Initiate (Aronoke - Book 1)

Sparring

One morning, Aronoke noticed that his schedule had changed. The others in Clan Herf noticed it too, because it was up there on the clan viewscreen. Instead of his usual exercise session, Aronoke was to report to a different training area because he had been seconded to Clan Sandrek for physical training.

“Se-con-ded?” said Aronoke, sounding it out, unfamiliar with the word.

“You know, like you’re joining their clan?” said Draken.

“Not for good I hope.”

“No, just for that class,” said Draken.

“Aw, Aronoke,” said Bithron, one of the younglings. “But that means you won’t be able to be with us!”

Aronoke was growing more popular amongst his younger clan mates. He liked little kids, he was finding. Liked how different they were compared to the ones he had met on Kasthir. These little kids wore their minds on their faces. Didn’t have secret agendas. Aronoke felt he could trust them.

“It doesn’t matter,” said Aronoke. “This way I can learn all the new combat skills and teach them to you when I get back.”

Emeraldine’s sparring sessions had proved popular. They usually included Ashquash now, and some of the little kids who had wanted to come along. They practiced more often too, even when Emeraldine wasn’t there. The little kids spent more time chasing each other and rolling around on the grass than practicing seriously, but Aronoke didn’t mind.

“Once you’re there you can ask them if me and Ashquash can join in too,” said Draken. “Since we’re nearly as big as you are.”

“Maybe,” said Aronoke. “I’ll try.”

“You’ve got to, Aronoke! Promise?”

But Aronoke wouldn’t promise. Didn’t want to have the responsibility of doing something he might not want to do. He felt uncertain about this change – hadn’t Master Insa-tolsa said that he should continue learning slowly? And now this sudden reassignment?

“I’ll see what it’s like first,” he said. “It might be a mistake, or really boring.”

“Okay,” said Draken. “But once you see it’s okay, you’ll ask, right?”

“Maybe,” said Aronoke again.

When he arrived at Clan Sandrek’s training session he was glad he had made no promises. He felt a bit stupid being there himself. Clan Sandrek was one of the older clans of initiates, almost ready to do their tests to become padawans. Aronoke felt confused. Why had Master Insa-tolsa changed his mind so radically? Aronoke had hoped to be trained with some people closer to his own size, but these initiates looked as big as fully-grown adults.

Oh well, best to just go along with things and not reveal his confusion. It was important not to show weakness. Besides, the Jedi Masters surely knew what they were doing – it was flattering to think that they thought he was capable of learning alongside these students, even if Aronoke felt like a kid next to them. He was used to being set up against adults – had been forced to deal with that every day when he was a skimmer. In two or three years time, he reminded himself, he would be just as big as these trainees. Maybe that was why he had been sent here.

This knowledge didn’t help him now though. Feeling awkward, Aronoke walked up to the instructor who was running the class.

“Yes?” said the instructor, looking at Aronoke dubiously.

“I was told to report here,” said Aronoke.

“Oh,” said the Instructor, his expression becoming surprised. “Are you Aronoke?”

“Yes.”

“You’re a bit young to be training with this group,” said the Instructor. “I wonder if there’s been some sort of mistake? Oh well, never mind. You might as well join in for today, at least. I am Mentor Tolto, the instructor for this group. You can put your things over there and join the group.”

His surprise was not very flattering at all, Aronoke thought drily, even if it was more realistic.

Aronoke could see the members of Clan Sandrek watching him curiously. They did not seem very happy to have him join them for their lesson. He could understand that. They were almost all fully trained and he would just get in the way. Still, it was not his fault. He determined to simply do the best he could. He had been a skimmer, he thought fiercely. These were just a bunch of kids, not as old as Kresmindle, even if they were bigger than Aronoke. He schooled his face in impassivity as he walked over to join the other students.

“What are you doing here?” asked one of Clan Sandrek, a tall sandy-haired human boy.

“I was told to report here to join this class,” said Aronoke.

“What’s your name? What clan are you from?”

“Aronoke. Clan Herf.”

“Isn’t that one of the really new clans?” asked one of the girls sceptically. “A bunch of younglings?”

Aronoke shrugged.

“You must be special if they sent you here,” said the sandy-haired boy. “Either that, or it’s a mistake.”

“I don’t think I’m special,” said Aronoke.

“Then it must be a mistake. Why else would they send a kid like you to train with us?” said the sandy-haired boy. He said “kid” like it was a dirty word.

Aronoke shrugged. “I was told to report here,” he said. “I don’t know why.” Damned if he was going to explain about being chiss and being older than the rest of his clan to this lot. He kept his face passive and neutral. He reminded himself that he was a trained skimmer and these were just a bunch of kids who wouldn’t last a moment on Kasthir. Resisted the urge to pull his hood further down over his face.

“I expect it will get sorted out,” said the girl who had spoken earlier. “I am Kai-lula, that is Vark, and that’s Zujana, Rancolos, Isti-bar…”

Mentor Tolto came over to the clan then, and Kai-lula fell silent. “Very well, you can gather your practice blades and start warming up,” he told Clan Sandrek. “Aronoke, you can use this one.” He passed a practice blade to Aronoke, who weighted it in one hand, unsure of how to hold it.

“Vark, you pair off with Aronoke and show him the ropes,” said Mentor Tolto, obviously noticing how awkwardly Aronoke held the blade.

Vark was a green duros, dark-skinned for one of his race. He did not look unfriendly. “Yes, Mentor,” he said. He led Aronoke over to a space a little distance from the others, who were already going through a series of rapid warm-up exercises.

“Have you used a practice blade before?” asked Vark.

“No,” said Aronoke.

Vark sighed. “Maybe it’s your Force powers that are advanced then,” he said tolerantly. “Maybe they expect you to compensate with them. Perhaps you are some kind of Force prodigy.”

Aronoke shook his head. “I don’t think so.” He didn’t know what that word meant – prodigy - but he was fairly sure he was not one.

“Well, there must be some reason,” said Vark. “Unless it is a mistake. We might as well get started. This is position one...”

Vark went through the basic positions one at a time and Aronoke did his best to copy him. The practice blade was heavy and swung differently from the practice sticks he was used to. Vark was quick and efficient at running through the moves.

“Alright then, let’s go at it,” said Vark, dropping easily into the starting position, which Aronoke fumbled to imitate. He wanted to duel already? Aronoke would have preferred to go through the forms a few more times first.

Aronoke had never been a good fighter. His skill at knife-fighting was tolerable, stemming back to his time in the Grinder, where he had lost more often than he won. Once he had moved to Bunkertown he lost all his fights, except the one against the mouthy Duros kid, because everyone was so much bigger and more experienced than him. Scuffling and duels were common there, and although Aronoke was ultimately the loser in matches, he had earned a certain respect from the other Fumers through his sheer tenacity.

“He’s a gutsy little bleeder,” Mill had once remarked of Aronoke, watching a new recruit grinding Aronoke’s face into the floor, while Aronoke tried to hold off admitting defeat as long as possible.

Aronoke had felt pleased, despite his numerous bruises and swollen lip. From Mill, this was high praise.

He had learned to avoid fights whenever possible without appearing to avoid them. Showing fear would have been social death in Bunkertown, and could have led to actual death as well.

“Just try keep to the forms as much as you can,” Vark said now, and Aronoke nodded. Whatever happened, it couldn’t be as bad as Bunkertown. Losing was nothing to him.

The practice blade was clumsy and slow in Aronoke’s hands. He struggled to bring it into the correct positions, but he could barely remember them, let alone which of them to use when. They had exchanged no more than a few blows before Vark’s blade came down on Aronoke’s knuckles, making him drop his weapon. Aronoke automatically dropped into a scuffling position, ignoring the pain in his hands, as he would have if disarmed in a knife-fight, but Vark gestured impatiently that he should pick up the blade and try again.

The next time went better. Aronoke started to get the feel of it. It was slow and heavy work compared to knife-fighting, but the sense of dropping back into a guard position and watching your opponent’s feet to anticipate his next move was not so different.

“That was better,” said Vark approvingly, although he was doubtlessly finding Aronoke’s lack of skill frustrating. Aronoke was well aware that Vark had been holding back considerably. “Not bad, for a beginner. Now why don’t you try sparring someone else? Zujana?”

He gestured to one of the girls, a lithe, humanoid alien with strange eyes and a cat-like face. Aronoke had seen a few of them around the Jedi temple. A cathar, he remembered after a minute.

The fight with Zujana was completely unlike the fight with Vark, because Zujana, rather like Aronoke himself, was not inclined to hold back. Aronoke tried his best but was obviously outclassed. He managed a few clumsy deflects, was forced onto the back foot, missed a parry and then Zujana’s practice blade cracked blindingly hard against the side of his head.

No, she hadn’t held back at all. Aronoke must have lost a moment of time, because he found himself suddenly lying on the grass. Everything was strangely yellow and his ears were ringing, but he told himself it was nothing, he must not give up, and climbed doggedly back to his feet.

“Are you okay, Aronoke?” asked Mentor Tolto, coming over the practice arena towards him. He looked surprised that Aronoke had gotten up so quickly, Aronoke thought.

“Yes, I’m fine,” said Aronoke, even though the world was still unsteady around him. Had to concentrate not to sway. Felt nauseous.

Somewhere, someone laughed.

Master Tolto looked at him uncertainly.

“I’m not so sure,” he said. “Go and sit over there for a while. You can join in again later.”

Aronoke went and sat on the ground as directed, feeling relieved in spite of his determination. He felt like lying down and shutting his eyes to see if the world would stop spinning, but he made himself sit calmly and watch the others. He fought down the queasiness in his stomach by taking deep, slow breaths and going through some of his meditation exercises. He was determined that Clan Sandrek would not see his weakness.

It was nearly the end of the lesson, before Aronoke was summoned to try sparring against Zujana again. His head still ached from the staff blow, but the world was swinging less violently. The familiar fear of being hurt again bit into him as he moved to stand opposite Zujana, but he forced it aside.

This time I’m not going to let that happen, thought Aronoke with fierce determination. I’ve got to be faster. Smarter.

A little whack to the head was nothing. Let it be a reminder that he should make sure to get out of the way.

The fight started and after a very few moments any thought of keeping to the recommended forms fled from Aronoke’s mind. It was a wild, crazy battle with lots of moving and ducking, and even jumping in the air. Aronoke had to concentrate very hard to stay ahead of Zujana, but he was still aware that the other students had stopped sparring to watch them. That Mentor Tolto was watching too. Aronoke kept expecting Mentor Tolto to stop the fight, to step in and offer criticism or instruction, but he did not.

In the end Aronoke simply ran out of energy, couldn’t move fast enough any more. A clever twist from Zujana’s blade and there was his blade flying through the air to land on the grass.

Zujana snorted contemptuously.

“Hm, well,” said Mentor Tolto, sounding unimpressed. “I have instructed you before, Zujana, that you must follow the standard forms. Only when they are completely ingrained in your muscles, when you no longer have to think about them, are you free to improvise. That time has not yet come.”

He didn’t say anything to Aronoke. Aronoke was disappointed that he didn’t offer any suggestions for improvement. Obviously Aronoke’s performance was so inept as to not even warrant criticism.

It doesn’t matter, thought Aronoke stubbornly. I did better that time, and I will continue to do better. I just have to try harder. It will only get easier as I get bigger.

Suddenly the few uncertain years that lay between him and physical maturity seemed like a long time.

“We are done for today,” Mentor Tolto continued. “Aronoke, it seems that you are intended to join us again, so you should come and pick out a practice blade for yourself. The rest of you are dismissed.”

Aronoke followed Mentor Tolto over to the equipment locker with mixed feelings. No mistake? hadn’t he proven he couldn’t keep up with the older trainees? How had Mentor Tolto found out that his placement was intentional? He didn’t say anything, thought to himself a little grimly that Draken and Ashquash would be beaten to a paste if they came here.

But he wouldn’t give up. A rap on the head with a practice blade was nothing compared to a knife fight with real knives. Nothing compared to a bone-sucking worm’s spit. Dealing with Clan Sandrek’s sullen attitude was nothing compared to having to threaten angry miners with a blaster pistol, to convince them to hand their skim over. He could take it.

Mentor Tolto helped Aronoke pick out a suitably weighted blade. It was considerably lighter than the one he had been using that day.

“This weapon is your responsibility and you should bring it with you to class,” said Mentor Tolto, as he wrote Aronoke’s name in the appropriate assignment list. He seemed uncertain of Aronoke’s competence in even this minor matter, but Aronoke didn’t pay him any heed. It was something, Aronoke thought, to be assigned his own weapon, even if it was only a practice blade.

“You will also need to read the appropriate text,” said Mentor Tolto. “Do you have your datapad? Ah, good. I will put it on here, and you should study it carefully in your spare time.”

“Okay,” said Aronoke.

He supposed it was a good thing that he had been promoted in this way, that he would only learn quicker if his challenges were greater. Nevertheless, he felt very tired as he walked back to Clan Herf’s rooms. It felt like returning home after a raid, he thought to himself, surprised to feel so relieved to be going back there. He was unprepared for the enthusiastic greeting of his clan mates on his arrival.

“Aronoke! How was it? Did you do well?”

“He looks like he got hit in the face!”

“Are you going to teach us some moves now?”

Aronoke would have rather laid down for a rest, his head was pounding so fiercely.

“I don’t know about now,” he said. “That was hard. I’m really tired.”

“Awww, but Emeraldine will be there too!”

Their enthusiasm was difficult to deny. Aronoke found he did not like to disappoint them or Emeraldine.

“Well, okay,” said Aronoke. “I’ll try, but I don’t know how good I will be.”

Out in the practice field he was not very good, but that was okay. He showed the straggle of younglings several of the basic positions and after that they soon got bored and started playing amongst themselves.

Emeraldine was pleasantly sympathetic about the lump on the side of his head.

“I’m surprised that they would hit you as hard as that,” she said, frowning, as they sat on a section of padded mat watching Draken and Ashquash staging a mock battle against the younglings. “They should be taking more care, because you’re so much smaller and have had less training than they have.”

“It doesn’t matter,” said Aronoke. He was determined that he could take it, like he had taken everything else that life had thrown at him so far. To give up would be failing –failing to become a Jedi, failing Master Altus. If they threw him out, would they send him back to Kasthir?

“It does really,” said Emeraldine mildly. “You wouldn’t hit Lubris or Yeldra as hard as you could, would you? They’re as much smaller than you as you are compared to Clan Sandrek. They should be taking care of you and teaching you, not beating you up.”

Aronoke hadn’t thought about it like that. Couldn’t help feeling that Emeraldine was probably right.

“It’s not the same. I’m more used to it than the younglings are,” he said stubbornly, looking across at them thoughtfully. But he wouldn’t hit at them as hard as he would Draken or Emeraldine, he thought, a little surprised. He hadn’t been like that on Kasthir – wouldn’t have thought twice about it. When had he changed?

“Well, it’s your head,” said Emeraldine, “but I don’t think much of these Clan Sandrek people for treating you so harshly.”

Harshly. A stick-blow to the head was not so harsh, Aronoke thought to himself. He often wondered what Hespenara had originally told Emeraldine about him when she had first asked her to look out for Aronoke.

“So did you ask about me and Ashquash?” Draken asked when they had finished. Emeraldine had left for her own clan quarters, and Aronoke, Draken and Ashquash were walking back, the younglings having streamed off ahead of them.

“No,” said Aronoke flatly, feeling Ashquash’s eyes on him. “I didn’t.”

“Aw, that’s not fair,” said Draken. “Why should you get to go and train in new things, when we don’t?”

Aronoke sighed. “You don’t understand. Those Clan Sandrek people were really big, almost ready to go off and be Padawans. They were much better than me. I couldn’t keep up. I got hurt.”

“So you think it was some sort of mistake?” said Draken.

“I don’t know,” said Aronoke. “Their mentor said it wasn’t, that I should keep coming back, but I’m not so sure.” Seeing Draken’s face still stony with disappointment he tried to explain a bit better. “You read about the chiss, right?”

Draken nodded.

“Well, Master Insa-tolsa told me this. Chiss don’t grow up like humans do. They grow up faster. I’m eleven years old, only a year older than you, but because I’m a chiss, I’m really like I’m a few years older. After about three more years, I’m going to be finished growing. All grown up. As grown up as those people in Clan Sandrek will be.”

“That’s slimed,” said Draken, looking depressed.

“Yes, it is. I don’t like the idea much myself,” said Aronoke awkwardly. “I didn’t know about it until Master Insa-tolsa told me.”

Ashquash didn’t seem pleased either, Aronoke noticed. She was listening and not saying anything, like she often did. Scowling crossly at them both.

“But I think that could be a reason why they put me in a group like that,” he continued. “Because in three years I’m expected to be as grown up as they are.”

“I suppose that makes sense,” said Draken grudgingly.

“I didn’t want to ask about you and Ashquash,” Aronoke explained, “because they weren’t very friendly. Looked at me like I was some kind of freak, like they weren’t happy I was there. It wasn’t fun. I don’t think you’d like it.”

Didn’t really like it himself, thought Aronoke, but he was too stubborn to say so.

The text on his datapad was called “Tier I – the Way of the Lightsaber” and proved to be interesting but very hard to understand, by Aronoke’s standards. There were lots of words in it that he didn’t know, so next time he went for his lesson with Master Zolo he took the document to show to the Twi’lek master.

“I’m supposed to read this,” he said. “But it’s hard and got lots of words in it I don’t know. I thought maybe we could do some lessons with these words in them?”

Master Zolo looked pleased that Aronoke was taking an interest. Looked at the document on the datapad.

“So they’re got you on lightsaber training already, eh?” he said to Aronoke.

“Yes,” said Aronoke.

“I would have thought it would be a bit early for that,” said Master Zolo mildly, skipping through the text. “Yes, I don’t see why we can’t use this as study material.”

Aronoke was pleased. It was a way to combine lessons that made good sense.

The lessons continued. Aronoke was not sent to train with Clan Sandrek every exercise session. Was grateful that was so. He found it hard to keep up with them, but refused to do anything but try his hardest. He took up running in the early mornings before his shower, trying to improve his endurance, but he knew not much would change until he grew more. He never complained about being hurt or knocked down, which happened often. The bruises didn’t bother him as much as the jibes. The little signs of discontent. Aronoke soon noticed that some of the Clan Sandrek people worked together to make him look stupid, maybe to get him kicked out of the group.

Vark was ostensibly friendly, patient and diligent, acting as a mentor to Aronoke. Took him aside to show him the moves again and again.

“You should try to use your Force powers to help you fight,” Vark said one day when they were alone, training in that way.

“What do you mean?” asked Aronoke, confused. He hadn’t learned how to use the Force in fighting – Clan Herf hadn’t started that kind of lesson yet.

“All the most powerful Jedi use the Force in battle,” Vark elaborated. “That’s how they do so many things that seem impossible and are more formidable than any non-Force-using oppponent. How they react so quickly, move so agilely, and strike so forcefully. They could never do those things without the Force. You don’t do that at all, which is why you are still so slow and weak.”

“I suppose so,” said Aronoke uncertainly, “but I don’t know how to do that yet.”

“It’s not difficult,” said Vark. “You must feel the power within you and let it flow freely. You have to want to win. Use your need to get the better of your opponent to help fuel your blows. I think it would help you a lot.”

Aronoke felt hesitant. He was always on his guard now with Clan Sandrek, and he didn’t trust Vark, even though the duros had always been nice to him. He thought carefully through what Vark had suggested.

It made a certain amount of sense – Jedi obviously used the Force in combat. Fighting Master Altus and Hespenara in the canyon had given him personal evidence of that. But Master Insa-tolsa had told Aronoke that opening himself to the Force without proper control was dangerous. Also Aronoke had read in the lightsaber training manual and knew from the basic Force lessons Clan Herf was doing, that what Vark said was wrong. You were never supposed to use your emotions to fuel your power. It was the easy way. The Dark side.

But why would Vark encourage him to do that? Surely Vark knew it was wrong even better than Aronoke did.

Oh, now he got it – this was another of Clan Sandrek’s little tests. Aronoke was supposed to try this thing and then get in trouble for doing it. He scowled and did not say anything to Vark, but he thought less of Vark for trying to manipulate him. He steeled himself to endure and resist their taunts, and kept doing his training the same way he had before.

“I won’t be able to come and spar with you anymore,” said Emeraldine reluctantly one afternoon, after the conclusion of their weekly sparring session. “I have to prepare for my tests to become a Padawan, and after that, if I pass, hopefully I will be chosen by a Master for further training.”

“Aw, Emeraldine, we’ll miss you,” said Draken, and several of the little kids added their voices to his.

“Good luck on your tests, Emeraldine,” said Aronoke.

“Yeah, I’m sure you’ll do well,” said Draken.

“I’ll try my best,” said Emeraldine, but she did seem nervous, Aronoke thought.

“Good luck, Emeraldine,” added Ashquash awkwardly, and then scowled as if to make up for it.

Really Ashquash was close to becoming one of the group, Aronoke thought. He felt a glowing pleasure in her achievement and then wondered why. He hadn’t felt that way about someone else’s success since Bunkertown, when Ebraz had managed to steal some ration bars from the larder right under Geb’s non-existant nose.

Friends. It was because they were friends. How strangely different Aronoke’s life had become, that he could be friends with someone like Ashquash.

Maybe I really am starting to belong here, Aronoke thought to himself.

Despite Emeraldine’s absence, Draken, Ashquash and Aronoke continued the extra sparring sessions. It was something active to do and a good use of spare time. The sparring was not as serious as physical training classes and it was good practice for them to test their skills against each other. Aronoke was learning many new things from his sessions with Clan Sandrek, despite his difficulties, although he still felt very much the underdog there. He shared his new skills with his friends so they all benefitted.

As the weeks passed, Aronoke’s endurance and muscle tone continued to improve, while his appetite increased accordingly. Gone were the days when he couldn’t finish the food on his plate. He often found himself going back for seconds.

It was after one of his early morning running sessions that Aronoke noticed the droid in the showers. It was in there when he went to get cleaned up. Made Aronoke feel suspicious and uncomfortable. It seemed to be doing some sort of maintenance to the walls.

“What are you doing here?” Aronoke asked the droid.

“I am servicing the hypercapacitors,” said the droid, and went on to give further details. Aronoke wasn’t up on technological speech. Hadn’t thought showers needed hypercapacitors. He frowned and decided to skip his shower, to come back the next day. Razzak Mintula wouldn’t notice, just this once.

But the next day he had not been in the shower very long when the same droid came in again. Aronoke could see it over the top of his cubicle, floating up by the ceiling, doing something else, high up in the walls.

It was stupid to feel paranoid about a maintenance droid in the showers, Aronoke told himself. They had to do maintenance in there sometimes. But he couldn’t see why it should be doing things up near the ceiling while he was trying to wash. He turned around, keeping his back against the wall, and finished very quickly, keeping his back turned away from the droid as much as was physically possible.

“How long are you going to be doing maintenance here in the mornings?” asked Aronoke irritably when he was fully dressed.

“This should be the last time today,” said the droid. “I should not have to come back, unless of course, I receive further orders to do so.”

Nevertheless, Aronoke was suspicious. He had Draken come and look at the walls. There were tiny holes drilled in all of them.

“Can you tell if there are cameras or something in there?” asked Aronoke.

“I don’t know,” said Draken. “It’s impossible to tell, not without taking the whole wall out.” They both peered at the wall intently. Ashquash came in and stared at them.

“What are you doing?” she asked, and stared at the wall too.

Aronoke knew that Ashquash was paranoid enough about the Jedi temple already. Didn’t want to unsettle her.

“Oh, nothing,” he said awkwardly.

“We’re just looking at the wall together,” said Draken brightly. “It’s a meditative group bonding exercise.”

Aronoke had no idea what he meant, but Ashquash recoiled slightly.

“I’ll come back later,” she said nervously and fled.

Once Ashquash was gone, Aronoke and Draken blocked all the holes with cleaning products, but after that Aronoke felt even less comfortable in the shower. He tried to keep his back to the wall all the time he was in there, in case there were cameras that could see him.

The history and lore lessons in the morning slowly grew more challenging. Generally Aronoke thought he understood them, although the people in the stories still mystified him with some of the choices they made. The younglings didn’t seem to have problems accepting these moral tales, but when it came to things like why the Jedi spared a diabolical Sith’s life after an immense struggle which the Jedi only won at great expense, Aronoke felt mystified. Why would you spare a hated enemy, who had hurt you and your friends, and would only go on to do more evil?

The stories thought stealing things was wrong too, whereas in Aronoke’s experience stealing was second-nature. He had often stolen things himself. Knew how to pick pockets and run a good distraction. Might have starved to death if he had never stolen anything. Leaving things unguarded and then complaining when they were stolen seemed inexplicable to Aronoke. What else would you expect?

Despite the odd ideas the stories taught, Aronoke could read and write almost all the words in Clan Herf’s lessons now, although he was still not quick at it. Meditation exercises came easily to him, and he practiced them diligently, both to keep peculiar attractions stimulated by womens’ hair, and his scary sense of the Jedi temple at bay. The basic Force exercises Clan Herf practiced were interesting, even though they had not learnt to lift pebbles yet.

If it were not for the lessons with Clan Sandrek, Aronoke would have felt completely satisfied with his progress. Rather than growing more tolerant towards him, the older initiates seemed more contemptuous of his presence than they had at the beginning, well aware by now, Aronoke thought gloomily, that he was no prodigy. It was hard not to get angry over some of the things that they did to show their displeasure.

Perhaps most notable was a day when Clan Sandrek and Aronoke had been told to rigidly practice the basic forms of lightsaber combat in a set pattern, one blow after another. Vark was almost always Aronoke’s partner. Even when he was not, he was usually somewhere nearby, keeping an eye on Aronoke’s progress. Today he had gone over to ask Mentor Tolto something while Rancolos, the sandy-haired boy, was facing off against Aronoke, one-two, three-four, five, and back to the beginning, one blow after another in a predictable pattern.

Mentor Tolto had turned away, deep in conversation with Vark, when Rancolos slipped in an extra blow, a low cunning sweep that cracked painfully into Aronoke’s shins.

“Hey!” said Aronoke indignantly, and Master Tolto glanced over momentarily, but then Vark said something else and he turned away almost at once.

“You’re too slow,” said Rancolos calmly. “Keep up, can’t you?”

Aronoke’s eyes narrowed. He tried to calm his rising anger and concentrated on the exercise.

One clean pass and then on to a second. Then a third. Aronoke began to relax again. One-two, three, and then Rancolos struck another quick blow, this time glancing off Aronoke’s hip. Aronoke glanced grimly across at Mentor Tolto, saw that he was still distracted by whatever Vark was asking him.

Rancolos saw the glance and smirked more broadly.

Aronoke lost it then, like he seldom did. Losing your temper on Kasthir when you were the smallest and weakest was akin to suicide. He swung his practice blade to strike directly at Rancolos, but the older boy parried him easily. Aronoke tried to strike again and again, but Rancolos easily evaded him, smirking all the time. Rapped Aronoke’s knuckles hard so he dropped his practice blade. Well, these sticks were stupid weapons anyway. Aronoke was much better at scuffling. Angrily, Aronoke leapt at Rancolos with his bare fists.

Then Mentor Tolto was suddenly there. Aronoke wondered later if he had noticed the fight on his own, or if someone else had alerted him.

“Aronoke, what are you doing?” asked Mentor Tolto coldly. “If you want to be in the class you can not behave like a youngling.”

A youngling? Aronoke was furious but stopped still and said nothing. He stared at the ground, barely restraining himself.

“We will pair off for duelling now,” Mentor Tolto addressed the class, ignoring Aronoke’s sullen scowl.

Aronoke went to pair off with Vark as usual, but Vark was not there. He was sitting down doing something with his shoe. Instead there was Zujana, staring at him in her intent cat-like way.

Zujana was dangerously unpredictable. And Vark’s absence, first talking to Mentor Tolto and now fiddling with his shoe, was too much of a coincidence. It was another one of their plots, Aronoke suddenly realised. He found his temper cooling abruptly to be replaced by an icy calm. He could not afford to be angry in a fight with Zujana. She would not hold back. He had to think or he could be badly hurt. The old lessons from the knife fights back in Tarbsosk and the more serious battles in Bunkertown came abruptly back to him. Being angry was no good. Being angry stopped you thinking. Got you killed. Aronoke was abruptly sober and calm.

It was a good fight. Like the time he had fought Zujana wildly on that first day, everyone stopped to watch. It was different than that fight - it kept to the standard forms, although only barely. Somehow Aronoke was at the centre of his being, able to respond and strike, parry and dodge in a calculated way. They were very evenly matched now, he realised, although Zujana was still older, still bigger, still had more endurance. The match seemed to go on forever and Aronoke grew more and more tired, the muscles burning in his arms, the sweat stinging his eyes.

As he slowed, he failed to parry a blow by a laser’s breadth, and was disarmed.

Unlike last time, Zujana looked tired too.

“Good fight,” she said, respect creeping into her strange voice.

“Thanks,” said Aronoke awkwardly.

It was some sort of victory, he thought, even though he had still lost.

Shortly after the day he lost his temper, another document about physical training appeared on Aronoke’s datapad. It was called “Alien Martial Arts of the Outer Rim,” and, like the article on lightsaber training, it contained a large number of words that Aronoke could not understand. There were pictures in it too, which mainly seemed to depict underclad aliens in various fighting positions. Aronoke did not like to look at the pictures too closely. They made him feel uncomfortable. The aliens had dangly parts in all the wrong places.

Alien Martial Arts? Did Jedi learn about that sort of thing? Maybe it was to help them learn to fight against alien enemies. Aronoke decided it must be a lesson he was expected to read, and took it to Master Zolo for he next reading lesson.

“I am supposed to read this as well,” he said to Master Zolo, showing him the document.

Master Zolo looked at it and frowned. “Who told you to read this?” he asked sharply.

Aronoke caught his tone at once, realised that there must something wrong with it.

Someone had been playing him for a fool. Maybe someone like Rancolos. Suddenly the document seemed like a scathing jibe regarding his temper outburst the other day, when he had gone for Rancolos with his fists. Aronoke felt the heat rising in his cheeks and schooled himself to calmness. If someone had played a stupid joke on him, it was their fault, not his.

“No one actually told me to,” admitted Aronoke. “It appeared on my datapad, so I thought I was supposed to read it. I haven’t read it yet. It looked too hard.”

“Oh,” said Master Zolo. “Well I don’t think you should. Some of the things in it look entirely inappropriate.”

“Then I will delete it,” said Aronoke. “It is probably someone’s stupid idea of a joke.”

“That is a good idea,” said Master Zolo, so Aronoke deleted it immediately.

One afternoon Clan Herf had just come back from physical training, and there was Emeraldine, waiting for them in their clan common room.

“Emeraldine!” cried Bithron, who saw her first, and then all the younglings ran up to cluster around her. “Emeraldine’s back! Oh, she’s got a lightsaber!”

“Emaraldine!” said Draken. “You passed your tests?”

Emeraldine was nodding and smiling, the centre of a deluge of questions from the younglings.

“Congratulations!” said Aronoke.

“Give Emeraldine some space,” said Razzak Mintula sternly to the younglings. “Remember your manners. Jedi do not behave like a flock of young skelp. Remember you must be able to remain calm at all times. Look at Ashquash, she is not leaping about like a pop-louse.”

“Yes, Instructor Mintula.”

“Sorry Emeraldine,” said Yeldra, “But can we see your lightsaber, please?”

Emeraldine looked across at Razzak Mintula. “May I show them, Instructor?” she asked.

“Yes, I don’t see why not,” said Razzak Mintula. “Clan Herf, come and stand and give Emeraldine some space. A lightsaber is a dangerous weapon, much more so than a practice blade. It should never be wielded without due care or purpose.”

“We know that, Instuctor,” said Lubris, sighing over-dramatically. Razzak Mintula gave him a warning look, and he quickly subsided.

Emeraldine unclipped the lightsaber from her belt and activated it. The blade was a strong bright yellow. She effortlessly moved through the first three forms before deactivating it again. The buzzing sound the blade made brought Aronoke back to that first shocking moment when he had seen a lightsaber. How different things had been then.

“Congratulations on passing your initiate trials and receiving your lightsaber, Emeraldine,” said Razzak Mintula.

“Congratulations,” echoed Ashquash awkwardly.

“Thank you,” said Emeraldine, smiling broadly. “I wanted to come and see you all while I have some time. I have finished all my tests, and now all I have to do is wait to see if I am chosen by a Master.”

“I’m sure you will be,” said Aronoke confidently. “Who wouldn’t want a padawan like you?”

“I know I shouldn’t worry about it,” said Emeraldine, “and I expect that you are right, that I will be chosen, but it’s hard to feel properly settled without knowing what’s going to happen.”

“You’ll be off having adventures across the galaxy any day now,” said Draken jealously. “Nothing could be more certain.”

Emeraldine laughed kindly. “And so will you one day,” she said. “Don’t wish all your life and training away too quickly. You know the years you spend in the Jedi temple are likely the most peaceful and pleasant that you’ll ever have.”

“Peaceful?” cried Draken. “With all these lessons and rules?”

Everyone laughed.

“I had best get back to my own clan,” said Emeraldine. “I just wanted you to know that I had passed the trials. I don’t know if I will be able to come back and see you again, but I will send a message to let you know if I get chosen.”

“When you get chosen,” said Aronoke.

“When, then,” said Emeraldine, smiling. “Goodbye!”

“Good luck, Emeraldine!” said Draken. “We’ll miss you.

Word came perhaps a week later that Emeraldine had been selected as a padawan by Master Ormenel, and was leaving the Jedi temple. She had no idea when she would be back, if at all. Aronoke was pleased that she had been selected so quickly. Sent back a message of congratulations and farewell. He had not liked to think of cheerful, good-natured Emeraldine waiting a long time to be chosen, worrying more and more that she would be passed over despite all her hard work.

Would anyone want him, a weird abandoned chiss from Kasthir, when the time came? Aronoke pushed the faint fear aside almost immediately. There was no point worrying about things that lay so far in the future.

Then, one afternoon, Aronoke was summoned by Yeldra to answer a message on the message viewer. When he went to look, Hespenara herself was on the screen. She looked a little older, a little more confident and relaxed, he thought. More comfortable in her own skin.

“Aronoke!” said Hespenara. “It’s good to see you again! You’re looking quite different. I see you’ve had your hair cut.”

All of Clan Herf had their hair cut, except Ashquash, who had no hair, and Kergridosk, who was a rodian. It had been an interesting experience and nothing like Draken’s unappetizing stories about second-rate barber droids in the lower levels. They were allowed to choose their hair-cuts from a number of standard Jedi selections. Aronoke had chosen one of the longer styles, and the droid had cut his hair off in a straight line at the height of his jaw. He liked his new hair, liked how it looked so crisp and straight in the mirror and less like he had suffered an unfortunate accident in a vibroblade factory. He felt it made him look older, better suited how he felt about himself since he had been growing so fast.

“Yes,” said Aronoke. “It’s good to see you too, Hespenara.”

“We had a good trip,” said Hespenara. “Master Altus is eager to see you again too, so if you’re free I thought I could come and pick you up and bring you over for dinner tonight.”

Master Altus! Aronoke had experienced a hopeful flush of warmth and well-being upon seeing Hespenara on the viewscreen, just because he had guessed that Master Altus must be back too. The feeling was linked very strongly in his mind to the moment when Master Altus had held him at lightsaber-point back on Kasthir. The smell of sweat and fumes, the heat, the buzzing of the lightsaber – at the thought of seeing Master Altus, they all came back to him instantly, filling an integral place in his world. Although it was not at all a physical attraction, it was still not a Jedi-appropriate impulse, he realised guiltily. He pushed his misgivings aside, refusing to question his feelings more deeply. It was too private.

“Okay,” Aronoke said aloud. “I will have to ask Instructor Mintula to make sure it is alright first.”

“That’s fine,” said Hespenara, smiling. “Generally in my experience, if an Intiate is asked to do anything by a Jedi Master they will always be allowed to do it, unless of course they were currently being punished for a very serious misdemeanour indeed.”

“Well, it should be alright since I escaped from my cell already,” Aronoke joked, keeping his face absolutely straight.

Hespenara looked at him uncertainly for a moment and then laughed. “You’re going to make a very interesting Jedi, Aronoke,” she said. “I will see you tonight.”

When she arrived on her little bubble speeder late that afternoon, Aronoke looked at her and thought for a moment that she had changed. She was more assured, as he had noted on the holoscreen. Whereas before she had looked to him like a green girl, secondary to Master Altus and to an extent discountable, now she looked like a proper padawan. She had grown into the role during the expedition. Also, he realised a moment later, he had changed. He knew better what being a padawan meant, could respect her more in her own right.

She also looked like a woman, attractively fit and well muscled. With some dismay he felt his body respond to that thought.

“Aronoke! You’ve grown so much!” said Hespenara, standing at arm’s length to look at him, too close for comfort. “You’re filling out,” she added, her eyes travelling over the length of him. “And you’re cleaner.”

Aronoke smiled.

“Did your expedition go well?” he asked.

“Oh, it was a lot like hard work sometimes, more for Master Altus than for me,” she said. “I’m a bit tired now, but nothing I won’t get over soon. It was nice to be on a forested planet again, after being here and on your Kasthir. Things did not go as smoothly as we would have liked, but we got them sorted out and we are back now. How is your training going?”

As she spoke, Aronoke had taken several slow steps backwards, running through a couple of meditative tricks to maintain his composure. Hespenara smiled a little more wickedly, perhaps realising the effect she was having on him, but said nothing. Did not seem to take offense.

“It’s going well,” said Aronoke. “It’s all quite easy.”

“I expect it would be after everything you went through on Kasthir,” said Hespenara sympathetically. “Here, I have a gift for you – you might as well have it now, so you don’t have to carry it about with you.”

A gift. Aronoke couldn’t remember ever being given a gift, unless you counted the blaster Fronzak gave him when he first became a skimmer. Certainly he had never been given anything like this. A pretty thing. It was an intricate wooden box, carved from a dark dense timber. The pieces slid and moved about in a complex way.

“It’s a puzzle box,” said Hespenara. “From the planet we were visiting.”

“How does it open?” asked Aronoke, pleased. He had nothing in his room that did not come from the Jedi temple.

“Well, that’s the point,” said Hespenara.

“Ah, that’s the puzzle,” said Aronoke. “Thank you, it is very pleasing.”

He put the puzzle box in his room, on the shelf next to his bed, and came back out to join Hespenara.

“Shall we go?” said Hespenara.

“Yes,” said Aronoke and climbed on the back of the speeder. It was uncomfortable to sit perched on the back very close to Hespenara, while trying hard not think of her being a girl. Much less comfortable than it had been last time, not so many months before. I really am growing older quickly, Aronoke thought, sitting as far back on the speeder as possible and thinking meditative thoughts while also concentrating on not falling off. It was not easy.

He was grateful it was easier to not think of Ashquash as a girl, because that would make it difficult to share a room with her. He knew this suited Ashquash too, that she had been eager to maintain the illusion that she was a boy. Remembered how angry she had been when Draken had found out the truth and told everyone.

“Why do you mind if people know that you are a girl?” Aronoke had asked later while they were out sparring.

Ashquash shrugged. “Being a slave and being a girl is difficult. People treat you differently and want to do horrible things to you.”

“Yes, that’s rough,” said Aronoke sympathetically, “but I don’t think it’s as different as you think. People can do horrible things to you no matter what sort of person you are.”

“My species is such that I can pass for a human boy in most places,” said Ashquash, “so there is no reason to be thought of as a girl if people think I am a boy. It’s safer like that.”

“Well, I promise not to think of you as a girl, or to treat you differently,” said Aronoke, and he bopped her over the head with his sparring stick to prove it.

Master Altus looked very tired, Aronoke thought, when they arrived at his rooms. Looked like he could use a long rest. It must have been a terribly troublesome planet if it could weary someone like Master Altus. Why, he had come off Kasthir looking fresh and unruffled. Still, Aronoke supposed, more populated planets must have more numerous unpleasant people to fight, even if they had fewer nasty creatures and more hospitable environments.

“Ah, Aronoke,” said Master Altus. “You are looking well! You have put on a substantial amount of weight and height since last time, much more like you should be.”

“Yes Master,” said Aronoke, smiling back at him. “It’s good to see you again.”

“Let us talk of inconsequential things and eat first. We will get down to more serious business later.”

“As you wish, Master,” said Aronoke, wondering what sort of business Master Altus had in mind, thinking that the green man looked too worn to be bothering with Aronoke just now. He found himself oddly torn between concern and being glad to see Master Altus – surely Aronoke had no serious problems that could not wait until later. Still, Master Altus was capable of looking after himself, while Aronoke was only an intiate and should do as Master Altus willed.

Hespenara went to fetch the dinner things while Aronoke and Master Altus sat down.

“You are looking rather tired, Master,” said Aronoke a little apologetically, and the green man sighed wearily.

“Yes, it was a difficult trip in many ways. Not so much for Hespenara, which is why she is off fetching dinner while I sit here.”

“That’s her job, Master,” Aronoke noted.

“Yes, that’s true,” said Master Altus. “Although I try to avoid burdening my padawan with too many menial tasks that I could just as easily perform myself or request from a droid. Some Masters consider that a long induction of carrying and cleaning should be the padawan’s lot in early years, ostensibly to train patience and obedience, but I feel it is just as much my duty to provide my padawan with appropriate training as it is for her to serve me.”

Aronoke hoped that when he became a padawan that his master would be someone like Master Altus. Of course, it would be best of all would be if Master Altus was his Master, but there were a lot of reasons why that might not be so. A Master only had one padawan at a time. Hespenara might not be finished before Aronoke was ready. And then, Master Altus might have reasons of his own for not wanting Aronoke as a padawan.

Like the undeniable bond Aronoke felt existed between them.

“It was a long journey back here and I am grateful it is over,” continued Master Altus. “Now that I am here, I hope to stay in residence for some time, which will allow me to oversee your studies a little more closely. I have plenty of work to keep me busy here for some time.”

Aronoke was pleased at the idea of Master Altus being at the Temple for a time, although he wondered why he took such an interest in Aronoke’s education when it was not typical for a Master to do so.

“Ah, here is Hespenara with the food,” said Master Altus, when the green girl arrived back. “Let us eat.”

The portions were not as huge as the ones Aronoke had grown accustomed to being served in the refectory and the food was of a different kind than he would have chosen, simple but spicy. He had learned to eat more gracefully, he hoped, during his time on Coruscant. After he had been teased a few times about his poor table manners by Draken, he had been more receptive to Razzak Mantula’s instructions on how to use his eating implements properly. He was glad of those things now, eating with Master Altus, even though the meal was a simple one and the occasion informal.

After dinner they sat talking for a while, the three of them, and Aronoke was pleased that he no longer failed to recognise all the names in the mysterious conversations Hespenara and Master Altus had. Now he understood a name here and a concept there. The things they said were still a peculiar dance of words that were hard to follow, but he had made some progress. He could even make a relevant comment, or ask a relevant question occasionally.

After a while, Master Altus told Hespenara she could take the rest of the evening off.

“I expect Aronoke will be able to find his own way back to his quarters by now,” he told her, “So take some time to yourself, Padawan.”

“Yes, Master, thank you,” she said, and bidding Aronoke good night, disappeared out the door.

Master Altus sighed and stretched a little, leaned back in his chair, meshed his fingers and tapped his thumbs together.

“I have been looking at your training results Aronoke,” he said. “How have you been finding things? Are they going well?”

“Mostly well, Master,” said Aronoke.

“Why don’t you tell me about them?”

Aronoke was accustomed to this sort of question by now and knew that Master Altus was asking him to describe how his training was going, rather than asking for a reason why he did not.

“Everything is going relatively smoothly,” said Aronoke. “The lessons we have in the morning, the philosophy, history and meditation are very simple. It is a little harder for me to keep up because I am still learning to read, but that is going well too. I find it hard to understand the reasoning behind some of the moral stories. They don’t make much sense to me, because the way people behave is nothing like the way they would on Kasthir, but I expect I will learn to understand in time. The Force lessons are easy enough too. I am learning Huttese, but I don’t seem to have much of an ear for it. I expect it will get easier when my reading improves. I am doing some extra meditation lessons that Master Insa-tolsa told me I should learn, because I am supposed to be growing up quicker than if I was a human. Those are more difficult, but I am getting better at them. For Physical Training I spend several sessions a week training with one of the older clans, Clan Sandrek, which is quite hard.”

“Hard?” asked Master Altus. “In what way?”

“Well, firstly because I am a lot smaller than they are,” said Aronoke. “I can’t reach as far and I am not as strong so it is physically difficult. I get tired quicker than they do. I started doing extra running so I might be able to keep up better, and I think that has helped. Still, nothing will really change until I grow more. Quite often I get hurt because I am not as adept. I get beaten a lot, although I expect losing is just as good practice, and I am used to that from Kasthir, but there are other things…” He hesitated, uncertain whether he should tell Master Altus about the attitude of the Sandrek clan.

“Yes?”

“Well, the members of Sandrek clan don’t seem to like me being there,” said Aronoke apologetically. “They sometimes do things purposefully to make me angry. One will trip me up while someone else distracts the instructor. That sort of thing. It is hard not to get angry, even though I know I am not supposed to. They don’t like it that I am there because I am smaller and slower and haven’t been trained as much as they have.”

“That shouldn’t matter,” said Master Altus calmly. “They should be more patient.”

“That’s true, Master, and yet I can understand why they feel that way. They are not like that all the time. Most of them try to be patient.”

“They should try harder,” said Master Altus inflexibly. “They should be trying to be good examples to you, since they are nearly finished their training as Initiates.”

He sat back looking thoughtful for a long moment, and Aronoke wondered what was concerning him so deeply.

“I am not certain, Aronoke, why you have been seconded to Clan Sandrek at all. It is very unusual, and not at all the way things should be done. I can not find out who has sent the directive that you should be allocated there. It comes from the Jedi Council, that much is obvious, but exactly from where I am not certain. I would have preferred, you realise, if your training had not been so quickly advanced in this way.”

“Oh,” said Aronoke. “It just appeared on my schedule. I did not know it was unusual so I just did it.”

“Yes,” said Master Altus. “I understand that. You don’t know how things are done here, so it is difficult for you to tell if anything is out of the ordinary. Nevertheless, it would be wise if you report any suspicious things that happen to someone you trust. I don’t want you to feel insecure here within the Jedi temple, because you are safe, especially by the standards of a world like Kasthir, but I am convinced that someone is seeking to influence your training.”

“Influence my training?” queried Aronoke. “Why would they do that?”

“There could be many reasons,” said Master Altus. “By influencing your lessons and the things you encounter within them, someone could be hoping to reach a particular outcome, to steer your training in a particular direction.”

“But why would they do that to me?” asked Aronoke.

“Because you are different,” said Master Altus. “Because you are strong in the Force. Perhaps because of other unique traits that you possess – you are a chiss, you were raised in an unusual way and then there is that other aspect that you showed me.”

Because of the strange thing on my back, interpreted Aronoke, while part of him quailed at the thought of being considered different, even here in this place where so various a collection of sentient species resided with a common goal. All he wanted was to be able to blend in.

“Do you wish to continue training with Clan Sandrek, Aronoke?” said Master Altus. “I can possibly have you moved back to training with your own clan, or perhaps with another that is not quite as advanced with their training.”

Aronoke was quiet for a while. He wanted to be strong and prove himself to Clan Sandrek. He also wanted to be obedient to Master Altus, who didn’t want him doing such advanced training.

“I don’t like to give up at things, Master. I would like to keep trying.”

“By all accounts they will be sitting for their final tests soon, which will mean that you have to be reassigned anyway,” said Master Altus. “So I expect it is not so important, as long as you are happy with the situation. Are there any other unusual things in your training that you have noticed?”

“I’m not sure,” said Aronoke, but then immediately thought of something. “There was one odd thing – a document which appeared on my datapad. When I started training with the Sandrek people, Mentor Tolto gave me a document to read, about the way of the lightsaber, but it had lots of hard words in it. I couldn’t read it very well. So I took it to Master Zolo, my reading instructor, and he helped me with it. Made it part of my lessons, which was helpful. Then, a few weeks later, another document appeared on my datapad, so I thought it was something I was supposed to learn too. It was something about Alien Martial Arts from the Outer Rim. It also had hard words, so I took that to Master Zolo too, but he didn’t like it. He said it was not very appropriate. I thought someone was playing a stupid joke on me, so I deleted it.”

“Hm,” said Master Altus. “Master Zolo you say? Perhaps he would remember the exact title of the document. I shall get in contact with him.”

“Yes Master,” said Aronoke.

“You should come and see me again if anything else happens, Aronoke,” said Master Altus. “As I said, I expect to be around for a while this time. Or, of course, you can come and see me if you just wish to talk, as well.”

“Yes, Master. Thank you.”

“It is after all my responsibility that you are here,” said Master Altus. “Since I brought you.”

It would have been a much worse thing, Aronoke thought, if he had not. Master Altus need feel no guilt over that.

Aronoke was thoughtful while walking back to his clan nest through the passages. A conspiracy then. He did not like the idea that the Jedi Temple was not as safe a haven as originally presented, but it was still very much safer than Kasthir. Wherever there were people, they would have different aims, different goals. Would seek to manipulate others to achieve those things. That was just the way of the galaxy.


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