Title: Hold Onto Me
Category: Story, Drama, Adventure, Obi Torture, H/C, Angst, etc.
Spoilers: Nope, don't think so.
Disclaimer: All recognizable Star Wars characters are the exclusive property of George Lucas. All others belong to me. I have no official permission to use these characters, but I'm not being paid for it either, so it's all okey-day.
Feedback: Yes Please!
Characters: Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan (Non-Slash)
Time Frame: 10 years before TPM. (So I guess that would be one year before JA 14 and following... although the JA time line is not incredibly important to this particular story). Obi-Wan is 15.
Warnings: Major Obi Torture Warnings on this story!! If you don't like that, don't read! You have been warned! =D
// = Thoughts or telepathic speech
* = Italics or bold, whatever... basically means emphasis
--|| text ||-- = Flashbacks/memories
Summary: On an undercover mission, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan may end up placing themselves in more trouble than either of them know how to handle. With the fate of millions hanging in the balance, the stakes are high and any error instantly fatal as the two Jedi try to get to the bottom of just what exactly *is* really happening on the planet Nubus. But how costly will that knowledge turn out to be and are they willing to pay the price?
-Hold onto Me-
"Boy," Nalik tapped his empty glass with the back of his finger.
Obi-Wan brought over the pitcher and quietly refilled the dark-faced man's cup, stopping when Nalik signaled that it was full enough. Obi-Wan then paused by Qui-Gon, but his teacher waved his hand, gesturing that he did not want anymore. The elder Jedi's glass was still almost full of the potent, pale amber drink.
Obi-Wan nodded obediently. Giving a small bow, the 15-year-old apprentice withdrew and returned the pitcher to its place. From his station, a few paces behind and slightly to the left of Qui-Gon's chair, Obi-Wan watched the two men play sabbac.
Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn and his Padawan learner, Obi-Wan Kenobi were on Nubus, a large and wealthy planet in the outer rim territories. Nubus was a totalitarian Monarchy with three separate realms ruled by two Kings and one Queen respectively, all of whose ancestry stretched back generations. It was a place steeped in cultural traditions, yet teetering on the brink of a new era, but whether that era would be an upward move towards progress, or a downward slide toward anarchy was still uncertain.
From where he stood Obi-Wan saw the value of the cards in Qui-Gon's hand change suddenly, as often happened in the game.
Nalik's expression did not change, but the rise in the level of frustration that Obi-Wan felt coming from the older man told him that Nalik's cards had also shifted, with unhappy results.
Obi-Wan tilted his head a little, seeking to readjust the position of the light blue, turban-like wrap that covered his hair. The matching tunic and leggings that he wore were considerably lighter and more airy than the Jedi robes he was accustomed to. He did not like the turban much, but all things considered, the young Jedi had had harder assignments than posing as Qui-Gon's slave. So far, it had been a simple matter of obeying orders quickly, keeping his eyes open and his mouth shut. Inwardly he grinned wryly to himself. How was that so very different from his normal life? Calling Qui-Gon 'Master' was certainly natural enough and thus far, everything had gone quite smoothly.
--||"I do believe I'm going to enjoy this," Qui-Gon had said with a twinkle in his eye after explaining to Obi-Wan about their mission and how the Padawan was expected to conduct himself.
"It should be easy Master," Obi-Wan shot back with an innocent look. "After all, you've had almost three years practice at ordering me around." Only the teenager's Jedi reflexes saved him from the gentle whack that Qui-Gon aimed at his shoulder.
"That is exactly the kind of behavior I expect you to avoid on Nubus," Qui-Gon had warned, but the amusement in his eyes belied the severity of his words.
"Nubus is a planet in turmoil with itself right now. Millenniums of neglect and overuse have seriously depleted its natural resources. Nubus cannot go on much longer the way it is, isolated and self-sufficient. At least one of the Rulers, King Dakar, is considering forging ties with the Republic, but the others hold back because to do so would dramatically change the way they lead their lives, especially the slavery issue. With the planet carved up into three separate domains, at least two of the rulers must agree on decisions concerning the entire planet. King Calr and Queen Ithma have directly stated that they want no Republic interference for now."
"Yes, Master," Obi-Wan nodded, still feeling a trifle mischievous. "That's why the Senate's sending us there."
"That's why it's sending us there *undercover*, yes," Qui-Gon raised an eyebrow. "Because King Dakar has secretly appealed directly to the Chancellor. According to him, Nubus is desperate and on the verge of something big, but it may be something terrible. He claims that there have been huge, mass round-ups of minority populations in the East and Central kingdoms. There has been a big gathering planned for all the Royalty and nobles of both those realms. Dakar fears that rulers Calr and Ithma are plotting something. Should the situation turn out to be as bad as he fears, the Republic would have the right to step in under sentient protection-right laws. But without more solid details and proof, the Republic has no authority to investigate or act. King Dakar has given all the information he has, but will not endanger himself and his position by doing more, or even meeting with us yet. This is a dangerous mission Obi-Wan."
"That wouldn't be new for us," Obi-Wan said with a grin, but Qui-Gon remained serious this time, so the apprentice sobered accordingly.
"We are going without the official approval of either the Senate, or the Jedi. If anything goes wrong, neither will be able to claim us without creating an intergalactic incident," Qui-Gon pointed out. "We are on our own."
"Yes, Master," Obi-Wan nodded seriously. Inwardly however, the thought did not concern him too much. Since when had Qui-Gon and he ever needed either the Jedi or the Senate to bail them out of anything? ||--
The buzz of a lone insect flying into the illuminator above the table brought Obi-Wan back to the present.
Qui-Gon pulled his cards out of the freezer in the center of the table and spread them all out, face up in front of him.
Nalik lost with good sportsmanship, surrendering the wager to Qui-Gon and preparing the cards for another hand. "You win some, you lose some," the slave dealer, or "Domestic and Industrial Manpower Supplier" as the Nubians preferred to call people of his profession, shrugged, shuffling the cards clumsily. In reality, Nalik had lost quite a bit this evening.
"Are you sure you want to play again?" Qui-Gon inquired mildly, knowing very well that Nalik would not quit until he had won at least one more hand against the disguised Jedi. Cards and drink were about as good a combination as one could find to loosen the tongues of men like Nalik and Qui-Gon knew that. He also knew that Nalik, as one of the four major flesh dealers on Nubus, had frequent contact with all three Monarchs and wide experience in all sectors of Nubian society.
"Of course," Nalik said predictably. The alcohol he had consumed made the slave-trader genial, even in the face of how much he'd lost in the past hour. "I've got money to burn tonight friend, make it all back again tomorrow anyway." Nalik fumbled the cards, dropping half of them.
"Here, let me do that," Qui-Gon offered, taking the cards from his tipsy companion. "Aru, pour our guest another drink, his glass is empty."
"Something big happening tomorrow?" Qui-Gon asked casually, gracefully dealing out the cards.
Obi-Wan could tell his Master was up to something. After all, they had not waited two hours in this smoky, dimly lit cabaret, which was known to be a favorite haunt of Nalik's, simply to enjoy the music. That wasn't much to enjoy anyway, Obi-Wan thought with a grimace. The pounding beat from the band at the other end of the pub, combined with the smoky air and thick atmosphere was beginning to give him a headache.
"Got business at the palace. Big business, really big," Nalik said with a grin. Downing his drink, he studied his cards, flipping the either-end-up cards around again and again, as if searching for the top.
Obi-Wan repressed a grin.
"Sounds good," Qui-Gon pushed two cards into the freezer field. The Jedi Master had an incomparable amount of unwavering calm that often drove his apprentice crazy, but it served him well at the sabbac table. While seemingly absorbed in the game, Qui-Gon kept a critical eye on the man across the table from him. Nalik had already proved a valuable source of information on the unstable state of Nubus' failing economy, the strife between the three kingdoms, especially Calr and Ithma of the East and Center Kingdoms, against Dakar and the West Kingdom and much more. Unfortunately, of the rumors about mass round-ups, Qui-Gon had found little but vague hints and dark insinuations.
"Oh, it is," Nalik agreed, pushing three cards into the freezer himself. "What with the big hoopla they've got planned over the next few days, they'll need lots of extra manpower. I expect to sell most of my lot to them, half at least, and Royal sales are always the most profitable."
"Really? Good for you," Qui-Gon looked at his cards. He had a good hand. The Jedi knew that the 'big hoopla' Nalik was referring to was the huge gathering of all the Eastern and Center Kingdom nobles and royalty.
Nalik's slightly sozzled state made his emotions even easier to read, and Qui-Gon could tell that his opponent was also well set up. The Jedi cast a quick, sidelong glance at his Padawan. He had an idea. It was risky, but sometimes risks were necessary, and sometimes, one could gain more from losing. Qui-Gon opened the bidding at an extremely high amount.
Obi-Wan did a double take. Qui-Gon's hand wasn't that good. There was no strategy behind such a move.
It spoke for either Nalik's optimism about his chances or this state of drunkenness that he met the bet and actually raised it a bit.
Obi-Wan watched them play. The young Jedi could see his teacher's cards over his shoulder, but Qui-Gon's moves made no sense. The Master played recklessly, as if he did not care if he lost, or as if he was trying to lose, but why would he do that?
As the betting passed back and forth, the stakes grew to extreme, almost ridiculous proportions. Obi-Wan grimaced inwardly. The Supreme Chancellor would not be pleased if Qui-Gon lost that much of his money.
Nalik raised one last time and Qui-Gon reached into the inner pocket of his shirt. He paused, as if searching for the credits to meet the bet. "Aru," he turned to Obi-Wan. "Where is the credit voucher I told you to put in here this morning?" he demanded somewhat sharply.
Obi-Wan knew very well that Qui-Gon had more credits on him. The Senate had given them a generous allowance. However, the young man played along with whatever his Master was up to, looking first alarmed, and then ashamed. "I-I'm sorry Master, I forgot," he said contritely with head bowed.
"Stupid boy," Qui-Gon muttered, rolling his eyes and looking as if he were keeping himself from smacking 'Aru'. Obi-Wan was glad he knew they were just play acting, or Qui-Gon's attitude with him would have hurt.
"It's all right, I'll take your note for it," Nalik offered good-naturedly, but Qui-Gon shook his head.
"I don't believe in IOU's. I won't bet what I don't have with me," he refused bluntly.
Nalik seemed disappointed.
Qui-Gon acted like he was too, looking down at his cards as if weighing something. "Him," he said at last, gesturing with his thumb over his shoulder at Obi-Wan. "I'll bet him and take my credits back. He should cover the wager."
"M-Master?" Obi-Wan sputtered in surprise before he could stop himself.
Qui-Gon shot him a sharp look and Obi-Wan wasn't sure whether it was fake or not. "Keep your tongue Aru or I'll *give* you away to the first zelt-miner I come across!"
Stung, Obi-Wan dropped his head. Pretend or serious, that had hurt.
Qui-Gon's expression didn't change, but his heart twisted a little when he saw Obi-Wan take him seriously. He had to remember that Obi-Wan was still a boy and it wasn't as easy for him to shrug off their play-acting as it was for Qui-Gon.
Obi-Wan sensed a ripple of love and assurance through the Force and felt instantly relieved. Of course, Qui-Gon was just acting, he didn't really mean what he said, but what was he up to?
Nalik gave Obi-Wan a long look, appraising him quickly with the experienced eye of one who made his living off knowing the worth of a slave. The boy was actually worth more than the bet, quite a bit more, but Nalik wasn't about to tell Qui-Gon that if he didn't already know. The slave dealer may have been drunk, but he wasn't stupid. "If that's the way you want it, okay," Nalik shrugged.
Qui-Gon nodded once. He could feel Obi-Wan's eyes boring into the back of his head, but he knew what he was doing... he hoped.
For a few moments, Obi-Wan wondered if it was his Master who had had too much to drink this evening. What in the galaxy did Qui-Gon think he was doing?
Qui-Gon and Nalik showed their hands. Nalik won, but not by much. The slave-trader laughed, cracking his knuckles in satisfaction. "Last round the best, eh?" Nalik glanced at his wrist-chrono and looked slightly surprised at the late hour. "No hard feelings I hope Count Marudai, but I must be getting back now, I've got a big day tomorrow."
"Of course," Qui-Gon rose as well. "Those who gamble must be ready to accept loss."
"You know what? I like you!" Nalik laughed. "You're a much better sport than most Royalty, not to mention the only one I've ever had a go at the cards with."
Qui-Gon just smiled and nodded.
Obi-Wan was in a state of shock. What had just happened here? What did he miss? Surely Qui-Gon had a plan in all this, but he sure wished the Master would let him in on it.
"I'll need to go back to my rooms to get the transfer of ownership register. I'll have the boy collect his things and send him over," Qui-Gon said.
"No need," Nalik shook his head and pulled a transfer register out of his satchel, which up until now had leaned against the table leg. "I've got one here, we can just key in the whole transaction. I'll take him with now, and you can have his stuff sent later. Don't mean to rush you friend, but I didn't realize it had gotten so late and if I don't get him in with the other lot within the next half-hour I'll lose the chance of adding him to the lot I'll be showing at the palace tomorrow," he explained, standing up and glancing at his chrono again in chagrin. "And I think he's the kind they just might like," Nalik added, inspecting Obi-Wan closer and speaking more to himself then to Qui-Gon. "Good looking, strong, quiet," he emphasized the last word with a laugh. "You'll do all right boy." He poked Obi-Wan in the ribs but Obi-Wan remained impassive.
Qui-Gon did not like this turn of events. He had counted on having time alone with Obi-Wan to explain his plan, but if it was going to work, then there seemed to be no choice but to let Nalik take the apprentice now. He would just have to trust that Obi-Wan could figure it out himself.
Obi-Wan was just beginning to do so. The palace... so that was it! Get him on the inside. It was a good idea, but what if something went wrong? What if they didn't buy him? What would become of him then? He didn't have much time to worry about it before the transfer was made, the slave bracelet on his right wrist switched and Nalik was leading him away.
Qui-Gon was glad that they had been properly set up in their guises, thanks to the joint efforts of the Senate and King Dakar. Even in Nubus' data records he was Count Marudai of the remote Vigo islands, complete with a fake family history and the ownership records for many bogus slaves, including 15-year-old Aru Letanka, personal servant and valet. It was these shoes that Obi-Wan filled, taking the identity of the erroneous Aru. All this detail was done merely as a precaution, in case anyone wanted to check up on the Count, and to enable Qui-Gon to attend the Nobles-and-Royals-only function beginning in a few days.
Qui-Gon knew it had never been expected that he would actually use the phony ownership records to sell, or in this case, lose, his Padawan, but sometimes one had to do the unpredictable.
As Nalik slid a stun collar around Obi-Wan's neck as a of matter of course, Qui-Gon suddenly found himself wondering if he had done the right thing. What if he had just put his apprentice in danger? He would never forgive himself if anything happened to Obi-Wan. Yet, the boy was smart, strong in the Force and very talented. Qui-Gon had confidence in Obi-Wan's abilities and after they were both at the palace, he could keep an eye on the boy as well... besides, truth to tell, he didn't have much of a choice in the matter anymore. The deed was done and they had to go with it.
For a brief moment, Qui-Gon's eyes caught Obi-Wan's as the boy hesitantly followed Nalik out. //"Please understand why I do what I do,"// the Master wished silently, then Obi-Wan was gone. Qui-Gon only hoped that Obi-Wan had understood.
Obi-Wan sat down on the small cot he had been shown to and leaned his head against the wall. His cheeks still felt hot. That inspection he and all the other slaves had just had to endure was the most humiliating thing he had ever been through. He'd felt like a Hopi being looked over at market, and he hadn't even been through an actual sale yet. That would come tomorrow morning...
Obi-Wan fingered the slave bracelet that was adhered to the skin around his wrist. Only his owner could remove the bracelet. When his owner had been Qui-Gon, the bracelet was a mere decoration, but now, like the stun collar around his neck, it was a symbol that his life was not his own and a reminder to watch himself.
Qui-Gon had great faith in him to let him go like this, and Obi-Wan was determined to be worthy of that confidence. If only they had been able to talk before they were separated, so he had a better idea of just what Qui-Gon wanted him to do...
"Letanka," a brisk voice said and Obi-Wan looked up, remembering that that was him.
"Your things," the older slave said, dropping Obi-Wan's carry-bag on the bed beside the boy. "You okay kid?" the man, who was probably in his early twenties, paused to inquire. The other slave did not wear a stun collar, and Obi-Wan supposed that Nalik had fitted him with one simply because he was new and the slave-trader did not yet know his temperament.
"Yes, sir," Obi-Wan nodded quickly. He hadn't realized he looked not okay.
The man gave an amused grin. "You don't have to 'sir' me kid," he shook his head. "Save it for the buyers. First time you've been sold, isn't it?"
"That obvious?" Obi-Wan asked ruefully, with a hesitant half-grin.
His friend nodded. "Yup, you've got that wide-eyed, lost look, can see it a mile away. Been raised on some geezers estate all your life, and they just decided to unload you, huh?"
"You could say that," Obi-Wan said quietly.
"Well, don't worry too much, it's not so bad," the older slave assured with a sort of callused kindness. "You'll do fine. You're young, a lot of buyers actually like the young ones a little frightened, makes 'em seem more innocent and obedient." The man winked at Obi-Wan. "Keep your head up, your shoulders back and your eyes down, you'll do fine." With that word of advice, the unnamed slave moved away.
Obi-Wan sighed and opened his bag to see what Qui-Gon had packed for him. A few extra tunics and trousers, but not much clothing since his new masters would undoubtedly want to see to his uniforms and attire themselves.
At the bottom of the bag where a few items that surprised Obi-Wan. Well, the data pad made sense enough, but Obi-Wan had never seen the small, personal audio box before and rarely used such a device, he usually didn't have the time. Yet there had to be some reason Qui-Gon had put it in here. Sliding the listening ends in his ears; Obi-Wan pushed the play button. For a few minutes, popular Nubian music played from the removable data-chip inside the player, just as it had for Nalik's helpers who had undoubtedly checked everything out before allowing the bag to go through to Obi-Wan. Then, abruptly, the music stopped and Qui-Gon's voice filled the apprentice's ears. Obi-Wan straightened up a little, but kept his expression neutral.
/"Obi-Wan, by now I think you've figured out the reason you are where you are. Keep your ears open, but take no action that would in anyway endanger yourself. I will find a way to contact you. Inside this audio box is a micro recording device. Wear it only if you are sure it is safe and there is something that we might need a physical record of. As soon as you have heard this message, erase it. Be careful Padawan,"/ Obi-Wan could hear the concern in his Master's voice. /"I have great confidence in you Obi-Wan. May the Force be with you."/ There was silence again for a moment, then more music. Obi-Wan rewound and played the message several times, just to hear his Master's voice, then erased it as Qui-Gon had instructed. Looking to be sure that no one was watching, Obi-Wan popped open the back of the audio unit and, disguised among the innards, he found a small, round, black device about the diameter of the Padawan's thumbnail with adhesive on one side. A thin wire connected the receiver to another, almost equally tiny recorder. Tucking the recorder back in, Obi-Wan snapped the back plating in place once more and repacked all the items into his bag.
A loud buzz sounded. "Prepare for lights out in five minutes," a mechanical voice announced over the PA system.
Obi-Wan settled in to the small bed just as the lights flicked off. He needed to rest. Tomorrow was a big day.
"Hm, why's this one wearing a collar?" Nadir, the head buyer for King Calr inquired, looking Obi-Wan over thoroughly as he had the first dozen slaves before him. Half had been bought, but half rejected. "He a troublemaker?"
"No, no," Nalik shook his head. "He's been very well behaved. Quiet, complacent type. He's just new, all the new ones wear the collar for the first several weeks, 'til I know what they're like," the slave-trader explained.
"What's your name boy?" Nadir demanded. He had the speck sheets in front of him on his data pad which showed him everything there was to know about Obi-Wan, or rather, about his alias, but the head buyer wanted to hear the boy say something.
"Aru Letanka, sir," Obi-Wan replied respectfully, following the advice he had been given last night and keeping his a straight stance, but lowered eyes. The apprentice's stomach was tight. What if they didn't buy him? What would happen then?
Nadir tipped Obi-Wan's chin up on the crook of his finger, obliging the young slave to meet his eyes. Despite the boy's obvious tenseness, his blue-green eyes were amazingly controlled. "Are you frightened boy?" Nadir asked with a scrutinizing gaze.
Obi-Wan almost denied it, for in truth, he wasn't frightened so much as he was tense and apprehensive, but remembering what his unnamed friend had told him last night, Obi-Wan decided to chance a positive answer. "Yes, sir," he replied evenly, his voice steady.
Nadir smiled. "At least your honest." He considered for a moment longer before dropping Obi-Wan's chin and nodding at Nalik. "We'll take this one too."
Obi-Wan was directed over to the rest of the purchased slaves, and obliged to wait until the rest of the merchandise was looked over.
As he had bragged to Qui-Gon last night, Nalik did indeed sell over half his lot, however, the man Obi-Wan had met last night was not among them. When the sale was finally completed, over fifty new slaves had been purchased and the whole group was rounded up and moved out towards their new home. A light snow was beginning to fall and the air was crisp as the slaves trudged towards the huge royal estate, which was almost as large as a small city.
The debris and pollution that had gotten into Nubus' atmosphere blocked the light of the sun a little more each year, sending the planet into a downward spiral of nearly perpetual winter. Obi-Wan did not wonder that they were having supply difficulties. It must be difficult to grow things on a planet that never saw summer anymore.
Passing through the massive front gates, the slaves were herded inside the castle walls and ushered into a world that seemed to have little to do with real life on Nubus. It was as if the Royalty of the East Kingdom had created their very own miniature, perfect city within the palace walls, one that's entire aim was to serve them in opulent excess. A blast of warm, humid air greeted them, even though they were still outdoors. A huge, invisible weather dome covered the entire Palace Estate. The snow disappeared and huge gardens flourished in living splendor.
Once inside this self-contained biosphere, the slaves were halted. King Calr appeared to personally sign off on the order and approve Nadir's choices. With him were the heads of the various Palace divisions: kitchen, garden, labor, service, etc. Also present were several members of the royal family who wished to choose personal attendants from the new lot.
Obi-Wan stood still while the divvying up was going on, unsure what was expected of him. Presently, a young girl, who looked about his age or a little younger, approached him. She had been browsing through the group with the disinterested air of one who felt they owned the world, but when she came to him, she stopped. Sliding one pretty little, well-manicured hand around the young Jedi's biceps, she squeezed lightly, looking him over with a funny little grin. The girl demanded a name and it was supplied. Obi-Wan wondered where all this was leading.
"You'll do," the girl said with a nearly suppressed smile. "Father, father!" the young Princess demanded the King's attention. "I found mine father," Princess Calia said, gesturing at Obi-Wan.
King Calr looked skeptically from the young boy to his daughter. Oh, he didn't wonder what Calia saw in the lad, but that was what had him worried. "Calia, why don't you pick one of the girls like your sisters?"
Princess Calia made a face. "FA-ther, they're just *babies*," she said with disdain, referring to her younger, twin sisters who were nine. "I've already got a dozen maids fawning all over me, he'd look so much more impressive, following me around, you know, like Momma has!"
"Your mother is a grown woman and that's another matter," Calr started to say, but Calia's face crumpled up like a prune.
"Oh Father! You said I could have anyone I wanted! Why you promised me Daddy! You did!" Calia pouted, on the verge of throwing a temper-tantrum.
"All right, all right," the King muttered disapprovingly. "You can have him dear. Otto," the King motioned one of his personal attendants over. "This boy is to serve Princess Calia. Take him to the surgeons and make sure he's... adequately prepared for such a task," he ordered.
Otto cast the King a knowing look and nodded. "Come with me boy."
Obi-Wan had remained silent through all of this, but he was liking the sound of it less and less. It was very reluctantly that he followed Otto away.
Princess Calia started to go with, but her Father bid her stay, saying she could have her new pet back after the medics were done with him. "Why Father, he doesn't look sick," Calia said, a trifle over-innocently.
Obi-Wan resisted the urge to bite his lip as he was compelled to follow Otto into one of the nearby buildings. He supposed he could make a break for it, but they were already inside the Palace and he yet had no idea of how it's defenses and securities were set up. Besides, if he ran now, all of Qui-Gon's efforts would be wasted. But...
Otto glanced at the tense young man beside him. "How old are you boy? Sixteen, seventeen?"
"Fifteen sir," Obi-Wan corrected, although people usually mistook him for older than he was.
Otto shook his head. So young, it was such a pity. "Princess Calia is thirteen and very... outgoing. You understand why her father worries about her," he explained.
"Yes, sir," Obi-Wan nodded without looking at the older man. Oh, he understood all right, but that didn't mean he liked the situation.
"Don't be afraid, this won't hurt," Otto tried to reassure.
Obi-Wan was not comforted.
"Otto," Otto actually jerked slightly when Princess Calia appeared around the corner without warning. "Your Highness?" he said with a short bow, which Obi-Wan copied.
"I don't want the boy messed with Otto," she said imperiously.
"Yes, your Highness," Otto nodded patiently. "But your father-"
"My father doesn't trust me," Calia interrupted, and Obi-Wan wondered if that were actually a bit of hurt he saw in the spoiled young Princess' eyes. "Although how he can judge a person he barely knows is beyond me. When I grow up I shall rule the Eastern Kingdom; I know my duty, my place and all that poo-doo. So leave the boy alone, it's really not fair to him, now is it Otto?" Calia's voice took on a wheedling tone.
Otto shook his head gently. "I'm sorry your Highness, but until the day that you are Queen of this realm, the King's orders still outweigh yours."
Calia's face flushed crimson. "All right Otto, if that's the way you want it! But I'd be careful if I were you. Do you have any idea what my father would do if I even hinted that you had, shall we say, taken an inappropriate interest in me?"
"Your Highness! You wouldn't!" Otto protested, paling a shade.
"Oh wouldn't I?" Calia said with an evil grin. "Look Otto, don't worry. No one needs to know about this, I'll arrange it with the medics so Daddy'll never know. Send Aru up to my rooms, I'll have my girls get him something better to wear. All right?"
"Yes, your Highness," Otto bowed with a deeply disapproving scowl.
Contented, Calia skipped away.
"Spoiled brat," Otto muttered under his breath. "One thing I suppose you had better learn right now boy, is that Princess Calia gets her way and anyone who tries to stop her suffers the consequences."
"Would she really..." Obi-Wan hesitated, realizing he might be speaking out of turn, but Otto seemed so put out with the Princess that he didn't notice any breach of etiquette.
"Oh yes," Otto said darkly. "And it wouldn't be the first time. I have no wish to be added to the list of people who have been tossed in prison or lost their heads to her whims. Watch yourself boy. You're in dangerous waters," Otto warned as he took Obi-Wan up to Calia's rooms as ordered.
As the door closed behind Obi-Wan, the teenager wondered what in the name of the Force he had just gotten into.
Obi-Wan looked at himself in the mirror and made a face. Giving the feathered plume on his silky red turban a dispassionate whack in an attempt to keep it from bobbing in his face, the young Jedi shook his head.
"Turn around," Calia ordered and Obi-Wan obeyed with a silent, long-suffering sigh. The Princess was enjoying playing with her live doll very much. Putting her finger thoughtfully against her cheek, Calia shook her head. "No, red isn't your color. Take it off. Mamsa, bring in the green one."
As ordered, Calia's maids, most of which where Obi-Wan's age or older, provided Obi-Wan with yet another lavish uniform. Resisting a sigh, Obi-Wan changed clothes yet again.
Finally, Calia settled on a less ornate but more striking white and gold uniform trimmed off with a black leather head and neck band. "There," she said, fussing over the front of his tunic. The shirt hung down to his knees and was augmented with gracefully sweeping sleeves, fitted at the wrists with two more black leather thongs, but the front was left open a few inches to show Obi-Wan's chest. The tunic was belted at the waist with gold and white sandals fastened with black straps finished off the pant-less outfit.
"This is very nice. You're going to make me the envy of all the other girls at the party," she said with satisfaction. "I bet none of *them* has such a nice looking male slave. Not an un-neutered one anyway." Calia giggled.
Obi-Wan did not find her amusing. He did not like the way the spoiled young Princess talked. For that matter, he didn't like her attitude, her demeanor or her actions either. The next few days were not going to be easy.
Obi-Wan found his uneasy premonitions to be only too true. Calia was not a cruel child, but the young lady was certainly pettiness personified. The very next day after Obi-Wan was sold to King Calr, the royal guest began to arrive. The apprentice tried to keep his eyes and ears open, but his duties were mainly to follow the Princess around with a long, plumed fan and be her showpiece to make all her girlfriends jealous. So far all the Obi-Wan had managed to learn was that the Eastern Kingdom's future queen led an incredibly shallow life and had no real friends. The Padawan's much practiced patience was wearing thin.
"Gee, he's kind of cute, however did you get your father to let you keep him?" Elaina, daughter of one of the Middle Kingdom's nobles asked with girlish interest as if Obi-Wan weren't standing three feet away. Obi-Wan refused to flush, as he had discovered that they liked that too much. He despised being talked about like some kind of pet.
"Oh, it wasn't that hard," Calia bragged. "I can do what I want."
"That's just too wizard," Elaina shook her head. "Make him do something," she asked, as if talking about a trained furble.
"Aru, fetch us some sweets," Calia ordered imperiously.
Obi-Wan obeyed, reigning in his boiling indignation and keeping an impassive attitude. Returning to the room with a dish of Calia's favorite sweets the young Jedi paused in the doorway when he felt a familiar surge in the Force. A moment later Qui-Gon, in company of another noble came walking down the hall. The big Jedi's eyes never wavered and he gave no visible sign, but Obi-Wan knew he had seen him, and with an inside touch, acknowledged his presence.
It was somehow comforting to know that Qui-Gon was in the palace as well.
"Aru!" Calia snapped. "Don't linger in doorways!"
Quickly, Obi-Wan brought himself back to his present situation.
The night of the big party came quickly and Calia was spared no expense to see that she was dressed to kill.
Obi-Wan did not think that she could safely don anymore jewelry, not and still be able to move. Likewise her dress dripped so much lace and jewels that it probably cost more than several houses.
Yet, the young princess did not seem very excited. Her main goal still seemed to be how many people she could make envy her.
Indeed, for a young teen like Calia, the party could seem terribly dull. Determined to create her own excitement, the princess made "Aru" sneak strong drinks for her from the refreshment table.
Obi-Wan did not like it at all, but he had no choice.
During one such trip the refreshment table, Obi-Wan found himself standing directly behind King Calr and Queen Ithma. Freezing, he pulled the Force around him to keep them from seeing him, since they would know he had no business being around the liquor table and he did not wish to take the punishment for Calia's follies.
Thinking they were alone and unobserved the two monarchs lingered by the buffet, talking softly.
Obi-Wan, barely a meter away could here everything they said and his ears perked up with interest. Moving as smoothly as he could, he slid his hand silently under his shirt and switched on the recorder, which he fortunately had chosen to wear today.
"How are you doing with your Midori sales?" Calr was inquiring.
Ithma shrugged. "About three thousand this month, off to Kestle I believe the buyer said. They don't pay very much for unskilled labor though."
Calr sighed sympathetically. "Every little bit helps."
"Yes, but not enough I fear. You've heard the projections I presume?"
Calr cursed silently. "What about the others?"
"1500 more, taken care of," Ithma said simply. "Not counting the children."
"Well you can't really count them, they're just extra targets really, distraction," the King agreed carelessly.
Ithma nodded and looked around. "Your security is tight, correct Calr?" she suddenly inquired.
"Air tight," Calr affirmed. "But if you'd rather, we won't talk about this any more just now. Tomorrow, before the meeting, then we'll tell the others in the meeting."
Ithma nodded and they both drifted away.
Obi-Wan started to breathe again. Clicking the recorder off and quickly filling Calia's cup he looked around for Qui-Gon. Seeing the Jedi Master across the room, Obi-Wan made sure that his path back to the Princess took him by the elder Jedi.
Mentally announcing his attention to Qui-Gon without once looking at him, Obi-Wan brushed by him in the crowd, leaving Qui-Gon holding the data chip he had just passed him and no one any the wiser.
Qui-Gon spared a sideways glance out of the corner of his eye as Obi-Wan walked away. It concerned him that Obi-Wan had obviously chosen to wear the recorder on such an important, high-security evening. Yet, it seemed that he must have gotten something pretty useful, so perhaps it was all right.
"There you are Aru!" Calia giggled tipsily. "Where have you been? I thought you fell in," she mock chided, taking the glass from him and downing it in three swallows, then making a face at the way the hard alcohol burned her throat.
"I don't like that stuff..." she pouted, ignoring the fact that she had just ordered him to get her that drink specifically. "Get me - get me one of those sweet, fruity drink things with the looong stems," Calia imitated the twisting motion of the stems she was referring to and nearly falling over backward.
Obi-Wan sighed. "Are you sure that's a good idea your Highness?"
"Of course it is silly!" Calia laughed, giving him a push. Then, her inebriated brain switched tracks suddenly as it seemed given to do the more she drank. "Oh look at the night!" she said, grabbing Obi-Wan's arm and dragging him outside onto the balcony, five to six levels above the ground.
An invisible electric field surrounded the balcony, keeping the heat trapped in and the icy air kept out. Just like the courtyards and gardens here with their perpetual summer. Even the weather was carefully under the royals' control.
"The night's so pretty Aru," Calia enthused, her voice a trifle thick. "Whew, I'm hot," she said, carelessly starting to unclasp the front of her shirt.
"Your highness! I think you'd better not," Obi-Wan cautioned, placing his hand over hers to halt her.
Calia looked at the hand and grinned. "Aru, you've never touched me before."
Obi-Wan quickly withdrew his hand. "Your highness, I think we should go back inside, your guests will-"
"Go happily on about their business without even noticing I'm missing. Most of them hate me anyway," she said flatly, although Obi-Wan thought he saw perhaps a glimmer of emotion in her unfocused eyes. "You don't think anyone in there really gives two chupas where I am or what I'm doing do you?"
"Barely knows me. As long as I'm a pretty, perfect little doll in his collection, what does he care? I want to stay right here. I want to stay with you..." Calia leaned closer, giggling slightly with alcohol induced gaiety. "You probably hate me too, only you can't say it," she said, almost cheerfully. Leaning close, she walked her fingers up Obi-Wan's shirtfront, toying with the large, jeweled pendant that hung against his chest.
Obi-Wan backed up uncomfortably, only to find himself cornered against the balcony railing. He felt himself flush uncontrollably as Calia leaned against him, standing up on tiptoe to reach his lips.
"Y-Your highness, please," Obi-Wan choked out, pulling his mouth away from hers and pushing her back a little. "Do you have any idea what your father would do to me..."
"Mm," the princess smiled devilishly. "Do you have any idea what I can do to you?" Fingering the edges of his shirt, Calia leaned closer once more, alcohol making her reasoning hazy. Trying to kiss him again, she slid her hands under his shirt. Calia's fingers caught on a small wire and something in her foggy brain cried an alert. Closing her hand on the wire, she gave it a sudden yank, shoving Obi-Wan's shirt back to reveal the small recorder. Even half-inebriated, Calia recognized the espionage device and its implications.
Obi-Wan felt a sudden stab of alarm shoot through him. Before he could stop her, Calia jumped back, screaming loudly.
"No! Wait, princess please!" he tried to stay calm, reaching out and taking her wrist. Calia calmed instantly under his persuasion, but the damage was done. Almost immediately, seven or eight guards responded to the scream. Without waiting to ask questions, they grabbed Obi-Wan's arms roughly, yanking him away from Calia. Kicking the teenager's legs out from under him and wrenching his arms behind his back with brutal strength they held him on his knees. Obi-Wan could have fought them, but without his lightsaber he knew he could not win and all that would probably accomplish would be to earn him instant execution. The young Jedi's mouth felt unexplainably dry, but he kept his calm.
Calia was shaking. Half-drunk and overwrought with her frightening discovery she was quite over-stimulated. She couldn't seem to say anything, but pointed to the now exposed wires attached to the inside of Obi-Wan's shirt.
By now, Calia's scream had attracted quite a crowd of gawkers. King Calr himself, drawn out by the commotion, strode over and assessed the situation with a glare that commanded an explanation.
"Your majesty," one of the guards bowed. "We've caught a spy your majesty," the fellow held up the recorder. "He attempted to harm the princess."
Obi-Wan did not bother to object, it would have done him no good. Nothing would do him any good at this point. He was in deep trouble and he knew it.
Calr's jaw clenched as he turned the recorder over in his hands. "Well we know how to deal with spies," the King said coldly in a way that made Obi-Wan's pulse race a little. "Take him away. I'll see to his questioning later."
The guards dragged Obi-Wan to his feet, fitting the apprentice with binders and conducting him away.
Qui-Gon watched from a distance in horrified silence as his Padawan was dragged off the balcony and out of the room under arrest. Just before he was pulled out, their eyes met from across the room and Obi-Wan tipped his chin up bravely.
//"Don't worry. I will make you proud of me Master,"// his fearless eyes seemed to say.
//"I already am Padawan, I already am,"// Qui-Gon thought miserably. His heart cried for him to act, to pull Obi-Wan away, to do *something*... but he knew he could not afford to drop his own charade yet. Obi-Wan would be all right for the present. From what the King had said, nothing would be done to the boy until after the party when Calr could attend the interrogation in person, and Qui-Gon intended to see that Obi-Wan was not there to be questioned.
It was the longest three hours Qui-Gon had ever spent in his life. Walking back to his room at a fast clip, the Jedi Master's mind whirled. Tomorrow morning there was going to be a large gathering of the nobles only. No family, children, servants or courtiers. It was going to be held behind locked doors and no one seemed to really know what it was all about. Rumors were rampant, but facts were few, however, Qui-Gon imagined that it would be a pretty important meeting. Perhaps the key to this whole situation.
Qui-Gon fingered the tiny data discs inside his sash. Whatever they contained, Obi-Wan had paid dearly to get them and he wanted to hear what they said. He would have liked to free Obi-Wan immediately, but he knew he had a duty to report to the Supreme Chancellor on these events first.
Reaching his room, Qui-Gon sealed the door and pulled a small data-reader from a hidden compartment in his travel-case. He was also going to have to spare time to check these data discs.
Qui-Gon frowned. The conversation Obi-Wan had taped confirmed that there was indeed something very dark going on here. Something that seemed about to affect hundreds, maybe thousands of lives. Apparently, the situation was even more serious than they had thought. It was a poor time to find this out.
"Chancellor Mycore," Qui-Gon was in too much of a press for time to be more elaborate with his greeting. He reported the details of the evening quickly but thoroughly.
"At this time, it seems as if the Midori minority is being systematically rounded up and sold to other nearby planets to raise the money needed for Nubus to correct it's environmental problems. Many more are simply disappearing, presumably killed for "population control"," Qui-Gon shook his head. It was terrible what people could do to one another sometimes. "However, I have a more pressing problem..." Qui-Gon told of Obi-Wan's discovery and consequent arrest.
There was a long pause on Supreme Chancellor Mycore's side. "You plan to get him back?" he asked, his tone unreadable.
"Tonight. I will-"
"No," the command was short, but decided. "If all that you say, and the information you have sent us is correct, then the meeting tomorrow morning is of vital importance. Any action you may take tonight would endanger your attendance at that meeting and endanger with it the thousands of lives that now seem to be hanging in the balance."
Qui-Gon was stunned and outraged at the heartless command. "Obi-Wan has been arrested as a spy!" he protested. "You know what that means! I cannot simply leave him in their hands!"
"You know the boy Master Jinn. Will he talk?" Mycore inquired.
Qui-Gon reached a near boiling point at the gall it took to ask a question like that. "Obi-Wan is a Jedi Padawan Chancellor," the Master ground out through his teeth. "He will die before he tells anyone anything, but mission go to the Sith, I have no intention of standing by and letting that happen!"
"I'm going to ignore that Master Jinn," the Chancellor's voice was determined. "Because I understand this is difficult for you. I will tell you one more time; you must not endanger your position in the Court. The information we have so far is mere hearsay and a few unauthorized recordings; the Republic cannot make a decision on grounds like these," the Chancellor's tone was almost pleading now. He had worked hard, against the better judgement and support of many of his peers to get Qui-Gon this close, to ruin it all now...
"I understand that, but you must understand me," Qui-Gon was calmer now, but no less stubborn. "I will not abandon my apprentice to face certain torture."
Obi-Wan was only fifteen... Inside, Qui-Gon was swimming with guilt. He had done this to Obi-Wan. It was his fault. He had put Obi-Wan in this dangerous position and he'd be damned if he was going to let Obi-Wan pay the price for his mistakes!
"I cannot stop you," the Chancellor's voice was heavy and sad now. "But I must point out that you are weighing one life against hundreds, thousands of others. It will be rough on the boy, but he will live and you can retrieve him directly after the meeting..." the Chancellor trailed off.
He could tell Qui-Gon what to do, could order him as the head of the Senate, the highest ruling body in the Republic, but the Jedi did not seem overly concerned with his authority.
"In the end, it's your choice Master Jinn," Mycore said quietly. "But many innocent's whose life may depend on your choice." The Chancellor was not a heartless man, but he was one who had to constantly weigh the balances, and do what was best for the majority, no matter the cost.
"Thank you Chancellor," Qui-Gon said clippedly. "I realize that." Ending the communication, Qui-Gon sat in brooding silence for a moment. His choice... but how could he make a choice like that?! He knew what he *wanted* to do, but... Qui-Gon punched another code into his small com-unit.
"Hello," the voice that answered held no trace of the fact that on Coruscant it was well towards the early hours of morning.
"Mace, this is Qui-Gon."
"Well, Master Yoda and I were not waiting up to count the tiles on the Council room floor," Mace said somewhat dryly, with that wry, but rare sense of humor that he sometimes exhibited. Mace and Yoda had been waiting for quite a long time to get his report. Qui-Gon gave them one. A very disturbing one.
The two Jedi Masters back on Coruscant became very sober, very quickly.
"Unhappy with the Chancellor's decision on this you are," Yoda's distinctive voice spoke up. It was not a question.
"Yes, Master," Qui-Gon replied disconsolately. "I cannot abandon Obi-Wan so easily..."
"It doesn't sound like there's anything easy about this Qui-Gon," Mace's voice was grave. "It's a terrible situation, but you do realize he has a point."
"Of course he's got a point!" Qui-Gon was frustrated. "But-"
"No buts can there be," Yoda cut him off, his voice soft, but deadly serious. "Blame yourself, you do, for your apprentice's position. Thinking clearly you are not. Let your guilt guide you, do not!"
"Qui-Gon, we understand how you feel," Mace said compassionately, and Qui-Gon knew the other Master really meant it, it was not just words. Mace's voice was heavy with the burden of the choice before them. "No one *wants* Obi-Wan to be hurt, but as Jedi we have obligations bigger then the fate of any one person. That's not easy, but it's true, and you know that."
Yes, Qui-Gon knew, but he hated it.
"You will do what you think is best in the end, you always do," Mace injected wryly. "I cannot tell you, one way or the other. You must do as the Force guides."
"Your choice it is, and you alone can make it," Yoda echoed sadly. "May the Force be with you."
Qui-Gon thumbed the communicator off once more and tucked it away. How could he choose? How could he? But it wasn't really a choice, was it? He already knew in his heart the painful path that lay before him; he was simply trying to fight it. If the position were reversed, what would he want Obi-Wan to do? Oh, but it was so hard...!
Making the single most difficult decision of his life, Qui-Gon realized he was going to have to sacrifice Obi-Wan to save the lives of others. For perhaps the first time in his life, Qui-Gon wished he were not a Jedi. Inwardly, he raged against the Jedi, the code, the responsibility that bound him into having to look to the safety of strangers before that of the boy who was like his own son...
Qui-Gon shook his head. Thinking like that did no good. He could not free Obi-Wan, but he would not abandon him! Settling down into a deep meditation, he reached out, searching... and found Obi-Wan searching for him too. They met somewhere in the middle.
//"Obi-Wan, are you all right?"//
//"Yes, Master,"// Obi-Wan's mental voice was brave, but Qui-Gon could feel that the boy was uneasy. //"They haven't done anything to me... yet."// Obi-Wan knew what was going to happen to him, but was determined to face it like a Jedi.
//"Obi-Wan, I can't come for you..."// deep, heart-rending pain seeped through his consciousness and Obi-Wan felt his Master's agony over the situation, over the choice he had obviously had to make. Obi-Wan understood.
//"I understand Master. It is the right thing to do."//
Qui-Gon wished he could be so sure of that.
//"Master,"// Obi-Wan tightened. //"I hear someone coming. They're at the door..."// The apprentice fought to stay calm. //"There is no fear, there is no fear..."// Obi-Wan repeated over and over again silently.
Qui-Gon was so proud. So heartbreakingly proud. He gave the mental equivalent of squeezing Obi-Wan's hand. //"I am here. Hold onto me Obi-Wan. You are not alone. I will not leave you alone."//
Obi-Wan's gratitude filled their bond, but his attention was being taken by whoever had just entered his cell and he did not respond.
King Calr, accompanied by Princess Calia and two other men stepped into Obi-Wan's cell.
The manacles around Obi-Wan's wrists held him in a kneeling position between two posts to which his hands were chained, upraised above his head. The guards who had deposited him there had first stripped the teenager to the waist. He did not expect that they had anything pleasant in store for him.
"You're young for a spy and a traitor," the King said coldly. "So I'm going to give you one chance to tell us who sent you, what you are doing here and what you have heard before we *make* you tell us. You probably won't take it, but I can't change that. What I can tell you is that if you defy me I will make you suffer long and hard and in the end you will tell me anyway."
*"Don't bet on it!"* Obi-Wan's defiant eyes seemed to say.
"So, what's it going to be? The easy way, or the hard way?" Calr did not really expect the young prisoner to give up so easily. He could see the stubbornness in the boy's eyes.
Obi-Wan did not respond, he just looked at Calr; the kind of quiet glare that went right through a person.
Calr nodded. This one was going to need to be broken.
A fist snapped Obi-Wan's head to the side while another caught him in the ribs. Calr watched silently as one of his men punched the boy bloody. They would start slow and build their way up as necessary. Somewhere along the line it would become too much and the boy would break, he would have to. The King gave no thought to his young daughter's presence. She had wanted to come and he had no objections. Calia would be queen someday and she would have to learn how to handle things like this. It was part of her inheritance.
Calia watched in seeming indifference as Obi-Wan doubled over under the abuse, vainly trying to twist away from the iron blows. Yet half unconsciously, she twisted her lacy handkerchief tensely in her hands. She was strong, she was tough, she could take this, she would enjoy this...
Obi-Wan's head lolled sideways and his Padawan braid, until now tucked up and hidden under the headband he wore, slid out.
King Calr stiffed and held up his hand for his man to stop for a moment. Striding over, he seized Obi-Wan's braid and jerked the boy's head up painfully. Calr knew what that braid meant and the implications were far worse than he had thought.
"Jedi," Calr hissed. "You're a Jedi apprentice!"
Obi-Wan met the King's glare with pain-glazed eyes that denied nothing, but told nothing.
Calr swore violently. He had thought the boy a spy from King Dakar, or perhaps even from Queen Ithma, for one never really knew whom they could trust. But he was a *Jedi* and that could mean only one thing...
"The Republic sent you, didn't they? Didn't they?!" Calr backhanded Obi-Wan but the young Jedi did not flinch.
"Only they could have," the King scowled darkly. "Meddling fools!" A thought came to Calr. "But they wouldn't have sent you alone, would they? No, there's a cursed Jedi *Master* lurking somewhere about, isn't there?"
Obi-Wan responded to nothing that Calr said, but that didn't matter. The King knew he was right.
"Where is your Master boy?" Calr demanded. "Who is he? Is he here, disguised somewhere, another spy? Where is he?!"
Obi-Wan's lips were pressed into a tight line. He would never tell them. He would never betray Qui-Gon. The King was wasting his breath.
Calr released Obi-Wan's braid, murderous anger in his dark eyes. "You Jedi think you are so tough, well we'll see how tough you are. We'll see how much it takes to make a Jedi scream," he sneered.
Obi-Wan closed his eyes as the two guards picked up electro-jabbers and shock poles. //"There is no fear..."//
A searing jolt tore through his body, but Obi-Wan kept his peace. Another, and another. Obi-Wan struggled raggedly for breath as the raw electricity made his lungs constrict and spasm. //"Help me Master, please, hold me."//
Beads of perspiration rolled down Qui-Gon's brow, but he was totally unaware of them. Unaware of anything that was happening where he was. He was totally wrapped up in what was happening where Obi-Wan was.
//"Help me Master, please, hold me."// The strong, yet pain-filled plea echoed in Qui-Gon's ears as his apprentice's suffering leached into their bond. Obi-Wan was obviously shielding so that Qui-Gon would not feel the full brunt of what he was going through.
With all his strength, Qui-Gon reached out, attempting to hold the boy close, even across the distance that separated them.
//"I'm here Obi-Wan, I'm proud of you, so proud! And I'm sorry... I'm sorry this has happened. I never wanted you to get hurt! I should not have put you in this position! Please Padawan, forgive me!"// Qui-Gon pleaded as he felt Obi-Wan's pain, even though shielded, swell intolerably.
//"I-I knew the risks,"// Obi-Wan's voice was fainter, it was becoming harder for him to hold onto the connection as the torture increased. //"It's not your fault Master. Don't blame yourself... Oh Force!"// Obi-Wan clamped down immediately, not having meant to let that last part through.
King Calr shook his head. This was not getting them anywhere. They were going to have to speed things up a little. He didn't know how effective mind drugs would be on a Jedi, but they would certainly weaken the boy, and it couldn't hurt. He gave the order and the injection was administered.
Obi-Wan felt the drug invade his system, sending his mind reeling and this thoughts scattering about like chaff on the wind. It tried to blank his thoughts, to open his mind, but his mind remained closed. Hanging on desperately to his training, to the Force, Obi-Wan resisted the drug with all his strength.
Calr questioned him again, but Obi-Wan did not look up, did not respond. The King frowned. The boy barely even seemed effected. Calr was determined to make a dent in the teenager's stoic armor, no matter what he had to do. "Flog him," he ordered brusquely.
Obi-Wan tensed and prepared himself. The whip they used was made of a special substance and electro-charged, so that it did far less damage than a conventional whip would have, but inflicted twice as much pain. As the cruel lash slashed his back, the apprentice clung desperately to Qui-Gon's mental touch. Like a drowning man clinging to a lifeline, Obi-Wan seized upon their connection as the only way to get him through this terrible night.
Qui-Gon held Obi-Wan tightly, willing him all the strength he could give. Obi-Wan no longer had the energy to keep the bond open on his end, so Qui-Gon kept it open for both of them. It was a draining feat, but Qui-Gon didn't care if it killed him. He wouldn't leave Obi-Wan to go through this alone.
Obi-Wan was still shielding, and only the excess pain he could not guard was seeping into their bond. Qui-Gon knew it took energy to shield like that, and right now Obi-Wan needed all the strength he had.
//"Don't shield from me Obi-Wan,"// Qui-Gon said gently. //"Save your strength. It's all right."//
Obi-Wan didn't want to let down his guards between them, but Qui-Gon was right, it was taking too much to keep them up.
At a nod from Calr, the second man also picked up a lash and joined the first. Working in tandem, they gave Obi-Wan no break between the searing jolts of pain that were tearing him apart. Willing or no, Obi-Wan's shields crumbled.
Qui-Gon's senses shook as his apprentice's pain flooded the connection. Pulsing and raw, Qui-Gon felt his throat constrict at the intensity of it as it broke over him like a wave.
He tried to help, to ease Obi-Wan's suffering, but from this distance there was little he could do but hold Obi-Wan's mental hand and suffer with him, each agonizing minute at a time.
It took a long time and a lot of pain, but Calr did make Obi-Wan scream. Obi-Wan tried not to, but it was no longer something he could control.
Calia felt ill. Her stomach churned and her knees were weak. She had thought she could do this, thought she would find it exciting, or at least satisfying, instead all she felt was sick and horrified. She tried desperately to convince herself that she was only ill because she drank too much, but deep inside she knew it was more than that.
Perhaps if it had just been some unknown person... but she had known Aru, even if only for a little while... she had kissed him for goodness sakes! Even if it had been only out of boredom, rebellion and too much wine.
There was so much blood... she had never seen so much blood. When he screamed she just wanted to cover her ears, to run... but she could not look a weakling in her father's eyes, so she stayed, hating every instant of it.
Calia leaned weakly against the wall, the scent of blood and the sound of pain making her physically ill.
Calr was not paying attention to his daughter, he barely even remembered she was there. His attention was on the young, but stubborn spy.
"Give it up boy," the King said persuasively, calling another momentary halt in the interrogation. "It's not worth all this pain. Just tell me where the other Jedi is. What do you owe them? Your loyalty is admirable, but misguided. They obviously don't care what happens to you. They left you to take this all alone..."
Obi-Wan's head came up and his glazed eyes burned with sudden fire. "You have no idea what you're talking about," he rasped, his throat raw from screaming and his voice hoarse with pain.
"What do you know about loyalty?" The teenager shook his head as a coughing fit wracked his body, making him cough up blood. "When you sell your own subjects as slaves to other worlds to pay for your comfort and murder them to keep down the population!" The young Jedi's eyes flashed with indignation at the atrocities.
Calr's face darkened and he nodded at his men. "You're going to regret that boy," he said softly.
Obi-Wan tried to steel his battered body. "No," he shook his head. "I will never regret the truth."
Something in his eyes at that moment struck Calia. They were so filled with pain, yet so sure he was right. What he said hit her too. She had heard rumors of course, but passed them off as vicious hearsay; sedition spread by malcontents to fool the weak-minded. But this boy was obviously anything but weak-minded... No. It could not be true. Her father was a hard man, she knew he had killed many times, but it was only for the good, only those who deserved to die... not the innocent. Not just for population control...
Obi-Wan screamed, sobbing in pain. He didn't know how much more of this he could take. He would never betray Qui-Gon, of that he was certain, but dear Force - the agony was unbearable!
//"Master, Master!"// he sobbed silently, begging for the strength to endure, for the one gentle touch that could reach him through his pain.
Silent tears coursed down Qui-Gon's cheeks as he sat, lost inside the Force, his heart hurting worse then he could ever have imagined.
//"I'm here Obi-Wan, it's okay,"// he choked out, pouring all the love, comfort and strength he had into his desperate apprentice.
//"Master... Oh Force! Master!"// Obi-Wan seemed to be able to say little else, just crying Qui-Gon's name over and over for the small bit of strength it gave him. Obi-Wan was sobbing helplessly now. Qui-Gon had never seen the strong, calm, confident boy who was his apprentice pushed to such a point where he was so totally broken down and vulnerable before. And all Qui-Gon could do was hold him. Hold Obi-Wan while he cried in anguish, hold him and feel the pain of the torture reverberate in his own body and slowly rip his heart out inch by agonizing inch. Qui-Gon had never felt so helpless.
//"Hold on Obi-Wan, hold onto me, it will be all right."// Qui-Gon was crying too.
//"S-sorry,"// Obi-Wan gasped, knowing how his Master hurt for him. He wanted to be stronger; not to fall apart like this... but he could not help himself.
//"Don't be! Don't be..."// Qui-Gon soothed. //"I am so proud of you Obi-Wan! I love you Obi-Wan, I love you..."//
Obi-Wan could almost feel Qui-Gon's cool hand on the side of his burning face, touching him gently and distracting him from the pain. Qui-Gon was right here with him, so Obi-Wan could hold on. Hold on and endure.
Calia couldn't take it anymore. So sick that she no longer cared what her father or anyone else though of her, the Princess turned and left the cell quickly. Pushing her way roughly past the guards outside, Calia fled to her room, where she became violently ill. Retching and crying, the thirteen-year-old huddled into a miserable ball, refusing all the earnest attempts of her handmaids to help her.
King Calr remained until almost dawn. He knew however, that he needed some rest before his meeting tomorrow. About one hour before dawn, he left Obi-Wan's questioning in the hands of the torturers with the simple instruction that they were not to stop until the apprentice Jedi had broken.
Qui-Gon mentally held Obi-Wan's hand all through the long, terrible night, even as the Master's own helplessness threatened to kill him with anguish.
As the long hours dragged by, Qui-Gon wondered what kind of animal ruled this kingdom. He couldn't believe anyone could be so cruel as to torture a mere boy like Obi-Wan all night.
King Calr returned to Obi-Wan's cell on his way to the meeting sometime in the late morning. To his great displeasure, he found Obi-Wan barely conscious, but still stubbornly silent.
Just about that time, Obi-Wan passed out. He had lapsed in and out of senselessness many times during night, but this time not even the stim-aids the torturers used could bring him back to consciousness.
The King shook his head. If the boy had not talked yet, he never would.
"Enough!" he told his frustrated men. "We can get nothing out of him. He's been too conditioned or something. Perhaps he truly does not know. I want him terminated, today."
//"Obi-Wan, can you hear me? Obi-Wan!"// Qui-Gon called as he once again lost the thread of Obi-Wan's presence. He recognized by now that it only meant Obi-Wan was unconscious. Part of him was glad. At least in unconsciousness, his apprentice could feel no pain.
A sudden knock at the door disrupted Qui-Gon, nearly making him jump out of his skin as he was abruptly dragged back to the awareness of his physical surroundings.
"Count Marudai, you're going to be late for the meeting sir. Count, Count! Are you all right sir?" a muffled voice called through the door.
Qui-Gon glanced at his chrono and swore silently. That time already? What kind of creatures were these people?!
Qui-Gon was bone weary and absolutely exhausted. He had gotten no sleep and spent the single most physically and emotionally draining night of his life. His eyes were red and puffy and his body as stiff as a board. Worn as he was, now that his focus had been broken, he did not have the strength to get back into the connection he had had, nor could he find it again anyway with Obi-Wan unconscious. Besides, if his chrono was right, he didn't have time. Sending one last bit of strength to his apprentice from afar, Qui-Gon stiffly got up and attempted to make himself look presentable.
Calia looked up at the chrono by her bed with achy eyes. She had been so wound up and ill last night that she hadn't even allowed her maids to undress her but fell asleep with her party gown still on. She was under the covers now, in her nightgown, so they must have tended her after she fell asleep. Dragging herself out of bed and calling sharply for her maids, Calia ordered them to dress her immediately.
The princess refused breakfast and snapped harshly at her servants, sending them into quite a tizzy. Calia was out of sorts and tried to tell herself that she had been an incredible baby last night. Gracious what must her father think of her? A cold shudder ran up the Princess' spine. It was all well and fine to hold him in private contempt in front of her servants who would never say a word to anyone or tease and wheedle him over a new slave, but if he ever thought she was weak... Weakness was an unforgivable sin as far as Calr was concerned.
She had to go to him now, this morning, see if he had noticed her lack of strength last night before she gave herself a terrified ulcer thinking about it. If he had, she would make some excuse for her illness, the bevian salad had not agreed with her, yes, he knew how sick greens could make her sometimes, it was definitely the salad!
Making her way to her father's study, where she knew he would be preparing for the big meeting he was holding this morning, Calia rehearsed her salad story silently. She would know, the instant she looked into his eyes, whether she would need to use it or not. For expediency sake, she left her servants behind and went alone.
The guards outside the study admitted the young Princess into the room's antechamber but told her that her father was busy in his private office and she would have to wait.
Obi-Wan woke up slowly, and wished he had not. His torturers were gone, but he hurt worse then ever. Groping out blindly he sought the touch of Qui-Gon's mind, but found nothing. He was alone with his pain. Alone and helpless with nothing left to hold on to.
After everything he had already been through, it was a crushing blow. Emotionally, Obi-Wan went to pieces.
//"You promised you wouldn't leave me!"// he cried pitifully, his mind too fogged with pain and clouded with drugs to think straight. //"You promised Master... please! I can't do this alone!..."//
Dry sobs shook the fifteen-year-old's bloody shoulders; he was too run-out and drained to cry anymore.
Calia fidgeted nervously. More than anything else, she hated waiting. Waiting for anything, but especially waiting for something like this.
Making her way silently up to the door of her father's office, she pressed her ear against the outside of the door, seeking to hear if he would be finished with whatever he was doing soon.
"No, nothing," her father was saying, whether to someone else in the room, or on a comlink, Calia was not sure. "He refused to talk. Cursed Jedi, probably brainwashed the child, and *they* look down on *us* for our measures...? No, I've ordered him terminated. He's no use to us," Calr seemed to be responding to someone else that Calia could not hear, so she decided he was probably talking on a comlink.
The princess listened with interest, not particularly caring whether eavesdropping like this was polite or not. It usually seemed to be the only way to find anything out. No one ever told her anything...
"Ithma, you don't understand," Calr sounded slightly annoyed. "We *definitely* have another spy here somewhere. How can we know who or where they are? We've got to be careful, the Jedi are not to be trifled with. Yes, I'm sure he brought them in, but Dakar will be dealt with in time, right now- what? No. No I do not think it is wise to reveal that now, I never did. We must scope them out first. That's what this meeting is all about isn't it? Of course there's already rumors, but razing a few slums, eliminating the useless and inferior members of society is one thing, this is something else, we must build them up to the idea slowly. Remember what happened with Corbin? Do you think I want to see something like that again? Have to do something like that again?!" Calr's voice was angry. "Well I don't, but I will if I have too. That's what comes of people finding out too much too soon." Calr pulled himself into check. "I know we don't have much time left. Yes, I've seen the projections too, that is why we must be more careful than ever. The thousands that have already been eliminated are nothing compared to this, it's too important to risk. Oh damn the Viethans! Their time will come too. Yes, exactly. Yes, I'm going there now, I'll see you in a few minutes."
Calia backed away from the doors, dull dread clutching at her heart. Could what Aru said last night about what her father was doing be true? And Corbin...
The doors began to open and Calia fled from the room before her father could see her. There was no way she could hide what she had just heard, he would see it in her eyes and the princess could not risk that.
Calia ran until she was out of breath and slumped back against the wall in some distant corridor that she barely recognized. Breathing hard, Calia tried to pull her thoughts together. Truth had always seemed like a rather relative thing to her before; it was what you made it. Yet now, she felt a sudden and burning need to know what was really true in this situation. Was her father killing thousands of innocent people to try to cure Nubus' problems? Was that justifiable? And what about Corbin...? Calia fingered the holo-locket around her neck, unbidden tears gathering in the corners of her eyes.
The princess scrubbed the tears away angrily and pushed herself away from the wall. This uncertainty was going to drive her insane. She had to know more about what was going on, but of course, no one would tell her, and it wasn't safe to ask anyone... well... maybe there was one person she could ask and no one would know...
Obi-Wan's mouth was as dry as a Tatooine day and his throat hurt so that any attempt to swallow was agony. He was clearer now, more lucent then when he first woke up. He realized of course, that Qui-Gon would never willingly have left him alone. Of course, it was morning, he must have been called away to go to that meeting...
Obi-Wan tried to take a deeper breath to clear his head some more, but his broken ribs grated painfully and that set him to coughing up blood again. When he could breathe once more, Obi-Wan took stock of his situation. The cuffs on his wrists were electro-charged. Any attempt to fiddle with or squirm out of them would result in a shock which would render the weakened young Jedi unconscious. In his current state, Obi-Wan doubted that he had the strength to find, much less disable the mechanism.
Unless Qui-Gon came for him, there seemed to be little the Padawan could do but kneel here and wait. Wait for them to come back for him again... Obi-Wan shuddered.
As if in answer to his thoughts, Obi-Wan heard someone outside the door, pushing a key-card in the lock. The young Jedi's stomach tightened painfully as a dizzying jolt of terrified adrenaline made him momentarily forget all his pain. Dear Force! He would not live through another round of questioning like that last one, not again, not so soon...
Regaining control, Obi-Wan tamped down his fear and tried to center, but the agonizing knot in his stomach and the dizzy pumping of his heart did not go away.
The cell door slid open and Obi-Wan saw Calia's small, slim frame silhouetted in the doorway. He was confused; that was not who he had expected. What was she doing here?
"Aru?" Calia said softly, lingering in the doorway for an instant as if afraid to go in before prudence told her that she was safer inside the cell, with the door closed.
"Aru?" she said again, once the door had shut behind her. She realized that was probably not his name, but it would serve for now.
Obi-Wan met her eyes. "Yes, your Highness?" he croaked softly. Speaking was obviously difficult for him. Of all the things Calia had expected to see in his eyes, it was what she did not see that startled her the most. She could see pain, sorrow and yes, even a little fear, but there was no hatred in the boy's pain-dulled eyes.
"I-I know you have no reason to trust me Aru, indeed, you probably shouldn't," Calia tried not to look at Obi-Wan's injuries, but the only place that left her to look was his eyes, and she couldn't meet them steadily either, so her gaze shifted nervously about. "But I do promise you that no one sent me here. The King has ordered you executed... he does not know I'm doing this. I-I need answers Aru, but not the ones my father wanted... Aru, Jedi can't lie, right?"
Obi-Wan considered the question thoughtfully, wondering what exactly the princess was after. The news of his own impending death did not surprise him greatly. "Well... I don't know about that, but if they tell you something is true, then it is."
Calia nodded. "That's good, because I have got to know the truth." Overcoming her hesitancy, Calia knelt in front of Obi-Wan, suddenly feeling the need to whisper. "I overheard some things... some things my father said, and I have to know... I have to know what you meant when you said he was having innocent people killed. Swear that you won't lie to me Aru, please! This is important!" Calia was deadly earnest and Obi-Wan could see that.
"I promise then," Obi-Wan nodded. "That what I tell you is true. Yes, I am sorry Calia, but your father is having hundreds, thousands of people killed and illegally forced into slavery..."
"Why?" Calia asked, wishing she understood all this, and yet, afraid that she did, and was simply not admitting it to herself.
"N-Nubus' is over-crowded, it's natural resources are spent, your plant is much worse off then anyone but a few of the leaders know. It's not a matter of years as everyone's been led to believe, it's a matter of weeks," Obi-Wan's voice was cracked, but earnest.
Calia's eyes went wide. So, she had not been told that truth either.
"The-the killings are a desperate attempt to-to down the population... buy more time. But it's not-not working," the effort it took to speak was becoming increasingly difficult for Obi-Wan. "F-first it was just the elderly, the ill, the mentally disturbed, forced pregnancy terminations, limits p-put on child-bearing... but none of that was enough. Now it's all ethnic Midori's... it's got to-to stop somewhere Calia, or Nubus will destroy itself..." Obi-Wan's eyes rolled shut and he struggled to collect his strength. Even if he were to die here, perhaps he could make a difference if he could just open Calia's eyes to what was truly going on around her.
"The Midori aren't people... not really, not like us," Calia shook her head, repeating what she had been taught all her life.
"Why not?" Obi-Wan challenged. "What makes them so different? B-because they don't look like you? Because they have beliefs that are different from-from yours? Princess, look around you. I know you've never been off Nubus, most of your people haven't, but there's a whole galaxy out there full of life forms that look and think entirely different from you... and they're-they're very mu-much alive, intelligent and just as worthwhile as you and I!" Obi-Wan was adamant.
His sincerity struck a chord in Calia, but she didn't want to admit it. "Sometimes sacrifices are necessary..." she hedged.
Obi-Wan shook his head sadly. "That's your father talking. What do *you* think Princess? What-what does your heart tell you about the slaughter of men, women and children whose only crime is being d-different?"
Calia bit her lip. "But if it's for the good of the planet, for others..." she looked lost, searching for an explanation, a rationalization to take away what she was beginning to see, to feel. "Surely the good of the many is more important than the good of the few, isn't that why you're here Aru? You endured torture, and you're going to die, because you're protecting someone else. Isn't this the same thing?"
Obi-Wan shook his head. "It is the way-the way of the Jedi, we are always ready to sacrifice ourselves that others may live. But it is a choice that we make. Those thousands dying now have-have no choice! Tr-True, sometimes one has no choice, and must make decisions that w-weigh many lives against few lives and that is a terrible thing to have to do..." Obi-Wan licked his painful, uncooperative lips and continued. "But there *is* another choice here! The Republic wants to help your people Calia! They have the power, the technology and the resources to save Nubus, if you'll only let them. Yes, it would-would mean adjusting to-to a new way of life, adapting to change... but e-everything changes sooner or later, and sometimes it's for the good... Nubus cannot go on like this. Look at what is happening here Princess, the people of Nubus are being desensitized slowly and who-who knows where it could go? Yesterday it was the old, weak and unborn, today it is the Midori, who will it be t-tomorrow?" The effort to speak around his dry throat and mouth was becoming impossible and Obi-Wan broke off coughing again. He grimaced in pain and Calia felt a strange emotion, something that felt like... compassion. There was a water dispenser in the far wall of the cell and Calia brought him some, holding the cup to Obi-Wan's swollen lips.
Obi-Wan drank gratefully. The cold water hurt his throat, but seemed to clear a few of the remaining cobwebs out of his head.
Calia realized that the boy in the chains before her was shaking softly, trembling with the after-effects of the grievous torture he had been made to endure. It all felt so wrong somehow...
"So that's why you're here then," the princess said quietly. "You didn't want those people to die. You wouldn't have hurt me would you Aru?"
Obi-Wan shook his head. "It was never my intention to see you harmed in anyway p-princess," he affirmed.
"You just wanted to stop the killing... you want Nubus saved, but saved from itself too... and now you're going to die for it..." Calia twisted the corner of her beaded jacket uncertainly.
Obi-Wan did not reply for a moment. Talking about what he was doing here was too close to what he had spent all last night resisting. "I'm not afraid to die," he murmured.
Calia wondered what it would be like to be able to be brave like that. To be so sure that you were right that the consequences did not matter. It just didn't seem fair though, for the young Jedi to have to go through all this, to die just because he wanted to help people, whether the people deserved it or not...
Acting quickly before she could think about what she was doing and change her mind, Calia shoved her key-card into the register on the posts that held Obi-Wan chained. The binders released with a quiet clink and Obi-Wan's arms fell to his sides. No longer held upright, Obi-Wan slumped sideways against the post on his left. Feeling rushed back into the apprentice's numb hands in tingly, burning waves that felt like being pricked by a hundred needles at the same time.
Obi-Wan looked at Calia in confusion, not comprehending why she had done that. "Why-"
"I-I don't know," Calia stammered. "So don't ask or I might change my mind. I just can't stand to see you die... Just get out, quickly. There's an old tunnel passage that's not used very much. I'll show you where it is, come on."
Obi-Wan struggled to his feet, forcing back the weakness and nausea that wanted to overcome him. He followed Calia quickly and quietly down several twisting corridors and through three sets of doors or gates that all opened to Calia's unlimited-access key-card. Finally, they reached a place where the tunnel forked in two directions with a computer control room in between them. Both passages were barred.
"Here," Calia halted Obi-Wan with a hand on his arm. "That is the passage you'll take to get out, it will let you out into the woods behind the palace," She pointed to the left tunnel. Stepping up to a computer port the Princess swiped her card through nervously, opening the gate and getting her into the system. Her fingers trembled as she worked the touch-screen.
*What in the galaxy was she doing?!*
Terror surged up to strangle Calia as she realized the possible implications of her actions, but it was too late now. All she could do was hope this worked and she could cover it all up well enough. Her fingers skimming over the computer controls, Calia manipulated the system, attempting to cover her tracks.
"Go now," she told Obi-Wan. "Hurry! And don't stop running until you're clear. I'm putting in the records that your termination has been carried out..." Calia flipped to another screen. After she did that she would have to erase all ID traces of any keycards used in the prison during the last half-hour... Eventually, they would of course figure out that the spy had escaped, but they would not know how and could put it down to the other Jedi that they supposed to be around. At least, that's what Calia hoped.
Obi-Wan turned to go, but a sudden warning jerked him back. Acting out of reflex, he grabbed Calia and threw her to the ground just a blue stun bolt shot through the air right where she had been standing.
"Halt intruders!" the voice of the security droid echoed harshly in the barren hallway. "You are not authorized to be in this section. Be warned, the next shot will not be set for stun. Surrender immediately."
Calia thought she was going to faint. Her heart jumped up into her throat and stuck there, hammering wildly. "I-I am her Royal Highness Princess Calia," she tried to sound authoritative, but her voice quavered nonetheless. "I can go where I want. Leave immediately."
"Royal Highness Princess Calia is not on our authorization list. Surrender at once, or be destroyed," the droid demanded. Two other droids were now on the scene as well. There was no way to argue with a bunch of droids, Calia could not threaten, or pull rank on them. They had only one set of commands programmed into them: Apprehend or destroy anyone not authorized to be in their specified domain. And Calia was not authorized.
Apparently, the droids decided that they had waited long enough and Obi-Wan once again pulled Calia out of the way of a blaster shot, only this time, the weapons were set to kill.
"Run!" Obi-Wan shouted, dragging Calia to her feet as his training kicked in despite his condition. They raced down the corridor at full tilt; blaster shots scorching the floor millimeters behind them. They would never make it this way...
Obi-Wan spied a utility cart in the doorway to an open maintenance room. Security droids were deadly, but not especially bright or flexible in their thinking. Grabbing the cart, he shoved it back at the pursuing droids who, predictably, did not move in time to avoid being knocked backwards. It would take the droids a few seconds to move the cart from their path, and the distraction bought them precious time.
Reaching the end of the corridor, they found themselves blocked again by yet another door. Calia was almost too terrified to use her key-card, but somehow she managed and the two teenagers tumbled out into the frosty daylight outside. Obi-Wan shut the door behind them, using the Force to jam the controls. That would take the droids a few minutes to get around.
Calia's passageway was the perfect escape route; it not only let out outside the palace, but outside the palace walls as well, getting them completely off the estate.
The moment they were outside the Palace, a biting wind slammed into them. A thick snow was falling fast and heavy and a calf-deep accumulation had already built up upon the frozen ground. The powdery snow filled Obi-Wan and Calia's shoes, soaking the soft, palace slippers they wore in a matter of instants. It sucked at their legs and made running difficult, but somehow they managed anyway.
If the palace's outer security had been alerted to the escape, they never would have made it. But by the time the security droids got the door open and sounded the alarm the pair had completely disappeared into the woods.
The heavy snow and rough wind covered the tracks of the fugitive Jedi and young Princess behind them. In a few minutes, the wind, already fierce, had whipped itself up to blizzard force.
Calia clutched at Obi-Wan's hand as the white blanket enveloped them. They could barely see the trees around them through the swirling snow as they pressed desperately forward. It was bitterly cold. Calia's dress was thin and not made for the weather, but even she was wearing more than Obi-Wan. The driving snow bit his bare chest and arms like needles of fire, tightening his exhausted muscles and making his injuries scream. Seemingly endless minutes passed as they struggled blindly forward. Obi-Wan knew they had to get out of the elements soon or there would be nothing left of them but two frozen corpses.
"I-I c-can't see a-anything," Calia chattered through frozen lips. "W-we've got to s-stop... I feel s-so t-tired..."
"NO!" Obi-Wan tugged roughly on her hand, forcing the Princess to keep moving. "It's t-the c-cold Calia! Fight it! D-don't succumb! I-if w-we stop n-now we'll d-die!"
Calia stumbled along after him, too frozen and terrified to think of disobeying. Obi-Wan could tell she was not doing well. His own body was sending him warning signals which he could do nothing but ignore. The injured young Jedi had no strength left to give, but he tried anyway, attempting to help Calia keep going.
Each step became unbelievably hard. Obi-Wan's body went numb. He no longer felt cold. He barely felt anything anymore. The teenager knew that was not good. Only sheer will kept him on his feet as he practically dragged Calia through the drifting snow. Everything in Obi-Wan wanted to just give up, to lie down in the snow and go to sleep forever... but he would not surrender so easy.
"Push yourself until you reach the absolute end of your strength and you don't think you can move another step, and then go twice as far. That, Obi-Wan, is how a Jedi endures," Qui-Gon's words during an endurance exercise echoed distantly through Obi-Wan's mind. Resolutely, Obi-Wan forced himself to continue, pushing one leg in front of the other and willing it to become automatic.
Minutes dragged by, but there was no relief in sight, no shelter, nothing but trees, wind and snow. Obi-Wan realized he was losing Calia and wrapped an arm around her shoulders, attempting to offer what little warmth his frozen body could offer. On they trudged, and on. Staggering drunkenly, bumping into trees and weaving with the gusts of wind.
Calia's hand slipped out of Obi-Wan's as she folded soundlessly to the ground.
"C-come o-on..." Obi-Wan tried to urge, but his voice was gone. He attempted once more to strengthen the failing Princess, but the effort was too much.
Weak, frozen legs buckled and the young Jedi fell to his knees in the snow. Obi-Wan knew he had to get up or they were both going to die right here, but he couldn't seem to find the strength to rise. He had not slept in over 24 hours, almost half of which had been spent being thoroughly worked over by King Calr's torturers. The apprentice was utterly spent.
"I'm sorry Master," he murmured. "I tried..."
Obi-Wan did not even feel it as he sank backwards into the snowdrift, the icy crystals sucking the last warmth from his body.
Somewhere around two hundred men and woman sat around four long tables. These were all the important governors, regents and other various nobles from both the Middle and East Kingdoms. Conversation buzzed like a swarm of insects.
Qui-Gon was glad when King Calr and Queen Ithma entered and silence fell over the assembly. If one more person felt inclined to tell him how terrible he looked and inquire how he slept last night Qui-Gon was very much afraid he would not be able to answer civilly.
The Jedi had never had so much trouble sitting through anything. He was a patient man, but none of his well-trained serenity seemed to be of any help to him. His thoughts kept drifting back to the horror of last night... By the Force would this cursed meeting never end?!
Making himself focus, Qui-Gon mentally fidgeted through the long, boring speeches. Finally, King Calr got to the point. Citing the many problems Nubus was facing, he very diplomatically laid out what was, as he put it, they're "Only course of action." Namely, the large-scale enslavement and sale of "Certain factions of the society".
Of the rumored killings, nothing was mentioned, but Qui-Gon made sure to note the plans laid forth for the completing of the slave deal. Apparently they had already contracted the whole lot to several Hut lords who had just opened a new spice processing plant and needed workers. Lots of workers of all ages and sizes.
Exact details were not given, but Qui-Gon hoped that what he had would be enough for the Senate. Because after this, there was no way he was waiting any longer to rescue Obi-Wan.
Instinctually, Qui-Gon tried to reach out to his apprentice, before remembering that he could not from here. As part of the security measures, the meeting room was Force shielded.
The meeting let out not a moment to soon for the Jedi Master and he made his way out, forcing himself not to hurry. It would not be a good idea to draw attention to himself now.
Once back in his own chambers he tossed off the suffocating finery and robes of office that he had had to wear. Recording a message of the morning's events he sent it to both the Supreme Chancellor and the Jedi Council. He did not want to speak to either in person right now.
Tapping into the palace's operating system, Qui-Gon searched for information on the location of one Aru Letanka. It would save him a lot of time if he knew the cell number beforehand...
Qui-Gon froze. No. Please *NO*.
His mind refused to register what it read; refused to acknowledge the horrible little red letters beneath Obi-Wan's alias.
Qui-Gon's hand hovered disbelievingly over the screen. It couldn't be. They wouldn't have done it so soon... This was not supposed to happen! The Jedi was too shocked to react for a moment. He felt as if someone had punched him so hard they knocked all the air out of his body and he was not sure he would ever get it back again. The reality of what this meant seeped slowly into Qui-Gon's unwilling consciousness, stealing his breath and leaving him reeling.
The computer listed the time of termination as being while Qui-Gon was in the meeting. Blocked by the inhibitors in the meeting room, he would not even have been able to feel his apprentice die.
Qui-Gon cleared the screen with a touch from his suddenly trembling hand, as if he could erase this terrible mistake, as if he could make it untrue...
There had to be a mistake. There had to be!
Leaning back in his chair, Qui-Gon closed his eyes, desperately seeking Obi-Wan's presence. He found nothing. Only emptiness and the echo of a desperate, pleading cry. //"You promised you wouldn't leave me! You promised Master... please! I can't do this alone!..."//
Qui-Gon crumpled forward in absolute, heart broken misery. Not only had he let Obi-Wan be killed, but he had abandoned him to die alone.
Quiet sobs shook the Jedi's broad shoulders, his head falling to rest on his folded arms. Guilt ripped his insides out like a hot poker.
//"I'm sorry Obi-Wan! I am so sorry! Forgive me Padawan!"// It was all he could do, but it wasn't enough. It wasn't nearly enough to make up for how he had failed. Obi-Wan was gone and there would never be a way to make it right.
Obi-Wan was fading fast. He felt warm now, no longer cold, yet a part of his mind knew that was wrong...
*FIGHT!* His mind screamed at him. *You've come this far, don't give up now!*
If there had been any hope, any hope at all, he could make himself go on, but dying here was just about as good as anywhere else in this forsaken forest...
There was a momentary lull in the wind and something made Obi-Wan open his eyes. Directly in front of him, about five meters away, loomed the large, dark face of a rocky outcropping, and in the scattered rocks, a small cave. An instant later, the snowy wind obscured it again and Obi-Wan wondered if he were seeing things. Well, even imagined hope is better than none at all, so Obi-Wan dragged himself back to his knees. Unable to stand, the Jedi crawled in the direction that he had seen the cave, groping his way along with clumsy hands.
His frostbit, wooden fingers ran into a hard surface of rock. It had not been a mirage. He tried to shout for Calia, but the wind stole what little sound he could muster. Crawling back, he found the princess nearly unconscious and dragged her into the cave. It was painfully slow, but eventually they were both inside.
The cave was small and cold, but at least they were out of the wind and the snow. Dry twigs and leaves crunched under Obi-Wan's knees as he laid Calia as far out of the draft from the cave mouth as he could.
Clearing a circle of earth and pushing together a mound of the dry fodder, Obi-Wan struggled to start a fire.
When Calia pulled herself out of the half-frozen daze she had fallen into, she found herself lying on the floor of a cave by a welcomingly warm, if small, fire.
Obi-Wan had passed out, his abused body unable to continue to force itself to function. He lay on the other side of the fire, unconscious.
Trembling with cold and fright, Calia scooted over next to the older boy and shook him.
"Aru? Aru wake up. Please wake up!" she half commanded, half pleaded, terrified of finding herself alone in this frightening wilderness. Calia had never experienced real, uncontrolled weather before. She had never even been outside the palace walls in her entire life.
Slowly, groggily, Obi-Wan came back to himself. Force but he hurt...!
Calia was relieved when the boy stirred. She had been truly afraid to find that she was sitting in a cave, trapped and alone with a corpse. "Oh, I'm glad you're not dead," she blurted in relief.
"I'm not sure I am," Obi-Wan mumbled thickly, trying to sit up but finding that that set off blinding pain in his broken ribs. Laying back down and breathing hard, Obi-Wan tried to control the pain that was raging through his frozen body.
"What are we going to do Aru?" Calia's frightened voice made him open his eyes again. She sounded like a little child, lost and frightened.
"When the storm lets up, you can go home your Highness," Obi-Wan said. "Just tell them that I kidnapped you and forced you to help me," Obi-Wan's voice broke for a moment before he regained control of himself and continued. "You'll be - You'll be fine."
Calia's brow creased in concern. Aru was looking worse. It was a new notion to her, to worry about someone else. Then her thoughts turned back to herself and her present situation.
"I can't go back," she shook her head mournfully. "I never got a chance to clear the system. They probably already know that it was my ID that opened the gates, opened your cell... I know my father Aru," she said quietly. "If I go back, he will kill me for this. And I don't mean figuratively."
Obi-Wan was inclined to believe that she was exaggerating. "Princess..."
"You don't believe me, do you?" Calia's voice took on a slightly more desperate tone. "You don't know my father. I wasn't always in line for the throne you know. I had an older brother," the young teenager's voice began to shake in a way that had nothing to do with the cold. Pulling the holo locket from around her neck Calia activated it, letting the image of a handsome, smiling young man who looked bore a striking resemblance to Calr hover above the locket's shiny surface for several moments.
"Three years ago my brother disappeared without a trace, never to be seen again. There was no investigation. He was the CROWN PRINCE and there was no investigation!" Calia trembled miserably. "Then, this morning I heard father talking in his office. Gods Aru! He as good as admitted that he had Corbin killed because he got too close to this whole miserable situation! His own son! Do you think he would hesitate to do the same to me?!"
Obi-Wan shuddered. "Can't you convince them that I forced you...?"
"I opened the gates all the way down to your cell, I *opened* your cell, how could you have forced me to do that? It won't wash, I-I can't take that chance..." Calia refused fearfully, wondering what would become of her now.
Suddenly, Obi-Wan's senses perked up and he struggled to sit.
There was a loud grinding sound and the entire back wall of the cave slid open behind them. Faster than thought a group of poorly clad, rough looking men had them surrounded. The fellows were obviously surprised to find these two interlopers on the doorstep to their secret hideaway, but reacted quickly. By the bracelets on their wrists, it was obvious that the men were runaway slaves. Apparently, they had stumbled upon the doorway to a renegade slave sanctuary.
Calia shrunk behind Obi-Wan in fear as the men demanded their surrender at blaster point.
Obi-Wan knew that in his condition, he was no match for so many, he would have to hope that they could talk their way out of this...
The ex-slaves felt inclined to shoot the intruders on sight and they probably would have, had not the slave bracelet on Obi-Wan's wrist and his obvious state of abuse given them pause.
"What are you doing here?" One of the men inquired cautiously while another ran back down the secret passage behind them, probably to alert the others within. It looked like the boy might be a runaway, like them, but they couldn't be too careful, and there was no explaining that girl...
"Please," Obi-Wan said calmly, gathering all the strength he could muster. "We just took sh-shelter here from the storm..."
"And what were you doing out in the storm huh? Looking for us?" one of the men said.
"We can't chance it, we've got to kill them," another added, speaking to his fellows.
"Don't be so hasty Judd," a voice that Obi-Wan thought was familiar for some reason spoke up as a tall, dark haired man entered the room through the secret door.
He looked down at their prisoners then and paused, his eyes catching on Obi-Wan's. "Letanka?" he said, questioningly.
Obi-Wan realized then that it was the same man who had brought him his things the first night after Qui-Gon had "lost" him to Nalik. The young Jedi nodded, although even that motion was painful.
"Aru, right?" the fellow shook his head, assessing Obi-Wan's condition. "I guess things didn't work out to well for you up there at the palace," he said, his dark eyes glittering like hard gems in anger at what he saw. "Another victim of those vrelks in the palace that call themselves royalty," he rumbled and several of the others muttered violent curses against the King and the whole system.
Calia shrunk further back behind Obi-Wan.
"So, you know this boy Jorr?" one of the other men inquired distrustfully.
Jorr nodded. "He's no spy Ellis, we can't kill them, he's one of us."
Calia kept her face down and tried not to tremble. These people were a group of severe monarch haters, what would they do to her when they discovered who she was?
Obi-Wan realized her position just as Jorr asked about her.
"Who's the girl Aru? And what happened to you?"
Calia had no bracelet and could never be passed off as a slave... Obi-Wan cleared his throat. "She saved my l-life," he said, although he was having trouble speaking again. "They would have killed me, but she helped me escape. Now she is a fugitive too, because of me. If - if either of us is c-caught, we'll both be k-killed." The young Jedi told the truth, just not all of it.
Jorr, noting the way that Calia was holding onto Obi-Wan so tightly and putting his own construction on Obi-Wan's words, smiled knowingly. "Ah, so that's it."
A ripple of soft laughter ran through the group.
"Young love," Jorr shook his head. "You've suffered much for your feelings, but you are safe with us now. Come, come inside with us, out of the cold."
Calia didn't know what to make of that, but Obi-Wan realized they mistook he and Calia for lovers, probably figuring that that was the reason for his beating and why they ran away together. Although nothing could be further from the truth, the Padawan did not correct them.
Struggling to his feet, Obi-Wan leaned against the wall for support. In an unexpected move, Calia slipped her arm around his waist to help him walk.
All the men smiled and winked at each other.
Just as they reached the doorway, a dull, insistent pain started up in Obi-Wan's wrist. He would have thought that with all the other pain he had he wouldn't notice a little more, but such was not the case. For a few moments, he ignored it as they entered into the darkened tunnel beyond the secret door.
The door scraped shut behind them, leaving the hunting party to carry on about the business they had been upon before they stumbled across the two teenagers while Jorr escorted their two new members inside.
The tunnel was long and steep as they traveled down, down, down...
The ache became impossible to ignore. Wincing and grabbing the throbbing arm Obi-Wan realized that it was the wrist upon which his slave bracelet rode.
Hearing his little moan of pain, Jorr turned and glanced back at Obi-Wan in concern, then saw what the problem was. "They must have activated your bracelet again," he said soberly.
Obi-Wan nodded, although he did not entirely understand.
Leaning over, Calia whispered in his ear, her movement hidden by the darkness of the tunnel. "The bracelets are charged. It was automatically deactivated when I listed you as terminated. If you had tried to leave the palace with it turned on it would have paralyzed you with pain and killed you when we crossed the boundary fifty meters outside the palace walls."
Obi-Wan tensed. What did that mean would happen now...?
"Don't worry," Jorr added, as if reading the boy's mind. "It may hurt a bit, but you'll live, we all do. It can't kill you out here, but unfortunately, it will continue to ache until it's removed." Holding up his glow-stick and pointing to the reddened flesh around his own wrist, Jorr sighed. "There is no way to remove them that we have found yet."
"And if you ever go back to the palace," Calia added softly, for Obi-Wan's ears only, "It will kill you."
The palace was in a positive uproar. The news had spread like wildfire. Not only had a spy, considered to be highly dangerous, escaped, but he had kidnapped Princess Calia who was now official listed as being presumed dead.
Qui-Gon was relieved beyond words when a little coercion and snooping got him the information that it was indeed Obi-Wan who had escaped. How, or why the princess was involved in it all, he did not know. Yet something felt very wrong here. The Jedi couldn't help wondering why Princess Calia was presumed dead so quickly and he had the strange, nagging feeling that for some reason, no one intended to find her alive. But why?
None of it made sense yet. None of it except the fact that Obi-Wan was still alive. He had to find Obi-Wan, he had to do *something*... but, for the present at least, he was stuck and he chafed at his captivity.
The palace was sealed off as soon as the news of the escape and kidnapping was discovered. There were rumors going around that there was known to be another traitor, inside the palace itself. Security was impossibly tight and no one was being allowed in or out. The palace had now effectively turned into a giant prison in which everyone was a suspect.
The nobles had quickly become paranoid, defensive and suspicious, regarding everyone as a possible enemy. With several hundred people of that mind that all cooped up together, it was looking to be a pretty difficult time that King Calr was going to have a ahead of him.
Of them all, perhaps only Qui-Gon was calm, because he knew exactly who they were looking for. They were looking for him.
After three days, Calia was absolutely miserable. Yet, it was not the kind of misery one might have expected from the spoiled princess. Yes, she hated the dirt and the darkness, the scarce, poor food and the scratchy, rough dress, but that was not all she was feeling.
The band she and Obi-Wan had stumbled upon turned out to be huge. It consisted entirely of runaway slaves and ethnic Midori's, forced into hiding by the Nubian's severe prejudice. The group was dirty, poor, desperate and surprisingly... every bit as alive and sentient as Calia.
"Calla, take this to Aru, eh?" An elderly Midori woman said with a kind smile as she ladled out a mug full of thin, but piping hot broth from a large black vat, which bubbled over one of the open heat-fissures in the cave floor. Natural elements heated this deep, underground cavern and supplied its occupants with a fire-less, smokeless way to cook. The group had to be careful that nothing they did was traceable on the outside.
Calia bit her tongue to keep from saying something stupid about whether or not she would be caught dead playing fetch and carry for a *slave*... They were all outcasts, all equal here, and that was something that the young Princess simply could not get used to.
Still, she knew that she would not be surviving without these people, and that they would never have taken her in without Aru, probably would have killed her in fact. They still would too, she knew, if they ever found out that she was not Calla, a landowner's daughter from Enteric who fell in love and ran away with a palace slave while they were visiting, but Calia, former Crown Princess of the entire Eastern Kingdom. Strangely enough, a small part of Calia's mind was beginning to think that she almost didn't blame them.
Calia accepted the mug for Obi-Wan and the lady, who's name was Effi, prepared to ladle out another one for the Princess. Noting the drawn, weary look upon the young girl's face, Effi patted the teenager's hand kindly. "It's not easy, is it?" she said softly.
Calia wasn't sure what to say, so she just shook her head. There was so much warmth and love in Effi's deep-set black eyes... Calia had never had anybody look at her that way before. No one had ever looked at her with compassion. Fear, respect, loathing, envy, anger... but compassion? That was not something that most people afforded a Princess who seemed to have everything and then some.
"Miss your folks?" Effi inquired, stirring the soup slowly. The girl was so young, and obviously struggling to adjust to this new way of life...
"No!" Calia's eyes blazed for a moment with short-lived anger. "How can I miss people I never knew? Why should I care at all for people who never cared for me? I don't miss them, I miss... I don't know."
Effi could see the tears, just below the surface. "That bad, hm?" she said gently.
Calia scrubbed her eyes roughly, but the tears fell anyway, tracing glistening paths down her grimy face.
"It'll get easier," the Midori woman encouraged kindly, pulling the child into a warm embrace.
Calia almost fought her, but then realized that she didn't want to.
"You'll see," Effi soothed gently. "I wasn't much older than you when I married my Ren, but we were so happy together..." the woman's voice trailed off slightly.
"What happened to him?" Calia asked, knowing by Effi's tone that something had.
The old lady sighed. "He was beaten to death ten years ago by soldiers who accused him of stealing a mouthful of food. Ren would never have stolen. We raised five children, three of which are still living thank the maker, and he worked himself to death to care for them, but he would never steal."
Calia's throat felt tight and she didn't know what to say. "I-I'm sorry," the words felt strange, difficult.
"Ah, but you shouldn't be thinkin' about old women like me. I've lived my life. You've got your whole future ahead of you young one," Effi was cheerful again. "It's people like you and Aru who have got to shape a better future for this world. Don't cry child, you'll see. Your man'll get better and you two'll make a real life together."
Calia asked then the question that was beginning to burn inside her. "Is there a real life to be had, anywhere in this kingdom, for anyone but the privileged few?" the words seemed to tear from her lips like a half-sob before she could stop them.
For a moment, Effi was quiet. "Calla honey, I think your eyes are opening to things that you'd rather not see. But don't overlook what is painful simply because it is not pleasant. Truth may hurt sometimes, but seeing it for what it is is the only way that things will ever change for anyone."
Calia nodded slowly. A few days ago she would have laughed at a notion like that, but now, it was beginning to make a terrible kind of sense.
"Here then," Effi ladled out Calia's soup and handed it to her. "And I've got something special for you," she said, her old eyes twinkling. Pulling a small, stale dough roll out of her cloak, the Midori woman slipped it into the Princess' pocket, since both the girl's hands were full. "I saved it special when I got it; for Aru, eh? He needs to get his strength back up quite a bit, hm?"
Calia nodded. "Yes," she hesitated. "Thank you," she added. It felt rather clumsy, but she wanted to say it.
Effi nodded with a smile and patted the girl's shoulder. "You're welcome dear. Go on now."
On her way back to where Obi-Wan was resting on the far side of the cave, Calia let her eyes wander over the other occupants of the sanctuary. It seemed to her as if she was seeing the world with new eyes. She did not like what she saw, but Effi's words stuck with her: "Don't overlook what is painful simply because it is not pleasant. Truth may hurt sometimes, but seeing it for what it is is the only way that things will ever change for anyone..."
Single people and small families huddled together, Midori, slave, and those who had gone into hiding to save their additional children from the merciless extermination of Nubus' single child law.
Children looked up at Calia with large eyes, filled with sorrow and want that should not have been known to ones so young. Adults and teenagers stared with empty eyes that held no hope and it was evident that everyone was grossly underfed and on the brink of starvation.
With a pang of guilt, Calia realized that the table scraps from one of her father's royal banquets could feed all these people for two or three days.
The cave was crowded to say the least and Calia picked her way carefully lest she spill the meager rations that she carried. Everyone had their single allotment, there would be no more for today. To get to the other side, Calia found that she must step directly over a young mother, perhaps five or six years older than herself nursing, or trying to nurse a scrawny, feeble infant. From the bracelet on her wrist, Calia knew that the girl was an ex-slave. The baby had no bracelet, he was free, and it was for a free life that his mother hoped to raise him... if he could survive infancy on this harsh world. Calia had already seen three babies die since they arrived here.
The little one was crying pitifully and it looked as if his mother wanted to cry too. "I'm sorry Naddi," she was crooning. "I'm trying, I can't give what I don't have..." the girl looked exhausted. Her gaunt, thin frame showed that it was little wonder that her body had nothing to give the child. Suddenly, the girl crumbled into tears.
Moved by a sudden impulse, Calia reached down and laid a gentle hand on the young mother's shoulder. Without a word, she pushed her own mug of soup into the woman's hand.
For an instant, Calia saw the sparkle of surprise and gratitude in the woman's tear-filled eyes before the young Princess tore her eyes away quickly and hurried off before she too, broke down into tears. Calia had given many royal gifts, as a matter of etiquette, but never before had she given something from her heart, and never had she given anything that was so warmly received and welcomed as that simple cup of soup.
Calia wanted to curl up and sob in confusion until she didn't have any tears left, but forcing herself to be strong, she reached Obi-Wan at last and handed him his mug and the roll Effi had saved for him.
Unbeknownst to her, Obi-Wan had seen what she did with her soup. The young Jedi kept quiet about it, but he regarded the Princess in a slightly new light all the same.
"Do you want some?" he offered her half of his food as she sat down, but Calia shook her head.
"I'm not hungry," she said, and it was true. She felt ill, sickened by what she saw around her.
"Are you all right?" Obi-Wan inquired with concern, soaking the hard bread in the soup to soften it. His mouth was still sore and chewing was difficult. He did not notice that, coming from him, that was a bit of an ironic question.
Calia hugged her knees to her chest and shook her head. "You were right," she said softly. "This world is wrong, all wrong..."
The misery and poverty around her were starting to make the Princess rethink everything she had ever been taught about the so-called "sub-human" slaves and Midori's. She was beginning to discover her heart and it bled for the suffering she saw.
Calia buried her face on her knees. She had lived a life of splendid ease while these people were starving, dying... because of conditions that her family had forced upon them! No, not just her family, *she*. She was responsible for this...
"Aru," she whispered, her knees muffling her voice. "It-it's like I'm waking up from a dream to find that life's a nightmare, one that I've created. If I could think it were just these people, just the outcasts or the renegades... but it's not. When I went into town with Jorr and the others yesterday, it was the same there. They may have houses, but the poverty, the need, the starvation is everywhere. The purpose of the group I went with turned out to be a garbage raiding detail, going through the *trash* of other people to find something useful," Calia shuddered at the horrible experience. "And there was nothing there. Those people had nothing to throw out. Nubus is dying and I was too blind to see it. And now that I do, it's too late. I-I feel so incredibly guilty, dirty..." the Princess' confession trailed off into silent tears.
Gently, Obi-Wan touched her shaking shoulder. "It is not your fault alone Calia," he said softly. "How could you know anything but what you were surrounded with and taught every day to believe? Now that your eyes are opening, look with your heart. Wisdom is seeing a problem. Despair is seeing a problem with no solution. Heed wisdom, and not despair Calia. Few problems are really so bad that there is nothing that can be done about them."
Calia looked up to meet the young Jedi's sincere gaze. Her eyes were red and puffy and her look imploring. "But what can *I* do? What can any one person do about something like this?"
Obi-Wan squeezed her hand. "Everything they can."
The next day, Obi-Wan insisted that he was well enough to go out with the hunting party. Determined that he had been a burden on them long enough, he insisted that he be allowed to help and the others finally gave in to him.
The young Jedi had two ulterior motives for wanting to go. One being that the group was dangerously low of food and he hoped that perhaps his skills would be of use in replenishing their dwindling supplies. Two, because he hoped that while on the hunt he might hear more from the other men about the ominous inferences that some of them had made to the mysterious disappearance of groups of Midori's. What he was hearing from these people could fit with what he'd learned in the palace, about the killings and forced slavery round-ups, but somehow he got the feeling that there was more to it, something... darker.
Calia, who would have been no use on a hunt, but also wished to contribute something, volunteered to go with Effi and some of the other women to search for edible plants and barks in the woods. Inwardly, she cringed at the idea of such a chore, but with the kind Effi beside her, she put aside her cultured distaste and tried her best to be useful.
The temperature was a comparatively balmy 20 degrees as both parties bundled up as warm as they could and spread out into the snow-covered forest.
Obi-Wan stayed close to Jorr and a Midori man named Tash whose wife had disappeared with half their village three months ago.
The air was crisp and biting as they slid silently through the forest. All trees and plants that needed to see a summer had long ago died off, leaving only the hardy rif and enip trees and those sturdy shrubs which could survive Nubus' harsh weather.
Deep into the forest the hunters delved, their feet leaving deep prints in the thick snow. Yet, the next big wind would erase the marks as if they had never been, just as it seemed that the same wind wished to sweep over all of Nubus, quietly erasing all who lived there until there was nothing left but a giant white snowball, frozen, and dead.
Obi-Wan was in constant pain, but he was on the mend and four days of intensive healing trances had made him able to wield enough control over his injuries to keep the pain to a manageable level.
Jorr watched him with a concealed, but careful eye all the same. He did not think that the boy was well enough to be out yet.
After about three hours, Obi-Wan's breathing was becoming difficult although he struggled not to show his weakness to his companions. He was also beginning to realize why the group was so low on food. It was not a reflection on how well the men could or could not hunt; there was simply nothing out here. The severe cold kept the animal population to a minimum and hunters with dozens of hungry mouths to feed, like themselves, stripped the forests of what little there was.
The small group was forced to penetrate deeper and deeper into the frozen forest.
Tash, Obi-Wan and Jorr came to a halt when confronted by seven continuous strands of live wire creating an impenetrable barrier before them.
"These are the forbidden grounds," Jorr said for Obi-Wan's benefit, his voice muffled by the thick scarves around his face.
"Why? What's beyond them?" Obi-Wan inquired, reaching out with his senses. He could feel something out there, but what he did not know.
Jorr shrugged, eyeing the fence as if trying to figure a way around it. "No one knows for sure. Few but the desperate, like us, come out this far to know they are here. But they are off limits, you go in, you don't come out again."
Obi-Wan thought it was strange to have such a place so deep in the forest, it smacked of secrecy to him, just as it doubtlessly did to his companions.
"Some say that it is a reserve where the royals keep their fattened herds and arbors in a weather protected bubble," Tash said, anger mingling with desire. "Look, perhaps we can dig our way under," he said, pointing to a dip in the snow.
Jorr seemed to be considering it, but shook his head. "Like as not they've got buried cables to protect against that, we'd be killed. We can't risk it."
"We're all going to die of starvation if we don't get food soon," Tash said bluntly. "You know as well as I do that none of the other hunting parties will have any better luck than we have. I'm willing to chance it."
Jorr seemed unhappy, but unable to argue. "Tash..."
Obi-Wan, who had been eyeing the fence this whole time, spoke up. "Wait, I have an idea, let's jump over it."
The two older men looked at the boy like he was touched. "I think they must have messed with your head boy, *jump* six feet over live wires? I don't think so," Tash scoffed.
Not bothering to waste time and breath arguing, Obi-Wan simply backed up, gave himself a small start and vaulted smoothly through the air. Somersaulting upwards in a way that seemed to defy gravity, the young Jedi easily cleared the top and landed with a soft plunk on his feet on the other side.
Tash and Jorr stared at him. "How did you-"
Obi-Wan shrugged; struggling to deal with the effect that an expenditure of strength like that had on his healing body. "Give me a second," he said, breathing hard, "And I'll help you over."
"Oh yeah? How?" Tash was skeptical.
"That's a great trick Aru, but we can't do that," Jorr shook his head. "Maybe you could find the power box..."
"That could take hours," Obi-Wan shook his head. "You really want to get in here? Then trust me, jump, and see what happens." Obi-Wan knew that after this, they would know there was something about him that wasn't normal, but then again, he did not intend to hide that from them forever.
Jorr and Tash looked at each other.
Finally, Tash shrugged. "I said I was willing to chance just about anything. I'll give it a shot."
Jorr shrugged. "What the heck?"
"Okay, one at a time," Obi-Wan cautioned, knowing he was hardly in peak form.
Tash jumped first and as he did, Obi-Wan gave him a quick, Force-boost, hoisting him over the wire. Saving his strength, Obi-Wan let Tash go as soon as he was clear of the wire and the obviously startled man landed on his backside in the snow, with considerably less grace and dignity than Obi-Wan had.
Jorr was next, but having seen Tash go over, was a little more prepared and landed with somewhat more decorum.
"How did you do that?" Jorr asked, his eyes narrowing in puzzlement. It was obvious that the teenager had done something to them, but what, and how...?
"Um, I'll tell you later," Obi-Wan hedged. "We'd better hurry, they might have security drones or something out here."
Creeping quietly through the woods, their footsteps muffled by the snow, the threesome moved quickly, their heads swiveling alertly. Being caught here would almost certainly mean instant death, but none of them intended to get caught.
Jorr, slightly in the lead, lifted his hand, motioning for Obi-Wan and Tash to halt. They did and after a moment, Jorr came sliding back.
"There's something over that hill, just beyond those trees," he said, uncertainty clouding his face.
"Herds? Food?" Tash asked hopefully.
Jorr's face remained clouded. "Perhaps..."
The threesome slipped quietly forward, using the trees for cover. What Jorr had seen turned out to be a cluster of buildings, but they did not look like storage or animal housing facilities. In fact, Obi-Wan could have sworn that they looked like a military compound of some sort. But why would the Nubian's have an army base here in the middle of nowhere?
Creeping closer, the three men soon saw that it was indeed a military compound, then they saw a rank of troops go marching by in perfect formation. All three of them did a double take. Before them, marched hundreds of... Midori troops?!
Obi-Wan studied them. Something was wrong, something was dead wrong here. There were hundreds, maybe thousands of men and woman there, and who knew how many more in the bunker buildings and yet... he felt no individuality, no separate thought. It was as if they weren't thinking at all, or, as if they were all thinking the same thing.
"What in the name of-" Tash breathed.
Suddenly an alarm sounded. "INTRUDER ALERT! INTRUDER ALERT! FIND AND DESTROY!"
"Find and destroy," the ranks of Midori soldiers in pale cream uniforms that matched the snow echoed, their faces frighteningly blank.
"Oh Sith let's get out of here!" Tash said, jumping up and scrambling back up the hill behind them.
"Look!" Jorr breathed, pointing to one of the squadrons as he and Obi-Wan scrambled up the hill behind Tash. Obi-Wan spared a moment to look and saw what Jorr had seen. At first glance it looked as if there were many, midget soldiers, but in reality they were all children, dressed up in miniature versions of the same fatigues as their elders, carrying full sized weapons and marching with the same cold, expressionless look on their face. It was horrifying.
King Calr and Queen Ithma's conversation at the banquet came back to Obi-Wan, only this time it made a terrible kind of sense.
--||"1500 more, taken care of, not counting the children."
"Well you can't really count them, they're just extra targets really, distraction."||--
They hadn't been talking about *killing* those people and children as the Jedi had thought, no...
"They must be brain-washed!" Obi-Wan called back, as the three men scrambled over the ridge, just as blaster fire erupted around them.
At last the mystery was revealed. Yes, some Midori were being rounded up and sold, but apparently, the majority were somehow being brainwashed and turned into crack commando squads of thousands. Men, women, children, it seemed to make no difference. But why? What was the purpose?
Dodging as they ran, avoiding trees and blaster fire, Obi-Wan, Tash and Jorr reached the electric fence once more.
Obi-Wan got there first, but waited for the others to catch up. Jorr was the first to catch up, and Obi-Wan vaulted him over the fence without hesitation. Tash was next and over he went. Obi-Wan flung himself over last, ignoring the blinding pain that was racing through him. He made it, but only barely. Landing unsteadily, he lost his footing, hit the ground and rolled back towards the fence. His arm brushed the bottom wire. A moment more and the electricity would have worked like a magnet, drawing him in and killing him with its full charge.
Jorr and Tash, seeing the danger as it happened, risked their own lives by grabbing Obi-Wan's loose warm-wraps and jerking him away from the deadly wires before he truly came into contact with them.
Obi-Wan's arm felt tingly and numb, but he was on his feet again in a matter of moments and once more they were on the run.
Suddenly, a blaster shot caught Tash in the leg and the man went down. Grinding to a halt, Obi-Wan and Jorr backtracked furiously.
"No, go, LEAVE!" Tash tried to tell them, but they had none of it. Slinging one of his arms over each of their shoulders they pressed on.
The troops behind them had to either wait for someone to turn the fence off, or go around to a gate, which bought the fleeing men some precious time.
Jorr, Obi-Wan and Tash had forged pretty deeply into the forest and now, the trees seemed to stretch out forever. Obi-Wan had kicked into overdrive mode and barely registered his injured body's complaints anymore as he and Jorr dragged Tash swiftly through the snow.
They heard crashing through the trees some distance off and knew that the zombie squadrons were hot on their heels, following the clear trail they were leaving in the snow.
They ran for what seemed an eternity, then Obi-Wan saw people up ahead. It was Calia, Effi and the rest of the foraging party.
"Run, run!" Jorr shouted. "Soldiers coming!"
The women scattered in panic, heading back for the cave and safety.
Obi-Wan saw Calia freeze, not knowing what to do, but was relieved when one of the older women grabbed her hand and dragged her in the direction of the cave. Weary from running so far and with Tash to slow them down, Jorr and Obi-Wan were the last to reach the cave.
"Blow the fumb! Blow the fumb!" Jorr shouted at several other men from the hunting party as they disappeared into the cave ahead of them.
Obi-Wan barely had time to wonder what a fumb was as they stumbled, breathless and reeling out of the snow and into the cave mouth. Looking back, he saw the clear tracks that all of them had left in the snow. They might as well have worn a great, blinking sign shouting: "here we are"!
Just then, from somewhere further up the hill, a huge wind blasted out from the rocks with a sound that remotely like a foghorn, or a loud "fumb!"
For an instant the air was white with snow as the gust of mighty, man-made wind hit the surrounding area like a tornado. When the white settled, there was no trace in the ruffled snow for a hundred meters around that showed any indication that anyone had ever passed this way.
Smiling, Jorr turned to Obi-Wan. "*That* is the fumb," he said, answering the boy's unspoken question.
Quickly, the two of them hurried into the secret passage sealed the door behind them. To the casual observer, this was now an ordinary, shallow cave, just like the million others that dotted these hills. Those soldiers could search until doomsday and never find them.
Half-carrying Tash down the long, winding tunnel, Obi-Wan and Jorr emerged at the end, only to find the cavern in chaos. For a moment, they were at a loss to see why, then they saw that at the hub of the ruckus, was Calia.
One large, burly ex-slave was holding her arms tightly twisted behind her back while the terrified princess struggled and kicked. An old lady was trying desperately to make the fellow put the girl down, but although the spectacle was gaining a bigger number of participants every moment, most of them seemed to side with the man holding Calia.
Quickly handing Tash over to Jorr, Obi-Wan forged his way into the crowd.
Effi continued to batter the man holding Calia with a broom handle, demanding that he stop this nonsense and put her down, but no one was listening. They were far too angry for that. Someone pulled Effi away while another slapped Calia roughly. The girl screamed and someone else hit her, making her nose bleed and her head spin.
"Filthy palace b---h!" someone seethed, everyone was shouting and cursing it seemed and Calia was too terrified to make any sense of it.
The man holding her threw Calia roughly to the floor and an angry woman kicked her in the ribs.
"Show her some of her own medicine, huh?!" a big slave with scars on his back growled and Calia felt a burning slash of pain cut across her shoulders as rough hands grabbed her wrists and pinned her to the hard floor.
"Stop!" Obi-Wan shouted, as the fellow started to hit Calia again. Catching the descending makeshift-whip around his own forearm, Obi-Wan let the lash curl around his arm before grabbing it and yanking it out of the man's hand. "This isn't the way to deal with anything!" he shouted, already figuring what must have happened.
The group's anger turned on him then and Obi-Wan felt a searing flash of pain as someone struck him to his knees, re-injuring wounds that had not yet healed.
"ENOUGH OF THIS!!!!" Jorr thundered, having finally been able lay Tash down and make his way through the crowd. "WHAT IN THE SEVEN HELLS DO YOU THINK YOU ARE ALL DOING!!?"
"Look at this, just LOOK!" one of the men shoved a news cube into Jorr's hands. Removing his mittens, which he still had on, Jorr pressed the button to play the cube.
"It was brought in from our scavenge in the city the day before yesterday, It's partially broken and someone in town must have thrown it out but no one played it until today," someone else chimed in angrily, by way of explanation.
As Jorr watched, the holo reporter's face appeared in the blue-tinged image above the cube. For a few moments the image warbled and spoke gibberish, until finally, it snapped into focus.
"And in the latest news the search is still going on for the fugitive spy who escaped the palace, taking captive with him the Crown Princess Calia who is now presumed dead." A slightly grainy, but unfortunately clear holo of Calia's face sprang to life before their eyes.
The news cube went on to other reports, but no one was watching it any more. All eyes were now on Calia and Obi-Wan.
To Obi-Wan's dismay, even Jorr's gaze was cold. The older man shot the boy a look that seemed to say: "Well, this changes everything, doesn't it?"
"After everything she and her family have done to us, I say we give her a taste of her own medicine!" someone yelled.
"Her people killed my husband, my children!" a woman shrieked.
"She doesn't deserve to live!"
"She must die for everything she and her family has done to us!"
"The truth is revealed!"
"Kill her, kill her, kill her!" the people chanted wildly.
Calia cowered on the floor, tears running down her cheeks as she heard the absolute hate with which these people held her. And could she blame them?...
Obi-Wan, seeing that this was quickly going from bad to worse, struggled to his feet. Standing protectively over Calia's shaking frame he seemed to radiate a protective aura.
"You want the truth?!" he shouted to be heard over the din. "All right! The truth is that I am a Jedi. My name is Obi-Wan Kenobi and I was sent from Coruscant to try to help your people."
The crowd roared with laughter, except for Jorr whose eyes narrowed. *Jedi*...
"I posed as a slave in the palace and was caught, they would have killed me if Princess Calia had not saved my life and in so doing made herself a fugitive!"
"It's all lies!" someone screamed. "The King wouldn't hurt his own daughter! Get down boy, or die too!"
Obi-Wan stood his ground firmly. "Listen to me! You're all angry now; you've been hurt worse than any living thing deserves to be hurt and now you want to hurt back! You want someone to blame, someone to punish, your lives have been taken so you want to take life, but what does that make you?! Does that make you any different then those which you hate?!" Obi-Wan pleaded with them, but they were too hyped up to hear reason.
"Get out of the way!"
"Step down!" they threatened.
"I will not," Obi-Wan refused calmly, taking up a fighting stance although he knew he was up against hopeless odds. "If you want to kill her you will have to kill me first."
Calia realized that Obi-Wan was ready to die defending her; even after everything she had caused to be done to him... she could barely believe it.
Suddenly on her feet, the Princess raised her hands and spoke now with the firm, if somewhat trembling tone of one who knew that what they were saying was right.
"NO!" she cried, shaking her head at Obi-Wan. "I WON'T let you die for me! I've already done enough to you, I've already ruined enough lives to haunt me through a thousand hells!" Calia's voice shook with emotion.
"Look," she turned to the people crowded around them. "You can kill me if you want to, I know it's probably all that I deserve, but first, I want you to know one thing. I want you to know how very, very sorry I am!" she choked out around the lump in her throat.
"All my life I was taught that people like you were of lesser importance than people like me. It seems I ingested it with my mother's milk and learned it with my first steps, it was all I ever knew, but it was wrong! I can see that now, and it was the most despicable lie I can think of. Living with you here, like this for the past few days... I understand now. Even if it is too late. I-I'm sorry, I wish I could undo what my family... what *I* have done to you, but I know that wishes don't make a thing happen. I-I just hope that someday-someday maybe you can forgive me." Calia took a deep, shaky breath and closed her eyes.
Quietly, Obi-Wan was impressed. He had had no idea that Calia could be so eloquent, or so moving.
"Please," the Princess finished in a small voice. "Just do it quickly because I'm not very brave and I know I couldn't ever be as stoic as Aru - I mean Obi-Wan, was."
Obi-Wan tensed, still ready to try to intervene, permission or no.
It did not turn out to be necessary however, for the riot seemed to have lost its fire. There was sincerity in Calia's words, which gave the people around them pause and made them stop and think about what both she, and Obi-Wan had said.
Obi-Wan remembered how Qui-Gon had always told him that rage was a fire that burned quick and hot, but it was short lived and once it's momentum was lost, cooler heads could take control of the situation. So it was now.
Finally, it was decided that Obi-Wan and Calia would be kept, basically imprisoned and under guard, but they would not be killed or mistreated, at least not yet.
After everything that these people had lived through, they needed to be sure of what was going on and that this was not some kind of trick.
Their attention then turned to tending Tash's leg wound, which, although painful, turned out to be less then they had feared and Jorr filled them all in on what they had found in the heart of the forbidden forest. The question hung over them all like a cloud: What did it mean?
When Obi-Wan and Calia were allowed to sit down, Calia curled herself up into a tight little ball and rocked back and forth, obviously in a state of semi-shock from the rush of events and the let-down from the adrenaline surge that had accompanied her momentary burst of courage.
"Are you all right?" Obi-Wan asked gently, trying to wipe some of the blood from her face.
Surprisingly, Calia nodded. "I did it," she said softly, her face still deathly pale, but her eyes proud. "I stood up and said what I really felt and I knew I was right. I could be so sure I was right that I almost wasn't afraid... like you," she said softly, her eyes seeking his.
Obi-Wan smiled softly at her. "That's right, you did, and it's just the beginning Calia, you'll see. Truth is infectious, once you start standing up for it, you never want to quit."
Calia smiled timidly. "I know back in the palace, I was, oh gosh I was dreadful to you, I treated you like a thing and I'm sorry."
Obi-Wan held up his hand to stop her. "It's in the past Calia," he assured.
"No, let me finish," she insisted. "I am sorry, sorry for the way I toyed with you, for everything. The sad thing is, I really do like you now Obi-Wan... I mean, *really* like you," she said, as if meaning so much more, but unable to find the words she was looking for. She laughed ironically. "Of all the times I ever wanted to look nice when I said something to someone..." the princess shook her head, a trace of sorrow in her voice. "I must be a real sight to see, saying all this now."
Obi-Wan caught her hand in his and placed his other hand upon her cheek, making her look at him. "I like you too Calia," he said gently, although in his eyes she could see that he did not reciprocate the same kind of feelings she was talking about, but, the princess knew that was probably for the best.
Calia's hair was disheveled, her face streaked with dirt, blood and tears and the thread-bare, ill-fitting dress that Jorr had scrounged up for days ago was torn and hung loosely off one shoulder.
Obi-Wan took it all in and smiled warmly at her, a smile that made her *feel* like a princess, no matter how she looked.
"Calia, right now you are one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen," he said softly. "Because your radiance is coming from the place where true beauty lies, in your heart, and that's what matters," he said, gently laying his hand over her still rapidly thumping heart and sending waves of comfort and calm into her strung-out body.
Calia relaxed visibly. "Obi-Wan," she said hesitantly, trying the name out as if too see that she had pronounced it right.
Obi-Wan cocked his head to the side, indicating that she had and waiting for her question.
"I know, I know that you're a Jedi and Jedi have their own, different kind of life and I wouldn't ever wish you to be anything else..." she hesitated, embarrassed. "And I know you don't feel about me like I kind of feel about you, and that's okay... but... could you, would you... kiss me just once? I promise I'll never ask you again," she said softly. "I just... I don't want to always remember the only way I ever kissed you being that night on the balcony..." she trailed off and dropped her eyes.
Obi-Wan knew that Calia was young, she was attracted to him certainly, but he bet that it was more because he had been the one to open her eyes to the world around her than out of actual love, yet it was easy to be confused about that at her age. He didn't wish to confuse her further, yet he did not wish to deny her either...
Then he realized what he would do.
//"You're eyes are being opened to many things, but now is neither the time, nor the place for these kind of feelings. You have many years ahead of you to find true love princess, and I know you will. Right now you are grateful, not in love, but we will always be friends."// Obi-Wan gathered the thought clearly in his head, letting it surround him so that it would seep through when they touched. It was not a mental suggestion or command, he would never trespass like that. It was merely a thought, which, if it were really true, would be picked up upon by the younger girl. Obi-Wan was fairly sure it was true.
Gently tipping Calia's head back up with her chin in his palm, Obi-Wan leaned down to kiss her.
Qui-Gon Jinn, Jedi Master, was going absolutely insane. He had scoped out the defenses in exhaustive detail but found no way out of the house arrest that he and all the other diplomats were under. At least, no way that would not draw a hideous amount of attention that the Senate particularly wished for him to avoid; although, at this point he had little care for what they did and did not want him to do.
Four days. Four days!
Things had quickly gone from bad to worse. Many of the nobles became so volatile that they had to be confined to their rooms under guard, for fear that they would harm the other guests and some had complete nervous breakdowns. If he had been inclined to find humor in the situation, Qui-Gon would have had ample opportunity to do so, yet he could not quite find anything funny knowing that somewhere and somehow, the life of his padawan and hundreds of thousands of other people were hanging in the balance.
Never one to be inactive, Qui-Gon had put the time to good use. In their fragile states of mind, it was not too hard to surreptitiously pump the confined nobles for just about everything they knew. If one was in the right place, saying the right things at the right time with a willing ear, they could learn anything they wanted.
Qui-Gon now knew enough to blackmail practically the entire royal body of the East and Middle Kingdoms, but that did little to cheer him up. What he really wanted to know, no one seemed able to tell him. He was beginning to get the impression that only King Calr and perhaps Queen Ithma, who was above suspicion, or at least powerful enough that Calr did not dare try to keep her prisoner, knew whatever dark secret really lurked behind this whole affair. He just couldn't believe that the slave operation was the whole thing. It simply didn't fit all the pieces he had seen and felt.
"Count Marudai," King Calr stopped Qui-Gon in the halls. As one of the saner "enforced guests" Qui-Gon enjoyed the freedom to move about the sanctioned areas of the palace without restraint. A perhaps less stable guest pounded haplessly on their door somewhere down the hall, creating a pulsing rhythm, like a throbbing vein of either hysteria or warning.
Qui-Gon had not had much to do with the King, who did not seem to want to be bothered with his guests and in fact, seemed to wish he could terminate them all and be done with the risk entirely if he could. But now, there was something in the King's voice that set off tiny warning bells in the Jedi's head. The six guards that were following in the King's wake did little to assuage that feeling.
"Marudai," Calr barked, ignoring Qui-Gon's polite bow and greeting. "Or whatever your real name is. It seems that you've been making yourself rather busy around here the past few days. Well I have too. I've spent the time tracing back to see where and how I came by a certain slave who turned out to be a spy. You may like to know that Nalik is dead, but before he died he told me that, surprise, surprise, he got that boy from you." The King's face was hard, stony.
Without warning, the guards sprang at Qui-Gon, but the Jedi was ready for them and expecting it. Leaping aside, he evaded their rush. Whipping his lightsaber out from it's hiding place under his large sleeve, Qui-Gon had it ignited and ready as the guards opened fire on him.
Somersaulting over their heads and retreating quickly down the hall, Qui-Gon could hear the sound of running feet and knew that more guards were coming. All he had to do was make it to the far end of the hall, there was a window there that his lightsaber would make short work of, since not creating a disturbance was no longer an issue.
In a matter of moments he would be there, then he could...
"Better stop!" King Calr thundered. He was a cruel man, but a smart one, one who never left his bases uncovered. "I know a thing or two about you Jedi, you won't let innocent people be killed, right? Well if you don't surrender this instant, my men are going to start killing slaves right now. I'll kill every blasted one of them, I swear it! I can always get new ones. The first dozen are set to go right now, unless..."
Qui-Gon's deep blue eyes turned steely as he realized the ruthlessness that would come up with such a cruel, but effective plan.
His face set, Qui-Gon powered down his lightsaber. He knew that if he resisted, Calr would make good his threats and he could not be responsible for the death of every slave on the palace grounds. What other choice did he have?
Calr smiled coldly as his guards ripped Qui-Gon's lightsaber from his hand and roughly yanked the big Jedi's hands behind his back, clipping his wrists into a set of binders.
"You've cost me a lot of trouble, and led me a merry chase Jedi, but it's over now," Calr said with a sneer, giving a half nod to his men. "I've won."
A hard fist slammed into Qui-Gon's midsection, followed quickly by another, which doubled him over. Looking up, the eyes that regarded Calr were clear and calm, mirroring the same strength that the King had seen in the eyes of the apprentice but with the wisdom and learning that the Master's added years gave him. Calr was going to enjoy breaking the will behind those eyes.
"Overconfidence can be a deadly weakness," Qui-Gon said quietly, struggling slightly for breath.
"You are not in a position to be giving lectures," Calr said with a touch of malice.
Another fist snapped the Jedi's head back and made him taste blood. A moment later, a hard cudgel was brought down hard against the back of Qui-Gon's head from behind.
The Jedi Master slumped senseless to the ground.
"Take him to my speeder. I want him sedated and under heavy guard. Notify Queen Ithma that we have our other spy, and," Calr made a weary face at the incessant pounding that had once again resumed on the door down the hall.
"Do get all these people out of here!"
Calia, who had almost drifted off to sleep on his shoulder looked up with concern. "Something's wrong, isn't it?"
Obi-Wan nodded slowly. "I-I fear so. I have not been able to contact Master Qui-Gon since we left the palace, but just now I thought I felt him, but... I think he was in danger."
Calia's brow wrinkled. She didn't understand how Jedi telepathy worked, but she did understand that Obi-Wan was worried. "Is there anything we can do?"
Obi-Wan shook his head. "Not at the moment," he sighed. "I've been trying to figure out what we saw in the woods. All those troops... what for? They've got an invasion army from the looks of the troops and the equipment I saw there: landing craft, fighters, ion cannons... but, where? And why? A war here on Nubus would do no one any good." He puzzled over the problem aloud.
Calia seemed thoughtful, then, the light of an idea started to spread across her face. "Obi-Wan, do you know anything about the Viethans?"
"They're the inhabitants of the world called Vithe, the only inhabitable planet of the quasi solar system which is also Nubus' nearest neighbor." Obi-Wan rattled off the facts he had memorized on the way to Nubus what seemed like a lifetime ago, back when he didn't see why this mission should give them any trouble...
"Yes, them," Calia nodded. "Our two people have never liked each other..." she halted. "Actually, there seems to be very few other peoples or species that my people *do* like," she said somewhat dryly, with a sad little sigh. "But the morning before we ran away, I heard my father talking to Queen Ithma on a comlink and he mentioned the Viethans, saying that "They'd get theirs in time." I also recall that once, not too long ago, he told me to study Vithe and asked me what I thought it would be like to live there. Oh, I didn't think anything about it at the time, but now..."
Obi-Wan's eyes snapped into focus as the pieces slid into place. "Calia! That's IT! Erbus!" he called to the man guarding them. "Erbus!" he repeated urgently. "I've got to talk to Jorr, right NOW! It's terribly important!"
Qui-Gon woke up slowly in a darkened room with a pounding headache. The back of his head throbbed like a gnarrk with a power-hammer was sitting on it and it felt as if his temples were in a vice...
Oh. Qui-Gon realized that his temples were, in point of fact, in a vice. Or a vice-like grip to be more precise. A large semi-circle ran around the back of his head, fastening to his temples in a strangely menacing fashion.
Testing the rest of his body slowly, Qui-Gon tried to move, only to find that his arms and legs were strapped quite securely to the chair he was sitting in and he could barely even twitch. From the leaden way he felt, Qui-Gon surmised that in addition to being knocked unconscious, he had also been drugged. He had no way to tell how long he had been out.
Slowly, the Jedi's keen eyes adjusted to the dim lighting, but he didn't need his eyes to tell him that Calr was there. He could already feel that.
Qui-Gon could only guess at why he wasn't dead already.
"So," the Jedi said, his voice rasping slightly before he cleared the grogginess out of it. "Do you intend to try on me what you did to Obi-Wan, or are you only interested in torturing defenseless children?" Qui-Gon's voice had a hard edge to it when he spoke of what Calr had done to his Padawan.
"That boy was hardly defenseless," Calr scoffed. "But no, I have... other plans for you." Qui-Gon could hear the wicked glint in the man's voice. It was a tone that made the Jedi's blood run cold despite himself.
"You my dear Jedi are currently my private guest at a secret military base deep in the woods outside the palace. This however, is only one of thousands of such bases all over Nubus." Calr said as he paced back and forth in front of Qui-Gon, taunting him with the news he was telling, taunting the Jedi with the information he had sought so hard, but would find out only now, when it was too late.
"Here and at camps like these, we have been gathering vast numbers of the Midori peoples and," Calr cleared his throat. "*Reeducating* them. Making those societal leaches useful at last. A stroke of sheer genius actually," the King allowed himself to boast slightly.
"Once reeducated, these formerly worthless beings now have a new purpose in life, as our own, personal soldiers who will stop at nothing to see that the people of Nubus get a new home on Vithe. So noble really," Calr smirked.
Qui-Gon's lip curled in disgust. "Brainwashed suicide troops, trained to recklessly murder the peaceful people of Vithe until they are all either destroyed or subdued, is that it?" he said, wondering what kind of twisted minds could come up with such a thing.
"Well, in a crude sort of way, yes," Calr nodded. "The first wave of troops are loading to leave tonight. Nubus hasn't got much longer Jedi, but you probably knew that already. You were good Jedi, much too good to be working against me. So," Calr said, fingering a button on the wall next to him. "You too are going to fight for me now." Gesturing to the get-up pressing against Qui-Gon's temples he smiled dryly. "Why, with a Jedi on our side, I'll be unstoppable!"
Realizing the meaning of the monarch's words and just what kind of device he must be strapped into, Qui-Gon's jaw tightened.
"I can't assure you this won't hurt I'm afraid," Calr grinned evilly. "From the way those Midori always scream, I would assume quite the opposite. Ah, it will all be over soon... but not too soon." Calr laughed and hit the button.
A jolt of incredible pain shot through Qui-Gon's temples, like a physical spike passing between the connection points of the insidious machine and piercing his mind between them. The Jedi jerked spasmodically, every muscle in his body tightening as he fought back against the merciless presence that was trying to force itself into his head.
The pain was incredible and Qui-Gon scrabbled to hold onto any and all strength that he could find. It felt like his mind was being chopped up by piercing, red-hot blades which sought, not to rip his conciseness away from him, but to bury it somewhere deep inside and replace it with its own programming and directives.
With a wave of horror, Qui-Gon realized that all those brainwashed Midori's had not lost themselves to this machine, no, they were still in there, unwilling prisoners in their own bodies... and Qui-Gon could feel himself slipping towards the same pit that had engulfed them.
As Calr upped the power, Qui-Gon stifled a gasp of pain and wondered if this is what it had been like for Obi-Wan when he was put through a similar memory-wipe machine on Phindar. Only that one had simply been trying to erase, this one wished to replace.
Thinking of Obi-Wan gave Qui-Gon strength, so he thought about the boy, about the Jedi, the Force, Coruscant, the Temple... anything.
From a great distance away, it seemed that Qui-Gon felt the light touch of Obi-Wan's mind trying to reach out to him.
//"Hold on..."// those familiar words. Obi-Wan's words now, to him.
With stubborn determination Qui-Gon locked horns with the deadly foe that was invading his head, ready to fight it to the death before he would succumb.
Calr saw the determined fire in the Jedi's glazed, pain filled eyes and upped the power again. This time, Qui-Gon did cry out.
Calr folded his arms. He was certain that not even a Jedi could withstand one of his machines. The King was a patient man. He would watch and wait. Wait until the fire in the Jedi's eyes had gone out...
"I don't know..." Jorr hesitated in indecision. "It all sounds rather fantastic. How do I know this isn't some kind of trap, or a trick to get us to let you go?"
"Jorr, you were there," Obi-Wan shook his head. "You *saw* them! It all fits together, you must see that!"
Suddenly Obi-Wan grabbed his head as a burst of pain and distress shot through it, throbbing between his temples. Frighteningly, he knew that the sensation was not his.
Jorr's brows furrowed, and Calia grabbed Obi-Wan's arm.
//"Master,"// the young Jedi whispered. //"Master hold on..."// he could only hope that the message could reach Qui-Gon, wherever he was.
"It's not him," Calia said quietly to Jorr. "He's feeling something else, somewhere."
"Doesn't look good, whatever it is," Jorr murmured as Obi-Wan blinked and became aware of them again. The young Jedi's eyes were desperate now.
"Jorr, Nubus is going to invade Vithe with their zombie soldiers and thousands, maybe millions of innocent people on both sides will die!" he said urgently. "We have got to stop this now, there is no time for hesitation!"
Jorr folded his arms. "All right Obi-Wan, so I believe you. What in the galaxy are we supposed to do about it? We can't even scrape together enough food to survive, how are we supposed to fight off an army?!"
"You won't have to do it alone," Obi-Wan shook his head. "All we have to do is go back to that base in the forest." The padawan could feel the strong tug of the Force calling him there, practically screaming for him...
"Oh, is that all," Jorr said sarcastically. Desperation and hopelessness making him critical.
Obi-Wan ignored the jibe. "I am positive that Master Qui-Gon is there," he continued. "But I think he's in trouble. If we can just get to him and get out, then we can find a way to contact the Republic Senate and King Dakar and tell them what's happening. They will step in and intervene Jorr, that's why they sent us here! But only if we can give them proof."
"I'll give my word to them on it," Calia said, drawing herself up. "They'll have to listen to a member of the royal house."
"Right, and we can make tapes of the base and what's going on there," Obi-Wan nodded; he had done this sort of evidence gathering before.
Jorr chewed his lip thoughtfully, but Obi-Wan could see the light of hope creeping back into the ex-slave's jaded eyes. "The Republic really will back us if we can prove it to them?"
"Yes!" Obi-Wan nodded vigorously. "And so will King Dakar whose forces are even closer at hand, once he knows that the Republic will back him."
His mind made up, Jorr nodded once. "All right. I've got to talk to the others, but I think they'll go for it. We'll make some calls and send some messengers to the other sanctuaries and refuges all over the area."
"How long will it take?" Obi-Wan wanted to know, feeling that time was dangerously short.
Jorr smiled grimly. "We fugitives get used to moving quickly and efficiently. In two hours I can have every Midori, runaway slave and sympathetic townsperson converging on that place."
"Good," Obi-Wan approved, but could not shake the feeling that it may be two hours they did not have. "But can you make it one?"
Jorr lifted an eyebrow. "You want miracles Obi-Wan, but I will see what I can do."
Exactly one hour and twenty minutes later Obi-Wan, Calia, Jorr and about seven hundred other people slid quietly through the forest towards King Calr's hidden base.
When they finally arrived, it was not a heartening sight. Rank upon rank of soldiers were all being marched out to the waiting transport.
There seemed to the smaller group to be an infinite number of them and Jorr whistled low. "We've got to try, I realize that, but what can so few do against so many?"
"Everything they can," Calia answered softly, shooting a smile at Obi-Wan, who smiled back. She was afraid, but she was more afraid of what the future would be like if they did not try this.
"Have faith Jorr, the Force will show us a way." It struck Obi-Wan that he sounded very much like his Master at that moment. He could only hope he was right.
Half-dead with the strain after fighting for the better part half an hour with Calr's insidious machine, Qui-Gon's body went suddenly limp.
Calr quickly switched off the power, wondering if the stubborn Jedi was dead. He had certainly fought far longer than Calr would have believed possible. Putting his fingers to Qui-Gon's neck, the King felt the Jedi's pulse, thready and racing, but still definitely there.
Smiling, Calr clapped his hands twice. "Wake up, look at me," he commanded.
Qui-Gon's eyelids sprang open and his head swiveled up until his eyes focused one Calr's face. Dull, empty eyes without a trace of fire in them.
Calr smiled in sadistic delight.
He had won.
Line after perfect line of troops tramped over the frozen ground to the waiting transports while dozens more stood guard around the parameter. From their hiding place, Obi-Wan, Jorr, Calia and the handful of others with them could not see the main body of their group until a homemade explosive detonated at the far end of the compound went off, signaling the beginning of the planned diversion.
"All right, let's go!" Jorr called quietly, as the small group used the diversion to cover their own entrance to the base. There was no hope in trying to win by fighting; they were far too out numbered and out-gunned. Their only hope was to gather as much evidence in their holo-rods as they could, find Qui-Gon and somehow get out of here with their lives.
Calia tugged on Obi-Wan's sleeve and pointed to a small, sleek craft parked in the shadow of one of the distant buildings, her face going a shade paler than it already was.
"My father is here," she whispered simply.
Obi-Wan squeezed her arm. The ache in his wrist was trying to get his attention again, but he afforded it no notice. They were much too busy.
The ex-slaves and Midori's were painfully aware that they were fighting with their own kind and tried to avoid seriously injuring anyone, but it was not easy. The brainwashed troops were relentless and they had no fear, walking straight into waves of blaster fire without a thought, droid-like and unstoppable.
Erbus grimly traded out his used power-pack as his people were pushed slowly backward by the waves of soldiers. He hoped that Jorr and his team was getting what they needed, because he knew they could not hold out for long.
Obi-Wan could feel Qui-Gon's presence somewhere in the compound, but could not pinpoint it exactly.
//"Master?"// he called out repeatedly, but got no answer. The dead silence chilled him more than the frosty air.
The pain in his wrist, once a minor nuisance was now growing steadily until it was impossible to ignore. The young Jedi began to break into a sweat from the pain. Whatever was wrong with him?! He wondered in irritation, rubbing his wrist. Whatever it was, Obi-Wan did not let on to the others.
Suddenly several dozen soldiers barred their way. Obi-Wan cursed his arm for distracting him so much.
The conditioned soldiers did not wait, but opened fire immediately. Scrambling for cover, Calia, Obi-Wan, Jorr and the others found themselves pinned down in a bad position. They shot off round after round at the soldiers to hold them back as they sought the scanty protection of the snow banks and rif trees.
The tingling of the grip in Obi-Wan's palm told him that his blaster was running low on power. He was on his last power pack. Rather than abating, the fire-fight intensified until the tingling became a warning buzz telling him that he should switch now or be in danger of running out of power within the next several volleys.
"Obi-Wan," Jorr threw himself over a snow bank, blaster blazing, and rolled several times until he reached the embankment behind which the Jedi and the Princess had taken cover. "We'll hold them here, you, Harl, Jaimin and the princess slid around back and break free," he instructed.
Cocking his head to listen to the sound of the firefight in progress elsewhere, the older man locked eyes with the younger in deadly earnest. "You've got to make it Obi-Wan. So far all we have is recordings of soldiers killing people. We've got to get pictures of the indoctrination centers themselves or this is no good! We know the truth, but no one else ever will if it dies with us. Get the final evidence, get other Jedi and get the heck out of here! Now go!"
Obi-Wan nodded soberly and squeezed Jorr's hand in parting, he understood. Touching Calia's arm, the Jedi directed her to edge backward, towards where he could see Jaimin and Harl already creeping away.
They had almost made it away when one of the soldiers saw Jaimin's dark cloak amid the white snow.
Obi-Wan saw the danger and whirled off a shot at the same instant. The soldier went down, but so did Jaimin.
Jorr's men rushed the soldiers so that they had no more time to think about the few escapees and the remaining three made it clear.
Silently, Obi-Wan, Harl and Calia edged their way closer to the main cluster of buildings. They didn't look like barracks and they didn't look like warehouses, so they must be something else...
Pain throbbed up Obi-Wan's arm as if he had an electro-jabber strapped to his wrist. Unintentionally, he started to lag behind slightly.
Calia slowed her pace, regarding the overly-pale boy with concern, but Harl forged on ahead.
Obi-Wan tried desperately to banish the blinding pain. He couldn't afford this! It was becoming nearly impossible to think, to be cautious...
"Stop!" he called out suddenly, yanking Calia backward. Harl, ahead and out of reach turned his head back to see what was wrong, but continued stepping forward.
A violent explosion rocked the ground. Obi-Wan pushed Calia down and threw himself on top of her as snow and dirt rained down on them. When the air cleared, there was nothing left up ahead but a crater.
Calia shivered violently and looked like she was going to be sick. "Mines," she said softly, pushing the snow away to revel the one that she almost stepped on.
Pulling the shaken girl by the arm, Obi-Wan dragged her quickly around to the other side of the building, being careful for further booby-traps. Hidden by a protective ledge, Obi-Wan stopped to gather his strength.
"It-it's just us now, isn't it?" Calia asked softly, her voice sounding suddenly very young.
The two teenagers looked at each other. It was totally up to them now. The fate of a whole planet seemed to have fallen until it came to rest on the shoulders of a pain-racked, weakened Jedi apprentice and a badly frightened young princess. Silently, Calia wondered if the burden would crush them. Then she looked in Obi-Wan's eyes and saw the fierce determination that mingled with his pain and realized that failure was simply not an option.
"Calia, there's something wrong," Obi-Wan said through his teeth, clutching his wrist.
For a moment Calia looked puzzled, then horrible realization dawned upon her face. "Oh no!" she breathed. "It's father."
Obi-Wan did not look as though he comprehended, so she elaborated. "Father caries a remote activator, or control unit on his belt, so that he can take slaves with him when he travels, they can leave the palace, but cannot leave him, or the effect is the same, paralyzing pain and death. As your former master, that device is making it roughly the same here as if you were going back to the palace. Your bracelet's signal has been entered as a renegade, one that must be destroyed..." tears welled in Calia's eyes. "What are we going to do?"
That same question was rather heavily on Obi-Wan's mind as well. What exactly *were* they going to do?
Everything depended on them, Jorr and the others were counting on them, giving their lives so that this would succeed... but how could he fight through this? There was no way to get the bracelet off; cutting it would only serve to kill him. Steeling himself, Obi-Wan determined to push through. If it got to where he couldn't take it... the boy clenched his jaw. If he couldn't get the bracelet off his wrist, then he'd just have to take off the hand that wore it. He didn't have a choice.
They pushed on for another dozen meters or so more before Obi-Wan was once more forced to stop, the agony overwhelming him. Calia was there, grabbing his arm, saying something to him, but he could barely hear her. This was no good.
The apprentice realized that he would have to do it. A thousand things whirled through Obi-Wan's mind as he pulled the vibro-shiv that Jorr had given him off his belt. What would losing his hand mean for his training? For his hopes of becoming a knight? It wouldn't stop him, but how much more difficult would life be? Could it be reattached or replaced? Bionic limbs were becoming big, but they were not yet fine enough to truly simulate the fine motions of the hand, although their manufacturers had high hopes for the future...
Obi-Wan clamped down tightly on the whirling doubts and emotions. Two people had already lost their lives because the pain he was in had not allowed him to act quick enough to save them, he was not going to let that happen again, whatever the cost.
Taking a deep breath, and trying to prepare his body for the shock, he activated the vibro-blade.
"You can't cut it!" Calia said quickly, in alarm. "It'll kill you!"
"I know," Obi-Wan said softly. "I don't intend to cut *it*. Calia, listen to me. This is important and I need you to be strong." Tearing a strip of cloth from his undershirt he wrapped it around his wrist, about three inches above his slave bracelet. Twisting it as tight as he could with his free hand, he motioned for Calia to take it from him, which she did although somewhat mystified.
"Calia, I need you to keep this twisted as tight as you can, no matter what, do you understand? If you don't I could go into shock or bleed to death very fast."
Calia's eyes widened as she realized what he intended to do. "No!" she shook her head, letting go of the cloth as if it were a snake going to bite her. "You can't do that Obi-Wan!"
Suddenly the door to a building on the far side of the hill swished open and the two fell silent. A group of men came out the door, one of whom seemed to be giving commands to the others who nodded and hurried off in different directions as he instructed. It was a fairly long ways off but even at this distance the man giving the orders was unmistakably King Calr.
Obi-Wan felt Calia next to him try to draw further back into the shadows of their hiding place. The biting in his wrist was becoming deadly at being so near his former owner.
Chewing his lip to stem a cry of pain, Obi-Wan turned desperately to the princess.
"Calia please!" he begged. "I don't have a choice. We're running out of time! Help me!" Somewhere beyond his pain, Obi-Wan could feel the flow of events around them spinning to some sort of climax, creating a whirling vortex which threatened to swallow them up if they did not act quickly.
"No," Calia's eyes were suddenly strong and decided as she gazed at King Calr's form as he stood, alone now, in front of the doorway, talking into his comlink. The distance between them rendered his words inaudible.
"There is another way. All we need is for someone to deactivate the controller."
"Calia..." Obi-Wan knew how afraid the princess was of facing her father.
"I know where the controller is, and I know how to turn it off," she said, as if partially talking herself into it. "And I'm probably the only person here who even has a chance of getting close enough to do it," Calia finished.
Obi-Wan had to agree that she was right. "Are you sure you can do it Calia?" he asked softly. If she froze up or became too scared to finish what she started, they were all dead.
Calia locked eyes with him and Obi-Wan read there a strength that surprised him. "I've got to try. Stay here, I'll deactivate the control, then you had better come as quickly as you can," she said, her voice wavering only slightly.
Obi-Wan nodded. Calia was turning out to have so much more in her than he would ever have thought possible a few days ago. Truly, it was surprising how much more there could be to people than even they themselves had ever realized.
Summoning all the nerve she could muster, Calia slid out of their hiding place, lifted her chin and walked straight out to meet her father.
King Calr, engrossed in getting reports from his units fighting the rebel attack, did not even notice that anyone was near until Calia was only four meters away.
Sensing someone near he looked up. When he saw who it was, his eyes narrowed and he shut the call off with a flick of his wrist. For a moment he just stared at Calia, his chiseled features surprised but hard.
Calia froze, her heart thudding in her ears. She was more afraid of this man than anyone else. Alternately permissive and oppressive, Calr's swinging moods had caught Calia and her siblings in their wake more than once. It was not talked about in polite circles, it was ignored and glossed over by everyone who even suspected... after all, enough makeup hid a variety of things, especially bruises, and Calia's slaves always made sure she looked presentable.
"You betrayed me daughter," Calr's soft, but cold voice brought Calia back to the present.
Using her well-developed skill of being able to cry on demand, Calia's eyes filled with tears that were only partially fake. "Oh father! Those terrible slaves! They treated me horribly! I've never been so frightened and humiliated in my life!" she said, slowly closing the distance between them.
From her dirty, ragged and bloody countenance, Calr didn't have much trouble believing that. Yet it changed nothing.
"I'm so sorry, I just want to come home..." Calia sniffled pitifully. "Please father." Wrapping her arms around his waist, she hugged him tightly, burying her face in his shirt. As she did so, her fingers located the small transmitter clip on the back of his belt and switched it off.
A wave of guilt washed over Calia as she felt her father's hand rest on her back. She was betraying him again. She did not love him, but he was her father and a part of her heart desperately *wanted* to love him. Yet what he was doing was so wrong... her young heart felt confused and torn.
Calr's hand tightened on his daughter's back as he pulled a small blaster from under his robe.
Calia felt the cold, round shape of the weapon's muzzle against her temple and pulled back, real pain in her eyes this time, but surprisingly little fear. The young princess could see the deadly intent in the King's hard eyes and it hurt to know that he cared for her so little. "Father?"
"I'm sorry Calia. You know that no one goes against me and lives," Calr said coldly, not sounding very sorry at all.
"Does that mean you're going to kill me like you killed Corbin?" Calia's eyes turn icy.
"You've left me no choice." Calr's finger tightened on the trigger and Calia realized she had no time now to escape.
A blaster shot echoed loudly and there was a bright flash of light. Calia was surprised that she felt no pain... then she realized that it had not been her father who fired as the King jumped back, dropping his smoldering weapon, which the shot had just rendered useless.
Obi-Wan jumped to put himself between the King and the Princess, his blaster held high in warning. The Jedi knew that the weapon was useless, it's last shot spent; the vibrating in his hands had ceased, leaving him with a dead blaster. But he was banking on the fact that Calr did not know that.
Calia, feeling suddenly nauseous, shakily retreated several yards, trying to deal with the emotionally overwhelming fact that her own father had just tried to kill her.
"Call off your troops Calr," Obi-Wan said firmly, hands tight on the empty blaster. "Tell them all to stand down right now."
"Or what?" Calr sneered. "You'll kill me? I thought that Jedi didn't waste life that way."
"Don't push me to find out," Obi-Wan said, not exactly threateningly, but with enough intensity that Calr almost took a step back.
Recovering himself, Calr just laughed. "I don't think so boy. You see, you haven't met my new bodyguard yet."
As if on cue, a tall and eerily familiar shape stepped from the open doorway behind Calr. Obi-Wan's heart lurched painfully as he found himself abruptly confronted by the specter of an empty-eyed Qui-Gon Jinn. The small burns on the elder Jedi's temples immediately told Obi-Wan what had happened.
Horror wound itself around the apprentice's soul as he backed up several paces. If Qui-Gon had lost himself, then all hope was gone. Even if he had had a functional weapon, Obi-Wan could not fight his own Master.
Qui-Gon drew his lightsaber...
Calr laughed maliciously as Qui-Gon ignited his saber and Obi-Wan backed up, obviously shaken.
Then, suddenly, without explanation, the empty look vanished from the Jedi's deep blue eyes. Dropping it like a discarded mask that was no longer needed; Qui-Gon shook off the mindless, zombie glaze he had put on in order to stop Calr from pushing him to the point where he could not have survived. In one quick move, Qui-Gon brought his saber level with the King's neck.
Calr's mouth fell open in shock. "But - you - it's not possible!" he sputtered.
"I believe my Padawan told you to do something," Qui-Gon said sternly.
Obi-Wan grinned, relief flooding him.
Badly shaken and realizing that he had no alternative, Calr complied and around them, the Jedi heard the sounds of blaster fire fall silent, one by one.
A few minutes later, Jorr, Erbus and many of the others arrived. The Jedi saw that Calr was taken into custody, but not harmed. The slaves would have liked to kill him on the spot, but Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan would have none of it. There were laws for dealing with his kind and it was a way to show that justice was once again returning to Nubus after so many years of exile.
Calia hugged Obi-Wan tightly, so many emotions rushing through her at once that she did not know exactly what she was feeling. It was a bittersweet victory for her, yet they had won.
Obi-Wan, sensing her feelings gave her a squeeze.
Qui-Gon turned and regarded them with a smile. He would not have recognized the Princess if he had not known who she was, so changed was Calia. "I think we have some important calls to make," he said at last.
Calia nodded and together they trooped off to the communications center to make the calls that would signal a new beginning for Nubus.
Republic forces would be in orbit around Nubus in a matter of hours. With the assurance that they were on the way, King Dakar stepped in to halt the mobilization of Calr and Ithma's brainwashed army.
News of all that had happened spread like wildfire across the planet. With Calr deposed and his regime crumbling, the people of the East Kingdom rallied around Calia after hearing the part she had played in recent events, proclaiming her to be their Queen, both by right of birth and by the will of the people. Calia proved that she had not totally ignored all the classes and instruction she had been given and with the help of the Jedi and a few trusted advisors, managed to pull the fracturing Kingdom back together and bring at least a manageable order.
The people of Nubus cried out in outrage at the things that were being done without their knowledge, and the truth that had been so long hidden from them.
In the Middle Kingdom, Queen Ithma found herself caught between two kingdoms that were suddenly against her and quickly abandoned all thought of trying to continue with the doomed invasion plan.
Obi-Wan stood by Qui-Gon's side as they watched Calia confer with her newly appointed counselors, which included an interesting mix of nobles, Midori and ex-slaves. Jorr and Effi were among them. Obi-Wan thought then, as he watched them that this was the future of Nubus, a better one then before, one in which all its inhabitants could live together. It would take years of hard work to break down the barriers built up in people's hearts, but if Calia had learned to see the truth, then so could the rest of the people.
Queen Ithma had been replaced by her people and the Middle Kingdom's new ruler, along with Calia and Dakar, agreed that joining the Republic was in Nubus' best interests.
At this very moment, Calia and her council were finishing up the draft of a decree that would completely abolish slavery in her realm.
Soon to be under Republic jurisdiction, the other two Kingdoms would shortly be doing the same, but Calia wanted to do it *now*, to show that she was not caving to some demand of the Republic's, but enacting a law that she knew was right.
"Well Padawan, I suppose it's time for us to go home," Qui-Gon remarked softly. "Everything seems to be settled here."
Indeed, all was going well now it seemed. Republic technicians were racing to construct a weather dome, much like the one around Coruscant, to save the freezing planet and the Jedi Agricorps had been called in to help start Nubus' restoration.
Help was being sought for the reprogramming victims. Thanks to what Qui-Gon knew about the process from having been put through it and surviving, a way was being found to remove the imprinting and many had already been restored and returned to their homes.
The Jedi's mission had been a success.
Obi-Wan was glad. He was so glad that he almost did not feel the incessant ache in his ribs or the gnawing needles in his back...
"Yes, Master," he nodded.
Qui-Gon looked down at the boy by his side and thought of how close he had come to losing him on this mission. He rested his hand on Obi-Wan's shoulder and the boy looked up.
The Padawan could see in his Master's eyes, all the guilt that the older man carried over what had happened in the past few days. With a smile, Obi-Wan sought to push it all wordlessly away. //"You were always there for me, I was never alone, and look what has come of it all..."//
Qui-Gon meant to apologize, to tell Obi-Wan how sorry he was for all the horrible pain the apprentice had been through, but when he looked into the boy's bright, satisfied eyes the words died on his lips.
Obi-Wan expected no apologies. He did not see any need for them. They had both done their duties and the outcome was so much better than they could ever have hoped for; that was what mattered.
So instead, Qui-Gon hugged the boy tightly, relishing the fact that the Padawan was still there to hug.
"Oh, ow, ow, careful please!" Obi-Wan half laughed, half winced.
Qui-Gon released him with a smile. "Come Obi-Wan, our transport has landed. Let us say our good-byes to Calia and the others and be on our way. You have a date with the healers waiting for us on the ship."
Obi-Wan rolled his eyes with a little sigh, showing just what he thought about spending more time with the healers, someplace that he found himself far too frequently.
"Master..." he half whined, mostly joking.
"Unless you'd rather go on looking like you got on the bad side of a Wampa..." Qui-Gon knew Obi-Wan was only teasing.
"All right, all right," Obi-Wan grinned. "But no more Bacta tanks! I swear I can taste it on my breath for weeks afterward!"
Qui-Gon actually laughed. "I'll see what I can do Padawan, I'll see what I can do."