Okay, can y’all check the date at the post head before leaping down my throat next time? I’ve gone back and doctored it so nobody gets lost following up later.
Back to the real story. Ladies (and gentlemen if there are any of those reading): I bow to your insistent nagging for information on what has really happened to Qui-Gon.
An IRL duel transplanted to the dojo, an old joke from M*A*S*H, and more Deathstroke for Chavez. Sabacc all round and some aspersions cast at Obi-Wan’s charming personality, in absentia no less.
And… yeah… Anakin was about yey far from being strangled as well for a few seconds there – muchas gracias to Maryana and – oddly enough – Darth Maul, in a way – for rescuing him.
Qui-Gon no longer knows exactly where he is – a sensation novel and unpleasant, not least because he is, once again, entirely at Dooku’s mercy: he has a lifetime’s worth of memories to warn him that this is a dangerous place to be.
On a cold, unknown planet, Dooku’s men have captured a small Republic base – an outpost, really. The few personnel manning the outpost lie in an untidy heap on the frozen ground outside, cut down by blasterfire. In the command center, Dooku holds the sole survivor at ‘saber-point, and promises her her life if she can tell him what he wants to know.
A faint cold smile creeps across the Separatist leader’s face, and he turns to Qui-Gon, who stands motionless by the door, arms folded, neither interfering nor collaborating in what is passing here.
When the Republic soldier’s gaze flicks across to Qui-Gon, he notices that she is a blue-skinned Pantoran, and not more than twenty-five Standard years old. She has huge golden eyes in a sharp-boned face, and at present, they are liquid with tears and glowing with a devastating mixture of terror and wild hope. A week ago, he was on the same side as this doomed woman.
Shaking his head, very slightly, he sees Dooku’s smile vanish, and realizes a moment too late that he has probably just committed suicide. Stupid, stupid, stupid, he rages silently at himself, but what else could he do? The red lightsaber blade glides back into its hilt – it won’t be a clean death, then. A long moment of fear, watching filmy cobwebs of blue lightning shimmer around the Sith lord’s hands – he has long, graceful, deceptively delicate-looking fingers, but Qui-Gon has an idea of how many people those hands have killed. At least murdered by Count Dooku will put him in good company.
Stillness, listening to the Republic soldier’s uneven breathing, barely audible over the scream of the wind outside the door and the hiss of unnatural lightning echoing around the room.
Yesterday dragged terrifyingly slow. Elimyo still has the keycode to Kijé’s room, so Boba and I could have gone there and watched archived holomovies all day if we’d wanted. But Boba was sleepy – from what he’s said, I gather he and Jango are usually nocturnal away from Kamino – and I was restless. No word from Kijé or Tahl on station. No word, even from the HoloNet, about the situation out of Sempidal. Bruck could be anywhere. Qui-Gon could be anywhere. I don’t even know where Xan is, and for all I can learn from the Force I may as well be blind in a void of screaming silence.
Late afternoon, when Boba was napping on my bed, with Blaze sitting sentry beside him, dark ‘kurra eyes locked on his sleeping face, I realized what the matter is.
I’m not used to having a full day’s warning of a mission. This has only happened a few times in my life, and I was racking my brains to remember how I used to cope with the fidgety impatience of waiting to leave.
I used to fight. Take all the nervous energy and channel it into swordplay – Qui-Gon’s idea, and probably not something I’d have thought of myself. He used to order me down to the dojo, and join me there if he had time, or send Anakin to keep me occupied if he didn’t. Yesterday I didn’t know where Anakin was either, so I went down, leaving Blaze to watch Boba, and activated every training remote I could find.
Living in the brief calm of the moment, my lightsaber and I danced, with ten droids moving around us like hummingbirds, now hovering, now darting, loosing blaster bolts at half-power and at gradually decreasing intervals. Safe enough that I wouldn’t be killed, but dangerous enough that I could forget, for a while, all that was worrying me. In its own way, it worked. After half an hour I was worrying about whether I could take out the remaining seven droids with deflections of their own bolts before my clothes got badly enough burned for Xan to notice.
Just as I was coming to the conclusion no, something resembling a streak of violet lightning swirled across the dojo, flicking blaster bolts around like so many marbles on the floor of the younglings’ crèche, knocking all the remotes out of orbit in a matter of seconds. And then Master Windu stood frowning down at me, purple lightsaber humming inactive in his hand. His bald head glistened with sweat, and he wiped it off with his sleeve.
“If you wanted a sparring partner, you only had to ask.”
“And you’d have agreed to duel with a junior Padawan, just like that?”
“Are you looking for a fight or aren’t you?” Master Windu demanded, dialing his ‘saber back to half-power and swinging it lazily in a slow arc.
I may have said en garde before launching into a rapid-fire Ataru attack – I don’t remember, but hope I did, because Master Windu is something of a stickler for procedure, and usually expects Padawans he’s coaching to salute each other before beginning. That day, he didn’t object, just countered everything I could throw at him. I could feel my mouth drawing back, my teeth baring in something between a snarl and a weird, determined smile, and my breath fizzing hard and fast in and out between them.
Force, Master Windu was terrifying. Not obviously fast-moving… but he seemed to think four moves ahead and know where I’d be. I’d block a strike, use all my power to force the purple blade back, and find it a moment later twisted around, hissing hotly a few millimeters from my face. Or I’d step back from a smooth, deliberate slash at my legs, and Master Windu would swoop his blade around and press my own ‘saber back, scorching my arm.
Abruptly, he halted, stepping back and deactivating his ‘saber. “Jinn taught you how to fight and it shows. You’re trying to use strength you don’t have, and you’re not using assets you do have. Your size, for one.”
I was doubled over trying to breathe normally again, and that last strike had hit close enough that it will look truly interesting by tonight, but I laughed. “I don’t have any size. If I had any size, I’d use it.”
“Exactly. A dozen times, you could have ducked under my guard, or danced right over the top, and you chose to block instead. You fight like Qui-Gon. You’re too light and fast to keep doing that, and not strong enough. Talk to Yoda. He can teach you to fly.”
I didn’t want to – I thought Master Yoda was less likely to teach me to fly around the dojo, how to be everywhere and nowhere like he can, than he was to scold me about the perils of the Dark Side until I wished I’d defied Xan and gone on to Corellia after all. No more Yoda, no more Windu, no more Council… but I promised Qui-Gon to stay.
“I’ll talk to him,” I said lightly. Master Windu trying to take my mind off things… kind of him, I supposed, but I found myself wishing he’d just drop the act and scold me already – that’s what I’m used to from the Council. This bizarre niceness unnerved me.
He sighed. “I won’t make some pointed remark about the pain of attachment, as you seem to expect. I imagine you understand it all too well.” Glancing past me to the chrono on the wall, he said, “I have to go. May the Force be with you, Padawan Threeb… in whatever you do next.”
When Xanatos got home I told him Master Windu had given his blessing to our search for Komari. Because that’s what I’m doing next. I don’t know how clearly Xan understood me, though, because he’d been out with a party of young Sentinels and was as drunk as a Jedi can get – not that that’s much.
Jango was stone cold sober when he came for Boba, late last night, and stone cold when we met him and Wilse at Slave One’s dock in the public hangar downtown this morning. Xan’s still not quite himself: not hungover, just a bit fuzzy, and worried about Komari. Jango says he has brought us along unwillingly, but since he has, as agreed, brought us, we are to ask as few questions as possible and stay on the ship when told. I was happy enough to agree to his terms… and it is my contract.
The Pantoran woman writhes on the cold floor, as the lightning roars around her. After a while, but still nearly half an hour ago, Dooku became tired of her screaming and cut out her tongue. When that had no effect beyond adding a bloody drowning gurgle to the voice of her agony, he shrugged, drove his knife into her belly, and went back to what he was doing.
Regardless of what he would personally prefer to do, Qui-Gon could not save her now.
At length, she stops screaming. Satisfied, Dooku withdraws the lightning and retreats, to stand beside Qui-Gon, his back to the half-open door. For a few minutes, they watch the dying Republic soldier in silence. Only the gargle of her labored breaths and the regular little gush-gush-gush of blood from her half-open mouth betray the spark of life still in her.
“That was unnecessary,” Qui-Gon says coolly. Necessity and civilization are Dooku’s gods; he does nothing without a bow to one or the other. “Unnecessary and barbaric.”
“It was,” the older man agrees. “I only told you to kill her. But since it apparently amuses you to watch a pretty girl being tortured to death…” Without finishing his sentence, he turns and swishes out the door.
Qui-Gon crosses the small room and crouches beside Dooku’s latest victim. She is, as he surmised, beyond help. Avoiding meeting her unfocused stare, he pulls out Dooku’s knife, spilling a splash of hot blue blood over the floor; remembers suddenly that Pantorans have their hearts on the right; and stabs. As the knife slides smoothly in between the woman’s ribs, her pulse and the slimy gurgle of blood in her throat cease forever.
Dropping the knife back into the pool of blood, where it falls with a viscous splash, he solemnly closes the soldier’s golden eyes, and goes after Dooku. There is blood, thick, cold, and slippery, on his hands, and scrubbing at it with a fistful of snow makes little difference. He should probably get used to it.
Wilse was flying copilot for Jango until we reached Kohlma, when he came down to the hold where Boba and I were playing sabaac.
“Your Master DuCrion is going with Jango on-world, on account of the Bando Gora crew running this place having Force powers. I’m staying here, and you can deal me into the next hand.”
I discovered many years ago that under some circumstances, sabaac can be a shorthand – often underhand – way of picking up valuable information about your fellow players. There are a dozen different ways of playing your cards, each with its own distinctive features and its own name. Qui-Gon invariably plays the Wanderer, with its patternless pattern and quiet surprises, and usually wins. Among strangers, Obi-Wan plays the Rogue, but at home he plays the Child, a game that pretends to be inept, but, played by an adult, reveals itself as an elaborate trick. I don’t stick religiously to one sabaac character – I’ll play the Pirate or the Slave if I think I have a chance of winning, but if Qui-Gon or Xan is in the game, I always play the Queen – because it’s the most fun I can have losing.
Boba played the Wanderer as well, and it almost hurt to watch the cards glide from his fingers. Wilse played something I hadn’t seen before, sneaking up behind other hands and destroying them with the high life cards. At least he has a tell, of sorts – he wears a black leather patch over his right eye, and though he’s told Boba and me eight different stories about how he lost his eye, the one constant – which he didn’t tell us – is that he slips one finger under the patch to rub at the eye-socket, when he’s under stress… or thinks he’s trapped someone’s cards.
“What do you call your play?” I asked. “I thought I’d seen them all.”
“Little girls should not frequent gambling dens,” Wilse smiled darkly, stroking his short white beard. “Let’s call it the Terminator.” And then he took out my best card and won all the matchsticks.
Xan’s comm rang in his rucksack, and I got up to answer it, leaving my cards face-up to signal I was done with the round. Next time, so help me, I swear I will play Obi-Wan’s Rogue and… Obi-Wan was on the line; on a muted call, luckily, so Wilse and Boba didn’t hear anything.
Bi-An didn’t wait for me to say anything, just started talking as soon as he heard the channel open. “DuCrion, go upstairs and talk to Anakin. I’m at Sempidal or… no, don’t talk to the boy, strangle him for me.”
“Bi-An, what happened?” I said.
“Oh.” He sounded non-plussed. “Where’s Xan?”
“Long story. What’s Ani done this time?”
“What hasn’t he done?” the Councilor muttered. “He’s hacked a door code, stolen a letter – what the blue Wilds is a Taharat when it’s at home anyway? – and confessed to Tahl, who made him call me, that he’s married to Padmé Amidala and has been for over a year. And I, fool that I am, thought he deserved the chance nobody gave me, and offered to get him a dispensation from the Council. I – in Qui-Gon’s absence, Xan’s the oldest. I need to talk to him, Sriel; where is he?”
“Not here. What do you mean, nobody gave you a chance?”
“Longer story. But… well. Padmé is still alive and I hope for Anakin’s sake she will remain so for many years to come. I’ll… I’ll inform Tahl she has my permission to tell you about Satine when you get home, all right? Not over an open link, Sriel, not when I’m on station, don’t ask that of me. May the Force be with you,” he said quickly, and cut off the link. Sometimes Bi-An resembles a holocron, a hundred thousand layers where you have to earn the right to see into each one.
I set down the comlink and headed up into the cockpit to write, figure things out on paper, leaving Boba and Wilse playing another hand of sabaac. They both had the discretion not to ask me where I was going.