One day earlier…
The arrangements for Cordé’s funeral had been made, and there had been a long and somber holocall to her family. Then had come the discussion with Jalyra, the current security head at the Naberrie estate—as the people attempting to assassinate Padmé had obviously figured out that she was returning. Anakin had exiled himself from the discussion quite quickly, forced to admit that his ‘security expertise’ was more suited to protecting someone in combat than actually securing an estate.
Padmé left her office, pausing next to the door as Jalyra walked out. “I’ll find Anakin and explain the plan. He’d probably rather listen to me.”
Jalyra was too stocky and scarred now to be a handmaiden and double, but her smile was still nearly identical to Padmé’s. “Trust me, my lady, I know the sort.” The smile twisted into something more wry. “Am intimately familiar with the sort, even.”
Padmé attempted a tiny laugh. “I wasn’t ever that bad, was I?”
“You wrestled a gungan five days after our first exam. My lady.”
“I was eight! Nobody has good judgement when they’re eight.” Padmé frowned. The dark mood of the past few days was still pressing down. “I wish I’d been more careful on Coruscant. I was never as good at security work as you were.” She folded her hands behind her back, looking away wryly. “And I’m out of practice.”
“No one could blame you, Padmé.” Jalyra’s voice was carefully soothing, as even as the lake outside. It was the voice of the Queen of Naboo, trained into all of them, and like the lake outside, the shadows underneath the water had teeth. “It was Typho’s job. He should have had his people checking over the landing pad.” She narrowed her eyes, her expression turning icy. “He should count himself lucky he didn’t come back with you. I’d have had him up before the Queen for his negligence.”
Padmé raised an eyebrow. “You look nothing like Jamillia.”
“Really now, I can still do quite a lot with face paint and clothing.” A teasing note crept into her voice. “Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten.”
“I haven’t gone Coruscanti, Jalyra.”
“Good,” she said. “It’s not like it doesn’t happen. The Chancellor—”
“The Chancellor,” Padmé said firmly, “is undoubtedly glad to be rid of our internal politics. You know what happened to his family.”
“Yes. Yes, I do.” Jalyra inclined her head. “I guess it’s hard to blame him. Still. It’s a shame.”
Padmé closed her eyes. “It’s a shame our skills are still relevant on Coruscant.”
“Oh, Padmé…” Jalyra shook her head. “Come here.” She stepped forwards and wrapped an arm around Padmé, pulling her in firmly. “There’s nothing more we can do for her. You know that. I know that. All that’s left is to make sure she didn’t die in vain.”
“I know,” Padmé whispered. She squeezed Jalyra’s shoulder, then pulled back, smiling tightly. “There will be time to cry when it’s over. I know.”
“That’s our Senator.” Jalyra patted her arm. “I’m going to check the cameras. Good luck with your Jedi.”
“My Jedi?” Padmé snorted quietly at that. “Thank you.”
Jalyra saluted. “Always,” she said, and walked away.
Padmé reached up and ran a hand through her hair, sighing quietly. Then she straightened up, wiped her eyes, and went to look for Anakin.
Padmé finally found Anakin on the second floor balcony, jacket draped over the railing. He was staring out at the lake, frowning. As she approached, he turned around. “Senator,” he said. “I wanted to apologize.” He looked away, rubbing his neck awkwardly. “What I said during the security meeting—I was out of line.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Padmé said. “I know this is your first mission without Master Kenobi.” She stepped closer, smiling reassuringly. “But I’m not going to blame you for showing inexperience. I’m not expecting you to be a full-fledged Jedi Master right out of the gate.”
“Ouch,” Anakin said, wincing. “Was it really that obvious?”
Padmé put a hand on his shoulder. “We’ve all been new at something before.”
He made a face. “That’s a yes.”
“I’m afraid so.” She walked to the edge of the balcony and extended a hand over the railing, pointing at a patch of green land a ways out into the lake. “Do you see that island over there?”
He followed her. “What about it?”
“House Naberrie used to lend this estate out to the Legislative Youth Program, all summer. We’d swim out to that island every afternoon.” She slanted an impish grin at him. “Would you like to hear how my first day went?”
“I’m guessing the answer isn’t ‘swimmingly.’”
Padmé laughed. “No,” she said. “No, definitely not swimmingly.” She gave the water a wry look. “Rather the opposite, actually.”
“Oh, no,” Anakin said, eyes widening.
“Oh, yes.” Padmé shook her head. “I almost made it all the way, but one of the other girls and I started talking, and I lost my focus and got a big gulp of water.”
Anakin ducked his head, chuckling into his fingers. “I’m almost afraid to ask what happened next.
“Well, I started coughing, of course,” Padmé explained, gesturing widely as she started getting into the story. “Which didn’t help me swim, so I ended up swallowing more water…”
He buried his head in his arms, doubled over the railing in strangled laughter. “Oh, no,” he repeated, barely managing to get the words out.
“So Dormé looks at me, and then she looks at the beach, and she panics and tries to tow me to land.” Padmé paused for effect. “By my hair.”
He looked up. “Your hair?”
“Well, my arms and legs were thrashing around! So she grabbed for me, and that’s what she got.” Padmé put a hand on the railing, giggling quietly despite herself. “Long story short, the supervisor had to rescue us both.”
“I’m glad you made it.”
“Kerelle was keeping a close eye on us. I wasn’t in that much danger.”
He moved closer. “I’ll have to thank her, then.”
“If you take the time to personally thank everyone who saved my life when I was younger—ha.” Padmé ran through a quick mental count. “We’d be here all week at least,” she said, ducking her head faux-apologetically. “Besides, I’d rather focus on…”
Anakin shifted his hand on the railing, his knuckles brushing against hers. “The present?” he suggested.
“Yes,” Padmé said, smiling up at him. “Among other things.”
His free hand found its way up to her hair, fingers threading through to cup her cheek. “That works for me,” he said, voice soft, and kissed her.
He was gentler than she would have expected, but far too tense, and—really, it wasn’t a good kiss by any measure, but…
Well, there was a ‘but,’ wasn’t there?
But he was sincere and uncomplicated, and if that came with a bit of inexperience, right now she’d take it.
Inexperience was easy to cure, after all.
The fields surrounding the Naberrie estate were a vivid shade of green that Anakin had to spend a few moments just marveling at. He twisted to watch a shaak amble along behind, grinning slightly at the creature’s unbalanced gait. “Funny-looking thing, isn’t it?” he asked Padmé, glancing over at her. “It’s like it’s supposed to have a tail, but instead its body just keeps going.”
Padmé smiled almost mischievously. “Is that your tactical assessment?”
“My tactical assessment is that it looks like it would be really hard to ride, and I kind of want to try it.” Anakin matched her expression with a tiny grin. “And that you need to stop using yourself as bait, Senator.”
Padmé let out a quiet sigh, and very deliberately did not look back towards the tower where Jalyra had stationed a guard. “If we want to find out if I’ve been pursued here, I have to stick my neck out at least a bit.”
“Why does it have to be you,” he asked, “and not one of the handmaidens?”
“Jalyra is the only one here, and we haven’t looked alike in years.” Padmé strolled along through the near-unnaturally verdant grass, practicing the fine art of looking everywhere while appearing to focus on nothing at all. “She’d need the full raiment, save possibly the headdress.”
Anakin frowned, considering it. “And if ‘you’ were walking around like that at your family’s own estate…”
“Then they’d know it wasn’t really me. Yes.” She frowned as well, spotting a faint ripple in the river from the corner of her eye, and kept walking. “Keep an eye on the water, but try to look like you’re just here for a picnic.”
“Sure,” Anakin said. She offered him the picnic basket—which actually contained a couple of flashbangs, rather than anyone’s lunch—and he took it. He started walking down closer to the river, disturbing one of the shaaks along the way. It snorted, gave him a dirty look, and trotted away. “Yeah,” he muttered, “you too.” He stopped several feet from the shore and crouched down, pretending to busy himself with the basket while Padmé watched a shaak wander closer.
A tense few moments passed, and then a sand-pale gungan woman wriggled out onto the shoreline and stood, reaching for one of the throwing daggers on her belt.
Anakin narrowed his eyes, and the throwing dagger pulled away and flew to his hand. He slipped it into the picnic basket, stood up, and drew his saber. “Don’t come any closer,” he called out. “I’m a Jedi. Put your hands up.”
“Me-sa know what the Force is,” the gungan said. The look in her eyes was somewhere between bored and predatory. “Me-sa not trembling.”
Anakin tried to imagine Jar-Jar making an expression like that, and suppressed a shudder. “I’m warning you,” he said, trying not to look back as Padmé came up behind him. “Whoever you are, I’m not going to let you hurt the Senator.”
“Me-sa Pel Qawn. Twice-born Blade of the Deep Waters.” She took a couple steps forwards, leveling a wicked-looking spear at them. “You are prey.”
Anakin couldn’t stop himself. “Twice-born?” he asked. “Is that some kind of rebirth ritual, or…?”
Pel’s long tongue lolled out of her mouth in a silent laugh. “It means me-sa cut my way out of one of the great fish.”
Padmé watched her warily. Custom dictated that one would treat a Blade of one of the assassin clans on par with a noble of the abovewater Royal Houses, and by protocol there should have been some gesture of respect, even to an enemy—but the unadorned you was a grave insult from a gungan, especially one from the more militant and traditionalist clans that typically took mercenary work. “Have we committed some crime, Blade?” Padmé asked.
“You are prey,” Pel repeated, louder and more slowly. “You swim with marked wounds. Your blood is destined to dissolve into the lightless places, and your bleached bones be covered by sediment.” She grinned, revealing filed teeth. “But do not be insulted, Naboo. Your souls were bought dearly.”
“Okay, I’m not even going to ask about the souls thing,” Anakin said. He walked down the rest of the way to the shoreline until he was standing only a couple feet from Pel. “Let me make sure I have this right—you’re here to kill us, you think we’re prey rather than fellow travelers, you’re under no circumstances going to negotiate, and you just insulted Padmé somehow?”
“All correct,” Pel said. “Be proud; thinking looks to strain you. Was there a point?”
Anakin ignited his lightsaber and smiled. It was not a nice smile. “Nope.”