Spring came, but the rains didn’t.
In its absence arrived the Imperial recruiters, their silver ships settling across Concord Dawn like early morning dew.
One season without rain wasn’t a death sentence— there was enough in the grain stores to stave off that— but it was enough to make the older kids twitchy. Enough that some of them started looking up.
The recruiters knew their business well enough, and when they left, Ragate’s brother went with them. She went to the port to see Orlo off, though their father (bitter, frustrated) refused to take her, and their mother (conciliatory) followed where he went.
At twelve Ragate was too young to be considered, and not much interested in the recruiters’ rhetoric besides. She watched the recruiters and their pressed-neat uniforms and their crisp accents and their boots, polished leather above where the dust of Concord Dawn had scuffed them brown, and kept an eye out for her brother as he shouldered his bag and made his way with them. She sat and was very quiet and didn’t make a nuisance of herself, which were the terms of the deal she had struck for the ride into town.
Even so, one of the recruiters— not Force sensitive himself, but perhaps having spent enough time around those who were to spy it— stepped over to look her over.
He said nothing for a while, just considered her: a small girl with a sun-beaten face and worn-out shoes. Then he turned to the ship, careless, only saying: “Expect another recruiter. In a few years, perhaps.”
It meant nothing to her then, but it nestled under her breastbone. She’d never had much to expect, before.
Bones grow slowly in an old body. Not so for a child, whose new bones form before the old ones dissolve, lending the bones strength, mass, solidity. In this, bones are like beliefs. A personal history written in the body. There are great swings when one is young. As one ages, the bones settle. Breaks are more dangerous, and not so easily mended. Things grow back wrong.
It is important to the Jedi to take children early, so they may be molded when they are still malleable. To raise them as tender saplings, strictly, in a hermetic environment where all inputs may be carefully modulated.
Not so for the Sith. For the Sith know that the Dark Side’s greatest recruiter is the uncaring galaxy. For the Sith know that those who will come, will come. And when the truly strong can turn away from death, outrun it until their power wanes, what does it matter, to pluck a girl from her family at age twelve, or let her find her own way, at fourteen, twenty, or fifty-seven?
The summer after Orlo left was hot and dry. Down a set of hands, even without a proper crop to bring in, there was still work to be done, and plenty of it. Every morning, Ragate would wake sometime after the dawn. She’d been one of five, though they were four now, and maybe three soon enough with Tetha looking to be engaged by the winter, and everyone whispering in town that her mam might lose the baby.
Even so, Ragate had a list of chores of her own. She was responsible for going around to each of the rakabird coops and gathering their speckled orange eggs.
She didn’t mind gathering the eggs: there was a rhythm to it. There were only so many places for a hen to hide her eggs. Ragate had a knack for it, too: the eggs often ended up in the first places she looked.
The rakabirds weren’t very interesting. They had small talons, hardly enough to present a threat to anyone, even the fat worms that weren’t around much that summer. They lived fat and lazy off of a man’s grain, though this summer they were looking skinnier, same as everyone else. They didn’t taste like much, so they mostly got left alone by the foxes and the farmers both, apart from when the townsfolk needed a reading.
Concord Dawn shared many traditions with the Mandoa, but they had their own traditions too.
Every solstice her father would take one of the proud birds with their yellow-green tail feathers and open him up from gizzard to belly, one swift cut. The inside would spill out glistening and red in the golden light that touched their farm in the early mornings, and her father would lean over it, fingertips staining red as he rearranged the entrails and read from them what he needed to.
That summer the reading went like it always did. Her father told the townsfolk and the farmers both: this will pass. Things will be better next year. The men and women nodded and wept and went away, pleased.
When the last of them had left, there was only Ragate, sitting up on the stairs quiet and unheard. She was an audience of one, to listen as her father cleaned the knife and her mother asked, quietly: “Are you sure that was a good idea?”
She was the only one to hear, as her father replied, “No.”
The next year neither the rains nor the recruiters came, but her father left them all the same. Their neighbors came for him one summer morning when her mother was out scratching in the fields as though it might make a difference.
She didn’t see what happened; she didn’t get to witness how it went down in the end. Her sister had a plexisteel grip: she held Ragate by her elbows even as she bit and scratched and tried to kick. Her nails left red curves on Ragate’s arms and all that afternoon Ragate pressed her own fingernails into them like an echo.
It was quiet that afternoon. Her mother went into her room and didn’t come out. When it was getting on to evening, Ragate slipped her sister and made her way down the road and threw rocks at the window until Tarth finally gave up and snuck out the back way to meet her.
She had hit her growth spurt earlier that year, and he hadn’t. Moreover he maybe wasn’t expecting it, so when she shoved him, he stumbled back.
“Your daddy could have stopped this,” she yelled.
Tarth’s face got red and wrinkly. “The reader lied,” he snarled. “He deserved what she got!”
Most likely he was parroting what he’d heard elsewhere, but she wasn’t in any mood to notice then, or care. Instead she saw that he looked fearful: that his eyes were wide like an animal braced for slaughter. That she was bigger and that she was angry with him, and her rage blanked out anything apart from wanting to hit the nearest person until she stopped hurting.
This time when she pushed him with all her strength, he stumbled and he fell.
Ragate expected him to get back up and hit her. She threw her hands in front of her face fast before he could, braced for it, but the blow never came.
From behind her arms it was quiet. When she lowered them, Tarth hadn’t gotten back up.
Later she would remember all of it and how it had felt: the devouring feeling in her chest going down to a simmer, as if it was sated for the time being.
When she rolled him over, she saw the place where the rock had gone into the back of his skull. In the twilight the blood looked almost black, sinking into the unwatered soil. His hair was matted and wet but there was something shattered underneath. She caught a glimpse of it and got stuck staring.
She caught a glimpse and it said, run.
If there’d been anyone there to ask, Ragate could have said it was an accident. It was mostly even true.
She told her mother as much, when she finally picked her way home, quiet with what had happened. Or she tried.
She’d gotten maybe half of it out when she looked over her head and said, grey-faced: “You are no child of mine.”
After that there was nothing to do but go.
The Imperials had left a man posted down in a small office near the spaceport.
That summer, Ragate went with them gladly.