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The Snow of Angels' Fear

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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.”

“Did she.”

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.

“I’m sorry?”

“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.

Chapter Text

Celebration day opened with a clear sky and beautiful weather, and the air barely smelling of any smoke at all.

Rabé took pleasure in that as she got up for the morning and fetched breakfast for everyone—something that usually would be the duty of the newest handmaiden on the shift, but Saché had that hurt leg, and Rabé wanted to reduce Yané’s risk of running into her family, just in case they decided to take a page from her uncle’s playbook and come harass her.

That meant she discovered both Eirtaé and Amidala were already out of bed and she had no idea where. She checked the terminal in the handmaidens’ lounge and found that neither had logged an exit. The queen’s commlink was in her room. Eirtaé’s comm was pinging in the guest hall where the Jedi had been put.

“Where’s the queen?” Sabé blurted as she rushed in. “She’s not in her room!”

Rabé’s stomach dropped. “Her comm is in there.”

Saché’s gaze narrowed. “Have you called the Jedi?”

“Not yet. Eirtaé’s there now. I guess she woke up first.” Unless she hadn’t slept at all, but why…

Rabé hurried for the door. “I’ll check with the Jedi. Can you tell the others? With your leg—”

“Yes,” Saché interrupted. “Go.”

She managed to keep herself from running with the knowledge of how that would look and be interpreted—the ensuing panic and gossip would cause too much damage—but she swiftly reached the guest wing where they’d put the Jedi.

Eirtaé wasn’t in sight.

Where would she be? Obi-Wan and Anakin needed their sleep, and she couldn’t imagine Eirtaé would be eager to meet the Councilors after the prank…

Maybe the prank warranted some special gift, by House standards? She knocked on the door for Master Billaba’s suite.

The woman answered swiftly enough that she might’ve already been awake, but her mussed dark hair and gifted robes suggested she’d been roused from bed.

Rabé flushed. “Forgive me. The queen’s missing, and I’m seeking Eirtaé. Her commlink is somewhere on this—“

The Jedi pushed past her and strode to Knight Vos’s door as it opened and Eirtaé stepped out, followed by Knight Vos.

Why would Eirtaé have been in his rooms at this hour?

Master Billaba hesitated. “Quin…”

“What?” Knight Vos asked, then scowled. “Frip no,” he said, sounding offended. “You seriously think that little of me?”

Billaba flinched. “You’re not supposed to do that.”

“Yeah, well, my brand of crazy isn’t gonna hurt yours any.”

Eirtaé winced. “You’re not crazy, Vos.”

“I’m professionally paranoid, personally a manipulative bastard, intellectually under-stimulated, psychologically brittle, and biologically predisposed to have anger management issues. That makes it difficult or impossible to pass as a ‘normal’ person for any duration of significant length, therefore crazy.”

Rabé struggled to untangle what he’d just said. Master Billaba blinked.

Eirtaé, though, started outright sniggering.

Vos narrowed his eyes at her, approval and pleasure curling his lips. “You little sneak. Burning Boy, my ass. You were deflecting from the Mistress of Puppets.”

Billaba’s expression turned distinctly uncomfortable.

Eirtaé giggled, outright grinning, looking happier than Rabé had ever seen.

Vos added something in another language that didn’t sound complimentary, though he still smiling.

“You two got together this early to talk about legends?” Rabé asked, feeling confused and vaguely nauseated. “What about the queen?”

“What about her?” Vos asked sharply, humor gone.

“She’s not in her bed, and her commlink’s in her room. We don’t know where she is.” Just how long had Eirtaé been with Vos?

Eirtaé’s gaze went distant.

Vos smacked her upside the head.

She rocked with the hit, not making a sound and keeping her feet, even though the blow obviously startled her. Judging from Billaba’s quick intake of breath, Rabé wasn’t the only one who understood the implications of that.

Vos and Eirtaé exchanged scowls.

“You could’ve just said it was dangerous to try that,” she muttered.

His expression went bland.

“Fine. Should I go—“ Eirtaé froze, cocked her head as if listening to something, then looked to Vos. “Artoo,” she said, and it wasn’t a question. “I’ll go tell the astromech.”

He nodded in approval. Eirtaé hurried off, and Vos banged on Kenobi’s door before Rabé realized what he was about to do.

Knight Kenobi took a bit longer to answer, but he and all visiting Councilors were congregated within a minute. Figuring out what they’d all ostensibly do in order to discreetly search for the queen without instigating panic or publicizing her disappearance took a little longer.

When they finally dispersed, Vos and Secura went with Rabé to the queen’s suite, something about them being the best trackers, so they’d start from her last known whereabouts.

Returning to the queen’s rooms with two Jedi at her back should’ve gathered some attention from the guards, but they didn’t notice at all. Rabé assumed it was a Jedi thing.

She entered her code, entered the suite.

Someone was in the bedroom.

The Jedi started maneuvering to take point, but paused in the middle of it. Rabé pushed past them to find Amidala brushing out her hair.

“Rabé! Where is everyone? The celebration gown takes a good three hours to put on, and the parade’s in four hours!”

“Handmaiden,” Jedi Vos said flatly. “Please help my padawan call everyone to say the search is canceled, then keep her company in the front room for a minute.”

Amidala lifted her chin. “Is there a problem, Master Jedi?”

“Aayla?” Vos said. “No drops.”

Padawan Secura sighed and dragged Rabé out into the front room, too far from the door to eavesdrop once Vos shut it.

What he meant by ‘no drops’? she guessed, even as she felt uncomfortable about leaving the queen alone with a man who’d spent however long with another fourteen-year-old girl the night before, doing the gods only knew what.

Rabé froze. Was she jealous?

“I’m not comfortable with this,” she said, of both the situation and her feelings about it.

Secura heaved another sigh. “I know. His lectures are these amazing pieces that I can spend weeks teasing lessons out of, and he so rarely does them! And I don’t think he’s ever given one to a queen, before. It’s gonna be epic.”

Rabé stared at the Padawan, wondering what, precisely, kept her from disobeying. “He was with Eirtaé last night.”

Why did she say that?

The Twi’lek gave her a keen look, as if she knew or saw something Rabé didn’t, but her voice and mannerisms were nonchalant. “Giving her tips for how to deal with her dad, no doubt.”

Rabé frowned. “I thought Jedi didn’t have families.”

Secura paused a few seconds before saying lightly, “Shitty family are shitty people, handmaiden, and dealing with that’s my master’s specialty.”

The Jedi tossed her commlink in the air. “Wanna flip for who calls Master Windu?”

Master Vos didn’t even look at the door, just shut it with the Force, the anger and frustration close enough to Anakin’s emotions at the end that Padmé felt distinctly uncomfortable.

(“You betrayed me!”)

Her brush clattered against the floor.

Vos approached her with Anakin’s wildness, constrained by Obi-Wan’s self-control.

Not a fair comparison, she scolded her gods-forsaken subconscious. Vos wasn’t Anakin or Obi-Wan, just had a few similarities that her mind kept latching onto.

He crouched, picked up the brush. Stood back up, handed it back to her, and strolled over to put himself between her and the window—an oh-so-casual bodyguard maneuver she recognized.

She still fought to stay put, to not guard her throat or the children.

“Okay,” Vos said.

It was perhaps the best introduction he could make—something neither Anakin nor Obi-Wan would have said, in this context. Something in her relaxed a bit.

“When you ditched your security and left no trace of your whereabouts—what were you thinking, exactly?”

“It was only a walk. My father knew where I was.” For part of it, anyway.

“That’s great for Padmé Naberrie. What good does that do for Naboo when their queen outright vanishes?”

Many rumors had surrounded General Vos, during the war, and this sense of political ramifications was disconcertingly unlike anything Padmé had ever heard of him. “I was…”

Why had she gone out to begin with? She couldn’t remember.

“Making yourself even more vulnerable to the Sith?”

Cold washed through her.

“I’m pretty sure you already know this, but there is at least one other Sith out there, and they are kriffing pissed at you. If you need a break from being Amidala, fine, but you schedule it. You don’t leave your guards to figure out where the frip you ran off to, yeah?”

Did he just…protest only how she’d run off by herself, not the fact she’d run off at all? She must have misheard.

“You are the queen of this planet and are an adult under its laws. Act like it. Pretending you aren’t a target just gets more people killed, and you aren’t stupid or selfish enough to want that.”

Padmé had never known Master Vos well, just met him, and most people of her acquaintance who’d known him—whether senators or Jedi—had actually disliked him intensely.

Something in that thought niggled at her as important, maybe related to however he differed from what she’d known. “You don’t often work with politicians, do you?”

He shrugged.

That answered some of why others hadn’t liked him, but not all of it. “In your opinion, how should I have handled this morning’s walk?”

Surprise rippled through the Force, but Vos paused for only a moment. “Informed at least two of your bodyguards of your intent and your intended timeline, so they would know both to cover for you and when to sound a discreet alarm.”

That wasn’t the answer of a Consular-diplomat or a Guardian-bodyguard. It was too independent, too willing to ditch bodyguards, too willing to let her seek solitude and recovery—things that both Consulars and Guardians tended to deny until or unless someone was injured.

But what other Jedi roles were there?

“As it is,” he continued, “you’ve outright handed the Sith evidence that you don’t play nice with your security. That’s a vulnerability they can exploit to destroy both you and your people.”

Vos wasn’t speaking of the Sith’s capabilities in terms of politics or warfare, but of information and manipulation.

The answer clicked. He and probably Aayla were spies, intelligence operatives. That explained the oddities she remembered in their mission assignments during the war, why he and Aayla reminded her of Saché and Eirtaé, why he’d shown up here when she proved odd enough to warrant investigation.

Maybe ‘shadow’ was the Jedi term for an intelligence operative? That would explain why there was so much secrecy about the term, and possibly why Valorum called her that. Her showing up just in time to save his life probably had looked like a Jedi thing.

Padmé considered Vos from that angle, ignoring the effects of her fluttering hormones as best she could.

“Yes?” he asked, so blandly that he was well aware of what she was feeling.

Padmé almost admitted outright that she’d realized what he was, but then thought better of it. She would be a senator again, if Shiraya allowed it, and she already knew more than enough secrets to make the Order uncomfortable with her. That discomfort could cost them and her, if she fueled it.

“I must dress for the day,” she said. “Please send in my handmaidens.”

Vos bowed his head slightly, stepped out, and all five handmaidens on primary shift piled in, most of them chattering about where had she gone and would she please tell them next time?

Knowing she wouldn’t be able to involve them in her upcoming trip to Kamino but not wanting to lie to them any more than she had to, Padmé didn’t answer.

Obi-Wan had been assigned to taking care of his new padawan rather than joining the search for the queen, with the argument that his status as a hero would attract the most notice and therefore draw the most attention to the fact that Her Highness was, indeed, missing.

He therefore took Anakin down to the cafeteria for breakfast while the other Jedi and the primary handmaidens searched for the queen.

“Is everything okay?” Anakin asked uneasily, as he made his breakfast swiftly vanish.

Was it his background as a slave or his twenty thousand midichlorians that made him so aware of others’ moods?

“No matter what else he is, Skywalker’s a kid,” Quinlan had commented the day before, and Obi-Wan made himself focus on those words.

Anakin was observant. What made him that way was irrelevant.

“Insofar as it pertains to you at the moment, yes,” he answered, then remembered that Basic wasn’t Anakin’s first language. “It’s nothing that concerns you—I’m sorry; I didn’t meant that how it sounded.”

Judging from the boy’s mildly confused expression, that correction didn’t help.

Obi-Wan needed to learn Huttese, to help him communicate with his padawan. He sent Quinlan a text, asking for recommended tutorials.

“We’ll have to find some robes for you and get you a haircut. Get you all clean and with a padawan braid before the parade today.” He remembered what he’d realized at dinner the evening before, and winced. “That is…if you still want to be my padawan.”

Anakin frowned. “Of course I do!” His frown turned worried. “Do you…not want me to be your padawan?”

“No—that is, I…” Obi-Wan shook his head. “I’m sorry. I just… You deserve better than a new knight who…” almost didn’t make it as a Jedi, himself. Who had left the Order once and had been willing to do so a few more times.

Anakin studied him. “Master Qui-Gon was like your dad, wasn’t he?”

Obi-Wan winced and gripped the Force to steady himself. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “I have no memory of my parents.”

Anakin scooted closer to Obi-Wan, moving the barely touched breakfast out of the way, and wrapped him in a hug. “If somebody killed Mom, I’d… I’d make them hurt, I think.”

Breath caught in Obi-Wan’s throat. “That isn’t the Jedi way.”

“Is it more of a Sith thing?”

He winced. “Ah…”

“Right.” Anakin leaned heavily on Obi-Wan. “I guess that’s what happened, then.”

“I’m sorry?”

The boy curled in on himself. “If somebody hurt Mom before I could free her… I mean, I’d be mad. Really mad. And I’d hate whoever did it. And Master Yoda said that would lead to the Dark Side. That’s what Sith are, right?”

Obi-Wan didn’t know enough about what Anakin understood or even enough what Sith philosophy was, to feel comfortable discussing it.

“Your mother’s a slave?” he asked, instead of answering the question. That hadn’t been in Qui-Gon’s report.

Anakin startled and nodded. “Children follow the mother.” Judging from his tone, that was common knowledge, on Tatooine. “Master Qui-Gon didn’t tell you?”

Obi-Wan shook his head. “I assumed…” It had been stupid of him. Anakin had been born a slave. Of course his mother was a slave and not a freewoman. “I’m sorry. I’ll make a few calls, see if I can get the Order to watch for opportunity to free her.”

He didn’t have the position or influence to set it as an official policy, but he could think of a few Jedi who would be willing to keep an eye out.

“You won’t get in trouble for that?”

“Not for asking, no.” He paused, wondering if he should explain what ‘getting in trouble’ meant for a Jedi, but the boy was having enough culture shock. That could wait. “Are you full? We can get seconds if you like.”

“What about you?” Anakin asked. “You’ve eaten less than I did.”

Obi-Wan managed a faint smile. His padawan cared so much about others.

If he truly did end up a Sith…

There’d be no denying that the boy wouldn’t be the one at fault.

Eirtaé wasn’t sure when she realized that Vos recognized her telepathy and its dangers because he had some talent that way, himself. Pranking him with that true-speaking suggestion had been rude of her, but he’d been tired and distracted enough that she could test her understanding of the metaphors used in the Mistress of Puppets. She hadn’t been able to resist the opportunity.

He’d been annoyed, of course, but he’d also been as amused as she expected.

She hadn’t expected him to feel relieved, but in hindsight, she should’ve. He actually cared about her survival. Professionally, he had to be willing to endanger her, but personally…

Personally, he would prefer to not put her at risk. She wasn’t used to that. It was disconcerting.

He was doubtless risking trouble for himself, too, with what he was teaching her about the Force. She wasn’t his Padawan or part of his Order, and she wasn’t fool enough to think the fact that she’d go insane without help would keep him from discipline if the wrong person found out.

What did Jedi do to knights who broke their rules?

She’d gotten the news that Amidala was fine just after she’d found Artoo. She therefore had asked the astromech to quietly sift through the data of the invasion and its repercussions to find out who benefitted regardless of the outcome, while assuming that malicious persons were keeping watch for such searches. With the unconventional actions already on Artoo’s record, the astromech would probably be the only creature to face retaliation if it was caught.

Amidala’s dream-snippets suggested Artoo could handle it. Eirtaé hoped she’d read them right, that Artoo actually could manage it. She’d hate to be responsible for the queen losing something she considered a friend and ally.

The celebration was even louder in the Force than it was in her ears, and the cacophony gave her a migraine even with her rudimentary shielding that protected her from the worst of it.

Fortunately her handmaiden gown was hooded, and protocol allowed her to use that hood to shield her face from the light.

Unfortunately, either her migraine or her simple shields earned her a glance from Palpatine. Protocol, she reminded herself, as firmly as she could. Stick to protocol.

She’d be Amidala’s shadow, the needle that could flit between outer and inner fabrics as warranted. Vos’s lessons would give her a chance to survive that much, at least.

Amidala had solidified the alliance with the Gungans by scheduling their siesta into the celebration. Most of the handmaidens went down to the gym.

Eirtaé very much wanted to nap, but…

The Sith Master was here. Sleeping, especially sleeping alone, felt too vulnerable, as if she’d be inviting the Sith to pay her a visit.

She joined her fellow handmaidens in the gym.

Why is Master Obi-Wan so convinced Master Quinlan is his friend?

The problem had been eating at Anakin like something alive in his belly, ever since the Kiffar had cut in on Obi-Wan’s lesson the day before, giving Anakin advice in a way he understood even though Obi-Wan was the teacher.

Master Quinlan had made Obi-Wan look bad, and he hadn’t even apologized. Some friend.

After the parade, he swallowed his fear and tracked Master Quinlan to a big room with padding all over and circles drawn in the floor. The Kiffar was showing the handmaidens some ways to restrain people, and that made Anakin’s stomach flip all the more.

He knew it was practice, knew it was just teaching, but the sight of a grown man pinning someone smaller was far too familiar.

Eirtaé’s attention snapped to Anakin, and Master Quinlan released Rabé (who was wearing long gloves that prevented skin contact) a half-second later.

Rabé stumbled but caught herself. She and most of the others felt confused…except for one handmaiden that Anakin hadn’t met yet, whose aura was a blend of fear and determination to fight it. He quickly looked away from her.

A spike of dismay announced when Sabé figured it out.

The Kiffar had the handmaidens test what he’d shown, calmly gave advice and corrected their positions, and coincidentally stayed in the field of vision for the handmaid felt as if she’d seen the threat that Anakin had, although Master Quinlan didn’t seem to pay her any particular notice.

Once they were practicing readily, he excused himself and approached Anakin. They watched the handmaidens in silence for the space of a few heartbeats.

“You’re a bit young to be down here to watch the pretty girls,” Master Quinlan said. “Were you looking for me?”

Anakin swallowed, uneasiness writhing in his stomach.

Choy goola?” What’s wrong?

The Huttese reinforced the memories that the Kiffar brought to mind. Anakin snapped “Ko ateema?”—Now you care?—before he could stop himself, then flinched. How much trouble could Obi-Wan get in, if a senior Knight got mad?

Master Quinlan thought a moment. “Can we take this outside, or would that feel more dangerous to you?”

Outside would mean a lack of witnesses, which… He gave the Kiffar a quick glance. Outside was more dangerous, but at least then he might have the bruises to prove it. Master Quinlan didn’t have the right to hit him.

Anakin answered by turning and walking out, and Master Quinlan came along.

Master Quinlan also sprawled back against a wall, where he could keep an eye on their surroundings but where Anakin would be able to dodge or run faster than he could grab.

It was so obviously an attempt to make Anakin feel safe that it made him even more nervous.

“All right,” the Kiffar said. “So. What did you want to ask me and not Obi-Wan?”

He was relaxed. If he hadn’t been, Anakin didn’t think he would’ve been able to ask, “Why did you make Master Obi-Wan look bad?”

Confusion flickered, then concentration, then realization. “You mean the tip I gave you yesterday?”

Anakin frowned. “He’s my teacher, not you. I would’ve figured it out without your help.”

“Yes,” Master Quinlan agreed. “Eventually.”

Anger flared. Getting Obi-Wan in trouble over something that small was just cruel. “So why do it? Why make him look bad?! He was doing fine!”

“Of course he was,” Master Quinlan said. “I just sped up the lesson a little.”

Anakin scowled. That didn’t answer the question, and it wasn’t nearly enough reason to risk getting him separated from Obi-Wan. Anakin liked Obi-Wan.

Master Quinlan shook his head. “What others say or do to you doesn’t change your value—I’m sorry, your… Uh, wow.”

That didn’t even make sense. “Other people can change what you’re worth. If you’re accused of planning to run, or a master scars or maims you, then…”

Oh. This was a slave thing?

“Yeah, I hadn’t realized how much of this is based in freeborn logic. I’m sorry. Hold on. Let me think.”

Anakin stared, the apology ringing in his ears. Sentients like Master Quinlan didn’t apologize to anyone unless it benefitted them.

Several heartbeats passed in silence.

“Okay. When you talk about someone ‘looking bad’, you’re meaning how others see them, right? Like, ‘Oh, she went down’— Kriff, I’ve been in the field too long.”

“Like ‘He can’t even teach his own Padawan’?” Anakin offered.

“Precisely. Thank you for the age-appropriate example. Now, that’s a thought someone might have. Where does that thought come from?”

Anakin didn’t understand what that had to do with what they were talking about, but he answered, “From someone doing something better than he does.”

Master Quinlan grimaced. “Kriff, that explains…” He shook his head. “Getting help doesn’t mean you can’t do something or that there’s anything wrong with you. It just means you’d have an easier or faster time of it with help.”

Anakin stared. “If you can’t do the job on your own, then there’s no reason for anyone to keep you around.”

Masters got rid of useless slaves. There wasn't any reason to keep them.

“‘Good enough’ for what? You can only do what you can do. If you can’t? Well, that happens sometimes. No big deal.”

Anakin flinched. It was a big deal. Even Aimee’s mistress would smack her if she didn’t get her duties done before the cook had dinner ready.

“Getting help doesn’t mean anything’s wrong with you. Maybe you just have something to learn, maybe they just got the thing done for you as a kindness, maybe you just don’t want someone to know you can do something by yourself.”

That last ‘maybe’ was the only one that made sense.

“Anyway, back to thoughts—thoughts come from the people who think them. That’s their origin.” Master Quinlan hesitated. “Usually. So, usually, a thought’s source is the person who has the thought. How someone thinks of you has more to do with them than it does with you.”

Anakin felt as if he were standing in the midst of a sandstorm, being buffeted by Master Quinlan’s words. “I don’t understand.”

“If a person wants to think badly of you, they will. If a person wants to think well of you, they will. People find or create reasons to believe what they want, and they will cling to that like a Jawa with its last restraining bolt. Their belief doesn’t mean it’s true.”

Anakin’s face went hot as his meaning finally clicked. “I don’t trust you.”

He hadn’t meant to say that.

“Do you trust Obi-Wan at all?”

His wary scrutiny didn’t give him any clues as to what Master Quinlan was planning, but he’d come out here to push, so… “Yes,” he said boldly.


Silence returned, and Anakin waited nervously for the retaliation. He’d said outright he trusted Obi-Wan and distrusted Master Quinlan, so where was the reaction?

“Caution isn’t a bad thing, Skywalker. A lot of Jedi won’t understand it, but that’s easy enough to deal with. Just practice your sabbac face and saying you’ll have to ask Master Obi-Wan—and that’s ‘master’ as in ‘teacher’, not as in ‘owner’. Don’t ask me why that’s what we call our teachers, because I’m not allowed to share my theories with anyone under fifteen.”

Anakin blinked. “But you’re a Jedi.”

“The free aren’t without rules we have to follow,” Master Quinlan said. “We just get to choose for ourselves if we want to change jobs or organizations or legal systems. Jedi… Eh, let’s just stick to that for now.”

Anakin frowned.

“You’re already confused. More information won’t really help that, although…” He hesitated, then added, “A Padawan’s Master isn’t their only teacher—it’s just their usual or primary teacher.”

He’d have to ask Obi-Wan about that. Anakin still didn’t think Master Quinlan should’ve made Obi-Wan look bad in front of him, but maybe it wasn’t on purpose.

“I still don’t trust you.”

Master Quinlan shrugged and pulled a data reader out of his vest. “Okay.”

Chapter Text

The Gungan siesta was an excellent practice, Padmé decided. Maybe she’d adopt it for herself. At the very least, the siesta would give an excuse for her efficiency (people could assume she was actually working instead of napping), and a break in which to nap or pursue the many things on her far-too-long to-do list.

Today, she’d taken a nap, much-needed after her late night. She woke up feeling clear-headed to a degree that told her just how fuzzy she’d gotten without realizing it.

She was going to have to keep an eye on that, with everything she couldn’t afford for Palpatine to find out.

Padmé stepped from her bedroom to the sitting area and paused, surprised to find Master Billaba playing dejarik against the computer and not one of her handmaidens in sight.

“Master Jedi,” Padmé said, confused. “Is something the matter?”

“Quin’s showing your handmaidens some threat-suppression tactics that your captain probably doesn’t know,” Master Billaba answered smoothly, not looking up from her game. “I volunteered to take over.”

Padmé glanced around the room again, but they were the only beings present. She assumed the usual palace guards were outside the door to her suite, but years of experience had shown her that guarding a person was a team effort, and her handmaidens helped with her hair and clothing, too. “Alone?”

“Mace is staying close enough to provide backup, if it proves necessary.” The Jedi gave a smile that was rueful and wistful and distant. “I suppose you haven’t seen much of me.”

The blatant reference to her presumed visions made Padmé wince. “You were Master Windu’s Padawan.”

The woman nodded and moved a piece on the board. “What do you know about Mace?”

More than she did about Master Billaba, but Padmé hesitated to answer, not sure what the Jedi was seeking, with this line of questioning.

“I ask because a Jedi’s lineage is akin to a non-Jedi’s parentage. Maybe even stronger, since there’s an element of choice involved in the relationship, where Master and Padawan theoretically select each other based on fit.”

That as so obviously a clue. “Master Windu is among the most lethal Jedi in the Order,” Padmé said slowly, citing the first detail about the man that popped into her head. “You’re saying you…”

Master Billaba didn’t respond, just played her game and waited for Padmé to think it through.

She frowned and found a data reader and pulled up the information Eirtaé had sent her on the Council members. “You have a reputation for clear-sighteness in volatile situations but are very rarely sent on missions.”

And the ones Master Billaba was sent on were either as violent as kriff, or could be expected to turn out that way.

The suspicion tickling Padmé’s mind made her stare in disbelief at the Jedi as Master Billaba won her game, beating the computer.

“You have a strong instinct to kill threats and are on the Council in part so they can keep an eye on you.” The words that left her mouth made her blink, because that wasn’t quite what she’d been thinking. That Master Billaba killed, yes, but not that it was somehow instinctual…possibly a holdover from the trauma of whatever caused her to have that kid?

The Jedi’s small smile held the pleasure of someone who wasn’t used to others putting pieces together.

“That’s why you pay so close attention to others,” Padmé realized. “It’s a coping mechanism so you can choose to interpret them in ways that don’t trigger you, and your reputation of seeing to the heart of situations is a side effect.”

Could that have helped Anakin?

The smile broadened into a delighted grin. “You were older than me, weren’t you? When you died?”

“Not by much.” Two years, maybe, if she remembered right.

A sharpness entered Master Billaba’s glance and smile, suggesting that Padmé had missed some nuance of Jedi parlance, but she’d already admitted that she’d seen a Sith kill her. Admitting how old she’d been in the alleged vision surely added to its believability.

“Would Naboo be willing to host Knight Kenobi and his Padawan for the foreseeable future?” the Jedi asked, before she could fret overmuch. “I believe it would benefit them both to have some time to acclimate to each other without also having to immerse themselves in new culture and gossip.”

Padmé frowned. “Obi-Wan’s a Jedi. How would going back to the Temple be a ‘new’ culture?”

“He’s a Knight now,” Master Billaba said simply. “And he has a Padawan. Those are two major life events in one day—plus his Master was murdered by a type of being that many in the Order believe extinct or mythological.”

Protest lodged in Padmé’s throat. She hadn’t known that some Jedi thought Sith hadn’t existed. Dear Force did that explain why they denied so hard.

“The gossip is going to be brutal, and Quin thinks it’ll be better for Obi-Wan if he’s not around while it’s going strong. Starting out here may ease the cultural and educational transition for Anakin, too.“

“I see,” she said, feeling a little faint about just how much change Master Vos had caused, in just two days. No wonder so many had disliked him. “Naboo would be honored to host the heroes who saved our planet. How long of a time are you thinking?”

“I’m not sure,” Master Billaba lied, then gave her a wry look, so she’d noticed that Padmé could tell. “Honestly, I don’t think they should come to the Temple for a year or two, but I wouldn’t want to presume upon your hospitality. The problem is that Obi-Wan’s not going to request such a thing, and too many of the High Council see sanctuary as either necessarily synonymous with a Temple stay or unnecessary unless requested.

“If I broach the topic or push to transfer him elsewhere after he leaves here, either it’ll be dismissed or Obi-Wan will receive pressure to call it unnecessary—which he’ll then do, because Qui-Gon taught him to play along with authority. The precedent will make it harder for Obi-Wan to get authorization if he ever does bother to ask, rather than just look for ways to slip around his orders. But if there’s an invitation open, I can take advantage of that. Leverage. I’m sure you understand.”

Yes, with an invitation open, taking advantage of it could be said to be keeping an eye on Padmé or keeping on good terms with her. Some Councilors on Naboo now could even order Obi-Wan to accept before they left, preventing the others from reaching a quorum of refusal.

Fairly basic politics, really, but dear Shiraya did this conversation make sense of so many of Anakin’s complaints about the Council. He hadn’t understood even a tenth of what was going on.

Padmé created a new file on the data reader. “I’ll send the order now, to have the invitation formally drawn up. My family has an estate in the Lake Country—I can personally offer rooms there, for however long he wants to stay. I’m sure other Houses will follow suit. If you desire advice on the political ramifications of various options and the duration of using them, talk to Eirtaé for how that’ll affect the individual Houses and Saché for how it’ll affect Naboo as a whole.”

She’d written while speaking, so she glanced over her message to check she hadn’t skipped any important words or punctuation, then submitted it. “Done.”

Master Billaba glowed with pleasure. “Excellent. Thank you, Your Highness.”

The door opened, and a shift of handmaidens piled in and started fretting about how Padmé’s nap had mussed her coiffure and haute couture.

The Jedi saw herself out, and Padmé started getting her ceremonial garb fixed for the afternoon shift.

Relief rippled through the Force, and she somehow recognized the emotion as coming from Master Windu. What…? She risked carefully reaching out to check the auras—Master Billaba had just reached him. Why would that make him feel relieved?

Master Billaba had been far more forthright with Padmé than was wise, unless you trusted someone…or were sussing out a potential threat, handing them a vulnerability to take advantage of, if they were so inclined.

Master Billaba killed threats.

Weakness filled Padmé, and she almost toppled Saché with how quickly she sagged.

Master Windu’s relief had been that he wouldn’t have to sacrifice his padawan—which he would have done, if Padmé had failed the test that he’d surely helped organize and Master Billaba had assassinated her.

Dear Shiraya.

After practicing the maneuver Master Vos had taught them, the other handmaidens shifted into practicing other things or dispersing for their shift—second shift had care of the queen at the moment, and Sabé would have to remember to tell someone that Saché was double-booking herself.

Sabé herself started following the path Master Vos and Anakin had taken out, and Eirtaé was with her. She glanced at the blonde, whose forehead was a little pinched. “You okay?”

“Headache,” Eirtaé said shortly.

Sabé winced in sympathy as they both stepped outside. “What have the healers said about it?”

“It’s… It’s not something they could help with.”

Why did that feel like a dodge? “Oh?” she asked, as she noticed Master Vos seated against a wall, reading something, and Anakin standing nearby, staring at the Kiffar as if confused.

Eirtaé sighed. “The parade was very loud,” she said pointedly, loudly enough that she was addressing one of the others.

“Take a stim,” Master Vos said without looking up from his reader. “Counter-intuitive, I know, but it’ll mellow the ‘kill me now’ into ‘just lemme leave the infirmary’.”

“You’re a healer, Master Vos?” Sabé asked. That was very much not how the man presented himself.

“Raised by one,” he answered as he fished something from his belt and tossed it up to Eirtaé. “Also, much experience with headaches caused by input overload.”

Eirtaé swallowed whatever he’d passed her, and she glanced askance at Anakin. “What’s the matter?”

Sabé, though, thought she recognized the set of his shoulders and expression. “Missing your mother?” she asked gently.

“Understandable,” Master Vos commented. “Just be careful who you admit that to.”

“At least you can’t miss your mom,” Anakin snapped. “You never knew her.”

Time seemed to hiccup as Sabé, aghast, struggled to figure out how to respond.

A laugh, dark and dangerous, flooded from Master Vos.

Anakin stood, tense and frozen, and even Eirtaé held herself still. Sabé remembered the rough spacer garb he’d been wearing when he arrived on Naboo, and shivered.

The laugh cut off as abruptly as it started, and after the space of a few heartbeats, Master Vos looked up at Anakin. “Careful with those assumptions, Skywalker,” he said quietly, words clipped by anger or accent. “Life’s hard enough without lying to yourself.”

Eirtaé frowned thoughtfully, while Anakin was looking as unnerved as Sabé felt.

“Padawan Skywalker,” Sabé cut in. “I was actually looking for you, to…continue our discussion from yesterday.”

It wasn’t even a lie. If she was going to learn to spot the slaves on Naboo, who better to ask than a newly freed slave?

Anakin gladly grabbed the opportunity to leave the scary Jedi behind. Sabé shuddered.

Eirtaé stayed behind, but she could handle herself.

As she ate a salad, Rabé fiddled with the long gloves she’d been relieved were in her wardrobe, once she realized she was possibly crushing on the probably psychometric Knight Vos. She hoped they’d kept him from having to feel it while he showed her how he’d handled Lord Frizmar, but now she had to decide if she’d leave them on or remove them for the afternoon. Removing them would be admitting there was something she didn’t want the Jedi to know, but leaving them on would detract from her usefulness as a decoy.

Except she had the afternoon off, didn’t she?

She double-checked the shift assignments, confirming she hadn’t misread or misremembered anything, then went ahead and took off the gloves, to reduce the opportunity for anyone to notice them. They folded up and fit in a pocket.

Amidala’s adoption of the Gungan siesta had shifted schedule breakpoints. Panaka had forgotten to leave the primary shift on Padmé’s schedule—or maybe he was taking advantage of the Jedi presence to give secondary shift a bit more active duty, to combine secondary getting more experience and primary getting some time off, after the mess of Tatooine and Coruscant. That would fit with Saché getting double-booked for the current shift and Yané being on evening, since they had been left on Naboo while all that was happening, and everyone who’d left Naboo was off for the afternoon.

Something struck her as problematic about the shift setup, but she didn’t know enough about scheduling to put her finger on what it was.

Knight Vos’s demonstration and tips, so obvious in hindsight, illuminated that Captain Panaka’s training had significant gaps. The captain had earned his position on the queen’s staff, but…Naboo wasn’t a militant world. Violence tended to be spoken rather than inflicted. Misdirection had its place—as Amidala’s capture of Viceroy Gunray had demonstrated—but Rabé couldn’t help but feel that the Naboo Security Forces were ignorant in ways that would ultimately harm them.

Most of the Jedi were getting ready to leave, she thought, but she glimpsed one of the non-Human ones finishing his own meal at a cloister table—a table set out of the way for the socially anxious or disinclined. Master Jinn and then-Padawan Kenobi had come as negotiators and protectors, ended up acting as bodyguards and soldiers, and their confidence had been the type that came from active experience.

If Knight Kenobi had that, though he was of an age with Captain Panaka and Saché, how much more might the older ones know?

Leaving an obviously non-Human guest of honor alone also smacked her as a display of the speciesism that Amidala had so pointedly critiqued by her alliance with the Gungans.

She grabbed her salad and headed over, then wished she’d thought to look up his name first. “May I join you, Master…?”

“Ki-Adi-Mundi,” he said, and a chair pushed out from the table all on its lonesome.

Amusement brightened his face as she thanked him and sat. She paused before digging into her salad, and he glanced to the chair in silent admission of the humor.

Obi-Wan’s admission of being dangerous rang in her ears. Were the Jedi that disused to people accepting their use of the Force?

“How are you liking Naboo?” she asked politely, not wanting to waste her time with a member of the High Council by asking about social stigma.

“It’s a beautiful world. I’ll have to see if I can bring my padawan for a visit.”

She smiled. “We’d be honored.”

Obi-Wan had liked silence, she remembered abruptly, and she took a quick sip of water to cover her nervousness. Was she violating Jedi etiquette somehow?

She lingered over her salad, unsure what the proper protocol was for timing the completion of a meal with a VIP that you wanted to ask something.

“I appreciate the company, but surely you have other duties you would be attending if there wasn’t another reason for joining me.”

Caught out, Rabé outright blurted, “Where can I learn more?”

She cringed. Oh, that made sense.

Before she could backpedal, Master Mundi asked gently, “Learn more about what?”

She swallowed hard at the reminder that most planets didn’t define ‘handmaiden’ as ‘bodyguard’. “Security,” she said. “Handmaidens are… Well, we have different specialties, but we’re all supposed to be competent in security things.”

“And recent events make you concerned that your education is lacking,” Master Mundi said outright. He finished his last bite of wrap. “Do you have a copy of your current curriculum?”

Rabé shook her head. “I’m not sure there is one. Captain Panaka speaks as if he’s developing everything himself.”

When, exactly, had she started doubting that? And why?

“May I discuss this with other masters?”

“Of course!” It took her a moment to puzzle out why he’d asked. “I just approached you alone because this was when I thought of it. I didn’t mean to imply I distrusted any of the other Jedi.”

She rubbed her temples, glad she would never be called upon to play Amidala in any political function, because such polite speech was exhausting. She’d rather play sabacc. At least there you were supposed to insult others sometimes.

“If you send me a description of your current studies, I’ll see that it’s reviewed by appropriate parties for advice.” Master Mundi’s face twitched in what she was pretty sure was amusement. “Although I personally am rather fond of Defensive Coversion by Tens'ecura.”

Rabé jotted the note before she processed what he’d said, then she did, and she blinked. She’d heard of that book, courtesy of some of the more dangerous people her uncle knew.

She almost didn’t comment, but he still looked amused and they didn’t have witnesses, so she dared. “You work with Knight Vos?” She flicked her fingers in a manner that her uncle’s less-savory associates used to refer to the underworld.

Master Mundi chuckled, the tilt of head and slight narrowing of his eyes saying she’d intrigued him. “I chose to follow a different path.”

She caught the implication that he’d been apprenticed to such a Jedi. She considered that fact for a moment, then explained, “Before becoming a handmaiden, I was my uncle’s apprentice in professional sabacc.”

The Jedi’s expression bloomed bright in clear delight. “You have already read Defensive Coversion?”

“Not yet.” She checked the time—not that it mattered, really. The opportunity to make friends with a high councilor was well worth taking advantage of, even if it made her late for a shift, and she had hours before that would even be a worry. “I thought Truth and Falsehood was interesting, maybe because I disagree with the premise that incomplete truths qualify as falsehood.”

“Incomplete truths are misleading. Is that not the definition of falsehood?”

“But all truths are necessarily incomplete,” she countered. “So the context in which the partial truth is used is the biggest factor.”

The two of them fell into an easy chat about the fringe of society that they both had been taught to navigate but had decided against living in.

Obi-Wan didn’t realize Anakin hadn’t participated in the siesta until he left his own nap and tried to fetch the boy from his suite.

His padawan wasn’t there. He stared a moment, realized he wasn’t sure where to even start looking for his padawan’s aura. The boy wasn’t in the cafeteria or the throne room or the hangar bay or…

“Obi-Wan,” said Master Adi Gallia, coming from the direction of the nearest med center, her Tholothian headdress as chic as usual.

“Have you seen Anakin?” Maybe the boy’s head injury from the day before had caused unexpected problems.

“I haven’t,” she answered. “Did you check his commlink?”

Embarrassment swallowed Obi-Wan. “I didn’t think of that.”

“That’s understandable. You’re used to being in situations where that isn’t an option.”

He tried to release his embarrassment into the Force, and the councilor accompanied him to the nearest comm station before progressing wherever she was headed.

Obi-Wan finally found his padawan in some kind of break room for the handmaidens, and Anakin and Sabé were seated on the couch with data readers in hand. Obi-Wan overheard her saying something about shoulders before she trailed off.

He cautiously approached and took one of the chairs that faced them, its back to the door. “Is everything all right?”

Sabé and Anakin exchanged a telling glance, but before Obi-Wan could get the nerve to pry, the handmaiden silently tilted her head in encouragement for Anakin to tell him something.

The boy took a deep breath. “I don’t like Master Quinlan.”

Obi-Wan blinked in surprise. With all the similarities between them… “I don’t understand. Why not?”


“Does it matter?” Sabé cut in. “He dislikes Master Vos and trusts you enough to tell you. I’d think that important for…for someone of his background.”

Was that true? Obi-Wan wanted to call Quinlan to ask, but that felt like a cop-out. “I’m sorry, Anakin. I didn’t mean to deny your feelings. You just startled me. Quinlan is a very good friend of mine, and has been since I was younger than you are now.”

The boy studied him, too many emotions twisting through the Force for him to get a solid read. “Like Kitster.”

Breath left Obi-Wan, and he sat heavily on the closest settee. “Kitster being a friend of yours back on Tatooine? Also a slave?”

Anakin nodded.

Surely some Jedi freed slaves when they could. Master Tholme would know, but Obi-Wan wasn’t sure how to get in touch with him. Master Windu certainly had precedent of killing slavers—that was how he’d Found Depa, when she was a baby—but that wasn’t a sustainable method. Nor particularly Jedi, either.

“I suppose all your friends are slaves, then.”

“I understand, Master,” Anakin said reluctantly. “Jedi have rules, too.”

Sabé waved at the boy’s data reader. “Why don’t you write down their information? Master Kenobi can talk to the Jedi, and I’ll talk to the queen, and maybe we’ll be able to help them. Your mom, too.”

Obi-Wan cleared his suddenly-thick throat. “I don’t know—I very much want to help your family, Anakin, but I don’t know how much we’ll be able to do. I am new to knighthood, and…”

He couldn’t mention his history in front of the handmaiden, and he hoped to the Force that his padawan wouldn’t, either.

The boy frowned, then his eyes widened with comprehension. “Freeing all the slaves would mean killing all the Hutts, all the slavers. Jedi try not to kill people, right?”

“It would also put a major socioeconomic strain on societies that use slavery as a mutual support system, leaving a lot of folks hungry and homeless,” a woman’s voice said matter-of-factly, and Obi-Wan and Anakin both jumped.

“Who’s there?” Anakin demanded.

Sabé looked around in clear confusion.

A translucent woman slid into being on another settee, glowing blue and focusing on equally see-through weaving. “I’m not saying slavery can’t or shouldn’t be dismantled, mind you, but tearing something down for the sake of destroying it just leaves a vacuum. What are you going to put in its place? That is always a question worth answering. A new framework that has efficiently replaced another is always harder to sabotage than one that’s being built from scratch while things run with a chaos that the old system prevented.”

“There’s a ghost right there!” Anakin told Sabé, pointing at the woman. “Who are you?” he asked her.

The woman looked up from her weaving, smiled, and both her and her loom faded away.

Obi-Wan rubbed his temples. Given the choice between a Jedi Master’s riddle and the mysterious ghost doing…whatever she up to, he rather thought he would prefer the riddle.

Chapter Text

As Sabé took Anakin away from Vos, Eirtaé met the Jedi Knight’s gaze. A typhoon warred behind his eyes, and exhaustion pulled his face.

Last night, he’d advised her to avoid the underworld of espionage, for fear that she’d end up as lonely as he was. His padawan didn’t keep him from the feeling, though they were close enough in age to be siblings, not parent and child. Eirtaé fell in that category, too, though she was two years younger than Padawan Secura. But Eirtaé had reached her majority by Naboo standards, and Secura probably had some years left on her apprenticeship, making her still a child by Jedi reckoning.

Eirtaé might not be the best person to speak up, but right now she was the only one in a position to do so. “I pull conversational tricks on bullies,” she said quietly, “when I feel sharp and brittle.”

“Can’t do that right now,” Vos answered, at the same volume. “I’d leave a corpse somewhere.”

He wasn’t lying. Had he murdered someone before? Maybe it was just tied to his alleged ‘biological predisposition’ to losing his temper. If Anakin had kept prodding…

But he hadn’t, and Vos was trying to focus on his data reader. He kept at it for a few more seconds, then shook his head and gave up, muttering what sounded like a curse.

Her head was still pounding, though the stim had helped, but she disliked how the Jedi felt. He was running ragged, the kriffing babysitter—

She blinked, realizing she’d pulled that last description from his own thoughts, whispering in the back of her mind. “Uh, Master Jedi?”

His answer of “yeah” was felt before he said it, and she suddenly knew the word in three spoken languages and two written—and dear gods, was one of those Sith?

“How do I pull away from your head?” She smiled weakly. “Or out, rather?”

He stared blankly at her for too many seconds. “You did that on accident?”

She nodded, feeling both embarrassed and unnerved—and the uneasiness crashing through Vos caused fear to enter the mix.

“Not here,” he murmured. “My room—discreetly, please.”

He strolled off, looking far more casual than he felt.

Eirtaé stood alone, struggling not to shiver from the sensation of her mind slipping away from his, or from the chilled air of…

Wait. When had the day turned chill?

“Eirtaé,” called a voice she knew too well, soft and far enough that she didn’t have to respond, thank the gods.

She carefully approached a tears-lay-dark vine that was climbing up the wall, close to the nearest door. To keep up an appearance of absentmindedly strolling along and not intentionally fleeing, she plucked one of the mourning purple flowers and stuck it behind her ear as she meandered through that door, re-entering the gym.

The door shut behind her just as the new Chancellor of the Republic called her name loudly enough she couldn’t feign ignorance. Heard what? she told herself firmly.

As soon as she was out of his possible line of sight, she outright scurried. She should’ve gone with Vos from the start. Kriff reputation. Better to be thought a whore than to leave herself vulnerable to the Sith.

A Sith who wanted to talk to her alone, for some reason.

A Sith who had just lost an apprentice.

Terror flared, and she hastily tried to sluice it off like she’d felt the Jedi do with their emotions. Pain sliced through her, as if she’d cut something she shouldn’t have. Not good not good not good—

Something—a hand?—brushed her arm.

Someone—a woman?—shushed her as she jerked.

“This way,” said the same voice of the ghost that had unnerved Anakin and her, the day before, and a Force presence plucked and smoothened and soothed whatever she’d done to hurt herself.      

Eirtaé followed it into a secret passage she hadn’t known about, small enough that Master Jinn probably wouldn’t have even fit. “How—”


As they wound through the tiny staircase, she held her tongue and presumed the ghost’s incorporeal state had allowed it to know of the passage. But how could it be felt? How could it speak?

They came out on a hall near the Jedi suites.

Rather, Eirtaé came out, and she had no idea if the ghost stayed.

“Thank you for your assistance,” she said aloud—because that was polite, and because she was grateful—and she hurried Vos’s room, a bit ahead of him. Perhaps someone would notice, and perhaps his reputation would wreck hers, but…

That sort of gossip would destroy her political cachet, sabotaging her father’s pressure for her to replace Amidala. The prospect would be tempting, if not for what that same gossip would do to the Jedi whose student was not much older than she was. There was a big difference between believing someone liked the ladies and believing someone liked them young. If given sufficient circumstantial evidence, the Order would probably have to separate him and his padawan, unless they wanted to be investigated for child abuse. Or did the various immunities of the Jedi Order apply to abuse investigations, too?

Before Master Jinn died, she’d been planning to report him for his mistreatment of his padawan. Had others done so and been ignored by an Order that thought such behavior was normal or healthy? Gods, she hoped not.

She slipped in the room, swiftly shut the door behind her, and fell facefirst on the couch in the front area. Her headache demanded a nap, and she would take it. If gossip happened, it happened.

Vos entered. Something rustled, and a blanket fell over her. She heard him proceed into the bedroom and settle in for a nap of his own.

Eyes heavy and about to close, Eirtaé lifted a hand just enough to feel the blanket in her fingers, and tried to remember the last time someone had done that for her. Vos surely couldn’t have been the first. She had to be forgetting some incident, some person…didn’t she?

Sleep settled around her, and she drifted in the peaceful dark.

A low-grade burning started, close enough kin to what was expected after her exercise that morning for her to flow with it.

The pain sharpened, driving holes in her heart and in her head and brain and body, from the Anzati—

What the kriff is an Anzati?

This isn’t me.

Adrenaline jolted Eirtaé awake with a whimper, tears stinging her eyes. She gulped air, heartbeat racing, and stared at the door to the bedroom.

It opened. Eirtaé and Vos exchanged a long look in silence, her eyes wide and his apologetic.

The experience had come from him—a memory of a woman, getting murdered by the monsters that had already finished with her…husband? Lover? Neither Standard word felt quite right for the relationship, which had blended features of both concepts. The pair of them had both been Kiffar, though.

While she thought that through, Vos went to the washroom, splashed water on his face.

How old had he been, when his psychometry caused him to experience his mother’s death from her perspective? Had he known her, otherwise?

Eirtaé admitted, “I’m surprised you didn’t hurt Anakin.”

“He doesn’t know any better,” Vos answered as he returned from the washroom.

“And if he had known better?” she pressed.

He gave a pointed look, saying without a word that she already knew. He’d come close to losing his temper as it was.

Vos went back to his bedroom, Eirtaé realized she’d just handed the Jedi valid reasons to arrange her death, and she hastily sought to get some more sleep before she was that stupid with someone more inclined to eliminate loose ends.

Once Padmé managed to get a handle on the facts that the Jedi Order had just seriously considered assassinating her and that she’d somehow passed their test, she grabbed her data reader to check the rest of the day’s schedule for changes from what she remembered while Linká tried to do her hair. (They could afford to let her practice for a few more minutes before reverting to something simple.)

The list of guests who would be leaving before dinner made Padmé frown at her reader. “Saché?”

“Your Highness?”

“Vos and Secura aren’t listed on the exit manifest?”

“They’re still helping with the cleanup. Padawan Secura said we’ll need help with any Sith things about.”

Padmé briefly panicked about the holocrons her father was keeping before she remembered the one Eirtaé had found, then felt another bout of panic as she struggled to figure out what had happened with that Before.

Focus, dear.”

“I am focused!” she snapped at Nana.

Her handmaidens’ surprise and confusion lit up the Force, and she flushed. “I’m sorry. My grandmother’s a ghost, and she…”

Her grandmother had brought herself back, before.

Padmé turned and studied the room, looking for the translucent figure. Her grandmother apparently hadn’t chosen to appear that far. “Nana, could you investigate the—what Eirtaé found?”

Fear ruffled the Force. “What I am makes those things more dangerous to me, Padmé. Not less.”

How could something be more dangerous for the dead? Padmé rubbed her temples, intending to continue the argument, but… She was surrounded by four secondary handmaidens plus Saché, who was new enough to her employ that Padmé wasn’t entirely sure of her loyalties. (Saché was and had always been a patriot first, and she had been an intelligence operative for years before she retired to be a handmaiden.)

“Just go away,” Padmé muttered instead, and she poked at her schedule. Her usefulness in the reconstruction was limited, more morale than anything else, with a smattering of executive orders here and there. She thought two Galactic Standard weeks would be enough for Kamino, assuming Master Tholme told her where it was. If she had to track down Dex for the information, that would probably add a week.

Too long. It was too damn long for a queen to leave her newly freed planet, even if she let people assume she was visiting family.

Order Sixty-Six could not remain intact. She needed to sabotage it, and that meant she needed a vacation block of two weeks. At least.

She scowled and wrangled her schedule some more.

Jedi Padawan Aayla Secura breezed through the door to the suite where Master Quinlan was staying, without jostling the tray of food she carried enough for anything to clink together.

He’d asked her to collect records of the battle, of the fighting, and especially everything she could find featuring the Sith and the queen. Aayla had tried to analyze them some, herself, but she’d ended up more confused than anything else. She just didn’t have the experience to make sense of what he was seeing.

The blonde handmaiden was napping on the couch. Huh. Wonder why.

By the time Aayla stepped from the main room into the bedroom, Master Quinlan was watching the door through slitted eyelids, casually positioned in a manner that hid the weapon he had ready beneath the sheets.

She smiled sweetly, hiding her pleasure at the evidence that she was getting better at Force Camouflage, and she dropped the façade from her aura as she set the tray beside him on the bed.

The handmaiden jolted awake and fell off the couch. A Force empath? Huh.

“It’s okay,” Master Quinlan called. “Just Aayla.”

Wordless grumbling and rustling answered, and it sounded as if the handmaiden settled back to sleep where she’d fallen on the carpet rather than picking herself up.

Master Quinlan propped himself up with a quiet groan and stared at the tray for a moment. “Has it been that long?”

Jedi Shadows had an understood standing agreement that they’d intervene when they caught another skipping meals or—

“Did you get any sleep last night?” she asked pointedly.

“Did you?” he countered, in blatant counterattack-as-misdirection.

Aayla rolled her eyes and hopped beside him on the bed. She tucked into one of the meat wraps she’d brought for herself. “What’s with the handmaiden?”

“Doesn’t feel safe sleeping alone.”

Reasonable explanation, that. Not that Aayla had expected anything less, from her master. His disreputable reputation was a farce that kept most from noticing he was among the Jedi least likely to take advantage of anyone for self-serving reasons.

Taking advantage of others in order to serve the Order, however, was something all Shadows had to do, sometimes. Aayla wondered if her assignments would start acknowledging her value on the slave market, now that she’d reached Coruscant legal, or if she’d be kept out of the part of Shadow work that took advantage of their persons. Her master would fight such orders on her behalf, because he was sweet like that, but that didn’t mean he’d win.

Master Quinlan munched on the shurra fruit and gave a brief wrinkle of his nose.

“It’s good for you,” she said cheerily. “All those yummy electrodes.”

He just gave her a look as he ate another piece. She giggled. He shook his head, muttering about how her grandmaster, a Healer, would react to such a mixup between electrodes and electrolytes.

He also wasn’t smiling.

Aayla let her grin fall. “You okay, Master?”

He finished the shurra fruit, grabbed a honeycake, and lay back down. “I’ve hardly slept since Tatooine, apparently forgot to eat today, and— No. Nice try.”

She sighed audibly, in complaint. She was his padawan. How was she supposed to help him if he wouldn’t tell her what was going on?

He ignored her protest.

“I’ll figure it out,” she warned.

“You do that,” Master Quinlan said, tone serious despite the yawn, “and I’ll dump you on your grandmaster until your knighting.”

She almost dropped her lunch. What the kriff had he found, if he would repudiate her for helping him? “Master!”

He was joking. He had to be—

No. Master Quinlan was irreverent, not cruel. He wouldn’t joke about repudiation.

Shadows knew better than to bluff, so he would do it, too. She’d have to be very careful to keep him from discovering her own study into whatever was bothering him, especially once she figured it out.

She took another bite of the meat wrap, buying herself time to respond, in amateur terms—she’d already taken too long to process the situation to give a truly professional reaction.

“There’s a couch,” he said, the pitch telling her not to bother, and the words saying the situation did not warrant them sharing a cot for safety.

Aayla finished her food, licked her fingers, snuggled into the blankets that lay atop the bed. “Mmm. Comfy.”

He sighed, rolled so his back was to her. She grinned and settled in, as if for a nap.

Blankets jerked out from under her, dumping her on the floor before she could catch herself—a distinct difference from what had resulted when she’d tried the same trick on him just last week.

Her lekku yelled ‘May spice salt your wounds!’ as she leapt to her feet, but Master Quinlan wasn’t even looking at her.

Aayla glowered in frustration and annoyance, and she let her body announce her displeasure as she stalked out. She was the most advanced padawan among her agemates, but so often her master made her feel like such an incompetent youngling.

Maybe it was time to go look into Jar Jar some more. At least that couldn’t be any less frustrating than her master threatening repudiation if she discovered what he was working on.

Sometimes she wondered if Master Quinlan went easy on her, but then she’d remember other masters’ expressions when they heard even part of things like her final exam on how to escape bindings.

(He’d tied her up, weighted her down, dumped her in an ice-cold lake, and hauled her out before she drowned as many times as he had to until she could escape before she ran out of air. It had taken her almost a week—with breaks for recuperation, eating, and sleeping, of course.)

So he was probably just that smart. Nobody seemed to notice that he only had four more years as a Jedi than she did, courtesy of how he’d come to the Temple four years older than she’d been at her own arrival.

Nobody seemed to realize that he’d actually been a Junior Padawan while in the creche, either.

Aayla paused on that thought. The Skywalker kid had skipped being an initiate, too. Should she point that out to Obi-Wan?

Risk reinforcing Obi-Wan’s distrust of his own instincts, or risk Obi-Wan failing to realize how Master Quinlan could help Anakin bridge the transition straight to padawan?

Choices, choices.

The afternoon passed quickly, as Obi-Wan helped his padawan get and set up a private comm with contact information for various people. It doubtless would be replaced by the Temple, but at least he’d be able to transfer the data to the new device.

Queen Amidala issued a formal invitation for Anakin and him to stay at an estate in the Lake Country for as long as they wanted, even to the end of her term. He’d gotten such hyperbolic offers before, from sentients he’d helped, so the invitation itself didn’t surprise him so much as the queen offering it, since he’d thought her more honest than that.

What left him bewildered, struggling to process the situation, was Master Windu telling him in no uncertain terms that he would be accepting the invitation until further notice.

“But…” Such invites were political gestures, not genuine offers!

“‘But’ nothing,” Master Windu retorted. “The shatterpoints… Something is very wrong here. Keep an eye out, and get that padawan of yours ready for Temple classes.”

“You can comm Coruscant for remote classes or substitute tutors, when you need it,” Master Billaba said, in her same smooth, calm tone…that suddenly struck him as different from how she’d sounded in the creche, though he’d been a year behind her and couldn’t remember her well enough to identify the nuance.

The good-bye ceremonies cut short any argument, and he and Anakin stood with those who sent off Chancellor Palpatine and the Jedi Masters who’d come for the funeral. Aayla kept near Jar Jar, but Quinlan wasn’t in sight. None of the handmaidens he’d met were, either. Only one of them even felt familiar, one who felt older than Obi-Wan.

With Master Windu’s mention of shatterpoints—the pressure points that could break a thing or a person—Obi-Wan couldn’t help but wonder if the absence of Quinlan and Eirtaé had anything to do with the conversation they’d had in the throne room about myths, shortly after the battle.

In any event, another handmaiden he didn’t know—just how many did the queen have? how did she afford this?—saw him and Anakin out to the Lake Country, a beautiful area of islands and islets, and a speeder was taking them over the lake towards a gorgeous villa.

Anakin stared, slack-jawed, at all the water.

“We’ll start swimming lessons tomorrow,” Obi-Wan promised, then wondered if he should’ve asked the boy if he wanted to learn, then looked at all the water surrounding where they were staying and decided he couldn’t afford to let him wait. Anakin needed to learn, if only for his own safety.

Obi-Wan gave his padawan a nervous glance, only to find the boy’s dumbstruck expression had turned on him.

“S–s–swim?” Anakin whispered in awed disbelief. “Wizard!”

Obi-Wan couldn’t help but smile back while hoping he wouldn’t make a total mess of it, after all.

Quinlan woke just before the cafeteria opened for dinner. He slipped out using Force Camouflage (so any observers would think he remained in the room), politely raided the kitchen in the name of handmaiden Eirtaé Frizmar (and wouldn’t that make for some ‘lovely’ gossip?), and brought the food back up. The handmaiden hadn’t eaten for a full twenty–six-hour Naboo day, as far as he knew.

Eirtaé still slept at his return, on the floor where she’d fallen after Aayla startled her. He waved an aromatic savory roll in front of her nose. She woke up, grabbed it, and started munching without comment.

“Sorry about earlier,” he said, about the nightmare she’d picked up.

She answered with the pointed yet dismissive glance that he’d expected, but apology was still polite.

“So, you weren’t actually in my mind, before, just…pressed up against it, like when you put a cup against a wall to eavesdrop through it.” He waggled his fingers to convey Sort of. “That description works as a rule of thumb, but mind talents aren’t sound or even anything physical, so the analogy’s limited.”

Eirtaé swallowed a mouthful of food. “But in other words, that should stop happening on its own once I’m aware enough to keep my head in my head.”

She sounded relieved and was far faster to heed his advice over Amidala. Maybe he’d start a betting pool on the queen’s mental age. He’d guess late twenties, judging from how she treated him as a peer rather than a mentor. The distinction was subtle, but he found it particularly noticeable in contrast with Eirtaé.

“The nightmare might’ve hit you, regardless,” he admitted, “with how much we’ve been hanging out, lately.”

“That…”—she paused, gathered the words for what she wanted to say—”attunes you to someone’s aura?”

He tilted his head to accept the description as functional. “Your Force talents matter, too. Aayla has some mind skills, too, but she’s had shields like a rancor’s hide from the creche, and she prefers projection over reception.”

That preference was one reason he’d never told anyone—not even Aayla—that she had the ability to run a Force Meld. She didn’t have the personality for it, but her constructed reputation meant others wouldn’t realize that until after she lost her patience with it and resorted to controlling rather than coordinating everyone. He didn’t want her to end up a modern-day Mistress of Puppets.

“So even if you have a bad night around her, she’s not listening,” said the handmaiden who was fast joining Aayla as someone he thought of as a sibling.

He stared at Eirtaé as he redirected his thoughts back to the conversation.

She took a sip of the water he’d brought her. “I guess you’re usually not triggered so badly, either. That memory… It was older than I am. Is that part of the problem?”

He took a moment to review the past minute or so, but still had to ask, “What?”

“You were a child, then. I’m Naboo legal, not Coruscant legal,” she said blandly.

He grimaced. A number of Jedi already assumed he took advantage of Aayla and hid it from the various councils with the help of his friend Bant and his old master, both healers. As if enabling such abuse wouldn’t be a blatant violation of their medical oaths?

(Okay,  Tholme probably would’ve ignored legalities and utilized the results for the Order’s benefit, at most quietly taking over Aayla’s training if she didn’t want such attentions. Bant, though, would’ve medically castrated Quinlan no matter how many rules she would’ve had to break to administer it, and that would’ve just been the start of her retaliation. Bant was a sweet girl who turned vicious in her defense of the abused, whenever she had a sliver of opportunity. Which was both why she would never be a Shadow, and why she had the training to be able to recognize when a situation warranted calling one in.)

“By your standards,” Eirtaé continued, “I’m a child—as you were, then—and there’s a good chance that I’ll be dead before I reach your age, whether from my job or from….” She tugged at her hair. “After you left, the chancellor came looking for me. I tried to pretend I hadn’t heard him call my name. If that didn’t work, I’ll just have to focus on his mention of my father yesterday—you don’t mention censured relatives in polite company. I’m not sure I dare insist on the Gift of Apology for the offense, but I’m young enough that snubbing him for it should seem normal.”

And if Chancellor Palpatine was the kind of man they suspected, rather than what he was reputed to be, he’d retaliate—or not—as he wanted, no matter what she did.

Quinlan briefly considered pointing that out before deciding there was no benefit in doing so, regardless whether she’d noticed herself, yet. All they could do was minimize the risk of her being considered a threat worth eliminating, and she’d already planned what she could about that.

“What about Skywalker?” he asked. “Could you get assigned to helping Anakin and Obi-Wan?”

Eirtaé shook her head and tore another roll into bite-size pieces. “Handmaidens have different roles, and mine means I’m necessarily with the queen. I think the job helping Kenobi went to Nina—she’s a cousin of Saché’s who needed a temp job while taking a gap year from university. She’ll be going back to school in a few months.”

Nepotism at its best. “Nina? Didn’t know that was a Naboo name.”

“Saché’s father is Corellian. Her name was, um…” Eirtaé ate a bite, chewed quickly but carefully, swallowed. “Chase. Her name was Chase. And then when she changed everything over, she went to Saché. Her mother’s from one of the old Housed families, but they may be byblows from one of the extinct Houses… Just something I noticed myself from the records, the timing and placement of some details…” She shook her head. “Can’t remember if it was Issaree or Giolar.”

Judging from the tension in Eirtaé’s aura, this was something she’d been required to learn, rather than something she’d studied for fun.

And her father had sought the Sith holocron. How had he known it was there? “One of your dad’s pet topics?”

“Sort of. I’m an heir. We’re pretty much required to spend a summer studying the lineages, so we don’t unwittingly marry someone inclined to assassinate us because their great-aunt was murdered by our grandfather or something.”

A hunch flickered. “Is the queen heir for her family?”

“No. That’s, um… One of her cousins, but there’s a rumor that he plans to cede it to the first relative who meets the family requirements. Does this matter?”

“Dunno,” Quinlan answered honestly, despite the feeling that he was overlooking something important. “Though I wonder how she could volunteer family property for Obi-Wan’s use.”

“Any adult in good standing with their House can claim up to ten percent of any unreserved family property without needing approval from the lord or lady. I could’ve made the same offer on behalf of House Frizmar, except all our property is reserved for personal use by the lord.”

That tickled at something in Quinlan’s memory. He mentally flicked at it in annoyance, but it stayed indefinite. Oh, well. It would come to him in time. The new chancellor had left Naboo, which meant Quinlan had to double-down on his actual mission, here, before some other emergency interrupted.

He held out his hands, offering to help her up from the floor. “Now that we won’t pass out from hunger at the table, let’s go join the queen and figure out how we’re handling dinner.”

Eirtaé accepted his help to get to her feet.

He’d return her to the other handmaidens, then arrange the next step in his investigation into the queen. He and his padawan had work to do.

Chapter Text

Dinner felt…odd, to Padmé. Anakin and Obi-Wan had left Theed, same as Before, but were still on-planet. If she’d been inclined to forget that, the presence of Vos and Secura at her table would’ve reminded her.

It wasn’t a formal dinner, just one with her, the handmaidens on dinner rotation, and the two Jedi being treated as something between guests and honorary handmaidens. Knight Vos was considering her intently like Anakin yet thoughtfully like Obi-Wan—and it really wasn’t fair to him that she kept thinking of him as a blend of both men. Padawan Secura was shoving vegetables and fruit to the side of her plate, and the roots kept pointedly moving back down towards the center.

The back-and-forth continued through the meal, until the Twi’lek outright stabbed the Kiffar’s hand with her fork—or, rather, tried to, and was abruptly divested of her fork and chair. Secura landed on her rear end with an umph as Vos casually drank his soup directly from the bowl (which was actually entirely proper, for cream soups, and he’d watched Eirtaé’s handling of the procedure before attempting it, himself). The spontaneously moving chair settled against the wall, with the other ones that weren’t in use.

“Your manners are atrocious.” Linká sounded more awed than appalled.

There was a moment of silence while everyone appreciated the irony of the ill-mannered callout.

Padmé couldn’t remember what had become of Linká Before, and she hoped it was just reassignment to a job that better suited her, rather than anything more harmful or permanent. “They demonstrated yesterday that they can behave themselves just fine in a formal setting. There’s no need for it now.”

“I wasn’t talking about him. I meant the tailhead.”

Knight Vos glanced at her. Padawan Secura didn’t even react that much.

Padmé took the time she needed to breathe until she could say, calmly, “Your employment is terminated.”

What?” Linká protested. “Her manners—”

“Are irrelevant to yours. We will not condone bigotry in any of our representatives.” The royal phrasing was very much intended, and Padmé signaled for immediate implementation of the order.

Security hauled out the now-former handmaiden—something she knew hadn’t happened, Before.

She reached for her glass, but her fingers were trembling. What had she done?

You fired a xenophobe. Same reason you’ll remove Senator Greejatus as soon as you have opportunity, once you become aware of his own speciesism.

She steadied at the memory. She’d done nothing inconsistent with what Palpatine had known of her, Before. That would be fine. It had to be fine. She had even set a precedent that would let her fire that senator sooner.

“No,” Vos said flatly.

Padmé startled and stared at him before realizing he’d been addressing his padawan, who’d been reaching for her chair.


“Finish your dinner elsewhere, Padawan, and meditate on the propriety of your actions. This isn’t some picnic you’re having with your friends.”

Aayla pouted, lekku twitching in…was that amusement? But she outright whined, “Master…”

The Jedi Knight just watched his padawan, his expression bland.

She huffed, grabbed her plate, and left.

“My apologies for her behavior, Your Highness,” he said. “We don’t usually work in these sorts of settings, and my padawan still has a ways to go in her training.”

His words rang with truth, but Padmé found herself staring at him, anyway. That interaction… She’d missed something. She had to have missed something.

But what benefit was there in Aayla playing up how young she was?

“It’s all right,” she said slowly, remembering Mustafar, and how she’d had to play stupid so Anakin would try to kill her, and how Obi-Wan had bought it. “I don’t mind.”

“I wouldn’t, either, in the right context. This wasn’t it.”

He looked and felt sincere. Vos’s mannerisms and aura were more readable than Tholme’s, but…did that necessarily mean the Kiffar was more honest?

It was far too easy to lie to members of the High Council. Wouldn’t a Jedi spy also know how to do that?

“What’s the mourning period here, anyway?” Knight Vos asked casually.

Padmé’s confusion only worsened. “I beg your pardon?”

“Mourning period—timeline when normal activities are shut down out of respect of the dead? Was yesterday it, or is Naboo one of those three-month planets?”

And just like that, he’d handed her the answer to her scheduling problem. She could’ve kissed him.

Bad imagery, Padmé. Thank the Force her facepaint kept her flush from showing, but the skin of her cheeks suddenly felt tight and she wished she could press a cool glass to her face. She cleared her throat.

“Mourning periods vary,” Eirtaé answered for her. “We should have the full tally of casualties and fatalities tomorrow, at which point Her Highness can decide if she wishes to set one.”

Padmé caught herself staring blankly at Eirtaé. Before, the only mourning period had been the day prior to the celebration, since she’d been too busy trying to do everyone’s jobs for them to even hear the suggestion. Now…

“I have some ideas for how to handle it,” she said aloud as a plan solidified, “but I want to see the end numbers before I decide.”

More like, discuss it with Eirtaé and Saché to verify the feasibility of having one week of mourning for each type of casualty: from blockade shortages, from the invasion, from the camps, and from the battle. That would give her a full month to seek Kamino.

She could set it with tendays instead, giving her a bit more time. A secure comm could be used to consult her, but she wouldn’t need to show her face, really, since all high court functions would be suspended for the duration, and Sabé could speak on her behalf. Padmé could justify the length by dividing each tenday into respect for Humans, Gungans, and other races, with each day standing for ten percent of the population.

A forty-day mourning period would be without precedent, as far as she could remember—but so was including the Gungans, who outnumbered the Humans by at least two to one. (Had Jar Jar admitted that yet?)

Padmé wondered if such increase of her support of the Gungans would increase the assassination attempts.

“I’ll have time to find rooms before business pauses, then,” Vos said.

She blinked at him.

Something in the family of alarm flared from Eirtaé, hastily tamped down. “There’s been no withdrawal of welcome—”

“Yeah, ’cause that’s the only reason that matters.” The comment was accompanied by a wry expression.

Padmé felt Eirtaé both pause and comprehend his meaning, and Eirtaé signaled dismissal at Knight Vos.

Padmé didn’t think she was the only one staring at her.

“Did you just insult me?” Vos asked, grin audible. “Again?”

Why was Eirtaé surprised the rudeness pleased him? Vos had hardly been a shining example of manners.

But she was uneasy and flushing—which revealed uneven makeup on her face, centered on one cheek—and she uncomfortably repeated the finger position and movement, in slow demonstration. “It’s a ‘thank you and goodbye’ for coworkers or social peers, but kind of a ‘kriff you’ to others. I–I wasn’t thinking. I was just, uh, reading earlier about, um… Isn’t the Vos clan some kind of nobility on Kiffar?”

“Sort of,” said the Kiffar Jedi, no longer smiling and focusing intently on some bread. “The sheyf of the Guardians has been from clan Vos for…about three hundred years now. That brings prestige, but the closest thing we have to nobility is being in the line for succession as sheyf.”

“Oh?” Padmé asked, curious. “Could you inherit?”

Vos froze, tension spiking, and her breath caught in her throat at the anger roiling there. He took slow, careful breaths, in far more control of himself than Anakin had ever been in that condition.

Eirtaé got up and went to touch his shoulder.

He caught her hand and gently redirected it away. “Perhaps,” he said quietly, far lighter than the emotions she could feel him fighting.

She blinked at him—and at Eirtaé, who was flushing.

He turned to directly address the handmaiden. “So…” He repeated the dismissal motion.

“Yeah. If you want it to be all insult, you put your thumb between your fingers when you pull them back.”

The Jedi turned his hand towards himself to do that, so he was only insulting himself, and a smirk tugged his lips. “That’s definitely a ‘Frip you.’”

Eirtaé nodded, still red-faced. “Without protection.”

Saché choked on her water. Padmé (and, she noticed, Fé) cast a quick look at the younger handmaidens attending her at the moment, who mostly looked confused. Rabé was biting her lip hard as she kept looking between Eirtaé and Vos.

Vos himself coughed a little on a chuckle. “With the unspoken implication of sexually transmitted disease, got it. I’ll have to remember that for the next time I see your dad.”

A snicker escaped Padmé at the thought of Lord Frizmar’s reaction, and she and Eirtaé and Vos all fell into full laughter.

“I’m sorry—no, seriously, I kicked out my padawan for breaking politeness and here I am doing the same kriff—tch—the same thing. I will therefore kick myself out of here and let you finish your dinners in peace, ladies and…” His head tilted as he considered Saché, then he shook his head. “Wow, I am being rude as kriff.”

“You’ve hardly slept in days,” Eirtaé pointed out—and how did she know that?

“Neither have you,” he countered.

And now Padmé really needed to know what was going on, because she couldn’t remember Eirtaé ever falling for anyone, Before. “What precisely is the nature of your relationship?” she demanded.

Eirtaé’s face went even redder, somehow.

Vos’s good humor evaporated. “Handmaiden Frizmar found a Sith holocron. I would’ve expected you of all people to understand the need for observation, after.”

Her ‘of all people’? What did he possibly mean by that?

But he didn’t explain, just left, and Padmé had the odd sense that an uncouth departure had been his goal all along.

Eirtaé paused and looked between her and him before resetting his seat and returning to her own.

“So,” Rabé said slowly, “you spent all of last night in Vos’s rooms?”

“On the couch. He took the floor. We read and chatted about legends.” Eirtaé frowned. “What else would we have done?”

The naïvete would’ve been believable, too, if not for her earlier comment referencing unprotected sex.

Padmé looked around the dinner table and remembered that Eirtaé was fourteen, which made it very believable and even probable that she might sometimes use terms without full understanding of their import.

You’re fourteen, too, she remembered abruptly.

At least being a queen gave her some leverage in general, but it abruptly occurred to her that her ideas for how to handle Kamino would be difficult or impossible for a teenage girl to handle alone.

She didn’t let herself groan aloud and signaled for more spiked punch.

Aayla wasn’t really young enough to play child-naïve for anyone who knew much about Twi’leks and understood how valuable her particular coloring and gender were on the slave market, but those with social status tended to take advantage of their position to coddle their children. That was as true of wealthy persons as it was of notable Jedi.

Memory also tended to focus on beginnings and ends, and she’d been hanging out with Jar Jar all through the middle… Panaka and most of the handmaidens would probably remember her as on the hapless side, despite the queen saying she’d end up a high councilor.

That foretelling was plausible—there was precedent for elevating an unusually young Jedi because their abilities or lineage meant they needed discreet means of self-study and oversight that prevented lower-positioned Jedi from accidentally stumbling in the way and get hurt.

But the turn of conversation had also implied that Aayla would end up a general. The thought boggled. The idea of Jedi being generals was weird enough, but how did a Shadow end up a general?

Of course, most Jedi thought she was a…

She tensed. Why was her mind blanking on something that basic?

Tension without cause. Rookie mistake—but she was by a smaller river, alongside the bridge. She sprang across in a basic display of a Force-user having fun. As a Twi’lek and a Jedi, she was already standing out like a mynock in a cocktail party, so trying to fit in would be weirder than embracing how she differed from the locals.

Aayla brought up her shy-but-happy persona, let that temper her look-around into self-consciousness rather than caution. Everyone thought she was a Guardian.


Lingering confusion was a bad sign—either she’d stumbled into something nasty, or someone was targeting her specifically. There were multiple things that could cause such confusion, either physically or with the Force, and she hadn’t sensed any danger whatsoever.

She still wasn’t sensing anything hostile or even a hint of warning.

Warmth brushed her wrist, and she turned to look. A gesture flickered, a translucent blue that caught her eye. ‘Come,’ she heard a voice say in her head, so there was a telepath involved.

Setup. Trap?

Aayla fled, running blindly away from whatever was making her head all fuzzy and trusting the Force to guide her to turn this corner and dive under that bridge and take refuge in a particular residential neighborhood like where she’d confronted Jar Jar… And why can’t I figure out for sure what’s up with him?

“Master Jedi!” caught her ear, the speaker out of breath as if they’d been repeating themselves, following her.

She turned quickly, hand to her lightsaber hilt.

A dark-haired, dark-eyed Human her age lifted her hands, fingers spread, in clear surrender and declaration of harmlessness. Her ensemble of long-sleeved dress was deceptively plain—attention made clear it was both tailored and a high thread count, with subtle beading and embroidery on the cuffs. Expensive. It blended shades of blue that focused on what Amidala had called ‘mourning blue’, a strip of the ’mourning purple’ was woven through her hair, and her shawl was black.

“You okay?” the girl asked. “You looked like you might’ve gotten into some millies.”

“Millies?” Aayla asked slowly, still processing what she was seeing. Obviously not a social stratus she usually dealt with, but was this girl nobility or middle class? How did the two classes differentiate here?

The Human made a face. “Millaflower is potent enough as it is, but somebody’s turned it into a street drug, some blend that adjusts and enhances the effects. Did you try a stick, or just get into some of the smoke? It’s sweet and a tranquilizer, so it’s easy to miss.”

Aayla shook her head and called on the Force to review her memory. “I didn’t smell anything odd, either, before it hit.”

“Your Force didn’t warn you?”

“No, but I’m just a padawan.” And the memory review made clear she hadn’t been paying attention to smells, to her chagrin. She was letting the environment relax her too much. The lack of overt threats just meant Naboo was differently dangerous, not that it wasn’t dangerous at all. Even the Jedi Temple on Coruscant wasn’t immune—she distinctly recalled an actual bomb going off when she was an Initiate, and there’d been more that almost hadn’t been found and defused in time.

“Could you come tell my mom what it felt like? She might be able to figure out what it was. Dad has this funny story about the bread she made him when they were in university, where she substituted something and discovered that two of the spices put together in those quantities induced hallucinations. Mom took extra schooling about herbal side effects just to learn to avoid repeating that.”

The one to stop her had a possibility of help for whatever had affected her. Coincidence or ‘coincidence’? Impossible to judge. Either way, the Force was at work. “I’m Aayla.”

The girl grinned at her. “Sola. You just passed our house about a block ago.”

Qui-Gon couldn’t do much on his own yet, and Winama had left him to work on ‘pricking the barrier’—making precise, miniscule stabs at the corporeal world, as if with an embroidery needle (as opposed to some other kind of needle? was there a difference?)—with a goal of lifting a pincushion that she had somehow gotten out of a sewing basket without the housekeeper freaking out or putting it back.

He’d been about to see how far he could storm off on his own, to relieve frustration, when Winama returned from whatever she’d been up to. She stayed just long enough to pluck him from the villa, then she dropped him in a booth at a nightclub, across from a familiar face, recited some poetry that was obviously a code or cant, and left again before he could ask for clarification.

Tholme was doing his usual quiet observation of his surrounds and analysis of whatever data he had on his reader. His aura was a thirstgrass, apt to drawing blood but unlikely to do permanent harm unless something else was wrong with the one bled, paired with a tripvine snaking through the rhizomes.

Where had that analogy come from? Qui-Gon hadn’t compared auras to plants since he was a child. “What are you doing here, old friend? Are you investigating the queen?”

Tholme didn’t respond. That was normal, for him, though usually it was because he’d chosen not to, not because he couldn’t hear.

One of the ‘vines’ of Tholme’s Force presence reached out towards him, gently. Qui-Gon reached back out of habit and found, to his surprise, that he could…stick, for want of a better word.

“I can’t hear you yet,” Tholme murmured. “But keep working at it.”

Qui-Gon stared. Did that mean Tholme had heard Winama? Was the older ghost helping him somehow?

Why would the woman help Tholme investigate her own grandaughter?

Something cut through the flow of the Force as it approached them.

Before he had a chance to fret about what it was, Quinlan slipped onto the bench, beside Qui-Gon, and Tholme activated a sound shield.

The Kiffar’s aura was a wall of briars, full of thick thorns poised to hurt the unwary who sought to trap or harm it. Quinlan passed his erstwhile master a datacard. “Footage from the Battle of Theed. You’ll find it interesting, I think.”

Tholme pocketed the datacard without looking at it. “Aayla said you threatened her with repudiation.”

Quinlan did what?

The branches of his bush-aura shivered, as if a breeze had passed through. “There’s something. Probably related. Might be coincidence, but if not, Aayla’s approach to digging is exactly what the target looks for. If she’s with you, you can ‘spin’ it as research to protect the target. I walk and work in the dark, Master. You’re known as a sneaky bastard, but nobody scoffs when you hide in the light.”

Qui-Gon forced himself to focus through the confusion and frustration. What in the Force…?

Quinlan had been at the funeral. Winama had all but admitted another Sith had been there. Who had he been near? Qui-Gon wracked his memory and realized he hadn’t been paying attention. Annoyance turned to embarrassment turned to shame at his own self-absorption.

“You believe the target has the political clout to outmaneuver the entire Jedi Order?” Tholme asked faintly—describing what would have to be possible in order for Quinlan’s fears to be plausible.

“If I’m right? He already has.”

Sola’s mother, Jobal, shoved food at Aayla even though she insisted she’d already eaten, and the girl’s father, Ruwee, just smiled kindly at the stray non-Human his daughter had brought home without knowing more than a first name.

Aayla got the impression that her status as a Jedi had nothing to do with her welcome, that they would’ve responded the same way to anyone.

It was probably a good thing, she thought, that she’d eaten all she planned to before she found out these three were of House Naberrie. As it was, she coughed on her water.

The Force works in ‘mysterious’ ways, she thought darkly, then shook herself. The Force sought the ultimate benefit for others. Fretting over some kind of plot to poison her would just get her too paranoid to do her job while staying Light.

“Do you have Force visions?” she blurted.

The three Naboo all froze, the parents sharing a glance while the teenager scowled.

“Sorry. Um. I’ve met a Padmé Naberrie who’s having…um, some issues with that.” Or with possession. Or with…what else could it be?

And Aayla seriously sucked at uncovering information directly. She was so much better at playing naïve and tricking people into admitting more than they realized—

So…why wasn’t she doing that, again?

“You’ve met my sister?” Sola asked, interest spiking in a way that wasn’t entirely concern. “What did you think?”

Her sister?

The Force was definitely with Aayla, but was this situation truly coincidental or somehow arranged?

Young and foolish teenagers are the same all over, she reminded herself, and she let her eyes widen and show her confusion at what was going on and a bit of her fear of having to seriously report to the Council that the queen of Naboo might be possessed. “It was weird. She kept acting as if she knew me already.”

Another meaningful glance—no, not a glance, a feeling—passed between the two elder Naberries. They weren’t Force-null. And Sola flashed with a blend of annoyance, aggravation, and vindication.

“Padmé’s a very sweet girl,” Ruwee said. “She treats every sentient as her friend unless given reason not to.”

Aayla frowned. That cover was remarkably adept, from an architect. “Yeah, but it wasn’t just that. She kept talking as if I was a Jedi Master. I’m just a padawan.”

Jobal heaped more food on Aayla’s plate, without her say-so. “Padmé and most of her friends have qualified as adults for at least a year. Republic norms must be so hard for her to remember.”

The Jedi Padawan realized her lekku were twitching with the Twi’lek equivalent of muttered curses. She was outclassed. Badly. Both these allegedly normal Humans were sabotaging her attempted lead-ins with an ease that she was pretty sure half the diplomats in the Order would envy.

Sola was frowning at her lekku, and Aayla nearly cursed aloud, then groaned internally. There was no way she would be Knighted this year. Not with how a few days on this single well-off planet made so much of her training evaporate. She was so much more competent than this.

Wasn’t she?

Maybe Master Quinlan covered for her more often than she realized. That would explain why he never made any promises about when he’d recommend her for knighting.

Sola poured Aayla some of the tea she had politely refused, an unvoiced recommendation. “Is it the millie?”

Millie?” Jobal asked sharply. “What’s a Jedi doing with that?”

The concern showed by the two adults didn’t really mesh with the rueful amusement that passed between them, as if they knew a Jedi who played with drugs—or just of one, or maybe just had an idea of why a Jedi might indulge.

(Some Jedi who could purge negative effects with the Force toyed with drugs as stress relief. Contrary to popular belief, Master Quinlan didn’t, though he partook when missions warranted it. Master Tholme did death sticks, sometimes, allegedly to keep in the habit of testing for and purging poisons.)

Any of those possibilities indicated familiarity with Jedi and fit with their daughter being able to recognize a Force suggestion.

But none of them fit with what their daughter claimed about her prior exposure to Jedi.

Someone was lying. But was it the queen to the Jedi, or the family to the queen? Lies were like lightsabers, able to be utilized to protect or harm. Aayla’s own lineage lied all the time. It was part of being a Shadow.

That was entirely aside from the fact that Aayla had apparently been drugged somehow without her knowledge. “I’m not sure what happened, exactly. Mind if I let my master know? I’m sure he’s worried.”

Or he would be if she didn’t report in, at any rate. Master Quinlan avoided scheduling her time unless there was specific reason to do so, like the week of her escape exam. Otherwise, he tended to just tell her what needed doing and what limits were on it, and let her figure out or ask how to get it done. That freedom more than made up for the fact that he had her ping him a check-in every so often.

It hadn’t taken her many skipped check-ins to realize that her master, as possibly the best tracker in the Order, could find her rather quickly no matter how dishonest she was about where she was.

It had taken her longer to figure out that he didn’t even care where she was as long as she considering her limitations. He just wanted to know that she was alive and acting of her own volition, confirmation of her continued safety and survival.

He’d set check-in for every seven hours while Obi-Wan and various councilors were in town, and now that they were gone, he’d upped that to every hour and a half.

So she texted him ‘Hutts have the *ugliest* parents’, smiled at the Naberries, and started describing the symptoms she’d experienced. Maybe she’d bust these millies before they spread to other planets’ streets? Then she’d at least have accomplished something while here.

Quiet lay in the evening air, and Padmé carefully considered her options for what to wear. She couldn’t show anything royal, and she needed to avoid signaling her House. Her slipshod attire last night had paid insult to Master Tholme—he’d ignored it, if he’d recognized it at all, but she couldn’t in good conscience repeat the error.

She dug through the options in the massive wardrobe, seeking individual pieces that she could build into a cohesive whole.

“Where are you going?”

Padmé jumped and blinked at Eirtaé, who’d approached without her noticing. The other handmaidens were in the outer room still, and she found herself remembering Vos’s opinion of what she should have done, last night.

‘Informed at least two of your bodyguards of your intent and your intended timeline, so they would know both to cover for you and when to sound a discreet alarm.’

“I need to take a walk, but as a Naberrie. I’ll be going to the Mesa Me and back.”

Eirtaé glanced behind Padmé, at the wardrobe. “Come here.”

She took Padmé to her own room and opened her own closet. As an honorary handmaiden, she had a bigger space allotment for personal effects than the others, since it was assumed she’d have more time off. The expected accutrements of the daughter and heir for House Frizmar were in the front.

Eirtaé pushed past them and pulled out some tasteful yet affiliation-ambiguous overgowns, designed with slits up the sides and to be worn with slacks.

The set the handmaiden handed her were remembrance red.

Padmé recoiled. “I can’t wear this! This is my ceremonial color—it’s what I wore in the Senate!”

“That’s why it’s perfect,” Eirtaé replied, matter-of-factly. “Nobody who reads the color language will be paying attention to your face. They’ll be too busy gaping at your blatant aping of the queen.”

She considered the remaining colors and chose the defiance overdress (mostly yellow, with orange climbing through it) and black slacks for herself.

The boots she handed over were white, and she put on the black ones, herself.

The fabric beneath Padmé’s fingers was far sturdier, more functional, than she had expected of a House that luxuriated in its wealth and status. “Why do you have this?”

Eirtaé reached behind the first layer of her closet again and pulled out a blaster, which she strapped to her hip. “You were able to grow up in a small home without excesses of security because your family is large enough that there’s no benefit to killing you. House Frizmar is small.”

She eyed her, as if considering what to say or evaluating how much she understood, and her voice stayed casual. “A nanny tried to poison me once.”

Eirtaé grabbed a shawl displaying the pattern of House Frizmar to complete her own outfit, and Padmé blinked rapidly, appalled by the details that the handmaiden had never shared, Before—and also unnerved by Eirtaé’s presumption.

“I must go alone—”

“We’re two House daughters going to a club or whatever that place is. If anyone asks, you’re cheering me up. The lord of my family is under censure, after all.”

“But you’re known as an honorary handmaiden!”

“So anyone who notices and remembers that will assume you’re another handmaiden,” Eirtaé countered, reasonably.

That was…a very good point.

“I have to talk to someone,” Padmé said. “Alone.”

Eirtaé shrugged. “Okay.”

The handmaiden stepped out, presumably to discuss the situation with the others and leaving Padmé with the clothes to borrow in hand. She got dressed.

So Eirtaé would be coming with her as she spoke to Tholme. This should be…interesting.

Chapter Text

Saché quietly protested Padmé’s plans, arguing that it wasn’t safe, and threatened to call Panaka.

Eirtaé frowned at them both from the sidelines where she was chatting with Rabé and Sabé, who both felt confused at first, then soon hit surprise. They broke away from Eirtaé and fell on Saché, taking Padmé’s side, and Eirtaé discreetly guided Padmé away and out.

The security guards outside the door reached for their comm, and Eirtaé gave a little wave. “Handmaiden Frizmar and a plus one, signing out with Her Highness’s permission.”

Proper protocol would have been for the guards to halt the two of them while they verified that, but apparently they either trusted Eirtaé or were just surprised enough by the etiquette specialist’s violation of protocol that they ignored it.

The night was young enough that some bustle remained about the halls. Any one of them could alert Panaka, or maybe Saché would overpower the younger handmaidens, or…

To her surprise, they reached the Tidal Gate without incident.

“What did you tell Rabé and Sabé?” she asked.

Eirtaé smirked. “If Your Highness dreamt that too large a contingent would be noticed, of course she would desire a more intimate option.”

Padmé blinked. “You tricked them into thinking I’d had a vision?”

Her arch glance proclaimed, ‘I just said that.’

A startled laugh slipped out. She’s fourteen, Padmé remembered abruptly. As I’m supposed to be.

Eirtaé lifted her chin.

They had been political rivals first, and Padmé didn’t know when the handmaiden stopped resenting her. The laugh might’ve come across as mocking.

She bit her lip. Friendly overtures would be appropriate. “What gave you the idea?”

That glance at Padmé held confusion. “It was just a basic misdirection. It’s not their fault they didn’t have rhetoric classes.”

Padmé froze. “What?

“Education standards differ between the Houses, Housed, and Unhoused.” Eirtaé was calm, forthright…and unsurprised by Padmé’s ignorance. “Sabé can barely divide fractions. Rabé can’t read music.”

There were so many details that Padmé was learning about her handmaidens, things she hadn’t known, Before. Had they ever been friends at all?

“But…’not their fault’ they didn’t have rhetoric? You’re saying it wasn’t even offered to them.”

“It wasn’t. After I noticed the differences in education levels, I surveyed the districts and sent the data to the Education Committee with a polite reminder that such discrepancies had to be eradicated within five years of being duly reported, under the Republic’s Accord Regarding the Rights of Children—the violation of which constitutes a human rights offense and therefore is prosecuted by the Judicial Forces of the Republic.”

So maybe this, at least, could be explained by it being handled and repaired before she had any reason to know. Padmé had wondered, Before, why Saché had taught Eirtaé her former trade. She hadn’t realized Eirtaé had been the type to manipulate information all along.

In hindsight, the fact that Eirtaé wrote her speeches—a job that required adroitness at maneuvering details—should’ve cued her in. “So that’s why you get along with Master Vos.”

The blonde’s smile sharpened. “We’re heading in the right direction, I presume?”

“What? Oh.” Padmé looked around and adjusted their route.

They continued in silence, and when they neared the Mesa Me, Eirtaé paused, tilting her head and scanning the street.

Padmé slowed and checked her surrounds. “Threat?”

“No. Not in the way you’re meaning.” She sounded distracted, a bit.

Tholme wasn’t the only Jedi presence in the Mesa Me.

Padmé stumbled a half-step, surprised. What was Vos doing there?

She needed to talk to Tholme, see what he could do about Kamino. Vos would recognize her, and if he realized what she was doing… He’d surely find this inappropriate for a queen.

Hopefully he had the intellectual integrity to appreciate that she’d taken his advice. Or… She glanced at Eirtaé. Might distraction work? “How do you and Vos get along?”

“Very well,” her handmaiden said. “He’s exceedingly clever.”

Padmé stared at her. Just what had been involved with Vos’s alledged watching her for side effects from the Sith artifact?

But Eirtaé had a right to her fun, which would hopefully be fleeting. (Padmé would be ‘seducing’ one Jedi, whenever she and Anakin married. She didn’t need her retinue tied with the corruption of another.)

Padmé had managed to keep her jaw from dropping, but her smirk probably held strain as she decided to tease. “Clever?”

“Exceedingly.” Giving no sign that she recognized the implications of her matter-of-fact compliment, Eirtaé stepped forward and entered the club first. It was quiet tonight, at least right now, maybe because of the band setting up in the back of the dance floor.

Surprise and pleasure burst from her handmaiden. “Billí!”

“Eirtaé Frizmar?” That was the dual who worked as doorman. “What are you doing here?”

Eirtaé grimaced, signed in. “Father’s under censure.” She passed the sign-in datapad to Padmé, who was still processing the fact that her handmaiden actually knew the dual. “My friend says this is a good scene to, ah…distract myself.”

The doorman recovered the datapad and verified their log-ins. “The whiskey’s run thin, but there’s plenty of mead, and you might be able to charm some rum out of Rish. She’s been saving some for special clients.”

“Your name’s not enough to qualify?”

Billí shook their head. “Wish it was, that I could’ve been among the blessed after work, last night.”

“Sadness.” Eirtaé gave Billí a pointed yet amused look, and their conversation devolved into a series of nonverbal expressions and signals that were obviously accusing the doorman of something, in good humor.

If these two were such good friends, why had Padmé been the first to protest House Wyze’s treatment of their heir? Eirtaé’s belated protest, at least two weeks after Padmé’s, had gotten her severely criticized for being a follower, protesting for the sake of the political gain, and not a leader, unwilling to speak out against injustice until after she knew her people would respond. Some theorists claimed that was what had cost her the election.

More, the dual didn’t seem bothered by the fact that his apparent friend had belayed supporting him.

“You like hard liquor?” Padmé asked, mentally floundering for some sort of anchor.

They both gave a little laugh, and Eirtaé smiled wryly. “That’s my preference.”

Now Padmé felt guilty for following House rules for getting Eirtaé a proper bottle of wine for each birthday, Before. That was ridiculous—she had done as best she could with what she’d known of her handmaiden, but…

Was that incomprehension why Eirtaé ultimately left the etiquette position and went into intelligence?

Padmé eyed her, remembered how she’d spotted and handled an education deficit without even telling her, and thought it was safe to assume Eirtaé just enjoyed playing those sorts of games.

“Well,” Padmé said, “I’m glad this has worked on one front, at least, and gotten you some company.” Though she now wasn’t sure what she was going to do about Vos. One step at a time. “May I enter?”

“Ah. Of course.” Billí double-checked the sign-ins and let them both through the gate. “Sorry about that. I so rarely see anyone I used to know, here.”

Eirtaé was eying the crowd—with consideration, not wariness. “I’m sure that’s one of the reasons you selected it for your place of employment. None of our parents’ cliques would come near a multispecies establishment like this, and the open association with presumed scum would just doom the place, in their estimation.”

Billí frowned in confusion.

The blonde discreetly indicated a direction without turning her head. “Water painter, three seats up from the middle of the bar.”

“Sometimes you worry me, Eirtaé.”

“Eh, have a protector keeping an eye on me, these days. Speaking of whom, I’ll go see if I can coax him into hitting up Rish—that’s the lady Gungan?—for some of that rum.”

The doorman’s expression went serious and sad. ”Eirtaé.”

“What? Oh. I didn’t mean…” Her pallor showed her confusion, and then her bright red flush—and what was up with that makeup on her cheek?

“Ladies,” Vos said coolly, wearing his mercenary garb.

“Hi!” Eirtaé was so obviously scrambling for a save and actually mouthed a thank-you.

Billí sighed. “Use protection, please.”

“Not what we’re here for,” Padmé answered, her annoyance at the presumption making it a bit sharp. Tholme was old enough to be their grandfather. She shuddered at the thought.

“Yeah.” Vos pulled her away from the gate, out of line of sight with the entrance, and then did the same to Eirtaé. “Is that assumption going to be a problem?”

“They’re both adults under the laws of Naboo, so it’s perfectly legal. We just ask that protection is used, for the safety of all parties involved. There are dispensers in the cloister rooms.”

Vos’s nod held some resignation. “Good to know. Thank you.”

He stepped aside and inclined his head in a pointed heads-up. Padmé followed the indication to see Tholme seated at a sound-shielded booth, watching them.

“Raya,” Billí said, “I hate to ask, but your arm…”

“It’s fine,” Eirtaé answered, sharply.

Padmé frowned, as much at the nickname as at the comment. She pivoted on her heel as Vos gently lifted Eirtaé’s left wrist. “What happened?!”

Eirtaé went as tense and stiff as she’d been as a new handmaiden, making Padmé realize just how much the blonde had relaxed into her role as she plucked her arm from the Kiffar’s light grip. “I fell off a balcony.”

“Uh-huh,” said Vos. “And how much help did you have with that?”

Whyever did he assume that? “The electoral gowns have some of the worst hems of any official wardrobe. I fell down stairs a few times. Fortunately, the worst I ever did was twist my ankle.”

Vos’s dry “Lucky you” somehow conveyed What the frip do I care?

Eirtaé shot him another grateful smile.

Discomfort stabbed Padmé in the stomach at the foreign sight. Those two were a thing. She had to remember that. “Right. Well. I’ll just go talk to… I suppose you know Tholme, then?”

Vos just watched her as coolly as any mercenary. It was a disconcerting difference from the good-natured Jedi she’d met. Which face was him?

Why does it have to be an either-or?

At least Tholme’s aura stayed so placid that you knew you didn’t know what he was thinking. She scurried that way.

The queen scurried out of earshot, unnerved enough that she would be more likely to let psychic impressions slip for Tholme to pick up now, or for Quinlan to read later.

“So what Gungan,” he asked Frizmar, “and what rum?”

“Billí said Rish has rum she’s sharing with special clients.”

Was she asking for a crash course in flirting now? As legal as everyone was saying it would be to even frip the kid, he did try to keep some decency in his reputation, by Core standards. He was already thought enough of a scoundrel that he was probably going to have to fight to be allowed to take another padawan—and he was very careful to ensure he’d be able to win that battle.

“You want her to like you?” he asked, to confirm he wasn’t misunderstanding her request before he refused it.

Frizmar’s flat look said she didn’t care who got the server’s interest. Thank the Force.

“I just want some rum,” she said.

Hard liquor wasn’t great for someone her age, but it was her choice to make. At least he could make sure she was responsible about it.

But there was the matter of the healed breaks running through her bones. She openly admitted to climbing trees while wearing gowns, so that had doubtless given an easy excuse to her father—or maybe his claiming she’d gotten hurt climbing trees had given her the idea, had encouraged her to develop a taste for doing so.

When you couldn’t escape a reputation, playing along could be safer. And it was often easier than getting continually slammed in the nuts with proof of everyone who cared more about what they’d been told about you than what you actually did or said.

He glanced at the doorman, who was doing a decent job of masking concern—which was maybe at Eirtaé, probably at whatever Quinlan’s own plans were for her. Whether Eirtaé’s father had indirectly broken her arm to stop her from supporting her friend or to punish her for doing so, that background made her likely to end up going through a cycle of differently bad relationships as she stumbled her way into learning what genuinely healthy even looked like. Pure platonics like Luminara were uncommon enough that the doorman’s concern was more likely to be warranted than not.

“How good friends are you?” he asked Eirtaé, inclining his head towards the doorman, whose name Quinlan hadn’t caught and who he wasn’t sure how to refer to. Both Huttese and Twi’leki defaulted to ‘he’ for mixed-gender persons—well, Huttese actually defaulted to neuter and binary languages translated that to male, but it worked out to the same thing, from his end—and he wasn’t sure he’d ever learned the etiquette for Basic. That sort of social nuance was considered part of Obi-Wan’s specialty, not Quinlan’s (which was ridiculous, in his opinion, but many masters had stopped asking what he thought of anything after his essay illustrating how Force healing could be used in a Dark manner and Force lightning could be used for Light purposes).

(In hindsight, he suspected that essay was a significant part of why he’d been knighted at sixteen. No more school assignments making people uncomfortable, and fewer repercussions for his master if he Fell.)

Thinking of repercussions… “If you told him we’re not hooking up, would he believe you?”

Eirtaé paused, confusion clear in the Force. “Billí’s a dual, not male.“

Quinlan stared at her blankly. That didn’t tell him how he was supposed to refer to the person, and he wondered if the ending on the name was an indicator of the ’dual’ status.

“That’s a they, not a he. Do Jedi not learn that?”

He shrugged. “It’s the diplomats that get the classes in how to be polite to a hundred different cultures and…three dozen different species?” Or so Depa had said, though it would be like her to lie about that as a joke.

“So padawans have different classes, dependent on what they will be doing as knights?”

“Or what they think they’ll be doing.” Shifting career tracks was easier as a junior padawan than it was later, which tended to result in being overqualified for the original field but underqualified to unequivocally qualify as the new one.

Master Gallia was a case in point. She did some things that meant Jedi in general would count her as a Shadow, but she’d never had the requisite training in Dark artifacts. (Bant had more Shadow training in her record than Gallia did, and Bant was still just a junior padawan when her first master died. Fisto had let her take what classes she wanted, but he was a Consular, and Bant graduated as a perfectly humdrum healer last year.) Fortunately, Gallia was cognizant enough of the gaps in her education that she ensured her padawan often got borrowed or accompanied by full Shadows, so Siri could learn what Gallia never had.

Quinlan tilted his head back towards Billí. “Well?”

Frizmar paused, visibly thought back through the conversation, then gave a nod. Her return to her friend was more of a direct pivot than a turn, and her stride was similarly direct. “Billí, is there some flirt or something around here who’d make clear my friend isn’t here to sleep with me?”

The presumption that he wanted to get laid was annoying, but clever. “How about something to indicate a little flirting’s fun aplenty?” At the moment, sleep would be ‘fun aplenty’, but sleep was also a luxury he couldn’t afford, just yet that night.

Eirtaé frowned, eyes narrowed at him while she considered his question.

Billí blinked a few times in blatant bewilderment, looking between the two of them. “You’re an offworlder.”

Did the clan tattoo stretching across Quinlan’s face not make that obvious? “Yes.”

“How did you two meet, precisely?”

“He’s a friend of the Jedi who killed the Sith. Came to check on him.” The kid’s comment sounded as absentminded as it wasn’t. Nicely done. Frizmar tapped her fingers against her leg. “Billí, does this establishment have any celebration bands? I’ll buy one for him.”

“You want a…a…” The doorman spluttered in bewilderment.

Quinlan raised an eyebrow at her in query. She just smiled.

“Uh. Okay. Rish has those.”

“Oh?” The girl’s blatant lighting up reminded him that Rish was who allegedly had the rum she wanted. “Two fish, one hook. Thank you.”

She strode off towards the female Gungan attending the bar, and Quinlan carefully minded his angle and posture as he kept apace, to avoid appearance of stalking, bothering, or pressuring her.

A few drunk dancers careened between them. He saved them from a tumble with his hands rather than the Force, and he ignored the pickpocket who took advantage of the distraction. (If someone was desperate enough to pick a possibly psychometric Kiffar, they needed the few credits he kept in that pocket more than he did.)

By the time he reached Frizmar, she already had a white strip of cloth in hand. “Here,” she said, handing it to him. “Tie it around your arm in a, um… The knot used in that famous knot picture on Alderaan.”

There was a ‘famous knot picture on Alderaan’?

She flushed a bit. “Sorry. I just realized that what we call the Jamin knot would have a different name in Basic. I’m pretty sure tying it for you would convey what we’re trying to avoid… Oh, I’ll just show you. Can I have another?”

The Gungan blinked at her, eyes wide with something akin to worry. “Yousa sure?”

He was missing a cultural nuance here, but he wouldn’t have known it from Frizmar’s easy “Yes.”

Rish reluctantly pulled another strip of white cloth from a drawer behind the bar.

Eirtaé took hers and tied it around her arm with a clove hitch. “This knot’s mainly used by children and spouses, so it should be safe.”

He waited for the rest of the explanation, fabric in hand.

She hesitated. “I could call Sabé for confirmation if you like.”

Sabé, who had been the only handmaiden to omit her family name when she introduced himself, and who had surely had a reason for that. “In other words, you’re setting me up to look like a homeless bum that you wouldn’t dream of fripping because your dad would kill you.”

Eirtaé cast a pointed glance at the white—’celebratory’—band on her own arm, which was doubtless endangering herself if her dad found out. She took a few steps down the bar to the ‘water painter’ she’d pointed out a few minutes earlier, who had ordinary-looking paint smudges and clean but worn clothing. Quinlan would’ve assumed he was an impoverished artist.

“Excuse me,” Eirtaé asked, “but did I tie this right?”

The youth wasn’t much older than Aayla, and he went pale and wide-eyed at the question.

Quinlan cut in, “We’re trying to give a public indicator that our association is platonic.”

“Uh,” the water painter stuttered. “That does mean that, yes.”

“Thank you.” She held a credit chip out to him, offered on her palm.

The youth glanced between them. “How did you know?”

“Your shoulders are too narrow for House fashion, and the Housed stopped using that sort of hemline after it caused a workplace accident bad enough for employers’ insurance companies to forbid it for safety reasons.”

Quinlan took another look at the hems. They were frayed, but folded up and stitched to look like an intentional accent at three-quarter length. He hadn’t even processed them as part of the painter’s obvious poverty.

Eirtaé glanced self-consciously at the credit chip still in her palm, then at the crowd around them. “This is the proper thank-you for the sharing of knowledge, correct?”

The youth snatched the money and gave a little bob. “Thank you, my lady,” he spluttered, and he stumbled over himself as he fled the pub altogether.

Eirtaé sighed. “Gods,” she muttered. “I have stop using that word.”

Quinlan raised an eyebrow as he tied his strip as she had hers.

“The Housed don’t really talk in terms of what’s ’proper’, so my asking that way was a giveaway that I’m a House daughter, and there aren’t that many options for who I can be.”

“I thought the big deal about this past battle was that it broke the Great Time of Peace?”

“It did. It was our first battle in centuries. But Naboo’s always had classism and speciesism. You should hear my father’s drunken rants on how the offworlder non-Humans are ruining our planet, because they’re responsible for the plasma leak House Greejatus keeps having. Can’t possibly be the expired pipes and lack of skilled labor since he pays his workers as little as he possibly can and makes them buy all their own safety equipment.”

“So, to know more about how Houses are supposed to behave, talk to Padmé, but to know ways Houses play loose with the rules, talk to you?”

That startled a grin out of her, but no answer. That was fine. The question had been rhetorical, anyway.

Now that Frizmar wasn’t so tense and upset that she’d be likely to overdo the alcohol, time to see if he could get the kid some rum. He turned back to the bar and pondered what would constitute flirting to such a bipedal amphibian.

Tholme didn’t look up as Padmé stepped through the sound shield and sat across from him.

“Master—” She stared at yet another guest she hadn’t expected. “Master Jedi, what brings you here?”

“Your grandmother dropped me off,” answered Master Qui-Gon’s ghost, glowing beside her.

“I could ask you the same question,” said Master Tholme.

“And now it’s time to go,” Nana cut in, and she plucked Qui-Gon and ferried him off somewhere.

Padmé stared at where the two ghosts had been, just moments before. What had that been about?

Tholme’s focus narrowed on her. It wasn’t predatory, but it definitely was sharper than was strictly polite. “You saw Qui-Gon?”

“Of course. He was right across from you, before Nana took him.” She glanced around, but she didn’t sense either of them, now. “Nana’s gotten incredibly confusing, lately.”

“Does Winama spend much time with you?”

The Jedi’s use of her grandmother’s given name made something uneasy tangle in Padmé’s stomach. Just how close had they been? “Not since she died, no. I didn’t even know she’d lingered as a ghost until after Maul killed Qui-Gon.”

Padmé had assumed the voice in her head, Before, was her buried Force instincts. Might it have been Nana, instead? That put an entirely different spin on the headaches.

“She taught you a fair bit, then.”

Much of “what I know,” Padmé agreed. “Have you reached a decision about Kamino? I need to know if you’ll be helping me or if I need to make other plans for locating it.”

Tholme studied her, so obviously taking her measure.

Padmé lifted her chin and met his gaze squarely. “Make no mistake, Master Jedi—I will find the planet, with or without your help.”

“What Jedi would you take with you?”

Padmé blinked. “I beg your pardon?”

“Visions can often be allegorical rather than literal, and even literal visions are always incomplete. I’ll provide you means to quietly investigate, but you must take one of us with you. If there’s someone you’d prefer, I’ll see if I can pull them in for you. Otherwise, I’ll select your companion, and I can’t promise they’ll respect your position over your age.”

“You wouldn’t just come yourself?” The question was a basic technique to buy time to process what the Jedi was offering. Was he serious, or was this another test? If he was serious… “I want Siri Tachi.”

The blonde was quick to use the Force to help matters, like knocking someone down who needed to be stopped but was some seconds distant. She also had a reckless streak, but she was far more discreet and levelheaded than Anakin—so an even enough blend of how wartime Obi-Wan and Anakin responded to things that they’d probably get along. And maybe, if I get to know her now, she’ll listen to me when I warn her on Azure and not get herself killed.

A trace of surprise escaped Tholme—maybe an accident, maybe something he let happen to see if she’d notice it, maybe both.

“I’ll see what I can do.” He studied her for the span of a few heartbeats, then passed a data reader over the table. “This is a secure unit. Don’t change any settings. I assume you want to leave at the turn of the week?”

That was the earliest she could reasonably disappear, allowing for scheduling and announcements. “Yes.”

“I’ll contact you through this with the details for travel. If you need help using the unit without compromising it, ask another Jedi or Winama.”

Padmé really needed to stop being surprised by the evidence that Nana had more to do with Jedi spywork than she’d admitted. “You weren’t the only Jedi Nana knew, were you?”

“I may have been the only one who explicitly admitted to being a Jedi,” Tholme said gently. “I was probably the only one she might have considered a friend.”

He didn’t even know if he’d counted? What did that say about his friendships, in general?

“That sounds…lonely,” she said, and she didn’t mean her grandmother.

“It can be,” he said quietly. “Someone has to do it.”

“Must that someone be you?”

“Who else?” He studied her again, softer this time, and something about it felt like a smile. “You advertise your kindness more than Wialu ever did. I wonder, sometimes, if that was the Order’s doing, or if she would’ve hidden it on her own.”

Wialu? Nana’s little sister who’d been given to the Jedi, Padmé assumed. She’d never paused to think about it, to realize she didn’t even know her great-aunt’s name.

Tholme’s focus turned to something out in the crowd, and regret pulled at his aura.

Padmé followed his gaze to see Vos, lightly flirting with a lady Gungan, and Eirtaé awkwardly trying to do the same. The handmaiden was bright in a way that Padmé had never seen, and even the Kiffar seemed…lighter, in the Force, as the Gungan sparkled with good humor. Nausea churned in her stomach, and she remembered how Vos had sought so clear definition for what qualified as legal and permissible here.

“It would be nice for him to have a friend outside the Order,” Tholme said. “He has so few.”

The unprovoked admission brought Master Billaba’s recent test to mind, and Padmé eyed Master Tholme with fresh wariness.

He glanced at her as if in silent question as to what bothered her. Even if she hadn’t figured out his job, his demonstrated control over his aura would’ve caused her to distrust it.

“I believe you have a trip to prepare for, Your Highness,” he said pointedly.

She stiffened, glancing to the sound shield. It was intact. ”I—”

No, he was fishing. She could return the favor. “I was surprised to see Master Vos here. He made much of how much sleep he was lacking at dinner.”

“He does that sometimes,” Tholme responded.

Silence fell between them, and she counted to twenty in her head in Huttese to distract herself from her annoyance. “How do you know him?”

“How do you know Tachi?” he countered promptly, as if he’d been waiting for her to ask. Maybe he had.

She stared at him, considered answering. It was a fair trade, to find out how he knew Vos.

But she’d already shared so much of what she knew. The more she shared, the more likely Palpatine would find out, the more likely he might guess that she knew what he was.

She shook her head, excused herself, and headed back to the palace.

Chapter Text

Eager to learn to swim, Anakin woke before the sun. The night was cool but not cold, not under the blankets the old guy had given him.

Paddy, he reminded himself. He’s the caretaker, and slavery’s illegal here, so that means he’s a servant.

He didn’t hear anyone else awake, though. He tried to fall back asleep, but he tossed and turned, too excited about what he’d be doing that day.

His first view of a lake had been the evening before. Would the night change how it looked?

Anakin hesitated, because he didn’t want to bother Obi-Wan, but there were walls and doors between their rooms.

He peeked over at the door. It was shut, and he hadn’t thought to do it, so Obi-Wan or Paddy had, and that meant Obi-Wan’s door was probably closed, too. He could get to the balcony at the end of the hall without bothering anyone.

Anakin was still careful as he got up and opened the door. The night was cold, with an odd texture to it that made his skin feel funny, and he bit his lip. Could he bring the blanket?

This was Padmé’s house. Surely she’d be okay with him using it. He’d just have to keep track of it so he only wore out the one. Maybe he’d find a swoop race or something to be able to replace it.

He curled up on the balcony, under the blanket, and stared out over the water, watching it ripple in the light of the few moons. The view was beautiful and strange and made him wish Mom could see it, too.

Don’t look back, she’d told him, but he missed her. Watto probably wouldn’t sell her, though, even if Padmé or the Jedi went with the money. Probably wouldn’t. Maybe if they caught him when he made a bad gamble…

Anakin’s swallow tasted salty.

Gradually, as the sky started to lighten, he became aware of a tingling against his skin, of a funny feeling in his head, and he turned back towards the house to see the ghost woman on the other side of the balcony, a little behind him. She was blue and glowing, and he could see the rail through her. She was also making something, her chair and loom as see-through and blue as she was.

She was focused on whatever she was making, but she wasn’t really making anything at all, was she?

He swallowed uneasiness, this time, rather than sadness. “Hi.”

She gave him a gentle smile that reminded him of Mom.

He rallied himself and approached—not too close, he didn’t want to be rude, but near enough that she’d have to work to ignore him. “I’m Anakin. Who are you?”

«Winama,» she answered, and he wasn’t sure if he heard it with his ears or in his head or through the Force. «I was Padmé’s grandmother.»

Her grandmother? “Naboo end up ghosts when they die?”

Lady Winama shook her head. «It’s a specific use of the Force. Not particularly common. Even those who can do it are often taught that they can’t or shouldn’t, and not everyone is interested in sticking around at all.»

Her gaze locked onto something just past Anakin’s shoulder. «Oh, that’s interesting.»

The hair on the back of his neck stood on end. He stepped a little away from whatever she was looking at before he peered that way himself, but there was nothing there. “Um, Lady Winama, ma’am?”

«Qui-Gon’s still working on being able to communicate with the living, and you’re likely to be able to hear him before Obi-Wan can,» she said, gaze still locked on whatever it was. «I’m helping him with that, but…»

She stood, and the loom and stool vanished as if they’d never been, and she approached whatever she saw.

Lady Winama reached out, carefully, as if offering someone a hand. «I’m sorry, my dear. I didn’t realize you were following Qui-Gon. Would you like some help?»

The flicker was over before Anakin could blink, but someone grabbed the other ghost’s arm—a woman, tall and free and dark-skinned and…and Jedi, he realized, for he’d seen a lightsaber hilt on her belt, though her clothing had been tailored and personalized to a degree that weren’t necessarily Jedi robes, that would’ve fit right in with some of the mercenaries he’d seen around as a slave.

Should he admit to what he’d seen? “Lady Winama, ma’am?”


He startled and turned back to see Obi-Wan, a bit tousled and obviously just woken up.

“Are you all right?”

Anakin peered around, but the ghost lady was gone. “The ghost lady just told me her name’s Winama and she’s Padmé’s grandmother.”

Obi-Wan blinked a few times and rubbed his face. “Oh?”

He didn’t want to make Obi-Wan feel bad, but maybe it would help to know Qui-Gon was learning how to talk to him? “And she said she’s teaching Master Qui-Gon how to talk to people, too, and she just went to help some lady Jedi ghost who’s been hanging around Qui-Gon.”

Obi-Wan’s eyes widened. “Master Tahl?” he whispered. “Was she a… Were her eyes striped?”

Anakin bit his lip, wishing he knew. “I dunno. She was all blue and glowy.”

He slumped against the doorway and closed his eyes. “I see.”

Grief made the air thick, hard to breathe. Qui-Gon really had been a dad to Obi-Wan. Maybe Tahl had been his mom?

“Can we have breakfast?” Anakin asked, “or is it too early?”

What he really wanted was to learn swimming, but the sun wasn’t even halfway over the horizon yet, and Obi-Wan needed something to distract him now.

Besides, he didn’t want Obi-Wan to think about the swimming while his mood might make him change his mind.

Getting kicked out of bed and shoved into an obstacle course at far too early in the morning only reinforced Rabé’s suspicions that Captain Panaka wasn’t as competent as he presented himself. He was acting too threatened by all that had happened.

Rabé foot still hadn’t fully woken up, she had a stitch in her side, and she was pretty sure Saché wasn’t supposed to be using that leg so strenuously yet.

A training bolt shot out from the dark surrounding them—from near one of the walls, Rabé thought. Someone stumbled.

“Yané!” barked Captain Panaka, who was playing the role of Amidala in this exercise, so he could critique their performance from the perspective of the person being guarded as they moved through the assigned ‘escape’ route. “Watch your side!”

Eirtaé was easiest handmaiden to identify in the dark, on account of her blond hair. Rabé glimpsed a flash of tooth. Was she snarling?


“Shouldn’t even be here,” Eirtaé snapped, “unless her medical clearance came through when I wasn’t looking. And Yané hasn’t consented to act as close protection.”

Rabé’s stomach dropped. That was what had been wrong about the scheduling yesterday. All handmaidens were trained to use a blaster if necessary, but not all were bodyguards, just like how not all were body doubles—or hairdressers, for that matter. Panaka’s schedule hadn’t accounted for such distinctions.

Her heart pounded in the awkward silence that ensued, for the space of a few breaths.

“If you know so much,” Panaka asked, coldly, “why did you come out at all?”

“I have consented to act as close protection,” Eirtaé answered, her ice sharper than his. “Those two have not. This exercise is over. Shut it down.”

“That is not your call to make.”

“You would prefer for your abuse of my fellow handmaidens to be reported to the queen?” Her cadence was so close to Amidala’s that it had to be a House thing. “You’ve had plenty of time to notice or remember or confirm consent. Instead, you’re scolding Yané for missing something she hasn’t even been taught, and you were about to lay into Saché for the side effects of a medical injury.”

“The queen needs more bodyguards!”

“So that’s reason to ignore authorization or consent?” Sabé seemed as startled at her own words as everyone else was, then rallied herself. “Eirtaé’s right.”

“This conversation does not concern you, Sabé.”

Rabé squinted at Captain Panaka. That counter was uncomfortably close to what her uncle would use, if someone called him out on something. How incompetent was he?

Sabé lifted her chin. “It ‘concerns’ all of us.”

“It would be unfortunate if certain details about you came to light.”


Sabé froze.

“You mean the fact that I spent two nights ago in Vos’s rooms, or the fact that I spent last night out with him at a pub?” Eirtaé asked mildly, the cold of her anger suddenly and inexplicably gone.

An incredulous sound warbled in Sabé’s throat.

“The queen is already aware of both,” Eirtaé continued easily, as if she hadn’t just shielded Sabé from whatever secret the captain had been about to harass her for.

Rabé stated her authorization codes, tacitly indicating her agreement with the others, and Eirtaé and Saché promptly followed suit. The three together overrode the room settings, and the lights turned on.

Panaka was scowling at Saché. “You of all people know how important this is.”

Saché’s frown sharpened as she stared the captain down. “‘You of all people’ know better, Quarsh.”

They were about the same age, weren’t they? Rabé hadn’t thought about that, how Saché’s previous occupation meant she’d probably known Panaka even before she changed over, probably from King Veruna’s reign.

“If you’re that hurting for volunteers to fill the ranks, ask the Gungans,” Saché said. “But we didn’t lose that many people. You’re overcompensating.”

“I didn’t see you complaining until Lady Frizmar said something,” he snapped, accusing her of not caring until a House protested.

Seriously, what wirelily had bitten Panaka? He’d never struck Rabé as such a classist.

Saché just stared at him pointedly, which made Rabé wonder… Saché was the oldest of the handmaidens. Maybe she had played along with Panaka’s out-of-line orders on purpose, to give herself stronger grounds to confront him on it?

Rabé glanced at Yané, who hadn’t even dared refuse the sabacc game a few nights ago until after they’d played several hands. If nothing else, Saché was certainly protecting her.

“We aren’t ready for another attack,” Panaka insisted, as if that excused his misbehavior.

Of course we aren’t,” Saché answered. “We weren’t ready for the initial blockade and invasion, either. These things take time to organize and arrange and train—and even if you take that tack, you’re still shooting blanks at mynocks. You had the same seminars on the importance of authorization and consent that I did.”

“And the importance of the chain of command,” Panaka retorted. “Which you’re violating. Publicly.”

Saché answered with a flat stare. Maybe she’d intended to confront Panaka in private, and Eirtaé forced her hand?

“Yané, help Saché back down to Medical,” Eirtaé said briskly, with the same bossiness that had so irritated them all when she first became an honorary handmaiden. “Sabé, breathe before you pass out.”

Rabé grabbed Sabé’s arm, steadying her as she swayed. Whatever secret Panaka had over her had to be bad.

“Lady Frizmar—”

“Kindly excuse yourself, Captain, or I’ll go tell Her Highness now that you have disrespected your subordinates. Will she find that better or worse than the reason she just fired Linká, do you think?”

That manner of speaking had to be a House thing.

“I understand the past week has been very difficult for you,” Eirtaé said, almost but not really gently, “and I am doing you the credit of assuming that your out-of-line behavior is a side effect of that stress. That’s all it ever has to be, if you desist. Now.” She glanced to the two other handmaidens remaining in the room. “And apologize to Sabé for violating your agreement with her.”

Rabé had never felt so grateful to be Housed in her life. Her uncle and some of his friends were jerks who would walk all over a sentient if given opportunity, but at least that wasn’t her normal. Eirtaé’s default bossiness—and how she’d adjusted her communication to drop it, after it upset them all—made so much more sense now.

“You know?!” Sabé cried.

Eirtaé wove her fingers in the signal that she was speaking for herself, not the queen. “You will notice that Rabé doesn’t.”

Sabé yanked her arm out of Rabé’s grip and peered in her face as she regained her balance.

“And how do you know?” Panaka demanded.

Eirtaé just stared at him. “What would you do if I told you? Rework me?”

Rabé grimaced. The mythological Mistress of Puppets could alter the perception and memory of another person to the point of reworking their perspective and beliefs.

“Leave,” Eirtaé said pleasantly to Panaka.

He actually did, and Rabé wasn’t the only one who stared.

Saché frowned. “Are we sure Amidala is the one getting visions?”

Where did that question come from?

“Oh!” Sabé gasped. “She was screaming something awful on the ship. It was horrible.” Shivering a bit despite her tension, she skittered for the exit, herself, muttering something about breakfast.

Saché pointedly turned her gaze to Eirtaé, whose polite smile had stayed on her face after she directed Panaka to leave.

“Her Highness isn’t the only one with contacts,” Eirtaé said pleasantly, as if in answer to a question, and she strolled out of the room, herself.

Goosebumps erupted along Rabé’s skin at the maybe-probably threat, though she wasn’t sure what, precisely, had been threatened.

Saché watched after Eirtaé with narrowed gaze. “Jedi can do that,” she said quietly to Rabé. “Compel someone to follow an order.”

“You think that’s what Eirtaé just did to Panaka?” Rabé struggled to keep up. “Wouldn’t she need Jedi powers to do that?”

Saché shrugged. “Jedi aren’t the only people who can use the Force.”

Saché’s comment stuck with Rabé all day, and it only got all the louder in her head as the queen handed them plans that meant they would all mostly be on vacation for the next month. The queen suggested they see to their families, and Yané froze in the middle of pouring some punch until it spilled over on her skirt.

As she fetched lunch for them all, Rabé stared at the plans on her data reader, remembering all the little ways that Amidala was so much more efficient than she had any reason to be. She’d assumed it was just the intelligence that had let Her Highness be eligible for election, combined with her experience from governing Theed, but…

‘Jedi aren’t the only people who can use the Force.’

If Eirtaé and Padmé were both Force-sensitive, what did that imply about their other similarities? Both were daughters of Houses, and both had run for queen. Coincidence, or…?

Rabé decided she wouldn’t go home for the month, instead taking advantage of the vacation to keep to herself. She had a lot of studying to do.

After an annoying night finagling last-minute accomodations in the city while her master did whatever, Jedi Knight Aayla Secura spent her morning digging into public records specifically on Padmé Naberrie. The weirdest thing was that she’d been an active part of the Refugee Movement at six years old, and that was only Core weird, not Naboo weird—looked as if her dad had done the same thing.

While she worked, Master Vos slept with an unfortunate lack of snoring. (What fun was there in being a padawan if you couldn’t harass your master about his age?) She considered waking him to ask for help, but he’d come in as she was eating breakfast, and it wasn’t as if she had an emergency.

No, she was just meeting Sola Naberrie for lunch in a ‘fire café’, whatever that was, and she wanted to have some more background on the family before she went.

Just for kicks, she pulled up the grandparents. Ryoo Thule was still alive and had published a few niche essays on the growth and care of hsuberry trees. Winama Naberrie had died shortly before the invasion, so that wouldn’t do any good—

Wait. She called up the records again.

“Aayla?” her master called.

She must’ve emoted too strongly through their bond. “Sorry. I just—if I’m reading this right, both of the queen’s parents are illegitimate. I think. Surprised me.”

He audibly rolled over and settled back to sleep. The trust made her happy, especially with her new suspicion that she wasn’t nearly as competent as she thought.

She settled back into digging, but that lack of fathers was the weirdest detail she found. A Holonet search for Winama Naberrie found some weaving forums were people were still lamenting her death. Common sentiment was that she’d died too young.

Hmm. Was it natural? She made a note to look into that.

Since her lunch date with Sola approached, Aayla shrugged and pulled up the Jedi network she could access from offworld. “Ryoo Thule” got no results. “Winama Naberrie”, though?

She stared at her datapad.

What, for the love of the Force, could a Naboo noblewoman have possibly done on Zygerria to get credited for rescuing three kidnapped senior padawans from slavery?

Aayla tried to dig further—who had the padawans been?—but everything else was locked tightly behind clearances that she was pretty sure were even beyond her master. Unless she missed her guess, even the snippet of information she’d found was improperly filed and supposed to be blocked at her clearance level.

Her comm pinged with the alert she’d set. Time to go to lunch.

She carefully left a note for where she was going and headed out to her appointment with Sola Naberrie.

Obi-Wan did not, in fact, change his mind, and Anakin spent the rest of the day figuring out the basics of how to float (Float?) and maneuver in water. Nina helped, before she went to work on lunch and do whatever handmaidens usually did.

They were almost done eating and readying to swim some more when Sabé showed up. She felt exhausted, and she was wearing more makeup than usual. She followed them to the shallow area where Obi-Wan was teaching Anakin.

Anakin kicked off to apply what he’d learned on his own, and he very carefully didn’t let on that he could hear her quiet conversation with Obi-Wan, about how she didn’t know what goober fish was after Panaka’s roots, but that Eirtaé had threatened to get him fired.

Obi-Wan expressed confusion and carefully didn’t side with one side or the other. Did that mean he think Sabé was lying? Or…maybe he just wanted Panaka’s side, first?

Sabé sighed, stripped down to some tight clothes that seemed designed to swim in, and hopped in the water. “Here, you’ll need to know the warning signs of what to avoid before you go much deeper.”

She started explaining to both him and Obi-Wan how to navigate the water, describing how the predators hunted and cautiously asking about Tatooine equivalents.

“You can ask, you know,” Anakin said finally. “Why a city slave would know so much about what lives out in the dunes.”

The sadness in Obi-Wan’s aura worsened.

Sabé shook her head. “I’m not sure I’m ready to hear the answer. I don’t want to get angry where it’ll bother you again.”

Obi-Wan startled and stared at her, as if she’d said something weird.

“I do want to borrow you two from Nina sometime, show you something. I…am curious what you’ll get out of it.” She sounded more anxious about it than curious.

“What about the queen?” Obi-Wan asked.

“She’s organizing an unprecedented mourning period for what the Trade Federation did, so we’ll all have the month off. Some of us will probably swap with Nina so she gets to benefit, too.”

“But what’s Padmé gonna do?” Anakin asked, confused. If everyone was taking the month off, who would be guarding her?

Sabé had a funny look on her face. “I have no idea.”

The ‘fire café’ was dim and full of smoke that came from various cigarillos and pipes. Aayla kept a careful grasp on the Force, not wanting a repeat of the millie incident, but the herbs of choice here seemed far more casual than habit-forming, and the secondhand smoke seemed harmless enough.

Sola was halfway through a cigarillo of her own by the time Aayla figured out the buffet and found the table. “Hi!” the girl said with a suspicious giggle. “Wasn’t sure if you were gonna come, or if you Jedi were in the ‘Aren’t you lucky to have such a great sister?’ camp.”

If the girl was ready to rant while intoxicated, Aayla would have to be stupid to not take advantage of it. “You disagree?”

Sola smacked the table. “I don’t know what is wearing her skin, but that hasn’t been my sister since I was ten.”

That would put the shift when Padmé was eight, then. “What do you mean?”

The following monologue about specific incidents over the past six years led to Aayla learning more than she’d ever wanted to know about the unusually fluid Naboo education system and how ‘impossible’ perfectly normal side effects of Force sensitivity seemed to the average person.

It also made clear that either Sola was ridiculously jealous or Padmé was possessed somehow—and, whichever the answer was, their parents knew and hadn’t done anything about it.

That was…odd. Maybe Aayla should ask her grandmaster to look into the midichlorian counts on the parents? Some cliques of Force users preferred staying private and quiet, so the prospect of the Naberries being part of such a group wasn’t unreasonable…except Aayla had never heard of Naboo having one.

Sola ordered another cigarillo. “Want one?”

“No thanks.”

A little tug came through her padawan bond.

Aayla scrambled for her comm, saw the time, and groaned. “Fergutz.”

By the time Sola managed a coherent “What?”, Master Quinlan was at their table in the fire café.

“I’m sorry, Master. I forgot to check in. Um. This is Sola.” If he’d missed her note, he would’ve been a lot more upset.

“Let me guess,” Sola said. “You’re in the ‘Oh Padmé’s so fripping great’ camp? We playing good Jedi, bad Jedi here?”

Master Vos just looked at Sola a moment, glanced to her cigarillo, then focused on Aayla.

“This is her second, that I’ve seen.”

He nodded once and plucked the cigarillo out of Sola’s hand.

“Hey! That’s mine!”

“I’ll give it back after we get you home—assuming your parents are okay with it.”

“I’m an adult!”

“And that gives you the right to force them to clean the smell out of their curtains?” he asked, pointedly, while frowning at Aayla.

“I didn’t encourage it,” she protested. For a Shadow, Master Quinlan was oddly touchy about encouraging others into intoxication. She’d tried asking, but he never would say if it was from something he’d witnessed or experienced.

He sighed a little, so that wasn’t quite what he’d meant, but they weren’t in a situation where he could clarify. He helped Sola from the table, ensured the tab got settled, and took them back to the Naberries’.

Interestingly, the amusement Jobal and Ruwee had displayed at the prospect of a Jedi casually partaking in drugs did not carry over into their daughter—not that they were angry with her, but more concerned and disappointed.

Aayla mentioned that to Master Quinlan as they headed back to the rooms they were renting.

Her master gave a little shrug. “We can filter the shit before it harms us. Sola can’t.”

“But how would Jobal and Ruwee know that?” Even though they weren’t Force-null, filtering took training.

Master Quinlan held his silence while he calculated the balance between honesty and what was safe or permissible to say. “Ask Tholme about Winnie.”

Aayla made a face. Her grandmaster’s approach to teaching involved tossing someone into a situation and expecting them to figure it out. At least Master Quinlan didn’t expect her to manage unless he’d already given her the tools for it.

Wait. “Winnie?” she asked. “Like ’Winama’?”

He glanced at her.

“Winama Naberrie was Ruwee’s mom, and she’s credited with rescuing three Jedi from Zygerria.”

Her master paused and gave a little shrug that admitted he didn’t know. “That would explain a lot.” Then he frowned. “Zygerria? Really?”

“Yeah, I can’t get any more information than that.”


They reached the hostel, and Master Quinlan held the door open for her. He cleared the rooms and checked the windows. She settled into one of the worn but moderately comfortable chairs with her data reader.

Her master stayed standing, mulling on something. She focused on her data reader, trusting that he would explain if he could.

“Winnie was adept with the Force,” he said carefully. “So if Winnie and Winama Naberrie are the same person, that actually explains a lot about the family. But…”

“But then why don’t Padmé or Sola know?” That was possibly the weirdest thing about all this. “If their grandmother had a good relationship with the Order…”

“You’d expect the family to talk about it,” he agreed. “Stories over the dinner table. Unless…” He turned towards her, gesturing for her to fill in that blank.

Aayla stared at him. The first potential implication, that neither Sola or Padmé was Force-sensitive, was blatantly false. That left the second option, which made no sense. “Jedi Shadows work alone.”

“Do we?” He settled in the other chair, pulled out his data reader.

“Of course we do. We face the dangers of the dark side to protect others from Falling.”

“Who says we’re the only ones who do that? It’s a big galaxy.”

Aayla’s face warmed. The Guardians of Kiffu were also a case in point of how the Jedi Shadows weren’t the only group that stood against the dark, and her master was kindly letting her remember that on her own.

“I’ve never heard of Naboo having its own Force culture, though,” she countered.

“Yeah,” her master agreed, but the way he fiddled with his data reader suggested he was dodging something. “How’s your data collection coming?”

Definitely dodging something.

Arguing with her court and outmaneuvering their attempts to block her efforts took Padmé longer than setting up the mourning period and working out the schedules.

Probably the nicest conversation of the weekend came when Eirtaé shoved some middle-class clothing and a civilian blaster in her arms.

“What’s this?” Padmé asked in confusion.

“You want people to notice you while you travel?”

She stared. “Travel?”

“Your family won’t spend the entire month in Theed, surely? How will you check in with the head of your House?”

Eirtaé had strode off before she could respond, leaving her to notice with some trepidation that the handmaiden had matched Padmé’s implied-but-not-really-promised manner of referencing her plans for the month.

Nonetheless, Padmé looked forward to her departure date as her first step in undermining Palpatine’s plans. She followed the instructions Tholme sent her to the letter, hoping all the while that he had managed to get Siri.

Well, if he hadn’t, it wouldn’t be the first time she had to navigate around a Jedi whose personality conflicted with what the situation needed. (She refused to think about how that had usually been Anakin.)

The hangar she’d been directed to was small and worn, privately owned and catering to clientele on shoestring budgets. The small ship docked there was a good match.

Padmé double-checked the address and approached the ramp.

“Thanks, but I’ll pump my own fuel,” she heard Siri say, and the blonde Jedi came around the side of the ship.

Eirtaé was beside her, in a ratty jumpsuit and smudged like a maintenance worker.

“What are you doing here?!” she blurted.

“Just checking your security precautions, Your Highness,” Eirtaé said pleasantly, with a lilt in her voice that was either amused or mocking. “It would be such a horrible blow to our people if you misled everyone about where you were going and didn’t even bother to have a guard with you.”

“You aren’t coming!” Padmé snapped. “You–you—” Visiting her father wasn’t an option. What was Eirtaé going to do instead? “Frip Vos all you want, but leave me the frip alone!”

Siri’s eyebrows went up with surprise, and she glanced over Eirtaé, who wore an odd expression of her own.

Eirtaé opened her mouth a few times, as if to say something, then shook her head and sighed. She looked at Siri. “I’m not actually fripping Vos.”

Siri gave an ever-so-slight nod and murmured, “Obviously.”

Relief pulsed in Eirtaé’s aura, and she took a few steps towards the exit before pausing. “Oh.” She turned to Siri. “Naboo age of majority works differently than the Core. We’re both adults.”

“I was briefed on that, thanks.”

“Just…making sure.” From Eirtaé’s expression, there was something else she wanted to say but didn’t feel she could. ”Be careful?”

“That’s the plan.” Siri approached Padmé with the easy gait she remembered and nodded at the open ramp. “Shall we?“

Padmé shot her a grin and accepted the invitation.

Eirtaé waited until Jedi Tachi’s ship took off, then texted Vos, How long U need 2 examine It?

Hopefully that wasn’t so vague that he couldn’t figure out the context.

She started back towards the palace, carefully paying attention to her tension and trying to figure out how to redirect it so she could stop announcing herself as an easy target. She would ask him, but it seemed exploitive to do that without even trying to find the answer for herself.

A few minutes into her walk, her comm pinged. Thing U found? was Vos’s answer, so he’d figured it out—and he was matching her childish shorthand, the better for being able to redefine what this conversation was referring to, if they ended up needing to, later. Days.

Eirtaé considered who knew about the Sith holocron and what Padmé’s travel plans meant about how long she’d be away from Theed.

She couldn’t afford to be halfhearted about her alliance with Vos. Not if she had any chance of him being the ‘protector’ she’d told Billí he was. Whether the supreme chancellor was a Sith or connected to one, it was only a matter of time before his attention her way led to treating her as a resource to be leveraged.

Nonetheless, her hands shook and tears stung her eyes as she sent the message that would let her betray her queen on her own terms: Will bring 2 u. Addy?

Chapter Text

Grime stuck millimeters thick on the deckplates. Padmé tested that with her finger and wrinkled her nose. “Is there a cleaning droid?”

“Leave it,” Siri said, sweeping past her with a loose-limbed stride and plopping herself in the pilot’s seat with the ease of someone comfortable there. “This ship’s meant to be junk.”

“That doesn’t mean you have to leave it filthy,” Padmé countered. “That’s a health hazard.”

“My ship, my choice,” Siri answered as she leisurely worked through the preflight checks. “Deal with it or take a walk, Senator.”

Padmé rolled her eyes. She’d forgotten how touchy Jedi were when their covers were questioned. “I’m getting some tea. Want some caff?”

“No thanks.”

Padmé nodded and headed down the short hall to the galley.

As Siri called traffic control and got in the queue to leave Naboo, she double-checked her mental shields. Quinlan had warned her keep them up, with a few anecdotes that might explain why Master Tholme had wanted her on this, instead of one of his usual agents.

Siri had always tended to be on the young side, for her classes, so she’d gotten to see the repercussions of Quin’s talents before she started overhearing things she wasn’t supposed to know. She’d quietly learned shielding from Quin and Depa, and she went showy with telekinesis so nobody would look for or expect anything else.

Even Master Adi didn’t know. She’d noticed that Siri was better at sensing danger, of the two of them, but seemed unaware that it came from sensing the hostility before the attack.

The secrecy protected Siri from getting forced to be a diplomat or healer, which were very much not her thing. Quin might’ve been a scholar, if he’d been given a choice.

Siri might not be nearly as good at being a Shadow as he was, but she was pretty sure she enjoyed it more.

The junker ship had been purchased in preparation for her Trials, but the call from Master Tholme had postponed that mission, which was allegedly less time-sensitive. She disliked the implicit dismissal of sentients as expendable, since delaying her mission delayed stopping the slavers she was to infiltrate, but…

She was going to infiltrate slavers, specifically seeking one who was known for his hatred of Jedi. She was going to have to be a slaver—a hardass bitch who kidnapped and sold sentients without pause.

She’d compartmentalize that with the name she took for the mission, but she would still be the one doing it, and she had to get used to the idea so it couldn’t startle her at a bad time and get her killed. Quin had warned her about that, that dissociation was a dangerous tool to rely on. What mattered was picking a role and sticking to it, he said—and, well, he would know.

While Naberrie was still in the galley, Siri tapped a note in the shorthand Master Tahl had taught her, for her own safety, in missions. Naberrie’s offer of caff might’ve just been a guess, and the ignoring of the ‘senator’ could’ve been an assumption that Siri was mocking her, but…maybe not?

Quin would’ve been so much better at this.

But Quin was busy, on Naboo while the queen was with Siri…and that in itself said something really weird was going on.

The queue put their departure as ten minutes out. Siri could get a quick spot of meditation, or she could get started on her mission.

Siri never had been great at patience.

She headed back to the galley and found Naberrie using the cheap kitchenette with an ease that didn’t fit her background. The brewer alone was almost as old as Master Adi, and that was probably the newest thing in here.

“Flown on a lot of junkers?” Siri asked. From the records, Naberrie’s worst shipside experience had come in breaking through the recent Trade Federation blockade.

The girl looked at her, lifting the kettle to pause her pouring. “I’m sorry?”

That wasn’t the response of a civilian child.

Siri leaned against the counter, coincidentally blocking Naberrie in. “So what’s on Kamino?”

The girl paused at the question, not at the position, so she was comfortable with Jedi to a degree that didn’t fit her age or job. That reinforced plan aurek as the best option.

Siri preferred plan besh, but that was because Master Adi was going to be furious with Tholme if she found out about aurek. Aurek was honestly the most educational (and enjoyable) of the options, though.

“I don’t know,” Naberrie answered carefully. “Not for sure.”

Fishing through conversation really wasn’t Siri’s thing. What would Quin say? “Anything I should know before we get to Kamino?”

The girl shook her head. “‘The future is always in motion.’ Isn’t that what you Jedi say?”

And her knowledge of such things was what made plan aurek feasible. “Do you know how to make a padawan braid?”

Naberrie stared in clear surprise. “I’m sorry?”

Siri pulled hers out of her intentionally ragged hair that let her easily pin it up without getting noticed. “You go in there as a kid, nobody’s going to take you seriously. You go in as a padawan…”

Naberrie kept staring, so that was her tell.

Plan besh was going in quietly and playing up their youth to ‘accidentally’ end up places they weren’t supposed to. Plan cresh was Naberrie announcing herself as Queen Amidala, investigating the possibility of an alliance with Naboo—which might not even be a viable option, depending on what in the galaxy they were walking into.

“You want me to pretend to be your padawan?” Naberrie asked.

“It’s the simplest explanation for our visit to Kamino.”

“I’m sorry,” Naberrie said politely. “I didn’t realize—” She bit her tongue. “I’m sorry. You startled me; you Jedi are very protective of your reputation.”

Adi was the high councilor most actively involved in the Order’s reputation management. “Master Adi didn’t orchestrate this mission. The knowledge keeper did.”

Or at least the Keeper of Knowledge was claiming responsibility for it on the reports. Siri was pretty sure she’d just taken Tholme’s notes and adjusted them so they sounded like her.

The overwhelming emotion in Naberrie’s aura was incomprehension. “I’m afraid I’m not familiar with that title. Would it be Master, um…” Her unfocused gaze danced as her mind raced. “That librarian, she gave me such a hard time when I needed to examine Temple records to prep for ’Soka’s trial… Nu! Do you mean Master Nu?”

Nope. On one hand, the confusion was good—Naberrie apparently knew only of the High Council, not the others. On the other hand… Siri was going to have to keep track of the names the girl mentioned, and check the Order’s personnel records for a ‘Soka’.

What would Quin do here?

He’d play amused, keep things easygoing. What would’ve given the girl access to Temple records? “You must’ve been on defense.”

The chuckle that answered was as adult as Quinlan had warned her to expect, though he’d refused to say why—which, honestly, was an admission and warning in itself.

Siri took advantage of the moment to put her braid away. “There’s a kit for you in your room.”

Tholme’s instructions were to help her through getting the robe and gear together, but Quinlan had asked for a heads-up as to which items the girl didn’t need help with—a cue that he believed she’d already know most of it.

Siri was supposed to listen to Tholme, but…she trusted Quin more. “Want me to do the braid first?”

“What? Oh, please.” The girl set her tea on the counter and quickly parted her hair to give access to the part that would be braided before settling where Siri could reach it.

That was unnerving. “Sure you can’t do this yourself?”

“Oh, I have no idea how to make a padawan braid. Ana—and I’ve only seen them.”

Good recovery. Siri hid her uneasiness as she briskly sectioned the hair, braided it with a few standard markers for a fourteen-year-old junior padawan, and tied it off.

Naberrie stood and grabbed her mug. “Thank you. I’ll go try the rest now, so we can get that out of the way—oh, what identities are we using?”

“Call me Shylar,” who would be annoyed by Siri using her name again, but it wasn’t as if Siri had picked it.

Naberrie didn’t recognize the name—probably one thing Master Tholme had wanted to check.

“Your documentation’s as Wialu Naber.”

Tholme had essentially snickered in the Force when handing that to Siri, so Naberrie’s gasp wasn’t a surprise.

“He didn’t!” She ran the few steps down the hall to the rooms, slapped panels until she got the room keyed to her, and dug into the pile on the bed, doubtless in search of said documentation. “Do I look that much like her?!”

Siri followed, to stay close enough to keep the conversation polite. “You know her?”

“My grandmother’s little sister left the Order when she and Tholme were padawans…or something like that, I think? Because details aren’t adding up, and I don’t know if they’re lying directly or just omitting something.”

The rant about honesty and forthrightness from a politician was genuinely amusing. “Welcome to politics?”

Naberrie snorted. “Okay. So you’re Shylar…?”

“Brannik, but you’ll call me Master Shylar. She’s my generation, brown eyes like you, really pretty hair in these dark waves that just flow everywhere.” Not that Siri was interested in Shy that way, but she wasn’t blind.

Naberrie eyed her a moment, more obviously scrutinizing than Siri, who kept her expression as open and even as her tone. The girl gave an acknowledging nod too quickly for her experience on record.

“I’m only non-platonically interested in males, specifically Human males,” she stated outright, “so no need to worry about me running off and engaging in salacious activities with any Kaminoans, Master Shy.”

Test noticed and answered. This style of conversation was entertaining, but Siri couldn’t imagine having to do it all the damn time.

You’ll have to, when you start your Trials.

She was trying very hard not to think about that.

Naberrie paused. “Can you call me Lulu? It would be— Using my great-aunt’s name for this doesn’t feel right.”

A professional politician who jumped straight to a self-depreciative diminutive? That wasn’t something you met every day.

“Works for me.” Siri smiled and managed to mean it. The mission was giving her a lot of details to puzzle on, already, and it overwhelmed her usual distaste for babysitting. “Get dressed, and then we can check the fit and discuss what we’re going to need from each other there.”

Their turn in the departure queue would be coming shortly, and she had notes to make.

The robes were looser than Padmé expected, but the boots were snug, so she figured they were supposed to fit that way. The fabric itched, though—Padmé now knew what to get all Jedi she made friends with, when in need of a present.

It took a few minutes for Padmé to figure out how to put all the Jedi clothing on herself, but she returned to the cockpit just in time to strap in for the hyperspace jump. The ship rattled a bit as it entered, but no more than was to be expected from its age.

Siri turned from the controls and scrutinized Padmé’s work. “We should reach Kamino just after lunch tomorrow. The trip’s mostly the Triellus Trade Route, but we’ll be hitting Hutt space over Tatooine, and then we’ll have to skip off the hyperspace lane out by Scarif to reach Kamino. We should dodge the Rishi Maze this way, at least.”

Tatooine snagged Padmé’s attention, and she held her breath to keep her hope from spewing. She could double-check her assets, probably get some converted to wupiupi while on Kamino, maybe even bring Shmi back with her. Wouldn’t that be amazing?

“Tatooine?” Naberrie asked, her roiling emotions overflowing into a question. “Could we—”

She paused, and Siri could all but hear her calculating something.

“Could we stop in Mos Espa on the way back? If there’s time, I mean, before I have to get back home or you back to your mission.”

Expecting Naberrie to know more than she should didn’t stop this example from triggering a spike of anxiety. Siri willed herself to keep limber and light as she asked, “My mission?”

“That slaver—you were deep in for something like two years before Anakin killed him, so surely you’ve been setting up to go under already.”

Naberrie knew about Siri’s upcoming Trials.

Naberrie knew about Siri’s highly classified upcoming Trials, so secret that no more than a dozen Jedi knew about them.

Siri carefully swallowed her uneasiness. As unnerving as the knowledge was, it would be best to change topics before Naberrie realized what she’d admitted aloud. She could take notes and think about it later. “There’s a dejarik table in the lounge. Let’s play while we talk.”

“I don’t much like the game, really.”

Siri bit back both I can tell and It shows—either answer would’ve admitted too much. “That wasn’t a request, Padawan.”

Habitual play of it could also—apropos of nothing—be good for trauma recovery.

The girl obviously wanted to argue. She also shot a frown a her clothing, so she’d recognized that Siri’s words were pointed. If Padmé was going to play a padawan, she was going to have to act like it.

She cooperated, unhappily, but the wisps of emotion stayed small in her aura and frown. Her poise and demeanor was altogether perfectly polite, in keeping with her position in politics, and she sat.

Siri turned on the board and allowed her ‘padawan’ to start the game.

Naberrie proved even worse at dejarik than Siri had expected. Lowering her skill level enough to avoid frustrating the girl was a challenge.

Siri kept the conversation casual as she checked what Padmé knew of Jedi etiquette and policies. (And dear Force did the patterns of what the girl knew—and didn’t—make Siri’s nerves stand on end.)

Naberrie could quote the Jedi Code, and the core regulations—the legalities, the politics, the rules. Things that a Jedi must’ve told her.

But things every Jedi learned in the creche, like nuances of etiquette and reasons behind the rules, she knew nothing about, even when they were directly related to what she did know.

Siri finally asked “How do you not know this?” outright, regarding the protocols for where a padawan was supposed to stand, relative to their master, and when, and why.

Naberrie blinked. “Anakin never really thought about it. Maybe Obi-Wan taught him, but I don’t think they worried Ahsoka about it, either.”

Anakin, again—and now a possible source for the earlier ‘Soka’.

Siri said carefully, “I didn’t know Obi-Wan had a padawan.”

“Oh! Master Qui-Gon Found Anakin while we had the layover on Tatooine. He’s very powerful, nine years old, and Obi-Wan’s padawan as of…last week?” The girl visibly double-checked her math. “Yes, last week.”

Something in how Naberrie angled her pitch told Siri that this particular admission was on purpose, an intentional test for Siri’s reaction. Siri decided to return the favor. “So how’d I die?”

Alarm pulsed in the girl, and the emotion even showed clearly in her face and body. She was stiff, wide-eyed, and pale. “Why would you ask that?”

“You’re going to a lot of trouble to convince me you have visions.”

“Perhaps I’m just ensuring you heed me on Kamino.”

How stupid did the kid think Siri was? She scowled.

Naberrie frowned back. “It’s just a vision. We’re changing things.”

“Which can make it happen, so at least give me some warning.”

The girl stared at her. “It wasn’t here,” she said finally. “It was…later. Obi-Wan was there. It…was not good for him.”

Siri kept herself steady despite the swirling in her head and heart, suppressing the sensation with a ruthlessness borne of much practice, not desperation.

The care in Naberrie’s words admitted she knew what Siri refused to allow herself to remember. If she remembered, she’d feel it again, and if she felt it again…she couldn’t trust she’d be content with her decision.

Siri was a Jedi.

So is Obi-Wan, her head whispered, and contrary to what your masters said, it is possible to have a relationship and be Jedi. Others do it.

She’d known that even then, but their masters…weren’t the sorts that enabled that.

“Siri?” Naberrie asked hesitantly, with the tone of someone repeating herself.

Siri drew a breath. “Obi-Wan was there, you said?”

The girl’s eyes were a little wide, but the way she stared said she was considering something. “He held Qui-Gon as he died, too.”

Some choice profanity ran through Siri’s head. Obi-Wan’s self-recrimination was bad enough already. “Warning noted and appreciated.”

And now she had one more reason to wish she wasn’t about to stage a fight with her master and walk away from the Order, going undercover for her Trials. There wasn’t any way to visit Obi-Wan, see how he was doing.

Considering her coming mission, that was probably better for them both, anyway. He’d see right through her coming cover story, if he bothered to try. If there was one good thing about his current pain from Qui-Gon’s death, it was that he wouldn’t bear to question her alleged departure from the Order.

Siri sighed. “Life keeps kicking Kenobi in the teeth.”

Naberrie froze, fear and horror and mourning and guilt welling through her. A few tears escaped her eyes. “Yes,” she whispered. “It does.”

Siri’s stomach dropped. What had the girl Seen?

Naberrie trembled as she stood, but she kept her voice steady. “With your permission, Master, I believe I’ll get some sleep.”

Siri gave a nod in answer, not trusting her own voice.

The girl went to her room.

Siri jotted her notes…and decided, as much as she disliked meditation, she needed some.

Padmé slept poorly. Siri didn’t comment on it, just handed her caff when she entered the galley the next morning, and indicated the dejarik board.

Padmé sighed but acquiesced. She lost game after game of dejarik to Siri, who kept shifting tactics on her. Frustration condensed into ice that she exhaled as sublimated vapor.

Come to think of it, the Jedi might’ve been exasperating her on purpose, to test how Padmé responded.

The conversation stayed casual, Siri pointedly focusing on etiquette that Padmé would be expected to follow, with short explanations of how protocol was part of safety.

“Since we’re acting on your vision, I’ll be minding your lead,” Siri said, to Padmé’s surprise. “But you are here as a junior padawan, not as Queen of Naboo or as a knight, so your actions will be reflecting on Shylar and the Order as a whole, not Naboo. Please don’t make me have to tell Shy I got her kicked off another planet, okay?”

Wait, what? Padmé couldn’t help but grin. “Another?”

“Not my fault I keep getting handed her name to use on missions.”

Siri didn’t get to pick her own cover name? And she was handed one that was actually another living Jedi? That was…odd.

Padmé frowned. “Who arranged our identification?”

Siri’s glance swept the edges of where Padmé was. Reading her aura? “Tholme doesn’t do anything without at least two reasons he’ll admit for it, and probably more that he won’t. Quin tends to have double the reasons, and a willingness to admit whichever of them that he finds useful.”

So why would Tholme want Shylar’s name used on particular planets, instead of Siri’s? “You have family looking for you?”

The confusion fled Siri’s face, supplanted by mild surprise. ”Not as far as I know. Shylar…assumes that being right always trumps having might.”

Oh dear Shiraya. Padmé knew the type. They were good people, loyal and capable in their ways, but their assignments and tasks had to be carefully selected, because they’d easily get themselves killed for no good reason.

“You get her kicked off planets before someone can sacrifice her there,” Padmé said quietly.

Siri shrugged. “That’s one possibility.”

She’d said Tholme tended to have about a half-dozen reasons for doing anything. Padmé inclined her head in acquiescence of the point.

By the time they reached Kamino, Padmé was pretty sure she remembered enough (whether from Siri or from Before) to pass as a padawan. Her physical age would be a boon for once, for she’d be expected to be ignorant.

Siri identified herself as Jedi Knight Shylar Brannik, and the Kaminoans welcomed her, saying she was just in time to examine the initial test batch.

Padmé’s stomach lurched at the impersonal description of the clones, but her head spun with relief. The timing was perfect—while the clones were in development but before many, if any, chips had been installed.

Unless Palpatine’s coming to examine the units. What will he do when he finds out the Order discovered the clones ten years early?

She nearly threw up.

“Thank you,” she heard Siri say, as if in the distance, before signing off, and she felt the Jedi’s hard stare.

Siri didn’t say anything, though, as she made their descent. The storm rattled the ship a bit, and the landing was gentler than Padmé had expected.

Silence fell between them.

“Well,” Siri said. “Let’s go see about those ‘units’.”

She didn’t ask, though, and Padmé stared at her, struck by a thought: could she know about the clones? The order had been placed by a high councilor, and Master Gallia was one…

Siri didn’t say anything as she headed for the ship exit.

In fact, the next thing spoken to Padmé was a disconcertingly familiar whistle and burble in binary, a greeting and scold in one.

Artoo?” Padmé gasped. “What are you doing here?”

«What are YOU doing here?» the astromech demanded.

Siri tapped the dome and resumed unlocking the ramp. “That’s what we’re here to find out, remember?” She switched to addressing Padmé: “Your friend dropped it off, to pull the data while we chat with the locals.”

The Jedi’s aura was placid. It felt unnervingly like Tholme’s, but for some reason Padmé distrusted that impression. Why?

She felt herself poke the smooth surface of Siri’s aura, and the ripple revealed the swirls beneath. The smooth surface was a shell or façade. Beneath was a hurricane or maelstrom—she couldn’t tell which way the swirls were pulling.

A swat batted her mind sense away.

“Don’t be rude.” Siri gave her a hard look. “Try that again, and I won’t be so gentle. Understand?”

Padmé was still struggling to recenter herself after the shove. “I’m sorry?”

“Get in position, Padawan.”

She blinked a little, then caught on. She took the careful half-step back at Siri’s right, so the alleged knight could protect her presumed padawan if anything nasty awaited them upon opening the ramp.

Siri opened the ship, and they stepped out into the rain to meet the Kaminoan who awaited them.

Children. The ‘units’ were children—infants, really—bioengineered and designed to end up soldiers. Master Sifo-Dyas had ordered millions of them.

Siri let the window bear her weight as she stared down at the vats that apparently held developing clones. Their Kaminoan guide, Taun We, had sounded so proud as she pointed them out.

Siri almost commed Master Adi before What would Quinlan do? stayed her hand. Quin would react, but he would think first.

So think. Why would Master Sifo-Dyas order slaves?

He’d been predicting the rise of a massive, horrible threat for years. Even Master Adi was rolling her eyes at him, and not always before his back was turned.

So he was trying to protect the Order, or maybe the Republic—Siri hadn’t paid much attention to the man’s tales of woe and gloom, either. Maybe she should’ve. Maybe he wouldn’t have gotten so desperate to order slaves—

No, he ordered millions, knowing full well that the Jedi Order would put him on trial for this. Siri wouldn’t have been able to do anything to keep him from reaching that point.

But maybe I could’ve kept him from feeling quite so alone. Force knew Obi-Wan had a similar problem, and he actually had friends who believed him when he dared voice his warnings.

Not you, though. Not anymore.

Siri winced and forced the tears back. She couldn’t afford to be his friend. It hurt too fripping much.

Something zapped her leg.

Siri cursed and kicked out on reflex as the astromech darted out of reach, pulling its electrowielder back in.

“Artoo!” Naberrie snapped. “You know to ask for permission before you zap people!”

Taun We and Siri stared at her.

Even the artoo unit was eyeing Naberrie, head spinning back and forth in a way that Siri could only describe as ‘thoughtful’. It blatted.

“Mind your language!” Naberrie scolded. “This is a diplomatic function!” She tossed Taun We a sheepish smile. “I apologize for his behavior.”

Siri realized her confused stare contradicted her alleged role. Excuse. I need an excuse that implies why I wouldn’t already be used to this atromech’s antics. “Where did you find that droid again?”

The girl heaved a dramatic sigh. “C’mon, Master, that would be cheating.”

What in the galaxy…? Siri recognized the opening to shift gears, though, and she considered what she was going to do about this clone thing.

She should report it.

But…if she reported it, the Order would shut it down. Master Sifo-Dyas had reason for doing this. Could she in good conscience ignore that?

Sometimes you have to take advantage of a bad situation to get in position to do some good. That was the premise behind her upcoming Trials, and Quinlan certainly illustrated that, often enough.

Master Sifo-Dyas must’ve been desperate, to order slaves. Siri wasn’t about to spit in the face of his visions, his sacrifice—because what would the high council do to him when they found out about this?—by destroying his work, preparing for some disaster down the road, just because it was uncomfortable.

Assuming he’s actually the one who placed the order. Siri was using Shylar’s name. Might someone else be using his? “Did Master Sifo-Dyas place the order remotely or in person?”

Taun We fell into discussing the Jedi Master and his interactions with the Kaminoans—partially in person, partially not—and Naberrie discreetly wandered off. Her astromech went with her.

According to Taun We, Master Sifo-Dyas been expected to arrive a week ago, but he’d sent his apologies and the datacard of commands for the anti-aggression chips instead.

Siri frowned. “May I see the message?“

“Certainly, Master Jedi,” Taun We said. “May I ask why?”

She double-checked the area for auras, confirming that they were effectively in private. “That doesn’t sound like Master Sifo-Dyas.”

Taun We’s aura rippled with comprehension and alarm. “Oh dear. Yes, of course. I do hope he’s all right. He was a rather pleasant customer.”

If by ‘pleasant’, you mean ‘able to place massive orders’, sure. The man was far too much of a prig in order to be pleasurable company.

Though to be fair, with the Order’s common attitude about foresight and that being his primary gift…Siri couldn’t exactly blame him for coping that way.

Taun We took Siri to a communications center and asked the technicians to step out.

“Forgive my presumption,” the Kaminoan said, “but if something has happened to Master Sifo-Dyas, I don’t want to risk the an information leak. Should I send someone to watch your padawan?”

Her ‘padawan’ being Padmé Naberrie, who allegedly had a vision that told her about the units ordered by another Force-sensitive who was susceptible to visions.

Siri considered Taun We’s offer. It was tempting, but…Naberrie was playing padawan. A padawan, in this situation, would be assumed competent enough to respond appropriately. “No, thank you.”

And hopefully Her Highness is more competent than she is reckless.

“Very well.” The Kaminoan played the message that had come with the commands, and she showed Siri the original disk, when asked. “Is something wrong with Master Sifo-Dyas?”

Master Sifo-Dyas had placed the original order for the clones, but… “That message wasn’t from him. Is there any way to hide my visit here? At least the fact that you’ve told me about the clones. I can examine some of your children for Force sensitivity, to give a reason for me to be here.”

Taun We considered the suggestion. “The prime minister will be disappointed, but I can take a personal day. That would make showing you around a…favor for a friend, rather than a state visit where I function in my official capacity as aide. Friendly visits need not be documented.”

Tacit in that was that the Siri would owe the Kaminoan a favor in return. That made her uncomfortable, between her use of another Jedi’s name and the mission she was about to embark on that could easily kill her.

Maybe she could take care of it now. “Is there something I can do for you?”

Taun We hesitated, then started talking about the projected success rates for the clones.

It took Siri a minute to realize that the female was indirectly asking for an angle for the projected failures to be considered valuable, too. There had to be some way… Dear Force, I am shit at this.

“What about the failures?” she cut in, hoping Taun We had an idea. “What happens with them?”

“Unsold units are terminated.”

Kriff, she’s trying to tell me something. Siri hoped Naberrie’s vision held true about her surviving her upcoming Trials, because she really wasn’t sure she had it in her. “Can we buy the…imperfect units at a discounted rate?”

The expression on the Kaminoan’s face was akin to a smile. “Indeed you can, Master Jedi, but I have to ask—is that an expenditure that that would be authorized by your high council if we asked?”

“The Order would never authorize termination of sentient beings,” Siri said frankly, “and some variation, uniqueness, personality would actually be preferred by many…”

This was why Naberrie’d been calling various Jedi ‘general’. Just how many years did her alleged visions cover?

“Thank you.” The Kaminoan’s genuine relief and gratitude were bright, bubbling in the Force.

Siri decided to be a bit more honest than was probably wise: “Master Sifo-Dyas made this order without the consent or knowledge of the Jedi Order. If you contact Coruscant now, the order will be terminated.”

Taun We winced, which admitted what would happen to the clones in development, if that happened.

At least if Kamino was tied up in making units for the Jedi, they weren’t creating slaves for a pickier client.

“If you wait until things are well underway, the Order will honor the contract he’s made with you.” For public relations reasons, if nothing else. “It’ll probably be best to wait until you have a generation ready before contacting us, though.”

Thanks to Master Adi, Siri knew the high council well enough to be pretty sure of that.

What else had caught her attention? “All clones should have adequate access to education, and for the love of the Force, remove those growth accelerators once units are adults.”

“That will return their healing to normal rates, as well.”

Siri frowned, not following why that would be a problem. “So?”

The Kaminoan stared at her. “You are interested in them having lives outside the battlefield?”

Taun We’s excitement, her eagerness, made Siri feel ill, but she kept her voice matter-of-fact. “Of course.”

Time to fetch her alleged padawan, set up the cover story, and get the out of there before she fripped something up.

Chapter Text

Her first day of vacation, Rabé—fully cloaked and hooded—was at the palace library doors as they opened, armed with two data readers. One private and locked down, with capacity for network access physically removed by Saché. She hoped the physical credits in her pocket would cover any copies or rentals she might need.

“Can I help you?” the on-duty receptionist asked through a yawn as Rabé signed in with her officially anonymous ID.

“No, thank you,” she answered. While it would be nice to have some help tracking down royal records, that would be a witness that Rabé didn’t want to risk.

If Force sensitivity was outright required to run for queen (and maybe other political offices?), that had a lot of troubling implications. King Veruna, Governor Bibble, Senator Palpatine—if they were Force-sensitive…

If Chancellor Palpatine was…

That would be pertinent to why Naboo was targeted, wouldn’t it? And if a Sith had orchestrated things to produce the Trade Federation blockade and invasion, wouldn’t they do it again, if only to draw out more Jedi to slaughter? Maybe even make or find more angry Force-sensitives to recruit?

(And if Chancellor Palpatine was Force-sensitive, how could the Jedi not know?)

Rabé took a deep breath and started looking for the House records. Tracing the ancestry for both the queen and Eirtaé would be a good place to start her research.

Morning on Naboo wasn’t like Tatooine. It wasn’t as bright, for one, and it didn’t heat as fast or as much. Anakin drew the blanket he’d been using tight around his shoulders (the blue wasn’t as bright as it had been) and headed for the kitchen, where he’d been helping Nina make breakfast.

But Nina wasn’t the handmaiden he found there, gutting some small fish and stripping out their spines. The motion wasn’t really like prepping a womp rat for stew, but it was close enough for him to figure out what she was doing.


She glanced at him and gave a tight, wan smile. “Anakin.”

“You’re watching us today?”

“The mourning period has begun,” she said. “I thought it best to let Nina be with her family.”

“What about yours?”

She froze a moment. If Anakin hadn’t known she was ignorant of slavery, he might’ve suspected…

Sabé swallowed, hand trembling, and carefully put down the knife.

“Are you all right, handmaiden?” Obi-Wan asked softly, surprising Anakin. These past few days, he’d been meditating on the balcony while Anakin helped with breakfast.

“No, it’s— I’m sorry. Yes, I’m fine. It’s just…I don’t have a family. Not like the others.”

The way she stared at Obi-Wan, fear and worry so thick Anakin could almost taste it… There was something she wasn’t saying, something he was missing.

Sabé drew a quick, sharp breath. “That’s what I want to show you, actually,” she said, sounding steadier but still a little wobbly. “My family…” She swallowed hard. “Naboo…”

Anakin considered her, how her voice was wobbling. “Is this about the water thing?”

Relief bubbled from her, and Obi-Wan cut off his inquiry before more than a sound escaped him.

Anakin perked up. “Does this mean I’ll get to see you, um, mime?” Maybe he’d understand it better if he actually saw her do it.

She paused mid-prep of a fish. “You want to see… Um.” She tugged the spine, then spat something unintelligible, apparently because she’d forgotten a step. “Maybe.”

“Oh, you’re a mime?” Obi-Wan asked, seeming pleased by the prospect. “I’d love to see your work.”

She was staring at Obi-Wan. Was she even breathing?

“Can I tell him?” Anakin asked. Letting someone else say things could be easier.

Sabé gave a short shake of her head.

“Oh, okay.” Why didn’t she want Obi-Wan told? “He’ll be okay with it.”

Obi-Wan was looking between them with a frown, but he didn’t seem angry.

“I know,” Sabé whispered. She swallowed hard and continued, voice stronger, “I just…”

She plucked at her blouse, which Anakin belatedly realized was more like what he’d worn on Tatooine than what he’d seen her wearing previously. Old, rough, and well-patched. The cloak she’d worn over it to get here was draped over a nearby chair, and that was the usual handmaiden quality—a moderate gray, so thin and sure to be soft to the touch.

“I’ll be visiting a water caravan today. I’d like for you to come, if you don’t mind.”

“Certainly,” Obi-Wan said. “May I ask what that is?”

She swallowed. “It’s…like a circus, I understand.”

“A circus over water? How fascinating!”

Sabé’s forehead was furrowed as she eyed them, their clothing. “Do you have anything else to wear?”

“I do!” Anakin said—he’d quietly kept his slave clothing, so far, as a reminder of his mother, and he hoped that showing Obi-Wan how it could be useful would let him keep it. “We can ask Paddy if he knows where we can get something for Obi-Wan—after he gets up, I mean. He usually gets up after breakfast. Do you need some help? I’ve been helping Nina.”

Sabé blinked at him, a little, then looked uncertainly to Obi-Wan—who smiled and rolled up his sleeves.

“I’m afraid I have no idea what to do,” Obi-Wan said. “I’m pretty good at following directions, though.”

“Me, too!” Anakin said.

She stared between the two of them for a long moment, as if they’d said something odd.

“Sabé?” Obi-Wan asked.

“The mushrooms need wiping off with a dry towel,” she said, “carefully, Anakin, so you don’t bruise them. Knight Kenobi, if you could dice a shurra from the basket on the counter? It’s the fruit. And a small onion, please.”

She cleaned her hands and passed him a knife, and Anakin himself a thin dry towel.

The basket she pointed him to looked weird, the contents all plump and big and mottled, looking nothing like the small feathery white things that grew on moisture vaporators on Tatooine.

Tension ran under his skin like Krayt venom. “These are mushrooms?”

“Yes. They’ll need to be cut, too, but…” She stared between him and the mushrooms. “Oh, I guess they look different than you’re used to.”

Her answer only made him feel worse, and he wasn’t sure why. Had Mom ever seen mushrooms like this?

The venom raced to his face, his eyes, and they started watering so much he couldn’t see.

“Anakin?” Obi-Wan said tentatively. “Is something wrong?”

“I wish Mom were here.”

Saying it aloud felt crooked and wrong. Mom had told him not to look back. Looking back kept you from surviving.

Sabé hugged him first, and Obi-Wan tentatively joined in. It didn’t feel right—wasn’t Mom or Kitster or Jira—but it was warm and welcoming and kind…and maybe that was okay.

How Master Quinlan could prefer caff plain was beyond Aayla, but she put a fresh mug of the bitter concoction beside him at the table. He tilted his notes away from her without taking his gaze off the footage he was watching.

Battle of Theed, palace hangar. He’d watched it multiple times already, from various angles, and Aayla still had no idea what he was seeing as Eirtaé shot a droid starting to target the Skywalker kid.

“You’re supposed to teach me, you know,” she reminded him.

“Pass Analysis Dorn yet?” he answered, without pause.

She scowled at him. “Master Poof won’t let anybody into that class until they’re nineteen Standard.”

He turned his gaze to her with the most minimum adjustment of his chin. Age nineteen was an official prerequisite. There were alternatives. Master Quinlan’s records interestingly omitted all hints about what year he’d taken the class, himself.

She sniffed. “I’m not going to beg for the ‘privilege’ to be taught by a closeminded, hypocritical asshole who can’t tell the difference between method and intent.”

He looked back to the footage. “Then I guess I’m not teaching you what I’m spotting.”

“You taught me how to blow up a lightsaber when I was eleven.” Two years before she was supposed to learn how to do that.

“Because you nearly did it on accident.”

His comm buzzed before she could retort. He paused the footage to glance at it, and the way his attention sharpened on the message said the discussion was over (for now).

Master Quinlan stared at his comm, doubtless calculating options, responses.

“Who is it?” she asked.

He shot a glance her way. “You still looking into Binks?”

She hadn’t told him she was doing that. He must’ve read it off something she’d touched. “Gungans seem to have their own record-keeping, so I’ll have to ask them directly for their public records.”

He considered that for all of a second. “Do it.”

“But then they’ll know I’m looking at him!”

“He was conveniently in the way when Qui-Gon showed up on this planet, and Qui-Gon’s now dead. Double-checking the coincidence is reasonable.” He paused. “And not a reason you can admit. Right.”

Master Quinlan sighed, noticed the caff, took a sip. “Fine. They gave him some rank, right?”

“He’s a general.”

“Okay. The Naboo will want biographical information on someone who has played such an influential part in Amidala’s successful repulsion of the Trade Federation. You can play with that directly or imply it as you want. Two-hour check-in. Go.”

Aayla stared. “Master?” Pushing her along like this…she couldn’t remember him doing that since she’d passed all her besh-level classes.

He lifted his eyebrows at her. “I need you gone. Be gone.”

Ah. That made more sense. And it was more evidence that she was less competent than she thought was. Frip.

Wait. “Here? You have one of those kinds of contacts here?”


She sighed, programmed the schedule into her comm, grabbed her go bag and her already-out data reader and water bottle. “Fine.”

She would’ve tried to spy, whether by sticking around or by leaving a bug, but that never worked.

Once his padawan was on her way down the street, Quinlan messaged Boss Nass, asking for his padawan to be granted access to whatever public records they had, for a school essay. (Did the Gungan’s “Certainly! A pleasure to help the Jedi” sound as sarcastic in Gungan as it did in Standard, or was he just overused to dealing with people who engaged in double-speak?)

Then he replied to Frizmar’s text, and she promised to bring him the holocron for study. He sent her his address and glanced around the rooms. It was a small suite, better quality than was usual at the price point, but definitely ratty and sparse, compared to what he’d seen of Naboo fashion in general. The chair even creaked ominously under him, though it wasn’t quite in as much danger of collapsing as it sounded.

Quinlan pulled the ‘celebration band’ from his kit and tied the white strip of cloth appropriately on his arm. That wouldn’t stop anyone from making verbal accusations about why he had Frizmar over, but it would sabotage efforts to allegedly ‘prove’ salacious intent via holo.

What was he forgetting? He rubbed his temples. He wasn’t intoxicated, he’d slept, and…

The mug of caff caught his eye. Food. He’d forgotten to eat again.

He was frowning at the menu for local delivery when Frizmar showed up, faster than he’d expected her to do, wearing something very different from her usual wardrobe. (The grease and dirt were good, but a bit too even. The jumpsuit itself was better—legitimately old and worn, probably bought from a secondhand shop.)

She was tense, pale, and very close to outright trembling. Her quick movements were small, subdued. Discreet.

Her method of tackling anxiety was to seek to get it over with as soon as she could, then. He’d have to remember that.

For now, though, distraction was warranted. He didn’t know her well enough to be sure what specifically was setting her off. He tilted the menu towards her. “Help?”

Confusion flared through her, and she froze. “S–sorry?”

Panic attack. But what was the trigger?

Quinlan carefully held himself as both casual and amused. “I have no idea what most of these things are. Like, what the kriff is ‘Calamari with dulse aioli and cream of roe’?”

Disgust ran across her face. “Hate dulse.”

“Here, then.” He offered her the data reader. “Order for both of us. You know the local cuisine. I don’t.”

“I’m from the riverlands,” she said tentatively. A different region.

“You still know more than I do.”

She swallowed and reached for the reader, then noticed her grimy hands. He didn’t react, still offered it out, but she still wiped them on top of her legs as if she were wearing a skirt, so she probably didn’t wear trousers often.

She took the reader. “What sort of things you like?”

“Not picky.”

“Are there flavors you tend to like or dislike or…are you allergic to anything?”

Her insistence on trying to get something he’d enjoy was considerate, but it seemed best to take advantage of the opportunity to point out, “Think about my job. I can’t afford to be picky.”

She blinked at him. “Surely you have preferences.”

“Preferences are a luxury.”

Horror and pity ran through her.

“That,” he pointed out, since she’d expressed interest in avoiding this sort of thing before. “That response right there says you’ve rarely gone hungry, if at all.”

Her fingers tightened on the data reader, and dismay filled her as she made the connection to what that implied about other people she knew. “Oh.”

She managed to order something while he fetched her a glass of water. At the very least, holding it might help her keep from trembling, as something to focus on. A genuinely impoverished person would be more concerned about breaking the vessel than spilling the liquid, which could easily be cleaned up, but that particular lesson could wait.

“Thank you,” she said.

“Thank you,” he answered.

She flinched.

“I had no idea what I was going to order,” he said honestly.

She relaxed slightly, so she was distraught over the other thing he might thank her for: the holocron. Reasonable.

Frizmar’s gaze caught on the celebration band he wore and clung there. “Oh,” she said faintly. “I should’ve worn mine.”

“On the open street?” he asked, making sure his pitch fit incredulity. “Do you want your dad to hurt you?”

She didn’t tense, but also she didn’t respond. Wasn’t used to others noticing or admitting their notice if they did. Wasn’t sure how to react.

And her dad would doubtless retaliate if he found out about her current getup, anyway.

Frizmar took a deep breath and outright flung the holocron towards him, nearly falling over, herself. He let the holocron hit the wall and caught her.

Shakes hit, and her knees gave out. “I–I–I—”

“No need to rush,” he said as he gently moved her over to a chair. Being out in the open felt safest to her.

He flexed his fingers and cast a frown at Frizmar’s arm. She’d been thinking of that specifically, for the impression to be in her sleeve.

She closed her eyes and took a few steadying breaths. “Thank you.”

Her voice shook with tears.

There was only so much Quinlan could do about that. Food might help, once it came, but for now…

He fetched the holocron from where it had fallen, identified the traps. “See that groove? There’s a needle there, if you try to open it the wrong way. Maybe the poison’s gone, but maybe not.”

He talked through the basics of how to safely handle holocrons and Sith objects, using the stream of data to distract Frizmar so she could calm down. (She probably wouldn’t remember much right now, so she’d need to be taught again after she settled, but at least she could pick up an overview this way and treat such artifacts with the caution they deserved.)

He’d figure out what specifically was upsetting her so much, later.

Qui-Gon ‘stood’—insofar as he could stand—on the balcony and stared after the leaving speeder. “That was Anakin,” he said blankly.

“And Obi-Wan beside him,” Tahl said pointedly—Tahl, who’d been dead for years and who he’d never thought to hear again yet had followed through on her promise not to leave him. “They’re staying in the main wing. The kid’s skittish but kind.”

He stared her down, though the sight of her all blue and translucent still bothered him. (Oh, he missed the green and gold of her eyes.) “You knew Obi-Wan was here and didn’t tell me?”

“Thought you knew,” she answered, ignoring his sharpness. “He hasn’t been hiding.” She frowned with amused suspicion. “Our host might’ve been making sure you didn’t notice, though.”

“Why would she do that?!”

Tahl shrugged. “If you obsess over trying to reach Obi-Wan, Anakin will see you first. I imagine Winnie’s noticed that and doesn’t want Obi-Wan to feel as if you’ve rejected him again.”

“I didn’t reject him!” he protested.

She just raised an eyebrow at him.

“It wasn’t a repudiation—it was a recommendation! He is ready to face the—wait, Winnie? You knew Winama Naberrie? Before this, I mean.” He gestured at the open air, meaning their mutual state.

Tahl rolled her eyes. “How’d you think I knew how to stick around?”

Sabé’s hands were trembling whenever she pulled them off the speeder controls.

Obi-Wan frowned at them. Why was she so nervous? Was it what she’d told Anakin but not him?

Why had she told Anakin but refused to tell him? Was it that they were close in age, or—

Obi-Wan’s breath caught. “I’ve been a slave, before, too. Never for long, but…”

“Long enough,” Anakin said. “Too long.”

Sabé didn’t look at him, all her focus on the controls. “Coruscant has…slums? Is that the word? Places where…anyone from them is looked down on?”

Did she mean to imply—? “Yes. Is that what the water caravans are, on Naboo?”

She swallowed.

The poor were often victims of stigma, but this seemed…extreme. A side effect of her youth, of her current job, or of Naboo culture as a whole?

Asking her about it wouldn’t do any good, so Obi-Wan just settled in for the ride.

Sabé was competent and cautious despite her age, and it seemed a good opportunity to introduce Anakin to the existence of traffic laws.

Sabé smelled home at least a kilometer before she could see it.

She’d forgotten that, how wrong the air of Theed had been, at first, and it never had quite smelled right. Rain was in the air, and that made the scents of fuel and dye and dung all the heavier.

Then they rounded the cliff that was blocking their view, and the caravan was laid out before them in a flurry of color and motion that would’ve been considered outright chaotic, back in Theed, by both Houses and Housed.

Maco was on-duty to help with incoming shipments, and he was watching them carefully as they approached the area reserved for business parking. It felt empty, but she’d doubtless gotten used to Theed traffic. Her other option would’ve been the tourist area, which would’ve been repudiating her family.

Panaka hadn’t told Sabé that she had to do that, but it was surely expected. If the nobles like Lord Frizmar found out that the queen’s primary handmaiden was outright Unhoused, there would be ramifications.

(On that topic, how did Eirtaé know? Did her protection mean that she was helping to hide Sabé’s origins from the classists like her father, or was she planning to use the information as leverage somehow?)

People who left the caravans rarely returned unless they had to.

Maco’s expression had blanked as she shut down the speeder, so he’d recognized her. “Milady,” he said, giving her one last opportunity to pretend…

If she was going to seek the slaves on Naboo…hiding where she was from would only hinder that. What other reason could she give for them to trust her?

Sabé lifted her chin and forced a smile. “Maco!” She hopped out of the speeder and hugged the half of him she could wrap her arms around. “I’m so glad you’re okay! How is everyone?”

He gave her a hard look, silently asking if she was sure of what she was doing.

“I’m Obi-Wan Kenobi,” the Jedi cut in smoothly, “Jedi Knight. This is my padawan, Anakin Skywalker.”

“Anakin’s the one who destroyed the droid control ship,” Sabé said, “and Obi-Wan killed the Sith who was after the queen.”

Maco’s expression clouded with confusion. “Sounds like you have stories to tell.”

Sabé blinked. The caravan wasn’t always the most up-to-date on news, no, but they had a Holonet connection. “You are aware that the Trade Federation invaded?”

Maco just stared at her blandly, eyebrows slightly raised, so no, they hadn’t been.

Her stomach rolled at what that indicated. “The shipments?” The caravan could feed itself from the water, if it had to, though the diet was limited. Other necessities, though, like power cells or…

“We’ve had maybe two since you left,” he answered.

Most supplies came monthly, so that meant the suppliers had dropped the Unhoused. Maybe the bigger caravans made large enough orders that they’d been worth keeping supplied, during the blockade, but this one…

“Mama?” she whispered, tears stinging her eyes. Mama needed the maintenance medications to survive. It wouldn’t have taken long.

He silently shook his head.

“Wait, her mom’s dead?” Anakin blurted. “And you didn’t tell her until now?!”

“Anakin,” Obi-Wan murmured.

“Retainers to Houses don’t come back,” Maco said, still staring at Sabé in clear doubt that she understood what she was doing. “Their employers don’t care for it.”

“She had a right to be at the funeral,” Anakin countered. “Padmé won’t care.”

Sabé winced at that admission of who the queen was. The queen’s age and given name would be sufficient to identify her. “The queen, Anakin. I work for the queen—and it doesn’t matter if she doesn’t care. Others will.”

Sabé squeezed her eyes closed against the tears that burned her eyes and thickened her voice. Mama was dead. She hadn’t expected that, but she should have. The blockade had tightened resources in Theed. Other areas would’ve suffered even worse.

“I’m so sorry for your loss,” she heard Knight Kenobi say, as if from a distance.

She shook her head hard. “I should’ve realized it for myself.”

She’d had plenty of information to do so. Not like Knight Kenobi, who had lost his teacher unexpectedly in the battle.

Of course, if Mama was dead…

Sabé drew a breath. “Papa, too? Or is he still trying to follow her?”

She couldn’t even blame him. Mama was all he had left.

“It’s doubtful that he’d recognize you, right now.”

She glanced at the sun. It wasn’t even lunchtime yet, and Papa was that intoxicated? “Would Rosari cut him off?”

“If you ask? Probably.”

She flinched. There was reason for that. She hadn’t realized Maco was aware of it.

Anakin’s gaze narrowed a little, and he cast a quick glance at Knight Kenobi, who seemed more interested in eyeing their surroundings than in noticing the subtext of Maco’s words. Anakin took the few steps towards Sabé and grabbed her hand.

“Let’s go meet your dad,” he said loudly.

Knight Kenobi startled. “Oh, yes,” he said, sounding distracted. “Let’s do that. If you don’t mind us coming?”

If they were with her, Rosari wouldn’t demand anything, but…Sabé really should’ve thought things through a bit more before bringing the Jedi to visit her caravan.

“I should warn you,” she said reluctantly. “I have…a reputation.”

Anakin tilted his head, as if in question, but his eyes were knowing. Knight Kenobi… Was that resignation? He must’ve been paying closer attention than she realized.

“It’s not… I wasn’t a prostitute,” she said slowly, trying to figure out how to explain, particularly for someone who had already struggled to comprehend what miming was. “I was a mime, and I was very young when I started. Sometimes…”

Dear gods, this was embarrassing to admit.

If Eirtaé could risk her reputation to protect you, you can admit the truth to these Jedi, she told herself firmly. They won’t care.

“Some people pay very well to see innocent persons pantomime adult actions. But it’s only legal in certain parts of Naboo.” Most of them areas that lacked regional governance. “I’m pretty sure Captain Panaka doesn’t know about that part of my former employment.”

“I’m sorry you’ve experienced that,” Knight Kenobi said quietly. “Rosari will seek to leverage that against you, then?”

“It’s not malicious,” she said. “He just finds it really funny to have me— Um.” She looked uncertainly at Anakin. Was he old enough to know about this? The other handmaidens’ reactions to the risqué discussion at dinner a few nights ago suggested that he might not. “He doesn’t have certain…equipment, and since miming involves messing with imaginary stuff anyway…”

“Why was he castrated?” Anakin asked. “Is he a singer?”

Sabé stared at him, and even Knight Kenobi had a flash of chagrin before he schooled his expression.

“Um, no,” she said. “He’s male by choice, not by birth.”

Anakin met her gaze in blatant incomprehension. “I don’t get it.”

“A person’s anatomy isn’t always an indicator for whether they are mentally male or female,” Obi-Wan said. “Some such persons decide to live according to their mental gender rather than their physical…parts.”

From how he shifted mid-comment, Sabé guessed he realized that Anakin wasn’t following the vocabulary.

“I’m sorry, but I’m not sure that explain it any better. We can call Bant later and ask her. Er. Or I can at least schedule a call with her. We can see what she recommends you study about xenobiology or healing, too—she’ll know more resources on that than I do.”

Sabé assumed ‘Bant’ was a medic. Did the Jedi have medics?

If the Jedi acted sooner, even if it was just to get relief through the blockade, maybe the suppliers wouldn’t have thought her caravan worth abandoning.

She wasn’t being fair, she knew—the Unhoused always got stiffed, when conflicts arose—but resentment tugged at her gut. That had to be unpleasant for Anakin. Maybe Knight Kenobi, too, if Anakin’s awareness was normal for Jedi.

“I’m sorry for my emotions right now,” she said to them. “I’ll get over it in time.”

The slight frown Maco gave her looked more like consideration than confusion. “Maybe you should visit the Wailer, while you’re here.”

Sabé cringed. “That’s okay—I’d rather…”

By the gods, she was an idiot. Why hadn’t she noticed this before now?

Because you were avoiding memory of the caravan.

“The Wailer,” she said slowly. “He’s had a bad several months, I imagine.”

Maco gave a single, long nod.

She swallowed and rallied her nerves before she lost them. “Okay. We’ll go there first, then. Same place?”

Maco nodded again, and she led Knight Kenobi and Anakin that way. Others hurried out of their way—an Unhoused politeness, to avoid interfering with whatever Sabé had told her guests.

“Is there anything we should know, before meeting him?” Knight Kenobi asked.

Sabé bit her lip as she considered. “He’s a soothsayer, particularly sensitive to impending death, and it upsets him a lot. He lives with the school-age children, since that age tends to be safest.”

Anakin stopped walking altogether.

Knight Kenobi noticed and paused first, whereas Sabé had to backtrack.

“It’s all right, Anakin,” the Jedi said gently, as if he knew what troubled the boy. “You aren’t him.”

After a long moment, Anakin took a deep breath, gave a sharp nod, and continued on. “He has dreams?”

Knight Kenobi frowned. “Visions? Or is it just a feeling he gets?”

“I don’t know,” Sabé admitted. “I’ve pretty much avoided him since he told me I’d outlive my best friend and help raise her daughter, which was just weird. I don’t have a female best friend.”

She winced at her own self-centeredness. “Soothsayers aren’t common, but I think most caravans have one or two. Most prophesy little stuff, like ‘This marriage will end in tears’ or ‘This job will leave you wanting.’”

Those phrasings were intentional. Tears could stem from grief from a loving marriage or pain in an abusive one, and wanting could happen from insufficient finances or funds so sufficient that you were greedy for more. Even if a soothsayer did know the truth, most people just wanted reinforcement of what they were already thinking.

“Some just play to the crowd, I think,” she admitted, “but some…”

Knight Kenobi flinched, and Anakin cringed.

“Foresight can be…fraught,” Knight Kenobi said quietly. “Even Jedi with the gift can struggle. And there are different forms of it, which benefit from different coping methods.”

He hesitated. “I might be able to help him, but if I can’t, Quin—” He shook his head. “No, if I can’t help him, I’ll do my own research to find who might.”

Sabé considered Knight Kenobi.

Maybe the Jedi could’ve done more, could’ve saved Mama and therefore Papa (who would get himself killed, one of these days, to follow Mama; it was only a matter of time). But this Jedi was helping, insofar as he could.

Accepting his kindness helped the resentment sublimate away, and she managed a weak smile. “Thank you, Master Jedi. I’m sure we’d appreciate that.”

Chapter Text

The first generation of clones were kicking in their incubators, newborns so young that they would’ve still had the skulls and skin affected by birth if they’d come naturally rather than been decanted.

Padmé stared at them through the hall window, arms pressed to her own empty stomach.

“What are you doing down here?”

She jumped at the familiar voice, and she spun to see a man who could only be Jango Fett. Memory shoved Geonosis at her, yelling that he knew her face, knew her, even though that wasn’t for years yet. The padawan braid hanging by her ear felt awkward and obvious, a farce he’d surely see through.

Disgust pulsed in him. “Jetii.”

She frowned, surprised by the reaction. Hadn’t Obi-Wan already helped Mandalore? “I’m sorry?”

“Murdered any allies, lately?”

Images flickered, of friends dead—his, not hers—due to hasty conclusions and mistaken identity, and lightsabers cutting through them all.

Padmé hastily yanked her attention away from his aura. Her face was hot with embarrassment and shame as she forced herself to wall her mind inside a figurative energy shield. Siri had been right; peeking was unspeakably rude.

“If you have been wronged by a Jedi, I am sorry to hear that. Have you filed a complaint?” She winced. That hadn’t come out quite right.

“A complaint?”

She’d earned that. “I just mean—there are procedures that can potentially prevent the issue from happening again, to someone else. Or at least give someone like me grounds to refuse orders from someone inclined to jump to incorrect conclusions from insufficient evidence.”

Because that worked so well with Master Qui-Gon. She bit her tongue to keep the sarcasm in her head where it belonged. “Have you at least received an apology?”

Fett was giving her the side eye, as if watching for the catch—or, possibly, as if he thought her mentally deficient. “As if you jetii ever apologize to anyone.”

“My master does,” Padmé lied. Siri would.

His bristles were slowly retracting. “Count yourself lucky, then. We took care of some insurgents, and then these jetii jumped in, lightsabers blazing, insisting we were the terrorists. They didn’t even try to talk to us, called us liars when we tried to talk to them…”

‘They’re like animals. And I slaughtered them like animals!’

Padmé swallowed hard. “Sounds like Ana—” She bit her tongue and tasted iron. Cleared her throat. “Sounds like an honorable reason to take issue with the Order. Shiraya knows some Jedi are real jerks.”

Fett snorted. “Thought you jetii prayed to the Force.”

Oh gods. “I’m, um, from Naboo. Most Jedi don’t learn of their origins until they’re older, but I, um—my master has a friend, who knows some of my family, so I’m a bit more informed on that than most my age.”

Or, rather, all Jedi my age. Siri had mentioned that a Jedi needed to be at least a senior padawan in order to get authorization to know the details of their family of origin—and that was with their master’s consent. Most didn’t get access to those files until they were knights.

“And you’re less of an asshole. Fancy that.” He shook his head. “It’s not just knowing family. Dooku certainly knows who his are, and it didn’t make him any less willing to slaughter mine.”

Her weak smile slipped from her control. “I’m sorry?”

Fett gave a sharp jerk of his head in dismissal. “Don’t you mind it.”

“I’m older than those clones will be when they’re soldiers,” Padmé snapped, indicating the newborns.

He flinched.

“Are you meaning that Master Dooku was behind your abuse by the Order?” That painted Geonosis in a terrifying light. Surely Fett wouldn’t have wanted to work with Dooku—perhaps she could hire him to not kill her, this time around, and maybe even to cooperate with the Jedi rather than repeating his death at Master Windu’s hands.

Fett scoffed and turned away.

“I do believe you,” Padmé said quietly. Between Dooku’s reputation and whose padawan he’d been…how many warning signs were ignored, before he announced himself as a Sith?

Fett eyed her. “You’re an odd jetii, kid.”

Padmé sighed. “You know we’re not all like Master Dooku, right?”

He tilted his chin, listening.

“I’m not sure if he was a Guardian or a Consular, but—”

«Was?» a sharp beep asked.

Padmé blinked. She’d forgotten Artoo. “When he was trained. I don’t know which track he studied, but not all Jedi are taught to do what they’re told and not really think it through. That doesn’t excuse what happened, by any means, but please don’t hate all Jedi due to the mistake of some.”


She frowned at Artoo. “What?”

«Nothing,» he whistled, faux-innocently.

Dear Shiraya. “Artoo—”

“You argue with your droid?”

“Of course. He has sufficient knowledge, expertise, and personality to have his own opinions. Why wouldn’t I debate with him?”

There was nothing she could do about either party’s suspicion, she could only ignore it. “Artoo, did you—”


…copy the schematics. “I haven’t even finished my question.”

«I know.»

Padmé didn’t recognize the emotional pitch on that one. It wasn’t smugness…

“I’ve never seen a Jedi travel with a droid, before.”

“Yeah, well, we’re special,” Siri said from down the hall, as she and Taun We approached. “Jango Fett, right? Sorry about what happened on Galidraan—that was a real clusterbug. Never should’ve happened.”

Fett eyed her. “Your kid said you’d do that.”

Siri tilted her chin in inquiry.


“That’s my padawan,” Siri answered, with a smile. “Taun We, here, is gonna show us—”

She was staring through the window at the newborns.

“Master?” Padmé asked. That didn’t work, so she poked Siri in the arm—and was slammed into the wall, arm twisted almost to the point of breaking.

“You know better,” Siri muttered as she let go, gaze not moving from the clones. “I need you to return to the ship.”

Padmé frowned as she rubbed her hurting arm, peering in search of whatever had the Jedi’s attention. The room had a lot of machines, and the window was poised to show only the growth canisters. “Why would—”

“Because—” Siri bit off her words. “How many people do you count in there?”

The tally was quick enough, but chill ran through Padmé. “There’s someone else in there.”

Someone she couldn’t see, though the machines weren’t tall enough to hide Kaminoans.

“He always does forget to mask his aura.”

Padmé blinked at her. “I’m sorry?” You know who it is?

Siri’s gaze cut to Fett and back at Padmé in pointed alert, saying who was in the room with the infant clones.

Master Dooku.

Naberrie thankfully didn’t need her to say anything outright, just the silent alert that she didn’t want to name anyone in front of Fett. The girl hurried away. Hopefully to the ship. She’d followed instructions so far… Didn’t mean she’d continue to do so, but at least there was precedent.

Not as if I can do anything about it if she disobeys, anyway.

Siri considered her options. She could confront Master Dooku about what he was doing here—Master Sifo-Dyas was his friend, but his presence here was suspicious, under the circumstances—but that would give him grounds to confront her.

Master Dooku could easily claim he was looking for Master Sifo-Dyas and stumbled upon the clones. Maybe it would even be the truth.

Naberrie’s reaction suggested otherwise.

Assuming, of course, she’s not the one running the con on everyone. Which was possible, but the way she was skirting the edge of a mental illness diagnosis seemed more unintentional—and unwitting—than tactical.

So the more probable option is that she’s right, and something’s fishy about Dooku.

But wait—the thought that something was fishy about Dooku was Siri’s, not anything Naberrie had done or said. Maybe the girl’s paranoia was rubbing off on her?

That’s not really a bad thing. Slavers were usually paranoid.

Siri double-checked her mental shields. She kept herself muffled as a habit, anyway, and especially so when passing as Shylar. Odds were good that Master Dooku hadn’t noticed her, and the polite thing to do would be to orchestrate a hello.

But Master Sifo-Dyas is missing, his last message was from an imposter, and Master Dooku’s sneaking around.

Maybe he was just collecting information, like Siri was. He wasn’t known for that, but maybe he’d learned from Galidraan and whatever happened to his padawan.

What did happen to Komari?

Siri considered the situation, considered the flare of alarm in the young woman who had reportedly defined Sith as ‘Someone who wants to eradicate all Jedi and control the galaxy’.

She carefully backed away from the window. “Should there be a non-Kaminoan down there?” she quietly asked Taun We.

Fett was already tense, poised to easily access weaponry that he surely had on his person.

“No,” Taun We answered. “You…sense an intruder?“

“There’s someone else down there, at any rate.”

Fett clutched the stock of a blaster. “Other than the—the clones?”

She slanted a look his way. He didn’t call them ‘units’, and they were biologically his children.

“Boba isn’t in there,” Taun We said softly.

Annoyance and frustration flared in Jango Fett.

“Why did you agree to be cloned?” Siri asked.

He sneered. “What, it’s not—”

She jerked her chin in a no, and to his credit, he heeded it. “Answer the question. Please.”

He considered her. “Why?”

Why should he answer, or why was she asking? “I’m trying to understand. Dooku hurt you, and you still bear a grudge against Jedi for it. So why would you take this job for Master Sifo-Dyas?”

Fett frowned, but it seemed as much in thought as it was at her. “The bitch who killed most of my friends went crazy enough for her master to put a bounty on her, and I took it. Besting her got me offered this job. The money’s good, and I get an heir out of it.”

Siri swallowed, so many things wrong with the scenario he painted that she wasn’t sure where to start. “Komari? Master Dooku put a bounty on his padawan?”

Jango spat. “Not the first time one of you got rid of trouble.”

No. Dizziness spun through Siri. A padawan was a master´s child—maybe more of a sibling, when they were close in age, but that didn’t happen much. “You’ve seen bounties like that before?”

“You don’t understand people, if you think that’s crazy.”

“No, I—” Siri did understand that sometimes parents sold their children. Hadn’t Aayla been sold, once, by some relative? She couldn’t remember the details, just that Quin had mentioned it, somewhere in the handful of years between him Finding Aayla and Siri making padawan, herself.

She was bewildered due to the councils and how they worked. But Shylar wouldn’t know half the politics Siri had picked up from Master Adi.

She stared at Fett. Men like him never revealed all their cards, for their own protection, so he was testing her, seeing how she’d respond. If she gave the kind of answer he was looking for, he’d give more information.

What was he looking for?

“We have procedures for handling problems among our own,” she said. “Murdering or selling them is not part of it.”

Approval softened the sharpness to his gaze, maybe at her picking up on the slave thing.

“Guardians like Komari do specialize in combat-oriented missions,” she admitted, “but the point is to guard, not slaughter.” Usually.

“What are you?” Fett asked. “Guardian or Consular?”

Siri blinked. Neither.

“Your padawan said she didn’t know which Dooku was.”

“Oh.” Where had the girl learned those terms? “You can be pretty sure any combat-oriented Jedi is a Guardian.”

Or sometimes a Sentinel, but she was not going there. She was probably already going to have to explain herself to the Reconciliation Council once they found out she hadn’t reported the clones.

“All of them, then.”

Siri coughed on a laugh. “Oh kriff no. Consulars are more likely to stay at the Temple, but there are a lot who still go on missions. My master was a Consular.” Originally. “That means she focuses more on the cerebral applications of the Force, rather than the physical.”

“What of those who hybridize approaches?” Taun We asked, her Force presence feeling fascinated and reminding Siri just how much she was sharing. Master Adi was going to be furious.

Master Adi wouldn’t be the only one, either.

Nausea churned Siri’s stomach. Whose bright idea was this mission, anyway? Quin knew—knew—that Siri would be influenced by Naberrie’s—

Emotional suggestion, she recognized, and she flung off the effect, spinning to check the hallway with a hand to her lightsaber.

Alarm flared in the Force, followed closely by determination.

Naberrie hadn’t gone back to the ship. And, unless Siri missed her guess, had just encountered Master Dooku.

She swore in Huttese and ran.

“Who are you?” Dooku’s voice was as Padmé remembered, cultured and diplomatic in a way that made her suspect he’d been a Consular, even though his combat ability was more characteristic of Guardians.

“Who are you?” she returned, turning slowly to keep herself facing Dooku and between him and Artoo, who was plugged into a console in search of information about planned medical treatments for the clones, who developed them, and who would be administering them.

Dooku wore a variant on Jedi robes, so perhaps he hadn’t officially left the Order yet, but the chill she felt, the goosebumps on her skin, said it was too late, regardless.

The room was a public library, and the Kaminoans at other terminals varied between paying attention to the exchange and ignoring it.

“You’re a bit old to lack a lightsaber,” Dooku said.

Anakin had lost his often enough that she could easily answer that. “My master already gave me the ‘weapon is your life’ speech, thanks. Who are you?”

“Your master’s negligence is noted.”

She narrowed her gaze at him. So he was convinced that a padawan her age should already know who he was? “As is your pride.”

He scowled, and she tensed in memory of what this Sith had done to her, to Anakin—

(Anakin, eyes Sith-yellow. “You brought him here!”)

No. Not that. Not now.

Electricity zapped her leg.

E chu ta!” she snapped. “Artoo!”

The astromech blatted a raspberry.

Pain, fear, and anger conspired to make her glare at Dooku, rather than merely look at him. “Excuse me, master, but I have reading to do.”

“Oh? About what?”

She wasn’t obligated to answer his questions.

“Padawan!” Siri called before she reached the room.

Padmé tensed, despite herself. She had to be careful, or she’d get Siri murdered early. “Coming!”

She sprang for the exit, Artoo at her heels, and met Siri—and Fett?—in the hall.

“I got the reading, Master,” she blurted. “I think I know where we need to look.”


“Tachi?” Dooku asked. “I didn’t hear you were knighted.”

Perception. Her family could influence perception. Why hadn’t Padmé thought about how that could protect Siri?

Because you haven’t figured out how to hold an illusion yet.

Padmé looked from Siri to Dooku, wracking her brain for something, anything she could do to salvage the situation.

Dooku knew better. That made his slip on Siri’s identity a lot creepier than it would’ve been for most Guardians, who were generally oblivious. If this was being recorded, she could take a copy to the Council and theoretically get Dooku in a lot of trouble.

Theoretically. More likely, she would get the bulk of the retaliation, for using Shy’s name and calling Naberrie her padawan, and Dooku would get a slap on the list from his former master, Yoda.

Siri gave a longsuffering sigh. “People always confuse us. Brannik, not Tachi. I see you’ve met my padawan.”

Dooku’s gaze sharpened. “I didn’t hear you had taken a padawan. You were only knighted…three years ago?”

Shy had made Knight two years ago, but Siri shrugged. “C’mon, Padawan. Let’s see if we can find that kid you Saw.”

“A precog with a talent for Finding? How remarkable,” Dooku said. “I’m afraid I didn’t catch her name.”

Siri just looked at him.

“You Shadows. Always so paranoid.”

Oh, no, you didn’t.

Naberrie smiled pleasantly, though her aura was sharp. “Whereas you are the epitome of tact, I’m sure.” She then frowned. “But I don’t understand. How can a shadow be paranoid?”

Siri stared at the girl. What was she talking about?

“I understand using ‘you’ colloquially in place of ‘your’,” Naberrie said, perfectly matter-of-fact, “and dropping your verb from your context. But ‘your shadows are always so paranoid’ doesn’t even make sense. Am I missing something?”

It took a few seconds to process her logic, to see how she’d manipulated Dooku’s words to turn his comment into nonsense, rather than revelation.

Master Dooku ground his teeth. “Knight Brannik, control your padawan.”

“She’s doing exactly what I taught her to do: ask questions when confused,” Siri answered, somehow managing to keep a straight face.

“Very well,” he replied, drawing himself up. “If you cannot restrain her, I will send word to those who can.”

Naberrie should’ve looked worried at the threat, but Siri couldn’t expect her to understand it.

“You do that,” Siri answered. The scheduled fight between her and her master, to lead into her Trials, would end up more real than not, then. Unpleasant, but she’d cope.

He strode off, and Naberrie watched after him with narrowed eyes.

Siri, in turn, watched her.

“You know,” said Fett, from a bit behind Siri.

Naberrie glanced over at him. “Know what?”

“You lie very well, kid, but that won’t protect you from them.”

Naberrie paled, but her voice was even as she asked, “Is that a threat?”

Fett considered them both, then turned his attention to the girl, so he’d apparently noticed Siri’s confusion. “You’re a loose end.”

Breath hissed through Naberrie’s teeth as she narrowed her gaze at him. “So are you.”

The Mandaloran bounty hunter actually nodded. “It was too late for me when I bested the bitch.”

“Oh, of course. Perfectly good reason to have a son that can be held as leverage over you.”

Siri cut in, “Play nice, kids.”

Naberrie and Fett both gave that little amused-annoyed huff common to folks getting scolded by a person younger than they were.

Fett’s attention sharpened on Naberrie with interest. “Who are you? And don’t tell me you’re a padawan. I’ve met padawans.”

“There are different ways of being what we are,” Siri answered.

Naberrie’s consideration of Fett was making Siri nervous. Surely she wasn’t thinking of—

“Is there somewhere private that we could speak?” Naberrie asked. “I believe this could be a mutually beneficial conversation.” She glanced to Siri. “For us all.”

Fett considered her back, and he seemed particularly interested in Siri’s reaction—or, perhaps, her lack thereof. “Kaminoan cuisine isn’t the best for Humans. I’m sure you’re hungry.”

He turned and walked away, apparently trusting them to follow or not as they wanted.

Naberrie was pale and breathing very carefully, terror coursing through her aura, but she followed.

The astromech beeped something that somehow sounded like a sigh, and it and Siri followed the queen-in-hiding.

Padmé kept her trembling hands in her lap as Fett poured them all some caff.

“Have some rowena,” he said, indicating the bread already on the table. “The sugar will help.”

“You don’t like Jedi,” she murmured.

“I don’t like witches, either,” he answered.

Padmé flinched. Dear Shiraya, this was bad. Palpatine would find out early and kill her and everything would be as bad as before if not worse.

He broke off a piece of bread and set it on a cloth in front of her. “Eat.”

Whatever he gave Taun We—who’d joined them at the room; called by Fett?—was poured and on the gelatinous side, but she seemed appreciative of it. A Kaminoan appetizer, Padmé assumed.

Siri grabbed her own and said something that Padmé took a moment to realize had been in informal mando’a.

Fett tensed.

Siri lifted her hands. “Just something I picked up from a friend. Did I miss something?”

Fett gave her a hard look, then settled with his own hunk of bread and caff. “That thank-you is for blood clan, not acquaintances. Don’t use it again.”

Siri nodded. “Understood. I apologize for the offense.”

He took a bite of bread, tacitly accepting her apology, his gaze on Padmé. “How much does the Jedi know?”

Padmé shook her head and tried the bread. The sweetness was soothing.

He scowled at Siri. “So you just follow orders, is that it?”

No. Draw him away from that. That was a plasma vent for him, and people fast lost their reason when they dwelt on what angered them.

“I’m here because of the clones,” Padmé said, and a route of conversation occurred to her. She inclined her head to acknowledge Taun We. “The Kaminoans have concerns about their aggression.”

Fett grimaced. “They’re soldiers. They’re supposed to be aggressive.”

“Yes, but they’re going to use that as an excuse to implant alleged ‘anti-aggression’ implants that are instead designed to override all intellectual functions and force blind compliance to certain orders. I’m not sure…”

Siri was coughing on her caff.

Taun We was frozen in the middle of lifting her mug, and horror bled from her into the Force.

Even Fett was staring at her. “What are you? That kind of foresight isn’t a Dathomiri trait.”

He knew Dathomiri? Padmé frowned, trying to remember. How old had Ventress been? “Asajj Ventress?”

“Never heard of her.”

Never mind that, then. “I spoke truly, when I called myself Naboo. I am not… My family could have given me to the Order.”

“So you two are here due to a vision of yours.” The surprise could’ve been construed as insulting, but Fett did have reason to distrust Jedi.

“The chips need to be implanted,” Padmé said. “You know why.”

Fett tilted his mug at her in acknowledgement.

Siri didn’t ask, thankfully, but she was obviously concentrating on collecting details to connect what dots she could.

“I don’t understand,” Taun We said. “If there is risk that they’ll be abused in that manner, shouldn’t they be left out altogether?”

Oh gods. How could she salvage this?

“There’s someone orchestrating this, and he’ll dispose of any loose ends,” Fett said before she could think of anything. “We need to leave things running as they are and implement any changes on the lower levels, where it won’t be documented.”

“And so the administration doesn’t know, since we don’t know who’s working with Sidious,” Padmé agreed. “He assumes that subordinates will follow orders, as a rule, so if we can get those orders defined in such a way that they’ll be understood differently than intended, it’ll be safer for everyone.”

Siri made an ever-so-slight squeak of protest.

Fett, though, let fatigue show. “There’s another one?”

“Oh, you just know about Dooku?” Padmé frowned. “That’s odd—Maul was just… Oh, he must be breaking the Rule of Two.”

“Wait,” Siri said sharply. She took a deep breath and continued, steadier, “Master Dooku is a Sith?”

Padmé hadn’t wanted to admit that yet.

Fett tossed her a quick glance she couldn’t read before treating Siri to a quick shrug. “He’s picked up some Sith powers, at least. I don’t know if he’s made his Sacrifice yet.”

“His…” The murmur and pallor said Siri knew what Sacrifices were, though Nana had said most Jedi didn’t know that much detail about the Sith.

Siri’s attention snapped to Taun We. “Sith can be thought of as the flip side to the Jedi. Where the Jedi Order seeks to support and build, the Sith Order seeks to destroy and tear down.”

A wan smile softened Siri’s eyes. “That’s how a friend puts it. I’m not sure why Sith destroy, though. If the goal is to leave everything in pieces, what’s left to rule? It’s not sustainable.”

Fett nodded—the slow, long sort that indicated agreement or concession. “But once you’ve destroyed everything, you can rebuild it to your liking.”

“So the goal is control?” Siri fiddled with her commlink, which she’d somehow pulled out without Padmé noticing. “I’m just going to make a note to ask a friend if he knows—”

Realization brightened the blue of her eyes. “No, no not him. Her. She has the clearance—Force, she might even know already, without having to keep Master Nu from noticing the lookup.” She tapped at her comm. “Of course, redirecting others’ attention is pretty much her job…”

“You’re meaning Councilor Billaba?” Padmé asked, making sure there wasn’t someone else she didn’t know about.

Siri glanced at the bounty hunter and Kaminoan with a cringe, which was as good as saying yes.

Padmé shivered, remembering the Jedi’s test. “Quite lovely company, as long as you aren’t a threat.”

Siri cast her a sharp look.

“And if you are a threat?” Fett asked.

He was a bounty hunter at the mercy of a Sith Lord. It was only a matter of time before he was ordered to do something that put him at direct cross-purposes with the Order.

Judging from Siri’s resignation, she realized that, too. “If I gave you two a comm code for Jedi intelligence, would you use it?”

“Artoo got the data,” Padmé said. “I’ll share it.”

“Artoo’s gotten the data that currently exists,” Siri countered.

Cold washed through Padmé. She hadn’t thought of that. Had she come so early that the chips didn’t exist yet?

“Could I make use of your encryption to contact the Jedi?” Taun We asked Fett, who inclined his head in acquiescence.

The blatant friendship between the government administrator and the bounty hunter made Padmé stare. And rue Fett’s death on Geonosis all over again. How necessary had it been, truly? Had Fett even attacked, or had Master Windu just jumped to conclusions?

“We’ll have to define specific Jedi who are safe to communicate with,” Fett said. “Most of you aren’t to be trusted.”

“Master Kenobi is perfectly trustworthy,” Padmé said.

Siri closed her eyes, as if pained. “Knight Kenobi is not an option.” She considered Fett carefully, as if looking for something, then nodded with relief. “I’m not, either.”

Because she was going to be headed for deep cover soon.

“I can’t think of anyone better than Depa—she won’t meddle, and she should be able to protect us once this blows up in our faces.”

“What are you leaving out?” Fett asked outright. “About Master Billaba.”

The resignation blanketing Siri deepened, thickened. “If you find yourself facing her as an enemy in battle, hit the floor and stay there. She might come within millimeters of killing you, but stay there.”

Padmé stared. She’d realized Master Billaba was something of an assassin, yes, but…

Fett popped his neck. “Thank you.”

Had he gotten something out of Siri’s instruction that Padmé had missed?

“I don’t understand,” Taun We said, her tone colored by…something. Padmé wasn’t familiar enough with Kaminoans to gauge what emotion it was.

“Billaba’s a berserker,” Fett said shortly. “That explains a lot about you Jedi, if you trust someone like that as an unquestioned authority.”

Siri winced and shook her head. “That’s not it. She’s just senior enough that she’s not obligated to report to anyone, but junior enough that she doesn’t have any aides or anyone that she’d be expected to share this with.”

Fett’s frown was heavy as he refreshed everyone’s beverages and pointedly handed them more of the sweet bread.

The pot of caff thudded against the table when he set it down directly. “I hadn’t actually heard of Billaba, outside the dossiers Dooku gave me. If she’s what you say she is, she’s careful about when and where she goes into frenzy.”

Siri watched him as he ate a bit, as if waiting for him to continue.

“I’ll talk to her,” he said. “I don’t promise that I’ll keep talking to her, but I’ll give you the credit of being more aware of reality than most of your Order.”

A smirk tugged Siri’s lips, and she toasted him with her caff. “Credit you’ll rescind if I prove wrong about Depa. Understood.”

Implicit in that was a warning that such a mistake would likely cost all trust Fett had for any Jedi—a detail that didn’t seem to bother her. Did she know Depa that well?

Padmé frowned, trying to remember… “She’s about your age?”

“What, Depa? Not really—I mean, we’re close enough that we had some mutual classmates, and she was senior padawan to a councilor while I was junior, so…”

“You are Tachi, then,” Fett said. “Gallia’s padawan.”

Siri grimaced. She considered her mug, took a careful sip. “The dossiers from Master Dooku were thorough. Only about high councilors and their apprentices, or…?”

Bounty hunter and Jedi exchanged a long stare, then the former nodded in acquiescence. “That was the bulk of it. A few others to keep an eye out for—two older Humans, a male Kiffar, and a female Twi’lek.”

Siri frowned. “He included Aayla?”

“As a warning signal that one of the males is nearby.”

“That makes more sense.” She nibbled some bread. “Who’s Boba?”

The pair of them had another staredown.

“I think I’ll keep that to myself for now, jetii.”

“Understood.” Siri pushed her chair back. “We need to investigate some children for Force sensitivity. I’ll send Artoo with the comm address this evening. Lulu?”

This conversation hadn’t gone how Padmé expected. She’d anticipated warning Fett about Geonosis, not…setting him up as an informant for the Order? Was that what Siri had done?

Padmé shook her head hard. Was she even awake?

Padawan Naber?” Siri repeated, pointedly.

Taun We inclined her head in goodbye to Fett, and headed for the door, herself. Padmé needed to do the same.

She felt dizzy and weak and wasn’t sure if she hoped or feared she was having some kind of bizarre dream (Had she really met Dooku already?), but she managed.

Chapter Text

The caravan badly needed supplies, just from what Obi-Wan could see. Food included, judging from how everyone’s clothing sagged.

Even the children, who were gathered in one boat under the canopy, practicing…magic tricks? They were already performers? Obi-Wan’s stomach twisted, even though these examples were far more innocent than what Sabé had described of her own former employment.

The children hadn’t lost as much weight as their parents, but still too much. It wasn’t the worst Obi-Wan had ever seen, but… Who ran relief aid in the Order, the Senate? Surely someone could help.

A tall man, so thin he looked more reed than Human, was among the children, humming to but not holding any toddlers.

He took one look at Sabé and locked his gaze on her. He started to shake, badly enough that perhaps he didn’t hold the infants on purpose, and darted over to them.

Sabé recoiled as he grabbed her by the arms.

“What did you do?!” the man demanded. “It’s changed. What did you do?!”

“Changed?” Sabé asked uncertainly. “What do you mean?”

He peered at her. “Friend—not a friend—friend—not a friend— Well, is she a friend or isn’t she?!”

“I don’t know,” Sabé answered, confusion thick. “I don’t even know who you’re talking about.”

“Lady of beauty, buried in blue, baby in belly but not in belly—no, babies. Friend or not a friend?!”

I don’t know,” Sabé repeated.

“Dead? Not dead?” he babbled. “Does she die or not?!”

“Might she have done so already?” Obi-Wan cut in. If the queen was somehow possessed or a time traveller, couldn’t that change any visions that had been had about her, before the shift?

The man, who he assumed was the Wailer, jerked and spun and grabbed Obi-Wan’s arms. His breath reeked of dead fish and seaweed and salt.

“Not ghost!” he insisted.

“No,” Obi-Wan agreed, gently. “But not everyone who dies stays dead. Sometimes healers can resuscitate others.”

The Wailer stared at him in blank confusion and started to rock, letting out a keening wail that made clear why he had that name.

An older child helped extricate Obi-Wan from the Wailer’s grip, and another indicated for them to disembark as they guided the Wailer back to settle in a nest of blankets.

The bleakness roiling in the man made Obi-Wan shiver in the sunlight of the dock, and it didn’t help that Sabé and Anakin exchanged one of the resigned, not-quite-cringing looks that signaled a parallel between their childhoods.

“We don’t have that kind of medicine here,” Sabé said quietly. “Maybe if someone drowns and we can pump the lungs, but even that… That isn’t death, really, since you can only come back if the gods haven’t taken you yet.”

Jar Jar had spoken of the gods as if he believed. Obi-Wan hadn’t realized that the Human Naboo also believed in a pantheon—and he was clinging to that detail to avoid thinking about the implications of what she’d just said.

“You believe in the gods, too?” Anakin asked.

Anakin, who already had his own language and knowledge and faith… Dear Force, Obi-Wan hadn’t thought of that.

Sabé hesitated. “My gods are probably different from yours,” she said carefully. “I think most believe more as a ceremonial thing—like, Amidala chose Shiraya, the goddess of justice, as her patron, to announce what’s important to her for her rule. I don’t know if she believes Shiraya actually exists as an entity. I’m not even sure if I do.”

“Oh.” Anakin looked down.

“Jedi don’t believe in gods,” Obi-Wan said.

Anakin flinched, swallowed, nodded. “Yes, Master.”

“What?” Obi-Wan stared at him in confusion, then realized— “Oh, no, Anakin—I didn’t mean… I just meant that the Jedi Order doesn’t have gods we believe in, unless you count the Force.”

“And I’m a Jedi now. I understand.”

“No, that’s—” There had to be a way he could clear this up, but how? “It’s fine if you believe, Anakin. I just mean that I, that other Jedi who grew up in the Order—we don’t have a religion like that. You don’t have to stop believing in your gods if you don’t want to.”

Anakin narrowed his gaze at him, in a challenging way that made him uneasy. “Ku-ley devours the masters, stealing them from the afterlife so her children can rest in peace.”

The boy was so obviously looking for something from Obi-Wan, and he had no idea what. “I’m sorry,” he said helplessly. “I know you’re asking me something, but I’m not understanding. If you mean to ask if I’d kill a master to save a slave, I would and have—but it’s to protect the slave, not punish the master. A Jedi kills out of necessity, not emotion or desire.”

Anakin looked away, and Obi-Wan couldn’t identify what the boy was feeling in the Force. He’d missed something.

“Others do, though,” the boy said.

“I’m sorry?” Obi-Wan hoped that his confusion wouldn’t cause Anakin to give up on trying to explain.

“Others do kill because they’re angry or because they want to.”

“Well, yes? Obviously?” Was Anakin meaning that he wanted to do that, to kill in anger or from desire? Dear Force, was this why he ended up a Sith?

Horror filled him, too swiftly and too powerfully for him to mask it before Anakin or the Wailer could feel it. The keening in the children’s boat hiked in volume.

Obi-Wan swallowed. “People who do that aren’t Jedi,” he managed to whisper. “Killing like that…”

He couldn’t finish. Force help him, but he couldn’t.

“That’s a Sith thing, isn’t it,” Anakin said more than asked. “Okay.”

Okay? As in, okay he’d turn Sith?

“How do you do that? Kill someone without emotion, even though they’re hurting someone else and so you should be angry with them?”

“It’s not that the anger can’t exist,” Obi-Wan said slowly, feeling his way through the explanation. “It’s that the anger isn’t the reason you kill. ‘He deserved it’ is insufficient reason for a Jedi to take a life.”

“Why?” That was Sabé.

“Saying a sentient ‘deserves’ something is a value judgment,” he answered. “Value judgements make us susceptible to being misled by bias. That’s the opposite of impartiality. We can’t both do that and and evaluate situations properly and effectively, to determine the truth when one party wishes to mislead us about the other.”

Anakin was staring in utter incomprehension.

“I’m sorry,” Obi-Wan said, frustrated with his own incompetence as a teacher. “I don’t know how else to explain this.”

The boy hesitated. “If you write that down, I can look up the words.”

Taking all responsibility for understanding on himself. Obi-Wan winced. “I’ll look for another way to put it. Requiring you to translate everything I say isn’t fair to you.”

Dear Force, he was doing it again. Obi-Wan closed his eyes. “I’m sorry, Anakin. I’m really not very good at this. You would be better off with Master Billaba.”

“I don’t want to learn from Master Billaba,” Anakin said stubbornly. “I want to learn from you.”

“But I can’t communicate with you! I keep trying to explain things with words you don’t know!”

Anakin and Sabé exchanged another one of those looks.

“You recognize and admit it, though,” Sabé said quietly. “I don’t think you realize how unusual that is.”

Obi-Wan stared at her, at the weariness that made the girl look older than her fourteen years. “Surely that isn’t rare?” he asked in disbelief.

Sabé looked away with an ever-so-slight shrug, wordlessly heeding his implicit request to be uncontradicted…while proclaiming all too clearly how wrong he was.

The Sith holocron felt familiar.

Eirtaé stared at it, hoping all Vos saw was attention to the lesson, though she kept losing track of what he was saying. Why did the device feel as if she’d encountered it before?

And why had her father sought it, anyway?

A quick tap on the table set her pulse racing as she jerked her attention to Vos.

His eyes narrowed at her. His hand didn’t move, though he gave a pointed glance at her little-touched meal (not that his was much better—he’d quickly downed half of the fish-and-vegetable rice, though, before forgetting it). “When your dad hurts you. Why don’t you report it?”

Ice ran through her veins at the prospect. She’d tried before. The effort hadn’t been worth the payment—that knowledge filled her bones.

She tensed her core, forcing her shoulders to stay in the proper position and not announce her vulnerability. “I…”

He wouldn’t buy the polite lie that so many wanted to hear.

Eirtaé swallowed. “It wasn’t worth it.” But no, he’d surely get the wrong idea from that—and understand what she meant when she admitted, “I can’t remember what happened. I just know it wasn’t worth it.”

“Breathe in through the nose, hold for the count of three, then out for the same count. Nice and slow.”

He tapped her hand, gently pried her fingers out of her hair. She’d been tugging at her scalp, again.

His eyes were tight on the outer edges as he took a bite of his meal. He hadn’t forgotten it, then.

“Master Jedi?”

He shook his head, finished all but the last few bites before setting his spoon down. “Memory is a funny thing, all right? It…can shift, even, to protect you. That’s why wanting something to be true can change what you remember as true.”

That fit the way her father would forget things when it suited his convenience. “Makes sense.”

“That’s another part of it—memories make sense, or else you can’t remember them. You understand that your dad’s actions are wrong and that he surrounds himself with people who won’t or can’t intervene, for whatever reason. Maybe they’re the same kind of person, or they think it’s okay, or they’re afraid of the retaliation that’ll fall on them for stepping up or on you when they’re not around.”

“I don’t see you fretting about that.”

He lifted an eyebrow at her and tapped the celebration band—saying without a word that he had considered potential repercussions for them both. “Intentionally shitty people are a minority. Most are just ignorant or careless—they have boxes for what they know and believe, based on what’s pertinent for them. Smack them with blatant dissonance, and they’ll act on it as long as it doesn’t cost them much.”

Yes, that was the twenty-sixty-twenty rule: assume twenty percent are for, twenty percent are against, and sixty percent are ambivalent about whatever you’re arguing. “I do write Amidala’s speeches.”

“Precisely! You know this. You know how to leverage publicity to your advantage.” He ate another bite and gave her a pointed stare. “And yet your dad wasn’t even embarrassed that a stranger saw him strike a woman.”

‘A woman’. Not ‘his daughter’.

Eirtaé hadn’t thought of it in those terms, before, which was funny. All the speaking of herself as Naboo legal for occupation or intimate relationships, and she’d never applied it to her father. Why not? “Even if I reported him and he received sanctious, anyone who helped me would be targeted by him or his…”

His friends, like Chancellor Palpatine, who had so-conveniently benefitted from the blockade and invasion.

Oh. That meant even associating with her brought risk. “Your padawan doesn’t know I’m here, does she.”

Vos shook his head—in reply, not a refusal to answer, and glanced at the holocron, as if that was his only reason for the secrecy. Not the possible (probable?) lord or ally of the Sith, who was keeping an eye on her.

The scoop of fish and rice on her spoon made it in her mouth, but chewing took energy, and swallowing took effort. Her pause stretched far longer than was polite.

For his part, the Jedi muttered something foreign that sounded like a curse.

Something in his timbre caught her ear as a warning…or maybe she was just catching that edge of uneasiness in his aura? “What? You’ve thought of something else.”

Or…maybe this was where he’d been nudging the conversation all along?

Vos eyed her, obviously doubting the wisdom of saying anything. But if he held his tongue, who would tell her? What was he leading into?

He scratched an eyebrow. “Your father knows the chancellor, right?”

“Yes?” Her gaze fell to the holocron. “You think that’s why he was trying to take that?”

“Almost definitely,” Vos answered gently, “but I was thinking that…”

He looked to the holocron, himself, and a grimace crossed his face. “I’m making kark of this. Okay. Memory gaps… There are certain things that often cause them. There are other things that can cause them. And then, well, memory wipes are a thing.”

“A Sith thing?” She stared at him. Could it be that easy to get evidence against the chancellor? Some kind of mental examination, for Force abuse?

Vos was so still, so carefully not-reacting, that she could guess the answer even before: “Sith have more ways to do it, but…just…”

He shook his head, maybe at himself, maybe at whatever he couldn’t tell her, doubtless hoping she’d piece it together.

“It’s one of Padawan Secura’s talents?” she guessed.

Surprise flickered in his aura, but all he did was smile. “She’s too hands-on for that.”

That wasn’t actually a denial.

“I see,” she said. It wasn’t even a lie—he was warning her that the memory gaps could have been caused by a Force user. “And how contrived was all that self-depreciation?”

A snort escaped him, and he eyed her with a wry half-smile. “You would’ve made a terrible Jedi.”

“And you don’t?”

“But I do!” he retorted, with a grin that felt partially sincere. “Ask anyone—it’s a wonder I’ve not been expelled yet, and even more of one that I’m allowed a padawan.”

The partial sincerity kept her from being able to enjoy the humor. He’d already admitted to being lonely.

The amusement vanished, and fatigue showed. “You know odds aren’t good that we’ll both survive this, right?”

Was that resignation? That seemed…dangerous. “Master Jedi, if the prospect of untimely death bothered me, I never would’ve entered politics to begin with.”

“Maybe. But do you understand what you’re risking? Truly?”

What was he fishing for? “Understand what? That torture’s possible?”

His steady stare seemed not entirely see her, exactly. “It’s easy to assume that it’ll never happen to you, that it can only ever happen to other people. Then when you’re proven wrong…well, you can’t exactly maneuver in a situation while processing cognitive dissonance.”

Why was he harping on this now?

“Did you ever do so?” She waited until his gaze focused on her to clarify: “Assume you weren’t at risk.”

He frowned, thought about it. “I think so, yeah. Before…before I was a Jedi.”

Before his parents were murdered.

And now he was making a target of himself for her sake. Eirtaé said reluctantly, “If you’re having second thoughts about teaching me—”

“No.” He let out a sharp breath. “It’s not that. I’m just ruing the necessity. There are a lot of easy ways to end up dead or worse, and theoretical education only goes so far, but I’m not seeing a way to get you practical experience, unless… No, she wouldn’t—but if we let her think…”

Was he expecting her to follow that? “I’m sorry?”

“I’m pretty sure I could get you into…a specialized training program. Question is if we can afford the consequences.”

A quick knock rapped against the door.

Eirtaé jumped; Vos didn’t flinch.

Vos flicked a finger at the door, and a pulse of the Force followed, opening the door. “Hear from any trees, lately?” he asked.

The male Human that Eirtaé had seen Padmé visit, the other night, slipped in silently and shut the door behind him, before peering at Vos. “Quinlan?”

“Master T’ra,” he enunciated. “How is she?”

“In the absence of any alert otherwise, we can only assume she’s fine.”

Vos gave the other Jedi a flat look.

The man ignored it and gave her a little smile, feeling much friendlier than he had around Padmé. “Hello, my dear. I’m Tholme.”

“Eirtaé of House Frizmar, a handmaiden of Queen Amidala’s,” Vos responded on her behalf. “Also known as an untrained receptive telepath targeted by the person who we suspect has outmaneuvered the Order. She has about two weeks available for a crash course in masking.”

That was presumptuous, claiming much of her vacation—but it would interfere with whatever get-together her father was planning, so she didn’t mind.

“Needs to be back and healed before the mourning period’s over,” Tholme said, acknowledging the reason for the window…and making her a bit concerned about what they were thinking, since he was leaving a week or two for her to recover. “The sheyf would never authorize it.”

“Who said anything about Aunt Tinté?” Vos asked immediately, and she had the sense he was shifting tacks to plan besh. “Guardian training doesn’t modularize well, anyway. Master T’ra would let Eirtaé shadow her.”

“On what grounds?”

Vos grinned, weaving his fingers behind his head and leaning back. “An interest in poisons.”

Tholme frowned. “Some will assume I sent her there for an abortion.”

“Only if they find out,” Vos said lightly, though his underlying mood was anything but, “and ignore her pre-existing interest in poisons.”

“As far as the galaxy is concerned,” Tholme said slowly, “Naboo legal adulthood means about as much as padawan status for a Jedi. Some respect it, most don’t care, and some spurn it.”

“The twenty-sixty-twenty rule,” Eirtaé said, though she wasn’t sure where he was going with this.

“I’m sorry?” Tholme asked.

Vos gave the other man a flat look, as if…as if calling him out on already knowing what that was?

“You are…former master and padawan?” she asked hesitantly, though the guess was trawling the deep, not a shallow pool, so she was probably off-base.

Tholme startled. Vos burst out laughing.

Tholme cast a sharp eye over Vos, then settled a bit, giving her another smile. The hair rose on the back of her neck.

“I see what you mean about her being a receptive telepath. Mind if I take a blood sample, my dear? I’d like to check something.”

“Would knowing her midichlorian count really help anything?” Vos asked.

“She’s not that much older than Skywalker.”

“There’s precedent for a student to enter the order as a padawan, at initiate age.” Vos’s voice took a sharp edge. “There isn’t precedent for even Skywalker’s age, unless you want to go back to the Old Republic, and three different schools of in-Order politics assume those pre-Ruusan policies were why we had that last Sith war.”

Tholme sighed. “Quinlan…”

Vos looked at her directly. “Don’t give him permission to check that. If it’s tested, it’s recorded.”

“And if I promise not to do that?” Tholme asked.

Vos squinted at him. “It would still be recorded in your mind.”

“That’s a perfectly safe place for it to be.”

The Kiffar just kept squinting at the Human in blatant How stupid do you think I am?

Tholme chuckled. “I need the midichlorian count if I’m going to prep a Starweird panel, Quinlan.”

Vos’s expression blanked. After a long moment, he looked to the holocron, throat working. “To be pinned on me if she’s caught with it, I suppose.”

The tone was light, matter-of-fact, but something about it made Eirtaé’s stomach twist.

He pulled off his belt, stretched it along the table with the back facing up. “The Starweird panel is a rather involved series of tests that has two goals: one, to verify you’re not affected by a Force-based toxin; and two, to prep treatments for if you are.”

He popped a few discreet vials from inside his belt, which she hadn’t seen before he slipped them out. Something about the seam, she thought—it was designed to mask the interior pouch, and the vials were oddly flat.

“Antidotes, some of which can kill you, outside their proper use.” He put them away as deftly as he’d pulled them out. “There aren’t many Jedi who know about Starweird kits, and fewer that have them, since getting educated in the toxins can drive you batshit. Riptide sucks.”

Tholme flinched.

Vos turned a predatory grin on the man. “Enough Riptide to drive an adult insane, dropped without warning on a ten-year-old, is particularly…invigorating.”

Dear ancestors.

“I needed a reason to pull you out of the creche,” Tholme said quietly.

“I was ten. All you had to do was claim me as your padawan.”

“That’s young enough to draw attention, Quinlan. I had no wish to make things awkward between you and your friends.”

“And you think graduating to knighthood before most of them made senior padawan didn’t?” The Kiffar waved away the point, sighed. “You’re thinking adoption, then?”

Eirtaé blinked, nonplussed by the conversation shift. “I’m sorry?”

“It can be a bit easier to navigate adult responsibilities when underage, by Republic standards, if you have a legal guardian willing to cede to you,” Tholme said.

A strong negative came from Vos, through the Force. “You’re just angling to need to know the identity of the person we’re investigating.”

Tholme didn’t deny it.

“I figured you’d prefer to contact Master T’ra, considering…” He glanced at her, obviously curtailed his sentence. “Her walkday’s coming up, right?”

Tholme just looked at Vos and sat down across the table from him. “I understand there’s a Sith holocron?” he asked, as if it wasn’t in front of him.

“Here,” Eirtaé said, tacitly accepting the redirect. She could get more details about Master T’ra later, since she was apparently going to meet the female. “We haven’t activated it.”

“I should certainly hope not.”

Captain Tarpals intercepted Aayla on the shore, before she reached the body of water that held the Gungan capital. “Isa take yousa.”

It wasn’t that far a swim, by all accounts, but it was their choice to escort her. She shrugged and stuck her rebreather between her teeth.

The swim was cold but short, and the shield they passed through to enter the city dried them off. Aayla eyed it, considered the fish outside the shield. That had to be some incredibly precise programming, to dry off visitors and their clothes, even of non-Gungan races, without letting the sea creatures enter.

She texted Master Quinlan a note that she’d arrived in the Gungan city (Otah-something?) and followed Captain Tarpals to the library.

The precision of the city’s shield meant it could also, probably, ban a too-inquisitive Twi’lek from re-entry, if they didn’t like her questions.

I’ll rent a room down here while studying, she sent her master. Can we revise the check-in to five hours?

It took a bit longer than usual to get the reply, Incremental increase.

She glanced at the clock. If she started now, with a check-in in two hours, followed by one three hours after that, and another four hours after the three… That meant she’d be on five-hour schedule in nine hours, at a good time for first shift of sleeping.

And as she finished that up, Captain Tarpals waved her through the library entrance. Stacks upon stacks of data rods spanned out around her, just waiting for someone to puzzle out their secrets.

Aayla smiled. She loved when things worked out so nicely.


Chapter Text

Padmé didn’t remember converting the currency of some of her funds before they left Kamino, but her accounts showed that she’d done it, somewhere in the fog of Did I really meet Master Dooku? and Did Siri truly recruit Jango Fett for Jedi intelligence?

She didn’t remember Watto being this stubborn about a possibility to make money, either. “Yes, you lost everything to the man who took the boy. Isn’t that more reason to sell the mother? It’ll let you replace more of your shop!”

Watto’s eyes narrowed at her. “Plenty of women up for sale on the auctions.”

Padmé belatedly realized the protectiveness she sensed from him was protectiveness of Shmi herself, not just of a possession. From his side of things, someone seeking to purchase a newly bereaved woman probably did look suspicious.

“Look,” Padmé said. “The man who took Anakin was a Jedi. He’s a padawan, now, and”—and she was still ‘Padawan Naber,’ at the moment, so a reference to the queen wouldn’t help—“and we want to free his mother, as well. That’s the sole reason for buying her.”

“And I have a moon to sell.”

A classic Huttese idiom meaning Likely story . “What evidence could I provide to convince you of my sincerity?”

He glared at her. “So you can conveniently provide it? I don’t think so.”

“What about external verification?” Siri asked, without looking up from the…something…she was examining. She ran her fingers over it, reminding Padmé of how Anakin had fixed some tech when they’d come looking for his mother, Before, and the thing chimed as she set it down.

Siri then turned to something else, keeping herself—her face , Padmé realized—angled away from Watto. “You seem the sort of being with contacts. Do you have someone who could verify a Core party’s interest in purchasing and freeing a slave?”

“It was a safe bet,” Watto ground out, swirling with frustration, anger…regret. “I shouldn’t have lost.”

Details clicked into place. “They’re your family ,” Padmé realized.

A twisted family, where the others were trapped, but… Anakin had possessed both the time and parts to build that podracer, to build Threepio. Watto had recognized Anakin’s interests and provided him the means to explore that, not just exploited him…and come to think of it, the Toydarian worked just as much if not more than his slaves. The only thing he didn’t do himself, too, was the podracing, and he couldn’t .

“You never planned to sell either of them,” she said aloud.

Watto grunted. “You say he’s free, but I know what that boy earns.”

“You got a lot less out of him than you could have,” Siri said mildly. “The Healer who checked him noticed that. He wasn’t nearly as malnourished as she’d expected him to be.” She glanced him over. “Not any more malnourished than you yourself are.”

Watto looked at the small pile of tech she’d fiddled with, apparently repairing, while he and Padmé argued. “You—you understand what the boy does. How he does what he does.”

“Has news of what happened in Theed reached here yet?”

Watto hesitated.

“The Jedi who survived that fight is now teaching Anakin. Is the enemy he defeated what concerns you?”

Padmé blinked. Was Siri seriously thinking that Sith had expressed interest in acquiring Anakin before?

“You say you want to free the mother to help the boy,” Watto said finally, “but you Jedi—if you are Jedi—don’t even help your own, when sold.”

“When we know, we do,” Siri said softly, meeting his stare.

“Then you know too rarely,” Watto answered. “Shmi is safe here. Nobody looks twice at a slave bookkeeper for a businessman like me. Even if her son is too obvious to hide, they assume he gets it from his father—and then they fear that father will retaliate if they…”

He shuddered, wings fluttering, as if… Could he know more about Anakin’s conception than Shmi herself remembered?

“No, I won’t sell her. Not even if you are Jedi. Now get out of my shop.”

Siri squinted as she and Naberrie stepped back into the sunlight, though that was less at the light than it was in concern. Naberrie’s aura had felt off-kilter all day, and confusion really shouldn’t have stabilized that.

“He sells her eventually,” Naberrie said matter-of-factly. “Cliegg Lars frees and marries her.”

And hadn’t mistreated the woman, judging from Naberrie’s tone. “So you’re content with that? Waiting for that to happen again?”

The girl hesitated. “I’m not sure how he afforded her. I might be able to help there. Maybe he could buy her sooner.”

“Sure it was consensual?”

“Oh, yes! That was the only reason Watto agreed to sell her at all, though I hadn’t realized that until… He views them as his family .” She shook her head, apparently at herself. “That conversation makes so much more sense, now.”

Naberrie adjusted her hood, apparently oblivious to how much she was chattering about her alleged visions. Siri reached into the mind talents she usually avoided actively using and ran a quick skim over the girl’s aura, confirming that the obliviousness was probably genuine, not feigned.

Which conversation?” she asked pointedly. For the love of the Force, please let this kick her awareness back in.

“When Anakin came looking for his mother,” she said, as if that was supposed to mean something to Siri.


“We visited Watto first, and he was really happy to see that Anakin and that he was actually a Jedi. And when he told us about Cliegg, the words were ‘Can you believe it?’ but the emotion behind them was relief… And loneliness—there was that, too, but he hadn’t replaced them. I wonder… I’ll have to talk to Saché. Maybe he’d be worth recruiting.” She gave a little laugh. “Never thought I’d say that about a slaver.”

Naberrie then winced. “Let’s not mention this to Anakin?”

Forget dancing the line of a mental illness diagnosis—the girl was well past needing serious help.

“I won’t be telling the kid anything,” Siri said honestly, but she could think of a half-dozen others who she would .

Jedi Master Depa Billaba, the juniormost member of the High Council, caught herself in the middle of tapping off her buzzing commlink and glanced at the time. There weren’t many people with her private comm address, and they were respectful of business schedules.

So who was calling her now, in the middle of her morning? Why?

She stood silently, discreetly, holding herself back emotionally and physically so she wouldn’t interrupt the lively discussion currently underway between Masters Yarael and Ki. Someone else might’ve called it a ‘heated debate’, replete with insults, but buried fairly deep under the annoyance and hostility was a definite sense of amusement.

They were also standing a bit too close together, where just two steps forward and a single swift shift of a wrist could—

Depa turned her focus to the floor. Calculating how to efficiently kill your allies was impolite.

“Master Billaba,” Mace said, his gaze cutting into her like his voice cut through the discussion. What’s wrong? his eyes asked.

She answered him with a pointed look, a reminder that she was a master in her own right, now, despite her youth. She knew her own limits. “Would anyone else like tea?”

She collected everyone’s orders and exited the Council chambers.

The commlink had stopped buzzing by the time Depa slipped into one of the privacy nooks and confirmed nobody was eavesdropping—though she’d accidentally killed a hawk-bat in doing so. Again. She always pushed too hard.

With a slight sigh, she tucked her legs under her and focused on the commlink. The ID was nobody she knew, and that encryption chain didn’t look like anything from Jedi intelligence. Quinlan, then.

She tapped the callback button, which was answered promptly.

The Human on the other end also wasn’t Quin.

Depa straightened a little, but she managed to keep from smiling at the new thing. Boredom was, sadly, what disappointed her most about not getting Skywalker as her padawan—which was itself evidence that she wasn’t ready to be a teacher. Padawans weren’t specimens to be studied for their masters’ amusement.

“Can I help you?” she asked the stranger.

“I’ve been ordered to intercept Tachi and her padawan and scatter their remains in the Rishi Maze.”

Siri and her padawan ? Depa would have to find a diplomatic emergency to distract Master Adi from whatever was going on. “Would a change in their itinerary be sufficient, or is more drastic intervention necessary?”

In other words, could they lose him as a tail, or did it need to be physically impossible for him to carry out his orders?

The man stared her down. “I don’t lose targets.”

Neither did she. She allowed herself a light shrug, though she kept her voice sedate, suave—the quintessential Jedi, a credit to her master. “That does not mean you cannot choose to do so.”

“Not an option.”

So he needed someone to stop him, in such a way that made it literally impossible for him to carry out his task, without ending up dead, himself.

Hmm. She could combine that with the need for a diplomatic incident to keep Master Adi from noticing whatever Siri was up to, and…

She checked the time. Garen hadn’t left for Malastaire yet. Perfect.

“And this interception,” she said smoothly. “It would be best held…”

“They’ll be taking the Triellus Trade Route from Scariff. I’ll knock them off by Tatooine.” He paused. “Procrastination isn’t an option, either.”

Of course not, if his situation was such that he couldn’t conveniently lose his target, but admitting her comprehension of such things made others uncomfortable.

She would have to move fast, to precede Garen, and she poised her hand to turn off the comm, lifted enough to show in the holo. “Anything else?”

“My ship’s the Slave I .”

Depa gave a nod of comprehension as she closed the link and stood, and then she indulged in a single quiet curse. She hadn’t recognized Jango Fett, and he’d noticed that. She needed to hack the locks Master Cin had set on her access codes again, so she could update her knowledge of bounty hunters.

At least she’d known the ship’s name, so she had some idea of who she was dealing with—but how would he have gotten her number? Quin was the only one who would share her number with anyone, and he knew better than to put her in direct contact with a bounty hunter. He must have given it to someone who passed it to Fett— Jango; he’s an ally —but why? Quin wasn’t sloppy enough to do that on accident.

She headed for the hangar with the stride that she’d carefully designed to mimic a stroll—something to convey proper calm and decorum, while in truth being faster than was strictly appropriate.

A lift let out all sentients it held, and she ‘accidentally’ blocked others from entering it, her focus ostensibly on her commlink. (She did have to pass the high councilors’ tea orders to the senior padawan attending at the moment.)

Once the lift started moving, she double-checked she was alone—Shadows could hide in the most invasive places, and providing practice for them was one of the discreet duties of the juniormost member of the High Council. Then she placed a call, which was picked up almost as quickly as the other.

“Depa?” Quinlan outright sounded startled. “What’s wrong?”

The timing of her call probably alarmed him more than Jango’s had her. He’d get over it.

The lift started to slow, and Depa leaned on the button to force the doors to keep closed and not let someone else on. “Who the frip did you give my comm number?”

The ship’s comm squawked at her as Depa kept smacking it off in response to Garen’s attempts to initiate a remote override. (Knowing that he’d added unauthorized modifications to his corvette had really been a matter of noticing his travel times. He didn’t always remember to pad enough to fit standard hyperdrive speeds for the documented hardware.)

The comm started squealing, uncomfortably shrill, dancing on a pitch that could give her a migraine. Pity she couldn’t just put a lightsaber through the unit, but she was intending to borrow Garen’s ship, not steal it altogether. Damaging it on purpose would be rather contrary to that goal.

She keyed in an acceptance code that would still refuse attempts at contact from the Council—they were probably assuming that she was suffering a ‘call to meditation’, but maybe not—and let Garen see her face.


No, she was some other Chalactan Jedi with a penchant for asking for forgiveness instead of permission. “I’ll do my best to not scratch the paint. Take Mace’s Spinner to Malastaire.”

Garen pinched the bridge of his nose. “I’m not stealing Master Windu’s ship.”

“It’s not as if he’ll need it in the three days you’ll be gone.”

“And he’ll let me get away with it because you told me to. I know. My answer’s still no.”

Rolling her eyes would be enjoyable but useless. “Knight Muln—”

“I’m not covering for you,” he said baldly.

“I beg your pardon?” she asked, as if puzzled. She let ‘Cover for me? Whatever for?’ be implied. Far more believable, that way.

He gave a heavy sigh, gave her a searching look, and signed off. He stopped trying to get his corvette back, though, and that was all Depa wanted.

Her hand shook a little as she locked the comm into off , though. Garen had always noticed more than he let on, and the open acknowledgment that he could borrow the Spinner without repercussions was unusual, for him. What if he spoke out about—

No, she told herself firmly. He wouldn’t .

It would be social suicide, at best; her reputation was too good, too carefully maintained, as much as it stifled her.

She caught herself calculating the most efficient route to wipe out the security escort for the medical convoy up ahead, and she mentally stomped on the urge.

Some things needed to be stifled.

Jango had said near Tatooine, so Depa programmed a set of microjumps and scans to hopefully catch the ships. She’d have to circle around, hope the scans or the Force cued her in.

Or… She turned the comm unit on. The cacophony of pings made her grimace, and a black spot crossed her vision. Not good .

She could fight with a migraine. She could always fight.

She just couldn’t always stop herself from killing, and she didn’t want Siri’s contact to end up dead.

Before she could think of reasons to avoid it, she dialed Siri. “Where are you?”

The hologram blinked at her. “Uh, Tatooine?”

On Tatooine?” That was better for Garen’s corvette, not so good for her ability to keep Jango alive. Form III might not be sufficient to contain him, and Form VII…

There was good reason that she was quietly discouraged from using vapaad unless she absolutely had to—and that she was definitely not allowed to teach it to anyone.

“Yes?” Siri opened her mouth again, doubtless to question why Depa was asking. Before she could, Depa thanked her and closed the line.

As she redirected the corvette, she glanced over the list of who was trying to call her. Bant was first, so Garen had probably alerted the healer about her theft—a responsible thing to do, in case Depa had snapped again, but also discreet, since Bant wouldn’t gossip about it. Next was Mace, so Bant had called him. Then Kit and Ki—checking on her, no doubt, but no Yaddle, so the other councilors were assuming she was having another migraine. Mace again, Bant, Mace, Bant, T’ra…

They really were worried, if they’d alerted her grandmaster, T’ra Saa.

But that also meant Quin hadn’t told them anything, because Bant would’ve surely called him, and—Depa double-checked—no, he hadn’t bothered to call, to leave a deniability trail. She hoped that was intentional on his part, not just a consequence of being too busy.

Then again, Quin was always too busy. Depa envied him, sometimes, how he’d somehow never cracked. Maybe he had, and Tholme had hidden it, but…she was pretty sure Quin would’ve told her, if only so she wouldn’t feel so alone.

The navicomputer finished calculating, and she initiated the hyperspace jump to Tatooine.


Like any good hunter, Depa could track her prey, and she leveraged that talent to figure out that Siri was in Mos Espa.

She had to keep using that skill a bit more than was wise, to pursue Siri beyond that, but she detoured into a small shop to adjust her clothing into something more obviously not-Jedi. The shopkeeper frowned but accepted her wupiupi without comment.

(Hutt currency always accounted for at least half of her petty cash, and Depa had cultivated a habit of frequenting lower city markets on Coruscant so anyone who noticed had an easy explanation for why. She found the best teas there, too.)

A blaster caught her eye—a GT-438, second edition. Master Micah had been looking for one of those, before his death. His collection of antiques had held the first edition and the GT-440 (which had really been the third edition of the 438).

Depa considered the blaster, weighed the prospect of using it against the lightsaber hidden in her clothing, and haggled for it, too. It was functional, if only just—it had one more recharge, maybe two, before it stopped working altogether and needed a full rewire to work at all. That was one reason modern blasters had switched to disposable cartridges instead of rechargeable batteries.

If the antique survived the coming fight, Master Plo would probably like it, in memory of Master Micah. While she was at it, she picked up a non-Jedi-issue grapple and vibroknife and, okay, yes, a dram of glitterstem, despite her promise to Quin, which he surely knew had been a lie.

(Glitterstem helped .)

Oh, and that flamethrower was such a nicely design, and—

On second thought, grenades probably wouldn’t help her goal of not killing Jango. Although they could be helpful for distraction, maybe sending up debris to reduce witnesses… Three should be enough for that.

She was stepping out of the shop when Siri’s alarm rang through the Force.

Depa smiled, took the glitterstem, and headed to intercept.

The side effects kicked in as promptly as usual, namely the one that mattered to her: glitterstem opened mental barriers. She couldn’t forget that a target was a person, because she couldn’t help but hear them think.

(To be honest, it made her wonder how Quinlan handled his kill jobs, because his mind was naturally open even without intoxicants, and he had to kill a lot more often than she did.)

The sand shimmered with heat. She abandoned her eyes and drew her focus on the hunt. Distract and contain, she told herself. This was a threat to draw away from its target, not to kill.

Jango , she reminded herself, again. The threat is an ally, and his name is Jango.

The attack came with not even a second’s warning.

Siri Force-shoved Naberrie out of the way before dodging and grabbing her own lightsaber. That would’ve earned her a bolt to the back, except another lightsaber flicked it away.


Depa followed the motion with an ever-so-slight sidestep that kept Fett in view, maintaining the economy of movement that admitted just which combat mode she was using, at the moment.

Siri bit on a hiss as her hindbrain screamed frip no . “ Civilians , Depa.”

Depa glanced her way, the smile on her lips almost serene, if you ignored the fierce joy in her eyes, which pulled the muscles just enough to turn her smile into a smirk.

At least she’s not grinning. Depa was always happiest when she was free to be thorough, so the lack of grin meant she was restraining herself. Thank the Force.

The laughter Depa sent through the Force, in response, was not reassuring.

“Kriff,” Siri muttered. “You are going to be in so much trouble.”

Depa’s answer was a giggle, so at least it was glitterstem…which was only safer for others, since the downer after tended to exacerbate her issues to their logical conclusion.

There was a Force-given reason they tried to keep her off the stuff, but she always focused on the presumed benefits it brought those around her, never the harm it did to her. And certainly never that she could get those exact same benefits without the damage to herself, if she just got some kriffing help .

“Master Billaba?” Naberrie asked, sounding confused.

Siri grabbed her arm and ran back towards the ship.

The girl stumbled a bit but managed to adjust. “But Master Billaba—”

“—Is fine.” As much as a given value of ‘fine’ could ever apply to Depa. “You are at serious risk of assassination, right now, so—”

“So are you! He was aiming at you!”

That was true, wasn’t it? Fergutz. That meant Siri had to leave, too, so who was going to stop Depa from self-destructing?

They reached the ship. Siri did a quick sweep with the Force, yanked the tracer off the hull, and shoved them both in.

“Who’s on Naboo, right now?” she demanded as she ran for the cockpit.

Naberrie blinked at her. “I’m sorry?”

“Jedi! On Naboo! Who?!”

“Um…” the girl said, far too slowly for Siri’s liking. “Tholme, Secura, Vos, Anakin, Obi-Wan?”

Tholme would have official seniority for this sort of situation, but Siri suspected that how he’d handled something had outright caused the current mess. Aayla was…probably not as bad of an option as she seemed at first blush, though she’d need a few more years’ experience before she could handle this sort of thing safely . Quin was doubtless overworked already but was who she’d have to call. Who the kriff was Anakin? Obi-Wan—

On second thought, Obi-Wan was her best option. It might even be good for him. But did he even know about Depa’s episodes? Qui-Gon had kept him out of the Temple so much…

“Siri?” Naberrie asked.

No time. Siri quickly dialed Obi-Wan’s private comm before she could dwell on the reasons she did not want to talk to him, and how swiftly he answered suggested her answers were valid. “You need to call Depa,” she said immediately, and she started liftoff and slapped off traffic control’s squawking at her.

“Siri?” His confusion was understandable, but it wasn’t anything they had time for. Depa was fast .

“Call Depa now!” Siri demanded. “Tell her you need help with the kid or something. I can’t—I have to get Amidala safe.”

He started asking for explanation, but odds were good Depa was already done with the fight and spinning into the suicidal ideation.

Siri swallowed and broke the promise she’d made with him, years ago. “If you still love me at all, call her now. Please.

Obi-Wan sucked in a breath. “ If I…” He coughed, cleared his throat. “Of course,” he said, his voice as thick as the burning in the eyes she refused to blink. The comm clicked off from his end, and she trusted he’d do it.

“He does still love you,” Naberrie said, authoritatively enough that she’d Seen it—as if knowing that would help Siri at all, right now.

Now, she had to drop the girl off on Naboo, report her sanity issues to the appropriate parties, fight with her master over letting a queen play padawan, and leave the Order to be a slaver.

Obi-Wan would remember this, her manipulating him. It would even help him believe she’d left the Order behind.

Before engaging the hyperdrive, Siri did another sweep with the Force, to check for tampering. Found none. Got them into hyperspace.

Then Siri shook Naberrie’s hand off her arm, locked herself in her room, and wept herself dry.

Chapter Text

Obi-Wan’s knuckles were white as he gripped his commlink.

Siri had broken their promise. She had insisted they never talk about, never think about—about that —and she had broken it. Why?

Fabric rustled behind him, the ‘door’ he’d stepped through to answer the call. Force knew Sabé’s father wasn’t sober enough to register his quick departure as rude. The aisle between the fabric dwellings was narrow but relatively private.

“Master Obi-Wan?”

“I’m all right, Anakin,” he rasped, but that very sound admitted the lie. He closed his eyes and set aside his feelings as unproductive to focus on, right now. He had a task to perform. “Stay with Sabé. I’ll come back in in a minute.”

He dialed the number Siri had included as an attachment on her call.

The comm rang a few times before cutting off. He frowned at his unit and tried again. That time, he was able to leave a message.

“Master Billaba, this is Knight Kenobi. If your offer to help with Anakin is still open, I could use some assistance.”

Obi-Wan clicked off the comm and stared at it, remembering Siri’s urgency, her mention of Amidala…and the way the comm had cut short on his first dial.

He redialed.

Master Billaba answered herself, though it took him a moment to recognize her, with the tattered robes, dirt-caked body, a dark, thick liquid running down one side of her head, and bright eyes and content smile. She looked poised in a corner of a dim…cantina? The comm sat on a table in front of her while she crouched on the booth and wiped down a…

“Is that a bes’bev ?”

“Is it?” Without averting her gaze, she lifted the cleaning cloth so he could see it better. Definitely a Mandalorian flute. “ So that’s why it’s both a weapon and an instrument.

A pleased tone and cadence shouldn’t have sounded so unnerving. Maybe it was just how she was currently conflicting with how he knew her, but… “Are you aware you have a head injury?”

“Just a fracture. The glitterstem will take care of the capillary before it swells enough to cause a stroke.”

He stared at her, a high councilor, whose behavior wasn’t concerning at all, even if he did ignore that she was still crouching instead of sitting properly.

She finished cleaning the bes’bev and set it aside. “ Did you need something?”

That was closer to the sedate Jedi he was used to, except for a thread that struck him as outright hopeful.

He cleared his throat. “Is your offer to help with Anakin still good?”

She straightened slightly, brightening. “Of course! I could be there tonight!” She paused. “Maybe tomorrow—I haven’t tested Garen’s corvette against off-hops yet.”

“Garen let you borrow his corvette?” As far as Obi-Wan knew, Garen didn’t allow even his former master touch the controls, if he could help it.

Her confused frown was yet another too-blatant emotion, compared to her usual behavior. “Why wouldn’t he?”

Another rustle behind him reminded him of the padawan and handmaiden with him. The caravan workers were politely giving him space, but surely he was blocking someone. “We’re staying in the Lake Country at the Naberrie villa.”

She stilled at the words ‘lake country’, and the smile fled her eyes while staying on her lips. “Sounds lovely,” she said flatly.

Was she aquaphobic? “Master Billaba?”

Liquid dripped from her head to the table, and he realized a stain was spreading on her shoulder, too. What had happened ?

“Still Depa. I’ll see you in the morning.” She clicked off.

Obi-Wan stared at the commlink. What in the galaxy

“Master Obi-Wan?” Anakin asked. “Is Padmé okay?”

He’d heard the first call, then, with Siri saying she was getting Amidala to safety.


His heart lurched.

“Padmé? What about Padmé?” Sabé stumbled after Anakin.

“I’m sure they’re fine,” he said as much to himself as to his padawan. “Siri is an excellent pilot, and they had made liftoff.”

Though the scenario of Siri guarding Amidala was strange. That wasn’t her usual mission type, and there were others already on Naboo—but then, from the sound of things, they had been off-world. Nearby, since Master Billaba— Depa —could be here so quickly, but off-world.

Sabé checked her comm. “I haven’t received any alert, unless…” Her gaze cut to him. “No, your calls went through fine, so there aren’t connection issues.”

“The queen seems to have gone off-planet,” Obi-Wan said. “Perhaps news hasn’t reached Theed yet.”

Sabé chewed her lip. “I should get back.”

“What about your dad?” Anakin asked.

The girl closed her eyes and drew a breath. “There’s nothing to be done for him, not without…” She froze, then burst out laughing.

That was…odd. Obi-Wan glanced to his padawan as Sabé went back in, wondering if this would be one of those things he’d understand better.

Anakin took a moment but then smiled. “Her dad might just need something to live for , and if that’s true, well, she’s not cutting ties!”

‘Tell her you need help with the kid or something,’ Siri had demanded, and Depa had been far too cavalier about her injuries for no good reason. She’d been bleeding yet prioritized cleaning a flute , for Force’s sake.

Maybe being Anakin’s master would’ve been good for Depa , to give her something to live for—but that wouldn’t have been kind or fair to Anakin, to expect him to take care of his master like that. Maybe Master Windu had planned this with his orders all along, for Obi-Wan’s hiding away on Naboo to give Depa a discreet place to recover from…whatever was wrong with her.

Dear Force, what could even cause that?

Sabé was happier as they left the caravan and she piloted them back to the villa, so Obi-Wan assumed some good had come of her realization. Anakin didn’t ask, though, and Obi-Wan assumed there was good reason for that.

The handmaiden left them at the villa, and he took the opportunity to work some more on Anakin’s swimming before they made their own dinner. Obi-Wan found a few messages from Master Mundi, with suggestions for where to start evaluating Anakin’s education.

Reading. The boy probably couldn’t read Basic. Most texts could be auto-translated to Huttese—which, come to think of it, would also explain some of the mistakes Anakin had been making.

Obi-Wan put down his reader and covered his face, feeling like an idiot .

Anakin’s fork stopped hitting his plate. “Master?”

He cleared his throat. “Anakin, would your performance on the quizzes I’ve given you have anything to do with an inability to read?”

Force, he was doing it again .

He dropped his hand so his padawan could see him. “I’m sorry. I mean… It’s been brought to my attention that you might not be able to read Basic. Is that true?”

Anakin jerked, nearly toppling his chair. “It’s okay! I can learn!”

“Of course you can! But if you need to learn it, then it’s my job to help you.”

“Oh.” His padawan was disturbingly startled by that. He stared at his plate, fidgeting and playing with his fork. "Master…"

Before Obi-Wan could respond, Anakin drew a quick breath and asked, “Master Quinlan said you’re not supposed to be my only teacher?”

“No, you’ll have others, especially once we get back to the Temple. There are things that you’ll want to know that I don’t, or things that I don’t know well enough to teach, or things we both need to learn. Some Jedi are just very good at teaching particular things, so it’s better to learn from them than from your master.”

«Obi-Wan’s role is closer to majordomo than what you think of as master,» added a voice that he had not expected to join in.

A chair pulled out from the table, midway between the two of them, and Master Tahl’s ghost sat. She wore leathers rather than Jedi robes, and her eyes were bright, unblinded.

And blue and translucent and dead.

"Wh…" Well, the 'what' was obvious. " How ?!"

But the word formed only on his lips, shock not leaving him enough breath to give it voice.

«Obi-Wan’s responsible to make sure that you get the education and mission experience you need to graduate, while also keeping you safe. If you have a classmate whose master is violating that, report it to one of the Temple guards. They will want to know.» She gave Obi-Wan a hard look.

He stared at her blankly, unnerved to see her so cavalierly here and dead and talking . The silence grew until he managed to realize what she'd said. Ice lodged in his gut. “I overlooked someone?”

She rolled her eyes…and was she really juggling those fruits from the center bowl? From Anakin’s wide eyes, he assumed so. «Yes, Obi-Wan. Yourself . There was a reason Micah and I never pushed him to take another padawan—not that Xanatos was his fault, but Qui-Gon’s issues didn’t help. I love the man, but he’s a product of his lineage, which has a horrible habit of ignoring even obvious facts that inconveniently conflict with what they want to believe.»

“His lineage master is Yoda !” Obi-Wan protested, shocked she would say such a thing.

«Precisely.» She tossed each fruit back in the bowl, one at a time. «Master Yoda is very old, and that age gives him wisdom about some things—but it also causes some folly. Anakin, when you were tested by the Council, which masters did you understand?»

“Um,” Anakin said, blinking. “Master Billaba, mostly. I think I understood Master Mundi, but what he said was very different from what Masters Yoda and Windu did.”

«So, no matter how wise Yoda is, you know that he’s not someone you can go to for advice you can understand. Maybe eventually, but he’s very bad at communicating with people who don’t already know what he’s talking about.

«Qui-Gon, too, can be wise, but he can also be petty and proud. Melinda-Daan?»

Obi-Wan swallowed.

«Repudiating you was cruel. Any master with sense would have dropped me back at the Temple for care, then returned—and with your age at the time, he never should’ve left you there alone. And you hid enough of the situation that it was too late to do anything about it, by the time Quinlan pieced together what had happened.»

She turned to Anakin. «That applies to you, too: if he ever goes haywire enough to do something like abandon you in a war zone, report it , so others can kick his head straight.»

“Is that what’s wrong with Depa?” Obi-Wan blurted. “Did Master Windu…” But what could Master Windu have done to her, to cause what he’d seen?”

Tahl sighed. «No.»

“Something’s wrong with Master Depa?” Anakin asked.

He must not have seen that call. Obi-Wan hesitated. “I’m not certain what it is,” he admitted, “just that something’s wrong.”

“Okay.” Anakin took another bite of dinner. “I’ll try to distract her, after she gets here.”

«She’s coming here ?» Tahl asked sharply. «Winnie!» She looked up. «Winnie? Fool of a witch.»

“Why is that a problem? Is she aquaphobic?”

Tahl stared at him—and Force, was that unnerving with her all blue and translucent. «No.»

And she disappeared.

Anakin stared at his commlink. Master Quinlan had told the truth, that Obi-Wan wasn’t supposed to be his only teacher.

He still didn’t like the Kiffar.

He took a deep breath and dialed anyway.

The answer came after a few rings. “Skywalker?” Master Quinlan rubbed his eyes.

He’d miscalculated the time zone. His stomach dropped. “I’m sorry for waking you up, Master.”

Master Quinlan waved off the concern, but that didn’t really help. “What’s the matter?”

Anakin took a deep breath. “Master Tahl’s worried.”

Master Quinlan pressed his eyeballs. “I’m sorry—did you just say Master Tahl ?”

“She was following after Master Qui-Gon and Winama noticed her and helped her get more visible and everything.” Anakin wasn’t sure if Master Quinlan’s double-take made him feel more or less weird about the situation.

But then the Kiffar just laughed a little and settled. “So what’s bothering her?”

“Master Depa’s coming here.”

Silence answered him for a few breaths. “And you’re telling me this because…”

“You know what’s wrong with her.”

It wasn’t a question—Master Tahl had all but admitted it, when she said Master Quinlan was who figured out what had happened to Master Obi-Wan—so Anakin didn’t make it one. He still squirmed uneasily under the knight's scrutiny.

“Do you?” Master Quinlan asked.

Anakin started to shake his head, then paused, staring at the Kiffar. Why did he have the feeling Master Quinlan expected him to figure it out?

“Okay. Send me the address for your location, please. And Skywalker…thank you for telling me.”

The comm call ended, leaving Anakin staring at the device. Something didn’t feel right about the Kiffar—he was sure about that—but…maybe he wasn’t like the sentients who’d taken advantage of Watto, after all.

Eirtaé returned to the handmaiden quarters late enough that the pair of door guards were eyeing her askance as she signed in, dressed back in the proper handmaiden garb that she’d left at a public locker. She let slip that she’d been visiting with Master Tholme , both to pull suspicion off Vos and to give the older man a bit of repayment for dumping an adult dose of Sith poison on a ten-year-old.

The significant look that passed between the guards meant gossip might already be well underway, and suspicion that she had an open bed was definitely spreading. Her gut clenched at the knowledge of how her father would respond to that, once he found out.

Come to think of it, this was going to complicate efforts to learn the guards’ names, since her ignorance was rude but seeking the information could be construed as invitation. Maybe she could ask Rabé how to avoid that. Most guards were Housed, weren’t they? Panaka seemed too traditional to hire Unhoused unless they were particularly useful, like Sabé for the decoy protocol.

She plodded into her room—a private one, due to the entire ‘honorary’ thing—and found Rabé asleep at her vanity.

Was this resignation how Vos had felt, when she’d approached him the night after the parade?

What was Rabé expecting her to do with this, anyway?

Well, Rabé wasn’t Saché or Padmé, so poking her shoulder would probably be safe. Eirtaé rallied herself and prodded the older handmaiden awake.

Rabé startled, and a data reader fell from her lap. “Eirtaé!” she whispered too loudly, then winced and yawned, clearing her eyes. “Is everything okay?” she asked, at a better volume for discretion. “I’ve been waiting for you all night.” She peered with definite worry. “Vos isn’t… He isn’t hurting you, is he? His type sometimes do.”

Did everyone assume the worst of him?! “I’m not fripping Vos,” Eirtaé said flatly, and she sat on the edge of her bed. “But he’s definitely the type that only hurts lovers who enjoy it.” Though she suspected he wouldn’t enjoy doing that.

Rabé flushed. “I didn’t mean… Okay, so I did, but how you could possibly know that if you’re not…”

Eirtaé glared at her. “I’ve spent hours alone with him, in circumstances where he could have easily made me disappear , if he were so inclined, and he treated me no differently than he does in public—and there’s nothing I can give him that he would want.”

That was untrue, she suddenly realized, between the Sith holocron she’d delivered to him and the ones he needed stolen from the Temple. But he’d demonstrated his respect for her as a person even before that, and she kept her clenching fingers in her skirt so her paranoia wouldn’t reinforce Rabé’s assumptions.

Rabé was giving her an odd look, so she’d probably said something strange by Housed standards.

“Is that why you’ve been waiting for me?”

“What? Oh, no. I mean, not entirely.” She wobbled off the chair and patted around for her data reader.

Eirtaé eyed it, tempted to try telekinesis but remembering Vos’s warning—and how she’d hurt herself trying to use the Force to help with emotions, the other day.

Rabé finally found it, sat up straight, hit her head on the vanity, and squeaked in pain. It took her nearly another minute to control that and then get reseated, data reader in hand. “Did you know Lord Frizmar is impotent?”

That didn't make sense. He'd fathered at least one child, so he couldn't be impotent. Unless… Ancestors, no. “I beg your pardon?”

Rabé winced. “It’s in the Palace Library. The current Lord Frizmar was firstborn heir but, upon reaching his majority, was found to be impotent even via medical intervention, so the title was passed to a line of cousins that is referred to in the plural but only one, your mother, is referenced by name. According to the copies of the local news reports I tracked down from before her marriage to your father, she had a much-younger brother who was prone to fits and conveniently disappeared.”

Of course he had. That didn’t change, “Go back to the impotence, please.” Her voice came out pleasant, soft, despite the whirlpool building in her head. “If my legal father is not my biological father, then who…”

The chancellor’s call for her in the garden flashed through her memory.

Moon heirs—heirs whose true lineage was hidden, for their own protection—were traditionally raised by good friends of the biological parents. Or, sometimes, parent .

Ice filled her.

Forget it being unsafe for Padawan Secura to know Eirtaé was hanging out with Vos. If she was a moon heir for House Palpatine as well as heir for House Frizmar, it wasn’t safe for anyone to associate with her.

“Get out,” passed through her lips—oh-so-quiet, barely a breath.

Rabé frowned. “What?”

The confusion galvanized Eirtaé into snapping, “Get out !” Something like hysteria colored her voice, but Rabé was Housed, not of a House, and she wouldn’t understand enough to figure out why. “Get out—get out—get out!”

The older handmaiden stumbled over herself in surprise as Eirtaé chased her and smacked the door shut behind her, locking it with a shaking hand and then collapsing against it as she broke into sobs.

Dear ancestors

No. If her ancestor was Palpatine , she couldn’t do that.

Dear Force, she prayed—she’d have to find out if Jedi did that— what am I going to do ?

And how am I going to protect Vos?

Something sharp in the Force jolted Anakin awake, but it folded into the night before he’d even finished standing.

His chest tightened. The feeling wasn’t the same as he was used to picking up from around the slave quarter, where he and Mom had been the only Force-sensitive ones, but it was close.

Too close.

He hesitated, faded blue blanket wrapped around his shoulders, then let his instincts guide him to follow the pain down one wing of the villa, to a hallway of bedrooms.

The night was more shadow than blue, dark enough that he’d seen more details in the Force ghost earlier. But the villa was clean, the walkways clear, and he didn’t trip.

Master Depa stood in the doorway to one guest room, staring in, and the tightness of her shoulders and of her grip on the door frame said her thoughts weren’t anywhere good. Even her clothing, torn and multicolored—muddy?—was so much more like the fellow slaves he’d known than the Jedi he’d met before.

“Master?” he called softly.

She didn’t move, but he felt her awareness target him. He froze, neck prickling.

After several seconds when he hardly dared breathe, the sensation retreated, and her posture loosened a little.

“I apologize,” she said, almost flatly. “I should’ve realized I’d woken you up.”

“Some in the slave quarter would break things,” he said. “To help them feel better.”

The slight laugh that broke from her was teary, not happy. “It was a long time ago.” She tilted her head at the room. “Gave birth on that bed. No idea what happened to him, if he even survived.” Another slight laugh, this one more amused. “Quin would be furious about that. Blood ties matter, to him. Comes of remembering his own, I suppose.”

Anakin froze, remembering his accusation and the Kiffar’s reaction. “He knew his mom?”

“Quin was just a few years younger than you when he came to the Temple. Most Jedi were given to the Order as toddlers, after they start demonstrating Force abilities and their parents realize it’s beyond what they can handle safely. Mace and I were orphans, infants. I wonder, sometimes, if that’s why.”

Why…what? Why she was targeted? “People hurt others because they want to and can. I’m not seeing how more training as a Jedi would make you more vulnerable to that.”

She paused. “I didn’t mean…or maybe I did? There’s vulnerability in misunderstanding others, and if you process things differently than other people do…”

Her attention sharpened on him again, but it felt more like the woman from the Council chamber, not the cornered victim he'd met tonight. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be having this conversation with you.”

“It’s all right,” Anakin said.

“No, it’s really not.” Master Depa sighed. “Because now I have to order you not to tell Obi-Wan about it.”

“Oh.” And Master Depa ranked Master Obi-Wan, so that was okay…but she was saying that wasn’t . “Why isn’t that okay? You’re master over him.”

She flinched. “Jedi do not own each other. The choice of what to tell him should be yours , based on your trust of him, not pushed on you by someone else.”

That sounded like a freeborn thing, which meant… “ Why can’t I tell him?”

Being free meant he could ask that, right?

He still tensed against a blow, anyway.

The silence felt heavy in the night, and he finally looked up to see understanding in Master Depa’s eyes.

“You were a slave, too,” he whispered.

She didn’t answer, but she didn’t need to.

“So was Master Obi-Wan,” he told her, and he was glad he had when surprise answered him. “Never for long, he said, but…he understands it could have been.”

Master Depa thudded her forehead against the door frame, admitting she, too, understood what that meant. How long had she been a slave?

After she straightened, she kept looking in the guest room, not at him. “That doesn’t change anything, unfortunately,” she said. “I shouldn’t have mentioned the birth.”

So the enslavement was okay to talk about, but not the baby? “Do Jedi not have kids?”

“No,” she said. “Did Qui-Gon not tell you? We have no families, no children—or at least the Coruscant Order doesn’t, as a rule. The Corellian Order has its own ways. I’ve wondered, if he lived and took after me, if Master Tholme gave him to them.”

“Master Tholme?” That didn’t sound like anyone Anakin had met.

“Quin’s master. He’s… Well, he’s Tholme .” Her lips twisted enough for him to see the wry smile, despite the dark.

She shook herself, drew herself up, and finally said what she’d probably meant to all along: “You’re not going to fit in with the other padawans, and that’s okay.”

She then stalked off, so she probably needed to be alone.

Anakin peered in the guest room, which looked no different from any of the others, and the door frame caught his eye, a darker shadow where she’d pressed her head against it. He touched the spot and found blood.

Maybe she was so bothered by being here because she’d been attacked again, maybe even…

He stared at the blood on his fingers, the blatant proof that even Jedi could be hurt like slaves. Could be slaves.

He’d promised Mom he would come back to free her—Kitster and the others that he’d free them .

Maybe, as he grew up and learned how to free the slaves of Tatooine, he needed to figure out how to free the Jedi, too.