Initiate (Aronoke - Book 1)

Separation

Aronoke was left by himself with a deluge of disturbing thoughts to contend with. How could Ashquash be drugged? How could anyone do such a thing to her, here in the middle of the Jedi temple? Why would anyone want to?

And then the truth hit him. It was a punishment. Not a punishment for Ashquash, most likely, but a punishment for him. He had reported the strange message, reported all the odd things on his datapad. Ashquash was his friend and had been attacked in order to convince him that this was not a good idea.

He slept little for the rest of the night; would have liked to go running, but knew that was not wise. That Razzak Mintula would not have liked him to go alone, not just then. So he meditated instead. After a long time he was able to calm his thoughts enough to fall asleep.

He awoke quite late the next morning, but Ashquash was still not there. Razzak Mintula was not there either. Mintaka, the instructor who sometimes stood in for her was there instead.

“Razzak Mintula will not be here today,” Mintaka announced at the start of their first lesson. “She was up very late tending to Ashquash, who is sick. Ashquash has been taken to the medical bay, and she is fine, but she will not be back for a few days.”

Aronoke could feel the weight of Draken’s eyes and knew that Draken wanted to ask him all sorts of questions, but he refused to meet the other boy’s eye and firmly concentrated on his lessons.

“What happened to Ashquash?” Draken asked as soon as they went off to the refectory for the midday meal. “She seemed fine yesterday.”

“I don’t know,” said Aronoke. “She woke me up in the middle of the night, and Razzak Mintula took her to the sick bay. That’s all.”

“Oh.”

Aronoke did not want to tell Draken about Ashquash being drugged. Draken was his friend, but inclined to gossip with people from other clans. Aronoke thought that if he were Ashquash, he would feel ashamed and wouldn’t want the real story spread about.

But a few days later it became apparent to everyone that there was more to the story than merely Ashquash falling ill. Razzak Mintula was back by then and had reassured Aronoke that Ashquash was fine and was being decontaminated. Aronoke sensed that she was angry that something like this could happen to a student in her care. He felt the same sort of powerlessness himself.

“Today our schedule will be a little different from usual,” said Razzak Mintula as they gathered in the clan room after breakfast. “We will be having our first session in here today, so it will almost be like a kind of holiday. An investigator will be coming to ask some questions about Ashquash. He will want to know if you noticed anything the day before she was sick, because there is some concern that it might have been done on purpose.”

“On purpose?” asked Draken, his voice rising in his surprise. “Ashquash was poisoned?”

“That’s bad,” said Andraia, one of the smaller humans. “I don’t want to be poisoned!”

“It is bad,” said Razzak Mintula. “But you don’t need to worry. There is no reason to think that any of you will be poisoned, but you must be sure to answer the investigator’s questions carefully.”

“Yes, Instructor Mintula.”

When the investigator arrived, he was a man who looked largely human except for his skin, which was marked like that of a spotted cathar. He was accompanied by four droids and Aronoke wondered why he needed so many of them.

“This is Investigator Rythis,” said Razzak Mintula to Clan Herf, who sat cross-legged on the floor. “He has set up his office in our usual classroom, and will want to ask you all some questions, as we have previously discussed.” Even while she spoke, three of the droids began cruising about Clan Herf’s rooms, scanning everything.

The investigator was a dour looking man for a Jedi, Aronoke thought. Either he was of a naturally sombre disposition, or he was not pleased at having to interview a bunch of initiates. Perhaps though, to be fair, thought Aronoke, the Investigator judged the situation was serious enough to warrant such an attitude.

“This is a serious matter,” said the Investigator sternly. “I intend to determine how your clan-mate Ashquash was drugged, so we can find out who is ultimately responsible. I will take you one at a time to ask you questions. I want to know if you noticed anything unusual about Ashquash or anything else, so you should think about that while you are waiting for your turn.”

The way he spoke was very intimidating, and Aronoke noticed several of the smaller clan members edging closer to their fellows.

“Which one of you is Initiate Aronoke?” asked the Investigator. “I would like to speak to him first.”

He pronounced Aronoke’s name wrong, which hadn’t happened in some time.

“I’m Aronoke,” said Aronoke, by means of correction as he climbed to his feet. He met the man’s intense gaze steadily. This was just a Jedi investigator, here to help Ashquash, and Aronoke hadn’t done anything wrong. Besides, he wasn’t anywhere near as frightening as Careful Kras, and Aronoke was determined to show the smaller ones that they need not be afraid.

“Come this way,” said the Investigator, gesturing towards the door that led outside.

“Yes, Investigator,” Aronoke said.

He followed the man across the hall into the classroom on the other side of the hallway.

“You are Ashquash’s room mate?” asked the Investigator, and Aronoke agreed that this was so. “This whole situation seems somewhat irregular,” grumbled the investigator disapprovingly, and Aronoke wondered what he meant. Because Ashquash was a girl? Because they were different species? Because both he and Ashquash had unusual backgrounds and had come late to the Jedi Temple?

The Investigator did not explain himself, but lots of questions followed, concerning what had happened the night Ashquash was drugged. Aronoke did his best to answer all of them. How had Ashquash woken him up? Had she ever done so before? Did she usually touch him like she had when she had shaken him? How did she usually behave around him? What sort of sparring did they do? Did they ever go sparring together alone? Did they go out in the middle of the night?

Aronoke began wondering if initiates did all these strange sorts of things more often than he realised. He also found himself questioning exactly what it was the investigator was investigating.

“Do you have any idea why someone would want to drug Ashquash?” the investigator asked.

“I thought it might be part of the unusual things that sometimes happen to me,” said Aronoke hesitantly. “I thought it might be a punishment, because I did not do what the message in one of them told me to do, because I knew it was wrong.”

“Unusual things?” asked the investigator. “What message?”

Aronoke was surprised, thinking that the investigator would have known about all that.

“I reported all of them, either to Master Insa-tolsa, or Master Altus, or Razzak Mintula,” he said. “Unusual things happen to me sometimes. Someone is trying to manipulate me. I thought what happened to Ashquash might be a punishment because I refused to do as I was directed.”

“These incidents will have to be recovered from any reports that were made by your superiors,” said Investigator Rythis primly, his fingers flickering over his datapad. He seemed annoyed with Aronoke, like this information was not helpful at all.

Aronoke shrugged. He tried to explain everything in detail, but by the end of it he still felt that the investigator was not pleased with him. Whether the investigator had expected to find a connection between Aronoke and the drugging, or thought Aronoke was purposefully concealing things was not obvious.

“What was it like?” Draken asked, he face alight with anticipatory relish, when Aronoke returned. “Was he scary?”

“No, not really,” said Aronoke calmly. “He just asked me lots of questions.”

“What about the droids? They didn’t torture you did they?”

“No, of course not!” said Aronoke. “There was one taking notes. The others seemed to be off scanning things.”

Draken was caught between relief and disappointment.

“He can’t be much of an Investigator then,” he muttered, “if he’s not as scary as he seems. Really it’s an affront to Ashquash to send somebody so tame. How can he be a proper investigator?”

“You can’t have it both ways you know,” pointed out Aronoke. “It’s either scary and then you’ll be scared because he’ll probably want to talk to you next, or it’s not scary and it’s boring.”

“Hm, I guess,” said Draken, unconvinced.

The investigation did not result in any great revelation that Aronoke ever learned of. No culprit was brought to justice, although eventually it was revealed that Ashquash’s toiletries had been tampered with, and that this was how the drug had been administered. Aronoke looked at his own toiletries with new distaste. He had never been fond of them – the water was bad enough by itself – and now he was even less inclined to use them.

It was difficult to relax and be calm after that. He felt angry and unsettled. More and more it seemed that what had happened to Ashquash was his fault, if only indirectly. If he had not been here, than would this have happened to Ashquash? He didn’t think so. It wasn’t fair. She only had this one chance to succeed at being Jedi, like he had, and because she was Aronoke’s friend it was being taken away from her.

It would be better, Aronoke reasoned, if he had no friends. He knew this was not right. After all, clan-mates were supposed to work together to solve problems. But most of Clan Herf was so small. What good would it do to involve the little kids in his problems? What if one of them was hurt next? That thought was unbearable. He wished Master Altus was here to talk to. That in itself was pointless, because it seemed likely that none of this would have happened if Master Altus was here. Aronoke knew he should try to be brave and independent, even if he felt out of his depth.

Ashquash came back a week later, quiet, withdrawn and grumpy, in many ways reverted to the angry uncommunicative person whom Aronoke had first met. Aronoke took care to behave like he had done then. He sat quietly and did his lessons nearby, not ignoring Ashquash, not paying undue attention to her, but focusing on his reading.

Ashquash sat on her bed and did nothing for a long time.

“I don’t think I’m going to make it,” she said finally. Sadly.

“Don’t say that,” said Aronoke, shocked. “I don’t see any reason why you shouldn’t make it. You’re smart and strong as anyone else.”

“Someone doesn’t want me to,” said Ashquash. “It’s obvious. They don’t want me to succeed, so they did this to me. And right now, it’s only the stubborn, angry bit of me that wants to stick it through, just so that they don’t get what they want.”

Aronoke was overcome with remorse.

“That’s not necessarily true,” he said. “It is possible that some Jedi masters think that you shouldn’t be an initiate, but that doesn’t mean they would go so far as to sabotage your efforts. And for every one that thinks you shouldn’t be given the opportunity, there must be even more who think you should, otherwise you wouldn’t be here at all.”

“Hrm,” said Ashquash, unconvinced.

“And it might not be because of you at all,” said Aronoke, ploughing on despite his better judgement. “Strange things have been happening to me practically since I got here. Especially since Master Altus left. Weird things keep appearing on my datapad. A strange holotransmission was delivered by a droid, trying to manipulate me. I reported them all, and it seems to me that this attack on you might have been a sort of punishment. I mean, you are my room-mate, we are friends, right? Maybe you got hurt so that next time I listen to what it says.”

Ashquash looked up at that, warily.

“I reported those things to Master Insa-tolsa,” said Aronoke. “He said they are trying their best to fix them. I really hope it won’t happen again.”

“Why would they want to manipulate you so badly?” asked Ashquash critically. “To do what? Because you’re so special?”

“Because I’m different,” said Aronoke. “I…there are some different things about me.” He thought for one wavering moment that perhaps he should tell her about his back, but it was too frightening, too strange. Too much to burden Ashquash with.

“I am different too,” said Ashquash.

“Yes, that’s true,” said Aronoke. “I don’t know why they would want to manipulate me specifically,” he continued, semi-truthfully, for although he knew it was almost certainly something to do with his back, he didn’t know why his back was so important. “But it’s obvious that they do, because of the message and the other things that have happened.”

“Huh,” said Ashquash.

“I was thinking,” Aronoke said, “that if it’s true that you were hurt because of me, than perhaps it might be better if you were not my room-mate anymore.”

Ashquash looked up at him. Her complexion darkened like a sandstorm was rolling across it. Her eyes darkened and her young face settled into hard, tense lines that made her look much older. Her anger was a tangible, frightening thing.

“I just don’t want you to be hurt because of me,” he explained hurriedly.

“Maybe it would be better,” said Ashquash tightly.

“We could pretend that we had argued,” said Aronoke. “That’s not true of course. We would know we hadn’t argued. We haven’t argued, have we? But it might be enough to keep you safe.”

“How will we decide which of us should change rooms?” said Ashquash flatly, suddenly looking drained and tired instead of angry. Aronoke felt sick, because he didn’t want to travel this path. Wouldn’t the voice have won a victory if he did? But the alternate path seemed impossible. He wanted to protect his clan-mates from this mess, not get them further involved. They were too small to have to deal with such a big problem, he reasoned. Or had too many problems of their own, like Ashquash.

“It’s okay, I don’t mind changing,” he said. “You shouldn’t have to do anything – it’s because of me that this happened, so I should be the one who changes.”

Ashquash said nothing for a long moment.

“Alright, go then,” she said, bitterly.

Aronoke nodded, got to his feet, and went to Razzak Mintula’s room.

“Yes, Aronoke, what is it?” asked Razzak Mintula wearily.

“Razzak Mintula, can I change rooms?” asked Aronoke.

She looked at him for a long moment, studying his expression. “Perhaps that mightn’t be such a bad idea,” she said, finally. “I am reluctant however, to swap you with anyone else at this time. There is an empty room across the hall, not within the clan rooms, that you can use. Although it doesn’t have the same facilities that your current room has.”

“That doesn’t matter. It will be fine,” said Aronoke.

It was a small matter to move his stuff across to the new room. The isolation of the chamber made it easier to think of himself as being separate. It was the perfect opportunity to divorce himself from his clan-mates, at least in appearance. He must be strong, must not let himself be made miserable or angry by this self-imposed distance, because then the voice would have won. He had to be calm and resilient. He had to be a Jedi.

There is no emotion, there is peace.

It was difficult. There was an undercurrent of sadness that Aronoke found impossible to erase entirely. He could control it while he was meditating, but every time that Draken asked him to play a game, or any of the little kids were particularly forthcoming, he forced himself to be friendly but stand-offish and it came back. Draken seemed puzzled and hurt, and the little kids looked at him oddly like he had been replaced by someone who was not really him.

Just when he had felt he could really belong, Aronoke thought, something happened to force him apart again. Was that what it was always going to be like? Eternal isolation?

Nevertheless, Aronoke persevered in his self-imposed solitude for a couple of weeks. Buried himself in his lessons. Increased the amount of time he spent running and meditating and did a great deal of extra reading to pass the time. Walked down to the pool regularly to look at the water. It was difficult to occupy his mind with enough things to keep himself from feeling depressed, although all the meditation helped a lot. He felt he was getting on top of it most days.

One day he was down at the edge of the pool looking down into the deep water introspectively when suddenly Ashquash was there with him.

“Why do you always look at it like that?” she asked. She seemed tense, irritable.

“Because I don’t like it,” said Aronoke immediately. “It makes me feel uncomfortable, so I look at it to help me get used to it.”

He was going to say something else, but all at once, Ashquash gave him a sharp push. For an instant he thought there was a chance he could regain his balance, but in actuality it was hopeless. Windmilling wildly, he toppled into the deep pool.

The water closed over Aronoke’s head, green and smothering. The world of air was abruptly cut off and he could hear nothing except the rising bubbles around him. Even then, he did not immediately panic, but restrained his fear with barely tethered threads of will. He held his breath and repressed the urge to scream.

But he was sinking. Running out of air with every passing second. His terror was rising uncontrollably.

Kick off your shoes, countered the trying-to-be-calm voice in his head. Undo your belt, slide out of your robe. You can’t swim in all these clothes.

He tried, but his gestures were too jerky, too hurried. The robe came half off and rose over his head so he could not see. One arm was twisted somewhere behind him, caught in his sleeve. He was stuck.

Sinking further, faster. Couldn’t move, couldn’t swim in all these clothes.

What if Ashquash was standing up there, angry and cold, dispassionately watching him sink? What if Ashquash had planned this all along?

His fear exploded, unrestrained. Aronoke panicked completely, thrashing and struggling. He only succeeded in tangling himself more thoroughly and disorienting himself so he no longer knew which way was up. He gasped in half a mouthful of water. Coughed it out. Couldn’t breathe. Reflexively he gasped again and burning water flooded his lungs.

He was drowning, a tiny detached part of him realised. This was how it would ignominiously end. This death seemed a lot worse than being decapitated by a lightsaber.

Something grabbed his shoulders none too gently, tugging at him, dragging him through the water. Irrationally he fought, but the hands were strong and insistent. Then his head broke the surface, and he gasped for air, spluttering and coughing. Thrashing uncontrollably.

“Be still!” said Ashquash crossly, but Aronoke was still caught in the blind throes of panic and struggled wildly. She slapped him hard across the face. He subsided a little in shock and found himself pushed towards the edge. He clawed at it and clung to it, wheezing and gasping.

“What are you doing?” came an irate voice from far across the pool. “Stop that immediately!”

Aronoke struggled to climb out, but floundered ineffectively, unable to find the strength. Then Ashquash was there at the top, holding out her hand, and with her assistance he rolled up over the side and knelt there for long moments, coughing and gasping, retching up great gouts of water.

“You initiates are not supposed to be in the pool,” said someone closer now, an Aqualish instructor, coming over in the company of a warden droid. “It has been reserved for Clan Vequish’s use for the entire afternoon.”

“Yes, we know,” said Ashquash petulantly.

Aronoke could not speak, was too busy coughing still.

“You had better leave and return to your quarters at once,” said the instructor.

Can’t he see that I’m half drowned, thought Aronoke. His fear had been replaced by anger. Anger at Ashquash, anger that she had done this to him, anger that the instructor was berating him when none of this was his fault. Was this Ashquash’s repayment for what had happened to her? She thought it was his fault?

“Yes, yes, we’re going,” said Ashquash insubordinately. Aronoke made a brief sign of acquiescence, but still did not want to speak. He was too angry. It was only when they were moving off down the hallway that lead to the elevator banks that he felt he could talk.

“What did you want to go and do that for?” he snarled.

“It seemed to me it wasn’t helping,” said Ashquash defensively.

“Wasn’t helping?” Aronoke had lost it, he realised. Heard the anger in his own voice.

“All the looking,” said Ashquash.

“Maybe not, but that doesn’t mean you should push me in.” Aronoke could feel his hands were shaking badly. But he was alright, he thought. He wasn’t dead. He had fallen in and panicked, and he wasn’t dead. That counted for something. Maybe Ashquash was right. And as angry as he might be, he was also relieved that she had pulled him out, was not part of the conspiracy, but had acted, it seemed, through a misguided impulse of her own.

He took calming breaths, interrupted by more coughing. Recited a platitude in his head. Slowly felt like he was coming back under control.

“Just don’t do it again,” he said firmly.

Ashquash stopped, looking wild and a little fey. “I should never have said for you to do it,” she said.

“What?” asked Aronoke, confused.

“For us to argue,” said Ashquash. “I shouldn’t have said it.”

And she turned and ran away.

Aronoke stood there dripping a long moment, confused. Was that was this was all about? She was angry with him for leaving? But he had explained beforehand that it wasn’t real...

Feeling more confused and upset than angry now, he made his way back to his room and changed into some dry robes. He had not yet put the wet ones in the laundry chute when Draken rang the door. When Aronoke opened it, Draken’s eyes immediately travelled to Aronoke’s hair and the puddle of wet clothes on the floor.

“Your hair’s wet,” he noted. “And, um, your robe. But I guess you know that. Do you know where Ashquash is? I can’t find her.”

“She ran off,” said Aronoke wearily. “I expect she just needs a bit of breathing space, and she’ll be back.”

“What?” said Draken. “What do you mean she ran off?”

“I was down by the pool, looking at the water, and she pushed me in,” said Aronoke. “Then I was angry, and told her not to do it again, and she ran off.”

“She pushed you in?” asked Draken. He looked at Aronoke stupidly and stared again at the wet robes. “I hope she comes back soon,” he said finally.

“I expect she will,” said Aronoke.

But Ashquash had not returned by the evening meal and when Aronoke went to ask Razzak Mintula about it, he found Mintaka was in the office instead.

“Razzak Mintula’s been called away,” she said, and Aronoke immediately assumed it was something to do with Ashquash’s disappearance. He hoped Ashquash had not done something too crazy, or gotten herself hurt. He spent the rest of the evening sitting in the common room, studying his reading tasks, but Razzak Mintula and Ashquash did not return. Finally he composed his thoughts and went to bed, hoping everything would be cleared up by morning.

But in the morning he was woken up very early by Instructor Mintaka. “Do you know anything about where Ashquash might be, Aronoke?” she asked. “She is not in her room this morning, and it does not look like her bed has been slept in.”

“Oh,” said Aronoke stupidly. “But Instructor Mintula… I assumed…” he stopped to organise his thoughts and began again.

“I argued with Ashquash yesterday,” Aronoke said, “when I was coming back from the swimming pool. I was angry because she pushed me in. I am… scared of the water. And I didn’t say much, only that she must not do it again. But she was upset and ran off. I assumed that Razzak Mintula had gone off because of her, but… I am stupid,” he finished awkwardly, beset with self-loathing.

“You are not stupid, Aronoke,” said Instructor Mintaka. “Do you have any idea where she might have gone?”

“No, I have no idea,” said Aronoke wretchedly. Ashquash missing, wandering around the streets of Coruscant by herself? Surely she couldn’t get far with all the security. “I’m sorry, Instructor Mintaka. I should have said something yesterday.”

“I’m sure everything will be fine,” said Instructor Mintaka. “I must go and report her disappearance. You should go back to your regular schedule.”

“Yes, Instructor.”

After that, Aronoke decided that he should talk to Master Insa-tolsa about the whole affair and called him by holocommunicator to make an appointment.

“I have just been talking about you, Aronoke,” said Master Insa-tolsa enthusiastically when he answered. “I am here with Master Parothis and we were discussing the possibility of taking you and several older members of your clan on some excursions to various parts of Coruscant, rather like Master Altus did with you. We think such excursions might be of considerable benefit to your education.”

“I’m sure that my clanmates would be very excited to undertake such a thing, Master,” said Aronoke, “but...”

“Excellent. It will be several weeks before the arrangements can be properly made, of course. Master Parothis has several interesting ideas for locations we can visit. Well, thank you for your call, Aronoke. I will be in touch with you as soon as everything is organized, to let you know the details.”

“Yes, Master, but…” said Aronoke, but the ithorian had already closed the connection.

He could have called back, but Master Insa-tolsa was probably still speaking to Master Parothis and he did not want to be a nuisance. Instead he left a recorded message asking for an appointment, and later the confirmation came back that he could visit Master Insa-tolsa the next morning in the Master’s chambers.

The next morning, however, there was a new item on Aronoke’s schedule, a request from a Jedi Master Skeirim.

“Initiate Aronoke,” said the message. “I request that you come and speak with me after the conclusion of your evening meal today. I will arrange for you to be collected from your clan rooms. Please be aware that your Instructor has been properly informed regarding this meeting.”

Though that would be easy to say and not do, thought Aronoke. He sent back a message saying that he would, of course, be available to attend. A mere initiate did not deny the request of a Jedi Master. Then he went to check that whoever was currently in charge was aware of the meeting.

“Yes, I received the proper request,” said Razzak Mintula, who had arrived back. “By all means, go and speak to Master Skeirim. I assume he wants to ask you some questions about Ashquash.”

“Ashquash?” asked Aronoke, confused.

“Yes, Master Skeirim is the Jedi who brought her here,” said Razzak Mintula, “much like Master Altus brought you. He is not always stationed here at the temple. He is a colleague of Master Altus’s, involved in researching and retrieving artifacts from distant parts of the galaxy.”

“Oh,” said Aronoke. “Thank you, Instructor.”

The next morning, Aronoke went to see Master Insa-tolsa. He had not visited the ithorian master’s chambers before. They were dim and green, a tribute to the forest world that he came from.

“Your chambers are very peaceful, Master,” said Aronoke, looking around.

“I find them so,” said the ithorian. “These chambers are supposed to be transient, not personalised. But the Jedi Council has not seen fit to station me anywhere else for many years, so I feel that I may take some liberties.”

“That seems quite reasonable to me,” said Aronoke.

“Master Parothis and I have decided that the first of your excursions will take place in a few weeks time,” said Master Insa-tolsa. “We are considering a number of different venues and I will tell you where we are going closer to the actual day.”

“I am sure it will be very educational, Master,” said Aronoke. “But I would like to talk to you about something else.”

“Of course,” said Master Insa-tolsa.

“You remember I told you about the droid with the holotransmission, Master?” said Aronoke. “And then there was another strange article on my datapad, which Razzak Mintula reported to you?”

“Yes, I remember,” said Master Insa-tolsa gravely. “Has something else happened?”

Aronoke related the events surrounding Ashquash’s drugging, surprised that Master Insa-tolsa didn’t already know about them.

“It is unfortunate I was not made aware of this,” said Master Insa-tolsa gravely. “I should have been informed.”

“I’m sorry, Master,” said Aronoke contritely. He had assumed Master Insa-tolsa would have been told by someone else.

“It is not your fault, Aronoke. It is obvious that there has been some breakdown in communication within the temple, either accidental or intentional. In light of the other incidents you have reported, this one could be seen in a different light.”

“Yes, I thought at once that it might be a sort of punishment. Ashquash is my room-mate and my friend. She is not very social, but we do a lot of things together, like studying and sparring. I thought she was getting better recently, much better than when she arrived. But then that happened…”

Aronoke could hear the emotion creeping into his voice. He found Ashquash’s drugging affected him more than any of the fights or deaths had back on Kasthir. Now, those scenes were distant and disjointed like dreams, as muted as if he kept those memories sealed in an air-tight box. He swallowed and tried to speak more calmly.

“I decided it might be better if I changed rooms. So whoever is trying to manipulate me might think Ashquash and I were not friends any more. So she would be safe. I know, Master, that I should be able to share my problems with my clan-mates, because that is part of being a clan, but most of them are so little, Master. I don’t want them to get hurt. So I thought that maybe separating myself was a better way. Then yesterday, I was at the swimming pool looking at the water, and Ashquash came and pushed me in.”

“You don’t like the water,” said Master Insa-tolsa, “if I remember correctly.”

“Yes, Master. Ashquash pushed me in. I got tangled up and thought I was drowning. Then Ashquash pulled me out again. I was angry with her. I did not say much, only that she should not do that again, but she was upset and ran away. I thought she would come back, but now she has gone missing…”

“Oh dear,” said Master Insa-tolsa with some concern. “That is worrying, although I am sure that efforts are being made to find her and that she will be recovered soon.”

“Yes, Master, but I don’t know what to do. I separated myself to keep people safe, and now Ashquash is, if anything, less safe. I think she was unhappy that I left. I did explain the reasons to her beforehand. But maybe because of the drugs, she was not able to cope very well just then.”

“Aronoke,” said Master Insa-tolsa, “You have only been here a very short time, and as you know, your unusual biology has put you into an awkward position amongst your clan mates. You should not have concerns like these at this stage of your training. It is too much.”

“But these things keep happening. How can I not be involved?” asked Aronoke.

“You should do as you have been doing. You must continue to report these things when they happen. You should not attempt to deal with such difficult issues yourself,” remonstrated Master Insa-tolsa gently. “You should not have the burden of such a great responsibility. These things are not your fault, and you must trust us to deal with them on your behalf.”

“But nothing seems to work! They just keep happening! What if next time something even more terrible happens?” asked Aronoke fretfully.

“You must not think that the Jedi Council is doing nothing to attempt to alleviate these problems,” said Master Insa-tolsa calmly. “A great deal has been done, that you, as an initiate, do not see from your protected place in the training halls. Neither is it appropriate that you are burdened with all the details, as you should be free to concentrate upon your studies. Unfortunately everything that has been done thus far has been of little avail. The perpetrator of these deeds must be someone of considerable power, cunning and influence, or they would not have been able to remain at large for so long.”

“Oh,” said Aronoke, humbled by the thought that his problems had stirred up so much trouble.

“Now I suggest that you go back to your clan and attempt to continue with your training as if none of these things had happened,” said Master Insa-tolsa. “I will make new efforts to see that the person who is manipulating you is discovered and an end put to these provocations.”

“Yes, Master,” said Aronoke. “Thank you.”

Nevertheless, he did not feel very comforted when he returned to his clan rooms. Either the Jedi Council was incompetent, or his enemy was as powerful as Master Insa-tolsa suggested. Neither option was at all reassuring.

Master Skeirim’s padawan was a sleek human girl who arrived to collect Aronoke very promptly after the evening meal. Aronoke had only just got back to his room.

“Initiate Aronoke?” said the padawan. “I am Padawan Telarfani. I am supposed to show you to Master Skeirim’s chambers.”

“Yes, Padawan,” said Aronoke, and followed her out along the hall.

“I was not expecting you to be so tall,” said Padawan Telarfani smiling and looking up at Aronoke. He was taller than she was, he realised belatedly, and he was still growing. He would be taller still some day. It seemed strange. “I have some good news for you,” continued the Padawan. “They have found your clan-mate, Ashquash. She will be brought back to the Jedi temple soon.”

“Oh, that is good news,” said Aronoke, relieved. “Is she alright?”

“She is unharmed,” said Padawan Telarfani. “I thought you would like to know before your meeting with Master Skeirim, since I am certain you and your clan-mates must be worried about her.”

“Yes, we have been very worried,” said Aronoke. “Thank you, Padawan.”

She smiled, making a minor gesture of respect, which Aronoke returned.

Padawn Telarfani led Aronoke to a door which opened, not into a chamber, as he had expected, but into an elevator. She gestured him inside but did not get in herself. It was a long ride up to the top, and Aronoke wondered where it was going.

When he got out, it was immediately apparent that he was in one of the Jedi Temple’s towers. The walls of the chamber were lined with banks of data crystals, although one was given over to a large curved window showing the dark cityscape beyond. Ablaze with lights, streams of traffic seethed constantly past.

Jedi Master Skeirim was outlined against the window, a tall and imposing dark-skinned human man.

“Initiate Aronoke,” he said. “Come in. I am Master Skeirim. You will probably understand better why you are here if I tell you that I am the one who sponsored Ashquash’s initiation at the Jedi temple.”

“Yes, Master,” said Aronoke. “Instructor Mintula told me.”

Master Skeirim nodded and continued.

“As I am sure you have realised,” he said, “you and Ashquash have certain similarities which led to your being placed together. You are both unusual students. You have had atypical backgrounds and you are older than the majority of initiates who are accepted into the temple. You suffer unique problems and difficulties that other students do not encounter.”

“Placing you together was something of a risk that I hoped would pay off. There are obviously many ways in which this could have gone awry, but, to be honest, there was no one else who was deemed suitable to share a room with Ashquash because of her problems. I was hoping that here in the Jedi Temple she would be able to adapt to her new situation, that she would come around to the teachings and philosophy and learn a new path which might lead her through life. It has always been uncertain, perhaps unlikely, that she would succeed, and yet thus far the experiment has continued.”

“Now, however, she has run away. She has been recovered and will be returned to your clan rooms shortly. I am hoping that you, as her room-mate, might have some insight to offer as to why she left. I am worried that we are losing her, and should that be the case, her future is dark and bleak. I do not wish that to happen if there is any way in which it might be prevented.”

Aronoke listened to this speech with some relief, glad that someone had such a positive interest in Ashquash’s affairs.

“I think Ashquash was doing a lot better,” he said, when Master Skeirim looked at him expectantly and gestured that he should speak. “When she first arrived, when we first became clan-mates, she was very angry. I know about spice addicts, because I was brought up by one when I was quite small. So that didn’t worry me much, because I knew it was just the drugs. At first, Ashquash was very quiet. We didn’t talk much, just a bit, but before long she began to do things with me. To sit and study, to come and practice sparring during our free time. Later we did a lot more things together. We would go over our lessons, discuss some of the moral stories that we had trouble understanding. Things like that.”

“That is what I hoped would happen,” said Master Skeirim. “Do you know anything about what happened to upset that?”

Aronoke nodded. “I don’t know if this is all true,” he said, a little shyly, “but it’s what I immediately suspected when Ashquash woke me up and wanted to go sparring in the middle of the night. I thought she was drugged right away, because I’ve seen people behave like that before. I thought it might be to do with the strange things that have happened to me here in the Jedi Temple, practically since I arrived. Master Altus knows about them, and so do Master Insa-tolsa and Instructor Mintula. I reported everything to them. Strange articles appear on my datapad. I got a holotransmission message from a droid trying to feed me information. Someone is trying to manipulate me. I reported the holotransmission message shortly before Ashquash was drugged. I thought she might have been targeted as a way of punishing me. Because she’s my friend. It seems an obvious way to get at me. To hurt my room-mate.”

“I see,” said Master Skeirim. “I will have to talk to Master Insa-tolsa and Instructor Mintula and see if they can share their knowledge of these incidents. Aronoke, do you know why Ashquash ran away?”

“Yes,” said Aronoke. He related in some detail all the events that had led up to Ashquash’s disappearance, up to the incident at the pool. “I did not say anything much,” he concluded, “only that she should not push me in again, but she was upset and ran away. I think she was angry that I had left her alone.”

Master Skeirim was nodding. “Thank you, Aronoke. I can see it is not easy for you to talk about these things, but they will be of great assistance to me in helping Ashquash. I would ask a favour of you. I would ask you to help Ashquash as much as you can, like you were doing before things began to go wrong. It would be best, I think, to put these incidents behind us and to try to make things just as they were previously.”

“Of course, Master,” said Aronoke warmly. He would have done whatever he could to help Ashquash anyway. It was also reassuring that Master Skeirim’s words meshed so well with what Master Insa-tolsa had said. “I think you are right, that she will be alright if we make things just as they were, and pretend that nothing has happened without making a fuss.”

“Yes, that is it exactly,” said Master Skeirim. “Thank you, Aronoke. I expect we will speak again at some time in the future.”

“You’re welcome, Master,” said Aronoke, making a small respectful bow in return. He felt a good deal happier and more purposeful as he returned to his rooms. It was good to have something to work towards, a way by which things might be made right. As soon as he arrived, he went in to find Razzak Mintula.

“Can I change back to my old room, Instructor?” he asked. “The new one is too draughty.”

Razzak Mintula stared at him for a long moment. “That would probably be more convenient,” she admitted. “There are some difficulties in having you in a different place from everyone else.”

“Yes, Instructor,” said Aronoke, relieved that no further explanation or persuasion was necessary. He felt his spirit was lightened when he moved back into his old rooms, like he was arriving back in his proper place again. It was a relief to not have to distance himself from Draken and the little kids any more.



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