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
Chapter 2: Episode II
Just to clarify the timeline here, Master Sifo-Dyas went to Kamino, ordered the clones, picking Jango as their genetic foundation, using Tyranus as his alias, then returned to Coruscant and attempted to erase the system from the Temple Archives. After Dooku, Nu and Obi-Wan prevented him from doing so, Dooku went to Kamino, learned of the truth behind the project, and continued it.
Shimmer Through the Woods.
"Congratulations on your re-election, your highness."
Behind the facade of Queen Amidala, Padmé smiled. Even though she knew the sentiment which he offered was nothing more than a perfunctory greeting, the words were kindly meant and a reminder of the overwhelming support that had been behind her campaign to seek a second term as Queen of Naboo. "Thank you, Chancellor. But there was no need for you to go to all this trouble merely to offer such a sentiment. How are matters on Coruscant?"
The former Senator from Naboo allowed his good humoured expression to transform into one of a man burdened by troubles he was helpless to heal, before launching to an explanation of the current state of affairs concerning Senate politics. Padmé listened, even though none of it was really her responsibility, nor was it her place to offer advice or suggestions. She was nothing more than a sounding board for the Chancellor, less than what he had been for her when she was a young, newly elected Queen, and he, her experienced Senator. But it was something which she could provide in return for all the advice and suggestions he had given her over the years. Palpatine had been a mentor who prepared her for the world which she entered when she was elected Queen in a way that no one else in her life could have done. His advice and suggestions had steered her through the difficult times in her first term. He had given her the courage to stay true to her convictions and trust her instincts, which had led her to form an alliance with the Gungans and overthrow the blockade of the Trade Federation.
Since his election to the position of Supreme Chancellor, Padmé had come to into her own as it were in her role as Queen Amidala of Naboo. She knew the duties and responsibilities of her title, and had the experience as well as the knowledge to navigate her way through the minefield of Republic politics which at times threatened to interfere with how she governed her homeworld. But she still listened to her mentor, and to the men who replaced him in the Senate, Janus Greejatus and Horace Vancil. She believed that listening had a vital part to play in being true to her people, and to democracy. Even if what she heard was something she found difficult to hear, or caused her to revise her actions or opinions. In listening to the Jedi she had heard that the Gungans had an army, who in turn fought against that of the droids in the army belonging to the Trade Federation, which together with her own actions lifted the blockade on her system.
Thoughts of the Jedi inevitably reminded her of a certain Jedi in particular, the one who had first mentioned to her that the Gungans possessed an army. Obi-Wan Kenobi had been her stalwart friend and protector during that blockade, but he turned into something else when they bade each other farewell with a kiss. She never thought to have a Jedi as a suitor considering the restrictions they placed on attachments, but even before their kiss Obi-Wan had explained to her that such was a common misconception concerning the code. Jedi kept their personal lives private in order that their families were not put at risk from the life that they led in serving the Order.
While she was queen it was not possible to entertain these thoughts. Sovereignty of Naboo was too public a title, especially since the Blockade Crisis. It would bring the Order too much unwanted attention if she was to declare an interest in Obi-Wan. Assuming he felt the such an interest in return that is. She could be presuming too much from the kiss that he bade her farewell with and despite their promise to keep in touch, they had held little communication since, due to her duties and his commitment to the Republic through the Order. Because of the Order's closely guarded privacy and anonymity concerning their members, she had not even heard what matters he had been tasked with since his promotion to knight.
Palpatine drew his tale of the state of the Republic to an end, allowing her to offer sympathetic words and what useful advice she could give. The Republic was in a precarious state of affairs, making Coruscant politics a difficult course to navigate at present. Her actions in saving her system from the Trade Federation may have helped Palpatine become Supreme Chancellor, but it had also given support to the rising negative propaganda that the Republic governing body was too ineffectual when in came to dealing with internal troubles. Some systems were withdrawing from the Republic in favour of independence and self-governance, which was becoming more and more attractive as the Senate continued to prove ineffective in many matters.
Padmé had no plans at the moment to withdraw her systems from the Republic, she hoped to effect reform from within, through the work of the Chancellor and his allies. Such a task might take longer to prove effective, but it would be accomplished without the threat of conflict or separation, and thus feel all the sweeter.
The holocomm beeped, signalling that their was another caller waiting for her. Padmé said her farewells to the Chancellor and accepted the hail. The blue lasers coalesced into the shape of a Jedi in desert robes. The quality of the holo was such that the Jedi's features were highly rendered, and easily recognisable. He had changed little in the four years since they last saw each other. His hair was longer, but his eyes were still kind, his features still handsome, conveying a charming and good-humoured nature.
"Congratulations on your re-election, your highness," Obi-Wan began. "It is a great pleasure to hear from you."
"It has been far too long, Master Kenobi," Padmé returned with a brilliant smile.
Obi-Wan shook his head. "Still only a knight, your highness," he corrected her.
"You mean you have yet to choose a padawan?" she sought to confirm. "A solo knight is such a waste of your talents."
"I have been a knight for four years," he reminded her. "In my view that is not enough time to prepare me for the responsibility of a padawan."
"Four years is considered enough for a sovereign," Padmé argued. "Why not for a Jedi Knight?"
"Sovereigns serve the people, Jedi serve the Force," He countered. "When the ancient energy tells me it is time to take a padawan, I shall obey."
"Very well," Padmé conceded. "I shall not argue with you over the will of the Force. And it has been too long since we last saw or spoke to each other to continue quarrelling."
"I would rather call it a spirited discussion," Obi-Wan remarked. "For I do not wish to argue with you, milady. And you are right, it has been far too long. My apologies for not finding the time to contact you before. "
Padmé brushed the apology away. "There is no need. I know a Jedi knight has many demands on their time."
"I also lacked the courage," Obi-Wan confessed. "I was concerned that my manner of bidding you farewell might have been presumptuous."
She blushed, the emotion showing even through her white concealer. "Quite the contrary, I assure you." After breathing through the feeling, she added, "waiting four years to mention it however, is not the best way to show either your interest or concern over the gesture."
"I know," Obi-Wan added, "and I apologise."
"So now that you have," Padmé remarked, "how did you intend for me to treat the gesture?"
"As a promise," he replied.
"A promise of what?" She queried. "Friendship?"
"And more," he added, "if you desire it."
Padmé took another breath to calm herself as his simply spoken words gave voice to the hopes which she had harboured for some time. "You know that I cannot desire it while I am still the Queen of Naboo."
"I know," he replied. "And that could have been a reason for my delay in calling you and talking about it. But it wasn't, and neither was your youth. The time required was simply not my own. But now that it is, I ask that one day, when you are no longer Queen of the Naboo, when time is our own, could you desire it?"
She looked at his holo, the signal and image quality rendering his hopeful expression so vividly, as her mind recalled their farewell once more. How it felt to have his lips touch her own, his arms embrace her figure, the powerful sensations that their closeness produced within her, the feeling of his form against her own, as he clasped her to him.
"Yes," she replied. "I could."
Obi-Wan leant on the balcony rail of the viewing area and looked down at the large training salle thoughtfully. In the Force he could feel the anticipation that flowed throughout the Temple, though the room where he stood and looked was currently empty. There was always a buzz about when it was time for the initiate tournament. It was one of the most important events within the Order, the moment when young Jedi became apprentices or joined the corps. He remembered his own tournament, young and insecure, his heart set on becoming a padawan, the turmoil he endured until Qui-Gon decided to finally choose him. It was interesting to be on the other side of that rite of passage for the first time. Since his last mission he had been Temple bound, consulting with the clan and initiate masters, then Master Yoda in search for a padawan of his own. After nearly six years as a knight he felt ready to take on the task of teaching an apprentice.
Who that apprentice was, he had not yet decided. Some masters already had a student in mind before they approached their clan and temple bound colleagues, others waited for the results of the tournament before making their decision. Then there were those who had families within the Order, and wanted to train their own younglings, although the Council was a little leery in letting that become a widespread tradition. Obi-Wan could understand why, for there were times when the line between master and parent blurred. He could only imagine that occurring more often when they were related. The transition from parent to teacher could be hard on both the padawan and the master, and sometimes they became blind to each others' faults. Jedi families also tended to breed Force strong descendants. The stronger a youngling was in the Force, the more challenging they were to train.
And though he appreciated a challenge, Obi-Wan was cautious of taking on a strong initiate as his first apprentice. It was why he had spent most of his time before the tournament speaking with the clan and temple teachers, learning the strengths of those younglings who had yet to be selected by a master, so he was prepared for whomever the Force selected to be his padawan. He had to keep in mind too his own strengths and weaknesses, as well as the type of missions that the Council assigned to him, as all of this would also shape his student, as well as himself. As a knight who had trained under one of the most unorthodox Jedi in the Order, who had been a student of a master that was famed for preferring the Makashi refined saber technique and undercover missions, who had been favoured by the Grand Master, he came with a reputation and a certain sense of responsibility towards such a legacy. Add to this that he was also the first Jedi to defeat a sith in a millennia and it led to a tendency of the Council giving him risky assignments. It would not do to take on a padawan who was not suited or prepared to handle the task of working beside him.
Since his encounter with the Sith, his assignments had involved the same level of risk, although perhaps to a lesser extent. The Republic had become a nervous, tense, at times querulous child, prone to attention seeking stunts and frequent quarrelsome outbursts, all the signs that it might be going through a typical adolescent phase. Yet it had existed for over a millennia, which made this mid-life crisis seem oddly-timed and all the more dangerous. With the return of the Sith, the Order had become more watchful, taking the Naboo blockade incident as a sign of their previous and perhaps ill-judged complacency.
As a result more and more Jedi were being sent to all ends of the known galaxy to put out the fires that appeared to be igniting more and more often. Old grudges previously thought buried were suddenly resurrected, while inter system alliances that had existed for generations seemed to be breaking down without warning. Some systems had taken the drastic step of cutting all ties with the Republic.
The most recent was Serenno, from which Master Dooku originated, and whom the Council sent to learn what he could. Dooku was already investigating the return of the Sith, along with the invasion of the Temple archives that resulted in the death of Master Sifo-Dyas, but there was no one else in the Order who would have an legitimate excuse to visit the system. Due to his involvement with Naboo and the re-emergence of the Sith, Obi-Wan was kept informed of all developments, which meant that his new padawan would also need to possess the ability to keep secrets and the potential to deal with such dangers.
They would also need training in field medicine as well, because of the state of the Republic and the increasing level of danger faced by Jedi during their services to the Galaxy. Obi-Wan had recently taken several courses in the art of healing for precisely this reason, much of which had required him to spend his days in the part of the Temple halls that were dedicated to such a craft, his least favourite part of the building. He reasoned however that this was necessary for learning the skill of how to tend wounds or fevers, in order that he might spend less time in the halls of healing in the future.
Below him the entrance to the tournament salle opened and the participating initiates began to enter. Sounds of other masters and knights drifted to him from behind, as they took up seats in the viewing area. Obi-Wan stepped back to take a seat as well, his eyes still fixed on the initiates below, who were performing their warm up exercises. Silently he singled out those who were yet to be chosen by a master, then turned his focus on them one by one as he recalled what the temple tutors had said of their skills. He let himself feel the Force, trusting in the ancient energy's ability to determine which of the initiates might be intended for him.
It was just a flicker, but he felt it all the same. His sea shade eyes fixed on the Echani, lithe in figure and graceful in her movements. She wore a blue and grey jumpsuit and carried a pale azure lightsaber. Her startling white hair, unique to her species, was coiled in a series of plaits that were pinned about her head, then gathered together in a long coil reaching down her back to her waist.
The initiates fought in their clans first, the winners and runner ups of each progressing further into the tournament. Those who lost performed exhibition matches amongst themselves, mostly for the benefit of the initiates involved that had yet to be claimed by a master. Obi-Wan watched each fight, but his focus kept returning to the Echani, unable to fix his attention elsewhere. He could feel the pull of the Force, the ancient energy whispering to him of the promise that lay within their partnership.
Searching his recent memories, he recalled what the Temple Masters had said of her. Bright, gentle and quiet, with a talent to turn saber form into art, which was typical of her species. Echani believed that the only way to know someone was through fighting them. They saw a purity in combat that few others could, including the Jedi. Due to this reliance on combat for self-expression and self defence they were skilled in predicting their opponent's next move. This predisposition did not put them at risk from the dark side, in fact it helped them to properly channel their aggression and discipline their passions through the discovery of the character of their opponents.
When it came to her match, Obi-Wan felt the pull of the Force, the ancient energy asking him to lend his strength to hers. But the initiate tournaments was for the participants alone, no Jedi was allowed to join, only to oversee. He gripped his seat, remaining in his place. For a moment he studied her opponent, a young Kel Dor from the same clan. Only now did he observe that the clan had been his own back in his initiate days. In terms of height the Kel Dor was taller, a natural perquisite of their species, but the Echani seemed quicker and more graceful. Kel Dor were sometimes encumbered by their need for breathing masks, the atmosphere of the jewel of the Core Worlds being richer than Dorin, their homeworld. Experience and the end of their growth spurt would lessen such unfamiliarity.
The initiates ignited their lightsabers and engaged. Only shii-cho, the first form of saber combat was taught to the clans, as they would come to know other forms under their apprenticeship to a master. Such training turned the matches into a contest of skills, Force ability and species, allowing spectators to judge each initiate equally. Every Jedi knew Form I of saber craft, by the time they became padawans it was a technique that was ingrained within them, something they could fall back on whilst learning the other saber styles.
Obi-Wan focused on the duel, his sea shade eyes observing each manoeuvre of the shii-cho, evaluating how both the Kel Dor and the Echani performed them in response to each other's movements, the pace of their strikes, the mood with which they struck. Initiates were a bundle of energy and emotions, every day spent reining in those two forces with the help of discipline and the ancient energy fuelled by the level of midi-chlorians inside them.
To show a high level of discipline at this stage of their training was rare, yet the Echani possessed a mindset which almost approached that goal. Her moves were a mixture of grace, flair and spontaneity, as though she were performing a freeform dance rather than participating in a saber contest. The Kel Dor looked to be in the middle of a growth spurt, his moves somewhat rough at times. Both knew the saber form well, their positions both instinctive and accurate, if at times a little ill-formed due to the pace of the duel.
In these tests of skill mistakes often proved costly and such was the case with this duel, the Kel Dor being the first to fall victim in committing an error, which the Echani fell upon and seized to her advantage, raising the pale blue lightsaber to point at her opponent's throat in signal of her victory.
A chime emitted from the audio receivers within the tournament arena, announcing the end of the match. The Echani removed her saber from her opponent's throat, shutting down the blade and clipping the hilt to the belt so it rested against her hip. In reply the Kel Dor bowed to her and she returned the gesture of respect, before the two clan mates parted and moved on to the next stage of the competition.
Obi-Wan remained in his seat as he watched the Echani progress through the clan all the way through to the final match that determined the winner and the runner up. After the clan contests there was a brief intermission before the remaining initiates fought each other until the first champion of the tournament was declared. That would mark the end of the first day of competition, allowing the initiates a break before the duels recommenced the next day.
At the end of the tournament, the champions of each day participated in a final series of duels to determine the ultimate winner. By then most padawans had been chosen by knights or masters and the remaining were left for the corps, though that did not meant that the interest in watching the tournament faded away. All participating initiates were allowed to stay in the temple and view the competition through to the end, to celebrate with the victors their clan mates and friends. Often the knights and masters joined in, recounting their own tournaments and congratulating or commiserating with the initiates.
During the intermission, he rose from his seat and sought out the temple and clan masters charged with tutoring the Echani, asking each if another knight or master had expressed an interest in her or claimed her for apprenticeship. Once armed with the knowledge, he accompanied her clan master to seek Master Yoda's opinion, as the Grand Master's blessing for the partnership was required before he sought out the initiate herself.
After leaving the Grand Master, he made the journey from the tournament viewing area to the changing rooms alone, and leaned against the wall that faced the entrance, waiting for the Echani to emerge. An absurd notion of finding a mirror to check his appearance briefly reigned over him, causing a rapid brush down of his robe and recently trimmed hair, restoring neatness to what little scruffiness had been bestowed upon him since he left his quarters to attend the tournament.
She quitted the changing rooms just as he resumed his pose against the wall, her focus a little distracted by the conversation within, which she contributed to before closing the door behind her. Turning, she caught sight of him and immediately assumed the form of an initiate adhering to the proper conduct required in the presence of a knight.
"Jehane Doah," Obi-Wan uttered her name formally, as his mind composed his remaining nerves into the steady focus of a serene Jedi. "I am Obi-Wan Kenobi. I came to ask if you would consent to become my padawan learner."
She didn't hesitate. Instead her feet conquered the distance between them to be stand before him, whereupon she bowed and spoke the required reply. "It would be an honour, Master."
Padmé cast a glance at the empty throne and felt no regret. Her people had clamoured for her to change the constitution and serve another term, but she refused them, knowing that it would not do for her to set aside rules she had put in place to reform the corruption which had previously existed. She believed in democracy, her predecessor had not. Veruna had been a corrupt monarch, allying himself with the Black Sun criminal syndicate to deal with foreign policy matters. During the ensuing scandal he was forced to resign. She had replaced him at the beginning of the Eriadu Trade Summit, winning the election by promising reforms, including term limits. She had not expected to become so popular a sovereign that her people would wish her to reign beyond what was originally agreed.
While she was relieved to hand over the reign to another, the move had left her without an occupation however. This was not unusual amongst the Naboo, most retired from public service at a young age, typically to have a family. Before she entered public service, Padmé had expected to also, but events conspired against her and changed her present inclinations. Her initial career plan had begun in the legislature, but due to her enthusiasm for reform and the mutual desire felt by the Naboo as well, she had become a sovereign instead. The subsequent political fallout from the Blockade Crisis had served to make her reign an example to the Republic, giving her a notoriety which limited her options. She could not go back to a minor role in Nubian Legislature, even if she wanted to. Nor could another career be her choice without attracting undue attention. She was a symbol of the Naboo and the Republic, and with that came specific obligations.
Fortunately however, there was another option. Since her former Senator had become Chancellor, the position had been filled first by a friend of his, Janus Greejatus. Unlike Palpatine however, Greejatus' political views were not shared by the Naboo, and so he was replaced by Horace Vancil two years later. Vancil agreed to becoming Senator only temporarily, as he had many family commitments which made it hard for him to be away from Naboo for any length of time. Shortly after Jamilla succeeded her as sovereign of Naboo, he had put forward the request that Padmé replace him in the Senate.
Padmé felt that she could not refuse the offer, even though she knew that her family would be concerned. In many ways the position would fulfil the obligations of her symbolism within the Republic, and allow her the opportunity to continue to effect the change she believed was needed. She also had another motive, for the role would oblige her to spend a significant amount of time on Coruscant, where the Jedi Temple was based. Though Obi-Wan Kenobi was a knight, and frequently called on to serve away from the Jewel of the Core Worlds, he would always be required to return to the Temple, which might grant them the opportunity to spend some time together.
Since his holo call congratulating her on re-election as Queen, they had not had a chance to talk properly, nor had he elaborated any further on what he meant by his promise of friendship and more, if she desired it. However, she had still been Queen when he spoke of it, a role which obliged her to refrain from forming such personal relationships while she held the office. Now that her second term was at an end, she was free from those obligations which were attached to that position. During their holo conversation, she had replied that when she was no longer Queen, she could consider a relationship. It was up to her to make such a consideration known to him, any move on his part could be misconstrued as exerting pressure on her to submit to his desires at the expense of her own. Such was a assumption on her part, but Padmé felt that she knew enough of Obi-Wan to make the conclusion about this aspect of his character.
So it was with this possibility in mind that she accepted the role of Senator. After informing her family of her new position and dealing with their concerns as best she could without immediately resigning the office, Padmé set about taking over from Horace Vancil. Her security was reformed under a nephew of Captain Panaka, Gregar Typho, who had served in the Palace Guard with distinction during the Blockade Crisis. He chose to employ the same methods his uncle had used, allowing most of the handmaidens who had served as decoys during her reign to become part of her senatorial household. Padmé was glad for most of them had become close friends.
As a Senator Padmé held more power to affect change within the Republic, something which she had become even more passionate about since the Blockade Crisis. The legal battle to bring the proper charges against the Trade Federation was still tied up in the Courts, she could use her position to see if she can speed the process up. While her actions as Queen had shown others that the Republic could be ineffectual when dealing with such a crisis, her decision to become Senator would spread the message that while she recognised that inability of the Republic, she was still willing to remain within its body and work to affect change from within, rather than leave, as some systems had chosen to do, forming a confederacy of independence. It was her hope however that her power would prove to be more than symbolic, that she would be able to put it to good use for the citizens of the Republic.
With her security arranged and her household staffed, Padmé travelled to Coruscant to set up her apartment and begin attending the Senate. Supreme Chancellor Palpatine was delighted with her appointment and sought to give her Embassy the uppermost levels of the Senate Apartment complex, which was but a short distance from the Senate building. Padmé could not refuse the gift, though she still chose her own apartment within those levels, a penthouse suite that had the benefit of balconies that overlooked the Senate District and a veranda which contained a air speeder docking area. The layout flowed from one room into another, conveying a light and airy atmosphere which reminded her of her family's villa in Varykino, part of Naboo's lake country, where they spent many a vacation in her youth before she became Queen.
All too soon she was swept up in the various functions required of a Senator, such as the official acceptance of her position in a ceremony within the Senate chamber, and various diplomatic and political parties thrown by the Chancellor and her new colleagues to welcome her to their governing body. One such occasion was thrown by Palpatine in a chamber within the Senate building that was reserved for diplomatic dinners and the like. At either end of the room were large transparisteel panes designed to convey the most spectacular views of Coruscant, to impress upon the visiting dignitaries the magnificence of the Jewel of the Core Worlds.
A contingent of Jedi were attending too, partly for political reasons, partly to offer protection to certain members who felt their lives were in danger due to their positions, as Padmé could see when she entered the room, their brown cloaks easily distinguishable from the mass of richly hued dress that was favoured by most of the other dignitaries. As soon as she had ascertained this information she could not help but cast her gaze around the vast chamber in anxious search of one Jedi in particular. It was a likely possibility that he was not attending, there were many members of the Order on Coruscant and scattered across the Republic on missions, but once she had noticed the desert shaded cloaks, the hope of his attendance rose within her and would not die.
Of his appearance she had nothing to go on but the outline of the holo that she had seen the last time they talked, when he called to congratulate her on the eve of her second term as Queen of Naboo and the hope that his looks still held something from their last encounter eight years ago. She was thankful that hers was not the only recent addition to the Senate body, so her current inattention to other guests was left to go unnoticed at present. The main focus was on another new Senator, Rush Clovis of Scipio, whose connections with the Intergalactic Bank carried more weight than her reputation from the Blockade Crisis.
Just as she was about to give up, she caught sight of him. He was with another Jedi, which was perhaps why she had failed to spot him before. His companion was a young girl, her hair styled in the typical half chignon and thin plait of a padawan learner. The sight caused Padmé pleasure, she was glad he had chosen an apprentice at last. There was another in conversation with them too, one of the dignitaries who were visiting Coruscant at present. A stylish, elegant and slender blonde woman, whom Padmé did not recognise, but then that was hardly remarkable, there were few here that she did know. Obi-Wan seemed to know the dignitary well, his manner appeared warm and friendly, his posture relaxed and comfortable. Padmé was just about to make her way over to him when the woman touched his face, gently caressing his cheek. Obi-Wan made no attempt to brush the hand away, and his acceptance of the gesture caused Padmé to pause, doubting whether she would be welcomed or intruding if she joined them.
"Senator Amidala," a voice intoned from behind her then, and she turned to find another of her new colleagues standing before her, his hand held out towards her own.
"Forgive me," the tall, dark and kindly featured man began when it seemed to him that he had her full attention. "I have wanted to meet you ever since I learned from the Chancellor who it was who would replace Horace Vancil. I am a great admirer of your actions during the Blockade Crisis. Your decision to fight the Trade Federation independent of Senate aide was a bold move for a previously pacifist sovereignty, and yet brilliantly executed. It sets an example to others, along with your decision to form an alliance with the Gungans. I was pleased to learn of your desire to remain in the Republic to effect reform from within. It is a desire which many others within the Senate share, as I hope you will learn during your terms of service."
Padmé turned her focus away from the disappointing sight of Obi-Wan and the blonde dignitary to the man who stood before her, smiling as she took his hand. "Thank you, Senator, I am glad to learn that this is the case. It was one of my motives in accepting the post when I stepped down from the throne."
He nodded in understanding, his hand clasping hers in an eager yet gentle promise of friendship. "Allow me to introduce myself. I am Bail Organa of Alderaan."
Padmé's eyes widened in recognition and she returned the handshake with more appreciation. "I am delight to meet you, Senator. I have heard much of you from the Supreme Chancellor and Horace Vancil. I hope we can work well together."
"As do I, Senator," he replied. "And please, call me Bail."
She smiled at him. "Very well, if you will call me Padmé."
The coloured ribbons in her hair caught the light whenever she turned. Few Padawans earned the right to wear bands in their braids until after their first mission, except for the champions of the initiate tournament. Jehane wore two because she had won a bout in the winners tournament as well. If the second of those victories was as a result of her being accepted as a padawan she did not know, as her master had chosen to ask for her after the conclusion on the clan tournament rather than wait until the end of the champion duels. She was grateful that he had done so too, for it had been a relief not to worry about whether she would become a padawan or not throughout the rest of the competition.
She was pleased that she had earned such a distinction for it was only right that the padawan of the Sith Killer should have the potential to be a formidable saber duellist. While the Council might not have wished that news of the return of dark side users to spread beyond their hallowed chambers, it had done so nonetheless, and to be Master Kenobi's padawan was sought after among the initiate clans. Though the Jedi knight himself never referred to the mission, there was a difference in the way his peers and the Masters treated him that stood out to those who saw him when he was at the Temple. A certain note of respect which ran deeper than such emotion reserved for those who were recently promoted from the rank of padawan. Nor was there any difference in the way which he treated her as his apprentice. There were no seemingly impossible demands of skill placed on her, or the expectation to become a legendary Jedi. Master Kenobi wanted her to develop at her own pace, acquire a comfort in her skills before he instructed her in the next, just as her clan masters had conducted themselves before him.
Now she had risen to the rank of apprentice, there was a new regard shown to her as well, along with a sense of expectation that she must be someone extraordinary to have caught the eye of the knight who defeated a sith for the first time in a millennia. Jehane did not feel that there was anything extraordinary about her, nor that her master expected her to be so. He never talked about his past missions, nor did she prompt him to, yet the reputation that they garnered weighed upon their future. His was a formidable legacy, from Qui-Gon Jinn to Count Dooku, to Grand Master Yoda. To be anything less would diminish that.
Her clan had been lucky, in that most of the members were accepted by knights or masters. Only a few had gone to the corps, which though was an honour to serve in, was not sought for by any initiates. Jehane had expected to become a padawan, for the art of combat was the way of her people and there were no such roles within the corps. That may have given her an advantage over the rest of her peers, but in many ways it was actually quite the reverse. She had to learn how to exercise a greater rate of control over her instincts and emotions, tutor herself in the ability of coming to know someone through conversation rather than combat.
Since she had become an apprentice her time in combat had only increased as she began to learn new saber forms. These were more complex than the first which all initiates learned to acquire and required more time spent in the training salles in order to become skilled in them. For the most part Master Kenobi taught her the new forms, but she also continued to receive instruction from the Temple docents who had taught her when she was an initiate. Aside from combat she also gained knowledge and understanding within the Force, philosophy, science, history, culture, languages, diplomacy, economics, in short all the necessary skills that a Jedi needed.
Soon she would be able to leave the Temple and travel with her master about the galaxy, serving the Force and the Republic. For now she was to attend a social evening at the Senate building. A Jedi presence had been requested by the Chancellor in light of the going security fears which surrounded the Separatists. Many former members of the Senate had withdrawn their systems from the Republic and banded together to form a Confederacy, the growing size of which was becoming a daily concern to the Senate, who feared that their former colleagues might wish to attack them in order that their cries for reform would attract greater attention than they already were doing. Her attendance was a test to see if she was ready to represent the Order outside the Temple. If she performed well, then she would be allowed to go on missions with her master.
They had arrived at the Senate just as the sunlight was fading from the optical receptors that controlled Coruscant's environment. With Master Kenobi by her side she entered the vast chamber reserved for the social occasion, the sights and sounds clamouring for her attention, so different were they to what she saw within the Temple. Her training taught her to resist the temptations however, and so she looked towards to her master as a guide for how to behave. She could sense from him a mild distaste for parties such as this, along with a veiled sarcasm of opinion concerning the politicians present. Clearly this was an occasion to be endured for him, and that conclusion made her feel a little guilty that her further development was dependent on attending such parties as these.
"Do not worry, my padawan," Master Kenobi whispered gently to her as they advanced further into the room, "it is something I will suffer gladly for you. And our partnership should compliment each other, so it would do for you to acquire all my bad habits," he added, making her laugh.
They mingled together for a time, her master introducing her to those dignitaries and Senators he knew, or who chose to make his acquaintance. Though the Order tried to keep the names of their members private, there were those whose missions caused them to acquire a certain reputation, and her master was one of them, though through no desire of his own to achieve such notoriety. As his padawan she garnered a certain curiosity, though it was up to her to determine whether or not it was kindly meant.
In a moment alone, her master seemed to cast his gaze about the room as if he were in search of someone. Jehane wanted to help him and was about to ask who he was searching for when another of the dignitaries interrupted, claiming an acquaintance.
"What a pleasure it is to see you again, Obi-Wan, it has been far too long," the woman said as she halted in front of them.
Her master bowed and Jehane followed suit. "Duchess Satine, I had not realised you were here," he replied. "It has been too long. I hope you are well?"
"I shall be when Mandalore is fully recovered from its troubles. I came to Coruscant to secure alliances and aid to relieve the suffering of my people. But you do not need to listen to my sales pitch, for you are all too familiar with the trials that my world has gone through, when you and Master Jinn visited. How is he, by the way?"
"He is well, thank you, Duchess," Master Kenobi replied. "I shall convey your regards the next time I see him."
"I see you have your own padawan now," the Duchess added, offering her hand to Jehane, who smiled kindly as she took it. "I hope you will forgive me for interrupting your time with your master, child. He and I spent some months together when he was an apprentice."
Jehane nodded, not sure what she should say in response to that. The Duchess accepted her silent gesture and turned her attention back to Master Kenobi, her hand moving from their clasp to caress his face in a gesture which hinted at a greater intimacy with Master Kenobi than Jehane had realised.
"I do hope we shall have a chance to spend some time with each other," the Duchess said to Master Kenobi, her hand yet to move from his cheek. "I have missed your company."
"I am afraid my young apprentice keeps me busy," her master replied, "but if you wish it, you may contact the Temple and they will see to it that I will receive the message."
The Duchess nodded and then moved on to another set of dignitaries, leaving Jehane to stare at her master in surprise. He did not seem to acknowledge her astonishment however, for his gaze was fixed on something behind them, causing her own to turn round so she could see what it is was that he appeared to be looking it.
Across the room from them stood another pair of Senators in close conversation, a tall dark featured man about a decade older than her master, and a younger woman, older than her, but younger than her master. She too had dark brown hair, which made a startling contrast to her lightly tanned skin. The long curls were styled in a more elaborate way than her own, Jehane idly wondered how it took to achieve such an complex display.
She was dressed in a similarly elegant manner to the Duchess, her long purple gown interwoven with black thread and multicoloured jewelled highlights that sparkled in the light. Similar crystals were pinned throughout her hair as well, lending another layer of complexity and beauty. She and her colleague were deep in conversation, though from this distance it was impossible to discern the nature of their discussion, other than it was not of a violent nature, given their comfortable and confident stances.
Jehane wondered who she was and how she and Master Kenobi knew each other, for it was evident on her master's part that he did, from the way he turned to look at her, and his frozen watch upon her and her companion ever since he caught either sight or sense of them. Her master seemed unable to move his gaze or attention from her, yet his emotions were deeply veiled, she could not penetrate his thoughts through their training bond or sense what he was currently feeling through the Force.
Then suddenly she felt his focus switch back to her, the motion too abrupt for her to reach any further conclusions about what she had witnessed. "Come padawan, we must pay our respects to the Chancellor," he said, before leading her away to the part of the room where Supreme Chancellor Palpatine was currently residing within. With one final glance at the couple of Senators, who were still talking and had yet to notice either her or her master, Jehane walked away.
The sliver ship exited hyperspace, escorted by three star fighters, swirling in a gentle arc as they approached the Jewel of the Core Worlds. Coruscant glittered darkly, the surface a brilliant facet in the endless night of space. No sound heralded their arrival, save for the noise of the engines, which rumbled like a gentle thunderstorm rolling into the previously calm tempered firmament. Slowly they broke the atmosphere and made their way through the city skyline, an endless formation of multifloor monolithic buildings and high powered airspeeders. Carefully navigating their way round both forms of obstacles, the sliver ship and the star fighters glided towards the floating platform adjacent to the Senatorial Apartment District. Their destination was deserted, though the sight of the empty platform gave the crew little comfort. Any number of hidden dangers could be lurking within that desolate floating structure of permacrete, from pressure bombs to time rigged explosions. No way of determining which, if any until it was too late.
Above the platform there were dangers too. The silver ship posed a tempting target even before it could land, its slender graceful lines displaying little in the way of defences and everything in the way of beauty and speed, two assets highly prized by pirates or other opportunists. Nothing was allowed to disrupt this calm sculptured exterior, save perhaps the shielding which was invisible to the naked eye. Like a winged creature it seemed to ride the currents of the atmosphere, swooping and hovering in the sky as it circled the area around the floating permacrete before gliding down towards its destination.
Inside the silver ship as well as outside lay only the appearance of calm. A sense of anticipation hung in the air, knowing that the wait for their arrival would soon be over, the nerves at an end, either in grief at the danger made manifest, or relief at being proved overcautious. In a effort to distract their thoughts the crew and passengers within busied themselves with the duties required of their positions in the household of a senator. Amidala was returning to Coruscant after a long absence spent on Naboo. There were many matters to arrange, committees to attend, flimsi work to be filed. None of them had time to stand and stare admiringly at the approaching skyline of the jewel of the Core Worlds, not even the pilots whose duty it was to ride the atmospheric currents towards the landing platform that awaited them.
One of those pilots was concerned with both the obligations required of her and her colleagues in the other star fighters, those charged with flying the large silver ship, and those of a leading politician of the Republic. In a bold move, Captain Typho had decided that Senator Amidala would not arrive on Coruscant aboard her silver yacht, but instead within one of the three star fighters escorting that vessel. During her absence from the Senate Padmé had spent some time acquiring a star fighter's licence, using her original surname of Naberrie, rather than the one she had assumed when she became Queen in order that the move remained undetected by those who threatened her life.
It was these security concerns which had caused her long absence from Coruscant. Tensions between the Republic and the Separatists had grown over the last two years, to such an extent that there was a motion in the Senate for the Republic to have an army. She did not support such an action, for she knew that it would only push the Republic and the Separatists even closer to war. But her opposition to the motion had put her life in danger, and there was chatter within the Republic intelligence that a bounty was set on her head. While she monitored the progress of the Military Creation Act from her office on Naboo, Typho had increased measures for her protection, preparing for when she would have to return to Coruscant and cast her vote.
She had left Naboo dealing with its own tensions for the jewel of the Core Worlds, as there were protests being held by the spice miners over their contracts. Such unrest was unusual on her planet and yet another example of just how much the galaxy was affected by the current divisions of the Republic. There was also another concern, the news that the Trade Federation had joined the Separatists. Padmé knew that there was good reason for the Confederacy to court the various commercial guilds for an alliance and the Trade Federation were still mired in the legal trouble which had emerged during the aftermath of the Blockade Crisis. It would make sense for them to seize the opportunity to distance themselves from the Republic, although she would have thought that most of the Separatists would be opposed to their membership, considering that it was the Trade Federation whose blockade of her world which began the division within the Republic in the first place.
If the chatter about there being a bounty on her head was true, then Padmé believed that it was Nute Gunray of the Trade Federation who was behind it. When he left Naboo under Republic custody to stand trial before the Courts, she had hoped the Trade Federation would wash their hands of him, but they had not, choosing instead to use their wealth to delay the legal proceedings against him. Ten years had passed since his blockade of her world and he was still a Viceroy. Padmé hoped that one of the prices of his alliance with the Separatists was not her head on a platter.
Captain Typho conveyed to her and the other star fighter pilot that they were allowed to make the final approach to the landing platform at that moment, causing Padmé to emerge from her introspection in order focus on landing the ship. She was qualified not only to handle small vessels, but big ships too, such as the silver craft which she was supposed to be aboard right now, instead of one of the escorting fighters. But though Typho decided that she would pose as one of the pilots, she would not be flying her yacht because the threat to her life was more likely to centre on the sliver vessel rather than one of the escort vessels. Padmé appreciated the concern her security felt over her safety, but felt that they were being perhaps a little over cautious. She also agreed with him that due to her stance within the Senate for continued negotiations with the Confederacy rather than resorting to the violence of conflict, it was unlikely that the Separatists would see her as a threat. So either the Trade Federation were acting alone, or it had been their price for an alliance with the Confederacy, or the chatter within Republic intelligence was nothing more than rumour.
As she closed on the platform Padmé smoothly engaged the thrusters and landing struts, gently adjusting her speed until the Naboo starfighter came to a perfect stop followed by that of her other escorts and lastly the silver craft itself. She waited for Captain Typho's vessel to set down beside her, before throwing back the canopy over the cockpit and climbing out of the ship.
"We made it," he murmured to her as she joined him on the permacrete, "I guess I was wrong. There was no danger after all."
"There's always danger, Captain," Padmé replied through the anonymous safety of her helmet. "Sometimes we're just lucky enough to avoid it."
He turned to say something else to her, but abandoned further comment as the ramp of the cruiser lowered and two of the guards aboard the ship descended. These two were joined another duo who stationed themselves either side of the hatch, all four assessing the security of their surroundings before allowing the senator, or rather, the passenger who was posing as the senator, to come forth. After a short pause she emerged, clothed in a richly woven gown of gold and dark brown threads. Her name was Cordé Velais, and she was one of her handmaidens whom Typho recruited from the Queen's household when Padmé accepted the position of Senator.
To anyone who might be watching, Cordé closely resembled her, right down to the elaborate hairstyle and costume that Padmé still favoured for her official duties, partly by choice, partly for the continued use of the decoy security measure, first employed when she came to the throne, in light of King Veruna's mysterious death, shortly after his abdication. Ten years later and still no one was sure what had happened to her predecessor after he stepped down from the throne, other than speculation that perhaps Black Sun had decided he was no longer a useful to them or was too dangerous to left to live out his retirement. He had been found lying in his bed, in the castle owned by the Earl of Vis, who was Veruna's cousin and a key supporter of his election to the throne. Although cause of death had been ruled as natural by the Western Reaches coroner, many within the governing body of Naboo still questioned his passing so soon after he had resigned from the throne.
Escorted by two further guards, Cordé swiftly descended the ramp of the silver yacht for the cover and protection offered by the waiting senate transport vessel, which would take all of them to the Nubian Embassy and then the Senate.
What happened next was too sudden and unexpected for anyone to do something to prevent it. Almost as soon Cordé's feet touched the permacrete there was an explosion, turning the platform into a port of chaos. Smoke surrounded them, shielding the extent of the damage from both the city and those involved. Everyone upon the permacrete and within the silver yacht were thrown from their stance or seat, stunned by the force of the blow.
Padmé could feel the smoke and ash caused by the explosion cling to her body, making her eyes sting. Her ears were pounding from the strength of the noise, she could hear nothing but the initial boom, echoing over and over as her mind struggled to come to terms with the chaos surrounding her. Forced by the violence of the explosion to fall upon the permacrete, it took her precious seconds to recover from the sudden stumble, both emotionally and physically. As soon as she had established that she was able to rise, Padmé rushed to her decoy's side, her own safety no longer her concern. Kneeling by the prone body, her grief soon turned into startled relief, as to her surprise Cordé held out a hand in a silent request for assistance so she could stand. Casting a glance around the explosion site, slowly revealed to her now by the fading smoke, Padmé saw that her pilots and the other members of her household that had accompanied her to Coruscant were also not injured by the blast.
Captain Typho along with the rest of her security detail surrounded her and Cordé at that moment, cutting off her view, as well as providing her and her decoy protection. "Milady, you may still be in danger. Get to the transport and leave the investigation of this to me."
Understanding that there was little she could do except get to safety, Padmé wrapped an arm around Cordé and under the protection of the anxious men of her security detail rushed to the waiting transport. As the airspeeder flew away from the floating platform, she turned her gaze upon it, unable to believe that so much damage had cost her so little. She could not comprehend who would go to the trouble of setting up a false explosion. It was possible that the device had failed to explode completely, but that still did not answer her question as to who was responsible for the attack. Part of her was still on edge as well, worried that whoever was to blame had learned that the explosion was not successful and was preparing or had something else lying in wait for her, to further ensure her death.
Fortunately she and her staff arrived at the Embassy unharmed, giving her the chance to push her speculation aside for now and on focus on what she was going to say to the Senate when she came to face them. It was impossible that news of the explosion would have escaped their notice, it was only the last in a spate of recent attacks against herself and her colleagues, all which were the basis of the arguments for the formation of an army for the Republic. It would not surprise her to learn if the Chancellor was delivering her eulogy upon the Senate floor at this very moment. Whether or not her colleagues would stop to mourn or use the event to further their own agendas was another matter.
Once she was attired in a dress that was much more elaborate than her pilot jumpsuit, Padmé returned to the transport for the short journey to the Senate. She could hear Palpatine speaking as she entered her pod, attempting to calm the outraged Senators who were crying for an army of the Republic.
"Must I remind the senator from Malastare that negotiations are continuing with the Separatists?" He asked rhetorically, his voice echoing across the Senate floor from his pod contained within the centre of the chamber. "Peace is our objective here, not war."
"You say this while your friend lies dead, assassinated by the same people with whom you wish to negotiate?" Ask Aak, the Senator for Malastare countered. "Did you not just name Amidala as your friend?"
"Order," Mas Amedda, the Chancellor's aide cried. "Senators, please!"
From within her pod, her arrival unnoticed as yet by the chaos within the Senate chamber, Padmé shook her head at the sight in disgust. "This is exactly why Count Dooku was able to convince so many systems to secede," she commented.
"There are many who believe that the Republic has become too large and disjointed," said Dormé Enchmaé, another one of her handmaidens and decoys, who like Cordé was wearing a cowl designed to conceal the resemblance to her Senator.
The pod left its moorings and moved towards the centre of the arena. Padmé caught the look of blatant shock upon the Supreme Chancellor's face, before he comprehended that the sight before his eyes was actually real and not a figment of his grief, and a wide smile broke across his face, as he inclined his head, wordlessly giving her permission to speak.
"I concur with the Supreme Chancellor," Padmé began, addressing all assembled. "At all costs, we do not want war!"
"It is with great surprise and joy that the chair recognises the Senator from Naboo, Padmé Amidala," Palpatine declared.
Padmé waited for the applause in appreciation of her remarkable escape to die down before she continued to speak. "Less than an hour ago, an assassination attempt was made upon my life. I was the target, but more importantly, I believe this security measure before you was the target. I have led the opposition to building an army, but there is someone who will stop at nothing to secure its passage. I warn you, if you vote to create this army, war will follow. I have experienced the misery of war firsthand; I do not wish to do so again."
"This is insanity," Senator Orn Free Taa yelled, interrupting her. "I move that we defer this vote immediately."
"Wake up Senators, you must wake up," Padmé continued, ignoring him. "If we offer the separatists violence, they can only show us violence in return. Many will lose their lives, all will lose their freedom. This decision could well destroy the very foundation of our great Republic. I pray you do let fear push you into a disastrous decision. Vote down this security measure, which is nothing less than a declaration of war. Does anyone here want that? I cannot believe that they do."
"By precedence of order, my motion to defer the vote must be dealt with first," Orn Free Taa demanded. "That is the rule of law."
"In view of the lateness of the hour and the seriousness of this motion, we will take up these matters tomorrow," Palpatine announced. "Until then, the Senate stands adjourned."
With the Senators dismissed, Padmé returned her pod to the chamber then left for the Chancellor's office. Palpatine would want a meeting with the Loyalist committee after this delay and attack upon her, and she was one of its members.
As she entered his office, she noticed that some representatives of the Jedi Council were already present, the most revered of them stepping forward to greet her when he sensed her arrival, his gimer stick quietly tapping along the carpeted floor.
"With you, the Force is strong, young Senator," he pronounced. "Your tragedy on the landing platform, terrible. Seeing you alive brings warm feelings to my heart."
"Thank you, Master Yoda," Padmé replied, touched by the Jedi's words. "Do you have any idea who was behind this attack?"
"We have nothing definitive," Master Windu offered from his place near the Chancellor's desk, which was situated on a dais away and above the entrance.
"Do you believe the Separatists might be responsible?" she asked them, anxious for a key as to who was behind the attack on her life.
"In dark times, nothing is what it appears to be," Master Yoda mused. "But the fact remains, Senator, in grave danger you are."
"Master Jedi," Chancellor Palpatine remarked at that moment. "May I suggest that the Senator be placed under the protection of your graces?"
"Do you think that's a wise use of our limited resources at this stressful time?" Senator Organa interjected. "Thousands of systems have gone over fully to the Separatists, and many more may soon join them. The Jedi are our-"
"Chancellor," Padmé interrupted her colleague and her friend, "if I may comment, I do not believe the-"
"Situation is that serious," Palpatine finished for her. "No, but I do, Senator."
"Chancellor, please!" Padmé pleaded. "I do not want any more guards!"
"I realise all too well that additional security might be disruptive for you," he remarked. "But perhaps someone you are familiar with, an old friend like Master Kenobi?"
Master Windu nodded in agreement. "That's possible, he has just returned from a border dispute on Ansion."
"Do it for me, M'Lady," Palpatine begged. "Please. I will rest easier. We had a big scare today. The thought of losing you is unbearable."
Padmé knew it was useless to continue to refuse. In truth she and Captain Typho could do with a fresh perspective on this matter, and her heart leapt at the thought of seeing Obi-Wan again, despite the slight pang of jealousy still present from the memory of when she last saw him, at a social event shortly after she had joined the Senate, when he was in the company of a blonde woman who seemed to know him quite intimately. She had never learnt her name, nor had she taken any effort to find out, worried that once she discovered such information, her fears would prove to have a secure foundation.
"I will have Obi-Wan report to you immediately, M'Lady," Master Windu informed her.
Master Yoda leaned in close to her as he exited the office. "Too little about yourself you worry, Senator, and too much about politics. Be mindful of your danger, Padmé. Accept our help."
Obi-Wan was snatching a few moments of peace within the Temple walls from a mission filled two years, training his padawan when the message from Master Windu about his new assignment reached his ears. He had not heard of the attempt on Senator Amidala's life, as his own transport was just entering Coruscant's atmosphere when the explosion occurred. When he entered the Temple, she was speaking on the floor of the Senate, transforming the tragedy into a miraculous escape and turning the attention back on the Military Creation Act.
Before he and Jehane had returned to the Jewel of the Core Worlds they were with another master and padawan team, Luminara Unduli and Barriss Offee, on Ansion, a minor planet situated in a major strategic position, whose government competing outside political forces were trying to manipulate for their own ends. The Council had sent them to secure Ansion's alliance for the Republic before the machinations caused it to secede to the Separatist Confederacy, taking a whole swathe of systems with it, thanks to a series of treaties which ensured certain alliances. It had been an interesting mission, full of experiences, from kidnapping, trekking across an unknown desert terrain, treating with nomads and city politicians, to a race from one end of the capital to reach Ansion's government building at the other, dodging pirates, terrorists and incendiaries along the way.
His padawan had distinguished herself well, proving capable of defending and protecting others, obeying the will of her masters and the Force, despite the all the trials which they encountered. Jehane was still young, but indisputably on her way to becoming a competent Jedi. She only needed a few more years of training to make her extraordinary. The Force had guided him well in forming the partnership, their skills complimented each other, which reflected through their reputation within the Order, though neither of them cared about that.
All of this rumination however was gone from his mind within moments of hearing the message from Master Windu. Everything within him had stilled when Senator Amidala's name was mentioned, his emotions too buffered by the shock as they learned of the explosion, followed by the overpowering relief that she was unharmed, and the anticipation that he and his padawan had been assigned to offer her further protection.
He had not seen her since that diplomatic function two years ago, one of the last domestic assignments offered to him before Jehane was judged ready to join him on missions away from the Temple. They had not spoken, she had been in conversation with another senator, a man he later learned to be Bail Organa of Alderaan, one of the rare beings in the Republic who was not in the Senate to further his own agenda or indulge in extra marital affairs. Had he known of the Senator's identity when he caught sight of them he would have sought her presence and conversation, but he had not, which tempered his desires and caused him to doubt if his intrusion would be welcome, so much so that he never made the attempt. But who she had been in company with that last time he caught sight of her was incidental to what he thought of her, despite the passing years since he showed her what he felt.
The kiss they shared a decade ago may have been a gesture of farewell, a product of the friendship they had formed over working together to lift the blockade on her planet, but it was also something which he had not forgotten during the ensuing years, or failed to meditate upon each sensation that he felt or sensed. When he contacted her to offer his congratulations for securing a second term as Queen of the Naboo four years after that farwell, the promise he made of the possibility that the kiss could lead to something more, was both impulsive and sincere, and that she returned such a declaration by confessing she felt the same, was welcome. She had added the warning that she could not act upon her feelings while she was Queen, an answer which together with the consideration for her youth, cautioned him to wait for her to initiate the relationship rather than doing so himself.
He should have called her earlier, and kept in touch with her during the ensuing years, but time had not been his own. Mission after mission dictated the first years of his knighting, then addition of training a padawan took care of the rest. Duty to the Force came first, followed by the same to his padawan and to the Republic, a prior commitment he came to terms with a long time ago and never harboured resentment over what sacrifices he might have to make in return. If he did so, then he had no right to be a Jedi. He also knew that whatever his own feelings may be, he had no right to presume that her own were the same, or to exert pressure until they came to be. She was her own woman, and he admired her for that.
Now circumstances and perhaps the Force had caused them to have time in each other's company again, and although he was saddened by the attack on her, he was glad of the chance to meet and talk with her. As Jehane shut down and tided away the training probes, calling to Obi-Wan's mind the first time he had encountered Padmé, and shown her how to defend herself with a lightsaber against the randomised laser beams that the devices produced in the cargo bay of her ship, he wondered if he should accept this assignment, in light of his feelings, which could affect how he handled the protection.
Some years ago, when he was a padawan, he had been tasked with ensuring the safety of another young woman whom he cared for, and he remembered the conflict the combination of feelings and pressures of the protection caused him. Qui-Gon respected his emotions, but also cautioned him to be mindful, for while he was a padawan he was forbidden to act upon his feelings. At the time, he had heeded his master, wisely as it turned out, for the feelings faded into a warm friendship, as had other attractions that he came to know during his youth.
Whether this would happen with Padmé he was as yet uncertain, for they had not spent enough time together for him to realise this since their parting ten years ago. Certainly plenty of years had passed to make such feelings fade away, and the fact that they had not was a possible argument in favour of confessing as much to the Council and refusing the assignment. But Obi-Wan also knew that one of the reasons why the feelings had not faded was that he and Padmé had not been in each other's company enough to ascertain such since. He also knew that even if he did make the Council aware of this possible conflict, they would very likely put the onus on him to prove to himself and to the Order that he was capable of dealing with such feelings whilst on such an assignment. As well as provide his padawan with a useful lesson in how or how not to handle her own feelings if she ever came to find herself in a similar situation.
There was also another conflict to caution him, that of their positions within the Republic. Discretion was impressed upon each Jedi when it came to relationships, for emotional connections made them vulnerable, and put their partners and offspring at risk. The Order also made considerable effort not involve themselves in the politics of the Senate, other than as advisors, although the Supreme Chancellor was in the habit of listening to their wisdom rather frequently of late, whether he chose to take heed of it was another matter. A relationship between a Senator and a Jedi would lead some to believe that the Order was not as impartial as they claimed to be, and in such times as these, with the tension relations between the Republic and the Separatists, that was a dangerous perception to create.
So even if they wished to explore their feelings, it would perhaps be wise if they did not, at least for the moment. Although hopefully, there was no harm in finding out whether they existed and to what degree. And to do so, he would need to spend time with her, so there was no question of refusing this assignment.
Obi-Wan exited the training salle followed by Jehane. His padawan had accepted the assignment with unquestioning obedience, her silence mind as serene as an undisturbed pool. She was far calmer than he had been at her age, but then girls usually matured faster than boys. He held no fears about her capability to undertake the protection of a senator, nor did he feel that the mission was beneath her talents, there was no place in the Order for such arrogance. Her acceptance was a lesson for him, another sign that their partnership was working well and had been accepted by the Force. He took it on board and quietened his mind, pushing aside all thoughts in favour of the task in front of him.
Pausing briefly by their quarters for the usual necessities required during missions such as these, master and padawan exited the temple via the public transport dock, where they boarded an airspeeder enroute to the Senate District. Around them beings gasped and whispered in awe amongst themselves but refrained from venturing from their seats to offer conversation. Jedi were not a rare sight within the capital but nor were they a common one either. Seeing them outside of the Temple walls or Senate chambers was still something to be treasured and remarked upon, though few chose to engage themselves more deeply within the encounter now.
Once there had been a time when there was no fear in approaching a Jedi, but the recent division within the Republic had made beings cautious and wary of known unknowns. Civil unrest bred distrust even amongst passing acquaintances and close friends, as no one knew who to support anymore; Republic or Separatist. The Supreme Chancellor had attempted a public relations campaign in order to boost morale, but so far it did not seem to be working. Every time he and Jehane returned to capital from an assignment the atmosphere of tension and distrust seemed to increase. Preventing Ansion from seceding to the Confederacy, along with all the systems whose alliances and treaties required them to follow should have alleviated some concerns, but then again perhaps the significance of what they had achieved was small in comparison to the size of the division within the Republic and the concern that if the Military Creation Act passed, the possibility of civil war was all the more likely.
Almost from the moment the Confederacy was formed, there was a proposal to have an army for the Republic on the Senate floor. Initially such a caution was easily dismissed, but as more systems left to join the Separatists, it slowly began to gather support. Now there was almost an even split between which Senators favoured having an army and which opposed such a precaution. Whilst the Supreme Chancellor continued to negotiate with the Confederacy and attempted to delay the passage of the Military Creation Act, patience for a decision faded and tempers frayed in frustration.
The Order had little influence over which way the decision went. They had no power within the Senate to cast a vote, and not enough members to protect every system within the Republic. All they could do was continue to offer what aid they could to the systems who asked them. As to whether they felt an army was necessary, opinion was divided, both within the Order and without. Those who asked them what they thought often received a cryptic answer which told them nothing. Each member knew that it was wise to hold their peace over the matter, than offer an opinion which was bound to carry great influence. Their powers and reputation were still highly regarded, it would not do to misuse them.
Reaching the Senate District, they disembarked from the airspeeder, crossed the permacrete decorative square which lay before the skyscrapers and entered the building that housed the Nubian Embassy. An empty turbolift awaited them, followed by a high speed journey within that small cylinder to the required floor.
"May I ask if you know Senator Amidala, Master?" Jehane inquired when the turbolift reached the midpoint of the skyscraper.
"You may, padawan," Obi-Wan replied dryly, as he chose what to reveal to her. "I met her ten years ago when she was Queen of Naboo, during the Blockade Crisis. The former Supreme Chancellor, Finis Valorum, sent myself and Master Jinn to negotiate with the Trade Federation. The Viceroy proved reluctant to listen to our entreaties, so we turned to the Queen, who along with the Gungans was more receptive."
A rather simplistic summary of what was to be his last assignment as a padawan, but Jehane knew enough political history, not to mention the rumours within the temple about that particular mission to surmise most of the details which lay behind her master's reply. As for his feelings towards her, Obi-Wan preferred to keep knowledge of their existence between himself and Padmé, for the present.
The turbolift came to a halt upon the required floor, its door sliding aside to reveal the empty foyer for the Nubian Embassy. Another door opened as the Master and padawan stepped out of the lift, from which emerged a well dressed Gungan, who until recognising the Jedi Master standing before him, appeared so dignified a contrast from their previous encounters, which made his transformation into the youthful joy which Obi-Wan had seen before quite startling.
"Obi! Obi! Obi!" he then cried, raising his hands in salutation before rushing forward to take the master's in their clasp. "Mesa so smilen to see'en yousa! Wahooo!"
"Its good to see you too, Jar Jar," Obi-Wan replied, clasping the Gungan's proffered hand warmly in an effort to calm the exuberance.
Jar Jar accepted the subtle pressure and resurrected his dignity, though it appeared to take considerable effort. Turning he caught sight of Obi-Wan's by now rather bewildered companion. "And this, mesa guessen, issen yousa apprentice."
"Jehane Doah, this is Jar Jar Binks, Gungan Representative to Senate," Obi-Wan remarked. "Jar Jar, this is my apprentice, Jehane Doah of Enshan."
"Mesa pleased to you," Jar Jar said, shaking the padawan's hand energetically. "Mesa take you to Senator Amidala."
Jar Jar turned rapidly and walked to the entrance of the apartment, leaving master and apprentice to follow. The doors parted to reveal a wide expanse of blues and creams, with an sunken seating area and a raised balcony, on which a young woman and her security officer surveyed the passing traffic. Another woman stood in the space between the two areas, her resemblance to the woman upon the balcony both striking and revealing as to her role of handmaiden and decoy.
"Mesa here," Jar cried, causing the trio to turn their focus towards the door and the visitors. "Lookie! Lookie! Desa Jedi arriven."
Obi-Wan's gaze never left the senator as she moved from the balcony to greet him. In the two years since he had last seen her, she had only grown more beautiful. Her slim curved figure was clothed in a dark purple gown which was parted down the middle and at the shoulders to reveal a lighter shade bodice, with full length skirt and wide long sleeves, both of which were embellished with elaborate stitching. Around her neck and hair were a series of gold circles arranged close together, fanning over the coiled brown tresses. While she was queen her clothes had been exotic, fit for a deity. When he last saw her she was attired only in a night gown and shawl, a look that was somehow both woman and girl at once. The contrast between what she wore then and what she was wearing now could not be greater, yet Obi-Wan still saw all those qualities which caused him to admire her a decade ago.
He greeted her in the same manner that he had the first time they saw each other, in the cloistered grounds of Theed Palace, with a gallant bow of respect and devotion. "It is a great pleasure to see you again, milady," he uttered, proffering his hand forward as he rose.
"It has been far too long, Master Kenobi," Padmé said, taking his hand in hers and looking up into his blue grey eyes with such an expression of warmth that he wished they were alone so he might express his admiration in the manner he desired rather than what common courtesy allowed.
"May I introduce my padawan learner, Jehane Doah of Enshan," Obi-Wan said, as he stepped aside so his apprentice could meet the Senator.
"I delighted to see you, Padawan Doah," Padmé said, taking the young girl's hand in her own. "I am so glad your master has chosen to take an apprentice at last. He is a good teacher, whose skills must not be wasted."
"It is a honour to learn from him, milady," Jehane replied quietly.
Pleasantries over, Padmé turned back to Master Kenobi. "While I am pleased to see you," she said, "I must say that I think that your presence is unnecessary."
"I am sure that the members of the Jedi Council have their reasons for assigning us to your protection," Obi-Wan replied. "They would argue that the Force was with you on that landing platform, but the fact that the explosion failed does not make you safe."
"Fail it did," she echoed. "And my security's investigation discovered that such a failure was by deliberate design."
"While that is true, I'm very grateful you're here, Master Kenobi," her security chief broke forth then, stepping forward to stand beside his mistress. "The situation is more dangerous than the Senator will admit."
"I don't need more security," Padmé protested as she headed for the living area, causing the Jedi to follow. She sat down, silently gesturing for them to take a seat opposite her. "I need answers. I want to know who is behind this. Someone must want me dead, or their attempts are part of a deliberate propaganda campaign to advance their agenda."
"That is what the Council have ordered me to establish," Obi-Wan assured her. "As well as protecting you from possible future attempts. They have also advised me to tell you some information which must not leave this room."
"You may be assured of our secrecy," Padmé avowed.
"When I returned from Naboo, there was a disturbance within the Temple Archives. Someone was trying to remove evidence of a certain system's existence from our records. Master Dooku was tasked with travelling there to discover why."
"Is that when he left the Jedi Order and formed the Confederacy?" Padmé sought to confirm.
"He has not left the Order," Obi-Wan revealed, "even though that is what the Council has let everyone believe. While he was conducting his initial inquiries, a crisis erupted upon his homeworld, which seemed to be linked to his investigations. His findings on Serenno led him to believe that there is a scheme to evoke a civil war within the Republic. With the approval of the Council, he decided to become the leader of one faction, in the hope that it would reveal who was behind desiring such strife."
"Instead it has only escalated matters," Padmé mused. "I do not blame Master Dooku for the current situation. Concern and paranoia has led to the Senate's present turmoil over whether or not to raise an army. All the same, I hope he realises that we are one small step away from war."
"Or peace, from a certain point of view," Obi-Wan countered. "You may be assured that Master Dooku will do what he can to prevent war breaking out, milady. He is one of the finest masters within the Order. Qui-Gon Jinn served as his apprentice."
"Now that is a good recommendation," Padmé commented sincerely. "Do you wish to familiarise yourselves with Captain Typho's security arrangements?"
"Jehane," Obi-Wan began, causing his padawan to switch her attention from the Senator and her household to her master. "Go with Captain Typho and take stock of the security systems downstairs. I need to talk further with Senator Amidala."
"Yes, master," Jehane acknowledged the directive with a swift inclination of her blonde head before rising from the sofa to follow the security officer out of the room.
Obi-Wan watched them go before turning his glance back on the Senator, to find that Padmé had dismissed her handmaiden as well, leaving them alone within the living area.
"It is good to see you with a padawan," she began warmly, smiling at him. "How are you finding teaching?"
"Interesting and rewarding," he answered in the same manner. "There are times when I find myself saying things Qui-Gon once said, words that I swore I would never say, having been on the receiving end of them and too young to realise the wisdom within."
"And how is Master Jinn?" she inquired.
"He is well," Obi-Wan replied. "I still see him when I am temple bound, if I the Council grant me the time to do so between assignments, or when our paths cross. He has a new padawan now, the boy he freed on Tatooine."
Padmé nodded. "I remember Eirtaé telling me of him. Master Jinn freed his mother as well, didn't he?"
"Yes," Obi-Wan confirmed. "They've been married some six years now." He paused before venturing one of his own questions. "How are you finding being a Senator?"
"A lot harder than being Queen," she laughed ruefully. "You say the title with some distaste, Obi-Wan. Do you not like politicians?"
"With all due respect, it's been my experience that Senators focus only on pleasing those who fund their campaigns, and they are more than willing to forget the niceties of democracy to get those funds."
"So I'm discovering," Padmé acknowledged dryly. "I hope you do not believe that of every politician?"
"Not of you," he answered honestly. "Or Senator Organa, perhaps. But most politicians are vulnerable to various forms of corruption. Even the Chancellor is very clever at following the passions and prejudices of your colleagues."
"I noticed that too," she agreed. "You know Senator Organa?"
Obi-Wan shook his head. "Only by reputation. I saw him with you once, at the welcoming party Palpatine held for you and Senator Clovis."
Padmé looked at him surprised. "I wished you had come to talk to me then. I saw you too, but in conversation with someone whom I didn't recognise." She paused before adding nervously, "it appeared quite intimate, so I didn't intrude."
He frowned slightly, puzzled. "Who do you mean?"
"I never learnt her name. She was blonde, with a slim figure. She touched your cheek."
"Duchess Satine Kryze of Mandalore," Obi-Wan answered. "Master Jinn and I were tasked with protecting her during the Great Clan Wars." He took a breath before he continued to explain their history. "It was a hard assignment. We were on the run for the most of it, living hand to mouth. Such missions tend to breed intimacy. She was attracted to me and for a time I believed that I returned her feelings. But when we returned to the temple, those emotions faded, for me at least."
"You made me a promise once, regarding such emotions," Padmé reminded him. "I told you that I could not accept it, not while I was Queen. But I realised soon after I became a Senator, that I still can't, for it would cast a perception of political bias on the Order."
"Even if that did not trouble the Order, while I'm tasked with protecting you, we cannot have a relationship," Obi-Wan added. "But I assure you that my memory has not forgotten that promise, nor have my feelings for you faded."
"Nor have mine," she returned. "Though at times I wonder how much of it is imagined, for it was only a farewell kiss, after a fraught mission."
Obi-Wan rose from the sofa and crossed the distance between them, until he could reach out his hand to take her own, raising her to her feet. Tenderly he cupped her face as he tilted his own, to touch her lips with his.
When Jehane returned to the apartment she found her master and the Senator still in conversation, although they had moved to the balcony area. The topic of their discussion was the same business that occupied the Senate, the Military Creation Act.
"What is the Jedi's position?" Padmé asked him. "I know from the Chancellor that the Council desire peace, but what do other members of the Order think?"
"I cannot speak for all of my colleagues," Obi-Wan replied, "but I believe that opinion is divided. There are not enough of us to protect everyone within the Republic, and only a handful of us employ a military style to affect change during our assignments. I think there are some within the Order who would welcome the army, but there are also those who fear its existence will only provoke a war."
"Fear?" Padmé echoed. "I thought fear was of the dark side?"
"It is," Obi-Wan confirmed. "But only when we don't recognise that we feel it. The difference between the dark and the light, is a true understanding of ourselves. Only then can we reach a balance and remain true to the Force."
"Opinion is divided within the Senate as well," Padmé remarked, turning the topic of their conversation back to its previous subject. "No one knows whether the Military Creation Act will pass or not. Palpatine is trying to delay it because he believes that if votes are cast in the heat of the moment, many members of the Senate will later regret it. I know the Council is wary of doing so, but I often wonder if they had a voice and a vote within the Senate, if it would help decide which way the vote goes."
"There is a desire that we remain neutral," Obi-Wan commented. "But as it is, we advise Senators and the Chancellor, and our advice carries weight. Then there is the position of Master Dooku to consider. From a certain point of view, we have thrown our lot in with the Separatists. If we had a voice within the Senate as well, it could be argued that we are trying to control the governing of both the Republic and the Separatists. It would give us too much power, and that is the way of the Sith."
"What will you do then when Master Dooku discovers who is behind this plot to create a civil war within the Republic?" Padmé asked.
"I don't know," Obi-Wan replied. "It depends who it is, and how much power they have. Ideally, expose them, bring them to justice, and help resolve the divisions between the Republic and the Confederacy. But events never turn out to be that simple."
"Who do you think it might be?" Padmé inquired.
"Honestly, I don't know," Obi-Wan confessed. "I'm not sure we'll find out until it is too late to do anything about them. I worry that will turn out to be whoever it was that trained the sith I fought in Theed Palace. If it is, then it is a dark time for us all."
"Why do you believe its another sith?" Padmé queried.
"Because there are always two, a master and an apprentice," Obi-Wan explained. "And I do not believe it was the former fighting me on Naboo. He was highly skilled, more than my equal, but he lacked certain abilities that would make him a master. If he had been the master, I would not be standing before you now."
"I am pleased you are standing before me," Padmé uttered softly. "I do not need more security, but I need you, Obi-Wan."
"And I will be here for you, always," he murmured. "No matter where I am in galaxy, my heart will only be with you."
"I will keep it safe," she vowed softly, "and give you mine in return."
He reached across the small space between them to take her hand, raising the fingers to his lips in gratitude. As he lowered the clasp, something in the skyline caught his eye, and his attention was abruptly diverted elsewhere.
"Speaking of safety," he murmured, causing her to search out the same spot that his gaze was fixed on with her own. Padmé stilled as she saw a small probe hovering outside her bedroom.
Spherical in shape, with two bladed fins positioned top and bottom, the probe disabled the security fields before using a laser to cut a hole through the transparisteel. Another hole came into being as something emerged from the probe's innards to slither through the lasered aperture into the bedroom.
Calling his saber to his hand Obi-Wan darted from the balcony into the room, Padmé following. Her eyes widened in terror as she caught sight of what the probe had delivered. Kouhuns, poisonous creatures from Induomodo, anthropoids that hunted by body heat. Their shell cased bodies, supported by many tiny legs, crawled across the carpet to her bed.
Or would have, except that Obi-Wan was there, his lightsaber slicing them in half, the beasts falling back on the floor, their lives ended. The Jedi exchanged a glance with her as he shut down his lightsaber, reattaching the weapon to his belt, before leaping across the room to fly through the window, straight at the probe droid, the transparisteel shattering in his wake.
Padmé watched him go, her terror switching focus from herself to her Jedi friend and protector. In the wake of the damage to her bedroom, she could see that he had not plummeted to the ground below, his hands were gripping the bottom fin of the probe fiercely as the device shot across the city skyline. Silently she shook her head, not knowing whether to be angry at his sudden and reckless departure, or amused and impressed by the swift nature in which he went to her rescue.
"Are you all right, milady?" Dormé, her decoy and assistant asked her as she and Captain Typho came in. Though Padmé had dismissed her some time ago the former handmaiden was still dressed, probably waiting for her mistress to go to bed before she sought her own. As for her security chief, Padmé half suspected that he never slept, for he always seemed to be awake whenever she needed him.
"I'm fine," she assured Dormé, her gaze still on the view of the night sky, though the probe and its stowaway had long since disappeared from sight. "Its Obi-Wan I'm worried about now."
"A reckless move," Captain Typho remarked, his tone a mixture of disapproval, concern and grudging admiration. "My uncle warned me about him, that he and Master Jinn had used foolhardy methods to resolve the Blockade Crisis. And Kenobi's padawan is clearly another. I had to forestall her from following in his wake, though I have not the men to go after him and protect you," he added as he retrieved his comlink to call for maintenance to repair the window.
"Then I'll have to call in someone else's," Padmé murmured, picking up her own communications device from its resting place on a table nearby. After dialling a code, she put the small circular pod before her mouth and spoke."Its me. I'm sorry for calling you so late, but I need a favour."
Obi-Wan was regretting the reckless move as soon as he grabbed hold of the droid. The device that had transported and delivered the Kouhuns was remarkably sophisticated, and equipped with its own security system, which began sending out electric shocks in an effort to dislodge its hitchhiker.
Weaving through the Coruscant sky Obi-Wan gritted his teeth and held on, knowing if he tried to disable the shocks, the droid might lose its operating power. The device was crafting a dangerous path through the air traffic ways, causing him to bend this way and that in an effort to avoid passing speeders and other vehicles, which the probe was trying to use to lose its stowaway.
Abruptly the mechanical sphere slowed and Obi-Wan looked up to focus on the building ahead, where a speeder hovered, waiting for its driver, who stood monitoring the droid's progress with their electrobinoculars.
Obi-Wan watched the bounty hunter as they dropped the viewfinders to fetch something out of the vehicle, a long thin device which had to be a blast rifle. Splitting his focus, he used the Force to retrieve a tracking beacon from his belt, sending the device across the remaining distance to land on the speeder, even as the bounty hunter shot him out of the sky.
He fell over five hundred and twenty stories, or would have, if it had not been for a speeder coming to a halt directly below him. As a result of the vehicle's intervention he turned his fall into a graceful landing instead, smoothly sliding into the previously unoccupied passenger seat. To his surprise, the driver of the vehicle was not his padawan learner Jehane, but a man of dark colouring and superior clothes, who carried about him an air of sophistication which only old moneyed aristocracy tended to possess.
"Hello, Master Kenobi, my name is Bail Organa and I'll be your driver for this evening's chase," his companion said by way of introduction. "Where to?"
Obi-Wan glanced at the instrument panel and seeing that it had a GPS system, reached out and typed in the code for the tracking beacon.
"Well, I hate to sound like a character out of a holoflick," he replied, "but after that speeder."
His companion nodded and with a twist of his hands, steered the vehicle in the direction of the flashing dot.
Obi-Wan watched him as he drove, observing the speed limits, weaving in and out of traffic, avoiding other drivers with an almost courteous grace, allowing those who had or demanded the right of way to pass them, but always following the bounty hunter. Only then did the name with which he had introduced himself struck within his mind a chord of recognition, causing the Jedi glance at him in surprise.
"Senator?" He sought to confirm, even though he recognised the man from the welcome reception he attended a few years ago, when he observed him in conversation with Padmé.
The dark haired man shrugged sheepishly. "Sorry, I know the last thing you want is to put another Senator in danger. But I can take care of myself, and I did send my security out as well. I just found you first." He paused before adding, "I also wanted to meet you, I've heard a lot about you from Padmé."
"How well do you and she know each other?" Obi-Wan asked.
"She and I are on many of the same committees, despite our opposing views concerning the MCA," Bail answered. "She's a good friend."
"She is," Obi-Wan agreed, knowing that it was probably her who had sent the Alderaanai to rescue him.
"Is that all she is?" Bail queried, receiving a raised eyebrow in reply. "Forgive me, but the way she talks about you suggests the possibility of something more."
"We're good friends," Obi-Wan reiterated. For the moment, his mind silently added, as his memory recalled the kiss which they had shared earlier. Though they cared for each other and admitted as much, he did not desire to make the relationship known to anyone else but themselves as present, particularly considering the Order's need for discretion, not to mention the speculation and perception that a relationship between a Jedi and a Senator would create.
Bail Organa nodded wisely and then changed the subject. "Do you think the Bounty Hunter knows we're following them?"
"Possibly," Obi-Wan revealed. "I don't think they'll lead us to who hired them."
"And who do you think hired them?" Bail asked.
"If I knew, I wouldn't have put a tracker in that speeder," Obi-Wan replied. "There are layers within layers and all is clouded."
There was a moment of silence as the senator took that on board. As for Obi-Wan he was surprised by his words, wondering if something unforeseen in the Force had prompted their utterance. For Bail the phrase made Obi-Wan appear no longer just a man but a Jedi. With him the word still carried a certain measure of respect and awe, even influence. His fellow colleague had spoken often of him, her voice savouring his memory. Padmé chose her friends wisely and this one intrigued him. Idly wishing for a time when he could understand him better, Bail turned his focus back on following the bounty hunter.
The trail took them deeper into the lower levels of Coruscant, where few of the comfortable citizens, or indeed the politicians who campaigned for their votes and fought to provide them with their rights and needs ventured. Poverty lurked in every corner, the hungry faces of humans and other species staring at them from out of darkened alleys, their hollow deprived faces horribly highlighted by the streetlights or passing air speeders.
"Seeing this, I'm beginning to think Padmé is right," Bail murmured. "The Republic does not need an army, it needs a relief corps."
"I agree," Obi-Wan replied, causing the Senator to glance at him in surprise.
"I thought the Jedi were supporters of the Military Creation Act," he said.
"We're keepers of the peace, not soldiers," Obi-Wan pointed out, echoing Master Windu's words to the Chancellor some hours earlier. "We have little desire for war with the Separatists, but our numbers are diminished. We are hard pressed to prevent or negotiate with all those systems who wish for their rights to be given fresh consideration or those who feel ignored by a Senate mired in too many layers of procedure and corruption."
"You're right about the Senate," Bail conceded. "If it were not for the Separatist crisis there are many of us who would push for reform."
"If there was a Senate pushing for reform, there would not be a Separatist crisis," Obi-Wan argued. He glanced at the blinking dot on the GPS. "I think they've stopped."
Bail checked the GPS for the location, then took the speeder out of their current traffic lane and headed further down into Coruscant's seedy underbelly.
He parked the vehicle some distance from the bounty hunter's, but not so far away that they could not see what the would be assassin was doing. When they went into the club, Obi-Wan turned to the Senator. "Stay here, I'll handle this."
Obi-Wan did not linger to hear the Senator's reply, leaping from the vehicle as he focused his senses on who he was following. As he neared the club he could feel their increasing anxiety. They knew that they were being followed. They had gone into the club to hide. A mistake as they would soon find out, but their options were limited. He entered the gambling den, a plan forming within his mind.
Bail Organa watched the Jedi enter the club. He wanted to help, but he also knew that his presence would be both dangerous and distracting, for the Jedi and for himself. Not to mention that if a paparazzi caught sight or a holo of him, his reputation and career would be over within an instance. Instead he remained in the speeder, keeping the engine ticking over, waiting, while his mind pondered over the enigma that was Obi-Wan Kenobi.
He had met Jedi before and dealt with them during his years as a Senator, but all of them had been ageing masters, or ones in the prime of life with silent padawans in tow, or thoughtful, mysterious members of the Order's Council. None like Obi-Wan Kenobi. Padmé had been right when she labelled him as an unconventional Jedi during a conversation about the Blockade Crisis. Not as much as Master Jinn, whose reputation was widespread, but the Master had left his mark on his former padawan. Yet there were moments when Kenobi became just as mysterious as Master Yoda.
Overall however, based on this short acquaintance, Bail liked him. Kenobi was an intelligent man, whose opinions had converted Bail's previous beliefs in just one evening. He would be fighting for reform tomorrow and joining Padmé in her stance against the Military Creation Act. In fact, he suspected that is what she had in mind when she called him in the first place. Or perhaps it was an unexpected benefit.
Kenobi suddenly emerged from the gambling establishment, carrying the bounty hunter in his arms. Their wrists were shackled behind them, but other than that they appeared unharmed. Bail watched as Kenobi talked to the hunter for a time, then turned his gaze to something in the sky. Whatever it was, Bail could not see, but he saw Kenobi bow his head for a moment, then remove something from the now lifeless bounty hunter before he returned with the corpse to the speeder. Placing the body in the back, the Jedi climbed into the passenger seat.
"Where to?" Bail asked.
"Padmé's apartment," Obi-Wan replied. "Via the Court District Morgue," he added as he retrieved whatever it was he had removed from the bounty hunter out of his pocket.
"Who killed them?" Bail queried as he took the vehicle back up into the sky traffic lanes.
"I'm not sure," Obi-Wan replied. "Whoever they were, they wore Mandalorian armour, but this toxic dart suggests another system entirely. Somewhere I'm unfamiliar with." He stared at the dart for another minute, then put the weapon away. "Perhaps the analysis cubicles within the Temple will know," he murmured uncertainly. "If not, I have other contacts who might."
It was a silent journey back to Five Hundred Republica, via the Court District Hospital, both Bail and Obi-Wan being too thoughtful for conversation. Then Senator was busy composing his arguments for the debate about the MCA in the Senate tomorrow, while the Jedi was contemplating what he would be guided to do by the Council, when the analysis of the toxic dart was finished and his report delivered.
He also pondered his impressions of the man beside him, who was Padmé's friend and colleague. He did not usually like politicians and that was a tactful way of putting it. In truth he distrusted them, seeing all too often that they were more concerned with achieving their own needs than those of the beings they represented. Padmé was one of those rare exceptions who cared more about those who had elected her rather than anything she might desire from the position herself. And from what he could determine about Bail Organa, the Senator from Alderaan was the same. He and Padmé were alike in many respects. They both came from pacifist planets, valued democracy beyond personal desires, or ambition and were influential in the Senate. Yet until tonight, Bail had opted to vote for the Military Creation Act.
For Obi-Wan it was a sign of how far the Republic had deteriorated. Dooku's Separatist movement had begun as nothing more than a cover story for his investigation into the Master behind the Sith that Obi-Wan had fought on Naboo. Ten years later and it was now a viable alternative to the Republic. and if the MCA passed, there was a real possibility that the Jedi would be drawn into the conflict, into fighting against a cover story that they themselves created, not to mention one of their own.
But would the alternative make a difference? He doubted it. If the Military Creation Act did not become law, the gradual withdrawal of systems from the Republic would continue, until the Republic was no more. And all it would take was for one of those less pacifist inclined systems to fire the first shot and a war would begin. Where the Jedi would stand was difficult to determine. If they participated in the war, they would be accused of betraying their own ideals, not just by the Republic and Separatists but by themselves as well. But if they took no part in it, they would be accused of deserting the Republic when it needed them the most. Whatever the future might hold, the negotiations would continue, and Obi-Wan knew that Master Dooku would be better able to keep his faction peaceful if the MCA was not passed. And for that to stand a chance of occurring, Padmé Amidala had to continue working to gather the support in the Senate which she needed. Without the threat of death hovering over her or her retinue.
With the escape of the second bounty hunter this assignment required more than one Jedi and his padawan to complete it. As much as Obi-Wan wished to remain by Padmé's side whilst whoever the Council assigned to support him tracked down the bounty hunter, he knew it might not be possible or prudent. Bail Organa was right when he queried the depth of his relationship with Padmé. It went far deeper than friendship. He cared about her, loved her, and he would have refused this assignment on those grounds, but for the chance of being able to tell her and see if she returned his feelings.
He knew that his ability to protect her was clouded by them, his reckless attempt to catch the assassin droid was proof enough. But he also knew that he could put them aside for now, for no matter how important they were to him and to her, they were insignificant in the grand scheme of things, something to be considered only later, when the universe was not so topsy turvy.
Jehane and Captain Typho, along with Dormé and Padmé were studying the Kouhuns when Obi-Wan returned to the apartment. All four looked up from the creatures at his entrance.
"What have you discovered?" He asked them as he came to join their gathering.
"They have been rendered harmless," Jehane replied. "The poison removed from their bodies. What of the bounty hunter, Master?"
"A changeling, who after a spirited chase was killed by another, wearing Mandalorian armour," Obi-Wan replied. "Senator Organa sends his compliments, by the way, milady."
"Bail picked you up?" Padmé concluded, receiving the Jedi's nod before continuing. "I am glad you and he had a chance to meet. You'd like him, even though he's politician."
"I do," Obi-Wan confirmed. "He sends his regrets, he would have stayed, but the foray into Coruscant's seamier neighbourhoods has roused a conversion within him. I think you may have gained another supporter to your cause."
"I can't deny that was a hoped for afterthought," she admitted with a small smile, "but my primary concern was making sure you came back from that reckless leap. I hope you didn't pull that stunt in an effort to try and impress me."
"Perish the thought," Obi-Wan remarked with the same expression before turning his focus on the creatures which he had put a lightsaber through earlier. There had been no time for him to study them previously, so concerned was he that they might kill her while he was doing so. Kouhuns sought out prey by their body heat, so although they had been on course for her bed, in all likelihood the creatures would have soon turned in their direction, once they sensed the new location of such a source when he and Padmé entered. At first glance they appeared to be exactly what they were, poisonous anthropoids. But on closer examination he could see what his padawan had observed, that the stingers from which they delivered that deadly liquid had been removed.
"This is no coincidence," he concluded. "One could be explained away as a failed attempt, but two plans carried out and with such detail and precision points to there being darker forces behind this. Clearly someone wants you dead, Senator, but that someone also wants you to survive these attacks is equally apparent."
"The question is who," Captain Typho commented. "We're no closer to an answer to that question than we were before arrived."
"Perhaps we are," Obi-Wan remarked, as he produced the souvenir from his spirited chase across the capital. "This was the dart with which the changeling was killed. I intend to see if I can find records in the Temple Archives of this weapon. Who knows, it may point to a planet of origin that will provide us with a name of who is behind this."
"And what I am to do until then?" Padmé queried. "Keep enduring these attempts on my life? I cannot leave the capital, not while the Military Creation Act is being debated. This vote is too important."
"Not when compared to your life," Obi-Wan countered, "but I do agree that you cannot leave, Senator. If whoever it is behind this has been deliberately sabotaging each attempt on your life, then clearly they have been hired by somebody else either with that purpose in mind, or who is labouring under the misapprehension that eventually one of the attempts will succeed. Which means that you are in no immediate danger for the moment. Jehane will stay with you while I search for the origin of this dart and brief the Council."
"If the vote is held soon, these attacks may come to an end," Padmé speculated.
"Perhaps," Obi-Wan allowed. "Although that's if they are due to your position against the Military Creation Act. If not, they will probably continue, which is why I must find out who is behind them as soon as possible."
The room within the Jedi Temple which housed the analysis cubicles was always busy, full of padawans and masters studying, and today was no exception. Obi-Wan found one cubicle empty, with an SP-4 analysis droid waiting, the type he needed. Sitting down before the console, he retrieved the dart, moving to place it on the tray, as the voice of the droid began instructing him to do so.
After a few minutes of seeing diagram upon diagram of various weapons rolled past as the droid searched through the records, the screen went blank and the sensor tray delivered the dart back to him.
"As you can see on your screen, subject weapon does not exist in any known culture," the SP-4 analysis droid explained. "Markings cannot be identified. Probably self-made by a warrior not associated with any known culture."
Obi-Wan pocketed the dart once more and rose, walking away from the cubicles. He was surprised by the results, but not unduly so. He had other sources of information open to him, and one in particular might provide him with the knowledge that he needed.
He left the Temple and took a speeder to the business district of Coco town, far away from where he and Senator Organa had caught the would-be assassin, but in an equally distressed and industrialised area of Coruscant.
The foggy windowed metallic and red painted diner was not likely to be found on any list of recommended eating establishments for strangers visiting the capital. It was frequented by freighter drivers and dock workers, staffed by waitress droids, one of whom came up to Obi-Wan as soon as he entered.
"Can I help ya?" she asked.
"I'm looking for Dexter," Obi-Wan replied.
The waitress droid stared at him for a moment, sizing him up, then moved to the open service hatch behind the counter. "Someone to see ya, honey. Jedi, by the looks of him."
A large Besalisk appeared within the hatch, took one look at his visitor and cried out in a voice that rang clear across the diner. "Obi-Wan! Take a seat, old buddy! Be right with ya!"
Obi-Wan took one of the empty booths and accepted the offer of a glass of ardees from the waitress while he waited for Dex to join him.
He rose from his seat when his friend emerged from behind the bar, and returned the embrace that was offered just as heartily.
"So my friend, what can I do for ya?" Dex asked as they parted to sit either side of the table within the booth.
"You can tell me what this is," Obi-Wan answered, retrieving the dart from his robes and placing it on the table in front of Dex.
"Well waddya know," Dex murmured after a few minutes of study, "I ain't seen one of these since I was prospecting on Subterrel beyond the Outer Rim."
"Do you know where it came from?" Obi-Wan asked.
"This baby belongs to them cloners," Dexter replied. "What you got here is a Kamino saberdart."
"Kamino saberdart," Obi-Wan echoed. He had heard that name before. It was the planet that Master Jocasta Nu caught Master Sifo-Dyas attempting to erase from the archives. Had he managed to remove some files relating to Kamino before he was prevented from eliminating all record of the system completely? It would explain why the analysis droid had failed to recognise the origin of the dart. It was something he would have to check out when he returned to the Temple. For now he continued his conversation with Dex. "I wonder why it didn't show up in our analysis archive."
"Its these funny little cuts on the side that give it away," Dex replied. "Those analysis droids you've got over there only focus on symbols, you know. I should think you Jedi have more respect for the difference between knowledge and wisdom."
"Kamino, is it part of the Republic?" Obi-Wan asked. The attempt to erase all records of the planet from the archives had taken place over ten years ago, causing the Council to place all information regarding it under their protection. No one could access the files without seeking consent from a Council member first. Knowing that Master Dooku had been assigned to seek out the reasons behind the sudden need for those records to disappear, Obi-Wan had refrained from investigating further, trusting that the Council would inform him of anything he needed to know. In the decade which had passed since nothing had arisen that referred to the planet until now, the lack servicing to further quiet any curiosity he may have had.
"No, its beyond the Outer Rim," Dex replied, the location rendering it beyond the reach and authority of the Republic. "I'd say about twelve parsecs outside the Rishi Maze, towards the south. It should be easy to find, even for those droids in your archive. These Kaminoans keep to themselves, mostly. They're cloners. Good ones, too."
"Are they friendly?" Obi-Wan inquired.
Dex shrugged. "It depends," he answered.
"On what?" Obi-Wan persisted.
"On how good your manners are," Dex replied, "how big your pocket book is." He poked at the weapon lying on the table between them before adding, "was this used in that attack on the Naboo Embassy last night?"
"Not exactly," Obi-Wan revealed, "it was used to kill the bounty hunter who was involved, by someone wearing armour from Mandalore. How did you hear about that? I thought the Embassy was trying to silence reports of it."
"No chance of them being able to do that now," Dex remarked, "the bounty hunter's no longer dead."
Obi-Wan looked at his friend, mystified. He had examined the body himself, and taken the corpse to the court district morgue. "What?"
"Changeling got up and walked out of the building, so I heard," Dex informed him. "About near gave the caretaker a heart attack. As soon as they recovered, he spent his off hours spreading the tale around."
As extraordinary as the incident was, it made a curious sort of sense. If these attempts were being engineered with the intent to protect Padmé from whomever it was that wanted her dead, then keeping the bounty hunters away from the law was a wise precaution to take. If the changeling had died, their body placed under the authority of the morgue, then further examination might have found a piece of evidence which could reveal the identity of their employer, or the stingers that were removed from the Kouhuns, perhaps revealing the true nature of why the attempts had so far failed to whoever it was who wanted the Nubian Senator dead.
Obi-Wan put the dart away and finished his cup of ardees. He needed to brief the Council, something which he had put off until now, preferring to wait until he had found out the origin of the dart. The news of the second bounty hunter's survival only made the briefing more pressing. "Dex, I have to go. The Council must learn of this."
"Clear skies, my friend," Dex acknowledged the decision, offering him the traditional travelling farewell.
"And may the Force be with you," Obi-Wan returned before exiting the diner.
"Then the changeling was shot, by another, wearing armour which I recognised, Masters, as being from Mandalore. However the dart, I have since learned, originated from Kamino, the planet that Master Sifo-Dyas was caught attempting to erase all records of from the Temple archives. I also learned that whatever solution it was with which the dart was coated it, was not of a poisonous nature, for the changeling left the morgue before authorities could examine the evidence further."
A long silence followed the end of the Obi-Wan's briefing to the Council, as the members consulted each other through conversation within the Force. The words he was not privy to, for there were various levels of speech permitted by the ancient energy, and the Council Masters chose to use one which was only taught to those privileged enough to be included within their circle.
Eventually, Master Yoda chose to voice the decision of the collective. "Track down this bounty hunter you must, Obi-Wan."
"More importantly, find out who he's working for," Master Windu added.
"What about Senator Amidala?" Obi-Wan inquired. "She will still need protecting."
"Handle that, your padawan will," Yoda replied. "Remain on Coruscant, Senator Amidala shall. Require our advice while you are away, your padawan might."
Obi-Wan bowed, taking the words as his dismissal. "Thank you, Masters. I shall inform my apprentice of your decisions before I depart."
He left the Council chamber and headed for the turbolift which would take him back down to the ground floor of the Temple. He was fortunate that his path was familiar, for his mind was still pondering upon the journey from Coruscant to Kamino that he was soon to take, speculating on what he might find there, and what he was leaving behind. He had known as soon as he sought it, that one kiss would not be enough to satisfy either him or Padmé, though it confirmed to both of them that their feelings were the same. It was all they could exchange however, until the mission was over, bound as they were to their duties within the Order, Senate and Republic. Beyond the mission, they would be still be tied by that triumvirate of obligations, but if he could discover who it was behind the attempts on her life, then both of them may have the freedom to explore their relationship discreetly, until the trinity granted them the liberty to make it public. He did not like how their union would be received or perceived by others, but until there was no demand for such political intrigue and division, there was nothing he could do about it.
Arriving at her apartment, he found the Senator from Naboo in her bedchamber, a small suitcase lying open on her bed, in which she was in the process of either retrieving clothes from, or putting them in. She had changed her gown and hairstyle during his absence, into a grey blue full skirt with a darker bodice, embroidered and sleeved in the lighter shade, the silk sleeves bounded at the elbows and the wrists. Her hair was pulled tight against her scalp, and tied at both sides into seashell folds.
She looked up at his entrance, her brown eyes sparkling with dissatisfaction. "I haven't worked for a year to defeat the Military Creation Act not to be here when its fate is decided!"
"And you will be here," Obi-Wan assured her, causing her to cease her packing. "The Council sees no reason for you to leave Coruscant. Jehane will protect you while I track down the bounty hunter."
"Oh," she murmured. "I thought that's why you were absent for so long. You did not need to argue for me before the Council, Obi-Wan."
"I didn't need to either," he informed her. "If the attempts on your life had not been designed to protect you, I imagine that we'd be having a different conversation. Although I think that the Council understand the importance of fighting the Military Creation Act just as well as you, they value life more."
"And they don't think that lives will be saved if I'm not here to stop the Act from being passed?" Padmé countered.
"Milady, you are but one Senator," Obi-Wan pointed out. "There are others who are just as equally invested in the cause as you."
"Bail Organa may have come over to my side, but the result is still too close to call," Padmé informed him. "Every vote counts."
"Just as well that you are staying to place yours then," Obi-Wan reminded her. "One battle at a time."
She ceased her unpacking and took a deep breath before she continued the conversation. "You're right. Its a way of venting my frustration at things that are beyond my control to alter. Its just I was getting use to seeing you, having you close by, and now you're leaving again. And for how long?"
He frowned as his mind pondered possibilities. "I'm not sure. It depends what I find on Kamino. Master Dooku reported that there was a project begun there by Master Sifo-Dyas that he decided not to tamper with, a decision which many of the Council questioned at the time. But that was ten years ago, and to my knowledge, no mention has been made of the planet since. It may be that whatever's there now, Master Dooku has no knowledge of, as he moved to Serenno soon after, before taking on the mantle of the Confederacy."
"What was the project?" Padmé asked.
Obi-Wan paused to search his memory, before replying thoughtfully, "I don't think anyone asked, or if they did, Master Dooku gave no answer. He has enough of a worthy reputation within the Order that the Council rarely ask him to elaborate on anything, trusting on his judgement of the matter. Who knows, I might be able to find out when I get there."
During his reply, she had returned to unpacking the travel case which had been hastily and frustratingly half-assembled before he returned from his investigations and the Council briefing at the Temple. Now he watched her hang the last piece of clothing inside the wardrobe before coming to stand before him.
"I know I'm in danger, but am I allowed to see you to your ship when you have depart?" She asked him.
He took his hands off the bed to take hold of hers. "Providing you had an escort for the way back, I'm sure that could be arranged. Or I could depart from the docking port here, which would give us some privacy and less risk to your security."
"So I would be able to give you a personal farewell?" She queried softly.
"If you wish to," he answered. "Though I do insist that your security and my padawan remain within reach to ensure your safety."
"Would your padawan be required to brief the Council about such a parting?" She asked him. She could trust her security, but Jehane was an unknown quantity to her, and given the way in which a relationship between a Senator and a Jedi could be perceived, they needed to exercise extreme care for the present.
Obi-Wan glanced down at their joined hands as he thought about that for a moment. "Jehane's first loyalty is to me, then the Council. To her I have tried to be what Qui-Gon was to me during my apprenticeship. I hope she would wait to ask me about it, rather take such an event before the Council without knowing the feelings behind such a farewell."
They both knew what was being left unsaid, the hope that they could perform the same embrace that had formed their last parting, a tender kiss full of the promise of things to come, between two sworn to loyalties placed on them by others if not yet between themselves. The kiss shared between them since then stood as affirmation of that promise, if not the beginning of its fulfilment, due to the positions they held and the perceptions such an alliance would create, as well as the dangers to her life and the necessity of protection which would conflict.
Imagination had not served to cloud their emotions, only to provide strength during their absence from each other. Now that the truth was confirmed, there was the constant of anticipation for the moment when time and circumstance would allow them to focus on their relationship, when the threat to her life had passed, along with the decision within the Senate, and assignments from the Order.
Obi-Wan surveyed their joined hands once more, his mind for once reluctant to focus on that which was to come, except when it concerned themselves. Her skin was soft to the touch, her fingers slender and elegant, containing the natural grace which she had always possessed, ever since he met her, all those years ago. Conscious of the possibility that anyone of her staff, or his apprentice, could walk into her chamber at any moment, he pressed his lips to her hands, rather than to her mouth as he would have if there was the certainty of their being left undisturbed. Gently he turned them over to deliver another kiss, this time to her wrists, where his mouth widened alittle to softly suck the base of her palms.
Padmé gasped at the sensations which such a series of touches produced. His eyes met hers as he lifted his mouth away, the sea shades revealing a depth of passion she was just becoming familiar with. She shifted the balance of their joined hands to gain control of the grip, then raised his hands to her mouth, pulling him to his feet as she did so. Tearing her gaze away, she returned the gestures, her mouth lingering over his skin, savouring the moment.
When she raised her eyes to meet his own once more, he let go of his previous caution, relinquished clasping her hands in favour of her waist, and pulled her close for another kiss, this one less tentative and more passionate than the last, now they knew that their feelings for each other were the same, and had each other's consent to grow in strength. It could not last long, they had duties which must take precedent, so it was with regret that he parted from her to talk with his padawan, who was in the living room with Padmé's handmaidens.
The starlines surrounding the Outer Rim system twelve parsecs south of the Rishi Maze, blipped as a hyperspace engine ring for a Delta-7 starship dropped into normal space. After a moment spent hovering whilst the pilot within confirmed that they had arrived at the correct co-ordinates, the Delta-7 left the hyperspace engine ring and approached its destination.
"There it is, Arfour," Obi-Wan commented when the cloudy and rather unremarkable looking sphere came into view. "Kamino, the planet that Master Sifo-Dyas lost his life trying to erase from the archives."
His copilot uttered a series of beeps, for which a translation scrolled across the screen before the knight, though he needed none, as the tone clearly indicated a question as to that Jedi Master's motive in erasing such information.
"I've no idea why he did it," Obi-Wan replied, "perhaps we'll find some answers down there."
As he flew the Delta-7 towards the planet, Obi-Wan took stock of the information that the starships scanners were collecting about it. He soon saw that it was an ocean world, with no visible natural land masses, and almost completely covered by clouds.
Despite this seeming inhospitable sight, his computer registered a transmission asking for identification, indicating that there was the means to support life upon the planet, though it was probably by artificial means, he concluded.
Obi-Wan sent the information, receiving a set of approach co-ordinates in reply, for a place called Tipoca City.
"Well here we go, Arfour," he murmured as he set the ship to head towards the new destination. "Time to find some answers."
Within a few seconds his ship broke the atmosphere to soar over rain-lashed, white capped seas. Due to the weather, the journey was rougher than the atmospheric entry, but the Delta-7 held its course, allowing Obi-Wan time to survey Tipoca City when it came into view, all gleaming domes and angled, curving walls, balancing on stilts that stretched down beneath the waves.
He did a flyby first, taking in all he could see, whilst the computer collected what information in could gather, then set the craft down on the designated landing pad. Pulling his hood over his head, Obi-Wan slid back the canopy and leapt out of the ship, before rushing towards the nearest shelter from the elements. A door slid open as he approached, and he entered into a brilliantly lit white room.
"Master Jedi, so good to see you," the Kaminoan who was waiting greeted him with. "I am Taun We. The Prime Minster expects you."
"I'm expected?" Obi-Wan queried, puzzled. He had sent no word of his arrival, and as far as he knew Master Dooku's last visit was ten years ago, before the crisis on his homeworld of Serenno and the Separatist Confederacy took him away from the planet, a long time to leave word that other Jedi would follow.
"Of course," Taun We replied. "Lama Su is anxious to see you. After all these years, we were beginning to think you weren't coming. Now please, this way."
The Kaminoan led him down a windowed brightly lit corridor, passing many rooms until they came to the executive office.
When they were inside, Taun We introduced him. "May I present Lama Su, Prime Minister of Kamino. This is Master Jedi..."
"Obi-Wan Kenobi," he finished.
"Greetings, Master Jedi," Lama Sun remarked. "You'll be delighted to hear that we are on schedule. Two hundred thousand units are ready, with another million well on the way."
All of Obi-Wan's training and discipline came into force to present a serene, composed reply in response to the shocking information that was being delivered to him. "That is good news," he said, while thoughts ran wildly through his mind, wondering why Master Dooku had thought it was a good idea to continue to let one million and two hundred thousand clones be built, and for what purpose they would be used for.
"We thought you would be pleased," Lama Su remarked. "Please tell your Master Sifo-Dyas that we have every confidence that the order will be met on time and in full. He is well, I hope, and proud of the army we've built for him."
Obi-Wan brushed aside the news that Master Dooku had concealed his identity to the Kaminoans for the moment, in favour of clarifying what he had just heard. "Tell me, Prime Minister, when my Master first contacted you about the units did he say who they were for?"
"Of course he did," Lama Su remarked serenely. "The army is for the Republic. You must be anxious to inspect the troops yourself."
"That's why I'm here," Obi-Wan answered, knowing he needed to learn as much as possible before he surrendered to the urgent need to brief the Council on what exactly the project was that Master Dooku had decided to leave unchecked. An army for the Republic, ordered by a member of the Jedi. It should be impossible and yet it was not. It was a relief that news of this had not reached the Senate, for it would render the vote being debated at that moment null and void, before escalating tensions between the Republic and the Separatists. He could not understand what Master Dooku had been thinking, given his current position as leader of the Confederacy and his desire for peace with the Republic. He thought that the plan was to work for reform within until the two divisions were one again.
With a deep breath he pushed aside his concerns. Such speculation could wait until he knew more than he did now. Returning his focus to the inspection, Obi-Wan listened to the Prime Minister's commentary on what he was seeing, and tried to control the rising sense of horror within him that grew with each new point of interest.
"Very impressive," he commented as they passed the hatchery.
"I hoped you would be pleased, Master Jedi," Lama Su said. "Clones can think creatively. You will find that they are much superior to droids and that ours are the best in all the galaxy. Our methods have been perfected over many centuries. We have several hatcheries throughout the city. This of course is the most crucial phase, though with our techniques we expect a survival rate of over ninety percent. Every so often an entire batch will develop an ... issue, but we expect the clone production to remain steady, and with our accelerated growth methods, these clones will be fully matured and ready for battle in just over a decade."
"An issue?" Obi-Wan queried as he caught the Prime Minister's pause in his commentary, an attempt to conceal something which he was not proud of, but was beyond his ability to alter.
"From time to time a defect will develop within the genetic makeup, which is impossible to prevent or eliminate," Lama Su explained. "When that happens, the batch is discarded."
Discarded. Inwardly Obi-Wan shuddered at the use of such a clinical term for what was in reality mass murder. He had hoped that there would be an simple solution to the problem of this army's existence, but evidently that was not going to be the case. Anxious to conceal his disgust from his guides, he recalled another point of interest within the Prime Minister's commentary. "You mentioned growth acceleration."
"Oh yes, its essential. Otherwise a mature clone would take a lifetime to grow. Now we can do it in half the time. The units you will soon see on the parade ground we started ten years ago, when Sifo-Dyas first placed the order, and they're already mature and quite ready for duty. You will find that they are totally obedient. We modified their genetic structure to make them less independent than the original, of course."
"Who was the original?" Obi-Wan queried.
"A bounty hunter named Jango Fett," Lama Su revealed. "We felt that a Jedi would be the perfect choice, but Sifo-Dyas hand picked Jango himself."
The notion that a Jedi might have been used floored him, and he was relieved to learn that Master Sifo-Dyas had possessed some sense when it came to engineering this potential mess, though a bounty hunter was hardly the right choice either. Of course if Master Sifo-Dyas had been thinking clearly, these clones would never have existed. As for Jango Fett, it was possible that he was the owner of the dart which had led him here in the first place. "Where is this bounty hunter now?"
"He lives here," Lama Su informed him. "But he's free to come and go as he pleases. Apart from his pay, which is considerable, Fett only demanded one thing, an unaltered clone for himself."
Obi-Wan shied away from contemplating what uses a bounty hunter would have for a clone of himself in favour of getting a few answers to his many questions. "I would very much like to meet this Jango Fett."
"I would be most happy to arrange that for you," Taun We said.
They came to a balcony which looked out on to a parade ground, filled with the two hundred thousand units of mature clones, all clothed in the white Mandalorian armour that Obi-Wan had last seen on the bounty hunter back on Coruscant. As he surveyed this mass of genetic modification, Obi-Wan could not help but picture them laying waste to worlds, silently weighing the devastating impact they would have on the Republic and the Confederacy. He was certain of one thing, news of this army must not be allowed to reach the Republic. Given the dangerous consequences of its existence, he decided that rather than briefing the Council as soon as he had finished speaking to the bounty hunter, he would wait until he returned to Coruscant.
Perhaps a detour to Serenno would prove fruitful, assuming of course, that was the current location of Master Dooku. Obi-Wan knew that without speaking with the Jedi Master, he would not find all the answers that he was looking for.
Jango Fett's quarters on Kamino were like the rest of the rooms within the domed complex, a brilliant shade of white. They were guarded by a very sophisticated security system, which Obi-Wan was still studying when the door suddenly opened to reveal an almost exact replica of one of the clones he had been seeing all day, the boy that Jango had requested for his own purposes.
"Boba," Taun We remarked, "Is your father home?"
"Yep," the boy answered succinctly.
"May we see him?" Taun We requested.
"Sure," Boba replied, before calling to his father. "Dad! Taun We's here!"
Obi-Wan wondered at the boy's and Taun We's use of the word, given that the occupation of the bounty hunter and that the child was merely another clone, minus the growth acceleration which the Kaminoans had applied to the rest of his kind. He was curious as to why a bounty hunter would want a personal connection, when one could prove dangerous to him, cause him to be vulnerable to those who would make use of any weak points to puncture his armour.
"Welcome back, Jango," Taun We remarked as the man himself came into view. "Was your journey productive?"
"Fairly," he answered, his eyes not on the Kaminoan but on Obi-Wan, sizing the Jedi up in the same manner that his visitor was evaluating him.
"This is Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi," Taun We continued. "He's come to check on our progress."
"That right?" Jango murmured, his tone affecting a nonchalance which his studied evaluation of the Jedi Master belied.
"Your clones are very impressive," Obi-Wan began, allowing the deception to continue for the present. "You must be very proud."
"I'm just a simple man trying to make my way in the universe, Master Jedi," Jango replied without the slightest attempt at humility.
"Aren't we all," Obi-Wan agreed, taking his eyes from the bounty hunter to make what he hoped was a casual survey of the apartment. He caught sight of a storage room, where a collection of armoured parts were gathered, battered and stained from use. Before Obi-Wan could take a more studied view of the armour, its wearer moved, blocking the view.
Obi-Wan switched his gaze back to the bounty hunter. "Ever make your way as far into the interior as Coruscant?" He asked.
"Once or twice," Jango replied, his answers as succinctly worded as his son's, though perhaps with more of an attempt at politeness.
"Recently?" Obi-Wan persisted, although he half suspected that he would not get a direct answer to that question.
"Possibly," Jango allowed.
"Then you must know Master Sifo-Dyas," Obi-Wan concluded, venturing forth the name merely to test the man's reaction. "Is he not the one who hired you for this job?"
"Never heard of him," Jango replied.
"Really?" Obi-Wan queried sceptically, knowing that could not possibly be the case, for the Prime Minister had told him that it was the Jedi Master who had hand picked Jango for the genetic base of the clone army.
"I was recruited by a man called Tyranus on one of the moons of Bogden," Jango informed him, in a tone that conveyed a sense of truthfulness.
"Curious," Obi-Wan murmured, wondering how much of that reply was true. It was entirely possible that Master Sifo-Dyas had concealed his real identity from the bounty hunter, or hired someone else to recruit him.
"Do you like your army?" Jango asked him then.
"I look forward to seeing them in action," Obi-Wan replied, though in truth that was far from the case. His mind was contemplating all possible alternatives for preventing such a future from coming to pass, from ignoring the system and hoping that the Kaminoans would do the same, to declaring a problem within the clones' genetic makeup and having the entire lot discarded, despite the horror he felt in being responsible for such a massacre.
"They'll do their job well," Jango remarked. "I'll guarantee that."
"Like their source?" Obi-Wan countered but without expecting an answer. "Thank you for your time, Jango."
"Always a pleasure to meet a Jedi," Jango replied, his tone causing the pleasantry to sound like a threat, even as he held out his hand for Obi-Wan to take.
When he did so, the bounty hunter used the grip to pulled him in close and whispered in his ear. "Meet me at my docking platform, I'm sure a resourceful Jedi such as yourself will be able to find it. He said you would come, eventually. I'm to take you to him."
Obi-Wan nodded to show he had heard and understood the message conveyed, then withdrew from Jango, before leaving the apartment with Taun We. The bounty hunter's parting words were the last response he expected, but also proved to be exactly in line with what he intended to do next. Clearly the Kaminoans were being kept in the dark about the true purpose of the clones they were producing. As for whom Jango Fett spoke of, Obi-Wan could only conclude that Master Dooku must have decided to make use of the bounty hunter when he visited here ten years ago, though the questions relating to the attempts on Padmé's life still remained, for the separatists had nothing to gain from such tactics, unless they actually desired a war. However such a motive only made sense if they intended to succeed in their assassination attempts, which only made their use of harmless effects even more mysterious.
Taun We escorted him back to the door that led to the landing platform where his Delta-7 was waiting for him.
"May the Force be with you," Obi-Wan offered in farewell, along with a bow.
"And with you, Master Jedi," Taun We replied. "We look forward to hearing from you soon."
Obi-Wan acknowledged the hope, but failed to confirm it. As far as he was concerned he never wanted to set eyes on the system again, not if he could avoid it, though he had a feeling that the Council might have a say in such a possibility. Covering his head with the hood of his robe, he braved the elements once more, in the short dash back to his ship. When the canopy was shut, he dropped the hood and shook his wet hair away from his face, before powering up the craft and taking off.
Another flyby of Tipoca City allowed him to catch sight of the landing platform that belonged to the bounty hunter. Jango was already waiting for him, judging from the small speck of white located a near the half helmet like vessel. While Obi-Wan's ship circled the platform from above, the bounty hunter disappeared into the ship, then fired up the engines to take it into a similar orbit.
Behind him Arfour beeped, signalling that the signal beacon had received a message. Obi-Wan took his eyes off the craft to read the words that scrolled across his computer screen. It was the name of a system, and a series of hyperspace co-ordinates.
Author's Note: Just to clarify the timeline here, Master Sifo-Dyas went to Kamino, ordered the clones, picking Jango as their genetic foundation, using Tyranus as his alias, then returned to Coruscant and attempted to erase the system from the Temple Archives. After Dooku, Nu and Obi-Wan prevented him from doing so, Dooku went to Kamino, learned of the truth behind the project, and continued it.
The memory of their second farewell still lingered in Padmé's mind when she woke the next morning. It had been all she had hoped for. He had not stayed long after leaving her room to talk to his padawan. The kisses they had shared a few moments before left her breathless and hungry for more, minutes passed before she could slow the beating of her heart and regain enough composure to join him and the others in the living area. A little conversation followed, then he led the way to the landing pad, where his ship was waiting.
She remembered taking stock of the light vessel, thinking how fragile it appeared in comparison to her sliver yacht. Not for the first time she was worried about the potential dangers that he could face, which all his calm and quiet assurances could not fade. He had taken her in his arms, she recalled hearing the beating of his heart as she rested her head against his chest. When she lifted her head to look at him, the back of his hand lay against her face, stroking softly. He touched her lips tenderly with his own, reminding her of the last time they had stood together in such an embrace before a ship ready to depart. Before it had been the girl he said goodbye to, a parting between friends that held the promise of something more if only they had the time to explore it. Now it was the woman he bade farewell to, a friendship serving as the promise of a further intimacy, for the present only briefly explored.
He parted from her reluctantly, she felt the hesitation his mouth, captured in his look, as he gazed into her eyes one last time. His arms were slow to leave her, but he did not look back as he turned and headed for the Delta-7. She caught sight of the Arfour droid as he leapt into the cockpit, and silently prayed that it would watch over him as her own Artoo did ever since she commissioned him for her staff after her two terms as sovereign were up. Artoo's ingenuity in destroying the droid control ship of the Trade Federation was fondly remembered, she hoped the newer model that was accompanying Obi-Wan was just as skilled.
Only when the ship was no longer visible did she return to the relative safety of her apartment. The remaining hours of the day were spent catching up on work, as she reviewed her arguments to be made in the Senate against the Military Creation Act. The vote was still too close to call, despite that Bail Organa had now crossed the floor. Padmé believed that the result could even depend on the day that Palpatine chose to allow the vote to take place, although the Chancellor seemed most reluctant to let it happen at all. Every point of order, every opportunity for a recess, he used to the fullest extent. If he hoped that the delay would allow cooler heads to prevail, he was mistaken, for the frustration and discontent were growing.
And with it, the appeal of the Confederacy. Its current size and recent foundation argued to outsiders that there would be less contention to wade through, governing would be more effective, and completed quicker. Padmé could understand the attraction, there were days when worn out by endless committee meetings and hours of senate attendance without anything to show for it, that she contemplated the alternative. She loved the Republic and desired to fight for reform from within, but there were days when achieving such an ideal seemed far from reach, the need to start afresh rendering that future perhaps more attainable. What Obi-Wan had told her of Count Dooku's loyalties increased the temptation to leave a Republic that was fast becoming a strange and foreign piece of the galaxy.
The alarm sounded once more, reminding her of the present. She rose from the bed and went to the refresher, before putting on her robe and venturing into the living area, where Captain Typho, Dormé, Cordé and Padawan Doah were waiting. At her entrance the latter rose from her chair and fetched the plate of food that had been kept warmed, placing it before the empty seat.
"Did you do all this, Padawan Doah?" Padmé asked her as she took her seat, surveying the spread of various fruit, bread, savouries and preserves laid upon the table.
Obi-Wan's apprentice shook her head. "No, milady, your handmaidens helped."
"Jehane's far too modest," Cordé commented, "most of this is hers. She's a marvel in the kitchen. Master Kenobi must be very proud."
"And blessed with a high metabolism," Dormé added wryly.
"I learned from the best," Jehane revealed.
Padmé broke her fast and sighed in appreciation. "Then I look forward to tasting Master Kenobi's culinary creations." After taking a few more bites, she inquired after messages. "I don't suppose there's any new information on when the vote will be held?"
"No, milady," Dormé replied. "Just the joy of committee meetings today."
"Any additions to the pre-booked line up?" Padmé inquired.
"No, but the relief meeting has been moved to an earlier time slot," Dormé informed her as she handed over the briefing pad.
"That's down to Bail Organa," Padmé murmured. "Since his ride with Master Kenobi he has become very passionate about how the Senate provides relief for those in need, particularly on Coruscant."
"The need for relief will only increase if the Military Creation Act goes through," Cordé remarked.
"Which is why we are doing everything in our power to make sure that it does not," Padmé reminded them. "Providing the Chancellor lets the vote be held," she murmured thoughtfully, remembering what Obi-Wan had said. "The Chancellor is very clever at following the passions and prejudices of your colleagues."
"He cannot put it off forever," Dormé reasoned. "No other legislation can be passed until it is settled."
"I'm not so sure on that," Padmé remarked. "There are ways and means of achieving such, certain loopholes in procedure and protocol."
"So he could be hoping that given enough time, it would be forgotten?" Jehane asked.
"I hope not," Padmé answered quickly, before adding more thoughtfully, "although that could prove equally effective. It would take away the possibility of war with the Separatists and allow the negotiations for peace to continue. However, it would leave the law unresolved indefinitely, and allow for those systems who can afford it to create armies of their own."
"Not to mention that there are some who will not let it be forgotten," Cordé added, causing her Senator and fellow handmaiden to nod in agreement.
"Even when it is dealt with there will be those who wonder whether we have done the right thing," Padmé mused. "Some who might strive to bring it before the Senate again in the hope that the resolution will go their way this time." She sighed sadly. "I'm beginning to see why Master Kenobi hates politics and politicians."
"Makes one wonder if it is any different in the Confederacy," Dormé added quietly.
"There must be some difference that makes it so attractive, aside from the novelty and size of its current membership," Cordé argued. "We hear of the systems joining, we would hear about them leaving, I think."
Padmé quietly wondered if it was the fact that a Jedi was the leader that made the difference, although no one knew that outside of the Order. Still, a former Jedi, which was the public reputation of Count Dooku must count for something. However the glaring contradiction was the interest of the Trade Federation, unless the events that had led them to declare their desire to join the separatists was nothing more than a lure on the part of the confederacy in order to bring them to justice. And if that was so, it would mean that the attempts on her life could be part of that lure, and her miraculous escape from injury each time a matter of protecting her, allowing her to continue her fight against the Military Creation, thus preventing war between the Confederacy and the Republic.
"Time is marching on, Senator," Typho remarked, bringing her out of her introspection. She glanced at the chrono and nodded in thanks to her security chief. It was almost time for the first meeting with the Relief Committee.
As she rose from the table, followed by her handmaidens, the Captain and the padawan, a thought occurred to her, causing her to pause for a moment. "Padawan Doah, do you think that we should keep your presence obvious, or would it be more advisable to use discretion?"
Obi-Wan's apprentice looked at her with a slight frown. "What do you mean, Senator?"
"I was wondering if you should change into the clothes worn by my handmaidens," Padmé explained. "It occurred to me that just having a Jedi Apprentice following me around without any sight of their master might call more attention to Master Kenobi's absence than the Council would wish. If you were styled as Cordé and Dormé are, it would allow you to remain by my side more than a Jedi could. You would be able to attend Committee meetings with me and the Senate sessions, rather than waiting outside."
"The Senator is right," Typho added, "It would lend an additional security benefit. Although Dormé, Cordé, not to mention you, Senator, are trained for and have experience in combat, they are not sensitive to the Force. And the assassin could easily try to attack within the Senate floor, or in one of the conference rooms."
"Would it not seem strange, a handmaiden who is Force sensitive?" Jehane asked.
"Not necessarily," Typho replied. "There are plenty of beings who possessed the ability, untrained through not being found or allowed to join the Jedi. If you practise discretion, your sensitivity should only be noticeable to those who possessed a similar talent."
"Then if you can find me suitable clothing, I accept, milady," Jehane decided, with a slight bow directed at her.
Padmé nodded. "Of course, Cordé and Dormé should have something that will fit." She directed a questioning glance at her attendants who inclined their heads in ascent before ushering the Jedi padawan to follow them to the door which led into their quarters within the penthouse apartment.
When the three were gone she turned her attention on her security. "I was wondering a moment ago if the Separatists had lured the Trade Federation into joining them so they might face the justice which the courts failed to deliver. What do you think?"
"Its a sound theory," Typho allowed. "But wouldn't news of such justice being visited on the Trade Federation have reached us by now?"
"They have yet to announce their membership formally," Padmé reminded him. "All we have is rumours that they are joining the Confederacy. I remember how cautious they were after the defeat of the blockade. Perhaps they want something in return before they will agree to join."
"Such as your death?" Typho remarked, receiving a nod from her in reply. "You make a compelling case, Senator. But it is only a theory. Nothing is certain without proof. I only hope that when Master Kenobi returns, he will have discovered who is behind these assassination attempts and have irrefutable evidence as well."
"I hope so too," Padmé added, along with a silent prayer that he would also come back alive and whole to her, so they might have a chance to explore further the feelings which lay between them.
"Has your master mentioned our prior acquaintance?" Padmé asked the padawan on the way to the first committee meeting, as they walked down one of the many corridors within the Senate building.
"He has, milady," Jehane replied. "But not in detail. I think he assumed I had learned much of the mission from the rumours about it that we tend to hear within the Temple, along with our lessons on Republic political history. However, some parts of the mission are still classified, so we have only been told the general story."
"Well, he and his master, Qui-Gon Jinn, were sent to my planet by the Chancellor in order to get a clearer report on the blockade by the Trade Federation," Padmé explained. "They found out that it was not just a blockade, but an invasion. I was serving as Queen at the time, and the Viceroy had seized me in order to force me to sign a treaty, making their actions legal. Master Jinn and Obi-Wan managed to rescue me and my court from their clutches. We escaped Naboo, but the ship sustained damage, forcing us to divert to Tatooine for repairs. While we were there, certain events caused Master Jinn to remain on the planet while your master and I travelled back to Naboo, where we managed to defeat the blockade."
"I see," Jehane acknowledged. There was a short pause, as the padawan cast a gaze at their surroundings. Captain Typho, along with two of her handmaidens had accompanied them from the embassy to the Senate, and as they traversed the corridors enroute to the conference room where the Relief Committee was to hold their meeting, various senators, officials, representatives, ambassadors, and assistants passed them by in both directions. When the apprentice next spoke it was in a tone designed so as not to be overheard by these passerbys, yet audible enough for the Senator to pick up what she said.
"Your recounting of the affair makes no mention of one rumour within the Temple," Jehane said. "That rumour has led to my master being given a certain title. The Sith Killer."
Padmé gave the seeming handmaiden beside her a careful glance. "I'm not sure how much I am allowed to tell you of that, padawan," she said carefully. "I was sworn to secrecy by members of the High Council."
"Please call me Jehane, milady," the apprentice requested before she continued. "When I first heard what my Master was being referred to as, I questioned him about it, and he did tell me what happened. I was wondering if you saw any of it?"
"Not at the time, for I was trying to reach the Viceroy, so our plan to relieve the blockade would succeed," Padmé replied. "But the palace security did record it, and I had to give the visiting members of the High Council a copy, which I understand they watched before giving your master his knighthood. I also watched it, but I have yet to ask him about it. What he did was extraordinary, there is no other word for it. As for his opponent, I was relieved that we managed to retrieve his body for burial. I would not like to meet with him again." She turned to her companion. "How did Obi-Wan describe it?"
"My Master is very modest," Jehane answered. "His recounting of the fight was succinct and matter of fact. He suggested I watched the security recording, which I did, although I do not think that either of the accounts managed to convey the full reality of the duel. It is something Jedi have not managed for over a millennia. I was told that it acquires a tremendous discipline over your emotions to defeat a sith. I am an Echani, milady, my people are taught that the only way to know someone is to meet them in combat. It is a constant struggle to discipline my emotions in the way that a Jedi should during a fight. Against a sith I imagine it would be even harder."
"When I won the election to become Queen, my security gave me and my handmaidens combat lessons," Padmé remarked. "My predecessor died in mysterious circumstances, and Captain Panaka, the chief of security for the palace, thought it would be wise to use decoys to protect me. Most of my handmaidens who are with me now are because of those lessons. It is why I thought your change of clothes would not be questioned."
"But I don't look like you, milady," Jehane pointed out.
"Neither did a few of my handmaidens then," Padmé added. "Eirtaé in particular. She had your hair, and a similar build to myself. However she also ran in the elections for Queen. I employed a elaborate series of gowns and hairstyles which helped hide the differences between my decoys and myself. It was important for my decoys not only to know how to protect themselves, but also how to conduct the affairs of state. While they were disguised as me, I served as a handmaiden. If they constantly turned to me all the time, there would have been little use of such a security technique."
"Where is Eirtaé now?" Jehane asked.
"She stayed on as an advisor to my successor," Padmé answered. "While your master was fighting the sith, I had to use my combat training to reach the Viceroy. It is one thing to learn the training, but quite another to apply the training to reality. I was quite young, too young I feel in retrospect. I'm not sure I was ready for the responsibilities which I had to assume. I remember during the fight how hard it was not to give into fear, even there were moments that all seemed lost. I can only imagine how hard it must be for a Jedi."
"We are taught to use our emotions, but not to rely on them completely," Jehane explained. "Our Code teaches us that while there is emotion, there is also peace. Ignorance, yet knowledge. Passion, yet serenity. Chaos, yet harmony. Death, yet the Force. Through the passage of time the phrasing of this mantra has changed, yet ultimately the meaning behind it is the same; to achieve a balance in all things. If one is uneven, suffering will ensue. That is the difference between use and the Sith, they use their darker emotions more than we do. But it is also our weakness, for if we copy their methods then we are in danger of falling to the darkside ourselves. The Sith are aware of this vulnerability and they try to use it against us, something which cannot be adequately conveyed by recording or recounting of the duel that my master took part in against one such creature."
"After that duel, your master helped me in the negotiations with the Viceroy which led to his temporary arrest," Padmé added, unable to hold back all of her bitter feelings as she uttered the last words. When the blockade was at an end and the ship from Coruscant arrived, carrying the members of the Jedi High Council and the Chancellor along with her then Senator Palpatine, it was also to serve as transportation of the Viceroy to Coruscant for trial at the Courts.
She knew that it would probably take a long time for Gunray to be tried, but she had not expected the Courts system to release the Viceroy when they had, claiming he had accepted what he had done was wrong, and served the appropriate time. She and Palpatine had registered their protest at such a judgement, but that was all they could do, until more support for Court reform was found within the Senate. She was thankful that Obi-Wan had been at the negotiations with her, otherwise she might never have learned who was behind the blockade of her planet, although neither she nor the Jedi Order had yet to find the mysterious sith named Sidious, that Gunray deemed responsible.
"I did not know that," Jehane commented.
"Afterwards he also took part in the relief operation to help my people get back on their feet after the occupation," Padmé added.
"I didn't know that either. Nor did I know until he left that he has feelings for you," Jehane revealed. "My master has always been very discreet about his relationships outside the Order. I only learn of them when we meet those beings who have met him before. Like Duchess Kryze. When I met her, my master said nothing of their previous acquaintance, I was left to learn of it from her conversation. Likewise with you, milady."
"And what is your opinion?" Padmé asked her.
"It is not for me to cast judgement on my master," Jehane replied. "He is my mentor until I am knighted, and even after that I suspect that I will seek out his advice, as Master does with his mentor, Qui-Gon Jinn. I am not under any obligation to tell the Council. It is up to you and my master to decide when you tell them."
"Which will not be any time soon," Padmé confided, "not while I am still a Senator. Nor can we act on our feelings, aside from gestures of farewell. Our positions are too public. It would create a perception that the Jedi are allied with the Senate, making your Order's claim of independence in matters difficult to uphold."
"That perception of independence is becoming harder and harder to maintain," Jehane added. "Due to the division within the galaxy most of the beings we try to help now view us with ever increasing suspicion. But we cannot refrain from offering our assistance, not when the need for relief is now greater than ever."
"Hopefully that is something I can persuade the members of the Republic to assist with," Padmé remarked as they reached their destination, "once the Military Creation Act vote has been held. For now, an agreement within the Committee for Relief will have to suffice."
"So what do I do whilst you are in discussion with the other senators?" Jehane asked quietly as they entered the conference room.
Padmé handed her a pad. "You take a seat along the wall with the other assistants and keep an eye on this. It takes a record of the meeting, keeps track of other Senate business, and what is happening within the galaxy. It is has an alert system which will let us know when the vote on the Military Creation Act is to be held. If that or anything else comes through which you think warrants my immediate attention, you let me know by coming up to the table and handing me the pad."
Jehane took hold of the pad and nodded, giving Padmé a slight bow before she left her side to take one of the chairs that were placed along the wall. Padmé watched until the padawan had found her seat, then turned to take her own at the conference table, waiting for other members of the committee to take their places, so the meeting could begin.
With so many other concerns in her mind, it was hard for Padmé to remained focused on all her committee meetings that morning. She debated with her colleagues for more relief to be given to those in need, supported by Bail Organa, Mon Mothma and other like minded senators. At the end of the meeting an agreement was reached to bring the matter up in the Senate, but that would only be possible after the Military Creation Act was dispensed with.
As she attended each committee meeting, her weariness of Republic politicking grew, along with her concern for Obi-Wan, who she could only hope was safe and finding answers as to who was behind the attempts on her life. During the ten years that had passed since their time together during the blockade, she had often thought about him, wondering what missions he was employed on, if he was still alive. Now she had seen him again, and knew that he returned her feelings, thoughts about him became almost constant.
His padawan kept by her side through the day, keeping a diligent record of the meetings they attended, offering conversation only when Padmé initiated such talk. She was not surprised by Jehane's behaviour, Obi-Wan had adopted a similar manner when in company with her and the members of the Jedi Council on Naboo after the relief of the blockade. This reserved nature did nothing to harm Padmé's liking of the girl, whom she found to be confident, intelligent and good-humoured. Jehane also possessed the same grace which she often saw in Obi-Wan.
There was still no announcement of when the voting would take place on the Military Creation Act by the time Coruscant's sun had reached its zenith. Padmé took a working meal, as the committee meeting for justice reform ran over into the afternoon. She left that conference in silent disgust, for the other members had failed to reach an agreement to bring the latest proposal up in the Senate.
Annoyed at being faced by such constant ineffectual wrangling, her mind speculated on how the Confederacy managed such matters once more. She had spent two years serving within the Senate, and times she felt that she had accomplished more in the same period of time during her first term as Queen of Naboo. There was more regulation and corruption to wade through, which was to be expected, given the size of the Republic, but still there were days when it was hard to recognise the small accomplishments for the significant progress that they were, and harder still to find the strength to keep going. The attraction of leaving the Republic to join the Confederacy was becoming compelling, even though she knew nothing of how they conducted their way of governing. There were a few close acquaintances who had left the Senate to join the Separatists. Padmé resolved to talk to them when the committee meetings were at end for the day, and she was back in her apartment.
She was in the middle of the penultimate conference when a chorus of chimes broke through the discussion, the usual signal on the Senate pads for changes to the political schedule. Turning from the table, she glanced at Jehane who, like the rest of the assistants present, was scanning the message received. The padawan finished and met her gaze silently before rising from her chair to hand Padmé the pad.
It took no more than a few minutes to read the alert. A time for the vote on the Military Creation Act had been announced from the executive office.
It would take place within half an hour.
Geonosis was a large red planet, located near an asteroid field. Obi-Wan's Delta-7 starship left hyperspace shortly after Jango Fett's craft had, but it still took time to locate the vessel waiting for him after he left the ring which housed the hyperspace engine. Engaging thrusters, he followed the bounty hunter's ship to the planet. When they had almost reached the atmosphere, Obi-Wan caught sight of a sizeable fleet of starships settled on the other side of the asteroid belt, the distinctive spherical shape identifying them as belonging to the Trade Federation. Either they were about to attack the Confederacy, or Master Dooku had persuaded Viceroy Gunray to sit at the negotiating table, for what reasons and motives he had yet to speculate. Whatever the truth, caution was vital. Keeping the asteroids between him and the enemy fleet, he entered Geonosis atmosphere.
The whole of the landscape below was a barren and arid red plain, populated by broken stones, buttes and mesas. An unlikely place for the headquarters of the Confederacy, if indeed that was what Geonosis was, but then it was also the perfect location to disguise the size and power of the Separatists as well. Obi-Wan continued to follow Jango's ship as the vessel skimmed over the rough desert landscape, heading for the distant activity which his ship's scanners had picked up.
Jango landed his ship on a mesa sheltered by a rocky overhang. Obi-Wan put his own vessel down next to it, and leapt from the craft to the desert surface. The night air had a strong metallic taste to it, but the temperature was comfortable, and yet there was a strong breeze.
The bounty hunter led him away from their vessels, to a cluster of great towers, a contrast to the natural stalagmites which dotted the landscape. The grandest one was heavily guarded by battle droids, who waved Jango and Obi-Wan by without so much as a second glance.
Count Dooku was waiting for them in one of the ante rooms off the main corridor.
"Master Kenobi, welcome to Geonosis," He began when they entered. "I am pleased to see that someone from Order has decided to come and visit."
Obi-Wan took a breath, calming himself before he began. "Master Dooku, may I speak frankly?" Though he was a master of padawan, he had not yet been granted the title as a master of the Force, which Dooku held and therefore was his superior in the hierarchy of the Jedi Order. When the Count nodded in silent answer, he continued. "I have just come from Kamino, where, as I understand it, you allowed an army of clones to continue to be created, an project that was begun by Master Sifo-Dyas before he returned to the Temple and lost his life in an effort to erase all records of that planet. Why?"
"In the hope that it would bring who he was working for out of the shadows," Dooku replied. "Which it has, after a fashion. What if I told you that the Republic was now under the control of a Dark Lord of the Sith?"
"No, that's not possible," Obi-Wan uttered, shocked. "The Jedi would be aware of it."
"The dark side of the Force has clouded their vision, my friend. Hundreds of Senators are now under the influence of a Sith Lord called Darth Sidious. He was behind the order of the clone army, to bring about a civil war within the Republic. A veil hides his actions and identity from the Temple, slowly corrupting the Order. It is why I have stayed away from Coruscant for so long. If the Jedi do not leave soon, they will be killed."
"If this true, why have you not told the Council?" Obi-Wan asked. "Or sent Jango to tell them, instead of using him to deploy fake assassinations attacks on Senator Amidala."
"I cannot meet with the Council, not without the Sith learning about the truth behind the formation of the Separatists. I doubt they would believe a bounty hunter either, because of the veil that the Sith has in place, limiting their ability to use the Force. As for the attacks on Senator Amidala, they were necessary. Viceroy Gunray wants her dead, pretending to take up the contract was the best way to protect her and lure them into joining us, so the Trade Federation receives the justice which the Republic courts could never deliver. They are just as
corrupt as the Senate is. I also suspected that the Jedi would intervene, thus providing an opportunity for you and I to exchange news without the Sith learning of our meeting."
"How did you come to notice this veil?" Obi-Wan inquired.
"When I was on Serenno, I found that it had become somewhat easier to access the Force. My powers had regained the subtly and grace I previously believed to be fading along with my youth. One day I meditated, sinking myself deep into the waves of the ancient energy until I found out why. I had vision of Coruscant, with a sphere of red mist surrounding it. I saw a hooded creature casting this mist over the planet. Just before the vision faded, the being raised his head and looked at me. I could see nothing but darkness. It was disturbing."
He spoke with such confidence of the Force that Obi-Wan felt his frustration at what he had uncovered remaining hidden for so long fading away. There were still some issues to resolve, however. "Assuming the Council believe me upon my return, where will the Order go, and how shall we explain it to the Republic? And what is going to happen to the clone army? We will not be able to keep Kamino hidden forever."
"What happens to Kamino depends greatly on the results of vote on the Military Creation Act that is taking place within the Senate. As for the Order, there is only one choice open to us; leave the Republic."
Obi-Wan stilled, for though he had anticipated that prospect, it was a shocking one to contemplate. The Jedi had been associated with the Republic for over a millennia, since before the end of the Tionese War, when they relocated from Ossus to the Temple on Coruscant during the Great Sith War. "What will we do about the Temple?"
"Make it an embassy," Dooku replied. "Most of the Separatists still have ownership of the apartments and houses in which their Senators lived. We can make it a condition in our continued negotiations with the Chancellor." He said the last with some cynicism.
"Are the talks not going well?" Obi-Wan inquired mildly.
"They seemed to be stalled," Dooku answered. "Until the results of the MCA. Palpatine sounds determined for peace, but myself and many of my councillors are growing sceptical about his motives. If you cannot manage to convince the Masters to relocate the Order, I ask you to arrange a meeting with Qui-Gon on my behalf. I could use his help right now for a fresh perspective."
"I shall give him your message," Obi-Wan promised. "Whatever the outcome. So do you think it likely that the Masters will not believe me?"
"While the veil is clouding their ability to use the Force I do think so," Dooku judged. "I could not believe it at first when I learned of the possibility, but time away from Coruscant has confirmed its existence. You may be able to detect it, though I ask that you do not try until you are some distance from the system, for if the Sith comes to learn of your actions, he may be able to trace our whereabouts. If you cannot sense it, I hope that my reputation counts as a source of authenticity to the claim, that will make them agree to leave Coruscant until they realise it themselves."
"Will the attempts on Senator Amidala's life cease with the results of MCA?" Obi-wan inquired.
"The Trade Federation is nearly ready to sign themselves over to the Separatists," Dooku answered. "Once their membership is confirmed, the attempts will cease and their trial will begin."
"Is there anything else which I need to bring to the Council's attention?" Obi-Wan asked.
Dooku shook his head, then bowed. "May the Force be with you, Master Kenobi."
Obi-Wan returned the gesture. "May the Force be with you, Master Dooku," he replied and left the room.
No one accompanied him back to his ship, Jango having remained behind, for what reason Obi-Wan felt no need to inquire about at this time. His thoughts were still reeling over what Master Dooku had told him. The idea that a sith had cast a veil over Coruscant to conceal his identity and limit the power of the Jedi Order was incredible. A part of him still refused to believe it. Yet he sensed no deception from Master Dooku, and the elder Jedi had pointed out to him the possibility that he might be able to sense the veil himself during his return journey to Coruscant.
He keyed in a command for the propulsion ring to drop his ship out of hyperspace about half way between Geonosis and Coruscant. Closing his eyes, Obi-Wan cleared his mind and focused his breathing. It took some time before he was ready for meditation, the revelations which he had learned only a few hours ago still troubling him. Slowly he felt himself open to the Force, the currents of the ancient energy surrounding and penetrating him. Deeper and deeper he sank into their embrace, allowing them to take him where they willed.
At first all was clouded, as it had been when he spoke to Bail Organa during his search for the changeling assassin. A formation of dust particles in desert shades, swirling around within a cavernous arena that opened to the sky. Gradually the circling waves lifted, taking him with them, leaving behind an area of chaos and destruction, a battle which he caught but a glimpse of, the grey and flesh tones interspersed with lasered shafts of greens and blues too numerous to translate into a recognisable scene.
The particles took him far away, into the blackness of space, into the realms of stars and planets, some easily distinguished, others too blurred to identify. Eventually he reached the jewel of the core worlds, the grey lit faceted sight that was Coruscant. Only now it shone red, courtesy of a halo which encircled the planet completely, like the outer layer around a sun.
For a moment his journey was halted, allowing his view to linger and hover over the planet, before rapidly assuming pace once more, a tumultuous descent, reminding him of when he had been forced to let go of the assassin's probe, plummeting through air traffic skies to the duracrete, thousands of feet below. Bail Organa and his speeder saved him then, but now there was nothing except the embrace of the Force. A wave of the ancient energy caught him gently, slowing his descent, and though he had used it almost all his life, Obi-Wan could not help but feel some fear and then relief when his view at last began to decelerate.
By degrees his surroundings became familiar, allowing him to recognise the Senate district before the rotunda of that building came into view. His perspective passed through the dome that housed the main chamber, to the executive office below. The Supreme Chancellor's room was empty, a startling sight, the eeriness catching him off guard. He drifted outside, through the large widescreen transparisteel aspect of the cityscape, towards the embassies and apartments nearby.
In one of the many penthouses, a cloaked figure stood on the balcony, facing the night sky. Darkness enveloped him, the sheer power akin to gazing into an abyss and feeling something within staring back. Obi-Wan could feel it pulling him closer and closer, the inescapable tug of the dark side of the Force. He had felt such a pulse before, as every Jedi did, waiting by the light to pull him from the path, but never before as a black hole, consuming him utterly. This creature would gift unimaginable destruction upon the galaxy, the Jedi unable to stop him, the inevitable certainty of such a defeat terrifying him.
As if sensing the fear, the creature began to turn, the darkness within latching on to the feeling gleefully, as though it were some new awaited delicious delicacy from an exotic place. He felt trapped, the need to flee growing inside him, threatening to consume his usual instinct to stand and fight. The last fold of the cloak faded into the night, threatening to reveal a face...
He fell against the seat within the cockpit of the Delta-7, the suddenness of his return to reality sharp and abrupt. Shaken anew, his heart pounding, Obi-Wan scrambled to calm both his body and mind. A sense of regret briefly took hold of him, as he wished that he had not decided to attempt such a meditation within the confines of the small cockpit in the middle of space, surroundings which rarely served to comfort him. Yet he was glad that he had not waited until he returned to the Temple, where the vision would have served to lend a dark disturbance to the peaceful serenity of his apartment, even if he had managed to pierce the sith veil to begin with.
Preparing himself to re-engage the hyperdrive took time, yet Obi-Wan felt an undeniable urge to leave his current location as soon as possible, all too aware of the vulnerabilities of his ship and the ever constant threat from the evils of the galaxy. As the Delta-7 settled into the starred streamlines of hyperspace, he sought to regain the calm serenity that he previously possessed, though such a state now seemed a distant past. There had been little downtime between this assignment and the last, both fraught with danger for all concerned. Such was indicative of the current tensions within the galaxy, which felt like it was just one blaster shot away from civil war. He could see peace becoming a desperate dream of the future, a gleaming oasis in a desert of turmoil, forever beyond reach.
By the time he reached Coruscant his faculties were working, the words of his briefing before the Council forming within his mind. Until now the prospect of the Order leaving the Republic had only been a possibility, arisen from Master Dooku's position within the Confederacy. Since his vision it had been a certainty, the power of such a conviction akin to that feeling he used to sense from Qui-Gon when his master was set upon achieving one of his unorthodox crusades. It was strange and unfamiliar, he was more used to witnessing those argue and defend their case, not deliver one himself. He was uncertain of the Council's response as well, though that he had become accustomed to over the years.
Leaving the hyperspace engine ring in orbit around the grey jewelled faceted planet, he guided his Delta-7 through the atmosphere into the numerous high speed sky traffic lanes. As a Jedi he was given certain vehicle privileges which allowed him to over take others, or go faster than the current laws permitted, but making use of such diplomatic passes would only serve to let others know that he had returned, and Obi-Wan had no desire to attract attention, not when he was the only one who could convey the information he carried to the Council. The longer they remained ignorant of the damage the sith was doing to them, the more vulnerable the Order would become.
Not even when he had reached the hangar bay of the temple, did he give himself a moment to recognise the relief of that achievement. The vision still unsettled him, especially that last scene, the turn of the cloak that threatened to reveal the face of the sith lord. As much as he had wished to learn the creature's identity, he also feared that the vision had been a two way revealing of information between the sith and himself. If the sith was aware of what Obi-Wan knew, the danger to the Order increased tenfold.
It was only when he reached the corridor that encircled the Council chamber that he granted himself a moment to breath. Not that he had much of a choice, for the doors were closed, signalling that a meeting was in session, and two others waited in the cluster of seats that were arranged by the door to be admitted into the Council's presence.
"Obi-Wan," one of them called out, rising from his chair. Obi-Wan pushed the cause of his current anxiety to the back of his mind as he met and returned his Master's greeting.
"It is good to see you, Master," he remarked, a smile coming to light his face.
"And to see you, padawan," Qui-Gon replied, taking a step back to take in all of the knight's appearance. "How was Ansion?"
"Eventful," Obi-Wan replied, although the troubles of that mission now seemed light years away, almost as if they had happened in another life time.
"Did they permit you a break?" Qui-Gon asked.
Obi-Wan shook his head. "No, I have been charged with protecting Senator Amidala. You heard of the attempts on her life?"
Qui-Gon nodded. "I have. Have you found who was responsible?"
"In a manner of speaking." Obi-Wan paused. "What of you, why are you here to see the Council?"
"It is not for me that the meeting was requested," Qui-Gon replied, with a slight glance directed to the padawan behind him. "I would be glad of your support, Obi-Wan, if you would bear witness to what passes before the Council after your own encounter has concluded?"
"Of course," Obi-Wan agreed, concerned. He took in his master's composure, the barely hidden anxiety. Something was troubling Qui-Gon Jinn, and it had something to do with his current apprentice. It was rare for a padawan learner to request a meeting with the Council, and even rarer for that body of beings to grant such a liberty. Glancing at the silent apprentice, Obi-Wan could conceive no idea as to what the matter could be. While his relationship with Qui-Gon was still almost as much as it during his own apprenticeship, his knowledge of Anakin Skywalker was limited. After he became a knight, Qui-Gon often invited him over to have dinner whenever he was between assignments.
He had always accepted the invitation, and enjoyed the subsequent evening spent in company with his former master and Shmi. Rarely had Anakin joined them, the boy always seeming to have study or friends to see. On the odd occasions that he did, it was only until the end of his meal, eaten quickly as was typical of a growing padawan. The boundless energy and insatiable curiosity that had once been innate within him disappeared, replaced by a quietness that was sometimes quite unnerving.
He had not inquired into what at times appeared to be a studious avoidance, it was not place to do so, even when he acquired his own padawan. Nor had Qui-Gon given him any concern that would have justified such interference, until now.
The doors to the Council chamber opened, and the Jedi who had occupied the Council's time exited, giving the waiting trio a courteous acknowledgement as they headed to the turbolift which would take them back to the main floor of the Temple.
Obi-Wan turned from his master and entered the chamber alone, bowing to the beings present when he reached the centre of the room.
"Welcome back, Master Kenobi," Mace Windu began. "What news do you bring from Kamino?"
"An army of clones, being created for the Republic, ordered by Master Sifo-Dyas before he returned to erase all record of the system from our archives," Obi-Wan answered. The information was met with startled gasps. "The being whose genes were the base of these clones was the bounty hunter behind the attacks on Senator Amidala. He was hired by Master Dooku, who had learned that the Trade Federation wanted the Senator dead in revenge for her part in the Blockade Crisis. By taking up the price on her head, Master Dooku intended to trick the Trade Federation in joining the Confederacy so they would face the justice which the Courts never managed to deliver."
"Did you meet Master Dooku on Kamino?" Mace asked.
"No, the bounty hunter took me to where Master Dooku was, on Geonosis," Obi-Wan replied. "Master Dooku also informed me that the Sith lord was behind the order of the clone army. He is someone in a position of power on Coruscant, who intended to use the clone army in order to bring about a civil war within the Republic. He has placed a veil over the planet to conceal his identity, which is limiting our ability to use the Force. Master Dooku believes that for our safety the Order should leave both Coruscant and the Republic."
There was a few minutes of silence while the Council took in the news and discussed the matter between themselves through the Force. Obi-Wan waited in silence, unable to contribute or even sense what they were talking about, for the conversation required a skill within the Force which was only taught to Council Masters.
"Decided it is," Yoda uttered abruptly as the masters turned their gaze on Obi-Wan once more, "leave the Republic the Order shall. Collect your padawan from Senator Amidala, Master Obi-Wan. Grant our protection to her no longer we can."
"Masters, before I go, Master Qui-Gon has asked that I bear witness to the meeting requested by his padawan," Obi-Wan informed them.
The Grand Master gestured with his gimer stick at the doors, waving them aside, allowing Qui-Gon and Anakin to enter. Obi-Wan moved to slightly to the left in order to give the master and padawan the centre of the floor.
"Anakin Skywalker, you have requested to be heard before the Council," Mace began.
"Yes, Masters," Anakin replied. "I wish to leave the Order."
Obi-Wan was stunned. Of all the requests which could be made he had not expected this. It was unheard of for padawans to ask to leave the Order.
"Eager you were to join the Order ten years ago," Master Yoda commented. "Reasons for leaving you must have."
"I am ready for the trials, but I am not allowed to take them," Anakin answered.
"What know you of being ready?" Yoda countered, tapping his gimer stick on the arm of his chair, a clear sign of his dissatisfaction with Anakin's reply. "For the trials, ready no padawan ever is."
"Master Qui-Gon has taught me all he knows," Anakin declared.
"Has he?" queried Mace, glancing at the master.
"I have taught him all he wishes to learn," Qui-Gon replied, his choice of words causing Obi-Wan to transfer his thoughtful gaze from the padawan to the master. For Qui-Gon to make such a reply indicated that there must be something very wrong between him and Anakin.
"Do you desire another master?" Ki-Adi-Mundi asked.
"No, I wish to be allowed to take the trials, or leave the Order," Anakin answered.
"The first we cannot grant," Adi Gallia informed him. "For neither we nor your master believe you are ready. So the second it must be."
Before casting her vote, Padmé took a look at the Military Creation Act once more. Having been one of the Senators who had witnessed the crafting of the original, she knew how much this final version differed from the first draft. The wording had changed, along with the definitions, a consequence of the many committee meetings it had to pass through before the senate. Each committee had attached, discarded or amended items to the wording. Padmé had spent many months working on attaching a number of clauses that she hoped would prevent anyone but a majority within the Senate from raising an army, a safeguard in case her work to defeat the Act failed. Now the loopholes which she had previously thought to be closed were open to exploitation once more. For example, although no governing body was allowed to raise an army without the approval of the Senate, a private individual might do so, merely by adding members to their security force, or creating such a body of protection in the first place. The ability to hire an army from an independent system as well, had not been forbidden, or recruiting a band of mercenaries.
Casting her mind back over each moment when the act was altered, she realised that she had allowed her determination to get the matter on to the Senate floor for a vote blind her to the modifications which had been made. She had been so certain that if she failed to secure a defeat of the Act, the main intent of the clauses contained within it would serve to prevent anyone from examining the wording for ways to escape retribution by defying them. Now she knew that her certainty had been naive, and she should have spent more time on making sure the original wording of each clause was accepted before they went to a vote.
A few minutes ago she had been triumphant with the achievement, now she was despairing, wondering if there was an opportunity to put the Act back before the committees so the language could be reworked upon. There would be clamouring and complaints, but some would probably find the motion a relief, particularly the Chancellor, who always expressed his fears about the vote to her and the other members of the loyalist committee, reiterating his desire for peace with the Confederacy.
She prepared the words in her head, reached out to press the control that would take her pod out so she may address the floor, readied herself to rise from her chair and speak, when her movements were interrupted by a soft chime that echoed across the chamber, rendering whatever previous intentions she may have had meaningless. Regretfully she cast a glance around the vast room, trying to locate the origin of the sound that signalled the first vote being taken. But it was a fruitless endeavour, for there were too many pods for her to try and distinguish one among the many. That vote meant the Act was no longer allowed to be transferred back to committee. Her only alternative now if the Act passed through the Senate was to come up with another which would take care of the loopholes that this one would exploit. Instead of focusing on her regrets concerning the current version, she should look upon the clauses as the foundation on which to build a more secure branch of pacifist laws.
That was assuming the result of the vote was in favour, however. Her recent inside polling had shown her that it was still too close to call. Even with the weight of Senator Organa's opposition, the Military Creation Act was still a controversial one across the floor. And given what her own view of the law was now, Padmé was no longer surprised by some of her colleagues reluctance to voice their opinion of it. If she had been sensible of the flaws earlier, or instead of clamouring so forcefully for its defeat, choosing to argue that the clauses were merely a foundation on which to build upon, perhaps support for her cause might be more widespread.
But there was little she could do to change that now.
Around her the chimes were steadily building towards a harmonious chorus, as more votes were cast. There was no indication from the sound as to whether each vote was for or against. Anonymity was the preferred method within the Senate, as a way of ensuring against reprisals, although most of the time the information as to who voted for what did get out.
Padmé hated the hypocrisy, retaliations and dealing that were the result of such knowledge, it was the seamier side of politics which gave Senators a negative reputation. She aimed to try and avoid using those tactics, and was successful in doing so. Yet while those around her continued to employ such tactics, she could not help but feel that there was little to be accomplished by way of reform within the Republic.
The desire for a better, more honest system was deep within her, and she wondered if the Confederacy had found such a way, though considering some former colleagues of hers that announced their intentions to join the Separatists, she doubted it was possible. Few of them had shown themselves to prefer honest dealing during their time within the Senate.
Pushing her general growing discontent with Republic politics aside, Padmé read the Act one more time, focusing her mind on what vote she felt was right to cast. Musing about what she could not change would only serve to waste time during a voting session which she had worked for almost a year to bring on to the floor. This read through however only served to confirm her current dissatisfaction with it. Almost the entire wording seemed foreign to her, devoid of any familiarity of language which she had once had with it.
Ignoring that, she turned to the clauses, considering if they were enough of a foundation upon which to build further laws that would eliminate many of the loopholes that she could see within it. While she had been against this Act from the beginning of its conception, for a time she had contemplated the possibility of working with it, ensuring that the creation of an army did not necessarily lead to war, even as she continued to voice her opposition within the Senate. This precaution had been wise, although very little evidence of her willingness to cooperate now showed in the final draft.
Above her the lights flickered, signalling that the session would be coming to an end soon. She was running out of time. Casting the Act aside, Padmé placed her vote, her pod emitting a chime to confirm that it had been verified and recorded. Reclining back in her chair, she let the sounds around her calm and clear her senses until there was nothing left but the resolve that came with making such a decision. The regret which followed was unavoidable and all too familiar a companion. It was a result that she found herself feeling ever since she had become a senator, a result of the many compromises which she was obliged to make in order to make a difference. She was used to making compromises, having made them when she was Queen of the Naboo, but those had been accomplished without regret and proved beneficial to her home world. In the Republic that was rarely the case, and she was growing tired of only being able to speak for change, rather than making it.
The chimes signalling the votes had become less frequent, indicating that there were few senators or representatives left who had not cast their ballot. In the centre of the floor she caught one of the Chancellor's aides emerging from the shadows to consult the datascreen before him, which was sorting through the results. Soon she would find out whether all her work over the last year had been in vain.
When the results flashed across the screen before her, it took time to comprehend the meaning. Even when she reached an understanding, there were none of the feelings that she had expected to experience upon gaining such an achievement. In other pods around her colleagues discreetly shook hands or openly raised their fists to the ceiling in joy or despair at the result. Bail Organa directed a smile at her which she valiantly tried to return, as did the Palpatine, although for one brief moment she could have sworn that the chancellor appeared quite dismayed by the result of the vote. She too was struggling to feel content with the outcome, even though it was what she had been working so hard to achieve. For some inexplicable reason she felt like she had lost. It had been a terrible Act, and that the Senate had rejected it should have been a reason to celebrate, but instead, she felt as though she was mourning the loss of something she held dear.
This had been nothing more than an exercise in futility. In her two years of serving as Senator, nothing in the way of reform had been accomplished. In Chancellor Palpatine's ten years of service, nothing had been done to achieve justice through the Courts, eliminate corruption, or relieve the suffering of ordinary citizens. The Republic was not dying, it had been visited by death a long time ago. Continuing to perpetuate its existence would achieve nothing worthwhile on her part, and may even increase the turmoil within the galaxy. She could understand why many of her colleagues had chosen the Confederacy. It was a viable alternative to what she faced now, and something which warranted serious consideration.
She had spoken to a few of her former colleagues about politics in the Confederacy, and on the whole, found the prospect, hopeful, if somewhat guarded. Conversation over the com was difficult, even if it was encrypted, for there was always the possibility that someone somewhere was listening and passing the information on or keeping it to themselves in order to take advantage of it. Added to this the Confederacy was in its infancy, governing only existing in fits and starts, some a reflection of the Republic from which it was splintered, as the former senators and representatives tried to reason what methods they preferred to put into practice, whilst disbanding those that they knew from past experience to avoid. It would take time before one could judge if the organisation would become a democracy, time that was wholly dependent on the members of its government.
Just as it would take time to erase the corruption that existed within the Republic. But that corruption had existed since before Finnis Valorum took office, over ten years ago. It was something Palpatine had promised to reform when he succeeded him. Yet as far as she could tell, nothing had changed. If anything the corruption seemed to be worsening. And there were not enough senators left who cared to do anything about it. She could probably count the number that were just using her hands. She would feel guilty about deserting them just when they probably needed her the most, but they would also understand her reasons as well. One or two of them might follow her, either by coming to realise what she had, or because the news of her parting left them with little to gain by staying.
There was one obstacle. Despite their dual role, the Jedi were still members of the Republic. If Naboo left for the Separatists, the chances of her seeing Obi-Wan again would be fewer than she had now. Her position would not be so high profile, and therefore would permit the possibility of a relationship, but the distance between them would be the same as it was when she was Queen. Then again, she had only begun to see him recently because of the attempts on her life. The absence would be more keenly felt as they had allowed their affection to be acknowledged by themselves and to each other. But she could not remain within her current position in the hope that in time she and Obi-Wan would be able to have a relationship, at the expense of what she could do to forge a better democracy. She also realised that one day the Jedi would come to reach the same choice she had before her now, and given Master Dooku's position, their own leaving could be planned.
A discordant note sounded within the arena, out of tune with the previous chimes, signalling that this session of the Senate was now at an end. Silence slowly descended over the chamber, as everyone began heading for nearest exit.
Keeping her own counsel, Padmé nodded to her handmaidens and security, allowing them to encircle around her, as she left the chamber.
Padmé returned to her apartment in a thoughtful mood, paying little attention to her handmaidens, her security detail, or the disguised Jedi apprentice that was also charged with protecting her. Crossing the living room to enter her bedchamber in a seemingly distracted manner, she was vaguely aware of them taking refuge in the living area to discuss the news from the Senate, Jehane deep in conversation with Cordé, Dormé and Captain Typho about her impressions of the Senate in session, something which usually only Jedi Council Masters earned the privilege to witness.
As soon as the door closed behind her, she began undo the high collar of the dress she was wearing, until a movement ahead captured her vision and she froze in her motions, coming out of her ruminations to see a figure sitting somewhat forlornly on her bed.
"Obi-Wan," she uttered. "When did you get back?"
"Alittle while ago," he answered quietly, looking up from his pensive study of the floor. He held up a hand, gesturing for her to pause. "Don't finish getting changed, you'll be summoned back to the Senate in a few minutes."
"Why?" she asked him, moving her fingers away from her collar.
"Master Windu will be making an address." He paused before adding, "the Jedi are leaving the Republic."
"What?" Padmé felt herself still in shock as she looked at him in disbelief. Although she had recently realised such a possibility, the reality of it occurring so soon was still a surprise to her. Something profound must have happened for the Jedi to reach such a decision this quickly.
"It is because of what I found out during my investigations into who was behind the assassination attempts on you," he explained. "I traced the bounty hunter to Kamino, where a clone army is being built under the orders of a Jedi master, who before he died trying to erase all records of the system, asked for them to be created, at the behest of a sith. The bounty hunter is the genetic basis of each clone. He took me to Geonosis where I met with Master Dooku, who has discovered that the sith lord can cast a veil over himself to conceal his identity, which is also limiting the Order's ability to use the Force. He believes that the sith ordered the army with the intention of creating a civil war within the Republic. He has reason to believe that the sith lord holds a position of power on Coruscant, one which would allow him to profit from the civil war and the diminishing power of the Jedi."
"Where will the Order go?" Padmé asked him.
"The plan is to scatter ourselves in conclaves about the galaxy in any system that grants us sanctuary," he answered. "The Council believes that we cannot afford to gather ourselves in any one place or on any given planet. Although I do not know who will welcome us when it is known that we are leaving the Republic."
She went to stand before him and he took her hands in his, seeking comfort in stroking her soft skin. She gripped his fingers, making him look up, gazing at her solemn expression as she made her reply. "I'm sure Naboo would welcome you."
"As a member of the Republic, that would be difficult," he pointed out, appreciating her generosity nonetheless.
Padmé shook her head, her countenance firm with determination of her own. "Not for long. After Master Windu's announcement the Chancellor is bound to call for a recess. I will return to Naboo and put the question to a vote. If they say no, then I will resign my seat and join you wherever you are sent."
Obi-Wan froze in his stroking, looking at her in shock. "No, you will not give up your career for me."
"I'm not," she assured him. "I reached this decision before I left the Senate after the vote. I cannot continue to fight for a democracy which is already lost. Nor do I want another ten years to pass by without us seeing one another. We need to spend more time together, to see if what it is between us can grow into what we have hoped and dreamt for ever since that kiss on the landing platform a decade ago."
"I won't deny that," he affirmed, "but nor would I have you grow to resent me for taking you away from something which you have spent most of your life working towards."
"My dreams of what I could accomplish as a Senator were somewhat naive," Padmé confided. "I achieved more in my tenure as Queen of Naboo than I have done in my terms spent within the Senate. I am sick of having to make compromise after compromise, with beings that I do not trust, or would do business with in any other circumstance. Few of my colleagues are concerned with working to benefit those they represent, nearly all prefer to better their own situation. Maybe it will be the same in the Separatists, I don't know. But I want to find out."
Obi-Wan pressed another kiss to her hand. "As do I," he avowed.
"It is with the deepest regret that I announce the Order's withdrawal from Coruscant and the Republic. For many years our alliance has been regarded as a source of strength throughout the galaxy, but our parting of ways now should not be seen as a sign of weakness or a loss of faith in one another. It has always been our desire to heal the suffering within the universe and to this end we seek to reach a better understanding with the Separatists, in the hope that we may cure the breach that lies between the Confederacy and the Republic. For that to be accomplished, it is necessary that we spend time upon their worlds and amongst their beings, as we have done with the Republic."
With this, Master Windu finished speaking, as the Senate reacted to the devastating news. His speech had been short but diplomatic, conveying all that needed to be said, while at the same time concealing what he must. He could not reveal that the Order needed to leave Coruscant for its own safety, or that the leader of the Separatists was still a Jedi, for both would convey that the Order was vulnerable within the Republic and yet wielded significant power within the Confederacy, creating an impression that their motives for quitting the former were not as noble as they appeared. While it was true that they would be in danger if they remained within the Republic, and that they could if they so desired, exercise a certain amount of power within the Confederacy, they were all too aware of the suffering within the galaxy that had been worsened by the corruption within the Republic, as well as the schism which had caused the creation of the Confederacy, and would remain unhealed if the Order continued to be blinded by the veil of the darkside that shrouded the Jewel of the Core Worlds. Until they identified the source, they could not reveal that they knew of the danger to anyone, for it would provide their enemies with a chance to destroy them.
And it would allow the Sith a chance to further conceal themselves, to enshroud or destroy whatever trace of them might be at risk of discovery. So far all the Council knew was that Dooku had traced the sith lord who trained Maul to Coruscant, because the veil was a powerful tool of the darkside, and difficult to control from a distance. It was the council's hope that in leaving Coruscant they would be free of this veil, as Dooku had become, and as two masters alone had managed to obtain a glimpse of the sith, their combined ability might serve to pierce the dark shroud and reveal the sith lord's identity. With the will of the Force they might be able to do it without detection.
The clamouring within the Senate chamber was loud and rancorous, making it difficult for anyone to speak, call for order, or hear themselves think. Master Windu glanced around the cavernous arena, silently taking note of those systems whose representatives were silent. Many of them were senators that the Order knew they could trust, such as Naboo, Alderaan and Chandrila. Before addressing the Senate, it had been agreed within the Council that the Order would seek to remain in touch with some worlds whose leaders and senators they knew were trustworthy, and now as he glanced around the room, Master Windu took note of their reactions, mentally sorting each into groups that required caution and observation before contact, and those that did not. If there was to be a healing of the schism that lay within the Republic at present, it would require a continued dialogue between both sides, something that the Chancellor was attempting, but so far with little success.
At last Mas Amedda's continued requests for order managed to achieve the desired effect. As the chamber descended into silence the Chancellor rose from his chair to deliver his reaction to the news.
"It is with sadness that I receive this news," Palaptine began, "but I understand the Order's desire to rid the galaxy of its suffering and I wish them every success. In light of this news and your reaction to it, I declare a season recess."
When Qui-Gon and Anakin returned from the Council Chambers, he found Shmi waiting for them, rising from her seat within the living area of their temple apartment. He watched Anakin go to her, listening as his former padawan told his mother that he was leaving the Jedi Order, but without any sense of the words which Anakin used. Qui-Gon's thoughts were too focused upon the events that led to this moment. He was more given to reflection than his pupils or colleagues realised, all too often hearing him proclaim that the moment was all that mattered.
It was ten years since he had first met the two extraordinary beings before him, on a desert wasteland populated with the scum of the universe. Drawn first to the boy, who possessed a powerful sense of the Force, his attraction to Shmi had taken him by surprise. Once realised however, he had reacted, harnessing his own ability to use the ancient energy to effect the roll of a weighted chance dice, resting hopes upon a race that the boy had won, against the odds of certain death or defeat.
After winning their freedom, he would have left the planet immediately, seeking passage from the boy and his mother on board the Nubian ship, but for the discovery that someone was tracking them, causing him to stay, while his padawan took the Naboo to Coruscant so the Queen could plead her case before the senate. As he waited for someone to retrieve them, he and Shmi became closer, even as he began to comprehend certain truths about her and her son, some of which changed his opinion of the boy. He learned that she had suffered abuse during her enslavement, one event which caused her to conceive her son, even though she rarely chose to remind herself of that traumatic event in connection with him. While such an origin rendered the prophecy from applying, Qui-Gon still vowed to train Anakin, and offer a home to the boy and his mother within the Temple.
Upon returning to Coruscant, he had knighted Obi-Wan and took on Anakin as his new padawan learner. While the boy settled into his initiate classes at the temple, Qui-Gon gave Shmi the chance to make a life for herself, supporting her as she forged a place for herself at the Coruscant Botanical Gardens. He never once forced his attentions on her, although his affection was an open secret between them.
When she came to feel for him a bond that reached beyond gratitude and obligation for all that he had done to liberate her and her son from slavery, only then did he allow himself to venture forth with touch as well as gesture, thought, look and deed. This unorthodox courtship led to a discreet wedding within the Temple before Anakin reached his teens.
Since then Qui-Gon had become both father and teacher to the boy, who had grown into the vast potential that was once untapped and unrecognised. Anakin proved a difficult, challenging student, struggling in the academic and philosophic side of Jedi training, whilst excelling in the art of handling a lightsaber and the other physical demands of the Force. His understanding of machines was almost unique within the Order, and just as hard to govern as anything unfamiliar usually is. Many a time Qui-Gon found himself spending a wakeful and restless night outside the Temple, rescuing the boy from whatever scrape he had gotten himself into, whether it be garbage pit racing in the Wicko District, or modifying droids to perform pranks that were otherwise beyond their programmed abilities. A few more years and Qui-Gon would have seen him welcomed into the ranks of Jedi knights, albeit with a few more grey hairs than Obi-Wan, Xanatos or Feemor cost him, had it not been for Anakin's unexpected decision to leave the Order.
Though they worked well together as master and padawan, for many years Anakin had kept his own counsel. Qui-Gon could sense when the boy was dissatisfied with the progress of his training, or impatient and disappointed in his ability to master a necessary skill, for one of Anakin's weaknesses was the self-discipline to hide or master such feelings, but rarely were those emotions or disagreements admitted by the boy to his master and stepfather. Allowing for the boy's harsh upbringing on remote, desert, Hutt ruled world, where his mother would only be able to protect him to a certain extent from the horrors of their slavery and the cruelities inflicted by their onwers, Qui-Gon respected this silence, and never forced confidence, believing it to be central to the child's perception of his freedom, trusting in Anakin's ability to sort himself out, and the Force to provide for the future. Now he was regretting such a move to give the boy that privacy, for he could see now that it had built a barrier between them which nothing, not even the affection he felt for Anakin and for Shmi could overcome, although whether it would have had an impact on Anakin's decision to leave Qui-Gon did not know.
"You're staying, aren't you, Mom?" Anakin asked Shmi at that moment, causing Qui-Gon to emerge from his thoughts, casting a glance at his wife. The enormity of her choice was conveyed across her face, along with the turmoil it would cost them both. Silently he nodded, though the movement broke his heart.
The padawan between them remained oblivious to their grief, as though too caught in his own thoughts and feelings to be sensible of anything else. He would not leave them alone for a moment, seemingly unaware that they would need solitude for what would be a hard parting. Had Shmi some sensitivity within the Force, the boy's presence would not have posed a hindrance, for the ancient energy allowed communication during dual focus on others, but Shmi lacked what her son possessed in abundance, something which they had never found cause to regret, until now. Neither look nor touch which they felt able to convey at times was sufficent to relate all that needed to be said between them, the absence of any privacy was felt all too keenly.
Qui-Gon watched them pack, the scene bearing a startling similarity to that which took place ten years ago, when they were on Tatooine, after Master Windu had visited to tell him of the events on Naboo, and to take them back to Coruscant. Then as now, Anakin was the eager one, shoving things into boxes and cases, while Shmi took more time and used more care, her seemingly serene composure concealing the sadness she and Qui-Gon felt.
There were also moments which reminded him of other occasions when padawans had left his apartment, due to their knighting in the case of Feemor and Obi-Wan, and due to their leaving in the case of Xanatos and Anakin. All were memories coloured with sadness, even though he had been happy to see Feemor and Obi-Wan become first knights, and then masters of the Order. The emptiness and quietness of his apartment afterwards was stark and disturbing, something he never got use to, even when he felt that he should not take another apprentice after losing Xanatos to the dark side.
That failure had affected him profoundly, the recovery taking years, lasting through the beginning of Obi-Wan's apprenticeship. He had been reluctant to teach for fear of losing another padawan, concerned that he would repeat the mistakes he felt he had made during Xanatos' training. Yet it had been with Anakin and not Obi-Wan that the failure was repeated. He could see now that with Obi-Wan he had been cautious and hesitant, but with Anakin he had been too confident that he could succeed. This was not down to Obi-Wan being a less capable padawan, it was because Obi-Wan had been immediately after Xanatos, making him more concerned about his teaching methods. His success with Obi-Wan had led to a lessening of this worry during Anakin's training.
Ultimately, he would probably never learn what it was which had led Anakin into leaving the Order. He had asked the boy before their meeting with the Council, but Anakin had merely attested to a belief that he was being held back from taking the trials when he believed he could and should take them. Qui-Gon had tried to make him understand that he still needed to acquire a self-discipline over his emotions in order to be ready, but Anakin would not listen. When he had said to the Council that Anakin had learned all he wished to learn, it was the truth. It was the boy's decision, but Qui-Gon still felt that he had failed Anakin, and could not rationalise that belief away.
It had not occurred to Qui-Gon until Anakin asked his mother if she was staying on Coruscant that it would cause him another loss. True, the boy had always been close to his mother, but he was also old enough to manage such a separation. Yet Anakin had asked, and neither Qui-Gon or Shmi could decide differently without causing more hurt. He wondered where they would be staying, as the Temple would no longer be an option, and he had been too preoccupied to learn from Anakin's conversation during the packing, to ask now would betray that mindset. It should not be a concern, as Anakin was leaving the Order, but Qui-Gon quietly resolved to keep in touch with Shmi and through her hear of Anakin, by whatever methods he could. As for his own location now that the Order was leaving Coruscant, he had yet to learn that either. He knew that the Master and padawan pairs along with the Council were staying on Serenno, this had been decided before Master Windu announced the Order's departure to the Senate. Other members would be divided into conclaves that would settle on whichever worlds offered them welcome.
Anakin began shifting things out of the apartment, with the help of Threepio and Shmi, still providing little opportunity for Qui-Gon and Shmi to talk. Qui-Gon stepped into help, though he felt he was intruding, as his former padawan kept watching him each time he lifted a box or took one from Shmi or Threepio that he felt was too heavy for them to handle. To refrain from helping was not in his nature, and yet Qui-Gon could not help but feel that Anakin wished him to just stand and watch.
Qui-Gon followed the trio with the boxes through the corridor into the cavernous entrance hall of the Temple, then finally through the double doors to the stairs outside that led to the ground and the thoroughfares of the Senate district. He noticed a transport waiting at the bottom of the staircase, with the logo of the executive office. Anakin began transferring the boxes from outside the entrance into the transport, giving Qui-Gon a clue as to where his former apprentice and Shmi would be staying. He remembered the Chancellor taking an interest in Anakin after their return from Tatooine, after inquiring why a padawan without a master had taken part in the relief of the Blockade of Naboo. In the immediate aftermath there had been some concern in seeing that the abolition of slavery regulations were properly observed within the Outer Rim in the Senate, but that had faded away for one reason or another. Unlike the Chancellor's interest in Anakin, which despite the efforts of the Order had continued to flourish.
At the time, the Order had been concerned that no special interest was attached to one jedi more than another, for it was their desire that each member of the Order was treated equally. The Council also wished for no political associations to be attached to the Jedi, though that was often ignored whenever a member of the Senate or the Chancellor asked for their advice on a particular matter. But it was difficult to refuse the leader of the Republic, not without appearing disloyal or rude. So Palpatine had continued to ask after Anakin, and the Council or Qui-Gon had provided answers. How the Chancellor had managed to arrange living arrangements for them Qui-Gon was uncertain, for sometimes Palpatine found opportunity to talk with Anakin without his master or the Council being aware of it.
Qui-Gon watched the trio continue to pile the boxes into the transport, relieved that he now knew where they would be, yet uneasy also. It would be difficult to keep in touch with Shmi because of their proximity to the executive office, but not impossible. He felt uneasy about politicians, finding little to approve of in their characters or their motives for office. It was an opinion which all his apprentices but Anakin and Xanatos had inherited. He accepted that they probably had their reasons for liking what politicians they had come into contact with, and strove not to let such a difference affect his relationship with them. But because of Anakin's decision to align himself with such beings, and the Order's resolve to leave the Republic, Qui-Gon knew that the distance between him and the Skywalkers would only continue to grow.
The last of the boxes were put inside the transport. Anakin climbed inside, leaving Threepio and Shmi a chance to say farewell, an opportunity he seemed determined to decline.
"Goodbye, Master Jinn," Threepio said, his golden arms reaching out to embrace Qui-Gon, which the Jedi Master welcomed, quite touched by the gesture.
"Goodbye, Threepio. May the Force be with you," he returned.
As the droid stepped away to join Anakin within the transport, Shmi came up to embrace him. Qui-Gon wrapped his arms around her, wishing that time could stop so the moment would last forever.
"May the Force, and my love, be with you, Shmi, always," he murmured, his voice choked with emotions which he forbore from restraining.
"Whatever the distance between us, I will always love you, Qui-Gon," she uttered softly, her tone equally uneven. "I shall contact you when I can. Goodbye, my love."
He released her reluctantly, and watched her descend the stairs, then climb into the transport. The vehicle's doors closed before it moved away.
It was a long time before he returned inside.
Padmé and Obi-Wan, together with Jehane and her entourage of handmaidens and security walked from the Senate back to her apartment. He may be biased, but Obi-Wan believed that until they reached her penthouse above the embassy, he was still required to protect her. No one troubled them to query that opinion enroute either, though that may have been because everyone was too preoccupied with the news concerning the Order's departure from the Republic.
Stationed within the back of the pod for Naboo, Obi-Wan had watched Master Windu make the annoucement, and the Senate's clamorous reaction to the news. There were a few genuinely shocked Senators and Representatives, but also quite a number of those scheming to capitalise on the Order's departure to better their own reputations. Appeals were made from certain senators to reconsider or delay their leaving after the seasonal recess was declared. Some were meaningful, while others were merely token gestures designed to improve the reputation of the senator in question. He had been relieved when Palpatine managed to declare a recess, giving him the chance to leave, though that meant that his parting from Padmé would soon arrive.
It was not a long journey from the Senate to the Naboo Embassy, but they made it last, slowing their normal gait to a sedate walk through the corridors that led from the Senate arena to the entrance, then by walking from that building to the apartment block at Five Hundred Republica rather than taking a transport. Around them was a formal parkland of permacrete, topiary trees and flowers, above which the traffic laden sky thoroughfares hummed. Captain Typho and his security surrounded Padmé and Obi-Wan, who were further protected by her handmaidens and Jehane. His apprentice had shed the flamed coloured garments which Padmé's household had lent her before they left for the Senate. Jehane had commented to him that she much preferred their appearance to the simple combination of desert colours favoured by the Jedi, but she knew it was impossible for her to keep them. She returned them to Cordé, who promised her that she could have them again, if she ever visited Naboo in the future.
Returning to Naboo was something with Obi-Wan had more or less promised Padmé when they discussed the future of their relationship before they left for the Senate. As yet it was a possibility which depended on Naboo voting to leave the Repulic, agreeing to grant the Jedi sanctuary, letting the Council know that the Jedi were welcome to settle a conclave on their world, and the Order allowing him and Jehane to be part of that group. It would also depend on the Council granting him permission to explore his relationship with Padmé, something he would have inform them about sooner than he had thought.
While Padmé remained a Senator it was impossible to consider a relationship, so it had not been necessary that he informed the council of his feelings. But if she did succeed in persuading her people to withdraw from the Republic, then she would be required to step down from her position within the Senate. She could take up a similar position with the Confederacy's governing body, but as Count Dooku was the leader of the Separatists and a Jedi, being a member might not pose such a barrier as being a Senator had, as the Order was about to become more involved within the the group of systems which had banded together after leaving the Republic.
All of this was a supposition, it was unlikely he would know for sure until he declared his interest to the Council. Obi-Wan contemplated what their reaction might be, though it was impossible to predict, there were only two answers, yes or no. If it was the latter, he was no worse off than he was at present, although it might entail some difficult decisions after Jehane was knighted. If it was the former, then he and Padmé might be able to spend more time like this, walking through a park towards her home. The thought struck a chord within him and he turned to her.
"Where do you live on Naboo?" he asked her.
She turned her gaze from their destination towards him. "I live with my parents. Why do you ask?"
"It occurred to me that we might have another day like this, providing the Council and the Naboo grant us permission to do so," he explained. "Where is your home? Is it within Theed?"
"It is," she answered. "I was born in a mountain village that my parents founded, but we moved to the capital so my sister and I could have access to a good education. The first time I saw Theed, I was very young... I'd never seen a waterfall before. I thought they were so
beautiful... especially those near the palace. Our home is not far from there, so when I left school and became an Apprentice Legislator there didn't seem any point in finding a place of my own. When the Queen asked me to become a Senator, I was given the opportunity to take up residence in the Senatorial apartments within the Palace, but official residences have no warmth to me. Even my apartment here lacks something at times. Apart from my parent's house, the only place I feel at home is Varykino, a villa in the Lake Country that my family use."
"Does your sister live there too?" Obi-Wan asked her.
"No, she moved out when she married, though she visits with her husband and my nieces," Padmé replied. "The house is not large enough for all of my family to live there for a length of time. I probably have to find somewhere if...." she trailed off, blushing.
"We will find somewhere when we reach that point in our relationship," Obi-Wan remarked, smiling at her until her blush faded away. "Not that I mind you living with your parents, I think its nice that you're close to your family. So I am, from a certain point of view." He gestured at the Temple, signifying that he considered the Order his family.
"Have you ever wondered about your parents, Obi-Wan?" Padmé asked.
"Sometimes," he replied. "Each Jedi is granted the opportunity learn about their origins at knighthood. The Jedi found me in an orphanage on Stewjohn when I was very young."
"I'm sorry," Padmé offered, taking his hand in hers in sympathy.
"Don't be," Obi-Wan assured her. "I always considered the Order my family. I have no memory of Stewjohn. I was too young when the Jedi found me to retain a memory of it. Since I learned of my origins, I've felt no need to go back there. One day I might, but that is only a possibility."
"You'll miss the Temple though," she inferred.
Obi-Wan nodded. "Yes, but as it will become an embassy, I'll still be able to visit. The Council plan for knights and masters to take residence for a small period of time on a rotating basis. We need the Temple as a base for our investigations." He paused considering, before adding, "but it will not be the same."
At this moment they reached the entrance of Five Hundred Republica, causing them to fall into silence again as Capitain Typho made sure the reception was secure before allowing Padmé and her entourage to cross the marbled floor towards the turbolift.
"I have been thinking about asking the Queen to offer a part of the Lake Country as sanctuary," Padmé began when they were inside the turbolift. "There are some parts which are fairly remote, unless the Order would prefer a place in Theed."
"I don't know," Obi-wan replied. "Personally I would prefer the Lake Country, but the location will be up to the Council. Until then I'll be on Serenno, with the rest of the padawan and master pairings, as well as the Council. Master Windu informed me of that before I left the Temple to come to you."
"At Count Dooku's estate?" Padmé sought to clarify.
"Probably," Obi-Wan replied before they exited the turbolift after it arrived on the Naboo Embassy Penthouse floor.
He halted before they could enter the apartment, and her entourage quietly gave them a modicum of privacy, Jehane returning to the turbolift which she kept open, waiting for her master to join her.
Obi-Wan drew Padmé into his arms, resting his hands around her shoulders. He placed a kiss upon her forehead, and then her cheeks, before meeting her lips with his. There were no more words, there were none required, for both knew that they would contact each other when they could. Their parting kiss was a tender one, softly conveyed, reluctantly ended as he withdrew himself from her to step back into the turbolift.
The doors closed and the tube descended, swiftly parting them from each other.
Obi-Wan and Jehane arrived at the Temple to find the halls crowded with crechlings, younglings, initiates, padawans, knights and masters, who were shepherding boxes and droids towards the hangar bay. While the Temple was to become an embassy, the Council had decided it would house only a skeleton staff, on a rotating basis. This meant that nearly all of the contents usually housed within Temple were to be moved, including the Archives. The process would take months, perhaps even years, and no one knew where or when they would see the Order in one location again. The archives were being moved back to Ossus, along with a conclave of Jedi entrusted with the upkeep of the records, under the stewardship of Master Jocasta Nu. Another conclave was settling on Serenno, at Master Dooku's estate. One more was to be established on Kamino, to keep an eye on the clone army until an agreement was reached that would safeguard the force from the Republic. As for other systems in the Confederacy, Master Dooku was in conference with their representatives now, relaying their answers back to Master Yoda and Master Windu as soon as he received them.
He headed to his and Jehane's quarters in the master padawan area of the complex, passing more of their colleagues on the way. Every apartment was open to the halls as each Jedi began clearing them. Possession was forbidden, but the subtle meaning behind that phrase of the Code did not take into account furniture or other items. The Order considered themselves custodians charged with passing on the knowledge and paraphernalia of the Force, which included the Temple and any objects contained therein.
The Force was in a state of chaos, a reflection of the events within the temple at present. A jumbled collection of stray thoughts and feelings, all waiting for the moment that immediate plans to relocate were fulfilled, allowing for the necessary time to pause and reflect, in the quest to achieve a more disciplined state of mind. For some it would take much longer to reach it than others, depending on their ability within the Force, as well as their age and training, not to mention how well-informed they were as to the reasons why such a relocation was required.
Obi-Wan and Jehane entered their quarters, the latter diverting to the left upon crossing the threshold, where there lay a storage cupboard full of boxes that once housed the contents of their apartment.
"Have you been to Serenno, Master?" She asked him as she began emptying the cupboard.
"No," Obi-Wan replied. "Nor do I know much about it, other than what we've been taught in our apprenticeships."
"I hope its nice," Jehane murmured, her tone causing Obi-Wan to draw near and give his padawan a hug.
"I hope so too," he replied.
Their embrace was broken by the beeping of the com station beeped, causing him to part from her in order to answer the call.
"Master Kenobi," Bail Organa greeted him, the image of the Senator from Alderaan appearing on the screen. "I hope I'm not disturbing you."
"No, not at all," Obi-Wan answered as he sat down before the com, whilst Jehane continued to pack up their apartment. "What can I do for you, Senator?"
"Actually its more what I can do for you," Bail returned, leaning back in his chair in his office at Cantham House, Alderaan's Embassy on Coruscant. "On behalf of Alderaan, I would like to offer a place for a conclave of Jedi."
Obi-Wan sank back against the confines of his chair, stunned by the offer. "Bail, that's generous of you," he replied, "but I do not believe the Order can accept. It would put you and your world in a precarious position."
"I have spoken to my wife and my council and we are willing to take the risk," Bail assured him. "I will take care to make sure that no one knows of your presence, or your location."
Obi-Wan paused, considering. Alderaan was a Core world, it would be an important location and one that the Council might accept. But it was also still a member of the Republic, to settle a Jedi conclave there would put Alderaan in a difficult position. Yet he felt a prompting from the Force not to dismiss the offer.
"I can't give you an answer," he said last, trusting in the ancient energy's advice. "All I can do is take your offer to the Council."
"I'll await their response," Bail replied. "May the Force be with you, Obi-Wan Kenobi."
"And with you, Bail," Obi-Wan returned before ending the call.
To be continued...