A sunrise corona limned one edge of the planet Myrkr, setting its vast northern forests alight with a verdant glow. Viewed from space, the planet appeared as lush and green as Yuuzhan'tar, the long-lost homeworld of Yuuzhan Vong legend.
Two Yuuzhan Vong males stood at the viewport of a priestship, deep in contemplation of the scene before them. One was tall and gaunt, with a sloping forehead and sharp, aristocratic features scarred by many acts of devotion. These marks, and his cunningly wrapped head cloth, identified him as a priest of high rank. His companion was younger, broader, and so physically imposing that a first glance yielded no perceptible boundaries between armor and weapons and the warrior who wore them. He struck the eye in a single blow, leaving an indelible impression of a complex, living weapon. His countenance was somber, and there was an intensity about him that suggested movement even though he stood at respectful attention.
The priest swept a three-fingered hand toward the scene below. "Dawn: bright death of mortal night," he recited.
Harrar's words followed the well-worn path of proverb, but there was genuine reverence in his eyes as he gazed upon the distant world. The young warrior touched two fingers to his forehead in a pious gesture, but his attention was absorbed less by the glowing vision of Myrkr than by the battle raging above it.
Silhouetted against the green world was a fist-sized lump of black yorik coral. This, an aging worldship housing hundreds of Yuuzhan Vong and their slaves and creature- servants, looked to be nothing more than lifeless rock. But as Harrar's priestship drew closer, he could make out signs of battle--tiny coral fliers buzzing and stinging like fire gnats, plasma bolts surging in a frantic, erratic pulse. If life was pain, then the worldship was very much alive.
"Our arrival is timely," the priest observed, glancing at the young warrior. "These young Jeedai seem determined to prove themselves a worthy sacrifice!"
"As you say, Eminence."
The words were polite, but distracted, as if the warrior gave scant attention. Harrar turned a measuring gaze upon his companion. Discord between the priest and warrior castes was growing more common, but he could discern nothing amiss in Khalee Lah.
The son of Warmaster Tsavong Lah stood tall among the Yuuzhan Vong. His skin's original gray hue was visible only in the faint strips and whorls separating numerous black scars and tattoos. A cloak of command flowed from hooks embedded in his shoulders. Other implants added spikes to his elbows and to the knuckles on his hands. A single short, thick horn thrust out from the center of his forehead--a difficult implant, and the mark of a truly worthy host.
Harrar knew himself honored when this promising warrior was assigned to his military escort, but he was also wary and more than a little intrigued. Like any true priest of Yun-Harla, goddess of trickery, Harrar relished games of deception and strategy. His old friend Tsavong Lah was a master of the multilayered agenda, and Harrar expected nothing less from the young commander.
Khalee turned to meet the priest's scrutiny. His gaze was respectful, but direct. "May I speak freely, Eminence?"
Harrar began to suspect Tsavong Lah's purpose in sending his son to a Trickster priest. Candor was a weakness--a potentially fatal one.
"In this matter, consider the warmaster's judgment," he advised, hiding words of caution in seeming assent.
The young male nodded solemnly. "Tsavong Lah entrusted you with the sacrifice of the twin Jeedai. The success of his latest implant is still in the hands of the gods, and you are his chosen intercessor. What the warmaster honors, I reverence." He concluded his words by dropping to one knee and lowering his head in a respectful bow.
This was hardly the message Harrar intended to send, but Khalee Lah seemed content with their exchange. He rose and directed his attention back to the worldship.
"In plain speech, then. It appears the battle is not going as well as anticipated. Perhaps not even as well as Nom Anor reported."
Harrar's scarred forehead creased in a scowl. He himself held a dubious opinion of the Yuuzhan Vong spy. But Nom Anor enjoyed the rank of executor and was not to be lightly criticized.
"Such words veer dangerously close to treason, my young friend."
"Truth is never treason," Khalee Lah stated.
The priest carefully weighed these words. To the priesthood of Yun-Harla and among certain other factions, this proverb was an ironic jest, but there was no mistaking the ringing sincerity in the younger male's tones.
Harrar schooled his face to match the warrior's earnest expression. "Explain."
Khalee Lah pointed to a small, dark shape hurtling away from the worldship at an oblique vector to the priestship's approach. "That is the Ksstarr, the frigate that brought Nom Anor to Myrkr."
The priest leaned closer to the viewport, but his eyes were not nearly as keen as Khalee Lah's enhanced implants. He tapped one hand against the portal. In response, a thin membrane nictitated from side to side, cleaning the transparent surface. The living tissue reshaped, exaggerating the convex curve to provide sharper focus and faint magnification.
"Yes," the priest murmured, noting the distinctive knobs and bumps on the underside of the approaching ship. "And if the battle against the Jeedai is all but won, as Nom Anor reported, why does he flee? I must speak to him at once!"
Khalee Lah turned toward the door and repeated Harrar's words as an order. The guards stationed there thumped their fists to opposite shoulders and strode off to tend their commander's bidding.
The swift click of chitinous boots announced a subordinate's approach. A female warrior garishly tattooed in green and yellow entered the room, a crenellated form cradled in her taloned hands. She bowed, presented the villip to Harrar, and placed it on a small stand.
The priest dismissed her with an absent wave and began to stroke the sentient globe. The outer layer peeled back, and the soft tissue within began to rearrange itself into a rough semblance of Nom Anor's scarred visage. One eye socket was empty and sunken, and the bruised eyelid seemed to sag into the blue crescent sack beneath. The venom-spitting plaeryin bol that had once distinguished Nom Anor's countenance was gone, and evidently he had not yet been permitted to replace it.
Harrar's eyes narrowed in satisfaction. Nom Anor had failed repeatedly, but never once had he accepted responsibility for his actions. In a manner most unworthy a Yuuzhan Vong, he had foisted blame upon others. Harrar had suffered a temporary demotion for his part in a failed espionage scheme; Nom Anor had merely received a reprimand, even though his agents played a significant role in the plot's failure. In Harrar's opinion, the blurred face testified that the gods' justice would, in time, be served.
The image of Nom Anor, imprecise though it was, nevertheless managed to convey a sense of impatience, perhaps even anxiety.
"Your Eminence," Nom Anor began.
"Your report," Harrar broke in curtly.
Nom Anor's one eye narrowed, and for a moment Harrar thought the executor would protest. As a field agent, Nom Anor was seldom required to answer to the priesthood. His silence stretched beyond the bounds of pride, however, and Harrar began to fear that Khalee Lah's suspicions had fallen short of grim truth.
"You have lost?"
"We have losses," Nom Anor corrected. "The voxyn queen and her spawn were destroyed. Two Jedi prisoners held on the worldship were freed. They escaped, as did several of the others."
Harrar looked to Khalee Lah. "You have sighted the infidels' escape ship?"
The warrior's eyes widened, and for a moment his scarred face held horrified enlightenment--a fleeting emotion that swiftly darkened to wrath.
"Ask who flies the Ksstarr: the executor or the infidels?"
This possibility had not occurred to Harrar. He quickly relayed the question through the attuned villip.
"Some of the Jedi managed to commandeer the frigate," Nom Anor admitted. "We are pursuing, and feel confident that we will add the capture of this ship to our other victories."
Capture. Harrar's gut tightened, for that single word confirmed the identity of the escaped Jedi.
"Capture!" Khalee Lah echoed derisively. "Better to reduce the defiled thing to coral dust! What Yuuzhan Vong pilot would wish to enjoin with an infidel-tainted ship?"
"Several Jedi fell to our warriors," Nom Anor continued, oblivious to both the priest's epiphany and the warrior's scorn. "The younger Solo brother was slain. The warmaster will be pleased to learn that Jacen Solo is alive, and our captive."
"Jacen Solo," Harrar repeated. "What of Jaina Solo, his twin?"
The silence held for so long that the villip began to invert back to its original form.
"We are in pursuit," Nom Anor said at last. "The Jedi are too few to fly a ship such as the Ksstarr well or long."
"It is an outrage that they fly it at all!" Khalee Lah interjected.
Harrar sent him a stern glance and then turned back to the villip. "I assume that you will not take this Jacen Solo with you as you pursue his twin. It is said the Jeedai can communicate with each other over long distances, without either villips or mechanical abominations to aid them. If this is so, he will surely warn his female counterpart of your approach."
Khalee Lah sniffed scornfully. "What manner of hunter hangs bells around the necks of his bissop pack?"
This remark, impolitic though it was, surprised a smirk from Harrar. In his opinion, Nom Anor had become tainted by the infidels' decadence and weakness. The image of the executor plunging through muck and swamp water on the heels of a pack of fierce lizard-hounds was both incongruous and appealing.
The executor took time to consider Harrar's observation. "You have a military escort?"
"Twelve coralskippers accompany the priestship, yes. Do you wish us to break off in pursuit of Jaina Solo?"
The villip face-shape rolled downward and back in a semblance of a nod. "As you rightly observed, the risk of contact between these twin Jedi is considerable. I will take Jacen Solo directly to the warmaster."
"And so the glory goes to the executor, while his failure is thrust upon the priest," Khalee Lah said, snarling.
Harrar turned away from the villip. "You are learning," he observed softly. "But for the moment, let us disregard Nom Anor's ambitions. You were assigned to accompany me to Myrkr, no more. It is my task to oversee the sacrifice of the twin Jeedai. I must pursue. You are not obligated to accompany me."
The warrior didn't require time to consider. "This Jeedai, this Jaina Solo, flies upon a living vessel. That offends me. She escaped a worldship. That should not have been possible. She is a twin, which is rightly reserved as the province of the gods, or a portent of greatness. That is blasphemy. I would pursue her to the most wretched corner of this galaxy if it meant adhering myself to a pair of molting grutchins."
"Forcefully argued," Harrar said dryly. He turned back to the waiting executor. "We will retrieve Jaina Solo."
"You hesitate. Are you certain you can succeed?"
"It is the warmaster's command," Harrar said simply. He glanced at Khalee Lah and added with a touch of asperity, "And a holy crusade."
His sarcasm was lost on Khalee Lah. The warrior inclined his head in grave agreement, and his face shone with something Harrar had occasionally glimpsed, but never quite embraced.
A sudden chill shuddered down the priest's spine. Fervor such as Khalee Lah's had always stuck Harrar as vaguely dangerous. The warrior's faith held a shaper's art, imbuing Harrar's facetious words with the sly irony the priest had always associated with his goddess.
And was it not said that Yun-Harla reserved her most cunning tricks for those who served her best?