"It is said in old Trianii lore that the spirit and form of a daughter will occasionally be derived, not from the birth-mother, but from whoever truly holds the heart of the father. Blessed, then, are those who recognize who their mother truly is."
~ Ga'Tos, Trianii religious scholar
"Put her down easy, Syrra- we want you to impress them, okay?"
Syrra smiled at her lover nervously. "I'll try, I'm just... I'm so anxious, you know?" Her tail was flicking side to side excitedly. "It's been too long, and being able to see them after all this time..." She took in a deep breath, her paws on the flight yoke as she guided the ship towards Baarok estate, the rock spires of the manse drawing closer as they glided slowly over the fields of grain surrounding the manor.
Talrik leaned over Kajex's seat, his tail wagging as he rested his head between the wolf's ears. "It's a pretty big place, isn't it?" he observed. "And it's all inhabited? How many people even live here?" he asked in awe.
Syrra kept her eyes on the landing pad as brought the ship into a hover, her heart skipping as she saw her kin waiting at the edge of the platform, waving and smiling. "20 people- my aunt and uncle, and their staff. Everyone there has their own quarters, Aarn allows them to stay to help with day-to-day affairs. Setting her down, Kajex."
"Alright, just... easy there," the wolf cautioned as she brought the ship down a little too rapidly. "Easy, easy, e--EASY!!" Kajex swore as the ship jolted hard, the landing struts creaking audibly through the ship as Syrra landed the freighter with a thud heavy enough to make the Trianii's kin stagger a bit. Talrik yelped and fell to the floor.
Syrra winced, cringing a little at Kajex's stern gaze as he sat back up. "Sorry..."
The wolf rolled his eyes, letting out a sigh and giving her a lopsided smile- it had to happen sometime. "Go on, get outta here," he said with a chuckle, thumbing behind them as he started powering down the engines. Syrra grinned and jumped out of her chair, sprinting down the corridor- Kajex could hear the sound of the ramp lowering as silence came upon the ship. He twisted his seat around, seeing Talrik still spread out on the floor. "You okay, kit?" he asked with an amused expression, reaching down and stroking the Amaran's ears.
Talrik groaned and got to his knees, nodding. "Yeah, I'm good. Bit of a rough landing, wasn't it?" he said wryly.
The wolf waved it off, not troubled in the slightest. "Let her have it, she loves her aunt and uncle deeply- I don't blame her for being so excited. I'll give the landing struts a look later, I doubt she did any damage." He glanced out the cockpit, smiling as Syrra embraced her kin tightly. He leaned forward, offering Talrik a paw and helping him up. "Let's go introduce you to them, kit."
They exited the ship to the sight of Syrra wiping her eyes, her cheeks damp with joyful tears as she chittered in Trianii tongue, apologizing for being away so long. "<I would have come back sooner if I'd had the time, it's just so many crazy things have been going on. I promise I'll never-->"
"<Syrra,>" Iaora purred gently, embracing her niece comfortingly, "<it's alright, we understand. You kept to your duties and training, one could not be prouder of your devotion.>" She ran her paw through the Padawan's hair, brushing her devotion beads and smiling. "<I see you've made strides in your relationship with the captain.>"
Talrik leaned in, whispering. "So... what exactly are they saying?" he asked. Kajex chuckled, remembering Talrik was not yet fluent in Trianii.
"Syrra's been away longer than she wanted to be, she's promising to visit more often," Kajex explained covertly. "And Iaora's glad Syrra's still with me."
She looked up and smiled at Kajex, letting go of her niece and giving a polite bow to the wolf. "<Captain Surnahm, it's pleasant to see you again.>"
Kajex bowed in return, responding in her native tongue smoothly. "<Likewise, ma'am- I'm glad to see you and your husband are well.>" He gestured to the Amaran. "This is our second mate, Talrik Lye- he's been helping me and your niece with our missions for the Jedi Order. Talrik, this is Aarn and Iaora Baarok- Aarn runs a pharmaceutical business through the system, he does a lot of good work."
Aarn stepped forward and shook the fox's outstretched paw, regarding the soldier with a genial smile. "A pleasure to meet you, lad. You have our thanks for helping to look after our kin- little Syrra here may as well be our daughter for all the time she spent here and all the closeness we share, so we appreciate anyone who stands alongside her."
"I... thank you, sir," Talrik answered, a bit taken aback but pleased. "It's no trouble at all."
"Please, call me Aarn," the stocky Trianii chuffed pleasantly. "Anyway, I expect the 3 of you might be exhausted from your trip, if you'd like to wait till dinner to talk we can escort you to your quarters," Aarn suggested.
Kajex shook his head. "Nah, we're fine, Aarn. If anything, we're a bit famished," he said hopefully, drawing out a chuckle from the Trianii.
"That, we can fix for you, too."
Ekibo's climate was generally pleasant, if boring, typically warm and inviting without becoming overly hot. The summer months had passed and in its place sporadic rainfall dampened the earth, the pleasant petrichor reminding the region's inhabitants of the necessity of abundant rainfall. Harvest season had completed, yet the leftover dregs that were cast aside during the gathering period only heightened the fertile aroma of the land as they slowly became one with the earth again. The smell of herdbeasts was almost absent in the air, the lingering traces of the stench easy to ignore.
To Syrra, it smelled like home.
She kept her eyes on her instructor and fellow crewmember as they fenced- as Kajex had promised, Talrik was getting training in hand-to-hand and melee combat to supplement his already astounding marksmanship. The sharp clang of steel rang through the air as their vibroswords met repeatedly. Talrik had been making respectable strides in this area, no doubt spurred by his eagerness to help his new family out. Though Kajex firmly suggested the fox stay back and provide support firepower, as he was best at, there was no sense having him ill-prepared for close engagements, and so the fox had put effort into improving as best as he could.
She doubted Talrik would be trying so hard or doing so well if Kajex hadn't been the one teaching him. For all the concerns the wolf had about being a potentially unsatisfactory instructor, he had shown great patience, encouragement and insight while training his student and crewmember. At times Syrra found herself forgetting that he wasn't a Jedi, though she counted that as a positive- he treated her and Talrik not merely as equals, but as friends, making their training sessions together more personal and enjoyable.
She grinned as Kajex disarmed the fox, though- this was supposed to be a time for them to relax, yet they seemed as restless as she was.
"I used to never see that smile before you left to become a Jedi," a gentle voice said from behind her. "It was troubling to see you hide your heart as frequently as you did while you were a Ranger. I'm glad to see that mask has been set aside in favor of being yourself."
Syrra kept her eyes on the wolf and fox as she answered. "I guess I should chalk that up to wanting to show my mother I was capable of fulfilling my dreams. I made the foolish mistake of thinking that hiding my emotions would make me stronger." She paused, looking up to Iaora as she leaned against the balcony rail. "I'm glad I was wrong. And I'm sorry I didn't realize it sooner," she added. "I tried to do what I thought would be necessary to succeed."
The white-furred Trianii nodded. "I had to continue telling your mother that you were capable of doing or being anything you wanted if you set your mind to it, even as I worried at what cost that success would come to. You take more after your father, Ka'un, than you do her, after all. Driven and clever, he was always happiest when he served his system openly with affection." She smiled sadly at Syrra.
The Padawan cocked her head in concern. "I know you knew of him... I regret knowing so little about him beyond his accomplishments and how much he loved me. Was he the hero I always saw him as? Was he as loved as they say he was?"
Iaora nodded. "Let there be no question about his bravery, cub. Every commendation the yu'nar honored him with was one he earned. He was nothing less than a cherished example of what a Trianii Ranger should be. His unit may be long-dead or scattered, but I'm certain they would have told you the same thing- those who remained alive after his passing all came to mourn his transition to the next life. He was a good soldier- but more than that, he was a good man, inspiring determination, nobility and courage." Iaora paused. "It was hard not to love him."
Syrra's ears perked up, hearing the distant longing in her voice. "When you say that, what do you mean?"
"I mean to say that there was a time when he and I were... close. Intimate."
Syrra stared at Iaora. "Why didn't you and him...?"
"Because sometimes we foolishly devote ourselves to duty more than we do each other," the older Trianii replied. "Particularly when we don't consider the consequences."
"I don't understand."
Iaora let out a quiet sigh. "For a few critical years of my life, I did the same thing you did- I hid my heart behind a facade of seriousness so that I could prove I was your mother's match, perhaps more, in a political scene. My desire to help people was great- but that didn't prevent me from making the same mistake you did. Mind you... your father was a lot like Kajex as well, trying to get me to open up and enjoy his company, treating me as an equal instead of as his superior- and it worked, every time. The first time I met him was the day he caught me completely unguarded, opening my heart to someone else for the first time," she said, blushing slightly as she smiled. "That feeling never left."
"You... knew him like that?" Syrra asked.
Iaora nodded again. "I did. When I met him he was already something of a legend on Ekibo, his service to the Rangers known in most major cities. Those who knew only of his deeds cared only for their own aspirations, intending to 'befriend' him as a means of furthering their own careers or opportunities. But regardless of your father's distaste for emotionless politics, he had a keen eye for seeing who truly cared for the work he did. The elite among us were only gaudy and vain, to him. Nevertheless, he could also see the good ones- he became best friends with your uncle almost immediately because he could see the value and compassion in Aarn's healing practices. It was through Aarn that Ka'un met me." She smiled. "It was a harvest festival, with the yu'nar attending and mingling among the 'rabble' to celebrate an unusually good crop yield, despite incursions into Trianii space by the Corporate Sector Authority."
"What happened?" Syrra asked, having never heard this story before.
"I had been groomed by your grandmother, may she rest peacefully, to become a respectable face; but she differed from your mother in that she understood the value in walking among the civilians, in treating them with respect. I was well-dressed, circling the dancers carefully- a part of me desired to be there with them, but I lacked the nerve to step out among them. One of them became a bit too rambunctious, tripped over and splashed his drink over my robe." She chuckled warmly. "Bast was furious, swearing out at the lad for his incompetence and demanding an apology, even as our mother laughed and insisted he meant no offense. Aarn had rushed to us, trying to smooth over the incident as he helped his friend up." She closed her eyes, reminiscing. "It was evening, and the only real light came from the many fires around the city- but nowhere did I see more brightness than in his deep blue eyes."
Syrra smiled. "How did you react?"
"With silence and shock. Any anger I'd felt from him ruining my clothes had abated when he stared into my eyes, and I forgot to feign being offended when he spoke and apologized- he insisted that to properly celebrate, I should disrobe and join our people. I did nothing to react as he pulled my robes off of me, leaving me bare- by now our mother was shocked but pleased, and Bast was speechless, outraged by his actions. But when he offered me his paw... I took it without question, smiling and joining him in the dance." She opened her eyes. "It was the first time I'd been treated like an equal, as someone normal as opposed to being nobility. He did not regard me as superior, with ingratiating gestures or insincere smiles and actions- he danced, shared mead with me and learned more about me in that one night than I'd ever let anyone learn about me in my entire lifetime at that point."
The Padawan nodded distantly, recalling fond memories of her and Kajex in the ship's galley, sharing sweet drinks and having meaningful discussions. She could understand the feeling well, perhaps even perfectly. "I know how that feels," she responded.
"I expect you do," Iaora said, smiling widely as Syrra stared at the wolf, who was taking a break with Talrik. "If you didn't, I'd be asking why your devotion beads match your companion's eyes."
Syrra smiled back. "Was my father 'the one?'"
Iaora shook her head. "There is never such a thing as a perfect mate, one who conforms to every part of you. If there was, I wouldn't have fallen in love with Aarn and accepted him as mine. There are only those you are fortunate to meet and love." She paused, swallowing. "But I loved Ka'un, yes. It started that night, yet it did not end the day he died, and I suspect my love for him will endure until the end of my life. But that day was the start of years of us meeting when we could, sharing our lives and our dreams. I continued to wear the mask of responsibility during those times, but it was impossible to be distant with him."
She paused, and Syrra knew she was delving into her memories. "One night he came into my room- a mission had gone poorly and had resulted in the deaths of many companions and friends. He sought comfort in my embrace, asking forgiveness for not being able to save more. He wasn't worried that his reputation might be damaged- he was grieving for the loss of friends. He was only concerned that I might think less of him, that I would not believe he had done everything in his power to save them. I knew him better than that- I knew he would have given his life to save theirs if he had the opportunity. I told him that, and that I loved him deeply."
She paused. "That night between us was the one of the best moments of his life. I should have given up everything to be with him- I knew no greater joy than being in his arms, trying to conceive with him, insisting he be the one to sire my cubs. And when it was all over, when he told me he loved me, asking me to accept him as my mate... I said no."
Syrra felt a pang as the corners of Iaora's eyes glistened. "But... why? If you loved him that much, why didn't you say yes?"
"Because I was foolishly devoted to my duty, cub," she said, sniffling slightly. "I wrongly judged my obligation to society to be greater than my love for him. I feared that if I became too attached, I might end up abdicating the people I wanted to help- I put them first. And rather that follow your father's example and meld that devotion with my love, I hid myself behind a mask of serious servitude. You father never hated me for denying him, he loved me all the more, in fact... but I know that it hurt him all the same. When your mother took him as his mate, I knew it was her way of making a statement."
Iaora hesitated. "I do not wish to turn you against her."
Syrra smiled dryly. "It's a bit too late for that- she performed that task quite well on her own."
Iaora stared at her niece for a moment, regarding her apprehensively. "Your mother needed him. He was a well-trained, decorated and celebrated hero on Ekibo. But to say that she loved him...? I cannot honestly say that what I saw between them was love. He accepted only because it was expected of him, because our culture deemed it unseemly for him to deny someone with such power. Your father was an honorable man, following through with his commitment and giving her many children, including you, and for the most part he was loyal. Her marriage to him was convenient and politically astute. In that regard, she was cleverer than I was- or more comfortable using him than I was to excel in the political arena."
Iaora started to tremble. "To me... her statement more or less was a demonstration, that she would do anything to have an advantage over me. That she would take what I loved and force it to her will just to prove she was superior. I have never enjoyed quarreling with my older sister, but she seems to live for it. I think she knew the union would hurt me badly, force me to bow out. And after her first triplets were born, coinciding with her making an announcement expressing her sorrow that I had none of my own before 'accidentally' revealing that I was barren... I did. Not out of shame... but out of grief."
She shuddered, tears rolling down her face as she stared off into the distance. Syrra regarded her aunt sadly, moving closer to her and putting her arm around her waist, nuzzling into her.
"You miss him," she stated softly.
"He died a Trianii Ranger, brave and noble to the end, giving his life selflessly for our people," Iaora replied huskily. "In the end, I gave him nothing. Not my hand in marriage, not a cub between us, not a life together- all I could offer him were brief moments of happiness in his arms while he was alive, and my tears when... when he..."
She choked, swallowing and leaning into Syrra as she broke down. Distant thunder rumbled through the sky, as if the planet itself were offering condolences for Iaora's loss. The Jedi continued to embrace her aunt closely, supporting her physically and emotionally as her kin wept. How long she had kept this to herself, Syrra could not fathom, but she suspected there was a painful reason she had said nothing until now. She waited until the older Trianii relaxed before taking her paws and guiding her to a nearby bench, helping to seat her kin before sitting next to her. There was a silence between them as Iaora steadied herself, Syrra waiting as her aunt regained her composure.
Iaora wiped at her face. "I'm sorry, cub, for making you see me like this."
"Why?" Syrra asked. "I'm glad that I'm seeing you like this- I'm glad you loved my father that much, that he made you happy enough in the time you knew him that it would leave such an impression on you." She gestured to the wolf. "Kajex has known loss in his life, too. A male, named Rik. His death impacted Kajex severely as well, but it wouldn't have done so if the two hadn't loved each other so deeply. It's a pain we all risk undergoing when we have those connections. But like he told me- he knew Rik, knew he was a real person in the universe. Those memories can't be erased, not completely, and now that you've shared them with me they might live longer."
Iaora smiled tremulously. "It's clear you've gained a great deal of wisdom, becoming a Jedi."
Syrra shook her head. "I didn't learn from a Jedi." He gestured to Kajex again. "I learned from him. And he's right- it'll always be painful, but it wouldn't be if having those memories didn't also bring us comfort and joy."
Iaora nodded, leaning against her niece. "What do you suggest, then? Focus on those good memories?"
Syrra smiled. "Ideally. For example- you said that my father was loyal 'for the most part'. What did you mean?" she asked, smiling knowingly.
Iaora cleared her throat, looking a little embarrassed. "Well... when I gave up trying to influence the political scene, it was not because I was incapable- if I was not, Ekibo's yu'nar would not continuously ask for my counsel. I simply lost the drive because I had sacrificed too much. I'd... sacrificed your father, given him up to my sister. But there were times when he showed me he hadn't given up on me. Infertility was a curse that came with one upside- it made our... dalliances easier as there would be no scandal to speak of. I could not become pregnant from him, so..." she trailed off briefly, blushing hard. "I indulged. Frequently. And he maintained the stamina and skill to keep me happy for days, when time permitted."
Syrra blushed. "Hearing you talk about how you and my father were... intimate..." She smiled a bit. "It's good to hear that you were there for him. I never got that impression between him and my mother, young as I was."
"You do not fault him for being unfaithful?" she asked, arching an eyebrow. "Or me?"
"After hearing about how much you loved him? No, not at all," Syrra replied. "Did you ever come close to being caught?"
Iaora smiled. "Once or twice. I recall one moment where you walked in on us."
Syrra blinked. "I... don't remember that."
Iaora paused. "It was the last night I had with your father, about a month before his... his sacrifice," she said. "It was in the middle of the night, while your mother was off-planet, and he and I had finished making love. We were beginning to sleep, holding each other close and then... you came in," she said, smiling.
"Because you were a cub, and like many cubs you had a nightmare. But for once, you were not turned away. Do you at least remember that?"
Syrra paused, a memory hidden deep in her mind vaguely playing out. A scent in the air she couldn't place, warmth radiating from the bed before her as she stood in the doorway of a room many years ago, eyes blurry with tears as she whimpered her fears in the darkened room. "It was... after the summer harvest, wasn't it? When I was... 5 cycles old?"
Iaora smiled. "You said the wind brought a noise with it. A crying woman that spooked you awake. I wonder now if you had heard me." Syrra said nothing and she continued. "Your father was hesitant to let you stay, as Bast had never let you. But I whispered that it was fine, that you wouldn't care- what mattered at the moment was you feeling safe in our embrace. So he smiled at you and pulled you in. We made no effort to hide what we'd done, you would not have understood at that age. You didn't sleep immediately, though. Do you remember what you said?"
Syrra felt her chest tightening, feeling a burn in her heart and in her eyes. "I... I called you 'mother'. I'd said 'I love you, mother'." She swallowed, her lip trembling as she looked up at Iaora. "And then you and father held me between the both of you and we slept. I'd never known a safer night in my life."
Iaora nodded. "Syrra... I want you to know that it was the happiest moment in my entire life. You were, at that moment, the daughter I had always wanted. I had your father with me, and you in my arms... it was as if my deepest desire had been realized that night. I would give everything I have to experience that night again."
The Padawan's sight blurred with tears as they had so many years before- this time out of deep love than out of childish fears. "I'm... I'm so sorry I left home, mother."
Iaora smiled. "You left to become a Jedi, to not only follow in your father's footsteps, but excel them. I have never faulted you for wanting more- you father would have wanted it, too. It hurt seeing you leave, I won't deny it, but it hurt even more to see your real mother hold you back, preventing you from growing. The times you came to visit, to spend time with me and Aarn, were moments I cherished. I wanted us to teach you all we could teach you about medicine as a way of keeping you safe while helping in some small way for you to grow. I knew you had gotten your courage from your father- I wanted to give you something of myself so that perhaps I'd see a little of myself in you, too."
Syrra wiped her eyes, leaning into the older Trianii. "I don't know if I'm anything like what a child between you and my father would have been like... but I hope that I am." She let out a sigh as she hugged the white-furred Trianii closely. "As far as I'm concerned... you are my real mother. You and Uncle Aarn have been the only family I care to remember all these years." She paused, drawing back and drawing her lightsaber out carefully.
"If you recall, my first lightsaber was destroyed in my first duel. I used the sapphire you gave me in this one, and it has never once felt wrong in my paw. Master Skywalker suspected that using a stone that had a strong connection would produce a powerful weapon- and he was right. It resonated well with me to the point that it has never once failed me, and has even helped protect the people I love, too." She set it down against her leg, looking up at Iaora again. "In a way, it's you watching over me."
Iaora smiled. "Me and your father. That stone was his. He gave it to me years before you were born and I kept it close to me until I learned your intention to become a Jedi."
"Even better," Syrra responded, leaning into Iaora again. "Mom and Dad in the palm of my hand, helping me save the galaxy," she joked gently.
"Hey Syrra, are you and Iaora still up there?" a voice called from below.
The Trianii glanced at Iaora before getting up, taking a moment to wipe her eyes before moving back to the railing and seeing Kajex looking up at her from the landing pad. "What is it, love?"
The wolf smiled, his tail wagging. "Aarn says dinner is nearly ready, he'll be waiting in the dining hall for everyone."
Syrra smiled back. "We'll be down soon, just... talking about some important things." She watched him leave, sighing and turning back to her aunt, though with what they had discussed it was hard to see her as anything but her mother, now. Iaora stood and looked out into the horizon- the storm clouds were till present, but the golden glow of Ekibo's setting sun was visible beneath the cover.
"Cub, there's a reason we discussed this, as I'm sure you know."
Syrra nodded. "I'm ready to hear whatever wisdom you wish to impart... Mother."
The elder Trianii seemed to glow at the name. "First, I want you to know that I completely approve of your relationship with Captain Surnahm. I want the both of you to be happy for the rest of your lives. And I know you will continue to pursue it even against Bast's wishes. I intend to support you the entire way, no matter what."
"Thank you," Syrra said gratefully.
"Secondly, I want you to promise me something. If there ever comes a time where your obligations, your duties, seem to be greater than your love for him... choose him. Choose to be with him, and make it work. He did it for you, leaving his former life behind so he could be with you. I failed to do the same with your father, and I have regretted it ever since. It's alright to be a little selfish."
Syrra nodded, embracing her mother once more. "I promise."
"So... is it typical to have business discussions while eating?" Talrik asked as everyone else dug in. Kajex chuckled.
"I asked the same question half a year ago, kit- it's fine, it's tradition." He turned to Syrra. "Seems like it was longer than that, actually, right?"
The Trianii Jedi nodded, smiling as she reached out and gave his paw a squeeze. "Almost feels like a lifetime when I was standing up and apologizing for calling you a <beast>. Not all that long before we became closer."
"I'm glad you took my advice, cub," Iaora commented. "And that it may have led to happiness between the... three of you," she said, smiling knowingly.
Syrra flinched. "H-how did you--"
"A mother knows, Syrra," Iaora purred softly. "You have a certain sparkle in your eyes while looking at Kajex, but there's a similar one while Talrik is around, too."
Talrik blinked, leaning in towards Kajex. "I thought she was Syrra's aunt...?"
Kajex chuckled. "I think I know what this is about. I'll explain later." He looked back up at Iaora. "No sense hiding things from you, ma'am."
Aarn chuckled. "Well it was hardly 'hiding' when you and Syrra made noise the last time you were he--"
"Uncle!" Syrra cried out, red faced as Talrik burst out laughing.
The wolf grinned again. "It's true, we have an open relationship with Talrik among us. The kid saved me and Syrra's lives a few times, put up with a few nasty injuries of his own just following us. It's an unusual family, I admit, but it's still family."
"You'll hear nothing negative from us, lad," Aarn stated pleasantly. "You both keep our kin safe with you every day, it's natural for her to feel close to you for it."
Kajex nodded, reluctantly turning to business. "So like I had said earlier, aside from this being a brief vacation period for the 3 of us," he stated, gesturing to Syrra and Talrik, "Master Skywalker wanted us to follow up on how your business is doing, and whether you may have heard any rumors since the last time we were here. What with this business with the Circle of Syn going around, it helps to have as much information as possible."
Aarn nodded as he chewed. "Well I'm certainly happy to help you with any questions you might have concerning the medical side of things, though I can't imagine I could tell you more than what Jurah and the other captive employees know or knew. As I recall, they told both the New Republic and the Jedi Order everything they knew."
"Has their been any unusual shifts in trade or politics that might be associated?" Syrra asked.
"Politically, nothing comes to mind," Aarn responded. "Trade-wise, however, yes. Shipments of kolto have become more sparse over these last few months. Cargo within the system has not been an issue, but incoming shipments of kolto to myself and other businesses have lessened, lately. Rumor is that pirates are involved, but I made sure to let everyone affected know that it's likely the Imperial Remnant putting a squeeze on transports carrying the material, through some means or another."
"You don't know for sure?" Talrik asked. "Could the Trianii Rangers investigate and find out if they're really involved?"
Syrra shook her head. "Trianii Rangers only operate within our own system. It'd be too politically risky to have them operate in New Republic or Remnant space, and we have enough trouble just keeping the CorpSec in line."
Aarn nodded, following up. "You must understand, lad- we Trianii wish to be left alone, more than anything. We're not strictly isolationist, we welcome anyone who wishes to come here. For the most part, we're not xenophobic. But our history is loaded with numerous incursions by other races trying to take advantage of us and the worlds we overlook- it is simply our way to be cautious." He turned to Kajex. "But getting back on topic, I have been keeping in touch with Markus, the Besalisk who Jurah's daughter is entering union with. I had him hired as a cargo worker to our business so he could keep close to his future mate, but it has had unexpected benefits as well."
"Besalisk forthrightness?" Syrra guessed.
"Precisely," Aarn acknowledged. "Whether because he wishes to thank me for providing him a means to stay employed while remaining with Calya, or because he is simply a good person with good intentions, he has kept his ears and eyes out around Knanan City Starport, on Fibuli. He still frequents drinking establishments after hours with our ship crews, and it's through him he's been able to glean a few important bits of information that might be of some concern to the Jedi Order."
"Off-world traders and freighter captains have been popping up in regions of the galaxy that are not affiliated with the Remnant or New Republic due to what is being described as 'sour deals'. No direct mention of the Imperial Remnant has been made, but the fact that these men and women are being contacted with job offers to move historical artifacts to Remnant-controlled planets more or less confirms they have a hand in it."
"'Historical artifacts,'" Syrra repeated skeptically. "If the Circle has been hiring civilian workers to move Force-infused items for them, then they're ramping up their plans." She glanced at Kajex. "What do you think?"
"I think you're right," Kajex agreed. "They've either stumbled onto a breakthrough with kolto and are trying to get some distance before we catch up, or they're working on a time-frame, the clock is running out for them and they're getting desperate enough to hire civilians instead of specialists. It'd probably explain why Ulfric had been popping up more frequently before Locke put an end to him, not to mention more blatant sightings of Dark Jedi throughout the galaxy."
"Which means more people are at risk of getting hurt," Talrik intoned around his food. "If these traders and cargo haulers aren't going to the New Republic, it's probably because they don't want to be seen as being associated with the Empire- or because the Remnant would go out of their way to track them into Republic space, so it'd be better to hide where they don't have eyes and ears."
"Well, that's not the only thing that has come to my attention," Aarn said gravely. "Some of the troubled voices in the establishments and hangars Markus has been monitoring include treasure hunters, explorers and archaeologists. Unfortunate as it may be, some such people are not above grave-robbing or violating planetary cultures to get what they want, or what they are paid to get. They have been sent to many worlds that are purported to have Jedi or Sith influence- searching for the lost planet of Tython, digging through the ruins of a Jedi Enclave on Dantooine, infiltrating the ruins of a planet named Dromund Kaas, or investigating the planet of Katarr."
Syrra frowned. "'Dromund Kaas... Locke mentioned that planet. It's where Revan and Malak encountered the Sith Emperor, isn't it?" She glanced at Kajex, noticing a worried expression on his face. "What's wrong?"
Kajex swallowed. "Yeah, I remember hearing that. That's not the planet that scares me."
"Which one concerns you, then, Captain?" asked Iaora.
"Katarr. I've heard the story about it- Bran told me what happened thousands of years ago."
"What was that?" inquired Talrik.
The wolf said nothing for a moment. "... In a word? Genocide." He leaned back, sighing and pushing his plate away.
"Bran hadn't always been a mercenary. His mentor had actually been a scholar on Coruscant, studying ancient cultures and races that ceased to exist in the galaxy. It was through his mentor that he learned about Katarr, where a genocide had taken place during the First Jedi Purge, around 4,000 years ago. As Bran told me, it was many years after the Mandalorian Wars, and after the Jedi Civil War, when the Sith started revealing themselves again. Revan and Malak's war against the Jedi had weakened the Republic and soured public perception against the Jedi, such that they were blamed and ignored despite the fact that they were nearly completely destroyed."
"The way Bran tells it, there were three Sith called the Triumvirate, who wanted to finish the Jedi off for good. Among them was a Sith Lord named Darth Nihilus, a man with the ability to feed off the Force energy of other beings. He would be known among those who studied his history as the Lord of Hunger, drawn to places of great Force influence, or rich with Force-sensitive life, where he would feed from them to bolster his abilities, leaving behind bodies in his wake."
"The story goes that while the Jedi Order was getting desperate, losing a lot of its already depleted numbers to the Triumvirate's attacks, most of its masters had gone into hiding or gone to investigate unusual disturbances elsewhere throughout the galaxy that might provide clues to their attackers. Many of those masters are said to have never returned. But one of them, a Jedi Master named Atris, devised a cruel strategy to lure the Sith out of hiding, where she and the Jedi could strike at them and destroy them once and for all."
"Her plan was to gather all the remaining Jedi, some hundred or so members, to a conclave on the planet of Katarr, which at the time had been a colony for the Miraluka- the human species that Lieutenant Miles belongs to, beings who lack eyes because they see through the Force. Her plan was to bring them in under the guise of discussing the future of the Jedi Order- in reality... they were all bait. Knowing that the Sith were drawn to planets rich with life and Force sensitivity, she leaked information about the meeting and prepared to strike."
"Her plan... backfired. In the worst way possible."
Syrra's ears drooped. "How?"
"As I said- Darth Nihilus was the Lord of Hunger, feeding off the Force of other beings, draining them of all life. Atris didn't even need to leak the information, and hadn't yet arrived to meet the other Jedi when Nihilus himself came out of hyperspace and remained in orbit. How it happened is still a mystery, but it only took a matter of moments for everything... everything... to die. Stripped completely clean of the Force, so that even today, not a single native life form lives on its surface."
"Nihilus would eventually be destroyed by another Jedi, one who would rebuild the Order from the ground up just like Luke Skywalker is doing today. But what happened on that planet is an atrocity so deep and evil that it's never going to heal- or if it does, it'll take a lot of lifetimes to fix it. The act endangered the Miraluka to the point that they became more concerned in Republic and Jedi affairs afterwards, fearful that something like that would happen again. The main point, though, is that it's a place that people avoid for a reason- there's nothing there to see except bones or dust, unless you're looking for something Jedi related that the Empire hasn't already found."
Kajex paused, his golden eyes seeming to go out of focus as he spoke. "Bran was sent there, once. He left me and Kane behind to wait for him while he took the ship and investigated. That was when he told me about its history. Before he left, he made me promise that if he didn't return, to not go looking for him. I promised him I wouldn't, but he ended up coming back after all. He didn't want to talk about what he had seen there, and I was smart enough not to ask. But I'll never forget the look on his face when he returned to us- he was nearly driven to tears, like he had been worried the entire time that he'd never see us again. And I'll never forget the look in his eyes, the eyes of a man that's been haunted by horrors too personal and terrifying to share with anyone else."
Everyone had finished their meal before Kajex had started, and nobody stirred as the wolf stared distantly, saying nothing more for a while. After a few minutes of silence, he straightened up, clearing his throat. "Bran used to tell me that when events of enormous destruction happen, it leaves 'wounds' in the Force. Has anyone here heard of the Echoes of Alderaan?"
Syrra nodded. "I have. Lynch told me about them."
"2 billion people, vaporized in half a moment. That many lives in so short a time-span, ended so violently... they don't just cease to be. They leave behind pain and suffering. The Graveyard of Alderaan tends to have a disturbing effect on Force-sensitives- they can hear and sometimes feel that pain and fear, and can feel how the Force in that area is warped and twisted from so much death on such a large scale." Kajex shivered. "Katarr as a planet wasn't destroyed- but the same effect occurred there, I'm almost certain. It would explain why no life remains on the surface, and hasn't since the Devastation occurred."
He looked up, seeing everyone's faces, all of them troubled or concerned. He cleared his throat. "I'm sorry... I didn't mean to spoil the mood like this."
"Not at all," Iaora assured him. "You know the seriousness of the situation, and while it may be sobering it's also a blessing- you know what you can tell Master Skywalker now. Surely that can only be considered a positive, yes?"
The wolf took in a breath and nodded, managing a smile. "I guess you're right. Wouldn't be the first time they've met something on this scale. Just gotta stay positive."
Before he could continue, a brown-furred female Trianii trotted in at a brisk pace, bowing quickly. "<I'm sorry to interrupt, Aarn, but I believe we may have a problem,>" she chirped anxiously, looking concerned.
Aarn frowned. "<What seems to be the matter, Loka?>"
She glanced at the table and switched to Basic out of politeness for their guests, speaking quickly. "You instructed me to inform you if anyone came to call and to send them away if possible. Someone contacted the estate shortly before arrival- it's... it's Matriarch Bast, sir."
Kajex glanced at Syrra, who seemed to look sick to her stomach at the news. "She... but why is she...?"
Loka looked apologetic. "I'm sorry, Jedi Syrra- Bast is someone I could not turn away. By law she goes where she will, but I do not think she knows you and your companions are here."
Iaora groaned, her paws to her face. "No, she will know Syrra is here. You told us earlier you spent a night in Denhaven Starport, Captain Surnahm- she would have waited for the Gold Rush to return, and then it would simply be a matter of knowing the few places Syrra would go to. Bast knows Syrra would come here first before anywhere else."
Kajex frowned. "But... I had her rechristened to that name after I left Ekibo. How could she know?"
Iaora smiled wanly. "Captain, you do not know my sister like I do- you should consider yourself lucky if you've never known anyone so intrusive. She would go out of her way to find out anything that would net her a political advantage, including the names of potential allies and enemies- even if that means having eyes and ears outside of Trianii space. She will know by now the Rushin' Roulette is now the Gold Rush."
Talrik looked confused. "Wait... why is this a problem? It's just Syrra's mother, it's not like she'd be anything but happy to see her kid around." He looked at each of them, ears going flat against his head as he noticed their worried expressions. "... Right?"
Kajex sighed, putting a finger up to the gold, blue and white beads fitted around a lock of hair in his bangs. "It's because of these, kit. The moment Bast sees Syrra and I with matching devotion beads, she's going to know she and I are together. And she's probably not going to like it, if Syrra's been straight with us about how her mother wants her to succeed her politically."
The Trianii Jedi hid her face in her paws, ears flat against her head. "The moment she puts 2 and 2 together, she'll go ballistic." She looked back up at the servant. "How long do I have before she arrives?"
Loka cringed. "5 minutes, ma'am."
Iaora stiffened. "Do you intend to leave so soon, cub?"
Syrra paused, taking in a deep breath- she knew she would have to do something this sooner or later, but at no point had she ever considered running from it. If it had to happen now, she was determined to stand up to the challenge. She rose from her seat, looking to Kajex. "I'm not leaving. I wish I had more time to prepare, that's all. But if it has to be now, I can be ready before then."
The wolf stared up at her, a warm smile slowly forming on his muzzle. "You're not going to run away from this, are you," he said. "Even if it means you won't have your mother's approval, you're going to stand and let her know?"
Syrra nodded. "I'll let her know. As far as I'm concerned," she said, looking at Iaora fondly, "I already have my mother's approval. You told me, mother, that she made a statement long ago- that she could take any advantage over you, show you she could force anything or anyone to her will. This is my statement- that she can't use me or my family."
Kajex leaned back. "Hold on, kitten. Remember, this is Aarn's and Iaora's place, and their business. You make a stand here, they might end up having to pay for it. You told us Bast was trying to squeeze into their affairs." He looked to Aarn. "Is that true?"
"Unfortunately, yes," Aarn admitted. "But I entered my business because I believe in compassion, not credits. I will gladly go without if it means supporting Syrra."
"And your employees?" Kajex asked.
Loka stepped forward. "We joined Aarn's business because we believe in what he does. He has always helped us get by, has always put our needs before his- I know I, at least, support him helping his own kin for a change."
"We could just head to the Gold Rush and book it," Talrik suggested hesitantly. "Avoid a confrontation outright and..." he trailed off as he saw the disappointed look Syrra was giving him. "... Or not."
"I'm not ashamed of being with Kajex, and I'm not ashamed that I'm physically intimate with you either, Talrik. I'm not going to hide who and what I am simply because a woman who is kin to me only by blood may not accept how I choose to live my life. She can't ruin it."
Iaora stood. "Take care, cub. Your mother is still a politician, and she's perfectly capable of ruining other people's lives. I don't want to believe she ever would, but at the same time... I fear for you and your companions." She walked forward, putting her paws on the Padawan's shoulders and fixing a worried stare at her. "I will stand by you every moment express my support, even against her. And I will make it clear that regardless of your birth... you are my daughter. Yet I would advise you, child, not to antagonize her- deal with her the way a Jedi would, with peace and wisdom, and not with animosity."
Kajex got up. "If you're going to do this, Syrra, I'll be here too. Though we should probably do it in steps. I'll wait here with Aarn and Talrik while you and your mom greet your... uh... mom, first."
Aarn nodded. "I agree. When she inevitably notices, you'll have time to prepare her for the shock."
"Then you might wish to hurry, ma'am," Loka said respectfully to Iaora. "She'll be here soon by speeder."
Kajex watched the three female Trianii leave for the manor entrance, sighing as Syrra gave him a reassuring smile before disappearing. He could not pretend that he wasn't exceptionally nervous about everything. He knew Aarn and Iaora, recognized them as good people who thought well of him- and yet everything he heard about Syrra's mother concerned him. He'd known politicians in his life, perhaps not personally but knew how efficient and troublesome they could be.
Aarn grabbed his shoulder and squeezed. "Buck up, lad. I doubt Bast will be pleased in any regard about your relationship with Syrra, but you have the support of the people who matter." He steered the wolf away from the table and led him towards the hallway, gesturing for Talrik to follow.
The Amaran got to his feet and trailed behind them as they walked through the cool halls of the manor, the path dimly lit with overhead torches. "Okay, so... does someone want to explain who Syrra's mother is, now? I'm getting mildly confused here."
Aarn nodded. "Bast is Syrra's mother by blood. It means little to Syrra, she has always preferred to be among Iaora when she's had a choice. She has always considered Syrra to be a daughter to her, and I guess they've been doing plenty of talking lately about how close she was to Syrra's father, Ka'un."
Kajex cocked his head. "How close is 'close'?"
Aarn grinned. "He was cheating on Bast with Iaora. Frequently."
Talrik gaped. "Holy shit, really? And you didn't mind?"
Aarn shook his head. "I wasn't married to Iaora at the time, and even though I knew I had no intention of telling anyone, least of all the Matriarch- particularly since she more or less used Ka'un for political gain. Ka'un was my friend. I respected and loved him like a brother, and seeing the cold union between them was... well, let's just say I don't always mean what I say when I speak positively about Bast," he grunted. "Anyway, Syrra loves her aunt deeply, far deeper than she loves her birth-mother. I was expecting something like this, their bond being redefined into parent and child, to happen for years now."
"How do you feel about that?" Kajex asked.
"Syrra is my niece. I don't see her exactly as my daughter- but that doesn't mean I don't love and care about her. It's just that my relationship with her has never been as deep as her relationship with Ka'un and Iaora, though it's been as close as it can be between an uncle and niece. To be honest, Syrra has always seemed like the daughter Iaora and Ka'un would have had if she had been capable of conception." He smiled as he opened the door to a well-decorated, comfortable lounge and gestured to a couple of seats. "Make yourselves comfortable. All that's left now is to wait."
Kajex swallowed. "Is there any advice you can offer me about how to talk to her? Should I speak Trianii to her to be respectful?"
Aarn shook his head. "By the Force, no- she might take offense to the idea of an off-worlder knowing our language as well as you do, Captain." He sighed. "All I can offer as advice is that you should be honest. She may not like the truth, but she'll like it less if you try to hide it from her."
The wolf groaned. "Do you have something stiff to drink? I need some liquid courage."
Aarn grinned. "Give me a moment, and you'll be ready."