A new dawn had begun. The twin moons, hanging in perfect symmetry at the opposite ends of the horizon, cast a blue fog over the valley. The young sun, peeking tentatively from the North, edged every profile in dark red relief. The dual light was symbolic. Each day in Theed started bright and colourful, bursting with choices and possibilities.
In the large kitchen of the Naberrie house, Sola Naberrie was finishing her Halo Thee. As was her usual practice whenever she stayed in her parents? house, she had woken earlier than the rest of household in order to prepare the first meal. In the old days, when the Naberrie home had comprised a large crowd of extended family, the children would be awakened early, gathered outdoors and made to sing a communal Halo Thee. Then they would disperse to carry out chores on the farm. Those times were no more, of course. The famine and the consequent exodus to the city had changed their lives irrevocably. Ruwee Naberrie had returned to the university and the farm had remained a secondary means of sustenance even after they returned to the village. Padm? Naberrie had fallen in love with political life and had gone on to become Amidala - Princess of Theed and later, Queen of Naboo and now, Senator of the Naboo Sector. The pension granted to the Naberrie family on behalf of their daughter had been enough to ensure that nobody in that family ever worked again. Their cousins had been trained and had settled into their own homes. Most were in the cities now or off-world; few indeed had returned to the mountain village for permanent residence. Naberries were a driven lot.
The flour had been kept under the skylight overnight in order to be burnt papery by the blue-light of the double moons. Sola took it down before the sunlight made it revert permanently to its previous elasticity. The Naberrie still kept their farm; most of the work done now was by new settlers in the village to whom portions of the land had been rented in exchange for a fair ration of the produce.
At times like this, Sola missed the old days. The discipline would have been very good for her children; Ryoo and Pooja were asleep and without doubt would be for the next two hours. Sola had flirted with the idea in the past of making them rouse earlier but she could not bring herself to justify it. Sure, the extra help making first meal would have been welcome but she could cope. The previous night, Padm? had offered to rouse early and help her and Sola had turned her down firmly. First meal was traditional baked dinjuslaw. Its main ingredient was typical only to their particular village and had had to be purchased specially. It was to be a surprise for Padm? who would not have eaten it in almost three years. Sola smiled. It had been her little sister?s favourite as a child. She was sure Padm? would be pleased.
She cut up the other ingredients and her smile faded. Recently, thoughts of her younger sister tended to give her pause. Her mother had truly believed that Padm? was retiring from public service when she had refused to be re-elected Queen unconstitutionally by the public. Sola had known better. Idealism and personal ambition - to wield power and effect justice - had been driving factors in Padm??s life for too long to be laid aside easily. The spirit of politics was in her blood. It had been evident ever since they were children - the glow in Padm??s eyes, the passion in her face whenever she returned from her too-frequent visits to their grandmother, Winama at Theed.
No, Sola had not been surprised when Padm? had returned to active service. What bothered her was the way Padm? continued to let her career drive her life - become her life. This was a disappointment that Sola and her mother felt very deeply. Padm??s career consumed her whole existence. Objectively, it was a comfort to know that their leadership was in such dedicated hands, but subjectively, Sola was very worried about her sister. She knew Padm? better than anyone else, knew that she dreamed about a family and a home of her own, saw the look in her eyes when she played with her nieces. It pained Sola that her sister's sense of duty might prevent herself from becoming the wonderful mother she could be to her own children.
Padm??s present predicament certainly served to add to their mother?s misgivings. Long after Padm? had retired for the night, Jobal Naberrie had kept her husband and her elder daughter up with continuous appeals for reassurance of her younger daughter?s well-being. Sola wondered what her mother would think if she told Jobal Naberrie about the unaccountable number of times during their rare meetings in Theed that Amidala had confided in her sister of threats and attempts on her life. Sola was certainly not unduly worried about Padm??s safety. The only peculiarity about the current incident was the galactic climate in which it was occurring and of course, the fact that the present Chancellor was a native of Naboo who had always held a great deal of affection, bordering on over-protectiveness, for Amidala. The place Padm? would be going to hide was perfectly secure, known only to the closest of kin. In any case, Padm? Naberrie was more than capable of looking after herself. And there was always the Jedi to protect her.
Sola?s pensiveness lifted.
She had finished chopping the spices. Carefully, she arranged them in the plastitherm plate in the traditional pattern. She used a ladle to spoon out a generous amount of flour and sprinkled it evenly over the arrangement.
Of course, Padm? herself probably had not realized how atypically she had behaved yesterday. The jaded galactic Senator in the traditional maiden dress. Certainly, Padm? never looked down on her indigenous culture, but she tended to be painstakingly conservative at all times. She dressed as a native but in older, matronly costumes, to the demands of her position and to the eternal lament of her mother and sister.
There had been nothing of the Senator in Padm? yesterday. She might have been Sola herself when Darren had first followed her down to the old farm house. Just another young girl who had brought a boy home to meet her parents. Not that Padm? had admitted that, or ever would. And that was even more satisfying to Sola - as satisfying as the impulsive way her sister?s hands had kept touching Anakin?s at the table, cutting his food, placing his hands properly on the strange utensils. Later, Padm? had insisted that she had been merely motherly. She had known him when he was a little boy, after all.
Sola burst out with loud laughter and scattered the flour. There was nothing the least bit childish about the hungry, almost desperate glances the Jedi had sent toward Padm??s bare back whenever he thought he was not being watched.
She had just finished cleaning up the mess when Anakin entered the kitchen.
Sola glanced up and wondered why she was not even startled. He seemed to have been summoned by her thoughts.
?Good morning to you,? she replied with a smile. ?Early riser, aren?t you??
Anakin shrugged. ?I?ve been up for a while. You woke up at past four.?
?Oh, did I?? Sola asked, raising an eyebrow.
?Indeed. You usually do so at the farmhouse when you were younger. All the children had to wake up at this time and do farm work.? He started wandering around the kitchen. ?May I get something to drink??
?There?s milk in the cooler,? Sola replied. She watched him as he bent his tall frame to peer into the cooler and tried to recall what she had learned about the Jedi Code and Culture at the university. The Jedi apparently had a connection to the energy source they called the Force and it gave them the ability to be physically and mentally almost super-human. They valued self-restraint, self-discipline, and discretion as the better part of valor.
Definitely, showing off his ability to read minds should not have been typical Jedi behaviour. She doubted very much if he had got that information elsewhere. But then, Sola would appreciate him less where Padm? was concerned if he was anything like a typical Jedi.
?Can I help?? He had poured himself a glass of milk and now came to stand beside her.
Sola raised both eyebrows. ?You mean you can?t tell if you can??
His blue eyes widened. ?Perhaps I don?t want to tell if I can??
She laughed. ?Get on with you. There?s a barrow of govers out back. I need about a dozen.?
The barrow was just outside. He stood in the doorway and filled the basket he had taken with him. His whole profile was silhouetted in the yellow glow of the now arisen sun. Sola studied him unreservedly.
He was as lean as a snake but there were muscles rippling under the thin gauze of the shirt he was wearing. His face would have been almost too pretty for a boy?s if not for the scar on his chin and the hard edge that seemed set into his expression. His blue eyes had been clouded and unreadable for most of yesterday. But she had now discovered they could be mischievous and flirtatious when he liked. And, of course, even yesterday, they had flashed with something almost carnal whenever they rested on her sister.
Without doubt, a Jedi was not suitable husband material. By their very natures, they were dedicated to dangerous causes and abstemious lifestyles. This one - an apprentice apparently - must be more or less renegade to want Padm?. But that was just what her sister needed - a wild and passionate fling that would break her heart and force her to realize what was badly missing in her life. Anakin would return to the Order, a better Jedi for having sampled the forbidden fruit and satisfied himself that he was destined for the Order. Padm? would no longer be willing to be on her own and better still, would no longer be able to so effectively maintain the Ice Maiden stance that had so successfully deterred all but the most persistent admirers. Interesting possibilities would develop in her sister?s love life. Perhaps, something to do with the Senator from Alderaan about whom she was constantly talking about?
Anakin had straightened up and was walking to her with the fifty-kilogramme basketful of govers balanced effortlessly in his arms. Sola wondered idly if he had worn that shirt in order to perform early morning aerobics. Though his skin was not sweaty it was slick on top of its tan and his hair had turned dark bronze with dampness. He really was amazingly attractive.
Oh yes, he would do. He would do very nicely.
?Where do I put these?? He was eyeing her quizzically.
Sola was only minimally embarrassed that she had been caught staring. ?Over there,? she gestured at the grinder droid. ?It?s quite straightforward.?
She turned her attention back to her cooking as he fed the droid. The dinjuslaw had set. She sprayed the setting foam over it and carefully placed it in the mechno-oven. Then she started preparing another one. One was usually enough for five but she knew that Padm? would want a second serving.
?So tell me,?Anakin said conversationally, ?are you really going to need all these govers for first meal or are you conducting a private experiment on Jedi??
Sola laughed as she watched him remove what must have been the tenth large bucket of gover juice from under the droid.
?I probably should have conducted an experiment. This would be a good test of Jedi endurance of monotonous situations.?
He rolled his eyes as he effortlessly heaved another bucket out from the droid.
?But actually, the droid can only work with at least ten govers. Anything less and the mechanism can?t kick in.?
?Really?? There was genuine interest in his voice. ?If you want, I can take a look at it. It?s probably the igno-motor. Its setting can be tapered down so the droid can start with two govers and still work effectively.? It was more than interest, Sola realized. His eyes were positively shining with enthusiasm. Vaguely, she recalled something that Padm? had told her long ago after the Battle of Naboo, about the strange boy who had saved them all and who was training to be Jedi.
?He was an absolute genius with machines. You should have seen the protocol droid he built for his mother.?
Little Anakin Skywalker, hero of the Battle of Naboo. In the mind of Sola and most of Naboo, he was part of their history, a timeless legend. Certainly now, her mind rebelled against connecting the Anakin Skywalker, Jedi Padawan and Padm??s paramour (if she had anything to say about it) with the Anakin Skywalker, child hero and decade-old icon of her world?s yesteryear. Even as far back as then, when a cloud of euphoria had both lightened and dulled Naboo after her hard-earned victory, the boy's story had been a source of inspiration and hope to many and a cause of disquiet to Sola.
How had Darren put it then?
?That boy is like a powerful weapon just waiting to be used. And with all the angst he?s seen at his young age - slavery, battles, murder - he?s more likely to want to be used for violence than peace.?
Anakin was staring at her.
Sharply, Sola came to. How melodramatic and judgmental she had been as a teenager. Their whole world had been celebrating the boy who owed them nothing and had given them so much of himself while she and her boyfriend had sat in their cozy dorm room and analyzed him into a potential psychopath.
?Well, we have to wait until all the juice is ready,? she continued in a would-be flippant voice in response to the earlier conversation.
He shrugged, lifted the next bucket and took it away. She watched him apprehensively and wondered if he had - being a Jedi and all - somehow picked up on her uncharitable thoughts.
From somewhere upstairs came the sound of a door slamming. It was too early for either her parents or daughters to be rising. Padm? was awake.
?You?re almost through.? She peered at the blinking indicators on the side of the droid. ?Just three more buckets left.?
?They?re coming out more slowly now.?
?Yes. It?s like that when it?s almost done. Care to fix that as well?? she ventured.
He nodded. ?Sure.?
The beeper went off in the mechno-oven, just as the second serving of dinjuslaw set. Carefully, she removed the cooked dinjuslaw from the oven and Anakin helped her place it under the skylight where it would be kept warm. The second serving then went in.
She peered at the indicator again. ?One more bucket to go.?
Anakin fidgeted. He looked as if he couldn?t wait to get his hands on the mechanism and take it apart.
?Would you like to know what your cooking tastes like?? Sola offered.
?My cooking? You mean the juice?? He sounded surprised. ?I just fed the things into the droid.?
?You didn?t just put them in!? She laughed. ?Did you??
She gasped, shocked. ?Oh no. You mean you don?t know how to make gover juice? You just put them in the droid? How did you know which govers were ripe for juicing then??
Anakin's silence answered all her questions.
The bemused look on his face was rapidly turning her own dismay to amusement. ?Oh dear. I thought you Jedi knew everything,? she exclaimed teasingly.
?Not everything that counts after all,? Anakin retorted, but there was a grin on his face. ?Look, I?m really sorry. I hope I haven?t wasted the govers or anything like that.?
Sola smiled grimly. ?Oh, you will be sorry.? She went to inspect the buckets he had placed on the cooler pavement. The liquid was thick and orange. Actually, it looked okay. But if the droid had not pulled out all the seeds... She grabbed a ladle, dipped into the gover juice and shoved it in front of Anakin like a weapon. He backed away at once.
?No way.? They were circling round each other in mock attack/defence stances.
?No way in Sith.?
They were both trying not to laugh.
?Big strong Jedi like you - afraid of your own cooking??
?Jedi are vulnerable to our own cooking.? He retorted. ?A Jedi shall not eat food of his own hands. It?s one of the tenets of the Jedi Code.?
?Well I studied the Jedi Code in the university and it had nothing like that in it.? Sola had backed him right into a corner. He would have to push her away to escape drinking the gover juice.
?It?s a new tenet all right!? He all but yelped. ?We review the Code every one hundred years.?
?And when was this added?? The only space that separated them was the size of the diameter of the ladle that hovered almost against his mouth.
?Ten seconds a- ump!? He managed and then he could either gulp down the gover juice or choke.
He gulped it down.
Sola watched him with supreme satisfaction and wondered at the strange prickling on her neck.
He almost took her by surprise. One hand was gripping her arm and the other was ramming the ladle against her face but Sola had anticipated a counterattack. Her mouth was firmly shut and the juice only splashed her face. She jerked out of his grasp and then - he cheated. Both of his hands came up to grip her firmly by the shoulders, and the ladle floated toward her.
?Come on, it?s not that bad.?
Sola?s mouth remained firmly shut. She glared defiantly at Anakin?s dancing blue eyes. They flickered over her shoulders and back again.
?Well, if you insist.?
Suddenly, her right shoulder was released from its firm grip and his hand was tickling her ribs, behind her ears, the sides of her torso - everywhere that this particular kind of torture was most effective.
?Aaah!? Her shout of laughter was abruptly cut short when the ladle emptied its contents into her mouth.
?See? I told you it wasn?t that bad.?
It wasn?t, really. When Sola had stopped coughing and spluttering, she managed to appreciate its crude sweetness.
Anakin let go off her and stepped back to study her with an extremely pleased look on his face. She could feel the juice on her body, soaked through her apron and clothes, stuck on her skin and in her hair. ?Look at me,? she grumbled. ?I?m a mess.?
In one swift movement, he had turned her around so her back was against the wall. He took the edge of his sleeve and wiped it almost tenderly across her face. His eyes seemed to take in the whole of her face. ?You could never be a mess.? His voice was not low but it was soft and intimate.
Sola?s breath hitched.
What was he doing? Was he trying to... - and how fickle... She could barely articulate her furious thoughts in her own mind, when she glanced over his shoulder. Her eyes widened in shock and she quickly looked back at Anakin.
He continued to wipe her face with tender earnestness.
Her hands went to the sides of his shirt. Wickedly, she allowed them to linger there as she appreciated the sheer muscularity of his build. She might as well get something out of this - and he was incredibly attractive.
?I?m okay now,? she replied in a voice that succeeded in being both intimate and clear. ?Thanks for cleaning me up.?
?Any time,? he murmured loudly.
She slowly removed her hands from his shirt and for good measure, just before he pulled away, she brought her mouth to his cheek.
Her eyes were shut so she could not visually appreciate the effect she was trying to create but if the ominous prickling on her forehead was any indication, she was creating it very successfully.
Anakin pulled away completely and Sola sighed dramatically. The Jedi turned so they could both face the figure that stood in the doorway, staring at them. The squat droid that was Pooja?s current fascination hovered behind her. Its lights seemed glare at Sola and the Jedi.
?Why, good morning, Padm?. Were you planning on helping me with first meal after all?? Sola asked brightly.
?Good morning, Sola.? Each word was enunciated carefully. ?And I should think you?ve helped yourself enough already.?
Sola blinked. It was the effect she had been aiming at, of course, but she did not expect it to be so... uncouth.
?Good morning, Milady,? Anakin put in, courteously.
Padm? glanced at him coldly. ?Good morning, Anakin. When you have finished here, please remember to arrange for our transport. I intend to leave immediately after first meal.?
Possessive, aren't we? This was better than Sola had hoped.
?Change of plans, Milady?? He murmured meekly.
?Yes,? Padm? replied curtly and made as if to leave at once.
?I promised Sola I?d fix the gover juice droid, Milady,? Anakin put in quickly. Sola smirked inwardly. His delicately persistent emphasis on her name and her sister?s title was something she doubted Padm? would have failed to notice.
Padm? did not deign to turn. ?Let me know when you?re ready, then.? She walked off at once and her steps echoed ominously after her. The little droid paused long enough to give them one querulous squawk and it followed her.
Anakin and Sola looked at one another. There was a momentary awkwardness in which Sola privately weighed the effectiveness of their strategy. On the one hand, there was the factor of human nature: It was one thing to take for granted something that you believed you owned and need never use. It was another thing entirely to give it up to another person. And on the other hand, Sola knew Padm?. Public service had probably trained a lot of undesirable elements out of her sister but she was still a fighter, still in many ways the little girl with her fiercely competitive streak. In the end, Sola knew it would come down as a matter of principle for Padm? to win this contest.
?I think whatever is in the oven should be ready by now.?
Anakin?s matter-of-fact voice brought Sola sharply to the present. Sure enough, the indicator in the mechno-oven was glowing red.
Much later, as Sola poured rak milk from the pitcher into Anakin?s glass, Jobal Naberrie commented. ?Really, dinjuslaw always tastes better when it?s a little burnt.?
?We always drink gover juice with dinjuslaw!? complained Pooja between mouthfuls.
Anakin's head seemed to bend a little lower over his plate.
?Do keep your mouth shut when you are chewing, little one,? Sola replied sweetly. ?And next time you can wake up early enough to help me.?
Pooja?s brow furrowed and her jaws worked slowly as she thought of how to counter that.
?I still don?t understand,? said Ruwee Naberrie for the third time. ?Why didn?t Padm? come down to first meal??
?She is probably used to getting up a lot earlier on Coruscant,? replied Sola.
?But she always used to...?
?And besides, she mentioned something about adjusting some of the clothes that Winama gave her. She wants to wear them at the Varykino, I believe, for the Festival of Lights.?
?She could have done that yesterday,? grumbled her father.
?I thought she?d never take those clothes!? exclaimed his wife. ?I had almost given them away. I?ve been trying to persuade her to collect them for years now.?
Sola smiled serenely as she swallowed rak milk. Out of the corner of her eye, Anakin cut his dinjuslaw deftly with the utensils that must have been foreign to him and looked as harmless and well-mannered as could be. Sola knew better. Whatever Padm? was planning for him, Sola was confident that he would be able to hold his own.
?Well,? murmured Sola. ?Maybe she?s finally found an occasion for them.?
Jobal Naberrie stared at her daughter. Then her eyes widened and she glanced quickly at the Jedi and then back at Sola. Her daughter replied with an almost imperceptible nod.
Padm? Amidala?s longsuffering mother sighed happily.
?Well. Better late than never,? she murmured. Her eyes turned fondly on Anakin. ?Have some more dinjuslaw. It?s really a shame Padm? didn?t come down to first meal. She loves them. It?s native to this village, you know. Many wonderful things are.?
Anakin blushed and nodded gratefully as Padm??s mother heaped his plate.
Later, when the Senator had departed with the Jedi in tow, Sola and Jobal Naberrie retired into the kitchen and both women inspected their newly improved, more user-friendly grinder droid. The older Naberrie praised the Jedi?s skill and sincerely hoped he would be as skillful in his handling of her daughter as he was in his handling of her droid. The younger Naberrie marvelled at the strength of her sister?s jealousy when provoked. Padm? had hardly said two words to Sola before leaving. And, later, when Sola had gone to inspect exactly which of Winama?s dresses her sister had taken to the Retreat, she had been almost worried about Anakin Skywalker.
Almost, but not quite.
Original cover by Lyra Luminara. HTML formatting copyright 2003 TheForce.Net LLC.