The next day, a message was waiting for Aronoke on the group viewscreen telling him to report to the Jedi Council immediately after breakfast.
“Why do you have to report, Aronoke, and not the rest of us?” asked Yeldra, crinkling up her little face thoughtfully.
“I don’t know,” said Aronoke.
“It’s probably because Ashquash is Aronoke’s room-mate,” said Razzak Mintula, coming into the clan room just then. “The Council probably wants to ask Aronoke a few more questions about what happened to her. Do you know how to get to the meeting room, Aronoke?”
“Good. Make sure you are not late. You should probably leave as soon as you have tidied yourself.” Razzak Mintula’s gaze lingered on Aronoke’s crumpled robe and unbrushed hair.
“Yes, Instructor,” said Aronoke, relieved that she hadn’t ordered him to shower. He hurried off to put on fresh robes and make himself presentable.
It was not difficult to find his way across the Jedi temple. Now he could read, the signs were much more helpful. The meeting room was in the most formal section of the Jedi temple where initiates did not usually go. The hallways were grander, the decorations more looming and impressive. People spoke in hushed tones unless they were very important people indeed.
Aronoke was relieved to find that the meeting room was not an immense council chamber like the one he had entered with Master Altus upon his arrival at the Jedi temple. It was relatively small in comparison, although still much larger and grander than anything in the primary training centre.
“Ah, Initiate Aronoke,” said Master An-ku when Aronoke peered around the edge of the open door, debating whether or not he should go directly inside or wait to be fetched. “Come inside and close the door.”
Aronoke obediently did so, and went to stand in front of the three Jedi Masters, who were seated on curved single-legged chairs on one side of the chamber. Apart from Master An-ku, the togrutan master he remembered from his arrival, there was a green-skinned duros and a broad-shouldered, dark-skinned human man accompanied by a protocol droid. “These are Masters Kordu-molh and Rosfantar,” Master An-ku said, and Aronoke bowed politely to all of them, like he had been taught.
“The council wishes to know more about the unusual events that have occurred to you since you entered the Jedi Temple, Initiate,” said Master An-ku smoothly after Aronoke had made his bow. She looked very tall, serene and somewhat fiercer than Aronoke had remembered.
“I told Master Altus and Master Insa-tolsa everything there was to tell, Master An-ku,” said Aronoke uncertainly. “I don’t know if I can add anything to what I said then.”
“Nevertheless, I would like you to repeat your story,” said Master An-ku. “Master Insa-tolsa has reported that these events are upsetting to the initiates in your clan and have proved disruptive to your training.”
Aronoke nodded, and obediently began outlining all the events that Master Altus would have labelled unusual.
“Most preposterous!” huffed Master Kordu-molh indignantly, when Aronoke had finished. “It is ridiculous that our training centre can be plagued by such interruptions! The education of our younglings is a serious matter and any interruption to their routine can only be viewed to be of extreme detriment! How can they learn proper meditative techniques and to perfect their control under such conditions?”
Aronoke suspected that Draken would put Master Kordu-molh into his category of people who never had any fun at all.
“It is true that these incidents should be given serious consideration,” said Master Rosfantar. His voice was deep and melodious and echoed around the chamber. “It is important that no one should influence our initiates so early in their training. But we must remember, Master Kordu-molh, that we are educating Jedi who will one day be mostly sent out into the field, where interruptions and incidents are something they will have to learn to cope with.”
“Coping with such things is beyond the scope of primary students -” said Master Kordu-molh, but subsided as Master An-ku held up her slender hand.
“We can debate this matter later,” said Master An-ku. “There are a few other questions I would like to pose to Initiate Aronoke first, before he returns to his studies.”
“Of course,” said Master Rosfantar. “Please, continue.”
“Initiate Aronoke, Master Altus has reported upon the conditions under which he encountered you on the planet Kasthir, and has detailed his reasons for bringing you to the Jedi Temple as a candidate. Your candidature has been accepted and is beyond reproach. Is there anything in your past to suggest why you in particular should be made the target of these attacks?”
“I don’t think so,” said Aronoke uncomfortably. There was, of course, the map on his back. Had Master Altus told the Jedi Council about that? Aronoke assumed that he had, back when Aronoke had been too scared to be examined by the medical droid, but on the other hand, Master Altus had suggested it was safer to keep the map secret. Before Aronoke could decide whether he should tell the Council about the map or not, Master An-ku was prompting him with more questions.
“It says in Master Altus’s report that you are an orphan with no known relatives. Do you know anything about who your family were?” asked Master An-ku.
“No,” said Aronoke.
“You were born on Kasthir?”
“I don’t think so,” said Aronoke again. “I was brought there when I was very young, by a Twi’lek whom I called Uncle Remo. I don’t remember anything about where we came from.”
“And on Kasthir? You worked in the service of a crimelord called Careful Kras, who controlled a sizeable amount of territory out in the wilderness?”
“He didn’t like me,” said Aronoke softly, remembering Careful Kras. “He… had me taken from the Grinder and brought back to Bunkertown. He punished me…sometimes… for… for being… different.”
“Different?” asked Master An-ku.
“There is no reason to suspect that this Careful Kras would have any influence here on Coruscant,” interjected Master Rosfantar. “A crimelord from the desolate reaches of a backwater planet like Kasthir would certainly not have the contacts or resources to operate here.”
“Besides which,” added Master Kordu-molh, “some of these events suggest that whoever wishes to manipulate Initiate Aronoke has power in the Force, suggesting that it is a Jedi Master who is responsible.”
“Yes, those are both valid points,” said Master An-ku. “I think we have taken up enough of your time, Aronoke. You may return to your studies.”
“Yes, Master An-ku,” said Aronoke, bowing politely. He was relieved that he hadn’t had to tell them about the thing on his back, although at the same time he felt guilty. Like he was hiding the truth from people who needed it to help him. Still, he had told Master Altus about the markings on his back. Surely that was enough.
Ashquash returned the very same day, and when she arrived, she looked at Aronoke sitting on his bed in their shared room for a long moment, saying nothing. To Aronoke it was obvious that she was pleased, although she did not smile.
“I’m sorry for nearly drowning you, Aronoke,” she said gruffly.
“That’s alright,” said Aronoke. “Perhaps you were right, that merely looking at the water was not enough, but I had to try something. Didn’t want to give up.”
Instead of Ashquash going and sitting on her own bed, she came over and sat next to him, something she had not done before. Aronoke was not certain how he felt about it.
“I’m sorry I went away,” he said awkwardly. “I didn’t mean for you to feel that we weren’t friends any more. I just didn’t want you or the others to be hurt.”
He was suddenly aware that Ashquash was a girl, despite all his previous self-conditioning to not think of her that way. There was something in how Ashquash held herself that made him think she would not resist at all if he put his arms about her and gave her a reassuring, but most un-Jedi-like, hug. It was not something he had ever done to anyone before. Knew it was not allowed.
“It’s all right now,” she said shyly.
He could see a look in her eyes that was not at all appropriate.
Oh, Aronoke thought stupidly. She likes me. In that sort of a way. No wonder she pushed me in the water.
“Shall we go and see if Draken wants to come and spar?” he said too quickly, standing up.
“Yes, lets,” agreed Ashquash, and the moment was broken.
Months rolled by, incident free, and Aronoke began to think that whoever had been trying to influence him had been scared off by the Jedi Council’s investigation. There was plenty to keep him occupied; more and more he was being encouraged to read ahead and around the material in the lessons that Clan Herf studied. He seemed to make great advances in all things. It was like he was blossoming into himself.
“You’re growing up so fast, Aronoke,” Razzak Mintula said one day and he found himself feeling miffed instead of fearful and reluctant about the future. Surely he was quite grown up already! His rapid escalation towards maturity meant that he had grown taller and had filled out substantially. When he looked in the mirror in the clan bathroom he no longer saw an uncertain boy, but a shyly smiling young man. He looked taller. Rangier. New robes had arrived for him at regular intervals, but still the clothing struggled to keep up with the changes in the proportions of his limbs. He had perhaps not reached his full growth yet, but he already looked down on most fully grown humans. His chest had broadened too and he felt stronger and more capable.
Ever since Ashquash had returned, Aronoke had to struggle with temptation more regularly. The current between them was often palpable, and although Ashquash never said anything, never referred to it, never did anything inappropriate, Aronoke knew that any move he made would be completely reciprocated. It was lucky that he had never been especially attracted to Ashquash, or resisting might have been completely impossible. Aronoke always made sure that he kept a careful distance. After all, he had once promised that he was Ashquash’s friend, that he would never think of her as a girl. When he began to feel that current working between them, he was careful to make himself absent. It was easier to go off to the meditation rooms, or to suggest a group activity that included Draken or the little kids.
Luckily, with each passing month, Ashquash also seemed to grow smaller and more childish. Soon Aronoke could think of her as something like a kid-sister. Someone with a hopeless crush on him, who was too young to take seriously. Someone who it was easier to treat like a friend.
Master Insa-tolsa’s excursions started during this time, and they were more fun than Aronoke had hoped. Aronoke, Draken and Ashquash were the ones who went, and they were accompanied by the ithorian master, and his colleague, Master Parothis. The excursions visited a variety of locations about Coruscant. The first one was to a meditation garden. Draken had been disappointed when he found out where they were going, thinking that it would be very dull, but when they got there, Master Insa-tolsa suggested that he and Master Parothis take a leisurely stroll together while the initiates explored together. It was nice to be out in the sunshine, even if Aronoke could see the faint curve of the dome high above them. It was nice to be left to their own devices, out from under the watchful eye of the Masters. He was well aware that were still being supervised from afar, and also that the Jedi were shielding him from the full impact of the Force so that he should not be overwhelmed.
The garden had an odd effect on him. Despite the familiar reluctance to take off his robes, he had the sudden urge to strip buff naked and lay on the grass in the sun. He did not do any such thing, of course, but the urge was there and it was most peculiar.
The other excursions visited different locales. They explored a great emporium in the Bezdrilian sector. It was a huge market, a three dimensional maze of little clothing stores, and the initiates were accompanied to one of the booths which Master Insa-tolsa claimed made very good quality robes to measure. They were all measured for new robes by the spindly arconens that worked inside.
The third expedition was to a biological gardens. Draken was very excited by that trip. Aronoke had to admit that looking at all the different kinds of creatures was exciting. It was even more interesting to see the habitat-spheres that the creatures were presented in. It was like looking at tiny samples of many different planets.
The fourth expedition was to the spaceport. Aronoke was less interested in this because he had seen it before on his arrival with Master Altus.
He was fourteen in standard galactic years now, and had been at the Jedi temple a little more than two years. He knew now that it was more his home than Kasthir had ever been. Felt a completely different person from the boy who had arrived there.
It was during this time too that he was called in one day to speak to Master Insa-tolsa, down in the main courtyard.
“Aronoke,” said Master Insa-tolsa gravely. “I have some bad news. Please, sit down.”
“Yes, Master?” said Aronoke, seating himself on a bench. He knew at once that it had to be something to do with Master Altus and Hespenara. They had been away for so long now, without any news.
He hoped the investigation of the map on his back had not led Master Altus into trouble.
“We have received news that a Jedi frozen in carbonite has been advertised to be auctioned by a crime lord on Kath’lor,” said Master Insa-tolsa. “The Jedi in question matches Hespenara’s description.”
“Oh no,” said Aronoke, shocked. “That’s terrible.”
“Obviously something must have prevented Master Altus from interfering, as he would not easily allow something of this nature to befall his Padawan,” said Master Insa-tolsa gravely.
Aronoked nodded, feeling sick. What could possibly be powerful enough to strike down someone as strong as Master Altus? And poor Hespenara…
“The Jedi Order will of course do all it can to retrieve the Jedi in carbonite before she can be auctioned, and to try and find out what has become of Master Altus,” said Master Insa-tolsa. “We must trust in the Force that these things can and will be achieved.”
“Yes, Master Insa-tolsa,” said Aronoke mechanically. His mind felt numb and confused and he went through his lessons distractedly the next few days. He hoped that news of Master Altus and Hespenara would arrive soon, but it was weeks coming, and when it came, none of it was good. The Jedi Order’s efforts to prevent the auction had failed and Hespenara had been sold, it was thought, to someone in the Primtara sector. Master Skeirim, amongst others, had been sent to investigate. None of the attempts to locate Master Altus had been successful.
Aronoke did his best to maintain a jedi-like attitude about Master Altus’s disappeareance, but he found it difficult. He burned with the need to do something, although there did not seem there was anything that he could do. Surely a fully trained Jedi like Master Skeirim was far more likely to achieve results than an initiate only in the third year of his training. The matter was already in capable hands and Aronoke knew exactly what Master Altus himself would say he should do. He must continue his training as if nothing had happened and not worry pointlessly about his missing mentor.
That was something Aronoke was not capable of doing. Even though he threw himself into his lessons with dogged vigour, he found himself worrying about Master Altus and Hespenara all the time. Thoughts of them crept in to disturb his meditation and sometimes prevented him from sleeping. Something had gone wrong and Aronoke suspected that it had something to do with him. He often felt if he could just reach out through the Force, unobstructed by the great shields that protected the Jedi Temple, he would be able to find the missing Jedi Master and his padawan.
It was no use to discuss these thoughts with Master Insa-tolsa. Aronoke was well acquainted enough with Jedi ways to know that the Master would only repeat what he knew himself. That he should continue his lessons and leave rescue attempts in more competent hands.
Meanwhile, the excursions to interesting places on Coruscant continued, although Aronoke found it difficult to relax and enjoy them. They visited the senate plaza to see the great building where the galactic senate sat. It was a popular destination for tourist groups visiting Coruscant from across the galaxy, and Aronoke and his colleagues were stared at a good deal by the other tour-groups who had come to see the sights. It was like the Jedi were part of the attraction instead of visitors themselves.
The sixth excursion was back to the Bezdrilian sector for more new robes. This time the initiates were directed to locate the tailor shop and order new robes by themselves. Aronoke was glad – his arms were already outgrowing his current sleeves by a few inches. Afterwards, they were allowed to explore the shopping complex further.
While Aronoke was waiting for Draken and Ashquash to come out of a shop, he noticed a droid was watching him. As soon as it saw he had noticed, it began trying to get his attention. Its limbs waved exaggeratedly, making what it obviously thought were covert gestures. Aronoke studiously ignored it. Chances were this was another unusual incident, and he didn’t want any strange messages from his supposed friend. The droid was insistent however. When Aronoke did not move, it reached inside one of its compartments and produced a cylindrical device. Waiting until there was a space in the crowd, it rolled the device across the floor so that it fetched up against Aronoke’s foot.
Why do these things always happen to me, Aronoke thought. Now what am I going to do?
He didn’t want to kick the cylinder away across the floor in case it hurt someone. Remembering how the previous message-droid had exploded, he wouldn’t put it past his mysterious assailant to do such a thing. Instead, sighing, he picked it up and looked at it. The droid seemed satisfied with this and scuttled off into the crowd. The cylinder seemed to be a message device. Aronoke did not want to activate it in such a public place – again, it might be dangerous. Instead he dropped it into the pocket of his robes.
As soon as they had returned to the Jedi temple, he brought it over to Master Insa-tolsa. They had just dismounted from the speeder, and the other Jedi in their party were standing a short distance away.
“Master Insa-tolsa,” he said, “There was a droid watching me while we were off by ourselves.”
“A droid?” said Master Insa-tolsa. “As happened to you before? Did it give you a message?”
“Well, perhaps,” said Aronoke. “It gave me this.” He took the cylinder out of his pocket and passed it to Master Insa-tolsa. “I didn’t look at it,” he began to say, but as he did so, the cylinder began flashing with a red light.
It was a good thing, Aronoke thought later, that Master Insa-tolsa had the foresight to act so quickly. Aronoke was still thinking stupidly that the flashing light didn’t bode anything good, when the cylinder was suddenly whisked some distance away, where it exploded violently. It raged brutally for a moment, a great ball of surging energy spectacularly contained by an invisible spherical shield, and then slowly died away. Aronoke could hear the astounded gasps of Draken and Ashquash from where they waited for him to finish speaking to Master Insa-tolsa, a short distance away.
“I wondered if something like that might happen,” said Aronoke, stunned.
Master Insa-tolsa also looked shaken. “If I did not know you so well, Aronoke,” he said wryly, “I might suspect you of playing pranks.”
It was a gentle admonishment. He had just saved all their lives, Aronoke thought belatedly. He had suspected the cylinder might blow up, although he had not imagined it happening so violently. He had trusted that Master Insa-tolsa would deal with it without thinking about the possible consequences - his faith in the big ithorian had solidified that much during their association.
“I’m sorry, Master,” said Aronoke contritely, making an apologetic bow of respect. “I did not think. I would not do something like that as a joke.”
“It is insufferable that these attacks continue unabated,” said Master Insa-tolsa, and then to Master Parothis and the other acolytes who were coming over: “There is no need for concern. Everything is fine. Initiates, you may go back to your clan quarters now.”
“What was that?” asked Draken, wide-eyed and excited as they made their way down the lift.
“It was a message cylinder a droid gave to me while we were in the bazaar,” said Aronoke.
“A droid? What droid?”
“You were in the shops.”
“What did the message say?” asked Ashquash. It was good perhaps, thought Aronoke, that she had seen what had happened. Proof that what he had told her was true.
“I don’t know. I didn’t look at it. Thought it was best to give it to Master Insa-tolsa without looking, and then it blew up.”
“That was sure something though,” said Draken. “The way it all raged and seethed, and how Master Insa-tolsa held it back like that! I’m glad that I saw that. It was amazing!”
“It’s probably best not to talk about it too much,” said Aronoke gently. Draken was still so young in his ways, it was difficult to remember that they were about the same chronological age. He wistfully thought that it would be more fun to be like Draken, without the weight of mysterious problems. If Aronoke had not been growing up so rapidly all the time, he would have spent a great deal more time getting into trouble with Draken, he suspected. “It’s better that the little kids don’t know.”
“Oh of course,” said Draken. “I won’t go blabbing the whole story in front of the little kids. Why would I go and do a thing like that?”
This from Draken who was the primary source of gossip, not only within their clan, but probably amongst many of the surrounding clans as well.
Aronoke and Ashquash both looked at him and Aronoke laughed.
“What?” asked Draken looking bewildered and holding his hands up questioningly.
The weeks fled by, and there was still no good news about Master Altus and Hespenara. Being frozen in carbonite was dangerous if it was not done properly, Aronoke knew, but Hespenara would not be aware of the passing of time. She would be in no pain or torment as long as she had not been released. Aronoke did not know why someone might want a live Jedi to experiment on, but he was certain such projects existed, and he hoped that Hespenara had not fallen into the hands of one of them.
Perhaps an experiment like that was what he himself had been created for.
As time went on, with no good news forthcoming, Aronoke grew more and more impatient. It seemed that the Jedi Council was useless, despite all their amazing powers. Were they too couched in caution to achieve anything? He felt strongly that Master Altus was still alive and was even more certain that he would know at once if the green man were dead.
“Master Insa-tolsa?” asked Aronoke one day. “It seems I have been learning a great deal about the Force, and yet every time we go out on our excursions, you and Master Parothis still shield me from it. Do you think I might go unshielded?”
“Are you sure you are ready?” asked Master Insa-tolsa thoughtfully. “It is for your own protection that you are shielded. Full exposure to the Force can be risky for one with your unusual balance of powers. From your lessons, I know that your control is progressing well, but your sense abilities continue to advance apace.”
“I can’t be certain, of course, Master,” said Aronoke. “But I feel I will be alright. I want to learn. I want to know what it is like. I will not learn to control myself if I do not try.”
“Hm, well, you have practiced hard, it is true,” said Master Insa-tolsa. “On our next expedition you may attempt to go unshielded.”
Their next expedition was to the water purification subsystems on the lower levels of Coruscant. At one time Aronoke would have been worried about all that water. He was still disturbed by it, seeing it lying in great sweltering pools and thundering by in torrential cataracts, but being exposed to the full strength of the Force was a new experience for him. It demanded a lot of his attention. Coming out of the temple had not been as shocking as that first time. He had been expecting the sudden great cacophony of the Force thundering through the great city. His attempts to dull its impact resulted in the construction of his own personal shield to counteract it.
It was not so difficult, but it did require a certain degree of concentration, and so, for the first part of the excursion, Aronoke was happy to wander along with his group mates. To stare in fascinated horror at the vast pools of water and listen to the explanations the tour droids gave of the processes involved in filtering it. Here at last was how Coruscant maintained its water supply to provide for all its billions of people, but Aronoke found it hard to pay attention. He felt curiously divorced from what was happening around him, partly absorbed in the new task of shielding himself, while another part of his mind was thinking about how he was going to achieve his secret goal, to look for Master Altus. Great columns of water thundered down around them, although never so close that they got wet by the spray, yet Aronoke found himself hardly thinking about them at all. He would once have been terrified by such a thing.
Distraction was a powerful tool.
Aronke waited until Master Insa-tolsa and Master Parothis fell deep into conversation together, as they were often wont to do. They stood debating some distance away. Draken and Ashquash were over by the railing, looking down at a great suction pool that lay below. Aronoke took advantage of the moment and went to sit upon a handy bench against one wall
He calmed his mind by means of a simple meditative exercise and carefully let his shields fall away.
He had tried once before to reach out through the Force to find something. It had been a minor thing, a missing datapad left behind on one of their excursions, but he had been unable to reach past the great protective barrier that encircled the Jedi Temple.
Now there was no barrier. The Force was like a great living network that reached everywhere, even between the worlds of the galaxy. Everything was interconnected. Distance was nothing. Aronoke reached out towards Master Altus, knowing that he was out there somewhere, knowing he was not dead and seeking some confirmation of it. Wanting to know where he was.
What came was no more than a fleeting glimpse. Master Altus was in a dark place, alone and in pain, but still very much himself. He shielded himself against the forces that beset him. He was obviously a prisoner, but he was still alive.
Aronoke had no time to tell anything of where Master Altus was. Like a piece of stretchy rubber he had reached his limits of expansion and was suddenly snapped back into himself in a painful oscillating way. He felt too loosely anchored afterwards, like his mind had been overstretched and was unable to contract fully. He sat a few minutes, feeling dizzy but relieved. Master Altus was alive, although he was being held prisoner somewhere.
Everything felt strange and disjointed. The world was too bright and strangely too wide and not high enough. It reverberated around him, and Aronoke forced himself to sit still and focus on a meditative exercise. It did not seem as effective as usual and he felt if he moved too quickly he would lose control of his body and start to shake like a leaf.
“Are you okay, Aronoke?” asked Draken, coming over. “You look a bit sick. Is it all the water?”
“I’m okay,” said Aronoke, climbing to his feet and following the others back over to the masters, hoping he didn’t look too peculiar. Merely thinking that was too much. His hands began to tremble uncontrollably as they made their way over to rejoin the tour.
Master Insa-tolsa must have noticed Aronoke looking strained. Suddenly the Master’s shield snapped around Aronoke, blocking out the vast bulk of the Force. Aronoke felt more secure. He was happy to remain quietly near Master Insa-tolsa for the rest of the trip, although his mind was anything but still. He was so very grateful that Master Altus was not dead or horribly changed.
He knew that keeping this information to himself was the smart thing to do. He might get in trouble for having attempted to see Master Altus. Master Insa-tolsa would certainly not be pleased.
But he didn’t care if he got in trouble. That was of no importance whatsoever. If what he had seen was even of the smallest assistance in locating Master Altus, it would be worth it.
“Master Insa-tolsa, can I speak with you a moment, before we go back?” asked Aronoke when their speeder arrived at the temple.
“Yes, of course,” said the ithorian. “Although I hope it is not a surprise like last time. Draken and Ashquash, you can go ahead back to your clan rooms. There is no need for you to wait.”
Draken and Ashquash were curious, Aronoke could see, but made no protest, making their bows, and thanking Master Insa-tolsa for taking them out.
“I saw Master Altus,” said Aronoke, once the others had gone. “I could sense him through the Force. I could not see where he was, but I could tell that he was alive. He seemed to be a prisoner, and was in some pain, but he was still alive and still himself.”
Master Insa-tolsa paused a moment, an unreadably alien expression crossing his face. “That is good news,” he said at last. “I am relieved to hear that Master Altus is alive, but you have been very foolish Aronoke. To attempt to seek him out in this way is a task that experienced Masters would hesitate attempting. Your training is very far from complete and you risk yourself greatly by attempting such a thing.”
“I’m sorry, Master,” said Aronoke, but he was not. He was entirely unrepentant. “But I would not be here at all if it were not for Master Altus. I might be something else entirely, or probably dead. If I can do anything to help him, then any risk to myself is unimportant.”
“If you risk yourself heedlessly now, untrained and impatient, Initiate,” said Master Insa-tolsa sternly, “then you may well not be here later, when your skills really are needed. You might rob us of a resource that might help many people. Or even worse, corrupt that potential good into something that could do us harm. Master Altus himself would advise you to refrain from taking such risks on his behalf. Although I am relieved that he is still alive and will see that this information is passed on to those investigating his whereabouts, I am disappointed that you would do a thing like this during one of our excursions. I trust you to behave in a proper manner while in public and to be a good example for Ashquash and Draken. I took your request to go unshielded in good faith, yet you have purposefully manufactured this opportunity for your own purposes.”
“I am sorry for that, Master,” said Aronoke, more contritely. “It was not my intention to deceive you or to be disobedient. You are right. I did not consider that aspect of my actions. I have always felt that Master Altus was still alive. I felt I could contact him if only I tried, and it is difficult not to try when no one has made any great progress towards finding him and Hespenara.”
“You must be patient and trust in the Force,” said the ithorian. “All things happen in their own time.” And he went on to recite several platitudes that emphasized this point and required Aronoke to contemplate them at length, as a penance.
Aronoke did this, but he was still unable to regret trying to find Master Altus. The fact that the green man was still alive was a comfort to him during all the days that followed.
One evening, Aronoke was called to the library by Master Insa-tolsa. They had not met there before, but Aronoke thought little of it, because they often met in different places. When he arrived, it turned out to be a meeting room, set out with chairs and tables, with a reference library of datacrystals stored along the walls.
“Initiate Aronoke,” said Master Insa-tolsa, more formal than usual. “There is someone here whom I would like you to meet.” He gestured across the room, and Aronoke’s gaze followed the motion to settle upon the woman who stood there.
She was a chiss. A tall, stern looking chiss with silver hair, almost as tall as he was. He found it strange to look into her glowing red eyes, so much like his own in the mirror.
“This is Master Bel’dor’ruch,” said Master Insa-tolsa.
Aronoke had been told once about Master Bel’dor’ruch, the chiss Jedi who had come through the Jedi Temple a quarter of a century before he had started his training. He had been told he might consider her a good example of what he might achieve. He had expected that one day he might meet her, due to their shared race, but had not expected it to be as soon as this. Speechless for a moment, he realised he was staring at her, and attempted to hide his confusion by making an awkward polite bow under her flashing red gaze.
“Initiate Aronoke,” said Master Bel’dor’ruch. “You have nearly reached your full growth.”
Aronoke wondered how she could tell how fully grown he was, just by looking at him.
“Yes, Master,” he forced himself to say. He felt returned to his old monosyllabic insecurity, she was so very stern and frightening. Her direct manner seemed impossible to avoid, while her voice was hard and demanding, indicating that she would brook no nonsense.
“How long have you been here at the Jedi temple, Aronoke?”
“Something over two years, Master,” said Aronoke.
“I have heard about these incidents that have plagued you,” said Master Bel’dor’ruch. “I find it an affront to our shared species that the only other chiss to train to be a Jedi in my lifetime should have his training botched in this way. It is hard to believe that such a matter has not been effectively dealt with by the Jedi Masters after all this time.” She gave Master Insa-tolsa a scathing look, as if he were personally responsible for these failings, but did not give him time to reply.
“The question that I find myself asking,” she continued, pacing back and forth, “is why you have attracted this unwanted attention. It seems unlikely that it is due to your race alone, although I suppose it is possible. Your records show that you are a dedicated student, but certainly no more talented than many others. Many students are different in one regard or another – merely being unusual does not seem enough reason for you to warrant such unusual attention.”
She regarded Aronoke with her piercing red eyes.
“Your Master Altus recorded in his report that you were being provoked. His words indicate that he recognised that there was a reason for this happening and did not question that it was valid, but he did not see fit to record exactly what it might be.”
Aronoke could feel the heat rising in his face, a side-effect of the old shame and fear that were rising unbidden inside him, when he realised where this conversation was leading.
“Now Master Altus has disappeared as well,” said Master Bel’dor’ruch pointedly. “He has obviously met with a disaster great enough to overwhelm even one of his power and experience. I can’t help but think that these things are potentially related.”
She stopped still, fixing Aronoke with her stare and let him stand there a moment, sweating and trapped by his own ancient terror. He forced himself to focus, to bring his fear under control. He swallowed uncomfortably.
“Is there any reason you know of, Initiate, which you revealed to Master Altus, which might explain why you might be singled out in this way?”
“There is one thing, Master,” said Aronoke reluctantly. “There is not really any explaining it. I can only show you.”
“Then show us,” demanded Master Bel’dor’ruch. She waited expectantly, willing to accept no delays.
Aronoke made a small bow of acquiescence. His heart thudded in his chest despite his effort to maintain control and he felt hot, heavy and sick, like he had been struck down with a sudden fever. With fumbling hands that felt swollen and slow, he took off his outer robe and hung it on a chair. Nausea washed over him in waves as he unfastened his shirt with fingers that shook slightly. He felt helpless as a child again, naked, tied face-down on a rack, bound to his fate, as he took the shirt off.
You are not there, he told himself firmly, hanging the shirt over the robe. This is not Crazy Kras. That will not happen here.
And then he turned around.
They came forward to peer at him, turning up the lights to see better.
“And Master Altus knew about this?” asked Bel’dor’ruch.
“He took a picture of it,” said Aronoke unsteadily. “Recorded it on his datapad. He was investigating it here at the temple, but found little. Said there was a lead he might investigate while he was away.”
“And now he has disappeared,” said Master Bel’dor’ruch thoughtfully. “You can get dressed, Initiate.”
Aronoke hastened to put his shirt and robe back on while she continued speaking.
“A detailed record should be made of those markings. We must try to replicate Master Altus’s research, so we might find out what this lead was. It might give us some insight into where he went.”
Without further deliberation she turned to Master Insa-tolsa.
“Why is he still an initiate here in the temple?” she said, speaking as if Aronoke was not there. “He is obviously almost fully grown. Both you and I know, Master Insa-tolsa, that the role of Initiate is an artificial one, brought into existence to keep young Force-sensitives out of trouble until they are fully grown and a Master can be found to mentor them. It is only in recent decades that they are kept here as late as they are, shipped in batches like livestock to Ilum because there are so many it is the only way to deal effectively with them all. They used to be sent out much sooner, and certainly have been sent out with less training in times of war. He is young by today’s standards, it is true, but we chiss are not like humans, are nothing like humans in this regard. There is also his unusual background to consider. He was already performing in an adult’s role before he was inducted, according to Master Altus’s reports. He would never have been allowed to train at all, if not for Master Altus’s sponsorship. He is far too old. He should be given his trials and made a Padawan, placed out in the field where these harassments will be more easily avoided. It is the obvious solution.”
“But he is not ready for such pressures,” objected Master Insa-tolsa. “Aronoke has only been with us for a short time and although it is true that he has learned very quickly, there is still much that he does not know. Surely his unusual background means there is more reason, rather than less, that he requires time to complete his training.”
“Much that a Master can easily teach him out in the field, as it is meant to be. Don’t you agree, Master Insa-tolsa, that it was from your Master that you learned all the most important aspects of your training? Not as an initiate wasting time in the temple?”
Aronoke thought Master Insa-tolsa did not like the temple labelled as a waste of time, but the ithorian said nothing of this.
“You do make some valid points, Master Bel’dor’ruch,” he said stiffly. “In regard to the harassments.”
“What about you?” said Master Bel’dor’ruch suddenly, turning back to Aronoke. “Do you feel ready to go out to train with a Master in the field?”
“I…I don’t know, Master,” said Aronoke uncertainly. Part of him leapt at such an idea – to be out doing instead of practicing, to be able to make some difference in the world. To learn new things through experience rather than carefully considered repetition. But part of him did not want that responsibility. He liked having a safe place here in the temple, with people who could help him. The incidents were difficult and annoying, it was true, but they were nothing compared to the difficulties he had faced before he had come here. Those were the only two types of existence that he had known.
“I feel there is still much I have to learn here,” he said. “But I also feel it would be safer for my clan mates if I was not here, because then they could not be targeted by these attempts to get at me.”
Master Bel’dor’ruch was not satisfied with this hovering.
“Let me put it another way,” she said. “If you were given the opportunity to attempt the test to become a Padawan, would you be willing to do so?”
She made it sound like a challenge.
“Of course, Master,” said Aronoke immediately.
“Well then,” she said, turning back to Master Insa-tolsa and shrugging. “Let it be so. I don’t believe there is anything else we need to discuss that requires your presence, Initiate. I will contact you later as I would speak with you further about these incidents and those things that we have in common. You are dismissed.”
“You look rather shaken,” said Draken, when Aronoke got back to the clan rooms. “Did something strange happen to you again? More exploding messages?”
“No,” said Aronoke. “I had to go and see Master Bel’dor’ruch and she is scary.”
“Oh,” said Draken, a little sympathetically. Aronoke refrained from telling him more about the meeting. He didn’t tell Draken that he had met another chiss. He felt like Master Bel’dor’ruch had taken his world, firmly shaken it and then set it back in place upside-down. He had finally met someone of his own race and she was not at all like anything he had expected. She had ruthlessly extracted his secret in just a few minutes. Then she had abruptly decided that he should be taken from the temple and sent out into the galaxy. He did not know how to explain these things to Draken and thought perhaps it was best not to.
Everything would be revealed in time, regardless.