After Master Bel’dor’ruch’s arrival, everything moved quickly. It was not long before Master Insa-tolsa sent Aronoke a message telling him that he was to be accepted as a candidate for the Padawan trials, which would proceed as soon as he had reached the sixth level of training in the way of the lightsaber. Aronoke was currently learning the third level, and to hasten his progress he was to be provided with extra tutelage by Weapon Master Squegwash.
“I would have you realise what an honour it is for Master Squegwash to agree to instruct you personally in this way,” said Mentor Snesgrul when he saw Aronoke during his usual training sessions with Clan Ryllak. “He takes very few students, only the best, and has very exacting standards of formality. You must be on your best behavior, Aronoke.”
“I will, Mentor Snesgrul,” said Aronoke and armed with this sage advice, he determined to be exactingly polite to Master Squegwash at all times.
Master Squegwash was perhaps human, perhaps not. Mostly he looked human, but Aronoke could not tell if he was even actually male. Mentor Snesgrul had seemed to think so, but Mentor Snesgrul was a bothan and perhaps did not know either. Like Ashquash, Master Squegwash was bald and androgynous, although they were otherwise not similar. Aronoke put his curiousity about the Weapon Master firmly aside. After Mentor Snesgrul’s warning, he was hardly going to ask Master Squegwash prying personal questions.
“I am not certain why your education is being hurried along in this way, Initiate,” Master Squegwash told Aronoke stiffly when they first met, “but Master An-ku insists that it is necessary. Now, please demonstrate your understanding of the first six standard forms.”
“As you wish, Master Squegwash,” said Aronoke, bowing formally before complying.
It was obvious Master Squegwash felt that Aronoke’s tutelage was something that could have been handled by other, lesser beings.
“You have a good understanding of the concepts of level three,” Master Squegwash said patiently, when Aronoke had finished. “That is unusual in a student who has come to his training so late.”
“Thank you, Master Squegwash,” said Aronoke, bowing again.
“In order to learn the higher forms of lightsaber combat, you must push beyond your reliance upon your physical senses,” said Master Swegwash. “When we train with a practice sabre, we teach the body and the mind to work together, to produce automated responses to stimuli. When our opponent moves a certain way, we respond with the correct opposing move. That is why students are trained from a very young age, because these responses become as natural as language to them. Just as you do not have to think about saying simple words, the correct form should automatically be there when needed in combat, with no thought involved. You have done well to learn as much as you have in a short time. I expect it is because you had some training in combat from a young age yourself, even if it is not in these specific forms.”
“Yes, Master Squegwash,” said Aronoke. “That is true.”
“However, when a fully trained Jedi enters combat, he does not merely use his physical senses to fight,” said Master Squegwash. “He uses the Force. Before you are ready to wield a true lightsaber, you must make the transition to using the Force to direct your movements, instead of merely your eyes and ears. This is something a Jedi trained from a youngling would also learn to automatically perform. He has never fought without the Force – both are developed together. Many older students can never learn this lesson, and thus are ultimately doomed to failure when attempting to learn the highest tiers of lightsaber combat. This is one reason why older students are so seldom accepted as candidates. Nevertheless, I believe your great acuity in sensing the Force will allow you to make this transition, Aronoke, despite your late start, but it will not be easy.”
“I will work hard, Master Squegwash,” Aronoke promised.
Certainly it seemed that Master Squegwash expected nothing less. By the end of the first lesson, Aronoke was exhausted, but was also pleased that Master Squegwash seemed to have warmed to him. If he was to face his Padawan trials so soon, Aronoke knew he needed Master Squegwash on side, and that he had to make every effort to be as focused as he could possibly be.
In between lightsaber practice sessions Aronoke went running every morning. He added weights training to his routine to help build his strength. Then there were all the usual lessons. Aronoke was doing a lot of extra reading as well. There was hardly a moment to spare in his day. He felt stretched to his limits. Some days, usually when he had made some discernible progress, it was a good feeling. At other times Aronoke despaired of ever being able to pass the trials. The academic side of his training still lagged years behind that of the human students his age, let alone those of his maturity level. It was difficult to feel confident about passing, and Aronoke had no idea what would happen if he failed.
Failing to be a Jedi, leaving the temple, disappointing Master Altus’s confidence in him – Aronoke spent long hours meditating instead of sleeping, trying to rid himself of these fears, whenever he found himself lying awake thinking them over and over.
Aronoke was told to report to the medical bay, ostensibly for a routine check-up. D-2J399 was there as always, Aronoke was relieved to see. Although he had been for many check-ups by now, and was accustomed to undressing in front of the droid, Aronoke never felt complacent about it. There were too many uncertainties involved – what if the person who sought to influence him did something to D-2? What if some sort of device was hidden in the medical bay, to spy on Aronoke’s back? It was paranoid to think these things, Aronoke told himself firmly as he removed his shirt and robes as instructed. Whoever had taken such an interest in him must have other endeavours to take up their time. Other plans and schemes to watch over.
But no matter how he tried to convince himself, despite the fact that he was better able to control it now, the feeling of dread was always there. It wasn’t just the slight chill of the medical bay that made Aronoke shiver.
“Today I have instructions to take a number of scans of your dorsal dermis, Initiate,” said D-2. “These will be made using several different spectra of light, and thus will take slightly longer than regular imaging.”
Aronoke nodded. Master Bel’dor’ruch had said that the image on his back was to be recorded and investigated more thoroughly. Even so, it was an uncomfortable idea. Aronoke did not like the thought of extra images of his back existing, even within the Jedi temple. It was bad enough that Master Altus had disappeared with one in his possession. If it wasn’t for the fact that his back might reveal some clue regarding Master Altus’s disappearance, Aronoke would have protested.
“The additional spectra do not seem to reveal any extra information,” D-2 informed Aronoke, when the scans were finished and he was dressed again. “However, I may be mistaken. They will be sent off for further analysis and forwarded to Master Bel’dor’ruch and Master An-ku. If anything is discovered regarding them, or if additional images need to be made, you will be informed, Initiate Aronoke.”
“Thanks, D-2,” said Aronoke, grateful that his part in the procedure seemed to be over.
“You’ve got to go and see that Master Bel’dor’ruch again,” said Draken one morning at breakfast. “It was up on the schedule board. I thought you mightn’t have seen, since you were in such a hurry.”
“Oh,” said Aronoke. “Thanks.”
Aronoke had been late that morning, and hadn’t bothered to look at the board. He had slept far later than usual, right through the time when he usually went running and did his weights training, and through the time when he would typically shower, thanks to a particularly exhausting session with Master Squegwash the evening before.
“All sorts of strange Masters seem to be interested in you,” continued Draken, teasing a lump of red fribj fruit apart into strands on his plate. “You are twice as busy as the rest of us, and Wyla Gorgeous knows, we’re busy enough.”
Wyla Gorgeous was a Twi’lek superstar, a wildly popular actress starring in many holovids that Aronoke knew were considered completely unsuitable for consumption by Jedi initiates. Draken’s latest gimmick was to mention her name at every possible opportunity.
“It seems every week Razzak Mintula thinks of a new thing I should be doing in my lack of free time,” Draken continued morosely.
Aronoke smiled to himself, thinking that Razzak Mintula knew Draken was best kept busy. His inventive mind and undeniable curiosity would soon lead him into trouble if it were not so.
“So why have you got so much to do, suddenly?” asked Draken.
“They want me to take my Padawan trials soon,” Aronoke admitted quietly.
“What!?” squawked Draken, in loud surprise. Razzak Mintula frowned at him from the end of the table and all the little kids stopped talking to stare at him too. Aronoke took refuge in spooning more chornut porridge into his mouth and chewing thoroughly.
Ashquash stared at Aronoke from across the table, her expression blank, but her composure ruined by her open mouth and the way her spoon hovered in mid air. Bits of porridge dripped off it unnoticed.
“When were you going to tell us?” she asked, coldly.
“I’m sorry, I only found out a little while ago,” said Aronoke. “It was Master Bel’dor’ruch’s idea, and I was hoping that the Jedi Council wouldn’t go along with it. I don’t want to have to leave the temple any time soon.”
Ashquash glowered at him and lowered her head to stare at her plate sullenly.
“I don’t want you to leave soon either,” admitted Draken, “but we’re clan mates, right, and that means we should consider what’s best for each other, not just our own preferences. If there’s any way I can help, you should let me know.”
“I’ll help you too, Aronoke,” said Bithron, and then it became a chorus amongst all the little kids sitting closest to him. Aronoke noticed that Razzak Mintula was watching and listening, yet saying nothing. Waiting to see how he would respond.
“Thank you all very much,” said Aronoke, feeling awkward at being the centre of attention. “But the trials are something each of us ultimately has to face on our own.”
The younglings’ faces fell, and Aronoke hastily added: “There’s certainly some things you can help me with in my training, though.”
It was strange how much they had become like family to him, Aronoke thought as he hurried off after breakfast to look at the schedule board. Despite the diversity of age and race, Clan Herf had become a central part of his life. They might mostly be a lot younger than him, but the younglings, alongside Ashquash and Draken, were wise for their years, changed already from self-absorbed little kids into something quite different. Something more Jedi-like. Just like Aronoke himself.
Master Bel’dor’ruch sent her padawan, a yellow-green twi’lek girl, to escort Aronoke to her chambers after the evening meal.
“Initiate Aronoke,” said Master Bel’dor’ruch when Aronoke arrived, fixing him with her gleaming red stare. Aronoke had spent all day psyching himself up to talk with the chiss master, telling himself that he would be brave and stand up to her. He had decided to tell her that he didn’t want to sit for his trials, that he wasn’t ready, but now his resolve weakened. She was scarier than he had remembered.
“Yes, Master,” he said.
“I would like to talk more about the problems you have faced here at the temple,” said Master Bel’dor’ruch, pacing back and forth as Aronoke stood in front of her. She was the most restless Jedi that Aronoke had ever met. The initiates were always being schooled in being still as a lesson in calmness and patience, but Master Bel’dor’ruch made constant movement into her own unique art form.
Even Masters, Aronoke thought, had some failings.
“I can’t understand how the Jedi Council can fail to clear up these harassments that you have faced,” said Master Bel’dor’ruch. “I have spoken to Master Insa-tolsa and Master An-ku, amongst others, and they assure me that every appropriate action has been taken, but I find that difficult to believe, considering their utter lack of results. It seems a hopeless incompetence on their behalf.”
“It is frustrating, Master,” said Aronoke evenly, “although I’m sure everything possible is being done.”
“Are you?” said Master Bel’dor’ruch. “I am not. Someone high up in the Jedi order obviously wishes to manipulate you, or these things would not continue.”
“Yes, that’s what Master Altus thought,” said Aronoke. “He said he could not discover who had sent me to train with Clan Sandrek, but that the order had come through the Jedi Council from very high up indeed.”
“I see,” said Master Bel’dor’ruch. “I have read all the reports, but I wish to hear about these harassments from you. Perhaps there is something that was missed.”
She led Aronoke chronologically through all the events that had taken place according to Council records – the missives from the droids, the drugging of Ashquash, Clan Sandrek’s strange behavior, the droid in the shower – encouraging him to elaborate and add anything else that might have been missed.
“What about this time when you were discovered in an off-limits maintenance area?” asked Master Bel’dor’ruch. “Was that anything unusual?”
“No, Master,” said Aronoke, blushing. “That was just us fooling around. Being silly.”
“The time you fell in the swimming pool and nearly drowned?”
Aronoke hadn’t known that had been reported to the Council.
“No, that was an argument with one of my clan mates.”
“I see,” said Master Bel’dor’ruch. She looked thoughtful. “Is there anything else about your early history on Kasthir that you did not tell Master Altus that might be relevant?”
Aronoke thought carefully.
“There is one thing, Master. I don’t know how relevant it is. It is only a minor detail, and I did not think to tell Master Altus at the time. He never asked me for all the details of my childhood.”
“Well, then?” she said, gesturing impatiently.
“When I was about five years old, in galactic standard years, my Uncle Remo died, and another Twi’lek took care of me, named Boamba. At first everything was fine, but then she became addicted to spice. A few years later, there came a day when she didn’t come back. I assumed she was dead. Some bigger people forced me out of our home, so I had to live on the streets and scavenge for myself. I wasn’t very good at it, was starting to starve, but then the Fumers came and took me to Bunkertown, out in the desert. I believe they were looking specifically for me, because when I was in the speeder going to Bunkertown, some of the things from Boamba’s house were there too. Some of my old things. It was like I was collected along with all of Boamba’s other possessions. Then, when I arrived in Bunkertown, I was sent to be a menial in the kitchens, and no one seemed very interested in me, but a few days later, I was dragged up in front of Careful Kras. He cut my shirt off my back, like he knew something was there.”
Aronoke faltered at the thought of what had happened next, but swallowed hard and forced himself to continue as unemotionally as he could.
“He didn’t like what he saw. He cut it and burned it to hide it. I’ve never understood why he did that instead of just killing me. Why he wanted to hide it, but keep me alive.”
“Perhaps he wanted to keep you for the right buyer,” said Master Bel’dor’ruch. “He might not have wanted to reveal the information on your back, but might have been tempted by the high prices on offer for strong force-sensitives. And then you are bioengineered, a complicated and expensive business. Others would pay a lot of money for you just because of that. But you’re right, this could be an important bit of information. I think that Careful Kras is long overdue a visit from the Jedi Order.”
Aronoke felt a justified but most un-Jedi-like pang of malicious glee at the thought of Jedi wrath raining down on Careful Kras’s head.
Master Bel’dor’ruch paced a minute or two in thoughtful silence, and Aronoke was glad of the opportunity to regain his composure. Along with thoughts of rightful vengeance, his mind was seething with all the emotions that always erupted when he spoke about his past, despite his best efforts. It was not the right way for a Jedi to feel.
“You have not been raised as a chiss, as I was,” said Master Bel’dor’ruch at last. “But anything you might have learned from exposure to chiss culture is irrelevant. There is nothing in being a chiss that would benefit you in being a Jedi. Quite the contrary. It is only your chiss biology that affects your training. You should not feel that this is unusual. There are a plethora of different species who train to become Jedi. Did you think all of them grew at the same rate and were made padawans at the same age?”
“No, Master,” said Aronoke. “I just did not know I was different from humans in this way until recently. Most near-human species are not.”
“Your tests should be scheduled soon now,” said Master Bel’dor’ruch. “Do you feel ready for them?”
“Not very, Master,” said Aronoke reluctantly. “I am supposed to reach lightsaber level six to do my tests, but I am only level four. I train hard and my new lessons are very helpful, but I make slow progress.”
“Let me see,” said Master Bel’dor’ruch, and before Aronoke could say anything, she flung her lightsaber, thankfully unactivated, across the room at him.
Aronoke was startled and nearly failed to catch it. He fumbled and nearly dropped it on the floor. Could feel himself flushing. He had never held a real lightsaber before.
“Show me the standard forms,” said Master Bel’dor’ruch, making a little hurry-up gesture. “Start with form one.”
Aronoke swallowed firmly and tried to relax. It took him a moment to work out how to activate the lightsaber and then he was startled by the feel of it when it did. The balance was completely different from that of his practice-sabre; it felt awkward and unfamiliar in his hands. He found himself hyperaware of the glowing blade that could slice through flesh so easily, and made a couple of passes in the air, trying to get the feel of the weapon. The sound it made triggered memories of hot Kasthir sand and the smell of sweat and fumes.
But Master Bel’dor’ruch was waiting. Aronoke forced himself to drop into form one, but his movements were jerky and off-balance. He went through the forms once. He should have known them perfectly after so much practice and training, but he found himself struggling to make the transitions smoothly.
Master Squegwash was right; the lightsaber changed everything. It was a dangerous weapon, a threat to the wielder as well as to his enemies. Only someone practiced in the Force would be able to wield such a blade effectively.
He was glad to deactivate the lightsaber. Glad to pass it back to Master Bel’dor’ruch when he had finished. He felt he had not done well at all.
“You will manage,” said Master Bel’dor’ruch. “You will have time to learn when you are assigned to your new master as a padawan. Remember that to be an initiate here in the temple is an artificial role, designed to keep young force-sensitives out of trouble while they are children and not yet physically grown. You are very close to fully grown. Almost a mature adult. You are fourteen years old, which is an age humans were once considered too old to send out as padawans. They would be shipped off to serve in the Jedi Corps if they had not found a Master by that age. That we now keep initiates so late is a sign of the order’s increasing decadence and over-burgeoning influence. You are not human. It is ridiculous to keep you here in the temple when you have reached full growth.”
“But there are so many things I haven’t learnt yet, Master,” protested Aronoke. “There are lots of topics my clan has not even touched upon yet, and although I read widely, I haven’t had time to cover everything. I have only been here somewhat over two years. Even if I’m fully grown I can’t absorb ten years of lessons in two years.”
“Yet you were acting as an adult before you ever came here,” pointed out Master Bel’dor’ruch. “You learn differently as a child than you do as an adult. You learn in a different way.”
“Yes, that’s true, Master,” said Aronoke, remembering Master Squegwash’s lesson. “When do you think my tests will be held?”
“I do not know exactly,” said Master Bel’dor’ruch. “You will be given some weeks notice. I expect it will be a good deal sooner than you would like, and a good deal later than I would.”
“I will do my best, Master,” said Aronoke, making a respectful little bow, and she nodded in return and made an abrupt gesture to indicate that he was dismissed. He left her rooms feeling overwhelmed and uncertain.
“Don’t worry, everyone feels that way after talking to Master Bel’dor’ruch,” said the Twi’lek padawan breezily, meeting him at the door. She seemed pleased to have a Master that everyone thought was scary, Aronoke thought. “Though I thought perhaps it would be different for you because you are a chiss too. I thought perhaps all chiss were like her.”
“Master Bel’dor’ruch is the only other chiss I’ve ever met,” Aronoke admitted.
“Really?” said the Twi’lek padawan. “That’s very weird.”
Very weird, that’s me, thought Aronoke sadly.
“You’re so busy all the time,” said Draken mournfully a few days later. “I expect they can’t wait to whisk you off somewhere. You’ll be the youngest Padawan ever, and we’ll still be stuck here doing lessons for years and years.”
“I wouldn’t mind being stuck here for years and years,” said Aronoke carefully. “I’m not in any hurry to leave. I would much rather stay here with you and take my time. But you’re right. Master Bel’dor’ruch wants me to be sent out in the field as soon as possible, partly because of all the strange things that have happened to me, but also because I’m a chiss and I’ve grown up so much faster.”
“But it will still take a long time for you to know everything you need to complete the tests, won’t it?” said Draken. “Months and months? At least a year?”
“The Council has decided I should sit for my tests as soon as I reach level six in lightsaber training,” said Aronoke. “Master Squegwash says I am level four now. Master Bel’dor’ruch says that I will probably sit for my tests a good deal sooner than I would like, and a good deal later than she would.”
“Oh,” said Draken, crestfallen.
Aronoke shrugged. “I can see Master Bel’dor’ruch’s logic in hurrying me through. Even if I do have to leave, we are still clan mates you know. Like you said. Nothing is going to change that. One day you and Ashquash and all the younglings will finish your training and will probably be better Jedi because of your time in the temple.”
“Yeah, but you get to have your own lightsaber and see new places now,” said Draken enviously. “I wish we could swap places – then we would both be happy. I’m tired of training.”
“I’ll still be training,” Aronoke reminded him. ”It will just be with a Jedi Master instead of here. Padawans train to be proper Jedi, remember? And even Jedi Masters train in new things sometimes.”
“Yeah, but that’s different,” grumbled Draken, and Aronoke was left thinking that Draken and Master Bel’dor’ruch had certain things in common.
“Why didn’t you tell me about you leaving?” asked Ashquash one night. She was lying in bed, one arm flung over her eyes, while Aronoke was sitting up studying. It was late, and he had thought she had been asleep for ages already.
“I didn’t want to upset you,” Aronoke said gently. “I knew you wouldn’t like the idea, and there didn’t seem any point telling you if it wasn’t going to happen after all.”
“But it is going to happen,” said Ashquash crossly. “You’re going to go away, and leave us all behind. Well, maybe when that happens, I’ll go away too.”
“You shouldn’t do that,” said Aronoke, but Ashquash turned away towards the wall, pretending not to hear him.
“It’s not like I want to go away,” he added. “I’d rather stay and train with you and Draken. It’s something that Master Bel’dor’ruch decided. If Master Altus were here, it probably wouldn’t have happened.”
“Can’t you tell them you don’t want to?”
“I have,” said Aronoke. “But there are good reasons for me to go away too. Reasons that you already know about. Maybe there won’t be any more hassles, and you’ll be able to finish your training in peace.”
“I know it seems like a long time,” said Aronoke, “but it’s not as long as it seems. One day you’ll be a Jedi in your own right, but not if you leave. Don’t you want to be a Jedi?”
“Sometimes I don’t know,” said Ashquash, her voice muffled. Her back was still to Aronoke, so he couldn’t see her expression. “I’m not like you, Aronoke. Not so powerful in the Force. I’m Force-sensitive, but I struggle with most of the lessons we do – even things most of the little kids find easy.”
“It takes time and patience,” said Aronoke. “And we’re all different. We find different things difficult. Master Skeirim brought you here, even though you were just as old as I was. He must have thought you were worth training, enough to convince the Jedi Council too, or you wouldn’t be here at all. They would have sent you somewhere else, to be trained as a pilot or a mechanic or something like that. They wouldn’t bring you to be trained as a Jedi just because they wanted to help you. If they think you can become a Jedi, than it must be possible.”
“Do you really think so?”
“Of course I do.”
“But what if I fail?”
“Then you’ll probably be sent to join the Jedi Corps, and there’s no shame in that either.”
There was a long silence, long enough that Aronoke decided that Ashquash had finally fallen asleep. He picked up his datapad again, and started reading from where he had left off.
“I still don’t want you to leave,” said Ashquash, in a sad sleepy voice.
The weeks passed quickly. There was still no progress in locating Master Altus, and Aronoke felt depressed. He had always imagined that Master Altus would be there when he performed his tests. He was still finding it difficult to progress in his lightsaber training. He practiced the standard forms during free time every afternoon now, over and over again, determined to make progress, but he seemed to have reached a plateau in his abilities.
Then when Aronoke came back from training one afternoon, there was an official looking message waiting for him.
“It says I have to sit for my trials in one month’s time! But I’m not level six in lightsaber training yet!” protested Aronoke to Master Insa-tolsa. “I’m still only level four!”
“That is what the council has decided,” said Master Insa-tolsa. “It does seem very soon. I suspect Master Altus would not have agreed with how your training is being handled.”
Aronoke knew the green man would have preferred him to take his time, to linger in the temple in peace instead of being hurried back out into the field. He remembered a conversation they had once.
“Sometimes I don’t feel very much like I can really become a Jedi,” Aronoke had confided. “We learn all these moral lessons, and I can see the idea of them, but I can not truly believe in them. All the things the Jedi do in the histories and the fables seem separate from real life to me, because that is so unlike how anyone would behave on Kasthir.”
“You need to give yourself time,” Master Altus said. “These lessons will take time to become part of yourself. The longer you spend here in the temple, the more deeply you will be able to accept them.”
“That is all very well while I am in the temple, Master. There is little to confront me here. But I am worried that when I step outside into the real world, all these lessons will fall away, and I will be who I was once again.”
“You will never be who you once were, Aronoke,” said Master Altus, smiling. “You have already learned too much. You can only be the product of what you were and what you have learned since. You should not fear your past.”
“Well, I suppose I have learned a lot,” said Aronoke, who did fear it. “But I might still act in a similar way.”
“By the time you go out into the real world you will be better prepared to deal with it,” said Master Altus. “You will be able to remain in the temple for a long time, if the Force is with us. That is one of the reasons the Temple is so isolated from the outside world. You can learn in peace, with few outside influences to disturb you. You can learn about yourself before you have to confront everything else. Once you are ready, you will move beyond these walls to learn different, more challenging lessons.”
Aronoke nodded reluctantly, unconvinced, and made a non-commital noise.
Master Altus smiled patiently. “You can trust yourself, Aronoke.”
Aronoke could not help but wish that Master Altus was here now, but that was pointless, because if Master Altus were here, everything would be different. He knew that Master Altus would not have supported his hasty advancement to Padawan status. It was not just a matter of being fully grown, of knowing how to physically wield a lightsaber or argue the minor points of Jedi philosophy.
No, it was a matter of inner confidence and stability. Aronoke tried hard to stay under control, to be a real Jedi, but he was still plagued by those same roiling emotions. There were deep insecurities, residual damage from Careful Kras’ tortures, from his too-hasty childhood. From being small and vulnerable in a world of harsh realities. From being the only one of his kind. From being bioengineered.
He knew the words to describe what his problems were and also the techniques he should use to deal with them. He thought with time and effort these troubles would fade, but he did not know how successful he would be at coping in a stressful situation in the real world. What if his fear rose to panic and his control over the Force crumbled?
But as long as he remained here in the Jedi Temple, the persecutions would continue, and those did not just affect him, but also the others around him. Look at what had happened to Ashquash. Master Altus had disappeared, and it seemed likely that was because of Aronoke too.
It might be safer for everyone else to have him gone from here. But if Aronoke could not be completely protected from such things here in the Jedi Temple on Coruscant, than where else could he possibly be safe?
He must be strong and calm, trust in the Force. No matter what happened. That was what Master Altus would say now.
“You know yourself the reasons for this decision,” Master Insa-tolsa was saying.
“I know, Master, but it seems so soon,” said Aronoke. “How can I possibly learn everything I need to know in just one month?”
“It does seem like a lot, but Master Bel’dor’ruch is correct in that most of a Jedi’s training comes from the years spent as a Padawan,” said Master Insa-tolsa. “I believe myself that your abilities are adequate and that you will pass the test.”
“You really think so?” asked Aronoke.
“Yes, I do, but you must not be complacent either,” said Master Insa-tolsa. “You must use the time available to you to best advantage.”
“But there is no more time to fit anything else in, Master!” Aronoke objected. “I get up earlier than anyone else in my clan to start training and I stay up late in the evenings reading and studying. I have sparring practice with Clan Ryllak, extra lightsaber training with Master Squegwash…”
“Let me see your schedule,” said Master Insa-tolsa, and Aronoke obligingly passed over his datapad. “There is little benefit to you in continuing these few remaining physical training exercises with your clan, so we will cross those off. Also, you will probably do better individually studying those areas where your knowledge is lacking, rather than continuing in morning lessons.”
Suddenly Aronoke’s schedule looked a good deal emptier. He was relieved. Everything seemed a little less impossible.
“Thank you, Master Insa-tolsa,” he said. “I will study hard.”
“That is all you can do, Aronoke,” said Master Insa-tolsa. “If you do your best and fail, then so be it.”
“What happens if I do fail, Master?” asked Aronoke. “What happens to me then?”
“You will continue with your training here at the temple,” said Master Insa-tolsa steadily. “You may retake the tests at a later date. That would not be the case if you had already spent your complete allotment of years at the temple, but you have not.”
“Oh,” said Aronke, relieved. That did not seem so bad. Desirable even, although he would not consider failing the tests on purpose. Better to refuse to attempt them at all. “That is not so terrible. Thank you, Master, I feel my path is much clearer now.”
“May the Force be with you, Aronoke,” said Master-Insa-tolsa.
Despite the extra time, there was only so much physical training Aronoke could productively do in one day, and his lightsaber skills did not make much headway during the first two weeks of the remaining month.
“I believe you are not yet comfortable in your own body,” said Master Squegwash one morning. “You are at an age where you have been growing very quickly, and your mind is not perfectly aware of your limits or the way your limbs move. To rectify this, I will teach you some meditative techniques that will assist you in becoming better aware of yourself.”
“Yes, Master Squegwash,” said Aronoke. “I will do my best.”
The meditative techniques were not dissimilar to some of the Force exercises Clan Herf had been learning, although they required a good deal more focus. They demanded control of the body while performing acts of balance and other physical activities, and demanded an awareness of physical self that Aronoke had never attempted before. Aronoke had to focus hard to perform to Master Squegwash’s exacting standards. He found it difficult to maintain the control necessary to contain his motions, but once he did, he found the rest of the process came easily.
“Good,” said Master Squegwash.
Afterwards, they ran through some basic exercises, and then Master Squegwash had Aronoke duel with one of his other students, a talented rodian by the name of Kwidor. Kwidor’s abilities far outclassed Aronoke’s own, and it was obvious from the start that Aronoke was going to lose. He struggled again and again to block Kwidor’s effortless blows to no avail. It was like being humiliated by Clan Sandrek all over again.
“Clear your mind,” said Master Squegwash from the sidelines. “Forget about the outcome, and seek to isolate every moment of the fight. “Seek the connection between your movements and the Force, just like we practiced this morning.”
It seemed impossible amidst the confusing whirl of action. Even though Kwidor was obviously not putting full effort into his blows, he seemed to be everywhere at once. Aronoke struggled to control his movements, struggled for awareness of every muscle, every bone, every tendon of his body, and suddenly, everything swung into balance and the world seemed to snap into ultra-clear perspective. Aronoke’s mind and body no longer felt like two different things. His connection to the Force welded them together inexorably and connected him to everything outside in an undeniable bond. It was just one moment of clarity, but Aronoke seized the feeling in his mind and tried to remember what it felt like.
“You’re doing very well for level four,” said Kwidor, bowing graciously as Aronoke admitted defeat.
“You felt it, didn’t you?” asked Master Squegwash, coming over and looking pleased. “Go away, practice the exercises I showed you, and try to find that place again. Once you have achieved that balance, you will have passed the greatest hurdle in lightsaber combat – the difference that lies between the even the greatest of mundane fighters, and those who wield the Force.”
After that lesson, Aronoke felt invigorated instead of exhausted. Lightsaber training had been becoming a trial in itself, a nightmare he refused to allow himself to wake from, but now he felt his perseverence and Master Squegwash’s lessons had paid off.
He practiced all that week with new enthusiasm, feeling like he had been fighting blind through all his previous lessons. Now when he fought, when he managed to maintain this new and as yet tenuous balance, it was like he existed in a nexus of calm while his mind and body acted in unison in response to the stimuli his Force senses fed him. He worked towards achieving this new state consistantly and was rewarded accordingly.
“I believe you have made the step you needed to make, Aronoke,” said Master Squegwash appreciatively during the next lesson. “There is nothing to prevent you from proceeding to the higher levels of training, given time and practice.”
“Thank you, Master Squegwash,” said Aronoke. He was pleased to be told he had reached the standard of level five by the end of that week.
The summons for Aronoke’s first test arrived then. There were to be three tests in total, but this summons only dictated the nature of this first test – that and a stern reminder that candidates would be considered to have failed their trials if they revealed the nature of the tests to anyone who had not already passed them.
The first was to be a written examination upon Jedi lore. Four topics would be randomly selected from amongst a list of a hundred possible questions, and he would be expected to write an essay upon each of them.
An essay? How did you do that? Aronoke had never done anything of the kind. Presumably this was a skill his clan had not yet studied. There was plenty of information on that sort of thing available on the holonet, however, and he relaxed when he saw it was a relatively simple standard form of writing.
Aronoke’s heart quailed even more when he saw the list of subject matter. One hundred possible topics! At first glimpse the questions looked terrible. Discuss Master Amn’s hypothesis of galactic spontaneity of cultural forms. He didn’t know anything about Master Amn, let alone what spontaneity meant. Or this one: reflect upon the moral quandaries presented by the Hypercaspelian Conflict and suggest three ways in which the Jedi Order might have mitigated its intervention for a more beneficial outcome. Urgh. But upon closer examination, when he looked beyond the long words and the formal style of the questions, he realised that he actually knew a reasonable amount about more than half of them. Certainly he didn’t know as much as he would have if he had remained at the Jedi temple for the usual duration, but enough, perhaps, to get by. He spent most of his study time covering those things which his studies had not touched upon, and by the time of the examination he was feeling moderately confident.
The morning of Aronoke’s test finally arrived. He awoke trying to feel ready for anything, but could only sense that something was wrong. He looked about the room in confusion and realised that Ashquash was not in her bed. That was unusual. Ashquash did not like to get up early in the morning. She got up as late as possible, when the chime for breakfast went.
“Do you know where Ashquash is?” he asked Draken who was outside in the common room.
“No,” Draken said. “But Razzak Mintula went away somewhere in the middle of the night because of it.”
That, of course, didn’t help at all. Aronoke felt sick, thinking about something having happened to Ashquash. Something terrible, and he hadn’t noticed at all. Could she have been drugged again?
What should he do?
“Razzak Mintula said you weren’t to worry, on account of you having to do your test,” said Draken, as if he knew exactly what Aronoke was thinking.
“How can I possibly do that?” said Aronoke, his voice sounding higher pitched than usual, even to himself.
Before he could convince himself that it was not a good idea, Aronoke let his habitual control over his senses drop away, opening himself up to the Force and sending his mind out looking for Ashquash. Out to the extents of the Jedi Temple, out to test the limits of the great shield that both protected the Temple from outside influences and prevented him from seeing beyond. No, Ashquash was not inside the temple – he was immediately sure of that. But wait…no, she was there, not inside exactly, but clinging to the very edge, her tiny Force-presence blurred by the influence of the great shield. Aronoke had a sudden impression of Ashquash perched up somewhere very high indeed, clinging tenaciously to a narrow ledge. She was frightened and dizzy, and something was blurring her perception in a horrible nauseating way.
Aronoke was dimly aware of Draken saying something, of Draken clutching at his sleeve and shaking his arm.
“Aronoke? What are you doing?”
“I have to help Ashquash!” said Aronoke, ignoring Draken’s increasingly frenzied questions. He snatched himself free of Draken’s grasp. He ran off through the door of Clan Herf’s rooms into the hall outside.
“Aronoke!” cried Draken, and ran after him.