“Master Obi-Wan! Do you have to have all eight of these history books on the table?” Coming home from yet more classes, with her arms full of books and assignment sheets, Nasriel sighed as she saw the cluttered table in the quarters. “Can’t I move a few of them? I’ve got homework to do.” Figuring she had, technically, asked permission, and taking silence for consent, she shifted six of the books, as many as she could carry at one time, into a neat stack on the floor, and then stood up again to retrieve the remaining two. Unfortunately, one of the books, precariously balanced atop a caf mug anyway, slid from the table top and crashed to the ground.
Nasriel hurried to pick it up and restore the rumpled pages, hopefully before her Master noticed. As she straightened a dog-eared page near the back of the book, a folded slip of paper dropped out and fluttered to the floor. Laying the book squarely atop its fellows, Nasriel scooped up the paper and squinted to read the tight, tiny handwriting of the word written across it.
Just at that moment, Obi-Wan, deep in yet another book, apparently realized there was a question to answer, because he called hastily, “Oh, yes, move them all if you want. As a matter of fact they need to go back to the Archives, or Madame Nu will have my hide.”
“Master, what’s this?” Nasriel was standing in his doorway by now, holding up the scrap of faded, fragile paper. “It was in one of the books. I thought you said they came from the Archives? Only… this is Master Jinn’s.”
“What?” Obi-Wan snatched the paper. “Give me that. Why was this in a book? Who would leave it there?”
Ben, walking into the quarters, slammed down his own textbooks in the center of the patch Nasriel had cleared for herself. “Tahl Uvain. Weird cookie, from what I’ve heard.”
“No,” objected Obi-Wan reasonably, “she would have addressed it Qui. Not Respected Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn. Maybe we’ll get a clue from the message. Ah, no, Ben, I can read it, thank you.”
“He’s afraid it’s a compromising love letter,” said Ben in a stage-whisper to Nasriel, then, watching his Master’s face, “It is a compromising letter! He’s blushing!”
As if to prove the Padawans wrong, Obi-Wan flattened the page out on top of Ben’s rather tattered math text. “It’s perfectly innocent, and at least mostly legible. I just… felt wrong to read his private correspondence.”
Nasriel leaned over to read. “Well, he can’t read it anymore,” she pointed out, unnecessarily. “It’s a poem?” She read aloud, slowly, and careful of the pronunciation,
“The Braided Boy.
Immured beneath the shining ruddy gold,
Blue-grey, oft-shifting seas – calm seas run deep –
O’erwhelming me with hope, draw forth my soul,
Now my light’s darkness know, and backward creep.
E’en though they think me unfit to stay whole,
Know me as ink that stains their force full light,
Now, ‘spite this, lightning fills the room’s white bowl,
And blue light keeps me safe by its great might.
When villains flee, footsteps the thunder’s growl,
In safety now, the seas are quiet, warm,
Bright blue. A strange, half-foreign accent rolls.
Our diff’rence? Past the sea, the boy is calm.
Running, dead, dark, lone, I scream unheard,
Glance, his, stabs at my heart from far-off world.“
The brittle page crackled as she turned it over to read the brief note on the back. “Master Jinn: remember, on the day he is knighted. You promised. R.G.”
“Charming,” commented Ben lightly. “Definitely not Master Uvain.”
“It’s about you, Master,” Nasriel added after a moment. “Perfect description, nearly as good as a photograph. Look, it’s even got your name in it. It does,” she insisted, despite his frankly skeptical expression. “It’s a reverse acrostic. Now… who could have written this drivel?”
“It translates into Shendi without losing the meter or the rhymes,” Ben noted tentatively.
“Hey, and Saalisan as well,” yelped Nasriel. “All right, so what do we know already?”
“Fluent grasp of Basic, Shendi, and Saalisan,” Obi-Wan began.
“Probably a woman, older woman.” Ben was adamant. “No male could have written that.”
“A woman who saw you fighting. When you were a Padawan – it says Braided?” Nasriel finished. “That’s just weird. Nobody speaks all three of those languages.”
“It says R.G at the bottom. Under the bit where it spells Obi-Wan Kenobi backwards, and at the end of the note. Who the heck is R.G?” Ben was counting over acquaintances on his fingers, wondering about initials.
Obi-Wan said suddenly, “It was the Countess. I just remembered. The only person who speaks all three languages. Countess… ghoul, or something.”
Nasriel pinched her lips tightly together, at once unhappy. “Countess Rasla Gul? She’s dead. She died… seventeen years ago today.”
With an almost exaggerated care, Nasriel drew her fingers away from the sonnet and retreated into her bedroom, closing the door firmly. Deciding it was a good idea just to leave her alone, Ben extracted a pack of sabacc cards from the “dangerously high-entropy zone,” as Nasriel referred to his room, and shuffled them suggestively on the table. Obi-Wan reluctantly agreed to play – and had to promise not to play like Qui-Gon used to. Sadly for Ben, even without facing the renowned Master Jinn’s techniques, there was no winning in the face of three “life” cards in the same hand. Even more unfortunate was his promise, given in exchange for his Master’s, to stop skipping history classes and stop “borrowing” Nasriel’s math homework.
At last, after four excruciatingly humiliating rounds, Ben had had quite enough and retired with what shreds of dignity remained to him. These were heartlessly torn away by a parting order to “Significantly reduce the entropy in that Force-forsaken hole,” and Ben slammed his door emphatically, on the reflection that he actually didn’t give a kriff whether Nasriel was upset or not.
Obi-Wan did care, but wasn’t quite sure whether to leave her alone and continue compiling data for his biography of Darth Deriaka – the project Garen had called eternal – or to diplomatically enquire whether she was all right. Anakin had not been so difficult to understand. When Master Jinn had jokingly explained that talking to adolescent girls was the greatest possible test of diplomacy, Obi-Wan thought grimly, he hadn’t actually been joking.
“Nasriel’yana?” Knock twice.
“Kriff off.” Definitely a case for the Great Negotiator. “I’m busy.”
“Busy doing what? I just wondered if you were all right.”
“I’m watching reruns of Greatest Corellian Hero because I don’t want to think right now, I’m fine, now kriff off!” The door unlatched itself. “Come in if you want.”
Nasriel was sitting on her bed, feet placed together on the floor, hands neatly folded, head bowed over the datapad in her lap, the flickering bluish light playing across her face. On the screen, the same silly stories of the reluctant hero ran their course; the same scraps of lighthearted fun billions of children had laughed at practically since Yoda was a youngling. But tonight, for the first time in all those years, somebody was watching that bizarre comedy of errors without even a hint of a smile.
She did not pause the episode, or look up, or give any sign she knew he was there. When Obi-Wan sat awkwardly on the bed beside her, though, she shifted the datapad so he could see the screen, but simultaneously wriggled further away from him. Finally, the episode finished. As the closing credits scrolled up the screen, Nasriel said flatly, as if she had been planning the words all along, “Please don’t tell me about Rasla Gul. I know her name and her nationality and when she died – that’s bad enough. But you can’t form a forbidden attachment to someone you know nothing about. So please don’t tell me.”
Not waiting for a reply, she clicked into the next episode of Greatest Corellian Hero. Obi-Wan took the datapad from her and laid it facedown on the floor, before forcibly turning her head so she was looking at him. “What is going on here? I don’t know what you are talking about.”
“My mother,” Nasriel whispered tremulously, her slim fingers reaching past him for the datapad. “Why didn’t you tell my you’ve actually met my mother? I don’t care about her,” she was swift to add, “I just wonder sometimes, what she was like. She died three days after I was born, so… I don’t really know. And I try not to care. Don’t you dare tell me anything about her.”
“Oh. I never thought your mother and Rasla Gul were the same person. Leave that datapad alone,” Obi-Wan said sternly. “You are not watching any more of that garbage now. It was your birthday three days ago, then?”
“The Council interprets the Code as meaning that all attachments are forbidden,” quoted Nasriel wearily, “including attachment to any particular dates, celebrated in some parts of the Galaxy as ‘birthdays’. This is the decision of the Council. Actually, I’d forgotten myself when it was until just now.”
“That particular decision of the Council is not worth the paper it’s written on,” snorted Obi-Wan. “Ben and I still take note of birthdays. There’s no reason you shouldn’t.”
“Really?” The golden eyes were glowing like Tahl’s had before she was blinded. “Jiron said he only let me because he was a maverick and a Sentinel and everybody else knew that already, so he could get away with it. You’re… Council.”
“Which of course means I am one of the twelve beings in the Order permitted to ignore the rule against birthdays. And any other rule I consider to be detrimental to my Padawans. Does that answer your question?”
“Yes, Master,” Nasriel replied meekly, before carefully using the Force to float her datapad toward her. “I just want to find out how this episode ends.”
“You’re watching Greatest Corellian Hero. It cannot help but end badly. Now go to sleep; it’s your Turn tomorrow and I would prefer you to be at least half-awake.”
When tomorrow came, Nasriel dragged herself unwillingly out of bed, in response to Obi-Wan’s knock at her door – an hour before dawn. Shrugging her cloak on over her nightdress, she padded over to the door and slid it open. Obi-Wan was already dressed and apparently ready to leave.
“Shower. Clothes. Move fast. You have fifteen minutes.”
“Kriffing chiszzk, Master, it’s still dark out! Skeg. What the nine hells…”
“Qui-Gon surely never did this to you,” Nasriel mumbled – incorrectly – from behind the bathroom door. “Waking people up in the dead of night has got to count as cruelty – which is against the Code, is it not?” Her grumbling continued almost without cease for the next eight minutes. Almost, because it was interrupted somewhere between the fifth and sixth minutes, when she learned that complaining while trying to wash one’s face almost invariably leads to eating soap, and subsequent spluttering attempts to wash the inside of one’s face as well, to remove the taste.
Obi-Wan did not waste any time explaining anything so unnecessary as destination, but led the Padawan wordlessly to the speeder bay, where he selected a rather old-fashioned blue airspeeder.
The destination proved to be in an area of Coruscant that was slightly more disreputable than Dex’s cantina, if that were possible. Obi-Wan, who had not spoken a word for the entire trip, stopped the speeder at the edge of what looked like the rooftop of an enormous building, scowled, and consulted his chrono. “Early,” he muttered. “I could have allowed you the time to have breakfast after all.”
“I ate only the day before yesterday,” Nasriel replied impatiently. “What the nine hells are we doing here?”
“Right now? Waiting for precisely… five more minutes.” At the end of this prescribed time, a tiny bluish flame licked up from one of the multitude of holes randomly scattered over the rooftop. “Out. We have places to go.”
Obediently jumping down from the speeder, Nasriel was still confused, but now beginning to be nervous. Obi-Wan pointed across the expanse of roof, to a pillar nearly a kilometer away. “Do you see that? That’s where we’re going.”
“On… foot?” Nasriel asked uncertainly. “Why?”
At that moment, the small holes in the roof revealed themselves for what they were: flame vents, pouring jets of white fire fully ten meters straight up. Not all the vents were aflame at once, nor was there any pattern to how they ignited. Despite the intense heat, Nasriel shivered. “Master, I can’t – I can’t go through there. I can’t stand fire. Jiron… you can’t make me.”
She had to listen hard to hear his reply over the increasing roar of the flames, so softly did he speak. “If I had to make you go there, I wouldn’t want you to. Do you trust me?”
“Absolutely.” The answer came automatically.
“Hmm. Mind if I qualify that? For instance, do you trust me to tell you the truth?” Unable to speak, or to tear her eyes away from the towering conflagration, Nasriel nodded. “Good. Do you trust me never to willingly lead you into danger?” Nod again. “That will do for now. Come on.”
The Padawan remained rooted to the spot, staring in horror at the field of fire ahead, and didn’t move a muscle, even when Obi-Wan took the first few steps between flame jets. He glanced back, and held out one hand for her to take, forcing her to walk forward to reach him. The slim fingers clutching convulsively at his felt cold and clammy with fear, and the pulse thumped rapidly.
“Master, please!” Even lit up by the fire, her face was pale.
“One step at a time. Follow me. No, keep your eyes open.”
Unwilling to let go her Master’s hand, despite the terror flames inspired in her, Nasriel took one tentative step forward, keeping her gaze downward to avoid accidentally slipping into one of the jets.
“Look up. Follow me exactly, and you’ll be perfectly safe. Look at the fire. It can’t hurt you. It’s not alive…” Obi-Wan kept walking, steadily, not looking back, aware that the soft, clinging fingers gripping his hand had relaxed ever so slightly, almost enough for him to pull away.
And so he did. Not altering his pace one whit, he slipped his hand from her grasp, and still did not look back. “Keep following. You’re all right.”
“Master!” Obi-Wan heard the high-pitched scream clearly, even over the hot white roar of the fire all around. But Nasriel’s soft boots were still retracing the safe path, still following, not turning back.
Finally they were out of the fire field, beside the pillar he had pointed out only ten minutes before. Nasriel was gasping for breath, and her voice was still shrill with terror as she said angrily, “Don’t you ever do that to me again! That was not funny!”
“But you did it. You walked through a kilometer of white-hot flames. This is called facing your fears, Padawan Threeb. And what you can do once when it doesn’t matter,” Obi-Wan pointed out philosophically, “you can do again when it does.”