Chapter Fifteen:

Where We Learn the Dangers of Catching Up

The chamber was large and filled with tables. A counter separated what seemed to be a kitchen from the part with the tables. Aside from Daegen and Xesh, there was only a few others—all clustered over one table and engrossed in a game.

Xesh and Daegen had both retrieved trays with soup and some buns with a filling made of mushrooms, and took a spot on the other side of the room. Daegen also had tea on his. As soon as they were seated, Xesh turned his attention towards his food almost fully.

Even if so far experience dictated that no one on Tython would steal it or decide he had to give it back, he was not about to take risks just yet.

"I believe I need to retract what I've said about your skills as a conversationalist," Daegen said. Xesh tried to remember what that had been, since he couldn't ask. Well, he probably could have, but that would involve talking with his mouth full and that was just wasting food. "You do possess at least one crucial skill when it comes to communicating—you know when to be quiet."

By then, Xesh had swallowed what he'd been eating, and takes a moment to answer. "I'm not jealous."

It was something of a blatant lie—well, it really was an obvious, huge, blatant lie, but that was not a conversation he was going to have. If he did, maybe Daegen would change his mind and pick Vev after all.

Daegen sighed. "You are."

He really ought to have expected that. There was no point in lying if the person one was talking with could sense it. Well, it was too bad that he was eating again, then.

Daegen pinched the bridge of his nose. "You're not going to be reasonable, are you? I probably shouldn't have complimented you about your ability to be quiet." He was starting to sound demonstratively patient in a very strained way, which was probably a sign that the conversation was not going to end up forgotten if Xesh kept being stubborn long enough.

"Don't you want a better apprentice, though?" he asked. "One that isn't too old to be learning anyway, and grouchy, and-"

He didn't get to finish, which was probably for the best. If he'd continued, he'd have definitely said something stupid.

"No," Daegen said. "No, I don't want a 'better' apprentice. For one, I absolutely can't talk with children—and let's not even go into what most teenagers consider to be witty, shall we?" He paused, and took a sip of tea. "And you are not too old to learn. Generally, the only people too old to learn I know of are dead. As for your disposition, I'm sure you have some complaints about mine—it would be unfair of me to decide I should hold you to a higher standard than myself, wouldn't it?"

It all sounded really reasonable—maybe he really was worrying over nothing.

"Fine, I'll say it once—I do like you, boy," Daegen said. Xesh actually looked up, startled. "You didn't know, did you? Don't answer that—we wouldn't be having this conversation—or well, I wouldn't be talking so much right now, if you had known."

That... was definitely not what he thought he'd hear. Not that it wasn't nice to know—it was, because he really didn't think he was that likeable at all, but...

"We would—I don't see how that makes me a better apprentice than someone you think of as intelligent or- I don't know, whatever else you think is important," he said.

"Well, we interact on a daily basis," Daegen said. "I'd rather do that with someone I like." He took another sip of his tea. "All that aside, apprentices aren't exactly toys—you don't pick one and trade them for a different one depending on your fancy. If someone decides that they're going to teach another person about the Force, then they make a commitment towards their apprentice that they ought to uphold, regardless of any new shiny opportunities."

That sounded even stranger—it just didn't seem like that sort of things should apply to him. Not that he would have been able to say why that should only apply to others or... well, no, he could guess why he'd think that.

It never did matter before. He had been Tul'kar's Force Hound because he was strong in the Force and a capable fighter. True, if Tul'kar had decided he hated him, he would have killed him—but if he saw a better candidate, he would have gotten rid of Xesh regardless if he liked him or just tolerated him.

Except of course, he was no longer in the Infinite Empire and their rules didn't apply here. If they had, Daegen wouldn't have bothered keeping his word about giving him chocolate for getting things right—he definitely had found that annoying.

"I'm sorry. I shouldn't have doubted that," he said. Or well, muttered. It wasn't that he was bad at apologizing, but well, he wasn't apologizing to his master and he was feeling like a complete idiot.

At least he was an idiot who was not going to get traded for a better model.

"I'll say this once—don't get too used to it," Daegen replied. Xesh looked up because he actually felt uncertain now. It was weird. "I didn't give you any reason to think that you weren't just a chore. Even after I realized that you think of yourself as of an asset rather as of a person. And for that, I apologize. You have nothing to feel sorry for."

Vev had stayed in the same room—Noortje and Sanaa had gone to get the food. She hadn't liked waiting, but she had only thought that maybe she should have protested once they had left. Fortunately, they had not been gone long and had brought really nice food—noodles with pieces of meat and vegetables, and some sort of treats made from fruit.

"You know, no one is going to take that away from you," Sanaa said, as Vev was cramming all the noodles into her mouth. "You can slow down—all things considered, it'd be a bit embarrassing if you'd choke on noodles."

Vev stopped eating for a moment. Well, obviously, no one would take her food from her. She had a knife nearby. On the other hand, Knight Noortje was much bigger than Vev, and she and Sanaa were both Force-sensitive so they could just push it away before she grabbed it. Or snatch something from her plate.

"It would be, so I won't," she said and stuffed another forkfull into her mouth. Besides, she couldn't be sure they'd keep giving her food this nice, once they were satisfied they learned all the could from her. She really should start planning ahead on convincing them that this wouldn't be the end of her usefulness.

There had to be a way, since they seemed to have taken Xesh in—maybe she should ask him? But she couldn't know if he'd tell her. So, first, she'd have to think a way of convincing Xesh to help her. Which probably meant making sure that the tall man wasn't too interested in her.

"Um, who was he?" she asked, and then, because Sanaa and Knight Noortje were giving her confused looks, clarified, "The tall man? With the gold things here," she indicated her earlobes, "the one who's... um... annoying?"

"Daegen Lok, from the Temple of Science," knight Noortje said. "I don't really know that much about him—he's... one of the possible candidates for the next Master of Science."

That... had turned out to be even more confusing. "What science?"

Knight Noortje and Sanaa exchanged looks. "Are you asking about which sciences are practiced in the Temple of Science, or about Master Lok specifically?"

"Both," Vev said. The more she knew, the better, after all.

"Well, for the Temple of Science as a whole, they do mathematics, physics, chemistry and derivatives of those," Knight Noortje said, "biology and sub-disciplines. As for Master Lok, I've no clue."

"Neuroscience," Sanaa said.

Vev was still unsure what to think. Was Xesh's brain in any way special? Although, no, he was supposed to learn from that man. Which probably meant that he'd have to learn everything from scratch, because a Force Hound needed to know where a brain was and how to stab it, and not much else about them.

Clearly, she was not going to figure this out on her own. "So, why is he teaching Xesh?"

Knight Noortje shrugged and looked to Sanaa.

"Well, he didn't have an apprentice and I guess having had one looks good on your resume," Sanaa eventually said. He didn't sound convinced though.

Vev wasn't sure why he found this unconvincing, but she supposed he'd know better being native and all. Perhaps, she'd just have to ask this Daegen Lok.

Somebody was bound to ask that question sooner or later—Daegen was aware of that. And naturally, the little bundle of tact and compassion in front of him did it with Xesh around, just after they managed to probably sort out the whole thing about Daegen not wanting another apprentice.

"Because I'm such a sparkling conversationalist and I have a winning personality," Xesh said. Perhaps, they did sort the matter permanently after all.

Vev turned to look at him with an expression of someone who'd just been bitten by cotton candy. "I know for a fact you once managed to only say 'Yes, master' for a whole day. Once. That had been all you've said. Nothing else. At all."

"I was saving up words because you keep stealing them from me," Xesh replied.

The young woman stared at him, her expression going from shock to outrage and then she seemed to have caught Daegen's smirk, because she pointed at him accusingly.

"You did this! You made a bet with someone that you can make him more- more-" She threw up her hands in the air.

"Absolutely," Daegen said, given that the idea was just outrageously silly. And he could feel Xesh's amusement at the situation. "That is exactly what happened, isn't it, Xesh?"

"Yes," he said. Sometimes, the boy's tendency to frown most of the time was very useful.

Vev stared at them for a while, until it seemed to dawn on her that neither of them was being serious. She started almost literally fuming then, and Daegen supposed it was time to at least make an attempt at defusing the situation.

"Out of all lesser Masters in the Temple of Science, I was the one with most experience without a an apprentice," he said. "Therefore, the logical choice."

"But why the Temple of Science?" Vev asked. "He's a fighter."

"Which means we don't have to teach him how to fight, child," Daegen replied patiently. That seemed to be at least a partially satisfying answer, although the young woman didn't appear to be entirely convinced.

"Just ask what you really want to know," Xesh said. He seemed to be getting exasperated by now.

Vev hesitated, as if intending to protest, before deciding against it. "What are you planning to do with me?"

"Unless the Temple Masters decide otherwise, we will try to teach you how to use the Force correctly," Daegen replied. Predictably, the young woman looked indignant.

"No," she said. "Xesh may have let you- I don't know what you did with him, but he's weaker now. I can sense it. You're not doing it to me."

Daegen wondered if this was the point when things would blow up. He felt a spike of anger from Xesh, just like when Master Rajivari had made the same observation, but it didn't seem like the presumed insult would be enough to provoke him.

Their world was changing. True, the harbingers of change could have been more impressive, but one could not have all. In any case, neither of the children were of true importance. The Council might pretend that they were, but they all knew that the value they truly represented lay in the knowledge of the Infinite Empire and of the Force they had.

For all his flaws, Daegen Lok should have seen this. But it seemed that instead he chose to waste their opportunity and play saviour.

It was a pity. As it was a pity that Rajivari could not see any way of learning more about how the Force Hounds used the Force and making them into productive members of society. He was not a cruel man—but he saw that for the good of the whole, sometimes individuals needed to suffer.

And truly, even with all the help they could provide, it didn't appear as if Xesh or Vev would ever be fully free from their past. Why not let them serve a greater goal?

Was it not all a sign that he had always been right? This Infinite Empire was a source of suffering, while Tython was an oasis of harmony. Surely, anyone that was not blind could see that with them ruling, there would be no Force Hounds.

Perhaps even one of them would agree. Pity that the more selfless one had forgone his old training. The girl would require a different approach.

He would wait and see what exactly he would have that would appeal to her at the end of the day.

Vev could see that her last words were having an effect. It was not the effect she had hoped though—the tall man appeared to be clinically interested in her again, and Xesh only got angry.

"And what does being stronger give you?" Xesh asked. "It didn't free me. It didn't free any Force Hound—we're here now because of coincidence."

"The weak die," Vev snapped. "Have you forgotten?"

"Everything dies," Daegen pointed out mildly.

"All the more reason not to do it sooner than you have to," she insisted heatedly.

"Why?" asked the infuriating human. "Why do you fear dying?

"It hurts, and once you're dead, there's nothing left- and everyone is afraid of it!" she answered, as confused as she was angry. "Aren't you?"

"No, not particularly," Daegen answered. "The process itself might be unpleasant, but once I am dead, it will not matter, will it?" Which was just disgustingly reasonable, but Vev never got to say that was not the point, because he simply went on to the next point. "As for ceasing to exist—that is not entirely true. You should know it, child. I could give you examples of being remembered, of legacies and such—but that is not what you are afraid of, is it?"

Vev shook her head. That was—well, what would it matter if people remembered her or things she did, if she was dead?

"You will not be entirely gone, ever," he said, sounding perfectly certain. "Nothing ever stops existing completely—it merely changes form. Eons ago, the matter from which your body was formed—from which the world where were born was formed—had been a newborn star. Matter becomes energy. And it's the same with your consciousness—once, it was part of the Force, and after you die, it will be so again."

It almost did sound comforting. Like there really was nothing to be afraid of.

"How do you know?" she asked. "You're not dead."

"Astute observation," Daegen replied dryly. "I sensed it. Perhaps you paid no attention to it, because you were too per-occupied or too afraid."

Vev could have tried arguing—but to be completely truthful, the subject was making her uncomfortable and the fact that Daegen seemed so unruffled by it was only making her even more uneasy.

"We moved from the subject—what if I don't want to learn from you?" she asked.

Daegen gave her a look that seemed to be all exasperation. "Then you will have to find a job. Consider what you can do carefully—you might not have noticed, but we don't need bodyguards all that much."

He didn't have to sound like he thought she was absolutely useless save for this one thing.

"Maybe that's the only thing Xesh is good for, but I could..." she paused and frowned. What else could she do?

"That's not all I'm good for," Xesh replied, because some people had no respect for when others were trying to think. "I'm decorative too."

"Yes, charming," Daegen snorted. "Especially when you're trying to glare holes into someone's back."

Vev was starting to wonder if this was some sort of a mysterious Force-thing or maybe a no less mysterious person-thing. You got two people, and something went 'click' and suddenly they were some sort of an obnoxious two-person act where what one said fuelled the other and on it went.

"Do you think you're funny?" she snapped in her frustration.

"That would mean I have a sense of humour," Xesh said, perfectly serious. "Am I?" He then, of course, asked Daegen.

"I've been told my sense of humour should be banned," Daegen replied.

"Yes, well, why isn't it?" Vev asked—or really her frustration did. She regretted it almost immediately. This had to be a test of some sort. And she definitely should not have shown her frustration.

"I suppose others do find it amusing," Daegen answered. "What do you think, Xesh?"

She had expected more of the same, but apparently either there was a limit to how long Xesh could manage being that irritating or there was something she was missing, since he said, "It's a stupid thing to ban."

The whole conversation had been nothing but an exercise in frustration—and that was when she realized why. Obviously, since she refused learning from them, she was denying them a form of control over her. So, this man was using the conversation with Xesh as a means of asserting that he was above her in status. And, possibly Xesh as well, given that he was clearly one of them now.

Well, it was time to remind them how everything really looked like.

"My point still stands," she said. "You're still weaker now, Xesh. I could have killed you many times over when we were children—I chose not to, because you were useful. It's the same now—I can kill you, but I don't want to. And I could kill this man too and you wouldn't be able to stop me. But I don't want to."

"Perhaps you want to think about what you just said, and rephrase it?" Daegen Lok said, while rubbing his forehead in a very theatrical manner. He didn't sound impressed or cowed. Just weary.

"No, I said exactly what I meant to say," she replied, although all of a sudden she was no longer feeling all that certain she did have a chance. Yes, Xesh felt weaker but that was not the same as weak. And so far she had been not factoring Daegen Lok in her assessment—he had been giving her openings too many times to count as a danger... Unless it was intentional and-

And she had been meant to assume they were less dangerous than they really were. They were meant to seem weaker than they really were and she fell for it.

"I think we're done catching up," Xesh said to Daegen Lok, and Vev knew she definitely had failed at something.