Packed. That is one word to describe the Arx. Another is huge. Also bright, or so I'm told. If there's one advantage to already being blind on the Arx, it's the fact that all the bright neon lights cannot take my sight away. Rhea and I step out of the train and into the commerce area. I can imagine her confounded expression. "This is" she asks half in awe, half in shock.
"Yeah, you could say that. If there's something you want, you can find it here." I pause. "Unless it's illegal." Well, there is a black market, like everywhere, but let's not steer her there. "But don't let the ads bamboozle you. People will try to sell you all sorts of crap you'd never need."

The plaza is packed, but we make our way through it well enough. "Right, we wanted to get you some clothes. This place is good." If I was feeling trollish - and irresponsible - I'd take her to The Lady's Haven...but that's so not the place to take her.
"Do we need to show these men our permits?" she points at what seems to be a security guard.
"Er, no, they're just there to deal with robbers. You don't need a license or anything. Just for restricted stuff like a gun."

At this time of the day, the store is not packed, so we can move freely. For a while Rhea sees nothing as she takes in the clothes on display. I hate that I cannot see her expression, but she feels like she is in trance.
Finally she speaks. '"Can we take anything we want from here?"
"You have to pay for it."
"With this...currency Firemane gives us? But what happens if you want something and you do not have enough?"
"You can't have it."
"Does everyone have the same currency amount?"
"No, different people earn different amounts."
"That sounds very unfair and strange."
I frown. "Back on Tephrike, you guys don't have currency." She shakes her head. "You get these cards, right?"
"Yes, and they determine exactly what we can trade them for and in what amount. Everyone is supposed to receive the same, from a Jedi Councillor to a lowly worker."
"Lemme guess, it didn't work out that way."
"Yes, and no. The Jedi Masters receive the same, but when one of them wants something, no one will dare refuse them. And those high-up have special shops only they can get wares from. I was inside one once. The shelves were full...even when the common people were starving."

I grit my teeth. "Of course. Bloodsuckers."
"We had a saying. 'All citizens are equal, but some are more equal than others'. I heard another one from a worker: 'You pretend to pay us, we pretend to work.'"
I keep a straight face for a moment, then laugh. After a while, she joins in. "Come on, pick something you like. You've only got your uniform and your old robes and that won't do."
"They are perfectly adequate," she insists.
"They are - for work. But you're not just a soldier, you're a free being."

She comes to a halt and picks up a pair of pants lying there. This is where shopping with me becomes awkward. I can't see colours or patterns. All I have to go on is how it feels when I touch it or put it on. Whatever, it usually works and I don't play dress-up.
"Do you like it?"
"It looks nice," she says a bit hesitantly. "But expensive."
"How much?" she tells me and I shake my head. "Doesn't matter. I'll pay."
"That is very kind of you. I will repay you when I...receive my salary."
I wave my hand. "It's a present. Not like I'm starving for credits."

"Your maternals have a lot of this currency?"
"Yeah...they own this station, this shop pays them to sell clothes here."
"Why do they have a giant space station whilst these people have to pay them to sell? Should not your maternals be happy with the currency they have?"
"Tell that to 'em," I mutter. The image is kind of amusing. "They don't see it that way. See, when people have lots of currency...they want even more of it."
"That does not sound very satisfying. You will never feel you have enough then."

I nod. "No, but priorities change when you're on top." More power, more money, more people fawning over you. It's all empty. "Anyway, try this on. And, hell, might as well pick a shirt, a top or something while you're at it."

We leave the store some time later. My purse feels lighter. I don't spend a lot anyway. Outside crowds are going hither and zither. Holographic newscasters are blathering about all sorts of things. Wherever you look, there's people - humans and aliens of varying species. Gotta say, the Arx is a great place to meet new people from across the galaxy.

"I see many of these elves," Rhea comments. "Do they all work for Firemane?"
"Everyone who lives here's involved in Firemane in some capacity. Be it as mercenaries, healers or traders who pay to sell and promote their stuff here. But plenty of elf rulers send their young ones here to study. Learn about all our shiny tech." Me, I like the elves who recognise the 'sky people' are just that - people with fancy toys - and don't bow before the 'Karishzar' and the 'Blessed Consort'.
"And to be swayed by Firemane," Rhea continues. "When they return, they will see Firemane as their patron and follow it when they become leaders."
"Forgive me. I meant no offence," she says hastily. "I understand Firemane helped us. I am grateful for that. However..."

"Firemane hit the camp because I happened to be in it. It's fine," I shrug. "Look, Firemane's done a lot of good. Freed tons of slaves and actually cared for them after that instead of just leaving them out in the cold. Saved an entire race from extinction. Compared to it, most of the so-called good guys are useless or just as bad as Sith. But at the same time it's just another group that wants power and money, and it's not gonna step in to help people unless it's being paid through the nose."

"Which is why it left Tephrike to its fate," she finishes.
"Among other things, yes. Easier to sell just medicine and ammo to the Guard to level the playing field a bit and get paid back in raw materials than fight. It's far from home, and the natives aren't gonna build statues for my Mother."

I cannot quite keep the bitterness out of my words. Sure, Mother has not told her Qadiri and Xio cultists to worship her, but she doesn't set them straight either. She enjoys it. Mum makes fun of it behind their back, but goes along with it all the same. In short, she enables it. Parties and high living are more important, I guess. "And our casualties would be high because we can't just bomb all the bad guys from orbit." Not even sure us stepping in would make things any better.
"People are still dying in the killing fields. My people."
"I know."
"But they are powerless, so it isn't important."
"To the mighty, the powerless don't matter unless they've got something to offer."
"We must become strong ourselves."
"And I'll help you, as you know." The Lifeweb help those who help themselves. For a moment we are both silent. I look at the crowds, the shops and towers. Finally, I break the silence. "She wanted me to be her heir, you know. Mother. Well, after all her other alternatives died, ran off, went crazy or all three. I was the last one standing," I snort. Good ol' reliable Elpsis. Always ready to leap-first into trouble and burn chit for the Phoenix. Desperate to impress and belong.

"Succeed Director Kerrigan as Firemane's leader?"
"Yeah. But before you imagine me sitting on a throne with a little gold circlet on my head and wearing some fancy-arse gown, I gotta burst your bubble. I turned her down after Tephrike. Swore an oath, signed some paper and all that. I'm officially out of the succession."
"Why did you do that? Firemane is wealthy and has a lot of power. You could do a lot of good with its resources. It would all be in your hands."

"Free the oppressed! Slay the tyrants! Me, Elpsis of House Kerrigan-Alcori, First of her Name, Queen of Fire. I'd be chit at it. Can you imagine me in a board meeting? Frak, I'd go crazy. Better to stick with what makes me happy and lets me stay me."
"You're a good woman and a brave warrior. You know innocents suffer under the yoke of tyrants. You've experienced it yourself instead of spending all your life in a palace."
"So did my mothers. Hard to believe, but they came from the gutter - just like me. And look at them now. Very different."

I didn't know them until Firemane was already a big corp, but I've heard the stories. Sometimes I wonder whether their younger selves would recognise them. Sometimes I wonder whether my younger self would recognise me. Long as we don't one day have the Fire Order lording it over peasants toiling in the fields or corporate overlords ordering us to do immoral stuff I'll be happy. That hasn't happened. We just have 'High Queen' Siobhan lording it over everyone here.

"If I rose that high, how soon until it would stop being about helping people and just about stroking my ego and amassing more power?" I shrug. "Hard to see all the little people when you're that high up. Especially in a place where, you know, there's no real limit on your power."
"Power corrupts," she surmises. "That is why we Unchained have limited how much our leaders can wield. But we are a small community, so we know our leaders and can control them."
"Maybe I should run for Advocate next time there's an election. It's only for one year, so I can't screw up too much, can I? And can you imagine the look on Mother's face?"

"You'd have my vote." Her tone is so deadpan I cannot tell whether she's yanking my chain.
"Please don't put my name on the ballot."
"You could be the Advocate who leads our raids while the other runs the colony."
"I think Phoebe would chop my head if that happened." My stomach rumbles a bit. So embarrassing. "Let's go find something to eat. There's a great Dahomian diner down the street."
She follows me quickly. We navigate the crowd well enough. "It would be nice to visit Liberty before we venture into the stars again. There's still a lot of work to be done, but they've made progress. Everyone has a roof over the head now. No more tents."
"And you built it by your own hand. Maybe I'll come. Should be able to slot in a couple days between deployment, and find some way to help out."