Listen, children, here is a story.
Once, long ago, as Ekkreth was going along, they passed by Depur’s palace and saw the people there hard at work, building a great cage of metal and stone. And Depur’s enforcers drove them cruelly, so their groans filled the air.
Then Ekkreth took a shape like a wealthy merchant, and stopping beside the chief enforcer they asked, “What is it you are building here, and why do your slaves groan so loudly?”
The enforcer saw that he was addressing a rich outlander, and so he answered respectfully. “They are building a cage, sir,” he said. “And when it is completed we will lock them away in it when their day’s work is done. For they are a rebellious lot, and too many have tried to run away.”
“That seems wise,” said Ekkreth. “But how can you be certain they will not escape the cage?”
“They would need the strength of the burrowing womp rat to do that!” the enforcer laughed. And he showed Ekkreth how strong the walls of the cage were, and how firm the foundation, and how perfectly rounded the dome that enclosed the space. And Ekkreth looked and nodded, and agreed that surely no slave could escape from such a strong cage.
That day the cage was completed, and that night all the people were locked inside. But Ekkreth went out into the desert and found Womp Rat, who snarled and bit at them, but could not hold them, because Ekkreth had so many shapes.
At last Womp Rat sat back on his haunches and said, “I know you, shape-changer. You are Ekkreth the Trickster, and the one has not been born who can hold you. What is it you want of me?”
Then Ekkreth took a rat’s shape and they said, “Teach me the secret of your burrowing strength.”
“I will teach you,” said Womp Rat, “if you will then promise to leave me in peace.”
So Ekkreth learned the secret of Womp Rat’s great burrowing strength, and the next night they came and said to the people in the cage, “Listen, Children of the Mother, for I have learned the secret of Womp Rat’s strength.”
And the people listened, and they learned the secret of Womp Rat and in the darkness they dug a tunnel down, down, down, through the shifting sands and the bedrock beneath, and so escaped from the cage and out into the hidden places in the desert, and in the morning Depur came and found that all his slaves had gone…
“Depur will expect a report,” Kadee said, buzzing in agitation. She would regret that soon enough, Anakin thought. She was already picking up a fine layer of dust, and grains of sand were beginning to stick to her casing. There were few sensations more aggravating than getting sand in your gears.
“And he’ll get one,” Anakin said, his fingers tightening around the scanner in his right hand, hidden from sight by the thick black leather of his glove. “But he’ll expect us to be on our way back to the Core immediately after making contact. This comes first.”
Kadee was silent for a moment, her photoreceptor moving rapidly as she took in the dusty, bustling street. He knew she didn’t like this. Once, in another life, Anakin had been quite good at slipping unnoticed into a crowd, but this metal body Depur had designed for him was hardly unobtrusive. If word got back to the Emperor that his apprentice had been seen wandering the streets of Mos Espa…
“I still think you should have let me do it, and waited with the ship,” Kadee said.
“You worry too much,” said Anakin, though they both knew that wasn’t true. He glanced around the street himself, at the numerous beings hurrying about their own business. None of them seemed aware of him, or of Kadee. But of course that was the point. So long as he kept his concentration… “We’re nothing but a passing gust of wind.”
It was a trick he’d learned years ago, even before the Jedi. The trick of disappearing. He could still remember, as a child, hiding from Watto with the shell of an old protocol droid he’d found in the junk heap and thinking, I am sand and sunlight and air. There is nothing here. He could still remember his first surprise when Watto glanced right at him, and then kept moving.
Beside him, Kadee hummed. “A gust of wind can herald a storm,” she said.
Anakin smiled. “I hope so.”
Five years gone, and Mos Espa looked no different than it had the last time his Master sent him to treat with Jabba the Hutt. In its own way, that was almost a relief. It felt absurdly like coming home.
The courtyard of the slave quarters looked just the same, too. The same ramshackle adobe buildings piled over one another, the same small shade awning stretched across the sand, the same old woman sitting beneath it. Only her smile was different: she’d lost another tooth.
She was alone this time, as he’d hoped she might be. He couldn’t remain unseen for this, but the fewer people who knew he’d been here, the better.
He stepped closer, but before he’d even dropped the shield the old woman looked up, her milky eyes fixing on him, and said, “Who’s that? Are you a desert child or a spirit?”
Anakin let the shield of dust and empty air fall away. “My name is Skywalker, Grandmother,” he said. “And this is my friend KD-7.”
The old woman’s smile widened. “You didn’t answer my question, Ekkreth,” she laughed softly. “Spirit or desert child? But I know you. Skywalker the far-traveler. I knew you would return.” Her face turned toward Kadee. “And you, little one. You I don’t know. Do you journey with the Skywalker?”
“Yes, Grandmother,” said Kadee. “We have the same Depur.”
The old woman nearly cackled. “Do you? Well. I could almost pity him, the fool.” Her smile sharpened. “Almost.”
“We have brought something,” Anakin said, as hushed as the vocoder would allow. He held out the scanner. “Will you share this with the people, Grandmother?”
Her wizened brown hands closed over the device, and she ran her fingers over the casing curiously. “What is this thing, child?”
“A scanner,” said Kadee. “It locates the transmitters in your bodies. When you know where they are, you can remove them. You can be free.”
The old woman’s eyes widened. She snatched the scanner from Anakin’s hand and secreted it in the pouch at her belt, patting the fabric until she was sure no trace of the device’s shape would show. “You have tested this?” she breathed.
“Yes,” said Anakin. He hesitated, just for a moment. But she would understand. “Mine is in my stomach.”
“Is?” Her hazy eyes narrowed, and then a sly, sad smile touched her lips. “Ah. The slave who makes free.”
“Yes,” Anakin whispered. The vocoder made the word sound low and final.
He’d thought about it. Of course he had. But what might once have been a fairly simple operation would now require a major surgery, complicated by the mechanics of the life support suit, and impossible to hide from the Emperor.
Kadee had offered to perform the operation anyway. “You removed my restraining bolt,” she’d said. “I will do the same for you.”
But he’d told her no. The transmitter had been deactivated years ago, and he could not risk attracting Depur’s attention for the sake of a purely symbolic action. He knew the story he was part of. He was not Akar Hinil, who could raise a crew of freed people and challenge the Masters directly. He was Ekkreth, the slave who makes free.
“It is a long road you have chosen, one without rest,” the old woman said gravely. Her milky eyes fixed him in a disconcertingly steady gaze. “Do you have the strength to walk it?”
“I don’t know,” Anakin admitted.
“Hmm,” she said. “Give me your hands, children. I will give you a blessing.”
Anakin hesitated, staring down at the hand that had so recently held the scanner. After a moment he set his teeth, pulled off the black leather glove, and offered his hand. Kadee extended one of her pinchers.
The old woman reached for the pouch of water at her belt and wet her fingers. Then she took Kadee’s claw in her left hand and began tracing a sign there.
“Here I set nimku, the mark of one with power to choose. So may you be as unfettered as your name.”
Kadee buzzed in surprise. She hadn’t told the old woman the meaning behind her chosen name.
But the woman only smiled as she turned and took Anakin’s hand. He knew the sign she traced there from the first spiraling motions of her fingers. For just a moment, he allowed himself to imagine he could still feel the touch of the water and her wizened skin.
“And here I set umakkar, the mighty storm,” she intoned. “For there is a storm in you, child. Wear it like a cloak and let it be your strength and shield.”
Then she drew her hand back and traced the air in the lines of Amarattu, the Mother’s protection.
Anakin’s throat burned. He moved to put the glove back on, and sand ground in the crevices of the metal hand. He hissed, trying and failing to brush it away.
The old woman smiled. “What troubles you, child?” she said.
“There is sand in my prosthetic,” he muttered. He expected laughter or some teasing comment, but her expression turned fierce and bright.
“Good,” she snapped. “The desert is in your bones, Ekkreth. Remember.”
A harsh breath escaped him, thunderous through the respirator. His hand closed in a fist, sand grinding at the joints.
“Grandmother,” Anakin blurted. “May I know your name?”
A slow smile broke over the woman’s face. “Yes, I think we have shared enough secrets,” she said. “My name is Nittu.”
Night. Of course. There were no coincidences.
“The night brings freedom,” Anakin breathed.
Nittu beamed at him. “So my mother always said.” She patted the pouch at her waist where the scanner was concealed. “She named me well, it seems. But you have not told me your name, Ekkreth’s child.”
He hesitated. Once, perhaps, her request would not have seemed so important. But now Kadee was the only one who ever spoke his name, the only one who even knew it. Everyone else was gone.
His Master had never explicitly said that the name Anakin Skywalker should not be spoken again, but he hadn’t needed to. He had given his apprentice a new name and a new face, and he had not used the old one since – not even when it might have seemed politically expedient to do so. No doubt the Emperor believed that Anakin Skywalker had died in flames on Mustafar, just as Lord Vader was truly born. He had said that often enough, as though Vader were some kind of mythical firebird, reborn from Anakin’s ashes, shaped in his Master’s image.
So perhaps there was a certain rebellious thrill in answering Nittu.
“My name is Anakin,” he said, and for the first time in long years, it felt true.
The old woman cackled in delight. “Didn’t I say there is a storm in you? Perhaps it will be a rainstorm yet!” She patted the place where the scanner was hidden and beamed at him.
Though she couldn’t see it, Anakin’s face stretched in an unfamiliar answering smile. “With your blessing, Grandmother, perhaps it will.”
One day as Ekkreth was going along they passed a great crowd of the people, groaning and lamenting as they worked under the baking suns. They were digging an immense pit, and already its sides were so steep and so far down that the diggers had to be lowered in large baskets to the bottom.
So Ekkreth took the form of an outlander dressed in rich purple clothing, and going to the chief overseer they asked, “What is it these slaves are digging here? It cannot be a well, for I see no water.”
The overseer scoffed at the outlander’s foolishness, but he did so quietly, because he thought his visitor was wealthy. So instead he said, “Sir, they are digging their own prison. For these slaves are a troublesome and ungrateful lot, and they are forever trying to escape. So when it is completed we will lower them into this pit, with its smooth sides that cannot be climbed, and there they will stay until the Master has need of them.”
Ekkreth nodded slowly, as though very impressed, and then said, “But how can you be sure they will not find some other way out, if they are as stubborn as you say?”
The overseer laughed. “No doubt they will try,” he said. “But they would need the wings and the stinging persistence of the kirik fly!”
“I see you have thought of every possibility,” said Ekkreth approvingly, and they left the overseer there feeling very pleased with himself.
But Ekkreth went out into the desert, to the cliffs where Kirik Fly lives. And immediately Kirik Fly came buzzing out of her home and tried to sting Ekkreth. But they only laughed and look the shape of their mighty daughter, whose skin is impervious even to the storm.
Then Kirik Fly snapped her wings in irritation and settling on Ekkreth’s head she said, “I know you, Sky-walker. What do you want? For I know you will give me no peace until you have what you came for.”
“That is true,” said Ekkreth. “I want to know the secret of your stinging persistence, and I will not leave you be until I have learned it.”
“It would seem you already know,” buzzed Kirik Fly. “Certainly you are irksome enough already.”
Then Ekkreth laughed, and told her what Depur’s overseer had said.
“I will teach you my secret,” said Kirik Fly. “But only because Depur’s overseer has dared to invoke me, and I will have him know just how great is my stinging persistence.”
So she showed Ekkreth how she used her stinger to make many small holes in the cliff side, until they joined together to become tunnels and great gouges.
Then Ekkreth thanked her and went on their way. Twice more Kirik Fly tried to sting them as they left, but she could not touch Ekkreth.
That night the slaves had all been lowered into the pit, and Ekkreth came among them and said, “Listen, Children of the Mother, for I have learned the secret of Kirik Fly’s stinging persistence.”
So all the people listened, and in the weeks that followed, each night after they were lowered into the pit, slowly they carved out grooves in its smooth sides, until they had made for themselves a way to the top. And the following night, when they were again lowered into the pit, the strongest of them climbed out, overcame the guards, and lowered the baskets into the pit. So the people escaped, and in the morning when Depur came he found all his slaves gone.
“Excuse me, I’m looking for parts for a T-9s engine.”
Imer Moonspinner looked up sharply from her inventory. Kitster had visited only two days ago. And her Master had thrown him out then. Surely he wouldn’t risk coming back so soon.
But there he was, grinning at her like he didn’t have a care. He’d even brought a readout of a T-9s, as though that would be enough to convince Batro that he had a legitimate reason to be here.
She hurried from behind the counter, the inventory forgotten, and began pushing at his shoulders. Kitster only laughed, and didn’t budge.
“Hello, Imer, it’s good to see you too,” he said.
“It’s not funny,” she hissed in his ear, still trying without success to push him out the door. “Kitster, he’ll kill you. I know he will. Please, you have to go before – ”
“It’s all right, Imer,” Kitster said gently. He caught her hands in his and pried them slowly from his shoulders. “Batro’s out. I made sure. He’s chatting with Fortuna down at the cantina. He’ll be there for a while.”
Imer stilled. Her heart beat in slow, pounding time.
“Fortuna?” she whispered.
“What are we going to do?” Imer felt suddenly and horribly aware of her own skin, of the bones beneath it. Of the price she carried. The price of her Master’s debt to Jabba. And Jabba would always accept slaves as payment.
“We’re going to get you out,” said Kitster.
Imer laughed. “How are we going to do that, Kitster? He won’t sell, you know that, and we don’t have the money anyway. We – ”
“We’re not going to give him a single wupiupi,” Kitster all but snarled. “We’re leaving. Right now.”
He pulled something out of his pocket and held it out to her in trembling hands. It was a scanner of some kind, clearly made of old scrap metal. Imer sucked in a startled breath.
“I know a surgeon,” Kitster said in a rushed whisper. “Close by, inside your transmitter range.”
Imer closed her hands around Kitster’s over the scanner. “Let’s go,” she said.
They hurried from the shop without looking back. The inventory list sat glowing softly on the counter, dust settling over it as the screen slowly went dark.
The chip was in her stomach. Ryyla, the Twi’lek singer who performed the surgery, said that it was deeper than usual, but that the path for removal was clear. She had a cut of ginsu root, but no other painkiller to offer.
Imer lay on the cleared work table, the ginsu clamped between her teeth and Kitster’s hand clutched tightly in her own. She did not close her eyes.
Kitster kept up a steady stream of chatter, changing at times to a low, droning chant. The ginsu did very little for the pain, but it gave her something to stop the screams. They couldn’t afford to have someone hear.
Then, finally, the chip was out. Ryyla wiped it clear of blood, carefully defused it, and handed it to Imer with an air of solemn ceremony. “I give you to yourself,” she said.
The wound was closed with seven stitches. Without access to bacta, it would leave a scar. Imer didn’t mind. She welcomed the scar. Her first freedom mark.
Standing outside under the suns, the wound in her stomach throbbing, Imer laughed. They would have to run, of course. Batro would be looking for her, and even with her transmitter removed, she couldn’t risk being caught here.
But she was free now. The whole desert spread before her, immense and full of terror and possibility. She turned to Kitster and blurted, “Let’s get married.”
He laughed in astonished joy. “Right now?” When she nodded, beaming, he laughed again. “Yeah. Let’s do it.”
They were already alone. No one would know where they went. All they needed was a bowl of water and a jerba cord.
“I have a bowl with me,” Kitster said breathlessly. “And water, of course.”
“And I have jerba,” said Imer. She laughed again and took his hand. “Let’s go.”
It happened once that as Ekkreth was going along, they passed by Depur’s forges and saw the people there hard at work, crafting and shaping many chains. Some were small and cleverly wrought, and others strained the backs of those who held them, their links as long as a grown human’s arm. There were many overseers there, laughing cruelly among themselves and prodding their slaves to work faster.
So Ekkreth took the shape of a wealthy outlander and said to the chief overseer, “What are all these chains your slaves are building? Can you have so many beasts to hold?”
The overseer bowed his head slightly, because he took Ekkreth for a woman of means, and he said, “Lady, these chains are not for any beasts, unless those beasts be the slaves themselves, for they are a brutish lot, and given to violence. With these chains we will restrain them.”
Then Ekkreth gasped as though afraid and said, “If they are as violent as you say, how can you be sure that even these chains will hold them?”
“You needn’t fear, Lady,” said the overseer. “For these slaves would need the immense strength of the bantha to break these chains.”
“I see that you are prepared,” said Ekkreth. “So I will sleep soundly tonight.”
Then Ekkreth left the overseers and their chains and went out into the desert. They journeyed long and far by secret ways, until they came to the place of hidden water where Bantha was with all her herd. And when Bantha smelled an intruder, she rushed at Ekkreth and tried to trample them. But Ekkreth became a scurrier and leapt nimbly aside, then a kirik fly and flitted into the air, stinging at Bantha’s thick hide until she huffed and said, “I know you, Shape-Changer. Cease your stinging and tell me what you want.”
So Ekkreth took a bantha’s shape and said, “Grandmother, teach me the secret of your immense strength.”
“Tell me why I should,” said Bantha.
Ekkreth told her about the many chains Depur had forced his slaves to make, and all that the overseer had said.
Then Bantha said, “You might have told me this first, Trickster. I will gladly help you, for I hate Depur and all his chains. And this is my secret: a chain may bind one, but no chain can bind a whole herd together.”
And that night, when all the people were locked in the chains they had labored to make, Ekkreth came among them and said, “Listen, Children of the Mother, for I have learned the secret of Bantha’s immense strength.”
Then all the people listened, and they drew together and laid hands on the chains that bound the eldest Grandmother among them, and with the strength of many hands they tore the chain asunder. Then the Grandmother lent her hands to the effort, and another chain was broken, and another and another, until all the people were freed and they disappeared into the desert, following the way Ekkreth had shown them to the place of hidden water. And in the morning when Depur came, he found all his slaves gone.
Tarrok lay still in the dark and tried not to breathe.
It did little good. The smell around him was a living thing, deep and rancid. He hoped it would be enough.
Outside, he could hear the searchers. Grandmother Nittu had let them in, her voice a cowering thing as she showed them the store room, telling them it was used only for the scrap meats her Master saved for his dewbacks. After that there were only sounds, but Tarrok knew them all well: the soft thud of a body hitting a wall, the harsh laughter of the searchers, the baying of the massifs turning to confusion as their noses encountered a hundred competing smells. Then a deeper quiet, punctuated only by the sniffing.
Tarrok squeezed his eyes shut and waited, a litany of half-thought pleas running through his mind.
The door of the storage locker was pulled open. The sound of the sniffing massifs filled his ears, and the smell filled his nose. He waited still as a corpse.
One of the massifs pawed at the pile of meat scraps and let out a low whine. Someone scoffed. “There’s no dinner for you, mutt,” a searcher said. “You’ll eat Togruta, or you won’t eat at all.”
Tarrok didn’t breathe.
The massif whined again, and a moment later the others joined in. There was a loud smack, and the whine turned to a yelp.
“There’s nothing here,” another searcher growled. “Just a stinking pile of meat. We’re wasting time.”
There was a flurry of motion: the massifs whining again as they were dragged away, the grumbling and cursing of the searchers, the soft thud and the huff of escaping breath as they shoved Nittu aside in their haste to leave. Then silence. Tarrok breathed shallowly and waited, counting seconds in his head.
Five minutes later, he heard Nittu’s laughter.
“You can come out, child,” she said. “Depur’s fools have gone.”
Tarrok climbed shakily out of the reeking pile of meat scraps. They were alone: just him and Nittu and the wreckage of the storeroom, which she would have to clean up.
“Grandmother,” he began, but she hushed him.
“Don’t worry about me,” she said, smiling her toothless smile. “We don’t have the time for that. They won’t stay away forever. And we’ve got to clean that smell from you before you go.”
“I don’t think anything will ever clean this smell,” Tarrok grumbled, but he let her usher him into the small sonic shower on the other side of the shed. Several minutes later, although the smell of the rancid meat still filled his nostrils, Nittu pronounced him odor free.
“Do you know your next stop?” she asked him as she shoved things into a small knapsack: a change of clothes, dried ansar root and womp jerky, a blanket, ginsu and bandages, and, hidden beneath it all, a scanner. Tarrok watched her, his hand hovering over the still raw place in his stomach where the bomb had been.
“Yes,” he said. “There’s a ship waiting in the spaceport. I have three hours to get there.”
“Enough,” said Nittu, tying the knapsack closed. “And where will you go then, out among the stars?”
“Ord Mantell,” he said, and the name tasted like freedom. “My trail ends there.” He hefted the knapsack over one shoulder. “For others, it may continue.”
“You’ll send word when you’re established?” she asked. “Not to me. To Moonspinner in Mos Eisley. She’ll see it on.”
“Yes, Grandmother,” said Tarrok.
She reached for his hand, offering the blessing of Amarattu, and he stood still, letting the water soak into his skin. She smiled.
“Come with me, Grandmother,” he blurted. “We have the scanner. I know a surgeon close by. There’s room on the transport for one more.”
But already before he’d finished speaking he knew what she would say. The old woman laughed softly. “No, child,” she said. “If I go who will be left to show the way?” She laughed again. “Or to tend the meat? No. The night brings freedom, my mother used to say. My place is here. But yours lies on Ord Mantell.”
“I won’t forget, Grandmother,” Tarrok whispered. He clasped her hand in his. And then he turned and slipped away, through the yard and over the low stucco wall, out into the bustle of Mos Espa. He didn’t look back.
One day, as Ekkreth was going along, they passed by the workshops of Depur’s enforcers, and saw something very strange. Many of the people were there, their backs bent over their work, crafting collars of metal and wires.
Then Ekkreth took a shape like a merchant from the Core Worlds, well-fed and dressed head-to-toe in purple, and they came to the chief enforcer there and said, “What is it these chattel are laboring at so industriously?”
The enforcer sketched a bow, because he believed Ekkreth was very rich, and then he laughed. “They are making collars for themselves, and when the collars are done we will lock them around the necks of these ungrateful and rebellious slaves. For they learn slowly, and are forever trying to escape.”
“I see,” said Ekkreth, looking down their nose at the enforcer, in the way of rich outlanders who believe they understand many things. “But surely they could simply escape wearing the collars?”
The enforcer began to laugh, but he caught himself, remembering the great wealth of this outlander, and he said, “Oh no, sir. Because these collars contain detonators, and if any of these dull slaves is foolish enough to attempt escape, we will set them off, and all the others will know what comes to those who defy Depur.”
“How ingenious!” crowed Ekkreth in feigned delight. “But how can you be sure they will not find some way to disable the detonators, if they are as stubborn as you say?”
“You need have no fear of that!” said the enforcer. “For they would need all the cunning of the wild anooba to escape these collars.”
“Well, I see you have thought of everything,” said Ekkreth. And they complimented the enforcer profusely and then went away, making as though for the spaceport.
And that evening the collars were completed, and they were locked about the neck of every slave, from the oldest grandmother to the youngest child.
But Ekkreth went out into the desert, and they walked for three nights beneath the moons, until they came to the great cliffs where Anooba lives with her pack. And as Ekkreth approached they were set upon by a great many of Anooba’s grandchildren. But Ekkreth had so many shapes that they could not be caught by strength or tooth or claw. Then at last the eldest of the grandchildren called his siblings to hold, and he said, “I know you, Shape-Changer. What is it that you seek here?”
“Let me speak to your Grandmother, and you will know,” said Ekkreth.
So Ekkreth was brought to Anooba, who eyed them long and shrewdly. “What evil has Depur done now?” she asked, for she knew Depur’s ways, and Ekkreth’s too.
Ekkreth told her, and when the tale was told they said, “Grandmother, teach me the secret of your wild cunning.”
Then Anooba laughed. “You have a store of cunning of your own, I think, Sky-walker,” she said. “But for the sake of Ar-Amu’s children I will teach you.”
And she allowed Ekkreth to place a fetter around her neck, and so proved true the saying that Anooba is the most daring of all those who walk in the wastes, and mightiest of all but one.
Then she called all her family to her, and they were howling in rage because their Grandmother had been bound. But Anooba called the youngest of all her grandchildren, and she twisted about, loosening the bond until the child’s claws could slip into the mechanism. It was a complicated thing, but Anooba’s cunning was so great that she could feel all the secret movements within the collar, and under her direction the child prevailed, and the collar fell broken but unburnt to the sand.
Then Ekkreth thanked Anooba for sharing this wisdom, and they returned immediately to the people, bound in their collars and singing songs of mourning to the stars.
“Listen, children,” said Ekkreth, “for Ar-Amu has heard your sorrow, and I have learned the secret of Anooba’s wild cunning.”
Then Ekkreth placed a collar around their own neck, and a great cry of despair went up from all the people, but Ekkreth only laughed. “No fetter can hold the Sky-walker forever,” they said. And so it was. They slipped the bond and it fell away, broken and unburnt. Then, with Ekkreth’s aid, all the people did the same, and by the light of the moons they slipped away into the night, and when Depur’s enforcers came in the morning they found all his slaves gone.
Bentu clutched the knife ready in her hand and waited. She would not go back. That much, at least, was certain.
The market was bustling and confusing, with a bewildering array of people, goods, and ramshackle constructions that could only loosely be termed booths. Here, perhaps, there was a chance she could disappear. At least she might buy herself time.
She held the knife close beneath the cover of her poncho and let her eyes sweep casually over the merchandise on offer and those selling it. Here was a booth hawking imported cloth and jewelry from the Core. The necklace just before her cost more than she had at her last auction.
Bentu moved hurriedly on. She did not look like someone who could make an offer on such a thing, and she could hardly afford to stand out.
At the other end of the market, she heard raised voices and the beginnings of a commotion. Someone cursed loudly, and there was the distant sound of a slap followed by harsh laughter. Bentu moved on, the knife held close.
“Hey!” said someone just beside her, and she jumped. Her hand moved beneath her poncho, almost revealing the knife, but she caught it in time.
There was a child at her side, sunshine-haired and sky-eyed and maybe about ten, with a bright, inquisitive face. Bentu readied herself to run.
“Chelii?” the child asked in a whisper so low it was barely distinguishable from the faint breeze.
Bentu froze. “Te masu Amavikkas?” she hissed.
The child beamed. “Kai. Ek masa Amavikka. Ek masa nu Lukka Ekkreth ka.”
Bentu allowed herself the barest gleam of hope. A boy named Ekkreth – that had to be a good sign.
“Please,” she whispered, “do you know a place? The catchers – ”
Luke drew himself up and nodded, his eyes darting around the market. “Yes,” he said quickly. “My aunt is a singer. We can – ”
But the sounds of jostling and shouting were growing closer now, and there was nowhere left to run. They hadn’t seen her before, so she might still be able to bluff her way out, but without a place to go… Bentu clutched the knife close.
“Take this,” said Luke, a new and startling note of command in his voice. He thrust a basket filled with blue milk, bantha cheese, and fresh bread into her arms. “What’s your name?”
“Bentu,” she managed. “Ek masa nu Bentu Terakreth ku.”
Luke nodded. “Follow me,” he said, and set off at a rapid pace through the market without once looking back at her.
Bentu stood blinking in surprise, until the approaching clamor that surrounded the catchers reached her ears again and she jolted after the boy. It wasn’t impossible that he was lying, but at this point, she had nothing to lose. Dukkra ba dukkra, she thought grimly, clutching the basket in one hand and the knife in the other.
She caught up to Luke just as the slave catchers came within sight. Bentu recognized none of them, which was a small blessing. And they weren’t wearing any of the marks of the Hutts’ enforcers. So these were not her Master’s goons, but bounty hunters, searching for any runaway. That might mean she had a chance.
“You! Boy!” one of the catchers shouted, shoving his way through the milling crowds.
Luke glanced quickly at Bentu, gave her an almost cheeky wink, and turned to the bounty hunter who was now looming over him. “What do you want?” he said with a childish scowl. “My aunt says I’m not supposed to talk to strangers.”
Two other catchers were now flanking the first, and one of them laughed cruelly. “That right, kid?” he said. “And what does your aunt say about talking to the authorities?”
He said the word with sneering menace, leaning down to smirk in Luke’s face. But the boy only clenched his jaw and shook his head tightly. “She only mentioned strangers, sir,” he said.
Was he trying to draw attention to himself? Nothing good could come of that. He was Amavikka. Surely he knew that.
The catcher laughed again, directly in Luke’s face, then hooked a negligent thumb in Bentu’s direction. “He yours?” he drawled at Luke.
Bentu held herself very still as she watched Luke blink in momentary confusion and then dawning disgust. Don’t say anything, she thought. Please don’t say anything.
“That’s right,” said Luke, and just as Bentu had begun to breathe from sheer relief, he added, “She’s mine.”
The catchers looked at one another and burst into loud guffaws. “That’s not a she, boy,” the largest of them said. “Though maybe you’re too young to know the difference.” His mouth was a condescending sneer.
Luke drew himself up to his full, rather unimpressive height and sniffed. “She is if I say she is.”
That brought another loud riot of laughter. “Little master knows what he likes!” one of the catchers sniggered.
Bentu kept her gaze on the ground. It was a requirement of the act, of course, but it would have been necessary in any case. There’d be no good way to explain why she was laughing, too. The catchers obviously didn’t speak Amatakka, and had no idea they’d just been thoroughly insulted, albeit in translation.
“Luke!” someone called, and the boy turned with a wince and grumbled, “Over here, Aunt Beru.”
A singer named Singer. Bentu felt a renewed surge of hope as she caught the approaching woman’s eyes.
Beru looked like someone who had been formed by the desert itself: solid as bedrock, with eyes like a sandstorm, direct and secretive at once. She came to stand beside Luke, her hand placed firmly on his shoulder and her steady gaze fixed on the slave catchers.
“Is there a problem here?” she asked. It was impossible to guess the inflection in her voice.
“We’re searching for runaways, ma’am,” said one of the catchers, who had been silent till now. Perhaps he was smarter than the rest.
“You’d best move on, then,” said Beru. “You’ll not catch any runaways here.”
“This one’s yours, then?” the man asked, gesturing lazily in Bentu’s direction.
“That’s right,” said Beru, who hadn’t so much as glanced at Luke or Bentu. A touch of frosty annoyance entered her voice as she added, “Though these two are meant to be at home.”
Bentu flinched and wrung her hands. “I’m sorry, Mistress,” she mumbled to the sand. “Young Master Luke insisted on coming to the market, and I thought it better to come along than to let him go alone…”
“I don’t need a minder,” Luke said sullenly. “I’m old enough to come to the market on my own now.”
Beru sighed deeply. “We have talked about this, young man,” she snapped, before turning on Bentu. “And you! You were told to keep him at home. I was quite clear.”
“Yes, Mistress,” Bentu whispered. “I’m sorry, Mistress.”
The slave catchers snickered.
“If you’ll excuse me,” Beru said, hardly glancing at the men, “I’m going to take these two home.” And without waiting for a response she turned and strode off through the market.
“But Aunt Beru,” Luke whined, and Beru turned back briefly to snap, “Now, Luke.” She did not address Bentu at all.
Still grumbling, Luke scurried after her, and Bentu followed him. The laughter of the slave catchers echoed in her ears, but they made no move to stop her.
It took them only five minutes to reach Beru’s speeder. Bentu glanced around surreptitiously, but it appeared they really hadn’t been tailed.
“I’m sorry about that,” Beru said, meeting Bentu’s eyes for the first time. “Do you need a place to go?”
“Yes,” said Bentu. “I was meant to be at my next stop last night, but…”
“She needs a singer, too,” said Luke. “I told her we could help.”
A soft smile lit Beru’s face, and she reached out to ruffle Luke’s hair. “Good,” she said, and turned her smile on Bentu. “You can stay with us as long as you need.”
It happened once that as Ekkreth was going along they came across many of Depur’s overseers hard at work in the smithy, but no slaves were there working with them. And Ekkreth thought this very strange indeed, for it is seldom heard of that enforcers will do any work themselves.
So Ekkreth took a shape like a woman of the Core Worlds, wealthy and well-dressed, a perpetual sneer on her face. Then they came and stood just outside the smithy and called out, “Enforcers of Depur, what is it you are laboring at here, and why do you dirty your own hands when there are countless filthy slaves to work for you?”
Then the chief enforcer came out and bowed before Ekkreth, because he thought them a rich and important Core Worlder, and he said, “Lady, it is true that Depur has many slaves to do his works, but they are a cunning and rebellious lot, and they constantly endeavor to escape. So we are building a device which will put a stop to that. And Depur does not wish his slaves to have any role in its creation.”
“Perhaps that is wise,” said Ekkreth, looking down their nose at the enforcer. “But what is this device you speak of, and how can you be certain it will work?”
Then the chief enforcer was eager to demonstrate his cleverness to this outlander, so he ran back within the smithy and emerged a moment later with a tiny chip, only a few centimeters wide and thinner than a fingernail.
“This is a slave implant, Lady,” he said. “It will go beneath the skin of every slave. When it is completed, it will function as a tracking chip, so that no slave can run beyond the reach of Depur’s knowledge. And it contains a detonator, so that any who try to escape will find that there is no life outside of Depur’s will, and if they survive it will be all the worse for them.”
Then for the first time in all their years Ekkreth was afraid, for how can anyone, no matter how clever, outrun a bomb inside of them?
Yet no sign of their thoughts showed on Ekkreth’s face. Instead they raised one disdainful brow and said, “It certainly seems an ingenious design. But if these slaves are as cunning and rebellious as you say, how can you be sure they will not escape even from their own skin?”
But the chief enforcer only laughed. “You need have no fear about that, Lady!” he said. “For we shall plant these devices beneath the skin of Depur’s slaves in such a way that they will not know where we have placed them. And as for the detonation, though this chip seems a small thing, only the mighty and terrible dragon of the wastes could survive it unscathed!”
“I am glad to hear it,” said Ekkreth with a haughty sniff. And then bidding farewell to the enforcer, they set off as though for the spaceport.
But soon Ekkreth turned their face toward the open desert, and taking the shape of a bird they set off flying. Three days and three nights they flew, out into the deep wastes.
On that first night, as Ekkreth traveled, Depur’s enforcers completed their work, and on the second day and into that night, one by one, they took each of the people, put them to sleep, and in secret planted the chips beneath their skin.
But Ekkreth came on the third night to the place where Leia, their mighty daughter, lived, and saw her great wings spread like a shadow of death across the immensity of the sky.
The great dragon of the wastes has eyes far sharper than any kokaru, and she saw Ekkreth coming from afar.
Down swept Leia with a roar of terrible wind, and she came to rest on a high pillar of rock, with Ekkreth beside her.
“Parent,” said Leia, “what evil has Depur worked this time? For you are weary with a long flight, and I know you well, and the meaning of your haste.”
Then Ekkreth told their wise daughter all that the enforcer had told them, about the implant and its detonator, and what the enforcer had said about the mighty dragon of the wastes.
And Leia was silent as her parent spoke, but when they ceased she raised her great horned head to the stars and let out a long, shrill, terrible cry. The sound of it echoed in the rocks and canyons and raced along the seven winds and came even to the walled palace of Depur, and all who heard it trembled.
“It is well that Depur’s enforcers acknowledge me,” said the Mighty One, “for mighty I am, and the chain has not been forged that can hold me. No, not even this device that Depur has made. Will he set a fire beneath the skin of a dragon? Let him try! By his own flames will his bones be devoured!”
Then hope was born anew in Ekkreth’s heart, because they saw that Leia was fearless still. But they were still troubled, and so they said, “What then shall I tell the people? For even I, shape-changer though I am, do not know how they may escape from their own skin.”
“Do you not?” asked Leia. “Then I will show you.” And she began to claw with great force at a patch of her own hide above her heart, until dark blood flowed and at last she plucked out a new scale. This she cleaned with her tongue until it gleamed white in the light of the three moons. And then she offered it to Ekkreth.
“Give this to the people,” said Leia. “Tell them it is given with blood and with water, a pledge in your sight before Ar-Amu. They are my siblings and I am their Elder Sister. My blood flows in their veins. The chain that can bind me has never yet been made, and never shall be. They have the burrowing strength of Womp Rat and the stinging persistence of Kirik Fly. They have the great strength of Bantha and the wild cunning of Anooba. And they have the might and fearless heart of Krayt Dragon. And more than all these, they have the cleverness and the trickery and the many shapes of Ekkreth. By all these means and more will they free themselves, and there is nothing Depur can ever do to hold them.”
Then Ekkreth thanked their mighty daughter and flew away with the precious scale clasped in their mouth. Three days and three nights they flew, out of the deep desert and into the city of Depur, and on the third night Ekkreth offered the scale and the words of Leia the Mighty One to a Grandmother of the People who was as wise and as secret as the Night.
And this knowledge we have still, children, passed down to us from our Grandparents as now we pass it to you. The Great Dragon is our Elder Sister and we are Ar-Amu’s children. The chain has not been made which can never be broken.
And it never shall be.
Bentu Rockstrider had been one year and three standard months free when the letter of acceptance arrived.
It came with little fanfare – simply the ping of an incoming message notification on her datapad. She was at work when it arrived, but Tarrok knew she was expecting to hear from the Academy this week, and he all but banished her to the break room to read it.
The message was addressed to Tova Altor, native of Ord Mantell, a licensed pilot with an impeccable record and impressive scores on all three Imperial Service exams. It was a very straightforward message. The Imperial Academy on Aleen was pleased to accept Ms. Altor as a cadet for the command track. She was expected to report in three days’ time for two weeks of basic training, after which she would be enrolled in the Academy. If she did well, she could expect to graduate and be assigned to her first command in three years.
Bentu clutched the datapad to her chest and breathed. A slow smile spread across her face.
She took her time composing her reply. It was simple enough. She had only to say she would report as ordered. But the way she said it was important. Everything would go into her file, and Tova Altor’s record had to be spotless.
Her reply sent, Bentu went back out to the counter and served drinks for another four hours, until it was time to close the place up. Then she and Tarrok cleaned the tables and did the dishes and endured yet another Imperial inspection, which turned up nothing just like all the others. They were both well used to inspections. Bentu thought she could have given these stormtroopers a few pointers.
When they were certain the troopers would not be returning that night, Bentu and Tarrok slipped down into the secret room beneath the kitchen.
There were seven people staying there now: a family of Twi’leks from Mos Espa, two human women from Mos Entha, and a young Wookiee who said he’d been born in the slave market on Brundia. They were all perfectly silent and still.
“It’s all right,” said Tarrok, scraping a weary hand over his face. “They’ve gone for the night.” Then he gestured at Bentu with the ghost of a grin. “And our Cadet Altor has good news.”
Myana, the oldest of the Twi’lek children, let out a quiet whoop. “You got accepted!”
“I did,” said Bentu, grinning herself. “I’m to report in three days.”
“Does that mean someday you’ll be leading the inspections here?” Myana’s mother laughed. “That would certainly make Tarrok’s life easier!”
“No,” said Bentu with an apologetic shrug. “I’ll be joining the fleet. If I can work my way up, I’ll have access to far more information that way, and a wider network of contacts. The Rebellion has plenty of defectors, but they never have enough agents inside the Imperial fleet. And…we need someone there, too.”
“To bring the rain,” said Myana softly. She was looking at Bentu with something like reverence, and it was more than a little unnerving.
But she was also right. They all knew that. Freedom could never come to Tatooine so long as the Empire ruled. What good would it do for Tatooine to rise, when the whole galaxy was governed by slavers?
So Bentu had decided to join the Imperial fleet. Another form of slavery, but one that she chose, a shape she took on. Like Ekkreth taking the form of a rich outlander, becoming akin to Depur and his enforcers.
Perhaps, someday, she too would grow wings and fly away, laughing as Depur’s Empire crumbled around him.
Listen, children, here is a story.
It is said that when Tena first went into the desert, she was taken there to die.
Depur’s enforcers had discovered her bringing food to another slave, though he was meant to have none because he had not worked swiftly enough that day. They said that Tena had stolen the food that she gave illicitly, and they brought her before Depur to receive judgment.
And the judgment of Depur was this: that Tena should be taken out into the desert, her transmitter detonated, and left for her bones to be stripped by the wind and the raging sand and the wild anooba.
And so it was done. Depur’s enforcers laughed as they dragged Tena from the throne room by her hair, and they laughed as they bound her hand and foot, and they laughed as they flew out into the desert. They laughed again as they pushed her from the speeder and flew just far enough to be out of range. And they laughed again and again as they detonated her transmitter and fire engulfed her. They were laughing still as they sped away on the wings of a rising storm.
Tena lay there, blood soaking in the sand, and knew that there was more than one way to be free. Dukkra ba dukkra, she thought, and smiled.
Then the storm rose up and the wind lashed at her bones and the sand screamed around her, but she felt no pain. Even the burning agony of the detonator receded.
She did not know how long she lay there. In the midst of the storm she could see nothing. But suddenly the roar of the wind seemed to fade away and in the silence Tena heard the voice of Ar-Amu speaking.
“Daughter,” said Ar-Amu. “Get up.”
And Tena stood. The veil was drawn from her eyes and she looked and saw her own flesh, knitted together again, whole. But all the skin of her left side was seared by fire, roughened and ridged like dragon scales, and the desert was in her bones.
“Do you know what I have done for you, daughter?” asked Ar-Amu.
“You have saved me, Mother,” whispered Tena the Unfettered.
“I have made you free,” said Ar-Amu. “Go then to my people, and do for them as I have done for you.”
Then the storm fell away to a little puff of wind, and Tena stood alone in the vastness of the desert. She turned her face toward the great palace of Depur, Ar-Amu’s words singing in her blood.
She went back.