The speeder wove swiftly through Coruscant's air traffic, passing hover buses and dodging air taxis. Senator Amidala of Naboo sat in the back seat, tapping a datapad against her palm as she watched the buildings outside her window flash by. Her chief of security, Captain Typho, glanced at her from behind the speeder's controls.
"Senator, please," he said, breaking the tense silence as he shifted the gears to one hand and pulled the datapad from her hands with the other.
She scowled. "We're already fifteen minutes late for the Senate meeting. I have to be there for this vote!" It was days like this one, when everything went wrong, that she wanted to wish away her job, her title, everything but the name she was born with, anything that did not belong to Padm? Naberrie.
"Don't worry," Typho said. "Kal is already there. I'm sure he'll pull a few strings with the Chancellor to delay the meeting. We'll still arrive on time."
Padm? didn't reply. She was sure her aide, Kal Ascan, who had entered her service when she was elected senator, would do everything within his power to make sure the Senate wouldn't convey before she arrived, but sometimes it was simply out of his hands. She bit back a sigh. She couldn't miss this vote on the controversial offensive missile construction. It was crucial.
The speeder dipped suddenly, drifting to the left, then it took a sharp dive.
"Captain, what's wrong?" she asked, her eyes wide as the speeder passed a building a little too closely. She steadied her breathing, trying not to panic.
"I don't know," he grunted, yanking at the steering rod. "I've lost control!"
The speeder swung right now, throwing Padm? hard against the window. As it careened down, she hauled herself up, fighting against the centrifugal forces as bile rose in her throat.
Typho started pushing buttons frantically. "I've lost all steering control, neither repulsor set is responding, the comm's down, and we're leaking fuel!"
The speeder flipped several times, and Padm? resisted the urge to be sick. The vehicle was going to crash, and if she didn't think of something soon, both she and Typho were going to die.
The speeder plummeted. Padm? grabbed Typho's shoulder, commanding his attention.
"Do you see the park on top of that building?" she demanded.
The speeder jerked again; the park was right below them. Padm? pushed open her door against the heavy winds.
"Jump!" she yelled, flinging herself out and away from the vehicle. Whether Typho followed her, she didn't know, for as soon as she hit a clump of bushes, everything went black.
Padm? walked into Supreme Chancellor Palpatine's office, trying her best to cover her limp. Both she and Captain Typho had survived the crash, but not without some injuries. The cluster of bushes had broken Padm?'s fall, and her worst injuries were a sprained ankle and a mild concussion. Typho, though, had fallen on the hard dirt, and was still in the medic center receiving bacta treatments for his wounds. Padm? and Typho had barely spoken with each other since the crash three days ago, but in the few moments they'd had, they had managed to agree on one thing: the speeder had been sabotaged.
Palpatine glanced up from his desk computer as she walked in, his face etched with concern.
"My dear senator, please have a seat," he invited, motioning to a cushioned chair in front of his massive desk as he turned off his computer.
Padm? complied, relieved to ease the pressure off her still-sore ankle.
"First of all," Palpatine began as he leaned forward and folded his hands on his desk, "let me say that I am delighted to see you alive and well."
Padm? inclined her head respectfully. "Thank you, Chancellor Palpatine, though next time I may not be so lucky. Captain Typho and I believe the speeder was sabotaged."
Palpatine's brow furrowed, and he frowned. "Yes, unfortunately, Republic Intelligence reports concerning the incident imply the same thing.
"However," he continued as he stood and crossed to look out the window behind his desk at the magnificent view, "you needn't worry about your safety. I'll assign Senatorial guards for your protection. Meanwhile, I'll have Republic Intelligence working around the clock to find the culprit. I assure you, Senator, I will do everything within my power to capture and punish this fiend."
"I'm grateful for your help," Padm? replied. "But I do not want Senatorial guards."
Palpatine turned to stare at her, his face shocked as he tried to digest her statement. "Senator, I must insist that you have some protection."
"Oh, of course," Padm? agreed hurriedly. "I have, in fact, been thinking of asking for my handmaidens' services again, considering the fact that they are especially well-trained and have been acquainted with me since my reign. I have discussed this with my personal aide, and he agrees that it is a very good idea."
Palpatine considered. "We won't be able to get them all back. Yan? is deeply committed to her medical research, and Sach?..." He paused, his eyes reflecting sympathy for her.
Padm? nodded and glanced down at her hands. Sach? had been killed by a rare and deadly plague that had raged through Naboo a few years ago. Medical supplies had finally arrived from the Republic, but they were too late to save one of her best friends. Forcing back bittersweet memories, Padm? looked up again at Palpatine.
"I will make it a priority to request their services again, as well as two replacements," the Chancellor continued. "Until then, though, I implore you to take advantage of the Senatorial guards, if only to ease my mind."
Padm? nodded again. "I will. Thank you, Chancellor."
"Anything to help a fellow Naboo, Senator Amidala." He gripped the back of his chair with both hands and leaned over it slightly, his eyes glittering emphatically. "Do not worry. We will catch this criminal before he can lay another finger on you."
A soft chime echoed through Padm?'s large office as she sat at her desk reviewing a message from Queen Jamillia.
"Come," she ordered, taking a sip from a cup of caf.
The door slid open and Padm?'s personal aide, twenty-seven-year-old Kal Ascan, strode in briskly.
"Have a seat, Kal," Padm? offered. "Thanks for keeping me updated while I was in the medic center."
"No problem." He grimaced as he took a seat in front of her desk. "That vote really hurt, though. I can't believe we lost by such a landslide."
Padm? shook her head. "It's more money for the manufacturing companies, which equals more financial support for those bumbling bureaucrats they call senators."
Kal sighed, running a hand through his short brown hair. "On a slightly happier note, your handmaidens have booked passage on a transport. They'll be here by tomorrow afternoon. Also, tomorrow afternoon you have a meeting with Governor Banton Nax at thirteen hundred hours," he continued.
"Governor of Alithea?" Padm? asked.
"Yes," confirmed Kal. He cleared his throat. "He's an idealist, with the wrong ideas. The Council of Ministers has already contacted me about him. He's been lobbying to them for the last few weeks about giving the Manufacturing Guild a charter for Naboo."
Padm? sighed almost inaudibly. "Did they say anything else in particular?"
"Only that he's very persistent - and sometimes unpleasant." Kal grinned, trying to break the heavy mood. "You will be diplomatic, Senator, won't you?"
"As always," Padm? assured him dryly.
"Two of Supreme Chancellor Palpatine's personal guards arrived a few minutes ago," Kal said. "I posted them at the door; I didn't know where else to put them."
"I don't know where else to put them either. Maybe they'll intimidate Banton Nax into being docile."
Grinning, Kal stood. "Bail Organa is in coming in a half hour to talk about the new anti-missile appeal."
"Right," Padm? murmured, picking up a datapad and skimming its contents over. "Thanks, Kal."
"Just doing my job, Senator," Kal replied before he stepped out of the door, saluting her loosely.
Padm? slipped a small, sleek blaster into a hidden arm holster. It weighed heavily on her forearm, making her feel slightly uncomfortable but definitely more secure. She was wearing rather simple clothing - especially for a Naboo senator - which allowed her to move more freely and quickly, if the need arose. She slid on a light floor length overcoat and palmed another tiny blaster into a hidden pocket on the inside. She wasn't taking any chances.
Static filled the apartment's intercom. "Your handmaidens have arrived, Senator," a male voice announced.
In spite of the gloomy atmosphere that had been prevailing in her suite the last couple of days, Padm? smiled. "Let them in."
The door opened, and Eirta?, Rab? and Sab? rushed in, followed by two other girls. The first three were smiling ecstatically at seeing their old friend, but worry still filtered through their eyes. Padm? rushed to meet them in an embrace.
Rab? pulled back, looking her friend up and down quickly. "You're okay, right? Eirta? and I were frantic on the trip over here."
"I'm fine," Padm? assured her, "but I feel a lot better now that you're here." She peered over her friends' shoulders. She didn't recognize the other two handmaidens.
Eirta? followed her gaze and waved them forward. The two girls edged closer shyly, glancing at their famous senator in awe. "Dorm?, Chol?, this is Senator Amidala. Dorm? has been training with Queen Jamillia's handmaidens for several months. Chol? joined us a few weeks ago; she is Sio Bibble's grandniece. They both are very honored to be chosen for this assignment."
Padm? smiled warmly at the two girls, who grinned back. "Please, call me Padm?."
The intercom crackled again. "Your aide is here, Senator."
"Send him in."
Kal walked in, intently studying a datapad. Glancing up, he did a double take at the sight of five women dressed in matching outfits. "Your handmaidens?" he asked Padm?, composing himself.
Padm? laughed lightly. "Yes. Eirta?, Rab?, and Sab? were in my service when I was Queen; Chol? and Dorm? are junior handmaidens."
Kal dipped his head respectfully. "It's an honor to make your acquaintances."
The three senior handmaidens shook his hand, while the other two still hung back, simply nodding their greeting. Padm? noticed Rab? subtly giving Kal a quick look over. It was something Padm? was used to; her handmaidens examined each person she came in contact with for safety precautions, and the handmaidens had never met Kal before, being that they had retired before he had joined her service, but Padm? thought Rab? was doing more than just making sure that Kal wasn't a threat to security.
Kal, after cordially greeting the girls, turned back to his boss. "Senator, it's almost time for your appointment with Governor Banton Nax."
Padm? nodded to Kal. "I'll meet him in my office soon. Please have him wait for me there."
Kal glanced once more at the handmaidens before turning and striding out.
"Quite a handsome aide you have, Padm?," Eirta? remarked immediately. She smiled mischievously. "I'm sure Rab? would agree with me."
Rab?'s cheeks turned pink. "I don't know what you're talking about. Shouldn't we get going?"
Padm? nodded, and she and her handmaidens filed out of the apartment. The Senator breathed a small, satisfied sigh. She already felt so much better. The nervous, jumpy feelings that had been at the back of her mind the last few days were practically nonexistent. Well armed and with her old friends, Padm? felt she could take on anything.
Half an hour later, Padm? didn't feel quite so sure of herself. Her cheerful smile and good spirits had rapidly dissolved as Banton Nax's low voice rumbled on incessantly and his cheeks turned red from all the hot air he was blowing. She sat behind her desk, drumming her fingers on the side of her leg. She would have loved to prop up her head with her hand and let Banton Nax's voice lullaby her to sleep, but that would look too undignified, not to mention outright rude. For now, she struggled to keep a bored and frustrated look off her face and maintain the politician's "sabacc face."
"Naboo's ways are too traditional," complained Nax, waving his chubby arms emphatically. "Queen Jamillia and the Council of Ministers have ignored my repeated pleas to give the Manufacturing Guild a charter for Naboo."
Padm? picked up a datapad that was lying on her desk. "The Manufacturing Guild has been involved in some questionable activities recently. I believe Queen Jamillia is prudently wary that they will bring their under-handed business to Naboo."
"Those rumors were spread by competing companies," Nax said.
"A charter would restrict Naboo's own freedom to make decisions about manufacturing. The Guild would be able to build factories where they wish, in addition to many other things. They would have a subtle power that the Naboo government does not want to hand over to a foreign entity."
"The Guild promises in their standard charter to do what is in the best interests of the planet. The potential gain from having the Guild's presence on Naboo outweighs the risk."
Padm? leaned back in her chair and laced her fingers together. She and this Banton Nax were talking in circles, and Padm? had heard this argument before. She had already made up her mind on the issue, too, and Nax wasn't changing it. Oh well. She should at least give the appearance that his opinions meant something to her. Politician's duty.
"Thank you for your input," Padm? finally said, signaling the end of the interview. "I will use my political influence to promote what I believe will benefit Naboo the most."
Nax's eager face dropped, and he suddenly grew angry. "I'm a politician too, Senator. I know you have no intention of pushing for a Manufacturing Guild presence on Naboo."
He stood up suddenly, knocking over his chair. Padm? jumped up as well, backing away from him a step. She felt her pulse quicken, and she could sense that behind her, Eirta? and Sab? were tensing.
"Sometimes I marvel at you people. You're the ones who are going to bring Naboo to its ruin."
This was too much for Sab?. She moved to Nax in a flash, her dark purple robes blocking Padm?'s view of him. Eirta? hurried to help Sab?, and soon they were dragging Nax out of Padm?'s office.
"You'll regret this!" Nax shouted at her, struggling fiercely. The handmaidens' grips were too secure, though, and they hauled him through the door. Padm? was left alone.
"Ahh ... I'm so sore!" Rab? moaned as she flopped onto a couch.
"Me too," Eirta? agreed. "And we thought Panaka drilled us hard."
Padm? was too busy draining a glass of water to comment. Captain Typho had just run them through his second "refresher" course of the week. The only senior handmaiden who wasn't out of breath and massaging painful muscles was Sab?, who had kept up with her training even after Padm? had become a senator. Dorm? and Chol? were in the process of routine handmaiden training back on Naboo so they were fit.
Typho's refresher course had been a big help, though, no matter how the girls' muscles protested. He had pulled old hand-to-hand combat moves from out of the depths of the older handmaidens' memories. He had corrected their aim and posture where they had become lax.
The girls quickly showered and changed into crisp, clean clothes. Rab? twisted Padm?'s hair up, resuming her duty as if she had never stopped, something Padm? felt strangely comforting. It reminded Padm? of the days when she was Queen, when she had felt like she had five sisters, before she had become a senator and moved away from everything she held close and considered dear.
Padm? withdrew to her office almost immediately afterward, Sab? and Chol? attending her. She was reviewing various scientists' testimonies of the content of the offensive missiles, trying to formulate an appeal of the recently approved missile act, when the door chime echoed softly. At her beckoning, Kal Ascan stepped into the office.
"Good afternoon, Senator," he greeted her cheerfully. Padm? inclined her head, not taking her eyes off the research. Kal, accustomed to talking while she worked, continued, "I'm just here to remind you of a few appointments you have in the upcoming days. Chancellor Palpatine has called an Advisory Meeting for tomorrow at fifteen hundred hours."
Padm? nodded, filing the reminder in her memory. Hopefully by then she would have compiled enough information for a suitable defense against the missile creation act.
"You might also want to mention to the Chancellor that we have received seven hundred, forty thousand, five hundred and thirty-six messages protesting the Offensive Missile Creation Act in the last week and a half, not to mention three petitions with more than forty thousand signatures each," he added.
"That many?" Padm? queried, surprised. The Naboo, being a peaceful people, generally opposed any sort of military-strengthening act, but they rarely involved themselves in Republic politics after their revelation of the corruption in the Senate nine years ago. They usually relied on their Senator to make the choices that they themselves would pick. Padm? supposed that the obviously aggressive nature of this act was what had incensed them - the manufacturing guilds had lobbied for missiles to be constructed for the use of over-running smaller planets, dissenting to a few of the Republic's new rules on manufacturing and trade. Padm? disagreed with any action that was taken to force any independent person to submit to another's rule, even if they were rebelling against an established government - as it was, rumors were drifting through the Senate that even more sovereignties were planning to secede from the Republic, and that the Chancellor was working on a army creation bill. Padm? hoped desperately that it never came it that.
"Please type up a standard reply to them, thanking them for their concern and assuring them that I will do all within my power to reverse it," she told him.
Kal nodded. "Also, the day after the Advisory meeting, Senator Raho of Chandrila is hosting a party for all senators, dignitaries, and politicians."
"It's to be an easy-access party"" Padm? asked, finally glancing up from her datapad.
"Yes, Senator. It was an open invitation."
Padm? frowned. "Well, in light of what happened two weeks ago, I think it would be wise to respectfully decline the invitation."
"The Senator strongly protested the Trade Federation's occupation and has remained a strong supporter of Naboo since then," Kal said, his voice slow and deliberate. "He has the highest opinion of you and might be offended if you don't attend."
"Security is too lax," Padm? argued.
"The Chancellor has already promised me four of his personal guards and a dozen Senatorial guards for your protection," Kal persisted.
Padm? bit her lip. Sometimes she paradoxically hated it when Kal pulled solutions out of his sleeve. "But-"
"If you'll excuse my interruption, Senator," Sab?'s smooth voice cut in, "but I agree with your aide. It would be politically wise to attend the party."
Padm? glared at her usually quiet handmaiden. She glanced back to Kal, who was already grinning triumphantly. Sighing, she raised her hands in defeat. "Fine, I'll go."
Kal nodded. "I'll go comm Senator Raho with details of our security and the number of our party."
He turned around and walked back through the door. Padm? swiveled her chair to stare at her friend.
"All right, Sab?, what's going on?" she demanded. "You've got some nerf-brained scheme in mind, don't you?"
"Chol?, go tell Eirta?, Rab?, and Captain Typho to meet us here," Sab? commanded.
Chol? nodded and disappeared.
"What is it, Sab??" Padm? repeated, a threatening edge in her voice. "You have that look in your eyes when you're about to divulge a dangerous plan."
"It's not dangerous," Sab? protested.
Padm? looked at her suspiciously.
Captain Typho, followed by Eirta?, Rab?, and Chol?, marched in.
"What is it, Sab??" Typho asked with a no-nonsense tone reminiscent of his uncle.
An awkward silence hung in the air as Sab? kept her mouth closed. Rab? and Eirta? glanced at each other during the prolonged hesitation. Finally, Sab? cleared her throat.
"Thank you, Chol?," she said. "You are dismissed."
The girl stepped back, slightly surprised, then turned and hurried out of the room, her cloak swirling behind her.
As soon as the door closed behind her, Sab? relaxed and flipped her hood off.
"It would be best if as few people know about this as possible," she started. "It's time we revert to old tactics. I'm going to play decoy again."
Padm?'s mouth dropped open. "Absolutely not!" she objected. "I haven't used the decoy in years; I'm not about to start now."
"You haven't needed it for years," Sab? countered.
"It's too risky," Padm? declared. "There's no ceremonial makeup to hide behind, there's no accent to cover your voice. My mannerisms, my personality traits, they're too complicated to mimic. No, Handmaiden," she continued, using Sab?'s formal title as a reminder of who was really in charge, "we will take all other necessary safety precautions."
"I agree with Sab?," Typho spoke up. "And as the head of security around here, Senator, what I say concerning your safety is law. Sab? will play decoy."
"I always hated this idea," Padm? said, gripping the hand rests of her chair. "I never wanted to use it."
"But you knew - and know - that it's in the best interest of your safety," Typho countered. "I told Sab? on her first day back that she may have to play the decoy again. She's been restudying your habits, movements, and voice patterns since. Eirta? and Rab? have been helping her and been preparing ways to make it easier to pass off."
Eirta? nodded. "Since this is an informal party, she wouldn't have to be precise on your personality, mannerisms, or your political views. If she appears cool and distant, or even a little out of character, people will simply chalk it up to the speeder crash."
"And she looks more like you than you care to admit," Rab? added. "Most people rarely see you face to face anyway. We can add height with heeled shoes, hide figure differences with the gown, and add cosmetics for birthmarks and other distinguishing factors. Even if we err a little, nobody will be able to tell because all they see of you is your picture through their hover box view screen."
Padm? bit her tongue, searching for words. After several failed attempts to object, she finally sighed, shaking her head, more at herself than at any of the others. "Fine," she conceded bitterly. "But I want you all to know that I hate this idea of switching places."
Sab? grinned, victory brightening her face. "Oh, come on, Padm?, lighten up," she admonished. "It's just a party."
"And I said, 'My dear boy, do I look like a fighter pilot?'"
Several of the politicians around Padm? laughed appreciatively at the joke, and Padm? found herself - once again - glad that Sab? had taken her place. While the decoy was laughing brightly, Padm? was sure she wouldn't have been able to force even a smile. The joke was too pathetic.
Practically invisible in her handmaiden's robe, Padm? shifted slightly, glancing at Eirta?, who stood silent and still at Padm?'s left. Rab? was patrolling the perimeter of the ballroom with Chol?, while Dorm? and Captain Typho were keeping an eye on the entrances to the ballroom with the Senatorial guards. Padm? hated these kinds of parties, and was becoming increasingly jealous of the handmaidens' ability to escape from the political currents running through them. They were long hours of exchanging trite greetings with people she hardly knew, listening to boring conversations, and laughing at bad jokes. She had had more than enough of these gatherings during her first year as senator, and more than once during a dull conversation she found herself entertaining a glorious fantasy in which she could refuse all future invitations.
Padm? bit her lip thoughtfully, scanning the room. It was huge, with a tall vaulted ceiling and an upper balcony. The only people allowed on that balcony were a few of Padm?'s guards, assigned there to keep a sharp lookout on everything. Padm? herself kept a wary eye out for any sign of danger. It had, after all, been an open invitation to all politicians and dignitaries on the planet, making it extremely easy for an assassin to sneak in. Padm? noted each of the brightly-clad and cheerful-looking people, memorizing details quickly incase they had to be referenced later.
Oh, come on, Padm?, lighten up. It's just a party.
Padm? suppressed a sigh at the remembered words. True, it was only a party, but whenever they had used the decoy strategy on a hunch, like they were doing now, it had always ended up being a good thing.
Sab? excused herself from the other senators, saying she needed a drink. Eirta? and Padm? trailed dutifully behind her to the bar. While the attendant was busy getting her order, Sab? sighed almost imperceptibly and turned to the two other girls.
"How you do this so often, Padm?, I have no idea," she muttered, smiling at a passing senator. "I think I'd kill myself after the second party."
The attendant handed Sab? a sparkling white Alderaanian wine, and Padm? smiled to herself, satisfied. Sab? had done a thorough job in relearning Padm?'s habits. White Alderaanian wine was one of Padm?'s favorite drinks, but Sab? absolutely detested it.
"How's everything looking, girls?" the decoy asked over the rim of her glass.
"No problems yet," Eirta? replied, scanning the room. "It - hey!"
Padm? and Sab? straightened. "What?" Sab? demanded.
Eirta? giggled, relieving their sudden tension, then desperately tried to compose herself. "Look at Rab?," she directed, grinning broadly.
Rab? and Chol? had stopped to talk to Kal on their trip around the ballroom. Rab? was engaged in listening to something Kal was saying, and they started to walk off together, talking deeply and leaving a very bewildered Chol? behind.
"It seems like she and Kal are getting along very well," commented Padm?.
Smiling slightly, Sab? glided away from the bar and through the crowd. Slipping behind the backs of two senatorial aides, she came face-to-face with someone she certainly wasn't expecting to see - Banton Nax.
He flashed her a toothy grin. Padm?, under the security of her eclipsing hood, rolled her eyes.
"Senator Amidala," he greeted Sab?.
"Governor Nax," Sab? replied stiffly in a perfect imitation of Padm?'s voice and tried to step past him.
He grabbed her arm abruptly - and tightly - to stop her. Eirta? tensed, ready to intervene.
"Senator, I would like to apologize for my behavior a few days ago," Nax confessed. "I am known back on Naboo for being quite passionate about my ideas, and sometimes ... I cross the line, so to speak."
Sab? nodded. "Apology accepted, Governor," she said graciously.
Nax didn't let go of her arm. "I heard about the speeder accident a few weeks ago. I'm sorry if I frightened you at our interview."
"I'm quite all right," Sab? assured him diplomatically. "It wasn't the first interview to go bad, but I've survived them all."
Nax smiled again, attempted a clumsy bow, then brushed past her brusquely , jostling her arm, and disappeared into the crowd. Sab? frowned as her wine splashed dangerously.
"I don't like him," Eirta? whispered.
Padm? shook her head, her hooded eyes narrow. "Neither do I."
Several minutes passed in the normal fashion, until Chol? came hurrying up.
"Senator Amidala, I can't find Rab?!" she exclaimed. "She said that she and Kal were going to check with the guards on the balcony, and that she would be right back, but I haven't seen her for more than twenty minutes."
Eirta? and Padm? exchanged knowing, smug glances while Sab? smiled at the junior handmaiden.
"I'm sure she's fine," Sab? assured her.
"But I can't work without her!" Chol? insisted, eyes wide. "I don't know what to do."
"It's all right," Sab? said soothingly. "Just continue walking around the perimeter of the ballroom, looking for anything suspicious."
Chol? still looked terrified, so Sab? leaned closer and whispered something in her ear. She smiled nervously, and, breaking protocol, gave Sab? a quick bug before hurrying away.
"What did you tell her?" Eirta? asked, curiously.
"I said she was one of the most talented handmaidens I had ever seen and that I though she was doing superbly."
Eirta? grinned, but Padm? was struck with a sudden thought.
"Senator, do the junior handmaidens know about the ... plan?" she asked lowly.
Sab? shook her head. "Only Captain Typho and we four. He and I agreed that Dorm? and Chol? shouldn't be informed just yet."
"Do you think anyone's figured it out?" Eirta? inquired, covertly glancing around.
"Not at all," Sab? said, sipping her sparkling wine and barely restraining from making a disgusted face. "Padm?, I thought you had better taste; this stuff is disgusting. Anyway, I was this close-" she held her finger and thumb two centimeters apart "-to Chol?, and I'm sure she thought I was Padm?. If I've managed to fool your handmaiden - even a junior one - I think I'm managing fairly well."
The three girls turned to see the Senator of Chandrila hurrying towards them. Sab? smiled as brightly as she could with the thought of the long conversation inevitably ahead of her.
"Senator Amidala." Senator Raho pumped Sab?'s hand furiously. "It's wonderful to see you here! My, I'm so happy to finally meet you in person. I must tell you, I followed the invasion of Naboo quite closely, but I so want to hear your view of what happened..."
An hour later, after Senator Raho's curiosity had finally been satisfied and the party was starting to break up, Sab? turned to the other girls.
"I think it's time to go," she told them, massaging her throat. "I don't know how much longer my vocal cords can imitate your voice."
As Sab? turned toward the exit, she breathed a short gasp, suddenly staggering to her knees and falling forward onto the ground. Her wine glass shattered on the floor beside her.
"No!" Padm? cried, dropping to her knees beside her friend. Gasps and screams erupted from the crowd around them as the partygoers all backed away from the fallen girl. Eirta? yanked out her comlink and began yelling into it over the noise, her face white. Padm? carefully rolled Sab? over onto her back. Sab?'s eyes were wide, and she gasped painfully for breath.
"Sab?," Padm? whispered mournfully.
Sab? grasped her friend's hand tightly. "I'm - sorry-" she gasped, shaking violently.
"No!" Padm? cried, tears slipping down her cheeks.
A wall of blue-clad guards materialized around them, separating them from the rest of the party. Eirta? forced her way through them and kneeled down by her senator. "The medics are on the way," Eirta? informed them softly, but she was already crying too.
Sab?'s eyes flickered upward as Rab? appeared over the other girls' shoulders. Padm? leaned forward and kissed Sab?'s forehead. Then her friend's strained expression disappeared, and her eyes flickered close. Padm? leaned back, the world swimming dimly in front of her. Someone placed a heavy hand on her shoulder.
"Padm?," Captain Typho's low voice rumbled. "We should leave."
Padm? didn't reply.
"Padm?!" Eirta? snapped, tears still wet on her face. "Get out of here. I'll stay with her."
Padm? barely recognized Eirta?'s voice, but it penetrated her enough to compel her to her feet. Typho steadied her as she stood, and they slipped past the shield of guards, with Rab? trailing behind. The aghast crowd drew back to let them pass. As they reached the great open archway, several medics rushed in, a medistretcher between them, followed by a pair of Coruscant District policemen. Padm? stopped, staring back. The Senatorial guards parted to let them get to Sab?, and they all crouched around her, hiding her from Padm?'s eyes. Only then did she let Captain Typho gently drag her away.
Padm? nodded in agreement, her face impassive. It had been three days since the death of her beloved friend. While Chol? was still in shock, repeating to herself the impossibilities of Sab''s death, and Rab? had scarcely regained her color, Padm? had already shelved her brokenness somewhere deep in her heart and gotten down to business. Sab? didn't die for her to mope around; she need now to find this killer and avenge her friend, not sit in a listless stupor.
Eirta? placed a small clear bag containing a large fragment of a wine glass on Padm?'s desk. "This was the largest fragment of her wine glass," Eirta? informed her. "Fortunately, there was also a film of liquid still on it, which I had analyzed immediately. It contained the drug athic, a relatively fast-acting poison derived from a plant found on Kuat. It is lethal in its undiluted form and kills within two hours."
"And where would someone purchase this poison?" Padm? inquired, picking up the bag to examine the piece of glass.
Eirta? shrugged. "Here on Coruscant? The plant is not used for medical purposes, but any drug dealer would have it to supply the criminal organizations, not to mention the obvious assassins and bounty hunters."
"So we can't trace it?" Padm? demanded.
Eirta? shook her head, displeasure written on her face. "Not unless we can interrogate every lowlife on Coruscant. He may have even already skipped the planet."
Padm? bit her tongue, frustrated. She hated having only dead ends on her hands. "Let's try a different angle," she suggested. "Who would have had access to Sab?'s wine to put the poison in it?"
"Banton Nax met us immediately after," Eirta? suggested. "He even got so close as to knock her arm and almost spill it."
Padm? nodded. "Who else?"
Eirta? launched into a list including several people, many of whom Padm? couldn't remember, and ending with Senator Raho. "Who, I think," Eirta? added, "is most likely to be exempt, considering his constant support and general personality."
"We can't judge simply on appearances," Padm? objected.
The door ring chimed softly, interrupting their investigation.
"Come," Padm? commanded, and Kal stepped into her office.
"I just wanted to inform you that passage for your handmaiden's body has been scheduled. It just needs your signature." He extended a datapad to her, which she took and hurriedly signed before handing it back to him.
"Thank you, Kal. Get these signatures sent off, and then bring me the details on tomorrow's Senate hearing. Captain," she beckoned. The young captain at the back of the room stepped forward as Kal took the datapad back and disappeared. "I want you, Eirta?, and Dorm? to run a background check on each of the individuals Sab? came in contact with. Rab?, it's time for a formal press release to be given to the media concerning Sab?'s death. Send Chol? in to stand as attendant for now. Dismissed."
Her attendants filed out silently, and Padm? leaned back in her chair, folding her hands across her stomach. She was finally alone for the first time in days, no handmaidens behind her, no watchful Typho poking his head into her office every five minutes. It was quiet, peaceful, relaxing... until her thoughts took over and she saw Sab? falling to the ground again, her face etched with shock and pain. Padm? straightened suddenly, and directed her thoughts to the assassin's identity. Banton Nax was an obvious suspect, for he was the only one to show any open hostility to Padm? since her nomination as Naboo's senator. On the other hand, the speeder accident had happened before he had become enraged at her. She knew of no major political enemies, or factions with a death warrant on her head. Granted, the Trade Federation hated her with a passion, but they would not dare incur the Senate's wrath again by directly hiring an assassin.
Sighing into the silence, Padm? booted up her computer and started to plow through the daily drudgery work she had to deal with, work that wouldn't wait if a planet blew up, much less for the murder of her best friend.
"Your morning messages, Senator."
Padm? nodded to Kal, accepting the datapad and plastifoam cup he offered her, striding quickly through the apartment. Kal, flanked by Eirta? and Dorm?, followed her obediently, not making a sound. Padm? passed through the apartment's door, making her way down the corridor toward another Senate session. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Eirta? motion to Chol?, who had been stationed at the door the latter part of the night, and the younger handmaiden joined their ranks.
Three weeks had passed since Sab?'s death. Three weeks that would have been normal, three weeks that had even felt normal, except for Eirta?'s daily reports that neither she nor Republic Intelligence had found anything. At first it had made Padm? angry and frustrated, but now she was used to it, used to the disappointment. Everything seemed to be reverting to normal. There had been no more attempts on her life or disastrous interviews. Everything was calm and serene.
It unnerved her.
She motioned to Kal, and he picked up his pace to walk beside her.
"Kal, did the Senate release the particulars of today's session yet?" she inquired, draining the cup of caf.
"Discussion of an economic bill, Senator," he replied briskly. "Senator Aileen Teem of Malastare proposed it, suggesting that planets and sovereignties who export fifty percent or more of their annual industrial products should have a tax reduction. He claims it will help interplanetary trade."
"No doubt," Padm? mused. "Planets would increase their exports just to get the tax reduction."
"What about the agriculturally-based planets?"
Kal shrugged as he took her now-empty cup and tossed it into a nearby waste receptacle for her. "I'm sure that will be a major point of discussion. Of course, Senator Teem will have the support of most major industrial planets."
"As well as the bureaucrats," Padm? pointed out.
"Perhaps we could modify the bill to include agricultural products as well as industrial products."
"An excellent idea, Senator," her aide said. "But you know how stubborn Senator Teem can be."
Padm? rolled her eyes. "All too well."
Hours later, Padm? was still confined in the Senate Chamber, listening to the rising and falling pitches of the various senators' voices as they debated the economic bill. It was all rather pointless. After the first two or three hours, most delegates had made up their minds, but some of the more troublesome senators were bent on carrying their arguments on in the traditional bureaucratic fashion. Padm? could feel a headache coming on.
She leaned over to Kal and murmured, "Could you go get me a glass of water? It's getting a little hot in here."
He nodded and slipped out of the Senate Chamber and into the corridor. Padm? rubbed her temples and sighed miserably as the senator from Duro launched into a soliloquy. He had a very irritating voice.
She tugged at the uncomfortably high collar of her dress. Whoever was supposed to be controlling the temperature of the immense Senate Chamber had obviously fallen asleep or had forgotten to compensate for all the hot air the bureaucrats were blowing. She hoped Kal hurried back. On the other hand, she mused miserably to herself, if she passed out now she would get out of the rest of the Senate meeting. If only Kal would hur-
"Look out!" one of the guards yelled, snapping his blaster rifle up and firing down the hall.
A laser bolt ripped past Padm?'s head from the corridor behind, the sound of its discharge echoing through the large Senate Chamber. Padm? spun, dropping into a crouch as she yanked out one of her tiny blasters. The Senatorial guards posted by her box were off immediately, charging down the corridor. Her attending handmaidens sprang up in a flash, blasters in hand as they took battle stance. The whole Senate seemed to be gasping and shrieking and moving all at once. Padm? fingered her blaster and looked around quickly. The Senate room was big and open; she could be shot at from any angle.
"Clear!" Padm? heard one of the guards call distantly as they secured the corridor and turned left after the attacker. Instantly she was up, darting past her handmaidens and down the hallway.
"Come on!" she called impatiently behind her.
At the end of the hall, instead of turning left after the guards, she sprinted off to the right, leading her handmaidens the opposite way. "We're going to have to take the long way, all the way around the back of the building since the assassin has taken the quickest way out," Padm? continued as the handmaidens caught up. "We have to get down one hundred and thirty-two floors, and I'm not climbing down any service shafts in this dress. We can't go down the stairs, either; they're too unprotected. I think the turbolifts are our best choice."
"We risk the chance of being stuck in there," Eirta? objected. "Or falling to our deaths if the attacker decides to cut power."
"So we risk it," Padm? decided firmly. "It's the best option."
She reached the turbolifts and slapped the call button, fingering her blaster impatiently as they waited. Eirta? and Dorm? trained their own blasters on the door as it opened, but on seeing the turbolift empty, they hurried in after Padm?. Chol? was the last to get in, carefully glancing down the hallway for an attacker before she joined them. She pressed the button for floor one, and they dropped quickly. Eirta? yanked out her commlink.
"Rab?, where are you?" she called.
A burst of static answered her, then Rab?'s easily distinguishable voice answered. "Rab? here."
"We were attacked in the box," Eirta? informed her. "The guards-"
"Roger," Rab? cut in. "Typho and I and a couple of the blue guards are circling behind him right now. We're going to try to surround him. What's your status?"
"No casualties," Eirta? replied. "We're in turbolift 42A -"
The turbolift ground to a halt.
"I take it back," Eirta? amended. She fiddled with the controls then pressed the door open button. "It look's like our attacker has jammed the turbolifts. We're on floor twelve, and we're going to take the stairs."
"Copy," Rab? acknowledged. "Get Padm? out."
Padm? snatched the commlink from Eirta?. "What section are you in?"
There was a pause. "Section L, floor one hundred and three."
"Right. I'm going to send Eirta? up there to help you. We need to catch this assassin. Padm? out."
Eirta? rounded on Padm?, her blue eyes flashing. "I will not," she announced. "I will not leave you."
"Catching this assassin is more important than getting out of here," Padm? argued. "If we capture him, we can be free of future attacks."
"There could be other attackers, lurking down the hall, waiting for you," the handmaiden countered. "You need the extra protection."
"I have Chol? and Dorm?," Padm? shot back. "Do as you're told, Handmaiden."
"I will not-"
A blaster whined, and Eirta? collapsed.
Padm? spun to see Chol? swinging her blaster toward her, taking aim. Totally shocked, her own blaster hung loosely at her side. As Padm? was staring down imminent death, another blaster screamed, and Chol? was flung away from her. Dorm? stared in horror at what she had done, and her blaster fell to the thickly carpeted floor.
For an instant they both stood frozen, then Padm? sprang to life, first bending over Chol?.
"Is she dead?" Dorm? whispered.
Padm? straightened and hastily turned to her fallen friend, checking her pulse. "Chol?'s dead, but Eirta?'s still alive," she breathed, thankful for the sure signal of life. She tossed Eirta?'s commlink to Dorm?. "Call the meds. Tell them we're on floor twelve, section R, and that we have critically wounded. Then contact Rab? and tell her that's Chol? turned traitor and to be on her guard. We don't know who else might be working for the assassin."
As Dorm? spoke softly into the commlink, Padm? tore pieces of Eirta?'s cloak and bound them around her wound, trying to stop the bleeding.
Dorm? peered over her shoulder. "The medics are on their way. Rab? didn't answer." She hesitated. "Will Eirta? be all right?" she whispered.
Padm? sighed, an image of Sab?'s body being loaded on a transport back to Naboo popping up in her mind. "I don't know," she admitted. "We can only hope so." She bit her lip, her brow furrowed as she glanced over at Chol?'s lifeless body. "Rab?'d better catch this assassin. I need to know who else is involved in this."
Rab? crouched behind a large plant, Captain Typho propped up besides her, dressing a blaster wound to his right leg. They finally had the assassin cornered - after he had downed half their men and destroyed section K with a thermal detonator. Rab? had told both platoons of guards to take defensive positions and wait; they didn't know what other tricks this guy had. Whoever he was, he was good.
Rab? was getting impatient. There were no exits or service shafts or anything that the assassin could use to escape - as far as she knew. That was the part that worried her.
"All right, we're going in," she called to the troops behind her. One of them muttered into his commlink, and they fanned out.
They fell into a defensive invading pattern, everyone covering one guard as he hurried to the front of the rest. They covered space rapidly, but there was still no sign of the attacker.
Rab? darted forward, her eyes searching for any movement. She was just about to take refuge behind a large decorative pillar, when a man suddenly lunged out from behind the corner, firing wildly. Rab? dove for the column, rolling to her left and snapping up quickly. The assassin charged down the hallway, peppering it with blaster fire. Rab? crouched as low as she could, waiting for him to get close enough, praying she wouldn't get shot. Her commlink beeped, and she cursed under her breath at its inconvenient timing. Ignoring it, she peeped out from behind her cover, trying to get a look at his face, but was disappointed to find that he was wearing a pullover mask.
When he came within just a few feet from her, Rab? launched herself at him. Using her fleeting advantage of surprise, she slapped the blaster out of his hand and across the hall. He reacted immediately, kicking her in the stomach and sending her stumbling back. Recovering, Rab? leapt forward and struck out with a low kick, sweeping his legs out from underneath him. He crashed to the ground, and Rab? aimed to stun him, but he rolled away from her and sprang up. He attacked again, and this time Rab? was left unarmed. He swung a few punches at her face, but she dodged them skillfully.
He aimed another kick at her stomach, but she twisted and snatched his raised heel, giving it a pull. He collapsed. Rab? hurled herself at him, pinning him down. He struggled wildly, his dark eyes flashing dangerously, but Rab?'s grip held. Risking a glance away from him, she saw his heavy blaster rifle on the ground just a few inches away. With a speed that didn't give him time to react, she snatched the blaster rifle and clubbed him over the head with it. He went limp.
Breathing a sigh of relief, Rab? staggered to her feet. Blue clad guards were rushing toward her from both directions. A moment's indecision reigned inside her, as to whether she should wait for Padm? to unmask the attacker. As two guards hauled him to his feet and held him up, while another cuffed him, she made up her mind. Reaching out, she grasped the black mask and pulled it off.
She gasped, her eyes snapping wide open as she took a step back.
Padm? and Dorm? ran into Rab? on their way out of the Senate building. Rab?, white-faced, pointed behind her to the prisoner the guards were hauling out. Padm? was shocked when she recognized Kal, and for an instant she thought there must have been some mistake. But reality eventually sank in as the guards took her former aide away.
As Padm? lay in bed later that night, it all began to make sense. The combined efforts of Kal and Chol? would have accounted for all the attempts on her life. Kal sabotaged the speeder; he insisted she attend Senator Raho's party so that Chol? could poison her, neither of them knowing that Sab? was playing the decoy. And, when she had asked him to get her a glass of water in the Senate, he had been given an excellent opportunity to take a shot at her and run. But why would he want to kill her?
Later the next day, Padm? hurried through Coruscant's detention center, stopping only when the guards forced her to. Rab? and Dorm? were with her. Rab? had tried to persuade Padm? not to visit her former aide, but the senator had refused; she needed closure.
Padm? waited impatiently as the detention center guard unlocked the last door for her and a Republic Intelligence officer asked her a few questions. Then, hurrying inside, Padm? came face to face with Kal. He sat in a chair at the other end of the small room, cuffs around his writs. His eyes were very different from what she remembered, darker. Padm? shivered.
Slowly, Padm? approached him. Kal glared back. Padm? stopped a few feet in front of him, letting silence hang in the air for a moment. Finally, she asked the question that had been on her mind during the past day.
Kal snorted. "For the money, of course."
Shock rippled through her. "Money? Someone paid you to kill me?"
"Well, someone was going to," said Kal sulkily.
A look of panic crossed Kal's face. "No, I'm not going to tell you. I won't tell you."
Padm? sighed. "I didn't think you would. Then I suppose you won't tell me how you got Chol? involved, would you?" He remained mute.
Padm?'s heart dropped and she turned away from Kal. "Let's go," she said to her handmaidens.
Padm? stepped out of the room, tears in her eyes. Her trusted aide had tried to murder her.
The sound of the heavy metal door thudding shut behind her echoed in her empty heart.
"I'm shocked that it turned out to be your own aide," Chacenllor Palpatine said, shaking his head regretfully.
Padm? sat across from Palpatine in his office. Kal had been in custody for three days, and his trail was pending. Typho had almost completely recovered from his blaster wound, but Eirta? was going to have to stay in the hospital indefinitely. She had only regained consciousness that afternoon; the doctors were still examining the damage done to her internal organs and skeletal structure. The story of Kal's capture and Chol?'s death was all over the holonets, but Padm? wanted the Chancellor to hear it from her. There was also something else that was bothering her...
"All that time, he'd been plotting to kill you," Palpatine mulled. "And to think that that innocent-looking girl was also involved." He shook his head again, disgusted. "Senator, I'm simply aghast on your behalf." He leaned forward over his desk. "But now we can dismiss your extra guards. The threat has been removed."
"Actually, Chancellor," Padm? spoke up. "I would like to talk to you about that."
Palpatine arched an eyebrow. "Yes?"
"I don't think the threat has been removed," Padm? insisted. "Kal admitted that someone had hired him to kill me. That person is still out there, and there's nothing to stop him from sending someone else after me. I'd prefer to keep my handmaidens."
Palpatine looked shocked at this new revelation. "He said someone hired him? Yes, indeed, by all means, keep as much security as will make you comfortable. Don't worry, Senator, we will get to the bottom of this." He paused. "Perhaps, though, you should take a leave of absence to visit Naboo. It might help calm your nerves. I heard that there will be a memorial service for Sab? in a few weeks."
Padm? hesitated then nodded. "I'll think about it," she promised as she stood to leave, her handmaidens filing out after her.
Palpatine's mouth tightened as soon as the door slid shut, and he leaned back in his chair. That's what Viceroy Nute Gunray got for hiring a mercenary. No matter. The girl's extraordinary luck wouldn't last long. According to Darth Tyranus, she would be dead before the Military Creation Act was brought before the Senate, and that was all that mattered to Palpatine. Feeling satisfied, the Supreme Chancellor continued with his paperwork, the window behind him revealing a spectacular sunset as night fell on Coruscant.
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