ACROSS THE STARS
Rosé leaned over the side of the cart, looking at the rutted dirt road ahead of them. It was growing late, the shadows lengthening, but she knew where they were and how far they were from the estate. With every landmark they passed—every stream, rock, meadow, and tree that she had played amongst as a child—they grew closer to home.
“Rosé!” Ruth tapped her daughter sharply on the shoulder. “Don’t lean out of the cart that way. It isn’t safe.”
“Mother, we’re almost home…”
“And I still don’t want you falling out of the cart, nor do I want you sticking your head out where any predator can leap on you.”
“She’s right, Mistress Rosé,” Maira interjected. “One bad jolt and you’d fall. And there are predators in the Arcadian wilderness…and this is the time when they start coming out to hunt.”
Rosé sat back in the cart, her expression unhappy. They had been cooped up in the cart for almost thirteen hours, with only a few brief breaks from time to time. Sometimes she felt like she could walk faster than the cart moved, and though she recognized the wisdom of both Ruth and Maira’s words, she was eager to be home. It had been far too long since she had been to the wilderness estate—almost a year—and after all that had happened, she longed for the peace and remoteness of the place where she had spent so many happy times as a child.
She wondered what might have changed—if the servants were the same, if the gardens were as beautiful as she remembered, if Buguiness still regarded her as the leader of his pack. It had been so long since she had been home, the caline might very well have found a mate and started a pack of his own.
When the cart finally creaked to a stop inside the gates of the estate, Rosé restrained herself from leaping out of it until Jack, Maira, and Boult had gotten out, Boult moving to unhitch the cabils from the cart and Jack and Maira making a quick but discreet check of the area to be sure it was safe.
When they returned, Ruth and Rosé finally emerged from the cart, Ruth instructing the two Jedi to take their bags, continuing the pretense that they were the Bukaters’ servants. Rosé glanced at Jack and Maira, seeking assurance that it was all right to go ahead. At their nod of assent, she hurried forward, walking toward the front entrance of the house and whistling a series of notes.
Maira and Jack stiffened as a high-pitched yelp came from the garden behind the house. They instinctively reached for their lightsabers, wondering why the Force hadn’t allowed them to sense the threat, as an enormous creature with a thick bristle of black fur on its back and long, protruding fangs came racing out of the shadows and headed straight for Rosé.
Ruth waved to them to put their lightsabers away, and a moment later it became apparent why they hadn’t sensed a threat—the creature raced to Rosé, tail whipping, and leaped up on her, placing its front paws, claws sheathed, on her shoulders, opening its jaw fully, and encompassing her head with its mouth. Her sun hat flew off and landed on the ground a couple of meters away.
“Buguiness!” Rosé flung her arms around the caline as he greeted her, tail still wagging. She shrieked as he leaned on her, nearly knocking her over, and began to lick the sun cream from her face and ears.
Finally, Rosé succeeded in freeing herself from Buguiness’ overenthusiastic greeting, but not before he had licked off the last of the sun cream. Sniffing for more, he got down, rubbing against her for a moment before he turned to inspect the other humans.
Buguiness gave Ruth a cursory sniff, acknowledging that she belonged there, but not paying much more attention other than a quick attempt to lick her hand in search of more sun cream. Rosé’s firm command and Ruth’s moving her hands behind her back stopped him. He glanced at Boult and the cabils, snorted briefly and licked his chops, then turned to inspect the two strangers.
“Just stand still while he inspects you,” Rosé told Jack as the caline circled him, sniffing. Jack did as she said, not wanting to provoke an attack. Finally, Buguiness completed his inspection and growled slightly, indicating that while he didn’t consider Jack a threat to his mistress, he didn’t fully trust him, either.
When he turned to inspecting Maira, his reaction was different. After sniffing her for a moment, he began to wag his tail, then jumped up on her, almost knocking over the startled Jedi Knight, and encompassed her head with his mouth.
“Buguiness! No!” Rosé and Jack both rushed forward to defend Maira against the caline, but he continued wagging his tail and began licking her face enthusiastically, ignoring both the lightsaber-wielding Padawan and his mistress, who grabbed his lower jaw and tugged in an effort to get him to let go.
Annoyed, Buguiness took one last swipe at Maira’s face with his tongue, then sat down and looked quizzically at Rosé.
“Are you okay, Master?” Jack turned off his lightsaber, but kept it in his hand, looking at the beast sitting contritely Rosé’s feet suspiciously.
Maira wiped her face with her sleeve and nodded. “Just a bit…surprised, is all,” she assured him. “I don’t think he was trying to harm me.”
“I don’t think so, either,” Rosé interjected. “I think he was greeting you like a member of his pack. That’s very strange, because calines are very suspicious of strangers, and even amongst those he knows, he’s only ever greeted me and Father that way.” She paused, thinking. “Perhaps we have a similar smell…though with all the time I’ve spent with Mother, he’s never given her more than the slight acknowledgment that she exists and is not a threat.”
Maira looked uncomfortably at the caline for a moment before Jack spoke up with his opinion. “Maybe it’s because you’re both Force-sensitive. Some creatures are more attuned to the Force than others.”
“But why didn’t he like you, then?” Rosé asked. “He doesn’t think you’re a threat, or he would have attacked you, or at the least, stood and stared at you, watching every move to be sure you didn’t do anything to threaten me.”
“Maybe because Master Maira is a woman? Some animals are more comfortable with women than with men.”
“But he liked my father, and greeted him that way whenever he returned here.”
Jack shrugged. “I don’t know, then. Maybe—“
A yowl from the forest outside the gate interrupted him. Buguiness sat up, his ears swiveling in the direction of the sound.
“I think we should go inside now,” Maira decided. “Something is evidently hunting out there, and although the gates are locked, it doesn’t hurt to be cautious.”
Ruth nodded in agreement. “You’re right. I’ve seen tracks inside the gates on occasion, and they weren’t from Buguiness nor any of the livestock.”
Rosé nodded reluctantly, not wanting to go inside quite so soon but acknowledging the wisdom of both Ruth and Maira’s word. She, too, had seen strange tracks on occasion, and in spite of the presence of Buguiness and the two Jedi, she had no desire to meet one of the predators that made their homes in the forest.
As they started toward the house, Buguiness hung back, running to the gates and issuing a snarl of challenge to the unknown creature in the woods. He followed them, then stopped, looking puzzled, and raced back to the gates, sniffing at them and running halfway back to the humans before returning to the entrance to the estate.
“Oh, no.” Rosé’s voice was so faint that it was almost inaudible. Tears filling her eyes, she whispered, “He’s looking for Father.”
Buguiness abandoned the gate and ran up to Rosé, nudging her with his nose and looking towards the entrance anxiously.
Rosé crouched down to the caline’s level. “Oh, Buguiness, he’s not here.” Her voice was choked. “He’s not coming back.”
The caline didn’t appear to understand. Ruth looked at her weeping daughter and went to one of her bags, pulling out an ornate urn and loosening the lid slightly before handing it to her daughter.
“I don’t know if it will help, but let him smell this, Rosé. Perhaps his strong sense of smell will let him know who these ashes once were.”
Rosé nodded, burying her face in Buguiness’ fur for a moment before taking the urn. “Look, Buguiness,” she whispered. “This is all that’s left…if only you’d been there to protect him, it might have been different.”
The caline growled uneasily, not knowing what to make of the somber atmosphere or his mistress’ tears. He sniffed the urn she offered him, his growls growing louder until, with a yelp, he broke free of Rosé’s arms and raced back to the gates, sniffing frantically and yelping loudly, his tail puffed out and standing stiffly.
Sobbing, Rosé handed the urn back to Ruth and leaned against her, allowing her mother to embrace her. “He knows, Mother. He knows.”
Indeed, it did seem that Buguiness understood what had happened, for after sniffing and pawing at the gates a moment longer, he sat down, raised his nose to the sky, and let loose a bone-chilling yowl that members of his species seldom uttered except at the death of a pack member.
Rosé continued to sob at the sound, resisting her mother’s efforts to lead her into the house. Only after the caline stopped yowling and ran towards a heavily wooded part of the estate did she finally allow the others to lead her inside.Chapter 13