Chapter 2: Crime and Punishment
It took two weeks before Sheev could manage to get away to the swamps again. After Father had displayed his… strong displeasure over the incident with the headmaster's speeder, the eight-year-old had been locked in his room for five days. Of course, he was not going back to the old school, so he had a brief reprieve while Father negotiated for his enrollment at a strict Academy for Boys on the opposite side of the city. He could hear them over the hologram, trying to convince Father that their methods were highly effective, and he laughed darkly.
He liked a good challenge.
Once allowed out of his room, Sheev took time to study the patterns of Father's new bodyguards who were assigned to keep an eye on him. He built up his strength again slowly, eating small amounts of food here and there, though his appetite had never been healthy in the best of circumstances, and his stomach permanently hurt most of the time, although he had learned to ignore it.
He focused on the guards, learned their tricks and tells and practiced with small journeys out of sight in the Lake Country. They would never tell Father as long as he came back, because their jobs and futures would be forfeit if he knew. They pleaded with him, bribed him, and he smiled and accepted their groveling with no intention to honor the bargains. Bargains made under duress did not count.
So Sheev expanded his range until two weeks had passed and Father's guard lowered as much as it ever would, then he hitchhiked a ride on a local middle class family's speeder (he could be charming when he wanted to), and made his way into Theed, and from Theed he caught a taxi to the outskirts of Gungan territory. He left careful instructions for the taxi cab driver to wait for him, and poured a substantial amount of Father's credit chips into his hands for the meantime.
The taxi driver was very happy to wait as long as needed when he counted the full amount. Father wouldn't notice anything missing, most likely.
When Sheev arrived at the place where he had met the Gungans, naturally no one was there, but the trail was clearly marked with his given name in very rough, nearly unintelligible letters. So at least one of the Gungans could communicate… He followed the markers, trying to still the flutterbugs in his stomach that had nothing to do with hunger. Perhaps it had been foolish to return, but he was curious.
Would the colt even remember him? Would it attack him again?
The shadows in his mind whispered. He twisted to look behind him and noticed a thick bush rustling. "Hello." He hoped he sounded braver than he felt.
"Heyo dalee!" Tarpas nudged his Kaadu out onto the open trail and smiled down at the human boy. The Gungan looked much less aggressive this time, bearing only a long stun spear and slingshot strapped to his thigh. "Yousa brave, coming back liken dis."
Sheev shrugged. "Where is he?"
Tarpas smiled. "All hissens so hasty-hasty? Yousa colt wanten to see yousa. Comen then, my taken you to the pens."
Sheev waited warily as the Gungan brought his Kaadu mount closer and extended one long, slightly slimy hand. Repressing a shudder, Sheev accepted it and allowed himself to be pulled up with surprising strength onto the Kaadu just behind the roughhewn leather saddle. For a moment, he was afraid he would fall off the sloping back, but Tarpas guided his hands to a small hold on the back of the saddle.
"Yousa hang on, disen get bumpy. Not far."
Bumpy enough to rattle his teeth, Sheev discovered as the Kaadu loped through the swampy underbrush, every step sure but jolting. It was nothing like riding a Gualama, nothing like the smooth four-footed gait of his father's trained stallions. He didn't like its scaly skin either, cold and rough and so unlike the fur he liked to dig his fingers into.
Tarpas kept up a fast pace, and before an hour had passed, the Gungan slowed the Kaadu to an awkward trot, and Sheev had never been so grateful to dismount from a living creature. He slid to the spongy earth on legs that trembled from the effort to stay mounted, but he soon forgot the ache when he spotted the cobbled-together pens a small length away in an artificial clearing. They numbered half a dozen, and each pen contained a small handful of Zalaaca cubs of varying sizes and genders. Several Gungans walked between the pens, carrying buckets of food to the hungry animals.
A soft wailing cry rose up from the closest pen, and Sheev instantly knew it was his colt. Stumbling a bit as he found his legs again, the young boy made his way to the edge of the pen, clutching the soft twined wood and staring intently.
Yes, it was his colt, just as perfect as before and filled with energy as it loped up and down along the far side of the pen. For moment, he admired the dull stripe on its side, the sleekness of its muscles. Here now, Sheev was unsure what to do. Did he call it? If so, what should he say? Whistle? "Hey, you!" he tried to shout, but it came out as a whisper.
The Zalaaca froze mid stride and pinwheeled on its hind legs, arching up like a Gualama and landing on four stiff limbs as its broad intelligent head rotated to locate him. Sheev's eyes widened, and he took half a step back. How had it heard him? Finally the large red eyes sought him out, and the colt instantly broke into a jagged gallop across the pen.
Tarpas laughed from behind him when Sheev took another step back. The Gungan put out a hand and laid it on his shoulder. "Hesa happy to be seen yousa."
Why…. Sheev thought dully, shaking the Gungan loose with an irritated confusion. No one was ever happy to see him. He understood that, was comfortable with that. Why did this wild animal see him any differently?
"Go on, hesa wants yousa to be petten him."
At Tarpas's encouragement, Sheev carefully made his way back to the edge of the pen, and the Zalaaca chirped softly. Sheev took a deep breath, extending one shaking hand, and the Zalaaca pressed its nose against him once more, just as soft as before. Sheev fought a smile.
Tarpas didn't try to fight the goofy grin spreading on his wide lips. "Hesa yousa colt, all righten! Mesa never seen colts bonden liken dis. What hisa name?"
"Name?" Sheev blinked in surprise. Well, of course, a colt needed a name. He stared at it for a long moment, until he nodded. "Galo."
Tarpas tilted his odd head on his stilt neck. "Galo?"
Sheev finally let his grin out as he scratched the colt's turned neck. "Yes, in Naboo it means 'one who crows.' He has a lot of sounds he makes. I like them."
The Gungan did a fair impression of crowing as well, his laughter echoing over the pens. "Disa muy bombad name!" He took off for the other side of the pen. "Wesa let him out to run now."
Feeling the sting of curiosity and alarm, Sheev hurried after him. He hated being so short, having to take twice the number of steps as his father and any other adult just to keep up. But he doubled his pace and watched Tarpas undo the gate lock. On the other side, Galo danced eagerly in place, wide hooves beating a pattern into the green muck. Sheev squinted suspiciously at the colt.
"Are you sure he won't run away?"
Tarpas opened the gate as an answer, and Sheev stepped aside just in time to avoid getting run down by his own colt. Galo tore past them both and dashed for the far side of the clearing, frolicking up the slope and kicking out his hind legs. Sheev worried his lower lip and glanced at Tarpas, but the Gungan did not seem concerned in the slightest.
"Is… is he going to come back?"
Tarpas looked down at him, and the Gungan's smile faded. "Yousa haven things be runnen out allen the time on yousa?"
Sheev scowled instantly. "No."
Tarpas nodded and smiled more gently this time. "Hesa comen back. Looky looky."
Sheev looked. Indeed, Galo had stopped halfway up the incline and now galloped back their direction, clearly pleased to be free of the pen and startling half a dozen Gungan children as he thundered through their midst. Their squeals of mingled fear and delight echoed across the clearing. Tarpas waved his arms and whooped in that strange way of his.
Galo turned and threaded his way up between the pens, rumbling to a stop in front of the human and Gungan, breathing heavily and chirping so steadily it almost sounded like a purr. Sheev touched his warm side. Instantly, something like another presence pressed on his mind, and he jerked away, turning to Tarpas. "He doesn't like being caged up."
Tarpas nodded, eyes taking on a shrewd wisdom that Sheev really did not care for. "Few do. Wesa run him today."
And so they did, taking Galo out beyond the pens into the swamps, and Sheev forgot for a time that he was going to get in trouble, forgot that he had a mansion to go home to. Here, time seemed to stand still, and it was not until he was gasping for breath that he realized how long they had spent running through the swamps, training Galo to come at his call and leap on command, and many other tricks Tarpas was happy to teach them both.
When at last Sheev slid to his knees on the soft ground and Galo heaved contentedly onto his back beside him and wriggled in the grass, the sun had lowered halfway out of the sky. Sheev reached out to touch his flank and noticed how the mud had streaked up his sides, dousing the bright colors in dull brown. As if Tarpas was thinking the same thing, the Gungan pressed a rough brush into his hand. "Strengthen the bond, yousa will. Take care of him, hesa yours now."
Sheev straightened up, and Galo rolled over against him, long neck curving over his shoulder. The colt nudged his shoulder, and he winced. Right against one of the deepest bruises. "Stop that," he muttered, shoving at the wide head.
Galo chittered and lifted his broad head, thick molars grinding.
They sat in companionable silence while Sheev brushed the mud from Galo's scaled sides. Tarpas leaned his back against a thick, gnarled tree and watched the human work, tilting his head when he noticed the determined gleam in the boy's eyes.
Tarpas grinned, and his face was no longer quite so alien as it had been. "Yousa serious boy, too muchen so, mesa tinkin'."
Sheev sighed between strokes. "I have a lot to think about."
"Yousa should have mui bombad times, yousa just a boy."
"Naboo live differently than Gungans," he said. "You know I'll start my mandatory service in four years in our government, unless Father wants me to start earlier? It's very rigorous."
Tarpas stared blankly at him. Did the humanoid know what the word meant?
Sheev sighed. "Of course you wouldn't understand. Do Gungans even have a government?"
The tall alien chortled merrily, the human's blunt lack of tact sloughing off his shoulders with practiced ease. "Oh, berry berry, wesa have government, though dissen be easier than yousa hissen's. Wesa not so picky. Wesa like our young'uns smilin'."
Sheev cracked a thin smirk as he stroked the rough brush across Galo's scaled left flank and conceded the point. "Humans must seem halfway to protocol droids to your kind."
Tarpas whooped his strange laugh, then grew more serious. "Wesa not so different, mesa tinkin'." Galo turned toward him as the Gungan leaned forward and grudgingly accepted the dark grey moss from his long-fingered hand. "But mesa also tinkin' it's not the government maken yousa so serious."
A thousand insects buzzed in the silence that followed his awkward statement. Sheev rubbed a little harder at the dirt stain on the Zalaaca's shoulder. No doubt Tarpas had seen the bruises on his arms. Careless of him to roll his sleeves up to brush Galo. He surreptitiously pulled them down again. "I have a lot to think about," he repeated stubbornly. It was not Tarpas' place to pry into such things. It was not anyone's.
Their conversation died then, because Sheev felt nothing but the cold brush of reality now. He glanced at the distant sky through the canopy of tree limbs. He had stayed far too long! He needed to get home before Father… well. Before Father grew too angry. There was pushing it, and then there was pushing it. Being caught out after dark was sure to earn him Cosinga's ire. This, out here, this was child's play. Something he had no business engaging in.
He finished the last brush stroke, and Galo's hide was clean and beautiful again. Feeling an indescribable sense of disappointment, the young boy clambered to his feet, brushing ineffectively at the stains on his own robes. "I have to get home," he told Tarpas.
"Wesa helpen yousa get back."
"No." He shook his head. "No, I can find my own way." And he hurried past the tall Gungan before the humanoid could see the moisture gathering in the corners of his eyes. This was foolishness. He should not come back, even if he wanted to. His booted feet led him straight and true, with the strange sense that always guided him, and the swamp no longer frightened him. Ot when there was something worse that waited at home.
The taxi driver was still patiently waiting when he emerged from the swamps, covered in dirt and exhausted. Thankfully, no questions were asked as he slipped into the back seat and the driver took off for Theed.
From Theed, he managed to catch a ride in the back of a farmer's double-jointed speeder, without the farmer noticing, of course.
Unfortunately, it was impossible to get into Convergence without being noticed, since the dining room was centrally located and each of the main hallways crossed it. Sheev winced when he opened the front doors and was met with the disapproving scowls of his father's guards. The tallest one pointed at the dining room.
Another scoffed down at him. "Looks like you had a rough time there, kid."
Sheev glared at him and dragged himself past, unheeding of the trail of dirt and mud he was leaving behind on the gleaming stone floor. Convergence was dark by nature, lit with both artificial and natural torches, stone walls covered in ancient rugs and wall hangings, as Father always appreciated tradition. Shadows flickered across the walls as he walked, as though mocking him with shivering silent laughter.
When he reached the wide arched entry of the dining hall, Sheev winced and lowered his head.
"Where were you?" Father growled from his place at the head of the table. The entire family – why the entire family? – sat around the table in stony silence, Mother's head bowed and all of his siblings staring into their full plates, except for his closest brother who grinned mockingly at him.
Interloper, that grin said.
Sheev ignored him and lifted his head to meet his father's stormy eyes. "Out, Father."
Cosinga huffed. "One of your teachers, Bakro, saw you taking a taxi to the outskirts of the city."
Well. That teacher would be getting an unpleasant surprise before long, Sheev thought. There was no call to report on his movements like he was some criminal. Unless… unless Father had recruited the academic master to spy on his own son. Either possibility was equally depressing.
"I was exploring."
Cosinga's eyes narrowed with barely concealed rage. "Exploring? When I confined you to the house? You deliberately disobeyed me."
Sheev hid his flinch with a haughty toss of his shaggy red hair. "I was getting bored."
The chair rocked back on the stones with a clatter as Cosinga launched out of his seat. Sheev's brother laughed when the eldest son took a step back as the father rounded on him from the table's end.
Sheev's blood boiled at that laugh, and he froze in place. You don't belong, his brother's eyes mocked him. He hates you, you know.
Cosinga loomed over him. "Bored? You use a flimsy excuse like that to get your way?"
"Five days in one place is a long time, Father," Sheev spat, eyeing his snickering brother with utter loathing. "If it was up to you, I'd be stuck in there forever, wouldn't I? You don't care."
The slap caught him across the ear and sounded like thunder. Sheev cringed back, his hearing ringing, his balance upended, and he heard his mother softly gasp.
Cosinga reached down and gripped his thin arm like a vise, then he shook him roughly until Sheev stopped resisting. "Stupid fool. You'll learn your place, I promise you that. Look at you, looking like something a tooka dragged in. This is no way for a nobleman's son to behave. You embarrass me. In front of the guards. In front of my own family."
Sheev didn't answer for a moment. Wasn't he family too?
Cosinga sighed and stepped forward, never releasing his grip on Sheev's arm, and Sheev knew there were would be a fresh line of bruises in the morning, but that was the least of his concerns, because Cosinga leaned closer and hissed, "If confining you to quarters doesn't get my point across, I'll make it another way, Sheev. Get upstairs."
Resisting the urge to glance at his useless mother, Sheev lowered his head further. "I lost track of time, Father, that's all. I meant to be back earlier." That, at least, was true.
It made little difference. Cosinga shook his head. "You failed. You always fail. To listen. To do well. To do anything. I've been too easy on you, clearly." He lowered his deep voice to a hiss. "Get. Up. Stairs."
Sheev went. The tone of his father's voice was black with rage, echoing in his mind as he climbed the dark steps of the grand staircase and made his way to his cold room. Once inside, he loosed a shaky sigh and slid down against the far wall, not bothering to turn on the lights. He had gone too far. Father was angry, angry like he hadn't been in months and months. All because he wanted to play with a stupid animal….
He hadn't been thinking logically. Now he was going to pay for it.
No…. Father should be the one to pay… Sheev blinked. Where had that thought come from? It was not new, but he had buried it away for his own safety, just like the strange power that ran through his limbs.
But he should. You were perfectly in your right to go out. He isn't your owner. No one owns you… Someday they will all see that.
The door slammed open, and Sheev jerked his head up. Cosinga stood silhouetted in the doorframe, a long leather belt curling in his large hands, his heavy brows beetling with hot anger.
Sheev flattened his small hands against the cool floor.
"Get up," Cosinga growled.
This would hurt. He swallowed the whimper in the back of his throat. And got up.
Poor Sheev, life's a roller coaster sometimes. :( But at least he has Galo and Tarpas. For now.
I'm sorry for the long absence. Things have been happening, and life has gotten busy and complicated. I miss writing stories, as they are a source of enjoyment for me. I'm hoping to get back into writing more regularly again and continue my tales.