Ocko Timor was a clumsy young Gungan, almost as clumsy as the famous General Jar Jar. His arms and legs hung long and skinny, and his wide bill sagged slightly. He wore his floppy ears tied back, but this only served to add to the illusion that Ocko was nothing but a bundle of mossy sticks tied together in a vaguely humanoid fashion.
Ocko was also a very lucky young Gungan, for he was one of the very few indigenes living within the walls of Theed Palace itself. He filled the position of tutor for the palace children - though not everyone appreciated that.
One student in particular, Volm Bibble, thoroughly despised the Gungan. Ocko was helpless, though. What could he say? After all, there was no reason for anyone to believe that a stray foot had a tendency to sneak out and trip poor Ocko - not when poor Ocko had a tendency to trip over his own feet quite often enough every day. And who could say that it was not Ocko himself who had knocked over his cup of caf, even though he?d been out of the classroom when the drink had been spilled, staining his papers, his desk, and the ancient stones of the palace floor.
It was not only the children who disliked the young tutor. Almost everyone else, from the governor to the head of security, appeared to tolerate Ocko. But Sio Bibble did his best to ignore the Gungan, and Captain Panaka never looked at him without, Ocko felt sure, severe disapproval. There seemed to be only one person in the palace who showed any real concern for Ocko?s happiness and well-being.
Her long, thick black hair bound up, her golden skin painted white, garbed and gilded in the robes and jewels of state, Queen Jamillia was the loveliest sight Ocko thought he had ever seen. Not even the soft, almost magical, glow of Otoh Gunga?s undersea bubbles could match the Queen?s enchanting beauty. So when the summons came from the royal audience chamber, Ocko was both delighted and terrified.
Gathering up his books and lessons, he padded through the long hallways, all ears and elbows and apprehension.
?What mesa done dis time...??
Sio Bibble was spluttering, something Ocko had discovered the governor was rather good at.
?Your Highness cannot expect that... that... person to behave appropriately at a... a state dinner, of all things!?
Ocko froze where he stood, pressed against the wall, books hugged to his chest. Governor Bibble?s voice had drifted around the corner, alerting Ocko to the older man?s presence. Bibble hadn?t named ?that person,? but Ocko figured from the tone of exasperation and annoyance that the governor was talking about him.
?I will respect Representative Binks? request,? the Queen?s lightly accented voice answered. ?He could not be present, so he chose young Ocko to attend in his place.?
?But Your Highness...!?
?I will not condone the attitude that still plagues the Naboo,? the Queen said in a decisive tone. ?Our alliance with the Gungans is essential. They must have our respect and gratitude, Governor. Do not argue this with me again.?
And that seemed to end the conversation, for the governor?s heavy footsteps faded into another corridor. Ocko didn?t move. He could hardly believe what he?d heard. A state dinner? And he was invited? The dinner made sense, of course, considering that the anniversary of the Battle of Naboo was approaching. But he had been invited! Of all the amazing luck!
The next thing Ocko knew, he was face to face with Queen Jamillia herself. Two silent handmaidens shadowed her. ?So you have arrived early, Ocko. And you heard our discussion, did you?? she said with what could have been a tiny, amused smile.
Ocko?s voice seemed to have deserted him. ?Mesa... yousa sayin?... howsa...?? Then it got even worse. His arms decided to commit a small rebellion, and the pile of books slid noisily to the floor.
She laughed gently. ?Here, let me help you with that.? Then, to Ocko?s utter dismay, the Queen knelt down and gathered up his battered books. His voice disappeared completely, and he could only take his books back mutely.
As Queen Jamillia went back about her business, Ocko finally found the wits to mumble a shocked, but delighted, ?Thankee!?
?I heard the Queen told off Uncle Sio about it,? Volm was saying to several other students as Ocko blustered into the classroom. The sudden silence told Ocko that Volm had been saying unpleasant things about him - again.
Ocko set his books onto his desk and tapped the front screen?s power on. ?Today,? he said, grinning widely, ?wesa talkin? about da Battle of Naboo!? If he?d thought to spend the entire class boasting about General Jar Jar and Captain Tarpals, though, he was wrong.
?Yeah,? one of the students crowed. ?Tell us about the Jedi!?
?And about the Sith warrior,? Volm added with no little glee.
Ocko glared sharply at Volm for a moment, before he found his tongue. ?Howsa yousa knowin? about da Sith?? he snapped.
?I heard he cut that Jedi Master clean in half,? the boy said, a dark gleam in his eye. At that, the whole class broke out into wild speculation, tossing rumors among themselves like hoverballs. Not until Ocko had slapped the desk loudly several times did the students quiet.
?Yes,? Ocko said, ?da Sith killed Master Qui-Gonn. But it was da Sith dat got chopped, and it was da Jedi?s paddywan dat killed him. Obee-Wan is one of da heroes of Naboo, same like Jar-?
?He?s still here, you know,? Volm interrupted. When Ocko looked at him questioningly, Volm continued. ?The Sith,? he said in a low voice. ?His spirit stalks the halls of the palace in the dead of night, still dressed in his dark robes. They say he carries a double-bladed lightsaber, his head is crowned with horns, and his face is tattooed so fiercely that everyone who sees it dies of sheer terror!?
The other students were listening in rapt horror. Ocko found that even he had to shake himself out of the aura of dread that had descended on the class. He managed to turn the discussion back to actual history for the rest of the day, though, occasionally showing clips of the fighting on the front screen. The remainder of the class went much smoother than normal; apparently, human youngsters considered violence to be good entertainment.
It had been a long, hectic day. When he hadn?t been rapping the knuckles of annoying youngsters, he?d been daydreaming of a generous, beautiful Queen.
Ocko stopped just inside the dim corridor before entering the Great Hall. His rooms lay on the other side, but he had something of a dilemma. Governor Bibble and Captain Panaka, Ocko?s two least favorite people, stood in the middle of the otherwise deserted Great Hall, conversing quietly.
He caught ?Gungan? and ?problem? and ?idiocy? - that last in Bibble?s outraged undertones - and turned to take the long way, through the palace hangar bay.
At this late hour, the hangar bay was also quite deserted, the sleek, yellow fighters locked down, without so much as an astromech droid out of place. Ocko stepped in, looked about, and began to hurry through.
He stopped when he heard the whispering. It was too faint to make out any words, but the sibilance skittered across the empty bay and crawled up Ocko?s spine. He continued along, though, telling himself he was most definitely too old to be imagining things. But he couldn?t help mentally replaying what young Volm had said.
His spirit stalks the halls of the palace in the dead of night....
Deliberately keeping to a steady pace, Ocko set himself to crossing the dauntingly wide, dark hangar bay. His footsteps echoed disconcertingly.
It wasn?t until he cast a nervous look behind himself that he saw it. It was, indeed, dressed in dark robes, cloaked and hooded. It stood not two meters away from Ocko, who gulped in convulsive fright. Then it took a single, menacing step forward.
Forgetting all decorum, Ocko fled.
He barreled into the shadows of an adjacent corridor, one ear cast behind him, listening in terror for the steps he knew would be - must be - following him.
But there were no dread footfalls. There was only the cruel sound of a young man?s snickering.
The subsequent days were hardly better. Ocko could not bring himself to tell anyone about the trick that had been played on him. Though he knew the figure in black robes had been young Volm playing a malicious joke, he had no way to prove it. Captain Panaka would only laugh at him - or worse, be offended, for the security captain had seen the real Sith with his own eyes - and Sio Bibble would doubtlessly take extreme insult at the idea that his own nephew could do such a thing.
Thus, Ocko completed the school week in misery, unable even to meet any of his students? eyes. Especially one student?s in particular. Volm looked innocent enough, but when Ocko?s back was turned, he could hear the students whispering and giggling over the success of their prank.
The state dinner scheduled for the end of the week was the only thing Ocko had been able to look forward to of late, the only thing that could take his mind off his humiliation. He knew very well, though, that he would probably live up to Bibble?s and Panaka?s fears, and then some.
On the evening of the dinner, Ocko shut himself in his rooms. Who, after all, would want a clumsy Gungan disrupting a state dinner? He hadn?t expected that the invitation would actually stand; so he was surprised when an escort knocked at his door. Ocko was to come to the Great Hall, enjoy the palace?s finest fare, and participate in the festivities.
Queen Jamillia smiled at Ocko when she saw him - so of course, he fell out of his chair as soon as he sat. Several of the youngest children giggled, but almost everyone else glared.
Everyone except the Queen. She simply smiled at Ocko again and picked up her napkin in an exaggerated fashion that told him to do the same. Using surreptitious looks and gestures, the Queen guided him through the complicated dance of courses and utensils and elaborate toasts. With her kind help, Ocko managed to get through the rest of the dinner without a single hitch.
He had long known the Queen to be compassionate and generous; now he knew personally why the Naboo held her in such high esteem, even love. Jamillia had taken something of an interest in him since their formal introduction, but tonight she saved him. More than just Ocko?s own dignity lay at stake: Otoh Gunga?s Grand High Council expected him to be a fine representative of the Gungan people; but until now, he had been nothing but a disgrace.
?Yousa bein? da shinin? star of yousa people,? Ocko said when the time came for him to toast the Queen. ?Now yousa bein? da star of da Gungans, too.? He meant every word.
Even Captain Panaka looked impressed.
Late that night, long after the formal dinner had ended, after even the immaculately attired palace guards had been relieved by their comrades, Ocko still wandered the halls in an ecstatic daze. Although he had wisely stayed away from the wines, he still felt drunk on his success at the dinner. Everything seemed to look somehow different tonight, from the ensconced statuettes in the Great Hall to the memorial plaque in the hangar bay.
Drifting through the bay, still sleepless from excitement, Ocko barely noticed that, once again, it was deserted. The fighters had again been locked down - all but one, which hovered on active repulsorlifts next to an open can of royal yellow paint. The brush perched on the edge of the paint can; fresh yellow gleamed on the wings of the craft.
Ocko stopped, looking around for whichever pilot had been touching up his fighter, but there was no one in sight. Unable to resist, his innate curiosity in high gear, Ocko walked over to the ship and bent over the paint can. On any other world, it would have been a droid doing the repainting; but the Naboo took a personal pride in their art, whether it was sculpture, painting, or craftsmanship.
He was tempted to try painting a few strokes himself, but it wouldn?t do to ruin the reputation he?d finally begun to build. With a tremendous effort, Ocko mastered his desire and took a handful of steps away.
His footsteps echoed weirdly, though, and Ocko paused again. The reverberations died quickly away, and he continued, firmly telling his imagination to settle down. But with every step he took, another followed behind him. His skin crawled.
Were echoes supposed to come closer?
Then he remembered the legend that Volm had frightened him with, and he spun around, suddenly angry. Sure enough, the dark-robed figure stood silently only a few meters away. Fury rose up, drowning out the stab of fear. Ocko forced a derisive laugh from between his gritted teeth.
?Yousa no scarin? me dis time, young-o man.? He thought maybe the boy would react to that, but no. The silhouette didn?t so much as twitch. ?Wesa gonna go see yousa uncle, see what hesa thinkin? ?bout dis!? And with that, Ocko walked right up to the black-clad figure and yanked down its hood.
It wasn?t Volm.
The next school day, Ocko didn?t show up to teach his regular class. No one saw him wandering the halls; he wasn?t anywhere to be found, not even in his own quarters.
It was Captain Panaka who discovered the only clues. Gungan footsteps in royal yellow ran from an overturned can of paint in the hangar bay, through the labyrinthine reactor chamber, into the very melting pit itself.
The Queen made a small gesture of mourning, sending a cluster of star flowers to Otoh Gunga along with her request for a new tutor. Volm and his classmates received an older, wiser Gungan, and the tale of the haunting of Theed Palace soon disappeared.
Ocko?s fate remained a quiet mystery. Panaka never spoke of what he?d found on the floor of the vast hangar bay. He didn?t know why he kept the discarded shred of Ocko?s vest. The charring on one edge simply couldn?t have been a lightsaber burn.
That was impossible.
Original cover art by FernWithy. HTML formatting copyright 2002 TheForce.Net LLC.