TITLE: BREATH OF NIGHT
TIME: 6 years pre-TPM, Obi-Wan is 19
CATEGORY: Drama/Angst, Non-Slash
SUMMARY: A terrible disaster leaves Obi-Wan to care for his master and alone to battle the guilt in his heart, all the while lost on a strange world where choices can leave them with more than they thought they had bargained for.
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DISCLAIMER: All recognizable characters are the property of Lucasfilm Limited. All the rest belong to me. I receive no profit from this.
BREATH OF NIGHT
It was all my fault.
It was deep within the gloomy mountains of the Dibarien hinterlands, where the smoky mists rose from endless waterfalls, and collected in the dreary clouds that always hung about the peaks. All fell under a sheen of dew, enlivened, and yet drowning in the sorrows of never-ending humidity. Gangly trees, creeping vines, and wildflowers blooming in the shadowy recesses of crags, stretched for sunlight - for life - that seemed unattainable to even the tallest. It was said that even on the clearest day, only a faint glow of sunlight penetrated the atmosphere above the mountains, to settle mysteriously on the landscape below.
Within the deep murk of a cave, high along one mountain, he sat huddled under the folds of his robe. He was alone, because he wanted to be. Because he had to be. Because the one who would have been with him could not.
The light of a glow rod harshly broke the darkness where he sat and clambered up the walls, gradually dimming into nonexistence. He shivered lightly as unwanted images came to mind. Images of . . . .
No. He would not think of it now. Not if he could.
But the angry cries of the twisting wind and the ghastly screams of the Dibari nomads would not fall to a whisper. Their sounds echoed menacingly through his head, replaying the terror - the disaster - that had left him alone. As if conspiring, the images rose up and grasped for him, tearing the living soul out of him.
For the fallen and wounded lay below, in a makeshift camp built with the remains of their possessions that had not been carried away or ripped apart by the tornado.
Threddash, the Dibari had called it. The shriek of terror.
It had been a horrible wonder, to him, how the nomads had so quickly accepted the twister's havoc wrought upon them. To do it so easily, without anger for nature's cruelty.
What once had been a thriving community of grass huts and abundance, had become a littered landscape of destruction . . . and death.
One small child had died in the disaster. Because he had failed to see the child in a moment of temporary panic. Because he had left the child alone.
No one blamed him. No one needed to, for he drove enough blame into himself for the entire people.
In that black memory, when the nomads had settled in the deep ditches to escape the coming winds, that small child had come running. Running all alone across the field as the dark twister whirled menacingly toward it. Then, his master had ordered him to stay with the people, and had dashed out to recover the child himself. He had watched in horror as the howling winds had picked up and flung the two through the air - his master and the child.
When they had found them in the wake the tornado, the child was dead and Qui-Gon, unconscious. Since waking, the Jedi master had remained in a paralyzed state - unable to move or communicate. He was essentially a vegetable.
The Dibari could do nothing for him. Nor could Obi-Wan. For he had tried to heal his master, to reach him and find the man's consciousness through their bond, but had come upon nothing. The bond was dead.
And Obi-Wan wished he himself was.
Darkness crept from shadowed lair,
And claimed its right to gardens fair.
The molten sun soon took to flight,
And I there alone felt the breath of night.
Obi-Wan wrapped his cloak tightly around him and left the haven of the cave with the illumination of a glow rod to direct him. The night was cool and still, and as he traveled over the rocky mist-soaked ground of the mountains, falls of water quietly roared nearby, sending their soft mizzle in his path.
He emerged from the suffocating dampness of the mountains and paused at the edge of the rocky range. Soft wind caressed his face as he stood at the foot of the mountains. From the midnight veil of the sky, shimmering with tiny winks of light, to the sweeping shadowy black plains, the whole world was drawn with shining threads of silvered twilight. Three moons, heavy and pearly lucent, sat upon stark lines of treetops. One luminary gleamed pink, another blue, and the last gentle gold.
Thankful silence had swallowed the Dibari camp far below. He had made a routine of stealing away to that particular cave every night, while the nomads sang their morbid chants.
At the same time every night, they gathered in the center of their camp. He could not understand the words, for they were spoken in their native tongue, but their sorrowful sound was more than his aching heart could handle.
He knew it was for the death of the child. . . . The child that he had killed.
His eyes dropped to a splattering of pale flowers trembling in the calm breeze. They were beautiful, he thought, the way they caught the light of the moons and held it, seemingly emitting a very faint glow. Every time he had passed them by on the way to or from the cave, he could not help but stare.
Crouching next to them, he searched for the most perfect ones. Finally, he found two with the roundest petals all opened invitingly. He carefully plucked them and tramped through the tall blades of wet grass toward the warmly glowing fires of the Dibari camp.
Just outside the huddle of huts, he stooped beside a small mound of stones. It was Lyril's resting-place - the child who had died. With a hand unsteady, he placed one of the blooms on top of the mound, and then proceeded into the camp.
Most of the huts had already been rebuilt, and the camp was quickly becoming what it once was before the devastation of the tornado. Everything was returning to normal.
Everything . . . except for Qui-Gon.
A few of the nomads lingered outside their dwellings, talking and preparing to retire for the night. They paid him little attention, and he understood none of what they said. Most of them knew Basic, but it was not their native tongue, so they never bothered to speak it unless they were talking directly to him.
Obi-Wan reached the small hut where his master lay and entered through the heavy shell ropes that hung as a cover, hearing them clicking softly as they closed behind him.
Immediately, he saw the Dibari shaman kneeling beside Qui-Gon. The man was chanting, as he had done every day. Obi-Wan had guessed that it was some sort of a healing ritual. The shaman's pale violet skin was covered with sweat, darkening the ochre simple gown he wore. A plate of strung prismatic beads covered his chest, while a crimson leather band was fastened around his head. As he turned toward the padawan, the man's proud features seemed impassive. He said not a word as their eyes met.
Obi-Wan broke eye contact first, casting his gaze to his master lying on a pallet of coarse woven blankets. Qui-Gon's eyes were open, staring at the ceiling. The light that had once danced in their deep sapphire depths was muted and dull. Where there was once joy and sparkle, a dark vacant gaze was now all that remained.
Obi-Wan swallowed the lump in his throat and slowly crossed the room to his master. After the shaman rose and passed him, leaving the hut, the padawan slipped to his knees beside Qui-Gon. For a moment he stared at the face, with its strong-edged lines and pallid color.
"Master?" the boy said softly. "I brought this for you."
He held the perfect flower out to him, making sure to place it directly in his line of sight. Now, in the light of the hut, he could see that the flower was actually turquoise in color, the petals softly satin.
"I don't know if you know this, but . . ." he stopped, his voice catching on the last word. Then, he took a deep breath and swallowed before picking up where he left off. "But, the flora here is beautiful. I, uh . . . I thought I'd bring you an example. It's," he glanced down at the bloom in his hand, "it's from near the mountains. There are a lot of them there. Maybe I could show you when . . ." he swallowed again, "when you feel better."
Gently, the padawan laid the delicate bloom on Qui-Gon's chest and turned to pull a clay bowl full of water closer. He wiped his hands on his already soiled tunic and then rung out the cloth that had been soaking in the bowl.
"Master, I'm going to clean you now," Obi-Wan said, turning to Qui-Gon. He leaned over the elder man, placing himself in the master's line of vision. "Ok, Master?" Obi-Wan whispered, feeling more as if he were talking to himself.
When the eyes did nothing but stared right through him, Obi-Wan sighed and gently wiped Qui-Gon's face.
"Master, I think I might be able to fix the comm unit," the padawan went on as he washed accumulated dirt from Qui-Gon's body. "If I take the compression coil from my lightsabre, I think I can use it in the comm. If that works, then we should be able to contact someone . . . I hope."
No one knew where they were. On their way back to Coruscant, a failed turbo thruster had exploded, nearly igniting the fuel reserves. It had been a token of mercy from the Force that they had found a planet to land upon. They were found by the Dibari, trapped in the wreckage of the shuttle, and taken to their nomad camp at the foot of the shadowed mountains.
There had been no way he could contact the Temple. The crash to the planet had dislodged the communications unit on the shuttle, beating the device into a pile of twisted metal and wires. That was six days before the tornado . . . and six days before Qui-Gon's injury. They had been diligently working to repair the comm every day.
Obi-Wan stopped and sighed, his weariness weighing on him.
Qui-Gon's hair was probably tangled, he mused. He retrieved a comb from their supplies that had been saved from their downed shuttle. Being as careful as he could, he removed the bandage from Qui-Gon's head, where he had received a blow after being thrown by the tornado, then gently washed and combed the long silvering strands until they glistened like silk and squeaked as he ran his fingers down them.
Then he cleaned the wound at the back of Qui-Gon's head, tucked a heavy blanket around him and, trickled some broth down his throat.
Satisfied that his master had been tended to, the padawan shifted to the other side of the hut and picked up the comm unit. A tiny piece jiggled and fell out onto the dusty floor. He quickly grabbed the little piece, drawing his arm back to throw it in frustration, but stopped. Abruptly, the boy's posture slumped, and he crumbled, holding his face with his hands.
"I'm sorry, Master," he whispered in the silence. "If I hadn't missed that child, if I had. . . . It's all my fault, I know it is," his breath came in ragged pants. "And you probably don't even know what's going on, do you, Master? Do you?" he said, louder, shooting a glare at Qui-Gon. "And this is all a waste of time, cause you're never going to get any better are you?"
He stood up, crossed to Qui-Gon in two quick steps, and threw himself to his knees beside the older man, burying his face in Qui-Gon's chest. He wrapped his arms around the master's neck and desperately clung to the limp form. Fighting the mix of rage and despondency that tried to claim him, he knelt there a long time.
After awhile, when he had calmed somewhat, he pushed himself up to look at Qui-Gon's face. "I'm sorry, Master," he said in a voice thick with emotion. "I . . . I love you, and I never wanted to hurt you. Can you please forgive me?"
He sought any reaction on the expressionless face, but there was none. Perhaps would never be one again. Gently, he reached out to wipe away a drop of moisture that had fallen on Qui-Gon's cheek. Then he returned his attention to the comm unit. By now, the nomads had been long asleep, but the padawan worked on into the early rays of dawn. Alone.
Not long after, the boy's eyes slipped closed as he hunched over the scattered small metal parts of the comm. The gilding of sunlight crept through the door, past the curtain of shells, and fell across the sleeping figures.
But shouting voices quickly shattered the serenity of nature.
Obi-Wan jumped awake, instantly alert to the sounds of commotion outside.
Sleepy eyes opened to the ethereal glow of morning that lit the inside of the grass hut. Instantly, the dull gaze flew to Qui-Gon. He was motionless, of course. How else would he have been? Even in the innocent dawn light did the man look irreparable.
Obi-Wan wearily pushed himself up from the dusty floor, slightly startled to realize that he had fallen asleep while working on the comm. A myriad of dismantled parts was strewn across the floor beneath him. He rubbed his eyes and listened cautiously to the voices and odd sounds outside.
Deciding it might be best to see what was causing the disturbance, he rose to his feet and stumbled to the shell curtain in the doorway. He was so tired. Evidently, he had slept, but his body was telling him that it was not enough. The days after Qui-Gon's accident had been trying. And very wearing. Taking care of himself and his master in these primitive conditions were taking a toll on him. A quick glance at Qui-Gon, and he slipped through the door and into the bright day.
Nomads were gathered all along the small clearing between the grass dwellings. They had settled down and now waited in anticipation. But there were others too. Squinting his eyes into the harsh light of the sun, he saw large reptilian beasts . . . bearing riders. The animals were over twice Obi-Wan's height, sorrel scales with darker patches of orange on their underbellies and encircling large oval coppery eyes. Strong thick legs tapered down to cloven ebony hooves.
Humanoid and violet skinned, the riders looked like the Dibari, except for the way they dressed. Unlike the simple gowns in muted colors that the nomads wore, the new arrivals had scarlet tunics under bronze metal chestplates, black loose-fitting trousers tucked into black knee-high boots, and atop their heads, bronze helmets shone in the morning sun. These were warriors.
Obi-Wan's hand carefully slid to his lightsabre and rested there. He watched impassively as the beasts stomped into the midst of the camp, rending deep guttural moans.
"Bi Va'tom," said a soft voice to his side.
The padawan glanced sideways to see a young Dibari child around six years old. Her glittering dark amethyst eyes peered up at him through a wild cascade of long wine-colored hair. "What?" he asked quietly.
"Bi Va'tom," she repeated teasingly, as if he should know what she was talking about.
He dropped to one knee beside her, keeping a close eye on the approaching riders. "What is . . . 'bi va'tom'? Please tell me?"
An infectious smile broke across the little round face, and the padawan could only smile in return. "Bi Va'tom . . . The Takers," she answered, still smiling.
One of the men barked an order to the rest. Then all of the men dismounted and spread out among the camp. Some entered huts, others grabbed children, herding them to their riding beasts.
Obi-Wan stood, tensing and gripped his lightsabre tightly. He looked curiously at the Dibari. They made no move to stop these invaders.
Two of the soldiers passed the padawan by, eyeing him curiously. He knew that with his appearance so different than the Dibari he undoubtedly stood out.
Three more came directly towards him, their hands resting on sword hilts. They apparently meant him harm.
"What do you want?" Obi-Wan asked them, hoping that they would understand Basic, as some of the nomads did.
With a metallic slink, the swords were drawn and brought forth in offensive positions. The nomads around the padawan rushed away from him, and a pathway through the people opened up between the soldiers and the padawan like a parting sea.
"Please don't make me hurt you." Obi-Wan said slowly. Then he reached out to the Force, calming himself and waiting until the men came closer before he drew his lightsabre. He fell back, bracing his stance with his weapon in front of him, but still not on.
When the attackers were just about on him, Obi-Wan easily flipped over their heads, landing behind them. He spun around, watching them warily and saw the looks of surprise registering on their faces.
A warning from the Force allowed him to catch the sudden movement behind him, swinging his suddenly ignited weapon around. The blue singing blade sliced a shining sword off near the hand guard. The surprised soldier stumbled back with eyes wide.
In that moment, Obi-Wan noticed the extreme quiet and felt all eyes on him.
"An impressive fighter among you," the commanding soldier's oily voice broke the hushed silence. "And with a weapon unheard of."
Obi-Wan's gaze found the man still atop his beast. Wine hair turning gray, the commander appraised the padawan with eyes darkly malevolent.
"Never in the halls of Dimisfree has this kind been seen," the commander added.
"What do you want?" Obi-Wan demanded again, his azure blade still humming softly.
The man smiled coldly. "Only the King's tribute."
The crowds around Obi-Wan remained silent. He noticed soldiers standing among the crowd, some of them edging their way toward him.
"You take children as tribute?" the padawan asked, adjusting his sweaty grip on his weapon.
Leather creaked as the commander leaned forward to rest his arms on the saddle horn. "We take whatever may be useful. Now put your weapon down before someone gets hurt."
The padawan's eyes, brimming with concern, scanned the crowd. He knew it was not his duty to interfere with this society, but he could not help but want to keep them from suffering. Children with faces of fear stared at him in bright wonder. He doubted that any of these nomads had ever known true freedom.
One of the soldiers approached the commander, muttering something up to him.
Eyes suddenly bright with new knowledge fell upon Obi-Wan. "The pale man in the hut," the commander said. "Is he your companion? Your father, perhaps?"
Obi-Wan masked his worry and faced him with a straight expression. "Perhaps."
"He is in need of medical attention. Perhaps we can help," the man punctuated with an arched purplish eyebrow. "We have exceptional healers." He paused, appealing with outstretched arms. "Come with us, and I will see that he receives the utmost care. Trust us," he smiled.
Obi-Wan swallowed, his throat dry and his heart urging with hope. "Why should I?" The strong resolve of his voice did not hint at the desperate beating of his heart.
The commander sighed and spoke in a kind tone. "How long have you waited for help here? Clearly, you do not belong. Come and let our people look at him."
Obi-Wan stood impassively, his lightsabre a gleaming azure.
The commander visibly relaxed. "We mean you no harm. But my soldiers are accustomed to precaution when encountering anything new - such as your appearance. Come with us. If your father cannot be healed by us, then you will be free to go. You are not one of the Dibari, therefore you do not fall under threat of tribute. Come," he urged.
Obi-Wan considered the proposal. As golden as it seemed, there were unspoken concerns - whether they could be trusted was the foremost. But there were others, as in any field situation. True, it was not his duty to protect the Dibari. As a matter of fact, the Jedi Council would probably tell him to not interfere, but that did not soften the fact that he had killed one of their children. Did he owe them, or did they even want help?
With a sputtering flicker, the glowing blade of his lightsabre blinked out and drew him from his musing. Momentarily surprised, he then remembered that he had taken the compression coil out. Evidently, there was a little energy that had built up, but was now exhausted without the coil to keep it charged. But the failure seemed to be lost on the invaders, who likely thought he had purposely turned it off.
Without his weapon, he knew it would be nearly impossible to protect Qui-Gon, in his fragile state, not to mention anyone else. Maybe they could heal Qui-Gon, he hoped. If not, and if this was all a deception, then the padawan deserved whatever treatment he would get from them. After all, he had caused an innocent child's death . . . and his master's incapacitation.
Obi-Wan lowered his weapon and nodded wearily.
Somewhere along the way Obi-Wan had fallen asleep. He opened eyes pale and bright in the glow of the falling sun. It took him several seconds to recall what had happened and why he was curled up next to Qui-Gon in a narrow wagon being pulled by a large beast. Sitting up, the padawan gazed at their surroundings.
The waving ocean of verdant grassland was giving way to sandy lichen-strewn lowland. From here the gloomy mountains of the Dibari were out of sight, and the earth gave up the smell of dank moss, and salt spiced the wind.
They traveled all day, stopping periodically to rest, and by the time the moons began to shine again Obi-Wan spied the silvery flash of a distant city on the edge of the horizon. None of this had he or Qui-Gon seen when they had scouted the area around the Dibari, nor had the nomads ever mentioned others.
They reached Dimisfree by nightfall, its large stone buildings glowing ghostly pale gray in the waning light. Dirt streets were nearly deserted with a few pedestrians wandering about and merchant shops closing.
Separating from the main troop of soldiers, the wagon carrying Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon turned off the main road and passed through decorative metal gates and proceeded to a tall and stately mansion. The padawan kept one hand on Qui-Gon, as he had the entire trip, almost as if moving from him would destroy any hope of the elder man being well again.
When they stopped Obi-Wan was helped to take Qui-Gon into a door at the side of the building, and up several flights of stairs. They took him to a spacious bedroom where the Jedi master was gently positioned beneath peacock-green silk covers upon a wide bed. Matching diaphanous drapes flowed from the bed's tall posts and cascaded into rich pools on a shining obsidian floor.
Obi-Wan glanced around the room after the others had left. It was very luxurious in taste, and the air smelled of alluring sweet flowers and burning wood. Dark yeque wood furniture decorated the room - a desk, several dressers, a vanity with clear mirror, various tables and plush chairs with soft black furs draped over them, and a wide malachite fireplace burned orange flames next to glass double doors that led to a balcony. An etched crystal vase of voluptuous crimson flowers rested on a small table beside the bed.
He tossed their canvas bag of supplies on a chair and sat carefully on the edge of the bed, looking at Qui-Gon. "Master," his voice was soft in the large room, "we're here . . . wherever here is." A wobbly smile disappeared almost before it had appeared on the padawan's face, and his aquamarine eyes glowed with concern. "Are you comfortable?" he asked as he tucked the covers around the still form.
There was no answer, of course. Why did he always wait for one?
With a sigh, he looked away. "I hope I've done the right thing." His gaze was suddenly lost in the leaping flames on the hearth. "They might be able to heal you. That's the most important thing," he whispered, distantly.
"Well, it looks like your father is in need of healers," came a voice from the door.
Obi-Wan looked at the woman, not really surprised that he had not sensed her, as exhausted and distracted as he was. "Yes," Obi-Wan answered, looking cautiously at her. "I was told he would be helped?"
She stepped into the room, her long velvety amber dress swaying in rhythm. She had the same violet tint to her skin and long reddish hair gathered loosely at the back of her head. "I'm Loresce, the King's niece, and healers are coming, young man," she replied pleasantly, and then gestured to Qui-Gon and delicately asked, "what happened to him?"
"He was throw by a tornado," explained Obi-Wan, feeling his stomach tighten with anguish and guilt. "He hit his head when he landed. And I've been unable to heal him."
She observed how the young man suddenly paled. "Are you alright?" she asked with a sympathetic smile. "May I get you something to drink?"
Obi-Wan straightened his spine and swallowed hard as he met her oval amethyst eyes. "Yes, thank you."
Smiling, Loresce retrieved a carafe from a bureau and poured a rosey liquid into a crystal goblet, the fluid slushing quietly.
The padawan watched the falling liquid as it glistened in the firelight. "When will they get here?" He realized he was getting impatient and caught his lower lip between his teeth.
"Here," she held the goblet out to him with a sweet smile.
Obi-Wan took the glass and sipped slowly.
After a few moments, Loresce spoke up. "He means a great deal to you. Doesn't he?" She watched the shadows of pain dance within his luminous eyes at the question.
Obi-Wan inhaled a quivering breath and looked to the darkening skies beyond the glass balcony doors. "Yes."
"And you want him well. Don't you?"
He merely nodded, his tongue licking the sticky tart taste from his lips.
"I can understand that. My father died a few years ago, and there was nothing that could have stopped me from saving him. If only I could have." Loresce's tone became emotionless. "But at least he's not suffering now."
Obi-Wan bowed his head to conceal the tears that welled in his eyes.
"Commander Gorane said your father is in some sort of a coma or locked-up inside himself someway," she went on. "I wonder how it feels to be that way, to not be able to do or say anything. I wonder if he feels any pain."
Squeezing his eyes shut, the padawan tried to stop the fall of salty droplets, but they escaped and traced silently down his cheeks.
Loresce heard a tiny sniffle, and placed a gentle hand on the side of Obi-Wan's face. "I'm sure he knows you'll do everything you can to help him be well again. I'm sure he knows that you . . . love him," she assured softly.
Obi-Wan felt guilt lancing his chest, and fought to maintain what outward calm he had left before he broke down completely and sobbed like an infant.
She sat next to him and brushed a warm hand gently through his short hair. "The healers are expensive," her voice drifted to him soothingly, "but the King is generous. He will pay all your expenses under the terms of the Thralage. Do you agree to allow healers to look at him?"
Damp lashes swept up, revealing eyes now sparkling with tears. Hesitantly, they shifted to Qui-Gon. The master looked so pallid and cold. So miserable.
All his fault.
Obi-Wan took a deep breath to relax his tightening throat, his gaze riveted to his master. "Please heal him."
It was something beautiful, like the perfection of a spring garden in the unworldly brilliance of morning. So unforgettable and precious. So far above anything else in his life, save the Force. The devotion that his padawan had to him during this time of need would have burst his heart with joy for that love, had he not seen the utter despondency that cruelly stroked that young soul.
Had he been able to say something - do something - to assure the boy, there would have been no fathomless ocean that could have swallowed that offered hope no matter the weight that it carried to the depths of his being. As the cold fingers of heartsickness had settled upon that child, were it in his grasp to blow away those icy whispers he would have given all for that one breath.
But he could not.
Deep within himself he laid. Lost. Somewhere. Without a guide to point his way.
He would have lashed out in frustration, but that fate would laugh at him.
The day Obi-Wan confessed every single time he had deliberately disobeyed him had nearly crushed his heart. The slumped shoulders and head bowed in shame as that politely accented voice laid bare every misdeed scraped like broken glass shards across his fragile existence.
That would have been enough.
But there was also the way the boy had let himself go, tending and cleaning his master while his own hair remained tousled and his tunic and leggings dirty. Sleep deprived eyes balanced on the edge of consciousness, while nimble hands worked until dawn.
I'm here, he wanted to scream. Don't cry for me yet.
But the yoke of guilt was heavy upon those young shoulders. Much too heavy a burden for one so barely out of youth. But the weight was unmistakable. And the eyes that once stared up at him in radiant admiration now welled with darkly pools of pain.
Oh, Obi-Wan! How have we come to this?
If he could have raised his hand to wipe the stray tears, he would have. If he could have touched that living fiber that ran from his mind to his padawan's, no star could have outshone his blinding admiration that would have been sent to that young mind.
Obi-Wan, I love you. The confession traveled endlessly in a loop inside him.
Please don't blame yourself.
But blame, he did.
And alone, locked within the prison of himself, Qui-Gon wept.
The warm sensuous blush of light swept softly across youthfully rounded cheeks and a smooth strong jaw. His eyes, at the same time bright with hope and glazed with an invisible pain, stared relentlessly at the man on the bed. Refusing to leave Qui-Gon's side, Obi-Wan had been kneeling at the foot of the stylish bed since the healers had arrived, his chin resting on arms flat on the mattress.
For long hours three healers were gathered there. Through the glass balcony doors, stars glimmered across the dome of the heavens, like priceless jewels in a black velvet crown, then faded at the first glints of dawn.
In the shelter of the room, in the presence of the healers and his master, Obi-Wan could no longer remain awake as his heavy lids finally sealed and the welcoming arms of exhaustion carried him to slumber. . . .
Howling winds receded, and the earth fell silent from the banshee shrieks of the twister, but the horror had just begun.
He left the protection of the ditch and dashed across the field, frantically searching with trembling hope. Damp blades of grass slashed against his legs, and he almost slid on the wet ground while nomads followed behind, speaking words he neither knew nor concerned himself with knowing at the moment. When he finally spotted the dark brown of Qui-Gon's robe, his eyes darkened and the wild flutter in his chest increased.
"Master," Obi-Wan whispered in desperation, dropping beside the Jedi master.
A shaky hand pushed silvery beige strands of hair out of the noble face, and the padawan gasped upon seeing the eyes that usually flared in wisdom open, but unfocused and vacant.
"Master, are you hurt?" he asked, smoothing the hair behind Qui-Gon's head. "Master?" The pitch in his voice had increased, and he pulled a sticky, blood-covered hand away.
Abruptly, Qui-Gon's eyes blinked and focused on him then, but they bore a coldness that the boy had never seen.
"M- Master?" This was not how he remembered it. No, this was not right!
"The child is dead, Padawan," spat out Qui-Gon, sharply. "And I've received a serious head injury. There is no excuse for this."
"But . . ." protested Obi-Wan, fighting for breath.
"You've always let me down, Padawan," the voice continued crisply. "Always. How many innocents will pay for your incompetence? How many problems will you cause with no hope for reparation?"
He wanted to say something to defend himself, but he knew the reprimand was justified. He knew his master was right. He was always right.
"They should have sent you away long before they tried. I would have applauded. The whole Temple would have. They knew what I did. That was why no one ever wanted you. No one will ever want you. I never did, and I certainly never will."
"Master, please," Obi-Wan begged.
"It's all your fault, Padawan. All your fault. Even if I recover, it will always be your fault, and the child will always be dead. It's all your fault. All your fault. All your fault. All your fault. . . .
How long he remained asleep he was not sure as he was stirred by a familiar presence, both gentle and gloriously powerful within the confines of his mind. At first it felt tentative, almost confused in its state before stretching with a giddy boldness.
With effort, Obi-Wan dragged his eyes open and raised his head. At first nothing appeared different other than that the elegant chamber was presently bathed by the gleaming incandescence of a waking sun. Shafts of light poured through the balcony doors, and the whole room was vivid in peacock green, soft creams, gold, and sable. The dimness of firelight from the night before had not hinted at the sheer beauty of the place.
The healers were gone. Was that good or bad, he wondered, as dread sourly gripped his stomach. He glanced at the fireplace. It was cold, and there were only sooty ashes left; yet the smell of burnt wood still hung in the air.
He felt the mental touch again and, though still in his grogginess that had forgotten the sensation before, peered at Qui-Gon with a wild gaze.
"Master?" he whispered uncertainly, his heart pounding out a nervous rhythm in his chest.
A mental chuckle rung in his head.
A smile blossomed across the padawan's face. "Master, it is you." He nearly fell over, rushing around to the side of the bed. Climbing on the mattress, he knelt beside Qui-Gon.
The master appeared to be asleep, eyes closed and still, but Obi-Wan knew better. With one hand the padawan stroked the silky graying tresses away from the pale face, and with the other gently cupped the wiry bearded cheek.
"Master? How do you feel?"
Obi-Wan, I'm here, but I feel very weak.
"Weak? Maybe you need to eat," Obi-Wan suggested. "Can you open your eyes?"
Yes. I think I can.
Obi-Wan anxiously watched the lids struggle as they tried to open. When they did, he stared into the sapphire orbs, happiness bubbling within him. Never had he felt so relieved to see the light of cognizance there. There were so many things he had taken for granted.
"Master," the boy panted with relief, a joyous smile tugging his lips. "I've missed you so much."
And I, you, Obi-Wan. Qui-Gon gazed into the greenest lambent pair of eyes the master had ever seen. They were large and round and strikingly glittered with the greenish tints of the room. Gladly, he noted that gone were the shadows of worry that had constantly clouded those eyes recently.
Qui-Gon tried for a smile, but it was very weak and barely registered on his pallid visage. Fine lines around his eyes wrinkled softly.
Obi-Wan, his mental voice continued, how long have we been here? After I was healed I fell asleep.
"Oh, you couldn't have been asleep long," the padawan commented warmly. "We arrived last night, and its," he glanced through the transparent doors to the dazzling day outside, "it's still early yet."
When Obi-Wan looked back to Qui-Gon there was an odd expression on the master's face. Concern, or something else, disturbed the normally placid features.
"Master?" Obi-Wan almost whispered. "What's wrong?"
The midnight eyes looked away. "This is a beautiful place," Qui-Gon said, his voice rough and weak from lack of use.
"Yes, Master," Obi-Wan agreed, less than enthusiastic.
Qui-Gon looked back at the boy. "Where are we? Have you discovered anything about their culture? Anything to help us get home?"
Obi-Wan cast his gaze downward. "No, Master."
Sliding off the bed, he trudged to the balcony's doors and stared outside with hands braced on the glass at either side of him. For a quiet moment, he stood there, washed in the gentle splendor of liquid sunlight, his hair brushed with gleaming golden threads and his face ivory white.
"This kingdom is called Dimisfree," the padawan said. "Three healers used focusing crystals on you last night, obviously some Force users here, but apparently they weren't aware of lightsabres, and they were astonished when I flipped over several of them."
Qui-Gon frowned. "You fought them?" he asked calmly.
"No," Obi-Wan looked at him, then to the floor. "Not really. I thought they were going to harm me, and they weren't so sure about what I was going to do to them. But no one was hurt. They offered to help you if we came with them. That's why we're here." He found two willow-tinted crystal latches, one per door. Twisting them, he parted the glass doors. "There's an ocean out here," he declared softly.
It's tranquilizing rush instantly suffused the chamber. Pleasant pictures of turquoise waves scrambling across spongy sands formed in Qui-Gon's head at the sound. The vision was made complete when he heard the squawking of a bird.
"A bird?" Qui-Gon rasped, his sparkling eyes turning to the padawan. "What does it look like? Describe it to me."
"Its large with pale peach feathers and has a long black beak," Obi-Wan answered as he stepped back into the room. He left the doors open, but went over to their canvas bag and started rifling through it.
"Sounds wonderful," Qui-Gon muttered, sounding as if his thoughts were far away.
"It is," Obi-Wan replied. "I'll get you something to eat, Master. You should feel better then, but I can't find . . ." he trailed off, his hands moving frantically though the bag. Abruptly, he stopped and pressed his palms against his face with a loud exhale.
"What is it, Padawan?"
"I can't find the comm," the boy fought to keep his voice steady. "I put the compression coil from my lightsabre in it and might be able to send a signal with it after I get it all back together. I know I put it in here. It has to be. I--I put it in here."
Concerned, Qui-Gon watched Obi-Wan as well as he could from the bed. "Are you sure, Padawan?"
"Yes, Master," said Obi-Wan, clearly dismayed. "At least, I thought I did. Maybe I . . . maybe I didn't. Maybe I messed up again. I've been so tired," he ended softly, barely above a whisper. Closing his eyes, he reached for any measure of serenity, but instead felt saturated by guilt's freezing waters that swept over him.
It's all my fault, the words flitted through his mind. Everything is.
Obi-Wan brushed away the distressful worry over the missing comm unit and slipped into the hall, intent on finding someone to bring a meal to his master. The corridor was wide with an arching ceiling that seemed to disappear up into blackest obscurity. Lit torches perched on rusting metal sconces along the walls served as the only lights. Their flames crackled softly and danced about, throwing gloomy shadows on stone grey walls and embroidered tapestries that hung periodically along the way.
There was no one in sight as he wandered about the endless dim passageways that made him think of a creepy labyrinth with an unnamed hideous creature lurking around the next corner. That thought elicited a tiny shiver down his spine.
As he walked, one particular tapestry caught his eye. Its sparkling threads twinkled shyly in the dinginess, but it was the picture that drew his gaze. A bearded man with the build of a warrior warmly clasped a younger man in his arms. A perfect picture of a father and son, reminding him so much of he and Qui-Gon in recent years. The rogue he was, Qui-Gon had not listened to the Council's warnings of strong emotional attachments and had formed a much closer bond with his padawan learner than had been advised.
Obi-Wan had been grateful.
The Council had not.
Perhaps they would have preferred the dream Qui-Gon, the padawan mused, bitterly. His master had never been cold toward him, but last night's dream version had taken on a harsh reality in itself by touching that sensitive pang of guilt for having ended one life and seriously injuring another.
He blinked and realized he was standing still in front of that tapestry, staring at it. Qui-Gon loved him like a son. That was a fact. And would have been enough to make his heart soar, but for the heaviness of guilt for hurting him that remained.
"Are you lost?"
Only mildly startled, Obi-Wan turned toward the voice. "I suppose I am," he answered truthfully in a soft timbre.
The woman was middle-aged and dressed plainly, the padawan noticed, in a simple dress of dull black, with her dark wine-colored hair wound into a tight bun. Probably a servant.
Eyes as dark as a starless sky narrowed with scrutiny, as they looked him up and down. "You must be the new . . . the new guest," she said a bit guardedly, her wispy lips stretching to a thin smile.
Obi-Wan folded his hands within the billowing sleeves of his robe and turned fully toward her. "Yes, ma'am."
Her face remained half in shadow, half in torchlight as she continued her dark stare. "Why are you out of your room?" she asked, still tight-lipped.
Obi-Wan blinked at her accusatory tone. "Well, my . . . uh, my father," the boy explained, not sure why he was keeping the nature of their relationship a secret, "needs some nourishment. I was hoping-"
Her sable eyes suddenly sharpened in interest. "He's awake?"
Obi-Wan nodded, his expression serious. "Yes. He is."
She noted the apparent childlike nature of this one and nodded slowly. It would not do to pity him though, so she cast away that thought and said, "I'll take you back to your room then. Breakfast will be brought to you."
"Thank you." The padawan bowed politely.
Ignoring the kindness, she swept past him. "Come. And don't leave your room again unless told to," she called over her shoulder, her tone rimed in frost.
Through the dim corridors, Obi-Wan followed closely behind. They only paused once, when three small, gray-furred rodent-like creatures seemed to appear out of nowhere and scurry past them, only to disappear in the blackness of an intersecting passageway.
Obi-Wan had almost drawn his lightsabre in surprise, ignoring the fact that it would not have worked with the missing part. "What was that?" he asked in a hushed breath.
She snorted sarcastically. "Karabils. They're perfectly harmless . . . as long as you stay away from them."
"Master, they're bringing food. Is there anything I can do for you now?" Obi-Wan inquired as he stepped back into their sunlit chamber. Diaphanous green curtains in the balcony doorway billowed gently on an oceanic breeze, and the smell of the sea drifted through.
A graying eyebrow rose. "You can help me sit up, Padawan," said Qui-Gon, tiredly.
The padawan stood at the side of the bed, hands on hips and mischief smoldering in pale eyes. "Hmm. And if I didn't?"
Two sleepy sapphire eyes suddenly grew huge.
Obi-Wan snickered at the scowl on Qui-Gon's face. "Okay, Master. I was just teasing you, you know?"
"You just wait until your old master regains his strength," Qui-Gon growled in mock sternness.
Carefully, Obi-Wan slid his hands under Qui-Gon's shoulders, pushing him onto a sitting position, then packed several bead-tasseled satin pillows behind the large man and arranged the silken coverlet comfortably around his waist.
Qui-Gon eased back into the fluffy welter of softness, sighing into the comfort. He ran his palms over the rich fabric that encased him. "When was the last time I was the guest of a king?" his gentle baritone wondered aloud.
"Probably the time you jumped into that river full of Morindidas on Ta'Kalene IV," Obi-Wan replied, with only a hint of a smile. "Nasty, slithering things, they were."
"I jumped in there to save you, young Padawan," grumbled Qui-Gon. "And if you don't stop your impertinent behavior this morning you're going to find yourself in dire straits again."
When there was no response, Qui-Gon looked at his padawan, who was fighting very hard to keep a straight face. Then they both broke down into chuckles.
When the food was brought, they were both given heavy silver trays filled with polished silver dishes. Qui-Gon was served in bed; Obi-Wan sat in a chair pulled up beside the sturdy bed. They each had a stack of flat sweetcakes smothered in ruby syrup, scrambled Javu eggs - at least they tasted like it - and a bowl of tiny Harberries. In an elegant goblet was served freshly squeezed Ajim juice, they were told, from the King's personal vineyards.
For the moment, Obi-Wan pushed away the turmoil of his emotions. Seeing Qui-Gon well and at peace was all he wanted to think about now, and to be able to bring a bright ray of laughter into his mentor's life was the least he could do to pay for the traumatic experience that he had put Qui-Gon through.
Obi-Wan breathed in the enticing sweet scent of flowers and burnt wood mixing with the tang of the sea. The ambrosia of a tropical paradise. Feeling as if being watched, he looked at his master and caught the seriousness in the older man's gaze. "Master?" he said, clearing his throat. "Is something wrong?"
The midnight eyes stared at Obi-Wan for a few silent seconds more before Qui-Gon drew in a deep breath. "Obi-Wan, did you tell anyone about the comm? About what we were doing with it?"
A tiny frown creased the padawan's brow while he thought. Slowly, he placed his goblet back on tray with a small clink. "I . . . guess I told Loresce," he answered quietly.
"Loresce? The . . ." Qui-Gon caught himself, not sure whether to let Obi-Wan know that he had witnessed the boy's despair while he was incapacitated. Yet, while it might be embarrassing, the whole situation would have to be discussed at some point because of the boy's self-blame.
There was also the rather curious conversation Loresce had had with the padawan within Qui-Gon's hearing and the mentioning of terms for the master's care by healers. Terms that had not been sufficiently explained.
"The King's niece," Obi-Wan supplied, and noticed his mentor's sickly pallor had not left. "Of course, the Dibari knew that it was important to us. I don't think they would have understood what it was, though. I doubt the Dimisfreens, or whatever they call themselves, would understand either."
Qui-Gon rubbed his beard. "Why are you so sure?" he asked in a voice laced with gentleness.
Shifting uncomfortably, the boy said, "well, I haven't seen anything near that level of technology here."
"Yes," agreed Qui-Gon, "but that's an assumption, Padawan."
A small nod. "Yes, it is, Master," Obi-Wan conceded, stealing a glance at the soft expression on the master's face. "Are you suggesting . . ."
"I'm not suggesting anything," Qui-Gon remarked, but the flickering doubt in his eyes suggested otherwise. "But we are in a place that we know nothing about."
Obi-Wan stared at the shiny obsidian-tiled floor and swallowed. The rise of uncertainty suddenly stretched out like an ocean before him.
"Obi-Wan?" Qui-Gon waited until after the padawan's gaze slowly rose to meet his, to give him undivided attention.
But those sea-sprayed eyes were dark and grimly prophetic.
Qui-Gon heaved a sigh. "Did Loresce-"
"Good morning," a feminine voice proclaimed from the door. "The King wishes to see you both now." It was a servant woman.
Having observed how pale his master still looked, Obi-Wan said softly, "Master, can you . . ."
Qui-Gon's mouth turned up in a reassuring smile. "I think I can make it, Obi-Wan. Help me into my boots."
The darkness of the passages began to dissipate as they entered a corridor bejeweled in candled chandeliers. Strings of falling, multi-faceted crystal drops hung from their black metal frames and cast a soft glitter of light on walls, floor, and ceiling.
They had walked a long distance, it seemed, to reach this place. Qui-Gon, with a bracing hand on Obi-Wan's shoulder, kept their pace slow, but steady, and when they came to a halt at the end of the hall, they faced two huge crimson doors, which split almost immediately. The servant woman stood to the side, waved them in, and then the doors screeched shut behind them.
Obi-Wan glanced worriedly at his master. The walk had been difficult for Qui-Gon, placing a fair amount of his considerable weight on the smaller Jedi.
"I'm fine, Obi-Wan," Qui-Gon assured, sensing the growing concern. He squeezed the young shoulder and smiled serenely.
Somewhere deep inside him, Obi-Wan felt the burn of a raw pain. He had caused this - this physical weakness - in his vigorous, normally graceful master, and now to see him like this . . . The padawan did not want to consider it any longer.
Nodding grudgingly, the padawan looked away to conceal the misty storm of shame that raged in his heart, sure it reflected in his eyes. Filled with that bitter ache, he dropped his gaze to his hands, only partially visible from the folds of his rough robe, expecting to see the telltale stains of his crime there, but was surprised to see their creamy pale hue instead.
He softly sighed and turned to take in their new surroundings.
It was a spacious chamber. Thick ivory columns stood near the side walls, leading to a raised platform at the opposite end where two elegant thrones sat - one larger than the other and placed in the middle of the dais. Three oblong windows stretched about fifteen meters, ceiling-to-floor, and framed the thrones with a heavenly white gleam.
In the larger throne sat a tall man, lines wrinkling his face and a halo of white hair. He was old, but his build appeared to have once been that of a warrior. King Nolab, they had been told, was the king's name.
In the other throne, Loresce sat primly in the olive and mandarin pillowed seat, her dainty hands clasped in her lap. She met Obi-Wan's eyes briefly, before looking airily away.
"Come closer," the King's strong voice rang out.
Once again, Qui-Gon rested one hand on Obi-Wan as they made their way toward the thrones. They knelt before the platform's steps, in the soft glow of light flooding through the windows, as they had been instructed to do, and watched as the elderly king rose with difficulty to his feet.
"Welcome," King Nolab intoned with a faint trace of reluctance. Moving down the steps, he pulled at his saffron brocade robe, adjusting the fit, and stopped on the bottom step. "Dimisfree is pleased by your presence. I trust you have received adequate care, uh . . ."
"Qui-Gon Jinn," Qui-Gon supplied politely. "And Obi-Wan Kenobi," he glanced at the padawan. "And yes, Your Highness. The care has been excellent. Thank you."
Nolab's lips curled up in a smile. "Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi." His eyes shifted from Qui-Gon to Obi-Wan, softly painted in creams and browns by the early light. Then he looked away, to the space over their heads. "The hateful fire of war has been extinguished. Our people live in security. Women are not afraid to take children into the fields to play. Peace," he said passionately, "is real. Not a fanciful dream."
The man's russet eyes fell to Qui-Gon's, and there was an unmistakable swell of pain in them that the Jedi master could not have imagined.
"We are civilized, Qui-Gon Jinn," the King went on, his voice taking on a hint of defense. "We live in peace with our surrounding kingdoms. Once, that was not so. Once, the plains were stained with the fresh blood of our sons. We were tirelessly killing ourselves."
His pause felt awkward in the large chamber.
Obi-Wan shifted uncomfortably. He felt incredibly hot, and his stomach was roiling with mounting anxiety, despite the apparent harmlessness of the conversation.
"That was long ago, until our fathers came together in the midst of a long forgotten spring and proposed a way to cease our warfare. Now we have peace." Nolab cleared his throat. "Your son is a skilled fighter, I am told."
Qui-Gon drew in a deep breath, concerned where this conversation was going. "Yes, Your Highness. I would say so."
Nolab smiled and ascended the steps back to his throne where he half-turned to face them. "Good. We have need of him, and he has pledged service to us in exchange for your care by our healers."
Qui-Gon felt a tremor of unease from Obi-Wan, but did not turn to look at him. Instead, he maintained a steady gaze in Nolab's eyes and spoke in his masterly calm tone. "If warfare is no more, then why is one such as Obi-Wan needed? Please explain, Your Highness."
"Thralage," Nolab replied, white eyebrows arching as if in punctuation. "He accepted the terms."
Qui-Gon frowned. "What does that mean? What has he agreed to do."
"I didn't agree to anything," Obi-Wan blurted out, shooting to his feet, eyes wide in shock.
"Obi-Wan." Qui-Gon's voice was slightly edged, mildly warning. He watched the tense posture of his padawan hesitantly relax, the mutinous aquamarine eyes falter and drop to the floor.
Nolab waited in the strained silence until the boy slid back to his knees and stilled. "Mortal combat," the King answered the Jedi master, resolutely showing no interest in the boy's outburst, "with representatives from other kingdoms."
"Representatives . . . or slaves?" Qui-Gon thought he already knew the answer. The term of 'thralage' sounded a little too close to another one.
Nolab shrugged, as if unconcerned. "They fight, for glory, for tradition. For the survival of peace. Without them, our peace would quickly crumble and we would be at war again. They are owned, that is true, but they have our undying gratitude."
"But I agreed to no such thing," Obi-Wan again protested, his jaw stubbornly set. "You healed Qui-Gon, and I'm grateful for that, but I can not stay here."
Nolab sighed tiredly. "Was not Thralage mentioned to you," he asked, "in exchange for your father's care?"
Obi-Wan stole a shame-filled glance at Qui-Gon and read the affectional concern in the softening midnight eyes. "Yes," Obi-Wan answered softly. "But it was not explained to me."
The King nodded, and he turned a sadly knowing face away. "And is that an excuse for not honoring your word? A man's word is a man's worth."
Obi-Wan's stomach tightened, the foolishness of his hasty decision frustrating him. Tempestuous eyes drifted to Loresce, who was busy pulling nervously at the sheer lace of her skirt. He briefly wondered if it would have made any difference if the terms had been explained. Healing Qui-Gon was all he had wanted, and he was glad it had been done.
"If you did not understand, you should have asked beforehand," Nolab added, almost apologetically, and his lips drew into a rueful smile. "I'm sorry. There's nothing I can do. The streets of Dimisfree are already in celebration. Please, go with these men to your new accommodations." An outswept hand indicated three soldiers standing to the side.
The padawan tensed slightly. "No," he insisted, almost breathlessly.
"Obi-Wan," said Qui-Gon, a bit sternly. "Let me handle this."
Heart fluttering in bewilderment, Obi-Wan stared into his master's eyes, saw the 'trust me' glowing in their sapphire depths. He wanted to protest, to tell them all that he was not - could not be - owned by anyone, but he clamped his mouth shut and bowed his head, suddenly feeling despairingly sick.
Forcing himself to look away from the look of abject hurt on the boy's countenance and the slumped shoulders, Qui-Gon sent a wave of reassurance along their bond.
"He will not be harmed by us, as long as he cooperates," Nolab added persuasively, and shifted from one foot to the other. "I am needed elsewhere now, Qui-Gon Jinn. You are welcome to remain here until you can find other arrangements. And if you have more you wish to discuss of this matter, I will gladly listen when I am available."
Qui-Gon seemed to consider this and nodded slowly, sensing no deceit from the King. "Go with them, Obi-Wan," he instructed gently. "I will talk with you later," he glanced at Nolab, "if it will be permitted."
"Of course," Nolab responded. "I'm pleased to see that you are an honorable man, Qui-Gon Jinn."
The Jedi master politely nodded once and allowed himself one last look at the boy, now bathed softly in an ethereal radiance that crawled across the burnished citrus marble floor, before he was taken away.
"Mine?" he whispered, eyes round and sweeping incredulously over his new room.
It was elegantly stylish and embellished in fine furniture and exquisite design, just as Qui-Gon's room had been, only this one was in pale blues, cobalt, ivory, and sable. Sheer baby blue netting hung abundantly from a ring at the end of a chain from the ceiling, and pooled over the bed like a silken waterfall. An ivory marble fireplace was flecked in navy and sat next to black metal-work doors inlaid with cut glass, now gleaming in brilliant natural light.
The click of the deadbolt behind him drew his attention from the enchanting room. Whirling around, Obi-Wan tried the door's knob. It was locked, of course. Why would anything go in his favor?
That would not have been a problem under normal circumstances, but the wide gold bands they had placed around his wrists had frighteningly disrupted his connection to the Force. They must have something in them that caused that. There were Force-users here, so they had to be aware of what they were doing.
He walked across the dark wood-paneled floor to the balcony doors. Throwing them open, he stepped into the brightness of day, his russet hair set afire coppery bright. It was warm, the sun beating sizzling rays on the world below. His eyes scanned the view. Ocean waters glowed turquoise and washed relentlessly upon sands shimmery white, frothy foam at its shallow edges. There was a tall granite stone wall that ran all along the coast for as far he as could see in both directions, a strip of beach between it and the sea. He spotted several men stationed on the top of the wall, soldiers by appearances.
It was too far to jump to the ground, and besides that, he should wait until Qui-Gon settled everything. His master would get him out of this. Wouldn't he?
Tramping back into his room, he threw himself on the bed. It was strangely comforting, the silk cobalt coverlet soft and smooth against his skin, the lulling fragrance of something similar to dasily tea spice seeping from the fabric. The bed held him safely and surely.
Yet, at the same time, he felt adrift on a cloud, lost from his past, the future a shadowed passageway leading to an unknown.
He wanted so much to leave and go home. After exhausting himself caring for his master, trying to repair the comm unit so they could leave, and bearing the guilt for a child's death and his master's possible life-changing injury, he had been forced onto a path to pay for it all under terms he had not understood.
Until too late.
In the haze of despair and guilt that he had been in when they had first arrived here, he had not seen that Loresce's offer had come with conditions. Had she tried to trick him?
Did it really matter anymore?
Looking back, it had not been a wise choice, but the padawan knew that he would probably do it again to help his master. He would willingly pay any price to correct his mistake that could have cost Qui-Gon his future.
By the Force, maybe this was his fate. It had been his fault, afterall, Qui-Gon's injury had.
And there was the child's death.
Lyril was a beautiful child. Her dark crimson hair had fanned out on the ground around her head like the soft halo of a sun. Her small face had held a lovely peace, unlike the terror that had twisted it as she ran across the field, away from the whirling tornado.
When he shifted, he noticed the dampness of the coverlet beneath his face, where tears had dripped from reddened eyes. After a muffled sniff, he levered himself up on his elbows and stared dully at the shimmery baby blue netting gathered about the bed. A shaky hand pushed some of it aside that had shifted around him when he had thrown himself on the mattress.
Slowly, he crawled up to the pillows and burrowed his face into their soothing softness, exhaustion descending on him. Tear-soaked lashes swept over weary eyes, and they closed against the beautiful sight of his new prison.
And his mind closed to everything else.
It's all your fault, soft whispers in his mind declared. You deserve this.
And he knew they were right.
In the cradle of the elegant bed, Obi-Wan fell asleep with unsettling thoughts plaguing his soul. Condemned by himself, by his own ineptness, by his own existence.
The room was lost in a deep well of silence.
He looked up from his plate of food, his gaze unfocused and troubled and not really seeing the slant of afternoon light through the glass doors. He was a slave, a thrall, a gladiator. And he had walked right into it.
The meal had looked appetizing, but the ache inside him killed any desire for food that he might have had, and had consequently spent most of the time pushing a piece of stewed vemelg around on his plate.
Setting the china aside on the bed where he sat, Obi-Wan sighed and then frowned in confusion. There was a tiny scratching sound, like little claws scurrying across a wooden floor. He searched for its direction and then slightly jumped from alarm when frizzy gray fuzz appeared at the foot of the bed.
Two ruby eyes stared out from amidst the fuzz, and the small creature clambered fully up on the mattress. It was one of those Karabils, the rodents that he had seen in one of the passages.
Remembering the warning about them, he prepared to slowly ease off the bed, but stopped when it squeaked and sat back on its haunches, the large round eyes watching him curiously.
"Go away," Obi-Wan entreated with a scowl.
It just sat there, cocking its fluffy head to the side.
"I said, go away," the padawan demanded, emphasizing with the sweep of one arm.
He picked up a small piece of bread from his plate and threw it at the little creature. Then, he watched in surprise as it squeaked and jumped to the bread. After a tentative sniff, it grasped the piece in its tiny clawed hands and began nibbling away.
Once it had gobbled up that piece, the Karabil gazed back at him, fat gray-furred cheeks still moving as it finished chewing on the last bite.
Obi-Wan relaxed. The creature was only hungry. It didn't appear dangerous, and its tiny teeth could not do much harm.
"Want more, fluffy?" he asked, smiling, and then tossed another piece of bread to the creature, this one landing closer to the padawan than the other one.
The Karabil trotted nearer and snapped up the bread, immediately gnawing on it.
Obi-Wan was lost in the happy wonder of the moment after several more bread tossings and the Karabil was within arms' length. At last, he held a piece between thumb and index finger, his arm resting in his lap. He waited breathlessly and watched the creature come forward. Its tiny black moist snout ran over the bread in the boy's hand and was about to snatch the piece away . . .
When an unexpected knock sounded on the bedroom's door. Startled, the Karabil dashed off the mattress and quickly disappeared under a tall dark wood dresser.
Obi-Wan sighed. The momentary happy escape from his situation broken, reality set back in.
He watched passively as the tall, imposing figure of his master entered. His dark brown robe, tunics and pants looked homespun and plain in the rich elegance of the bedchamber, but the man's obvious grace made up for any commonality that he might appear to have. He was looking better now, his pallor replaced by healthy color and physical strength returning.
"Obi-Wan," Qui-Gon greeted.
They both heard the click of the room's door lock. Qui-Gon ignored it as he stepped through a glaring bar of sunlight and closer to the bed, his eyes flashing around the room and instantly cataloging everything. Then they settled on Obi-Wan.
"How are you?" the master asked. His gaze roamed impassively over Obi-Wan who sat in a dimness that shaded half of the chamber. A thick alabaster candle on a bedside table cast a pale radiance over the boy, and Qui-Gon noticed the padawan's new attire, loose trousers of deep blue silk and a matching open vest.
Obi-Wan stared at Qui-Gon for a moment, before quickly averting his gaze. "I'm . . . fine, Master," the boy answered stiffly and pulled his knees up to his chest.
"No," Qui-Gon said as he shook his head slowly, "you're not." His voice was strong and comforting at the same time, a trait that more than once had given the padawan pause to wonder at the man's true intentions.
Obi-Wan blinked before a crease appeared between his narrow brows, and he was grateful for the comfort of shadows. "Why do you say that?" But he still would not meet the other's eyes.
Qui-Gon came closer and crossed his arms in the wide sleeves of his robe. "Because something is troubling your heart."
The bold bluntness of the words left Obi-Wan unable to draw a breath.
"Because you will not confide in me," Qui-Gon added, while he watched for any visible reaction. "And," he spoke more gently, "when you will not talk things out with me, I have good reason to be concerned, my padawan. I cannot stand idly by while you're hurting."
Obi-Wan sat unmoving, hearing the rush of blood in his ears, feeling the racing palpitations in his chest, though on the outside, he appeared composed.
Having been conscious throughout most of his comatose locked-in state, Qui-Gon knew the boy blamed himself. But getting him to admit that and accept instruction and guidance from his master was not always an easy task, Qui-Gon knew from years of experience. And he was also well aware of Obi-Wan's habit of assuming things - even things beyond his control - as his responsibility to make right or to prevent from going wrong.
So when things did go wrong . . .
"Will you talk to me about what troubles you?" inquired Qui-Gon, the silver streaks of his hair sparkling softly in the descent of light.
There was an inordinate amount of time swallowed by silence, and Qui-Gon was beginning to think that Obi-Wan would never respond.
"I . . . I don't think," the padawan's voice came oddly strained and not without a little quiver, while a sweaty hand slid over the sensuous glide of silk on his knee. "I don't think I am . . . worthy to be a padawan." He inhaled a quick lung-full of air. "I don't think . . . everyone would have let that child . . . or let their own master be harmed so."
"Obi-Wan, you didn't let the child-"
"I did," Obi-Wan cut in harshly, eyes bright with pain and boring into the master's darker ones. "I missed her when I should have sensed her there. And you," he swallowed hard and swept his gaze over the older man, and then in a voice suddenly hushed, "almost died."
"I've almost died several times," Qui-Gon countered with an absurd serenity.
"But not because of . . ." The answer would not pass Obi-Wan's lips.
Qui-Gon's eyes were pooled with empathy. "Because of your mistake?" he finished.
The gentle inflection struck at the padawan's heart, and the boy had to look away again.
Fully entering the shadows, Qui-Gon sat down on the side of the bed, facing him. "None of us are perfect, Obi-Wan. But if we keep our mistakes inside, without release, they fester and destroy us from within."
It was so easy to say.
"I feel so numb." Obi-Wan's voice sounded hollow and as if he had not even heard Qui-Gon. He looked down at the gold bands on his wrists as he held them out, the metal reflecting soft glints of gold from candlelight.
Honoring the boy's unwillingness to talk his problem out now, Qui-Gon reached out and gently pulled one of Obi-Wan's arms closer to study the band. With one finger, he barely touched and quickly withdrew it as if he had been stung. The band had felt like it was sucking the life from him, much like a Force-inhibiting collar.
"How do they expect me to fight like this?" Obi-Wan asked tonelessly.
"I don't know, Padawan. But I've been told that your first match is in three days." Qui-Gon paused when crystal eyes rose and met his, and a question glowed within the aquamarine ones. "I want to free you legitimately. And I feel the Force leading me to do it that way," he said softly, hoping his student would understand.
When Obi-Wan did nothing but stare at him, he went on. "There's a merchant I met just before I came here who asked me to accompany him to another kingdom across the sea. He said there are ways to communicate with others beyond there. I'm hoping he means that we can contact Coruscant. And I hope I can learn more about this culture."
"You're leaving me." Obi-Wan stated blankly and in an unsurprised tone.
Qui-Gon felt Obi-Wan trying to tug his arm from Qui-Gon grasp, so the master let go. "Only for a few days. But . . . it won't be until after your first match."
"Then it may be too late," Obi-Wan admitted quietly, frost forming quickly over his heart. "I might be-"
"Obi-Wan, don't say that," Qui-Gon insisted calmly. "There is an alternative to kill or be killed."
Dimisfree was a kingdom soaked in tradition. Balanced on the brink of the aged Summer Jubilee, where the whole citizenry gathered for an array of showcased artistry and merrymaking, the kingdom was arife with joyous laughing and drifting crowds.
Qui-Gon wandered aimlessly among the busy muddle of men, brightly draped women, and boisterous children. The trip had unearthed little information on the fights, and even less on the laws concerning them.
King Nolab had answered the Jedi master's questions yesterday, yet offered only sparse elaboration on the subject. Even so, one thing was evident: whenever the fights were mentioned, Obi-Wan had been the centerpiece of conversation. Further, there was more resting on the fights than tradition and glory. Profit was as much of a draw as anything else - in the form of gambling.
After being recognized by the guards at the stone gate, the Jedi master marched through the open courtyard of lush, sun-baked gardens and entered a wide portico along the side of the King's mansion. Soldiers paced about the colonnade while servant girls carried woven baskets of colorful ripened fruits and ground grains.
He made his way through a short breezeway and into an open, sun-splattered quad. Even before he saw them, he heard the metallic clank of their weapons and the harsh breathing of the two combatants. A surge of pride filled Qui-Gon's chest at the sight of Obi-Wan easily driving his sparring partner back. Even with his access to the Force muted beyond usability, his pupil excelled in close combat.
But something was not right.
"No," Qui-Gon hissed, quickly recognizing Obi-Wan's savage, sharp motions that stemmed from anger.
When the blade of Obi-Wan's sword nicked the other man's shoulder, and a dark rivulet of blood appeared, Qui-Gon rushed forward, intent on stopping the padawan's unrestrained assault. The man fell back, sprawling on the ground with Obi-Wan over him.
The padawan paused briefly, breaths coming in ragged pants, then threw his weighty weapon to the side, where it landed with a dull thud on dusty earth. Bending over to rest his hands on his thighs, he concentrated on slowing his breathing. He knew his master was there. He had caught a glimpse of him, heard the quietly muttered protest, guessed at the growing dismay, the disappointment that his loss of control had undoubtedly caused. And now he dreaded to face him.
Slowing, Qui-Gon came up behind Obi-Wan and stopped, uncertain of what to say. He could hear the boy mumbling something between breaths, words over and over again. A few, he caught and identified as a serenity litany. The seventh one, Obi-Wan's favorite.
"Why, Master?" the padawan finally asked, his voice baring the weariness not only of his body, but also of his mind.
Qui-Gon stood there, momentarily faltering in words, and watched as Obi-Wan straightened and turned to face him. Coppery hair was wet and tousled, sweat dripped from ivory skin sheathed in black leather boots, pants and vest, and pale eyes with the faintest hint of anger stared at him.
Obi-Wan licked at the perspiration around his mouth, then inquired almost breathlessly, "why don't you leave me here?"
The question hung in the air between them. Qui-Gon knew exactly what Obi-Wan meant.
The deep sapphire of Qui-Gon's gaze softened, and he stepped close enough that Obi-Wan had to look up at him. "I will not abandon you," he softly enunciated.
But what was intended as reassurance struck like unwanted - or undeserved - exoneration, and Obi-Wan's eyes shimmered with self-loathing. The padawan suddenly felt dizzy and sick inside. "Master," he said quietly, respectfully, "you needn't stay just for me."
The Jedi master's eyes widened. "Just for you?" he echoed, more for himself. "Obi-Wan, I want nothing more than to grab you and run from here, as far away as I can. But I must obey the will of the Force."
"Perhaps the Force wants you to leave me," Obi-Wan suggested, solemnly, honestly.
Qui-Gon could only shake his head. No, the Force would never want that.
The boy half-turned away and rubbed his eyes with the heel of one hand. "Then, perhaps," he spoke as a whisper, "I want you to leave me." Large hands suddenly clasped his shoulders, turning him roughly back around to face Qui-Gon.
"Never say that," Qui-Gon said gruffly. He noticed Obi-Wan flinch, saw the brief shadow of fear in the sea-colored depths, then gentled his hold.
For a moment neither spoke. Their eyes met and held, a million thoughts conveyed through sight alone. Obi-Wan's fear of being left and his feelings of immense guilt. Qui-Gon's fierce protectiveness and the underlying love for a son in all ways but blood.
Abruptly, the master pulled Obi-Wan into a huge hug, his bearded chin resting on sweaty spikes of russet hair. The padawan stood limply in the embrace, felt warm breaths on dampened hair.
"I will never abandon you, my Padawan," Qui-Gon declared softly. "Never."
They curled up into black ribbons, twisting and shriveling up. Orange flames danced above them, wood crackled softly in the darkness of his bedchamber, and he watched intently as the evidence of his repentance was destroyed by his own hand.
Sleep had been elusive to a troubled mind. So here, on a soft sable fur rug, he huddled in his deep-blue silken attire, a chenille throw wrapped tightly around shivering shoulders, despite the warmth of a summer's night.
Obi-Wan tore another strip of paper off, satisfied with the ripping sound it made, and tossed it into the fire.
He had found the crinkly loose-leaf paper and an ink stylus in the night-table drawer and, in the tradition he had abided by since turning fifteen, set down to write out his confession to Qui-Gon. It was always easier for him this way - to lay out his words, organizing them in the best way - before he actually confronted his master with it.
On the padawan's fifteenth birthday, Qui-Gon had bought him his first ream of silk-skin paper, a gold stylus with one large cyan gemstone on the top, and a satiny black box to keep them in. He treasured it, and anytime he needed to pour out his feelings, the paper was there to catch them.
A padawan is not perfect - no Jedi is.
That thought, as well as his master's gentle presence and patience with him over the last few days, had driven Obi-Wan to decide a formal apology was in order to Qui-Gon for the blame for the master's injury and Lyril's death. It was the right thing to do. And it would place him in the expected position to let those feelings go to the Force.
But that would have indicated that he had thoroughly examined them, that his willingness to put the event behind him and unnecessarily dwell on it no longer would never be compromised. And he was not ready for that.
Another strip blackened into a wispy curl and turned to sooty ashes.
The fact that he always let Qui-Gon down weighed upon him.
One last strip of his confession remained. With a trembling hand, Obi-Wan held it closer to the flames; they jumped excitedly in anticipation. When the paper made contact with a tendril of fire, harried eyes reflected its orange glow, the flames of judgment condemning his would-be penance.
He knew Qui-Gon was disappointed with him. Not even able to control his temper during sparring, the padawan knew his master had seen him for the disgusting failure he was.
"Ah!" he yelped, quickly pulling his hand back. It burned, as if dipped in molten lava, and his fingers were reddened, the skin sickly glossy.
Biting his lip against the pain, he cradled his wounded hand to his chest and slowly rocked in the forlorn gloom of his chamber.
Qui-Gon was chilled by the swelling aura of bloodlust that reverberated through the Force, growing exponentially more intense the closer he got to the arena. Its malicious power loomed like a sabergrikk about to pounce its helpless prey.
People streamed through entry tunnels, the crowds spilling out into the open-air arena and spreading over the endless rows of seating. Although just another part of the Summer Jubilee, the fights drew the biggest crowds to Dimisfree, with travelers from distant kingdoms crossing vast distances to attend.
Even before he emerged from the cramped tunnels and into the royal balcony, Qui-Gon heard the deafening sound of the crowd. He had had to slam his shields down to keep himself from being overcome by the sheer malice that swarmed through the Force.
"You worry for him," Loresce's dulcet voice came from behind him.
Qui-Gon rested his hands on the stone balustrade that edged the balcony seating and overlooked the field of sand and dirt. His gaze was fixed on the heavy black gates where Obi-Wan was to enter.
"Yes," he confirmed without turning around. Her statement had not asked for a reply, but he felt compelled to, nonetheless.
"He will bring wealth to our land," Loresce said as she stopped at the balustrade beside him. "Like when I was a child." She sounded wistful.
Qui-Gon turned to her. "How was it when you were a child?"
"Much as it is today, only," she paused, and the afternoon sunlight touched on lowered deep-crimson lashes, "we worried not for our future."
A wild breeze tossed the Jedi master's hair, as Qui-Gon clasped his hands in billowing sleeves. "Your economy rests on . . . this," he said the last word with a note of disgust.
"Our economy rests on many things, Sulen Jinn," Loresce snapped, harsher than she had intended and using the title of a respected nobleman.
Qui-Gon stiffened slightly before he saw regret glittering in her eyes.
"I'm sorry," she softly spoke, and her gaze drifted to the gates where only moments ago Qui-Gon had been staring.
But there was more behind her anger than pride. She was hiding something that Qui-Gon could not quite place in his attempt to shield himself from the waves of savage depravity that surrounded him like the smell of the sea that hung on the wind.
In the brightness of the arena field, Obi-Wan stood with eyes skimming over the crowd, trying to locate his master, while he absently wiped his hands on the black leather of his trousers, careful of his wrapped hand. He was not afraid, but the sizzling heat from the sun burning overhead had him sweating even before his match had begun.
Qui-Gon watched from the comfort of the King's personal balcony. Obi-Wan's opponent, representing far-away Meerfell, was a large man with ample upper-body strength, thick thighs, long stringy hair. But he would more than likely be slow. Obi-Wan had the advantage.
As the two engaged in combat using swords, Qui-Gon found it difficult to refrain from using the Force to influence it - especially since his padawan could only feel a vague touch of its power and was unable to access it.
The boy is not helpless, Qui-Gon kept reminding himself. He will be fine.
The Jedi master retained a stoic façade, obstinately stifling his rebellious urges to interfere and disobey the Force's prodding.
He watched as Obi-Wan blocked skillful strikes and danced around the Meerfellian's attacks. Every move was accentuated by the excitement of the crowd. And Qui-Gon held his breath each time blood was drawn, knowing Obi-Wan endeavored to keep it to a minimum despite the inevitability that the precious liquid be spilled.
Obi-Wan ducked the heavy swing of the other's blade and easily swept the man's feet from beneath him. Then with a nimble kick, left him weaponless.
Standing with the rest of the crowd who waited for the killing blow, Qui-Gon swallowed heavily as his padawan, instead, shook his head emphatically, and the master almost smiled at the boy's bold defiance to the mandates of the bloodsport.
The blade of his sword held to the bigger man's throat, Obi-Wan stood unflinching as insults and food debris were hurled at him.
But of all the anxieties that Qui-Gon had conquered that day, none had challenged him like the one that gripped his insides as Obi-Wan was led away by a squad of guards.
* * * * * * *
Sometimes it was hard to understand, to be so completely reliant on it, to trust everything you did to its invisible hands. It would never abandon him no matter where it led him . . . or left him - as it sometimes felt.
"I am not alone," Obi-Wan whispered against the pain that broke his body. He blinked hard, sweat stinging eyes bright with lingering pain, and tried to find a spark of that soothing presence that could take him and hold him in its power and wipe away the physical discomforts that engulfed his body. It was there, but all he could sense was a hazy scintilla, the rest kept at bay by the gleaming golden bands that decorated his wrists.
He reached for it again, slightly out of desperation, slightly out of cognition that it could help - if only he could grasp it. If only.
A heavy weakness overcame him - again - and he gave up on touching that caressing energy again.
But then there were gentle hands touching him, a touch coolly relieving and warmly lulling.
"Oh," he gasped quietly, involuntarily voicing his pleasure.
"I will not abandon you, Obi-Wan," the words tenderly fell to him. Words of comfort, words of hope. "And neither will the Force."
A small frown creased his brow. He had thought he was dreaming, but the hands on his back continued rubbing something cool and consoling of the pain that resided there. It was then that he realized there was silken soft fabric beneath him.
"Master?" he said, his breath light and full of misery.
The hands paused. "Yes, my Padawan?" the baritone replied.
Obi-Wan moved his head to find the source of the voice and ignored the lancing pain that action sent through him. Against a blast of white light lay a dark silhouette of a very familiar shape.
"Master," he tried again to reach for - something - to bring everything into perspective.
And Qui-Gon seemed to know. He always seemed to know and provide the perfect answer every time.
The gentle hands began smoothing that cool substance over the padawan's back again. "They think that they can break you, Obi-Wan," Qui-Gon said, somberly. "They think that their game will suffer, and you are an example to those who believe it should be stopped."
Qui-Gon paused, sapphire eyes skittering worriedly over the cuts that marked the padawan's back by the whip they had used on him. Dipping his long fingers in the jar of saffron ointment again, the master smeared more of it across the broken skin and sent more healing Force energy into the hurting body. Perhaps Obi-Wan could feel some of it.
But why had he not stopped this? Qui-Gon fumed inwardly that his padawan - his padawan - had suffered so. And what got him the most was that he had stood by when they had tied Obi-Wan to the post. He had stood by when the glass-tipped whip had been brought out. He had stood by when it had snapped through the air and Obi-Wan had tried his best to remain silent. He had stood by - because the Force had kept him from interfering.
No, no. It was not the Force's fault. There were things that he did not always understand about its leading, but this time had nearly broken him.
"When can I go home, Master?" the softly spoken plea was like another stab to his heart.
And there were tears threatening to form in Qui-Gon's eyes. Reluctantly, he met the questioning aquamarine gaze and, unable to hold it, his gaze slid away - to the padawan's torn back, then to the cobalt coverlet and followed its cascade down to the floor.
An inexpressible ache burned in the padawan's chest as he saw the hurt that struck Qui-Gon. "Master, please don't look away." His tone was faintly pleading. "I'm sorry if I've made you feel . . . bad."
Automatically shaking his head in denial, Qui-Gon said, "Obi-Wan, you haven't . . ." But then he stopped and raised his gaze back to Obi-Wan's, saw there the barest hint of shame.
"I have," the padawan repeated, and the room seemed to grow brighter. "And I've made it worse on myself because," he paused, his voice growing quieter, "I can't let this thing go. I almost want to believe that I deserve this, but . . ." he swallowed, saw his master's softening expression.
"No," said Qui-Gon, quickly. "You do not deserve this."
Obi-Wan bit his bottom lip, forced himself to not look away. He had to face this. He had to.
When he saw Obi-Wan was still attentive, Qui-Gon said, "you must examine your guilt. Examine the circumstances, everything that led to it. Then bare your heart to the Force. Pour everything of yourself out. Let the Force burn away what you cannot. The situation that brought on that guilt cannot change, but your heart can. Let it be cleansed and made whole - free - again."
He stopped, knew it sounded simple, but was anything but. Though he knew Obi-Wan understood, had learned well the ancient writings of Jedi mystics, knew how to put them into practice. The most difficult obstacle was that with the boy's personality, he assumed things far beyond his reach as his responsibility, his fault, his guilt, so any problem was usually a challenge to let go.
"I will try, Master," Obi-Wan said, his resolution threaded in his tone.
A gentle smile curved the master's lips. "Do or do not," he lightly admonished, then reached up to ruffle short russet strands.
Obi-Wan drew out his right hand from where it rested under his head to swat the offending hand away, but Qui-Gon was quicker and captured it.
"Obi-Wan?" The master's eyes widened.
As his breath caught, the padawan suddenly tensed, felt his back aching in protest. He tried to pull his hand away, but Qui-Gon retained a firm grip on the wrist.
"Obi-Wan?" Qui-Gon repeated, his voice trembling slightly. "What happened to your hand? I know it was not wounded in your fight." He had noticed it covered with something white during the fight, but had guessed it was for better grip. But now, at close distance, he could see traces of the skin beneath between the strip's edges.
The wrapped hand still hurt, and Obi-Wan had done little to help it. He squeezed shut his eyes, fearful of Qui-Gon's probing.
The nervous silence only unsettled Qui-Gon more. Carefully, he unwound the white strip of fabric from Obi-Wan's hand. The boy remained still during the ordeal, and when Qui-Gon had unveiled the burnt flesh he quietly examined it, then poured a concentration of Force healing energy into it.
Despite the gold bands that interfered with his connection, Obi-Wan instantly felt the soothing balm repairing his flesh, and sighed softly.
When he was finished, Qui-Gon looked once more at the young man stretched out on the bed before him. The creamy flesh of his back was still scabbing and appeared appallingly out of place on such a smooth and strong back. Thick eyelashes lay dark and soft against ivory cheeks and hid the bright and prismatic eyes from view. The slow, steady rhythm of the padawan's breaths indicated he was extremely relaxed, but awake - for Qui-Gon sensed it.
He raised a large hand and stroked Obi-Wan's hair. "Obi-Wan?"
As much as the padawan would have liked to ignore him, he just could not. Qui-Gon deserved an answer, and the tender concern that laced that baritone call plucked at his heart.
"Obi-Wan?" It came again.
"Yes, Master?" Obi-Wan replied with soft inflection and eyes still safely closed.
"Please tell me what happened to your hand."
Eyes, bright and gleaming aquamarine, slitted open, coyly peering up at Qui-Gon. Obi-Wan wondered briefly if he would be angry with him for his carelessness. "I . . . I burned it," he stated quietly.
Qui-Gon blinked and drew in a lung-full of air. "Burned?"
"Yes, Master. It was an accident," Obi-Wan explained. "I did it in the fireplace."
Nodding in understanding - and acceptance - Qui-Gon smiled. It brightened his heart that Obi-Wan was well for now. But he would leave with the merchant tomorrow.
And leave Obi-Wan alone, with nothing but the Force to watch over him.
He was blissfully aware of the surging tides, of the soft caress of silken waters and gentle warmth of golden sunlight that bathed him. Lying on his back with spongy sand beneath him, Obi-Wan closed his eyes as another dying ocean wave scrabbled tenderly around him, dissipating and retreating back to its vast and deep hold.
The sunlight was strangely comforting, the bright disk burning scarlet as it hung on the far edge of the sea. After Qui-Gon left that morning, he had gone through his normal routine here, then was allowed privacy on the beach - if you could call being diligently watched by soldiers along the stone wall, privacy.
He felt the barest tingle of the Force. His first instinct was to curse his inability to feel more, but he relaxed and let it spill over him. It was pure, sweet, and oh, so lovely. A tiny drop. Then another, and another. One by one, minute drops dripped down on him and soaked through him.
The revered, millennia-old texts of Jedi Master DaUria Ko'maho had spoken of such a discipline - the Toh Ang-Weh. Though not by forced suppression, the practitioner was to control the flow and keep it steady, but limited. It was to teach control, but allowed for Force manipulation through minimal supply.
He had never tried it, had heard that it was exhausting and only for those with advanced experience in mystic Force teachings. But he would pay anything for a constant grasp of that energy that had been extremely muted.
He needed it.
All at once, there were colors, ribbons of light, an intricate pattern too complex, too beautiful for explanation. And it surrounded him.
Another sea-foamy wave plashed across his bare chest, but he did not feel it.
What he was aware of was an alluring fragrance - tart as Alderaani wine, sweet as ruby teaberries. Then the angelic laughter of a child drifted through and replaced the sound of the moving sea.
He stood, no longer content to passively wait for . . . whatever happened next.
The light around him shifted, dimming to the faintest ethereal glow, and he saw a waking garden. Lush, green foliage dipped in morning's shy light trembled delicately in a shimmery breeze. Satiny rose, trumpet-like blossoms clung to a rich vine that wove up a dark wooden lattice and draped over an arbor that curved along the edges of the garden, enclosing it.
He wanted to ask where he was, but the stunning scene stole his breath.
"It doesn't matter where you are," a young girl's voice answered Obi-Wan's unspoken question.
Startled, Obi-Wan whirled around and saw Lyril standing by a chalky white fountain that gurgled gently. Soft light lit her dark crimson hair, the long silky tresses loosely swaying as she came nearer.
"But you're not dead," added Lyril, her lips curving up into a smile. She came forward and stopped before him, then took his hand in her tiny one. "Come."
Still confused, he allowed the child to pull him along a tortuous path paved with stones that gleamed silvery in the pale light.
"Where are we going?" the padawan finally managed, his eyes wide and darting around at the rich environment. If she would not tell him where they were, then perhaps she would say where they were going.
Lyril turned oval-shaped eyes to him. "That does not matter, either," she giggled.
"Then what does matter?" Obi-Wan asked as he forced them to stop.
"That you trust me, Obi-Wan." Something inexpressible moved in her amethyst eyes, something that belied of her scant years and spoke of boundless wisdom.
"Why am I here?" was all the padawan could manage to say.
Lyril smiled again, her cheeks still round and full from adolescence, then said, "you think you're right in clinging to your guilt?"
"You do," the girl interrupted gently. "But it's not your place to."
Obi-Wan frowned. "What do you mean?"
"Did you set the galaxies in their spiral? Did you light the inner fires of stars?" She cupped a delicate crimson blossom in her hand. "Did you make this flower?" she added softer and gazed up at him through long lashes.
"No," Obi-Wan said, exasperated and with quick exhalation of breath. "But that's-"
"What? Ridiculous? Naïve? No, Obi-Wan," she shook her head slowly. "You could never do those things. But, the Force loves you, nevertheless."
Obi-Wan nodded tentatively, surprised at the wetness in his eyes. "I know." His voice was thick with barely restrained emotion.
"It will also forgive . . . if only you will ask." Lyril clasped her hands together, twining her fingers. "Then you will be free."
Insecurely wrapping his arms around himself in a strangely endearing gesture, Obi-Wan turned away to hide the glistening tears that slid down his cheeks in silence.
"Why can you not accept that?" Lyril inquired softly. "Because you cannot accept that you are imperfect? That you need help? Obi-Wan, you never will be perfect." A tender sigh fell from her. "So full of light you are. But you are not the source."
He wiped surreptitiously at the moisture on his face. "I know," the padawan said quietly, afraid to trust a stronger voice.
"Do you?" The child's tone was solemn and empathetic. "Do you know that I am no less guilty than you."
Obi-Wan looked back at her. "But, you haven't-"
"You think me impeccable?" Lyril asked with elegant brows arching. "Perfection is not to be found here," she pointed to her chest, where her heart was. "Nor here," she poked his chest.
Obi-Wan stood in silence. And something shifted in the ache of his heart.
"Come," she repeated, taking his hand again and tugging.
And Obi-Wan felt compelled to let this small child lead him along the stone path.
From the distance came a tranquil sound. A low, steady hum that touched the beating of his heart as a gentle caress and seemed to beckon him. He realized that the further they traveled, the heavier he felt.
Once they passed through an ornately carved stone gate, the gardens sparkled with fine dust. Some flowers glowed, some were translucent azure and crimson and gold.
But it was the unfathomable blaze of pure white light that drew his attention. It rose from a floor of marble to embrace the skies and spanned as far as he could see from side to side. The essence of light was brilliant in heavenly radiance and too bright to peer into, but never glaring.
Obi-Wan held up a hand in front of his eyes. With legs now too weak to sustain his weight, he fell to his knees. "What is it?" he asked breathlessly.
"This is perfection, Obi-Wan."
He ran his callused thumb down the textured binding, then withdrew the book from its shelf. Of dark blue leather, the volume creaked slightly as he parted the cover and gazed in it.
Tangible books like this were a luxury, a rarity, on most worlds. Even the Jedi Temple had progressed to laser data-storage. Qui-Gon's former master had an affinity for books, collecting his own personal library and had instilled the same passion in his impressionable apprentice. Tattered and yellowing at the edges as most of his own were, they showed their considerable age. Yet here, in Indurier, there was an entire library full of them. And many of them glowed in newness.
"Oriyan," Qui-Gon whispered in the hush of the sanctuary. It was an old form of Basic, over two millennia ago, before it had been corrupted by Ja'nehlan influences. His studies of the ancient times had been beneficial in more than one occasion and would now allow him to read the historical texts in this oddly technological port kingdom.
Indurier was as polar to Dimisfree as Coruscant was to Alderaan. Maybe more so. While it retained an old world style atmosphere, the city was also ripe with the advance of technology. Speeders roamed the streets; pedestrians basked in the trappings of commerce and made full use of hand-held comm units. And the biggest - and most relieving - aspect of all was a medium sized spaceport.
Dimisfree, Qui-Gon had learned, had outlawed most advances in technology. The kingdom had lived in darkness for ages.
He had already made a call to the Temple on Coruscant. The Council, in all their stoic glory, had expressed concern over Obi-Wan's plight, promising to do all they could to help. But the padawan had crossed a line when he had agreed to the Thralage terms.
The old tradition of Thralage had existed for thousands of cycles, leaving the present populace unaware, or uninterested, in its origins and long-forgotten laws. Even Deru Ketoma, the generous silk merchant who had given Qui-Gon free passage in a sternwheeler across the Hibrian Sea, had no knowledge of the intricacies of Thralage law. Thus, Deru had directed him to the vast, multi-floored Udiriom Library, only a block away from the harbor.
Upon first entering, Qui-Gon had suspected that he would discover nothing of importance when the very unfriendly librarian had reminded him of a certain other librarian back at the Temple on Coruscant. But a nice elderly woman had overheard and offered her assistance.
Now, he perused through an old volume on Thralage, hoping there would be something to help.
Last night, Obi-Wan had stood on his balcony, overlooking the restless sea, and entertained thoughts of Coruscant, the spacious golden halls of the Jedi Temple, his simple apartment with the deep brown carpet and Qui-Gon's jade-green tea set of delicate china that seemed too fragile to hold anything.
He had gazed upon the three waning moons, the pale pink one growing rosy red and dipping lower in the heavens. It was another difference from Coruscant, where only two moons gleamed and the unyielding light of civilization dimmed the skies. There, the oceans had been drained, and life subsisted on atmospheric dampeners and artificially-created ecosystems.
But there . . . he had also been free.
Obi-Wan walked gingerly into a large courtyard that he had been told he was allowed to go in, and looked over the curving groomed hedges and sienna brick walls that were draped by a summery sun to the east. Splashes of scarlet and sapphire and lemon blossoms dotted the garden and crept over the earth as groundcover. The air was spiced with pungent fragrances, some sweet, some bitter, and there was always the briny smell that underlaid everything.
There were a few soldiers that watched from atop the surrounding walls, but overall, he was left unmolested. He was still a slave, but yesterday's vision - if that's what one would call it - had settled most of the turmoil within his heart. Oh, it was still there - for now. But when he had encountered that great concentration of Force energy - the greatest that he had ever - the hold that his part in Qui-Gon and the child's injuries had on him was medicated by that loving energy, and Lyril's words had struck deep within, the whole experience bringing a new outlook and a place for some of his burden to be siphoned away.
It would have all failed had he not been willing to accept that, despite his hand in the accident, he was as prone to make mistakes as anyone was. There was no such thing as the perfect padawan.
There never had been.
What was traded in place of his burden was serenity, a surrounding aura of peace. He knew he needed many deep meditations, a strong constant connection with the Force, and probably sessions with soul healers to find a more complete release and find healing.
But that would come with time. And with a better grasp on the Force than his suppressing wristbands allowed.
His attire today was of a coarser, deep emerald fabric and consisted of trousers, open vest, and short sable boots. The King's slavemaster had provided the padawan with a small wardrobe, seemingly unused and of fine quality and design.
After walking along one scratchy hedge, Obi-Wan turned toward it and released the small Karabil from its hiding place against his skin beneath his vest. The little creature's frizzy fur had tickled him all the way from his bedchamber, through the mansion's dingy halls, and out into the courtyard. He set it on the dusty earth, and it immediately began sniffing the ground.
"What do you smell, Fluffy?" the padawan whispered as he crouched next to it in dappled shadows, his hair touched just enough by beads of light to glint like copper, his eyes glowing aquamarine as they watched, enraptured by the little gray creature.
The Karabil was the same one he had seen in his room several times, and he had, over the days, taken to feeding it, eventually gaining the privilege of petting and holding it. Keeping it a secret seemed like the best idea, given the servant's reaction to them, unless he wanted it to be taken away and possibly killed.
But it was his only friend here. And the best escape from thoughts of servitude.
"And where did you get that?" A voice drifted to Obi-Wan from somewhere nearby.
"From the new gladiator," Loresce answered, sounding very smug.
Neither were talking to him.
"He doesn't know I took it," the young woman added.
With that, Obi-Wan located the direction the conversation was coming from and scooped up his pet. He moved quietly along the tall pine hedge until he reached its end and peered around it. There was Loresce and a man he had never seen before standing in front of an ironwork bench, where the missing comm unit sat atop a cloth bag.
"I could get quite a price for that in Breema," the man replied, his hair blonde and contrasting starkly with his dark navy cloak.
"Why do you think I'm showing it to you?" Loresce said. Hers arms tugged at the deep purple velvet of her skirt before smoothing away imagined wrinkles.
"Because you like gloating over what schemes you can pull off. And because you need currency."
She inhaled sharply. "I don't-"
"You and Dimisfree are in debt. And don't try to claim you're not. I've heard the whispers all the way to Huliss. Ah, yes," he smiled ferally, "Dimisfree would be in servitude to us within three cycles, if not for your precious new warrior. He's sure to save you . . . until Nolab is forced to kill him for his disobedience. Which the King will have to do if he keeps that up."
Loresce glared at him. "If we were so bad off, then why wouldn't I simply make bets on our opponents?"
"Because you would have to set up false accounts. And that was too much for your pretty little hands to dirty themselves with when you could easily trick a young man into-"
A small frown creased her brow. "I did not trick him."
The man barked a harsh laugh. "I know you too well to believe that."
"Nevermind that," Loresce snapped, turning back to the bench. "You can have it for three-hundred seds."
The rest of the conversation comprised of bargaining over Obi-Wan's comm unit and meaningless gossip about various nobles and their not-so-secret love lives. Before the padawan realized it, the man was walking towards him.
Quickly, Obi-Wan pressed back against the hedge and held his breath as the man passed by. The thorny stickers from the leaves at his back bit into his skin, but he did not move, waiting for Loresce to leave.
A short time later - but much too long for Obi-Wan - he heard the dull clip-clop of the young woman's heels approaching. Her gait was slow as she passed and neared an arching walled gate that led back to the main part of the mansion.
It was then, just as Loresce reached the black doors, that Fluffy - as Obi-Wan had taken to calling his Karabil pet - decided to make its presence known. With a shrill squeak, Fluffy wriggled in the padawan's arms that had grown too tight around its small body. Obi-Wan immediately loosened his hold and prayed to the Force that his eavesdropping would not be discovered.
Loresce stopped, her slender hand hovering over the door's heavy handle, and swept her gaze over the courtyard.
His heart pounding in his chest, Obi-Wan waited, as still as the hedge behind him, through agonizing seconds until Loresce disappeared through the gate. He glanced around, saw no soldiers on the walls in his line of sight, and after a few minutes left the garden to return to the safety of his bedchamber.
Light fell in brittle patches beneath a canopy of itrellen trees. It was early morning, and Obi-Wan blinked sleepy eyes, focusing on the shining silver sword in his hands. He sat cross-legged under the large trees, felt a peaceful breeze redolent of the seaside, and ran his palm under the smooth metal surface, then reached for more of the oil to wipe upon the blade.
Qui-Gon had been gone a few days now, and Obi-Wan's next match was tomorrow. It really did not worry him. Really it didn't. But the thought of possibly living out the rest of his life here left him empty on the inside.
He was a Jedi. That was his calling. His destiny. Not . . . this.
The barest tingle of peace stroked over him then, reminding him again. The Force would take care of him. Set free from the guilt that he had claimed as his own, he now felt lighter and happier than he had since long before they had ever set foot on this forsaken planet.
It was strange how the Force could touch and comfort him, despite the wide golden bands around his wrists. Still, it was not enough to be of any other help.
He bent his head over the blade as he slid the oiled cloth along it, his hair glinting coppery in stray shafts of light, his slender fingers caressing the unforgiving surface.
"I thought I would find you here," Loresce called as she came closer. "Does it worry you that Qui-Gon may not be back in time for your next fight?" She settled against the trunk of the tree, staring down at the young man.
"Maybe," Obi-Wan answered, his attention held by his task. "It's not like you'd care, anyway."
Loresce's eyes narrowed. "You don't know what I care about."
Obi-Wan's hand paused on the blade, and he glanced up at her, squinting as he met an errant sunbeam. "You're right. But I do know some things."
"Like . . . what things?" She sounded interested now.
Obi-Wan looked back down and wiped absently at the blade. "Oh, just . . . things." He had to bite his lip to keep from smiling.
"Like what?" she pressed, a bit irritated by his hedging.
"Like . . . the price of comm units on Coruscant," he replied with a smirk.
A small frown fell across Loresce's forehead. "Where?"
Obi-Wan snickered. "Nowhere."
"Are you playing games with me?" Loresce asked, her voice dripping with suspicion.
With a sigh, Obi-Wan left the weapon on the ground and stood to face her. "Of course not. Now why would I do that?"
"Why, indeed?" She eyed him with slight suspicion as she stepped before him, amethyst eyes glowing and staring up into his. "I just got word of another man who could fight for Dimisfree. I could have him acquired, and I could save you from these dreadful fights." Her voice dropped lower, sultry. "If you'd be willing."
The padawan stood passively as Loresce's hand lightly touched the side of his face, her thumb drifting tenderly across his lower lip. Raising her eyes once again, she gazed into the most mesmerizing eyes she had ever seen.
All was silent as soft sunlight moved over them.
Slowly, Loresce leaned forward, her slender arms slipping up around his shoulders, and claimed his lips in a slow, seductive kiss. After a brief hesitation, Obi-Wan returned the kiss, and when his hands slid around her waist, Loresce melted against him.
It had been a long time since she had felt like this, had wanted to be near someone, touch someone. And this felt so right. If only Obi-Wan could be convinced to feel the same, or at least to return the same.
When she drew back, her eyes were dark with desire.
"Not everything can be bought and sold, Mi'Lady," Obi-Wan said softly, then pushed her gently away.
Long, deep crimson lashes fluttered, then anger flared in her eyes, and her lips tightened fractionally. In a quick movement, she slapped him and stalked off, the sound of her wooden heels stamping on grass-spattered earth.
Obi-Wan chuckled to himself and returned to his work.
Qui-Gon peered out over the glittering waves. All he had seen for the last two days was water, but he had known the direction where his padawan was, known Obi-Wan needed him, and had kept a silent vigil with eyes trained in the padawan's direction, almost as if his gaze alone would keep Obi-Wan safe.
Over the span of days since he had left Obi-Wan, he had talked with sailors, meditated frequently under the radiance of a white sun at day and shimmering stars at night, and lived on a diet of dried fruits, honeyed toruun bread, and pimga fish.
The Council was relieved that a simple solution had been found in the ancient laws of Thralage, yet Qui-Gon resisted the urge to let himself relax until Obi-Wan was safely away from this planet. Too many times, in his experience, had things gone wrong, and become even worse than he had dared to hope.
Now with the bustling harbor of Dimisfree looming in the distance, he could just make out the King's mansion, gleaming silver on the edge of the land. It looked all the more ancient and unchanged. Once, at the dawn of civilization, Coruscant had no doubt looked as much a thing of beauty against a backdrop of trees and the sweep of dusty mountains. Now it had a beauty all its own, that only few could find.
When they finally docked and the Jedi master bid his thanks to the merchant Deru, Qui-Gon made his way back to the King's mansion only to discover that Obi-Wan's next match was due to begin. As a tiny spark of worry crept though him, he rushed to the arena and gained access to the royal box of seats. King Nolab and the others that were there the first time were all present. But Loresce was nowhere in sight.
Taking his seat, Qui-Gon slid his hand in his robe, touching the garland of bright yellow dasaly flowers that he had acquired just for this occasion. According to ancient law, when a gladiator refuses to kill his opponent, someone may toss the garland out on the field, thereby excusing the slave's disobedience and claiming the right to purchase said slave. The slaveholder was without choice in the matter, since the slave was disobedient in these very important fights. The Temple had pledged to pay the price, which had been set all those years ago and never adjusted for inflation.
It would be simple, Qui-Gon thought, and stubbornly ignored the inexorable darkness trembling in the Force.
When the spectators had slowly settled down and the pre-fight activities had ceased, all eyes turned to the gate where the combatants would enter.
Qui-Gon tensed. Obi-Wan still had to survive this fight and survive the punishment for not killing his opponent. But then things could return to normal, and they could return home, where they belonged.
The sky was washed pale blue with graying clouds stirring up in haste in the distance. The wind was picking up, blowing scarlet flags that lined all around the top of the arena until they were twisted haphazardly about their poles.
The large gate stirred and began to swing inward. Qui-Gon tensed again, fingering the garland again.
The two figures emerged from the shadows of tunnel and slowly walked to the center of the field.
Qui-Gon's heart was pounding. Pounding so fast he thought it was going to explode out of his chest. He looked over the combatants again in disbelief.
But he was not wrong. No, they had introduced the two, and one of them was representing Dimisfree. One of them was supposed to be Obi-Wan.
But neither of them was.
Deep within the plum casting of twilight, as the land gently turned to the charcoal gloom of night, Qui-Gon watched the approaching lights of an ocean-going vessel as its pale beacons danced in gray swirls upon the constantly churning sea. Fetid odors of fish and sea filled the atmosphere of the harbor, and he glanced once again down at the damp wooden planks beneath his booted feet.
His spine straightened imperceptibly while his hands folded before him—a sign of respect adopted out of long practice that he was not sure he could ever abandon in the face of this man. Swallowing, Qui-Gon forced his breaths to slow to a well regulated pace, and returned his gaze to the newly docked ship.
Out of its shadows a tall and stately figure emerged, then glided elegantly along the dock toward Qui-Gon.
"Master," Qui-Gon said as he bowed.
"It's been too long, Qui-Gon," Master Dooku greeted, eyes piercing and dark as the veil of night.
"Yes," Qui-Gon answered in a soft exhale. "I'm relieved you came."
"I was in a neighboring system, on Dahlus Minor," the elder Jedi said, "when I received Master Yoda's transmission. There was no difficulty in coming."
They fell into step with one another, Qui-Gon unconsciously assuming a position slightly behind and to the side of Dooku.
"A pity," Dooku said, "that the Council will not intervene in this matter."
"Under the circumstances, the Council has done what they can." Though, Qui-Gon was not completely sure that he believed it himself.
"Politics, Qui-Gon." Dooku said, as if gathering the younger man's thoughts. His deep voice characteristically demanded you listen, insinuated you comply. "The situation is not dire enough for them to consider anything beyond an empty word. They love the comfort of their complacency and have weakened themselves in their smug devotion to the Senate. And since this planet is not under Republic law . . ." He shrugged casually.
"The Republic —"
"The Republic," Dooku interrupted, stopping to face him, "is rotting from within. They no longer believe in justice. Blinded they are . . . by their own greed."
Qui-Gon almost wilted under that familiar condescending gaze. It had seemed that his old master had grown even more cynical than he had from their last meeting. "Perhaps, Master," was all he said.
"You know it to be true, Qui-Gon," Dooku pressed, undeterred by the flash of resentment in his former padawan's eyes. "And I know you're mature enough to believe that as well."
When Qui-Gon offered no reply, Dooku turned and continued walking, knowing that Qui-Gon would follow. And of course, he was correct.
"Have you any leads as to the whereabouts of your apprentice?"
"I was told that he was sold." Qui-Gon's voice hinted at despair. He tried to suppress the fire of pain that even now burned within him, but gave that up and instead, he spoke again, careful to keep his voice steady. "But the purchaser's name has been withheld from me."
Dooku was silent for a moment as he digested the information before replying. "I'm . . . almost sorry to have never met him," he softly said. "Master Yoda says he has been good for you."
"He has, Master."
A young boy in threadbare clothes appeared in front of them. His face was dirty and hair tangled. Pulling a small, black velvet bag from beneath his robe, Dooku removed several coins from the bag and dropped them in the boy's eagerly outstretched hand. A shy smile lit up the child's face as he stared at the generous gift. The boy muttered a foreign phrase of thanks and departed.
Qui-Gon blinked in surprise. "You have legal currency?"
Dooku's gaze slid over the younger Jedi. "I have appropriated many things in my years out here on the fringes of the Republic. Many things." He replaced the bag in a hidden pocket, then he sighed. "I'm surprised Master Yoda hasn't demanded I return to the Coruscanti Temple to face the High Council and accept a Senatorial-approved mission. I'm not sure I would do so even if it my status as Jedi depended on it."
Qui-Gon stared into the distant darkness of the blossoming night. The years had turned them older, wiser . . . and more aware of the fallibility of their heritage. "I have missed you, Master," he said at last.
When a silken drift of cool air wafted through a tall mullioned window that Dooku had just opened and tenderly touched his face, Qui-Gon sank into a high-backed, dark wooden chair carved into intricate tracery and curving leaves, and, for a moment, allowed the comfort of the soft nocturnal breeze to soothe his febrile body.
Over the course of days since he had discovered Obi-Wan's disappearance, he had searched everywhere, asked questions to whoever would listen. The King had not been available. Others had had no answers; those that had known had not been forthcoming in their knowledge. Walking, literally wandering, along the streets in a state of near-shock, the Jedi master had ended up in extreme exhaustion and returned to his room in the King's mansion to catch a few hours of sleep before returning to do the same the next day.
He had been driven and shaken and despondent to the point that he welcomed a small diversion and even the—sometimes—belittling by his former master.
Now in the company of his old master, Qui-Gon had allowed the elder man to take him to a local hostel and buy him a rich meal from the elegant café downstairs, then retire to a modest guestroom where they now sat.
Dooku handed a slim, rose-tinted stemmed glass to Qui-Gon, then poured one for himself and took the chair facing his former student.
The ruby cushioned chair that Qui-Gon had chosen to occupy seemed the most opulent furnishing in the chamber. Everything else was subdued and plain. And empty.
He had once told himself that he would never feel attachment to another soul. Attachment could be dangerous. In some circumstances. And cause undue pain to himself.
Obi-Wan had never intended that.
Once, on a pristine planet where turquoise waters plunged hundreds of meters into clear pools that shone in jewel-brilliant colors the exotic fishlife that inhabited them, and purest mists rose from the cascades' descent, he had watched a young padawan as he learned to catch fish with his hands. It was another part of a padawan's training.
"Look at that one, Master," the thirteen-year-old had said as he pointed to a bright purple specimen that hovered near the surface of the pool, its mouth wide and silvery eyes bulging. "I think he likes me," that distinctively cultured accent had declared proudly.
"Yes. I think he does," Qui-Gon had answered him, keeping the rest of the thought to himself, the thought that indeed everyone must like the young boy. How could they not? The child was a gift from the Force, Yoda had said. A bright beacon that pointed to a future where there was hope—hope for his heart to care again.
Then the shining aquamarine eyes had looked up at him, and all the love and trust that Qui-Gon had ever wanted from another soul was right there in those lambent depths.
If only he would allow it in.
But the tall Jedi master had never been one to let go of his past without making himself suffer all the more just to keep it locked up inside himself.
It had been two more years before Qui-Gon had given in. And then, only because he thought Obi-Wan was dying.
Now, the padawan was missing. Sold, they had said.
Stifling the ache that had threatened to overwhelm him, Qui-Gon casually sipped the dark amber liquid, turning his thoughts to another niggling problem.
The Force had led him to try to free Obi-Wan legitimately, rather than take him and run. Now, he wondered if it was truly the Force that he had heard.
"Do you ever wonder if you're wrong?" His voice sounded hollow, and he wondered why he had spoken it aloud.
There was a strain of silence during which Qui-Gon thought Dooku would not answer, and wondered if he wanted an answer. Or if Dooku even understood his line of thinking. A small creak of the elder master's chair shattered the quiet as the man's weight shifted and he leaned forward.
"Never doubt your instincts, Qui-Gon."
So he did know.
"But," Qui-Gon began, wondering why he had this sudden crisis of faith when he had never felt so lost before. At least, not for years. "I could have saved Obi-Wan . . . from all of this."
And saved yourself from all of this pain . . . again. The words were there, but he did not speak them—would not speak them.
Qui-Gon's eyes filling with sorrow and pain shifted to the canvas bag he had retrieved from the King's mansion, along with all his and Obi-Wan's possessions. It still sat in the middle of the room. A tangible reminder of the situation.
"Still haven't learned patience, I see," Dooku remarked casually.
Anger flared briefly in the younger master, and was only noticeable by the almost imperceptible tightening of his jaw, before he let it go and set his mind on the peace and comfort of the Force.
Then, Qui-Gon took a deep breath and released it along with his tension. "We're not here to discuss my imperfections, Master," he reminded the elder man respectfully and, he thought, reasonably.
"Not ever, then?" There was a sharp rebuke from the past.
Qui-Gon impaled Dooku with his intense sapphire gaze, but the other man did not flinch. "I have learned many things since reaching knighthood. And I continue to learn —"
"As does everyone."
Qui-Gon's only response was a small nod and a keen regard from sharp eyes.
"Never think you completely understand the Force, my once apprentice," said Dooku. "It's a blind man who cannot recognize enigma when he sees it. And a fool who will not accept that truth."
"Yes," Qui-Gon whispered, his voice dying away into the soft breeze that drifted about him. "But, I . . ." He could not continue.
"You what?" The prodding was as gentle as that commanding voice could speak.
Looking away, Qui-Gon sat his nearly full glass on the small table beside him. "I trusted the Force." He was surprised how bitter his voice sounded, how deep-rooted the pain. "I trusted it!" He noticed his hands clenched into fists.
"The Force never guaranteed your happiness," Dooku smoothly replied, the way he always spoke when he knew he was right. "Only a place for everlasting rest once your destiny is done here."
That was true. So why did he hear a voice inside his head that screamed he could have done better?
Obi-Wan had a destiny unfulfilled and must be allowed to complete it.
And he could not lose another apprentice.
He had to find Obi-Wan soon. He had to.
Turning to the open window, Qui-Gon faced the growing night's coolness and suddenly felt deeply chilled.
This night brought no answers. And no comfort.
The shore was painted with soft pastel brushstrokes by the fading sun when Loresce pulled the small wooden boat up on powdery pink sand, dropped the oar, and brushed off her cream, velvet skirt. She ran a hand over her crimson hair that was caught up at the back of her head by several jeweled silver pins where it erupted in a mass of silken curls.
This islet she had visited since she was very young. Her father had taught her to navigate the choppy waters off the coast south of Dimisfree to the rarely visited islet. The trip here had not taken long. But now only a crescent of sun lingered at the edge of the horizon, the world hovering near the hours of gloaming, when stars just begin to appear in a lilac sweep of sky.
Clearing a line of curvy gurinane trees, she passed under a fungus-dusted archway and paused, eyes sliding over the landscape of crumbling stone masonry. There in the middle of the spectacle being slowly swallowed by shadow stood her destination. But she did not go there. Not yet.
Instead, Loresce spotted the white wooly hurcus and meandered between standing stones and brambly bushes until she came up beside it and seized the rope that draped from its bridle. She hushed it and stroked the skittish creature's flank when wild pink eyes regarded her, then led the cloven-hoofed animal away to a stone building.
Hitching the creature up to a latch at the building's heavy stone door, Loresce urged the wooly animal forward, which, effectively, drew the door open. It was too heavy for her to open, and she had often used this creature for such a task in the past—though her uncle had certainly not known it. Only a male friend of hers whom she had grown up with knew of her many mischievous undertakings.
Quickly, she spared a glance to the hint of starshine now appearing in the darkening sky and entered the stone structure. A small oil lamp in her hand emitted a soft glow in the dry dimness and spilled across stone floor and walls . . . and the figure sprawled across a raised stone slab.
"Obi-Wan?" Loresce whispered as she set the lamp on an eye-level shelf and settled next to the unconscious young man. "Obi-Wan."
A gentle hand cupped his cheek, while the other held a cup of water up to the padawan's lax lips, coaxing him to drink. He stirred slowly, languidly, as his consciousness surfaced through a dull, drug-induced fog. A small frown appeared on his brow as his confusion rushed in.
It took a moment for everything to come back to Obi-Wan. How he had woken abruptly in his wide bed, strong hands holding him down, a course cloth clamped to his mouth and nose, the acrid, cloying smell that filled his lungs and, at first burned and then made him feel light and adrift. He had been unable to fight them off, finally tumbling into darkness.
He told himself that he should have not been taken so easily, but the strength of the Force-draining golden bands around his wrists had left him unwary and far too flummoxed to prepare himself appropriately. Time had been unkind, as the debilitating odor had quickly rendered him helpless.
"Obi-Wan," Loresce whispered again. "You must drink something."
The concerned urgency in her voice turned his rousing anger to calm, and he opened his eyes to the duskiness around him, trying to swallow past a dry and hurting throat.
Loresce smiled at him. "Please drink. Then you may eat."
Obi-Wan found the cup pressed to his lips again, but he turned his face away. "No," his voice came out, hoarse and weak.
"You must," Loresce ordered as she sat back, her eyes glaring darkly at him against a backdrop of deepening twilight shades that still glowed through the opened doorway behind her. "You must drink." She held the cup to his lips again.
"No," the padawan protested again, and tried to push himself up.
But he felt too weak and dizzy, and Loresce quickly pushed him back to the slab.
Aquamarine eyes flashed her with a glare as Obi-Wan gave up and heaved a deep sigh of frustration. "Why should I? And what do you care?"
"You seem to have a problem with anyone caring," Loresce snapped. "If I'd wanted you to die, don't you think I'd already have killed you?"
Obi-Wan swallowed heavily, the dryness of his throat still burning, and turned eyes now soft with suspicion on her.
Loresce sighed. "I know . . . you don't trust me."
"Give me one reason why I should?"
"I don't want you to die. Really, I don't. Obi-Wan, please believe me.""
"Then what do you want?"
"I want . . . I wanted to do something right. I've done alot of things that were . . . terrible."
Obi-Wan gave an acerbic snicker. "And this is right?" he asked, his gaze sweeping over the dark ceiling above him.
"I brought you here to keep you alive." Her chin set defensively. "My uncle would have killed you if you had not killed your opponent in that fight. He can only give you so much leniency before he must act."
"So you saved my life," Obi-Wan said with heavy sarcasm. "What about now? What are you planning to do with me now?"
"I . . . don't know," Loresce admitted, looking away in shame. "If anyone finds out what I did . . . even that I . . . tricked you into accepting Tralage —"
"Why did you do that?" Obi-Wan demanded curiously.
"I wanted to save Dimisfree. We are quickly becoming a poor kingdom. Soon we will be under the threat of our debtors."
"So you trick the first sucker you see and —"
"No," Loresce interjected harshly, then spoke gently. "No. It's true, I knew you felt guilty. The soldiers who brought you in had questioned the Dibari about you, and told me. But I understand more than you know. My father died three years ago. I felt . . . guilty about it at the time."
"And you used my feelings against me. How could you be so cruel?" Obi-Wan's despairing guilt seemed to resurface with his words, making them harsh, unveiling a pain that lingered deep beneath the surface. "Especially if you understood what I felt, how could you take what was killing me inside and use it?"
Loresce rose abruptly and moved to the door where a deepening sky now flickered with shimmering stars. "I want to help you, Obi-Wan. Don't hurt me for trying to do what's right."
Obi-Wan weakly pushed himself up and paused when Loresce spoke again.
"There's some food in the white package on the floor," she gestured vaguely towards him, while her face remained turned away. "Eat it . . . and drink the cup of water. I'll be back in a day . . . or two."
"Where am I?" Obi-Wan wondered aloud, as he gazed over the dim stone chamber. He suddenly realized that the door was open, but his heart sank knowing that he had not sufficient energy in his still-drugged haze to make it through before Loresce could do something to stop him.
"A tomb," she answered flatly. "My father's."
Then she walked out, and within seconds the stone door grated closed, leaving Obi-Wan in near darkness. Only small, slit windows just below the high ceiling let in the night's faint light.
CHAPTER 10~In the Bleak Midsummer
The young Dimisfreen watched a seed pod spin lazily as if fell through the air and settled on the ground before him. Ruliph trees grew in great numbers because of their abundant seeds that drifted from the trees. Often whole forests sprang up within years from a single one. He sat under one now, pondering how things changed quickly. Sometimes so quickly that they were out of control and nothing could be done to stop it.
He may have been young—a young man, actually—but he knew as well as the Kingdom's High Priest when danger loomed on the horizon. And the strange pale men would bring nothing good. He had seen how Loresce had become confused and lost her focus because of one of them. But he cared for her. Cared for her as much as if she were his sister.
And he had no intention of letting her suffering continue.
For a moment, Loresce let her gaze travel to the window. An evening mist had begun to fall, just like on many other summer days beside the tumultuous Hibrian Sea, where storms often rolled inland, drenching the landscape in cool showers and washing the air in sweet natural fragrances. She sat at her dresser, combing her long crimson tresses out before going to bed.
Oh, what a foolish mess she had made, she thought as she paused and gazed at her reflection in the mirror that glimmered darkly silver before her. Of all her attempts to save her kingdom from financial ruin, none had proven so ill thought-out and clambered at her heartstrings, as did the one now trembling by her indecision.
Obi-Wan was a good man and had never deserved such torment as she had brought to him, never should be made to hurt from anything. And as it was, if he had not killed in his next fight, her uncle would have taken his life for his disobedience. All because of her. She had heard the King discussing the coming deed with a personal advisor the night before the scheduled fight.
It would not have bothered her so, she had to admit, had not the young man enchanted her. Over the course of a few thrilling days, she had watched him from a terrace as he sparred, glistening in sweat from the intense exertions, then initiated conversations with him, learning more about his personal tastes—such as dark cocoa-cream covered in cherian berries and rubia syrup being his favorite desert, his passion for Seytorian poetry, Tiquriekh string music, and the fact that he loves the bright glitter of sunlight on summer rain. She had no idea what some of those things were, but Obi-Wan had provided several examples of the poetry. All she could remember was the beauty of the words and the unforgettable sound of Obi-Wan's voice as he recited them.
Over days, the conversations had grown more relaxed, Obi-Wan willing to offer more information, until she found herself falling for him. She had never meant for that to happen, but he had been like a magnet, drawing her to him as often as she were able to find him. He had not shown any signs of contempt toward her—although he had surely guessed at her initial trickery and the reason he was in this predicament.
Then, when she had tried to force him into a relationship with her on the eve of his kidnapping, she belatedly knew that she had made the biggest mistake of all. But the only way she knew to save his life would be to tell her uncle that she had sold him to another. A disobedient slave—no matter how able to fight in combat—would be of no more worth to the laws of Thralage. Her uncle had been surprised, to say the least, even a little upset that she had done so without his permission. But he had quickly dropped the matter and turned to more pressing business when he learned that Loresce had lined up a talented replacement.
She admitted she would probably have not tried to do it on her own, but with the help of Jalin, her male childhood friend, she had easily overcome Obi-Wan while he slept and taken him to the islet. Only a couple of guards had seen them take the young man out of the mansion, but they had been told that he was going to his new master.
When a quick flash of lightning in the distance blinked through her window, Loresce looked once more to the light patter of droplets on the windowpane and remembered the first day she had talked to Obi-Wan after he had been so shocked to learn what he had unknowingly agreed to.
Obi-Wan was a fresh breath of life that had touched deep inside her. His gentle presence had wound its way into her heart—despite her intentions. She felt a little crazy about the whole thing, and wondered if she was even thinking clearly anymore. It may simply be fascination, but she only knew that he made her feel more alive, and more alone. It had not taken long to realize that. . . .
She was caught in the rain. The heavy downpour had blown in from the sea suddenly and showered the vast garden where she had been gathering flowers to place in her bedchamber. Amid the falling droplets, she made for the nearest arbor, one hand clutching the flower basket, the other shielding her eyes from the rain.
As soon as she ducked under a trellis heavily draped with vines, Loresce plowed into something solid and turned eyes filled with surprise to whatever—or whomever, in this case—was now clutching her arms lightly to keep them both from falling down from the collision. She blinked with embarrassment and stepped away from the young man that she had seen take his new position as gladiator only that morning.
"I'm . . . sorry," she said politely, and glanced around the little shelter for a better place to stand out of the rain, while not remaining so close to Obi-Wan.
"There's not much room in here," the padawan remarked after seeing her look past him.
Loresce sighed impatiently. "What are you doing out here?"
"The guards won't let me in," Obi-Wan informed her calmly. "They said I have to remain in the courtyard until noon." He paused, then added, "they would let you in, though, I'm sure."
"I don't want to get anymore wet than I already am."
Obi-Wan looked her over. "I don't think it would be possible to be any more drenched than you already are."
"Nor would it be for you, either," Loresce pointed out, and noticed the way the rain had soaked him, his hair dark and damp with twinkling droplets. She almost smirked when she noticed he shivered slightly and crossed his bare arms, trying to retain some warmth. He was dressed in the leather trousers and open vest that he always trained in. A rumble of thunder pealed overhead, as the storm grew more violent.
Gray rain fell like a misty veil around them, in effect, leaving them cut off from the rest of the garden. Draped and entangled about the arbor, a verdant vine was heavy-laden with cerulean janumia blossoms that nodded and sparkled with tiny droplets, the silken clusters' delicate fragrance thriving in the summery rain-scented air. It seemed that they were alone here, that all else was nonexistent beyond the confines of the arbor.
Obi-Wan spoke something that was swallowed up in the storm.
"What did you say?" Loresce called over the sound of the sheeting rain.
"I said," Obi-Wan said louder, "it'll be over soon."
Loresce frowned. "How do you know?"
"I just know," he replied with a sparkle in his eyes. He looked back to the rain.
She simply eyed him suspiciously and returned to staring at the spectacle around them. They stood in an uncomfortable measure of silence, save for the sound of rain.
"This reminds me of the bogs of Tekrihya," Obi-Wan said suddenly, quietly.
"Te - krihya?" Loresce sounded out with a frown, having never heard the name before.
"What happened there?" She asked when it seemed evident he was going to elaborate no further.
"My, um," Obi-Wan paused, "my father and I were stuck with only a small tent for shelter. We had to make due for three weeks in that blasted muddy marsh. The rains returning every few hours. Someone was supposed to pick us up, but they got the coordinates wrong and we had to wait forever for them to figure it out."
"You've traveled a lot, and seen a lot of things, haven't you?"
"Yes," he answered, looking at her.
She thought there was something deeper in his gaze, something dark and painful that he held at bay inside himself. But that was gone almost before she could identify it. Maybe it was guilt, she thought with a modicum of regret for using that very same burden to further her own interests.
Just then, a guttural creak bellowed from somewhere in the storm.
"What was that?" Obi-Wan asked, eyes widening fractionally.
"A binophe sea-toad," Loresce replied, slightly amused. "They're quite loud sometimes."
A small smile formed on Obi-Wan's lips, and he ran a hand through his wet hair that now hung limp against his scalp. "I'll have to remember that the next time I hear my father snore and be thankful he's not one of those. Or else I'd never get any sleep."
Loresce laughed and pressed her hand to her mouth.
"I love the sound of rain," Obi-Wan whispered softly.
And Loresce stared at him as if seeing him for the first time.
It felt as if his voice had wound gently, tenderly, around her heart, and tugged. Strangely bright light filtered through the storm and arbor just right and touched his hair, his face, painting him with a lovely glow of tenderness that finally pooled and shone like multi-faceted jewels in his eyes.
But there was an inner beauty, as well, that she sensed in his quiet kindness, the soft-spoken respect in his voice, and his selfless humility. This was no ordinary young man. Standing now so close to him, feeling the warmth of his slender body next to hers, she found herself trembling, her heart pounding out a nervous rhythm, and her breath seemed lost in the restless pattering of falling rain.
Obi-Wan turned to her, breaking her from the spell. "It's about to stop."
Her eyes swept around them, noting the quickly diminishing rain. When she looked back at him there was a glimmer of told-you-so in his gaze.
He winked at her, then headed out into the faint mist without another word. . . .
The rain picked up outside, smudging the deep sapphire sky into a wash of water against the windowpane, drumming incessantly on the roof and pouring down storm-drains.
Loresce blinked, yearning for the full days before she had spirited Obi-Wan away to the tiny islet. A past that surely now lay out of reach for her forlorn heart.
She jumped, startled by the sudden interruption to her thoughts, and turned to the visitor.
Hoping to stave off some of the chill from the pounding rain, Qui-Gon pulled his robe tightly about him and listened to the conversation Dooku was having with the guard at the mansion's gate.
"I'm sorry. You cannot see the King's niece." The guard stood directly before the gate, his voice firm.
Dooku straightened to his full, intimidating height and looked the man straight in the eyes. "You will allow us to speak with her. Privately."
"I will allow you to speak with her . . . privately."
"Now," Dooku added, with more than a trace of confidence, "you will take us there."
"I will take you there."
When the guard turned away, Dooku looked at Qui-Gon with a sly smile. "A solution has presented itself."
They followed the guard through the courtyard, through a set of ornately-carved, wooden double doors, and, after lowering their rain-soaked cowls, up a long staircase that wound around a stone statue of an armored man that stood several stories tall like a sentry in the rotunda.
This section of the house Qui-Gon had never seen. Soft lighting spilled from hanging lanterns and fell across cream walls and slipped down the wooden steps. Qui-Gon stared up at the domed ceiling overhead. Panels of stained glass depicting pastoral scenes, that would have shone brightly with sunlight, looked gloomy and forgotten by the shades of night. Rain splattered upon the roof as a soothing refrain in the otherwise silent circular chamber.
Qui-Gon reflected on how he had chosen not to take this course of action, simply because he had felt that the Force was showing a different way, perhaps wanting to test his faith. Obi-Wan had shown faith in his master's decision, never questioning it—as far as Qui-Gon knew. And, for that, he was proud.
They had already questioned some of the guards the day before—without using any Jedi compulsion. He knew it was sometimes preferable to use the mind-trick on missions to achieve a desired end, and was not averse to using it himself. Whether the Force willed it be handled in this manner or not, Qui-Gon knew that Obi-Wan was destined for more than a slave's life. And maybe this was right.
He had to admit that he had not been himself these past few days. His normally impulsive behavior that centered so much on the Force's will had become slightly adrift and unfocused. Clouds of doubt had fogged his mind and plagued him since his padawan's disappearance. He was in dire need of deep meditation. Yet, for every time he had tried, a thousand worries had surfaced, blowing haze through his thoughts.
Why speak with Loresce? Because the first guard that Dooku had questioned had told them that Loresce had told him to not mention that he had seen her and another man carrying the padawan out a door and toward the beach. He apparently knew no more than that they were taking Obi-Wan to his new owner. So, a talk with the young lady was in order.
When they arrived at a solitary door the guard, Dooku waved off the guard's arm raised to knock and turned to the guard. "You will leave us now. Thank you."
After they were left alone in the corridor, Dooku had removed his lightsabre, before Qui-Gon knew what he was doing, and sliced through the door's knob. The elder Jedi shoved the door in, and both bounded through.
Loresce was seated before a bureau with a young man standing behind her. Both faced them with expressions of surprise. Streams of tears glistened on Loresce's face, and she moved quickly to wipe them away. The young man was tall and lanky, had the pale violet skin and reddish-purple hued hair that all the inhabitants of this world apparently had, and an aquiline nose set between two large eyes of the deepest violet.
Watery gloom drowned the chamber; gossamer silks in a panoply of rose tones draped over chairs and hung loosely from walls. A faint candle flickered nervously on the bureau beside them, the only light save the lingering flush of azure as it faded to midnight through the windows.
"What do you want?" the young man demanded as he straightened up, eyes frosted coldly.
Dooku stepped forward as he slipped his weapon back to his belt. "We are looking for Obi-Wan, and we suspect that you know where he is."
"Why would we know?" The young man demanded with arms crossed.
"We have reason," answered Dooku, in a matter-of-fact voice, "to believe you know of his whereabouts."
The young Dimisfreen started toward them, intent on throwing them out, but Loresce grasped his arm.
His impatience growing, Qui-Gon clenched his fists. "Just tell us where he is," he said, his inflection strangely calm. "We only wish to recover him. Then, you may forget we were here. Whatever has happened, we'll seek no retribution. That is not our way. Please," he let his voice fill with weariness, "just tell us where we may find him."
Loresce stared at Qui-Gon for a span of time. Her lips twisted in a tortured grimace. "Obi-Wan is—"
"Lorie!" the young man interrupted. "Don't! We can call guards and have them banished from the Kingdom."
Loresce was shaking her head. "No, Jalin. We should tell them. Tell them everything. It's the best way - after what you've done." She finished in almost a whisper, eyes filling with moisture once more.
What you've done? The words rippled fear through Qui-Gon. What had been done, other than Obi-Wan being sold?
Qui-Gon moved slowly to Loresce, careful to not provoke the young man, and crouched before her.
"He's gone," Loresce said, sounding lost. A lone tear spilled and ran down her cheek, shining briefly in a flash of lightning.
Qui-Gon swallowed hard and pushed away rising anxiety. "Gone?"
Loresce nodded slowly. "Jalin sold him." She glanced at her companion when he turned angrily away to the window. "I had Obi-Wan safely hidden away, but . . ." She faltered, hairbrush falling from her hand to the floor with a dull clack, and a small sob escaped her before she could compose herself.
Qui-Gon simply waited for her to continue. His mind raced, trying to piece together what he was being told.
Twining her fingers together tightly, Loresce peered up at Qui-Gon. "Jalin thought I would be better off with him gone."
Jalin whirled around to her. "Lorie . . ."
"It doesn't matter now, Jalin." She wiped her face while tears fell anew. "I could never be what he needs. Just tell them."
The tight expression on Jalin's face softened. He turned to Qui-Gon. "She's been miserable worrying about what to do with him," he explained, plainly reluctant. "We were better off before you came. Especially, Lorie." He glanced with affection to Loresce. "And you were nosing around into things you should not. If it was discovered what we had done . . ." He shrugged helplessly. "We would not be so easily forgiven. I had to do something."
Dooku looked at Jalin, eyes piercing, voice commanding. "Tell us who you sold him to."
Jalin's gaze fell to the floor. "It's too late," he said quietly, and placed a hand on Loresce's shoulder, squeezing gently. "He was taken yesterday. To Tuerinsrok," he said, indicating a nearby city. "I assume he'll be put aboard a ship and taken away from the planet. That was what I hoped. I sold him to a space-faring slaver to get him as far away as possible."
"Tell us his name," Qui-Gon softly asked.
"If I tell you," said Jalin, his gaze shifting from Qui-Gon to Dooku and back again, "will you leave us and never mention what we've done?"
Qui-Gon saw fear shadowed in Jalin's eyes, saw his posture tensed and uncertain. He nodded his agreement.
Jalin inhaled deeply. "He said it was Veschith."
Dooku and Qui-Gon searched, but Veschith turned up no leads in Tuerinsrok. Nor anywhere else.
Warm golden light flushed the clouds in the distance, preparing to end another day. Qui-Gon stood on his terrace, hands resting upon metal railing, hair blowing lightly in the approaching evenfall's breeze. He drew in a breath, hoping it would ease his tension, but was instead left light-headed in the cool wind.
He had returned to the Temple on Coruscant since there had been no leads to point them where Obi-Wan had been taken. Qui-Gon had been shaken, to say the least. Not only had he lost all sense of where his padawan could be—thanks to the Force-suppressing wrist bands placed on the young man—but also he had lost a part of himself, part of his faith in that all-encompassing power.
"We will continue to keep our field operatives on the lookout for him, Qui-Gon," Mace's impersonal voice assured him from behind.
But it was not reassuring, in the least. And Qui-Gon smiled bitterly at that thought.
The Councilor had apparently let himself in without Qui-Gon's knowledge, and come to stand at the threshold of the terrace. Another point to his loss of focus. How could he expect to ever find Obi-Wan in this condition?
"I know you will, Mace." Calm. Unmoved in his tone, in his posture, yet none could see the storm that raged beneath, unrestrained and wild in all its tenacity.
But Mace guessed what was there. He had known the taller man since they were initiates together in the crèche. "I believe Obi-Wan will be found. We must keep faith."
There it was. The appeal to stay true and mindful. To never abandon his conviction.
A quick tuck of hands in his rough robe's billowed sleeves and Qui-Gon turned to meet the steadfast gaze of his longtime peer. "I will meditate." Succinct and serene.
Mace's dark eyes faltered briefly, showed his understanding of that simple statement. The mahogany-complexioned man swallowed, gave a short nod, before spinning on his heels and letting himself out of Qui-Gon's apartment.
Loresce and her friend Jalin had been as much help as they could on the planet Briyenna—the planet's name where their troubles had begun. Qui-Gon held no unforgiveness toward them. The young woman had developed a terrible crush on Obi-Wan; she would pay for her part in the padawan's disappearance. Dooku had returned to the far reaches of the galaxy, out where he felt free of Republic control.
Qui-Gon was alone here. There would be no dirty laundry in the most unlikely places, no datapads left on his bedsheets to remind him to read the next mission report, no waiting to use the 'fresher, no padawan draped provocatively across the old gray stuffed chair in front of the window.
Turning back to the sunset, Qui-Gon reflected on his life, all the pain he had endured, two apprentices lost. Different ways, but lost, all the same. A Jedi's life was never easy, never safe. He had never disillusioned himself in that respect. Attachments were greatly discouraged, but he had never let the Code deter him from what he felt was right. And his heart had borne the brunt of that decision.
As the sun slid deeper in the distance, he saw hope's light fleeing, saw the end of another day, saw sullen shadows closing in on another chapter in his life.
"Obi-Wan," he breathed on the twilight wind. "I'll find you, my Padawan. I will."
finis (for now)