Ashi stepped off the public shuttle onto the streets of Nal Hutta into a greasy rain that made her lekku feel disgusting, in more than one way. She let the memories go, passing into the back of her mind, as she pulled her hood up over them and covered what she could.
She had robed herself in her best, a green and white affair that took the drops of pollution like black stains, mottling it. She hesitated a few moments before waving to a nearby umbrella-carrying slave, one of her fellow twi’lek who had been lingering around for the purpose of shielding more important or wealthy travelers.
The slave was skinny. So skinny. Ashi had been that skinny once, before she’d met Mart, and discovered that her new home had a cheap, good restaurant. Now she had a good twenty pounds of muscle on her little umbrella-carrier, and that again in a comfortable pudge.
“What’s your name?” she asked, in Huttese.
“Thank you, Salria.”
“Oh, you don’t have to call me that,” Salria said, nervously.
They walked on down the causeway. Either side was fetid swamp, held at bay by a force-fence that electrocuted the aggressive wildlife that strayed too near the path. Some of their corpses, twisted and mutilated, littered the edges near some of the posts. Ashi wished she had names for them, but they were universally called ‘Fetah’, which meant ‘Garbage’. The other travelers passing down the causeway ignored them, but Ashi felt more and more uncomfortable. Their deaths, consistent and constant, were like pinpricks on her Force-sense, and they agitated her almost as much as the vicious mosquitos might have. How had she ever ignored it?
“Where are you going?”
She saw the nervous look on the little yellow twi’lek, and ranged her attention back to the way that, in fact, most of the passengers had chosen to go – towards the city in the distance, or a line of shuttlecars that were loading those bulky, obese slugs into the highest form of opulence.
It occurred to her that she was taking Salria away from her assigned duty. Something akin to heresy. Preoccupied, she hadn’t much thought about it, so when she looked back to Salria, she smiled apologetically.
Already, she was changing things. Ashi knew this was dangerous. She knew very well what the whisper in the back of her mind, that dark kernel of truth, that righteous anger, wanted her to do. But how far she indulged it, that was her choice.
“Carugallon’s palace, down this way.”
“I can’t accompany you there,” Salria informed her, “I need to stay near the taxi’s, Mistress.”
“Ashi,” said Ashi. “Please.”
“- just Ashi.”
Some of the veil of subservience dropped away. Ashi read her own frustrations on the slave’s face, so she drew closer beneath the broad umbrella, took her arm, and directed her out of the way of a wheeled drayage trundling down the causeway. They both got splashed.
“Do you want to?”
Ashi waited as the confusion and sudden realization did her convincing for her. She knew. Ashi knew. They stared at each other for a little while, in the dour, depressing rain, and Ashi nodded a little. Just a little bit.
It was enough.
They resumed their walk down the causeway, with Salria glancing behind herself nervously every few steps. Ashi felt tight in the back of her chest, near her center, a faint throbbing that told her that she’d answer for this somehow down the road. Maybe not this road. But some road, somewhere.
The Huttese palaces were splendid beyond anything a traveler could find elsewhere. They had a right to be; after all, they had cornered this planet on wealth alone, and kept it there through a systemic debt system that never ended. The slaves that kept the entrance neat and tidy, hurrying around to mop marble-white tiles even in this cursed rain, looked much like Salri had; dirty, mostly naked, entirely defeated. Only, Salria stood a little taller. She might not know who Ashi was, who she really was, and maybe she’d have been terrified if she found out, but she probably had an inkling. Slaves don’t survive without inklings.
She had the expression of someone desperate willing to die. Ashi felt it too. Every step, every breath, was now bold defiance. The rain made the air muggy and oppressive.
Ashi stopped in the center of the courtyard when she noticed an armed guard, not a Mandalorian – she’d grown a bit familiar with real Mandalorians by now to recognize a well-paid lookalike – noticed her approach and started down from a tower-like guard shack near the huge double-doors.
She waited until he was near enough to be in hearing distance before she raised her hand.
It twitched. She wondered at it before she realized, all of a sudden, that it was from a strong sense of de ja vu.
She had been here before. Not here-here – she had never stepped into this palace, never visited her mother, never left her pleasure-barge except to decorate someone’s arm. But she’d seen this before, and it chilled her to immobility as the guard came closer, wary now of a pair of Twi’lek in the open, and one of them motioning expressively. Suddenly, she wasn’t so certain about this – this was remarkably close to what she’d watched herself do, her dark self, months ago, in the cave. What Sandra had watched her do. The fire that raged inside her, given voice.
Ashi realized that she was running out of time.
She closed her eyes and pushed. Sandra had taught her well, and the guard’s mind snapped with no resistance whatsoever. He stopped a few paces away, his rifle half raised, and slowly began to lower it. Ashi had him.
“What are you doing here?” he asked, as Salria gawked, and the slaves standing around – fully expecting to watch a beating and expulsion, most likely something that happened infrequently – began to glance at each other.
“I am here to speak to someone,” she said, slowly, meeting the guard’s eyes. “Which is okay. I am just visiting, nobody will mind. Will you take me to the slave quarters?”
“That sounds okay,” the guard repeated, “I can show you. Please, right this way.”
That’s when the whispering started. Like the rainfall, a faint susurrus of speculation from the six or seven scrubbers, lingering around. But Salria didn’t whisper.
“You’re a Jedi?!” she squeaked, almost dropping the umbrella.
“Initiate,” Ashi corrected, struggling to split her attention as she fell in behind the confused guard, and finding it difficult. “Now, shush. I can’t keep this up for very long.”
Which was the truth. She didn’t have the reserves she needed. She wasn’t very strong with the force, to keep this up indefinitely, and the break in concentration would probably force her down a path she definitely, definitely didn’t want to tread.
She didn’t dare turn her head to look at the small following they’d gathered up as they made their way over the parade grounds following the bemused guard, either, so she said, “Get them to go away. To go back to work. Please.”
Salria left her side and Ashi refocused on the guard. He was struggling valiantly, though Ashi had already won, but the struggling made the task more difficult than it was on the small, stupid animals of her new home. Everything on Nal Hutta was some sort of vicious killing thing, or someone’s plaything, people and beasts alike. Sometimes both.
She waited as the guard pressed his hand on the door’s lock, and almost startled right out of it when her new companion came dashing back up to her.
“I’ve told them what you’re doing,” she babbled excitedly, “And they want to help, they want to come.”
“I haven’t even told you what I’m doing,” Ashi hissed.
“You’re freeing us?”
Kark, Ashi swore to herself.
She didn’t have the mental capacity to think fast, or even to really think hard at all, either for the guard or for herself, so she paired it down to what she really needed to do, and that was get through this door, free her mother, and abscond with her, hypothetically under the cover of suitably dramatic inky darkness. Like moving through treacle candy, she forced herself to look back at the little group of slaves.
Kark, she thought again. She didn’t know if mops could look martial, but that raggedy band really sold it.
She could feel her hold becoming tenuous. What was she going to do with this guard, once he snapped out of it? Once all her power was gone, she couldn’t hold him to this – and he’d raise the alarm. Ashi looked back to him, to the dutiful nonchalant stance, the open helpful expression twitching just at the very edges like a rictus. Sandra could have done this elegantly. Ashi felt like a byhorn bull, wrecking through a glassware shop.
Now, with friends she didn’t want, and help she didn’t need, and a real, serious problem.
I won’t kill anyone, she promised herself. No matter how much I want to. I won’t.
But all this was too irregular. She couldn’t just tell the guard to go back to his post, since his post involved watching the suddenly very martial, very uncivil slave cadre doing menial subservient labor, which was apparently not going to happen without a lot more convincing than Ashi had the strength or competency to manage.
She reached over and pulled off his helmet, and he smiled dutifully at her, drunk.
Then, she clocked him with it, as hard as she could. Every ounce of new muscle straining to deliver the blow. And he went down in a slump, against the side of the slave barracks door, which triggered the motion sensor on the door. Gently, elegantly, it opened, and he sprawled out the rest of the way.
The band let out a little raggedy cheer. Ashi just felt ragged, mentally exhausted, and totally empty.
Using the force like this left her feeling like she’d walked off a cliff, and it set the skin on her lekku tingling as though they had fallen asleep. Fortunately, the inside of this building was dark, so when she dropped the helmet onto his unconscious body and stepped gingerly over him, she found that she’d bypassed what she figured was the first layer of this manor’s security in a couple of steps.
“I’m looking for Cassedra Tevarl,” she told one of the crowding mop-rebels, “She’s my mother. Do you know where she stays?”
The boy, a little twi’lek with a mop twice his size and the expression of joyous revolution – the same as Salria’s, hell-for-leather, damn the odds – went, “Yeah! Follow me!” and took off at a run.
She followed, all the while worrying what exactly she was going to do with all these people. Heads poked out of curtains. Really nice curtains, velvet and lace and silk. Men. Women. Of course, she was walking through the equivalent of a brothel; no slave got any peace, even in sleep. Ashi could practically feel the dragging conversations. The hope. The speculation, the skepticism, pulling behind her like a cloak. She had broken their normalcy. Rather than feeling powerful, Ashi was beginning to get scared.
This is not how this was supposed to go. She wasn’t their savior. She wasn’t even a full Jedi. She wasn’t even the Padawan of a Jedi. She was just, Ashi.
Like she’d told Salria. Just Ashi.
She came up to the rapidly, excitedly pointing boy, and found herself hesitating at the entryway. The velvet curtains felt too smooth on her damp hand, and she grasped them for a moment before pulling them aside and peering into the dim darkness.
The shadow on the divan stirred, and she waited, not breathing, as it uncoiled and bleerily looked out into the comparative light of the hallway. Golden chains, glinting emeralds, and above that, the glint off of a pair of eyes that Ashi hadn’t seen in over a decade.
She let her worries go and rushed her mother, seven years old again, all the hope and the pain and the loss flooding her all at once. And when the startled twi’lek answered her, it was as painful.
“My little… Asharra?” She groaned, voice a shadow, her arms clumsy. Cassedra hugged back, but Ashi could feel the sluggishness. She forced herself to be more gentle, as the other slaves began to gather around the opening. As Ashi’s eyes adjusted to the light, she saw the glaze on her mother’s face, the unknowing, unfeeling touch of heavy opiates, and the weathering of age. It was more than just sleep.
The Hutt starved people. Beauty was forced on twi’lek. It was their only worth. Beauty, subservience – and her mother was diseased. Ashi could feel the wrongness in her arms, as keenly, even more keenly, than she sometimes felt the deaths of little bugs in her vicinity.
“I’m going to get you out of here,” she promised, gathering her mother up, so light, half-starved for beauty’s sake. But the words failed her after that. What was she supposed to say? Why hadn’t she thought about it?
Hey mom, I’m a Jedi? Hey, mom, fancy meeting you here, let me just take you to paradise?
She blinked away her tears as she rose, the shadow of her mother cradled in her arms like a child, like she’d once cradled Ashi, and turned back to the door.
And the faces.
So many faces.
“My mother’s in the next one,” said the twi’lek who had shown her this room.
“My sister’s in the manor house,” called another, a little further back.
They went on. So many voices. A whole crowd full of voices. And Ashi couldn’t think. She knew she couldn’t help them, shouldn’t help them. Shouldn’t have helped herself. The Force wasn’t meant to be used like this – freeing these people, even freeing her mother, was meddling beyond what any reasonable Jedi would allow. Maybe not beyond what Sandra would allow, but Ashi was uncertain of Sandra, as much as she loved her. She was young, and she was powerful, and she tread this uncertain ground with a scary amount of self-confidence.
But Ashi didn’t have that self-confidence. She worried. She knew this was wrong.
Was this the force, or fate, or cruel bad luck?
“Here,” she said, mustering her voice from somewhere, a requirement that left her throat feeling as dry as her eyes were wet. “Can you carry her for me?”
Someone rushed forward and she handed her mother off, watching her pale blue head loll against a broad, yellow shoulder. Ashi noticed the chain that bound her mother to the bed, and stared at it for a few moments, before she called her saber to her hand and lit the room in dull crimson.
She cut it.