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Chapter 6

Gravity was a cruel mistress. During the course of his training in the ways of the Force and the standard Jedi arts, Malfon had taken more than one painful tumble. To most Padawans, using the Force to propel the body further or make it run faster was not a natural skill. Whenever Malfon tried to manipulate the force of gravity around him to enable him to jump higher and stay in the air longer, he often ended up in a ragged mess on the floor. However, he was getting better – he could tell.

Sitting on the ground near the center of the training circle, Malfon had his eyes closed and his hands resting on his legs. Taking deep, drawn-out breaths, he did everything he could to drown out everything around him: Raystin was playing chess with Olnara, Harada was repairing a floating combat drone he had broken, and Lythi'arane was watching him. Their chatter was still just barely audible, incoherent though it was, and it was beginning to intermingle with the soft whispers of air around him. One-by-one, he relinquished control of his senses and allowed the Force to fill him as if he was an empty jar.

And then, in an instant, his senses were revitalized. Engulfed in its unmistakable energy, the Force provided him with a different perspective. His eyesight rippled with colors that were undefinable in the standard spectrum, representing such oddities as mass and Force power. His nose smelled everything from the polish on the brass chess pieces to the rank odor from his robes, his ears could hear Jedi sparring some four rooms over, and he could feel the tiniest disturbance against the hairs on his arms. The Force showed Malfon a larger picture of his universe; he only wished he could see it without having to meditate for so long first.

At Lythi's urging, Malfon took an active role in his mediation. Instead of allowing the Force to simply flow through him, he reached out and controlled the course it took. Directing it in and around his body, Malfon weakened the pull of gravity around him. Sweating, he underestimated just how much focus it took to achieve the level of concentration necessary to weaken one of the essential bonds of the universe. Slowly but surely, Malfon's entire body lifted from the ground. His body assumed a steady levitation about a meter above the ground, still in a meditative pose, as Lythi's looked on with a smile.

“Not bad,” the Twi'lek mused. “But let's see if you can handle this!”

Using the Force to call a small metal orb from a pile in the corner of the room, Lythi hurled the sphere at Malfon while he was ensuring his levitation would hold. Had he not been so immersed in the Force, Malfon would have taken the orb to the head. However, in his current state, the quickly thrown ball seemed to take minutes just to reach him. Assisted by the dilated time around him, Malfon called upon the Force and telekinetically snatched the ball mid-flight. As though he had become the star to that tiny metal planetoid, Malfon guided the projectile into a harmless orbit around himself.

“Why did you do that? If he hadn't caught it, you would have given him a concussion,” Raystin noted from his seat at the edge of the room.

“Well, he caught it, didn't he?” Lythi replied with a hint of anger in her voice.

“So he did. But you needn't put him in danger needlessly.”

“I have faith in him.” Lythi waved her hand as though to brush off his words. “You should too.”

Raystin shook his head and continued the chess game. Lythi, satisfied with her justification and Raystin's lack of response, decided to continue her training plan. Lifting nearly a dozen of the metal orbs from their place, she allowed them to float in a wide circle around her. Using the Force to propel their telekinetic path, she allowed them to spin faster and faster around her until they were whipping the lekku on the back of her head upward.

“You ready, Malfon?” she shouted.

Malfon sent a telepathic confirmation.

“Here they come!”

In that same moment, she released all the metal spheres in a tangential path straight for Malfon. Of course, no matter how many spheres there were and how quickly they were released, the Force became Malfon's mighty shield. Monitoring each of the balls as they came toward him simultaneously, he caught each one in a sort of telekinetic net, disrupting the projectile's trajectory and slowing it to a halt. In the time it took for Lythi to blink, Malfon had caught all of the spheres thrown at him and moved them into a serene collection of orbits around his body.

“See, Raystin? He's a natural!”

“Just… be more mindful of his safety next time,” Raystin said with a sigh.

“It's no trouble, Raystin,” Malfon said, releasing himself from his meditation. “I was never in any danger.”

“Not entirely true,” Harada piped up from his repairs. “If your focus had been disrupted, you could have been grievously hurt.”

“So I'm just lucky a Jedi Master didn't come in here, or a droid didn't bump into me?” Malfon joked.

“Luck is just the Force in disguise,” Raystin replied. “Besides, your focus is good, but not perfect. Don't put yourself in harm's way just for training's sake, Malfon.”

Malfon nodded and released his control of the orbs around him, slowly, so that they fell to the ground before he did. Rising from his place, he began picking up the metal orbs with Lythi's help.

“Hey, Lythi, are you up for some lightsaber practice?” Olnara asked.

“Sure. But aren't you playing chess with Raystin?”

“He just beat me.” The Kel Dor rubbed her dark eyepiece with her gnarled hands. “But I'm not going to lose against you!”

“Spirited as ever,” Raystin noted. “Would you like to play chess, Malfon?”

Malfon placed a few of the orbs he had picked up back into the pile. “I'm afraid I don't know how to play.”

“Nonsense! Everyone can play-”

“But not as good as Raystin,” Harada noted wryly.

Raystin gave him a bemused look. “I'm certainly not the best. But if I'm skilled enough to impart my talent to others, that is enough.”

“Just play a round,” Lythi grumbled, dumping the rest of the orbs into the pile. “He won't let you hear the end of his idealistic banter if you don't.”

“It's not idealistic banter; it's fact!”

Lythi rolled her eyes. “Okay, Raystin. Come on, Olnara. Get your training staff.”

Malfon brushed the grime from the metal orbs off his hands and sat down at the table opposite of Raystin. The older Jedi had already set up the checkered board and returned the decorative pieces to their proper pregame locations, saving Malfon quite a bit of work. As Raystin went about describing each piece, its function, its value, and its range of movement, Malfon did his best to absorb the rules of the game. The more Raystin described it, the less monotonous it sounded and the more impassioned he became, as though this game was his life on a board. It was almost enough to make Malfon laugh aloud.

The two started playing a minute or so after Raystin had gone over the last of the rules. While the hordes of pawns began shuffling their way around the board, Malfon's scoured their surroundings for regions to manipulate and pieces to take. Of course, that was easier said than done, because Raystin himself was a masterful player and could see – and create – openings before Malfon even realized they were there. In a matter of minutes, Malfon had lost nearly all of his valuable pieces.

“You lost,” Raystin said, pointing toward the queen and bishop that had pinned down his king.

Malfon could scarcely believe it. “Once more!” he shouted.

He heard Lythi laughing behind them as Raystin set up the pieces for another match. No doubt she enjoyed the fact that Malfon had been suckered into playing – and eventually losing – several games against Raystin while the rest of them trained or attended to some other chores. Glancing back, he watched her duel against Olnara for a few minutes while Raystin finished the pregame work. As expected, the blue-skinned Twi'lek was beating her Kel Dor opponent quite soundly, but they were both having fun with it. Harada had discarded his repair work and became a referee for their match, making sure the two women didn't accidentally hurt themselves too badly.

“So, Malfon,” Raystin said as they started their next game, “tell me. Why doesn't North come join us?”

“I'm… I'm actually not sure,” Malfon replied without looking up. “He enjoys spending time with the library. I suspect he'd petition for his quarters to be there if he could.”

“Is that all?” Raystin took one of Malfon's knights. “He doesn't talk with us much even inside the library, either.”

“He's a bit reserved around some people,” Malfon added.

“I supposed as much. Well, we'll try to be as accommodating as we can. I'd really like to spend time with him, but it's difficult.”

“I know. I'll try to convince him to join us.”

“Would you, Malfon? I'd appreciate that, and I'm sure the others would as well.”

Malfon nodded and glanced down at the chessboard, only to realize – to his horror – that his king was in checkmate again. Raystin chuckled at the face he made, and Malfon couldn't help but glare at him with mock indignation. Of course, even without reading his mind, Raystin knew exactly what that look meant. Scooping the pieces leftover away from the board, he moved to set up another round.

*** ***

Malfon left the training chambers several hours later. After having played more than twenty matches against Raystin and losing every single one, he was mentally exhausted and tired of chess. Much to Lythi's delight and Raystin's disappointment, Malfon vowed never to play the game again. As Harada and Lythi went to attend to their master's lessons and Raystin journeyed to the Council chambers, Malfon found himself alone with Olnara. The Kel Dor Padawan helped Malfon put away the last of their training equipment before she too excused herself. With nothing left to do, Malfon ventured out in search of his master.

On other days, Malfon would have not bothered. In fact, he would have done everything in his power to avoid Rell Hernaster's presence for as long as he could. However, he had not seen his master in several days, and he did not recall the Jedi Council sending him on a mission. There were always days when Malfon and Rell went their separate ways, but there was often a warning beforehand. His spirits were high after spending time with his friends, and Malfon was eager to show his master all that he had accomplished – and what he was capable of accomplishing.

Wandering the Jedi Sanctum for some time, Malfon asked around for his master's whereabouts. As expected, the first few Jedi he asked were of little help; after talking to several more Jedi, he learned that Rell Hernaster had taken a short pilgrimage across Coruscant, but he was last seen several kilometers from the Sanctum itself, in the government district, and would be back within the next day or so.

It was very unlike any Jedi, much less his master, to leave the Jedi Sanctum for any reason beyond official Jedi business. Reflecting on his courses of action, Malfon decided that he was unwilling to wait the short time until Rell returned to the Sanctum. He had much to tell his master, and his excitement overcame any patience he had. Venturing to his room, he threw his dark cloak over his robes and snatched a few rations and his vibrosword, placing them on his belt. He informed only the gate guard of his journey, and then he was off.

Without credits, Malfon could not take advantage of the public transportation that operated throughout Coruscant's upper city. Although he was initially reticent about the idea, he eventually decided that walking was the only way he was going to get anywhere. Most Coruscant natives and visitors knew of the Jedi and their Order, but few had seen one. As Malfon navigated the bustling pedestrian walkways of the capital, he was greeted by a thousand eyes staring back at him. Species of all sort wanted to see the strange young man in his humble robes and flowing cloak, with sword at his waist and emotionless face. Despite their curiosity, very few said anything to him, leaving him free to travel in peace.

Sky traffic was even louder in this place than it was inside the Sanctum. Civilian paths stretched between buildings and around landmarks, forcing pedestrians to walk above and below the lanes of hovercars. Engine exhaust spewed forth from older vehicles, coloring the air a strange blue-brown and reeking of burning fuel. Occasionally, a careless or inebriated driver got dangerously close to the walkways themselves, causing civilians to dive for cover as the winds picked up around them and the car drove by wildly. Malfon did his best to avoid the most crowded areas, taking back streets and using low pathways whenever possible. It took longer, but he was willing to trade time for safety.

“Spare a few credits, sir?”

Malfon's eyes drifted toward his left. An aged female, belonging to some canine species that Malfon had never seen, waved one of her lean arms at him. She was the first passer-by to speak with him; whether she called on him out of desperation or because she knew of his Jedi status and what it entailed, he did not know. She was incredibly thin for her size, but Malfon suspected that if she stood up, she would have towered over him. She was missing several teeth, and the arm she kept in her lap seemed to have a sort of gangrenous growth that stained her flesh in thick blotches of green and black.

“I have no credits, I'm afraid,” Malfon replied, taking a few steps toward her.

“Perhaps some food, then? I haven't eaten in days…”

She rubbed her emaciated stomach as if to emphasize the fact. Malfon winced. He could see her ribs beneath the thin layer of dry fur on her chest, and her stomach looked as though it had collapsed on itself. Almost immediately, Malfon reached for his belt and pulled out a few packets of food.

“I have a few of these. Their texture is rather chalky, and they're not very filling, but they're chewable and they provide plenty of necessary vitamins.”

She graciously took the packets he offered. Opening them with the yellow claws on her good hand, she swallowed the contents of one bag whole. Her voracity alarmed the young Jedi, but he did his best to hide it. Swallowing the last bits of the tiny rations, she bowed her head once she had finished.

“Thank you, kind sir. You have helped me live another day.”

“It was my pleasure. Is there anything else I could do for you?”

She shook her head slowly. “No credits, right? Then no. Food is quite enough for now. There's water nearby, and I have enough blankets to keep warm.”

“Are you here often?”

“I am. If I walk for too long, the rheumatism in my legs becomes crippling.”

“My name is Malfon; I'm a Jedi. If you're still here, and you need anything, I'd be glad to bring you whatever you need.”

Her dark eyes sparkled. “To receive such an offer is humbling. I am called Aethals. I do not have very many days left in my spirit, but I thank you for your generosity all the same.”

Malfon smiled. “It's my duty. Think nothing of it. I'm going to the Senate district right now; when I return, I'll bring you a few dozen credits. Is that all right?”

“Oh yes. Take your time. I look forward to your return, young Jedi.”

Malfon bowed slightly, and the old lupine returned the simple gesture. Before long, Malfon had reentered the crowd of otherwise faceless sentients, venturing out in search of his master yet again. His mind raced with questions. Aethals had never seen a Jedi before. The Jedi Sanctum was practically visible from where she sat, at the corner of a pedestrian path and a towering building, and yet no Jedi had ever seen her. Not a member of the Jedi Order traveled and found her, helped her, and eased some of her pain. His mind quickly jumped to extremes, thinking of the thousands – no, millions of impoverished and homeless scattered around the capital planet, those whom the Jedi had not helped.

Even considering the idea angered him. If the Jedi did not help those who were closest to them, mere kilometers from their abode, how could they venture so far and hope to help anyone else? How much could Coruscant be improved by the Jedi merely focusing inward instead of outward? Had anyone suffered or died from Jedi inaction? Jedi negligence? The more he thought about it, the more furious he became. The Jedi Order had the power to help anyone it pleased, and yet it left the weakest alone. Almost at once, he began to hate himself. He had been saved by the Jedi only because they had ventured into the farthest reaches of the galaxy in search of wrong-doers instead of tending to the troubles nearest to them.

Was his plight any greater than those on Coruscant?

His mind wrestled with these questions but found no answers. The fact that his own salvation could have proved to be the death of many others around the galaxy disturbed him deeply. Shaken as he was, he did not quite care – or realize – that he had entered the Senate district. The crowds dispersed in this place, giving way to the wide courtyards replete with towering statues of ancient men and women and great columns etched with the names of dead and missing soldiers from millennia of wars. In this place, large pools reflected the sun's noonday light atop their clear waters and brown-armored Senate guardsmen monitored travelers carefully. Many around him were quiet, as lost in their thoughts as he, as they progressed down the glimmering avenues of Coruscant's political district.

The Senate building, as ancient as the Galactic Republic itself, stood between Malfon and Coruscant's midday sun, casting a wide shadow over the entire district. The building itself had been damaged during the last war, and the Republic decided to build and dedicate a new building as a way to demonstrate their resolve and newfound strength. This new structure – planned to be a wide rotunda that would dwarf their current one in size and grandeur – would be built to the west of the current building. It would take at least ten years to complete; the foundations were only now being set up and the necessary supplies being gathered.

Malfon walked across the large district and headed east, where he could see the Admiralty Plaza and the Army High Command tower above smaller buildings in the distance. He had been wandering aimlessly for some time, not quite eager to scour this entire area for his teacher but also unwilling to give up just yet. Bypassing several civilian housing units and spacer apartments, Malfon entered the industrial sector of the upper city, commonly known as the Old City. Construction complexes, hulking spires, and massive generators loomed overhead, dominating the skyline with bursts of energy and outpouring dark smoke. The simplistic and practical-minded design of these buildings stood in obvious contrast to the glittering towers and vaunted architecture of the other areas of the cityscape.

As his nostrils picked up the tang of oily residue and superheated metal, his Force senses alerted him to the presence of a Force-sensitive nearby. Spinning on one foot, Malfon saw his master in the distance, standing just inside an arch that served as the main entryway to the Old City. Briskly jogging over to his teacher, Malfon noticed that Rell had not noticed him and was entirely focused on the arch and the inscriptions on it. From where he stood, Malfon could not read the Aurebesh text, but it seemed to begin at both ends of the archway and extend all the way to what would have been the keystone at the top.

Although hesitant at first, Malfon took the last few steps toward his master, effectively standing less than a meter behind him. Rell still did not notice him, his eyes straight ahead as if they could bore through the metal before him.

“Master?”

Rell did not even flinch. “Ah… Malfon. I had not expected you.”

“What are you doing?”

The Jedi Knight didn't reply. Instead, he lifted one hand and waved for Malfon to join him. The Padawan did so, standing side-by-side with his master. He only quickly looked at his master, and he immediately noticed just how tired he looked. His eyes were clouded, lost in thought, and the wrinkles lining his face were all the more prominent in the dim lights of the Old City. The frayed robes he wore only seemed to compound to his aged, haggard appearance. Embarrassed for staring, Malfon quickly shifted his gaze.

“This archway,” Rell began, waving one of his hands in a grand flourish, “is one of the largest in the galaxy. Largest on Coruscant, at any rate. A marvel of engineering, or so it has been said. This thing was constructed nearly thirty years ago by my father.”

Malfon eyed his master again. He had never spoken about his family, much less his father, during the course of the ten years that they had known each other. Then again, Malfon said little of his life before he joined the Jedi Order – what little he remembered – so perhaps it was only fair.

“Your father, Master?”

The Jedi Knight nodded slowly. “Orbarth Hernaster: founder of Centiplex Energy, richest man in the galaxy for many years, and something of a celebrity across the Core Worlds.”

“You… you're from a famous family,” Malfon managed to say.

“So I am.”

“You… didn't tell me earlier.”

“It was not important. It still is not important.”

“I disagree. You may be a Jedi now, Master, but that does not mean your family life is pointless. I would think it would be more-”

“Do you know how I became a Jedi, Malfon?”

Malfon shook his head. The fact that they were talking at all was a new occurrence; he was surprised his master was being as forthright as he was. “Not a clue.”

“I was the only child born to my father. My mother coddled me as though the universe's existence depended on my happiness; however, my father showed no such joy in my upbringing. Even as a young child, I remember being pampered and spoiled like you could not even imagine. Any description I could give would fall short. Despite my father's general aloofness, he gave me everything I wanted – and more. For the first five years of my childhood, I lived in absolute splendor.”

Rell sighed aloud. Malfon could sense something of an ease coming from him, as though telling Malfon these things relieved him of a great burden. Saying nothing, Rell approached the arch and laid a single hand on the cool metal above him, his palm traveling across the text before stopping just above his chest. Only the sound of laboring machinery and flowing energy kept the silence at bay, and Malfon watched his master with a sort of confused helplessness. He had no words, and the Jedi Knight was obviously lost in thought. Shaking his head, Rell stepped away from the arch and continued.

“I was sent to the Jedi when I was about your age. My mother fought, screamed, cried, and begged for me to remain with my family. My father would have none of it. He dragged me from my zoo, shooed my personal servants and couriers away, and had droids fetch my best clothes before bringing me into his office.

“Do you know what he told me? He said, 'Boy, I have wasted a vast fortune on you. Do you know how you can live so comfortably? I toiled for the entirety of my childhood, young adult, and middle age to ensure that I will never suffer under the sting of poverty. Now, I can claim to be the greatest man in the universe. When I die, do you know what will happen? All these people in our house will hate you. All of my clients, friends, and advisers will hate you. My entire family will hate you. And do you know why?

“'They do not respect you. They do not now, and they never will. You will be, forever, the boy who was raised on the fortune of his father. My servants respect me, but I cannot command them to give such a thing to you. My guards fear me, but they have no such emotion for you. My network of associates enjoy my company, but they will despise you. I could find you the finest woman in the galaxy, but she would not love you; she would love you for the wealth I have imparted on you.

“'You will not become famous on my account. I am sending you to the Jedi Order for training. There, you will learn the sting of poverty. You will experience hate, toil, and helplessness. They will work you, and they will ensure you are trained, in mind and body. Here, you wanted for nothing; there, you will want everything but be given nothing. That will be your life. You will receive none of my wealth, even when should I die unless…'”

“Unless?” Malfon found himself whispering.

“If I became more famous than him before he died, becoming the most legendary Jedi in the history of the Order, he would allow me to return to his home and impart all of his wealth onto me.”

Malfon stared at his master. He could not believe it. For once, Malfon felt sympathy toward his master. In spite of his stern demeanor and anger, the Jedi Knight had been rejected by the people that loved him at such a young age. He had been pampered and spoiled with riches instead of being treated with love and care. He never wanted to be a Jedi; perhaps he still didn't. Malfon felt a lump rise in his throat at the thought of his master's pain; he wanted to say something encouraging, but he had no words. He cast his head down, barely missing Rell Hernaster's gaze.

“What happened?” Malfon asked softly.

“He died ten years ago today. His company was deftly sued for trillions upon trillions of credits. Charges of extortion, bribery, monopolistic practices, consortium, smuggling, slavery, misappropriating funds… his company is in the hands of thousands of sentients now. Any wealth he had no longer exists. My mother died several years ago. Killed herself, apparently. Spice and alcohol can only inhibit so much pain.”

“Master, I… I'm so sorry. I didn't-”

“I didn't expect you to know, Padawan. I just…” For the first time in a long time, Rell hesitated not out of anger, but because he genuinely did not know what to say. “He wanted this arch to symbolize his revitalization of Coruscant's industrial sector. Reinforce the capital's economy until it dwarfed all other planets by comparison. As you can imagine, his plan never came to fruition.”

“And now all that's left is this archway,” Malfon noted solemnly.

“Indeed.”

“So why do you come here, then?”

Rell scoffed. “I'm not sure myself. I think my reasoning is twofold. For one, I could not see this thing inaugurated, all those years ago, because I was still being trained as a Padawan. He was so close to me, but he didn't even invite me… didn't even see me. So I come here to rectify the fact I missed it then. On the other hand, I think I come here to see what remains of Orbarth Hernaster and his legacy. He was right: his legacy is not mine to inherit.”

“You have a greater destiny, Master.”

“Perhaps…”

“You do! You are a Jedi. Yours is far greater than any businessman or multiquintillionaire!”

Rell's eyes escaped the arch and ventured toward Malfon. Although he could not tell what his master was thinking, he wished he could. The Jedi Knight betrayed no emotion; he gave his Padawan an empty stare that could have meant anything. Malfon reddened at the thought of saying something stupid or offensive, especially after his master had opened up to him like he did. He tried to stammer an apology, but Rell simply held up his hand to silence him.

“You're right. Come. We've spent enough time here.”

Malfon stayed entrenched in his position for some time. Staring at the majestic gateway his master's father had constructed, he pondered what had driven Orbarth to drive his son away. Was it greed? Apathy? Or did he honestly think he was doing what was best for his son? Malfon had lost his family before he even had a chance to cherish them, and he could not begin to imagine the line of thinking that would cause someone to forcibly separate from their children. He was so caught up in the thought of Orbarth's decision that he didn't even realize that Rell had returned to his side.

“Malfon.”

“I know, Master.”

Rell again turned away from the arch and began the long walk toward the Jedi Sanctum. This time, Malfon abandoned his place and joined the Jedi Knight, walking a few paces behind him. The Jedi Knight said nothing during their journey through the Senate district, so Malfon was equally quiet. The crowds were becoming smaller and smaller, especially now that the afternoon was dragging on and the winds had picked up.

Despite his reservations, Malfon had to say something. Just one more thing. If he could just speak his mind for an instant, he would be satisfied with himself.

“Master.”

“What is it?”

“I'm…” he paused, unsure of his master's future reaction. “I'm proud to have you as my Jedi trainer, and I'm glad you selected me as your Padawan.”

Rell did not respond. In fact, he redoubled his pace. Malfon tried to keep up, but his dejected spirit kept him from actually trying. He kicked himself for being so foolish. He should have just kept quiet. Even if he said what he was thinking, he shouldn't have expected Rell to respond in kind. Now, separated from his master by a few meters, Malfon was content with lingering behind, following his master at a distance. It was what he deserved, he supposed.

The two Jedi walked for some time without stopping, talking, or otherwise acknowledging the other. Even though Malfon tried to keep his thoughts focused inward, there was an emotional turmoil within his master, and his thoughts were radiating in the Force enough to disturb Malfon, but not enough for him to glean what the Jedi Knight was thinking. It was strange; Rell was normally quite capable of keeping his thoughts hidden. Of course, Malfon said nothing – he had said enough.

“Hello again.”

Malfon jumped. He had been so caught up in himself and his master's dealings that it took a second greeting to snap him out of his introspection. He did not even realize that he had wandered all the way back to the old lupine, Aethals, who had been waiting for him to return. She had a warm smile on her face in spite of her physical ailments and her surroundings, and she waved to him. Malfon could not help but gasp. He had promised to give her a few credits on his way back, but he had totally forgotten to ask his master for the allowance he had worked up.

He waved back. Approaching, he prepared to tell her that he was sorry for the delay, and that he had no credits with him. He would admit to being unprepared and dishonest, but he would bring credits as soon as he was able. However, before he could go about apologizing for his absent-mindedness, Rell joined him near the homeless female.

“You are Aethals, correct?” his master inquired.

“That is I. And you are?”

“My name is Rell Hernaster. I am a Jedi Knight, and Malfon's master. I believe my Padawan promised you some credits to spend. Here you are – two hundred credits. That should be enough for the time being?”

The old woman's eyes lit up. “Two hundred credits? Why… why yes! That is quite generous of you. Thank you. Thank you both! I cannot repay your kindness with anything but words, so please accept my humble offering of thanksgiving as payment. You have kept this old wanderer alive for a little while longer with your charity.”

Rell nodded. “Your thanks is unnecessary. We are Jedi. We are here to help you.”

“Even so-”

“Either myself or Malfon will see that you are cared for. Do not fear. You will not want for anything for as long as you live here on Coruscant.”

“I do not know what deigned you and your disciple to look upon me with such kindness, but I… I…”

Aethals covered her face in an effort to hide her tears. She mouthed several 'thank yous', but most of them were lost behind quiet sobs. Malfon knelt to look at the old woman face-to-face and placed his hand on her shoulder to encourage her. There were several moments where she practically embraced him, but she restrained herself. Rell, for his part, waited until she had recovered and wiped her face with her furred arms.

“Thank you again, Jedi. I will not forget this.”

“Of course. But for now, we must be going. Come, Malfon.”

Malfon whispered goodbye to the old woman before heading on his way. She started crying again as the Jedi left her, the two heading toward the Jedi Sanctum as though nothing had happened. It was only some time later that Malfon himself started crying. Rell gave him a bemused glance at first, as did other passers-by, but he decided to say nothing. The two Jedi walked beside one another in silence, and Malfon eventually recovered.

“You did well, Malfon. You are a true Jedi,” Rell said. “Even these little things prove your diligence and dedication to our cause.”

“Thank you, Master,” Malfon replied, still sniffling from earlier.

“Oh, and one thing more.”

“Yes?”

“For what it is worth, Malfon, I am glad to call you my Padawan.”


Chapter 7

“Come on, North! We're going to be late!”

Malfon could not risk a glance at North at his current speed, and he hoped his words would be encouragement enough. Sprinting like mad through the bustling halls of the Jedi Sanctum, the young Padawan hated the fact he was restricted from using the Force. With all these pedestrians, Force-empowered speed was a surefire way of causing a painful collision. Even sprinting as fast as he could without supernatural aid, he found himself bumping shoulders and running into arms as Jedi chided him for being so careless. Whispering apologies and providing servile bows wherever he could, Malfon was at least four meters ahead of North, who struggled his way through the crowd with sheepish resolve.

Like every other day in this place, Jedi Knights went about their own business. Some discussed the latest news from the frontier, others traded stories from their latest missions and the lessons they had learned, and still others took note of recent economic, political, or social trends fueled in the wake of a postwar galaxy. Malfon scarcely ever paid attention to them, so caught up in his own thoughts that he had no time for nosiness; however, everyone seemed more talkative today. Strange. Many Jedi – himself included – were bound to the grand dueling circle for the Padawan duels scheduled for today, and Malfon expected more to be headed in that direction. However, most were walking away from him and the arena, forcing him to fight the crowd while he struggled onward.

“Malfon… Malfon! Slow down!” North called from afar.

“We're almost there, North! Just a little further!”

Sure enough, the last two hundred meters were the easiest. Breaking away from the ever-thinning crowd of Jedi Knights and Masters and bypassing several more empty corridors, Malfon reached the elevator to the dueling circle. The door opened for him without a sound, permitting him inside while North made his way, huffing and sweating, toward the elevator. With a bit of encouragement, North crossed the gap between them and the two heaved a sigh of relief as the elevator descended into the combatant's hold, where the rest of the Padawans were preparing for their duels.

“Did we… make it?” North asked between breaths.

Malfon pulled the chrono from his belt. “Fourteen hundred hours. Just missed it.”

“Maybe they won't notice.”

“Here's hoping.”

The elevator slowed to a halt and let out a bit of a sigh as the doors parted, permitting Malfon and North into their destination at last. As expected, the other Jedi Padawans – the hundreds upon hundreds of them – were already finishing their preparations, concluding their meditations, and readjusting their lightsabers for the last time. A few older Jedi were present as well, giving advice to their students or ensuring that their preparations were done properly, but most waited outside, in the dueling circle's stadium seating.

Hundreds of Jedi were waiting, just beyond the durasteel gates that separated the preparation center from the dueling area proper. Jedi Knights, Masters, and even the entirety of the Jedi Council were expected to attend, eager to see the culmination of many years of Jedi training and the skills that the next generation of Jedi would bring to bear. The very thought of all those eyes watching him, all those sentients judging him, caused Malfon to shudder. North was ferried away by his master, an old Rodian who had been assigned to him some time ago, leaving Malfon alone in the crowd. Investigating the Padawans around him, he hoped to find Raystin or the others, but there were so many Jedi that he could hardly recognize individual faces and features.

Content with tracking them down later, Malfon turned his attention to his lightsaber. He used it infrequently enough that its power level was set to maximum; Padawan learners were encouraged to continue practicing with staves until their masters deemed them prepared. Although pleased with his progress, Rell advised Malfon to have patience; he would have more than enough time to use his lightsaber. Adjusting the strength of his blade, Malfon hardly realized that Elbrook and several of his companions approached him from behind.

“Malfon! Long time no see,” Elbrook boomed.

Malfon gritted his teeth. Keeping his lightsaber tight in his grip, he slowly wheeled around to face Elbrook and the others. “Elbrook. What a surprise.”

“No more a surprise than seeing you here, Malfon. Isn't your master keeping you locked up or something?” Elbrook asked.

“Hardly. I just haven't been sent on any missions lately,” Malfon snapped.

“Haha! I wonder why that is?” Gilith growled.

“Probably not good enough to complete any missions. Right, boss?” Rogos chimed in.

“That's just what I was thinking.” Elbrook hooked his arm around the lower back of the Nautolan female standing next to him, eliciting a playful squeal from her. “Tell me, Malfon, do you actually intend to participate in the dueling circle?”

“Of course I do. All Padawans-”

“Hmm? All Padawans?” Elbrook cooed. “That may be, but only the ones who can actually fight are going to be noticed by the Masters. Only the greatest will be considered for knighthood. Only the victor will receive recognition for his skills.”

“So what? You think that'll be you?” Malfon shot back. “Are you trying to scare me or something?”

“Even if it's not me, you don't stand a chance. Why don't you back down now, save yourself and your master some embarrassment?”

Malfon glared at him. Every fiber of his being demanded that he strike Elbrook for those words. Of course, his will was foolish. The cocksure from his recent successes made him more self-assured. Elbrook was still at least a head taller, nearly forty kilograms heavier, and twice the duelist Malfon was. Rogos and Gilith, perhaps, he could fight with the training he had received, but Elbrook was still beyond him. Besides, fighting him here would only cause him to be expelled from the event and shame his master more than Elbrook's taunts ever could. Without provocation – actual provocation, not mere insults – Malfon had to stay his hand. The words of the Jedi Code raced through his mind as he unclenched his fist, releasing the death grip he had on his lightsaber.

“I'm going to fight in this tournament, Elbrook,” he said at last.

Elbrook shrugged. “Whatever you say. Gilith, Rogos, Loshar, let's go.”

The Gotal, Aqualish, and Nautolan fell into step alongside Elbrook, doubling as his fans and his bodyguards as they surrounded him. Before he disappeared into the crowd, Elbrook motioned for the others to halt. Malfon had already turned away from them, but he saw Elbrook in the corner of his eye and returned his attention to the four of them.

“And for the record,” Elbrook added. “I will be the winner today.”

And with that, he was gone.

*** ***

The Baragwin Jedi Master took a very long time to explain the rules. Malfon listened attentively for a while, but eventually settled on the gist of them and tuned out the hulking Jedi. No death blows, no blatant trickery, no leaving the dueling arena, and surrender must be accepted immediately. Of course, the vague trickery clause made the battles more interesting, as Jedi Masters were often eager to see just how Padawans could manipulate their opponent and their surroundings to their advantage. That was encouraging, but Malfon knew from previous bouts that some young Jedi got carried away very easily, causing a ruckus amongst the Jedi leaders. It was ultimately the Council's decision in case of an unclear victor, but such verdicts were rare.

The matches began in earnest. While other Padawans dueled, Malfon was permitted to meditate, watch the battles, prepare his weapon, or converse with others, so long as he did not actually leave the lower rungs of the stadium where challengers waited. Watching each of the duels play out on their time, Malfon made mental notes to himself about the battles that transpired. Even amongst Padawans, lightsaber dueling was an art. It revealed much about the strength, skill, wisdom, and cunning of the peoples involved. But, more importantly, it revealed the details of abilities that Malfon would need to do better.

Lightsaber forms were easy enough to discern based on opening stances, favored moves, and finishing blows. Typical Padawans fell into a regular pattern of attack and defense; after performing a prepared combination of strikes and swings, they would fall into a defensive scheme and parry until an opening was revealed. Such matches often came down to endurance. The moment a glaring error was made, the victor was decided. Even so, these repeated attacks and guards were basic, even to a duelist like Malfon, and could be exploited with enough preparation.

It was the more advanced duelists Malfon worried about. These Padawans fought like young Jedi Knights. There was no set pattern to their attacks, and there were no obvious defensive techniques they fell back to, even when caught off-guard. Their minds were repositories of lightsaber skills and defensive maneuvers, elevating them above the average Padawan. It was only when their pride buffeted their skill that they actually failed.

Malfon watched each duel with interest, but he made special note of the winners' tactics and moves, because they were the ones he would face. He recognized many faces during these matches, and many of them did quite well. North was defeated in his first match, as were Rogos and Gilith, but Raystin, Elbrook, and Lythi advanced quite easily. Harada, Olnara, and some of Elbrook's paramours had a tougher time with their duels, but made it through. Then, finally, after watching many of his friends and rivals finish their duels, it was his turn.

Stepping into the dueling circle, he was introduced to his opponent. Standing taller than even Elbrook, the other Padawan was apparently called an Odenji, a species from an aquatic world far from the galactic core. With beady black eyes atop slimy blue-green flesh, small fins that jutted from the sides of his chin, and oafish looking hands and legs that were obviously more suited for paddling through water than moving on land, he looked like the typical aquatic mammalian to the uninitiated Malfon.

“I am Malfon, Jedi Padawan of Rell Hernaster,” he introduced himself on cue.

“Volef Ashara'val'moosh. Jedi Padawan to Cheryon Malth.”

Malfon found himself smiling. “Are you prepared?”

“Ready.”

The Baragwin nodded and, with the flick of a switch, sealed the arena in an energy suppression field so the match could begin.

Malfon wasted no time backflipping to escape his opponent's daunting reach. Volef activated his yellow lightsaber about a second after, realizing only too late that his opponent was already gone. With a flicker of pseudomotion, Malfon revealed his own green lightsaber and rose to his feet, ready to engage his foe. The larger Padawan charged forward, showing no clear plan or method of attack, and began swinging his golden blade into Malfon's weapon. Although expected, the sheer strength behind every attack caused Malfon to recoil, trembling beneath the entirety of his opponent's weight as he brought down his lightsaber in rapid succession. Determined not to fall victim to such an offensive so quickly, Malfon kicked out with his foot, striking at his opponent's ungainly leg and giving him a moment to escape the attack.

Of course, Volef was not so easily discouraged. Summoning his strength in an instant, the aquatic Jedi rushed toward Malfon and began swinging again. This time, Malfon stepped to the side, allowing the lanky Padawan to miss him entirely and giving him an opportune strike. His green blade was mere centimeters away from Volef's arm, but quick thinking allowed his opponent to jump out of his range. Leaping into the air to meet him, the two Padawans traded blows in midair, much to the delight of their audience, before returning to the ground in a rather unceremonious tumble. Volef leapt to his feet after crouching on all fours, but Malfon was poised enough to recover his footing in a single well-timed forward kick.

Malfon and Volef continued striking at each others defenses, neither giving way or much thought to their actions. Malfon's pre-battle strategies escaped his mind mere seconds after the duel had begun, and he was only beginning to recover a semblance of his previous thoughts. The rush of combat had distracted him, and now he was performing little better than a simple youngling. Realizing his folly and collecting himself, Malfon continued defending himself while turning some of his attention to the way the Odenji fought. Like the other duelists Malfon had observed, he was simplistic in his motions and thought little beyond where his next strike would land. Malfon quickly noted the form he used, strike zones he aimed at, and velocities he was trying to mimic. It was not long before Malfon could foresee his opponent's moves as though he had read ahead in this duel's chapter and already knew exactly what would happen.

And so he took the lead. With a quick parry, Malfon caught the taller duelist's lightsaber in his own. Instead of giving him a straightforward knee to the solar plexus for his trouble, Malfon twisted their blades so that his opponent had an awkward grip on his lightsaber, forcing him to drop it lest he dislocate his hand. With a heavy swing, Malfon tried to chop at Volef's chest, but his target jumped backward and scooped up his lightsaber with a Force pull.

It was in the time it took for Volef to reach him that Malfon considered something. Defeating the young Padawan would mean praise and advancement for him, but Volef would receive the exact opposite. Although all contests had winners and losers, it was still shameful for Padawans to be eliminated in the first round of combat. If Volef's master was anything like Rell used to be, the Odenji Jedi would have been scolded, ridiculed, and forced to endure painful training exercises until he improved. Even though improvement eventually came, such things often broke down spirits and damaged pride. Malfon frowned. He hated the thought of defeating this Jedi and bringing shame upon him and his master, as Elbrook planned to do to him.

Were the Jedi not all equals in the Force? What did his fellow Padawan do to deserve such a pitiful loss?

He barely blocked the incoming lightsaber blade, which managed to nick the very edge of his shoulder. The crowd almost seemed to gasp in unison as Volef made a shocking comeback, striking at Malfon in a dizzying array of lightsaber strikes. Letting Volef go on the offensive and leaving himself in a precarious position, Malfon did his best to defend himself. He battered away the yellow blade as it came down, coming dangerously close to breaching his defenses at some points and meeting his blade head-on in others. Presenting Volef the opportunity to strike at him was tiring, but it gave his opponent practice in assailing a target with better defenses and gave Malfon a chance to improve his own guard.

After some time, Malfon knew he would lose if he did not end the duel. With some hesitation, Malfon caught Volef's lightsaber and countered his opponent's flurry with his own, cutting the aquatic Jedi's thin wrists as the green lightsaber slipped through his unprepared defenses. Volef let out a gurgle of pain as his hands instinctively released the lightsaber he carried, and the Baragwin signaled the end of the match. Gasping for breath, Malfon clutched his side as it cramped just beneath his ribs and deactivated his lightsaber, using his now-free hand to help Volef to his feet. The wounded Padawan gladly took the offer, rising to his feet as the energy barriers went down.

“You fought well,” Malfon encouraged him. “Continue practicing, and you will become an even better duelist.”

“Your skills commended. Impressed by your endurance and resolve. Make a grand Jedi yourself,” Volef replied.

The two Jedi Padawans were ferried out of the dueling circle by their respective masters to prepare the way for the next match. Rell betrayed no emotion as he led Malfon back to the line where the other Padawans were waiting to progress to round two, but Malfon could just barely sense the joy swelling up inside his master at his student's victory.

“You did well, Malfon,” Rell said at last.

“Thank you, Master.”

“That said,” Rell added, stepping by a crowd of particularly chatty Padawans, “I wish you wouldn't patronize your opponents.”

“Patronize?” Malfon followed close. “I wasn't, Master! I only wanted the duel to last longer so my opponent would not seem too…”

“Unworthy?”

“Yes.”

“Your thoughts betray you. In battle, it is harder for a Jedi to conceal their thoughts from others, especially from those who are stronger than they. While the other Padawans and – to be sure – your opponent probably did not realize your plan, all the Jedi Masters must have sensed it. I did.”

“I only wanted to ensure that he received some recognition for his efforts, Master. I did not mean to insult him or the Council.”

“I understand that. However, this is a learning exercise, not a competition. The Jedi Masters are looking to see where the skills of all their Padawans lie. They are not interested in sham battles; they want to see who needs to work harder, who needs to perfect their technique, and who is ready for knighthood. By fighting honestly, you will allow his master to train him properly.”

“I had not thought of that,” Malfon admitted. “I'm sorry, Master.”

“You meant well. But keep what I said in mind.”

Malfon nodded, placing himself back in line with the rest of the remaining Jedi Padawans. Rell tossed him a small towel and a canteen of water before he turned to head back. Wiping his face with the towel, he didn't even realize his master was leaving until he was nearly out of earshot.

“Master!”

“What is it?”

“Thank you.”

Rell nodded. “Keep up the good work.”

*** ***

The fourth round of nine was about to begin. Of the nearly five hundred Padawans who had arrived in the first matches, there were about sixty left. As expected, Raystin, Elbrook, and Lythi had all come this far along with him. Harada, too, made the cut, but Olnara had been eliminated in the round prior. After some encouraging words from the Jedi Council, who were still excited to watch the duels to their conclusion even as the event wore on through the day, the matches officially began. Unlike other rounds, Malfon was selected to go earlier than normal; his summons occurred before even Raystin had been called forth.

And, as though the Force decided today was the day to prove it had a sense of humor, Elbrook Naldrafos was his selected opponent. The grin the larger Padawan had on his face when he saw him made Malfon's blood boil. This was the matchup that Elbrook had been waiting for. Ever since Raystin arrived, he hadn't had a chance to challenge Malfon, fearing the one who had insulted him so; here, Raystin was unable to protect him. It was just Malfon and Elbrook now.

There was no way this could have been random. However, no matter how Malfon tried to rationalize it, it made him feel no better. In fact, any attempts to decide why they were fighting only made him angrier. Just like Raystin and the others were not here to help him, Gilith and Rogos were unable to jeer or provide support for their idol. This was how it had to be. This was the duel they were meant to have. This was it.

The Baragwin went through the standard introduction, as though the two Jedi had never meant before in their lives. Elbrook played along with the formalities, as one of his status would be expected to, performing a slight bow and shaking Malfon's hand at the appropriate times. Malfon joined the charade, but he hated every moment of it. After the rules and basic produces were out of the way, the Baragwin made his way out of the stage.

“Are you ready, Malfon?” Elbrook asked, glancing around the crowd. “Today, this whole crowd will see which of us is the better – as if it was ever in doubt.”

Malfon was already reaching for his lightsaber. “I've been ready for this for a long time. Prepare yourself.”

Energy sheathed the entire dueling circle in its protective barrier, and the crowd hollered around them as the match began.

Malfon rolled just out of Elbrook's reach as soon as he was allowed to move. However, Elbrook moved forward with him, prepared for such a maneuver, and kicked outward as hard as he was able. The resulting explosion in Malfon's ribs caused him to scream louder than he would have liked, and he ended up a pitiful mess on the floor. Elbrook flourished his lightsaber with all the elegance and grandiose of a pampered noble from the Core as he marched toward Malfon's injured form. Mustering all of his power, Malfon rose to his feet just in time to block Elbrook's incoming stab with his own green lightsaber.

The two Jedi Padawans swung at each other with unprecedented ferocity; Malfon was all too eager to go for painful blows, and Elbrook made no effort to hide his wide swings at Malfon's limbs. Blue clashed against green, each reverberating against the other while the two Jedi used their free hands to punch, grapple, and claw at the other. A knee to the groin caused Malfon to reel back, giving Elbrook just enough time to move in close for a finishing blow. Malfon managed to somersault out of the way, losing his lightsaber for a moment. He recovered it quickly enough, but the moment it took him to reactivate his weapon allowed Elbrook to go on another offensive.

“Not bad, but not good either,” Elbrook sneered. “Come now. Try harder.”

Malfon gripped his weapon's hilt in both hands and pushed back against Elbrook's blade, sending the taller and bulkier Jedi away from him. Raising his weapon high, Malfon slammed his green blade into Elbrook's guard, forcing him on the defensive for the first time – for the first time Malfon could remember. A parry from Elbrook managed to slow Malfon's attacks, allowing the two to trade off between offensive and defensive roles as they navigated the dueling circle. Calling on all of his strength, Malfon locked blades with his foe and pushed him back, separating the two of them by about a meter.

Elbrook was sweating lightly, and his rubescent face might as well have burst from the way his veins were practically pulsating. His lightsaber was held vertical, separating his face down the middle in perfect symmetry, and his knuckles were white from his steely grip on the weapon. Malfon, too, was sweating, and his heart was ramming against his chest like it wanted to get out and fight Elbrook iteslf. It was at that moment that Malfon realized he had gotten too caught up in the thrill of battle again, for the second time today, and he was losing focus. No, he was losing. But he was already so tired from the duels he had won that he wasn't sure if he could reverse his situation.

No. He had to. He would not lose to Elbrook. Not again. This time, victory belonged to him.

Clenching the sides of his hilt so hard that the buttons and metallic parts jutting from the sides tore into his hands, Malfon charged forward. His green blade met Elbrook's several times, chopping at the lower section of the blue blade, but his opponent quickly adjusted his own weapon so as not to endanger his hands. Elbrook still had a hint of a smile on his face, but it was fading quickly. Stomping on Malfon's foot, Elbrook received just enough time to position himself at Malfon's side and begin a new wave of attacks.

Malfon's throat was hoarse now; even if he wanted to scream from the pain he was in, he doubted he could. His eyes were watering, whether from the prospect of losing again or just because of exhaustion, he could not tell. Each blow he successfully blocked only seemed to invite a steady stream of more attacks, and Malfon couldn't take it. His arms felt heavy just carrying his lightsaber, and his feet were no longer responding to his body's insane demands. His mind knew exactly how to win: Elbrook was a practitioner of the fifth lightsaber form, was fond of showmanship and elegant attacks but was not above bodily strikes to win, and kept defenses mostly at chest level or above. Malfon had plans, contingencies, and maneuvers fluttering through his head, ready to take him out.

But his plans were useless. He was so tired, he could not even lift his lightsaber. Exhausted, his arms dropped simultaneously, exposing him to a powerful overhead chop from Elbrook's blazing blue blade. The energy ripped through his robe and seared his chest – a vicious burn, but only skin-deep – as he fell backward. The crowd fell silent, and then seemed to gasp in unison. The last thing he saw before fading into unconsciousness was Elbrook's face, smiling at him with lightsaber in hand.

His world was empty, dark, and silent for some time, until he awoke amongst the crowd, this time in the upper seats reserved for those not participating in the duels. His master was seated next to him, arms crossed, and he was surrounded by other Jedi he did not recognize. For a moment, he thought they were focused on him; in actuality, they were watching the conclusion of the Padawan dueling event. Rising to an upright position, with some difficulty, Malfon glanced down into the dueling ring.

“You're awake,” Rell noted dryly.

“Yes, Master.”

“Are you well?”

“I've been better,” Malfon said with a sigh.

“You fought well.”

“Not well enough.”

“No, but your skills are to be commended. The Jedi Council admired your show of strength in spite of your weakness and physical limits.”

Malfon said nothing, his eyes focused on the dueling circle. Raystin Benax smiled up at the crowds and held his lightsaber aloft. At his feet, Elbrook was kneeling, wounded by the blue lightsaber now suspended over his head. The crowds cheered and clapped for their new champion, the true champion, of the Padawan dueling circle training matches. Malfon found himself smiling in spite of himself and his pain. He knew Raystin would win. He seemed to be the best at everything. Even Lythi, who was a match for Raystin blow-for-blow, could not contend with him after so many duels. And here he was, being praised by the Jedi Council, lauded by Jedi Masters, and exalted above the rest of the Padawan learners as an example for all and the chief swordsman amongst his peers.

The fact that Elbrook failed in the end brought Malfon some satisfaction, but not enough. Disappointed at his own weakness, he knew that, had he trained more, he would have remained fighting longer. There was a chance that he would have lost anyway, but at least he would have fought until the very end. Even so, it was good that Raystin beat Elbrook. It should have been Malfon's duty, but at least Raystin was there to finish the work he started.

“No,” Malfon said at last, with a bit of a sigh, “Raystin's skills are to be commended. He is the champion today.”

“But he is not the only winner,” Rell said. “He achieved victory over the rest of the Padawans, yes, but this was training. If a Padawan, whether he placed five-hundredth or second, learned something from his mistakes today, then he is also a victor.”

Malfon shook his head, but realized that his master's words had a ring of truth. In fact, was that not what Malfon sought in the first place? A way for all of the Padawans here, even those that lost in the first or second round, to be equals? It was not a competition; it was training. The glory and respect earned were noteworthy and to be desired, of course, but those things were secondary. Malfon realized now that he had been distracted. Elbrook's words before the duels made this into a challenge – a self-imposed contest that only Malfon could win. However, that was not the point. It was never the point. This, like all the exercises the Jedi Padawan endured, was a fight against self.

“You may be right, Master.” Malfon glanced around him. “But what happens now?”

“Some masters may trade Padawans, if only because their pupils need more specialization or less familiarity to grow. Padawans who did exceptionally well will become aides to the Jedi lightsaber instructors or personal combat teachers, and those who did poorly may be advised to retake some courses in intermediate or advanced dueling.”

“Will anyone be promoted to knighthood for this?”

Rell turned his attention to his Padawan. “Unlikely. There were many good fights, but none that awed the Jedi Masters or the Council. However, I imagine those who placed in the top eight or so may be accelerated toward the status of Jedi Knight, if only because of the influx of Padawans we're receiving lately.”

“As you say, Master. If you don't mind, I'm going to retire for the time being.”

“Of course, Malfon. May the Force be with you.” Rell hesitated for a moment, and added, “I'm proud of you.”

Malfon nodded and left in silence, attempting to take the compliment in stride, but even he didn't even realize how large his smile was.

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