Chapter I: Iridonia
Charis was after her again.
He had shoulder-checked her three times that day alone, walking past her, glaring from under his heavy brow. Zaha had outrun him in sprints the day before. He couldn’t stand to be beaten by anyone, much less a girl. Her brother told her that Charis had more pride than skill, and that if he caught him messing with her again, he’d teach him not to cross the Alnari clan again.
Zaha stood outside the school, waiting for her brother so they could take a public speeder home. Basit was three years older, and nearly three times bigger than Zaha. Her brother was the image of their father and he would be a great Zabrak warrior some day. His horns were already starting to split through his dark brown hair. Even at twelve years old, he had a broad chest and was taller than most of his peers.
She felt Charis walk up behind her, knew he thought that he was sneaking up on her. As he lunged to shove her from behind, she suddenly bent over, threw her weight into him, then rolled him over her back and slammed him to the ground in front of her. It was a simple move the marshal had taught two days ago. He should have seen it coming. Charis scrambled up and took a swing at her, catching her in the shoulder. She grunted and pulled her own fist back, swung, and missed. Other children began to run over, shouting encouragement. The combatants circled each other, taunting and cursing, drawing a crowd.
The school marshal felt a flicker on the edge of his consciousness. He moved to his office window to look at the shouting children outside. Something, or someone, had caused a ripple in the Force.
Charis taunted her, circling her, using every name and insult he could think of, landing blows on her every now and then. Zaha fought like she wanted to pound his face into pulp. He was too fast and too agile; she couldn’t get close enough. She wanted him within range, and imagined that she could pull him closer to her if she were just mad enough to make him—Charis stumbled and pitched forward towards her. Zaha took the opportunity to swing for his gut but caught him in the nose as he fell forward. Blood spewed from his face and he howled, crying. Zaha laughed at him and was joined by many of the spectators.
A large hand clamped down on her shoulder.
Basit shoved her out of the way and stepped between her and the bully. “Enough!” He yelled.
Basit grabbed Charis by the front of his tunic, pulling him up to his face and snarled.
“If you touch my sister one more time, they will find your body in the desert if they find you at all.” Basit dropped the Charis to the pavement. He grabbed his sister’s hand and half-dragged her away.
The marshal made a mental note.
The children stood in rows in the yard, sweating in the sun. Today the marshal had given them simple wooden staves. They held them like swords, marching forward and retreating. Advance, parry, swinging high and low, turn, block, advance; drilling in unison like small soldiers while he called out the moves from the edge of the yard. When he was satisfied with their performance, he bbroke them into pairs for sparring. His lip twitched into a flicker of a smile when he paired Zaha with Charis.
Charis glared at her, hefting his wooden sword as he faced her. They were supposed to practice the forms they just learned. Zaha raised her sword to block as he swung, then advanced on him and began the routine. Suddenly, Charis pulled back his sword and struck her hard, right in the center of her head. She stepped back, dazed, and he hit her again in the ribs, driving the breath from her lungs. She bent over, reeling from the pain, anger and fear stunning her mind as well as her body.
“Where’s your brother now, stupid schutta?” He snarled at her. Charis struck her on the back, driving her down to the ground on all fours. A hot ball of fear blinded her. She was fast, but he was strong and he could beat her easily without Basit to protect her. The other children around them stopped what they were doing and ringed them again, glad to see the two finishing what they’d started the day before. He pulled one leg back to kick her. Zaha shook off the fog of pain and anger, grabbed the leg he was balanced on, and pulled. He crashed down on his back.
Zaha leapt on top of him, pounding his face ineffectually with her fists. She could hear the marshal’s boots crunching as he ran towards them to break up the fight. Charis recovered and flipped her over on her back, then sat on top of her and pressed his wooden sword across her throat, choking her. Her fear grew stronger– he was trying to kill her this time, for sure and he would win.
She didn’t want to die.
Zaha grabbed at his arms, trying to pull them away, getting more desperate as her air ran low. The fear broke free and raced through her body like a wave of fire. It exploded from her hands and into the bully on top of her, cracking like lightning in a summer sandstorm.
Charis fell away from her, dead. Smoke trickled up from his empty, burnt-out eye sockets.
The marshal picked her up from the ground by her tunic, flung her over his shoulder, and raced back to his office, the stunned children watching them go as alarms began to ring loudly through the school grounds.
The hooded man arrived that very night, menacing in his dark robes, his face unlined with the marks of adulthood. When he looked at Zaha with piercing eyes she felt something strange twist inside her, frightening her to the core.
She and Basit were shuffled off to his room while the man spoke to her father. Their home was small with thin walls so she listened hard to hear what he said over the pounding of her hearts. Words like, “Dromund Kaas” and “Sith” meant nothing to her. She pulled herself away from the wall and ran to hug her brother.
“Basit,” she whispered, “They are taking me to prison.” She buried her face in her brother’s chest and sniffled. “They are going to kill me.” The siblings clung together and cried.
Her father opened the door and beckoned his daughter. He didn’t look sad at all, but smiled at her and peeled her out of her brother’s arms. His eyes shone with pride.
“Zahira,” he said, “We need to pack a bag for you. You are going somewhere very special, and you must leave tonight.” She wailed, terrified, sobbing about prison and dying and executions. “No, little one. You are going to be trained to be a warrior. Just like I was when I was young, only better. “
He wiped tears from her cheek. “You are special, little Zaha.”
He took her to the strange man and told her to do everything he said, be obedient, be strong. Her mother came in with a small pack with a change of clothes, her school datapad, and a few sweets inside. She knelt, putting the pack on Zahira’s back. Her mother smoothed her hair and hugged her. She could feel the fear inside her mother’s mind. It made her cry again.
She looked up to see her brother at the door, his face stricken with grief. Her mother whispered, “No matter what you do – survive. You must stay alive.” She felt the words crystallize inside her soul, a hard knot of love and duty. She nodded at her mother.
“I will make you proud of me.”
The strange man took her hand and led her out of her family’s house, into the city street, and into her new life.