A Jeedai Is For Life, Not Just For Life Day Rating: PG

Nom Anor peered into the dark, smelly belly of the storage-sac, rummaging around among old snagniths and discarded nokku pods. Finally, his fingers closed around a baulk of dirty infidel fabric, as stiff and dark as dried blood.

He grinned in triumph as he hauled out his prize.

Kicking the sac back underneath his divan with one heel, he bundled the fabric up in his hands, and looked across his shal at at the slave, curled asleep on the floor in the far corner. She looked peaceful, her face hidden behind her long hair, her chest rising and falling with a quiet, steady rhythm. Full of life, like simmering water.

Her slave-bolt had taken well — the coral seed grafted to her to her sternum after her capture had sprouted into a solid knob of pale pumice, as long as a finger-joint and twice as thick around, rimmed by a crust of scabs and scar-tissue where it pushed out through her skin.

But the visible bolt was just a transceiver for the neural web laced through her body, a symbiote grown through the very fibre of her being, which turned her into a physical adjunct of the great gravitic network which bound the Yuuzhan Vong together — every warship and worldship, every settlement and scout, every servant-creature, and every slave.

And now her.

Reaching for the keyed or-villip on the nearest leaf of his deskplant, Nom Anor stroked the control with one calloused finger, grinning in anticipation.

The slave literally leapt in pain, waking up with a helpless yelp as a surge of agony spiked her body. Nom Anor laughed aloud to see her move like that, physically bounced up off the floor by the surprise.

She caught herself on her hands and feet, and turned to look at him, hurt in her eyes — the smouldering smoke left by the lightning-bolt shock. But she voiced no objection to being woken, and she rose slowly to her feet, first to a crouch, and then, without fully pausing, up to stand. He looked her up and down, and as he looked, her eyes had dropped — to the rumpled thing he was holding between his hands, and the incongruous pair of leather boots, leaning against each other on the floor beside him.

"Surprise," he said, hefting the bundle, and pitching it across the room to her. "Catch."

The bundle fell short, and she made no attempt to catch it. Instead, she just stood still, and quirked an ironic eyebrow at him, as though to say that such a pathetic throw didnít warrant any effort in reply.

"Pick it up," he said, nodding to the bundle.

He watched in silence as she obeyed, crouching on the floor to pick it up. Even after two months of torture and interrogation, there was still something elegant in the way she she moved, a restraint and a dignity.

Or perhaps the pain and humiliation had just made her more careful, more self-conscious.

He watched as she lifted the bundle, following her fingers and palms with his gaze as she gripped the fabric and untangled it, then looking at her face — shadowed between the curtains of her long hair — to gauge her reaction as she realised what she was holding.

It was a battered and battle-damaged one-piece jumpsuit. The Majorís insignia and the Rogue Squadron patch had been cut away, but it was still recognizable as the flight-suit of a New Republic combat pilot.

It had been hers, once.

After a moment, she lifted her head, and looked at him.

And he looked back at her.

Her face was still unmistakeably that of an infidel, but pain had drawn her skin taut over sharp cheekbones and a tight-clenched jaw. There was a distinct asymmetry to her mouth and chin, and the way he had broken her nose made her at least interesting to Yuuzhan Vong eyes.

The dark eyes which met his own gaze were unreadable, alien.

"Your cloaker," he said, still speaking Yuuzhan Vong. "Get dressed."

"Thank you," she answered, her voice a quiet whisper — the first words she had spoken since he had roused her. The first words she had needed to speak.

Like him, she spoke Yuuzhan Vong.

She looked away, as though embarrassed, then turned her back to him, and began to slip back into the wreckage that had once been her uniform. With her back turned, he found himself looking at the way the hem of her tee-shirt rose and fell against the waistband of her boxers as she stepped into the legs of the jumpsuit, offering teasing glimpses of the base of her spine. The cuffs of her shorts were cut high enough to show hints of the curve of her buttocks underneath.

She shuffled the waist of the jumpsuit up over her hips, and stood upright again.

For a moment, he wondered exactly how to read her reaction to the unexpected gift, but he let the question go. It was more interesting, more satisfying, to watch her pull her arms into the rumpled sleeves of the jumpsuit, watching her hands wriggle out the cuffs; then watching her crook her arms back in from the eblows, gathering her hair up and out from under the collar.

Nom Anor had long suspected that the thoughts people thought they were thinking were all just aspects of more complex, less easily definable things. An individualís emotional reaction reflected how they thought they should feel, just as their physical response was how they thought they should act. Shame, embarrassment, and gratitude were all just echoes of something bigger.

Perhaps a more pertinent question was why he had returned her old uniform to her in the first place.

In the klekket that the Jeedai slave had been his responsibility, he had enjoyed the battle of wits, the dance between his ability to hurt her and her ability to defy him. He had taken pleasure in being able to use her as a strop to sharpen his command of Basic, and also in introducing her to the Yuuzhan Vong language, and the rudiments of the True Way — the subtle semantics of pain.

He had enjoyed watching as the Shapers ran their experiments on her, laughing as she sweated and snarled inside the vivarium, smiling as she howled with helpless pain during the vivisection sessions.

He had enjoyed the moments he had prised truths out of her under interrogation, and also the times that she had defied him, with lies and long silences, and humour as black and bitter as bad caf.

He liked the fact that she hadnít broken, merely become sharper.

She turned to face him, he looked at her again, and he decided that yes, she did look interesting, not unpleasant now he had broken her nose out of true, and she had acquired a few more honest scars.

For a moment, a smile appeared on her face, at once tentative and teasing. For a moment, his twisted lips cracked into an answering grin.

Then they slid their smiles back in their sheathes, and got on with what they were doing, not wanting to look deeply at the implications of those bartered smiles, traded between prisoner and interrogator. He pitched her boots over to her, she pulled them on; and he watched her a little longer.

He liked Major Jaina Solo, he realised.

Nom Anor chuckled dryly, and shook his head. There was no Major Jaina Solo any more — slaves had neither domain nor rank. She was no longer a warrior, nor a Jeedai, nor a citizen of the New Republic.

She was just Jaina. A slave.

Jaina. He ran his tonge around the shape of her name, almost spoke it aloud. A name for a slave.

Jaina. But to most infidels, addressing someone by their given name alone was a gesture of familiar affection, a sign that you acknowledged them as a unique individual. And perhaps, when he spoke to her, he allowed her to hear a hint of that in his voice — a slight suggestion that he understood where she had come from.

Assuming she even noticed.

Nom Anor shook his head. He had long ago stopped trying to analyze what she really thought of him, and it wasnít like him to care, either. Jaina was an infidel slave, and he was a Yuuzhan Vong, an Executor of the Intendant caste.

He was in charge of her, like he might be in charge of a ship or a facility or a new weapon-system; and that was the basis of their relationship.

Their relationship was combative, hostile, barbed and twisted.

But, he conceded, it was a sort of friendship. Barbed and twisted was the Yuuzhan Vong way.

The True Way, even.

Did infidel intelligence officers built up the same relationship of mutual respect with the prisoners they were assigned to interrogate? Or was he just fooling himself — or, worse, letting a dangerous and deadly Jeedai captive fool him?

Just how desperate and determined was Major Jaina Solo, Jedi Knight and Rogue Squadron pilot?

"Finished," she said, tugging up the fastener on her flights as far she could. The protruding coral stub on her chest forced her to keep it low, revealing cleavage and a stretch of sweaty vest — but she didnít seem to care.

She just reached back to gather her too-long hair into a tail, knotting it through itself in her one outward concession to the Yuuzhan Vong way of doing things.

She looked at him, then, slowly and casually, moved her hands to opposite shoulders, and bowed her head.

"Thank you, Nom Anor," she said again.

She made a mockery of it, but he enjoyed that.

She had, after all, been taught the language by him. The hard way.

"Come on, then," he said, pushing up off the divan, and clicking his fingers. "Heel, girl," he said, in Basic.

She laughed — that was the same in any language; and she shook her head ruefully as she hurried to catch him up — a gesture that both infidels and Yuuzhan Vong seemed to share, although he wasnít sure how long it had been current in either sideís body-language.

But her smile was gone in the time it took them to step out through the portal.

The Yuuzhan Vong still called the surface facility on Myrkr by its old infidel name of Hyllyard City — Hiiliiarítar. But it was little more than a big clearing in the jungle; a few Yuuzhan Vong buildings and landing berms, planted in scattered clumps on the flat, springy surface of the drap dhor which had buried the rubble of the old spaceport on the day they took the system.

Nom Anor turned right, away from the main compound with its barracks and officersí shals, towards the damutek and the landing field.

"Where are we going," Jaina asked, unusually subdued. "More interrogation?"

She sounded almost hopeful, he thought. As though she could sense what was coming, but was holding on to the chance that there was some alternative.

"No," he said, without looking at her. "You are being reassigned, back to Baanu Rass."

"Oh," she said, and in the corner of his eye, he caught a slight slackening in her shoulders, like defeat. She bowed her head. "I thought ..."

"You have been ... most helpful," he said, reaching across and brushing the nape of her neck, seeing the way she shivered — fear, guilt, desire, loathing; whatever those things meant. He grinned at her. "The Warmaster has decided that you have reached the end of your usefulness as a damutek specimin or an intelligence resource."

"The cycle of nature?" she asked, glancing quickly in his direction, but not making eye contact.

"Something like that," he nodded.

"So why donít you just kill me?" she challenged, her gaze flashing like lightning in the darkness beneath her brows — suggesting that he couldn't, wouldn't, shouldn't.

"We only execute cowards," he shrugged. "I argued that you deserved better." When she didn't answer, he went on. "You are aware that we have voxyn aboard the Baanu Rass."

"And you train them with live prey," she shrugged. "So, that's it. Thanks a lot."

"I'm sure you'll do fine," he told her.

The shuttle was coming in above the treetops, a black shape against the blue sky. A typical yorik-trema — a faintly flattened lump of rock, fairly basic. As it came close, Nom Anor could see the familiar blunt bow, the bright colours of the dovin basal drive devices and point-defence weapons that nested in the crater-like hollows of its pitted surface.

"I've blown up a lot of those," Jaina remarked, beside him.

They fell silent again, and stayed silent as the trema glided in across the treeline and dropped down in front of them.

A cadre of warriors stepped out, hulking brutes led by a sharp-edged female subaltern in the red armour of a veteran, who marched long-legged across the mossy ground to Nom Anor, and offered him a short, sharp salute.

"This is the animal I am to transport?" she asked, her voice a loud bark. Nom Anor found her as offensive as he normally found her type, but today, he was feeling indulgent.

"Treat her well," he said, shoving Jaina forwards.

"We will treat her as she deserves," the warrior spat in answer, grabbing Jaina and wrestling her away. Half-way back to the shuttle, she wriggled free, and turned to look back at him.

"You care, you know," she said, and grinned. "You're a wonderful human being."

He laughed at that, then caught himself. Strangely, the same smile stayed on his face.

"Hurt her," he ordered.

"With pleasure," the subaltern grinned, and backhanded her spiked bracer into Jaina's mouth.

They rucked her into the shuttle, then hauled her to her feet inside the hatch, but only so that a sideswipe from the largest warrior could knock her to the deck. They should have been given strict orders to ensure that she was unharmed, but they were warriors — they would probably have felt dishonoured if they didn't break a few ribs and fingers when they had a genuine Jeedai in their grasp, even if he hadn't given them permission.

Warriors were, in Nom Anor's considered opinion, idiots.

He found himself oddly relieved by knowing that Jaina had learnt to take falls in the two months since she'd been enslaved — odd, because relief wasn't the emotion he had expected. Satisfaction, maybe, or practical recognition of a survival technique.

Instead, a strange calm seemed to settle in his mind as the hatch-plates of the shuttle sealed shut.

Nom Anor watched for a while as the yorik-trema disappeared up into the pure blue sky, then turned, and headed back to the damutek.

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