It’s… been a while, I’m afraid. Life got busy. But I never actually forgot about this story, it’s been at the top of my drafts list for months.
Today: A charm, a clue, and a complete surprise for Obi-Wan.
When Obi-Wan woke, it was morning, and the shaft of sunlight slanted down from the tiny diamond of window above the door, setting the idly-floating dust in the air aflame with gold. In the bright square that angled across floor and wall, Ben slept undisturbed, intricately tangled in his blanket, the fine golden threads of his hair tangled and his determined face expressionless. Nasriel, who did not toss and turn while asleep, lay curled more tidily in a corner where the near-tangible sunlight had not yet reached, burrowed down under the rough wool blanket so that only her eyes and one half-cupped hand were exposed to scrutiny. Dropping the black stone on its leather cord into her hand, Obi-Wan slipped out into the cool, crisp air of the morning.
It was still quiet, the narrow alleys of the semi-permanent camp still deserted in the slowly goldening gray light of morning. The little H’Vong girl from the night before loitered just outside, wrapped in her dark cloak, idly scratching figures in the dust and humming to herself.
She scrambled to her feet the moment she saw him, and bowed clumsily.
“Master Altis sent me to tell you that Surimaresh came late last night. They’re shut up arguing about something now, but they shouldn’t be long. I can show you the way if you like.”
“You’re very welcome,” the girl replied, her tone wavering between humble respect and the solemn nervousness that often accompanies the playing of a role unnatural to the actor. With no further parley, she scuffed out the figures in the dust and walked away, jerking her head to indicate Obi-Wan should follow her.
Djinn Altis, in his spartan chamber in another of the long narrow buildings, looked rather as if he had not slept. His white hair bore the unmistakable signs of having had fingers combed irritably through it, probably several times, and his humorous face was stern and weary. Opposite him, with his back to the door, sat a man who by his almost impossibly yellow hair, and upright posture, had to be young, in his twenties. It was this man’s voice Obi-Wan heard as he entered.
“…What could I do?” he was asking wretchedly. “How was I to know, Master? Please – I beg you – if I tell him he will kill me. I cannot set this right. Forgive me.”
“It is not my forgiveness you need,” Altis retorted. “You and your damnable secret are safe with me. But I charge you, go to her.”
Standing in the doorway, neither strictly there nor entirely absent, but nonetheless overhearing, Obi-Wan coughed. “Excuse me.”
“Oh. Good morning, Kenobi. Suri, go away. You appall me.”
“What choice did I have?” The young man was begging now. “Master, please.”
“Leave or I will tell him myself!” thundered the white-haired Master, adding as a parting shot, “Wait outside and don’t eavesdrop if you value your life.” The younger man sprang up and backed rapidly out of the room, colliding with Obi-Wan in his haste.
Altis turned weary eyes to the Temple Master, his face now bearing the faintest hint of a smile. “Kids. What’s a man to do?”
“I need to talk to Surimaresh,” Obi-Wan reminded him firmly. “You said he knew about the Del Gormo Air lightsaber.”
“I know. I know. Look, close the door. Everything just got very complex on me, blew right out of control.” When the door was tightly shut, he continued, “That’s Suri, the boy outside. He got himself in trouble over a girl, from what I can gather. And now he swears the girl’s brother or cousin or something wants to kill him. It’s a mess. I sent him on the war mission – well, not quite. It was a Council guy. ‘Not really a Temple job’ was how he put it. I have no idea where Suri went or what he did.”
“I’m sorry, who asked you to send one of your followers on a war mission?” Obi-Wan was conscious of a cold tingling feeling creeping over his skin.
Altis shrugged. “Jaan or Doni or something like that. I don’t keep up with who’s not on the Council. Old fellow. Makashi fighter, by his hilt.”
The cold feeling crept faster. “Octavius Yan Dooku?” Dooku was in this? That was it, then. The situation was beyond remedy. Obi-Wan shook his head to clear the dark mist rising before his eyes, and saw Altis smile in satisfaction.
“That was the name. Well, it was the ‘saber you wanted to know about. Suri will tell you anything you want to know – or he’ll have me to answer to. I just wanted you to know why he’s a bit… odd at the moment.”
Dooku. The name rang loud and shocking as an obscenity in the Council Chamber. Obi-Wan opened the door to find the young man sitting on the ground outside, head tilted wearily back to look at the sky, smoking a thin cigarette. When Obi-Wan nodded him inside, he stood up, slowly, and ground out the burning tobacco with a boot heel.
“Fancy seeing you here.” The well-worn phrase sounded not in the least surprised. And then Obi-Wan realized where he had seen him before: at Halm, wandering across the sand dunes in the middle of nowhere. Now, that had been a strange dream if ever there was one. But it was not possible for two people to dream alike, and –
“Got that ‘saber built,” the Balosar man said conversationally, wiping dust off his hands onto his green trousers. Indeed, a gleaming new-looking lightsaber hung from his belt.
“I can see that. Have any trouble?” Of all the zany inconsequential conversations to be having…
“No.” All at once his face closed over, sullen and uncommunicative as a scolded youngling. “You got questions. Go on.”
“You carried Air. Who had it before you and where is it now?”
“My mom, and lost. Next.”
“So Tara Whitewall is your mother. Master Altis said Air was here.”
“It was,” Surimaresh admitted sulkily. Pulling a packet of cigarettes out of his pocket, he tapped one into his hand and sparked the Force into momentary fire to light it. “I lost Air on mission,” he muttered out of one corner of his mouth.
“How did you get aboard Red Robin, Suri?” Obi-Wan asked quietly.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I lost Air on an acklay fight out at Xathomir. ‘Bout a month ago. Came back here, whats-his-face from the Council shipped me out, so I beat it to Halm for a new ‘saber before I went on his mission. Was that all?”
“No.” Obi-Wan sat down on the door-sill. “Can I have one of those? It’s been a terrible week.”
“Sure.” With a faint grin, Surimaresh handed over the cigarettes, and produced a rather ordinary fuel lighter. “I know what you Templars are like with your ‘no frivolity’. What else did you want to know?”
Obi-Wan drew in a mouthful of bitter smoke and managed to blow it out again nonchalantly and without spluttering. “What was the mission?”
“Hell’d you want to know?” the Balosar demanded, but his tone was more agreeable than before. Obi-Wan hid a smile – there was something about sharing a man’s tobacco that won his trust at once. Not that he had ever smoked for choice, but strange missions called for strange methods. Qui-Gon would have approved. “Guy said it was Code Ultra – top secret. Not reaaally permitted to regale all and sundry with details.”
“Does Yoda know?” This cigarette was really dreadful. It made his head spin.
“And what’s that when it’s at home?” enquired Surimaresh coolly, taking a long drag and blowing a ragged smoke-ring.
Even under ordinary circumstances, this question was not one Obi-Wan could have readily answered, so bizarre was it. Taking into account two other factors, it was no surprise that he did not reply at all. One was the extreme potency of Surimaresh’s favored tobacco and the fit of coughing it provoked in the unwary. The other was the high-pitched scream from elsewhere in the Chu’unthor group’s camp, and the angry shouting voices.
Surimaresh stubbed out his second cigarette with an expression of regret, yawned, and began to saunter in the general direction of the commotion. Obi-Wan was there long before him. He didn’t recognize the soldier’s uniforms at first, only saw the men. Saw their fear, and the anger and brutality it spawned. The image that met his eyes as he rounded the corner branded itself on his mind.
Nasriel, her lips curled back from her pointed teeth in a fierce snarl, struggled desperately in the grip of one of the soldiers. He ignored her squirming and retaliated placidly to the kicking by twisting her arms up behind her back until she was doubled over and her breath came in short painful gasps. Sweat beaded her pale face, almost chalk-white now under the blue, and ghastly to look at.
Around these two, other soldiers stood. Curiously, they were not clones, but – Obi-Wan at last recognized the insignia – the Chancellor’s personal guard, only sent on assignments away from their master if the assignment was highly delicate, secret, and imperative. Ben stood quietly at the edge of the group, a meteoric vivid presence in the Force, not speaking or attempting to intervene in any way.
The moment Obi-Wan appeared, everything stood quite still. Nasriel froze, and stared at him with candid, wide-open eyes, waiting for the slightest signal. For nine or ten long, slow heartbeats, the whole scene remained fixed, turned to stone. Hurrying around the corner, Djinn Altis demanded, of the soldier with the most rank bars on his sleeve, to know what was going on.
“Orders from the Chancellor’s office, sir. We’re to take custody of Padawan Nasriel Threeb and return her to Coruscant to be tried for murder.”
“She is under my protection,” Altis bluffed. “I want to see your orders in writing before I let you take anyone anywhere.”
The tossed datapad, which would have described a parabolic path to land inconveniently in the dust at the Master’s feet, disobeyed all gravitational laws to fly straight to his hand. Altis shook his head.
“I don’t know the Chancellor’s signature. Kenobi?”
Taking the datapad, Obi-Wan confirmed numbly, “Yes, that’s Palpatine’s.”
Nasriel stiffened noticeably.
“All right,” he added, to the leader of the guards. “You can have her. For now. But this is not over.”
Stun-cuffs this time, impervious to telekinesis and unbreakable even by Jedi. Palpatine was taking no chances. Nasriel submitted meekly to having her wrists cuffed, her dagger and lightsaber flung to the ground, and herself being led roughly away. On the boarding ramp of the Chancellor’s ship, she turned back for an instant, and shot a despairing glance, not at Obi-Wan, but at Ben, who still stood, silent and unmoving.
He shrugged, and mouthed I’m sorry, and then she was gone, the ship taking off in a roar of engines and plume of white smoke.