Evil is spreading across the galaxy, despite all attempts to stem the tide. Now, Obi-Wan is on a mission, the ramifications of which he doesn't even begin to understand. But he must, if he is to succeed.
Footsteps rang a hollow cadence. Measured. Deliberate. And closing. Obi-Wan pressed himself into the midnight shadows of two pillars closely set into the wall. His cloak drawn tight, he held his breath as the guard passed by, a dark figure floating through pools of moonlight that streamed through tall casement windows on the opposite side of the hall.
Obi-Wan closed his eyes and listened until the footsteps rounded a corner and faded away. His breath slipped out in a sigh. Secrecy was critical to the success of the mission; he couldn't risk having the alarm sounded. The lone guard who had challenged him came to mind. He knew the water would hide the body, but how much of the man's watch had remained? When would he be missed?
I know. I know. Don't center on my anxieties.
Every day -- every minute even -- holds enough trouble of its own without worrying about the next. A sad smile flitted across the Jedi's lips and disappeared. His master would have been pleased to see how strongly he had come to depend on the Living Force. Been made to depend on it. If only for his survival.
The Jedi glided down the corridor, away from the retreating patrol, his passage a mere whisper over the marble floor. He rounded a corner and stared at the turbolift inset into a carved edifice. He hesitated a nanosecond before taking to the stairs on the right, silently bounding up them two at a time.
Two flights up, Obi-Wan was swallowed by the utter blackness of a long hallway. Without hesitating, he headed toward the double doors he knew dominated the end of the corridor. He did not need to see to know his feet passed over obsidian tiles veined with gold, or that the warm tawny walls were draped with tapestries depicting honor and valor and bravery. Moving swiftly so that all the infrared surveillance cameras would show was a blur, Obi-Wan arrived at his destination and flattened himself against the tall wooden doors.
Silence met the Jedi's ears as he strained to hear through the durasteel-reinforced entrance. It was quiet within. Too quiet. Extracting a slender tool from his utility belt, Obi-Wan inserted it in the old-fashioned lock and listened to the gentle whir as the lock slicer shifted the tumblers into place. The door slid into the wall.
Obi-Wan slipped into a large foyer draped with heavy curtains and froze. He sensed the presence behind the curtain on his left. A presence that didn't seem to be reacting to his entry. Asleep? The door slid closed behind him and the Jedi stepped forward.
Lights flashed on. Obi-Wan wheeled, lightsaber already in his hand and leaping to life. The green blade shimmered between him and the blaster aimed at his head.
At the exclamation, the Jedi's gaze skipped from the weapon to the face behind it.
Pushing aside a surge of disappointment, Obi-Wan straightened slightly, his lightsaber still at the ready. "Captain Panaka. What are you doing here? I had hoped ... expected to have to deal with Anakin's watchdogs."
A black eyebrow twitched on the dark face. "If I had known you were coming, I might have arranged to make sure they were on duty so you could ... deal with them."
Obi-Wan nodded tersely, acknowledging their mutual distrust of the men in question.
The captain of the palace guard frowned. "What are you doing skulking around in the middle of the night? Her Highness always welcomes visits from you. Why the secrecy?" He tensed. "If you are here to do her harm ..."
"Don't be an idiot, Panaka. I'm here to remove her from harm. And the fewer that know, the better." The green blade twitched. "Let me pass."
"You aren't taking her anywhere, Obi-Wan. She's safe here. Unless the forces opposing the government are planning to make Naboo a target." Panaka's black eyes glittered. "Are they?"
A smile tugged at the Jedi's mouth. "You think me a rebel?"
"Are you a friend of Chancellor Palpatine's?"
The Jedi felt his features congeal into stone as he returned Panaka's stare. After a long moment, he whispered, "Never."
The blaster that had been slowly lowering, snapped back into place. Panaka's tone was harsh and unyielding. "Then you are an enemy to my queen."
Sadness tinged Obi-Wan's reply. "I would do anything for Padm? and you know it. I'm not her enemy." He stood tall and powered down his blade, clipping it on his belt. "I do not wish to fight you, Panaka."
"Anakin has woven a spell of complacency that is shielding you, and all of Naboo, from the truth. You only hear what Palpatine wants you to hear, Panaka. You think the dissidents are evil You think that the Chancellor and his champion are the defenders of peace and justice in the Republic." Obi-Wan drew nearer to the captain. "Don't be deceived. Open your eyes, man. They are destroying the Republic. You have no idea the path they are treading."
"You are treading the path of treason."
Obi-Wan inched closer. "I am trying to save the Republic we both love."
The blaster wavered, then held steady again. "All of this has nothing to do with her. Leave, Obi-Wan. Now."
Letting the worry show on his face, Obi-Wan replied. "It has everything to do with her. I'm not completely sure why, Panaka. I just know I have to get her to safety."
Contempt rippled across the captain's features. "So this is a Jedi thing. I should have known. As your power and influence wanes, you seek to regain it through rebellion. My queen will not be a pawn in your game, Jedi."
Obi-Wan sensed the finger squeezing the trigger. He lunged to the side, grabbing the barrel of the weapon and twisting it out of Panaka's hand to throw it across the room. Obi-Wan wheeled and plowed his fist into the captain's face. Panaka staggered back. He spat out a mouthful of blood and stepped into Obi-Wan's next punch, blocking it.
The men exchanged several blows. Obi-Wan leaned back to avoid a roundhouse swing. He dropped to the floor and scissored his legs, sweeping Panaka's legs out from under him. The Jedi flipped and landed on the captain's chest, his knees driving the air out of the man's lungs. Panaka's face darkened as he fought for air.
Pressing the hilt of his unlit weapon against the captain's temple, Obi-Wan caught and held the angry gaze. "Your loyalty to your queen is admirable, Panaka. And it is the only thing keeping you alive at this second. I hope you will take the opportunity to think long and hard about where your other loyalties lie -- for your own sake and for your queen's. If you reveal who has spirited her away, you will be placing her in danger."
The air rushed back into the captain's lungs and he gasped loudly. "Fool," he rasped. "Skywalker will know who has taken her anyway. He was your friend once. He'll ... sense your presence, or whatever it is that Jedi do."
"If that's the case, then you'll have no need to tell them it was me, will you?"
Obi-Wan cracked his lightsaber against Panaka's temple and shook his head sadly as he watched the black eyes roll into unconsciousness. He shifted to a crouch beside the limp body and pulled a needle from a compartment on his belt. Tapping the cylinder, he squirted the air bubbles out of the needle and jabbed it into Panaka's upper arm.
"That'll give me a day before you can tell them anything, friend." He patted the captain's shoulder and stood, then gazed down at the dark-skinned captain for a moment. I hope you are still a friend.
Igniting his lightsaber, the Jedi turned and touched the tip of the green blade to the lock, fusing it. Replacing his weapon, he pivoted and strode into the large salon of the royal quarters. What was warm and welcoming in daylight, took on a sinister hue in the night. Moonlight threw dark shadows around the room where they clung to corners and reached across patterned carpets, stretching dark fingers toward the Jedi. But there was no danger lurking there. He could sense it.
Still ... a lingering ... odor ... hung in the room. Obi-Wan's former Padawan. His former friend. He shivered. Every time the Force made him aware of Anakin, there was a growing darkness, and less light, to be found in the boy. No, not boy. He was a man, now. A dangerous man. Obi-Wan closed his eyes. If only you had lived, Master. I've sensed his resentment -- deep down he despises me for not saving you. So much of what he has become ... so much of it is my fault. The Jedi blinked his eyes open. He had no time for regrets. Choose one path, choose another. The Force only flows forward.
The Jedi glanced to the doors on the right that quartered Padm?'s chief handmaidens. He toyed with the thought of sealing them in their rooms, but just as quickly dismissed the idea. His feet carried him to the bed chamber on the left, and he found himself staring down at a sleeping Padm?, wondering how it had come to this.
The curtains were open to the night's light. He couldn't tear his eyes away from her still form, hands tucked under the pillow, loose braid streaming out behind her as if she were in full flight. Her face looked to be molded from Alderaanian clay -- delicate alabaster inlaid with dark arching eyebrows and black eyelashes that fanned her cheeks.
A lock of hair draped across her forehead. Padm?'s hand fluttered upwards to flick at it, then disappeared back under the pillow. Obi-Wan perched on the edge of the bed and gently brushed the hair behind her ear. His fingers lingered wistfully, softly tracing her jaw. Too familiar feelings welled up inside and he squeezed his eyes shut, thrusting the emotions back into their dark corner.
Fingers wrapped around his and the Jedi started. He searched the young woman's face, relaxing when he realized she still slept. He clenched his jaw as she pressed the back of his hand against her cheek and a smile flitted across her lips. The longing slammed back into his mind.
In her sleep, Padm? smiled again, and whispered, "Ani."
Obi-Wan jerked his hand out of her grasp and jumped back as if he'd been stabbed by a vibro-blade. He willed himself to stop shaking and looked down. A small blaster was pointed at his head.
The Jedi sighed and said, "My head is not a target on a shooting range, despite what people seem to think tonight."
Padm? sat up. "Obi-Wan? Is that you?" She reached over and activated a bedside glow lamp. "Obi-Wan. What are you doing? You scared me half to death."
"Could have fooled me. You aren't the one with a blaster pointed at their head."
Padm? flushed prettily. With a muttered, "Sorry," she slid the blaster back under the pillow. She stopped and looked sharply at the Jedi. "Why are you here in the middle of the night? And where is Captain Panaka? And why do you have a black eye?"
"So many questions." Obi-Wan touched his bruised cheekbone and winced as he looked over the queen's shoulder. "It is very important. Otherwise, Panaka would never have allowed me to disturb you. He is very loyal to you."
Padm? shot him an odd look and slipped out from under the covers. Obi-Wan handed her a robe that was laying on the foot of the bed. She wrapped it around her small form and padded over to a chair, motioning Obi-Wan to sit across from her. He followed and balanced awkwardly on the edge of the seat.
Even in an oversized blue robe, hair mussed, sleep clinging to her eyes, the Queen of the Naboo retained a natural poise that reminded Obi-Wan she was not a naive young woman, but rather an accomplished ruler. The Jedi dropped his head rather than endure her patient, questioning gaze. He stared at her toes, peeking out from under the long robe. Anakin's robe, he realized. He sighed inwardly. This was not going to be easy.
"You need to come with me, Padm?. Now. Tonight." When no answer was forthcoming, Obi-Wan glanced up to see amusement arching one slender eyebrow.
The queen asked, "Am I in danger, Obi-Wan?"
He held her gaze. "Yes."
"How do you know?"
"I just know. If you remain, you will face grave danger."
"The security measures in the palace are unparalleled. They could only be breached ... by a Jedi." Padm? paused. "Is there a Jedi threatening my life?"
Your husband. Obi-Wan bit back his answer and moved to the window behind Padm?. Several floors down and to the left, one of the rivers of Theed tumbled over the precipice on which the palace perched. Far, far below, the plains stretched out, pale in the strong moonlight. Padm? moved to Obi-Wan's side and stared into the night with the brooding Jedi.
Turning to her, Obi-Wan rested his hands on her shoulders and searched her curious face. "Do you trust me, Padm??" he asked.
"Why do you always call me Padm??"
"It is who you will always be to me. The feisty handmaiden. The girl with more heart, more courage, than someone twice her size. To me, Queen Amidala is a mask you don when you clothe yourself in finery and paint your face. The person ... the person inside is Padm?."
She smiled. "Anakin says almost the same thing."
The Jedi dropped his hands. "Do you trust me?"
A frown furrowed her brow. "Of course I trust you, Obi-Wan. You don't need to ask."
Closing his eyes for a second, the Jedi met her earnest gaze. "Then come with me. Please."
Worry crept into Padm?'s eyes. "Has something happened to Anakin?"
Turning to stare into the night, the Jedi whispered, "He is the reason I'm here."
"Why didn't you just say so? You must take me to him, Obi-Wan." She spun and headed to her dressing room. "Five minutes. That's all I need."
"Padm?." She halted. "Dress simply. And ... do you still keep a weapons store in the apartment? Ascension guns?"
The queen pivoted to face the Jedi. "Wouldn't walking through the halls be simpler?"
"But not safer."
Exasperation stole across her features. "You'd better have a good explanation for all of this, Obi-Wan." She paused. "The guns are hidden in a false bottom of my pedestal desk. I'm sure you can find them." She disappeared into the dressing room.
The Jedi let out a slow breath. So far, so good. He hadn't had to actually lie to her. He tugged at the chin hairs of his beard, then blinked and headed for the salon.
Before returning to the bed chamber, Obi-Wan opened the window a crack and tossed the needle into the night, followed by an empty vial. Those handmaidens wouldn't sound the alarm, though they'd wake with awful headaches. They were Padm?'s friends. She might have wanted them to come along. The Jedi clenched and unclenched his fist. Even friends could not be trusted in these dark days. How had Anakin managed to deceive her? To hide what he was becoming? Perhaps he truly did love her. If he was capable of love.
Slipping back into the queen's bedroom, Obi-Wan drew up short. He stared as Padm? finished pulling on her second tall boot. It was like standing on Tatooine again, seeing her in peasant garb for the first time, when she had insisted on accompanying Master Qui-Gon into Mos Espa. Baggy blue pantaloons and a grey tunic that bordered on being too big. Long hair swept back to tumble down her spine to her waist. She stood up and returned his gaping look with a distracted glance. Force help him, she was so ... beautiful.
"Now I feel like Padm? again." The queen's comment broke through his thoughts. She arched an eyebrow. "Shall we go?"
Obi-Wan shrugged off his lapse and tossed her an ascension gun. He bowed slightly and waved his hand. "After you, m'lady."
Shooting him a scornful glance, Padm? headed to the window. Pushing it open to let the moss-scented air waft into the room, she leaned into the night, then twisted to return her attention to the Jedi. "There isn't much below us, you know."
"I'm aware of that," Obi-Wan replied. "But if we let out the full length of cable from the guns, then swing hard, we can jump and land on the patio beside the river."
Padm? leveled an unbelieving stare at the Jedi. Obi-Wan smiled. "I'll go first if you want. Catch you if you fall."
"Good idea. Then if I change my mind, I can undo your cable and seal up the apartment."
"That would really slow us down, Padm?. All that time lost to having to breach your security ... again."
The queen sighed. "If it weren't for the fact you are taking me to Anakin, I'd have your impertinent Jedi hide thrown into a detention cell."
"I've broken out of those before, too, you know."
"Get out of my palace."
Obi-Wan grinned and jumped up onto the window ledge. He grabbed the frame with his left hand and leaned out as far as he could. Taking aim at a ledge two meters above, he fired the ascension gun, nodding when he heard the satisfying thunk. He handed the attached weapon to Padm? and repeated the procedure with the second gun.
With a whispered, "See you in a few minutes," the Jedi stepped off the ledge and dropped, Padm?'s gasp sounding in his ears. As the cable played out, the rate of descent slowed, until Obi-Wan's fall ended with a tiny jerk. Craning his neck back to look up, he could see Padm? hanging out her window, watching his progress.
The Jedi walked vertically along the wall, away from the ledge he wanted to land on. When he'd gone as far as the cable would allow, he took a deep breath and pushed away from the wall. Swinging in a long arch out over the waterfall then back toward the palace, the Jedi let go of the gun and flipped through the air to land on the stone walkway beside the river. He straightened and waved.
His heart lodged in his throat as he watched Padm? fall. Obi-Wan tracked her progress as she walked along the wall, as he had done. She took a little run back toward the ledge before pushing herself out into the night.
Obi-Wan frowned. Her arch wasn't big enough. Padm? twisted and lunged as she let go of the gun. Obi-Wan flung his senses out and grabbed her with the Force, pulling her through the air. She slammed against his chest and they both tumbled to the ground.
After a moment, Padm? rolled over with a groan and rested her hand on Obi-Wan's heaving chest. She whispered, "I wasn't going to make it, was I?"
Obi-Wan stared at the night sky. He forced the tremor out of his voice. "You were close."
He closed his eyes as her lips brushed his cheek. "Thank you," she whispered. He heard her climb to her feet. A toe nudged him. "Come on, Jedi. Where to now? The spaceport?"
Rolling over, Obi-Wan pushed himself to his feet. "No. I didn't want to attract undue attention."
Padm? shook her head. "The outskirts then. Just like the good old days."
"Better days than these, at any rate," Obi-Wan muttered, as he lengthened his stride to catch up to the queen.
As they were nearing the edge of the palace grounds, Obi-Wan sensed movement ahead. He grabbed Padm? around the waist and muffled her cry. Pulling her into the shadows, he jammed her in a crevice and crowded against her, his cloak shielding them both. He felt her angry glare, ignoring it to focus on the patrolling guard. When the sentry had passed by he stepped back.
Padm? hit him on the chest. "Don't do that again," she whispered. I will not hide from my own guards."
Tilting her chin up with his index finger, Obi-Wan said, "I will do what I must to keep you safe, your Highness."
Crossing her arms, Padm? glared at him. After a long moment, Obi-Wan took her by the elbow and steered her down the boulevard that bordered the river. He could feel her tension in her gait. He scanned ahead, furiously hoping that they wouldn't be challenged. If he had to kill a Naboo soldier in front of her eyes, she would turn back. And there was no turning back. Not after tonight.
They skirted the river for several blocks. Suddenly, Obi-Wan pulled Padm? toward the water and down a short flight of steps to a stone dock. Padm? looked down at the small watercraft bobbing at their feet, then back up to Obi-Wan's face.
"That's, that's a ..." Padm? trailed off.
"A bongo. Right. Hop in, your Highness."
She sighed. "Well, I suppose it's better than walking."
Obi-Wan settled in behind the controls. While he powered up the Gungan submersible, Padm? asked, "Just how far is your ship?"
He flipped a switch, activating the water shields. As the ship started to sink under the water, the Jedi replied, "Not far ... as a bongo sails."
Obi-Wan steered the humming bongo as close as he could to the marshy shore. Stony silence hammered at him from the passenger seat. He sighed and deactivated the shields. Immediately, Padm? was up and over the side of the watercraft, sloshing toward shore with her arms swinging wildly.
Watching her go, Obi-Wan ran his fingers along his bearded jaw, then hit the instrument panel with his fist. He vaulted over the side of the bongo and followed in the queen's wake. The water quickly seeped up his cloak, making it cumbersome.
"Padm?! Padm?, wait!"
The young woman struggled up onto the shore and spun to stand, arms akimbo, as the sun instantly started to coax the moisture off her clothes in steaming tendrils. Obi-Wan pursed his lips. Her clothes weren't the only thing steaming.
The Jedi joined Padm? on the shore. She struck out, shoving him back into the swamp. The water swallowed him with a splash and he came up sputtering.
"What was that for?" he asked.
"You took me through, through the Core!" Padm? shouted. "You blather on about keeping me safe, and then you take me through the Core. There, there were huge ... goober fish ... and ... and monsters ... monsters I'd never even dreamed of ... and ..."
Obi-Wan stepped out of the water and wrapped his arms around Padm?. She was trembling. He held her close. "I'm sorry. I didn't do it to frighten you. It was the fastest way to my ship." He felt her tension ease slightly and looked up at the blue sky. It was close to noon. They must know the queen was missing by now. Urgency was tugging at his mind. "Forgive me. Please. The ship isn't two minutes away. And we really do need to go."
Padm? stepped back, wiping at her face with her sleeve. "I don't understand any of this Obi-Wan. What's going on?"
Her forlorn look strummed his heart strings. His throat convulsed as he swallowed the truth. "Trust me? Just a little longer?"
She searched his face, then nodded. He released his breath and held out his hand. When she didn't take it his arm fell limply by his side. He turned and trudged through the swamp, Padm? following. Sadness draped over the Jedi, as heavy as his wet cloak. What did he expect? That she would view him as a savior? She was going to hate him when she discovered how completely he was tearing her world apart.
When they stepped into the clearing, Padm? halted. "This is a civilian craft. Where is your Republic cruiser?"
"This ship has certain, ah, advantages," Obi-Wan replied as he activated the landing ramp.
"Like not attracting attention?" she asked.
The Jedi ushered her up the ramp. "That, and it's armed."
Padm? halted suddenly, spinning to face the Jedi. "Since when do Jedi need to fly in armed ships? You are negotiators. Peace-makers. Not soldiers."
Obi-Wan spun her back around and gave her a little shove. "Go get cleaned up."
As she disappeared, muttering, into the ship, Obi-Wan moved to the base of the ramp and scanned the thick undergrowth. He could sense the Gungan, but he couldn't see him. He saluted in the Gungan's direction. "Thank you, General Tarpals, for all your help. I go in peace."
The reply was muted. "Meesa never been seeing you, Jedi. Gosa now, before meesa looks."
Obi-Wan laughed. "You're one bombad general, sir. The Force be with you." He turned and jogged up the ramp.
He was still smiling when he stepped into the living quarters. Padm? was sitting in the single chair as she dripped onto the deck. "Cozy place you have here," she said.
"I think cramped is the better word. Don't worry. You can have the bunk. I'll sleep in the pilot's chair, or on the floor." He passed through and entered the cockpit. Padm? was right behind him, slipping into the co-pilot's chair before he was settled.
"Where are we going?" Padm? asked.
Obi-Wan ignored the question until the ship was lifting off the ground. "Indu San." He glanced at her puzzled features and added, "Outer Rim."
"I am well aware of that. Indu San is a member of the Republic, after all. But, what would Anakin be doing way out in the Outer Rim? When I heard from him a few days ago, he was on Coruscant." Padm? paused. "It would be impossible for him to get to the Outer Rim in three days."
Obi-Wan clenched his jaw and vectored the ship toward outer space. A voice crackled on the comm speaker and he flipped it off before Padm? could realize it was a hail from planetary traffic control, demanding that the unidentified ship make itself known -- the same message he'd ignored when he landed. Traffic controllers could be so tenacious.
Padm?'s voice was a cracked whisper, "You aren't taking me to Anakin, are you?"
Blue gave way to black as the ship left atmosphere behind. Obi-Wan punched in hyperspace coordinates, eyes darting to the monitor showing two patrol ship blips closing on their position. He thrummed his fingers on the hyperspace lever.
"Are you?" The repeated entreaty was barely audible.
The all-clear light blinked and Obi-Wan eased the lever back. The ship skipped into hyperspace.
The Jedi twisted in his chair to face the distraught young woman. He gazed into two dark, shimmering pools for a long moment. Finally, he said, "No."
The slap snapped his head to the side.
Obi-Wan closed his eyes as Padm? pushed past him, her sobs echoing painfully through his mind. His fingers traced over the burning outline on his cheek, stopping on the freshly throbbing bruise Panaka's fist had left behind. It was going quite well, all things considered. He sighed. Might as well get it over with and throw himself in the path of the meteor.
The Jedi moved into the living quarters and shrugged out of his wet cloak. He hung it up and leaned against the bulkhead as he studied Padm?'s form, tightly curled in the chair, shaking with silent crying. He'd give anything to be able to take her in his arms ...
"Padm?," he began.
She shot to her feet. "Don't you talk to me. And don't you dare call me that. I'm Amidala to you. Do you understand? Amidala." Anger vibrated along her limbs.
Obi-Wan absorbed the vehemence of her words, welcoming the pain they inflicted, as he returned her stare silently.
"How could you do this to me?" Padm? started to pace. "I trusted you. And you ... you kidnapped me."
"You don't understand ..."
Padm? halted and stamped her foot. "I understand completely. You betrayed my trust. You used our friendship to ... to ... abduct me." Tears streamed down her cheeks as she glared at the Jedi. Suddenly, her eyes grew round. "You're one of them."
Obi-Wan arched one eyebrow. "Them?"
"One of the, the terrorists opposing Chancellor Palpatine's rule."
Obi-Wan rolled his eyes. "Oh, spare me. Terrorists?"
Padm? stepped forward and poked him in the chest. "You don't even deny it."
"I don't deny I oppose Palpatine. But you've known me for almost 14 years, Padm?." He threw up his hands. "Sorry. Amidala. How could you suddenly believe I would become a terrorist?" The Jedi narrowed his eyes. "I'm not the one who uses terror to achieve his ends."
She poked him again. "What is that supposed to mean? Are you implying that the Chancellor is using force to keep power? I know what's happening in the Republic. My husband is the Chancellor's most trusted advisor. I know how certain Jedi are manipulating dissidents, inciting rebellion. I - I just never dreamed you were one of them."
"You know nothing." Obi-Wan swallowed his growing frustration. Still, his voice was low, dangerous, driving Padm? back a step, away from him. "You know what Anakin tells you. What Palpatine tells him to tell you. He's no advisor. He's a henchman -- jumping to do his master's bidding."
Another slap rattled his brain. He winced. Same cheek.
"How dare you? How could you hate him so? He was your Padawan. He loves you. He speaks of you constantly."
Padm? hesitated before quietly adding, "He used to."
"He turned away from me, Pa -- Amidala. It wasn't the other way around."
"What did you expect? When he felt the need to go to his mother, you refused him. She died, Obi-Wan. And he didn't even get the chance to try and save her. He hates that you did that to him."
"Hate leads to the Dark Side."
"She was his mother."
"Everyone loses people they love, Amidala. I had to watch helplessly as a Sith cut down my Master -- the man I loved like a father. And now ... now my Padawan is being swallowed by the Dark Side. I have lost two people that I love to that evil. But I have chosen not to hate. I have chosen to stand in the light."
"And Anakin has chosen to step into the darkness -- is that what you are saying?"
Obi-Wan stared at the young woman, his visage stern. His iron grip trapped her hand a centimeter from his face. Through clenched teeth he said, "The other cheek, if you must slap me, please."
Padm? obliged, leaving a stinging imprint on his right cheek.
"Thank you," Obi-Wan said.
The queen sniffed. "You are despicable."
"But I'm telling you the truth."
"No. This whole misadventure has been nothing but a series of lies and deceits from the start. And you are lying still. I would know if the man I love had turned to evil." Tears started to stream down Padm?'s face, again. "I would know."
Reaching out to brush the tears away, Obi-Wan whispered, "He loves you enough to want to shield you from what he has become, Padm?."
She knocked the hand down and turned away. "Get away from me, Obi-Wan. Just leave."
The Jedi stared at her stiff spine for a long moment before silently retreating to the cockpit.
In the pilot's chair, hyperspace lines filled Obi-Wan's vision as wave after wave of anguish rolled over him. He clenched the arms of the chair as guilt tore at his self-control. Guilt that he'd had to inflict such pain on her. Guilt that he'd been the one to trigger Anakin's descent into darkness. The weight of it crushed down upon him, and he dropped his head into his hands. Help me, Master. How do I make her see what is happening? If she doesn't realize the truth of the situation, we will have to keep her a prisoner -- to save her from herself. I don't think I could bear that.
The craft exited hyperspace. Obi-Wan dialed the monitoring systems to maximum and altered the ship's course heading to bear directly toward the planet's night side. Padm? slid into the co-pilot's seat. The Jedi felt her eyes following his hands as they ran over the controls.
The queen finally broke their four-day standoff of heavy silence. "Where are we?"
Keeping eyes fixed on the viewscreen, Obi-Wan replied, "Where I said we were going. Indu San."
"Your Jedi puppet, you mean."
Obi-Wan rubbed his bleary eyes and turned to face the hard glitter in the queen's dark gaze. "Please ... Amidala. Keep an open mind. And open eyes. Discover the truth for yourself." When she just stared, he sighed. "We will be landing at the main spaceport. I have a false ID chip stating we are husband and wife -- locals from the small city of Legna. I'm asking you to go along with the charade for the time being."
"And if I don't? If I decide to turn you over to the authorities?"
"Then your ordeal will be at an end. But you will never know the truth, will you?" His voice dropped to a whisper, "And you do want to know the truth, don't you, Padm??"
She looked away. Her voice was flat. "Don't call me that."
Obi-Wan returned his attention to the monitors. His pulse tripped. A muttered, "Blast," slipped past his lips. Louder, he said, "Buckle up. We're going in hot."
Padm? sat up straight. "Hot? What do you mean?" She pointed at the sensor screen. "What is that blinking triangle?"
Brushing her hand out of the way, the Jedi switched shields to full aft and set the computer to calculating their entry trajectory. "That, your Highness, is the latest addition to the chancellor's growing fleet. Kuat Drive Yards have been pumping those monsters out for a couple of years. Armed to the teeth and completely without match. Rumors suggest they are developing an even larger version."
Derision laced Padm?'s tone. "I've never heard of such a spaceship."
"You live in a need-to-know bubble, your Highness. Apparently, this is something Anakin decided you didn't need to know."
Computer calculations complete, Obi-Wan ignored the indignant snort near his ear and pushed the ship to full throttle. He juked the ship sideways as a laser beam shot past them. Padm? squealed and fell against the Jedi's arm. He pushed her back into her seat and growled at her to do as she was told.
They dove for the surface, twisting and rolling and jerking from side to side. Only one laser found its mark, pulling a truncated screech from the queen. The Jedi glanced her way once, to find her sitting wide-eyed and white-knuckled, as the ground rushed up to fill their viewscreen. The Jedi pulled the ship out of its dive with less than 100 meters clearance, and shot along a valley floor.
The Destroyer hadn't followed them into the atmosphere, but it was tracking them. A bead of sweat trickled down Obi-Wan's brow. He turned off all running lights. Black and jagged silhouettes carved a void into the night sky's horizon.
"Shouldn't you slow down? I think those are mountains up ahead, " Padm? whispered.
"I hope so," replied Obi-Wan.
"But we're running blind."
"We have the Force."
"Great." Padm? paused. "Why were they shooting at us? Could they have tracked you here from Naboo?"
"I don't think so. I just made the mistake of entering the system on an unsanctioned route."
"Since when does it matter how you enter a system?"
"I know you haven't said anything for four days, your Highness. But ... could this discussion wait?"
A taut silence descended. Obi-Wan opened himself to the Force and let it flow through him, directing his actions. The ship flew through canyons and dodged outcroppings. Twice the Jedi rolled it to slip through a tight crevice with wings vertical. Both times Padm? gasped. Following a river, Obi-Wan sensed another gorge ahead, leading to a wide valley. He narrowed his eyes thoughtfully.
As the ship shot between the cliff faces, Obi-Wan dropped a missile from the rear tube. The explosion flashed on the screen a nanosecond before the blast wave hit the ship. Jolting all systems into emergency shutdown, the Jedi let the ship catapult wildly through the air for ten long seconds. Then he toggled the directional systems back on line and slowly brought the careening ship under control. It glided for five kilometers before he was forced to switch the engines to minimal power to avoid crashing. He leveled out at an altitude of 20 meters -- low enough that they wouldn't be detected by anything except eyes.
"What was that all about?" The question issued from between clenched teeth.
Obi-Wan glanced askance at Padm?'s white face. "Shh. We're dead."
"All that to make them think we're dead?"
"I just hope it was enough."
"So, now what?"
"Legna is the other side of this pass. We set down there for the night and I go early in the morning to register our flight plan for a working holiday to Obroa-Skai. Then we skip over to the main spaceport and meet up with our contact to get our real route plan."
"Your contact, you mean." Padm? paused. "You had this all planned."
The Jedi slumped back in his seat as the mountains gave way to open plain. "I didn't plan that Destroyer episode. I hate it when unexpected company drops in."
"Hate leads to the Dark Side, Jedi."
The couple wove their way through the crowded streets of Indu Sanskar: the tall, handsome man, clad in simple black, linked arm in arm with his beautiful wife who also wore slightly rumpled travel clothes. The way he hovered protectively over her at each kiosk in the market that they paused at, brought a bemused smile to more than one shopkeeper. His eyes followed her every move like a man very much in love; shopkeepers' mates tittered behind upraised hands.
Obi-Wan ignored the looks and whispers, as he constantly scanned the milling crowd, his senses on high alert. There was an undercurrent niggling at his calm, but he couldn't pinpoint its source. He glanced at Padm? again, a smile tugging at his mouth. She was going along with his plan -- for now. He had hoped that her sense of justice would be aroused. Her need to know the truth was working in his favor. But for how long?
Her questioning gaze caught his. He pointed to the open square past the row of market booths. She nodded and let him guide her forward, his hand pressed to the small of her back.
As they left the market behind, a commotion started on the far side of the square. Panic rippled through the throng. People all around them scattered down side streets and alleys. The unrest grew around the unmoving pair as people who hadn't been quick enough were herded back into the square by soldiers who had suddenly appeared at every conceivable exit.
Obi-Wan scanned the rooftops. Soldiers popped up at regular intervals, the sun gleaming off shiny white chest protectors and shin pads that contrasted with black body suits. Republic forces. The Jedi clenched his jaw and pulled Padm? close. She didn't protest.
A group was being herded into the square by a cordon of soldiers. Obi-Wan and Padm? found themselves being jostled forward, toward the raised platform onto which the prisoners were being ushered. Obi-Wan resisted the flow, managing to keep them several rows back from the dais.
A hush fell over the plaza as the Jedi searched the prisoners' faces. There had to be a hundred beings crowded onto the platform. Bothans. A Wookiee. Bimm. A Twilek. A Gran. Humans. Several Calamari. Close to three-quarters of the captives weren't human. The Jedi's nostrils flared.
A jab in his ribs brought his attention back to Padm?. He leaned over to acknowledge her whispered indignation regarding the presence of several youths in the group, along with one trembling child. The Jedi felt helpless to stem the fear rolling off the prisoners.
A black-uniformed officer marched to the center of the stage. He stood at attention until all eyes trained on him. His voice echoed across the square. "By order of his supreme majesty, Emperor Palpatine, you are hereby commanded to witness the fate of any who would oppose his just and compassionate rule."
Obi-Wan blinked rapidly. He'd done it. He'd actually done it. There had been rumors for months. But no one seriously believed he would actually dare ... A hand tugging on his sleeve brought the Jedi's attention back to the moment. He stared into Padm?'s shocked face.
"What does he mean by 'emperor'?" she whispered. "Obi-Wan, what's going on?"
He shushed her and jerked his head toward the platform. The cordon of soldiers turned to face the prisoners as they crowded against the duracrete wall at their backs. The officer shouted out an order and 30 blasters snapped to ready position with a single resounding slap. Horror engulfed Obi-Wan's mind. They couldn't mean to ...
The child started to cry as one of the youths, a golden-skinned girl, no older than Padm? had been all those years ago, shoved him behind her back. The officer called out another order. Obi-Wan pulled Padm? to his chest and covered her eyes as red erupted from the soldiers' blasters and the prisoners' chests. Screams and crying swept through the crowd. Grown men fell to their knees sobbing as the carnage continued. Obi-Wan blinked back tears and resolutely etched the scene in his mind.
The child was the last prisoner standing. The boy looked down at his feet in utter bewilderment and fear. Force help him, the child looked like Anakin at that age. The blasters fell silent. Obi-Wan drew a shaky breath. A reprieve? The officer raised his pistol. A wail pierced the air as the officer fired. Obi-Wan closed his eyes to the sight of the small body being propelled back against the wall.
The soldiers marched off the platform. The rooftop sentries melted from view. The crowd rapidly thinned. Obi-Wan stood frozen, staring at the mass of tangled bodies.
Padm? wiggled out of his grip, gasping back choked sobs. She grabbed the Jedi's wrist and yanked. "We have to go, Obi-Wan. Before we're the only ones left." She tugged again. "Please, Obi-Wan. I'm scared."
Her quaking voice slowly penetrated the Jedi's dark thoughts. He blinked and wiped at his face and beard with a shaking hand. "You're right. There's nothing to be done here. We have no time to bury our dead."
The Jedi ignored Padm?'s puzzled stare and wrapped his fingers around her forearm. He strode rapidly across the plaza, back the way they'd come, past deserted kiosks. Padm? had to jog to keep up.
"So what do you think of your new emperor's compassion, Padm??" Obi-Wan's voice was low and relentless. "Still think I'm the terrorist? He has been waging this campaign for a long time. Quietly. Insidiously. Even on Naboo."
"Stop it, Obi-Wan. I don't want to hear ..."
He jerked her arm, eliciting a small cry, his words continuing to fall like hammer blows. "You're going to hear it, your Highness. It's happening -- even on Naboo. Why do you think the Gungans were willing to help me? Haven't you heard the whispers? About the Gungans' inferiority? About the need to keep them in their natural place?"
"But that's just a few ..."
"No." He jerked her arm again, making her stumble as he plowed forward. "It's part of what we've been fighting against, Padm?. Across the galaxy, the whispers are growing louder. Non-humans need not apply. Jedi are the enemy. Those are the watchwords of Palpatine's new order."
Stopping suddenly, Obi-Wan spun the queen around to stare into her shell-shocked eyes. "And now he's declared himself, Padm?. He's set himself up as emperor ... with Anakin at his side. Together they have dealt a fatal blow to the Republic." A sob tore from deep inside her and her head dropped. Obi-Wan lifted her chin and gentled his voice. "I'm sorry, Padm?. Sorry you had to find out this way. I just thank the Living Force I got to you when I did. A day later would have been too late. They can't search for you while they are consolidating their power."
"You're wrong, Obi-Wan. You have to be wrong." Padm? shook her head. A tear splattered against the Jedi's cheek and he wiped it away. Padm? searched his face with desperate eyes. "Anakin wouldn't be part of this. Maybe ... Maybe Palpatine was holding me hostage on Naboo. That's it, Obi-Wan. You've saved me from Palpatine, and now we can both go save Anakin from his clutches. He probably doesn't even know I'm free. He probably thinks I'm still being held on Naboo. We have to find him. Tell him."
Obi-Wan let go of the queen's arm and stared at her dully for a moment. He brushed past her and continued down the near-deserted street. Padm? jogged beside him, her voice breathless. "We can still find your contact. We can go into hiding and make a plan."
The Jedi jerked to a stop and wheeled to face her. "No. We can't." He let his breath out slowly. "Did you notice the Twilek dancer amongst the prisoners?" Padm? nodded. "That was our contact." He started down the street again.
Padm? caught up and stepped in front of the Jedi, forcing him to stop. "What will we do?"
Obi-Wan sighed. "I don't know. I'll think of something. Right now we have to get off Indu San. Get away from this."
He stepped around her. Sudden overwhelming pain dropped the Jedi to his knees. Agony crashed through his mind. He held his ears and pressed his forehead to the ground to block out the screaming. His screaming. From a distance he heard Padm?'s alarmed voice, felt her arms draping over his back and her cheek pressing against his spine. He couldn't break through the cocoon of pain. It rippled along his muscles and tore at his nerves. On and on. His screams subsided to racking sobs as the anguish echoed and bounced through his mind. The Jedi's limbs trembled, and he sank into a fetal position, spasms racking his body as the pain cycled mercilessly through his innermost being.
"What's wrong here, miss?" Obi-Wan forced his eyes open a slit to see a black toe and white shin in front of his face. He tried to move, but his joints were frozen. He sensed Padm? standing protectively over him.
Her voice was clear. Calm. "It's the disease he's fighting, sir. We are on our way to Obroa-Skai to get the help of a rare disease specialist ... Perhaps you could help us to the spaceport?"
The foot backed off a step. "Is it contagious?"
"It might be," Padm? replied. "We hope the doctors there can tell us."
The foot retreated again. "Get him out of here." The foot wheeled and disappeared.
Padm? dropped to a crouch near Obi-Wan's head and whispered, "What happened?"
"Don't ..." Obi-Wan cleared his throat. "Don't know. Something terrible. Somewhere else, I think. Help me up."
The distance to the spaceport was covered slowly, the Jedi leaning heavily on the queen. With each step the pain in Obi-Wan's body subsided, even as the despair in his heart grew. What had happened?
The hypnotic swirl of hyperspace washed through the Jedi's mind. Still, the unease clung tenaciously. For two days he'd been trying to shut everything out, to reach his center of calm. What was blocking him from reaching the Force? It couldn't be fear. Could it?
A rustling beside him told him Padm? had returned. Her small fingers traced a cool path along the back of his hand, then curled around it and squeezed.
"Obi-Wan, you look terrible. You have to sleep." The queen sighed. "Whatever it was that happened to you has passed. We have to get somewhere. Land. Make plans."
Facing forward, Obi-Wan replied in a whisper, "It didn't happen to me. I've told you that. I only felt the, the residue through the Force." He pulled his hand away and massaged his forehead.
"But it's done with. Whatever it was. We have to focus on rescuing Anakin."
The Jedi rounded on Padm?, frustration heating his glare. "Don't you think I know the difference between someone who is acting under duress and someone who is committing evil willingly? Do I have to write it out with my own blood? Anakin doesn't want to be rescued, your Highness."
The slap drained his anger. Padm? fled the cockpit. Obi-Wan dabbed at his split lip and regarded the blood painting his finger. So this is how it has to be. Force help me. He pushed himself out of the chair and moved slowly to follow Padm?, his stiff muscles protesting the long hours of inactivity.
The queen was pacing back and forth across the small cabin with her head down and her arms swinging jerkily. She spun to face the Jedi with her fists clenched at her sides.
Her words were staccato. "You are not the Obi-Wan I once knew. You have no right to fill my head with these lies. I know my husband. I love him. And he loves me." Padm? took a short breath. "He will not rest until I am safe within his arms again. He will hunt you down."
Obi-Wan crossed his arms. "Of that I have no doubt."
"He will cut you down for the fiend you are."
"He will try."
Her body vibrated. "He will succeed."
"And if he does, then what? Do you move to Coruscant and openly support Palpatine's blood-drenched government? Or do you stay on Naboo and continue to hide from the truth? Create a little cocoon of love for the emperor's butcher to retreat to after a hard day's slaughter?"
Padm? charged the Jedi, her fists flailing against his chest. Obi-Wan closed his eyes, wishing the outer pain she was trying to inflict could match the anguish he was feeling inside. When the pounding slowed, he wrapped his arms around her and trapped her fists between their bodies.
Padm?'s head fell against his chest and Obi-Wan could feel her tears soaking through his tunic. Her voice was barely audible. "Why are you doing this? I thought we were friends. The old Obi-Wan would never seek to hurt me this way."
She pulled away and looked up into his face. "Someone sent you. Someone is making you do this."
Obi-Wan shook his head. "I volunteered for this mission."
"I, I'm a mission? Killing me from the inside out is a mission? I loved you like a brother. Why did they have to send you? Why did you come?"
"Because you trust me." Obi-Wan squeezed his eyes shut for a second. "Trusted me."
The queen turned away. Obi-Wan's gaze traced the waterfall of dark brown hair, down to Padm?'s waist and back up. He stared at the back of her head, the desire to hold her warring with the knowledge that she'd only reject him. He leaned against the bulkhead with a sigh.
"So I am a hostage," Padm? said.
"We don't want you to be."
"No." Padm? sat in the padded chair and pulled her knees up to her chest. "You'll let me go if you succeed in brainwashing me into believing Anakin is evil." Their gazes met. "No matter how you slice it, you are still just using me to hurt Anakin. When did you come to hate him so?"
"I don't hate him, Padm?. I ..." Obi-Wan jerked upright. "I have to figure out where we are going. It could take some time. Please don't disturb me unless it's an emergency."
The Jedi stepped into the cockpit, slid the door closed and locked it. He slumped into the pilot's chair. His feelings were clouding his judgment. The last thing he wanted to do was hurt Padm?, yet every time he opened his mouth, he drove the vibro-blade a little deeper. He knew she had to be made to see the truth. But maybe that task should be left to someone who wasn't quite so close to the situation. Someone who didn't ... love them both. Someone who didn't want so desperately to save them both. But who?
Drawing a deep breath, Obi-Wan sought to clear his mind of distractions. Long hours later, the Jedi slowly began sinking through layers of anxiety and pain and turmoil, toward his innermost being, toward his center of calm. Then the light burst over him, washing everything away. Everything except the Force.
Powering down all systems, the Jedi paused to look out the viewscreen at the eight armed guards double-timing across the ferrocrete. Doubt niggled at the back of his mind and he quickly brushed it aside. He headed into the cabin, making sure to seal the cockpit from Padm?'s access. He hated to do it, but he couldn't risk her trying anything foolish at this stage.
The queen lifted her head from the bunk when he entered, the dark shadows under her eyes matching his own.
Her voice was flat. "Have we finally arrived at your rebel base?"
"Do you really think I'd risk taking you there?" the Jedi asked.
Her head fell back down. "No, I don't suppose you would."
Obi-Wan slipped into his Jedi cloak and tucked his hands into opposing sleeves. "You'll have to stay here by yourself for a little while, I'm afraid. Hopefully, the negotiations will be short."
"So now I'm a piece of merchandise to be bartered?"
Obi-Wan reached out to brush a lock of hair away from the queen's forehead. "Padm? ..."
She batted his hand away. "Don't call me that."
Sliding his hand back into its nest, the Jedi regarded the queen for a minute. Silently, he wheeled and strode past the rear storage compartments to the landing ramp.
On the ground, Obi-Wan stood, hood back and face lifted to the warm sun, while the ramp rose behind him and sealed with a quiet thunk. Six guards surrounded him and the group moved forward.
As they marched, the Jedi soaked in the details beyond the small landing pad surrounded by trees with purple-tinted leaves. To the right, the ground fell away, revealing a ribbon of silver twisting through a lush valley. Ahead and through the trees, a tall wall marked the edge of the estate.
Swinging left, the group started up a sharply inclined path toward a large edifice on the hill above. The flowing lines of the white building reminded Obi-Wan of the Alderaan University. He caught a glimpse of a dark figure framed in a large window that overlooked the landing pad and valley before the guards led him under an overhang.
Inside the cool atrium, surrounded by tropical plants and manmade stream beds, the Jedi breathed in the moist air. So like the Room of a Thousand Fountains back at the Temple. The serene atmosphere soothed his nerves. A throat cleared and he inclined his head to acknowledge the presence of the servant.
The guards opened their cordon, allowing the Jedi to follow the small Rodian up a curving flight of stairs that seemed to have melted from the wall. He was led down a wide corridor lined with pedestals displaying rare glasswork and pottery. Stopping before a set of ebony doors boldly embossed with the Republic seal overlaying a stylized sun, the Rodian stepped aside and waved his hand forward. The doors slid soundlessly into the walls.
The Jedi hesitated on the threshold.
"Come in, Obi-Wan," a mellow voice sounded from across the room.
Obi-Wan took a single step forward into a room of blended greens and blues, and the doors closed with a whisper. Weariness settled on the Jedi's shoulders as he skimmed around a conversation circle of plump inviting furniture, letting his fingers trace the creamy leather of the nearest chair. He halted in front of a marble desk patterned with swirling sand and blue veins, and let his eyes travel beyond to the large window where his host stood facing the view.
He hadn't changed. A proud figure standing erect, draped in royal blue. Shock white hair a little thinner perhaps. Not so very different. His host turned. The face was older. Sadder.
Obi-Wan bowed low. "Chancellor Valorum. It is a pleasure to see you looking so well."
"I am an old man, Obi-Wan. I have no patience for pleasantries." The ex-chancellor paused as the Jedi straightened. "And from your communiqu?, I gathered you have no time for them. I appreciate the respect you intend, but would appreciate it more if you simply told me why I am graced with your presence."
Skirting around the large desk, the Jedi glided over to the window and looked down the hill to where sunlight glinted off his ship. He searched through his mind for a way to begin.
As if he sensed the Jedi's struggle, Valorum spoke. "I am rather surprised to see you wearing your colors so boldly. But then, Qui-Gon always did bemoan your stubborn streak." He paused. "Not that he didn't have one himself."
Obi-Wan glanced askance at the older man. "My master counted you a friend, Sir."
"And you are trading on that friendship, seeking a favor."
"No. I'm appealing to your honor and your integrity. You were a good leader, no matter what Palpatine claimed."
"Not good enough, apparently. I can't help asking myself what I could have done differently. How I could have stopped this reality from transpiring."
The Jedi closed his eyes. "I ask myself the same thing every day."
A hand came to rest on the Jedi's shoulder. "What more can I give the Republic, Obi-Wan? Your rebellion has my sons -- and my daughters, for that matter. It now looks to drag on and claim my grandchildren. But I welcome their decisions to fight for what is right." The hand dropped away. "I am an old man, Obi-Wan. And tired. What is it you wish?"
The Jedi's gaze searched the face before him. "I ... need a place to hide something of great value. For a short time. Until other arrangements can be made."
The old politician's expression turned wily. "Something? Or someone?"
The Jedi clenched his jaw as Valorum continued, "While I admit to having a fondness for priceless artifacts, I won't commit to this blindly. Let me see this ... object."
They assessed each other for a long moment. Obi-Wan nodded. He pulled out his comlink and keyed in the ship's access code while Valorum contacted the two sentries that had remained at the ferrocrete pad. They both watched the guards disappear up the landing ramp. A few moments later they reappeared with a small figure between them.
"Who?" the politician asked.
Obi-Wan let his breath out slowly. "Queen Amidala."
A hand clutched the Jedi's arm in a surprisingly strong grip and pulled him around to face the ex-chancellor. Fear, anger, amazement, crossed the old man's features before he schooled them into a neutral mask. "Do you have any idea what you are asking me?"
"I'm asking you to take a great risk, Chancellor. One that could render your wealth, your lands, even your life, forfeit, if your involvement in this is discovered."
"My life is nothing." The old man turned away, shaking his head. "But I wouldn't put it past Palpatine to punish my whole family, even my whole planet, if I am caught."
"These are dark times," Obi-Wan whispered.
Rigidity carved its lines into the old man's posture. "And if I refuse?"
"Another solution will present itself. And we will leave without her ever learning where we stopped."
"Somehow, I think you haven't told me all that I need to know."
A sad smile flitted across the Jedi's lips. "I can see how you would've been a formidable opponent in the political arena."
The old man turned a speculative gaze to the Jedi. "Once, perhaps." He arched an eyebrow as he waited for Obi-Wan to continue.
The Jedi's fingers traced his bearded jaw. "Amidala and I don't quite see eye to eye on her need to escape her present situation. I thought I had her convinced, but ..."
Incredulity laced Valorum's tone. "You kidnapped her?"
The Jedi was indignant. "I did not kidnap the Queen of Naboo." He hesitated. "She came willingly. More or less."
"You lied to her."
"No. No. I just ..."
"Omitted certain truths. Now where have I heard that before? This is exactly the sort of thing that Palpatine loves to use against the Jedi."
Obi-Wan's reply was quiet. "I had to get her out of there, Sir. And the Force's timing ..."
"Was impeccable, I'm sure."
Two blue gazes locked -- one framed by deep wrinkles, one by fine lines. The old man sidestepped to his desk and toggled a switch. "Bring her in."
"Thank you, Sir."
"I will accept your thanks if we are able to help the queen see the errors of her thinking."
Obi-Wan regarded his host quizzically.
Valorum inclined his head. "Am I incorrect in assuming you want my help in that regard?"
The Jedi smiled. "No, Sir. Not at all."
The doors retracted into the wall and the two men turned to face the Queen of Naboo. She marched into the room and halted, hands on hips.
"You've found me a pretty prison. I'll hand you that, Obi-Wan." A quick intake of breath halted the tirade Obi-Wan sensed was forthcoming. Padm? stuttered, "Ch-Chancellor Valorum. This, this is a surprise."
The politician moved swiftly around the desk and took Padm?'s hand, leading her to a chair. "For both of us, my dear. Please. Sit down."
A puzzled expression settled on the queen's face as she sank into the offered seat. Valorum skirted a low table and sat across from her. Padm? blurted, "You can't be involved with this, this scoundrel."
Valorum glanced at Obi-Wan with great amusement. The Jedi narrowed his eyes. The politician ignored the look and returned his attention to Padm?, holding up a finger. "I think we should clarify something from the outset, your Highness. I would do anything for my beloved Republic. Is that clear?"
"And admirable," replied Padm?.
The ex-chancellor nodded. "The same applies to my friend, Obi-Wan."
Stony silence greeted the comment. Padm? popped to her feet and began pacing around the conversation circle. Obi-Wan leaned on the desk and crossed his arms while his eyes followed her restless path. The old man simply sat, waiting.
The outburst wasn't long in coming. "Did he tell you what he did? He abducted me. With trickery. And he's been filling my mind with lies ever since. It is awful what Palpatine has done. Incredible. Unbelievable. But, my husband is not involved in that. He is being deceived by Palpatine, just as I was deceived by Obi-Wan." The Jedi straightened, ire rising, but Valorum's finger waggled and the Jedi forced himself to relax. Padm? continued unseeing. "I know Anakin better than anyone. He is not a henchman, or, or a butcher. I love him. He loves me. Obi-Wan had no right. No right to take me away... "
The Jedi stepped into her path. "From your loving husband. Yes, Amidala, I know what I did seems ..."
The queen jabbed Obi-Wan in the chest. "Not just my husband. My best friend." She looked away. "And the father of my child."
Obi-Wan staggered back as if struck. He groped for a chair, falling into it, his eyes glued to the foot-tapping queen. "You're ... you're ..."
"Pregnant. The word is pregnant, Obi-Wan," Padm? snapped.
Searching Valorum's stunned features, the Jedi said, "That's what Master Yoda saw in his vision. He, he wouldn't say. All I knew is that the Living Force was urging me to follow his direction." Hurt and disappointment filled his words. "Why wouldn't he tell me? Didn't he trust me?"
The politician's reply was gentle. "Of course he trusts you Obi-Wan. More than anyone. He entrusted the queen to your care."
Padm? interrupted. "Master Yoda sent you after me? Because... because I'm pregnant?"
Obi-Wan stood and grasped her hand, pulling her into the chair he'd just vacated. He knelt beside the chair. "Does Anakin know?"
Padm?'s gaze dropped to stare at tightly clenched hands. "I ... I was going to tell him the next time he came home." She hesitated. "No. He doesn't know."
"And he must never know, my dear," Valorum said.
Her head popped up. "How can you say that?"
Obi-Wan softly said, "Any child of Anakin's will be strong in the Force."
Padm? scowled. "Of course. And he should be able to train his child."
"He would turn the child to the Dark Side, Padm?. You must see that, " the Jedi said, his voice pleading.
"Don't start with that, again. Don't you dare ..."
"Quiet!" Both heads turned to stare at Valorum as he continued, "I believe I can settle this argument, if you will stop long enough to listen."
"Please do," clipped Padm?. Obi-Wan nodded his agreement.
Valorum leaned forward and tapped commands into a keypad that was set into the table while he spoke. "Perhaps I should say that Anakin can settle the argument. I would imagine you were en route from Naboo the day that Palpatine declared himself emperor. The next day, young Skywalker addressed a gathering of Jedi. Of course, the emperor saw fit to get footage to all the newsvid channels. Propaganda is one of his specialties."
The former chancellor relaxed into the chair's back with a grim expression as a holo-projector base lifted a few centimeters above the table. Obi-Wan stood, his senses humming as tension gripped his limbs. Padm? leaned forward, desire haunting her face. Obi-Wan grimaced and turned from her eager look to focus on the figure forming out of blue light.
At first the view included a few figures sitting behind Anakin. Obi-Wan scanned the faces. Pacifists. Anakin had addressed the pacifist faction of Jedi. In one of the Temple amphitheaters, by the look of it. As Anakin started to speak, the view narrowed to only include the man standing behind a podium. The holovid couldn't hide his magnetism, his good looks, nor his sharp eyes.
His voice was crisp and clear. "By now, word has reached you that my master has ascended the throne. Emperor Palpatine was forced into this by you. By the Jedi. Perhaps not the Jedi sitting in this room. But the Jedi who are inciting rebellion, who are thwarting our every attempt to re-establish order and justice in the galaxy. These criminals hide their deeds in darkness, sowing death and destruction where we would sow peace." The holo of Anakin paused and looked straight at the recorder. His eyes seemed to bore into Obi-Wan's. "And I am grieved to inform you that my former master, Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi, is chief amongst these instigators. I would challenge him, here and now, but I know he is not present. He hides from the light of day like the coward he is." Anakin paused dramatically as a murmur swept through his audience.
A calming hand gripped the Jedi's trembling wrist. Obi-Wan looked down into the sad eyes of Chancellor Valorum and grimaced. It got worse. He could see it in the old man's face. He returned his attention to the holovid and braced himself.
"I was once proud to wear these robes." Skywalker fingered his Jedi cloak. "But no more." He stripped off the garment and threw it behind him. He stood silent for a moment, giving Obi-Wan a chance to scan his black, lightly armored, outfit. A smile curled one side of the man's mouth, as if he knew his former master would see the holovid, as if he could sense Obi-Wan's growing horror. Anakin continued, unclipping a lightsaber from his belt and laying it on the podium. "The Jedi have turned their backs on the people of our galaxy, seeking power where they should only seek to serve. I hereby renounce you, Obi-Wan Kenobi. And I renounce any claims to the title of Jedi Knight." The blue figure tossed the lightsaber into the air and stepped back, drawing a second lightsaber and slicing through the cartwheeling weapon in one smooth arch.
Obi-Wan dropped to his knees, unable to tear his gaze away from the shimmering purplish blade. Hoarsely, he muttered, "Red. He takes a red blade."
As the figure proceeded to tumble the podium by first cutting it in two, Valorum whispered, "What is the significance of a red lightsaber?"
"Red is wielded only by a warrior promising death."
The holo-figure stood tall, the blade held high. "From this moment forward, Anakin Skywalker does not exist. Be warned, Jedi. Your rebellion will be crushed. When you deal with me, you deal with Darth Vader."
"No!" Obi-Wan lunged at the holovid, passing through it to tumble onto the floor.
The Jedi scrambled to his feet, and looked around wildly as he backed up. The darkness closed in from all sides, taunting him, hunting him. He spun, knocking over a pedestal and sending a crystal vase crashing against the wall. He followed it, slamming against the stone, pounding his fist against the unyielding surface. Sliding to the floor, the Jedi twisted and beat upon the the shard-covered floor. His tears pooled with his blood.
Then hands were pulling him back from the pain, back from the abyss that threatened to engulf his soul. From far away, he heard Padm?'s voice pleading for him to stop, begging him to explain. The Force glimmered in her tearful words, slowly coaxing the Jedi into a state of calm. He found himself leaning against one of the soft chairs, Padm? clutching his drawn-up knees, Valorum hovering behind her. Distress filled both faces.
Wiping his hand over his face and beard filled his nostrils with a coppery smell. He looked blankly at the cuts criss-crossing his palm. Padm? reached out and wiped at his cheeks and mouth and chin with the sleeve of her blue tunic. It came away stained with darkness. Valorum pressed a cloth into his hand, and Obi-Wan closed his fist around it.
"Oh, Obi-Wan." Padm?'s voice broke. She took his hurting hand in both of hers "That was not the man I love. I've never seen him like that; you must believe me. Please tell me. I - I don't want to hear it, but you must tell me what upset you so much. I've never seen you so distraught, not even when Qui-Gon was killed."
The Jedi blinked back fresh moisture and drew a shaky breath. "He was my Padawan learner, Padm?. And now ... now he has taken the title of a Sith. There are only ever two, and, and Anakin is one of them."
"Which means Palpatine is the other," Valorum said.
"We were never sure if he was Sith, or just a puppet." Obi-Wan closed his eyes. "I guess now we know."
"Sith?" Padm? asked. "Wasn't it a Sith that killed Qui-Gon? Does that mean that Palpatine was one, even then?" Obi-Wan nodded. "But how could he mask his true identity so well? No one ever, ever suspected such a thing."
The Jedi stared into her dark eyes. "The same way Anakin hid his identity from you, Padm?. The Dark Side can be very difficult to detect. Obviously, Sith can wrap themselves in light when it is convenient."
Padm? withdrew, curling into a chair, staring blankly at the holo-recorder's base. Obi-Wan moved to follow, but was stopped by Valorum's hand on his shoulder. The older man motioned for the Jedi to join him at the window.
Obi-Wan blinked in the bright sunlight, surprised to find that it was still day. How could that be when he felt so cold and dark inside? Goosebumps skittered down his arms and he rubbed them, stopping suddenly to glare at his aching hand.
The two men stood, shoulder to shoulder, staring out over the sun-dappled valley. Valorum's voice was low. "Now I know why you didn't comment on my remark about your wearing your colors so boldly. You had no idea. I had thought you might find it an uncouth, rather odd thing to say."
"Politicians are always saying things I find odd."
Valorum cleared his throat. "Yes, well. There is more. You must know. But the queen is in no shape to deal with more distressing news."
Foreboding shrouded the Jedi.
"Anakin -- I mean, Vader -- did not just walk away from that assembly, Obi-Wan."
The Jedi clenched his fists and his jaw to stop from shaking.
"He ordered that everyone in that auditorium be executed. On the spot."
The Jedi's knees gave way. The old man grabbed him and guided him backwards to sit in the desk chair. Obi-Wan fought to control his breathing. But he couldn't stop the tears. He looked to Valorum, his voice ragged. "I felt it. We were on Indu San. The pain was ... excruciating ... drove me to the ground. It went on and on." The old man grunted as he knelt before the Jedi. Abhorrence filled Obi-Wan's voice. "Force help them, Chancellor. They were innocent. The pacifists. The ones who thought it would all work out. Those of us who openly opposed Palpatine were already gone from the Temple. Seeking other means to stop the madness. How could he?"
Valorum's reply was grim. "He could because he is evil. Because he wanted to paralyze the other Jedi with fear and horror. To make it easier to hunt them down." He paused and glanced over Obi-Wan's shoulder to where Padm? still sat crying. "It is a felony to harbor a Jedi, now. Punishable by death. The bounty on you will be considerable, my friend. Because of the queen, he will personally hunt you down. And take great pleasure in killing you." He paused again. "I will keep Amidala safe, but ... I will get you some garments. You can't be seen like this."
Obi-Wan jerked to his feet and helped the old man rise. "I won't be seen at all. I must get to the rendezvous point."
"You had a contingency plan for such an event?"
"For every event. I just never dreamed the worst-case scenario would be the one we'd be acting upon. Force help us all."
Obi-Wan moved in a sleepwalker's state to stand before Padm?. He crouched and took her hands in his, exposing her pale face and red-rimmed eyes. Pain shot out from them, piercing the Jedi's soul.
"Padm?. Dear Padm?. I would give anything not to have been the one to bring you such hurt," Obi-Wan whispered.
"But you volunteered," Padm? replied, her voice thick.
"Because it was absolutely necessary, and I trusted no one else to keep you safe." He swept a loose tendril of hair behind her ear. "And now ... will you ever trust me again? Can you ever forgive me?"
She shook her head slowly. "How can I?"
Cupping her jaw in his stinging palm, he replied, "Perhaps, someday, far in the future, you will look inside and find that you can ... forgive ... maybe even trust. You are a courageous woman, Padm?. And trust is an act of bravery."
The Jedi rose to his feet and stepped back. Padm? stood and looked up at him, fear dulling her eyes. "How can I have this baby alone, Obi-Wan? I can't go on alone."
Pulling her into his embrace, he spoke into her hair. "I'll be there if at all possible, Padm?. If not, someone will be there. I promise." He felt her arms creep around his waist. He closed his eyes and inhaled the sweet scent of her.
Padm? spoke into his tunic. "What will happen to us, Obi-Wan?"
"I will fight." He squeezed gently, pressing her body against his. "And you will raise this baby somewhere safe, if the Force allows. Master Yoda has a place in mind. He's working out the details. Until then, Chancellor Valorum has opened his home to you."
"A couple of months. Six at the most. You'll be safe here, until then."
Padm? pulled away. "No. How long until it's all over, Obi-Wan? This nightmare?"
"I wish I knew, Padm?."
The Jedi stared into the queen's eyes, allowing his deepest emotions to fill his own gaze for one brief instant. He leaned forward and brushed his lips over hers, whisper soft. He sensed the forever in that parting gesture and inwardly sighed.
The desire to stay clogged in his throat and misted his eyes. Obi-Wan imprinted her final expression in his mind and strode toward the doors, his cloak swirling around his boots.
"Obi-Wan." Valorum's voice halted him, and the Jedi pivoted to see the former chancellor standing with his arm protectively around the queen's shoulders. And Padm? ... Padm? looking so brave in her cloak of overwhelming sadness, that he almost ran back to sweep her into his arms. He met Valorum's gaze as the old man said, "The Force be with you."
Obi-Wan nodded and wheeled away. He had one final lesson to teach to his Padawan.