Table of Contents and Summary So Far (Hey, that looks familiar... this isn't going to be as long as Shifts but I figured I might as well start keeping a TOC early on).
I petered out in the third section of this chapter, which I'll finish tonight, then I'll go to regular section posting, and hope I won't peter out again. I have to work up a plan of action.
Chapter 1: Akris
The first Basic word Shmi was able to pick up was, "Girl."
She wasn't entirely sure what it meant at first, only that it referred to her: "Girl, geddohverheer! Now, girl!" But she had taken Basic, long ago, and the word started to filter back up into her conscious mind. It had been in one of the useless phrases they'd drilled on: "I am a girl." She had no cause to use the whole sentence--its basic premise was too obvious to state--but she remembered the word. The rest of that dialogue would be useful, she supposed. It had been how to introduce oneself. For the first week of her captivity, she kept her mind occupied trying to remember that phrase as her captors shoved her around the hold, from cage to cage, feeding her some nameless gruel and putting her through exercises to get her into shape. She lost track of time, but she thought she had been through their daily routine of this eight or nine times when she remembered.
"Stebbidup, girl," one of the pirates was saying. "Gitose legstrong."
The phrase came back out of nowhere and apropos of nothing as Shmi stepped up onto the low crate they used to exercise her. When she pulled herself up for the fifth time, she stopped on top of the crate and said, "My name is Shmi Skywalker."
"Reelgud, Shmi Skywalker," the pirate said, and then tapped her knees to make her start the exercise again.
But they did begin to use her name when they ordered her around, which was at least a step up from being "Girl."
Time passed--she lost track even of the routine repetitions--and, by necessity, she began to pick up other words. Eat, cage, go, walk, out, in... Nothing complex, but she was able to avoid cuffs to the side of the head for not obeying quickly enough.
How long was it before she began to understand whole sentences?
She wasn't entirely sure, but her body clock had run its course three times before the day she realized that she had followed nearly an entire conversation that two of the pirates (they never gave her their names) had not far from her cage. It was vulgar talk, but it came through. She knew it because the fear, almost dormant, came back in a rush--they were talking about arriving on a world called Zhemess, and they were talking about Shmi herself.
One of them jerked his thumb back at her without looking. "Bet we can finally take this one out without her looking like her brains leaked out. She's talking these days."
The other one snorted. "I never knew what she was supposed to talk for. Ain't we selling her for a toy? Thought that was why Captain Aste wanted her kept clean and in good shape."
"Yeah, and no one buying her is going to want to try and explain what she's supposed to do if she don't speak Basic. Who wants to spend that much money on a slave just to have her shrieking with her ears covered, the way this one did when we picked her up?" He ran a rod across the bars of Shmi's cage, not quite touching her. "What do you say, beautiful? You understand what we're talking about?"
Shmi understood well enough to pretend not to. She just crossed her arms over her chest and sat back in the corner of the cage.
"We'll get you a pretty dress," he said. "That one you're in isn't looking so good anymore. I bet Captain Aste even lets you keep them old masks of yours. Makes you"--he used a word Shmi didn't recognize and smirked. "Don't know that one, do you?" he said. "Yeah, I can see you picking up a bunch, so you may as well stop pretending. 'Exotic,'" he repeated. "Means all strange and unusual. Say it."
Shmi glared at him.
"Iksawtik," Shmi said.
Shmi muttered the word to herself over and over, slumping back into her corner. She could understand the language better and hear the way all the words were supposed to sound, but she couldn't seem to wrap her mouth around them. Basic was flat and nasal a lot of the time, and her mouth was used to lilting tones and crystal consonants. Mama had always taught the children not to slur, to make speaking sound like the plucked strings of a harp.
She closed her eyes. She wasn't going to think about Mama or Papa or any of the others. She couldn't keep going forward if she did, and she knew they would want her to keep going forward.
A light flashed above the cargo hold door, and the two pirates straightened up. "Coming out of hyperspace," the first one said.
"Zhemess," the other said, sounding pleased. "Think I'll get my fortune told. See if riches are coming my way."
"I can tell you that, if you keep wasting your money on those cons."
"It's Zhemess. Better not let them hear you insulting their"--snort--"priestesses." He nodded toward Shmi. "Should we get her ready to go?"
"Better get her some clothes first. I bet we can unload her here; may as well make her look like a local."
They left the hold, leaving Shmi alone, still muttering "exotic" under her breath, not completely aware of it anymore. After awhile, the hatch on the cargo bay opened, and she saw the gold-tinged fog of Zhemess for the first time.
And for the first time, she felt something beyond herself, beyond the ship, beyond the pirates--she felt some great power in the galaxy, whispering to her just below the level of language.
Here, it said, without quite saying it. Find a way to stay here. It is as safe as you can be now.
Shmi didn't know what that power was, or why it would concern herself with her, but she was certain of one thing: it was not simply her imagination.
The sense of being protected lasted while the pirates found her a new dress, while she cleaned up and put it on, even while they herded her outside with the rest of the cargo (two other slaves were brought, blinking, from other holds). It held as she was loaded onto a flatbed hovercraft, and bounced across the rocky outlands of Zhemess. She had time to see beauty in the golden sunlight as it arced and played through the ever-present mist.
It shattered when the small caravan came to a stop in a barren stretch of land that had become, at least for the moment, a market. The golden mist took on the harsh tones of lights in a smoky tavern, and the calls of the hucksters sounded like crashing steel.
The voice that had comforted her seemed absent, and she reached for it desperately, not knowing what she was doing, only that the voice had been there, and she needed it back.
Shmi had been traveling with Papa long enough to know an outlands market when she saw one... and this was one that Papa would have forbidden all the children to enter, made his excuses as quickly as he could, and left without trading more than was necessary for fuel to the next world. "I try to avoid them," he'd said to her once when she'd wanted to know why they'd stopped at all, if he wasn't planning to set up their wares. She'd had a strong feeling that they'd be able to make good sales, and she'd been miffed that Papa had ignored her. "I didn't know about this one," he said, "or I would have told you when you brought it up. We could sell there. You were right. But there are markets no one with a conscience would exploit."
Shmi had seen a woman in a cage, and Papa had refused to explain who she was and what she was doing there.
Shmi hadn't given it a second thought until now, when she was the woman in the cage--well, not actually, not right now, but it was the same--and she understood suddenly why Papa had been in such a hurry.
Her heart tripped along far above its normal speed.
I am going to be sold. Like a speeder. Like Papa's games. I'm going to be someone's toy, I...
She was shoved into the square, where fans dissipated the mist, and she could see more clearly than she wanted to. Locals strolled around, looking at the various items the pirates had stolen. Shmi could hear them making bids, and was bitterly satisfied when the pirates undersold one of Papa's speeders--one that Jeztiz had painted carefully only a week before he died. They got at least two thousand credits less than Papa would have taken for it, easily.
But maybe not here.
The locals looked rough--dirty and vulgar, hard-eyed and crude.
Please, she whispered to whatever Face the galaxy had tried to show her. Please, oh, please, help me... Anak, protector, Leil, hidden... am I heard?
She didn't know what she was asking the galaxy to do for her, or even if she believed. But from beyond her--she was quite certain of that--some semblance of calm returned to her mind. You are safer here than elsewhere. You will see why.
The pirate who had been speaking by her cage earlier shoved her forward. "Get used to it, beautiful. Zhemess is an exile world, and the folks here aren't even wanted by the dregs of society. Tynna turned them out. Ampinua turned them out. Hell, even Tatooine turned them out, and that dust ball will take anyone." He prodded her with a blaster, and pushed her up onto a block. "And now you're even lower than them," he said, then turned to the crowd, and started calling out in Basic and a few other languages. Human girl, fourteen years old, healthy! Untouched! Strong! Pretty, isn't she?
Shmi stood with her chin forward and her hands clasped at the small of her back. A few men of various species started to wander over, none looking seriously at her. A Gran with only one remaining eyestalk used it to ogle her, but it was no more serious than an adolescent boy on his first job looking at a custom speeder. Putting it on his wish list.
As she watched the crowd and listened to her keeper's constant sales pitch, she began to notice a pattern here that was different from other markets. Around the perimeter of the market, small canvas booths stood every few meters. In each was a woman dressed in colorful veils and long slit skirts, something like the one the pirates had bought for Shmi. When a customer was thinking carefully about buying something, he would go to one of the booths, bring the woman forward to examine it, then consult her.
Invariably (at least so far), the woman would advise the customer to buy, and would hold her hands out to the customer and to the seller and say, "Donation."
Her mind fixed on these women, these carnival fortune-tellers who she heard called "priestesses." Greedy, avaricious women, preying on the hopes of these hopeless exiles.
They are your hope.
A piebald Wookiee with a scar down his face stopped in front of her pedestal and barked at the pirate.
"Go ahead. She's strong." The pirate grabbed Shmi's lower leg like it was a particularly fine roast. "Feel that."
The Wookiee took his advice. Shmi felt the hairy hand twitch on her other calf, then travel up behind her knee. She shifted backward.
The Wookiee stepped back and howled indignantly at the pirate, then stalked away.
"You don't want to do that," the pirate said. "You blow a sale, and you'll answer for it back on the ship."
Shmi nodded tightly. She tried not to look at the priestesses--whatever the galaxy was trying to tell her about them, she didn't want to hear it. They were scavengers, like the pirates, selling lies instead of slaves.
But she couldn't keep her eyes from them.
One, in particular seemed to pull at her like a magnet. She was a filthy woman, perhaps fifty, perhaps eighty; there was no way to tell. Her ankle-length skirt--slit to the hips on both sides, was bright green, and the piping on her top was gold. She wore a long veil over her head, but it was pulled back to reveal her face.
She looked across the market and raised one hand to Shmi.
Shmi blinked at her. Surely, it was simply accidental. She was waving at someone else.
But the woman continued to stare. She raised one hand and crooked a finger to someone off to the side, and Shmi saw a man break away from the crowd to join her. They whispered together, and the priestess pointed at Shmi. The man looked over. He was humanoid, but she couldn't tell if he was actually human. He wore long red robes, and a veil covered his face from the eyes down. The twisted cloth of his headpiece came down to his eyebrows.
Shmi knew this face, though she had never seen this man. It was the tor-in that no one wore on Inazkai. The blood-red funeral mask, the Kwar-in. The face of Death.
The priestess and the man didn't rush across the square, but they did move deliberately, in as straight a line as was possible in the crowd.
As they drew nearer, Shmi could begin to make out their features. The woman's eyes were a dark, muddy brown, her face unlined but somehow leathery. Only the man's eyes and the bridge of his nose were visible... but she noticed that the eyes were golden and striated. Not human, then.
Or at least not of a human variety Shmi had encountered before--which wasn't saying much. Mama said that humans were the most physically varied of the Republic's species. Shmi and Jeztiz had sometimes read the alien holonets to keep themselves busy, and there were groups out there who thought the notion of "humans" was actually a cover for a very loosely related group trying to form a species conspiracy, to create a "majority" where in fact there were only dozens of tiny splinter groups. After all, they said ominously, who really knew what world humans had come from before they were on half the worlds in the Republic? This was pure nonsense of course--human DNA was human DNA, and the variation was very small, according to Mama, who'd studied such things in university--and Shmi had always laughed at it, but she wasn't laughing as the man came over. She couldn't very well ask, "Excuse me, are you human?"--even if she weren't on a sales block, Mama would be horrified that such a question had even occurred to her--but she really couldn't tell.
So she said nothing, and assumed that this man was simply this man. His species wasn't important.
"Akris!" the pirate guarding her greeted the man as soon as he noticed him. "Long time, old friend!"
The man--Akris--stood back stiffly. When he spoke, his Basic accent was even thicker than Shmi's. "I am not friend of you."
"Sure thing, pal," the pirate said. "You manage to pile up enough credits to buy your way back into your tribe yet?"
Akris didn't answer this. His eyes flicked coldly over Shmi. "The slave. I would know of her."
"Fourteen, human, healthy."
"She has skills?"
The pirate shrugged. "She's pretty."
Akris turned to the woman. "I have no need of amusement, Telpi. You would waste my credits."
A vague smile split the old woman's face. "Have I led you wrong before? The girl will make you rich."
Shmi felt a sting of fear--she didn't like absurd promises made on her behalf.
But the pirate picked up on it. "Yeah, she's a merchant's brat. Bet she knows half the markets in the sector. And she's sure a better face for it than you."
The pirate cut her off with a look, but Telpi came forward. She licked at a sore on her lip. "You, girl, what is your name?"
"Don't tell her," the pirate said. "They're great fortune-tellers, the priestesses of Zhemess. I'll bet Akris here two hundred credits that the old witch can't figure out your name."
"Place the bet," Telpi said without looking back.
Shmi shook her head, but no one was paying attention to her.
"I accept," Akris said.
Telpi walked around the pedestal. She examined Shmi carefully--a real buyer, not just a looker. One finger touched the masks that Shmi was dangling from her right hand. "Tor-in," Telpi said. "I've seen these." Her voice rose slightly, became clear and bell-like. "Tudia sem-leni," she whispered.
It took Shmi's mind a moment to recognize that the woman had switched languages. I speak your language, she had said.
All thought of the sale and the situation left Shmi's mind. Her dislike of the old priestess disappeared. The words almost didn't come, but when they did, they came quickly. "Semuzhi relatu?" she begged. Can you help me? "Turoa vam di veyagal! Om-turoa gulam. Turoa..."
The blow hit the back of her right knee, and her leg gave out. She fell to a sitting position with a bone-jarring thud.
"Speak Basic," the pirate told her. "No cheating."
Telpi was only laughing. "She just said she's lost and scared and she's not a slave. She was about to tell me what she is, but you knocked her down first, you idiot." She looked at Shmi. "I'm not here to help you, girl. I know your folk of old, and I've never had much use for 'em. High and mighty, they are, thinking they know the right answers. All faces are one face, right, and you know the face. The rest of us are just wrong-headed. Well, you'll see about wrongheaded, girl. Zhemess will teach you about your wrongheadedness." She leaned in so close that Shmi could smell her rancid breath. "There is no face. There is only power. It cares nothing for you or me or any of them. It's what you do with it, and that's all."
"Her name," Akris said, sounding sharp. "You will not cost me credits by your prattling, old woman."
Telpi nodded mildly. "Akris is impatient," she said. "He lost a caravan back home on Tatooine. Raided the wrong settlement and got all his tribe's traveling goods burned. A few killed too, but what is death in the desert? Just a relief. It's the goods they banished him for, and he wants to buy his way back into their good graces. Akris here is a merchant, just like your father. And you helped your father make money didn't you?"
Shmi didn't answer.
She suddenly felt something like a whirlwind blow through her mind, dredging up images that she wanted to hold onto, things she didn't want to share with these filthy strangers. Images of Papa by the naviputer, looking up and saying, Where to, my little predictor? and then pinching her nose and grinning when she gave him a place. She was often wrong--it was just guessing!--but Papa said she had good luck.
And then the numbers.
Shmi saw herself doing inventories and carefully noting things in the ledger as she had been taught. Papa would check her work and then tally the current list against whatever the day's prices were, and then Shmi--who was better at numbers than Papa or Mama, and certainly better than the little ones--would add it up, figure it against the maintenance costs of the ship, and help him decide where to go to sell things and make the best profit.
"She knows business," Telpi said disdainfully. "She did the ledgers and she has a good sense about sales."
"That's not a name," the pirate crowed, holding his credit acceptor out at Akris. "Give it here."
"Shmi Skywalker," Telpi said. Her tone was casual, almost bored. "These people... so much stock in names. What difference does it make if she is Shmi Skywalker or someone else?" She affected an exaggerated pose. "Oh, what is the name of my inner self? What is the name of my god-face?" Telpi's nose wrinkled in obvious distaste, then she shook her head and went on. "But her name sings from every pore anyway. She's infected with her name."
"Is it your name?" Akris asked.
Before the pirate had a chance to pretend otherwise, Shmi nodded firmly, earning herself a glare. If Akris didn't buy her, there would be a reprisal for losing the bet back on the ship.
The credits were exchanged with poor grace.
Telpi, whose disinterested gaze had returned to Shmi during the course of the transaction, looked to Akris. "Will you trust me, Akris? Will you trust my judgment? She will bring you home."
He looked dubious, but he nodded, and began to haggle with the pirates over a price. Telpi came back to the pedestal. "I see other things," she whispered.
"When you can pay me, slave-girl, I will tell you." With that, she turned back to the men, held out her hands, and said, "Donation?"
Each man pressed a few credits her way, then she faded back into the crowd. Shmi didn't see which booth she went to.
The pirate's hand wrapped around her arm and she was yanked off the pedestal before she really had a chance to pull her mind back to that place. Akris was looking down at her now, his golden eyes contemptuous. "Telpi should be right about you," he said. "You do not wish to make her wrong."
"Ah, she'll do okay for you," the pirate said, swinging her around. He had a metal canister in one hand. "She better."
He plunged a thin tube down into the canister, and Shmi heard the sound of something metallic whirring. The tube glowed brightly, and Shmi could see a tiny piece of metal--a chip, she thought--dancing in some kind of viscous fluid. The pirate pulled the tube out. It was tipped with a long needle. "Now," he said, "you see this, Shmi Skywalker? This is an explosive. Akris here is going to hold the trigger. That's all you need to know from now on."
Shmi stared at the needle in horror--she assumed there was a way to keep slaves from running, but she had never imagined what it might be. Would this be strapped to her somehow? Or...
She looked at the needle and understood everything.
Fear ripped through her, and she tried to run, but her legs were stiff and sore from standing on the pedestal all day. The pirate--or Akris, she couldn't see and would never know--grabbed her by the back of her new dress and pulled her back to her feet.
Then there was just the long needle glinting in the sun, then pain at the base of her neck. The mist that walled the marketplace grew impossibly bright, blindingly bright, and then there was darkness.
She awoke to the sharp jab of another needle, this one pouring fire over her nerves.
The room she was in was dark. There were windows high above, casting sunlight partway down the long walls, but it didn't reach her here. This part of the room was lit only by torches. She looked longingly at the sunlight above, but an iron-strong hand grabbed her wrist and pulled her up into a sitting position.
Akris was still veiled, and his golden eyes still full of contempt. This close, she could see the top of his nose. It was wrinkled in distaste. "I did not purchase you to be faint," he said. "You will begin your work by reviewing my books."
He dragged her across the room to a large stone table, where his ledgers were spread out, projecting their contents into the air. Dust motes were attracted to the charged particles, and every now and then, one would flash fry.
She stared at the data dully, and thought, This isn't fair.
In that moment, she could feel two paths stretching out ahead of her. On one, she was proud and defiant, every moment of her life a fight which she would lose in the end--the path of Anak, who fought dark things. She longed to walk this path, to be strong and fierce... but deep within, she knew it was not her path to walk. Hers was the way of Leil, to be hidden here in shadows, waiting, holding the others within herself while she waited for the darkness to fade into light.
She sighed. "How much do you need to make?" she asked.
Akris narrowed his eyes suspiciously, and quoted a sum that was far beyond what he could earn at his current expense rate. "Will you make Telpi wrong?" he challenged.
Shmi shook her head. "You're spending too much on raw materials. Papa did business with this Crion fellow once, but he charged too much. There are other companies."
"Companies not protected by Crion."
"And I can help you with the assembly on these little engines you sell. I know them. That would save."
"A grain of sand in the desert," Akris said dismissively.
Shmi bit her tongue. She spent the rest of the afternoon making suggestions to Akris, who found reasons to ignore each one. By the time night fell, her head was swimming and her eyes hurt badly. Akris sent her to a dingy little basement room to sleep and told her to be up at dawn; she would need to learn real business if she meant to assist him.
Her scant belongings had already been placed on a low table--the two tor-inaz, her twine bracelet with its fortune charms, and her old dress. To these, Akris had added several drab work smocks, which Shmi was grateful for, as they didn't leave quite as much of her skin bare as the dress the pirates had bought.
She lay down on the hard cot, her hands crossed behind her head, and looked up at her windowless room. She could hear some sort of vermin bustling away in the walls.
If I cry now, she thought, I will not stop crying. It could be worse. Remember that it could be worse.
She breathed slowly, concentrated on each inhalation, letting the sound become regular, letting it fill her head.
She didn't cry.