The Warm Beneath the Winter 5

I had no idea how long I had been walking for or even which direction I was heading in, I just walked or rather tried to walk. There was no road or path and although the snow was hard packed about every fifth or so step I kept sinking knee deep into where it had drifted and was softer than the rest. It was a struggle to get through. The wind made it difficult to stand up straight and when I turned to head back to what I thought was the village and have the wind at my back somehow that didn’t seem to work either so I just kept moving aimlessly really, and as I walked, my thoughts turned inward.

I went over and over in my head what Jyrki had done. I could not wrap my brain around it and I didn’t understand what had motivated him. He had been my best friend, my first love and my teacher in so many things. No matter how much I worked it all through I could not come up with a reason good enough to justify his actions. I tried to imagine conversations with him and I am sure that I spoke out loud as I stumbled my way through the howling storm. I was angry with him and the more I went over and over everything in my mind the angrier I became. At one point I stopped and I just screamed out loud because I didn’t know what else to do. If he had been there in front of me I would have done him serious bodily harm.

I thought about the Emperor and his machinations. There was a man I could learn to hate and I wasn’t sure that I didn’t already feel that way. He was a poison and a darkness and he terrified me to my very core. I wondered, as I sank once more knee deep in icy snow and had to get out of my mitts so that I could scoop the snow out of my boot, why he took such delight in playing these games with everyone. I was certain that I was alive and doing as well as I was in my small part of the Empire only because he wanted something from me. I just did not know exactly what that was. Lord Vader had said often enough that it was my talent, my force abilities that made me unique and I had sensed no lie in that but I didn’t believe it entirely either. There were others far more talented than I was and far more willing to play the game, far more willing to suck up to the Emperor and do what ever he asked with argument or question. I could not seem to sort out the tangled web that was being woven about me and I didn’t understand it. If he wanted something specific from me, then why did he simply not make his demands known? Why the games? I knew that my abilities were getting stronger and that all the training and teaching that I was being given were helping to sharpen my skills but I did not know why. Lord Vader had talked about the peculiar combination of gifts that I had but he had never explained why this was special. I wondered as I slogged through the snow how I was useful and what that meant exactly because it was starting to take on a sinister tone to it. In the last year I had learned that I was not the only person Lord Vader had taken under his wing, oddly enough this knowledge did not really bother me too much, in some ways I was glad for it. In the end it changed nothing between he and I, the bond that had been forged was there and was strong. I did not understand it but I didn’t question it either. There were many layers to the Empire and I was only now beginning to grasp this. It was not very comforting.

My thoughts turned to the dancer, Lianna and her part in all of this. Her strange connection with the Emperor, her love and devotion to him was almost familial. Navaari had called her a predator and I knew he had been right but I had not wanted to see it, or know about it. She was threatened by me even though she had no reason to be. What ever she was to the Emperor I was not going to replace her. I had seen a fear in her eyes when she had met me the first time and she saw me as some sort of rival even though I knew that was impossible. That would have been like pitching a wamp rat against a Krayt dragon. I had sensed the Force about her but it was not an obvious thing. She had been trained in everything from an early age and it showed. I was a stumbling child next to her, yet she was afraid of me. It occurred to me that maybe the Emperor played on that as well, enjoyed watching how we circled about one another, against one another. I wondered why he would do that to someone who so obviously adored him.

I stumbled and fell and for a moment considered if it was actually worth getting up. My survival instinct was almost as strong as my stupidity factor and I struggled against the snow to my feet. I was tired though. My fingers were starting to feel the nip of the cold and the first inklings of what I had done, what the situation I was in actually was, were starting to sink in. I was not so much afraid as I was sad.

Trudging through the drifts and against the winds was extremely hard work. I had no idea where I was, what time it was or when it would be day. I imagined my home world and its unbearable heat and it made me laugh to think that chances were I would die by freezing to death. The irony of this was not lost on me. It made me wonder who my birth parents had been, where I had actually been born. These were questions I was betting I would never find answers to. I had not lied to Thrawn when I had told him that I knew who I was just not where I had come from but now the deeper consequences of knowing that the people who had raised me were not the same people who had given me life were beginning to sink in. Had they too been force users? What planets had they come from? I didn’t even know what they looked like. That last thought had made me shake my head. My red hair had often been a source of many questions, neither of my adopted parents on Tatooine had red hair. My mother used to explain it away that I was a throw back to her great aunt, and for the most part this was accepted because my mother had eyes a similar colour to mine. Thinking about her made me ache with a sorrow that never fully seemed to leave me alone. It led me to thinking about my father and all my friends back at the docking bay.

My father and I had had a difficult relationship but I knew he would be sad if I died and I felt a pang of regret at that. I was a wilful, stubborn child and he was every bit as wilful and just as stubborn. We were well matched. We had often locked horns even when I was small, then my mother had been around to sort out the arguments and play mediator. After her death it was very bad for a long time and only in the last two years had we made any real headway in being able to actually seriously talk to one another without it ending in a fight or a frustrated shouting match. I hoped that with me so far away Jyrki would leave them all alone. I stopped for a moment to catch my breath and looked around me. I wasn’t sure but I thought it was starting to get lighter out. All I could see was waves and swirls of snow that writhed about me. It was as though I were dancing with ghosts and there was a stunning beauty in it. With a heavy sigh I forced myself to go on but I was so weary, my limbs and my lungs ached and it was getting harder and harder to think straight.

My thoughts turned to the ceremony I had just been through. I had not understood its full significance, I was certain of that fact. I knew that for Navaari it had meant one thing but for Thrawn as Za’ar it had quite a different meaning. I was sure that something deeper more important had happened but I was too blind or too stupid to put two and two together. I thought about Za’ar’s kiss, a thought that warmed me from the inside out. He was a strange man in many ways, intelligent, cool headed, logical and utterly alien. Most of the time unreadable to me, yet there was a spark to him, a genuine warmth that hinted at a deeper passion he kept tucked away. I could not fathom his attachment to me but on the other hand, I could not figure out my feelings for him. No matter which way I considered it, our relationship was complicated but I knew with absolute certainty, it was also a gift. One I was now throwing away.

I thought about my last conversation with Navaari and I knew he would be furious with me for doing this but in the end, I rationalised with myself, it was better for all, if I was out of the picture. I seemed to be no end of trouble to everyone around me and gone was a good thing. I really wasn’t thinking very clearly any more. I fell, once again sinking into the snow and this time I didn’t get up. Instead I lay there, burrowing into it a little and curled up into a little ball with my back to the wind. I pulled my heavy coat close around me, shutting the storm out. I had been cold but now lying in the snow I felt a surreal sense of warmth and I was very drowsy. My thoughts drifted back and forth but mostly they centered on Thrawn. I was a little sad that for all the back and forth, for all the teasing that had gone on between us, we had never finished what we had started. I wondered what that might have been like and it was the last thing I remember thinking before I drifted, like the snow, in and out of a hazy consciousness.

I have no idea how long I lay buried in the snow. I had lost all sense of time and place. I thought that I was dreaming when I heard someone speaking to me and felt myself being hauled out of the snow. I struggled against this and I didn’t want to be moved. I was warm where I was. Strong hands caught my flailing arms and held them tightly.

“Idiot child! Stop struggling!” Said a very familiar, very angry voice.

I did as I was told and with a deft movement my bone mask was removed. I gasped as the cold bit my skin. Warm hands touched my face and then my mask was put back on me. I was lifted up and bundled on to what felt like a sled. My mittens were pulled off and warm hands felt my own. Mine were cold but I wasn't sure how cold. I couldn’t feel much. He put my mittens back on. I felt the sled move and closed my eyes.

I woke up in warmth but I was shivering. I sat up slowly and realised several things at once. One, I wasn’t dead. Two, I was mostly undressed and had been wrapped in warm, dry blankets and a heavy fur. And three, my feet and my fingers itched and burned. I went to scratch at my toes and a hand smacked mine away.

“Do not scratch, you will make it worse!” Navaari scolded.

I tucked my hand back under the blanket and endured the awful prickling, itching sensation as blood found its way back into my extremities. I watched as Navaari set up a small brazier and cooked something in a pot on it. I looked around me and took stock of where I was. There wasn’t much to see. We were in a small domed structure that looked a lot like it had been made from snow. There was a ledge that ran around the inside edge and then the floor had been dug out so that the inside was deeper and larger than it appeared on the outside and had been lined with thick animal skins, the fur side up. There was a small tunnel as an entrance and ventilation holes in the ceiling. Lanterns had been lit and the inside was surprisingly warm and cozy compared the howling storm outside. Navaari ignored me while he moved around the small space. For such a large man he moved with surprising ease, readying this and that, taking things out of a large bag he had tucked over on the other side of the floor.

He tossed me some clothes. “Put those on, you should be warm enough now.” He barked. I wriggled into the top, trousers and slippers and said nothing. Finally when he could keep it inside no longer his anger exploded around me like the storm outside.

“Idiot child! What where you thinking? You could have perished in that weather! By all rights you should be dead!”

I looked up at him, meeting his seriously hard stare with my own. “That was more or less what I was thinking.” I answered quietly.

He just stared at me, wanting to ask why but instead he just sighed. “How are your hands and feet, still itchy or just warm now?” he asked.

I flexed my fingers. “They feel thick, funny, but warm.” I said. “How long was I, I mean how did you find me?”

“The thick feeling is normal, it will pass in a while. You are lucky to have no real damage.” He sighed. “By the time we realised what you had done over four hours had passed. You travelled surprisingly far for someone walking without the right shoes.” He poured some of the tea he was making into a cup and handed it to me. “Drink it slowly.” He said and he sat down across from me with a cup of his own.

“Lucky for you when I made your mask I added a tracking chip to it. We do that for children. Without it I would not have found you before the storm had ended and even then, there was little chance to find you alive. At least you were intelligent enough to have listened to what I said about clothings before going on your death walk.” He stared at the contents of his cup for a moment. “A few more hours and ice burn would have taken your fingers and toes. You live under a lucky star.”

I wondered about that. I didn’t feel lucky, I just felt stupid.

“A’myshk'a, why?” he asked after a long silence.

I shook my head. “I just had to get away.”

“In the middle of a blizzard?” anger crept back into his voice.

“Wasn’t any place else to go.” I said quietly.

He made a face. “You think that death would solve what ever it is you run from?” he asked.

I shrugged.

“I did not think of you as selfish.” He said, his words laced with a quiet fury, “But this was a selfish act.”

I felt the sting of shame and concentrated on my tea. “Does Thra, I mean Za’ar know?”

“Of course he does, Tjällh. He was the one who alerted me you were missing.”

“He didn’t come with you?”

Navaari shook his head. “No, I am faster alone and he knows that, plus I thought you might want someone neutral to talk with. He was very angry and that would have been unhelpful in this time.

I sighed. “I keep making the wrong choices.” I said. “I seem to excel at pissing people off.”

“Well, this was not a very clever move, but you let your passions and your emotions rule your actions. I cannot say that, in the end, it was not unexpected. You remind me very much of my daughter, sometimes.”

“Why did I not meet her or your family at the celebration?” I asked.

He weighed the question for a moment. I wondered if he would actually answer. I was so used to Thrawn’s evasiveness on questions he deemed too personal or that he just did not want to answer that I expected the same from everyone else.

“She left Hjal some years ago. Married a Chiss scholar and moved to the home world.” He said after a long silence. “We do not see each other often; she has walked away from this culture, this life and does not look back.” He drew a deep breath. “My wife passed onto the next world almost seven years ago, an illness we could not cure took her. It is the way of things. Family moves on, the ones we love move on. My daughter is happy with her life now, just as she was happy here as a child. As a father it was hard to let her go but to do other wise would have been wrong.”

“You seem so pragmatic about it all.”

“It is what it is, Tjällh.” He said with a sad smile.

“But you miss them?”

“Every day.” He said. “But that is part of what it means to love someone.”

I made a face. “Love!” I spat the word out. “I don’t even know what that means.”

Navaari looked at me with a mixture of surprise and puzzlement. “You have family, do they not love you? You have friends, and you have Nikätza’arth’pavjäska do they not also in their own way love you and in turn, teach you what this is?”

I had to fight from raising my voice. “Friends who love you do not betray you. Family that loves you does not lie to you about the most sacred of things and men who have stars in their blood only love their freedom.” I could not keep the bitterness from my voice.

Navaari refilled my cup and handed it to me. The expression on his face told me he waited for an explanation.

“A year ago, just as I was to start working for the Empire my father told me that I was not his or my mother’s child, that I had been abandoned and left behind on one of his freighters by someone too damned scared to take responsibility for what I was. I know nothing about what I am, where I come from, or who created me. So for all of my life I have lived in a lie, believing I was one thing to discover that I was something else.” I said. I was angry over this but I had not realised it until now. How deeply did I shove these feelings down?

“The people who raised you as their own, did they not love you and care for you?”

“Yes, but they also lied to me.”

“I will not debate their reasons, that is not my place but I am certain that their motives were based in love and nothing else.” He said.

I shrugged. “Maybe.” I said. “My father and I don’t always see eye to eye and there are many things he will not speak of. The peace that we have now, such as it is, is based on a mutual desire not to get into screaming matches. We agree to disagree. My mother died a long time ago. My birth parents left me nothing but an antique book, a legacy of dangerous talents and strange abilities which seem to land me in more trouble than they are worth.”

“What of this betrayal from friends?”

My jaw clenched and I stared at the tea in my cup. When I didn’t answer he continued.

“Very well, what of Nikätza’arth’pavjäska?”

“I have known men like him my entire life, pilots, captains, spacers. He finds me intriguing and perhaps at some point this game we play will get intimate and even more interesting, if you know what I mean. But I will never be more than a pleasing distraction for him. To try and place any sort of claim on him would be like trying to stop a star from going supernova. I have no illusions about that. He has made space for me in his life and he is kind to me. I would even venture to say he has some feelings for me but love? For men such as he, love is a luxury that is found only in ridiculous romance stories.” I sighed and fiddled with my cup. “The minute you try to tie someone like him down you destroy what makes them special. I may be young and naïve but I do know this, were I to try and claim that man as mine, put a binding on him in any way I would be left with a handful of sand in the wind. No, even if in his own way he cares for me a little, sees something in me that pulls at him, attracts him the way peko-pekos like shiny things, it is a small thing compared to who and what he is. I can live with that and I expect nothing from him” I shrugged. “I understand my place in his life,” I sighed and added almost wistfully, “But I like that he smiles when he sees me.”

Navaari looked at me for a long time. “How is it that someone so young can be so…I do not have the right word, like sour fruit…?”

“Cynical.” I said sensing the word he sought.

He tasted the word and repeated it to get its feel and then nodded.

I shrugged. “It isn’t cynicism, it’s being realistic. I lived and worked at a docking bay, I saw it all the time, crying girlfriends clinging to men who would rather live amongst the stars than be planet bound, men bound to their ships and that way of life, leaving empty promises of love and marriage whispered and the women who fell for them left behind in a pathetic puddle of tears.” I sighed at the memories my words conjured up. “I swore I would not be like that.”

“I think you underestimate the depth of his emotions.” Navaari said quietly.

“Do I?” I asked honestly. “Maybe, who knows? I find him incredibly difficult to read. I wonder sometimes if the Chiss even have emotions. But I can tell you this, I make no claims on him and in the end, for both of us, duty comes first.”

Navaari sat back and studied me carefully. “You surprise me at every turn.”

“Za’ar says exactly the same thing. You all think you know me, you all think that you have me figured out but you know nothing!” I said coldly. “Just like Jyrki, you both think of me as some stupid, pathetic child.”

“That is more untrue than you will ever know.” He said firmly, and then asked. “Who is this Jyrki?”

“Didn’t Za’ar fill you in?”

“He has mentioned the name, said this is a man from your past and responsible for what has recently happened but he gave no details.”

“Then you know enough.” My voice as cold as the air outside. “But you met him once.”

“The man from Rothana.” He nodded, suddenly starting to put things together for himself. “The longer you keep this locked up inside of you, the deeper this poison will go.” He said. He was right and I knew it but I didn’t want to go to that place so I sipped my tea instead and then asked.

“What is this place?” Steering away from the topic at hand.

He stared at me for a long time as if to gauge how far he could actually push me and then decided that now was not the right time. “It is a snow house. We make them when we go on long hunts. Lucky this one still stands from a hunt a few months back and was very close, efficient, easy shelter from the weather.”

I nodded and drank the rest of the very sweet tea.

“We will stay here until the storm has blown itself out. Foolish to travel back in this.” He told me.

“Does anyone know you found me?”

He shook his head. “We have a good comm system here but this weather interferes with it. They will know when we return.” He looked at me as I yawned. “You should rest now. We will talk more when you have a clearer mind.”

I handed him my empty cup and curled up in the huddle of blankets and furs, turning my back to him. I knew he was watching me, trying to find answers but I didn’t have any to give.

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