Soresu form, level five, over and over and over and… would Qui-Gon ever come back? Panting slightly, tunic damp with sweat, Obi-Wan broke off in the middle of a figure to check the time, and found that he had already been working for over two hours. How long did Master Yoda have to take to say, “go on yet another mission”? Still, he had said he would practice until his Master came to find him, and he had a more highly-developed sense of duty than most, so practice he would.
There was somebody else in the salle, he gradually noticed. A boy, who felt terribly young, but looked as if he would easily match Obi-Wan in height – not, of course, that that was hard. An initiate. Why was a youngling in the Padawan Halls salle, he wondered absently, and how long had he been there, silent and still, blocking his presence in the Force? How long, above all, before Ali Alann missed the brat and came to find it? Come to think of it – sneaking a glance through the intricate saber-work – why hadn’t such a bizarre-looking youngling been missed before?
Despite the child’s comfortless posture, hunched over a datapad, fingers twinkling ceaselessly over the keypad on the screen though his eyes never left the Padawan for an instant, he was obviously tall and well-muscled already. And belying his stone-dark skin and starry black eyes, the boy’s hair was a rank, insolent flag of unkempt, uncombed pink, the bulk of it tied clumsily back in a nerf-tail, and the one escaping strand lay bright against the dark, unobtrusive tunic. It looked almost like a braid… there were beads on it… it was a braid! This was a Padawan too. Obi-Wan tried to ignore the boy, to focus on Soresu – after all, it was only seven years that Qui-Gon had been reminding him not to get distracted. But finally he could take that unflinching, unblinking gaze no longer, and powered down his lightsaber.
Tossing it aside, he demanded of the intruder, “Who are you and what are you doing here?”
“I don’t live here,” the boy answered indirectly. “I was watching you. Did you know you’re the first Padawan I’ve ever seen who gets that form exactly right?”
“Yes, but who are you? I don’t know you.”
The dark eyes still refused to blink. “That doesn’t matter. I know you. You’re Obi-Wan Kenobi. You are twenty years old, and seven years ago you were this close to being assigned to the Agricorps. You are unusually sensitive about your height – or lack of – and remarkably attuned to the Living Force, but can often be prevailed upon to ignore its dictates. You’re Qui-Gon Jinn’s Padawan, and usually work diplomatic missions. At least three in the last year. Most recently Mandalore – how is Satine, by the way? – you needn’t answer that. Now you think that Master Jinn is going to tell you the pair of you are going on another mission. And as for me, I’m nobody. I’m a ten-year-old nobody – but I sent you on the last three missions before Mandalore.”
Obi-Wan began to wish he hadn’t dropped his saber. However, there was one obvious flaw in this impertinent infant’s reasoning. “You sent me on a mission? Who do you think you are, Yoda?”
Finally the boy was stung into giving information. “No, Jiron Jados. I’m with the Sentinels in the Outer Rim. We send Yoda information, and he assigns Jedi to solve the problems we turn up. I’ve not been at the Temple since I was a youngling, about a year ago.” He shrugged, but seemed to instantly regret it, because he winced and gripped his arm. “I’m here now because I dislocated my shoulder, and caught some random virus at Teth which interferes with painkillers. My Master couldn’t handle it, so he sent me to Master Bento Li. I get to go home in a week. I knew all about you because that’s my job – I’ve got a good memory, I’m a walking database. It makes life easier for all concerned if the Sentinels know ahead of time who’s coming and how they’re likely to handle the case. Did you want to know anything new about Master Jinn?”
“Tell me who he would be most likely to fall in love with,” challenged Obi-Wan.
“Master Tahl Uvain,” Jiron responded promptly. “You see, I do know a great deal.”
From one of the many doorways onto the salle, Qui-Gon remarked drily, “A great deal too much, it would appear.”
Jiron grinned broadly, and stood up just late enough to give the impression of insolence rather than respect. Sweeping an extravagant bow, he murmured, “My less than pleasant duty, I am afraid, Master Jinn. I think, by the way, that your Padawan has worked altogether too long this afternoon to be let down extremely hard with regard to the latest mission brief.” He pocketed his datapad and slouched back against the wall.
“Do you know what he’s talking about, Master?” pleaded Obi-Wan, casting a disparaging scowl in the direction of Jiron Jados. It was a singularly intimidating glare, but unfortunately did not have any effect whatever on the careless Jados, who merely pulled a face and flipped a lock of pink hair out of his eyes.
“I believe he has heard about my mission before you have. An earl, from Saalis, is at the Senate, and he’s worried about being assassinated by a rival. He wants the reassurance of a visible Jedi presence.”
“What am I being let down gently about?” the Padawan insisted suspiciously.
“You aren’t coming,” Jiron cut in knowledgeably. “The Saalisans have some sort of grudge against your people, and the earl said he’d rather have no Jedi at all than you. Which is odd,” he mused, “considering his wife’s half-Shendi. But Padawan Tachi is going instead.”
“Aren’t you supposed to be talking to Master Li?” suggested Qui-Gon. “About your dislocated shoulder? I know a great deal as well,” he added, almost maliciously.
Obi-Wan sighed. He sat down on the bench and leaned back against the wall with an audible thump, running a hand through thick auburn locks that, Qui-Gon noted regretfully, needed cutting once more.
“I must come from the most discriminated-against ethnic group in the galaxy,” he muttered. “Not only does J’Kurran Dachonisa hate the sight of me since I’m from a ‘heretic’ clan, but these other people hate me for something my clan didn’t even do?”
“Be glad you’re not from the most stereotyped ethnic group,” Qui-Gon reprimanded gently.
Obi-Wan sighed. “I suppose I’m stuck at the Temple until this is all resolved, then,” he said morosely.
Qui-Gon tugged on his Padawan’s braid, not sharply enough to actually hurt him, but enough to get his attention. “You suppose right, Padawan mine.”
“Who are we expecting to be there?” Qui-Gon tested Siri, in the speeder, on the way to the Senate. “In order of importance.”
Siri tapped a page over on her datapad. “Prince Y’Khaen Ixdaov, Senator for Saalis and younger brother of the king. Earl Kanxei Threeb. Countess Rasla Gul – that’s the human wife. Lady Pierdas Narelkh – is that the earl’s other wife? That’s all.”
“Excellent. You only missed one. Viscount Minetz Threeb, the earl’s son.”
At the Senate, a page escorted them to the Saalisan embassy. Siri liked it at once – it reminded her of the Temple more than any other Senate offices did, being stark and white-painted, with slick, boot-clicking black stone floors. After tapping respectfully on one of the many heavy, dark wooden doors off the high, domed antechamber, the page pushed it open and scurried away. Siri followed Qui-Gon into the room, reminding herself not to gape like a youngling. A tall, slender man was waiting just inside the entryway, and she had to actively look away to avoid staring. The man wore a long, open tunic of deep green velvet over his paler green pants and white shirt, but Siri’s gaze was drawn irresistibly to his face, which was arrogant and ruthless, just a hint of good humor lingering behind his golden eyes – and of a rich blue color under his perfectly-ordered silver hair. A moment later, she realized that this man was not as old as his white hair would suggest – certainly younger than Master Jinn, who seemed to recognize him at once.
“My lord Threeb.”
“Master Jinn.” The blue lips parted in a brilliant smile, which Siri found vaguely disconcerting – his teeth were so sharply pointed as to resemble knives, and she caught herself wondering how much it would hurt if he ever bit his tongue.
“Most Saalisans have more sense than to do that very often, Padawan,” a soft, husky voice answered her thoughts. “It draws blood quite easily.” Siri whirled around to face the speaker, a regal-looking lady in a simply-cut long-sleeved golden gown.
“Rasla Gul?” she asked uncertainly.
“Precisely. But I am afraid you have me at a disadvantage.” Lady Rasla’s long black hair flowed loose down her back, covered as if by an afterthought with a gossamer-fine gold silk veil. “Tell me, is it only the ladies of Saalis who shake hands when meeting another lady?” Siri took the ring-laden hand extended to her, and was surprised almost into pulling her fingers away. Surely most ladies of great houses did not have such bony, fleshless hands? Daring a further look, she saw that Rasla was almost painfully thin, and terribly pale, the only color in her face coming from the faint band of freckles over her cheeks, the light pink pigment painted onto her lips, and her piercing blue-green eyes. “I am fully aware that I do not look well, Padawan. By Saalisan standards, in fact, I look dead. But my husband thinks I am beautiful, and that is enough for me.”
“Stop reading my thoughts!” Siri almost shouted. Was this woman a witch?
“Very well,” Rasla replied playfully, directly into the Padawan’s mind. “But tell me,” she added aloud, “I didn’t believe there were any female Padawans assigned to male Masters nowadays. You see I am not reading. If I were I would not need to ask.”
“I’m Siri Tachi,” Siri replied, in answer to the question of a few minutes ago. “I came because Master Jinn’s real Padawan is Shendi, and we were told the Shendi are not popular with your people.”
The Countess’ eyes sparkled with amusement. “Pray, who are you calling my people, child? My father was a Shendi soldier – although I do not usually advertise the fact. I understand that the only Shendi Padawan in the Temple is one of the -” her fine lips curled almost contemptuously, “One of the Unspoken People. A Kenobi or a Kastrilley?”
“Kenobi,” replied Siri, dazed by the rapid, repeated changes of subject.
“Wait. Did you say Master Jinn? Not… not Qui-Gon Jinn? Answer quickly, Siri Tachi.”
“Yeah. His name’s Qui-Gon, yeah. So?”
Siri had not thought it was possible for anyone so pale to blanch, but Rasla proved her wrong. Her thin face was as white as the walls, and almost looked like a mask. “So, Padawan Tachi, the story I’ve been trying to get away from for thirty years has finally caught up to me. The story of what might have been.”
Qui-Gon had turned to look for Siri, and now stared narrowly at Rasla, “I don’t think we have met before, Countess?” he asked, impeccably polite. “Only… I seem to remember your face.”
“A mutual acquaintance, perhaps,” replied Rasla airily. “Taharat Weskar? I am told my resemblance to my mother is strong.”
“You’re Taharat’s daughter. Be quiet, Siri. The girl who should have been sent to the Temple.” Switching language suddenly, to a dialect Siri didn’t recognize, Qui-Gon said something that sounded almost accusatory. When Rasla replied angrily in the same language, the Padawan gave up and turned her attention to the rest of the room.
It was a large, round room, larger than the Council Chamber, but not, to Siri’s eyes, as beautiful. Kanxei Threeb had disappeared through a door hidden in the wall panels, and apart from the lady now actively quarreling with Master Jinn, the room had seemed to be empty of people. However, at the far side from the door they had come in by, there was a small alcove, flanked by high bookcases reaching to the ceiling. In this alcove, a young Saalisan girl was sitting at a desk, giggling at some foreign joke with the boy standing beside her.
They looked to be about the same age, and a little older than the Padawan. The girl had pale green hair in an intricate, jeweled style, which looked odd against her red gown, but the boy’s hair was the same silvery-white as the earl’s, and both of them had dark, vivid green and violet markings on their faces, giving an unearthly, predatory appearance. How could Rasla have lived so long with these people…? Shaking her head in disbelief, sure that in the countess’s place she would have gone mad, Siri walked tentatively toward the couple, and coughed when she was only a few meters away and they still hadn’t noticed her.
The young man jumped, and spun to face her, with the same frightening smile as Kanxei. So this must be Minetz. “Why, my lady Jedi, you startled me.” He studied her face, and the smile changed, to something she didn’t understand – and didn’t like. “I was never told that there were beautiful women among the Jedi. And this is Pierdas, and I am Minetz, and I am delighted and honored to meet you.”
“Padawan Siri Tachi,” she stammered, wishing Obi-Wan were there to tell this sharp-toothed viscount to leave her alone.
Interrupting her argument for a moment, Rasla Gul, who had the same blue eyes, told him instead. “Chenadnil, lu wlen Jedi! V no’en yreltshend pensloe.”
Laughing suddenly, a childish giggle that somehow did not suit her, Pierdas translated for Siri, in her broken Basic. “She say you are Jedi, and he is bastardly womanizer. I also pleased to meet you,” she added shyly.
At that moment, Kanxei strode back into the room, followed by another man, this one dressed like a Senator. Pierdas looked quickly down at the papers on her desk, and nervously unfastened the pins holding her scarlet veil off her face.
“Chenexenu Rasla,” drawled the earl, “oh, I am sorry, not to speak in Basic. How impolite of me. Darling, Y’Khaen says I must go now if I’m to have any chance of being heard before tomorrow.”
“Kanxei,” began Rasla unhappily.
“Sweetheart, really. Even the most audacious yreltshend assassin would hardly dare try anything in the Senate Hall! I was actually worried about you and Das, but you’ll both be quite all right here.” The earl kissed his fingertips, and gently pressed them to his wife’s mouth, halting her protestations, before hastening out with the prince.
Rasla resumed her argument, but this time in Basic, so Siri understood every word. “It was hardly my fault, Master! I was three years old, dammit, and my father said, no I won’t send her, and that was that. Frankly, I think I can do more good as I am.”
“Your stepson is listening,” Qui-Gon pointed out, and then continued in the mysterious dialect.
Something was wrong, badly wrong, and Qui-Gon didn’t know it. Kriff take the Saalisan racism, Obi-Wan thought angrily, he was going to the Senate – right now. On the way to the speeder bay, he had to pass the medcenter, and unfortunately did so just as a Karori Sentinel Padawan was running out the door. Predictably, the boy cannoned right into him, and when Obi-Wan had reluctantly helped Jiron up, he grinned sheepishly.
“Can’t you look where you’re going, Jados?” Obi-Wan snapped.
Clumsily avoiding the question, Jiron asked, “Where you going?”
“To the Senate. Something’s up.”
“Can I come? The Temple’s dead kriffing boring. Master Li said I should sit in on a history class, but that was boringer than fierfek schutta yrelt at Nal H.”
Although Obi-Wan was unfamiliar with much of Jiron’s vocabulary, he easily caught the gist. “History is not boring!”
“Whatever,” shrugged the younger boy. “Can I come with you anyway?”
“No!” And Obi-Wan continued on his way, ignoring Jiron’s pout.
Most of the pages at the Senate knew him by now, so often had he been there, walking silently in Qui-Gon’s shadow, as he was sure he would do all his life. Laughing at his request, one of the blue-robed young beings led him to the Saalisan embassy anyway, pointing to the correct door before vanishing in silence. Obi-Wan took a deep breath to slow his racing heart, before pushing open the door and slipping into the room.
Qui-Gon saw him at once, and said sternly, “You had orders.”
“Master, there’s -”
He was interrupted by a woman’s laugh. “So, Master Jinn, this is Padawan Kenobi?”
Too anxious to stop and see who he was replying to, Obi-Wan said impatiently, “Yes, hello. Master, please listen to me!”
“I don’t think,” said Qui-Gon imperturbably, “that you have met Countess Rasla Gul. Countess, this is my Padawan, Obi-Wan, but he usually has better manners.”
“Aren ke’ne she’iil shay arans, Obi-Wan. I am honored to meet you.”
“Avayane! Shut up! I’m trying to talk! Master Jinn, you told me I should listen to the Force. I think something’s wrong with this mission.”
“So do I, but before you tell me what, you will kindly ask forgiveness for your appalling rudeness.”
Obi-Wan turned sullenly to Rasla and muttered an apology, before saying desperately to Qui-Gon, “Something – someone around here is just wrong. I mean… not who they seem to be. It could be her for all I know,” he added.
“Padawan Kenobi, regardless of what your parents may have told you about my clan, I am not a traitor or a spy – and I do not bite, either, by the way.” She glanced incuriously back to the door. “I thought I heard something.”
The heavy doors moved silently, and muffled any noise made beyond them – a dangerous feature, in Obi-Wan’s opinion – but the sense of wrongness increased with every tiny movement in the anteroom, until the door swung on its oiled hinges and revealed the page who had originally escorted Obi-Wan to the embassy. Now he was flanked by four much taller men, and looked oddly small and defenseless. However, any impression of vulnerability was dispelled by the blaster he swung casually from one hand.
He bowed, in the prescribed manner for pages, and said – in very much not the prescribed respectful tone – “Hi, Obi. Sorry about this, but you have to leave. Now. Rasla, Pierdas, Minetz, if you please, we have places to go.” He gestured self-consciously toward his companions. “As my friends here will tell you.”
“K’taye. Okharan na’ak,” Rasla commented matter-of-factly. Obi-Wan’s mouth twitched into a faint smile; although the lady’s accent was difficult to understand, the expletive meant the same in both dialects of Shendi. “Perhaps you could give us some slight clue as to what in the broad blue Galaxy you are talking about.”
For some in the room, the page’s reply may have been necessary, but Obi-Wan gathered all the meaning he needed from the blaster, although it still hung idle, from the tough-looking men, and Rasla’s whisper, an appeal for help meant only for him to hear, “Ame f’aye abe karium, sey – arus fa’kaye f’taye k’taye ame…” Enough meaning to let his fingers slide unobtrusively toward his lightsaber, to take a small step forward.
One of the men in the doorway scowled at him, jerking his thumb over his shoulder, as much as to say: Get out. One more tentative step forward… only a saber-length away now from the blaster rifle, the blue blade hissed out and back with a rapid turn of the switch, letting the heat of the lightsaber just near enough for just long enough to send the subtle message in reply, you are dealing with a Jedi here.
The young page seemed to be in charge, somehow, and was gazing narrowly at Obi-Wan, trying to gauge just how dangerous he might prove. Obi-Wan was determined to prove very dangerous indeed.
“You don’t need to be here, Kenobi,” the boy insisted, almost pleadingly. “You can leave. I’ll even let your friends go as well. I’m not being paid to hurt Jedi – but I will if you force me.” The blaster leveled at Obi-Wan’s head. Amused, because the kid hadn’t researched; blaster bolts were useless against lightsabers; he casually activated the blue blade, moving just as slowly as he dared, aware of Qui-Gon, in the background, getting the ladies out of the way. Oh, this was how it should be, his soul exulted. Working together, just as always, without needing to explain any plans because the other already knew.
The page’s finger tightened on the trigger of his blaster, drawing it smoothly back, squeezing, not pulling, as anybody who used firearms knew. Instantly, the lightsaber flicked sideways, aiming to deflect the bolt. But this blaster didn’t fire pulses of red-hot energy that blew burnt holes in anything. This one fired projectiles, and as the first one hissed straight into Obi-Wan’s lightsaber, it exploded, shooting tiny shards of what felt on his face like fire, but was probably only ceramic, for at least a meter all around.
Suddenly this was not funny anymore.
This was not how it should be.
There were four men, each of them at least twice his bulk, each of them with a very dangerous blaster that could injure somebody holding a lightsaber. None of them was particularly concerned with not killing him.
Obi-Wan stepped backwards quickly, taking half a second to check over his shoulder where others were. The two Saalisans and Siri had silently vanished through a door behind one of the bookcases, leaving it only very slightly ajar.
The over-familiar soft bew-bew of a regular blaster shocked him for a second, mostly because it came from behind him. Oh, Force, were there more? But the blackened hole of the blaster bolt had appeared in the belly of one of the thugs, causing him to drop his own gun in agony. Turning again, cursing the distraction, Obi-Wan saw with an inexplicable annoyance that Rasla Gul had fired the shot, and was now carefully taking aim again, a faint smile playing over her lips. Apparently, the page’s mysterious employer’s command to kidnap the lady protected her nearly as well as Force-deflecting the bullets would have.
However ridiculous a noblewoman using a blaster may have seemed – very, at least to Obi-Wan – there was no denying her aim was between good and excellent. But orders not to kill were no proof against injury, as the blue-clad page carelessly proved with one ceramic round. Rasla jerked slightly as the shot crashed into her silk-clad arm, but tightened her lips and did not scream aloud.
Obi-Wan did not have time to check if the lady was badly hurt, as there odds were still four to two: dangerous, even though the two were Jedi. Qui-Gon’s green lightsaber swirled reassuringly in his peripheral vision, and the older Jedi seemed able to ignore the stinging shards ricocheting from his blade.
The Force hissed a warning nearly too late for Obi-Wan to duck, but not quite. Examining the missile that had come within an inch of removing his head, as it lay, harmless now, on the stone floor, he saw that a fine steel wire joined two small lead weights, and shuddered to think what a mess that would have made – besides killing him outright, of course.
“You did say I needed a haircut, Master,” he called cheerfully, before whirling back to slash a blaster out of the hand of one more ‘hired gun’.
Three to go… no, Qui-Gon had taken down two of those. Only one: his former friend, the young page, who smiled sadly, and then flung himself straight onto the gleaming blue lightsaber. Obi-Wan gasped, and deactivated the blade. Only then did he think of the lady lying hurt by the wall, but saw Qui-Gon already kneeling solicitously beside her.
And so Obi-Wan ventured into the room beyond the bookcase door, in search of Siri. She was greatly concerned at the blood on his face, and after he assured her it was really not important, they went together back into the round main chamber.
Almost as worried as Obi-Wan had ever seen him, Qui-Gon was talking quietly to Rasla, whose gentle smile and laughing eyes only just hid her pain. “Master Jinn, you are… too kind. Really, I hardly feel it.”
“Milady, the bone is shattered. If it truly does not hurt, that is more a cause for alarm than otherwise.”
“Very well,” she conceded, “it hurts extremely. But please do not concern yourself. While I admit I would be more inclined to listen to you had you… cared at all… thirty years ago… never mind. I shall be quite all right. Will you do me a great favor, Master Jinn?” Rasla added in a changed voice. “On the day your Padawan becomes a Knight, will you tell him… the whole story? I would not have him think harshly of me.”
At that moment, before Qui-Gon could either promise or refuse, the doors slammed open, and Kanxei Threeb stormed into the room, followed by an anxious Prince Y’Khaen. “What has happened here?” he demanded. “I hear word of blasterfire and plotting, and I see my wife wounded… and a Shendi boy standing beside her! Good gods. Master Jinn?”
“A plan to kidnap Countess Gul and your son, Earl Threeb. All is now well.”
“All is not well,” Kanxei declared sharply. “Get out. I sent for you, and now I say: go.”
“Rasla is badly hurt, my lord, she…”
“Will be much better directly you and your young barbarian have left,” Kanxei rudely interrupted the Jedi Master.
Rasla whispered, “Please, Qui-Gon, stay…”
“‘Qui-Gon’?” the Earl snapped, incredulous disgust tingeing his voice. “Master Jedi, that will do. Go away. Now.”
“Milady,” Obi-Wan said doubtfully, trying to help, “What would you prefer?”
“I, Padawan Kenobi, must bow to my husband’s wishes. As, on this occasion, must you. Farewell. And… thank you. Very much.”
On the way out of the Senate buildings, another page caught up to the three Jedi. Obi-Wan’s hand dropped automatically to his lightsaber, but this child was only delivering a message: “Countess Gul bids Master Jinn remember his promise… this time.”
“I think,” Qui-Gon replied, “I am hardly likely to forget… this time.”