Ashu-Nyamal, Firstborn of Ashu, child of the planet Mahranee, huddled with her family in the hold of a Republic frigate. Nya and the other refugees of Mahranee braced themselves against the repercussions from the battle raging outside. Sharp, tufted Mahran ears caught the sounds of orders, uttered and answered by clones, the same voice issuing from different throats; keen noses scented faint whiffs of fear from the speakers.
The frigate rocked from yet another blast. Some of the pups whimpered, but the adults projected calm. Rakshu cradled Nya’s two younger siblings. Their little ears were flat against their skulls, and they shivered in terror against their mother’s warm, lithe body, but their blue muzzles were tightly closed. No whimpers for them; a proud line, was Ashu. It had given the Mahran many fine warriors and wise statesmen. Nya’s sister Teegu, Secondborn of Ashu, had a gift for soothing any squabble, and Kamu, the youngest, was on his way to becoming a great artist.
Or had been, until the Separatists had blasted Mahranee’s capital city to rubble.
The Jedi had come, in answer to the distress call, as the Mahran knew they would. But they had come too late. Angry at the Mahranee government’s refusal to cooperate, the Separatists had decided that genocide, or as close a facsimile as possible, would solve the problem of obtaining a world so rich in resources.
Nya clenched her fists. If only she had a blaster! She was an excellent shot. If any of the enemy attempted to board the ship, she could be of use to the brave clones now risking their lives to protect the refugees. Better yet, Nya wished she could stab one of the Separatist scum with her stinger, even though it would—
Another blast, this one worse. The lights flickered off, replaced almost instantly by the blood-red hue of the backup lighting. The dark-gray metal of the bulkheads seemed to close in ominously. Something snapped inside Nya. Before she really knew what she was doing, she had leapt to her feet and bounded across the hold to the rectangular door.
“Nya!” Rakshu’s voice was strained. “We were told to stay here!”
Nya whirled, her eyes flashing. “I am walking the warrior path, Mother! I can’t just sit here doing nothing. I have to try to help!”
“You will only be in the . . .” Rakshu’s voice trailed off as Nya held her gaze. Tears slipped silently down Rakshu’s muzzle, glittering in the crimson light. The Mahran were no telepaths, but even so, Nya knew her mother could read her thoughts.
I can do no harm. We are lost already.
Rakshu knew it, too. She nodded, then said, her voice swelling with pride in her eldest, “Stab well.”
Nya swallowed hard at the blunt blessing. The stinger was the birthright of the Mahran—and, if used, their death warrant. The venom that would drop a foe in his tracks would also travel to his slayer’s heart. The two enemies always died together. The words were said to one who was not expected to return alive.
“Good-bye, Mama,” Nya whispered, too softly for her mother to hear. She slammed a palm against the button and the door opened. Without pausing she raced down the corridor, her path outlined by a strip of emergency lighting; she skidded to a halt when the hallway branched into two separate directions, picked one, and ran headlong into one of the clones.
“Whoa, there!” he said, not unkindly. “You’re not supposed to be here, little one.”
“I will not die huddled in fear!” Nya snapped.
“You’re not going to,” the clone said, attempting to be reassuring. “We’ve outrun puddle-jumpers like these before. Just get back to the holding area and stay out of our way. We’ve got this in hand.”
Nya smelled the change in his sweat. He was lying. For a moment, she spared compassion for him. What had his life been like when he was a youngling? There had been no one to give him hugs or tell stories, no loving parental hands to soothe childhood’s nightmares. Only brothers, identical in every way, who had been raised as clinically as he.
Brothers, and duty, and death.
Feeling strangely older than the clone, and grateful for her own unique life that was about to end, Nya smiled, shook her head, and darted past him.
He did not give chase.
The corridor ended in a door. Nya punched the button. The door slid open onto the cockpit. And she gasped.
She had never been in space before, so she was unprepared for the sight the five-section viewport presented. Bright flashes and streaks of laserfire dueled against an incongruously peaceful-looking starfield. Nya wasn’t sufficiently knowledgeable to be able to distinguish one ship from another—except for her own planet’s vessels, looking old and small and desperate as they tried to flee with their precious cargo of families just like her own.
A clone and the Jedi general, the squat, reptilian Aleena who had led the mission to rescue Nya’s people, occupied the cockpit’s two chairs. With no warning, another blast rocked the ship. Nya went sprawling into the back of the clone’s chair, causing him to lurch forward. He turned to her, his eyes dark with anger, and snapped, “Get off this—”
“General Chubor,” came a smooth voice.
Nya’s fur lifted. She whirled, snarling silently. Oh, she knew that voice. The Mahran had heard it uttering all sorts of pretty lies and promises that were never intended to be kept. She wondered if there was anyone left in the galaxy who didn’t recognize the silky tones of Count Dooku.
He appeared on a small screen near the top of the main viewport. A satisfied, cruel smirk twisted Dooku’s patrician features.
“I’m surprised you contacted me,” his image continued. “As I recall, Jedi prefer to be regarded as the strong, silent type.”
The clone lifted a finger to his lips, but the warning was unnecessary. Nya’s sharp teeth were clenched, her fur bristled, and her entire being was focused on the count’s loathed face, but she knew better than to speak.
General Chubor, sitting beside the clone in the pilot’s chair, so short that his feet did not reach the floor, likewise was not baited. “You’ve got your victory, Dooku.” His slightly nasal, high-pitched voice was heavy with sorrow. “The planet is yours . . . let us have the people. We have entire families aboard, many of whom are injured. They’re innocents!”
Dooku chuckled, as if Chubor had said something dreadfully amusing over a nice hot cup of tea. “My dear General Chubor. You should know by now that in a war, there is no such thing as an innocent.”
“Count, I repeat, our passengers are civilian families,” General Chubor continued with a calmness at which Nya could only marvel. “Half of the refugees are younglings. Permit them, at least, to—”
“Younglings whose parents, unwisely, chose to ally with the Republic.” Gone was Dooku’s civilized purr. His gaze settled on Nya. She didn’t flinch from his scrutiny, but she couldn’t stifle a soft growl. He looked her up and down, then dismissed her as of no further interest. “I’ve been monitoring your transmissions, General, and I know that this little chat is being sent to the Jedi Council. So let me make one thing perfectly clear.”
Dooku’s voice was now hard and flat, as cold and pitiless as the ice of Mahranee’s polar caps.
“As long as the Republic resists me, ‘innocents’ will continue to die. Every death in this war lies firmly at the feet of the Jedi. And now . . . it is time for you and your passengers to join the ranks of the fallen.”
One of the largest Mahranee ships bloomed silently into a flower of yellow and red that disintegrated into pieces of rubble.
Nya didn’t know she had screamed until she realized her throat was raw. Chubor whirled in his chair.
His large-eyed gaze locked with hers.
The last thing Ashu-Nyamal, Firstborn of Ashu, would ever see was the shattered expression of despair in the Jedi’s eyes.
The bleakest part about being a Jedi, thought Master Obi-Wan Kenobi, is when we fail.
He had borne witness to scenes like the one unfolding before the Jedi Council far too many times to count, and yet the pain didn’t lessen. He hoped it never would.
The terrified final moments of thousands of lives played out before them, then the grim holographic recording flickered and vanished. For a moment, there was a heavy silence.
The Jedi cultivated a practice of nonattachment, which had always served them well. Few understood, though, that while specific, individual bonds such as romantic love or family were forbidden, the Jedi were not ashamed of compassion. All lives were precious, and when so many were lost in such a way, the Jedi felt the pain of it in the Force as well as in their own hearts.
At last, Master Yoda, the diminutive but extraordinarily powerful head of the Jedi Council, sighed deeply. “Grieved are we all, to see so many suffer,” he said. “Courage, the youngling had, at the end. Forgotten, she and her people will not be.”
“I hope her bravery brought her comfort,” Kenobi said. “The Mahran prize it. She and the others are one with the Force now. But I have no more earnest wish than that this tragedy be the last the war demands.”
“As do all of us, Master Kenobi,” said Master Mace Windu. “But I don’t think that wish is coming true anytime soon.”
“Did any ships make it out with their passengers?” Anakin Skywalker asked. Kenobi had asked the younger man, still only a Jedi Knight, to accompany him to this gathering, and Anakin stood behind Kenobi’s chair.
“Reported in, no one has,” Yoda said quietly. “But hope, always, there is.”
“With respect, Master Yoda,” Anakin said, “the Mahran needed more than our hope. They needed our help, and what we were able to give them wasn’t enough.”
“And unfortunately, they are not the only ones we’ve been forced to give short shrift,” Windu said.
“For almost three standard years, this war has raged,” said Plo Koon, the Kel Dor member of the Council. His voice was muffled due to the mask he wore over his mouth and nose, a requirement for his species in this atmosphere. “We can barely even count the numbers of the fallen. But this—” He shook his head.
“All directly because of one man’s ambition and evil,” said Windu.
Copyright © 2016 by Christie Golden. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.