The man was spread out on the bed like a gift, or a warning. Scarlet cloth spilled across his lap. He was wearing nothing else.
Baze looked from the man to his own hand, still hovering over the keypad that operated the door.
"Um," said Baze. They'd said the door was keyed to his palmprint. "I was told to come … "
He looked back at the occupant and realised three things in quick succession:
The man was blind.
He was extremely, almost offensively, attractive.
The red fabric was translucent.
"I got the wrong room," said Baze. "Sorry. I'll go."
"No, wait," said the man. He scrambled to his feet, grabbing at the cloth and knotting it across his waist. This only served to emphasise everything in the vicinity of the cloth, none of which was remotely decent. It took Baze a moment to register what he was saying.
"I'm your host," said the stranger. "Did they not tell you about me?"
It was his first time taking a job for the Hutts. He'd delayed it as long as he could, but his financial situation had grown untenable, and the Hutts paid better than anyone else for the type of services Baze could provide.
Leaving aside the Empire. Baze had gone through some shit, but there were still some things that were unthinkable.
The transport carried a few Hutt heirs and a significant amount of illicit goods. Baze was only one of the guards hired to oversee onplanet excursions and transactions. He'd been told they'd be put up in luxury – security detail on a voyage like this was said to consist of acute boredom, interspersed with violent bouts of activity, and casualties were high. He'd been looking forward to being able to take a shower with actual water.
"Host," said Baze.
"Yes. I've been detailed to look after your needs," explained the man. He raised an eyebrow. "All your needs."
"Understood," said Baze. "But I don't need a host." What he really wanted was a shower. Especially now he'd seen the man. "You can tell them I sent you away."
The man's face fell. "Do you not – have you no interest in the sport of cloud and rain?"
A suspicion had been growing on Baze. It was now confirmed.
It should have put him on his guard. But he was so busy trying to work out what it meant, while simultaneously ignoring the fact that the red fabric was slipping, that he did something he would later have cause to regret. He told the truth.
"No," he said. "Sex is fine, just not – I'm not interested in sleeping with people who've been paid for it."
"You are in luck, my friend!" said the man, pleased. "I am not paid a single credit to be your host. I'm a slave," he added by way of explanation.
Baze should have refused to be led any further, but:
"I definitely do not sleep with people who are enslaved!" he said.
The man's forehead creased.
"Don't you want me?" he said.
The answer to this, unfortunately and despite everything, was yes. It had been a while since the last time Baze had – and he had never, with anyone who looked like that.
He kept his gaze trained on the stranger's face, more for his own benefit than for the stranger's, since he presumably had no idea where Baze was looking. (Not down. Not down ... )
How had the Hutts known to get a man? What did they know about Baze? He should be careful not to –
The man took a step forward and Baze caught a glimpse of metal out of the corner of his eye. He said:
"Stop. What's that?"
He reached out, his knuckles brushing the soft skin at the hollow of the stranger's throat. A startling sunny smile broke out on the man's face, but it wavered when Baze grabbed the pendant hanging around his neck.
"What is this?" said Baze.
"Oh, I … " The stranger reached up, but his hands fell before they reached Baze's. He looked annoyed. "That's nothing. Just a memento."
"You got this on Jedha," said Baze. There was a roaring in his ears. Spy, he thought. Assassin. But who could he have pissed off enough to make them track him down to a Hutt transport? Surely not that slumlord back on Jedha …
"How did you know that – ?" said the stranger, but he was just realising what Baze had clocked a couple of minutes ago. They didn't have the same accent, exactly: a multiplicity of dialects had been spoken on Jedha, meeting-place of ten thousand religions. But there was a family resemblance in the way their voices landed against the foreign vowels and consonants of Galactic Basic.
Baze had known it for sure the moment the man talked about the sport of cloud and rain. Nobody had as many flowery euphemisms for the act of sexual congress as the peoples of Jedha. It came from all the religious repression.
"Wait," said Baze's alleged host. "What's your name?"
"What's your name?"
"We slaves don't have names," said the stranger. He lifted his chin, said breathily, "You can call me whatever you want."
"I want," said Baze, "to call you by your name."
The man said, "You can call me Qi."
"OK, Qi," said Baze. He yanked at the pendant, jerking the man closer. The milky eyes widened, but Qi didn't look afraid. "How did you come by a starbird from Jedha?"
"Hm," said Qi. "How did you know it was a starbird from Jedha?"
He was starting to smile, as though they were playing a game.
Baze's own face didn't seem to understand the seriousness of the situation. Ridiculously, he felt the corners of his mouth start to lift. He forced them down again, glaring at Qi.
"You're not very compliant for a slave," he said.
"My job description doesn't require me to be compliant," said Qi haughtily. "I'm a courtesan, not a service droid."
Baze could foresee this going on for a while. He didn't actually want to menace the man. He didn't want any trouble. All he wanted was to get clean and have a rest.
"I'll let you stay in this room if you tell me," he said.
"This is my room," declared Qi. "You don't have any power to kick me out. I come with the room."
"I could ask for another room," Baze pointed out.
There was a pause. Then:
"I'm from Jedha," said Qi reluctantly.
"That's not all," said Baze. He'd been trying not to look down at the man's only piece of clothing, but it struck him now that this reticence was idiotic. He grabbed at the fabric and it unravelled in his hands.
He brought it up to his eyes, studying the weave.
Qi said, hesitating, "So you do want a host … ?"
Baze raised his face. "This is from a Temple of the Whills."
"Yes," said Qi. "How did you – "
They both spoke at the same time.
"You're a Guardian," said Baze.
"You're from the Temple of NiJedha," said Qi. "I thought I recognised that accent – but I'm not a Guardian, I only ever reached the second duan." He seemed delighted. "Brother!"
He couldn't be an assassin or a spy, not if he'd been a novitiate. Jedha had fallen, but it hadn't fallen that far. And now Baze looked at him properly, not through the distorting lens of embarrassment or the haze of desire, he could see the man was a Guardian from head to toe – the close-cropped hair; the self-possessed manner; the exquisite form and the lightness on his feet, evidence of years of training.
Guardian was – had been – only a courtesy title for those who had not passed the third duan. But everyone at the Temple had addressed one another as siblings in the Force.
"Don't call me that," said Baze. "There is no longer a Temple at NiJedha, and I am no Guardian either."
"The Temple of the Kyber will live forever," said Qi, in a tone of gentle reproof, "so long as it lives on in our hearts."
Baze wasn't sure he had a heart anymore, but in any case this didn't seem to merit a response. Qi didn't give him time to formulate one anyway.
"Fancy meeting someone from the sangha here," he marvelled. "The Force is great! What is your name, brother? Who were your preceptors? Which duan did you attain?"
Baze had better questions. "How did you get here?"
"The Hutts captured me," said Qi. "They told me I could work for them as a guard or I could go into entertainment, and I thought entertainment sounded more comfortable.
"I thought I might do crosstalk at the ship bar," he explained. "But it turned out they were thinking of something else."
It was easier for Baze to look at him now, protected from his own base reactions by anger and pity. There was a sacredness to a Guardian's physical beauty: it was an ideal made flesh, a perfection inspired by and dedicated to the Force. Baze might have lost his faith long ago, but he still understood that Qi had made of himself what he was for more than the ends of carnal lust.
"That's," said Baze.
He didn't have words for what he felt, but Qi seemed to understand.
"It's tough," he agreed. He shook his head. "Nobody seems to want to have sex with me. I would've done better as a comedian."
Baze blinked. After a moment of internal recalibration, he said, "I find that hard to believe."
Qi brightened. "Do you?"
"I meant you would have made a poor comedian," said Baze shortly. He was going to have to be much more careful if he was going to survive this voyage.
He bunched up the red fabric in his hands. It was an inner cloak, woven and prayed over by novitiates, and it seemed even now to have the scent of incense infused within its threads. He pushed it into the man's hands and turned away.
"Where are you going?" said Qi.
"I'm going to take a shower."
"Oh," said Qi. Baze could feel the man's focus, trained on his back like a searchlight. "You're sure you don't want me to join you?"
"Yes. I'm sure."
"It's your choice," said Qi. Before Baze could get into the refresher (his own refresher. Who needed a slave devoted to your every whim, when you had a refresher all to yourself?), the host said:
"But what do I call you, brother?"
"Not brother," said Baze. "If you have to call me anything – "
"I could call you master."
"You'll call me Mal," said Baze. He made the mistake of looking back at Qi.
The host smiled. All of Baze's worthy thoughts about the holiness of physical perfection flew away like a startled flock of birds. They were replaced by a mental image of what it would be like to be joined in the shower by Qi – an image vivid and crowded with detail, down to every last quivering drop of water on his skin.
"Well met, Mal," said Qi. He knotted the cloak around his narrow waist again, his face still lit by the remnants of that smile. He looked like he was enjoying a secret joke.
Baze was mistaken if he thought Qi was going to give up on being what he considered a proper host. When Baze stolidly ignored the man walking around in nothing but that red cloak, Qi tried walking around in nothing at all.
When this didn't move Baze either – or at least, not enough to result in action – Qi tried emotional blackmail.
"You know," he said, "they'll check me to see if we've had sex."
Baze's head whipped up. "What?"
Qi looked taken aback.
"Uh," he said. "I was just joking. They wouldn't actually check me.
"The woman I used to report to might have done," he said, almost wistfully. "She was very conscientious. I know she was thinking of introducing physical check-ups. Making sure we were clean, you know, and we weren't slacking off. But she was killed in crossfire last month and they haven't been able to recruit a new Hospitality Manager, so now there's nobody in charge of the hosts. We have a dotted line to Events, but they don't care what we do so long as nobody lodges a complaint."
"You – " Baze was not going to pull out his hair over an unhinged novitiate who hadn't even passed the third duan. "Then why does it matter if I have sex with you or not? I'm not going to lodge a damn complaint. I told you, the only thing I care about is that you don't use up the water in the 'fresher."
"It's a matter of professional pride," said Qi. "I care about doing my job, even if nobody else cares. The Force put me here for a reason."
"You don't really believe the Force wants you to be a sex slave bound to the Hutts?" said Baze.
Qi folded his arms. "It's not for me to second guess the Force's intentions. I only seek to carry out its will."
"Who were your preceptors?" Baze demanded.
Qi gave the impression of being like a pool of clear water -- transparent all the way down. Yet somehow Baze never got an answer.
Qi's faith in the Force seemed undented despite his horrific circumstances. He took to singing horrible songs which he claimed were serenades, always off-key, but it didn't take Baze long to work out what these actually were.
"I know what you're singing," he said one morning.
He didn't actually have to be awake yet. He'd taken the graveyard shift the last three cycles and he was due a cycle off, thanks to generous Hutt working conditions. But Qi had been crooning to himself for the past two hours and Baze had just had a moment of enlightenment.
"Hmm?" said Qi from the floor.
They'd had a fight over the bed and Qi had won, so Baze had got the bed. Maybe Qi knew how good he looked sprawled on the floor, his limbs entangled in thin sheets.
Baze stared at the ceiling. "It's not a serenade. It's the fifteenth exposition of the Kyber Sutra. I learnt it too."
There was a brief silence.
"I wasn't lying," said Qi defensively. "It's set to the tune of The Man From Tatooine. Do you know the song? 'There once was a man from Tatooine, who was cursed with an enormous pe–'"
"If the Force actually had the powers you claim, it would have struck you down by now," said Baze. "You would have been scourged for blasphemy at the Temple of NiJedha. How did you even pass the second duan?"
"I charmed the examiners," said Qi.
Baze snorted. "Yeah, right."
He'd managed to strike the right tone of incredulity, but in truth he could see it happening. After all, Baze had always thought of himself as possessing a certain measure of willpower. Yet he had been fighting Qi's draw on him and losing.
There were some places he wouldn't go. Some things he wouldn't do, degraded as he now was. But there was no reason Qi should suffer, if Baze could control himself.
Baze sat up in bed. "Hey. Come up here."
He could see the shape of Qi's body, gone still under his sheets. "You're sure?"
"Don't get any ideas," said Baze. "But we might as well both be warm. There's enough space."
Qi was polite, even tentative, sliding into bed next to Baze. He didn't make any moves, though his foot knocked Baze's as they rearranged their respective limbs.
Baze said, "You're freezing. You should have said."
"I'm the host," said Qi. He seemed uncharacteristically subdued. Whether it was because he'd been found out in the act of blasphemy, or because Baze had wrongfooted him with this invitation, Baze couldn't tell. "It's your comfort that matters."
"I'm fine," lied Baze.
He hadn't quite accounted for the effect a sleepy Qi in close proximity would have on him. Qi wore a pair of thin linen trousers. This was somehow more alluring than if he had worn nothing at all.
To take his mind off this, Baze said, "The Man From Tatooine is a bawdy song. That's different from a serenade. It's not sexy."
"I guess I don't know what counts as sexy," he said. He added, without much hope, "You could teach me."
"I don't know," said Baze. This was another lie. With Qi right next to him, he knew.
They'd shared a bed for three successive cycles when Qi greeted Baze upon his return to their room with unusual seriousness.
"We need to talk," he said.
"Force," said Baze. He'd spent the whole day onplanet scooping obnoxious Huttlets out of danger. He massaged his forehead.
"I'm not joking, Mal," said Qi. He squared his shoulders. "It's no longer a matter of professional pride. I just want to sleep with you. Surely it must be acceptable if I want you."
Baze froze, his fingers digging into his temples.
The hosts must be trained to say things like that. But a second thought followed on the heels of the first: if Qi had received any training for his role, he couldn't have been paying much attention.
A combination of years of strenuous religious devotion and the genetic lottery had blessed him with beauty. Otherwise, Qi boasted no advantages as a host. He was about as charming as a heat rash. He had as much sex appeal as a Hutt had to anyone who was not another Hutt. And he was abysmal at taking any thought for Baze's actual wants or needs.
Baze didn't talk much to the other guards, but he listened. Their hosts brought them heated wine, played them enchanting music on the flute, gave them massages and listened to their problems.
Qi, on the other hand, lounged around in inadequate clothing, doing body-weight exercises and praying incessantly to the tune of filthy drinking songs. When Baze had discovered that each of the guards' rooms had its own bar, he'd asked Qi where the drinks were kept. Qi had looked bemused.
"I have no idea," he said. "Do we really have drinks? They didn't design these rooms for blind people."
Baze knew by now that none of the hosts were allowed out of their rooms except under strict guard. Qi had talked about all the planets they'd passed that he had never got to visit. The stars that had flashed past, unexplored.
"I thought there were provisions in here for you," said Baze. "If you don't know where they are, what have you been living on?"
"The Force provides," said Qi. "I have friends in the canteen who bring me food and drink." He looked as though he'd spoken without thinking and now regretted it.
"Don't tell anyone," he said. "I'm not supposed to talk to people, or receive anyone here except you."
Baze said, insulted, "Who do you think I'm going to tell?"
The next time he'd come back he'd brought Qi some of the food the guards were served – better food than Baze had eaten in years before he started this job. He'd sat at the other end of the room and pretended he wasn't obsessively watching Qi swallow.
It was his duty to be careful. To protect the vulnerable.
He said now, "How do you even know you want me when you can't see me?"
Baze knew it was a stupid question the moment it was out. But Qi didn't seem offended. He said simply:
"I like the way the Force moves around you. What it shows me about you. The way you smell. Your voice. And … " He hesitated, then reached out and touched Baze on the chest. Just the lightest graze of the fingertips.
Baze didn't move. Qi's hand slid across Baze's chest, over his shoulder and down his arm, fingers curling over the bicep.
"This," said Qi.
Baze stood still, feeling his heart tremble in his chest.
"What – " He cleared his throat. "What does the Force show you about me?"
Qi paused. "Are you sure you want to know?"
"Why wouldn't I?"
Qi shrugged. "You might find it embarrassing."
"I think," said Baze, "we've exhausted the potential for awkwardness between us."
"Fine." Qi's hand was still on his arm. He said, "The Force shows me that your heart is heavy. You're too gentle for what the world has become."
Baze looked at the crown of Qi's head. If Baze kissed it, that would be nothing. You did as much when giving a blessing.
He could almost feel the brush of Qi's hair against his cheek.
"I could help lighten your cares," said Qi. "I wouldn't – we wouldn't have to do anything you didn't want, but are you sure you don't – you don't want – "
Baze shook off Qi's hand.
No blessings. He wasn't a monk anymore.
He remembered enough to know the language Qi would understand, though.
"Would it be OK if I was an elder and you were a novitiate?" he said. His voice felt unnaturally loud after the quiet between them.
Qi looked horrified. "No!"
"So that's your answer."
"It's not like that."
"Are you telling me you haven't been forced by the Hutts to be a sex slave?" said Baze.
Qi frowned. "How old are you?"
Baze made the mistake of telling him.
"I'm 32 standard years," said Qi. "That's no difference at all."
Baze pointed an admonitory finger at Qi. Qi wouldn't see it, but it was some relief to his feelings.
"It's not about our respective ages," said Baze, "and you know it."
"Mal … "
"You've had your answer," said Baze. He turned. "This conversation is over."
He went into the 'fresher. It seemed to be the only place a man could get some peace.
He knew he wouldn't be able to hold out. Qi wasn't giving up – he continued making it obvious, in ways subtle and not so subtle, that any time Baze wanted, he would be there.
And Baze was subject to a debilitating handicap. He wanted Qi back.
If they'd met at the Temple, back in the day … but the Baze of that time would never have looked at someone who didn't have sufficient seriousness to get past the second duan.
So he thought. But he hadn't met Qi then. Who knew? Qi had a way of upending all his expectations.
He should have gone to the ship bar when he was done with the assignment. It had been a long, dirty, exhausting day and the other guards had reacted by engaging in disgusting talk about their hosts. They'd gone into lubricious detail, each trying to upstage the other, while Baze had tried not to listen and stewed in his failure.
But the guards had gone on to the bar. There was nowhere safe in this fucking transport. Baze stormed back to his room, hating the marks his upbringing had left on him. Fury was a dull omnipresent ache at his temples.
He was no longer a Guardian, but he still had all a Guardian's hang-ups. It was the worst possible condition to be in, but if he gave up his few remaining constraints, there really would be nothing left of Baze Malbus. He had to cling to something.
Not Qi. But there were, must be, ways … so long as he was careful, so long as he didn't let himself …
His resolution was formed by the time the door opened, revealing Qi in bed.
Qi was sitting up, his eyes half-shut. He was completely clothed for once, wearing a cruddy old robe, faded yet stained despite its many washings. This time he was murmuring the fourth exposition of the Kyber Sutra. The tune sounded like The Nubile Young Candidates for Elected Monarch of Naboo.
"Long day?" said Qi.
Baze let the door close behind him before he said, "Take off your clothes." He hit the switch to lock the door.
Baze's voice seemed to come from somewhere outside himself. He could hear its harshness. "You don't have to."
"I – no, I – " Qi raised his hands to his robe. Baze watched as he undid the tie and slithered out of it. He was somewhat less elegant about getting out of his trousers, but Baze didn't mind.
Qi stretched his bare legs out on top of the blanket. He said uncertainly, "Are you … ?"
"You don't have to," repeated Baze. He sat down at a safe distance.
A safe distance. What lies Baze told himself.
"Can you hear me?" he said.
"We do this willingly," said Baze, "or not at all."
Qi no longer looked apprehensive or unsure. Calm had settled over him. He wore the same expression as he did when meditating. Focused and removed.
"Together," he said.
Baze shook his head, even though Qi couldn't see him. "Pretend I'm not here."
Qi barked a laugh, but Baze said:
"What I'd do. If I could."
He told Qi.
Baze had genuinely believed he hadn't been thinking about it. He was good at not thinking about things. He'd had a lot of practice. And he could say, hand on heart, that his conscious mind had been free of lurid fancies. He'd been careful. He knew thought could translate to action all too easily.
But it was evident that his subconscious had nonetheless been at work the whole time. The words spilled out of him without any effort, the images springing to life, fully formed. As though they had happened, as though he'd let himself – as though he could –
"I'd kiss you," he heard himself say, "all over. Your throat. Your nipples. Your wrists. Your thighs."
He was saying words he'd never said out loud before. His headache had disappeared.
Qi didn't touch himself. His hands lay on either side of him, twitching whenever Baze said something particularly filthy.
Baze didn't ask Qi to touch himself, though he wanted to. There were a lot of things Baze wanted and couldn't have. That was his life now. They'd both have to deal with it as best they could.
It was when Baze growled, "You'd look so good with my cock in your ass" that Qi came, surprising them both. He clenched his fists, flinging his head back, and ground backwards into the bed, his hips moving helplessly. His cock pulsed on his stomach, untouched.
"Keep talking," he gasped, but Baze shut up and watched, unblinking.
He needed to imprint this on his memory. When the voyage was over – and there wasn't that much time left – he would never see Qi again. Baze would probably launch a suicidal rescue attempt if Qi asked it of him, but he hadn't asked and Baze hadn't suggested it, for fear of the answer.
Qi seemed happy here. Even if that was due to brainwashing – an unhealthy coping mechanism – how much better would a blind sex slave who wasn't very good at what he did manage in the world outside? What else was there for him in a galaxy riven by war and horror?
He could have Baze. He had Baze. He would have Baze for the rest of Baze's life. That wasn't much of a bargain, compared to a life of reasonable security, with warmth, adequate food, mysterious friends in the canteen.
Baze, on the other hand, would carry this desire with him until the day he died. That was the way with unsated desire and unvented grief. Baze would never be able to kill all the people who had destroyed the Temple and outraged the sacred ground of Jedha. He would never be able to make love to Qi.
Another damn burden to bear.
He couldn't bring himself to regret it.
"Force," whispered Qi when he'd spent himself. He sat up and held out his hand. "Mal."
Baze didn't move. Qi's face twisted.
"You can't," he said. "You cannot seriously still – "
Now more than ever, thought Baze. He was starting to emerge from the fit that had come upon him. He had an uneasy feeling that maybe his ingenious work-around wasn't as OK as he'd tried to believe.
"This changes nothing," he said. "Remember the elder and the novitiate."
For once Qi lost his perpetual irritating serenity. He flung himself back against the bed, making an inarticulate noise somewhere between a groan and a scream.
"Who are you?" he demanded. "What duan did you reach?"
"People at the Temple were too obsessed with duans," said Baze. "That wasn't the point – "
"Only high-ranked Guardians talk like that," said Qi. "Which duan? 10th? 12th?" A thought struck him. He said in an appalled whisper:
"You're not one of the Abbots, are you?"
"Force, no!" said Baze, aghast. "Why would you even – no! I only passed the eighth duan."
"The eighth duan, at our age?" said Qi. "That's seriously impressive." He leant back against the headboard. A light broke across his face.
"Wait," he said. "Wait, wait. Mal. Are you Baze Malbus?"
Baze stiffened. "How did you hear of that name?"
"My eyes may not work, but my ears do," said Qi. "I knew all the Temple gossip."
His mouth stretched in an incredulous grin. "Force forgive me if I ever doubted its power! I can't believe Baze Malbus told me he would suck my – "
"I never said I was Baze Malbus!"
"It all makes so much sense," said Qi, ignoring him. "Everyone said you were the most correct Guardian the Temple at NiJedha had ever seen. The most devoted, their brightest star – "
"I don't want to talk about those days."
There must have been something in Baze's voice that carried conviction. Qi stopped talking.
He got up and wiped himself off in silence. Pulled on his trousers and came over to Baze.
"I apologise," said Qi formally. He reached out and touched Baze's shoulder, just checking where he was. Then he sank to the floor, putting his forehead on Baze's knee.
Baze would have liked to touch his hair. He would forgive Qi so long as he didn't move any closer. Their talk of the Temple had had a salutary effect in dampening Baze's ardour somewhat, but he was still painfully aroused.
Of course, Qi could never let any fucking thing lie where it should.
"We could," he said. "If you wanted … "
"You're stopping that," said Baze, "or I'm leaving the room."
Qi only nodded. Baze could feel the movement against his knee. Then Qi rose to his feet and went to sit on the bed, his head hanging low.
Baze couldn't tell if this was genuine distress on Qi's part, or emotional manipulation. Probably the latter. He still found himself moving towards Qi.
He sat down next to him, cautiously.
"Are you all right?" said Baze.
He should remember that he was in the wrong. He'd promised himself he wouldn't do anything to Qi. What they'd done definitely counted as anything, no matter what he'd told himself in the lust-blurred moments before.
"It's fine," said Qi, and Baze knew it wasn't manipulation – or at least, not that alone. "It's just … I'm really bad at this."
"It's nothing to do with you," said Baze, even though Qi was right that he was, in fact, very bad at this. "I – "
"No, Baze," said Qi. "It's not just you."
Baze had meant to tell Qi that he should still call him Mal, if he had to call him anything. But he found he liked the way Qi said his name. It sounded good in his voice.
"Don't tell anyone," said Qi. "But I've only managed to persuade one person to have sex with me the whole time I've been here, and we hadn't even finished when she started crying."
"She said I reminded her of her husband."
Baze glanced at him. Qi's face was grim with confession.
"She felt guilty?" said Baze.
"No. He was dead," said Qi. "We said prayers for his soul together. That made her feel better, I think." He rubbed his face. "I didn't hide the fact that I was a monk at first. I thought maybe it would turn people on, you know. But it seemed to intimidate them. They never wanted to have sex once they figured it out."
"You – " said Baze. He swallowed the comments that occurred to him. Qi was upset. He picked the nicest one. "I could've told you that would happen."
"How was I to know? I thought maybe the taboo would make it exciting," said Qi. "Other than the widow, two people have asked me to pray for them. One of them tried to kill me."
"He felt I was too good for this life. Didn't know how else to save me. Poor man," said Qi tenderly. "He meant well, but it was awkward. Good thing I managed to get out of it. The Hutts don't like it when their property gets damaged."
"You are not property," said Baze.
"No," said Qi. He leaned back, putting his weight on his hands. "Of course not." He sounded tired.
"I'm not a real host and I'm no longer a Guardian," he said. "I'm not anything anymore."
A fragile quiet stretched out between them.
Baze recognised Qi's weariness. There was nothing to say. They were exiles. The living dead. It was what it was.
"That was the last client I had before you," said Qi. "I decided to start hiding the fact that I was a monk. That's why I came up with the songs. But it was just my luck that I should have got you." He cocked his head.
"I hoped you wouldn't be weird about it," he said. "Since you were from the Temple too. But you're worse than all the rest."
"Why?" said Baze, indignant. "They didn't have sex with you either."
"Because I want you," said Qi.
His tone was matter-of-fact. He might have been asking Baze to adjust the room temperature, or explaining that he had, in fact, used up all the hot water. Baze still felt himself begin to respond. He said hastily:
"If you want to hide the fact that you're a monk, you shouldn't be chanting the Kyber Sutra at all hours. The tunes don't make a difference. Why risk it?"
"I haven't transcended yet, friend," he said. "Sometimes my heart needs solace."
Of course. The fifteenth exposition was a Memorial for the Dead. The fourth, Elder Dunya's Counsel in Times of Hardship.
Baze should have guessed.
He shouldn't do this. He'd been wrong all day. Arguably he'd been wrong from the very beginning, when he should have turned around and demanded another room, with or without a host. None of the other hosts could be like this.
He put his hand on Qi's cheek. When Qi turned his face, Baze pressed a kiss to his forehead, even though he knew it would make everything worse.
The next day Baze put in a request for a separate room. He didn't want to get Qi in trouble. Maybe Events wouldn't do anything, but it wasn't worth the risk. So he said there was no problem with the host; he was content to keep Qi, but the man snored like a bantha with a cold. Baze just wanted separate sleeping quarters.
It took a while for the request to be processed, but then Baze got shot in the arm and Operations said they'd allow it just this once. They moved Baze and Qi to a new set of rooms with conjoined sleeping areas. The intervening wall was thick enough that Qi could chant mantras all night without ever waking Baze.
Baze meant to explain himself, but the room move was done while he was out. By the time he was back, Qi had sunk into a grievously offended silence.
Baze didn't try coaxing him out of it. It was probably for the best. He didn't actually want Qi to be attached to him.
There were only eight cycles left before they reached Kal'Shebbol, where Baze would be taking his pay and leaving the transport. He'd go with more psychological issues than he'd had when he arrived. Qi should be content with that.
They didn't talk for a while.
Five cycles later, Baze said:
"Do you want to come downplanet with me?"
This was unexpected enough that it broke Qi out of his sulks. He lifted his head, startled. "Come with you?"
"We're overseeing the unloading of some cargo," said Baze. "The Hutts said you could come along. Events didn't object.
"It's only Torize," he added. "There's not much to see. You'll have to wear a mask, the atmosphere's toxic. But if you wanted to come … "
He didn't need to ask again. Qi was glowing. "I'll come. But how did you get them to agree?"
"I lied," said Baze. "Told them you could fight. It's not the most peaceful world and we're down a couple of guards." His colleagues were fairly hardy, but the rich food and easy living didn't suit all of them.
Qi's expression flickered.
"What?" said Baze. But of course, the sculpted form and the exercises suggested some interest in the martial aspects of the Guardians' practice. He felt a pang of guilt. He'd just assumed, since Qi had never gone beyond the second duan … "Can you fight?"
"A little," said Qi apologetically. "I haven't practised in a while. Will I have to?"
"No," said Baze. "That's not why I asked."
Qi smiled. "So even Baze Malbus knows how to lie."
Baze grunted. "I've learnt some things since the Temple fell."
He'd learnt a lot, almost everything he knew now. But there were some lessons he'd yet to learn – like how to prevent his desire to give pleasure from overriding the dictates of common sense.
It made no sense to bring what he loved best in the world onto a politically unstable planet with an atmosphere too poisonous to breathe. He'd grown too used to his assignments, become complacent. The ever-present danger had become like background noise. Baze only realised how criminally, idiotically reckless he'd been when the operation started going wrong.
It was his fault. The other guards had gone on and Baze was waiting with Qi, a Hutt and the last shipment of spice when someone shouted:
"Malbus? Baze Malbus!"
He turned. Stupid, stupid –
"It is you!" said the human. Baze didn't recognise them straight away, what with the breathing mask. "What are you doing working for a fucking Hutt?"
The voice was familiar. Baze placed it after a second.
"What business is it of yours, Jotsam?" he snapped. "You owe me 10,000 credits!"
He shouldn't have said anything.
"You know this … person?" said the Hutt to Baze. "Krel Jotsam is a sworn enemy of our clan."
"I'm not fond of them either," said Baze, but:
"You should have failed the background screen," said the Hutt. "We don't take anyone who's worked for sworn enemies. Why didn't you disclose the conflict of interests?"
"It's not a conflict of interests," said Baze, but the other guards were coming back, and he realised Krel Jotsam wasn't alone. A few toughs were emerging from the crowd, which, with its multi-headed sense for danger, was flowing away from them.
Make that a lot of toughs. He wouldn't have thought Jotsam would have so many friends.
Jotsam had forgotten about Baze. They unholstered their blaster, saying with a gleam in their eye:
"Hrada! I didn't realise it was you. I've been waiting to see you again."
If Baze ducked and ran, he might actually be able to get away while Hrada and Jotsam murdered each other ... except that he'd never been popular with the other guards. They found him too pious, presumably because they'd never talked to Qi.
They were eyeing him with disturbing zeal. He was going to get scragged if he stayed, but they wouldn't let him go in peace.
Baze couldn't worry about that right now. He didn't care about getting away himself. He cared about getting Qi out of here …
And Qi had vanished.
Baze had a moment of pure nauseated horror. It felt like the ground had fallen away under his feet.
Then he saw Qi walking into the space that had emptied out between the Hutt and Jotsam. Alone, tapping the ground with his cane.
Qi raised his arms, like Elder Seara from the histories. He had taken off his armour.
Baze started fumbling with his cannon. His fingers felt clumsy, impossibly slow. He didn't even have the breath to swear.
"Brethren," said Qi, in a voice that rang through the distorting effect of the breathing mask. At least he'd kept that on. "Put down your weapons."
Baze wouldn't be fast enough, he wouldn't – all it would take was a single blaster shot –
"Who is this?" said Jotsam to the Hutt.
"He's blind," observed one of Jotsam's thugs. Bright people Jotsam employed. No wonder they were too cheap to pay Baze's rates.
"Slave!" boomed Hrada. "What do you think you're doing? Get out of the way."
"Hutt property, is he?" said Jotsam. Their face creased in a smile. They raised their blaster.
"Let us go in peace," said Qi tranquilly, as though he hadn't just had a giant target painted on his back by that fucking asshole Hrada.
Baze could hear blasters powering up, but in a second his would be ready to go as well. Not that it mattered. He couldn't see any way that Qi was going to survive this. As for Baze …
When Qi went, so would Baze.
Qi raised his face to the heavens. What could he be thinking? Baze thought wildly, Maybe he broke into the spice –
"I fear nothing," said Qi. "For all is as the Force wills it."
His voice clanged a bell in Baze's memory. A deep-noted Temple bell. That was a mantra, and there was something familiar about the way Qi had said it.
Qi's head was cocked, as though he was listening for a cue from the universe. The assembly of toughs watched him like rodents enthralled by a snake, as he moved his arms and feet into position.
Baze recognised that position. The 13th form. He felt distantly amazed that he'd retained enough to know it.
He'd never seen the 13th form performed in person, only in holos. There was only one living elder at the Temple of NiJedha who'd mastered the form when Baze was there, and she'd been too old to practise it any longer. Baze hadn't been able to attend when Guardians from the provincial shrine at Damaris had visited and there had been a rare live demonstration …
Then Baze knew. It had been staring him in the face the whole time.
A blind man, of course. A Guardian through and through, but he hadn't been at the Temple at NiJedha. He prayed all the time and his body was Force-formed, but he had never progressed beyond the second duan – that's what everyone had said, the one detail everyone had fixated on.
"Qi!" he shouted.
But he was too late, as he'd known he would be.
Qi's head rolled on his neck. His expression was glazed. He was already in the grip of the trance.
Baze had seen other Guardians enter a trance state. It required much meditation and practice, and if you tried very hard and were very lucky, maybe you would speak incomprehensible prophecies, or levitate a quarter of an inch off the ground.
This was not what happened with Qi.
"You can go," Jotsam was saying. They levelled their blaster at Qi's head. "May the Force be with you, little monk."
Qi knocked the blaster out of their hand absently, using his cane. This might have been less surprising if he hadn't been fifteen paces away from Jotsam a second ago. He kicked Jotsam in the face and they went down without so much as a whimper.
Then he dealt with everyone else.
It was like watching a natural disaster in quick time. Qi swept through the crowd, knocking heads together, breaking bones, flipping people upside down as though they weighed nothing. No one could touch him; he had the light of the Force on his brow. Blaster fire seemed to skim his form. His robe whipped around him like the wind that follows death.
He wasn't invulnerable, though. Baze saw one of the Hutts' other guards barrelling down on Qi from the back while he was occupied playing three of Jotsam's people off each other. (Qi was laughing, the unbelievable asshole – )
Baze shot the guard in the head and trundled out amidst the carnage, blasting his way through. He didn't have the Force to protect him, but neither did Qi, he reminded himself.
Qi was just very, very good at fighting. The berserker fury would prevent him from feeling any pain, till he came out the other side.
But it wouldn't protect him from blaster shots. Baze would have to do that.
He managed to get to Qi's side in one piece. He wasn't sure Qi would register his presence through the chaos and the trance. But Qi's head whipped around and he smiled radiantly.
"You're Chirrut Imwe," yelled Baze.
It hadn't felt real till he said it. It still didn't feel real, even as the man he'd thought he knew stomped on a thug's head and shouted:
"You've heard of me!"
"Of course I've heard of you!" said Baze. "You came to NiJedha in the year 655!"
"That's right," said Qi – Chirrut. He elbowed another thug in the face, then downed them with a punch. "I'd forgotten that!"
"The elders sent me out of town, I couldn't come to see you," said Baze. "Everyone was talking about it for weeks. It's true you're blind, then. And you only reached the second duan." That had been a big part of the legend, but he'd never been able to believe it.
"I always wondered why," he said. "Was it really because you killed an elder by accident when you were meditating together?"
"No, did they say that?" Chirrut seemed amused. "What an outrageous story!" He stepped out of the way of a furious guard and tapped him on the neck with his cane. The guard fell over.
"I took the trials again and again," he said. "They kept docking me points for lack of seriousness."
"You're kidding," said Baze. Chirrut ducked and Baze took out two people who were heading for him. "You look serious as a heart attack right now!"
"Appearances are deceptive, brother," crowed Chirrut. "My heart is as light as the touch of the Force!"
Between the two of them, it didn't take long to finish off everyone remaining who still had the appetite for the fight.
Hrada the Hutt had fled long ago, taking Baze's former colleagues with him. A small part of Baze's mind recorded the fact with relief. It made it that much more likely that he and Chirrut would survive this.
Baze was looking around, checking to see if anyone was still alive – or had enough of a death-wish to show signs of life – when Chirrut collapsed.
Unusually for him, he did it without drama, folding over and sitting down. Baze only realised what was going on when he got closer to Chirrut.
"You're sitting on a corpse," said Baze.
Chirrut was vibrating when Baze touched him. His face was blank.
"Am I," said Chirrut. He tried to say more, but his teeth were chattering too violently for him to speak.
"Come, brother," said Baze.
He half-carried, half-dragged Chirrut out of the centre of the square, to the protection of an outer wall of what appeared to be an eating-place. It was empty, of course. With a wall at their back, Baze felt more comfortable about fending off attack.
Not that there was anyone left to attack them. The passers-by that had surrounded them before had vanished.
In the old days, at the Temple, Chirrut would have had his brothers and sisters at hand when coming out of a trance. Maybe even an elder.
No – Baze kept forgetting. This was Chirrut Imwe, so he would have had a troop of elders, all watching him for religious inspiration. All knowing the correct form for coming out of a trance.
Now he just had Baze, who didn't even believe in this crap anymore.
Baze put a hand on Chirrut's back. He didn't bother being gentle. Chirrut would need a concrete touch. A reminder that he was still flesh as well as spirit.
"What do you do now?" said Baze.
He had to repeat the question before Chirrut stirred. He opened his mouth, but couldn't seem to remember how to speak. Then:
"I am one with the Force," said his voice. It sounded like an echo from a distant mountaintop. "And the Force is with me."
The first mantra any novitiate learnt. Of course. Typical of Chirrut.
"The Force is with me," said Baze, watching him. "And I am one with the Force."
"I am one with the Force," said Chirrut. "And the Force is with me."
Baze kept his hand on Chirrut's back, repeating the mantra back to him, until he felt the trembling subside.
Chirrut's joy seeped out of him with the passing of the trance. The last traces of exhilaration faded from his face, and grief followed.
"I am one with the Force – " he said. His voice broke. He stopped.
"The Force has made sport of me," said Chirrut Imwe. "I thought it meant me no longer to be a killer." He put his face in his hands.
He wasn't the only one the Force had made mock of. Baze had been squabbling with and pushing away and lusting after and falling in love with Chirrut Imwe this whole time. What a joke.
Baze leaned his head against the wall, his hands between his knees. Chirrut's shoulders were shaking.
The sky was reddish. Baze found this obscurely comforting. The skies above Jedha looked like this sometimes, when a sandstorm was coming.
Baze said, gazing upwards:
"Elder Dunya said, 'What is death but the necessary implication of life?'"
There was a moment of silence.
Chirrut said through his hands, in a mostly steady voice: "'To she who is one with the Force, there is no difference.'"
He wiped his face with his hands, taking a deep breath. He raised his head and placed his hands in his lap, palms facing up, the right cradled by the left. The thumbs touched, forming a triangle. The ritual gesture for meditation.
Baze didn't bother following suit. This was for Chirrut's benefit.
They traded the verses of the fifteenth exposition of the Kyber Sutra between them, exchanging the roles of elder and novitiate, chanting in memory of the dead. Because Chirrut's heart needed solace.
It worked. By the time they were done Chirrut's shoulders had stilled and his breath flowed easily. He bowed his head, murmuring his own prayers, while Baze looked out at all the people they had killed. Apart from Jotsam – whom he'd hated – he would never know their names.
Oh well. He never would have got those 10,000 credits anyway.
"The man who tried to kill you," said Baze aloud. "What happened to him?"
Chirrut seemed surprised. "Nothing. I told you. I disabled him without hurting him."
"He didn't realise you were Chirrut Imwe from that?"
"Anyone who's mastered the sixth form can do that," said Chirrut dismissively. "Besides, I wasn't that famous."
Baze shook his head. Maybe not to people from outside Jedha, but even outside the Temple, everyone on Jedha had known who Chirrut Imwe was. He'd been as near legendary as any living Guardian of the Whills could be. He could've belonged to the upper echelons of the Temple if he'd wanted, surrounded by eager novitiates at the Temple in NiJedha – but he'd chosen to live outside the Holy City, travelling between provincial shrines. They'd said he preferred to spend his time in training and meditation.
The Abbot of the Temple of NiJedha had gone to visit him every year to offer him an office. She'd returned every time, Imweless, but with a new move to startle novitiates with.
"I should have guessed it," said Baze. "But I thought Chirrut Imwe was dead."
"He is," said Chirrut.
Baze accepted this. It was true and untrue, like saying Baze Malbus still lived. "Why did you hide who you were even after you knew I could be trusted?"
Chirrut was quiet for a time, long enough to make Baze realise he'd assumed Chirrut trusted him. The thrum of uncertainty hadn't had much time to build up when Chirrut spoke, however.
"I thought," said Chirrut, "you might not want to have sex with me if you knew."
Baze turned. Chirrut looked entirely sincere.
"That was your reason?" said Baze.
"I told you. I really wanted you," said Chirrut. He added, in a small voice, "Want you."
This, too, Baze had to accept. He had seen the evidence.
He couldn't believe he'd made Chirrut Imwe come untouched. The thought felt like sacrilege, but a spectacularly impressive form of sacrilege. He would feel proud if he wasn't so tired.
"But why did you stay with the Hutts?" said Baze. Even Chirrut would've had had some difficulty getting out of that transport, admittedly, but he'd had enough time to work out escape routes, come up with a strategy. Hell, he could probably have taken all the canteen staff with him.
"They captured me," said Chirrut. "That was true. I never lied to you. I was a mercenary after the Temple fell and the elders told us to leave Jedha … It didn't suit me. The 13th form, all of that, it was meant to open the heart to acceptance of the Force. To train the mind to tranquillity. Not to hurt others. You know."
Baze did. That was partly why he relied on blasters. He'd been no Chirrut Imwe but he hadn't been too shabby at hand-to-hand combat himself.
"I was sickening of the work," said Chirrut. "When the Hutts got me, I thought I discerned the Force's intentions. It is better to make love than war. I thought I'd stay a while, learn the ropes. I hadn't done anything like it before."
"You hadn't been a sex slave before," said Baze. "Really?"
"No, I mean," said Chirrut. "The widow I told you about, she was the first person I ever touched in that way."
Baze blinked. This shouldn't have been surprising – it wasn't, now he thought about it – but it did somewhat reduce the impressiveness of having made Chirrut Imwe come untouched.
"Once I'd figured it out," said Chirrut, "I thought I could set up on my own account. Make a life giving others pleasure and consolation. No more killing." His head dropped. "It seems I'm better at killing."
"No," said Baze.
"How would you know?" said Chirrut. "You never let us have sex."
"I know," said Baze. "Qi – Chirrut."
He took off his breathing mask and put his hand on the side of Chirrut's face. Strange to think he'd only done this once before. He turned Chirrut's face towards him, lifted the mask and kissed his mouth.
The kiss was gentle, but not shy. Baze felt the edge of Chirrut's teeth against his tongue. He smelt of ozone and sweat – both familiar scents to Baze in his line of work. But he would know Chirrut anywhere.
Chirrut whispered against his lips, "The Force is merciful. It brought you to me."
"Bullshit," said Baze.
But he kind of believed it. He believed everything Chirrut said, Force help him, even the things Chirrut didn't really believe himself.
Chirrut knew this, of course. He leant back, readjusting his breathing mask. Grief and desire seemed to fall away from him. He might have been Elder Dunya herself, meditating under a bodhi tree.
"You need to terminate your contract with the Hutts," he said.
Baze looked around at the destruction they'd wreaked. "I think it's probably terminated by now."
It wasn't a total loss. He'd been fed and sheltered and increasingly maddened with lust for almost six weeks. Any longer on that Hutt transport and he would have been a gibbering wreck.
"We need to go back to Jedha," said Chirrut.
"So we can fuck?" Baze was pleased when Chirrut twitched.
"That," said Chirrut evenly, "and because the Force wills it." He turned his face into the wind. "We've been running for too long."
Baze had promised the Abbot that he would leave. Reassured her, holding her hand, as the life drained out of her onto the Temple ground. It had given her peace, he hoped.
It had given him a measure of peace, too, to know he'd been doing what the elders wanted. Even when he was at his most homesick he had tried to convince himself that it was for the best. He didn't want to see Jedha split apart by the Empire like a rotten fruit. For years he had thought he believed it.
Baze had always listened to his preceptors. Where had that got him?
Chirrut, of course, never had.
"I told the Abbot I'd never go back," said Baze.
"The Abbot at NiJedha," said Chirrut. "Lalla Bur?"
"Yes. That was her name."
Chirrut nodded. "She was a faithful Guardian," he said. "Careless about defence, but good footwork. She would have wanted you to look after me."
"They weren't kidding about your arrogance," said Baze, knowing Chirrut was only speaking the truth.
There was another matter, too trivial to bother mentioning now. Baze had offended a slumlord before he'd managed to get out of Jedha. He'd had to stow away in a cargo transport among shipments of fermented bantha meat to get away. No doubt the asshole was still back there. There was no chance he'd forgotten Baze.
Baze could deal with it. He had Chirrut Imwe by his side now, after all.
"OK," said Baze.