Darien sat there for a full minute, stunned by Cassandra's request. A Sith wanted him to teach her son to use the lightside. That had to be a spectularly unique event in the history of the Force.
"May I spend some time with Kieren before I decide?" he asked.
"Of course. Kieren, why don't you show Darien your garden."
The boy nodded and hopped to his feet. "Yes, Mother." He looked at the Jedi Knight and tilted his head. "Do you like flowers? Or trees?" He practically bounced eagerly toward the door without waiting for an answer.
Darien stood up and started to follow Kieren out of the sitting room. But the boy had opened the door and stopped. The Jedi walked over and looked out.
Five boys, five girls and a leopard stood in a semicircle facing the door. The youngest looked to be Kieren's age, the oldest maybe fourteen. He couldn't miss the Darkness in their auras. Even the cat's aura showed signs of the Darkside.
One of the older boys looked him in the eye and challenged him, "What are you doing to our brother?"
"Jay," Cassandra stepped past Darien and answered the boy. "Darien Lell is our guest. You will mind your manners, all of you."
There followed a brief argument in a language Darien didn't recognize. Kieren listened carefully. The Jedi took advantage of the distraction to observe the children more closely. Their actions seemed driven more by concern for Kieren than hostility to Darien. The leopard came over, glared for moment at Darien, and then started rubbing against Kieren's legs. She appeared to be trying to herd him over to the other kids.
Kieren grinned at the big cat and affectionately rubbed it's head and ears, but stood his ground. "I'm going to show him my garden," he explained. That's all. I'm perfectly safe."
The cat actually looked dubious, but backed off, unlike the clearly belligerent children. They insisted that he was not to go anywhere with a _Lightsider_.
Kieren abruptly snapped out, "I don't care what you think, _I_ want to talk to him! And you AREN'T going to stop me!" He grabbed Darien's hand and pulled him along, breaking through the semicircle of stunned, suddenly silent, kids.
Even Cassandra looked taken aback when Darien glanced over his shoulder at the tableau.
Kieren towed him along toward a set of double transplas doors which opened onto a terrace. Like everything else Darien had seen so far in the mansion, the anteroom was in perfect taste, the clear partitions framing a vista of sheer beauty. Brilliant flowering lianas draped the pergola outside the doors, and the well kept path curved away into lush growth.
The boy kept walking, hurrying deeper into the verdant growth, and Darien couldn't help but notice that the further they got from the house, the more relaxed and calm Kieren appeared. They came to a halt in a small clearing which was totally surrounded by cultivated undergrowth so as to be invisible from any of the mansion's windows.
"I take it," the Jedi remarked as Kieren stopped by the shaggy-barked trunk of a huge, wizened _vanir_ tree, "that your outburst just now was very unusual?"
Kieren dropped down to sit on one of the burled knobby roots that twisted about the base of the trunk before sinking into the ground. "Yes," he admitted. "I usually just go with the flow. It doesn't feel good to get mad."
"Those were your siblings?" Darien asked.
"Yes. Well Jay, Lar, Kory, Tana, Lin, Keri and Iri are my siblings. Don, Kat and Bert are friends. And my oldest brother and sister, Lonnie and Tiri are off with Father on his ship. Our friends Attiles and Jan are with them." He paused to count. "But yes, I guess you could say they are all my siblings. The grownups tend to treat us that way."
"And I don't think they meant badly by what they said," he added. "They kind of worry about me, I think. I mean, I'm not usually--" he searched for the right word.
"Assertive?" Darien suggested.
"Yeah--that's it--assertive. Kerisha's got more than enough of that for both of us. We're twins," he explained. "But she's really into doing the stuff that Mother makes us study. I'd rather be out here." He rubbed the bark of the tree, raising a spicy scent in the air that reminded Darien of a warming drink his mother used to make for him on winter evenings. "I'll show you my fireflowers too. Keri says it's stupid to dig in the gardens and to plant things and help them to grow. I won't let her near my fireflowers because she kills them. just walking by."
"That's what you gave your mother."
"Uh-huh. Mother doesn't kill them off, but the blossoms only last a few hours." Kieren scuffed the ground with his boot, staring at the random pattern he was making in the earth. "Cam told me that I have a gift for growing things, even hard things like the fireflowers."
Darien seated himself on another of the roots, facing the boy. "Who's Cam? A gardener here?"
Kieren suddenly looked alarmed, and then faintly guilty. "Please, don't tell anyone about Cam. It's a secret. And I don't want anyone to scare her away."
Darien carefully reached out, sensing the currents of the Force in the area, and was relieved to find that the population of Darksiders was staying back, not impinging on his and Kieren's privacy. It was almost as if a screen had been set up, allowing remote monitoring but no details of communication. He guessed that Lady Cassandra must be keeping a tight rein on the other children to allow him the opportunity for an interview between child and prospective teacher. As he drew his awareness in, he caught a brief flavor of yet another Force user, but it was like nothing he'd ever experienced. Perhaps, he thought, it was simply an overflow of Kieren's aura. It was apparent that this child had nothing of the Dark in him. He was as Light as any apprentice at the Jedi Academy, perhaps more so.
"I will keep your secrets, Kieren. I have secrets of my own, which I cannot reveal."
Kieren tilted his head and looked up into the broad-leafed foliage of the tree as if looking at someone taller than he was. "Cam is my very best friend. But she only comes to me, and only in the garden." He glanced over at Darien. "But I think she'd come to see you too, because you're different from everyone else here."
Before Darien could respond to that, the foliage rustled and the furry face of the leopard thrust into the clearing, rumbling a purr as she spied Kieren. She lazily moved to nuzzle him and flopped down at his feet, in a sunny spot. Her purr continued to rumble as he rubbed the top of her head between her ears. "This is Goldie. I hope she didn't scare you before."
"She's a pet?" Darien asked.
"Kieren, why don't you tell me something about yourself?" Darien asked.
Kieren ran his fingers gently through the grass, and looked sidewise up at Darien. "Me? I'm me. I love my parents, and I love to work with living plants. I don't like to do the stuff my sibs do very much." He bit his lip, feeling as if he weren't expressing himself very well.
He stood up and took a deep breath, walking across the little clearing to Darien. He reached out and took Darien's hands and opened his mind as he'd never done with anyone else before. He offered up his memories and his life attitudes to the Jedi... His joy in working with plants, his sense of refuge in the garden. He discomfort with the Darkside things his sister revelled in, and his desire to belong somewhere, somehow, beyond the basic familial acceptance.
He had a craving for order and peace and light, and, even at his age, was becoming aware, he would not achieve that without outside Lightside help and teachings.
"Please." He looked deeply into Darien's eyes. "Teach me."
Darien considered for a moment. The boy was truely sincere, and the Forces was telling him that he was needed here. "Yes, Kieren, I will teach you."
"Thank you, Darien."
Darien felt the approach of another human mind, following the same path by which Kieren had led him to the garden. This mind was different, timid.
Kieren looked up as she approached. "Its alright Berta. You can come in."
A plainly dressed, middle-aged woman hesitantly entered the garden. She carried a large basket. "Master Kieren, your mother asked me to bring lunch out to you and your friend." She gave Darien a worried look.
"Thank you Berta," the boy answered.
Berta placed the basket at Kieren's feet and left.
Keiren stood up and started digging in the basket.
For a moment Darien tracked Berta with the Force. She was a stark contrast to all of the other humans he'd meet today. Cassandra and and her brood seemed like a mother cat and her kittens, so sure they owned the world that they didn't think about. If they were cats so was Darien himself. But here was a mouse.
"Who was that?"
"Oh, Berta, when I was little she was my nurse." Kieren answered. "She still thinks I need her to take care of me. She's also Bertel and Janel's mother, so she's really part of the family." He handed Darien a sandwich.
"So, who are you?" Darien.
"I'm from Kandaric." Darien began. "That's out toward the Rim, deep in what is now Alliance space. Its an old agricultural world.
"We once had a landed nobilty on Kandaric. Centuries ago they faded away and were replaced by a peasant republic. The Kandaric Assembly is elected, by the towns and provinces. Then it chooses the Prime Minister." He took a bit out of the sandwich. It was made with a very interesting cheese.
"When the Clone Wars began there remained on Kandaric one remnant of the old nobilty, the Kandar Knights. The knights were like a local Jedi. There were never more than a hundred or so and I'm sure the Jedi masters knew many things about the Force that the Kandar masters didn't. When the Clone Wars began the Kandar Knights left Kandaric to help the Jedi against the Sith. They never returned."
"My parents were squires at the time, too young and untrained to join their elders in the war. When their master died shortly there after no one remained to teach the remaining squires. My parents quietly thaught me and my sister what little they knew about the Force, which wasn't much. Most of my childhood was spent hiding on Kandaric, hoping the Sith wouldn't find us.'
"Meaning my family?" Kieren interupted.
"In a sense, yes." Darien answered.
"Mostly the Empire left Kandaric alone. I don't think any Sith ever came there. Then the battle of Endor happened, and the Empire collapsed localy. I was ten at the time."
"One day I can home from school and found the Prime Minister in our living room. He wanted my parents to send me to Yaven and become a Jedi."
"My parents agreed and sent me there." Darien finished.
Kieren and Darien spent the rest of the afternoon talking and getting to know each other.
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