The show must go on.
This chapter marks the end of the charted territory. Beyond here the story runs into Wild Space, so once I’ve told you that Komari Vosa will be making an appearance further down the line, you’ll know as much about what’s coming next as I do. Wish us luck, and pray Dooku comes through on his side of the bargain.
In the morning, it is Mi who slips early up to the attic, wakes the children from their comfortable tangle on the floor, and sees to it that they are downstairs, clean and fed, before it is time to continue with the mission. Qui-Gon knows that Mi has rescued many a hapless young ward, slave, and apprentice from a harsh master’s fury by her discreet organizing, her ensuring that the youngsters are ready to depart when their elders are. It bothers him somewhat that, although she is probably not thinking of it in those terms, Mi performs this kindness for Nasriel and Boba without a second thought. But there is no time to be bothered today – they still have to find Jango Fett, and more important, find a convincing reason for the bounty-hunter to return to Kamino. So the first question of the morning is to Boba: Do you know your father’s comm callsign?
The boy scowls. “He doesn’t keep one on him, only the one on the ship. I can call that from my comm, but he’s not there.”
With that, there is nothing for it but to split up and search the old-fashioned way: by walking the streets and asking questions. Boba stays with Qui-Gon, and Nasriel sets off alone in another direction. In the Black City, it seems, she is not concerned about being separated from her Master, or about the possibility of something going badly wrong. In the Temple, it is another matter entirely. This is odd, given the relative security of the two communities, but Qui-Gon does not have time to consider the matter at the moment.
For most of the morning, Qui-Gon and Boba wander the Black City. Boba thinks he has been here before, perhaps last time Jango went off without telling anybody, six years ago. That time, the bounty-hunter returned of his own accord. This time, it has already been a year, and far from returning, Fett seems to be running. Of course, there is always the possibility that Boba’s memories of the city are not his own at all, but his father’s. Stranger things have been known, and cloning is still too new a field to say definitely that it is not so.
At noon, just as the sun finally reaches an angle to stab between the high walls of the city and illumine the near-perpetual twilight of the streets, Nasriel calls, with a very simple message: come to the western end of Green Fountain Street as soon as possible. There are no fountains, green or otherwise, anywhere in the Black City, and the narrow alley in question was named for a now long-demolished cantina, but Qui-Gon still knows the place his Padawan means. When he reaches the specified rendezvous, he finds Nasriel at the other end of the street, standing waiting for him, with Jango Fett half a pace behind her. Another instant is enough to take in that the bounty-hunter’s helmet lies on the ground with the Padawan’s lightsaber, and that Fett has one hand on his blaster, the other on Nasriel’s shoulder.
“All right,” the Mandalorian calls, when they are still twenty meters apart. “That’s far enough, stop there.”
“We’ve been mandated to return you to Kamino,” Qui-Gon informs him.
“I know that,” comes the sharp retort. “Question is, Master Jedi, how we arrange things. You want me to go back, I guess right now. I don’t want to go until I’ve finished my business here – another week or so.”
“And unless we travel together, we have no guarantee of each other’s actions.” The perennial problem in this untrusting Galaxy.
“I’d say we had a pretty good guarantee.” Fett disagrees. “You’ve got my kid; I’ve got yours. We can swap back at Tipoca City.”
“Rarely more so.” The sunlight, angling away again across the rooftops, shines briefly into the man’s dark eyes, and he blinks. For some reason, the reflex is encouraging: Fett is only a man after all, capable of looking away at the wrong moment, capable of making mistakes. “Look. You want me back at Kamino, I want to get on with what I’m doing. You want your kid, I want mine. Let’s take the second as a guarantee of the first. You get your apprentice back when I’ve finished my job unmolested. I get mine back when I’m back at Kamino and the cloners have got the tissue samples they want.”
“Agreed.” Qui-Gon knows Nasriel is not enthusiastic about the idea – come to that, neither is he – but what other choice is there? This is far closer than anyone else has come to convincing Fett to return, and much as he revolts at the whole obscene mess of the war… right now, the Republic does need the clones. Xanatos and Obi-Wan fight on the front lines: put it like that, and the success of the war becomes a family matter, a personal concern.
“The girl’s weapons go with you, the boy’s with me,” Fett proposes. “Don’t want the kids getting ideas.”
Nasriel goes first, calculating the distance between them and placing her lightsaber on the ground halfway.
“And your comm,” the bounty-hunter adds.
At this, Qui-Gon finds cause to object. “Boba can contact you. Nasriel has to be able to contact me.”
“Comms on Slave One.”
“Not good enough.”
“Well, I’m not having her calling some Jedi to track me, am I?”
Although this appears to be an impasse, after a moment’s thought, Qui-Gon has an idea, and, ignoring Fett’s scowl, strides to the halfway point and beckons to Nasriel to join him. She glances nervously at Fett, but he nods curtly, granting permission, and she comes.
For Nasriel to keep her own comlink after this exchange is impractical – but Qui-Gon has a spare, a rather special one that nobody else knows about… until now, when he hands it to Nasriel, wrapping her fingers around the miniature device as if it’s the most precious thing in the Galaxy. All things are relative: perhaps it is.
“If you can call me from Fett’s ship, that’s fine. If you can’t, and you’re in trouble, press the button on the comm, and it will connect straight to Dooku in a few seconds. While I don’t know what he will do, I know that he can reach you anywhere in the Galaxy, far faster than I can, and that, for Yoda’s sake if for nothing else, he won’t hurt you.”
Nasriel tucks the comlink away, with a peculiar adult gravity he has not previously noticed in her. He doesn’t want this moment to end, doesn’t want her to be plucked out of his reach again. Although they have been separated many times before, and it has only once ended in disaster, this time is different: this time comes close on the heels of a brutal reminder about the fragility of normal.
On an impulse, just as Nasriel is turning away, Qui-Gon puts out one hand to stay her. The Padawan’s face is a study in confusion as she halts, looking back at him, black brows knotted together by cords of bemusement, before perplexity dissolves abruptly into frank apprehension.
“Qui-Gon, I’m scared.” She is beyond scared: she is this close to hyperventilating. They should not be here; they should not have gone back on the mission lists this soon. For all their Jedi resilience, Padawans are still only children. Children get frightened, and rarely without reason.
“I know.” But there is no choice now. “Deep breath. Abide in the Force and have hope.”
The Padawan doesn’t want the moment to end either, and lingers. “Can I ask you something?”
“Of course.” As it has always been between them: no topic is off limits, and no question will remain unanswered, even if the answer is only I can’t tell you that yet.
“And you promise to answer?” Perhaps not exactly as it has always been.
Qui-Gon meets this new suspicion with a timeworn implied assurance. His reply, “I don’t promise you’ll like the answer,” is in essence a guarantee of honesty, if only because the truth is so very rarely a welcome answer to a question.
Nasriel reaches up and tugs gently at the leather cord that has for years hung unobtrusively around Qui-Gon’s neck, just visible above his collar.
“What’s on this?” On this, tucked safely inside the Master’s tunic, is a small, smooth disc of glassy black stone, with a story of its own, but Nasriel has only ever seen the cord by which it hangs.
“I’ll tell you later, Padawan. When we have more time.”
Although her eyes narrow in suspicion that her Master is avoiding the question, Nasriel accepts the promise of a forthcoming explanation, and returns to Fett without further demur. The two Mandalorians take a few minutes at the centerpoint to say goodbye, and to let Boba divest himself of two knives and a blaster. At the last moment, the boy flings his arms around his father’s waist and whispers something in Mando’a. Fett hugs his son briefly, then ruffles the boy’s black hair and pushes him gently away. Qui-Gon wishes he’d thought to hug Nasriel, who is now ostentatiously looking in the other direction. Too late now.
When they part at last, leaving Green Fountain Street in opposite directions, Nasriel saunters away without a backward glance. Qui-Gon can sense she is still fearful of what lies ahead, but she is acting well, Force aura flamboyantly cloaked in a shimmering bravado to rival Xanatos’ best dissemblance.
Boba Fett falls into step beside Qui-Gon, silent and sullen, and they return to Sunrise House. There is no hurry to leave the Black City; plenty of time before they have to be at Kamino to meet the elder Fett’s bargain.