A Star's Light Did Fall
Star Wars: Alternate Universe
(in a universe where strong and sensible senators do not simply die of grief, and the dearest of handmaidens are not simply forgotten, and fallen Jedi do not become monsters overnight.)
He is a stranger here, the dark hooded figure blending into the shadows. He is a stranger here but he does not mind; he is a stranger everywhere he goes. Not since the falling Temple and the end of the world has he had a place to call home, or a soul to call friend.
This place is different, though, somehow. Perhaps that is why he is still here, even days after arriving. He does not usually allow himself to stay.
It is a festival time here: there are fireworks to light the night and whispered secrets to darken the day. The streets are full of people, and there are plenty of places for a wanderer to hide. Plenty of places for someone already lost to lose himself even further.
He pauses in an alcove, watches a child lighting a lantern. She's a gifted one; she's lighting the flame from a bare fingertip. He wonders if she knows, yet, that she is different from her friends. From the brightness in her eyes and the shine to her smile, he supposes she has not yet learned the weight of her burden. His hands form fists; he hides his fingers in the depths of his cloak. Perhaps there was a time when he, too, felt blessed instead of cursed, but that time has long since passed.
Laughter catches at his ears, snatches of music borne through the air on the holiday wind. They have been celebrating, these people have, for the better part of a week. Only once in three hundred and thirty-three years are all three of their moons full in the same fortnight, and the preparations for this festival and feast have been hundreds of years in the making. Old men reckon themselves fortunate to have survived until this day. Women swallow bitter herbs to force labor; children born on this day should be born lucky, born gifted or strong or beautiful, or perhaps all three.
He can't look at their faces too long; the sweet expectant faces of the children, the deeply contented faces of the old women, any of them. This is their holiday, after all, not his. He is the stranger here, but they have welcomed him, and he feels the festival fire beginning to take hold, somewhere small and dim deep within him, in the recesses of his heart that he has tried for so long to ignore.
He should leave, before he finds himself dancing with them, instead of just observing from the safety of a shadowy doorway. He should leave, before the kindling fire reaches his fingertips and he traces the shape of a word out of flame and calls something into being.
Songs are carried from voice to voice, fire carried from hand to hand. These people have waited long years, of drought and famine and grief, for these days, these moon-bright nights. Even with all the bitterness in his heart he cannot begrudge them this. Perhaps that is why he stays. They have suffered, as he has suffered, and yet their suffering has nothing to do with him. There is a freedom in that difference, a great and aching weight between them, lifted from his shoulders.
He has killed a thousand men, but the people here have never even heard of him. Their tears are no fault of his, and that weightless guiltless feeling keeps him here, keeps the cup of their festival to his lips, even when he ought not to stay. He knows that ignorance is not the same as forgiveness. But he has never asked for forgiveness, nor has he expected ignorance.
He is running with good reason; the deaths of a thousand men have pronounced a heavy sentence on his life. The grieving widows, the fatherless children, the desolate, abandoned houses -- he is not yet a monster; well he knows the consequences and the results of what he has done. He cannot face their eyes. Their blame, their anger, or worse, their pity.
He thinks perhaps that he has never understood compassion, that if he had been born ungifted he might have lived a normal life.
But then, he thinks, the world would not have been the same. It is not immodesty, it is only the truth: he has changed the world.
So it would seem that not much has changed, after all: there never was a place he wanted to call home. There never was a doorway that meant hearth and family and love. Unhappy is the child who is born knowing he is different from the other children.
Pressing onwards, he sees a burst of fireworks above a splashing fountain; the sun is setting and soon the third and long-awaited moon will rise. A cheer goes up with the next firecracker; the crowd is eager for the dark. In truth, so is he; he can pass more easily unseen under the cover of darkness, and there is less of a chance of someone seeing and recognizing his face.
There is still a little boy in him that loves the fireworks: the noise, the sparkling shimmer, the sweet rebellion of light railing against the darkness. A shiver passes over him as he watches; memory is unkind, and his memory has always been excellent.
There is no time for tragedy during a high holy day, or is it perhaps that this is the only time for such? He has lost the ability to tell.
"How are the children?"
The woman who had been a queen startled visibly; there under the moonlight on her balcony she had thought she was alone.
"Apologies, my lady. I did not mean to interrupt you."
"Sabe," she said, reaching out a hand and catching my sleeve as I turned to go. My sleeve, as though I were the queen, and untouchable. "Don't go." She laughs a silent laugh, and all I can see is how the moonlight has turned her hair to silver. Or was it grief? It certainly was not age. "And don't call me "my lady," either. I haven't been a lady since I was a girl."
I smile for her, and watch it illuminate her eyes. I do not much feel like smiling, but it has never been difficult, for her. "Surely you know how ridiculous that sounded," I say, and pluck her hand from my robe, taking it up in mine. "And you will always be my lady, to me."
Her eyes soften and she will not argue. We've had this conversation many times before. When she retrieves her hand, her fingers linger against my own.
"They are sleeping," she says, answering my question and allaying some of my fears. There have been too many fretful nights, and the journey has been hard on our children.
I should not think of them as my children, but there are times I cannot help it. Even without the carefully constructed cosmetics of our offices, my queen and I resemble one another, and so naturally her children, favoring her, favor me as well.
Perhaps as they grow they will look more like their father.
It is wicked of me, I know. But I pray that they will not.
She does not sense my thoughts; she is not cursed with his gifts. She is not looking at me as she speaks. "I thought they might never fall asleep, really. How many nights of crying does this make?"
"They say it is better not to count your misfortunes, only your blessings. You should get some rest of your own, my lady--"
There is something of her former will when she levels that glare at me. I am ashamed to admit my giddy relief to see strength in her, once again. "Sabe, enough. Call me by name or leave m--"
She cannot finish. I am not surprised, only saddened, and I am by her side as her shoulders start to shake. "Sorry, sorry," she is saying, but only a whisper from me hushes her into silent tears. She weeps against my neck, and I sing a lullabye of her name.
I will stroke her hair until she is still, until the tears subside into slumber. It is all I can do, these days. I cannot wield a weapon into battle and claim the still-beating heart of the man who ruined her, if indeed a heart he even has. I cannot fight for her. I am not a sword, but a shield.
I should follow my own advice, and not count the pieces of her broken heart, the shattered remnants of our peace. Instead, I count the minutes that she sleeps against me, each breath of her dreamless sleep.
I know his face as well as I know my mother's, my father's, my own. Perhaps better, though I have seen nothing of any of them for these long years. My parents, I've been told, have gone to their rest, and I wish them sweet sleep. It was the best decision for them, to wrap me as they did with the best linens they had left, to give me to the palace -- I've been told. And they visited me when they could, with their farmers' hands and their tired eyes, touching my queenly robes with wonder on their simple faces. I believe that they loved me. I do not begrudge their choice.
If I had grown up differently, I would never have known her.
The baby in my arms is restless; this tiny girl child with her father's blue eyes. Her hands make clumsy fists, beating against my breast, and my breath catches in my throat. As young as she is, does she know I am thinking of him? Can she feel my anger?
Were the children born with his gifts?
Sick at heart, I hold her closer to my heartbeat and pray to the harvest gods that my parents had believed in. I tell myself I don't believe in anything.
It's a lie. The little girl has gone still, and her infant eyes are smiling at me.
For a miserable instant, I want to fling her from my hands and run as fast as I can. There are tears, chilly on my face, and I know that I am bound, surely as with silver or with iron.
"Little one," I sing to her, wishing that I believed in magic, wishing that I were anywhere else in all the galaxies and all the stars. "Little one, you must forget, you must forget the ones you leave behind. Little one, have no regret, have no regret for suns no longer shining."
She's a baby again, instead of a preternatural creature grinning at my breastbone, and she coos a contented sound as I sing. I am afraid of her. Her, and her brother, too, though he has not yet looked at me with those too-blue eyes. It will only be a matter of time.
She must know.
I found her in the gardens today, with the twins under the flowering apple tree. She spread a blanket for a picnic, as though she were only a young mother in the springtime, without the weight of all the worlds on her shoulders.
The children were watching wide-eyed as the doves flew overhead, sky-blue horizons reflected in their matching eyes.
The way she looked at them -- I know she knows. She must know. And yet there is not horror in her face, when she looks on them, but a peculiar kind of thirst.
And I know that she loves him still. In spite of everything-- she would rather him by her side, than me.
I say nothing of this, of course. She would argue with me, and then she would weep, and she needs no more weeping. I do not speak from jealousy. I know my lady's heart, and I do not doubt she loves me well.
But she would turn the worlds on their head for him, even now. After everything. Her life, the lives of thousands. Broken and ruined, more than ruined, destroyed. If it were not for the children, she would leave this safehouse; she would venture into the world to look for him.
And find him, no doubt. It is a wonder he has not found us here already.
There is something in this world that does not want the two of them apart. Something more forceful than my will alone, which would keep them as far distant as the galaxies could hold.
I knew the first time that I saw him that he would change the world. I am not boasting; it is only the truth. Anyone with eyes to see would have recognized that about him. Endless hunger, an appetite to drink the world and come away unsated.
It was not, however, always a terrible feeling. There was a time, I believe, when I quite liked him, and I thought that the change that he might bring to the world might not be the ending of all things.
It feels like such a long time ago, now. My lady's hair was still dark, then, as was my own. He was just a boy, and the blade in his hand was beautiful, dangerous, exhilarating.
He danced for her once, a kata with his weapon, meant to show her his power and speed and grace.
Perhaps it was then that I first started to be afraid. Only natural, I told myself. I am not a sword, but a shield: the mirrored shield, to disguise and protect.
I learned to fight because all the queen's guards learned to fight; speed over strength, guile over force. We were the best in the Palace. But I never fought for the sake of fighting. For the beauty of fighting.
This boy with the too-blue eyes and the careless hair, he /was/ fighting; the blade was an extension of his arm and it was a beautiful, breathless thing to behold.
She was lost. We both knew it, though I believe I knew it first. She was too taken, at first, to recognize the damage, the wound too slight and fine to bleed at first.
He laughed like a fire laughs, elegant and blazing, consuming everything nearby... but it was he who drew to her; she was no moth to flutter around his candle until coming too near and burning to bits. She was a queen, then. She kept distant and cold as befit her office, and I was the only one who knew her secret heart.
For a time.
Every life has a story, and I suppose not all of them are sad.
She would scold me, if she heard me say so. Of course there is still joy, she would say. But how can I, being who I am, look at the depths of sadness in her eyes as she speaks to me, and say that I believe her?
I may be strong, but I do not have that kind of strength.
She is quiet when I braid her hair. Vain little girl, she loves to see their eyes on her, she loves to be lovely. Perhaps it is not vanity; she has the makings of a diplomat about her: convincing the grown-ups with a look, or a careful word. She knows her power, and she does not abuse it. But she loves it when I plait her hair, and so I teach her all the knots and braids that I learned when I trained to be her mother's handmaiden.
It seems like only a short while before she is braiding my hair, and my tired hands sit quiet and still in my lap, grateful for the rest at last.
"You are thoughtful tonight, Inana," she says. The nickname is as old as she is; I wonder if she remembers the story behind it. Likely she does not, and I will not embarrass her with the memory. Hardly the fault of a two-year-old that her mother and her mother's companion shared the accident of a nearly-similar face. She knew us apart, of course. Even before I knew she had the gift, I knew she was a savvy child. But it was only natural for her to assume that we were sisters, and that I would then, naturally, be her aunt. It was such flawless logic for a little one learning the makings of a family -- my lady did not correct her, and so neither did I.
I realize I have not yet responded to her, only proving her point. She's watching my reflection in the mirror in front of me, and her smile is so like her mother's, knowing, but kind.
"Is it a secret?"
That gives me pause; I look up from the hands that are curiously still in my lap. "Is what a secret?"
"What you're thinking of," she says, "the thought that draws your brows together in a frown. You are hiding it from me."
I've attempted to shield my thoughts from her since she was old enough to form thoughts of her own; it did not take much guessing on my part to figure out that she was special.
I thought, unexpectedly, of her father -- unexpected, not that I should think of him; my days were spent in quiet desperation to forget him -- unexpected that I should think of him with pity. It must have been a nightmare, being his mother. How do you discipline a child that can read your thoughts, and predict your actions?
"Not a secret," I say. "But not something it is easy to speak of. Perhaps when you are older."
She looks at me, wise beyond her years, and for a moment I think she will not press the point, that she is contented with my non-answer and will continue to plait the ancient harvest-blessing knots into my hair.
But she frowns down at her fingers in my hair, and I realize it's an entirely different pattern forming under her hands.
"Why did you hate my father so?"
She's never asked directly before. I swore to myself that when this moment came I would not lie.
"I did not hate him, child." It is more difficult even than I imagined; the years and unspent tears are heavy, heavy, heavy. My throat is tight. "I know your mother loved him, and I tried to love him for her sake. Rather, you can say that... I feared him."
Her too-blue eyes are bright, and they are his eyes, accusing in their acuity. "You did love him," she says, not questioning. What does an adolescent girl-child know of love, I think (unkind, again, it does not become me). She has never met a man save her own twin brother; she has never had the breath stolen from her and the blood stopped in her veins by a smile. How can she know?
I manage to meet her eyes, and I am still her Inana, still older and wiser, and she looks away first. I say, "Yes, but love and fear do not cancel one another out."
"Perfect love drives out all fear," she says, and I know she's reciting a poetry book that her mother has given her. "Perfect love--"
I turn around to face her, and she drops the ends of my hair from her startled hands. I give her a smile, but I feel that it's a sad one. "I have never known anything perfect about love."
He stops short, surprised motionless by the child's voice. He cannot quite bring himself to speak. The people here do not know him, of that he is certain. Rational thought tells him there is simply no way that they would recognize his voice. But it is not a rational feeling, the tight and clasping hand he feels close around his throat.
He points to himself, questioning.
It's a little boy, wearing the bright-colored clothing of the festival: red headwrap, green pants, yellow vest. He is a riot of color against the shadows, and he holds an unlit lantern in his chubby hand. "Yeah, you! Have you got a light, mister? My little sister dropped the last of my flintsticks in a puddle but I still have one lantern left to go."
The child bustles up to him, a whirl of happy activity. He's still chattering as he proffers the little paper lantern, but the man isn't listening. He's seeing another paper lantern in another hand, too many years past. He's remembering her voice when she asked him for a light-- knowing full well what he could do, teasing and awe-struck all at once.
Later, he will not be able to describe the sensation, nor will he be able to explain his actions. It is not a rational feeling, the fire along his veins, responding in the simplest way it can to the innocence of a child, at a festival, asking a favor.
He lights the lantern, as he had those years ago, with his hand: a skirl of bright flame from center of his palm, rising in a perfect swirl of heatless fire. The little boy falls silent, watching greedily and a little bit frightened, his mouth halfway open in the middle of a word. His little sister won't ever believe this, but he'll remember it for the rest of his life: the day the stranger set his paper lantern on fire, in the most glorious beautiful explosion he's ever seen.
The lantern is destroyed, but the child knows he's gotten something even better than what he's asked for. His eyes are full of gratitude.
It's the clamoring shouts of the adults behind him that break the spell, the fire-blankets descending on the embers and the accusing stares of the growing crowd.
He could shrug them off but he does not. He allows them to grab his arms, and in another heartbeat he's sequestered in a cell, with the authorities asking him his name.
He still cannot speak. Maybe it's at this point that he realizes it's "cannot" and not "will not," because it does not feel like choice closing his throat and stifling his tongue. Speech eludes him, he lifts a hand to be eloquent where his voice cannot--
But the official has seen too much of what his hands can do.
They bind him, hand and foot, and as darkness descends he finds himself thinking of that little boy's smile. Was it worth it? He realizes it is not for him to ask. This would have happened, one way or another.
He is tired of running. Perhaps by the morning they will have gotten word from the intergalactic authorities, and they will know his name. It would only be a matter of time between that moment and the end.
He is not exempt from fear. He has never been fearless, no matter what the holonets have said. Fear is the hollow place beneath his heart, eating at his happiness and, having depleted that, still ravenous for more. It has always been fear.
He measures the moments with a weary sort of gratitude, knowing that there is little left to fight. It may be that this is the closest that someone like him can ever get to peace -- though he knows that he does not deserve it, not peace nor surcease from fear.
In his little cell he waits for the morning, and listens to the sounds of the festival still clamoring outside, beyond his prison.
It's over dinner one night not long after when the girl drops her spoon at the supper table, stands bolt upright in the middle of our meal. Her brother looks up at her, expectant but not surprised. Perhaps he was waiting for the epiphany he knew was coming, and now he just listens for the punchline.
"What is it, sweet?" her mother asks.
None of us (not even her brother) expect her to whirl on her mother, with anger in her face.
"Why haven't you told us that our father is still alive?"
There is stunned silence. My lady has nearly spilled her cup; only a quick flick of her son's fingers keeps it upright, but some of the liquid still sloshes. Bright and red on the white tablecloth, like the blood of our wounded peace trickling slowly between us.
Mother looks at daughter, emotions raw and roiling on one another's faces.
Finally, her mother speaks.
"Because I believed that he was dead," she says. I am grateful, and proud, that she does not cry. (She has wept so many tears for him, she has put the oceans to shame.)
The girl sits down, and only then does the boy speak up. "I believe you, Mother," he says, and the way he reaches a hand to her, to comfort her, is so like a gesture that his father once would have made that it takes all my strength not to shudder.
The girl notices; she is glaring at me. "You knew. You knew, and never told my mother. My father is still alive."
And now all eyes are on me. It was only a matter of time before this moment, and if I am to be honest with myself, it is something of a relief.
"I suspected," I say. "But I did not want to burden this family with false hope."
My lady looks as though she wants to be grateful but cannot hide the betrayal in her heart, and the girl is staring daggers into my heart. "You lied once," she says quietly. "Why should we trust you that you would not lie again? Why should I believe that you are not lying now?"
"Leia!" There is something of the queen, again, in the strength of her shoulders as she stands. "That was uncalled for. You will apologize to your aunt, and then you will leave our table until you can keep a civil tongue."
"No." My voice surprises everyone, even me. "She is within her rights to question me, and perhaps I do not deserve her trust. The three of you are kin, and I am an outsider."
The girl looks chagrined but stubbornly defiant; the boy quiet, considering. I cannot look at their mother; she cannot look at me.
"I am sorry. I thought it might be up to me to restore peace to this family, and I only wished to give it to you the best way I knew how. But I see I have presumed too much. I should not have kept him from you."
In my nightmared imaginings, I had imagined that this moment would be full of tears, of cries of anguish. Perhaps if I had allowed myself hope, I would have dreamed of forgiveness, of embraces, of whispered reassurance.
As it is, there is nothing but an eerie quiet, and it is worse than I imagined. I am wrong to have stayed as long as I have. Even before his crimes, before the deaths he could not undo, even before the burning, I thought that his end was already written by the simple fact of the woman we could not unlove.
But then my lady looks at me, and I never thought I would see such heartbreak in her eyes for a second time.
He wants nothing more than to fold. To withdraw into himself, and surrender, to give up the fight. To roll over and let the chaos carry him away into numbness, nothingness. He is grateful that his time has come at last, and that the beautiful people of this place will see the end of him, on such a festival day.
He is not granted any such mercy.
Morning comes, and with it, comes judgment. All night he has dreamed of the desert, of his mother's house and the rough-woven rugs hung in the windows to keep out the sandstorms. He is resigned to his fate.
I am not.
He is not expecting me, that much is obvious. But he has the gift, and he recognizes me even at a distance, even after all these years apart. His stance changes in an instant; he is wary of me and uncertain. The game has changed, with me on the playing field, and he realizes with sudden clarity that his fate is not yet written, that he may not die here.
The streets are filled with still-flickering lanterns, and the sky is triply bright, moons yet shining as the sun arises. This day is a holy day.
I never thought that I would be his second chance.
For the first time, I feel that things may yet be set right.