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Thresholds

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“What would you even do if you owned this planet?”

“We would sell land to settlers...and hire teachers to
come to us from the stars...in time our children
will no longer be outcasts, living in these rough hills.”
-Dave Wolverton, Courtship of Princess Leia






 

“That must be it,” Luke said as the town of Agama's Cry came into view below them, a smattering of stone and wood buildings nestled between the rolling hills, bounded by the smooth stone of a narrow city wall. A silvery river curled gently beside the western portion the walls while an expanse of dense green crept along them from the east.

Luke fought the impulse to ask how Mara was feeling, contenting himself with leaning his head lightly against hers. Her hair, tucked into its usual braid, brushed against his cheek.

“I told you it wasn’t far away at all.” Mara nudged Osha, their rancor, down the hill. She gestured to Dathomir’s pinkish sun streaking the sky orange as it lowered in the distance past the town. “We made good time too. The weather’s been near perfect.”

Luke frowned, but didn’t say more. She was right, after all. The day’s ride had been an easy one and she’d managed to keep all of her food down the past days. Mara thought they were turning a corner.

He wasn’t completely convinced leaving Singing Mountain, the largest and most advanced town in the region, so named for the clan that had founded it -- almost a city of late -- was the best idea, but ever since Mara’s last check up at Coruscant, he’d been cautious about bringing up anything she could dismiss as his overprotectiveness. He knew, too, Mara wouldn’t have suggested the trip if it were the least bit dangerous. Not now.

They had arrived by the town gates as the sun was dipping below the swath of lavender with blue that made up the horizon. Mara went to dismount first as was custom. At this time there were already sentries at the gates, but they had felt Mara announce her arrival through the Force, and hadn't moved from their posts. One woman, perhaps a decade older than them, her black hair loose and streaked with gray waited to greet them. That, too, was custom in small towns like this.

Osha extended one of his gnarled arms to help Mara down, generally unnecessary since Mara, while not an experienced rider by local standards, was proficient enough, and steadied herself with the Force as she slid herself down his gnarled body.

After, she touched Osha's flank, thanking him and bid him to wait for his keepers. Osha snuffed at her, beady eyes still scanning about. Rancors, as they were told at Singing Mountain, tended to be protective of witches that were sensed, in their terms, to be “teeming.” That had been another check in Mara’s favor.

“Welcome, Sister Mara from Singing Mountain,” the woman meeting them called. She was clad in a sleeveless tunic of glossy red lizard hide, the bones on the leather wrist strap she wore swaying as she walked to them. The strap marked her status as a Council witch and her specialty; Luke still had a hard time decoding the latter.

Mara tipped her head in acknowledgment. She wore one of those straps, too, as did all the female instructors and advanced apprentices at the Dathomir academy, but it was bare, without any stones or bones hanging from it. The lightsaber was to take the place of the charm.

The witch then turned to Luke, who had just dismounted and busied himself grabbing the two small bags strapped to the rancor. “...and mate.”

Luke bowed his head in her direction. Dathomiri women, and witches especially, seldom addressed men, but the mate of a witch known to be pregnant might be allowed a distinction. Both he and Mara had decided against using Luke’s name to avoid attracting excessive notice; his own lightsaber remained hidden away in his loose tunic.

Mara grabbed her bag from him when he approached and reached for his hand with her free one, interlinking her fingers with his as they approached the witch. That, at least, was not an uncommon gesture among partnered witches. Osha stayed where he was ever vigilant.

“Sister Jia?”

The witch nodded. “Our sisters from Singing Mountain said you would be staying here for a few nights.”

Mara nodded. “I have heard that the seer here does the Rite of the Stones and wondered if I could petition to join this season,” she explained through both knew that Jia had been told beforehand. This trip had been partially arranged by Kirana Ti’s senior apprentice, Shan Fa, her niece.

Jia regarded Mara for a moment. Both he and Mara were wearing the kinds of tunics the Dathomiri wore, but Mara had traded off the hardier reptilian leathers for something more humble, or as she put it -- breathable. To Luke’s eyes the round of her belly was visible, but he didn’t know to what extent the pregnancy would be visible to others, perceivable...especially to those with the Force.

“You are Jai, but this rite is seldom done by witches that aren’t traditional -- ”

“No,” Mara interrupted, but her tone became lighter with the next. “I’m not traditional. Just someone who has come to appreciate tradition.” Her eyes moved in Luke’s direction. “Some of it."

“Well, teeming does give one a different view,” Jia conceded. “How many moons is the seedling?”

“Over ten bright moon cycles and sixty dim moon cycles.” Mara had done the calculations with the main Dathomiri moons with Kirana Ti shortly after her arrival. Since in a planet full of this many Force users her pregnancy at this stage might not be a secret, she’d been well prepared to field all kinds of questions.

“Girl or boy?”

Luke felt her bristle. Mara was now familiar with the implications.

“Does it matter for the rite?” she asked tersely. Mara knew it didn't. She had made sure. She'd also confessed to Luke of feeling rather sensitive when it came to their son -- enough to be particular about revealing details here to avoid any unpleasantness.

The witch looked taken aback at her tone, but took it in stride. No doubt she'd chalked it off to Jai offworlder quirks.

“No. Our seer is Mother Vila, she will be leading the rites. But they are only to be done once,” she cautioned, giving Mara another look over.

“The child will be my first.”

Jia’s eyes widened. Even though they’d both anticipated the reaction -- Dathomiri tended to partner young -- he sensed a flash of pain from Mara.

“I was...ill,” she said with difficulty, knowing an explanation was expected. Luke tamped down on the urge to put an arm around her. Among the Dathomiri, who until recently had seen men as little more than slaves, and in some parts still did, those gestures looked conspicuously wrong when initiated by a man. Mara’s hand tightened around his, and she stepped closer to him.

“For a long time, I didn't think it was possible.” Her tone was matter of fact, but that glimmer of pain was clear to him.

Jia’s face gentled. “A boon from fate. Mother Vila is set to come tomorrow morning after the morning meal. You can talk to her then.”

Luke felt Jia’s summons lift through the air and a teen girl came forward with two men flanking her. All three called out their welcome to Osha who gave a long look in Mara’s direction. Mara nudged him off through the Force, and he allowed himself to be escorted away from the gates to the sprawling woods beside the town.

The witch beckoned to them. “I will show you to your lodgings.”

--

Their walk to the inn had taken them through the main thoroughfare of of the town, a worn dirt path lined with bustling kiosks selling anything from brightly colored tunics to savory meat on skewers. Luke's stomach rumbled and he was reminded it was close to dinner for them.

Children in pale tunics ran around underfoot while women and men, mostly partnered men, going from the ornate arm bands they wore -- what Mara referred to disparagingly as cuffs -- hawked and bought.

The inn they would be staying at was a squat red sandstone building with a wooden door, probably a recent construction and larger than the others around it. From the reports Luke had gotten from Kirana Ti and Streen, the overseers of the Jedi academy on Dathomir and what he'd seen, these past years had been kind to this region of the planet.

“You get a lot of visitors from Singing Mountain?” Mara asked as the witch rapped on the door.

Jia nodded. “Quite a few, but not so many during this time. We’re the closest village between them and Frenzied River,” she named the second largest town in the area. “Harvest will begin soon so we’re expecting more visitors then.” The harvest, they knew, would mean witches at the larger towns would be returning to their home villages to help their families prepare for the long festivals to honor their ancestors. “Sister Alva is a commoner, but these are the best lodgings in Agama's Cry.”

The door opened and a woman, stepped aside to let them into a small interior courtyard. She was a bit younger than Jia, about their age, her auburn hair was in numerous braids, her tunic sky blue. She smiled as she welcomed them in.

“This is Sister Mara and her mate. I leave them in your hands,” Jia said without preamble. The Dathomiri weren't given to many formalisms. Jia tipped her head in Mara’s direction. “If there is anything else you wish, Alva knows how to find me. Enjoy your stay.”

Jia left them and Alva smiled warmly. “I hear you’ve come for the Rite of Stones?”

Mara nodded.

“There is one other witch who will undergo the rites staying with us. If she joins us for dinner you’ll be able to meet her.”

A man came forward, calling out to the woman. From their rapport, and the man’s arm band, silvery and studded with jewels -- a testament to his wife’s wealth -- Luke gathered this was her husband.

The husband’s eyes flickered and lowered deferentially in Mara's direction before he turned back to Alva and updated her on the preparations for the dinner. By now, Luke was used to the general invisibility of partnered men in Dathomiri culture, and while it sat uncomfortably in principle, in practice it was a welcome respite from the constant notice he got at most other places these days.

Luke felt the husband’s summons through the Force. He must be Force sensitive, Luke realized. Some minutes later at ten or twelve year old boy showed up, their child, judging by the family resemblance. Their host indicated he should show them to their room.

“Dinner will be in an hour,” Alva announced to Mara. “You’ll have some time to rest and wash. I’ll send someone to bring you Pae’sher tea and some refreshment to tide you until then.”

Luke felt a twinge of exasperation through the bond and bit back a smile. Pae’sher tea was a thought to benefit pregnant women. Mara had little else to drink but that since arriving to Dathomir, wanting to give no offense, but had complained it wasn’t to her taste. The tea on the whole was spicy and faintly sweet, not bad to him, but Mara claimed it had a medicinal aftertaste. She’d been more sensitive to those sorts of things since her recovery.

The boy led them up the stairs to a small chamber with little more than a sleeping pallet and a small low wooden table with a clay pitcher and some cups. There was a hearth to the end of the room, empty, since it was too early in the season for it to be used. On the ground beside the pallet was a black carpet that looked as if it was made from an animal pelt, luxurious for Dathomiri standards. Luke left their bags unobtrusively in the corner and they followed the boy down to where he showed them a basic ‘fresher area in a separate building.

By the time they returned to the room, there was tea on the table and a bowl with fruit and nuts.

Mara wrinkled her nose at the tea, going past it to serve herself some water while Luke dug around their bag for his change of clothes. He heard her put the cup back on the table and looked up. With a sigh, she reached for the tea and drank a few sips to Luke's amusement. If Mara drank none of the tea, it’d be noticed and asked about, probably with some scolding.

She went over to go get her own clothes. “It’s more than what I expected. ”

“Shan Fa made the arrangements,” Luke said. Born to a line of powerful witches, her ranking on Dathomir was not dissimilar to Leia’s in terms of wealth and privilege. It had been a great shock to her family when she chose to train at the academy under Kirana Ti. Being close friends of the late Mother Augwynne, the former matriarch and head of Singing Mountain's Witches Council though, they’d taken it with surprising grace. “And she mentioned relaxation.” Luke went to sit at the pallet, examining his wife. Mara appeared a little tired, but nothing unusual. He didn’t get anything unusual from the bond either.

Mara looked up, an indulgent smile on her face. “Go on. I know you want to ask. You’ve managed to hold out this long.”

It was his turn to sigh as she came to sit beside him, her clothes on her lap. “How do you feel?”

“A little tired from the trip,” she brushed some loose strands of hair from her face, “but good. Better than a week ago at least. I haven’t had any queasiness. It almost feels...normal.”

Luke slid an arm around her waist and she nestled her head on his shoulder.

They’d set out for Dathomir after Leia finished her bacta treatments. Coming right after the loss at Duro and Leia's harrowing escape, the trip had been a fraught one-- no less because Mara’s morning sickness had begun in earnest. It’d begun to wane a few days after their arrival, a good thing because once here, Mara had been swept up in administrative duties for the satellite academy they'd established in Dathomir under her name.

Kirana Ti, one of his first students, was the equivalent of the school’s headmaster and in charge of the academy’s day to day operations with Streen, another one of his former students, as her right hand. Mara’s role as founder right now meant providing local assurance against the increasingly serious situation for Jedi elsewhere in the galaxy, especially now that they were targeted for violence. Both he and Mara doubted Dathomir was on anyone's map, which made it a good place to regroup for a time.

Luke had kept busy with similar tasks to hers, but remotely, and on a far larger scale. He’d spent most of his time planetside tracking and checking on their Jedi scattered across the galaxy on various assignments, urging them to keep track of each other, and keep a low profile until they could reconvene at Coruscant in a few weeks. The work had paid off; they finally had confirmation that everyone not caught in the crucible at Duro was safe and knew about the convocation.

Between that and Mara negotiating the usual tiredness and morning sickness, during their days in Dathomir Luke hardly felt like they were in the same planet. It seemed for a while all they did together was collapse in a tired heap on their pallet in the small chamber that was theirs at the academy building.

But Mara was well. Healthy. And within her...life, their son's incandescence permeating her Force presence.

“That’s what Kirana Ti said, in any case,” Mara muttered. “The magic starts after the purging cycles are done.”

Luke chuckled, pulling her closer. She smelled like forest, sweat, and rancor musk, but he didn’t find it off putting. Quite the opposite; it’d been too long. He turned his thoughts away.

“You don’t believe in magic,” he teased.

Mara pulled away to look at him, eyes bright. “I don’t. But I like not vomiting after every meal.” His chuckle turned into a laugh.

“On that thought..." She stood. "I guess we should get ready for dinner. We both stink.”

--

Dinner was held in an open area on the first floor. Green and yellow tapestries hung on the walls, a long low oval table made of a dark wood, uncommon in the parts they’d visited, took up most of the room. The inn's other guests had come down and were lounging in the cushions along the table.

While in formal dinners the custom was still for men to dine separately, because the guests were outsiders who had come from afar, their mates or male servants were allowed to dine beside them if the woman in question so chose.

Some sort of meat, most likely reptilian, had been roasted and was placed at the center of the table, its fragrant spices wafting through the room. Various large earthenware bowls, some with leafed greens, others with crunchy fried foods, stewed tubers in some piquant looking red sauce, and other dishes unfamiliar to Luke were placed along the center of the table, flasks of what he recognized as honey wine and a pitcher of water between them. A smaller teapot had been placed off to the side of the table, Pae’sher tea, no doubt.

Luke settled along the cushions and reached for Mara’s plate as she greeted Alva and three women there -- all a few years older than her. The two other men at the table, older than the women, were occupying themselves similarly. The one beside the blonde had silvery hair and a jutting chin, the other attending a woman with hair several shades darker than Mara's was bald and thick set.

Luke greeted them, through the Force as well once he picked out that both were Force sensitive, but was unsurprised by the tepidness of their response. There were no social norms prohibiting exchange between men, but many simply saw no point in focusing on anyone other than the woman they were linked to for various reasons.

The gnawing feeling at his stomach drew his attention to the dishes arranged on the table. They all smelled delicious to him, but he remembered Leia had mentioned something about not tolerating strong smells during her pregnancies.

Luke cast a sidelong glance at Mara, who now sitting on her cushion, was introducing herself and making small talk with the women seated around her. Luke didn’t catch anything off from Mara’s general state, so he simply filled her plate. Maybe it would happen later on, or not at all, he thought as he slid it to her, feeling the light touch of her hand on his wrist in response.

She was wearing another tunic of the same breathable fabric as before, but slightly more fitted than the one she’d worn during the trip and in a rich golden color, long enough to be worn as a dress. Luke had found himself scanning over her figure for any new roundedness other than the soft rise of her stomach when they’d left the ‘freshers. He thought there might be a more sweeping curve to her hips, a new fullness to her breasts. How much of it was her restored health and how much of it was her pregnancy, he wasn’t completely sure, but he welcomed all of it.

By contrast to Mara’s simplicity in dress, the other women wore the reptilian hide tunics Dathomiri so favored, but all three had thick-jewel encrusted necklaces signaling their wealth. All of them wore the leather straps of a witch past her awakening rites, but none had charms dangling from them like Jia had, suggesting they were not practicing witches. The two men at the table had intricately decorated arm bands.

Alva herself was to dine with them, her mate with their children elsewhere, since for her this was part of her duties as host. She began the introductions, all the women congratulating Mara on her pregnancy. Before the pregnancy could dominate the conversation, Mara asked the women about their own business at Agama's Cry. They were traveling together towards Singing Mountain for a meeting to discuss trade with other outlying villages.

“And what is your occupation, Mara?” one of the women across her asked, a blonde called Betheda, if he'd overheard right. As she took a sip of her wine, Luke caught some of Mara’s wistfulness at the sight and smiled faintly.

Mara swallowed the mouthful she’d been chewing. Her appetite seemed to have returned, and she had taken to the meal with as much relish as he had. Luke hoped she'd been right about things settling down. The thought made an old guilt emerge; the conflict had taken him so far from her the first months after the illness had vanished. No matter how much Mara insisted that what she was going through was normal, that this distance between them was normal, at some point it had stopped feeling that way.

And no matter how many medical files she’d passed onto him as Cilghal did scan after scan, worry lurked. He'd had more than a few sleepless nights, especially just after her her health had returned, where he'd been unable to help scrutinizing her face through the holos while he was away, asking himself, was that paleness normal? Was that bruising under her eyes?

Could it be that somehow they’d gotten everything wrong?

No, he'd tell himself over and over. No.

Mara touched his forearm lightly, and he shook himself. It was better now, he thought. He looked over at her as she said, “I teach the Arts.”

The women's eyes turned appreciative. All Dathomiri women with Force abilities were trained in a basic understanding of the Force, what they called ‘Dathomiri magic’, in their way from girlhood to the culmination in a witch’s awakening rites, but now that peace had settled on Dathomir, only exceptionally talented and well-trained witches continued into specializations. Schools had sprung up focusing on land spells, weather control, healing, martial schools, and so forth. This, along with Council membership, was indicated by the charm attached to the strap. The title of teacher had acquired considerable social cache.

Mara’s titles here had not been gifted to her; she’d trained and earned the right to identify as a witch in Dathomiri terms as part of the hoops she’d had to jump through to gain legitimacy for the academy from Singing Mountain’s Witches Council. Like learning a another language, but one familiar to your own, he’d overheard her explaining to Jaina some time ago. In addition to undergoing the awakening rites, Mara's demonstrated mastery of Jedi or Jai techniques, as well as the support from two thirds of the Council, was what granted her the title of teacher, though in practice she'd always been more involved in outreach than instruction here.

Truthfully, both he and Mara had wanted the satellite academy to be Kirana Ti's, but Kirana Ti, with the support of Mother Augwynne, had argued that more would be gained locally if they tried to distance the academy from Luke's name and she was seen to be working for a female Jai. Mara's more ambassadorial role to influential witches and before various Councils gave Kirana Ti more leeway to focus on the students themselves.

“Which school of magic?” the brunette to Mara’s left asked. Luke didn’t recall her name. She gestured to the unadorned strap around Mara’s wrist with some confusion. Mara had opted against carrying her lightsaber to dinner. She often preferred to reveal the details of her affiliation to the academy gradually.

“Jai,” she said.

"Ah," the woman nodded and Luke felt no positive or negative reaction. The Jedi academy on Dathomir had been established around a decade earlier, so it was not as exotic as it had once been, though still far from mainstream. Luke felt no strong emotion from the men either.

One of the other women, the one whose mate was bald, leaned forward. She sat adjacent to Mara, beside Betheda, the blonde who’d first spoken. “A Jai teacher -- you teach men, I suppose.”

“Not just men,” Mara answered after finishing her bite. "Jai teachings are open to all. Women training at the academy are also prepared to pass their awakening rites."

This had been another one of Kirana Ti's ideas to better integrate the academy. A practicing witch had a duty to take on apprentices, and her own social standing was bolstered by the number of apprentices she could guide to the successful completion of their awakening rites.

"But you don't teach men Dathomiri magic, of course," Betheda said.

Mara frowned. "No. They learn Jai magic alone."

While neither Mara nor Kirana Ti tolerated division between the student body with respect to Jedi teachings, Kirana Ti did not feel it would be politically wise for Dathomiri magic -- the spells and meditations used by witches -- to be taught to male students for the time being. The academy needed to be more entrenched before it could take such an unconventional stance. Any perception of Jedi overreach into local matters would hurt their image and recruitment more than help it.

"But what use would a witch have for Jai magic if she has her own?" Betheda mused.

The woman sitting beside Betheda intervened, "In the stars. Our magic is no good outside of Dathomir." She bit into one of the fried vegetables.

"That's not entirely true," Mara said. "Magic can be used outside of Dathomir. It's a matter of a different approach. That is what we teach."

The two women seemed to ponder it. Luke's working theory, based on his training of Kirana Ti and his conversations with Mara as she trained as a witch, was that Dathomiri meditations had a larger degree of specificity than Jedi ones. Witches were taught to lean far more heavily on the physical world around them than Jedi. As a consequence, when their physical world changed, becoming new and unfamiliar to them, they found themselves off balance, and had difficulty summoning the focus necessary to sink into the Force.

Mara looked down to her plate, and upon finding she’d emptied it, was about to reach for more of the fried vegetables from the bowl at the center of the table. Luke touched her shoulder and took her plate when she stilled, leaning over to refill it.

“You're an offworlder.” The woman beside Betheda lightly touched the back of her mate's palm as he passed her a plate of food. Luke felt an acknowledgement ripple out from him. "Hapes?"

This was the most common destination and waypoint for Dathomiri who wanted to leave the planet, mainly because of its cultural similarities. The Queen Mother of Hapes herself was a witch, and had set up various organizations to help her people transition from their insular world to the more cosmopolitan galaxy. The connection to Hapes had ushered the most dramatic changes within Dathomir yet, even outside the economic sphere. Although Hapes too was a matriarchy, slavery had long been outlawed in the sixty-three planets that comprised the Consortium before Dathomir's addition. As a result, treating men as chattel overtly had quickly been stigmatized by the settler population with which trade flourished. It was now common practice for women to negotiate with one another for the men held under their care under a complex dowry system similar to the one in the Consortium.

Mara shook her head. "Not Hapes."

“There are many Hapans in Frenzied River now. The head of their council herself lives with one,” the woman beside Mara commented, taking a sip of her wine. “She calls her her mate.”

“The Hapan commoner woman, yes,” Betheda added, cutting through a piece of meat. “She is as strange as she is beautiful. They say she was behind that new proposed law to free all the men in the clan. I heard she takes to saying she doesn’t mind being referred to as a mate.” Betheda wrinkled her nose.

“Hard to say no to a Hapan,” the woman beside Mara grumbled. “They need no magic to beguile.”

“It will never pass, Aignes” The one beside Betheda scoffed. “The head of Frenzied River has been trying for what? Two seasons?”

“Frenzied River has more Hapans and commoners than witches, Muirne. I would not be so confident,” Aignes replied.

Betheda shook her head, raising her utensil slightly in emphasis. "Not by much. But better that the Council's attention be on enforcing groom price laws. Too many young women selling everything they own to make a greedy woman's unreasonable price for her son. They get their mate, but cannot keep him. They can barely feed themselves. This breeds disaffection, and even mistreatment.” She tsk’ed. "But what would that Hapan know? Some of them think of Dathomir as their apprentice's poultice."

Muirne humph'ed, taking a bite of one of the tubers in red sauce.

"And then you have traditional witches with two mates. Or more,” Aignes added, lifting her index finger.

“Oh, yes,” Muirne inhaled, her consternation clear as she lowered her utensil, “those helm heads out west, clinging to the days when our children played naked in the dirt. All so honoring of the old ways, forgetting the days when husbands couldn’t attend the hearth for being too busy digging out leeches from the little ones’ asses.” She smiled at her mate beside her who looked like he was trying not to laugh, playfully nudging him until he chuckled out loud. He murmured something in her ear that made her snicker.

Betheda was guffawing. “Maybe that’s why the traditionalist witch that came with us has two!” She sputtered a little and her mate patted her back until she got her breathing under control.

Aignes laughed, but it was lukewarm. “We laugh, but my father was second husband. It is not so easy to keep a peaceful hearth with more than one mate."

Muirne nodded as she went back to her food. "Greedy and short-sighted most of the time. I don't see how that witch that arrived with us can justify it."

From the head of the table Alva radiated discomfort. Luke didn't blame her, as a host this kind of talk put her in an awkward position.

But the women seemed to be done, and Betheda turned back to Mara as her mate went to refill her glass of wine. She touched his shoulder, and Luke felt an echo in the Force. The man stopped pouring. “You said you did your awakening rites at Singing Mountain?"

“Yes,” Mara reached for her water. “Under Mother Augwynne's Council just before she passed.”

Betheda nodded heavily. "May her spirit continue to light Dathomir's awakening."

There were nods from everyone around the table. Mother Augwynne who, in addition of defeating the Nightsisters during her time as head of the Singing Mountain clan, and being the Dathomiri Queen Mother's grandmother, also convened the Dathomiri Witches Council -- the body that managed all of Dathomir's contact with Hapes and the galaxy at large -- was largely credited for ushering this newfound prosperity.

"And you found a mate here?” Aignes asked. "Rare."

Mara was about to answer when Muirne protested, "Why rare? Give no quarter to Hapan rancor dung, Sister." She pursed her lips. "They would sing of their beautiful men, but can any of those beauties repair cracked leather? They can't even light a fire. Their machines do everything so they can sit and be easy on the eyes." Her mouth twisted in disapproval. "And do not even think of mentioning the machines to them. Hapans rather pretend that things simply appear," she waved a hand, "without even the effort of a spell. No, nothing compares to a good Dathomiri man. I would not trade my mate for the Shining Prince himself." She laid a hand on her mate beside her, rubbing his shoulder as he ducked his head with a small smile.

Betheda nodded and Mara couldn't reply for her swift, "True. What good is a man who can't keep a woman's hearth? And a man who can pass the magic -- one who knows her heart and her child's heart? A man who can soothe her child?" She continued solemnly, "That is more valuable than all the glories of Hapes. Beauty fades." She raised her eyebrows as she took a sip of her wine.

Muirne continued, "Traditionalist blather aside, I would not have faulted Mother Teneniel for taking in one of our own as second husband, if anything, for her daughter's sake. Look at her busy protecting her lands while her mate's head is only full of the finery he will wear in the evening. Good thing she has servants. But a talented child in her circumstances especially, should have had a father who was able to properly comfort her, not a simple commoner who understands nothing of her birthright." She shook her head.

Luke caught a flicker of pain from the head of the table. His eyes slid towards Alva, whose expression was only of polite interest. She was a commoner, he remembered. Born to a society that valued the ability to use the Force above all. How many statements of this sort had she heard?

Beside him, Mara didn't look for another opportunity to reply, her head was slightly turned in Alva's direction, mouth set in a line.

Aignes added mournfully, "Perhaps that too was why Tenel Ka was sent to the Jai. A Dathomiri man who does not pass the magic," she closed her fist, "at the very least passes the respect for her provenance." All the women save Mara nodded. "And without sisters around her..."

Mara's frown deepened. "She'll be a witch as well, Sister Aignes," she asserted, a bit of tartness to her tone. "Seems to me she just hasn't had a chance yet to pass her awakening rites."

This was something they both knew for a fact. Tenel Ka was one of their own, and when war had broken out she'd rushed to join Jacen and the Jedi she'd trained with. Neither Teneniel nor Isolder had been pleased that their daughter had interrupted her training here, but they'd stopped short of asking Luke to send her back. Luke was still unsure of how he'd have replied if they had. Tenel Ka had passed her Jedi Trials, and her efforts had saved countless lives -- even now she was busy tending to war refugees.

There just never seemed to be easy answers anymore.

Betheda nodded in Luke's direction, blaring curiosity as she switched back to the previous subject, "So your mate -- he is from Singing Mountain, Sister Mara?"

"No," Mara replied. "He's an offworlder like me."

Surprise spread through the table. “He is not Dathomiri?” Alva asked.

Mara shook her head. "We met far away from here."

“And he came with you to Dathomir?” Aignes put her utensils down. "Offworlder men so rarely choose to come here."

A bit of humor seeped out from Mara, and Luke smiled. He didn’t think Mara would have ever come to Dathomir without his intervention. His own humor faded a little, he thought she’d come to enjoy their visits as much as he had, but come to think of it, he wasn’t sure. The politics of Dathomir always placed her at the center, and he knew firsthand how stifling such a thing could feel. He’d checked to make sure she didn’t feel pressured, but he wasn’t naive enough to think that the pressure wouldn’t be there, regardless. She knew how important the academy was to him, his and this satellite one; it'd become a clear symbol of how much of his life’s work she’d come to share.

Her hand at his arm squeezed a little, warmth seeping through the bond.

Mara smiled enigmatically. “Well, there's more to my husband than meets the eye.”

Betheda’s tone was dry, but not unfriendly, “Isn't there to all our mates? We wouldn't have paid their groom price otherwise.” She looked over to her husband indulgently. The man lowered his eyes and Luke saw his hand creep towards her arm, until it settled on it. Betheda's own hand slid on top of his.

There was a small teasing note in Mara's voice when she addressed the women again. “I did pay an incredibly high groom price for him.”

“Groom price?” Muirne echoed, staring at Luke. "For an offworlder? Most have no mothers to speak of."

Luke cast a glance over at Mara as Alva asked, “What was it?”

Mara’s smile turned blinding. “My top of the line starship.”

--

After the dinner was over, the women went outside, asking Mara to join them, while Alva watched over her husband and sons as they cleared the table. Knowing the women, Mara would probably end up giving a couple of impromptu lessons in the finer points of some Jedi technique for novelty.

Luke sensed her weighing it to decline. She was tired and would rather crawl into their pallet, but he also felt her pragmatic side’s pull. She wasn’t that tired, it wouldn’t be for that long, and she’d long learned to appreciate the value of contacts. These seemed like good women to know. Jedi needed all the good will they could get these days.

And still, he stroked the back of her arm, wanting to sigh. He knew all that reasoning intimately well. Mara turned her head, eyes on him longingly, inched close enough that her cheek almost touched his.

“You won't stay out too late?” he whispered, letting his hand fall. "It's been a long day."

She chuckled. "No, not planning to." She covered his hand with hers and gave it a squeeze. "You get some rest too. How long as it been since you've had an uninterrupted night's sleep?"

"It's not my fault everyone's in different galactic time zones," he protested.

"I know...and now that everyone's accounted for..." Mara gently tapped the finger of her free hand against his chest.

"Sister Mara," Alva called.

With one last squeeze, Mara pulled herself away and followed the women, grabbing a cup of her tea and the bowl of hwotha berries with cream that she was having for dessert. The din of conversation moved towards the open patio area at the back of the building. He had seen a few of the husbands leave earlier carrying out blankets and a jug of wine, along with a few fruit dishes, and wondered if he should join them instead, but Mara had been right. He felt her nudge through the bond as emphasis.

Luke went back to their room for his sleep tunic and other personal effects. As he walked out to the ‘fresher area, he could hear the laughter and back and forths of the women. Through the Force he felt their curiosity.

He didn’t envy Mara her time with them; his life had tended to that for a while and often did at times, gathering after gathering, of making acquaintances of this sort and tending to past ones, always with an eye to who would be persuaded, and by what, the results of which was that he’d begun appreciating solitude more, or the chance to tend to those dearest to him -- paradoxically those who needed the least tending.

He settled in to meditate once he was back in their room. This always went effortlessly in Dathomir. He wasn’t sure whether it was the higher-than-average number of Force sensitives in the planet, or if the witches were right and Dathomir was some sort of Force nexus, or perhaps if it had something to do with his own near death experience here so long ago. It could be all three, but he sank into meditation faster than in most other places.

Luke reached out after the session. Mara was outside talking to one of the women, more tired than he’d last felt her, but interested in something. He withdrew, not wanting to intrude, and went over to the pallet, pulling the thin sheet over himself.

Tomorrow they’d meet with the witch presiding over the ritual. He hadn’t wanted to give it too much thought with Mara around, not wanting his discomfort with it to trouble her unnecessarily though he supposed she must have felt it anyway. She’d sold the ritual as something they could do together in relative anonymity, but there was more to it.

“A purification ritual?” he had echoed, when she broached it at the beginning of their trip here. Reflexively, he’d added, “You don’t need it.”

She shook her head. “Not like that. Like meditation...clearing the mind that sort of thing. We’ve never really had time to process this.” Her hand fell to her belly, her face tightening a bit. She’d looked pale, but she’d assured him time and again it was only the morning sickness. She'd been reluctant to use the Force to control it, wanting her body to process all the changes naturally. “I mean, we have on a surface level. We know we’re going to have this baby, but...” she’d let her voice trail off before she found it again.

“When we talk it’s more...am I okay, what tests is Cilghal doing, what will happen next for the Jedi, where will we go. It’s not really figuring out what this means for us now. And I understand that,” she added emphatically, “but maybe...maybe we just need to be away from this for a moment.” She gestured around the ship. “Stay still for a second, so things can settle between us too.”

Luke felt an old conflict stir at her words. Had he put other things before her? Before them? He wouldn’t blame her for being angry, but--

Mara brought her arms around his waist, her cheek warm against his chest, warm even through his tunic. After a moment, she pulled away to look up at him. “I know you don’t want any of this. Not another conflict. Not another war.”

Luke could only stare at her upturned face, the dear lines of it, the openness of it. He didn’t, and the exhaustion hit him suddenly, all the tangle of feelings he’d shelved since the disaster at Duro, Ithor before that.... More than anything, he wanted to go somewhere far away with her, with their son, away from this gathering maelstrom of anguish. Life is risk, he'd told himself.

But how could they risk bringing a child into the world now?

He firmly pushed the thought aside, bringing his arms around Mara. They'd never run away before. They weren't going to do it now.

“It’s a good thing to do this now. I feel it.” Mara closed her eyes and he could feel the conviction from her. He knew then he couldn’t say no.

“We bury our feelings so much by necessity, Luke. We don’t want to worry others, we don’t want to give ourselves away and make them doubt.” She pulled away again to meet his eyes. “But I don’t want to do that right now. I want to meet all of this head on. Hold it in the present.”

Luke stared up towards the rafters. It was another way of looking at it. Not running away, rather...changing the focus for a while, perhaps. That was why they were here in a small town about to undergo a ritual even the locals found quaint.

There was power in rituals, he knew, not just in the actual process so much as what they unlocked in their participants. Was that what was so discomfiting about the whole thing underneath it all? After all, Mara had been right, there was no better time to take a moment for themselves, and yet he remained oddly uneasy. As Luke drifted off to sleep he had the macabre mental image of shaking an anthill, the insects dashing out.

--

He was home again, among the creams and whites of the living room, the red and yellow rug on the floor, the ever present hum of machinery in the dry air.

His aunt was worried. Her eyes darted over the room as she grabbed a throw blanket here, a cushion there. She’d looked everywhere already, Luke knew.

Where was the screwdriver? They’d been looking all morning in under the all cushions, and in her room, and his aunt was just getting more worried. Dama was just going to have a baby, and Aunt Beru wanted to fix the baby an old blanket, but her mending stitcher broke, so they needed the little screwdriver to fix it first.

“You can give the baby another one of my blankets,” Luke suggested, trailing behind her. “I have a lot. I don’t need 'em.”

Aunt Beru looked at him without really seeing him. He could tell she was still thinking of the screwdriver, and she bent to look under the chairs for the gazillionth time. “That blanket belonged to me when I was a baby, Luke. It’s special. I can mend it; we just need to find that screwdriver.”

She didn’t want to bother his uncle who was busy. This was harvest season. But this was important too. Luke followed her down to the garage where his uncle was inputing commands on some droids.

“I can’t find the screwdriver for my ‘stitcher,” his aunt said, but what she felt was worried-worried, much more than when dinner was going to be late, but less than when his uncle had business out in Mos Eisely and came back after sundown. It still felt bad.

“I told Dama I’d have that receiving blanket done before the baby came...”

“Where did you last leave it?” Uncle Owen asked, not looking up from the droid’s access panel.

“I can’t remember. I know you’re busy, but--”

With a sigh, Uncle Owen pulled himself away. What he was doing was important, Luke felt a slight press, like his uncle needed to do this before something, but he turned from the droid, and wiped his hands on a nearby washcloth, then put a hand on his aunt’s shoulder.

He was looking at her in the face, as if he could tell how worried she was. Of course, he could, Luke thought. Uncle Owen had to feel it too.

“The baby's due soon, isn’t it?”

His aunt nodded. “She told me this morning after the midwife came over. Probably this week. It’s her second, they’re always faster.”

Luke followed them back to the living room. He sensed that press of something still in his uncle -- that he should be working with that droid? But his aunt...Luke scrunched his face. She was important, too, he got from his uncle. Enough to put the droid aside.

Luke stared over to where Aunt Beru was beginning to look under the cushions with his uncle looking along the other side of the room, moving over jars of pottery and boxes of spare parts his uncle hadn’t gotten around to moving to the storage room.

“Luke and I searched all over the room,” his aunt was muttering. “I remember having it with me last night...”

They were both worried, his aunt about the blanket, his uncle about something else and his aunt, and they needed to find the screwdriver. Luke just wanted them both to stop being this worried. It felt like little ant stings in his head.

He thought of when his tunic had caught on the door and ripped last week. Aunt Beru had told him he needed to be careful, but it was okay, she could fix it. After dinner she’d gotten her mending stitcher to do it, but it wasn’t tight enough so she stopped, and got the little screwdriver out, tweaking it fast and easy.

Luke stopped at the memory. It was fast and easy. He liked the feeling of fast and easy much more than worried. Now everything felt worried. Luke closed his eyes wishing for fast and easy...something prickled. He opened his eyes.

“It’s under the couch,” he said.

“I just looked there,” his uncle replied going over to the far end of the room. His aunt was pulling the couch cushions up again.

“No, it’s near the middle. That’s why you can’t see it. Behind the leg thing.”

“I don’t--”

His aunt’s voice rang out triumphant. She felt happy, the worry gone. “I got it! It’s right here.”

Luke beamed. “Told you.”

His uncle went over to his aunt and looked at the little screwdriver she’d pulled out, then at him. Luke felt both of them surprised and amazed, and he was proud. He found it. Now they could stop being worried. But then his uncle turned back to him, and Luke felt something very different, sudden and cold.

Luke took a step back.

“How did you know?” his uncle asked in a low voice, the kind of voice he used when Luke did something very dangerous and wrong, like climb too high up, like wander too far, when he needed to come inside right now. The serious voice.

There was something cold in his aunt too as her head snapped towards his uncle, less cold in her, but in both of them. It made the shivery feeling in Luke's insides worse.

“Owen, it’s fine,” she said in a strained voice.

His uncle crossed the room in two steps, it seemed, and then he was looming over him. Luke took another step back.

“I’m only going to ask again once, Luke,” he said very slowly. “How did you know?”

“I-I-I just knew. I didn’t do anything wrong. Aunt Beru was so worried and you--”

“You took it, didn’t you?”

He shook his head quickly, looking at his uncle in wide-eyed confusion. He thought...his uncle knew. His uncle knew he hadn’t. He did. “No! I just knew--y-you know--”

His aunt came over. “Owen, it’s fine," she said quickly. "We found it. You should probably--”

“You took it like a game, Luke.”

Luke shook his head fiercely. His uncle knew he hadn’t. “I didn’t! I felt--”

“Don’t take that tone with me,” his uncle snapped and his face seemed to grow even tighter. “This is not a game.”

Luke went still, feeling the cold in his uncle stinging him.

“It’s not a game,” his uncle said in that serious tone. “That’s stealing.”

“No,” he gasped. He wouldn’t ever. “I didn’t--”

“Apologize to your aunt for stealing.”

“I didn’t!” How could they think that? He’d just wanted to help.

“You did,” his uncle countered, voice hard.

“Owen--” his aunt laid a hand on his shoulder. He shook it off not taking his eyes off Luke.

“You did,” he repeated louder this time. “You did.”

Luke could only shake his head.

“You are not a thief!” his uncle yelled loud enough that a shake built somewhere in Luke’s spine and he drew back against the wall, wanting to yell back that he wasn’t, but his uncle’s face was red as he yelled it again, advancing half a step forward.

“Never do that again! Never!” The entire room seemed to shake and Luke did too, because that cold feeling was all he could feel right now. It was everywhere.

Luke shook as he buried his head in his hands.

Go away, he whispered to it silently, feeling his throat close. Go away. It didn’t, just kept stinging. He felt like it wouldn’t ever go away.

“That’s enough.” The sound of his aunt’s voice broke through, steely. “You’ve scared him enough.”

Her arms wrapped around him, drawing him to her, and he pressed his head against her chest, clutching at her, sobbing now, but it was leaving. The cold was leaving.

“Beru--”

She held him tight enough that he felt her bones, and the cold was almost gone.

“We’re going to talk about this later,” she told his uncle in her serious voice.

The cold became a shadow, still staining his uncle, but there was something else...worry? He wasn't sure, and it wasn't good, but it was better. At least he knew that feeling. Luke felt it from his uncle every time he scolded him, every time Luke asked about his real parents, or why his uncle and aunt never had any babies of their own.

His uncle Owen's footsteps were soft as he left the room, but Luke kept on clinging to his aunt; no cold, it was just his aunt, warm, and a little sad, loving him this much, her arms tight around him.

“I didn’t do it,” he cried against her tunic. The cold was gone but he needed her to believe him. “I didn’t do it.”

“I know, Luke. I know.” Her arms remained wound tight around his shoulders, but her voice sounded different, even if he couldn’t pinpoint how. She did believe him though. That, he was sure of, and he found himself relaxing into her embrace.

Little by little her usual smell of pallies with a faint note of boontaspice had faded into something different, and stronger, like...morning dew with a hint of berries and mint,...still familiar. Wakefulness beckoned gently, making him stir.

“Shhh.” Her lips were soft by his temple, arms warm and still tight around him. Wakefulness slowly receded.

I’m dreaming, Luke thought with a sigh. I’m dreaming.

And then he dreamed no more.