Kelta watched Halyn depart with several of his trusted members in tow. That would have been me, once, she reflected. So much has changed between us.
She allowed the Force to seep into her perceptions, carrying her information from near and far. Distantly, but not too distantly, she could sense the fear and pain and adrenaline she associated with combat. The Zabrak defenders were putting up a terrific fight against the Yuuzhan Vong, and she could sense collective resolve to hold their ground.
Around the bridge, the emotions were clearer and less unified. Resolve was the undertone to everything—commitment to the defense of Iridonia, commitment to victory, determination to ensure the Yuuzhan Vong’s invasion failed. From individuals, she sensed chagrin over mistakes, regret over some past actions, fear—a different flavor than exuded by the combatants, with less immediacy and more dread, and…
She paused and turned. Impatience? She stretched out with her senses in that direction, feeling through the Force for the figure. “Anishor?” she asked aloud.
The Wookiee berserker growled a greeting from the shadows. <Hello, Kelta.>
Kelta smiled. “I can sense your impatience.”
<The coatrack has asked that I restrain the berserkers.> The low rumble in Anishor’s tone was, to Kelta’s ear, unhappy. <My brothers wait while the Zabraks fight.>
“You’d rather be out there fighting right now,” Kelta stated, not asked.
As Kelta’s eyes adjusted, she could see her old friend, the biggest Wookiee she’d ever encountered in her travels. The hilts of his massive rykk blades were visible over his furry shoulders, and he still moved with the power and grace she remembered. Of everyone, he seems to be the one who hasn’t changed, she told herself.
<I am glad to see you have embraced your power,> Anishor said after a pause. <I feared you never would.>
Kelta looked down at the two lightsabers hanging from her belt and blushed. “I tried to give it up, but it seems the Force has other plans for me.” She fingered one of the blades. “Both my daughter and I have been swept up in the war. It’s not something I wanted for myself, and definitely not for her.” She looked up and met Anishor’s eyes. “I’d hoped after fighting one war, there wouldn’t be another, and she would get to know peace and safety.”
<We fight so others can know that peace and safety,> Anishor pointed out. <We are warriors so others do not have to fight. Your daughter chose this for herself, didn’t she?>
“Yes,” Kelta admitted. “Though I think she was too young to make the decision.”
<She made it nonetheless,> Anishor said.
Kelta thought about it for a moment, and about what she knew of the big Wookiee. He was long since a warrior and a veteran of battles across the galaxy when she had met him. He was a scion of the Force—a powerful Force-user of a Wookiee battle tradition, far different than the Jedi and, in many ways, more limited. While the Wookiees embraced battle in a way the Jedi did not, the underlying theme was not dissimilar. We fight to keep the peace and protect others. Anishor and his berserkers fight so others can know lives of peace. Both of us sacrifice ourselves…normalcy, maybe…so others don’t have to know war.
<You worry for your daughter,> Anishor stated, rather than asked.
Kelta hesitated before answering. “Yes,” she admitted. “Yes, I do. None of the Jedi have heard from her since the fall of Coruscant. She just seemed to disappear from the galaxy. When I was at Borleias with Wedge Antilles, there had been no reports of her anywhere.”
<Can you sense her?>
“Faintly. She’s still alive, but I don’t know where.” Kelta shook her head. “I can’t tell if she’s in danger, if she’s safe, if she’s in pain…”
<The Force embraces her. If she trusts it, it will bring her through her trials safely.>
For a moment, Kelta hated the Wookiee. He’s always so damned serene. So confident. It melted away, though, and she blew out the last residue of it with a sigh. He’s trying to comfort me, and I resent him for it. Adreia will be safe…I know it.
“Where are Kalla and the cubs?” Kelta asked.
<Safe, on Kashyyyk,> Anishor rumbled. <Out of the way of the fighting for now. Kallabeccani wanted to join us here, but she chose to stay with the cubs.> Anishor smiled. <Of course, if the Yuuzhan Vong decide to attack Kashyyyk, she will no doubt be in the thick of the battle.>
Kelta caressed one of her lightsabers idly. “How is she? And you?”
It was Anishor’s turn to hesitate. <She wishes I would not embrace battle so eagerly,> he finally said. <That I would spend more time in peace at home than I do out here, waging war. She does not always understand the ways of the berserkers.>
The red-headed Jedi found echoes of Anishor’s statement in what Halyn had said before. You knew it wouldn’t work! You wanted a life of peace, and that’s not me. In that moment, she felt a sympathetic ache for Kallabeccani. Yes, I understand why she wants you to be home rather than fighting a war.
Maybe when this war is over, we can all go home and know some peace. At least for a little while, before the next threat to the galaxy comes rolling along.
Anishor growled, his eyes on the tactical display. <I don’t understand,> he said with a shake of his head. <Halyn asked me to come here to fight, and now he holds us in reserve. The longer the fighting goes on, the better the chance the Yuuzhan Vong will break through. He should allow me and my berserkers to attack now, before they have a chance to secure their beach head!>
Kelta cocked her head. “Maybe…”
Anishor turned and eyed her inquisitively.
She shook her head. “Never mind.” Her thoughts were spinning, though. Could Halyn want the Yuuzhan Vong to get a secure grip on Iridonia? Could he be selling out his own people? By the Force, what am I thinking?! Halyn would never sell out his own people!
Kelta shuddered, trying to shake off the sick feeling that overcame her at the thought.
Halyn couldn’t help but pace outside the entry to the council chamber. The structure seemed to have come through the crash of the Cathleen relatively intact, though it stood less than two kilometers from where the Star Cruiser’s wreckage still smoldered. Maybe it’s the shape—it just shrugged off the shockwave. Hard to tell, though.
Not that it matters. I should be fighting right now, not meeting with the politicians. Halyn stared at the closed door, pausing his movement for a moment. I have better things to do right now than assuage the fears of now-irrelevant politicians.
“Patience,” Kativie murmured.
Halyn glared at her. “Space your Jedi calm,” he spat. A moment later the venom bled away and he sighed. “Sorry. We need to be fighting right now, not playing politics.”
“Then why did you come?” Sandarie asked. The Twi’lek had plenty of scrapes and bruises, but she was no less a vital figure for her injuries. “Why not send someone else to meet them?”
Halyn snorted. “Because something else is at play here.” He shook his head. “And I can’t risk the Council stripping me of power right now—we’re too deep into this, and I don’t trust anyone else to pick up where I’d leave off.”
“You’re the Ul’akhoi,” Nisia pointed out, yawning. “By the rules of the Council, they can’t just strip you of power—they gave it to you with conditions. Until those conditions are met—in this case, the Vong are gone—you have pretty much unlimited power.”
The counterpoint came, to Halyn’s surprise, from the Zabrak representative to the New Republic. “Rules only matter,” he said slowly, “while people are willing to abide by them. The Yuuzhan Vong have set foot on Iridonia—the Council is likely in a panic right now. Their big objective right now is to ensure that we survive this, and it’s possible Halyn has somehow lost their trust.”
“Or,” Halyn said shortly, “there are Council members working actively against us.”
Nisia, Ceikeh, and Sandarie all gave him surprised looks. He ignored them to study Kativie. “What do you sense, Katie?”
The youngest of the Sanshir siblings closed her eyes, her face scrunched in concentration. “It’s…difficult to sense,” she said at last. “There’s a good amount of fear—almost overwhelming. I don’t think any of the councilors thought the Yuuzhan Vong would ever actually make landfall on Iridonia, and they’re panicking because they don’t know what to do.” She paused as she sorted out sensations. “There’s anger, too, aimed at you, Halyn. And…” she frowned. “Something else. I’m not sure what exactly it is.”
Halyn studied his little sister for a moment. “No idea at all?” he prompted.
“Almost…hunger.” She shook her head and opened her eyes, an emerald green just a slightly paler shade than Halyn’s. “I don’t know how to describe it. It’s almost need, almost physical hunger, with a little…I don’t know, greed maybe. But it’s hard to pick out with all the other emotions coming from the Council.”
“We’ll puzzle it out when we get in there, then,” Halyn said, his voice low. “I have some idea what we’ll be facing in there.”
“What, then?” Sandi asked. As the only non-Zabrak in the group, she felt—and looked—more than a bit out of place.
Halyn shook his head. “None of you are in danger,” he said. “This will be aimed at me.” He glanced over his shoulder. “Oh. I need a zhaboka.”
Nisia wordlessly handed him the weapon she carried. It was a traditional Zabrak weapon—a meter-and-a-half long quarterstaff with bladed ends. Halyn almost smiled at it.It’s a tradition that may save us yet. Almost no one in the New Republic except the Jedi and the Wookiees respect or know hand-to-hand combat like this. Iridonia’s stubborn refusal to let go of millennia-old traditions may save us all from the Yuuzhan Vong and their obsession with the honor of personal combat.
“What’s taking so long?” Sandarie asked after a long silent moment. “I thought they wanted to meet you right away.”
“Indecision,” Halyn and Kativie said together. The Jedi raised an eyebrow at Halyn; he nodded at her to explain.
“The Council didn’t expect the Yuuzhan Vong to make it past the defense fleet,” Kativie explained. “Which you already know. They can sense as well as anyone that this is a critical point in the Yuuzhan Vong’s campaign. They’re in disagreement about what route to pursue to ensure that we win, and they’re trying to figure it out before they allow Halyn to appear before them.”
“Then why call him before they’re ready?” Nisia asked.
“To keep him under control,” Ceikeh spoke up. “There’s a danger in making someone Ul’akhoi—just like there’s danger in giving anyone too much power, be it military, political, or religious. The Zabrak race was nearly enslaved by the Empire because a single person acquired massive amounts of power in the Galactic Senate, and no one wants to see one dictator traded for another.”
“Jess? A dictator?” Nisia raised an eyebrow. “You’re moving up in the galaxy.”
“So what’s likely to happen in there when we go in?” Sandarie asked.
“They’re going to ask for a report on the defense of Iridonia,” Ceikeh said. “Most of the Councilors have their own private sources of information, but with everything that’s happened in the past twelve hours, it’s hard to get a clear picture. So they’ll ask the head of the military for a concise image of what the situation is, both in space and here on the ground.”
Ceikeh hesitated. “Either they’ll affirm Halyn’s position as Ul’akhoi, or try to strip him from power.”
The door to the Council building swung open, and a young Zabrak male that Halyn did not recognize stepped out. “Ul’akhoi?” he asked tentatively.
Halyn nodded at him. “I am here.”
“The Council will see you now.”
Kativie trailed her brother into the Council chambers, her eyes barely registering the darkened room and she concentrated wholly on the sensations the Force carried to her. Eyes can be blinded and deceived, her Master had taught her. The Force allows you to see the truth. No deception can blind you.
And the Force carried her so many sensations now. The trick for Kativie, though, was to interpret what she was feeling. I wish Halyn would have brought Kelta along. She is so much better than I am at this. She sighed. She’s a natural at sensing and interpreting emotions. My talents run more towards destroying things. She resisted the urge to grip the lightsaber hanging from her belt. Though I wonder if that’s what will be needed here.
“Welcome,” Elibet Dav said flatly from the center of the Council.
From her, Kativie could immediately sense frustration and weariness. Weariness is hardly unique, Kativie reflected. We’re all feeling it, except maybe Halyn. From her brother, she was acutely aware that she could only sense life and determination, an energy that seemed to be endless. Frustration because of the Council’s deliberations, maybe?
Halyn inclined his head slightly. “Why has the Council summoned the Ul’akhoi? The enemy is at the gates, and my time would be better spent fighting the enemy than standing here.”
“The Council…” Elibet started.
“No longer requires your services,” a cool voice interrupted.
Kativie could feel the tension in the room mount, reflected in the Force. The person who spoke, though…she could sense darkness and deception. And something else. He feels familiar somehow… She rose on her tiptoes to see over the nearer councilors, and nearly fell when she recognized the speaker.
“Achick Lusp,” she whispered. My own father-in-law. Frak me, what is he doing?
“You have not been recognized to speak,” Elibet rebuked him.
Achick’s return look was harsh. “The Council can hardly waste time with niceties,” he returned, his voice as cold as vacuum and hard as durasteel. “As the Sanshir has noted, the enemy is at our gates. When we can afford the time for protocol and tradition, we will do so. Now, time is too precious to waste.”
Elibet’s stance never faltered, but Kativie could feel her wilt through the Force. She must be on the losing side of this—they had already decided before they let us in. She’s trying to fight it to the end, but there’s only so much she can do.
Halyn spoke. “You are correct. That is why the Council appointed an Ul’akhoi.” She could feel his wariness, almost hear his thoughts. “I am responsible for the defense of Iridonia, not this Council. Until this war is over, I do not answer to the Council.”
“But you do,” Achick said, turning his venom on Halyn. “The Council granted you power—the Council can revoke it.”
The younger Zabrak shook his head. “The law is very clear on this point—I hold the office of Ul’akhoi until the crisis has passed. There is nothing you can do about it.”
“No?” Achick asked, his smile broad. “I believe there is.”
Kativie shook her head. What trump card is he holding?
“And thus it ends,” a voice murmured.
The Jedi turned to the Zabrak woman standing beside her. “Hello, Alyce,” she said quietly to her mother-in-law.
“A pity, really,” the elder woman said. “We would have preferred not to be forced into this route. The death of your brother will be a pity, but the safety of Iridonia is far more important than Clan Sanshir.”
Kativie found her lightsaber in her hand. “What?” she hissed. “You do know there’s no appeasing the Yuuzhan Vong, don’t you? They will destroy us all if you try.”
Alyce waved to the assembly. “Hardly. Listen and learn, child.”
“I propose,” Achick was saying, “that we elect a new Ul’akhoi. One who has not let the Yuuzhan Vong profane our soil with their feet. One who can beat back these invaders, not allow them to proceed unchecked into our space.”
Kativie’s jaw dropped open. Another Ul’akhoi?
“What’s going on?” Sandarie whispered in her ear.
The Zabrak Jedi resisted the urge to take her lightsaber after Alyce and turned to the Twi’lek. “It’s a power struggle,” she said. “Technically, once an Ul’akhoi is appointed, they are supreme leader until the conditions of their selection has been met—in this case, until the Yuuzhan Vong have been driven out of Iridonia space. But…”
“But,” Ceikeh picked up smoothly, “there’s nothing in the law that says the Council can’t appoint another Ul’akhoi.”
The beautiful Twi’lek frowned. “So what would happen?”
“A blood challenge,” Kativie said. “It’s a deliberate insult, for one. And there’s no other way in the law to resolve a conflict like this.”
“So, Halyn is going to have to fight the guy speaking?” Sandi asked doubtfully.
“No, he’ll have to fight whoever is the appointed Ul’akhoi.” Ceikeh’s voice was low and tense.
Achick was still speaking. “I humbly submit, then, that the Council appoint as Ul’akhoi, Jram of Clan Lusp.”
Kativie stared. They’re making a power play, she thought numbly. We’re about a half-meter away from a coup. She could only continue to stare as her brother-in-law, a Zabrak ten years Halyn’s junior, confidently strode into the center of the Council. He wore only breeches, and his relative youth made him look powerful compared to the older, somewhat raggedly-dressed Halyn. A zhaboka was slung over his back, its blades polished and gleaming in the dim light.
Alyce’s voice whispered in her ear. “Now, Kativie Sanshir, you see what Clan Lusp is. It’s why you’ve never truly been one of us, why you’ll always be a Sanshir. You do not have the heart to do what is necessary, either for your clan or your world.”
The Council’s vote was tense, but Kativie no longer dared feel out the emotions of the councilors through the Force. Anger and betrayal fought for her heart, and she knew that to draw on the Force now would likely mean she’d throttle Alyce or slam Achick against a wall.
The vote was close, but Jram Lusp won an affirmation by a bare two-vote majority.
Through it all, Halyn was stone-faced. When the vote was finished, his voice was quiet, but ice cold and deliberate. “I do not recognize this Council’s authority to replace me,” he said evenly. “And I will not be insulted like this.” He turned to face Jram. “You have a choice to step away from this.”
When the younger Zabrak shook his head, Halyn’s next words froze Kativie’s heart. “Then I’ll have to kill you.”
Halyn spent a moment focusing his thoughts. Already, Jram was limbering up, swinging the zhaboka through a few familiar katas. The older Zabrak ignored him, ignored everything as he slowly narrowed his focus.
He shed the command jacket he had worn, giving it to Sandarie to hold. His eyes closed, he concentrated.
This is for everything, Halyn. This is too important to make a mistake. The fate of Iridonia, of all Zabraks, may very well rest in the outcome of this fight. Your brother already died for this cause, and a lot more people, maybe even you, will also give their lives for it. This is too important to risk letting some clan who is trying to acquire power make a move on you. You’re the Ul’akhoi—and for a good reason. You’re the Ul’akhoi that Iridonia needs right now. You can’t lose.
Then Kativie’s whisper was in his ear. “You can do this, Halyn. You may not be a Jedi, but everything’s riding on you.”
“I know,” he murmured. “Thank you, Katie.”
He could hear the smile in her voice. “Kick his ass, Halyn.”
He opened his eyes and took the zhaboka his little sister offered. He flicked it around once to check the balance and weight; nodding with satisfaction, he held the traditional weapon in a two-handed grip.
Jram was whirling his zhaboka through fantastic patterns, all fluid grace and movement. Above the din in the Council room—more than a few side conversations had started—Halyn could not hear what Achick or Alyce were saying to their second-born son. No doubt offering him some last-second advice on how to beat a Sanshir, Halyn thought grimly.
“Elibet!” Halyn shouted. The room began to quiet. “Begin this fight!”
The head of the Council inclined her head and moved to the center of the open space. Jram Lusp stepped away from his parents and moved into the center of the room, standing before Elibet. Halyn matched him step for step, coming to a stop opposite the younger Zabrak.
“Show your respect,” Elibet said quietly, for only the two combatants to hear, “and then the fight is on. It ends when one has yielded or died.” Her tone held no hint as to which she thought was the better outcome, nor whom she’d prefer to see the victor.
Halyn expected no less. He was fairly certain she wanted him to win, just as he was certain she was prepared to live with the consequences. He and Jram both bowed deeply before Elibet, rose, and turned to each other.
“I’m sorry it had to be this way,” Jram offered. “My brother Hakk has nothing but the deepest respect for you, Halyn Sanshir, but you’ve already failed. It’s time for you to step aside and allow someone else to lead us to victory—you’ve tasted nothing but defeat.”
“I’d rather not kill my sister’s brother-in-law,” Halyn replied evenly, “but you have no idea what warfare is.”
Jram’s dark blue eyes glittered with ice, and then he and Halyn bowed to each other.
As Halyn began to straighten, Jram lashed out with his zhaboka. On pure instinct, Halyn ducked aside and saw the steel of a blade flash by his head, then retract.
Cheers and shouts of disapproval competed for volume as Halyn withdrew a half-step, bringing his zhaboka up defensively. Jram’s expression showed no regret at the treacherous attack. Halyn suppressed a smile. Bending the rules. I should’ve thought of it.
Jram stepped in aggressively, the zhaboka flurrying with blows left and right as the younger Zabrak took advantage of his speed to try to force Halyn back onto his heels.
He was completely unprepared for Halyn’s response. Instead of moving to block, Halyn dropped his own zhaboka and sprang forward, his hands wrapping around the zhaboka’s length and moving chest-to-chest with Jram. With the two combatants so close, the zhaboka’s blades were out of play—Jram would need to withdraw in order to use them, and Halyn wasn’t giving him the space to do so.
The younger Zabrak started to wrestle for control of the weapon, but Halyn brought his knee into up into the other’s groin. Jram lost all his breath and started to tumble backward, but Halyn wouldn’t let him. A headbutt opened gashes on Jram’s forehead and face, and Halyn released the zhaboka with one hand to smash it into the other’s nose. Then he allowed the other to fall back, kicking Jram’s wrist and forcing him to release the zhaboka.
Jram sprawled across the floor, stunned. Halyn tossed the Lusp’s zhaboka aside and, with a flick of his foot, recovered his own. Before Jram could rise, the Ul’akhoi rested the zhaboka’s blade against the other’s throat.
“Now,” Halyn said coldly, his voice echoing oddly in the stunned silence of the Council room, “you have two options. You can yield, pick up your zhaboka, and join the Zabrak warriors who are even now fighting to keep the Yuuzhan Vong out of Rak’Edalin. Or I can empty your blood onto the Council floor.”
Jram stared up at him with hatred. “Are you too cowardly to finish me?” he taunted.
Halyn snorted. “Either your death will mean something to the defense of our people, or it won’t. I’m beyond caring right now.” His voice dropped in tone, limiting its range so only the nearest could hear it. “The only reason I give you this much choice is the respect I have for your brother Hakk, and how well he’s treated Kativie. If it were only you and your parents, and your attempt to undermine me, you’d already be dead.”
Something softened in Jram’s eyes. “I’ll fight,” he said softly. “I’ll fight the Yuuzhan Vong.”
Halyn turned away from him without another word. He lifted the zhaboka until its blade aimed at Achick, as though it were a blaster and Halyn could eliminate him with a pull of the trigger. “You, on the other hand,” he said coldly, “are living on borrowed time.”
Something ran into his left eye and blinded him. He turned away from the Lusps and tossed the zhaboka back to Kativie, and took back his jacket which Sandarie was offering. He wiped his face on the uniform, then looked down to realize it was spotted red. He frowned and reached up, feeling. When he brought his fingers before his eyes, they were red and sticky. “Huh,” he murmured.
“He got a piece of you with that first shot,” Nisia provided helpfully.
Halyn nodded, then shrugged his jacket on and turned back towards the Lusps and the Council. “You’re fools,” he said disdainfully. “You’ve wasted time and energy that should’ve been spent on the defense of Iridonia.”
“If you had defended our world competently,” Achick managed, his tone subdued by the unexpected reversal, “we wouldn’t have needed to challenge you.”
Halyn snorted. “Most fools know when they’re beaten.”
“The Yuuzhan Vong are even now at our gates!” Achick snarled. “Your defense has failed, Sanshir. You’re going to be the death of all of us!”
“You should leave the fighting to warriors,” Halyn returned coldly. “They would understand what’s going on.”
“What’s going on? The Yuuzhan Vong have setup a blockade! Our fleet has fled, and now the Yuuzhan Vong have begun to march across Iridonia!”
“A warrior,” Halyn shouted, “would’ve understood that our fleet could never defend Iridonia!”
Shocked silence followed his pronouncement. He plunged on heedlessly. “The Yuuzhan Vong smashed their way through half of the New Republic’s fleet to take Coruscant! Even with every turbolaser and proton torpedo we could bring to bear, we would never have held the Vong at bay.”
“Because you Sanshirs sacrificed our two most powerful ships,” Achick countered.
“The Maria and the Yali would’ve been insignificant next to the fleet the Vong brought to bear,” Halyn pointed out. “We always knew we could never keep the Yuuzhan Vong off Iridonia. Short of the New Republic giving us one of their fleets, we never had the firepower we’d need to keep them away. Ever.”
More silence filled the space after his statement. Finally, he continued. “The defense of Iridonia would always come down to this. We knew it from the day the Yuuzhan Vong razed Ithor. Even then, the wisest minds who were brought in to arrange our defenses admitted it—there was no way we could keep these invaders from forming a blockade and landing on our soil.”
“So our defense is all for naught?” Achick spat. “Our warriors fight and die for nothing?”
“No,” Halyn said. “Because we don’t have to beat them.”
Achick laughed as the rest of the Council continued to watch in disbelieving silence. “What, are you going to make peace with them?”
Halyn ignored the question. “We don’t have to win. We have to not lose. Every day our warriors hold out, every day our starfighter squadrons can maintain air cover, every day the Yuuzhan Vong fail to beat us into submission, brings the galaxy a chance for victory.”
The head of the Lusps sneered. “What, you think by us fighting here, the New Republic will somehow miraculously come in and save the day? That the same New Republic that’s been on the back foot since the very beginning will somehow rally and beat the Vong?”
“You’d better hope so,” Halyn said coldly. “Because if the New Republic falls, the Yuuzhan Vong will bring their full might to bear on us, on the Imperial Remnant, on Hapes—and without the New Republic, we will fall.” He looked around the room. “Understand this. Iridonia will hold the line here against the Yuuzhan Vong, but the New Republic must win the war if we are to survive here. It’s why I sent our fleet away: they could accomplish nothing more here, but the addition of their firepower to the New Republic’s surviving battle groups could be critical in turning the tide of the war.”
He turned away from the Council and marched towards the door, his friends and sister falling in behind him.
“You’ll be the death of us all,” Achick screamed.
The Ul’akhoi didn’t stop. “I’m the best chance the Zabraks have left of surviving this invasion,” he said. “I’m done with this Council. I have a war to fight.”