"We're being followed." "Yeah, like that's a surprise." Rikonis Vader-Rividh glared sourly at the viewscreen, watching ISD Eclipse recede into the distance as Chimera In Argent fled toward a safe hyperspace jump point. "Lose 'em." "Probably not a good idea, sir." Lt. Rizen Haska, Rikon's self-appointed bodyguard and pilot, punched a control and the stars stretched into the distortion of hyperspace. "Likely just making sure we head directly for Varelttas, with no, ah, unauthorized side trips." "I suppose," Rikon grumbled. Azarra's despair was eating at his mind, like claws scraping on the back of his neck. She wanted privacy, but after a while he couldn't stand it any longer and returned to Chimera's lounge. Azarra sat slumped on the couch, sobbing hysterically. "It's not your fault," Rikon offered uncertainly. "Trin's not dead." "What have I--" Azarra choked on the words, took a gasping breath, smeared her hands through the tears running down her cheeks. "One stupid mistake and the man I love--" another sob shook her voice, "--my love is in the hands of the man I despise!" "It's not your fault!" Rikon repeated. She wasn't listening. Rikon flung himself down on the other end of the couch, catching his hip on the holotable in the process. "Ow, dammit, what the hell--" He dug into his pocket and extracted Trin's ring. Its big green stone glowed mockingly at his touch, not at all repentant for jabbing him. "Give it back to her," Trin's parting words echoed in his head. "When she's ready." Azarra had resumed weeping, softly now, but still not seeing anything outside her own misery. "Stupid rock," Rikon muttered at the ring. "Now look what you've done." Not like it cared. He twisted the ring around a finger, watching the light glinting through the stone's facets like captive stars. Like the blue fire Palpatine would surely inflict on his captive son, just because he could. After a while he realised the weeping had stopped. Azarra was watching the green flash reflecting on the holotable between them, faintly illuminating the ghosts of player figures imprisoned in its surface. "Stupid decision," she whispered. Rikon laid the ring on the table. Azarra stared at it, barely breathing. "He needs you to keep this," Rikon said. "So he knows you're safe." "Yes." Azarra reached for the ring, covered it with her palm, then scooped it up and cradled it in her hands. "Yes. I will. I must." She rose and made her way to one of Chimera's cabins, determination in her step. *** "This wasn't the sort of training I had in mind!" Azarra complained for the hundredth time, as she gazed down yet another apparently-endless row of grapevines. That was the Rividh estate: grapevines, sheds, grapevines, pine trees, grapevines, rocks, grapevines, grapevines, and more grapevines. The grapevines went on forever, she was sure of it. And the basket of grapes at her feet was only half full. Rikon wouldn't let her so much as get a drink of water until it was ready to be hauled back to the winery, and then there'd be another to fill, and another, until every bunch of grapes on her assigned row had been picked. After three days of picking grapes, Azarra had nearly decided to swear off wine forever. It wasn't the work -- it wasn't particularly hard, nor all that unpleasant, and the northern sun was mild. But it was boring. Dull, dull, dull. No wonder Drashak Province was populated entirely by peasants. Everyone with a hint of civilization had long since died of boredom. Desperate for something to think about that didn't involve grapes, Azarra began humming a common folk tune -- softly at first, then with more confidence as a worker in the next row began singing the words. Soon all the workers were singing, and Azarra's voice joined theirs. Her hands went on picking grapes without her. Azarra had reached the end of her row before she realised Rikon was standing there. "About time," he said, grinning ear to ear. "I wasn't that slow," Azarra objected. "Come on," Rikon said. "You're done here." "About time," Azarra retorted as she followed him back to the dormitory building -- one couldn't exactly call the big U-shaped structure a house. "Are you ever going to explain why you put me to work like a common farm labourer?" "You didn't know how to separate your mind and your body." "I don't understand. What do you mean by that?" "Everything your hands did, your mind followed. And every time you stopped to think about something, your hands stopped moving." Rikon ushered her indoors, mock-gallant. "Welcome back to civilization, milady, such as we have of it." "Don't you ever spend a whole day inside your own head?" Azarra griped, but she couldn't truly be angry with him for overhearing her thoughts. Odd how easily she'd become used to that. "Of course not. How boring." "I'm going to stuff grapes in your ears if you don't tell me what this was all about!" "In a fight," Rikon obliged, "it would get you killed. You have to be able to think and move independently. Otherwise every time your opponent makes a smart remark, you'll come to a halt while you think up a response. Or he'll do something you don't expect, and you'll stop thinking until you get done parrying him, and then his next move will catch you by surprise. Either way, you're dead." "I see," Azarra said, sobered by this explanation. And true enough, once she'd started singing, she had picked an amazing lot of grapes without really noticing the work. "What's your excuse?" "I can't think or move worth a damn regardless," Rikon replied cheerfully. "And I sure as hell can't sing! New lesson tomorrow. Meet me in the library about noon, it should be ready by then." "Another mystery lesson?" Rikon grinned wickedly, and Azarra laughed. "All right. Just so long as it doesn't involve grapes!"
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