I have never been the type of girl who dreams about her wedding, having children, buying and taking care of a beautiful house. But I had decided one thing when I was nineteen: that if I ever did get married (an event I considered extremely unlikely), it would be in the main temple on Mirial. I would have a traditional Mirialan ceremony and include every complicated ritual. Never once did it occur to me that I might get engaged to someone who was not Mirialan and, even worse, was terrible at speaking our language.
“When I was in school, my teacher used to carry around a stick to smack me on the hand when I made a mistake.” I slapped the table for emphasis. “Maybe I should start doing that to you.”
I shrugged. “It worked. I didn’t make a lot of mistakes.” I laid my head down on the table in defeat. “Honestly, Corso, sometimes it feels like you’re not even trying.”
“Mirialans like to make everything complicated,” Guss piped up. He liked to stand around whenever we were practicing; apparently he found the entire situation hilarious. “Are you sure you want to marry one?”
I threw a scrap of plastic at him. “Since when are you an expert on Mirialans?” He did have a point. Mirialans didn’t believe in doing anything that wasn’t sufficiently challenging – and the bigger the challenge, the better. What was the point in doing something you couldn’t brag about later?
“Promise me you’ll practice this today,” I said. “I know it’s hard, and maybe you think it’s stupid, but it kind of means a lot to me.”
“Who are you taking with you, then? Risha?”
“I want to go!” Guss always wanted to go to Nar Shaddaa. He liked the dancers.
“You just want to look at girls. I won’t get anything done.” I stood up and stretched my arms. “You can go look at girls by yourself if you want. Or you can stay here and drill Corso.” I pretended to whisper. “Be really mean if you do.”
“Thank you, Ayang,” Corso said dryly.
“I love you both!” I sang as I waltzed out the door. I was eager to find Risha and leave, before anyone suspected that we were up to something.
When I was eighteen, I was kidnapped on Coruscant and sold into slavery on Nar Shaddaa. I spent seven months dancing at Hutt parties, drugged out of my mind. I hated it here now. It held nothing but bad memories. But for Risha, who didn’t have any memories like that, it was still a big neon playground. She had a spring in her step as we walked, and she was chattering to me more than usual.
“We should call my friends while we’re here,” she said. “They’d like you.”
“Maybe later,” I said, jamming my hands into my jacket pockets. “I just want to go see your doctor friend and get this over with.”
“Really? You’re not even a little bit excited?”
“Ayang, come on; you’re being dramatic. It’s a pregnancy test, you’re not marching to an Imperial death camp.”
I winced a little just to hear her say it. I had been suspicious since I’d gotten to Corellia that I might be pregnant, but I was good at denial, and I had plenty of other things to worry about. I only told Risha, and she promised that after everything was over she’d take me somewhere to find out for sure. I was starting to regret having told her; I was so nervous that I wished I could put it off longer.
“I just want to know,” was all I managed to say.
Risha led me to a tall building with a faded façade. I followed her inside, slouching like I usually did when I was nervous and in an unfamiliar place. The building’s lobby was empty and dim, and I wondered where she was taking me. We took an elevator to the sixteenth floor, where a young woman with a bubbly smile met us. Her hair bounced violently when she talked; it was unnerving – especially in a place like this.
“What’s your name?” she asked me. Her voice was shrill.
“Please follow me!” The girl led us down a hallway and into a small exam room. It was as dim in here as it was everywhere else in this building, and though I’d been in seedier places, I’d never had blood drawn in them.
“Is this a legitimate clinic?” I asked Risha when the girl had left.
“Oh, yeah,” she said, waving a hand dismissively. “Take your jacket off, they’re going to take your blood.”
I folded it up and sat down on the flimsy cot. Risha was playing absently with a datapad like her best friend’s life wasn’t about to be irrevocably altered. “How do you know about this place, anyway?”
“Took friends here a lot,” she said. “It’s out of the way, discreet…but they have good equipment. And they don’t charge a lot.”
“Oh,” I said. I tried not to pry too much into her past, even though I was a little hurt. I’d shared a lot more than she had.
I was expecting the doctor to be someone sketchy, but he actually looked normal. Certainly more professional-looking than my ex-boyfriend the doctor, who I eventually found out had about six other girlfriends.
“Hi,” I managed to croak.
He had very little to say, but he gave me a nod to at least acknowledge I was there. He grabbed a syringe, told me, “This might sting a little,” and plunged it into my arm. I opened my mouth in a silent yell.
“It’ll just take a minute to process,” he said, rummaging around in a cabinet. I held my hand over my arm; he had not been anything close to gentle. I probably could have done a better job myself.
Risha was staring at him eagerly, intent on finding out the result before I did. I stared at the ceiling and tried to focus on anything else. More blood had been drawn than I realized; I felt light-headed and hazy. I tried to focus on staying conscious by remembering an old prayer I’d learned when I was a kid. I was starting to fade when I heard Risha clap her hands and say, “Ayang! You were right, you’re having a baby!”
“I can’t believe this is happening to me.”
Risha and I left the clinic shortly after I came to, and she insisted we walk around the Promenade for awhile before we went to rendezvous with a group of my ships – the reason we’d come here in the first place. We leaned against a railing looking out over the city, me with my head resting on my arms, defeated.
“It’s not that bad,” Risha said. She’d bought some sort of disgusting food from a street vendor and was delicately picking at it with her fingers.
“How is it not that bad? I’m twenty-two and I live on a ship. I just inherited a fleet of ships run by people who probably already think I only survived on a fluke. Hell, I’m pretty sure I only survived on a fluke.”
“You didn’t. Trust me, I know.” She paused for a moment. “That’s not really why you’re upset though, is it?”
I sighed and looked out over the city, at all the flashing lights and pinkish haze. If I closed my eyes, I could still feel cool metal around my neck and hear my costume jangling on my hips. I could remember all the times I’d just stood there, passively letting people paw at me and stare at me. I could remember it, no matter how hard I tried to forget. Even worse, I could remember doing it when the collar was gone, when I’d had a choic
Girls like me didn’t just turn around and become wonderful parents.
“You know, being a bad mother isn’t genetic,” Risha said softly.
“It doesn’t have to do with my mom,” I said. But I was lying. It always had to do with my mother. She’d had the power to protect me, and she hadn’t, simply because she didn’t want to.
For awhile we were both silent. A breeze passed over us every now and then, blowing my bangs back and forth in front of my eyes. I realized how tired I felt. Six months of fighting for your life would do that to you. I let my eyes close, though I could still see lights flashing. For the first time since my twenty-second birthday, I let myself stop thinking. Didn’t I deserve a rest?
I was startled by my com ringing. Clearly, I wasn’t getting a rest anytime soon.
“Hey,” I answered rather listlessly.
“Hi again, Ayang! Am I supposed to call you something else now?” It was Mayet, the woman I’d put in charge of operations on Nar Shaddaa. I had known her for a few years and I liked her; she was a Mirialan like me and had a good head for business.
“Nah, we’re still friends,” I said. “Sorry I’m late, I got distracted.”
Mayet waved her hand. “It’s all right. Actually, I was calling to let you know there’s been sort of a complication.”
“Last word I want to hear right now, Mayet.” For a variety of reasons.
She held up her hands in protest. “It’s not that big of a deal. I just wanted to warn you that there’s an issue you’re going to have to deal with when you get here. I don’t want to give you the details over an insecure channel, so can you get down here soon?”
I felt my heart sink just a little. Right now, this was the last thing I wanted to deal with. I sighed and tucked my hair behind my ear. “I’m on my way.”
Mayet was waiting for me in a warehouse in an extra-seedy part of the Red Light Sector. “Nice to see you again,” she said with a smile. “It’s been awhile.”
“What is this place?” I asked. Risha stepped on my foot; I had asked her to do that when I said something that sounded stupid. She had a much better idea of what a crime boss should say.
“You own this place now,” she hissed at me.
“Oh.” I looked back at Mayet. “What happened?”
Mayet clasped her hands; she looked nervous. “One of the ships that got in today had an unauthorized passenger.”
“A stowaway?” I asked. “That doesn’t seem too bad. Just cut him loose.”
“There’s more,” Mayet said grimly. “First off, it’s a woman. And she tried to hijack it.”
“Does anybody know her?” I asked.
Mayet shook her head. “No idea. But her outfit looks like it’s the uniform from that big gang on Coruscant. The one with the star symbol.”
“Black Sun,” Risha murmured. I nodded in agreement.
“Anyway, the ship’s crew normally would have just shot her, but she was going crazy. Swore she needed to talk to you, that she was just trying to contact you. She said that she had information you’d want, that you’d probably pay them if they handed her over to you.”
“Nice,” I said. “I like that she’s already willing to spend my money.” This girl was not off to a great start.
“She’s locked up in one of the offices,” Mayet said, nodding toward a small door. “You’ll have to decide what you want to do with her.”
“Can’t hurt to talk to her,” I said. Risha shrugged at me, apparently agreeing that it was worth a try. She probably was hoping she’d get to shoot this mystery girl. I couldn’t really blame her; I might let her if it got us out of here sooner.
Mayet unlocked the door and we stepped inside. It was dark, but I could barely make out the shadow of a small woman sitting in the corner. I felt around for a light switch.
“Don’t turn on the light,” the woman said. Her voice was quiet and pretty, with a deliberate Coruscani accent, like she was trying to cover up something else. “I’ve got a headache.”
“Sorry,” I said. Risha found the light before I did, and I heard the girl let out a horrified gasp.
“Oh, no,” she groaned. “It’s you!” She covered her face with her hands and tried to turn away. “I didn’t know it was you; you never told me your name!”
I had no idea what she was talking about. “I thought you wanted to talk to me.”
She didn’t answer. I took hold of her wrists; she was taller than I was, but she was weak. She twisted her face away from me as I pulled her hands away, grimacing like she was in pain. And the second I saw her face, and recognized who she was, I knew exactly why.
“You know her?” Risha asked me.
“Unfortunately,” I said. I watched the woman slump over against the wall, refusing to meet my eyes. Considering that the last time we’d met she’d been insufferably full of herself, it was a little nice to see her looking ashamed. I wouldn’t have thought her capable of it.
I smiled at her, and she seemed to wither. “Nice to see you again, Rona.”