To survive the Sun Lands, the people of Iza knew what they must do:
...Remain completely covered, or risk your skin turning to ash.
...Do not drink water from the surface; drink only that which is pulled from the deep underground, cool and unspoiled by sunlight.
...Eat only which grows beneath the moon, and never accept food from Skywalkers.
...Fear the light, yes — but more importantly, fear those who walk freely in it.
— — —
When Kylo Ren emerged into daylight for the first time in years, he paid no heed to any of the warnings.
He knew them all, but he wasn’t afraid of the light, or Skywalkers.
He’d been one once, after all.
— — —
Along with his fellow Sōhei Ronin, his skin was protected by his Tosei-gusoku, and his face by his Somen.
The sun was just starting to fade behind the trees of the Taiheiyo; Lady Dusk creeping her long fingers down the mountain to grasp the valley below in her brittle grip. He knew this gave his men courage.
When the sun fell below the sparkling sea, and Tsukiyomi smiled down on them once more, Kylo finally spoke, his voice spilling from the lips of his mask in a deep rasp.
They followed him down the mountain path, swift and silent as a whisper on the summer breeze.
No one in this village would see them coming.
Not that it mattered. They would slaughter anyone who tried to stop them.
Kylo motioned for his men to split ranks as they approached the first row of minkas. He didn’t know which dwelling would hold the prize they sought; the Emperor had not been specific in his instruction.
"You will find the Tesuji in the seaside village of Kaiyō, deep in the Eastern reach of the Asu Sun Lands."
Emperor Snoke did not expand further. He simply expected Kylo and his Red Blades to do his bidding. Promptly.
But that was what they were trained for.
In the heady hush of night, they stole forward amongst the modest homes, Kylo signaling them toward the village square. There stood the tallest structure in the entire settlement — a humble, two-story temple. It was the obvious choice to hide something valuable.
He beckoned his men past it, stopping in front of a lean-to meant for barely more than housing grain instead.
Kylo felt an insistent pull in his gut at the sight of the hovel. Firelight flickered across the bamboo shades that blocked those inside from view, promising life, and warmth, and the dancing red light all Iza people welcomed.
He stalked forward, his men shadows behind him.
Slowly, he raised a gloved hand to the door, pushing it open with a fingertip. It creaked open with a soft shudder.
Inside was... a woman.
She sat alone and unguarded, partially hidden behind the fire crackling in the center of the hut. From what he could make out behind his mask, she looked young, but it was difficult to be certain — tightly wound wraps the color of pearl covered almost every inch of her, obscuring any hint of skin. The only part she’d left exposed was the lower half of her face; hair and eyes hidden by a crude ivory men-yoroi of her own.
She was slight. She would be easy to take.
White teeth bit into her bottom lip, pink and full, as soon as she saw him enter.
The pull in his gut suddenly overwhelmed all of his other senses; he felt a sudden, stabbing urge to rush toward her, but couldn’t explain why.
He didn’t listen to the compulsion. Instead, he stayed where he was, waiting while his men formed a pincer movement that would leave her unable to flee.
She stood on trembling legs, but her arm was steady as she raised a long, wooden staff defensively between them.
He frowned at the insult but said nothing. He just surveyed her carefully, considering.
He couldn’t shake the feeling...
He didn’t dare dream, not now. Not when work needed to be done.
Not when dreams were for fools.
“The prize I’ve heard so much about.”
Her lips pulled into a fine line at the designation, and without warning, she struck Kylo’s nearest man hard in the belly with her staff, forcing the black-garbed warrior to his knees, gasping for breath.
The other Red Blades slunk forward in unison, barely making a sound, but Kylo extended a hand to halt them.
“You would kill me. Knowing nothing about me.”
“Why wouldn’t I kill you? I know about the Sōhei Ronin.”
Her voice was fierce. He’d expected that. What he hadn’t expected was how her defiance came to curl around the tugging in his stomach like a warm cat, soothing the ache.
Who was this girl? And, perhaps more unsettlingly, why did Snoke want her?
Kylo pressed forward, side-stepping the still blazing hearth. The girl lunged at him, raising her staff–/p>
It slapped into his gloved hand, and he curled his fingers around it, pulling it gently from her before tossing it into the flames. With his other hand, he pointed his Tachi at her throat.
“Pull the division out. We have what we need.”
And with that, he sheathed his blade, seizing her slender wrist and pressing softly where he knew he needed to. She started to resist, but the touch of pressure had the intended effect — as soon as she tried to step toward him, she sagged forward, fainting. He moved forward swiftly, catching her under her knees and back before lifting her in a bridal carry.
He cradled her to his chest, trying not to think about how right he’d been — she was a slip of a thing, this girl — and followed his men back the way they’d come, the Ikkō-ikki none the wiser as to who’d just stolen their secret Princess.
— — —
"I can't believe I'm stuck with her all summer."
"Ben! Don't say things like that," chided Leia, ruffling her son's mop of dark hair.
The 10-year-old groaned pitifully, trying to duck out of reach from his mother's meddling hands. They stood outside in the gardens, soaking in the early summer sun as they waited for their guests to arrive. Ben was restless; he didn't want to be here, and he was hot, and he'd rather be in the shade practicing with his calligraphy set.
"Patience, Ben. Your father and Uncle Luke are on their way, and the Shima chief– "
She stopped, cocking her head to the side. Ben heard it, too — voices. From what he could make out, it sounded as if they were approaching through the southern entrance to gardens, near the orchard.
"That must be them," his mother concluded, tugging him along, "Come; we'll meet them. Though I don't know why they decided to come in that way..."
She trailed off, half-dragging him along with her toward the grove of cherry blossoms planted in the Sun Palace gardens.
He let her. When it came to Leia Organa, Hime of Asu, he didn't dare protest with more than a fat pout.
After a few minutes, they turned into the right row. Just ahead, three men stood conversing under the shadow of an especially large tree; pink-dotted branches hanging low. The tallest of the men noted their approach and turned to greet them.
"Leia," said Han Solo, moving toward his wife. His face was uncharacteristically solemn. Next to him stood Ben's Uncle Luke, wrapped in his usual flowing robes and impassive as ever — though Ben noticed that his hands were clenched tightly around his middle.
Ben didn't know the other man, but he immediately didn't like him. He was bulbous, and slow, and had beady, unkind eyes. Wary of the stranger, he hovered between his mother and father.
Where was the girl?
"What is it?" asked Leia, surveying the men with a sharp eye. It was clear that she already sensed something was wrong; nothing escaped the royal's notice.
"Leia, this is– " started Han.
"Unkar Plutt," interrupted the bulbous man, inclining his head in the shortest bow Ben had ever seen, "It's my honor to meet you, Hime Leia Organa, guardian of Asu. I've come burdened with tragic news."
"What's happened?" Leia asked. "Where is Chief Kenobi?"
Silence stretched for a long moment, wan and windy enough to stir the blossoms overhead. Ben held still, alternating glances at his uncle, father, and mother. Luke had his head bowed, almost as if in prayer, while Han looked at his wife.
Leia, however, glared openly at the man called Plutt.
"So you say. What happened?"
"The monsoon, Princess."
"And their daughter?" she asked, voice cold.
Plutt jerked his head behind him, and Ben finally saw her — a little girl, brown-haired and skinny, sitting on the ground a few trees away from them. She was drawing something with a stick in the dirt.
At that exact moment, she looked up at him, meeting his dark eyes with her own; a warm golden brown threaded with green.
Before he really knew what he was doing, his feet carried him toward her — away from his family, the man called Plutt, and their conversation. Snippets still reached his ears as he approached the girl, but he paid them no attention.
"And who are you, exactly, Plutt?"
"Yes, we're very interested to know how no message proceeded your arrival, or how the Chief's daughter came into your care."
"I'm just a humble merchant, Princess. The monsoon claimed many lives; there was no one left to tend to the girl. I knew she was bound for your boy, of course, and wanted to ensure her safe arrival– "
"Out of the kindness of your heart, I'm sure."
Once he was next to her, Ben crouched down, staring at the girl's handiwork. Down in the dirt, she'd scratched one word...
"Is that your name?"
— — —
He waited hours for her to wake.
He didn’t know why. Perhaps it was because he couldn’t stomach the idea of her waking alone, a prisoner in this strange, scarlet city, to an unforgiving Emperor.
He hadn’t taken her to Snoke. Not yet. Something itched at him not to. He would question her first — he wanted to know why Snoke wanted some peasant girl badly enough to risk the lives of his Red Blades in Asu.
There had to be a reason.
Instead, he’d taken her to one of the more amenable holding cells; careful to bind her to a raised platform normally used for much more sinister purposes.
She was thin enough that he worried she’d be able to wriggle her way out of her shackles, but still, he kept them fairly loose. He hated the idea of blemishing her skin.
He wanted to remove her mask, to see her face, but he didn’t. The thought of touching her without real reason — without her consent — made his stomach roil.
When she finally came to, it was with a sharp gasp.
The endless black eyes of her mask found him kneeling in front of her. Even bowed before her, he still nearly came up to her chin.
“Where am I?”
Her voice betrayed her fear, and something foreign filled his heart.
“You’re my guest.”
She spat in his direction, and the feeling intensified.
“Where are the others?”
He raised a brow, but of course, she couldn’t see it.
“My Red Blades? Or do you mean the murderers, traitors, and thieves you call friends? You'll be relieved to hear I have no idea."
The woman's lips formed a deep frown, but she said nothing.
"Why does Snoke want you?"
"Shouldn't you know the answer to that?"
At that, he rose, drawing closer to her. Suspicion — and hated, horrible hope — caught in his chest, building and burning.
"You. A nōmin."
The words twisted out of his mouth like something sour, and she raised her chin at the implication. Standing, he towered over her, but somehow still felt small under her gaze.
He leaned in closer.
"You know I can take whatever I want."
She turned her face away from him.
"You've been so lonely," he murmured, raising a hand to her cloth-covered cheek. It hovered there; he still didn't dare touch her, but he couldn't stop himself from leaning even closer, his breath grazing her chin. "So afraid to leave. At night, desperate to sleep, you'd imagine an ocean. I can see it... I can see the island."
"I'm not giving you anything," she said, head shifting back toward him. There was something in her voice, then, that made his heart stir with memory. And longing.
"We'll see," he assured her, dropping his hand and pulling back. She was breathing roughly now, but again, she didn't speak.
"Don't be afraid,” he murmured, “I feel it, too."
"You know nothing," she growled, baring her teeth.
"You still want to kill me."
She snarled at him, ripping the mask off her face with her free hand.
Kylo's heart was a dark drumbeat in his chest; painful, searing as he took in her features — sunkissed skin, dark hair, and large brown eyes dotted with green.
Eyes he would recognize anywhere, no matter how much time had passed.
"That happens when you're being hunted by a creature in a mask," she hissed.
Behind his own Somen, Kylo's eyes widened as he looked at a girl he'd thought long dead.
"It is you."