for a moment then nodded. “Cloned?”
“Maybe, I don’t really know. It’s possible. Using the force the way he did destroyed his physical body. There were rumours that he used to change bodies, transferring his consciousness into a new cloned body but that always sounded so very far fetched to me.” I shrugged and toyed with the glass, “The dreams are fragmented and when I wake I don’t actually recall a lot of the details. I just know that he’s as powerful as ever and he keeps telling me he will find me and finish what he started.”
“I can see why that would keep you up.” He nodded.
“Why are you up? You should be resting, Zte’sa.”
“Can’t sleep.” He said, “Time in the bacta tank has messed up my internal clock and I keep thinking about Kit.”
I watched his face for a moment. It seemed to me as though he had aged and he looked every bit as tired as I felt. “I miss him too.” I said after a long moment of silence had passed. “I keep thinking about how I could have changed the outcome, about how I could have….”
He put up a hand and silenced the run of thoughts. “It wasn’t your…”
“…Fault.” I finished for him, “I know that, really I do, but I still go over and over it all in my head. Wondering if there was anything different I could have done.”
He sighed. “Lei’lei sometimes very bad things happen. It’s just the way it is. I hope that this will end the string of bad things that have happened to you. You need to let this go before you become obsessed with the past and turn into Jyrki. You cannot turn back time and no amount of ‘what ifs’ will change things.”
I scrubbed my face with my hands. I was so tired and the mention of Jyrki’s name brought a flash of anger which scared me a little. I took a deep breath to get that under control. Jyrki was dead. I had killed him but it didn’t lessen my fury at him any.
“How are you feeling?” I asked switching the subject.
“The wound has healed well enough but my body isn’t what it used to be you know. It takes longer to get back to where I was. I’m not twenty any more.”
“Are you in any pain?”
He shook his head, “Not really. I am mostly just stiff.”
I made a face. “I’m grateful for what you did but it was stupid.”
“Well, we all do stupid things.” He said with a wry smile.
“Why didn’t you wear armour?”
The question surprised him. “Armour?”
I nodded. “Navaari was wearing armour weave under his clothes. Why weren’t you?”
He frowned, “I never use armour, Lei’lei. It hampers my movement and I don’t, as a rule, need it.”
I frowned. “Well that’s a silly reason. It would have saved you the dip in the bacta tank.”
“Perhaps but I don’t wear it, I never have. Part of the Bunduki training is to not rely on such things, you should know that. The Tze’yusha’Jin do not rely on armour, they rely on craft and training . We are supposed to move like shadows and be faster than those who would do us harm.” The expression on his face told me he meant those words with a touch of irony.
“Navaari wore armour weave and he’s part of your brotherhood.” I said crossly.
“Yes, he is.” My uncle agreed, “But he came to Nar Shadda looking and prepared for a fight. I did not. I came to Nar Shadda to eliminate Jyrki Andando by means of stealth. I had hoped to get to him before you arrived.”
I gave him a look which said I don’t believe you.
He sighed. “The truth of the matter is I have never needed body armour, I have never used it and to be perfectly honest it didn’t occur to me to do so.”
“So pride almost got you killed?” I grumbled.
“If that’s how you wish to see it, I suppose so but I don’t see you wearing any either.”
“Well, do me a favour next time wear armour. I almost lost you and I don’t want to go through that again.”
My uncle laughed. “I hope to hell there will never be a next time for something like this. And if there is I am certain your Ta’kasta’cariad will throttle you long before I have anything to do with it.”
I let out a noisy sigh. “I’m sure he would and if he didn’t Navaari would.”
“Yes, Kirja’navaar’inkjerii did mention something about keeping you safe on Hjal.” There was a catch in his voice when he spoke Navaari’s name.
There was a long pause and then I asked, “How do you know him? From before I mean, because you do know Navaari from before, right?”
“It’s a long story, Lei’lei.” He said quietly as if that would end the conversation right then and there.
I drew a deep breath and let it out slowly as if that would ease the frustration I felt. “You know what I have learned Zte’sa? Saying an explanation is a long story is another way of avoiding having to explain it. You understand Cheunh, you know of the Dantassi and their ways and you know Navaari from before. Thrawn greeted you like a member of the clan, something he has never done before, he said things had changed but he also said it was your story to tell. I never actually told you about Navaari, only mentioned his name once or twice and I haven’t said that much about my time with the Dantassi yet you know things about them no one else outside their kind does including some of the more obscure bonding rituals. Stop keeping secrets from me, especially about my friends and family, it’s what got us all into this mess in the first place.” This wasn’t exactly true but close enough that he winced when the words tumbled out of my mouth.
“We keep these secrets to protect you.”
“And a fine job it’s been doing at that.” I snapped. I was tired. “Did you know Thrawn from before as well?”
He shook his head. “No.
“So tell me how you met Navaari.” I pressed.
I didn’t think that he would answer me because he was silent for a very long time. “It was a very long time ago.” He said quietly.
“Why did you never tell me you two knew each other?”
He sat back against the chair and drew a deep breath. “Because I swore never to reveal to anyone what I knew about the Bone Traders and up until I actually laid eyes on the man I was not sure your Navaari and the man I knew were one in the same.”
“Sworn to secrecy? How come?”
“Because it would have endangered Kirja’navaar’inkjerii’s life if any one ever found out what he had done.”
I frowned. “What do you mean by that?”
Uncle Vahlek’s stare bored into me and when I didn’t budge or look away he sighed. “If we are going to speak of this then let’s move to the living room where it is a tad more comfortable.” He said with a frown. He poured brandy into both glasses and with a move that dislodged Maddy from his lap he got up and headed for the comfort of the next room.
I settled on my favourite chair and before I had finished dragging the spare blanket over my lap Khavi had made herself quite comfortable as if she too wanted to hear the story my uncle was about to tell. Uncle Vahlek sat adjacent to me and propped his legs on the table in front of the couch. He sat still for a long time, contemplating his drink. I had learned enough to know it was best not to say anything while he gathered his thoughts.
“By telling you this story I am breaking a promise to Navaari, you understand this yes?”
I nodded, meeting his pale green eyes with mine. “I need to know, he’s family for me and I don’t think he’ll mind.”
For a very long moment my uncle held my gaze and then he nodded. “I know.” He said. “He dotes upon you as though you were his own. You are as precious to him as you are to me but I don’t think you understand that do you.”
“I have some idea.” I replied a little crossly. “But he is important to me too, as are you. Now you are all connected and I need to know how, I need to try and understand it because it is just too weird of a coincidence.”
“The Dantassi say nothing ever happens by chance.”
“I know, but still… it’s a huge galaxy and still some how, in spite of the odds, you know Navaari.”
“Well, it seems to me that your life is full of such strange coincidences.” He replied with a shrug, “The galaxy works in odd ways, I stopped questioning it a very long time ago. Now do you want to hear this story or not?”
“I want to hear it.”
He smiled and then began, “When I met the man you know as Navaari we were very young, in our teens, and what happened, what took place did so long before I met your father, long before I met the woman who would give birth to Jyrki Andando and long before Darth Vader became the second most feared man in the galaxy.” He said. “I was in training, on my way to becoming an apprentice to the Brotherhood of the Tze’yusha’Jin and part of their initiation rites was survival training. Initiates in the brotherhood were taken individually to a planet that was harsh and unforgiving, essentially dumped on the surface with nothing and told to survive for a given time period and if they accomplish this then they will be picked up at the end of the trial. There are no rules just a lot of frustration. So, there I was, alone on a planet whose name I didn’t know with nothing except the clothes on my back and the knowledge in my head.”
“That sounds a bit….cruel.” I told him, frowning.
He shrugged nonchalantly. “Perhaps but this fraternity is selective and exclusive. Only the very best are ever accepted into its fold. I wanted to be the best of the best. After what my father had done, how he had treated me I desired to become the one thing I knew would hurt him, which was an assassin for the most secretive organization in the galaxy.” He paused for a moment, considering his words with great care. “I had witnessed the death of the man I had loved as a child, the man who had taught me the foundation of the Bunduki arts and had become in many ways a father figure for me where my own father remained a stranger.” He shrugged ever so slightly, “I came from a wealthy family and as the eldest legitimate son I was expected to follow in my father’s footsteps and learn the family trade, to become like him. So you can imagine the outcry when I walked away from it all.” He smiled slightly at the memory, “I don’t tell you this to gain sympathy. Everyone has hardships in their lives Lei’lei and their childhoods mark them, scar them forever. In my case mine made me hard, made me learn to hate everyone and everything for a very long time and it was because of that desire that I wished to join the brotherhood. What better way to get back at the galaxy than to sign on with the most notorious killers around?”
I had a hard time seeing the man I adored so much in the role of a cold hearted killer and I began to understand a little better why he had never wanted to speak to me of his past, of his profession. I nodded to let him know I had gotten the point.
“The Tze’yusha’Jin tend to find those who truly wish to become one of their kind. Word of mouth, the right questions asked in the right places eventually reach the right ears. One day they found me in a tavern on Malastare betting on pod racing. I never saw them coming and no one noticed when they removed me from the tavern right in the middle of a crowd. They were and are that good. I found myself in an interrogation room, where I sat for what felt like days. I saw no other person, was given no food and no instructions. I understood that I was being watched and it became a battle of wills. Eventually I suppose I passed this test, though by the time I was released I would have welcomed death. This was the beginning of what would turn out to be the hardest training I had ever done in my life. I loved every moment of it because through the pain and the punishment I understood I was becoming the very thing my father hated.”
“Why did you hate him so much?” I asked unable to stop from interrupting.
Uncle Vahlek sighed. “That is also along story, Lei’lei and one I don’t much wish to talk about. Will it suffice to say that he was a cruel man and that what he did in the name of power and profit disgusted me to the core? What he did to his family was inexcusable and when my mother killed herself to get away from him because he had sworn he would never let her go I understood that even though this man had fathered me, I wanted nothing to do with him. I left home and I never looked back.” He stopped to glance at my face for a moment and when I didn’t say anything he continued. “I drifted around for a while, got into some things better left unsaid and eventually was found by the brotherhood. The training I had undergone as a boy served me in good stead, word got around I suppose and before I understood what had happened I found myself marooned on a planet with just the clothes on my back.”
“And that’s where you met Navaari?” I pressed.
“So what, he saved your life?” I asked.
He chuckled, “No, quite the contrary, Lei’lei. I saved his when I was supposed to kill him.”
“What?” I could not keep the shock out of my voice and my exclamation made Khavi jump and dig her claws into my thighs. I hissed in pain and gritted my teeth until she settled back down, glaring at me in the process.
He smiled. “We were supposed to survive when I found Navaari he was wounded. I should have just killed him but instead I saved his life.”
“That doesn’t sound like a cold hearted killer to me.”
He laughed, “No not really but partially it was a reaction against my own father’s xenophobia which was rampant and destructive. I knew it would have annoyed him greatly if I, his son, saved the life of an alien rather than took it simply because he was at a disadvantage.” He made a face, “I know how silly this sounds and believe me, looking back it feels just as ridiculous but then I was passionate, stupid and determined to be as different from my father as I possibly could.”
“And becoming an assassin was different how?”
“Ah, well my father hired members of the brotherhood on occasion to eliminate some of his competition. I remember one time after a meeting with one of these men how he had scorned them, ridiculed them even saying they were scum and worse than bounty hunters. Paid thugs with no brains were his exact words. It was something I did not understand. He hated them but he hired them to do the work he would not touch. When I asked him about this he told me never let your own hands get dirty, boy, if you don’t need to. I was puzzled by this so the next time he hired one of these men I made it my goal to speak with the man and find out if they really were as my father had said. The man, a Zabrak named Sohli seemed amused at my clumsy attempt to follow him and had granted me an audience. After answering my questions honestly and intelligently I had come to the conclusion that my father was very wrong and that the reason he had scorned members of this assassin’s guild was that in fact he was scared to death of men like them. The conversation I had with Sohli lasted no more than five minutes, ten at the most but it was enough. He saw in me potential and I understood that my father, as ruthless and as brutal as he was, was also a coward completely without any honour. He hired these men to eliminate his competition because he feared losing to them. He brutalised my mother to terrorize her into staying at his side, she was the daughter of a wealthy shipping magnate and she brought status to my father who was common born. When it was discovered that she would be unable to bear him any more children after me he was unspeakably cruel to her, all the while having affair after affair with various influential women who bore him children willingly. I was his legitimate son and heir but I wasn’t the only child to carry his bloodline. When I ran off he had me disowned me and I was happy for it.”
“No offence, Zte’sa but this sounds like a really bad Holloway story.”
To my surprise, he laughed, “Yes I suppose it does at that. I am so grateful you never knew a home that was like mine which was part of the reason when we found you I wanted to take on the role as guardian.” He sighed. “My father, he was a bad man in every sense of the word, it happens sometimes. I don’t get too broken up about it but it is what it is. I did not want t0 be like him so I decided to become like that which he hated and feared. When I asked Sohli about the brotherhood all he said was they watched out for potential candidates and I would know if I was worthy.”
“So they watched you?”
He nodded, “It would appear so.”
“And you saved Navaari’s life?”
“Yes.” He said. “Although we didn’t know it at the time, he and I were tracking the same animal and unluckily for him he missed his first shot at it. The beast came after him and was in the process of mauling him. He would have died had I not killed it first. Seems somewhat anticlimactic to speak of it in this way but trust me at the age of seventeen it was a big deal.”
“You were only seventeen?”
He nodded. “As I told you, I was young and stupid.”
“Not much older I don’t think but he never told me his exact age and it’s hard to tell with his kind, they age differently from humans but he, too, was quite young.” He sighed and sipped his brandy thoughtfully. “The beast we had been hunting had raked him pretty good and he lost a lot of blood. I should have killed him right then and there, eliminating the competition, making it easier to survive but I didn’t.”
He drew a deep breath. “Because when I looked into his eyes I saw myself in more ways than I could count. I swore I would not kill just to get ahead, that was what my father had done and I had sworn I would not be like him, so instead of taking Navaari’s life I dragged him to my camp, treated his wounds and took care of him. And,” He added, “I wanted someone to talk to.”
“I find it hard to picture Navaari getting mauled by any creature.” I said quietly.
That made my uncle smile. “You’ve seen him undressed, yes?”
“Have you ever asked him about the scars on his chest?” He dragged his fingers in a claw like fashion across his chest above his heart.
“I never asked but I always wondered.” I murmured. The first time Navaari had stripped off his clothes in front of me I had stared in shock at the vivid scars which were almost white across his pale blue skin. The look on his face had told me not to ask so I hadn’t, I assumed an animal of some sort had done it but the story remained a mystery. He wasn’t the only one with scars on his body he didn’t want to talk about so I had let the matter lie.
“He was lucky his heart wasn’t torn out.” My uncle said.
I sat back in the couch and stroked Khavi absently. “So you saved his life, why all the secrecy?”
“He is Dantassi and is supposed to be masked to strangers. I saw his face. He thought he was alone on the planet so he stopped wearing his mask. By being seen he risked being shunned by his tribe or worse being put to death should it ever be known that he had not only shown his face but had shared his clan's knowledge.” He said, not telling me the entire truth. There was something more behind this but I didn’t press because I suspected it had more to do with the Tze’yusha’Jin’s rules than Dantassi law.
“Navaari likes to bend the rules when he can.” I said. “You saved his life, which meant he would have felt you were now responsible for him in some way.”
“Yes but I waved that right.” He said, “I didn’t want that responsibility or what it meant. So he taught me his language and some of his people’s customs in return for my silence. That was our deal. He teach me as much about his kind as he could and I kept it a secret. I had always known about the Bone Traders, who does not know of their kind, and had always been fascinated by them so to learn from one meant a great deal to me.”
“How is it that he was even in this brotherhood trial thingy anyway? I thought he was in training from an early age to be Jhal’kai.”
“That is his story to tell you, Lei’lei but as you pointed out; he does not always obey the rules.”
“So this all happened before Thrawn ever went to Hjal?”
“Yes, the invasion of his home world was some years later and we had mostly forgotten about one another. It was only when I saw your mask did I think of him but even then I didn’t know it was the same man, I wasn’t sure of that until I met him in person on board the Judicator.”
“How did you recognize him? I mean it’s been years right?”
He chuckled, “Yes it has indeed been many, many years still one does not forget. We spent almost seven months on that damned planet together and an awful lot of things happened to us. There are some things about a person you never forget, no matter how much time has passed.”
“So how is it that Za’ar can greet you as one of the clan warriors now, he never did that before?”
“You.” My uncle said warmly, “Apparently you bind everyone together.”
“Huh?” I said making a face. “How do you figure that?”
“I don’t know Lei’lei but somehow you manage to bring people together. If I understood it correctly this is because you and your Ta’kasta’cariad are bound and Navaari is part of that because he fostered Thrawn and then you. I believe some of the rules are relaxed because Thrawn is actually tied to a different clan, one on Csilla if I am not mistaken. I, by virtue of being your guardian and having saved your life, am now included in that circle as well because I am responsible for you, peripherally at least. Dantassi rules are complicated as is their clan structure. I always wanted to be a part of it and now, to some extent I am. I owe that to you.”
“Now this really does sound like a bad Holloway novel.” I grumbled.
“Perhaps it does at that.” He nodded with a smile, “But it isn’t as if your life, till now, has been dull and quiet either.”
I only shrugged in response, “So do you get to wear a mask?”
“That has not been discussed as of yet but it does allow Navaari to bear his face in front of me and for me, should I ever go to Hjal to be allowed to see as well as be seen within the confines of the enclave once it has been approved by an elder. As I said, Dantassi laws are complex but between you and that Admiral of yours you have managed to bend them in some interesting ways.”
“Yeah, I get told that frequently.” I said with a sigh. “Do you think Navaari told Za’ar this story?”
My uncle shook his head. “No, I know he has not nor would your mate ask, unlike you, he understands that some things must be kept hidden. I have a place in your tribe, in your other world because of what happened very recently not because of what I did all those years ago and should that particular tale ever make it to the wrong ears then the fallout for Navaari would be messy.”
I nodded. “Then your secret will stay safe with me.”
“I appreciate that.”
“So how did you learn Cheunh because the Dantassi version of that language is different yet you understood Thrawn and me when we spoke with each other when you brought him the Mandalorian Armour?”
My uncle gave me a slow smile. “You think you are the only one who has ways of getting such information?” he asked. “Part of my later training was to infiltrate the Unknown Regions and spend time learning the ways and customs of the peoples who lived out in that area of space. I knew enough Dantassi to understand the Chiss, as you well know the two languages are very similar, so learning Cheunh was not that hard.”
“Can you speak it?”
“Not as well as you but I would get by.”
I sighed. “That’s a hell of a story, Zte’sa.”
He gave a short laugh. “I am quite certain when your children ask about your life and you tell them all that has happened to you they will reply in much the same way.”
“Maybe, though right now it doesn’t seem as fantastic as it does insane.” I nodded thoughtfully. “So what will you do now? I mean now that the hunt for Jyrki is over? Did you ever find out if he was your son or not?”
Uncle Vahlek looked at me for a moment. “Even if he was born of my seed he was never my son and no I don’t know but I also no longer wish to either.” He sipped at his drink, “As for what I will do next, well I have work. In fact work that will take me away fairly soon so if you plan on staying here until that art auction Bedi was mentioning, I’d be happy if you’d look after the kids for me.”
“What sort of a job?” I asked.
“The sort of job I do not discuss with nosey young women no matter how much I may love them.”
“Are you working for Thrawn?” I pressed.
He sighed. “I will say no but you will know I am lying so you have your answer.”
I stared at him for a second while pieces of a puzzle suddenly clicked into place. “He’s asked you to go to Wayland for him hasn’t he?”
There was a very long moment of silence and then my uncle downed the last of his brandy. “It’s late, I’m tired and I am not discussing this with you.”
“Wayland is dangerous.”
This statement earned me a hard stare. “You never answered my question about looking after the jaxes.”
I heaved a very large sigh and gritted my teeth then nodded. “Yes, I will take care of them.”
“We’re not going to talk about this at all?”
He got up and cupped my face with his hand. “No.” He said as he kissed the top of my head. “I have divulged enough secrets for one night. Go to bed and get some sleep, child.”
I watched as he left the living room but I stayed where I was. My head was buzzing with everything he had told me and this last little piece of information was like a knife dragged through my chest. Wayland was a bad place, it had been cropping up in my dreams and I didn’t want my uncle going there. I didn’t want anyone I loved going there but I didn’t think that what I wanted played any part in what was going to happen and I didn't know what to do about it.