Queen Amidala—born Padmé Naberrie, someday to be Padmé Skywalker—had mourned as the flames consumed Qui-Gon’s body. Mourned for those who had fallen in the battle, for those who would fall in the years to come, for all that her efforts to save the galaxy would cost her.
For the man himself, she felt only aggravation that he hadn’t listened, even as she felt disquiet at how she’d mishandled his pride.
The flames brought Mustafar to mind, which probably didn’t help. Dooku and Anakin had both turned Sith. Would Qui-Gon have done the same, had he lived? Or would he have been gray enough to catch them before they lost their anchor so far?
In the wee hours of the morning before there would be celebration and laughter, she found herself back at the pyre, staring at the flames gone cold and the ash that remained. The night was cool and quiet, her people alleviating some of their exhaustion after the stress and pain of the past few days of occupation and battle, the past several months of blockade…
“You should be sleeping.”
Padmé startled. “Nana?”
Silence answered her, and she turned to find her grandmother’s ghost staring at the pile of charcoal and ash.
“Was that what I should’ve done, Before?” Padmé asked, bitterness seasoning her voice. “Wander without my bodyguards, hoping you might admit you were a ghost?”
Her grandmother sighed. “Seeing me takes the Force, and you didn’t use it then.”
“Yes, I did,” Padmé countered. “I unnerved Master Billaba by mentioning her sister—did you know she had a baby and doesn’t know if the kid’s even alive? And she doesn’t know Knight Labooda is her sister?”
“That is consistent with the Coruscant Temple.”
“She went crazy, Nana—was one of the first masters to do it, too. Murdered a bunch of people, fell into a coma. I don’t know if she ever woke up.”
How and when had Padmé even found out about this? Probably pulled it from someone’s thoughts. Master Windu would’ve known.
Nana shrugged. “My sister remembered us because our mother ensured she could not forget, but the Coruscant Order discourages all family ties. You know this.”
“Mother,” a voice said from behind her.
Padmé jumped and whirled and stared at her father, who stepped in from the doorway. “Dad?”
Her father gave a small, sad smile. “Your mother and sister are fine. I came to check on you.”
“You shouldn’t be here,” Padmé said weakly. Rulers didn’t have families, not while they were in office.
He just gave a quiet glance around at the lack of witnesses. “This wasn’t it, was it?”
She blinked. “I’m sorry?”
“This wasn’t enough to send you back, we don’t think.”
It had been six years since she’d changed, and this was the first time he’d admitted to noticing it. Her head went light, woolly.
“Dad…” she whispered, tears burning her eyes.
He came forward, wrapped her in a hug.
Nana sighed. “Ruwee.“
That tone of voice was a warning, not a greeting.
Padmé frowned and pulled away from her father. “Nana?”
“Sideous won’t explore tonight, Mother. Not with all the Jedi around. Your friend asked to chat with you at the usual club, if you don’t mind.”
“You told Tholme I was a Force ghost?!”
“He asked, Mother,” her father replied, much calmer than Nana. “Apparently someone reported that there was a Force ghost in the palace, and he asked me outright if it was you. I don’t know if I can lie to Jedi, and I wasn’t about to find out by testing on him.”
“Wait,” Padmé said, frowning as she struggled to keep up. “Master Tholme’s on Naboo right now? Where?”
Her father and grandmother exchanged a glance she couldn’t read.
“Padmé,” Nana said, and her voice said all she needed to—she was going to refuse to answer, even though she herself had suggested they meet.
Padmé tugged herself away from her father, her mouth tasting sour with betrayal. “What haven’t you told me? Nana? Dad?”
They both looked more sad than anything else, like Obi-Wan when he had to lie about—
No. She would not go there now.
Padmé whirled and left for the city, ignoring her father’s call after her. There weren’t that many club districts in Theed. Surely she could track down one Force-sensitive before the break of day.
She’d forgotten what she was wearing.
It wasn’t sleepwear, exactly, but it was close enough to give the wrong impression, plus the fabric was spun Chandrilian silk, woven in a Naboo style. Her status as a House daughter was so obvious that she might as well have worn the family sigil.
The inappropriate attire didn’t bother her, not in itself. What bothered her was the fact that she had forgotten what she was wearing. Wardrobe was important in her line of work, the symbolism carrying meaning for the present and future of Naboo.
At least she wasn’t in paint or royal style, so anyone who saw her saw only a (probably foolish) young woman from a House.
It took her most of the rest of the night, dodging offers to see her safely home or to help her forget the battle for a while, but she finally ‘heard’ a Jedi-calm presence that lacked the current emotional taste of her people—relief, grief, and indignation were outright rippling through the Force, and she hoped the celebration in the day to come would help supplant that with more positive emotions.
The club was one she’d never even noticed, Before, settled in a downstep against the water and thrumming with a cocktail of depression and desperation, curiosity and caution that reminded her of Dex’s Diner.
Mesa Me was the name of this one, and she wondered if it was owned by a Gungan or just by an ally of them.
She stepped inside, and the music pulsed through her body even as the scent of sweat and dirt and sex overwhelmed her senses, with a foreign tang she assumed was the Gungan version of musk. She staggered back, braced herself against the half-wall dividing the entrance from the floor.
The doorman was perhaps twenty and also House-born, and they frowned at her as she read the cut of their sleeves and waistline, traditional for duals. That dark gray collar indicated they had been in mourning for at least a year.
House Wyze had disowned their heir some months before she’d taken office—she vaguely recalled protesting it while Princess of Theed. They were a young House, originally from Mandalore, and they compensated for that age by being faux-traditional. They’d disowned their heir for refusing gender assignment upon adulthood (which was the earliest a Naboo could legally receive it, since that decision had to be made by the person receiving the assignment).
She smiled gently in recognition of the gossip, and she signed in with the officially anonymous ID she’d earned upon testing into adulthood. Palpatine could doubtless track it, and others probably could, but places like this only hurt your reputation if your work suffered for it. It wasn’t as if she was chewing chak-root.
The sign-in verified that she was of age, and the doorman reluctantly opened the gate.
“My lady,” they said, just before he stepped through. “Please remember to use protection.”
“That isn’t what I’m here for,” she answered, “but thank you for your concern.”
She moved slowly about the edges of the club, carefully reaching into the Force to find…
“Miss Naberrie,” greeted a calm, almost flat voice.
She glanced up sharply, saw a man of perhaps the age Qui-Gon had been, his expression as cold and uncaring as any mercenary. His emotions were smooth, without tide or wave, a flat ocean of calm analysis. It reminded her of Vos and Secura and Saché…and, come to think of it, what Eirtaé would become, by or in the war.
“Tholme, I presume?”
He didn’t react, just watched her, which was an answer in itself.
“My father said you were here, and my grandmother suggested I meet you.”
His mental state had a texture she didn’t recognize, closest to Saché or maybe Secura as she’d been before she’d died, not as she was now.
“Yes,” Padmé answered. “If you’d like to verify that with her, somebody installed akk-three firmware on akk-five sensors over the Tidal Gate, so it should be easy to slip in. It won’t get repaired for another month or so.”
She’d found the issue herself, Before, while working herself to exhaustion to do whatever she could to get her people back on her feet. It had taken several conversations with Saché and Fé for her to comprehend that specialists had their jobs for good reason, and she did everyone the best service if she focused her efforts on her own specialties.
“She told you where I was?” Tholme had a remarkably even sabbac face and pitch, feeding the common stereotype that Jedi were cold, unfeeling bastards, though she didn’t get any sense of ice from him. Just…
Padmé shook her head, trying to figure out what she was sensing. “My father came to check on me, and my grandmother was speaking with me at the time. He passed along your message to Nana, and I wanted to meet you.”
She shrugged lightly, wondering what about him niggled at her so much. “Nana suggested it. She said you were the only Jedi she’d known—but I was tested by Knight Labooda, not you.”
If this Jedi knew her family, why had another Found her?
He studied her in silence for the space of a few breaths, reminding her of Cody. Missing him made her wince.
“Padawan,” Tholme said finally.
“When Sar Found you, she was a Padawan, about the age you are now. Considering your own age at the time and Naboo conventions, it’s unsurprising you misremembered her as a knight.”
Padmé blinked, disconcerted by the correction. “Oh. Thank you. Your Padawan?”
Amusement flickered in his aura, without affecting the edges of his eyes or cheeks. “No.”
Silence fell between them, continued through the end of the current song and into the next.
He was an associate of her grandmother’s, and she was fourteen. Most of the galaxy would consider her a child. Many people expected children to be rude.
She decided to take advantage of that. “Nana mentioned you were a healer.”
He didn’t answer, ostensibly focused on the crowd before them both.
“A healer and something else,” she persisted. She’d spent so much of her life in politics, dealing with nobility and military and Jedi, and she couldn’t puzzle this man out. “A ‘shadow’, perhaps?”
He flicked a glance her way.
“Valorum called me a shadow, when I protected him from an assassination attempt, and Nana used the word in reference to you. What does it mean?”
He watched the crowd in silence. Making a point, perhaps? She cooperated and followed his lead, doing the same.
It took a few songs and even more minutes, but she realized the Mesa Me was like Dex’s in far more than the Jedi visitor. Those three in a booth near the far corner were having a discreet, possibly illegal conversation, complete with a sound shield shimmering between them and the rest of the room. That tired woman among the gamblers had a coat five years too old and a pilot’s license patch that had been out of date at least that long.
This was a haven for smugglers and their ilk. She wondered how many of the teenagers partying on the dance floor or at the bar weren’t even of proper age yet.
“Why are you here, Your Highness?”
“It’s Padmé,” she corrected. “And I told you—my grandmother wanted me to meet you.”
“Did she say why?”
“No.” Or had she? Padmé paused. “She said you knew her sister once.”
She paused, fear spiking. If Nana had told her of Tholme, what had Nana told Tholme about her?
The Jedi guided her to a discreet sound-shielded booth.
Padmé slid in, reminded of years to come, when Obi-Wan introduced her to Dex. He’d been so happy for her to meet his friend…
She gave Master Tholme a sharp glance as he sat across from her and activated the shield. Could she find Kamino without Dex?
“How did you know what a Force Suggestion was?” he asked, referencing her meeting with the Jedi Council on Coruscant, where she’d found and unworked a Force Suggestion from her own mind.
She stared in genuine surprise. “Are those not common knowledge? Master Qui-Gon—“
Qui-Gon had used them freely. Not so much the other Jedi she’d known, Before. Not even Anakin.
“You saw him use one?”
Master Tholme was angling towards something, and she had no idea what.
“I did,” she admitted carefully. “But he couldn’t have set the one I found in the Council chambers. That was put into place sometime while I was at the Senate.”
He was processing her words, sorting and filing what he was hearing with an ease she almost envied. All his aura admitted was that he was paying attention, not what he felt about it or even when he noticed something as significant.
“Qui-Gon said you have visions.”
“That’s what Master Qui-Gon called them. I know I have dreams that come true,” among other things she wasn’t about to admit.
Tholme’s expression was as bland as his aura, and a Gungan server deposited two glasses and poured them shuura fruit juice. Her mouth watered, and she wrapped her fingers around her glass in the pattern of thank-you and polite dismissal.
The server left, and she and Tholme kept watching each other as they sipped.
“You answered a question,” he said.
His pitch wasn’t a prod, but the words themselves reminded her of conversations she’d overheard between Saché and Eirtaé, in the years to come. She’d answered a direct question and therefore had every right to ask one of her own.
Her father had called this the usual meetpoint for Tholme and Nana, and it reminded her of Dex’s. What if she could get the information she needed without leaving Naboo at all?
She took another sip, tapped her fingers against the glass, and considered how she could frame her request. “There’s…a planet. I know the name, but not where it is. The location may be important. Would you find that for me?”
“What planet?” he asked, not making any promise either way, which was fair enough.
If she’d known somewhere close but not her actual target, she would’ve given it. “Kamino.”
He was still watching her, analyzing, and she wondered what he saw.
“I’ll see what I can do,” he said.
She gave the smile of alliance, not caution, suspecting he knew the difference. “Thank you, Master Jedi.”
Words blurred under his eyes, and Jedi Knight Quinlan Vos let his data reader fall into his lap. He leaned more heavily against the front of the couch that was supporting his back. It was mostly exhaustion, though the Corellian brandy he’d filched from Obi-Wan wasn’t helping.
The brandy had been gifted by Queen Amidala, and she didn’t strike him as the type to consider binge drinking an appropriate response to grief. Quinlan therefore assumed she’d been distracted by the desire to give Obi-Wan something he’d enjoy, rather than thinking through the effects of hard liquor on a grieving person prone to self-recrimination.
Amidalda had certainly been distracted enough to show her dislike of the chancellor at dinner.
Quinlan froze, staring at the floor without really seeing it.
The fourteen-year-old blond draped across his couch with another data reader stuttered mid-yawn. Handmaiden Eirtaé Frizmar rolled toward him, squinting with suspicion.
Fatigue and intoxication fought him as he tightened his mental shields, to stop inflicting his emotions on the kid, but these were far from the most difficult conditions he’d ever worked in.
“Were you at dinner?” he asked. “I don’t remember seeing you.”
She hesitated. “I was preparing Gifts of Apology for the…incident.”
A prank she’d helped him set up had accidentally landed on both Queen Amidala and Jedi Master Depa Billaba. “‘Gifts of Apology’?”
“They’re baskets with something sweet to eat and drink, with a sourfruit to represent the offended party’s right to remain sour about the offense.”
“Huh.” That blatant descriptor, paired with specific items that were required and others that were flexible, was consistent with other details he’d seen of the culture. The worldview and thought patterns that would be required to follow and maintain that sort of complexity fit with the Naboo’s general nonchalance about things that tended to unnerve most sentients. Which meant he’d have to keep a careful eye out for their particular triggers.
Every being and culture had taboos, things that repelled or unnerved them. Navigating that was central to both diplomacy and counterintelligence. (And the similarities between the two disciplines were probably a lot of why so many Jedi were quick to question the legitimacy of the Shadows.)
He considered what the handmaiden could know and what she might reasonably conclude. There would be no harm in admitting, “Depa doesn’t really do alcohol.”
Eirtaé let out a quiet mutter that was probably a curse. “What about juice?”
“She’s not much of a fruit person.” And why that was and how he knew were things Quinlan would never admit. “Her favorites are blue milk and honeycake—but don’t worry about that. She won’t eat anything gifted to her specifically.”
The handmaiden gave him an odd but thoughtful look. “Not even from friends?”
Quinlan caught himself before he answered. There weren’t many reasons why someone would be that wary of consumables, and it wasn’t his business to share. “Don’t sweat it. She’ll appreciate whatever you’ve come up with the spirit in which you mean it, and Mace won’t make a big deal about it, anyway.”
Eirtaé’s outright panic over the potential political ramifications was probably at least partially fueled by the fact that it happened shortly after she’d noticed that everyone automatically assumed that the new Supreme Chancellor of the Republic, Palpatine, was as sincere as he seemed—and that ‘everyone’ even included folks who wouldn’t survive their jobs if they were inclined to believe that people were what they seemed to be.
Combine that with the fact that Palpatine was greatly benefitted by the recent invasion, add a few other odd details, and…
The simplest explanation that made sense of it all: Palpatine either was or was closely tied to the Sith.
Quinlan, as a professional suspicious bastard, would be willing place a bet on the former, except he was pretty sure Eirtaé wouldn’t take it.
Obi-Wan might, since he was a diplomat and therefore disinclined to believe the worst of a man he knew, for the sake of his own sanity while engaging in negotiations. But pulling him in on the matter would require another awkward, in-depth conversation, to make sure he understood con artistry. Which would mean reporting the suspicions about the new chancellor to the High Council. Which would result in the bureaucrats taking over to smoothen the political angle and probably getting themselves conveniently assassinated or otherwise framed and eliminated, and the Order itself suffering political ramifications that could affect generations to come.
Thinking of Obi-Wan… Quinlan wrestled his comm off his belt and made a note to himself to talk to Kenobi about what he was about to point out to Eirtaé. That was vague enough that nothing would be compromised if someone hacked his planner or skimmed his thoughts, later.
“Amidala dislikes Palpatine,” he said bluntly. “It slipped out during dinner. Subtle enough that it could be dismissed as annoyance at his subtle patronizing or at his political maneuvering, but…”
“She’s admitted she was murdered by a Sith, so she probably knows who they are…but can’t tell anyone until she can prove it.” Eirtaé tried to nod, was too tired to do more than bob her head ever-so-slightly. “So…proof—our job. But he’ll kill us if he knows we’re looking.”
“You gotta secure number?” he asked.
“Relatively. It’s under a pseu–pseu—“ She yawned again. “Pseudonym.”
He tossed his commlink up, and she funbled through putting in the details and returning it.
The poor kid was an adolescent, and she’d fought in a battle, slept for a short enough time to leave an adult deprived, helped with cleanup, and hadn’t yet slept again. She needed to get some rest.
Thus why he’d refused to share the series he was reading of Naboo’s legends unless she took the couch. He’d thought she would fall asleep. Omira’s stories were interesting but formal, not the easiest to follow unless you were fluent in Early Modern Basic. (He wasn’t, but he was familiar enough that he was adapting quickly.)
Quinlan really needed to remember to account for Naboo’s meritocracy when calculating probable outcomes to shit. Eirtaé had already given herself a few bruises to spike herself awake.
The excess of brandy and fatigue were both making his head throb, and his stomach was starting to roll. He sighed and massaged his eyes for the umpteenth time that hour.
“I’m about to do a Jedi thing. You can try it out yourself tonight, just as a test, but do not use it any other time. You’ll stunt your growth and do some serious damage—and that’s if you don’t kill yourself.”
His master would be irritated at him for showing it to a Human her age at all, but the fact was he needed to do it, and her Force talents meant that observing him do it would let her learn enough to hurt herself with, regardless. Tholme would understand that—Quinlan himself had been closer to Skywalker’s age when he’d picked it up, and he’d almost killed himself trying to use it.
She squinted at him and yawned. “Okay.”
There were some upsides to dealing with kids who’d survived shit they shouldn’t have had to. Whether enslaved or otherwise abused, they had a better sense of their own mortality than even many adults, even while they willingly took risks that made many believe they didn’t understand.
Okay, the ones made to feel responsible ended up like that. The ones who were refused responsibility for anything had the opposite problem, but Quinlan didn’t fret about those. Even someone who was an asshole because they seriously thought that was how they were supposed to behave—or who used assholery as a tool—was still an asshole.
He himself understood completely why a number of Jedi went out of their ways to avoid him.
He was cycling. He gave himself a mental shake and reached into the Force, shunted it into his body to rejuvenate his energy and clear his thoughts and purge his headache.
It also did some nasty things to his electrolytes, blood glucose, and endocrine system in general, but he’d have some salted juice with breakfast and chew some chak-root now.
He pulled his package of root out of a discreet interior pocket, broke one bite-size piece into halves. One went into his mouth; the other, he gave one to the kid.
She accepted it, and he helped her find where to nudge the Force and shunt it into bolstering her body. She was cautious enough that he didn’t feel too uncomfortable backing up and letting her try a little on her own. She struggled with the throttle—the first part that could kill you—but she managed to keep it safe enough.
Doubtless helped that she hadn’t been drunk.
He gently grasped her hold on the Force and worked her focus loose. It took her a few seconds to catch on, but then she let go immediately.
“Too much?” she asked.
“Yeah. I wasn’t kidding when I called it dangerous.” The syrupy yet smoky flavor of chak-root wasn’t to Quinlan’s taste, but it was the safest bolster to counter the side effects. He’d just essentially forced his body into an emergency reboot without full resources. Stress could kill.
“Didn’t think you were.” She eyed the piece he’d given her. “You chew chak-root?”
“Helps the endocrine system normalize, even if you can’t get a vacation.”
Eirtaé looked—and felt—puzzled enough that she probably didn’t know that much about biology (yet), despite the interest she’d shown in poisons.
“You get tired, yeah? In the afternoon, especially when your dad’s been around?”
She considered the root thoughtfully and put it in her mouth. She wrinkled her nose but chewed without comment.
They resumed their study of the legends. Naboo had far too many, of types that Master Kurro would probably have a field day playing with—and that was just in the five volumes of We Are Naboo by Omira.
But they needed to figure out what the Sith Master might be capable of doing, and the legends were the resource they could get hold of most easily and inconspicuously. Quinlan would see what he could discreetly find in the Jedi Archives, but he wasn’t authorized for studying the Sith holocrons. He had enough allies on the various Jedi councils that he could probably get authorization, but not without some parties complaining loudly enough that his interest would get noticed, so access to a Sith holocron was going to have to wait.
They both paused in reading at the same moment and exchanged a look, remembering a Sith holocron that wasn’t far away at all, in the queen’s rooms.
“She might keep it with her,” Eirtaé blurted, her worry bleeding into the Force with the flow of someone without any training at all.
That wasn’t a bad thing, considering a Sith would notice if that changed, so Quinlan didn’t comment on it. He instead considered the queen, who was probably some form of possessed, possibly by a future version of herself. “Does she even remember she has it?”
They stared at each other.
“The Order shouldn’t have it,” Eirtaé said. “Not if there’s a Sith as Supreme Chancellor of the Republic.”
Thanks to the political arrangements between the Order and the Senate, the new chancellor would have far too much access to the Jedi Archives if he wanted it. That wouldn’t include the Sith artifacts—but if Palpatine truly were a Sith, that general access to the Temple would give be sufficient to discreetly go places he wasn’t supposed to be.
Quinlan held and explored that thought…and he really really didn’t care for what he noticed. Even he could get expelled and Force-suppressed for this.
“What?” Eirtaé asked, doubtless picking up on his dismay and denial and—yes, there was even trepidation in there.
He was afraid. For good reason, but…
He breathed carefully, both bracing himself and evaluating if he should admit the truth or make up some bantha shit. She was just a kid, not even a Jedi…
And someone who could get away with what needed to be done.
Disgust welled—at his job, at the situation, even at himself—as he went with the truth. “If the Temple shouldn’t house that artifact, why should it have the others?”
“Oh!” she said, a little sound of surprise that fit the widening of her eyes.
Frip he hated manipulating kids to do dangerous stuff, but at least for her, it would be relatively safe…probably. Assuming she wasn’t susceptible to the traps on the various artifacts that needed to be stolen from the Order.
Her gaze unfocused and danced as she thought quickly, herself. “The way you hid yourself in the Force—that’s a special skill?”
“More advanced,” he answered. “It takes good knowledge of yourself and your Force abilities to be able to do it, and a lot of Jedi think it’s rude or suspicious. ‘Why would you need to hide from other Lightsiders?’ and shit.”
She rolled her eyes. “Privacy, maybe?”
He shrugged. “If you wanna talk more specialized, it’s possible to hide yourself to sight or sound. It’s generally a variant on telekinesis, where you’re adjusting light and air. There are a few ways to do it, though.”
“Like a mass mind trick on all witnesses,” she said thoughtfully—and promptly enough that Qui-Gon had probably been being overzealous with the Force Suggestion, again, before he died. “Which wouldn’t work for all sentients or for machines, but an electrical short or electromagnetic pulse…”
She blinked and looked down at her data reader, where she was reading another copy of the same book he was. She must’ve already gotten through the story of the Burning Boy.
“I’m…pretty sure a classmate could pulse electronics,” she said faintly.
Thank the Force she was noticing that she had prior exposure to Force tricks. That would make it far less distressing for her once she realized why she was learning so quickly.
She pulled up a notepad on her reader and started typing. “I’ll try to make notes of who I remember. There should be patterns in the families…” She paused. “The queen is a projective telepath?”
“I’ve not witnessed it,” he answered, not entirely truthfully, “but from what I’ve heard, I think so.”
“So the mass mind trick would be her skill, and her family—“
“A little secret about telepathy? The ‘receptive’ versus ‘projective’ thing is mostly a descriptor of how it’s used. A friend of my master’s says that a projectives just haven’t learned how to hear, and receptives haven’t learned how to speak.”
‘Friend.’ The reason there was a magic word for getting Tholme off your back. Same diff.
Eirtaé frowned. “But some people are mute or deaf from their bodies. Why not in the Force, too?”
That was an excellent point. Quinlan wondered if Amidala would’ve been as quick on the uptake, at Eirtaé’s age.
“I don’t know,” he admitted. “I’ll have to ask Master Saa, next time I see her.”
And by the Force did he hope that he wasn’t setting the kid up to die.