SHIMMER THROUGH THE WOODS.
I do not care to talk to you although
Your speech evokes a thousand sympathies
And all my being's silent harmonies
Wake trembling into music. When you go
It is as if some sudden, dreadful blow
Had severed all the strings with savage ease.
No, do not talk; but let us rather seize
This intimate gift of silence which we know.
Others may guess your thoughts from what you say,
As storms are guessed from clouds where darkness broods.
To me the very essence of the day
Reveals its inner purpose and its moods;
As poplars feel the rain and then straightway
Reverse their leaves and shimmer through the woods.
Amy Lowell (1874-1925)
From A Dome of Many Colored Glass.
"I agree that sending one of the handmaidens with Master Jinn, Artoo and Jar Jar will help them to blend in with the native populous, but it will be Eirtaé and not you. I refuse to put you in any more danger than you are already. Tatooine is run by the Hutts. Smugglers, Slave Traders, Bounty Hunters and goodness knows what other villainy ply their wares here freely and without mercy. If any one of them got hold of you I dread to think what would happen, to you and to Naboo. No, you will remain on board while we are stranded here. And that is final, your highness!"
"Fine!" Padmé replied, angrily storming away from her security chief down the corridors of the ship. She knew Captain Panaka was right to refuse her reckless desire to explore Tatooine, however he failed to appreciate how badly she needed the distraction that such a trip would provide. Sabé had understood that when she gave her Artoo to cleanup. But now the droid was to accompany Master Jinn, his dirty appearance lending another layer of camouflage to the Jedi's guise as a farmer visiting Mos Espa for supplies, freeing her from that duty.
While they waited for the Jedi to retrieve the parts they needed there would be little for her to do. There was no point in marshalling her arguments to put before the Senate until Senator Palpatine could brief her concerning the current politics which occupied the Jewel of the Core Worlds. Coruscant may be the centre for the governing of the Republic, but each world managed their own local affairs, only appealing to it concerning international troubles, so it spoke a language of alliances that were utterly different to those with which she dealt with on a day to day basis.
Padmé was aware that her motives were childish and selfish, but she was desperate. All she could think about were the possible horrors that the blockade of the Trade Federation was visiting upon her homeworld. How her people, the Gungans, the wildlife, the countryside, everything were suffering. There was nothing she could do help them, she could not even endure their trials alongside them. She had never felt so powerless, and the feeling was unsettling her intelligence, clouding her emotions. If she failed to focus her thoughts on something else, Padmé feared for her ability to appeal to the Senate effectively.
A familiar sound caught her attention then, causing her to halt in the middle of her return to the Queen's chambers. The last time she had heard it was only hours ago, on her homeworld, as it was used to rescue her from the clutches of the Trade Federation. It was the humming of a lightsaber in constant motion. Changing direction, Padmé followed the sound to its source; the cargo bay.
Inside the cavernous space, the younger Jedi was dancing with remotes. Another word for the moves was fighting but Padmé discarded the term almost immediately for there was very little that was combative about the manoeuvres. Each step held an elegant, flawless quality to it that she found fascinating. Surrounded by four metallic spheres, the younger Jedi moved his lightsaber between them, never touching the devices, only aiming his strikes at the beams which they fired at him in a random pattern. The shots deflected off his blade towards a transparent shield that served to contain the makeshift training salle, at which point they dissipated into a display of coloured dust particles. His self-discipline was incredible, his focus trained solely on wherever the next beam might come from. Though the pace was fast, allowing for little recovery time between each shot, his energy appeared to be seemingly limitless.
Padmé could not turn away. The display drew her in completely. A hope of it never ending arose within her, but she knew that it would. It had to, for no one could last forever fighting at the speed which the pace of shots demanded. Not even a Jedi.
Sure enough, the remotes eventually ceased firing and became stationary, though more by a signal from the combative rather than a shot missed. The Jedi powered down his saber, hooking the weapon on his belt before collecting them. He then turned and executed a bow before her.
Somehow in the midst of all that din, he had noticed her quiet entrance.
"I apologise for disturbing you, milady," he said.
Padmé shook her head, dismissing the gesture. "No need, Master Jedi. It was an impressive display."
"Thank you," he replied. "But I'm no master. Merely a student of the Force."
"I can think of no other title to call you after that performance," Padmé said.
"Obi-Wan," he offered, holding out his hand to her. "Obi-Wan Kenobi."
She shook his hand. "Padmé Naberrie." Casting her eye at the remotes briefly, she asked him, "is that all due to the Force or is some of it training?"
"A combination of both," Obi-Wan answered. "It can be taught if you wish to learn," he added, catching the flicker of the curiosity in her gaze.
"Would you?" Padmé asked.
"If you so desire. But why, if I may ask?" he queried.
"All I can think about is the suffering back on Naboo," Padmé confessed. " What terrors the people must be going through. Whether or not they know of the Queen's escape, if it has given them hope or instead they are further concerned by the possibility that she has abandoned them to save herself. I know its selfish, but I need a distraction, else I'll go mad."
Obi-Wan nodded in understanding, and then handed her his weapon, allowing her to familiarise herself with the hilt, grip and controls. At first it felt heavy in her hands, but she soon adjusted to its weight. Silently she signalled to him that she was ready to begin, whereupon he threw one remote into the air before her.
"The more hits you deflect, the harder it will become," he explained. "They will sting, but they will not injure you."
Padmé nodded, and prepared herself before igniting the blade.
The remote moved back and forth in front of her before firing, the first shot catching her by surprise, but she managed to move the lightsaber in time to deflect the beam before it struck her. When the second shot came, she was more prepared for it and moved the saber to intercept accordingly.
As the frequency of the shots increased, the more difficult it became to deflect the blows. Padmé threw herself into the challenge, managing to survive when Obi-Wan sent another remote into the air to join the first, and then a third. Sweat glistened across her skin, and some of her curls came untangled from the elaborate hairstyle which she was wearing.
Obi-Wan had been so focused on her skill with his saber that he had not noticed until now that she was not attired like the rest of the handmaidens, in that flame coloured garment that was so ill-equipped for what she was doing now. Instead she wore a blue and grey toned peasant's garb that belied the wealth of her courtly position. He wondered why she had shed her previous gown, unless it was what all the handmaidens had done now they were stranded on Tatooine, in an effort to protect themselves lest the ship was invaded.
But she was not like all the other handmaidens, he mused. It had not taken him or his master long to realise that the Queen used decoys to protect herself. The elaborate clothing of the sovereign, coupled with the flamed coloured garments that hid everything of her attendants save for their similar facial features was a complete give away, not to mention the fact that Queen Amidala had turned to her for advice before they left the planet.
And this was not her only protection he realised now, as he watched her defend herself against the remotes with a practised air of one who was used to dodging blaster shots. Clearly her security had taught her the art of self-defence. He wondered how good her marksmanship was, as something within the Force hinted to him that he might soon find out. But the future is always in motion he reminded himself. For now he would have to content his curiosity with this display.
When the first shot was missed, hitting the folds of her sleeves, he called out to the remotes with a command of the Force and shut them down. "That's enough," he added, meeting her flushed gaze with his own as he came towards her to reclaim his weapon. "I hope it distracted you. How long have you been trained in combat, it was too much of an impressive display to have been a first attempt."
"A little over a year ago, since I joined the Princess of Theed's retinue, before she became Queen," Padmé replied. She cast her eyes over him in an assessing glance, silently noting aside from a flushed appearance, he did not appear to be at all tired by his training session. "What about you?"
"For as long as I can remember," he informed her. "Becoming a Jedi is a cradle to grave vocation."
She frowned at his choice of words. "Sounds lonely."
"It used to be," he admitted. "When I was an initiate there were times when I felt very much alone, even when I was with my friends. I would worry about if I was good enough to become a padawan, whether I was training too hard or not hard enough."
"But I thought all Masters have apprentices," Padmé said, puzzled.
"Not until the apprentice is ready for the rank of padawan," Obi-Wan explained. "Until then initiates are trained in clans by Master Yoda and various others until a knight or master chooses one of them to be their apprentice."
"What happens to those who don't get chosen?" she asked.
"They serve the Order in other ways, within the Agri-Corps, producing crops and such," Obi-Wan replied. "Rather like lay brothers for a monastery."
"That's rather a waste of thirteen years training," Padmé commented. "It must create some resentment, to go so far only to be denied further study."
"It is a sacrifice," Obi-Wan conceded, "but those who become Jedi must give up many things and not all are suited to live without what the code asks us to forego."
"Forgive me, but that doesn't seem fair," Padmé judged.
"The Force teaches us that everything dies," Obi-Wan explained. "In time, even the stars burn out. To hold on to something - or someone - beyond its time is to set your selfish desires against the Force. That is the path of misery; the Jedi do not walk it."
"But to love is not an attachment," Padmé countered. "When you love someone you must accept that they will change over time, even die and there is nothing you can do prevent such things coming to past. The only thing you hold on to is the memory of that person, and even memory can altered or influenced. To love is an act of selflessness."
Obi-Wan smiled at her eloquence. "You should put those words to the Jedi Council. I doubt I've heard anyone, even my Master, argue the case so eloquently."
"Then you don't agree with that part of the Code?" She queried, surprised.
"I think that one can love with an open heart, such as you describe," Obi-Wan answered. "I believe that sort of attachment is unavoidable, even for a Jedi. When a Master takes an apprentice, they form a bond within the Force. That bond will only strengthen once each come to care for the other."
He smiled. "Qui-Gon and I have one of the strongest bonds within the Order, due to our unconventional beliefs. But that we are denied love is a common misconception of the code that we live by. If we cling to something, or someone too much, if we treat them as a possession, then that attachment is regarded as forbidden. Some of our knights and masters have relationships, even children, both within and outside the Temple. No one hears about them for their own protection, otherwise they could become hostages for our judgement."
"Milady," a voice interrupted their discussion, and Padmé turned to find that Captain Panaka had entered the cargo hold.
"Forgive me, but Master Jinn has contacted us. He wishes to speak with his apprentice," her sovereign's security chief explained.
Obi-Wan proffered a slight bow towards both of them. "If you will excuse me, I'll take his hail in the cockpit."
When the Jedi had exited the bay, Captain Panaka turned his attention to his charge. "I see you found something with which to distract yourself."
"No thanks to you," Padmé returned, but gone was the previous heat which had existed within her tone during their last encounter. "Is my safety still compromised?"
Her security chief regarded her with raised brows. "Only your heart perhaps."
She blinked at that, but then laughed the possibility away. "My is heart is young and consumed by duty, not swayed by looks or deeds."
"Give it time," Panaka murmured as she moved towards the exit.
"A few containers of supplies, the Queen's wardrobe, maybe," Padmé heard Obi-Wan say as she entered the cockpit, "Not enough for you to barter with. Not in the amounts you're talking about."
"All right," the voice of Master Jinn said through the comm. "Another solution will present itself."
"So the Queen's wardrobe is not worth the price of a hyperspace generator," Padmé remarked, once the comm was clicked off, causing the padawan to turn and face her.
"Probably not on Tatooine," Obi-Wan replied as he bowed his in greeting. "Please convey my apologies to her royal highness; I meant no disrespect."
"I'm sure she'll understand," Padmé assured him. "Selling such garments would lead to inquiries as to where your master found them anyway."
"This is my fault," Obi-Wan said. "I should have taken into account that a Hutt controlled world would not accept Republican credit."
Padmé shook her head, her hand coming to rest on his shoulder. "Its not your fault, Obi-Wan, there was no where else to go. And it doesn't solve your master's problem."
He nodded. "You're right. I'm not sure what will. Other than it will probably have me half in awe, half in horror at my Master's audacity."
"I take it then that Master Jinn is an atypical Jedi?" Padmé queried.
Obi-Wan laughed lightly at her choice of words. "You could say that. Your handmaiden's going to be in for an interesting time."
"You mean the Queen's handmaiden," Padmé corrected, as she held her inner self in check, unable to do naught but wonder how he had seen through her disguise.
"Whatever you say, milady," Obi-Wan replied. "But from what I can sense of you within the Force, you hide a concern for your people that goes far deeper than that of any handmaiden."
"All handmaidens often serve as decoys for their sovereign," Padmé informed him. "Some even took and passed the same examination as the Queen, but lost the election to her royal highness. She often depends on them for council, and how could we give her good advice if we did not care for those she serves as much as she?"
"That does not explain why when Qui-Gon advised the Queen that she should leave Naboo for Coruscant, she turned to you for guidance," Obi-Wan countered before he smiled gently. "Do not be alarmed, milady, your secret is safe, but it is wise for your Jedi rescuers to be informed of your identity so we may better protect you."
"Thank you, Obi-Wan," Padmé replied, touched by his oath of secrecy. "But as you saw in the cargo hold, I am quite capable of defending myself. Although I do appreciate the Jedi's support."
She paused before adding, "Chancellor Valorum took a risk in sending you and your master to my aid. I understand from my Senator that he is under pressure from the corruption which seems to be rife within the Senate lately."
"I do not much care for politics, milady," Obi-Wan remarked, "however, my Master and I were involved in the Eriadu crisis from which few emerged with a clean record. Including the Trade Federation."
"I am not sure that my appeal to the Senate will be heard," Padmé confessed. "Or that it will secure Naboo's freedom. However there is little else we can do. The Naboo do not have an army."
"No," Obi-Wan agreed, "but the Gungans do." He was remembering what he had seen of the underwater race, from his brief time in their city, observing those who guarded the king and the reliance on martial punishment. It was reasonable to suppose to conclude that they would have an army. He raised his eyes to the desert skyline of the cockpit's viewpoint, his mind considering the options. "Perhaps once the ship is repaired it might better if we returned to Naboo and attempt to resolve this matter without appealing to the Senate."
A swirl of sand and dust attracted his attention, causing him to focus on more immediate matters. "It looks like we're in for a sand storm. I better go and see if the exterior of the ship is secure."
Padmé lingered in the cockpit for a moment, her thoughts fixed on what the padawan had just revealed to her. If she could secure an alliance with Gungans, her chances of freeing her people from the blockade would increase. It would require a measure of diplomacy however, as they and the Naboo had spent many years quietly keeping out of each other's way, not to mention securing the parts to repair the ship.
A beeping from the comm roused her and her fingers accessed the source before she remembered the danger. Hurriedly she re-routed the message to the throne room then contacted Captain Panaka.
"We're receiving a signal from Naboo."
"...cut off all food supplies until you return... the death toll is catastrophic... we must bow to their wishes, Your Highness... Please tell us what to do! If you can hear us, Your Highness, you must contact me..."
It was harrowing listening to the distressed voice of Governor Sio Bibble, let alone seeing his grim expression splayed across the face of the holo, its quality badly corroded by the distance between Tatooine and Naboo, the adverse weather conditions, as well as the possibility that it could have been cleverly crafted by the Trade Federation in order to try and establish a trace on their previously most powerful and now missing bargaining chip.
Obi-Wan rose from his seat almost as soon as the transmission came to an end, directing a firm command to the Queen and her retinue of handmaidens that it was a trick and to send no reply, nor any other transmission before leaving the room.
Back in the cockpit, he contacted his master, before replaying the message to him.
"It sounds like bait to establish a connection trace," Qui-Gon agreed, his reply sending a message of comfort to his padawan, reassuring Obi-Wan that he had taken the right action in cautioning the Queen to send nothing in response. "You made the right choice, Obi-Wan."
"But what if it is true and the people are dying?" he couldn't help but voice this fear, remembering the horrified faces of the Queen and her retinue.
"Either way, we're running out of time," Qui-Gon murmured, before signing off.
In the silence of the cockpit, Obi-Wan raised his face from the comm to stare out at the view of the sand storm that was currently whirling outside the ship. He could not help but feel a peculiar kinship with the dust particles that were being swept up into a dance with the wind, due to unseen forces beyond their control. That elusive feeling which he had experienced on the Trade Federation's ship only hours ago had not gone away, nor did he expect it to any time soon. If anything he had the feeling that it would only become darker in deepening intensity. He needed to meditate, though he doubted such a motion would solve the immediate problems which they faced at present, but at least it might provide him with a sense of a resolve and purpose concerning what to do next.
Exiting the cockpit he headed for his quarters, half expecting to encounter Padmé on the way. The Nubian Queen was a curious and concerned woman, who would no doubt desire some further confirmation and reassurance regarding the transmission which they had just received. He rather admired her strength and wisdom considering these turbulent times which she had been thrust into, and was relieved that she had been thwarted from leaving with his Master by her security, an incident the captain had informed him of while they were outside sealing up the ship from the sandstorm, after Obi-Wan admitted to him that he had seen through the ruse of the decoys. He was not relieved just because she would have been in danger from the hive of scum and villainy that was Tatooine, but also because her company was a welcome break from the often weary and worrying duty of being tasked with something else, while his Master got up to goodness knows what in his absence.
Sure enough, she was waiting for him not too far from the Queen's suite, which lay a few rooms ahead of the cabin he and Qui-Gon had been given.
"Obi-Wan, Sio sounded very upset," she began quietly as he came to a halt in front of her equally concerned pose. "Are you sure it was bait?"
"You remember what he asked of you when we rescued you?" Obi-Wan countered softly. "Why would he change his mind now? Also, the message was garbled, it could have been manufactured from various splicing of publicly available comm recordings in order to sound realistic."
"Or it really could have been Sio," Padmé reaffirmed.
"Either way, we're running out of time," Obi-Wan replied, echoing his Master's words of farewell. "Until Qui-Gon obtains the parts we need, we're stranded here, you know that as well as I do, Padmé."
She sighed, conceding his point. "I know, and I don't like it."
He took her hand gently in his, a gesture of support. "I don't like it either. Which is why you saw me taking out my frustration on a bunch of droids earlier."
Padmé shook her head. "That was you frustrated? I'd hate to see you when you're really angry," she mused, not sounding in the least alarmed.
Obi-Wan stilled suddenly, her choice of words striking a chord of enlightenment within him. "No," he said quite solemnly, "you really would."
Gently he tightened the grip he still had of her hand briefly in a gesture of farewell, before withdrawing from her side to continue on for his quarters, leaving her to gaze thoughtfully after him.
That elusive feeling he had during his and Qui-Gon's brief time on the Trade Federation ship could now be defined as a sense of anger, or more properly, darkness. And the last time he had encountered such darkness was right at the start of his apprenticeship with Qui-Gon Jinn, as they dealt with the descent of his master's former padawan; Xanatos, into the dark side of the Force. Unconsciously he quickened his pace towards the cabin, the need to meditate becoming all the more urgent.
Slapping his hand against the entry controls he slid down on to the floor, waving the door behind him shut with a command from the Force. Quieting and emptying his mind took but a moment, a surprise considering the previous comparison he had made between the sand storm outside and turmoil of thoughts which he was experiencing. The voice of the Unifying Force called to him, and he answered, allowing the ancient energy to show him what it could of the future which might lie ahead.
The ground was hot and yielding, he sank with every step. Ahead of him lay a silver coloured craft which despite all his haste to get to it faster remained the same size as it was the first time he caught sight of it. Behind him a voice called out, the voice that had told him to run, even though it was a hot day and the sand was constantly shifting beneath his small booted feet, making him stumble. Now the voice told him to drop, the one word filled with an urgency he had never heard before. Instantly he obeyed, though the sand burned his face. He wanted to know why he had to lie upon the ground, then something swept over his small body, causing him to look up.
It was a monster straight out of his nightmares, a dark black and red skinned beast, cloaked and snarling. Is this what he would have to face if he became a Jedi, he asked himself, finding the answer in Qui-Gon, who ignited his lightsaber and immediately engaged the monster. All around them the sand swirled, its golden grains caught by the dance of their weapons, red clashing with blue. He wanted to help, but the shields parted him from his master, forcing him to wait until the cycle shifted once again....
A particularly violent flash from the sand storm outside rocked the ship for a moment, breaking his meditation. With a measured breath Obi-Wan sank himself upon the heels of his boots and considered what the Force had just shown him. For the first part it seemed as though he was seeing the events through another's eyes, that of a child who knew little of the Force, if the wide-eyed wonder with which everything was relayed was anything to go by. However it switched back to his perspective towards the end, and the location changed into something far less desert and a lot more mechanised.
Then there was the monster which the Force had shown him. A Zabrak, if he could hazard a guess at the species, they had a few masters at the Temple from that race for him to recognise the colour of their skin. But there could be no mistake about the beast's weapon of choice. A red lightsaber blade meant only one thing; Sith. And given that the Zabrak featured in both the desert environment and the mechanised one, it meant that there were darker forces at work behind the Trade Federation's blockade of Naboo, possibly even during the Eriadu Crisis.
It had been a millennia since the Jedi last faced a properly trained Sith, as opposed to the fallen Jedi that Xanatos had been. Silently Obi-Wan wondered how long they had remained hidden in the shadows of the Force, waiting for the moment to reveal themselves. No doubt since the Ruusan War, the very battle which caused them to go into hiding a millennia ago.
He needed to warn his master. Although Qui-Gon was a student of the Living Force, he always treated Obi-Wan's visions with respect, particularly as some of them had come to pass just as Obi-Wan had foreseen. Just as he was about to rise to access the comm though, the device itself beeped of its own accord. Using the Force he answered the call.
"Jedi Kenobi, Master Jinn wishes to speak with you," said the voice of one the pilots from the cockpit. "Shall I patch it through to your quarters?"
"Please," Obi-Wan replied, "Thank you, Ric."
"You're welcome," Ric Ollie remarked.
There was a short pause followed by a brief click, then the voice of his master sounded through the comm, loud and clear.
"Good morning, Padawan," he greeted.
"Morning, Master," Obi-Wan returned, rather bewildered. Glancing at his chrono, he groaned quietly as he realised how much more time had passed than he was aware of. Judging by the improved quality of the communication, the sand storm had passed as well.
"What's wrong, Obi-Wan?" Qui-Gon asked, as his comlink picked up on the sounds emanating from the other end of the communication. "Did you spend all night in meditation?" He guessed.
"How did you know, Master?" Obi-Wan queried, surprised, though he knew that he should not be, his master always had an uncanny ability to pick upon his apprentice's mood and movements, even when they were apart, and not always through the Force.
"I can sense and hear you groaning from the stiffness of muscles and loss of time, a result of a night spent kneeling on the floor in such a state," Qui-Gon replied, his tone sounding somewhat bemused. "What was it you saw?"
"The source of that elusive feeling which has bothered me ever since we first boarded the Trade Federation ship," Obi-Wan replied. "I saw you fighting a Sith, in the desert here, and somewhere else."
"A Sith," Qui-Gon echoed, quietly shocked, but he did not doubt the strength of his apprentice's conviction. Previous experience with his Padawan's visions had taught him that. "What made you realise?" He asked.
"It was something Padmé said to me," Obi-Wan replied.
"Who is Padmé?" Qui-Gon asked.
"One of Queen Amidala's handmaidens," Obi-Wan explained. " She's been very helpful in assuring the uncertainty of both myself and the rest of the Naboo on board. Which reminds me, how is the one who accompanied you?"
"Rather bossy," Qui-Gon replied. "She's questioned everything we're doing. If I didn't know better, I would say she was the Queen in disguise, but I don't believe Captain Panaka would let the Queen to explore the planet."
"Nor do I," Obi-Wan agreed, keeping his own knowledge about the identity of the Nubian sovereign to himself for the moment. "But you called for a reason, Master. What is it? Have you managed to obtain the parts we need?"
"Not quite," Qui-Gon answered, "But I have a solution. You remember the pod racing on Malastare?"
"I do," Obi-Wan acknowledged. "It was very fast, very dangerous."
"In a few days will be the Boonta Eve Classic," Qui-Gon continued. "I've found a competitor who is willing to race for us. The prize money will be more than enough for the parts we need. If all goes well, we will have our hyperdrive generator by tomorrow afternoon and be on our way."
Obi-Wan remained silent for a moment as he considered his Master's plan. It was exactly the sort of scheme he had imagined would present itself to Qui-Gon as a solution for their problems. Something which to succeed relied on the ability of this competitor to win the race and their willingness to sacrifice their prize money to give them the parts they need. He could not help but point out the flaw in relying on such to Qui-Gon.
"What if this plan fails, Master? We could be stuck here for a long time."
"A ship without a power supply will not get us anywhere," Qui-Gon replied. "We have no choice."
Obi-Wan nodded, even though he knew his master could not see him. Due to the nature of his vision, it was imperative that they acquired the parts that the ship needed and left Tatooine before this Sith found them.
"And there is something about this boy," Qui-Gon murmured just before the comm emitted another click, signalling that his Master had signed off.
What boy, Obi-Wan wondered, as his thoughts contemplated the possible connections a boy could have to their conversation. Several possibilities sprung to mind, and none of them boded well. Abruptly he groaned. He had a very bad feeling about this.
"And there is something about this boy," Qui-Gon murmured as he switched off the comlink before tucking it away beneath his robes. Something which had caught him almost from the moment he encountered the small slave in Watto's shop. He realised now that it was the Force which had brought him to the trader and in turn to the boy, who was brave beyond his years, despite the hardship which he and his mother must have suffered. By offering to compete in this pod race for him, with a racer that the boy had built himself, they were risking a great deal and all without thought of a reward. Qui-Gon wanted to do something in return, but the only thing he could think of was to gain their freedom, and he was not sure how he could accomplish such a feat.
Shmi Skywalker emerged from the back door of the small adobe walled hut which she shared with her son, and moved out into the harsh heat to join him, rousing Qui-Gon from his thoughts. Together they watched the events occurring in the courtyard below, as Ani with the help of his friends, the droids, Jar Jar and Eirtaé, Queen Amidala's handmaiden, prepared his pod for the race tomorrow.
"You should be proud of your son," Qui-Gon said quietly, the need to find out more about this extraordinary boy causing him to speak. "He gives without any thought of reward."
Shmi nodded, her worn expression forming into a soft smile. It transformed her features, adding a glow that he could not tear his gaze from. "He knows nothing of greed. Only of dreams. He has....." she stopped speaking, a little reluctant to voice what she felt, for fear of what her companion would think.
"Special powers," Qui-Gon finished knowingly, causing Shmi to glance at him warily, even as she acknowledged the truth of this words.
"He can see things before they happen," Qui-Gon continued. "That's why he appears to have such quick reflexes. It is a Jedi trait."
Her eyes fixed on him as a glimmer of hope shone its way through her expressive gaze. "He deserves better than a slave's life," she quietly said.
Inwardly Qui-Gon sighed. He knew what she wished for, even before she spoke of it. It was something he longed to grant Anakin too, but his hope was tempered with the reality of the rules the Jedi Council currently practised regarding new Jedi initiates.
"The Force is unusually strong with him, that much is clear," he settled for saying, instead of what would have been a dash to her hopes. "Who was his father?" He needed to know, for the ability had to come from somewhere, and though Shmi was extraordinary in her own right, she was not blessed with the gift which her son had. The Force could appear suddenly in any person, without the pre-existing ancestral history of a Jedi to provide a certain genetic inheritance, yet Anakin must have had some connection to one, otherwise the sensitivity within him would not be as strong as it was while he was this young.
Shmi was silent for a long time, long enough for Qui-Gon to determine that she had not been prepared to answer his query, nor perhaps was she ready to confide in someone who was still very much a stranger to her. He gave her all the time she needed, refraining from pressing her in any form, as though she need not say anything at all.
"There was no father," she answered at last, shaking her head. "I carried him, I gave birth to him. I raised him. I can't tell you any more than that."
Qui-Gon nodded in understanding. He knew the horrors of a slave life. It could be utterly true what she said to him, but it could also be equally likely that something happened, a horrific event which she refused to connect to the birth of her son, who was likely the only source of joy she had.
She touched his arm, her hand upon the sleeve of his robe sending something indefinable to the skin below. For a moment he wanted her to never let go.
"Can you help him?" She asked then, breaking the spell between them.
"I don't know," he replied quietly. "I didn't come here to free slaves. Had he been born in the Republic we would have identified him early, and he might have become a Jedi. He has the way. I'm not sure what I can do for him."
"Can you not train him yourself?" she asked.
"I would need permission of the Council," Qui-Gon replied, shaking his head. "They would require Anakin to be brought before them to be tested. And I already have a padawan."
"Why isn't he here with you?" Shmi asked.
"Obi-Wan's nearing his trials for knighthood, I can trust him with more responsibilities than other, younger padawans are given, so I left him to guard those on board the ship," Qui-Gon explained. "Eirtaé is handmaiden to Queen Amidala of Naboo, who Obi-Wan protects, along with the rest of her retinue, security and pilots, on board the ship we came in."
Shmi saw his expression soften when mentioned his padawan. "You care for your apprentice a great deal," she observed.
"He's my son," Qui-Gon replied softly, in a tone full of meaning. Looking at her, he realised that she had underlined her point concerning Anakin, however unconsciously or consciously done. Just as he had striven to do anything and everything he could for Obi-Wan from the moment he was entrusted into his care, so had she for her son. Neither of them would stop, no matter what obstacles were thrown across their path.
Knowing there was little he could do for the moment to give her the hope that he wished he could bestow, Qui-Gon left her side for her son's, handing Anakin the power pack that he had managed to purloin from Watto's warehouse earlier, without the Toydarian's knowledge. Although the species were immune to the mind persuasions of a Jedi, it did not mean that he was unable to use his powers to his own advantage.
The boy slotted the device in place, then jumped into the cockpit and fired up the Radon-Ulzer engines.
Qui-Gon watched as Anakin let the engines show off the full weight of the power which they wielded, then carefully eased off the thrusters, his conduct bearing all the hallmarks of a professional, seasoned racer, with a maturity that far belied his youth. Yet his awareness remained focused on Shmi, who watched the proceedings with a sad smile of a mother who knew her son was heading into certain danger, and that there was little she could do about it.
A new night descended upon Mos Espa, the calming slowness of its approach a sharp contrast to the sandstorm which had buffered the town and its surrounding outskirts the night before. Qui-Gon sat on the balcony rail of the Skywalkers' back porch, examining a deep cut on Anakin's arm. The boy had hurt himself sometime ago during the prep work on the pod racer and in typical fashion of his youth had failed to notice the injury until now.
"Sit still, Ani," Qui-Gon calmly directed, for the boy was wriggling about, too busy staring at the startling clear view of the stars above them to give a care for his companion who was trying to apply the medicine which his cut needed.
"There are so many! Do they all have a system of planets?"
Qui-Gon produced a clean piece of dressing to place over the wound as he answered the question. "Most of them."
"Has anyone been to all of them?" the boy asked with classic childish awe, causing the Jedi Master to laugh.
"Not likely," Qui-Gon answered.
"I want to be the first one then, the first to see them all - ouch!" he cried out as Qui-Gon wiped away a smear of blood from his arm before applying the antiseptic to kill any possibility of further infection.
"There, good as new," the Jedi Master pronounced.
"Ani, bedtime," Shmi called out into the darkness from the light inside of the adobe hut, causing them both to look up.
Qui-Gon took the opportunity to produce his comlink from beneath his robes, wiping a sample of Anakin's blood on to its surface. He had hoped to do it without the boy's notice, but the youth's curiosity caught his movements.
"What are you doing?" He asked, leaning forward to see better.
Qui-Gon's gaze flicked briefly between Anakin and the device, trying to lessen the importance of what he was doing. "Checking your blood for infections."
Anakin frowned, for he knew the difference between a scanner and a comlink, due to his fascination with the various pieces of machinery that came to reside in Watto's warehouse. "I've never seen -"
"Ani!" Shmi called out, her voice carrying a tone of insistence. "I'm not going to tell you again!"
"Go on," Qui-Gon commanded, putting a touch of the Force into the request, his free hand gesturing towards the light emanating from the adobe walled hut. "You have a big day tomorrow," he added, desiring privacy for his next quest to find out more about this extraordinary boy. "Good night."
The boy delayed a moment, torn between further questioning the Jedi Master and obeying the summons of his mother, his mind silently weighing up what had to be done now and what could wait until the morning. At last he surrendered and turned, running into the hut. Qui-Gon watched him disappear into the warmth, then turned back to the comlink, slipping the chip which contained the youth's blood sample into a relay slot before calling Obi-Wan aboard the Queen's craft on the outskirts of the town.
"Yes, Master?" Obi-Wan answered, his tone sounding quite alert, despite the darkness which surrounded both their locations and the fact that his apprentice had spent the previous night upon his knees after falling asleep during meditation.
"I'm transmitting a blood sample," Qui-Gon replied distractedly, his focus split between his padawan and whether he was about to be disturbed or not by Shmi or Anakin. "I would like you to run a midi-chlorian test on it."
Once he had transmitted the sample, which only took a matter of seconds, Qui-Gon sat back and waited for Obi-Wan to relay the results. Inside him his heart was pounding with baited breath for the confirmation of something that so far he had only suspected. If he was right about this then his wish to free the Skywalkers became imperative.
"Master," Obi-Wan spoke again, startling him from his musings, "there must be something wrong with the sample."
Qui-Gon took a deep breath before he replied. "What do the readings say, Obi-Wan?"
"They say the midi-chlorian count is twenty thousand," Obi-Wan answered.
"That's it then," Qui-Gon murmured, as his mission whilst he was in Mos Espa changed irrevocably.
"No one has a count that high," Obi-Wan continued. "Not even Master Yoda."
"No Jedi has," Qui-Gon agreed.
"What does it mean?" His apprentice asked.
"I'm not sure," Qui-Gon confessed, for truthfully he was uncertain, almost half afraid to voice the suspicions which he held concerning the boy. Suspicions that relied on things not even he could confirm with certainty.
His gaze rose up from the comlink, expecting to be met with the loneliness of the adobe walls, a light emanating from inside the hut, a sharp contrast to the darkness which surrounded him. Instead he stiffened, encountering the figure of Shmi Skywalker.
"Good night, Obi-Wan," he uttered softly, before turning the comlink off and putting the device away. His fingers found the pocket within his robes instinctively, as his gaze never moved from Shmi for a moment.
It was as if time stood still. Around them the surroundings settled into an eerie quietude that nothing could disturb. For a brief instance he felt the weight of what he supposed his apprentice must feel when experiencing a vision from the Unifying Force. It was wondrous and glorious and at the same time utterly terrifying. Yet neither he nor she could resist the lure of its siren call. A thousand wants and desires were conceived and exchanged, the enormity of them intensifying that triumvirate of feelings. Each were acknowledged and returned almost as soon as they were communicated, however impossible any of them currently appeared.
Then Shmi turned away embarrassed, and would have retreated back inside the hut if Qui-Gon had not flung all caution to the winds and called out her name. His voice echoed across the stillness of the porch, a single word carrying within it all the power to ignite the stars which lay scattered across the night sky above them. Courageously she obeyed the underlying need within his tone and joined him on the balcony.
"What does it mean?" She asked quietly.
Qui-Gon gently took her hand in his, holding it tenderly above his lap. "It means that your son could be one of most powerful Force users in existence," he replied. "Provided he could unleash the full potential of his ability."
"Can you help him do that?" Shmi persisted.
He gripped her hand tightly, whilst sighing heavily. "I'm not sure. Even if I could earn his freedom, he would have to be tested by the Council, and they could reject him on age alone."
She looked at him incredulously. "Nine is too old for Jedi training?"
"Most Jedi begin their training soon after they are born," Qui-Gon explained. "At his age in the Order, initiates prepare for the last years of early training before being chosen as padawans. And not all make it. There are some who often through lack of available masters, unhealthy character flaws displayed one too many times, or even through no fault of their own, who get sent to the Service Corps, which help provide the Order with the resources which it does not want to become dependent on the Republic for. Obi-Wan almost joined that branch of the Order, because I was too stubborn to see past my own failures concerning my previous apprentice. Because of his age, and his attachment to you, Anakin's training, if he was allowed to be trained at all, would have to be unconventional. And sometimes I'm too unconventional in my methods and missions for even the Council to handle, let alone the prospect of another with such potential as he has."
Shmi looked at him steadily. "But you want to try anyway. Even if you know you won't succeed in getting them to allow him to be trained."
"Yes," he admitted, "I want to try. But at the same time I don't want to disappoint your son, you, or my own for that matter."
"How will you disappoint yours?" she asked.
Qui-Gon smiled whilst he brought his free hand to enclose over and above their clasped ones. "Obi-Wan's far more conventional than I am. His talents within the Force rely on focusing on the larger picture, whereas mine tend towards the here and now, rarely considering the consequences. He deplores of my habit of picking up strays, even though chances are he usually ends up protecting them more often than I do. But I know if I go against the Council on this one, and insist that your son should be trained, he might perceive it as being at his expense if the members of that body force me into volunteering to be Anakin's master." He paused to train his steady gaze on her eyes in an effort to underline the promise of his next words. "Which I want to be, but when my padawan has passed his trials for knighthood first."
Shmi shook her head, letting him know that she had not taken any offence. "I understand, and I appreciate that you're willing to try, even if you believe that won't work out. And I don't mean to put any pressure on you into doing so. Watto's a good owner. Better than any we have had before. He may appear harsh, but as long as Ani's useful to him, he won't do anything harmful to change that. And if he had to sell us, I think he'd make sure we went to someone who was willing to treat us well."
Qui-Gon laughed. "That isn't reassuring," he informed her. "Anakin's only got a few years before those growth spurts kick in."
"What I'm trying to say is, you don't have to worry about us," Shmi rephrased. "But I do appreciate that you do. You're the first person to do so in a long, long time."
"I can't help it," he replied softly. "There's just something about you and your son. Even if Anakin didn't have the ability to touch the Force, I know I'd still feel the same way."
Shmi stilled, startled by this. It was the first time she knew for sure that he was not trying to become her friend because her son was useful to him. Qui-Gon had never hidden his agenda from her, the one that needed Ani to compete in the Boonta for the parts he and his companions required to fix their ship, but almost from the moment they met she had felt that he wanted to do more, and would if he did not have other matters requiring his sole focus at present. His honesty about what led him to this planet and her son was refreshing, for most of the traders Watto dealt with tended to offer friendship first, then announce what they wanted from him and his slaves. With Qui-Gon the friendship had come later, as though he was trying to protect them, although she knew that when he left, the loss would cut far deeper than it ever did with the rest of the traders.
The inevitability of his departure aside, it was tonight Shmi realised that if Qui-Gon had come here without any responsibilities, there was the possibility that he would have stayed, at least until he could do something to help her and her son. Even though there were demands placed upon him now, he was still prepared to try and help her and Ani if he could. She had never met anyone who showed such a degree of compassion for them before. It was startling, gratifying, attractive and terrifying all at once. She felt a fascination for him, one which he reciprocated, though she knew that with each new piece of him which she discovered, the need for him to stay only grew deeper, making the eventual loneliness that she would once again be reduced to when he left, harsher and much harder to bear.
If Ani won the Boonta tomorrow, it meant that Qui-Gon's departure was only hours away. A part of her wished for what happened during every pod race so far, that Sebulba won, allowing her to spend more time with the Jedi. But such a possibility stranded him and his companions here for a long time, not to mention putting the beings who were depending on Qui-Gon's help in equal if not worse peril. While this life was all the life Ani had known, she had the contrast of remembering a time when she was free to live the way she pleased, and to be responsible for taking that liberty away from others, even if only by wishing for it, was not someone she wished to become. And what was worse, there was the possibility that the longer Qui-Gon had to stay on the planet, he might end up resenting her in some way because of it.
So she was left with the bitter sweetness that was savouring what little time she had left with the man sitting next to her, clasping her hand, with the ever present knowledge that in a few hours he could be gone. Not much of a consolation, but in living the life she lived, Shmi had learned that slaves had to take what they were given. So with her free hand she reached across to bestow a single act of kindness upon the man who had given her so many.
"Thank you," she uttered, her eyes never leaving his.
Qui-Gon felt the touch of her hand against his cheek and unconsciously leaned into the gesture. There was a promise behind it which lingered, adding another layer to the multitude of motives for gaining her and her son's freedom which he already possessed. Yet he held back from taking it, for he had been down that path once before, and a part of him, the part that was always Tahl's, was still recovering from it.
Without a word he raised their clasped hands from where they rested in his lap and brought the back of hers to his mouth to tenderly bestow a kiss. Like his own they were callused due to a life spent in work, yet the skin felt soft beneath his lips. Carefully he drank in every sensation, before reluctantly releasing her to the warmth of the hut.
The next morning Qui-Gon rose early, intent on reaching the main hangar of the Mos Espa Podracer arena before anyone else. In order for the next part of his plan to succeed he needed to meet with Watto alone. However after a brief spell of solitude in the refresher, he was waylaid by Jar Jar, who insisted on going with him. Accepting from previous experience that he had little choice in the matter, Qui-Gon scribbled a note on a piece of flimsi for the rest of household, then left in the company of the Gungan for the arena.
Watto met them as they passed his shop, the Toydarian's mind focused solely on the bargain which he had made with the outlander the day before. Over and over he outlined how he would prefer the details of their agreement to be carried out, all with the assumption that whatever the outcome of the race, he would emerge the victor.
"So it must be understood clearly that our bargain is sealed, outlander," Watto reiterated for the third time in the space of ten minutes. "I'll want to see your spaceship the moment the race is over."
"Patience, my blue friend," Qui-Gon remarked, an emotion which he himself was having difficulty obtaining at this juncture. "You'll have your winnings before the suns set, and my companions and I will be far away from here."
Watto snorted. "Not if your ship belongs to me I think!" His gaze settled on his companion's rather serene expression in sudden suspicion. "I warn you, no funny business!"
The Toydarian's constant need to reiterate the terms of the deal made between them had convinced Qui-Gon of the possibility that this trader was more concerned with assuring himself that the deal would work out, rather than the 'outlander's' need to remember the details of the bargain which he proposed in the first place. It had led him to come up with another ploy, one which his padawan would not approve of, whatever the outcome, but one Qui-Gon was sure he could use to his advantage.
"You don't think Anakin will win?" he asked the boy's owner now, as they continued to traverse the Mos Espa Podracer arena.
"Don't get me wrong," Watto remarked with another snort, "I have great faith in the boy. He's a credit to your species. But Sebulba there is going to win, I think."
Qui-Gon turned to observe the Dug, whose area he and his companion were passing by at this moment. He had encountered Sebulba earlier, when Jar Jar's desire for food had caused him to steal something from a market trader. The cooked meat had landed in the Dug's meal, causing a brief confrontation which only Anakin managed to defuse. Sebulba was reclining on a stool before his racer, while two beautiful and scantily clad Twi'leks massaged his neck and shoulders. Briefly the young women's gazes flickered to the newcomer's fine physique with interest, ignoring the Toydarian, before returning to their master. The Dug himself regarded the Jedi with a menacing gesture, but was obviously too relaxed to put any degree of effort behind it.
"Why?" Qui-Gon asked the trader.
"Because he always wins!" Watto replied with some degree of humour. "I'm betting heavily on Sebulba!"
Qui-Gon saw his opportunity. "I'll take that bet."
Immediately Watto stopped laughing, his wings still flapping, jerking the rest of his body away, as if he had suddenly come into contact with something hazardous. "What? What do you mean?"
"I'll wager my new racing pod against the boy and his mother," Qui-Gon explained.
"A pod for slaves! I don't think so!" Watto scoffed immediately. "Well, perhaps," he remarked after considering the idea. "The mother maybe. The boy isn't for sale."
Qui-Gon frowned, although this was exactly how he expected the bargaining to go. "The boy is small. He can't be worth much."
Watto shook his head.
"For the fastest pod ever built?" Qui-Gon persisted.
Again the Toydarian shook his head.
"Both or no bet," Qui-Gon reiterated firmly.
Their walk had taken them in a complete circuit of the arena, and now they were nearing the entrance once more, where, quite appropriately timed, were two eopies arriving, each towing one of the massive Radon-Ulzer engines of Anakin's craft. Saddled atop of the beasts were Eirtaé and Anakin on one, and his friend Kitster on the other. R2-D2, Threepio and Shmi trailed on foot behind them.
Deliberately Qui-Gon turned his gaze upon them, allowing his trader companion to catch sight of the Pod racer for the first time. Even without the aid of the Force, Qui-Gon could see that Watto was sorely tempted to take the deal, yet determined that the outlander ended up the worse off for the bargaining.
"No pod is worth two slaves," Watto replied, even as he almost salivated over the sight of the vehicle. "Not by a long shot! One slave or nothing!"
Inwardly the Jedi sighed before making his choice. "The boy, then." It was what he had expected after all, but a part of him had hoped that the sight of the pod would cause Watto to concede both slaves.
"No, no," Watto insisted, before retrieving something from his pocket. It turned out to be a chance dice, which from the way the trader was constantly tossing it back and forth between his hands, Qui-Gon half suspected was weighted in some fashion to favour the thrower.
"We'll let fate decide," Watto continued. "Blue, it's the boy. Red, it's the mother."
He cast the dice on to the floor of the arena, and Qui-Gon made a small, discreet gesture with his hand, calling upon the ancient energy of the Force in order to determine how 'fate' would decide.
Gently the dice landed on its edge, the red and blue sides displayed equally, granting the Jedi both slaves instead of one or the other.
For a moment Watto stared in disbelief. Then he flapped down to the duracrete, his fingers reaching out for the dice, intent on flicking it one side or the other so it would land as he desired, but to no avail. The cube remained suspended upon the edge, safe in the arms of the Force.
In a huff he threw up his hands, glaring angrily at his companion. "You won the toss, outlander, but you won't win the race, so it makes little difference, I think."
"We'll see," Qui-Gon returned calmly, before bending down to retrieve the dice.
"Better stop your friend's cheating," Watto declared to Anakin as the eopies drew level with them, "or I'll end up owning him, too!"
With a harsh expletive in Huttese aimed at the beasts, the Toydarian flew off, leaving the Jedi to face the curiosity of Anakin.
"What did he mean by that?" the boy asked Qui-Gon.
"I'll tell you later," Qui-Gon replied, pocketing his souvenir.
For Obi-Wan the day of the race started early too, as he rose from a good night's rest, despite the brief interlude during which he talked to his master and tested a blood sample for the presence of midi-chlorians, to launch himself into a morning session of Jedi callisthenics.
After his exercises he headed to the engine room, where he removed the damaged hyperdrive generator in optimistic preparation to receive the new one that his master would hopefully bring to the ship during the afternoon.
He had not been the only one to express some doubt in the possibility of gaining the parts they needed on the basis of a sponsored win in the pod race; Padmé and her retinue had done so as well when he informed them. However to them he had not admitted his own concerns, for to do so would be disloyal to his Master, whom Obi-Wan felt it was necessary to support and defend when Qui-Gon was not present to do so himself.
Padmé accused the Jedi of being too reckless, a word he had put to his master fairly often. In reply Qui-Gon would rarely concede the point, even when the Council echoed the epithet hours later during the mission debrief. His usual response to the charge was that they must trust his judgement, or that Obi-Wan still had much to learn. To which neither he nor the Council could add anything, as each of the reckless manoeuvres just happened to prevent the missions from failing.
With the engine room prepped, Obi-Wan returned to the cockpit and stationed himself at the comm, tuning the various channels until he found a commentary for the Boonta, which he then re-routed through to the cargo bay and the Queen's suite so everyone could be kept apprised of what happened during the race, before heading for the former for some more exercises, in an effort to keep himself busy until his master returned.
There he found the Queen and her handmaidens with Captain Panaka, practising their defence training. Upon his entrance the quartet briefly paused, offering to leave so the Jedi could have free run of the area. Obi-Wan brushed the suggestion aside and asked to join them, putting forward his own knowledge of combat in exchange for theirs, a trade which they accepted.
Such exercise kept them busy until the commentary from the Boonta announced that the race was about to start. Abruptly all activity ceased and they sat down on the makeshift seats of boxed supplies, their senses straining to catch everything they could of the coverage.
Qui-Gon had told Obi-Wan the name of the competitor, and now his padawan inwardly groaned when he heard that Anakin Skywalker failed to start the first lap with the rest of the drivers. His hope returned however when the commentary declared that the boy had managed to get his pod working.
For a while nothing more was heard of the young human upon whom his master had placed all their hopes for getting off Tatooine. Due to Skywalker's late start, his pod was far behind the leaders of the race, whom the commentators focused most of their attention on. At certain points they spared a mention for those racers who were obliged to leave the circuit, whether through a fault of their own pods, or the indiscriminate desires of other racers. With each declaration the handmaidens and Captain Panaka turned to Obi-Wan, who quietly shook his head in response to their unspoken concern. It would have been a simple matter to reveal the identity of the racer who was competing for the parts they needed, but it would have taken a long time to explain and defend the reasoning behind his master's decision to place all their hopes on the shoulders of a young human boy.
By the start of the second lap Obi-Wan's hopes rose further, as he heard that Skywalker had risen to sixth place. With one lap left, every racer was fighting for a decent position, causing the commentators' commentary to become hurried as they struggled to stay with the rapid developing pace of the race. Gifted as he was with a talent in the Unifying Force, even Obi-Wan could not tell where one driver or another would be from one moment to the next, positions were changing so fast.
When they reached the third lap, he let the others know the identity of the racer who was competing for the parts they needed. By that point Skywalker was level with the race leader, Sebulba, jockeying with the other remaining drivers for second and first place. Each engagement held the promise of one driver or sometimes both failing to walk away from the fight, with either them and or their pod ending up pieces beside the edge of the circuit. Those who chose to take on Sebulba did so at their peril, meanwhile the rest of the pack aimed for survival in the hope to compete another day.
For the final twists and turns the commentary focused on Sebulba and Skywalker, as both racers fought for that still elusive victory. Coverage was some times sketchy as to how each driver emerge scathed or unscathed from each successive engagement, leading Obi-Wan to believe that one of the drivers knew the placing of the droid observation cams, and was staging his sabotage of his opponent between them accordingly to escape retribution from those one or two officials who might chose to pursue an inquiry into his activities on a planet ruled by a Hutt. Though the species were famed for running corrupt practices, there were moments when they decided to follow the law, and it was on those occasions that their underlings fell foul of authorities rather than themselves.
At last the two leaders reached the final open straight before the finishing line around which the crowds were gathered. By now all care for what could be observed and what could not was gone, as the two drivers tangled with each other during what few parsecs of the race were left to be conquered. In the cargo bay Obi-Wan and the others held on with baited breath as they waited for the race winner to be announced.
Then the commentators declared that Sebulba had just deliberately rammed once, twice and a third time into Skywalker's pod. Steering rods caught and a frantic squeal of machinery came over the broadcast as the drivers tried to separate their racers. The pieces of metal strained against each other, until one broke, sending both vehicles spinning. One catapulted forward, collapsing the towlines, the engines out of control, splitting apart, slamming themselves into oblivion by way of a nearby mesa and the sand. The pod itself careened from the circuit straight through the flaming wreckage, spinning across the sand until it came to a violent sudden stop.
While the other pod, its steering rod broken, carried its driver Anakin Skywalker across the finish line.
Despite the fact that few drivers had survived the race with themselves and their pods intact, the commentators were almost gleeful in their recounting of the events that led to the youngest competitor winning the Boonta Eve Classic. In the cargo bay everyone breathed a sigh of relief before going their separate ways to prepare for their eventual departure.
Obi-Wan headed for the cockpit, where he turned off the race commentary before settling into a chair to wait for his Master's return. He tried to focus on the moment, but his mind was too preoccupied with that which lay ahead, and whether what he glimpsed in his vision would have any bearing on the immediate future. Now that Skywalker had won the race, the retrieval of the parts they needed was certain, their departure from Tatooine equally so.
After that things would not be so straightforward. Before his vision he and Padmé and contemplated the possibility of returning to Naboo rather than heading to Coruscant. Such a move depended on his master's agreement and the alliance of the Gungans with the Naboo. Obi-Wan doubted that obtaining the latter would be difficult, but he was uncertain as to how his master would react to such a proposition. In one respect it was very much something Qui-Gon would do, follow his own path rather than appealing to the opinions or judgement of others. Yet his master had also been in favour of taking the Queen from Naboo to Coruscant to appeal to the Senate, concerned that if she stayed, the Trade Federation would kill her.
Certainly that was a possibility if they did return to Naboo. But Obi-Wan could not see how else they would be able to lift the blockade on the planet. He was not a Senator, nor did he have any love of politics, but as a Jedi who followed the will of the Force and a diplomat who served the Republic, he made an effort to keep himself aware of the practices which the governing body for the alliance of planets were ruled by. And lately that authority had become bogged down by too many procedures and corruption to make a difference to those who lived in the Republic.
This blockade had come right upon the heels of the Eriadu Crisis, which had mired many of the Senators, not to mention the Chancellor himself, with charges of illegal financial gain. He and Qui-Gon had only been sent to negotiate with the Neimoidians through Chancellor Valorum's communication with the Order after he learned of blockade. Valorum had not consulted the Senate before sending the Jedi, knowing that the Trade Federation had many allies within that governing body, who could make the blockade legal before anyone from Naboo had a chance to properly plead their case.
Palpatine, the Senator for Naboo, also had allies, yet Obi-Wan doubted that they would be enough to carry their pleas through, even with the additional voice of Queen Amidala. The only other alternative were the Courts, who took even longer to come to a decision.
In short, going to Coruscant would change nothing. Closing his eyes, Obi-Wan sank into a meditation, marshalling his arguments for the discussion with his master which lay ahead of him.
Qui-Gon hung back from joining Shmi and their companions in congratulating Anakin on his victory. He had business with Watto first, and he intended to make sure that the wager which had been decided on the roll of a chance dice was carried through.
The Toydarian appeared very hard done by, when as Anakin's owner - for the moment at least - he should have been celebrating. His forlorn, dejected figure stared out at the chanting crowd, whilst a group of fellow pod racing fans exited the private box, their hands full of legal tender. They passed Qui-Gon by with a silent mutual acknowledgement of satisfaction and enjoyment in another's swindled misery, to which the Jedi paid little mind.
Watto caught sight of Qui-Gon and his dejection immediately disappeared, transforming into a flurried rage of wings and voice.
"You! You swindled me!" He cried. "You knew the boy was going to win! Somehow you knew it! I lost everything!"
"Whenever you gamble, my friend, eventually you'll lose," Qui-Gon remarked serenely. "Today wasn't your day." His smile faded as he returned to his own business. "Bring the hyperdrive parts to the main hangar right away. I'll come by your shop later so you can release the Skywalkers."
"You can't have them!" Watto cried, his wings flapping frantically. "It wasn't a fair bet!"
Qui-Gon remained unmoved by the Toydarian's antics. "Would you like to discuss it with the Hutts? I'm sure they would be happy to settle the matter."
Abruptly all fight disappeared from the trader, his eyes filling with hate. "No, no! I want no more of your tricks. Take them! Be gone!" And with that, he flew out of the box.
Qui-Gon watched the trader depart before exiting himself, heading for the race track where the rest of his companions along with most of the spectators were still crowded around the winner. His mind was sorely tempted to focus on what lay ahead, such as how best to inform the Skywalkers of their liberty, before offering Anakin the possibility of training to be a Jedi, after he had taken the hyperdrive parts to the ship. But Obi-Wan's recounting of his vision the night before had made him cautious, so he immersed himself within the moment, paying attention to his surroundings.
Which was how he caught sight of the probe droid that was following him with a single minded fascination which was common with those machines. After discreetly checking to make sure that it was him the probe droid was tailing as oppose to another spectator of the Boonta, Qui-Gon contemplated what he could do about it. If he chose to destroy it now, it would alert whoever it was who sent the droid after him, putting those around him at risk. Yet if he allowed the device to continue to spy on his every move, it would only delay the eventual confrontation. Better to make the moment of its destruction one of his choosing, even though he knew that such a decision ran the risk of allowing the owner of the droid to learn more about them than he desired.
Reaching the pod, he joined the rest of his companions in congratulating Anakin, although his focus was split, a part of him remaining aware of the probe droid's movements. It hung back discreetly, concealing itself with those droids who were occupied in clearing up the wreckage of destroyed pods which lay scattered about the arena. To Qui-Gon this capability was another indication as to the nature of the power behind the device. Whoever had set the machine upon him was highly skilled and experienced in espionage. It could just be a bounty hunter or a hired assassin, but he doubted it. Such pecuniary minded adversaries knew their limits, there were few who would pit themselves against a Jedi.
Watto arrived with the hyperdrive parts, loaded on an antigrav repulsorsled which was harnessed to a pair of Eopies. Not once did the Toydarian cease grumbling throughout the exchange for the credits that Anakin had won in winning the pod race, nor did he cease making threats, most rendered useless due to the Jedi's victory. None of the company chose to rise to his distempered attitude, knowing that it would only make him worse.
As soon as the Toydarian had left, Qui-Gon turned to the others. "Eirtaé, Jar Jar, lets go, we're got to get these parts back to the ship."
He knew the abruptness of their departure would disappoint the Skywalkers, which it did. Anakin looked at them, awkward, saddened and confused, whilst Shmi searched his expression, hoping to find something in it which her son was too young to comprehend. Qui-Gon met her gaze with silence, wishing he could say something to reassure her. He wanted to tell them that they were free, that he would fight to make Anakin a Jedi, but he was worried about revealing their importance to whomever was watching via the signals which the probe droid was no doubt sending. He would have an opportunity to tell them later, when he returned the eopies, hopefully somewhere that they could not be so easily observed.
Mounting one of the animals, he waited while Eirtaé hugged and kissed Anakin before joining him, and for the Gungan to make his clumsy ascent of one of their rides more successful. "I'll return the eopies by midday," he promised to the Skywalkers, before herding the beasts on to the road which lead out of the hangar, towards the outskirts of Mos Espa, where the ship waited.
Despite the extreme heat bearing down upon them from the two suns, and the continued presence of the probe droid, they made their return to the ship without incident. Qui-Gon saw his padawan emerge from the Queen's transport as soon as the eopies halted.
"I was getting worried," Obi-Wan announced to them in greeting.
Qui-Gon dismounted his beast of burden, then helped Eirtaé down. She was greeted with an embrace from another member of the Queen's retinue who joined the arrivals and his padawan in the retrieval of the parts for the ship. Remaining outside, waiting until the hyperdrive parts had been stowed away, out of the glare of the potentially damaging heat, he tried to quieten the sudden pounding of his heart, though in truth the anxious feeling had been present ever since he first spotted the probe droid, if not before.
When Obi-Wan joined him in the sandy heat once more, he mounted the eopie again. "Start getting the hyperdrive installed," he instructed his padawan. "I'm going back. I have some unfinished business."
"Business?" Obi-Wan queried, looking at his master carefully.
"I won't be long," Qui-Gon added, hoping his apprentice would for once accept that assurance without further inquiry.
But Obi-Wan would not be gainsaid. "Why do I sense we've picked up another pathetic lifeform?" He mused aloud, smiling at his master to show that he was joking.
'Speak with care, padawan mine,' Qui-Gon uttered through their Force bond. 'We are being watched. Extend your senses, and you shall find the probe you seek.' "Its the boy who's responsible for getting us these parts," he answered audibly, before switching back to conversation through their bond. 'The boy whose blood sample you ran a midi-chlorian test on last night.'
Obi-Wan said nothing, his expression one of hard steadiness. But Qui-Gon knew his padawan well, and he caught the momentary glance with which the apprentice used to spot the probe droid, now observing them from the edge of Mos Espa's limits. 'I'm sorry, Master. I shall prepare the ship for a quick departure.'
'No apology needed. You were not to know. Thank you, Obi-Wan,' Qui-Gon replied. 'I hope to see you soon.'
With one final glance of understanding exchanged between them, he guided his steed back toward Mos Espa.
Qui-Gon had hoped to return to the slave quarter without incident but it was not to be. As he crossed into Mos Espa Way, he encountered a scuffle between a Rodian youngster and a small, familiar boy, who despite the fact that the Rodian was bigger, currently held the upper hand in the fight. Anakin's punches were hard and fast, displaying all the anger of youth, quick to build, intensely driven, and sure to fade away fast, if dealt with properly.
He waded into the combat arena and pulled the two youngsters apart, demanding to know what the fight was about. Rather disappointed, Anakin sheepishly admitted that the Rodian had accused him of cheating in the race, because he was a slave and no slave could win the Boonta. Qui-Gon turned to the Rodian and quietly asked him if this was what he still believed. The Rodian, still glowering at Anakin, replied that he did.
Qui-Gon placed his hand on Anakin's shoulder and steered the boy away from the Rodian and the crowd of spectators which the fight had attracted. Only when they were no longer in danger of being overheard, did he turn to the youth once more.
"You know, Ani, fighting didn't change his belief," he admonished with a quiet sternest. "The opinions of others, whether you agree with them or not, are something you have to learn how to tolerate."
He continued to counsel the boy about the loss of temper until they reached the hut which Ani shared with his mother. Only when they were both inside and away from the spying probe droid, did he tell them the reason for his return.
"I spoke with Watto before the race," he began quietly, "he agreed to free you both."
Shmi stared at him in shock and disbelief, while her son was far more voluble.
"Mom? Did you hear that Mom?" he cried joyfully before turning to the Jedi. "Was that part of the prize or what?"
Qui-Gon grinned at the youth. "Let's just say Watto learned an important lesson in gambling." Turning serious once more, he caught Anakin's whirling figure in his arms. "Now go and pack your things, we haven't much time."
The boy uttered another joyful cry before rushing off to his room, leaving his mother and the Jedi alone. Shmi turned towards him, still unable to believe what he had told them. "What will happen now?" she asked softly.
Qui-Gon stepped forward, his hand reaching out to take one of hers, drawing her closer to him. "Whatever you wish," he replied in the same tone.
She shook her head, her emotions uncertain. "I've been a slave for so long.... having others making decisions for me.... it suddenly seems so hard to make my own." She paused, glancing down at their hands, too shocked to even ask him the significance, let alone begin to hope that such a clasp was evidence of one. Taking a breath, she turned to face his gaze once again. "Are we going with you?"
"For the moment," he affirmed. "I haven't sorted out what will happen when we get to Coruscant. Much of it depends on what the Council will say with regards to Anakin." Abruptly he realised the clasp had lengthened into possibly inappropriate and presumptive intimacy and released her, backing away. "You better go and pack."
Shmi lingered, watching as he turned away. There had been something different about him ever since the end of the race, yet she could not discover what it was. He seemed preoccupied, distant. She wondered if anything had happened, if he had to do more than he wished to earn hers and her son's freedom. Or perhaps what bothered him was what lay ahead, how to relieve the blockade on Naboo, to convince the Jedi Council to let her son join their Order.
Anxious to cause him no trouble, she turned and headed towards her room, where she quickly gathered what few belongings she had to call her own. It did not amount to much, whereas she knew that her son would have far more that he would want to take with him.
Remembering the protocol droid that Ani was making, she returned to the living area to ask Qui-Gon if he still had the eopies and the antigrav repulsorsled, which would prevent C3PO from getting clogged with sand during their journey to the ship.
But Qui-Gon was not in the living room. Instead he was standing outside her front door, immediately before the threshold, preventing it from closing. Concerned she hurried towards him, worried that Watto had turned up to renege on their deal.
When she reached him the Jedi was bending down, examining something in the sand. Peering over his shoulders, she saw the remains of a machine, the fragments scattered about and charred beyond recognition. In his hand lay his saber, ignited and hovering, as though he was waiting to use it again.
"What was it?" she asked him.
"A probe droid," Qui-Gon replied. "Very unusual. Not like anything I've ever seen before. It's followed me since the end of the Boonta." He closed down his saber and rose from his knees, turning to face her. "I may have been rather precipitous in our leaving."
Holstering his weapon, he retrieved the little comlink which she had seem him use before, clicking the device on and putting it before his mouth. "Obi-Wan, I destroyed the droid, but I fear it's owner is close by. I need you to finish repairing the ship, then take off."
"Yes, master," she heard a warm, cultured voice reply. It was the first time she had heard him properly, but this was hardly the time for a greeting or for satisfying curiosity. She wondered about the title, the formality of the word and the other connotations that it held for her and Anakin, and hoped it was not a required address by all apprentices. If it was, her son would have another obstacle to overcome.
"But what about you?" Obi-Wan added.
"My departure from Tatooine will have to wait," Qui-Gon revealed. "The safety of the Queen is paramount. Go, and may the Force be with you, my padawan."
"And with you, master," she heard the apprentice reply before Qui-Gon clicked the comlink off.
Padmé received word from her handmaiden that they were on their way back to the ship not long after the pod race had finished. Eirtaé had been another candidate for the throne of Naboo, and when she lost the election her attitude to her new monarch and her retinue had been rather resentful. But Padmé persisted in being kind to her, a move which had paid off in the end, revealing the blond handmaiden to be much the same as herself, albeit with certain differences in character which made her unique.
Eirtaé had not as many duties as the rest of her handmaidens; being blond and blue eyed prevented her from being a decoy, but she did know just as much about Naboo and the Republic as Padmé herself, which meant she was often an advisor that Padmé or her decoys could consult. She was also the perfect choice to go with Master Jinn and his party into Mos Espa, as with her looks being a contrast to the dark brown hair and eyes of her sovereign, no one would suspect her of being anything but what she appeared to be; the daughter accompanying her father to Mos Espa.
Meeting her handmaiden outside the ship, Padmé hugged and greeted her as she would any of her retinue when she was not the Queen, but as they exchanged greetings her attention was split between Eirtaé and the rest of the activity that was taking place around them. She could see Master Jinn help his apprentice, pilots, Jar Jar and Captain Panaka unload the hyperdrive parts before taking them into the bowels of the ship. And she also saw the Jedi pull his apprentice aside in order to talk to him privately before he mounted one of the eopies to take the beasts back into town.
Obi-Wan still seemed quite thoughtful when his master left, and his expression prompted her to linger on her way back inside, watching him as he waited for the sight of his master to fade out of his perception, before walking along side the silver craft until he drew level with her at the base of the loading ramp.
"What's wrong?" she asked him.
"Qui-Gon says that he has been followed ever since the end of the race," Obi-Wan replied, "perhaps even before."
"Followed?" she echoed worriedly, glancing about to see if she could see something, but in vain. "Who is following him?"
"Not who, what," Obi-Wan corrected as they headed inside in the ship. "A probe droid, of the like he has never seen before. He thinks whoever set the device on to us might have used that message to trace our whereabouts. He asked me to prepare the ship for a quick departure."
"Were you able to tell him what we had decided to do?" Padmé queried.
Obi-Wan shook his head. "There wasn't time, and the probe was watching our conversation, I wasn't sure how far its audio recording range extended." He took a breath then, steadying himself for his next words. "And if we are forced to depart swiftly, it is perhaps better for my master not to know where we are going."
Padmé froze in her tracks as she realised the implications behind what he had said. Once more the deadly nature of their mission reared its ugly head. "But the returning of the eopies shouldn't take him too long."
"He's not just returning the eopies," Obi-Wan informed her. "Before the race, he wagered on and then won the freedom of the mother and her boy whose victory gained the parts we needed. Anakin and Shmi Skywalker are coming back with us. I think Qui-Gon will want the boy to be tested and trained to be a Jedi. If he can persuade the Council to accept him."
She was astonished and naturally so. "Eirtaé hadn't told me that, but then she hasn't been privy to everything your master was doing while in Mos Espa. She did tell me about the boy and his mother. I had no idea slavery was still such a problem in the Republic."
"Tatooine is too far from the Core to be concerned with the liberties that most of us take for granted," Obi-Wan explained. "Add to that the difficulties which the climate produces and the fact that its run by the Hutts...." he broke off, knowing that she understood without him needing to finish emphasising the point. "What did your handmaiden tell you about the boy and his mother?"
"Not much," Padmé answered. "But then we didn't have a lot of time to talk. And after I asked if she was okay, I needed her to make sure Jar Jar saw the Queen about what I want him to do when we reach Naboo. She did say that he was quite precocious, but that he had a good heart for one so exposed to the cruelties of the universe from such a young age. He thought she was an angel," Padmé added with a soft laugh, "and declared that he would marry her one day. As for his mother, Eirtaé found her to be a good, kind woman, worried for her son. Often to the expense of her own welfare."
It was at this point that they reached the engine room. Obi-Wan palmed the access controls before waving her in ahead of him politely. "It shouldn't surprise me, my master has a habit of picking up strays, but still I am. Given the potential danger that surrounds us, it is an unnecessary risk. I can only think that the Force has told him to do so now, or he might not get another chance."
"The Force can be that precise?" Padmé queried, intrigued. Since the Jedi had rescued her, she had been witness to only a fraction of what the Force could do. Most of what she had learned about the Jedi Order before meeting Obi-Wan and his master was the stuff of legend and rumour. Some, such as their fighting skills, proved true, but others she was still discovering.
"Sometimes," Obi-Wan revealed. "It depends on how much each being is attuned to recognising their ability in the Force, how experienced they are at interpreting what messages they receive. My master is a student of the Living Force, the here and now, regardless of the immediate future. I am a student of the Unifying Force, what is to come, although I must learn to temper my perception with the knowledge that the future is always in motion. While the Force can guide our actions, learning to understand it can take more than a lifetime."
Padmé nodded. "Forgive me, I'm keeping you from the repairs. I'll leave you to get on."
He called out to her as she turned to go. "You can stay, if you wish. Unless you have duties elsewhere."
"I need to speak to Jar Jar," she reminded him, before exiting the engine room.
He watched her leave, staring for a moment or two at the closed door, wondering why he was so reluctant to let her leave, then remembering his duties, turned back to the broken hyperdrive. Shedding his cloak, he picked up what he needed and got to work.
When his comlink chirped, signalling a call from Qui-Gon, he had just finished testing the hyperdrive to make sure it worked. Retrieving the small device from his belt, he turned it on to receive, placing it before his mouth. "What is it, master?"
"Obi-Wan, I destroyed the droid, but I fear its owner is close by," Qui-Gon replied. "I need you to finish repairing the ship then take off."
"Yes, master," He answered. "But what about you?"
"My departure from Tatooine will have to wait," Qui-Gon revealed. "The safety of the Queen is paramount. Go, and may the Force be with you, my padawan."
"And with you, master," Obi-Wan managed to utter before ending the call. Turning to the ship's onboard comms, he contacted the cockpit and told the pilots to prepare to leave Tatooine for Naboo. Then he exited the engine room and headed for the Queen's suite.
When he entered the sovereign was still talking to Jar Jar. Unusually all of the handmaidens were present, along with Captain Panaka. Even though he and Qui-Gon saw how many of the Queen's retinue left Naboo with her, during their journey to Tatooine, the handmaidens were rarely in the same room at the same time, though whether or not this was by design Obi-Wan had yet to determine.
He caught the Queen's eye as the door closed behind him, and bowed whilst she finished talking to the Gungan, who confirmed that they indeed had an army, something which until now had been a supposition on Obi-Wan's part. Both he and Captain Panaka seem shocked by her new plan to unite their two kingdoms into fighting against the blockade, but then her security had objected to almost everything that had happened since he met him. Silently he waited for Jar Jar to be dismissed and for the Queen to turn her attention on him.
"Yes, Jedi Kenobi?" she asked.
"My master has just contacted me, your highness," Obi-Wan replied. "He has destroyed the probe droid which has been following him since the end of the pod race, and fearing that its destruction will alert the owner to our location, he has advised us to leave Tatooine immediately."
"Without waiting for him to return?" Captain Panaka sought to confirm. "Is that not dangerous for ourselves and for him, Jedi Kenobi?"
"It is," Obi-Wan admitted. "But we have little choice. I assure you that I will continue to protect you to the best of my ability, your highness."
"Thank you, Jedi Kenobi," Queen Amidala answered. "Be assured we are grateful for your continued protection, and we have faith in your capability to do so."
Obi-Wan merely bowed in reply, then left for the cockpit.
They emerged from hyperspace early, approaching the Naboo star system with caution. Padmé had shed her queenly robes once more, in favour of a red toned combat suit, and together with Captain Panaka joined Obi-Wan in the cockpit with the pilots.
Grimly they observed the view of the planet, its lush landscape a harsh contrast to the star dotted surroundings of space.
"The blockade's gone," Captain Panaka observed.
"You don't need a blockade once you control the port." Obi-Wan remarked dryly.
"I have one battleship on my scope," Ric Ollie reported.
The Jedi trained his focus on the viewscreen. "A droid control ship," he identified.
"They've probably spotted us," Captain Panaka stated.
Obi-Wan was in agreement. "We haven't much time. Land in the forested marshland over there," he directed the pilots.
Despite their fears of being attacked by the droid control ship, they managed to land in the midst of the trees and swamp land without incident. After throwing a camo net over the ship in order to obscure its location from scanning by the Trade Federation, they left the craft for the lake that led to Otoh Gunga.
Jar Jar descended into the water and swam off to carry out his mission. He returned with the King of the Gungans accompanied by a retinue of councillors and security, who regarded the party that awaited them with a mixture of interest and amusement.
"Who are yousa ta take us from our city?" the King began.
Padmé stepped forward. "I am Queen Amidala of the Naboo. Although we do not always agree, Your Honour, our two great societies have always lived in peace... until now. The Trade Federation has destroyed all that we have worked so hard to build. You will go into hiding, my people are in camps. If we do not act quickly, all will be lost forever... I ask you to help us... no, I beg you to help us."
Dropping to her knees before everyone, she added, "We are your humble servants... our fate is in your hands."
After a moment the rest of the Naboo also knelt before the Gungans, Obi-Wan following suit, whilst Jar Jar stood still, staring at both groups in shock.
"Yousa no tinken yousa greater den da Gungans..." the King mused thoughtfully. "Mesa like dis. Maybe wesa bein friends."
Padmé smiled at the King's reply. It was a beginning, which held the promise of a good end to negotiations. But she could not relax yet, for there was still much to be achieved. She rose from her knees and went to start the conversation.
When the alliance of the Gungans was secured, the King and his retinue accompanied the Queen of the Naboo and her companions to the edge of the marshlands, where there lay a wide expanse of grassy plains, situated in the south to the capital city of Theed. It was here that the battle would begin, a distraction to the other attacks which Queen Amidala planned to carry out. These involved a group of pilots leaving the surface to lay siege upon the droid control ship that still orbited the planet and operated the army of the Trade Federation. Meanwhile she and her retinue would enter the Palace of Theed through the secret passages that lay hidden in the waterfalls, and seize the viceroy.
A plan which sounded relatively simple when it was thus summed up, but Obi-Wan knew that the reality of their struggles would prove much more complex to resolve. Many Gungans could die whilst they pitted themselves against the forces of the Trade Federation's droid army, waiting for the pilots to destroy the control ship that orbited in space. A craft that was likely to have strong shields which would require time and strategy to thwart. Then there was the mission to secretly infiltrate the palace to seize the Viceroy. He would be assisting the Naboo in that endeavour, but he had to be careful that his role was for protection only. The Jedi could not involve themselves so deeply in this matter to fight a war. It would impact on their impartial reputation as arbiters for justice independent of the Republic Senate and Courts.
He was to protect the Queen of Naboo without his master, something he was not unused to, but a point that was important to note nonetheless. For some years now Qui-Gon had trusted him to carry out matters during missions without his supervision as a master, but it was rare that he was separated from him by such a distance as it was between Naboo and Tatooine. Added to this was the fact that he had not gone to Coruscant as was originally intended by his master. If they had, their separation would be resolved earlier, as he would be required to report to the Council, who would in turn send someone to retrieve Qui-Gon. No doubt the Council would also assign another team of master and apprentice to protect the Queen instead of letting just a padawan continue to do so.
Obi-Wan did not resent that possibility, for a part of him felt out of his depth, but neither did he wish to hand this mission over to someone else either. In his short acquaintance with the Queen he had come to admire her courage and ability. In such times as these it was rare to meet a sovereign who cared so much about those she served. He wanted to help her and her planet, rather than being required to do so by the Chancellor's request.
He recalled the vision he had on Tatooine, the image of the dark clothed Zabrak haunting his mind. It was a warning from the Force, that much was certain. Whether the Council would see it as such was another matter. Even Master Yoda, who always took his visions seriously, would impart a piece of cautious advice regarding it, after all the Sith had been presumed to be extinct for over a millennia. Indeed, the venerable Grand Master of the Order would be right to caution him, for the opponent could just turn out to be a warrior with grandiose ideas. Or perhaps someone they were to meet years from now, rather than during this mission.
But there must be a reason why the Force gave it to him, and he could not help but wonder what would have happened if he had not experienced it. His Master would be right beside him now perhaps, having destroyed the droid on his way to the ship, in the company of the Skywalkers. He might have encountered the Zabrak enroute, just as his vision foretold, fought him, even defeated him possibly. Qui-Gon Jinn was one of the finest lightsaber duellists of the Order after all. His underestimation of his master's ability to defend himself against the Zabrak of his vision could be just a product of his natural fears over losing him.
That red infused sight of the two warriors battling refused to leave his mind however, despite how much he tried to rationalise it away. He could not help but feel that his Master was better off away from Naboo, deep in that hive of scum and villainy that was Tatooine.
Qui-Gon kept a cautious eye on the streets in Mos Espa's slave district for the rest of the day. Even when he received the signal of the Nubian craft's departure; by a slight weakening in the strength of his bond with his padawan, he refused to relax his vigil. Obi-Wan and those whom he was charged to protect might be safely away, but it did not mean that he or them were out of danger. Whoever owned the probe could have followed the ship, or stayed behind to watch him and the Skywalkers.
His thoughts dwelt briefly on the boy and his mother. Anakin had been very disappointed when he informed them that their departure was to be delayed for some days. That emotion soon transformed into curiosity when he explained why, revealing the existence of the probe. For a time Anakin had joined him in his surveillance of the street view from the small front facing window and the larger but narrow doorway of the hut, until Shmi had managed to persuade her son to occupy himself with something else. Qui-Gon had been glad of her persistence, for his own attempts met with little success, and a part of him could not help but empathise with the boy's recklessness concerning the danger to his own life. After all, he was guilty of the same, despite being many years older.
It was with that emotion in mind that he dwelt on his fascination for Shmi, disregarding the experience of his saddened past hurt. For some days now, ever since that night they had held hands at the rear of the adobe hut which she shared with her son, he had been unable to stop thinking about her. What she would do when he took them to Coruscant, and appealed to the Council to train her son. Even if she would decide to go, now that they had been given a chance to think things through.
Despite her hopes for her son, she had a life here, albeit one forced on her by slavery. He could not help but feel some guilt in taking that means of income away from her. In freeing her and Anakin he had given them little choice but to come with him, to a life based on a promise which he could not guarantee. If the Council did agree to let her son be trained, she was unlikely to see him as often as she did now, for the regulations imposed on Jedi Initiates tended towards almost total seclusion. Such isolation could be lessened depending on his ability to negotiate an unconventional training regime for her son, due to Anakin's strong attachment with her, beyond the Order's norm. But she had to live for herself, however, as well as her son. In freeing them both, he felt obligated to provide the means to acquire such a life, even if it was at the expense of his own private wishes, ones which he could not presume upon her, however long their acquaintance may prove.
For it was not just because of her attachment to her son that he had taken the chance to free her as well as Anakin. It was because of that night they held hands, and the feelings which had haunted his mind ever since. Emotions which he should not even be giving life to, considering what had occurred the last time he did so. Yet, just as he had with Tahl all those years ago, he could not stop himself. Though that love had ended in tragedy he still believed that it was wrong to eschew such attachment. He understood why many in the Order chose to do so, to prevent themselves from becoming susceptible to the dark side, just as he had done when he lost Tahl. But he had faced that temptation and emerged a stronger Jedi. There was no reason to suppose that others might not do the same.
Due to his understanding of that preventive measure, his sense of fairness regarding Shmi and his vows to the Order, he had kept these feelings to himself. It would not be right to admit them to her so soon after freeing her and her son from slavery. Such a confession might make her feel obligated to return emotions which she did not feel, and even if she did, he was not in a position to promise or offer anything in return. The Council might not be in such a generous mood as to grant all his requests, in fact, if they proved resistant to all of them, as he suspected that they would, he might only have one option left open to him.
Someone clasped his shoulder, rousing him from his thoughts and he turned to face the woman who his mind continued to linger a certain focus upon. She had kept out of his way since persuading her son to desist his own surveillance, respecting his unvoiced desire for solitude in his vigil, along with a need to pause and reflect. Now as the skies before them gradually darkened, marking the slow descent of afternoon into evening, she chose to broach his watch once more.
"Watching for him won't make him come any sooner," she offered consolingly, her arms encircling him in a friendly embrace.
He let her hold him, one hand upon his shoulder, the other resting at his waist, taking comfort from the gesture, his gaze still fixed on the view which the doorway of her hut afforded him. "I both want him to come and to stay away," he murmured confusingly.
"I thought you were thinking of your son," Shmi queried.
"I am," Qui-Gon replied. "But I'm also watching in case whoever sent that probe chooses not to follow Obi-Wan, but to confront me." he sighed before adding, "I'm sorry, Shmi. I've placed you and your son in so much danger, a fine return for all you have done for us."
"Tatooine has always been dangerous," Shmi reminded him. "You brought us our freedom, there's no finer return than that," she added.
"I may have brought your freedom, but I'm depriving you of your home and your son," Qui-Gon countered. "Or at least I will be on the first and only might be on the second."
"Tatooine may be the place where I live, but it is not my home," Shmi informed him. "I was only a child when a band of pirates hijacked my parent's ship. They were killed and I was seized to be sold along with the rest of the goods. Since then I've moved from place to place depending on who owned me. You've given me a chance to have a home and for my son a better life."
"If the Council agree," Qui-Gon stressed.
"Even if they don't, he will still have a better life," Shmi insisted. "Now, come away from the door and eat something," she added, urging him inside into the dining area.
Qui-Gon let her lead him into the warmth of the hut, where he joined her and her son at the dinner table. Behind him the door closed, shutting out the view he had been staring at all day, causing him to replace it with the sight of those he had been thinking about instead.
Anakin was his usual curious self despite spending most of the day in his room, working to finish the protocol droid he was building for his mother, peppering Qui-Gon with questions throughout the meal about what life was like as a Jedi.
Aware that he neglected his hosts for most of the day, Qui-Gon indulged him, careful to satisfy the boy's curiosity while at the same time prevent his hopes of being trained from becoming a certainty. The more he talked with Anakin however, the more Qui-Gon wondered if he really was going to prove successful in such an endeavour. Despite his emphasis on how hard the life of a Jedi was, the sacrifices which it entailed, the boy remained unmoved, focused only on the adventure and the glory which such a life promised.
When the meal was over, Qui-Gon helped Shmi tidy the crockery away, whilst Anakin went back to his room to resume work on C3PO.
"So if Tatooine is not your home," he began, resuming their conversation before dinner, for they had not a chance to discuss it further during the meal, "where would you go?"
"That depends on whether or not Ani is allowed to become a Jedi," Shmi replied. "If he is, then Coruscant, for I would like to be close to my son, even if I cannot see him as much as I do now. However, if he is not granted that privilege, then I do not know. Somewhere green with temperate weather. A good education system." She smiled, relishing the opportunity to be free to choose where she could live. "Do you recommend Coruscant?"
"It hasn't a lot of greenery," Qui-Gon answered, consideringly. "But its weather is controlled, and the educational system, while varied depending on which district you live in, is fairly good. But I wouldn't choose to live on the Jewel of the Core Worlds, and I doubt most Jedi would."
"Why is that?" She asked him.
"A lot of reasons," Qui-Gon said before he began to elaborate. "The political climate, the crowded cityscape. There's strong sense of darkness there as well, one which has been growing over a number of years, impeding our ability within the Force." He took a breath, before adding, "I really shouldn't be telling you this. Its hardly encouraging you to let your son train at the Temple."
"If there is darkness there, why do you keep the Temple on Coruscant?" Shmi queried.
"To keep an eye on the darkness," Qui-Gon said, "at least, that is what the Council try to do. It can also act as a shield, as well as a temptation. But I do wonder." He fell into the silence which surrounded them, remembering what his padawan had said of the elusive feeling that he had sensed at the beginning of this. The Temple had been built on a vortex within the Force, that concentrated their powers, strengthening the Order. But sometimes he wondered if by building the Temple upon that vortex, residing above it for as long as they had, that the Order had grown complacent, or too blind to notice if the vortex had acquired new aspects over the years.
And here he was, about to bring a powerful boy like Anakin into the midst of that blind complacency. Silently Qui-Gon began to question if he was doing the right thing. His tendency to live for the moment often landed him in troubled consequences which he could have perhaps foreseen, if he had taken a minute to think before following through. Or listened to his padawan's caution, whose gift in the Unifying Force provided the perfect counter- balance to his sole focus within that of the Living.
To free the boy from slavery and have him trained to be a Jedi was a decision to which those methods should have been applied, and the fact that he had wilfully ignored them was wrong. Anakin was not your average initiate, he was past the age of most who came to the Temple for Jedi training. He had a mother too, an attachment which his slave upbringing would cause him to depend on for some time. He was also quite powerful, if the midi-chlorian count that Obi-Wan had run was anything to go by. If he was what Qui-Gon suspected, a vergence from the Force, the Chosen One, sent to bring that ancient energy into balance, then was it wise to take him to the political hotbed otherwise known as the Jewel of the Core Worlds?
Qui-Gon was no longer sure that it was, particularly in view of the vision experienced by his padawan. The return of the Sith after a millennia spent hiding in the shadows meant dangerous times ahead for the Jedi. The Coruscant Temple was home to younglings of all ages, but also vulnerable to any darkside user, as his experience with his previous padawan Xanatos had taught him. If he took the Chosen One there, he could run the risk of placing all those who lived in the Temple in danger, as well as the youngling himself, assuming Anakin was the Chosen One of course.
Qui-Gon sighed, no closer to an answer now than when he had begun to reflect only a few minutes ago. He was not prone to introspection. The present was usually his sole focus and determination with little thought for what the consequences of the future might or might not wrought. But this time circumstance demanded it and the character and situation of the beings involved required it. Shmi and Anakin were slaves newly granted their freedom, due to his meddling, and it ill behoved to impose his feelings upon them any further. But Shmi interested him, far more than she should. He had tried to ignore the sensations from the moment he became aware of them, but without success. The more time he spent with her, the deeper those sensations became, growing in potency and pleasure, as though he were an addict who had stumbled across a new, pure cache of spice.
To compare it to such an addiction was perhaps wrong on his part, but he did not doubt that it was how some members of the Order would view his feelings. According to the Code, attachment was forbidden, as was possession, and for some of his colleagues these two terms dealt with love in all its guises. There were those who believed otherwise, and whom the Council gave their blessing to have a relationship in or out of the Temple, trusting upon the discretion of the knight or master involved to not put their feelings above their commitment to the Force, or the Republic.
It was Master Altis who had spoken in favour of such unorthodoxy, debated and argued against the strictures imposed since the Ruusan Wars. Qui-Gon knew Altis well, counted him both and a peer and a friend, a connection which kept them in correspondence, through which medium he learned that the debate continued, between Altis and Master Yoda. The latter had lived in the Order almost as long as it was left in this state, since the end of the Ruusan Wars and served through all the changes made since that conflict, from the military family formation that fought at the Republic's behest, to the pacifist almost monastic austerity that the Order had become. Nine hundred years spent guarding against a revival of those practises which had led to the conflict was a long time, it was understandable that any further doubt or question as to the surety of the reforms would be viewed with fear or outrage. As much as the Jedi protested at the existence of such emotions within them, they were still mortal and fallible, thus subject to these feelings from time to time.
Most of those who privately or publicly agreed with Master Altis' beliefs practised a different way of raising their apprentices to the Order's usual methods. Padawans were taken not at birth, but at an age when they fully understood the responsibilities that a being a Jedi laid upon them, and what the consequences of their powers could wrought. Such unorthodox ways were tolerated, even reluctantly accepted, but he knew that there were lines which some could and would not cross.
Obi-Wan respected his views, even held some of them when it came to love, but he did not care to challenge the rule of the Code or the Council as his teacher did. He had no cause to do so, no attachment that demanded such a sacrifice. Perhaps his loyalty to Qui-Gon would be the only tie to try it, but Qui-Gon had no desire to demand that from his pupil, or even give him that choice. His knighthood was almost upon him, Qui-Gon refused to put that in jeopardy, not after his padawan had worked so hard to earn it.
Yet he had committed himself to another cause, to giving Anakin a chance to become a Jedi. By freeing him and his mother from his slavery, he had made a promise that he could not break. He knew that when he brought the boy before the Council, there would be objections to granting his request. Anakin was too old, too attached to his mother, his harsh background could hinder his prospects. Qui-Gon could not fault their arguments, he knew that they had some merit. The power of his potential could cause some concern as well, even determine whether he was trained or not. It would require an unorthodox training, if the Order decided to let Anakin join them, a apprentice to one whose view of the Code was as something not subject to interpretation, might cause more harm than someone like himself, though Qui-Gon did ponder if he was being biased in such thinking, and whether a Jedi whose beliefs lay in between those two boundaries would be more suitable.
The alternative was to follow the practice of Master Altis, and Qui-Gon was coming to believe that such a prospect was more viable. Anakin was young, too young to understand the sacrifices that would be required from him if he committed himself to the Order. Only age and experience would grant him such wisdom, and might incur a certain resentment, even rebellion. The boy saw only the adventure in the life of the Jedi, the chance to leave Tatooine, to travel the galaxy. Not the discipline, the hardships, the training, or the strict structure, austerity and politics. Growing up on Tatooine was a hindrance, because the Arkanis sector was so far removed from the reaches of the Republic. Corruption was rife in both the Core and the Outer Rim, but there was little here to show the good which a bending of certain rules might sometimes bring.
And there was the prophecy to consider. If Anakin was the Chosen One, as his origins and midi-chlorian count might prove him to be, it was perhaps too great a risk to expose him to the vagaries of Coruscant. Temple protection only extended so far, it could not shield a Jedi from the Senate or the rest of the universe. It had proven vulnerable before, as recently as the early years of Obi-Wan's apprenticeship, to the dangers of the dark side. If the discovery of the Chosen One was to herald return of such darkness, then the boy needed to be protected from exposure to such evil, until the Force chose to lift the veil. By placing him within the Temple, taking him from his life of relative obscurity, Qui-Gon could not help but worry that he would be lifting that veil before its time, thus perhaps putting the balance of the Force and the universe in peril.
All this contemplation of Anakin's future brought him no closer to a decision as to what to do about his feelings for Shmi, however. Or perhaps it did, for while there still so much uncertainty as to his plans, it was for the best that he kept his feelings to himself, and not express them or use them to influence her in any manner. He had Obi-Wan's training to finish, matters regarding Anakin and Naboo to bring before the Council to resolve, all of which would take time. For once, he would focus on the present moment, but take his padawan's views to heart and be mindful of the future at the same time, and the impact that his actions might have on it.
In the early morning mists a Gungan army formed upon the grassy plains outside Theed. Within minutes of their arrival the Trade Federation sent an army of their own to oppose them; full of droids and various other arsenals of machinery. As the two forces prepared to do battle, a small contingent of Naboo entered the capital city by stealth, creeping towards the main hangar of the Nubian Starfleet.
Obi-Wan joined Padmé, Eirtaé and Artoo on the edge of a courtyard outside the entrance, his lightsaber at the ready. Across from them were Sabé, Rabé, and Captain Panaka, along with a selection of twenty odd Naboo officers, guards and pilots, some from the original rescue detour to Tatooine, others a contingent which Captain Panaka brought back from his reconnaissance into the refugee camps during a discussion about their strategy with the Gungans. Another selection of the same joined their Queen, handmaiden and Jedi.
In the centre of courtyard were a few tanks and battle droids, the focus of their first strike and a suitable distraction to disguise their entrance into the hangar and from there to the Palace. Security was not as heavy around the capital as it had been during the initial invasion, most of the forces having been transferred to face the Gungan army on the Grassy Plains, which was exactly what this strike had counted on occurring.
Once Captain Panaka and his group were in position, Padmé signalled for them to start firing at the tanks and battle droids with a red tipped silver glow rod. The ensuing bombardment caused the fire power from their opponents to be concentrated on the security chief and his contingent, allowing for Padmé and hers to breach the courtyard, gaining access to the hangar bay.
As soon as they entered the hangar bay however that luxury of not having to pause and return fire was denied them, for another group of battle droids were waiting inside, and upon their entrance turned to attack. The Naboo had the advantage of surprise though, and having expected that there would be forces inside, providing a protective barrier against further intrusion, managed to subdue the first wave of droids in front of them.
"Get to your ships!" Padmé commanded the pilots, who moved to obey her, dodging and returning blaster fire as they went. She led a group of Naboo soldiers in pursuit of the retreating battle droids, her own blaster shots just as unerringly accurate as those who had been trained to defend her.
Obi-Wan fought beside her, slicing his lightsaber back and forth continuously, the blue laser beam deflecting the shots from the droids who fired at him or the Naboo, or severing apart those enemies who happened to cross their paths.
Around them pilots fired up the engines on their ships, then manoeuvred the craft into the departure lane, taking off in pairs. Not all were successful, the second of the last obtaining fire from a tank, the shot sending the ship spinning towards the ground where it erupted into a ball of flame.
When all the droids within the hangar bay had been destroyed, Captain Panaka and the handmaidens regrouped around the Jedi and their Queen, who turned to her security for a moment of consultation.
"My guess is the Viceroy is in the throne room," she said.
Obi-Wan nodded in agreement with Panaka's equally silent reply and all at once they turned and darted forward, heading to the doors that led to the palace corridors, which would take them to that regal chamber.
Just before they reached that barrier however, the doors which lay ahead of them opened, revealing another obstacle. A darkly cloaked figure stood on the other side before the threshold, his red toned gaze fixed on the Jedi.
The Naboo glanced at both of them, taking in the expression of single-minded determination which transformed both their countenances, along with the resolve and the desire that no one else choose to involve themselves in this fight. They then took a step back into the hangar bay, the security troops and Captain Panaka first, followed reluctantly by Padmé and her handmaidens.
"I'll handle this," Obi-Wan murmured to the Queen.
"We'll take the long way," Padmé replied, drawing off her contingent to head towards the other exit from the hangar bay.
Obi-Wan watched his opponent remove his cloak, revealing the sable and red coloured features of a tattooed Zabrak. A weapon was retrieved from his belt, a long handled lightsaber, which the warrior held out before him to ignite, red crystal blades extending from both ends of the hilt, the gesture almost a salute, akin to throwing down the gauntlet before the start of a combative engagement. This was the demon from his vision, the one connected to the darkness he had sensed earlier. And he would be facing him alone, without his master.
That prospect both cheered and terrified him all at once, for he was relieved that Qui-Gon was safe on Tatooine and did not have to face the creature, but worried because at the same time his master was too far away to offer his apprentice advice or support.
Not that he had not been apart from his master with a foe before, but never one who possessed the degree of fierceness he could sense from his current opponent. Without moving his eyes from the Zabrak, Obi-Wan removed his own cloak, letting the robe drop to the floor behind him. He retrieved his lightsaber from his belt and ignited the blue blade, extending the point of the weapon outwards, towards his foe in a silent but eloquent gesture to come and have at him. His body gracefully composed itself into the traditional battle stance of an Ataru warrior, waiting for the creature to oblige his opening hail.
The Zabrak wasted no time in doing so. He came at Obi-Wan with an opening strike which was hard, fast and lethal. The ensuing clash of sabers produced an electrifying shriek that echoed through the hangar bay.
Steadying himself, Obi-Wan returned the pressure of the double bladed saber back on his opponent, silently acknowledging to himself that the Zabrak was his superior, both in terms of skill and strength. To defeat him, as he must, would take some time and require his sole focus. The desire to turn a part of his senses towards seeing how Padmé was progressing in her quest to reach the throne room was considerable, but he could not afford to indulge, lest he make a mistake which might cost him dearly. He could hear blaster fire exchanges not too far away, which would indicate that she was meeting with some resistance. Hopefully it was no more than she could handle.
Exchanging a series of fast, sharp strikes with his opponent, Obi-Wan drove the Zabrak backwards, into a network of catwalks and overhangs, criss-crossed over a pit which housed a series of generators that served the starship hangar bay. He soon realised that it was his foe who led him into this new arena, eager to add another advantageous element of danger for his opponent to his numerous skills. With each saber thrust came a kick or a stray droid part, flicked up before him in a design to confuse his sight, or his return strike.
Ataru was a athletic saber form, which rendered Obi-Wan prepared for the kicks and thrusts which came his way, meeting them with jumps or deft darts, wheeling, spinning, leaping or somersaulting his way through whatever the dark warrior threw at him. The narrow width of the catwalks were an additional trial however, and it required every ounce of his focus not to let the Sith's moves push him off them into the pit of generators below. He turned the confines of the arena back on his foe, for a fall was just as dangerous to the Zabrak as it was to himself, and sought for a way to split the double saber in half, striking at the middle where the ends of each hilt were welded together.
His efforts were soon rewarded, though not in the way he had hoped, as one strike caused the Sith to fall from the catwalk they were on, to another, several levels below. Obi-Wan leapt off to follow him, landing in time to meet the Zabrak's next saber thrust, driving the warrior backwards, towards a doorway at the end of the room.
They reached the entrance and passed over the threshold in a pitched battle of blades. His fall had caught the Sith by surprise and now he was on the defensive, with Obi-Wan pressing hard, determined not lose this opportunity to defeat him. It was not until a series of lasers ricocheted off buffer struts, pulsing their way between the warriors, impeding them from striking at each other, that either of them sought a moment to pause or regroup.
While the Sith struck angrily at the barrier, his red toned saber sending a pulse of lightning through the laser beams, Obi-Wan took stock of their location. They were in the service corridor for the power station. Ahead of them lay a melting pit, that acted as the disposal unit for any residue of energy the starship complex did not require. The lasers acted as defences against intruders and as protection to any workers or droids. A shutoff switch would be located somewhere at either end of the corridor, but he was too far down to locate them, and only one barrier separated himself from his foe. It would be a useless and possibly fatal exercise to even attempt to reach either of them.
It seemed an agonising length of time between the moment the lasers activated and their subsequent deactivation. During the lengthy interval Obi-Wan kept his gaze on his antagonist, waiting with baited breath for the release. As soon as the barrier disappeared he leapt at the Zabrak, catapulting him into the area around the melting pit and out of the passage way completely. He directed a series of side blows at his foe, until the double saber blade lay horizontal, whereupon he feinted left and brought his weapon down and over with such force that he managed to sever the welded hilts in two.
Growling, the Zabrak seized control of the fight once more, effortlessly evading Obi-Wan's next move, a killer blow aimed at his head. He struck at Obi-Wan aggressively, knocking him sideways and off-balance. Seizing upon the sudden opportunity, the Sith struck again, causing him to utterly lose his footing, slipping into the melting pit.
Obi-Wan caught his saber with the Force as the weapon shot flying from his hand, then clutched a small round durasteel nodule inside the pit, halting his fall. With his sea coloured eyes fixed on the triumphantly prowling warrior above, his focus turned inward, in a quest to centre himself within the Force once more. The ancient energy roused and strengthened his resolve, before aiding him in an upwards thrust, out of the pit to land on the circular catwalk which surrounded it. As his boots made contact with the floor, his saber flew up from the depths of the pit back into his hand, whereupon he then swung the blue blade across the Sith's chest in a mortal blow.
As the two halves of his foe fell down the melting pit, Obi-Wan's thoughts traversed higher planes, in quest for the Queen of the Naboo, as he sent a prayer into the Force that she and her retinue had managed to secure the capture of the Viceroy, along a new version of the treaty that they had tried to force upon her and her people.
Padmé headed for the alternative route that would take her and her retinue to the throne room, sparing only a brief glance towards Obi-Wan's now solitary battle with the dark cloaked warrior that had just emerged from the room ahead. As much as she was concerned for his safety, it would not do to sacrifice her own by allowing her focus to be caught up in its wake. She and her three groups of Nubian soldiers, security and handmaidens darted across the hangar bay, aiming for the secondary access to the corridors which would lead to the throne room, before abruptly seeking the shelter of the pillared walls, when a fresh series of blaster fire rained upon them from behind.
Three destroyer droids rolled out of hiding somewhere in the rear of the cavernous chamber, blocking the end of the takeoff lane for the starships. Several of her men were hit by their blaster fire, along with Sabé, who caught a glancing blow which knocked her backwards into the arms of Captain Panaka.
Artoo broke from the cover of the pillars and wheeled across the floor towards the one remaining ship in the hangar bay. As the little droid reached it, a suction cap extended from the wall nearby, fixing on to his domed head and lifting him into the astrodroid compartment behind the cockpit. Once he was ensconced, Artoo accessed the onboard computer to take control of the vessel. He swung the ship out into the runaway, then about, until the nose was facing the three destroyer droids. Flicking the weaponry activation, Artoo fired, transforming them into scrap metal.
Padmé sent the extraordinary droid a salute, before leading her people over the remaining distance between them and the door that lead to the regal corridors beyond. On their way they encountered the battle droids which had been left behind by the battalions that engaged the Gungan army on the Theed plains outside the capital, to garrison the city. Dodging the resulting blaster fire was a test upon their strength and defensive training, pushing a naturally pacifist predisposed people to their limits. They could not risk engaging the squads of droids without capture or death, so Panaka directed them from the main and least sheltered route to the palace throne room, into the secret passageways, underground tunnels and connecting skywalks which the invading forces hopefully had no knowledge of.
However they could not use this cover the entire way, and eventually they were forced out into the open pillared grand corridors of Theed Palace, dodging droids' blaster fire as they took shelter within the large windows recesses.
"Captain," Padmé shouted amidst the din created by the continuing exchanges of fire between her retinue and the droids, the former increasingly pressed, as more and more of the enemy appeared from the depths of the building to train their fire on to the invaders. "We don't have time for this!"
Panaka took his gaze off the encroaching mechanical masses for a moment to assess their surroundings. "Let's try outside!" he decided, before turning his arm to aim his blaster at the window which lay across from their position. With half a dozen guards following, he and Padmé headed to this newly fashioned exit, while the rest of the soldiers and handmaidens provided covering fire.
"Ascension guns!" Panaka ordered after they had climbed out on to the window ledge. Retrieving the weapon from her holster, Padmé aimed at another ledge several stories above them and fired. Activating the pull trigger of the grapple lines, she and her soldiers shot upwards.
When they had landed safely on the ledge, Captain Panaka blasted a hole through the transparisteel panes, allowing them to enter the empty passageway within. Not trusting their seemingly lucky deliverance from the enemy, the Naboo kept their weapons at the ready as they dashed down the hallway toward the throne room.
Sure enough, a pair of destroyer droids wheeled out from one end of the corridor, swiftly unravelling from their spherical confines into battle mode. Behind them another couple unfurled at the other end.
Padmé knew there was no escape from them this time. Destroyer droids possessed superior shielding and firepower, their blasters would be no match for them. As for Artoo, the extra- ordinary droid was presumably still within the ship in the hangar bay, unable to lend a mechanical hand to assist a rescue.
Which left her only one option. She turned to her security chief. "Throw down your weapons. They win this round."
Captain Panaka glanced at her in horror, only to meet a firm and stonily composed gaze that belonged to Queen Amidala. He could not disobey.
"Have faith, Captain," she murmured to him as, out of sight of the droids' photoreceptors, she encoded a short message into her comlink, before slipping the little device back into the confines of her combat suit.
Under droid escort they were led over the remaining distance into the throne room, where Nute Gunray and Rune Haako, along with four members of the Trade Federation Council awaited them.
"Your Highness," the former offered in greeting as Padmé and her soldiers were brought to halt before him.
"Viceroy," she returned.
Preening at his victory, Gunray continued. "Your little insurrection is at an end, Your Highness. The rabble army you sent against us south of the city has been crushed. The Jedi is being dealt with elsewhere. You are my captive."
"Am I?" Padmé inquired quietly.
Her shrewd reply had the Viceroy second guessing himself. "Yes you are. It is time for you to put an end to the pointless debate within the Republic Senate. Sign the treaty now."
Suddenly there was a frenzied commotion of blaster fire outside the doorway of the throne room, causing Gunray to raise his eyes from the Queen to the hall beyond. to his horror he saw another Queen Amidala, surrounded by her soldiers, amidst the smouldering remains of his battle droids.
"I will not be signing any treaty, Viceroy!" She called out to him. "You have lost!"
Confused, Nute Gunray stared at the two women, until his bewildered mind could disseminate between the pale, yet regal adornments of one, and the fresh, yet stern face of the other. Then he gestured at the droids holding the latter hostage before him.
"After her!" he ordered them, flinging his arm towards the woman in the hallway beyond. "Bring her to me! The real one this time,- not some decoy!"
Padmé waited for the droids to obey the Viceroy's commands and break away from her and her security to chase after Sabé, before stepping backwards in a surrendering posture, towards her throne. Reaching the ornate arms, she pressed a panel that released a hidden cache of weapons. Quickly she tossed one to Captain Panaka, and grabbed another for herself. Aiming at the remaining droids, she fired, until the Viceroy, Rune Haako and the four Councillors were utterly defenceless.
While Captain Panaka secured the doors from further bombardment, Padmé trained her weapon on the now terrified Neimoidians. "Let's start again, Viceroy."
"Your Highness," the appellation was now a trembling plea.
"This is the end of your occupation," Padmé declared.
Gunray tried for one last salve. "Don't be absurd. There are too few of you. It won't be long before hundreds of destroyer droids break in here to rescue us."
Even before he finished speaking there was a sound echoing through the barricaded the doors, the sound of heavy wheels rolling into the anteway, their durasteel bodies unfolding, weapons at the ready. "You see, Your Highness? Rescue is already at hand."
Padmé was unmoved. "Before they make it through that door, we will have negotiated a new treaty, Viceroy. And you will have signed it."
Artoo was an extraordinary droid. Under continual bombardment from the Trade Federation he had worked to connect exposed wires within a damaged hull, while four of his colleagues were destroyed, raising previously fallen shields, to allow the Nubian Queen's transport to escape the blockade over her planet for the relative safety of Tatooine. Despite all the perils of that desert world, he had survived to carry the hyperdrive specifications of the ship on which he served, in company of a Jedi Master, to barter for purchase at Watto's Wares. He had assisted the little boy who won them the money to buy the parts, on making his pod fit to win the Boonta Eve, when the eponymous owner of that warehouse refused to accept Republic credits.
Now he had furthered proved his usefulness and courage to the Queen of the Naboo, in navigating a way through blaster fire from three destroyer droids across the hangar bay, to be raised from the floor into a starship, access the weapons control, and reduce said droids to piles of scrap metal. Queen Amidala had tossed him a salute before taking advantage of his fire to journey further into the capital building of Naboo, heading for the Palace throne room to seize the Viceroy of the Trade Federation, and free her planet. Artoo had hoped to follow her, and protect her on her way, but as the last handmaiden disappeared through the exit, the cockpit hood of the starship in which he was contained, slid forward, cutting off his pursuit.
Some flurried beeps and whistles later, and Artoo realised that the starship was locked in automatic pilot. Immediately he set about trying to override it, but was forced to divert some of his attention to navigation, as the star ship's computer carried him through the hangar bay exit, into Naboo's atmosphere and the deep space beyond.
Just as Artoo thought he was making some progress with the automatic pilot, the star ship's comm system came alive, forcing him to take stock of his current priorities.
"This is Bravo Leader," a voice announced, startling Artoo's photoreceptors so much that he lost his place in decoding the navigational command algorithms. "Bravo Two, intercept enemy fighters. Bravo Three, make your run on the transmitter station."
"Copy, Bravo Leader," came the response back.
There was a few seconds of blessed silence, filled with nothing but the beeping of the star ship's circuitry, as Artoo worked furiously to override the auto pilot. He did not want to be caught in another battle, escaping the Trade Federation blockade was bad enough.
"Enemy fighters straight ahead," Bravo Leader's voice crackled through the comm abruptly, causing Artoo to whistle indignantly as his focus was disrupted once again. As he cast his photoreceptors upon the algorithms with fresh urgency, he noticed that the coding was changing, entering new parameters, ones which bore similarities to the recognition codes of the enemy ships. The auto pilot seemed to be recklessly seeking these ships out, presumably to destroy them, he hoped.
Beeping indignantly at the absent and, in his opinion, incompetent designer of this Nubian starship model, Artoo split his circuits between working on overriding the auto pilot, and protecting himself against the engagement with the enemy ships.
After countless minutes spent re-coding, hacking, and rewiring his way through the innards of the starship, Artoo managed to override the auto pilot system. Lifting his gaze from the computer for a brief second, he emitted a fierce whistle of astonished, frustrated terror, as his photoreceptors caught sight of two Trade Federation fighters bearing down upon him. Hurriedly he tapped into the thrusters controls and banked left, escaping them.
Hovering in space, free of the auto pilot, Artoo took a moment to evaluate his options. He could turn round and go back to Naboo, free himself from the ship and find his way through the hangar bay to the palace throne room and help Queen Amidala.
Or he could help the other pilots, who were suffering under the continual bombardment of the Trade Federation fighters, along with blaster fire from the control ship, whose shielding appeared to be still intact, despite numerous attempts to penetrate it by the Naboo.
"Bravo Three!" the voice of Bravo Leader shouted through the comm, "Go for the central bridge!"
"Copy, Bravo Leader," came the response.
Artoo watched anxiously as a squad of four fighters shot towards the control ship, blasters firing, but making little impact on the enemy's deflector shields. Two of the fighters were hit by cannon fire, and destroyed, forcing the remaining pair to break off their attack.
"Their shields are too strong!" one of the surviving pilots declared. "We'll never get through!"
Inside his starship, Artoo took stock of the Nubian's predicament. Returning to the planet was pointless if the Naboo could not destroy the control ship. There had to be another way to get past the deflector shields. His photoreceptors scanned the Trade Federation craft carefully, searching for a weakness.
Only one part of the control ship appeared to be vulnerable, and that was the cavernously wide opening from which the enemy fighters had left the ship to engage the Naboo. Artoo reasoned with himself that if he could land within the hangar, he might be able to destroy the control ship from the inside.
It was a risky possibility, but he had to try. Engaging his ship's navigational commands, Artoo pushed the craft through the path of enemy fighters, heading for the shuttle bay. When he reached the entrance he had to dodge the cannon fire from the control ship, causing him to land hurriedly on the durasteel floor within.
His chaotic landing caught the attention of the security forces inside. Artoo whistled to himself furiously as he saw a number of battle droids approach his vessel. A glance at the ship status controls indicated that the engine had overheated itself during the journey and subsequent violent landing in the hangar bay. He could not make his shot yet. There was no option but to stall the droids.
"Where is your pilot?" queried the foremost battle droid tonelessly.
Artoo beeped what he hoped was a confident reply.
"You are the pilot?" the droid sought to confirm.
Artoo whistled affirmatively, confusing the battle droid even more.
"Show me your identification," the droid commanded, just as the onboard indicator within the star ship's cockpit changed from red to green.
Raising the craft's shield, Artoo lifted the starship into the air, causing the battle droids surrounding the ship to scatter out of his path. As the enemy began firing, he disengaged the locking mechanism on the guns and sent a frenzied blast of lasers in a circle around the bay.
Whilst the lasers were busy occupying the battle droids, Artoo accessed the torpedo control system of his starship. Aiming them at a broad vent which he reasoned would take the weapons deep inside the control ship's innards, he fired.
There was a moment of ensuing concern whilst he waited for the torpedoes to reach their target. When they finally did, the resulting effect set off a series of explosions, cascading from deep inside the central core, then reaching outwards to the furthest chambers, ending with a fire entering the hangar bay.
Artoo's photoreceptors caught the flash of flames before any of the battle droids. Hurriedly he turned the ship round and shot out of the control craft, right back into the midst of the pitched dogfight between the Nubians and the Trade Federation fighter ships.
"Bravo Leader, what's happening with the control ship?" Someone queried through the comm.
"It's blowing up from the inside!" another voice declared.
"Wasn't us, Bravo Two," Bravo Leader informed what was left of the Nubian squadron. "We never hit it."
Artoo brought his craft to a brief halt as the last of the explosions took what was left of the Trade Federation control ship.
"Look!" Bravo Two shouted through the intercom. "That's one of ours! Outta the main hold! Must've been him!"
Artoo whistled cheerfully in reply, causing much astonishment from the rest of the pilots as the Nubian crafts regrouped and headed for home.
Inside the throne room of the Theed Palace, Padmé and her security continued to train their weapons on the Viceroy, Rune Haako and the four Councillors of the Trade Federation, whilst anxiously praying that the thundering noise coming from the anteroom beyond, made by the destroyer droids, would end before the blaster fire shattered the doors which barred against the entrance of enemy reinforcements.
Abruptly their silent prayers were answered, as a sudden quietude descended across the regal chamber, stretching outwards towards the anteroom and into the hallways beyond.
Captain Panaka turned to the Queen, barely able to believe his ears. "What's going on?"
"Try communications," Padmé directed him. "Activate the viewscreens."
Slowly a series of images formed on the previously blank screens that transferred the sensor records of events occurring outside the capital and the immediate orbit of Naboo. In one Padmé could see the Gungan forces cheering amid the remains of destroyed or powered down droids. In another, she could see a figure cloaked in desert shaded robes, entering the hangar bay, with reddish blond closely cropped hair, part of the strands grouped together in a wide brush design, identifying him as Obi-Wan Kenobi. There was no sign of the other warrior, the one attired in dark robes, anywhere.
And in a third, she could see the emptiness of deep space surrounding her planet, no sign of the Trade Federation control ship.
Triumphantly, she shifted her gaze back to the sights of her blaster, and the now, defeated, confused and incredulous Nute Gunray.
"It looks like you'll be signing my treaty after all, Viceroy," Padmé remarked. Gesturing with her blaster towards the seating area reserved for her Councillors, she added, "please, take a seat, so we may discuss it in more detail."
With her blaster still trained on Nute Gunray, Padmé took her usual seat, waiting for the Neimoidians to join her. Captain Panaka left his place of guard by the door and searched them one by one for weapons, before herding each of them to a seat. As the Neimoidians were scared due to the recent loss of their status in being the conquers of Naboo, it took some time before the security chief succeeded in his task.
The Viceroy had just sat down when the doors to the throne room were parted by the carefully neat incision of a lightsaber blade. Obi-Wan entered in their wake, disengaging the weapon to re-clip it to his belt. He came to a halt before the assembled beings and offered a bow to Padmé.
"Your Highness, I have dealt with the enemy warrior who tried to impede your relief of the blockade," Obi-Wan informed her.
"Thank you, Jedi Kenobi," Padmé replied, whilst a gasp of surprise came from the members of the Trade Federation. "I am grateful for your efforts. As you can see, the Viceroy, his fellow Councillors and I, are about to renegotiate the treaty he spoke of. If you would care to join us, the wisdom and experience of the Jedi would be helpful."
Obi-Wan offered another bow in response. "I thank you for the invitation, Your Highness. As it happens, there are many questions concerning the Jedi, regarding this blockade and the actions that preceded it, which I believe only the Viceroy can answer."
"I am sure he will prove most willing to co-operate with your inquiries," Padmé remarked, with a glance towards the Viceroy, who if it was possible seemed to recoil even further under the joint gaze of Queen Amidala and the Jedi.
"Incidentally, Your Highness," Obi-Wan remarked after he had taken one of the remaining councillor seats beside her, "I believe I should offer my apologies and condolences to the Viceroy, regarding the destruction of his control ship in orbit and the loss of the lives on board the vessel. The being responsible for the fatal shot would like to express his sentiments in person, if you and the Viceroy would permit him."
"Of course," Padmé acquiesced. "The loss of life during any engagement is a grievous blow, which is why the Naboo cling to pacifism."
Obi-Wan offered another bow towards her, managing to make the movement gracefully easy, considering he was sitting down, before waving his hand at the doors. With this signal from the Force, the ornate barriers parted once more, to reveal not one of her pilots as Padmé had expected, but instead the small figure of Artoo. The droid tootled a greeting and wheeled himself into the room, coming to a halt within the centre of the council seats circle, where upon he offered a bow to both the Queen and the Viceroy, along with accompanying whistles of his exploits aboard the starship she had last seen him within.
Padmé kept her countenance solemn, but inside she was having difficulty at refraining from smiling. There was a certain irony to be enjoyed in the discovery of a droid destroying the droid control ship of the Trade Federation. The Neimoidians prided themselves on using such mechanical beings for their protection, relied upon them heavily to ensure it. Yet their trust in them only extended so far, as they refused to give the battle droids who had invaded her homeworld the means to think for themselves, preferring to control them remotely from above. That this remote had been destroyed by a droid would give them something to think about, as well as provide interesting news fodder for the rest of the Republic.
A glance directed towards Obi-Wan, was met with a silent yet eloquent expression which indicated that he enjoyed the irony also.
Three days later, Obi-Wan met with Queen Amidala once more, this time to welcome a trio of Masters from the Jedi Council, Senator Palpatine and Chancellor Valorum. Waiting with them, were the Viceroy of the Trade Federation and his colleagues, in the custody of Captain Panaka, who were being transferred to the security accompanying the Chancellor, for trial before the Coruscant Courts. Nute Gunray appeared far more composed now than he had when the Queen met with him to renegotiate his blockade invasion treaty, something which troubled both her and Obi-Wan, although there was little they could do about it, except allow him to keep his dignity before the arriving officials.
As for the treaty, certain evidence had emerged which caused the document to be handed over to the Jedi for further examination. During the negotiations, the Viceroy revealed that he had been under orders to blockade and invade Naboo, by a being calling himself Darth Sidious. When Obi-Wan inquired about the Zabrak he had fought, as whether the warrior had called himself by such a name, the Viceroy informed them that the Zabrak was Sidious' apprentice, Darth Maul. Further inquiry revealed that the first Sith lord had kept his species origins and identity zealously guarded, appearing to them only in heavily shrouded cowls and deceptive holos.
Little else that was useful was gained from the rest of the meeting with the Trade Federation Councillors and their Viceroy. Nute Gunray argued that they knew nothing more than what they had already told them, and Obi-Wan could easily sense the sincerity behind their fearfully uttered pleas. Queen Amidala put them under the care of her security, before retiring to change, so she could meet with her Councillors, who were returning to the capital from the freshly liberated camps scattered across the planet, and organise relief for all of her people who were suffered distress at the hands of the Neimoidians.
Obi-Wan returned to the melting pit within the generator chamber, where he carefully lowered himself down into the depths of that shaft to retrieve the remains of the sith he had fought. Maul's body would need to be examined by the Council, along with the surveillance footage of his fight with the Zabrak, which existed in the Palace sensor records and had been handed over to him by Captain Panaka. He also felt a need to give the warrior all the funereal rites that were accorded to the Jedi when they passed into the Force. Maul may have been an apprentice Sith, but he was still a servant of the Force, and deserved to be paid such a respect.
The remaining two days before the arrival of the Core delegation had been just as busy. Both Queen Amidala and Obi-Wan had their reports to make to the Senate and the Jedi Council, briefings which occasioned the decision for the Chancellor and Masters to visit Naboo themselves for further discussion. Nothing of the Sith was revealed to the Senate by the Queen, as both Obi-Wan and Amidala felt that such evidence should be placed under the purview of the Jedi, rather than the political arm of the Republic, who might act out of panic, in reference to the history of the previous destruction that the Sith had wrought.
Once their reports had been made, Obi-Wan joined the Queen and the rest of her government in aiding the relief effort engaged across her planet. In this matter the Gungans also committed their assistance and the ensuing co-operation which followed brought forth into being plans for a celebration to mark this historic union between Gungan and Naboo, who had hitherto regarded each other with mutual prejudice and avoidance.
The celebrations were set to take place tomorrow, and the visitors from the Core were to honour the occasion with their attendance. As their ship touched down on the exterior hyperspace landing lane, Obi-Wan put to rest any further hope of his Master being included among the party of Jedi. Qui-Gon was still far off, presumably still on Tatooine, judging by what he could sense in his training bond with his Master.
It would have been nice to see him, but Obi-Wan knew that they would probably have more time together in the Temple than here, where there was much to discuss and an occasion to celebrate before the days could be reserved for such domestic matters. Drawing in a breath, he returned his focus to the slowly lowering ramp of the ship in front of him, his keen eyesight and Force sense heightened in curiosity as to who the Council had decided to send, for that decision had not been reached in his presence when he delivered his report.
Much to his surprise, it was Master Yoda, Master Adi Gallia and Master Dooku. The latter was not a member of the Council, but that factor did nothing to diminish his reputation within the Order, and he had mentored Qui-Gon Jinn. Obi-Wan drew in another breath, then greeted the three Jedi with a full bow of deep respect.
"Greetings, Padawan Kenobi," Master Yoda spoke first and for them all. "Mislaid your Master, you have."
Obi-Wan caught the underlying humour within the observation. The Grand Master was used to finding him alone wandering the Temple, or his Master equally, in quest of a misplaced stray or from insomnia induced visions. However, for some reason the remark roused a chill from within, and he knew not why. "He ordered me to leave after destroying a probe droid, Master. He feared that the Queen's safety was compromised, as did I, though I'm sure he did not expect us to return to Naboo."
Yoda nodded, catching the conflicting sensations within the Force, and replying in a tone designed to soothe such currents. "Fret not, young one. Right you were in returning to Naboo than travelling to the Core. Gone to Tatooine, Master Windu has. Fetch your wayward Master back to Coruscant he shall."
"Along with accompanying strays, no doubt," Master Dooku murmured, causing all of them to smile, for Qui-Gon's penchant for picking up such was legendary within the Temple, and his master had as much experience with it as his apprentice.
The Grand Master allowed the moment of humour its free reign, then tapped his gimer stick on the ground, signalling a new subject. "Come, much to show us there is."
"Yes, Masters," Obi-Wan replied before turning to lead the way.
It was not until later, when the Jedi gathered to observe the solemn, funereal rites being accorded to Darth Maul, that Obi-Wan gained any insight into the conclusions which the Masters had drawn. The three Jedi had examined all the evidence in silence, listened to his detailed report with care, and offered many questions, none of them in any way revealing of the direction which their thoughts were taking.
Obi-Wan accepted such confidentiality as the norm, it was not his place to be granted insight into the collective mind and wisdom of the Council. He was only a padawan, his task was to serve his masters and the Force. But that did not mean that he refrained from quietly speculating as to what conclusions they might draw, and if their frame of thought matched his own, or his Master's theories.
The funeral pyre before him held the remains of a being who often symbolised a thing of terror for many, Jedi and non-Jedi alike. If he was indeed a Sith, as the Neimoidians attested, and his own senses tentatively concluded from the darkness he felt during the duel, then the Order must be wary, for there were dark times ahead. Such beings had been considered extinct for a millennia, killed during the Ruusan Wars, a fevered pitched battle between Jedi and Sith that had put the Republic in mortal danger. A possibility of a return to those black days after decades of peace was a disturbing prospect.
"There is no doubt that the warrior was a Sith," Dooku murmured to Master Yoda.
"Always two there are," Yoda observed. "A Master and an apprentice."
"Then which one was destroyed?" Windu asked. "The Master or the apprentice?"
Obi-Wan frowned at that, for he thought they already knew that the remains burning before them was once an apprentice, according to the Neimoidians. Who spoke the words was also out of place, for he was sure that Master Windu was enroute to Tatooine, or perhaps already there in Mos Espa to collect his master. Then he felt a tug on his cloak and turning his head, saw a small boy standing beside him.
"What will happen to me now?" the boy asked him.
"The Council have given me permission to train you," Obi-Wan heard himself replying, even as his senses seemed to scream incomprehension to his surroundings, the numbness he found himself feeling and what he was saying. "You will be a Jedi, I promise."
He turned back to the flames, but instead of seeing the remains of the warrior that he fought, to his horror, he saw his Master instead. He blinked, hoping that eyes were deceiving him, and the sight disappeared, just as quickly as it had come. No boy stood beside him, only the three Jedi Masters of Yoda, Dooku and Gallia.
Another vision, he concluded silently, as he began to speculate as to what it meant. He had seen the boy before, or rather seen through the boy's eyes he realised, when he foresaw the Sith he would face aboard the Queen's yacht on Tatooine. Immense potential lay inside him, imbued from the Force, unrecognised and untested, at least without knowing what it was, why it existed and how to harness it. But there also lay within him turmoil, a fight against the inevitable tenets of the universe, birth, life, death.
It was the way of the Jedi to believe that there was only the ancient energy that they served, but there was no denying that those three tenets existed, or that they were required to house the Force. Such a paradox brought forth two codes of the Order, the new denying emotion, ignorance, passion, chaos, death, while the old allowed for their existence, with a reminder of what should be observed as well. Nowadays most of the Order followed the former, but Obi-Wan had learned both from his master, and it was his belief that the old style was far more appreciative of the Jedi life than the new, though he was careful to whom he voiced that opinion to.
He would tell Master Yoda of his vision tomorrow, for the Grand Master knew of his gift in the Unifying Force, often experiencing such foresight as well himself. Long before he became Qui-Gon's padawan, he had gone to the Grand Master with his visions, and Yoda had helped him come to terms with them and the focus to be careful of not giving them more consideration than they were due.
With this resolution in mind, Obi-Wan's focus returned to the flames and the troubled soul that the body within them had once housed.
It was the day of the parade. Obi-Wan woke from an untroubled sleep, found due to his meditation the night before, in which he had let go of everything which prayed upon his mind, so he would rise in the morning refreshed. Events like these were things he was accustomed to, they were part of the everyday diplomatic junket that Jedi would observe whenever they were called to serve a negotiation. But familiarity did not breed complacency or boredom, there was always something new and wondrous to witness in the way each were carried out, or what effect they produced within the Force.
The three Council Members had brought their dress uniforms, and Master Yoda gave him his when he parted from them the night before, after the funeral. Little distinguished them from the regular Jedi robes, except that the materials consisted of a finer quality than the usual, more durable attire which they wore everyday. Having broken his fast and performed his ablutions, Obi-Wan retrieved the robes from the hangers where he had stowed them the night before, and began to clothe himself.
When he was ready, he left the room which the Queen had given him and headed for the central plaza, where the parade was to take place. Crowds were already gathering either side of the stone steps where the dignitaries were to assemble, lining the streets or leaning out of the windows of the buildings nearby, watching as the Gungan warriors rode into the city.
These veterans sat astride kaadu, in company with Naboo soldiers astride speeders, rousing cheers from every member of the spectators as they passed. Fambaa lumbered down the thoroughfares, mantled in rich silks and embroidered harnesses, heads weaving from side to side on long necks, as well as the odd captured Federation tank hovering, Naboo and Gungan flags flying from cannons and hatchways. Jar Jar Binks and General Ceel, the senior warrior of Boss Nass' army, led their comrades, both riding their kaadu, Jar Jar managing to stay aboard this time for the entire parade, though he looked to those in attendance to be having a bit of trouble doing so.
Obi-Wan took his place behind the Jedi Council Masters, bowing to them in a silent morning greeting as was their due. Turning his gaze from the parade, his sea shade eyes found and fixed upon the Queen. Padmé was wearing a white gown, with light pink and yellow flowers adorning a large cloak that covered her shoulders. Her hair was cradled high above her neck, styled in an elaborate series of folds, shielded by a white veiled ruff, which was studded with curled metal strips to keep it straight and fixed in place. Her face wore the pale makeup of Queen Amidala, adding a certain exoticism to an otherwise beautiful young woman. Since their return to the planet neither of them had spent a moment together where they could talk as friends, constrained to act in matters aimed at freeing her planet from the Trade Federation. It was his hope that they would have some time with each other before he departed for Coruscant with the Jedi.
From where he stood Obi-Wan could clearly see every nuance of her expression, a smile gracing her red painted lips as she watched Jar Jar dismount rather clumsily from his kaadu, to join General Ceel in escort of their king, as Boss Nass mounted the steps towards her. His feelings for the accident prone Gungan had changed since he first came to know him. Now he regarded Jar Jar with the compassion and admiration he reserved for all beings, two emotions strengthened further by reports of Jar Jar's gallant efforts during the battle with the droids.
Boss Nass reached the Queen's side, and Amidala turned to him, handing over the Globe of Peace which he raised aloft and held high above his head. The word echoed audibly out across the colonnade, causing cheers to erupt from the crowds present.
As for Amidala, she turned from viewing the globe to the mass of dignitaries assembled alongside her, searching for one person in particular. Obi-Wan felt his face transform to match her own, as her brown eyes fixed on him, returning smile for smile, warmth for warmth. For a moment, it was as if no one existed except for themselves. They were aware of nothing except the strength in the exchange of each other's gaze, the unconscious emotions behind it, waiting to recognised and acknowledged. He could hear the sound of distant singing, a choral chorus of celebration from the Force, which only seemed to enhance the vision, rather than detract from it.
He could still hear the singing when the celebrations moved from the parade grounds to the interior of the palace, where he and the Council socialised with the members of Queen Amidala's court, and the visiting Gungan King and his dignitaries. The sound did not impede him from attending to conversation with others, but he remained aware of its presence throughout the rest of the festivities. It drew a part of himself away from everything, calling on him to direct his thoughts upon puzzling the meaning behind it, if he had a moment to himself in which to do so.
It left him somewhat distracted and he attended to the conversation of others with only half his focus, as though he was waiting for something to attack, rather than what was really only nothing more than a buzzing in his ear. The resonance altered however whenever he was in the company of Queen Amidala, transforming into something resembling a training bond, the like of which he shared with his master. He and Qui-Gon had, he was reliably informed, one of the strongest bonds in the Order, but this one with Padmé appeared run even deeper, and as yet it was only one sided, causing him to wonder what it would feel like if she became aware of the music as well.
He had never experienced this before, nor had he believed that such was possible with a non-force sensitive, or anyone outside the Order for that matter. He did not know what to make of it, and the need to ask a master for wisdom was almost as overwhelming as the music itself. But the absence of Qui-Gon prevented him from surrendering to that desire. Master Yoda may be one of his earliest mentors, but Obi-Wan had little idea what his views on attachment were, and whether they coincided with Qui-Gon's. Not to mention that he was still a padawan, for all his achievements. And Padmé may be a Queen, but she was still young, too young for this sort of commitment.
They were also due to depart early tomorrow, to return to Coruscant. He was unlikely to see her again, unless it was by their own contrivance. It would be for the best if he forgot her and she him, but the mere idea of doing so was most unsettling at present. Nor was it made any easier by her ignorance concerning such feelings, if indeed she was truly ignorant of them. She was a perceptive woman despite her youth, her insight during the negotiations with Viceroy Gunray had proved invaluable when it came to saving her world. If she was innocent, then his conscience would not be troubled by causing her to feel more than she should, but it would not make a difference to his own feelings.
Today should have been one of the most happiest days of her reign. But all Padmé could think about was that the day could be the last time she saw Obi-Wan Kenobi. He had become a good friend during their all too brief acquaintance, and the thought of not talking to or not seeing him again was unsettling. She could ask him to keep in touch of course, but it was unlikely that their paths would cross twice. He was a Jedi and her reign would not allow for many trips off planet. It would be eight years at least before she could retire from public life, as most sovereigns served two terms upon the Nubian throne.
Perhaps such a separation was for the best. She was too young for attachment after all, not that her feelings were built upon such an inclination, no matter what her security chief might think, or that she had been given to understand by Obi-Wan himself that he did not believe in such rigid conventions. That aside, their friendship might be frowned upon by his superiors and her political allies, for the Order was supposed to remain neutral in all matters.
Yet she would miss him. He had provided valuable skill and insight during their escape to Tatooine, and support through all her troubles, including protection when she took back her planet from the Trade Federation. His voice had added weight to her own at the negotiation table with Viceroy Gunray. At every moment he had carefully managed the difficult skill of deferring to her as a sovereign, and taking the lead in matters where his experience outweighed her own. A delicate balance for any diplomat, yet he had achieved it with considerable aplomb. There were numerous qualities which he possessed which she would not find in any one else of her acquaintance.
Throughout the parade she felt aware of him more than any other being present. When she stepped back from giving the globe of peace to the Gungan King she found herself searching for his face in the sea of dignitaries. Upon finding him, his smile had blossomed to match her own, as if he could not enjoy himself until he knew that she felt the same emotion.
When the celebrations moved inside the Palace, she could not help herself in seeking him out, or keeping him in view when she was called away by one of her councillors or handmaidens, or Gungan dignitaries. She was aware of him no matter how far away from her he was within the confines of the room. He seemed to be aware of her too, as more often than not she caught his blue grey eyes meeting her own across the crowded chamber.
On the rare occasions that their paths crossed, they were allowed to exchange only the formal civilities of conversation; each of their remarks limited to talk of politics, diplomacy, the state of the Republic, of the known galaxy. Others were always with them, it was not possible for them to be alone, even for a moment. She felt the injustice of it keenly, for there was much that she wished to say to him. The possibility that she might not get the chance to do so was very real and quite despairing.
It was as if the galaxy was conspiring against them for even with the Force as their ally neither of them gained the chance to talk to each other freely that afternoon, or the evening which followed, as the festivities carried on long into the twilight hours and beyond. As they drew to a close almost upon the dawn of the new day, both contemplated the brief possibility of lingering until all the other dignitaries had departed in the hope that they might have a chance to talk freely then. However it was not to be, for her handmaidens clustered around her, ushering her away, while for him the Jedi Council Masters expected him to attend a group meditation before sleep, as was customary both within the Temple and without. He could not excuse himself from such an honour.
Both retired for the night with heavy hearts, burdened by the sadness over the opportunity that they had lost.
Obi-Wan woke early the next morning and after attending to his ablutions and attire, reluctantly joined the other members of the Order in the Palace hangar bay, in front of their transport back to Coruscant. He had little desire to return to the jewel of the Core Worlds, not without being able to say a proper farewell to Padmé first, but after the despair of last night, he was resigned to the seeming impossibility of such an encounter.
The Jedi Council members entered the ship first. Naboo's Senator and the Supreme Chancellor were to follow in a day or two, otherwise Obi-Wan might have had the chance of an official farewell with Queen Amidala, a poor substitute for the one he desired with her counterpart. When they had disappeared into the ship, he took one last look around the hangar bay, praying she might appear, as if he could conjure her presence out of the emptiness of his surroundings. But such things were not possible even with the help of the Force.
He turned to go, when a voice called out, reaching across the bay, carrying over the sound of the ship's engines, causing him to halt. Though she uttered but one word, he knew who she was instantly, for the Force had started to sing again. Padmé. Turning, he saw her briefly pause in her flight towards him, making sure that he had heard her cry before she continued on her journey. He waited for her to reach him. She was wearing a long white nightgown, with a pale yellow embellished shawl hastily thrown about her shoulders, and above the garment her long brown hair lay, free of any adornment, flowing all about her from the harsh breeze that was created by the ship's engines.
She came to a halt before him, her eyes searching his own for something only she knew, the nature of which he could only hope to divine. Managing to appear both girl and woman at once, her countenance carrying such an expression of loss that he could do naught but throw caution and restraint to the winds and take her in his arms.
"Keep in touch," she begged. Of all the things she wanted to say this was the most important and in the end, the only one that mattered. "I could not bear the thought of never seeing you again."
"I will," he promised, before surrendering to another impulse, by bending his head and pressing his lips to her own.
It was a kiss full of promise, a vow shared and exchanged, as solemn and as unbreakable as that which required a priest. He parted from her reluctantly, the sight of her standing there on the platform one that would remain in his heart and mind forever.
Qui-Gon passed one lonely night gazing out of the small window hole of the adobe hut in the slave quarter of Mos Espa, lying in wait for the owner of the probe droid. When morning heralded no sign of that creature's arrival, he gradually relaxed his guard. If whoever had sent that probe droid after him was still on Tatooine, it was reasonable to suppose that they would have found and confronted him by now. There would have no difficulty in finding them, for the droid would have continued to transmit until it was destroyed, allowing for the location of such final signals to be traced.
Clearly, whoever the creature was, they had gone after Obi-Wan and the Queen without bothering to wait for the probe droid to finish its investigation. Now he was free to direct all his concerns towards his padawan, and the party of Naboo which he protected. Qui-Gon had every faith in his apprentice, but there were dark forces at work, which were capable of confounding them, for they were in command of things beyond their control or purview.
As there was little to do but fret, Qui-Gon sought to busy himself instead, by helping Shmi and Ani with the chores required in the upkeep of their home, and the forays into town which were sometimes required.
It was in this fashion that the days passed, without any word from his padawan or even from Coruscant, until one morning someone tapped out a knock with their hand on the door of the small adobe walled hut.
Shmi was first to the door, but rendered uncertain when she did not recognise the man standing on the threshold waiting to be admitted, even though his usually stern features were arranged in a friendly smile. It was left to their guest to recognise him.
"Mace!" Qui-Gon exclaimed, looking up from his work as Shmi stood aside to let the Jedi in. "What do you do here?"
"I came to take you back to the Temple, of course," Mace Windu replied, accepting the hug from his friend in greeting.
"The Council could spare you?" Qui-Gon queried. "I thought you would send a knight or another master to fetch us."
Mace pretended he had not noticed the use of the plural. "Considering the events you have missed, the Council thought it best to send a friend to catch you up."
Qui-Gon sought the relative comfort of a chair as his friend's choice of words served to bring all his worries to the forefront of his mind. "What's happened? Is Obi-Wan okay?"
"Your padawan is well, have no fear on that score," Mace replied as he took a seat by the table also. "In fact he is quite extraordinary."
Qui-Gon looked up at the Korun with startled eyes and mind. "How so?"
"When he left here, the Nubian Queen decided not to appeal to the Senate. Instead, she returned to her homeworld, where she and Obi-Wan led a three pronged attack on the Trade Federation."
"That was a bold move," Qui-Gon mused, inwardly touched with admiration for it was a piece of action which he might have been taken, had he been in Obi-Wan's position. Though his padawan tended to admonish for the unorthodox moves he often took, usually without consulting the Council first, it was clear that Obi-Wan had taken the on board the benefits which could be accrued in doing so on occasion. "What did it involve?"
"The Naboo formed an alliance with the planet's other native species, the Gungans, who led an army to counter the droids of the Trade Federation, drawing their forces away from the capital, whilst in space a team of pilots helped an astrodroid to destroy the control ship, and with the help of her handmaidens and security cadre, Queen Amidala captured the Viceroy."
"And Obi-Wan was with the Queen?" Qui-Gon sought to confirm.
"He was until they reached the palace hangar bay. Then he encountered the Sith from his vision. And defeated him."
Qui-Gon was stunned. "Obi-Wan defeated a Sith? Not that I'm doubting my padawan's ability, but are you sure?"
"The palace security holos run on a separate system to the comm, so they were unaffected by the Trade Federation's blockade and caught everything. Queen Amidala gave us a record of the footage." Mace paused to produce a viewpad from his pocket. "Here is a copy for you."
"So what does this mean?" Qui-Gon asked.
"Many things. For starters, the Council decided that this extraordinary act was enough to grant your padawan his knighthood, despite Obi-Wan's eloquent objections to the contrary."
Qui-Gon smiled and shook his head. He would have to have words with Obi-Wan when he returned home. "My padawan is too modest for his own good sometimes, though I understand why he might object, as he is keen to follow the usual traditions of gaining his knighthood, but I doubt that the Council could devise any event more difficult to overcome than a Sith for his trials." He pocketed the viewpad and turned his focus to the Naboo. "What of the Queen and her people?"
"The leaders of the Trade Federation have been taken into custody, pending a trial by the Courts," Mace replied. "Queen Amidala, with Obi-Wan's help, has formalised a treaty with the Gungans, who will send a representative to the Senate. She has agreed to keep the knowledge of the existence of the Sith a secret for now, while the Order investigates further." He turned his gaze on the Skywalkers for a moment, considering. "Obi-Wan gave us a brief account of what you did while you were here. I understand you found a potential Jedi."
"I have," Qui-Gon replied. "Providing the Council accepts him." he gestured to the boy, who was watching the two Jedi with obvious fascination and was only prevented from coming forward to introduce himself to the new arrival by his mother.
Mace glanced once at the boy and nodded, before turned back to Qui-Gon. "I am ready to leave this place whenever you are."
"Give us a few minutes to gather their things," Qui-Gon replied rising from the chair. He stepped back and gestured the Skywalkers forward. "Jedi Master Mace Windu, may I introduce Shmi Skywalker and her son Anakin. Shmi, Ani, this is Master Windu, he is head of the Jedi Council. He has come to take us to Coruscant."
"Wizard," Ani murmured before shaking the Jedi's hand, while his mother greeted the Korun Jedi Master with the more usual civility. Shmi then stepped away to help Qui-Gon gather the belongings, while Anakin began asking numerous questions about Master Windu, the Council, and anything about the Order which Qui-Gon had not already answered.
When Shmi and Qui-Gon rejoined them, the inquiries were nowhere near finished, and it was a test of all his Jedi serenity for Qui-Gon to keep a composed face at witnessing such a sight. To his credit Mace was answering all the questions in a gentle manner not usually seen from those who knew him at the Temple, giving Anakin time to acknowledge and understand each answer before allowing the boy move on to the next.
The wave of questions stopped at the sight of the ship, then after the boy had muttered a few words of appreciation, they resumed, this time in search of answers about the craft that they would be flying in to Coruscant. These required some pause for thought on the Master's part, as ship mechanics was not one of Mace Windu's passions, followed by amazement when Anakin figured out a piece of information on his own without requiring an answer from the Jedi Council Master.
Shmi and Qui-Gon exchanged smiles of bemusement at the sight of her son and Master Windu, throughout the journey from the small adobe hut in the slave quarter of Mos Espa to the ship waiting for them on the outskirts of the city. Between them there seemed to exist a mutual understanding and coexistence, the like of which he had never seen before, let alone managed to scratch the surface of. It was almost similar to the bond that lay between a padawan and their master, yet unlike her son, Shmi was not Force sensitive. Despite carrying and then giving birth to potentially one of the powerful Jedi in the known universe, she did not have even the slightest inclination of what her son possessed in abundance. Everyone had the potential within them, for midi-chlorians were present in all life, but it was almost as if she had passed all of hers on to Anakin, in selfless sacrifice.
The trio boarded the ship, Anakin slipping into the copilot's seat, regarding the controls with fascinated awe. His inquiries were at an end for a moment, for he understood that there was a time and a need for silence, whilst Master Windu prepared the craft for take off and entrance into hyperspace. The Korun was still faintly stunned by the assault on his senses that was Anakin Skywalker, he was both grateful for this temporary relief, and rather saddened by the boy's abrupt pause.
Shmi too watched the preparations for the journey with some fascination, leaving Qui-Gon to retrieve the copy of the records concerning his padawan's latest triumphs. Powering up the device, he placed the viewing pad before him, and pressed play.
The footage began with an explosion of a tank outside the entrance to the Palace, then followed by the Naboo and Obi-Wan entering the hanger bay, firing at the droids, the pilots racing to their ships. He watched as they slowed to halt before a door, where upon Obi-Wan murmured something to the Queen before she darted away out of sight, leaving his padawan to face whatever fray it was alone.
Qui-Gon saw him ignite his saber then engage another, when the footage switched cameras to reveal his apprentice's opponent. The sight of the red saber and the Zabrak's dark skinned adornments told him all he needed to know. If he had not been certain of it before, he was now; Obi-Wan had fought a sith. His heart seemed to leave his chest and take up residence within his throat as he watched the rest of the footage. Obi-Wan was skilled in combat, he had taught him well, but this duel was pushing his apprentice to his limits and beyond. Not even the brief pause of the duellists during the shield cycle caused a cessation of his worries, and when Obi-Wan slipped to fall down the shaft, his grip on the viewpad almost failed him.
The relief of witnessing his padawan finally defeat the sith was palatable. In many ways it was a move so simple and classic of Obi-Wan that Qui-Gon was surprised that he had not realised it would turn out to be the killing blow when he saw Obi-Wan fall into the shaft. But then his anxiety for his padawan's safety had overwhelmed any ability to think rationally. Mace had told him that Obi-Wan survived, but hearing such an thing was different from seeing it, or experiencing it, albeit from the safety of a recording.
He closed the file down and put the viewpad back in his robes, glancing up from where it had been resting on his lap to find Shmi Skywalker quietly watching him. She seemed to breathe more easily as he met her gaze with his own, and he was struck by the impression that she had been observing him for some time, and with some concern.
"What was it you were watching?" she asked him softly.
"My son, defeating a sith," he replied. There was a note of pride within his tone, he realised, but then he had spoken of Obi-Wan as his son and not his apprentice, so such an emotion was entirely natural. The boy had always been more to him than just a padawan, however long he took to realise it.
Shmi looked at him with some confusion, having never heard the term before. "Is that a good thing?" she inquired.
"A very good thing," he murmured, not wishing to say anything further about the existence and the return of those beings who were held to be the Order's enemy, knowing he would scare her concerning her son. As for Ani, hopefully he would have years before he had to worry about the sith, if at all.
"I'll have to congratulate him when I meet him then," Shmi remarked.
"As will I," Qui-Gon replied, "though I warn you now Obi-Wan will probably dismiss the praise. He is unfailingly modest about his achievements."
She nodded, as a child's laughter broke the silence, causing her to direct her attention to her son, who was giggling at something the Jedi Council Master had said. "You know, I did think Master Windu would be more foreboding, judging from your description about the ways of the Jedi Order."
"Well, the Council and I butt heads frequently," Qui-Gon revealed. "But then I am one of their more unorthodox masters. I'm sorry that I gave you such an impression."
"Thank you," Shmi replied. "I'm sure it was a product of my own nerves as well. I imagine that becoming a Jedi is a long and difficult process."
"How difficult it is depends on the individual," Qui-Gon replied. "As for how long it takes, most of us tend to believe that we spend all our lives as a student of the Force."
"Something which is equally true of life as well," Shmi agreed, to which he nodded in agreement.
A silence settled between them then, as the ship entered hyperspace, the stars coalescing into long bright white lines, stretching towards a black focal point that was light years ahead of their position. Anakin, who had previously only imagined such scenes, was moved to speechless wonderment and Qui-Gon heard Shmi quietly take a measuring breath, as if the sight roused a certain memory from her.
When the talk between Master Windu and her son resumed again, Shmi spoke, revealing to him what it was she had remembered.
"I was younger than Ani when I first saw hyperspace," she began, her voice soft and low, yet still managing to reach him over the ceaseless conversation ahead of them. "I heard it tell that I was born in space, too impatient to see the galaxy that I would call home to stay inside my mother, where it was safe. While I was young I dreamed of studying the stars. The cosmos fascinated me. I would spend ages staring out of ship's view ports, just watching them. It seemed a career appropriate to my name. But then the slavers came, and my dreams were denied me." She paused, turning her fond gaze upon her son, "I hope my son never has his dreams dashed, by events that must dictate, or by others. He would not take kindly to it."
Qui-Gon held his peace over such a light shed upon the boy's character. He had been watching Anakin ever since their departure from Tatooine was delayed. Whilst the power of his potential never cease to amaze him, there were other sides of the boy's nature that troubled him, causing him to doubt whether the Temple was the best place to train him. As an unorthodox Jedi his own journey from initiate to padawan, to knighthood and then finally to mastery, had been long and hard, filled with an uncompromising mentor and a despairing Council. After the fall of Xanatos, he had been tempted to leave the Order, held back from doing so only by the machinations of Master Yoda to bring him and Obi-Wan together. The rigours of Temple life had worked for Obi-Wan, who had thrived under the discipline and self sacrifice to achieve his dreams. But more and more he doubted that such training would work for Anakin Skywalker.
The alternative was Master Altis, who together with a group of Jedi families were located away from the Temple on Coruscant, on another planetary base. Qui-Gon knew how to get in touch with him, but the question of whether to do so before or after the Council had met Anakin was one he must form an answer to soon. By the time they arrived on Coruscant in fact, for after that, events would doubtless dictate his actions. He would have Obi-Wan to see to, a knighting ceremony to perform, numerous council meetings. Unless he made the time to contact Altis, Qui-Gon doubted he would be given a chance to do so. Judging by Mace's reaction to Anakin, the Council's decision concerning him might not be as difficult as he once thought. And once the boy was accepted, there would be no going back.
Rousing himself from his ruminations, Qui-Gon turned his focus firmly away from the present to make a decision which would change not just his life, but a great many others as well.
Their shuttles touched down at the same time. Inside the cockpit Obi-Wan could feel the strengthening of his bond with his Master as the craft carrying Qui-Gon and his companions drew nearer. Silently he turned to Master Yoda, who nodded, wordlessly granting permission for the padawan to break with protocol and leave the ship first. Rising gracefully to his feet, he bowed to the Grand Master, before darting from the cockpit to the hangar, running down the ramp, then across the short distance of Temple floor which separated the two ships to arrive just in time to see his master descend from his craft.
When Qui-Gon reached the foot of his own ramp, Obi-Wan bowed in greeting. "Hello, Master."
"Hello, padawan," he replied, before drawing the young man into an embrace. "I saw the recording of your trials. It was most impressive, young one."
Obi-Wan bowed his head. He was defeated even before he could begin. Nevertheless, he was still determined to make an attempt. "It was not my trials, master. It was merely a duel, nothing more."
"Merely a duel?" Qui-Gon queried. "The first duel with a Sith in over a millennia? I beg to differ, pupil mine."
"Master, I disobeyed orders," Obi-Wan protested. "Your mandate to take the Queen to Coruscant was quite clear."
"How many times have I disobeyed orders?" Qui-Gon countered. "If you had followed my instructions, I doubt both of us would be standing here now. In fact, I highly suspect that you have had a vision which corroborates such suspicion."
"That is no matter," Obi-Wan persisted. "To promote me on the basis of an act of violence such as this, sets a dangerous precedent."
"Just as not promoting you would do so," Qui-Gon retorted. "Knighting a Jedi on the basis of defeating a Sith is an old custom, Obi-Wan. As a scholar of our archives you should know this. Accept what you have been striving so hard to obtain, young one."
Obi-Wan bowed his head, not quite reconciled, but temporarily resigned. "Yes, Master." he turned to the woman who had accompanied Qui-Gon down the ramp, repeating the same gesture with which he had greeted his master. "Forgive me, Mistress Skywalker, for not greeting you properly until now. I am Obi-Wan Kenobi, padawan to Master Jinn."
"I am pleased to meet you," Shmi replied, taking the proffered hand in a gentle clasp, a slight blush gracing her features as he raised her hand to his lips and bestowed a kiss. "And do not concern yourself with such a breach of politeness. There was none in my mind. I can understand your eagerness to reunite with your master, who has told me much of your close relationship. It gave me time to adjust to my surroundings."
To a stranger the hangar bay of the Jedi Temple was an impressive site. High panelled arches enclosed long running smooth floors, caressed by graceful ships of elegant, slim line proportions. Around them clusters of Jedi gathered, masters, padawans and initiates alike, departing, arriving, or maintaining the crafts which served as their gateway to the galaxy.
Behind them Obi-Wan espied the disparate figures of Master Windu and Mistress Skywalker's son. The boy was chatting happily to the former, as all the while his wide blue eyes cast themselves about the hangar bay, absorbing everything in sight. He could feel the untapped power banked within the boy's slight figure, the potential which the midi-chlorian test that he had ran only gave an indication of. He did not envy the whoever took him as an apprentice. A long road lay ahead of them, with huge rewards at the end, but also could lead to huge losses. But he had to be trained. With that much power inside of him, it would be dangerous to let him continue on alone and unprotected, especially now that he knew of it.
He bowed as Qui-Gon and Shmi parted to let the Council Master and the boy come forth. "Greetings, Master Windu."
"Hello, young Kenobi," the Korun Jedi replied, before capturing the boy's attention. "Anakin Skywalker, meet Obi-Wan Kenobi, Master Jinn's apprentice."
The boy turned his wide blue eyed gaze towards him. "You're still an apprentice?" he queried incredulously.
Obi-Wan smiled. "That topic is currently under review. But there are those of us within the Order who believe we are students of the Force our whole lives."
As Anakin absorbed this information, the gentle tap tap tap of a gimer stick could be heard making its way towards them. Obi-Wan moved aside, bowing once more as the Grand Master came to a halt before the young boy.
"Anakin Skywalker, greets you does Master Yoda," uttered the owner of that gimer stick.
Like countless pupils before him, the youngling was struck silent in the face of the most powerful and revered Jedi within the Order. Yoda stretched out a hand towards him, halting the passage of his gnarled fingers just before the boy's scalp. Eyes closed, the grand master read Anakin's mind in such a gentle fashion that the youngling did not flinch from such an intrusive motion. When he reached the end, his hand retreated back to clasp the gimer stick the end still resting on the floor, suspended upright by the Force, until the grand master placed his hands over the hilt.
"Many futures I see in you, Anakin Skywalker," Yoda murmured. "Fate of the many or of the few rests on you." He turned and bowed to the boy's mother. "Shmi Skywalker, welcome you to the Temple does Master Yoda."
"Thank you," Shmi replied, too startled by the appearance of the Grand Master, whom everyone around her regarded too highly to say anything else.
"Settle in you both will. When young Kenobi's Knighthood ceremony is over, see you and Anakin the Council shall," Yoda added, fixing on Obi-Wan a look which had masters, knights, padawans and initiates all quelling alike. There would be no further argument concerning his promotion from him.
The grand master turned round, waited for the head of the Council to draw level with him, then led the way out of the hangar bay into the halls of the Temple. The Skywalkers followed them, leaving Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon to bring up the rear. Apart from the frequent exclamations at the various sights and sounds of the temple's wonders from Anakin, it was a relatively quiet journey to the residential area of the building that the Jedi called home. Obi-Wan held his peace concerning his knighthood, as his thoughts moved from building arguments against promotion, to what he made of the boy whom his master was so fascinated by. He had quickly realised that it was not just one Skywalker that his master was drawn to, but both of them. As far as Shmi was concerned, the attraction was understandable, she was beautiful, not in the usual outward style, but within, possessing something about her which drew you to her and never allowed you to forget the last time you saw her.
As for the boy, Obi-Wan was not sure what to make of him. He was powerful, even without using the Force he could feel the untapped potential coming from Anakin the moment he had met him. Teaching him to harness that power would be a challenge a great many masters would relish. But as with the presence of all such gifts with it would come danger, not just to the teacher, but also to the student and those around them. For when Anakin realised how powerful he could be, he needed to know how to use it wisely, otherwise it would be almost impossible for anyone to stop him from using too much.
Keeping his observations to himself for the moment, Obi-Wan watched the boy take in every sight and sound that the Temple had to offer in the journey to the residential area. Aside from glancing around him at the appearance of the tall halls and rooms, the wide variety of beings that the Temple housed, he also stole glances towards Master Yoda. The grand master was by far the most extraordinary being of all, and today he was at his most inscrutable. The mask of an old, decrepit, rascal was firmly in place. Few who saw him now, as he moved slowly along the passage, leaning on his gimer stick with each step he took, grunting every now and again as though the walk caused him strain, would realise that he was one of the most legendary masters within the Order. Over eight hundred years old, he was the wisest Jedi and the finest sabermaster. No one could match him with a blade, not even Master Windu, who had invented one of the seven saber forms himself. To those who were not members of the Order, he appeared to be little more than an old green troll, unless one looked beyond that mask to the being behind it. In the Senate his insight and wisdom was respected, though his skills with a saber were less known. In the temple his reputation was widespread, even amongst the younglings, whose minds he taught daily.
Anakin knew nothing of this as yet. Yet Obi-Wan wondered how much of it was perceptible to his young, yet powerful senses. He knew that Yoda played this trick on strangers and newcomers often, not letting the mask slip until they realised it for themselves. If they failed, the mask was all they saw. Even a few members of the Order were not spared from such a fate and wondered at the reverence in which other colleagues held the grand master.
The guest quarters of the residential area came first. Yoda lifted his gimer stick from the floor to wave the doors apart, revealing the vast, spacious rooms within. Anakin's attention shifted from the Grand Master to exclaiming at the seemingly monstrous size of the apartment given to him and his mother, that could have easily fitted in their small adobe walled hut on Tatooine ten times over. The Coruscant Temple was used to housing visiting Masters, Knights and padawans from the distant satellite outposts that were dotted about the galaxy, even the occasional trusted senator or non-Force sensitive dignitary. It did not stint on space, even for those who were used to calling it home. The apartment consisted of a large living area, comfortably furnished, with one wide corner kitchen diner. Four rooms gathered before a short passage from the living area, a dining room, two beds each with their own refresher and a separate one for visitors.
Leaving the Skywalkers to settle in, Masters Windu and Yoda led the way to Obi-Wan's and Qui-Gon's quarters, even though the master and padawan team were quite capable of finding the apartment on their own. For a moment they savoured the silence left by the departure of their guests, before venturing forth their observations on them.
"A remarkable boy," Mace Windu murmured.
"Remarkable he may be," Yoda conceded. "But the Chosen One he is not."
"Master, the boy has the highest midi-chlorian account that the Temple has ever witnessed," Qui-Gon protested.
"Highest his count is not," Yoda revealed, astonishing the two masters and padawan, who was quietly amazed that he was being given the rare privilege of inclusion into a discussion that should really be reserved for the Council chamber, or the Grand Master's private meditation room and or quarters. "Higher I have seen. More proof do you need to offer, before calling him the Chosen One."
"What about his power?" Qui-Gon queried. "And the circumstances of his birth? Mistress Skywalker claimed that she knew no father. Does that not allow for the possibility that he was conceived by the Force?"
"A slave Shmi Skywalker was," Yoda pointed out. "Forced into things slaves are, which even the Force cannot protect against. Refuses to reconcile a painful memory with a son who brings her much joy, she does. And powerful he may be, but equate power with the Chosen One we must not. The dark side lies in such thinking, and certain peril for the student and master who realises their power before learning how to use it in the light."
They reached the area reserved for master and padawan quartering, coming to a halt before the door to their suite. Yoda waved the barrier aside with the Force, allowing them to enter before he offered one more comment with which to illuminate their discussion.
"Obscurity veils and protects the Chosen One," he informed them, "in such a state they must remain. Better it is, for Force and for them to be so. Dangerous such knowledge of their identity is."
The Council chamber was bathed in darkness, an unusual but symbolic beginning for the ceremony that was about to take place. On Coruscant, the jewel of the Core worlds, where even the planet's night cycle was lit by the lights of the cityscape, darkness was a difficult feat to achieve, but necessary. It was held that when a padawan becomes a knight, they take their first step from the shrouded darkness of their apprenticeship into the light of the Force. From this moment it was up to them to use the wisdom that they had been taught by others to guide them on their journey through life, with the Force by their side. For this, the ceremony that would mark the beginning of this passage, such darkness was meant to represent that veil of padawan being lifted from them. Just as their braids, the mark of their apprenticeship, were shorn from their hair, so was the veil lifted, by the ignition of the Grand Master's lightsaber, followed by that which belonged to their master, and then their own, before finally each one of the Council lit their blade in silent salutation of their achievement.
Despite the darkness, maintained by the transitional panes of transparisteel that swept from one side of the circular chamber to the other, Obi-Wan sensed the moment that dawn arrived upon Coruscant. His night had been spent upon the floor of the Council Chamber, in a meditative pose, for contemplation with the Force concerning this significant step in his path of the Jedi way. Another part of the ritual before the ceremony, one which like the darkness remained a part of the rites marking the attainment of each rank within the Order; padawan knight, master, and councillor, for those privileged few.
As with that ceremony which marked his passage into the ranks of padawans, his nocturnal mediation had not been spent alone. Behind him Qui-Gon held a similar state. The inclusion of the master was another tradition, for the first two ranks at least, designed to symbolise the beginning and end of a padawan's apprenticeship. During the former ceremony he and Qui-Gon had spent the meditation strengthening the Force bond between them, the one that allowed them to hear each other's thoughts, to help guide each other on their path together. A sign of a true partnership was when the bond formed naturally before the ceremony, just as theirs had, forged in the hardship of the mission on Bandomeer. Another was when the padawan taught the master, something which Qui-Gon had freely admitted occurring between them, for Obi-Wan had managed to bring him back from the brink of the darkside caused by Xanatos' fall, and by Tahl's death.
Last night they had been preparing the Force bond for the partial severing which occurred when a padawan became a knight. Such a rank required independence in missions, and less reliance on a master's guidance, for the knight must learn to acquire their own, so as they may become ready to teach the next generation of initiates. A Force bond was never quite severed though, for it was designed to strengthen the unity with the whole of the Jedi Order and the Force. However it was not immune to damage, for if a Jedi fell to the darkside, or died in unexpected circumstances, the bond was affected, just as his master had been when he lost Xanatos. Obi-Wan was quietly pleased that he had spared his master the pain of repeating such an injury by staying firmly in the light.
As dawn arrived, so did the rest of the Council, from the private meditation rooms and the quarters reserved for them. Still in communion with each other and the Force, Obi-Wan was nonetheless aware of their arrival, as he waited for the ceremony to begin. He was reconciled as to how he had obtained this promotion now, though a part of him hankered a little after the more traditional route that his peers who had achieved this rank before him went through. A night spent in meditation however revealed to him the calming acceptance of the Force, as the ancient energy told him this was right and he was ready for it, even though he might not feel such emotions at present.
He sensed the moment that Qui-Gon left the meditation to rise to his feet for the beginning of the ceremony. Gracefully he left the meditative state also, though he remained on his knees, as he could not rise until the moment the ceremony commanded him to do so.
A green blade shot out of the darkness towards him. He did not flinch, though it would have been entirely natural for him to do so. Such a sight marked the beginning of the next stage in the rite of gaining his knighthood, so he remained still as the crystal blade came to rest just above his shoulder.
"Jedi are we," Yoda's began, his voice echoing round the council chamber, alive with the power of his wisdom within the Force. No sign was there of the old troll who had tottered along escorting the Skywalkers to their quarters earlier. This was the Grand Master, in full unveiled glory, whom almost all within the Order revered. "Speaks through us the Force does. Proclaims itself and what is real through our actions it does. Acknowledge today what the Force has proclaimed do we." The green blade rose now, creating a arc of colour within the darkness as it passed to hover over his other shoulder. "By the right of the Council, by the will of the Force, I dub thee, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Jedi Knight of the Republic."
Another blade ignited by his ear, this belonging to his master, as Qui-Gon sliced through the braid which marked his previous rank of padawan. Obi-Wan's senses followed its descent, noting where the coiled hair landed, so he could retrieve the braid at the end. Then he rose to his feet, calling his own saber to his hand, igniting the crystal within. Holding his hand out, he raised the point of the blade high, towards the ceiling of the Chamber. One by one the rest of the Council followed suit, revealing their place within the darkness, until the chamber was lit up entirely by the fourteen blades.
A moment of silence marked this achievement, then the transitional transparisteel lifted the darkness away, revealing the lights of Coruscant's dawn. In unison the Jedi turned off their sabers, returning them to their belts. One by one each of the Council Masters came over to Obi-Wan to congratulate him and offer a peace of wisdom. Obi-Wan bowed to all and nodded his head as the words permeated their way through to his mind. He would have time to pause and reflect upon them later, for now his own thoughts were of his master, who stood back from the congratulations, looking a little lost and forlorn. Calling the braid from the floor, Obi-Wan went to him, bowing before the man who had been a father in all but blood to him for the last thirteen years, and put the coiled hair into his master's hands.
Qui-Gon seemed surprised to receive the gift, even though it was a tradition of newly promoted knights to give their masters their braids, and the thirteen years of his apprenticeship had taught the both of them that Obi-Wan was a traditionalist. He gazed at the braid resting on the palms of his hands in quiet awe. When he did raise his eyes from the sight to his padawan waiting before him, they were glassy with gloss of unshed tears.
"Thank you, Obi-Wan," he uttered softly, his voice lacking the strength to reach his usual level of volume. "I never thought to receive this. Force knows there were times when I did little to deserve it."
"You have been both master and father to me," Obi-Wan replied, his voice equally soft. "You granted me my dreams, despite there being times when my own actions did little to deserve such honours."
Qui-Gon shook his head, dismissing the existence of such errors. "I am proud of you, Obi-Wan," he said. "You shall be a great Jedi. And you are a much wiser man than I. Most of all you were the son I needed to bring the light back into my life when I could have lost it through my own blindness." His hands carefully gathered the braid they held into one palm and closed fingers over it, for protection. "I shall cherish this always, my son."
As he drew Obi-Wan into his arms, Qui-Gon caught the eyes of the Grand Master. Bending his head to press a blessing kiss on to the boy that the old troll had bestowed him, he offered thanks through the Force to the giver.
Yoda smiled in return.
The morning after Shmi and Anakin had settled into the guest quarters they were joined once more by Master Yoda. Shmi was content to watch her son's boundless joy as he took in every facet of the rooms until the Grand Master arrived. Something about the little troll like creature, probably that same something she knew her son had sensed in Qui-Gon Jinn and everyone else who introduced themselves as Jedi knights to her, drew Ani towards him. He quieted, turning to the master who stood there equally silent, his hands resting on his gimer stick, below his chin as he studied the boy with his piercing eyes.
"A tour of the Temple you would like, hmm?" he asked her son.
Ani turned to her. "May I, Mom?"
Shmi nodded, allowing him to go. Although she had no sense in the Force, she could tell that Master Yoda wanted to talk and observe her son alone, without anyone who might cause his words to be coloured by their association with him. She also wanted a chance to take in her new surroundings and come to a decision about what she wanted to do now.
If Ani was accepted by the Jedi Order, which she believed was a strong possibility, then it was up to her to choose where she lived, and what she did. For as long as she could remember, that decision had never been hers to make before. The novelty of such a power was both joyous and unsettling all at once. One thing was for sure, that she did not want to be too far away from her son. Even if she could not see him everyday, it would be a comfort to both of them if she could find somewhere to live near where he settled. She was not certain if she would be allowed to stay within the Temple, so an alternative must be found, using the credits that Anakin had made from selling the pod racer.
Shmi surveyed the quarters with a long silent glance, before wandering over to the large transparisteel view of the cityscape. Folding her hands about herself, Shmi contemplated what it would be like to spend the rest of her life on Coruscant. The city had a graceful beauty about its tall buildings and skyline traffic. A certain paradoxical quality too, for the skyscrapers conveyed a moment of suspended time, while the constantly moving airspeeders made that same element appear to go faster. It was as busy as Tatooine during the Boonta, perhaps more so. Yet within the apartment, she felt detached from that hive of activity, just as she had in Mos Eisley's slave quarter. Here there was a kind of peace, similar to that she found in the hut, when Anakin was asleep or with Watto. With that in mind, she could see herself living on Coruscant. Hopefully she had enough credit from the selling of the race pod to afford an apartment nearby.
She was still there when Anakin returned, tired out from his tour. Master Yoda bade them farwell and then she saw her son to bed, before turning to the apartment's computer workstation. Connecting to the holonet, she began a search on the property pages to see the prices of Coruscant housing and occupational vacancies, for she would need some income to afford utilities and keep herself busy. She was still searching through the results when her solitude was disturbed by a gentle tap on the door.
When the door slid back, revealing Qui-Gon, a part of her was not surprised. His expression was quite forlorn, reminding her of when had stayed by the window of Watto's adobe walled hut after destroying the droid. She had wanted to comfort him then, but was hesitant about doing so, because of what her son might make of it. Now she took him into her arms. He was still for a moment, then slowly he let himself relax into the embrace, resting his head upon her shoulder.
Shmi gradually loosened her embrace, but did not withdraw, allowing him to chose when he felt ready to break from it, not before. Afterwards they sat down in the living area and she silently waited for him to tell her what was wrong.
Qui-Gon opened his hand, revealing a tightly bundled coil of plaited auburn blond hair, interspersed with tiny coloured beads. "Obi-Wan was knighted this morning," he said sadly, "I just helped him move out of the apartment into his own." He sighed, running his free hand over his face. "I've had a padawan knighted before. Feemor, my first pupil, he and I still see each other regularly. But I never felt like this when he left. I was ready for whatever the Force willed. Then came my second apprentice, Xanatos. The years with him were good, but they ended badly. I was lost for so many years. I never wanted another apprentice. Then Master Yoda intervened, and I'm glad he did. Obi-Wan helped me recover what I lost. I knew this day would come, but..." he sighed.
"He's your son," Shmi reminded him. "That's why it feels like this. I will feel the same when Anakin decides to leave home. And if he's accepted by the Order." She wanted to ask him if he knew what the Order had decided, but hesitated, not wishing to ignore his concerns in favour of her own.
"If the Council doesn't allow him to train in the Order, then there is an alternative," Qui-Gon replied, sensing the direction of her thoughts. "Master Altis runs a sect with different training techniques and customs. The Council might argue that Anakin is too old to train, but Altis would say that he's not old enough. He would let you live with his sect and Anakin becomes of age he would train the boy if that is what he still wanted. I could put you in contact with him."
"Thank you," Shmi uttered, although a part of her felt suddenly abandoned, as though she had been expecting him to come with her if this was the path they had to take. The feeling took her by surprise, for she had not considered before how much he had come to mean to her despite their short acquaintance.
A hand touched hers and she looked up, startled to see Qui-Gon returning her silent inquiry with a nervous ineloquent gaze of his own. "I didn't want to presume," he uttered softly, before leaning forward to touch her lips with his.
It was morning and the Force was singing. He had heard it sing before, but never this particular refrain. He lay still, listening to choral chorus, savouring the moment. Then the woman in his arms stirred and the moment was lost. He turned his focus upon her, recalling the last few hours. It had been a night of revelations, in which he had made a decision that would change his life and the lives of others forever. Yet he felt no regrets, only calm tranquillity, a serenity sent from the Force, convincing him that this was the right path and he had been wise to trust his instincts.
His hand moved in an idle caress down the soft skin of her arm. She rested upon him in easy slumber, a contrast as to how they spent the night. He had taken care to be gentle with her, as the truth of the horrors she had endured as a slave were revealed to him. What Yoda had sensed was true, she had been abused by her captors and it took time for her to trust what she was feeling. Afterwards, he learned another truth, that she had not lied when she said that Anakin had no father. No one had come forward to claim such a connection with her son, nor had she chosen to seek them out. It was only his interpretation of what she had told him on Tatooine, combined with Anakin's midi-chlorian count that had led him to believe the boy could be the chosen one.
That Yoda disagreed was enlightening. It caused him a little uncertainty about his previous convictions, for until now he had assumed that the most powerful Jedi would be the chosen one. He had forgotten that power was often equated with the dark side. It was not the Jedi way to seek power, for it was sometimes the case that the least powerful turned out to be the one who could do what no one else could. There was also still so much that they did not know about the prophecy, such as where it came from or how the Order came to acquire it for the archives.
Yet one thing was clear, Anakin could become a Jedi. And with the re-emergence of the Sith, it would not be wise to leave the boy untrained and vulnerable to such darkness. How to train him was the next decision to be made, and Qui-Gon believed that he should ask Anakin whether he would prefer the Order or Master Altis rather than making the decision for him. The boy was young in years, but a slave's life had aged his mind, along with the midi-chlorians in his body. He was capable of making such a choice which would affect his future. And hopefully the Council would agree with him before choosing to render their judgement as whether it was right to train the boy or not within the methods of the Order, that usually only accepted much younger Force sensitives.
Another decision that was not his to make but which would affect his future, was that of the woman lying in his arms. He cared about Shmi and he would like to have a life with her, but that was dependent on her feeling the same way. Contrary to the view of those outside the Order, the Jedi were not forbidden to love, they were just careful that love did not turn into the sort of attachment that could lead a Jedi into the dark side. Those who formed lasting relationships observed them privately, away from the public perspective of the Jedi, which was why the Republic had formed such an misimpression.
It was often in these early hours of the morning that he dwelt upon thoughts of the future, before he returned to his usual philosophy of focusing on the present. He preferred not to think about what would come, but understood that such thoughts were often uncontrollable and instinctive, a natural part of being. Now his mind turned to more immediate matters, as he caught the distinct sound of something vibrating. Turning away from Shmi, he saw that it was his comlink. Calling it to his hand with the aid of the Force, he studied the blinking lights and vibration, decrypting the code. To protect any visitors to the Temple, the alarms did not sound in the guest quarters, unless there was an attack in that area. If any Jedi were in the guest district however, they were alerted by a series of sounds and lights which they could decode to determine the nature of the alarm, without causing the guests to panic.
In this case, the code revealed that there was an intruder within the archives, who was being dealt with. Assured that he was not needed to assist, Qui-Gon sent the comlink back to where he had left it resting last night and returned his attention to the woman in his arms, focusing on watching her sleep, leaving all thoughts connected to anything beyond that moment behind him.
"Knight Kenobi," the Jedi from Serenno bowed before the newly commissioned Knight from Stewjohn. "Might I have a moment of your time?"
"Of course," Obi-Wan stepped back and gestured for the Master to enter the quarters. "Please excuse the mess, I only moved in yesterday." In truth there were only a few boxes remaining, clustered within one area of the living space, leaving the furniture ready and welcoming for guests. "May I offer you a drink?"
"A strong cup of tea would be nice," Dooku replied to the courtesy. "Master Jinn used to have a good blend which he reserved for the morning."
"He gave me some as a house warming gift," Obi-Wan remarked, before walking over to the kitchen area to prepare it. He worked quickly aware that every move he made was under scrutiny of the Jedi who had instructed his own master. A certain curiosity grew within his mind, for until Naboo he had never met his Master's instructor. Such an encounter had not been avoided by deliberate design, just lack of opportunity. He felt an impatience to begin their conversation, however the best tea required a lengthy stewing, and no amount of skill in the Force could hurry it. A necessary delay ensued, in which he busied himself with a plate of snacks, until the drinks were ready.
"You are wondering why I have come to see you," Dooku began when the knight had rejoined him in the living area, laying the tea and food on the table between them. "I accompanied Master Yoda to Naboo in order to see the Sith apprentice for myself. During my years of scholarly study after I finished training Qui-Gon I have explored the archive's knowledge of the Sith and their lore. It is a fascinating, if somewhat dangerous journey. Now the Council has asked me to continue my research by finding the master of the apprentice that you defeated." Dooku leaned back in his chair, taking a sip of tea before continuing. "I would appreciate it if you could tell me your impressions of the Sith that you encountered. What you gleamed while you were fighting him."
Obi-Wan obliged, telling Master Dooku all he had sensed about the Sith that he fought. The Zabrak had been strong and highly trained in the Jedi way. Reflecting back on the fight, he was able to identify the moves from certain lightsaber forms, as well as other fighting arts. He described the fight from beginning to end, then went on to relate those impressions which he had gained from reflection and hindsight.
"I felt that the Sith had chosen his battleground carefully," Obi-Wan said last. "Almost as if he was more familiar with the palace than one visit could him. As though he were trained on Naboo, or perhaps whoever trained him had lived on the planet for a time."
Master Dooku nodded thoughtful. "It is a possibility," he murmured. During Obi-Wan's recounting he had asked questions, but rarely offered his own opinion decisively, as though he had not yet come to form one. Such was the Jedi way, to keep an open mind, until all was revealed or proven beyond reasonable doubt.
Now the Jedi from Serenno rose from his chair, causing Obi-Wan to rise with him, as protocol demanded. "Thank you, Knight Kenobi. I shall now continue my investigation elsewhere."
Obi-Wan accompanied him to the door, whereupon an alarm began to sound, causing the farewell to be interrupted. Dooku retrieved his comlink, turning it on and contacting security, trying to ascertain the source of the disturbance.
"Someone has broken into the archives," he relayed to Obi-Wan before rushing out of the apartment, his haste and concern causing the young knight to follow him.
By the time they reached the Temple archives, the disturbance was at an end. Ahead of them stood three masters, Yoda, Windu and Jocasta Nu, the master of the vast Temple library. They were gathered around a body which appeared to be the unlikely source of the disturbance, as it was another Jedi.
Master Dooku knelt down and removed the hood, murmuring the name as their identity was revealed. "Master Sifo-Dyas." He bowed his head in grief before addressing the other masters. "Where is the intruder?"
"You're looking at him," Master Windu replied. "Jocasta caught Sifo-Dyas attempting to erase a planetary system from the archives."
"Which one?" Dooku asked.
"The Kamino system," Master Nu answered, "located about twelve parsecs from the Rishi Maze."
"Why would Sifo-Dyas wish to erase such a system from the archives?" Dooku queried, shocked as they all were that a Jedi would commit such a crime.
"Pay the Kaminoans a visit someone should," Master Yoda decided. "In them the answer might lie."
"I shall do so," Dooku volunteered as he rose from the floor. "This may be connected to my own investigations." He turned and bowed before the young knight who had followed him. "It was an honour to have met you, Obi-Wan Kenobi."
"The honour is mine, Master Dooku," Obi-Wan replied with a bow of his own. "All that I am is due to Master Jinn, and through him to you."
"And through me, Master Yoda," Dooku remarked with a nod of acknowledgement and recognition to that being before leaving the archives.
The Grand Master and Head of the Council watched the Serennoan leave, then surveyed the remains of Master Sifo-Dyas once more.
"Honour him we shall tonight. Return to this matter later we will," Master Yoda began. "Now the fate of young Skywalker to be determined is."
"What do you make of him, Obi-Wan?" Master Windu asked.
"I have only formed a initial impression," Obi-Wan replied, "I haven't spent as much time with as Master Jinn has. He is a curious youngling, strong in the Force. He will have a hard time catching up with the rest of the initiates who are the same age, and his harsh upbringing has had a profound effect on him. It might be dangerous to train him, but if we do not, he will become vulnerable to the re-emergence of the Sith, who will covet his abilities."
"They will," Master Windu agreed thoughtfully, as they headed out of the library to the turbolift that would take them to the Council Chamber. "But, if we do not succeed in training him, he might more dangerous to us afterwards than if we simply left him alone."
"Not possible such an alternative is," Master Yoda said sadly. "Awoken the boy's awareness of the Force, your Master has. Dictates the outcome before we could debate it does."
"I'm sure Master Qui-Gon did not mean to," Obi-Wan ventured cautiously, knowing that he was no longer required to defend his master now that he was a knight, but wishing to do so all the same.
"Impulsive and reckless, your master is," Yoda commented. "Fixes on one goal he does, sees it through, blind to any obstacle."
Obi-Wan chose not to offer any comment to that observation, which was quite true and something he had said on more than one occasion. Silently he followed the two masters into the turbolift, waiting with them as it ascended rapidly up the tower to the council chamber, then out into the corridor that lay between the turbolift and the entrance to that room.
Qui-Gon and the Skywalkers were waiting for them, the former portraying a serene countenance, but behind it Obi-Wan could sense a certain amount of concern, mixed in with a stubborn determination to have his goal achieved. As for the Skywalkers, both were worried about the meeting that was to come.
"Come young Skywalker," Master Yoda gently commanded, as he and Master Windu came to a halt outside the entrance to the Council chamber, the doors parting as the sensors detected their arrival.
With a glance towards his mother and Qui-Gon, Anakin hesitated briefly, but followed the Grand Master and the Head of the Council into the chamber. When the doors closed. Shmi moved to stand before the transparisteel, ostensibly surveying the view of Coruscant that this particular Temple tower offered, but obviously concerned for her son.
Qui-Gon turned to his now former padawan. "Morning, Obi-Wan. Do you know what the source of the disturbance was this morning?"
"Morning, Master," Obi-Wan replied. "I do. I was with Master Dooku when the alarm sounded. I followed him to the archives, where Master Sifo-Dyas was killed trying to erase the Kamino system from our records."
"A Jedi erase a planetary system?" Qui-Gon echoed, concerned and incredulous, although he knew his pupil was telling the truth. "These are dark times." He paused, silently considered the possibilities, before brushing them aside to focus on another part of his padawan's words. "What did Master Dooku want with you?"
"He is investigating the origins of the Sith I fought on Naboo," Obi-Wan explained. "He wanted to learn what impressions I formed of him during the fight. He accompanied Master Yoda to Naboo after the liberation."
Qui-Gon nodded. "Since his last apprenticeship Master Dooku has been investigating Jedi lore. I had no idea that his research had ventured into the Sith until now."
"Master, what will you do if the Council refuses to train Anakin?" Obi-Wan asked.
Qui-Gon shrugged. "We'll consider that possibility if it comes to it."
Obi-Wan gave him a steady look. "I know you, Master. Despite your penchant for focusing on the moment, you must have an alternative solution in mind. And I think I know what that is."
"Then why don't you tell me, padawan mine," Qui-Gon murmured.
"You intend to leave the Temple," Obi-Wan guessed, catching the brief but startled look of confirmation in his master's eyes. "The way you look at Ms Skywalker, its the same way you used to look at Master Tahl."
"Your insight serves you well," Qui-Gon remarked quietly. "If the Council refuse my request, I shall take the Skywalkers to Master Altis, who is much more likely to accept him."
At that moment the entrance to the Council Chamber slid open again, and one of the Councillors emerged to gesture for them to come inside. Qui-Gon called to Shmi and they entered, Obi-Wan following.
In the centre of the room stood Anakin, whose gaze seemed to be moving everywhere at once as he studied the twelve members, along with the view of Coruscant that the council chamber afforded.
Qui-Gon came to stand behind him, his hands resting lightly on the boy's shoulders.
"Finished we are with our examination of the boy," Yoda announced, Correct you were, Qui-Gon."
"His cells contain a very high concentration of midi-chlorians," Mace added.
"The Force is strong in him," Ki-Adi-Mundi agreed.
"He is to be trained then?" Qui-Gon asked.
"Up to him, that decision is," Yoda answered. "Willing to accept him the Order is, but his choice alone is his future."
"As you know, Qui-Gon, the boy is older than we usually accept," Ki-Adi-Mundi said. "His future is more clouded by his harsh upbringing in slavery. His sense of attachment to you, Mistress Skywalker, is unusually strong."
"If trained he is to be, unconventional it must become," Yoda declared.
"And there is a another way of training apart from what we offer here," Ki-Adi-Mundi added. "Master Altis offers a method with a strong focus on family, although the training begins much later, when the initiate is well into adulthood. Here we start as young as possible and although we are willing for Mistress Skywalker to live in the Temple or nearby and see her son regularly, it will not be as frequently as Master Altis would allow."
"Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose," Yoda added. "Time to visit Master Altis we will allow."
Qui-Gon left his place behind the boy to kneel beside him. "What do you want, Anakin?"
"I want to train here," Anakin replied.
"You don't want to see Master Altis before you decide?" Qui-Gon asked him.
Anakin shook his head. "I like Coruscant. I like the Temple. I want to train here."
Obi-Wan hid a smile. The kid was certainly stubborn about what he wanted. A necessary consequence of a life lived in slavery. It would take an equally stubborn Jedi to master him, but then the Order was made of plenty of those.
"Made up the boy's mind is," Master Yoda affirmed. "Stay he shall."
"Anakin, you will be allowed to stay with your mother during your initiate years," Master Windu began, setting out the foundations of his new life in the Temple. "You'll attend classes and keep to the rules every other initiate lives by. In a few years, Force willing, you will be selected as an apprentice and placed with your teacher, whom you will live with until you have earned your knighthood. Do you understand?"
Anakin nodded. "Yes, sir."
The Korun master nodded. "Then this meeting is at an end."
To be Continued In