Obi-Wan awoke with a start, and lay still, trying to decide whether that comlink-like buzzing had been a dream or whether he would have to do something about it. It couldn’t be his own com, because that was laying dark and silent on the bookshelf, and anyway, since the Blue Shadow crisis was past, over a week ago, nobody had any reason to call him in the middle of the night.
From the next room came a muffled expletive. “Skeg! Bestalk y… okay, Master Jocasta, I’m coming.” It was something he would have to act on: Nasriel. Now completely awake, he went out into the central room of the quarters, just in time to see Nasriel in her dark brown cloak swirling away down the corridor. Only a few minutes passed before she was back, and he intercepted her at the door. “Alir’yana, slow down. It’s the middle of the night.”
The Padawan pushed past him impatiently, calling over her shoulder, “Need a few days’ leave-of-absence, Master.”
The story came out in staccato fragments, interspersed with mumbled curses as Nasriel hunted about in her room for various things, flinging them haphazardly into a rucksack. “Minetz and his wife have been murdered. Orien called the Temple to get me over there. Funny, huh? First time I’ve heard from my family in thirteen years, they want help.”
“Nasriel, start over. Who is Minetz?”
She stopped suddenly and crumpled to the floor, rubbing her lucky charm as she always did when agitated. “Minetz was the Third Earl Threeb, my older half-brother, the one who gave me my name. He was thirty-six – yes, my brother was old enough to have been my father. Get over it. Orien is my half-sister. She wants me there because it is vitally important that there be no obstruction to her taking the title. If the Threeb line falls, the planet will not be able to prevent total civil war. So far, since the Shendi withdrew, my family has been the kingmaker. Whom the Earl wants, rules. It’s not a great system, but it’s better than war.”
The Threeb family of Saalis. Wasn’t there… “Wasn’t there another boy?”
“There were my older twin half-brothers Nahari and Sien, but they were killed in a riot at the last royal coronation, a few weeks ago. I read about it in a magazine.”
Obi-Wan remembered all the hundreds of letters he had exchanged with his family over the years, and tried to imagine what it must be like to be cut off entirely from them.
Nasriel continued calmly, “Orien must be having an awful time. She’s… let me see. Fourteen. I guess if Padmé can handle it, so can she. She just wants me to come help with some paperwork.”
“Would it be useful if Ben and I came?”
Nasriel straightened herself and went to hunt in her closet for her boots. “Not really. You’re Shendi, remember, Master? I’ll be fine, and I should be back in under a week. Master Jo has a shuttle waiting for me, to leave in an hour.” She fastened her bag and smiled whimsically. “Say goodbye to everybody for me?”
Obi-Wan was unmoved. “It doesn’t work like that, Nasriel, and you know it. I have a bad feeling about this trip, and I will not let you go alone. I’m going to wake Ben and tell him to pack.”
Utterly, completely unexpectedly, Nasriel, dropping the rucksack on her bed, wrapped her slim arms around her Master’s waist and hugged him tightly. “I… I hoped you were going to say that,” she choked out.
Ben was initially unhappy about being woken up in the dead of night to go to yet another foreign planet, but was fully conscious a nanosecond after Nasriel tipped a cup of cold water over his head, and ready to leave twenty minutes after that. On the journey to Saalis, Nasriel grew visibly more nervous. Ben felt her pushing all the sorrows, all the losses and betrayals of the last thirteen years deep into the background of her mind, and then hiding them under a veneer of calm, controlled seriousness. They were met at the spaceport by a Saalisan girl dressed like a queen in a black furred robe and accompanied by six bodyguards. Ben had assumed that Nasriel’s sister would look like her, but compared to Orien, Nasriel was… almost Human. Orien’s long, pale tresses were textured more like silver feathers than like her sister’s short, tousled black hair, and her face and the markings on it were darker and more clearly defined. She cried “Kaliu!” and ran forward to embrace Nasriel, but Ben didn’t trust her. He could almost taste the insincerity of her effusive greeting.
Gently disentangling herself, Nasriel made the necessary introductions. “Master Obi-Wan, Ben, this is my sister, Earl Orien Threeb. Orien, this is Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi and Padawan Ben Kenobi. They are–” she paused, searching for the right word. “My friends.”
Orien smiled tightly. “Kaliu, yreltshendi, darai nar xan kan?”
“Tac; iyada kan yuxan skré.” Nasriel held one hand up to silence Orien. “Would you speak in Basic, please? My friends do not understand Saalisan.”
The young Earl’s smile broadened, revealing the one feature of a Saalisan smile Ben did not like: menacing sharp teeth. “But of course. I apologize, my lords Jedi, if I offended you. I was merely… asking my sister whether it had not been too long since we were graced with her presence here.” Her Saalisan accent gave the words a musical lilt, but could not hide from the Force the bowstring tautness to which her nerves were stretched.
Smiling back with hardly a hint of tension, Nasriel said courteously, “Orien, I also wish my exile had not been so long, but I have my duty to perform as a Jedi, you understand.” As she said this, however, she stepped forward unobtrusively so Ben could see the words she was spelling behind her back in the Padawan Hall Silent Alphabet: “Lying. Said why here with two Shendi.”
Orien whispered to Nasriel, “Kaliu, you could have come alone. There are just a few papers to deal with, some officials to talk to. I don’t need the Jedi, I just wanted to see you again and be assured that you will not stand in the way of my taking up the title.”
The two girls began to wander down the catwalk together, Nasriel’s fingers fluttering a final “Danger. Be alert,” to Ben. One of Orien’s guards, a tall Saalisan male, said to Obi-Wan in polite but uncertain Basic, “The Lady Orien say you please will to follow me, for to be waiting until she conclude business with Kaliu.” The guard led them along a tangled maze of halls and stairs, to a large, elegant room with a breathtaking view of a green valley and the tree-covered mountains beyond. Deep, soft, intricately patterned carpets covered the polished black stones of the floor, and on the wall above one of two sofas hung a bizarre abstract painting in vivid orange and blue. The guard withdrew, leaving the two Jedi alone.