“The Force is with me,” Sifei Yian Kuo intoned.
“And I am one with the Force,” Chirrut replied.
Sunshine fell bright between the shadowed pillars of the South Training Hall, gilding the air and burnishing the floor. Sifei Wen Yian Kuo and Chirrut Îmwe sat facing each other, sitting doshan, their hands on their thighs and their eyes closed. A half-circle of judges sat observing.
“The Lessons of Gaidan,” the proctor declared, and Chirrut felt his heart ease. He knew these lessons well.
Eight years ago, Sifei Wen Yian Kuo had passed through the Temple Library and seen promise in a young man from Qinbuo, in the Southern Provinces. She had followed him, watching him learn the martial forms of the Guardians in the North Training Hall and meditate with his fellow postulants in the South Training Hall. When she had seen enough, She had gone to the Chamber of the Whills, for she was growing old and could not be sure she would live long enough to complete his training.
The Force moved strangely on Jedha. It moved strangest of all in the Holy City, where seed caves of the kyber crystals could be found. In ancient times, before the Jedi came, the crystals were called whills. They were woven into necklaces for good luck, and Jedhan leaders wore them to ensure clarity of vision. But most of all, the Guardians of the Whills were renowned as seers and oracles, for the Chamber of the Whills, buried in the tableland a hundred storeys below the Temple, bore Force eddies so powerful that even a person weak in the Force could sense them.
Wen Yian Kuo was weak in the Force. She had gone to the deepest caverns, for she had sought a vision. A vision she received. She told no one what she saw, not even the Order archivists; but many remembered the convalescence she had endured before taking Chirrut as her student.
“You cannot learn about the Unifying All from books alone,” she had said to him.
Chirrut was humbled by the attention of the most formidable nun in the Temple, but baffled by her words. “Surely you do not mean that books are useless?”
“Don't be dense. There is a difference between knowledge and wisdom. Wisdom comes from doing, Postulant Chirrut. What wisdom do you gain from reading books but how to read a book?”
“You learn how to think, Sifei.”
She gave him a knowing glance. “I will show you how to meditate like a Guardian, Chirrut Îmwe. We will see what teaches you more, the meditation or the book.”
They had knelt together in the South Training Hall each day for three thousand days, learning to meditate. Now, he knelt before the Council of Elders. If he passed their tests, he would become a Guardian of the First Duan. If he failed, he would be permitted to remain as postulant, and make another attempt in three years.
Wen Yian Kuo was deeply respected in the Temple, for she was the only Seventh Duan Guardian without sense of the Force. She had written a great many texts and taught many younglings. Her meditation trials were legendary, even among the Jedi. Her physical and mental control were unparalleled. That she had taken Chirrut as her student said a great deal to the Elders about his potential.
Chirrut was unaware of this. To him, he was simply another hopeful looking to join the Temple ranks.
“Balance is the way of the Force,” she told him now. “Compassion is the destination. What do the Great Sages call balance?”
“Neither too high nor too low, neither too short nor too long, neither too tight nor too loose.”
“What do the Great Sages say is the root of compassion?”
Chirrut let himself fall into deeper meditation. He felt the Force as a warmth in his heart. When it was powerful, he could guess the emotions of those around him. When it was weak, he was only himself. The Force was strong in the Holy City.
“Good,” Yian Kuo said. “What do the Great Sages say is the enemy of balance?”
“Attachment is the promise of sorrow.”
“How does it lead to sorrow?”
“All things are impermanent. Attachment is unwillingness to let them end. Refusal to accept the inevitable leads to suffering.”
“What are the six talons of attachment?”
“To people, to things, to the past, to the future, to emotions, to ideas.”
“What is the awakened mind?”
“One which loves without holding.”
They recited Gaidan’s Lessons, all two hundred questions and responses, before the sun fell to the afternoon sky. Each passage contained its own mental state to condition the mind; when they were through, Chirrut was sweating. There was an urgency to Yian Kuo’s teachings he did not understand. It was customary for Initiates to take ten years to advance to the First Duan. He had managed it in eight, driven on by his sifei.
“You have done well,” she said warmly. They bowed to each other, pressing their foreheads to the purhin-wood floor. “Go, rest. Tomorrow we will recite the Analects of Dorosso.”
“Yes, sifei.” He bowed to the Elders and left when he was dismissed.
The Temple was quiet. The conclusion of Chirrut’s recitation had fallen between the hours, and the Guardians were at meditation. He felt scoured, his mind empty as a jar drained of its contents. He let his feet carry him to his favorite of the many meditation gardens in the Temple complex. It held a fountain and a small stream, and reeds dipped low over the dappled water. Creaking alminar trees shaded the courtyard, protecting it from the sun and trapping in its collected moisture. Chirrut gathered his robes and knelt upon the meditation circle.
Tomorrow was the last day of the Trial of Memory. Then would begin the Trial of the Body, where Chirrut would display his mastery of the martial forms of the Guardians. Last would be the Trial of Meditation. Had he been abdema, broadly-reaching, he would have faced the Trial of the Force as well, but he was nedjeh, trapped within himself. There was no shame in this. The Guardians of the Whills did not select only the Force-sensitive children from their population, but trained all who came to their doors. That resource which brought the Jedi to Jedha--kyber crystals--was also the leverage by which the Guardians prevented them from harvesting their children. Lost whills were nothing compared to lost younglings.
Chirrut had gazed many times upon the serenity of this small garden, nestled against the shoulder of the Temple pagoda, and found peace therein. The green of growing things was a balm to the eye, the smell of water pleasing to a desert-dweller’s nose. But what Chirrut liked most was not the grass or the pool of water, but the beehives that lined the back wall. Their occupants pollinated all the gardens of the Temple, yet this was their resting place, and the gentle hum of their wings and the bumbling sway of their bodies through the air pushed aside Chirrut’s concerns for the future. Here, he could watch a bee disappear down the throat of a flower and be present. The bees had no thought for trials, only of harvesting pollen. Their lives were in the here and now, and in watching them, Chirrut could be, as well.
In the distance, the bell tower rang for Gihe. He rose, his mind relaxed and calm, and began the first form of the empty hand kuan. He moved through the stances, his eyes closed, and listened to the sound of the bees.
The day Chirrut made Fourth Duan, news came of Chancellor Palpatine’s capture by the Separatists. Monsoon season also had begun; Chirrut ran in from the deluge, laughing as Guardian Tikke shook his mane over the entrance hall. “Water for the Sages!” he shouted, drenching the statue of Timnah ben Daved.
“You’d think the saint of prudence would value it more in a glass,” Chirrut said, wringing out his robes into the collecting jars by the door. He smoothed down his white Fourth Duan sash.
“It's rain, Chirrut, the first of the season! Even Timnah knew when to celebrate!”
Three more Guardians came dashing in, tracking water and mud across the polished stone floor.
“Chirrut! Tikke! Come watch it with us!”
Never mind that they were all Third and Fourth Duan Guardians, each in their third standard decade; they ran to the upper observation window like younglings to watch the downpour. Monsoon season came at the end of the year, when the windblown heat of summer faded to the bitter cold of winter. Two months of intermittent, torrential rainstorms set the desert abloom before it withered once more. The scent of damp earth rose up all around them; in the distance, the stormclouds’ underbellies hung in torn, gray streamers, releasing their burdens to the dry earth. Curtains of water pummeled the Holy City. They could barely hear their own voices beneath the tumult on the entrance hall’s tiled roof.
It was a fey mood that came over NiJedha when the first rains fell. Chirrut saw a rainbow of colors as the City-dwellers came out to dance beneath the storm. Reds, yellows, greens, oranges, and the blue of Storysingers: they all packed the streets, raising their hands to the sky. Salaimite women shed their habqas and washed their hair in the clean rain; Abrahi fathers pulled aside their keppot and raised their youngest children heavenward for the blessing of God. Cheering and laughter spread throughout the cramped streets, right up to the walls of the Temple. Chirrut felt his blood stirring at the sight. A thousand races from a thousand stars, all joined in celebrating the coming of the monsoon. Their joy was infectious; it blazed like a sun in his chest.
He followed his companions down from the gatehouse and into the Temple courtyards, joining the throngs of their siblings-in-faith as they danced in the rain. It soaked into their clothes and darkened sashes until their ranks were indistinguishable. Everyone from the oldest Seventh Duan to the youngest Postulant was outside, save for those whom health or fitness would not permit. Laughter and singing rose from the cloisters, and cheers rose in the wake of each thundercrack. In the evening, after the deluge had abated, there would be feasting and candlelight, and burning incense and hymns in the Great Hall.
It was a day of merriment and happiness--but the joyous mood suddenly wavered, and Chirrut turned around, in unison with his fellow Guardians, to see Sifei Goleq come down from the Library, his face grim.
“The Supreme Chancellor has been kidnapped by General Grievous,” he said, his voice carrying despite the thunderous rain.
The warmth in Chirrut’s chest vanished into ice. A low moaning came upon the more sensitive of the Guardians, and little Sasha, the youngest postulant and the strongest abdema the Temple had seen in four centuries, dropped to her knees. Chirrut crouched beside her, to protect her from the press.
“Little Sister, what is it?”
“I don't know!” she cried, her tears washed away by the rain. “Something’s going to happen! Something bad!”
This could only be a foretelling, a vision sent by the Force. He heard it in her voice. He mastered his nerves to keep from overwhelming her. “Can you tell me what you saw?”
“Nothing! I saw nothing! Nothing!”
Sasha was slight, little more than 1.24 meters. When her legs buckled again, Chirrut scooped her up and pushed his way through to the Hall of Healing. Her fear stung him and leached warmth from his limbs. “Be easy, Little Sister,” he said. “What do the Great Sages say are the enemies of clear thought?”
“Passion and fear,” she whispered against his chest.
“How do we overcome them?”
“Embrace them and they will release their hold over you. Face them, and they will flee.” She was trembling in his arms.
“Hold on, Little Sister,” he murmured as he passed her off to the healers.
The festival rites that night were perfunctory, the rain no longer bountiful but chill and threatening. Everyone in the Temple was tense. No few of their own had left for the Grand Army to bolster the Jedi’s numbers, a testament to the close, reciprocal bond between the two sects; the Order of the Whills stood apart from the hardline stance of the Jedi, but many of the Jedi’s ways had grafted onto the folk paths of Jedha. They were different, but they, like the Force, were still at unity. Many in the galaxy saw no difference between a Jedi and a Guardian. If the war had gone sour… A chill ran down Chirrut’s spine.
A breathless hush seemed to fall over the City, dread and waiting. Every citizen felt it to one degree or another, for such was the effect of planting a city upon a seam of kyber crystals: when the Force sent foreboding through its nexus, all felt it. It sent the Temple elders into a fury of consolidation. In the days after the Chancellor’s capture and rescue, the Temple became a hive of activity. Chirrut found a new appreciation of his beloved bees’ relentless work. He sent copies of the ancient texts in every known language to databanks across the planet, and throughout the galaxy as well, encrypted and hidden between other files and, in some cases, as in the Alderaanian Royal Library, shelved openly, though only through private access.
He was halfway through uploading a holobook of Defernes’s sayings when he felt it. A surge, a twist in the Force, as of a key fitting in a lock, or a riddle matched with its solution. He felt a flare of darkness so penetrating his vision turned black, and then he went ice cold. Voices rose from the stacks around him, Guardians reacting to the change.
“They're dying,” Guardian Mollin said beside him, his eyes gone glassy. “They're dying by the thousands. Like stars going out in the night sky.”
Later, Chirrut saw the broadcast over the Holonet. He heard how the Jedi had been shot down by their own troops for the crime of treason, and he knew that it was only a matter of time until the Guardians followed. He sought out Sifei Yian Kuo.
“What should we do, Sifei?” he asked, kneeling respectfully before her in doshan.
“We must prepare to defend ourselves,” she said, her voice heavy with foreknowledge. “Come, Chirrut. I have not yet shown you the Breath of Mountains.”
“Tikke!” he yelled through smoke and tibanna discharge, his throat dry. “Tikke!”
They had thought themselves prepared. They had secured their files and sent the younglings back to their families, if they had them. They had fortified the Temple. Eight months they had been granted after the purge of the Jedi, and they had squandered it with arguing over nothing. The abdemai had been struck down with psychic shock, and the nedjehu alone were unequal to the burden of preparation. Infighting and panic had stalled their efforts.
Now, it was too late. Imperial troops, clone soldiers once loyal to the Republic, flooded the streets of the Holy City, shooting any civilian who resisted. They set charges to the Temple gates; they rappelled into the cloister from hovering gunships.
Chirrut peered around a corner and saw Tikke baring his fangs at the oncoming troops, his Cathar fur bristling at their approach. They blasted him in the shoulder. He lay in his own blood in the Stelae Garden, and Chirrut, burdened as he was with a newly-oblated abdema youngling no more than five standard years old, couldn't go to him and risk being seen. The stormtroopers passed; Chirrut’s stomach unclenched.
“I'm going to put you down,” he said to the youngling, who was a Rodian named Ree. “Tikke needs my help. I want you to hide here and be very quiet. Can you do that for me?” She nodded silently.
He settled her in the shadows of the cloister and went out to Tikke. Floodlights from the hovering gunships bleached the scene white; if anyone was watching, Chirrut was a walking target. He knelt beside Tikke, took one look at the wound in his shoulder, and knew this would be the last time he spoke to his friend. He pulled off his sash and pressed it to the wound anyway.
“Tikke,” he said helplessly.
“The Force is with me,” his friend sighed, and went still. Chirrut stared uncomprehending; unwilling to comprehend.
“Tikke?” he whispered. “Tikke?” He reached for his hand and shook it, but Tikke didn't move. His eyes stared blankly at the riven sky.
Chirrut stumbled back in a daze. His heart seemed frozen in his chest. Shadows crept in on his vision and he gasped for breath. Smoke and wailing rose into the air, along with the lightning-flicker of blasterfire. The Temple tower glowed red in the flames.
“You there!” a voice called out, and Chirrut was blinded by a helmet light trained on his face. He heard the click-whine of a blaster being primed. “On your knees!”
The words didn’t penetrate his shock. He squinted into the light, his hands open before him.
“I said on your knees!”
The butt of a rifle struck him low in the back. Chirrut stumbled forward, catching himself against the gravel of the courtyard. He could see, now that the flashlights no longer drowned out his sight, the thicket of white-armored legs surrounding him, appearing and disappearing around the stelae. Comms chatter echoed across the flagstone walls. He felt the shadow of their souls: dark and retreated in on themselves, permitting no room for empathy.
Clone troopers rarely came to Jedha. Chirrut had met one, once, when a Jedi brought her commander, a recent convert to the Order, to the Temple for blessing. He had been diffident and respectful, almost shy. It had stood at odds with the orderly violence in his soul. Chirrut was no abdema to know instinctually the truth of a man, but he could read what the Force chose to show him. The clone had painted the symbol of the Order on his armor and had fought back tears when Sifei Goleq presented him with a whill. Chirrut thought of him now, and how different the voices of these clones were to him. There was no doubt in his mind that they were killers. Whatever gentleness the convert had shown, it was not in these men.
“What’s your name?” one of them demanded.
“Chirrut Îmwe,” he said without thinking, cushioned by shock.
“Is he Force-sensitive?”
A moment passed. “He’s not on the list.”
Perhaps in another life, that would have been the end of it. The clones pulled away their blasters, sure he was no target of theirs. The comms chatter refocused; their attention pulled away from Chirrut, leaving him breathless. He stared at the bloody footprints they left behind.
Perhaps that would have been the end.
A small noise from the cloister, no more than a cough or a sob, echoed over the hard stone. In a burst of clarity, Chirrut remembered Ree. He forced himself not to look to her hiding place; he could only pray to the Force that the troopers hadn’t heard, as well.
“Did you hear that?” one of them asked.
Tikke had always carried a staff. The bang kuan were his favorites; in his hands, a simple length of bembu became as lethal as a blastershot. His staff lay forgotten in the gravel, a half-meter from Chirrut’s knee. Chirrut had preferred the empty hand styles. Their simplicity and utility had appealed to him. He found himself staring at Tikke’s staff. If he moved fast enough, he could catch the troopers by surprise.
Him. Catch the Jedi-killers by surprise.
What other choice was there? Ree was depending on him. It was his duty to preserve the future of the Guardians in whatever way he could, and she was their future. All this passed through his mind in the space of a heartbeat. By the time the clone officer had lifted his weapon to his shoulder, Chirrut had seized the bembu staff and knocked him off his feet.
Moments spun past in a blur. Chirrut ducked without knowing why and avoided a blaster bolt. The crack of wood against armor echoed in his ears. A hundred shouts rang out in the same voice. The sweet sensation of the world spinning in a perfectly executed sweep-strike. Breaking a man’s neck; sickening vibrations running up the staff to Chirrut’s hands. Adrenaline burning in his veins. A sharp pain against the back of his head, then the gravel rising up to meet him.
He reached for the staff, but someone kicked it away. His head rang; he tried to kip up, but the clones knocked his hands out from under him. A blaster barrel pressed between his eyes.
“Go check it out,” the officer said, his blank eyepieces boring holes into Chirrut’s soul. He stared back, his heart beating triple-time.
“Ree!” he shouted. “Run!”
“It’s a Rodian girl!”
“That’s one! Take her down!”
He heard small feet running, and the heavier tread of armored troopers. He heard a high, short scream. Chirrut turned his head, pressing up against the blaster to see; he caught a glimpse of white throwing a small green shadow to the ground before the clone officer knocked him back down. He heard a single blastershot. His lungs seized.
Silence descended, heavy and expectant.
“We’re not done with you,” the officer said, pressing the barrel into Chirrut’s temple.
Chirrut closed his eyes.
Spring in the Holy City was unkind. Atop the tableland, high above the broad sweep of the alluvial plain, the wind blew ferociously. It rattled against windows and doors, shaking foundations and snapping the canopies in the bazaar until they echoed like the tattoo of a drum corps. Kicked-up dust hissed against mud brick walls. The wind howled, blasting past corners, whistling around laundry lines, cutting through sunshine and the thickest coats. “Summer brings heat,” NiJedhans said. “Autumn brings rain, and winter brings cold. But spring is the worst, for it brings wind.”
This spring was bitterer than most. The Temple stood empty and vacant, its bells silent, its drums smashed. The shock of its destruction seemed to pummel the Force, and the Holy City mourned. The 501st had burned the granaries before they left, “to remind the populace of their place,” and famine had set in over an unusually long winter. Even now, early harvest yields were low. The Festival of Lights had passed silently. Candles and lamps sat in every window, but the great bonfires of the year before were gone. The city walls, usually festooned with torches and spirit lights, stood bare and silent and cold.
Wind scoured the streets. One gust billowed across a small square and into an alley snugged between a tailor’s shop and a row of tenements, tangling a set of windchimes before blasting cold air and stinging dust over the faces of the beggars huddled in the corner. They had not been beggars the year before. Their rags were the remnants of rich men’s clothes. The cloaks and habqas they pulled about themselves were threadbare and ground with filth and sorrow.
“How about you guard us against the wind, Guardian,” one muttered to the solitary lump of dirty black huddling at the edge of the group.
“Shut your fat face, Kaiyo,” another shot back, but it lacked any heat. There wasn’t energy to spare for anger when the wind stripped it away.
A third voice rose. “He can’t be a Guardian, he’s blind.”
“You don’t know your own head from your hindquarters, idiot. The stormtroopers blinded him.”
“Stormtroopers didn’t blind the Guardians. They killed them.”
Chirrut wrapped his cloak tighter about himself and tried to shut out their voices. He focused on the rough weave of his trousers and the keening whine of the wind over the rooftops.
The clones had blinded him. Their orders forbade the killing of nedjehu; that alone had saved Chirrut’s life. It did not, however, prevent them from dragging him to the kitchens and pouring boiling water over his eyes. “For our brothers,” the captain had spat in his face.
Had the Temple healers still been alive, had his burns been properly treated, he would probably have regained most of his sight. But in the wake of the Empire’s massacre, no one wanted to risk helping any Guardian, even one cast aside as unimportant. His eyes had cataracted over. Now, the most he could see was indistinct, shadowy blurs. If the light wasn’t too high or too low, or if a color was bright enough, he could sometimes see it--but all that did was remind him of what he had lost. He kept his eyes closed more often than not and slept whenever he found a safe alley in which to hide in his dreams.
Time passed. The indifference of his fellow beggars faded away, replaced by dozing visions as ragged as the wind. He dreamed of Sasha falling to her knees in the cloister, but instead of foretelling doom she sang the Hymn of Saint Timnah. He dreamed of the clones blinding him, but instead of water they poured raw flames upon his face. He dreamed of Tikke’s staff tapping upon the flags, but instead of seeing Tikke, he woke up.
“Why are you sleeping on the ground?” a young voice asked. A tendril of warmth eased into the cold center of him, and he raised his head. He saw nothing, of course, though the light had changed, and the noises of his fellow beggars had shifted to less windy environs.
“I have nowhere else,” he finally answered. His voice was raspy with dust and disuse.
“Are you lost?” The child didn’t sound any older than six or seven standard.
The Temple of the Kyber was gutted, its gates broken, its faithful slaughtered, and the eternal flame extinguished. The statues of the saints had been defaced, taken down for use as firewood in the bitter winter. His little beehive garden was surely destroyed. Chirrut felt tears welling up, though they came less easily from his damaged tear ducts. “Yes,” he said, his voice wavering. “I’m lost.”
“Mama told me to ask someone for help if I ever got lost.”
The tears came in earnest now, building behind Chirrut’s eyes until they ached. They cut runnels through the dust on his cheeks. “Your mama is a wise woman.”
He heard a tapping sound, and every fiber in his body went taut. It was the sound which had woken him. Then he heard the sound of a small body plopping down to the ground beside him, and he smelled clean laundry. Chirrut was suddenly conscious of his own unwashed, unshaven state.
“I can help,” the child said. “I know the whole city by heart.”
“The whole city?” Chirrut asked, charmed despite his tears. “Are you sure? It’s a very big city.”
“All of it! I know the way to the grocer, and the way to the butcher, and all the stalls in the bazaar. I even know how to find Gramma’s house.”
The child’s innocence plucked at Chirrut’s heart. “I guess you do know the city.”
“Yes, so I can help you find home.”
Chirrut sighed, and it came from his very bones. “I wish you could.”
“I’m not useless!” the child proclaimed. “I’m blind, but I can still help!”
Chirrut went rigid. “You--did you say you’re blind?”
He heard again the impact of a stick against the street, but this time it was louder, springing as it did from frustration instead of utility. “Yes! Everyone says I’m helpless, but I’m not. I know the way to Gramma’s house by myself.”
“Of course,” Chirrut said, his thoughts awhirl. He had, of course, come across blind people with canes before, but he had looked away from them without seeing. “How do you find your way to your Gramma’s house?”
“Easy. She lives above a Roshan restaurant, so I know I'm there when I smell the fried jipparies. Also it's sixty steps from the washing fountain.”
“How far is your house from your Gramma’s?”
“We live on the dyers’ street. Gramma lives on the jewelers’ street.”
The jewelers were halfway across the Meziri Quarter from the dyers. Shock loosened Chirrut’s tongue. “And your mother lets you go all that way by yourself?”
“She said it's better if I learn so I don't get lost. You should learn, too.”
Such simple words, and yet, to a man banished and cold, they were like a light in the darkness. Chirrut’s breath caught. He glimpsed, for a moment until the clarity vanished, the crossroad that lay before him.
“Elima!” a woman yelled in the distance. “Elima, where are you!”
“Here, Mama!” the child answered.
Footsteps entered the alley, accompanied by the swish of a habqah against the street. “Elima! What are you doing here!”
“I heard pretty windchimes,” the child said, and Chirrut heard for the first time the wooden chimes overhead.
“Come here, you foolish girl. Tell me where you are.”
Elima told her as though reciting her schoolwork. “In an alley one hundred twenty-two steps south of the Tibishi Fountain. There's a fruit seller on the corner and an eopie pat at Ma’apa Street and Weaver’s Row.”
“Good girl,” her mother said.
Chirrut rose, his muscles protesting. He hadn't realized he was so close to Tibishi. “Sister,” he said in the direction of the woman’s voice. “May I give a blessing to your daughter? She has given hope to a man with none.”
For a time there was no reply. Chirrut felt eyes on him, and behind them a wary consideration.
“He's lost, Mama,” Elima said. “I told him how to get to Gramma’s so he won't be lost again.”
“A thousand pardons, Sister,” Chirrut hastened to say. “I didn't ask to know where she lived, but to know how she found it.” He stepped sideways until he felt the sun on his face, keeping his eyes open though the light washed out the remnants of his vision.
“You're a Guardian,” the woman said in surprise.
“Yes, Sister. And new to my condition.”
There was another silence, and this time it was heavy with pity. “I will take your blessing, if you're still offering.”
Chirrut pulled the kyber crystal he had received upon attaining his First Duan and held it out. He took a few steps toward her voice, but didn't trust his footing to carry him further. Her footsteps came to him, instead. He felt caution in buffeting waves, and was conscious of his ratty, filthy state.
“This is a consecrated whill, from the very heart of the Temple,” he said. “It shows the will of the Force. May it always guide your daughter on the straight path.”
The necklace disappeared from his hand. “Thank you,” came the woman’s awestruck response. Whills, always hard to come by, had only grown moreso with the Empire. It was a gift beyond price. Chirrut bowed.
“Your Elima has reminded me that my life has not ended, Sister. This is the only gift I have to repay her.”
There was a pause, and then the woman began rustling through her clothes. “Here,” she said, and Chirrut heard the clink of credits as she held them out. “Please, take it.”
It was an old tradition, engrained into the culture of Jedha City, to offer alms in return for blessings. In the oldest days, the offerings had taken the form of food and clothes; in more recent millennia, credits had become the accepted standard. Chirrut accepted them with an ache in his heart.
“My thanks, Sister. May the Force be with you.”
“Come with us,” she said suddenly. “It’s not right for a Guardian to be forgotten like this. We haven’t much room, but I can put blankets on the couch. It’ll get you out of the wind.”
Chirrut bowed again, this time to mask the welling in his eyes. “Sister, I would only be a drain upon your family.”
“Nonsense. You need a place to sleep, regular meals, and I'm sure you would love a bath. There are resources that can help you; we can put you in touch with them.”
“I can give you nothing in return.”
“Not all gifts are easily seen. Come with us, Brother Guardian. Please.”
Hope, Chirrut discovered in that moment, was the most painful emotion in the galaxy. He hung his head and bitter hope stung the raw, despairing interior of his soul.
“I thank you, Sister. My name is Chirrut Îmwe, Guardian of the Fourth Duan, sworn by oath to serve the Order of the Whills. My lineage is through Sifei Wen Yian Kuo of the Leaning Branch School. If the Temple records still exist, you can verify my identity. The eye scan probably won't work, but my fingerprints are the same.”
“I'm Affeda el-Aroun,” the woman said, “and this is my daughter, Elima. We are pleased to meet you.”
Chirrut bowed. “I will follow you, Sister Affeda.”
That night he washed five months’ worth of misery from his skin. Affeda cleaned his ragged robes, giving him a set of her husband’s to wear in the meantime. He stroked his hands through his beard, but he didn't dare risk a razor, yet. The smell of cooking miduum and keff bread made his mouth water. Elima shoved her cane in his hand and walked him around the apartment.
“See, you can hear dinner cooking in one direction and music next door in the other. You know you're passing the ‘fresher when you smell soap. You know whose room it is because it smells like them.”
Affeda’s husband came home not long after. His voice was soft and his emotions tired.
“I hear you're a Guardian,” Selem said, scooping up Elima to sit on his knee. Affeda set cups of strong-brewed caf before them. Chirrut sipped sparingly, but savored the smell with abandon.
“Yes,” he said. “I am grateful to your wife for extending me your hospitality.”
He heard fabric brushing together, and his mind conjured the image of a kaffayah rubbing against a man’s shoulders. Selem was shaking his head. “It's awful what the Empire did,” he said. “Utterly abhorrent.”
Chirrut bowed his head. “I hope it haunts them,” he said, his voice raw. He relaxed his hand from the fist it had become. He remembered his teachings. “But I killed men, too. I hurt myself as much as they did. The only difference between us was circumstance.”
“I admire your compassion.”
“Maybe in time I’ll mean it,” Chirrut said wryly, and mercifully Selem let the topic drop.
The evening settled. Affeda served the meal, and Chirrut attempted to eat as slowly as possible--which wasn't very slow at all. He refused a second serving in spite of the growling in his stomach.
“It will only make me sick,” he said apologetically. “It's been a long time since I ate such fine food.”
His hosts were generous. They were not laypeople of the Order, but instead were members of the Ummah Salaim, whose path called for the charitable efforts of their believers. There were many religions in the Holy City; Chirrut couldn’t say for certain if one was better than another, when they all spoke the same wisdom.
He insisted on doing the dishes, after. Behind him, he heard Affeda laying out sheets and blankets upon the couch and Selem coaxing Elima through brushing her teeth.
Hope. It was sharp as a knife to the chest. And yet, Chirrut’s fortunes had reversed in the space of a single day. “I am one with the Force, and the Force is with me,” he whispered, and rinsed off another cup. He would not forget his way again.
“You don't want to go that way,” a gravelly voice slurred from the side of the street. Chirrut half-turned to face the speaker.
A sharp guffaw. “No Force preacher wants to go down that street anytime soon.”
It was late, the heat of day seeping out from the walls to broil the evening air. He smelled dust, warm stone, stale piss from the alley, and the unwashed body of the man before him. Laughter spilled from the cantina. Overhead, repulsor engines passed by; in the distance, the mechanical clank of an Imperial walker counterpointed the lowing of an eopie.
“Why not?” Chirrut asked.
“A platoon of whitehats just went through. If you wanna try your luck anyway, I won't stop you.”
Chirrut had been heading home, but he supposed he could wait until the way was clear. He squatted beside the drunkard, holding his cane before his knees. This close, the man smelled of spent tibanna and metal, and overpoweringly of alcohol. “What's your name?”
“Why, you gonna pray for me?”
“I can if you want.”
The man leaned over and spat in reply. “The Force is a waste of breath.”
It was an antagonistic act, but Chirrut sensed no real spite from it. “Maybe your name is, too.”
“Hah!” The man descended into a fit of drunken giggles. “I like you. My name is Baze.”
“You have my condolences,” Chirrut said, smiling. He liked this man, too. His presence was melancholy, but soothing. It reminded him of better days.
Baze laughed again, smaller this time. “What about you, Guardian? Do you have a name?”
“I am Chirrut. Thank you for the warning.”
Baze grunted in reply.
A comfortable silence fell, broken only by the few people who, like they did, still moved about the city at this late hour. Chirrut’s grasp of the Force was by no means certain, but there was something about Baze that set him at ease. He idly tapped the end of his cane against the cobbles to get a feel for the square they were in. It was little more than the open space where two pedestrian streets stumbled across each other, but it was big enough for a sculpture in the middle that blocked his echoes. “Tell me, is that statue as hideous as it sounds?”
“You can hear that?”
“Yes.” Three years had sharpened his aural acuity to a dramatic degree. He could hear far more than the presence of a statue.
“Hmph. It's as ugly as you, friend.”
Chirrut grinned. “I had not realized I was in the presence of artistry.”
This struck Baze as more hilarious than ever. He slapped his open palm against the cobbles, and Chirrut heard the clink of armor against stone as he rocked. It didn't sound like stormtrooper plastoids. Perhaps Baze was a mercenary.
Baze subsided into hiccupping laughter. “You can probably head on,” he said, dragging himself up to slump more thoroughly against the wall of the cantina. “I’m patched into their network, comms chatter has eased up.”
“Is there anything I can do for you in thanks?” Chirrut asked.
“Yeah,” Baze said. “Don't get yourself killed.”
The way this was said, with humor covering a vein of brutal honesty, caught Chirrut’s attention. He tilted his head in Baze’s direction. “I will try not to.”
Baze grunted and seemed to fall into a doze. He was vertical enough not to choke if he vomited in his sleep, so Chirrut left him to his devices, curiosity pinging through his thoughts all the way home.
It was not often he worked the evening shift. However, a late shipment had come in, and Chirrut had offered to check in the crates so Yeme’radosha, a single father of three, could go home to take care of his children. It was fortunate he had. One of the cargo manifests had said it carried pottery from Foerost; Chirrut’s nose had told him it carried illegal spice instead.
He wondered at the will of the Force, that it had so arranged matters for him to meet Baze. Had he not decided on the spur of the moment to cover a coworker's shift, he would never have caught a shipment of spice, and he would never have met the drunken mercenary lying in the gutter, who disdained the Force yet still cared enough to warn a blind Guardian away from a platoon of stormtroopers. A conversation with his sifei, Force be with her, sprang to his mind.
“How can we assume the Force cares about our small affairs?” he had asked.
“The same way the brain cares about its neurons," she had answered.
“All things are cells within the body of the galaxy. The planets are this body’s bones. The trees and grasses are this body’s lungs. The animals are this body's muscles. We may not be individually powerful, but our collective presence can be felt. Consider your brain. It is a collection of insentient cells, of no especial use except for their ability to conduct electricity. But gather enough of them together, and somehow a person forms. That is the will of the Force. You and I are no more special than a neuron. But when we stand together, we can change the galaxy.”
Chirrut remembered the sense of awe with which he had received this revelation. “We are one with the Force.”
“Indeed. We create it; it creates us. An individual may be as useless as a single neuron, but the Force works to bring us together. That is compassion, Chirrut. That is love. As a brain is injured when neurons are separated, so is the Force hurt when we pull away from each other.”
He had bowed. “Thank you for your wisdom, sifei.”
Chirrut wondered what kind of connection he had made with Baze, what manner of synapse had formed in the space between them. His gut told him that he would see Baze again; perhaps it was the will of the Force.
Step. Heel pushing toward the corner. Elbow raised high to guard the head through the turn; lower hand guarding the ribs. The release of energy from untwisting fueling the spearhand. A yell for strength.
Chirrut’s voice echoed across the narrow alley. Laundry was drying on lines overhead; the only sounds were the hum of the cooling units in the windows and the steady drip of water from the latest load of socks Mrs. Yep had hung out to dry.
Draw back into a defensive stance. Spearhand returning to protect the ribs; fist moving outward to parry an unseen blow. The stance as steady as a mountain. Step forward. Rising block against an unseen blow.
It was more difficult to practice the kuan of the Guardians without sight. His muscles knew the movements, but his eyes no longer warned him if a stray cat had wandered up to sniff his leg. He startled at the cat’s yowl and squatted down to calm his racing heart. “Apologies, Brother Cat,” he murmured, though he doubted the cat was still around to hear. He rubbed his hands over his face and breathed through his feelings of ineptitude.
It was enough training for the day. His muscles were still weak; what he couldn't perform with his body, he was forced to reenact in his mind. It didn't matter. Practice was practice. It had taken him thirteen years to gain the proficiency he had held when the Temple was sacked; it would take time again to regain it.
The Temple. No matter where he stood in the city he could feel its presence. It loomed over his left shoulder, a wound unhealed. Chirrut pushed it from his thoughts and gathered his cane.
Garbage was fermenting in the dumpster around the corner. From there, it was about twenty steps to the mouth of the alley. One hundred and forty steps would bring him to the intersection with Needlemakers Row, where there was an incense shop to mark his way. Six intersections and left at the chandler’s shop, ten intersections and right at the bakery, three intersections and right again at the Twi’leki tapcafe. Then eighty-five steps to bring him to the door of the el-Arouns’ building.
The route thus laid in his mind, Chirrut began to walk.
He had moved out of the el-Arouns’ apartment as soon as he had found employment. He was grateful for everything they had given him, but his own pride--and the tightness of their finances in the wake of the recession--had driven him to strike out on his own. There were days, especially those when he woke to the feeling of haek bugs crawling over his legs, where he longed for his life in the Temple. Or worse, days when he longed for his dreaming insensibility in the gutter, when he had permitted life to pass him by with the tired ease of sighing. When those days came, he allowed himself to remember, but he did not allow himself to wish. The past was the past. He would smile, or he would grieve, but he would release them when he was through and carry on with the wearying business of living. The bees in his garden had not dwelled on their pasts. Neither would Chirrut.
“Chirrut!” Elima screeched as soon as she opened the front door. Her small body impacted his in a hug. “You smell like sweat.”
“I was training,” he said, walking her back into the apartment. “Have you been training?”
“No,” came the sheepish reply.
“She’s been distracted by her birthday,” Selem called from the kitchen.
“Ah, if that's the case. Birthdays only come once a year. But do you promise to try harder next week, Little Sister?”
“Then I forgive you.” He detached her from his robes and sat down in the el-Aroun kitchen. Selem offered him a glass of cucumber water. “How are things at the mines, Selem?”
“The same. Every day, the Empire says ‘we need more crystals.’ They're bleeding Jedha dry.”
“They won't get mine!” Elima announced.
Chirrut smiled. “No, Little Sister, that is one whill they won't steal.” He turned back to Selem. “And Affeda? How is she?”
“Affeda is fed up with Hadah’s prices,” Affeda announced, opening the door. “If I have to pay one more credit for her limp negesh greens I'm finding someone else.”
“No you won't,” Selem replied. “Her greens are best, you say it every week.” The bags rustled as he took them from her. “Sit down, talk with Chirrut.”
The afternoon passed pleasantly, as they always did with the el-Arouns. Chirrut didn't manage to talk his way out of dinner, though he tried, and he couldn't dissuade Affeda from giving him seconds.
“It's not wasted if someone eats it,” she insisted. “Besides, you are training again. And I've seen the rubbish you cook.”
Chirrut subsided ruefully. He never had been a skilled cook, even when he'd had his sight.
When he left the warm cocoon of their companionship, night had fallen. The streets were damp from the afternoon rain; stormtrooper patrols loitered up and down the streets. Chirrut made his way home, counting his steps and following the scents of the neighborhood, lost in thoughts of the past.
“Hey, you! Guardian!”
Chirrut came to a stop, his bembu cane loose in his hand. The voice he heard was not a kind voice. The footsteps that ranged about him came with the heavy tread of weapons held against their bearers’ sides.
“You’re the blind Guardian who works up at the Dekat Shipping Warehouse,” the voice said again.
“I am,” Chirrut replied.
“You lost us our spice, old man.”
He had wondered if that would return to him. “Thirty-five standard is hardly old,” he said calmly, shifting his grip on his cane.
“Shut up! You owe us!”
There were five of them at least. One smelled strongly of fish, two more wore chains that rattled when they walked, a third whistled through his nose, and the last smelled like unwashed Gan. There could be more that Chirrut could neither hear nor smell. Their emotions were jumbled and indistinct.
“Nothing to say to us?” the leader demanded.
Chirrut centered himself and deepened his breathing. “Please let me by.”
The leader scoffed. “You got our spice confiscated by the Imps. Ten credits says the sector governor is lighting up right now and laughing at us, so no, we’re not letting you by until you pay us what you owe.”
“I have nothing.”
“Then I guess you won’t like what we’re gonna do to you,” the leader said softly.
The air about Chirrut went cold. A person who was about to kill grew dark inside, their emotions hardening to a pitiless blade. He had felt it the night of the Temple siege, and he felt it now in these men, and he felt it in his own heart. Chirrut tightened his hand on his cane and followed their movements through space.
The sound of a boot scraping over stone, of clothes rustling, and a puff of wind against his cheek warned him. He batted the hand away before it could touch him and swept back into a ready stance, his ears straining, his nostrils flared. A breathless pause followed, then--
Chirrut fought to keep his footing. He fought to keep himself oriented. He struck down the blows that came too close; he missed many. His ribs ached and his head spun. But there--he lunged with his cane, and the wheezing grunt told him he had caught a man in the solar plexus. He pivoted around in a sweep kick, and another man went down, spitting Gan curses as he hit the pavement. Chirrut stumbled over someone’s legs and fell to his knees; he scrabbled away before anyone could kick him. Someone grabbed his cane and he broke their wrist. Someone targeted his vulnerable back and landed a kidney punch. Chirrut stumbled back, dodging until his back met a wall. He hurt, he had lost all sense of where he was. He held his cane out before him, warding off any blows before they could reach him. He took in a deep breath and resigned himself to losing this fight.
Three blastershots broke the night. Three bodies fell to the ground at Chirrut’s feet. Heavy footsteps entered the square, punctuated by the clicking of a drum magazine cycling.
“Fek off!” a gravelly voice roared. “Or you’re next!”
Relief sagged through Chirrut’s limbs when he recognized Baze’s voice. He heard three people rise from the ground and run off. Force, he’d miscounted.
“You alright?” Baze asked.
“Yes,” Chirrut said, propping himself up on his knees. “Yes. Force. Thank the saints none of them had a knife. Or a blaster.”
Baze kicked something, and the sound of forged durasteel echoed across the street. “One of them did.”
Chirrut gave up and dropped to the ground. The wall was pleasantly warm at his back. Sifei would have slapped his knuckles for how tightly he was holding his cane, but Sifei was dead and Chirrut had nearly followed her. He clutched his cane to his chest and let his emotions sort themselves out. “Thank you,” he said to Baze.
He heard a clank and the rustle of cloth. A shrug? Chirrut couldn’t focus. He pressed the butt of his cane against his forehead to center himself. He took three deep, calming breaths, releasing them from the root of his torso the way Sifei had taught him.
“You did good,” Baze said. “Wouldn’t have thought a blind man could hold his own.”
“I wouldn’t have, either.”
“How did you know where to hit?”
Chirrut sorted through the chaos of the fight. “Sound, mostly. Their stride indicated their height, and their footsteps and clothing told where they were. Scent also, if they were especially smelly. Changes in air currents when they struck out.”
“Huh.” Baze was much less talkative now that he was sober. He nudged one of the corpses; its bowels loosened, and Chirrut wrinkled his nose.
“We should leave before the stormtroopers come to investigate,” he said, calm enough now to risk the integrity of his legs. He hissed as new bruises came to his attention.
“Here.” Baze stumped over, rattling like a Jawa sandcrawler overturned down a mountainside. How Chirrut hadn’t heard his approach was a mystery. He pushed himself to his feet, and an awkward silence fell. Baze seemed embarrassed.
“I can’t see when you hold out your hand,” Chirrut said.
“Right.” Baze flipped a switch back and forth on his gun.
Chirrut pointed to the void he heard between the walls. “What street is that?”
“I thought you were blind?”
“I can see with my ears, but they don't read print. The street name?”
“Thank you. And that one’s El-Mezir?”
“Yeah. You have them memorized?”
Chirrut smiled. “Everyone memorizes familiar routes. I simply do it without sight.”
“Huh.” Baze sucked on his teeth. He was a tall man, at least by Chirrut’s standards; his hair was long and tied into braids or whiptails that brushed against his armor. He still smelled like tibanna and grease, though now Chirrut scented the warmth of his skin as well. Most surprising: he spoke with a faint Beifanghua accent.
Chirrut shook himself. “Again, thank you.” He stepped into the square, tapping his cane to re-hear its dimensions. It felt like decades since he had felt simple attraction. Baze’s voice settled deep in his bones, and the subtle scent of him, now that he wasn’t soaked in liquor, was dark and heady. That Chirrut couldn’t see him was unnerving. He stumbled against a fallen body, but righted himself, warding off Baze’s attempt to help.
“I could walk you home,” Baze said awkwardly. “There might be more of them.”
It was a tempting offer. Unbearably tempting. Celibacy was not, strictly speaking, enforced amongst the Guardians, but marriage was forbidden. Affairs of the heart were forbidden. Theirs was a monastic order, sworn to protect the kyber crystals and read the will of the Force; they parted ways with material bonds as soon as they became Guardians.
The Temple was derelict, the Guardians scattered. Chirrut had spent many sleepless nights wondering what to make of his vows, now that his order was no more. Chirrut suspected that if he let Baze any closer, the space between them, that synapse, would grow together in a way he wasn’t ready for.
“I doubt they will attack again tonight,” he finally answered.
“They might tomorrow. Or the day after.”
“You can’t watch my back every moment of every day.”
“I wouldn’t mind,” Baze said, and the way he shuffled made it sound as though he had said it without meaning to.
“I must decline,” Chirrut said with a short bow. “Good night, Baze.” He set off down Chaddeh toward the Tanneries, where there were no longer tanneries but tenements for the poor. Where he kept his home.
“’Night,” he heard in faint reply. “Chirrut.”
In the bitter cold leading up to the Festival of Lights, Chirrut found himself drawn to the Temple. Whichever path he turned, it seemed to blaze in the back of his mind, a beacon he couldn't avoid. Was it a Force summoning? He meditated upon it in the evenings, when he returned from his shift at the warehouse.
Once, the Temple had been the focus of his life. The Guardians didn't steal infants the way the Jedi did, but Chirrut had known his path from a young age, after his first visit with his parents. He had been six standard. The Temple didn't accept Postulants until they were a minimum of fifteen, to ensure they were old enough to understand what Guardianship entailed; Chirrut had been a regular at the Temple, running in after school to meditate with the Temple community in the Great Hall. They had called him “Little Brother” and shared their tea and their lessons as he waited impatiently for his birthday.
Even now, though it stood silent and hollow, it demanded his attention. He knelt in the center of his small, sparse apartment and faced eastward to the pagoda tower.
There was something there he had to see. It wouldn't be easy--the Temple walls were patrolled to scare off squatters and break the believers’ spirits--but the compulsion was only growing. He rose from doshan and took up his cane. He packed a small pack of tools--a grapple and rope, a flashbang he had liberated from a stormtrooper’s belt, and a comms unit he programmed with Affeda’s code should matters become dire. He dressed warmly for the weather, which had taken a turn for the colder as the gas giant began its orbital tilt that dragged Jedha further from the sun.
The Holy City of Jedha was little more than three square kilometers. The eastern promontory was devoted to the Temple of the Kyber; it was in this quarter that the majority of those faithful to the Whills chose to live. The Holy City was not limited to a single faith, however. In the early days of the Temple’s founding atop the tableland, a note was written into its charter that all faiths would be able to practice freely within the city’s bounds.
To the north was the Meziri Quarter, where those of the Ummah Salaim dwelled; to the south, separated by a buffering line of municipal buildings, was the Shecheddah Quarter, where the sister-religion of the Salaimites found its uneasy berth. They called themselves the Children of Abrahi, and their religious scholars were unparalleled. To the west lay a more jumbled quarter, where immigrants and pilgrims and the dozens of smaller faiths found their rest. At the extreme west end of the tableland, opposite the Temple, was the Majlis, the legislative house of the Jedhan government. Between them, arrayed upon the Promenade like pearls upon a string, dividing north from south, the buildings of government stood.
The Tanneries was in the Meziri Quarter, as far from the Temple as Chirrut had been able to find in his darkest days. Habit now kept him there. He followed his footsteps in reverse: leaving the warren of tenement streets for respectable, palm-lined boulevards. Chirrut wended his way through them until he found himself in the slum skirting the Prelate’s Palace, where now the Imperial governor lived. That the highest and lowest lived hip-by-jowl had ever been a source of dark amusement to Chirrut--the poorest of the Holy City gazed upon the former Prelate’s walls and wondered at what was held within, and the planetary leader, safe in his fortress, was free to insulate himself from the inequities of his rule. Now, the filth of the slum protected Chirrut from Imperial eyes. Patrols through its crime- and drug-ridden tunnels were few and far between; for a man confident in his ability to ward off local attention, it was the safest route.
The Temple was oppressive this close. Chirrut squatted in the mouth of an alley across the street from the Temple walls, his cane held out before him, his breath reflecting against his jacket to blow hot against his chilled face. He tapped one end idly against the pavement, listening to the sound-images the echoes made. The stormtrooper patrols were regular and sparse, more for show than true security. Chirrut wondered how long it would be before the patrols ceased altogether, and the Temple would rot or heal as the Force willed. His mouth twisted at the thought. So much left to die. So much lost. He shook himself. It hurt because it was change, and he was too attached to what was. Nothing could return to its previous state; even a joint displaced was never the same after relocation. Besides, now was not the time to mourn his losses.
Between one brace of stormtroopers and the next, Chirrut pulled the grapple and rope from his pack, winding it about his arm. His cane he strapped to his back, then he rose out of his squat and loped to the wall. The stones were irregular enough that he could dig his fingers into the mortar and haul himself to the top, clinging like a gecko to the wall. He perched atop the wall in silence for three heartbeats, listening intently. There was nothing to be heard. He unwound the grapple and wedged it into the crossbeams holding up the tiles, and tossed the rope over the edge. It landed with a reassuring thump. He lowered himself down.
At once the midnight bustle of the city disappeared. Chirrut laid a strong-smelling ball of resin beside the rope, then straightened, listening, smelling, and feeling what there was to know about his surroundings. Outside the walls, the Temple had felt angry and forbidding. Now that he was inside them, Chirrut felt more pain and sorrow than rage. He clicked his tongue, the sound unusually sharp in the crisp air, and he heard that he was in a small courtyard between two stone walls. Outbuildings; he smelled old spices and the faded musk of livestock. He was near the kitchens, then. He loosened his cane and swung it down before him. The pull that brought him here still drew him onward, and despite the trepidation in his soul, Chirrut obeyed.
The Temple was an altogether different world without his sight. He couldn't see the damage that had been wrought, but he smelled the memory of fire, and a stunning lack of incense. There were no chimes, no footsteps, no distant kiai from the training halls. He wended his way through the grounds, a hand held before his face to ward off tree branches and the broken beams that sagged low over the walks. He found his way to the cloister and faced the Great Hall at the base of the pagoda. The ever-present hum of chanted mantras was absent. Chirrut’s skin crawled. Before, he had stood in this paved square and felt strong and unified. Now, he felt every bit of his isolation. He was small and alone, standing in the ruins of a once-thriving community.
The compulsion drew him on. So close to its source it was harder to follow; more than once he had to stop and reorient himself, straining senses both physical and spiritual to find the way. His visual memories overlapped with what he now saw, confusing his mental map; it seemed much further to reach the end of the cloister walk than it had before. Turns came more quickly, or at different angles than he recalled. Debris further confused him: heaps of leaves had been blown into corners without trees; his path was blocked by caved in doors, and he had to find an alternate route; the stone motts at the front of the pagoda stairs had been knocked over, and their weight had shattered the steps. Chirrut picked his way through the rubble and passed beneath the pagoda gate into the Great Hall.
A strangled moan forced its way from his lips.
Here, the imbalance in the Force was overwhelming. The Hall had seen witness to the funeral of every Guardian who served; it bore the scars of the dozen armed assaults that history had driven through it. But these were balanced by millennia of serenity, harmony, and jubilation. Restlessness was balanced by ease. Boredom by activity. Passion by serenity. Always, the Great Hall of the Temple pagoda had embodied most the balance of the Force.
Now, there was no community to overwrite the darkness. There was no solace to comfort the grief, no compassion to balance the slaughter. It was a hymn cut off mid-chord, its dissonance an assault to Chirrut’s ears. He fell to his knees, struck not bodily, but in spirit. Whatever wounds he had received at the hands of the Empire now seemed petty. Here, in this holiest of places, the Force itself had been torn and left bleeding. At the end of the hall, where a reliquary had once held the shards of the Journal, he felt emptiness and silence. He went to his knees, his body wracked with silent sobs.
He didn’t let himself grieve long. There was business to attend to. He pushed himself to his feet and went forward, navigating his way through the wreckage of the Empire’s fury and indifference. The pull led downwards, into the treasury complex beneath the pagoda.
The Order of the Whills was--had been--a vast and wealthy organization, and the bulk of its treasures had been stored in the vaults beneath the Kyber Temple. Many were not in the form of precious gems or metals, but in the form of priceless cultural artefacts. The library had held the scrolls and holocrons, but the vaults held weapons and armor and the personal effects of great leaders. The strife of Jedha’s three great religions was represented, as well as the particular history of the Order. These vaults had never been Chirrut’s bailiwick; he was neither an administrator nor a scholar, though he assumed the practices of the latter when need arose. The deepest secrets of the Temple were never his to know.
He followed the compulsion down through dusty-smelling corridors that defied his ability to map. He laid strong-smelling balls of incense resin at each crossing, to mark his path. What he felt was no different than an especially sharp craving for sweets, but instead of urging him to the corner bakery, it pulled him to places he had never known existed. He went down a set of stairs so ancient that a depression had been worn into the stone by the weight of a hundred thousand footsteps. The air grew cooler, its scent earthier. There was no sound but what he created. His heartbeat was loud in his ears; his footsteps seemed thunderous. Chirrut clicked his tongue and a wealth of echoes came to his ears, unimpeded by the background noise of the city.
“[I wondered how long you would make me wait for you].”
Chirrut whirled around, his cane at the ready, to face the voice. His every muscle locked.
“[Yes, it's me. Or, well, it's a memory of me].” Tikke stepped out of the shadows of Chirrut’s blindness, glowing blue and ghostly. His mane was combed, his whiskers straight, his robes immaculate. He looked nothing like he had when he had died, crumpled upon the gravel of the Stelae Garden. The familiar tones of his voice in Guangdonghua--more fluent than he ever had been in life--sent a shiver down Chirrut’s spine.
“[How is this possible]?”
“[All things are possible in the Force. Come with me, Little Brother].” Tikke turned and led the way down the hall. Chirrut stared after him, dumbstruck. Could it be he was seeing the ghost of his friend, here in the bowels of the Temple?
It wasn't impossible. Or, it could be his emotionally strained imagination was making him see things, but Chirrut supposed that didn't make it any less real. He followed Tikke into the heart of the tableland, winding ever downward. Chirrut sensed presences as they passed, not the presences of people, but presences all the same. They were ancient, and they were powerful. They watched Chirrut as he peered curiously at them in return.
“[The crystal caves],” he said aloud, stunned at the revelation.
“[Yes],” Tikke’s spirit said.
“[Not in the manner of you or me. Are they self-aware? Do they create? Yes. But they think on a different plane. They are one with the Force in all ways].”
This was not the Tikke Chirrut knew. Tikke had been carefree and full of laughter. He had been a poor student of “sitting” philosophy; he had, far more than Chirrut, been emblematic of the best and worst of the Guardians. This ghost was still in a way Tikke had never been, short of those few times he had found his inner calm.
“[Tikke has passed into the Force],” Tikke’s ghost replied to Chirrut’s unspoken question. “[What you see before you is how he saw himself].”
“[That can’t be right. Tikke was a prankster, not a philosopher. You’re too serious].”
“[We all lie to ourselves].”
Chirrut subsided, shaken. Tikke led them down a winding stair that seemed to descend into oblivion: they walked for an eternity, and still it didn’t end. Chirrut was as aware of the weight of stone over his head as a man beneath a creaking dam is of the weight of water above him. “[How is it that I can see you]?” he asked desperately.
“[You see echoes. I am an echo, too].”
“[It doesn't work like this].”
“[It’s close enough to the truth. The crystals manifested me. How doesn't matter. It is not a method you will ever be able to use].”
“[I miss the Tikke who wasn’t a know-it-all ghost],” Chirrut muttered.
Presently, the spiral stair ended in a long, irregular passage. Chirrut pressed a hand to the wall and saw that it was bare rock. The light shed from Tikke’s figure illuminated the passage, but not in the way Chirrut had seen with his eyes; instead, it was the way he saw with his echoes. Yet it did not fade with time, as his echoes did. The intersection of seeming sight and apparent sound drove him to close his eyes, but nothing changed; he was not seeing with his eyes. He covered his ears, and while the shape of the passage vanished, he still saw Tikke, glowing blue in his mind’s eye.
“[Come],” Tikke said. “[They are waiting].”
“[The whills. They are waiting].”
No sooner than Chirrut heard this, the passage opened into a massive cavern. Chirrut blinked, dazzled. A rainbow of color met his sight. Every hue imaginable, and countless more he couldn’t process, all reflected and refracted though he could see no light source. Tikke almost disappeared beneath the visual onslaught. Chirrut went to his knees. After so long with only blurry remnants of sight and the phosphenes behind his eyelids, this splendor was overwhelming. “[Where am I]!”
“[You are in the Chamber of the Whills],” came Tikke’s reply. “[The greatest seed cave of the kyber crystals].”
Chirrut covered his eyes with his hands, but the colors remained. It was as though a great wind was blowing through the cavern, knocking him off his feet; ripples and eddies of power surged through him, plucking at his fragile mortal flesh. “[What’s happening]!”
“[The Force is all around you. Center yourself, Guardian].”
Still on his knees, still with his hands over his eyes, Chirrut began the simplest meditation he had learned as a postulant. He drew in his breath and focused on it; focused where it touched his nostrils and mouth, tasted it over his tongue, felt it in the back of his throat and in the expansion of his diaphragm. Then he let it go, trying to hold all the sensory data clear in his mind. He felt himself steady, though his mind whirled. He couldn't hear for the color around him; he couldn't feel for the shout of sound. He drew into himself and forced out everything which was not inherent to himself.
“[Open yourself to the Force. Do not fight it. Become one with the Force, and it will be one with you].”
The voice of his sifei came to him from the depths of memory: “Are you afraid? That means you are wise. But you must master your fear if you wish to advance. You must be unwise to gain wisdom.”
She had been teaching him to land properly from a high wall. Chirrut felt now much the way he had while peering down the side of the cloister to the hard pavement below.
“You already know everything you need to master it,” she had told him. “Here, in your muscles, where it counts. Remember it, and do not let fear touch you.”
“Why do you teach Guardians to jump off a wall?” he had grumbled.
She had laughed. “It has nothing to do with the wall, Chirrut. It has everything to do with you.”
Now, the wall was gone, but the fear remained. The fear of injury. Of death. It was the same fear, and he already knew everything he needed to master it. “Balance is the way of the Force,” he whispered. “Compassion is the destination. What do the Great Sages say is the root of compassion?”
The answer seemed to come from everywhere around him. Love. Love brought union between people; fear, in whatever shape it manifested, drove union away. Connection was the way of the Force. Chirrut opened himself to the whirl of color, and to his shock, it calmed. No longer was it an incomprehensible whirl; it settled, and he saw the shapes of crystals in a myriad rainbows of color. His grip on his meditative state wavered, and his sight swirled sickeningly, but he relaxed, and order returned.
“[Welcome, Chirrut Îmwe].”
Words were lost to him. He bowed, pressing his forehead to the uneven rock floor.
“[We are glad you have come],” Tikke said, his voice monotone and soft.
“[You called me]?” Chirrut asked, and forced himself to relax when his sight swirled sickeningly. Order returned.
“[Yes. You are the last who is not dead, stolen, lost, or forsaken. Do you still guard us, Guardian]?”
Chirrut quailed. “[I cannot fight the Empire on my own],” he said, ashamed that even now he dwelled in fear.
“[We would not ask you to],” the crystals replied. “[But great darkness is coming. Our seed children will be corrupted].” Flickers of images blew through Chirrut’s mind’s eye: a star destroyer squatting over the Holy City; a mushroom-shaped cloud of sand and fire, underscored by a scream in the Force; great sorrow as he gazed upon an empty asteroid field; the half-finished skeleton of a space station orbiting a secluded forest moon; an entire planet carved out and filled with seething plasma, a blaze of harnessed sunlight that burst to horrible, empty, black--Chirrut reeled, sick with despair and pain.
“[The Whills channel the Force], Tikke said, implacable. “[It is not our path to affect how we are used. But you, little Guardian, have some power. You, we can reach].”
Their voices through Tikke were chiming, but they were not beautiful. They were sharp-edged and harsh, stabbing into his ears. “[I’m just one man],” he gasped. “[What can I possibly do]?”
“[One seed can make a crystal. One crystal can make a cave of crystals. You will not live to see the cave you seed, Chirrut Îmwe. But you must seed it].” A ringing sound filled the cavern, and as he watched, a dozen crystals of all sizes began to thrust out from the lode, sliding between their siblings before dropping to the ground. More and more joined them; a veritable cascade rained down from the walls and ceiling, each landing with the pure chime of crystal on stone.
“[These cannot stay in the Holy City. Each has its own preferred site. Each will tell you in its time. Some are seed crystals. Others have wisdom too valuable for the Empire to waste. They are your responsibility, Guardian].”
Slowly, Chirrut began to gather the nearest into his bag. He filled it until it was straining, then began cramming them into his pockets. There were more than he could carry with him at once; he would have to return and collect the rest when he could. He sat back on his heels, distraught.
The ringing sound came again, and more crystals slid home from their nodes--this time only nine, and all the size for lightsabers. “[These must go to Tatooine].”
“[One hundred eighty kilometers east of Bestine there is a man known as Ben Kenobi. He must have these crystals].”
Chirrut gathered them, frowning. “[What does he need nine crystals for]?”
“[He has no need for them. But his pupil and his pupil’s pupils will need them. Jedha is wounded. Ilum is dead. Dantooine is interdicted. These crystals must be waiting for the future of the Jedi].”
Shivers wracked Chirrut’s body. He looked down at the handful of crystals he held. They winked in shades of green, blue, yellow; one held a faint glimpse of red. He tore off a strip of his tunic and wrapped them in it, then stuffed it down the front of his shirt. “[How will I find the way]?”
“[Let go of your fear, Chirrut Îmwe. All is as the Force wills it].”
Gradually the lights of the Chamber of the Whills disappeared, fading one by one until there was nothing. Chirrut stumbled to his feet. “[Wait! How do I get out]!”
There was no reply. Tikke had vanished, and the voice of the crystals with him. Chirrut fell out of meditation, but the swirling chaos of before was gone; now, there was cold, earthy air and the uneven ground at his feet. Gone were the colors. Gone was the relentless chiming. He nudged his foot outward, and he heard the clink of crystals against each other. He sank down into a squat, pressing his hands against his eyes. He had been able to see them. They had had form and color and now, to be reduced once more to blindness, grief swept over him.
He let himself feel it. He let it pass over him and through him. He wept, and when it was passed, he gathered his cane and his pack full of crystals and made his way back to the spiral stair.
The return was shorter than the trip down. Tikke’s ghost wasn't there to show him the way, and Chirrut had forgotten to place resin to mark the turns, but it seemed there were fewer turnings, and the ones that remained were easy to follow. Only once did he deviate from his path, and that was to follow a pull like the one that had drawn him to the Chamber. Chirrut followed it, too spent to resist. It led him to a small room, scented with dust and wood. Chirrut entered slowly. Large stacks of square shapes rose to the ceiling, crowding close; crates and boxes. The pull vanished. He walked tentatively forward and bumped against the edge of a crate, sending what sat upon it clattering. He reached out to touch, and his hand met metal and wood, oddly-shaped. He ran his fingers over it, trailing through dust and neglect. His fingers found a broken-off trigger mechanism and two arms, each as long as one of his own, that were folded against the sides of a streamlined stock.
“[A lightbow],” he said in sudden realization. An ancient weapon, from the earliest age of Jedhan history, but fallen from popularity as blasters grew more cheap and accurate. It was the weapon of a Guardian who had completed the Seventh Duan. The Force was being very clear, he reflected wryly. He took the bow and returned to the tunnels.
The air was chill with early morning when he returned to the Great Hall. The city had fallen still but for the sounds of the marbits cooing in the eaves and the distant grumping of a bantha. Frost lay sharp on the air; Chirrut rolled the taste of it around his mouth. Once, this had been his favorite time to meditate. Now, he used the time to get ready for the morning shift at the warehouse.
Chirrut stood upon the broken stoop of the Great Hall of the Kyber Temple, a lightbow in one hand, his cane in the other, and a pack full of priceless crystals on his back. The covey of marbits burst into flight.
Perhaps it was time he quit his job and become a Guardian again.
Wind battered the walls of Chirrut’s apartment. Spring had burst across the desert a handful of weeks before, and wind had followed, chapping lips and ripping off roofing tiles as it went. Chirrut squatted beside his bedroll, his arms around his knees, and regarded the baskets of crystals lined up against the wall. If the Empire found them, he would be arrested for sedition.
It didn’t matter. If he was arrested for defending the future of the Whills, then at least it could be said of him that he had done something.
The wind howled, shaking the roof and rattling the windows in their casements. This was the fourth windstorm this week. The wives of the neighborhood grumbled at the dust that coated every surface, even with electrostatic fields in place to keep it back; Chirrut, too, was tired of eating dust in his food, and rubbing it from his eyes, and of the constant sneezing.
The crystals murmured in counterpoint to the wind. Had he any other way to describe the sensation of their presence, Chirrut would not have called it “sound”; but he was aware of their presence, and as he certainly wasn’t seeing, smelling, touching, or tasting them, hearing them was all that was left. Their murmuring was like a noise so faint it was on the edge of hearing, but so low his bones knew it was there. He absently stretched his wrists as he considered what to do.
The Whills had ordered he distribute the crystals to those who could protect them. How was he to do that? He didn’t have the funds to leave Jedha City, let alone Jedha. Nor did he have any knowledge of who was a worthy keeper. It was only superstition and Imperial oversight that had kept the Temple from being looted; how could he trust a stranger on the street? His hand fell to the lightbow resting by his side. He had repaired it as best he could, but there was nowhere in an occupied city for a blind man to discreetly attempt to hit targets with a weapon older than the Jedi Order itself.
The crystals were a more vital concern anyway. Chirrut had his cane; that would serve his purposes well enough. But the crystals. He let himself drift into meditation, uneasy though it was from the static energy in the air and the sotto voce thrum of the crystals. All was as the Force willed it; what, then, was the will of the Force?
There was only his breath. There was only the wind. There was only the crystals. Eventually the wind faded, and he faded, and all that remained were the whills. They seemed to glow in his mind’s eye, but some glowed brighter than others. Two, in fact. Chirrut watched them, and they beat against the darkness of his sight. He reached out to them, shifting from his squat to his knees, and took the two crystals in hand. They were warm without burning; they emitted light without radiance. He was not conscious of having stood, merely that he had. He took up his cane and tucked the crystals into his robe out of sight. There was no particular voice in his head that spoke, as there had been in the seed caves; there was only an itching urge to go outside. Chirrut obeyed the urge. He heard the voice of his sifei telling him to obey his instincts. He obeyed them.
He went down the countless flights of sagging steps in his tenement and stood in the shadow of the doorway, listening to the sound of old leaves skittering through the gutter. A heavy, portentous feeling came upon him, and he stepped forward, drawn by the heat of the crystals against his belly. There was a person nearby, and the thrum in her emotions felt so similar to those in his robes that his step hitched. He heard the engine of a speeder and slowed, letting it pass; she was disappearing. He followed her, his cane tapping to clear his path. He didn’t like navigating in the wind; smells were blown away, and the gusts blew aside the echoes he needed. But the Force drew him onwards. He was one with the Force; it would not lead him astray. She went sideways from his position, and he followed her down the side street that opened ahead of him. She was near.
“Sister!” he called out. “Please, wait!” He felt a jump in her emotions that presaged alarm; he raised his hands. “I mean you no harm. Please, the Force wills it.”
“Who are you?” she asked, her voice hoarse from long-term use of death sticks. The crystals flared against his chest.
“I am Chirrut Îmwe,” he replied. “I am a Guardian of the Order of the Whills.”
She scoffed. “Bet that’s going well for you.”
It stung, but Chirrut obeyed the promptings of his instincts. He drew the crystals, each as long as his palm and narrow as his thumb, from his robes and presented them to her. “These are for you, Sister.” He tilted his head to try and catch any sound she might be making, but the wind, playing with a loose set of shutters overhead, confounded him.
“Kyber crystals,” she said with surprise. Her footsteps came closer; she wore heavy boots, perhaps magnetic for walking through low-G spacecraft. “You shouldn’t be waving those around, monk.”
“All is as the Force wills it,” Chirrut replied, and he held them out to her. “Take them.” They flared bright and warm in his palm.
“You can’t give me these!”
Tension loosened from around Chirrut’s spine. “Then it is all the more vital you take them,” he said. “Protect them. They are not safe here any longer.”
“What the hells am I going to do with kyber crystals?” She sounded reluctant, but their weight and comforting warmth disappeared from his hand. “Oh,” she breathed. “They’re warm.”
“The Force will tell you what to do,” Chirrut said. He backed away and bowed.
“Wait--that’s it? You’re just going to give a total stranger kyber crystals and then leave?”
“I have done what was required of me,” Chirrut said, and it was true. He felt a great settling within him. He had worried for two months straight, as he gathered and stored the seed caves’ sacrifice, how he was going to dispose of them properly. Now he saw the wisdom of the Force, and he shook his head at his own blindness. “I have done what was required of me, and now you must too. The Force wills it.” He turned and headed back to the main street.
There was an alleyway ahead, with a fire escape he could climb. This woman sounded and felt like an offworlder; she wouldn’t know the city as he did. He rounded the corner and tucked his cane into the harness on his back, out of the way, as he leapt to the fire escape. The sills of this building were wide. He hid himself in the shadows of its eaves, and he turned back to listen.
A vision of a woman with a shaved head and ears pierced with feathers came to him. She was slender, as all addicts were, and her cheeks gaunt. She could have been anywhere between twenty and forty. Chirrut had no idea if this was truly what she looked like; but the image in his mind was clear-cut and perfect. She peered around the alley; when she did not see him, she looked down at the crystals in her palm and slowly raised them to her chest.
“Thanks, I guess,” she said softly, and walked away, out of Chirrut’s sight.
Chirrut sighed and let himself sag against the wall. The wind couldn’t reach him, here; without its bite, he could feel the warmth of spring. “You’re welcome.”
Incense filled the air. Prayer wheels rattled in every doorway; children ran with sparklers in their hands, writing their names in the alphabets of a dozen different languages. Pilgrims wrapped in rainbow-robes mingled with the orange- and yellow-clad locals wearing the traditional colors of Solstice Night.
Chirrut stared at the sparklers, mesmerized. He could see them. Not the children that carried them, though he could hear their shrieks of glee. He could smell their chemical burn, he could feel the heat of them as they passed nearby, and most of all, he could see the brilliant spots of their light against the shadowy gloom of his vision. He laughed and watched them leave trails of red across his ruined sight.
“Happy Solstice!” people shouted as he passed. All through the day he had carried a repurposed mixing bowl, filled with water he had consecrated himself that morning. He shaved carefully before leaving, and sought his neighbor’s, a Hossian named Ygrthe, help in trimming his hair to the short crop of a Guardian. No matter the sect, the Guardians of the Whills blessed every person who asked during the Longest Day. Chirrut may well be the last Guardian, but he wouldn’t shirk his duty. He had chanted the traditional litany, dressed as closely as he could to his old Guardian robes, and drawn the circle of the Force upon the brows of all who came to him. Street vendors pressed skewers of roasted diiel and sticky rice balls upon him, for showing kindness to the Guardians was especially auspicious during the solstice. He drank cucumber water and tea and sweetened lhesso. Children warned him when stormtroopers were near.
Now, his blessing bowl was empty. He had taken off the knitted white scarf he had worn as a sash and gone out to dance and feast with the people of the Holy City.
The Temple kitchens had not made cloud candy or fed the beggars, though he had smelled more than one beggar with a full plate, and heard more than one child complaining of a stomachache after eating too much spun sugar. It wasn’t like it was before, when the Temple bells had rung all night long and the drums had beaten counterpoint. He was glad he couldn’t see the tower silent and dark, instead of lit like a pillar of flame.
“No, no, that’s not how you do it!” he heard a familiar, gravelly voice shout amidst peals of laughter, sending a shiver down Chirrut’s spine. “Give me that before you put your eye out!”
Chirrut followed the sound of Baze’s voice down a side street and onto the promenade leading up to Tythoni Square. Baze and his audience were gathered in one of the clamshell niches beneath the bridge, and it was this that had directed the sound of their voices to Chirrut’s ears.
“See, this is how you place your fingers, and this is how you hold yourself so you don’t cut anything off you might want to keep.”
“Play a song! If you know it so well, play something!”
Baze hemmed and hawed for show. Chirrut moved closer, his sinews thrumming with curiosity and attraction--no longer so terrifying, now. Someone had lit a sodium torch overhead, enough for Chirrut to make out a vague impression of a horseshoe line of figures; Baze, he supposed, was hidden in the shadow of the clamshell.
“Alright, alright! Shut up, all of you! This one’s called ‘Catching the Wayward Cow.’”
The sound of a flute came to Chirrut’s ears, mellow and deep. The tune was lilting and lopsided, playful in its wandering melody, catching the listener by surprise with an unexpected note before trotting away down a different theme. He was drawn in by it, unable to resist. Baze was no virtuoso, but his delight in the song was plain to hear, and infectious, besides. He only faltered once, his fingers slipping off the keys in a discordant blat. He mustered himself quickly and resumed the song.
“Guardian,” a man whispered, so as not to interrupt the music. “Come sit with us. Here, I’ll show you.” He led Chirrut to a rug where a number of other people sat. They were warm and boisterous, scented with incense and food. Chirrut turned to face Baze. The song went on for a little longer, through one more repetition of the chorus, before Baze brought it to a close. A shuffling silence fell. Chirrut was sorry to have upset the mood of the group, but he couldn’t have made himself leave had he tried. It was absurd, yet it felt as though he should have known Baze played the flute.
Baze cleared his throat. “Ah. This one’s, everyone probably knows this one. ‘The Cut Sleeve.’”
Heat spilled through Chirrut’s body. Everyone knew the story of the Golden Emperor, who had loved a courtier so much that he cut off his own sleeve rather than wake him. Chirrut felt the glances of his seating companions, but he listened only to the flute, playing a gentle, wistful melody. He had never heard this version, but it was a very popular love story. There were surely as many settings of the Cut Sleeve on Jedha as there were stars in the Jedhan sky. He twisted his fingers together.
He had spoken to Baze all of two times. He didn’t even know Baze’s last name, and yet a connection had sprung up between them that Chirrut could not possibly describe. Baze was a dangerous man, but he played love songs to a Guardian on Solstice Night.
Three times the Force had brought him to Baze. The Holy City held two hundred thousand people inside its walls alone, and Chirrut had met Baze in three entirely different districts. The odds of them meeting twice were so small it would require a statistical droid to calculate. There was coincidence, and there was the will of the Force. Chirrut would do what he could to foster the connection. Vows of mortal beings, he supposed, were of little interest to the Unifying All. The song came to an end.
“Good luck,” the man beside Chirrut said, then began to gather up his family. Chirrut rose and stepped out of their way. He turned toward Baze.
“You’re very dramatic,” he said.
For a time there was no answer, and Chirrut feared Baze had left. But then--
“You’re one to talk, look at you, you’re a walking target.”
Chirrut smiled. “Walk me home? It’s not close at all.”
Baze grunted, but a smile was in his voice. “I’ll watch your back.”
The sun rose to find Chirrut meditating by his bedroll. Baze was sprawled out beside him, unwoken by Chirrut’s movements; his scent, heavy with sleep and sex, seemed to fill the apartment.
Chirrut couldn’t signify the peace that filled him. He had felt it every moment he spent with Baze, though it shifted in its consistency; being with him was easy. Never once had his presence felt like a burden. Instead of leaving Chirrut tense with uncertainty, it left him calm with assurance.
The light increased, and Baze began to stir. Chirrut went to make a pot of tea. He wrapped it in a towel to keep it warm, all the while keeping track of Baze’s breathing, which had shallowed and grown irregular as he wakened. He returned to his side, unwilling to part with him for longer than was necessary.
When Baze awoke, it was quietly. Chirrut felt his eyes on him and smiled, because a handsome man was in his bed, and because he felt like smiling.
“There is tea,” he said, “as well as bread and hsue-fa. In the fridge there is leftover faja soup. A friend made it, not me.”
Chirrut heard the rustle as Baze pushed back the covers. “’Fresher?”
It had been an oddly sweet evening they spent together. Baze was in many ways exactly like the man he had presented himself as, lying drunk in the gutter; in many ways, he was utterly different. He had a keen, straightforward mind and a dry sense of humor, and was not averse to applying all of these qualities for Chirrut’s benefit.
“You live in a shithole,” Baze said, re-emerging.
“I will have to take your word for it,” Chirrut replied. “Seeing as how I can’t see it.”
“You don’t need to see it, you can hear the haek bugs crawling through the walls. And your neighbors farting next door.”
“Perhaps I should apologize to them for last night, then. As I recall, neither of us were good neighbors.”
“Fierfek,” Baze muttered, and Chirrut smirked as he shuffled into the galley kitchen. “Where’s the tea?”
“In the pot.”
“Where’s the pot?”
“Under the towel.”
“I was afraid the haek bugs would get into it.”
He heard Baze go still, then lift the lid to peer inside. “You’re fucking with me, right?”
“Not currently, no. That was last night.”
Mingled admiration and exasperation colored Baze’s emotional response. “Clearly I was drunk last night.” He poured the tea into a cup and put the pot back on the counter. He took a sip. “Not bad. Tastes like bark.”
“Guardians drink only the finest bark.”
“Sit with me,” Chirrut said, indicating the bedroll beside him. “We know almost nothing of each other.”
“I’d say I ‘know’ you pretty well, now.” He went back to where Chirrut was kneeling and lowered himself to the ground with a soft grunt. “So, Chirrut Îmwe, late of the Temple Guardians, what do you want to know?”
Chirrut tilted his head consideringly. “You sound like you’re from Shinju.”
“Feihuan, actually. My father was a cab driver.”
“[Then I suppose you are an uncultured savage],” Chirrut said in Beifanghua.
“[Of course a pampered southerner would say so],” Baze replied in flawless Guangdonghua. “[It’s either Qingbuo or Taipen].”
“[Qingbuo],” Chirrut said, bowing. “[Though my mother was raised in Tennegadesh].”
“[Ah, that explains the name. I knew it was unusual].”
“[No worse than ‘Baze Malbus’].”
“I chose my name,” Baze said, slipping back into Basic. It was, Chirrut suspected, a way of pushing away the past. He responded in kind.
“Then it is a worthy name.”
There was a heavy, contemplative pause. Then--“Is that a lightbow?”
Chirrut blinked at the abrupt change in topic. “Yes.”
“I’ve heard stories of them. May I?”
There was the sound of metal and wood snapping into place, then the creak as Baze raised it to his shoulder. “It’s in prime condition. How did you find it?”
“It was in the underbelly of the Temple. I restored it.”
Baze set the weapon aside with reverence.
“I have never fired a ranged weapon,” Chirrut said, a thought coming to him. “Would you teach me?”
Baze was silent for a long, uncomfortable moment. “Chirrut, I don’t mean to assume about your abilities, but if you can’t see--“
“There are more ways of knowing than seeing,” Chirrut said, cutting him off.
Chirrut stiffened in surprise. “You’ve read the Book of Sunsets?”
Baze shrugged. “A long time ago, yes.”
A drunkard who played the flute and read obscure theological tracts in between blasting the brains of would-be muggers across the street. Baze Malbus was a walking contradiction. A suspicion came upon Chirrut then, a trembling, delicate hope. “Are you a Guardian, Baze?”
“No.” This reply, sharp, cutting, startled Chirrut.
His silence was pointed. It told Chirrut all he needed to know. He bowed his head. “You were a Guardian.”
Baze applied himself to his tea; Chirrut listened, and he contemplated what manner of agonies could have driven a Guardian from his path.
“I know what you’re thinking,” Baze said, his voice even. “You’re thinking, ‘What can return him to the Force?’ Let me save you the trouble. There is nothing that can.”
“Teach me to use the lightbow, then,” Chirrut said, instead of testing Baze’s temper.
Baze put his teacup down with a clink. “You can’t see.”
“I can hear just fine.”
“You can’t target with your ears.”
Chirrut set his jaw. “The earliest I can go is tomorrow; I’m performing a baptism this afternoon.”
“Many people choose to baptize their children. I do two or three a week, if not more.”
“I wasn’t referring to the baptism.”
“I know, but since I know more about my abilities than you do, I chose to ignore your protests.”
That startled a laugh out of Baze. “You have a death wish,” he said. “But alright. I’ll teach you.”
Chirrut beamed. “Good. Where will you pick me up?”
The open desert smelled of stone and dust, but also the herbal tang of seja and the warm, woody, burnt smell of witch’s fingers.
“How far out are we?” Chirrut called over the roar of the speeder.
“Almost fifteen klicks,” Baze answered.
The sun pressed down on them. Chirrut tilted his head back to soak it in. It was too easy, in the canopied shadow of the city streets, to avoid feeling the sun for days at a time. His skin warmed beneath the sunlight. It seeped into his muscles and bones, easing out the old ache in his shoulder.
In his mind, he played through his memories of the desert. His hometown was a village in the Qingbuo Prefecture, but his parents had immigrated to the Holy City before he had been old enough to remember. School trips to the fossil deposits in the Salt Hills added vague impressions of painted earth, but more useful were the two meditation retreats he had attended at the Temple hermitage in the Ar-Rehmeh Stone Forest. The old, rattling Temple speeder had had a top speed of sixty kilometers per hour, and Chirrut had drowsing recollections of red and purple earth veiled beneath a dusty spread of seja, and of distant, serrated mountains capped with white.
He couldn’t see the mountains now, or distinguish the blue scrub of seja from the earth around it, or the darker green of the dhur pines he knew sprouted in brushy tufts across the plain. But he could see, in the changes of shadow and reflection, the rolling sway of the hills as they passed, and he could see the blurry silhouette of Baze at the controls.
Baze was more interesting to look at than the desert, for all that he was little more than a vague shadow. Chirrut had run his fingertips over Baze’s face the night before, memorizing the line of his nose and the shape of his lips, feeling the way his cheeks creased when he smiled. He knew Baze from his stride and his smell and the way he absentmindedly sucked on his teeth, but that morning had been the first time he had seen how his wild hair made him look like a lion, or how terrible his posture was, or how he kept his chin tucked. Before they had left his squalid apartment, Chirrut had made Baze stand in the diffuse light from his window, where it was bright enough to distinguish some detail, but low enough not to halo Baze’s face into oblivion, as the raw, unwavering sunlight did now.
“Like what you see?” Baze had asked lazily.
Chirrut did. Baze could have had the face of an ogre and Chirrut would have liked it for no other reason than because he saw it with his own eyes, but Baze was not an ogre. Chirrut had run his hands over his forehead and cheeks, putting an image to the sensations he knew. The beard was better than he had imagined, defining his jaw for Chirrut’s low vision; the contrast between his dark hair and his skin outlined his face. It was a strong face, not harsh but full of laughter. Chirrut couldn’t see them, but he felt crow’s feet at the corners of his eyes.
“You’re lucky I’m blind,” Chirrut had answered, his fingers on Baze’s lips putting the lie to his words. Already he loved the way Baze smiled; seeing it had stolen his breath away.
The farther Baze drove the more the land rose up, until Chirrut could no longer see the rippling hills. He steered them into a canyon, the sound of the engine echoing back and forth across bare rock; Chirrut tilted his head to get a sense of its size. Shadows fell across his face only to be replaced with sunlight, flickering light and dark, light and dark, like the canopies of the bazaar in fast-forward; the constant change made Chirrut’s eyes ache. They didn’t transition from bright to dim light as well anymore. He closed them and listened to Baze mutter at the controls.
“You should have let me drive,” he said, smiling to himself. Baze’s incredulous silence widened his smile into a smirk.
“You’re not as funny as you think you are,” Baze grumbled.
“I think I’m hilarious.”
“Your sense of humor is warped. We’re here.” The whine of the speeder’s engine faded to a stop.
Chirrut climbed out, reaching down for the lightbow he had put in an inconspicuous sack and stowed in the footwell. He tapped his cane against the rock. It echoed a dozen times over. They were in a narrow box canyon; at one end, the echoes showed him a twisted tree sprouting from between the stones. The faint, sweet scent of joph blossoms perfumed the air, safe where the harsh sun wouldn’t blight them.
A single blaster shot in this place would be heard for kilometers around.
“Here?” Chirrut asked dubiously.
“Not here, but here’s where we leave the speeder.”
Baze gathered his packs, handing one to Chirrut. “Food,” he said. “Water. Shelter, if we can’t make it back before curfew.”
Chirrut put it on, and slung his lightbow on top. “How far is it?”
“Another five or six kilometers.”
“So this is less a genuine concern and more you being a nanny.”
“I am alive because of my nannying.” He started across the canyon toward a narrow slot in the wall.
Chirrut followed the sound of his footsteps. “Too many childhood field expeditions gone awry?”
“More like adulthood assassinations,” was all Baze said in reply.
The slot through which he led them was just wider than their shoulders. The walls were rippled sandstone, carved by years of flashfloods; Chirrut clicked his tongue and marveled at the sculpted stone that reached overhead. They were, he realized, in something of a trapezoid. The top of the canyon was far narrower than its base. From above, they were most likely entirely invisible.
“How did you find this place?” he asked.
“A drinking partner told me about it. I needed somewhere to set off ordnance tests without the Empire watching.”
The slot canyon grew wider, until it was no longer a slot but a wash. The rock and loose scrabble softened into sand. Baze led them downstream. The canyon walls shrank as they went, until finally they were no more than the low hills around a wadi, shaded over by stringy trees and tough, deep-rooted seja. Sounds grew muted; there was only their voices, and their footsteps, and the small sounds of birds. The sand and the trees swallowed everything else.
Presently, the stink of chemical char and spent tibanna came to Chirrut’s nose. “Now we’re here,” he said, turning his head to get a sense of his environment.
It was a broad riverbed, lined on one side with a soft, river-cut wall of sod, and on the other by a stand of incense trees. Wind soughed through their branches, setting their withered limbs creaking. He lowered his pack to the ground, leaning it against the dry bank. “This is a good training ground.”
“Are you sure you’re blind?” Baze asked wryly.
“Blind is a relative term,” Chirrut replied, and uncovered his lightbow. “One can have perfect eyes and yet see nothing.”
“Let’s see if you can hit that wall, then,” Baze said, ignoring the dig.
Chirrut snapped open the arms of the lightbow. Its dimensions and weights were familiar to him as the baskets of crystals lined along the shabby walls of his apartment. He raised it toward the sod wall; he heard Baze move quickly over the sand.
“Rule one,” Baze said, “don’t point a weapon unless you are prepared to shoot what’s in front of it. Like me.”
“My apologies,” Chirrut said. He raised the lightbow again, and then he felt another weight upon the stock, and the scent of Baze was around him.
“Rule two: keep the stock against your shoulder.” He maneuvered the lightbow until it was pressed firmly against Chirrut’s shoulder. “Like that. This is a big weapon, it’ll probably have a powerful recoil. Holding it like this will allow you to absorb the recoil instead of dislocating your shoulder.”
He stepped back toward the incense trees, and Chirrut let fire without no more warning than that. He had burned with curiosity to know what the weapon was capable of; the building whine as it drew upon the cartridge of tibanna gas, the searing flash of light visible even through his blindness, and the blast that bruised his shoulder; all this sent a bolt of adrenaline through his veins.
“That’ll stop what’s coming at you,” Baze said quietly.
Chirrut lowered the bow. There were a number of switches and toggles on the stock; he had avoided touching too many of them, for lack of knowledge; he found one now, a lever with three different settings. He flipped it one lower and raised the bow. “Are you clear?” he asked.
This time, the blast was much weaker. Chirrut absorbed it better; he heard when the shot landed, and the soft plops of broken-off clumps of dirt that fell to the sand.
“Widen your stance,” Baze said. “You’ll have more stability.”
Chirrut did as he bid, falling into the ready neutral stance of the Leun Cho kuan. He ticked the lever to the last setting, and raised the lightbow. This time when he pulled the trigger, nothing happened. He blinked in confusion.
“That’s the safety,” Baze said. “So you don’t shoot yourself while cleaning it.”
The realization that he could have shot himself in the face at any time during his restoration efforts sent ice through Chirrut’s veins. He pushed it aside and released the safety back to the lower setting.
“How do you plan on using this thing?” Baze asked. “And more importantly, why?”
“It is largely symbolic,” Chirrut replied, listening to the sounds of the gully. “This weapon is used by the highest levels of the Guardians, after they have completed all the duan.”
“Those are the forms, right?”
Chirrut fired the bow, and another tuft of dirt fell. He listened to the echoes the shot left, muffled though they were in this soft, sandy place. “The forms are kuan. The duan are the ranks. If you completed your first five years you probably know the first rank kuan, as well as the basics of the Spring Chant.”
“That sounds familiar.”
“I can review it with you, if you want.”
Baze said, a little too fast, “Let’s see if you can shoot straight, first. Here, I’m going to set up targets.”
He did so, and Chirrut missed all of them, at which neither were surprised.
“I hope you’re satisfied,” Baze said, as though that concluded the matter.
“Throw the targets,” Chirrut said, upon a whim that had just then caught him.
“Throw them in the air,” Chirrut said again. The whim had become a dire need. “Throw them in the air, and I will see if I can hit them.”
“Chirrut, you couldn’t hit them when they were stationary, what makes you think you can hit them when they’re moving?”
“Baze,” Chirrut replied, mirroring his lover’s stance. “Throw the targets.”
To this, Baze subsided, though it was with an air of futility. He gathered river stones as he had before, but instead of ramming them into the sod wall, he held them in his hands, three of them, by Chirrut’s estimation. He readied his bow.
“Fire at will,” he said, and Baze, unamused in the extreme, lobbed the first in the air. The wind whistled about its passage, faint, but there to hear, for those who had trained themselves to. Chirrut raised and fired, though as soon as the bolt flew he knew it would miss.
“Again,” he ordered, and this time, he caught the sound of the stone earlier in its flight. He began to see in his mind’s eye how its path moved, and how he might strike it. He fired, but again he missed.
“Again,” he said, and Baze objected.
“This is foolish! You are shooting at shadows!”
“Throw the last stone,” Chirrut said, all levity gone from his voice and determination taking its place. Baze did so with a sigh, and this time, Chirrut knew he had it. He raised the lightbow, squeezed the trigger, and in a flash of tibanna-fueled light, the stone exploded midair with a dry crack. Chirrut smiled as the broken shards piffed into the sand.
“A fluke,” Baze said, after his shock had eased. He gathered three more stones. “I bet you can’t do it twice.”
Chirrut did it three more times, and every time after that.
It was late when they returned to the Holy City, the sun already sinking behind the gas giant. It would be a long night, until Jedha cleared the umbra of its planetary captor. Micha chittered overhead, catching insects; the narrow streets echoed with the rumble of carts and speeders as shopkeepers and businessmen went home. The smell of a thousand cooking suppers filled the air. Chirrut’s stomach growled, but he pushed it aside. Baze made to penetrate his guard, and he pushed that aside as well.
They stood in the courtyard of Chirrut’s building, playing sticky hands from the Spring Chant kuan, the earliest drills of a future Guardian.
“It’s about balance,” Chirrut said, trancelike, recalling the voice of his sifei as she walked him through the same exercises a dozen years before. “Balance yourself, then move against the balance of your opponent. Feel my skin as your skin; the movements of my muscles are the extensions of your own.”
Baze said nothing; his concentration was fierce. He tested Chirrut’s grip and went to attack. Chirrut felt it propagate down his arms, and he deflected the strike.
“You’re too stiff. You telegraph your moves before you make them. I see them coming--” he caught Baze’s elbow in a joint lock before letting him free, “--and I counter them. You need to relax.”
“You don’t see anything,” Baze muttered through gritted teeth, his hands and forearms moving with and against Chirrut’s in a constant dance of tension and release. He was by no means a poor opponent, but he lacked Chirrut’s sensitivity of touch and, perhaps, his years of practice. There was more to his hesitation than could be explained by a preference for ranged weapons, however.
“Why do you pull back before you strike?” Chirrut asked. “There--” he caught Baze’s hand in his. “You were going to knife-strike me in the throat, but you hesitated long enough for me to catch you. Why?”
Instead of flowing into and breaking Chirrut’s hold as any practitioner would have done, Baze pulled back, his breath going ragged. “Let me go,” he said, and Chirrut released him. He stepped away across the courtyard, putting distance between them. “No more,” he said, calmer now, the panic that had taken him dissipating.
Chirrut tilted his head, listening. “I am sorry if I hurt you.”
“You didn’t,” Baze said after a time, and with a long sigh.
“You left the Order, and it pains you to be reminded of it,” Chirrut guessed, feeling his way around the faint tangle of Baze’s emotions.
Baze was quiet, lost to memory. “Yes,” he finally said.
Apostasy was never an easy choice. The Force had been kind to Chirrut, never to lay that path at his feet. He went to Baze and embraced him, pressed his forehead against Baze’s, and let his sadness mingle between them.
“I hope you find peace, Baze Malbus,” he said.
Baze’s kiss gave eloquent reply.
The explosion ripped through the wee hours of the night. Chirrut sat bolt upright in bed, every nerve on edge. Baze sat up next to him, more slowly. He glanced to Chirrut, then went to the window, trailing the bedclothes behind him. The blinds clattered as he pulled them aside.
“Someone bombed the whitehats.”
This snapped Chirrut from his fugue. “What!”
Baze sucked on his teeth. “There’s a plume of smoke rising over the Imperial Garrison.”
Chirrut began to breathe again. He tore out of bed and yanked on the closest clothes at hand. He almost pulled on Baze’s shirt before he smelled Baze’s scent on it. He threw it on the bed and out of the way.
“What are you doing?”
“A bombing means people are injured,” Chirrut said. “I have to help.” He pulled on his trousers and fumbled at the fly.
Baze rounded the bed. “You can’t go out wearing that,” he said, grabbing Chirrut’s arm. “You’ll be shot on sight.”
“I go where my conscience dictates,” Chirrut snapped, yanking his arm back. “And I will go as a Guardian.” He left the room.
It was quiet in the streets. He heard klaxons and shouts in the distance, but in the Tanneries, not even a stray mott dared upset the hush. The tap of his cane was all the noise Chirrut heard.
The Imperial Quarter, once the Holy Quarter, stood across Tythoni Square from the Temple. Chirrut knew the streets there like the back of his hand--but Tythoni Square, home to the Prelate’s Palace, was also the seat of the Imperial Garrison. The last time he had dared those streets was when he was salvaging crystals from the caves, over half a year ago, and then only at night when the streets were quiet. Never when the Garrison had been poked with a stick.
It was dangerous to run, yet Chirrut picked up the pace until he was sprinting down the Promenade. He might not be able to see, but he could bring water, or just recite the Final Prayer to those who were--
Two more explosions rocked the night, one after the other. The second was so close it sent a stab of light through Chirrut’s eyes and knocked him off his feet. A blast of superheated air washed over him. The stench of burning varnish and wool seared his nose. Burning flesh. Screaming. He lay stunned, his face stinging. All he could smell was smoke, blood, and his own fear thick in his nose.
“Tikke,” he croaked. “Tikke!”
Footsteps approached. Hands grabbed his arms, dragging him up. Chirrut fought against them, but he was uncoordinated, panicking. They dragged him away from the reek of burning flesh, away from the inferno. “Tikke!” He screamed. “Ree! Get off me! Get the fierfek off me!” He struck his attacker in the throat and he let go. Chirrut’s face was on fire. He couldn’t breathe; the snarling rictus of the clone captain was seared across his retinas. He covered his eyes with his hands and let loose the wail building inside him--but it choked against the smoke-filled air. He screamed voicelessly. His eyes were scalding, his eyelids melting, his whole face melting--
“Chirrut!” Baze’s ragged voice cut through the images behind his eyes. “Chirrut, you’re not there!” Hands took Chirrut’s head and buried his face against someone’s neck. A beard scraped against his cheek; long hair tangled against his nose. He panted, and the person’s scent was at odds with the memories. The armor was different. The voice was different. Chirrut clung to Baze and let his differentness take him away.
“You’re not there, you’re not there.”
Chirrut couldn’t remember how they got to Baze’s apartment. He came back to himself, and he was sitting on a sagging couch in a room that smelled of boiled cabbage and Baze. He felt sick and cold, his face was stinging, his palms and knees scraped. His cane was gone.
“Drink that,” Baze said, his voice gravellier than usual.
Chirrut did without asking and choked on the burn of alcohol. The fumes bit at the back of his throat. He dropped the mug and lunged to the ‘fresher. He only made it as far as the sink before he was vomiting.
“Not a fan of Corellian whiskey, then,” Baze said from the doorway, concern undercutting his cavalier tone.
“It burned,” Chirrut replied, all the explanation that was in him to provide. He turned on the tap. His whole body was trembling, as though he’d run the wall circuit at a full sprint on an empty stomach.
Baze watched him a while longer, then shrugged and walked back to the living room. “More for me.”
Chirrut rinsed out his mouth and the sink. He tried to push away the memories, but they lingered, stubborn, like the smell of old smoke in clothes.
Who had set the bombs? Chirrut could only guess. The Empire was not beloved beyond the Core, and especially not on Jedha. He stepped out of the ‘fresher and promptly stumbled over a stack of hardcopy magazines.
“Baze?” he called out.
“I need you to guide me.”
“Where do you want to go?”
“Half a step to the left, forward--eh, three steps, right maybe six, then it's a straight shot forward.”
Chirrut counted steps. His hands itched for his cane.
“Guess I forgot to pick up your stick.”
The only replies he could think of were unnecessarily sharp, so Chirrut bit them back. The sound of the floor had changed from carpet to tile. He put out a hand to ward off obstacles.
“Here.” Baze took Chirrut’s hand and drew it to a table. His grip was warm and gentle. He pulled away quickly and cleared his throat.
Force, Chirrut was tired. He was tired down to his bones. He sussed out the chair and sat down with a heavy sigh.
“What happened?” Baze asked quietly.
Chirrut cocked his head in inquiry.
“You got stuck in the past when the bomb went off.”
Chirrut considered for a long time, the last moments of his sight flashing across his mind’s eye.
“Forget it,” Baze mumbled. “Knew better than to ask.”
The silence leaned heavily between them before Chirrut finally found it in himself to speak. “They--the stormtroopers--blinded me with boiling water. During the siege.”
Baze hissed in through his teeth, a sharp, wincing sound. “Shit.”
Chirrut lowered his eyes so Baze couldn't see them. It was--Mother of Moons, it was almost five years since it had happened. Bitter remembrance stained the air.
“I was a Guardian, but I volunteered for the Planetary Guard,” Baze said suddenly. “During the war.” His throat clicked as he swallowed. “My company was stationed in Yenbu.”
Memory triggered, but didn't complete the connection. Chirrut frowned until he registered the significance weighting Baze’s tone. Pieces slotted into place. “The colossi.”
“They recruited us after. It worked pretty damn well. Me and two others were the only ones who went AWOL." He gave a huff of not-laughter. “Guess everyone else figured that at least with the Empire they’d be heroes instead of murderers.”
The story had ripped apart the headlines. Even Chirrut, blinded and in agony both physical and emotional, had heard of the destruction of the colossi and the villages crushed beneath them. They couldn't even lay the blame for it on the stormtroopers; the Planetary Guard stationed at Yenbu, Arkebah, and Jaddih had all been ordered by the provisional government to lay the explosives and set them off. They had been told the villages were evacuated.
“I'd been looking forward to returning to the Order when my tour was up,” Baze went on, his voice flat and emotionless.
Now it was Chirrut who reached for his hand. “Neither you nor your company acted out of malice. We would have accepted you.”
Baze let out a breath. “The Force doesn't care about us, anyway,” he said roughly, and pulled away.
“The Force is with you,” Chirrut said, tracking Baze’s progress through the room. “It moves through you whether you believe in it or not.”
“It's funny how many people tell me that,” Baze replied, sounding anything but amused.
“Then what do you believe?” Chirrut asked, fighting back his irritation.
“It's the only thing that does.”
The refrigerator door opened, and Baze snorted as he pulled out a bottle. “You say that because you're a monk.”
“Am I? I no longer live in the Temple. My life consists of selling blessings and hiding from Imperial patrols, not by shifts of prayer, meditation, and study. What is it that makes me a monk?”
Baze shifted uncomfortably against the counter. He popped the cap, tossing it in the sink. “I guess your belief.”
“Whatever it is that you believe in, whether the Force, money, the innate goodness of people, or the power of ingenuity, it defines who you are,” Chirrut said firmly.
Baze said nothing to this. After a long silence, Chirrut heard the sound of air displacing liquid in a bottle, and Baze swallowing. “Okay,” he said, his tone neutral.
Chirrut was certain he was humoring him, but it was a start. Even the smallest seed could blossom. All it needed was time.
The next morning, the Holy City was in chaos. The Prelate’s Palace, the Treasury, and the Imperial Garrison Headquarters had all been bombed, to varying success; civilian casualties were minimal, but Imperial casualties were enough to call in two star destroyers’ worth of reinforcements from Coruscant to lock the planet down under martial law.
“You could probably slip the patrols if you keep to side streets,” Baze said, peering out his window at the platoon passing below. “Guardians’ robes are pretty nondescript from a distance. Or you could use my clothes.”
“And use your walking stick?” Chirrut replied drily.
“Ah…” Baze scratched at his head. “I could lead you?”
Chirrut weighed his options. People, especially untrained people, were generally terrible guides. They got distracted, they went too fast, and they almost always forgot to mention when an obstacle like stairs was in the way. But he needed a new cane, and Baze would have to do in the interim.
“I'm flattered,” Baze said, his turn to sound wry. “I must be a terrible option if you can't even bring yourself to say it.”
“I don't like using people,” Chirrut said as he went up to him, his hand outstretched in case he tripped over Baze’s stacks of hoarded rubbish.
“It makes me feel like I'm blind.”
He felt Baze stare at him.
“There's a difference between being blind and having it reminded to you. I won't be dependent on anyone.”
Baze’s silence went considering. Chirrut reached up to place his hand on his shoulder.
“What do I do?”
“Go slowly. Stop before doors or stairs or large obstacles. Don’t grab my hand unless I offer it.”
“Does it distract you?”
“No, it's annoying.”
Baze chuckled. “Alright.” He led Chirrut out the door, but not before leading him into the doorpost, first.
“This is why I don't like using people,” Chirrut muttered once they’d reached the hall.
“Won’t the Force tell you if something is in the way?”
Chirrut hoped he saw the dirty look he gave him. “I'm nedjeh.”
The surprise in his voice made Chirrut roll his eyes. “What, did you think I was using the Force to find my way?”
“It… had occurred to me.”
“The Force is with me, but I don’t often hear its voice.”
Baze slowed. “Got some stairs.”
Chirrut clicked his tongue, searching for the sound-image of an incline going down. “You go first,” he said, and tracked the sound of Baze’s feet, and the drop in his height as he went down the first step. He followed. Meter by meter, Baze led them through his building and out onto the street. He was a much better guide than some Chirrut had known. He still clicked his tongue every few steps, just in case.
“Does the clicking work like yenna birds?”
“I listen for reflected echoes, yes,” Chirrut replied. “I click for the big picture, and use my cane to find smaller obstacles at foot level. Like your magazine collection. And your shells. And your books. And your dirty dishes. And your--”
Baze cut him off with a sharp noise, then hustled him across the street. A stormtrooper patrol passed where they stood huddled in a doorway. When they were out of earshot, Baze relaxed. “You're snappy this morning.”
“My head hurts, and all I can smell is smoke.”
“Hm. It is pretty hazy.”
“Describe it to me?”
“It looks like the day after a windstorm. Only the haze is pale gray and the sand drifts are darker gray. And the streets are empty.”
The image chilled Chirrut to the bone. “How large were the explosions?”
“The first one was the biggest, but the second and third weren't small. You were an entire block from the Treasury when it went off, and look what happened.”
Something clicked in Chirrut’s mind, and he wondered why it hadn't occurred to him before. “You followed me, didn't you.”
He felt Baze’s hair move over his knuckles as he turned. “You were a blind man running toward a war zone. I wasn't going to risk you trying your luck.”
Despite everything, despite his lingering malaise from the night before, despite his irritation at having to find a new cane, despite his ever-renewed horror at what had been wrought upon the by-named City of Peace, Chirrut felt his insides warming. He smiled. “You were worried about me.”
Beneath his hand, Baze shrugged. “Well, yeah.”
Chirrut’s smile turned sappy, and he didn't even bother trying to hide it. His head hurt, his eyes were dry and irritated, his lungs ached, his heart was bruised, and Baze Malbus worried about him. He thrust aside the feelings of guilt that arose at his happiness. It was in the darkest times that happiness was needed most of all, he reminded himself. It helped people continue forward. He couldn't chase away, however, his guilt at standing by while others assisted in the rescue efforts he could hear echoing over the Holy Quarter.
“So where are we going?” Baze asked.
Chirrut didn't answer right away, turned toward the Holy Quarter. Repulsorlift engines were hovering over the heart of the city, and beneath them he heard distant rumbling and faint shouts.
There were times her wished he still had his sight. They came less often now, as he adapted more to his blindness, but he wished ferociously he could join the rescue crews without being a liability. And he supposed he could, but what Baze had said last night was right. He couldn't risk joining an Imperial-run operation in his position of Guardian. His was a religion outlawed by the Empire, as all Force-adept religions were; his choice not to reject his path made for other hard choices.
“Some changes are easier to adapt to than others,” he answered quietly. “That's all.” He straightened his shoulders and squeezed Baze’s. “There's a woman who makes canes and walking sticks near Pei-ur and Ramaveda.”
“You owe me a cane,” Chirrut said, forcing a smile through his melancholy mood. “That cannon of yours isn't cheap, I know you can afford it.”
“Me! It's your cane!”
“Yes, which you lost.”
“Because you were running toward an explosion. I don't think I'm the irresponsible one, here.”
“You would deny a blind man his way of moving freely through the city?”
“That's not--don't think I don't see what you're doing.”
“How could I? I can't see at all!”
The cane-maker’s shop stood beside a Bothan tapcafe, which fed the expatriates who filled out the new Imperial Governor’s staff. Their food was highly fragrant, for Bothans believed eating, as with most pleasurable acts, should engage the senses as completely as possible. It was no doubt enjoyable to Bothans, but for the Human palate it was difficult to stomach, a combination of old socks and mold. As a sensory experience it was atrocious, but as a landmark it was ideal.
“I feel bad for the people who live here,” Baze said darkly.
“Most of them are Bothan,” Chirrut said.
“Yeah, that's why I feel bad for them. They'll never know how wrong they are.”
The proprietress was a massive woman with a heavy, arthritic stride and wheezy breathing. She smelled of tzekawur perfume, one of the few Bothan fragrances that appealed to non-Bothans; she smelled of the teeth-staining pica leaves that many on Jedha habitually chewed.
“Welcome,” she said in heavily-accented Basic. “What may I help you with, this day?”
“I've misplaced my cane and need a replacement, Honored Grandmother,” Chirrut said, letting go of Baze’s shoulder so he could bow. The showroom smelled of sawdust and varnish, and of leather, hemp, and rubber.
“I have a selection of lightweight seeing canes, if you would care to try them?”
“Actually, I had in mind something a little different.” An idea was germinating in the rich soil of Chirrut’s thoughts. He heard the creak of Baze’s gear as he turned.
“And what might that be?”
“Do you have any quarterstaves? Bembu would work, but alminar would be even better.”
“Hmm. I have some, yes. This way.”
“Floor’s clear,” Baze murmured. “Half step up about ten steps in front of you.”
“Thank you,” Chirrut replied, and together they followed the proprietress into the back of the room. There was an open space to the side, large and unencumbered; the echoes were absorbed by a carpet, but not so much that they were vanished altogether. The rasp of their shoes over the fibers told Chirrut it was sisal or jute.
“The staves run along the back wall,” the matriarch said. “Lighter and more flexible toward this end, heavier and more inflexible toward the other end.”
Chirrut bowed again. “Your hospitality humbles me, Matriarch.”
“The home clan is honored by your presence.” With that, she left them to their devices.
“Huh,” Baze said, and Chirrut knew he was looking after her in puzzlement.
“Bothans have an extremely rigid system of etiquette,” he explained, taking a staff to measure it against himself. “It's why so many here work in government: they excel at the subtle challenges of arbitrating between the Powers. They're also foreigners, and therefore more impartial.”
Baze grunted. “You gonna try every single stick in the building?”
“If I have to.”
“Gonna be here all day.”
Chirrut scoffed. “And I'm sure it took you all of three minutes to choose your blasters.” He held a staff out before him before shaking his head and putting it back.
“Anyone can shoot any blaster. Fitting it to you makes it a weapon.”
“It is the same with the quarterstaff.” Chirrut skipped over three as soon as he touched them; the pattern etched into their grain made them unsuitable for striking. One was too long; one was too thick. Two were too delicate for how he planned to use them. The next in the row, however, gave him pause.
It was a length of alminar wood, tapering slightly to a knotted, spiraled end. The balance wasn't perfect, but that could be remedied with weights. It fit his hands like a dream. Neither too long nor too short; neither too stiff nor too easily bent; neither too polished nor too rough. He gave it an experimental twirl, and he smiled.
“This one,” he said, holding it almost reverentially. “And it’s alminarwood.”
“Why is that important?” Baze asked.
“Alminarwood is strong, but incredibly resilient,” Chirrut explained. “Most hardwoods aren’t nearly as tolerant of stress. It makes for an excellent heavy-weight bang kuan staff.”
“Why would it need to tolerate stress, I wonder,” Baze muttered darkly as Chirrut navigated this way to the front desk.
“Ah, that is a fine choice,” the Matriarch said. “Not my prettiest work, but sturdy.”
“Loveliness is purely subjective,” Chirrut replied with a smile, and pulled out his credit reader.
Later, as he practiced in the courtyard behind his apartment, Baze, cleaning his guns atop a stack of abandoned crates, asked him, “Why that one?”
Chirrut swept the staff overhead in slow motion, bringing it down in a precise strike. “The Force willed it.”
“Right. The Force.”
“We are all of us one with the Force,” Chirrut said, deep in waking meditation. “It is unrestricted by time and space. It is the memory of our loved ones and the hope of the future. It reached through me and selected this staff.”
Baze disassembled his blaster with neat, efficient movements, laying them upon the cloth he had spread over the crates. “Why should the Force care about the staff that one monk uses?”
“Even the smallest person can change the galaxy.” Chirrut swept around and thrust the butt of the staff into the solar plexus of an imaginary opponent.
“Think the galaxy’s seen enough change for a while.”
“This is not the Imperials’ city. You have heard the rumors; the ones that bombed the Governor’s Palace are calling themselves the Partisans.”
“Or freedom fighters.”
Baze grunted. “So you're going to fight the whitehats. One man against an army. One blind man.”
“Going against them directly would be foolish, yes. But there are more ways to resist than direct confrontation.” He ended the form, planting the butt of the staff against his foot. He made the ritual bow to an absent judge.
“You're going to die.”
“I have faith in the will of the Force.”
The sound of metal slamming against a half-rotten wooden crate. “The Force doesn't exist. And if it does, all it would do is ruin you.”
Chirrut turned to face him. “Are your bounties any better?”
“What's that supposed to mean?”
“You race to bring in a criminal for the base reward of credits. It gains you nothing of substance.”
“It gains me a roof over my head. Don't spout off about attachment now, you work for credits, too.”
Chirrut held the staff before him, balancing it on a single finger. “Neither too heavy nor too light. Do you see, Baze? Balance is vital. Mortal beings require the world of the material to survive.” He tilted the staff one way, so it yawed over his finger toward the ground. “We require food, shelter, and companionship to maintain our bodies. But too far, and we kill our spirits.” He shifted the staff back to a perfect horizontal above the pavement. “On the other end, our souls require nourishment as well. We require faith, belief, trust, love. We require calm in the midst of the storm.” He let the staff overbalance to the other side. “Yet if we focus exclusively on these, our physical form withers and dies.” He returned the staff to the ground.
“Did you know that in the ancient history of the Order, there was a sect of Guardians who chose to pray themselves to death? They would lock themselves into special cells and purge their bodies, eating only herbal concoctions that desiccated the flesh until they died. It was believed that dying in this manner would ensure their spiritual awakening.”
The sound of Baze’s hands over his blasters stopped. “They did that?”
“They did, though not many succeeded. It was an arduous process. Every single one is recorded in the Temple archives. We don't permit living mummification anymore--that's what they called it--because it denied the practitioner balance.” He poked at Baze with the end of his staff. “Your soul is starving, Baze Malbus.”
Baze grunted and returned to his blasters. “Maybe they’ll call me a living mummy and write about me in the Temple archives.”
It surprised a laugh out of Chirrut. “If you're successful, I’ll record it myself.”
Today’s crystal was a hefty specimen, as long and thick around as Chirrut’s forearm. He disguised it in a water canteen as he walked the streets of the Holy City, hawking his blessings and waiting for that numinous tug which would point him the way.
In the two years since his vision in the Chamber of the Whills, he had given away nearly a third of the crystals in his keeping. None had gone to those he might have expected. Addicts, career soldiers, single parents, prostitutes, children younger than speech, those sick with the worst diseases of body and mind, and those aged beyond what society deemed useful; the Force saw no difference between them. Where their paths would take them after Chirrut left the whills in their care, he could not say; all he knew was that the Force was with them.
“Guardian,” the voices murmured around him as he passed. The attacks carried out by the Partisans had uncovered a vein of strength in the populace, a lode of resistance from the bedrock of fear. Chirrut had more than once been welcomed by strangers to share their bread-breaking, for no other reason than because he wore the robes of a Guardian. For these faithful, he prayed generously and without request for compensation. It was his duty, he saw, to foster connections where he found them, and not all connections were between one person and another, but sometimes between mortals and the divine.
“May the Force be with you,” he murmured in reply. “Have faith, Brother.”
“You’re a target,” Baze said at least once a day, his dissatisfaction with this turn of affairs plain. “Take off the robes, at least. You don’t have to reject your religion, just protect yourself.”
Chirrut always leaned in to kiss him, soft and smiling. “I will always be a target for my faith. It is not my robes that declare me.”
“Troublemaker,” a voice declared from the corner as he passed. “You only raise the Imperials’ ire.”
Not all were glad for his efforts. There were those who supported the Empire; there were those who feared unrest. They were more dangerous than the stormtroopers, for they did not declare themselves beforehand. And the whims of the mob were fickle.
“Know when you’re beaten,” another voice said. “Your temple is ruined, monk. Time to let go of the past.”
The crystal weighed heavy in his robes. Chirrut walked on.
It was in the shadow of the burned-out Order chapterhouse on Timchee Square that a pilgrim stopped him. “Guardian,” she said. “Please.”
Her faith was strong. Strong enough to carry her from Ryloth; Chirrut heard the movements of lekku against her rainbow-striped pilgrim’s robe.
“Kei’nata tun,” he said, opening his hands to her. She immediately placed hers outside his, granting him the greater respect.
“What can I do for you, Sister?”
“A blessing, Guardian, if it’s not an imposition.”
“It’s never an imposition. Come and sit with me.” He led her to the steps of the chapterhouse.
“I’ve always wanted to see the Temple,” she said, looking up at the humbler ruins above them. “Even after it was destroyed, I knew that one day I would go. Even though--your pardon, but even though I thought all the Guardians were dead.”
Chirrut smiled reassuringly. “And yet you still came. Your faith does the Order proud.”
He had heard hundreds of stories in the performance of his duty. Possibly thousands; everyone had a story, and if they were willing to share it, he was more than willing to listen. This pilgrim’s name was Sylev’amekota, and she had saved her decicredits working as a waitress and intern to buy passage to Jedha. Her parents were dead, casualties of the Clone Wars; she lived with her grandparents, who disapproved of her religious choices. Chirrut had heard many stories like it. But he had never heard Syleva’s version. The canteen by his side grew warm, and he smiled.
“I can’t give you a tour of the Temple,” he said, unscrewing the lid and pulling out the crystal within, “but I can give you this.”
Syleva’s gasp was sharp in his ears. “Acar’ya, I can’t take this!”
“Of course you can,” Chirrut replied. “I’m giving it to you.”
“But this is--this is a kyber crystal, they’re sacred to the Temple!”
Chirrut grew solemn. “The Temple is dying, Sister Syleva. The Force gave this crystal into my keeping so the Empire wouldn’t get it. Now, it wants me to give it to you.”
“I will guard it with my life,” she said, her voice choked with emotion.
“Hide it in your robes, so the Imperial patrols don’t confiscate it.” He took her hand. “You must listen to the will of the Force, Numa; I don’t know why it wanted you to have this crystal, but you must remember that you are its keeper, not its owner. If it wants to pass to someone else, pass it to them. If it wishes to be shattered, do not mourn; it will have served its purpose.”
She sniffed, wiping her tears. “Attachment is the promise of sorrow.”
“Yes.” He smiled. “Have you visited the Dome of Deliverance, yet? It’s Salaimite, but I think you will find it a fair replacement for the Temple. Order pilgrims are welcome to pray in the masjid.”
Instead of answering, Syleva fumbled for her coin purse, and pressed a handful of credit chips into Chirrut’s hands. He accepted in the spirit they were given, and said,
“May the Force be with you, Sister, and always guide your steps.”
“And with you, Guardian. Thank you.” She bowed and backed away, the hem of her robe brushing over the cobbles. Chirrut sat back, soaking in the sun and the sense of well-being that always arose after giving up a crystal. He tucked the credits into his robes.
“Still bilking fools of their money?” Baze asked, stepping out of the alcove. He hefted his gun with a clink of metal on metal.
“It’s a time-honored tradition,” Chirrut answered with a grin.
“Hm.” A moment passed, then Baze asked, “How is it you can love everyone you meet?”
Chirrut chuckled. “I can’t. But I can love you, and if I remind myself that every person I meet has someone who loves them to the same degree, then I can have compassion for them.”
Chirrut turned to him, smirking. “Well?”
“Oh, fuck you. You know what I mean.”
Chirrut did. He felt the small kernel of pleasure that his words had set in Baze’s chest, and though his words were rough, Baze’s feelings were tender.
“What about you?” Chirrut asked in return, rising from his position on the stairs. “Don’t you have some hapless bounty to collect?”
Baze cleared his throat, and his feelings were carefully set aside. “Actually, I’m waiting for one of my contacts to pull through on information about the Partisans. So, no.”
They wended their way through the crowd side-by-side, the scent of the spice-seller’s wares mingling with the sizzle of oil where a street-vendor was frying !aago for adventurous tourists. Bells and sirens clanged against Hezzi prayer chants. The city was alive as it always was--but a thread of tension hovered beneath the surface, like a current running through water: invisible, awaiting the careless touch that would bring it to ground.
“Guardian,” someone said as Chirrut passed.
“Force be with you, Guardian,” said another defiantly
“Is this how you intend to fight the Empire?” Baze asked in a low voice.
“Hope is a potent ally,” Chirrut murmured back. “Every rebellion needs hope.”
“So you make yourself into even more of a target. Naturally.”
Chirrut smiled. “Are you afraid for me, Baze?”
Whatever Baze might have said in reply was lost to the hush that fell around them. Here, the tension beneath the surface rippled and sparked; the crowd vanished. Chirrut froze when he heard the voice of a stormtrooper, filtered through the anonymous rasp of his helmet annunciator.
“You’re not going anywhere without a valid visa,” he said, petty meanness oozing from the cracks in his armor. He spoke with a Coruscanti accent, though lower-level than the posh tones heard on holo broadcasts. Jedha was considered a backwater world; Chirrut suspected this man resented his posting.
“Please, sir, if you would let us go to our hostel we can show you the paperwork--”
“Why the fek should I believe you?” the trooper snapped, cutting him off. “You’re nothing but a damn pilgrim. Superstitious idiots, the lot of you. If I had my way I’d blast you all off this rock.” There was the sound of a scuffle; a woman cried out, and plastoid struck flesh.
“That’s it, you’re all under arrest!”
Chirrut felt a coiling in his soul, a burgeoning readiness that called for justice.
“Chirrut, no,” Baze said softly behind him, but he paid no mind. There was only the Force, and its will upon him.
“What are the charges laid against them?” Chirrut demanded, striding into the square. There was no room in him for fear or uncertainty; there was only the Force.
“Who the bantha-shitting hell are you?”
“I am Chirrut Îmwe,” he replied, holding the alminarwood staff before him. “Guardian of the Order of the Whills. Holder of the Fourth Duan, keeper of the Whills.” He tapped the staff against the stones, gauging the ground on which he found himself. Seven figures, four blurry about the edges and three hard and reverberant with armor. “Who are you?”
There was a pregnant pause. “I don’t answer to you, Guardian. In fact, you’re under arrest too.” Two blasters cocked.
“I submit only to the will of the Force,” Chirrut replied.
“Sedition and treason ought to knock the starch out of you,” the lead stormtrooper said, a vicious satisfaction curdling his voice. He stepped toward Chirrut, and the sound of binders clanking against his armor echoed across the square. “You’ll be dead before morning tea.”
Chirrut darted forward, whipping his staff into the stormtrooper’s knees; he fell to the ground in a clatter of armor. “I don’t think I will be the dead one,” Chirrut said, and crushed the man’s windpipe in a single blow.
“Don’t stand there, blast him!”
Superheated tibanna tore past Chirrut’s head, leaving the scorched scent of ozone; he left conscious thought and trusted to his body’s reflexes. Two targets, ten paces away; he spun wildly in the Drunken kuan, defying their ability to predict his movements. Blastershots ricocheted off stone. “You can do better than that!” he taunted, weaving between them and under their guard.
“Get out of here!” he heard Baze shout at the travelers. He heard it as from a distance. Chirrut’s awareness narrowed to the remaining two stormtroopers and the blasters they held. He lunged between them, his vulnerability giving speed to his limbs. Two taps to their hands; one dropped his blaster to the street, the other, better trained, kept his grip. He was fumbling with his helmet; Chirrut did not give him long to regret that mistake. He laid a vicious blow to the weak spot in the armor beneath his armpit. The man dropped with a cry, the crunch of his dislocating arm loud in the fray. To the final man, Chirrut laid out with all his strength and struck him across the head. He dropped like a stone.
A new silence fell over the square as adrenaline fizzed out and left emptiness in its wake. Chirrut fought for the stillness of meditation. His blood was high; it would not come.
“We should go,” Baze said, breaking the tableau. His steps were heavy, cautious. “Chirrut, we need to go.”
“They’re safe. Gone back to get their visas, if they know what’s good for them.”
There was a darkness fogging Chirrut’s heart. Three bodies lay on the ground, and one would never rise again. The stormtroopers would not forget this, his realized. He had made a choice, and it was one he would never be able to unmake.
“Chirrut,” Baze said again, his voice knowing and soft.
Chirrut let out an uneven breath and followed Baze into the warren of Jedha City.
Baze dropped the flimsi on the table between them and sat down with a sigh.
“Is that the news?”
Chirrut looked up from his mending. “What?”
“’Five thousand credit reward for the blind monk,’” Baze read aloud. “’Contact Commander Graish at the Jedha City Garrison for details.’” He sucked on his teeth. “Found this posted to the Mercenary Guild’s general bounty boards today.”
Chirrut felt around the rip he was repairing and lowered the needle through. “Is that good or bad?”
“It means,” Baze said pointedly, “That every single half-witted crank who fancies himself a bounty hunter will have your description, and a motivation to hunt you down.”
“I don’t think this is what my mother meant when she hoped for my success,” Chirrut chuckled.
“It’s not funny!”
Chirrut sighed and set down the tunic. “Of course not. What do want me to do about it?”
Silence pressed between them. In the month since the incident with the stormtroopers, Chirrut had not moderated his vigilantism. Where before he might have passed by when stormtroopers harassed innocent citizens, now he found himself intervening, to Baze’s continual dismay. Apparently, he had made a name for himself.
“All things die, Baze,” he said gently. “Even one day, so must I.”
“Of all days to spout off about attachment, Chirrut, today is not the day. Do not karking test me, or--”
“You’ll kill me?”
“I might,” Baze said sharply. “There are five thousand good reasons to, right here. And I’m not the only one thinking it.”
“What are you afraid of?”
“You’re not my sifei, Chirrut, you’re my lover. Knock it off.”
Chirrut took a different tack. “They’re not going to remove the bounty if I stop.”
“So why stop?”
Baze glared at him.
“Glaring at me won’t change simple truth. I can stay hidden in this apartment, or I can do my small part against the Empire.”
“The first doesn’t sound too bad to me.”
“I would never be able to live with myself.”
Baze sighed, and his chair creaked as he leaned forward to rest his face in his hands. “I don’t want to lose you.”
“Borrowing trouble is a form of attachment,” Chirrut said, getting up to stand beside him. “It poisons your enjoyment of the present.”
“So, what? I just grin like a fool while you walk into a firing squad?”
Chirrut leaned his hip against Baze’s side and rested a hand against his neck. “Obviously it’s impractical to live entirely in the present.”
“Be quiet. It’s impractical, but that’s where balance comes into play. You want to plan for the future, but not to live wholly in it. If you see only what you hope, or only what you fear, then you’ll miss the opportunity now to change it. Do you see?”
Baze leaned back into Chirrut’s body. “So you’re saying I should take this opportunity to hit you over the head and lock you in the closet for your own good.”
“If you let me out to hit the occasional stormtrooper, I won’t object.” He rubbed Baze’s neck. “I would miss you terribly if you died, Baze. Letting go of attachment doesn’t mean repressing your emotions, it just means finding what causes you pain and adjusting your attitudes to minimize it.”
“’Minimizing pain,’ what a load of bantha shit. You sound like an economist.” Baze rubbed his face, then dropped his hands into his lap. “Well, if you’re going to be an idiot, then I’m moving in.”
“Why, Baze, are you saying you enjoy the pleasure of my company?”
“I enjoy not having to clean your blood off the floor. This is purely for utilitarian purposes, don’t get sappy.”
Seasons came and went. Chirrut’s legend grew, and with it grew Baze’s irritation. One morning in late autumn he appeared at Chirrut’s ramshackle, tumble-down apartment with three cases of blasters in hand and a change of clothes.
“You’re picking up after yourself,” Chirrut said, kicking the door wide as he shoveled noodles into his mouth.
“What have you been cooking? It smells like death in here.”
“You don’t have to eat it.”
“No, but I have to smell it!”
If the additional ruckus they made at night disturbed the neighbors, no one made mention of it; Chirrut’s presence in the building was seen as auspicious, and besides, everyone’s walls were too thin to be bothered by one another’s secrets.
Seasons came, seasons went.
“Do you ever wonder what life might have been like?” Chirrut asked one day, as he pondered his collection of crystals. They had been reduced to a third of their former numbers.
“How do you mean?” Baze flicked his wrist, and a dart bullseyed the board hung over the back of the door.
“If the Empire hadn’t taken over. Or if it had overlooked Jedha.”
“I’m not sure any other outcome would have been possible.”
“Yes, but do you ever wonder?”
Baze paused, then flicked another dart. “Yes. I wonder.”
“I wonder if we would ever have met.”
“Probably not.” A dart thunked into cork. “Still doesn’t mean I believe in the Force.”
“I said nothing about that!”
Their days passed in conjugal bliss, then with conjugal woes. And all through it, the Empire rose ascendant. Jedha fell further into Imperial clutches.
But they did not go willingly.
“Guardian,” the man said, bowing low to touch Chirrut’s feet in the manner of the Hezzi. Chirrut, who had been about to walk into him, almost stepped back in surprise.
“There is no need for that, Brother,” he said, laying his fingers on the man’s head before helping up. He felt rich embroidery under his fingers. “What do you need?”
“Guardian, I am sheltering an Imperial deserter. He says is a convert to the Order’s philosophy, but I have no wisdom of that path. Will you come to him?”
“Come to the deserter?”
“Yes, Guardian. I have spoken with him, he is very devout.”
Chirrut thought carefully. No longer was he entirely anonymous; to those who prayed for the Empire’s end, and to those who sought to arrest him, he was a known figure. This could easily be a trap. “On one condition,” he said.
“What is that?”
“That my friend comes with me.” He was fortunate; Baze had just returned to Jedha. A day earlier, and he would still have been collecting the reward for a corporate embezzler on Jiroch.
“That is acceptable.”
“What is your name, Brother?”
“Barthsubramian Khan,” the man replied. “Most call me Khan; you may do so, as well.”
“I am Chirrut Îmwe. Tell me your address, and I will be there this evening.”
“Thank you Guardian, thank you.” They talked a time longer, and then parted ways. Chirrut made his way home in troubled spirits.
The Order of the Whills was a religion with an uncertain future. Few Guardians were left to further it; to his imperfect knowledge, Chirrut was the last in the Holy City, where the purge had been fiercest. His peers had died of their wounds, or been arrested as political prisoners, or lost their faith, or returned to their families. More Guardians operated in other cities, but with the heart of the Order destroyed, it would be all too easy for its disparate branches to splinter ever further into smaller and smaller sects until they vanished altogether. In two or three generations, the Order of the Whills could be as extinct as the Jedi.
That a stormtrooper had not only converted, but sought his blessing? Either it was a miracle, or it was a trap. When he went to the address Khan had given him, he went with Baze at his shoulder.
The Khan family were devout Hezzi. Statues of the Gods stood at every crossing and focal point of the house, and there were many, for the Khan household was wealthy, tucked behind high walls on a shaded street in the Silk District. Chirrut brushed his fingers down the broken-tusked visage of Legeshe, the remover of obstacles. Hibiscus were draped about the statue’s neck, and dhoop sent lazy coils of smoke over Chirrut’s hand. It was a peaceful household. It seemed as though the presence of the divine truly was here, rather than in name alone.
“Guardian,” Khan said, emerging from a back room. “I am glad you came. Come, I will introduce you.”
Behind Chirrut, Baze shifted his weight in a no doubt threatening manner. Chirrut waved him back. The look Baze gave him felt accusatory; Chirrut rolled his eyes. He followed Khan into the depths of the house.
“How did you come to meet this man?” he asked.
“It was the will of the Gods,” was Khan’s reply. “I was walking down Temple Street when I saw him kneeling at the East Gate. I don’t know if you know, but the doors were shattered in the attack, and the gate was bricked up afterwards. Anyway, he was kneeling on the steps, his head bowed. I thought, ‘here is a lost soul, Khan. A very sad thing.’ Well, I would have left him, but I--I can’t explain it, I felt driven to speak with him. It must have been the will of the Gods.”
“It could be so,” Chirrut said. “And he’s a deserter?”
“Most certainly. I have spoken with him at length. His courage is admirable, Guardian. I do not know that I could have done the same, were I him.”
He led them through a sweetly-scented garden, pleasantly cool in the lowering summer evening. Chirrut smelled water and rich soil, and the peculiar greenness of growing things. “Through here,” Khan said, indicating a guest house tucked beneath a bower of desert roses. “He is waiting.”
Baze hefted his blaster. “I go first.”
“Apologies,” Chirrut said in answer to Khan’s dismay. “There have been a number of attacks on my life. We are no longer as trusting as we once were, let alone to former Imperials.”
Khan bowed. “Of course, Guardian. I will wait in the main house. Ring the bell, and a servant will be available to assist.”
They stood in silence for a time. Chirrut gazed over the garden, more luxurious than anything he had heard, smelled, or felt in almost six years.
“The sooner we get this done with,” Baze said.
“Yes.” Chirrut steeled his nerves and turned to follow Baze inside. The sweet scent of roses enveloped them.
The deserter was kneeling in the main room. Kyber incense burned on a low altar before him; Chirrut’s heart cramped in bittersweet memory. At the sound of Baze’s tread, the he looked up.
“Are you the Guardian?” he asked, and Chirrut’s heart stopped.
That voice. How many times had he heard that voice in his nightmares? How many times had he thrown himself awake to escape it? Chirrut suspected a hundred years could pass and he would never forget the sound of a clone’s voice. Baze’s blaster clanked and whined.
“You’re a clone,” Baze spat. “What are you doing here? Do you mean to betray him to the Empire?”
“No! No, I just--”
“You just thought you’d return to the Temple you destroyed!”
“It’s not like that!”
Chirrut clicked his tongue, and both men went silent. He clicked his tongue, and took in the scene before him. The clone had half-risen from his knees, his hands held up and weaponless. Baze loomed over him, his blaster aimed point blank at the deserter’s--the clone’s--face.
“I won’t turn you in, I swear,” the clone said, and the crystal tucked in Chirrut’s robes blazed like the sun.
“I believe you,” Chirrut said, against his better judgment. He stepped forward, and Baze caught his arm.
His touch spoke volumes. Concern, protectiveness, but a certain, digging note of “are you out of your mind?” as well. Chirrut gently broke his hold, squeezing his fingers. “Trust me.”
“I trust my blaster in his face,” Baze replied.
“Then I’m sorry, but I will have to ask you to wait outside.”
Chirrut pounded the butt of his staff against the floorboards. “This is not a matter for blasters.”
He felt the disbelief of both men, but the whill burning against his skin was incontestable. “Baze.” He softened his tone. “Please.”
“The door stays open.”
“And he doesn’t come out unless you come out first.”
There was a tense pause, and Chirrut heard the whine as Baze powered down his blaster. “You die if he’s harmed,” he said to the clone, and stomped out. An awkward silence fell.
“Is he your chosen brother?” the clone asked.
The non sequitur threw Chirrut. “My what?”
“I don’t know what you call it in Basic. Your riduur.”
Chirrut had enough Mandalorian to recognize the word for spouse. “Not in any official capacity.” He knelt doshan, mirroring the clone’s position. “What’s your name?”
The mythical bird from Kotuku mythology, symbolizing rarity and beauty. An unusual choice of name for a soldier.
“Did you give yourself this name?” Chirrut asked ironically.
Chirrut waved it away. “So, Heron. Why did you wish to speak with me?”
The clone huffed a nervous breath. “Well, I. Back during the war, I came here. To Jedha.” He reached up to rub the back of neck; Chirrut tensed, but Heron didn’t seem to notice. “My general--” His voice cut off for a moment, and he swallowed. “My general permitted us access to the Holonet, not just the restricted GAR intranet. I read about the Order of the Whills and it spoke to me. She gave me leave to visit the Kyber Temple. I--I converted.”
The earth seemed the fell out from under Chirrut. “Was your general Master Aopani Manu?”
“Yes,” Heron said, surprised.
Chirrut sat back, stunned. It solved the mystery of Heron’s name, anyway. Master Manu was--had been--Mehemea, the Human strain native to Kotuku. “It seems we have met before,” he said. “I once spoke with a clone convert who came to Jedha during the war. His Jedi general was also Master Manu. Unless you know of another clone who matches the description?”
“No,” Heron said, sounding as stunned as Chirrut felt. “I was the only one. I--I’m sorry if this sounds insensitive, but I don’t remember meeting a blind Guardian.”
“I was not blind, then,” Chirrut said, dark humor coloring his tone. “Darth Vader’s 501st led the attack on the Temple eight months after the rise of the Empire. I killed a number of men from Mantis Company, and Captain Tracyn took grave exception.” Those names were burned into his memory. He could no more forget them than he could their voices. “Perhaps now you will understand my… riduur’s… reaction.”
Heron’s horror rendered him speechless.
“It was many years ago,” Chirrut said, more magnanimously than he felt. “Their actions were not yours.”
To his utter surprise, Heron bent forward into the full ketou bow, pressing his forehead against the floor. “My brothers have wronged you,” he said. “Their crimes are mine.”
It was the furthest thing from what Chirrut could have expected of this meeting. He sat stunned, the sound-image of a clone soldier paying him highest reverence frozen in his mind. “Please sit up,” he finally choked out. Heron sat back up.
“If there’s anything I can do for you,” he said, anguish bleeding from his voice.
Oh, what Chirrut would have given, years ago, to hear that agony in a clone’s voice! Even now, despite the dulling passage of time, he still carried within him a core of anger that would not be moved. Perhaps this was the Force’s answer to his frailties. He took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. Hurting this man would not make his own wounds hurt less.
“You can start by telling me what it was that brought you to Jedha again. Khan tells me he found you by the Temple?”
Heron bowed again, this time the shallower bow of student to teacher. “Yes. I came here because the Empire was not what we were told…”
He gave his story haltingly. Chirrut listened as he spoke of the confusion of reorganization, when soldiers trained for loyalty to the Republic were told to defend the Empire; of the cruel acts Heron’s new commanding officers ordered of him and his brothers, estranging him from the ideals he had been raised to value; and eventually, the final stroke, when he learned how little this new government valued him.
“It was easier just to keep your head down and follow orders,” Heron said, his voice shaking with some great emotion Chirrut couldn’t parse. “Good soldiers follow orders, but I--I couldn’t!”
Slowly, it dawned on Chirrut what had brought Heron here. He sought absolution. Force preserve him. Had he be any other stormtrooper, born as other men were from their mothers instead of cold, impersonal gestation tanks, Chirrut might have been able to give it without hesitation. Heron couldn’t know what it was he asked of him.
“I can’t take away your crimes,” Chirrut said, more harshly than he might have to anyone else. “They are yours to reconcile. But if you trust the Force, it will lead you well.”
“It didn’t lead you well, when it led you here.”
Chirrut frowned. “Why would you say that?”
“It’s pretty plain you don’t want to be near me. You’re not the only one.” Heron said this matter-of-factly, but Chirrut felt the hurt he pushed down.
Why had the Force brought him here? The Order taught that the Force was beholden to its own nature before morality, and that it acted and reacted in response to every law and choice in the universe. That the stormtroopers had blinded him was no more wrong than a cat toying with its prey. All moral judgments were the trappings of mortal ego struggling to understand its world. Chirrut realized he had before him the opportunity to change Heron, the Force, and himself to whatever ends he so chose.
The brain did not notice or care if its individual cells destroyed each other. Quite often, it was an inevitable part of having cells. It was to the overall benefit of the organism, however, if its neurons formed connections.
Chirrut reached out. “Your hands, please,” he said.
Heron’s hands were larger than his, callused from holding a blaster instead of a quarterstaff. He was nervous as well, reluctant to open his fingers to Chirrut’s. It was possible to dismiss the existence of another person from a distance, but touch always made them real. Chirrut let out a shaky breath.
“They say the strongest stars have hearts of kyber,” he said, repeating something his sifei had said to him once in passing. It had no special insight, only astrological observation; but it sounded meaningful, and perhaps, in a sense, it was. “Like them, we only become brilliant through trials. They are terrible to endure, and they change us irrevocably, but it’s only in enduring that we realize we can. In enduring, we learn not to fear.”
“Guardian, I--I don’t know what to do,” Heron said, his voice broken. “I don’t have anywhere to go. I’ve never been this long without my brothers, before.”
Words came to Chirrut then, as they always seemed to in time of need. He said, “My sifei used to tell me a proverb from the Ummah Salaim. It went, ‘Be patient, for what was written for you was written by the greatest of writers.’ That is all the advice I have for you, Heron. Your path is unknown to me, but it is known to the Force.” He let Heron’s hands go.
“That’s not quite a mission briefing,” Heron said wryly, glossing over his fear.
“You’re not in the army, anymore. You’ll find there are no mission briefings for life.”
Heron nodded. “Yeah, I’d noticed that.” He sniffed sharply.
“It wasn’t so long ago that I was in the position you are now,” Chirrut said slowly. “My life as I had known it was torn away, and I had no idea how to adapt.” Heron went still, listening intently.
“How did you get past it?” he asked.
Chirrut shrugged. “Time. And the kindness of strangers. I depended on them greatly, the first months, but eventually I was able to stand on my own two feet. You will do the same, Heron. Khan will help you.”
Heron sniffed again. “He’s a good man.”
“That he is.”
In that moment, there fell between them a heavy peace, like the comforting weight of blankets on a cold night.
“Thank you,” Heron said quietly.
“Meditate with me,” Chirrut said, and he heard cloth shift as Heron nodded. He added another stick of incense to the pot, and they knelt side-by-side on the mat, sitting doshan as Chirrut had once sat with Sifei Yian Kuo, and let the Force flow through them.
“The Force is with me,” Chirrut said.
“And I am one with the Force,” Heron replied.
They meditated until the stick had burned down, perhaps an hour in total; and when it did, they rose together. Heron took Chirrut’s hand in his own.
“Guardian, I don’t have the words for my gratitude. Your honor guides my sword.”
“Vor entye,” Chirrut replied, one of the few Mandalorian phrases he knew. “May the Force be with you, Brother Heron.”
“Ke’kemi ti te Manda,” Heron answered.
When Chirrut left the guest house, the cool air of night was balm to his heightened senses. He breathed deeply the scent of roses. It felt a hundred years since he had stepped inside.
“Chirrut?” Baze said, startling him from his thoughts.
“Force,” he swore, forcing his pounding heart to calm.
“Are you alright?”
Chirrut’s instinct was to pass off his concern with a joke, but Baze was tense the way he had been when he’d found the bounty posting. “I’m fine,” Chirrut answered instead. “It was very intense, however.” He began to walk down the garden path, Baze following in his wake. “We both had baggage that had to be brought into the light before they could be laid to rest. Attachments to negative emotions and old ways of life.”
“Clones are unnatural,” Baze muttered.
Chirrut struck him upside the head.
“You should know better.”
“They aren’t! They came from a jar, they’re not human!”
“Would you say that to the children of a mother who used an artificial womb because her own was too scarred? The moment we ascribe inhumanity to others, the easier it becomes to deny our own cruelties.”
“You say that even after what his kind did to you?”
“’His kind.’” Chirrut shook his head. “His kind is our kind. He was no more deserving of my anger than the water that blinded me. His brothers’ choices were not his. It was good the Force reminded me of this.”
Baze sighed. “I will never understand your compassion.”
“That’s not true,” Chirrut said, and threaded their fingers together. “You’re a Guardian, after all.”
She was a deep-space freighter pilot with more lightyears on her soul than on the hyperdrive of her ship. The Force called out to Chirrut, and he stopped dead in the street, Baze a questioning presence at his side.
“I don’t pay for superstitions,” she said, her caf brewed black enough that Chirrut could smell it over the bustle of the city. “So you can fuck right off.”
To Chirrut’s surprise, it was Baze who spoke. “Do you still only sit on the north side of the table when you gamble, Harra?”
“Baze? Baze Malbus?”
“One and the same,” Baze replied, pulling back a chair. “You don’t mind if we--?”
“No, no, go ahead. I’m grounded for the next rotation, so I’ve got nothing but time.”
Baze took a seat and nudged Chirrut’s cane toward another with the toe of his boot. “You still running the PTR?”
“Nah, my contract folded when the Empire took a monopoly over Core mining, so I’ve been hitting up odd jobs where I can find ‘em. I heard freight contracts were thick on the ground here in Jedha. I’d rather not ship for the Empire, but I’ve got mouths to feed. What about you? Still bringing in heads for the Hutts?”
“The Hutts, the Syndicate. Good work moonside, too. Always a regional government that wants someone found.”
“Gotta make the ends meet, no matter how. But anyway, who’s your friend?”
“This is Chirrut Îmwe,” Baze said. “Chirrut, this is my friend, Bi’nyong Harra.”
“It is good to meet you, Harra,” he said, nodding in her direction. “Have you known Baze long?”
“Only about three years. So you’re a Guardian?”
“Don’t reckon you guard much, these days,” Harra said with an inelegant snort of laughter.
“I have learned to find different contracts, as you have,” Chirrut replied. He decided he liked Harra. Her abrasiveness reminded him of Baze. “Baze is one of them.”
He heard her confusion as she glanced between them. “You mean you’re working for…”
“He means we’re married,” Baze said. “More or less.”
“More or less,” Baze repeated.
“Mostly less,” Chirrut chimed in. “But we exchanged vows. He’s mine, now.”
Harra laughed a deep belly laugh, startling marbits from their inspection of the street. “Baze Malbus, settled down! And with a preacher-man, too. Never thought I’d live to see the day. Have you found the Force yet, Baze?”
“He is as blind as I am,” Chirrut said, shaking his head.
“A fit pair, then. My mother always used to say that the best marriage was a blind and deaf one, but I suppose blind and blind works too.”
They shared small talk for another few minutes, until the momentum waned and Chirrut sensed the time was right. He reached into his robes for the small bundle of whills, the last of the seed cave’s bequest. He set them on the table before her with a small clink. “I have a favor to ask of you, Bi’nyong-tsai.”
“What’s that?” she asked, clearly surprised.
“I would like to contract you to take these to Tatooine for me.”
“Tatooine! For that little package? Why not send it with the Imperial Mail?”
“These are kyber crystals,” Chirrut said, disregarding Baze’s faint exasperation. The Force had brought him to this woman, and so she was trustworthy.
Her silence was weighty. “Those are worth a fortune,” she said finally said. “I hear the Empire is scraping them up wherever they can find them.”
“Yes. That is why they can’t be trusted through standard channels. These crystals represent the last wisdom of the Chamber of the Whills. I have saved the rest, but these remain. And you, I think, are the one to take them to their next owner.”
“On Tatooine.” Her fingers drummed against the tabletop.
“That’s a long way from Jedha. Over half the galaxy, and not on any hyperlane.”
“The Sanctuary Pipeline does meet the Corellian Run,” Chirrut said. “And I believe nav computers can calculate trajectories independent of shipping lanes.”
“It’s a massive detour, is what I’m saying. That’s a lot of fuel.”
“We have money,” Baze said, his voice impassive.
“What’s your stake in it, Malbus? Why do you care if a few rocks get to a bigger rock in the middle of nowhere?”
“I care because he cares.”
Her fingers tapped against the table. “Eight hundred. Half up front.”
“Four hundred,” Chirrut replied. “The cargo is lightweight.”
“Seven-fifty. Inflation’s been murder on my profit margin.”
“Four seventy-five. I’m a monk. You think I can afford your exorbitant fees?”
“You have Baze paying your way. Seven fifty.”
“Five hundred. We can find another freighter.”
“Seven hundred. But you won’t find one that Baze can give you a reference for. This is precious cargo, after all.”
“Six hundred. That is the most I can afford.”
Chirrut felt her eyes on his face, gauging for duplicity. “Done,” she finally said. “Six hundred to carry your whills to Tatooine.” Chirrut held out his hand, and she shook it. “What else do I need to know about the cargo?”
“Take it to a city named Bestine,” Chirrut said. “Give them to a man named Ben Kenobi. He will not be expecting you. Tell him that ‘All is as the Force wills it,’ and he will take the crystals.”
“Alright,” she said, nonplussed. “Bestine, Ben Kenobi, ‘All is as the Force wills it.’ Sounds like a lot of mumbo-jumbo to me. What do you think, Baze?”
“I think you have six hundred reasons why it doesn’t matter what a crazy monk on Jedha pays you to do,” he said.
She barked a laugh. “Fair enough. Maybe I’ll see you around; still need a new contract after this freelancing gig is done.”
“I know some people,” Baze said. “Might not pay as well as the Empire.”
“Brother, I will take whatever names you have to give me.”
The transaction thus concluded, they tapped their credit readers together to transfer funds, and imprinted their thumbs against a timestamped audio recording of their contract. Harra took the kyber crystals and pushed back her chair. “Pleasure doing business with you, gentlemen,” she said. “Now if you don’t mind, I’ll be on my way.” She wended her way through the crowd until Chirrut lost track of her scent.
“No more crystals,” Baze said after a while. “What do we do now?”
Chirrut basked in the warm light of the mid-morning sun. “I imagine we’ll do the same thing we did before.”
“Sowing hope,” he said. He smiled. “And raising hell.”