Qui-Gon Jinn scratched at the day-old stubble on his face. He drew a deep sigh, resigned to the necessity of shaving. The daily regimen was becoming a nuisance, and it irritated his skin. Maybe it was time to let it grow into a beard. He'd let the hair on his head get long, why not the hair on his face, too? His Padawan days were over; he?d been a Knight for a while now.
He stared at his datapad, not really seeing the words. He would never admit it, but he was tired. The mission had been successful so far; five special diplomatic pouches handed over on four different planets. Then, here on Malastare, the Regent's representative had managed to delay the transfer many hours, and this day was nearly gone. At least there was only one more stop, on Alderaan.
Patience was one of Qui-Gon's greatest attributes. However, even he felt the ship should have lifted off by now. Keying the comlink from his perch in the galley of the Valiant, he contacted the Bridge.
"Captain, are we about ready to leave?"
Busy thinking about the end of his assignment, Qui-Gon allowed several seconds to go by before he realized his question hadn't been answered.
"Naal? Did you hear me?"
The young Mon Calamari's voice carried more than a trace of irritation when she answered. "Qui-Gon, you need to meet me at the ramp."
Frowning, Qui-Gon rose from the table. He called the Force to himself, and found it quiet. That in itself was odd. Usually he was faced with an overabundance of choices; one of the masters at the Temple had compared it to "finding yourself at a banquet where there is food to satiate the appetite of all." This time, he?d received an empty plate.
"Three days from home," he growled, and immediately regretted the outburst. A Jedi must always have forbearance. Something Master Yoda was constantly reminding him.
Still, Master Yoda was not the one crisscrossing the galaxy at the moment.
Throwing the edge of his cloak over one shoulder, Qui-Gon hurried to the ship's quarterdeck.
As he got closer he heard loud voices. One he recognized as Naal Torbon's. The other was a man's voice, low and thundering.
"No, it?s you who doesn?t understand!" Qui-Gon heard his pilot say. "This ship is on an assignment with the highest possible priority, authorized by Supreme Chancellor Ecthelion himself!"
"And that self-same Chancellor has given his permission for us to use your vehicle, Captain!"
Her reply was lost in a loud crashing sound, and the deck trembled beneath Qui-Gon's feet.
Automatically, his hand went to his lightsaber, and as automatically, he took it away as he came around the final corner and found his way blocked with boxes and other carriers of every size and description. One of the port?s dockworkers was trying to keep several other crates from falling over. As Qui-Gon watched, two more boxes thumped to the deck, and the worker looked in Qui-Gon?s direction, embarrassed.
Qui-Gon surveyed the confusing scene. "What is going on here?"
Captain Torbon stood barricading the entrance to the ship with her hands on her hips and her feet spread wide apart. She rounded on the Jedi as he spoke, raising her paddled hands towards him. The olive-colored blotches on her salmon skin were darkening, a sure sign of her anger.
"Qui-Gon, please tell this person that he can take his boxes and his papers and get off my ship!" she said, her voice rising in volume again.
Standing below her was a middle-aged, barrel-shaped human in a gaudy red robe, his arms full of papers, and his face almost as red as his clothing. His voice was equally heated. "That is out of the question, Captain!"
Qui-Gon held up a hand. "This can all be sorted out. I take it you have explained to this gentleman that we are on a very tight schedule?"
"She has, Jedi," the man interjected. "Very stridently, in fact. However, my orders supersede yours. The Chancellor has authorized a detour." He handed his armful of papers to an astonished Torbon and began rummaging in the pocket of his robe. "I have the datatape here, if you would care to study it." With a triumphant gesture he held it out to Qui-Gon.
"I believe you, sir. And you are?"
The man drew himself up and did an exaggerated bow. "I am Bardo Feem, senior aide to Senator Lona Drach'va Drach from Garos IV. The Senator will be using your vessel. To go home."
The Mon Cal?s bulbous eyes grew even larger. "You are delaying a diplomatic mission to take some senator on a vacation?"
"CAPTAIN, YOU WILL GET OUT OF THE WAY SO I CAN GET ON THIS SHIP RIGHT NOW!"
Naal's mouth dropped open, and she took a step backward. "Sen--Senator Drach!"
Vaulting over the boxes in his path, Qui-Gon stepped to the opening.
Approaching them was a woman with her arms folded into the long sleeves of her shapeless coat. Her hair was covered with a black drape, attached at the temples with crystal pendants. She was very aristocratic looking, and very beautiful, even with the dark shadows under her eyes and her unnaturally pale skin. Qui-Gon had an immediate thought that she was younger than he was, but then a pained look flitted across her face and he saw the lines around the dark brown eyes and across the forehead -- and felt a sensation of someone older, and wiser, than he.
Then recognition kicked in. He knew this face. He?d seen it on the HoloNet for years.
She was staring in Naal's direction, and it took a few seconds for her to notice Qui-Gon's presence. When she did, her face registered a rainbow of emotions as her eyes swept him from top to bottom. Then she turned back to the captain.
"As Bardo told you, Chancellor Ecthelion has approved my use of this ship," she snapped, in a hard voice. "We need to leave immediately. That is, as soon as my assistant" --she smiled thinly at Bardo, who seemed to shrink visibly under her gaze-- "makes sure all my boxes get on board."
A loud gulping sound drew Qui-Gon's attention to the human who stood behind the Senator. He appeared to be about the same age as Bardo, and was dressed in an identical robe, but the similarities stopped there. This one was as tall and as thin as his counterpart was short and round. His arms were also filled with papers, which were wet from the tears he was spilling.
"Lona, don't leave me behind! You must let me go with you!"
The woman spoke over her shoulder, in a lackluster tone. "We have had this conversation. I need someone to go back and close up my office, and that's you. Stop crying, Rannold, you're making a fool of yourself and embarrassing me."
He tried to do that but gulped in air, making the crying even worse.
"Rannold!" She whipped around, thrusting her face up to his. "Stop crying this instant. I still have time to write about you! Go away!"
The papers dropped like teeloom petals in rain as the man covered his eyes with his hands, sobbing into them. She looked disgustedly at him and then turned back toward the ship. Bardo moved to assist her, but she pushed him aside with a sharp shoulder and started up the ramp.
Captain Torbon, realizing Senator Drach had no intention of stopping, stepped aside. The woman got a few meters into the ship and then bent over, her body convulsing in a series of short coughs.
Qui-Gon accessed the Force, searching for answers; once again, none were immediately forthcoming. Not a good time for silence, he observed grumpily to himself. Having thought that, he knew it was untrue. The Force was always there, if you knew where to look. In the last few moments, he had just taken a wrong turn.
Her situation was apparent, however. He sensed the extreme effort the Senator was making to stifle the spasms, causing her temperature to rise and her breathing to become more labored. "You're not well, Senator. Do you need a medical droid?"
She forced out a hollow laugh, and straightened up. "I hardly think a little cough rates an Emdee! Now, just point me to where I can set up my equipment on this rust bucket of bolts."
"The Valiant is not a rust buck--"
Qui-Gon raised a hand towards Naal, who stopped in mid-sentence. "Captain, I?m sure the delivery crew can be relied upon to store all this," he indicated the boxes, "as quickly as possible. Perhaps a word to them wouldn?t be out of place?" He sent along a subtle Force message, reinforcing the request.
Naal recognized that she'd lost. With an exaggerated sigh she turned her back on them and walked over to the workers.
Qui-Gon waited until she'd walked away, and then asked, "Senator, are there others coming?"
She shook her head, the pendants on either side of her face swinging back and forth like pendulums. "No. Bardo's the only one I'm taking with me. By the way, I would not be using this rust?this magnificent vessel if there were anything else available right away." Her head swiveled towards her aide and she stared at him, glowering. Bardo dropped his eyes. "Due to Bardo?s ineptness, I managed to miss the only other Republic ship I considered suitable. And Lona Drach?va Drach does not travel on public transportation. So, you have the pleasure of my company."
Qui-Gon ignored that. Pleasure was not a word that came immediately to mind. He walked past the pair and pointed down the passageway. "The wardroom is approximately ten meters down on your right, the passenger cabins a few meters further along. I am occupying the largest at the moment. I?ll be along shortly to move my belongings."
"Don't bother, I'll find an empty one. I don't need you to do anything special for me. In fact, I need nothing from either of you except for some peace and quiet." She started down the corridor, her aide following, towing a hoversled with several crates upon it. Qui-Gon noted that Bardo Feem stayed a safe distance behind her.
Naal stepped up beside him, staring at the Senator?s retreating back, her orange-colored eyes wide.
"I can?t believe it. The famous Senator, on my ship. She's every bit as beautiful -- and as disagreeable -- as I've heard. Do you think she's very sick? I don't want?" She left the rest of the sentence unspoken.
"I didn't sense anything like that, Naal."
She nodded her head, and started away from him. "I'll leave it to you to sort out, Qui-Gon. I'm going to the Bridge."
"You are probably going to be the lucky one, Naal. I'll stay here and signal when the ramp can be raised."
Naal bowed to the Jedi and left. Qui-Gon stood still, his head down for a few minutes, taking in everything that had transpired. She was obviously rushing to get home. Then why all the boxes?
The boxes. He turned his attention to the delivery crew, and saw that the last few crates were being pushed in the direction of the ship's storage bays. They would be able to get underway in just a few minutes.
Qui-Gon had found that on the average, most diplomatic missions were uneventful. This one was rapidly turning into something else. He was young enough to be glad that surprises were possible.
And old enough to hope that whatever happened, he would handle it in the way of a Jedi.
She had been quick to hide her shock at the Jedi's appearance. His name was Qui-Gon Jinn, and he was a Jedi Knight. That much she knew from the Chancellor's confirmation message. What she hadn't known was how attractive he would be, with an open, friendly face, and bright blue eyes. Lona had always liked men with blue eyes. She wondered where he had gotten the broken nose, and chuckled to herself. Probably from sticking it into some place it didn't belong. He was also tall and solidly built, and most appealing of all, younger than she was. Younger men were a special treat. It was no trouble to attract them, because she was still beautiful, and a powerful Senator to boot.
It was always about power, who had it, and who didn't. Lona had always had it, even on her first trip to Coruscant to take over her dearly departed husband's Senate seat. Weak little Turro Drach would never have become the Senator she had. His death during a campaign trip home was the best thing that had ever happened to Garos IV.
No, the second best thing. She was the first.
Lona Drach'va Drach had brought limitless wealth to her home planet by virtue of the favorable contracts and treaties to which she'd lent her influence. This was all well documented in the book she was preparing. She had had Bardo leak a little story that the senator was preparing her memoirs. Who would not want to read about a powerful woman and her exciting life? Especially when readers found, besides the chapters about her love affairs, information about scandals that would rock the Republic. She would name names.
Never mind that Qui-Gon Jinn was a Jedi. That would just present a special challenge. She smiled a little smile as she walked towards the wardroom of the ridiculous little ship. She would have preferred something grander for her last trip home.
No. She would not think of it like that. She would keep that out of her mind as long as she could. She would concentrate on doing the final editing. As a reward to herself, she would seduce a Jedi. Both would be her legacy.
This is going to be an interesting trip.
Lona laughed, and then felt the cough building again. She held her breath, and let her anger at her situation build until her pulse was pounding in her ears. She would not give in to this. Never, ever.
The spasms stopped.
The one she had called Rannold was still outside, picking up the last of the papers he had dropped and stuffing them into a satchel. He had stopped crying. Qui-Gon observed him for a few seconds, debating whether he should offer his services.
He was spared the decision when the other man struggled upward and saw him. "Please, Jedi, take good care of her. But please," he raised a trembling hand and passed it over his forehead, "do not tell her I said to. She'll be very angry."
Qui-Gon could not resist. "Angrier than usual, sir?"
Rannold waved that off. "When you're brilliant, the way you act is of no consequence." He shook his head sadly. "But what she intends on doing?" He straightened and stared at Qui-Gon. "I cannot speak to you without the Senator's permission. And it's time for me to leave, anyway." His lips quivered, and he put a hand to his mouth to still the tremors. "There is a saying on Garos IV, something that is expected to remind us of who and what we are. If Senator Drach ever deigns to speak to you about her plans, remind her of this:
If dimly we see our destiny
Whisper to me words of no meaning
I will understand
He broke down on the last words. Lifting the edge of his sleeve to his eyes, he turned and stumbled toward the exit to the docking bay, sobbing as if his heart was breaking.
What is going on here?
Qui-Gon watched as Rannold disappeared through the exit. He had seen many strange things throughout the years, strange things and sometimes, even stranger beings. However, whatever was going on with this Senator and the people around her was a mystery even a Jedi might have trouble solving.
One of the dockworkers walked up to him, slowly shaking his head.
"Never seen the likes of it, Jedi. When I got here with my crew the woman is ordering 'em around like they was slaves, and this un's blubbering so much he couldn't see straight. An odd lot, all of them."
Qui-Gon looked down at the man, a human, who was mopping his head with a large bandanna. "It would seem so. You're done, then?"
"Yep. You can lift off as soon as you want."
"Thank you, sir."
The man's face lit up in a gap-toothed grin. "So polite, you Jedi. Have a good flight!" He waved at Qui-Gon, did a half turn and saluted toward the bridge.
Qui-Gon sensed Naal Torbon saluting back, and he palmed open the comm unit. "Time to leave, Naal."
"About fifteen minutes too late I'd say, Qui-Gon. Ramp coming up."
With a grind of machinery the ramp began to rise, while Naal's voice boomed through the ship. "Passengers, we've been given immediate clearance. Next stop, Garos IV."
Qui-Gon hurried to the Bridge, dropping into the navigator's chair just as the Valiant cleared the edge of the bay.
Torbon did a neat 180-degree spin, and the ship rocketed away from the planet's airspace. The blue sky outside quickly turned to the blackness of space.
The young captain had one hand on the controls and one hand on the navi-computer. "We'll just show a certain someone that this 'bucket of bolts' can really fly," she said quietly. "Hyperspace jump in... five, four, three, two, one!"
Qui-Gon's head snapped back slightly as the star points outside immediately turned to streaks of light.
Torbon nodded her head, the jowls on either side of her chin bobbing up and down. "We'll be in Garos IV airspace in 34 hours. Do you think she" --she stuck a hand backward-- "wants to land at the capitol, or should I just fly over and drop her off the ramp?"
"Just kidding! She'll never have a better ride."
"Thank you, Captain." Qui-Gon stood up and squeezed the pilot's shoulder. "Don't worry about the Senator. I'll run interference for you. That's what Jedi are for, after all."
She looked up at him with a wide-open smile. "Thanks. I'll owe you one."
"And I'll collect it with the Valiant's fastest trip ever to Alderaan, after we leave Garos IV."
"You'll get it." Turning away, she busied herself with the controls.
Qui-Gon went back to the navigator's chair, thinking about Lona Drach. He did not have much occasion to visit the Senate, but he did watch a news program or two. She was the chairman of several powerful subcommittees, and a frequent guest on the talk shows -- her face was everywhere, an eye-catching face, just what the HoloNet demanded. He imagined that this one took advantage of every media opportunity. From what he had seen, it seemed her style.
He powered up the auxiliary computer. Perhaps it was time to do a little research.
It was easy to call up the legislative archives. The Senate Public Relations Department was the most organized group in the Republic, constantly advertising the activities of its members. He scanned the main page, and clicked on the section marked "News."
The second story was about Lona. It was dated from three days ago. 'Senior Senator from Garos IV says Farewell,' the headline read. Qui-Gon looked up at the back of Naal's head. "There's a story here about the Senator, if you want to read it."
The Mon Cal made some adjustments to the control panel, and then got up. "Fill me in with all the juicy details later. I'm going down to the hold to make sure all those boxes are secure."
Qui-Gon waited until the panel slid shut behind her and then made himself comfortable. With no one to bother, he began reading aloud.
"Her fellow Senators said goodbye to Lona Drach'va Drach today, in a brief ceremony. Chancellor Ecthelion himself did the honors, lauding the achievements of the Garos IV senior senator and presenting her with a crystalline disk containing her Senatorial records, foremost of which is the landmark legislation granting navigation rights within the Bilbringi system." Qui-Gon skimmed the rest of the paragraphs, which extolled her virtues and then detailed the accomplishments of the Senate itself. The PR Department had outdone itself with this particular story. He was surprised to realize that he had participated in a couple of the diplomatic missions the Senator had been credited with influencing.
Finally, he found what he was looking for. "The Senator's resignation caught everyone by surprise. An official spokesman, quoting from a statement, said that the Senator's reasons were her own, and no additional information would be provided. It is expected that Senator Drach will leave Coruscant at the end of the week."
Qui-Gon did a quick search, but nothing newer was forthcoming. She had obviously left sooner than intended. How she had gotten from Coruscant to Malastare, or why, also remained a mystery.
Qui-Gon Jinn counted his inquisitive mind as an asset. In diplomatic circles, a suspicious mind aided by the Force was almost as formidable a weapon as the lightsaber that hung from his belt. If the Senator had secrets she wished to keep, he would respect that decision; but perhaps there was something here for a Jedi.
And through the Force he felt something else, something he couldn?t quite identify. He sat still for a moment, waiting for whatever it was to reveal itself, but nothing happened. Shrugging, he keyed a comlink open. "Naal, I'm leaving the Bridge. Do you need to get back up here?"
The reply came back almost immediately. "Not a problem, Qui-Gon. I set the autopilot before I left. Go ahead and go, I'm almost done here."
He clicked the key twice. Then, uncoiling from the chair, Qui-Gon headed for the wardroom.
A disaster, was the easiest way to describe it. The wardroom of the Valiant was a disaster.
The floor was covered with datatapes and sheets of flimsies. The three tables in the room had been pushed together next to the large viewport and covered with computer terminals. Even the strapped down chairs had been removed, their place taken by boxes. Qui-Gon Jinn had never seen so much paper in his life, hard evidence of what commonly took place these days as electronic communication.
The Senator was almost hidden by the stacks of datatapes and terminals that surrounded her. They couldn't hide her voice, however.
"Imbecile, that's the second time you've brought me the same file! Find me the story from five years ago, not yesterday's, you idiot!" She swept a pile of disks onto the floor, and pointed at the mess, flicking her fingers at Bardo in irritation. "What you want is in there somewhere. I suggest you find it, and quickly!"
Bardo was on his knees beside her makeshift desk in a moment, pawing through the tapes.
The woman's head snapped forward, and her eyes focused on Qui-Gon. A slow smile formed on her face. "I was wondering when you'd find your way here. Qui-Gon Jinn, isn?t that your name?"
Nodding, he replied, "As you have your reports, I have mine, Senator. I need to contact the Temple and let them know of my detour."
"Don't bother. Bardo has already taken care of that little detail."
Qui-Gon raised an inquiring eyebrow.
"I would hardly take over a ship without permission, Jedi, despite what you might think. Everything was arranged in advance; that was Bardo's assignment. That is something he seems to be capable of," she observed, leaning over to watch her assistant busy himself with the dozens of disks on the floor. "Now all he has to do is go through that snippy little pilot of ours and confirm everything."
She pointed at the lone empty chair. "So go ahead, sit down, make yourself comfo--" She stopped suddenly and reached for her throat, her face turning red as she struggled to breathe.
Qui-Gon was by her side in an instant. Motioning away Bardo, who had started to scramble over, Qui-Gon leaned over the choking woman and grasped her hands, keeping her fingers from clawing at her neck. He filled himself with the Force.
"Relax, Senator, relax. You can breathe. Little breaths, little ones, lady." He was rewarded when she did as he asked, her expression no longer panic-stricken. Qui-Gon glanced over at Bardo, who had risen to his feet.
"The galley is just through that closed door, sir." Qui-Gon jerked his head. "A glass of water, please."
Bardo was up and through the doorway and back again in a few moments, a brimming cup of water in his hand. Lona drank it down in a few gulps, then wiped the tears from her face and thrust the empty cup back at him. "Now get out. Go see the Captain."
Bardo began to protest, but seeing the Senator turn away from him, he drew his robes around himself and nodded to Qui-Gon. "Thank you, Jinn for your help. With your permission, Senator, I'll make the call to Coruscant."
She nodded wearily. He had one final look for Qui-Gon, almost a warning, and then backed through the door.
The woman shook herself free from Qui-Gon's grasp. "You can leave me, too."
"I think not."
Her jaw dropped, speechless for once.
Qui-Gon used the time to study her more closely. She was small, and sharp-boned, thinner than she should be. There was a bruise on her lower lip, as if she'd been chewing hard on the spot. She?d removed the overcoat, and the drape; her hair, pinned up haphazardly, was a striking if dull-looking dark red. Something made her wince and look away, drawing the dark arched brows together. About forty years old, he estimated.
She was also a shining spot in the Force. She did not herself have its command, but the Force flared around her, spiking and then subsiding in a curious fashion, creating a magnetism that was hers alone. Despite the strangeness of it, he did not feel that the Dark Side was present in Lona. Instead, there was something else?something she was projecting, even as she sat there frowning at him.
She shifted in her seat; her gown, which was tied loosely on her hip, slipped open, revealing an expanse of thigh. Then her lips tilted up in a seductive smile, and he knew.
You could receive either a compliment or a tongue-lashing. It wouldn't matter, to some. Her notice, her attention, was all that counted. She had picked the wrong man to practice on, however. The Jedi did not indulge in relationships. Even so, her beauty, her intelligence, was obvious. How easily anyone would be attracted to her, he thought, and would want to know more?
He immediately discarded the impulse. Still, looking was not something he denied himself. The Living Force was strong in Qui-Gon Jinn, directing every thought and every action. The tenets of the Jedi Code were engrained in every fiber of his being. That did not mean he was not human, and a male human at that. He was glad of the connection to his humanity. It made him feel complete. He hoped it made him a better Jedi.
She looked up and caught his stare. "I should be the one staring, not you, Qui-Gon. You're quite good-looking."
Qui-Gon tore his eyes away, coloring. He would not allow this to be about him. Tucking in his chin, he regarded her gravely. "Thank you. If you don't mind, I need some room here to do some work of my own."
"I don't mind at all. But first?" She looked up through her eyelashes at him, her dark pupils flashing. "Another glass of water would be nice. Unless you have something stronger, some brandy perhaps?"
"I'll find something, Senator Drach."
"Call me Lona. Since we're going to be in such close proximity, ?Senator? is much too formal."
Qui-Gon turned for the galley. He checked first one cabinet, and then the next, and was rewarded with an almost-full bottle of Kashyyyk Brandy. He found a small glass and poured out a hefty portion.
As she took the glass he noted that she let her hand linger on his fingers longer than was necessary. As she drank the contents, still staring into his eyes, his attention focused on her hands and arms, which were completely encased in long black gloves. The ends disappeared into the sleeves of her gown.
"I?m glad you were here. I don?t let Bardo touch me without permission. He's rather loathsome, wouldn't you agree?"
"I will not engage in personalities with you, Sen... Lona. If you dislike him so much, why is he still serving you?"
She burst out laughing. "Because he does anything I tell him to do, without complaint! He's also incorruptible, something almost unheard of in my line of work. He sees everything, and knows nothing. When Bardo Feem tells me that 'so and so' is a good person, I run screaming in the opposite direction. That person will be of no use to me." She thrust the glass out. "He's a toad, but he's a helpful toad."
Qui-Gon filled the glass again. "Is there something I can help you with?"
She snorted. "Help me? Jedi, you really shouldn't give me such open invitations."
The blush was real. He spread out his hands. "You have sent your assistant away. If there is some sort of information I can retrieve for you, I'd be happy to do so. Or, if you would just like to talk about what you're doing, I?m a good listener."
She looked up at him. "You?re going to make sure that?s what I do, aren?t you?"
"Talk to you. When I?d rather be doing?other things." She turned away from him and began tapping on her keyboard, a slow smile forming on her face.
Qui-Gon set his lips together and laughed to himself. Time to turn this conversation around.
A solution presented itself.
"The file you will need is in the first stack to your right."
Dark eyes narrowed. "How could you possibly know that?"
"I don't," he said, smiling broadly. "But since Bardo isn't here?"
She thought for a moment and then said, "All right. Find me tapes 2, 3 and 4 of the set marked 'Senate Proceedings Ecthelion First Year'."
He stood up and began looking from side to side, using the Force to center in on a batch of disks behind her. Qui-Gon plucked them from the stack, and held them out silently.
Her eyes scanned the labels, and she grinned. "Wonderful! You are much more help than Bardo." She inserted the first disk and concentrated on the information he had found, not saying anything for a long time.
Qui-Gon remained standing, waiting.
Finally, she coughed a little chuckle and said, not looking at him, "You're making me nervous. What will it take to get you to sit down?"
Qui-Gon shrugged his shoulders. "Tell me about the navigation rights you negotiated for the Devaronians on Bilbringi."
She threw back her head and laughed. "So, what else do you know about me, eh? You amuse me, Qui-Gon, you really do. Perhaps this portion of the trip won't be so bad, after all. Well, I can begin by taking these other disks" --she inserted them one by one into the closest terminal-- "and there you have it, the record of how one Lona Drach'va Drach, fresh from her appointment as her dead husband's replacement in the Senate, took on the task of straightening out a bunch of navigation claims and counter-claims that nobody understood or wanted to deal with. I knew that something like this, because it involved commerce, would soon come to everyone?s attention ? and I planned on becoming the center of that attention.
"Five long years I toiled on the project, hearing after hearing, meetings all over the galaxy, putting millions of kilometers on my shuttle -- I went through three of them." She stared into Qui-Gon's eyes. "And finally, what it all came down to was making sure that nothing stood in the way of satisfying Pom Bonlrkr, their chief negotiator. I matched that foolish Devaronian lie for lie. Nothing was too outrageous. The credits we spent! The gifts! He couldn?t keep his hands off me. There was nothing I couldn?t get. The treaty was just my?bonus. That, and the HoloNet time, of course."
Her eyes went far away, far past the depth of the starlines that were flashing past the viewport. And then she laughed again, a dry hollow sound that carried both pain and joy.
"Once the treaty was formally concluded, my service in that regard was over. Especially after Pom's wife got that holochip..." The laugh started up again, louder this time, with more pleasure. "It was easy to slip her the tape and put an end to the affair without his knowledge. He would have been the vindictive sort, you understand. And I was the darling of the Senate by then, with all the publicity from bringing all the lawsuits and feuding to an end. I didn?t need him -- or his gifts -- anymore.
"When my work is published, his reaction will be priceless. Devaronians are such excitable sorts." She waved her hand languidly. "I've got plenty of stories just like this one. They're all going to be in the book that I?m writing. Oh, the marriages I'm going to ruin, the trouble I'm going to cause!" She typed something, and then spoke again. "Shocked yet?"
Qui-Gon shifted in his chair, staring at her with troubled eyes. "I admit I am puzzled by your attitude, Lona. Surely you can't mean to hurt all these people?"
Turning her head sidewise, Lona met his steady gaze. "I'm doing what I have to do."
Whatever memories were rolling through her brain remained unarticulated. They might have been important, or unformed. It was impossible to say. Her eyes focused on her gloves, and she tucked the ends back up into the sleeves.
The room was silent except for the whoosh of the ship's systems as Lona ground her eyes into the palms of her hands and then tilted her head back, staring at the ceiling. "It all starts with me, of course. I had my first face and body resculpt at 20. I've had so much surgery even I don't remember what's me and what's not, anymore. I knew, to get what I wanted, I had to be physically perfect, and beautiful. Because beautiful women get away with so much." She grabbed at a lock of hair and pulled it in front of her eyes. "This isn't even my own hair. I haven't replaced it in a week. It's beginning to show." She tossed it back and locked eyes with him again. "Once I was the way I wanted to be, I made sure that I cultivated the company of men. Important men. Men who could get me what I wanted -- power and recognition.
"One thing led to another, and another. And somebody got hurt. Somebody that shouldn't have." She tossed her head, sending some of the pins holding up her hair flying. The freed ringlets slipped down over her shoulders. "It's funny, that's the one story I haven't been able to conclusively prove. I have my suspect, of course; another senator, with middling seniority. There's something about him...dangerous. He'll bear watching. And he'll be watched, after everyone reads this." She tapped something out on the keyboard. "Yes, Adrik Palpatine will be quite the celebrity after my book comes out.
"It?s called revenge, Qui-Gon." She leaned back in her chair. "I?m looking forward to it."
Qui-Gon looked down at his hands. He had been on dozens of diplomatic missions, first with his master and then alone. He was used to what was commonly known as "dirty politics." He knew there were those who argued --with not much fear of contradiction -- that such sordid dealings were the norm rather than the exception. But to be blatantly told that this senator -- or as he kept trying to deny it, this beautiful, desirable woman -- was getting ready to ruin the reputations of several powerful men was unsettling. To say the least.
How much of what she was saying was the truth, and how much her imagination?
And shouldn?t she be more concerned about getting well?
He looked up and met her steady gaze, noting the red spots on her cheeks. And the smirky upturned smile on her lips. He leaned back and crossed his arms one over the other, and stared off into space. "So, destroying this senator's career, and the lives of all these others, including their families?this won?t mean anything to you?"
"It will be of no consequence to me."
"But you will have to live with--"
"That I will not." She cut him off sharply, with an edge in her voice, and stood. "I?m going to my cabin. Go find Bardo and tell him I need to see him."
With a swirl of skirts she was gone, even before Qui-Gon had a chance to rise out of his chair. It wouldn?t have mattered anyway. He was glued to the seat.
Suicide. She is contemplating suicide.
Qui-Gon thought about pounding on the door of Lona?s quarters, going so far as to stand in front of it, deciding he would not give her the opportunity to lie. Explanations could come later. He turned and walked back to the wardroom, his thoughts in turmoil.
The Council would definitely not approve any intervention. He had already run afoul of them on several occasions. He knew that Master Yoda and the rest were watching him closely. Force knew, to get the tag of "rebel" so early in his career would be disastrous.
There is no ignorance, only understanding.
But this book?if this was published?
Feem came back into the room. Looking around, he said, "Where is she? She's alright?"
"Just a small choking spell. She?s gone into her cabin. She wants to see you." Qui-Gon made a decision. Clearing his throat, he said, "Ah, Bardo Feem, is it true what she's telling me about this book she's writing?"
A smile flitted across the older man's lips. "Just what did she tell you?"
"That she's intent on ruining many people's lives."
Feem chuckled. "She's wasted no time, has she? And I suppose that you think you can do something to stop her."
Feem took two steps forward, coming as close as his ample belly would allow.
"Hear this: there's nothing you can do, Jedi," he said coldly. "Do not waste your useless platitudes on her. Or me. I want you to leave us alone."
"Is that your wish? Or hers?"
"Oh, of course it isn't hers! She'll want you as close as she can possibly get you! Believe me, that?s her plan." He stepped back and threw himself into her vacated chair. "You can't have any idea what it's like to care about someone who thinks you less than a slug creature. I was not important enough for her, you see. When I wasn?t being insulted, I was being ignored. Being ignored was the worst. Now, with her journey home, she has to pay attention to me. I?m the one who gives--" He glared at Qui-Gon with a guilty expression. "That is, I?m overseeing the book. I?m to make sure it gets published."
Qui-Gon's expression was distasteful. "You say you care so much for Lona -- you'll help her commit suicide?"
To Qui-Gon's surprise, Bardo began laughing. "Of course! Of course that's what you'd think!" He poked a finger at Qui-Gon. "She's playing you like a Fizzz, Jedi. She'll bat her big eyes, and let a tear slip out of one of them, and you'll be hooked. It's all an act. She cares about you about as much as she cares about me, and that's nothing. She will suck the soul out of you, and leave you wanting more."
Quietly Qui-Gon said, "Is that what happened to you?"
Bardo wrenched himself out of the chair and walked over to the outer door, turning back to face Qui-Gon. "Of course!" he snapped. "But don?t worry about me, Jedi. Worry about yourself."
Then he was gone, leaving a bewildered Qui-Gon to contemplate this new turn of events. Better, he would meditate on it, allowing the Force to fill him, and with its insight perhaps gain some understanding of what was happening.
And what role he would play in it.
She was lying on the bed when Bardo walked in, and didn?t look at him when she spoke. "About time you got back up here, oh so senior servant of mine. You took care of the message?"
"Everything is fine, Lona." He played with a thread on his robe, rubbing at the spot with his hand.
Lona cocked her head and sat up, looking at him appraisingly. "You seem nervous, Bardo. Did something happen?" The piercing gaze made him duck his head and look at the floor. "I can tell when you?ve done something naughty, Bardo. Out with it. Now." The last was said in the same tone she used in senatorial debates. "What have you been telling the Jedi?"
Bardo thrust out a hand and waved it feebly, trying to think his way out of telling her. Since no solution was forthcoming from that direction, he decided that flight was preferable, and started to turn for the door.
As if she had read his mind, Lona was up and off the bed in an instant. She dug her nails into his shoulder, and he stopped dead.
"I thought we had an understanding, Bardo," she said from beside him. Her voice was low in his ear. He had learned to listen when he heard that voice. "You won?t lie to me, and I will never tell you the truth."
"I, I had no intention of ly--lying to you, Lona!" he stammered, while she gripped his shoulder and slowly turned him around.
Even in the face of her anger, when her eyes were lit with a fire that encouraged those around her to flee into the night, Bardo Feem thought her the most exquisite creature he had ever seen. Even with her lips set in a thin line while she decided which insult she would fling from her mouth.
She could ring down all the curses she could think of on his head. It didn?t matter. He loved her desperately, and she knew it, and took advantage of it. That didn?t matter, either.
As long as she?s alive, she needs me.
She released him with a little shove and lay back on the bed, leaning back on her elbows until her chin was nearly on her chest. Bardo?s face grew red. She saw it, and smiled that ugly, twisted smile again. "Really, Bardo. Such thoughts, for a man of your age. You really shouldn?t embarrass yourself like that. Just tell me what you said. That?s a simple thing, isn?t it?"
He looked away, adjusting his robe and nodding his head vigorously. "Of course, Lona. If you must know, he asked me if you were contemplating suicide."
The laughter began deep in her chest, building up from little eruptions in her throat. After a while Bardo joined in, picking up on her mood, watching while she wiped tears from under her eyes, the sound dying down and then starting up again.
Finally, she?d had enough. All traces of anger were gone. "And I suppose that?s what you told him I was doing?"
"No!" He spat that out, and as quickly realized she was teasing him. "No, Lona. I just told him to leave us alone." He drew himself up, a wounded expression on his face. "But he told me that you had told him about the book. I thought that was supposed to be our little secret."
"All I did was tell him the truth, Bardo. Noooo, not all the truth," she added, noting his shocked expression. "I mentioned a couple of the highlights of the book, that?s all. I wanted to gauge his reaction. He?s a na?ve fool, easily swayed."
"Do not be too sure, Lona. He is a Jedi, after all."
"And a man, Bardo Feem. Always a man."
"Do not assume that your wiles--"
She drew her brows together, and the voice ratcheted up a notch. "I assume nothing! And therefore, am rarely disappointed! Not even with you, Bardo Feem! What I do with the Jedi is my affair. Your tasks are easy." She sat up and began removing one of her gloves. "In fact, I think I will take advantage of your expertise right now."
"But Lona, it?s only been a few hours--"
"Did I ask for your opinion, idiot? Just do it!"
He stood up and bowed a deep formal bow. "As you wish, Senator."
There was no arguing with her. He had learned that long ago. Feem turned and reached for the little bag, the one that was always at hand.
The too-early alarm woke Qui-Gon. He stayed on the sleep pad, staring up at the ceiling. Although he had spent much of the night in a deep meditative state, the hours had brought no answers. All the morning meant was that they were that much closer to Garos IV. Closer, to the time that she would be leaving. If she didn?t kill herself on board ship, first.
There was no real reason why he was convinced this was Lona?s plan. The Force had sent no warnings. He hadn?t sensed anything that would absolutely, positively bring about that determination. All he had was what she had said.
And if anyone had asked, he was sure he could state unequivocally that Senator Drach was a consummate politician. Persons who were able to make the truth be whatever they wanted it to be.
Jedis are the guardians of good in the galaxy...
He reached out into his memory to another time, back when life centered on the Temple and Jedi training. Back when everything was black and white.
He had joined several of his classmates on an expedition to one of the biggest trash sites on Coruscant -- a place they had been specifically told to avoid, so naturally, they headed for it at the first opportunity. The group had just finished examining the largest pile of junk they?d found, a treasure trove of spacecraft parts. Qui-Gon and another young Jedi by the name of Micah Giett were busy tugging on the engine cowling of a broken-down fighter when something nearby disturbed the Force.
A familiar voice rent the sudden silence.
"Work so hard at this, you do. But at studies, you do not."
He recalled that Micah had raised his head first, uttering soft "uh ohs" over and over. Then he had slowly turned around, coming quickly to the realization that he, Micah -- and Master Yoda -- were alone. The rest of their friends had vanished.
"So, Qui-Gon Jinn, something say you, hmm?"
He remembered rocking back and forth on his heels, projecting the most positive Force wave he could manage. "Uh?hello? Master Yoda, have you come to help us?"
Yoda had pondered that for a moment, his head cocked on one side, great green ears twitching. Slowly, the diminutive Jedi had reached out a hand and motioned toward the trapped cowling. It separated smoothly from the trap of junk around it and settled gently on the ground.
"Much effort, you make it! Next time, the Force, center it you should."
Then, a moment of?over-confidence. The recollection of it resonated still. "Next time, Master Yoda?"
"Say too much, perhaps you should not, young one."
They had quietly followed Yoda back to the Temple, where he quietly saw to it they had no free time for many weeks to come. No further punishment was forthcoming, for any of them.
Micah made sure that the story was repeated and repeated and repeated. It was Qui-Gon?s moment of glory for weeks.
Years later, the memory still brought a smile to Qui-Gon?s lips. He recalled it whenever he needed to remember that sometimes, a show of bravado was better than the act itself.
But this thing with Lona?he didn?t want this to be all show. He wanted to be able to do something. He pushed aside the thought that maybe, his motivation was more complicated than that.
An exercise session would help. If he cleared his head, started thinking more clearly, the Force would provide a solution.
First, he would check in with his pilot.
Lifting himself off the pad, which disappeared into the bulkhead as soon as his weight was removed, he threw an undershirt over his leggings, grabbed a towel from the ?fresher and headed for the door, pausing to call his lightsaber to his hand.
Passing the Senator?s cabin, Qui-Gon again resisted the temptation to bang on the door. He could sense she was still sleeping, and the Force was quiet. He would talk with her later.
Naal was busy running through a diagnostic test, and so he waited until she could give him her attention. He had always admired the Mon Calamari and how adept they were at starship operations. She was completely engrossed in what she was doing, her large, egg-shaped head moving back and forth in perfect unison with the information displaying across the banks of datapads and controls around her. Finally, all the boards flashed green, and she turned around.
She laid her large test pad aside and tilted one eye upward. "So, Qui-Gon, what have you learned? Something has happened."
He grinned. "For someone with no Force-sensitivity, why is it that you can always tell things?"
"Your face, Qui-Gon. You?re always an open book. You might want to work on that, seeing as how you?re a Jedi and all." They laughed together, the easy laughter of familiarity. Naal pushed off with her chair and slid across the deck, reaching for another datapad. "Seriously, this is no pleasure trip for the Senator, that?s for certain. I saw what she?s done to my wardroom." Several of the olive blotches got dark for a moment, then her mood lightened, and she rubbed her paddled hands together. "Did you find out what?s going on? What can I tell everybody when I get home?"
Qui-Gon shook his head. "I?m not sure?no, really," he added, at her suspicious expression. "I don?t want to say much more, Naal. Not until I?m sure."
"All right, if that?s the way you want it. You?re no fun."
"No, fun I am not. And neither is what?s going on with the Senator, either." He tossed back the towel he?d brought over his shoulder, catching it deftly behind his back with an upturned hand. "I?m going down to the secondary hold, since the wardroom?s out of commission. If you need anything call me."
Lona opened her eyes and sat up. The room swam for a few seconds and she grasped the edge of the pad, feeling the effects of being up half the night. The book was for all intents and purposes, finished.
Dragging the blanket with her, she stumbled out into the wardroom and sat down at the desk. Bardo had finished cleaning up the mess after she?d gone to bed, making piles of the flimsies and putting most of the files away. In front of her now were just one terminal and one precious disk. She had sent a heavily encrypted copy to her private office on Garos IV -- just in case -- but this was the original.
A tiny thing. Easy to conceal. Easy to misplace. This one was destined for the most secure spot she could find. It would not do for anything to happen to it.
She ached to open up a screen and check on the latest Senate news. She hadn?t watched a show since leaving Coruscant. It hurt too much, to see the faces. Today being highlights day, the Senate leaders would be making their weekly updates.
The report would open with the senatorial crest and the flashy music that heard once, could never be forgotten. Then Chancellor Ecthelion would step up, the portly little Sullustan, his deliberate manner offset by the perpetual look of surprise on his face created by the heavy brow ridges that surrounded the black saucer eyes. More incorruptible than most of the others she?d encountered in her career. There were only a couple of minor SoroSuub scandals that concerned him. She liked the man; he wasn?t in the book.
Next to him would be Forneth, the Ithorian Vice-Chancellor, his commanding, stereophonic voice urging querulous senators to "Order, Order." What neither Ecthelion nor the other senators knew was that behind that calm exterior was a huge ?stim habit, costing hundreds of credits a day. It would not have mattered ? Forneth managed to carry on his duties adequately enough ? if it wasn't that the money he was using to supply his addiction was being embezzled from his office funds. If he weren't stopped, he would be in debt forever to whomever could provide for him. Lona knew those names.
Ecthelion would be calling for the various reports next. She thought about Nem MaxStell, the chairman of the Education subcommittee that she had been assigned to during her second year in the Senate. It was no secret that Nem MaxStell hated the vast majority of her fellow senators, Lona included. Nem had started first with some furious muttering about "the nerve of some people, wearing clothes like a Swamp Maiden," loud enough that Lona couldn?t help but overhear. From there it had progressed to "my dear Senator Drach, you?ve only been here four years. I really don?t think your opinion counts for much." As Lona had risen through the ranks for committee assignments, Senator MaxStell had often been the lone dissenting vote when Lona had been nominated. Finally, it no longer mattered, of course; eventually, Lona had become so powerful that even Nem MaxStell?s ire was ineffectual.
That had been years ago, but Lona had not forgotten. Many of the chapters in her book involved threats to the Republic that she was happy to expose. This one was personal. The first chapter of the book was all about Nem MaxStell.
In minute detail Nem?s involvement in a commodities scheme on her native planet of Corellia unfolded, paragraph after paragraph. The evidence was incontrovertible, and overwhelming. Lona had included account numbers and accomplice names, all obtained at considerable cost. The expense was worth it. Nem MaxStell had always projected an aura of honesty and virtue. This information would ruin her.
Nem would never be able to bully anyone, ever again. It would be enough, to protect someone else from the jealousy and spite of the Corellian senator.
The business with Pom Bonlrkr took up several more chapters, and then there were the ones devoted to certain prominent community leaders, and corrupt government officials of all sorts. Some of what she wrote was common knowledge, spoken about in back rooms and empty corridors; she was just putting in print what was already known. That was insurance, providing confirmation of the veracity of everything else she was including.
Then, the final chapter. Adrik Palpatine. What she had were just accusations, but Lona knew the truth, in her heart. Her book would direct the Chancellor to where he could find the complete file. She?d let Ecthelion and his minions do the rest of the work. They'd have the time, after all.
She reached up and tousled her hair. She was going to do something about it today. She?d take a nice long water shower, too; maybe that would help the itching. Her skin itched. It itched a lot. She had left most of her best beauty treatments behind on Coruscant, and now regretted it. The dry, recirculated air inside this blasted ship was killing her skin.
Hah. Killing her skin, indeed. That was funny.
He was always grateful for the opportunity to practice. Sometimes the pressure of his missions wouldn?t allow for any free time, and he felt that his skills suffered for it. His strength with his lightsaber was the only conceit Qui-Gon allowed himself.
He took off his shirt -- he had ruined too many by pulling the lightsaber too close to his body -- and began by calling the Force to himself, breathing hard, eyes closed, his chest rising and falling. Opening his eyes, he thumbed on the saber. The storage room was barely illuminated, and the greenish glow filled the space. It was also quite cold; his breath formed a little cloud as he settled his weight equally on both feet and raised the saber to the classic opening position, grip held at shoulder level, point in the air.
Stepping forward on his left foot he swung high, bringing the weapon down in a strike to the left. Then three quick steps back, ending with a grip to the left and the saber point to the right. He followed that with a spin to the right, saber down his back, and then to his left, the blade flashing in front of him, finishing in the opening position. Then another series, working through movements he had refined since his Padawan days. He could do these exercises in his sleep. That his breathing grew faster and his skin soon shone with a sheen of sweat was due more to the intense concentration and power of the Force flowing through him than any lapse in conditioning.
Qui-Gon moved deliberately, varying the speed, here a fast sweep, the next movement slowly forward. There were slashes to the neck and wrist of his invisible opponent, kneeling thrusts to leg or kneecap. No vulnerable part of the body was missed. Qui-Gon kept it all in his memory as an integral part of his training. The need for its use might never occur, but a Jedi never took anything for granted.
It was a ballet of form, a mesmerizing series of blocks and attacks. He had overcome his childish tendency towards wild out of control moves. Speed had been replaced by skill. Reckless youth had been replaced by...
He preferred to think of it as maturity. His fighting style had evolved in the same fashion.
In the middle of a series of feints from side to side Qui-Gon felt her step past the doorway, pause, and then step back. He continued with the final set, an intricate sequence of somersaults and turns that culminated in a furious whirling across the floor, his lightsaber a greenish blur above his head. If perhaps the somersaults were a little flashier than usual, if he included a spin or two that would have had him laughed out of the Temple training rooms -- just before he received a tongue-lashing from whatever Master happened to be in the vicinity -- well, she was watching.
Knowing it was wrong, he did it anyway.
What was he getting himself into? He could not be attracted to her. He would not allow it.
He stood still when the exercise was over, stilling the Force within him. Then he pivoted, and picking up his towel, faced her.
Lona was wearing a long robe today, in a dark green color, with gloves that matched. He was surprised to see she had foregone her makeup. And there was something else, he thought, then realized what it was. Her hair was a different color, a lighter, softer red. It fell in waves around her face. She looked ten years younger.
"Oh, don?t you dare use that towel!"
His hand froze in the act of putting it to his face. "What?"
Her eyes roamed up and down over the sculpted muscles of his bare chest, currently glistening with sweat, up to his face and then down the length of his legs to his bare feet. The blatancy of the examination wasn?t lost on either of the two people in the room.
"Your movements," she said languidly, "like a dance. The muscles?the control?." Still in the doorway, she stretched out a finger, tracing an imaginary line down his torso. "I?ll bet you?re good at other things, too."
The temperature in the room suddenly rose.
She glided forward and repeated the movement on his skin this time. It sent an electrical charge through him. Lona wore a perfume that reminded Qui-Gon of all the flowers massed together in the Temple?s Court of the Thousand Fountains, a scent both pure and primeval, earthy and at the same time ethereal. He suddenly knew he wanted to follow it to its source, and trace every minute whisper of scent.
Qui-Gon started to say something, changed his mind, opened his mouth, and then changed his mind again. His resolve, everything he had been taught or told himself was crumbling, as she stared at him, her finger sliding from side to side across his chest.
She moved her hand up to his shoulder, following the outline of a scar he?d received in a long-ago practice session. Though the touch was soft, the look in her eyes was the opposite. The invitation was obvious.
He wanted to accept that invitation, ached to devour her lips, to run his fingers through her hair and feel the silky sweetness of it, to remove the robe and--
Step back. Now.
The voice was familiar. Perhaps it was his. He was instantly annoyed at the intrusion.
And the second after that appalled at his annoyance.
In any event he obeyed his inner voice, covering his face with the towel, hiding his discomfort.
She cocked a dark eyebrow, and regarded him with amusement. "Do I frighten you, Jedi?"
"No!" he cried, and then softened his tone. "No. I?m not used to having someone?observe a training session who is not a Jedi. It is a new experience."
"A pleasurable one, I hope."
He hoped she didn?t expect an answer.
He started to move around her, and was stopped by a green-clad hand in the center of his chest. She wound her arms around him, drawing his mouth down to hers.
In the moment it took to taste her lips, he felt the attraction and need arise deep inside his body and soul, and felt the Force surrounding him. He grasped the tops of her arms and pulled her closer, and was rewarded with a growl deep in her throat.
She drew away first. "Feel?a disturbance in the Force, yet?"
The truth of it stunned him, and he took a step back. The action helped him come to his senses. He moved away from her arms, which dropped to her sides. She continued to stand still while he hastily put on his undershirt, and laughed at his discomfiture.
"Hmmm?I may be almost double your age, Qui-Gon, but I really don?t think I?ve lost my touch that much. Most men that I get this close to don?t have that kind of look in their eyes, dear. Most of them are actually happy about it."
I?m sorry," Qui-Gon said hoarsely, eying her warily, as if he expected her to kiss him again. "I don?t mean to give that impression. I--"
"You don?t?" she purred. "Then maybe we ought to finish this conversation in my quarters."
"I can?t, you couldn?t possibly, you--" Qui-Gon barely recognized the tiny voice as his own.
"Then you don't love me?" She turned pouting lips toward him. "Everybody loves me."
"Love you? I don?t even know you," he blurted, knowing it was true, wishing that it wasn?t. But wishes were for others, not Jedi. He had let desire and longing escape from the closely watched prison where he kept his deepest emotions. He had failed, for a telling moment, to hold himself in check. Now she had the advantage. It was not a feeling he enjoyed.
He took a few steps toward the door and she set herself in front of it. "You deny you're attracted to me?"
Qui-Gon forced out an agitated breath. When he spoke, his voice was quiet. "You're looking for something from me you won't get."
"Only because you won't admit it."
He offered her half a smile. "No one wins in a contest of wills, Lona. You're beautiful and desirable. For other men, Lona. Not me."
"Why? Because you?re a Jedi?"
There is no doubt, only clarity.
He opened the space of a few centimeters between them. "Put simply, yes."
She studied him in silence for a while, her brow set in lines and furrows. The dismissal had not been missed. "Well, well. How noble of you. And how cowardly, to hide behind a ridiculous code of ethics that has no place in the real world."
He shrugged, but didn?t say anything.
"Is it the book, then? Are you disgusted with me because of the book? Don?t worry, I won?t add you to the book -- unless you have secrets."
"I have no secrets, Lona. This is nothing in my life that would lend itself to your?expos?."
She shrugged. "Everybody has secrets, Qui-Gon Jinn. That?s why I didn?t need to make things up. Everything in the book is true. If I had the time I could get them out of you."
The note of stubbornness in her voice was alarming. "Perhaps it?s a good thing we?re close to Garos IV," he said evenly, and was shocked at the change in her eyes, as a look of pain and sorrow convulsed her face.
She wrapped her arms around her shoulders and hugged herself. "Yes, that will make things easier -- for you, won?t it? It?s too cold in here. I need to leave," she said, irritation edging into her voice. "Anything else you want to say to me before I go? I?m sure there?s something."
What is the will of the Force in this? Qui-Gon reached for an answer to the only question that seemed to make any sense at the moment. His eyes explored hers, checking for something, a truth, a half-remembered lie. There was nothing except, perhaps, a cry for some kind of connection.
As if the scrutiny made her uncomfortable, she looked down, and he could take his time with his answer. "Lona, I cannot tell you what to do. I can advise, show you options, and serve as a sounding board. But what you?re doing -- this is not an honorable course of action."
"When did I ever say anything about honor? That's the furthest thing from my mind." She shook her head impatiently. "I?m being too blunt. That?s not what you wanted to hear. It?s what I wanted to say, but it?s not the right thing?I?m not doing this very well."
Lona raised her chin, eyes flashing. "However, if you want to help me -- go with me to Garos IV. Stay with me, Qui-Gon. I need someone there, someone that I love. I know you don?t believe me," she said curtly. "But I feel different, around you. I want to find out why that is." Her face filled with a mixture of surprise and disbelief, as she stared at him with a penetrating scrutiny.
"I can't," he said, almost plaintively.
Lona laughed, a short, bitten-off laugh. "As if I expected any other answer. So much for the Jedi show of compassion I?ve heard so much about."
"Lona, this has little to do with your concept of what a Jedi is. Jedi are not--"
"No, they?re certainly not there when you need them." Her cheeks flushed pink. "I?m offering you a lot, Qui-Gon. I?m offering myself. That?s not something I?ve done in a long time. At least when I meant it, that is," she added with a derisive laugh.
His mouth set in a thin line. "Ah, it?s another game to you."
"No," she whispered. "Forgive me. I?m so used to playing games?forgive me."
He watched as her posture sagged, and the life went out of her eyes. Suddenly she was no longer someone famous, able to snap her fingers and have her every desire obeyed. Suddenly she was just someone exposed to the truth, trying to find a way to accept it.
He wanted to say something, but nothing would come. Staying would mean she?d won. He couldn't let that happen.
She was standing in his way, and so Qui-Gon reached out a hand and took hold of her shoulder, and gently, pushed her aside.
Lona reached up and trapped his hand. The vulnerability of her expression stunned him, the open need in her eyes as they searched his face. He felt...embarrassed by her weakness, and as quickly as that, wanted urgently to leave the room.
"We?ll talk later, alright? I?ve got a mission report to do, Lona."
It was a cowardly, utterly stupid excuse, and it got the response it deserved. With an elaborate gesture Lona removed her hand, as it had been stung. "Of course, Jedi. And here I thought I was leaving before you. Wrong again."
Qui-Gon fled out the door as quickly as his feet would carry him.
She stepped into the doorway and spoke to his retreating back, in a mocking tone of voice that carried down the passage. "If you change your mind, you know where to find me."
He almost nodded.
The tears didn?t come until after Qui-Gon had disappeared around the corner. Lona was crying more from anger than from pain, angry that she had let down her guard for one moment, angry that she had let one iota of her celebrated control slip. The salty tears slipped down her face until they singed the bruised spot on her lower lip, and then she wiped her hands under her eyes. He would not be allowed to see another moment of her weakness. He hadn?t earned the privilege.
She wasn?t used to being so vulnerable. Nor was she used to being refused. So much for her grand idea. She had thought that seducing this Jedi would be easy.
This wasn?t fun. And it wasn?t taking her mind off her present situation.
Nothing was working out. She needed a distraction.
She met Bardo coming toward her as she walked back to the wardroom. She could tell from the look on his face that he wasn?t happy to see her.
"Did the Jedi run you over as he went racing by? Your face is priceless, Bardo, so convinced that I?m going to take something out on you. How perceptive you are!"
There was no place to hide in this cramped passageway. There was never any place to hide. All he could do was paste a smile on his face.
Her mood lightened considerably. It was good for a man to cringe. She encouraged cringing, sometimes. Even if it was only Bardo. "No, it?s not what you?re thinking. I just want to do a little extra tweaking. Some things I left out of the book I want to add back."
She would resist the temptation to do some research on Qui-Gon Jinn. He was so young ? she already had the idea that she?d find nothing. If she decided to check.
Qui-Gon spent the rest of the day with Naal, confirming the arrangements on Alderaan, and generally making a nuisance of himself. But he had not wanted to go anywhere near his quarters. His cowardice, for that was what it was, irritated him. Angry negotiators, surly mobs -- those things he could face. One unhappy woman was beyond his capabilities at the moment.
He could not have told himself if that would ever change.
Naal finished downloading a long report file and then swung her chair toward him. "Qui-Gon, go ask her uppity-ness if there?s any special landing zone I should use, or if the main capital field will be alright."
He sighed. It was a perfectly legitimate request. He would have to face Lona again, anyway. The ship wasn?t big enough for either of them to hide in.
"Naal, remind me to never make you angry."
The Mon Cal shrugged. "The Republic pays me to work for the Jedi, Qui-Gon, not her. She?s not a senator anymore, right?" At his questioning look she continued. "I checked."
Qui-Gon shook his head, frowning. "No, she isn?t." He stared off into the distance, long enough that when Naal cleared her throat, he looked up, startled out of his reverie. "Sorry, I?m not paying much attention. I?ll go ask."
Enough time had gone by that he felt safe in meeting with her again, anyway. Perhaps he?d been wrong, after all. Maybe it was just his misfortune to have caught her at a bad time. To resign from a prestigious position, as she had -- that couldn?t have been easy. He had seen it in others, retired senators, persons of importance. They had seemed lost, unable to accept what was happening.
He would not accept that she had been telling the truth about her feelings. It didn't matter, anyway. Her feelings were something he had no business dealing with.
He was thinking about many things as he walked into the wardroom. Perhaps that was why he missed it.
"Lona, excuse me, Naal wanted me to ask if you--"
The flash of the Force, a second before. A second too late.
They were frozen, stuck in a tableau. Lona looking up at Qui-Gon, horror on her face. Bardo looking down, her arm in his left hand, and a long needle in his right.
She found her voice first, the tone hard like the ice caves on Neftali, cold and glittering. "Is that something that Jedi do, sneak up on people? Do you really need to do that?"
"I--what--no, stop! Bardo, you can?t--"
She raised her free hand, palm turned towards him. "Shut up! Bardo, finish and go."
Bardo gulped, looked sideways at Qui-Gon, and then inserted the needle into her arm. She blinked rapidly, twice. He finished, swiped the spot with a bit of gauze, and then shot out of the room.
Slowly, very slowly, she held her arms out for Qui-Gon?s inspection. Lona had long fingers, tipped with blood red nails. But it was the backs of her hands and the arms that held his attention, and his horror. There, glowing ever so softly against the pale skin were needle tracks and dark pinpricks.
"So, you wanted to see, so look! You saw the needle. You think you?ve figured it out. You?ve figured out nothing! Bardo told me what you said about suicide. As if I wanted to end my life a moment sooner than it has to! You?re a fool, Qui-Gon Jinn. An idiot."
Qui-Gon realized he had never really seen her angry. To browbeat those around her was one thing. To berate him for his rejection, another. To see this, eyes dark and large in a white face, whiter than he thought possible, this was different. This was the Dark Side.
She picked up the gloves and covered her arms with them. Taking her time, she pushed the material down between her fingers, all the while watching him with a hardened expression.
"Bardo has proved to be quite the efficient nurse. The injections he?s giving me are keeping me alive. The problem is, they?re starting to have no effect. So, I take more, and more, and more," she said, in a matter of fact tone. Turning around, she swiped some flimsies off the desk and perched herself upon it, her leg swinging back and forth. Her mouth twisted for a moment, and then she spoke again.
"Genetic engineering is possible on Garos IV, if you can afford it. My parents could afford it. No diseases, no hidden illnesses, ever. But something happened with me. One in a million chance of a mistake, so I've been told. Lucky me, I was that one in a million. A genetic oversight, two little cells coming together in the wrong fashion, I suppose. Nothing spectacular, nothing contagious. Just something that's killing me prematurely.
"Then, just this past week, I felt?something. I resigned ? my, my, weren't some of my colleagues happy about that! Then I left Coruscant as soon as I could. And that's why I was on Malastare, to see a specialist Bardo researched as the best in his field. He took one look at my medical scans and in a very polite manner, told me there was nothing he could do."
The physician, an elderly Twi?lek, had been certain, so very certain, that he could help her. Until he?d seen the results of the dozens of tests she'd taken in secret on Coruscant. Headtails twitching, he had tried to be diplomatic.
She had told him, "But that?s my job, Doctor. Your job is to tell me the truth." And he had.
"I thought I'd have more time, thought I'd at least make it to the end of the session. That didn't happen, obviously. So, I'm hurrying to get the book ready. I?ll have my revenge on every person that thought I was too foolish, or too stupid" --she spat out the word-- "to be a senator. And on the Nem MaxStells of the world, who think I'm beneath them. The married men, who thought I cared about them. Even a murder. Seeing the truth of that come out will make it all worthwhile.
"What I know about some of the most important people in the Republic would fill a book. And you know, " she added, with that particular tilted up smile, "it already has."
He had been quiet the whole time she was speaking, the truth of it delaying his reactions.
"I should have seen this," he said to himself, and then realized from her startled expression that he had said it aloud. "I should have understood."
She shrugged. "Whatever. It wasn?t--it isn?t--your business. I can tell by looking at you ? you're thinking, 'Why is she doing this? Isn't politics just one little dirty trick after another?' But some things can't ? shouldn't ? be overlooked. That means you don't go around killing people to get what you want. That?s what Adrik Palpatine did ? had a wonderful, handsome, witty young man who had his own aspirations for Palpatine's Senate seat -- murdered. I?ve put that in the book, although it?s the one incident I haven?t been able to prove completely. I'm leaving that up to the Chancellor."
Lona hopped off the table and reached down to retrieve a crumpled up blanket off the floor. Wrapping herself in it, she sat down on the closest chair and then pushed herself over toward the viewport. "Rannold knows, of course. I had to tell him, otherwise he'd carry on and carry on and somebody would get suspicious. All I told Ecthelion was that I had to get away. I told you we all have secrets -- this is just one of mine."
"There must be something--"
Her head whipped around toward him. "Just stop," she snapped. "Didn?t you hear what I told you about the specialist? Don?t you think that I, the great, powerful senator, have done everything I could think of? I?m dying, plain and simple." Her mouth twisted around the words. "The thing with you? I just?" her voice faltered, and he walked closer so that he could be sure to hear. "I just wanted to know that I could still?attract someone?one last time." She chuckled, a sound as dry as the dunes of Tatooine. "My luck, there had to be a Jedi traveling with me."
"I?m sorry, Lona," Qui-Gon said simply. "I wish there was--"
"I told you to stop. I meant it. Why don?t you just go away?"
"Would you like to?talk about it?"
She stared up at him, a disgusted look on her face. "Please. I?m a little too grown-up for pathetic attempts at sympathy. Even from a Jedi." She pulled the blanket up over her head and settled down in the chair. "It?s getting late. We?re only a few hours away from arriving home. I think I?ll just sit here?and wait. It?s beautiful from space, you know, Garos IV. From a distance?so many things are beautiful."
Qui-Gon looked up, through the viewport. There was nothing there at the moment, of course. Hyperspace saw to that. But even after trillions of kilometers of space travel he could understand the thrill of seeing a planet on final approach, of realizing that he was close to his destination. And for the safety that often represented.
The blanket made little noises as she stirred. She had chosen the largest chair in the wardroom, large enough that she could draw up her feet. With the blanket around her, she had formed a virtual cocoon, a safe place to hide.
The connection between individuals is so tenuous. A misspoken word here, a thoughtless act there, can sometimes mean the difference between two people coming together and being separated forever. Standing there, looking at the top of the blanket as if he could see down through it into her heart, Qui-Gon knew that this time he could not retreat down the passageway.
He closed the short distance between them and stood next to the chair, looking outward for a few moments, and then down at her.
Her face without the makeup seemed ? new, was the only way he could think to describe it. There were two bright pink spots on her cheeks, bringing a bit of color to the pale face. This time he sensed that her temperature was even, and her breathing steady. There were no furrows of pain between her brows. The injection had done its work well.
His mind registered this in the time it took for her to look up, already with a glimmer of protest in her eyes, ready to bark something at him, no doubt.
He put a finger to his lips. And held out his other hand.
Lona started back as if it were a wild dragon from Arkania. Then with a muffled sob she took his hand and stood up, throwing the blanket open. Very carefully, as if she was afraid he would pull away, she wrapped her arms around his neck and with a little sigh, rested her cheek on his chest.
With no effort at all Qui-Gon lifted her up into his arms, and she melted into the embrace.
"Just stay with me," she finally said. "That?s all I ask. All I want. I just want somebody to be with me, while I watch the stars."
He was willing to do whatever she wanted. "You?re sure?"
She lifted her head and looked at him, a spark of the flirt firing in her eyes. "Much as it pains me to say it, I?m sure."
Qui-Gon sat down in the chair and made both of them comfortable, taking the blanket and wrapping it around her, tucking the material around her feet.
Then he kissed her as if they had known each other all their lives, and she kissed him back, because they had.
Qui-Gon was still awake the next morning when the wardroom door opened and Bardo entered. Qui-Gon felt the anger in him as he realized there was something -- someone -- in his arms.
"What have you done?" Bardo demanded angrily. "What did you say to her? You?ve got no right, no right to be--" He stopped, his shoulders slumping.
"She fell asleep a few hours ago. We talked through the night, Bardo," Qui-Gon said quietly, answering the unasked question. "She told me everything. I apologize for my earlier suspicions."
"Everything, Jedi? I doubt it. So, are you in love with her now?"
"I don't..." The words wouldn't come.
Bardo clenched his hands, his anger playing on his face as he confronted the other man. "Or is it pity? You pity her, Jedi. Admit it!"
Was this pity he was feeling for her, or the beginning of love? He could only answer truthfully. "I don't know, Bardo. She needed someone, and I was here."
Bardo?s face collapsed. He began nodding over and over. Crouching down in front of the chair, Bardo brought his eyes close to Lona's face. He reached out and tenderly pushed a strand of hair away from her eyes, then gently rubbed her cheek with the back of his hand. She stirred, and he stood up, the look on his face a mixture of guilt and pleasure. Qui-Gon pretended not to notice.
With her eyes closed and her mouth slightly open, Lona looked nothing like the tyrannical woman who had raged aboard the ship, flinging orders. That had changed, as the night wore on and the journey came closer to its end. At times they had talked, speaking more of experiences and impressions than any real issues. At other times she had lain her head down on his chest again, saying nothing, and he had held her close and kissed the top of her head. And then when she wanted it, her lips. Their sweetness clung to his memory.
A flustered Bardo turned away, straightening the papers on the desk. "She couldn't bring herself to acknowledge what was happening. She's much too proud for that. Besides, her enemies," he shrugged, "her enemies would have exulted. Their gloating would have been too much to take.
"We've tried...I've tried so hard, talked to every doctor in the galaxy. Everyone says it's just a matter of time." He looked down at Lona again. "She looks like she's at peace." He faced Qui-Gon. "You've talked to her about the book?"
He had broached the subject of the book once. She had stiffened, replying testily that it was not his affair. It wasn't of course, but he had not given up the chance to voice his opposition. "Yes. She says it's finished, and it's to be published. Nothing has changed, I'm afraid."
Bardo shook his head, his sadness evident. "Some things, she can't leave to others. I'm sorry, Jedi. I know you tried. I expect we're landing soon?"
"Yes, I suppose so." To underscore his answer, the ship made the small hiccup move that signified a release from hyperspace. Qui-Gon stood up carefully. Lona moved in his arms, but didn't awaken. "I'll take her back to her cabin. Can I depend on you to be with her when she wakes up? She might...need you."
Bardo acknowledged the request with a nod. "I serve her to the best of my ability. She is everything to me, Qui-Gon Jinn."
Qui-Gon searched his face, and saw the truth of it, in his eyes. And the hurt, and despair, and the resignation. "I'm sure she...appreciates your help on this journey, Bardo." He moved around the other man and started towards the cabins.
From behind him Bardo laughed, the sound as dry as the contents of a Trandoshar Memory Bone Chamber. "Oh, I doubt that very much, Jedi. What I?m doing for her means she?s lost a battle. And Lona is not very good at losing."
Qui-Gon laid her down on the bed, still asleep.
He went to his own quarters, to shower and change. The solitude was welcome. He was glad that she had not awoken. He would have time, then, to think of one last thing to say. There had to be something.
Bardo went first when the ship finally arrived on Garos IV. He had arranged with Naal to land at the capitol's main field, explaining that he had sent a message informing the media of the senator's arrival. Since Bardo had asked Qui-Gon for assistance in moving one of Lona's cases, they were both waiting at the ship's entrance as the ramp slid down and settled on the docking area's surface. Bardo had looked as though there was something he wanted to say, but the sight of several hundred people waiting engaged his attention. With a slight wave he was gone, moving quickly toward the score of camera crews that lined the edge of the durrocrete.
Qui-Gon watched as he greeted the reporters and droid attendants, a good press agent working the press.
A voice came from behind him, loud enough to command attention, a voice used to being heard amongst thousands of senators. "When we leave this life is unimportant...what is important is what we leave behind."
Qui-Gon turned to face her. Her eyes were clear, and sparkling. The high-necked purple dress was regal looking, and the sleeves came down to the tips of her fingers, concealing the needle marks. There was a slight smile on her lips. The makeup was also back on, forming the image that he recognized from countless news reports. Gone were the soft waves of hair; these had been replaced by a tall headpiece of black feathers. He smiled a wry smile, realizing that he should have noticed this was missing when he'd first seen the famous Senator at the docking bay on Malastare, oh so many eons ago. It was her particular signature, the thing that set her apart from everyone around her -- the unusual headpiece that soared above her head so that she could be spotted in the largest of crowds.
What she had said angered him somewhat, and he spoke with more vehemence than he intended. "I wish that you would understand that yourself, Lona, and reconsider what you're doing." His next words rose to his lips in a rush of emotion. "I was told to tell you this." Qui-Gon recited the poem that Rannold had recited to him, and watched as her eyes widened in surprise.
"What would you know of this," she breathed. "This is my destiny! Don't think that what you"--she pointed at him--"or anyone else says will change my mind!"
"If there is...love inside you, Lona, don't do this."
"Don't throw that in my face! I do love you! I do--" Her voice broke on the last word, and she reached out a hand for support. Qui-Gon took her hand in his, and she looked up into his face, the tears brimming in her eyes. "I'm asking you one last time. Stay with me on Garos IV."
She'll bat her big eyes, and let a tear slip out of one of them, and you'll be hooked. It's all an act. Bardo Feem had said that.
But the night they'd spent together? that hadn't felt like an act. He reached for the Force, letting it fill him. Maybe he should have the courage. Maybe the Council would understand.
The Council.... "I'm sorry. I can't."
The vulnerable expression on her face shut down, the connection between them disappearing as quickly as a Jedi could close his Force shields. "Then this is goodbye, Qui-Gon Jinn. If the doctors have good news for me, I'll let you know. Otherwise, you'll hear about me in other ways, I am very sure."
She snatched her hand away, lifted her shoulders and walked to the ramp entrance. He followed a step or two behind. Surveying the crowd, he took note of all the cameras and droid holoprojectors. He knew she would be very pleased.
Stepping down the ramp, she stopped abruptly as the group of people threatened to get too close. Bardo began pushing them aside, but a little girl slipped under his arm and darted forward, a bouquet of flowers in her arms. Lona bent forward and took the flowers, patting the little girl on the head.
The cheering intensified.
Lona Drach strode purposefully forward, shaking a hand here, patting another child on the head there. And waving, always waving. And always in the direction of the cameras.
The last sight he had of her would remain locked in his memory for a long time; a small woman in a bright purple dress topped by a tall black headdress, acknowledging the applause of the crowd that had gathered to meet her. There was a huge smile on her face, and she looked as if she didn't have a care in the world.
He leaned his head on the metal of the ramp entrance for a moment, and then palmed the comm. "Naal, take us out of here as soon as you can."
Traveling the final leg of the trip, from Garos IV to Alderaan, was one of the hardest things Qui-Gon had ever done, especially when he received the news that the meeting would be delayed one day due to the Alderaanian delegate's "indisposition." It took every bit of Jedi discipline he had to ensure that he was centered and concentrating when the meeting with the planet's representative finally took place.
Then, back on board the Valiant, a glimpse of one of the news reports, which interrupted the regular report. He saw her picture, with the dates of her life printed over the image. She had lasted only two days after her arrival on her home planet.
Torbon took one look at his face and shaved eight hours off the trip back home.
He had gone immediately before the Council and told them of what had happened. He'd held nothing back, explaining everything, including his reactions. Master Windu and a couple of the others had looked disappointed, but he was not ashamed of what he'd done.
It had been a somewhat short session; their judgment, as he had known before he went in, was that he had done the right thing by not interfering.
Master Yoda had not attended the meeting, but somehow he knew. He always knew. As a result, there were no missions waiting, no problems for Qui-Gon to immediately attend to. He was told to rest, meditate, recover for a while. There would be something to do, soon enough.
One week after his journey to Garos IV, a courier delivered a beautifully bound copy of the "Memoirs of Senator Lona Drach?va Drach" to the Jedi Temple, in care of Jedi Knight Qui-Gon Jinn. Since many of the persons in attendance at the Temple that day had never seen a real book, much less one as beautiful as this one, Qui-Gon caused quite a stir when he showed up to accept it. He took the gift and then put it aside, knowing that when he had the courage, he would read it.
He would at least read the note attached, a real note, printed on lavender-shaded paper. His eyes crinkled up in a smile as he unfolded it and saw, instead of a name printed at the top, a sheath of black feathers.
My dearest Qui-Gon: Tonight, at 1900 hours standard, watch the Senate Highlights Show. Do this for me. Then and only then will you open the book, and read the dedication. Because I know you, Jedi -- you haven't done it yet. Goodbye, love.
It was signed with an elaborate flourish, stamped over with her official name seal.
If it had not been her command...but it was, and as the hour approached, Qui-Gon took a deep breath and accessed the network.
Lona's story led off, reported by a furry-faced young Bothan female who was fidgeting with excitement.
"The talk of Coruscant concerns recently deceased Senator Lona Drach'va Drach's anticipated memoirs, news that reaches us just a few days after her tragic accident on her home planet of Garos IV."
So that is what they have told everyone....
The reporter went on. "In a surprising turn of events the Senator's senior aide declared that Senator Drach had left strict instructions that nothing could be published without a final editing, and confirmed that she had not had a chance to look over the manuscript before her death. Veteran Senate-watchers are said to be very disappointed, as it was fully expected that the Senator's colorful years of service would be gossip-fodder for some time to come. In other news...."
Qui-Gon had the book in his lap in an instant. He flipped the pages, flying them through his hand.
They were empty.
Turning to the frontispiece, his heart fluttering, he read the inscription, again in Lona's flowery hand:
Whisper to me words of no meaning, and I will understand. You made me see that there are other things more important than a settling of old scores. I'll leave that to others.
What matters is that I love you, Qui-Gon Jinn. And that is the most delightful lesson of all.
Qui-Gon closed his eyes and then closed the book. She hadn't done it. Pom Bonlrkr, Senator Palpatine, everyone else... No ruined lives, no ended careers.
Thank the Force.
He felt?powerful. He had done something after all.
Damping down the tiny spot within him that held his emotions, Qui-Gon went in search of Master Yoda. It was time for another assignment.
Far away on Garos IV Bardo Feem sat, fulfilled. He had dealt with the senator's funeral, a very private affair, with him as the only mourner. Certainly that must have been the hardest decision Lona had ever made, he'd concluded. No huge public funeral, attended by thousands, in person and on the HoloNet. To not be able to see the looks on everyone's faces, those who sincerely mourned her passing -- and those glad that her life had ended sooner than expected. But she had not wanted to bother.
He wondered for a moment, if the would-be funeral attendees had been divided into two groups, which would have been the larger. And then realized he already knew.
Now here he was in her office, alone. Alone for the first time in months. She had really needed him, once she'd found out about her illness. No matter that she had not treated him with any more warmth, or gratitude. He had never expected anything else.
The only thing that really, really bothered him was that he had not been allowed to be with her at the end. She had died quietly in her sleep, denying him the opportunity to serve her one last time.
No, that wasn't right. She had left him the most important job of all.
Bardo opened the last entry in a heavily encrypted file, set up especially for this purpose. He read the instructions slowly and carefully, so that he would not mistake their intent.
One last task I have for you, Bardo, and then you are free of me, and can curse my name forever. Publish the book. Tell everyone you are going over my wishes. Lie for me, Bardo. You've done it so many times in the past, one more time won't make any difference. I told Qui-Gon that I wouldn't do this, but my need for revenge is more important to me than anything else. He had his chance.
He doesn't have to know that, by the way. Let him think I have changed. You will know the truth.
Bardo Feem, senior aide to Senator Lona Drach'va Drach opened the drawer and took out the disk, holding it on his palm gingerly, as if the slightest movement would send it spinning away. Then very carefully (as he had done everything in his life), he pressed the detonator on the charges on the desk before him and blew the disk, the room and himself into oblivion.
It was the one and only time that he ever disobeyed her.
And he enjoyed it.
Original cover art by BeElleGee. HTML formatting copyright 2002 TheForce.Net LLC.