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Whom Hades Seized

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Rey’s fingertips skim the tops of the winter wheat, the stalks strong and healthy, the field almost golden. The awns feel like soft bristles against her palms, the heads of the grain reaching just beneath her navel. Her lightweight clothes cling to her, and she swipes the back of her hand across her brow. The immense room is warm but a faint rush of air soothes over her sweat-dampened skin, almost like wind. She closes her eyes, and the smell of damp, soft earth greets her. It’s easy to imagine, for a moment, that she is breathing real air, and that the lamps over her head are sunlight…the hum of the Eleusis beneath her is barely audible, but it is a reminder nonetheless.

She opens her eyes. Back to work.

She resumes the process of snapping off the seed heads, fingers twisting and pulling until they separate from the plant. Her belt is tight around her waist, its second circle slung low over her hips, and the small pouch at her right thigh stores the chaffs. She places them carefully into small vials, for later testing. Her fingers are worn and weary, her knuckles aching from hours in the field. She barely notices the man who approaches until he is almost upon her, but then she sees him, and smiles.

Finn doesn’t smile back, and her brow creases. Sometimes in the late afternoon, he comes to help her in the field, but he isn’t dressed for harvesting today. He is wearing his brown flight jacket, the red shoulder patch a vibrant blotch of color against the gold, white and brown hues of wheat and soil.

“You alright?” she asks him.

He nods, and then stops abruptly, as if thinking better of it. “I’m…no, actually. I’m not alright.” His deep eyes can’t seem to meet hers, and her hands still against the grain. This is unlike him.

“Rey, I’m so, so sorry. I wish…I would give anything not to have to tell you this.”

“What’s wrong?” she asks.

“We just heard - the pilots are saying…” He takes a long, shuddering breath, as if steeling himself against the words, and then they pour out of him in a rush. “Han Solo is dead.”

The Eleusis groans beneath her. Rey remembers a lesson from her early days at the children’s academy, where the instructors had taught them how the ship isn’t really flying, that they are in orbit above the planet that had once been home to humanity. The words hadn’t made sense then, and even now she’s not sure she really understands the mechanics of it all. They are in space, aren’t they? They are flying through the sky, soaring hundreds of feet above the earth, hurtling in a vast circle above the clouds.

“This isn’t flying, kid,” Han Solo had told her. “Flying is freedom, it’s life, it’s everything. We’re falling.”

 

***

 

Rey tries to keep her hands busy. She isn’t supposed to know that Han is dead. No one is supposed to know. But the whispers burn through the ship, rumors tinged with truth. Today was meant to be a victory, a triumph for the Republic, the return of the Millennium Falcon from its three-year voyage. Instead they are going to bury one of their heroes.

Rey is relieved when the doors hiss open and Jessika Pava walks through the door. Her black hair is longer than when Rey had last seen her, pulled over her shoulder in a long ponytail. When Jess had left on the expedition, she had been the youngest starpilot ever, just three days shy of eighteen. They had made an exception for her, waiving the requirement that pilots reach the age of majority before leaving for an outer-rim voyage. She looks older now. Her uniform is decorated on its shoulder with the golden symbol of the AgriCorps, as it always has been, but on her right shoulder there is now a second badge: the silver wing of a deep space pilot.

A moment passes, and then Jessika steps forward and gives her a brief, tight hug. “You look well, Rey,” she says simply.

“You look…” Rey can’t seem to find the words, but Jessika nods understandingly. Jess knows she doesn’t look well. She looks tired.

“I’m fine,” Pava says.

“Is it true?” Rey asks her.

Jessika takes in a heavy breath. “Yes. It’s true.”

“Stars,” Rey says. “Are you okay?”

“Are you?” Jessika asks. She doesn’t have to say anything more. They each know what Han had meant to the other. Finally, Jess moves the conversation into more neutral territory, saying, “I heard you’ve been made head of AgriCorps. Command says that I’m to report to you now.”

“Only because you weren’t here,” Rey says quickly.

Jess tilts her head. “You’re being humble, Rey. I heard you were able to get wheat to take. That we’re going to have an actual harvest this year.”

“Two acres,” Rey tells her, something like pride creeping into her voice. Before this year, there hadn’t been a useable harvest on the Eleusis in centuries. “We almost didn’t, though. There was a nitrogen deficiency in the soil. I very nearly had to kill the crops and start from scratch.”

“Two acres,” breathes Jess, a faint smile appearing over her face. “Do you know how much bread that is?”

Rey points to the holoboard on the far wall. It is the most simple calculation she has ever run. A 60 pound bushel of wheat can be ground into about 40 pounds of flour, which yields approximately 42 loaves of bread. One acre can produce 35 bushels of wheat.

“Two-thousand nine-hundred and forty loaves,” says Jessika, closing her eyes. “What do you think real food tastes like?”

“You have a problem with the insta-bread?” Rey asks her, a faint smile flickering across her face.

“I have a problem with it, you know, not being food,” says Pava, rolling her eyes as she pulls a bag off of her back. “Brought you something, kid.”

Rey opens the bag. Inside are easily two hundred samples, each carefully labeled with exact coordinates. The soil comes in a hundred colors: some dark and rich, the kind she is used to working with, but most are unfamiliar to her. These vials are filled will deep red clay, pale yellow dirt, navy mud. A few contain earth so coarse that it should really be considered sand. One is filled with an ashy blue powder.

“Thirty-two planets,” Jess says quietly. “We tried to bring back as much as we could.”

 

***

 

When Rey enters the temple, the acolytes are already building a pyre in the center of the atrium, and at the sight of that ritualistic, heathen mound of wood her breath refuses to leave her lungs. There hasn’t been a Burning since before she was born, even when death spread through the ship and the sick were sent to the ground in their own coffins, still breathing. It is a lost custom, a terrible waste: of precious trees, of air, of energy. They barely have enough food as it is, and for the priests to cut down a tree that was barely two years old…the thought makes her blood boil. Only those who fear the ground demand their bodies to be burned, and all but the most venerated are refused. She isn’t here to interfere, but she can’t help the heat that blazes beneath her breast, a righteous anger that drives her forward.

Han wasn’t superstitious. He wouldn’t want this. Rey has to bite her tongue to keep from speaking as she walks past the young monks, with their hair cropped close to their heads and their padawan’s braids trailing over their shoulders, a pale imitation of the Jedi of old. Their Masters claim to see visions and dream prophecies, but for all of their ritual and liturgy they have no power here. The last of the Jedi are long dead.

She makes her way towards Poe Dameron. He is seated on the far steps, still wearing his dark flightsuit and jacket. There are dark shadows beneath his eyes, and she wonders if he has slept. He is ten years her senior, but they have always been comfortable in one another’s company, their ages almost an afterthought.

But right now he looks very, very old to Rey.

“Poe?” she asks, and her voice sounds small, even to her. He doesn’t move or speak. He is staring at the pyre. His skin, normally so warm and rich, several shades darker than her own, seems drained of color. They are going to burn his Captain, she realizes. His comrade, his friend. The husband of his mentor. The closest thing either of them will know to a father. She kneels before him, the cold metal on the floor seeping into her shins, and takes his face between her hands. Poe collapses against her, and she holds him there for a moment, fingers gripping onto his shoulders. He draws back, and there is an intensity in his gaze that is unfamiliar to her.

“Tell them to stop,” he says quietly, his jaw clenched. It is an order. For a moment, she is confused; she has no rank, no position…she is powerless to stop this. But then another voice trails over her shoulder, oddly formal in this intimate space, and she realizes that Poe isn’t speaking to her.

“Commander Dameron,” says Lor San Tekka, his voice detached. The priest is dressed in monk-like robes that reach to his feet, a strange assembly of beads around his neck. His hair is silver in the dim light.

“This isn’t right,” Poe says quietly. “You can’t do this.”

“To send General Solo to the ground is unthinkable,” San Tekka replies. “The Chancellor’s husband should be afforded all respect in death, not sent below to…”

At the look in Dameron’s eyes, his words falter, and Rey’s heart tightens inside her chest. She thinks of the stories about the wraiths who live on the surface of the dead world, the reapers in masks who have become so inhuman, so monstrous, so hungry, that they eat the bodies that the Eleusis sends down to the earth. Centuries ago, when the ship made its maiden voyage never to return, the dead were sent below to receive their last funeral rites from the Knights of Ren. But the earth has been silent since before the birth of Rey’s great-grandparents, and now there is no absolution for the dead or the living.

“To what?” Poe demands, and his dark eyes flash dangerously. San Tekka remains silent. Then again, Poe commands: “Tell them.”

“It is not your decision,” the priest finally says delicately, almost politely, as if speaking to a child.

“It is not yours either,” Poe replies. He stands wearily. His anger is gone, replaced by sadness and exhaustion. Poe touches her shoulder briefly, and then descends the steps, brushing past the priest. San Tekka turns his back to her, watching him leave.

Rey watches as the pyre grows higher.

 

***

 

Leia Organa is the only calm in the midst of a storm of grief. She is sanity itself, the ideals of a fallen Republic, clinging to hope that humanity may yet return to its home. San Tekka tries to discredit her, and when he cannot, he attempts to persuade her.

He pleads with her right up until the moment she ascends the steps of the atrium to address her people. Dressed in black, a band of gold in her braided hair, the Chancellor seems to Rey less a venerable leader and every bit a mourning widow.

“My husband,” Rey hears her tells Lor San Tekka firmly, “will be buried with my son.”

“Can the dead bury the dead?” he replies, his words cruel and haunting, but Leia pushes past him to stand before the altar, facing the assembly. Three-quarters of the crowd is older than Rey by at least twenty years. Only fourteen children born in the same year as Rey have reached adulthood, the survivors of a plague that spread through the ship, draining the life out of the very old and very young. Her generation had nearly been the end of life on the Eleusis. None here are strangers to funerals; every parent in the room has sent a child to the ground, and most children are accompanied by only one parent. Many, like Rey, have no parents.

On the Chancellor’s left is the elderly Mon Mothma, and on her right is Poe Dameron. A murmur shifts through the crowd when she embraces Poe, the pilot who had returned with her husband’s body.

The pyre has been removed at Leia’s request, replaced with the smooth, black coffin that holds Han’s body. The Republic insignia blazes across its surface in silver, and something tightens in Rey’s throat and a pressure builds behind her eyes. Leia speaks, and the words flicker across Rey’s consciousness. She speaks of darker times, of grief and the loss of their son. She speaks of renewed hope, of the deep space voyages to far-away worlds lead by her husband, of the first crops grown on the Eleusis in eight hundred years.

“Humanity has come this far, it will go on. It will survive. It will be victorious, conquering all things save death.”

Rey touches her fingers to her cheeks and they come away wet.

The port doors open, the creaking of metal gears unlocking, unsealing, and the transparisteel becomes the only barrier between her fragile human body and the deep void. Rey sucks in a deep breath. The sounds of sorrow echo in her ears, but she can barely hear them. There are no windows on the Eleusis, its passengers protected by durasteel twenty meters thick. Only the deep space pilots and the zero-g mechanics ever see the outside of the hull, save at funerals, and even in the midst of her grief, Rey cannot help but appreciate the deep blackness of space, adorned with a thousand thousand stars. And closer, a golden orb suspended as if motionless: the earth.

It had once been called the blue planet. Now it is a vast, searing wasteland. She imagines jagged peaks and endless deserts. There are immense pools of black, and smaller dark veins that wind through the burnt gold…oceans, rivers. The silver moon is rising over the earth’s far horizon, small and mysterious, half-hidden. Rey’s heart fills, soars. The world beneath her possesses a beauty unlike anything she has known, lovely even in its barrenness.

Poe Dameron steps forward. In the bright light, the small, metal wings on his shoulders glint. He has been given Solo’s rank, and as he walks the silver insignia seem to weigh heavy on him, his steps louder than they should be. He is crying, and yet is not ashamed. The crew of the Falcon stand in a clean row behind him, and Rey wonders what Han’s death means for them. Their next voyage will be the first flight without Han in fifty years. The oldest among them is not yet forty. Dameron presses a hand to his Captain’s coffin, fingers tracing the symbol of the Republic.

“Let’s send him home,” he says quietly.

 

***

 

Rey dreams that night of lying down in her own coffin, of drifting through space, of landing gently in golden sand. She skips out of her coffin, her feet bare, dancing on the dry earth. Rain pours from the sky - clean, cold, clear. It soaks the thin, layered wisps of fabric that shield her body, until she is wet through, her hair and clothing heavy.

The ground drinks it up, and small shoots grow up from the dirt where she steps; the seasons turn, change. The red sun rises, and sets, and rises again. The golden sand becomes a field of wheat, dancing in the wind.

A man walks towards her, clothed in black. He harvests the wheat, cutting down the stalks with a long knife the length of his forearm. It blazes red when the sun hits it. He arranges them into great bushels, even taller than he is, and then groups them together, binding them with cords. As far as her eyes can see, there are harvested bushels of wheat, and he returns to her with curved knife in hand.

“All this I will give to you,” he promises.

 

***

 

Rey awakens to the sound of a hull breach, the ship’s systems wailing in distress. It’s a blaring, sickening sound that makes her heart leap into her throat. She fumbles in the dark, reaching blindly for the small light switch on the wall beside her sleeping platform, but before she can reach it the emergency power kicks in and the light is so bright and white that she has to close her eyes for a few moments. She breathes deeply, trying not to panic.

She opens her eyes, blinking rapidly. Emergency protocol flashes through her mind. She shoves herself off of her bed, crossing the small room in several strides. She begins to rummage through a storage compartment, pulling on her clothes quickly, practiced hands wrapping the final strips of white linen across her shoulders, and clinching a leather belt at her waist. For good measure, she slips into a light flightsuit, zipping the insulated material; she’ll regret not having it if they actually have to evacuate for any length of time. The life-pods are freezing.

The narrow passage is crowded with people trying to make their way towards the emergency lower decks. She walks in the opposite direction of the crowd as fast as she can without running, taking the stairs rather than the lifts to go up the three immense flights to Deck 17, and only then in the nearly-abandoned hallways does she run. Two left turns, and a right, and she presses her code into a keypad, opening a blast door. The lab inside is meticulously clean, rows upon rows of tiny, labeled boxes, mere centimeters wide and deep, their contents sealed perfectly.

Out of foresight, she selects practical items first: oryza sativa, zea mays, triticum, solanum tuberosum, glycine max, lens culinaris. And then a few perfectly preserved seeds that she is fascinated by, her personal choices: rosa hybrid, crocus sativus, viola, iris germanica, hyacinthus, narcissus psuedonarcissus. And finally a few rare plants that she has never managed to grow without real soil and sunlight: cupressus, cedrus, sequoia sempervirens.

The wailing of the emergency systems stops, leaving behind an unsettling quiet, and Rey pauses. A hull breach, even a minor one, should have taken hours for the zero-g mechanics to fix. She quickly slips the boxes she has collected into her flightsuit’s utility belt, and steps towards the door, but hesitates. The lab is protected in ways that the rest of the ship is not: it has its own central heating and cooling system, so that fluctuations in temperature won’t damage its precious contents, and its own air supply that can last for weeks. Her hand hovers over the keypad, shaking with indecision. If the emergency systems have shut down…

Her mind is reeling. If she opens the door, she risks exposing the lab and herself to severe damage. If there has been a full hull breach, one bad enough to damage even the emergency systems, there could be a vacuum waiting for her on the other side. She could wait. Hope that the mechanics will fix whatever has gone wrong, that most of the crew and passengers have made it to their life-pods. Someone will come for her…might come for her…

The ship creaks beneath her. She can hear the blood pounding in her ears. The blast doors open, the sound jarring her, and she lets out a soft, startled scream.

“Rey!” Finn cries, rushing through the doors.

“Finn?” she says in disbelief. He crushes her into a hug, and she wraps her arms around him. “What are you doing here?”

“You weren’t at your station,” he says, his brow furrowed in concern. “I thought something might have happened - are you okay?”

“Yeah,” she says, letting go. “We should go.”

The ship jerks violently, as if it has been impacted by some great force, and she throws out a hand to steady herself.

“What’s going on?” she asks Finn, but he has taken her hand and is pulling her out of the lab, sealing the door behind them and breaking into a run.

“Don’t know. I think…” He speaks quickly as they sprint down the narrow passage, and Rey listens carefully for the sound of the drives ten decks below. “This isn’t just wear-and-tear on the hull. Command has got the pilots headed to their hangars.”

“Do you think we hit something?” Rey asks.

“Or something hit us,” Finn replies.

Something stirs in Rey’s mind…something hit us…but she doesn’t have time to figure out what it means. She counts the deck numbers as they descend, feeling that something isn’t right. They reach the main command deck, which is eerily empty save for the whirring of machinery; everyone that is not emergency crew has been evacuated. She spots two zero-g mechanics, distinguished by their red-orange flightsuits; the first points to a holoscreen filled with strange schematics that Rey can’t decipher…a constellation of stars, a jagged line tracing through them.

One of them looks up at her, and his mouth parts, almost as if he is going to call out to her. And then there is such a violent explosion that her hand - her entire body - is ripped away from Finn’s. Her back slams flat against the deck, and there are a few terrifying moments in which she can’t move or draw breath. It is as though a large hand has wrapped itself around her lungs and squeezed.

She rolls onto her side, and pain shoots through her, so searing and violent that she begins to cry, despite the fact that there is no air in her lungs to sob or scream. Finally, as if released, she draws in a shallow breath. Smoke and the scent of burning metal and skin fills her lungs. There is a high-pitched ringing in her ears as she lifts herself onto her hands and knees, looking frantically around for Finn.

The deck has been split in two, a gaping wound in the floor. She can see down two flights into the hangar bay, and she sways dangerously as she tries to stand. There are sounds coming up from the depths of the ship: screaming.

Stepping out of the blackness, out of the nightmare, a man comes towards her. His tattered, black cloak seems made of smoke itself, his face hidden beneath a grotesque, metal mask. She cannot see his eyes, but she feels his gaze on her, sharp and focused. She flees from him, stumbling as she runs, pain jolting through her with every movement, and then he reaches out a gloved hand, and somehow, impossibly, she can’t move - he walks toward her, circling around until he is facing her, wraithlike and inhuman. Her entire body shakes; she wills herself to move, to scream, but her body refuses to obey, and the impossible, terrifying thought occurs to her that he is doing this to her somehow. The man is close enough now that he could reach out and touch her face, close enough that she can see the rise and fall of his shoulders as he breathes.

The creature speaks, his voice deep and distorted. “The girl I’ve heard so much about…” His voice is almost reverent, curiosity creeping past the modulator. She feels something in her mind, a faint whisper…a presence. It’s him, she realizes, and she shakes with the effort to free herself from the intrusion, the brush of his mind against hers. “You have it…what I’ve come for…”

She wants to speak, to deny his words, to tell him that she is no one. Someone is screaming her name, a familiar voice, Rey! No, no, no…Rey!, and then the man in the mask’s outstretched hand jerks violently and the ground opens up beneath her.

Chapter Text

An x-wing flies low over the horizon. An expanse of salt-white desert refracts light onto its transparisteel canopy, and beyond the sand Rey can see the sun burning quiet and red against dark clouds. The ancient orb casts a dim, scattered light over the surface of the earth as it rises. The mountains in the far west, rising up out of the earth like the spine of a great animal, turn blood red as the light falls on them. The ship lands, kicking up a cloud of white-gold dust.

Rey’s heart beats faster. She knows this ship, and its pilot. Though she can’t see his face, the pilot’s helmet bears the marks of Rapier Squadron’s commander. Black One.

A astromech droid drops to the ground just behind the cockpit. It is not one of the three-legged, barrel-bodied droids that most starpilots use, but a spherical droid with a domed head. A BB unit. It hurries towards Dameron, a flurry of concerned beeps issuing from its transmitter. Poe kneels. His voice comes out distorted through a respirator, and yet despite the machine it is still warm and strong.

“Don’t worry…I’ll come back for you!”

As if the words trigger something, her world shifts.

A pair of rough, calloused hands stroke Rey’s hair and brush tears away from her cheeks. Strong arms wrap arms around her small body, and she pleads softly into the hollow of a man’s neck: “Don’t leave me.”

“Stay right here.” His voice is like water, like sunlight, like air. It makes dandelions bloom in her heart. “I promise, sweetheart. I’ll come back for you.”

 

***

 

Rey wakes violently, her entire body seizing in protest. Her muscles ache, as though they have been stretched tight across her bones. She can’t move, and it takes her a moment to realize that she is physically bound: shackles circle her wrists and ankles, and her back is pressed uncomfortably against a cold metal surface. The only light comes from above, a blue, artificial light that filters through strange metal bars in the ceiling. But more unnerving than the darkness, more binding than the restraints, is the absolute and terrible silence. For the first time in her life, she cannot hear the hum of the Eleusis’s drives under her feet.

As though carved from stone, the man from her nightmare is huddled against the far wall, half-crouched, forearms curved over his knees like some demonic gargoyle. His face is masked, a dark visor where Rey assumes his eyes must be. Four silver lines cut across his forehead, giving the mask an imitation of expression, but those parallel bands curve around his cheekbones and disappear under a strange, metal plate that reveals nothing to her. Without the hood of his cloak drawn up, she can see that the mask is actually a helmet, its surface dented and scorched. The light catches on something above the man’s shoulder: the hilt of a long, straight sword, angled across his back. An archaic weapon. Barbaric, uncivilized.

But he spoke Basic, Rey reminds herself. He must be human.

“Where am I?” she asks him. Her voice shakes, the hesitation painfully obvious in the silence. She grits her teeth, steeling herself. He tilts his head, as if considering how to answer.

“You’re my guest,” he replies, but his voice is a feeling instead of a sound. It is rich and powerful, like roots hidden under dark soil, soaking up rainwater. It is the cold kiss of transparisteel against skin, it is the void of deep space, it is the feeling of a dry leaf crumbling in her hand. It is something else, something she cannot put words to. A shiver travels from the base of her neck, between her shoulder blades, to the small of her back.

Her mind goes to Finn. To warmth, to home. He had been calling to her.

“Where are the others?” she says finally, unable to say Finn’s name aloud.

“You mean the murderers, traitors, and thieves you call friends?” A soft pause, while he waits for the accusation to sink in, but it doesn’t make sense to Rey. They are peaceful, and have done him no harm.

She recalls the gaping hole in the command deck of the Eleusis, the screams reverberating in the depths of the ship, and the motionless, scattered bodies. Dread fills her at the thought that Finn might be one of them. You’re a murderer. A traitor. She thinks of the way he’d ripped into her mind, of the sudden and inescapable blackness that had devoured her. A thief. But beneath her rage, there is still fear, and so she says nothing.

“You’ll be relieved to hear I have no idea,” he says finally, but this admission does nothing to quiet her anger. She has never felt this before, never known evil with such certainty. Not for the first time, she feels a faint touch against her mind, a tentative presence. And then it withdraws, as if burned. “You still want to kill me?” he questions.

“That happens when you’re being hunted by a creature in a mask,” she retorts, keeping her voice steady.

His gloved hands come up to the edges of his helmet. For a brief moment, she thinks he is going to remove it. Anticipation stirs in her chest. But the moment passes. Instead, he rises. There is elegance in the way he moves, and also harshness. This is not a barbarian, she realizes. This is a skilled warrior. A soldier. As he comes closer, Rey’s defiance crumbles, and she wishes desperately that she had never spoken.

“Tell me about the droid,” he says. His voice is soft, controlled, but she understands that it is not a request. He speaks with the authority of a commander. “The unit the Falcon sent to earth.”

“I don’t k-know,” she says desperately. “I don’t know anything. I’m just a scientist. I’m no one.”

He laughs, low and cruel through his mask. “You do know. You know the droid. You’ve seen the section of the navigational chart that it carries. You just don’t remember,” he murmurs. “The Jedi was wise to hide you from us…but he should have known…I can take whatever I want.”

She doesn’t know what he means - the Jedi are myths, their fire has gone out of the universe - but his words make her afraid. He brings his hand up, fingers nearly brushing her temple, and she recognizes his now-familiar presence pressing against her mind. This time the intrusion is more insistent, more demanding. She struggles against her restraints, but the onslaught is not against her body; he is in her head, in her thoughts.

At first, he sifts through them like a hand moves through water, letting them fall through his fingertips. A series of images rise to the surface against her will: a small makeshift doll dressed like a pilot, crumbled red and purple wildflowers in a vase, a series of numbers on the wall of the lab. But then the images focus: he sees the metal hull of the Millenium Falcon, a small pinprick glinting in the darkness of space before it disappears. “The last remnant of humanity has abandoned hope that they will return to earth,” he says quietly, as if her thoughts have confirmed something he already knows to be true. Something he dreads. “They turn their attention towards the stars, to the deep reaches of space…”

Poe Dameron’s arms are around her, the warm, heady scent of spice and lemon a sharp memory just before he presses his mouth to hers. It is a first kiss, and a parting kiss. Tears sting Rey’s eyes. She doesn’t want her captor to see these things. They are private, precious.

“You loved him…And yet you remained behind?” he questions softly. “So lonely. So afraid to leave.”

She is shaking, trembling with the effort to force him out of her mind. But he has access to everything: he sees the rippling field of golden wheat, the dirt beneath her fingernails, her exhaustion when she collapses into her bunk at night. He feels the fear coiled in her body, a constant companion that keeps her awake despite her exhaustion. He knows her doubts, her regrets. He sees the things she thinks about when she is alone.

“At night, desperate to sleep, you imagine an ocean…” She is truly crying now. No one knows these things, and yet he is lifting them from her mind as though they have always belonged to him. He speaks as if in a trance. “I see it. I see the island.”

She turns her face away from him. And he follows that thread, fingers traveling along a path in her mind, unraveling it from the others. The red block of Finn’s jacket, a raised pyre in the temple, the golden band in Leia’s hair. A black coffin. Grief floods her body anew.

“Han Solo,” he breathes softly, testing the name on his tongue. “You feel like he’s the father you never had.”

Something burns through her lungs, a searing, choking anger that doesn’t belong to her. She sees pieces of memories that aren’t hers: a dark, enclosed space that seems to close in around her, small fists beating against harsh metal, and a boy crying. The sound of a blaster, the mechanical shot ripping through the air, tearing apart skin and bones. And then the images are gone, like grain scattered on the wind.

“He would have disappointed you,” the man tells her, as if in confidence. As though they are equals, friends.

“Get out of my head,” she breathes.

“I know you’ve seen the map. It’s in there. And now you’ll give it to me.”

His inflection is seductive, persuasive. He moves so that he is standing in front of her, drawn up to his full height, his hand outstretched. Suddenly, all this talk of a droid and a map mean nothing to her. Finn and Poe and her life on the Eleusis are distant memories. Just give him what he’s asking for, something inside her whispers. Don’t resist. Her body bends forward, bowing towards him, as if he is physically pulling the memories from her. She thinks of reeds bending against the wind. Her mind howls against this submission, and everything in her tells her that she must not give in to this.

“I’m not giving you anything.”

“We’ll see.”

Pain erupts in her head, not from the intrusion itself, but from her resistance. She sees and feels things she has not thought of in years, things that are not memories, but the fragments of dreams. Her mother’s hands in her hair. A man’s voice, singing, clear and beautiful. A sword made of fire, humming with life. And beyond…a deep blackness where nothing lives or grows or moves…something dormant, terrible and diseased…

“Don’t be afraid,” he says softly, when she recoils. “I feel it too.”

It is as though a line has been drawn in her mind, a bright, burning line cutting through the incurable darkness. It gives her focus. His hand wavers, and she realizes that her mind is clear, though the connection between them is not diminished.

His thoughts come to her, a different kind of memory than her own, colorless and painful. A fever running through his veins, burning sand under his feet, the air choking and burning and please let it end…let it be over…let me go home…

A woman, brown-skinned and wrinkled with braids and adornments in her hair…light falling through lattices, casting shadows like lace on the walls, and mirrored pillows on the floor to ward off spirits…the woman uses a language Rey can’t speak, and yet understands because this is his language and his memory…a warm voice, a voice that weaves tales with words, speaking softly: Enaka nik me lohem, Strei-kai-loro.

The memories shift and change. No longer warm, but filled with pain and confusion…A man, his face like carved white marble, streaked with disturbing keloids on his skull and the hollow of his right cheek…A six-eyed sparrow between a boy’s gloved hands, one side warm and soft, the other wet with something dark and red…a young woman on a pyre, face still and motionless and yet proud even in death, cyclamen flowers forged of metal in her moonlight hair…

“You’re afraid,” Rey says softly, reacting to the energy that is passing between them. In his mind, she sees a great hall, a raised dias, a throne cut from stone. And a man, called Vader, with a mask not unlike his own.

“You’re afraid…that you will never be as strong as Darth Vader!”

The man rips himself away from her mind, gasping in a shallow, shuddering breath. His hands are shaking with the effort of breaking the connection, but it lingers in the air between them.

When he leaves, victory thrums in her veins.

 

***

 

Rey can feel him, long after he’s gone. His turmoil is evident, pressing in on him from all sides. Whatever has passed between them has unsettled and disturbed him.

It doesn’t take her long to realize that he means to kill her.

She struggles against the restraints, but they are forged of some foreign metal, not durasteel but just as strong. Her shins start to bruise and her wrists begin to bleed where the edges cut into them, and she stops, leaning back against the cool platform that supports her.

Calm down. Think.

She can’t see much from her position. Her captor left through a door behind her; she heard it hiss shut as the locking mechanism engaged. At first glance, she thinks the room is circular, but on closer inspection she finds that the smooth, metal panels of the walls are set at angles so that they form a many-sided polynomial. They are welded shut perfectly. It is quiet, so quiet that she can hear the blood pounding in her ears.

Behind her, she hears the scrape of something on the floor, and realizes that she is not alone. She twists, trying to see over her shoulder, but her vision is blocked by the high back of the platform. “Who’s there?” she calls out.

There is no answer.

A guard, she thinks suddenly. There is a guard posted at the door.

A brilliant possibility opens up before her. Absurdly simple, if it works.

She tries to remember the exact cadence of his voice, the persuasive, suggestive quality that had colored his words and made her want to obey. As if the thought had come from her own mind, and not been planted there.

“You will remove these restraints, and leave the cell with the door open,” she says.

For a moment, she hears nothing. Then, there are heavy footsteps, and her guard appears. White armor covers his body and a helmet hides his face, practical and militaristic.

“What did you say?” His voice is nondescript. This soldier could be anyone.

“You will remove these restraints,” she repeats. “And you will leave this cell with the door open.”

“I will tighten those restraints, sky-walker scum,” he says, with perfect clarity. Her words have had no effect on him.

Instinctively, she reaches out again, searching for his mind. The blank expanse of an automaton greets her; whatever independent thought he possessed has been drilled out of him. He is nothing but a soldier, a faceless servant. He lives for orders. He wants to obey. She only needs to give him a command.

“You will remove these restraints,” she says softly, gently, pressing the order into his mind. “And leave this cell with the door open.”

He straightens, as if seeing her for the first time.

“I will remove these restraints and leave this cell with the door open,” he repeats. There is a hiss as the metal at her wrists and ankles parts, and he turns away from her, walking towards the door. She realizes that he is armed, a blaster held loosely in his right hand.

“And you’ll drop your weapon!” she calls out.

“And I’ll drop my weapon.”

The blaster clatters to the floor.

 

***

 

Rey is almost certain that she is underground, and the farther she gets from the interrogation room, the more lost she becomes. The air is stale, as though it has been filtered a hundred times. The hallway seems to close in on her, the metal of the walls slanting up so that they are wider at the base than the ceiling. Every few steps there are panels of blue light on the floor, illuminating her path. Her heart races when she hears voices ahead of her, and she presses herself against the wall, into the cleft between two protrusions. She fumbles with the unfamiliar blaster, releasing its safety.

“She is only beginning to test her powers. The more time passes without finding her, the more dangerous she becomes.”

Rey clamps a hand over her mouth. She knows this voice. She tries to stifle her fear, to quiet her mind. Has he already felt her presence?

Another man speaks, his inflection precise and cold. “She is new to this world. She doesn’t know this place as we do, Ren. Rest assured, we’ll find her.”

Their steps move away, but Rey is too scared to move. Ren. Her vision blurs, and she slides down the wall, pressing her forehead into her knees. He could be waiting for her. He might already know where she is. She thinks of the cold blade of his sword, slashing through her body like it is made of water. She thinks of her blood running cold over his fingers, of him lifting his mask just enough to devour her soul, sucking her life into his lungs through his gaping, scarred mouth.

Can the dead bury the dead?

Lor San Tekka’s words come to her unbidden. She remembers the stories the Eleusian acolytes used to tell the other children about the Knights of Ren. Tales of flesh-hungry wraiths, spirits who animate the dead and haunt the underworld, who feast on the souls of men. Is this his true nature?

She pulls herself to her feet, her legs shaking, and runs in the opposite direction of the voices. She runs until her breath comes in short gasps and her sides hurt. The labyrinthine hallways seem to have a repetitive pattern, and she wonders if she is going in circles until she turns a corner, and suddenly she is no longer in a hallway. She is staring out at the expanse of a hangar bay below, empty except for a strange ship like none she has seen before. Immense, its two straight wings are folded upward, like a great bird. She looks out across the hangar and sees lights at regular intervals, small entryways like the one she is currently standing in. She hears steps, men marching in unison, and she flattens herself against the wall.

But the steps come closer. Rey moves away from the wall, running towards the ledge. She looks down. The face of the hangar’s wall is a sheer drop, but it is pocketed with grooves and outcroppings. Her gut churns, the distance to the ground making her lightheaded. I can do this. I can do this. She secures the blaster to her belt and kneels down, twisting so that her legs are dangling over the edge, supported only by her forearms. Her feet find purchase in a deep grove, her fingers clinging to an outcropping, and from this vantage point she realizes that the wall is hollow aside from wires and odd metal components. She slips her body into a crevice a few feet to her left and, just as she expected, she is able to fit inside the wall, shielded from sight. If she wanted to, she could climb all the way down to the ground level that way, hidden.

She takes the climb one foothold at a time. Several levels later, her arms scream with the effort of holding herself to the wall and her legs shake in protest. She moves back towards an opening in the wall and looks down. There is a seventy-meter drop below her that makes her head spin. For a few minutes, she trembles so badly that she has to stop and take deep breaths, pressing her cheek to the cool metal of the wall. You’ve lived your whole life in a spaceship. You shouldn’t be afraid of heights.

When her feet finally hit solid ground, she wants to cry with relief. But she doesn’t have time. To her left is the massive form of the birdlike ship, but twenty meters to her right she sees what appears to be a blast door. Engraved on its surface is a many-spoked wheel, like the rays of a red sun, circumscribed by a black hexagon. Above this symbol there are familiar letters of aurebesh, but their configuration is odd. The letters form words foreign to her.

She presses the controls to release the door, and to her surprise, it opens without further prompting. A rush of air ruffles her clothing and her hair, a soft light makes her blink, and abruptly the stale air tastes different. For a moment, she can’t identify the change…the air tastes dry and cool on her tongue. It possesses a kind of freshness. The only way she can think to describe it is to say that it is new air, air that hasn’t been breathed before, but she can’t seem to figure out why she feels this way.

Until she sees the sky.

 

***

 

She notices the light first. It doesn't have the same quality as sunlight, but it isn’t electric, or florescent, or machine-generated, or like any kind of light that she has ever seen on the Eleusis. It is a sad, dying sort of light - dim red, steady, and unwavering. She seals the blast door behind her. Beneath her feet is a flat, paved surface, like stone.

Buildings rise up around her, but there is no roof over her head, and she can see clouds curling across the sky. Red and gold strikes their bellies, giving their immense shapes depth and breadth. Beyond the clouds, the sky is dark, a deep navy that is nearly black, but there are no stars in the sky, and Rey feels certain that it is not night.

She doesn’t like it.

Eventually she realizes that she is standing in a courtyard, or perhaps the nave of a great basilica, and she presses her hand to the wall closest to her. The stone is white, like marble, but much rougher, and like the clouds above her it turns a faint red-gold in the presence of the dim light. Beautiful, intricate patterns are hewn into its surface. Everything here is very old. Older than the Eleusis itself.

The remains of a vaulted ceiling curve over her head, and in the walls are set tall, arched windows without transparisteel. Through them she sees more stone walls, pillars like trees, and vast, empty rooms. Beyond the row of windows, further down in the courtyard, a great archway has been built into the wall, and she makes her way toward it. When she passes under it, she shivers. It is as high as twenty men are tall. For the first time, she realizes that the air is cold.

There are cracks in the stone beneath her feet. In some places the walls have been demolished to nothing more than rubble, and she wonders why this city has not crumbled. After a thousand years, it should be dust beneath her boots.

All of the rooms have windows in them, and Rey finds herself glancing over her shoulder every few minutes. She feels eyes on her back, as though somebody - or something - is following her. But she hears nothing except the sound of her own footsteps. This is an empty, dead city. She tries to imagine growing anything here, but can’t.

She realizes that she has been lingering, straining to hear signs of life in the cold silence, and she picks up her pace. She heads toward the point where the light seems to be brightest - west, if the sun is setting, and east if it is rising - and after walking for what feels like miles through the ruin of the dead city she comes to a place where the buildings open up. She is standing on a high terrace at the top of a series of great steps, leading down into the bowels of the city, and her hands start to shake.

Light pours over the steps, and laid out beneath her like the remains of a dead animal are the bones of what must have once been a great city. The wind blows against her face, ripping at her clothes and her hair. Domed roofs cover the greater buildings and the streets are still paved, the sun glinting off of them, lines of red curving and crossing over each other in an intricate network.

Beyond the city is a vast landscape of salt-white desert, the sun-cracked badlands bleached so pale that even the sun hanging low on the horizon cannot give them color. The salt flat stretches on for kilometers, and the small, red sun is half-hidden by dark peaks in the distance that jut up out of the earth like the backbone of the world. Just below the sun, glittering on the edge of the horizon, are two bright stars.

She sees temples and towers, palaces and arenas, cathedral spires, and a dry riverbed with a great stone bridge that leads nowhere. A strange feeling of grief comes over her. For centuries, people lived here, and died here. Slaves groaned as they built this city from the dust, and drums sounded from the great towers to announce the turning of the seasons. Kings and queens ruled, priests burned incense and recited prayers, and women birthed children in this city. Soldiers fought wars on these steps, the cries of battle and death in the air, their blood turning the water of the river red. This was a city of wise men, scholars, inventors, and healers. A place of greatness, and goodness, and of evil. A city that launched a thousand ships, that burned brighter than the stars in the heavens.

For a moment, Rey is silent, mourning for a people that perished long ago.

And then she sets out again, feeling as though she is the only thing living and breathing and moving under the sun. There are no animals, not even insects, and nothing grows in the cracks between the stones. As she walks, she is struck with the feeling that something has happened to this world, something worse than war or famine or disease. Something that has caused the sun to burn red and all things to wither.

By the time she reaches the edge of the city, her throat is parched. She looks back over her shoulder, at the winding streets and the high walls of the citadel. She turns again to the west. The riverbed is cracked and broken. Water has not run here in many years. She begins to think that something is wrong. She can’t seem to draw breath, and she feels disoriented. She stumbles to her knees, scraping her hands against the rocky terrain. Hunger gnaws at her, but she feels certain that if she were to eat, nausea would overcome her. The air that had seemed so fresh, so cool, suddenly seems incompatible with her lungs, as though she is breathing water instead of air.

She cannot go forward. She cannot turn back.

The sun has set. Stars adorn the navy-black sky, too many to number. She stares out hopelessly at the wasteland before her. Then, in the shadow of the mountains, she sees a light that is not a star. It is a soft, flickering light, like a flame.

She rises to her feet, pushing onward toward that pinprick of light. She is not sure if she has been walking for minutes or hours or days, but her throat is on fire and her vision is distorted. Her stomach heaves, and she doubles over to vomit, but there is nothing inside of her. She shakes violently, and then drops to her knees, curling in on herself, choking even as she breathes. She understands, too late, the mistake she has made.

The air is killing her.

Chapter Text

Finn has never stolen anything in his life. He has heard the starpilots refer to TIE fighters as fragile, their lightweight design lending the ships speed and maneuverability but costing them stability. But the two-pilot ship looming over him seems unbelievably large, its twin solar panels an incredible feat of engineering. In the past, Eleusian pilots had trained for years to handle them, logging thousands of hours in the simulators before they were even allowed to set foot inside one. Eventually the quick, dirty short-range fighters were discarded in favor of the modern x-wing. TIEs simply couldn’t manage deep space voyages. They were designed for dogfights, or deployed as sentry ships, and lacked the hyperdrive, life support systems, and shield generators that were essential to outer-rim missions.

This particular fighter is over two hundred years old, and some of its grandness has given way to disrepair. Hidden back in a rarely-used hangar bay, the decrepit ship seems to call to him. He has no idea if its cracked solar panels still work, if they will give life to its twin engines…the damn thing might not even fly.

The silver wing pinned to his right shoulder, slipped wordlessly into his hand by Jessika when he’d visited her in the medical bay, weighs heavy on him. It is a silent reminder that he is about to break every Republic law he has sworn to uphold. Finn does a quick mental tally. Fifteen years for attempted theft of Republic property. Add another ten to that, considering that the property in question is still classified as vital to close-range operations despite not having been used in a couple of centuries. Two for dressing above his rank, and five for impersonating a starpilot.

Thirty-two years in a prison cell. Half of his life…gone.

He would still risk it. For Rey.

The problem is, he will never get off the Eleusis without a co-pilot. Jess is the only pilot he trusts, and he feels certain that she would have come with him had she not been so badly injured. Something fierce stirs in his chest. With his own eyes, he had seen the invader tear apart their home, wounding Jessika and so many others. There are seventeen new coffins in the atrium. Seventeen dead, forty-eight injured. And Rey is presumed to be dead.

But Finn knows otherwise. He watched as that demon took her, carrying her from the command deck and down into the depths of the ship like she weighed no more than a child. He is going to get her back. He takes a deep breath, and starts towards the TIE fighter, trying to convince himself that flying the massive piece of machinery will be just like a sim.

But before he can take two steps, a hand grabs him by the back of the stolen starpilot uniform, and drags him around, shoving him unforgivingly towards the entrance to the hangar bay. Finn stumbles forward a few steps, and then manages to match the pace of the man behind him. “Have you lost your mind?!” a voice hisses in his ear as they walk. Finn can’t even stammer out a response, because Poe Dameron - who knows full well that Finn is not a starpilot - is guiding him towards the far end of the deck. He shoves Finn into a side terminal. Dameron’s eyes widen when he takes in the full picture of Finn in a stolen flightsuit, wearing the illicitly borrowed insignia of the deep space pilots on his right shoulder.

“I can explain,” Finn says desperately.

He can see Dameron piecing together his intentions - the flightsuit, the pin, the massive TIE fighter in the hangar bay - and then the older man shakes his head faintly. “Who are you?”

“FN-2187,” Finn says, a feeling of dread passing over him.

“Not your operating number. I want your name.”

“Finn,” he replies, confused.

“You’re a friend of Rey’s,” Poe says finally, recognition flickering over his face. “You’re in the training program.”

“Yes, commander,” he replies automatically, and Dameron visibly flinches. Finn immediately realizes his mistake. Han is dead, and Dameron’s rank is general now. “I…sorry…I didn’t mean-”

“You do understand that I am required by Republic law to report you,” Dameron says, cutting him off.

“I…yes. I understand.”

“What exactly were you planning on doing with that TIE fighter once you stole it?”

“I wasn’t…I didn’t…” Finn doesn’t know how to explain that he was going to somehow fly a derelict two-man fighter to earth by himself with no real experience aside from a couple of weeks of simulation training. Five weeks ago, he’d been in sanitation. Even in his mind, this plan sounds completely absurd. “I was going to find Rey,” he says finally, honestly. The only thing he knows with certainty is that he has to find her. Everything else is irrelevant.

Dameron’s hard gaze softens, and Finn remembers that the pilot had known her, too, before he’d left on the Falcon’s voyage. “You need a pilot,” Dameron says after a moment. It takes Finn a moment to realize that Dameron is referring to himself, that this is an open offer…if Finn trusts him enough to take it.

“I need a pilot.”

 

***

 

A fever is burning Rey from the inside. She has never felt this kind of agony, the kind where she wants to crawl out of her own skin. As the night grows deeper, the ground grows colder, but it does nothing to put out the fire that is searing through her blood. Rey tastes salt on her lips, and she isn’t sure if it is from the desert or if she is crying.

There is a silver moon in the sky, huge and round, pocked with dark craters. Her mind makes shapes out of them, and tells her the stories behind each one. She knows that somewhere in that star-strew heaven, the Eleusis is cutting its arced pathway through the sky, as it has for over a thousand years, and that constant is comforting to her. She drifts in and out of consciousness.

When she wakes, she glances back to the small, flickering light on the edge of the horizon. If she could stand, if she force herself to go on, just a little further…but the light is too far away. She could walk for kilometers and not reach it.

Someone touches her, and her skin erupts in flames. She screams, a piercing sound that only the desert hears. She tries to get away, to get the hands off of her, and her fingernails scrape across something smooth and metal, seeking purchase and finding none. Strong hands grip her wrists, and it is then that she realizes the cool metal beneath her fingers is a mask.

Ren.

She crawls backward over the ground, kicking out at him viciously. Her boot makes hard contact with his knee, and he lets out a dull groan of pain. She tries to kick out again, but he is ready for her this time, deflecting the blow easily.

It only takes him a few moments to subdue her. His powerful frame is on top of her, knees on either side of her hips. She doesn’t know where she finds the strength, but she lashes out at him with her hands, her fists, and her nails in a futile struggle to release herself from his grip. He finds her wrists again, the fragile skin there already lacerated by the restraints he had bound her with, and the struggle between them ends. He presses her hands back into the ground and looms over her, the hilt of his sword gleaming over his shoulder. She breathes the air that is not air.

“I’m not going to hurt you,” Ren says, low and quiet through the mask. “But if you hit me again, I swear on the ashes of Vader himself that I will leave you out here in the Wastes to die.”

There is a quiet moment that passes between them. She has no doubt that he would make good on this threat, and so she stays very, very still. Only then does he tentatively release her wrists. When she doesn’t move, he stands, favoring his right knee. She notes his uneven stance with a strange sense of satisfaction.

He looks to the east, toward the distant citadel. In the moonlight, its spires are white as bone. After a pause, he is back in the sand with her once again, kneeling at her side. He takes her head between his large hands, surveying her face. She cringes away, every touch like fire on her skin.

“Have you lost consciousness?” he asks her.

“Yes,” she says. It doesn’t occur to her not to give him an answer, and somehow she doubts he’ll respond well to silence.

“How many times?”

“I lost count.”

He says something under his breath, in that strange language from his memories. She strongly suspects that it is an expletive. “You won’t make it.”

“What about - ?” She thinks of the light at the base of the mountain.

As if he can hear her thoughts, the face of his mask turns away from her, towards the dark peaks. Argent light pours over his shoulders. For a moment, he says nothing, as if struggling internally. “You won’t make it,” he repeats. “You’ve already been exposed for too long.”

She whispers, “How long do I have?” It seems pointless to ask why she is dying. When he doesn’t answer, her fears are confirmed.

“Can you walk at all?” he asks instead.

“No.” It takes everything inside her to admit that weakness.

“I thought not.”

Unexpectedly, his hands move to the base of his helmet, and there is a susurrous hiss as the mask releases. When she hears that sound, she wonders that the mask is not a part of him, that it has not latched itself under his skin and grafted itself to him permanently.

He lifts it away, and she expects to see a grotesque, something deformed and half-human…but this is not the wraith from her childhood stories. Instead, the face before her belongs to a young, dark-haired man with pale skin that the sun has not touched in many years. He holds out his mask to her. Her hands shake when she takes it from him, and a strange, knowing look passes over his face.

The helmet is heavier than she anticipated, the weight of it solid and unyielding, as if it is protesting being worn by anyone but its master. She places it on her head, and he arranges his hands at the ridge of the respirator, sealing it into place. She takes her first breath, and within moments her body responds incredibly. The rolling sickness in her stomach remains, and the fever still burns under her skin, but something in her lungs tells her that this air is pure. After a few minutes, her mind sharpens and her vision clears.

She is grateful for the mask that shields her from him. It gives her the freedom to truly look at him. If it weren’t for the heavy, dark cloak cowled across his shoulders and the strange robes beneath, he might have been any of the young men on the Eleusis. And yet he is unlike anyone she has ever seen. His face is strong, almost beautifully so, but the proportions of his features are unbalanced and there is an fierce, unhandsome asymmetry to them. A dusting of darker marks are scattered across his cheeks, above his eyebrows, and near the corner of his right eye, a strange contrast to his fair skin.

“I’ll have to carry you,” he says, and the pride she felt earlier when he had favored his unhurt knee vanishes. She had kicked him hard enough to fracture his kneecap. Regret immediately curls inside her chest, but he says nothing about it. He taps his shoulder - an efficient, militaristic gesture - and Rey places her arm there reluctantly. “It’s going to hurt,” he warns her, and she nods. His lifts her in one fluid motion, supporting her back and knees, and he isn’t wrong: the abrupt movement sends pain shooting into her limbs. She gasps, and hears him hiss in a pained breath of his own as he tests her weight against the injury she has given him.

“Sorry,” she whispers, her voice sounding odd inside the mask, but then she reminds herself that it’s his fault they are here to begin with. He attacked her home and brought her here against her will. She shouldn’t be the one apologizing. But it seems childish to take it back, so she lets the apology stand. “If you can’t…”

He looks at her, eyes dark, and she doesn’t finish her sentence. He starts to walk, and she clutches her arm tighter around his shoulder. Every step is agony, and she has to bite at the inside of her cheek to keep herself from crying out. Neither of them speak for some time, and the fact that the mountains in her peripheral vision are cut off by the mask’s visor is almost a relief. She doesn’t have to be disappointed by the distance they have yet to cross. Instead, she can watch as the citadel grows smaller behind them.

From inside the mask, the world seems separate from her, and if she closes her eyes and presses her forehead against the solid weight of his shoulder, she can sync her breathing to his heavy steps. The cool metal inside the mask is like water on her fevered forehead. Rey wants to ask him why he is doing this for her…why he doesn’t just leave her out here to die. It’s what he wants. She had felt his malice towards her, after she used his interrogation tactics against him, and she can’t make sense of why he is helping her now.

She is exhausted, but the pain and the fever won’t let her sleep. It is a reprieve when he finally stops, setting her down in the sand. She looks to the west, and is startled to see that the pinprick of light is actually many lights emanating from inside the mountain itself. A massive structure, carved from stone, illuminated from within. It is closer than she had expected, and something like hope flickers warmly inside her.

She glances up at Ren, who is still standing, but he looks bad. His long, dark hair is damp, clinging to his forehead and the nape of his neck. His eyes are closed, as if in meditation. He takes slow, deep breaths, but she knows they are doing him more harm than good. How long he can go on like this? she wonders. Ren opens his eyes, curses again in his strange tongue, and paces a few steps. His uneven gait is noticeable now, and she sees a sharp pain flash over his features for the first time.

“I’m sorry,” she tells him again, and this time she means it. She hasn’t forgotten what he did to her, but enemies or not, he is suffering on her behalf.

“I can’t talk,” Ren tells her in a strained voice, his jaw clenched. Despite the tightness in his voice, there isn’t the same hardness in his eyes that had resided there earlier. Then, without warning, he laughs darkly - almost against his will - tilting his head up towards the sky. Opening up that laugh to the stars, as if they can hear him. Despite the fact that every breath he takes is probably searing in his lungs, he says, “Burning skies, that was a solid kick.”

He sounds impressed, and heat blooms over her cheeks. She reminds herself that he can’t see her face.

He moves back to her, groaning as he sinks to a position where he can pick her up again. She starts to protest, but he taps his shoulder with two fingers again: the same signal he had used earlier when showing her where to place her arm. She realizes that arguing with him will only waste time and energy, something neither of them have to spare. She places her arm across his shoulder obediently. This time, when he picks her up, she feels the shudder pass through his leg, a tremor that reverberates clear into his chest. For a moment, she is worried that he will drop her, but he seems to draw strength from the pain, as though it is the only thing keeping him conscious.

With every step, she feels that pain as though it is her own. The visceral reminder of the connection between them seems more powerful and raw with the warmth of his chest seeping into her side. It is the pain that makes him vulnerable. Human. She cannot bear to think of him that way, even with the solid weight of him against her body and her head so close to his chest that she can hear the quickness of his heartbeat even through the helmet.

“We’re close,” Ren says abruptly. “Do you hear that?”

She strains her ears, and finds that she can. There is something that sounds like shouting, and music. It is a strange thing to hear music in this desolate place, but it is there all the same: the quick sound of deep drumbeats and a melodic undercurrent.

They pass beneath a gap in a high stone wall. Ren sets her down, but doesn’t let her collapse on the ground. Instead he holds her to his side, his arm below her ribcage, keeping her upright.

They are standing before a massive stone structure, cut from the same rock as the mountain, a temple or a fortress. Above them, cords stretch in every direction, hung from the walls and towers, crossing over each other in an intricate but indecipherable pattern. From the ropes hang a thousand fluttering flags, some brightly colored yellow or red, others dull and muted. She sees a painted black eye, a red skull, a golden sun. A few have strange hieroglyphics that Rey cannot understand, symbols that do not resemble anything at all.

There are fires burning in odd places, lit here and there on the walls and the towers. Every time the wind whispers through the flags the images on them seem to come alive. Above them, a great statue has been carved out of what Rey thinks is bronze. It is a woman, a goddess, with braids trailing over her head and shoulders. She stands fifty meters tall.

Ren steps forward, and Rey moves with him, his gait slow and unsteady. They climb a series of long, flat steps which lead to the door of the temple, and when they reach the top Ren pauses. He releases his hold on her waist, and she reaches out to steady herself against the door. “Take off the mask, and disarm,” he orders. “We don’t want to be perceived as a threat, and I’m in no condition to fight.”

At first, she’s not sure what he means, but then she remembers the blaster at her side, taken from the guard. She hesitates. “I’m not going in there unarmed,” she says finally.

He looks amused. “And who’s going to fight them, little salt-mouse? You?”

She bristles; she doesn’t know what a mouse is, but she can tell from his skeptical tone that it is meant to belittle her. He’s right, though; neither of them are ready for a fight, so she bites her tongue. Reluctantly, she unclips the blaster from her belt, and sets it on the ground.

Ren removes the broadsword from his back, and for the first time Rey gets a glimpse of the weapon in full. It is a little over a meter in length from crossguard to point, the blade hidden by a black scabbard that is devoid of markings. A series of leather cords cross over the surface. Like everything he wears, it is worn and battle-scorched.

She expects him to have other weapons concealed within the confines of his robes, but after setting the sword gently against the wall, he straightens and moves back over to her. She fumbles for a moment with the mask, not entirely sure how to release it, but his hands press just so and then he lifts it away. He puts the mask under his left arm. There is a pause, and a sudden uncertainty between them. This time, when he puts his arm around her waist to support her weight, he doesn’t look at her.

“Don’t stare,” he says simply. She averts her eyes immediately, fixing them on the door. She hadn’t meant to watch him so intently.

“At what?” she asks, pretending that she hadn’t been looking.

“Any of it,” he replies, and then pushes the heavy doors open.

Only then does she realize that he might not have been referring to himself.

She is bombarded by light and noise. The music thrums in the air, a strange tympanic drumbeat accompanied by a low-pitched, melodic instrument that gives out a wooden, earthy sound. It is a large space, and yet it seems crowded; men and women are yelling in strange languages, a fire roars in a deep pit, and she sees what looks like gambling tables with cards and many-sided dice. A loud cry goes up from the far table: someone has won their hand. For a moment, it is so wild and overwhelming that Rey thinks that their presence might have gone unnoticed. But only for a moment.

Kylo Ren!” a woman’s voice booms out over the din, and suddenly all things stop. The crowd parts, allowing a slight, small woman to pass. Rey immediately recognizes her likeness: black skin and large, dark eyes behind pair of thick goggles, hair spilling over her shoulders in braids…this woman is the temple goddess made flesh. As she approaches them, Rey sees that she is barely taller a child, and yet her every movement speaks of hidden power.

Ren closes his eyes, as if steeling himself for some great ordeal. He opens them. “Kanata.”

The woman purses her lips, narrowing her eyes. “What is this ‘Kanata’? Are we not friends, Strei-kai-loro?”

Ren grins, a gleaming smile. The light from the fire turns his strong-featured face to gold and shadow. “I wouldn’t go that far, Maz. Allies, perhaps.”

“Then as your concerned ally, I feel it is my duty to tell you that you look like hell,” Kanata says. Her eyes glitter brightly behind the round transparisteel of her goggles. “You both need medicine. A shame the First Order has forbidden unregistered entities to deal in such substances. I’m afraid the Grand Admiral has been…bad for business. We here have fallen on hard times.”

Ren draws out a small, flat chip from his robes. “Perhaps your luck is about to change.”

Kanata eyes the sliver of metal.

“Will diethyl be sufficient?” she asks, a clever smile passing over her lips.

“Two doses,” Ren says quietly, handing the chip to Kanata. Payment, Rey realizes. “And a whiskey, if you don’t mind.”

Ren leads Rey away, and the cacophony slowly rises again as the attention of their audience is drawn elsewhere. As they cut through the crowd, Rey realizes that this is not the kind of place she would want to come alone. She sees a young woman no older than herself, pressed against a large, heavyset man; she is dressed beautifully, with gems at her throat and on her gauzy skirt, her breasts bound with ornate fabric. Golden bracelets encircle her wrists. She takes the man’s hand and brings it between her thighs. Rey looks down at the floor, horrified. Eyes follow her, and she knows enough of men to follow their thoughts. If she hadn’t already been ill, those gazes might have turned her stomach.

For a moment Ren’s hand seems to tighten on her waist. She is grateful when he selects a table against the back wall, and she collapses into a seat. Food is set before them: not rations, but somehow not real food either. She doesn’t touch it, and neither does Ren. She is not sure if it is because they are both ill or because breaking bread with an enemy would violate some unspoken accord between them.

“What did you pay that woman for?” Rey asks him curiously.

“Diethylenetriamine pentaacetic acid,” he replies, but his eyes are not looking at her. He stares out over the establishment. “A temporary fix. When we return, we’ll get proper treatment, but I’d like to reduce the damage to our bone marrow if I can.”

Rey’s eyes widen. She is being treated with a substance that binds to metals. “Radiation,” she says faintly.

Ren makes a noise, a quiet hum at the back of his throat. “You’re very astute.”

“From the War,” she says finally.

His eyes flicker to hers, and every muscle in his body seems to tighten. “I wasn’t sure the sky-walkers’ memories reached that far back.”

“We remember enough,” she tells him defensively, knowing that his words were meant to insult her.

“You remember what happened before,” he says, so coldly that Rey can feel his words creak in her bones.

A woman comes, with syringes full of a pale blue liquid, almost like water, and a dark glass of what Rey assumes is whiskey. Ren takes Rey’s arm, and finds the vein on the inside of the apex above her forearm. A moment later the needle pricks her skin.

“You don’t know the hell that came after.”

 

***

 

“I’m curious!” shouts Poe as Finn settles into the TIE fighters co-pilot seat, strapping himself in just a little tighter than is absolutely necessary. “If I hadn’t caught you, would you have tried to fly this thing on your own?”

“Probably,” Finn replies. Then another thought occurs to him. “What were you even doing there?”

“It’s classified. Let’s just say I was given a slightly off-the-record mission that required a very short-range flight.”

“You’re being sent to earth?” Finn asks incredulously. “In this thing?”

“I’m required to answer that with a firm ‘no’,” Dameron replies with a laugh. “Classified, remember?”

Suddenly, the engines come to life: Dameron is powering up the systems, hands sure and gaze focused, but the TIE fighter rattles violently and Finn’s stomach lurches into his chest.

“Can you fly this thing?” he asks.

“I can fly anything,” Dameron replies confidently, but somehow Finn doesn’t think that confidence will do him much good if the solar panels can’t isolate power or direct it to the engines. “I’ve always wanted to fly one of these,” Poe confesses reverently.

Without warning, the fighter lurches, a distinctive grating scream coming from its engines as they roar to life. Dameron’s hands move over the controls, checking the systems. For a moment, the ship hovers in the hangar bay, movement restrained by a security cable. “I got this, I got this…” Finn hears Poe call out.

And then the cable detaches and the ship’s thrusters send it catapulting out of the hangar. Finn lets out a joyous whoop, but his exhilaration is quickly tampered by a sharp volley of blasts that issue from the Eleusis’s command towers.

“I thought you said command knew about this mission of yours!” Finn shouts.

“I never said that!” Dameron replies. “I said that it was-”

And then a blast catches one of the TIE’s solar-paneled wings, the lightest brush, and Finn discovers just how fragile the fighter is. Unbalanced, it careens out of control, the roar of its engines now a wail, and he can see a glimpse of the golden planet through the canopy above his head, lined with black rivers…

And then gravity takes them.

Chapter Text

It was Snoke who first told Kylo the histories of the Great Schism, the civil war that tore apart the earth, ripping it at the seams, pouring smoke and ash and radiation into the sky, and casting darkness over the planet. Snoke had told him of the hundred-year night, after the last of the ships left the earth to its fate, when the the sun could not be seen in the sky and all things withered and died.

Snoke had spoken of a great wound in the Force that binds all things together.

“The Jedi of old sought to bring the Force back into balance,” he recounted, a nightmarish mockery of a fairytale, the chords of his voice low and straining. “But even they, with their knowledge of the light, could not restore what had been lost.”

As a child, Kylo had been mesmerized by Snoke’s face, transfixed by the deformed features that had become so familiar to him over the years, radiation-scarred and white as death. One raised scar in particular traced the back of Snoke’s head, curving over his left brow, and his right cheek was sunken and misshapen. Each keloid testified to the vengeance of the earth, to the destruction of all things that lived and moved, and yet…Snoke had seen the sky and the stars with his own eyes, and had not died. Few men could say the same.

“The Force did this?” Kylo had asked him. In his mind, the same energy that bound their world together could also tear it apart. The Force, he was certain, had turned against them. Mankind was being punished for their greed and their will to conquer what did not belong to them.

“No, my child,” Snoke had said, voice soft as it could be. It was haggard, as though he had lived a thousand lives before this one. “The Force did not do this. Men did this.”

Kylo was one of many names that were given to him. Strei-kai-loro, the tribesmen had called him. The child who fell from the stars. That name had been crafted into its Basic form by Snoke when he was brought to Coruscant, a martial name befitting a Knight of Ren. Other names followed. Nrostro-eka-likaak. Receiver of Many Guests. Keing-eka-Skail. King of the Dead.

When Kylo told Snoke of the girl, the child who made wheat fields out of dust in his dreams, the Supreme Leader whispered another name like a prophecy. It is a name that is still etched onto Kylo’s ribs, pressed like a seal into his skin.

Kore.

The maiden.

 

***

 

Her name is Rey.

Kylo can feel the warmth of her skin beneath his fingers.

She stares at him with bright, curious eyes, a light hazel color flecked with green, and he cannot believe that she is real, that the girl before him is made of flesh and blood. There are scrapes on her palms where she fell in the Wastes, bruises on her shins, and cuts on her arms where she struggled to free herself from the restraints. The touch of his skin to hers steadies him. His hands are sure as he finds a vein beneath her skin. She winces when the needle pierces the surface, the skin around her nose scrunching in discomfort, and he smooths his finger over the place where a faint drop of blood appears.

“What came after?” she asks him softly.

Kylo is silent. He has said too much already, revealed too much of himself to this curious, powerful girl.

“I saw your mind,” she presses. “I felt it.”

She doesn’t have the language to express it, but he knows that she too is thinking of that dormant, diseased thing that was once the Force. The reminder that she had overpowered him in the interrogation room is unsettling. He should have followed orders. He should have taken the sky-walker Commander, and left her alone. But he had seen her, and his soul had betrayed him, and he had seized the girl in some reckless abandonment of reason.

“I want to go home,” she pleads finally, and her voice shakes.

He knows that deep longing for home, and the quaver in her voice touches some part of his consciousness that was seared long ago.

“Can you?” he asks her, as gently as he can. “You have walked the earth, and seen the sun and the moon and the stars, not through a mask but with your own eyes. You have done what no sky-walker in centuries has done. Even if I released you, could you go back?”

She doesn’t answer him. Instead, she lifts her eyes to his defiantly. “Why did you attack us?” she demands.

“Your people shed the first blood,” he says, anger rising in him. He tries not to think of Phobetor, the older knight’s blood soaking the white sand and turning it black. He wants this girl to know what her people have taken from him, but when he lifts his eyes to hers he finds no compassion in them.

“You’re a liar,” she whispers, so vehemently that he wonders if she is truly Kore at all. It was promised that she would be of the light, but the kind of light Rey possesses is not the dim red haze that he had imagined, dull and weak. This is something else entirely. This is the child who danced through his dreams. One moment she is the pure kiss of true sunlight against skin, and in the next she is blazing and blinding, bright and vengeful.

He is spared having to respond as one of the temple girls approaches them, clothed in a gauzy blue fabric. The priestesses are always beautiful; this one is no exception. She has olive skin, and pearls adorn the dark hair that is gathered at the back of her head in an intricate knot. She speaks no Basic, and Kylo translates for Rey.

“This is Aboyami, one of the temple girls. She is asking you to follow her. Kanata has arranged a room for you.”

“I can leave?” Rey asks, and he can sense that she is stunned he is willing to let her go without him.

“Where would you go, salt-mouse?” he replies, his words affirming what they both already know to be true. The only thing that waits for her beyond these walls is death. He allows the unspoken implication to hover in the air between them: I don’t need restraints to keep you close.

She is still his prisoner.

 

***

 

Steam rises from searing hot water. Rey is standing in an immense underground hall, with pale tiles on the ceiling that form intricate patterns and cast a pearly light over the pool of water in the center of the room. Her head spins; an array of pale pink, silver-green, violet, and a deep blue lights scatter over the surface of the clear water. Thick white pillars stand at even intervals, supporting a glass mosaic ceiling of breathtaking complexity. Rey has never seen anything like it. Water on the Eleusis was immensely valuable, and the vastness of the pool awes her.

An attendant accompanies Rey, a temple girl clothed in cornflower silk that seems to whisper over her skin. Ren had called her Aboyami. Her skin is lighter than Kanata’s, and a string of pearls has been weaved into her black hair. She doesn’t speak Basic, instead tugging wordlessly at Rey’s clothing with gentle hands. At first Rey pushes her hands away, but then the girl motions from Rey to the water.

Oh.

Rey understands the girl’s gestures. The sonics on the Eleusis were small, vertical pods, only a little taller than Rey herself. She knows that water is cleansing, and can be used to clean oneself, but the precious substance was never used for that purpose at home. “Can I…?” Rey whispers. “Are you sure?”

Aboyami nods, relieved. The girl helps Rey out of her flightsuit, and then the white linen clothes beneath. At first, Rey feels a little self-conscious letting the girl undress her but the young woman seems to think nothing of Rey’s nudity. She gathers up Rey’s clothes and begins to leave.

“Wait!” Rey calls out, staring at that small bundle of white clothes. “Will I get them back?”

She tries to make the girl understand, putting her hand on the fabric, and then over her heart.

Aboyami shakes her head. When she speaks, her words are shaky, clipped, and heavily accented. “All burned. Bad for skin.”

Rey is glad she asked. She quickly takes back the leather pouch attached to the side of her belt, where she had stored the dozen or so small, rectangular boxes she had taken from the lab. The temple girl looks at the bag curiously, but says nothing. Rey gives everything else back to her, sadness weighing on her heart. She won’t even be permitted to keep her own clothes. Tears sting her eyes.

Enaka nik me lohem, Strei-kai-loran,” Aboyami says, touching Rey’s hand with her own, and the phrase tugs at the corner of Rey’s mind. She has heard it somewhere before, and when she places it she realizes that it is the same language that Ren speaks.

“Enaka nak me…”

Enaka nik me lohem,” Aboyami repeats.

“E-na-ka nik me lo-hem,” Rey tries again.

She giggles at Rey’s clumsy words, but then smiles so vibrantly that it warms Rey’s heart. “Good!”

The dark-haired girl gathers Rey’s clothes against her chest, and then almost seems to skip from the room, her footsteps light as air. Suddenly alone, Rey turns to the water, and places the small pouch at the edge of the pool carefully. She can’t swim, but a series of steps lead down into the water, and despite its immensity Rey quickly discovers that the bath is shallow. If she stands, the water barely reaches the small of her waist. The hot water is wonderful against her skin, but it stings the cuts on her wrists, knees, and shins. The bottom of the pool is not rock, but white sand. She curls her toes into the fine grains of sand, letting her head slip below the surface for a brief moment.

She resurfaces, dragging the ties out of her wet hair and combing through it with her fingers. She stretches her muscles, and the bones in her back crack. There are purple bruises forming on her arms and legs, and a particularly nasty one is blooming just under her ribcage.

She leans her head back against the edge of the pool, and looks up. The ceiling is beautiful, inlaid with constellations of glass tiles, and she can make out vague shapes, diamonds and curved lines that look like the petals of flowers. Candles float on the surface of the water. Something stirs in her heart.

For a moment, she lets her mind rest. In that quiet space, the first thing that occurs to her is that she is hungry, which she takes to be a good sign. The second is a terrible homesickness. She longs for her cool bunk in her own quarters. She wants to know how her crops are faring, and if the attack on the Eleusis had damaged the wheat. More than anything, she needs to talk to Finn, because Finn would know what to do. He would have a plan, a way to get out of this.

Finn wouldn’t have let his fear conquer him. He would have been brave.

Rey covers her face with her hands. She should have asked Ren more questions about the War and what had come after, but she hadn’t been able to summon the courage. Instead, she had begged for home, like a child. She had asked for his permission to leave…

Her cowardice sends heat into her cheeks. Rey lashes out at the water, the memory still sharp, sending a few candles hissing and toppling beneath the surface. The water stills, and in the quiet she hears footsteps behind her.

She turns, expecting the temple girl, but it isn’t Aboyami. She recognizes the young woman approaching. Rey had seen her earlier in the main hall of the temple; her skirt is woven with as many colors as the ceiling above them, and a string of gems rests on her neck.

Rey wonders how much those stones had cost, and where she had found the money to buy them…and then Rey thinks of the man’s hand, buried between the young woman’s legs. Heat rises to Rey’s cheeks for a different reason. She knows that there were some on the Eleusis who offered extra rations, or new clothing, or holochrons, or even medicine in exchange for sexual favors. Such practices were strictly forbidden, and violators severely punished.

“Are you looking for me?” Rey asks finally, hardly able to meet the woman’s eyes. They are bright green, the color of grass.

“My name is Sahar. I have been sent to tend to your wounds,” the woman tells her, and Rey is immensely grateful that she speaks Basic.

“Do I need to get out…?” Rey asks, not really wanting to leave the water. Her body still aches, and the warm, soothing water is her only relief from the pain. She hasn’t ever felt anything like it before.

“No,” says Sahar, raising her skirt to her knees and kneeling at the edge of the pool. Her skirt fans out around her, shimmering and nearly transparent, like the petals of a flower. “Just give me your hands.”

Rey offers her right hand. The skin of her palm is broken and raw. The bleeding has stopped, leaving behind angry red scratches. Sahar frowns, inspecting the wounds. “They will scar,” she tells Rey quietly.

“It doesn’t matter,” Rey replies dispassionately.

Sahar takes a small, round container from the folds of her skirt. Inside there is a white paste, and she spreads it over Rey’s palm, talking softly as she works.

“What were you thinking of before I came in?” she asks. “I don’t think it was the water that wronged you.”

“The man I was with…do you know him?” Rey asks tentatively.

The woman smiles. “Yes. Kylo Ren.”

Rey’s hatred for him resurfaces at the mention of his name, consuming every fiber of her being, and yet she can’t seem to get his voice out of her head. It taunts her: Even if I released you, could you go back? She desperately wants to understand the nature of the connection between them. That connection scares her, it makes her feel a traitor to her own people…and somehow it thrills her. He had walked in her mind, and she in his. She had felt his pain as her own.

“What do you know about him?”

“I am masnavi. I know many stories. Some of those stories are about Kylo Ren,” Sahar answers. Something clever gleams in her eyes. Perhaps it is just the light of the candles, reflected in her eyes the same way it glimmers on the water.

“What is masnavi?” Rey asks curiously.

“In your tongue, it means tale-weaver. I spin words into stories.” The salve is cool against Rey’s hands, and Sahar’s voice is soothing to her mind. Rey presses her fingertips into her eyes. They are warm from the water, and the pressure relieves some of the pain in her head.

“Will you tell me one?” asks Rey quietly.

“And what will you give me in return, sky-walker girl?”

“I’ll tell you a story,” Rey offers. She doesn’t ask how Sahar knows that she is not from earth. Rey knows she looks earthborn about as much as Ren looks like an Eleusian. “And you can pass it on, to your customers.”

“Customers?” laughs Sahar, as if the word is somehow offensive to her. “I do not weave words for money. I am not like the ordinary temple girls who are in Kanata’s service. I am masnavi.”

“I saw you,” Rey says bluntly. “With that man.”

Sahar giggles, and the sound is unexpected, girlish. She blushes prettily, as if embarrassed to have been caught. That endearing sort of innocence reminds Rey of the way she and Jessika had giggled in hidden corners of the Eleusis, whispering whenever the space pilots walked by.

“Do sky-walker girls not make love to sky-walker boys?” Sahar asks curiously.

Rey blinks. “But he…I thought…” she stammers, not wanting to admit that she had thought the girl a prostitute. She doesn’t know how to explain that on the Eleusis, sex was a very private thing. Dim light and discrete corners regardless, Rey would never dream of having a man touch her…there…in the middle of a crowded hall.

Sahar laughs again at the expression on Rey’s face, the sound as clear as a bell ringing.

“Tell me your story,” says Sahar, with a knowing look in her eye. “And if it is a good one, maybe I will tell you a story about Kylo Ren.”

 

***

 

“Who’s the girl?” Kanata asks Ren in the abrupt fashion he has come to expect from her.

The fire has burned down to the last of its embers, and the room has become quiet in the still hours of the dawn. Kylo can feel the diethyl working in him, but exhaustion plagues his body and there is a heaviness pressing on his chest. He will have to return to Coruscant, with the girl…and if he falters, even for a moment, Snoke will know what Ren already suspects to be true about her.

“A prisoner of war,” Kylo answers vaguely.

“The First Order commanded you to take a young girl prisoner? Surely there were more threatening military targets than that little one,” Maz says skeptically. Kylo almost laughs, the woman before him proof that size is no indication of power. Kanata is a law unto herself. In many ways, she is more dangerous to the First Order than the rebels; at least the Resistance fighters are transparent, fighting for their so-called righteous cause, but Maz is different. The old woman is Force-sensitive, clever, and has no loyalty to anyone but herself…at least on the surface.

“I may have deviated slightly from my orders,” he replies carefully. “A mistake.”

Those large, old eyes seem to stare into his soul. Kylo is scared of what she might find there; and yet, he needs to know. “Does she…remind you of anyone?” he asks, dreading the answer.

He doesn’t have to say a name. Kanata already knows of whom he speaks. The resemblance is so strong, so obvious…the girl is the ghost of Demetrius herself. The likeness is too remarkable to be anything other than blood. Even if Snoke could be persuaded that the girl should be allowed to live, that the Force flowing through her veins could be useful to the First Order, Kylo knows that the Grand Admiral won’t stop until he sees her dead.

“When you have lived long enough, you start to see the same eyes in different people,” Maz says, her voice deep and wild. “I see her eyes. I know her eyes. There is no mistake, Kylo Ren.”

Ren closes his eyes. With this confirmation, Kanata has just issued a death sentence for the girl. He might as well have let her die in the Wastes.

He feels a touch against his cheek, and opens his eyes. Kanata takes his face between her small palms, and for a moment she stares into his eyes without speaking. Though she stands and he is seated, they are at eye level. Neither of them blink, but an expression of deep, enduring sorrow crosses her face.

“I am so, so sorry, my child. You have suffered many losses, and I fear there are even greater trials ahead.”

“The First Order is calling for war,” he confesses. “The strike on the Eleusis was just a preliminary attack.”

“And if there is war with the sky-walkers, will the Knights of Ren fight with them?” asks Kanata.

“We serve at the command of the Supreme Leader,” he says dutifully, but the words are hollow.

“There was a time,” Kanata whispers softly, her eyes dim and sad behind her transparisteel lenses. “When the Knights of Ren served no man. They served only the Force. They kept the balance, between dark and light, life and death.”

Something desperate rips at his heart. She is asking him for more than he can give to her. He shakes his head.

“That time has come and gone, my friend.”

“Friend? I wouldn’t go that far,” she says, throwing his own words back at him. A smile flickers over her narrow, wrinkled lips. “Allies, perhaps.”

 

***

 

Rey is stunned. She expects a cell, but her room is a neat, warm space. The bed is far larger than her platform at home, piled with thick woven blankets. The pillows have tiny mirrors sewn into them, and that small detail reminds her of something she’d seen in Ren’s mind. The mirrors are there to ward off spirits and protect her while she sleeps.

The room has a window, and beyond the thick transparisteel she can see the expanse of desert and the broken city. The sky is lightening to a faint grey tinged with pink. She doesn’t care that it is morning. Despite everything that has happened, her body urges her towards sleep. She pulls shut the heavy curtains, blocking out the light.

On a small footstool, there are clothes similar to those worn by Aboyami. Rey discards her long robe and pulls on the pair of lightweight, silky pants and a short, cropped tunic that clings to her form. The fabric is white, embroidered with a pale blue thread, and she wonders if the temple girl had purposefully attempted to find something similar to the clothes she had taken from Rey. The thought brings a genuine smile to Rey’s lips.

She crawls into bed, curling up beneath the heavy covers.

She tries to think of a story, one good enough to impress Sahar. She had told the masnavi woman several fairytales, stories of magic men and princes and warriors. But Sahar had been unimpressed. “You must tell me a story I have not heard before,” she’d said. “And I have heard many stories.”

Rey had never been good at storytelling. She didn’t have parents to tell her stories before bed, or any younger siblings to practice on. It had taken Sahar a long time to bind Rey’s hands, wrists, and shins, and the masnavi had listened intently as she worked to Rey’s fumbling attempts to recount stories she hadn’t heard since her childhood. Maybe she should tell Sahar the story of the cinder girl, whose sisters made her sleep in ashes…or the story about the boy who was raised by wolves, Finn liked that one…but those are old stories, stale stories, stories that have been told and retold a thousand times over.

Rey doesn’t remember falling asleep, but when she wakes she has a feeling that something isn’t right. A loud sound had dragged her into consciousness. She scrambles out of bed. Her body aches, the bruises on her knees and shins painful, but her mind is sharp and rested.

Rey throws open the curtains. It should be day, but the sky is dark again, filled with black clouds. It is so dark that she cannot make out the shape of the city in the distance. Is it possible that she slept through the day?

She crosses her arms over her chest, shivering. Her heart is pounding and her ears are straining…there had been a sound, she is sure of it.

And then the sky catches fire. White light issues from the clouds, crackling down to earth, spreading out like the skeletal branches of a tree. The bellies of the clouds are illuminated with that brightness, and for a brief flash she can see the barren desert, the cracks in the white, flat surface spreading out like a spider’s web. The light vanishes, and everything is darkness once again. Moments later she hears it: a deep, rumbling roar, a shudder that passes over the face of the earth.

Her eyes widen, and her heart pounds in her chest. Fear thrums inside of her, but she moves forward unconsciously, unable to tear her eyes away from the window. The minutes drag on in silence.

Then the sky opens again, and the blinding light splits the clouds, followed by loud noises that sound like the earth is giving way beneath her.

She presses her fingertips against the transparisteel, watching the violent dance of light, listening to the drums beating under the earth. She knows what they are, the words from a holo surfacing in her mind: lightning and thunder. But the words had no meaning before this moment. She could not have imagined the devastating power behind them.

The storm lasts for a long time, and Rey watches in silent fascination. Eventually she returns to her bed, drawing her knees up to her chest, eyes still fixed on the window. The wind howls against the transparisteel, and finally rain begins to pour from the sky in heavy sheets. The storm is untamable, wild, and it awakens something power-hungry inside of her.

Even if I released you, could you go back? The question claws its way inside her chest, talons cutting deep inside of her. But it doesn’t feel painful. It feels like a cage around her heart has been thrown wide open. It feels like freedom.

“No,” she replies aloud.

She knows that he hears her, but there is no answer.

 

***

 

She isn’t sure why she expects Ren to come to her. The last time they had spoken, she had called him a liar, and that accusation still hangs heavy between them. Ren had said that her people had started this, that they had shed the first blood. She had assumed that he was twisting the truth, trying to manipulate her. And yet she had sensed honesty in his words.

She reminds herself that if someone on board the Eleusis had come to earth, she would be aware of it. Everyone onboard operates according to a schedule. There are shifts and duties and logs, there are identification numbers that command uses to know exactly where everyone is located. It is a system that has been perfected over centuries, and any shift in the dynamics would be extremely dangerous.

She searches her mind, trying to find a gap in time, a flaw in the system…and abruptly, she stumbles upon it.

There was a gap.

Three years in which sixteen deep space pilots had no contact with the Republic.

She slips out frantically from under the covers, and into a pair of lightweight boots that Aboyami had left at the foot of the bed. They are too big for her, but she hardly cares. If Ren won’t come to her, she’ll find him herself.

Outside her room, the air is cold and bitter, seeping through her thin sleep clothes. She tries to remember the path Aboyami had taken up from the baths, to reverse it in her mind. She searches desperately for someone, anyone, but the halls are empty. Left, right, down another hallway, and then down a series of stairs that seems to lead under the fortress itself.

She needs to find Aboyami, or one of the other temple girls. Surely one of them must know where Ren is. She starts to think that maybe she has taken a wrong turn. There had been an intersection a little ways back…perhaps she should have gone left, instead of right. She shivers, and decides to go back and wait in her room until someone comes for her.

“No!”

Rey goes completely still, the faint scream echoing in the hallways. It is a child’s scream, terrified and desperate. It belongs to a girl.

Rey turns. The sound had come from below her. Instead of going back, Rey continues down the stairs, her footsteps echoing on the ground, listening hard.

“No…wait!”

Rey moves forward, closer to those pleading, scared shouts. She doesn’t recognize this place. The hallway is windowless and dark, lit only by iron torches on the walls. There are a series of doors…a dungeon. Terror fills her. Someone is keeping a little girl trapped down here. There are soft cries in the darkness, and Rey steps closer. Before her is a thick blast door, and the muted screams are coming from inside.

Unprompted, the door parts with a soft hiss.

There is no girl.

Rey moves forward into the room hesitantly. All around her are strange objects, ornate and ancient, but she doesn’t care about any of them. Her gaze falls on a heavy wooden chest, and for a moment she forgets about everything that has happened to her since she was taken from the Eleusis. She forgets about the strange light that came from the clouds and the rumble that came up from the depths of the earth and the girl’s screams.

This simple box hums with life. It seems to whisper to her, beckoning her closer. There is something inside that chest, something she needs. Something she wants. Something that belongs to her.

Her fingers lift the iron latch, and then the heavy lid. She can feel dust beneath her fingers, a quarter of an inch thick, and the hinges creak. Inside the chest is a small, cylindrical item that measures a little less than the length of her forearm. It is silver, with black lines near the base running perpendicular to its length, and a golden switch. Her hand shakes with anticipation.

She picks it up.

 

***

 

The Jedi Killer’s white cloak trails over the ground, its hem turned black by the charred earth. Smoke rises from the ground. There is a young woman bound to a tree, arms stretched above her head, the shackles that bind her nailed into the trunk. The bark glitters in the light, something slick and wet on its rough surface. Oil. Her robes are torn and blood trails from her forehead down to her jawline.

Chara Demetrius.

“Recant,” the Jedi Killer says softly. “It is not too late. Leave here with me.”

The woman looks past him, turning her hazel eyes to her apprentice. The boy is kneeling on the ground, flanked by two stormtroopers. He is tall now, taller than when they had brought him to her…but still a child. Fourteen is not old enough for this.

His padawan’s braid trails over his shoulder, dark curls staining his forehead. She hadn’t made him shave it close to his head, as was the practice of the other padawans. She had let him keep that one, small part of himself, and her fingers twitch against their bonds, itching to brush that dark strand away. Fear curls in her gut. She knows what will happen to him if she refuses. The child who fell from the stars.

“Don’t do this,” she pleads.

“Recant,” the Jedi Killer repeats.

She spits in his face.

Suddenly his pretense is abandoned. He takes a gloved hand and wipes her saliva from his cheek with two fingers, and then he forces open her mouth, shoving those two fingers back into her throat and making her gag. She bites down, hard, feeling the crush of the delicate bones of his hand, and then he rips his hand out of her mouth and backhands her.

Pain explodes inside her skull, and she slumps against the tree.

He grabs her by her throat, forcing her back up. She grits her teeth. “Chara Demetrius. The traitor, and the whore. Tell me where the child is.”

“I will not.”

“Recant!”

“I will not.”

He releases her throat, his sharp features contorted in fury. And then an empty calm passes over his face. “Then you will die.”

“There is no death,” she says. “There is only the Force.”

The Jedi Killer traces his hand over her face, her eyes, her lips. It is a strange gesture, a touch that speaks of familiarity. A cruel perversion of love. “It is a mercy. That I will be the one to kill you, instead of Snoke. The Supreme Leader would not give the last rites to a traitor.”

The air is cold, and he can see her breath on the air as it leaves her body. He smiles.

“But I will.”

He opens his hands. Steel and flint, glittering in the moonlight, the only weapons he will use against her. His fingers move violently, almost too quickly too see, striking the dagger against the flint. There is a spark, and the roots and oil beneath her feet come alive.

Chapter Text

Kylo Ren wakes to ashes in his mouth. He coughs and sputters, choking on the remnants of the dream. In the darkness, he stumbles blindly out of bed, dropping to his hands and knees on the floor, trying to expel smoke from his lungs. A dry heave racks his body; he can smell her burning flesh in the back of his throat, and he reaches out instinctively with the Force for that familiar presence…

She’s dead! Ren thinks sharply. She’s already gone, you can’t save her.

His body aches; a sharp pain in his knee brings him back to himself. The floor is cold. The taste of ashes lingers on his tongue…and with sudden clarity he realizes that this is not his dream. Through their bond, he can feel the girl’s distorted fear and desperation, still caught in the nightmare. This time when he reaches out to the Force, there is not emptiness, but a burning presence that unmistakably belongs to her.

Rey.

 

***

 

The little girl is screaming inside her head, pleading wildly for her family. “Come back!”

But Rey is alone. There is rubble and smoke all around her. She sees a great fortress on fire, sparks and embers flying into the air. At the back of her throat there is a scent so strong she can taste it: burning wood, oil, flesh…

A pair of soldiers dressed in white battle armor drag the apprentice out of the fortress, and make him kneel. A figure appears behind him, tall, lean, and graceful. The Jedi Killer. She knows his face: dark skin stretched over high cheekbones and silver-blue eyes that gleam in the darkness. His white cloak is untouched except for a black circle of soot around its hem. The soldiers force the boy to the ground, slamming him down face first, and Rey can hear him screaming as he resists them. Wordless, agonized. Like the little girl, he is screaming for his family.

The Jedi Killer kneels behind him, reaching out a hand to stroke the bare skin at the back of the boy’s neck. After a few moments, the apprentice falls silent, weeping soundlessly into the sand, tears making lines on his ash-covered face. Rey shudders as the officer’s long, elegant fingers trail down a braid that begins at the base of the boy’s neck and falls over his shoulder.

“Don’t,” the boy whispers to the ground.

The man pulls out a dagger and brings it close to the boy’s head. For a terrible moment, she thinks that the Jedi Killer is going to slit his throat. Instead the knife flashes red in the light of the fire, and with a quick, sharp cut the padawan’s braid is severed.

The Jedi Killer rises, and looks up, to the place where Rey is standing, as though he can see her. Those piercing eyes look into hers, stunning and otherworldly, but also cruel, and he strides towards her with knife in hand.

A sword pierces the Jedi Killer’s chest from behind. It is not made of steel, but of red fire. He falls to the ground and the cerulean light in his eyes fades. Ren looms over him, the sword made of light illuminating his dark robes and mask. He is not alone: behind him are six masked knights, armed and clad in black.

They wait, as if at her command. For a moment, Ren stares at her through his mask, and then he comes towards her…

 

***

 

She stumbles away from him, but when she falls her elbows skid over the solid stone floor of Kanata’s temple. She heaves in great lungfuls of air, stumbling to her feet, keeping both eyes on the cylindrical device on the ground. She doesn’t know what it is, only that it terrifies her.

There are uneven footsteps on the ground. She knows who it is, even before she sees him. She can feel his presence. When Ren emerges from the darkness, he is not the way he had appeared in the vision. He is unmasked and unarmed, clothed not in his strange black robes but in a simple pair of dark pants and a rough-spun tunic the color of charcoal. Concern flashes across his features. His eyes flicker to the small device on the ground, and his mouth becomes a grim line.

“Rey,” he says gravely. She can’t remember if it is the first time he has called her by her name.

“What was that?” she gasps out.

He crosses the few steps between them, and she can see that his breathing is as unsteady as her own. His dark hair is wet, curling at the ends. He looks as though he has just resurfaced from a nightmare. Ren drops to the floor on one knee, hand hovering for a moment over the strange object, and she nearly shouts at him not to touch it. But before she can warn him, he picks it up. Nothing happens; the air is still. He stands.

“Where did you get this?” he whispers finally, so quietly that she can barely make out his words.

Rey points to the open door. Ren crosses the width of the hallway in a few quick strides, stepping inside. As though he knows where the device belongs, he ignores the ancient, priceless objects in the room, instead running his hands over the chest, fingers tracing the grooves in the rough wood and the iron lock. After a moment he opens it, and places the cylindrical object gently inside. Rey stands just inside the doorway, transfixed by the reverence of his movements.

“Come here, Rey,” he says quietly. He is motionless, head bowed over the chest, his body so still that she wonders if he is even breathing. She steps forward into the small space, until there is only a single step between them.

When he finally moves, he does the last thing that she expects. He takes her hand, lacing his fingers into hers, and draws her close to him. She doesn’t realize that she is shaking until she is pressed against his steady form. She shouldn’t let him hold her. She should push him away. But his presence is solid and unyielding, and she can’t explain why it is a comfort to her. She can feel the warmth of his body under her hand where he has clutched it to his chest, his thumb tracing over her knuckles. His other hand goes to the back of her head, fingers weaving softly through her hair.

“What happened?” he murmurs, when she stops shaking. “I woke up and I felt…I tasted ashes, in my mouth…” He falls silent. She can feel the hitch of his breath beneath her palm.

“I didn’t mean to come down here. I got lost,” she says into the hollow between his neck and his shoulder. Her words must amuse him, because he laughs softly next to her ear, as if to dispel the last remnants of the vision from her mind. His skin smells clean, like soap, mixed with something deeper and phenolic. A few moments pass before he releases her, looking at her intently, his broad hands resting on her shoulders. In the soft light of the torches, she sees for the first time that his eyes are not black, but a deep, rich brown.

“I shouldn’t have gone in there,” Rey whispers finally.

“That lightsaber…it belonged to Luke Starkiller, and his father before him,” Ren says solemnly. “And now, it calls to you.”

There is more, she can feel it. He is holding something back. Something he doesn’t want her to know. The truth behind his words is hovering just out of reach. She shakes her head to clear it, grasping onto the only sure thing she has left.

“I have to get back to the Eleusis.” Even now, she still clings to that small hope. Everything that has happened to her, everything she has seen and felt…none of it feels real. The Eleusis is real. She has to go home.

“Rey,” he says, his voice heavy with grief. “You already know the truth. Whomever you’re waiting for on that ship…they’re never coming back.”

Those words break something inside of her. They tear at the last remnants of hope that she has stored away inside herself, but they don’t scare her. Instead, she feels an overwhelming sense of relief.

“The lightsaber belongs to you. Take it. Come with me,” Ren says intensely, his voice heavy with the promise of freedom. Deep inside of her, she knows that the Eleusis is not where she belongs. “Let me show you the ways of the Force.”

The Force. She thinks of that darkness, that rotting, diminished thing, like an injured animal in a cave licking at its wounds. She jerks away from his touch and the moment is broken. Ren looks stunned, almost hurt.

“No! No, I can’t. I won’t. I’m never touching that thing again…I don’t want any part of this!”

“A wise decision,” a cold voice says from the darkness. A young man steps forward into the dim light. He is tall, nearly as tall as Ren, with hair the color of fire. There is a familiar design on the shoulder of his immaculate, high-collared uniform, stark white against his black overcoat: a spoked wheel inscribed by a hexagon. “But I doubt it will save you.”

 

***

 

The bad news is that the TIE fighter briefly caught fire during the descent to earth, one of its hexagonal wings seared by a blast from the Eleusis.

The good news is that aside from minor scrapes and bruises, neither Dameron nor Finn are seriously injured. The ship itself had for the most part withstood the crash landing, and the singed wing had been quickly drenched by the torrential downpour coming from the earth’s sky. All things considered, their descent to earth could have gone worse.

The rain comes down in nearly horizontal sheets, and Finn and Dameron share a meal of rations between the two of them, huddled inside the small craft’s hull. Eventually, the power will fail and their supply of filtered oxygen will run out, but the safest - and driest - place for them at the moment is inside the hull’s protective shell.

The rations are the last food they might have for a while, so Finn takes care to savor each bite. If he had planned ahead, he would have packed extra portions, but the thought hadn’t even occurred to him. He had been too focused on actually getting to earth to care about the finer details of his rescue mission. Finn deeply regrets his lack of foresight now that he and Dameron are allotted half a protein bar and a packet of insta-bread each.

“At least we won’t run out of water!” Finn says brightly.

Dameron just smiles at his optimism. Finn makes sure the filters are all running properly, and then opens the top hatch just long enough to collect some of the rain in a spare tin. He reseals the hatch and raises the tin to his mouth, but the water barely passes his lips before he spits it out.

“Blech!” It’s hard to tell in the darkness, but the water is oddly dark, and the taste of it is corrosive and burning. He swipes at his tongue with the sleeve of his flightsuit.

Dameron snorts and takes another bite of his insta-bread.

“You knew it was no good!” Finn says accusingly, swirling a bite of the protein bar inside his mouth to get the disgusting taste off of his tongue. The protein bar doesn’t taste good itself, but anything is better than the acidity of the murky water.

“Yeah, I did,” Poe admits.

“And you let me drink it?”

Dameron’s brown eyes crinkle at the corners. “Yeah.”

Finn shakes his head. “Glad I could be of amusement,” he mumbles. He realizes how stupid he must seem to the older starpilot. Like a kid playing dress-up. He might be wearing the uniform of a deep space pilot, but Dameron is the real thing.

“Finn,” Poe says suddenly, as if Finn’s thoughts are broadcasted on his face. “I think that what you’re doing is very brave. Going after Rey like this. She’s lucky to have a friend like you.”

Finn shrugs. He can’t tell if Dameron is being sincere. “I didn’t really think about it, you know? She’s my best friend. We look out for each other.”

“As I said…lucky.”

Dameron crumples up the plastic packet that had previously held the insta-bread powder and swipes a few errant crumbs off of his jacket. He leans forward, resting his forearms against his knees. A comfortable silence falls between them and Dameron looks out of the transparisteel viewport into the rain. If it hadn’t been so violent, the storm might have been beautiful. On the distant horizon, Finn can see brief flashes of white light, like static.

“You knew the water was bad because you’ve been here before,” Finn says suddenly.

Dameron looks at him seriously. “Classified.”

“‘Classified’…everything’s ‘classified’ with you,” Finn says, shucking out of his flight jacket angrily. “I thought since we’re the only two here, you might want…forget it. I’m going to bed. Wake me up if the storm breaks.”

Finn covers his torso with the jacket and tries to get comfortable. There’s not really enough space to stretch out fully, so he just leans against the side panel with his back to Dameron. The rain is making an annoying plink-plink sound on the hull of the ship. He shuts his eyes, trying to block it out.

“It’s my fault,” Dameron says.

Finn sits up. Poe is looking away from him, jaw clenched.

“What?” Finn asks.

“Everything. General Solo. The attack on the Eleusis. None of this would have happened if I hadn’t been so…” His voice fades, cracking a little at the end.

“What are you talking about?” Finn asks, confused.

“You know Han trained me personally for command?”

“Yeah,” says Finn. “I know that. Everyone knows that, I guess.”

It’s true. Dameron is practically a legend; he had been cherry-picked from the top ranking commanders for the deep space program. When Solo died there was no question of who would step in as General. Dameron is extraordinary, the best pilot in the Republic. And on top of that, he has the personality, the charisma, and the charm. He is a natural-born leader.

“Flight sims, weaponry, navigation, star charts…he taught me everything from day one. I can still remember this one session. I’d just passed the intermediate round of blaster accuracy tests, flying colors, and I was about to go into a sim with moving targets. And not just moving targets, but advanced combat, where the enemy fighters are armed.”

The words are pouring out of Dameron, the same way the rain had come from the sky. Slowly at first, and then one after another until Finn can barely make sense of them.

“And you know what he said to me?” Dameron asks, laughing darkly, a half-choked sound that reminds Finn more of a sob than true laughter. “He said: ‘Do whatever you have to, to convince yourself that this sim is real. Because if you ever come up against an enemy outside of this sim, you can be damned sure that they aren’t going to hesitate. One of you is going to die. So make sure you shoot first.’”

A feeling of dread passes through Finn, though he can’t identify exactly which part of Dameron’s recollection is so disturbing to him. “You’re grieving, Poe,” he says blankly. “None of this is your fault…”

“It is my fault,” Dameron whispers. “From the very beginning, it was my idea. Eight hundred years of deep space missions. All that data, all that intelligence…and it all told us the same thing. That there is nothing out there. And earth was so close, so close…one atmospheric drop away. I took the recon droid down to the ground myself. I never thought…”

Finn nearly tells him to stop. When Poe had said that his mission was classified, Finn hadn’t expected that this is what he meant. This is beyond him. This is something he isn’t sure he’s ready to hear.

“The droid’s transmitter cut out three months into our voyage. We thought it was a malfunction…we didn’t know there were survivors, on the ground. When we returned from deep space, we went back for BB-8, and they were waiting for us. They knew we were coming.” Dameron’s hands are shaking, as though he is reliving a terrible memory. “I can still see him. In that mask. I thought he was…I didn’t know he was human. I thought I was doing the right thing.”

“You were doing the right thing!” Finn exclaims suddenly. “They attacked us!”

“No,” Dameron says heavily. “No, haven’t you been listening, Finn? We attacked them.”

 

***

 

“Hux,” says Ren simply, shifting almost imperceptibly. But Rey notices. She notices the way he stands just a little straighter. She feels the tension flood back into his body. For a brief moment, when he’d touched her, he had seemed to soften, but now he is hard and distant, reassuming the stance of a soldier.

The officer, Hux, nods once to Ren. His gaze turns to Rey, and his lip curls in displeasure. His eyes are the palest blue, and they crawl down her body…but not in a way that suggests he enjoys it. No, if anything, he looks as though he has tasted something bitter. Her hair is wild, disorderly. Her arms are bare, her shoulders covered in freckles, and Rey is suddenly aware that the shirt Aboyami left for her clings to her chest tightly. If she possessed the curves of some of the temple girls her attire might have been considered immodest. As it is, she only feels self-conscious and embarrassed under the officer’s perusing eyes.

“A different sort of woman than you’re accustomed to, Ren,” Hux sneers. “You normally prefer the masnavi girls, but then you always did enjoy your desert whores.”

“We all have our preferences,” Ren says simply, voice smooth as silk. “I’m told you prefer the masnarin.”

Hux’s grin falters, his eyes turning livid. “You…you son of a-“

Ren cuts him off in a clipped voice. “It took you longer than I expected to find me. I can only assume that the storm delayed you.”

Hux’s chest heaves as he tries to compose himself. Rey strongly suspects that the delay had nothing to do with the white light pouring from the heavens and everything to do with the fact that the two young men before her seem to hate each other unreservedly. Perhaps Hux had hoped that Ren would die coming after her.

“Yes,” Hux says finally, his colorless lips barely moving. “Yes.”

“Interference with the comms?” Ren suggests diplomatically.

Hux grits his teeth, but when he speaks his voice is controlled. “Yes, precisely. But we were able to reestablish our connection. And fortunately no harm has come to you, or the…prisoner.”

Ren steps forward, as if to shield her. “What orders from Leader Snoke?” he inquires.

“The Supreme Leader has given me permission to collect the girl and return her to base,” says Hux. “He was most displeased to hear that you failed to capture the enemy Commander. I was just as stunned at your disobedience, but now, having seen the girl, I understand entirely.”

“I’ve already interrogated her. She knows nothing,” says Ren immediately. Rey can feel his lie humming across their bond, and is immensely grateful that the officer doesn’t seem to notice.

“Snoke will want to question her himself,” Hux murmurs.

Ren is silent, his face unreadable.

“Will that be a problem?” the officer asks.

“No,” says Ren.

“Then restrain her, and we can get out of this pile of shit and stone.” Hux takes a pair of silver restraints from somewhere within his overcoat, and they flash threateningly in the dim light of the torches. Ren’s jaw clenches, but he takes them.

“She doesn’t need them,” he tells Hux. “She’ll come easily.”

Hux’s eyes narrow. “She’s a captive. And an enemy of the First Order. You’ll restrain her, or I will.”

There is a tense moment between the two men, but then Ren moves to bind Rey’s wrists in front of her body and she swallows her disappointment. When it had been just the two of them alone in the passage, there had been a softness between them. But it was foolish of her to believe that they were anything but enemies; his kindness had been fleeting, and Rey is left with the bitter ache of disillusionment in her chest. Hux makes a noise of disapproval.

“Behind her back, Ren.”

“I’m not going to resist,” Rey says boldly, tired of the way the officer speaks to her as though she is animal that can’t understand him.

Hux’s eyes gleam. “Resistance is in your blood, girl,” he says quietly.

Rey doesn’t know what he means by that, but it sends a chill through her. Ren gives her the smallest shake of his head in warning. She bites her tongue and allows Ren to take her wrists and place them at the small of her back, glaring at Hux defiantly throughout the entire process. She hears the hiss of the restraints as they lock into place around her wrists. Even through the bandages, the harsh metal against her already broken skin makes her wince. Ren’s fingers linger for just a moment too long, skimming the delicate skin on the inside of her forearm, as if the touch is meant to reassure her. It doesn’t.

Hux motions to her, and she takes a step forward. He tests the restraints harshly, chaffing the raw skin on her wrists. She grits her teeth defiantly, unwilling to cry out in front of him.

“I left my belongings in my room,” she says through her teeth.

“My soldiers have already confiscated them,” Hux replies lazily. Rey’s stomach lurches at the thought of his men rifling through her bag, treating its contents as though they were scrap instead of invaluable. “And given time, I’m sure they will locate the contraband Kanata’s crew is selling.”

“Contraband?” Ren asks sharply.

Hux’s pale lips curl into a smile. In the flickering light of the torches, the shadows of his cheekbones make his face look sunken and half-starved, and his lips move like two bloodless worms. On another man, these features might have been ugly, but he carries them well. He has an air of aristocracy, of wealth and power gained at others’ expense, and despite the sharpness of his features he might have been considered handsome by some.

“Come now, Ren. You expect me to believe that you crossed the Wastes with one filter between the two of you and lived to tell about it? Kanata is a known dealer of diethyl.”

Rey’s throat goes dry. Maz had given them the banned radiation drug that had saved their lives, and now she might be punished for it. Ren had called Kanata his ally…surely he wouldn’t let any real harm come to her.

“Your orders are to collect the girl,” says Ren coldly. “You’ve collected her. Kanata is not your concern.”

“The Grand Admiral has been given complete authority to dismantle the underground trading network of these Resistance sympathizers,” Hux informs him.

This must be news to Ren. Rey can see that the officer’s words have shocked him. “The Grand Admiral is with you?”

“He returned as soon as he heard the sky-walker had escaped your custody.” Hux pauses, savoring his words. Ren’s failures are clearly his triumphs; for the first time, Rey sees color beneath Hux’s cheekbones. “Perhaps you’d like to deliver the girl to him yourself?” he offers.

“I’ll deliver her to Snoke, as ordered,” says Ren quietly.

“The Grand Admiral has requested-“

“The Grand Admiral can burn in hell,” Ren murmurs, and Rey is stunned at the quiet vitriol in his voice. There is an anger that fumes and rages, but this is a different kind of anger, soft and deathly. “She returns to Coruscant with me, or not at all.”

For a moment, Rey thinks Hux is going to argue with him. The officer’s eyes turn as pale and lifeless as a dead snake’s. The contrast between the two men is stark: Ren is all darkness and shadow, while Hux is entirely devoid of color. It is impossible for her to say which of the two has the higher authority. She wonders what will happen if Hux challenges him.

But Hux does not argue. Instead, a knowing look passes over his face. “As you command.”

He grips Rey’s forearm with bruising force and forces her forward, towards the steps. She risks a glance back to Ren, hoping against all hopes that there might be some compassion left in him for her.

Ren’s dark eyes meet hers, and then he raises his hand, tapping his fingers against his shoulder, the same gesture he had made in the Wastes, just before he lifted her into his arms. A grim smile crosses his lips. And even though she feels as though everything around her is descending into hell, she hears the unspoken promise in that simple gesture. In that moment, she trusts him.

Chapter Text

“Whoa,” Finn says lowly, taking in a deep, crackling breath through his helmet, staring up at the sky with his mouth half-open.

“Yeah,” Dameron says, shaking his head. In Finn’s ears, the starpilot’s voice is mixed with static, coming through their helmets’ comm system weakly. “Kriffing unbelievable.”

The star destroyer takes up half the sky.

“That thing must be the size of the Eleusis,” Finn says, squinting up at the mammoth ship. Its hulking shape eclipses the setting moon and blocks out the distant points of a few scattered stars. The destroyer lurking overhead is hardly beautiful to look at - the silver outline of the ship is constructed entirely of uncompromising edges and rigid lines - but it is awe-inspiring nonetheless.

“Bigger,” Dameron grunts. He pauses to tighten the straps on his heavy pack. “Must be sixteen hundred meters.”

Finn wipes a hand over his helmet’s visor to clear it. There is still a faint mist coming from the sky, marring his vision, and the sand under his feet is not yet dry. They have been trekking over the difficult terrain in the dark for hours and Finn grows more weary with every heavy step, but remaining in the fallen TIE fighter was no longer an option. The twin-ion ship had sunk nearly two meters in fifteen minutes and Finn knows that it is probably buried in wet sand by now.

“How far off do you think that range is?” Dameron asks abruptly.

“Five, ten kilometers, maybe,” Finn guesses, turning his attention from the ship to the dark peaks ahead.

“I was hoping to land on the other side. Guess I was off by a bit,” Poe says, his shoulders slumping wearily.

“Hey, you were flying a one-winged TIE fighter,” Finn says bracingly. “Ten kilometers is nothing. We’ll get there by mid-afternoon, and then…”

“And then we’ll climb a kriffing mountain,” says Dameron, smiling wryly beneath his helmet’s tinted faceplate. “Awesome.”

“What do you think it’s doing?” Finn asks uneasily. “It’s just kind of…hovering there. Like it’s waiting for something.”

Dameron shrugs, glancing up at the underside of the ship. Now that Finn mentions it, it does seem like the destroyer is waiting for something. Poe’s eyes follow the line of the mountain ridge curiously, the staggering peaks delaying the coming dawn as the sky brightens almost imperceptibly from black to navy.

“It’s using the mountains to cloak itself,” Poe says quietly. “Interesting. Strategic.”

“You think it saw us?” asks Finn nervously.

Poe frowns. “Possible, but I doubt it. It’s not exactly hiding from us.”

They march on in silence for a while, occasionally casting uneasy glances up towards the ship. It moves faster than they do, reaching the mountain range in the east in a matter of minutes. Finn licks his lips nervously. He has never been claustrophobic, but the helmet seems very small on him. Perhaps it is because the filter built into the helmet is the only thing separating him from a massive dose of radiation.

The dark mist falls from the sky slower now, the clouds breaking up a bit. A faint line of red appears along the ridge of the mountain, and then…

“Oh,” Finn exhales breathlessly.

“Sunrise,” Dameron says, giving it a name.

It is not the glorious thing Finn has read about in holochrons. The sun does not send a thousand colors into the sky; there is no joy in its rising. It is golden and dim and serious, as if the red orb peeking out over the mountain only rises in the morning because it has done so every day since the earth was born, marking the steady progression of time. The sunrise is not poetic or romantic. It is simply a fact.

Even so, it roots Finn to the spot.

 

***

 

The main hall of Kanata’s temple has been emptied, the fire in the pit now a hissing pile of embers, the chairs and tables upturned. Rey recognizes blast marks against the walls and dread falls like a heavy stone in her stomach. A hazy smoke fills the room, making her cough as she crosses the length of the hall, Hux and Ren at her back. Without the people and the noise, the place seems dimmer and more ancient.

She hears the officer mutter to Ren, “Cowards, all of them. They hear the name Thrawn and abandon their schemes, fleeing to the mountains. Like roaches back to their holes.”

Rey tries not to smile, but the corners of her lips turn up anyway. If Maz or her temple girls had been caught and punished for helping her, Hux would be smug, reveling in his success. They’ve escaped, Rey tells herself. They’ll be fine. Kanata is too clever to be caught.

Seeing her relief, Hux shoves her forward roughly, sending her stumbling over the uneven stone floor. Her hands are restrained behind her back, so Hux is forced to step around her to open the wide temple doors. She steels her face into a blank expression so that he will not be tempted to punish her further.

It must be morning, because the sun is creeping out from behind golden clouds in the east, but the sky itself is still that deep, inky navy. A few errant drops of water fall from the clouds in a fine mist. Rey shivers when the soft rain hits her face and bare shoulders, a cold desert wind seeping through her thin linen clothes. When she had crossed the Wastes with Ren, she had felt as though she were burning from the inside, but now that her fever has subsided it is as though she can’t get warm.

Before her are scattered ships, most as small and light as x-wings. A solitary, hulking black shuttle looms over the smaller ships, bulky and beetle-shaped. She imagines oval wings emerging from its shell-like hull. Around the ships are gathered units of helmeted, armored troopers, clad all in white.

Ren leaves her with Hux, walking a short distance along the wall of the temple, to the place where he left his sword. In a single, deft movement, he slips his head through the leather strap of the scabbard, securing the heavy blade at an angle across his back. It sets him apart from the other soldiers, the ancient weapon absurdly impractical. What good is steel against a blaster? Rey thinks.

“You must be curious,” says Hux softly in her ear, and Rey starts, tearing her eyes away from Ren. Hux’s pale eyes are watching her intently. “The Knights of Ren don’t carry advanced weaponry. It is against their religion.”

He says the last word with derision, as though Ren’s faith is something outdated and irrational.

“But he attacked the Eleu-“ Rey stops herself. She doesn’t want Hux to know the name of her home. She doesn’t want to give him any information that he can use against her people. “He attacked the sky-walker ship. Many of them must have died.”

“The Knights of Ren are not above killing,” Hux replies quietly, leading her away toward the largest shuttle as he speaks in a low voice, just out of Ren’s earshot. “Men kill each other every day. For hatred, for love, for glory, for survival. It is a human thing, even a necessary thing. Justice itself sometimes calls for violence, and there exists always in men that voice which cries out for justice.”

He pauses his fevered speech. Rey senses that this is a man who will find a way to defend violence, even when it is not necessary or right. Hux speaks of killing like it is an unavoidable, sacred thing, and his words make her blood run cold.

“No,” Hux concludes finally. “It is the machinery of war that the Knights of Ren despise.”

“Why?” Rey asks, because Hux is right: she is curious.

“Look around you, sky-walker girl,” he orders. She does, but as far as she can see in every direction there is only white sand and barren rock. The sky is reddening as the dying sun emerges, its weak light only barely reaching the earth. “Look at what war has made of us.”

“Then why risk another war? Why attack my people?” she asks harshly. Hux looks troubled. He has not anticipated these kinds of questions from her, a weak-minded sky-walker.

“Conflict is inevitable,” he says dismissively.

Ren approaches, masked once again, the hilt of the sword gleaming over his shoulder. She is struck by how different he appears in his strange helmet - distant and militaristic. One of the troopers must have retrieved the mask from the temple, because she hadn’t seen him with it in the underground passage. She wonders where her own belongings are and what else Hux’s men have confiscated from Kanata’s palace.

“We shouldn’t linger,” Ren tells Hux matter-of-factly, his voice deep and even through the modulator.

Rey realizes with a jolt that neither she nor Hux have respirators and, unlike Ren, they are both exposed and vulnerable. Hux motions wordlessly to the boarding ramp and Ren escorts her inside the bulky shuttle. There is a wide, open space filled with large, metal containers; the shuttle is clearly not designed for military engagement. Rather, it seems to be a modified transport with a full viewport and low benches against the walls.

Ren sinks onto one of the benches with relief, one hand moving to grip his knee. Rey is reminded that he hasn’t yet received medical treatment for his injuries.

His pain has become important to her. She is intimately aware of his every move: the strong-fingered clench of his hand on his knee, the weary slant of his shoulders, the deep groan that escapes beneath his mask when he finally leans back against the transport wall. She sits across from him on the opposite bench, not sure what to say or where to look. She can’t pin down why her lungs still feel like they can’t get enough air.

“Making friends?” Ren asks her, his voice cutting through the dangerous haze that clouds her thoughts. He inclines his head towards the boarding ramp where Hux and a few of his men are gathered, and she smiles when she realizes that he is not being entirely serious.

“Any friend of yours is a friend of mine,” she says sweetly, playing along. Despite the fact that she is a prisoner once more, she feels oddly light with the knowledge that Kanata and the others are safe.

“I’ll take that as a ‘no,’” he says simply, but she suspects that he too is smiling beneath his mask.

Hux strides up the boarding ramp, flanked by two white-armored soldiers. The ramp closes behind them, and Rey catches one last glimpse of navy sky - of freedom - before the heavy sealing mechanism locks into place.

“The last of our ships have cleared the area,” one of the troopers is telling Hux.

“Good. Comm the Grand Admiral. Tell him to move in.”

The troopers disappear inside the cockpit and Rey can feel the hull of the shuttle shake as the engines flare to life. Despite its clean lines, she suspects that the ship is very old. As it rises steadily, she catches sight of something she had been unable to see from the ground. Lurking to the west of the mountain range, hidden from sight, is a massive ship, angular and vicious. A destroyer, metal and gray against the dark clouds, slowly moving east. It is bigger than the Falcon, bigger than any ship Rey has ever seen. It casts a deep shadow over the mountains.

No, Rey thinks suddenly, blankly. No, they won’t…surely not…

Rey glances to Ren, the full weight of Hux’s order hitting her, but the knight’s face is hidden by his mask. He stands, and suddenly every line in his body is tense. He seems to be readying himself for a terrible thing.

“Hux,” he says, warningly. “You shouldn’t. Takodana is the last stronghold of the east.”

“And when it has fallen, Coruscant will be the last stronghold of the east!” Hux says passionately, turning aside to look out of the viewport.

“You’ve never been out there in the Wastes,” Ren says through his mask, his voice low. Pleading. “You’ve never had a thousand kilometers of open desert between you and clean water. You don’t know what it’s like beyond the mountains, where there are animals like demons…misshapen, god-forsaken creatures who have inherited the earth. For the Knights of Ren, Takodana tilts the delicate balance between life and death ever so slightly in our favor. Are your political games worth the lives of my men, who are already so few?”

Hux has the courtesy to look at Ren when he speaks, his face assuming an expression that Rey thinks is meant to resemble compassion. “I am sorry for your loss. Truly I am, Ren. But you must be careful. You cannot allow your personal feelings to interfere with orders from Leader Snoke.”

Rey numbly absorbs the meaning of his words. Hux’s command has already been given and he will not retract it. Ren turns away, disgusted, staring out at the staggering form of the great ship that has halted its slow march over the mountains.

It hovers over the temple for just a moment, as if surveying the work to be done.

Kanata isn’t in there, Rey reminds herself, stomach rolling. She is safe. Aboyami is safe. Sahar is safe. They escaped. It’s just rock.

But a small, worried voice whispers in the back of her mind: Escaped to where? There’s nowhere for them to run.

She stares at Ren’s back, at the scorched edges of his helmet, at the broad lines of his shoulders. His dark silhouette is framed by the viewport. Stop this! Stop them! she wants to scream at him, but she knows that it wouldn’t do her any good. If anything, it would make things worse for both of them.

Then, without warning, a series of blasts pours out of the destroyer, its canons opening fire on the ground below. The temple bears the brunt of the attack, explosions rocking its outer walls. Kanata’s bronze statue, arms outstretched, is brought down, crashing against one of the towers and sending debris and stone flying into the air.

Stunned, Rey stands, helpless to do anything but watch as the temple falls. It goes on for minutes that feel like days, the assault continuing until nothing remains of the castle but a heap of stone. Ren abruptly turns away from the viewport, brushing past Rey.

“Where are you going, Ren?” Hux calls out sharply.

But the knight doesn’t answer, dragging open the door and disappearing inside the cockpit. There is a tense moment between Hux and Rey. She says nothing. She has nothing to say to him. Hux turns back to the viewport, staring out over the burning temple.

A few minutes pass. Ren does not emerge from the cockpit, and she can tell that the Hux is becoming more and more agitated with each passing second. His hands clench and unclench, his mouth arranged into an impatient line. Rey wants to claw out his pale eyes with her nails, the restraints around her wrists a grave reminder that she is not in control here.

Finally, the destroyer quiets. Black smoke curls against the sky.

 

***

 

“Damn,” Finn says under his breath, the blasts from the destroyer still ringing in his ears. “Who pissed in that guy’s rations?”

“We should keep moving,” Poe says gravely, picking up his pace.

It occurs to Finn that Dameron had just said that he intended to land on the other side of the mountains, where dark smoke is now rising in a thick pillar. It occurs to him the way a wall occurs to a speeder.

“Poe!” Finn calls out frantically, struggling to keep up. “You don’t think Rey was down there on the ground during that attack, do you?!”

Dameron doesn’t answer him, trudging onward through the wet sand.

“Dameron!” Finn yells, his voice strangled and desperate.

Poe stops and turns to him. Through the tinted visor of the Rapier Squadron helmet, Finn can just barely make out the distress in Dameron’s dark eyes.

“Just keep moving, alright?” Dameron says heavily.

 

***

 

Lysander Demetrius sits directly opposite the Grand Admiral’s chair. The officers are gathered in the Throne Room, speaking amongst themselves in hushed tones as they wait for the Supreme Leader’s arrival. The throne itself sits empty: a crude chair cut from the same coarse rock as the floor and ceiling. A soft, white light pours down from a high window over the grand steps at the northernmost end of the hall. A single beam illuminates the raised dais on which the vacant throne rests.

Only Thrawn and Demetrius are silent, seated in the two chairs closest to the throne on the right and left. Unlike the young generals seated further down in the hall, most of whom look like schoolboys in military uniforms, Thrawn is striking, cunning, and still in the prime of his life. His forty-seven years are just beginning to touch his black skin. Though age has tempered him in some ways, his striking blue eyes still blaze with ruthlessness. Thrawn is just old enough to have been trained in the Imperial ways, and while it is no longer forbidden under the First Order, he knows better than to speak uninvited in the Throne Room.

Lysander himself is a relic of the Imperial era and the old traditions are still written severely in the smallest details of his stance and dress. His grey cloak is shorter than Thrawn’s, a three-quarter length plain of fabric that covers his thin shoulders, more in keeping with the style of Imperial court than a First Order warship. His hair is silver-white, kept short and even, and his face is noble and serious, the lines of many years of service etched into his forehead and the corners of his eyes and mouth.

Though Demetrius is nearly three decades more experienced than Thrawn, the Grand Admiral still outranks him, timing and youth weighing in his favor. Thrawn’s rise to power came at a delicate moment; he is old enough to have served under the Emperor, but young enough that he never fully adapted to the Empire's rigid militarism. And while Thrawn might be a barbarian by blood and the only tribesman to have ascended to the rank of admiral, even to Demetrius’s trained eye he could easily pass for a member of the High Imperial Court.

It was Demetrius who had discovered Thrawn when he was nothing more than a dirty, scavenging tribal boy, his silver-blue eyes the only evidence that he was the bastard son of an Imperial warlord. As a child Thrawn had starved in makeshift shelters like the rest of his tribesmen, but even then he had possessed a cunning intelligence and ambition that set him apart. Those were the same qualities Demetrius favored in his own men.

Lysander had predicted that Thrawn would rise quickly amongst the remnant of the imperial army, but had not anticipated Thrawn’s defection to Snoke’s forces or the merciless march he would make through the ranks of the then-fledgling First Order. Demetrius has spent many years convincing himself that he could not have known, when he had handed over his only child in marriage to the rising young officer, that Chara would be sacrificed on the altar of her husband’s ambition.

But he is old now, and his daughter is gone. Regret is a burden he cannot afford to carry.

Thrawn folds his delicate, long-fingered hands impatiently, his cerulean eyes flickering down the line of commanders. The doors to the Throne Room creak, then open. All speech stops, a hush of anticipation falling over the men.

But it is only Armitage Hux. The red-haired general walks down the center of the two lines of high-backed chairs on either edge of the hall, passing the young officers with whom he had graduated only a few years ago. He takes his place on the right-hand side of the throne - the same side as Thrawn - near the center of the hall. A high place for one so young, even considering his family connections. The officer next to him leans over and says something in Hux’s ear. The young general shakes his head and murmurs something quietly in reply.

Whatever he has said sends a hum of whispers running through the hall, the words growing more and more distorted as they travel down the line of officers.

Lysander despises court politics. Thrawn catches his eye and despite their troubled history the two men share a brief, silent moment of frustration. These foolish children, Demetrius thinks. Like old women gossiping-

“-sure he said Demetrius?”

“That’s what I heard.”

Lysander is jolted out of his thoughts, certain that his name had been spoken several men down the line. But his hearing is not that of a young man and he only catches brief snippets of their conversation, nothing more than a few words at a time. Then, across the hall, he sees the man on Thrawn’s right lean inconspicuously over to murmur something in the Grand Admiral’s ear. Demetrius’s eyes widen. It must be news indeed if Pellaeon, one of the most respected captains, thinks it is worth repeating.

But Thrawn does not respond. He simply nods quietly and closes his unusually bright eyes, as though Pellaeon has confirmed something he already suspects. Thrawn has always been two moves ahead of the rest of them.

The Praetorian Guard emerges from the shadows of the dais, and silence falls like a curtain immediately. Six of Snoke’s personal guards, scarlet-robed and androgynous, stand tall and imposing in a semi-circle around the throne. The doors open and this time it is the Supreme Leader, venerable and shrouded in a fine, golden fabric. He walks like a man injured, slowly and painfully, and Lysander cannot imagine what agony it must be for him to breathe, to walk, to speak. The earth has made a visage of Snoke’s face - the Supreme Leader is scarred and hideous, with keloids marring his pale head and sunken cheeks - and the radiation has done further untold damage to his decrepit body.

Not for the first time, Demetrius wonders what it is that sustains Snoke and keeps him alive, what kind of gravity can tether the soul to the body.

The old, wise man is flanked by the two remaining guards. Snoke passes the last of his men and ascends the stone steps with as much grace as his broken form can manage to sit on the throne.

All eyes are fixed on the Supreme Leader, save for Thrawn’s, whose chilling gaze is anchored on the southern doors. The Grand Admiral leans forward expectantly, some dark hunger passing over his powerful, sharp features. In that moment, he does not look like a First Order soldier, but like Mitth’raw Nuruodo, the starving creature Demetrius pulled from the Wastes.

Framed by the light pouring through the arched doorway are two figures, one small and slight, the other large and cloaked. Lysander immediately recognizes the tall, stark figure of Kylo, Master of the Knights of Ren, with his esoteric robes and crude broadsword strapped across his back.

And then he sees her, contrasting light and brightness against the black figure of Ren. All thought of decorum, of integrity, of tradition and honor is set aside. Without thinking, he stands…he stands in the presence of his superiors…and a choked sob threatens to escape his lips. She is wild, lovely, and he knows her features because they are his features, passed down from parent to child to grandchild: a high forehead and dark hair and bright hazel eyes that belong to his house. A ferocious sense of kinship overwhelms him, almost to the point of breaking.

He knows that the eyes of every man in the room must also be observing that same likeness, and that those discerning eyes also notice the blatant dissimilarities between the girl and Thrawn. The Grand Admiral is tall and leanly muscled, his skin dark as water, his features sharp and defined, his hands elegant and cruel. This girl is slight and toned, with warm skin that has tanned and freckled with time - just like her mother’s - a delicate nose, and rough, worker’s hands.

When he had imagined the girl in his mind, he had naturally pictured a child who resembled his precious, reckless, rebellious daughter. But as the girl draws closer Lysander is struck unexpectedly by the fact that those calloused hands - along with her pretty, feminine lips and her curved, determined chin - do not come from Demetrius blood. He had expected to find a resemblance to Chara, and even had braced himself for the absence of any of Thrawn’s features…but these small parts of his grandchild must have come from her father. A man he has never met.

Thrawn is going to kill her…he’s going to tear her apart…

A desperate howl rises up inside of Demetrius. He manages to tear his eyes away from the girl long enough to look up at her captor’s face. The King of the Dead stands at the girl’s back, fierce and dark, and when Kylo Ren is close enough to meet Demetrius’s eyes a wordless understanding passes between them.

Against regulation, Thrawn rises as well, white-cloaked and merciless. Lysander sees the girl recoil against Ren, sees something possessive blaze across the knight’s face.

Before Thrawn can speak, before he can even touch her, Ren has drawn his sword and set it against the Grand Admiral’s throat.

 

***

 

“Put that sword away, boy,” the Jedi Killer says quietly, but cold blood is pumping in Kylo Ren’s veins. There is something satisfying in having the sharp edge of his sword set against the Grand Admiral’s neck. He imagines those clean, white robes stained scarlet-black with dried blood, and buries that thought deep inside of himself.

“Step aside, Grand Admiral,” Kylo hears himself say calmly. Rey’s back is pressed against his chest, and he knows that she recognizes Thrawn from their shared vision at Takodana. He has already warned her to be silent in the presence of the Supreme Leader, to keep the old customs, and she heeds that warning. But there is an accusation in her eyes when she looks at the Grand Admiral that speaks louder than words, a challenge that Thrawn cannot back down from. Ren can see it in his eyes: the Jedi Killer wants to watch her burn, he wants to watch the flesh peel away from her bones…

Thrawn takes a step forward, but Kylo Ren does not move his sword away. A hiss escapes the older man’s lips as the edge draws blood and a faint, red line appears on the Grand Admiral’s neck. The blood runs over his dark skin in a thin trail, staining the edge of his white collar. Ren remains staunchly motionless.

There is a quiet moment in which no one speaks. Ren waits for the Supreme Leader to issue a command. Snoke leans forward, his unfathomable, ancient eyes surveying the girl. Then he says quietly: “Grand Admiral, let them pass.”

Thrawn’s hand trembles, his elegant fingers itching to find their way to Rey’s throat, but then he composes himself. “Yes, Supreme Leader,” he replies, his voice deep with deference.

“Kylo,” Snoke murmurs, and Ren presses a hand against Rey’s back, feeling the trembling of her breath under her ribcage. They take the steps together, and only when they reach the level dais does Ren sheath his sword.

“The Grand Admiral and General Hux have given me their full reports,” Snoke informs him, ignoring the girl, as if Rey is merely a symptom of a deeper illness which has its source in Kylo. “They claim that you failed to retrieve the sky-walker commander who killed Phobetor Ren. You instead returned with the child of a sworn enemy of the Order, whom you allowed to escape. You then pursued her into the Wastes at great risk to your own life. You purchased a banned substance from an underground network of Resistance sympathizers in order to correct this mistake, and then opposed General Hux and his commanding officer when they acted on my orders to disband that network.”

Snoke speaks quietly, but every word falls like a heavy blow.

“And most disturbing of all, Hux claims that he witnessed you offer to arm a prisoner of war with advanced weaponry. Do you deny any of this?”

“No, Supreme Leader,” Kylo replies.

“Explain yourself,” the Supreme Leader commands.

“I cannot.”

Snoke surveys his face, searching for evidence of guilt or innocence there. “You offer no defense for your actions?”

“I do not. It was a mistake to bring the girl here. She knows nothing about the droid. She is innocent in all of this.”

“What would you have me do?” Snoke asks him, weighing the truth of his words.

Kylo takes a deep breath. His next words could save Rey; poorly chosen, they might end her life. “Put her on a ship. Send her back to the Eleusis. Put an end to this destructive conflict.”

Snoke turns his ancient eyes past Ren to Thrawn. Kylo realizes that there was nothing he could have said that would have compelled the Supreme Leader to allow her to live. Snoke has not even asked Rey any questions.

When Kylo had told him of the girl who walked in his dreams, Snoke had seemed expectant and eager, but now Ren senses fear in him. The girl is innately powerful, more powerful than Snoke could have anticipated, and the Supreme Leader is looking to Thrawn for any excuse to kill her.

“Thrawn,” Snoke says simply.

“The sky-walkers have already sent another ship to the ground,” Thrawn reports. “How long will it be before their fleet follows, before their armies are knocking at our door? If they come, we will have to fight a war on two fronts: against the sky-walkers for the right to live, and against the Resistance for the right to govern. It is unlikely that either force will side with us willingly, and if they form an alliance the First Order will not have the strength to fight a war on two fronts.”

“And how would you advise me, Grand Admiral?”

“Ren speaks with a wisdom that rivals many of your best officers,” Thrawn admits. “But the girl cannot be allowed to return home and report to her people all that she has seen. There will undoubtedly be war with the sky-walkers; their time is running short, and if they seek to join us on the ground we will be forced into a conflict to protect what is rightfully ours. If she could be persuaded to join us and make peace with the sky-walkers on the condition that no one else is sent to earth, we could put an end to this war before it begins. But she is the daughter of a traitor and her word cannot be trusted. She will undoubtedly betray us to her people, and I see only one path that remains-“

“Leader Snoke,” Lysander Demetrius says quietly.

This interruption sends a chill through the air. But Snoke looks curiously at the old man.

“Speak, Demetrius,” he commands.

“Thrawn is asking you to punish a child for the crimes of her mother. The First Order calls for peace, for security, for order, for justice…What sort of perverse justice is this?” Demetrius asks. “The girl is not a sky-walker. She belongs to the earth and Kylo Ren returned her to us. To me. I will speak for her.”

“It is not enough,” Snoke says with finality. He motions for Thrawn to ascend the steps. “Do as you will with her, Grand Admiral.”

“She is strong with the Force!” Kylo gasps frantically, grasping for anything that might persuade Snoke not to hand the girl over to Thrawn. “Untrained, but stronger than she knows! She could be the key to our survival.”

“She is strong,” says Thrawn, drawing closer like an animal stalking his prey, his white cloak spread out over the steps. “Which makes her a very great threat.”

“Wait!” rasps Demetrius.

Thrawn reaches for Rey, tearing her away from Ren. She struggles, but Thrawn is larger and fiercer than her and her hands are still bound behind her back, making her resistance futile. She is still silent, but her mind cries out to him. Her physical absence feels to him like a gaping wound and, without thinking, Ren draws his sword again.

It dawns on him that he is going to kill the Grand Admiral for this girl, right here on the steps of the Throne Room.

“Wait!” Demetrius calls out again, clear voice ringing out over the chaos. “I demand…I demand a blood rite!”

A deathly silence falls over the hall. Thrawn throws the girl to the ground, turning with murderous eyes on Demetrius. The officers stare at the old man as though he has lost his mind, but Kylo feels a sudden surge of respect for him. Of all the things he could have said, of all the old traditions to invoke, Demetrius has chosen one that neither Snoke nor Thrawn can oppose.

Chapter Text

Thanatos Ren treads through the remains of Takodona, kicking out at a burning piece of wood that blocks his path. The knight swears under his breath. Five hundred miles he’s crossed today, only to find that food and warmth and shelter are not where he’d hoped to find them.

No two stones in the temple have been left together.

Hecate Ren surveys him, leaning back against her swoop, the sleek lines of her mask so different from his own twisted, skull-shaped helmet. He doesn’t need to see her face to know that she is as disappointed as he is by this unexpected turn of events. Thanatos has known her since they were children together, when she was nothing more than a pale skinny child who could run faster than he could. Her features are now as familiar to him as his own, her mask disguising her white-gold hair and watchful, stone-grey eyes. He imagines her delicate features grimacing as she surveys the burning piles of broken rock and wood around them.

She is as beautiful as Thanatos is ugly and, as a fellow Knight of Ren, she is entirely inaccessible to him, but neither fact has ever stopped him from appreciating her. Or any other woman for that matter. Among the many things he had hoped to find at Kanata’s temple, a willing bedmate would not have been unwelcome. The priestesses tend to be kinder to him than any of the high-born girls back in Coruscant. The tribeswomen have an uncanny ability to see through appearances. Men to them are more than just flesh and bone.

“Thrawn’s work,” Hecate muses, tilting her head slightly. Crimson sunlight glints off of her smooth, dark mask.

“Fuck him,” spits Thanatos. “And Hux, too. That slimy bastard had his hands in this, mark my words.”

Hecate shrugs impartially, crossing her long, slender legs, one over the other. A dagger flashes between her fingers, dancing dangerously through them. “You’re just angry you won’t find something here that you can stick your cock into tonight.”

“Unless you’re offering, be silent,” Thanatos says, bristling at her crudeness. Coarse language is usually his domain, and it seems strange to hear her form lewd words with her pretty, aristocratic lips. She belongs in a dress, in jewels, in anything other than a knight’s thick leather and dark robes. She should be someone’s wife by now. Instead, she is out here in the Wastes with him.

He allows his gaze to travel over her form. Though there’s not much to see beneath her robes other than the vague shape of woman, he knows that she can feel his eyes on her through the Force. He allows his stare to linger at the curve of her hips, which the robes cannot quite conceal from him. Come on, he urges silently. See me looking at you the way I look at them. Be angry with me for it.

“We should go,” she says sharply, turning away from him harshly to fumble with something on her swoop.

Her anger amuses him, feeds him somehow. He laughs. As though he would ever seriously think that she would offer herself to him as a substitute for the temple girls. “We should search the debris first.”

“Why?”

“For bodies,” he says bluntly. “No use making a second trip.”

They work quickly, moving through the rubble with silent efficiency. They don’t have to move much of the rock to determine that their search is in vain; death always hovers over the fallen, as if marking the absence of their souls. Thanatos feels a strange lack of that cold emptiness here. Hundreds of travelers could be found in Takodana at any given time: traders and scavengers, smugglers and thieves. And yet…nothing. There is no stench of death hovering on the air. No blood calls out to them from the ground.

“Over here!” Hecate yells.

Thanatos joins her, near the place where the westernmost wall of the temple would have stood had it not been blown apart. The floor here has been scorched, ripped up as if a giant’s hands have clawed at it. Hecate is standing on a circular durasteel covering – at least ten meters in diameter – which has survived the assault. On its surface is the outline of a tree, wrought into the steel long ago with fire.

Thanatos reaches out with the Force, feeling those weak, obscure tendrils moving through him, and he senses Hecate do the same. Together, they lift the stone covering and move it aside, the scrape of durasteel against rock grating in his ears. Under the stone is a gaping black hole that leads into nothingness.

“An escape hatch!” Hecate says triumphantly, kicking the solid steel with the bottom of her boot. “Lower me down.”

“Not sure that’s a good idea,” he mutters.

“I won’t go far,” she promises.

He considers the darkness, but senses no real danger. “Be quick,” he says finally. She sits on the edge of the hole and holds her arms out to him. His grip is like iron as he lowers her carefully into the blackness. When he hears the tips of her boots scraping on something hard, he lets her fall the few remaining inches.

“Be right back!” she calls out, voice echoing in the enclosed space.

“Wait…Hecate, wait! God damn you!”

Thanatos stands at the edge of the hole, waiting for what feels like an eternity. He has a sudden vision of Hecate getting ambushed by Resistance fighters, dragged into their underground tunnels, off into the mountains. His hand tightens around the hilt of the sword at his side, fear curling in his gut. Kylo will end him if Hecate is hurt on his watch. Their master has a soft spot for the little Force-witch. And after what happened to Phobetor…

“Thanatos!”

He exhales a heavy breath that has been lodged under his breastbone. He wants to rage at her for heading off on her own without a warning, but to do so would be to admit that he had worried for her.

“Pull me up!” Hecate yells.

With some struggle, he manages to get her out. When she’s safely back above ground he sits there for a moment, panting from the exertion and from relief.

“Goes on forever,” she tells him after they’ve both caught their breath. “Branches off in different directions. Some towards the mountains, some north…it looks like some even go back to Coruscant.”

“So they could be anywhere by now.”

“Pretty much, yeah,” Hecate replies.

“All right. Let’s seal it up and get moving.”

They move the stone back over the entrance to the tunnel and head back to Hecate’s swoop. They had taken the trip together to save on fuel and to prevent wear on the machines. When Hecate straddles the swoop’s frame gracefully, Thanatos suddenly regrets his earlier lewdness. They’ll have to ride the rest of the way back pressed together. As he takes his place behind her, he does everything he can to keep his hands and body at a respectful distance. Of course, once the engine roars to life, she is the only thing he has to hold onto.

And this is why you don’t flirt with the Knights, Thanatos reminds himself as she guides the swoop away from the debris and back into open desert. Her hips curve into his deliciously, and he shuts his eyes. Then again, the other Knights don’t have much worth flirting with.

“Thanatos,” he hears her say softly inside his helmet.

“What?” he says through gritted teeth. Her voice is breathless, his name falling from her lips like a prayer.

“Are you seeing this?”

He opens his eyes, and blinks rapidly, sure that the helmet is playing tricks on him. Something must be off with the sensors. The colors are all wrong. There is still the white sand of the desert, but in the cracks of the badlands there is another color, a color he has never seen before.

Hecate kills the engine. He can feel her breathing, shaking, and he leans back to put distance between them.

“I’m going to…” he says quietly, his voice hoarse. “I’m going to take off my helmet, okay? Just for a second.”

He removes the helmet, and the colors are even more stunning seen with his own eyes, cleaner somehow, no longer diluted by the visor. He doesn’t want to step on the ground, doesn’t want to ruin whatever miracle has turned the desert this stunning, vibrant color, and yet he needs to get closer. He steps down as lightly as he can, walking like a ghost over the ground.

He bends down towards one of the closest cracks in the earth. From inside the split, a hundred small shoots grow up from the earth, each as slender as a piece of thread. Budding from the tips are the tiniest of flowers, spreading their little petals out towards the dim sunlight, trying to catch the few distant rays that make their way down through the dark atmosphere. His hand shakes as he plucks one of the delicate, purple flowers, the action feeling like a violation, like murder, even though there must be a hundred thousand of them.

He cradles it in his hand, bringing it close to his face. The violet petals are tinged with blue at the tips, the intensity of the color so pure, so defined, that he wonders if he has stumbled into a dream. He has never seen this shade in his waking hours.

He holds the flower out to Hecate, not caring that he is unmasked and hideous, the scars on his face and neck deep and terrible, the flesh of his face stretched tight over his cheekbones between those hideous gouges. He cannot care about his vanity, because all around them, stretching in a thin, jagged line through the Wastes, is a path made up entirely of the little desert flowers, which have not bloomed in this air for a thousand years.

“He found her,” Hecate whispers in disbelief. “By the stars, he actually found her.”

 

***

 

“You demand?” Snoke repeats, his voice rasping and cold above her.

Rey can feel hard stone beneath her hands and feet, her skin and eyes stinging from where the Jedi Killer has thrown her to the ground. There are a hundred pairs of eyes trained on her, ready to watch as these men decide what is to become of her while she keeps her lips sealed together.

Do not speak unless invited.

Ren’s words are stern in her mind. The knight is standing over her on the dais, his sword held threateningly in one hand, ready to strike. She has trusted him this far, and his dark eyes plead with her to trust him just a little longer.

She could trust him right into her grave.

“What authority do you have to command me?” the Supreme Leader shouts into the hall, his hoarse voice echoing off of the walls like thunder.

The violence in Snoke’s voice seems to bring Demetrius back to himself. The grey-cloaked officer approaches the throne, stopping just before he reaches the steps leading up to the raised dais. He kneels as if before an altar. Every eye is on him, transfixed by this submissive display. The lines on Demetrius’s face are twisted, tormented, and something tight uncoils inside Rey.

He is pleading for her, she realizes. He is begging for her life.

“My granddaughter,” he whispers, his voice anguished. “My only heir. The last of my name.”

Snoke turns his eyes away from Demetrius’s kneeling form. They fall on the Jedi Killer. Thrawn seems to be overcome by some troubling thought, some unseen memory, his cerulean gaze no longer looking at Rey but through her. She wonders who he sees in her place, or if he sees nothing at all.

She wants to tell him that there has been a terrible mistake, that she is not the daughter of a traitor. She is not anyone’s daughter. She is the child of the Eleusis, a sky-walker, an orphan! Her parents were the mess hall officers who fed her three times a day, the teachers at the children’s academy who showed her how to read and write, the lab technicians who taught her how to look at plant cells under a microscope, the nurses who took care of her when she got sick. Her brother is Finn, who slipped her extra rations under the table and hugged her when she was sad. Her sister is Jess, who looked out for her and did her hair into three little buns on the back of her head and giggled with her in the stairwells.

But in her heart she knows the truth. There has been no mistake. The old man’s words are true: she is his blood. She can see it in Demetrius’s eyes, so much like her own, but more importantly she can feel it. She has been waiting, all this time, for her family. And now she has been returned to them, to her rightful home.

Chara Demetrius, the Jedi Killer had said in her vision. The traitor, and the whore.

She looks up at Thrawn, at the pristine white cloak that was stained black at the hem in her vision – black with the ashes of all the people he had burned before her mother. Rey claims that dead woman as her mother, she claims her name and her blood, and with the acceptance of that lineage a searing vengeance pours into her. Rey wants the Jedi Killer dead, she wants Ren’s sword in his throat, she wants him to suffer as he made her mother suffer.

Do not speak unless invited.

“Honor it,” Thrawn tells the Supreme leader finally, his voice distant and harsh. “If Demetrius can find someone that will have her, then you must honor it.”

It is an acquiescence, and yet Rey senses that there is a hidden condition to his agreement. Whatever this blood rite is, it stands on the precarious edge that has thwarted so many plans: If.

Demetrius rises from his knees, holding a shaking hand out to her. Ren helps her to her feet, the blade of his sword still gleaming in the light that pours over the dais. The knight looks troubled, his dark brows drawn together, and as he delivers her to the old, grey-cloaked officer the two men share a concerned look that sends fear churning into Rey’s gut.

What the hell is going on?

Demetrius turns to the two parallel lines of men that mirror each other. There are hard faces among them, and Rey senses that she will receive little compassion from these soldiers.

“Aurelius,” Demetrius says desperately to one of the men near him.

The man spreads his hands helplessly. “If only I could help you, Demetrius. You and I have served long together and your house is greatly respected. But I have no sons remaining to me…”

Rey imagines young men fighting and dying in some sort of ancient ritual, and shudders. Fear churns in her stomach. Blood rite. Gods only know what kind of horrors a tradition with that name might bring. Is it a battle? A trial by combat?

“Commander Caerus,” Demetrius says, walking further down the line of uniformed men.

“Lysander, you know that I cannot,” this officer replies, and he seems saddened by the strange turn of events. “Ephraim is well-matched, at three thousand credits.”

Demetrius maintains his composure, nodding his understanding to the commander, but Rey feels as though a knife has been plunged into her ribcage. Is she being bartered among these men? Her tongue feels heavy in her mouth. Silence, silence, silence. Do not speak unless invited. The thoughts are her own, but they have Ren’s deep voice.

“Hux,” Demetrius rasps out, and Rey flinches at the name.

But he is not speaking to the same Hux that ordered the destruction of Takodana and returned Rey to Coruscant. This man is much older, silver flecking his red hair at the temples. He looks uncomfortable at having been singled out. “I cannot decide for my son, Demetrius.”

Demetrius turns his eyes further down the hall, and this time they land on the younger Hux.

“I’ll not have her,” Hux says without emotion. Unlike his father, he does not have the grace to look apologetic. “No one will, Demetrius. Every man here respects you, but they will not speak plainly. I will. The girl cannot be anything other than a burden, a tarnish on the name of a worthy house. No man here will take her.”

Shame floods through Rey. Burden. Is that what she is? Has she finally found her family, only to be a weight around this old man’s neck, dragging him down? Demetrius turns away from the commanders, back to where she is standing on the dais. His face is weary and sad, but he is not looking at her as though she is a burden. He is looking at her as though she is the most valuable thing on earth, as though he fears to lose her as one fears to lose their most precious possession.

Demetrius looks past her, and suddenly there is a soft, gentle smile on his lips. “Kylo. Kylo Ren.”

Rey turns to the knight, but Ren’s eyes are as dark as the ocean. He stands straight-backed and silent, as if stunned by Demetrius’s words. His lips part, and she can see the catch of his breath in his chest beneath his dark robes.

Behind him, Snoke’s white hand moves, jerking strangely, beckoning Ren to him. It is as though dark strings are tied around those fingers, the threads sewn into Ren’s skin and coiled tightly around each of his ribs. The master lifts his fingers and Ren moves forward. Snoke leans down to speak into Ren’s ear, an intimate gesture that turns Rey’s stomach when she sees his pale hand move to the knight’s shoulder.

“You cannot give her to Ren!” Hux exclaims incredulously, watching this display, unnerved that Snoke has not denied Demetrius outright. “Is Ren to be rewarded for his actions, which have threatened the safety and sovereignty of the First Order?”

“You have just branded her a punishment,” Lysander replies quietly, but his gaze is still fixed on the exchange between Ren and the Supreme Leader. His smile has disappeared. “Which is she, Hux?”

“She cannot be given to Ren,” Thrawn echoes Hux’s words. “Because Ren has no name to give to her. He is the sworn Master of the Knights of Ren.”

“Do not speak of things you know nothing about, Jedi Killer,” Ren says, withdrawing from Snoke. “The ways of the Force are not your ways.”

The knight’s words are spoken with such composed authority that it makes Rey tremble. There is something hard in his gaze, a determination that she has never seen in the eyes of any man.

“I am Kylo Aidoneus. The Unseen One. King of the Dead and Receiver of Many. I am the blood of Naberrie, of Amidala, of Starkiller himself.”

Ren is standing before her, and she realizes that he is no longer speaking to Thrawn or to Snoke, but to her. Her heart pounds inside her chest; her breath is trapped in her lungs. It is as though he has opened up the ground beneath her again, this time to drag her down beneath the stone and the earth.

“I am the Child Who Fell From the Stars. I am called by many names, and all of these names belong to you,” he promises, and suddenly pale gold flashes before Rey’s eyes. A field of wheat, rolling in the wind. A man in black, harvesting the shafts with a long blade…

All these things I will give to you.

She gasps, understanding now what her grandfather has done, what tradition he has invoked. She is to cast off her old self, her family, her blood…everything she is. The rite is not about ownership or control or anything she has imagined it to be. It is a sacrifice. It is her blood spilling out over the ground, and new blood flowing into her veins. His blood.

Ren’s dark eyes flicker. Across their bond, she senses a splinter in his mind – a sliver of vulnerability that slips under his skin and begs to be cut out. His next words come soft and half-whispered, a plea for her to understand that she still has a choice in all of this.

“If you will have them.”

Kylo Ren is offering to make her his wife, offering to give to her everything that he is. For the first time since entering the Throne Room, Rey finds that she has been invited to speak. Her voice shakes when she answers him.

“I will have them.”

 

***

 

The Ether glows faintly with golden light. The whir and hum of the machinery can only be heard in this very room, at the center of the Eleusis. The heart of the ship.

Chancellor Organa sits silently, eyes red and hair unbound, staring into the last thread that connects the Eleusis to earth. The Ether has been quiet for over five hundred years, long before her time, the gentle thrum of its inner workings the only evidence that it still functions. Its twin is somewhere on earth - perhaps still humming with light and life, but more likely burned out and silent. A dead machine, a relic of times past. It might have been stripped for its valuable parts by the earth-bound long ago, its wires repurposed and its components melted down.

It hardly matters. Leia has never needed the Ether to communicate between this world and the world below.

Mother of our King…Rhea, born of the earth…Leia Naberrie Amidala…Come home to us, come and see…

The voices are loud in her mind tonight, tormenting her with old promises and hurts. She is mother of nothing; her son lies cold under the accursed earth below. Her husband has followed him. The creatures of the darkness have claimed them for their own. Their voices taunt her, speaking to her through the Force.

Daughter of the Widow…We knew Kore would come back to us! She has made us so happy…if only you would come home to us, too…

Organa brushes them aside, seeking out the presence of her brother like the Ether calls to its other half. It is a strange siblinghood that they share. They have been separated for so long, since childhood. The only true memories she has of Luke Starkiller are those of a sandy-haired, blue-eyed boy. That is still how she thinks of him, though she has felt him in her mind many times since then and knows he bears all the same marks of time that she does.

In the early years he had appeared to her as a blond, reckless youth with a hopeful glint in his eye. Starkiller had grown into a dark-robed man, serious and troubled. For a short time, she had sensed peace within him, but now he is distant to her, grey-cloaked, with silver in his hair and beard. A cold emptiness has taken root in his heart, and he has not spoken to her in many, many years.

Praxidike has returned to us…our fierce Kore…why did Chara send her away? But Aidoneus has brought her home…and the Force is with him…Enaka nik me lohem! Ananke eka Enaka!

Leia shuts her eyes tightly. If there was ever a time she needed her brother, it is now. But he is unreachable, hidden from her. Instead of his warm, comforting voice, she hears only the Keres, their shrill exaltations and epithets ringing inside her chest. It has been many years since she has spoken the old tongue and she remembers little of it. But there is only one that the Keres could be referring to, only one other child of the earth that was brought to the Eleusis for safekeeping.

Rey.

 

***

 

Finn and Dameron make camp at the base of the mountain. Or more accurately, after a disastrous incident with their makeshift shelter, Dameron sets up camp and orders Finn to sit on his hands. The starpilot lines up a series of poles on the ground, crossing them this way and that through silver grommets attached to the tensile fabric of the tent. He lifts one, and the entire shelter rises into place.

Inside the space is small and cramped, but Finn feels as though he is sleeping in a palace. After the seemingly endless drudge through the desert, he could not have been more grateful for the thin, strong fabric of the domed roof if it had been made of pearls and marble. Dameron seems to feel the same way. Once the filter has run for a few minutes, the general removes his helmet, tilting back his head and cracking his neck. Finn follows suit, sighing when the fresh air hits his sweat-dampened skin.

Poe rolls out two compact mats parallel to each other. Finn wonders if it is the military training that allows the starpilot to fall asleep before his head hits the ground, oblivious to hunger and fear and cold. He shakes his head in disbelief at Dameron’s slumbering form. A shiver runs up his spine as he lays down on the cool fabric, wishing he had a thermal blanket. At night, the desert air is cold as ice and wind grates against the side of their shelter, the noise keeping him awake.  

His stomach is empty and there are no rations left. Finn knows that they will be able to manage at least a few days without food, but worries about what will happen if they don’t find a source of fresh water soon. His throat aches for a sweet, cool drink. Poe’s quiet breathing fills the tent and Finn finally starts to drift off, the black surface of a river rising to the surface of his mind.

Helios, the river whispers.

Finn sits straight up, heart pounding. Dameron is still fast asleep, head nestled in the crook of his arm, but Finn feels as though he has been doused in cold water. He wars with himself, wondering if he should wake the starpilot. The voice had been so quiet, it might have been the beginning of a dream.

Helios…bringer of light…

“Dameron,” he whispers, his voice raw. “Dameron, wake up.”

Poe jerks awake. “What is it?” he mutters.

“Shhh…do you hear that?”

A mournful wail creeps up Finn’s spine, forming words: He’s come to take our Praxidike from us…he’s come to take her away…but we must not let him have her!

“You’re dreaming. Go back to sleep,” Dameron grumbles.

“No, I’m not dreaming, listen!”

Helios, who will slay the monster…light-bringer, sun-catcher…

A faint sound can be heard outside the tent: a deep, even sound, like the gentle rustling of leaves. Finn feels adrenaline flood his veins, an inexplicable feeling of foreboding passing through him. “Dameron. There’s something out there! Out there in the desert!”

“I hear it,” Poe tells him, reaching for his blaster. There is a hard look in his eyes. He puts on his helmet, in case their shelter is compromised, and Finn does the same.

Do you hear us, Door-Keeper? You did not heed our warning before…But now we have a new message for you, Messenger! This is the earth, and the old laws prevail here…you will not live to see the morning!

The sound of rustling stops. And then starts. Inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale. Finn’s throat goes dry when he understands that the sound is breathing, the lungs of great beings expanding and contracting around the poisonous air. Finn dimly wonders what kind of creature can live out there in the wild, barren desert where nothing grows or lives. A reptilian cry pierces the air, a wordless shriek that seems to come up from the ground, calling others to it. They answer with a hollow clicking sound, soulless and void.

They are not human or animal. They are the darkness.

No, little sun-stealer, they hiss together with a single voice, as if they have seen Finn’s mind. We are not the darkness. We are the Darknesses.

Something tears into the tent, splitting the fabric as easily as a knife cuts skin. The sky is severed from the earth, a haze of pain searing across Finn’s shoulder and back. He is dragged over the ground, the sand shifting beneath him as he struggles. Below him or above him, Dameron is screaming into the desert, blue bolts ripping through the air. The light from the blaster illuminates in short, violent bursts the creatures that are waiting for them in the night.

Their eyes burn white as the hottest flame, set like burning diamonds into either side of their heads. Black, leathery skin ripples over their fierce, sinewy bodies, wings protruding from their backs grotesquely, twice the length of their bodies. Each creature is the size of a ship. White teeth gnash in the moonlight, seeking flesh and blood and vengeance. Argent light gleams over tough skin that shifts and turns, sending silver sparks over scales that fit together like armor. And their faces…their eyes…not human, but sentient and grief-stricken and hateful…

You shall not have her!

Finn feels wetness on his hand, a numbness seeping into his shoulder where their claws have dug into him. Something heavy is pressing him into the earth, pushing what little air he has left out of his lungs. The world is strangely silent. As he looks into their eyes, he feels as though he understands them. He can see blue flashes of light in the corner of his eye: Dameron’s blaster, firing in vain at the great creatures, the beams of energy glancing off of their hides. Poe might as well have been throwing sticks and rocks.

Sadness settles inside of Finn’s chest, and he closes his eyes against a deep sense of loss. He and Poe are going to die here in the desert. He will never find Rey, never bring her home. He will never see the Eleusis again, or become a starpilot, or become anything at all. He will never get old.

White light explodes behind his eyelids. The Darknesses cry out sharply, their screams of fury echoing the pain inside of him, and the pressure around his chest lessens. The creature has released him. Finn opens his eyes to searing daylight, bright as a living sun. He feels Dameron’s arms around his chest, dragging him away. The starpilot says something that Finn can’t hear over the sound of the cold wailing, but somehow he finds his feet and they stumble away together.

“We’re almost there, Finn! Just a little further!” Dameron is yelling, helping him onward even though those terrible beasts could be right behind them, breathing down their backs. Finn doesn’t know what Poe is talking about; there’s nowhere for them to run. Light is at their backs, and there is only darkness ahead. But trust keeps his feet moving.

Their footsteps ring out on something hard. Dameron stops. Finn leans heavily on Poe, fighting to remain conscious. Beneath their feet there is a large disc of dense metal, the symbol of a tree pressed into its surface. Poe lowers him to the ground and begins to heave against the metal, each push gaining him only a few inches. Finn looks back over his shoulder.

The creatures thrash together in a helpless mass of bodies, injured and disoriented, their staggering forms outlined by flashes of brilliant light. Between them dart little figures, their silhouettes impossibly small next to the serpentine beasts. Finn realizes suddenly that the light is not constant; instead it comes in short, searing bursts. It cannot be emanating from a sun. His mind struggles to comprehend what his eyes are seeing: the light is coming from the people on the ground.

“I got it! Finn, I got it, come on!”

The covering has been pushed aside a few feet to reveal the partial opening of a dark hole, the two circles creating an eclipse. Poe helps Finn closer, and then lowers him into the waiting emptiness with a strangled groan of effort. There is a disconcerting rush of air and a quick, short drop before Finn’s boots hit solid ground. The impact sends a jolt through him, pain shooting into his shoulder.

He hears Dameron land beside him a moment later.

“You all right?”

“I think so. Just my shoulder.”

As his eyes adjust to the complete blackness, Finn discovers that he and Poe are not alone. A figure dressed all in white stands motionless in the tunnel, its skin tightly wrapped in a strange, coarse fabric. It is taller than both him and Dameron, but lean and androgynous. Not an inch of its skin is revealed. It wears a respirator and a pair of dark, worn goggles, and as it approaches them, Finn notices that there are mirrors sewn into its white gloves and threaded into its clothing.

“Evening, sky-walkers,” it says in Basic.

Chapter Text

Kylo lays Rey down against a bed of grass. The green shafts roll in the wind and a soft yellow light pours over them, warm and summery. He covers her body with his own, rough fabric chafing against smooth skin, his mouth meeting hers softly. Her lips part and he takes his time tasting her, exploring her. She tastes like earth, like sunlight, like sky.

She tastes like peace.

Her fingers move through his hair, tugging him down more insistently. He smiles into the kiss at her impatience. Restless, she pulls him against her mouth, her tongue tangling with his and sending heat down his spine. He knows she feels his cock hardening against her stomach when she breaks away to moan softly. Her thighs part and he settles between them, but instead of taking her, he pulls back to let his hands travel over her form. They open against the flare of her hips, tighten against the small curve of her waist, brush against the soft skin of her breasts. His thumb grazes over a sensitive peak and she tilts her hips up in response, gasping and writhing beneath him.

When his tongue replaces his hands, her gasps become desperate moans. She grabs a fistful of his hair, forcing him away. For a moment, the loss of touch knocks the breath from his lungs, before her hands reach beneath his robes, fingers searching under the rough, dark material to find his hardening shaft. She releases it, taking his length in her small hand, dragging her fingers over him in long, even strokes. Her hands are calloused from many years of work, but the complexity written into the skin of her palm only heightens his pleasure - it’s his turn to groan against her, to whisper promises against her sweet mouth as she touches him.

He takes her hand and moves it away, pressing it down into the green grass beneath them, lacing his fingers into hers. Her dark hair falls around her shoulders. He touches her between her thighs, marveling at the warmth between them, and closes his eyes against a strong surge of emotion. Her hand brushes against his forehead, smoothing the lines away, urging him to look at her. He obeys…burning skies, he obeys her.

The sky above them darkens. Summer blue turns to ink, red curling across the hellish canopy above them. His frame casts her in shadow, in darkness, her lovely eyes shining like lanterns against the vengeful night. The grass becomes burnt, bleached, cracked. Her nails bite into his shoulders, tiny half-moons digging into his skin even through his robes.

“Husband,” she whispers, beckoning him closer. “Ben-”

 

***

 

Morpheus knocks on his master’s door.

“Enter,” comes the simple response.

The old knight takes a deep breath before pushing open the door to Kylo Ren’s outer quarters. The dark, sweet scents of amber and burning cedarwood greet him, the familiar incense stirring old memories.

When Kylo was first brought to Coruscant, the young knight had been plagued by vicious nightmares. Chosen against his will, Ren had been little more than a boy-king then: powerful and obsessive, resentful and volatile. Kylo’s nightmares were not the violent distortions of reality that Morpheus was usually called upon to assuage, but pure, unaltered memories of trauma that would have driven even grown men to madness.

How many nights had Morpheus kept watch over this very room, teaching Phobetor how to turn Kylo’s nightmares into harmless sleep? Pain lances through him at the memory of his son as a youth, so very eager to be a knight. If he had known then how short his son’s life would be…if he had known that he would outlive his own child…

Morpheus shakes off his grief like sand from a robe. He has the future to think of, a future that depends on the young man before him now. A surge of pride floods through him as he looks at his master, so different now from the boy he was.

Kylo stands straight-backed and composed at the midpoint of a wide holotable that dominates the center of the room. Its surface is a map, lines of blue and red shifting and reforming before their eyes. Morpheus sees Coruscant’s winding streets, the dry remains of the river Acheron, and the high unnamed mountain ranges in the west. Beyond those jagged peaks are scattered tribal settlements, their makeshift shelters marked by small groups of little white lights. Niima outpost glitters brightly, far north of any other settlement.

As he looks over the map, Morpheus recalls something Phobetor had once confided to him, secluded in the wild Wastes where no one could hear them but the stars and the darkness.

All of this should be Kylo’s by right.

It was a terrible thought, a traitorous thought, a thought his son never should have given voice to. The Knight of Dreams silences that blasphemy, burying it deep down where no one - not even his master - will be able to uncover it.

Though he had once been a frequent visitor here, Morpheus has not been to this room for many years. He is struck by how little has changed. The holographic table still only has two chairs, each of equal height, which face each other across the table.

The first is shaped from black wood, carved with a rising sun. The tall shapes of twisting trees stretch their blackened branches towards the ceiling, forming the ornate back of the chair. Smaller forms of long-extinct birds and animals dart between their slender trunks. The second chair is ivory, with a bone moon fashioned into its smooth surface. Beneath the full moon lies the cascading underground waterfall of the river Lethe, its depths whispering with the promise of oblivion. Asphodel flowers adorn its banks.

As his eyes roam over the beautiful intricacies of the room, Morpheus is reminded sharply that this place was originally built for two, the symmetry of the architecture making it obvious that Kylo Ren’s solitude is by choice rather than by design. The King of the Dead was never meant to live here alone. There are two doors leading to the inner rooms, two low divans resting opposite each other on the smooth stone floor. At the westernmost end of the hall is a white marble stand, a basin filled with water resting on the bright pillar. Its black counterpart to the east is a tall hexagonal column, hollowed in the center, filled with charred ashes.

Everything in the room has its shadow and every shadow the flame that cast it.

Kylo leans over the holotable, his dark eyes scanning the map. His gloved fingers drag over the holo and it changes again, this time displaying the black ocean beyond the farthest reaches of the Wastes. Finally, Morpheus sees the focus of his master’s gaze.

A small silver dot flickers where the desert meets the sea. An Eleusian coffin. Kylo raises his eyes to Morpheus’s. “What is it, Morpheus?”

“Snoke requests your presence.”

“I’ll speak to him when he releases the girl.”

Morpheus frowns. Kylo’s iron will has caused problems for the knights in the past, but never before has it been tested against the command of the Supreme Leader. Until now, Ren has never been given a reason to disobey Snoke’s orders.

“He received your message,” Morpheus says, allowing a faint hint of disapproval to leak into his words. The message from Kylo Ren to the Supreme Leader had been wordless and clear. The fires at the Nekromanteion have not burned for six days and seven nights. Ren will not even light them to burn Phobetor, his brother by a covenant stronger than blood. With every passing hour, the whispers about the captive sky-walker girl grow louder.

Morpheus takes a deep breath, striving to disguise his own grief. “There are many men waiting for their last rites. You deny them the respect we owe to them.”

Kylo looks at him wearily. “How many are there?”

“They number twenty-seven, not including the eighteen Eleusian coffins that have been sent to earth since your return and have yet to be recovered,” Morpheus informs him. He hesitates before adding, “One of our number is a child, my lord. The people are growing…restless.”

“You’re angry with me, Morpheus.”

“No. I am grieving. My son’s body lies unburned and…” Morpheus stops, wondering if he has overstepped his bounds.

“And I seek to take a wife,” Kylo finishes for him. “It must seem a great injustice.”

He swipes his hand over the surface of the holotable, clearing it. In the absence of the bright map, the table returns to black stone. Kylo turns, falling heavily into the high-backed chair on the side of the room that belongs to him. His dark eyes light upon the white, vacant chair across the table. Morpheus wonders how many times over the last decade his master has paced this room alone, his hands ghosting over the empty places that belong to her.

“I know that it is not that simple for you,” Morpheus replies. “Hecate and Thanatos told us what they found in the Wastes.”

A miracle, Morpheus thinks, wishing that Phobetor had lived to see the delicate desert flowers and the promise of new life. The girl is a miracle.

Kylo crosses his fingers, pressing his knuckles to his temple. For the first time, Morpheus sees how troubled he is. Deep lines furrow into his brows and grey shadows have formed under his eyes.

“Are you well, my king?” he inquires.

“I’ve not been sleeping,” Kylo admits. He unlaces his fingers to brush his hand through the air dismissively, as though his lack of sleep is secondary to their current predicament.

Lines of concern appear on Morpheus’s brow, adding to the many that old age has put there already. He has presided over his master’s dreams many times over the years, weaving nightmares into blank expanses of dreamscape. It is strange that he has not sensed any disturbance in Kylo’s sleep.

“If you would like me to intercede-“

“No!” Kylo protests hastily, the panicked word slipping between his lips.

And then the King of the Dead does something that Morpheus has not seen him do in over ten years. He blushes. The color rises in his cheeks and his dark eyes drop to the floor.

“No,” he says, quietly this time. “Thank you, Morpheus.”

For the first time in days, Morpheus fights to contain a smile. His master’s embarrassment is unfounded. Any dream that causes Kylo Ren to blush is bound to be tame in comparison to the unconscious filth that plays out in other men’s minds as they sleep. Burning skies, Morpheus has been forced to witness Thanatos’s dreams, which are woven from the most impure threads imaginable.

“Very well,” Morpheus replies evenly. “There is still the matter of the girl.”

“Snoke will not release her to me until the blood rite is consummated.” Agony flickers across Kylo’s face and the Knight of Dreams senses a deep uneasiness within him. For the first time, Morpheus understands the magnitude of what has been asked of Ren. If the sky-walker girl does not come to him willingly, Kylo will have to rape his name onto her to protect her, corrupting the very nature of the blood rite. Demetrius has promised him a queen that may despise him for the rest of her life.

Morpheus is stunned that his master already feels so deeply for the captive girl. He had assumed that her imprisonment was merely a sting to Kylo’s pride, and that his master’s refusal to preside over the death rites was a way of punishing Snoke. Now he wonders if Ren has not come to care for her.

“If your concern is for her well-being, the Supreme Leader has assured Demetrius that she will remain unharmed until an accord can be struck with the sky-walkers,” Morpheus informs him, grateful that for the first time in six days he bears good news. “That is the matter Snoke wishes to speak to you about. He may be willing to loosen the restrictions currently in place, under certain conditions.”

“What are his conditions?”

“He would agree to allow the girl to stay here, with the Knights of Ren, until the blood rite takes place,” Morpheus tells him. The ghost of a smile appears on Kylo’s face, a tinge of arrogance gleaming in his dark eyes at the small victory. “Don’t be too pleased with yourself, my king. You might have secured her a modicum of freedom with your defiance, but you haven’t done the girl any favors by turning the officers against her.”

Kylo’s smile only widens. “What are Snoke’s conditions?” he repeats.

“If she leaves our premises, she will be accompanied by a member of Snoke’s personal guard at all times. She will only be permitted in public areas - the infirmary, the mess hall, the…stop that! Do you think Snoke is playing a game?”

His words have little impact. Kylo is already on his feet, the smile on his face gleaming. Morpheus almost continues chiding him for acting so foolishly, but that unbridled smile makes him look younger, more his age. Sometimes he forgets that Kylo is still a young man, forced to carry a weight beyond his years. Morpheus shakes his head, exasperated, comprehension slowly dawning on him.

“This is what you wanted. You knew that Snoke couldn’t keep her captive for long if you refused to preside over the rites.”

Kylo wraps his heavy cloak over his shoulders, a hint of satisfaction creeping into his voice when he answers. “He has to answer to his men. It was a gamble. It paid off.”

“Who do you answer to?” grumbles Morpheus.

“Hecate?” Kylo offers, a clever gleam in his eyes.

“It was dangerous,” mutters Morpheus, not appreciating his master’s untimely wit. “What if he’d killed the girl for your insolence, or exiled you for treason? What if he’d…?”

Kylo sobers. A dark look passes over his face, and in that moment Morpheus feels as though he is not looking at his master. His voice falters, the admonition dying on his lips. The recklessness on Kylo’s brow is disturbingly familiar. Struck by the sudden knowledge that his master might be aware of just how much power he has against Snoke, Morpheus feels as though he has been forced to swallow acid.

But then Ren’s features smooth into a neutral expression. “What is it, my friend?”

“Nothing,” Morpheus says, reassuring himself. His old heart hammers inside of his chest, the memory of his son’s voice haunting him. Only the King of the Dead can rule from the Chthonian throne. “It’s nothing.”

Kylo nods, as if all of Morpheus’s thoughts are displayed on his face. The boy is too perceptive for his own good.

“You don’t have to worry about me, Morpheus. You know I would never do anything that could bring us real harm.”

“I know. I know.”

“I’ll go to Snoke now. If he agrees, I will burn the twenty-six tonight to quell the disquiet, but I won’t burn a Knight of Ren alongside them,” Kylo murmurs quietly. “Tomorrow morning, at dawn.”

Morpheus feels a strange sense of peace settle over him. His son will be at rest soon, one with the Force, his ashes interred in the Hall of the Fallen. But then he remembers Snoke’s final stipulation and a shade passes over his thoughts.

“Before you speak with him, you should know…there’s something else.”

“Tell me.”

“As a precondition for her release, the Supreme Leader demands that the girl attend Phobetor’s funeral. As a sign of her loyalty to you. And to the First Order.”

 

***

 

Rey’s quarters are little more than a cell. A sparse sleeping platform has been built into the wall, a cracked sink spits out dirty water that stains her nails, and she relieves herself in a refresher the size of a tin can.

Her door opens twice daily when a silent, grey-uniformed officer arrives with morning and evening rations. The ration bars are accompanied by a blue pill that she can only assume is a treatment for radiation poisoning. The officer watches her swallow it, checking under her tongue to be certain that she is not hiding it in her mouth. On the third evening, she is given a fresh set of clothes and a bar of soap that is useless without clean water.

She begins to wonder if they mean to keep her locked up like this until the blood rite.

With each passing night, the clarity and assurance she felt in the Throne Room gives way to confusion and doubt. Her relief at being spared one horrible fate is suffocated by the fear of what lies before her, a fear that is mingled with a strange kind of anticipation. She tries in vain not to think of Ren, standing below her on the steps of the Throne Room, promising her everything that belongs to him. He had looked at her as though she lit the stars, but then left her alone in a place where she is surrounded by people who would harm her.

At night, Ren comes to her in dreams where the world is different, a shifting dance of light and beauty, power and darkness. In the good dreams, he lies her down in an ocean of grass, green waves rolling in the wind, his body covering hers as he presses renewed promises against her mouth. In the nightmares, he breaks those promises, kissing her under a burning sky and shattering her like glass.

She wakes in the middle of the night, an unfamiliar ache deep inside of her, so intense that she almost sobs with the weight of it. She nearly reaches between her legs to fill that terrible emptiness before she remembers that there is dirt caked under her nails and in the grooves of her palms. Before she remembers that there is a cam droid perched in the farthest corner of the room, its photoreceptors monitoring her every move.

Before she remembers that she should be revolted at the thought of an enemy touching her.

When she wakes from those heated dreams to a cold cell, her arousal turns to sickness at the thought of Ren invading her body. She might be inexperienced, but she is not naive, and the blood rite hangs heavy over her head. She knows that reality will not be as kind as dreams.

Rey reminds herself that a few minutes of pain is a small price to pay for her life, telling herself that if she is lucky, Ren will tire of her quickly. She may only be forced to have him inside of her a few times before he turns his attention elsewhere. But that thought sends a different kind of agony searing through her, a pain that is tied to the inexplicable bond that exists between them. A dark hunger inside of her yearns for him. It whispers to her that he belongs to her and no other, and that she in turn must belong to him.

Her conflicted mind exhausts itself, turning in confused circles whenever she is awake. When the guards finally darken the overhead lights at night, she doesn’t allow herself to sleep. Instead she lies awake, staring at the blank ceiling, afraid to descend into nightmares.

Or perhaps it is the dreams that scare her.

 

***

 

On the morning of the seventh day of her imprisonment, a knock sounds on her door, interrupting the ceaseless barrage of thoughts that plague her. It is too early to be the officers with her morning rations, and the guards never knock before entering. Rey stands warily and the door slides open to admit her visitor.

It is Demetrius. Relief floods through her and she fights the urge to collapse into him, to feel human touch after so long in confinement. She had been ripped from her grandfather’s side so quickly, taken from the Throne Room only moments after accepting Ren’s offer. Six days’ worth of worry is etched into his face. She knows that if she were to throw her arms around him right now he would not stop her, but the guards at the door are watching and listening intently. Rey can feel the cam droid’s eerie black photoreceptors focused on them, like a many-eyed insect.

Demetrius’s lined, hazel eyes roam over the blank walls, the single blanket on her sleeping platform, and the skinny door that leads to the refresher. Finally, he looks at her. She feels the weight of his gaze and knows what he sees: tangled hair, a prisoner’s clothing, red eyes, and sunken cheeks. She quickly moves to hide her dirty hands behind her back, but he grabs her wrist and turns her palm upward, taking in the grime that has etched its way into the lines of her skin.

The hand at his side curls into a fist. He has not expected to find her in this condition.

It’s okay. I’m okay, she wants to tell him, even though it’s not and she isn’t.

“Rey,” he says quietly, guilt seeping into his voice. “I’m so sorry I couldn’t come sooner. If there had been any way…I should have come sooner. I should have done more.”

She shakes her head, unable to find the words to tell him that she doesn’t blame him for any of this.

“No,” Rey whispers. “You’ve done…so much. So much for me already.”

He looks away from her, trying to compose himself.

“I have good news,” he says finally. For her sake, he attempts a thin smile.

“I could really use good news right now,” she says honestly.

“Kylo Ren has persuaded Supreme Leader Snoke to allow you to reside with the Knights of Ren until arrangements can be made for the blood rite to take place.”

“I’m getting out of here?” Rey asks in disbelief.

“Yes.”

Suddenly, Rey doesn’t care that there are stormtroopers standing at the door or that a security guard is scrutinizing their every move through the cam droid. She throws her arms around Demetrius’s shoulders and hugs him, feeling his shock and surprise when his shoulders tense beneath his grey cloak. But after a moment he relaxes, wrapping his arms around her to gently pat her back. She smiles into his shoulder. It’s strange and new to both of them, and it makes her a little sad when she remembers that he had probably once hugged her mother just like this.

“Thank you,” she whispers.

He draws back a little, his hands on her shoulders, shaking his head. “It was Ren’s doing.”

“How?”

Demetrius smiles that thin, tight smile again, but this time it is designed to shelter rather than comfort.

“Kylo is the Master of the Knights of Ren, and his dealings with the Supreme Leader are far outside of your control,” he says dismissively, his voice deceptively soothing. “Theirs is a different and darker world than the one you come from. You don’t need to hear about all of that unpleasantness.”

Rey frowns. “But if he-”

“Rey, it would only upset you to hear. You don’t need to be burdened with the concerns of the Knights,” Demetrius insists, shaking his head. “Let Kylo deal with Snoke.”

Rey bites her tongue. He thinks I’m too fragile to hear what Ren has done in my name.

“So that’s it, then?” she says finally, fighting and failing to keep the edge out of her voice. “I can leave?”

“No,” Demetrius says, his voice uncertain. He is rattled by her tone. Rey immediately regrets speaking so sharply. The last thing she needs is to push away her only defender. “The past few days have raised questions about Supreme Leader Snoke’s leniency towards you. There are some who mistake his…mercy…for weakness. The Supreme Leader needs to be certain of your loyalty. To pacify the generals, he intends to link the blood rite to an accord with the sky-walkers. As such, it is very important that you and Ren take measures to publicly affirm your intent to go through with the rite.”

Rey is intrigued. “He wants to make sure I’m not going to run,” she says bluntly. As if she has anywhere to go. “I thought that my acceptance of the blood rite was pretty public.”

Demetrius laughs aloud. “That it certainly was. But none of the Knights were present when you declared yourself to Kylo. They keep themselves rather separate from court politics.”

“All right. What does Snoke want?”

“The Supreme Leader has asked that Ren proceed with the funeral rites for the citizens who have been lost over the past week,” Demetrius says, and Rey doesn’t miss his pointed reference to Snoke by his title. “Their Burnings will take place tonight, with private ceremonies for those closest to them. But in the morning, Ren will honor a fallen Knight, and the Supreme Leader would like you to preside over the rites alongside him.”

Curiosity simmers inside of her. She wonders why it has taken so long for them to take care of their dead. On the Eleusis, the period of mourning is three days, after which their coffins are sent to the ground. Anything longer than that and everything would start to...decay.

Perhaps that is what Demetrius had tried to shield her from. But Rey has worked her whole life in the Eleusian fields, watching things grow and die and decay in an endless cycle. Death is nothing new to her.

“Preside?” she asks skeptically, looking down at her dirty hands and shapeless clothing. She is in no condition to appear in any public forum, much less at Ren’s side, and she knows nothing about earth mourning rituals. All it would take is one wrong move, one false step…

Sensing her alarm, Demetrius assures her quietly, “Don’t worry about any of that. Nothing is expected of you except your presence. In the morning, one of the Knights will come to escort you. She’ll give you everything you need.”

She? Rey thinks, surprised. The Throne Room had been filled with soldiers, but there hadn’t been a single woman among them.

Behind them, a guard clears his throat, and Demetrius stiffens. Their time together has come to an end.

“Rey,” he says urgently. “You should know that tensions at the Burning will be very high. Phobetor was killed in an altercation with the sky-walkers and the First Order generals are urging the Supreme Leader towards war.”

She remembers Ren’s words to her at Takodana. Your people shed the first blood. It seems like they were spoken a lifetime ago.

“Your presence at Kylo Ren’s side could serve to quiet some of their anger. It may be the difference between peace and war between our peoples.”

Suddenly she is afraid. She never asked for this, she isn’t prepared for this.

“Demetrius,” one of the guards calls out impatiently.

Seeing her panic, Demetrius pulls her to him once more, folding her in a brief embrace. “You’ll do just fine,” he whispers in her ear, so low that she thinks maybe the cam droid might not pick up his words. Then he says something else, something that surprises her, because it is an answer to a concern she has never voiced aloud.

“This isn’t what I wanted for you, Rey. But I wouldn’t let you do this if I didn’t believe that Ren is a good man...perhaps one of the only good men left on this earth.”

 

***

 

Finn has never believed in the supernatural. He has sat through at least a hundred of Lor San Tekka’s long-winded musings on the nature of the Force, the mystical energy field that binds the galaxy together. He and Rey used to giggle behind their hands at the serious temple acolytes, who claimed to be able to see the past and the future. Lor San Tekka’s students worshipped the Force with dramatic showmanship, parading around the Eleusis with a grand sense of superiority.

Even then, Finn knew that shaving your head and wearing boring robes wouldn’t give you some weird mind power. The ritual liturgy of the so-called Eleusian Jedi was all smoke and mirrors, tradition without substance.

Finn can’t help but feel like one of those acolytes as Narisah closes his hand around a multifaceted rock that fits perfectly in his palm. He feels like an imposter.

“Go on,” the guide says, his voice echoing in the darkness of the tunnels.

Beside him, Dameron sighs. “This is absurd. The Force is just an old earth myth. It’s not real.”

Finn thinks that Poe should probably be a little more respectful, considering they’d both been saved from the literal jaws of death by the band of desert travelers. The white-clad nomads had given them what food and medical attention they could spare, promising that they would receive more help at an outpost north of the mountains.

“I would invite you over to our place,” Narisah had joked as they walked. Finn recalls the massive star destroyer, and the thick band of smoke that had formed a black pillar in the sky against the horizon. “But we’ve recently been evicted.”

The desert warrior is not like anyone Finn has ever seen: his long hair is pulled back into a braid down his back and his white clothing is alight with mirrors and jewels.

Narisah had instructed one of his men to cover the gash in Finn’s shoulder with a strange-smelling paste that cooled like ice. The man had bound the wound with white bandages, staunching the flow of blood. In a moment of pain and delirium, still stunned by what he had seen in the desert, Finn had whispered, “Are you a Jedi?”

“No,” his rescuer had replied. “We’re Jinn.”

Without the aid of these newfound friends, Finn is sure that he and Dameron would have been lost or dead by now. But to his dismay, Poe doesn’t seem to have a problem with openly questioning their saviors’ religion.

“You don’t believe in the Force?” Roshan asks the starpilot curiously. Narisah’s second-in-command never seems to lack questions, asking them everything he can think of about where they’ve come from and where they’re going.

“I’ve been to thirty-three planets,” Dameron replies, his voice weary. “The Force wasn’t on any of them.”

But it’s on this one, Finn thinks, turning the stone over in his palm. Though the tunnels are cool, the crystal is hot in his hand. I heard the Darknesses, even though they didn’t speak. I heard them in my head, when all Poe heard was wailing and screaming.

“We heard them, too,” Roshan says reassuringly, except it doesn’t make Finn feel better. He would much rather have never heard anything at all. Plus, the feeling of someone else in his head is really, really disconcerting.

“I wish you all would stop doing that,” mutters Poe.

“Doing what?” asks Narisah with mock-innocence. “I thought you didn’t believe in our… what did you call them before? ‘Mind tricks’?”

Finn clutches the stone in his hand tighter. He’d seen Narisah and his warriors create light from darkness during their battle with the massive desert creatures, but how had they done it? The rock is smooth under his fingers, like heated glass. His mind might indeed be playing tricks on him, because the crystal almost seems alive.

“What am I supposed to be feeling?” he whispers.

“No one can tell you what you’re supposed to feel, Finn,” Narisah replies. Dameron makes a derisive coughing sound.

“Right,” Finn mutters, trying to ignore Poe. “Any advice?”

“You have focus. That’s good. But your focus is elsewhere. On saving your friend, on your concern for her. When you are calm, when you trust ananke, the Force will come to you.”

“What’s ananke?” Finn asks. Sometimes, when there is no word in Basic for an idea, Narisah slips into his native language.

“It is many things. Fate, destiny. Something that must come to pass, something predestined by the Force itself. It has existed since the beginning of time, when the Force called all things into being, and it guides each of us now. No one can defy ananke.”

“Fate,” murmurs Finn. “You’re asking me to trust that fate will save Rey?”

“No. I’m telling you that all things that come to pass are the will of the Force. Whether your friend lives or dies is not within your power. Each of her steps, and each of your steps, are guided by the Force.”

“So we’re just puppets, is that it?”

“The ways of the Force are a great mystery, Finn. Fate and choice exist side-by-side; the will of the Force is inevitable and the future is always in motion, though it may seem impossible for both to be true. We cannot comprehend the infinite with our finite minds.”

Finn takes a deep breath. How could he possibly just…let Rey go? He worries for her every second of every day. Even now, he can feel every step into the tunnels taking him farther north, away from her.

Ananke,” murmurs Narisah.

Finn searches for the Jinn’s hand in the darkness, feeling the spun linen of his gloves and the smooth mirrors sewn into them.

“I can’t. I’m sorry,” he whispers, returning the crystal to its owner.

The stone blazes to life in Narisah’s hand. A white, pure light emanates from inside it, reflecting off the mirrors in his gloves and the transparisteel of his goggles. It is no trick, no illusion. The light scatters through the tunnel, illuminating their path like a small sun. Poe looks oddly disappointed, as though some part of him, despite his disbelief, had secretly hoped that Finn could call the light from the darkness as Narisah and the other Jinn had.

“Then Niima will be where our paths part,” says Narisah sadly, but there is no judgment in his tone. “There are many travelers there, and you may find someone who knows where your friend was taken. If it is the will of the Force, I hope you will find each other.”

Chapter Text

Rey wakes to the face of a dead woman.

Moonlight hair tumbles over the young woman’s shoulders and dark lashes frame her stunning grey eyes. She is dressed in a black himation that reaches to the floor. Her right shoulder is bare and her sandaled feet step over the floor of the room without sound. In the dim light of the cell, the woman looks beautiful and ghostly, a spirit ascended from the underworld.

All hail the deathless ones, the dreaded Knights of Ren, who roam beneath a blood-red sky and harvest souls of Men.

Rey stumbles off of her sleeping platform, the words of the Eleusian children’s rhyme hissing in her ears as if still part of a nightmare. Her mind rouses with a feeling of horror, a scream lodged in her throat…she knows this young woman’s face! Rey had seen this girl before, when she forced her way into Ren’s mind during her interrogation. Only then the woman had been a corpse laid out on a pyre. Those lovely grey eyes had been closed forever, a metal crown of flowers adorning her graceful head. This woman is dead, a phantom or a shade…the ghost of a girl that Ren once knew…

All hail the deathless ones, who reap the young and old. The brightest light casts shadows long, and even stars burn cold.

The lights of the cell abruptly turn on, and Rey is immensely glad that she hadn’t screamed. As soon as she blinks the brightness from her eyes, it becomes perfectly clear that the woman is not a phantom, but flesh and blood. There is color in her cheeks, her lips are full and red, her skin pale but healthy. Rey’s heart still pounds, trying to reconcile the memory of what she had seen in Ren’s mind with the living girl before her.

“And you told Kylo I shouldn’t come alone because she would be afraid of me!” a man’s voice exclaims, his deep tenor dousing Rey’s fear like water poured over a flame.

She forces her eyes away from the woman toward the sound of his laughter. When she sees him, she understands why she would have good reason to be afraid. The ghost-girl’s companion possesses a face that has been utterly destroyed, several angry scars running from his temple to his jawline, but there is a look of impetuousness on his face that suggests he might have been handsome once.

The young woman’s grey eyes are like steel daggers, glaring at the disfigured man who lingers near the entrance to the cell. It is a gaze that would strike fear into even the most hardened soldier, but her tall, lean counterpart merely looks amused.

“We didn’t mean to startle you,” says the woman apologetically, turning back to Rey with bright, watchful eyes. “We thought the guards would have woken you already.”

“No, it’s fine…you just scared me a little,” Rey manages to say despite her dry throat. She feels a pang of embarrassment at her own superstitious fear. Steadying her voice, she stands a little straighter. “Are you the Knights of Ren?”

“Here to reap your soul, darling,” replies the man casually, throwing a wink at her. Like the woman, he is dressed regally in a black cloak of rich fabric that covers his shoulders and chest. The cloak is pinned at his shoulder with a fibula that looks to be made of solid gold. He grins a white, straight smile, the skin beneath his scars twisting with the movement.

The woman shakes her head, exasperated with him. “I’m Hecate. This is Thanatos. We’ve come to get you out.”

At her words, the troopers posted at the door shift warily, as though they are still unsure if the knights actually have the authority to remove her from the cell. But neither of the white-armored guards say anything when Thanatos stretches out his hand to Rey.

“I don’t even know you,” Rey says cautiously. Thanatos steps forward, his hand trailing along the curve of her elbow. He leans down licentiously, his breath tickling her neck when he speaks.

“You don’t know anyone here, sweet one.”

His words draw a small laugh from her. It is her first true laugh in days, and it feels good.

“You have a point,” she concedes.

Thanatos holds out his hand to her again. This time Rey takes it, allowing him to guide her through the low doorway and past the guards. Though the detention block’s hallway is narrow, Rey feels overwhelmed with the sensation of freedom. After days in confinement, she wants to run the length of the hall, to dance and climb and shout.

“So,” Thanatos begins, sounding amused. “We heard that you managed to pin down the inexorable Kylo Ren. Does the sun still rise in the east?”

“Thanatos!” Hecate exclaims, her eyes wide. “Leave the girl alone!”

“We all thought he was going to die alone,” Thanatos tells Rey congenially, pretending not to hear Hecate. “I’m actually quite hurt. You think you know someone. Grow up together, fight battles together. And the next thing you know they’re entering into secret blood rites without telling you.”

Rey smiles, but at the casual mention of the blood rite, dread falls like a heavy stone in her stomach. Thanatos’s words are a reminder that she is about to marry a stranger, a man who possesses a power she is only beginning to understand. Rey shivers in the cold hallway as the rest of the childhood rhyme comes to her, a poem that temple acolytes would recite to make little girls cry.

All hail the deathless King, who craves both flesh and bone. He seized a sky-girl from above and took her for his own.

Rey mentally chides herself. She knows now that the Knights of Ren are not the half-living, half-dead spirits of those childish stories…but the words still haunt her.

“It wasn’t a secret!” Hecate exclaims. “The whole court knows! And just because Kylo doesn’t sleep with anything that moves doesn’t mean he was going to die alone.”

“Kylo’s restraint is unnatural,” Thanatos mock-groans, a sly look passing over his features. Rey gets the sense that he is enjoying provoking Hecate immensely. “He acts like the Jedi, with all their rules about who can fuck whom. It’s exhausting.”

Hecate rolls her eyes. “Ignore him,” she whispers to Rey, leading her away. Thanatos trails half a step behind them, just close enough to overhear Hecate mutter, “He spends too much of his time out there in the Wastes and not enough in civilized company.”

 

***

 

Hecate and Thanatos must have woken her in the earliest hours of the morning, because once they descend beyond the well-lit First Order corridors, there is barely enough light to walk by.

“Down here we don’t get any sunlight, but the circadian lights follow the natural progression of the sun above ground, so we get a full day of light. I wouldn’t recommend wandering around at night unless you’re asking for a turned ankle. Technically the palace grounds extend all the way to Level One - that’s where the lifts ended, back the way we came,” Thanatos tells her. “Snoke’s a paranoid bastard, so you’ll have to comm a guard if you want to go above that point.”

Rey’s mind is spinning. She had tried to memorize the path Hecate had taken through the lower levels of the First Order base, but the labyrinthine halls all seemed to blur together. They are deep in the ground now, so deep that the deepest lifts ended a kilometer above their heads.

“Who built all this?” Rey whispers in awe. “There’s an entire world down here…”

They are walking along an underground stairway that clings to the wall of an immense cavern. From their high vantage point, Rey can see the rocky plain below, a silvery underground river, and a white palace that sprawls over the hollow valley haphazardly as though its thousands of rooms have been built over the course of centuries.

“The radiation used to go deeper into the earth,” Hecate tells her. “Over the years, the levels of radiation stabilized and people were able to build higher. But the Knights of Ren remained here. It’s…home.”

Home, Rey thinks faintly. She feels a pang of longing in her chest.

“Do you smell that?” whispers Thanatos longingly, his gait quickening as they near the end of the winding steps. The rock flattens into a wide path and the palace looms ahead of them. “Skies, I can smell it from here.”

“You cannot,” Hecate mutters, but a faint smile crosses her face.

“I can. It smells like…” He inhales deeply, exhaling in a wistful sigh. “Dion’s in the kitchen.”

Rey can smell it, but she’s not sure exactly what it is. It is a warm smell, like…bread. Except richer, thicker, sweeter. Something oven-baked and hot. Her mouth waters.

“Do you think he’s making…?”

“Oh Force yes.”

“What is it?” Rey asks curiously. Her stomach feels suddenly empty. It growls, begging for something with more substance than hard ration bars.

“It is proof that there is a Force, and that it’s will is good,” moans Thanatos.

“Sweet-sand cookies,” Hecate says, tilting her head back, letting the smell waft over her. They are almost to the steps leading to the grand doors of the subterranean palace. When Thanatos shoves the doors open, Rey is stunned by the sheer size of its grand interior. The ceiling soars over their heads and her footsteps echo across the stone floor.

“This is the main hall,” Hecate tells her. “On this level you have all the common areas. In the east wing there’s the holocenter, comm room, training rooms. In the west wing you’ll find the armory, the state rooms, and-“

“The kitchen,” Thanatos finishes, his mind still clearly on the sweet-sand cookies.

“On the upper level are the private quarters. You can bring whoever you want down here, but no civilians upstairs.” Hecate looks pointedly at Thanatos, as though she suspects he may have violated this particular command. “House rules.”

“Got it. How many of you live here?” asks Rey curiously.

“Eight,” Hecate replies automatically, at the same exact moment as Thanatos says, “Seven.”

Thanatos falters, the smile on his face fading into a grimace. Hecate’s beautiful features are stricken. There’s an awful silence, the knights’ lightheartedness replaced with an overwhelming feeling of grief. Rey is suddenly very aware that she is a sky-walker, an outsider, an intruder into something very private.

“Seven,” Hecate whispers after a moment.

 

***

 

Sweet-sand cookies are possibly the greatest thing that Rey has ever tasted. She eats her fourth one as she sinks deeper into a tub of hot water, still marveling that on earth the substance doesn’t seem to be as precious as it is on the Eleusis.

“We’ve had a thousand years to perfect the filtration systems, and there are oceans of water,” Hecate tells her, amused by Rey’s enthusiastic response. “Knock yourself out.”

But Rey only gets a few minutes to herself before the pretty knight is knocking on her door again. The circadian lights are lightening beyond a row of slender, arched windows. Gold races across the farthest cliffs in an imitation of dawn and apprehension settles in Rey’s chest. Every minute brings her closer to the funeral at which she will be expected to stand at Ren’s side.

She dries off and slips into a lightweight underdress that reaches to her thighs. “I’m decent,” she calls out to Hecate.

The young woman enters. “I pulled these from the old quarters. They haven’t been worn in years. We haven’t had a queen since Starkiller died, and that was at the end of the Imperial Age. I just didn’t have time to air them out…”

“I’m sure it will be fine,” Rey says indifferently. It’s not as though she has a particular reason to look beautiful. Her marriage to Kylo won’t be real, so there’s no need for her to worry about impressing her betrothed. But then a horrible thought drifts across her mind, a thought that makes her stomach churn.

You’re not dressing for Ren. You’re dressing for Snoke.

Hecate sets a package on Rey’s bed, untying the cords that bind it together. Inside are two dresses, folded delicately inside thin paper. Hecate spreads them out over the surface of the bed, the ebony dresses contrasting vividly against the burgundy blankets.

“We have others, but I thought that either of these would do. Traditionally black is worn to our funerals.”

“It’s the same on the sky-walker ship,” Rey replies, trailing a hand over the fabric on the dress closest to her. It is the color of mourning. It is his color. The neckline is high, illusion lace covering the shoulders and arms. It is youthful, pristine, with clean lines. There is nothing this fine on the Eleusis; women would have sold their souls for a dress of this quality and craftsmanship.

The second dress is ornate, its silhouette subtly alluring. She would not be able to hide in this dress. The light catches on the impossibly small jewels shimmering over its surface. Their clarity is unparalleled. Any one of them is worth more than she could have earned in a lifetime working in the fields. “I can’t wear these. They’re beautiful, but…”

“Well, you have to wear something,” Hecate points out.

“It doesn’t matter,” says Rey, shutting her eyes. “I don’t care. You choose.”

“The first,” says Hecate immediately.

“Do you think Ren will like it more?”

“No. Kylo would prefer the second. But the first is less threatening,” murmurs Hecate thoughtfully.

Rey hesitates, running a finger over a line of black sapphires. “Why would he like this one?”

“He’s only male,” Hecate replies delicately.

Rey slips wordlessly into the first dress.

 

***

 

“I don’t even know what happened to him,” Rey admits.

Hecate is weaving a crown of braids into her hair with nimble fingers. Her hands are gentle but calloused, a warrior’s skilled fingers applied to a intricate and feminine task.

“Phobetor?” the slender knight asks.

“I don’t know how he died. I should know.”

Hecate continues plaiting her hair with unhurried, deft movements. If she is disconcerted by Rey’s question, she hides it well. Her grey eyes meet Rey’s in the mirror.

“When we first encountered the sky-walkers…” she begins, and then stops almost immediately. “No. No, I’ll go further back.”

She thinks for a moment. “About three years ago, Kylo went on an expedition into the Wastes alone. He was six hundred miles beyond the radiation line when he found the droid: a spherical unit, a BB unit.”

“A sky-walker droid,” says Rey almost immediately. “That’s why he took me. He thought I knew something about it.”

Hecate looks at her strangely. “The sky-walkers sent it to earth, yes. But the droid was not a sky-walker droid. It was unmistakably a droid built by the Knights of Ren, designed to make the arduous journey that only we take through the Wastes. Kylo recognized the droid immediately.”

“He knew the droid?” Rey asks, confused.

“It belonged to his former master.”

Rey’s eyes meet Hecate’s slate ones in the mirror. Rey thinks of the vision she and Ren had shared in Takodana: her mother, tied to a tree…and the apprentice. Dark hair falling against his forehead, his frame slender and lean with youth, but those eyes…those eyes were unmistakably his, dark and determined and desperate. Kylo Ren.

“My mother. Chara Demetrius.” Rey tries to compose herself. “Thrawn said she was a traitor.”

“He spoke truly. Chara turned against her own people, against the Empire, to join the Rebel Alliance.”

“Who was she to Thrawn?”

“Your grandfather didn’t tell you?” Hecate asks, hesitating. When Rey shakes her head, the knight frowns. “They were bound together by a blood rite, a sacred bond. It is why Thrawn could not oppose your match with Kylo. He knows that interference with a blood rite is against a law that predates even the First Order.”

Stunned, Rey feels as though she is going to be sick. How could her mother have been married to that monster? Rey feels a flash of anger towards the woman that gave birth to her, a disappointment in her mother’s weakness. Either Chara had been blind to Thrawn’s evilness, or weak enough to knowingly marry him in spite of it.

Are you any different? an accusing voice whispers inside her head. You are going to marry a man you barely know, a man who has killed and kidnapped and tortured…just to live. At least your mother was strong enough to leave.

“When Chara betrayed the Empire, when she left Thrawn, she destroyed the reputation that he had worked so hard to build. Thrawn has done unthinkable things to restore that reputation…but you…you are living proof that Thrawn can command armies but could not control his own wife.”

They sit in silence for a few moments, Rey lost in thought. “Ren recognized me. On the sky-walker ship. He knew who I was…he knew I was her daughter.”

“Kylo knew that the Jedi were allied with the rebels, and would have taken great pains to hide you from the First Order. From us. Whoever sent you to the sky-walker ship must have sent the droid with you.”

“It’s just a droid,” Rey mutters. “It’s not worth fighting a war over.”

“When Kylo found the droid, he brought it back to Coruscant. He discovered that it had been exploring the Wastes for nearly three months, sending transmissions back to a sky-walker ship. But under all that data there was something else, something that I doubt even the sky-walkers knew was there.”

“A map,” Rey remembers aloud, thinking of how Ren had attempted to force his way into her mind. And now you’ll give it to me. She shivers, remembering his rage when she had refused to give in, when she had bested him. “Where does it lead?”

Hecate shakes her head. “It’s more than my life’s worth to tell you that, Rey. I want to be honest with you, as honest as I can be without betraying Kylo’s confidence. I know how hard all of this must be for you. But I have to remember that you are not his wife yet.”

“But Kylo wants it?”

Hecate nods.

“And he was willing to kill my people to keep it.” Rey grits her teeth, feeling anger rising in her.

“No,” Hecate says faintly. “Kylo destroyed the droid’s transmission systems, thinking it would fool the sky-walkers into believing that the earth was unlivable. It should have been sufficient to keep the sky-walkers from returning to earth. But they were curious. They came back for it, and they…” She takes a deep breath, steadying herself, some unseen memory paining her. “We consecrate their dead, we bury their people, and still they hated us on sight.”

Rey closes her eyes. She knows what the masked Knights of Ren would have looked like to the crew of the Millennium Falcon. They would have been formidable, ghouls and wraiths wrapped in black shadows, come to ravage souls and consume the hollow shells left behind.

“They were afraid.”

“They didn’t even wait for us to speak. One of their soldiers…shot Phobetor.”

Overcome with a feeling of horror, Rey looks away, down at her hands.

“And then everything happened so fast. There was shouting, Phobetor was wounded, the sky-walkers were blasting everything to hell. Kylo took on their leader, just his sword against a blaster. It was…I’d never seen him stop a blaster bolt before, didn’t even know it was possible. But somehow he did. I can still see it hovering in the air. And then…there was blood. Everywhere. On Kylo’s hands, on the sky-walkers, on us.”

“I’m…I’m sorry,” Rey says weakly. It doesn’t feel like enough.

“It was all for nothing,” Hecate says finally. Her voice is bitter, hollow with grief. “Kylo was ordered to retrieve the sky-walker commander who killed Phobetor, to return him to earth to face justice. Instead, he returned with you, thinking that the Jedi might have told you how to retrieve the map. But we’re no closer now than we were when we first found the droid.”

Rey bites her tongue.

You know the droid. You’ve seen the section of the navigational chart that it carries. You just don’t remember.

She raises her eyes. In the glass mirror, an unfamiliar girl with steel blood looks back at her. Whatever the droid is carrying, the Jedi her mother fought alongside had wanted her to have it.

Rey vows silently to find it before Ren does.

 

***

 

The Nekromanteion is set atop the highest point in the citadel. Rey recalls seeing its spires reaching towards the sky on her first ill-fated attempt to escape the First Order base. The sun rises with crimson splendor, the bloody hue discoloring the white marble. Rey wonders what this place might have looked like at the height of the city’s glory, all pure white stone against a pale blue sky.

Inside the knight’s temple, she finds an answer. Here the dying sun cannot touch the magnificent beauty of the basilica, its pale vaulted ceilings curving up to converge at points high above her head. Hecate pulls her quietly along the dimly lit rear of the temple, behind the apse, and Rey tries not to stumble over the dress.

“Snoke,” the knight points out quietly. Rey sees the Supreme Leader seated in a place of prominence on the upper level, looking down on the nave with pale eyes. The mourners are gathered there, a mass of men and women in dark clothing, hundreds of them assembled here to honor their fallen knight. There are also children, which surprises Rey.

Of course they have children, Rey admonishes herself. How else could they have survived?

“And Thrawn,” Hecate murmurs, drawing her out of her thoughts.

Seated at Snoke’s left hand is the Jedi Killer. Gone is his pristine white cloak. He wears a black mantle, thick like velvet, draped across his lean shoulders. Rey’s throat goes dry, and her step falters. She is grateful that she is ensconced in the shadows, unseen by that chilling blue gaze.

“Careful,” a voice murmurs behind her.

For a brief moment she thinks that Ren is merely another dream, but then she feels the closeness of his presence and knows he is real. Her breath stops at the sight of him, a mixture of fear and longing curling in her stomach. She had not memorized his face well enough: she retraces the dark dusting of marks on his cheeks and above his brow with her eyes, trying to reconcile the fullness of his lips with the uneven strength of his features. His skin is pale against his long, dark hair.

There are dark circles under his eyes and she wonders if, like her, he has not been sleeping. And then blood rises to her cheeks at the thought of why her nights were spent awake.

“Walk with me,” he says, placing his hand on her back to steady her.

Rey shies away from his touch, flinching without thinking. He withdraws his hand immediately, remorse flitting across his features.

In the halls of Takodana, she and Ren had forged a strange kind of friendship, but now the blood rite hangs over her head and she is aware of him in an entirely different way. He towers over her, tall and broad-shouldered. She remembers their struggle in the Wastes, the heavy weight of him pinning down her wrists and hips, the strength that had so easily overpowered her.

She lowers her eyes, avoiding his gaze, torn between the safety of the distance she has put between them and the instinct not to incite the anger of the man who is to be her husband.

“I’ll go with Rey,” says Hecate quietly. Rey silently thanks every god that exists for her. “We’ll follow you.”

Ren nods sharply. He turns from the shadow of the apse towards the main hall of the temple, stepping out into the light. Rey observes for the first time that he is not dressed in the tattered cloak and thick, roughspun robes that she is familiar with. A heavy black cloak covers his shoulders, woven of a fine material that Rey has never seen before. Beneath his cloak is bronze-plated leather, deadly battle armor that she knows is not entirely ceremonial. Dark leather vambraces cover his forearms and greaves shield his shins. A thin band of bronze adorns his head, glinting as he steps forward.

The dead knight, Phobetor, has been placed upon an elevated pyre. Grief flares across Ren’s face, making her think for some reason of Chancellor Organa standing in the atrium, her husband’s body in a coffin, clothed in black with a band of gold in her hair. Rey blinks away the memory.

Five Knights of Ren stand just below the pyre, Thanatos among them. Hecate gives Rey’s hand a tight squeeze and whispers, “You stand here.”

Then her himation is fluttering over the floor and Rey is alone, standing at Ren’s side, looking up at the faces of hundreds of people waiting expectantly in the balconies. She searches for Demetrius’s face in the crowd, trying desperately to find her grandfather. But she is met with only hard gazes. The cheeks of some of the women are streaked with tears, spite marring their features when they see Rey. Her stomach lurches and she forces herself to breathe in and out.

She fixes her gaze on the fallen knight’s body. He is younger than she had expected, perhaps only thirty or thirty-five, with dark skin and full lips. His corpse rests on a black stone pyre that has been covered with wood, the smooth ashen bark foreign to Rey. The scientist in her studies it curiously, wondering where they had found trees on this barren planet, before she realizes that something isn’t right about it. A tree that has been felled recently will be green at the cut, a tree that is long dead will be brown. But the tree this wood was cut from is black inside, diseased.

She watches in morbid fascination as Ren steps toward the body. She expects him to speak, but instead he places his hand on the dead man’s chest and a hush falls over the hall. Rey hardly dares to breathe, her hands shaking. She feels it when Ren reaches out to the Force, feels it in turn calling to her…the current of a great river roaring as he draws upon some unspoken power.

A loud sound like a stone cracking fills her ears. Her vision goes white and she feels as though her soul has been severed from her body. She cannot feel with her hands, or see with her eyes; her only sensation is the absence of self. And yet…she still exists, and her body still exists, only she sees and feels and hears through that dark, wounded thing Ren had called the Force.

It is only she and Ren and the fallen Knight now. All others have gone, the Nekromanteion still and silent. Its pillars are black trees, spindly branches forming a ceiling above her head. A frost creeps over the transparisteel windows and the white stone floor, but Rey cannot feel the cold.

“Come here, Rey,” Kylo commands. She can’t tell whether he has spoken aloud or in her mind. Her sandals fall soundlessly as she moves toward him, leaving no imprint on the ice gathered on the ground. Where are they? Is this part of the ritual?

Ren’s hand is still on Phobetor’s chest, but he reaches out to her with the other. When she takes it, she feels a jolt from from her fingertips to her shoulder blades. She glances up to the now empty balconies.

“Can they see us?” she whispers.

“This is the world of shades,” Kylo tells her. “Only the King and Queen of the dead may enter it.”

“But I’m not…” Rey whispers faintly, before comprehension dawns on her. Snoke never wanted me to prove myself to the Knights of Ren. He wanted me to fail. He didn’t think I would be able to follow Ren here.

“Snoke cannot fathom you having this power of your own accord. He thought that I accepted the blood rite out of pity, or else out of compassion,” Kylo answers, and she realizes that here, her thoughts and his are one and the same.

“Didn’t you?”

“No.” His dark eyes are unfathomable. He takes her hand and places it beneath his, resting it over Phobetor’s heart. She can feel him leading her in the Force, his presence guiding rather than forceful. He closes his eyes, and Rey almost hears…something. Voices.

“You’ll learn with time to separate their world from ours,” Ren tells her. His words are strange; he speaks as though this place, this in-between place, is their true home, and the world above only a shadow realm. “They’re burning the body now.”

She realizes he is speaking about what is happening in the light-world, in the physical realm. Here in the shade-world, Rey doesn’t feel anything. Beneath her hand, Phobetor’s corpse is as lifeless and still as ever.

“What then?” she asks apprehensively.

“Then we will pass judgment.”

Something silver-blue glints in the corner of her eye. She turns, jerking her hand away from the body, and then…the body is gone. The man, the knight, is standing only an arm’s length away, the pyre empty. His dark skin gleams with silver and blue, yet he is solid and real. His large eyes are sad, so very sad.

Phobetor bows deeply, his eyes never leaving Rey’s. “My queen.”

She isn’t sure what to say to him. Her apologies seem woefully inadequate and die before they pass her lips.

“Phobetor,” says Kylo, sparing her. The knight straightens. He takes a step forward and embraces Kylo like a brother for a long moment. When the two men part, Kylo smiles reassuringly. “This part is just a formality, my friend.”

“Do not judge me too harshly, Aidoneus,” replies Phobetor with mocking solemnity, his wide eyes crinkling at the corners. Rey makes a mental note to ask Hecate about the name later.

“I’m sure I’ve seen worse,” Kylo chuckles. “Ready?”

“Not really,” the shade replies.

“Good thing I wasn’t talking to you,” Kylo quips. He looks expectantly at Rey.

“Oh,” she says, nerves fluttering in her stomach. “Yes. Ready. What do I do?”

“Nothing,” Phobetor laughs, hitting Ren’s shoulder. “Kylo’s just being an ass.”

“You know,” Kylo says conversationally to him. “Most shades come before me on their knees, trembling, begging for mercy.”

Phobetor rolls his eyes. “Do you hear yourself? Get on with it.”

Kylo smiles faintly before reaching out a hand and placing it on the knight’s head. As soon as his pale skin touches the shade’s, it is like Rey has been doused in cold water. It floods her ears, her mouth, her nose. She tries to scream and breathes it in.

It takes her a moment to realize that she is not drowning. The water is not water, but memory, painful and violent. Every harsh word spoken by Phobetor, every drop of blood spilled, every tear cried because of him, every violent compulsion and spiteful lie laid bare before her. She chokes with the weight of it, suffocating on Phobetor’s guilt; she can feel him drowning in a flood of his own making.

Kylo Ren drags them to the surface. The shade jerks away, all pretense of bravery gone. “My king…” he gasps.

“Asphodel,” Kylo declares.

“No, my king. You are blinded.”

Kylo’s eyes flash dangerously. In that moment, he is not the shade’s friend, but his king. “Speak carefully, Phobetor.”

“I do not deserve oneness with the Force,” gasps Phobetor. “I am unworthy.”

“I have seen the wrongs of ten thousand men, their darkest secrets revealed before me, and you, Phobetor son of Morpheus, have no business in Tartarus. If only faultless men were spared that torment, there would not be a single soul left to walk the grey plains. But since you accuse me of prejudice…”

He turns with dark eyes to Rey. “There are two realms where spirits may go after they die, and we are the gate-keeper to those realms,” he tells her. “The first is Asphodel, the everlasting plains where the Force is always present. Spirits go there to rest in oneness with the Force.”

“And the other?” Rey asks.

“Tartarus. Death. Torment. Separation from the Force itself.”

Rey shudders, realizing that whatever judgment she makes Kylo will enforce, even if differs from his own. He is trusting her to act wisely. It takes her only a moment to decide.

“Asphodel. He should go to Asphodel.”

From his robes, Kylo draws out a small vial filled with clear liquid, pressing it into the shade’s hand. “Water from the river Lethe. For your travels, my friend.”

Phobetor embraces him again. Rey looks away, tightness in her chest. The knight whispers something to Kylo, but this is the shade-world, and she and Ren are of a single mind here.

It is your throne, Kylo Aidoneus, the shade says reverently. You are the only rightful King of Chthonia. The Knights of Ren should have cut the throat of the imposter long ago.

Realizing that Phobetor is speaking of Snoke, horror fills her. Rey looks up, but Kylo does not seem to be shocked by Phobetor’s revelation. Instead, his eyes are filled with sadness.

“I know,” says the King of the Dead simply. “I have known for many years now.”

Phobetor nods. He lifts his hand, touching the band of bronze in Kylo’s hair. “You will finish what Vader started.”

And then Phobetor opens the vial, tipping the contents into his mouth. Through the Force, Rey feels every ounce of fear and guilt leave him, the weight of his wrongs lifting…the shade sighs, surrendering his memories to a black oblivion, and then blinks as if seeing them for the first time.

Kylo steps forward and places a coin in his hand. “For the boatman.”

“What boatman?” the nameless shade asks.

But the trees and frost are gone, and Rey is standing once again in the white marble hall of the Nekromanteion. Burning wood and oil fill her nostrils. She looks up, instinctively searching for the Supreme Leader in the mass of mourners, remembering that all of this was for him.

She finds him. Snoke’s flat, pale eyes survey her and she prays that he will not see Phobetor’s treacherous words echoing in her mind. The Supreme Leader inclines his head towards her slightly, but he does not look appeased.

He looks afraid.

 

***

 

When the funeral procession ends, she and Ren slip away quietly, leaving the mourners behind. They take the descent together, from the highest levels of the city where the white-spired Necromanteion is perched on a hill, down through the First Order hallways with their slanted walls, into the deep places of the earth where the Knights of Ren have made their home.

When the lifts reach their lowest point, they walk the same winding stairway that she had traveled with Hecate and Thanatos earlier that morning. The circadian lights begin to darken during their trip, signaling evening…but then Rey supposes that it is always night here.

“This place,” Rey says thoughtfully. “It’s not exactly as I thought it would be.”

“How had you imagined it?”

“In the skies, the Knights of Ren have become nothing more than stories,” Rey tells him. The staircase ends, but he takes them along a different path than the one that leads to the main entrance. A terrace wraps around the side of the palace, with slender white pillars set at even intervals, and Rey can see why he has chosen this walkway.

To their left is the outer wall of the palace, its high-arched windows brightly lit from within, but to their right the terrace opens up so that they can see the immense underground cavern. A white waterfall roars down from an unseen source high above them, its waters leveling out into a wide, shallow river that winds alongside the palace. It is beautiful, in its own way.

“When I was little, the older children used to tell us that when we died, our bodies would be sent to earth in coffins and the Knights of Ren would…” She hesitates.

“Well?” he prompts her.

Rey blushes, thinking about how foolish those stories were. “In the stories, the knights were terrifying wraiths, half-living and half-dead. Their masks disguised their true forms. They roamed the earth, starving…in some stories, they…they ate the bodies of the Eleusians…or fed on their souls…”

She trails off, expecting him to be angry, but Ren smiles thinly. “All hail the deathless ones…” he murmurs.

Rey is startled by the familiar words. “Where did you hear that?”

“It’s an old masnavi story, passed down over the centuries. Some call it a prophecy. I’m sure that after a thousand years, the sky-walkers tell it differently. Or perhaps we’re the ones who changed it.”

“How do the earth-born tell it?” she asks curiously.

All hail the deathless ones, the dreaded Knights of Ren, who roam beneath a blood-red sky and harvest souls of Men.” His voice is deep, lilting, rising and falling over the cadence of the words. “All hail the deathless ones, who reap the young and old. The brightest light casts shadows long, and even stars burn cold. All hail the deathless King, who walked the earth alone. He seized a sky-girl from above and put her on his Throne.”

He finishes the poem and leans forward to rest his forearms against the marble balustrade, looking out over the cavernous realm beyond. Lost in thought, Rey starts when she realizes that they have nearly reached the end of the terrace and the wide doors that lead to the inner chambers. The waterfall cascading over the face of the distant cliff is a constant rumble in her ears. A golden light comes from the windows at Ren’s back, scattering over the terrace and his shoulders, reflecting in the river that winds through the open plain of rock.

The sight of him sends a tremor through her body, heat curling low in her stomach, but if Ren is likewise affected by her presence, he doesn’t show it. His expression relaxes into something that is calm and strong, the day’s tension easing out of him until he is absolutely at ease in this place.

She wants to move behind him, wants to press her forehead into the place between his shoulder blades, wants to soak up his strength and make it her own.

“You were incredible today,” he tells her, straightening his back and moving towards her. His broad frame blocks out all of the light, until there is nothing but his towering presence, nothing but the two of them in this lightless world. His eyes darken with reverence when he looks at her. His raises his hand, his fingers tracing a curved path from her temple to her jawline. His thumb brushes against her mouth, his eyes falling to where he has touched her, and Rey can see every dark lash that frames them. “You were…”

In the Eleusian fields, she had closed her eyes sometimes, letting herself believe for just a moment that the artificial wind and sunlight she felt was real. She does the same when he presses his mouth to hers, tilting her head back as his hands pull her closer, pretending that the kiss is real. She can feel every line of his body pressed against hers, feel his strength and his restraint beneath her hands. The roar of the waterfall is inside her chest now, a deep rumble inside of her that shakes her to her core. He bends her to him, deepening the kiss, moving his lips against hers more urgently.

She tries to catch her breath, to find her bearings, but the short gasp that escapes her sounds desperate and needy even to her ears. He groans at the sound, pulling her back to him, his hand moving to the back of her head. His fingers twist into her hair, ruining Hecate’s fine work, and brush softly against the back of her neck…has he done this before? His hands are shaking, his breath is shaking, and still he is the only solid thing in her world, steadying her against him.

He seized a sky-girl from above and put her on his Throne.

She wants to drink the water of the river Lethe and forget how she came to be here. She wants to forget that they are enemies, wants to pretend that they were brought together by fate and not by bloodshed and hatred. She pours her confusion into the kiss, her doubt and desperation.

As if he feels that hesitation in her mind, he pulls away. “We shouldn’t…I shouldn’t have…”

He is breathing heavily, and she wants to feel that breath against her, wants to feel the rise and fall of his chest beneath her hands again. She resists, folding her arms around herself. He has devastated her with his touch; his sudden rejection stings worse than she had expected.

“Rey,” he murmurs, tilting her chin up to look at him. She tries to steel her face into something that resembles indifference, but it is no good. His eyes see everything, every line of uncertainty; the connection between them trembles with her indecision.

“You’re right,” she whispers, shoving his hand away. Hurt and anger rise up inside of her, a shield that defends her from her own traitorous thoughts. She tries to put as much malice as she can muster behind the words. “You shouldn’t have.”

His eyes are indecipherable. “You should go inside, Rey.”

She steps around him, throwing open the wide double doors. Though her heart is pounding, she forces herself not to look back. When she hears the heavy doors shut behind her, she takes off her sandals and runs.

Chapter Text

Kylo takes the steps down to the eastern wing quickly, trying to put the accursed kiss out of his mind. What in the blazing skies had he been thinking? Rey had shied away from him in the Nekromanteion, making it perfectly clear that his touch was not welcome. But one journey into the shade realm with her and he’d acted like a man possessed, dragging her body against his to sate something long-starved inside of him. He had fed his loneliness the feeling of Rey’s back arching under his hands, the softness of her hair between his fingers, the warmth of her breath against his mouth.

He wonders how he resisted the impulse to kiss her for so long. She had been untouchably beautiful, standing in the pale light of the shade world, big hazel eyes so cautious and so trusting all at once. He thinks of her tanned, smooth skin beneath black illusion lace, of her subtle curves draped in his color. The ebony dress had fluttered around her delicate ankles as she stepped over the frosted ground of the shade-wood. He recalls the warmth of her hand under his, the wisdom she’d shown in her judgment, the pure power she’d called upon so effortlessly to remain with him in the shade world.

Force, he’d wanted her. He wants her still, though he has no right to her.

He knows now that there was no finer way to seal her hatred of him than to kiss her without her permission. She must think him depraved. And yet…and yet he’d thought, for a moment, that she had wanted him in return.

He replays the soft gasp that escaped her lips in his mind, but instead of exciting him it sends guilt plunging into his stomach. He had heard it as a gasp of need, of mutual desperation, but he should have known better. It might have been a gasp of fear at the thought of what he might force her to do. Her hands on his chest might not have been searching, but resisting.

His loneliness crawls under black desert sand like one of the Keres, unfurling its leathery wings, bright eyes hunting him in the darkness.

You’re right, she’d hissed, voice filled with revulsion. Her lips were still red from where he’d captured her mouth with his own, the spiteful words spilling from them as though they were second nature to her. You shouldn’t have.

Self-contempt fills him, tightness coiling around his heart. The thought of returning to his room and attempting to sleep is unbearable. His feet seem to know where he needs to be before he does and he finds himself standing at a familiar door in the east wing. Its surface is engraved with a single word in High Basic:

Aether.

He codes into the room, stepping into the brightly lit makeshift technical lab. Smooth white tables are arranged in a hexagon at the edges of the room and silver lamps hang from the ceiling, their circular beams casting harsh light over the floor. He expects to be the first knight to have returned to the palace, but Pasithea already sits cross-legged on the floor, deep in meditation. Behind the slight fifteen-year-old girl, Hecate is bent over one of the tables, working diligently.

Pasithea cracks an almond-shaped eye. Her hair falls in a sleek black sheet over her shoulders. Ever observant, she sees more with one eye closed than most do with both eyes open.

“Where have you been?” she asks. “We thought you would have been back ages ago.”

A faint flush rises over Kylo’s cheeks. Just how long had he and Rey taken on their way back from the Nekromanteion? Time with Rey seemed to have no meaning, slowing to a standstill, or else rushing forward at an unforgiving pace. His eyes flicker to the chronometer on the far wall. It is much later than he expects, just past twenty-three hundred hours.

Hecate raises an eyebrow.

“I…sorry, I was…” He fumbles over the words, his mouth still heavy with the way Rey had tasted. Like Niiman sugar-spice. He searches for an excuse. “I wanted to make sure that Rey made it safely back to her quarters.”

The lie flows so smoothly that he thinks it might pass unnoticed, but Hecate’s eyes narrow. Pasithea looks at him with a mixture of disappointment and disinterest.

“All right,” says the child-knight flatly, shaking her head. “I guess we’ll pretend that’s true.”

“Are we any closer?” Kylo asks, grasping for a change of subject.

Hecate pauses her work to glance at the shell of the Ether. The stark metal and transparisteel frame houses a machine that is as much spiritual as it is mechanical. Its hollow husk dominates the center of the room: dark, eerily empty, its core carved out long ago.

“Closer than we were yesterday.”

“How much closer?” Kylo asks irritably, the day finally wearing on him.

“I don’t know,” Hecate replies noncommittally.

“Damn it, Hecate, give me something I can work with!” he orders sharply, lashing out at her impatiently. Without the Ether, contact with the sky-walkers will be impossible. Kylo is not foolish enough to think that the Supreme Leader cares at all about the arcane blood rite. The promise of an armistice is the only reason why Snoke has kept Rey alive; she is a means to an end.

Their marriage will be a means to an end.

If she will even have you after tonight, a high, cold voice whispers in his mind.

“It didn’t exactly come with an instruction manual,” Hecate hisses defensively. She slams her hand flat against the worktable in frustration. “I’m doing everything I can!”

There is a silent pause before the hurt in Hecate’s eyes registers, but when it does he immediately regrets taking out his anger on her. Kylo drags his fingers over his forehead. He’d made a mistake with Rey, but Hecate shouldn’t be punished for his lack of restraint.

“I know,” he says wearily. “I know you are. I’m sorry.”

She doesn’t say anything for a moment, fiddling with the delicate wires and metal gears of the Ether’s core, avoiding his gaze. “We lost some time today with the funeral, but we’re close,” Hecate finally says grudgingly. “Pasithea and I were hoping to test it tonight.”

Kylo nods in response. “Do you want me to stay?”

“Sure,” Hecate grins connivingly. “We need a lab mouse.”

Kylo walks over to her. He cups his hands behind his head into two ears and scrunches his face into something resembling one of the tiny creatures. She laughs finally, the laugh that tells him that he is forgiven.

“Help me with this.” She shows him the tiny space where the missing piece of the Ether’s core is. “Without a kyber crystal, the Ether acts pretty much like a long-range transmitter. It won’t be powerful enough to reach the sky-walker ship.”

“And with the crystal?” Kylo questions.

“As best I can tell from the post-war texts, the crystal is what gives the Ether its power, but it was stripped near the end of the Hundred-Year Night. Before that, it seems that the Ether could project the presence of Force-sensitives to the Eleusis. As long as its other half is still intact, that is.”

“So this will all be for nothing if the sky-walkers have dismantled it on their end,” Kylo muses. “Do we have to use this particular crystal? I’m sure the Jinn could be persuaded to part with one of theirs, for a price.”

His hand drifts to the far end of the table, brushing over a device that has been kept separate from the other components. The ancient lightsaber is beautifully crafted, with a single emitter that splits into crossblades at the hilt. Kylo is loath to break it open for its precious contents. He has seen few lightsabers in his time and this is the only one currently in the possession of the First Order.

No, he thinks, remembering the lightsaber that Hux had confiscated from Kanata’s temple. They now have the Starkiller blade.

The thought troubles him, but Hecate does not give him a chance to dwell on it. “This is the crystal that was linked to the core of the Ether on the sky-walker ship,” she says thoughtfully. “I’m not sure exactly what that means, but I doubt any other will work.”

“Then I suppose we don’t have a choice,” he replies.

“Not unless you want to go there in person.”

“I have a feeling the sky-walkers wouldn’t take kindly to that. They’d blast our envoy out of the sky before negotiations could take place.”

Hecate places the lightsaber in the center of the table, shifting uneasily. The weapon is a piece of history, constructed hundreds of years ago. Destroying it seems wrong somehow.

“Would you like to do the honors?” she asks him, holding up a delicate vibroblade. “Or shall I?”

Kylo takes the slender knife-like instrument in hand. He tries to move as gently as possible, but when the vibroblade meets the surface of the lightsaber’s casing, there is a painful crack that splits the air. The metal parts beneath his fingers, revealing the delicate wiring and the smaller focusing crystals within.

The heart of the lightsaber is burning red, the color of the dying sun.

 

***

 

“I sent Thea to bed. Maybe we should get some sleep, too,” Hecate murmurs, cradling a cup of steaming caf in her hands to warm her aching fingers. “Regroup in the morning. I can’t see what we’re doing wrong, but maybe after some rest it’ll come to us.”

Kylo kneads the junction between his shoulder and his neck, trying to ease the tension between his shoulder blades. They’ve been working for hours, struggling to translate centuries-old diagrams of the Ether, most of which were written in esoteric High Basic. His fingers are numb from the delicate work of splicing wires, his back aching from bending over the low workstations.

Both he and Hecate are still at a loss: everything is exactly as it should be, but the machine is quiet as the Hall of the Fallen. Even Pasithea’s sharp eyes had not been able to find anything amiss.

“We’re missing something, or else it would be working,” he says.

He looks at the Ether, a faint memory tugging at his mind. The old machine reminds him of something…something that’s just out of his reach. Trying to pin it down is like trying to catch smoke with his hands.

“Come on. You need to get some rest,” Hecate nudges him with her boot. He looks up at her. There is concern for him in her deep grey eyes.

In that moment, he almost tells her everything. He almost tells her about how Rey has awakened something inside of him that he’d thought long-dead, how she thrills and terrifies him all at once. He almost tells her about Phobetor’s final words to him in the shade world and the heavy weight of his grandfather’s legacy pressing on his chest until it feels as though he is suffocating.

He almost tells her that when he closes his eyes, he can see his sword buried in his father’s chest.

“You go,” he says quietly. “I just need a minute.”

Hecate leans forward, her hands on his shoulders. He wonders, for a brief moment, what they might have been to each other if the will of the Force had not been as it is. If the connection he has with Rey did not burn so brightly. If he had not foreseen Hecate’s death.

When her lips brush his cheek, they are cold as a shade’s, and he almost tells her then. But she is so alive in that moment, so worried for him…how can he tell her now that death is stalking her footsteps? And what if he is mistaken? The masnavi would chide him for his foolishness. No man can avoid ananke, even the King of the Dead.

“Okay,” Hecate whispers. “Promise me you’ll sleep.”

“I promise.”

He listens as her quiet footsteps fade away. Maybe she’s right. Maybe he just needs sleep. Or maybe they’re thinking about this all wrong.

He closes his eyes, trying to pinpoint what exactly is bothering him. Meditation is Pasithea’s strength, and though he himself has never been good at it, he finds that his exhaustion silences his mind quickly and he slips into that place where everything is quiet.

He is a child, and he’s sitting in the cockpit of a ship. The co-pilot’s chair is much too big for him, but he doesn’t need to reach the controls. There are blinking lights and a scratched console, and beyond there is the endless abyss of space, little white pinpricks of stars filling the canopy above him.

He finds the Summer Triangle, reciting the names of the stars to himself as a distraction, curling in so that his knees are against his chest. Vega. Altair. Deneb. And then the Eagle. Altair. Alshain. Tarazed...Tarazed and...

He forgets the other names, shaking so hard that he hears his teeth chattering. His veins are filled with ice. The thick blanket wrapped around his small shoulders feels paper thin. Shivers run over his skin like little spiders: crawling, clicking, biting. He coughs and something thick and metallic fills his mouth.

He tries to count the scratches on the console to keep himself from crying. Like the stars, there are too many to count.

Character is written over every inch of the ship. It smells like oil and the slightly charred scent of singed wires. There’s a story behind each gouge, a tall tale behind every mismatched part…it’s what makes the ship beautiful, what makes the hum of the hyperdrive so intoxicating.

She’s not perfect, Ben. No good ship is perfect.

“Sometimes you just need to give her a good kick,” Kylo whispers.

He stands, warmth flooding back into his body. And then he kicks the Ether. Not hard enough to do any damage, just enough to jolt its thousand-year-old core a bit.

The Ether sings.

 

***

 

When Hecate enters her room in the early hours of the morning, Rey does not even try to make herself presentable. She knows her eyes are red and dull from lack of sleep. She has slept in her underdress, which is now wrinkled. The beautiful lace gown is discarded on the floor of her room.

Hecate sits down on the side of the bed. For a moment, the knight doesn’t say anything. Instead, she brushes a hand through Rey’s messy hair, and that light touch unlocks all of the hurt that Rey has tried so hard to put aside.

“You’re here to tell me that Ren doesn’t want to marry me,” Rey whispers listlessly, hardening herself to accept the final blow of his rejection. “You’re here to tell me that the blood rite has been called off.”

Hecate looks surprised. “Why would he call off the blood rite?”

Rey shakes her head miserably. “He and I…” She closes her eyes, unable to continue. “I said something…terrible to him.”

“Ah,” laughs Hecate softly. “You’ve had words with each other. No wonder he’s in an awful mood. Well, you’re not getting out of the blood rite that easily. We’ve made contact with the sky-walkers.”

Rey sits up. “What?”

“The Supreme Leader is negotiating with the sky-walker Chancellor as we speak,” Hecate informs her. “That’s why I’ve come here. Get up.”

“They don’t need me for this,” Rey protests.

“Complaining isn’t going to do you any good, Rey.”

“You don’t understand,” Rey pleads desperately, panicking. The memory of Ren’s mouth on hers is still vivid in her mind. The memory of her harsh words is even clearer. “I can’t see him right now, Hecate. Not after…what happened between us.”

“Chancellor Organa refuses to accept the terms of peace until she speaks with you alone. So you can come with me willingly, or you can wait for the Praetorian Guards to escort you. Your choice.”

 

***

 

“You worried?” Thanatos mutters. His dark green eyes flicker nervously over the high-ranking officials gathered in the main hall of the palace. Kylo knows why Thanatos is on edge. It is rare that anyone comes down into the domain of the knights, and those lowly First Order soldiers who do make the descent stay only long enough to carry out their orders.

These men are not ordinary stormtroopers, but generals and admirals, their uniforms decorated to denote their ranks. Though they are here at the invitation of the Supreme Leader, Kylo feels the same uneasiness that is written all over Thanatos’s face. Every nerve in his body is humming with a single thought: trespassers. His fist clenches and unclenches as he resists the urge to reach over his shoulder for the reassuring hilt of his sword.

At the far end of the hall, he sees Dionysus sitting at the top of the grand steps that lead up to the private quarters, a sheathed scim resting across his knees. A determined gleam is in his eyes. The weapon speaks more powerfully than words: No further.

“About Rey?” Kylo replies cautiously, hoping that his voice doesn’t betray him. Thanatos nods and a grim smile crosses Kylo’s face. “Are you worried about her, Thanatos?”

“No.” A brief pause. Then Thanatos says, “I think she can handle herself.”

“So do I.”

“Then why don’t you go and rest? You look dead on your feet.”

“There are a hundred reasons why I don’t want Rey anywhere near Snoke,” murmurs Kylo. “If the sky-walker Chancellor speaks with her, and then refuses the terms of the peace treaty…he will have no further use for her.”

Thanatos blinks. “He can’t harm her. He might try to twist your marriage for his own purposes, but Snoke can’t interfere with a blood rite. He would be politically crucified if he raised a hand to her. And…”

“And?”

“She’s not exactly an ordinary girl,” says Thanatos vaguely. “The men talk.”

“What do they say?”

“She entered the realm of the dead, Kylo,” Thanatos replies, shrugging. “What do you think they say?”

“Did you tell anyone?” Kylo asks sharply. “What you found in the Wastes?”

“Only the seven. It hasn’t left these walls.”

He nods, Thanatos’s assurance alleviating some of his concern.

“Good. If the men are already-”

But his words falter on his lips. At the top of the stairs is Hecate, and Rey trails along behind her. She is not wearing the lace gown that had so incited him the night before, but is dressed in what he recognizes as a knight’s clothing, borrowed from Pasithea or Hecate or Nyx.

Burning skies, he thinks wildly, his throat going dry.

Rey’s slender legs are encased in the practical, fitted fabric that is manufactured to endure even the most dangerous journeys into the Wastes. A simple roughspun tunic hugs her frame and a black jacket covers her shoulders. She has found a long belt, double-wrapping it around her hips, and the small detail reminds Kylo of the first time he saw her. She had been wearing a thin flightsuit in anticipation of evacuating her home-ship, the second strand of her brown belt slung low against her thigh. A habit of hers, perhaps.

Her eyes are red, from lack of sleep or from crying. Or from both. He knows that the blame in either case rests fully on him.

As she draws closer, the men part for her respectfully and Kylo realizes that Thanatos is right. There is awe and a little bit of fear in their eyes. She may be dressed as a knight, but she is still every inch their queen.

Thanatos leans toward him and murmurs, “They say she is like you. The blood of the Starkiller prince. They say your blood called her home.”

Kylo nearly laughs at their sheer speculation, but then sobers at the seriousness in Thanatos’s eyes. “Chara and Luke weren’t romantically involved.”

“Do we know that?”

Kylo stiffens. Luke Starkiller was his mother’s brother, the son of Darth Vader. Marriages between cousins are still common among old imperial families, though they have become less so amongst the tribesmen. Houses are merged, alliances built, and vows sworn upon intra-family unions. The practice of keeping gens united by blood goes back centuries, when the world was crueler, the very name of the marriage rite derived from those ancient practices. The connection shouldn’t bother him, but he bristles at the thought of the exiled Jedi and Rey sharing blood.

“It’s baseless speculation,” Kylo says finally.

“So Chara Demetrius runs away with the Starkiller prince, leaving her husband and the Empire behind to join the Rebellion…because she and Starkiller were platonic friends?” questions Thanatos skeptically. “I’ve had my share of women, Kylo, and there’s not one of them that could convince me to leave the Knights of Ren. Only the purest form of love could provoke such a sacrifice.”

“Something of which you know nothing about,” Kylo returns evenly.

“True.” Thanatos grins. “But I am not one to deny myself anything. I might be persuaded to expand my range of experiences.”

Kylo looks at him. On the surface, his friend’s words seem light, simple…but there is something lurking underneath. A rawness that Kylo has never heard in the other knight’s voice. “Thanatos, don’t you think–”

But his friend shakes his head sharply, emerald eyes darting to their right, drawing Kylo’s attention to Hecate and Rey approaching.

“Rey,” Thanatos says, taking Rey’s hand and raising it to press a swift kiss to her knuckles. It is a gesture that Kylo would never attempt for fear of looking ridiculous, but somehow Thanatos – lean and scarred and darkly tragic – accomplishes it with practiced dignity. “We really should stop meeting in these early hours. It is wreaking havoc on my good looks.”

Rey smiles softly, but the gentleness on her lips disappears when her eyes turn to Kylo. He sees her inhale a small, shuddering breath. In that moment, he desperately wants her alone, though he’s not sure what that could possibly accomplish.

“The Chancellor?” she asks, her voice barely louder than a whisper.

“They’re expecting you,” Kylo replies quickly, nodding towards the door at his back. Hecate moves to lead her away, but Rey resists.

“Can I speak to you?” she asks suddenly. Her hazel eyes – rimmed with red – fall to the floor meekly, as if she very much wishes that the ground would swallow her up. “Privately?”

“Kylo,” Hecate says cautiously, biting her lip. “Snoke’s waiting…”

“He’ll wait just a little longer,” replies Kylo, but he nods to Hecate reassuringly, letting her know that he is not ignoring her warning. “We’ll only be a few moments.”

Relief passes over Rey’s face, and they walk together a short distance, turning into the closest passageway off of the main hall. Rey hesitates, but he touches her arm briefly to reassure her, leading her further into the dimly lit hallway, only stopping when there are no prying eyes.

“Rey, I…”

She holds up a hand, silencing him.

He waits, biting his tongue against the explanations and apologies he is desperate to say to her. Her shoulders shake with the unevenness of her breath. He wonders if he has ruined things between them irrevocably.

“Rey,” he says finally. Waiting for her to speak is agony.

“Last night,” she whispers, daring to raise her eyes to his. Her voice is soft, tentative, as though the words have surprised her. “I wanted you.”

He can’t breathe. Her admission is dizzying.

“I just thought…I thought you should know. I regret what I said to you. I regretted it the moment I said it. I was confused. I wanted to hurt you, to protect myself. I wanted you to think that…” She shakes her head, the vulnerability in her eyes telling him what it has cost her to tell him this. “I know you don’t feel the same, and I understand if…if you no longer want to go through with the blood rite. When I talk to the Chancellor, I’ll tell her that I don’t expect anything from you.”

Her voice breaks then, trembling with fear at the risk she is taking in telling him this, but there is a composed strength in her eyes that tells him that she means every word. She is giving him a way out now, before the negotiations take place. She is releasing him, even if it means endangering her own life.

“Rey,” he murmurs, pulling her close to him. She buries her face against his chest, her hands resting at his sides. He feels her open to him in the Force, feels the bond between them flare to life, and he realizes that after the events of last night they had both instinctively strengthened the barriers in their minds. Those walls crumble now.

His whole body aches with relief, the way a bruise is still tender after a hard blow. She is so small against him, so entirely contradictory to his own hard angles and rough fabric and unforgiving armor. Suddenly the negotiations with the sky-walker Chancellor present a bright, dazzling future, scattering the shadowy remnants of his guilt and dread. Rey’s consent burns through him, razing a path through his heart.

“It’s all right. Shhh.”

Her breathing slows to match his. Her head is barely level with his shoulder and there’s that same maddening scent in her hair, the faint ochre spice of a Niiman desert flame, dark and alluring.

“I wanted you, Rey,” he breathes against her hair, stunned at his own boldness. “But I didn’t want you like that. I wanted you to be sure –”

She turns her head slightly and brushes her lips just above the thick material of his cloak, and he stops speaking altogether. When her fingers trail along his jawline, he suddenly understands the appeal of trysts in dark alcoves, all the tales of Thanatos’s conquests suddenly making perfect sense. They are only steps away from the main hall. Anyone could wander here and find them pressed against each other. He senses a silvery, wordless flutter pass through their connection. Rey has had the same thought, and it excites her.

Her lips trail up his neck to just below his ear, soft and delicate against the pulse jumping in his throat.

“Rey…” he cautions her, his body screaming at him to let her continue. It’s as though she knows exactly where to touch him, her lips and fingertips searching over the only exposed skin they can find. He takes in a deep, shuddering breath. “Rey, they’re waiting for–”

She bites down gently at the skin near the base of his neck.

He practically snarls at the unexpected dose of pain, the feeling of her teeth scraping against his sensitive flesh overwhelming. “Skies. Rey.”

His hands tangle in her hair and he pulls her away, looking down at her. Her pretty eyes are wide at the sound of the single syllable of her name on his lips, looking at him innocently. His breath comes in shallow gasps and he feels his cock hardening beneath the bronze metal and leather of his ceremonial armor. By the Fallen, what is she doing to him?

Her gaze flickers down to his mouth invitingly, but he hesitates, wanting to kiss her less than he wants her to kiss him.

He doesn’t have to wait long. She closes the distance between them, wrapping her arms around his shoulders to bring him down to her level, fisting her hands into his cloak. The softness of her mouth on his sends a renewed thrum of desire through him. This time there is no hesitation in the kiss; she is bolder, her movements unhurried despite the fact that they could easily be discovered.

“You said that you have many names,” she pulls away from him to murmur softly. “What should I call you?”

His eyes flicker briefly to the unbroken light at the end of the hallway, making certain that they are alone. But then her mouth captures his again, her tongue darting curiously over his bottom lip. Her touch drifts over his shoulders, light as a desert wind, roaming over the bronze armor covering his chest. He finds the double loop of her belt and tugs her possessively into him, loving the way her back arches against him. When she feels his hardness pressing into her stomach, she gasps softly into his mouth and her eyes flutter open.

Kylo’s stills, wondering for a moment if he has overstepped, but then she instinctively presses her hips flush against him. Her hazel eyes look at him questioningly and he realizes that she is still waiting for an answer.

“Anything you like, salt-mouse,” he says lowly, attempting to salvage his control. The muted light of the hallway sends lovely shadows dancing across her face, and he fights the urge to drag her further into the passage. There is a brightness in her eyes that tells him she might let him. But there is no time for any of the numerous things he wants to do with her.

“I’ve been calling you ‘Ren.’” She frowns, apparently disliking the name. “But no one else calls you that.”

“Many people call me that.”

“Not the knights,” she points out. “Not the people who know you.”

“No,” he says, considering her.

“What should I call you?” she repeats.

“Kylo,” he tells her finally, giving her his familiar name.

Kylo,” she breathes. She lifts herself up on her toes to press a soft, chaste kiss against his lips, and somehow he can taste his name there.

But it isn’t the name she has spoken.

 

***

 

Rey steps into a room that burns red, not with heat, but with a blazing light like scarlet-gold sparks scattering off of a fire. Kylo’s hand presses gently against the small of her back. She knows that it is meant to be reassuring, but after the heated way she had kissed him in the abandoned hallway of the palace, his touch only sends desire pooling low in her stomach.

She attempts to put aside the memory of the kiss, but her mind keeps running over the way his breath had stopped when she’d pressed her lips against the pale skin of his neck. A faint blush rises over her cheeks at the memory of her own forwardness. She’d only wanted to talk to him, to make the events of the previous night right between them, to tell him the truth. Instead she’d ended up with her tongue entangled with his and the unmistakable evidence of his arousal pressed against her abdomen.

She bites her lip at the thought. Her experience with kissing had been limited to a few brief encounters with Eleusian boys: swift, gentle kisses that warmed her or sometimes hurried, messy kisses that never progressed beyond the dark corners of stairwells or empty training rooms.

And then there had been Dameron. Poe was much older than her, but she had liked him so, so much, their friendship developing naturally over months as she and Jessika prepared the Millennium Falcon with a remote agritech lab for its voyage. With Poe, there was talking and long walks and early morning laughter in the mess hall before the day started. But the closer they got to each other, the more uncertain he became. He was leaving, and she…she was staying behind.

The day he’d left on the Millennium Falcon’s voyage was the first and only time he ever kissed her. It had been her first kiss with a man, deep and intense, and she had barely slept the first three months he was away.

Kylo Ren has razed those memories to the ground. His mind is connected to hers in a way that both scares her and makes her crave more. What she feels for him is not as simple or as complicated as love. It is something else, something wild and archaic.

When he touches her, she feels as though she is standing in the atrium of the Eleusis, the durasteel covering of the port doors thrown wide open so that her small body is only separated from the vastness of the universe by a thin layer of transparisteel. When he speaks her name, she feels as though she is one small crack away from her own destruction, and at the same time alive with the brightness of the heavens.

His hand against her back is the only thing holding her inside her own body.

“Kylo,” says the Supreme Leader. Rey flinches, sharply drawn out of her thoughts by Snoke’s deep, ancient voice. She hates the way Ren’s familiar name sounds coming from Snoke, something possessive rising up inside of her.

“Supreme Leader,” replies Ren, inclining his head respectfully.

The Supreme Leader is seated on a simple chair in the center of the sparse room. The small space is lit by a machine that is familiar and yet unfamiliar to Rey. She gasps when she recognizes it, realizing that it is the twin of the Ether on the Eleusis, finally understanding how the First Order had managed to make contact with the sky-walkers above.

Kylo steps away from her, toward Snoke, holding out his right arm. The Supreme Leader takes it, using it to rise from the chair. It is clear to Rey that the old man’s body is broken. She looks over the myriad of scars on his face, her stomach churning at the sight of his sunken cheek. She wonders with disturbed fascination what had happened to him.

“Thank you, my child,” he says hoarsely to Kylo. Rey grits her teeth. She can’t place it, but the dynamic between the Supreme Leader and his knight is unsettling. Snoke turns his colorless eyes to her. “Demetrius.”

It takes a moment for Rey to realize that Snoke is addressing her. She has never been called by her familial name. She mirrors Kylo’s words with a respectful tilt of her head. “Supreme Leader.”

“I hope you understand your importance to the negotiations at hand,” he says. “It is against my better judgment that I allow you to speak with your Chancellor alone, but she made it clear that there would be no accord without a private audience with you. I’m sure you realize that there will be dire consequences, for both my people and yours, should these negotiations fail.”

Rey hears the quiet threat in his words.

“They will not fail,” she promises.

When Snoke does not reply, she turns her back to him and takes a few hesitant steps toward the Ether. She holds her hand out, her fingertips a hair’s breadth away from the transparisteel shell, close enough that she can feel the vibration of the machine in her body even without touching it.

“I’ll be right here,” Ren says at her side, low and quiet, his eyes black as night. “To bring you back.”

“Technically, I’m not really going anywhere.”

His lips curve into a small smile. “Don’t take long.”

She presses her palm against the machine and the Ether sends her hurtling through air and blazing light. A divine white flame licks at her skin and sparks fly around her, blinding and scorching hot, and when it stops…

She is home.

 

***

 

Rey knows immediately that something is wrong with the Eleusis. Though she is not physically here, she feels the chill in the air as a tangible, spiritual thing through the Force. She is standing in a small, unfamiliar room, the sky-walker Ether humming with life before her, but everything else feels…cold, quiet, still.

Chancellor Organa steps toward her, clothed in a thick wool garment that falls from her shoulders to her feet. Golden light spills over the heavy cloak and reflects in her dark eyes, so different from the harsh crimson light of the Ether’s counterpart on the earth below. Leia lets out a soft breath. It solidifies on the air, a white smoke that curls away and disappears.

Organa steps forward and Rey knows instantly that these past days have held suffering and pain for them both. There is a sadness in the Chancellor’s eyes, a terrible weight on her shoulders. Rey wants to wrap her arms around the old woman, both for Leia’s sake and her own, but she senses that the Ether will restrict her from touching anything here.

“Rey, I’m so glad they let you come alone,” Leia says. “I’m so relieved you’re safe.”

“I don’t have much time,” Rey replies simply.

“Then we must be quick,” Organa says, lifting the hem of her cloak and stepping forward, a determined look in her eyes. “Come with me. I have something you need to see.”

Rey feels the Ether shudder the moment she steps from the room, a tremor in the Force tugging her back. She resists, following the Chancellor through a dark passageway. The lights have all been darkened and the ship is silent aside from the low whine of the drives beneath them. Wrong, wrong, wrong, something chants inside of her.

“Chancellor, what is going on here?” Rey whispers, a feeling of dread settling in the pit of her stomach. They turn a corner, and she immediately knows where they are heading. Organa is leading her to the Eleusian fields.

“The Eleusis has been greatly weakened,” Leia replies. “A few days after the attack, we realized that the support systems were failing. All energy was redirected to functions necessary to support life.”

“How is that possible?” Rey asks in disbelief. “The damage was superficial. A minor hull breach. We’ve sustained far worse.”

“We were never meant to live here. The Eleusis was only ever built to sustain humanity for a few hundred years, and she has gifted us with nearly a thousand. This ship is old now, Rey, and very frail…The attack was merely the death blow.”

Organa codes into the heavy blast doors that lead to the fields. Rey steps inside and her heart is suddenly seized with grief.

It is like standing in the shade-wood, everything the inverse of what it should be. The soil that should have been rich and warm, giving beneath her feet slightly, looks hard as rock. The wheat is dead, crumbled on the ground, its stalks frozen to their core. Frost covers everything: the lamps overhead, the circulation vents, the walls, the fields themselves. Everything is death. Everything is…

Winter.

The word is both familiar and unfamiliar to Rey, its meaning distorted by her inability to conceptualize it. She has read it before, but has rarely heard it spoken aloud. Winter is a word for darker times, times of scarcity and starvation and meager survival.

She feels Kylo Ren in her mind, feels his presence miles below her, his concern at the sudden surge of emotion within her. The Ether pulls at her, threatening to drag her back to the earth below, but she clings on.

“We have months, if that, before we are forced to the ground.”

“You can’t,” Rey protests, stricken. “Chancellor, you can’t. If you come to earth, there will be war.”

“I have no other choice.”

“What about the Falcon?” Rey asks, clinging to that faint hope.

The Chancellor shakes her head. “The worlds they visited are uninhabitable. There isn’t time to send out another voyage. Rey, there isn’t time. I know it is wrong...so cruel of me to ask this of you. But this treaty…it can give us the time we need.”

“To do what?” Rey whispers.

“To prepare to fight.”

“You can’t win,” Rey tells her, trying to make her understand. The Ether hisses angrily now; her time is coming to an end. “Chancellor, please listen to me. You can’t win a fight against the First Order. They have ships...weapons... armies!”

“We would not be alone in our fight,” Leia says gently. “There are those who resist the First Order. We would have allies on the ground.”

Stunned, Rey steps back. “What...what do you mean? Do you... How do you know that?”

“Rey, listen carefully. If the Supreme Leader knows who you are, he already considers you a great threat. But if he begins to suspect that you know who you are…you would be executed. It is only your ignorance that has kept you alive this long.”

It takes a moment for Rey to understand the full meaning of the Chancellor’s warning.

“You...you knew?” she chokes out, taking a step back. Disbelief and anger surge through her. Rey had known, in the back of her mind, that when she was delivered to the Eleusis as a child, she would have been delivered to someone, but for Leia to have known and not told her hurts worse than any physical pain. “You knew where I came from?”

“I knew that you were in danger,” whispers Leia desperately. “I knew…that you were being…hunted. You were not safe on earth, Rey…”

“Did you know my parents?” Rey gasps.

“No, Rey, I didn’t. I knew very little of your life before. I only know what he told me…“

Tears blur Rey’s eyes, but she wipes them away angrily. The Chancellor has lied to her for years. Years of loneliness and waiting and longing for reasons that she couldn’t even understand.

“Who? Who told you?” Rey demands. The blazing brightness of the Ether fills her eyes, sparks flying around the edges of her vision. Her bones feel the heat of its insisting grasp, and still she fights against it. She knows that it is dangerous to resist, that it will arouse Snoke’s suspicions if she lingers, but her anger makes her selfish. She needs to know. “Leia, please...tell me!”

“You are not alone there, Rey, but you must be careful. Find the Widow. She will help you, until I can get you out…until then, the treaty will be your protection. But only until then, Rey. I will not leave you in the hands of an enemy.”

“You don’t understand. The earth is where I come from. The earth is where I belong,” Rey cries. “Why can’t you just tell me-?”

But the Ether rips her apart, dragging her away through the bright air and scorching heat.

She returns to herself, shaking, barely conscious, the effort of fighting the pull of the Ether draining everything she has left in her. She can feel the chill of the palace floor seeping through her clothes; everything is cold after the blazing fire of the Ether. Somewhere above her, Kylo’s voice, raw with concern for her and heavy with relief, is calling her name.

Rey…Rey…

“I’m fine,” she answers, surfacing as if from the depths of an icy lake. Warmth is slowly flooding into her, starting at the places where he has touched her. She shivers, pushing herself off the ground, drawing on some unknown reserve of strength within her to stand.

“She accepted,” Rey lies, looking unflinchingly into Snoke’s eyes. “She accepted the terms of the armistice.”

Chapter Text

“Nirron’yastra,” her husband calls her, when they are alone together.

His eyes are silver-blue shards of starlight. His hand trails down her spine, skin meeting skin, the contrast between them vivid. His hands are dark, rough…an engineer’s hands. A slave’s hands.

His skin is black as water.

Chara’s hands are rough, too, from hard years of training as a soldier, but they are still regal. Her grandmother’s hands. Little brown freckles are scattered across her knuckles. They are on her shoulders, too, and her back, and her knees, and he touches every one, tracing the distance between them as though they are points on a map.

“Canvanacct,” he murmurs in his native tongue, enthralled by her bare skin. Canvas. His hands trace her body, as a sculptor examines uncut marble before he begins his work. She wrinkles her nose and laughs at the absurd comparison. He is not an artist, and besides, her skin has always been a shade too tan to be truly aristocratic. Not like the pale, moon-skinned girls she'd seen trailing along behind the Prince of the Dead.

“Nokk’traka,” she says in turn. The Chiss word for ‘sand.’

He frowns, his gaze darkening…There is something like jealousy there. A tinge of envy, for the life she was born into. For a moment, she regrets saying anything at all. Sometimes she forgets that they are as unalike as the desert and the ocean.

“You don’t see yourself clearly,” he says bitterly.

“No,” she whispers back, trying to find the right words this time. “You don’t see yourself clearly.”

She touches the dark skin of his cheek.

“Nirron’yastra,” she says.

Masterpiece.

 

***

 

Unkar Plutt trudges through the Niiman tents unhappily. There has been unrest amongst the slaves and talk of riots across the northern sectors. Profits are low this week and the cost of black market diethyl is high. To make matters worse, the new scavenger recruits are not working out. They have brought him nothing but worthless scrap for weeks, only occasionally stumbling upon something salvageable.

Over the years, Plutt has observed that there is an indefinable skill necessary for scavenging, a gut instinct that so few of the simple-minded tribespeople possess. Most have no education, except for the masnavi and masnarin, and the overlord thinks crudely that their story-weaving mouths could be put to better use.

As he walks, Plutt thinks of ways to avoid incurring the losses from the deficit himself. Docking the portions of his workers is the easiest way to cut costs, but he runs the risk of the desert rats running off to another scavenging sector if his wages are not competitive.

Plutt enters the trading quarters, the scowl on his face hidden beneath a heavy filter that covers his mouth and thick neck. In the daytime, Niima outpost is buzzing with enterprise, the free tribesmen, scavengers, nomads, and thieves all bartering for their next meal or mouthful of water.

After hours, the encampment is silent. Its canvas structures are lit from within with a faint golden light, hives of comfort huddled together in a vast wasteland, like a constellation of stars in a black sky. Plutt pushes through the deflector shield that protects the entrance of Allya Rishka’s tent angrily, still put out over the numbers for the week. Inside, the faint blue shield extends upward in a dome, curving parallel with the fabric of the tent and protecting its inhabitants from the radiation of the desert.

The slaver has her merchandise waiting for him. He takes off his heavy breathing mask to survey the lineup. Some are as young as eight; the oldest are grown men and women. The First Order pays good money for children who can disappear without drawing attention, but Plutt knows the recruiters often take older male and female slaves if there is a shortage. All Plutt has to do is give the slaves a quarter-portion a day each to keep them alive until the transport ships arrive to take them to Coruscant.

Plutt rarely dabbles in the risky slave trade, but he has always found it difficult to resist the promise of a quick payoff. Teedo had tipped him off that the First Order would be seeking recruits from Niima within the next week. The sinking-sand scavenger has a loose tongue and gossip travels fast in the outpost. Now is the time to buy slaves, while stock is cheap, before those rumors spread and drive prices up.

Plutt’s bulbous eyes roam over Rishka’s form suspiciously. She slinks towards him, wide-hipped and sable-eyed.

“What do you have for me?” he grunts impatiently.

“I told you. You will not be disappointed,” she purrs, motioning her hand towards the half-nude bodies standing in a straight line along the back of the tent. A bracelet is wrapped snakelike around her wrist and forearm, its scaly texture glinting in the light.

Contrary to her assurances, Plutt is disappointed. The children are already half starved, little dark-skinned Chiss with hollow cheekbones and dead eyes. They might not live out the week. He shouldn’t be surprised; he knows that nothing of quality ever comes out of tribe Chiss. Most of them are dead before they leave their mother’s wombs.

The remaining men and women are mostly Jinn, their thick, dark hair braided halfway down their backs. They look whole and healthy, with a faint golden kiss upon their skin and in their eyes. But the Jinn are known to be rebel-rousers, Jedi sympathizers, and Resistance scum. The slavemasters call them katesan, runners, and the First Order won’t recruit them even at rock-bottom prices. Most captive Jinn are sent into the spice mines, or to the Cadrak Basin to work the water line that stretches from the ocean to Coruscant.

Just when Plutt starts to think there is nothing useful to him here, his eyes catch on flawless amber skin and a pair of light green eyes, clear as crystal. He looks down, allowing his gaze to travel slowly up slender calves, lovely curved thighs, generous hips, and full breasts peaked with perfect, dusky nipples. Rishka has wisely kept the female slave’s cunt covered, to keep men from testing what they have not purchased.

Plutt can hardly help himself, reaching out a dirty, gloved hand to palm the liquid flesh of the girl’s left breast in his hand, watching the resistance flicker and then fade in her beautiful eyes as he pinches her nipple into a raised peak. The young woman’s face is exquisite, but her eyes reflect the determined gaze of a captive instead of the world-weary expression of a slave. How he would love to be the one to break her.

“Smile for me, girl,” he orders.

She bares her teeth, a white, full set. It is clear that she was not born into slavery, but that doesn’t matter to Plutt. He can hardly believe his good fortune, the rest of the rumor passed along by Teedo resounding in his head. The King of the Dead is to take a wife. For the first time in many years, handmaidens will be needed in the Palace of Aidoneus. Plutt had come to Rishka’s tent hoping to find desert rats that can pass as stormtroopers, and instead he has uncovered a treasure.

“How much?” he spits at Rishka.

“For such a gem? Four hundred.”

“I’ll give you two.”

“You’ll give me four. You think you are the only one here who has First Order birds twittering in their ears? In three days, she’ll be worth double that.”

His eyes scan along the line of men and women for something to salvage the barter, ignoring the worthless children. “I’ll give you five hundred for the girl, and any one of the men of my choosing.”

A hundred credits for a male slave is low, but not so low that Rishka rejects the offer outright. “Give me five hundred and fifty for both of them together, and they’re yours.”

It doesn’t take Plutt long to settle on his choice. The young man is dark-skinned, but well-built. Average height and weight. Perhaps a Chiss raised by another tribe. Exactly the type of recruit the First Order is looking for, and the only slave here other than the girl who has the potential to turn a profit for him.

“You,” he nods. “Come with me.”

He slaps payment into Rishka’s outstretched hands and in return she gives him the access codes to the two slaves’ trackers. They fall in line behind Plutt silently and obediently, resignation in their eyes.

But when the scavenger overlord’s back is turned, the young man throws Rishka a wide, brilliant smile.

 

***

 

The treaty rests on the table before Supreme Leader Snoke.

The thin piece of parchment is bowed slightly at both ends from where it had been scrolled and placed into a depository capsule bound for earth. The old man bends forward to read the treaty’s script one last time, his decrepit spine curved like a crescent moon. As she watches his spindly fingers trail down the page, Rey marvels at the way the dark ink forms precise lines on the parchment.

It is the first time she has ever seen words written on paper.

This is the seventh and final iteration of the treaty, its contents a product of dispute and diplomacy. At first, both the Chancellor and the Supreme Leader had been unhappy, altering passages that they found unreasonable, shuttling it back and forth between the Eleusis and the earth with messenger droids. Even its language was a point of contention, with Snoke insisting that it be written in High Basic, a language that Rey can neither read nor speak.

She had wanted to scream with frustration each time the treaty was rejected. Why does Chancellor Organa care what the agreement contains if she is only planning to violate its terms later? Rey thought to herself, shut away in her room. Waiting. Worrying. Days would pass between each message, the time stretching out unbearably…but part of Rey knew that she was at least partially to blame for the delay.

The Ether had been damaged, perhaps irreparably, when she had fought against its gravity pulling her back to earth. Acrid smoke and cracked light had poured out of the machine for hours until eventually it fell silent and dark once more. Because of her impulsiveness, Snoke and Organa had been forced to negotiate across a great distance, slowing their progress until Rey worried that they might never reach an agreement.

Until, miraculously, Leia yielded to the last of the disputed conditions and returned the executed treaty to earth.

The seal of the Republic has already been placed at the bottom of the scroll, irrefutable and permanent, a deep blue stain against the cool white parchment. It reminds Rey of home. After what seems like an eternity, Snoke places the insignia of the First Order just below it in crimson, the spoked wheel and hexagon intimidating next to the curved lines of the Chancellor’s elegant seal.

Beside the Supreme Leader, Kylo leans low over the paper, his palms flat against the table. He reads slowly, taking even longer than Snoke, as though every letter is of paramount importance to him. The silence stretches out for a long time. And then, as if satisfied, he melts a stick of wax over the flame of a heavy candle, dripping a black pool just beneath the First Order’s mark. For a moment, it forms a clean circle against the stark parchment before Ren presses the face of his ring into the molten wax. When he pulls his fist away, the imprint of a flower remains.

Asphodelus. The six-petaled perennial. Rey recognizes it from a childhood game she used to play with Jess on the Eleusis. They would choose diagrams of flowering plants from old holocrons, using the number of petals to predict whether the boys they liked felt the same way in return. Both girls had both studiously avoided asphodel, and any other even-petaled flower.

He loves me…He loves me not…

The descending series of seals look like planets aligned in the sky, spelling out her fortune, for good or ill.

He loves me.

Rey has a signet ring of her own, a heavy golden circlet slipped from her grandfather’s hand onto her middle finger. It is much too large for her, and she has to clench her hand into a fist to keep it from sliding off.

He loves me not.

When Kylo steps away, Rey’s grandfather replaces him, taking a golden stick of wax from its place on the table. Demetrius’s hands shake as he drips the swirling wax onto the paper.

He loves me.

Rey stares at it for a moment, captivated by the gold shimmering in the light…and then she presses the face of her ring into the wax, finally sealing the treaty.

He loves me not.

The enormity of what she has done suddenly overwhelms her, and she glances up at Kylo, their union now bound in writing. He doesn’t smile with his mouth, but she feels his emotion quiver along their bond: a fluttering, light-winged bird. Happiness.

She wonders if his joy will turn to hatred when he discovers that his wife is little more than a spy in his palace.

 

***

 

“I have a gift for you,” Demetrius tells Rey when they are secluded in her room. Her grandfather looks weary. In the dim light, the lines around his eyes seem even more pronounced than when she had last seen him. “Ren has informed the Supreme Leader that he intends to take you to The Holy City for the blood rite.”

“We leave in the morning,” Rey tells him, seated on her bed with her knees drawn up to her chest.

Her grandfather’s words are not news to her. The wax on her seal had barely hardened before Kylo was making plans for their departure. She understands the reason behind his urgency. The treaty will not take effect until she and Kylo are bound by the blood rite, by the old traditions, and a keen sense of uncertainty still scratches at the corners of her mind.

She wonders if she will ever feel secure inside Coruscant’s walls. Or if she will ever feel at home in the Palace of Aidoneus.

She shakes that thought away, reminding herself that perhaps her isolation is a good thing. It might be lonely, but the last thing she needs are entanglements. When the war between her people and the First Order begins, it will be easier for her to sever ties that are made of string instead of rope.

“I leave then, also,” Demetrius says, a pained expression crossing his features. “But I go north, not to Jedha.”

“You’re not coming with us?” Rey gasps, disappointed.  She had assumed that her grandfather, her only family, would go with them to Jedha for the ceremony.

“As Admiral, I am needed elsewhere. There is unrest in many of the outlying villages.”

“You’ve been gone a long time,” Rey reminds him. “Ever since Phobetor’s funeral. I looked for you during the Burning…”

Demetrius shakes his head sadly. When he finally speaks, his voice is guarded. “I was deployed for Niima outpost the night before the funeral, to reign in Resistance activity there. Now I go with my troops to Ash-Akana.”

“Can’t you send someone else?” she begs him.

“The Supreme Leader issued my directives himself.”

With a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach, she finally pieces together the subtle meaning behind his words. Demetrius is being purposefully kept from going with them to Jedha. The unrest beyond the city walls is merely an excuse to keep them separated.

“Snoke is trying to keep us apart,” Rey says accusingly. “He’s trying to punish us…”

“Shh. You shouldn’t say such things.”

“In my own room?” Rey chokes out vehemently.

“After the blood rite, your room will be Kylo Ren’s room. Your house will be his house. Your enemies will become his enemies. Your name, your blood, your children…all his.  You will rise and fall together,” Demetrius says sternly. “And the Supreme Leader will not have a knight in his service whose wife secretly feeds him blasphemy. Do not think that because Snoke placed his seal upon the treaty today that you are free from his suspicions.”

Rey closes her eyes, reigning in her anger. Her grandfather is right. The fragile peace between the Republic and the First Order depends on her, and her alone.

Demetrius tilts her chin up and she opens her eyes. “I didn’t mean to speak harshly, Rey. But you must not say such things…not here.”

“I know,” she says. “I understand.”

“Then let’s not say any more about it. Here. Open this.”

Rey turns her attention to the gift he has brought for her. It is a chest carved from black wood, simple and elegant.

“It is customary to give a gift to the bride on the eve of her wedding. Since you are departing in the morning, I must ask that you forgive me the divergence from tradition. I had hoped to give you the dress that…” Demetrius starts to say, but his words suddenly falter. When he speaks again, his voice is strained. “The dress that your mother wore to her ceremony. But it is no longer in my possession, so I have brought you this instead.”

Rey’s hands drift over the trunk, hardly daring to touch it. This was my mother’s? Yearning flares inside of her, and she stretches out a single finger to trace the carving of dark thorns at the seam where the trunk closes. It is a callous object, both defiant and beautiful, and not for the first time Rey wonders what kind of person Chara Demetrius was.

“She…she would have wanted…”

He can’t go on, can’t even speak his own daughter’s name, but Rey understands. She opens the lid, her hands shaking.

Oh! her heart cries out.

It is a helmet, a mask like the one Kylo wears, wrought from fine black metal. But instead of a heavy, plated mouthpiece, smooth darkened transparisteel covers the face of the helmet, curving in a beautiful display of craftsmanship. When she lifts it from the trunk, terrified that her trembling hands will drop it on the hard stone floor, it is light as smoke.

“It was commissioned by the Prince of the Dead, fashioned by his father’s personal blacksmith. The armor, as well. It was a very high honor.”

Rey can hardly speak, overcome by the nearness of her mother’s presence and the pieces of herself that Chara has left behind. “She was a Knight?”

“Yes. She served under Darth Vader, who stood at the right hand of the Emperor. Before the dark times. Before the Rebellion.”

Beneath the mask is a neat bundle wrapped in black fabric. Silver-threaded embroidery adorns the edges. Rey undoes the ties, revealing hard metal armor and clothing made from a coarse, leathery fabric that she is unfamiliar with. Her hand ghosts over the foreign material, feeling the rough texture beneath her fingertips.

“These are made from the hides of the Keres,” Demetrius explains. “An animal that lives beyond the mountains.”

Rey’s mind tries to wrap itself around the idea of a creature that is able to survive in the Wastes, attempting to imagine an animal suited to the radiation-soaked desert. She looks closer at the material and catches sight of a strange pattern of half-moons on the leather. The Keres must be scaled.

“It is worn by the Knights under their armor, to protect against the radiation. I thought it might be useful on your journey to Jedha.”

“I don’t know what to say,” Rey whispers, stunned by the gifts. “Thank you.”

Demetrius looks at her for a moment and Rey realizes how painful this must be for him. For Rey, there is the emptiness, the void in her life where her mother should have been. But Demetrius knew Chara, and so he has lost her in a way that it is impossible for Rey to understand.

“It is what she would have wanted,” he repeats, still looking at her. “I wish she…I wish she could see you.”

Rey averts her eyes, fixing them on the mask. “Because I look like her.”

“You do,” Demetrius agrees. “You look very much like her. I knew who you were the moment I saw you. The likeness is unmistakable. But in some ways…” He hesitates for a moment, scanning her features. “In some ways the similarities only make the differences more pronounced. But that isn’t really what I meant.”

“What did you mean?” Rey asks, confused.

“I meant that I wish she could see you, because I know she would be very proud of you.”

 

***

 

Sleep refuses to visit Rey that night. She lies awake, turning her grandfather’s words over in her mind again and again.

What is there for my mother to be proud of? she asks herself. Chara was courageous and rebellious. She was a warrior and rebel, a Knight and a Jedi…and I’m nothing like her.

Rey almost laughs, remembering what Kylo had called her in the Wastes. Salt-mouse. She’d looked the sobriquet up in the datapad Hecate had left in her room. Holoimages of tiny desert creatures with sleek white fur, little curved ears, a set of four beady eyes, and long split tails with balls of fur on each forked end had appeared on the screen. She could probably fit one of the cute, whiskered rodents in the palm of her hand.

And if Rey is a salt-mouse, her mother was a lioness.

 

***

 

Finally accepting that sleep will be impossible tonight, Rey throws off her covers and quickly decides that a walk might clear her head. She doesn’t bother getting dressed, only pausing to throw on a pair of sandals and a thick, heavy robe. At night, the palace is cold, and the wispy fabric of her sleep pants and tunic do little to protect her against the chill.

Caf, she decides as she steps out into the hallway, turning in the direction of the kitchen. She is used to having Hecate as a guide, but over the past few days she has started to learn her way around on her own.

As Rey walks, she recognizes familiar turns and landmarks: a hallway of pillars with golden ivy creeping towards the ceiling, a monochromatic portrait of a woman with a white painted face and crimson-stained lips, a room with a ceiling of violet amethyst studded with diamond stars.

The palace is entirely different from the Eleusis, which had been pocked and scarred and beaten down over the centuries. Her homeship had groaned under her feet when she walked, heaving with the effort of keeping itself aloft. The Eleusis was warm and dirty, well-used and well-loved.

Kylo’s home is beautiful, lonely, and distant. Untouchable in its splendor, unknowable in its vastness.

She loses her way several times, and is forced to retrace her steps, but finally she reaches the western wing. Rey nearly claps her hands together when she finds the wide door to the kitchen, pleased with how quickly she is learning the layout of the confusing palace corridors.

She pushes open the heavy door.

Not the kitchen, Rey thinks with disappointment, realizing instantly that this room is not where she’d meant to end up. She walks forward, the bottom of her sandals scraping on the ground. In the silence, the sound of her own footsteps seems unnaturally loud. She stops, listening…breathing.

She is in a vast, circular room, like a courtyard. There is no ceiling. When she looks up, she sees the rocky cavern of the underground valley a hundred feet above her head. She takes a deep breath, the cool night air laden with a musky, earthen scent that certainly does not belong in a kitchen. It belongs to something alive.

In the center of the courtyard, there is a slender stone pillar as high as her waist. On it rests a silver-blue, shining data-orb, the holoimage it contains projected into the air around it like a semi-transparent globe. There are mountains and bare expanses of desert, darker patches and thin, winding veins that Rey assumes are lakes and rivers, and little red pinpoints of light that must be cities.

Rey moves closer, wanting to get a better look. She reaches out her hand and the moment her fingers touch the surface of the image, the scene around her shifts. In the foreground there are now uneven, concentric circles spreading out from a larger city that she recognizes as Coruscant, each rough circle coded a different color. Fascinated, she reaches out again, but as she does, the sound of something hard hitting the floor nearly makes her jump out of her skin.

In the same moment, the holomap vanishes from the air and sends the room into pitch blackness. She hears something shatter on the ground and, with a sinking feeling, realizes that she has knocked the data-orb from the pillar.

“Kriffing hell,” she mutters, turning blindly back toward the noise that had first startled her, straining her eyes to see in the darkness. The only light comes from the hallway at her back and her heart pounds rapidly against her ribcage. She walks forward until she finds the curved wall, inching her fingers along until they meet something rough and wooden. A door.

She presses her palms flat against it, reaching out with the Force, but she doesn’t sense danger. She senses…heat, impatience, kinetic energy. With a great heave, she pulls the door aside. It creaks on heavy gears, sliding along the curved wall rather than swinging open on hinges.

Ruby eyes stare back at her through the darkness, a crown of six shining jewels set into a fine, equine head. The creature is massive, but restrained by a rope bridle tied to an iron ring set into the wall. It towers over her, shifting restlessly, its heavy hooves clattering on the stone floor. The animal’s leathery skin ripples with every movement and its slitted nostrils flare as it observes her, quieting when it realizes she means it no harm. Rey reaches out her hand and the steed steps towards her, its high, proud head bending down to meet her hand, until she feels its breath against her palm.

Athanatoi,” says a voice from behind her, and she recoils, turning sharply. “Said to be the horses of the gods.”

“Stars,” Rey breathes, putting her hand over her chest and attempting to slow her breathing. Standing there in the darkness of the doorframe, Kylo tilts his head innocuously. His eyes glimmer in the faint light from the open door.

“You scared the hell out of me!” Rey exclaims angrily.

“I scared you? You scared me,” he chuckles, stepping into the small stable. “You’re the one standing there all quiet in the dark.”

There is a silent moment, in which Rey observes for the first time that Kylo is not clothed in his heavy, black robes. Instead, like her, he looks as though he has abandoned sleep to wander the palace.

Over dark pants, he wears a simple blue shirt that seems too thin for the chilly palace air. She takes note of his black messy hair, his broad shoulders, the faint planes of his chest beneath the lightweight shirt…and the amused smirk that tugs at the corner of his mouth when she yells at him.

Strings, she reminds herself as her throat goes dry. Strings, not rope.

“I came here to get a caf,” she says faintly, remembering.

“To the stableyard?” he says, raising a curved eyebrow.

She blushes, realizing that he is asking if she had sought him out purposefully. He is teasing her.

“I thought it was the kitchen!” she insists defensively. “I didn’t know you were in here.”

“And if you had known?” he replies. There is vulnerability in his voice. “Would you have continued to avoid me?”

“I haven’t been…” Rey starts to protest, but then she bites her tongue against the lie. Because he’s right. She had kept to herself during the negotiations, shut away in her room, worried that he would sense her deception the moment he saw her. Even now, she is terrified that the connection between them will cause her to unwittingly betray her own people.

She forces herself to keep her voice steady. “I haven’t been avoiding you.”

“No?” he questions.

She shakes her head, trying to force herself to look into his eyes. It is like staring into two dark oceans. He is close now, closer than they have been to each other in days. But there is nowhere for her to go. The creature - the athanatoi - is at her back, an arm’s length away, shifting restlessly as Kylo moves closer.

“You could have come to see me,” she whispers, the nearness of him overwhelming. Until the words leave her lips, she doesn’t realize how much she had wanted him to seek her out.

“That’s true,” he murmurs, his gaze softening as he considers her. His hand sweeps the loose waves of her dark hair from her shoulder, baring the column of her neck to him. Her body hums at the contact.

“I like it when you wear your hair like this,” he admits, leaning down to place a single, soft kiss on the sensitive skin just below her jawline. His breath is warm against the shell of her ear. “Tell me why you really came down here.”

“I couldn’t sleep,” she breathes. And this isn’t helping.

“I couldn’t either,” he says wearily, his voice hoarse and tired. He puts his hand on her hip and pulls her even closer, his calloused fingers brushing against the bare skin between her tunic and her sleep pants. She tilts her head back to look up at him. He is so close that she can see every beauty mark scattered across his pale skin.

“Why not?” she asks him.

“Traveling through the Wastes is never easy. Ni’Jedha is nearly two hundred miles from Coruscant. I came down here to plot a course…” His tone blackens accusingly, a clever glint flickering in his eyes. “But now my holomap of the Southern Sectors is ruined.”

She starts to apologize, but before she can get the words out, he drags her body against his again, pressing his lips against hers in a way that makes it clear he is not really upset at all.

Rey arches into him, returning the kiss instinctively, thoughtlessly. When he traces the seam of her mouth with a quick swipe of his tongue, it is the most natural thing in the world for her to part her lips to admit him. But the moment she does, her fear returns, coiling in her stomach…fear that he will see through her lies, that he will sense her complicity in the Chancellor’s scheme against the First Order.

The sweet taste of his mouth turns to bitterness. Everything has changed between them now that she knows the Chancellor intends to repudiate the treaty in only a few short months. She is lying to him with her hands, with the soft moan that rises in the back of her throat, with the quick swipe of her tongue against the roof of his mouth. Every touch is a betrayal of his trust. Every kiss is a violation of the bond between them.

Except…not all of it is a fabrication.

Her body responds to his in spite of the void the treaty has created between them. Kylo touches her everywhere: her hips, her waist, the curve of her thighs. His large hands caress her breasts through the thin material of her short sleep tunic, coaxing her nipples to respond to his touch beneath the fabric. They harden into peaks under his palms and he groans from somewhere deep in his chest, the sound making Rey weak.

She whimpers against his mouth, fisting her hands into his hair, wanting him to go on. And simultaneously wanting him to stop, to spare her the pain of their eventual separation.

He walks her backwards and her shoulderblades hit the wall, cool stone seeping through her thick woolen robe and the lighter fabric underneath. The impact sends heat straight into her core, and his hands come to rest on her thighs. He parts them easily, lifting her so that she is trapped between his body and the unyielding wall, her arms wrapped around his shoulders and her thighs around his hips…and then she feels him there, his hardness pressed intimately against her.

Strings, she thinks, trying to keep her mind and her heart separate from his, even as her body sings. Not rope.

The kiss shifts, deepening into something else. Something more. He reaches out to her through the Force instinctively and Rey feels the tentative brush of his mind against hers, familiar and foreign all at once.

“Wait,” she gasps, stunned and uncertain.

As if she has been doused in cold water, she remembers sharply that there is still nothing between them but fragile political promises. There had been no marriage ceremony. No vows were exchanged, no rites performed. All of that is still to come, and it feels…incomplete to her. Dishonorable. Rey feels as though the act would be cheapened, somehow, if she were to give herself to him now.

Kylo stops immediately, setting her feet on the ground. He takes her head in his hands and kisses her softly. It is the kind of kiss that makes her wish she hadn’t stopped him.

“You’re right,” he murmurs finally, as if he knows what she is thinking. His eyes are dark with desire and restraint. He brushes the tips of his fingers along the bare skin of her left collarbone, touching her with a cautious longing that is somehow worse than the way he’d kissed her before. “You’re right. When I have you, it should be in the Holy City, after the blood rite. You deserve that much.”

The moment passes. The darkness flickers and then fades in his eyes, like a flame extinguished by a strong wind. And then finally, finally, he releases her.

“Rey?” he says.

“Yes?” she whispers, eyes wide, still distracted by the meaning behind his words. When I have you…

He smiles that half-hidden smile, the one that tells her that she’s done something to amuse him, before his gaze becomes serious again.

“I have something for you…I’d meant to give it to you when we left for Ni’Jedha, but…” He reaches down, pulling a slip of paper that has been folded several times over from his boot. He hands it to her, the paper seeming absurdly small in his hands.

She unfolds it. On both sides there are neat, even lines of Basic, written in what must be his script. She strains her eyes in the dark. Though small, the lettering is clean and flawless. The moment her eyes fall on the words and register their meaning, her vision is clouded by the emotion that rises in her without warning.

On this the seventeenth day of the eleventh solar month, in the nine-hundred and ninety-seventh year since the fall of the Old Republic, the governments of the First Order and the Republic, by and through their ruling Representatives, solemnly vow to uphold the provisions of this Treaty for the purposes of securing peace, establishing diplomatic relations, and for the avoidance of conflict from this day until the end of time…

“It’s a rough translation,” Kylo says finally, with a cautious, remorseful look in his eyes. “I didn’t realize until this morning that you wouldn’t be able to read the treaty. No one told me that you were never taught High Basic. When you sealed it, you barely looked at it…and then I realized that you couldn’t understand it. I should have thought of it before. Force, Rey, I should have…”

She doesn’t speak as she re-folds the paper carefully, using the same seams, her hands trembling the entire time. He’d translated this for her, so that she could know exactly what she had bought with her freedom. So that she would not enter into the blood rite blindly.

When she finally kisses him, she feels as though there are a hundred strings that bind them to each other. Strings made of iron. Strings that cannot be cut….only torn out.

Kylo deepens the kiss, and then all she knows is the ache in her heart and the cypress scent of him filling her lungs, the grip of his hands on her hips, his tongue rasping against hers -

Rey hears a door slam open, the sound of wood splintering against stone with the harsh movement, followed by soft footsteps on the stone ground. Behind them, the athanatoi rears and lets out an animalistic shriek, startled by the disruption in the peace of the quiet stableyard. At the harsh noise, Kylo pulls Rey away instinctively, covering her body with his own and pressing her against the interior wall of the stable room.

They aren’t alone.

Rey touches her mouth with her fingertips, looking up at Kylo, hardly daring to breathe. But as soon as she realizes that they aren’t in any real danger, her heartbeat begins to steady.

Kylo reaches up a hand to smooth the worry line on her forehead. He takes her hand away from her mouth, pressing a reassuring kiss to her palm. Rey silently curses the intruder for interrupting them. After a moment, Kylo leans down, dark eyes gleaming, and her eyes widen when she realizes what he intends to do. Rey’s breathing becomes shallow as he silently continues where they’d left off, ignoring the athanatoi, the open door, and the person on the other side of the wall.

A second set of footsteps joins the first, this time heavy and angry.

“Don’t walk away from me!”

Kylo stills against her, drawing back. This time his expression is concerned. The voice belongs to Thanatos, but at the same time it doesn’t sound like him at all.

“Please.” The second voice is beautiful. Delicate and feminine, like moonlight reflected on water. Hecate. “Just…please leave me alone.”  

Rey looks up at Kylo, her eyes wide. He shakes his head almost imperceptibly, his jaw clenched, listening intently.

Thanatos laughs, but it is high and distorted. “Admit it, Hecate.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“So you’re going with us to Ni’Jedha?”

“All the Knights are going.”

“And after we return from Jedha?” Thanatos goes on. “After the blood rite, how long will take you to admit that you’ve failed? A day? A week? Perhaps you’ll hold out for a month, though I can’t imagine why. None of the others stayed long once they realized that Kylo had no interest in them.”

“The others,” Hecate repeats, her voice hollow.

“Come now, Hecate. Did you think you were the first pretty little girl sent down here by her father to seduce the King of the Dead?”

There is a long, terrible silence. Rey looks up at Kylo, stunned at Thanatos’s words, spoken so crudely and angrily that she is certain they must be false. They must be false, because Hecate has been her confidant. Her friend. An advisor and a guide in an unfamiliar place.

“Deny it, Hecate. If you can.”

Deny it, Rey thinks blankly. But Hecate is silent.

Thanatos presses his advantage, his words cutting like a sword through flesh. “You’re no different from the others. They all think that they’ll get on their knees for him. Spread their legs for him. And he’ll put a crown on their head, as though whores can be made queens-“

Kylo moves almost too quickly to see. There is no sound to betray him, the darkness shielding him for the few moments it takes him to reach Thanatos. From her place in the doorframe, Rey sees Kylo raise an outstretched hand and senses the current of the Force as it sears through the air. She feels his wild, blind anger just before Thanatos falls to his knees on the ground, choking and gasping for air.

It is not enough. Kylo descends on him, his bare hand wrapping around the knight’s throat. Thanatos claws at his master’s hand and forearm, searching for air. Finding none.

It goes on for too long, Thanatos’s scarred face twisting gruesomely as he fights for breath. Rey watches as Kylo’s fingers tighten almost imperceptibly around the other knight’s throat…the same fingers that had carefully penned the words on the paper now clutched in her hand…the same hand that had tenderly brushed her hair from her shoulder…

“Kylo,” Hecate whispers, grey eyes wide and haunted.

With a single word, it is over. Kylo releases Thanatos, and the knight heaves in a great lungful of air.

“Get up,” Kylo says mercilessly.

Thanatos grits his teeth, still gasping and choking as he attempts to stand. He squares his shoulders, looking Kylo in the eyes. The two men regard each other for a moment.

“If you ever speak like that again to another Knight,” Kylo says, his voice like death itself. “You will no longer have a tongue. Get out of my sight.”

Thanatos’s eyes are flat and lifeless. He glances once at Hecate, but if he feels remorse, it is hidden deep beneath layers of hard pride. Finally, he obeys his master’s command, leaving the room without another word.

Kylo stands absolutely still for a moment, his fist clenched tightly, staring not at Thanatos’s retreating form, but at Hecate. The look that passes between them is incomprehensible to Rey. Hecate’s grey eyes fill with tears and then the tears spill over, leaving bright streaks on her pale face. A horrible, wretched sob escapes her slender form.

Kylo’s fist unclenches and in a single stride he has pulled Hecate to him. The knight is taller than Rey, so tall that her head falls just beneath his chin, as if they are fitted to each other. Rey stands motionless in the doorframe, stunned by the quiet, easy intimacy between them, wondering how she had never noticed it before. Unease settles in the pit of her stomach. She watches as Kylo wipes Hecate’s tears away with the palms of his hands, murmuring something low and soothing against her white-gold hair.

Rey clutches the folded slips of paper in her hand tightly, and for the first time realizes that she might not be the only one who is sacrificing something in the name of peace.

Chapter Text

General Perses Soteira helps himself to a glass of Thrawn’s finest vintage wine. Though well past middle age, the general is a powerfully built man, with slate eyes and grey-gold hair that has been haphazardly cut.

His charcoal uniform is dress standard, but the rest of his clothing is not, Thrawn notes with a small amount of distaste. A heavy, russet-colored woolen cloak falls from Perses’s shoulders to the floor, no doubt purchased from a trader. His boots are brown leather, as is his belt, and the blaster at his side is not of First Order make.

Soteira takes heavy steps across Thrawn’s gallery, glass in hand, until he stands before a large fixture covered by a plain white sheet of fabric. There are other paintings adorning the walls, other sculptures of glass and bone and stone, but this one is new and covered. A recent acquisition.

“May I?” Perses murmurs, one hand reaching out but not quite touching the sheet.

Thrawn nods his assent without rising. Soteira removes the light fabric and casts it aside, letting it pool on the dark floor. Beneath it is a sculpture: a woman carved from black basin-stone, her eyes open but unseeing, her body hidden by mourning clothes. The marks of the widow’s silence adorn her cheeks and lips. She glances back over her shoulder, running from a pursuer, the hem of her fine dress torn and her long hair windswept.

The Grand Admiral watches his compatriot’s face - a wild, sand-blasted face - as the emotions of the piece register. Against the durasteel construct of the room, the delicacy of the sculpture seems more pronounced.

“Magnificent,” Perses says finally. “Your personal collection?”

Thrawn nods once more.

“Where did you get it?”

“It was sculpted by Palo of Moenia,” Thrawn answers. “Its provenance was not well-kept…after the Battle of Endor, it was stolen and resold on the black market, smuggled across city lines. I traced it to a dealer in Ash Riima. It is genuine, if I am any judge of authenticity, but I paid twice what it’s worth without papers.”

“Your patronage is worth more than the official provenance, I’d wager,” Soteira replies gruffly. “Papers can be forged.”

Thrawn inclines his head at the compliment and Soteira returns to his seat, sitting across from the Grand Admiral. A troubled look passes over the older man’s features, and he runs his scarred, gnarled fingers over his forehead.

“I take it you did not cross the Wastes to see my collection,” Thrawn says knowingly.

“No. No, I did not,” Perses says gravely. “A report has reached me…a report I had hoped was untrue.”

“This report came from a reputable source?” Thrawn replies.

“It came from my wife,” Soteira replies dryly. “For all the gossip of women is worth. But I have this very night spoken with the Knights, and seen my daughter with my own eyes-“

“You went uninvited to the Palace of Aidoneus?” Thrawn interrupts, his interest peaked. Few men would dare to breach protocol so blatantly. If Vader were still king over the dead, Soteira would be lucky to have left the palace with breath in his lungs.

The general makes a dismissive noise at the back of his throat. “Tch. You act as though its walls are shielded. It’s a palace, not a fortress.”

“Then Ren himself confirmed this report?” Thrawn asks mildly, feigning disinterest. But the mention of the Soteira girl makes it clear which rumor is most concerning to Perses.

“I was met by my daughter at the entrance, and the knights Morpheus and Thanatos,” Perses admits reluctantly. “The Knight of Dreams refused me an audience with his master. I did not press him.”

Thrawn folds his hands politely. “Naturally.”

General Soteira’s eyes flash at the implication of cowardice. “What was I supposed to do? Knock the old man to the ground? Hecate already told me everything I needed to hear. Kylo Ren is to wed the lost child of Demetrius.”

Thrawn says nothing.

“How could you let this happen?” Soteira questions, not attempting to hide his bitterness. “The King of the Dead…tied to a traitor’s daughter! Bleeding skies, you of all people must know…“

At the cold look in Thrawn’s eyes, the general goes quiet.

“Forgive me,” Soteira says uneasily, clearing his throat. “I only meant…that the girl is a great threat to the First Order. She may well be the spawn of Starkiller himself.”

“Indeed, she may be,” Thrawn says carefully. “The Supreme Leader believes that this would be to our advantage. A union between Ren and the girl would unite the bloodline…a king and queen, each with their own right to the Throne.”

“The Empire has fallen,” Soteira says sharply. “The old bloodlines mean nothing!”

“Surely you don’t believe that,” Thrawn says delicately. “Blood is everything. Snoke was only able to consolidate power under a single sigil after he found the boy and forced Starkiller into hiding. The imperial loyalists only back the First Order navy while Kylo Ren stands behind the Supreme Leader. Without Ren, Snoke has no legitimacy.”

Thrawn picks up the bottle of wine that rests on the table between them, his motions controlled despite the horror in Perses’s eyes at this talk that borders on treason. He refills his own glass and then Soteira’s, the burgundy color so deep it is nearly black.

“Blood is everything,” Thrawn repeats thoughtfully, shaking his head. “Do you know the saying, ‘Cut the head from a sandsnake, and two grow in its place’?”

Soteira shifts in his chair. “I’ve heard it before.”

“The Chiss have a similar saying.”

Soteira looks at him blankly. Though it takes only a single glance at his black skin to know that Thrawn is Chiss, the admiral rarely mentions his memories of his people. It is as though he rose a fully-fledged soldier from the ashes of the Empire.

Cut the head from a sandsnake, and it dies.”

This comment receives a loud, gruff laugh from the general, the statement so obvious that it can hardly be considered a proverb.

“Perhaps a bit crude, but it holds more truth. When I joined the Empire, it was on brink of destruction, weak from war with the rebels,” Thrawn says. “When the Emperor died, and Vader with him, there was nothing left of the imperial regime but a thrashing body. The warlords all vied amongst themselves for power, slaughtering each other until their ranks were halved and halved again. Do you know what it was like in those days?”

“I did not come to Coruscant until the First Order took it,” Soteira replies.

“The armies of the dead pressed against the world of the living, awaiting judgment that would not come, because the Starkiller prince had abandoned them,” Thrawn recalls, his bright eyes distant. “No warlord could hold Coruscant because the dead haunted it. You could not sleep at night without hearing the howling of shades from the underworld. It drove men to madness. You only had to walk these halls to smell it: the rank, fetid fear of what lay beyond. Men killed themselves rather than listen to the screaming of ghosts. The imperial remnant was a snake without a head.”

Perses leans forward, intrigued.

“To pretend that the old bloodlines mean nothing is to deny this truth,” Thrawn reminds him. “A hundred thousand men could not hold Coruscant so long as the Nekromanteion stands. And it must stand…but this, of course, is not what troubles you. You don’t care who sits on the Chthonian Throne, so long as you have wealth and power enough to suit you. You’ve only come here for your daughter.”

Soteira’s jaw clenches, his shoulders tensing with discomfort.

Thrawn smiles. “Relax, General. We all have our ambitions. You can pretend that blood doesn’t matter, but even you know that names open and close doors in this city.”

“I sent Hecate below to be Ren’s queen,” Perses admits. “She was born for it. I raised her for it. And you expect me to throw all of that away so that Snoke can have some treaty with the sky-walkers?”

“Ren agreed to the blood rite before the treaty,” Thrawn says bluntly. “And you will never dissuade him from going through with it. He believes, however deluded it may be, that this girl was brought to him by the Force itself. Snoke wanted her dead…in truth, I wanted her dead as well. But now I wonder if this way isn’t better.”

“Better?” Perses asks, his grey eyebrows drawing together in confusion. “To have a traitor’s daughter in our midst?”

You fool, the Grand Admiral thinks, his thoughts turning to the traitor herself. There’s more than one way to destroy a man.

“The girl’s true motives will reveal themselves in time,” says Thrawn. “And when she betrays him, Kylo Ren will come crawling back to the Supreme Leader on his hands and knees, begging for forgiveness. And the snake will keep its head.”

 

***

 

Rey holds tight to Kylo’s translation of the treaty, fear seizing her. Clutched between her fingers, the parchment seems fragile as a dried leaf. It would be so easy to ruin it, so easy to tear his carefully chosen words into a thousand pieces.

“My father,” Hecate says through a choked sob, her tears turning her stone gray eyes to pale glass. The knight tilts her pale face up, drawing back slightly to look at Kylo in the darkness of the courtyard, and Rey wonders how she is supposed to compare to this. Everything about them speaks of familiarity, the image of the two of them so close together piercing Rey’s heart like a poisoned-tipped arrow.

No matter how far she and Kylo have come since he’d ripped apart the Eleusis and dragged her to earth, Rey knows that a handful of days and a few stolen moments cannot compete with a lifetime of companionship.

Hecate clutches Kylo’s arms, attempting to compose herself. His hands are likewise locked around her forearms, holding her steady. The sound of Hecate’s quiet sobs should stir Rey’s pity, but instead it is hateful to her ears. The poison courses through her veins, spreading like fire to her mind. She bites down hard on her tongue, hating the way her thoughts take on a life of their own.

When Kylo reaches up to brush away the new tears that have spilled onto Hecate’s pale cheeks, his hands are not a warrior’s hands. His touch is soothing and gentle. But underneath, Rey can feel the heat of his barely contained anger and she senses that a line has been crossed.

“He was here?”

“He came looking for you,” Hecate admits, but when she speaks of her father, her voice is void of all emotion. “He received word from my mother that…that you are to take the rites.”

“He came here to force you to return to court,” Kylo breathes. His voice is strained, as though this unexpected turn of events has knocked the air from his lungs.

Hecate bows her head, shame disturbing her lovely features. Her silence is confirmation enough.

“Is he still here?” Kylo seethes.

“No,” she assures him quickly. “Morpheus made him leave the palace.”

“He should not have come here to begin with. My marriage is none of his concern, and he has no authority over you here.”

“Kylo.” Hecate shakes her head sadly. The selenite beads braided into her white-gold hair gleam with the movement. “He is my father. And the law is the law. Where can I go, that I am out of his reach?”

Agony flickers across Kylo’s face and he tears himself away from the knight. He stares at her as if she is a stranger to him, all sense of familiarity between them gone.

“Thanatos was right. You mean to leave.”

Hecate wraps her pale arms around herself, like a shield. “What choice do I have? In the morning, the knights ride for Ni’Jedha. You will stand before the Widows in the Holy City, and take the blood rite…and then I will return to court, as I should have years ago. This is the way things must be.”

“No,” insists Kylo vehemently. “You left that life behind. You are a Knight of Ren. You belong here with us.”

“You’re right. You have always been right about me,” Hecate replies affectionately, her eyes shining. She steps forward and takes his hand in her own, moving it to cover her heart. “You gave me a great gift - you were the first to see that I was not made to wear a crown, or to sit on a throne. I will always remember that. But my father has greater ambitions for me than knighthood, and he is growing impatient. He’ll never allow me to stay here, unless…”

“Unless I make you queen,” says Kylo hollowly, and Rey trembles, clutching tighter to that fragile piece of paper in her hand. “Unless we give him what he wants…Hecate, you know I can’t do that.”

“I know,” she says, as if she expects nothing less of him than to keep his promise, even if it means that he will sacrifice his own desires. “I knew it years ago. I knew it when I saw those flowers growing in the Wastes. I knew it when Rey entered the shade world with you. This is ananke.”

Ananke,” Kylo mutters, his tone bitter around the foreign word. Rey can sense the battle inside of him as he rages against accepting Hecate’s decision to leave. “You are speaking about my fate and Rey’s fate. What about your future, Hecate? You were not designed for the world above. You were made to be Sukkal-eka-Keing. You were made to carry a sword.”

Hecate’s eyes widen, not with fear or shame, but with the understanding of what he is offering her. Though the words are foreign to Rey, she knows that it must be something great, some high honor among the knights, because for a moment Hecate’s stone-grey eyes gleam with hope. But the light fades, defeat and resignation once again clouding her beautiful features.

“That was a childish dream, Aidon,” she murmurs, stepping away from him, and Rey knows that Kylo has lost. “And this is the awakening.”

 

***

 

Rey trails half a step behind Kylo, a chill seeping through her heavy robe and nightclothes as he silently leads her through an iron forest.

All around them, great pillars in the form of trees hold up a ceiling of twisted, gnarled branches. Little animals are shaped around their roots and flying creatures dart between the leaves above. Her eye catches on the torchlight glinting off amber resin. The fossilized stone has been fashioned into apples and pears that dangle from the branches of the trees. When they pass one of the low-hanging fruits, she notices black shadows trapped inside the stone. The tiny winged creatures must be thousands of years old, some as small as data chips, others as long as her thumb.

Inside a gleaming resin pomegranate, two moths are trapped, their thin gossamer wings still in mid-flight, caught forever in a mating dance.

She glances at the man who is to become her husband, searching for anything that might tell her what is in Kylo Ren’s heart. But that single glance tells her that he is still in a black mood after learning of Hecate’s intention to leave the knights. His anger swells and ebbs like the clouds of a thunderstorm, heavy with the promise of rain. The iron forest seems to close in around her as they walk, the eyes of its many inhabitants observing their progression in cold silence.

You can’t have us both! Rey wants to scream at his back, hating that he has not looked at her once since his confrontation with Hecate.

Rey thinks of the man in the field from her dream, a man who was more feeling than form. Her husband, her king, cutting down the never-ending fields with a long, curved knife. She remembers that he offered her everything that belonged to him. Every grain of sand touched by the sun, every wild thing that grows out of the earth, every stalk of wheat and blade of grass and drop of rain that falls from the sky. The oceans, the moon, the tides. The wind and the clouds. All hers to command. The earth is their domain - their kingdom, to rule together - and she will not share that with anyone else except him.

You promised me, she thinks, possessiveness rising up inside of her, even though the dream world and the waking world are not the same. You promised to give me everything.

But deep inside, she knows that Kylo has promised her nothing. He is under no compulsion to love her. He has agreed to make her his wife, to settle a political accord, but what does the treaty they both sealed mean to him? Are they to be husband and wife in name only, strangers that live together?

Or worse…will he expect her to share him with another? Rey knows that even on the Eleusis, there were married men who frequented the beds of women who were not their wives. She grows ill at the thought, wondering if similar practices are accepted on earth.

For the first time in many days, Rey feels as though she is Kylo’s prisoner and not his guest.

She turns the fight between Thanatos and Hecate over and over again in her mind as she looks every now and then at the hard set of Kylo’s jaw. A thousand questions plague her, but the look in his eyes is enough to tell her that now is not the time to ask them. So she bites her tongue and lets her thoughts torment her.

They all think they’ll get on their knees for him…spread their legs for him…as though whores can be made queens.

She tries not to think of Thanatos’s crudely-spoken words or the images they conjure. But the memory of Kylo’s calloused fingers trailing down Hecate’s arms, bare under a black himation, makes her blood run cold. The feeling is envy, Rey realizes, and with that acknowledgment, she is gripped with sudden terror at the depth of her own attachment to him.

Had she truly been foolish enough to believe that Kylo’s life started the day he attacked the Eleusis and took her from her home? Did she really expect him to have had no one else before her, when their marriage had been hastily arranged to save her life and prevent a war?

She reminds herself that she has no right to be jealous. His past liaisons are none of her concern. Still, her envy threatens to consume her as she tries to piece together the fragments of Kylo’s romantic history, realizing how little she still knows about the man she is going to marry in only a few days.

A different sort of woman than you’re accustomed to, Ren…You normally prefer the masnavi girls, but then you always did enjoy your desert whores.

The iron eyes peering out between the branches of the forest turn pale blue. They are Hux’s eyes and the voice that speaks in her mind is Hux’s voice, comparing her to the countless nameless girls that have come before her. The lifeless eyes appraise Rey and find her lacking: her dark hair has no luster, her hips and breasts are too small to be a temptation, her skin is freckled by long days spent in the Eleusian fields, and her hands are worn and unfeminine. She diminishes under that critical gaze, her brittle confidence cracking.

She had thought little of Hux’s words to Kylo in the underground hall of Takodana, assuming that they were spoken in rivalry, but now she measures herself against the masnavi story-weavers, their necks and wrists adorned with jewels, their eyelids stained with kohl and their lips bright. And then she imagines high-born First Order girls like Hecate, wealthy and titled, whose family names are not tarnished by blood and treachery, all vying for a crown.

Kylo would prefer the second…he’s only male…

Rey burns with embarrassment rather than jealousy at the final memory. She can almost feel the hard diamonds and lush fabric beneath her fingers, the contours of a dress she might never have the courage to wear. Hecate herself had spoken those words to her, as a friend might give advice. How much does the silver-haired knight know about her master’s preferences? Had she been mocking Rey the entire time?

Rey is stirred from her thoughts when they come upon a set of wide, double doors standing between two pillars. Over the door in obsidian stone are carved three female figures: a young girl with hair that falls to her feet, a woman heavy with child, and a decrepit old hag. They are gathered around a great wheel, like the one that sits at the center of the symbol of the First Order, with many spokes running through its center.

Rey hesitates when Kylo opens the doors, surprised to find that he has not escorted her back to her own quarters, but then follows him.

The room inside is unlike any other she has seen in the palace. A black holotable dominates the center of the windowless space, a map raised from its surface. Craggy mountains and flat deserts are laid out in holo-blue light, the only color in a room otherwise composed of light and shadow.

Above her, the ceiling is constructed of white and black marble in alternating tiles, forming a simple eight-pointed compass rose. Around the compass is a star-map set into the stone, pale diamonds of varying sizes marking the constellations and shimmering gold lines cutting the sky into sections.

The rest of the room seems to follow the lines of those directions, its contents arranged in perfect symmetry. To the west there is a basin of clear water resting on a column. Mirrored to the east there is a similar pillar, except it is carved from black hollowed stone and filled with ashes. There are two high-backed, ornate chairs, one on either end of the table.

Kylo brushes over the holo with his left hand harshly, sending pinpoints of light scattering into nothingness.

“Where are we?” Rey asks. It is the simplest of the many questions she harbors, most of which she is not ready to ask him.

“My chambers,” he replies simply, turning to look at her. His gaze is unreadable. Instead of reassuring her, she feels more ill at ease than ever. “I want to speak with you where we will not be overheard. Gossip and half-truths have done enough damage for one night.”

“And taking me to your room won’t fuel gossip?” Rey asks skeptically, glancing at the interior doors set into the far wall. There are two, placed side-by-side, and she absently wonders which is his room…and how many have visited it before her. Her heart beats harder at his mention of half-truths, a part of her praying that she has misunderstood.

He smiles faintly, moving closer to her, his dark eyes hinting that he’d be more than willing to give gossips fuel for their fire.

“Are you concerned for your reputation, or mine?” he murmurs.

“That depends,” Rey answers, hating the way his voice still sends a thrill through her. He doesn’t seem to know or care that she is still reeling from everything she’s witnessed tonight.

“On what, salt-mouse?”

She bristles at the endearment, not wanting to feel little or weak when he has just told another woman that she belongs at his side, carrying a sword.

“On which half of Thanatos’s story is untrue,” Rey blurts out unthinkingly.

The moment she speaks the accusatory words, she regrets them. His expression becomes hard and immovable, but there is pain in his eyes. He doesn’t need to ask her which part of Thanatos’s story is most disturbing to her. Her jealousy singes the air around them.

“Do you truly think,” he says solemnly. “Do you truly think that I would promise to take the blood rite with you if I harbored feelings for another?”

“You were quick to defend Hecate’s reputation,” Rey points out, her voice unsteady. He hasn’t answered her question, only set another one before her.

His jaw clenches. “I wasn’t defending her honor, Rey. I was defending yours.”

Rey shakes her head in disappointment and disbelief. “My honor? Thanatos accused Hecate of trying to seduce you for power, before you ever met me. Whether or not she succeeded has no impact on my honor…only yours.”

“You are going to be my wife,” he says, his voice low and his expression troubled. “We are to become as one person. What harms one of us harms the other.”

His words are eerily similar to the ones her grandfather had spoken to her in the privacy of her bedroom. Demetrius had cautioned her, reminding her that any blasphemy from her lips would have consequences for Kylo equally. And now Kylo has confirmed that their reputations are linked, that the blood rite will fuse their fates together in the eyes of all the world.

“And when I am your wife,” she dares to question, finding it hard to look at him. “What will Hecate be to you?”

The storm inside of him flickers with lightning.

“Hecate did not come here of her own accord. Her father knew she was sensitive to the Force, and he wanted to further his own ambitions through our union. His motives were transparent. As the ruler of the dead, I hold immense power in both this world and the next. And those were different times…the First Order had just taken control of Coruscant, and everyone was contesting for power under the new regime.”

“I heard Thanatos say there were others like her.”

“Then you also heard him say that I had no interest in them,” Kylo replies, frustrated and impatient. “Hecate was one of many who came here, seeking power and fortune, but I sent all of them away.”

“Except her!” Rey cries.

“Hecate was not like the others,” he says urgently. “She was powerful in ways they were not, and I saw a great potential in her. I had been alone for many years, with few people I could trust. She became my closest friend, and my advisor…I will admit, at first, I thought perhaps she was…” He stops for a moment, lost in a far-off memory. “But she was not my equal. She could not enter the shade-world, or pass judgment with me. She could not rule at my side. There was no connection between us, romantic or otherwise. She put aside the wishes of her father years ago to become a knight.”

“Has she?” breathes Rey, remembering how he’d held Hecate and comforted her and wondering how much of their history might bleed into the present. “Have you?”

Kylo takes a step back, as though she’s struck him, apprehension darting across his face before he resumes that impenetrable mask.

“If you were lonely,” Rey presses, her throat tight, because she too has known loneliness. Her jealousy fades into something softer and gentler. She wants to know him in full, to understand him. “If you were…alone. It would have been natural for you to seek a…a companion.”

He says nothing, knowing that she is not speaking only of companionship. She fumbles with the Force in an inexperienced attempt to reach out to him across the bond, trying to share that understanding with him. She is met with a hard wall of stone around his mind.

“Did you love her?” she asks, trying to reach him with her words instead.

“Did you love the soldier that murdered Phobetor?” he replies coldly, his tone guarded.

Rey stops breathing. The question is so unexpected that it roots her to the spot. She had nearly forgotten that Kylo saw that memory in her mind, during his attempt to interrogate her about the droid.

Now she remembers the kiss she’d shared with Poe, so long ago, before he’d left her behind in pursuit of greater adventures. She remembers the spice and lemon taste of his mouth, the intensity in his kiss, the loneliness of his absence. She doesn’t know how to answer Kylo’s question when so much was left unresolved between her and Dameron.

Her chest aches. That memory does not belong to Kylo, but he is using it as ammunition against her.

Defeated and exhausted, she turns away from him, her hands shaking as she walks towards the door. She hears Kylo’s footsteps following close behind hers.

“Wait. Wait, Rey…I shouldn’t have said that…” His voice is desperate as he steps in front of her, blocking her passage.

“Let me go,” she demands.

“Wait, please,” he begs her, his eyes sorrowful. He reaches for her, but she doesn’t want his touch. She wants the truth, and she’ll never get it with her desire clouding her mind. His hands on her feel like restraints.

“Get out of my way,” she says, pulling away.

“Rey, if you just-”

Her anger gathers under her palms. It is a living heat, a fire that spreads from her heart to her fingertips. She slams her hands flat against his chest, the impact reverberating through her arms. She feels the force of that contact in her chest, in her lungs. He yields to her, taking a step back, his eyes wide, his back against the heavy doors.

“You have no right to ask me about that. You stole that memory from me!” she chokes out, hurting. “You stole the possibility of that future from me.”

You stole me.

She doesn’t intend to speak those words aloud. They come to her of their own accord, striking her with awful clarity, because regardless of what happened between them afterwards, that is the truth in its purest form. He stole her, he trapped her, and now she is to be tied to him.

A heavy silence falls between them. The horror in Kylo’s eyes tells her that in her vulnerability, that simple, terrible thought was heard across the bond. She can’t take it back. It hovers in the space between them, tearing down everything they’ve built.

“Rey,” he says, his features stricken.

“Let me go,” she says again, but it is a half-hearted plea.

“Burning skies, Rey. Is this how it is going to be between us?” he murmurs, towering over her so that she has no choice but to face him. “Are we to spend the rests of our lives doubting each other? Is everything between us to be a battle?”

Rey shivers, knowing that is impossible. She had tried desperately to guard her heart, to keep herself separate from him…and she had failed at every turn.

“Is that what you want, Rey? For us to be strangers to one another?” he says, shaking his head.

“We are strangers to one another,” she points out. “You already know so much about me…sometimes more than I know about myself. But I don’t know anything about you…about where you come from, about who you are. Your knights know you better than I do.”

“Rey, if you let me, I will tell you anything. Anything. Ask me any question you like; I swear that I will tell you the truth.”

“We don’t have time for all the questions I have,” she says honestly.

“We have four hours before we leave,” he says, a laugh crinkling the corners of his eyes. “And the three days between Coruscant and the Holy City. And the rest of our lives.”

It is a powerful promise.

“Tell me you didn’t know,” she begs him. The other questions can wait, but this…this doubt will ruin everything. “When you attacked the Eleusis, tell me you didn’t know that there was this connection between us.”

“I didn’t know until after I had taken you. Until you entered my mind,” he says cautiously. Rey knows the exact moment he is referring to, a moment in which she felt the Force itself - both the immense darkness and the blinding light - like a current of energy between them. “But I would be lying if I told you that I didn’t suspect who you were, or who we would be to each other. I felt the call to you the first time I saw you on the Eleusis. I felt it long before we ever met.”

“You didn’t even know me,” she replies in disbelief, trying to understand how he could have known of her when the connection between them is newly forged. The first time she saw him, all in black, surrounded by the smoke pouring out of the belly of the Eleusis, Rey had thought him a wraith. There had been nothing but terror for her in their first encounter. “I was no one to you.”

“Is that what you think?” he questions, his brows drawing together. When she says nothing, he surprises her by turning and opening the heavy door. “Come here. I want to show you something.”

She bites her lip, walking beneath the doorframe curiously into the hallway, but he takes her hand before she can go far. She turns back to the entrance of his chambers, where the dark stone carving is set over the threshold. The triad of women look incredibly lifelike in the flickering torchlight, each about as tall as her forearm. Kylo stands at her side for a moment, still holding her hand, as if afraid she will try to leave again.

“The past, the present, and the future. The maiden, the woman, and the crone,” he tells her, looking up at the carving. “An ancient way of personifying what all men sense in their hearts. The will of the Force - what the old religions call ananke - is at work in the world, directing our paths and weaving together the threads of our lives. It is what brings disparate pieces together and makes them whole.”

Rey sees now what she had not before. The three figures are gathered around a spinning wheel. An endless metal thread falls to the ground and joins the tapestry that the women are weaving - the tapestry of the earth. The threads come together and create shapes: the vines that creep around the doorframe, the trunks of the trees on either side of the hallway, the bird and animals, the roots and the leaves. The branches stretch up towards the cosmos, the planets moving in a preordained dance above them. The entire world begins and ends with that single, unbroken thread.

Standing in the iron forest of the hall, Rey feels as though she and Kylo are part of their creation. It is as if they have stepped backward through time, to the very edge of the void from which life itself was called.

“You have never been no one,” he declares. “Your very existence was prophesied. Your return to earth was foreseen.”

Rey shakes her head. What he is saying is impossible, and yet…she had dreamed of him, the very night he had attacked the Eleusis. In the dream, they had restored the earth, healing its wounds. Her steps had raised life from the barren ground, the dry sands turning to fields of wheat. When the seasons changed, he had harvested the wheat and gathered it together into great bushels. They kept the balance together in an endless cycle of life and death, inevitable as the rising and setting of the sun.

Could that dream have been more than just a dream?

“I was always aware of you,” Kylo goes on. “You were in my mind, from the very beginning. From the moment you came into existence. When I tell you that there was no one before you, it is because our lives have always been tied together. I could not have been intimate with another without violating the very nature of what exists between us.”

His honesty stuns her. She had expected him to deny all knowledge of the bond, to blame his actions on seeking justice for Phobetor’s death or insist that he was merely following orders when he had taken her from her home. Instead, he is admitting that there is something more powerful between them than any earthly connection, something that caused him to chose a life of loneliness in reliance on the faint hope that he might one day find her.

“Then you never…when we…”

Her words fail her as she recalls the first time he’d kissed her, that night on the balcony. His hands had trembled, his breath shaking in his chest, his desire like a caged thing. A breathless tremor passes through her at the knowledge that his response to her had not been merely the weight of his emotion, but a manifestation of long-imposed celibacy. She thinks of the black robes that cover every inch of his skin like armor that separates him from the world, of the way he’d shuddered under the simplest touch, every sense heightened.

“Never.”

This time when he reaches for her, she lets him draw her close, reveling in the way her skin comes alive under his hands. He leans his forehead against hers, his breath a sigh where their mouths are almost touching. She feels the bitterness of his words against her lips.

“But because I have stolen you, that future has been corrupted. We have been set against each other. There is nothing I can do to make things right between us. I can feel it when I touch you, when I kiss you…I can sense it when you distance yourself from me.”

“It’s not you,” she says, hating that he thinks that the distance between them is his fault. “There are some things I can’t…”

She takes an unsteady breath, wanting to tell him that her hesitancy is not born of resentment against him, or some distant memory of another man. It is her love for the Eleusis that keeps her from revealing herself to him fully. It is the fear that when her people bring war to earth, she will be on one side and he on the other. It is the overwhelming guilt that comes with keeping secrets from him.

“You can’t trust me,” he says finally. “In some ways…I’m still the enemy.”

“No,” she replies. “No. Whatever conflict there is between your people and mine will be settled by the blood rite, and we have enough enemies here without making enemies of each other. I can…I can forgive you.”

The partial lie is heavy on her tongue. She knows the blood rite won’t solve anything, not when the sky-walkers will have no choice but to return to earth in violation of the treaty. But when that day comes…Rey wonders if that thread of fate will hold them together, regardless of whatever war rages on around them. And perhaps one day, he will forgive her as well.

“Can you?” he asks, longing and hope flickering in his dark eyes. He keeps his head bowed to hers, and his thumb trails along her jawline. She barely has time to draw breath before he is kissing her, pouring that faint hope into her, and Rey wonders how either of them could have been envious when this kind of connection exists between them.

Ananke, he had called it. The will of the Force, binding them together. She isn’t sure what that means for her own decisions. Are her actions like a tiny stone dropped in a great river that races on towards the ocean, unmoved by her resistance? Does the Force splinter her choices into little pieces and put them back together as it sees fit?

“Can you forgive me?” he whispers again, and this time it is a plea breathed against her mouth. He’s asking her for forgiveness, handing her choice back to her in a world that strips her of it.

“Yes,” Rey decides, tracing his cheek with her fingertips. “Yes, I forgive you.”

Chapter Text

“You were born on the earth,” Kylo begins, his eyes distant as he runs his fingers through Rey’s hair thoughtlessly. His voice is rough and lilting, but stained with weariness. It drifts away and returns, echoing slightly in the open space of his chambers. It is a storyteller’s voice, a prophet’s voice, and it seems at odds with the warrior’s life he leads. “But I was not.”

Rey sits up straighter on their shared divan, her eyes wide. His fingers trace the shell of her ear, then the curve of her neck, over the fragile skin where her pulse is suddenly hammering wildly in her throat.

“What do you mean?” she asks.

Kylo takes a deep breath, casting his eyes around his chambers as though searching for a place to start. There is sadness written in his face, a sadness that he has carried with him for a long time. His gaze settles on the basin resting on its white pillar, the surface of the clear water inside still and peaceful.

“Memory is such a strange thing,” he contemplates. “It can change with time. It can be shaped and unshaped, lost and found. It can be taken from you. What do you remember of earth, Rey?”

“Nothing,” she whispers, but the moment the word passes her lips she knows it is not entirely true. There were dreams that came to her in the moments between waking and sleeping: story-songs sung to her when she was a little girl, the scratch of a beard against her cheek, and a deep cave under the speaking mountain, its caverns filled with rocks that glowed like fireflies when she touched them.

Stay right here…

“I remember little things,” she says finally, her hands trembling in her lap. “Not of earth. But things I dreamed, or felt…or…” Her throat becomes tight with fear and confusion. She doesn’t want to disturb those memories, afraid of what else she might find there. “Sometimes I don’t know if they’re real or if I made them up.”

Kylo is quiet for a long moment. Rey is very aware of the lines his thumb is drawing up and down the column of her neck. It is obvious that her words have troubled him. His mind is far from hers, perhaps lost in memories of his own.

“Sometimes I think you and I have lived each others lives,” he says finally. “Fate is such a strange thing…we were both exiled from our birthplaces, only to find each other now.”

“I don’t understand. Do you mean…are you Eleusian?”

“I am.”

Her mind spins, his light touch the only thing keeping her tethered. Rey casts her eyes over his face, searching for any trace of sky-walker blood in him. She studies his strong, uneven features, the wide eyes and curved lips. She considers his hands, with their scarred knuckles and rough callouses; and his body, hardened by perilous journeys through the Wastes. She can find nothing Eleusian in the man before her.

How can someone so earth-forged be from the skies? she asks herself.

“That’s…not possible,” Rey whispers. Eleusians are only returned to the ground after death. It is their final journey, the return to their true home. She looks into his eyes, grappling with the impossible. “You…how could you…?”

Her question fades, because he has already answered it. He’d told her who he was when he stood on the steps of the Throne Room and pledged her his blood and his name.

I am the Child Who Fell From the Stars.

Rey shuts her eyes, wanting to deny the truth, because it is too horrific to imagine. But then he presses his forehead against hers and opens up his mind to her, this time with conscious purpose, and she doesn’t have to imagine. The memories are familiar, the same ones she’d stumbled upon during their first encounter, except this new revelation gives them meaning.

Rey feels his little hands as if they are her own, fists beating against seamless metal that does not yield. She feels the pain inside their lungs as they struggle together for every breath, terrified that each will be their last. She screams and tastes blood on her lips.

After hours or days, the pain fades. She sleeps and dreams of that little dark-haired boy, but in the dream he is older and harder, seated on an ancient throne with a crown of threaded stars upon his brow. The throne is in a dark forest and the trees around him bow and dance, following the old, preordained steps of willow and ash, evergreen and oak. A river older than time itself cuts through the forest, lethewater promising peace and absolution. It murmurs over the rocky riverbed. Come and drink. The voices of ten thousand shades split her head with a single, raised voice, chanting the name of their lost prince:

Aidon! Aidon! Aidon!

She cries with the boy as his grave threatens to take him, cries until there is nothing left of the two of them but the salt of tears on their lips and the fever in their veins. They will never go home. And the darkness…

The darkness is all around them. Inside them.

“Rey, look at me,” Kylo says, separating himself from her once more. He leans forward and kisses her mouth, his breath warm on her lips. Rey leans into his touch, feeling the solidness of his hands on her cheeks. She senses the determined fire of his blood beneath the sweetness of his kiss and marvels at the life within him. His mouth touches the corners of her eyelids, first one and then the other, lightly kissing away the tears gathering there.

“Are you crying for me, little one?” he questions.

She opens her eyes.

“You died,” she whispers, an agonized sob at the back of her throat.

“No,” he assures her. “I fought. I suffered. I lived.”

Somehow that makes everything worse. The thought of a child falling through space, trapped and still clinging to life, turns her stomach. He’d been buried alive by her people.

“Tell me,” she gasps, her heart breaking for him. “Tell me everything.”

“I was a child. I remember very little, perhaps less than you remember of earth.”

“Tell me,” Rey insists.

“There were six of us,” he recalls. “All of us were children. I don’t know which of us was the first.”

The Plague of Six.

Rey knows the stories. Hundreds of children dead, hundreds of old men and women, all gone in a matter of months. Even the strong were no match against the plague. No more than a handful of infants survived, making Rey’s generation one of the smallest in centuries. By the time a cure was manufactured, two-thirds of the population had already been decimated, leaving behind widows and widowers, orphans and bereaved parents. The chaos that ensued was unmatched in all of Eleusian history.

“How old were you?” Rey asks.

“I don’t remember. Old enough to know something terrible was happening. Young enough to be kept in the dark,” Kylo answers. “When the first of us died, they knew it was fatal. And then everything was madness. I remember little else except for the fever. It was a slow death. Time meant nothing, pain meant nothing. Sometimes I thought I was awake…sometimes, I thought I was already dead, and that I walked in the world beyond.

“And then they buried us. All six of us, the living and the dead.”

“It was a plague,” Rey tells him tremulously, wondering if this knowledge will help him or cause him more pain. “The Senate thought they could stop the sickness from spreading. That they could confine it if they sent those with symptoms to the ground.”

“I see,” Kylo says evenly, but his gaze doesn’t soften. If anything, she seems to have reopened an old wound.

He doesn’t ask her if the burials worked. Rey doesn’t have the heart to tell him that there were others that came after the Six, hundreds of others who were sent to the ground in coffins, many of them still breathing and all of them consigned to death. Nor does she have the courage to tell him that the burials did not stop the plague from claiming nearly everyone it touched.

“Kylo, there were so many children lost…and your family…if they survived, they will want to know you’re alive,” Rey says finally. “That you’re safe.”

“They sent me here to die, Rey,” he replies coldly. “They are not my family.”

These words stun her. How many nights had she dreamed of her family coming back for her? How often had she awoken to the emptiness of her single-unit cabin, knowing deep inside that they never would? Rey would have given anything, anything at all, just to know her parents. To hear their voices, to speak with them even for a few minutes.

She can’t fathom how Kylo could not want to know his family.

“The Senate’s vote was unanimous,” Rey says, trying to make him understand. “No one had a choice. They thought they were saving everyone.”

He pulls away from her abruptly, standing to his full height, leaving the air around her cold. He looks down at her as though her words are unconscionable to him.

“I was a child,” he says, unmoved by her plea.

“Kylo,” she tries again. “If we told the Chancellor where you come from, there are members of the Senate who can help you find-“

“I will speak with your Senators when they come before my throne for judgment,” he interrupts heartlessly. “All men bow before us in the end…and give an account.”

Rey’s breath catches in her throat at the vengeance in his voice. Somehow she knows that on that day, his judgment will not be merciful. She wonders if he has already sentenced those Senators who have knelt before him to the torment of Tartarus. When she looks away, trying to reconcile the man she knows with the inexorable justice he exacts, Kylo takes her chin in his hand and forces her to look at him.

“The sky-walkers cannot know, Rey. The Supreme Leader has forbidden me to speak of this with anyone. There are rumors, but very few know the truth about where I come from. I have taken a great risk in telling you this.”

“I don’t understand,” she says, her voice trembling. “I don’t understand how you don’t want to find them. I would do anything…anything…and you won’t…”

“It’s not the same, Rey,” he says, his tone softening. “What happened to us is not the same. You were loved with the fierceness with which parents are meant to love their children.”

She hears the unspoken conclusion in his words: that she had been loved, and he unloved. The unfairness of the world in which they live crushes her. She prays that its cruelty will not make him cruel, that the hardness required for survival will not make him hard.

You are not unloved, she wants to say, but to speak the words aloud would mean to admit the truth behind them. Instead, she buries that thought deep inside herself, like one of the precious stones hidden beneath the mountain. Her heart is like those stones, the hope inside her dimmed over time by a promise unkept. If she trusts Kylo with this last remaining piece of herself, what else will she have left?

“I won’t tell anyone,” Rey whispers finally. “I promise.”

She sees relief flood his eyes at this small assurance that she will keep his confidence. An understanding passes between them. Kylo has handed her a kind of control over him, a secret knowledge that could be used against him. Despite this shift in their relative power, she doesn’t sense a single splinter of doubt or regret in his mind.

He trusts her.

“It’s late, salt-mouse,” he says gently, his tone assuring her that he is not ending their conversation, but setting it aside for a later time. The moment he reminds her of the hour, she realizes just how exhausted she is. “Come. I’ll walk you to your room.”

She shakes her head. “I’d rather stay here.”

His lips part and his eyes darken, as if he had not considered this option. Heat rises in her face when she realizes how bold her words sounded. She practically invited herself to spend the night with him, in his chambers, dressed in her nightclothes.

“I…I only meant that…I just don’t want to sleep alone…” She stumbles over her words, the look in his eyes stealing her coherency. “But if you don’t…”

“You must think a great deal of my self-control,” Kylo murmurs, but there is good humor in his gaze and faint lines appear at the corners of his eyes. He’s only teasing her. Still, her breath stops short and her eyes catch on the two doors set into the far wall, one of heavy iron and black diamond, and the other marble inlaid with pale stone.

“You haven’t given me any reason to think otherwise,” she says. If there’s anything she knows with certainty, it is that he will respect any decision she makes. The laughter fades from his eyes and he grows serious.

“Stay,” Kylo says without hesitation, but his voice shakes slightly. He swallows hard. “Please. I’d like you to stay.”

She takes his hand in hers and stands, waiting expectantly. He leads her to the door farthest from them, the one forged of iron.

“Your room?” she asks.

He nods. Then he looks to its partner. “Unless you would rather stay in yours.”

“Mine?” she repeats, confused. “We have separate rooms?”

“An old custom,” he says, a wry smile crossing his lips.

“I take it there’s a story to go along with it?” Rey questions.

“More of a fairy-tale,” he replies evasively, pushing open his door. “But a masnavi would tell it better.”

“Now I’m curious,” she mutters unhappily, but her eyes go wide when she steps over the threshold.

All thoughts of masnavi stories fly out of her head. Rey expects his room to be an extension of the outer chamber, colorless and made of unforgiving stone, but she is surprised to find that it is entirely different from the play of light and shadow at their backs. While the ceiling’s star-map continues into the inner room, its shimmering gold sector lines and diamond constellations laid out above them, the walls of Kylo’s room are carved entirely from rich, petrified wood, smoothened and tinged with deep burgundy.

Where there should be windows, the far wall has been carved into a series of ornate wooden lattices, their design repeating in a pattern of concentric circles and many-pointed stars. If it were day, Rey suspects that the light would filter through the open spaces and send patterns scattering over the room. But at night, it feels as though the room is part of the underground valley. The crisp air from outside flows sweetly through the room, scattering the scents of redwood and spices, and in the distance Rey can just make out the distant roar of the waterfall.

The bed itself is set on a high platform, covered in dark wool blankets and heavy russet furs. A golden, circadian light emanates not from torches, but from mirrored lanterns hung around the room. The feeling the private chamber inspires is not the lofty and distant grandeur of the rest of Kylo’s palace, but a simple, earthen warmth that speaks of a kinder world.

As she turns, Rey’s eye catches on other glints of mirrors and glass throughout the chamber. The little shards are sewn into pillows, inlaid into the petrified woodwork, and cast into the smooth flooring. She steps forward, feeling Kylo’s eyes on her as she takes in his room, and she reaches out a finger to trace one of the smoothened pieces of glass on one of the pillows.

“Superstitious?” she murmurs, considering him. How is it that the more she learns about him, the more he moves against her expectations?

His eyes gleam. “You’re not, little one?”

She shakes her head, thinking about how Kylo himself defies the superstitions of her childhood. She doesn’t fear wraiths anymore.

“Even after you’ve seen the world below?” he challenges.

Rey shakes her head again, but her heart beats a little faster. “It’s not superstition if it’s real.”

Kylo sits down on the heavy furs at the foot of the bed, pulling her closer until she is standing between his thighs. Without thinking, her hands go to the dark hair that falls nearly to his shoulders, and he looks at her in a way that makes her shiver just a little. When he doesn’t protest, she stays that way, moving her fingers gently through the curling strands. His hair is softer than she expects. He closes his eyes, the gentleness of gesture comforting to both of them.

“It needs cut,” Kylo sighs after a few moments. He pulls her body to his and lays down, dragging her along with him until they reach the center of the bed. She kicks her sandals off one by one, and then presses her bare toes to his boots. His chest hums with laughter and he obligingly kicks them off. His frame is broad and heavy against her smaller form, and there are a few moments of shifting as she settles in beside him with her head resting on his shoulder.

“There hasn’t been time,” he goes on. “I’ll have one of the knights cut it before the ceremony.”

“I’d rather you didn’t,” she admits in a hushed whisper, thinking of the heated dreams that plagued her sleep during the time she spent locked in a cell: dreams in which she had laid with him as a wife with her husband, her hands woven impatiently into his hair and his cock hardening against her stomach. She’d loved the feeling of directing him, her fingers threaded into his dark strands, and wonders if Kylo might let her do the same in their waking hours.

Those dreams had seemed nightmares to her then, with her betrothed a stranger to her and the thought of intimacy between them terrifying. Now, though…everything has changed. If there is fear left in her, it is only the ordinary kind that mingles with anticipation and builds the tension inside her.

The heaviness of his body against hers and the wild scent of him make her ache for more than the simple press of their bodies together. The reasons for her earlier hesitation in the courtyard seem distant now. Her insistence on a political ceremony seems so fleeting, so insignificant, now that she understands the depth of his devotion to her.

“No?” he questions with false innocence. “Why not?”

Rey falls silent.

“Well, if you’ve no reason, I think I will cut it,” he threatens purposefully, a hint of amusement in his voice.

She buries her face against his shoulder and he laughs again, the sound tinged with male arrogance and a fair amount of self-satisfaction.

“You’re awful,” she chokes out.

“You don’t need to feel ashamed, Rey,” he murmurs, his hand finding the small of her back. She feels small and safe against him. “If you want something, you can ask for it.”

“I’m not ashamed,” she says faintly, but his words make her think of how he’d touched her before in the darkness of the stable yard. His hands had roamed her body as if it was familiar to him. What else might he have done with her had she not doubted him?

Perhaps it is the soft wool beneath her or the golden light thrown in little pinpricks over the blankets, but this place, this bed, feels set apart from the rest of the world. There is no one in this room but the two of them. She is protected here. The light from the circadian lanterns is slowly burning down. In the distance, she hears the current of the underground river carving its path through the valley. She is tired and awake, all at the same time, struck with sudden clarity.

“Kylo,” she whispers.

“Hmm?” he hums contentedly against her hair. He is so tired, just on the verge of sleep, fighting to stay awake for her. She turns and touches her lips to his briefly, warring with herself. They will never have this kind of moment again, where their choice is so purely their own.

Rey kisses Kylo again, deeper this time. His mouth moves languidly against hers in response. Every touch from him is slow, his movements burdened with weariness and contentment and peace. She parts her lips, swiping her tongue lightly over his lower lip, asking silently for more. She has never purposefully sought to incite a man in this way, and she tries to memorize the way he responds.

He likes it when she drags her fingers over his shoulders, his eyes flickering open for a moment, all traces of sleep abandoned. Rey notes the way his breath halts as she shifts slightly, pulling his heavy body over her own. He likes it when she uses her teeth, just a little, the scrape against his lips drawing a moan from him. He likes the thought of her here, beneath him. There is something different about being together in his bed, she senses, something possessive that makes his blood pound harder through his veins.

If she asks him now…

“Kylo,” she whispers.

His entire body tenses against her, every muscle drawn tight. He draws back to look at her, his eyes a clear, pale shade of brown in the golden light. She wonders how she had ever been afraid of him.

“No,” he answers flatly. “I told you I would not have you here, salt-mouse, and I meant it.”

“I’m asking you,” she says, anticipating his refusal. “You said…”

“Burning skies,” he swears lowly, shaking his head. “That’s not what I meant.”

“Maybe it would be better this way,” she says. “Here…it isn’t on their terms. But in Jedha…”

Rey senses immediately that this was not the right thing to say. He pulls away from her, his face crestfallen. The peace between them is ruined. He stands and paces across the room, running his hands through his hair, and fear curls in Rey’s stomach as she sits up and curls her knees into her chest and wraps her arms around herself. She feels small again…but she no longer feels safe.

“If you are asking me to do this for that reason, it’s still on their terms,” he replies, still not looking at her. There is no malice in his voice, but it feels as though he’s struck her. Rey understands how this must seem to him, and the worst part is that he’s right. Would they be here if it weren’t for the blood rite? Would she have asked him for this if they weren’t leaving in the morning?

She sits on his bed for a long time, curled into herself, waiting for him to say something else. Anything else.

“Are you angry?” she whispers.

The answer is obvious. She can feel his anger, like a seed buried in dark soil, waiting, growing, blooming…and she wants to run. Run before he can leave her.

“Yes. But not with you.”

He lifts his hand to his shoulder, and taps it twice. That simple, familiar gesture means everything to her. It means that he is not angry with her, but angry for what has been taken from them. It means that he is going to carry her through this, even if it kills him. It means that he is on her side. It means that she doesn’t have to do this alone.

But she has to give him something in return. She has to stay.

Obeying that unspoken command is the easiest choice she has ever made. Rey uncurls her body and crosses the room to stand at his side. She places her forehead against his shoulder, relenting, and he puts his arms around her. She nearly sobs with the relief of letting him take the weight from her.

“Rey, I want you of your own volition. I want you when we have time. I want you when we are bound to each other. I do not want you because you have something to prove.”

We’re already bound to each other, Rey thinks, clinging to him. You already have me.

“The blood rite is a powerful thing,” Kylo continues. “But it is not for their sake that we take it. I hope you will understand that one day.”

It is such a simple statement, but it sends a hundred questions darting across her tongue. She desperately wants to ask all of them, but when she steps back, she sees that there is weariness behind the patience in Kylo’s expression. He will need his rest for the long journey ahead, and they only have a few hours before dawn.

Her questions will keep until then.

 

***

 

The shadewood is still as Rey passes through the trees.

The snow falls soundlessly around her, but her heart is restless. She is searching, searching for something that waits just out of sight. And it is searching for her…calling to her. She can feel its presence beside her, a shadow that follows her beyond the line of trees. A whisper rises up from the ground, the sound like wind stirring evergreen branches, but she feels no coldness against her skin.

“Kylo?” she calls out, suddenly afraid.

Her husband does not answer.

A low hiss, rasping and sickly, paralyzes her with fear. She stops, straining to hear in the darkness. Something is crawling over the ground, dragging itself out of the trees on its belly towards her, clawing at the dirt. Rey feels its presence before she sees it out of the corner of her eye, a veiled creature that is neither human nor shade.

When she turns to look, it is gone.

 

***

 

Rey wakes with her head on Kylo’s chest. He is warm against her, his breathing deep and even with sleep. Sometime in the night, he has covered them with one of the heavy, coarse furs, but she shivers even so. Her nightmare has not disturbed him, and she instinctively curls her body closer to his, as though he can dispel the cold and fear that lingers in her heart.

She tries to still her trembling, so as not to wake him, but she can’t stop herself from stealing a glance at him. The strong features of his profile are softened by sleep, his eyelashes long and dark against his pale face. He looks peaceful, but there are dark circles beneath his eyes that have no place on someone so young.

Memories from the night before return to her as she shakes off the last remnants of her dream. She doesn’t remember the precise moment of falling asleep, but the pale light falling through the latticed framework tells her that dawn is creeping up on them. The star-map set into the ceiling glitters above them with unfamiliar constellations. She can feel Kylo’s heartbeat under her palm, slower and steadier than her own.

“What is it, anasa?” he murmurs against her forehead, his voice low and heavy. She has woken him after all.

She screws her eyes shut, the simple endearment tugging at her heart after the terror of the forest. It is a word spoken between lovers...between two halves of a single soul. She turns her face so that she can hide it against him, not wanting to shed tears over something so trivial as a nightmare. But it seems a terrible sign to her that she has dreamed of dead, rotting things the night before they are to leave for the Holy City.

“A nightmare,” he senses. He turns them so that he is above her, his body so much larger than hers, and she trembles slightly at the solid weight of him covering her. His mouth moves from her forehead to her lips. As he kisses her, she wonders how someone so beautifully alive can rule the land below. “What did you see?”

“I was in the shadewood, walking through the trees,” she whispers, her throat so dry that her voice barely works. “There was something there. It was watching me. Following me. And it was…”

She can’t find words to describe to him the thing she glimpsed, crawling between the trees…a veiled shadow. And beneath the darkness of that veil lives something she doesn’t ever want to see, something starved to the bone, something that hungers and thirsts and is never satisfied. Neither wealth nor destruction, blood nor torment could feed it.

“What was it?” she whispers.

“There are many things other than shades that live in the wood,” he says softly, his hand soothing on her back. “You need not fear them. You are their queen. They cannot harm you.”

Rey shakes her head insistently.

“It was like it knew me.”

His jaw clenches. It is clear that he knows what the creature was, but he doesn’t want to tell her.

“It was wrapped in darkness,” Rey shivers. “Darkness like silk. Its hands…they were like bones, burned black…and it couldn’t walk. It crawled towards me. It tried to say something.”

“It was a dream. It can’t reach you here.”

She bites her lip. “Do you go to the shadewood often?”

“Less and less,” he answers. “When the Supreme Leader first brought me to Coruscant, there had been no king to pass judgment since the end of the Imperial Age. It was a time of bloodshed. There were tens of thousands of shades in the wood in those days. Soldiers and civilians, young and old. I lived there for seven years.”

Her blood turns to ice. She casts off the wool covering and sits up in his bed. The morning light is so pale, so delicate, that it turns his dark eyes to glass. He is looking at her as though what he has just said is entirely normal to him.

“You lived there?” she repeats hollowly. “Alone?”

“Of course I was alone,” he says, rising from the bed. “I hadn’t found you yet.”

His answer hardly satisfies her, but the pale light has now broken into morning. She knows the knights are expecting them and that every moment of delay will cost them precious daylight. As if seeing the frustration in her expression, he leans over to kiss her swiftly.

“Another story for the road,” he assures her.

 

***

 

Poe Dameron keeps a close watch on the overlord the others call Unkar Plutt. The more he sees, the more disturbed he becomes at the thought that Finn was taken without him. The junkyard master treats the scavengers he employs like animals. They return from the desert hauling pieces of centuries-old downed ships and scrap metal, defeat and desperation in their eyes. For their efforts, Plutt awards them packets of rations that, even to Dameron’s inexperienced eyes, seem pitifully small.

Poe’s fear is that Finn, as a slave, will be treated even worse than the underfed scavengers. Finn is kept inside one of the tents where Poe can’t see or reach him, and with every day that passes, his anxiety grows. He never should have let Finn leave the Eleusis. War and infiltration are Poe’s domain. Dragging a boy with a few weeks of flight training - and no formal instruction on weaponry or earth skills - with him to earth had been one of the most rash decisions he’d ever made.

When he expresses his fears about Finn’s inexperience to Allya the night before the troops are set to arrive in Nimma, the woman lets out a deep, throaty laugh and exchanges a look with Narisah and Roshan.

“Better that he was taken. You’d never pass as a slave,” she murmurs, eyeing him from head to toe. In the dim blue light from her tent’s radiation shield, her sable eyes gleam. “You might not be Jinn, but you’ve got the look of the katesan about you. The troopers don’t want trouble from their recruits.”

“You don’t need to worry about Finn,” Narisah adds simply, but Poe takes any reassurance from the white-clad nomad with a grain of salt. “He was meant to go to Coruscant. The Force is with him.”

“I thought he failed your little test?” Poe mutters.

Roshan shrugs. “Everyone fails the first time. Even those who have seen with their own eyes do not believe in their hearts.”

“You should have sold me to another trader so that I could go with him,” Poe argues with Allya, frustrated with the religious platitudes of his companions. While sly and manipulative, she at least seems to have some sense of gravity. “He’s not prepared for this.”

Allya narrows her eyes. “You would have been killed the moment you entered the city. How do you think stormtroopers are made? Do you think those slaves submit to the First Order’s control willingly, when they have spent their entire lives suffering under its reign?”

“People submit to a great deal when they’re afraid,” Poe answers.

“It only takes one,” Rishka says, her voice honeyed. “One soul who chooses the right course can bring down empires. It is what destroyed the Emperor. The Supreme Leader knows this…and he is cautious. Do you truly think the First Order would risk such a threat from within its own ranks?”

A sense of foreboding curls in Poe’s stomach.

“They control their minds,” he realizes. “How?”

“There is a substance. Water from the realm of the shades,” Narisah tells him. “In the dead, it grants peace and the absolution of memory. In the living, it strips away memory entirely and creates a neutral mind. A mind that can be influenced. The master of the Knights of Ren bestows it upon the Supreme Leader for the purposes of building his army.”

If Poe had not seen those masked knights with his own eyes, he would have scorned the idea of an afterlife that bleeds into the living world. Knowing all too well that the knights are flesh-and-blood, he doubts that their master has access to some otherworldly water that puts souls to rest, but that does not mean the effects Narisah has described are impossible. These people have survived for nearly a thousand years on a radiation-soaked earth. Who knows what kinds of substances they have manufactured over the centuries?

“What did you send Finn into?” he demands, his concern flaring into anger.

“Bleeding skies, Dameron,” Allya mutters, rolling her eyes. “Do you really think we would allow that to happen? We have eyes even inside The City of the Dead, and we have warned them of Finn’s coming. He will be safe.”

Poe bites down on his tongue. He doesn’t trust spies with Finn’s life. “Send me with him.”

“No one will buy you,” Rishka says flatly.

“Then sell me to the troopers yourself!”

“Only ill will come of you going to Coruscant,” Narisah says gently. “The knights would recognize you the moment you set foot inside the walls.”

“What makes you think that?” Dameron asks, hardening his features.

“Even the Keres know your name. A knight is dead and they have marked you as their prey. A sky-walker girl has been stolen from her home…and the Keres have called her Praxidike, the exactor of vengeance,” Narisah says slowly. “One does not need to possess the highest order of intelligence to know that these events are linked together.”

Poe’s throat goes dry. Those serpentine creatures had hissed and wailed into the night before seeking their vengeance upon him in the desert, but he had heard no words. It was only after their escape that Finn had told him what they spoke into the minds of the Jinn.

Door-Keeper, the winged beasts called him. Messenger. Neither name means anything to him.

“What did they mean when they said that I broke the old laws?” Poe asks.

The air in the tent grows heavy. Rishka folds her hands, the snakelike bracelet on her forearm glinting as she turns to the others. For the first time, Poe notices that the snake is wrapped so that it is devouring its own tail. It consumes itself to live.

“You spilled blood on the earth,” says Narisah reverently. “You owe blood to the earth. The old laws prevail.”

Poe thinks of a salt-flat desert and a red sky. He thinks of the wraiths in black, their masks twisted and inhuman. They carried weapons: long, steel blades that could cleave a man in two.

Sheathed blades, his heart reminds him.  

“That’s barbaric,” Poe says, but the guilt in him yearns for that brand of simple, retributive catharsis. He had chosen, and chosen wrong. If there is war, thousands might pay for his mistake.

“It is justice,” replies Roshan. “The earth takes back what belongs to it. It hears the dead cry out from the ground. If it were not so, the shades would wander in torment.”

“Aidoneous claims us all in the end,” Allya murmurs. “But that is a long way off for you yet, Dameron. You came to earth for a reason.”

Poe puts the fallen knight from his mind. He leans forward, sensing that they have at last come to a crossroads.

“Finn came here for the girl,” Narisah begins. “Did you?”

Poe hesitates, weighing caution against necessity. His orders were explicit. No one here can know that the Eleusis is dying. No one can know that if war comes before they are ready, his people will be annihilated.

“I made the wrong choice before,” Poe tells them heavily. “And my people paid the price. I can’t ask you to risk the same…not when this could end in war.”

“We have been fighting this war long before you came to the ground, sky-walker,” says Narisah unflinchingly.

Classified, Poe reminds himself.

His ingrained orders are not lightly put aside, but the prospect of not having to carry this burden himself calls to him. He had painstakingly programmed the BB-unit with the same directive. Share nothing, reveal nothing, see everything.

But Poe is not a machine, and the weight falls heavy on his shoulders. Finn was right; he can’t do this alone. The Chancellor had told him that there are those on earth who resist tyranny in all its forms. But if he trusts the wrong person with this information, and they reveal him to the First Order, it could mean the end of the Eleusis.

Never has Poe second-guessed his decisions as he does now. The fear of making the wrong choice cripples him. How can he be a leader if he is afraid to act? How can he help his people if every choice set before him takes him back to the memory of the fallen knight’s body, bleeding into the white sand?

Narisah smiles, as if sensing his conflict. “You have no faith, Poe Dameron.”

Poe takes a deep breath. If there is such thing as fate, or destiny, he hopes that it is for him and not against him.

“I seek the Resistance.”

Chapter Text

“Please,” Pasithea is begging Kylo as Rey enters the stableyard. The slender knight is clad in black Keres-hide leather, even though Rey was under the impression that the younger girl would not be joining the knights on their journey to Ni’Jedha. “I’m ready! You know I am!”

Kylo makes a skeptical noise at the back of his throat. He places a bridle and reins over the elegant head of a ruby-eyed athanatoi, glancing at Morpheus for support. The old man gives him an exasperated smile, raising his eyebrows.

“Now you know how you sounded at that age,” Morpheus tells Kylo.

“You’re taking Rey, and she’s not even a Knight!” Pasithea cries woefully.

“But Rey is a little more necessary than you,” Thanatos mutters bitterly, in the midst of saddling his own mount. As Rey crosses the courtyard, she can’t help but notice the long, dark bruises blooming around his neck. When he catches her staring, he meets her gaze with the same proud defiance from the previous night. Rey is the first to look away.

The knight called Dionysus chuckles, apparently impervious to Thanatos’s black mood. Judging by the faint lines around his eyes and the scattered flecks of grey in his hair, Rey would place him at nearing forty. He possesses a rugged, handsome demeanor that under other circumstances might have caught her eye. Her mouth still remembers the taste of his famous cookies, the phantom sweetness sending a rumble through her stomach even though she just ate breakfast.

“Thanatos is right,” Dionysus tells Pasithea. He catches Rey’s eye and throws a wink in her direction. “Kylo would have a difficult time taking the blood rite by himself…though he might have some fun in the attempt.”

Rey’s eyes widen as she comprehends Dionysus’s meaning. She averts her eyes, the knight’s words conjuring images of Kylo in her mind that are far from innocent. She wonders if Kylo has ever done as Dionysus is implying, whether he has ever touched himself while aroused. Surely he has.

Rey becomes lost for a brief moment in the thought of Kylo’s large, gloved hand fisted around his length…and stars, something curious in her is desperate to know what that part of him looks and feels and tastes like. She wants to know if he is rough with himself, or slow and controlled. Is it possible that he has ever thought of her in those moments, or does some other fantasy play itself out in his mind?

“Dion, please,” Kylo says quietly, interrupting her runaway thoughts. His voice is even, but Rey can see that his knuckles are white where he grips his athanatoi’s bridle. Dionysus laughs once more under his breath and pockets a silver holo-orb, no doubt a map for their travels.

“Come on, Thea, time to go,” Dionysus says. “You’ve lost this one.”

Pasithea’s shoulder slump. “Kylo? Please, I’ve never seen the Holy City. You don’t know when we’ll go again. It could be years!”

Kylo looks at her, clad from head to toe in the worn Keres-hide leather. Rey thinks she glimpses a tiny bit of affection behind his unyielding expression. The girl’s black, almond-shaped eyes are bright and expectant, and she is practically bouncing on her toes.

“Fine,” he says tersely.

Thea lets out a short, delighted gasp. “Do you mean it?”

He looks at Dionysus. “Get her a sword.”

“Really?” Dion laughs.

“Really?” Thea echoes, as if she still can’t believe it.

A tight smiles crosses Kylo’s lips. “Go on, both of you.”

Pasithea shrieks and drags Dion towards the door, as if afraid Kylo will change his mind if given the chance. Rey marvels that a girl of her size can pull Dionysus along, but the older knight just laughs and lets her.

Thanatos shakes his head as the pair leave, the grim line of his mouth becoming even thinner as he examines the bottom of his pale athanatoi’s hoof. His long, slender fingers run over the protective plating there, checking for cracks.

Kylo catches his expression and mutters, “If you’ve something to say, Thanatos, you should say it.”

“Nothing,” Thanatos says reticently.

“No?” Kylo replies, tilting his head. “And here I thought you always have something to say.”

“She’s fifteen,” Thanatos bursts out sharply at Kylo’s provocation, looking up from his task. “Are you sure she’s ready for the Wastes?”

“No, I’m not sure. But there’s no time for me to treat her like a child. After the blood rite, there will only be six of us left.”

Thanatos’s scarred face turns ashen and his lips part. A long moment passes as Kylo’s words sink in. He seems to war with himself. Then, tightly, he questions, “She’s leaving, then?”

Perhaps she’s imagining it, but Rey could swear there is something else there, hidden just beneath the surface. But Thanatos had been so terrible to Hecate and said such awful things. He can’t be shocked that she would choose to leave the Knights of Ren after he’d torn her apart so cruelly.

Kylo looks at him, and places his next words strategically.

“You should be pleased, Thanatos. This is what you wanted.”

 

***

 

“We’ll pass through the Six-Eyed Sparrow, and stay a night in Larakei to sleep and replenish our rations. From there, we strike out southwest towards the Crait Mines,” Kylo says to the Knights, motioning across a holomap that displays the route.

Rey’s eyes follow the red line positioned on the map. It trails westward, south of the place where Takodana had once stood in the shadow of a high peak, and then winds down through a long, craggy pass in the mountains. Coruscant appears lonely on the eastern side of the range, the other cities marked by silvery dots that huddle close together on the opposite side of the ridge. Larakei stands out in blue among them, a large tribal city at the southernmost point of the range on its western side.

And beyond that bright point, there is only the desert. It seems to go on forever. There are concentric circles that spread out from Coruscant, marking radiation levels. A solid black line curves through the desert far beyond the mountains, indicating the point at which the radiation is so severe that an unprotected traveler would die within minutes.

Ni’Jedha is so far beyond the radiation line that it is not even marked on this map.

“Questions?”

“The Sparrow can’t be taken in a day. Even if we pass through without stopping, we’ll have to spend the night in the mountains,” Hecate observes, keeping her voice even. Her hair is pulled over her shoulder in a tight braid and her Keres-hide leather is uniquely plated with silver. Rey feels a tinge of guilt. This is to be Hecate’s last journey through the Wastes and Rey can’t help but feel at fault that she is leaving.

“Do you know of a better way?” Kylo asks.

“No.” Hecate shakes her head. “Just wondering if you’re concerned about…”

“Civilians,” Rey finishes for her, remembering how Hecate had referred to outsiders, separating the Knights of Ren from the rest of the world. Except this time, the civilian she’s referring to is Rey.

Hecate glances at her for the first time since the altercation with Thanatos, uncertainty darting across her delicate features. Rey wants to reassure her friend that Kylo had told her everything, and even though she still feels a faint sting of jealousy, she no longer blames Hecate for following her father’s plans. In her own way, Hecate is as just as trapped as Rey. But the knights are all present and there is no way for Rey to communicate with Hecate without exposing her secret to the others.

“You’re not a civilian,” Hecate says finally. “But it would be poor planning if we did not consider how best to protect you. If the Resistance-“

The Resistance won’t touch her, a darkling voice soothes through Rey’s consciousness. It is so different from Kylo’s presence in her mind, feminine and fleeting instead of deep and wild, and Rey gasps as it takes her by surprise. The sentiment is spoken through the Force, but not through the bond. It has a temporal quality that lasts only as long as it takes to imprint the words on her mind.

“Nyx?” Kylo asks, inclining his head at the dark-haired woman seated next to Morpheus. Rey realizes that she has never before heard Nyx speak, and for the first time it occurs to her that perhaps she can’t speak. And yet the middle-aged woman’s mental voice seems to match her countenance: it reflects the sweet mysteries of the dark and the comfort of deep, star-strewn nights.

They need a Queen as much as we do, Nyx presses into their minds. We burn the dead on both sides. Their war is not with us.

“And the Keres?” Morpheus asks mildly.

“Let them come,” Thanatos says, leaning back. An eager look crosses his scarred face, his dark green eyes flashing with thirst. Rey shudders as she realizes just where the long, straight marks on his face might have come from. “I’ve a need for new armor.”

“Don’t be absurd,” Morpheus counsels wisely. “Better Knights than you have been felled by those creatures. Protecting Rey from such an enemy would be nearly impossible.”

“I’ve already considered the Keres,” Kylo says, before Thanatos has a chance to respond. From the wide belt at his waist, he removes small silver box. He slides the top of the box open, showing the knights its contents. A cracked, red crystal is seated against a black velvety base that protects it from further damage. Rey wonders how such a small stone will be of any use against desert monsters, but she bites her tongue, not wanting to broadcast her ignorance.

“You took that from the Ether?” Hecate queries.

“Unfortunately it’s too damaged to serve that purpose anymore,” Kylo answers. “But it might keep the Keres at a distance.”

 

***

 

Rey stares up at the athanatoi, wringing her hands. “I don’t like this. Oh, I really, really don’t like this.”

Until this moment, she had not really considered how huge the beautiful animal is. Its sinewy muscles ripple beneath tough, blackened skin as it shakes its proud head at her. She hesitantly draws closer.

“You’ll ride with me. Don’t worry, she won’t hurt you,” Kylo assures her, touching her shoulder to draw her attention. “Come, let’s find you a mask.”

“Oh,” Rey says, realizing that she never told him of her grandfather’s gift. “I have one already.”

She reaches into the bag she’d packed for the journey, pulling out her mother’s smooth, transparisteel-plated helmet. She had left the armor behind in the wooden chest in her room, knowing that she is not a warrior and will have little use for it. She wears only the protective leathers beneath her borrowed clothing.

Rey presents the helmet to Kylo, holding it tightly between her hands. She is still afraid of dropping it even though she knows it has been made to withstand more than a small fall.

“May I?” he asks.

“Yes, of course.”

He handles it carefully, running his fingers over the darkened glass and the smooth, fire-wrought metal.

“This was your mother’s,” he realizes, his brows drawing together. Pain lances through his voice. “I recognize it. This is royal craftsmanship…it is very fine work. Where did you get this?”

“My grandfather gave it to me. As a…” Rey hesitates, suddenly breathless at she says the next phrase. “As a wedding gift.”

His gaze lifts and he meets her eyes, the word wedding fluttering between them. “I would have one made for you, if you would prefer not to be reminded.”

“I want this one,” she assures him in a small voice. There is something sad about it, but she likes the way her mother’s presence seems to still faintly cling to the helmet. It is a piece of Rey’s inheritance. It reminders her who she is and where she comes from.

For a moment she is worried that Kylo is the one who would prefer not to be reminded, but then he nods, handing the mask back to her. “It suits you.”

She worries at her bottom lip, looking down at the mask. As much as she wants to wear it, she has a hard time believing that it is meant for her. As Pasithea and Hecate were quick to point out, she is not a knight.

“What’s wrong?”

“I just…I don’t like the idea of the others putting themselves in danger for me. I hate the feeling of being useless.”

He places his hand against her cheek. “Rey, no. Please don’t think that.”

“But it’s true. I can’t defend myself. I make them…you…vulnerable.”

“Rey, look at me,” he insists.

She takes a deep breath, tilting her head up, swallowing her emotions.

“These knights have trained with me for years. Morpheus and Nyx have served their entire lives, long before the First Order rose to power. It is not fair to compare yourself with them,” he tells her. “You are so strong. So resilient.”

She sighs sadly. “Kylo. You call me salt-mouse.”

A troubled expression crosses his face. He tilts his head, considering her. “Do you think I call you that because I think you are weak?”

“I saw a holo. They aren’t exactly fierce,” she mumbles, thinking of the little, white creatures with sleek fur and bright eyes.

“Rey, there are few creatures that can survive in the Wastes. Most of them, like the athanatoi, were genetically modified over centuries to make their bodies compatible with the radiation. Even the Keres are believed to be hybrids created by the early knights,” Kylo tells her intently, his eyes roaming over her face. “But the salt-mice survived the Nuclear Winter and the Hundred-Year Night with no interference from mankind. When the whole world was dying and radiation soaked the ground, they adapted and survived against all odds.”

“Oh,” she says faintly. There is such reverence in his tone, such awe in his eyes as he looks at her. Is that how he truly thinks of her? Does he believe that she is a fighter? A survivor?

Kylo shakes his head at her shocked expression, leaning down to brush his lips softly against hers. Then he turns, grasping the saddle of the athanatoi and mounting the beast in one powerful motion. She places the mask back in her bag and secures it to the athanatoi, freeing her hands to make her own attempt.

Kylo leans down, holding out his arm to her. She tries to imitate his motion, placing her foot just as he did in the hold and using his forearm to stabilize her body as she pulls herself up behind him. It’s not graceful at all, but she manages, and with her front pressed to his back she feels the deep thrum of his voice when he speaks.

“Give yourself time, salt-mouse.”

 

***

 

“This looks familiar,” Rey says to Kylo through her mask, the other knights far enough away that they cannot overhear. Their athanatoi canters forward, its heavy hooves clacking on the ancient stone bridge as they pass over it. Rey cranes her neck briefly to look back at the citadel, the white spires of Coruscant reflecting the early morning light. The Knights of Ren follow in a single line, their black forms silhouetted against a cold white desert.

Above them, the navy sky is tinged with pale pink clouds. For some reason, the sun hanging low on the eastern horizon doesn’t seem so distant today. It brings them a soft dawn and Rey takes that to be a good sign.

Her legs already ache from gripping the sides of the animal beneath her. The athanatoi’s thin, slitted nostrils flare with every breath. Kylo is a skilled rider, driving them at a steady pace, but no amount of expertise will keep the equine creature’s repetitive gait from leaving bruises on the insides of her thighs.

“This is where you nearly shattered my kneecap,” Kylo answers her, looking out over the dry riverbed. There is no resentment in his voice. Even through the harsh modulator she hears only fondness, and a bit of pride.

She moves her hand from where it grips his side, down to his thigh, and then she leans lower, brushing lightly against the place just above his knee. Kylo tenses under her touch. Pressed fully against him, his back against her chest, she feels his breath quicken. She knows instinctively that the tension in his shoulders is not from pain.

“How does it feel now?” Rey asks, her thumb moving in gentle circles. Kylo shifts the reins of the athanatoi’s bridle into his right hand, resting his other gloved hand over her own. Although every inch of their skin is covered to protect against the harsh radiation of the desert, the weight of his hand on hers is enough to make her blood pound faster through her veins.

“It has healed,” he replies, and Rey notes with pleasure that his voice is unsteady. She lets her hand drift over the firm muscle of his thigh, and then higher, until her fingers brush against another kind of firmness. She lets her palm rest there, her thumb moving slowly, a mimicry of her earlier touch against his knee. With a soft groan, he wraps his hand around her wrist and ends her exploration. Kylo moves her hand back to his thigh, turning her palm over and lacing his fingers through hers.

“By the Fallen, you are cruel.”

Her entire body hurts, an unresolved contradiction of pleasure and pain coursing through her. The place between her legs throbs at his words, her thighs and back hurt from the ride, and her nipples harden and chafe against the bindings beneath her layers of clothing. She is exhausted, she is cold, she is awake with want.

“We are well-matched, then,” she retorts.

“You are the most impatient little thing I have ever encountered. There are two hundred miles between Coruscant and Ni’Jedha. Unless you intend to consecrate the blood rite here in the Wastes…”

She blushes at the thought of him doing such an impulsive thing, even though she knows he doesn’t mean it. He’d made it perfectly clear that he would not touch her in that way until after the blood rite.

“Kylo?”

“Mm.”

“I know I already said it, but last night…I just wish I hadn’t asked you for so much. It wasn’t fair to you. Sometimes I forget that you were also forced into this.”

“Rey, I…I don’t want you to think…you’re not forcing me to…”

He laughs suddenly, the pleasant sound twisted by the mask.

“What?”

“It’s nothing. There’s just a very selfish, base part of me that is kicking myself for not taking what you offered to me last night. You’ve no idea how much I wanted to…”

She bites her lip and rests her head against his shoulder. “Do you ever…have you ever…?”

She trails off, feeling pathetic as her thoughts scatter all over again. She can’t ask him this, even though Dionysus’s earlier teasing had made her so blasted curious.

“Yes, I have,” he admits, answering the questions she is too embarrassed to ask, and she realizes he’s still honoring his promise to answer any question she puts to him. Even the ones she can’t ask him aloud. Guilt colors his voice, but he continues. “Yes, I thought of you. No, I never thought of anyone else.”

“Why do you say it like that?” she mumbles unhappily.

“Like what?”

“Like you’re ashamed.”

“Skies, Rey,” he chokes out. “It wasn’t always…my thoughts weren’t always…I could burn in Tartarus for the things I’ve…”

He takes a deep breath, unable to go on. She doesn’t like that he does this to himself. She doesn’t like that he tries to keep himself from feeling the most essential, human emotions.

Rey clutches him tighter around his waist, wishing there weren’t so many layers between them. She wants to touch him skin-to-skin, to reassure him that she isn’t offended that he had thought such things about her. In fact, something in her is absolutely delighted. His confession is like the fizzy, lab-manufactured candy she’d tasted once as a child that burst on her tongue and filled her with wonder.

“How did you know what I looked like?” she wonders aloud, emboldened by his response. “Before you found me, how did you think of me?”

“I didn’t know what you would look like. It was just…the sense of your presence. I’d come to know how your signature felt, to distinguish you in the Force. I would imagine that feeling, but closer…all around me, touching me, holding me…” He takes a shuddering breath. “When I found you, everything was worse. Perhaps it’s shallow of me, but I didn’t expect you to be so beautiful. The distance became unbearable, like everything was heightened because you were near and I had seen you. I had carried you in my arms. From that point on you were in my dreams, and I was enthralled…consumed…even though I knew you were still afraid of me.”

Kylo breaks off suddenly, and she wonders if he fears revealing too much to her. She runs her hands along his sides reassuringly, feeling the solidness of him against her, waiting for him to go on.

“You never thought of me?” he inquires quietly, when he realizes that she’s not upset with him.

“No,” Rey says truthfully. “I wasn’t aware of you before, the way you were of me.”

He is silent for a long moment.

“I’m sorry,” she says, wondering if she has hurt him. He’s suffered enough; she doesn’t want to be the source of new pain.

“You couldn’t have known,” he says finally. The hollow way he speaks makes her wonder if he is reassuring her, or reminding himself.

“Kylo?” she says hesitantly.

“Yes?”

“I just realized I…I never answered your question last night. You answered everything I asked, but I never…” She gathers herself, preparing for his reaction. “I never explained what you saw in my mind. With the pilot. The man who killed Phobetor.”

Kylo stiffens.

“It never went any further than that,” she says quickly, the words tumbling out gracelessly. “It was the first time. The only time. It was one kiss. And he left me behind. It was years ago.”

“Was he the only one?” Kylo asks tentatively.

“I…no. But the others were…”

“Were what?” he asks sharply, misinterpreting her hesitation entirely and assuming the worst.

She laughs, not at him, but at the absurd thought that those fumbling kisses in spare parts rooms were anything close to what he has given her.

“They were boys. I was just a girl. And I was curious. I wanted to know what kissing felt like.”

“Was it nice?” he asks darkly, but she senses no real malice in his words. A faint hint of jealousy, but nothing more. He really doesn’t like the thought of anyone else touching her, Rey realizes, just as she doesn’t like the thought of anyone touching him. They are both such possessive creatures.

“Sometimes,” she admits honestly. “But it wasn’t like this.”

“Like what?” he replies.

“The way it is with you. It wasn’t ever like this.”

As he considers that, she thinks of something that will probably drive him mad.

“I dreamed, though,” she whispers. “After we met. Even if I was a little frightened, because I didn’t understand what was happening to me…to us…they were beautiful dreams.”

He takes her hand where it rests on his ribcage, and puts his fingers through hers. She thinks of the green grass fields and a pale blue sky, the earth made whole by their union. An impossible future, but she allows herself to hope.

 

***

 

When they reach the footprint of the mountain, the knights climb down from their athanatoi and give the strange horses long drinks of water. They have not been riding even half a day, but Rey feels the dull ache all over her body. She hopes that she will be given time to stretch and walk, but all too soon Kylo is lifting her back into the saddle, this time taking a place behind her, his arms on either side of her shoulders.

She tilts her head up to look at the jagged peaks before them. They are taller than she remembers, their heights no longer shrouded in darkness.

“We’re not climbing them, little one,” Kylo murmurs in her ear.

“Still, it’s incredible. I never thought I would see anything like this,” she breathes, awestruck.

Hecate and Pasithea take the lead this time. Kylo urges his athanatoi forward, following them into the deep, jagged entrance of the mountain pass. At first, it is barely large enough to admit them. Rey feels claustrophobic as they enter the narrow passage. She looks up, but the mountains on both sides obscure the sun and all but a narrow glimpse of navy sky. It is colder here in the shadows. Rey shudders at the thought that they are going to spend the entire night riding through this enclosed space, with nowhere to run in the event of danger.

“Couldn’t the blood rite have been performed in Coruscant?” she asks Kylo, needing to occupy her thoughts with something else.

“The blood rite can be taken anywhere,” he replies thoughtfully. “I insisted on The Holy City.”

“Why?” Rey asks curiously. “Why not Coruscant?”

“Death rites have been performed in the Nekromanteion for thousands of years, long before the War. The Knights of Ren made Coruscant their home for that very purpose. It is the citadel of death, a place where the shade world and our world are pressed closely together…” He shakes his head briefly. “No Knight of Ren has ever taken a blood rite within Coruscant’s walls. It would be a cursed thing.”

“Why Ni’Jedha though? Why not a closer city?”

“It is where the Kings and Queens of the Dead have pledged themselves to each other for a thousand years,” he replies simply.

Rey contents herself with that answer for the moment, knowing that he is unlikely to expand on it.

“Why isn’t Snoke going with us?”

The question has haunted her since they had begun their preparations for the journey through the Wastes. The Supreme Leader’s absence seems to hover over them. It seems strange that he would so willingly allow Rey to leave without some sort of insurance that she will return.

“He is not strong enough to make the journey,” Kylo replies.

“Couldn’t he send someone else, though? Hux, or Thrawn?”

“The First Order is not permitted to send ships or troops to Jedha.”

“Not permitted?” Rey repeats, confused. The First Order does not seem to be the kind of regime that would accept limits to its control.

“Jedha is a vast country. An ancient country. And the city of Ni’Jedha is the seat of a very old religious order. There are guardians of the city who protect its temple. During the Imperial Age, the Emperor sent troops to occupy the city. They ransacked the temple and imprisoned its guardians. The siege did not end well for the Empire.”

“Why not?”

“The attempt to destroy the old ways bred resentment. And resentment quickly became rebellion. Some of the most prominent members of the Rebel Alliance hailed from Jedha. They caused a great deal of trouble.”

“You sound as though you admire them.”

“I admire their adherence to their ideals,” Kylo says simply. “Many of them died in the fight against the Empire. That kind of devotion is rare, even if it was misguided.”

“So you chose Ni’Jedha because of its history?”

“Yes, that is one reason. I may have had other motives, but…”

“Why else?”

“Had we taken the rite in Coruscant, I feared that some of the First Order’s leaders would have insisted that we be…attended.”

“Attended?” Rey asks uncomprehendingly. “I don’t… oh.”

Kylo makes a discontented noise through his mask, as though the idea is as distasteful to him as it is to her.

“It’s not unprecedented,” he says tersely.

“That won’t happen in Ni’Jedha, though?” Rey asks urgently, suddenly apprehensive. It would horrendous to have to strip naked in front of other men and…and…Rey can’t even think of it.

“I would not have let that happen even in Coruscant,” Kylo says bluntly. “You are to be my wife. Taking the rite in Ni’Jedha merely saved me the trouble of cutting out their eyes for even suggesting such a thing.”

“Don’t say that,” Rey commands, but she leans back against him. She feels secure against his chest, with his arms on either side of her. His promise of violence should scare her, but it has the opposite effect.  

“You think I wouldn’t?”

Rey is silent.

“There is a wheel in Tartarus,” he says lowly, next to her ear. He speaks with the poetic cadence he reserves for storytelling, the words like water running over smooth rocks. “It was created for a vile man - Ixion of Lapithes - many years ago, when the sky was still black and the sun could not be seen in the heavens. When Ixion was injured in the Wastes, the king of Chthonia offered him shelter in the Palace of Aidoneus. He spent eighteen days and nights under the protection of the Knights of Ren. But when he was well again, Ixion went before the king’s wife uninvited, and tried to seduce her away from her husband. When she refused him, he attempted to lie with her against her will.”

Rey’s breath quickens, her throat going dry. If Kylo has contemplated such violent punishment for men who had only wanted to look at her unclothed, she can’t imagine what horrors would await someone who attempted to touch her without permission.

“The queen escaped, and told her husband of his guest’s treachery. When Aidoneus heard this, he dragged Ixion alive into Tartarus and fashioned a great wheel of shade-oak. The king bound him to it and set it aflame with solar fire: fire that does not diminish or burn out, that consumes but does not destroy. And he remains there still.”

“But this is just a story?” she whispers.

“No,” he says. “I have seen Ixion’s Wheel with my own eyes. It is an unforgettable sight.”

“You wouldn’t…you wouldn’t punish someone like that, though? Would you?” she asks.

“I would do far worse, little one, if a man placed his hands on you against your will.”

Rey trembles, not from fear, but from the awareness of how intensely he feels for her. Something in her thrills at the thought of Kylo exacting vengeance on her behalf, even if it is terrible.

“Don’t be afraid. I don’t mean to scare you,” he murmurs, feeling the slight tremor in her body. “I rarely send anyone into Tartarus.”

“I’m not afraid,” she manages to say. “I’m relieved that we’ll be alone in Ni’Jedha…but if the First Order wanted there to be witnesses, won’t they question whether the blood rite is valid? What about the treaty?”

“There will still be witnesses to the ceremony. The tribes have their own leaders. They take a keen interest in some of the more ritual elements of the blood rite.”

“Ritual elements?”

He thinks for a moment. “How do the sky-walkers take their marriage rites?”

The question takes Rey by surprise. She hasn’t given much thought to whether her wedding will conform to Eleusian traditions. Her engagement certainly hasn’t.

“There’s a place on the Eleusis called the atrium. It’s a temple of sorts,” she replies. “Usually marriages take place there, very early in the morning. It’s considered an auspicious time. People gather together and there’s a ceremony. The bride wears a dress if she has one - it’s usually handed down by her family, or sometimes if she has no family an older woman will let her borrow one. She and the groom make vows to each other; one of the Jedi priests declares them married. And after, everyone eats breakfast together. It’s usually very quick and simple.”

“I doubt it will be so for us,” he says softly. “The blood rite is taken over a series of days.”

“Days,” Rey repeats, wondering how a marriage ceremony could take days to perform.

“Yes. The first day is a cleansing ritual. I think you’ll like that one.”

“Oh?” Rey asks nervously.

“Hecate tells me you like the water,” he replies.

Rey gasps in pleasant surprise. She’d expected some sort of test, but this is something she would do without even being asked.

“Really? The first ritual is a bath?”

“We’ll have been in the Wastes for several days, so I have a feeling that part of the ceremony was created as a matter of practicality. There are other treatments - spices, oils, perfumes.” His voice becomes heated. “And since you don’t object, I’ll be sure to have someone cut my hair.”

Her cheeks burn, but two can play his game. She bites out, “In that case, I’ll be sure to keep my hair tied up from now on. I know how much you like it that way.”

He laughs softly at her response. “Vicious little salt-mouse.”

“What happens on the second day?” Rey presses.

“The next part of the ritual starts the following the evening. Most of the tribesmen who make the pilgrimage to Ni’Jedha present gifts to the bride. There is a celebration afterwards, which can last through the night.”

“What comes next?”

“There is a trial before the Widows,” he says, a hint of trepidation creeping into his voice for the first time. Whatever this portion of the blood rite entails, he is dreading it.

Rey abruptly recalls the Chancellor’s final words to her before the Ether separated them. Find the Widow. She will help you. Kylo makes it sound as though there are many of them. How will she know which will give her aid?

“The Widows?” she asks, trying her best to keep her voice neutral.

“Of the fallen knights,” he replies. “Nyx is one; her husband, Erebus, was lost years ago. There are two others that live in Ni’Jedha. The three of them will preside together over the trial.”

“Nyx can’t speak?” Rey inquires tentatively.

“The Widows take vows of silence when their husbands die.”

“All of them?” Rey whispers, remembering the sound of Nyx’s voice in her mind. If Kylo were to die, would Rey be forced into silence for the remainder of her life? The moment the thought occurs to her, she realizes how selfish it is.

“I’ve never known a knight’s wife to refuse the vow,” says Kylo delicately. “It is a tradition that goes back to ancient times. The Jinn called it Elisha-ekra-Elishana. It means ‘mourning of the mourners.’ It also happens to be a play on their word for morning, elishastra.”

There is a long silence that follows. It is a beautiful sentiment, but something in Rey revolts against the idea of being permanently silenced upon her husband’s death. Kylo’s hand brushes her hip, as if he has heard her thoughts.

“It is not forced upon them, little one,” he murmurs finally. “It is an expression of loss and devotion. You have given up a great deal already. I would not expect anything more of you.”

“Tell me about the trial,” she says, not wanting to think about the possibility of Kylo’s death. With the bond that exists between them, the thought of being so irreparably separated is crushing. The world would seem a crueler place without him at her side. “What do I have to do?”

“There’s nothing you must do. It is my worthiness they are testing, not yours. Everything is turned when it comes to the blood rite. In their eyes, you are already Queen, and I am…merely a consort.”

“Oh. What do you have to do, then?” she asks curiously.

“It’s an old tradition. Even though here in this world, I am King of the Dead by birthright, the realm of shades operates by entirely different principles. It is a lineage of Queens, who are not bound by blood, but by choice. My authority in the world below extends only so far as you allow, and if the Widows find me lacking, they will refuse to preside over the blood rite.”

Fear drops like a heavy stone in Rey’s stomach. “But…but I agreed. I made my choice.”

“You mean after I dragged you here to earth? After the First Order imprisoned you and threatened war?” he says hollowly. “I fear the Widows will not find anything that has transpired between us to be the result of any choice you have made.”

“Kylo,” she says softly. “I forgave you for what happened. I chose you. They will understand.”

“Perhaps,” he answers.  

“They have to understand,” Rey insists, his answer worrying her. “If they don’t preside over the blood rite…”

She doesn’t want to think about the consequences that will follow. Without the treaty, war and bloodshed will be immediate, and her people will stand no chance against the might of the First Order.

“It’s not your concern, little one. The trial is not yours to take,” Kylo says simply. “I didn’t tell you this to worry you. Put it out of your mind.”

Rey bites her tongue, wondering whether she should press him. “But I could tell them-”

“They already know everything you could want them to know. The Widows are very powerful. The Force has bestowed upon them many gifts: the gift of foresight and the gift of heart-reading.”

“Then why are you worried?” she questions. “You know my heart.”

“I only wish things were different. Had I just been patient…”

They ride in silence for some time, each lost in their own thoughts. Rey wonders what he means. Had he been patient, she might have lived her entire life on the Eleusis, searching and never finding. Had he been patient, they might have never met. The Master of the Knights of Ren would have been nothing more than a scary bedtime story, one she might have one day told the children of another man-

The stray thought makes her sits up straighter, her throat tightening. Where had the idea of children come from? Rey has never pictured herself as a mother, never even considered having children. She certainly shouldn’t be thinking such things now, when her whole life is a tangled thread of uncertainty.

Shoving the thought of tiny hands and sleepy eyes away, she asks, “What happens next? After the trial?”

“The wedding ceremony takes place the following day,” he tells her. “The Widows preside over a recitation in the temple, and you will be crowned.”

“And for…for the other part…the…”

“Consummation,” he supplies suggestively, his voice curving deliciously around the word.

“You’re worse than Dionysus,” she laughs brightly. It’s so odd to hear her laugh both inside and outside the mask, clear to her ears but warped by the filter. “And you never answered my question. It would be awful to go through all the steps, only to have the treaty questioned.”

“Yes,” he says, his voice playfully grave. “It would be terrible to have to consummate the rite more than once…”

“You know that’s not what I meant.”

“There won’t be any doubt that we’ve taken the rite,” he assures her.

“But how?”

“Witnesses were never necessary. I’m sure it will be…felt.”

“By the Supreme Leader?” Rey chokes out, horrified. “Kylo, that’s not…I can’t…”

“It’s not what you’re thinking,” he assures her. “The Force doesn’t work that way. It is an energy field; it connects all living things. Some connections are stronger than others, some weaker. That level of intimacy will change our connection. There will be a shift that would be apparent to anyone strong with the Force, if they were looking for it.”

“And Snoke will be looking for it,” Rey says bitterly.

“Yes,” Kylo replies. “I’m sure he will. But he’ll know nothing more than that.”

‘“Ugh, I still don’t like that he’ll know.”

“Everyone strong with the Force will know.”

“Not helping!” Rey exclaims. “What about the knights?”

“They’ll know, too.”

“That’s so uncomfortable,” she mumbles. “For us. For them, too.”

“I doubt it will be. Husbands have claimed wives since the beginning of time. And besides,” Kylo continues under his breath. “Thanatos and Dion have no room to talk. Both owe me ten times over for what they’ve subjected me to. The things I’ve heard.”

“But…but I thought you said…you just said the Force didn’t work that way!” she sputters angrily.

“I meant audibly.”

She blinks.

“Oh. Oh, ew.”

 

***

 

“Aidoneus?” she asks.

“It’s a title that is passed down. It means ‘King of the Dead.’”

“Then what’s ‘Aidon’?”

“It’s a diminutive. Hecate used to tease me with it. It’s like saying… Little Prince.”

Rey smirks. “Cute.”

“She certainly thought so.”

Anasa?”

He sets his head atop hers, their masks clinking together. “That’s more difficult. It means…breath. But spiritual. Something necessary to survive. A piece without which you would not be whole.”

“Soulmate,” Rey supplies affectionately.

“Soul…mate?”

“Someone you were made for,” she explains.

He hums contentedly through the mask, the sound rolling through the air like a purr. “Yes.”

“What about…Strei-kai-loran?”

“I think you mean Strei-kai-loro. It means ‘The Child Who Fell From the Stars.’”

Rey shakes her head. “No, not your name. It’s what a Aboyami called me. Strei-kai-loran.”

“Ah. It’s the same meaning, but with the feminine form of ‘child.’”

A smile crosses Rey’s lips. She likes that her name mirrors his. “Do you speak every language?”

“Most of them. When I first came to earth, before the Jedi found me, I lived for a few years with a Rhedonite masnavi, who taught me her language and many others,” he says. “She was very kind to me. She was the one who found me in the Wastes, dying in that…that cage

“I begged her to leave me. I didn’t want to make her sick. But she stayed with me, night and day, and the plague never touched her. Or anyone else on earth.”

“What was her name?”

“Dhatri.”

Speaking the name aloud seems to stir long-dormant memories within him, and a few fragments reach her through the bond. A brown-skinned, wrinkled woman, tall and slender like a tree, with adornments braided into her graying hair. Lantern light and stories on the night of the summer solstice, bony hands stitching together torn fabric, a circle-dance where the only music was the sound of glass shards clinking together from the shifting of clothing as he followed precise, rehearsed steps.

“Do you ever see her now?” Rey queries.

“No, she was very old. A few years after I was taken to Coruscant, I found her in the shadewood. It was the first time I had seen her since becoming king.”

“I’m sorry,” Rey says, sensing his loss and sorrow. She reaches for his hand, lacing her gloved fingers through his.

“She has peace. Had I not gone to Coruscant, she would have been like the other shades…roaming the wood, maddened by the pain of their former lives, awaiting judgment.”

“I meant for you,” Rey clarifies. She can’t comprehend how difficult it must have been for him, to pass judgment so unexpectedly on someone he clearly felt deeply for. “You were still a child.”

He goes entirely rigid behind her, as though he has never considered just how young he had been. Rey can sense him constructing the timeline in his mind, acknowledging perhaps for the first time the gaping hole that the Supreme Leader had ripped in his childhood. In the years where most boys were roughhousing and kissing and creating all manner of mischief, Kylo was submerged in the cold underworld, bearing the weight of the memories of tens of thousands of shades. She wants to ask him about those seven years, but even though he has promised her that story, she senses that it is not the right time. So she simply runs her fingertips across the back of his gloved hand, giving him a moment.

“The Supreme Leader took nothing from me that hadn’t already been destroyed,” Kylo says, as though reciting the words from a script. There is something desperate in his tone. The blind immediacy of his defense of Snoke chills her blood. “My childhood ended the day I was sent to earth.”

She clutches his hand a little tighter, not sure how to respond. There’s nothing she can say to give him back what he’s lost. But perhaps they can build something new together.  

“Would you teach me?” she says finally.

“Teach you?” he replies.

“The languages of earth. I want to learn.”

“Where would you like to start?”

 

***

 

“When are you going to forgive Thanatos?” she asks Kylo.

The little piece of winding sky above them is streaked with red and gold. Somewhere in the heavens, the sun is setting.

“What makes you think I will?”

“You will,” Rey says knowingly. “I hear the way you talk about him. Like he’s your brother.”

Kylo doesn’t reply.

“You will,” Rey repeats. “You miss him already.”

“It’s not my forgiveness he needs. He needs to make things right with Hecate.”

“You need his forgiveness, too,” Rey points out.

“I was right.”

“No. You were angry.”

“Can’t I be both?”

“Why stop there?” Rey mutters good-naturedly, knowing he’ll come around eventually. “When you could be an idiot, too.”

 

***

 

Night falls upon the mountains. Ever so slowly, stars begin to emerge and flicker dimly above them. The walls of the passage are like dark banks on either side of a winding, star-strewn river. Rey curls back against Kylo, trying to ignore the way her thighs and back hurt terribly.

Rey had known that the journey through the Wastes would be difficult, but she hadn’t anticipated the way normal, routine activities would become immensely harder. Eating more than a few mouthfuls at a time is impossible without risking a dose of radiation. And she’d never thought she would be envious of the way men can relieve themselves so discreetly. Rey and the other women were forced to wait until they found a craggy cave that afforded them some privacy. Even then, they still had to worry about the time they spent without the protective leather shielding their bodies.

“I hurt everywhere,” she informs Kylo, even though she knows they aren’t stopping until the next day and there’s nothing he can do to ease her discomfort.

“It’s normal for the first ride,” Kylo replies. “I know you’re sore, but if you can sleep, you should.”

Rey shifts, feeling playful in her sleepiness, making sure he feels the curve of her backside pressed against him. She regrets the movement when the saddle chafes her inner thighs, but his harsh intake of breath through his helmet is worth it.

“It’s normal for the first time, hm?”

“You’re too lovely to say such suggestive things,” he tells her, stilling her hips. “And if you don’t stop, this will become very uncomfortable for me.”

She settles back against him obediently.

“I like this,” she decides.

“What?”

“Just being with you. Talking with you.”

She feels his sigh of contentment, accompanied by a deep thrum across the bond. He likes being with her, too.

“Tell me about your home,” Kylo says.

“Home? You mean the Eleusis?”

“Yes.”

Tears spring into Rey’s eyes without warning. It’s such a small, easy request from him, but all she can think of is the cold, dead stalks of wheat in the Eleusian fields, Finn’s hand being ripped away from hers on the command deck, and the soft, golden glow of the Ether reflected in Chancellor Organa’s brown eyes.

“I don’t know what to say.”

“Tell me anything that comes to mind. Your favorite places. Your work.”

“Kylo, you can’t want to hear about that,” she sighs.

“Why not?”

“I wasn’t important on the Eleusis. I did the same thing every day. Saw the same people every day. I don’t have any stories. At least not interesting ones.”

“It’s interesting to me, anasa,” he says genuinely, warming her heart. “You are interesting to me.”

“I was a scientist,” she begins hesitantly, not sure what exactly he would like to hear. “There’s a division on the Eleusis called AgriCorps, tasked with studying agriculture and applying it to ration production. I worked there. Another girl, her name was Jessika, worked with me for a while. But she went with the others on the voyage. On the Falcon. And then it was just me.”

 Kylo doesn’t ask Rey why she didn’t go with them. He already knows.

“I was studying wheat.”

“Wheat.”

“It’s a plant. A grain used to make bread.”

“Yes, I know.”

“Oh. Well, I’d wake up in the morning. Early, usually. I worked better in the mornings. My head was clear. I’d spend a few hours in the lab. The wheat had to be tested daily, and adjustments made to the light and temperature and soil to make them as close to conditions on earth as possible. I mean old earth, the way it was before. It was difficult because there’s so little we know about the conditions necessary to support growth. There was a lot of trial and error. If I missed anything…the whole crop could be lost.

“And that was my day. I’d go to sleep, wake up. Calculations, harvesting, adjustments. Over and over.”

He is quiet for a moment. “You’re right. You’re a terrible storyteller.”

She elbows him in the ribcage lightly. “Well, I’m sorry. I’ve never seen Ixion’s Wheel, so that’s all I have.”

He chuckles and wraps an arm around her, pulling her closer. His palm rests low on her stomach, making her thoughts jumbled. “Tell me how it smelled.”

“Smelled?” she asks, crinkling her nose.

“Yes. The wheat. The fields.”

It’s such an odd question that it makes her actually stop and think about it. The soil between her fingers, slightly damp, freshly tilled. Little seeds hiding beneath its surface, sleeping until the artificial sunlight warmed the soil and coaxed them awake.

“It was…oh, Kylo. It was so rich. Kind of…fresh and wild. Clean soil is just so…so…and when it rained. I know it wasn’t real, but everything smelled so heavy and crisp afterwards. So sweet. Like everything bad had just washed away and there was only good left.”

He leans his head down, touching his mask to the juncture between her neck and shoulder, just for a moment. She thinks if it weren’t for the metal of their masks separating them, he might have kissed her there. And then he releases her from the embrace.

“Tell me what it looked like,” he breathes.

“The wheat was gold, so gold that it was almost white. The awns were stiff, but soft when I touched them. I would walk through the fields and put my hands out to the side and just feel them, tickling my palms. The wind would would whisper, like it was sharing a secret.” Rey sighs with longing, remembering the way the air felt slightly cool on her sweat-dampened skin. “When the wind blew, the wheat would dance. It was like waves. Waves of wheat. It would ripple through the fields, and they would sway, and I’d dance, too, sometimes.”

“Like the ocean?”

“I’ve never seen an ocean, except in holos, but yes. Like that. And the wind was so cool, even when the rooms were hot. It would stir the air and make everything come alive. Sometimes, when no one else was there, I would take my hair down and feel the wind carry it.”

“There,” he says, as if he can see the fields in his mind’s eye exactly as she has described them. “A story.”

 

***

 

“Rey.”

She hears her name being called from a great distance and her eyes flutter open. It is darker now. The world around her is a vast, black wall. Her body tenses as she tries to determine where she is. The movement beneath her startles her, but then she feels Kylo’s strong arm wrapped around her waist, securing her to him.

“Shh, it’s alright,” he soothes her.

She can hardly see anything in the inky blackness that surrounds them, but she hears the echoing hoofbeats of the athanatoi. The creature must have advanced vision, for it seems to know exactly where to place each step.

“Where are we?” she whispers.

“I’m sorry to wake you,” Kylo murmurs. “I only thought you would want to see…”

“See what?” she asks, confused. There’s nothing to see except the unnatural darkness.

“Look up.”

She does.

Above her is the Six-Eyed Sparrow. While she slept, the knights have descended deep into the heart of the mountain. Here, the passage is not a valley, but a great cavern. Rey lets her breath loose as she realizes how it earned its name. High in the lofts of the cavern, hundreds of meters above them, there are six clusters of pure white, glowing crystals. In the presence of the knights, the rocks seem to shine from within with a pale, living light.

Suddenly Rey is a little girl again, reaching out with small hands and a wondrous mind. And she remembers.

She has been here before.

 

Chapter Text

The mountain speaks hushed words to Rey as she cries. Its breath is warm against her tiny body, offering comfort to her in the darkness. She runs her hand along the rocks at her side, feeling their ridged texture under her fingers. Although there is a chill in the air, Rey doesn’t cry because she is cold.

She cries because she is alone.

The mountain makes an unhappy clicking sound. It doesn’t like that she is sad.

Two eyes crack open in the darkness, bright white like burning diamonds. Rey abruptly stops crying. The rocks shift and coil around her. Something hot burns her cheeks, a volcanic flame licking away the salt from her tears.  

The air shifts with power. With small hands, Rey reaches out to grab hold of it, calling to the light. All around her, little rocks begin to glow, filling the air with tiny illuminated pinpricks. Above her, she brings forth even greater lights, one by one until she can count all six of them.

The mountain curls closer to her, the clicking noise dissolving into a deep, primordial purr.

“Don’t do that, little one. It hurts my eyes.”

The mountain lowers its great head. Shale wings stretch out in a canopy above her, blocking out some of the light. Rey crawls away from the mountain’s heated underbelly to lean against its head, her palms and knees scraping on the hard ground. She doesn’t want to let go of the light, but neither does she want to hurt her friend.

The mountain is her only company in this lonely place, except for the boy in her dreams, but he only comes to her when she closes her eyes to sleep. He is older than her, dressed all in black with mirrors sewn into his clothes and stars braided into his hair like a crown, but he never talks to her as though she is a little girl. He only tells her that she isn’t alone and that if she waits for him, he will find her.

He has so many names. But only one is her favorite, because it is a secret name. She is the only one who calls him by it.

“Don’t go any further!” a voice commands. It is not the voice of the mountain, but of a man. It is stern and unforgiving; Rey suddenly feels ashamed, as though she has been caught doing something very wrong. “Stay right here.”

Rey looks around, her hands still outstretched, searching for the owner of the voice. At first she thinks it might be her father’s voice, but her father has never spoken this way to her, even when he was angry. This voice is like a jagged island, rising up out of an endless ocean. Pale sunlight strikes moss-covered rocks and water drips into a clear pool above…but below, there is a hidden torrent of wind and crashing waves.

Then Rey sees him.

He steps into the light she has created, not at all what she expects. His form is outlined in the pure glow from the crystals, slight and altogether very ordinary. His hair is burnt gold against his long, dark robes. Rey looks into his eyes and catches a blue-grey glimpse of a stormy sky. He walks toward her with his hands clasped together and his fingers interlaced - one of his hands is bare, the other gloved.

Wherever the man steps, glittering pools of water fill his footprints, illuminated by the shining crystals above. The water in the pools becomes completely still, turning to glass. The pools are mirrors, like the ones the boy in her dreams wears, but they cannot protect her from what is about to happen.

The closer the man gets to her, the more her chest fills with dread. Somewhere deep inside of her, she knows that mountains do not speak or move or breathe. She knows that water cannot turn to glass. She knows that crowns are not made of stars. There is something wrong with her…something wrong with this memory. But if she looks any deeper, something bad will happen to her.

“Who are you?” the man asks.

The mirrors shatter into a hundred thousand pieces, each of the shards no larger than a grain of sand. The mountain howls and the fragments scatter throughout the world, taking the pieces of her reflection with them. Some of them blow into the ocean and become pearls, others fly into the sky and become stars, and still others are buried in the earth and become seeds.

“I’m no one.”

 

***

 

Kylo knows the power of lethewater. It is meant to be a source of peace for the shades and a conduit for oneness with the Force. In the living, the substance is much more potent and dangerous. A few drops can strip away memory; a single mouthful can ravage the mind and leave nothing but an empty shell behind. Such oblivion can be a refuge for those who seek it.

Only once had Kylo gone to the source of the river itself in search of that absolution, driven there by loneliness and desperation. He had knelt on the shore and looked into the black pool, its waters swirling around pale moonstone rocks. There were no stars to be reflected in the Lethe’s bleak surface, no circadian lights to scatter across it in an artificial dawn, for the river begins and ends below the earth. Kylo had wandered far from the palace to find it, following the course of the river upstream until he reached its heart.

Rage had blazed crimson in his chest that night, as strong as the fires of the Phlegethon. How many shades had he judged in his seven years in the Nekromanteion? Thousands? Tens of thousands? He had found none who were without fault. Liars, rapists, adulterers, thieves, murderers, traitors, gossips, wife-beaters, war-mongerors, incestous monsters...all of them.  

Even the good were not blameless. And there would be no end to them. Men would always die, and Kylo would pass judgment on them alone, until he aged and withered and himself stood before the Throne to be judged by the one destined to come after him.

The bleakness of his future had carved away at him until he reached out a hand to touch the surface of the pool, his glove coming away wet and shining with lethewater. It would have been a sweet oblivion to let the past die. To let it all end.

But he had hesitated, his palm pressed against his closed mouth. The water had been cold against his lips and cheek. Kylo’s soul turned, conflicted and starving.

In that moment, he felt the bright tendril of the girl’s signature across a great distance for the first time in many years. It was barely a brush against his consciousness, subtle as waking from a dreamless sleep, but the shock of it returned him to his senses. He had stumbled to his feet, spitting onto the ground and tearing off his gloves to wipe the wetness from his lips until he was sure there was none left.

For he could endure all things if the hope of her remained.

In the nights that followed, he had lain awake, terrified by how close he had come to abandoning that hope. His weakness might have ruined everything.

For although lethewater can be a refuge, it can also be a curse. Kylo knows of no way for memories taken by the river to be restored. And there are worse things that can come of lethewater than mere loss of memory. The body can turn against itself, interpreting the lethewater’s invasion of the mind the only way it can - as a disease or injury, to be burned out with fever and seizures.

Lethewater was never meant to be consumed by the living.

Which is why, when Rey first goes rigid against him with her helmeted head tilted up toward the ceiling of the great cavern, Kylo thinks that she is merely transfixed by the sight of the Six-Eyed Sparrow. For a moment, the bond hums with childish wonder, and he smiles at her innocent response.

It isn’t until she begins shaking that he understands what is happening to her. Her wonder turns to terror and in a single instant, their connection is ended. Where the bond once stretched between them like a cord of bright solar fire there is only -

 

Emptiness.

     Separation.

          Torment.

               Chaos.

                    Discord.

                         Violence.

 

Tartarus.

There is no other word in any language known to Kylo for the horror of that abyss. He grabs tightly to her, struggling to hold her arms at her sides as she seizes, unable to move or think beyond that pure impulse to keep her with him.

But the person he clings to is not Rey.

Kylo pulls hard on the reins of his mount. His voice does not sound like his own when he shouts instinctively for the one person he would trust above all others with Rey’s life.

“Hecate!”

The shout draws the others to a stop, Hecate’s black-armored athanatoi immediately cutting in a wide arc towards him. She has drawn out a long, silver knife in anticipation of meeting his attacker. Her helmet gleams, all sharp angles and hollow crevices. But there is no one for her to fight.

“Help me,” he gasps, dismounting and pulling Rey down along with him, lowering her shaking body to the ground. Hecate sheathes her useless blade, kneeling on the ground beside him. When another convulsion wracks Rey’s body, Hecate helps him still her by pressing down against Rey’s shoulder as Kylo holds the other.

“Lethe,” Hecate hisses, like a curse.

As the knight calls upon the Force, Kylo remembers why the First Order officers wait to whisper Force-witch until long after she has passed them. There is something arcane in Hecate’s power, something uncanny that inspires cold, damp fear in those who do not understand it. She holds her hand over Rey’s chest and the seizing lessens into tremors that come in waves, but it does not fade entirely.

“She’s resisting,” Hecate breathes. “There’s something there that she wants, something she remembers...but it will destroy her, if she sees...”

“Do something!” Kylo begs her. The other knights have gathered around them, but he doesn’t care about his pride. If there is anyone who can undo the damage of lethewater, it is Hecate. “Please.”

“I can’t,” she whispers faintly. Her voice breaks through the mask. “It’s this place, Kylo...there’s something about it. I can’t reach her.”

If he could just feel Rey in the Force, Kylo knows he could stop this. But she is far from him and he doesn’t know how to find her. His hands shake with fear. He thinks of how she had come to him in his most desolate moment, the faint spark of hope enough to sustain him.

He doesn’t have to reach her. He just has to prevent her from going any further, until he can get her away from here.

The overwhelming urge to see and touch her comes to him. He leans over her, removing her mask. They are far enough below the ground that it will not do her much harm. When he lifts her head and pulls the helmet off, her hazel eyes do not meet his. They are vacant and glassy, darting back and forth as they stare into some faraway realm. Kylo takes off his glove and brushes a strand of damp hair from her cheek, trying to ignore the way her skin already burns under his fingers. Her breath is shallow and halting. It scares him to see her like this.

“Rey,” he says, pushing away his fear. “If you can hear me...I’m here. You’re not alone.”

A violent tremor passes through her, her eyelids fluttering, making his throat tighten in fear that he has only made her worse. But then she lies still, her chest rising and falling with slow, even breaths. It gives him the courage to continue.

“Wait for me,” he tells her, pushing all of his devotion to her across the black expanse between them. “I need you to trust me. Don’t fight. Just wait. I need you to wait right where you are. Stay right here, anasa. If you wait for me, I will find you. I promise.”

Kylo murmurs those words over and over again: Stay right here. You’re not alone. I will find you. He repeats them until his throat hurts.

After minutes or hours, he feels a strong hand grip his shoulder. He hears Morpheus’s solid voice tell him, “There’s nothing more you can do for her, Kylo. The rest of the battle is in her body. She looks feverish...she needs a healer.”

Beside him, Hecate finds Rey’s helmet and puts it back on. The hiss of the filter engaging pushes Kylo into action. He takes Rey in his arms, lifting her just as he had done when he carried her through the Wastes. She had felt heavy in his arms then, real and solid. Now, she feels light as a child.

“Stay with the others. Follow behind as quickly as you can,” he commands Hecate, knowing that his athanatoi is more fleet-footed than hers.

“Kylo,” she replies, her voice panicked. “You can’t go alone. It’s too dangerous. Let me go with you.”

He hoists Rey into the saddle, ignoring her pleas. Hecate reaches up to hold Rey steady by her waist and thigh as Kylo mounts his horse behind her. He wraps an arm around Rey’s waist to secure her to him and takes hold of the reins.

“Kylo, don’t do this,” Hecate begs him.

“I’ll not slow Nycateus for you,” he bites out harshly. “The city gates of Larakei close at dusk, and we are still a day’s ride from them.”

Hecate grabs the reins near the athanatoi’s head, yanking so hard that Nycateus’s many ruby eyes widen and he snorts through his slitted nostrils. “You’ll put both yourself and Rey at risk if you go alone! If you are attacked...”

“I’ll go with him,” Thanatos interrupts suddenly. “Aethon is even swifter than Nycateus.”

Kylo grits his teeth, forced to admit the truth in those words. Every bone in his body is urging him to press his athanatoi forward. Each moment he wastes is precious. “Give him to Hecate, then.”

“He won’t let another rider near him,” Thanatos replies, already pulling the reins over the head of his pale athanatoi. He mounts the beast expertly. “Let me go with you, Master.”

Kylo stares at Thanatos’s skeletal helmet, unable to see his eyes beneath the twisted metal. Master. He can still feel the coldness between them, but Thanatos’s use of the title tells him that all of that anger is being laid aside for the moment. The fissure of their argument is temporary. It is nothing against their shared brotherhood.

“Don’t fall behind,” Kylo says.

 

***

 

She is Kore.

The earth opens up beneath her and out of the great split pours ash and darkness. Her betrothed is not gentle when he seizes her, for he has only ever been taught how to devour and conquer. She is his birthright, after all else has been denied to him. The usurper takes her from her home and the long winter begins.

She is Kore, and he is Polydectes.

 

***

 

Thanatos is right about his athanatoi.

Unlike the other horses, Aethon is ghostly pale with long, slender legs that seem to fly over the ground, never hesitating even on difficult terrain. The younger beast matches Nycateus stride-for-stride, only pulling back when the passage becomes too narrow for both creatures to pass together safely. If anything, Kylo suspects that Thanatos is reining Aethon in, and it is his own mount that holds them back, burdened by two riders.

They emerge from the narrow channel of the mountains while there are still stars in the sky. Nycateus falls a half-step behind when the wide expanse of the desert allows the sleeker Aethon to gallop without restraint. They ride that way for the rest of the morning, pushing the athanatoi as hard as they dare. The horses’ necks strain forward with every stride and their breathing becomes so labored that Kylo fears they might collapse in the desert.

Whenever Rey trembles against him, the heat from her body seeping into his even through the many layers of their clothing, a powerful instinct to protect her wells up inside him. It is not something he is familiar with. Before he found her, Kylo had rarely felt the need to keep anything safe. Not even himself.

Kylo is accustomed to battles that can be fought with the sword or with the fist. He doesn’t know how protect her from this.

The sun is ahead of them before the high walls of the city of Larakei appear unexpectedly on the horizon of the white salt-flats. The athanatoi have slowed with exhaustion, but have not failed them entirely. If they press hard, they will just barely make it to the city before the sun dips below the horizon.

The eastern gates are closed when they come upon the city, the peaceful face of one of the two mythic Zorya who protect the city cast in shadow. Thanatos stuns Kylo when he urges Aethon into a faster pace along the city wall, racing the setting sun. There is a sister statue of labradorite that stands at the center of the western gates, her body forming a pillar that connects the two arches on either side. She welcomes them, as tall as the city walls are high.

Once, there had been a diamond the size of a man’s fist set into her forehead to represent the evening star, but some thief scaled the wall many years ago and cut it out. She is still proud and regal, though, her hands outstretched above her head to catch the sun as it sets. It is said that the gates of Larakei open and close with the gates of heaven.

Kylo passes under one of the wide arches, looking back over his shoulder. The red rays of the sun barely touch the Zorya’s black fingertips and his chest aches at the thought of what might have happened had they arrived only minutes later.

The throngs inside the city gates part for his athanatoi, and Kylo hears cries of Keing-eka-Skail! Nrosto-eka-likakk! as they recognize him. The sudden press of bodies on all sides forces him to slow Nycateus. The voices of the people around him are jumbled, a torrent of supplications for the dead.

On any other day, he would dismount and walk among them, accepting their meager offerings of carved japor snippets. But right now, they stand between him and the local asclepeion, where he knows a healer can be found.

“Step aside!” Thanatos’s voice calls out ahead. Kylo has never been more grateful to see him than when he emerges from the crowd astride Aethon, showing little care for passerby who don’t scatter fast enough. Even so, Thanatos is slow to carve a path to Kylo, shouting repeatedly, “Step aside for your King!”

It is to no avail. Their appeals continue in many languages, all of them asking for the same thing.

Justice and mercy! Mercy for our dead, Receiver of Many!

When Thanatos’s words are not heeded, the knight surprises Kylo by unsheathing his sword in a long, violent arc. The blade flashes red in the sun, and although Kylo knows that Thanatos has no intention to use it, a shocked hush immediately falls over the crowd.

“Step aside,” Thanatos threatens, his filtered voice echoing across the now-silent square. “Or I will see to it personally that he Receives you now!”

After that, Thanatos keeps his sword bared, and their pathway through the city remains decidedly clear.

 

***

 

She is Persephone.

The summer has ended and the waiting is over. The moment her feet touch the bank of the river, her husband takes her in his arms once again, but this time it is she who devours him. When they last kissed, she had claimed him with the bitter taste of pomegranate on her tongue. Now they are bound to each other. Their kingdom is shared and they will reign as equals.

She is Persephone, and he is Hades.

 

***

 

The asclepeion is so ancient that Kylo is impressed it still stands, even though it is not untouched by time and weather. The ages have corroded the bronze of its domed roof. The healing temple's stone walls are concentric and curved; one section is cracked wide open down the middle, a faint violet light spilling through the radiation shield into the circular, open room at the center. The floor is sloped. A small pool of water from the recent storms has collected against the far wall.

The whole place smells of dampness and sickness, but Kylo has no other options available to him. He carries Rey across the main room and through the temple corridors numbly, following one of the apprentices into a private room where a middle-aged healer in tattered, scarlet robes is waiting.

The room is sparse, but surprisingly clean. An empty bacta tank rests against the far wall. Kylo suspects that the healers have no bacta with which to fill it. He sets Rey down on a stark bed at the center of the room and removes her helmet, holding it between his hands. Her chestnut hair is damp and matted to her forehead, but her whole body shivers with a chill. To his relief, her eyes are closed in a fitful sleep, no longer staring into that otherworldly place where he can’t find her.

He steps aside to let the healer examine her. The grey-haired woman asks for privacy while she works, but Kylo insists on staying. She is wise enough not to challenge him to a battle of wills. He watches her closely as she removes the outer layers of Rey’s clothing, stopping when she reaches the Keres-hide leather that covers Rey from the neck down.

A part of him fears that the protective barrier is trapping the heat of her body and worsening the fever. Another part of him is relieved when the healer does not continue. This is not how he wants to see Rey undressed for the first time.

Kylo catches fragments of the rapid Jinnaic dialect that the healer and her apprentice speak with each other. It is slightly different from the version of the language he is familiar with, making it difficult to follow, but it is their tone that most concerns him.

“Lethewater?” the healer asks him, switching into Basic.

“Yes.”

As he describes the shaking that had wracked Rey’s body, the woman simply nods as though he has confirmed her suspicions, but her apprentice’s expression immediately turns from concern to disgust. The young girl’s golden-brown eyes narrow and revulsion rolls off of her in waves. It is obvious that she believes he has poisoned Rey.

Kylo doesn’t bother to correct the false assumption, but his stomach turns at the thought that the others might also think him capable of using lethewater to influence Rey’s mind. It would not be a difficult conclusion to reach. He had a need to make her amenable to their union, and who else has access to lethewater but the King of the Dead?

“She has entered enkoimesis,” the healer tells him, keeping her voice neutral. If she surmises that he has harmed her patient, she hides her concern better than her apprentice. “We've seen it happen with the stormtroopers.”

“What causes it?” Kylo asks.

“It is difficult to say. The reality of the present conflicts with the lost memory of the past, perhaps.”

“How long…?” he asks hoarsely.

“She will burn with fever tonight, perhaps through the day tomorrow, while her mind heals. We will do what we can to help bring down her fever, so that it does not make her convulse again. And then I hope she will wake.”

Kylo grits his teeth, wanting to demand more than that vague assurance, but he knows that his anger will not help Rey. The healer and her apprentice already have enough cause to be suspicious of him.

“I can pay for anything you need,” he says, tampering his irritation. “If there is a medicine that can reduce her fever...I don’t care how you got it.”

The woman doesn’t bother attempting to swindle him, nor does she deny that the healers routinely buy from the underground trading networks.

“It is not a matter of money. With Takodana gone, the medical shipments are routed through Ash-Akana, and then brought directly to Coruscant. Anything that can be stolen is sold immediately on the black market to the northerners. There is no medicine here. We make what we can on our own.”

Skailek vresh kirin,” the apprentice tells the healer, slipping back into Jinnaic, her gaze cold and suspicious. “Kre aleska shari.”

The deathless one should go. And let us work.

Skailek hareninre,” he returns flatly. Her eyes widen when she realizes he speaks her tongue, or close enough to it, but she doesn’t back down.

“We must remove her clothes to bring down the fever,” the girl says bluntly in Basic, tilting her head accusingly. “Would you still like to stay?”

It is rare that anyone is able to render him speechless. He doesn’t expect a girl who looks barely out of adolescence to be able to do so. Kylo wants to spit out that he is Rey’s husband by First Order law and has every right to stay with her, clothed or unclothed. But until the blood rite, he is Rey’s husband in name only, and he suspects that she would not be pleased upon waking to discover that he had remained here without her consent.

“Find a place to stay tonight,” the healer says, her tone gentle, as though his distress at the thought of being parted from Rey is evident. “The girl’s fever will not break until the morning. Come back then.”

Kylo goes to Rey’s side and bends down to press a single, brief kiss against her lips. Let the damned apprentice make of that what she will.

As he straightens, he brushes his fingers along Rey’s forehead in a final attempt to reach her through the bond...but his touch meets only her scalding, sweat-soaked skin. His throat tightens. The bond might be silent, but he needs Rey to know that he has not left her.

“Stay right here,” he tells her one last time, a command and a promise. “I won’t go far.”

 

***

 

She is Praxidike.

The chained monsters in the pit fear to speak her name. She enters the realm of Tartarus unafraid, bringing all the power of the underworld with her. The hem of her black himation skims over volcanic rock, burning at the edges. The crimson-gold fire of the molten river is in her heart and in her eyes. She has not come to bring peace; she has come to devour the light.

Her husband follows her unseen into the abyss. Though his helmet has made him invisible and she cannot feel his presence here in this country of absence, she knows he is not far behind.

Where the black rock ends, there is a great drop into a gorge. And beyond the edge of the cliff lies the deepest part of the void. Her breath comes short in anticipation; she is awaiting retribution for the man who dared to deceive her husband.

After what seems like centuries - but what is time to the deathless ones? - she sees what she has come to see. A white hand flashes at the edge of the cliff, like cracked porcelain, its nails stained black. The hand claws at the ground, nearly at the edge of escape…so very close to freedom...

But a great weight is upon the imposter, and his hope is futile. When the rock drags him back into the depths, victory pounds through her veins. She feels the fierce pride of her husband in the faint brush of his touch against her lips and forehead, a crownless anointing.

She is Praxidike, and he is Aidoneus.

Chapter Text

Kylo drags his gloved fingers along the arched wall of the asclepeion, the touch of the solid stone against his hand barely holding him together. Now that he is parted from Rey, the narrow hallways seem to close in around him. His hands clench and unclench, as though searching for a task to occupy them. But there is nothing more he can do for Rey tonight.

The air is tepid and still. Kylo can’t be sure whether he carries the scents of sweat and sickness on his person as he walks, or if they have simply permeated the healing temple over the course of centuries. Either way, the stench turns his stomach. He arrives at the end of the corridor, but doesn’t slow his steps, desperate to find someplace untouched by the lingering presence of death.

There are others in the interior room now. Or perhaps he simply hadn’t noticed them before, focused as he was on the dangerous heat of Rey’s body as he carried her.

A wiry man holds a wailing child with a cut forehead, murmuring at the boy to hush. In the shadow of the far wall stands a girl at least a few years younger than Rey, speaking quietly with a scarlet-robed healer. There is perspiration on the girl’s forehead and her belly is rounded with child, even though the rest of her frame is gaunt. The expectant mother glances up at the sound of Kylo’s footsteps. Their eyes lock in a brief exchange of wide-eyed panic and mutual understanding.

Both are trusting what is most precious to them to this ancient, dirty temple.

But it is more than concern for Rey that causes Kylo’s chest to tighten further with every breath. His fear of hospitals runs deep. It would make little difference whether he’d brought Rey to a state-of-the-art First Order facility equipped with the latest medical technology, or one of the dreaded thred’nawn tents where the Cadrak overseers take their slaves to die.

As he crosses the room, old memories to rise to the surface of his mind like the opalescent sheen of oil on water: the blue lights of a medidroid’s scanners blinding his eyes, the thickness of blood filling his lungs and mouth, and the sound of raised voices behind a closed medbay door.

He was the reason why those voices were loud and angry. It was his fault that his parents no longer spoke kindly to each other. He was to blame for the dark circles under his mother’s eyes and the tiredness in her voice when she came to read to him late at night through the synthetic barrier.

And that barrier had been the worst part of it all. That thin, artificial wall had separated him from the rest of the world like a chrysalis, a hardened shell that would plague his nightmares for years to come. No one ever touched him.

He would have done anything in the world just to have his mother brush his hair out of his eyes. To have her look at him the way she used to when he came back to their quarters with scraped knees, affection mingling with exasperation in her brown eyes. To have her secure a bacta patch over the broken skin with her smooth, elegant fingers and kiss the pain away.

He had promised his parents over and over that he would be good. That he wouldn’t cry or scream anymore, even when it hurt. That he would fight harder…that he would get better.

Those promises meant nothing. They had locked him in a coffin and buried him alive. And still, weak and foolish, he’d hoped…

Kylo’s shoves open the heavy door at the entrance of the asclepeion, stumbling out onto the white steps, heaving in great lungfuls of air. The faint blue curtain of the radiation shield extends just beyond the exterior walls, two meters in every direction. Beyond the shield, the steps descend down a jagged, sloping hill. The paved streets and domed, bronze-roofed buildings of Larakei are spread out below. Pricks of silver lantern light stream from windows here and there, like ghostly ribbons gleaming in the night.

Above Kylo’s head, the moon is bright and full, marred with shadowy craters. Its cool light gleams against the white-green bronze of the curved rooftops, casting the city in a hellish, unearthly glow. From this high vantage point, he can see the eastern Zorya, awaiting a dawn that is many long hours away. Her white hair falls down her back like a seamless waterfall and her hands are uplifted to the night sky.

The wind stings Kylo’s face, crisp and cold, but it doesn’t make him feel any less trapped. He braces himself against the outer wall, his composure abandoned now that he is alone. It is all too much. His head pounds, blood rushing through his ears, and his back bows slightly as he tries not to collapse.

He could have lost Rey tonight.

He might still.

The thought rips a wordless, broken scream from him. The wind carries it away into the desert.

When the scream offers no relief, he loses control, unleashing a heavy blow to the wall of the asclepeion. Pain erupts in searing points across his knuckles. Kylo groans and stumbles back, clutching his wrist in agony. The weight of the Force had fallen behind the punch - cracking the stone, but protecting his hand. But for that, he might have shattered bone.

He hisses in a pained breath, falling hard onto the steps, trying to regain some semblance of control. Tears blur his vision, the rage coupling with a sense of…betrayal?

He closes his eyes, reaching out with his mind for the one person he knows could answer for what has been done to Rey, but the earth and the desert and the ocean are silent.

Why, why, why? his heart mourns. Why did you keep her from me?

There is no answer to the question that he sends hurtling to the far corners of the world.

The wind drys his tears, leaving salt tracks on his cheeks. He remains there for what seems to be a long time, his arms braced against his knees, his good hand cradling the injured one.

That is how Thanatos finds him.

Kylo looks up when he hears the dark-robed knight approach. Thanatos steps through the radiation shield, carrying a small bundle of cloth. He removes his helmet and kneels beside Kylo, slightly below him on the steps. Thanatos looks from his master, to the cracked wall of the temple…and finally to Kylo’s hand.

“Burning skies,” Thanatos mutters, alarm sparking across his scarred face. But he offers no other reproach as he wordlessly takes Kylo’s hand and gently removes the glove, one finger at a time, careful not to cause greater injury. Kylo grits his teeth, the pain registering in full for the first time. He looks down to see that blood has burst in crimson, wet stars across his knuckles. It runs in slick lines down the hollows between his fingers.

It hurts…and it feels exquisite. It has been a long time since he’s lost control in this way. The release lends him an empty sort of serenity, at least for the moment.

Thanatos reaches for the scarlet bundle he has brought back with him. Inside, there are prepared rations. The hard white squares of alshtik are a staple food beyond the mountains. Thanatos presses one into Kylo’s good hand.

“Eat that. You look like hell,” Thanatos tells him, considering the broken skin on Kylo’s knuckles and testing the mobility of each of his fingers in turn. Even though his stomach is rolling, Kylo takes a bite obediently, feeling the slightly salty alshtik crumble in his mouth. Thanatos finishes his examination, releasing Kylo’s hand and sitting down on the steps beside him. “You’re fortunate you didn’t fracture something. How is she?”

Kylo shakes his head listlessly. “Not well. The healers think I’ve poisoned her.”

Thanatos doesn’t even spare him a glance. “Do they really?”

A heavy silence falls between them.

“You’re not going to ask if I did?” Kylo murmurs.

“No.”

The hollow cavity in Kylo’s chest is filled with a surge of sudden affection. He had wanted Hecate, not Thanatos, to come with him…but now…

“Force,” Thanatos mutters, taking a bite of alshtik as he looks out over the city. “Did you really think I would ask you something so insulting?”

“I don’t know,” Kylo admits.

“I know you better than that,” Thanatos assures him. “No…I’m more concerned that it might have been one of us.”

Kylo looks at him, troubled. “Why would you say that?”

“We’ve all had unrestricted access to the river, and to Rey,” Thanatos shrugs, keeping his voice deceptively steady. “It would only be natural for you to suspect us. There are very few others who could have done this…very few…”

Thanatos trails off, allowing the treacherous implication hover in the air. Aside from the knights, only the Supreme Leader and a handful of his most trusted officers are granted the authority to possess and use lethewater. It is a highly controlled substance, with good reason. The high-ranking admirals do not trust even their most loyal men to distribute it, fearing that one day, some ambitious officer might become impatient for a promotion and slip the tasteless poison into their drink or food.

“It wasn’t done under the command of the Supreme Leader,” Kylo replies simply. “And it wasn’t any of us, either.”

“How can you be sure?”

“Lethewater steals recent memories first. And Rey remembers everything that’s happened since I took her. Even before she was imprisoned by the Supreme Leader. She remembers…”

Kylo hesitates, suddenly very warm as he recalls how Rey had teased him about the hard kick she’d delivered to his knee in the Wastes. His whole body tenses as he remembers the way she’d brushed her hand across his thigh, fingers roaming higher…like a little scavenger, curious and eager…

He’s certainly not going to tell Thanatos about either of those encounters. Rey’s memories of the Eleusis were similarly undisturbed and are far less personal.

“She remembers her homeship,” he concludes vaguely.

“Then it must have been before,” Thanatos concludes, his voice low. “Bleeding skies. She would have been a child.”

“Yes,” Kylo says.

“Why would someone do this to her?”

“To keep her from me.”

“This isn’t your fault,” Thanatos replies, his brow creasing. “There are a whole host of reasons why-“

“The bond went silent the same night I was taken to Coruscant,” Kylo says bitterly, cutting him off. It’s something he has never told anyone, not even Hecate.

“That’s impossible,” Thanatos replies. “Only death can sever a bonded pair…and perhaps even not even that.”

Kylo looks down at his hands. He doesn’t trust himself to speak. But sharp-witted Thanatos reads the silence.

“You mean to tell me,” Thanatos says, his voice suddenly hard as iron. “That you spent years - years - thinking your bondmate was dead?”

Bondmate.

No one has ever called Rey that before. Kylo has never dared to say the word aloud, even when he was alone. His throat feels like a desert.

“When I was younger, I used to dream of her,” he manages to rasp. “Or perhaps with her. I’m not sure. All I know is that Rey’s presence was always there…and then it was just… gone. Ripped away in an instant. And at first I told myself that it was because I’d been brought to Coruscant…because of how close I was to the Nekromanteion. Or because Starkiller took her and hid her away somewhere. Far enough away that I couldn’t reach her.

“But the years passed, and I feared that I was wrong. The bond was so quiet that I began to think she had been found and killed, like all the rest. That she was dead and I was lying to myself.”

“Does Rey know this?”

“No. The bond, the Force…all of this is foreign to her. She says she wasn’t aware of me, in the way I was of her. And now I know why.”

Kylo clutches his wrist tighter, feeling the pain splinter. He doesn’t want to speak about what he had nearly done that night on the banks of the Lethe when he had lost all hope. He can’t admit to Thanatos that he had nearly been selfish enough to abandon the knights, to destroy everything, let Chthonia be damned.

“There was a moment, years ago,” Kylo continues carefully. “When I made up my mind. I decided to stop waiting for her. Because after all that time, what was she to me? She was no one. A dead girl…a fragment of a false prophecy.”

He expects Thanatos’s to mock him for that, to make some quip about masnarin poetry or tease that Rey has turned him into a lovestruck fool. But the knight’s ruined face remains grim and he doesn’t interrupt.

“It was like the Force itself knew I’d planned to betray her…”

“You said yourself, it had been years,” Thanatos reminds him. “You’d thought her dead that entire time.”

“What is seven years, against an eternity? It was a test of loyalty…to her, and to Chthonia. A test that I failed. And in that moment, I felt her presence wake. Not to me, not yet…I was undeserving. No, she woke to herself. To the Force.

“So when I found her on the Eleusis, I recognized her. There was something familiar in her that called to me. But I had to be sure. So I took her, and I looked into her mind. I wanted to see what she remembered of the Jedi. I wanted to know how she had been hidden, and how she escaped the purge. She pushed back, trying to resist and…I felt it as our connection fell back into place. As the bond was finally made right.”

“She proved in the Nekromanteion that she is your true equal,” Thanatos says thoughtfully. “If the Jedi knew who she was to you…it would have been better for them to wipe her mind, to separate her from you, than to risk letting her fall into the hands of the First Order.”

And now they have come to it at last. The truth Kylo does not want to admit.

By the time Kylo was taken to Coruscant, the rest of the Jedi were dead or captured. The days that followed his coronation were a fevered hunt as the First Order brought a swift death to the rebellion. More shades joined the armies of the shadewood every day. As the remaining Jedi were executed and came before him for judgment, Kylo tallied them up like bundles of counting sticks. He looked into their memories, searching desperately for any sign that the girl from his dreams still lived, but he found no trace of her.

All of the Jedi came to the shadewood eventually…all except one.

“It was Starkiller,” Kylo declares, though he has no proof. On this matter, the Force is silent.

Beside him, Thanatos shifts uneasily. The stars above them glitter dimly beyond the radiation shield, as though they too are disturbed by this accusation. The heavens insist that Luke Starkiller would not have taken an innocent child and tampered with her memories. The mythic hero, last of the Jedi, would never risk a little girl’s life, even if doing so would prevent greater suffering.

Kylo knows otherwise. There are few crimes he believes his uncle would be incapable of committing, if backed by a righteous cause.

After all, it was Luke Starkiller who usurped his own father, Vader Aidoneus, and struck down the Empire with the same blow. It was Starkiller who abdicated the Throne and refused to pass judgment on the shades, leaving them to wander aimlessly in death for over a decade. It was Starkiller who fled into exile when the First Order purged the rising generation of Jedi and laid siege to Coruscant, escaping with his life while his apprentices were tortured and put to death.

Perhaps Kylo should have sensed his uncle’s true nature earlier, but he’d been blinded by his greatest weakness: his accursed need for family. It was not until Snoke told him the true histories of Chthonia that he discovered these truths about Starkiller. Never in Kylo’s darkest imaginings would he have suspected that the calm, peaceful Jedi Knight was the one responsible for the chaos that reigned in the world below. Had he not seen the legions of shades with his own eyes, he would never have believed it. It had taken him seven years to undo the damage wrought by his uncle’s cowardice.

“You can’t be sure of that,” Thanatos says finally.

“No one else knew of the bond.”

“You’re certain?” Thanatos presses. “Was he the only one you told?”

I told him nothing!

Kylo thinks of the lid of his coffin closing above him, trapping him in darkness. Of a stone ceiling collapsing atop him as all his dreams shattered.

“He’s the only one who knew.”

Thanatos’s stare is impenetrable. After a moment, he breaks another piece of alshtik in two and hands half to Kylo, as though they have been discussing matters of feather-light importance.

“We’ll see what Rey remembers, then. When she wakes up. In the meantime…”

Kylo looks at him, tilting his head in invitation.

“There’s something we need to discuss,” Thanatos says, his voice growing taut. Like a power cable strung too tight. The tension between them crashes back into place. Kylo had nearly forgotten that they are meant to be on the outs with each other.

“You mean about Hecate,” he sighs wearily. Immediately, he thinks of how Rey had urged him to make peace with Thanatos. So he swallows his pride, and his excuses. “What’s done is done. I’ve no wish to argue with you about her further. And I…I was wrong. For my part in it. I should not have allowed myself to become violent.”

“You were right to defend her. It was I who crossed the line. Consider it forgotten.” Thanatos shakes his head, fixing his gaze on one of the bright lantern points in the distance. Kylo nearly laughs, wondering what Rey would make of them. Neither he nor Thanatos are accustomed to giving or receiving apologies. “But that’s not exactly what I meant.”

“Speak, Thanatos,” Kylo says, sensing his hesitation. “We might as well air all our grievances at once.”

Thanatos’s keen eyes survey him, as though gauging his mood.

“You’re doing Hecate an unkindness, in taking the blood rite. You had to know what agreeing to this treaty would mean for her. And you’ve done nothing to shield her from her father.”

Kylo is quiet for a moment, taken aback. Thanatos had dragged Hecate over hot coals, and now he has the nerve to accuse Kylo of unkindness?

“How long have you known?” Kylo questions. “That she didn’t come to the palace to become a knight?”

“I suspected her the moment she walked through the doors. And then, a year or so after she came to the palace, I saw her go into your quarters,” Thanatos tells him. His voice is not upset, but…hollowed, like the pneumatized wing bones of the Keres. “Her intent seemed rather obvious.”

Kylo feels a throb of pain in his hand. “Thanatos, I don’t know what you think you saw, but-“

“I know what I saw. I saw her enter your room at an ungodly hour, dressed like a hetaera,” Thanatos tells him, eyes flashing this time. When Kylo starts to speak, he holds up his hand. “Don’t bother denying it. She was there long enough for me to put two and two together. I know enough of women to know when they’re making an attempt at seduction, even if it is half-hearted.”

Now it is Kylo’s turn to find the lantern lights of Larakei fascinating.

“And you, Master?” Thanatos asks. “How long have you known?”

“Since the night you speak of, when I found her in my quarters.”

“You’re not serious.”

Kylo glares at him, wanting the ground to swallow him whole. Then Thanatos laughs, clear and bright and almost like the boy he’d been when Kylo first met him.

“Burning skies, you are serious,” Thanatos chokes out mirthlessly. “No wonder she had to take such drastic measures. It took her showing up in your quarters half-clothed to penetrate your thick skull?”

Kylo groans. “Nothing happened. It was as you said…a half-hearted attempt.”

“To be sure.” Thanatos laughs again, eyes flashing with amusement. “Though I’m surprised you could tell the difference.”

“Of course I could,” Kylo insists, feeling ill. From the very beginning, he had sensed in Hecate a likeness in spirit. A friend. And then one night he’d returned from the Nekromanteion to find her in his room, clothed in a long dress cut from fine, clinging silk that concealed just enough…and yet nothing at all…

Her beauty would have brought most men to their knees. Hecate Soteria, the only daughter of Perses and Asteria, with her stone-grey eyes and pale skin and hair like silver.

We can both have what we want, Aidon, she’d whispered.

It should have spellbound him, the offer of a Force-witch…but her voice had trembled with fear. Fear that Kylo would spurn her advances. That he would hand her back over to her father to be bartered off to some lesser lordling.

Or that Kylo would accept her, and she would become a plaything just the same.

He had known then that there could be no love between them, aside from the love of friends. What she proposed was a union of mere convenience. No one would have raised any objection had Kylo named her his consort, even if he hadn’t crowned her. As his hetaera she would have been granted official standing in his house - and that would have been enough to quiet the discontent simmering among the First Order courtiers. The moment he’d come of age, the imperial loyalists had begun to clamor for an heir, barraging him with a rapid succession of suitable and unsuitable women.

Whether his heir would be legitimate or illegitimate hardly mattered. Their greatest fear was that Kylo would perish in the Wastes and leave Chthonia without a blood-born son to rule the dead after him. And Hecate’s father would have been satisfied that the appropriate titles and adornments would follow soon enough, once she’d born him a child.

An impossible future, in more ways than one. And in the end, it would have ruined them both.

“I turned her away that night,” Kylo assures Thanatos. “I told her I wanted her to remain in the palace, but as my apprentice. As a knight. Not as my…”

Hetaera,” Thanatos supplies for him. “And why shouldn’t you have taken a companion?”

“Don’t be absurd. I was bonded to Rey.”

“But didn’t know whether she was alive or dead. And even if you were certain you’d find her…most nobles have hetaera in spite of their marriages. No one thinks twice of it.” Thanatos’s eyes reflect the silver light of the city, pale green and deathly. “You care too much about your honor, Kylo Ren. And now Hecate is paying the price for it.”

Kylo’s heart falters in his chest. “What are you saying?”

“Hecate has sacrificed as much as any of us to serve you,” Thanatos replies bluntly. “So put aside your reputation, for once, and name her your hetaera. Give her the protection of your house.”

Kylo blanches. “And dishonor my wife? Or had you forgotten that minor detail?”

“It would be a sham!” Thanatos mutters vehemently. “Let them call Hecate what they want in the world above. The knights will know the truth…and Rey…Rey won’t like it, but she’ll live with it.”

“You’re insane.”

“I’m not, and you know it,” Thanatos replies. “You can’t send Hecate back to Soteria. He’d have her wed to some high lord within the week, like a damn brood mare.”

Kylo can hardly believe his ears. Only days ago, Thanatos had acted as though he wanted Hecate to leave the Knights of Ren, and now he is begging Kylo to debase himself and his marriage to keep her? Farce or not, it is unthinkable.

“No.”

Thanatos curses. “You selfish, self-righteous bastard. Hecate would be wasted at court.”

“You’re right. It would be a waste,” Kylo says evenly, taking a bite of alshtik, not sure if he’s savoring the salt-infused flavor or the fact that he is a step ahead of Thanatos for once in his life. “But if Hecate wasn’t willing to stay as Sukkal, I doubt she’ll settle for the life of a hetaera.”

Thanatos’s eyes go wide, shock written over every smooth plain and deep gouge of his face.

“You…you asked her to be Sukkal? And she refused you?”

“Perhaps she thought she would not command the respect a Sukkal deserves,” Kylo bites out. “You made it quite clear that you think she is lower than the dirt you walk on.”

“I didn’t…” Thanatos falters. His jaw clenches, as though the memory of his confrontation with Hecate is distasteful to him. “I didn’t mean any of that.”

“Then why did you say it? What earthly reason could you have had?” Kylo demands, reaching the end of his rope. He remembers that they’re supposed to be resolving an old fight, not starting a new one. So he takes a deep breath and bites his tongue, not wanting to do any further damage.

He doesn’t expect an answer, but somehow it is still disappointing when Thanatos doesn’t give him one. The minutes stretch on in silence. Finally, Kylo stands, holding his injured hand at his side gingerly.

“I’m going inside to clean this up. The healer told us to find a place to stay tonight, but I’m not going anywhere. You can stay, or find a place in the city. Or sit out here all night, if you want.”

When Thanatos doesn’t reply, Kylo turns and marches back into the asclepeion.

 

***

 

In the early hours of the morning, Kylo is woken by a single, sharp cry from somewhere above him. He opens his eyes, peering up at the cracked ceiling. His hand instinctively moves to the sword at his side, but he senses no immediate danger. The world is suspended in pre-dawn stillness. He wonders if he had been dreaming.

The pale blue light of the radiation shield is the only illumination in the darkness of the temple. Beneath him, the ground is hard and remarkably cold. So cold that he is stunned that he was able to fall asleep in the first place.

Out of nowhere, the crying begins again in earnest - a newborn’s unhappy wail at being forced into such a desolate world. The squalling stops at uneven intervals whenever the babe takes another wet breath, before starting up again with renewed determination, testing those brand new lungs and likely the patience of the healers.

It makes Kylo’s heart sing.

And it makes him grieve.

 

***

 

Thanatos watches as the sun rises into the outstretched palms of the eastern Zorya. A bell tolls three times, clear and bright as the morning. The eastern gates of Larakei open to admit the throng that has been amassing outside them over the past few hours. To his eyes, those distant figures are nothing more than specks that move in flowing lines through the streets.

From this height, he can see part of the northern Garment District, one of eight such markets within the trading city. The buildings there are traditional to Larakei, with distinctive circular walls and domed roofs of decaying bronze. A network of radiation shields covers the streets between the buildings so that, when seen from above, they seem to shimmer faintly, like little canals filled with water. It is one of the wealthier areas of the city.

To the northeast lies the Water District. At its heart is a tiered structure fortified by a outer wall of basin-stone, with only one entrance. First Order flags stream from the highest windows, stark crimson against the black rock. The direct waterline that stretches from Cadrak to Coruscant has made water plentiful and cheap, but the distribution still takes time. Although the sun has barely risen, the line of people outside the water market already stretches to the edge of the adjacent Rations and Spices District.

Thanatos had spent nearly an hour there the night before, haggling amongst the few merchants who kept their shops open so late. Where water is plentiful, rations are scarce, and they must have sensed his desperation. In the end, he’d paid more for a few squares of plain alshtik than he would have for a pinch of Rhedonite kashekea powder.

When he catches sight of the five black athanatoi at the bottom of the steps, Thanatos thinks he might have been better off with an empty stomach and a taste of the rare hallucinogen. Perhaps it would make it easier to look Hecate in her stone-grey eyes and know that she hates him more than anyone else on this Force-forsaken earth.

Had she truly refused to become Sukkal? It doesn’t seem like her to bend so easily to her father’s will. And yet…he’d seen the look in her eyes as she’d recognized Soteria’s voice the night the general had come to return her to court. When she’d realized that it was her father pounding at the door, all of the fight had leaked out of her. She had seemed to Thanatos like the coltish, moon-sliver of a girl she’d been when she first came to the palace.

Thanatos remembers those early days of her training. At the time, Kylo had practically lived in the Nekromanteion, submerged in the realm of the shades. And so Morpheus had tasked Thanatos with putting Hecate through her forms each morning and evening. The scars on his face had been new and barely healed, but to her credit, she had not flinched upon seeing him. Nor had she asked for another instructor.

At first, he hadn’t known what to make of her. They’d grown up together at court, but many things had changed in the years since he’d given up his inheritance to join the knights. Thanatos had known better than to assume that she was the same high-spirited girl he’d played with as a child. On the surface, she had not seemed so different from the other young, highborn women who played at being knights to get close to Kylo. None of those pretty, dull creatures had lasted long once they realized the King of the Dead was immune to their brand of charm.

It had been clear to Thanatos from the beginning that Hecate was far cleverer than the others, whose motives had been utterly transparent. Hecate’s father had tamed the wildness in her, and trained her to disguise her true intentions well. She was patient, and coy, and Thanatos couldn’t read her at all. Among the questions about forms and stances and footwork, she would slip in an inquiry here and there about Kylo. The kind of innocuous questions any new trainee might ask.

Where does he go, when he is not in the palace? Why doesn’t he sleep? Why doesn’t he eat? Why does he only come up to the sunlit world once in every handful of days?

Thanatos had never been envious of anything that his master possessed. Not the wealth of Chthonia, or the many titles, or any of the scores of women who’d offered themselves to Kylo before Hecate. But those questions had bothered him more than he’d cared to admit.

So he’d run Hecate ragged, spitting every insult he could think of at her, wondering how long it would take for her to go crawling back to court. Each evening, he sent her to bed with welts on her arms and legs from the training sabers. And every morning, he was surprised to find her waiting for him in the sparring room, with her pretty silver hair braided out of her eyes and more questions on her sharp little tongue.

Get your head out of the underworld and put something other than poetry and perfume and dress patterns inside it, he’d commanded, delivering a sharp blow to her shoulder. When Hecate hissed and gritted her teeth, tears appearing in her eyes, he’d laughed and teased her. If you can’t handle a bit of pain, perhaps you should go back to your governess and practice your calligraphy.

He’d shoved salt in her wounds for no other reason than to see the fight rising inside her. It was always so glorious to see her prove him wrong. And here they are, still playing the same game today…except this time, he’d gone too far.

Thanatos watches as the athanatoi climb the last few steps, their hooves clattering loudly on the stone. The knights dismount, but Thanatos does not get up to greet them. He merely watches as Hecate shakes her braids out of her helmet.

“Where is he?” she asks immediately.

Thanatos leans forward, resting his forearms against his knees. Slowly, he looks her over from head to toe. But it doesn’t have the usual effect. There is no fight in her stunning grey eyes.

Come on, he thinks, as he has a thousand times before. See me looking at you the way I look at them. Be angry with me for it.

“Where is he?” she repeats.

The moment passes. And then he says, “Inside.”

Chapter Text

Rey wakes to the sound of a high, clear bell. It is beautiful and melodic, piercing the air with three sharp bursts of wondrous sound. She lingers on the edge of sleep, clinging to the fragments of her dream. She is afraid to open her eyes.

She is afraid that when she does, she will forget.

Rey wants to go back, back to the place where all the scattered pieces of herself had formed a whole. She had been climbing…climbing the uneven stone steps of an island. That winding staircase seemed as though it would never end. But end it did, for at the top of the island there was a temple. And within the temple, a single beam of golden light shone into a pool of clear water…beckoning her to come and drink…

Who are you?

…but beneath the pool, beneath the ground, beneath the island itself was another place. A gaping hole in the ground, surrounded by slick vines. Through that opening, she glimpsed the dark surface of the ocean and heard waves echoing in a hollow cave. It was a place of darkness to balance the light.

I’m no one.

Rey reluctantly opens her eyes, half-expecting to see the cave and the black water. Instead, she is staring at a plain, dry ceiling. The crisp wind-and-salt air vanishes in an instant. A keen sense of disappointment fills the cavity inside her chest. She had been close, so very close to the place where all the answers were hidden. It feels as though she has just been denied something that was very nearly in her grasp.

The room is small and has only a single, slender window. The air smells of sweat. When she sits upright in the semi-darkness, a thick blanket falls to her waist and her shirt sticks to her back. No, not her shirt. Her precious Keres-hide leathers are missing, along with her undergarments. They have been replaced by a thin, scratchy tunic, barely long enough to skim the middle of her thighs. She shivers as the cool air hits the bare skin of her neck and arms.

“Kylo,” she tries to say, but all that comes out is a rasping breath. Her voice is gravely, like she hasn’t used it in a very long time. She needs water. Desperately.

She stands, wincing as her bare feet touch the cold stone floor. A shiver runs from the top of her head down her spine and her teeth start chattering. Her nipples stiffen from the cold, the coarse linen of her shirt scratching against them. She pulls the blanket from the bed and wraps it around her shoulders.

Glancing around, she sees that the room is completely empty aside from a bacta tank in the far corner. It is pre-war technology, not unlike the immersion tanks used in the medbay of the Eleusis, except for the fact that it has been drained. Across the room, there is a door set into the wall, but she is not sure that she has the strength to reach it.

“Kylo,” she says again, as loudly as she dares.  

How long has she been separated from him? Where are the others?

She takes a step towards the door and pain immediately flares across the inside of her thighs. Heat pricks at her eyes, tears blurring her vision. She wipes them away stubbornly and looks down, lifting the hem of her shirt slightly. With a trembling hand, she presses tentatively at the inside of her right thigh, hissing in a sharp breath at the fire that blazes under her fingertips. She is still bruised from riding the athanatoi, the skin of her inner thighs rubbed raw and stained a faint, mottled blue.

Rey’s heart beats frantically as she tries to understand. She’d fallen asleep atop the athanatoi, with her back pressed to Kylo’s chest and his strong arm wrapped across her waist. She recalls the sound of his deep voice coaxing her awake and the splendor of the Six-Eyed Sparrow above their heads. For a single, shining moment, she had felt completely safe and content…just before her entire world was thrown into confusion.

Judging by the fresh bruises on her thighs, that can’t have been more than a few days ago. And yet it feels as though centuries have passed since then.

Without warning, the door creaks open. Rey tenses, preparing to fight and run, but knowing that if she has to do either, she won’t make it very far.

A young, slender girl enters the room, clad in drab robes. She stops short when she sees Rey. They both regard each other for a long moment.

“You’re awake,” the girl says, stating the obvious. She has striking, golden-brown eyes, set deep under arched brows. Rey doesn’t relax in the slightest.

“Yes,” Rey offers, not sure what else to say. She feels very exposed, standing barefoot in the middle of the room with nothing but a shirt on and a blanket clutched around her shoulders.

“You need to lie down,” the girl tells her apprehensively. She crosses the room swiftly and reaches out with gentle hands, attempting to guide Rey to sit on the bed. “That’s it. It’s all right.”

“No,” Rey says faintly, but the girl is unexpectedly strong. Or perhaps Rey is just very weak. Her knees give out under the pressure of the girl’s hands on her shoulders. When she sits, Rey can feel that the bed is still warm from where she had lain in it moments earlier. All she wants to do is curl up on her side and sleep for a week.

But she has to find Kylo. She has to tell him what she had seen, in the darkness under the speaking mountain. She has to tell him that she remembers.

“You don’t understand,” Rey protests. “I can’t stay here.”

“Shhh, it’s all right,” the girl soothes. She kneels on the ground beside the bed and pushes the sweaty, matted hair away from Rey’s forehead. “You’re safe here. Drink this.”

Safe?

Such a strange choice of words. Had she been unsafe before? No, of course not; she had been with Kylo. Unless…unless something had happened. Something bad. Fear churns in the pit of her stomach, not for herself, but for Kylo and the others.

Before Rey can dwell more on it, the girl takes a small canteen from her hip and raises it to Rey’s lips. At the cool press of its hard rim, Rey’s lips part instinctively. Something lukewarm and smooth flows into her mouth. Water. Her throat is so dry that she chokes on the first swallow, sputtering and coughing. The second mouthful goes down easier, easing the ache in her throat.

“Where am I?” Rey whispers, when she trusts her voice not to crack.

“The healing temple of Larakei.”

“How long have I been here?”

“Since last night.”

“I was with a man. Kylo Ren. I have to find him again.”

“You’re still feverish,” the girl murmurs, her eyes narrowing. “You don’t know what you’re saying.”

“Please…” Rey begs. “Please. If you know where he is, you have to help me.”

“He is here. In the temple.”

“Has he been hurt?”

“He and his knights are unharmed. You are the one who has been hurt,” the girl says bluntly, her golden-brown eyes flashing.

Rey bites her tongue, wondering if it had been foolish to reveal so much to a stranger. Perhaps she should not have mentioned Kylo at all. This girl does not seem friendly to the knights, or to their master. But the damage has been done.

“I want to see him,” Rey insists.

“Is that what you want?” the girl asks. She lowers her voice, as though she is afraid that they will be overheard. Concern fills her eyes and she takes Rey’s hands in her own. “I know where he is taking you. I know what awaits you in Ni’Jedha. But you do not have to go with the deathless ones. I can help you escape, before their master ever realizes that you’ve woken.”

Rey rips her hands out of the girl’s grip.

“I don’t want to escape,” Rey hisses impatiently, bristling at the girl’s condescending tone and the sinister insinuation that Kylo is carting her off to Ni’Jedha as a captive. Summoning all the strength she can muster, she tilts her chin up and demands, “I want to see him.”

“You only want that because the deathless one has poisoned you,” the girl argues in a low whisper. “He has used lethewater to corrupt your mind-”

Vrishkarek,” a familiar voice interrupts, sending the temple girl scrambling to her feet. “Esem irinarek.”

Rey’s entire being responds to the sound of that voice, even before she sees him. In any language, in any lifetime, she would know him by it. For he is her closest friend, who had walked through her dreams and offered comfort in her loneliness.

How could I have forgotten him?

Kylo Ren stands in the doorway, and the room suddenly seems much smaller with him in it. Rey’s eyes quickly scan his form, checking to make sure he is not hurt. Strands of his dark hair cling to his forehead and his cloak is matted with sand. There is a bandage wrapped around his dominant hand, his sword-wielding hand, bloodied across the knuckles. Otherwise, he looks unharmed, strong and unyielding, and she suddenly wants very much to kiss him.

It’s you! her heart sings across the bond. I remember you! I know you!

She knows he has heard her thoughts, because a smile graces the corners of his lips and crinkles the edges of his eyes. It is not fair that he should be so beautiful, the most beautiful thing she has ever seen - more beautiful than the mountains, or the star-strewn sky, or the golden fields of wheat.

Is that so?

Yes!  she answers, her whole body coming alive as his mind brushes against hers. I remember! I waited for you!

He laughs then, and it is like water and sunlight and air.

It makes flowers grow in the desert of her heart.

No, little one, he teases. I meant the part about me being so beautiful.

 

***

 

“The temple girl doesn’t like you,” Rey murmurs, willing herself to stay awake. The bed is hard, but the blanket is warm and she is so incredibly tired. Outside the door, she can hear the apprentice arguing with the master healer in some foreign tongue, no doubt angry that the older woman has permitted Kylo to stay. If it weren’t for their shouting, Rey might have already fallen asleep.

Kylo laughs low under his breath.

“I don’t think her master particularly likes me either. When she told me to find a place to stay the night, I doubt she meant on the floor of her temple.”

Though his tone is light, Rey senses Kylo’s lingering concern for her. He sits in a chair beside the bed, running his hand slowly through her hair, gently untangling it where is has become knotted together. The contact feels nice, even though it makes her a little self-conscious. She must look awful, unwashed and dirty, wearing a tattered old tunic. But he doesn’t seem to notice, so she allows herself to relax as he finger-combs her hair.

“You’re not angry with her, though? The temple girl?” Rey asks.

“I think her brave, actually. She was willing to go behind the back of the very man who will decide on her fate in the afterlife, just to protect you.”

“I don’t need protecting. Not from you.”

The weight of his hand, and the soft touch of his thumb brushing across her forehead every so often, have her edging closer towards sleep. Her eyelids feel heavy, but she wants to stay with him just a little longer.

“You don’t know what it meant to me,” Kylo says, his expression growing serious. “To hear you say that you didn’t want to escape. That you would choose to stay with me.”

Rey’s brow furrows. “But you knew that already.”

“Even so,” he murmurs, eyes burning bright.

She realizes that perhaps he hadn’t known, not really. Submitting to the blood rite for the good of her people is entirely different from choosing to take the rite of her own accord, for no other reason than that she wants to be with him. The two motives are conflicting, yet they seem to have become inextricably intertwined. Rey herself is hardly able to unravel them.

Is it any wonder, then, that he would worry the depth of his devotion might be greater than hers?

“I have so much to tell you,” she whispers.

She thinks of the man under the speaking mountain, whose mere presence filled her with dread. She thinks of the boy in her dreams, who promised her she would never be alone. She thinks of the pieces of herself, scattering across the world, across the oceans, across the stars.

But where should she start? She could speak for hours and still have more to say.

“And I you.”

He leans forward, and then she feels the soft, warm pressure of his mouth against hers. He smells of leather and dried sweat, and tastes salty instead of clean. When she runs her fingers along his jawline, she feels a faint scratch of stubble under his normally smooth skin. But all of that is tolerable, so long as he is close to her.

He puts an end to the kiss far too soon. She sighs unhappily when he draws back.

“Sleep, anasa. There will be time for you to tell me everything.”

“Will you stay here again tonight?” she asks.

“The knights keep a house in the city. Once you’ve rested a bit more, I thought we might go there.”

The thought of being clean and well-fed, curled up in a real bed, appeals to her.

“When do you want to leave?”

“If you feel well enough to ride, we can stay there tonight.”

Rey takes the hand sifting through her hair and holds it still against her cheek, reveling in his presence. Beneath her fingers, she can feel the coarse fabric of a bandage, wrapped tightly around his knuckles. Blood has seeped through the fabric and dried, leaving behind dark crimson stains. Peeking out from the bandage are deep, blackened bruises, blossoming across his fingers and the back of his hand.

“What happened here?”

“It’s nothing. Just a little altercation with the temple wall.”

“You…you did this?” she asks, confused.

“I couldn't find you in the Force. You were gone, and I..." Kylo trails off, his expression turning to stone. "It was a very long night without you.”

Her stomach hurts as she looks at the stained skin, so much darker than the bruises she’d found earlier between her thighs. The way he speaks - so calm, so calloused - makes it sound as though he has inflicted this sort of injury on himself before.

Rey runs her fingers along the back of his hand, down to his wrist, and up again, struck by a terrible sadness. She thinks of the lethal power in his fingers, gripping the hilt of his sword; of his neat script on parchment, the evidence of his brilliant mind; of his hands gently ruining the braid in her hair as he kissed her that first time on the terrace. He has such strong, beautiful hands. What would she have done if he’d truly damaged them?

She turns his hand over and presses a kiss to his bandaged knuckles. Kylo’s breath catches slightly. He is watching her intently, dark eyes fixed on the place where she’d brushed her lips to his hand.

“Do you remember when you told me we were to become as one person?” she asks. Maybe it is unkind, to throw his own words back at him like this, but she needs him to understand. “You said that what harms one of us would harm the other.”

His hand trembles inside hers. His dark eyes are suddenly very wet. She sees his throat working, trying to contain his emotion.

“Please don’t ever do this again,” she says gently.

He nods his assent, jaw clenched tight, unable to speak. It is enough of a promise to satisfy her, so she turns his hand back over and presses one last kiss to his palm.

 

***

 

Kylo wakes her just before dusk, telling her that if she wants to leave, it would be best to do so while they still have the light.

The full day of uninterrupted, dreamless sleep has done wonders for her body. She is still tired, but not in the bone-weary way she had been when her fever first broke. If anything, she thinks perhaps Kylo has let her sleep too long.

Without thinking much about her lack of attire, Rey casts off the blanket and climbs out of bed, feeling the ache in her muscles from their disuse. She brushes sleepers from the inner corners of her eyes as she pads along the length of the room, to the far wall and back, just to bring the feeling back into her legs. Through the slender window, she can see domed rooftops against a sky that is just beginning to redden.

It’s not until she turns and catches Kylo’s eyes skimming along her bare thighs that she remembers how short the tunic is, and that she is wearing nothing underneath. His gaze travels briefly to her breasts, lingering there for just a moment too long as she makes her way back across the room. Her heart flutters as she realizes that her nipples are probably visible through the thin, gauzy material.

Kylo’s averts his eyes, and she sees his throat bob as he swallows hard.

“How are you feeling?” he asks. His voice is noticeably strained, as though he is trying desperately to remember that she is still recovering.  

If she weren’t dirty from the desert, if her mouth didn’t taste stale, she might have taken full advantage of the situation. Her state of undress has caught him endearingly off-guard. She doesn’t think she has ever seen him so flustered, all over a little flash of skin.

She could give him so much more to be nervous about. It would be so easy to crawl into his lap, to kiss along his pulsepoint and feel his heartbeat quicken under her tongue, to feel him solid and broad between her thighs. Her mind brims with possibilities, considering how the distinctive half-moon texture of his leathers might feel dragging against her center.

That impulse fades as she remembers the chafing along her inner thighs from the hard day of riding. Besides, burning through the night with fever has left her sticky and gross. She should probably keep him at a distance until she’s had a wash...but the opportunity is too good to pass up entirely.

So she stays just out of his reach, lacing her fingers together and raising them over her head, making sure to arch her back languidly as she deepens into a stretch. It is a harmless enough gesture on the surface, but she is fully aware that in this position, the tunic will have ridden up to expose most of her thighs.

It’s a shame about the bruises, she thinks, settling into the stretch. She remains that way for a moment more, hands uplifted towards the ceiling, until her back feels loose and the tightness in her shoulders disappears. With her head tilted up, she can’t see his reaction, but she hears him exhale sharply, as though the breath has been knocked out of his lungs.

“I feel good,” she tells him, feigning innocence as she falls out of the stretch. “I think I could ride, at least for a while-”

He stands to his full height and cuts her off, his mouth crashing down on hers unexpectedly. She realizes that perhaps she’d been just a bit more transparent than she intended, but if this is the result, she can hardly complain.

Kylo’s arms wrap around her waist, hauling her up and against him. Her peaked nipples drag against his chest through the rough, scratchy fabric of her tunic, drawing a moan from the back of her throat. At the sound, Kylo’s uninjured hand spreads along her lower back, then fists into her tunic, gathering the fabric so that it begins to drag up her thighs again.

She panics for a moment, wondering if he’s actually going to expose her backside, but Kylo stops when the hem of the tunic skims along the curve of her ass. She whimpers as cool air caresses the sensitive skin between her thighs.

Kylo swipes his tongue across her lower lip, attempting to deepen the kiss. She pulls away slightly, embarrassed, shaking her head.

“I really don’t taste good right now,” she mumbles self-consciously.

“Perhaps you should have thought about that before you decided to show yourself off to me, salt-mouse,” he chastises her, his hand still pressed against her lower back. “Isn’t that what you were doing?”

“No,” she says weakly, even though that is exactly what she had been doing.

Kylo chuckles under his breath and releases her from his grip, returning to the chair. He leans forward, putting his forearms against his knees and folding his hands together. Then he nods to the foot of the bed, where a stack of Keres-hide clothing has been neatly folded. Her boots and her transparisteel helmet rest beside them.

“The healers have returned your leathers,” he murmurs, his gaze inscrutable. “I’d offer to give you some privacy, but you don’t seem to want it.”

Rey shifts from one foot to the other uncertainly, realizing that she has vastly underestimated his patience and restraint. Tormenting him like that had been so incredibly foolish, like sticking a vibroblade in an active power cell.

She can’t ask him to look away. Her pride won’t allow it. So she marches over to the bed, turning with her back to him. It’s a little gross to put on the same undergarments she’d been wearing before, but she doesn’t have much choice. She slides the functional, black undershorts over her legs, up her chafed thighs, pulling them up so quickly that she doubts he’d seen more than a brief glimpse of the curve of her ass beneath the tunic.

Her cheeks still burn at the thought of baring even that much to him, all of her earlier boldness vanishing. She refuses to turn around, afraid to look him in the eye. She moves on to the Keres-hide pants, quickly shoving her legs in the pliable, ridged fabric and tugging it over her hips. Her breast wrappings are next, but she has no idea how she’s supposed to get those on without taking her tunic off. For a moment, she just stands there with the long strip of fabric balled up in her hand, steeling herself.

“Need any help?” Kylo offers.

She throws him a lethal look over her shoulder. “I’ve got it covered.”

A wide grin splits his face and suddenly he is laughing. Not the brief, restrained sort of laugh that she’s heard from him before, but a deep, rumbling sound that reverberates in the deepest part of his chest.

“Burning skies, you are so stubborn.”

She should be mad, but his burst of laughter has distracted her. He stands, coming up behind her, pressing a brief kiss to the juncture between her neck and shoulder. His tone softens.

“You could always ask me to leave, salt-mouse,” he points out.

“Why?” she bites out sarcastically. “Is this exciting you?”

“Always,” he hums into her ear.

At first she thinks he’s mocking her after her entirely unattractive effort to dress herself while revealing as little of her skin as possible. But then he pulls her flush against him. Shock floods her as she realizes that he is excited, his cock half-hard against her lower back.

“Really?” she mutters in disbelief. “But I’m so…”

“Alive,” he says reverently. His hands drift under her tunic, skimming lightly along the sensitive skin of her ribcage. She lifts herself up a bit onto the balls of her feet and pushes back against him, pressing the soft curve of her rear against his hardness. He drops his head against her shoulder with a strangled groan, his breath hot against her neck. “Warm, soft, perfect.”

Rey bites at the inside of her cheek. Those were hardly the words she would have used to describe herself in this moment, but perhaps with everything that has happened, he isn’t taking any of those things for granted.

“Why don’t you hand me those wrappings?” Kylo murmurs against the shell of her ear. She surrenders the tightly-wound ball of fabric to him, suddenly very nervous.

“Do you know how to do this?” she asks curiously.

“Not really,” he replies. “It’s just an excuse to touch you.”

It’s her turn to laugh.

“You’re…awful. Just awful.”

To her surprise, he does a halfway decent job with the wrappings, especially given that he’s working blind under her tunic. Contrary to his claim of wanting to touch her, he doesn’t take liberties, only brushing her breasts with his knuckles when he occasionally fumbles with the unmanageable length of the fabric.

There are myriad ways to apply wrappings, but he does it the same way she would, prioritizing function over form. He starts with the lower, supportive circle, and then the uppermost layer across the top of her breasts, followed by a double crossover in the center. He pulls the wrap taut, but not tight, bringing the ends together to secure the snap into place. It’s not perfect in any way, but it's…close. Perhaps a little too close for her liking.

“You’ve seen this done before,” she says, confused.

“Yes,” Kylo admits, brushing his thumb along the sensitive underside of her breast through the fabric. She suddenly wishes that he’d done more. She wants to know what it would feel like to have him cup her small breasts in his large, calloused hands. To have him run his fingers over the pebbled, sensitive skin of her nipples. “But it certainly wasn’t like this.”

“No?” Rey questions, stepping away from him to tug off her tunic. She pulls on the tight, Keres-hide undershirt, the one that molds to her torso and arms. And finally she slips on the linen charcoal shirt and the leather jacket, staring determinedly at the wall.

“No,” he says evenly. Out of the corner of her eye, she sees him retrieve his sword from where it rests beside the chair. He returns to stand behind her, running his uninjured hand soothingly down her side. “For one thing, Nyx was married at the time. And for another, she was bleeding out in the desert. So the whole thing was decidedly unromantic.”

Rey barely has time to process this statement before she feels a swift, sharp sting against the softest part of her backside. She yelps, more in surprise than in pain, realizing that he has rapped her lightly with the sheathed flat of his sword.

“And in any case,” Kylo says deviously, eyes dancing down to where he'd just struck her. “There are a number of other things I hadn’t seen before today.”

 

***

 

“It’s called the Canal,” Kylo tells her, guiding their athanatoi through a radiation shield that is suspended beneath a great archway like a silver-blue curtain. “It started with a single road in the Garment District. Now, the network connects all the streets in the northern sector of the city.”

Rey looks up, marveling at the ingenuity of the system of radiation shields that stretches above their heads from one rooftop to the next. They form an interlaced patchwork, like a quilt, connecting one house to another, one street to the next, and the next - on and on and on.

As Rey turns her attention back to the ground, she is stunned to find that there are people walking through the street, maskless and unprotected. The windows of the houses have been thrown wide open to let in the cool breeze that flows through the street. A line of people wait outside a shop, exchanging little chips of metal in exchange for what looks like soup served in a sturdy bowl of synthetic bread. Several young women are gathered together on the street corner, wearing long dresses. Brightly-colored silken scarves are wrapped around their bare shoulders and arms. Their braided hair is adorned with strings of beads that gleam in the diminishing light whenever they turn their heads.

“But how does it work?” Rey asks curiously, taking off her helmet. Crisp, night air stings her face.

Kylo points toward the sky, motioning with his hand.

“Can you see the lines, where the shields meet each other?”

“Yes.”

“That’s because each house has its own emitter. It isn’t a single, domed shield...but many smaller shields that all come together. There are gates, like the one we just passed under, where people can enter and leave.”

The street seems to her like something out of an old holonovel. She can hardly believe her eyes. It seems impossible that this sort of place could exist on such a barren world. If she doesn’t look up, it is possible to pretend that she is living centuries ago - before the fall of the Old Republic. Before the War.

“Why don’t all the cities have this?” Rey asks.

“Very few people can afford it. Standard domed shields are cheap, and can be fitted to any structure, either internally or externally. These have to work in connection with each other. Each emitter is specially fitted and they’re costly to maintain. If even one malfunctions for more than a few minutes, everyone in the neighborhood will feel it.”

He pulls sharply on the reins of his athanatoi, bringing the beast to a halt before a house built of gray-and-white stone. It is squashed between two other buildings, thin and tall, with a sloping rooftop made of bronze that has turned pale green over the ages. The masonwork is simple, the stones all of differing shapes and sizes, covering the entire front of the residence. The door is crafted from newer bronze that has retained its deep, brassy color.

There is something charmingly mismatched about the house. After the grandeur of the Palace of Aidoneus, it strikes Rey as unexpectedly domestic.

“Here we are,” Kylo announces.

The other six athanatoi have been secured to rings nailed into the outer wall. Kylo dismounts first, helping Rey down with his hands on her waist. He ties his beast beside the others.

“Won’t they be stolen?” Rey asks. “If you leave them out here in the street?”

“No thief would dare,” Kylo replies, pulling off his helmet. He nods to the door. Rey sees the image of an asphodel flower engraved on its surface, declaring that this house belongs to the King of the Dead. Rey wonders if that warning alone would be enough to deter any potential thieves.

“They must be worth a small fortune,” Rey remarks. “Seems like that would be tempting for a thief.”

“Tempting in this life, perhaps. But even common thieves know that passage to Asphodel cannot be bought.”

They take the few low, uneven steps up to the door. Kylo opens it for her and she steps inside.

The decor immediately reminds her a little of Kylo’s quarters in the palace - all comforting, earthy tones. But the petrified wood on the walls is paler, an ashen tan-and-grey hue, and there are hints of forest green and seafoam blue scattered throughout the rooms. The entrance hall opens to the right, leading into a small living area. Low couches with large woven pillows form a half-circle around the far wall, where a heater has been built into exposed stone. Flames rise from pale sea-glass inside.

As she steps further into the house, she can hear voices and laughter at the end of the hall. A heavy, spicy smell greets her, beckoning her inside. The aroma is mouthwatering. There is an insistent ache in her stomach...but her skin is crawling and itchy with dirt and sand.

“Food first, or a bath?” Kylo asks, giving voice to her dilemma.

Before she can make up her mind, the farthest door on the right opens to reveal Thanatos. Rey has never seen him looking so comfortable - weaponless and barefoot, dressed in loose pants and a thick, dark green sweater. His brown hair is mussed, as though he has just stumbled out of bed.

“Look at you,” Thanatos says to her, his face splitting into a grin. “You look strong enough to pull the wings off a Keres!”

To Rey’s surprise, he pulls her into a brief, tight hug, both arms over her shoulders. It reminds her just a little of how Finn had hugged her, back home, whenever she’d had a bad day in the lab.

For some reason, his words make her throat tighten. He is being much too kind to her. She’d been so worried that she would cause trouble for the knights on her first journey through the Wastes…and that is exactly what had happened.

“You scared the ever-living Force out of us, you know that?” Thanatos admonishes her, pulling back. Then, as though he’d been able to hear Kylo’s question from all the way down the hall, he says apologetically, “Food won’t be ready for another few minutes...and besides, I don’t think Dion would let either of you in the kitchen looking like that.”

“Like what?” Rey grumbles.

Thanatos laughs, eyes darting from her hair to her boots. “There’s a mirror upstairs. See for yourself.”  

“Come on,” Kylo says, putting a hand on her back. “Rooms are this way.”

On their left, there is a narrow staircase. Rey starts to climb with Kylo at her back. With him so close behind her in the enclosed space, the scent of him fills her lungs. She is so accustomed to the way he has always smelled - of amber and cedarwood and cypress - that the distinctive redolence of leather and sweat seems unlike him. But she finds that she doesn’t really mind it.

On the second floor, there is a single door, and he knocks on it. When there is no answer, he opens it and steps inside.

“This is where the girls sleep. The other bedroom is one level up,” Kylo tells her. “Usually only a few of us stay in this house at a time...so it might be a bit cramped with everyone here together.”

It is a room with two double beds. The walls are painted smalt blue. A mirror has been hung on the far wall, framed by a mosaic of white tiles. Rey catches a glimpse of her reflection and halts. Her likeness in the mirror looks filthy and ragged, just as she’d expected. But with her hair wild and her leathers contoured to her body, she also looks fierce and fearsome and…how had Thanatos put it?

Strong enough to pull the wings off a Keres.

“The refresher is just through here,” Kylo says, startling her out of her thoughts.

Rey follows him into the smaller room. It’s very simple. There is a white, circular basin in the center, surrounded on all sides by transparisteel walls, a waist-high sink, a toilet. Several silvered knobs adorn the inside of basin. Kylo cracks open the transparisteel door to the basin and fiddles with them. Water pours from a spicket.

“Heat,” he says, tapping the knob on the left. Then he does the same to the right. “Cold.” And then he tabs the knob in the center. “Or if you don’t want to wait for it to fill, you could shower.”

“Shower?” Rey repeats.

He tugs the knob, and the water stops momentarily, only to resume from the ceiling. She tilts her head up to find that a silver disk fills the entire space between the circular transparisteel walls, drilled with holes that form a waning crescent. One the larger side, water falls like rain from the small holes, the steady stream of droplets contained within the transparisteel walls.

“Oh!” Rey exclaims, delighted. “It’s like they’ve trapped a little storm!”

She reaches her hand in to let the water run over it. Then she flicks the water off, smiling a little.

“How warm do you like it?”

“Scalding,” Rey answers, thinking of the piping-hot water in her room in the palace. She’d drawn herself a bath nearly every evening before bed, soaking until her skin wrinkled and the water was cool.

Kylo turns the water hotter and steam begins to rise. He straightens, wiping his hands across his broad thighs to dry them. “Well.”

She suddenly feels unsettled, on edge, her awareness of him heightened. There is a pleasant ache between her hips. Kylo is so close, smelling like sweat and desert. And earlier, he’d been so…

Flirtatious is not the right word. They’re betrothed. They will be married in a few days, with the weight of two governments resting on their shoulders. There is no need for him to seduce her. And yet she can’t help but think of the sting of his sword against her ass. It was something a cocky, brazen starpilot might have done with his girlfriend, half-drunk on illegal moonshine in the belly of the Eleusis. Now that she has seen that side of him - a side that is playful, instead of grave and serious - she wants to draw it out again.

We could save water by showering together, her mind suggests unhelpfully. Rey bites at the inside of her cheek to keep from blurting out something so silly. Water isn’t precious here on earth. And she is his betrothed...not his girlfriend.

“I’ll have one of the girls leave a towel and some spare clothes for you on the bed.”

Rey nods.

It would be unreasonable to expect him to stay. They’re in a small house full of his knights. The walls are thin enough that she can hear sounds from the kitchen below. He’s hardly going to fool around with her in a cramped refresher.

Hardly.

“I’ll see you downstairs,” he says.

“Right,” Rey replies faintly, tampering her disappointment. “Downstairs.”

Kylo leaves, shutting the door behind him. Trapped steam rises around her. As she strips out of her clothes and steps under the water, she tries very hard not to think of him in another room, in a different shower, without his leathers and heavy robes.

Chapter Text

Kylo stands completely still under the warmth of the spray, leaning his forehead against the transparisteel wall as the downpour rinses the sand and grit from his skin. He screws his eyes shut, trying to convince himself that there is nothing wrong with being aroused by his bondmate, even though there is. Rey has barely recovered from her fever, and his relief that the sickness had not taken her from him is no excuse for the improper direction of his thoughts. He should be thinking about how to best protect and care for her, as a good man - as a good husband - would.  

Instead, all he can think about is the pretty curve of her ass. Or the little he’d glimpsed of it in her hurried effort to dress herself in the asclepeion. Those few precious moments had been enough to burn the image inside his eyelids. The skin of her rear was smooth and taut, and Maker help him, there were freckles dusted along the flare of her hip.

“Skies,” he chokes out, placing both of his hands flat against the transparisteel walls to keep them from wandering to his hardening cock.

It had taken so little to make him want her. What sort of grown man is aroused by nothing more than a quick flash of an injured woman’s thighs and backside?

Except she hadn’t been just any woman; she had been Rey. The moment she’d woken, her presence had burst gloriously into his mind. The simple act of sitting beside her, sifting her hair between his fingers, had tempered all of his fear and rage. She centers him, her very existence the fulcrum upon which he finds his balance.

When her gaze had fallen on his injured hand, the evidence of his impulsiveness and rage, he’d expected condemnation from her. Instead, there was only acceptance. She’d caressed his broken knuckles with her fingers, and kissed them, and made him promise not to harm himself again. And he had promised her that - without a second thought, because he belongs to her, and his body belongs to her and -  

And she has such power over him.

When she’d teased him in the asclepeion, the hint of a coy smile playing on her lips as she showed her toned thighs off for him, it was all he could do to remember his first promise to her. He’d sworn to wait for her until the blood rite, and by the Fallen, he has tried to keep that oath. He had set his desire aside, even when she put her hands on him and touched him through his leathers as they rode together in the Wastes. Even when his fingers had brushed across the delicate curve of her breast when he finished with her wrappings, and she’d lifted herself onto her toes, arching against him so that his growing erection aligned perfectly with the dip of her lower back.

Even when she’d offered herself to him in the palace, her body small and warm and pinned beneath him in his bed.

In his bed.

It is that thought that has him fully hard, the head of his cock swollen and leaking clear fluid. Kylo debates about whether to give in and touch himself, or to ignore his need. He’s not likely to get another moment alone for the next few days, not with eight of them split across two rooms. And if he is to keep his promise to Rey and wait until the blood rite - despite the fact that she seems determined to induce him to break his word - he will need some sort of release.

So he takes the length of his cock in his grip, creating a tight channel for himself with his fist. He exhales sharply at the sensation of his fingers wrapped around the base.

It is hardly the first time he has thought of Rey in these moments. But the act seems different now, because she is more than a mere ephemeral presence in his mind. He knows what it feels like to cover her body with his own, to have her fingernails clutch at his shoulders in her desperation to draw him closer. He recognizes what her little whimpers sound like when he does something that pleases her, feminine and soft and surprised. He has been on the receiving end of her scorching fury, and the radiant warmth of her forgiveness. He knows what her lips look like when they are swollen from kissing.

Kylo groans, thrusting through his fingers. As he strokes slowly upward, thumbing lightly over the head of his cock, he throws a cautious query down the bond. The connection between them has been heightened since she woke from her fever, and the last thing he needs is for Rey to discover him fucking his hand to the thought of her.

But he underestimates how close she currently is, only a floor below him. The initial sensation that flows down the bond is cold - she is naked, her skin chilly because she has just stepped out of the scalding shower into the bedroom. The shared physical awareness makes him shiver, too. And then he panics at how easily he’d slipped into her mind, knowing that she could just as effortlessly step back into his. His first instinct is to throw up a wall around his mind – high and impenetrable as durasteel – to shield his thoughts from her.

Rey hadn’t seemed upset when he’d admitted to pleasuring himself to the thought of her presence, but somehow he fears that this might be different. Because this time, he’s not thinking of a distant, fragile future as his fist pumps his length.

He’s thinking of bending her over on his bed in the palace, so that she is on her hands and knees. Of running his hands across the curve of her backside until she is shaking with anticipation. And only then would he join her, blanketing his body over hers, kissing the freckled skin of her shoulder. His weight would make her arms shake with the strain of holding herself on all fours, her rounded backside softening each thrust of his hips. The thought of taking her like that, with her back against his chest, is depraved, filthy – and something he has certainly never considered before. He wonders if her body, already so much smaller than his, would feel even smaller in that position.

He chokes out a strangled moan, trying to stay quiet. The walls of this old house are thin. His teeth clench together as he moves his hand in tight, quick strokes, chasing his release. The barrier he has put up around his mind keeps him on the edge too long, to the point where the sensation becomes nearly painful - if he could just feel her, he knows he could come -

And then his entire body goes rigid with pleasure, his cock twitching as white fluid spills from the head, and it is all he can do to keep from shouting the name of his betrothed.

 

***

 

By the time Kylo arrives downstairs, the fire rising from the pale sea-glass stones has died down to a few flickering tongues of white-blue flame. The knights are spread across the low couches in the sitting room, engaged in a riotous conversation. Stemless glasses filled with a berry-red wine are scattered on the petrified wood table, where a basket of alshtik rests neatly in the center. Nyx is ladling generous portions of soup into deep bowls and handing them out among the others.

Thanatos must be greatly embellishing the narrative of their journey through the desert, because when Kylo enters the room, Hecate catches his eye and shakes her silver head ever so slightly.

“And when the sun began to set over the city-” Thanatos says, gesturing with his hands to command the attention of the other knights, “- we drove the athanatoi so hard that Nycateus began bleeding from his nostrils-”

Pasithea gasps in horror, her black eyes wide.

“By the Fallen, Thanatos,” Kylo mutters, crossing the room to take the two bowls that Nyx holds out to him. “He did no such thing.”

Rey looks up at him. Her hair is dark and slightly wet, pulled into three buns along the back of her head. She has exchanged her leathers for loose, midnight blue sleep pants and a fitted top that is embellished with tiny, teardrop-shaped jewels. Judging by the fit, it has been pulled directly from Pasithea’s closet. It leaves a few inches of Rey’s tanned midriff bare.

She offers him a tentative smile that doesn’t quite reach her eyes, as if to ask him if all is well between them. Guilt immediately curls in his stomach, as he realizes that she must have sensed his withdrawal from her mind. He’d been naive to think he could hide it from her in the first place. There shouldn’t be any secrets between them.

Kylo is struck by the sudden temptation to run his fingers along the hem of her silken pants, to kneel at her feet and apologize for shutting her out, and adorn little kisses and bites along the delicate flesh of her lower stomach. As though he hadn’t just come to the thought of her in the shower, his cock gives a valiant twitch. He wonders if one day, she might allow him to put his mouth lower, between her thighs, if she would let him taste her -

Nearly began bleeding from his nostrils, then,” Thanatos amends, bringing him crashing back to the present.

Kylo realizes that he is still standing there, holding the two bowls in his hands. He passes Rey her bowl, and can’t help but notice the way she cradles it close to her chest, warming her fingers. She shifts over, making room for him at her side.

“Thank you,” she says quietly.

I won’t pry, is what she means. You don’t have to explain.

An affection distinct from his physical desire for her rises in his chest. He leans over the low couch to press a swift, chaste kiss against her lips, wanting to reassure her. She tilts her head up to accept him, but stiffens slightly, looking faintly flustered and wide-eyed as he draws away. At the look on her face, the enormity of what he has just done slams into him.

They have never been openly affectionate with each other in front of others. Their past kisses were always private things, stolen in the shadows of abandoned hallways and musky stable yards.

The gesture, while entirely innocent, does not go unnoticed by the knights. There is a drawn-out pause in the conversation in which all eyes are fixed on him and Rey.

“Oh, switch off,” Kylo tells them bitterly, taking the empty seat on the couch beside Rey. She glances at him shyly, a warm flush rising in her cheeks and chest. But a pretty smile tugs at her lips and he can sense that she is pleased with him.

Seems like you’re the one who needs to switch off, Master, Nyx counters slyly, her fleeting voice reverberating in their collective minds. Your wires are looking a bit...rusty.

“Only a bit?” crows Dionysus.

Then everything is laughter, and even Rey is giggling beside him. One hand covers her mouth to stifle her laugh, her hazel eyes twinkling like stars on a cloudless night. And Kylo can’t bring himself to care that they are obviously teasing him about his inexperience, not when his betrothed is beaming and radiant as the sun.

The peals of laughter fade eventually, and the conversation grows more serious as it turns to how the others fared beneath the mountain after he and Thanatos departed with Rey.

“We followed as quickly as we dared,” Hecate says, as the knights eat. Her hair is pulled into a single plait down the back of her head. Her eyes are red at the edges from lack of sleep, and her bowl of cooling soup remains untouched. “But we couldn’t reach the gates before sunset. We made camp along the outer wall of the city, with a band of traders.”

“Smugglers, you mean,” Dionysus interjects, through a mouthful of alshtik. “With Takodana gone, all the goods that make it this far south must be stolen.”

Hecate shrugs. “Traders, smugglers. They had tents, and we had coin.”

“We circled the wall once, looking for you, or Thanatos,” Morpheus tells Kylo. “We weren’t sure if we should have been relieved when we did not find you. We’d hoped you made it to the city in time; and feared that something had happened along the way.”

“We were so worried for you,” Pasithea tells Rey. “Back at the Sparrow, Hecate said she’d never seen anything like it. And when we got to the asclepeion, the healers said it might be days and days before you woke.”

Rey slips her hand into Kylo’s, resting their clasped hands on his thigh. Her grip is tight. It is obvious to him that she isn’t used to being the center of attention.

“I’m fine now,” she assures them. “Really.”

“I only wish I could have done more,” Hecate replies, turning her slate-gray eyes to Rey. “Under the mountain, you were beyond my reach. I didn’t know how to help you…”

It is clear that Hecate considers her inability to find Rey in the Force a personal failure. Her voice is filled with remorse, her hands folded tightly in her lap.

“There was nothing you could have done,” Rey says simply, shaking her head. She takes a deep breath, the next words tumbling out in a rush. “The girl at the temple...she said that I was poisoned.”

The table falls silent, but Kylo knew this conversation was coming. He’d hoped that they could put it off until the morning, when Rey is better rested, but if he were in her place, he would want answers. And he would not be able to rest until they were given to him.

“Is that true?” Rey asks. “Did someone...do this to me?”

“We believe that you were poisoned with lethewater,” Hecate says finally, glancing briefly at Kylo, as though afraid to overstep her bounds. When he doesn’t reprimand her, she continues, “And the healers say the same.”

With Rey pressed against his side, the tremor that passes through her body is obvious.

“Someone stole my memories,” she whispers fiercely. It is not a question, but a confirmation.

Kylo feels something white-hot and blinding course down the bond. It takes him a moment to understand that it is not just her anger that he senses, but her jealousy. And it is stunning, glorious, because it is him that she is so unwaveringly protective of. Someone has dared to stand between her and the boy who visited her in dreams. They took him from her, and the secret name that he’d whispered to her was lost, blown far away on the wind like tiny shards of glass -

In awe, he realizes that she is not shaking with fear, but with the desire to destroy the person who has done this to them.

“Why would anyone do something like this?” Rey demands.

“You are queen of Chthonia,” says Thanatos. “There are many who would seek to keep from taking your rightful place beside the throne.”

“But Snoke – the Supreme Leader, I mean – he sits on the throne,” Rey says cautiously.

“The Supreme Leader sits upon a piece of rock, carved out of the ground,” Hecate tells her. “A mere symbol. It could be ground into dust, and the true Throne of Chthonia would still remain.”

Yet there is power in symbols, Nyx hums darkly. As it is above, so it is below.

“What does that mean?” Rey questions. “As it is above …?”

So it is below,” Kylo finishes. “It is an old proverb. It means that the realms of the living and the dead are not separate, but one and the same. If the earth is corrupted, the shade world will also suffer; if the dead do not have peace, nor shall the living.”

“And if the earth is healed?”

There is a look in Rey’s eyes that thrills him. A faint flicker of hope, as if she envisions the same future he does.

As if they dream the same dreams.

“It’s a superstitious saying, my queen,” Morpheus says uneasily, and Kylo can’t blame him. This kind of talk…it borders on blasphemous. Treacherous even. “Nothing more. The earth cannot be healed.”

“The earth is already healing,” Thanatos interjects. “What Hecate and I found-”

Enough!” Morpheus reprimands him sharply. “By the Fallen, have you no sense, boy?”

The old man so rarely raises his voice that his sudden outburst shocks Thanatos into silence. The air of the room suddenly becomes heavy and imposing – as though something is lurking, in the dark street just outside the window, in the crevices of the stone walls, and in the flickering shadows cast by the dying fire.

“It is only the knights here,” Kylo reminds him. “Who can we trust, if not one another?”

“Your grandfather...” Morpheus stares at his master, his breathing suddenly labored with emotion. “Your grandfather, Vader Aidoneus, sought to restore the earth, as you do now. He sacrificed everything to do so. He traveled down paths that no King before him dared to walk. And in return, many of his own knights rebelled against him – and helped his heir apparent overthrow him.”

“And because of their betrayal, you now caution me to mistrust my own knights?” Kylo asks, his anger rising. He has many flaws - but never has he been accused of trusting too easily. Every one of his knights has earned their place here.

“No,” says Thanatos suddenly, his eyes fixed keenly on Morpheus. “No, I’ve already told the others what Hecate and I saw. Everyone except Rey. Perhaps it is our new queen that you suspect, Morpheus?”

“She has her own people to think of,” Morpheus says cautiously. “She may be our queen, but her first loyalty is not to us. She only agreed to this union to keep her people safe.”

She agreed because this is where she belongs, counters Nyx. Because it was the will of the Force. She was born to rule Chthonia at our master’s side.

“But I don’t want the Throne,” Rey insists. “Snoke can keep it. I’m not a threat to him. I’m not a threat to anyone.”

“Your very presence on this earth is a threat to the Supreme Leader,” Hecate says gently. “From the very moment your feet touched the ground, you challenged his authority.”

She looks up at Morpheus, her stone-grey eyes imploring trust. The old man sighs in exasperation. He throws his worn hands up, palms facing her in reluctant acquiescence.

“Be it on your own head, Hecate.”

“Kylo found you in the Wastes that night,” Hecate says. “And the next morning, there were flowers growing along the path where he carried you through the desert.”

“A field of them,” Thanatos continues. His voice is strained, his gaze flickering to Hecate, as if to assure himself that he had not imagined it. “There were thousands. Tens of thousands. Small, and very fragile – destroyed by the desert within the hour – but they grew, where nothing has grown in a thousand years.”

“That’s not possible,” Rey whispers tremulously. “I don’t have that kind of…”

She looks down at the hand that Kylo is holding in his own, denial and disbelief darting over her features.

That kind of power? offers Nyx. Not alone, perhaps.

“The lethewater that stole your memories has kept you blind to the Force,” says Hecate. “Whoever poisoned you must have done so with the intent to keep you separate from Kylo, so that you could not fully realize your power.”

“Do you remember anything?” Thanatos asks. “From under the mountain.”

“I remember the Sparrow,” Rey answers. “I remember riding the athanatoi, and the light from the crystals above us. And then everything became dark, but I was still there, under the mountain. I think I had a vision. Of another time, years ago. I was younger, just a girl…”

“You were a child?” asks Morpheus, sounding surprised. “Are you sure?”

“Yes,” Rey nods. “I was very small, and I was alone, and…”

“And?” presses Thanatos.

Lingering echoes of dread pass down the bond, from Rey’s mind to Kylo’s. He sees clipped fragments: great wings blocking out the light from the crystals, wetness on her cheeks and the taste of salt on her lips, and him, the boy Kylo used to be -

Don’t go any further! Stay right here.

Her dread transforms into terror.

“Enough,” Kylo says sharply. “That’s enough for tonight, Thanatos.”

“Kylo,” Hecate intercedes. “She is our queen. We are sworn to protect her. But how can we, if we do not know who wishes her harm?”

For a moment, the only sound in the room is the crackling of flames in the heater.

“There was a man,” Rey says, the tone of her voice distant, as though in a trance. Her hazel eyes grow dim, staring into some unseen world, her mind going back to that empty place where Kylo could not reach her. “He came to find me in the cave. I was...I was afraid of him.”

“Why?” Thanatos asks.

“I don’t know. He was...normal. Ordinary. I didn’t have any reason to be afraid of him. I just was.”

“You saw what he looked like?” Thanatos presses.

“Yes. He was slender and lean, but not thin. And he was dressed all in black, like a knight. He had hair that was gold, but not bright gold. Kind of plain. And his eyes were blue - almost gray, like a storm.”

Her words pierce Kylo’s chest. There was a small part of him, however weak and foolish, that wanted to be wrong. To preserve that last, lingering shred of his own childlike faith in the goodness of the world.

The girl speaks of Starkiller, Nyx says. Do you not think so, Master?

“It can’t be,” Morpheus murmurs before Kylo can reply, his expression troubled. “Vader was before her time.”

No one who met Anakin Starkiller would call him ordinary, Nyx replies. I was speaking of Luke. He was the heir to the Throne, and he had access to the Lethe.

“Starkiller,” Rey repeats, her brow furrowed as she turns slightly to look at Kylo. “Your father?”

“No,” Kylo says immediately, startled that she has remembered such a small detail. He’d proposed to her with his family name, but that was weeks ago. “No, I inherited the Throne through my mother’s side. Anakin Starkiller, later renamed Vader Aidoneus, was my grandfather; Luke Starkiller was his firstborn son. My uncle.”

“But then...” Rey says hesitantly. “I’m not sure I understand. Wouldn’t that make the Throne his, instead of yours?”

Luke Starkiller is a traitor to Chthonia, says Nyx vehemently. He murdered his father in cold blood, only to abdicate the Throne with no heir of his own.

“But if he didn’t want the Throne, then why would he poison me to keep me from taking it?” Rey points out. “It wouldn’t matter to him.”

He was a revolutionary, Nyx tells her. Luke didn’t want anyone on the Throne; he believed it could be used only as a means of oppression and violence. And for as long as Vader served under the Emperor, it was. But in Luke’s fight against the Empire, he lost sight of his duty to Chthonia.

“The shades,” Rey whispers in horror. “If the Throne were left empty…”

“Tell me, Rey,” Morpheus murmurs softly. “If you had to choose between justice for the living, or justice for the dead, which would you choose?”

“I…I don’t know,” Rey says, her voice uncertain. “I don’t know how to answer that.”

“This was the choice that Luke Starkiller faced; and he always did what he thought was right,” Morpheus says. “The others might disagree, especially in light of what you saw beneath the mountain. But I knew him. We were knights together, once. And I find it hard to believe that he could have done this to you, especially given that there are many others more threatened by your power.”

“I’d rather it was Starkiller,” Hecate says wearily. “He’s in exile; no one’s seen or heard from him in years. But if this was the First Order’s doing, then we’re looking for someone inside our own walls.”

Her words hang in the air ominously for a moment, and then little Pasithea yawns, reminding them of the lateness of the hour. The fire has all but burned out and outside the window Kylo can see scattered stars beyond the radiation shield.

It’s late, Nyx says matter-of-factly. And this isn’t a mystery that will be unraveled in an evening. We’ll all keep a sharp eye out for trouble – and until trouble shows itself, there’s no point in losing sleep over it.

***

 

Long after all the lights are put out in the upstairs bedroom, Rey lies awake on her side, facing the wall. She tries not to shift around on her half of the bed, but it’s strange to be sharing the space with someone else. She can’t seem to fall asleep with Hecate beside her.

How odd, then, that she had slipped easily into sleep when she laid beside Kylo in his bed, the rhythmic rise and fall of his chest reminding her of the hum of the Eleusian drives.

It is so tempting to reach out to him now, to let his presence cocoon around her until her mind drifts off, but she hesitates. She knows that it was probably nothing - those few fleeting minutes where he had dulled their connection. It felt rather like being submerged in water, with her head below the surface, all of the sound and light from the world above muted. It wasn’t a complete separation, nor was it unpleasant. But the bond was still dimmed and lessened, and it stings a bit to think that Kylo had withdrawn from her on purpose.

He just needs some separation, Rey tries to reassure herself, pulling the blankets tighter around her shoulders. Some privacy. Everyone needs to be alone sometimes.

In any case, he’d not been cold toward her afterwards. To the contrary, he bent his towering form over her, brushing his lips quickly against hers for all the knights to see. Her mouth had burned, her cheeks had burned, and the kiss had felt like a declaration.

She ought to be content with that, and in a way, she is. When she first agreed to wed him, she had not thought that there could be any sort of true intimacy between them. She’d known from the beginning that their marriage would come with physical obligations, but she never expected him to want her. Given the circumstances of their arrangement, she had steeled herself to receive a cold, entitled husband on her wedding night.

Rey had entirely failed to imagine that he might one day touch her when there was no reason for it. That he might treat her with reverence and respect, instead of resentment. She had not anticipated his passion, or his eagerness for her body. Nor had she expected to want him in return, to enjoy his kisses, to crave more of his touch. Even now, she dares not allow herself to wonder if he might -

No, Rey thinks, even though her heart whispers otherwise. He doesn't.

He can’t.

 

***

“Kneel.”

Finn complies with the order, gritting his teeth so that they will stop chattering. He cannot show any sign of weakness here. As he lowers himself, his knees connect with smooth, cold ground. The air around him is sterile, the voice that issues orders to the slaves even more so. It is an androgynous voice, nondescript, slightly distorted...possibly female.

He doesn’t bother opening his eyes. The blindfold is secured tight, immersing him in darkness. But he strains his ears and flares his nostrils, desperate for any details about his surroundings. The stench of the slave kneeling beside him makes him want to gag. Durasteel cuffs constrain his wrists, just tight enough to remind him that he no longer belongs to himself.

There is a serpentine hiss, and a mechanical groan: the sound of heavy blast doors opening. Precise footsteps echo through the room, then stop.

“General Hux. We’ve been expecting you.”

“I hope I’ve not kept you waiting, captain,” says the newcomer. A male voice, high and aristocratic. He sounds bored.

“Not at all. These are the new recruits.”

“And how much lethewater do we have remaining?”

“According to the Grand Admiral, approximately thirty-five hundred milliliters.”

“That’s all Ren delivered to him?” the man asks, his tone incredulous.

“Unfortunately, yes. There’s enough for two hundred...perhaps three hundred men, if we stretch the supply.”

“I’d rather not,” he answers, clearly displeased. “I want them compliant. Numbers won’t help me, not if they aren’t fully...cleansed.”

The meaning of their conversation is jumbled and incomprehensible to Finn, but his throat still goes dry. His thoughts run wild, generating a hundred gruesome ways in which the compliance of slaves might be coerced. He imagines being submerged in the acidic rainwater from the desert, skin peeling away from his flesh. Or perhaps he and the other slaves will be drowned and resuscitated, over and over again, until they finally accept any order their new commanders might give.

“Which is why I thought you might want to survey them first,” the captain explains. “It may be weeks before the knights return. Until then, we may have to be more...selective.”

“Ren is getting out-of-hand,” says the man unhappily.

“How do you mean?”

“This business with the treaty. The blood rite. Insisting that he take his oath in Jedha. And now this interference with our military operations? The Supreme Leader ought to rein him in, before he becomes...unmanageable.”

“Quite,” the captain answers diplomatically, in a way that suggests to Finn that she has no feelings whatsoever on the matter, and is merely stroking her superior’s ego. “But with the loyalists in support of the treaty, there is nothing that can be done about him.”

“Isn’t there?”

“Sir?” the captain replies evenly.

There is a pause, long enough to imbibe some unspoken meaning into the exchange between the two officers. Finn holds his breath, waiting for the general to continue.

“Two hundred,” the general says perfunctorily. “I trust your judgment. You may send for the Grand Admiral when you’ve made your decisions.”

“Yes, sir.”

She must give some signal to the lower officers, because Finn feels a sharp jab under his ribcage.

“On your feet.”

He winces, stumbling blindly to his feet. At the movement, the energy plates securing his durasteel shackles hum, and the room is suddenly filled with the singing of the slaves’ restrains as they all stand together. Finn feels a sharp tug - the only warning that they are expected to move left - and barely manages to turn and fall into line.

Finn feels the slave behind him reach for edge of his ratty tunic. Bony hands claw against his lower back as the slave uses him as a guide. There is breath, hot and rancid next to his ear.

“How many?” the slave croaks desperately. A woman. “How many did you count, on the ship that brought you here?”

Finn’s stomach sinks as he realizes that she is trying to determine whether she will be one of the chosen two hundred. He had not counted, but the ship that transported him from Niima, a hulking grey freighter, was large enough to carry at least five hundred grown men. And if there were other ships, from other cities…

“Fifty,” lies Finn, trying not to think of what will become of the slaves not chosen by the captain. Finn can’t imagine that military commanders would speak so freely in front of slaves they intend to hand over to new masters. More likely, they will be imprisoned or killed. So the fewer slaves there are here, the better. “Only fifty.”

He expects this news to receive a hopeful sigh of relief, but the hands holding tight to his shirt fall limp and let go, as though Finn has delivered a great blow.

“Maker help us,” the slave prays.

It makes him wonder if death might be preferable to whatever torment the captain has in store for them.

Chapter Text

Leia Organa is an old woman. She feels the winter in her bones when she rises in the morning and when she lies down to sleep at night. The air generated by the Eleusis is so cold that it seems there are thin, razor-blade shards of ice piercing her lungs each time she takes a breath.

And the hunger. The hunger is all-consuming.

The pangs in her stomach when she crawls into her bed at night feel like atonement. She presses her fist hard against her abdomen, trying to quell the emptiness. For some reason, it calls to her memory a time when her belly had been round and full with child.

She’d carried her son for eight months and six days. He’d woken her in dead of night, several weeks too early, and she had labored for ten long hours to bring him into the world. She remembers how tiny he was when he left her, how strange and empty her womb seemed without him, how elated and fearful and unprepared she’d felt when the medic laid him against her chest. And she’d loved him, loved him the moment she laid eyes on him. She’d loved him long before that moment, too, but it was different somehow with him outside of her.

Ben, she’d called him.

Han had muttered something about how little kids shouldn’t have to carry around old-earth names, but she’d conceded on the matter of their son’s surname, and her husband eventually came around to it. The traditional name was fitting, she thought, because her little Ben was so quiet and observant as an infant, his eyes big and dark and ancient, as though he’d lived many lives before this one.

Now, the only evidence that she’d once been a mother are the faded, silvery stretch marks on her stomach. Leia never cries over her son anymore, but on this night the cold and the hunger and the despair overcome her. She had made an unimaginable decision, the kind of decision that no parent should ever have to make.

When Ben was sent to the ground, the medics hadn’t even let her kiss him goodbye. She was a Senator; she couldn’t take the risk of falling ill in the middle of a crisis. But Han was just a low-ranking star pilot, and when the vote came through, he’d insisted on carrying Ben to the child-sized coffin in place of the medical droid.

You’ll surely catch your death, Mon Mothma had said, when Han told them what he planned to do. But Han had always defied the odds, and he had looked the then-Chancellor in the eyes and replied, Then I’ll see you in hell, before walking unflinchingly into the children’s unit of the medbay one last time.

Sometimes she still dreams about that - about how small their son had looked in Han’s arms, how pale and thin and close to death. Her husband had never forgotten either, and he’d never forgiven her. Nor could Leia expect his forgiveness. The vote was unanimous. She had signed the paper that compelled him to bury their son.

On nights like these, Leia tells herself that in sacrificing Ben, she’d given hope to many other parents. She has spent years convincing herself that the burials prevented even greater suffering, that she was sacrificing a few lives to save many.

It was a choice she never thought she would have to make again. As the winter grows longer and deeper, the Senate proposes a winnowing, and she wars within herself. It might be easier this time, she thinks, because the sacrifice will not be hers. She loves her people, individually and as a whole, and every life that she is responsible for weighs on her. But in the secret, quiet places of her heart, she knows that there is no one left for her to lose.

In the end, the winter grants her one small mercy, by stripping her of that terrible choice. The Eleusis can no longer give them heat and air and rations. The cold and the starvation discriminate for the Senate, choosing between the weak and the strong, the old and the young.

The secondary systems fail and ten Eleusians are dead within the first week. Another sixteen are lost in the second; twenty-seven in the third.

There is no way to bury them. The supply of spare metal that is ordinarily used in coffins was used to seal the massive breach in the outer hull, and burnings would be a waste of their precious remaining air.

As the death toll mounts, the Senate orders that the bodies be disposed of in the most efficient way possible - using a method of burial that has been forbidden for nearly nine-hundred years.

Sky-walks.

 

***

 

Rey follows the veiled creature through the shadewood. It crawls along on the ground just ahead of her, leading her deeper into the forest. In the dappled moonlight, she can see its blackened hands reaching out beneath its thin shroud as it drags itself forward on its belly. The creature’s breath is an icy rasp, a grating sound that strikes fear into her heart.

You are its queen, she thinks, staring defiantly ahead. It cannot harm you.

They are nearly there. The forest grows sparse, the canopy overhead breaking up to reveal the sky – and they finally come to a circular field in the middle of the forest. The snow here is undisturbed, a perfect alabaster blanket covering the ground. Rey looks up to see that the black sky is alight with stars. The pinpoints of light hover overhead, suspended for a moment in the heavens, before falling down and down and down.

The veiled one stops. It turns to Rey, the wind wrapping the silken darkness of the fabric around its head. The shroud gathers in the hollows of its unseeing eyes and the hole where its mouth parts. The being looks mournfully up at the sky, at the stars that are raining down in a shower of loveliness.

Long is the day, the creature announces, its voice like the song of a sword through the air. And long is the night.

 

***

 

Rey jolts awake to an empty bed, the covers all tangled up between her legs. Her heart races, until she slowly remembers where she is: not in the haunted shade realm, but the small upstairs bedroom of the little house in Larakei. Pale pink light spills through the slotted window shades in faint, parallel lines. Pasithea and Nyx are still asleep in the other bed, the sounds of their breathing heavy and repetitive.

She extracts herself from the mess of her covers, feeling bad for stealing them all. She didn’t have any siblings growing up, and she’d never taken any men to bed, so she has only ever slept alone. Perhaps it has made her a selfish sleeper.

Her muscles ache in protest, but she ignores them, heading toward the refresher to rinse her face with cold water, washing away the nightmare. She checks her eyes in the mirror, making certain that no one will be able to tell that she has spent the night dreaming of dead things.

Kylo said it wasn’t real, she reminds herself. He said that thing can’t hurt you.

She dries her face and uses the toilet, determinedly setting about her usual morning routine. There are numerous bottles on the sink, but she eventually finds something resembling soap to wash her hands with. It foams, so she tells herself it must be working. Then she pads barefoot out of the room and down the stairs in search of breakfast, trying to be as quiet as possible to avoid waking the others.

Hecate is seated at a round table in the kitchen. She is already dressed in a simple, one-shouldered himation that is belted at her slim waist with strands of selenite beads. Her long hair is pulled back into a lovely chignon. Her eyes flit back and forth over a holopad in her hand, her concentration only briefly broken when she hears Rey enter the room.

“Good morning,” Hecate greets her, swiping across the pad to clear it. Though her tone is normal, pleasant even, the expression on her face is drawn. Whatever she was reading has clearly upset her.

“Morning,” Rey replies, taking a chair on the other side of the table. It’s none of her business, of course, but the now-blank surface of the holopad peaks her curiosity. “Any food?”

“I put the caf on, if you want some,” Hecate replies, nodding towards a big silvery machine on one of the granite countertops. “Usually the others sleep late, so I didn’t make much…but there should be an extra cup or so left. And there’s malaka ribbons in the conservator, and a bit of alshtik left over from last night.”

Rey pads over to the caf dispenser, grabbing one of the mugs that rest beside it. She drains the dispenser down to the last drop – barely enough to fill the mug. The familiar, bitter smell instantly bolsters her spirit.

The conservator is mostly empty, which isn’t a surprise. There are two cartons of unidentified liquids, one bright orange and the other a muted red. It looks as though the other containers are filled with some form of rations. The one on top is filled with long, pale-green bands, just like ribbons, and Rey hazards a guess that the substance is malaka.

“Bowls are on the top left. Utensils in the first drawer on the right,” Hecate tells her.

Rey serves herself a few of the ribbons, skeptical about whether she will like them. The surface looks a bit waxy, like the leaves of tropical, highly poisonous trees she has seen in holorecords.

“Do you cut them?” Rey asks.

“No.” Hecate smiles, twirling her pointer finger in the air.  “You spin them.”

It seems a childish way to eat breakfast, but Rey supposes that on the earth, she should do as the earthlings do. So she stabs one of the strands with her fork, spinning it round and round until the ribbon is coiled up. Then she braces herself and puts it in her mouth.

She’d expected something earthy and a bit dull, but the malaka bursts on her tongue. It’s sweet, but in a slightly tart way – colorful and fresh. The waxy surface is cold, and instead of crunching, it seems to gush with juices when she chews. The aftertaste is sharp, which makes her pucker her mouth a little, but Rey loves it.

Malaka can be a bit…sour,” Hecate explains. “Usually it’s served with synthetea, instead of caf.”

“It’s delicious,” Rey says truthfully, filling her bowl. She sits down at the table, twirling another strand. This time she knows what to expect, and pops it eagerly into her mouth.

She hears a door open down the hall, then close heavily.

“That’ll be Kylo,” Hecate says.

Sure enough, he walks into the kitchen a few moments later, dressed not in sleep clothes, but in his leathers. He looks as though he has just come from outside, his dark hair windswept.

“What are you doing up so early?” he greets Rey, looking surprised to see her out of bed. He leans over, giving her a fleeting kiss – the kind that makes her heart beat just a bit faster in anticipation – and stars, she wishes they had this house to themselves.

“What are you doing up so early?” she counters.

“I like to walk the city wall, before the sun comes up,” he replies, joining them at the table. “You can walk the entire perimeter, if you have the time. It’s quite the sight.”

Rey sips at her caf, wondering why he hadn’t invited her along. She would’ve woken earlier to go with him.

Privacy, she reminds herself. Boundaries.

He must read her expression, because he says, “I didn’t want to wake you. You’re still recovering.”

“You worry too much,” Rey informs him. She twirls another ribbon of malaka, looking down at her bowl to avoid his concerned expression. Any plans she had to tell him about her nightmare vanish. The last thing she needs is to give him one more thing to worry about.

“So I’ve been told.”

“I feel fine,” Rey says, which isn’t entirely a lie, even though her muscles do still ache. The thought of riding the athanatoi with her inner thighs chafed and bruised is hardly pleasant, but it would still be better than the boredom of bed rest. “We could leave today, if you want, so that we don’t lose any time.”

“We can afford to spend a few extra days here,” Kylo says evenly.

“I slept for a whole day,” Rey grumbles. “If I rest anymore, my joints are gonna lock up.”

“Stay here just one more day,” Kylo bargains with her, his eyes crinkling with the hint of a smile – the clever kind, the one that tells her that he’s found a way to get what he wants. Before she can argue, he goes on, “For my sake. You might be tireless, salt-mouse, but I’m exhausted.”

Rey tries not to be amused, but it’s hard.

“Not so exhausted that you couldn’t get up early to walk the wall,” Rey mutters grudgingly. “Fine. One day.”

“But you know, if you’re really feeling better…” Hecate says, ignoring the pointed look Kylo sends her across the table.

“I am!” Rey says, perhaps with too much enthusiasm.

“How would you like to stretch your legs? Come into the city with me and the girls.”

“Oh, that’s perfect,” Rey says, thinking of the Canal with its airy streets and little side shops. “I’d love to.”

“Good, because I put a dress on hold for you. For the ceremony,” Hecate replies. “I was going to the Garment District to pick it up, but if we’re staying another night, perhaps you’d like to approve it yourself. And I’m sure Aleksei would love to fit you personally.”

“Who’s Aleksei?” Rey asks.

“Aleksei Iadeva. The spawn of Tartarus,” Kylo answers good-naturedly, lounging back in his chair. “When he dies, I just might give him a position there – he can torment the shades with his needles.”

Hecate’s eyes turn to steel.

“Don’t be such a child, Kylo. Aleksei is the most talented dressmaker in the east. It’s an honor to wear his designs.”

“He should be honored that his new queen would deign to wear them,” Kylo returns, looking directly at Rey.

It’s a compliment, she realizes. He’s giving you a compliment.

There is a rush of warmth that comes from his praise, but it brings with it a tinge of self-consciousness. Rey has worn only one dress in her life: the black, lace gown she’d worn to Phobetor’s burning. Selecting that dress had seemed very inconsequential, because at the time, she hadn’t been concerned with impressing her betrothed. But things are different now, and at the blood rite, she wants Kylo to find her beautiful - and has no idea what his tastes are.

“Why don’t you come with us?” Rey asks Kylo, hoping he’ll agree. It would be so much easier to have him there. Surely he wouldn’t let this Aleksei person put her in anything that doesn’t suit her.

“I’m not permitted to see you in your dress before the ceremony,” Kylo tells her. “According to old imperial superstition, it would doom the marriage.”

“Oh,” Rey says, more than a little disappointed. “But you don’t believe that?”

“Not at all.”

It occurs to her, perhaps too late, that she has neglected entirely to ask him what sort of wedding he might prefer, given the choice. Back in the Wastes, she had answered his questions about Eleusian weddings, and in return he had described for her how the blood rite traditionally proceeds. But he hadn’t always been king, just as she hadn’t always known she was Chthonian – and it would be only natural for him to have envisioned his wedding differently.

For one thing, he likely never thought that his marriage would be the product of a political arrangement. And for another, she assumes that the union of a king and queen is likely celebrated very differently than that of other couples.

“Then what traditions do you hold to?” Rey asks curiously.

“That doesn’t really matter,” Kylo says evasively, but the look in his eyes betrays him. It is wistful, and longing. She wonders if that was how she seemed to him, when she spoke of Eleusian marriage traditions. “It’s…not important.”

“It is,” Rey replies. “It is to me.”

“I prefer the Rhedonite ceremony,” he says cautiously. “But that won’t be possible for us.”

“Why not?”

“In Rhedon, weddings are very intimate affairs. They hold their weddings on the same night of each lunar month: the first quarter moon. The ceremony is very solemn. Couples who wish to be married come to the tent of the Masnavi-sek, and she weds them all at the same moment, when the moon sets in the darkest part of the night. There are usually only two or three couples – but sometimes many more arrive. When I was young, there was a night when tsarin and nevri – the twin stars of peace and chaos – met in the sky on the same night as the first quarter moon. I thought surely the tent wouldn’t be big enough for the people waiting outside of it, and the masnavi would have to turn some of them away.”

How strange, Rey thinks, sipping at her caf. To be married at the same time as other people.

But another part of her finds the concept rather beautiful, and she allows herself to imagine some other life – a life in which she and Kylo are just two ordinary people, without the pressures and obligations they face now. Perhaps they would court each other for a long time, the moon waxing and waning until the months bled together into years, and with every lunar cycle they would grow more and more certain. But still they would not go to the tent of the Masnavi-sek.

And when they grew older – Too old to still be unmarried, the old, gossipy grandmothers would titter amongst themselves. Whatever are they waiting for? – Rey might teasingly point out the tiniest fleck of grey in Kylo’s dark hair, near his temples. He would just laugh under his breath, and she would lead him into their tent, and into their bed, and into her body. And he would make love to her for the hundredth time – or the thousandth, because by now she has lost count –  all the while saying nothing about the lines that are starting to show at the corners of her eyes.

And then one night, when the moon was fashioned from equal parts darkness and light, he might finally whisper to her in the still hours of the evening: Come with me, anasa.

And she would answer: Yes.

Yes, anywhere.

“There is a certain grandness, in the timing, but also…” Kylo pauses, as though he is struggling to find the right word. Finally, he says, “Simplicity.”

The yearning in his voice makes Rey’s heart ache. Does he ever daydream about the kind of simple life she had just built for them in her mind?

“Well, no one is making the pilgrimage to Ni’Jedha for simplicity,” Hecate says offhandedly, breaking the spell that Kylo’s words seem to have cast over the kitchen.

“How well I know,” Kylo says, his dark eyes inscrutable.

His calloused tone isn’t directed at Rey, but somehow it hurts her just the same. Because it’s not as though this…this display of a wedding is what she had planned for herself, either. No one asked her if she wanted to be married over the course of several long days, to have complete strangers staring at her, scrutinizing her, picking her apart while she makes the most intimate promise of her life.

“We really should get dressed and going,” Hecate tells Rey, standing with a dancer’s grace, her chair making no noise at all on the floor. “Finish up, and I’ll go wake the others.”

“Right,” murmurs Rey, picking up her bowl of malaka, even though she doesn’t feel very hungry anymore. When Hecate steps out of the room, Rey pushes her chair back and walks over to the disposal, scraping the remaining ribbons into the trash. And then she goes to rinse out the bowl in the sink, avoiding Kylo’s gaze the entire time.

This was her fault, really. She shouldn’t have asked him, if she didn’t want an answer.

Over the sound of the running water, the iron legs of his chair scrape loudly across the floor. And before she knows what is happening, he is there next to her, taking the bowl out of her hands and turning her around to face him. She hears him drop the bowl carelessly into the sink behind her, ceramic clattering on metal. There’s nowhere for her to go: the granite protrusion of the counter digs into her lower back as she takes a step back.

“Rey,” he says.

Her hands are wet and she doesn’t know what to do with them. If he would just give her a minute, just one, to compose herself – but he doesn’t, the palm of his right hand grazing her cheek. The bandages wrapped around his knuckles make her want to lean into him, to press a kiss against the swell where his thumb meets his palm. And it’s not fair, because she’d given him his privacy. She hadn’t tried to coax anything out of him when he distanced himself from her last night. The least he could do is offer her the same courtesy.

“Rey,” he insists. “Look at me.”

He waits until she tilts her head up, giving him her eyes.

“That was…very tactless of me.”

“No,” Rey whispers. “No, it was truthful.”

He shakes his head, an appalled look crossing his face. And then it vanishes, replaced with something else entirely, something that makes her blood race.

“This is the truth: I would swear myself to you in the Nekromanteion,” he tells her, his voice becoming low and heated. His thumb moves very, very gently along the curve of her cheek. “I would take the blood rite with you in the city of the dead, if that were the only way to make you my wife.”

It’s not what she expected him to say. She can’t wrap her mind around it – because he’d told her, only days ago, that to take the blood rite in Coruscant would be a cursed thing. Not just bad luck, but actually, properly cursed. And now he’s saying that he would endure that, he would walk the earth a blighted man rather than be parted from her.

“I want nothing else, apart from you,” he says, leaving no room for argument. “Do you understand?”

Rey wants to say ‘yes,’ but her throat closes tight, so that she can only nod.

“Good.”

The stairs creak above them, a warning that Hecate is returning to the kitchen with the others. Kylo drops his hand from her cheek and moves ever so slightly to the right, reaching into the sink to pick the bowl back up. He finishes cleaning it and places it delicately on a metal rack to dry. The domesticity of the task is incongruous with how thoroughly devastated she feels inside.

When the girls enter the kitchen, Rey wipes her hands dry on her sleep pants, and tries to pretend as though Kylo Ren hasn’t just ruined her heart for anyone else.

 

***

 

It is a hot, windswept day. The air whips oppressively over the desert with the promise of a storm. An immense wall of blue-black clouds is gathering far along the western horizon. But the weak sun still shines on Larakei, and the high city walls protect its inhabitants from the wildness of the Wastes.

It will rain, Nyx hums happily beside Rey, as they walk down the broad, cobblestoned street of the Canal. The wind tosses her dark, curly hair around, making the long tendrils dance. But not until tonight.

Rey is glad that her hair is tucked into three tight buns along the back of her head, to keep it out of her face. There is much to see. Her eyes roam over the sandstone-and-transparisteel storefronts, unable to stay focused on any one place for long.

This is clearly a prosperous sector of the city. The shops spill out into the street, the merchants of the Garment District offering passerby brightly colored textiles, tiny golden compasses, artisan jewelry, decorative metalworks, and aromatics for the body and skin. Behind the transparisteel windows, priceless jewels glint in the sunlight. Rey spies emerald earrings as small as raindrops, and a topaz nearly the size of her fist dangling from a long pendant.

She secretly eyes a pair of braided sandals, tall enough to reach her knees and pressed with delicate silvered accents. Pasithea darts ahead to look at dyed scarves that are streaming from open windows, just like the ones Rey has seen women wearing over their long everyday dresses. The scarves dance in the wind, their colors begging her to reach out and catch the ends, to let the fabric slip between her fingers like water. But she doesn’t touch anything, not until she comes across a pair of bright golden fibulae, fashioned into the shape of a chimeric creatures with tiny rubies for eyes.

“They are the oneiroi,” Hecate says, when she catches Rey looking at them wistfully. “Spirits from the land of dreams. They are said to live in a cave under the earth – they come above the ground to whisper the future in mortals’ ears while they sleep, so that they dream of things yet to come.”

“Are they real?” Rey asks curiously, picking one up to inspect it. Her thoughts dwell on her nightmare, and even though mid-morning sun caresses her skin, a shiver runs down her spine. Twice now she has dreamed of the veiled creature in the shadewood – and this time, it spoke to her.

A tiny smile crosses Hecate’s lips. “Who can say?”

“I’ve never seen one,” says Pasithea skeptically.

Of course not, silly girl, Nyx points out. You would have been asleep!

Hecate laughs at that – a bright, cleansing sound – and takes the other fibulae off the table. The knight hands the pin, along with several flat slips of metal, to the merchant, thanking him in his own language, and Rey realizes that Hecate means to buy the ornaments for her.

“Oh, no,” Rey protests, as the merchant wraps the fibulae in black velvet and places it in a wooden box. “You really don’t have to-“

“Don’t argue,” Hecate says, holding out her hand out for the second fibulae. Rey reluctantly places it in her palm. “They suit you; and you really should have some dresses of your own to wear with them. Mine are too long for you.”

It’s true. The asymmetrical hem of the pretty, charcoal-blue dress that Rey borrowed from Hecate this morning reaches to her knees, when it looks made to end at her thighs. The sleeves, arraigned with golden beads in the shape of sunbursts, come down to her fingertips.

And everything in the Naberrie collection is too short, Nyx adds. We could see your ankles at the Burning when you walked.

Hecate says something else to the merchant in parting, and then turns to Rey as they continue together down the street. “The shop will have it delivered to the house. And if you see anything else you like, you should buy it.”

“I can’t pay you,” Rey tells her. “I don’t have any money.”

“Yes, I’ve already spoken to Kylo about that. He seemed quite insulted that I would ask for an allowance for you,” Hecate says, looking amused. “When I asked him for a budget – for the dress, you know – he said, ‘Up to half my kingdom.’ And I suppose that’s true. Half the treasury will belong to you, once you’re married.”

Rey must look very alarmed at the prospect of a dress worth half of her betrothed’s inheritance, because the knight quickly adds, “Don’t worry, he was being sardonic. Handmade gowns are expensive, but you could buy a thousand of them and not even make a dent in the royal account.”

They walk together for a while, as Rey contemplates the fact that she now has more wealth than she will ever be able to spend. The concept of systemic bartering is known to her, but there was no coin on the Eleusis. Survival was a powerful incentive to contribute to the common economy; people worked in exchange for life, and no one had more of any essential good than anyone else. Trade of private possessions was commonplace, but only for disposable items. A chess set in exchange for a datapad, or old holovids in exchange for a child’s nightlight.

Once, she and Jessika had taken some of their knickknacks – dice and card games, an old skipping rope, clothes that were too small – down into the belly of the Eleusis, where people went to barter during recreational hours. And with those childhood possessions, they each bought a pretty, cotton nightgown – the kind not made for sleeping.

Rey never had occasion to wear hers. It is still in her room on the Eleusis, tucked safely away in a box under her sleeping platform.

“Would he notice, if I took monies out of the account?” Rey inquires shyly, an idea suddenly striking her.

Hecate tilts her head, considering the question. “It’s a shared account. But Morpheus handles the finances, and unless you made an expenditure that was truly exorbitant, I doubt either of them would notice.”

“So I could buy him something, if I wanted?” Rey asks. “And he wouldn’t find out about it?”

“You mean a gift?” Hecate replies, looking surprised.

Rey nods.

“I suppose, yes. You could. Did you have something particular in mind?”

“No, I…” Rey says, instantly blushing. “I mean, yes, but…”

A knowing glint appears in Hecate’s stony eyes.

“You know,” she says conspiratorially, looping her arm into Rey’s and falling back, so that Pasithea and Nyx will not overhear them. “There are other Rhedonite wedding traditions.”

“Oh?” Rey says quietly, trying not to let her curiosity show.

“Yes,” Hecate says. “Has Kylo ever told you how the line of Aidoneus was established?”

“No, he hasn’t.”

“There are many different legends, but the Rhedonite version of the story begins during the Hundred-Year Night, when a very powerful man called Sisyphus ruled the land. He was a wicked man, with selfish desires – he lusted after wealth and glory, power and pleasure. He built for himself a hidden palace beneath the earth, with one thousand rooms, and peoples from distant lands came there to offer him tributes of food, spices, wine, and gold.

“But above all these things, Sisyphus sought immortality. He desired it so greatly that he could find no pleasure in his mortal life – food turned to acid in his mouth, and the most beautiful women became dull in his eyes. When his advisors and oracles failed him in his quest for eternal life, Sisyphus sought the counsel of the Keres.

“You see, in those days, ash and darkness covered the earth and the sun could not be seen in the sky. And out of the ashes in the sky, the Force brought to life the shape-shifting race known as the Keres – in their natural form, they were fearsome, winged creatures, who breathed the poisonous air and were immortal. And the Keres possessed their own brand of power unknown to men – they could not be killed by illness or old age, nor could their scales be pierced with any earthly weapon.

“When Sisyphus stood before them, the Keres considered his heart and saw that he was no true ruler of the earth. They refused to tell him the secret of their immortality, though he offered them riches and power.

“So it was that Sisyphus came to rule the entire world, from the eastern ocean to the western, but could not attain that which his heart most craved. He could not even make his name immortal, for all his sons were stillborn – his wife bore him only a single living child. A girl, who was called Heilyn.

“The girl was very beautiful, wise beyond her years, and beloved by her father’s people. But when Heilyn came of age, Sisyphus feared that she would attempt to usurp him and make herself queen of the earth. Though she protested, he betrothed her to Jurius, the lord commander of his armies, so that Jurius would rule Chthonia after him – and Heilyn would become the subject of her husband. But on the night before her wedding, Heilyn fled the palace through the underground caves where she had played many times as a child. And the next morning, the guards searched the entire palace for her – all one thousand rooms. By the time they finished, she was very far away.”

“Where did she go?” Rey asks.

“Under the mountains, to the west,” Hecate says. “And there, deep under the earth, she wept…and the King of the Keres was stirred from his slumber by her crying.

Why do you weep, young one? he asked her. And Heilyn told him, I cry for my home, to which I will never return, and for my people, who will perish under the tyranny of my father and Jurius, the lord commander of his armies.

Do not be afraid, the Keres comforted her. For he was very ancient and very wise; and he could see the future. You have the heart of a true ruler. Go home to the palace of your father; and one day, the earth and all it holds will be yours.

I cannot go home , answered Heilyn. My father has conspired to wed me and give away my inheritance. If I return to the palace, Jurius will be my husband and my king, and will force me to his bed, so that his sons will rule after him.

“The Keres-King heard all of this, and his kyber heart burned bright with compassion for her. With his great claws, he removed a single scale from his hide and breathed on it with solar fire. The scale became soft, and he fashioned it into a long, metal rope. The Keres-King then told Heilyn to take off all her clothes, and when she was naked, he tied the rope around her body – her waist, and breasts, and her thighs – and then he cursed the knot, so that anyone who attempted to undo it without being thrice asked by Heilyn would feel the heat of the Keres-King’s breath on their skin.”

“Did it work?” Rey asks.

“Just as the Keres-King promised. Heilyn returned to the palace, and married Jurius as her father ordered – but when her new husband took her into his bed, he could not touch the chains without burning with solar fire, though no flames touched his skin. When Jurius realized that the magic of the Keres was upon her, he grew angry, and swore to hunt down the beast that had taken what belonged to him.”

“But the Keres are immortal,” Rey says.

Hecate shakes her head sadly. “Jurius was cruel, but he was also cunning, and learned in the ways of the Force. He knew that to give Heilyn such a gift, the Keres-King must have sacrificed something of his own.”

“The scale,” she whispers, her throat going dry.

“In protecting Heilyn, the Keres-King had made himself vulnerable. And so Jurius lead his army into the depths of the mountain, and there, they did battle with the Keres-King. With his sword, Jurius struck down the Keres-King, and carved out his kyber heart to deliver to Heilyn.”

“He didn’t,” says Rey, wondering why Hecate would tell her this story. It doesn’t seem romantic at all. “That’s…that’s an awful ending.”

“The story does not end there. For the Keres-King had a son, Aidoneus, and when he heard what had been done to his father, he set upon the palace, burning all those who stood against him – and Jurius perished in flames and agony.”

“And Sisyphus?” Rey asks.

“The coward fled the palace, but that is another story,” murmurs Hecate. “And a long one, at that. But Heilyn remained with her people, and when her father’s soldiers were reduced to ashes by the breath of Aidoneus, she begged him to show mercy upon the rest of Chthonia. She held out his father’s heart in her palms, and the kyber burned white in her hands, like a living sun. At the sight, the wrath of the Keres-Prince was gentled. He saw that Heilyn’s love for her people was pure, and that she would become a strong and wise ruler. So he fashioned her a throne out of the ground and named her queen over all things above and below. And from his father’s heart, he made her a sword of light, so that she might defend her people.

“When she took the Throne, Heilyn swore that she would have no husband, so that no man would ever rule over her. But Aidoneus remained with her as an advisor to the throne and the commander of her knights, and the two of them became close friends. His love for the Chthonian people grew, and he often chose to walk among them as an ordinary man. As the years passed, Aidoneus revealed to Heilyn the mysteries of the Force, sharing much of his immortal wisdom with her. 

“Although her people prospered under her reign, Heilyn was lonely, for she had come to love Aidoneus. But he refused to wed her, afraid that she would grow to resent sharing her Throne with him. Until one night, she invited him to her private quarters in the palace – and there, she took off a dress as white as pure kyber, and said to him: Aidoneus, untie me.

No, replied the Prince of the Keres. Though he desired her greatly, the curse of his father was still upon her, and he dared not touch her. You swore that you would have no husband.

I swore that no man would rule over me, Heilyn said. But you are my equal; and we shall rule together. Untie me.

No, Aidoneus again denied her. You are of the earth; and I am of the sky. The day will come when we must be parted and I cannot pass through ages of Chthonia without you.

You are my husband, and my king, Heilyn said to him. Even death will not part us, for we will meet again when the world is ended and we are both one with the Force. Beloved, untie me.

“When she spoke thus a third time, Aidoneus undid the knot that his father had placed around her waist – but the solar fire did not burn him, because Heilyn asked him thrice. So it was that Aidoneus, Prince of the Keres, wed Heilyn, Queen of Chthonia. Together, they raised Chthonia out of the Hundred-Year Night: the sky cleared, the sun shone in the heavens, and the era of peace began. And to her father’s palace, which had one thousand rooms, Aidoneus added another, splitting their quarters in two as a reminder that she would always come to him of her own free will.”

“The palace…” Rey says softly, thinking of the two doors in Kylo’s private quarters – one that opened into his bedchamber, and the other into hers. “It’s the same one we live in now. That’s why they call it the Palace of Aidoneus.”

“What makes you think that?” Hecate replies archly.

Oh, Rey thinks blankly. Because how would she know that, if she hadn’t seen the double rooms of Kylo’s private quarters, and spent the night in Kylo’s bed, their bodies pressed together under the heavy blankets?

Hecate just smiles, and spares her the embarrassment of answering. “Yes, that’s why they call it the Palace of Aidoneus.”

“And it really has one-thousand-and-one rooms?” Rey asks.

“So the Rhedonites say. We’ve never counted them.”

Rey has become so entranced in the story that she hardly notices that they have caught up with Pasithea and Nyx again. The two knights emerge from a shop that sells what look to be perfumes, a hundred glass bottles glittering in the window.

What are you two whispering about back there? Nyx questions them, arching a raven’s-wing brow.

“Nothing of importance,” Hecate says vaguely. “I was just telling Rey the tale of Heilyn and the Keres-King.”

“But you still haven’t told me what it has to do with Rhedonite wedding traditions,” Rey points out. 

The Rhedonites adorn their brides with intricate metal ropes on their wedding nights, Nyx tells her. And the challenge is for their husband to untie them.

“It is said that a man who cannot undo his wife’s rope is unworthy of her,” says Hecate with a coy grin. “It’s become…a bit of a euphemism.”

The symbol is not lost on Rey. A simplistic deconstruction might focus on the loss of virginity, the first untying of the rope. But Rey's mind lingers on the fact that the Keres-Prince was chosen thrice. It is a small detail, but it speaks of patience, and commitment, and the dedication of a husband to his wife's pleasure. 

Pasithea giggles. “I hear that there are over a hundred different knots, and that Rhedonite boys practice tying and untying them, so they don’t make fools of themselves.”

If they listened better to the story, they might concern themselves less with knots, says Nyx, her words mirroring Rey's thoughts. And more with permission.

Chapter Text

The moment Rey steps into Aleksei Iadeva’s shop, she feels dirty. The ornate doorway opens into an expansive hallway. Pillars of pristine, white marble with lovely gray veins support a lofty vaulted ceiling. The interior has been kept pleasantly cool, providing a welcome reprieve from the sun-soaked street. And there is a scent that she can’t quite identify lingering in the air, something fresh and citrusy.

“Go on,” says Pasithea, nudging her further inside.

Rey steps forward hesitantly, her footfalls echoing loudly on an immaculate floor of preserved ashwood. It has been kept so clean that she is reluctant to walk on it, afraid her boots will track sand and dirt from the street across the polished surface.

She tries not to stare too much as Hecate leads them forward, but she can hardly help herself, for hanging on the walls are a number of artworks done in the style of old earth. Most are watercolors depicting willowy young women in flowing gowns, the soft hues of paint a stark contrast against the whitewashed walls. Others are artist’s sketches with bold, dramatic lines - and the dresses depicted in them are equally bold, revealing the shoulders and décolletage of the shapley subjects. And still others are traditional oil paintings, with masterful brushstrokes that evoke various textures of fabric and gemstone.

She marvels that the paintings are not kept high up on the walls, as they were in the Palace of Aidoneus, or behind glass so that they cannot be ruined. Artwork on the Eleusis was kept in temperature-controlled storage vaults in the historical archives, far from the eyes of the public. Rey has never been so close to a painting before, and the details draw her in even closer. Were she to reach out and touch the canvas, Rey half-wonders whether she would feel paint or silk under her fingertips.

She realizes that she has fallen behind Hecate, too distracted by the displays, and lengthens her stride to catch up.

“Did Aleksei paint all of these?” Rey asks breathlessly.

Hecate nods in confirmation.

“They’re beautiful.”

“They are, aren’t they?” Hecate says appreciatively, pausing to consider the gold-framed paintings. “Aleksei is somewhat indulgent, I suppose. Canvas and paint are very expensive, far more so than charcoal, but that hardly matters to him, not when his work has become renown from Coruscant to Cadrak.”

“He’s very wealthy, then?”

“Quite. And Aleksei has no qualms about spending his fortune. He has become a famous patron of all forms of art. Rumor has it that last year he paid over a million credits to commission carbon-fiber instruments for a full orchestral performance at one of his banquets…”

A wistful look crosses over Hecate’s face, and Rey understands why. Rey has only ever seen musical instruments in holos. She wonders what it would be like to hear one played, not through speakers or a headset, but in a grand, lofty auditorium. Would the melody reverberate off the walls, or would the notes be contained so that each one pierces through the air like an arrow?

“I think perhaps that’s why he and Kylo don’t get on well,” Hecate says offhandedly.

“Kylo doesn’t like art?” Rey asks incredulously. It seems impossible to her that Kylo would not see the beauty in music or paintings. Her betrothed might be the King of the Dead, but she knows well enough that he isn’t passionless.

I think Hecate was referring to Aleksei’s more exorbitant tendencies, Nyx interjects. Not just with his patronage, but with…other sensory experiences.

Rey decides against asking what sort of experiences Aleksei indulges in, but she can wager a fairly solid guess. Her thoughts fly to practices that were forbidden on the Eleusis – illegal moonshine passed around shadowy rooms, dulled senses from drugs stolen from the medical facilities, and the warped secret of bodies pressed together in those distorted moments.

Rey was far too smart – or perhaps too cautious – to risk getting caught doing anything banned by the Senate.

“Kylo does like art, though,” Pasithea assures her. “He goes to the exhibition of the masters every year. And Morpheus told me he used to paint, when he was younger.”

“What? He did?” Rey asks, her eyes widening at this unexpected revelation. It seems she still has things to learn about her soon-to-be husband. A sudden longing overcomes her, and she says immediately, “I’d love to see his work.”

“You can’t,” Hecate replies immediately, with a disappointed shake of her head. “He gave it up years ago.”

Erebus, my late husband, tried to teach him, Nyx explains. He thought painting might help channel some of Kylo’s…volatility. But Kylo could never find a way to be still and patient. I think painting only made him frustrated that he couldn’t achieve the vision he held in his mind. He often became unhappy, and destroyed his work...and eventually he stopped altogether.

“Was he any good?” Rey asks, fighting the sinking feeling in her stomach as she realizes that she will never know what kind of artist he was. That window into his soul has been closed to her.

Nyx gives her an exasperated, motherly smile.

Erebus thought he was talented, even if Kylo didn’t.

The hallway opens into an immense, domed rotunda with a transparisteel ceiling that allows red-gold light to scatter throughout the room. There is not a single speck of dust dancing in the sunbeams.

The high glass ceiling reminds Rey of a greenhouse, even though there is no greenery to be found. Instead, there is a round pool of peaceful, dark water in the center of the floor. And all around the pool, arranged on posed, marble statues like trees in an orchard, are dozens of white dresses.

Rey feels as though her eyes are playing tricks on her. Surely no fabric could remain so untouched by time - and yet the dresses are very real, presented proudly in the full daylight, without blemish or stain.

From the orangery of dresses emerges a thin, elderly man with silvering hair - and Rey knows he must be Aleksei Iadeva. Despite his age, he is not decrepit, and he walks with a trained, graceful air. His clothing is unassuming, but there are many jeweled rings on his fingers that glint in the sunlight.

He bows to Rey and then straightens, offering her his right hand. Rey takes it - and she feels his hand shake under her fingertips. His grip is unsteady, but his greeting is warm.

“It is an honor, your highness, to meet you in person,” says Iadeva. “All of Chthonia has been holding its breath in expectation of your arrival. I did not think I would live to see a queen reign from the Nekromanteion once more.”

“The honor is mine,” Rey replies, still stunned at the world of white around her. “Your creations are…” She trails off, trying to find the right word. In the end, she says, “I’ve been told of your talent. But it is another thing entirely, to see it with my own eyes.”

“You have been told? By whom?” Aleksei laughs. His eyes crinkle pleasantly at the corners. “Certainly not your betrothed.”

“No,” Rey admits. “Not by him.”

“Then it is well you are here, Rey,” he says. “Perhaps you will speak in my defense when your cold-hearted husband tries to throw me into Tartarus.”

Rey smiles, thinking back to the conversation with Kylo earlier that morning. She had sensed no real malice from him when he spoke of Aleksei’s wayward pins. To the contrary, she suspects that he might harbor a soft spot for the dressmaker, despite the clash in their natures.

“Kylo is not so cold-hearted as you think. Perhaps I won’t have to.”

The dressmaker leans in close, as though sharing a secret with her. “Ah, but you do not know my sins as he does. They are countless in number - and the King of the Dead shows no mercy.”

“Neither do I.”

Aleksei’s eyes widen slightly, and Rey smiles sweetly at him. Then, seeing that she is only teasing, he throws his head back in a laugh that reaches to the glass ceiling. He places a many-ringed hand over his chest in mock despondency, playing along.

“Alas! If you are as immovable as Kylo Ren, then there is no hope left for me.”

 

***

 

Iadeva pulls the gown that Hecate put on reserve and instructs a male attendant to help Rey into it. She slips out of her boots and her borrowed day dress, draping the latter over the back of an empty chair. Being half-clothed with everyone staring at her makes her more than a little uncomfortable. She is still growing accustomed to baring so much skin to strangers. It is a small reassurance that her underthings are modest and that Chthonians seem much less sensitive than she is about nudity.

The young man - a boy really, as he can’t be more than sixteen - offers his arm to Rey. He steadies her as she steps into the yards and yards of fabric.

Sewn into the torso of the dress is a bleached sharbone corset that Rey knows she could never in a hundred years manage to lace up on her own. She eyes it warily. It looks as though it could easily crush her ribcage. Fortunately, the attendant seems to note her trepidation and does not tighten the strings too much, leaving just enough room for her to breathe.

“Come, stand here,” Aleksei says, ushering her onto a raised, circular platform near a grand mirror. Rey struggles not to trip over the heavy skirt as she steps onto the dais. If she can’t manage a few steps, how will she survive a whole day in it?

Nevertheless, the gown is admittedly dazzling to look at, with a straight neckline and a full, dramatic skirt. The fabric itself is barely visible, hidden beneath lines of silvery beads that cascade down her torso to the hemline. The beadwork is broken only by rays of flawless, white diamonds that glitter whenever she turns. In the sunlight, the dress gives off the overall effect of a shower of stars, raining gloriously down from the heavens. The attendant produces a lengthy veil, too, attached to a heavy headpiece that settles over the crown of her head.

“Stunning,” Aleksei declares, folding his hands together near his lips as he considers the fit of the dress. “You have unparalleled taste, Hecate, darling.”

“Thank you,” Hecate says, accepting the compliment gracefully. “At first, I thought perhaps a more traditional cut would be more appropriate, given the rite. But himations have become so commonplace. I feared that the effect of a slimmer silhouette would be underwhelming.”

“Just so,” he agrees. “These are modern times - and this dress is very regal. It suits you well, Rey.”

She looks into the mirror and runs her hands over the skirt, her fingertips catching on the hard gemstones. The dress feels impenetrable to her, as though she is clad in very expensive armor.

What do you think of it, Rey? questions Nyx, fixing the veil so that it falls over her shoulder. It spreads out behind her like a silvery river.

“It’s very beautiful,” she answers truthfully, even as she tries to pinpoint why she doesn’t feel right wearing it. “More beautiful than anything I’ve ever worn in my life.”

Ah. Nyx winces. You should take it off, then.

“What do you mean, Nyx?” Pasithea says quizzically. “It looks perfect on her!”

It does indeed. But she is clearly unhappy with it.

“What? No! I’m not. I’m really not, I just…” Rey stammers, trying to explain what has come over her. It seems selfish to critique a dress that any woman in her right mind would be thrilled to wear for even a few minutes. She reminds herself that if she had married on the Eleusis, she would have had no dress to wear at all. And yet...

Simplicity, Kylo had murmured earlier that morning at breakfast, with longing in his voice and eyes. It seems a very girlish wish, but Rey wants him to look at her like that, when he first sees her at the ceremony.

“I really do loathe it when you Force-users keep me out of the loop like this,” Aleksei mutters, throwing a pointed look at Nyx. “Whatever is the matter?”

“It’s just...I suppose it’s a bit heavy for me,” Rey tells him reluctantly.

“Then we shall put you in something else,” Aleksei says instantly, motioning to his attendant to help her out of the dress. Much to Rey’s relief, he does not look the slightest bit offended. “We’ve no shortage of dresses here!”

That is certainly not an understatement. Her rejection of the first dress seems to pose a welcome challenge to the designer. He issues a stream of orders to the attendant and the boy begins stripping the displays of their garments.

Rey finds herself trying on one dress after the next until they all blur together. Aleksei puts her in an embroidered, form-fitting dress that reveals most of what little cleavage she has, clinging to her torso and waist and hips only to flare out dramatically at her knees in a long train; a gossamer sheath with a spectacular golden collar and belt; and a more traditional, one-shouldered gown with copious japor beading and a translucent bishop sleeve that gathers at her wrist.

The more dresses she tries on, the more concerned she becomes. The garments look illustrious on the stands, but when she tries them on in front of the mirror, none of them are to her liking.

“Why don’t you sit down for a bit,” Aleksei says after she tries on her dozenth dress. “I’m going to pull a few gowns from the studio. Cor, could you bring the ladies something to drink, please?”

Iadeva retreats through a set of ivory-painted doors, and the boy dashes off to the far side of the room. He returns with glass flutes filled with a sparkling, golden liquid. Rey slips out of her dress and into a long, silky robe. She collapses into a high-backed chair between Hecate and Pasithea with a groan.

“Oh, Rey,” says Thea bracingly. “You’ll find something, I just know you will.”

“Maybe it’s because I selected them,” Hecate murmurs apologetically. “I wasn’t certain of your taste, so I just chose some of my favorites from among his sketches.”

“I’m not sure my taste in dresses can be trusted anyway,” Rey replies despondently, taking the glass that the attendant offers her. She sips at it, the faint taste of alcohol buzzing across her tongue. “Of the two of us, you would know Chthonian fashion better.”

“What sort of gown are you looking for?” the boy, Cor, asks her. He is tall, with a slender face, olive skin, and very black eyes. Black like the pool of water in the center of the room.

Rey looks up at him in surprise. It is the first time the question has been put to her. “I...I don’t know.”

“Give me words. Any words that come to your mind.”

“I just want to look myself in it,” Rey admits. “I would prefer something...more intimate? A softer dress. Something delicate, romantic...”

She stops, realizing how sentimental she sounds. She half-expects the boy to laugh at her. It sounds silly now that she says it out loud. It’s just a dress. How can she expect it to encompass all of those things?

“May I show you Aleksei’s sketchbook? There are a few dresses you might like.”

Rey nods eagerly and Cor beams at her. He crosses over to a low side table and skims through several leather-bound books. When he finds the one he is interested in, he marks the page with his finger.

“Here,” he says, handing it to Rey. “This one. She is called Elishastra, which means ‘daybreak.’”

“The dresses have names?” Rey asks, laughing a little.

“But of course. How else are we to distinguish between them?”

She looks down at the sketch. The name of the dress was chosen well.  The thin, flowing pencil lines evoke a sense of peace and gracefulness...like a quiet dawn arriving over a vast meadow, the pale morning light gently putting out the stars one by one.

She can imagine just by looking at the drawing how the material of the skirt might shift with her movements, flaring out subtly from a natural waistline. It is a more revealing dress than she expected Cor to recommend for her: the sleeves are made of what looks to be illusion fabric and the neckline would bare her collarbones and the curve of both shoulders. A smaller reference sketch, placed in the lower right-hand corner of the page, indicates that her back would be almost entirely exposed. The fabric is shown parting in a deep vee down to the base of the spine.

“The underskirt and the bodice are made from Dathomir spider silk,” Cor tells her. “It is slightly heavier than other silks, meant to give the dress some weight. What you see in the drawing here, the outermost layer, is a fabric crafted from moth fiber and transported all the way from Larakei’s sister-city in the Lovetus region. It is very light, almost sheer, so it will catch the sunlight.”

“And these?” Rey says quietly, ghosting her fingertips over a pattern of delicate charcoal leaves and budding perennials embossed against the illusion fabric. “Are they lace? Beads?”

“No, my queen. They are sewn with Visgura thread. There is some beading at the waist here, and scattered throughout, made from hand-drilled white opal, but the stones are very small.”

“Do you think it’s too simple?” Rey asks faintly. “The others were quite extravagant, by comparison.”

“Not at all,” Cor says. “It is said that -”

“Cor!” Aleksei says sharply.

Rey’s eyes snap up from the sketch, startled by the sudden interruption.

“What are you doing?” Aleksei rebukes his assistant. “My deepest apologies, my queen; it was hardly his place to -”

“No, it’s alright,” Rey says quickly. “Cor was just showing me your sketches. This one...it’s absolutely beautiful. I would love to see it on.”

There is a long, tense moment in which Aleksei stares not at Rey, but at his attendant. The old man’s jaw clenches tight. Then he holds out his hand to her. “May I?”

Rey hands the book over to him.

“This gown is from the newest collection,” Aleksei says, snapping the sketchbook shut. “I’m afraid it isn’t ready to be worn.”

“It’s nearly complete,” Cor replies tersely. Despite his master’s obvious displeasure, the boy stands straight-backed and perfectly composed, his black eyes revealing nothing. “And the tailoring and beading could be finished overnight.”

“Could they?” Rey asks breathlessly.

“Oh, go on, Aleksei,” Hecate says. She smiles prettily, attempting to dispel the lingering tension between the dressmaker and his attendant. “Do let her try it on. Otherwise we’ll be here until nightfall.”

Iadeva’s grip on the sketchbook tightens, his knuckles going white. And then his expression clears, almost as if he had never been upset in the first place.

“Very well,” Iadeva says. He smiles pleasantly, but it does not quite reach his eyes as it had before. “Bring out the sample for her majesty.”

Rey breathes a sigh of relief, throwing an apologetic look at Cor as he hastens to obey Aleksei’s order. She hadn’t meant to get him in trouble.  

As always, Hecate knows just what to say to cut through the heavy silence that has settled over the room. “Thank you, Aleksei. I know you don’t like to rush your work.”

“Anything for her royal highness,” says Iadeva, inclining his head towards Rey. “However, I fear that the dress is quite unfinished. It is not something I would ordinarily show to anyone. And to complete it overnight...”

“Take your time,” Hecate replies. “Kylo would be all too pleased if we were delayed another few days in the city.”

“Wouldn’t he just,” Rey mutters, sipping at her beverage. Nyx raises an eyebrow at her, and she realizes that the words might have come out with a bit more bite than she’d intended.

He’s concerned for you, dear, Nyx says soothingly. It doesn’t mean he’s not just as impatient as you are to reach the Holy City.

“I’m not impatient,” Rey says, her cheeks burning. The lie sounds unconvincing even to her own ears. Her patience wanes with every passing day. And to think that she’d been the one who first suggested they wait until after the marriage ceremony.

Nyx just smiles and takes a sip of her drink. If you say so.

The doors at the far side of the rotunda open. Cor emerges with the dress from the sketchbook...and it’s just as Aleksei had drawn it. Pure white and lovely as the dawn.

“Can I…?” she whispers, watching as Cor readies the dress for her to try it on. It seems impossible that something so beautiful could be meant for her.

“Of course,” Aleksei says. “Let’s see you in it.”

He leads her to the mirror. The silk is soft and thin as rose petals against her skin as she steps into it. Cor secures the dress against her waist as she slips her arms into the delicate, illusion sleeves. The threaded pattern of white leaves and flowering buds contrasts starkly against her tanned skin. The bodice is fitted, the feminine neckline exposing a subtle hint of the valley between her breasts.

Cor kneels low to spread the skirt out behind her.

“Here,” he says quietly. “Turn.”

She obeys, forgetting how to breathe for a moment at the sight of the gown in motion. When she sees the delicate curve of her back narrowing to her waist, she feels like one of the women in Aleksei’s paintings, and is suddenly very overwhelmed. Inside, she is still just Rey, just an Eleusian girl who spends her days working the fields with dirt under her nails, but this dress makes her look elegant and feminine and…

Chthonian.

“Shall I get the pins?” Cor asks her.

 

***

 

Rey can’t stop staring at herself in the mirror. There is much debate raging around her as Aleksei painstakingly pins the dress for the alterations. The girls discuss whether she should wear a veil, how she ought to do her hair, if the exposed back will permit her to wear undergarments, and how short Aleksei might do the hem.

“She won’t be able to wear shoes in the temple,” says Pasithea. “It would be better to raise it a few inches.”

“But then her ankles will show the rest of the day,” points out Hecate.

Rey winces as Aleksei inadvertently pokes her wrist with one of the pins. The tremor in his right hand is more noticable now that he has been put to a task requiring such precision. It takes him a long time to do the first sleeve.

“Could we see her in a veil, Aleksei?”

A veil would cover the back, says Nyx. And that would be such a shame…

“What about a headpiece?”

“Of course. Let me see what I have,” Aleksei says. He motions to Cor. “Finish these.”

The boy assumes Aleksei’s place and begins pinning her sleeve with pinpoint accuracy. Rey watches with wide eyes as he expertly affixes the new pins in strategic places. When he’s finished, he undoes all of Iadeva’s pins, too, replacing them more securely in a matter of seconds. He moves on to her other sleeve, taking care not to prick her.

The voices of the girls behind her suddenly seem very distant. Rey reaches out without thinking, stilling Cor’s arm. The boy freezes, looking at her.

“The sketch,” she whispers, her stomach dropping like she has missed a step on the stairs. She should have seen it sooner.

“Your highness?”

“Aleksei couldn’t have drawn it...his hand...”

“I don’t know what you mean,” Cor says unflinchingly, his black eyes revealing nothing. He puts several pins in his mouth and bends low to work on her waist.

“I think you do,” Rey insists.

Cor looks up at her imploringly, the tiny silver pins glinting between his lips. Through partially closed lips, he murmurs, “How long would you like the hem?”

Rey grits her teeth, realizing that he might be nearly stubborn as she is. “I don’t know. Maybe you should ask for the designer’s opinion.”

The corner of his lip quirks up, just a little, but then he grows serious once more.

“Please don’t say anything,” he murmurs, kneeling to work at her hemline. “I’ve been here since I was nine. Aleksei has taught me everything I know.”

She can hear the unspoken gaps in that story. The sense of debt and obligation.

“And how long since…?”

“The year before last,” Cor says, his voice growing so quiet that the words barely reach her ears. “He managed for a time. Even now, many of the dresses are based on his old sketches. But the tremors have worsened over the past months.”

Rey looks into the mirror at the gown that is not Aleksei Iadeva’s.

“You shouldn’t let him take the credit for your talent,” she says softly, so the others won’t hear. “If you ever wanted it, there would be a place for you in the Palace of Aidoneus.”

Cor stares fixedly at the place where her dress skims the floor for a long time. Then, he brushes the back of his hand against his cheek, takes the last pin from his mouth, and fixes it to her skirt.

“One day, perhaps,” he says, standing up to survey his work. There is pride in his dark eyes. “For now, let’s see about something for your hair.”

 

***

 

Everything seems a little darker and dimmer when Rey steps out into the busy street of the Canal again. The clouds are advancing on the city and the wind kicks up tiny sandstorms around their feet. The grains swirl in tight circles only to settle contentedly back to the ground moments later.

“Are you sure it’s not going to rain until tonight?” Hecate asks Nyx.

Very sure.

The downpour begins less than a minute later, a few tiny drops against Rey’s cheeks and forehead serving as the only warning before the sky bursts opens. Hecate laughs, tugging Pasithea along from one awning to the next, and Rey and Nyx run after them.

They’re soaked through soon enough, but it’s a warm, refreshing sort of rain. Rey pushes her tongue out to swipe across her bottom lip. The water is clean, the patchwork of filters above their heads working flawlessly.

“Come on, keep up!”

The sidestreet opens into a plaza and the girls dart across it towards a building that stands several stories taller than the others around it. Hecate heaves open the heavy iron door and they all run inside, laughing and dripping water on the sandstone floor. Inside, the space is dark and imposing, lit only by a single row of lanterns overhead. Standing at the end of the entrance hall is a second door, with a great brass knocker perched at shoulder-height.

“Where are we?” Rey asks, undoing her wet hair. She combs her fingers through it, then pulls it back up into three neat buns.

A positively wicked grin crosses Hecate’s delicate features. “The House of the Spinners.”

“What do they spin?”

Hecate’s smile widens further, gleaming white in the torchlight.

“Oh,” Rey says faintly, grateful for the semi-darkness so that the others won’t see her cheeks flaming. “The ropes?”

“We don’t have to go in,” Hecate assures her quickly. “Just say the word and we’ll leave.”

Rey’s blood is suddenly pounding hard through her veins, a nervous heat pooling low in her stomach. For the first time, it occurs to her that wearing metal ropes for Kylo on their wedding night would be potently symbolic. The intimacy of such a gesture would make it impossible to pretend that their connection is rooted solely in physical attraction. Allowing him to untie her would signify that there is more between them than a mere political arrangement. It would serve as an admission that the feelings she carries for him cannot be explained away by convenience, or necessity, or even desire.

Would such a gift be deceptive, when she knows that her people are preparing for war? Is it wrong to allow Kylo to believe in the permanence of their marriage, when it could be so easily ripped apart?

It is one thing to invite him into her bed...and another thing entirely to grant him access to her heart.

You could tell him the truth, a tiny voice inside her head whispers. He has waited years for you. He wants nothing else apart from you. When the time comes, he will turn from the First Order.

But close on the heels of that thought comes a seed of doubt, a poisonous thing that germinates in the soil of her heart. She can’t help but remember Snoke’s decrepit form, bending down from the throne that rightfully belongs to the King of the Dead. In her mind’s eye, she sees the Supreme Leader’s keloid-scarred cheeks hollowing as he whispers in Kylo’s ear. The image of his deformed hand clutching at Kylo’s shoulder still haunts her. What sort of power does Snoke have over her betrothed, that Kylo would allow him to hold all of Chthonia in his clutches?

Until she knows how deep Kylo’s devotion to the Supreme Leader runs, she can reveal nothing of the Eleusian winter or the Chancellor’s preparations for war. It is too great a risk.

“We really don’t have to,” Hecate says, seeing the indecision written all over Rey’s face. “Come on, let’s go back to the house -”

“No,” Rey says quickly, shoving her concerns determinedly aside. The Supreme Leader might rule over the entire earth, but she will give him no place in her marriage. She wants to give a gift to her husband - and she’ll be damned if she lets the fear of a tyrannical old man stop her. “We should go in.”

Wicked girl, Nyx chides her, but her black eyes gleam delightedly. Are you trying to kill our poor master?

“Oh, hush, Nyx,” Hecate says. “If you tease her so, she will lose all her courage.”

“Shall we knock, then, before she thinks too much on it?” Pasithea laughs.

Having made up her mind, Rey strides forward and lifts the knocker. She lets the brass head fall back on the door loudly, the heavy sound of metal on wood strengthening her resolve.

The door opens wide and a wave of light and heat washes over her. The smell is unlike anything she has ever encountered - coal dust, molten iron, and a thick, sweet undercurrent of honey.

Standing in the doorframe is a lean woman, with brown skin and black hair that falls over her shoulders in numerous braids. Metal adornments are scattered through her hair, glinting gold in the light of a fire that blazes behind the woman’s back. Her arms are bare, with wiry muscles and burn marks on her forearms.

“Well, don’t just stand there, dripping on the floor,” the woman says impatiently, motioning them to come inside.

A roaring fire rages at the back of the large, oval-shaped room. It is contained within a great iron furnace that has been fashioned into the head of a strange animal. Moonstone eyes blaze from inside a noble, serpentine head. The creature’s mouth is open wide, revealing teeth like daggers and fiery breath.

The flames scatter a flickering light over the walls, where there are beautiful strands of coiled metal ropes hanging on iron fixtures. Some look thick and sturdy, while others are slender and delicate as strings. There are chains composed only of simple silver links, and intricate ropes that must have taken weeks to craft, their lengths adorned with rubies and diamonds.

A group of brown-skinned women work near the furnace, heating various metals and crafting them into long, thin strands. When the strands grow hot enough, the metal turns molten red with heat and one of their number rises to her feet. She moves almost too fast to see, using a short metal instrument to drape and spin the liquid strand around a slender rod until it is coiled tight, like the body of a snake around a tree branch. It cools quickly, turning from crimson to pale gold in a matter of seconds. When she is satisfied with the resulting coil, she takes a vibroblade and cuts lengthwise down the rod - and the gold is severed into a hundred tiny rings.

“If you’re here for jewelry, you’re in the wrong place,” says the woman who greeted them at the door, eyeing them suspiciously. “We only do knots.”

“Oh, that’s alright,” Rey assures her, tearing her eyes away from the furnace. “That’s why we’ve come.”

This seems to draw the attention of the other workers. They sneak unsubtle glances at Rey over their shoulders. One of the younger girls shakes her head, rolling her eyes at her coworker as she shoves another rod of pale golden metal into the fire.

“You’re from Rhedon?” the woman asks smoothly, but there is a edge in her voice.

“Oh, no,” Rey says, thrown a bit. She realizes suddenly that this shop must not be frequented by non-Rhedonite women very often, given the origins of the tradition. Rey stands out like a sore thumb, with her tanned, freckled skin and hazel eyes. Her stomach coils up like one of the molten strands, and she worries that she has offended them by coming here.

“I...I’m engaged...to a man from Rhedon,” Rey quickly explains, and their hard expressions soften just a bit.

“Anyone we know?” calls out one of the girls.

Everyone in the eleven tribes knows him, foolish girl, Nyx’s voice mutters in her head, and Rey thinks of what a blessing it must be to hurl insults without being heard.

“Kylo Ren,” Rey says, keeping her voice even.

The name of her betrothed is greeted by a flurry of words in a language that must be Rhedonite. There are peals of bright laughter from the younger girls, and Rey hears his name - Strei-kai-loro - being tossed among them in a way she doesn’t quite like.

The oldest of the women hushes them.

“Let’s see you then, child. Come here, into the light.”

Rey takes a few steps forward. The gray-haired woman stands, wiping her soot-stained hands on her skirt, and studies Rey for a long time.

“Such a shame,” says the woman finally, with a tinge of melancholy in her voice. “I think Dhatri would have liked to meet you. She was always so worried that he would be alone.”

These words, and the implicit approval that comes with them, makes Rey feel like a small sun has taken up residence in her chest. She knows that Kylo had been shown very little kindness in his early life. The only warm memories she has ever felt in his mind are from the time he spent in Rhedon. And if the woman who saved him, who gave him a home for however brief a time, would have found her worthy to marry him…

“I would have liked to meet her, too,” says Rey softly.

“If Strei ended up alone, it would have been his own fault,” interjects one of the girls, who looks to be a few years older than Rey. “The real shame is that he never had eyes for anyone.”

“Bitter much, Kashvi?” coos one of the other spinners, as she uses a iron wand to loop a hot band of crimson metal around one of the long rods. “Perhaps you would have liked to spend a night in the Palace of Aidoneus.”

“And sleep in that cold bed?” replies Kashvi, with a coy smirk. “I think not.”

“Doesn’t look like it will be cold for much longer,” crows another girl, winking at Rey. Her words send another round of laughter among the women.

“Chains are on the walls, Strei-kai-loran,” says the oldest woman warmly. “Find one you like - and we’ll tie you a knot that will leave the King of the Dead with blistered fingers.”

Rey stifles a laugh, imagining Kylo’s large hands fumbling across her skin and how frustrated he would be if he couldn’t figure out how to undo the delicate strands of metal. She walks towards the curved wall to her right, perusing the metal ropes. The golden strands here are not bright and brassy, but a pale white-gold that seems to shine with a soft, inner light. The tiny, delicate rings have been looped together in various chain link designs to form the solid ropes.

“So...you’ll tie the knots here?” Rey asks curiously.

“We could show you how to tie them,” says Kashvi, a shrewd grin crossing her lips. “But then you’d know how to untie them...and that would defeat the purpose, don’t you think?”

“Has anyone ever gotten...um...stuck?” Rey asks apprehensively.

The spinners howl with laughter at her innocent question. The oldest woman wipes a tear from her eye with the back of her hand.

“No, child,” she chuckles, deep and throaty. “I think you’ll find men can be very determined, when they set their minds to something.”

Rey circles the room once. A simple chain in a byzantine pattern catches her eye. At both ends, a single white opal in the shape of a raindrop is fastened to the last ring.

When she has made her selection, the oldest woman, whom the others call Jyothi, escorts her into a small side room to tie the chains. There is a tiny mirror on the wall, but it is not tall enough to reflect her entire body.

“What style of dress will you wear?” asks Jyothi.

“The neckline comes off the shoulder,” Rey says, drawing her pointer fingers from her sternum out to the curve of both shoulders. “And the back is entirely open.”

Jyothi thinks for a moment.

“I think I will tie the primary knot below the waist then,” she says. “And I’ll teach you a few simple knots, so that you can vary the placement around your shoulders depending on what you wear, and the ropes will not show. Undress for me?”

Rey strips out of her clothes and undergarments, grateful that the oldest spinner is tying her chains, and not one of the younger girls.

“The first knot will fall here, I think,” says the woman, touching the soft skin just below her belly button. “The secondary knot will rest on your mid-back, with the jewels falling beneath it; I will make it simple, so that an attendant can undo it for you.”

Rey nods, feeling very exposed in her nakedness, especially given that she is entirely unfamiliar with the grooming practices of Chthonian women. She knows that some Eleusian men encouraged their partners to shave their bodies completely bare, but she hadn’t ever had a reason to do so. Faced with the prospect of being naked before Kylo, she wonders nervously whether he has such a preference.

Don’t be ridiculous, she thinks. You keep yourself clean; that’s all that matters.

Jyothi takes the long strand and sets to work, wrapping it around Rey’s hips. Despite her age, the spinner’s fingers are swift, and within a few minutes the delicate strands have formed a beautiful cage around her waist and thighs. The result is more decorative than protective, made to entice rather than to repel. The slender ropes wouldn’t actually keep a persistent husband away.

But that, of course, is not Rey’s objective.

The knot that lies against her waist is heavy, the strands joining together to form an intricate design. She worries at her lip. She can’t make sense of how it has been tied, but she hopes Kylo won’t struggle too much with it.

“It’s a traditional knot that symbolizes a union between equal and contradictory elements,” Jyothi tells her. “Heilyn was of the earth, and Aidoneus was of the sky; she was mortal, and he immortal. Only together could they bring peace to the earth.”

“It’s perfect,” Rey says, surprised at the thoughtfulness in her choice of knot.

The spinner smiles warmly. “I’m going to tie a square knot at your back, to balance the weight. Are you familiar with it?”

Rey nods. Square knots are incredibly basic. Even young children on the Eleusis know how to tie them.

“Watch carefully,” she says, draping the two ends of the slender rope over Rey’s breasts and shoulders to tie them into a simple knot at her back. Then she pulls the remaining length back over Rey’s shoulders, repeating the process until five delicate strands adorn each of her breasts. She does the same thing again, except this time she uses the square knot as the anchor for another five strands that follow the curve of her ribcage.

“The extra length will fall through the eye of the knot here. If you wish to remove it, just unthread it.”

Rey turns, looking at her back in the tiny mirror. The two ends of the chain fall through the center of the simple knot, the small teardrop opals resting delicately on her spine. It’s a simple enough process that she is certain she could repeat it on her own. “Yes, I see.”

“How do you like it?”

After the long ordeal of dress shopping, it seems too easy that she would like the first chain that she pulled down from the wall. And yet she finds the design perfect. She likes it so much that she wants to race home to look at it in a proper mirror.

“It’s exactly what I wanted,” she says brightly. “Thank you.”

Jyothi takes her hand. “Not at all. We are protective of our traditions in Rhedon...but Kylo Ren is one of our own.”

“Even though he wasn’t born there?” Rey questions, knowing how it feels to be caught between two worlds. She loves the Eleusis, more than anything...and yet there is something here on earth that calls to her with equal power.

“Home is not where you were born, child,” Jyothi replies. “He belonged to us first, long before he became Keing-eka-Skail.”

 

***

 

According to Rhedonite myth, the chains are meant to scald any man who might touch her without permission, but Rey finds that the concealed adornments have the opposite of their intended effect. As she walks through the streets of the Canal, she is very aware of the delicate ropes hidden underneath her dress. Every time the strands brush across her thighs or breasts, her skin burns with sudden heat and she feels an empty pressure between her hips.

She is grateful for the rain, which soaks through her dress and cools her fevered skin. The knights have agreed over comm to meet at a nearby restaurant, and the last thing Rey needs is to sit through an entire meal, aroused and without any undergarments.

The restaurant is a tucked away in a forgotten corner of a thin alleyway, marked only by a hand-painted sign in scripted lettering. Inside, there are low tables with plush carpets underfoot and thick, firm pillows instead of chairs. They find Morpheus, Dionysus, and Kylo sitting at a oblong table in the corner near the back. The three men look very comfortable, as though they have been there for some time. Empty glasses are scattered across the table - at least three for each of them, and a number of half-full ones as well.

“You started without us,” Hecate says, putting her hands on her hips.

“Don’t worry, darling,” replies Dion, pushing a short glass full of a robust amber liquid towards her with a lazy grin. “We know better. This one’s yours.”

“Where’s Thanatos?” asks Pasithea, as the girls settle in around the table.

“Holed up in some boarding house, no doubt,” says Morpheus disapprovingly. “He’ll turn up eventually.”

Rey takes the spot next to Kylo on a large, velveteen pillow, tucking her ankles under her and to the side, taking care to arrange her dress around her thighs. He is as relaxed as she has ever seen him, reclining slightly against the sandstone wall. His dark eyes survey her, roaming from her wet hair to her soaked dress, and then down to the bare skin of her calves.

“You look very nice,” he says quietly. Except the way he says nice indicates that he means something else entirely.

Just like that, the skin beneath her dress is aflame again.

“You’ve been drinking,” she murmurs back, making an excuse for the boldness of his gaze.

“Not nearly as much as Dion,” Kylo says, sitting up so that their faces are closer together. “So don’t worry about taking advantage of me in my inebriated state.”

His words are clear and he doesn’t smell like alcohol. To the contrary, he smells like himself again - that clean, cypress scent that she has come to associate with him - and he is freshly shaven. She leans forward, just a little, testing the waters. When he doesn’t move away, she scooches in closer to give him a single, soft kiss. The slight brush of her lips against his is a far cry from the many things she wants to do with him.

When she pulls away, his eyes follow her lips.

She turns, tucking a stray hand nervously behind her ear, and pretends to listen to the conversation going on around her. The knights are debating about what to order, attempting to translate the names of dishes in several different tribal languages. But when Kylo’s hand presses against the small of her back, heavy and large and perfect, the voices around her become muddled.

“Don’t,” she whispers, clasping her hands in her lap. If he were to slide his hand just a little lower, he would almost certainly feel the chains around her hips, even through the material of her dress.

He runs his thumb back and forth over her spine, watching her carefully...and then he removes his hand. She shivers slightly, exhaling a relieved breath. Kylo chuckles softly and pushes his half-full drink towards her.

“You look like you could use it, salt-mouse,” he murmurs, his eyes dark.

A server comes and takes their orders. There is a holopad in front of her with a list of items that Rey doesn’t recognize, so when it is her turn, she chooses at random and hopes for the best. Rations are rations, so it doesn’t really matter.

The drink Kylo has given her is an imitation whiskey, manufactured with an oaky taste, a hint of synthetic caramel, and a high alcohol content. She only takes little sips, but it still scorches at the back of her throat.

“How did you get on with Aleksei?” he asks her.

She glances at him, wondering if he is feigning interest in the details of dress shopping. But there seems to be genuine attentiveness in his expression - if not for tulle and silk, then at least for the happenings of her day.

“You’re slightly less rich than you were this morning,” she warns him.

“You found a dress, then?”

She nods.

“Do you like it?”

Her throat tightens at the thought of how beautiful she’d felt standing before the mirror in Aleksei’s shop. “Very much.”

“I can’t wait to see you in it,” he murmurs longingly, his eyes journeying from her lips to the still-wet dress that clings to her breasts. Rey has a sneaking suspicion that they are his favorite part of her, and she takes note of that for future reference. The way he is looking at her makes Rey think he’d much rather see her out of her wedding gown.

“You’re not going to give me any hints?” says Kylo, pleading with his eyes. “Not going to reassure me that you won’t be hidden under a hundred yards of tulle?”

Rey shakes her head resolutely, and he sighs.

“You knew about Aleksei’s apprentice,” she says, moving the conversation back into safer territory. It is more of a confirmation than a question. “Didn’t you?”

“Yes, I’ve known for some time now,” Kylo shrugs. “Aleksei is a prominent figure at court. I’m sure there are others who suspect his health is failing. Gossips, the lot of them - but no one ever says anything.”

“Did he invite you to see his orchestra play?” Rey asks curiously.

“He did,” replies Kylo evenly. “Aleksei invites me to many of his events. It would draw attention if I didn’t accept on occasion. I can’t imagine that there is anything that could surpass that performance...but then again, he is always trying to outdo himself.”

“They’re very indulgent affairs, then?”

“You could certainly say that.”

Something in his tone piques Rey’s interest. She takes a sip of the whiskey, trying to ignore the way the deep cadence of his voice effects her. “Oh?”

“Most people don’t accept an invitation from Aleksei for the event itself,” he explains. “The music, the art - it’s all pretense. His guests are more interested in what comes afterwards.”

“And what exactly is that?”

“I’m not sure this is an appropriate topic to discuss with one’s betrothed.”

Rey’s thoughts run away with her, wondering what manner of entertainment could be so indecent that Kylo would not wish to tell her. Aleksei had told her that his sins are many - and that her betrothed knows all of them.

“Try me.”

“Aleksei Iadeva is, above all else, a seeker of pleasure,” Kylo tells her cautiously, lowering his voice. “His guests are like-minded. At his events, there are no barriers to gratification; he accommodates all manner of vices, everything from spice to sex. When you step through the door of his home, morality becomes...relative.”

Rey should be jealous - furious even - at the thought of Kylo attending that kind of event, even as a spectator. It is impossible to feel threatened, though, when the bond between them has grown so strong. The possessiveness she'd felt back in Coruscant has faded into a feeling of profound security in the knowledge that he wants her - and her alone. 

“So you didn’t approve?” she inquires.

“At the time, that brand of unbridled hedonism was not to my taste.”

He fixes his dark eyes on her for a long moment. Across the bond, she feels his interest stir - and it is a decidedly male interest, carnal and covetous in nature. Her blood runs hot at the thought that she was the one to rouse that interest in him.

“And now?” Rey manages to whisper, her throat tightening in anticipation so that her voice comes out very small.

“Tastes can change," he admits. "I could be...persuaded.”

The server comes with their food, but Rey hardly spares a glance at the bowl that is set before her, even though she hasn’t eaten in hours. Her whole body is alight with sinful possibilities. His eyes crinkle at the corners, a telltale sign of his amusement, when he senses the faint hum of her excitement traveling down the bond.

“If you wanted," he proposes, watching carefully for her reaction. "We could go together."

“You would take your wife to that sort of event?” she asks, glancing at him shyly.

“I would only take my wife to that sort of event,” he corrects her, his voice low and eager. Her body warms at the thought that this is something that would be new to both of them. Something only to be shared with each other.

“But what would other people say?” Rey asks hesitantly. “What would they think of us?”

“No one would think twice of it,” he assures her. “Many of the guests are married. And there is an expectation of confidentiality. But if it makes you nervous, we could simply...observe.”

Rey shifts, her core throbbing at the prospect. She highly doubts that observation is all that would take place between them in such a forum.

“You don’t have to answer now, salt-mouse,” he says gently. “It’s a possibility, not an expectation.”

After that, sitting through the rest of the dinner becomes an agonizing affair. Rey eats her food and tries to listen to the conversation amongst the knights, but her mind keeps drifting to all the forbidden things she might persuade Kylo to do to her. She doubts it would take much convincing at all to put the King of the Dead on his knees before her, with his head buried between her thighs. The persistent ache in her cunt worsens until it is nearly unbearable, her growing wetness made all the more noticeable by the fact that she is wearing nothing but the chains underneath her dress.

Her breathing quickens as she realizes that the last time she touched herself was weeks ago on the Eleusis. When she’d dreamed of Kylo in the First Order cell, the camdroid had closely monitored her every move. And after she was released, her thoughts were consumed by the treaty negotiations. Fear and worry had been her constant companions until the moment the parchment was sealed.

She discreetly takes Kylo’s hand and moves it to her thigh. His strong fingers curve along the bare skin just above her knee and she nearly whimpers in relief. He is talking to Morpheus, discussing some obscure matter of military operations, but his fingers begin to move in soothing motions over her skin. He continues absentmindedly for several long minutes, drawing invisible circles with his index finger as his hand ever so slowly wanders up her thigh. He pauses for a moment when he reaches the hemline of her dress, as though asking for permission to continue.

She touches her thumb to the inside of his wrist in invitation.

Just a little higher.

"You don't think this is an authority issue?"

"I think the problem is with the Grand Admiral's approach, not his authority. Sending high-ranking officers to target local unrest is a waste of resources. If the Resistance is indeed using underground pathways, mapping them should be of primary importance to dismantling-" 

The moment Kylo's fingers encounter the delicate chain that forms a cage around her thighs, he falters mid-sentence. His grip on her tightens, and Rey stays very still as the rough pad of his thumb brushes tenderly along the strand of metal. 

Across the bond, she feels his restraint shatter.

Chapter Text

The warm press of Rey against his side is the only thing keeping Kylo grounded in the present. She wraps her arm around his waist as they walk together through the near-empty street of the Canal, but the comforting gesture does little to temper his need for her. He doubts that anything could distract him from the all-consuming knowledge that she is wearing nothing beneath her dress except for a few thin strands of metal.

The crowds have dissipated, driven away by the earlier downpour. Most of the shops have closed for the evening. Their transparisteel storefronts are still and reflective, like the clear puddles of rainwater that have gathered in the middle of the road. Beneath an overpass between two buildings, a triad of street performers sing a slow Jinnaic hymn. Their voices intertwine, echoing and multiplying against the curved sandstone walls.

Kylo runs his hand over the curve of Rey’s shoulder, trying very hard not to notice how the metal ropes slide against her skin under the fabric of her dress. A half-hidden smile appears at the corner of her mouth as she reaches her hand up to lace her fingers through his. He wonders if she knows just how much her little secret is affecting him. The symbolism of the ropes has pierced him down to his very core, the darkest corners of his soul illuminated by her unspoken declaration.

Beloved, beloved, beloved!

His heart hammers against his ribcage, even though she has yet to say the word aloud. And that is to say nothing of how the awareness of what she is wearing - or not wearing - under her innocent day dress has affected him on a baser level. He has been slightly hard since discovering the ropes at dinner, his mind flooded with a constant barrage of indecent thoughts. Even now, his cock still presses uncomfortably against the restrictive confines of his leathers, his body answering the desire he feels emanating from her side of their connection.

Rey’s arousal is a persistent undercurrent in the bond that threatens to sweep him away, subtle and powerful enough to drag him out into a vast ocean only to dash him back against the rocks. He can sense just how badly she wants to feel the strength of his fingers gripping her thighs, how much she wants his palms to warm the cool strands of the metal chains once again...

He groans softly at the direction of her thoughts, shaking his head in a vain attempt to clear it. There is a irreverent impulse, centered somewhere inside his chest, that makes him want to drag her into some darkened alleyway and put his hands under her skirt. To run his fingertips over those sacred ropes until she begs him to untie her.

Thrice, a darkling voice burns through him. I’ll make her beg thrice.

Kylo desperately wants to be the one to soothe the ache inside of her. He wants to watch her come apart on his fingers, to feel the heat of her body gripping him as she finds her release. It takes every shred of control he possesses to keep himself in check. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he knows that Rey deserves better than a quick tryst against a sandblasted wall.

But there is nowhere they can go to be truly alone, Kylo realizes, frustration gnawing at his insides. The knights have dispersed: Morpheus and Hecate are already headed back to the house, Pasithea and Nyx to a late-night holotheater, and Dionysus to a luxury spice house. Maker only knows where Thanatos is. Unless Kylo takes Rey to a boarding house - which is only slightly better than the option of feeling her up in an dusty alleyway - nothing can happen between them.

Kylo clenches his jaw, struck by an abrupt sense of utter and complete inadequacy. For even if they could find a way to be alone, he has absolutely no experience with female pleasure. It is sheer delusion and arrogance to think he could take care of Rey the way she so obviously needs. He regrets not listening more attentively to the stories Thanatos and Dionysus told of their conquests. Buried somewhere in all of that lewdness, there might have been something instructive.

“I’m sorry,” Rey says softly, running her hand down his side. Kylo looks down at her, surprised at the hint of guilt coloring her voice. “You must be so tired of this.”

“Of this?” he repeats tentatively.

“Of waiting,” she clarifies, not quite meeting his eyes.

“I’ve waited a long time,” he reminds her, trying to bury his concerns about his lack of experience. He reminds himself that Rey is fully aware that he has lain with no other women before her. No doubt she has adjusted her expectations accordingly.

That thought nearly destroys his pride, but it is not her burden to carry. He forces himself to smile ruefully.

“A few more days won’t kill me.”

“I know, but…” Rey turns her head shyly, pressing a kiss to his bandaged hand where it is wrapped around her smaller one. “You were so understanding. You didn’t force me, when I wasn’t ready. And in return, I’ve done nothing but make it difficult for you to keep your promise...”

He thinks back to the way she had touched him in the Wastes, running her hand from his knee to his hip before briefly palming his cock through the layers of his leathers. Of how she had stretched her lithe body in the healing temple, exposing the tanned skin of her toned thighs to purposefully tempt him. And it was she who had coaxed his hand higher under her dress at dinner, so that he would discover the ropes.

“Are you testing me, salt-mouse?” Kylo murmurs, low in her ear. “Are you trying to see if I will keep my word? Because if so-”

Because if so, you have no idea how close I am to breaking it.

“No!” Rey gasps, pulling away to face in the street, her eyes going wide with hurt. “No, that’s not what I meant at all...I would never...”

“So then you do it to torment me,” he says, with dark amusement. “Is that it, little one?”

Her lips part speechlessly. The prettiest blush he has ever seen blooms across her cheeks, confirming that he has guessed correctly. The wind has teased chestnut strands of hair from her triad of buns. They frame the stunning features he has come to adore so much: her freckled nose and cheeks, her lovely hazel eyes. She is devastatingly beautiful, which only makes his heart yearn for her more.

“I know nothing can come of it until we reach Jedha,” she admits finally. “Maybe that’s why I…”

His brow furrows.

“I’m not testing you,” she says, wrapping her arms around her torso protectively. Her voice is so quiet that he almost doesn’t hear what she says next. “I just...I just like to tease you. Just a little.”

His soon-to-be wife stands before him in the middle of the street, an endearingly worried expression on her face as she waits to see how he will receive this confession. The impulse to reassure her is so overwhelming that Kylo immediately steps toward her, closing the distance between them.

She wrings her hands tightly, and her excuses tumble out rapidly, “I know I shouldn’t. I know that it’s not fair to you - but I liked how it felt, knowing that you wanted me - and sometimes I just don’t think before I - ”

Kylo takes her face in his hands, tilting her head back to draw her into a kiss, and he knows that he will never grow used to this. The tiniest gasp escapes her body right before he pulls her flush against him, feeling how soft and small she is by comparison. The press of her mouth is firm against his. Her lips are slightly chapped from the desert and her stay in the healing temple, but they are perfect nevertheless.

In a wordless plea for more, Rey’s back arches into him as she deepens the kiss. Kylo allows her to lead for a moment, taking note of the way her hands rest flat against the plane of his abdomen, leaning on him for balance as she stands up on her tiptoes to meet him. When her lips part, he allows his hands to drift lower - down to encircle her slender waist - steadying her as he reclaims control of the kiss.

Except he doesn’t have control at all. Each tentative swipe of her tongue against his sends pleasure darting through him, straight down his spine, until his cock throbs and swells further, trapped painfully inside his unyielding leathers.  

The pitter-patter of rainwater trickling from the rooftops and the transition of the performers’ song from hymn to ballad reminds him that they are not alone. He reluctantly pulls away, smoothing his hand along the curve of her hip. His fingers dance along the hard strands of rope he can feel hidden there, across her belly, until his palm rests over a bundle of chain that cannot be mistaken for anything other than a Rhedonite knot.

“This is you teasing just a little?” he manages to choke out.

Rey heaves in a shaky little breath, her hips shifting slightly. He can feel the pulse of her arousal across the bond, centered just beneath where his hand rests against the entangled chains. Her desire is more insistent now than it has been all evening. He can practically taste her disappointment that he has put an end to their kissing.

“It’s your tradition,” she says, hazel eyes bright. “Isn’t it?”

Kylo thinks back to the many long nights he had spent inside a woven masnavi tent. He’d often lain wide awake after dreaming of her - Kore - the girl who danced through a distant future where the deserts turned to fields of wheat beneath her feet and summer reigned over every corner of the earth. In the flickering glow of the lantern light, he had practiced tying and untying a small strand of braided twine for hours, until his fingers hurt and Dhatri chided him to go back to sleep.

Now the only ropes he ties are to bind the departed in their burial shrouds for their final journey to the City of the Dead. He put aside the dreams of her years ago, sacrificing them on the altar of obligation. Kylo had never dared to hope that he would have a bondmate, a friend, a queen to rule at his side.

“It is,” Kylo answers finally, his voice thick with emotion. He wonders vaguely how she had learned of the Rhedonite tradition of rope-tying. He had purposefully omitted that particular custom from the conversation at breakfast, not wishing to discuss topics of such an intimate nature where others could overhear.

“Then you’re not upset?” she asks.

“No, I…” Kylo shakes his head, wondering if there are words to explain just how much her thoughtfulness has touched him. “Just the opposite.”

She tilts her head, considering him for a moment.

“I could stop,” she offers seriously, even as the light in her eyes sparks. “Teasing you. If it would make things easier.”

“You shouldn’t,” Kylo replies without a second thought. There is something heady and alluring about knowing that his bondmate is attempting to seduce him. He will never tire of it. Long after they are married, long after they have known each other in every way possible, he prays that she will still tease him this way. “Not ever.”

Rey takes his hand from where it rests on her belly, her breathing shallow. She laces her fingers through his. The bond rises between them, the street of the Canal growing quiet and still, as though everything is dim and muted and they are the only creatures left in existence. There is a moment of hesitation, in which he senses her gathering her courage.

“Then meet me downstairs,” she says determinedly, her curved chin set and her gaze fiery. “Tonight. After the others are asleep.”

Her tone leaves no room for argument, as if she is expecting him to try and refuse. And perhaps he should. There is a lingering voice in his mind that whispers that he is not enough. He might not be able to give her everything she needs - and that could ruin everything between them.

It would be so simple to use chivalry as an excuse. To let her down gently by insisting that they wait until they have more time - and privacy - so that he can make her comfortable. So that everything will be perfect for her.

Except there is so much hope and anticipation gleaming in her hazel eyes. It flows down the bond like a pulsing band of light, reminding him that they belong to each other. The warmth and safety of the bond wraps around him, soothing his insecurities. In that moment, Kylo is utterly incapable of denying her anything.

“And what are we to do with ourselves until then, salt-mouse?”

 

***

 

“One. Two. Three.”

Rey gives a startled yelp as Kylo lifts her by her waist and hoists her into the air so that she can grip the ledge of the wall. There is a brief moment where she scrambles for purchase, huffing as she pushes up from her forearms onto her hands. She manages to get one knee over the high ledge...and then the other, finally toppling over onto her back to stare up at the sky.

“You probably should have gone first,” Rey complains breathlessly. She stands, brushing the dust and dirt from her knees, a victorious grin on her face. “To pull me up.”

Kylo can’t help but smile back at her.

“But then I would not have had the same view,” he murmurs thoughtlessly, eyeing her toned legs.

She shoots him a scathing look, immediately smoothing down the folds of her dress self-consciously. Kylo laughs, amused at her shyness. He could tell her the truth - that he’d seen very little beneath her skirts save for the smallest glint of the chains - but she looks far too adorable when flustered. It would be a shame to spoil the moment.

“Rogue!”

Kylo laughs again at the half-hearted accusation, taking a few steps back before running forward and scaling the wall. His superior height and strength make it easy to get a grip on the ledge and to pull himself over it. He stands easily, moving closer to her, until she has to crane her neck to look up at him.

“Seductress,” he whispers, his lips nearly brushing hers.

It is Rey’s turn to laugh - soft and bright - and then she pushes up on her toes to close the remaining distance between them. The kiss is sweet and innocent, the gentlest touch of her lips against his. It shouldn’t make him want to pull her back down off the wall, drag her with all haste back to the house, and order the knights to find somewhere else to sleep for the night...but it does.

“Come on,” she says excitedly, heading toward the criss-crossing stone stairways that lead to the top of the wall. “I want to reach the top in time to see the sunset. I’ve never seen one before.”

“You must have,” he replies, following after her. “Your first night on earth...?”

“That doesn’t count. It’s a little hard to appreciate the beauty of the world when the air is choking you.”

“Were you relieved?” he asks, genuinely curious. “When I came after you?”

“I thought you were there to kill me.”

Once, when Kylo was first learning to ride, he had been thrown from his athanatoi onto the stone floor of the stableyard. The force of the impact had knocked the wind from his lungs, paralyzing him for several long minutes during which his body painfully struggled for breath.

This is far worse.

He had known, on some level, that their first encounter had likely left a bitter taste in her mouth. Stealing her from her homeship and interrogating her in a cell had been...impulsive, to say the least. Her fear of him was only natural, especially in light of the ridiculous stories the sky-walkers fed their children...but to actually think he could do her harm...

The very thought makes him ill.

“You thought...Why would you think that?” he gasps frantically. Rey just keeps on climbing, not even sparing him a glance. He has to take the steps two at a time to catch up to her. “I told you that I wouldn’t hurt you.”

“And with the same breath you threatened to leave me in the desert to die!” she points out.

“I had to get you to stop fighting somehow,” Kylo bristles defensively. “Given that you seemed hell-bent on crippling me.”

“Only because I was terrified of you,” Rey laughs, throwing a glance back at him over her shoulder. Her hazel eyes are warm, without a trace of resentment. Whatever fear she felt when they first met is obviously a distant memory. “I’d never seen you without your mask - I didn’t even know if you were human.”

“And once you saw me,” Kylo says archly, watching the fabric of her skirts sway with the motion of her hips as she climbs ahead of him. “You thought I was...how did you put it in the healing temple?”

Rey goes very quiet and the toe of her boot catches on an uneven step. Kylo puts his hands on her hips to steady her. He hears her take a sharp, nervous inhale.

“The most beautiful thing you’d ever seen?” Kylo murmurs. “Was that it, salt-mouse?”

It’s such an inconsequential thing, that stray thought he’d picked up through their connection after she’d awoken from her fever. In the midst of everything else, what does it matter whether she finds him pleasant to look at? But he would be lying if he said his ego was not affected by her appraisal of him. Given that he has never considered himself anything other than decidedly unhandsome, he might tease her about that for a very long time.

“Just because you were...I didn’t...I was still afraid of you!” Rey stammers, pushing his hands away so that she can continue climbing. “I thought you were going to kill me for trying to escape. And then probably eat whatever was left of me.”

“So you didn’t find me attractive?”

She glances over her shoulder, her gaze roving over his face and shoulders appraisingly. The look in her eyes tells him that she likes what she sees.

“It must have been the bond,” she says dismissively.

It is so obviously a lie that Kylo nearly chokes to contain his laugh.

“Must have been,” he replies evenly, schooling his features. “And I suppose it was the bond that made you kiss me on the terrace. And in the hallway. And then again in the stableyard. And in my bed. And at dinner last night, where all my knights could see - ”

“You kissed me last night, actually,” Rey interrupts smoothly. “And it was you that kissed me on the terrace the first time.”

“My mistake,” Kylo relents, even as he privately recalls just how willingly she had kissed him back both times.

They finally arrive at the highest level of the city wall. Rey steps towards the edge and reaches out her hand, skimming the radiation shield playfully with her fingertips. The disruption sends blue-violet light scattering over her face.

Kylo has to stop himself from pulling her back from the edge, knowing that she would dismiss his concern as overprotective. His stomach gives a painful lurch every time the wind whips across the top of the wall, remembering how weak and exhausted she had looked in the healing temple.

“Rey,” he says after several minutes, his throat very dry despite the fact that she is standing strong and tall against the wind. “You should be…”

He intends to tell her that she should be more careful, but Rey turns around, looking out over the city with wonder in her eyes. His words of caution catch in his throat. Kylo falls silent so that she can have this moment to herself.

From the high vantage point, they can see all of Larakei spread out like a map beneath them: white sandstone towers, bronze rooftops that have turned green-white with age, and the western Zorya with her hands lifted up to the sky.

Kylo sits down on the curved wall, holding out his hand to Rey. She takes it, stepping between his thighs and slowly lowering herself so that she is resting with her back to his chest. With her secured firmly against him, the tightness under his ribcage eases.

He presses a soft kiss to the top of her head, supporting their combined weight with one arm. He wraps the other around her waist. The soft sigh that leaves her lips is muted by the wind, but he feels the long exhale with her body pressed against his. A sense of peace and completion drifts across the bond.

The sun is the same as it has been for a thousand years, casting its crimson light over the expansive desert. They watch together as the dim orb falls through the outstretched hands of the Zorya to be carried off into the night. The storm clouds have moved on from Larakei toward the western horizon. The setting sun sends lavender and pink and golden light streaming across their underbellies. The pale coloring slowly deepens, shifting into royal violet and rose tones that stain the navy sky.

At the very end, Rey reaches out to part the shield with her fingertips, giving her scattered glimpses of the true color of the world beyond. She had seen the sunset with her own eyes that first night on earth, and Kylo wishes desperately that she could see it again now.

“I did think you were handsome the first time I saw you,” Rey says suddenly, as though fearful that her earlier words may have been misconstrued. She absently runs her fingertips over the bandage of his injured hand, and continues, “When you gave your mask to me, that night in the Wastes. I didn’t want to look away. Even though I was afraid, I think I knew who you were...and that you would never hurt me.”

“When you woke from your fever, you said that you remembered me,” Kylo says carefully. “You said that you waited for me.”

He had heard the terror in her voice as she recounted her experience under the mountain, and has no wish to make her relive it. But the scattered snippets of her memories that flowed through the bond have made him curious. The connection between them was deepened so profoundly after her awakening, as though the last barrier between their minds had finally fallen. He needs to know how much she remembers.

“What did you see, anasa?”

“You came to me in my dreams,” she tells him softly. “Every night. And you were...kind to me. You told me that I wasn’t alone. That you would find me.”

They sit quietly together, watching the last sliver of red sink below the horizon. The light eventually fades, the evening growing serene and hazy. Stars begin to appear over their heads. The lantern-lighters make their rounds through the city streets and silvery rays of light begin to illuminate the white sandstone and greenish tint of the rooftops.

“You were my friend,” she whispers, her voice breaking. “And it makes me so angry, that someone stole those memories from me. That they kept us apart for so long.”

Her voice is yearning and vulnerable. Across the bond, he senses all the heartache she keeps hidden away, where no one can see it. In many ways, she has spent her life just as alone as him - the forgotten daughter of Chthonia, waiting and searching for her true home.

Kylo tightens his hold on her, feeling her steady heart beating so close to his own, and thinks, You were never forgotten. I was always searching for you.

Rey must hear him through the bond, because she immediately turns in his arms and climbs over his lap so that she is straddling him. Her thighs settle on either side of his hips and Kylo can feel the warmth that lies between them. She takes his face in her hands and when their eyes meet, he sees that hers are wet. Rey brushes the tears away with the back of her hand, and then she kisses him. He can taste the joy and desert salt on her lips.

“I’m so glad you found me,” she whispers, leaning her forehead against his. A smile drifts across her lips. Then, with a gentle laugh, she adds as an afterthought, “And didn’t eat me.”

 

***

 

The stairs of the knight’s old house in Larakei creak and groan over Rey’s head. She clutches her covers harder around her shoulders and smiles against the fabric bunched in her fists. She has been waiting for that sound for hours - the sound of Kylo sneaking out of the third-floor bedroom. Warm anticipation curls low in her belly, her heart beating so loudly that she is certain it will wake the other girls.

Rey stays absolutely still even after the soft creaking on the stairs fades, making sure that the sound hasn’t roused anyone else. And then, even after she’s certain that it’s safe, she lies there just long enough to make Kylo begin to wonder whether she will actually follow him. As the long minutes stretch on, she feels his agitation kindling like burning embers, and it exhilarates her. She begins to think that his desire for her might just be powerful enough to overcome his ironclad will.

When Rey thinks she has made him suffer enough, she slips out from under the covers, tiptoeing barefoot across the room. The cold floor sends a shiver through her. She grabs a roughspun robe from the upholstered bench at the foot of Nyx and Pasithea’s bed, wrapping it around her shoulders and cinching it at her waist.

Her nightdress is nothing special really, just a simple champagne chemise, but it still seems a shame to cover it up. It reminds her just a little of the nightgown she’d bought years ago on the Eleusis, except that it is made of a thin, satiny material instead of plain cotton. She’d chosen it purposefully so that Kylo might feel the ropes through the fabric, but hadn’t accounted for how cold the desert nights become.

Throwing one last glance toward the beds and seeing the three other women still asleep, Rey slowly opens the door and slips into the hallway. She is smaller and lighter than Kylo, so the preserved wood steps don’t creak quite as much as she makes her way carefully down the stairwell.

When she reaches the last step, she sees Kylo sitting on the low couch closest to the heater, facing away from her. The fire inside has been restored to life, its flames flickering against the sea-glass stones in the bottom of the pit. She pauses at the threshold to the living area for a few moments, taking in the sight of her betrothed and silently thanking the stars for him.

She’d meant what she told him on the wall. He is handsome, with his deep, brown eyes framed by dark lashes and his shoulder-length black hair. In profile, his heavy features are more noticeable, the concerned brow and prominent nose at odds with the softness of his eyes.

He is wearing a thin, light blue tunic that accents his pale skin and dark features. She thinks it might be the same one he was wearing when she’d spent the night in his quarters. The light from the fire casts his broad frame in a warm glow, and Rey notices immediately that his shoulders are tense.

In fact...everything about him is tense. His hands are clasped tightly together, his back curved so that his forearms are resting on his knees. The lines of his body are rigid and tight. She can feel the trepidation pouring out of him, as though the immense breadth of him still isn’t big enough to contain it.

“Kylo?” she says, her voice coming out small and unsure. Through the bond, she can feel what she’d thought was mere agitation at being kept waiting - except it’s not. It’s something else, something she can’t quite put her finger on.

He turns to look at her - and there it is, the familiar stab of arousal that she is searching for. She sees his eyes darken as he takes in the sight of her dressed for bed, with her chestnut hair spilling in loose waves over her shoulders. She hasn’t even taken off her robe yet, but his gaze burns along the exposed length of her legs.

The stiffness in his body does not ease.

“Are you alright?” she asks.

His expression is inscrutable. Instead of answering her, he simply says, “Come here, anasa.”

The last word brings all the warmth back into the room. Rey steps forward, knowing that nothing can be so bad if he is still calling her anasa, and she finds herself standing before him. As if he can’t help himself, Kylo reaches out to touch the satiny hemline of her chemise that peeks out beneath the roughspun robe.

He swallows. “Rey.

Kylo unties the front of her robe, parting it slowly to expose the smooth material beneath. Rey shrugs it off her shoulders, letting it pool onto the floor behind her, reveling in his sharp intake of breath as so much of her skin is revealed to him.

She’s not sure quite how it happens - she thinks he may have gripped her thigh and pulled her onto his lap - but she feels his control slip, and the ground slides out from underneath her the way a heavy rain washes away topsoil. The next moment she is kissing him - or he is kissing her. It doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is that the kiss is deep and thorough, and gods, she can’t remember what it was like to not have his steady, reassuring presence at the back of her mind.

She parts her lips for for him and he groans in approval at the taste of her. His tongue caresses hers briefly, and then he pulls away, trailing a distracting line of warm kisses down the column of her throat. His teeth scrape gently against her collarbone as his hand covers her right breast. When his thumb brushes across her nipple through the thin fabric, she arches against him with a faint whimper.

Kylo explores her slowly with his hands. They drift down her sides, over her hips, and back up to palm her small breasts. His fingers begin circling her nipples, the satin gliding over them until they stiffen into peaks, and she feels herself growing wet between her thighs.

The ropes scald her skin as he touches her, a reminder that she is naked save for the thin chemise. As though he senses the direction of her thoughts, his calloused hands move down the length of her body and come to a rest on her thighs. Ever so slowly, he slides them under the fabric, until his fingers find the chains. She presses her hips down against him, seeking some relief from the ache building in her core.

“Kylo,” she gasps.

His brow furrows and he nods in understanding. He kisses her gently, searchingly, and then he stands, lifting her so that her arms are wrapped around his shoulders and her thighs around his waist. She sees him steal a solitary glance towards the stairwell - but they are alone, and besides, the creaky old floorboards would give them more than sufficient warning of any unwelcome interruptions.

Rey expects him to turn around and lay her down on the low couch, before she realizes that it would be very uncomfortable. It is rather slender and curves dramatically in a semi-circle around the room, obviously designed for sitting and casual conversation, and not at all suited for late-night liaisons. Kylo makes an impatient noise in his throat, clearly sharing her thoughts. She laughs quietly and buries her face in Kylo’s shoulder when he simply drops on his knees to the floor, gently depositing her on the discarded robe.

The petrified wood of the floor is a bit hard, but it is very warm next to the fire, and Rey’s laughter disappears when Kylo covers her body with his own. His frame is heavy, pinning her down in a way that makes her core throb. When she peers up at him through her lashes, there is a serious look on his face.

“I don’t want you to ask me to untie you tonight,” he says, brushing a stray strand of hair out of her eyes.

She blinks up at him, startled by this sudden interruption. Until this moment, she had assumed that he still intended to consummate their marriage in Ni’Jedha. The thought of him untying her in this house - of their first time taking place with the other knights a mere flight of stairs away - hadn’t even crossed her mind.

“I wasn’t going to,” she replies honestly.

“You weren’t?”

“No,” she says, glancing up at him shyly. Her center is still aching, a distinct pressure gathering between her hips. “But there are...other things…”

“I don’t think that’s how the chains are meant to work,” he murmurs, but there is a flicker of interest in his dark eyes. It is obvious that he is contemplating all of the other things he would like to do with her. “We would be breaking with tradition.”

“It’s not against tradition to watch,” she dares to whisper. “Only to touch.”

The groan that leaves him is absolutely devastated. He closes his eyes, bowing his head, and she reaches up to run her fingers through the thick, dark curls that fall into his eyes. The tension in his shoulders loosens slightly, but the tightness in his jaw remains, and suddenly she understands.

He doubts himself.

He doubts his ability to please her.

Rey’s lips part, stunned at the realization that he has been nervous from the moment she’d entered the room. Perhaps even before then. She senses his conflict through the bond, dismayed that she had not recognized it immediately. He wants to touch her...and yet the thought of disappointing her is agonizing to him.

She has nearly forgotten that all of this is new to him - even more so than it is to her - and she silently curses herself for being so dense. How could she not have seen that this was bothering him? Her betrothed is so good, so unfathomably good to her. He cares so much for her pleasure that he was going to say nothing at all of his own apprehension.

She wishes she knew the right thing to say that would reassure him that he could never disappoint her, but she can’t seem to find the words. Instead, she pulls him down to her gently, pouring every drop of emotion she possesses into the kiss. Her fingers sift through his hair, feeling the soft texture of the dark strands. When she strokes the sensitive skin on the back of his neck, he shudders faintly and his grip tightens on her hip.

“It wouldn’t break tradition if I just showed you,” she offers finally. “How to touch me.”

Her words are met by a silence that stretches on for what seems like an eternity. Kylo looks completely ruined by her words, his eyes darkening as he takes in a shallow, unsteady breath. Through their connection, she feels his concerns dim. Relief floods through him as he realizes that she does not expect him to simply know how to pleasure her.

He bends over her to kiss her pulsepoint and then he buries his face in the hollow between her neck and shoulder, inhaling the scent of her. Then his lips trail downwards, over her collarbone and down her sternum, until he presses a final kiss to the valley between her breasts.

“Then show me,” he says, the words a deep rumble against her skin. He draws back, shifting so that his weight no longer pins her down...and so that he can watch her. He looks disheveled, from where her hands have carded through the dark curls of his hair. It makes him look several years younger. The next words are half confession, half broken plea: “I want to see how you touch yourself when you’re alone.”

At his words, the pressure between her thighs becomes unbearable. Rey smooths her hand down her ribcage, flattening it against her belly. The ache inside of her is centered just under her palm. She moves past it, her fingers skimming along the hemline of the chemise.

She hesitates.

“Could you kiss me again?” Rey asks, a sudden shyness overcoming her. If she lifts the satin over her hips, he will be able to see everything. The white-gold chains, the dark thatch of hair, the wetness spreading over her labia. She knows that he will find her beautiful no matter what, the same way she knows that the sun will rise in the east tomorrow... but what if he doesn’t?

Kylo obliges, capturing her lips in an inelegant, desperate kiss. He drags her against him so that her head is cradled in the crook of his elbow, his fingers sifting through her hair. Against her hip, she feels an insistent hardness, the concealed length of his cock sending a scorching line of heat through her.

It is this indisputable evidence of how she affects him that has her thighs parting instinctively. They slowly fall open, the champagne chemise sliding down her legs to pool around her hips. Her hand immediately moves between her thighs, not stunned at all to find that she is already wet.

Kylo breaks the kiss and she whimpers, her free hand fisting tightly in his shirt to try to draw him back to her, even though she is distantly aware that the whole point of this was for him to watch her. For a moment, his eyes remain on her face, the golden light from the fire turning them to soft amber. And then, as if he cannot resist, he looks down to where her hand is moving between her thighs.

His eyelids shutter, transfixed at the sight of her. The slender chains glitter in the light of the fire, sweeping along her thighs and disappearing beneath the fabric that has settled around her hips. The circles she is making around her clit slow as she watches him observe her, distracted by the captivated look in his eyes.

Overwhelmed, she turns her head away, burying her face in the safety of the strong arm that supports her head. His familiar, phenolic scent greets her - leather and cedarwood spices - along with the clean scent of his freshly-washed tunic.

She feels Kylo drop a kiss to her hair.

“You are so beautiful,” he murmurs, his breath warm against the shell of her ear. “Anasa.”

“You barely saw anything,” she replies, the words muffled by his arm.

“Oh?” he says darkly. “Shall I look closer, then?”

That isn’t what she meant at all, but Kylo disentangles himself from her, making sure to rest her head down gently on the floor. As he kneels beside her, she can’t help but notice the way that his dark, loose sleep pants stretch across his broad thighs. The outline of his cock is visible, straining the fabric. Her throat goes dry and her core clenches around a terrible emptiness.

Rey’s hand leaves her center, reaching out to touch him, but he catches her wrist in his hand and presses a swift kiss to the inside of it. He groans at the faint scent of arousal that stains her fingers. He kisses them one-by-one, making Rey blush and shift her hips needily. And then he leans over her, slanting his mouth against hers and pinning her hand to the floor next to her shoulder.

She bites at the inside of her cheek, considering whether she should point out that there is no tradition against her touching him.

“Another time,” he says gently, his voice filled with promise. “Right now, I want to watch you.”

He takes his time studying her. His eyes drink in the gentle swell of her breasts and peaks of her nipples, clearly visible through the chemise. She sees his fist clench and unclench as his gaze travels over her slender hips and thighs, adorned with strands of metal. He swallows hard when his eyes fall on her exposed sex, taking in the delicate pink folds and the tiny bud of her clit for the first time.

“I don’t deserve you,” he says finally, his voice ragged, the fire casting his features in light and shadow. “I could live to see the end of days and still not deserve you.”

Oh. Oh, oh, oh!

Rey is speechless, her body aching for him. She skims her fingertips over her sternum, dancing them along the flat of her stomach. Her palm drags over the intricate knot that still lies hidden beneath the satiny folds of her nightdress.

She moves her hand down between her thighs, pushing her fingers through her wetness. It has been weeks since she last touched herself, and she sighs faintly in relief, tilting her head back and closing her eyes. She brushes her fingers against her swollen clit, moving them back and forth in a way that she knows will bring her to a quick release.

With every pass of her fingers, pleasure darts through her, and she is forced to bite back her whimpers and cries. But when she finally presses two fingers to her entrance, pushing them slowly inside her cunt, she can’t help the moan that escapes her. She tilts her hips up, grinding her clit against the palm of her hand as she curves her fingers inside of her.  

She removes her fingers, dragging them through her folds, resuming the circles on her clit more frantically. At her side, she hears Kylo curse in a language that is not Basic, and her eyes flutter open. She gasps as she feels his strong grip on her wrist, stilling her movements. He pushes her hand aside impatiently to replace it with his own.

“You’re not supposed to touch,” she protests, but her thighs open wider for him in contravention of her words. A soft cry rises in the back of her throat as his calloused fingers stroke her sensitive bundle of nerves. She feels his weight settle beside her, his mouth finding hers as his fingers continue moving between her legs. It is glorious, the way his tongue swipes across her lower lip at the same moment his fingers press harder on her clit.

He drags his fingers through her swollen folds, gathering her wetness and spreading it over her clit. She whimpers against his mouth and cants her hips up, but he seems content to trace delicate circles on her clit just as she had shown him. He lowers his head to her right breast, closing his mouth around the hardened peak of her nipple, laving at it through the fabric. To keep from crying out, she twists her hands in his hair and bites her bottom lip so hard that she thinks she may have broken the already-chapped skin.

“Not enough,” she gasps, feeling so close to her release that she could cry. “Need you inside...please…”

Kylo pushes a single finger inside of her very slowly, as if he is afraid to hurt her. Her walls immediately clench around the intrusion. His looks up at her, eyes going wide as a cry is ripped from her throat, but she shakes her head, kissing him softly.

“It doesn’t hurt,” she breathes against his mouth. “Please, I’m so close...”

“I can’t believe how tight you are,” Kylo tells her reverently, adding a second finger. His hands are so much larger than her own, and Rey moans at the satisfying stretch. Her walls grip at his fingers, but he somehow finds the give inside of her, just enough to press ever so slightly deeper. He pulls back a little, through the wet heat of her, fingertips exploring all the places inside of her that belong to him now. “I want you to come just like this...I want to feel you...”

She writhes on his fingers, the warm pressure inside of her bordering on pain. As though Kylo can feel her desperation, his movements become harsher. He thrusts his fingers into her, dragging them against the textured inner walls of her pussy.

“Not so hard,” she whispers, her hand moving down to guide him. The feeling of his hand moving under hers is intimate, giving her the courage to ask for what she needs. “If you curve them... oh gods…”

Rey throws her head back as his fingers brush against a sensitive place inside of her. Kylo curves his fingers once more - and release instantly floods her body, her inner walls fluttering and clenching as she comes. She writhes beneath him, but he keeps moving his fingers gently inside of her, working her through her orgasm relentlessly. She bites down on his shoulder through his tunic to stifle the cry that is ripped from her throat, distantly remembering that she has to be quiet.

When it is over, she closes her thighs around his hand and trails a line of kisses everywhere she can reach: the place on his shoulder where she bit him, across his strong chest, along the line of his jaw. She whimpers as his fingers leave her. Closing her eyes, she settles against the floor, letting him caress the chains that adorn her thighs.

His hand is wet with her essence and she shivers as his touch leaves cooling remnants on her skin. He flexes his fingers and Rey realizes that he has been touching her with his injured hand. The rough bandages scratch along the skin of her inner thighs - but she can’t bring himself to admonish him, not when the ache inside of her has finally diminished.

Kylo’s lips find her forehead. And then her eyelid, and her cheek. His mouth finally brushes against hers. She sighs into the kiss, everything inside of her growing still.

They lay together for a long time, until Kylo pulls her chemise down over her hips to cover her. He turns on his side, pulling her against him so that they are fitted perfectly together, his strong arm thrown over her protectively. Her eyes flutter open when she feels his hardness pressing into her lower back.

“Kylo?”

“It’s alright,” he murmurs. “Sleep.”

It all catches up with her: the journey through the desert, the fever that scorched through her body, and the long day spent exploring the city. In the wake of her pleasure, her body aches with exhaustion. But the fireplace is so warm and she feels so safe in his arms. She fights to stay awake, wanting to share just a few more moments with him.

“You deserve me,” she whispers, running her fingertips across his bandaged knuckles. “I want you to know that.”

Kylo is quiet for a long time. And then he presses a kiss to her hair, and murmurs once more, “Go to sleep, Rey.”

Chapter Text

Thanatos has never set foot inside a pleasure house.

It isn’t that he considers himself above them. The houses themselves are classic structures, with gold-trimmed door frames and heavy velvet curtains obscuring grand transparisteel windows. More often than not, the patrons who follow the mistresses through the distinctive scarlet-painted doors are the heirs of noble gens. They have vast wealth at their disposal and are willing to pay for cleanliness and discretion.

Even so, the girls who peek through the curtains to give passerby in the street below a teasing glimpse of their bodies are not to Thanatos’s taste. Half of them are young enough to turn his stomach: slender and hairless, with barely budding breasts. The remaining women are falsely beautiful, their cheeks and lips stained with blush paint and their eyelids rimmed with black pearl dust.

Thanatos is well aware that most of them were bought and paid for by skin traders as children. From an early age, the mistresses train them to please men in ways that Thanatos will likely never experience firsthand. Many of the girls spend their entire lives in the pleasure houses, sheltered and protected as one would safeguard a valuable investment, until they become mistresses themselves.

Like all profitable investments, the women hidden behind the red doors are treated with great care. The skin traders adorn them with fine Dathomiri spider-silks that would make even the wealthiest imperial noblewoman sick with envy. The girls are fed well enough to maintain their figures, but never so much that they become heavy. Every month, they receive expensive medical treatments and innoculations to prevent pregnancy and the spread of disease. The mistresses who manage the affairs of the house are forbidden from beating them, so that their skin will remain smooth and perfect. Nor are the clientele permitted to mistreat them, for in the city’s seedier neighborhoods, there are plenty of starving, desperate girls willing to satisfy all manner of sadistic proclivities.

And yet . . . there is something about the pleasure houses that bothers Thanatos. His moral compass has never pointed due north, but it doesn’t sit well with him that that the women are not truly free to leave, or that his credits would go directly into the palms of the skin traders.

Thanatos has always preferred the roaring fires and Niiman-spiced moonshine of the slightly run-down boarding houses that are scattered around the Circle of Dwellings. The women who frequent the street taverns are mostly local, pretty in a more natural way that Thanatos finds appealing. They come to flirt with the merchants and traders who stay in the upper rooms, and if they flirt well, their targets sometimes buy them wine and food instead of moonshine and rations.

When Thanatos enters The Krayt’s Nest, he notices the girls at the bar sizing him up as a prospect, eyeing his expensive Keres-hide leather and the rings adorning his fingers with interest. Until he steps into the lantern light. When they see the gruesome scars cutting across his face, the girls quickly avert their eyes and turn back to their conversations.

No matter. By the end of the night, he usually finds a woman brave enough to look him in the eye. The taverns are haunts for smugglers and assassins, escaped slaves and refugees, spies and mercenaries. Those women are not daunted by his ruined face . . . and are often more intriguing bedmates. As Thanatos makes his way through the crowded room, his thoughts briefly turn to his first encounter with a Nightsister. The pale, slender woman had held a grip on his throat as she rode him, taking her own pleasure but denying him release whenever he neared completion. In the end she had left him, hard and aching, to finish himself.

Gods, but she was intense, he thinks, a slight shiver passing down his spine at the memory. Chaos incarnate.

It would be a lie to say that he had disliked the experience, but tonight Thanatos is searching for a less chilling companion. He quickly makes friends at a table adjacent to the dirt-stained windows that overlook the street, settling in amongst the mottled group of men and women. Most of them are drifters. They hail from all eight corners of Chthonia, and are merely passing through Larakei on their way to other places. Among them are several Mustafarian sailors, with silken black hair and clever, almond-shaped eyes; a foul-mouthed trader from Ash Riima, from whom Thanatos purchases a genuine steel blade set into a sunstone-encrusted handle; and a collection of Bothan spies, covered from shoulders to ankles in expensive fur cloaks.

Dealing in secrets is profitable, and the Bothans trade information to anyone willing to buy it. They are mercenaries, loyal neither to the First Order nor the Resistance, yet invaluable to both sides.

The most experienced of the spies is a pockmarked, salty-haired man. Thanatos buys him a bottle of expensive Hapan gold in exchange for news from the north. The spymaster tells him that there has been Resistance movement in Ash Akana. Over the past few weeks, the rebels have been inciting riots across the northern sectors, which is hardly a secret. But then the old man leans in closer, and whispers that one of his spies saw Admiral Holdo herself pass through the gates of the ancient mountain fortress less than a fortnight ago.

“If you ask me, she’s right at the center of it all. You don’t pull in your most experienced commander if you’re not expecting a battle. And we’ve heard rumors that Velchanos made landfall on the shore not far from-”

“Hold your tongue,” spits out one of the other Bothans, a woman around Thanatos’s age, or maybe a little older.

She had caught his eye the moment he sat down at the table, even though she is not exactly pretty. Her face is too long, her eyes too large. But she has a hungry, self-assured gaze, and her tongue is sharp enough to keep the men who occasionally make passes at her at bay. If her cutting words fail to keep them at a distance, the metal quarterstaff looming threateningly at her side usually does the trick.

“We deal in secrets, Raz, not rumors,” she says, her tone guarded. “And if you tell our new friend too much, there will be no one left willing to pay us for what we know.”

“I have paid for your secrets,” Thanatos tells her, raising his own glass of gold.

“A bottle of wine?” she scoffs. “Do you think we set such a low price on the information we risk our lives to collect?”

After that, the old man will say no more of the unrest in the north and Thanatos doesn’t press him. By the time the bottle of Hapan gold is empty, the Mustafarians are singing them an old drinking ballad, carried by their forefathers across the sea on wooden ships and passed down through the generations. It is a sad song, a tale of two lovers torn asunder, but the sailors have strong, resonant voices. When they finish the final verse, the tavern occupants cheer for them and the barkeep passes around the last of the moonshine.

When the evening turns into morning and the spies finally retire, the young Bothan woman lingers behind at the table. She offers Thanatos a slight shrug, as if to say, I’m willing if you are.

It isn’t until they are in the confined space of her room and she starts removing her clothing that Thanatos realizes the woman is missing an arm. At the table, her body had been concealed under her fur-lined mantle. Once she discards the cloak on the ground, it is obvious that the limb is truncated at her shoulder, leaving an oddly empty space at her side.

She levels him with a steely gaze, dropping into the rickety chair at the foot of the small bed. Her deep brown eyes remain on his face as she unlaces her boots, as if challenging him to say something cruel when he himself is broken and scarred.

He doesn’t say anything, just unclasps the fibulae holding his own cloak in place and begins tugging impatiently at the fastenings of his leathers.

“What’s your name?” the woman asks. Her Bothese accent is very slight, but it is not a gentle language. It lends her words a gravelly undertone.

“Thanatos.”

“I am called Vishpala.”

“Were you born this way, Vishpala?” he asks mildly, not caring much if he offends her. He has no intention of ever seeing her again after tonight. “Or did someone do this to you?”

“This is how I was born,” she says stiffly, standing and removing her tunic efficiently. Her wrappings keep her full breasts bound tight to her chest. She strides forward and starts to work on his fastenings, helping him out of his leathers one-handedly. Her fingers are skilled. She has helped men out of their clothes before, perhaps a hundred different times in a hundred different cities.

His breathing quickens as she pushes the softer, pliant underlayer up his torso and over his head. Her hand braces against his chest - and then she leans forward to kiss him, without a drop of hesitation. They are nearly the same height, and he likes that he doesn’t have to stoop down to meet her.

“I supposed we’ve both been marked by the Keres,” she murmurs, drawing back slightly to look at his face. “They’ve tainted me with their blood; and you with their claws.”

Her nails dig into the wall of his abdomen, punctuating her words. He hisses at the sharp drag of pain, but she only laughs, backing him towards the bed. When the backs of his knees hit the metal frame, he sits, expecting her to crawl into his lap.

Instead, she drops to the floor on her knees.

Within moments she has the inner clasps of his pants open and the length of his cock held securely in her hand. She sits back, tossing her long brown hair over her shoulder, her eyes surveying his length. She offers an appreciative hum.

“Would you mind?” she asks offhandedly.

Without waiting for an answer, she leans forward and puts her mouth on him, lips wrapping tight around the head of his cock. The swiftness of the action stuns him for the space of a single breath, before his mind catches up and he is able to form just enough consciousness to moan.

Her tongue flutters against him expertly. His cock sinks deeper into the welcoming heat of her mouth, until her lips meet the fingers she still has curled around his length. She pulls back, tongue swirling around the crown with practiced ease -

Hecate would never do this.

The invasive thought pierces into him with such ferocity that he almost rips Vishpala away by her hair. He restrains himself at the last moment, his fingers weaving into thick brunette locks in an imitation of gentleness.

He clenches his teeth, refusing to think about Hecate when he has another woman’s lips wrapped around his cock.

And yet...it’s true. Hecate would never do this.

Imperial wives don’t debase themselves by pleasuring their husbands with their mouths. They are the keepers of the home, the sacred vessels for children - and within the marriage bed, they are to be treated with dignity and respect, not subjected to their husband’s basest desires.

Or so his mother had always told him.

Perhaps that’s why so many noblemen have hetaera, Thanatos ruminates. So that their highborn wives do not have to endure such depravity.

Which is why he shouldn’t imagine how Hecate’s silver tresses might spill through his fingers like water, or how her rosepetal-tinted lips would part to accept him. Those are wretched, dangerous thoughts - made infinitely more so because they will never happen, because she is to be given away to someone else -

Thanatos closes his eyes, trying to focus only on the present moment, but there is an empty pit in his stomach that ruins his pleasure. He feels as though he is paralyzed, enduring the distorted sensation of another woman’s searching lips and tongue for minutes that seem to last decades, until he is finally, mercifully able to come.

He feels himself spill weakly down the back of Vishpala’s throat, her cheeks hollowing around him as she swallows. There is some pleasure in it, but no sense of completion. When he unthreads his hands from her hair, she presses a kiss to the tip of him, sealing the encounter, and it feels wrongly intimate.

“You’re a quiet one,” she observes, leaning her cheek against his thigh.

He stands up abruptly, shoving his rapidly softening cock back into his leathers. His skin feels pulled taut over his bones, as if all the lifeblood has drained out of him.

“Do you want me to get you off?” he asks, perhaps too harshly.

Vishpala peers up at him with her too-large eyes, an unreadable expression crossing her narrow face. Her hair is disheveled. She stands very slowly, drawing herself up to her full height - only several inches shorter than him. And then she holds her hand out to him wordlessly, palm face up, showing him the wetness staining her middle and forefingers down past the second knuckle.

He hadn’t even noticed that she’d been touching herself as she pleasured him. Now that he sees the evidence of it, though, it is painfully obvious that the laces of her pants have been undone so that she might find her own release.

On some other night, the sight of her soaked fingers might have sparked some semblance of renewed arousal in him. But right now, the only emotion he feels is empty relief.

With no further reason to stay, Thanatos reaches for his discarded leathers and begins to dress himself. Vishpala walks around him, lying down on the bed, her breasts rising and falling beneath her wrappings. Her nipples are peaked through the fabric, and it dimly occurs to him that he never actually saw her unclothed.

A heavy silence settles over the room, but Vishpala doesn’t seem inclined to fill it. She just watches him fasten his leathers, one clasp at a time, her expression calm and collected. Her scrutiny makes him uneasy.

He used to be better at this part. There was a time when he could lie in bed for hours afterward, with his fingers buried between a girl’s thighs, touching her gently until she begged to be taken again - or else making quiet, mindless conversation deep into the night. He’d once had a way of leaving girls behind without hurting them, but that was a long time ago. It seems like another lifetime.

This time, he’s the one who is left hurting.

Vishpala laughs softly, as though they are longtime friends and he has done something to mildly amuse her. He doesn’t meet her eyes as he throws his cloak over his shoulders, crossing the room to leave.

“Gods, she must really be something.”

The words pour over him like icy water. Thanatos pauses with the door half-open, his grip on the doorframe tightening. He thinks of long coltish legs and braided silver hair, of a dagger dancing between delicate fingers, of a voice like moonlight and tears falling from stone-grey eyes.

“She is,” he whispers, stepping over the threshold.

 

***

 

Kylo dreams of nightmoths.

He is lying in a deep valley, the cool night dew of the grassy field seeping into his back through his tunic. Starlight flickers overhead and the moths flutter in the air around him, pale and luminescent. Every now and then, one lands on his shoulder, or his chest, or the back of his hand. Their wings brush against his skin like little silken petals. He shivers whenever they touch sensitive places, like the faded scars under his rib cage or his recently-injured knee.

When he wakes, he finds that he is not dreaming after all. The sitting room is dark as the open field in which he had lain, the dying embers throwing tiny white pricks of light through the glass stones in the firepit. The wings of the nightmoths are Rey’s fingertips, exploring him with light touches through the fabric of his tunic and sleep pants. His breath hitches as she kisses the nape of his neck, her breasts pressed intimately against his back. Her skin is cold in the absence of the fire, the chill seeping through his shirt like nighttime dew, but he doesn’t want to move away.

It is so achingly familiar.

He has imagined her presence wrapped around him just like this a thousand times before . . . and now she is holding him in her arms, her hands touching him with a gentleness that he so rarely gives himself . . .

“Are you awake?” Rey whispers hopefully.

I’ve never been more awake, Kylo tries to tell her, but his throat is too tight to speak. She seems to understand, though, because he feels the warm sigh of her breath against the shell of his ear.

“Any regrets?” she asks quietly, her fingertips trailing across his ribcage.

Kylo turns in her arms, feeling the slight ache in his shoulders and spine from sleeping on the hard floor. She immediately shifts closer to his warmth, shivering lightly. A twinge of guilt passes through him. He should have carried her upstairs to her bed before the fire died, instead of letting her fall asleep on the floor. Her chemise covers so little of her skin, the delicate shift held up by two slender straps, and the thin fabric must be useless at keeping her warm.

He suspects that she wore it for him. His little temptress. The material clings to her form, accentuating the small swells of her breasts, and he is struck with a sudden longing to see them. He remembers how soft they felt in his hands, free of any wrappings. She had responded so beautifully when he palmed them through the fabric of the chemise, her nipples peaked and sensitive.

“I have many regrets,” he groans quietly, tugging her roughspun robe from where it is crumpled on the floor beneath her. He wraps it around her shoulders, pulling her body against his to warm her. “But last night is not one of them.”

The corners of Rey’s lips curve into a smile, the dim light of the fire gleaming in her hazel eyes. Memories from the night before send his heart racing with a renewed sense of urgency. She tilts her head up, finding his mouth with her own. At first, the kiss is rushed and eager. Kylo’s body is still thrumming with the newness of what she had shared with him only hours ago.

But then her hand comes up to rest on his jawline. He stills, sensing that she is trying to show him something.

Rey’s tongue darts out across his lower lip and he follows her lead, matching her stroke for stroke. After a few moments, she parts her mouth further, inviting him to deepen the kiss, and their tongues clash briefly before he learns how she wants him to kiss her: darting swipes against her tongue, a pressure that is firm but not overwhelming. She slows the kiss to a maddening pace, the tangled dance of their tongues testing his patience.

Kylo wants to pin her down and put his fingers inside of her again. He will never forget how she had writhed and shuddered when he discovered just the right cadence, his injured hand aching as he curled his fingers against a sensitive, hidden part of her. Her body had tightened around his fingers, her walls fluttering as if she meant to draw them even deeper inside.

She had come for him. Because of him.

Burning skies.

He wants to make her come again. A thousand times. But Rey withdraws from the kiss, her chest rising and falling a little faster than usual.  

“There is one thing I regret,” she says. Kylo’s heart falls, the thought that she might be upset about any part of what they had done together utterly unbearable.

It doesn’t make any sense. She had seemed so willing, with her thighs parted and her fingers dancing over the tiny bud of her clit. And he was careful to touch her just as she’d showed him, waiting to enter her for the first time until she begged him to put his fingers inside her. Aside from the brief moment when she asked him to be gentler, he thought he had done well -

“I regret that I didn’t take care of you,” she whispers, a faint smile playing on her lips. Her fingertips trace the line of his brow, soothing away the lines of worry that have appeared there.

Relief washes over him, and then she is pushing lightly against his shoulders, the gentle pressure of her hands not quite enough to move him. He allows her to put him on his back, yielding as she sits astride him with her knees on either side of his hips.

She pulls the hemline of the chemise up ever so slightly up her hips, revealing the pale golden chains that adorn her thighs. The fire is so dim that there is only shadow at the apex, hiding what lies between her thighs from his searching gaze - but every so often the dying sparks crackle and ignite, illuminating the glittering strands of metal.

The ropes serve as a sharp reminder that all of this is forbidden. He shouldn’t be touching her. She has not yet asked to be untied.

Even so, he can’t resist running his fingers along the glittering strands, tracing slowly upwards. His thumbs graze at the faintly bruised skin of her inner thighs and she trembles. Through the bond, he feels the comforting brush of her mind against his.

Rey places her hands atop his where they rest on her thighs. She leans forward, dark chestnut hair spilling over her shoulders, and kisses him. Her hips press down, dragging her center against his growing hardness.

Relief and arousal flood his body as she draws herself back up, looking absolutely stunning above him. Her eyes are dark with desire, her cheeks flushed. The flickering embers cast her in golden starlight, like a goddess descended to the realm of mortals.

“We can’t,” he rasps, barely managing to form coherent sentences. “Not here, Rey.”

“Why not?” she says breathlessly, shifting against him. Her hands trace down his chest, until her fingertips rest just above where his cock is straining the fabric of his sleep pants. She rolls her hips against him, letting out a tiny sigh as the motion stimulates her.

Rey’s hand wanders between their bodies, under the hem of her chemise, and he can feel her fingers moving against her clit. With every pass, her knuckles brush against his clothed cock. Through the bond, he feels the empty ache inside of her, so different from his own need.

It fascinates him.

“I could touch you,” she says, and Kylo’s thoughts immediately turn to what her small hand would look like around his length. Coupled with the way Rey is moving above him, the mental image nearly finishes him. Kylo has denied himself for so long that every movement threatens to send him over the edge. “The way you did for me last night . . .”

But there is a reason why he wants to claim her in Ni’Jedha, after they are sworn to each other - a reason that has nothing to do with honor or oaths. His hands grip her hips, trying to still her.

“If you keep doing that,” he chokes out, his voice unsteady. “You won’t have to touch me at all.”

She finally stops, breathing hard as her lips part in shock. A look of curiosity crosses her face, and she shifts atop him.

“You could finish like this?” she whispers.

“I could,” he tells her, not quite able to meet her eyes. His cock throbs under his clothes, aching to be released. To be touched. “But that isn’t what I want.”

Her brow furrows. “It’s not?”

“The first time,” he begins, struggling to explain why he does not want to come on her hands or under his clothes. He pauses for a moment, searching for right words, but all of them seem crude. Finally, he says simply, “I would rather be inside you.”

Her expression is endearingly frustrated. Little wrinkles appear at the top of her nose and she huffs out a breath. She removes her hand from beneath her chemise, curling it against her chest.

“Then do you . . . do you still want to touch me?” she asks, glancing shyly at him from beneath dark lashes.  

Kylo sits up with her still in his lap, crushing his mouth to hers. She moans when he cards a hand through her hair, tilting her head back as he deepens the kiss. His other palm flattens over her lower belly, where he senses that her ache is most acute. The sound that leaves her is desperate, a low cry that stuns him. She clutches at his forearm, nails digging tiny half-moons into his skin.

“Please?” she whispers.

He moves his hand down between her thighs, searching for her clit. She gasps when his fingers find it, swollen and sensitive. He traces around it and she lets out a quiet moan, tilting her hips towards his hand.

He keeps touching her with light, swift strokes until he feels wetness coating his fingers. Only then does he push inside her - feeling her warmth envelop his fingers.

“Here?” he whispers reverently, curving the two digits slightly against the textured walls of her pussy. She whimpers in response, a tiny little sound that fills him with pride. He repeats the motion again, expecting to feel her tighten around him - but instead, she settles onto his fingers with a contented sigh.

It takes her longer to come this time, her pleasure mounting slowly as he works his fingers deeper inside of her. At first, he thinks he is doing something wrong - but then she pushes forward to kiss him. In the space between breaths, she tells him how full he makes her feel, reaching down to run her fingers along the bandages wrapped around his knuckles.

When he grinds the heel of his palm against her clit, she goes nearly silent, her eyes closing as she exhales sharply. Her walls flutter around his fingers and he slows his hand, waiting until he feels the last remnants of tension leave her body. Her breathing evens out and she wraps her arms around his shoulders, leaning her head against his chest.

After a few moments, she shifts her hips against his hardness where it presses into her inner thigh. He hears her mumble against his collarbone, “It’s not fair. I let you touch me.”

He laughs a little at her petulant tone, dropping a kiss to her hair. The tresses are scented with something floral and feminine that does nothing at all to dissolve his arousal.

Rey doesn’t move for several long minutes, running her fingers back and forth over his shoulder blades. He senses her need slowly quieting, but his body is still responsive to her closeness. His cock remains uncomfortably stiff, but he ignores it, knowing that the ache is only temporary.

When Rey finally disentangles herself from him, it is like losing a piece of himself. She moves off his lap and begins running her fingers through her hair in an attempt to tame it. It is all in vain. She looks well-kissed, her lips pink and her skin flushed. Her robe is disastrously wrinkled from where she had lain on it while she slept.

“Here,” he murmurs, transfixed by the way the light shines on the errant strands as she combs through them. “Let me.”

She turns away, still kneeling in front of the firepit, all that beautiful dark hair spilling over her back. What he does next is almost instinctive. His hands move with forgotten muscle memory from long ago, like an old saber form that he no longer practices. His fingers weave into her hair, separating it into loosely held strands.

Kylo plaits it slowly, savoring the way the silken tresses slip through his fingers in a repetitive pattern. It is calming, his thoughts emptying of everything save for the meaning of the braid, until he reaches the end of her hair and creates a small loop for the closure. His hands shake as he pulls the ends through.

“I’m done,” he whispers, dropping a kiss to her shoulder.

Rey runs her fingers along the five-stranded braid that he has intricately woven together down the back of her head. The sight brings back wisps of memories for him: glittering glass bottles on a metal dresser, white dresses on hangers, and his mother’s elegant hands showing him how to speak the language of braids.

Rey pulls the braid gracefully over her shoulder to examine his work. Though she doesn’t know it, he has given her a bridal plait, and watching her admire it stirs some unnameable emotion in the depths of his heart. Her fingers smooth over the loose ends of the braid.

“How far is it to Ni’Jedha?” she asks suddenly.

“A two day’s ride,” he answers.

Rey stands slowly, closing her robe and tying it at the waist so that she is covered once more. The gentle smile that crosses her lips is innocent, but there is a mischievous look in her bright hazel eyes that only spells trouble for him.

“You won’t last,” she says.

 

***

 

Poe Dameron wipes rain from the visor of his helmet, struggling to see through the heavy torrent that pours from the heavens. He follows Roshan down a rocky path that has been crudely cut into the seaside cliff, terrified that at any moment he might slip on the slick walkway and plummet onto the jagged coastline.

The only light comes from the radiation-shielded windows of the port settlement of Cadrak. Violet-blue light spills out of the dwellings that have been carved into the steep face of the illustrious cliff. The beams disappear into a thick layer of black ice that adorns the precipice. At the brink, there is a gaping crater in the ground, a craggy mouth that opens upon the heavens to consume the light of the moon and stars.

Far below, there is a beach of smooth black stones and a vast obsidian ocean that stretches out as far as the eye can see. Tumbling black waves crash against the rocky shoreline. On the air, Dameron hears the faint sound of creaking and groaning.

Ghosts.

A shiver crawls up Poe’s spine, but he refuses to say the word aloud. He has spent days secretly deriding the Jinn for their foolish superstitions. And yet here he is, shaking like a frightened boy because of the howling of the wind.

Poe knows that the cliff is just a cliff, but in the oppressive darkness it appears to him like the hollowed corpse of some long-dead titan. He cannot help but think that one day soon, the tide will rise and drag it out into the endless sea.

And the city of Cadrak will drown with it.

“What are those lights?” Poe calls out to Roshan, his voice coming out shaky. Not from fear, he tells himself, but from cold. On the bleak horizon, crimson lights dance across the water, like the souls of the dead rising from the murky depths.

“They are ships,” says Roshan. “The lords of Mustafar ride over the high seas tonight. Do you hear the creaking of their hulls and the sighing of their sails?”

Ships, Dameron thinks, clenching his teeth. Not ghosts, but the ships of old.

“Before men looked to the stars, they looked to the water,” Roshan yells over his shoulder. “And wondered what sort of lands lay across the sea.”

For some reason, looking out over the ocean makes Poe think of the first time he ever saw the port doors in the atrium of the Eleusis open. He had looked upon the boundless void of space, littered with resplendent stars that spoke of faraway systems that had yet to be explored. His heart had yearned to reach out and touch them.

Even as a child, he knew that he wanted to be a pilot. On sleepless nights, he lay awake imagining what it might feel like to be the first person to set foot on a undiscovered planet. Perhaps he would find a vast green country with pale blue lakes, or forests with trees so old their rings could not be counted, or a land of mountains with silvered waterfalls that flowed with sweet, fresh water that had never before been tasted. And after a thousand years of fighting to survive, humanity would find their home.

It never occurred to him that death might be all that lay beyond the stars. Earth was their last hope . . . and it is an already dying world.

“When was the last time someone crossed it?” Dameron asks, his chest feeling oddly hollow. He drags his gaze away from the sea that reminds him so much of the vastness of space. Little white dots appear in his vision from where he looked too long upon the Mustafarian ships.

“No one has crossed it since before the War,” says Roshan. “Save for the Knights of Ren, who must go wherever the sky-walkers fall.”

“Then there could be pockets of survivors,” Poe replies. “Other civilizations across the sea.”

“There is no life beyond the sea.”

“There are the keresarin,” interjects Esfari, a sharp-tongued woman with a mirrored faceplate. Underneath her helmet, she wears the stern gaze of a warrior, with sun-worn skin and heavy brows. When she does offer one of her rare smiles, it is with craggy teeth.

“The what?” Poe asks curiously.

“The variants,” translates Roshan. Beneath the cheap transparisteel of his helmet, Poe sees the nomad’s eyes crinkle at the corners. “But I doubt they exist. A scary bedtime story for children.”

“And here I thought there would be no end to your superstition,” Poe mutters. “I’m relieved to be proven wrong.”

Esfari makes an insulted noise through her mouthpiece that is carried away on the wind, but Roshan just laughs.

“Some tale-weavers say that the keresarin are the same creatures who walked the earth in ancient times, mutated beyond recognition over the ages,” he says. “Others say they are the descendents of men who were touched and twisted by the radiation. Who can say what is true and what is imagined?”

Poe silently thinks that all of their superstitions are nonsense, but his teeth are chattering too hard to respond.

“The variants are real,” hisses Esfari insistently. “They walk among us like men . . . but they are not like us. Their blood is tainted.”

“If there are other sons of Chthonia, then why do their souls not come before the Receiver for judgment?” replies Roshan skeptically, tilting his helmeted head.

“Because the keresarin have no souls.”

By the time they reach the bottom of the cliff, the cold has made its way inside Poe’s bones - and he wonders if he will ever get it out again. The three travelers huddle together, seeking shelter behind a sharp wall of stone that blocks the eastern wind.

The lights on the water are distant. They flicker as the waves rise and fall, tossing the ships about on the rough sea. Poe strains his eyes in the darkness, his stomach sinking as he realizes that Roshan’s plan to get them north has failed.

Their ship is not here.

“They will come,” Roshan says. “Do not lose hope.”

Poe stares at the ocean, willing the lights to come closer. If he does not find the Resistance . . . he will have failed the Chancellor. He will have failed his people.

His eyes strain until his vision blurs and tears leak from the corners.

Then, out of the mists of the ocean, a tall grey ship emerges like the shadow of a hulking leviathan. It’s sails are massive, curving against the wind like crescent moons. The ship draws closer, parallel to the shoreline, and it waits.

“They are here,” Roshan murmurs. “We must go swiftly; they will not stay for long. Too many eyes in the city are watching.”

Poe and Esfari follow behind him, struggling on the slippery rocks. The seawater is pooled in shallow basins and Roshan dashes into it.

“Come!” Roshan yells back to them, the waves rising around his feet. “They cannot come closer - we must swim out to them!”

Blast it, Poe thinks. Blast it all to hell.

He never learned to swim. Before coming to earth, the most water he had ever seen in one place was in the cell of a hydroreactor.

In theory, he knows how it should work. Kick your arms and legs, keep your head above water. But the storm has turned the ocean into a death trap. The waves rise up like black walls of stone and the wind is so strong that it carries streams of white water from the crests.

He follows Roshan into the water anyway, reminding himself that his helmet has survived the void of space. It will not take on water. He tries to mimic the way Roshan moves his arms and legs, striking out against the waves, but his gear is heavy and difficult to move in. His muscles scream in protest the moment he meets the resistance of the water.

Roshan falls back to help him, gripping his arm tight as a swell crashes over them - they go down, down into the water, and Poe kicks as hard as he can until his helmet breaks the surface. It happens again and again, until he loses count of how many of the mountainous waves they have traversed.

“We’re almost there!” Roshan cries victoriously.

It is the last thing Poe hears before he is pushed backwards by an immense swell, down into the icy depths. There is a lancing pain through his back, followed by an ear-splitting crack as his faceplate shatters.

He breathes in water so cold that it feels as though death has wrapped a skeletal hand around his chest and dug its claws into the very heart of him. The pain feels like righteous atonement. A reckoning for the blood he has spilled.

The old laws prevail.