I woke from a fitful sleep filled with fragmented dreams that vanished as I opened my eyes. It was sometime well after midnight and I knew that trying to go back to sleep was a waste of time. Images of recent events kept flashing through my mind making me restless and edgy. I got up and after washing my face I made my way into the main area only to find Thrawn sitting at the crew table in the galley area. He had turned all but the night lights off and the ship was bathed in a pale red light that matched his eyes.
We were in orbit around Myrkr. I was grateful for that, truth be told the planet gave me the creeps. I was happy to be above it rather than down on the ground. I joined him at the table and wordlessly he pushed one of the two glasses towards me and poured brandy in both. I watched him as we sipped the drink in silence. His face had a taut look to it and there were shadows under his eyes. I wondered when it was that he had last slept.
“How are you feeling, now?” he asked eventually breaking the stillness between us.
“Uneasy. I can’t sleep. Bad dreams.” I said.
“You need to step back from what happened down there. It was just a role you played, nothing more.” He said.
“And killing that man was part of that?” I asked getting to what was at the heart of the matter for me.
“He had been warned, he failed the test.” Thrawn said icily. “Would you have rather I’d let him have his way with you?”
I shook my head.
“When a Bone Trader says something will be done, it will be done. I made that clear to them all and still he chose his lust over his life. One less we will have to deal with tomorrow.” Thrawn explained.
“You expect Ormante to jump us?”
“I know he will. He wishes to be known as the best hunter in the galaxy, and hunting a Dantassi Bone Trader would go along way to further that goal.”
“So you will be wearing the ‘guise again tomorrow?” I asked shivering inwardly.
“Well, I am not wearing that dance outfit tomorrow, or ever again for that matter.” I told him.
He smiled. “No, it would be highly impractical and tomorrow I will need your other skills at my side. You may wear what you please as long as it is something you can move easily in.” He said then added thoughtfully. “You fear the Bone Trader guise, why?”
So I told him about when I had first seen one of their kind and he listened carefully.
“It is very rare to see them beyond the border to the Outer rim. He did you both great honour by choosing your ship. They are very careful about whom they will travel with and have almost a sixth sense for the company they keep, even for something as simple as choosing a transport.” He said quietly, thoughtfully.
“You seem to know a lot about them when no one else even thinks they are real.”
“I should know about them, they originate from my home world.” He said matter of factly.
I waited because I could tell there was a story in there somewhere and he would tell it if I was patient.
“While I was not born into House Nuruodo I was groomed for eventual adoption into it. It is the house responsible for the military side of things on Csilla. As such my father thought it wise that I should learn the arts of war and how to hunt from an early age. On one such expedition we went, with a small group of experienced men, up to the surface to hunt Ice-bears, one of the few creatures that somehow manage to survive on the surface, despite the cold. I was separated from the group when a freak storm came up. I should have died, I was only a boy and completely unprepared for the vicious weather topside but the gods or luck or fate or what ever name you would call it was on my side and I was found by a Bone Trader hunting party. When I regained consciousness I was in one of their enclaves deep within the Ice caves. They tended my frost bite and brought me back to life. It had been the first time I had ever seen my own people outside the confines of the society I was being raised in. I was fascinated by them. To me they seemed so primitive and strange yet, as I later saw, they were anything but.”
“The Dantassi have a long history that dates back to before the ice age. They were a sect of Chiss who had left the main society and the new ways that sprang up after the world of Ice came. Chiss society is quite rigid in some ways and there were those who simply could not, or would not conform to the new way of life. They left and formed their own society, much, I suspect, as the Sand people on your world have. They seem primitive to the untrained eye but learn more about whom they are and you begin to wonder who is the more primitive.”
“They chose the ways of the hunter but did not abandon technology easily. They advanced in their own time, all the while choosing to remain hidden and separate from the rest of the Chiss who had gone deep into the core of the planet for warmth and survival. It did not take long for the stories of their strange, nomadic ways to filter through but the government, in its infinite wisdom, decided to leave them be, choosing instead to allow stories and whispers to become legend and myth. In Cheunh, my mother tongue, they are called Mathäd’antass’Iyantha which, roughly translated, means ‘Ghosts of flesh and bone’. When they began to go off world the name was shortened to Dantassi.”
“They travel mainly in what you would know as the Unknown regions, sometimes alone, sometimes in small groups or clans. The nomadic part of their lives is some how a part of their beliefs that one must travel through much in order to gain the wisdom to lead. It is a rite of passage for those that wish to earn the title Honoured Elder. As they traveled about the regions of space so did word of their hunting prowess and naturally, naturally, tales sprang up of their cruelty and viciousness. Stories that became exaggerated whispers of their almost magical hunting and tracking talents. I think the Dantassi allowed these tales to grow as it only served their need for secrecy and their reclusive nature further. ” He drew a deep breath and paused for a moment to sip thoughtfully at the brandy. “Hunters of this kind, by their very nature, are ruthless and they have a strict code to which they adhere vehemently. The environment they come from forces a certain way of life. They can indeed be vicious and what happened to Ormante’s man earlier was an example of how they would have reacted, but they do not usually do so without good reason or provocation.”
I looked at him. “You admire them.” I said.
He nodded. “Yes, I do. They have a society that somehow, despite all the chaos around them, works as a well run well organized machine. They keep a law and order within their enclaves such as I had never really seen before. I am not eloquent enough to be able to put it into words that would describe it adequately. They function just as well within a group as they do alone. When they hunt, it is extraordinarily well planned out, every detail and every eventuality thought of and they always achieve their goals.”
“So where does the name bone trader come from, then?” I asked.
He smiled. “One of the truly amazing things about them is their ability to create stunning works of functional art from the bones of their kills. The mask I wore is over four hundred years old, a true artefact yet it is functional and efficient. On any other world it would be considered a museum piece and used for display only. For the Dantassi, it is a family heirloom to be handed down from generation to generation and used until it no longer existed in any useful form. Once, an anthropologist called Mah'andatw'yr wanted to study their ways and migratory patterns across the ice fields and glaciers. He lived with them for about three years and learned a great deal all of which he wrote about and left to our great Library. As a parting gift from the tribe he was given an exquisite walking staff, carved from the thigh bone of a polar Nere’tz. He donated this to the museum as an artefact to be admired and looked at. Three weeks after the dedication ceremony for this addition to the museum, he was mysteriously killed and the staff removed with such ease and grace from the museum that people spoke of ghosts in the building for years afterwards. Only a handful of people actually know that he was killed by the Dantassi elder who had given him this staff for desecrating its honour. The government from that moment on banned anyone from ever placing Dantassi artefacts on display. They will sometimes trade lesser pieces, I suppose you would call them trinkets and talismans made from finger bones and the like, for goods they need but the pieces that are actually worth something to a collector, you will never see in any collection.”
“How did you come by that mask, then?” I asked.
Thrawn was silent for a moment, the look on his face telling me that he was delving deeply into a memory that he had held close to his heart for a very long time. “I was with the small enclave that had found me for three months because, when they first found me I was too ill, too weak, too near death, I suppose, to be moved. Full of ice-fire fever and recovering from the frost bite I was glad to be where it was warm. I had not, up until that point realised what a sheltered easy life I had been born into. It was a time that changed me forever. When I was well enough I began to move about and learn a bit about their ways. I learned to speak their language which had splintered off from Cheunh but still, it was easy for me to learn. Like you, I have a gift for languages. I asked a lot of questions and tried in my own small way to fit in, however, when it was time for me to return home there was no changing their minds. Family is very important to the Csillian people and the Dantassi are no exception to this rule. I was someone’s son, and while I did not want to go back home I knew in this decision I had no choice.”
“We set out one morning when the weather was calm as a small hunting party and trekked across the northern ice shield. The journey took fifteen days and I learned more about hunting during that time than I had in my whole life before or since. While I was with them I killed my first Ice bear single handed and unbeknownst to me at that time passed, in their eyes, from boyhood to man. They left me in a place that was very near a military outpost point where I would be found within hours of activating the outpost’s signaller. Before they began their return journey the elder who had traveled with us removed his bone mask and gave it to me. He told me that he had lost his only son to a bad hunt several seasons before and had no family left to pass along the mask to. I had earned his respect and he, with the agreement of the rest of the hunting party, accepted me as family. They gave me a name and the mask, along with the heart of the ice bear, was the token for this rite of passage. I still, to this day, see them clearly in my mind as they vanished into the drifting snows. I never found them again although I spent some time looking when I was old enough.”
“And the name they gave you was…?”
“Za’ar.” He said quietly finishing my sentence for me. “Nikätza’arth’pavjäska.” It means something along the lines of honoured clan-son with the heart of the bear. There is no direct translation but that is the idea of it.” He drew a deep thoughtful breath. “Now, Miss Gabriel, you know something about me that no one else, aside from the Dantassi knows. I told no one, not even my family what had occurred, I never showed them the mask which had been wrapped in furs. I explained nothing of the last few months of my life, no matter how hard my family tried to get me to speak of it. I had gone out a small boy eager to please his father and retuned to them changed in a way no one understood. It was something I could not share with anyone, a different world, and a different time.” He sighed and shook his head as if to shake off the memory. “You have nothing to fear from the Bone Traders and they should no longer be creatures that haunt your nightmares.”
I studied his face carefully. There was so much about him I did not know yet, and for all our seductive dancing around each other, stolen kisses and quiet caresses I had never felt as close to him as I did now. I nodded and he knew I understood.
“Will you be staying up for a while?” he asked changing the subject.
“Then you have the next watch, I need to rest. Wake me up in four hours. We have much to plan.” He said getting up. He looked at me with a sudden grin. “Don’t drink all the brandy. I need you clear headed. I have the feeling we will need to be very wary of both man and beast.”
I made a yeah, yeah motion with my hand and he smiled vanishing into the tiny crew cabin to sleep. I poured another glass of brandy despite his words and moved to sit in the pilot's seat. It was quiet in space and I was grateful. My mind had a lot to think about. I sipped the brandy slowly watched the dance of the stars that surrounded us while the hazy green planet of Myrkr slowly rotated below.