Darth Sidious, the Sith Lord's apprentice thought, could travel to any world and find there someone willing to do what he told them.
On Utapau it was the stable-keeper, a squat little squeaking creature that stood on the edge of the moss-encrusted rock ledge as if the gray stone might not crumble away at any moment. The apprentice, looking over the Utai's head, thought of falling into the sinkhole abyss, through the vast crumbling nothingness toward the blue-glint water. He would unclip the grappling gun from his belt and shut his eyes against the slicing wind, and use the Force to find the ideal place to sink the hook into the rock. He would climb to solid ground.
The Utai would just fall.
Sidious caught the apprentice's eye, and together they walked into the striped shade of the varactyl stable.
The arcing, rib-roofed pavilion smelled of the moistness that came from the split ends of hay left to dry in the sun. Little there reminded the apprentice of the metallic, ancient underbelly of Coruscant that he was used to. That was why he had come here; to be accustomed to a more rural area such as this. Sidious would leave no potentially useful aspect of life out of the apprentice's training.
The Utai ushered the Sith in, then left them to move on their own along the curving paths between the varactyl stalls. The creatures also called dragonmounts lounged behind low stone walls, their long, feathered tails and muscled legs curving across the leaf-strewn floors. Some were deep-sea-green, the tips of their tails and feathered crests shading to brilliant purple, while others glistened bronze-brown, with poisonous-looking blood-red feathers. The apprentice's prior reading had taught him that the green varactyls were female, and usually larger than the brown males. Neither gender was known to be aggressive; despite their claws and hooked beaks, varactyls were herbivorous, relatively low on the Utapauan food chain.
When Sidious did not give any orders, the apprentice approached the creatures on his own. Their intelligent, black eyes turned to look at him as he approached, animal Force presences showing minds that categorized him as neither predator nor food. When he came within arms' reach of the halfwall, the varactyls pushed their beaks toward him. He reached out gloved hands to them, smoothing down feathers to grow used to their drag. The not-unpleasant musky smell of the creatures settled like a taste at the back of his mouth.
One male varactyl, its skull as long as the apprentice's torso, bumped its beak against his side. He turned to find the creature looking down at him intently, almost purposefully meeting his eyes. He pushed the heavy beak away and it pushed back, an angerless resistance against his hands, a contact that was a friendly overture while also assuring that the creature could crush his wrist between the horn scissors of its mouth with just a turn of its neck. No antagonism, just practicality.
He chose this one to ride.
Sidious' method of teaching was often to give the apprentice something new—a craft, a weapon—and after basic instruction on how to make it function, let him teach himself. The same held true with controlling creatures.
He guided the varactyl along the trails on the rock shelves ringing the sink hole, growing used to its rocking stride, and when the bronze beast turned to follow the trail up the sheer face of gray rock he let it have its head.
The climb was vertiginous, and the apprentice added a new bit of data to what he knew about the Utapau natives. He felt himself tense, pushing his knees against the varactyl's sides and keeping his spine straight even as the thought of trusting the now-horizontal saddle backboard as the only thing between him and the brine-scented air sent nervous alarms pinging within his brain. Anyone who rode these creatures often would be strong.
The path leveled out and they traveled for little less than an hour, then turned back. At the moment when the varactyl curved to turn at the edge of a cliff over grown with weeds and vines, another animal burst out from below the cliff face.
The wind of its passing sent warm zephyrs lashing against the apprentice's head and face. The creature was wild; he had sensed it hunting earlier and disregarded it as unrelated to him. It was a dactillion, a sail-winged creature with four spindly legs that dangled down as it swept overhead. The varactyl gave out a resonant honk and reared. The apprentice hung on and grimaced as the varactyl's weight shifted onto its columnar hind legs.
The dactillion landed among the vegetation in front of them, its crested beak sweeping through the air. The apprentice's attention was drawn to sparks of light in the Force that drew his gaze to the ground. A nest of varactyls sheltered beneath a ledge there, four young ones less than a meter long. The apprentice's mount backed up, perhaps wary of the return of the mother varactyl. But no female appeared. The dactillion poked its beak into the nest and withdrew one wriggling varactyl, swallowing it whole before looking at the domestic male varactyl and hissing as if to incite it.
The exchange fascinated the apprentice. Only on a world with such large animals and literal niche habitats such as the sinkholes could such a conflict take place within sight of sentients' communities and not disturb them. Interesting too, for reasons the apprentice could not name, was the dactillion's ruthlessness, the way it drove its prey against the wall of their nest.
It had none of the sympathetic personalization that most sentients exhibited, none of the empathy. No desire to spare the young varactyls because they were young. But though he himself would kill on command in an instant, some sentient remnant remained, and so he stilled his mount when it began to turn to continue on the path back down the cliff.
He watched, curious, not out of any sardonic amusement but to engulf himself in the question of whether he ought to interfere.
One varactyl escape the nest. The emerald snake-shape of it swarmed up the hillside behind the nest. The dactillion's beak tipped upward to pluck at the air, judging its now-moving target's place on the sun-warmed rock. The varactyl turned to present the predator its raised tail-spikes, and although the dactillion's beak seemed just to brush over the spine-concealing feathers, it flinched back with its entire thin-limbed body.
The identification of the sole remaining varactyl hatchling changed in the apprentice's mind then. Once prey, it became dactillion's opponent. He had felt the same shift in his own battles before, when a high-tech droid or crafty mercenary that Sidious had set against him proved to him that it would take thought, not just wrath, to kill.
The dactillion had a primitive mind unable to perform such a shift. There was an unfairness in that.
The apprentice did not think at length on this; it was an easy thing to dig his knees into the yielding flesh between the dragonmount's ribs so that it lurched forward. It honked, a resonant sound that engulfed and was engulfed by the sinkhole. The dactillion flinched again and raised its bony wings. The apprentice pressed the varactyl foreword, its mane of feathers shaking before him like the flood-tipped spears of an army, and in a moment the dactillion spread its wings and lunged away off the crag, dipping and floating away like a loosely-constructed kite.
The surviving hatchling scuttled up the rocks and into a tuft of grass above the nest. The apprentice turned his varactyl toward the stables.