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Authors: John Jackson Miller

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BOOK: Lost Tribe of the Sith: Purgatory
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The Keshiri looked down and wandered away.

By the dark side
, she thought.
Anything but that
.

Jelph tipped the wobbly cart backward, allowing another pile of soil to spill into the trough. As summer went on, the mounds would dry out, becoming more acidic; an alkaline wash tended to refortify the stockpiles. His Keshiri customers didn’t know about hydrogen ions, but they were particular nonetheless.

Hearing a sound, Jelph dropped his trowel and stepped around the hut. There, in the waning rays of evening, stood his visitor from the day before, facing her uvak and gripping the bridle.

“I’m surprised to see you,” Jelph said, approaching her from behind. “Nothing wrong with the dalsas, I hope?”

Turning, she released the harness. The brilliant brown eyes were full of hurt and anger.

“I’ve been condemned,” Ori of Tahv said. “I’m a slave.”

Chapter Three

Jelph poured more of the gritty mixture into her bowl. A Keshiri pauper’s dish, the tasteless cereal became something else in his hands, seasoned with spices from his garden and the tiniest morsels of salted meat. Ori didn’t know what animal it came from, but now she devoured the meal hungrily. Two days of prideful restraint had been enough.

It was still so strange to see him, here, outside the fields. Each of the past two mornings, he had risen before sunrise, beginning his chores early to have more time for her. He washed in the river before she rose. When it was her turn, he retreated to the corner of the hut that served as his kitchen to preserve her modesty. Ori didn’t think she had any, but again, that strange meekness crept in. He was no Keshiri plaything, but a human, even if he was a slave.

As she was.

For some reason, she hadn’t told him anything that first night. There was so little he could do, and it was all so far beyond his frame of reference. She’d sat in silence in the doorway of the hut, watching for nothing until she collapsed. She’d awakened the next morning inside, on the bed of straw he used himself. She had no idea where he’d slept that night, if he’d slept at all.

The second evening, after an untouched dinner, she’d let it all spill out: everything she’d learned in her trip to Tahv. The leaders of the two factions that could never agree on a Grand Lord had indeed fallen to their elderly compromise candidate. The event had given her minions cause to decapitate—literally—the leaderships of the Red and Gold factions.

Ori’s mother still lived, her sources assured her, though in the clutches of the vengeful Venn. It was too late for Candra to save her career, but she might yet save her life, if she said the right things about the right people. Like Donellan, Candra had waited too long to choose a side and to put herself forward as a successor. A year had seemed like so little time to be a High Lord. But for Venn, whose every breath was a miracle, the need to outlive her rivals was paramount.

On learning that she’d been condemned to slavery, Ori had dashed to her hidden uvak and flown immediately to the only safe place she knew. After a long moment’s hesitation, Jelph had welcomed her—although he’d been less sure of what to do with Shyn. As slaves, neither of them could own an uvak. Remembering the composting barn that had once served as a stable, Ori had urged him to hide the creature there, behind the stalls storing manure. Initially uncertain, Jelph had relented under her pressure. Already feeling sick, she’d heaved as soon as the door to the vile place was opened. She did it again the second night, after relating the full tale of her tiny but important family’s downfall.

Jelph had been caring and helpful those times, with his cool river water and washrags handy. Now, in the twilight of the third evening, she was
really
testing the limits of his hospitality. Feeling better, she’d spent the entire day stamping around the farm, going over the events in her mind and plotting her family’s return to power,
even if the family now was just her. At supper, she’d tested both his knowledge and his patience.

“I don’t understand,” Jelph said, scraping the bottom of the orojo-shell bowl. “I thought the Tribe expected people to want each other’s jobs.”

“Yes, yes,” Ori said, cross-legged on the floor. “But we don’t kill to take them. We kill to keep them.”

“There’s a distinction?”

Ori dropped her empty bowl to the floor of the hut.
Some dining table
, she thought. “You really
don’t
know anything about your people, do you? The Tribe is a meritocracy. Whoever’s best at a job can have it—provided that a public challenge is made. Dernas never made a public challenge to the Grand Lord. Neither did Pallima.”

“Nor did your mother,” he offered, kneeling to retrieve her bowl. He looked slightly startled when she used the Force to levitate it into his hand. “Thanks.”

“Look, it’s really simple,” she said, standing and making a futile effort to brush the dirt from her uniform. “If you get to your rivals before they’re ready, you can do anything you want—including assassination.”

His brow furrowed as he looked up at her. “It sounds like a bloodbath.”

“Normally we keep it low-key, for order’s sake. Poisonings. A
shikkar
blade in the gut.”

“For order’s sake.”

She stood in the doorway and glared. “Are you going to criticize, or are you going to help me?”

“I’m sorry,” Jelph said, rising. “I didn’t mean to upset you.” He shook his head. “It’s just that the thought of having rules for this sort of thing seems, well, odd. There are rules for breaking the rules.”

Ori walked to the bank and looked west. The sun appeared to be sinking into the river itself, setting the
water ablaze with orange. It
was
a beautiful place, and she’d fantasized about stolen nights here before. But this wasn’t what she had imagined at all. She wasn’t going to be able to plot her return from this place. And she’d need more help than a strapping farmhand.

“I have to go back,” she said. “My mother was framed. Whoever did this to us will pay—and I’ll have my name back.” She looked back at him, gnawing on a stalk of something he’d pulled from the ground. “I have to go back!”

“I wouldn’t do that,” he said, joining her at the riverside. “I suspect your Grand Lord did all of this herself.”

Ori looked at him, amazed. “What would you know about it?”

“Not much, I’ll grant you,” Jelph said, chewing. “But if your mother was the key to selecting Venn’s replacement, I could see the old woman wanting her out of the way.”

Incredulous, Ori looked into the growing shadows. “Stick to fertilizer, Jelph.”

“Look at it this way,” he said, edging into her field of view. “If Venn didn’t stage the assassination and really suspected your mother, you wouldn’t have been condemned. You’d be dead. But the Grand Lord doesn’t
have
to kill you, because she knows you didn’t do anything. You’re more useful as an example.” He tossed the stick into the river. “By making slaves out of a High Lord and her family, she’s got living, breathing deterrents in front of people for as long as you live.”

Ori looked at him, stunned. It made sense. Dernas and Pallima had died out of public view. The bonfire at the estate had attracted the attentions of humans and Keshiri alike. If she had stayed in Tahv, she might already be at work, doing hard labor in full public view.

“So what do I do?”

He smiled, softly, his scar invisible now. “Well, I
don’t know. But it strikes me that, as long as you still don’t sense your mother suffering through your Force, the way to thwart Venn is … 
not to be an example.”

He didn’t say the rest, but she heard it.
The way not to be an example is not to be there
. She looked up into his eyes, reflecting the starlight hitting the water. “How does a farmer know about these things?”

“You’ve seen my job,” he said, putting a hand on her shoulder. “I deal with a lot of things that stink.”

She laughed, despite herself, for the first time since she arrived. As she took a step away from the river in the darkness, her footing faltered in the soft ground.

He caught her. She let him.

Standing in the doorway of the hut after midnight, Jelph looked in at her sleeping form on the straw bed. It had been wrong to let Ori stay this long, he thought—and certainly wrong to let things go as far as they had in the last nine days. But then, it had been wrong to encourage her visits to begin with.

Stepping outside, he tightened his tattered robe. After so many sultry days, there was an unseasonable chill in the air tonight. It matched his mood. Ori’s presence put everything in jeopardy, in ways she could never imagine. So much more was at stake than the fortunes of one Sith family.

And yet, he’d taken her in. It was a different Ori Kitai that had come to see him, one he couldn’t resist. She’d seemed so proud on her earlier visits—full of the noxious entitlement of her people, certain of both her status and herself. With the loss of one, the other had gone. He’d seen the person underneath: tentative and unsure. As angry as she still was over what had happened, she was also sad over the loss of a vision she had once had of herself. And lately, sadness had been winning out, her days limited to walks from his hut to the garden.

Humility in a Sith. It was an amazing thing to witness, an impossibility. Her armor melted down, the impurities seemed to boil away. Was it possible that not every Sith on Kesh was born venal? Her anger over being dispossessed seemed … no more than normal. No more than how he would feel, and had felt, in similar situations. It wasn’t the kind of fury that destroyed civilizations for sport. It wasn’t Sith.

It struck him as wrong that the greatest misfortune in Ori’s life had only made her more attractive to him. The reserve he’d worked to develop had fallen away after that night on the riverbank. She had needed him, and it had been so long since anyone had. There wasn’t much market for nonentities, in the wilds or anywhere else. But the risk was always there, accompanying the happiness.

He looked to the north. A faint streak of light nestled between the clouds and the hills. The aurora was beginning again. In a couple of nights, the northern sky would be afire. It would soon be time.

Casting a glance to the storehouse, he calculated how long he’d have to be away from the farm. It wasn’t safe to have her wandering around in his absence. She would have to go.

But he couldn’t let her leave.

Chapter Four

He had left at daybreak, long hejarbo pole in hand to push his craft upriver. Her tranquillity broken, Ori had issued a stream of protests. What did it matter what his customers needed for the autumn growing season? What did he owe those people? All he got for his work was a few items that he couldn’t coax out of the ground.

But Jelph had kept looking to the jungle highlands, and to the sky. He’d claimed he had more responsibilities than she knew. Ori had scoffed, longer and louder than she’d intended. That worried her, now, bringing back two of the snares he’d set for the rodents at the edge of the forest. Jelph hadn’t gone away mad, but he had gone away, despite her entreaties.

She didn’t like it. He’d been the balm she needed, making all of the heartache go away. She’d been dependent on her mother’s office for so much in life that it had been seductively easy to put her existence in his hands. But his leaving had reminded her that he could refuse her. She had power over no one.

And she couldn’t live without him. Without Jelph, there was no one else at all.

No one but Shyn. Up ahead, Ori spied the rear door to the composting barn, cracked open to permit circulation. Not even an uvak should have to live in that place, even
if the stench came from its kind. Taking a deep breath, she approached. It had taken her most of the day to check and clear the traps, yielding a few of the varmints that Jelph used to supplement his diet.
Wretched
. At least seeing the uvak reminded her that she still had some freedom, some chance to—

Ori’s eyes narrowed. Something in the Force had changed. Dropping the traps, she ran to the barn and threw open the rickety door.

Shyn was dead.

The great beast lay bleeding on the dirt floor, deep gashes burned into its long golden neck. Immediately recognizing the wounds, Ori ignited her lightsaber and scanned the building. “Jelph! Jelph, are you here?” Except for a few tools lining the wall, nothing was in here, save the giant mound of filth near the front.

“I told you we’d find her here” came a young male voice from outside. “Just follow the stench.”

Ori emerged, weapon held high. The Luzo brothers, her nemeses in the Saber corps, stood out in front before uvak mounts of their own. Flen, the elder, smirked. “Stench of failure, you mean.”

“You looking to die, Luzo?” She stepped forward, unafraid.

The pair didn’t move. Sawj, the younger brother, sneered. “We’ve killed two High Lords this week. I don’t think we’re going to dirty our hands with a slave.”

“You killed my uvak!”

“That’s different,” Sawj said. “You may not know this, but we Sabers are charged with keeping order. A slave can’t keep an uvak!”

Filled with hate, Ori stepped forward, ready to charge—only to see Flen Luzo turn toward his uvak.

“Traders told us you liked to come here,” he said, opening his saddlebag. “We’re here to make a trade.” He tossed two scrolls to her feet.

Kneeling, Ori looked at the wax on the parchment. There was her mother’s marking, a design known only to her and immediate members of her family. Such a thing was reserved for validating a final testament. Unfurling the scroll, she saw that, in a sense, this was. “This says she plotted with Dernas and the Reds to kill the Grand Lord!”

“And the other says she plotted with Pallima and his people,” Flen said, grinning. “She signed both confessions, as you see.”

“You could have gotten anything under duress!”

“Yes,” Flen said.

Ori scanned the document. Candra Kitai now pledged her eternal loyalty to Grand Lord Venn, who would keep her alive as her personal—very visible—slave. Venn would now be naming three replacement High Lords of her own, Flen said, effectively blocking any moves by what remained of her rivals’ camps. Ori could guess from the sound of Flen’s voice that the brothers might find themselves suddenly elevated, for their loyalty.

BOOK: Lost Tribe of the Sith: Purgatory
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