On Loan

The story you are about to read is the result of a comment Erin made in passing, a Scarlet Pimpernel story, and a night of insomnia induced by gorgeous wonderful French coffee. I don’t think it is quite what Erin was expecting… although she’s known me long enough to know better than to expect pretty-pretty stuff.
Another story written around Nord-Pas-de-Calais. I count two settings I’ve knowingly lifted from real life.
You will get more out of this story if you realize that Foz speaks with a strong Australian accent.

Prologue

Kijé Yenseh, on account of being lame, had been withdrawn from the list of Jedi available for missions. Permanently. At the age of seventeen. While this would rankle with most Padawans, Kijé had resolutely banished the bitterness that had threatened to overwhelm him during the first few weeks after his injury, and set about finding himself a niche in the Temple, something he could do to be useful to those still on the mission lists.

He found the Archives. Madame Nu was getting along in years, and although she would never admit it, she found it useful to have a well-mannered teenager around to help out. Before long, most of the Jedi in the Temple knew that the best person to ask about the location or characteristics of a thing was the serious boy in the Archives, the one with the candid glass-green eyes and shoulder-long hair tied back and polite but blunt honesty. If he didn’t know the answer straight off, he always knew where to find it, and as a result, anyone looking for anyone, when faced with three or four equally likely places to look, started in the Archives.

And so it was that Obi-Wan Kenobi appeared in the Archives one morning after an early meeting of the Council.

“Hello, Kijé. How are you?”

“The better for your having taken an interest, thank you, Master Kenobi. What can I do for you this morning?” Kijé rather liked Obi-Wan. Partly this was because it was sensible to like the Masters of one’s friends, partly because it was sensible to like Masters on the Council who could make one’s life unpleasant if they chose, but mostly because Obi-Wan was genuinely likeable. He was also the only Master in the Temple – Madame Nu did not count – who called Kijé by his first name, rather than You There or Yenseh or Droid (which moniker should have been restricted to use by Kijé’s specific friends) and did not despise him for being lame and working in the Archives.

“I don’t suppose you know where Nasriel might be?”

Kijé considered. “Gree and Foreyata got in from Sector U-5 about midnight. She’ll be visiting with them, I expect. Ninth Lower level, South wing, seventeenth door on the left as you come from the lift-tubes.”

On Loan

On the lift-tube controls, Ninth Lower was subtitled Sentinel Quarters, which told Obi-Wan almost all he needed to know about the mysterious Foreyata and Gree. He hadn’t known that the quarters for transient Sentinels were in the Temple basement levels, though. Nasriel probably had. As he rounded the corner from East to South wings, a sleepy-looking young Barabel who had been slouched indolently in the angle of the walls stretched himself, and jerked his head in a form of summons.

“Master Kenobi,” he remarked without preamble, in the sibilant reptilian tones of his species. “You are expected.” Not another word did the Barabel offer until, whisking open one of the dozens of doors along the South corridor, he announced sharply, “Kenobi.”

The seventeenth room on the left resembled nothing so much as a rather well-kept barrack-room. Along the entire far wall, two pairs of bunks were tightly jammed, mattresses stripped back and blankets folded military-style. Four packs hung from hooks on the left wall, all neatly strapped up and obviously ready to go on a moment’s notice. In the center of the bare permacrete floor, a much battered and stained deal table stood, surrounded by four equally battered three-legged stools. The taciturn Barabel scowled and slouched across the room to fling himself onto one of the lower bunks, rolling over to face the wall.

“Ignore Wawa, mate, he’s a bit down. Gree’d heard about ‘Roni copping it and forgot to tell him.” Blowing a wisp of dark hair out of his eyes, the speaker, a Kiffar man in his mid-twenties, scooted his stool backwards far enough to lean his back against the wall.

Also around the table were a golden-furred H’Vong girl, with a lopsided shy smile, who scrambled hastily out of her seat and folded herself cross-legged on the floor beside the Kiffar; a hard-eyed Rattatakian woman; and, predictably, Nasriel. Righting the stool the other girl had overturned in her hurry, she grinned at Obi-Wan.

“Let me guess, Master. Kijé told you where to come?”

“Quite.”

“Okay.” Abruptly, the Rattatakian raised her slick head and spoke in a businesslike tone. “We all know who you are, so I’ll level the field. I’m Gree Yarzakawula. Halwaro Calaver, my former Padawan, on the bunk there. The piratical one is Foreyata Ferens, the kid’s his Padawan Corioli Rhindon, and sit down, man, I’m not one half so old or so fierce as I look.”

Indeed, Gree’s bare scalp – natural for a Rattatakian – and the tired set of her mouth and the tired lines around her eyes made her look at absolute least fifty-five to human ideas, but the identity disc she tossed onto the table declared her only twenty-seven.

“Let a bloke talk over here, Gree,” Foreyata cut in. Younger-looking and easier-smiling than Gree, he was nonetheless haggard and unshaven, and his eyes were gray with weariness. “Look, Kenobles, I’ll keep it short. We need to borrow the Witch – and Junior if that’s sweet with you.”

In reply to Obi-Wan’s questioning glance, from the lower bunk where the Master had not seen him at first, Ben flapped one hand in desultory greeting and turned back to the Dathomirian art novel he was reading.

“Yeah, him,” continued the Kiffar. “We’ve got a stunt cooking out of Ryloth, and the Witch knows the ropes, and Junior would come in pretty handy. Wawa’s too old now to play, and I’ll be damned to the nine-Sith-hells if I toss Corri into a mess like that.”

“Like what?” Obi-Wan asked, thoroughly bewildered.

“Ring-busting,” explained Corioli, her eyes glowing with enthusiasm. “We pulled in to Coruscant to pick up the Witch. She’s just absolutely ace-of-spades when it comes to baiting. I mean, the Iizu stunt? Everybody knows about that. Pure genius.”

Obi-Wan finally took Gree’s curt offer and sat down. “I have no idea what anybody is talking about,” he protested.

“All right.” Gree sighed. “One of the most inhumane practices current in the Galaxy is that of kidnapping children – runaways, orphans, war refugees – ill treating, sometimes even brainwashing them, to make them docile, and selling them off as slaves. We’re after a crowd now who specialize in young, pretty children sold into port cities. What happens to the kids you don’t want to know. The best method the Sentinels have found of clearing these creeps legally is to find out exactly who they pick up, and send in someone who fits the description. The bait carries a signal comm and calls backup as soon as they have the evidence to stand in court with. We pull them out, make the arrests, and hand over to local enforcement.”

“I see. Why Nasriel and Ben?”

“Nasriel’s young and pretty, she’s done this before, and she’s spitfire enough that they’ll keep her for a while before trying to sell her, to dampen those high spirits. Also she’s tough enough to survive the experience. Ben’s young, pretty for a boy, and we know they pick those up, but don’t sell them as often. Foz’s surmise is that there are fewer purchasers for boys. So both kids would make it in and have a chance to look around before it got too risky to leave them. Trying to pull a kid out who’s been sold on – man, what a headache. Last time I remember it happening it took three months. I was involved, I know the rules of the game.”

“You’ve planned this,” Obi-Wan accused.

Foreyata chuckled. “No way, Kenobles. We knew we needed her, but he’s an afterthought. Not knockin’ ya, kid, you’ll sure as tauntauns stink make the job easier. I’ll thank ya to close my book, but. There’re things y’don’t need to be reading.”

“I think I’ve read them,” Ben grinned back. In the harsh gray light of the meager quarters, his hair shone a dull flat gold, the hollows of his face were overlaid with thin, insubstantial shadows, and he looked far more like one of these rakish Sentinels than like his usual respectable Kenobi self. “C’mon, Master, say I can go. Gree won’t take me if you don’t let me.”

“We’ll take the Witch regardless,” Gree interposed. “She’s with us, she’s Our Witch. Once, always, ever a Sentinel. Whatever the Temple may say about it.”

Nasriel stood up so abruptly her stool fell over with a clatter. Leaning over the table with both hands splayed flat on the tabletop, she said, every word separate and clear, “You might take me, but I wouldn’t go. He’s my Master now. You want me, you ask him. Jiron’s dead. Any of you might have taken me on – Shacola, even you, Gree – but you didn’t. Kenobi did. Guess what I am now?”

“You’re no Templar, girl,” snapped Foreyata, “You weren’t born to it. How about it, Kenobles? Loan approved?”

“I’ll want to know a good deal more about this mission before I let you borrow anyone. What’s the plan? Where is this? What’s the contingency plan?”

“Up until know we’ve been gathering information,” Foreyata said, mollified somewhat. “I’ve talked to these jokers’ pilot, to people whose kids have been taken, even one of the kidnappers. We tracked down a kid who was sold out of this outfit and Corri got enough gen out of her to work up a plan. But we need the Witch.”

“If you can convince me this will work,” said Obi-Wan reasonably, “you can have her.”

“How am I going in?” Nasriel asked.

“Runaway aristo,” replied Gree at once. “Covers your manners, your reason for being in the region, and the temper you’ll have to have. Clothes for that Wawa picked up from Tara at Malastare.”

“Accent?” With a start, Obi-Wan noticed the subtle change in Nasriel. This was her world, where she had once belonged, and she truly had done this before, enough that adopting a dangerous role became a simple matter of running down a list of checkboxes.

Foreyata shrugged. “Copy the high-flyingest accent in the Temple. It doesn’t matter so long as it’s pretty.”

“I think I can manage that,” replied Nasriel solemnly, in a passable imitation of Obi-Wan. “All right?” she added in her own voice.

“Yeah, good-oh.” Attempting without success to smother a wry grin, Foreyata continued, “We’ll get a sked bus in – sorry, Kenobles, forgot who I was talking to, scheduled shuttle – on the same bus but not together, so we don’t blow the game from the word go, leave the kids in town, wait to see they do get lifted, and split out for Mereaux to hole up and wait. Get the signal after a week or so, pick them up, you go home, we go on. Done it a dozen times.”

Ben had shoved the book under the pile of blankets of the bunk, and perched, upright now, on the edge of the mattress. Although he was pale and nervous, a faint smile of anticipation hovered on his lips.

Quietly, he asked of the room in general, “How do I go?”

Rolling back to face into the room, the sulky Barabel, Halwaro, said as crisply as it is possible for a reptilian to speak, “Near the Witch but not with. They’ll be sure to separate you if you’re together. Middle-class clothes – I can get them here, I guess.”

“So.” Gree smiled suddenly, which had the near-magical effect of smoothing the hard lines from her face and whisking all the additional years from her appearance. Smiling, Gree Yarzakawula was not only young, but almost pretty. “What do you say, Kenobi? May we borrow your Padawans for a week or so?”

“One condition.”

“Name it.”

“I come with you: I’m there when we leave them, and when we find them again.”

“I can see why you’d want to,” Gree said simply. “Foz?”

Foreyata nodded. “Mereaux won’t mind. Sure.” Glancing at his chrono, he added, “Pack what you’ll need. It’ll take a good two hours to prep the kids, so you’ve got time. Meet us at the hangars by noon, ready to leave.”

It wasn’t the shortest notice he’d ever had for a mission, but it was close. Two hours would be enough to file an explanation of absence and arrange for the amiable Telcontir Leannen to take custody of Blaze and see to the txakurra’s wellbeing for a week. Or so, Gree had carelessly said. A week or so. And Sentinel ideas of time measured in any unit larger than a day tended to be fluid at best.

At the hangars, Nasriel and Ben had undergone a magical transformation, and now Ben cut a figure nobody would look twice at, in a bright blue shirt and black denim pants, but Nasriel in an expensive poison-green skirt and black velvet jacket, with her hair tangled and light shoes and face dirty, looked less respectable. Gree had evidently been talking to Foxtan Dubh, for the Nautolan Knight had met them at the airspeeder bay of the hangars with a glowing smile and a people-moving vehicle. Two blocks from the spaceport downtown, Foxtan slammed on the brakes and pulled up by the sidewalk.

“Witch, Ben, out. Safer if you walk from here.” The two Padawans scrambled out onto the pavement, and Foxtan pulled away back into the traffic. Twisting in his seat to look out the rear window, Obi-Wan saw Ben raise one hand to wave, and Nasriel slap his hand down and explain, in vivid language to judge from her expression, exactly why Ben must not acknowledge any of the other Jedi – or herself for that matter! – and flounce off down the street, head held high and skirt-hem flicking at every step.

She looked scared when Obi-Wan saw her next, sitting alone in the next compartment over on the shuttle. Ben was two rows behind her, doodling on the back of his flimsi ticket. For a few minutes, Obi-Wan watched them abstractedly, until Corioli, sitting across from him, tugged at his sleeve.

“Kenobles? Gree said to tell you not even to look. It’s safer. You could talk to me instead?” she offered, without much hope.

“About what?” While there were few things he would less rather do than converse with a talkative nine-year-old, it would pass the time, Obi-Wan reflected. And if there was any justice in the Galaxy, the feline Sentinel would have some topic she was passionate about, and would talk without expecting much in the way of reply. However, Corioli surprised him.

“About Teth, please.” By now he should have been beyond being astonished so easily by children, but children followed no logical patterns anyway.

“The battle? There are things not meant for childrens’ ears.”

“Not the battle!” cried the girl impatiently. “History. It’s fascinating. Why, what about Tirenar the Slayer razed the capital to the ground to foil his pursuers?”

“When who?” demanded Obi-Wan. “That was Pethegir the Fourth.” He knew the topic, and if it had not been for the circumstances, would have enjoyed discussing history and correcting a few minor errors Corioli held – although they were mostly glaringly obvious, so much so that even a casual reader of a volume of Teth history should have spotted them. On a few occasions over the course of the journey, the girl’s interest seemed to flag, but when he suggested breaking off the conversation, she glanced up at Foreyata, and instantly asked a question so thoroughly well-reasoned it would be worth answering even if she had been sleepy, which anyway she denied being.

When the shuttle landed at Ryloth, Halwaro snatched up his pack, swung Corioli up and onto his shoulders, and loped off, according to the Padawan’s delighted yell back to Foreyata to check the time of the connecting shuttle they meant to catch. Foreyata himself vanished shortly afterwards, muttering in an ironical tone that he had to go and see a man about an akk. Gree and Obi-Wan took the steps to the mezzanine level.

From there, the whole main terminal of the spaceport appeared laid out like a map. Beings bustled about. Herded into queues by rope barriers, people entering the planet inched wearily toward the border-security desks. Every so often, whenever another ship landed, the slow trickle of life towards the queues surged quicker for a few minutes, and then the crowds dispersed again. Gree nudged Obi-Wan.

“Look.”

They must have slipped through in one of the crowds, for he had not seen them cross the terminal, but Nasriel and Ben had joined the long lines already. At the far end of the terminal, Ben’s blue shirt showed bright in the crowd, and a momentary flicker of vivid green betrayed Nasriel’s presence almost immediately below the mezzanine. Halwaro and Corioli clattered up the stairs, Halwaro bubbling with subdued excitement and Corioli complacently running her pink tongue around an already somewhat depleted ice-cream.

“Shuttle goes in half an hour,” Halwaro reported. “And we think we’ve spotted them. Down in the cantina beyond the desks, see? Two sitting at a table, one Twi’, one Human smoking a herbal.”

Glancing over the railing, Gree nodded. “That’ll be them. Wawa, Corri, eyes on. Kenobles, watch Ben.”

Despite the length of the immigration queues, they moved swiftly, and Ben’s blue shirt and auburn hair soon became visible on the far side of the desks. The Human smoking below tossed away his cigarette and wandered idly out of the spaceport. Obi-Wan saw him tap Ben on the shoulder, and Ben turn to face him, before they both disappeared around the corner of a pillar. Although the Twi’lek following Nasriel was less overt, he was nonetheless obviously tracking her – obvious to Gree’s expert eye, at least – before she too vanished from sight.

“Right. That’s us done, then.” Foreyata had come up to the mezzanine without being noticed, and studied the terminal with a satisfied air. “Time to clear out. We’ll be late at Mereaux as it is.”

“Where is Mereaux?” Obi-Wan asked quietly.

“Mate, it’s safer for you, us, and Mereaux if you don’t know.” The dock of the shuttle they took was not marked with a name, and Obi-Wan did not bother asking again.

Corioli slipped her soft, long-fingered paw into Obi-Wan’s hand as they hurried to the shuttle, and insisted on sitting next to him during the voyage. Fortunately, this time she fell asleep after a few minutes. Unfortunately, when they arrived, late at night, in their destination port, Corioli did not wake up again. Halwaro rather pointedly scooped up Obi-Wan’s pack with his own, resulting in the Templar Master carrying the Sentinel Padawan into a strange spaceport. Here Gree hired a small private ship and they set off again – to Mereaux.

Until the end of his life, Obi-Wan was never sure whether Mereaux was the name of the long, low yellow house they found at the end of a winding country road through fields and woods, or the name of the smiling white-haired man who met them at the door, handed Foreyata a heavy iron key, bowed, and walked away down the road as swiftly as his stout frame allowed. The house, whatever it was called, consisted of one large, whitewashed room below, with a fireplace, settles, and bookcases at one end, and a basic kitchen setup at the other. Doors in the long wall farthest from the entrance opened into a tiny refresher room, a narrow, four-bed dormitory room, and a second bedroom, hardly smaller than a Temple room, with one bed. It was into this last that Halwaro tossed Obi-Wan’s pack.

“You’re the guest here; we’re home. You get the good room,” he explained matter-of-factly.

The week that followed was one of the quietest any Jedi ever experienced. Sleeping as late as he liked and doing whatever he cared to, Obi-Wan finally relaxed. The war felt a million lightyears away from that peaceful house in the middle of nowhere. Late one night, sitting up together watching the flames dance in the hearth, Foreyata explained the phenomenon.

“It’s all we got, mate. You Templar jokers go home to your quiet halls and the Thousand Fountains – we just don’t have time to go all that way to get a break, ‘specially since the war. Look, before Geonosis, what sort of missions did you run?”

“A little reconnaissance. Diplomacy. Conflict resolution, irritating crime rings, a few hostage rescues. Security for politicians. Why?”

“Right. We were doing heavy recon, watching and reporting to the Temple for you guys to act. Now we do that and your job, so life’s busy. The other night was the first time in a year I’ve been in the Core, let alone the Temple. Out here – this is all the break we get. Look, in the morning, ask Corri to go for a walk with you. She’ll love it, and you… might learn something.”

Therefore, in the morning, Obi-Wan duly waited in the kitchen, getting in Gree’s way, until Corioli appeared from the larger bedroom, still yawning and pajama-clad, and grumbling as only a feline in a bad mood can. This view of life dissipated like magic, around one-eighth of a second after Obi-Wan made his suggestion of a walk, and the H’Vong Padawan flung her arms around him in a delighted hug – which even Anakin had known better than to do after their second day together – and bounced back into the bedroom to dress before he had time to object to the unseemly display of affection. Gree smirked.

Corioli reappeared, fully if strangely dressed in clothes similar to those Halwaro had found for Ben. Shoving a comlink into her pocket, she headed for the door, turning impatiently back on the threshold.

“Kenobles? Are you coming – or what?”

“I’m coming,” he assured her, and they set off, through the gate at the bottom of the road and along a narrow dirt path overshadowed on each side by willow trees, like a tunnel. The way branched and twisted, and passed through stands of various trees and through fields of wheat, but Corioli knew the way as well as any Templar Padawan knew the paths in the Room of a Thousand Fountains. At last she halted, at the edge of a thick stand of willows. From somewhere nearby came the sound of rushing water.

“Can you be very very quiet?” demanded Corioli.

“Yes, I think so,” Obi-Wan replied seriously.

Satisfied, she led the way through the trees, to a place where a thick branch hung out right across the swift, narrow little stream that ran among the trees between steep banks. Walking confidently out along the branch, Corioli sat down on it, leaving her legs to dangle over the water, and beckoned Obi-Wan out to join her. Once ensconced in moderate comfort on the branch, they were, as Corioli insisted, very very quiet, and every time her companion made to speak, she shushed him with an exaggerated frown and a finger held to her lips.

At last Obi-Wan saw the point of the silence, as a pair of brilliantly-plumaged birds, disturbed by their coming, ventured back from the trees to dart about above the surface of the stream, the dappled sunlight glowing on the iridescent feathers. One of the birds lighted on the branch beside Corioli, and as she did not move or bother it, remained there for a while, cocking its head inquisitively this way and that and whistling like an astromech.

Eventually the bird fluttered off again, and Corioli whispered, “There. Isn’t that nicer than any old Thousand Fountains?” Although she tried to sound tough and contemptuous, she only succeeded in betraying the wistfulness of a child for something she has never known.

“It’s different,” Obi-Wan hedged. “But lovely.” At his words, the bright creatures dancing in the air took fright and vanished again into the trees.

“Foz got me from one of the Rim outposts,” confided the Padawan. “I’ve never seen the upstairs of the Temple. Foz says it’s very quiet and huge in the halls there, and there are statues in the courtyards. And all the walls are soft, gentle colors, and the floors in the halls have mosaics in them.”

Obi-Wan held his peace – Corioli wasn’t talking to him so much as remembering aloud. The tranquility of the place, with the laughing murmur of water between stones and trees, and the rustle of leaves, and the H’Vong girl’s quiet voice, all wove together to gently sever the bond with reality and float him into a sort of waking dream.

Abruptly the spell was broken by the harsh buzz of Corioli’s comlink. With a snarl, she snatched it up from her pocket.

“Well, what already?… Uh-huh… Where? You’re joking… Couple klicks… I’ll ask.” Holding the comm a little further from her mouth, she said sharply to Obi-Wan, “How hard is it to scare Ben? Really freak him out.”

“Hard.”

Corioli repeated this into the comlink, then nodded. “Okay, Gree, coming.” When she had snapped the comm shut, she explained briefly, “That’s our call. Let’s go.”

Back at the house, all was chaotic rush, with packs being strapped, boots pulled on, and odd lost belongings located. Halwaro met the wanderers at the door.

“I’ve packed your stuff already. Hope you don’t mind, Kenobles, but when there’s a call out it’s speed that matters. Your pack’s over there, get it, the bloke’s here.”

The bloke who had let them into the house in the first place returned in the company of a landspeeder, received the housekey back from Foreyata, and stood solemnly in the gravel courtyard before the house as the Jedi tossed packs and selves into the vehicle and prepared to leave. Evidently this was a regular routine for the Sentinels, who worked with fluid efficiency. Foreyata drove, with a recklessness Anakin would have appreciated, yet with perfect control.

“What’s the call, Gree?” Corioli shouted over the roar of the engine. Catching the comlink Gree tossed her, she read the message on the screen, and in turn passed it forward to Obi-Wan in the front passenger seat.

“Ben’s comm can send a hundred-character message and the coordinates for his location,” she yelled. “This is it.”

The characters on the glowing screen shimmered slowly into legible – and worrying – words: Come now. Just told will be at sale location tomorrow. Think N badly hurt think heard her screaming.

Obi-Wan silently handed back the comlink. Two words rolled around in his mind. Ben, Nasriel, Ben, Nasriel. Ben. So many times he had let Anakin court danger, with disastrous results. So many times he had cursed his permissiveness, in hindsight. Why had he let himself be swayed now? For now it seemed others must suffer from the fatal combination of Padawan rashness and a Master who couldn’t be bothered to stop them.

Corioli’s soft paw rested for an instant on his shoulder. Don’t worry, she comforted clumsily through the Force, we’ll find them. More amused in spite of his fears than reassured, Obi-Wan turned to ask Gree a vital question.

“What if it’s too late? What then?”

“Then,” Gree responded tightly, “we will carry on, tracking the kids until we find them and either buy or steal them back. Meanwhile you will return to the Temple, get on with the war, and write to your brother to explain that you have no idea where his son is but that you rather hope for Ben’s sake that he is dead. It’s fortunate Nasriel has nobody outside the Order to bother about her. Does that answer your question?”

The flight to the coordinates Ben’s comm had provided was wretched, that was the only word for it. Foreyata, Gree, and Halwaro were all kept busy piloting, readying gear, and planning in whispered conversations dotted with unfamiliar slang terms. Corioli had been summarily banished to the rear cabin with Obi-Wan, and Foreyata had snapped as a parting shot, “Now for Force sake stay out the way, the pair of you.”

Worried, and unable to do anything about the situation, Obi-Wan closed his eyes and tried to meditate. However, the attempt was doomed to failure from the start. Vague, half-formed ideas of what Ben could have meant by badly hurt, less vague terror for Ben himself, and an endless patter of silly distractions flicked across his mind, thrusting themselves insistently between him and any chance of focusing. Besides which, he had never really been able to concentrate in hyperspace: one last frustrating relic of a simpler time when every second was not vital.

And then again, even if it hadn’t been for the worry and the innate inability to focus anyway, Corioli was a worse fidgeter than even the most restless Padawan in the Temple – now why did his thoughts keep straying back to Anakin, of all people?

“Will you kindly sit still?” he snapped abruptly. With an offended sniff, Corioli got up and padded out of the cabin, leaving Obi-Wan in peaceful solitude. It didn’t last long. Within two minutes, Foreyata appeared, half-carrying his Padawan by the scruff of the neck, and flung her without ceremony back onto the bench seat.

“I told you to siddown and shuddup, you crazy rugrat!” he shouted. “Dear Force, why you cannot follow a simple order I dunno. Kenobles, y’could, at least, have told her it takes one truly thick galah to go prancing around a ship when guys are working.”

“You don’t give a flying kriff about me,” Corioli stormed. “You’d all be happier if I was dead, you would, I swear.”

“Now you really are talking like a moron. Sit down, shut up, don’t bug me anymore. Talk your rubbish to Kenobles unless he’s got the sense to tell you the same.”

“You all wish I was dead,” the Padawan insisted, almost weeping.

“Say that once more,” Obi-Wan agreed tartly, stretched to the limits of his patience, “and I will both wish it and do something about it.” That, of course, did nothing but exacerbate the tears.

Gree yelled from the cockpit, “Will you clowns keep it down in there? We’re here. I’m trying to land.” With significant finesse, Gree set the ship down on a high red rock mesa in the middle of a bleak landscape on a planet nobody ever told Obi-Wan the name of. Coming into the cabin after landing, she contrived to be diplomatic.

“Kenobi, I don’t mean to sideline you, but… well, we need someone to stay with the ship, ’cause if nobody does stay then we’ll almost certainly need to get off in a hurry, that’s Murphy’s Law for you, and you’re the only one who doesn’t know the layout of this place in your sleep. Do you mind? I mean, if it’s really important to you I can leave Wawa behind instead…”

“I don’t mind at all,” he hastened to assure her. “I’ll stay.”

And so for two miserable hours, after the Sentinels had slipped away down a rocky path around the side of the huge mesa to the ugly blocky buildings on the far side, Obi-Wan paced restlessly about, quelling one disquieting surmise after another – and each was worse than the last. He was faintly aware of Corioli sulking aboard, but she refused to appear – more so after an icy rain began to fall, soaking everything out in the open, with a kind of impersonal, impartial sadism.

At long last, there came a low, cautious whistle, barely audible through the rain, and Obi-Wan turned his steps toward the head of the treacherous narrow path that snaked upward along the cliff. Halwaro, gleaming wet, ascended with sure tread to the flat clifftop, carrying Nasriel, unconscious and clad in his tunic, slung with great practicality but little dignity over his muscular shoulder. Passing Obi-Wan, he stumped steadily up the boarding ramp of the little ship, but paused for an instant to call back in a low voice.

“Foz and Gree and Ben are still coming.”

“Foz cometh!” Corioli repeated the proclamation in tones between solemnity and jubilation, and came skittering outside to see. She came within a little less than a foot of tumbling over the edge, but steadied herself after teetering for a precarious second or so.

Indeed, Foreyata soldiered up the track, dark hair plastered to his scalp but white teeth showing in a silent laugh. Leaning on the Kiffar, with one arm flung across his shoulders for support, Ben staggered gamely on, and though he was exhausted and pale, managed a faint smile on seeing Obi-Wan.

“Junior’s all right!” Corioli cheered, springing lightly up and down on the balls of her feet.”

“Yeah, sorta,” Foreyata called back soberly. “Kenobles, you’ve seen the Witch?” Obi-Wan nodded.

Detaching himself from Foreyata, Ben insisted on crossing the flat rock to the ship unaided. By  now Corioli’s delicate undulation had turned in impatience to hopping from one foot to the other in a vain attempt to contain her excitement.

“Oh, come on, Foz, don’t walk so slow!” she grumbled. But on the next little jump, she missed her footing. A stone clicked out from under her shoe, and she fell headlong over the brink of the cliff.

For an instant there was profound silence, and even the rain seemed to pause half-fallen. Then Foreyata dived toward the edge. Obi-Wan caught him by the collar, and spun the Sentinel roughly about to face him. The man’s face was perfectly white.

“Don’t be a fool,” Obi-Wan rapped, a harsh edge to his voice. “Killing yourself won’t help her. Come on if you’re coming.” Releasing Foreyata, he turned without another word and started down the steep path. They met Gree halfway.

“Corioli fell,” Obi-Wan explained shortly, and the woman nodded in comprehension.

“I’ll see to Ben and the Witch.” No reply seemed necessary to that.

Corioli lay in a crumpled and sodden heap among the rocks, her green cat’s eyes wide open and gazing sightlessly up into the dark wet sky. Foreyata knelt beside his Padawan’s body.

“She must have died as soon as she hit the ground,” Obi-Wan observed. He knew it was a lie. The unmistakable wrench of death had jarred the Force not at the muffled thump of body hitting stone, but when they had almost reached the foot of the slanting path and were doubling back around the mesa. Trembling in every limb, Foreyata gently stretched out his hand to close Corioli’s eyes.

“Yeah, I’m not a fool, Kenobles. But thanks for trying.” He picked up the light corpse in his arms, and without another word trudged back up the cliff to the ship. Obi-Wan followed at a discreet distance, not knowing what to say. The bitter irony of the situation shamed him into silence: Foreyata had gone to rescue Ben and Nasriel, and brought them back safe and alive. On the other side of the dull base coin of fate, he had been trusted with Corioli, and she had fallen to her death only a meter away from him. One one-thousandth of a kilometer. A single pace.

They got on board without mishap and found Gree anxiously glancing at her chrono.

The instant the boarding ramp was closed, she called sharply into the cockpit, “Haul jets, Wawa!” Her hard eyes softened looking at Foreyata, who was so bleak and wretched a bounty hunter would have pitied him. “Hard lines, Foz. I’m sorry.”

“I’ll put her in the hold,” he replied indirectly, and walked aft to the hold hatch. Only when he was out of sight did he weep; deep, rasping sobs that tore the air. Gree closed the hatch.

“Now for yours. Ben’s asleep on a seat in the cockpit. There’s nothing the matter with him that food and sleep won’t cure. Nasriel… come see for yourself.”

Apparently sleeping, Nasriel lay facedown on the narrow bunk set in the wall of the aft cabin, covered by a sheet, her head turned on the flat pillow to face out into the room. A bruise darkened on her temple, and her lips were stained, possibly with blood, but she seemed all right, on the whole.

When Obi-Wan said this, Gree smiled grimly and flicked back the sheet. The entire back of Nasriel’s thin body, from shoulders to knees, looked as if it had been flayed. She had her underwear on, for decency’s sake, but the still-tacky violet blood seeped through the white cloth.

“And that,” said Gree sharply, “is why you stayed here. Your Witch stripped and bloody, lying in a filthy cell weeping with pain, was not something you needed to see. I kept you out of the way to spare her feelings. Yours are of little concern to me. But I thought you should see what those… animals are capable of before I told you what we did with them.”

“I hope you killed them,” Obi-Wan said without thinking.

Harshly, Gree snapped back, “No. We may not be as polite as the Temple Knights, but we’re not savages. We kill because there’s no other way. Not for fun. Not for revenge. What do you take us for?” Anger evaporating as fast as it had flooded over her, she sighed, and slumped to the floor, hiding her face in her hands. Obi-Wan drew the sheet back over Nasriel, and crouched awkwardly on the floor beside Gree.

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. I didn’t mean it.”

“It’s not you, Kenobles,” she replied, muffled. “You just walked into the firing line. Sometimes I feel so helpless. I mean, look at Nasriel. All I can do for her is give her a knockout drug so she doesn’t feel it. The rest is up to the Temple medics.”

“How far is that, anyway?”

“Half an hour,” replied the Sentinel bitterly. “They do this to kids in the Core, Kenobles. Not even as far out as the Mid-Rim. And nobody cares.”

Epilogue

Kijé Yenseh had filed many a peculiar mission report in his years in the Archives, but the one Foreyata Ferens came down to dictate to him was the strangest in quite a while. After logging in the report, Kijé felt it tactful – no, more than tactful, necessary, to go and verify a few of the Sentinel’s details by checking them with someone else who had been there.

For example, Foreyata had said vaguely that the slavers had badly damaged Padawan Threeb. Now, that could mean anything, so Kijé hurried off to the medcenter to find out, purely in the interests of the Archives’ accuracy, of course. To his surprise, the Sentinel arrived in the sterile white domain of the Healers before him, and Kijé waited in the corridor until Foreyata finished his conversation with Obi-Wan. It would be very rude for a mere Padawan to interrupt.

“She’s all right?” Foreyata asked brusquely. He must have been planning to leave the Temple, for he had tossed his pack down in the corridor to collect later.

“Vokara says she will be,” Obi-Wan replied. He sounded unhappy. “Right now though, she’s in a bacta tank. Poor Nasriel.”

“And Junior?” Whoever was Junior, wondered Kijé.

“Ben’s fine. Home in quarters already with the avowed intention of sleeping for a week.”

“Right.” Foreyata chuckled, and then said quietly, “You look after those kids, Kenobles. You lose a kid, all you can think of is what you should have done differently. It’s hell.”

“I will.”

“Good-oh. Right, I just came to ask about the kids, then I’m off. There’s a whole Galaxy out there.” When Obi-Wan did not reply, Kijé grinned, imagining the look he was giving Foreyata. The Sentinel continued, on the defensive, “What? Oh, why don’t I stay ’till after Corri’s funeral? Is that it? ‘Cause I can’t face it, mate. I’m gone. Guess… I’ll see ya when I see ya. Oh, and tell the Witch cheer-oh from me when she gets clear.”

“I’ll tell her. And Foreyata? May the Force be with you.”

“Yeah, same to you, Kenobles. Bye.” Foreyata came suddenly into the corridor, swung his loaded pack onto his shoulders, and strode off in the direction of the hangars.

The End

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About coruscantbookshelf

"A writer is an introvert: someone who wants to tell you a story but doesn't want to have to make eye contact while doing it." - Adapted from John Green
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3 Responses to On Loan

  1. Pingback: Sentinel Idyll: Priory | Against the Shadows

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