by Belea Keeney
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When she saw him that first dusk in the private hospital's gardens, she thought initially that he was one of the Nosferatuian species. His height and pallor were extreme. But as his stride brought him farther down the richly mulched path, she realized that his physique was much more robust than any of the blood drinker races. He was heavily muscled and full bodied; certainly not the frail waste of the vampiric.
"Hello." Her soft contralto voice must have startled him for he winced in surprise to see her rise at the side of the path. He stepped quickly into the shadows of a willowa tree as she stood. She had just a glimpse of ice-blue eyes set in white skin.
"My name is Chera and I'm the caretaker here. Welcome to the gardens," she went on and gestured with one arm. The pale man regarded her gravely and when she stepped closer she heard the quiet hiss and pull of the respirator he wore. She peered into the shadows and saw the fresh pink skin around the implant in his mutilated throat. It told her that he was a very recent surgical patient, perhaps less than a week from the scalpel. He said nothing; he was just a dark shadow in the gloom.
"What is your name?" she inquired gently. Perhaps he was one of those psychiatric patients who were afraid of their own shadows. He was silent for long seconds.
"Ani--- Anak---" his deep voice stopped after the syllables. The silence grew again. "Anything," he finally answered in a resigned tone. "You may call me anything you like."
"I'll just call you Ani then, if that's all right," she replied. The pale man nodded in the dim twilight. "The regular garden viewing hours are from 0700 to 1900. You can see all the flower displays better then."
"I prefer---the dark," he answered in a stilted tone.
"Oh, well, then.. Um, well, the garden paths are lighted and you can sit in the gazebo and look over the pond. It's at the end of the path on the left up there." She pointed ahead for him. What an odd man.
"Carry o--" and he hesitated again as if he had to choose his words carefully. "I see. Thank you, Chera." He strode away, a dark ripple in the gloom.
Chera looked after him and resolved to do a special planting in the garden.
The extreme isolation and privacy of Valahas made it an ideal location for the multi-faceted hospital facility. Doctors renowned throughout the galaxy practiced within its' pristine walls; the level of medicine practiced there was so renowned that they were occasionally admitted as patients themselves. Plastic surgeons came to attend seminars on the newest technology, psychiatrists treated patients with the most recent psychometric therapies and medications. Holovid stars were frequent visitors and at times a high-powered business type or politico would register, assured of privacy. In some circles it was THE trendy thing to do; check into Valahas Rehabilitation for detox, mental therapy or to have some body sculpting performed.
Chera cared little for who the patients were in the outside galaxy. Her only concern was having the gardens in perfect order to assist in whatever healing they needed. Her own personal isolation was quite thorough; she was only dimly aware of the Rebellion against the Imperial political structure. For reasons of her own, she seldom left the hospital grounds and consciously avoided the banks of holovid monitors present within the clinic walls. Even so, news of the Death's Star's destruction near Endor had penetrated even remote Valahas. The speculations about a new political organization in the galaxy, however, interested her very little. Political parties didn't manage the rainfall in the valley nor the fecundity of the earth beneath her finger.
She preferred the early evening hours for her weeding and insect management chores. She saw the new patient only then, never during the daylight hours. He strode among the ferns and flowers she toiled over and waved from a distance so she understood that he didn't want to speak again. His dark clothing always contrasted with his pale skin; he moved like a raven through the color around him.
A tenday after their first meeting she deliberately intercepted him on the pathway to the pond.
"Ani!" she called, a little excited about her surprise for him. It was still twilight and he looked up in dismay to see her on the path near him. He appeared surprised again and she thought for a moment that he might turn away. She walked slowly towards him, realizing that he was on edge, although she wasn't sure why. As she drew closer she could see the disfigurement of his skull, one tremendous scar twisting down the left side of his face like a river. He must be here for more plastic surgery, she thought.
"Chera," he answered. His deep voice spoke in careful time with the respirator and had a hint of a chill in it. She had the distinct impression that she had offended him in some way. Apparently he didn't like to be surprised.
"I didn't mean to frighten you," she apologized.
His blue eyes narrowed slightly at this. "I wasn't frightened," he countered. "My senses have been somewhat-- dulled since my arrival here. I wasn't aware of you from a distance."
She nodded. "Well, I have a gift for you. Would you like to come this way?" She leaned closer to take his hand and he moved away. Whey he's as skittish as a zeblach in a pack of rabid velxins, she realized.
Her fine, creamy skin pinkened as her embarrassment showed.
"What is it, Chera?" His question was astonishingly terse.
His tone instantly flattened her pleasant mood. She immediately understood that this man was no being to toy with; he did not take kindly to even lighthearted games. His entire demeanor was regally impatient.
"It's a present for you, that's all," she replied in a soft voice. "I thought of something that might please you. Nothing more, Ani."
"What is it?" he repeated.
"I planted some gladhands for you. And some rosettas- the royal blue hybrid. They're all set in a clump of night-blooming jasmina. The jasmina is white and I installed some lights to show them off at night. When you take your walks." She was silent and then added, "I thought you would enjoy it." There was the slightest touch of hurt in her voice and she saw Ani's expression change as he realized her offense. She wondered why he was so tentative about the most innocent of overtures.
"Thank you, Chera." Again she had the feeling that he was working to find the right words. "That was a thoughtful gesture to make." His lips pulled back in the smallest of near-smiles.
"Let me show you--please." She offered her dirt-scented hand. He looked down at her outstretched palms, noting the grit and dirt ground into it from years of earthwork and placed it on the rich fabric of his cloak in a courtly gesture.
"Lead the way, caretaker."
They shouldered past the brush at the path's end. Chera had carefully planted the new flowers in a secluded area of the garden, accessing it was possible only through the gatelike trellis.
She was pleased to hear her companion's sharp intake of breath when the planting came into full view. The combination of the deep purple giant gladhands and white jasmina was stunning. She released his muscular arm, ignoring the tingle of her fingers, and let him watch the flowers sway gently in the night air.
"I chose the royal blue rosettas because they reminded me of you," she told him.
"This is quite beautiful, Chera...." His voice trailed away. He took one long stride and bent to smell the rosettas. The darkness of his clothes and pallor of his skin were an ideal blend with the arrangement. Her choice of color had been perfect.
"The rosettas actually have a touch of pink and white in their centers. It's a subtle species; you have to pay attention to them to appreciate their beauty." Chera offered quietly.
He stood silently again, deep in thought.
"You did this for me." Ani's statement was a near question. She nodded. "You planted these flowers just for my pleasure." Puzzled, she nodded again.
She could sense him thinking, processing her gesture as if looking for some hidden meaning, and she didn't speak to interrupt his ruminations. He gazed at her, appraisal and judgement in his blue eyes.
"I do thank you, Chera. I didn't mean to be rude before. I am--unused
to such kind treatment." His words pierced at her; she was tempted to put
one arm about his broad waist in comfort but she stood still. Chera saw
the genuine warmth in his eyes and a softening of his fierce face. He bent
again to inhale the sweet fragrance of the rosettas and she could see the
pleasure it brought him. She backed away and left him alone with his garden.
The tenor of their meetings changed after that night. The older man loosened his guarded sense of emotional control and many evenings they would walk the grounds together. Her initial sense of discomfort in his company eased on the third night when she finally realized what had caused it. The birds completely stopped singing as they passed. Even the chitterings of the night creatures quieted as they walked by. She brushed away her own trepidation with that observation, convinced that it was the sole reason for her unease with the pallid stranger at her side.
Unlike most patients he didn't hobble with the slow trek of the aged or infirm. His stride was purposeful even among the gardens of the clinic. He seemed incapable of strolling; something seeming to drive him even in leisure. Chera also noticed a quiet hum of power about him. Partly it was his regal bearing combined with his too-formal speech. It gave her a sense that he had been a member of a royal court at some time. But his terrible wounds and tortured face told her that he was a warrior, a man for whom violence was as easy as picking a flower.
Along with his somber blue, purple and black clothing, he carried with him a sense of deep sadness. It was if he were grieving fiercely for someone who had died. He never spoke of his life beyond the hospital walls. His privacy was sacrosanct. The odd, full-length cloak he wore was as ever-present as a psychic cloth of regret and suffering.
The one time she hinted about his past, a feeling of immense coldness abruptly washed off him as if an arctic breeze had swept through the garden. His icy eyes tightened and turned gray as he looked at her.
"Very well then, Chera. If you really wish to discuss the past, it will be quid pro quo. How did you come to be here?" As he glared down at her with his stern face she felt an odd tickle behind her eyes. He stepped closer and for the first time she was aware that she was in a remote part of the grounds with this forbidding man she scarcely knew. The taut bulk of his body gave her a sense of menace. He was dangerous. Underneath his pallid exterior Chera sensed a dark predatory instinct held tightly in control.
The tickle continued and suddenly--
She didn't know how he did it, but he knew. He knew of her nightmares, her fears and the shame that kept here, unable to leave the hospital, unwilling to face the outside ever again...
She his fierce visage soften though her teary eyes. And through the terrible scars on his face she saw some compassion, some glimpse of understanding. He knew what is was like to be a prisoner, to be bound by shackles that cut deeply into a soul, that no one else could see.
He knew. Ani stroked away a tear with one pale hand and nodded.
She never asked about his past again.
On their walks they spoke of flowers and animals, philosophy and readings, always in the most general terms. She never had a sense that he had any personal curiosity about her. She found it soothing; the pryings of others had long exasperated her. It was comfortable to talk with him in the absence of some personal transaction; he didn't want her friendship, he didn't want her admiration; he didn't want her sensuality. Quiet companionship seemed to suffice.
He had an unsettling sense of stealth and had stolen up on her without her knowledge on several occasions. Her jolt of surprise seemed to amuse him far beyond what it should have. His rich throaty laugh floated on the dusk's breeze like a caress. One evening she had toppled against him after he surprised her and she flushed to feel the warm strength in his tall body.
She was surprised that he had no further surgeries. The respirator implant was the only operation he had performed. The twist of scars about his bare skull remained.
The only visitor she ever saw him with in the garden was a golden-haired young man with piercing blue eyes.
Often, after his visitor left, she would see him in the night gazing up at the stars. His very torso seemed to strain upward to the heavens on such occasions. Several mornings she found him still standing at the pond's edge with regret plain on his wearied face. She felt saddest for him on those mornings, when his head finally bowed as the stars faded from view in the sky.
One evening some two Standard months after she had planted the gladhands for him, she was weeding behind the gazebo, working quietly. She heard the wood structure creak as Ani and his visitor went inside. Murmurs of conversation drifted over to her as they began to talk in earnest. Chera rushed her task so as not to pry, but as she walked away she heard the golden-haired young man begin to weep desperately. She caught just a glimpse of him crouching, his head on Ani's knees, and his sobs were the wrenching cries of the soul. Ani's pale hands wrapped in the flaxen hair and stroked him as if soothing a mortally wounded beast. It was a vain attempt to comfort the crying man. The pale man leaned over to speak in the other's ear and as she left the garden, she carried the image of the two of them bent together in apparent agony.
It was no surprise then when Ani approached her the next day. There was genuine sadness in his eyes as he spoke.
"I must take my leave of you." His formal words contrasted with the slightest tremor in his voice.
"I knew you would have to go someday. Everyone does," she replied. The expression on his face frightened her; wherever he was going was not a pleasant place.
"Your kindness these past months has been appreciated." He reached to touch her cheek gently. For a moment she thought (wished?) that he might kiss her. He smiled sadly and turned to leave. As his tall form moved away, a breeze blew through the garden and the purple gladhands she had planted for him seemed to bow in his honor. Inexplicably compelled, she bowed as well. When she did, he waved one hand as if in acknowledgment, his broad back still turned.
She saw him once again, months later, on the holovid that another patient had literally dragged her to watch. He was the defendant in the "trial of the millennium", a fact which surprised her less than she would have thought. The sense of darkness and unknown depths about him had been unforgettable. It somehow seemed quite possible that he WAS the war criminal and mass murderer that the New Republic now accused him of being.
The entire galaxy came to a screeching halt for the reading of the verdict.
"We, the jury, in the matter of the New Republic vs. Darth, Vader, Dark Lord of the Sith, find the defendant not guilty of the charges." The screams of shock and surprise rolled across the galaxy. Amid the tears and chaos that ensued in the courtroom, a lone assassin reached forward with a magnum blaster and blew a hole in the pale man's broad chest. The court bailiffs grabbed him immediately, but it was too late.
Ani died, one hand grasping the golden-haired young man's neck, the
younger man's tears wetting his lips as the final darkness came.
That evening Chera watered the purple gladhands with tears of her own.
She wept. Not for the warlord that the galaxy had so hated, but for her
Ani, the sad and lonely man who had found some small peace and comfort
in her gardens.