And we’re out of the diary for now and back to Qui-Gon… ah well, such is life. I’m having so much fun with this! Today we have a moderately neutral Separatist (but you knew that) a real cliff, a metaphorical cliff, a storm at sea, and the little-did-they-know juncture à la Harriet Vane.
Of course… if you do know, you will have to tell me, so that I can think up a new twist.
Qui-Gon glares at Fett, and is about to ask why, exactly, Nasriel’s location is such a mystery, when his comlink rings shrilly, audible even over the dinning of the rain. It is over a year since he last spoke to Dooku, and it was ten years before that, but the acidic bite of the former Jedi’s suave tones over the link still comes as a mild shock.
“Would you care to explain why your Padawan was in possession of a comlink I specifically asked you to maintain as a secret? No, I know how long that would take, and she’s given me a fair idea already.”
Even from however many parsecs away, even sixty years after it all began, forty-two years after everything went more wrong, thirty-seven years after he finally ripped himself away and lost part of his soul in the process – why, after all this, does Dooku’s very voice still have the power to turn his guts to ice? The answer comes almost before he has finished asking the question: Nasriel is with Dooku. You have never told her what happened, and he certainly will. It is rather like one of the two-sentence horror stories the Padawans tell each other, which become more terrifying the longer they are reflected on.
“Don’t tell Nasriel anything until I get there. And where is there, anyway?” Qui-Gon adds hastily, an attempt to make his former Master forget his ill-considered injunction. Dooku is twisted enough that he will only take more delight, now he knows of Qui-Gon’s concerns, in laying out the past before Nasriel’s unwary imagination.
And, indeed: “If you leave your Padawan lying around, and especially if you lie to her, you may expect me to tell her anything I care to.”
“We’ll be at Nar Haaska in… two days. That’s enough time for you to get there from Kamino. You’re in Morningstar? I’ll tell them to let you through the lines. And I’ll see you soon.”
“Can I talk to Nasriel? Please.”
“No… I don’t think so. But you could give me something I can tell her to convince her I really have contacted you.”
“Tell her I said hello, minx.” Tahl has been objecting to that nickname for years – he will have to remember to tell her it does have its uses.
“I shall.” Dooku sounds amused, but before Qui-Gon can say anything else, the link is cut.
Fett is staring at him, eyes narrowed in calculation. “The kid’s not in trouble, is she?” he asks, openly hoping for a negative answer.
“More than you know.”
For the first time, the bounty-hunter looks troubled. “I’m sorry, Master Jinn. She acted like she knew those Seps, so I figured it couldn’t be too bad – and with three droidekas on board, I wouldn’t have survived making any objections.” He raises one hand, effectively precluding Qui-Gon’s reply. “I know: I wasn’t bothered by any Jedi, but I didn’t bring your kid back. We made a deal, and I reneged on it. I don’t do that. Is there anything I can do to help, to make it up to you?”
“Stay here, do what you came back for, and don’t make me come after you again.”
Turning back across the platform, whose surface shimmers with dancing raindrops, Qui-Gon pretends to ignore Fett’s parting shout.
“I was going to do that anyway, so I still owe you one!” Well. Perhaps someday an honor-debt from one of the greatest bounty-hunters in the Republic will prove an asset.
Nar Haaska, in the verge of Hutt Space, lies on the border between the hostile Separatist territory and the officially neutral but still unfriendly crime syndicate’s turf. There are three possible routes, only one of which does not involve a hyperspace lane known to be mined. Straight through the middle of enemy holdings it is, then, relying on the very shaky and uncertain ground that is Dooku’s offhand promise of safe-conduct.
Qui-Gon is struck by the recklessness of what he is embarking on: this is almost worthy of Anakin’s recent record. Almost worthy of his own record, from the days when the Order’s most infamous maverick didn’t have a second to spare for considerations of respectability, reputation, setting a good example for the younger generation, or indeed anything other than being constantly on the move and usually in some degree of danger.
Xanatos was the one most affected by this nomadic lifestyle, becoming cool and distant and unlike the other Padawans. He had none of Feemor’s relaxed, self-possessed approach to life, and confided in nobody, not even his Master or Tahl.
Obi-Wan was older when he first met Qui-Gon: a determined boy with a firebrand spirit and a searingly strong, terror-laden connection to the Unifying Force, which he had then yet to learn even to bear, let alone control. Not easily distracted from anything to which he has set himself, Obi-Wan suspects nothing, to this very day.
Nasriel, with her innate sincerity and passion for truth, will not hesitate to tell him.
Nar Haaska is dubiously famous as the only world even the Hutts didn’t want. Coming out of hyperspace nearby, watching the arc of the golden planet slowly fill the scope of the viewport, Qui-Gon is conscious of a fear, seeded by a grain of perfectly reasonable apprehension and nurtured by two days of sleepless solitude, that everything he has worked for all his life is on the brink of crumbling to dust.
He is almost – but not quite – surprised that Dooku has kept his promise of unimpeded passage, and almost – but not quite – reassured by this.
Dooku’s distinctive ship is landed in the middle of a flat, open place on the dark side of the planet. How appropriate. Edges crisply delineated in the strong white glare of its floodlamps, the ship wallows in the black pool of its own shadow. At one extreme of the light’s sphere of influence, the sea licks delicately at the red-rock rim of the land, and at the other, a sheer cliff chops off the plateau.
Setting Morningstar down outside the border of the light, he studies the area. A ghost of Dooku’s familiar character lingers, like the bitter scent of a fire, but he has not been here for at least a day. Someone else’s presence is more immediately obvious, though – someone whose personality is strong enough, dark enough, that, crossing the threshold between Morningstar and night, Qui-Gon has to focus on not glancing nervously around him. There is nobody here. Rough estimates of distance and time are indelibly written into every aura: Dooku was here, but not recently, and the other person is not in this hemisphere of Nar Haaska, and never has been. Nasriel is not old enough for her Force signature to have much permanence, and so there is no sign of her ever having set foot on this bleak, barren world.
A surly-natured processing unit built into Dooku’s ship grudgingly informs him that yes, Dooku and ‘the girl’, on landing here three days ago, immediately left ‘to visit with somebody’ elsewhere on the world. It is pessimistic and uncertain regarding the projected time of their return, so Qui-Gon retreats to the Morningstar to wait. A grey dawn is breaking coldly over the sea when the sighing of the waves is drowned by the coarse growl of a swoop-bike engine.
Helping Nasriel down from the back of the bike, Dooku glances across to greet Qui-Gon.
“You took a shortcut,” the Separatist leader remarks pleasantly. “We had counted on at least another day. So sorry to keep you waiting.”
The morning is cold, with an icy gale blowing in off the ocean, but Dooku ignores that. This whole meeting is wrong somehow, a strange rendezvous on the edge of a continent, on the edge of Hutt Space… on the edge of a war, though that seems to have been suspended. Even the time seems warped, uneven, and Qui-Gon is not sure how long elapses between his former Master’s salutation and his own reply.
“I wasn’t waiting long.” True; but the time he has spent waiting for Nasriel to look away from the horizon is interminable. She stands very still, gazing out to sea, with only the motion of her long hair on the wind betraying that she has not suddenly turned to stone. It blows about loosely, tangled, her usual heavy plait unraveled. A moment later, he realizes what the matter is: the glitter is gone, the shimmering, changeable, vivid Nasriel he knows so well silent.
He has to ask. “Are you all right, minx? You’re not hurt?”
“If I were… does it really make a blind bit of difference to what happens next?” Still staring at the crashing foam-capped waves.
“Of course it does.”
“I’m fine,” Nasriel replies, sounding as if this is the logical conclusion to a chain of reasoning, something resulting from what Qui-Gon has just said, rather than an independent statement of fact.
Something in Dooku’s expression seems to provide the barest whisper of a clue, and Qui-Gon rounds on him, accusing. “What have you done to her?”
Although Dooku laughs softly, he has a bitter edge to his voice when he speaks. “I? What have I done to her? Oh, Qui-Gon… wouldn’t it be better to ask what you have done to her?”