Briar was in the southeast refectory hoping to steal an early breakfast before the rush when he heard the whisper, passed between an older padawan and a young archivist. Have you heard? The words echoed through the halls, traveling from being to being, spoken in low, excited voices or loud ones pretending at boredom. Have you heard, have you heard the news? Jedi Knight Daja Kisubo has returned to the temple, and she's sparring in the training arena with anyone willing to try their luck.
There wasn't much available in the refectory this early, but there were fresh rolls hot from the ovens. Briar put one in each pocket and grabbed a third to chew on during the walk to the arena.
There were a lot of things about the Temple he'd forgotten about during his year on Gyongxe. He wouldn't have thought you could forget that much in a year, though he and Rosethorn hadn't been on Coruscant much in the last few years, being sent on one long assignment after another in what Briar was pretty sure was an attempt by the Council to get rid of them- not 'them', Briar reminded himself sternly. It was only him they'd been eager to send across the galaxy.
Still, it amazed him that he'd somehow managed to forget just how huge the Temple was. It had to be at least twice the size of the Yangjing Imperial Palace, Briar thought. It took him fifteen minutes at a fast walk to clear the southeast quarter and make his way into the central heart of the complex. Gold and russet halls gave way to white walls of marble and paths lined with flowerboxes. You could almost believe yourself outside, in these absurdly high-ceilinged chambers with open walls exposed to vast enclosed spaces, except that the air was a lot fresher than anywhere open in Galactic City. Briar bent down to trail the tips of his fingers along the crisp edges of leaves and petals, letting the plants' energy refresh and calm him.
It was still too early for most of the Temple population to be out of bed, but he noticed that the few knights, masters, apprentices, healers and librarians who were up and about were generally drifting towards the temple center. He let himself be sucked into the flow, and came at last to the big, white-washed, bowl-shaped amphitheater used on special occasions as a tournament arena and on every other day as a communal training area.
All the white mats on the floor were taken, and people were standing in rows around the edges of the room. Briar elbowed his way to the front, causing exclamations of anger and then surprised murmurs as he was recognized.
Down at the bottom of the bowl, Daja Kisubo was engaged in a staff fight with a middle-aged Kiffar woman in a yellow tunic. As Briar watched, she slid her wooden pole around the older Jedi's, hooked it around her ankles and swept her feet from under her. The woman hit the ground and rolled, but when she raised her head the tip of Daja's practice staff pressed against her throat.
“I concede,” the woman gasped, and leaned away. Daja lowered her staff and took a step back, then stepped forward again to help the woman rise. Briar wondered if the woman was going to try to pull her opponent down even after a concession, and grinned when she turned out to be a smart one, just smiling wryly and taking the offered hand in a firm grip. Once she was on her feet, she bowed. “Thank you,” she said.
Daja nodded at her, leaning on her upright staff. “The honor is mine, Master,” she said, her voice as neutral as ever.
Briar let his friend wipe the sweat from her face with a towel and stretch a little in place before he sent his thoughts out along the length of their bond. Looking good, Daj'.
She looked up. Briar waited until she found his face among the crowd of spectators, then smiled his widest, most charming smile. She grinned back.
Believe it or not, I didn't plan this.
Relax, Lady Warrior. I believe you. You ain't near enough of a peacock to orchestrate this spectacle.
Didn't mean it as a compliment.
Yes you did. Her mental voice grew a little more serious. How's Tris?
Briar shrugged. Okay. Just... give her a little more time, please? He shrugged, more to himself than to Daja. She just needs some time, that's all.
Daja's brows no longer drew sharply in when she was concerned. Somewhere in those lost years she'd mastered outward serenity. Briar missed that little tell, but it didn't much matter, since he could feel her worry in the Force as though she stood right by his shoulder.
“Master Briar!” someone squeaked in his ear. He felt his own eyebrows snap together, and ground his teeth in frustration, then whipped around to glare at a small girl holding a rocklike creature in her arms.
“Evvy, what are you doing out of class?”
“I tested out,” his sort-of apprentice told him smugly. Evvy was never very physically expressive, but he could see she was excited. She was rocking just slightly on her heels and the ends of her lekku were bouncing up and down.
“Of course you did,” he said, hearing the resignation already in his voice.
“It was all stuff I learned ages ago. Master Staghorn wanted to keep me there, but I told her she was a bad teacher and she threw me out.”
“You're a public menace."
“Thanks.” She turned back to look at Daja, who was tossing the damp towel over the guard rail. “She's already beaten five padawans and two knights,” she said conversationally, “but that was her first master.”
Briar whistled. “Wow.”
Briar considered Evvy's admiring expression. “She's far too old for you, oh student mine,” he intoned with mock severity.
Evvy's dark green face screwed up. “You think you're funny,” she muttered, “but you're actually just really stupid.”
An exuberant shout. Briar's head snapped up. He saw Daja turn and immediately brace her feet against the floor. But the large, pale human man walking into the circle didn't sweep her up in a bear hug, just stopped the usual ten feet from her to give her a laugh and a wave. Kirel hadn't changed much in the last four years, Briar thought. He was older but not much taller, and his hair might have been a bit longer but it was tied back in braids so it was difficult to tell. Daja smiled at her former master's former apprentice. They'd clearly gotten over the awkwardness that had hung between them the last time Daja and Briar had visited Coruscant, before Namorn.
Kirel gave Daja an elegant bow and then unclipped his lightsaber from his belt. The blade ignited in a flare of icy blue.
Daja raised an eyebrow, then shrugged and tossed her pole back into the pile of practice weapons as spectators started to whistle and cheer. She languidly unclipped her own saber and tossed it from hand to hand. The entire audience's eyes were fixed to the hilt, which was twice as long as Kirel's and covered with intricate designs. She caught it with her left hand, and pressed a button, producing a blaze of bronze fire. Then she placed her right hand on the other end of the hilt, and a second pillar of plasma sprung into existence on the other side.
Briar heard the audience collectively sigh in appreciation, as one joined entity. Daja spun her doublesaber idly, gaze fixed on Kirel's face. Kirel began to pace the arena, and Daja moved with him, the two Jedi circling, grins on their faces but calculation in their eyes.
Briar felt the warning in the force a microsecond before Kirel lunged, blade snaking towards Daja's heart. Daja sidestepped him, spinning her doublesaber to strike at Kirel's exposed back. He evaded her, the Force letting him move his large body with effortless grace. Daja bore down just as he pushed up, and the fight was on in earnest, the two knights both using their full strength in an attempt to overpower their opponent. If the duel was happening a few years ago, Briar thought, it would all be over now- Kirel was just so much bigger, had much longer reach. But now- He watched Daja's deltoids flex beneath her light, short-sleeved exercise shirt. She still wasn't as tall as Kirel but she was as tall as Briar and most other human men at the temple, and she was built of solid muscle, and she knew her body well, knew how to position it in a fight, and just two days ago Briar had seen her beat Frostpine in an arm wrestling contest. And she had reach, too, in the form of the infamous doublesaber. Kirel couldn't give her a chance to spin it. Briar watched, interested, to see what the pale man would do.
The two fighters formed a frozen tableaux for three long seconds, and then Kirel's knee came up towards Daja's stomach but her knee was there first and she hit his shin with the full force of a flat-footed kick. Kirel's leg collapsed and he went down, and Briar had a cheer building in his throat but then Kirel's arm swung out towards Daja and she had to step back, giving him the moment he needed to flow back to his feet. The two of them stood there, breathing hard, and then Daja struck with a perfectly flawless classic Shien strike.
The two sabers clashed with a loud hiss, blue against bronze. Kirel's muscles weren't visible under his long-sleeved tunic, but his body bent, straining to push Daja back. Daja's feet shifted into a firmer position, but she didn't move backwards. Briar watched Kirel realize that the balance of power had shifted. He applied more pressure, still hoping to wear her down.
Sweat was beading on Daja's dark brown arms. It must be dripping into her eyes as well, but she didn't blink, kept watching Kirel as they pushed against each other, and then Kirel's saber dropped and he was stepping back and she was pressing her advantage, coming down on him like a storm.
Get him, Daj', Briar thought at her, fiercely encouraging. He realized he was excited. He'd always known how good she was. Now it was time for everyone else to find out too.
“That's beautiful,” Evvy breathed, down by his elbow. He was pleased to see her eyes following the fight with a focus he'd only ever seen her give crystals before. Maybe after this she'd be more willing to learn the practice blade. He could hope, right?
Kirel's blade went flying out of his hand. “I give up, I give up!” he cried, raising his hands palms out. There was an obliging ripple of laughter from the audience. “Daja, you're relentless!”
“I try,” she said, shoulders heaving as she fought to get her breath back. She switched off her saber, then looked around. “Who's next?”
A light, musical voice said, “I wouldn't mind giving it a go.”
Briar felt his jaw drop as a petite Togruta woman entered the arena, wearing the simplest form of a Jedi Master's robe. In one hand she was carrying a lightsaber which Briar knew would be green when ignited. She dropped to the padded floor in front of Daja, moving smoothly into warm-up stretches.
If Lark was here, then Sandry- there she was, sitting on one of the coveted mats. Did that mean she'd been there the whole time and he just hadn't noticed? More likely the two of them had only just arrived and the crowd had parted for Sandry as crowds always did. If Sandry wanted something, she almost always got it.
Sandry turned her tiny regal head his direction, and gave him a wink.
Lark finished her stretches and stood up, looking at Daja.
Everyone else had recognized Master Lark, too. There was a hush in the chamber, everyone desperately hoping that Daja would be game, that they were about to see something spectacular.
Daja bowed deeply. “I'm flattered, Master. And deeply honored.” Briar's sister sounded as close to flustered as he'd ever heard her. “I- I didn't know you dueled.”
Briar hadn't either. None of them had ever seen Lark so much as power on a lightsaber. The middle-aged Jedi Master had been temple-bound as long as they'd known her, content to teach, administrate and guard. Apart from one mission with Nico, Rosethorn, Frostpine and the four students in the first year of their apprenticeships, she'd never even left Coruscant in the last eight years. It had frustrated Sandry at first, Briar knew, though in time she'd come to deeply appreciate all she learned about human nature and the Force from studying Coruscant, city of one trillion permanent residents and a billion visitors from the farthest reaches of the galaxy. And she loved Lark deeply. They all did, though the truth remained unvoiced.
Yet it wasn't until Briar saw Lark shift into the Makashi form that he suddenly remembered that their maternal, sagely master had long ago taken a ten-year leave of absence from the Order so that she could be a professional dancer.
Evvy hissed and pulled too hard on his sleeve. Briar blinked. He hadn't seen the duel start. Lark's lightsaber moved so fast it its high buzz grated on Briar's teeth and bones. A green streak tapped lightly against a bronze one- just testing Daja's defenses, Briar guessed. Daja's adrenaline rush burned through Briar's veins. She was consciously making an effort not to draw strength from her siblings. Briar thought this was ridiculous, but that was Daja for you. She never wanted to be seen taking an unfair advantage.
Lark's long body compressed like a spring and then she pushed off against the mat. Someone gasped in delight. Lark soared in a graceful backwards arch over Daja's head. Every eye in the room followed her trajectory. It's like she's fighting in low gravity, Briar thought, astounded. As the Togruta landed, feather-light on the balls of her feet, mandrals floating behind her, he wrenched his eyes back to Daja, and got to see her spin too quickly and lose her balance. Just a hair of instability, and she caught herself immediately, but it was all the invitation Lark needed. Less than five seconds into the duel and she was pushing Daja onto the defensive.
Lark danced. She was on every side of her human opponent at once. Daja took full advantage of her doublesaber's reach, parrying a slash on one side and spinning to parry a cut on another. But she was just slightly too slow, her steps increasingly unsteady. She overcompensated, striking back too hard, and Lark executed a lightning-fast kick against the inside of Daja's wrist that sent the doublesaber's hilt flying.
Briar winced. Evvy gasped. He drew breath to say something and stopped. The tableau in front of him slowly resolved itself. Daja, knee pressing into a prone Lark's chest, lightsaber firmly in her hand.
She was faking, Briar thought, pride swelling in his chest. That's my girl.
Lark's bow was simple, with none of the flourish he'd just seen in her fighting. She didn't appear to be out of breath at all, like she hadn't even exerted herself.
“Well done, Daja,” Sandry shouted from the other side of the ring, and she clapped her tiny hands together in a rhythm that spread, the entire audience applauding briefly before the sound faded.
Daja stood at the center of the bowl, saber still ignited, face flushed with embarrassment and pleasure. Briar could imagine how she was feeling. Like she was queen of the galaxy.
Well, he couldn't let a foster-sister of his get too cocky.
Briar shrugged off his outer robe, and draped it carefully on Evvy's head, muffling noises of outrage. He hopped over the low barrier and landed with a skip and a hop in the arena.
The crowd fell completely silent, and then exploded in excited murmurs. Briar heard the buzz of holocoms, probably the padawans telling their friends to come and watch, that they couldn't miss this one.
Daja saw him and gave him her widest grin. “Of course you want to duel me now, when I'm exhausted,” she snarked.
Briar spread his hands. “Of course. That's the only way the odds are fair.”
The audience tittered, and Briar flashed a smirk at them. He was starting to feel the crowd's energy now , a pressure in the Force that fizzled in his bones.
“Beat him up, Master Kisubo!” a high voice called.
Briar's smirk slipped seamlessly into a glare. “Traitor,” he called. “You're my apprentice, you're supposed to be rooting for me.”
Evvy tore the robe off her head and gave him two incredibly sarcastic thumbs up.
“You going to light up?” Daja asked. “Or did you just come in here to posture and strut?”
Briar slipped his thumbs through the loops in his belt and pulled out two short hilts, comforting weights in his hands. A flick of fingers and they blazed into viridian light. He spun them once, getting back into the swing of it, and then again over his back for the oooh he garnered from the audience. The Force rose up around him, a lattice he just had to reach out and grab.
Oh, he was gonna regret this in half an hour, when his muscles reminded him what happened when he dueled without warming up first, but it would be so worth it.
They circled. Briar's sabers spun. Daja just switched between two of her modified Shien forms, the orange blade going high then low then high again. It had been so long since he'd dueled Daja. Sure, he'd gotten a look at her new style when they'd fought side by side in Namorn, but that wasn't the same thing. The flip side being, she was just as uncertain about him, and Briar was pretty sure he was the more unpredictable fighter.
For example, it was clear she was waiting for him to make the first move. It was just common sense for an Ataru fighter to attack first, and it was even more imperative than usual that he immediately go on the offensive, considering their ridiculous reach disparity. But Briar had learned patience, teaching Evvy meditation onboard a small, cramped freighter, and he'd learned strategy, doing things not nearly so pleasant. He waited. He was dimly aware through the Force that behind him, a bunch of holorecorders were being switched on.
He'd been watching for her old tell, a tightening in her shoulders before a strike, and so he was nearly hit by the thrust that seemed to come out of nowhere, Daja hurtling towards him like a burning angel. He ducked; she swung down and to the side but he was already gone, somersaulting backwards.
Ataru only worked when you were faster than your opponent and more aggressive. It was intended to be purely offensive. Briar had modified it somewhat. When the fight hadn't yet gotten serious, he'd indulge in some eye-dazzling flourishes, because intimidating people was a whole lot better than cutting their arms off. But if he was up against a real enemy, something switched off in his brain and something else switched on and he wasn't thinking, not in words, he was just letting the Force lead him, fast and furious and fierce. Right now the opponent was his sister, someone he still knew despite their separation. He could feel her close and strong in the Force, felt when she reached for it and leaped to get there first.
The orange doublesaber came down, but Briar was gone, was behind Daja. She blocked his strike over her shoulder without looking, and he felt her gather her strength and push him backwards, an invisible hand sending him hurtling though the air. But he'd gotten real good with that sort of thing and he flowed with the blow, spinning to land on his feet. Someone cheered.
He couldn't let this become a battle of strength, or endurance; he'd lose. He had greater speed and flexibility. And something else. He reached for the energy around him, spun it into a vine and flung it out, sent it wrapping around her ankles.
“Oh, that's not fair,” someone shouted, but Briar distinctly heard Evvy's giggling cheer.
He launched himself towards Daja's prone body, sabers at his sides ready for the finishing blow, but the air itself caught him and pushed him back bodily. He landed. Sweat was pouring down Daja's face and her arms were shaking. The effort had cost her.
She clambered to her feet, grinned at him, and then threw her lightsaber directly at his face.
Holy shit, the conscious part of his brain shrieked, but the rest of him was diving sideways to sprawl ingloriously on the floor, sabers skidding out of his hands. He landed on his hipbone and was thankful for the padded floor. There was a high-pitched buzz as the lightsaber flew just above his head and a hiss as it struck the mat somewhere behind him, but when he raised his head it was back in Daja's hands and she was lowering it to his throat.
“Yield?” she inquired conversationally.
Briar grinned. His fingers curled around warm metal. “Nope,” he said, and he brought his hands together, green lightsabers sweeping in an arc to burn Daja's ankles. She let out an undignified yelp. Not that Briar blamed her. Lightsabers on training setting wouldn't slice through flesh, but they'd leave a red mark on the skin for hours. Like accidentally touching an overheated power cell.
“First strike,” Sandry called.
Daja sighed and scrambled back, rubbing at her ankles. She didn't extend a hand to Briar, which made him want to chuckle, if he could have spared the breath. He retracted the sabers and slowly got to his feet, bent double, hands on his knees, sucking air through his teeth.
“How can you be so gods-cursed fast?” Daja asked wearily.
He'd known it was his only chance. Daja was the best, but there was no one in the Order with faster reflexes than Briar Moss. Probably because there was no one else in the Order who'd grown up slicing and snatching on the dark side of Nar Shaddaa.
Someone started clapping. Others joined in. Soon the chamber was echoing with cheers and congratulations. It was worth the stitch in his side and the burning in his lungs.
Daja dumped most of a bottle of water on her head and wiped her face and arms with her towel, wet braids flicking water droplets as they swung from side to side. We probably smell awful, Briar thought.
Congratulations, Briar! Sandry said in his head.
A small green shape darted across the platform. “You only won 'cause she was tired,” Evvy told Briar sternly.
Briar groaned. “I know,” he and Daja chimed simultaneously. They grinned at each other again.
“That was amazing!” someone said, and Briar turned. At some point they'd been surrounded by young Jedi and apprentices with stars in their eyes. Daj', I think there's enough pretty girls here for the both of us.
The prettiest girl had gray-brown hair and eyes blue as clear skies. “That was amazing, you two.” She passed Daja a fresh towel.
“Oh, Sandry,” a taller girl said, the word 'Master' an omission loud in its absence. “Did you see Master Kisubo's spin technique? It was incredible, I couldn't believe it.”
Briar knew that many of the younger knights- and no small number of the older ones- believed that Briar and Daja were stronger Jedi than their sisters, simply because they were better duelists. It bothered him, when he let himself think about it, but in the end he just had to shrug the feeling aside. Those ignorant chuffleheads would change their opinions pretty fast, he thought, if they ever saw Sandry move battle cruisers with the sheer force of her will, or were nearby when Tris fried an entire room full of assassin droids with blinding strikes of lightning.
Sandry must have sensed the direction of his thoughts. It's okay, she said, with a small bright smile, I'd prefer that they underestimate me.
And it's best for everyone, Briar thought darkly, that they underestimate Tris.
Fortunately this train of thought was interrupted by an enveloping hug from familiar wiry arms. “I'm glad you two are back,” Lark murmured into his ear, and Briar let himself relax, allowed himself to sink into a lovely feeling of safety and family and home. It didn't last long.
“What is the cause of all this ruckus?”
A silence swept across the room, and the crowds parted as though pushed aside by the Force.
Grandmaster Moonstream stood in the archway.
In the silence, everyone could hear the small click as Daja clipped her lightsaber hilt back onto her belt.
Lark let Briar go. “Grandmaster,” she said, calmly.
“Master Lark,” Moonstream replied, just as composed. “You are needed in the infirmary. Your apprentice is already there.”
Lark's dark rose skin went ashy. “You sent Comas?” she asked. “You sent him to the infirmary? Moonstream, I told you- he's hyper sensitive. He shouldn't be forced into crowded areas and he especially shouldn't be exposed to pain like that without warning!”
“You coddle the boy,” Moonstream said coolly. “Go. You are needed.”
Lark hesitated. Sandry murmured, “It's all right. We can handle this ourselves.”
Can we? Briar inquired.
We'll have to, Daja told him.
Lark pressed a hand to Sandry's cheek, then darted birdlike to the door, weaving through the rapidly thinning crowd, montrals waving. Briar watched her go, then looked to Sandry, ready to follow her lead.
Sandry's chin rose, and Briar recognized her beginning her transformation into Lady Sandrilene, scion of one of Alderaan's Great Houses. “Are we going to a Council hearing?” she asked imperiously.
“Officially, no,” Moonstream said. “You are going to an inquiry. If the results are unsatisfactory, then yes, we may have to convene a hearing.”
Briar tried to remember which Council members were actually on Coruscant right then. Nico was still on his mysterious mission to Corellia, which was bad- not having their greatest supporter physically present in the Council chamber would lead to a more negative feeling in the Force. If they could even connect to him over the holonet at all. Briar tried to control his flash of anger at the thought of their sort-of patron. He still couldn't believe Nico had left the planet with Tris still having such a hard time. He knew Nico didn't consider things the way most beings did, but he couldn’t imagine ever leaving Evvy in trouble alone.
Crane was probably here. He never left the Temple except to confer with academics at other temples or non-Jedi-affiliated universities. Briar wasn't sure if that was good or bad. Crane was as prickly and unsympathetic as Jedi came, but he had a soft spot for Tris. He'd remember how she helped cure the plague, seven years previously. Rosethorn had said Vetiver was on Naboo. She would follow Moonstream's lead, and her physical absence meant her personal feelings would not bleed through and affect other members. Master Skyfire would be the swing vote, if it came down to that. Staghorn hated and feared Tris. She would be Briar's enemy.
He realized with surprise that his normally rock-steady hands were shaking. He stared down at them, feeling his fingers curl into fists, watching the rose tattoos on the backs of his hands unfurl two new buds, and the shaking stopped. If they tried to take Tris, he would fight until he was stunned into unconsciousness. But he was forced to admit to himself that there was no way he could get her out of the temple, past hundreds of hostile knights.
Stop bein' stupid, he told himself. Like Tris would let you 'get her out of' anything. She'd just fry any blighter who tried to touch her.
The thought wasn't comforting.
Briar, Sandry spoke, in his head. Listen to me.
It's going to be all right. Believe that. You know I won't let anything happen. You have to trust me. Nothing will happen to Tris, I swear it. She sounded so fierce and sure. I won't allow it.
He did trust her. She was probably the most trustworthy person he knew. And the strongest. And the scariest, after Rosethorn.
Daja's hand touched his arm, lightly.
“Will you come with me, please?” Moonstream asked, and that was when Briar noticed the four red-robed Temple guards behind her.
Evvy emanated wariness and worry. She tugged on his sleeve, and then placed her small fingers on his trembling hand. He glanced down at her. “Is there gonna be a fight?” she whispered. “I can go get Luvo.”
“No,” Briar hissed, fear making him sharp. “Go help Lark, okay?”
She glared at him, defiant. “I'm not a baby,” she said. “And I don't leave mates when they're in trouble.”
He stared at her, and then sighed. “Go tell Rosethorn what's happened,” he said quietly. “And then do what she says, all right?”
She nodded, and disappeared. Briar told himself she was Rosethorn's problem now.
“Kind of you to arrange an escort,” Sandry told Moonstream dryly. She strode forward, back straight. Daja and Briar exchanged a look, and then followed, keeping close to each other.
The Council tower was in a corner of the temple complex. When they reached the edge of the stairs, Briar paused, and reached out carefully. Tris?
He got a brief impression of red eyes and a blocked nose, and when she spoke he knew she'd been crying, because she was at her most prickly. What? Can't a girl read in peace?
He said, simply, I think you should listen in for the next half hour, and then a guard shoved his shoulder and he stepped back into line, eyebrows and hands raised in incredulity.
Tris burst into outraged awareness behind his eyes.
Whoa there, Coppercurls.
She didn't reply, but she simmered down into a dull anger inside his skull.
His other sisters didn't seem to have noticed anything. That was interesting.
On the second floor they switched to the elevator, which relieved Briar, whose leg muscles had begun expressing their disapproval of his early-morning activities. Daja slumped against the glass wall, head tilted up, gazing at a spot on the ceiling. Sandry folded her arms, fingers tapping against her elbows.
They really are worried, Briar thought. And that scares me silly.
Idiot. Tris sighed gustily inside his head. They're not worried about me. Not primarily. They're worried what you'll do.
The elevator dinged, and the doors opened.
“Showtime,” Daja muttered.