Two Years Earlier
The ocean sighed as it rushed forward and receded in a rhythm even more ancient than what was unfolding on its lavender- sand shores. While the sun was bright and warm, a breeze came from the sea to cool the heated faces of the two figures standing there.
They faced each other, as still as if they were carved from stone, the only motion around them that of their hair and heavy black robes as the wind toyed with them.
Then, as if by some unheard signal, one of them moved. The soft sound of the ocean was punctuated by a sharp snap- hiss.
The almost perfectly symmetrical, light purple features of Vestara Khai’s adversary were abruptly cast into sickly green relief. Vestara activated her own weapon with a fluid motion, saluted her opponent with it, settled into position, and waited to see who would make the first move. She balanced lightly on the balls of her booted feet, ready to leap left, right, or straight up. Still her opponent did not move.
The sun was at its height and its light was harsh, beating down on them like something physical. Their heavy dark robes were stifling hot, but Vestara would no sooner abandon her robes than she would abandon her weapon or her heritage. The robes were traditional, ancient, a deep and valued part of who she was, and she would endure the encumbrance. The Tribe valued strength as much as it valued beauty; rewarded patience as much as initiative. The wise being was the one who knew when which was called for.
Not at her opponent, but to the left and past him, leaping upward, turning in the air, and slashing outward with the blade. She felt the blade impact and heard its distinctive sizzle. He gasped as she landed, flipped, and crouched back into a defensive position. The sandy surface was treacherous, and her foot slipped. She righted herself almost instantly, but that moment was all he needed to come at her.
He hammered her with blows that were more of strength than grace, his lithe body all lean muscle. She parried each strike, the blades clashing and sizzling, and ducked underneath the final one. Lightness and agility were her allies, and she used them freely.
Her long, light brown hair had come loose from its quickly twisted braid, and the tendrils were a distraction. She blew upward to clear her vision just in time to block another one of the strong blows.
ÒBlast,Ó she muttered, leaping back and switching the blade to her other hand. She was completely ambidextrous. ÒYou’re getting good, Ahri.Ó
Ahri Raas, apprentice, member of the native– and conquered– species of Keshiri and Vestara Khai’s close friend, offered her a smile. ÒI’d say the same about you, Ves, except for the fact that that sand- jump messes you up every single ti–Ó
She interrupted him with a sudden upward leap, landing on his shoulders, balancing there lightly with the use of the Force, and plunged the lightsaber straight downward, aiming for his back between his shoulder blades. He dived forward, Force- pushing her off, but not before she had touched the tip of the glowing red blade to his robes. Ahri arched, his dive thrown off as his body twisted from the pain; even the training lightsabers inflicted a powerful shock.
Vestara leapt as Ahri dived, using his Force push to her own advantage, turning twice in the air and landing surely, facing him. She smirked in satisfaction as she brushed her renegade locks out of the way. Ahri completed his dive and came to his feet, rolling in the sand. Vestara extended her arm with the grace of a dancer. Ahri’s lightsaber was snatched from his hand and flew into hers. She grasped it and dropped into the Jar’Kai stance, ready to come at him with both blades. Ahri looked up and sighed, dropping back into the sand.
ÒAnd you get distracted far too easily. Focus, Ahri, focus,Ó she chided. She gestured casually, just a slight jerk of her chin, and a handful of sand flew toward Ahri’s face. Muttering, he lifted his empty hand and used the Force to deflect the grains.
ÒIt’s just training, Ves,Ó he muttered, getting to his feet and dusting himself off.
just training,Ó she shot back. She deactivated her training lightsaber, hooked it back on her belt, and tossed Ahri’s to him. The Keshiri youth caught it easily, still looking disgruntled. Vestara undid her hair and fluffed it for a minute, letting the air penetrate to the roots to cool her scalp. Her long fingers busily rebraided it, properly this time, as she continued to speak, while Ahri shook grains of purple sand out of his own white, shoulder- length hair.
ÒHow often have I told you that? Say that in the presence of one of the Masters and you’ll never make it beyond a Tyro.Ó
Ahri sighed and rose, nodding to acknowledge the truth of what she said. Neither of them had been formally chosen as an apprentice yet, although they had been training in classes under the tutelage of various Masters for years, their strengths and weaknesses in the Force noted and analyzed and pushed.
Vestara knew that, at fourteen, it was still possible, even likely, that she would be chosen by a Master as his or her formal apprentice. But she chafed horribly at the delay. Some Tyros were chosen at much younger ages, and Vestara knew that she was strong in the Force.
She reached out for a flask of now warm water and the canteen resting on the sand floated to her, the lid unfastening as it moved. Vestara gulped down the liquid thirstily. Sparring at the height of the sun was exhausting, and Ahri always muttered about it, but she knew it toughened her. Vestara handed the canteen to Ahri, who also drank.
She regarded him for a moment. He was a nearly perfect physical specimen of a species whose physical strength, agility, and harmony of features and form had become an ideal for her own people. He could easily pass for a member of her own species– he would make a striking human, but a human nonetheless– were it not for the pale purple cast to his skin. His eyes, too, were slightly larger than a human’s; large and expressive. His shoulders were broad, his hips narrow, and there was not an ounce of superfluous fat on his frame. His face, though, was flushed a darker purple than usual because he was overheated, and his hair had far too much sand in it.
ÒThat’s two for two,Ó she said. ÒYou up for another round?Ó She gave him a wicked grin, which was exaggerated by the small scar at the corner of her mouth.
The scar that the Tribe saw as a flaw. It was plain on her face, right out in the open–there was very little she could do to disguise it. Attempts had been made to heal it and to correct it with cosmetic surgery. Those attempts had been mostly successful and now, to be sure, it was not all that noticeable. But this was a world where any flaw, any scar or deformity, was a strike against one’s potential for advancement.
The scar added insult to injury, as far as Vestara was concerned– because of its location, the thin line almost always made her look like she was smiling, even when she wasn’t. She had hated that about it until Lady Rhea, one of the most respected of the Sith Lords, had told her that deception was actually a very useful thing indeed.
ÒIt mars your beauty,Ó Lady Rhea had said bluntly, pausing as she strolled down the line of potential apprentices after a formal ceremony. ÒA pity.Ó She, whose beauty was only slightly diminished by the cruel ravages of time, reached out a long finger and touched the scar. ÒBut this little scar– it can aid you. Make others think you are something you are not.
Ó She tapped the scar lightly with each of the last four words, emphasizing her point.
That had made Vestara feel a bit better. All of a sudden, looking like she was smiling all the time, even when she wasn’t, seemed like a good thing to her.
ÒI think I’ve sweated off at least two liters already,Ó Ahri replied. ÒCan’t we continue in the training courtyard at least? It’s cooler in the mountain shadows.Ó
At least he wasn’t refusing the offer of another round. Vestara dragged a black- draped arm across her own forehead. She had to admit, fighting in the cool shadows of the proud columns, beautiful statuary, and sheer mountain stone in which the Temple courtyard was nestled had a definite appeal right at the moment. While they were not yet formally apprenticed to any of the Sabers or the Masters, as Tyros they would be per- mitted to spar in the courtyard. That was as far as they were allowed to go, however. Neither of them had seen inside the Temple or, even more significant, inside the Ship of Destiny yet. The ship’s name was Omen,
but the name ÒShip of DestinyÓ had fallen into common usage. For su...