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"Haja, sweet scent--what're you hiding under that big ol' robe?"
Luminara Unduli did not look up at the large, unshaven, rough-hewn, and unpleasantly fragrant man or his equally coarse and malodorous companions. She treated their knowing grins, the eager forward tilt of their bodies, and their leering eyes with equal indifference--though their collective body odor was some-what harder to ignore.
Patiently, she raised the spoonful of hot stew to her lips,
the lower of which was stained a permanent purplish black.
A series of interlocking black diamonds tattooed her chin,
while more intricate markings decorated the joints of her fingers. The olive color of her skin contrasted strikingly with the deep blue of her eyes.
These rose to regard the younger woman who was seated on the other side of the table. Barriss Offee's attention shifted between her teacher and the men crowding uncomfortably close around the two of them. Luminara smiled to herself. A good person, was Barriss. Observant and thoughtful,
if occasionally impulsive. For now, the young woman held her peace, kept eating, and said nothing. A judicious reaction, the older woman knew.
She's letting me take the lead, as she should.
The man who had voiced the impropriety whispered some-thing to one of his friends. There was a ripple of crude, unpleasant laughter. Leaning closer, he put a hand on Luminara's cloth-draped shoulder. "I asked you a question, darlin'. Now, are you gonna show us what's under this lovely soft robe of yours, or d'you want us to take a peek ourselves?" An air of pheromone-charged expectation had gripped his companions. Huddled over their food, a few of the establishment's other diners turned to look, but none moved to voice outrage at what was happening or to interfere.
Spoon pausing before her lips, Luminara seemed to devote greater contemplation to its contents than to the insistent query. With a sigh,
she finally downed the spoonful of stew and reached down with her free right hand. "I suppose if you really want to see . . ."
One of the men grinned broadly and nudged his hulking companion in the ribs. A couple of others crowded closer still, so that they were all but leaning over the table. Luminara pulled a portion of her outer robe aside, the intricate designs on the copper- and bronze-colored metal bands that covered her upper forearms glinting in the diffuse light of the tavern.
Beneath the robe was a metal and leather belt. Attached to the belt were several small and unexpectedly sophisticated examples of precision engineering. One of these was cylindrical, highly polished,
and designed to fit comfortably in a closed hand. The aggressive spokesman for the group squinted at it, his expression slightly confused. Behind him, a couple of his heretofore hopeful cronies abandoned their leering expressions faster than a smuggler's ship making an emergency jump to hyperspace.
"Mathos preserve us! That's a Jedi lightsaber!"
Expressions falling like hard rain, the band of would-be aggressors began to back off, split up, and drift hurriedly away. Unexpectedly deserted, their erstwhile leader was unwilling to admit defeat so quickly. He stared at the gleaming metal cylinder.
"Not a chance, no. A 'Jedi' lightsaber, is it?" He glared belligerently at the suddenly enigmatic object of his attentions. "I suppose that would make you a 'Jedi Knight,' sweet splash? A lovely, lithe Jedi at that!" He snorted derisively. "Sure and that's no Jedi lightsaber, is it? Is it?" he growled insistently when she failed to respond.
Finishing another spoonful of her meal, Luminara Unduli carefully set the utensil down on her nearly empty plate, delicately patted both her decorated and her untouched lip with the supplied linen napkin, wiped her hands, and turned to face him. Blue eyes peered upward out of her fine-featured face, and she smiled coldly.
"You know how to find out," she informed him softly.
The big man started to say something, hesitated, reconsidered. The attractive woman's hands rested, palm downward, on her thighs. The lightsaber--it certainly looked like a Jedi light-saber, he found himself thinking apprehensively--remained attached to her belt. Across the table, the younger woman continued to eat her meal as though nothing out of the ordinary was taking place.
Abruptly, the gruff intruder became aware of several things simultaneously. First, he was now completely alone. His formerly enthusiastic companions had slipped away, one by one. Second, by this time the woman seated before him was supposed to be anxious and afraid.
Instead, she only looked bored and resigned. Third, he suddenly remembered that he had important business elsewhere.
"Uh, sorry," he found himself mumbling. "Didn't mean to bother you. Case of mistaken identity. Was looking for someone else." Turning, he hurried away from the table and toward the tavern's entrance, nearly tripping over a scraps bowl on the floor next to an unoccupied serving counter.
Several of the other patrons watched him go. Others eyed the two women fixedly be-fore finding reason to return to their own food and conversation.
Exhaling softly, Luminara turned back to the remnants of her meal.
Making a face, she pushed the bowl and what remained of the meal away from her. The boorish intrusion had spoiled her appetite.
"You handled that well, Master Luminara." Barriss was finishing up her own food. The Padawan's perception might occasionally be lacking, but never her readiness to eat. "No noise, no fuss."
"As you grow older, you'll find that you occasionally have to deal with an excess of testosterone. Often on minor worlds like Ansion." She shook her head slowly. "I dislike such distractions."
Barriss smiled gaily. "Don't be so somber, Master. You can't do anything about physical attractiveness. Anyway, you've given them a story to tell, as well as a lesson."
Luminara shrugged. "If only those in charge of the local government,
this so-called Unity of Community, were as easy to persuade to see reason."
"It will happen." Barriss rose swiftly. "I'm finished." Together, the two women paid for the meal and exited the establishment. Whispers,
mutterings, and not a few awed words of admiration trailed in their wake.
"The populace has heard we're here to try to cement a permanent peace between the city folk of the Unity and the Alwari nomads. They're unaware of the far greater issues at stake. And we can't reveal the real reason for our presence here without alerting those who would oppose us to the fact that we know of their deeper intentions." Luminara drew her robe tighter around her. It was important to present as subdued yet impressive an appearance as possible. "Because we can't be completely honest, the locals don't trust us."
Barriss nodded. "The city people think we favor the nomads, and the nomads fear we're on the side of the city folk. I hate politics, Master
Luminara." One hand fell to her side. "I prefer settling differences with a lightsaber. Much more straightforward." Her pretty face radiated a zest for life. She had not yet lived long enough to become inured to the new.
"It's difficult to persuade opposing sides of the rightness of your reasoning when they're both dead." Turning up one of Cuipernam's side streets, chaotic with traders and city folk of many different galactic species, Luminara spoke while scanning not only the avenue but also the flanking walls of commercial and residential buildings. "Anyone can handle a weapon. Reason is much more difficult to wield. Remember that the next time you're tempted to settle an argument with a lightsaber."
"I bet it's all the fault of the Trade Federation." Barriss eyed a stall dripping with jewelry: necklaces and earrings, rings and diadems,
bracelets and hand-sculpted flash corneas. Such conventional personal ornamentation was forbidden to a Jedi. As one of her teachers had once explained to Barriss and her fellow Padawans, "A Jedi's glow comes from within, not from the artificial augmentation of baubles and beads."
Still, that necklace of Searous hair and interwoven pikach stones was just gorgeous.
"What did you say, Barriss?"
"Nothing, Master. I was just expressing my dissatisfaction at the continuing scheming of the Trade Federation."
"Yes," Luminara agreed. "And the Commerce Guilds. They grow more powerful by the month, always sticking their money-hungry fingers in where they're not wanted, even if their immediate interests are not directly involved. Here on Ansion, they openly support the towns and cities that are loosely grouped together as the Unity of Community even though the law of the Republic guarantees the rights of nomadic groups like the Alwari to remain independent of such external influences. Their activities here only complicate an already difficult situation." They turned another corner. "As they do elsewhere."
Barriss nodded knowingly. "Everyone still remembers the Naboo incident.
Why doesn't the Senate simply vote to reduce their trade concessions?
That would settle them down a bit!"
Luminara had to fight to keep from smiling. Ah, the innocence of youth!
Barriss was well meaning and a fine Padawan, but she was unsophisticated in the ways of governance.
"It's all very well to invoke ethics and morals, Barriss, but these days it's commerce that seems to rule the Republic. Sometimes the Commerce
Guilds and the Trade Federation act like they're separate governments.
They're very clever about it, though." Her expression twisted. "Fawning and bowing before emissaries of the Senate, issuing a steady stream of protestations of innocence: that Nute Gunray in particular is as slippery as a Notonian mudworm. Money equals power, and power buys votes. Yes, even in the Republic Senate. And they have powerful allies."
Her thoughts turned inward. "It's not just money any-more. The Republic is a soiled sea roiled by dangerous currents. The Jedi Council fears that general dissatisfaction with the present state of governance is giving way to outright secession on many worlds."
Barriss stood a little taller as she strode along beside her Master. "At least everyone knows that the Jedi are above such matters, and aren't for sale."
"Not for sale, no." Luminara sank farther into preoccupation.
Barriss noted the change. "Something else troubles you, Master
The other woman mustered a smile. "Oh, sometimes one hears things. Odd stories, unaccredited rumors. These days such tales seem to run rampant.
This political philosophy of a certain Count Dooku, for example."
Though always eager to display her knowledge, Barriss hesi-ated before responding. "I think I recognize the name, but not in connection with that title. Wasn't he the Jedi who--"
Stopping sharply, Luminara threw out a hand to halt her companion. Her eyes flicked rapidly from side to side and she was suddenly no longer introspective. Her every nerve was alert, every sense on edge. Before
Barriss could question the reason for the action, the Jedi had her lightsaber out, activated, and fully extended before her. Without moving her head, she raised it to a challenge position. Having drawn and activated her own weapon in response to her Master's reaction, Barriss searched anxiously for the source of unease. Seeing nothing out of the ordinary, she glanced questioningly at her teacher.
Which was when the Hoguss plunged from above--to spit itself neatly on
Luminara's upraised lightsaber. There was a brief stink of burning flesh, the Jedi extracted the beam, and the startled Hoguss, its now useless killing ax locked in a powerful but lifeless grip, keeled over onto its side. The heavy body made a dull thump as it struck the ground.
"Back!" Luminara started to retreat, the now anxious and alerted Barriss guarding her Master's rear and flanks.
The attackers swarmed down from rooftops and out of second-story windows, came bursting through doorways and up out of otherwise empty crates; a veritable flash flood of seedy infamy. Someone, Luminara mused grimly as she retreated, had gone to considerable trouble and expense to arrange this ambush. In the midst of genuine concern for herself and her
Padawan, she had to admire the plotter's thoroughness. Whoever it was clearly knew they were dealing with more than a couple of female tourists out for a morning's sight-seeing.
The question was, how much did they know?
There are only two ways for non-Jedi to defeat Jedi in battle: lull them into a false sense of security, or overwhelm them with sheer force of numbers. Subtlety obviously being a notion foreign to their present assailants, a diverse rabble of bloodthirsty but untrained individuals,
their employer had opted for the latter approach. In the crowded, active streets, the large number of attackers had gone undetected by Luminara,
their inimical feelings submerged among those of the greater crowd.
Now that the attack had begun, the Force throbbed with an enmity that was out in the open as dozens of well-armed hired assassins fought to get close enough to their rapidly withdrawing targets to deliver a few final, fatal blows. While the narrowness of the street and the aimless fleeing of panicked bystanders eliminated a clear line of retreat and kept the two women from sprint- ing to safety, it also prevented those of their attackers who were wielding firearms from setting up a clear shot at their intended targets. Had they been tacticians, those in front swinging blades and other less advanced devices would have stepped aside to give their more heavily armed comrades room in which to take aim. But a reward had been promised to the ones who made the actual kill. While this served to inspire the truculent rabble, it also made them reluctant to cooperate with one another in achieving their ultimate objective,
lest it be a colleague who claimed the substantial bonus.
So it was that Luminara and Barriss were able to deflect bursts from blasters as well as blows struck by less technical weaponry such as long swords and knives. With high walls shielding them on either side and merchants and vendors continuing to run for cover, they had room in which to work. Bodies began to pile up in front of them, some intact,
others missing significant portions of their anatomy, these having been neatly excised by whirling shafts of intensely colored energy.
Barriss's exuberance and occasional shouted challenge were complemented by Luminara's steady, silently ferocious work. Together, the two women not only kept their attackers at bay, but began to force them back.
There is something in the hushed, frighteningly efficient aspect of a fighting Jedi that takes the heart out of an ordinary opponent. A
would-be murderer has only to see a few blaster shots deflected by the anticipatory hum of a lightsaber to realize that there might be other less potentially lethal ways to make a living.
Then, just when the two women were on the verge of pushing the remaining attackers around a corner and back out into an open square where they could be more effectively scattered, a roar of anticipation rose above the fray as another two dozen assassins arrived. This melange of humans and aliens was better dressed, better armed, and tended to fight more as a unit than those who had preceded them. A tiring Luminara realized suddenly that the previous hard fighting had never been intended to kill them, but only to wear them out. Steeling herself and shouting encouragement to a visibly downcast Barriss, she once more found herself retreating back down the narrow street they had nearly succeeded in escaping.
Drawing new courage from the arrival of fresh reinforcements, their surviving assailants redoubled their own attack. Jedi and Padawan were forced steadily backward.
Then there was no more backward. The side street dead-ended against a featureless courtyard wall. To anyone else it would have appeared unscalable. But a Jedi could find hand- and footholds where others would see only a smooth surface.
"Barriss!" Lightsaber whirling, Luminara indicated the reddish-colored barrier behind them. "Go up! I'll follow." Dropping to his knees, a man clad in tough leathers took careful aim with a blaster. Luminara blocked both his shots before taking one hand briefly off the lightsaber to gesture in his direction. Like a living thing, the dangerous weapon flew out of his hands, startling him so badly he fell backward onto his butt.
Protected by his fellow assassins, he did not panic like a common killer but instead scrambled to recover the blaster. They couldn't keep this up forever, she knew.
"Up, I said!" Luminara did not have to turn to sense the unyielding wall behind her.
Barriss hesitated. "Master, you can cover me if I climb, but I can't do the same for you from the top of the wall." Lunging, she disarmed a serpentine Wetakk who was trying to slip in under her guard. Letting out a yelp of pain, it stepped back and switched the hooked blade it was holding to another hand, of which it still had five remaining. Without missing a breath, the Padawan added, "You can't climb and use your weapon, too!"
"I'll be all right," Luminara assured her, even as she wondered how she was going to make the ascent without being cut down from behind. But her first concern was for her Padawan, and not for herself. "That's an order, Barriss! Get up there. We have to get out of this confined space."
Reluctantly, Barriss took a last sweeping swing to clear the ground in front of her. Then she shut down her lightsaber, slipped it back onto her belt, pivoted, took a few steps, and leapt. The jump carried her partway up the wall, to which she clung like a spider. Finding seemingly invisible fingerholds, she began to ascend. Below and behind her,
Luminara single-handedly held back the entire surging throng of eager killers.
Nearly at the top, Barriss looked back and down. Luminara was not only holding off her own assailants, but had moved forward to ensure that none of those in the back would have time to take aim at the climbing
Padawan. Barriss hesitated.
"Master Luminara, there are too many! I can't protect you from up here."
The Jedi turned to respond. As she did so, she failed to see or sense a small Throbe standing behind a much larger human. The Throbe's blaster was small, its aim wild, but the undeflected shot still managed to graze the woman in the umber robes. Luminara staggered.
"Master!" Frantic, Barriss debated whether to ascend the remaining distance to the top of the wall or disobey her Master and drop back down to aid her. In the midst of her confusion, a subtle tremor ran through her mind. It was a disturbance in the Force, but one very different from anything they had experienced this dreadful morning. It was also surprisingly strong.
Yelling encouragement, the two men plunged past on either side of
Luminara. Neither was physically imposing, though one had a build suggestive of considerable future development. Lightsabers flashing,
they fell in among the bewildered band of assassins, their weapons dealing out havoc in bantha-sized doses.
To their credit, the attackers held their ground for another couple of moments. Then, their associates falling all around them, the survivors broke and fled. In less than a minute, the street was clear and the way back to the central square unobstructed. Letting go of the wall, Barriss dropped the considerable distance to the ground, to find herself facing an attractive young man who wore confidence like a handmade suit.
Smiling cockily, he deactivated his lightsaber and regarded her appraisingly.
"I've been told that morning exercise is good for the soul as well as the body. Hello, Barriss Offee."
"Anakin Skywalker. Yes, I remember you from training." Automatically nodding her thanks, she hurried to her Master's side. The other newcomer was already examining Luminara's blaster wound.
"It's not serious."
Luminara pulled her garments closed rather more sharply than was necessary. "You're early, Obi-Wan," she told her colleague. "We weren't expecting you until the day after tomorrow."
"Our ship made good time." As the four emerged onto the square,
Obi-Wan's gaze swept the open space. Presently, it was as void of inimical disturbance, as was the Force. He allowed himself to relax slightly. "Since we arrived early, we suspected there would be no one to meet us at the spaceport. So we decided to come looking for you. When you weren't at your stated residence, we decided to take a stroll to acquaint ourselves with the city. That's when I sensed the trouble. It drew us to you."
"Well, I certainly can't fault your timing." She smiled gratefully. It was the same intriguing smile that Obi-Wan remembered from working with her previously, framed as it was by its differently toned lips. "The situation was becoming awkward."
"Awkward!" Anakin declared. "Why, if Master Obi-Wan and I hadn't--" The look of disapproval the Jedi shot him was enough to destroy the observation in midsentence.
"Something I've been curious about ever since we were given this assignment." Barriss moved a little farther away from her counterpart and closer to the two senior Jedi. "Why are four of us needed here, to deal with what seems to me to be nothing more than a minor dispute among the native sentients?" Her impatience was palpable. "Earlier, you spoke of greater issues." "You remember our discussions," Luminara explained patiently. "Well, the Alwari nomads think the Senate favors the city dwellers. The city folk are certain the galactic government will side with the nomads. Such perceptions of favoritism on the part of the
Senate are dangerously close to persuading both groups that Ansion would be better off outside the Republic, where inernal disputes could be settled without outside interference. Their representative in the Senate appears to be leaning in that direction. There is also evidence to support the contention that offworld elements are stirring the pot,
hoping to induce Ansion to secede."
"It's only one world, and not a particularly important one at that,"
Luminara nodded slowly. "True. But it's not Ansion itself that is so critical. Through a multiplicity of pacts and could pull other systems out of the Republic as well. More systems than I, or the Jedi Council,
likes to think about. Therefore, a way must be found to keep Ansion within the Republic. The best way to do that is to remove the suspicions that exist between the city dwellers and the nomads, and thereby solidify planetary representation. As outsiders representing the will of the Senate, we will find respect on Ansion, but no friends. While we are here, suspicion will be our constant companion. Given the fluid complexity of the situation, the matter of shifting alliances, the possible presence of outside agitators, and the seriousness of the potential ramifications, it was felt that two pairs of negotiators would make a greater and more immediate impression on the situation than one."
"I see now." There was much more at stake here, Barriss found herself thinking, than a disagreement between city folk and nomads. Had Luminara been instructed to conceal the real reason for their journey from her
Padawan until now, or had Barriss simply been too preoccupied with her own training to see the larger issues? Like it or not, it appeared that she was going to have to pay more attention to galactic politics.
For example, why would forces beyond Ansion want to see it secede from the Republic badly enough to interfere in the planet's internal affairs?
What could such unknown entities possibly have to gain by its withdrawal? There were thousands upon thousands of civilized worlds in the Republic. The departure of one, or even several, would mean little in the overall scheme of galactic governance. Or would it?
She felt sure she was missing some vital point, and the fact that she knew she was doing so was exceedingly frustrating. But she couldn't question Luminara further about it, because Obi-Wan was speaking.
"Someone or several someones beyond Ansion doesn't want these negotiations to succeed. They want Ansion to secede from the Republic,
with all the problematic consequences that would ensue." Obi-Wan squinted at the sky, which had begun to threaten rain. "It would be useful to know who. We should have detained one of your attackers."
"They could have been common bandits," Anakin pointed out.
Luminara considered. "It's possible. Anyway, if Obi-Wan is right and that rabble was hired to prevent us from continuing with our mission,
their employer would have kept those who at-tacked us in the dark as to his or her identity and purpose. Even if we had been successful in capturing one of them, an interrogation might well have been useless."
"Yes, that's so," the Padawan had to admit.
"So you were on Naboo, too?" Feeling left out of the conversation between the two older Jedi, Barriss turned curiously to her counterpart.
"I was." The pride in the younger man's voice was unapologetic. He's a strange one, she mused. Strange, but not unlikable. As stuffed full of internal conflicts as a momus bush was with seeds. But there was no denying that the Force was strong within him.
"How long have you been Master Luminara's Padawan?" he asked.
"Long enough to know that those who have their mouths open all the time generally have their ears shut."
"Oh great," Anakin muttered. "You're not going to spend all our time together speaking in aphorisms, are you?"
"At least I can talk about something besides myself," she shot back.
"Somehow I don't think you scored well in modesty."
To her surprise, he was immediately contrite. "Was I just talking about myself? I'm sorry." He indicated the two figures preceding them up the busy street. "Master Obi-Wan says that I suffer from a surfeit of impatience. I want to know, to do, every-thing right now. Yesterday. And
I'm not very good at disguising the fact that I'd rather be elsewhere.
This isn't a very exciting assignment."
She gestured back in the direction of the side street they had left piled high with bodies. "You're here less than a day and already you've been forced into life-or-death hand-to-hand com-bat. Your definition of excitement must be particularly eclectic."
He almost laughed. "And you have a really dry sense of humor. I'm sure we'll get along fine."
Reaching the commercial district on the other side of the square and plunging back into the surging crowds of humans and aliens, Barriss wasn't so certain. He was very sure of himself, this tall, blue-eyed
Padawan. Maybe it was true what he said about wanting to know everything. His attitude was that he already did. Or was she mistaking confidence for arrogance?
Abruptly, he broke away from her. She watched as he stopped before a stall selling dried fruits and vegetables from the Kander region to the north of Cuipernam. When he returned without buying anything, she eyed him uncertainly.
"What was that all about? Did you see something that looked tasty but on closer inspection turned out not to be?"
"What?" He seemed suddenly preoccupied. "No. No, it wasn't the food at all." He glanced back at the simple food stand as they hurried to catch up with their teachers. "Didn't you see? That boy over there, the one in the vest and long pants, was arguing with his mother. Yelling at her."
He shook his head dole-fully. "Someday when he's older he'll regret having done that. I didn't tell him so directly, but I think I got the point across." He sank into deep contemplation. "People are so busy getting on with their lives they frequently forget what's really important."
What a strange Padawan, she mused, and what an even stranger young man.
They were more or less the same age, yet in some ways he struck her as childlike, while in others he seemed much older than her. She wondered if she would have time enough to get to know him better. She wondered if anyone would have time enough to get to know him. She certainly hadn't,
during their brief encounters at the Jedi Temple. Just then thunder boomed overhead, and for some reason she could not quite put a finger on she was afraid it signified the approach of more than just rain.