This is the fictional piece that won me the Gold Nova during the Rite of Supremacy: Spoils of War, in the knock-out bracket against Scholae Palatinae and Plagueis.
A story by Ronovi Tavisaen Tarentae
He was known simply as the madman. Dennis Funori was aware that he had a real name, but it didn’t seem as if he wished to be called by it. Volumes of text told the story more eloquently than any raconteur could, but the words became dry like the exoskeletons of insects lodged within the pages of the dusty tomes. No one wanted to read them anymore.
Funori managed more than just rare books, though. His small antique shop was just by the large spaceport of Yridia IX, where members of the Principality scurried about like rodent-faced snobs gnawing at their candies while discussing well-to-do theories of hiding the next political scandal. But the little old man had enough rusted weapons, blasters, and ignored holocameras, gathered in fading steel clumps along the walls of the store; to give him insight about this vague planet and what had once roamed its streets. He wondered what Eden would’ve been like if these weapons were still wielded, these projectors still lighting up the vicinity with blue caricatures of once glorious men, of heroes and anti-heroes that came close to being gods.
He had not seen a customer in his store in a long time. That was why he was surprised when the madman walked into his store. Spitting into an old brass vessel he kept by the wall, Funori produced a box of rubbery looking cigarras and set them on the counter.
“Free smoke for the customer?” he asked, but the madman brushed past him, as the entire atmosphere grew strangely silent. Funori’s own thoughts seemed to echo in his head.
The visitor was looking at an arrangement of old force pikes and swords of phrik alloy, lined up in rusty rows on the adjacent wall. Plaques with the dates clumsily carved into them detailed where they had been used, and who had used them. It was not often these days that men pawned off their war trophies to Funori, and as such, his profits had plummeted over the years. People wanted to see more heroes in this day and age, even if it meant ooh-ing and aw-ing at their heads mounted on the wall like beasts in a hunter’s lounge. The old man maybe needed to get in on that demand. He wondered if he could still wield a knife properly.
He was interrupted in his scattered thoughts – they were like ripples in his mind, caused by skipping stones of all varieties – when he saw the madman lift an old lightsaber hilt from the wall and turn it over and over in his hands.
“Whoa, whoa, watch it, sir,” Funori barked. “That thing’s not cheap.”
The madman turned to look at him. Funori felt an unnatural lump growing in his throat. He suddenly found it was much more difficult to breathe.
“You’ll forgive a poor man for wanting to look at it more closely…won't you?”
The lump was growing bigger. It felt as if his throat was swelling and burning painfully. He could hardly choke out the words. “Sure. Fine.”
Instant relief. Funori’s muscles seemed to contract, as if he had swallowed a glowing ember and was puffing out steam. His fingers traced the outline of his throat – it was raw to the touch, the jugular vein bulging and pushing the tissue outward, the skin folded up in twisted bunches. He inhaled. Exhaled. Sighed.
It had felt just like the time he had contracted a throat disease and had to be treated for it. Cost him half the credits he owned…
The madman was still holding the lightsaber hilt when he approached the counter, his massive brown fingers smearing the glass where Funori kept crystal statuettes of heroes of the Rebellion and leaders of the Galactic Empire. All novelty trinkets, little items that nondescript merchants had fashioned with awkward tools and sold off to the highest, most easily excitable and hyperactive bidder. It didn’t seem to interest the madman, however. The only thing that did interest him was the metal cylinder in his hand, the once white steel turning brown and red from age and lack of care.
Funori was a vender, not a caretaker. He wondered if the madman could sense that.
“Does this thing’s power cell still work?” he asked.
“How about its blade emitter?”
“I don’t know, sir.”
“I don’t study the things, sir. I just market them.”
That was a lie, of course, but Funori tried to sell the statement with a throaty laugh that ended up hurting him more than relaxing him. His throat still felt inflamed. He almost could taste ash in his mouth.
The madman didn’t seem to notice or care.
“This saber,” he was saying, as if reciting it from a manuscript or a speech. Deliciously dramatic. “This saber reminds me of someone. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was his, years ago…before it all fell to pieces.”
It was when the man was speaking that every detail of his person seemed more descript, more exposed in the dim light of the store. Beforehand, Funori had not thought much about his looks, and any madman could pass off as a simple looking inhabitant of this planet, regardless of his mental incapacities. But it was all becoming clearer now, every physical mark and scar and oddity. Funori looked closely at the armor first. Armor, of all things, black and scarred like a burned man’s flesh, hanging limply like dead tissue on his haggard body. He wondered if he could buy it and hang it in the store.
“You see, that man was my apprentice, before he was consumed by the enemy. Treachery, it seems, does not elude even the most loyal of minions. He raised the clans against me, after I had worked so hard to keep them at my side.”
Long, black hair, worm-like, squirmed along the nape of the man’s neck and across the back. Tangled, jungle-like. Animalistic.
“But the fools of the Hammer needed to be appeased somehow. I had sacrifices to make in terms of leadership. I suppose my apprentice thought I underestimated his prowess with a plasma blade, if I underestimated his tenacity as a second-in-command.”
The eyes were the most interesting part of him. If they had had any color before, all that was left was the stony gray…and the tinges of red…
“And yet, how foolish his uprising was, when it did so much damage…”
The madman stopped his speech with a whimpering sound, like the hyperdrive of a ship puttering out midway in space. He stared behind Funori, straight at the wall where the photographs hung on crooked iron hooks. The faces of pilots and Imperial soldiers beamed back at the man as he lowered his bloodshot eyes. He set the saber hilt down on the glass and unfurled his fingers from his left palm. Funori could see the scars weaving around the natural creases of the skin. And then the fog enveloped him.
“I already paid for this. You’ll let me go now.”
Funori did not hear himself respond. He only watched blankly as the fog dissipated, the empty spot where the madman had once stood appearing to be stained by a permanent shadow that did not want to leave.
A wasp-like insect still clung to life on one of the pages of the old tome, its legs clustered together in a brown mess along the print of the paper. Funori removed it with a fingernail, then scraped the decay along the glass corner of the counter. The names in the book were familiar to him; he had heard of these warriors, when he was still a middle-aged man. Twenty or so years later, and he remembered the girth of their fleets, the symbols carved into their hulls. Brought down in flames around the windows of his apartment. He marveled in the inferno.
Funori licked his thumb and turned the page. What he liked about this text above the others was how much more introspective it was. The writer clearly could imagine alternative tactics, strategies that could have been improved upon. The old man often wondered if a Dark Jedi had written this, rather than the washed-out scholars squatting in their study rooms who were normally responsible for the overly elegant riff-raff contained within their books.
He thought about the madman as he read. Somehow, he hadn’t seemed mad at all, unless he was subtle about it. His voice had sounded thin and strained, his words hissing like smoke from a cigarra. But Funori did not feel madness. In fact, he had felt hindered to feel any emotion from the man. And yet, somehow, he had retained the name. But from whom? And why?
He pondered if the madman had paid for the lightsaber after all. He would check for the extra credits later.
Closing the book temporarily, Funori pulled a jacket over his tattered vest, stopped to retrieve a cigarra from the box, and went out into the open evening air, the tome gathering sweat around its binding as he held it in the crook of his arm. It was colder than usual, the sound of heaters buzzing from all directions, especially within the crudely constructed cafés surrounding the vicinity. A few kilometers away, a freighter with the emblem of the New Republic landed on one of the spaceport’s landing bays. The pilots would be the stores’ customers. Not very many civilians lived here anymore.
Funori lit his cigarra, smoke working its way through the gaps in his teeth. He remembered when more people used to live here. Then the Principality was taken over by the New Republic, when the Dark Jedi that had once traveled through here murdered each other in the distant horizon. He remembered hoods drawn about pallid faces, bloodshot eyes, the stereotypical appearance of one intercepted by the Dark Side. Not that he knew much else; what he knew was from his books, those old things. They didn’t tell him much anymore.
He stopped by a local shop to get a cup of caf. It tasted like his cigarra, a smoky, rubbery flavor. Not as appetizing as he had hoped. He sipped it nonetheless, letting the flakes of his cigarra tip decorate the splintered table. He was one of two patrons in the place. The other sat in the corner, drinking a glass of Corellian whiskey and drumming his fingers on the wood in a clumsy rhythm to coincide with the tinned music coming from the wall speakers.
Funori opened the book again where he had marked his spot. He read with a famished nature. This was better than any dish served on Yridia IX. He scraped away more bug remains as the print on the page was suddenly overshadowed by a bulky silhouette.
“What do you think you’re doing? Don’t read that in public.”
The strained voice was enough to get the old man to close the book with a loud snapping noise, the spine crackling with the rush of air. He stared into the stubbly face of his fellow patron, saliva glistening on his lips and the smell of alcohol pungent on his breath. The stranger seized the book and opened it, scanning the pages that Funori had just glanced at.
“Brotherhood, 17 ABY to its demise,” he recited. “You son of a bitch. Where did you get this?”
Funori swallowed sharply. He worried that the lump would return in his throat. “A friend,” he uttered.
“Is that right?” the stranger replied, then removed the cigarra aggressively from between Funori’s teeth. He took a long drag from it, belched smoke and spit, and shoved the stump of the thing back into Funori’s mouth with the raw taste of ale still lingering. “You tell your friend that he shouldn’t peddle books like that. It’s dangerous.”
Funori did not reply. The stranger took the incentive. “Have you read the final chapters?”
“The final chapters. The ones not pertaining to history,” he said. “Were they torn out? Are they all perfectly numbered? What?”
Funori groped for the book again, but the man was quicker. He used long, crooked fingers to turn the pages. He used bloodshot eyes to scan the text. Familiar bloodshot eyes. Gray as stone.
He silently read it for some time before shoving the book back into Funori’s arms. The cup of caf tipped with the rocking of the table, and the sticky liquid splattered on Funori’s trousers and burned deep into his thighs. He gritted his teeth to keep from bellowing.
“If you know what’s good for you, you won’t take this out in public,” the man advised, as he rose to his full height. He was much taller than Funori expected, wearing a faded uniform, the military insignia tarnished and blackened. He kept a tattered black robe drawn over his massive shoulders. His face was taut, but chiseled…cold, white marble. Aligned with the fissures of scars from battles only twenty or so years ago. He had seen more than Funori could ever imagine.
The old man didn’t know what else to do but nod. He placed the book back into the crook of his arm and found the right words as he pushed his chair away. “I should probably go.”
“Yes,” the man replied, staring at him through those gray eyes. “You should.”
Funori turned on his heel then and tore away from the shop, his boots skidding on the frosted sidewalk as he picked up his pace. He wanted to be as far away from the man as possible, away from his glances, and he turned the corner and collapsed against a wall, closing his eyes and breathing deeply. He could not walk as quickly as he used to. Age was getting to every part of him, fossilizing his knees and constricting his airways. He struggled to breathe. His throat still throbbed.
He opened his eyes to stare into the man’s face again.
“If you see a man with black hair and armor,” he said, “you know better than to give him anything. He was a colleague of mine, years ago, and a man I argued with constantly. He was part of my unit, before ascending to a darker throne. He pissed a lot of people in our little group off when he did that. And then…”
Funori choked. “And then…?”
The man paused, then chuckled throatily. “Then nothing. I don’t know why I’m talking to the likes of you. You wouldn’t understand any more than the next non-Force sensitive.”
With that he began to walk away, but Funori called out, “Wait!” with a timbre he did not expect. The man turned back to look at him and placed a battered and scarred hand at his side where Funori could swear the hilt of a saber lay.
“If you need me,” the man said before he disappeared into the Yridian night, “seek me out by the name Brother.”
Funori didn’t know what to think anymore, instead turning back to the book for comfort. It talked of a downfall now, in the year 20 ABY, by a careless leader and by war. It talked of compromise and diplomacy, a hold on an alliance, until it crumbled nonetheless, and did more damage than the members of such a unit believed to be possible…
He was awed by the uniqueness of the names and titles. Torquemada. Ronin. Grand Admiral and Grand Master, titles he had only heard about in memory. He marveled at the idea of the groups – interesting names, too, the Emperor’s Hammer and the Dark Jedi Brotherhood – tearing each other’s throats. Funori turned a page, reading about the bloodshed that followed in a dark hall. It spoke of lightning and inferno, and carving Sith tattoos in mountains of bodies piled up to be burned on makeshift pyres. And the chapter concluded with a fleeing shadow from an ill-retrieved throne when the Hammer broke away from the chaos and left the Brotherhood to die.
Brother, indeed. The man perhaps could help him from whatever danger he could possibly be vulnerable to. Already Funori was feeling cold, sucking on the remains of his cigarra. He could barely taste it anymore. If the man was right, then the person with dark hair and armor had been in Dennis Funori’s store. And if that was so, then...
There was a flash of heat across Funori’s chest, moving up to his throat that still throbbed from earlier. He choked on his cigarra, dropping the tome and spitting ashes onto the ground. His eyes were burning white hot. He averted them downwards and saw the energy blade.
The gleam of a lightsaber. He did not dare to turn around, to stare into those eyes that had once been green. The voice was thicker now, but more distorted, more sickeningly intrigued.
“Excuse me,” came the voice of the mad Grand Master, as he moved the blade along its ragged path. “Mind if I borrow that book for a moment?”
What if Archibald Zoraan had not appointed Torquemada as Deputy Grand Master, maintained his hold on the Brotherhood, and brought it to its downfall?
Feel free to comment on the story and let me know what you thought of it.