This was difficult for all concerned. Apologies below.
Apologies to all those who actually like the Shaman of the Whills – I never have, and that aspect of things was quite satisfying to write.
Apologies to those who thought that now we were back together everything would be okay, and to those who have been waiting for a cliffie relief – it’s here, but probably not what you were hoping for.
Apologies to those who look and this and go “Hey, that’s before Xanatos…” Apparently the AU timeline starts almost exactly a decade earlier than I suspected at the time of writing the first chapter.
Apologies, above all and as usual, to Qui-Gon and Nasriel.
Oh, and Tahl: don’t ever do that to me again. Honestly, just because it was your AU to start with you think you can spring twists on me in the middle of polishing.
“Nasriel,” Dooku says quietly, “go back to the Morningstar and get some sleep. You’ve had a difficult couple of days. And Qui-Gon and I have things to talk about that you don’t need to hear.”
The Padawan bows silently to her Master, and slips past him, up the boarding ramp.
“All right,” Qui-Gon says, when she is gone. “You wanted to talk. Talk.”
“Dejarik,” Dooku proposes. “You know, we always did communicate so much better over a game and a drink. I still have some of that Chandrilan wine you used to like.”
Actually, Qui-Gon has never especially liked the cloying sweetness and high alcohol content of the vintage in question. He does, however, appreciate its effect on Dooku’s usually beskar-reinforced mental shields: for a Sentinel, the man has a magnificently low tolerance to liquor. Fair exchange, after all, is no robbery, and Qui-Gon knows that the play in a game of dejarik, regardless of who wins, strips away the barricades of his own mind with the ruthless efficiency of acid on steel.
By noon, he has won two of five games and succeeded in visibly rattling Dooku – once only and for barely a minute, but a distinct victory when compared to every previous encounter they have had. And one minute is more than enough to get straight answers to two questions: yes, the Shaman of the Whills is at Nar Haaska, and yes, Dooku has come here with Nasriel for precisely that reason.
Qui-Gon stands to leave, midway through a game he could have won. “I’m going to go and talk to Nasriel. We both know I would be justified in placing you under arrest and taking you back to Coruscant to stand trial –”
“I don’t recognize the Senate’s authority,” Dooku counters.
“Regardless,” the Jedi Master continues firmly, “I owe you something at least for fetching Nasriel, so… be gone within the hour, or I will have no excuse for letting you go.”
Dooku nods slowly. “Get the comlink back from Nasriel; you won’t hear from me again unless you call me. Which is, of course, always an option. Should you come to your senses and see how ruinously corrupt the Republic is, you are always welcome here.”
“Under your rules, and your new Master’s rules, and the Shaman’s ideas. I thank you, no. I will not make that mistake again.” He leaves, but not before making his move on the dejarik board – shifting a pawn forwards to check Dooku’s king, just to prove he could have won.
Outside, the cold has turned to snow; large cottony clumps fall thickly, but the sea wind catches them above the rocky ground and hurls them back into the air, so that only the finest froth of snow yet covers the ground, melting almost as fast as it gathers. Qui-Gon hurries across the open expanse between the ships, leaving no footprints on the wet stone.
Aboard Morningstar, the thermostat is turned up to mimic the mild climate of a Coruscant summer day, yet Nasriel lies curled up on the lower bunk, cloak hugged close around her like armor against the outside world, body pressed close against the bulkhead toward which her face is turned. Stiffly, Qui-Gon sits down on the floor beside the bunk.
“Tahl is worried about you,” he says bluntly.
“And ’re you?” the Padawan enquires, muffled. The question hangs halfway between past and present tenses, a living thing waiting for an answer.
Qui-Gon deliberately replies to the question using the past tense, knowing she intended to ask in the present. “I wasn’t worried. You’ve grown up a lot lately; I knew I could trust you to make the right decisions.”
“Well, I haven’t.” She glances at him, over her shoulder, trying to gauge his response.
“No. Abandoning your mission, and agreeing to meet the Shaman of the Whills, in the company of Octavius Dooku… was not the right decision.”
“Why aren’t you mad at me, then?”
“You abandoned the mission because you felt unsafe – which I told you to do. And I am in no position to reproach anybody for anything regarding the Shaman of the Whills or Dooku.” Qui-Gon sighs. “It’s a long story, but… we have time to spare.” Still facing away, Nasriel stiffens almost imperceptibly when her Master strokes the coarse, windblown tangles of her hair. He shifts tactfully away, folding his hands in his lap. Through the open cockpit hatch, Qui-Gon can see the viewports, and, through the swirling snow outside, the upper edge of Dooku’s ship, swiftly and silently rising into, and then out of, the scope of the transparisteel pane. At least the Separatist can still take a hint, and is leaving with a minimum of fuss.
“So tell already,” Nasriel grumbles, shying away as far as possible: not very, in the narrow bunk.
“As you may have gathered, Dooku and I have never been friendly. Not when I was first apprenticed, not when I was a Knight, not when I was training Feemor… never. Dooku made no secret of the fact that he was often deliberately unpleasant. That doesn’t matter.
“He was still on the Council up until about… oh, two years after you came to Coruscant. The Temple is not so large a space as it seems; I couldn’t readily avoid him, even after I was Knighted. Hence the incessant wandering. A year after the Council decided Feemor was ready for the Trials, Dooku suggested we put our differences aside for a while, because he wanted me to meet a friend of his.”
Nasriel chuckles darkly. “Is it someone I know?”
“Yes. The Shaman of the Whills – who, as you know by now, is one step shy of being a full-blown Sith lord. I was away from the Temple nearly five years – ask Feemor when we get home; he can confirm if you don’t believe me. Five years under the tutelage of the Shaman,” he repeats musingly. “It’s just as well I didn’t want my sanity for a while. In the end… Tahl came looking for me. I nearly killed her. I did blind her. Force lightning. It’s a Sith trick –as unpleasant for all concerned as you’d expect. Tahl will have told you that she was blinded in an accident on a mission we ran together, because she insisted that that was the story Obi-Wan, you, Anakin, and anyone outside the family would be told.
“She didn’t want you to think less of me – or more accurately, she wanted you to think me better than I am. While that sounds strange… if it’s any consolation to you, I don’t enjoy keeping secrets. Xanatos knows the truth – after that fiasco at Telos where he nearly went the same way, I felt I had to explain to him. Feemor knows, too. And Yoda, of course, but that’s all. There are things the Jedi would prefer not to become common knowledge.”
Nasriel is looking at him now, he notices peripherally: twisting around to stare, a peculiar expression on her face. She is more opaque and complex now, more confusing, but when he turns away from the viewport to stare back, he can pick out a few components of what she is feeling. The sharp stab of betrayal. Paradigms shifting. Unwilling, but absolute, belief in the truth of what he has said. And very faint, in the background, a shadow of sympathy.
“Why didn’t – what about –” Nasriel stumbles over the beginning of several questions, and eventually gives up, with a sigh expressive of overwhelming bewilderment. “Xan at Telos – and Obi-Wan at Jabiim not a year ago – and me – we all fell or nearly did and you didn’t think to tell us? What about what Master Yoda’s always saying, once you start down the dark path it will haunt you forever?”
“What if he’s wrong?” It’s a logical conclusion to reach. Xanatos, hot-headed though he always has been and always will be, is acknowledged one of the Order’s greatest warriors. Obi-Wan briefly withdrew from the Council after Asajj Ventress came closer to turning him to the Dark Side than any before her, but he is back now, scarred, but not, in essence, changed. And if Yoda is wrong, there is hope for them all and for Dooku as well.
“What if he’s not?” Terror. Despair. Nasriel is young; the Jedi Order is all she knows, all she has, and now that it is too late to close off the preceding week as if it had never happened, she is afraid she will lose everything. There is a tell-tale softness about her eyes: the Padawan has not been asleep all morning, she has been crying. “I don’t know what to do. I don’t know if I can go back after all this.”
“After all what? Tell me.”
Sitting up and wiping her eyes, Nasriel takes a breath and is about to start explaining, when Qui-Gon’s comlink rings. He doesn’t answer it, although the callsign is Obi-Wan’s – and Obi-Wan is not one for calling unless he has to. The Councilor leaves a message.
Master, I’m told you were the last person to be in contact with Jango Fett. I don’t know why you aren’t answering your comm, but please call me back and leave for Coruscant as soon as you can. This isn’t something I can explain on a recording.
Qui-Gon glances at Nasriel, who shrugs, and says listlessly, “Let’s go. We can talk on the way, I guess; it’s a full day’s jump, and Bi-An sounds like he’s stressed.”
“I’m not forgetting about this, you understand. I still want to know what happened while you were with Dooku.” He is glad he told her about his own history with the Shaman, but that is only a start. Something has changed behind Nasriel’s wide golden eyes; some foreign and malign influence has come into the bond Master and Padawan share, and until he knows what it is, he can do nothing about it.