Rain was pouring from the leaden Coruscanti sky, and an icy wind was sweeping through the skyscrapers and over the of Galactic City, reaching with its frozen whips the open landing pad of the vast GC spaceport where the two Jedi stood, trying with little success to find cover from the rain under the plastene canopy that sheltered the speeders' station where they had been dropped off .
While his master seemed to be in control of his bodily temperature, Obi-Wan felt every gush of wind sneaking like damp, cold fingers under his robes and freezing him to his bones.
He hated to admit it, but he feared he would not have felt so cold had he not been already chilled to the bone by the scare he still harbored from the vision of the afternoon, whose effects on him had not yet lifted. Not even the Tarisian Ale, his most cherished guilty pleasure, in which unfortunately as a Jedi he could rarely indulge, had been able to cheer him up; he had drunk it without savoring the flowery taste he usually enjoyed so much, able only to hope that a little dizziness could wash away the memories of his daunting mystic experience.
He still found it hard to focus (possibly because of the ale as well as of the vision) and was so chilled that he had to call on the Force to stop his teeth from rattling.
That's not exactly how I like to start a new mission, he grimly thought. He cast an hopeful glance at their ship, a robust and warm-looking Aka'jor-class shuttle of Mandalorian manufacture, which was waiting for them on the pad. Unluckily, the girl they had been sent to escort was still nowhere to be seen.
"Just our luck that the WeatherNet decided it had to rain this afternoon", Obi-Wan groaned at last, clutching his cape against the wind.
"You know there is no such thing as luck, Obi-Wan", his master rebuked him, a smile hidden under his frown.
"Of course, Master. It's the will of the Force then," he responded flatly, "but I don't get why the Force would want us to appear in front of Lady Kryze like a pair of drowned rats."
Qui-Gon sighed. He knew that Obi-Wan was still distressed by the vision he'd had, but the mere fact that someone as unglamorous as his Padawan, of all the possible cold-related worries, decided to worry about his looks meant they had truly lingered too long on fashion-obsessed Coruscant.
"Since when have you… Oh no", he said, trying to stir him out of his bad mood by teasing him, "You know you shouldn't be worrying about what girls think of your looks, do you?".
"Master!", Obi-Wan wailed, outraged and for a moment oblivious of cold. "Don't tease me! I merely think our first appearance as Jedi should be dignified. I don't care at all about looking charming to some adolescent wannabe warlord."
Just as Qui-Gon was going to point out to his apprentice that his pose, hunched against the wind, combined with his worst sulking face was quite far from the dignified stance of a Jedi, suddenly a cloaked figure materialized out of the rain, coming from the door of the turbolift leading from the Spaceport pedestrian entrance and running to an halt beside them under the shelter of the canopy.
The two Jedi did not even bother to put their hands on the hilt of their lightsabers. The Force hadn't warned them at all; the newcomer could pose no danger and they had a feeling it was the girl they were waiting for.
The figure lowered her hood and bowed at them, panting from the run and proving their guess right.
"Honored Masters. I am Satine Kryze and I humbly thank you for having come to my aid", she said, her slow inflection an odd yet sophisticated mix of youth and sharpness.
When she lifted her face, Obi-Wan could finally get a look at her. She was slender and of average height, a little shorter than him. Her pale triangular face, framed by long blond hair, sported lean features: high cheekbones, pointed chin, sharp nose, thin lips. Her hard, bony appearance was somehow softened by her gentle ice-blue eyes.
She seemed younger than she was and her attire did not help either: under the heavy black cape, clearly too big for her, she wore azure leggings and a short turquoise dress of a design in vogue amidst Coruscanti university students.
She looks smart enough, but she reminds me more of a school-girl playing truant than a Mandalorian leader, Obi-Wan thought while reciprocating the courtesy.
"We are the ones that should be thankful for the trust you placed in us", his Master was saying. "Qui-Gon Jinn at your service, Milady. This in Obi-Wan Kenobi, my Padawan apprentice."
"At your service, Milady."
The girl turned to face him and eyed him from head to foot. For some reason, his presence seemed to displease him. The scrutiny put Obi-Wan at unease, above all because he didn't think to deserve such a condescending look.
At any rate, he seemed to have met at least what she held as average standard for a Jedi escort, for she looked back to Qui-Gon without apparent changes in her expression.
"I wasn't aware you were planning to bring an apprentice along. The Council told me they would assign me one of their Knights", she said sternly.
Qui-Gon's surprise at her harsh remark was only shown by an imperceptible raise of his eyebrows, while his Padawan's efforts to hide his own feeling of wounded pride were far less successful.
"Knights do often have Padawans, Milady. A Knight and a Padawan make an indissoluble unit, we count as one. It's a two-for-one deal, twice the security for you", he added with a gentle smile.
The girl's stern glaze did not falter under Qui-Gon's smile.
"I don't like getting deals I did not bargain for", she replied with the same dry tone, " and besides, my plans were made counting only one Jedi in. Now I must revise them, and we don't have much time. Follow me on my ship, please, Masters. We really must be going."
Before turning away toward the ship, the girl cast an unimpressed gaze at Obi-Wan, whose expression had shifted from an insulted frown to an hardly-contained and really unbecoming gasp. Attentive to protocol as he was, he could not fathom how a girl so young could speak like that to a Jedi Knight. Though his Jedi pride was deeply wounded, he had to admit to himself he admired her nerve at facing and standing her ground against someone so imposing as his Master, who was now staring blankly at the spot where she had been.
After a few seconds of reverie Qui-Gon sighed.
"A fine prototype of Mandalorian Assault Tongue, I'm afraid. Let's just hope this is not the new trend in Mandalorian weaponry, or I'm in for some dire times. Sharp tongues are your arena", he said, warily. "Go on, Padawan."
Obi-Wan didn't know if he was more startled at the girl's brashness or at Qui-Gon's unhappy attempt for a joke.
He must be shaken indeed, he thought. Mandalorian Assault Tongue. I just hope he says this to her face someday.
They ran through the rain to the boarding ramp and got onto the ship, dripping water on its plasteel floor. As soon as they were on board they took their soaked robes off. Without her cape, the girl looked even smaller, almost frail. Moreover, the unforgiving artificial light of the ship fully showed the signs of the grief she had tried to conceal under the hood: her eyes were red and swollen, her face blotchy, and her hair, clearly in need of a comb, bore the signs of a sleepless night. Obi-Wan felt a deep surge of compassion for the skinny teenager, who right now seemed nothing more than an orphaned child.
Qui-Gon's frown softened. Whatever her ends could be, whatever his doubts could be, her grief was sincere.
So much for his doubts over the mission. Here we are once again, picking up pathetic lifeforms throughout the galaxy, Obi-Wan thought fondly. And to think that on Melida/Daan he made me abandon the Order because for once I was concerned about people. You wretched hypocrite, Master Jinn.
Aware of the sudden concern her grieved looks had evoked in her companions, the girl straightened her face and tightened her lips. The moment was gone, and Obi-Wan guiltily thought he liked her more as a skinny orphan than as a brash school-girl.
"Please, follow me to the passengers compartment where we can talk more comfortably", she said, all politeness.
Without a word the two Jedi followed her to the passengers seats in the area just behind the cockpit. The girl sat, her tiredness betrayed by the speed of her drop on the cushioned seat: it looked almost as her knees had given out.
"I apologize for my previous brashness, Masters", she began, startling Obi-Wan.
Is she able to read minds? Or are our thoughts too conspicuous?, he thought, as she resumed talking after a brief pause, in which Qui-Gon had acknowledged her excuses with a slight bow.
"These events have caught me unprepared. I have received diplomatic and military training, but I have tested neither on the field. I did not have much time to arrange my return to Kalevala and I am afraid my plans are farfetched. You know, I may be an adolescent wannabe warlord, as Padawan Kenobi has so gently put it", she said viciously, not even looking at the blushing Obi-Wan, "but I am smart enough to believe it unwise for me to enter Mandalorian space with a Jedi escort".
Qui-Gon, after a passing glance at his Padawan, that Obi-Wan read as What do I always tell you about not voicing out loud every single one of your witty remarks?, lifted his eyebrows.
"So why did you ask for one, Milady?"
She looked at him, bewildered.
"I am not saying I shouldn't have brought you into this, although I'm still not sure it was a good idea. I'm only saying you need to be undercover, but I have planned just one cover story. Is it really necessary for your apprentice to tag along?"
Obi-Wan opened his mouth to respond, outraged, but his Master prevented him.
"He is, Milady. I am sorry. You should have informed the Council of your needs and strategies beforehand. And I must remind you that I am in charge of your security. From now on there won't be such thing as your plans."
The girl, even if thus rebuked, didn't lower her stern gaze.
"Very well, Master Jinn. Then may I present you some… suggestions for our plan?"
Obi-Wan flinched, amused. Qui-Gon nodded, impassive.
"My uncle has me cornered. Since my shuttle doesn't have quarters and he insisted for me to be "accommodated according to my rank", I'm to take the Perlemian Route on my own and then rendezvous with his man at Brentaal; they are to escort me along the Hydian Way to Mandalorian space with a luxury ship. To avoid any kind of personal enterprise, he hired two Mandalorian mercenaries to escort me until Brentaal, on the pretense of "not wanting to put me under the stress of piloting my ship". That's why I asked you to meet beforehand here, it's the only safe place I know. It is my personal vehicle, and all its security terminals, plus those of the landing pad, have a one-way encrypted link for data transmission with my datapad only. No one can spy on us while we are here and we can speak freely. My plan was to introduce you as my personal advisor, some random political philosopher from Coruscant University. No Mandalorian would take you seriously… or me, for that matters, which is entirely to our advantage."
Qui-Gon's eyebrows had almost reached its hairline.
"So they will underestimate us, thus making it easier for us to sneak around and plan our moves", Obi-Wan intervened, speaking slowly. He was starting to understand how her mind worked. "Good call, Milady."
She is arrogant but clever. This mission is truly going to be interesting.
"Thank you, Padawan", she replied, addressing him a faint smile. "The problem is, we now have to devise a role for you. A relative is out of the question, everyone knows my whole family; the same goes for fiancée, it would put me in a bad light."
Qui-Gon felt Obi-Wan stiffen at the word "fiancée" and forced himself to suppress a grin.
"Is he that bad looking?", he asked in a business-like tone. Obi-Wan blushed and cast his Master a resentful glance. Teasing was his business, he hated when Qui-Gon teased him because he was afraid he could not retort as freely as he would have wanted to.
The girl chuckled, and the air around them felt suddenly lighter, tension slipping away from the conversation. Obi-Wan understood that she had been in dire need of a more cordial approach towards her escort, but hadn't dared showing it out of fear of being underestimated. He had to admire, for the hundredth time, the way Qui-Gon was able to plunge into the currents of the Living Force to understand the currents sweeping in the souls of those around him, and the gentle way in which he entered those current to soften the hardest feelings.
"That's not for me to judge, Master", she replied with regained, even if partly faked, seriousness, "but he is no Mandalorian, and anyway such a close connection would put him under strict scrutiny. We do not want too many eyes on us."
"I was only teasing my apprentice, Milady. I would not advise that solution either. What about a bodyguard?"
She looked at him in disbelief.
"Why in the galaxy would a Mandalorian hire a teenage bodyguard?"
Since the start of the conversation Obi-Wan had been feeling like a pendulum swinging back and forth from annoyance to amusement. This time the shift was rather toward annoyance.
"Says the mature woman", he snapped. "I am no teenager and I am more than capable of being your bodyguard. That's exactly what the Jedi council sent us here for in the first place, and what you asked in the first place, if I remember correctly."
"How old can you be? Twenty-two?", she retorted.
"Twenty-one", he said grudgingly. "But that's not the point. I am a well-trained Jedi! Why would you have asked for Jedi help if you don't even trust us to pretend being bodyguards?".
This time he was really starting to lose his temper.
Qui-Gon, amused, kept silent. He knew Obi-Wan would grow out of his temper, eventually. Maybe this mission was the right moment to, but he'd have to learn how to on his own.
The girl softened her gaze and smiled at Obi-Wan.
"I believe you, Padawan. Do not misunderstand me, I am not questioning your abilities. But put yourself in the shoes of a Mandalorian onlooker, seeing me getting back from Coruscant with a suspiciously young twenty-years-old non-Mandalorian bodyguard accompanied by a mature unknown counselor. What would you think?"
"Jedi", he conceded. She had a point, and he was starting to feel like an idiot, as he always did when he let his temper get the upper hand. He knew his strength lay in his wits, and to profit from it he had to remain calm.
She is certainly making that hard.
"Exactly", she replied. "And we don't want that to happen. Not yet, at any rate."
"Do you have any idea, then?", Qui-Gon enquired, feeling it was better if he took matters back into his hands.
"A pilot", she replied with a mischievous smile. "You are a philosopher and anyone knows philosophers are full of quirks and idiosyncrasies; yours is that you won't fly unless your ship is piloted by your own young but trusted pilot. These mercenaries won't mind, as far as they get their pay."
Obi-Wan grinned. The idea of Qui-Gon posing as an eccentric philosopher was truly entertaining and he was looking forward to seeing him in action.
"I think you are enjoying this far too much, my young apprentice", his Master said scornfully.
"I think I am, Master", he replied laughing.
"You have two hours to get yourselves some clothes. We will meet here with my esteemed mercenary escort and leave as soon as you are ready."
That first stage of the plan had gone quite smoothly, Obi-Wan had to admit. None of the two men had as much as blinked in learning that the young, naïve heir to the Kryze clan was going home in the company of some obscure, velvet-clad Coruscanti holy man.
Unfortunately, one of the two hired men was actually fond of flying, and had consented grudgingly to letting this young man in leather pants and smuggler jacket taking command of the ship. The fake pilot didn't enjoy much the part of the plan that entailed his relegation in the cockpit with the annoyed Mandalorian pilot, with whom he had to pretend to be perfectly able to fly a ship he had never seen before, let alone piloted.
Obi-Wan did not dislike flying, and he was certainly more at ease in piloting a shuttle (a Mandalorian shuttle! That seemed to come straight out of some history datapad!) than he would have been, for instance, in space combat: after all, the beauty of flying lay in the beauty of space, and combat didn't leave enough time to enjoy its wonders: the pale light of the stars, the velvet darkness of deep space, the kaleidoscopic colors of planetary surfaces.
Above all, he was genuinely fond of hyperspace travel, but he had never had the chance to make the jump himself: now he would have to, and was eager to. Nonetheless, he would have preferred to be alone in the cockpit and have all the time he needed to quietly examine the ship's controls without a grim companion ready to notice any error on his part. He was also eager to see how Qui-Gon was playing along in his masquerade.
"So, young one", the Mandalorian enquired, "how long have you been piloting this fancy ship? Can't believe that boss of yours has convinced the Duchess to fly on a ship piloted by an kid. She must be out of her mind."
Next time someone makes a remark on my age, Obi-Wan grudgingly thought, I'll show them I'm old enough to cut their tongue off with my saber.
"Duchess? Didn't she have an elder sister to claim the title?", he replied instead. Using small-talk to gather information about their ward seemed a good idea. Maybe he would be able to get to know something she herself wouldn't have told them.
In the meantime, as Lady Kryze had given the signal for departure through the ships' commlink, he started prepping for takeoff.
"Her sister is presumed dead. And on Mandalore, presumed dead means dead."
Obi-Wan awkwardly chuckled, feeling uncomfortable at the matter-of-fact tone the man had used.
"Well, life seems dull on Mandalore", he said.
The Mandalorian grinned.
"You bet. I don't know how you guys are not boring yourselves to death out here. By the way, name's Ylon."
Obi-Wan realized in dismay that he hadn't thought about a false name for himself; he took advantage of the time he needed to take off to come up with an alias. He lifted the boarding ramp and activated the repulsorlifts, while powering up the main engine.
"Ready for takeoff, strap yourselves in", he announced in the ship's commlink, then turned back again to Ylon.
"Sorry, not able to talk and work at the same time. I'm Ben. And, you know, I think we guys out here prefer being boringly alive than entertainingly dead."
The Mandalorian frowned.
"What about gloriously alive?"
Obi-Wan repressed a sigh.
I need to learn how to pilot this ship. I don't have the time to argue over the meaning of life with a Mandalorian hired gun.
"Maybe, but my job's just piloting. I'm glorious enough in hyperspace, you know."
"You may be a good pilot, kid, but you don't even know what being a warrior is. None of you does. That's the reason why in the end we will win", he said.
Obi-Wan bit his lips to prevent himself from retorting with some unfortunate (and very un-Jedi like) phrase such as Oh yeah, please jog my memory of you victories against Revan, which if uttered would have probably been his last: somehow he thought that the fully armed Ylon could easily become too trigger-happy, and unfortunately Obi-Wan's lightsaber was securely stored in a secret compartment in his bunk. He scowled. Apparently, ancient history wasn't a favorite school subject in Mandalore.
"You're right, I'm no warrior, so let's hope I'm dead already when you decide it's time for you to conquer the galaxy and win."
Ylon burst out laughing.
"You bet you'll be, kid. Right now we wouldn't be able to conquer an Ewok camp, let alone the galaxy. Your boring Republic can rest easy."
Obi-Wan frowned, pretending to be deep in thought. He had decided to play the part of a slow but not-so-dumb average pilot: he would be witty, but he needed to make Ylon believe he necessitated of a little bit of rumination to elaborate on his thoughts. He didn't want to look too sharp.
"But then… If what you wish is to conquer the galaxy, why fighting each other instead of focusing on your target? Not that I'm complaining, mind you", he added, whilst commencing hyperspace jump. The navicomputer had just finished plotting the course to Mandalorian Space. It would take little more than three days to get there.
"We don't usually talk about our affairs with offworlders, Ben."
"Yeah, I'd already gathered that much. Pity though, I bet some of them could make for a good story."
"Yeah. Maybe another time. How many seconds 'till the jump?"
"One hundred ten."
"If you'll excuse me, I'll go to the rear. I don't want to be in the front row when a kid drives us into a supernova."
"If you wish to miss the show. All passengers", he announced in the commlink, "we're ready for hyperspace jump."
When Ylon left the cockpit, Obi-Wan sighed in relief.
Now it was just him and the void of space. As he put his hand on the lever, he realized it was trembling. His very first hyperspace jump. He was thrilled, and he was glad Ylon had left: he could savor the moment without having to worry about impressing the Mandalorian.
Twenty, nineteen… What on heart will we do? What has she planned? We didn't even have the time for discussing this.
Sixteen, fifteen… I am really going to Mandalore, a place infamous and yet enticing for almost every Jedi.
Thirteen, twelve… So much of our history has been intertwined with that of the Mandalorians.
Ten, nine… I just hope this won't lead to another Mandalorian War. We've had enough of that already.
Seven, six… But, Mandalorians and Jedi aside, what does this mission have in store for me?
Five, four… Will I truly be tempted by the Dark Side? How?
Three, two, one… He pulled the lever, and as the stars turned into ever-changing stripes of light around him he let go of all his worries.
There is no emotion, there is peace.