Master Altus’s revelation made Aronoke more wary of everything. It was all very well for Master Altus to say that the Jedi temple was safe compared to Kasthir. That meant nothing, because on Kasthir, nothing was ever safe, no matter how carefully it was defended. There was always someone stronger and nastier waiting for you to be off your guard. Beyond that there was the planet itself – the weather, the wildlife.
In the Jedi Temple it was different. The chances of being stabbed physically in the back were minimal, but despite logically knowing that he was safer than he had ever been, Aronoke never felt completely at ease, except when he was meditating. There was always that haunting feeling that he was being watched. Typically, everywhere he went, that was true. There was no one else like him, so people tended to look at him. He wished again that he was not different – wished he was a boring standard human like any of billions of others that no one paid especial attention to, instead of a Chiss, a species allied to the Sith Empire, the uneasy almost-enemies of the Republic. He wished too that he didn’t have a strange picture tattooed on his back that he had to keep hidden.
It was difficult for Aronoke to know what was unusual and what was normal. He found himself scrutinizing all his daily activities more closely. He knew he had not told Master Altus about every strange thing that had happened. He had wanted to think more carefully about things first - about what had happened with the droid in the shower. Was it just a stupid thing, or was it one of the unusual things that Master Altus had said he should look out for? Aronoke had a very strong desire to not appear stupid in front of Master Altus, even though he knew the mirialan master would never embarrass him over it even if he was.
He decided the only way was to investigate more closely first. To attempt to take care of things himself. He wasn’t a little kid – he had been a fully fledged skimmer. How hard could it be?
“Do you remember how that droid drilled those holes in our shower cubicle?” Aronoke asked Draken.
“Do we need to put more stuff in the holes?” Draken queried.
“No, they’re still blocked,” said Aronoke, “but I still think it’s strange that the holes were drilled at all. I wonder if they were drilled in all the bathrooms, or just ours?”
“I could sneak in and look,” said Draken at once, just as Aronoke had hoped he might.
“You’re much better at sneaking than me,” Aronoke admitted, and Draken looked pleased.
“Years of practice, son,” he said sagely, grinning and clapping Aronoke on the shoulder, and he went off at once.
Draken found it an easy enough matter to investigate all the nearby bathrooms. People went in and out of each other’s Clan rooms all the time. Before long he was back with his report.
The walls in Clan Zegrith’s showers were smoothly pristine. So were those in the showers belonging to Clan Drexl, Clan Miim and all the other surrounding clans. Draken had checked all those walls for small holes and found none.
“If the maintenance was only performed in our showers, and nothing was broken, then it must be something unusual,” he told Draken seriously. “I think I should report it.”
“If you want to,” said Draken, shrugging. “It’s probably the only way we’ll find out anything else about it.”
Aronoke did not want to bother Master Altus about every little thing – not when he had seemed so tired. Thought it best to go and see Razzak Mintula.
“Yes, Aronoke?” she asked, when he knocked on the open door of the room that served as her office.
“I was just wondering, Instructor Mintula. There was a droid in our showers, doing some maintenance. Weeks ago now. Was there supposed to be?”
“It’s quite normal for droids to go about doing maintenance, Aronoke,” said Razzak Mintula calmly but firmly.
“Yes, I know,” said Aronoke. “But this was strange. It was very early in the morning. It drilled lots of tiny holes in all the walls and said something about hypercapacitors. I don’t think showers even have hypercapacitors. And none of the other clans’ showers have had that done.”
“Well, it may just be a mistake. I remember when a whole lift was sealed off for years because of an error in a droid’s programming. Everyone walked across to use another lift bank, assuming it was intended.”
Well, it would be better if they had questioned it, wouldn’t it, thought Aronoke. Fuelled by this thought, he ploughed on doggedly.
“It still seems strange that it’s just our shower,” he said firmly. “I don’t like the idea of strange droids wandering around in there, Instructor. It’s unsettling. And what if Ashquash finds out?”
Razzak Mintula eyed him speculatively at the mention of Ashquash, and Aronoke stood there quietly, giving her time to envision that scenario. He could imagine it quite clearly himself.
“I will send a query to the maintenance department,” said Razzak Mintula. “I’m sure it is nothing serious, but there is no harm in asking. If it is a mistake then it will be fixed.”
“Yes, Instructor,” said Aronoke. He would feel a good deal more comfortable if it were fixed.
Aronoke’s discussion with Master Altus had also made him more suspicious of his lessons with Clan Sandrek. Whereas before he had considered the older students to be merely resentful of his presence, he had thought that they would have gotten used to him in time, once the novelty had worn off. In the Fumers, new recruits had always felt the need to put Aronoke into his place when they first encountered him. He had to fight most of them in ‘friendly’ matches at least once, and then, after they had inevitably beaten him, they mostly left him alone.
With Clan Sandrek he still felt like they disliked him, even though they had all beaten him in duels by now.
In the Fumers, he had been pushed around, beaten up, been the target of numerous jokes and nasty pranks, but he had still felt like one of them. He had always known that if anyone from any other compound tried to hurt him, the Fumers would be sure to kick in their teeth or other mouthparts.
With Clan Sandrek, he still felt completely like an outsider.
He had told himself numerous times that on Kasthir, Clan Sandrek would be considered green pushovers, that they weren’t as good as they thought they were, but it had taken Master Altus to point out that their greatest failure was that they weren’t behaving like Jedi. Aronoke had felt it was his place to struggle to catch up and fit in with the others, like he always had. To endure any punishment that process required. From what Master Altus said, it should have been Clan Sandrek’s place to welcome him and help him.
Well, they had helped him. At least Vark had, but Aronoke couldn’t help but pay closer attention and realised anew that many of the things Vark said were subtly wrong.
“You have to learn to strike harder and faster, or you will never be good enough to be a Jedi,” Vark said, the very next day on the training field.
Mentor Tolto and the rest of Clan Sandrek were some distance away, practicing advanced moves that Aronoke was too inept to even attempt. The sounds of their voices created a masking background murmur, doubtlessly making Vark inaudible to anyone but Aronoke. Vark was missing out on the advanced lesson, but he didn’t seem bothered by it. He had patiently smiled and taken Aronoke aside to help him practice.
“You must learn to strike with everything you have,” Vark continued. “To use every weapon in your arsenal, every advantage at your disposal. You’re already quite good at doing that defensively, dodging and rolling, like when you fought Zujana. You must learn to do the same thing offensively. To facilitate that, let’s try something different – we’ll act out a scenario.”
“A scenario?” Aronoke was not familiar with that term, but Vark did not bother to explain.
“Imagine I’m your enemy,” the green duros said, bringing his blade up into a threatening position. “Imagine I will kill you without compunction. Imagine that I’ve just killed a member of your clan, and spat on his body as it lays twitching at my feet.”
Vark’s eyes dropped to look at the ground as he gestured at it with his blade, and immediately Aronoke could imagine Draken lying there.
Aronoke had seen dead bodies before. Had been made to clean up afterwards, when he was a menial. He could imagine Draken’s dead body all too clearly. Draken’s face contorted with pain, the life fading from his eyes as his blood soaked into the ground. The smell of spilled intestines. Imagined the spit running down Draken’s pale cheek as Vark spat on the grass and laughed.
“Behind you are the other members of your clan,” Vark continued, prowling slowly from side to side, grinning nastily at Aronoke as he switched his brandished practice-sabre rapidly from one hand to another. “Helpless prisoners. If you don’t strike me down, I’m going to do the same thing to them. I’m going to make you watch, while I torture them and kill them slowly.”
Aronoke could imagine them there too – the frightened silence of the little kids, struggling to stay calm, because they were brave and going to be Jedi. Ashquash defiant and glowering, wrestling with her bonds.
“Don’t listen to him, Aronoke,” imaginary-Ashquash hissed. “He hasn’t got the balls to go through with it.”
It seemed so real, Aronoke almost turned to look.
Vark was coming closer, closer. He was going to do horrible things and kill them all. A terrible memory flashed in Aronoke’s mind, of being tied naked to a bench awash in his own blood, while Careful Kras set aside his knife to pick up the syringe of liquid fumes. The pain, the humility and helplessness that swallowed the world.
“Can’t you feel how much you hate me?” came Vark’s soft insistent voice. “How much you want to kill me, so I can’t hurt your friends? That strength is the only thing that can help you stop me now.”
That was right. Aronoke was not tied down now and he had a weapon in his hands. He could feel his anger begin to build. When he was angry enough, there would be no room to be afraid.
But acting without thinking got you killed, Aronoke suddenly remembered. Being angry made you slow and stupid. It was a lesson he had learned many times on Kasthir, where learning it the hard way meant you didn’t survive to be tested again. He had learned it again here on Coruscant, fighting Rancolos.
Besides, fear was wrong, anger was wrong, wasn’t it? He should strike out of a position of calm contemplation, having considered all his options. That was what the Jedi teachings said. Even the younglings in Clan Herf had been taught that.
Why was Vark goading him to act in this way?
Aronoke froze, captured by indecision as Vark came darting closer, his practice-blade dangling uselessly in his hand.
Vark’s blade thwacked into Aronoke’s shoulder, hard enough to leave a bruise.
“And you’re dead,” said Vark, rolling his eyes in weary frustration. “And all your clan with you. You’re not supposed to just stand there like gundark bait, you hopeless moron.”
Vark’s tone was puzzled and irate, and his comment instantly released the tension. It also released the catch on Aronoke’s temper. Hopeless moron, was he? He wasn’t the one doing everything wrong…
Later, when Aronoke remembered that moment, he thought to himself that if he had come from a world where talking could solve problems, he would have questioned Vark then. If he had been a more experienced Jedi, he might have said: “Why are you doing this? Don’t you know that what you’re trying to teach me is wrong?” He might have at least followed the scenario through properly, in the role of a Jedi, calmly defending the imaginary prisoners to the best of his ability. But at the time, Aronoke didn’t think of doing any of those things any more than he would have considered having Twi’lek head-tails grafted on his head and taking up pole-dancing.
For a moment he considered striking out at Vark, but instantly realised that would make Vark the victor. Instead he threw his practice blade down on the grass and stalked off across the field without saying a word.
“What was all that about?” came Mentor Tolto’s voice, drifting over the grass, as Aronoke walked away simmering, taking deep breaths and trying to recover his calm. Vark’s voice was too low for Aronoke to hear his reply.
He had to be careful, Aronoke decided. Had to watch his temper, not let them make him angry and push him over the edge. Attacking Rancolos had been a mistake.
It was not at all easy to do. He continued avoiding the issue, although the strategy was not one he enjoyed employing. Whenever he grew dangerously close to losing his temper, he would throw his practice blade to the ground, as if in disgust, and walk off across the field, ignoring any jibes along the way. He would say nothing.
Of course Mentor Tolto did not like this at all. Probably thought Aronoke was throwing a childish temper tantrum. Aronoke was careful to be polite to him. Would acknowledge him with a little bow to show he meant respect. But he would not say anything until he felt calm again.
It was not long after he began practicing this strategy that Razzak Mintula asked him to come and speak with her.
“An opportunity has arisen, Aronoke, for you to join a different clan for physical training sessions, instead of Clan Sandrek. This group is not as far advanced in their training as Clan Sandrek is, but they are still substantially ahead of Clan Herf. They might suit you well.”
Aronoke was in multiple minds about accepting. To back down now seemed like giving up. Sparring with Clan Sandrek was difficult but he had steeled himself to do it. He had accepted that to get better and catch up he would have to endure being beaten over and over again and that to lose against such odds was no shame. But it was painful. He had an interesting collection of bruises from the older students’ training sticks. It was confusing. He was still learning what was supposed to be right and wrong according to the Jedi. The things Vark said made sense according to how things had been on Kasthir, but he knew that was not the way things were supposed to be here.
Master Altus’s disapproval regarding Clan Sandrek’s behaviour suggested that another group might be more welcoming to newcomers, but what if the next group was equally difficult? Then it would be obvious that he, Aronoke, was the problem. That he had somehow gotten things wrong. Maybe they would kick him out, and what would he do then?
Could Razzak Mintula’s invitation be considered an unusual event? Was this part of an even more convoluted conspiracy? Or was he being given a way to back away from an unpleasant situation gracefully?
But he had taken too long thinking.
“You don’t have to decide immediately,” Razzak Mintula said. “You can tell me any time within the next few weeks if you would like to take up this opportunity.”
“Thank you, Instructor,” said Aronoke. “I will think about it.”
Aronoke did try thinking about it, but that did no good – it was all too hard. Whether it was stupid or not, he should talk to someone about it. But still, he put it off a little longer, hoping he would come to a decision on his own.
Then a few days later, Aronoke was just coming into the clan room when Draken came up to him, bubbling over with excitement. A trail of younglings followed after him, just as enthusiastic.
“Guess what?” Draken said. “We’re going to be learning to swim as part of our physical training program. It’s up on the extended schedule. I know how to already, of course, but it’s going to be a lot of fun!”
The little kids jumped around everywhere like pop-lice. Sometimes Aronoke despaired of them ever learning to be calm. “Learn to swim! Swim! In the water!”
“It’s going to be such fun,” laughed Golmo, obviously copying Draken.
Aronoke did not like the sound of it at all.
Ashquash stood up and came over. She did not look very happy either.
“Next week,” said Draken. “There’s a big pool on one of the lower levels of the Temple. I looked it up on the holonet to see what it’s like, and it’s huge! That’s where we’ll be learning. It’s going to be great! I used to go swimming on the lower levels, in the filtration ponds, but this should be better, because we always had to dodge the droids down there and watch out for security.”
He suddenly seemed to realize that Aronoke was not as enthusiastic as he was.
“Oh! I forgot. You don’t like to take off your robes, do you? Or to shower, even.” Draken seemed almost gleeful and did not lose any of his own enthusiasm. “Well, you’ll have to now I guess. You’ll get used to it,” he said blithely.
Aronoke was not so sure. It depended what they had to wear while they swam, he thought. Surely they would wear something. Doubted it would be robes. That would be too hard. He would sink. Drown. If it was something very revealing, he didn’t know if he could do it. He did not want to make a fuss like he had in the medical bay. That had only drawn more attention. It would be good to know what to expect in advance.
Aronoke did not want to ask Razzak Mintula. Would be too hard to explain. She did not know about the thing on his back and he did not want to be forced into an explanation about it. Combined with the other matter, about Clan Sandrek, he decided it warranted going to to talk to Master Altus. Certainly before the swimming started.
He put through a call on his communicator and reached what seemed to be a holo-simulacrum of Master Altus which wanted to take a message.
“Hello Master Altus,” said Aronoke, feeling strange talking to the simulacrum. “I was hoping I could come and talk to you soon.”
“Aronoke,” said Master Altus’s real voice. “Yes, by all means, come by this evening, if that is convenient.”
“Yes, Master,” said Aronoke. “That will be fine.”
“Hespenara is not here at the moment. She is busy preparing for some tests, so she will not be able to collect you as usual.”
“That is no problem. I can find my way myself, Master.”
Aronoke closed the communications channel flooded with a great sense of relief. Surely Master Altus would be able to sort these things out if anyone could.
There was a droid in Master Altus’s chambers when Aronoke arrived. Aronoke eyed it with some suspicion. It was a busy droid, churning out convoluted holodisplays of numbers and other data that cluttered up the usually dim and calm environment of Master Altus’s chambers. To Aronoke’s eye, Master Altus himself seemed more rested than he had on his previous visit, although not quite back to normal.
“This is LT-37,” said Master Altus. “He is helping me with some of the calculations and data evaluation resulting from my last expedition. It is looking to be a more time-consuming business than I had anticipated, but that is all to good advantage, since I had hoped to spend some time here on this visit.”
“It sounds more like a good reason to stay away, Master,” joked Aronoke.
“Yes, it is perhaps one reason why I am usually eager to depart the temple as soon as I am able. And yet there are some Jedi for whom a permanent assignment to the temple seems to be the greatest pleasure imaginable.”
“Like most of the librarians,” said Aronoke.
“Yes, like many of them,” said Master Altus. “No dinner today, I’m afraid, since I don’t have Hespenara to run out and get it, but I have collected a store of confectionary just for such occasions.”
Aronoke would have been happy to fetch dinner for both of them, but Master Altus seemed so pleased with his confectionaries he felt it would be churlish to suggest it. Besides, people worried too much about food here. They sat down, and Aronoke tried the confectionaries and found them pleasant, if a little oversweet for his tastes. They were coated balls of a chalky sugary substance with a distinctive but not unpleasant aftertaste. Master Altus spoke of inconsequential things while they ate, obviously expecting that Aronoke would come to the point of his visit in his own good time.
It took Aronoke a little while to begin properly. It felt awkward talking about what must seem like trivial difficulties to someone as powerful as Master Altus. And yet Aronoke could not imagine saying those things to anyone else. Perhaps one day he might trust Master Insa-tolsa enough, he thought, because he had already grown more accustomed to the big gentle Ithorian, but he still wasn’t the same as Master Altus.
He swallowed firmly.
“There’s several things I would like to talk to you about, Master, if you don’t mind,” Aronoke said at last.
“Of course,” said Master Altus, calmly. “You can always come to me with any problem you may have, Aronoke.”
“Firstly, Instructor Mintula told me that an opportunity had come up for me to transfer to a different Physical Training group, one that is not quite as advanced as Clan Sandrek, although it is still more advanced than Clan Herf.”
“Well, that is good news,” said Master Altus immediately. “That sounds like a good idea.”
Aronoke had been going to weigh out the pros and cons as he saw them, but Master Altus’s warm approval washed Aronoke’s misgivings completely aside. Obviously Razzak Mintula’s offer was not an unusual thing, he thought to himself. Perhaps backing away from his struggle with Clan Sandrek was an acceptable withdrawal from a difficult situation, and not a demonstration of weakness.
“Yes, I thought so too, but I wanted to be sure,” Aronoke said instead.
“You know, Aronoke,” Master Altus continued, “that I never approved of you undertaking such advanced combat training so soon. I was willing for you to continue as long as you were happy with the situation, but I must admit I am relieved that another option has presented itself.”
“I don’t like to give up easily,” admitted Aronoke. “It usually makes things worse.”
“It is good to be determined,” said Master Altus tolerantly, “but unwise to throw yourself against an obstacle which can be avoided. On my homeworld they say ‘the river always flows around a stone’.”
“On Kasthir they say ‘sand eats rock’,” countered Aronoke.
“Persistence is certainly a quality that may lead to success,” said Master Altus comfortably, “but we must learn to choose which obstacles must be worn down, and which are better side-stepped.”
Aronoke turned this over in his mind . It was like bone-sucking worms, he realised. You didn’t go looking for them, unless you had to. You simply tried to avoid them. Sandrek clan’s strange attitude was like a poisonous creature, best avoided entirely rather than weathered.
“Then I will tell Instructor Mintula that I am happy to change over,” Aronoke said. The thought of not having to spar against Clan Sandrek any more took a greater burden off his mind than he had anticipated. “I don’t mind losing or getting bruised so much,” he said confidingly, “but some of the things they said made me feel confused.”
“Confused?” asked Master Altus, a little more sharply. “What sort of things?”
Aronoke had not meant to tell him about Vark’s strange lessons, had never been the sort of Fumer who ran to the higher-ups with titbits of information about his peers, hoping to be rewarded. Had stayed away from the higher-ups as much as possible, on account of avoiding Careful Kras’s attention.
“I didn’t notice at first,” said Aronoke reluctantly, “because I was thinking too much like a Fumer, but Clan Sandrek don’t act like the other Jedi I know in the temple. One of them, the one instructed to act as my mentor, seems to be trying to teach me things in a way that seems different to the other things we are taught.”
“Oh, and how is it different?” asked Master Altus.
“I might be wrong, Master, because I am still very new at all these things,” said Aronoke apologetically, “but he seems to be trying to make me use my anger to fuel my fighting, like we are not supposed to do. At first I thought he was merely trying to trip me up into making a mistake, but now I am not so certain.”
“You don’t mean he is merely trying to make you angry?” said Master Altus.
“No, Master. They do that too and I mostly have the trick of it now, although I do get angry sometimes. This is different. He is the one who is most friendly and helpful to me in my training. He encourages me to do things in a particular way, but I don’t think they are the right way. He encourages me to use my anger, my fear, and my desire to win to help me fight more successfully.”
“That is a serious matter, which will have to be investigated,” said Master Altus. “I will have to report it.”
Aronoke fidgeted uncomfortably.
“I don’t like the idea of getting him in trouble,” he said. “It seems almost treacherous.”
“Oh? So I shouldn’t report it?” Master Altus was calm as always, watching Aronoke with warm interest.
Aronoke felt put on the spot. He stared at the floor. Sighed. Looked up to see those blue eyes still regarding him patiently. Master Altus would always act in this way, he realised, in a way that would make Aronoke think about the situation and come up with his own solution. Well then. He forced himself to try to think objectively.
“If I had been here longer, then I think it would be better if I talked about it to him myself first,” said Aronoke slowly. “That I should tell him that I think he’s doing the wrong thing, to give him the chance to change his mind. But I haven’t been here very long and I don’t know the right things to say. I think he would talk circles around me and I would be even more confused. Besides which, he’s nearly ready to become a Padawan. He must know that it’s wrong already.”
Master Altus waited patiently, saying nothing.
“I am changing groups, so he will not hurt me,” Aronoke continued slowly, “but he might still hurt someone else. And then why did he try and teach me that way at all? Perhaps Clan Sandrek might be being manipulated by someone else too.”
Aronoke looked at the floor again. “I suppose you really do have to report them,” he admitted.
“Very well then,” said Master Altus. “Now, there was something else?”
“The next matter is something that happened quite some time ago. I was going to take a shower.”
Feeling silly and self-conscious, Aronoke repeated to Master Altus the story about the droid, and everything it had said and done during its two visits.
“When you said I should try to notice unusual things, I thought of the shower at once, but I was not sure that it was one of those things,” said Aronoke. “So I thought I would investigate a little more first. Draken went to look into some of the other clans’ bathrooms, but none of them had the holes in them. So I told Instructor Mintula about the maintenance. She said she would report it, and now the wall has suddenly been fixed again.”
That had happened only this morning, and Aronoke had taken it as evidence that whatever maintenance had been originally performed was highly suspicious.
“There will be records in the maintenance department,” said Master Altus. “I can have them checked to see why the walls were tampered with and what was done to them.”
“Yes, Master. It just seemed odd to me.”
“You can bring anything that seems odd to my attention, Aronoke.”
“Yes, Master, I will. Although some of them might be stupid things.”
“That doesn’t matter.”
“The last thing is a personal thing,” said Aronoke, feeling himself starting to get even more nervous. He found it hard to speak smoothly. Words seemed to desert him. He tried to focus, and ploughed resolutely on.
“It was on the schedule. Earlier… in the week. We are supposed to learn... to swim.”
“And that makes you uncomfortable,” said Master Altus.
“I assume it is because of your peculiar markings?” he asked calmly. “You don’t like to take off your outer garments?”
“Yes, Master. Mostly.”
“Hm,” mused Master Altus. “When I was in training we wore swimsuits. They were certainly a lot more revealing than the robes you wear, but they still covered quite a lot of our bodies. They would almost certainly cover most of the scars and markings, although not all of the ones on your arms and legs.”
“Those don’t matter, Master,” said Aronoke. “It is the other ones that worry me.”
“Then I think it should be alright. You should try to conquer your fear, of course, Aronoke, but I think you are right to be cautious.”
“I am?” said Aronoke, surprised. He had thought his fear about his back was a failing. Something to be ashamed of.
“Yes. I believe you should trust your instincts to keep those markings hidden. I think it might prove important.”
“I am not sure I always felt this way about them though, Master,” said Aronoke reluctantly. “When I was small…the first time…I did not even know they were there.”
“Nevertheless, your instincts are trying to protect you,” said Master Altus. “And while you should try not to be afraid, there is no harm in taking note of the warning they present to you.”
“Yes, Master,” said Aronoke, feeling more cheerful.
“So you will be able to attend your swimming class, do you think?”
“I am not sure what will happen,” Aronoke admitted. “I don’t like the water - it is a strange thing to me - but I will try.”
“Good,” said Master Altus. “You are doing very well, Aronoke. You need not worry.”
The swimming suit appeared in Aronoke’s cupboard the next day. It was black, tight and stretchy and looked very small amongst his other things. He took it out and looked at it in some distaste. He determined to try it on before the swimming lesson so as to avoid any unpleasant surprises on the day. Took it to the shower cubicles very early in the morning.
He felt very naked in it. It was made of some thick almost foamy material that did not show every ridge and scar on his body, but it still seemed very revealing. He steeled himself to exit his cubicle so he could see how his back looked in it in the mirror outside.
It was not so bad. Almost the entirety of the scars on his back were covered. You could only see one small matted patch up near the back of his neck and none of the mysterious markings at all. He was filling out more, Aronoke noticed as well, with more flesh covering his ribs. His shoulders were getting wider, his legs more muscular, longer yet still lean. He stood surveying himself with some interest, until a noise from the corridor outside sent him fleeing back into the shower cubicle. He had barely shut himself inside before a great gaggle of his clan-mates swarmed in to get ready for the day.
On the day of the first swimming lesson Aronoke felt sick with nerves. He hadn’t felt so unhappy about anything, he realised, since he had been told to undress during that first proper medical examination. Since he had shown his back to Master Altus.
He had decided that it would be a good idea to dress in the swimsuit beforehand. To wear it all day under his other clothes to prevent any worrisome mishaps. This worked well. No one seemed to notice. He felt very exposed when it came time to get changed and actually go out of the changing rooms and down to the water.
That was the first time he had seen the pool where they were going to swim and he baulked instantly. It was immense. He had never seen so much water all in one place before. It stretched across the chamber in a huge sheet, great and shiny like the eye of some gargantuan creature.
He did not like it at all. Could not have gotten into it at that moment if he had been promised all of Coruscant to do so. Draken gave a loud whoop and ran into the water, making an immense splashing jump at the end and Aronoke’s stomach lurched sickly.
The water was not deep in this part, he saw. The little kids were running into it like it was great fun, splashing and cavorting around. The swimming instructor, an aqualish, began lining them up and showing them exercises.
You’re being really stupid, he told himself. It’s not hurting them. They like it. It won’t hurt you either.
But it made no difference.
“Come on, Aronoke!” said Draken. “Just jump in! It’ll be over in a moment and it’s less cold that way. Or I could push you in.”
Aronoke’s legs had turned to plastisteel welded to the floor. “No,” said Aronoke hurriedly. “I don’t think I can.”
He could hardly breathe. He felt heavy and sick like he was going to faint.
Don’t be stupid, repeated the sensible little voice in his head. It won’t hurt you. Just walk in.
But he couldn’t. It was as horrible an idea as throwing himself over the edge of one of Coruscant’s impossibly high buildings.
“Are you alright, Aronoke?” asked Razzak Mintula, appearing out of the water clad in a sleek black swimsuit. Her silver ponytail was draped attractively over her chest. Despite his fear, Aronoke felt even more unsettled. He could feel his face heating. Shook his head. Said nothing. Stared at the ground.
“Come on Aronoke! It’s fun!” cried Yeldra.
“You’ll like it! Look at me, I’m an aqualish!” called one of the younger clan members.
“I can push him in,” said Draken again, helpfully.
“Or I can,” said Ashquash, uncharacteristically impish, grinning from the water, carefully concealed up to her neck.
Aronoke shook his head dizzily.
“No, I don’t think that’s a good idea,” remonstrated Razzak Mintula. “Why don’t you go and sit over there and meditate, Aronoke, and you can join us when you feel able to.”
“Yes, Instructor,” mumbled Aronoke, and went to sit with his back to the changing rooms, as far away from the pool as possible.
He was glad that she had not pressured him to enter the pool. Was grateful to sit there and find the calm centre of his mind where everything seemed safe. He was surprised at himself. He had not expected to find the challenge of entering the water greater than that of wearing the swimsuit. It was a silly thing, he knew. The little kids were doing it. So could he. He must not let it beat him.
He got to his feet.
Each step was difficult, slow and hesitant, incongruous with the absurdly fast thumping of his heart. He felt horribly self-conscious, even though his clan-members were not paying him any attention, all being absorbed in their lesson. He hovered on the very edge for long minutes, and then waded slowly in, to stand awkwardly about waist deep. It was by sheer force of will that he held himself there, frozen in place, trying his best to keep the fear at bay. He could not bring himself to splash around. Could not have tried to do any exercises. Could not move. It took every bit of his attention just to stand there. By then the lesson was almost finished.
“Very good, Aronoke,” said Razzak Mintula when she noticed, but Aronoke felt no pleasure at her praise, only awkward and stupid, like he had failed at something that was terribly easy.
He had to overcome his fear, he told himself sternly, but when the lesson ended, he fled the water with great rapidity and hurried to put his robes back on.
Afterwards he went to talk to Razzak Mintula.
“Can I come down to the pool in between lessons? Just to look at it? So I might get used to it?”
“I don’t see why not,” she said kindly. “I am sure you will not disturb any other groups who might be using it. It is probably a good idea.”
“Thank you, Instructor,” said Aronoke. He was not sure whether to be pleased or not. He didn’t like looking at the pool. It seemed malevolent and alien to him.
And so, in the afternoons, sometimes alone and sometimes in company, Aronoke would go down and look at the water. At first he just looked. After a while he could make himself touch it with his hands or dabble his feet in it. He kept visiting it through all the swimming lessons, in which he did not improve greatly, and kept visiting it once or twice a week after these stopped.
Aronoke began his new physical training classes with Clan Ryllak. Their instructor was a bothan named Mentor Snesgrul.
“This is Aronoke,” Mentor Snesgrul announced to the class when Aronoke first arrived. “He is a late starter, and belongs to Clan Herf, so he will be joining us for some of his physical training.”
“Hello, Aronoke,” chorused the class cheerfully.
“Hello,” said Aronoke, thinking that they looked very different from Clan Sandrek. They were bigger than he was, but not by so very much. Clan Ryllak had only recently started using practice-sabres, and most of the exercises were performed in one large group, with everyone standing in rows practicing the basic forms over and over again.
Aronoke already knew those, so it was easy, but he was glad of the repetitive training. He had never felt completely comfortable with the moves when training with Clan Sandrek, while now they were quickly becoming so ingrained that he hardly had to think about them.
Mentor Snesgrul called a brief rest break partway through the lessons, encouraging the students to stretch and drink water. The Clan Ryllak people crowded around Aronoke in between turns at the drinking fountain, smiling and asking questions.
“So you’re from Clan Herf, are you?”
“It must be tough, being bigger than everyone else in your clan.”
“I hope you like training with us, Aronoke. If there’s anything you need help with, you just have to ask!”
Aronoke nearly melted in gratitude, it was all so much easier. They did some simple sparring exercises at the very end of the lesson, and he found his human opponent, Riala, was far more nervous of injuring him than she needed to be.
“Tell me if I’m going too fast,” she said, smiling at Aronoke as they traded cautious blows. “I tend to get carried away once I get started, and I know that you’re only new.”
She was cute when she smiled, Aronoke thought. Her face dimpled in an interesting way. Cute and distracting, especially since one hank of brown hair had escaped its bindings to hang down in front of her face.
No, best not to pay too much attention to that!
“It’s fine,” said Aronoke, smiling back. “You can go a bit faster if you like.”
It was strange, but even though the lessons were so much simpler, he thought he was learning a great deal more.
Without the constant unpleasantness of sparring with Clan Sandrek, Aronoke hardly noticed the weeks passing. He worked hard at his lessons, spent time with his clanmates and diligently practiced his extra meditation lessons. Whole days went by without him thinking of Kasthir at all. Weeks trailed by in a pleasant mish-mash of predictable activity.
Then one day Master Altus arranged a meeting in one of the atria.
“This is the closest thing you can get to a forest planet here on Coruscant, or at least in the Jedi temple,” he said, when Aronoke met him and Hespenara in the large internal courtyard.
The massive trees in the garden towered high overhead and were clustered so close together that Aronoke could hardly see the ceiling for the huge, broad branches. Aronoke could scarcely believe that such big things were actually alive. There were no trees on Kasthir.
“You’re growing so fast my mind can’t keep up,” complained Hespenara. “I swear you’ve grown an inch in all directions since I saw you last.”
Aronoke smiled. He knew he was growing with impossible rapidity by human standards. His appetite was increasingly huge, and all his old robes had disappeared to be replaced with new ones Even his boots had needed to be replaced, although they were hardly worn out yet.
They sat on a bench between the trees, but even there, in that peaceful place, the mechanical hum of Coruscant pervaded. In most of the Jedi Temple it was no louder than the whisper of a breeze in the desert, so constant that Aronoke hardly noticed it anymore except when it was very quiet. Like it was here.
“I thought this would be more convivial,” said Master Altus. “LT-37 is very useful at performing the tasks he does, but it does become a little overwhelming to have him in my chambers constantly. It is perhaps more pleasant for us to have our meeting here.”
“Oh, Master!” said Hespenara exasperatedly. “It’s not like you couldn’t request the Jedi Council to set aside a room for that purpose. For the droid to work in. It is hardly like they wouldn’t agree.”
“It is a good exercise for me,” said Master Altus stubbornly. “And it should not be very much longer.”
Aronoke wondered if Master Altus did not want his research getting out of his sight. Perhaps he was worried that something unusual would happen to it too.
“There are a couple of matters I wish to inform you about today, Aronoke,” Master Altus continued, obviously wishing to avoid discussing the droid any further. “Firstly concerning Clan Sandrek. When questioned, Initiate Vark said that he did not personally decide to try to influence your training. He said he was merely following the dictates of a document left upon his datapad.”
“Oh,” said Aronoke, frowning as he remembered the document that had appeared on his own datapad. Were they from the same source?
“I find it hard to believe that an initiate who has nearly completed his training would not know such a document was wrong,” said Hespenara, shaking her head.
“He did admit that he knew he was doing something wrong,” said Master Altus. “He knew it was contrary to the teachings, although he claimed it was difficult for him to pinpoint precisely why it was so.”
“What will happen to him?” asked Aronoke.
“If that had been the only thing, his behavior would be corrected and he would be given another chance,” said Master Altus. “However, in this case, the Jedi Council has stepped in and decided that the whole of Clan Sandrek should be expelled. Something has gone sadly awry with that group. I am not aware of all the details.”
There was a brief silence as Aronoke digested this. He felt guilty that he had been responsible for an entire Clan being expelled. Perhaps it wasn’t his fault, but it had still happened because of him. Were they really all caught up in it? Had they all received peculiar documents on their datapads, or had Vark misled them all? Why had none of them questioned what was happening? What about Mentor Tolto and Clan Sandrek’s other instructors? Hadn’t they noticed something was amiss?
How could something like that pass unnoticed in the middle of the Jedi Temple?
“How is your training with Clan Ryllak going?” asked Master Altus, breaking into Aronoke’s internal circle of unanswerable questions. “I hope you are finding them more helpful.”
“It’s going very well,” said Aronoke. “They are very different. The lessons are much better, the other students are helpful and welcoming and I feel I am learning well.”
“Good,” said Master Altus. “Your training results have been pleasing. You are progressing quickly, which is in accordance with your physical growth. There is but one thing that I think your education is lacking, and that is you have not been outside the temple. Not since we brought you here from Kasthir. Hespenara and I are intending to make a short trip to a part of Coruscant called Prelix Sector and I think it would be a good idea if you came along.”
“Yes, Master!” said Aronoke, an unusual feeling of excitement building in him. There was the old nervousness, of the endlessly busy streets, the roiling traffic, and the tangle of monstrous buildings, but they were not as frightening as they had been. He thought it would be interesting to see more of this great city planet where he now lived. “I would like that.”
“You may tell your instructor that I will be taking you on a field trip,” said Master Altus.