Star Wars belongs to George Lucas.
The story idea and the original characters
belong to the author.
She watched his reaction closely, the way he subtly shifted his weight as he turned to look at her. His eyes, the darkest hue of brown, almost black, were focused on her with a look of intent helpfulness.
"What entertainment do you have in mind, Princess?" he asked, his tone incredibly amused.
She gave a soft shrug, then turned around to lie on her back, one hand placed over her stomach. "I do not know," she replied flippantly. "Something, I guess."
"Something." He gave a low chuckle, and she imagined the way the skin around his eyes would crinkle when he smiled. She liked those crinkles. Just like the beard he now wore they gave him a dignified air, took some of the sharpness of his warrior's demeanor away and gave him a touch of the wisdom that was expected of the Cor'dan. Yet he had not always been a priest. "My princess, you will have to give me something more substantial than a mere 'something'," he continued.
"The Nargana Dey Ritual. What about that one? You never told me about its origins."
Propping herself up on one elbow she gazed at him again, her pale blue eyes, almost grey, tracing the contours of his body, just visible underneath the long robe he wore. "How did it come to be?"
In an instant the intimate atmosphere had vanished, as he straightened to take up a lecturing posture, as master to apprentice. "The Nargana Dey Ritual, or Rite of Life, was first employed by Jamal Irduyn, almost ten thousand years ago."
"Jamal Irduyn," she interrupted him thoughtfully. "Proud Worker?"
He nodded. "Yes, very good. A fitting name, I believe. Now. A bloody war had decimated most of the male population of the Jen-People, and the remaining women formed a council to ask the Cor'dan for assistance. I suppose it was pure chance that the Cor'dan was male at that time. A female would have assigned one of the surviving men to perform the Rite, I suppose."
She smiled at his dry tone, but still listened closely. "So they chose the Cor'dan because they found he would serve their future children best, would ensure a strong lineage. Is that it?"
"Probably. Fact is, that from that day on the Jen-People had one tradition more. The motives for a man or woman to ask for the Nargana Dey Ritual to be performed are varied. Some see it as a special honor they believe will bring them closer to the gods, closer to the spirits, others may have more mundane goals they hope to achieve through it. For some it may also be a matter of pride. People such as yourself, Princess, for example."
"How dare you!" she exclaimed, furious, and the flat of her hand came down hard on the grey flagtiles they both rested on.
Brows cocked meaningfully, he replied: "I do not remember you coming to ask me about the Rite's meaning before you demanded to be subjected to it. I knew what you wanted, my dear. Now you have it, and you are still bored?"
"Not bored. Just – restless."
He sighed. "Nevertheless, you have been a good student, as I knew you would be. Which was why I chose you at all."
"You mean you could have refused me?"
"But I am the Empress' daughter," she snapped, realizing the instant she uttered those words how foolish they were. She should know better by now.
"The Empress' law holds no power over the Cor'dan," he answered calmly. "Another reason why you wanted what you did back then."
It was infuriating how easily he could read her intentions, past, present and future. And it always astounded her that he accepted her using him like this. She knew no other man who would be so cold about what they shared, but then, wasn't she just as cold? She took whatever she desired from him, be it his teachings or his affections, and he never ever made demands of her other than to follow his lessons, secure in the knowledge that by retreating he could goad her his way just as easily. With a sudden chill she pondered for the hundredst time what he stood to gain from their relationship.
It had been two years ago, her eighteenth year, when she had approached him most humbly and asked to join him in the Nargana Dey Ritual. She still remembered the look in his eyes, which had been open, clear pools of darkness in the treacherous light of the candles that illuminated the Temple of Rebirth here on Byss. Back then she had speculated that he himself was new to his post, that he would not refuse her, having been initiated as Cor'dan only a year previous. And yet, she had underestimated him greatly, as she found herself doing repeatedly even now. Afterwards, the Rite completed, he had asked her to become his apprentice.
That night had marked Luzaya Dan's greatest triumph so far. The first time she had managed to accomplish something of her own, to achieve a goal she had set for herself alone, without her parents guiding and overseeing her all the way. But she wanted more, much more. She wanted to get away from Byss and see something of the galaxy, she wanted to escape the stuffy chambers of the Citadel, the pompous rituals that surrounded the royal family every moment of their lives. She had found a means to escape that by sharing the Cor'dan's bed and his teachings, at least for a few hours each day, but she also knew that her apprenticeship also bound her to his side. Another sort of prison, then.
The soft sound of approaching footsteps caught her attention, and she hastily rose from the floor and dusted off her dress quickly. When she turned back to face her teacher he was already standing, the epitome of mysterious power he symbolized.
"Cor'dan." The newcomer was a young Yuuzhan Vong female, old enough to have been taught her own language, before her people's conquest, but Luzaya could tell by her tone that she had adapted quickly to speaking Basic, the official language of the Empire, by the Empress' decree. The Yuuzhan Vong waited, head lowered demurely.
"What is it?" Naas Deron asked at last, his voice as cool as the nonexistent winters here on Byss.
"The Empress requires your immediate presence, Cor'dan. Princess," she added, "you have been summoned also."
Luzaya threw her lover a questioning glance, but he seemed preoccupied with something. "Go ahead," he ordered her. "I will be with you presently."
Without another word he turned away to vanish in the back of the temple, where he had his own quarters, sparsely furnished and impersonal as they were. Luzaya huffed an angry breath, then stalked after the Yuuzhan Vong, through the intricate walkways that connected the temple with the Royal Promenade. The promenade – completed ten years ago – was like a maze, and it had quickly grown into the heart of Byss, weaving every major public place and building into its net. The people strolling the walkways stopped to bow toward the princess when they saw her, and she always greeted them courteously, the words leaving her mouth on automatic. But the closer they came toward the citadel, the less people there were, and when they reached the tall portal, always open, Luzaya gasped in shock to find the great double doors closed. So far that had not happened even once during Empress Yana Dar's reign. Twenty years. Twenty years of peace and dignity. Something terrible had to have happened. Luzaya hitched up the heavy skirts of her dress hurriedly and ran for the guards.
"Open! Open up!" she screamed at the top of her lungs.
Someone grabbed her arm and held her back when she tried to jerk free of the tight grasp. "Luzaya Dan!"
Looking up, she met Elu Cha's eyes. The High Priest of the Yun-Harla Sect seemed extraordinarily upset. "What happened?" the princess asked, her voice breaking. The Empire offered freedom of religion, allowing the different Yuuzhan Vong sects to survive, as long as they recognized the Empress as supreme ruler and the Cor'dan as ultimate voice of judgement.
"Your father, Highness. You must come at once." He dragged her past the guards, who stared ahead, watching the promenade intently. The young Yuuzhan Vong female who had brought the princess, though, was barred from entering the citadel.
Its gloomy hallways, the high walls cast in shadows, barely registered with her as the High Priest ushered her through, leading her toward her parents' private quarters that occupied most of the citadel's west wing. A hushed exchange between Elu Cha and Myryane Eastwinder, the majordomo, followed at the threshold, then Luzaya was handed over to the bulky human woman.
"Oh, Princess," Myryane sighed, wringing her hands. "Where did you leave Master Deron?"
"He will be along shortly;" Luzaya found herself answering hoarsely. "Myryane, what is it with my father?"
"Poison, we believe," the majordomo whispered, her eyes widening as she looked around the shadows furtively.
Luzaya grabbed the woman's right wrist hard. "Poison?" she hissed. "How can that be?"
"I do not know!" the unfortunate Myryane wailed. "Please, Highness, you hurt me!"
Taken aback, Luzaya let go. "Forgive me," she pleaded hastily, then turned away and sprinted toward her parents' bedroom, where she suspected she would find both her father and mother, leaving Myryane behind in the dark hallways.
Bursting through the doorway, Luzaya took one glance at the somber assembly, then dropped to her knees at her mother's side, who sat rigidly in one of the high-backed chairs that had been placed along the viewport. Very quietly the princess sought the bed on which her father lay, his eyes closed, his breathing shallow. Three medics were bent over his pale form, and a 21-B droid stood by obediently, offering assistance.
"Where is Naas Deron?"
Mother's voice was cold, devoid of emotion, but Luzaya thought she could still sense the fire simmering underneath that icy tone. Luzaya shyly glanced up at her mother, searching her hard expression for any clue as to what she was truly feeling. The Empress' face was still handsome, despite the lines age had put on her porcellaine complexion. Her mane of blonde curls had thinned a bit and was turning white more heavily now. Dressed in a black suit, she conveyed the very essence of power she had been at the beginning of her reign, and still was. But her blue eyes were fixed solely on her husband, and in that empty gaze Luzaya could read many things.
"He will come," Luzaya answered at last.
"Then he had better be here soon."
As if summoned by the Empress' threatening words, the Cor'dan strode into the silent chamber, dressed in his dark cloak of office, and he stopped short upon seeing the medics busy with the patient.
"Out," he said, his voice loud and clear. "All of you, out."
The medics left without another word, they all knew that disobeying the Cor'dan was punishable by death in the very worst case, and by the look in Yana Dar's eyes it was wiser not to dispute. The Cor'dan walked over to the bed, and, without turning to look at the two women left in the room, added: "You too, Your Majesty. Luzaya can stay, and learn."
The princess held her breath, fearing one of her mother's infamous outbursts that only her family and closest friends were subjected to now and then. She could be fearsome, when she was furious, and then Luzaya could well imagine the stories the priests told about her were true. But to her greatest shock her mother rose from her seat and turned toward the door. She hesitated to leave, though.
"You will do everything in your power to save him," she declared, an order, really, but her tone and the expression on her face revealed the true nature of the plea. Naas Deron nodded mutely, and with a last, pained glance at her husband, Yana left the bedroom.
Immediately Luzaya scooted over to join the Cor'dan's side. "What are you going to do?" she asked quietly, her gaze locked on her father's pale face. The scars he had received years ago stood out in a stark white against the palor of his skin, making Luzaya wince inwardly. "How are you planning to get rid of the poison?"
"First I have to determine whether it is a poison at all," Naas Deron replied coolly, and with a small ring unsheathed the slim-bladed dagger he used for so-called San-Rites, or blood rites.
Luzaya flinched when the sharp edge of the blade was drawn along her father's neck, leaving a thin trail of blood. Her hands were cramped into fists tightly, but she did not dare to interfere, no matter how strong the desire to protect her father. On the contrary, she forced herself to lean closer, to see more clearly what Deron was doing. Without looking at her he lay his left palm against her forehead, while his right hand still held on to the dagger. By now Luzaya had grown used to this teaching method, that allowed a non-Force-sensitive apprentice like her to follow the actions of the Cor'dan. Not before her initiation as his successor would she experience the power he commanded.
Through the contact, she could see with his eyes, feel with his senses, and it always was a strange experience, for Luzaya found it hard to concentrate despite the loud buzzing noise that seemed to fill her head every time they linked like this. She knew where that noise came from. It was the rushing of his blood, and her own. Concentrating on the task ahead, Luzaya let Deron guide her mind. He was gazing down at the wound he had opened, then carefully extended a probing tendril of gold toward the blood to examine its texture. There were no names to define the different blood components, just a feeling of right and wrong. There definitely was something wrong with Father's blood, Luzaya could tell. Nodding to himself, Deron reached over to draw a similar cut down the other side of the patient's neck, very carefully, as to not injure the jugular vein.
Then he let go of Luzaya and pointed at the sheets covering her father up to his collar-bones. "Pick him up and place him on the carpet over there."
She obeyed without a word, not wasting even one thought for the likes of protocol. She may be a princess, but she was also apprenticed to the Cor'dan, and the latter came first, in her opinion. Luzaya was not frail, and her father, though taller than her, was of slim build, reasonably easy to handle even for her. Carefully she lifted him from the bed, feeling tears gather in her eyes as she remembered all the times she had been cradled in his arrms for comfort, how safe she had always felt in his embrace. But she braved those memories with some effort, and lay his body on the floor gently. For a moment his closed eyelids fluttered, and her heart leapt up higher, because she thought he might wake up.
"Good." Naas Deron said as he knelt next to her, a bowl of tincture that he had prepared while she had seen to her own task held in both hands. "This is a mixture of Sheval leaves, Red Blossom essence and ground Black Root. Effects?"
"The patient will fall into an easier sleep," she answered promptly. "Mixed with the patient's blood it also forms a part of the Motha Dey Rite. Is that what you are going to try?"
"There is no try," he chided her with a smile. "Let him drink half, then stand back."
Luzaya did as she had been told, carefully holding the rim of the bowl to her father's lips, then tipping the bowl carefully to pour the liquid into his mouth. He swallowed slowly, and she smiled at that small success. Then, holding the bowl with the remaining precious liquid close, she rose again and handed it over to Naas Deron, who accepted it with a nod. He sat down on his haunches at the patient's head and used his dagger to scrape a few drops of blood off his skin and mix them into the tincture. Setting the bowl down next to him, he stood and walked around to kneel over Father's bare torso. With three quick slashes he cut the symbol of the Cor'dan into the skin covering the other's breastbone, two parallel lines connected with a horizontal one, the world of the spirits and the world of the dead, bridged by the Cor'dan.
"Come here," Deron ordered, and Luzaya took her place next to him. Again he reached for her forehead, and this time she found herself submerged in a web of sorts, confusing her, but she found some solace in her lover's calm, that infected her too, with time. "Hand me that bowl."
While she held it out to him he dipped his fingers into the liquid and began painting an intricate pattern around the sign he had made. Luzaya knew that these patterns where neither random nor prescribed by ritual. They rather followed the traces of wrong that permeated the patient's body, revealing the extent of the illness, in this case the extent to which the poison had spread. Luzaya felt her skin grow cold when Deron's fingers moved almost all over her father's body, which could mean only one thing, that the poison had spread all through his system. This looked very bad. Swallowing slowly, the princess tried to remain composed, but then she felt something that was like a reassuring pat on the shoulder and knew that her lover was trying to soothe her.
"Not all that bad," he murmured softly. "This only means he will take a long time to recover. Here," he said, then put his palm over the symbol. "Have a look." Luzaya gasped as she found herself inside her father's body, at a microscopic level that allowed her to see the tiniest detail of his molecular setup. "These organisms are the poison," Deron explained, pointing out a mass of round shapes that seemed to sport tiny barbs.
"Bio-engineered?" Luzaya asked, remarkably calm once more. If that was true, then she already knew where to look for the perpetrators.
"I am not sure. They might be. But I cannot say where they come from."
She nodded solemnly. "Can you rid him of those?"
"It'll need a little time." He looked over at her, his brown eyes inquisitive. "Do you want to perform the ritual?"
She blushed violently. "But I am only an apprentice!"
"And he is your father. I understand."
Luzaya hesitated. "I – am not sure I want to take that responsibility," she confessed. "If he does not survive ... No. I cannot."
"As you wish," he replied with a shrug. Then, bending over Franzis Sarreti's sleeping form again, he started explaining. "The power of the Cor'dan relies on balance, Luzaya Dan. For me to heal your father that means I have to destroy the microorganisms that are the poison. I have to kill them to be on the safe side. This requires balance, a sacrifice on my part. And here the power the Cor'dan is given upon the initiation comes into play. If I did not have that shelter, that shield, I could not give what is required."
"And what exactly is that?" Luzaya asked hesitantly.
Naas Deron quirked another smile at her. "All you need to know is that, when I am finished, you should leave me alone for a few hours."
It was six hours later that Luzaya staggered to her feet from her perch on the carpet to walk over to the door and summon her mother. Outside, in the hallway, Empress Yana Dar sat rigidly on a chair, and most likely she had sat there for most of the time of healing. Luzaya hung in the doorframe, feeling wrung out, though she had done little more than wait and assist in whatever small way she could, which hadn't been much. But worrying could be excrutiating too. When Yana became aware of her presence she leapt up and rushed over to join her daughter.
"So?" she pleaded, saphire blue eyes gleaming. "You have succeeded?"
Luzaya gave a weary nod. "Yes, we have succeeded. He is asleep now. They both are."
The sound that escaped from between her mother's lips was curious, half sigh, half delighted scream, as she pushed past to enter the royal bedroom. Luzaya nodded at the guards standing to attention in the corridor and withdrew into the room once more, closing the door behind her. Her father had been placed on the bed again, and she had tucked the cover right up under his chin so he wouldn't be cold. Naas Deron was seated cross-legged on the floor, his back propped up against the wall, but he was asleep too, his eyes closed, his breathing shallow. Traces of blood were still visible on his neck, and Luzaya knew that wounds covered the entire length of his body, an exact copy of the patterns he had painted on Father's skin earlier, at the beginning of the ritual. Now it was time for the Cor'dan to heal himself.
Luzaya, weary herself, watched her mother cross the length of the chamber to take a seat on the edge of the bed. With delicate movements the Empress proceeded to caress her husband's face, muss his dark hair, and the princess' face echoed her mother's radiant smile easily as she continued gazing at her parents. Sinking into one of the chairs, Luzaya leaned back, content. Her father was safe for now. At once her thoughts were pushed in a certain direction, pondering the why and how of the assassination attempt. Whoever had planned this knew the proceedings of the Imperial Court well. Though Yana Dar was Empress, the ultimate power of the realm, it was her consort, Franzis Sarreti, who managed daily business, who was the heart of the government.
So this plot had been aimed at paralysing the Empire itself, not at a coup of sorts. A coup would have targeted the Empress, who gave Franzis Sarreti the legitimate claims he needed to operate. In the aftermanth of Yana Dar's death he would have been executed along with his daughter, most probably, though Luzaya had a feeling that Naas Deron would have prevented those deaths quite forcefully. So, the perpetrators had avoided to challenge the two most powerful beings in the Empire, the Empress herself and the Cor'dan, and instead –
What had been their goal? What was it they sought to achieve? They must have calculated that the Royal Consort would survive, that Yana Dar would do everything in her power to find out who had tried to take her beloved from her, to weaken her government, and exact terrible justice. Wreacking her brain futilely, Luzaya felt too tired to come to a logical conclusion. There would be time later on to think this through, and once he was sufficiently recovered she would discuss this affair with her father in detail. He was very good at seeing through schemes, having initiated quite a few himself, over time. In that regard she was his loyal student.
Gradually she became aware of singing, her mother's voice pitched into a sweet melody, a lullaby she had sung often to get her infant daughter to sleep. In past times Father would have joined her in that song, but today, amidst the gloomy light permeating the chamber, it was Luzaya who took up the second verse. Mother and daughter shared that night's vigil, both waiting anxiously for husband and father to wake again. Somewhere in the small hours of the next morning, with Yana finally having found some sleep, Luzaya was alerted by the sudden rustle of clothes as Naas Deron rose from his seat on the floor. They looked at one another, blue eyes meeting dark brown ones. Then, without another word, he left. For a moment the princess wondered what he would do, but then sleep overwhelmed her too. Her last thought was reserved for her parents.