This chapter and the next are Erin’s Christmas present: Merry Christmas to Erin, and I’m so sorry it had to be virtual!
Solstice Eve, or, The Ghost of Christmas Past.
Checking the pockets to see he hadn’t forgotten anything, Obi-Wan shrugged his cloak resignedly on, and scowled at Anakin, lounging in the doorway.
Anakin pointedly looked at his chrono. “Are we going or not, geezhah?”
“Anakin, I am not such an old man that I’ve completely forgotten what that means. Wait one minute. Nasriel and Ben: finish any academic assignments before watching a holomovie, any friends over – oh, just try to keep the noise down – and lights out by midnight if I’m not back before then. Understood?”
“Yes, Master.” Nasriel added curiously, “Um, where are you going?”
“Out,” smirked Anakin. “Two Masters do not have to answer to two Padawans. See you kids later.”
“Yes, Master Skywalker.”
Obi-Wan returned late, or rather early, for the faint grey glimmer of dawn was just beginning to tint the far eastern horizon. Winter Solstice.
Slipping into the quarters as silently as possible – and the Jedi are masters of silence – he was vaguely surprised to hear a murmur of voices from Nasriel’s room. The light was out, as per his previous instructions, but the door was open, which he considered an encouraging sign that whatever the Padawan was up to now could not be terribly illicit. For as long as a few seconds, Obi-Wan remained undecided, but eventually moved a little closer to the doorway, to listen without being heard.
It was not voices, after all, only Nasriel’s voice alone. As he listened, the murmur resolved itself into words; the tail end of what was apparently a very long ballad.
“That Winter Solstice, on the road,
There walked a boy with a heavy load.
His boots were worn, his face was tired,
The way he marched was deeply mired.
At dusk, he paused, kept on his pack,
And trudged on without looking back.
Across the mud and oozing clay,
‘Cross shell-holed fields where dead men lay,
He labored onward, heavy work,
But though so young he did not shirk.
He traveled slowly to the base,
When finally his commander faced,
Said wearily, ‘Sir, we won here,
Although the war was fought all year,
Although a thousand men we’ve lost,
Although it came at mighty cost.
I bring you here the treaty, signed,
Total surrender here outlined,
Good Solstice, sir!’ the courier cried,
Then, in the dark of winter, died.”
There was a brief pause, and then Nasriel asked, “Well, Blaze, what do you think? Jiron made it up when we were walking. He says – said – it’s got a lovely tune as well, but I don’t know that.”
Hazarding a rapid glance into the dark room, Obi-Wan smiled slightly. Nasriel was sprawled atop her blankets, leaning down to stroke the txakurra lying on the bare floorboards beside the bed. Blaze seemed perfectly content with the situation, but raised his head in apparent mild interest as Obi-Wan entered the quarters.
“What’s up, you daft ‘kurra?” Nasriel was saying idly, when her Master knocked on the doorframe. “Oh, hello, Master Obi-Wan.”
“Have you been awake all night?”
“Nearly,” admitted Nasriel, wriggling sideways to make space for him beside her on the bed. “I was telling Blaze about… about last Solstice, to send it away and make sure it stayed in the past.”
Accepting the silent invitation, Obi-Wan sat next to the girl, careful not to touch her – many adolescents did not like physical contact. He waited for her to speak.
“Last Solstice… I was with Jiron, on Antar 4,” Nasriel said dreamily. “It’s a beautiful world. So quiet and peaceful – you’d think nothing had ever happened there. They grow colfinni, on enormous plantations, and the air smells of it all over the planet. Sweet and warm and spicy, and the air tingles in the back of your throat. Do you know Antar 4, Master?”
“I’ve been there, yes.” Antar 4 was where Tayvor Mandirly was tortured to death. I found his body. I had nightmares for months. Obi-Wan could come up with a similar brief for a great many planets – the only thing entirely constant between them was the last sentence. Naboo was where Qui-Gon was murdered. I saw it happen and could do nothing. I had nightmares for months. Mandalore was where Satine Kyrze died. I was with her; she died in my arms. I had nightmares for months. “Go on.”
“It was the end of the year,” Nasriel obeyed. “Of course it was, it was Solstice. We hadn’t been back to the Temple for six months, and we were short of credits. Just the fare back to Coruscant and half a credit over that Jiron had forgotten about. It’s cold on Antar, in winter, but he said it wouldn’t matter if we went rough again – we’d been sleeping rough and eating next to nothing for weeks, to eke out the money until we could get home. But we were walking through a town, going out to find a field we liked the look of, and we passed a bakery.”
Nasriel fell silent, remembering. The enticing scent wafting across the street from that small store, a mixture of honey and spices and yeast and Force-knew-what-else, only, oh, it was beautiful. The leaden sky above her head, the quickly-gathering dusk, the icy wind whistling around a corner and seeping through every hole and seam in her dirty tunic. Standing there, on the corner of the street, she had looked wistfully in at the window, knowing it didn’t matter, didn’t make one whit of difference, because there was no money left to them.
There was no pride left either, no dignity to be gathered about her with the shabby Jedi garments. The cloak had been given away three days ago, to a beggar’s brat huddled in a doorway, and the tunic she had on was dirty enough to be nearly anything and had had a strip torn off the hem to bandage the nasty cut she got on her forehead, when she had collapsed in the street a week before and smacked her head open on a wall. Not to waste any scrap of warmth, the ragged strip of cloth was still wound about her hair, making the untidy black crop stick up like a half-mown field. In short, Padawan Nasriel Threeb, onetime Viscountess, looked for all the Galaxy like any other guttersnipe.
No honor, no money, nobody’s reputation to uphold: no harm in staring. Feasting her eyes if not her empty stomach on the array of glisteningly glazed loaves of bread and the gaily-frosted cakes, Nasriel had allowed herself to forget her surroundings. Suddenly Jiron had tapped her on the shoulder. As she whisked her head guiltily around to face him, she saw the coin in his hand, a paltry, tarnished chip of copper that seemed glow in the light of the bakery window like the king’s fortune of Alderaan. Half a credit. Not enough for bread.
Jiron had stalked into the shop, head high, ignoring the dirt his broken, mud-caked boots deposited on the floor. Airily he had selected something, flung the coin on the counter as if it were one of a million such coins and not their very last, and came back into the street. Shoving the brown-paper package into the top of his rucksack, he had set off out of the town without a backward glance, fully expecting Nasriel to follow as she always had, stretching her aching legs to match his stride.
At the edge of a colfinni field, there was a shed. It was falling down and the roof more than likely leaked, but… they were broke and it was perfect. Swathing his Padawan unceremoniously in his own cloak, which swamped her in its folds, Jiron had carefully broken in two the small honey cake that was all he could afford, and handed Nasriel the larger piece. “Good Solstice, little one.” She had savored every sticky crumb, making a quarter-credit worth of cake last almost an hour, until it was fully dark, and then had dozed off curled in her young Master’s strong arms, belly at least a little full, the taste of honey still lingering on her tongue, listening dreamily to Jiron as he whispered her a story, a long, strange, rhyming one that he had been inventing, just especially for her, over all the thirty miles they had covered that day, and breathing the beautiful scent of the colfinni as sleep enfolded her. It had been a good Solstice.
“It was all right,” Nasriel said finally. “In the end, it was all right.”
It was all right. “Yes. Antar 4 is all right.” Now.
“I miss Roni.”
“He used to hug me sometimes,” said Nasriel shyly. “Would -”
Silently, Obi-Wan put one arm around her. In one quick movement, Nasriel was sitting up, her head resting on his shoulder.
“Your beard tickles,” she complained, without the slightest hint of resentment.
“So I’ve been told.” After a minute he shrugged her off. “You need to get some sleep, or you’ll be as grumpy as a -”
“Acklay,” supplied Nasriel.
“As a bantha with a sore head in the morning. You could never be like an acklay.”
“It is morning,” she objected.
“So it is,” Obi-Wan agreed. “Go to sleep or I will make you.”
Nasriel capitulated at once. “Good Solstice, Master,” she murmured drowsily.
“Good Solstice, little one,” whispered Obi-Wan, closing the door so that the full dawn would not waken her when it came.