“They might as well call it the Jedi Coliseum...”
Zahira could not hide the disdain from her voice. The sight was garish; the atmosphere less than befitting, especially on the Jedi’s ancestral world of Tython. Why, this was where the Force was first discovered and the Followers of Ashla clashed heroically in battle with the vicious Disciples of Bogan! The stone of the temples here was older than the Republic itself! And now? Now it might as well be hosting the world series for the Galactic Smashball League if one was to judge by the display.
“Geez Bookworm, you really know how to take the fun right out of everything, dontcha?” Nema scolded, standing right by Zahira’s shoulder. “Relax. Aren’t you excited at all?”
“Hmph.” came the reply as Zahira craned her neck to see further out of the small slit between the canvases of the tent which housed the tournament participants.
She did her best to not let her nerves show through. Nema’s question was all but rhetorical anyway. Of course she was excited. But seeing the grounds of the Master’s Retreat turned into an arena worthy of the Geonosian gladiator pits still left something of a bitter taste in her mouth. Where once there largest building was a simple meeting hall meant for rigorous study, debate, and discussion there now stood imposing parapet with ornate arras bearing the logo of the Order. Whereas the landscape was once dominated by solitary shacks meant for deep contemplation of great mysteries stood towering grandstands filled with spectators.
Zahira could see dozens of familiar faces within their ranks. Master Orus sat securely, amusement creeping into her features by the slightest upcurl of her lips; the smallest of smiles. Master Sierog Su, head bobbing occasionally over the sea of faces like a mole popping their head of out a hole in the ground. Oric Traless and Raan Laos, ever engaged in spirited discussion, awaiting the display of martial skills eagerly. Zahira tried to spot Genti within the crowd, keeping a keen eye out for his sanguine expression but she could not spot him.
There were other faces as well, those known to her and those not. She could see the contemplative face of Bela Kiwiks, the famed Togrutan strategist and poet. Her eyes seemed to take in everything around her and nothing at the same time. Near the front of the crowd, Zahira spied a stern looking woman. Her corn colored hair swayed ever to slightly in the breeze but the most remarkable feature of her were bold, deep red lips that stood out like rubies. Last, she saw the inviting face of Satele Shan, Grandmaster of the Order. The legendary Jedi radiated serene warmth that was at odds with the electric excitement of the tournament grounds. Zahira averted her eyes, looking down on the off chance they should met with the Grandmaster’s.
“Amazing, isn’t it?” a cool, euphonious voice asked behind her.
Lifted out of her reverie, Zahira turned about. Nema at her side, she wheel around to see the sunken eyes and waxen face of Cenak Niaka. The Umbaran wore a face full of admiration as he looked out to the tournament grounds. “All of the glory of the Jedi on display.”
“Cenak.” Nema greeted with a curt nod. From the corner of her eyes, Zahira could see Nema’s body almost imperceptibly tense.
“Initiate Traylent.” Cenak offered in return, doing little more than to look the Kiffar up and down. His gaze then settled on Zahira. “Initiate Talu-Song. It is good to see you both. Admiring the spectacle, are we?”
A meager sigh escaped Zahira’s mouth as she shook her head. “It seems…excessive.”
“Can you really blame everyone?” Cenak asked with a hint of sadness in his voice. “Coruscant was only a year ago. You can’t begrudge us for wanting to actually celebrate something. I think it is wonderful: the full glory of the Jedi on display.”
“What do you want, Cenak?” Nema interjected quickly, her voice defensive. If Zahira didn’t know better, her friend was trying to defend her.
“I just wanted to extend and offer of good luck to you both.” Cenak admitted with a humble expression. “I’ve been offering it to all the participants.”
“Good luck.” Nema shot back quickly. Zahira muttered her own offer immediately after.
A triumphant fanfare blared from outside the tent as bellows horns, tympanic pulsars, and other orchestral instruments pierced the air. Applause followed and the voice of Satele Shan began to speak word barely heard through the tent. Before Zahira could strain her ear to listen, another voice drowned the Grandmaster’s out.
“Alright. Gather ‘round Initiates.” a brisk and booming voice called out from the center of the tent. Liam Dentiri, one of the Temple’s foremost combat instructors stood there. Gesturing, he directed the students in the tent towards him. Zahira and Nema made their way over, Cenak not far behind. The dark skinned Jedi Master was soon encircled by students of all species. Human, Draethos, Squib, Twi’lek, and more.
“Listen up.” Dentiri called out, silencing the rush of chatter that had overcome the students. “The tournament is about to get underway. First match is between Initiates Thrialo and Niaka. Before we begin, I’m going to go over the rules. Students will face off against each other in single combat. The match will last until either one of the combatants cannot continue to fight or one yields by the standard cry of “Solah”. Additionally, the match may end if the Masters call for it to.”
Zahira looked over at Harlanis Thrialos quickly. The handsome boy looked anxious, if determined. His face was contorted in a combination of dread and stalwart resolve. She did not bother to look over to Cenak Niaka. His face was surely highlighted by imperious confidence.
Dentiri continued. “You are expected to show discretion in your matches and to abide by the expected conduct learn from your training. Don’t worry. I’m sure you all will do well. Thrialo, Niaka: come with me.”
The pair followed Master Dentiri to the edge of the tent. It was just in time. Grandmaster Shan’s voice no longer could be heard. All was silent. As Dentiri left the tent, the students rushed over to the exit to see the action that would ensure. Rushing quickly ahead of the pack, Zahira managed to kneel right at the very front of the group. Through the slits of the canvases, she could see the tournament grounds well.
Bringing the two combatants to the center of the grassy field that was the arena, he gave a bow to Grandmaster Shan and the gathered masters. “Initiates Thrialo and Niaka!” he announced grandly, gesturing from one student to the other, handing them each a training saber before slowly retreating back to the edge of the pitch. A smattering of applause rang out, composed and somewhat removed from the raucous excitement of before.
Harlanis and Cenak were little more than thirty feet apart. Harlanism saber gripped tightly in hand, inclined himself in a deep bow. It seemed less a gesture of humility and respect than an attempt to bury his head into the dirt before him and hide. Cenak, to his credit, offered a similarly deep bow, keeping his eyes on his fellow initiate at all times. Standing up proudly, he kept his weapon at his side. Somehow the gesture seemed both nonchalant and arrogant. He did nothing, his eyes fixed upon Harlanis.
That stare. Uncompromising and harsh, it seemed to bore into Harlanis’ very heart. Any vestige or veneer of confidence that the young man might have carried on his face shattered in an instant, crushed by the relentless force of Cenak’s gaze. Harlanis clutched the hilt of his training saber tight, his knuckles white and his palms sweaty. There was not a single noise across the tournament grounds. All there was, was Cenak’s glare, strong enough to stop a supernova in its tracks. More than enough to stop measly little Harlanis Thrialo.
“S…Solah!” the shaken young man called out, his shrill voice echoing throughout the pitch. “I yield!”
A spatter of gasps answered him, disbelieving cries from the audience and a few upset shouts. Master Dentiri stepped over to Cenak. “Initiate Niaka!” he called out, raising the Umbaran’s free hand above his head.
Applause finally filled the air as the audience overcame the shock and disappointment of the “match” they’d just witness. Harlanis turned away from it all and began walking back to the tent, his eyes burning with the sting of complete failure. It took everything in Zahira’s power to stop herself from running out to console him. She looked passed him at Cenak Niaka.
With his sick grin and pale skin, he look just like a living Ghost.