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Pretension Is Key

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Maul was certain that Ben would laugh himself silly if the human could see him now.

After years and years of only barely tolerating the idiot’s Force-compelled jaunts away from Sand Hell, what happened? He got dragged spitting and cursing on his own Force-damned field-trip and ended up crouching under a Nabooian starfighter while the insignificant Mid Rim world was invaded by the fripping Trade Federation.

Maul had never liked Neimoidians and now at least his idiot brother could no longer claim it was for no reason. Who the hells cared enough about fripping Naboo to invade it? The place was nothing but a pretty dirtball ruled by a viciously competent youngling with a spine made of beskar.

But, sensible invasion or not, the place was overrun with battle-droids and Maul was the only member of Amidala’s security force to still roam free. His only real course of action, he supposed, was to free the pilots in the hangar and then mount a resistance with which to free the young queen.

Maul really hated the Force and its fripping Will sometimes. Most of the time, actually. ‘All the time’ counted as ‘most of the time’, didn't it? Either way, according to the shrieking winds in his ear and the taste of metal on his tongue, it was a good time to begin his rescue.

With a resigned sigh, Maul rolled out from underneath the starfighter, blasters firing. He itched to pull out his saberstaff and cut through the brainless droids until they were scrap metal; considering the twin beacons of Light that had entered the city some time ago and were currently hovering by the hangar entrance, however, the Jedi had finally arrived and would likely pester him with stupid questions.

One of the droids got off a lucky shot, managing to graze Maul’s thigh, forcing him to drop and use his uninjured leg to sweep it off its feet. Planting an armored boot on its chestplate and firing directly into its face was a very cathartic experience. Sensing the final droid’s position and firing without looking away from the prisoners was equally cathartic, and also held the benefit of allowing him to properly show off while staying in-character.

Mandos did fancy osik like that all the time, and Maul had several years of both holographic and anecdotal evidence to prove it.

By the time the Jedi and their companions finished dispatching the rest of the droids in the hangar, the pilots had regained their feet. Some even had the sense to collect the blasters lying amongst the scrap metal and distribute them. Maul gave an approving nod and turned to face the approaching party.

“Master Dinii,” greeted the painted woman in black as the two groups met. “I am gratified to see you’re well.”

Maul’s eyes, hidden beneath his helmet, flickered over to the young queen a few steps behind Sabé. “Your Majesty,” he acknowledged, offering a short bow to both women. Then, a little amused, “I see that you require no rescue.”

Panaka stepped forward at that.

“These are Jedi Masters Dooku and Jinn,” the brisk captain said, gesturing first to the regal-looking human and then his long-haired companion. A former Master and Apprentice, Maul sensed. “They are ambassadors from Coruscant, and will be escorting Her Majesty there to plead our case to the Senate.”

Giving a curt nod, Maul resisted the urge to point out that the “ambassadors” weren’t very good at their jobs if they had to spirit the young monarch away on a stolen cruiser. “There’s no time to waste, then,” he said, gesturing with a little flourish at the Royal Starship just to see the queen’s lips quirk up in amusement.

More than simply trusting him after he’d foiled an assassination attempt, the little queen liked him, and it rankled her captain of security more than Panaka would ever admit. Maul only liked to rub it in a little . It was the little things that made life on bland, boring Naboo worth living, especially since he was definitely going to miss the Boonta Eve Classic; Little It had pouted at him for that during the entirety of their last two holocalls.

They all boarded the ship in short order, though a few of the pilots who’d taken blasters exchanged nods with both Maul and Panaka before jogging back through the hangar and deeper into the palace. Maul wished them luck with whatever mischief and mayhem they meant to carry out as he followed the captain up the ramp.

Queen Amidala and her handmaidens wisely secluded themselves out of the way, but with Commander Olié, Captain Panaka, two Jedi, and Maul, it was still a tight fit in the cockpit of the Nabooian craft. Pointedly ignoring the suspicious look Panaka shot at him, as well as the curious brushes against his well-shielded mind from the Jedi, Maul settled himself against the doorway as they ascended through the atmosphere and out into the vastness of space.

It didn’t take long before Olié sucked in a sharp breath and announced, “There’s the blockade.”

And there it was, indeed.

The next several minutes were an exercise in staying calm in the face of a threat that Maul couldn’t neutralize himself, and the second the long-haired Jedi uttered the words, “We’ll have to land somewhere to refuel and repair the ship,” Maul resigned him to the lowest of the Corellian hells. He knew where this was going, and felt very much like pulling out his ‘staff and taking his chances against the entire Jedi Order before letting the starship set down on Sand Hell.

“Tatooine, I should think,” the Jedi Dooku said from the navigator’s chair, pointing at the star-chart. “It’s so poor the Trade Federation has no presence there. And even if it wasn’t, they wouldn’t dare intrude.”

“How can you be sure?” Panaka interjected, frowning. Hilariously, it seemed the good captain was even more wary of the Jedi than he was of Maul. Then again, he thought Maul was a simple Mandalorian, not a former Sith Apprentice, so Maul could forgive him his stupidity.

Dooku turned to fix the captain with a haughty look. “Because it is controlled by the Hutts,” he said, nothing in his face or voice, but with a slight shimmer of humor around him in the Force. Immediately, Panaka made his protests known, and he had a fair point.

If Jabba caught wind of Mid Rim royalty so much as passing near the Arkanis sector, he would send at least half a dozen bounty hunters after her merely out of principle. Unfortunately, the Jedi also had a point about having the advantage of Jabba not already knowing. Maul kept a tight grip on his shields so that nothing of his emotions could be felt through the Force. He didn’t like it any more than Panaka did, however, and was sure to communicate that with a surly shrug when the captain looked over at him for backup.

Kark, he hated flying…

- - -

The good Captain’s presence in the Force was a glory to behold when he pointedly stepped aside to let the Jedi explain to Sabé where, exactly, they would be setting down for repairs. When Jinn stepped up next to his former Master and said, “You must trust our judgment, Your Highness,” Maul almost broke down laughing at the combined indignation of every Naboo in the room.

Weren’t Jedi supposed to be trained in the diplomatic arts? Was this Qui-Gon Jinn really so bold, or just unforgivably stupid, as to insult Her Majesty to her face?

Sabé-as-Amidala met the man’s stare dead-on for ten seconds before her eyes flicked over to Maul, standing off to the side as an obviously neutral party. “Master Dinii,” she intoned, settling more comfortably into her seat as he stepped forward. “What have you to say about this course of action?”

Maul gleefully took the Jedi’s place as the two fell back and tilted his helmet so that he could see both Sabé and the queen. “The desert-world has its dangers, Your Majesty,” he began after a long, deliberate pause, “and I take no pleasure in exposing you to them. The ruling Hutt of Tatooine is a testament to his people in both obscene wealth and vicious temperament.” He could feel Panaka’s burgeoning smugness at Maul’s apparent support, and relentlessly continued. “However, I have spent no small amount of time there and these… jetii are correct in one assumption: together or separately, we are fully capable of keeping you safe from anyone who may wish you harm.”

The young women considered his words for a minute before Sabé gave a single nod. “Given your previous experience, I trust you to guide and assist the Jedi in whatever way you can while on the planet, Master Dinii.”

Grinning behind his helmet, Maul bowed and said, “As you command, Your Majesty.”

Again, it was the little things.

- - -

Seeing the expression of pure, unbridled disgust on the regal Jedi’s face as they stepped off the ship and into that bright, Tatooine sunlight was a joy that Maul would cherish for years to come. Feeling his exasperation in the Force as Panaka approached with the disguised queen in tow was nearly as good.

Maul offered the captain a nod, then bowed to the young woman. “Lady Padmé,” he said with a tiny smile. “I presume the queen wishes you to accompany us to Mos Espa?”

“You presume correctly, Master Dinii,” Amidala replied, clearly expecting opposition. She got it in the form of Jedi Master Dooku dismissing the idea as ‘preposterous’ but continued to watch Maul. After awhile, she cut off Dooku’s pontification with a sharp, “I believe the queen placed Master Dinii at the head of this venture.”

The Force positively seethed around Dooku but he subsided with a curt, “Very well.” He was clearly laboring under the misapprehension that Maul, as a Mandalorian bounty hunter, would never consent to have a youngling follow them around a dangerous spaceport. And Maul always did love turning Jedi expectations on their ears.

“I am, of course, at Her Majesty’s command,” he said, damn near cheerful despite his home being invaded by Jedi. Dooku fumed while Maul unclipped one of the holsters from his belt and offered it to Amidala with a casual, “It is, of course, far more prudent on Tatooine to be visibly armed.”

She took it from him with just barely-visible hesitation, but attached it to her own belt with expert hands. With everyone carrying at least two weapons—though he couldn’t vouch for the astromech—they set out across the desert toward Mos Espa in the distance. It didn’t take long for Amidala to begin to probe: asking questions about Tatooine and its inhabitants, how they lived and worked, and who would wish to live there in the first place.

Maul answered a few questions, if he found them particularly interesting or insightful, but was content to let the Jedi feel useful by expounding on this or that as he saw fit. By the time they reached the settlement proper, Dooku was explaining moisture farms to the little queen, how most people who came to Sand Hell to live honestly ended up in that business while most others ended up serving the Hutt.

The Jedi really was in his element explaining the finer points of one thing or another to a youngling, regardless of how little he’d wanted her to accompany them in the first place. Maul used their preoccupation to his advantage by subtly herding the group through the dusty, crowded streets toward Watto’s.

Hopefully, Ben wouldn't be in charge of the shop for the day; Maul bought a half-dozen various water-filled fruits from a passing vendor just in case he was and required appeasing. As much as Maul disliked Jedi, Ben’s feelings about them were on a whole different level. Better to head a potential bad mood off at the pass. Besides, the little queen was looking a bit worn-down, and the sugar and water would revitalize her.

The familiar door-chime went off as they entered the shop and a small, distracted voice called out, “Good day to you. What do you want?” from atop the counter.

“Watto left you in charge?” Maul smirked, imagining Ben’s expression at that particular business decision as he set the fruit on the nearest flat surface. It’s face lit up with a disbelieving grin, his delight practically shining through the Force as he hopped off the counter and threw himself at Maul’s armored legs.

“You’re home!” the boy nearly screeched, practically clawing his way up the gold and black beskar’gam until he could twine his arms around Maul’s neck in a chokehold of a hug. Maul wrapped an arm securely around Little It once he’d settled himself on his waist, still small enough for his age to manage the action, despite best efforts. Tatooine wasn’t a hospitable planet for a growing boy, even with the funds they had access to.

He pulled his face away from Maul’s neck after a few seconds to give the man a droll look. “And of course he didn’t; Watto’s dealing with some sleemo over in Mos Eisley trying to weasel out of paying what he owes.” The kid rolled his eyes in such a perfect imitation of Ben’s Can you believe what I have to put up with? expression that Maul snorted. “He left Mom in charge—she’s in the back looking over a shipment of parts we just got.”

A second later, his expression shifted to something both confused and accusatory. “But what are you doing here? You said you had to stay on Naboo.”

A throat cleared behind them and the boy nearly overbalanced as he leaned sideways to get a look at Maul’s companions. Maul sighed and set him back on his feet. “There was trouble on Naboo and the ship we left on was damaged. We ended up having to land here in order to make repairs,” he murmured, not liking the sly look that stole over the little troublemaker’s face in response.

“… So I guess you’ll be sticking around for the race, then.” The troublemaker grinned. “Almost sounds like it was meant to be, doesn’t it?”

Hearing the unspoken but implied Will of the Force, Maul narrowed his eyes and gave the boy a little shove, before raising his voice. “Madam, your spawn is being an impertinent brat!”

Moments later, Shmi Skywalker swept into the store, bright turquoise skirts of Satine’s last Name Day gift swirling around her ankles. “Oh, I see how it is,” she said with amusement. “When you're off adventuring, he's your precious ‘Little It’, but the second you set foot back home, he's back to being ‘my spawn’.”

The brat in question snickered from below elbow-level and hopped back up onto the shop counter.

“Now take off that helmet and let me look at you,” Shmi ordered, striding over to where Maul stood. He made an effort not to scramble to do as she bid, pulling off his bucket and clipping it to his belt. She cupped his face with both hands the moment she was in range, examining him with concerned eyes. “Well, at least you're not hurt this time.”

Maul squashed the urge to shift uncomfortably, acutely aware of the pain in his thigh from getting shot back on Naboo. He'd taken a moment to bandage it back on the ship, but… Best not mention it, he thought to himself.

“Now,” she said briskly, releasing Maul to face his companions, “I believe introductions are in order, don't you?”

“Yeah, dinii, who’re your friends?” the brat piped up from his perch, sounding far too amused. He'd probably noticed Maul’s discomfort, and perhaps even deduced his companions’ identities. Nobody ever accused his Little It of being unobservant.

“Anakin Skywalker,” Shmi warned before Maul could open his mouth, “you know what I think of that nickname.”

“Nickname?” As one, the Skywalker clan turned to face the momentarily-forgotten Amidala, who looked confused. Anakin, however, was back to looking (and feeling) absolutely delighted.

“Yeah, ‘Dinii’ is what he goes by while he's on a job,” he answered, happily disavowing all knowledge, the little traitor. “It's the Mando’a word for ‘lunatic.’ Auntie Kat gave it to him the first time they met, and it kinda just stuck. Mom doesn't like it, though.”

Maul could feel a tiny bit of hurt welling up from the young queen and quickly turned to her. With a proper Nabooian court bow, he said, “Maul Skywalker, at your service, my lady. I apologize for the misdirection. I usually prefer to keep my private and professional lives… separate.”

Amidala watched him closely for a moment before nodding. The hurt bled away almost forcefully, as if she was shoving it away, and in its place he could feel a wry sort of amusement.

Shmi, on the other hand, gave a disapproving hum. “Well, I suppose you're not just here to say hello to your mother, if you've brought guests.” She turned to face the Jedi. “May I presume your ship is in need of repairs?”

Dooku, having kept quiet and watchful since Anakin’s enthusiastic greeting, stepped forward with a respectful bow. “Indeed, Lady Skywalker. We require replacement parts for a J-type 327 Nubian. My young charge’s droid has the necessary specifications.”

The woman made a noise of consideration and gestured for the Jedi to follow her outside. “We have plenty of Nubian parts, of course,” Maul heard her say as the two walked up the steps out back and into the harsh sunlight. “I'm sure we can find what you need…”

- - -

“Are you an angel?”

Anakin was, of course, the first to break the silence.

Maul was too busy monitoring Shmi’s emotional state through their bond—giving all the appearance of an exhausted warrior taking a catnap—to keep the young queen entertained. He cracked an eye at the words to examine Amidala: mouth stained purple from the fruit Maul had given her earlier, hair frizzing in the dry, desert heat, wearing oversized clothes and a blaster almost too big for her hands. He snorted before closing it again.

“What?” Amidala said, a confused smile evident in her voice.

“An angel,” he said again, before elaborating. “Ben, our brother, told me about them after he came back from an adventure once. They're the most beautiful beings in the universe; they live on the moons of Iego.”

Maul had to give it to the kid, he may be a Skywalker but he was picking up that Kenobi charisma quickly. He could sense the young queen being charmed by the brat’s open admiration and listened with half an ear as he told her about himself and their family.

“You're a slave?” she exclaimed a few minutes later, drawing Maul’s attention once again, even as he felt Shmi’s impeccable shields brush off an attempted Force-suggestion.

“I’m a person and my name is Anakin,” the boy answered mulishly. “But… yeah, technically. Gardulla the Hutt lost Mom and I betting on the pod-races and the only reason Uncle Watto doesn't free us is because it's an added layer of protection for when Maul and Ben are both gone. Nobody wants to shell out the money to pay for hurting somebody else's slave—even one who kicks their shebs in a race.”

Checking one last time to be sure Shmi didn't need his help dealing with the feckless Jedi, Maul finally turned all his attention to the room and its occupants. “Speaking of our idiot brother, where is Ben?”

“That murder cult tried to recruit Auntie Kat,” Anakin answered, with the same casual tone one might use to discuss the weather. On Naboo. “Aunt Sati commed just after your last holocall and asked him to help her deal with them. Pretty sure she's also gonna try to seduce him again, but—” he shrugged “—what do I know?”

“Huh, third time’s the charm, I suppose,” Maul murmured and silently wished Satine luck, ignoring the scandalized yet amused noise the queen made at the exchange. Then, “You know, I've just had an idea…”

- - -

His messages were recorded and sent off not long before Dooku strode back into the shop, wearing his malcontent like a cloak slung across his shoulders. Shmi followed him at a more sedate pace, her expression placid but broadcasting both her wry amusement and steely resolve in the Force. The fact that she projected only those two emotions belied the idea that it was anything less than intentional.

Maul wondered what exactly the Jedi had done to bring out the flinty look in her eyes; he himself had learned early on that the look meant trouble and, even aimed at someone else, it tripped his instinct to kowtow to the human matriarch.

Dooku beckoned to Amidala and the droid with an imperious hand. “We're done here,” he said, sounding composed but sending downright un-Jedi-like waves of emotion in the Force that filled Maul with delight. He then turned back toward Shmi with another bow, practically radiating his grudging admiration. “Lady Skywalker. I will consider your words and return if another solution presents itself.”

Shmi inclined her head regally.

“Will you be accompanying us, Master Skywalker?”

Maul blinked at the queen. “Of course, Lady Padmé,” he replied, having thought it obvious. “If what’s needed can't be found here, you'll have more luck with the other dealers if you have a local to vouch for you.”

“You'll all be welcome for dinner, of course,” Shmi added mildly, “should your efforts keep you here long enough to be caught in the storm.”

Raising an eyebrow, Maul turned to meet her steady gaze. He dipped his head in acquiescence a moment later, acknowledging the implied show up for dinner or else.

Amidala, either picking up on the underlying message or oblivious to it completely, smiled warmly at the older woman. “We're grateful for your kindness, Lady Skywalker,” she said, glancing at the Jedi until he added his own murmured agreement. Then she turned toward Anakin and gave him an even warmer smile. “I'm glad to have met you, Anakin.”

The troublemaker beamed at her in reply. “I'm glad to have met you as well,” he chirped. With a sly look at Maul, he added, “And I hope you show up for dinner!”

- - -

They showed up for dinner. Obviously.

A sandstorm rolled in just as Shmi had predicted and with no luck finding the parts they needed among the other dealers, a good meal and a friendly face was a more than welcome prospect by the end of the day. Shmi’s smile as she opened the door to them was sharp as a knife.

It softened somewhat when Maul ducked to give her a careful hug around the gift he bore, and warmed when she saw his companions similarly burdened. Mind your manners was, after all, something she'd only had to say a finite number of times during his adolescence before the lesson had sunk in.

Therefore, a two-gallon container of good, clean water from Maul, who knew better than to show up empty-handed; the expensive kind of nutrient paste from Amidala, who expressed interest in honoring Tatooine traditions; and a box of doughnuts filled with blue milk custard for dessert from a reluctant Dooku, who could stand to ingratiate himself a little more with the Skywalker clan.

Always willing, of course, to accept a bribe when he spotted one, Anakin welcomed the little queen and the elderly Jedi with open arms and a warm smile, leading them to them to the table while he kept up a constant stream of chatter. If Maul noticed a calculating edge to the boy’s gaze that he could only have picked up from Ben, he quietly ignored it in favor of submitting himself to a more thorough examination of his health by Shmi.

The excitable rise and fall of Little It’s voice continued through Shmi’s motherly clucking and well into dinner. He seemed determined to fill Maul in on absolutely everything that had happened since leaving—from Watto's most interesting customers, to their neighbor three doors down finally giving birth, to the latest upgrade he'd made to his pod just a few days ago.

“Pod?” Amidala repeated, tilting her head at the boy.

Anakin nodded furiously, almost wriggling in his seat. “For the Boonta Eve Classic,” he said, then elaborated when the queen still looked lost. “It's a race—people come from all over to see it. And since I'm the only human competing, Watto will clean out everyone who's betting on Sebulba when I win.”

“Is it safe?’ the queen asked, looking somewhat alarmed, and the Jedi beside her chuckled.

“Oh, not in the slightest,” Dooku replied. “My former Padawan used to sneak off and compete in other such races, and short of deliberately antagonizing the Hutts, I'd say it's the most dangerous thing you could do here on Tatooine.”

He leaned forward to examine Anakin with a critical eye. “In fact, it's so incredibly dangerous that a human would need the reflexes of a Jedi just to keep up…” After a brief pause, Dooku settled back into his seat with a satisfied air and continued, “You must be quite Force-sensitive, if you're skilled enough to survive, let alone win.”

Maul didn't bother to move from the careless sprawl he'd adopted and simply watched Anakin, who had gone still. Their eyes met across the table and Maul could feel the boy’s curiosity… and trepidation. With a quiet sigh, he gave Anakin a little nod.

Relaxing, the boy nodded again, less vigorously than before. “I might be,” he said in a careful tone of voice. “Maul and Ben have always made sure that I know what I can do”—not to mention when he should do it, if ever—“but they've never bothered to test my blood.”

“Know much about ways of the Force, do you?” Dooku asked Maul with narrowed eyes, suddenly very interested in them both. “Enough to train a powerful young boy?”

And, oh, Maul was going to get the lecture of a lifetime from Shmi when this was over. He could feel the woman’s glare on him without even turning his head as he finally straightened up in his seat. “Well, I am from Dathomir,” he said airily, “and trained as a Nightbrother for a time…”

Dooku watched him closely and harrumphed a moment later. “You're a Darksider,” the Jedi declared with distaste.

The words reminded Maul viscerally of his very first days with Ben, and he couldn't resist the urge to snort. “In my younger days, maybe,” he allowed. “But I have little interest in such… politics these days. And you have nothing to worry about, as I'd hardly call what we share with our brother training—a few guided meditations here, a couple history lessons there. Just enough to get a feel for what he can do and make sure he doesn't do anything by accident.”

“And your partner,” Dooku said challengingly. “This… Ben? What of him?”

One day Maul would strain his lungs with how deeply he sighed.

“Ben is so far from being a Darksider, he's practically a Jedi,” he replied, lip curling with an instinctive sneer, even after more than a decade away from… Well. “If you simply must assign some kind of label to either of us, rest assured we're both thoroughly Grey.”

Dooku opened his mouth, no doubt ready to bring to bear another slew of irritating questions and accusations, but Shmi had clearly decided she'd had enough.

“Master Jedi,” she interjected, her voice deliberately mild. “Are you going to continue this interrogation of my sons or may I bring out dessert?”

Maul watched in fascination as the Jedi became very still and wondered, yet again, how Shmi had convinced him that she was the one to worry about in their family.

She absolutely was, of course, but for whatever reason, human men tended to expect himself or Ben to be the one to watch out for. Which was completely ridiculous, in his opinion. Every Nightbrother alive knew to fear and respect women long before it occurred to them to be wary of each other.

It was the little queen who finally broke the tension, venturing that she would like to have dessert and offering to retrieve it from the cooler. Shmi smiled at the younger woman and the Jedi subsided into insubstantial glares and quiet grumbles about Nightbrothers not even being trained in use of the Force, let alone Nightsister magicks. Dessert was served, the table was cleared, and sleeping arrangements were decided.

Maul’s head hit his pillow accompanied by the feeling that the next day wouldn’t be nearly as easy.

- - -

Maul could, quite frankly, stand to be completely right a little less often. According to Ben, it would do wonders for his ego, but in his own humble opinion, it would better serve his damned blood-pressure. Case in point:

His second day back home on Sand Hell dawned bright and blazing, with the familiar buzz of Shmi’s been-awake-for-three-hours-already-what-have-you -accomplished-today presence in the Force. The others in the house were still fuzzy and muted with sleep, so he'd gulped down some nutrient paste and escorted her to Watto’s. Only, when they stepped into the shop, they were met with their favorite scowling Toydarian in a shouting match with two of Jabba’s more well-known thugs.

For a moment, Maul was certain that the little queen had been discovered, despite precautions. Then he caught sight of Sand Hell’s most despicable pod-racer—Anakin’s mutually-proclaimed nemesis—and realized it was so much worse.

“You have no right!” Watto snarled, beady ochre eyes darting from the thugs to Shmi to Maul and back again. “I'll go to the Hutt!”

The Dug gave an unpleasant chuckle. “Who do you think gave the order?” he replied silkily. Then he jerked his head in Shmi direction with a nasty grin and said, “Now take her.”

Maul thought very quickly.

If he defended Shmi, he would draw the attention of the Hutt; Sebulba had implied his attention already, but it was likely only in the broadest, most business-like sense. Personal attention was what one wanted to avoid at all costs. Slicing two of his goons, as well as his favored pod-racer, into bite-sized chunks would draw it faster than anything. On the other hand, Maul had no idea why the Hutt would seize a shop-owner’s middle-aged slave, nor what kind of treatment she would receive in his possession.

Shmi, it seemed, thought faster still.

Before Maul had done more than shift his weight in preparation for a fight, she’d laid a gentle hand on his arm and crossed the shop in a few long, purposeful strides. “Jabba’s wishes are, of course,” Shmi placated, gazing into Maul’s eyes through the dust-filled air, “our commands.”

The Force swirled around her in mesmerizing patterns, and Maul saw neither the Dug’s triumphant smirk nor the unnamed goons’ uneasy glances nor Watto’s anxious hovering. He stood rooted to the spot, unable to look away for an indeterminate number of seconds. There was no time, only the Force, and the strength of the woman who may as well be his mother in truth. The back of his tongue tasted like rust.

Maul blinked, and the moment passed. “If any harm comes to Shmi Skywalker,” he murmured in a voice like candied venom, slinking over to Sebulba and looming over him. He allowed rage to seep into his eyes and death to settle across his shoulders, and watched the fear waft up from the pod-racer with vicious satisfaction. “I will personally see to it that every ounce of blood in your body waters the desert sands.” Maul’s gaze flickered over to Jabba’s men and he jerked his chin toward the door. “Go. Quickly.”

They did and Maul turned on the Toydarian slinging curses at their retreating backs. “Close the shop and come with me. We have plotting to do and not much time to do it.”