“Arrgh! Witch! Stand still, damn you.” Ulex Murcrey flung down his practice saber in disgust and glowered at Nasriel. “What’s with the Ataru all over the show? I know for a fact Padawans are supposed to harmonize with their Master’s style – and Kenobi’s been Soresu since forever! ”
Deactivating her lightsaber and crouching above his head on one of the exposed beams supporting the ceiling of the dojo, Nasriel grinned down at her friend. “Ah well. He started with Ataru, I guess that counts. I’m too small for any of the defensive forms. Anyway. Shall we play again?”
Ulex, a sturdy Ramoan boy, was far from being too small for anything, and stuck stolidly to his beloved Soresu, smiling in satisfaction to see that he was a close match for the older, smaller Padawan. In the golden light of sundown, they sparred together, undisturbed, for nearly an hour.
“Ulex! Behind you!” she sang out suddenly, and, when he instinctively turned to investigate, landed a neat blow on his shoulder, from behind. “Cho sun. I win. Well fought, Murcrey,” she added admiringly. “I’d never have won otherwise.”
“Badly and impractically fought, you mean,” commented a dry voice from the edge of the dojo. Casually, N’Cai Vareng sauntered forward, holding one hand imperiously out to demand his Padawan’s lightsaber. “Don’t dare ever lose to her again. Blue, just one or two points. Most obvious, winning by a trick is not winning at all. On a more subtle level…”
Nasriel stared up angrily at Vareng. “You’re not my Master anymore, and you’ve never fought Ataru style anyway. I don’t have to listen to you. If you have a problem with how I fight, raise it with Master Kenobi.”
Abruptly, the Master gripped her by her right wrist, his fingers tight as a vise. When he spoke, it was so softly, but with a touch of menace behind each word, that Nasriel had to strain to hear. “I may not be your Master, you little blue brat, but by all gods I’m a Master and you owe me respect. And someday, when he’s not around to cry to… well.” He reached for a lightsaber – not the half-powered one Ulex tentatively held out to him, but his own weapon at his belt. “This is one lesson you won’t forget.” Activating the gleaming violet blade, Vareng laid it against Nasriel’s open palm, holding the searing beam of energy for a few seconds before letting it snap back into the hilt.
Nasriel gasped in shock and pain, pulling against his iron-hard clasp, and stumbling involuntarily away the second he released her hand. “You…”
“Look it up. Go to a history book and look it up. And then complain to your precious Master – if you dare.” Vareng strode out of the dojo without a backward glance. “Come, Ulex.”
Helplessly, Ulex shrugged, a gesture that said clearer than words, I’m sorry, Witch, but what can I do? and trotted apprehensively after N’Cai Vareng.
Left alone in the silent dojo, Nasriel detachedly studied the injury to her hand: a straight, broad mark across her palm, joining the head and heart lines, and already blistered and swollen purple. She could feel her pulse throbbing in the wound, slowing gradually from fear to calm. Attaching her lightsaber to her belt, the Padawan made her way to the Room of a Thousand Fountains to cool her burning hand under the waterfall. As she walked, she called up a relevant historical note to her datapad, read it, and sighed. No, it would not be wise to try explaining this to Obi-Wan.
A few hours after dawn the next day, Obi-Wan was beginning to regret offering to look over Nasriel’s history essay and suggest improvements. It did not fully explore the implications… this sentence showed total lack of knowledge… from the second page in it was illegible. “Nasriel! Can you read this?” The future of the Order rests with the Padawans, he reflected. Force help us all.
“What happened here and what language did you think you were writing in?”
“Um… oh.” Flicking the page sheepishly back to him across the table, she admitted, “That’s Basic, Master.”
“What on earth happened to your handwriting? I usually recognize your work because it’s semi-legible. This looks like…” Words failed him.
“Like I was writing with my left hand?” Nasriel supplied. “I was. I – uh – hurt my right hand and didn’t want to miss the class.”
Obi-Wan looked up from the papers in concern. “You went to Vokara or Bant, of course? Are you all right now?”
“Nah, it’s fine. It doesn’t hurt much.”
“All right. There’s a pen in that jar and paper here. You can recopy your essay.”
Clearing a space at the table by the simple expedient of sweeping a pile of books onto a chair, Nasriel sat down to write, awkwardly, with the fingers of her left hand curled around the pen.
Obi-Wan watched distantly for the time it took to write two lines, then said, “Right hand, please. There’s no point recopying if nobody can read the copy either.”
“Yes, Master.” As she switched the pen over and its rough barrel ground into her raw flesh, Nasriel gritted her teeth to keep from crying out, but could not suppress a faint hiss of pain.
Instantly, Obi-Wan caught her hand, holding it gently, palm up on the table. “Stop. Let me see. No, don’t curl your fingers over like that.” After a few seconds scrutiny, he nodded slowly. “Where did you get this?”
“I spend half my time in a lab full of gas burners and boiling chemicals, Master, where do you think?”
The slight smile that meant only deviousness crept across his face. “I think the dojo. What happened?”
“Accident?” Nasriel suggested cautiously.
“Wrong answer,” Obi-Wan snapped. “It’s too deep to be other than malicious. Who?”
“N’Cai,” surrendered Nasriel. “I looked it up in the history section of the Archives: burning a Padawan’s hand with a lightsaber was a traditional punishment for disrespect. I had it coming, Master. He was correcting some mistakes and I told him to get lost. I was wrong, this is the consequence.” She drew her hand away and started to write again, shoulders hunched over her work, mental shields firmly in place.
“Nasriel,” Obi-Wan began, and then stopped. What next? Saying, N’Cai Vareng is on the edge of heretical, although true, would only encourage disrespect, and as a Council Member he had to set a good example. He had no right to do that would help nothing: Nasriel already knew. “A Jedi called Jorus C’Baoth did that to me once.”
Nasriel looked up skeptically. “What had you done?”
“Rather similar to you, I think. I was only recently knighted, and he didn’t approve of my training Anakin. I was… rather disrespectful to him. I apologized, but C’Baoth came in while we were in the dojo and challenged me. I didn’t have the advantage of seniority, so I couldn’t very well refuse. That was when he… burned me. I had to go on a mission shortly afterwards – partly, I suspect, as a pretext to find out if C’Baoth really would be a better Master for Anakin.”
“That’s hardly fair,” Nasriel observed. “You’d promised Master Jinn.”
Obi-Wan smiled. “Well, it was hardly fair… for C’Baoth. Anakin was just too much for him to handle, though of course he blamed me for that. Personally, I think it was his arrogance and lack of tolerance… and patience. But anyway, the Council decided that since Anakin’s training needed to be unorthodox, they would let me train him, since C’Baoth was so inflexible.” Nasriel stared. Obi-Wan gave her a blank look. “What?”
“I just find it hard to imagine you… rebelling.”
Obi-Wan laughed, then became serious. “Now, about Vareng. You shouldn’t be rude to him, Nasriel, but you can’t let him get to you, either. He’ll probably get more irritated if you’re polite, but it’s well worth doing… even if only to annoy him. It has the added benefit of not counting as disrespect.”
Nodding slowly, Nasriel murmured, “Now, that sounds like one of Master Jinn’s ideas. Circumventing the rules. Playing with fire.”
Obi-Wan looked startled. “No, that was original, I think. Stop writing, you’ll hurt yourself. Go to the dojo, go practice your backflips or something – go.”
Obediently setting down the pen, Nasriel headed out of the quarters for the high-ceilinged training hall on the other side of the Temple.
Predictably, the dojo was not empty; it never was in the mornings. Today, N’Cai Vareng and Ulex were working in one corner, N’Cai watching narrowly as his Padawan went through one of the complex drills of the Makashi form.
“No! If that was one centimeter higher it would have been right. But it wasn’t. Start again, do the whole drill over.” He caught sight of Nasriel and beckoned imperatively to her. “Blue, come here.”
When Nasriel reluctantly trudged across the room, narrowly avoiding being kicked in the head by a younger Padawan practicing his handstands, N’Cai motioned to Ulex to power down his lightsaber. “I was hard on you yesterday,” he began without preamble, “but I don’t think too hard. Do you want me to show you what you were doing wrong?” He waited for her answer, arms folded across his chest.
Nasriel bit her lip to prevent the retort she wanted to give, and managed to say politely, “If you would be so kind, Master Vareng.”
“That’s better,” he remarked, with a condescending nod. “Now, most important, you forget to re-center yourself when you land after a jump, and that leaves you vulnerable for a few seconds each time. Also, as I said before, winning by a trick is not really winning. You have to learn to be more aggressive. Now, I have a great deal of respect for Master Kenobi, and I know he’s busy. So I’m more than willing to help you out from time to time. Tell him that from me.”
“Yes, Master Vareng,” Nasriel said brightly, hastening out of the dojo before he could say anything else. She went to the lower levels, where, for generations now, a makeshift firing range had been set up in one of the larger disused storerooms. Only very rarely was it used: a Master long ago had joked that the Jedi used a lightsaber instead of a blaster because it evened the field – albeit slightly – and so many Padawans had been struck by the idea that now few would willingly touch a blaster, feeling it to be beneath them.
A few years spent as a Sentinel allowed Nasriel to ignore the joke: a Jedi used whatever weapon was available to carry out their mission; lightsaber for preference, but almost anything was acceptable. Today, some new-model blaster pistols had appeared in the range cupboards from Force-knew-where, and Nasriel meant to test one.
In the range, silent except for the faint buzzing of the energy-absorbing field across one end of the room, Nasriel relaxed. There was no point being stressed when she was only practicing with a blaster, after all. Falling into the old routine – find a pistol sized for her small hands, find an energy cell, check the absorber was switched on, select and set targets, remove the safety catch of the pistol – she found herself completing each action exactly as she always had. The familiar motions had the calming effect of a lightsaber kata, helping her to find her center before rippling off a few experimental shots at nothing in particular. That she had always fired left-handed anyway was useful, as she did not have to get used to a new stance as well as a new weapon.
Once used to the way the new pistol moved, and the unusual prototype sights, Nasriel started practicing in earnest, flash-sighting each target in under half a second before firing neat double-tap shots. Two bolts to each target, remembering what Jiron had taught her: If it’s worth shooting, it’s worth shooting twice. After five minutes, she had hit every one of the targets, only missing around six shots. Fairly good, she considered, but slightly out of practice. Determinedly, she reset the targets, farther away this time, and started again.
A cough from the doorway startled her into missing the target, halfway through the second energy cell.
“Mind if I join you?”
Nasriel shrugged and gestured to the pistol cabinet. “It’s not my range, Master. Go ahead.”
Crossing the room to switch off the absorber, Obi-Wan said hastily, “That’s not what I meant.” He indicated his lightsaber. “The last time I had any practice with a blaster was… the mission to Zigoola. Would you -”
“Shoot at you with my blaster?” Nasriel laughed. “Of course.”
“I could ask,” the Master commented drily, “why you are here instead of in the dojo.”
“But I won’t. Well, come on, is that thing broken?”
“Activate your lightsaber,” the girl replied nervously. “I’m here ’cause N’Cai’s in the dojo.”
“I will when you fire. What did he say?”
Pretending to examine the completely uncorroded anode of the energy cell, Nasriel muttered, “He said to tell you that he’ll train me if you’re too busy.” At last there was no more possible time to be eked from scrutiny of the cell, and she had to reload it and slide back the safety. “Ready?”
No more stalling; raise-aim-fire all in one second. Nasriel had been uneasy enough to turn the pistol down to half-power, but she need not have worried. Almost before the bolt had left the blaster, Obi-Wan’s blue lightsaber flickered forth to neatly deflect the shot before returning to guard position.
Nasriel glanced up at him uncertainly. “Keep going?”
“Just like your usual practice.” After a moment’s pause, he asked quietly, “Do you want him to?”
“Sure.” For more than a minute, Nasriel maintained a rate of fire that rendered further conversation impossible, but eventually the energy cell ran out and she had to stop to reload.
Deactivating his lightsaber and taking a rest, Obi-Wan continued as if there had been no interruption, “Qui-Gon used to say never make an important decision when you’re angry. Ready again?”
“Okay, no, then.” Nasriel deliberately avoided meeting her Master’s eyes as she searched for a fresh power cell. “Force, I can’t think of many things I’d less rather happened.”
“Top shelf. I can see them from here. Nasriel, I can’t give you – or Ben – as much time as other Masters could, and that’s flat. I can’t give you normality, if that’s what you were seeking. But I can promise this much: I’ll resign from the Council before I let it become more important to me than my Padawans.”
There was silence for nearly a minute as Nasriel meticulously checked over a fresh energy cell. Eventually, satisfied that it was safe, she reloaded the blaster and turned troubled golden eyes to Obi-Wan. “You would truly do that? I don’t -” she shrugged, and said simply, “Thank you.”
“I would. Now, do you want to keep going? I’m worried about that burn on your hand – perhaps you’d better go to the medcenter.”
Nasriel grinned. “I shoot southpaw anyway: it doesn’t matter for now. And… I wouldn’t like to give N’Cai the satisfaction of knowing he’s upset us.”
“Very well. If that’s how you feel. But I do want you to get it seen to.”
“En garde,” came the calm response, immediately followed by a hail of blasterfire.