Cham woke with a start, confused in the close dark of his stateroom, not certain where he was or what he was doing there. It was only the faint rattling of the ship’s life support systems that finally told him that he was on the Forlorn Hope.
Sometime in the night Alecto had rolled over against him, her breathing steady and her cheek against his chest. Cham raised a hand to touch her lekku, then thought better of it, not wanting to disturb her. They hadn’t shared a bed in years; they might not again. He wanted to stay in this moment as long as he could. He let his head fall back against the pillows, listening to the sound of her breathing, the warm weight of her body against him.
It took him a moment to realize that something had woken him up.
He didn’t know where his comlink was, but he could hear the hardwired communications station in the other room beeping insistently with an incoming transmission. He shut his eyes for a moment, willing it to shut itself off; when it didn’t he gently untangled himself from Alecto, who made a groan of discontent, but didn’t wake. Cham slid out of bed and padded barefoot across the room, thrusting back the curtain that separated it from his office.
If the ship had been under attack, the alarms would have been going off, and they were silent now. That was something of a relief, but that didn’t change the fact that it was the middle of the night cycle. If everything had been well, then no one would have been comming him.
Since it was the middle of the night, Cham turned the lights on to fifty percent instead of all the way up, resting his hands on the edge of his desk as he activated the holocomm.
Neso Cseh Syndulla’s image sprang into view. He looked as tired as Cham felt, with dark bags under his eyes and his lekku drooping, the collar of his shirt open. “I’m sorry to wake you, Uncle,” he said.
“It’s all right, Neso,” Cham said, keeping his voice low so as not to wake Alecto. “What is it?”
“There’s been another bounced transmission. We’re trying to trace the original ship now.”
Cham blinked, suddenly awake. “Did you intercept the message?”
“Yes, but we haven’t been able to decipher it yet. It’s using a different decryption than the previous one.”
“Blast,” Cham muttered, rubbing a hand over his face. “Did it go through?”
Neso nodded, his expression grim. “We almost didn’t catch it all, except that I’d had an idea and was going through all the fleet transmissions from the past week when it pinged off the Errant Venture. It was sent from the Mercy Kill this time, but there are only about four ships in the fleet with the comm range to reach any distance. Most of the external transmissions originating from the fleet have to transmit through one of those four anyway.”
He turned his head as soon as someone outside of the holoprojector’s transmitter range said something to him, the words only a blurred murmur to Cham’s ears, then looked back at Cham.
“What is it?”
“We were the original ship, General Syndulla,” Neso said, clearly picking each word with deliberate care. “The origin point for that transmission was the Forlorn Hope.”
Cham stared at him, sick to his stomach. “You are certain?”
“Yes, Uncle,” Neso said, sounding almost as sick as Cham felt. “We’re trying to narrow it down to a specific communications terminal, but that might be impossible.” He hesitated, then added, “Uncle, could it really be one of us? I don’t want to believe that anyone on the Hope would ever betray the fleet this way –”
“I don’t know, Neso.” Cham tightened his hands on the edge of his desk, his mind ticking through every individual he knew on the Forlorn Hope, considering and rejecting possibilities. “How many people know about this? Have you told Lysha or Mishaan yet?”
Neso shook his head. “Elpis and I are the only ones down here – Uncle, what should we do?”
Cham rubbed at his forehead again. “Do you – never mind that. I want you and your team to work on it, but carefully, Neso. This cannot get out; there will be panic.”
This time Neso nodded slowly. “Even Lysha and Captain Secura?”
Cham hesitated. “Even Lysha and Captain Secura,” he said finally. “If you think that you must, ask me first.”
“Do you really believe that it’s one of them?” Neso sounded shocked, for which Cham couldn’t blame him.
“No, of course I don’t,” Cham said. “But I would rather keep this circle as small as possible for as long as possible. Both of them will understand when the time comes.”
Neso nodded slowly, his expression strained. “Yes, Uncle. I understand. I’ll keep it to my team – that’s only four other people. I’ll brief them as soon as possible.”
“Let me know what you discover,” Cham told him, and Neso nodded again.
“There’s one other thing, Uncle. I don’t know if you’ve checked the latest bounty sheets, but –”
“I’ve been sleeping,” Cham said, a little tartly.
“I’m sorry. But you should check them now.”
Neso’s image vanished before Cham could ask him why, leaving Cham blinking at the place where the hologram had been. He leaned his hands against the side of the desk and let his head drop, his lekku drooping forward over his shoulders.
“Did I hear that right?”
He looked up to see Alecto standing in the entrance to his bedroom, holding the curtain aside with one hand. She had a blanket wrapped around her shoulders, and in the room’s dim light she looked soft and vulnerable, like the girl that Cham had met in her small village all those years ago.
Of course, that girl had been as tough as nails, so appearances were deceiving.
“That depends,” Cham said, straightening upright. “What did you hear?”
“That there’s an Imperial spy on the Hope.” Alecto let the curtain fall and came over to settle down on the couch, folding her legs to one side. She raised her gaze to him as Cham turned to face her, leaning back against his desk. “How long have you known?”
“Neso discovered that someone in the fleet had given our coordinates to the Empire only a few days ago,” Cham said. “That is how they knew how to find us before the battle. That was no coincidence.” He scowled. “That was why they brought Hera. Now it seems that that spy is on the Hope – perhaps has been all along.”
“Perhaps?” Alecto’s brow knit, then she said slowly, “You think it’s one of the Amersus we rescued from the Coba.”
Cham sighed and went over to sit down beside her. “I would like it to be one of the Amersus,” he said. “I would prefer that to a Syndulla, though obviously neither is preferable.”
“Obviously.” Alecto pinched the bridge of her nose between her fingers. “If this gets out –”
“It won’t – not until I have a name and a body to give to the Synedrion,” Cham said. He felt his mouth twist as he added, “Living or dead.”
“I know which one I would prefer,” Alecto muttered. She leaned forward to pick up a small holoprojector from the clutter on the coffee table, fiddling with it for a few seconds before it turned on. “What was Neso talking about with the bou –”
She dropped the holoprojector with a gasp. It settled on the table without turning off, still displaying the most recently posted Imperial bounties in a revolving column of holoposters. Wanted for Crimes Against the Empire – Cham had seen a lot of those before. His gaze skated over images of humans, a Lasat, even an astromech droid, then settled on the one at the top.
Alecto grabbed for his hand, her fingers digging in tightly enough to hurt. “She did it,” she breathed. “Hera did it.”
As it turned out, they couldn’t leave the clearinghouse immediately, no matter how much Hera wanted to. They needed those supplies, and after the arguments that she and Kanan had put towards Viest to let them stay, it would look odd if they departed the clearinghouse without half of what they had come for. At least they didn’t have to pay for the fuel twice, but the supplies were long gone – probably stolen by the dock scavengers that Hera had seen lurking around the darker corridors of the clearinghouse.
“At least actually bargain this time,” Ezra said as they made their way to the docking bay where one of the other traders in the clearinghouse was set up; it probably wasn’t a smart idea to go back to the first one, even if he hadn’t met Kanan and Hera already.
“Bargaining isn’t really Zeb’s or Sabine’s strong suit,” Kanan pointed out, sounding amused. They had left the two of them back on the Ghost to keep an eye on the ship, though they had brought Chopper with them this time.
Ezra snorted. “You think?”
“We’re going to have to bargain,” Hera said, only half her mind on the conversation. “We don’t exactly have an unlimited purse.”
She was just glad that she had gotten into habit of keeping hard credits other than pocket money on the Ghost, which hadn’t even occurred to her when she had first been in the field. During that first year, when she and Kanan had still been feeling each other out, Agent Beneke had cut off her access to ISB funds to see how she would react. Hera had spent most of her four years at the Academy convinced that the Empire would lose interest at her at any moment and throw her out, so at the time it had felt like a confirmation of every fear she had ever had. As a result, she kept a stockpile of credits on the Ghost, added to whenever she withdrew money from the ISB’s slush accounts and padded out by her savings.
Over the past six years it had grown to a not-inconsiderable amount, but it wouldn’t last a crew of five – six if you counted Chopper – more than a month, if that. They had already put a substantial dent in it today. Hera just hoped that paying for a second load of supplies wouldn’t cost them too much.
It only took them a few minutes with the first trader on Hera’s mental list to realize that that might not be the problem.
“Sold?” she demanded of the trader, a tired-looking Sullustan with an eyepatch. “What do you mean they’ve been sold? They’re right there!”
“Waiting for pick-up,” the Sullustan told her. “Sorry, lady, but I’m sold out for the rotation. As soon as these get picked up I’m out of here. Try Bariq in Bay Sixty-Three.”
Hera and Kanan looked at each other, while Ezra crossed his arms and glared mutinously at the trader, apparently doubting his veracity. “All right,” Kanan said finally. “Come on.”
It took them more than two hours to find Bariq, since one of the connecting corridors had collapsed and he turned out to be in Bay 36, not 63. By then, he was sold out too, and they were on what felt like the opposite side of the asteroid from the Ghost. The next three traders they tried made excuses too, even though Hera could see crates of food and other goods stacked up in the holds of their ships – all, apparently, reserved for other buyers.
As they stepped out of the bay where the fifth trader was docked, passing another crew going inside as they did so, Kanan looked at Hera and said, “You thinking what I’m thinking?”
“I think we’re being set up,” Hera said, scowling. “I think Viest passed the word that she doesn’t actually want us to leave until whoever she called gets here.”
“Yeah,” Kanan said. “That’s what I was thinking. We’d better get back to the others.”
Hopefully it doesn’t take another five hours, Hera thought, checking the chrono on her comlink. They had been at the clearinghouse far longer than she had originally planned, even before what had happened with Viest.
“But what about the supplies?” Ezra said with single-minded focus.
“We’ll have to get them somewhere else, because we’re not going to be able to get them here,” Hera said. “We’re good for another few days, at least, even with the amount Zeb eats. I’d rather get out of here now with our skins intact than spend another half-day chasing after something that no one will sell us and get caught by whoever Viest sold us out to.”
Ezra considered this solemnly, then finally nodded. He still looked a little reluctant; Hera assumed that he didn’t like the idea of having to weigh going hungry against whatever unknown fate was waiting for them, but there wasn’t any other way.
Kanan pulled his comlink off his belt. “Spectre One to Ghost – we’re headed back, be ready to leave as soon as we arrive.”
“You get the supplies?” Zeb asked, his voice slightly distorted; the asteroid mine was playing haywire with communications, another thing that Hera didn’t like about this place. One of many.
“No, but I’m pretty sure that we’re not going to. We’ll try somewhere else.”
“Because of –”
“Trust me, I’m pretty sure it doesn’t have anything to do with you,” Kanan said. “Just be ready to leave. Spectre One out.” He replaced his comlink on his belt as they continued walking in the direction of the Ghost’s docking bay – hopefully without all the stops and roundabouts it wouldn’t take them as long to get there as it had to get here.
“The flightmaster isn’t actually going to bring the Empire here, is she?” Ezra asked, frowning. “That would be pretty stupid.”
“It would be,” Hera agreed. She hadn’t gotten the impression that Viest was stupid; no one would be able to keep hold of the rancor nest of a shadow port without being both smart and vicious. Both worried Hera; Viest might well think that she was smart and vicious enough to control the Empire’s ingress into her own territory. Hera had seen that before.
She wasn’t certain whether she was more concerned about the possibility of the Empire coming after them or of Free Ryloth doing the same. Maybe in the wake of the battle that had been fought recently her father wouldn’t be able to spare the ships or the people to come all the way out here, though Hera had to admit that the idea that the fleet had been so badly hurt dragged at her heart.
She didn’t know whether to think of them as her people or not. Hera had spent years doing her damnedest to distinguish herself from her father and his organization, from Ryloth, from other Twi’leks, and she had thought that it had worked. Her home had been the Empire, her family the ISB – and then, later, her home had been the Ghost, Kanan her family. Not Ryloth, not the Syndulla clan. The Free Ryloth fleet hadn’t yet existed when she had left Ryloth for the colony at Zardossa Stix; Hera shouldn’t have cared.
Except Xiaan was there. Doriah was there, and Ojeda, and her mother – and her father. And maybe other members of her family, even her friends from Ryloth or the colony.
But my people? Hera asked herself. Are they my people?
She didn’t have the Empire or the ISB anymore. All she had was her ship and her crew. If anything happened to them –
She didn’t even have her duty to bury herself in anymore, not the way she had when Kanan had been taken the first time. If anything happened to them, she would be all alone. She would have nothing.
They had been walking for about fifteen minutes when her comlink and Kanan’s sounded in unison. They shared a look as Hera took her comlink off her belt, Kanan leaning close to listen.
“Spectre One, Spectre Two, we’ve got a problem,” Sabine said. “Three TIE fighters just came out of hyperspace. I’m pretty sure they’re here for us.”
Hera stared at her comlink, stunned. “TIEs?” she said. “Already? I thought there were no Imperial ships in this area –”
Imperial cruisers and star destroyers were fast, but not that fast, and regular TIEs weren’t equipped with hyperdrives. It should have taken at least half a rotation for anyone to reach the clearinghouse from the nearest Imperial base, more than enough time to conclude their business and depart by the timeline Viest had given them. Only –
“They’re not here for us,” Kanan said, his shoulders slumping in resignation. “They’re here for me.”
“No offense,” Sabine said, “but I’m pretty sure those warrants are out on all of us. I’ve seen them. They’re pretty thorough, except for the ‘deserter’ part. They left that out for some reason.”
Kanan’s eyes narrowed to slits, but instead of responding, he looked at Ezra. “Do you sense them?”
Ezra gave him a baffled look. “Sense who?”
Kanan just raised an eyebrow.
“Is now really the best time to train Ezra?” Zeb growled. Hera couldn’t really disagree, but she held her tongue, curious to see what Kanan intended.
“Reach out with your senses,” he told Ezra. “You’ll know it when you feel it.”
This time Ezra gave him a sideways glance, frowning, before he shut his eyes and stretched out a hand in the direction of the nearest hangar bay. As Chopper warbled a query, Hera saw a line form between Ezra’s brows. “There’s something,” he said slowly. “No – someone. Someones. They feel…I’ve felt –” His eyes snapped open. “They’re the same Inquisitors you fought on Mustafar!”
Kanan nodded and clasped Ezra’s shoulder briefly. “Good job, kid.” He raised his gaze to Hera. “What do you want to bet there’s a cruiser coming after them?”
“No bet,” Hera said. “Looks like our time’s up.” She caught her lower lip briefly between her teeth, cataloging their options. Even if they had clearance to land – and she thought that the only way that the TIEs could have gotten here so quickly was if Viest had contacted them, which diminished the chances that they would get into a firefight on their way into the clearinghouse – most of the ships docked here would panic at the idea of an Imperial incursion. This was the type of place people came to get away from the Empire. That would slow them down.
She said as much to Kanan, who nodded. “I’ve got an idea,” he said, “but you’re not going to like it.”
“Oh, I’m not the one who’s going to be hammering the dents out of the Ghost if they run into the walls,” Hera said.
“What?” Zeb and Sabine demanded in near-unison.
Hera raised her comlink again. “Bring the Ghost out of dock and swing around to this side of the asteroid. It will be faster than trying to find our way back through the docking corridor.” Shouts of alarm were already beginning to emanate from nearby docking bays and branching corridors, beings running in the direction of their ships and forcing their small group to press themselves back against the nearest walls; Hera assumed that news of the TIEs’ arrival was already beginning to spread. Having been in spaceports before when the Empire had descended, Hera knew that the situation would only get more chaotic, even if at the moment there were only three Inquisitors without stormtroopers to back them up. “We’ll find an empty docking bay so you can land and pick us up.”
There was a long moment of silence, and then Sabine said hesitantly, “Hera, neither of us has ever flown the Ghost. I’ve flown the Phantom, TIE fighters, shuttles, but –”
“It’s the same principle,” Hera told her. “Just a little bigger. You and Zeb are both good pilots, you’ll do fine. Spectre Two out.” She lowered her comlink before either of them could protest further. “Come on,” she told Kanan and Ezra. “Let’s go find somewhere for them to land.”
Blast! Ahsoka thought, shoving her way past the group of Rodians running in the opposite direction. I thought I’d have more time!
She had landed on a station in chaos, coming out of hyperspace just minutes after the Inquisitors had arrived. Hondo hadn’t answered her hails; Ahsoka didn’t know whether that was a good sign or if he had fled at the first sign of Imperial might. That would have been the smartest thing to do – or at least the one most likely to result in preserving his own skin, which was what Hondo Ohnaka had always been good at. Ahsoka had docked the Aegis in the first empty bay she had found, wanting to find Caleb Dume before the Inquisitors did. What they were doing here she didn’t know, but she was willing to bet that it wasn’t good.
She had followed a thread of the Force through the asteroid’s docking corridor, hoping that it was leading her to Caleb Dume and not to some other Force-user. Not counting the Inquisition, the number of trained Force-users in the galaxy right now could probably be counted on the fingers of one hand; Ahsoka wasn’t willing to bet that there was another one on the station right now.
Beings were running in all directions, emerging from corridors leading deeper into the asteroid and headed towards the bays where their ships were docked or the chambers where their cargos were stored. The Empire didn’t bother sending Inquisitors for something as minor as wiping out a shadow port, no matter what kind of scum and villainy it harbored, but Ahsoka suspected that the scum and villainy in question didn’t know that. Most of the asteroid’s inhabitants had to be thinking that the three TIEs were only an advance guard, with a couple of star destroyers en route to do the real dirty work. Ahsoka was willing to bet that there was at least a cruiser following them, but doubted that they were all that interested in the clearinghouse. Not if the Inquisition was involved.
A flicker in the Force caught her attention and Ahsoka followed it, ducking around a huge Trandoshan shoving a pair of crates on repulsors along in front of him. The floating lumas in the passage gleamed briefly off dully-burnished green armor that Ahsoka didn’t recognize and illuminated a pair of green lekku decorated with curving white patterns.
Syndulla, she thought. The space between them in the corridor emptied as the crew of Aqualish and Sullustans between them vanished into the nearest docking bay, and Ahsoka got a clear view of the three beings and the orange-painted astromech droid in front of her. She lunged after them –
– and swayed back out of the way, her lightsaber leaping into her hand as Caleb Dume whirled, his lightsaber igniting in a streak of blue plasma that Ahsoka met with her own blade.
The blades burned between them, blue sparking against white. Hera Syndulla raised her blaster, while the human boy with them simply burst out, “You!”
“Fulcrum,” Dume said, his voice even.
“Hound,” Ahsoka returned. “I take it your circumstances have changed since the last time we met?”
He eyed her for a long moment, then deactivated his lightsaber. “You could say that. What do you want?”
“To talk.” Ahsoka deactivated her own lightsaber, eyeing them curiously. This was the first time she had ever seen Hera Syndulla in person, a tall green-skinned Twi’lek woman whose grip on her blaster didn’t waver. The family resemblance was striking.
“We’re a little busy right now.” Unlike the previous time they had met, he was using the same Outer Rim accent that he had in the Crucible surveillance vids Ahsoka had seen, his voice a little lighter than she had expected.
“Kanan, they’re coming,” the boy whispered. “I can feel them.”
Ahsoka shot a surprised look at him, realizing belatedly that he was the same boy she had met on Lothal. That was why – She had felt something then, a disturbance in the Force, but at the time hadn’t had the opportunity to follow up on it. The Inquisitor clearly had.
Dume’s gaze flickered from her to the boy, then to Syndulla. She turned her head to look at him, something passing silently between them before she said, “You can’t be serious.”
“They’ll go after us and not you or the Ghost,” Dume said. “We’ll rendezvous with you later once we’re clear.”
“Are you out of your mind? She’s a rebel terrorist –”
Dume raised an eyebrow, turning to look at Ahsoka. “She’s a Jedi,” he said. “It’ll be fine, I promise.” He leaned in and kissed her quickly. “Get Zeb and Sabine out of here before that cruiser arrives. We’ll be fine.”
“I am not leaving you again!”
“Hey,” Dume said softly. “I always come back.” Whatever he had been going to say next was lost as a group of roughly-clad humans raced past, forcing them to press back against the wall. When they had gone, Dume added, “The Inquisitors will follow us. Not you. Get Zeb and Sabine out of here and we’ll lure them away.”
“You just met this woman,” Syndulla hissed at him. “You don’t know anything about her.”
“I know everything I need to –”
Ahsoka saw the probe droid at the same time he did, igniting her lightsaber as it sprayed laser bolts at them. She and Dume parried back the bolts while Syndulla sighted down the barrel of her blaster, then pulled the trigger. The blast sent the droid reeling back against the wall in a shower of sparks before it fell.
“They’re on their way,” Dume said, deactivating his lightsaber. He caught Syndulla’s shoulders in his hands, saying, “We’ll be fine. You and Chopper go.”
“Wait,” said the boy. “What about –”
“You’re with us,” Dume said. “It’s not me they’re tracking.”
Syndulla hissed between her teeth, then snapped, “If I have to come pull you out of the Crucible again, I’ll kill you myself.” She caught a hand around the back of Dume’s head and pulled him down for a hard kiss, then, breathless, added, “Take care of Ezra,” before turning to run in the opposite direction. The astromech rolled after her, emitting furious-sounding shrieking noises.
“What do you mean, it’s not you they’re tracking?” the boy – Ezra – demanded. “Aren’t they here for you?”
“Neither Patience nor the Hangman have ever been able to track me in the Force,” Dume said. “And I’m guessing they wouldn’t have any more luck with you,” he added to Ahsoka. “Which leaves one option. You have a ship?”
“This way,” Ahsoka said, turning back in the direction she had just come.
They ran down the corridor, shoving their way through groups of pirates and smugglers trying to get to their ships. Ahsoka thought they were about two-thirds of the way there when Ezra glanced behind them and let out an incoherent yell, shoving Kanan to one side. Ahsoka dove in the opposite direction as a double-bladed red lightsaber sliced through the suddenly empty space between them. There was a shout of pain from someone else in the corridor; Ahsoka ignored it, ducking again as the lightsaber went flying back to its bearer. When she rose to her feet, pulling both her lightsabers off her belt, it was to see a slim woman in black armor and a concealing helmet standing at the opposite end of the corridor, a pair of probe droids hovering at either shoulder. Another being, a male of some species Ahsoka didn’t recognize, was standing beside her, and just behind them was another dark-clad figure that made her breath catch with sudden recognition.
So Barriss Offee was alive, after all.
Dume was back on his feet too, his unlit lightsaber in his fist. Ezra scrambled up behind him, his right hand going to the energy slingshot on his left wrist. Ahsoka could feel his fear vibrating through the Force, while Dume was almost utterly inscrutable, tense with anticipation.
He’s an Inquisitor, she thought. Of course he wants the fight –
Then he glanced upwards, stretching a hand out and bringing it sharply down – and with it, the roof of the corridor between them and the three Inquisitors. Amidst the chaos of tumbled rock and choking dust, Ahsoka didn’t hesitate, grabbing Ezra’s shoulder and shoving him in front of her. Dume brought up the rear as they ran, glancing behind himself.
QT-KT already had the Aegis’s ramp down when they burst into the docking bay, standing at the top of it with her sensor dish up. She let out a relieved series of beeps at the sight of Ahsoka, rolling back to close up the ramp as soon as they were inside the ship. Ahsoka dashed through the narrow corridor for the cockpit, relieved that she had left the ship on standby. Dume dropped into the co-pilot’s chair beside her as she slid into the pilot’s seat, bringing the boards from standby to full-power. Ezra caught at the back of Dume’s chair for balance as Ahsoka took the Aegis smoothly up off the deck and out through the magnetic shield, joining the other ships currently fleeing the clearinghouse.
“Qutee, calculate the jump to hyperspace –”
Dume pulled his comlink off his belt. “Spectre One to Ghost, we’re clear,” he said. “Get out of here; I’ll send you the coordinates for a rendezvous as soon as I’ve got them.”
“Copy, Spectre One,” Hera Syndulla replied crisply. “Ghost out.”
“Say hello, hyperspace,” Ahsoka said, pulling down the lever as soon as they were clear of the asteroid’s small gravitational field. Stars streaked into lines in the viewport, then into the strange blue lights of hyperspace.
Almost at the same instant, she and Dume were on their feet, lightsabers ignited and at each other’s throats.
The three Inquisitors burst into the docking bay just as the little hunter-killer slipped out through the magnetic shield into open space, leaving behind a wash of heat from its engines. A moment later it vanished as it jumped to hyperspace.
The First Inquisitor deactivated her lightsaber, though her companions kept theirs ignited.
“Another Jedi?” said the Hangman. “We did not know that the Hound had such powerful allies. Or that any other Jedi still lived.”
Patience gave him a slightly pitying look as she deactivated her lightsaber and returned it to her belt. She raised a hand to let one of her parrot droids climb down her arm to perch on her wrist; it chirped at her and she stroked a finger down its chassis. “Jedi?” she said. “Not a Jedi. You would know that if you ever paid any attention to the reports.”
She smiled, radiating satisfaction, and chucked her droid beneath what passed for a chin. “Our master will be pleased to learn of this.”
The Hangman turned on her, scowling. “Our master wanted the Hunter’s Hound in a cage, and instead the traitor has fled again –”
“But now we know –”
The First left them to their bickering and crossed the docking bay to stand at the very edge of the magnetic shield and look out into space. Starships were fleeing the clearinghouse like startled rycrits, emerging from dozens of docking bays and jumping to hyperspace in streaks of light. One of them must have been the Ghost, though the First wasn’t certain which. They should have gone after the ship rather than wasting time finding a way around the rockfall Dume had caused; if his friends had come for him, then he, she was certain, would have come for his friends. And Ahsoka Tano would not let him out of her sight now.
Of course, the foolish children whom the First was saddled with would never have countenanced such a thing, not once they had realized that they had within their reach not only a renegade Inquisitor but a second Jedi and a Force-sensitive child as well. Any of those three would have made their master a satisfactory prize, if not quite consolation for the havoc that had been wreaked at the Crucible. All of them – well, that would certainly have made up for it. Especially that Jedi.
Former Jedi, rather.
She was still looking at the stars when Admiral Konstantine’s star destroyer came out of hyperspace, easily dwarfing the starships remaining in the system. They immediately veered away from the massive warship, choosing discretion as the better part of valor and jumping to hyperspace to leave the clearinghouse undefended. So much for whatever loyalty they had to the flightmaster, then.
She raised her comlink as it beeped. “Agent Kallus,” she said. “So good of you to finally join us. It’s a pity that you and Admiral Konstantine didn’t arrive a little earlier.”
“The traitors escaped?” Kallus demanded.
“No thanks to your late arrival.” That was ungracious of her, since the star destroyer had come at full speed as soon as they had intercepted the flightmaster’s transmission to her local Imperial contact, but she was feeling ungracious. Neither Kallus nor Konstantine had been particularly forthcoming, which was why she hated these joint assignments. No branch of the service trusted any of the other branches, but the Inquisition and the ISB both took that to new levels.
“We arrived with all possible speed,” Kallus informed her coolly. “Do you require aid securing this…establishment?”
“The Imperial Inquisition hardly needs to concern itself with rabble,” she said. She turned as the doors to the hangar slid open, admitting a tall, dark-haired human woman accompanied by half a dozen thugs of various species. She checked for a moment at the sight of three Inquisitors; presumably that hadn’t been who she had been expecting when she had contacted the sector authorities.
“We’ve also had a rather urgent message from the commander of the Imperial forces in this sector,” Kallus added, sounding mildly disgusted and confirming her suspicions. “Apparently this establishment is key to his continuing operations in the area.”
“Unsurprising.” Whoever it was probably got a healthy cut from the clearinghouse in exchange for leaving it alone. That kind of corruption was common in the Empire, even though she thought that it weakened them in the long term. The Empire should have been above such things. “You can assure him that we’ll leave it intact, even if they failed to deliver what they promised.”
She disconnected the transmission before he had a chance to respond and looked back at the others; she supposed she ought to go take care of this before one of the other Inquisitors lost their temper and killed someone.
Oh, yes, it’s her, Kanan thought. He had been pretty sure back in the docking corridor, but the light was better here, enough so that he could see the Togruta woman’s facial markings clearly. They had grown and shifted a little with age, but they were still unmistakably the same ones they had been sixteen years ago, the last time he had seen Ahsoka Tano. A lot of other things had changed since then.
“Uh,” Ezra said, frozen and staring between them. “I thought we were all on the same side.”
“That depends,” Ahsoka said. Her lightsaber blade didn’t waver, its white plasma picking out the dull gleam of her headband and the illuminated lights on her armor. It was close enough to Kanan’s neck that he could feel heat radiating from it. If she was bothered by his lightsaber at her throat, she didn’t show it. “Whose side are you on, Caleb?”
“Hera’s.” He looked at her for another long moment, the space stretching out between them, then deactivated his lightsaber, flipping it around in his hand before he returned it to his belt. “And it’s Kanan, not Caleb.”
It made the hair rise on the back of his neck not to have a weapon in his hand when he still had one pointed at his face, but this wasn’t the Crucible and Ahsoka Tano wasn’t an Inquisitor. Playing tough wouldn’t get him anywhere. Kanan hoped.
He had a heartbeat of concern that it wouldn’t work, then Ahsoka deactivated her own lightsaber. Unlike him, she kept hold of the weapon. “Not the Hound?”
Kanan barely resisted the urge to bare his teeth, feeling Ezra shift uneasily at his side; the boy must have heard the nickname somewhere. Kanan put a hand on his shoulder and squeezed encouragingly, since the kid had probably been through more in the past few days than in the previous fifteen years of his life put together. “No,” he told Ahsoka, “not the Hound. Not anymore.”
“Why should I believe you?”
“You really think our friends back there were after me because they wanted to make sure I got the company bonus for the year?” He grinned without humor. “Consider my resignation tendered.”
Ahsoka stared at him, her expression hard. Kanan resisted the urge to reach for his lightsaber again, forcing himself not to tighten his grip on Ezra’s shoulder. The boy flicked a glance at him, his gaze narrowing in speculation before he looked back at Ahsoka. “You were on Lothal on Empire Day,” he said slowly. “With all those Twi’leks. But I don’t know who you are.”
“Ahsoka,” she said, finally returning her lightsaber to its hook on her armor. She gave him a small smile. “My name is Ahsoka Tano.”
“Mine’s Ezra. Ezra Bridger.” He snuck a glance at Kanan, who sighed and released him. He was pretty sure that he had been holding onto him more for his own comfort than for any attempt to keep Ezra out of trouble, at least after the first few minutes. “He’s Kanan. But you knew that already?”
Ahsoka dipped her chin in a nod. “I’ve been looking for you,” she said to Kanan, and then to Ezra, “I didn’t expect to find you with him.”
Ezra shrugged. Kanan said, “I’m a popular guy.”
“Yes,” Ahsoka said dryly. “I’d certainly gotten that impression from your friends back there. I wasn’t expecting to find Inquisitors hunting one of their own.”
Kanan snorted. “Then you don’t know much about Inquisitors. Who else are they going to send?”
“I’ve never had to think about it before.” Ahsoka considered him a moment longer, then said, “I set the navicomputer for a system with, ah, no inhabited planets. Once we’re out of hyperspace you can send a transmission to your crew. Until then –”
“I guess we’re stuck together,” Kanan said, giving her a tight smile. “Listen – we’re grateful for the assist, but I have to admit that the timing’s suspicious. I hadn’t figured Viest to be in tight with the Rebellion, given that she’s the one who called the Empire down on us.”
“Viest is the flightmaster?” At his nod, Ahsoka went on, “I was contacted by someone else. My source’s name isn’t important.”
“Maybe to you it isn’t,” Kanan said. He crossed his arms over his chest, even though it would make his lightsaber draw slower. “Your source know that you’ve got a price on your head too? Or is he just loyal to the cause?”
She gave him a long look in response, then abruptly reached down and took her lightsabers off her hips. As Kanan unfolded his arms, she held them up so that he could see before putting them down on the seat of the pilot’s chair. “I think we need to talk,” she said. “I’d rather do it somewhere more comfortable and with less chance of bloodshed.”
Kanan stared at her, then sighed and removed his lightsabers from his belt. He set them down on the co-pilot’s chair, then unholstered his blaster and dropped it next to them. Ezra twitched for a moment, clearly wondering if he was expected to do the same with his energy slingshot, but given that it probably wouldn’t have any effect on Ahsoka Kanan didn’t see why he should bother.
Ahsoka apparently thought the same, because she didn’t comment on it. Kanan and Ezra followed her out of the cockpit and down the ship’s narrow hallway to the lounge, which was mostly taken up by crates – Kanan hadn’t seen ships of this design before, but going by the other hunter-killers he had seen, there was a good chance it didn’t have much of a hold to speak of. Then they all stood and stared around at each other, waiting for someone to sit first.
Kanan’s fingers itched for his lightsaber – not so much because he wanted to fight, but because he could feel the lightness on his hip where it should have hung. Even on the Ghost he was never without it; the only time in the past five years he hadn’t had it within arm’s reach he had been in manacles on his way to Mustafar.
This weapon is your life, his teachers had told him back at the Jedi Temple, but at the Crucible the lack of it had meant death, and that was driven into Kanan as deeply as the other. Maybe more so. He hadn’t yet had his Gathering when he had become a padawan; Depa Billaba had been the one to take him to Ilum, alone and without the other two members of his cohort. When the Order had come down, he had only been a padawan for barely two standard months. He had spent five years as an Inquisitor.
Radiating discomfort, Ezra finally perched on the end of the round bench built into the bulkhead nearest the holotable. Kanan set his shoulder against the wall near him, folding his arms over his chest as he watched Ahsoka tuck her hands behind her back. Her posture was relaxed, but Kanan could feel the edge of her tension in the Force. She, he suspected, didn’t like being without her weapons either.
“Kanan, I need to know something,” she said finally, while Kanan and Ezra stared at her. “And I need you to tell me the truth.”
Kanan raised an eyebrow. “You think I’m going to lie?”
“You’re an Inquisitor.”
“You think I’m going to tell the truth?”
“You were a Jedi,” Ahsoka said, putting just enough emphasis on the second word that Ezra twitched, glancing up at Kanan.
This time Kanan raised both eyebrows, letting the silence stretch out between them until he finally said, “What’s your question?”
She met his gaze. “Are you still working for the Empire?”
“Those Inquisitors back there didn’t convince you?” Ezra said, his eyebrows climbing. He looked at Kanan, clearly searching for some kind of cue for how to react.
Ahsoka’s gaze softened for an instant as she glanced at him, then she looked back at Kanan. “You understand why I have to ask.”
“Yeah,” Kanan said. “I understand.” He ran a hand over the back of his head and added, “I’m not exactly in the Emperor’s good graces right now – I wasn’t even before Hera and I deserted.”
“He got arrested, we had to break him out,” Ezra contributed. He eyed Ahsoka for a moment before adding, like he expected it to be a coup de grace, “From the Crucible.”
He looked disappointed when Ahsoka didn’t seem as impressed as he had clearly been hoping for. She just said, “So that mess on Mustafar that’s been all over the Imperial wires these past few days – that was you?”
Kanan shrugged. “Haven’t been paying attention to the Imperial wires, but yeah, it was probably us. I can’t think who else it would be; the last of the really unstable ones got weeded out last year.”
“I see.” She ran a hand over her chin, her gaze fixed on him. Kanan resisted the urge to shift under it; she was strong in the Force the way that all the Jedi were, the way that Lord Vader was, the way that only a handful of other Inquisitors were, and he could feel the gentle pressure of her attention in a way that made him twitch. Someone less Force-sensitive probably wouldn’t be aware of it, or at least wouldn’t realize what it was.
He wondered if Ezra had noticed it yet.
Kanan rubbed the back of his head again, decided he didn’t like being the only one interrogated here, and said, “You know, you’re supposed to be dead. I’ve seen the unaccounted-for lists from Order 66 and you’re not on them.”
Ahsoka just frowned. “I’m resourceful.”
“Yeah,” Kanan said. “Well, so are we.”
As soon as Ahsoka left the lounge, ostensibly to check something with her droid in the cockpit, Ezra leaned in towards Kanan and said in what was obviously supposed to be a hissed whisper, “Who is she? Why couldn’t we just go with Hera and the others?”
Kanan pushed himself off the wall and went to sit down on the opposite side of the holotable, trying to work some of the stiffness out from his shoulder muscles. He hadn’t realized until now that he had been holding himself prepared to fight, that old familiar tension he remembered from his time at the Crucible. “Those Inquisitors weren’t at the clearinghouse for the whole crew,” he said. “They were there for us. I knew that if we split up, they’d all come after us and the others would be able to get away.”
“No, I get that they’re after you,” Ezra said. “I just don’t know what I have to do with it. Aren’t you the one that they’re interested in?”
“Not exactly,” Kanan said. “I mean, yeah, they want me, but now they know who you are. They want you too.”
Ezra’s eyes widened in surprise. “Why?” he demanded. “I’m no one. Because I helped you?”
“Partially,” Kanan said. He rested his hands on the table and leaned forward. “One of the duties of the Inquisition is retrieval – looking for Force-sensitive beings throughout the galaxy and either destroying them or recruiting them. That’s what I was doing on Lothal when I met you, I was scouting the Imperial Academy there for Force-sensitive cadets. Cadets are good,” he added slowly. “Or at least certain factions think so. I don’t know any Inquisitors that have come out of the Academies; there’s a separate program for them. What we do isn’t always compatible with the way cadets are trained.”
Looking uncomfortable, Ezra said, “But what does that have to do with me?”
“You’re strong in the Force, Ezra, and the Empire knows that now. It means that you’re valuable to them. They want you, the same way they wanted me five years ago. And if they can’t have you, then they’ll settle for killing you.” Kanan let out his breath. “As far as the Empire is concerned, there are only two options: either you join them or be destroyed.”
Ezra twitched a little, nervously lacing his hands together. “But you’re not like that – you’re not like the others.”
“I’m more like them than you think,” Kanan said gently.
The door to the lounge slid open. Kanan jerked reflexively, his hand falling to the empty place at his hip where his lightsaber should have been.
Ahsoka acknowledged the motion with a flicker of her eyes, then she said, “Kanan, could we talk? In private.”
“Why?” Ezra demanded. “Anything you want to say to him you can say to me too.”
“It’s fine, Ezra,” Kanan said, pushing to his feet. “It’s a small ship, it’s not like we’re going far.”
Ezra subsided, crossing his arms over his chest and looking stubborn.
Kanan followed Ahsoka out of the lounge and into the narrow corridor, then into a small room that turned out to be her cabin. Under other circumstances Kanan might have made a crack about being in her bedroom, but now he just settled himself onto the meditation cushion as she perched on her bunk, crossing her ankles primly in front of her.
“How much of that did you hear?” Kanan asked, after the silence stretching out between them got to be too much even for his overstretched nerves.
“Enough,” Ahsoka said. “How much like those other Inquisitors are you?”
Kanan shut his eyes and let his head fall back for a few moments, trying to think of the best way to answer that particular question. He had asked himself that plenty of times. “I’m alive,” he said finally.
He could feel the pressure of Ahsoka’s attention on him. “I’ve seen surveillance vids from when you were at the Crucible,” she said finally.
Kanan’s eyes snapped open, his hands clenching so tightly on his thighs that he knew he would find bruises there later. “What? How?”
Her gaze was fixed on him, unblinking. “That’s not important.” She let him sweat for a moment before adding, “And what I’ve seen isn’t much. There’s no sound and it’s been heavily edited. I don’t know what was cut out.”
Kanan ran his hands over his face, feeling sick. He had a pretty good idea of how the footage from the Crucible made him look; he remembered his time there more vividly than he wanted to.
“There is something I want to know, before anything else,” Ahsoka said.
He raised his gaze to her. “What?”
“I know Inquisitors have to earn their nicknames,” she said. “How did you get yours?”
Kanan pressed his fingers to his forehead. “Oh.” Coming here had been a mistake; he should have taken his chances with the First.
Ahsoka waited for him to respond without speaking, her gaze boring into him. Kanan ran a hand over his face, trying to figure out what to say, but there was no good way to tell this story. He was also pretty sure there was no way to tell this story and come out the other side without Ahsoka wanting to kill him.
“How much do you know about the Inquisition?” he asked finally.
“More than I’d like,” Ahsoka said, her gaze fixed on him, “but not as much as I probably should.”
Kanan let out a shuddering breath. “Do you know what a Hunt is?”
“Inquisitors aren’t the most stable bunch. They crack, they usually go on a rampage, kill everyone around them. When one of us – when one goes rogue, protocol is to pull everyone out of the field and send the entire Inquisition after them. More Inquisitors die on Hunts than anywhere else, even training. Overwhelming force is the only way to handle it most of the time, unless you’re a…a specialist, and even then they’d rather be safe than sorry. It’s about the only time the Empire thinks that way,” he added bitterly.
He plucked at the sleeve of his jumper, forcing himself to keep his voice as calm as possible. He had never even told Hera about this, but he wasn’t certain that she would have understood. She had never been a Jedi. “I’d been at the Crucible about five months when another Inquisitor went rogue – a full Inquisitor, I mean, the trainees were…trainees don’t go rogue. They just snap and get put down, and they’re right there anyway.” He swallowed. “This time they sent the trainees out with the rest of the Hunt. Any training is good training, right? And if they didn’t survive, well, they wouldn’t have cut it anyway.”
He scraped a nail over the inside of his left wrist, the sudden sharp pain managing to ground him for a moment, keep him here in the present and not in the past. Not back in the Crucible. “My ma – when I was recruited, it was because I was a Jedi. The H – the Inquisitor who trained me used to be one of us too, and he wanted –” He stumbled over the words, digging his nails into his wrist.
It took him a moment to get himself under control, aware of Ahsoka’s unwavering gaze on him the entire time. “Most Inquisitors aren’t as strong in the Force as a Jedi, and even those who are – you know how it is. They’re not raised in the Force. They don’t know it like we do, they aren’t…it’s not the same. He wanted…he wanted someone like him. Someone who could think like that, who understood the Force the way he did. That I wasn’t fully trained when the Order fell was a plus for him, I guess because – because I wouldn’t overthink it.” Other reasons too, but he didn’t want to think about that. He didn’t want to think about this, for that matter.
He pressed his nails against the inside of his wrist, concentrating on that and not the gentle pressure of Ahsoka’s mind on his. “The Hunter took me out on that Hunt because he knew I could track the Fisher – the Inquisitor who had gone rogue.” He shut his eyes, adding without opening them, “Most of the others couldn’t, because she was a Jedi too – had been a Jedi. She knew how to hide herself in the Living Force. The dark side is inimical to it; someone who’s only been trained as an Inquisitor can’t – can’t.”
“She was a Jedi?”
“Yeah.” He was aware of his breath coming so quickly that it was all he could hear; Ahsoka’s words barely penetrated it, but the question rang in the Force. “Yeah, she was a Jedi.”
There wasn’t really any such thing as a former Jedi. People could leave the Order, but being a Jedi went deeper than merely the trappings of the Order and the Code. Jedi were Jedi in their blood and bone, in the fabric of their souls, in the heart of the Force. Kanan had been taught – certain schools of thought among the Order had taught – that even Jedi who turned to the dark side, who embraced the Sith, were still Jedi in all the ways that mattered. He didn’t know if Ahsoka had come out of that tradition or not.
She was watching him with one hand fisted on her thigh, like she wished she was holding her lightsaber. “What did you do?”
Kanan dug his nails into the inside of his wrist so hard that his fingers spasmed, but he managed to keep his voice steady as he said, “She was a murderer who destroyed everyone in the village where the child she had been sent after lived, as well as the child and six other Inquisitors. She tried to kill me.”
“What did you do, Kanan?” Ahsoka asked again.
“I killed her,” Kanan said.
He pushed to his feet, closing his hands into fists to keep her from seeing how badly they were shaking. Ahsoka watched him with narrowed eyes, but didn’t make a move to follow him as he crossed the cabin to the door. He had his hand over the control panel when Ahsoka said, “You know the Hunter is dead.”
Kanan flinched. “I – I know,” he managed to say.
“I killed him.”
Kanan put a hand over his face, blinking at the sudden smell of blood and realizing he had broken the skin on his left wrist. “I guessed.”
He heard her stand up, her steps light on the deck as she came over to stand behind him. “Are you angry with me?”
He let his breath scrape out.
“I saw him with you in those surveillance vids,” Ahsoka said softly, her breath warm on the back of his neck. “You cared for him.”
Kanan stared at the blood on the inside of his wrist. “I don’t know.”
“He was your master, your teacher, your…partner. That doesn’t bother you even a little?”
“He wasn’t my partner!” Kanan snapped, whirling to find himself nearly nose to nose with Ahsoka.
She met his gaze, unblinking. “That’s not what I’ve heard.”
“You don’t know anything about me, him, or the Inquisition,” Kanan said through his teeth. He groped blindly for the control panel and slammed his fist into the release button, hearing the door slide open behind him. He stepped away from Ahsoka as quickly as he could, every muscle in his body so stiff that he felt like he would shatter.
“Kanan,” Ahsoka said when he was halfway down the corridor, not sure where he was going but knowing that he had to be away from her. “If he was still alive, would you be here now?”
Kanan shut his eyes. “I don’t know.”
Something in his Headhunter’s guts had gone clunk the last time Doriah had fired up his engines, so he was on his back beneath his starfighter, hitting things with a hydrogrip and yelling questions at Xiaan, who was up in the cockpit keeping an eye on the ship’s computers, which should have been telling them what wasn’t functioning correctly but instead kept throwing error codes with no apparent explanation. Doriah was so frustrated that he was about ready to rip the entire engine out and install a new one, if there had been one to spare.
He had coaxed Xiaan out of their stateroom to help, since she was almost as good as an astromech droid at this sort of thing and it was clear that she was starting to reach the end of her tether with the ISB files. They were all arranged in some sort of system that probably made perfect sense to a human, but were virtually impossible for a Twi’lek to understand – or at least, a Twi’lek who wasn’t used to them; Hera probably would have gotten it fine – which meant that they had to be gone through one by one. Xiaan had been in tears of frustration when Doriah had come by the stateroom to shower and change clothes; it hadn’t been hard to convince her to take a break, especially in service of making sure that he didn’t spontaneously blow up the next time he was on patrol. The problem was that he just couldn’t find anything actually wrong.
“Maybe it’s just the computers,” Xiaan suggested, leaning down over the side of the Headhunter so that her lekku hung perpendicular to the deck.
Doriah tilted his head up enough to see her. “I swear I heard something.”
“Maybe something came loose during the battle?”
“I thought of that already, but I haven’t found anything yet.” He had had a couple of close scrapes, but he hadn’t thought any of them had done anything more than score his paint; he’d already buffed that out anyway. Not to mention he had already gone on patrol a couple of times since then and his starfighter had been fine.
He pointed this out to Xiaan, who sighed in agreement. She vanished back up into the cockpit, and Doriah returned to unscrewing the panels over his torpedo launchers. At least he had made sure that they were unloaded, so he wasn’t in danger of blowing up the entire hangar. Just in case, though, he had made sure that the Headhunter’s guns were pointed towards the hangar’s entrance instead of the other starfighters parked in the bay.
He and Xiaan weren’t the only people in here, since about half the starfighters on the Hope were currently being worked over by pilots, mechanics, and astromech droids. Some of them weren’t even from the Hope; not everyone in the fleet had the mechanics or equipment to make repairs viable on their own ships, which meant that both the ships and the people were over here cluttering up the hangars. If they had to launch starfighters in a hurry, it would be a mess. Doriah was hoping that that wouldn’t be a problem, since the last thing the fleet needed right now was another Imperial attack. Of course, unless he could figure out what was wrong with his fighter it wouldn’t be his problem, either.
He got the panels loose and set them aside, then stuck his handlight between his teeth so that he could see the colors of the wires; his dark vision turned everything into shades of gray, which wasn’t particularly helpful when it came to things designed by humans and their inferior eyesight.
“Just the same – wait, do that again.”
Doriah tugged obediently on a wire that had felt loose when he had passed his fingers over it, then Xiaan said, “No – false alarm.”
“Because that would have been too easy,” Doriah muttered under his breath. He replaced the panel and pushed himself further beneath the Headhunter’s undercarriage. It wouldn’t have made sense for it to be the proton torpedo launcher anyway, since it wasn’t as though he had had that fired up when the Headhunter had started making worrying noises.
People had been coming and going from the hangar all day, so he didn’t realize immediately that anyone was headed towards them until he saw a pair of feet stop in front of the Headhunter.
“You’re Xiaan Syndulla, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” Xiaan said hesitantly.
Doriah swore silently and started to push his way out from beneath the Headhunter.
“I didn’t know you were a pilot.” The voice was male and unfamiliar, which didn’t rule out anyone from the Forlorn Hope, but the words certainly did.
“I’m not,” Xiaan said, still shy.
“I am,” Doriah said, grabbing the side of the Headhunter to pull himself to his feet. Xiaan, still perched in the cockpit, gave him a look of vast relief.
The newcomer was a man about Doriah’s age with dark purple skin and patrician caste tattoos winding around his lekku. Doriah knew all the patricians on the Forlorn Hope, but he didn’t know this man or recognize the clan markings.
The stranger nodded to him, his gaze flicking over Doriah’s face and lekku to take in the lack of caste tattoos and dismissing him in the same moment. To Xiaan, he said, “I’m Keto Amersu, head of Clan Amersu in the fleet.”
Xiaan gave Doriah a panicked look. “It’s nice to meet you?” she said, turning the pleasantry into a question. She was pressed against the opposite side of the Headhunter’s cockpit, her eyes huge and frightened.
“I’m Doriah Syndulla,” Doriah said, to get Keto’s attention off Xiaan. It didn’t work, since Keto just flicked another glance at him as acknowledgment.
Patricians, Doriah thought, resisting the urge to roll his eyes. Out of the corner of his vision, he saw Zabo and his gunner, who had been working on their bomber, look over, straightening up and watching Keto with predatory intensity. Zabo might not give a damn about Doriah, but everyone on the Hope would walk through hell for Cham Syndulla’s niece, let alone throw an uppity Amersu out of the hangar.
“There’s no easy way to say this, so I’ll just ask,” Keto said. “I heard Secchun Fenn made an offer for you, for her son Nawara. I wanted to ask if you would consider me instead.”
Xiaan’s jaw dropped. “What?”
“To marry,” Keto clarified. “I –”
“I’m not marrying anyone!” Xiaan snapped, her voice rising. She stood up in the cockpit, her hands clenched into fists at her sides.
Keto blinked, tilting his head back up to look at her. “I realize it’s sudden –”
“I’m not marrying Nawara Fenn and I’m not marrying you or anyone else,” Xiaan said flatly. “If I get married, I’ll marry inside the clan.” She took a deep breath, her shoulders tight. Her lekku were trembling, but Doriah thought that from where Keto was standing he wouldn’t be able to tell. “Just because I’m Cham Syndulla’s niece and a curiate doesn’t mean I’m a prize to be won or bartered for.”
“I asked –”
“And I’m not interested.” Xiaan swallowed, then looked back over her shoulder at Doriah. “I want to go now.”
Silently, he reached up to lift her down from the Headhunter. She clung to him, her face turned away and her hands fisted on his shoulders.
“You’re on a Syndulla ship, Amersu,” Zabo said, making Keto jump; he clearly hadn’t heard the other man’s approach. “If you want to stay on it, you should leave here now.”
Keto looked between the small group of pilots and mechanics who had gathered behind Zabo and Xiaan, who was hiding her face in Doriah’s shirt. “I see that,” he said. He dipped his head politely in Xiaan’s direction and added, “Please consider my offer,” before turning and walking away.
Doriah waited for the hangar doors to shut behind him before he bent his head to Xiaan and said, “He’s gone now.”
Xiaan put her arms up silently and looped them around his neck. “I should tell Uncle Cham,” she mumbled. “I bet the Amersu didn’t ask him first.”
“Are you all right?” Zabo asked, coming over to them.
Doriah felt Xiaan swallow, then she released him and turned around to face Zabo. “I am,” she said, her voice wavering slightly. “Thank you.”
“Any time,” Zabo said. He nodded awkwardly to Doriah, then turned away as the group of pilots and mechanics began to disperse back to the ships they had been working on.
“I should tell Uncle Cham,” Xiaan said again.
“Okay,” Doriah said, squeezing her hand. “We’ll go find him.”
“Ezra, can I ask you some questions?”
Ezra looked up to find Ahsoka standing over him, looking down at him with an expression of what seemed to be genuine concern. Given that whatever she had said to Kanan earlier had sent him storming through the lounge to go sit in the airlock – there wasn’t a whole lot of space to spare in the Aegis – Ezra wasn’t certain that he wanted to hear anything that Ahsoka had to say, but there didn’t seem to be a good way to decline.
“Uh, sure,” he said, scooting over on the bench so that she could sit down beside him. “What do you want to know?”
“How long have you been with Kanan and his team?” She rested her elbows on the table and clasped her hands beneath her chin, looking at him so earnestly that Ezra felt a trickle of unreasonable unease. It was the kind of way the ladies at the Imperial-run shelters in Capital City looked at him. Ezra avoided the shelters as a matter of course – he had his tower and his hideouts – but he had on occasion been roped into them despite his best efforts.
“Uh – not that long,” Ezra had to admit. “Like a week, week and a half. It feels like longer,” he added, counting back in his head. It felt like a lot longer.
“You weren’t with them before Empire Day?”
“No. I mean, I’d seen some of them around Capital City before, but they only got there a couple days earlier. Empire Day was the first time I ever saw Kanan.” He hesitated for a moment, wondering if he ought to tell her about being chased across the city, then decided that she would probably take that the wrong way. She seemed like the type, and – well, it wasn’t like there was a good way to say it. Besides, it was obvious that Kanan didn’t trust her, which meant that Ezra wasn’t going to either. “He recruited me the next day.”
“Recruited?” Ahsoka echoed. She sounded politely doubtful, and Ezra bristled in response before he even realized he was doing so.
“I had a choice,” he told her. “He asked and I said yes. No one forced me.”
A tiny line knit between Ahsoka’s brows. Slowly, she said, “When we met before, you didn’t strike me as someone who had any reason to love the Empire, but you can’t get much more Imperial than the ISB and the Inquisition. Did something change?”
Ezra kicked a foot idly under the table, chewing over both her question and his answer. Nothing had changed. Everything had changed. He finally compromised with a shrug and said, “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”
“Even after what happened to your parents?”
Ezra blinked. “To my – do you know what happened to my parents?”
“No, I’m sorry,” Ahsoka said quickly. “I was just thinking about the signs on your parents’ old house on Lothal – you said it was their house, didn’t you?”
“Oh,” Ezra said, deflating. “Yeah. That was my – their – home. But that was a long time ago.” He looked back at Ahsoka, trying to impress upon her the urgency of his words. “Kanan and Hera aren’t like other Imperials. They’re…nice. I mean, they’re not nice,” he added quickly, because in his experience “nice” meant certain things that were never good, “but they’re – they’re not like other Imperials. They’re not like anyone else I’ve met before, not them or Zeb or Sabine, or even Chopper. And not just because Kanan started talking about the Force or anything. And I know there was a lot going on – what with that ISB agent that Zeb hates and the battle and Hera’s parents and Kanan getting arrested and Mustafar and everything, but that doesn’t change anything. It just makes them more of who they are.” He frowned, then clarified, “And they’re not Imperials anymore.”
“I’d gotten that impression,” Ahsoka said. She was still frowning, considering him like she was trying to decide whether he was lying or just a stupid kid who didn’t know any better. “What happened?”
“Uh –” Ezra hesitated. “That’s not really my story to tell.”
Ahsoka’s brow knit again. “I have to admit that I’m surprised you agreed to train as an Inquisitor in the first place,” she said.
“I didn’t,” Ezra said, blinking at her. “That’s not why Kanan recruited me. He was pretty clear about that – that he didn’t want me to be an Inquisitor, I mean.”
“Then why did Kanan recruit you?”
Ezra shrugged. Even if she was a Jedi too, telling her everything Kanan had said about the Force didn’t seem right, and he definitely wasn’t going to tell her about the vision he and Kanan had shared when Kanan had been unconscious. “I guess you’d have to ask him that.”
Ahsoka inclined her head in acknowledgment. “I guess the more important question is why you agreed.”
Ezra was about to repeat what he had said earlier about it seeming like a good idea, but instead found himself saying, “It felt…right. You know? Like there was something out there bigger than me, and I had a chance to be a part of it. Even if it was the Empire, it was…it was the first time anyone had ever offered me that choice. No one’s asked me what I wanted since my parents – not for a long time, anyway.”
“You know that you have other choices now,” Ahsoka said, with an edge of concern that made the hair on the back of Ezra’s neck stand up. “You don’t have to stay with them. My associates and I can make sure that you have a new identity, credits, anything else –”
“No thanks,” Ezra said. “Listen, I had a choice, okay? More than one. I had a lot of choices; no one tricked me into doing this. Hera and Kanan both offered to let me leave if I wanted – and they made me that offer too, with the new identity and the credits and a new planet, all that. I don’t want that. I want this – whatever it is. Even if it gets me killed.” I want to be a Jedi, he almost added, but he managed to hold that in.
Maybe Ahsoka heard it anyway. “If Kanan told you –”
Footsteps on the deck heralded Kanan’s return, and Ahsoka stopped, frustration chasing briefly across her face. She looked up as Kanan appeared in the entrance to the lounge, bracing a hand on either side of the doorframe as he leaned into the room.
Ezra hadn’t gotten a good look at him when he had passed through earlier, and he was a little shocked now to see how tired and worn Kanan seemed, the fading bruises from Mustafar dark shadows on his face.
“We there yet?”
Ahsoka’s gaze narrowed for a moment, presumably calculating the amount of time they had spent in hyperspace. “Just about,” she said, rising.
Kanan and Ezra followed her back through the ship to the cockpit. Kanan carefully kept himself between her and Ezra the entire time, his hands loose at his sides. Ezra could see dried blood on the exposed left sleeve of his jumper; he couldn’t remember if that was new or not. He had heard Kanan and Ahsoka yelling at each other earlier, but not anything that could be construed as actual fighting.
Kanan stepped into the cockpit and stopped, Ezra barely catching himself from running into his back. As he peered around Kanan, he saw Ahsoka replacing her lightsabers on her hips, keeping her hands on the hilts as she turned towards Kanan.
“Where are my lightsabers?” Kanan said, his voice low and dangerous. “And my blaster?”
“Somewhere safe,” Ahsoka said. “I’m surprised you carry a blaster.”
“I’m flexible,” Kanan snapped.
Ahsoka raised her chin, considering him for a moment before she said, “I’m not allowing an Inquisitor to go armed on my ship. You can have them back when you return to your team.”
“Oh, thanks.” Kanan finally stepped forward into the cockpit, dropping into the co-pilot’s seat and scowling at Ahsoka.
Ezra followed him inside. There were no passenger seats, so he leaned on the back of Kanan’s chair as Ahsoka settled into the pilot’s seat, studying the readings on her boards before she reached for the hyperspace lever with one hand. The other she kept on her lightsaber hilt.
Hyperspace blurred into starlines before settling into realspace. Kanan’s hands settled into fists on the arms of the chair, his jaw tight. Without looking at Ahsoka, he said, “You said this system was uninhabited.”
“It is,” Ahsoka said. “It’s just not unoccupied at the moment.”
Starships hung in the blackness of space, near the double rings that encircled the nearby gas giant. Ezra didn’t know starships very well, but he had seen these before, and the big frigate on the edge of the fleet was unmistakable even to his inexperienced eyes. This wasn’t just any fleet. This was Free Ryloth.