A/N: As always, thanks to those helping me write and plan out this story and checking it for continuality and logic errors.
This chapter was released at least 2 weeks ago to my Pat-re-ons (with them seeing a draft version around 2 months ago) and on the story's Discord server (in GDoc form) about a week ago.
Links for both are at the end of the chapter.

Hopefully, all the little mistakes have been found and removed.


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Current Date: 1 year until the Invasion of Naboo

Knightly Diplomacy 1

… …

"Ah, there you are Cameron. I was beginning to fear you'd gotten lost somewhere in the Temple."

Master Giiett's words made the others in the room with him turn toward me and scattered chuckles echoed across the room as I entered. We were all here for a lesson with the Council Master and I was the last to arrive.

When I first arrived at the Temple eight years ago, I'd thought that all the training of a Padawan was handled by their Master. However, I'd soon learnt that this wasn't the case. Many Knights and Masters, while capable of handling the majority of a Padawan's teachings, couldn't explain everything about every subject. Thus, classes with other Jedi Masters took place wherein any Padawan was free to join a lesson, though the sizes were kept low and the Padawan's Master needed to be informed before they joined the class.

Currently, apart from time spent with Battlemaster Drallig in the training area as one of his assistants, I attended lessons with around eight other Jedi. Three of those eight stood out as they sat on the High Council; Saesee Tiin, Plo Koon and Micah Giiett.

Master Tiin's were focused on piloting smaller craft, with a focus on the few starfighter models the Order currently had. Of the group of eight, I was by far and away the weakest pilot, lacking the natural inclination toward it that most of the others had. However, Master Tiin had explained privately that he'd asked for me to be assigned to this class because of the bond I shared with Raven. That would, he felt, grant me an edge in piloting that few others in the Order could match; at least not those with a natural inclination toward flying.

While all that made sense, and I'd seen a big improvement in my piloting skills, I suspected one reason he'd made sure I was assigned to his class was to gain more access to Raven. He'd even had me pilot the ship several times for the class to show them what a bond between ship and pilot could look in a way they'd never considered before.

Oddly, Tiin wasn't the only Council member who enjoyed flying on Raven and as such, I'd become something of the de-facto pilot for the Council whenever one or more of them needed to travel somewhere on the planet. Usually, that was just to the Senate building, but I enjoyed getting to fly with Raven and she adored being airborne. Hell, each time we flew I could feel her wanting to go higher, to leave the atmosphere, and feel the unfiltered solar rays of the stars upon her skin once again.

While I'd only been able to do that a few times, mainly when Tiin was onboard as he seemed able to sense Raven's delight at entering space, I'd made so many trips to the Senate building over the last few months that the guard there knew me by name. Still, while waiting around in Raven for whichever Council member I was ferrying was boring, it still gave me time with her, and it was better than about sixty per cent of the things I did in the Temple.

Of the classes I took with other Jedi, Master Koon's were the most normal. At least in the sense of what I'd expect we'd be getting taught if we couldn't use the Force. I'd been asked to join this class by the Council after Zonama Sekot, and at first, I'd wondered why, but the reason had become apparent quite quickly. Master Koon taught classes on the sciences in this universe. What we were learning was far and away beyond anything I could've potentially learnt on Earth, but they were only the equivalent of secondary-school-level science in the Republic.

However, one of the major benefits of the lesson was that they explained, in scientific terms, how my elemental powers, in particular Electrokinesis, worked. It'd also given me new ideas about how to use them, and Force Lightning, though I'd not tried out the ideas for the latter power since using a Dark Side power in the Temple would be beyond stupid.

I also discovered that Master Koon had a form of Electrokinesis himself, which he called Electric Judgement, and through a few private lessons, I'd been shown new ways to use the Force to control the power I was unleashing.

The classes with Master Giiett were odd, though not in a way I didn't enjoy. He seemed to enjoy teaching skills and approaches to problems that were geared towards those who couldn't or wouldn't, use the Force. All in all, the lessons reminded me of some of the base training programs with the SAS for their unorthodoxy. Though Giiett was far nicer and more patient than any of my former instructors had been. Plus, while his lessons all obeyed the Code in how they were to be used, I could see ways to use them that might be used that certainly didn't. Thus, as usual, I was curious about what we'd learn today; at least after whatever little test he'd arranged to start the lesson with.

"I'm sorry, Master, but Master Bestom wished to speak with me regarding Raven. We became a little lost in conversation and I lost track of time," I replied.

Master Bestom was one of the Jedi responsible for maintaining the small fleet of vessels the Order had, and the one most responsible for looking after Raven when I wasn't around. Other than coming to adore her almost as much as I did, he was a fairly nondescript Jedi; only standing out due to his orange skin, which was less common for an Iridonian Zabrak.

"Quite understandable, she is a marvel," Giiett spoke with a wide smile and indicated the cushions set in a semi-circle around a small table that was between him and the Padawans. The table held four cups, though there appeared to be nothing in them.

I moved forward and took a seat next to Sia-Lan Wezz. She was the only person I'd known personally when I'd first started attending these classes as we'd been in Dragon Clan as Initiates. While she was closer to Serra than she was to me, I still considered her a friend; just not a very close one. Of the other four, I'd sparred with three at some point over the last few years. They had all been easy to defeat, much like Sia-Lan – who hated that I was not only better than her but improving faster – but since I'd not gloated about it, and often offered hints to help in later sessions, none seemed to dislike me.

"And here I thought you and Serra had snuck off somewhere," Sia-Lan teased in a voice just loud enough that I was sure the others heard. I rolled my eyes at the girl's behaviour. While she was close with Serra, she did enjoy needling us about how close we seemed. Or at least trying to. Thanks to Darihd among others, I knew that when Serra had first come back to the Temple after her Verd'goten, Sia-Lan and Rachi Sitra had both angered Serra.

That was in the past now though as in my time back in the Temple, and after getting reacquainted with Serra, I knew she could handle the teasing. Hell, she often shot back that the other girls were jealous of our friendship. While that didn't seem to irritate Sia-Lan, I had sensed some interesting emotions from Rachi. Then again, I sensed some from Serra as well, but I'd not acted or asked about them. Mainly as, for the last week or so, I'd been keeping my distance from Serra while she worked through the knowledge that I'd fucked Bo regularly while on Zonama Sekot.

Serra had, much to my surprise, not lashed out upon hearing that. Instead, she'd seemed relieved to know it wasn't just her imagination. Yet even though she seemed outwardly fine, through the emotions I sensed from her through our bond, and with liberal usage of Observe, I knew she was conflicted about things. Hence why I was giving her space to work through her issues privately.

"Why? You thinking of joining us?" I shot back at Sia-Lan, letting my eyes wander over her ample frame. While she was attractive and had some enticing assets, I wasn't that interested in her. Still, I wouldn't stop her if she took her shot, and I enjoyed the rush of blood that came to her face.

"What are the cups for, Master?" The question came from Veeps, a Gran, and cut off anything that Sia-Lan might contemplate saying back.

The question drew a smirk from Giiett which had me interested if not a little apprehensive as some of Giiett's lessons were odd. Enjoyable, but odd. "Just a simple game, Veeps, to pass the time." That did nothing to ease the growing apprehension in me. Giiett picked up one of the cups and held it so we could see there was nothing inside, he then repeated this with the other cups. "As you can see, each cup is identical," he turned each one upside down, which reminded me of an old con game from Earth. One hand slipped into a pocket. "Here I have four pebbles," he continued as he opened his hand. "Three white and one black."

I watched as he showed the stones to us. The game I'd played in my former life had been favoured by Jimmy, one of my former squad mates. He'd often played his game to kill downtime and we'd wager on duties around the base camp or HQ that we didn't want to do. It seemed that Giiett was about to play the same game, but with the Force to help him. While I had little interest in playing anything like Sabacc with any regularity, learning how to subtly use the Force to help my odds wasn't a lesson I was going to turn down.

"Each white stone goes under one cup," Giiett continued as he did exactly as he said, which only increased my curiosity and I began reaching out with the Force, trying to sense what was under the cups. "As does the black one," he added as he slipped the last stone under the last cup. "The object of the game is to keep track of the cup with the black stone."

"That's easy," muttered another of the Padawans, a Human male named Calard Aseld, however, my attention wasn't on him or Giiett. No, it was on the cups. Giiett hadn't started to move them, but I knew he was up to something; likely he hoped to shift our attention away from the cups and then use the Force to distort our ability to track the cup with the black stone.

As much as I wanted to, tracking the stone via its colour was beyond me. Hell, it was beyond my masters and from how they'd phrased it, to use the Force that subtly was an ability that required a connection to and trust in the Force that few ever achieved.

"Then let us see if it is." With that, Giiett started moving the cups. "It may require all of your powers to keep track of the right cup," he added as his hands moved rapidly. The Force was enhancing his reflexes as the cups were all but a blur unless one also drew on the Force - or were from a race with massively superior eyesight than a Human. "This game, among others, is popular in the Outer Rim with gamblers. Often huge sums are wagered on the outcome, even the fate of entire planets on occasion." My brow rose at hearing that, and I almost took my attention from the cups. Surely, he was teasing as the idea that the fate of a world could be determined by a simple back-alley game was… disturbing.

"Of course, as Jedi, it would be unethical to engage in such acts willingly. And certainly not if we were to use our training to help alter an outcome in our favour." My mind instantly recalled Qui-Gon's trick with the chance dice as proof that wasn't true. "However, there is a chance that, on some future mission to some random point far in the Rim, you may be placed in a situation where you are forced to engage in such a game of chance against more ethically-challenged sentients." Yeah, that was a good way to describe Watto I realised as the cups continued to move at incredible speed, though it wasn't anywhere near fast enough that I struggled to track the correct cup. Nor did I think my fellow Padawans were struggling to do so either.

"There! Done!" Giiett called out as the cups suddenly stopped moving and he removed his hands from them. "Where is the…" He couldn't finish the sentence as five hands thrust out, pointing at the cup that held the black stone. "Oh my, it seems I'm losing my touch," he muttered with a smile which set off alarm bells in my head and made me glad I'd held my hand back enough that I wasn't pointing at the cup, though it was clear I thought the cup everyone agreed upon with the correct one.

"N-no, Master," Replied Sia-Lan with uncharacteristic weakness. "You moved the cups quickly. However, as you said, we have training in the ways of the Force to help us."

Giiett smiled, seemingly accepting her words. He moved his hand toward the cup that had the black stone only to stop about halfway there. "Is something the matter, Cameron?"

That had everyone looking at me, making it obvious my hand hadn't fully pointed at the cup where the black stone was. Or should be at any rate.

I took a moment to gather my thoughts before replying. "This is too easy. You used the Force to move the cups faster than any of us could track if we also didn't use the Force to guide us. Yet, you could've gone faster. I'm sure of that. That is the cup you placed the black stone under, yet at the same time, it can't be. It's far too obvious."

Giiett's smile grew wider, though it offered no hint if my thought process was right or wrong. "Then let us see." He picked up the cup, showing that the stone under it was white instead of black.


The Council member laughed at the confused comment from Calard and the expressions the other Padawans wore. "As Cameron said, the game was easy," he explained as he started turning over the other cups. "Even for a Padawan, tracking the location of an object moving at great speed and hidden is a relatively simple exercise. Though you cannot track the colour as that is something few Jedi can."

"They're all white!" Sia-Lan spat out as the last cup was overturned, which drew another chuckle from Giiett.

"But where is the black stone?" Veeps asked as confusion radiated off the other Padawans.

"Either he never put it under the cup," I began slowly, once more drawing everyone's attention as I voiced my suspicions, "or he somehow used the Force to trick our senses into believing there was a black stone where there wasn't."

"He used the Force to hide it from us! Most impressive Master!" That came from Shim Pod, who until this point had been quiet, and made me shake my head.

"Did he? Or did we just assume, having seen the black stone earlier and the three white stones go under the other cups clearly, that the last stone must be black?" I reached forward and with my outstretched hand, tapped one of Giiett's. The same one that hadn't turned any of the cups yet had been the one that moved the black cup around most of the time.

Giiett's smile grew wider and he laughed as he turned over his hand and opened his palm, revealing the black stone within. "Well done, Cameron. It's a rare thing when a Padawan sees through the trick," he said as the others all looked on with various expressions of disbelief. He then looked at the others. "Cameron didn't use the Force to determine where the black stone was. He instead questioned his assumptions and expectations of what he thought he knew instead of trusting them blindly." Giiett tossed the black stone up and caught it when he fell. "Sometimes a trick is just a trick."

The other Padawans looked among themselves, taking on board the lesson. As they did that, Giiett collected up the cups and other stones, and after stacking them, placed them slightly behind himself. "Now, for today I'd like you to think about how, like with that game, one can be blinded, whether by the Force, nature, or others, when we assign what we believe should happen to a problem."

I smiled as he spoke. Giiett was different from the other teachers I'd had in the Order, offering lessons that most wouldn't think about yet were critical to surviving the galaxy that existed outside the hallowed walls of the Temple. Yes, he was a devoted follower of the Council's decisions and an ardent believer in the Code as it currently was interpreted, but he was such an out-of-the-box thinker compared to the others, that I couldn't help but enjoy his classes.

Sometimes I did wonder if I'd have been better served by becoming his Padawan. However, when I arrived at the Temple, he'd already taken Bultar Swan. Plus, if I'd somehow been assigned to him, I'd have gone mad at the idea of being stuck in the Temple and unable to do anything.

… …

… …

I scampered back, my lightsaber coming up and tapping away the probing thrust of the blue lightsaber of my opponent. However, they were ready for this and as my blade touched their azure one, they twisted their wrist and slid their blade down mine.

One of my feet shifted, and I turned to ensure the attack slid away from me and then pushed the blade away. That created an opening for me, and I flicked my wrist, redirecting my lightsaber toward them. However, before my blade was even halfway through the move, they leapt high, the Force pushing them upward.

Their blade moved, as even while they were airborne, it attacked, dragging toward my shoulder as its wielder sailed over me. I was forced to drop low and pivot to avoid the tip of their blade, and the shift meant that I wasn't ready to counterattack before they'd landed with a grace few beings could match. Still, there was a small chance I could score a strike against them, which would be my very first, and I thrust forward, aiming low for their legs.

Yet even as my blade moved, so did theirs. It came from higher, aiming toward my exposed head. The velocity it moved meant I barely had time to stop my attack and withdraw, the heat of the blade near my cheek making clear just how close I'd come to getting a minor burn.

The blade came down, hoping to catch me somewhere else, but my lightsaber was back in time to push that probing strike aside. Sparks flew between her blue blade and my dual-cored one. Those almost distracted me with the way they seemed to enhance her beauty, drawing attention to the colour of her skin and the way her robes caught against her skin, hinting at the figure that was under there.

I didn't get lost in the view as she shifted her wrist and her blade stabbed forward. I tapped it away even as I slid back, regaining my stance as I left my crouched position. She stepped forward even as her arm and blade moved as one. My blade came up, deflecting one attack, then gliding around another. Her attacks increased in speed, forcing me to my limit and if not for being able to use the Force to enhance my reactions and body, I'd have been skewered so many times in under a minute I'd look like a pin cushion.

Eventually, I was able to generate some space between us, granting me a moment of reprieve. The only reason I wasn't blinded by sweat was Gamer's Body. Still, it was clear to me, as it had been in each of our previous three dozen spars over the last few weeks, that I was going to lose badly. While I had the technical ability to keep up with her, I lacked the grace, fluidity, and instinctual connection to the Force she, like almost all Jedi Masters, held. Though she was beyond others in that grace, being almost mesmerising as she moved around me, guiding me to where she knew the kill strike would come.

The short reprieve ended when she surged forward, her blade whipping in low to my leg. I slid the leg back, yet as I did so, her blade shifted direction, the tip now bearing down on my gut. My lightsaber came down, applying just enough pressure to ensure the tip of her blade wouldn't land. Her arm and wrist moved, turning the blade, and even as I attempted to guide it away, it slid under my blade.

Left with no choice, I leapt back and spun, using the Force to try and restore the distance between us. My lightsaber trailed behind me, shielding my back from the likely angles of attack, though none came as I landed and whipped my lightsaber around, generating speed. Dooku would likely have disliked my usage of that manoeuvre, but I wasn't staying as a pure Makashi practitioner like him and it'd felt like the right move to use at that point in the spar.

However, before I could bring my lightsaber around for a Djem So strike, my eyes widened. The tip of her blade was sailing toward my face, aimed for the bridge of my nose. I altered the angle of my swing and brought my lightsaber around, slapping away the attack. However, that left me off-balance and all it took was the seemingly simplest of flicks of her wrist for me to feel a burst of pain from my wrist. Having grown used to the stab of pain, I retained control of my lightsaber, but I knew there'd be a slight burn against my skin that I'd need to heal. Along with four others from her earlier strikes.

"And that is the spar," I grunted in annoyance at once more losing to master Shaak Ti. My free hand slipped behind me and I used the Force to push myself forward slightly, preventing me from ending the spar on my arse. Though if she'd used another move with more power behind it, I'd have not been able to prevent that from happening.

Her blade pulled back and she depowered it and I did the same, once more glad for Gamer's Body and the way it altered how I reacted to being tired. Without it, I'd be doubled over panting, however, I was able to remain standing. Even if my breathing was faster and deeper than when the spar had begun.

She stepped closer, a smile spreading across her face. "You are getting more comfortable with adapting velocities into your base form," she said softly. "However, always remember that the best option is often the simplest one. There is little need for anything extravagant unless it is designed to disorient your opponent. Being overly complex or flashy may expose a weakness that an opponent can exploit."

I nodded in acceptance of her words. "Yes, Master." Even as she spoke, my mind was replaying the spar for the first time – though not the last – to see what I could've done better. I picked out one such moment, back when I'd only been losing two-zero – the final score, as always, was five-zero – where I'd chosen to leap over her, twisting as I'd done so. However, unlike her doing that near the end of the fifth point, I'd spun too rapidly and left myself unstable, which had allowed her to score an easy point. Just comparing what I'd done to what she'd done made it clear how I'd fucked up, and how a simpler, more basic slide withdrawal would've left me in a more defensible position.

Shaak's smile grew, and she placed a hand on my shoulder. "There is nothing wrong with attempting something new in the sparring ring. That is, after all, why they exist. You just need time and practice to better feel the flow of the Force in a battle; to sense when to attack, when to feint, or when to defend. That said, your Makashi is, as always, technically flawless. Plus, I saw more hints of the adaption of various Ataru and Djem So stances and velocities in your style today. While you still have some distance to go until they feel as natural as they should, your progress, as always, is nothing short of remarkable." She withdrew her hand and shook her head gently, making her montrals shift. "The only oddity to your form, which you are well aware of, is how you always feel mechanical; as if the Force isn't able to guide you properly. However, like Master Dooku, I am sure this is a simple mental block you will eventually overcome. You know and can complete velocities from the base five forms that almost all Jedi, even Masters on the Council or with decades spent in a sparring ring, struggle to perform. Once you learn to trust in yourself and the Force and add some flair to your movements, I have little doubt you will join the ranks of our greatest lightsaber duellists."

I nodded at her words which, while kind, were the same ones she had been saying since our first spar. And carried the same gist as Dooku when he commented on my lightsaber skill, even if they came in a sweeter tone from a far more attractive visage. However, the fact that even with a maxed Makashi skill, and others in the high Professional range – at least – that I couldn't even score a point against either was driving me to fucking distraction. Now, against other Padawans, or the handful of Knights I'd sparred with, it wasn't obvious. But against anyone on Shaak Ti's or Dooku's level, it was beyond a fucking joke.

Hell, barring Master Donjo Hipato, I'd failed to score a point against any Master in the ring. The only reason I'd managed to do that against Hipato was that he was newly risen to the rank and focused more on his studies than on using a lightsaber. However, of all the Masters I'd sparred with since returning to the Temple, Shaak Ti was the dominant one. Hell, I'd sparred more with her than every other Master put together, which wasn't a surprise since the idea – if one could call it that – to spar with her came from Dooku.

During one of our holocalls, in which he'd spoken with some optimism that Komari Vosa might be approaching a point where she could be of use, he'd insisted I speak with and spar regularly against Shaak Ti. He considered her one of the predominant Makashi practitioners in the Order, which was high praise, and while he disliked her adapting Ataru footwork and velocities into Makashi, he felt she'd be a useful tutor and sparring partner for me to learn more about the style I was developing for myself.

While I hated losing every damn time, I couldn't deny that the sessions were helping; to the point where the only reason to spar a new Padawan was for the small amount of XP that I got from the Training Superiority quest. The only time a Padawan spar had pushed me in any way was when I took on two or more at the same time. Though Battlemaster Drallig wasn't keen on me doing that regularly because it might be seen as arrogance by others in the Order.

"Hmm, perhaps…"

"Master Ti." She was cut off from whatever she was about to say by the new voice. As we turned to them, I saw it was blue-skinned Duros. An earring marked him out as a Padawan, but I couldn't remember meeting him previously. As bad as it sounded, I struggled to differentiate one Duros from the next, save for skin tone, as they had near identical physical features across the entire species. A quick usage of Observe confirmed he was a new Padawan for me to meet, and his name went on the mental list of those I'd yet to spar with. While I could try to get to know him, there were simply too many Padawans, Initiatives, Knights, and Masters in the Order for it to be feasible to become friends with them all. "Forgive the interruption, but the High Council wishes to speak with you when you are free."

"Of course." Shaak turned to me, a smile revealing the sharp teeth of her species. "Until our next spar, Padawan."

I bowed and watched her walk off. Once she was a few steps away, I turned to the Duros, wondering if I could convince him to spar right now. Hopefully, he would as I'd rather not add another name to the nearly thousand-long list of people I'd still had to spar with and defeat; a list I honestly doubted I'd clear before The Clone Wars, or whatever they might be called here if my actions did enough to disrupt what sparked the war, began.

So far, in my time back at the Temple after Zonama Sekot, I'd sparred with a little over a dozen new Padawans, and as expected, defeated them all. Though two older Padawans that should be close to being knighted had taken a second spar to gain the victory. I'd also sparred with a handful of Knights, winning three of those spars. The rest, bar one, had been close enough that I felt I could take them if I sparred them a second time.

While I could've sparred with more Padawans, I'd made sure to keep time set aside for spending with my friends such as Serra, Sia-Lan, Darihd, and Aayla; at least before she'd left with her master on another mission. Often that involved sparring and tutoring them, but it had since moved into discussions on the issues within the Republic. Those had started from a talk with Serra and Darihd about issues they'd seen on Coruscant and beyond. Now our little sessions had about twenty Padawans, with the core coming from Dragon Clan, and we were roughly split in our opinions between seeing a need to do something or following the Council's and Senate's will.

Yet, even without sparring with as many new Padawans as I could, I'd earned nearly 7000XP since returning from Zonama Sekot. When added to the fact I'd passed my sixteenth birthday – and the chunk of XP I regularly got then – and the fact both the Hope of the Borans and Just Don't Get Caught quests had been completed, I'd reached level 29, though only by a few hundred XP.

Reaching level 29 had me curious about what would happen at level 30. Back when the system had updated, it'd told me a final update would take place at level 30 or when I turned eighteen, depending on which came first. It would also be a point when I'd gain a new Player Power Point and I hoped there'd be some new options as while those from last time were interesting, new choices were never a bad thing.

"Padawan Shan," the Duros called out when my mind wandered for a second. "The High Council also wishes to speak with you."

"Huh, ok."

That was a little odd, at least the timing of it. I doubted they wished to speak with me and Shaak Ti at the same time and had merely sent word for both to come to their chamber with Shaak going first due to seniority. The Duros had gotten lucky to find us together in this sparring hall, and as I jogged to catch up with Ti – who'd just reached the doors of the hall – I made a reminder to thank the Duros for this by beating him with ease in a spar.

As I reached the doors and saw Shaak turning back, wondering why I was following, I hoped the Council had a mission for Fay and me. While I was enjoying my time in the Temple, thanks to Shaak and my friends, I knew it wasn't going to be much longer before I started running up the walls wanting something to do. Plus, it'd allow Fenrir a chance to stretch his legs as, ever since we'd left Zonama Sekot, he'd been angsty. To the point that he either spent his time on Raven, with either Simvyl or me. I was growing worried that after the battles with the Vong, he was no longer able to find any sense of peace within the Temple's walls, so a chance to get off-world would do both of us some good.

… …

… …

"Cameron, you were unusually quiet in the Council Chambers," Fay began just after the two of us had followed Shaak Ti into the elevator leading down to the Temple. "Are you comfortable with the mission given to you?"

I looked at her and saw Shaak Ti was also watching me. "I think so. Though given the last few years, and how they've played out, I'm not sure I agree with the Council's choice for it." Instead of, as I'd expected, having different assignments for Shaak Ti and me, they were giving us a joint mission. One on which Fay would not be accompanying us.

In their infinite wisdom, the Council had decided that I was to act as a Senate-approved negotiator for a diplomatic and economic matter deep in the Outer Rim. Shaak Ti was to come along officially to advise me, but I wondered if the Council hadn't sent her to take over if I was unable to handle the assignment. Which given my lack of experience in such matters, was, unfortunately, possible.

Both Jedi Masters smiled at my reply. "The Council often makes choices that can seem, at first, to be perplexing to the Jedi involved. However, I've found that with time to reflect on them afterwards, their choices were generally the correct ones to take." That came from Shaak Ti, though her smile slipped slightly before she continued. "However, I must ask if your companions will be travelling with us as I'm unsure how wise it will be to bring a tuk'ata to diplomatic talks."

I smirked. "He will be coming with us, Master, unless you are entirely set against it. I would prefer not to leave him in the Temple without me as he's been growing agitated ever since our last mission." If Bo was around, I'd happily drop him with her for a few weeks as Bo was the only person outside myself who'd shown any ability to control Fenrir when he didn't want to listen. Thankfully, there'd not been any issues with Fenrir in the Temple, but it was only a matter of time until his patience slipped. Hopefully, he wouldn't try to eat a member of the Order, though if he did, I had a few beings I'd like him to go for simply for the amusement factor.

"It would be best if Fenrir accompanied you, though perhaps exclude him from the talks, if at all possible," Fay offered as the corners of her lips twitched upward. I barely held in a laugh at seeing how a bunch of diplomats would react to Fenrir walking into the room and growling at all of them. "Still, the Force has guided the Council to assign you to this mission, Cameron. While you've shown yourself to be a young man of incredible strength, both physically and mentally, over the last few years, that isn't all there is to being a Jedi. If one's prowess with a lightsaber was what defined a Jedi, I likely wouldn't be considered one." I chuckled at that, though it did bring to mind a discussion I'd had several times with Fay since we'd returned from Zonama Sekot.

I knew she wouldn't pick up a lightsaber again; her reason for lying it down was extremely personal. However, that didn't mean she couldn't take something that wasn't designed to be lethal such as a collapsible baton. Sadly, she'd yet to show any interest in my idea though she wasn't outright dismissive of it.

"It would also do you good to retrain yourself in how you approach this mission," Fay continued. "While I have little doubt that you'll be able to resolve the situation, finding a less antagonistic way to do that would likely please the Council more. It would also show that you can discover solutions that don't require aggressive negotiations."

I smirked at the turn of phrase she'd used there. "I'll try Master, though I worry our hosts won't make that easy." Actually, I was all but sure of it as not only had the Council given me a diplomatic mission, but they'd decided to have me cut my teeth on a real challenge. We were heading to Zygerria; a planet that would, as the Republic slowly unravelled, return to their old ways and attempt to build a slave empire in the Outer Rim.

Just hearing this mission was taking place on Zygerria had me contemplating intentionally torpedoing the talks. However, Fay's words, when coupled with how Windu had phrased the mission as a chance to prove myself, had me wondering if there was more to the Council's choice than I could see. Plus, sending Shaak Ti instead of Fay was a strange play, as with no disrespect to Shaak Ti, Fay was the more renowned diplomat.

Thus, while I disliked the idea of working to help the Zygerrians, I'd do so. At least so long as blame for the failure of the talks couldn't be laid at my doorstep. And if things did require a more aggressive approach… Well, I was sure Fenrir would enjoy the exercise.

… …

… …

I couldn't help but smile as I finally, after over an hour, piloted Raven beyond the range of Coruscanti Planetary Flight Control and she bathed in the solar energy of the planet's star. Because of the sheer number of ships coming, going, and crisscrossing the planet, it took nearly three hours to reach a point where ascending into space was possible. Scarily, if we weren't coming from the Jedi Temple and on Senate business, it may well have taken twice as long to reach a non-reserved climb window.

"This is a truly marvellous vessel," Shaak Ti said warmly with a smile as she sat in the co-pilot's seat. "Not only can one feel the Force flowing through it, but the joy it radiated as we left the atmosphere…" She looked at me, a sense of wonder in her eyes. "Is it true you share a bond with it, similar to the one you share with Fenrir?"

I turned to face her, letting the ship continue on her path. This would take us past the massive Golan Space Defence Platforms (or GSDPs for short) that ringed the capital of the Republic. Those stations dwarfed any ship that approached and, if angered, could reduce anything short of a Star Destroyer to atoms with contemptuous ease. Once we passed the nearest platform, we'd receive our flight path for the system to a point safe for us to enter hyperspace.

While most systems weren't this structured for coming and going within their space, with support for the trillion-plus beings on the planet below having to arrive and depart every hour of every day, it was required here. It was also true in other near-Ecumenopolis worlds such as Corellia which had insanely high population density.

"We do, Master Ti." That made her smile grow, exposing the sharp teeth of her species. I'd seen them on other Togruta and they could look intimidating, but on Shaak, they simply added to her presence; granting her an animalistic beauty. "I had thought the Council had shared that fact with other members of the Order?"

"I was told of it as part of the general information I received concerning you," she chuckled as I felt my brow crease. "Don't worry, there was nothing there that makes me feel you will be unable to complete the assignment given to you. Indeed, hearing of your difficulties on Zonama Sekot, I must congratulate you on how efficiently you did what was needed. It is impressive that you not only survived but also secured the safety of the colonists. However, the report failed to mention the full truth of this wonder of the Force you currently pilot. I was told it was sentient, but I had thought they meant in the way a plant might be. It's clear to me already that it-"

"She. Raven is a she."

Shaak's lips twitched as she inclined her head. "That she is, in many ways, sentient. And that feeling her joy at being free to soar between the stars is something I shall treasure for the rest of my days."

One of my hands stroked the console of the ship, feeling the energy shift underneath in reaction as if Raven was trying to reach out for me. Continual flickers of power caressed my hand, making it clear Raven was overjoyed to have me back piloting her, taking her into the depth of space.

"The inhabitants shared a… unique bond with Sekot," I began slowly, wanting to give Shaak a brief overview of where Raven had come from. "The world they'd found was already connected in ways within the Force that I… cannot describe with words. Even Master Fay had never experienced anything like it, becoming almost giddy with the sensation." Shaak laughed softly at the image I'd painted even as I continued. "We got to understand some of that bond when we began the process that would develop into Raven." Around us, the lights pulsed rapidly, though softly, making clear Raven was just as happy with the outcome as I was. "However, when she was finally ready, not long after she'd first danced among the stars, and I kid you not, the planet jumped to hyperspace."

"I read that in the report, but I admit I'm still struggling to understand how that could even be possible."

I chuckled. "I was there, as was Master Fay, and we still don't fully understand how it worked, so I can understand why the Council struggled to accept this. However, once you eliminate the probable, whatever remains, however impossible, must be the truth."

"Yes, I've heard phrases like that before, though I do believe this is the first time it has ever been applied to a planet."

"Aye. Though when Sekot jumped, Raven… she started to die. The Force, as incredible as it sounds to me even now, guided me to form a bond with her; to save her and us." I shook my head and closed my eyes, letting Raven's presence wash over me. "I mean, it is similar to what I share with Fenrir, and other Jedi share with animals they might have bonded to; yet it's not. It's so much more than…" I sighed and laughed softly, finding a sense of contentment from what I had with Raven. "It's intense, different, and if I had to do it all again, I wouldn't change anything and risk losing this."

Shaak watched me closely, the smile still on her face. "Yes, being here does bring you a sense of peace that I felt was often missing while we were in the Temple." She glanced toward the back of the cockpit, to where Fenrir was happily lounging on the floor in the spot he'd all but claimed as his ever since we'd left Sekot. "And it seems that sense of peace is shared by Fenrir." I couldn't deny that, as the only place Fenrir didn't feel agitated within the Temple was when he was aboard Raven. Hell, even when he was with me in my quarters, whether I was alone or with friends, he was never as relaxed as when he was here.

"I still maintain that there is little need to bring him along; however, I can't deny that it is better that he is here than left behind in the Temple with Master Fay." Shaak's eyes narrowed as she continued, "A legacy of what you experienced on Zonama Sekot?"

"Aye, probably Master." I sighed, and as if knowing I was watching him, Fenrir opened an eye, taking in the room. "The war was difficult on all of us." Fenrir closed his eye and returned to his snooze. I looked away from him and Shaak, gazing out into the void of space. The memories of what we'd endured, what we'd done, came easily to me but I didn't want that; not with Shaak around. I couldn't risk her sensing the well of fury that rested deep inside me. Nor could I consider using Adas' holocron while she was onboard.

It'd been months since I'd last spoken with his gatekeeper, and while I was hesitant to learn too much from him, I knew there were secrets he held that I needed to discover. I didn't plan to turn to the Dark Side – but then again no one ever did – but I knew that to find my path in what was to come, I couldn't limit myself to the teachings of the Jedi. Which I suspected Dooku understood with his comments about me gaining access to holocrons once I was made a Jedi Knight.

Shaak's hand on my shoulder broke me from my thoughts. "War is never easy," she said as I turned to face her. "Still, you should take pride in the fact that not only did you survive when many would not, but you did so while saving your Master and others." Her smile returned as her eyes drifted from me. "Not to mention, you gained a unique vessel that many in the Order are jealous of, as well as a new friend in the Cathar."

"Simvyl is here because of the threat of the Vong," I replied with a frown as I wondered if he was as comfortable as he claimed to be in accompanying me to Zygerria. I could tell he wasn't happy about it, but as he'd said, he'd sworn himself to my side and would go where I did, even if that meant a planet where many of his people had once been enslaved.

Shaak leaned back into the chair; the slight twitching on her face made me suspect she enjoyed as much as I did how the chairs adapted to whoever was sitting in them. "He may have sworn himself to your side because of the Vong, but after what you've shared, it's clear he considers you a friend." She turned back to the viewport. "While he might have little to offer directly to this mission, the Force has guided him to your side. To deny its will and reject the differing voice he can offer in certain situations, would be unwise."

"Yes, Master." I didn't have anything to add, and a comfortable silence fell over the cockpit which was broken by a soft beeping from one of my consoles. "We are cleared to jump," I said as I read the message from Coruscanti Orbital Control.

"Then by all means do so. I am curious to experience how this wonder of the Force reacts to hyperspace."

My smile grew as my hands moved over the consoles. I could feel Raven react as I directed power to the hyperdrive engine. She desired to fly between the stars, to taste the exotic energies as we raced along at faster-than-light velocities. I laughed softly as the engines flared to life and we slipped into hyperspace. While I was apprehensive about the mission, Raven's enjoyment of flying was bleeding into me, and I didn't mind in the least.

… …

… …

I sighed as I leaned back in the pilot's chair of Raven's cockpit. While there was nothing for me to do regarding our flight path as we raced along the Perlimian Trade Route toward Lianna, I had to review the data packet provided by the High Council – via the Senate and Zygerrian government – regarding the situation we were flying into.

In truth, most of the nearly one thousand pages I'd read were completely boring and things that I, quite frankly, didn't give a flying fuck about. After all, why would I want to know the difference between Besh-18 and Dorn-6 power generators, or why two of the parties in these talks were proposing their usage if they won the contract? And what this was, when you boiled it down, was nothing more than a contract offered by the Zygerrians. What made it so important was that instead of offering up hundreds of small contracts for various sectors and interests, the Zygerrians had bundled it all into one massive contract covering everything to do with regenerating their planet, system, and sector.

From building new industrial foundries in certain systems to locating and extracting resources, from regenerating spaceports of various sizes, scopes, and functions across the sector to all but building a self-reliant farming industry; the contract covered it all. Even with my limited understanding of the majority of what the deal entailed, I could see the contract was worth easily northward of a trillion credits a year, spread over ten years, to the winning bid. This explained why the Zygerrians had received over a hundred offers for the contract, which was now filtered down to four.

The length of the contract had caught my attention even before I'd gotten to the players in these talks as ten years would take right up until the eve of the Clone Wars. That meant this contract, while on the surface perfectly fine, was designed to help the Zygerrians regenerate their economy before they moved to re-establish their slave empire. However, as much as I'd like nothing more than to tank the talks simply because of that fact, I couldn't.

With a few more days to think on the matter, I'd become convinced this was a test of some sort from the Council. There were far better choices who were Padawans than me for this, never mind Knights or Masters. Thus, I'd come to two reasons why the Council had given it to me. Either they expected and wanted me to fail, or they wanted proof I could solve issues without resorting to my lightsaber. While I didn't particularly care why they were doing this, Dooku's words about the Holocron vault still rang around my head and were a major driving force in my determination to become a Knight; at least beyond finally getting the freedom to do what I wanted while still being considered a member of the Order.

Therefore, I'd committed myself to somehow finding a solution to these talks. Though after discovering the four players at the final table, I wondered if the Council or the Force was actively trying to fuck with me. Two of them were unknown to me, but the other two were known, although for very different reasons; though both would no doubt be important in the decades to come.

The first, and the one the Council would also be aware I held a tentative connection to, was Mandalmotors. Seeing them at these talks was odd. Not to say that they weren't a powerful company, but compared to the other players, they were a small, regional factor with a very narrow scope of experience and expertise. Outside of being able to help build new starships and atmospheric flyers for the sector, there was little they could handle about the contract.

Of course, what would have concerned the Council was my connection to Mandalmotors, and not just because of my time spent on Mandalore. During the Battle of Keldabe, I'd been the one to end the siege of Mandalmotors headquarters. While I could do nothing about the death of the former CEO of the company, Arde Yomaget, I had avenged his death and that of most of the board of the company. An act that the new head, Dred Yomaget – Arde's son, since the company was controlled by a small number of clans with Clan Yomaget being the dominant one currently – had personally thanked me for.

Dred pushing for this contract had to be a power play. The Mandalore sector was a mess after several years of war, and while there'd be numerous contracts available for Mandalmotors there, Dred was, in my opinion, trying to take the company from a sector-based power into, at the very least, a regional one in the northern arm of the Outer Rim.

While Zygerria was a good distance from Mandalore, the two sectors sat between two of the super-hyperspace lanes of the galaxy: the Hydian Way and the Perlimian Trade Route. Zygerria sat at the northern end of both lanes, connecting to them via the Shaltin Tunnels and the Listehol Run respectfully; with Lianna being the start of the latter. The Mandalore sector sat between them as well, though while there were no official hyperspace routes connecting the sector to the super-hyperspace lanes, I had little doubt the Mandalorians knew of ways to get from one to the other.

Because of my connection to the company, I considered Mandalmotors the most trustworthy of the players, but the least likely to earn the contract. At least if it stayed as one massive one without plans for sub-contracts.

The one company that easily had the financial muscle to take the contract on, and the sub-companies that could likely handle all aspects of it even if I wondered about their quality, was the InterGalactic Banking Clan: or IGBC for short. Since they were, for all intents and purposes, the bank of the entire fucking galaxy, they wouldn't have any issue handling contracts worth as much as this one was. Or bringing in sub-contractors for a fraction of the price they received from the Zygerrians. However, with knowledge of what was to come, the issue with them was obvious.

While they'd been officially neutral in the Clone Wars, IGBC ships had formed a large section of the CIS forces and at least one Muun – who controlled the IGBC – had sat on the Separatist Ruling Council. Having them involved with Zygerria would undoubtedly lead to the pair allying once the war began, which may have been what happened in the canon timeline. However, without the knowledge of what was to come, it was clear the IGBC were the most logical to award the contract to if it couldn't be broken up into smaller parts.

The other two players at these talks were essentially unknown to me, though I'd at least heard of SoroSuub Corporation in passing from reading news feeds. Still, before we'd raced along the Perlemian Trade Route, I'd downloaded everything I could about all four companies from the Holonet, with more focus on SoroSuub and The Adasca BioMechanical Corporation, or Adascorp for short.

SoroSuub was headquartered on Sullust, and given the number of Sullustans they employed, they were likely the unofficial government of the planet and system in all but name, if not the sector. SoroSuub employed somewhere between eighty and ninety per cent of the population of Sullust, and apart from the monopoly that gave them regarding everything in the Sullust system, it made them a well-established mega-corporation. One that was founded before Revan had been born.

Their primary focus was on mineral extraction and refinement, but they held sub-companies that manufactured everything from farming equipment to starships; though those were several steps below those built by Mandalmotors. Still, from what I'd learnt, they'd be able to handle about fifty to sixty per cent of the contract without outside help. The same was true for Adascorp.

Once I'd gotten over the small joke that their shortened name bore a similarity to King Adas – one I knew he wouldn't have liked – I'd dug into their history. They were founded - and still controlled - by the House of Adasca from Arkania with twelve of fifteen senior board members being from the House of Adasca. Though the more interesting element of that was what I'd discovered about the Arkanians.

The Arkanians were heavy into genetic and cybernetic modifications on themselves, with it having reached the point that there were numerous sub-races. Each of them was above a Human baseline, but save for the upper levels of society, most were, in all but name, slaves. However, from what little I could find on the matter those lower classes either weren't aware of this or didn't care, having such dissenting or revolutionary thoughts engineered out of them. The cybernetics they used were always hidden beneath their skin, giving them secret abilities that most wouldn't know about. Thankfully, with Observe, I should be able to determine what implants they – or any delegate at the talks – had, if not the exact nature of those implants.

The race was known throughout the Republic as being incredibly smart, beautiful and graceful with their only psychological weakness, if one could call it that, being the sense of entitlement that came with believing they were superior to every other sentient. While, as a race, they probably were, that wasn't always true on an individual basis. They also had a physical weakness, though they didn't consider it a flaw, in that because their home star was duller than most, they needed to wear blinders in bright light and could easily be blinded by strong flashes. However, the counter was that they could see into the infrared spectrum.

Returning to Adascorp, like SoroSuub, I felt they could handle most of the contract by themselves, though up to perhaps eighty per cent of it. Of course, all players would claim they could manage all of it, but getting an idea of the truth would help me see through the bullshit they will undoubtedly throw around during the talks.

Yet, the more I went over the Zygerrian contract, the more I wondered why they were placing it all in one basket. It would be easy to split it into four, or more, contracts and give each company at the talks one of those. I'd have to speak with the Zygerrians once we arrived about that, but, as HK had put it – while trying to be polite with Shaak around – expecting logic from meatbags was about as wise as expecting a bantha to win a swoop bike race.

I couldn't keep him turned off or hidden in my Inventory as I enjoyed his company far too much, but thankfully he understood that with Shaak onboard, he had to tone down his usual commentary on meatbags. He still used that term though, and Shaak had asked about it. HK had given her a condensed story – omitting names – about it going back to his creator and the creator's assistant, which had been enough for Shaak to accept it, though it was clear she didn't approve of the term. Nor of the fact I had HK, but since he mostly stayed in my quarters and Fay and Dooku were aware of HK, and that it had been a personal gift from Duke Torrhen and that HK had belonged to my family in the past, she accepted the matter. Even if she felt it was a personal possession I shouldn't have.

Simvyl got on with her easier, though he too kept his distance after Shaak had suggested that a peaceful solution with the Vong might have been achievable. That comment, when coupled with others he'd heard around the Temple, had him questioning his choice to become a Ranger. Though it did make him glad he'd sworn himself to the side of one Jedi that knew that sometimes words had no place in a situation.

I'd also spoken with HK to let him know I was almost ready to build him his first new body. That had him excited, even after I explained I wasn't as skilled as Revan when it came to droids. Still, his mood had improved upon hearing that, and he accepted it was wiser to wait until I was knighted and could speak with Bo and Anakin about the plans one final time.

Oddly, HK considered Anakin more useful than Bo, as while the Mandalorian knew her weapons, Anakin was the one who kept suggesting small alterations to improve HK's efficiency. Though it had been some time since I'd discussed the matter with Anakin as I'd rather not do so over the Holonet since I suspected the Sith were monitoring my conversations. While I couldn't cut Anakin out entirely, so long as I kept the topics away from HK and Anakin one day becoming a Jedi, I felt things were as safe as they could be without cutting Anakin out of my life entirely. Which was the last thing I wanted to do. Not least as I couldn't wait until I could hear HK's remarks on the Trade Federation battle droids once he engaged them. Those were going to be priceless.

I chuckled at that thought once more as the doors to the cockpit opened and Shaak Ti entered. I already knew she was coming as the ship was aware of where everyone onboard was. Simvyl was enjoying a quiet meal in his quarters while Fenrir was currently bounding around the cargo bay, burning off some energy.

"How goes the research?" Shaak asked as she moved to the co-pilot's chair, a cup of warm caf in her hand.

My stomach grumbled at the smell. "Slow. On paper, I can see a way to make everyone at least semi-happy, but it would need them to work together and I'm unsure if they'll go for that. Not least, according to the files I've downloaded from the Holonet, it seems there's possibly some bad blood between the IGBC, Adascorp, and SoroSuub. However, I can't find any source of what that might be."

Shaak took a sip of her caf, which irked me as I'd run out about an hour ago and forgotten to grab a fresh cup. "It could be from any of the hundreds of contracts they've competed for over the last few years, or it could go back further. There is little way to know without asking them and somehow drawing an honest answer from them." I groaned and ran a hand through my hair. "However, their issues aren't for you to solve. Your purpose is to find the solution that is most beneficial for the Zygerrians. The Force may offer hints toward how to achieve this, as will I when you require. However, in the end, you are the one who must pass the final judgement on the path Zygerria will take."

That only made me groan again, this time louder and more drawn out. This was going to be a boring as fuck assignment – one I couldn't solve with my lightsaber barring something extraordinary – that I had to endure.

Suddenly leaving the Order and joining Bo on Mandalore didn't sound like such a bad idea.

… …

… …

"How incredibly droll, a threat of violence from a being little better than a thug employed by the Hutts." That harsh comment had come from Hara Adasca, board and House member, and lead negotiator for Adascorp for these negotiations. The delivery made it clear she was far from amused by the previous comment that'd come from Rhork Struur; lead negotiator from Mandalmotors.

Rhork leaned forward, his unarmoured hand slapping the table in annoyance and the vambrace he wore barely avoiding scratching the dark wooden surface. "It was nothing of the sort, though I can't say it is unsurprising that one such as yourself is unaware of how the galaxy works. Have you ever deigned to leave the isolated bubble your house resides in to experience how the galaxy truly works or did you simply believe whatever your family fed you to believe like cin'gaan scripture?" My brow rose at the slip into Mando'a from Rhork as so far, he'd stayed exclusively in Basic. Though I couldn't deny suggesting the Arkanians considered themselves holy didn't have some truth to it.

While Hara, and her two attendants, were undeniably attractive – even the male in the group would put many Holonet actresses to shame – they carried themselves with such disdain for everyone here, including Shaak and myself, that I'd not want to touch any of them with a ten-foot barge pole. Or an ISD if they existed. Their clothes, like those of the other parties, were made of exquisite fabrics that made the robes worn by Shaak and I look little better than rags. Well, bar the cloak I wore that was made of the skin of the greater krayt dragon.

When he'd seen that, and the bracers I wore, Rhork had been pleased and greeted me in Mando'a. The other parties had wondered about that, and Rhork had happily explained who I was, and my role in avenging Mandalmotors after the cowardly attack by Death Watch. Hara had complained to Shaak about this, but the Jedi Master had shut her down elegantly by saying I had her full trust, along with that of the Jedi High Council and Galactic Senate.

"If you could refrain from carrying out this strange mating ritual you appear to be involved in, perhaps we might return to the discussions." That came from Ce Serd, the Muun representative and Director of Negotiations of the IGBC. He looked as disinterested in these talks as I felt, though he always looked that way; as if this entire process was somehow distracting from something more important. "We still have to reach a consensus on how the various elements of the deal shall be discussed."

I barely resisted the urge to slam my face into the table as I listened to the delegates continue to subtly, or not so subtly, insult each other. It'd been three days since we'd begun and so far, we'd only managed to resolve two things. That was, as pathetic as it sounded, the shape of the table we were using and the seating arrangement around it, plus the order in which any party could speak, for how long and the time limits for any rebuttals or challenges from the other delegates. And even that had taken a day of holocalls as they refused to all be in the same room until these matters were resolved.

Force help me, but I was starting to miss the shabyr Vong! At least with them, things were less tedious, and I got to work out my issues by killing them when I saw them.

"Yes, we must reach an understanding on our proposal for the extraction and refinement of minerals and alloys from various celestial bodies in the sector to be given greater importance. If we cannot learn which the Zygerrians desire the most, it will be impossible for that section of the contract to be fulfilled efficiently." I wanted to roll my eyes at Vundu Plast, board member and senior member from SoroSuub responsible for negotiations, for bringing that up again. He'd pushed that topic or one similar to it almost every hour on the hour since we'd begun speaking in the same room yesterday afternoon.

Now, supposedly Vundu was female, but without sounding speciest, I hadn't the faintest idea how you could tell her gender – or that of the two Sullustans with her – simply from looking at them. They all looked the same. At least, thanks to Observe and Eidetic Memory I knew that answer and had avoided causing a scene like one of Hara's adjuncts had when they'd inadvertently called Vundu a male. At least I think it'd been a mistake; it was hard to tell with how disinterested the Arkanians looked. Though at least now that wouldn't happen again as only the direct representative from each delegation, along with myself and Shaak Ti, were allowed to speak in this room.

Hara rolled her eyes at Ce before looking at Vundu. "I find it hard to understand how a species that claims to be intelligent seems more preoccupied with what is in the ground than a common nerf." Vundu sneered, or at least I think she did as it was hard to tell with a Sullustan. "At least show some decorum and let that section of these talks occur when they are scheduled to. That way we will all be saved from seeing your inferior desires."

"Without first establishing how the most basic element of the contract, one that will affect almost every other section, is to be handled, and what the Zygerrian's wishes on the matter are, whatever is discussed before then will be wasted," Vundu shot back, her voice remarkably calm after the insult toward her species. "One cannot build buildings that touch the heavens without first ensuring the foundations are solid, otherwise we end up with fatal flaws in the construction. I had expected someone from the famed House of Adasca to be aware of this."

I could sense there was more to that than a simple barb, but I hadn't seen anything in the files I'd downloaded from the Holonet that mentioned what it could be. Hara's eye twitched, which was the only outward response to the comment, however, within the Force I sensed agitation and some anger from her delegation toward the Sullustans. I couldn't tell if there was more to it than that, as I wasn't as skilled in using the Force like that as many others. Hell, I didn't even have a direct skill to cover it. Still, I would speak with Shaak Ti later about it to see if she'd felt anything more to the moment.

Before anything else could be said, soft wind chimes sounded in the room and I sighed in relief. Those signalled the end of today's third, and final, session, meaning I was saved from any more of this annoying prattle until zero-eight hundred tomorrow.

"On behalf of our hosts, we thank you for your efforts today. While it may seem little has been achieved, every session brings us one step closer to the resolution that the Zygerrians desire," Shaak Ti said as she stepped forward and placed a hand on the back of my chair. While she could've sat beside me, she chose to stand further back, making it clear to all that I was the one they had to convince to gain the contract.

"And we are grateful that members of the esteemed Jedi Order are leading these talks. With your guidance, we can be assured that the outcome will be most beneficial to all," Hara replied, showing once more her oratory skill. "Perhaps it might behove the lead negotiator to review several factors brought up today before we resume tomorrow. I feel that would smooth many of the issues we encountered today and prevent similar moments from occurring in the days ahead."

Force, she was beautiful, but that cruiser up her arse really was a turnoff. Shame I couldn't suggest a suitable method to remove it without causing the talks to descend into anarchy. Instead, I offered a smile that I knew wasn't genuine. While that might not be the best response, it was the only one I was going to give her as Force choking the bitch out of her wasn't something Shaak would allow me to do. No matter how much she shared my dislike of the Arkanian.

Hara's group was the first to leave, as had been agreed on the first day, followed by the SoroSuub and IGBC delegations. Before Rhork led his group out, he lowered his head. While there was no need for him to do so when I'd asked him about it privately on the first evening and he'd explained that apart from being a clan chief – even if it was a clan of one – and allied with Dukes Torrhen and Adonai, Alor Dred had made it clear I was considered a friend of Mandalmotors.

Once even the Mandalorians had left the room and the doors closed behind them, my head sunk to the table and sighed loudly. "Why me?"

Shaak's hand came to rest on my back in support. "The Council assigned this mission to you as they have faith in your abilities to manage it. The Zygerrians accepted your position of leadership in these talks, showing they accept and agree with the Council's judgement. The Force is here to help you, to guide you, to an outcome that benefits the most beings." She removed her hand and started moving around the table I was sitting at. "I suggest you meditate on this and seek clarity in your thoughts. A clear and centred mind will help greatly when dealing with beings only concerned with their own interests."

"Yes, Master," I replied, my head still resting against the table. The words were nice, and I would meditate as she'd suggested, but it was the same basic thing she'd been saying since we'd left Coruscant; and similar to what Fay often offered as support when I needed some. There was wisdom in their words, I didn't deny that. But after years of it, and days of these irritatingly stupid talks, they were starting to lose their effectiveness.

Once Shaak had left the room I stood and offered the empty chairs a resigned sigh. For a moment I considered returning to the room the Zygerrians had assigned me. However, that place was so lavishly decorated that I just didn't feel comfortable there; not when I had a bed big enough for five and my thoughts kept turning to Serra and Bo. Plus, the room was near the royal chamber, which increased the likelihood I'd run into Princess Miraj Scintel, who I'd rather avoid if at all possible.

No, for tonight at least, I'd return to Raven. Fenrir would be there and having him near while I meditated and slept brought me more comfort than however many hundreds of thousands the Zygerrians had spent on my room. Plus, Raven was less likely to be bugged, allowing me to vent some of my distaste at the talks without having to worry about being overheard by one of the damn Zygerrians.

… …

… …

"While this is a different situation than you've faced before, I have faith in you to find a solution that is acceptable not just to the Zygerrians, but to everyone involved in the talks," Fay said as I looked at her hologram from Raven's main gathering area. "The Force, while not able to offer direct intervention, is always an ally that can be looked to for guidance, as is Master Ti. However, the Council trusted you to complete this mission; trust neither I nor Master Dooku feel is misplaced."

"Yes, Master, and thank you for the support." After my reply, and her giving me a final smile of comfort, the call ended and I was left alone once more. I sunk back into the sofa that I was in. Initially, I'd hoped to contact Dooku for advice, however, he'd been unavailable to take the call. I didn't know why, but the most likely reasons were that he was still busy with Komari Vosa, he was asleep, or his Holonet connection had been disabled for some reason.

Therefore, I'd reached out to Fay in the hope she could offer some constructive advice. Sadly, she'd instead given suggestions and general Jedi expressions in line with what Shaak Ti had already offered. While the 'trust in the Force' spiel and its ilk were expected for Jedi, I'd hoped for something more concrete. She should know after centuries of negotiating with far more adversarial individuals that just trusting the Force wouldn't always bring the results you wanted.

I sighed and looked up at the roof of the room, taking in the lights that danced around Raven's frame as she sat patiently in the bay given to us by the Zygerrians. "Why can't these morons get it through their thick skulls that the best path is to work together?" I muttered.

The lights shifted pattern and I felt a mild soothing presence from Raven as she tried to comfort me. That had me wondering if she could sense my mood, or if she had moods of her own. Did she, when not flying, dream? I supposed she might, as she was sentient, even if it was in a different way from anything else I'd ever experienced. She wasn't sentient like Fenrir, but they both shared a connection to the Force that allowed me to sense their feelings.

I shook my head, clearing that string of thought. I wasn't philosophically inclined enough to offer judgement on the matter. Though even so, I'd say she was alive. This, like most things, wasn't a black-or-white issue, but one with shades of grey; a philosophy that guided my actions. The problem at the moment was that, to the delegations, things were starkly black and white. They either got the contract, or they didn't.

Still, at least for the next few days wouldn't have any talks. While that would normally be something I'd enjoy after seven days of mainly fruitless talks, the reason for the temporary cancellation wasn't one I was looking forward to.

Tomorrow was the fifteenth birthday of Princess Miraj Scintel and her official ascension to the position of Heir to the Throne. And ever since arriving on Zygerria and confirming she was present; I'd been doing my level best to avoid the young Zygerrian. And not just because of who she'd one day turn into.

When we'd first arrived on Zygerria, Shaak Ti and I were brought before the royal family, with Fenrir in tow. Simvyl had stayed behind on Raven to ensure the Zygerrians didn't do anything to her while we were away, but also because Simvyl had similar issues with Zygerrians that he had with Mandalorians. Well, except for Bo as he'd grown to accept and trust her on Zonama Sekot.

When Shaak Ti had explained that I'd be the one leading the negotiations, King Medes had stared at me. I'd thought he was going to complain about a Padawan being in-charge, but after a long silence, he'd simply nodded and given his agreement with that. That had caught me off-guard, though not nearly as much as Miraj's behaviour.

The princess had left the side of her mother, Queen Radej, and stepped down toward us. My hand had drifted toward my lightsaber, resting just above the hilt, in a clear sign I didn't approve. However, that only made the young princess smile. She then continued forward, though she did slow when Fenrir's ears had gone back and he'd dropped lower. While she, like Shaak Ti, had descended from a predatory species, she understood Fenrir was the greater threat and had lowered her eyes from him. That had calmed Fenrir slightly, though she'd continued to approach, this time making sure I was between her and Fenrir.

Once she was about three metres away, with her guards just behind her, their hands on their weapons, she'd smiled at me. When she'd commented that I smelt of power and danger, I'd blinked rapidly, trying to process what was happening. Even now, over a week later, I was still struggling to accept that she was interested in me. Though at least I now understood why she was interested, and why her father hadn't minded me leading the negotiations.

As Shaak had pointed out, I'd come back from Zonama Sekot with a more aggressive outlook on life; understandable due to what I'd endured. However, to predatory species, or sentients who'd evolved from such creatures, it made it clear I was a fighter, a predator. One that Medes respected, and Miraj, much to my embarrassment, was intrigued by.

Still, even though King Medes had accepted me, he'd insisted that Fenrir remain on Raven, claiming that having such a dangerous beast in a room where people would likely be agitated and temperamental was a risk he was unwilling to take. While I'd have enjoyed seeing the delegations react to a tuk'ata standing behind me, I knew it was better if Fenrir wasn't around, thus he'd returned to Raven with Simvyl. Though that was also because I was concerned about someone trying to acquire him for their collection.

Throughout the royal palace, servants were moving around. Almost none of them were Zygerrians, and all did their absolute best to stay out of sight unless called for. I'd complained to Shaak that these servants were clearly slaves and railed at how the Republic and the Jedi could allow this to exist. However, while Shaak had shared my distaste for the situation since the servants were classed as indentured workers and not slaves, there was nothing within the framework of the Republic we could do about it. She'd even explained that any complaint to the Senate would be about as effective as tossing a bottle into a river to stop it from overflowing in a storm.

One of the doors to the central area opened and Fenrir came walking in. He seemed happy about something, likely as he'd likely just had his evening meal, though this faded as he saw me. "Hey, boy." He lowered his head and turned it slightly to one side as if trying to read me. Then, before I knew it, he rushed forward.

"Oof! Fenrir!" I called out as he pushed up against me. Still, his action made me smile and I patted his head between his ears. However, that wasn't the end of things as he turned and swatted me with one massive paw. Not expecting it, I'd fallen onto my side which was when he'd decided to leap onto the sofa. "Get off!" I called out as I struggled to shift his bulk from trapping me against the sofa. While he'd not be able to break the sofa, I hoped he didn't use his claws as the thing was expensive. The Sekotans didn't use simple or cheap materials in outfitting their vessels.

Eventually, he was able to roll us off the sofa, where he promptly crashed against the table with the holocall projector. Still, it only took him a few moments to pin me to the ground. While I was older, he was larger and stronger, so there was little I'd be able to do to escape. And as his maw came over my face, his tongue hanging out, a sense of dread washed over me. "Fenrir! No!" He ignored me and ran his tongue over my face, covering me in drool "Ugh, fucking gross!"

He pulled back, snorted, and then climbed off me. As I pushed myself to my elbows and began wiping his slobber off my face, he leapt onto the sofa I'd formerly been on and settled in. "Oh, so that's why you did it?" I asked with a chuckle as I continued wiping my face. His head turned my way and he snorted and exposed his teeth. That was his version of a grin. "Cheeky bastard." His head came to rest on his crossed paws and his eyes sparkled with mirth as he watched me clean my face.

Laughter slipped from me as I looked at him. He'd done this to distract me, sensing the mood I'd been in when he'd arrived. I stood, most of his slobber now soaked into my robes and then scratched him behind an ear. "Thanks, boy." Fenrir leaned into my touch, which was when I pulled my hand away. He slipped on the sofa, one leg sliding off, and as he glared up at me, I laughed. "That's for the drool." He grunted out a huff and resettled onto the sofa.

I turned and took a step away, only for a random idea to form in my mind. "Huh, why not," I muttered. I turned back to the Holonet console and sent off a request for communication with someone I'd have not thought of if Fenrir hadn't distracted me. While it was unlikely that she'd be able to respond any time soon or offer anything useful, it was probably a good idea to check in with Padmé and see how she was doing in her new job.

… …

… …

I jerked awake in my seat as a loud beeping echoed in my skull. After blinking to figure out where it'd come from, and then groaning as I shifted in my seat, I stood and walked toward the Holocall display. Before answering it, I turned the display away from Fenrir, who looked unamused to be woken by the call and settled into a sofa on the other side of the table. After that, and reading where the call was coming from, I opened the channel.

"Cam!" I winced at how loud Padmé was. "Oh, sorry. Um, what time is it there? Also, where are you?"

I looked down at the console to see the time. "It's about oh-two-thirty locally, and I'm currently on Zygerria." She frowned, struggling to work out where Zygerria was, which made me smirk. "It's a long way from Naboo, out near the corporate sector. Also, nice to see you too, princess," I added with a chuckle, enjoying her reaction.

Even though I couldn't see any pigment change through the hologram, the way she looked away from me made it clear she was embarrassed about it. "Don't call me that."

"Why not? Aren't you a princess now?" I shot back, knowing full well she was. In a message to me just before the turn of the year, she'd explained she'd been elected governor of Theed, which carried the honorary title of Prince or Princess depending on the holder's gender.

"I-it's not like I'm someone important," she replied, seemingly unsure of herself and wanting to deflect the attention to her new role. That drew a snort of laughter from me, which Fenrir did not like if the glare he sent me was any indication.

"Padmé, you're governor of the capital of Naboo at twelve. That's beyond impressive and something to be proud of." She looked down and away again, which made me shake my head. "Oh, did you get my gift?" After learning of her position, I'd gone hunting for something practical and useful for her. In the end, after talking with Dooku about a suitable gift for a noble, I'd managed to find a lightfoil.

While not on par with a lightsaber, they shared similar roots, though now lightfoils were used by nobles throughout the Republic. A normal one, even with a discount due to Dooku's connections, would've cost about three thousand credits, however, I'd ended up paying around triple that.

The reason for that was that I'd had very specific and expensive changes I wanted made to the hilt of the lightfoil. Instead of a gold or electrum finish, I'd asked for one done in silver with a tree engraved of white gold placed upon it. That tree was styled after the tree of Gondor, which I knew Padmé would love as she adored her copies of Lord of the Rings, and it was circled by small gemstones to make the hilt even more unique.

"I love it!" Padmé all but shouted, her face breaking into a wide smile. A second later she was holding it in her hand, the tree of Gondor clear to see even through the holocall. "I… Thank you!" Yeah, even if I couldn't see it, I knew she was blushing. The gift was an impressive one, but apart from wanting to congratulate her, I'd wanted something she'd keep with her for when Naboo was invaded.

Lightfoils couldn't stand up to a lightsaber for long, but critically, they didn't require a strong connection to the Force to use. They were designed for duelling, meaning there were similarities in the fighting style to Makashi, which would allow me time, if I could find it, to tutor her in its use. And if I kept my lightsaber on a low power setting, she'd be able to spar with me.

Her smile fell slightly. "My father doesn't like it though. He says it's not something I should have, but he's allowing it because it came from you." She smirked as she turned it on, and while I couldn't see the colour of it through the holocall, I knew the blade was red. While it might cause an issue if the Council ever found out, I'd swapped the cheap focusing crystal for one designed for a lightsaber and gone with red simply because it would go well with her future clothing as Queen. "He's even arranged for a tutor to come to Naboo and teach me how to use it!"

I laughed as she moved the blade around slowly in front of her face. "Good. I'd hate to think that something I'd picked out wasn't something you'd like or use."

"I'd love anything from you," she blurted out. A second later she blinked, the lightfoil disappeared and she looked down again. "I, uh, I, um, I mean… thank you."

I kept the laughter inside as I didn't want to embarrass the girl anymore. "You're welcome," I replied, pretending not to catch her slipping up. "When we next meet, you'll have to show me how good you've gotten with it," I added with a smirk; one she quickly matched.

"I will, and when I defeat you what will I gain?"

That made me chuckle. "My eternal respect, princess," I bowed extravagantly, which made her laugh, though she sounded nervous. "Anyway, while I wish I'd simply called to ask about that, I need your help."

Her brow creased and she leaned closer to her display. "Does this have to do with why you're on Zygerria?"

"Yes. The High Council has assigned me a mission here, and frankly, I'm out of my depth."

Padmé's frown deepened. "Then why not ask them to assign it to someone else?"

"Because I think it's a test of some sort; one they'll consider failed if I pull out." I chuckled and lifted my lightsaber into view. "One that, sadly, doesn't require me to use this, but my words to solve."

A second later, Padmé was laughing loudly. While I was a little offended at that, I'd wait until she stopped and explained things before commenting on it. "Yeah, that sounds like what I've heard." My brow rose, wondering who she'd been talking to. "Serra's told me bits and pieces about your adventures. Something about preferring the direct approach to problems."

"Aye, that sounds about right." Still, I'd have to thank Serra for this when I got back to the Temple; perhaps even be direct with her about certain things and see how she reacted. "But anyway, this mission is this…"

I leaned back in the sofas as I detailed the mission, and everything I felt safe stating over a Holonet call; even one that was meant to be secure.

"And that sums things up as well as I can. Sadly, I can't reveal exact details of the negotiations, such as they are, as it would violate the temporary NDA contracts we were forced to sign before we began." I added once I'd given her a reasonably short – about thirty minutes with most of it being ranting about the delegations and their stubbornness – explanation of the situation.

Padmé had sat quietly throughout, not interrupting once, which was a sign she would be a good ruler. One should listen to all that was said before offering a judgement. Though just because I knew this didn't mean I was good at it. At least, not all the time, and certainly not with how mind-numbingly boring these negotiations were.

"From what I can understand, I'd have to agree that each party can't cover the entire contract. They have to know this as well. Yet, they're not going to come out and state that, and will be hoping, maybe, to use the contract to show their company can handle sections of the contract that they're not normally known for, or to open new markets up for them." She shrugged and looked away. "I can't guess more without knowing who they are, or the details of the contract on offer."

That was about as useful as the Jedi platitudes Fay and Shaak Ti had offered, and I wondered if this call had been a waste of time. However, she then looked back and appeared to lean closer.

"You have to get them to understand, without threatening them, that it'd be better for them all to work together instead of fighting amongst themselves. Perhaps talk with them privately, though not too privately that the other parties think you're trying to make a side deal, to learn about what their base-lines are for the negotiations. That will give you starting points to work from, as well as learning if you can, what exactly they hope to gain from the contract. Now, it's likely there'll be some overlap in their red lines and the wants of others, but that's good. It means there are places for real negotiations to take place instead of, and I'm sorry to say this, the dancing around nothing you've so far done." I grunted in annoyance even if I couldn't deny the last week or so of talks had been nothing more than a waste of time and a test of my frayed patience. "I know it's not what you want to hear, but it's what, I think, you need to hear. No matter how much you'd like to, you can't go around negotiating aggressively with everyone you want."

"But it's oh so tempting," I replied with a smirk. One that drew on images of the reactions most of the delegates would have to finding a lightsaber pressed against their throats, and at Padmé making an unintentional reference to something she'd said herself in another timeline. It seemed she understood that you did sometimes have to fight for what you wanted even if you'd prefer not to already. That fire would serve her well with what was to come.

Padmé laughed. "I understand that and know how it feels." Hmm, so it seemed she was dealing with issues on Naboo of her own. Interesting. "However, if you use the same approach, be it a passive or aggressive one, then people will begin to expect it from you. They'll learn to plan and adapt to your tendencies, making it even harder for you to gain what you want from any talk."

"I'm sure I can find other ways to make them talk," I commented with a dark chuckle.

"Cam! You're a Jedi! You can't go around threatening people!" She shot back, which made us both laugh. That said, the idea of Force choking the delegations, or roasting them alive with Force Lightning held a certain appeal. "What you also need to understand is that everyone expects to be disappointed. They have to know they can't handle the contract themselves, but to give up even a centimetre of ground in public will make them act as if they've lost a loved one." I'd debate if some of them even understood what love was. "However, you've got to make it seem that even when they lose ground in one place, they gain it in another way. Overall, they'll come out ahead. Of course, for that, you need to understand their needs and wants better."

I nodded as she spoke and, much to my annoyance when I realised I was doing it, started tapping my chin. After removing the offending finger, I gave her a wide smile. "Thanks, Padmé. While this isn't what I'd hoped for, and it'll more than likely make these talks even more boring," she giggled at that, "I know it'll help."

"No problem, but I'd better let you get some sleep. It won't do for you to turn up at the negotiating table tired because we spent all night talking."

"And here I thought you wanted to talk with me," I mock-huffed, making her giggle again.

"I do, I… You need to sleep." She changed her line of thought quickly, which made me smirk. "And when you have time, we can talk again. I… I've missed talking with you." She smiled and looked away again.

"Same here." That seemed to bring a light to her face. "And once this mission is over, I'll call you and thank you profusely for your help."

She rolled her eyes even as the smile on her face grew. "Fine, be that way."

I leaned forward, annoyed that I couldn't hug her in thanks; and see how flustered it'd make her. "Seriously, Padmé, thank you. I… I needed someone to talk to outside the Order about this. And when we next meet, I'll make sure to thank you properly."

That may well be when Naboo was invaded, but she didn't know that. And clearly, she had some ideas about how she wanted me to thank her and her mouth bopped like a fish before she looked away from the camera. "Y… you don't have to."

"Padmé, you're my friend. If I didn't thank you personally, I'd be a shit friend," I shot back with a wide smile. "Still, I do need to sleep. Tomorrow's going to be a long, long day." That made her giggle.

"OK, bye."

"Bye Padmé. Take care." With that, I closed the channel and leaned back into the sofa. It was odd that I'd turned to a twelve-year-old for help. But outside of Palpatine, there wasn't anyone from outside the Order that I could've asked. Plus, this was another little moment in building a bond with Padmé that would be very helpful with events to come in the next year or so.

Though, even with her ideas being sound and logical, it didn't make my more aggressive approach – as she'd put it – any less appealing. Even if I knew, deep down, that it was utterly the wrong approach to take.

… …

… …

As the music in the hall died down, I bit down on the sigh of relief I felt. Instead, I took a small step back from my dance partner for the song, and the previous four, Miraj Scintel. "I'm honoured that you've allowed me this dance, princess, however, I feel it may be wise to not monopolise your time. Otherwise, people may begin to wonder and those also wishing to dance with you may feel aggrieved." I spoke as quickly as I could without making it too obvious that I wanted away and after I'd finished, I bowed and kissed the back of her hand just above the knuckles. While I'd not seen anyone else do that here, it was something I felt might help ease any annoyance at me all but abandoning her on the dance floor.

When I came up from the kiss, she stepped into my personal space. A single claw from her other hand came up and traced my jawline. "I will allow this for now. However, I expect further dances with you before the night is through, and perhaps, more of your company during the celebrations." There was some different colouration under the fur on her cheeks, and her eyes seemed worryingly alive with desire, but I'd take it if it meant getting away from her for now.

"If the Force wills it." Normally I was against using such bland Jedi platitudes, but in this case, it was the ideal way to set up why I'd not be around for the later dances she wanted. Or anything else she desired from me. Hell, if I could manage it, I'd cause an incident – one I couldn't be tied to – to ensure I'd be unavailable for her for the rest of the celebrations this week.

Before she could make any comment in response, I slipped to one side, giving a Zygerrian male near me a gentle shove with the Force so he slipped between me and Miraj. It couldn't be denied that the princess was an exotic beauty. However, after a week of boring-arsed talks, the last thing I wanted to deal with was a love-struck princess. Or at least another one since I supposed Padmé qualified as one now.

Now, I did understand that perhaps there was a chance while I was here that I could work on, if not turning her away from following her father in restarting the slave empire – if it was him that began the moves to return to their old ways – then at least make her more open-minded about the topic. However, I wasn't in the mood to deal with it now, not after five straight dances with her. And the sense of superiority that she had, enhanced past that of other Zygerrians due to her status, making it even harder to want to be in her presence for more than a few minutes at a time.

Sadly, for me, it seemed I was still the thing that caught her eye. Though at least I'd managed to escape her clutches before the next song, one far slower that would involve standing closer to your dance partner, began. I smirked at the timing of that as I slipped from the dance floor. At a table near the Royal table, Shaak Ti was sitting, sipping on some Zygerrian nectar wine while some random Zygerrian male spoke to her. I couldn't help but chuckle that she was facing a similar issue to me, though judging by her expression, she was doing a far better job of hiding her distaste for her potential suitor than I'd done.

Passing by the tables with the delegations, I gave each a nod. Rhork gave me a knowing smirk, seemingly enjoying the fact that Miraj was enamoured with me. Hara smiled back, some of the distaste she'd displayed for me during the talks not evident in her body language. Vundu and Ce returned my nod with one of their own, but neither seemed in the least bit interested in the goings-on. Heck, Ce was distracted, though he hid it well. If not for the Force, I'd have likely missed the subtle signs in his body language.

"Ah, Cameron. I see the princess has finally decided to offer her hand for a dance to others," Shaak commented as I reached our table. The Zygerrian who'd been talking to her looked offended and glared up. I glared back at him, my hand sitting near my lightsaber and a moment later, the Zygerrian, after offering Shaak a mumbled apology, slipped away. "Did you really have to scare him away; I was enjoying his rambling."

"I'm sorry, Master. If you'd like, I could ask him to return." I chuckled as I sat down and picked up my goblet. The sickly-sweet smell of the wine assaulted my senses, though I still took a sip. Since this came from the king's private winery – no doubt made by indentured workers – it would be rude to not have some. The taste was pleasant enough, but not something I particularly enjoyed.

"That won't be necessary." Shaak smiled and tilted her glass toward the dance floor. "Though I believe your time here may be short." I followed her glass and almost groaned as I saw Miraj. While her partner was holding her close – though not too close nor placing his hands anywhere that might offend – her gaze was constantly on me. "It appears another has fallen into your web."


Shaak laughed softly, and before explaining, took another sip of her wine. "It hasn't gone unnoticed that many of your friends, inside and out of the Order are female, Cameron. Indeed, I recall a few whispers that you'd grown attached to the Mandalorian female you'd travelled with. I, and others, were glad to see you proved that rumour wrong by allowing her to leave; though I believe Master Drallig was entirely unamused by the commotion that she caused at the Temple entrance."

"I have little control over how Bo behaves, Master," I replied with a laugh and took another sip of my wine.

"No, you don't. Nor can you control the princess, or simply ignore her interest in you." I looked at Shaak, figuring she was making a point. "She has spent her life isolated here in Zygerria; surrounded by the same potential suitors since she was but a child. Now, barely a week before her ascension to adulthood and the position of heir arrives a young man from a mysterious Order. One who carries himself with a hunter's confidence and bares the scars of battle proudly." I felt the heat build in my cheeks as Shaak said that with her eyes locked on mine. "You have a beast of legend at your side, one that is, like you, battle-hardened. With all that, is it any wonder that the princess, and those from species who are, like hers and mine, descended from hunters, would be attracted to you?"

I looked away, unsure of how to answer her. Everything she'd said was true, yet I dearly wished the parts about Miraj being attracted to me weren't. "Thank you, Azen'Zode," I said as a young Twi'lek female arrived to refill my glass after using Observe to learn her name and more details about her status. She was another one enslaved by the Zygerrians but was too scared to say anything to me, to us, as she'd been warned and – in a move that made my blood boil – beaten to ensure she didn't speak to us. Still, the green skin of her cheeks darkened, and she looked down before moving over to refill Shaak's glass.

My eyes followed her as she walked away, burning her face, along with that of the other 'servants' into my mind. One day, I swore to myself, I'd return here and end their slavery. Even if I had to kill every Zygerrian to do it.

"When you first mentioned and demonstrated this ability of yours to gain an insight into others, I thought perhaps you were just naturally attuned to the Living Force. I know now that isn't the case, but it is clear you find certain details about this planet as uncomfortable as I do."

I nodded as I took a sip of my now-refilled goblet, noting how a Zygerrian observer leaned in close and whispered aggressively to Azen'Zode. She shrunk in on herself as she shook her head, and when the Zygerrian let go of her elbow, she scampered off. "Yes, Master. And while I understand there is little we can do about it, it's… difficult to not act to correct the issue."

"As it should be, but we must trust in the Force that there is a plan for why these things exist," Shaak leaned closer, drawing my attention from the servant and her boss. "Has this ability of yours led to any new insights into the various delegations?"

"Not yet Master, though I may have an idea that I hope will help smooth things out going forward." Well, Padmé had given me the plan, I was just going to run with it as it's not like things could get much worse and still have the negotiations continue.

"That is pleasing to hear, but don't become disheartened if this new approach is slow to bear fruit. One doesn't catch their prey in the first hour of the hunt after all."

"Yes, Master." It was an odd metaphor to use for a Jedi, but Shaak Ti had never shied away from being a Togruta, and the way her species saw the universe. Even if the metaphor failed to land, at least it was just different enough from the usual Jedi speeches to feel fresh.

"Ah, Jedi Shan, I do hope I'm not interrupting anything?" I smiled as sincerely as I could as I turned my head and looked up at Hara Adasca. The dress she wore gave just enough hint to the figure she had without coming close to being anything but classy, though my eyes went straight to her face, avoiding the rather tempting curves on her chest.

"Not in the slightest, Justicar Adasca. How are you enjoying the festivities?" I asked back, being as polite as I could. While I'd prefer to sit back and relax, preferably as far away from Miraj as I could, I was curious as to why the Adascorp representative had approached. Perhaps this might be the chance to learn more about what her company wanted from the negotiations.

Hara's eye twitched and she looked over the dance floor where, even as Miraj pushed away her dance partner, another Zygerrian took his place before she could get more than two steps toward me. "It is… quaint. However, now that the princess has allowed you to slip from her clutches, oh, and well played with how you ensured another would take your place before she could protest. I was hoping we might speak more socially. It may allow us to reach an agreement that benefits both of us." She leaned down, lowering her head to whisper in my ear. "The Adasca BioMechanical Corporation is a very powerful entity within the Republic. With the support of us and other Arkanian companies, your goals would be far easier to achieve." As she spoke there was little I could do but look at her dress. Or more specifically, down it. The view on offer was tempting, but since Hara's attitude was somehow worse than Miraj's, I had little interest in pursuing whatever she was possibly offering.

To be sure she wasn't actually trying to seduce me within earshot of Shaak Ti, I used Observe as she stood up. I was relieved to discover this wasn't the case, though it seemed she was impressed with how I carried myself when out of the negotiations; at least for an inferior Human. And while she felt bedding me was beneath her, she was more than willing to throw her adjuncts at me if that would work.

"That sounds like a good idea, Justicar, however, it would be wise if we stayed within sight of the other delegates, lest they believe we're engaging in actions detrimental to the negotiations." Her lips twitched upward, suggesting she was glad I was turning down her seduction ploy.

"Of course. Would you and your Master be willing to join me at the Adascorp table?"

"Certainly," I got out quickly before Shaak could try and weasel out of this. "Shall we Master?" I asked as I turned to her. While I did want to speak with Hara privately to gain insight into what she and Adascorp wanted, there was no way I wanted to sit there and listen to her full speech about why Adascorp deserved the full contract alone. Plus, Shaak may hear something that I'd miss about what they were willing to accept as a bare minimum and likely make them less likely to try any obvious attempts at bribery or coercion.

As Shaak and I stood, I saw the other delegations looking our way, and I had to suppress a sigh. Once we were finished with Adascorp, it would be a safe bet the others would want to talk with us semi-privately as well. Still, at least this would be a more constructive use of my time than dancing the night away with a love-struck princess.

If only barely.

… …

… …

"Bah! Enough about these talks and the boring debates," Rhork stated, swirling around his goblet with his hand. He looked around, as if checking no one not at the Mandalmotors table was listening, before leaning in close. "I've heard rumours that the reason Alor Adonai's youngest was absent from the war was that she'd sought out a mate in her travels." He pulled back a little, a smirk coming to his face. While I'd rather not deal with gossip and innuendo, especially when it involved me, it was still a far better topic than the negotiations. That might be why I'd gone to the Mandalmotors table last, as I knew I'd enjoy sitting here as I'd be in the company of warriors instead of bureaucrats.

I chuckled as he watched me, waiting for an answer and took a sip from my goblet. The wine wasn't growing on me, but it would do for tonight, and thanks to Negate Poison, I didn't have any risk of getting drunk – or worse – from it. Unlike almost everyone else in attendance. "She's not my mate, though Adonai did allow her to travel with me for a time."

"Ah, so she's unmatched, interesting," Rhork rubbed his chin. I let a low growl escape through my exhale and Rhork held up his hands. "Perhaps not for long, eh?" He laughed and waved off the topic. "Still, what about the tales she has told of your duelling an enemy to determine the fate of an entire world?"

He said that just loud enough that I saw heads turn our way at the Adascorp and IGBC tables. Which may well have been his intention. I took another sip of my wine, milking the moment to see if they'd continue listening in. While I'd have preferred Bo kept the tales of our adventures private, I'd known that was unlikely. However, I'd not expected the topic to come up on my first mission after Zonama Sekot. Still, this might allow me to get a general warning about the Vong to other parties around the galaxy, ones with greater reach than I had, and it was at least an enjoyable way to wind down the banquet, which was still going strong after five hours with the sun having set about an hour ago.

Between my stops at the various delegation tables, Miraj had dragged me back onto the dance floor for a handful of dances and even made me sit with her during dinner. However, her presence was now at least a distraction from boring discussions about what each delegation wanted and hoped for from the contract. Plus, King Medes made sure she didn't monopolise my time. And speaking of Miraj, I could see her drifting closer, her eyes tracking me as she tried, and failed, to slip through the crowd of Zygerrian suitors.

"That's about right, though there are a few reasons why that came about," I finally replied, having dragged the moment out long enough. I leaned forward, seeing his face – and that of his assistants – light up in interest. However, before I could regale them with the tale of my defeat of Feir Kr'Lenah, the Vong commander on Zonama Sekot, a loud high-pitched chime sounded three times. That signalled the King wished to speak to us all, and so as one, the room turned his way.

I leaned forward, slightly disbelieving who I saw standing with King Medes and beside me, Rhork inhaled sharply. For some reason, Dred Yomaget, CEO of Mandalmotors and chief of Clan Yomaget, had decided to come to Zygerria. That showed how important this contract was to him and the board, as did his choice of dress.

Unlike the two guards near the rear of the room, who were outfitted in full beskar armour, though they didn't have a blaster in their hands, or Rhork and his group who wore most of their armour – they skipped the gauntlets and helmets – Dred was wearing only the breastplate, vambraces, greaves and boots. Under the armour, covering the rest of his frame, was an expensive-looking shirt and trouser combo and a cloak Dooku would've approved of fell from his shoulders. It was an interesting mix of Mandalorian armour with high-class clothing and gave Dred a look of a prince from a distant, warring people. Which in many ways, he was.

"Your majesty, honoured guests, please forgive my late arrival to this celebration on the elevation of Princess Miraj Scintel to Heir of the Zygerrian Empire," Dred began, showing remarkable calm at having several hundred sets of eyes on him. Including the glares of the other delegations. "Unfortunately, I was delayed with internal matters for my people. However, on behalf of Mandalmotors, I wish to offer Princess Miraj a taste of the high quality our company is known for." A servant stepped forward, carrying a case that was, perhaps a metre long. Once the servant reached Miraj, she stopped and opened it.

The princess gasped and there were murmurs from those nearby. I couldn't see what was in it until Miraj lifted it high into the air. Dred had gifted her a beskad, one with what looked like an engraved hilt if the stylised lion – or big cat I supposed – was any indicator.

"From one warrior culture to another, I present to your daughter, a beskad. A weapon of Mandalore made of beskar, meaning it can stand up to blaster fire, and even the legendary blades of the Jedi." At that, he glanced my way, and I grunted. While the gift had been for Miraj, that was him making clear he knew I was here, which had me wondering if that had weighed into his decision to come and, more than likely, take over negotiations for Mandalmotors. As, while Rhork seemed a fine negotiator, the other representatives all held board-level positions. Thus, his arrival now, with that gift, was a powerplay of impressive scope.

"On behalf of my daughter, and my people, we accept this offered blade graciously," Medes replied after a round of clapping – some more enthusiastic than others – at the gift. Miraj was struggling not to jump up and down, and only a hand on her shoulder from her mother stopped her from rushing Dred and likely demanding the start codes. "Though that still leaves the matter of your late arrival."

Dred bowed even as he laughed. "Yes, it does, your grace." He stood up and pointed an arm toward the doors where his guards were standing. The doors opened and servants began to roll in large cases and caskets. "From my personal reserves, I bring twenty casks of the finest Ne'tra gal Mandalore has to offer, along with twenty cases of wine distilled on Mandalore during the reign of our last Mand'alor."

My brow rose at hearing that, and more than a few people gasped. I'd had some of that wine during the feast to celebrate my verd'goten and knew a single bottle sold for upwards of five thousand credits. Each case looked to hold about twenty bottles, and assuming the Ne'tra gal was of similar stock, then Dred was offering drinks worth more than five million credits to the banquet. That put to shame anything the other parties had offered.

I did wonder if he was overplaying his hand in making such grand gestures as if he wasn't careful, it would look like he was trying to compensate for the lack of size and scope of Mandalmotors compared to the other players at the negotiating table. Still, if they got even a tenth of the overall contract, then the investment would pay for itself within the first few months.

"A most generous gift, and one, on behalf of Zygerria, I accept as your apology," Medes said before the two clasped arms. "Though don't think that drowning us in alcohol will influence the negotiations."

Laughter, more genuine than the earlier clapping, rippled through the hall, though the tables of the other delegations sounded far quieter to me than anywhere else. I glanced at the tables while the laughter continued and Medes shared a quiet word with Dred as Miraj gave her new weapon a few experimental slashes. The SoroSuub and Adascorp groups seemed perturbed, which I confirmed was due to Dred's appearing here through Observe, with the Sullustans feeling more pressured than the Arkanians. Oddly though, the Muun delegation from the IGBC seemed entirely unconcerned about Dred's arrival. Observe let me know Ce Serd was more concerned about the special representative from the IGBC who'd be arriving soon, which had me curious about who they were calling in for support.

As the laughter died down, and people began to sit down, I turned to Rhork. "Did you know about this?"

From the shock that was still on his face, it was clear he didn't. "N-no." He turned to face me as we sat. "I mean, I tol… That is to say, even as lead negotiator for Mandalmotors, I'm not made aware of the comings and goings of the Ol'averde Alor."

It was clear Rhork didn't know anything about Dred being here, or at least that someone from the company was going to arrive and Observe confirmed that. Piecing together what it told me, it seemed Rhork had contacted the board and informed them I was leading the negotiations. Whether he knew directly that Dred would come here, Observe wasn't able to tell, since it was limited in what it revealed, but he held himself accountable for this and was concerned about how I'd feel about it.

Before I could push him for details, someone approached the table. Rhork and his assistants shot to their feet, clasped a hand over their hearts and lowered their heads. "Alor Dred. You honour us with your presence. If I had known…" Dred raised a hand which stopped Rhork mid-sentence.

"If you were aware, then I suspect one of our competitors on this deal may have made arrangements to, at the very least, delay my arrival until after the banquet." Dred stepped forward and placed a hand on Rhork's shoulder. "You've done well so far, I'm merely here to help ensure your efforts are not in vain." At that, he turned to me and lowered his head slightly. "Alor Cameron, su cuy'gar. It has been some time since we last spoke."

He extended his arm and I clasped it near his elbow. "su cuy'gar, Alor Dred. Aye, that it has." His smile grew slightly as I returned the Mando'a greeting. "Though I'd hardly expected this to be where we'd next meet."

Dred laughed as we broke the arm clasp. "I had expected to meet you again before now, but once I heard you were the Jedi leading the negotiations, and after learning that members of the boards of our competitors were present, including a member of the House Adasca," he glanced over my shoulder at that moment, "I felt these talks required a more hands-on approach." He patted my arm in an overly-friendly gesture; something that wasn't missed by the other delegates. "Plus, I've heard tales from Sundari of your adventures in the Outer Rim, and still remember watching the recording of your verd'goten."

I rolled my eyes as I worked out his plan. One of the servants approached, and I happily exchanged my nectar wine for one of the Mandalorian stock. "I see Bo-Katan has been unable to refrain from discussing our travels," I muttered with a smile. Dred smirked at that and then took a sip of his wine. I did the same and savoured the familiar, and not sweet, taste of the Mandalorian vintage. "I must remember to… speak with her about that."

Dred laughed at that, as did Rhork and his team, and patted my arm once more. "From what I've heard, she would be amenable to that." With his hand still on my arm, he guided me back into my chair. "Still, that is a personal matter between you and her. What I'd rather hear about, at least tonight, is this tale of your duel to save a planet from invasion. According to Lady Bo-Katan, it is a tale to rival that of the Battle of Keldabe."

"I have heard of this battle, but details are surprisingly scarce outside of the Mandalore sector." That comment made me turn and look up at Hara Adasca, who'd come closer while I'd been greeting Dred. Not far behind her was Vundu Plast and Ce Serd, though what caught my attention was that Miraj was now making her way toward us, the beskad in her hands; thankfully for those in her way, it was sheathed.

"Justicar Adasca," Dred began as he stood and bowed. "Tales of your beauty have reached even the war-torn surface of Mandalore," he continued as he took her hand into his. "However, they fail to do justice to the angelic form before me." Hara didn't react beyond a slight twitching of her lips as Dred kissed her knuckles. For my part, I was impressed with how smoothly he said that and how believable it was.

"I would be surprised if such tales came close to describing an Arkanian properly," Hara responded as Dred released her hand before she turned her gaze upon me. "Now, what is this I hear of the Battle of Keldabe, and the implication our Jedi negotiator had a role to play in the battle that began your latest civil war?" There was slight disdain to her tone as she referred to the war being a recurring feature of the Mandalore sector, which was understandable as, from my research before going there, some form of semi-serious conflict broke out between clans about once every thirty years or so.

Dred smiled and gave me a gentle – for a Mandalorian – punch on my upper arm. "Alor Cameron here was responsible for single-handedly defeating the aruetiise that attacked our company headquarters and the city of Keldabe; slaying in combat the leaders of that assault."

For a moment I was annoyed at Dred as it felt as if he was trying to intentionally damage my standing as a neutral party by playing up my links to Mandalore. However, with a little time to think about it, I saw what he was doing. By not hiding there was a link between us, he was making it clear he wasn't looking for a favour, and if, as was possible, Mandalmotors failed to gain the contract or much of it, he could easily say it was proof I wasn't biased toward his company. Now, there was a chance the other delegates asked for my removal, but that would push the process back and so far, I'd not heard of any complaints from King Medes.

"Is that so?" Hara said slowly, her eyes wandering over my face, searching for something. "I was under the impression that Jedi were required to not join other organizations or cultures."

I shrugged. "The Order is open to understanding all cultures, both those within the Republic and those who keep their distance. It encourages its members to learn about them, though our vows to the Order must always come first while remaining a part of it." That might not be entirely true, but it was from a certain point of view. "As for my connection to Mandalore, I travelled there with another Padawan several years ago to learn about their culture. While there, we both completed trials that made us Mando'ade. It was the will of the Force that this happened, just as it was that I would be the Jedi assigned to handle these negotiations. While on Mandalore, I was able to help with, shall we say, an internal matter. A group of terrorists, ones who chose to ignore the teaching of the resol'nare – the core tenets of what it means to be Mandalorian – tried to overthrow the government and return their people to ways not followed since before the time of Revan." I gave Dred a glance as I finished, trying to ensure he got the message to not bring up my connection to Revan.

"Ah, interesting." Oddly, Hara did sound interested. Or at least not as bored as she usually sounded. "So, do you consider yourself a Mandalorian?" Well, at least the matter was being addressed right away instead of being left to fester.

"I passed the trials to join their ranks, yes. However, I am a Jedi first. If you are concerned about my loyalties being conflicted, I can assure you that they aren't. The Senate and Jedi assigned me to handle these negotiations fairly, to determine the deal that provides our hosts with the greatest benefits, and that is what I will do. Both bodies were aware of my status in Mandalorian culture yet were confident enough in my impartiality to not let it affect their decision. Chief Yomaget understands that even if that wasn't the case, I wouldn't grant Mandalmotors unfair consideration."

From somewhere else in the hall, I felt a sense of reassurance and relief at my answer. That had to have come from Shaak Ti, which meant she was monitoring the conversation while engaged with Queen Radej at the royal table.

"Your words are good, but we will see if your actions match them," Hara commented. It looked like she wanted to speak more, but that was the moment when Miraj arrived.

"Cameron! Is it true this can match a lightsaber?" She asked, waving around the thankfully sheathed beskad. It was shorter than mine, though since mine was more of a short sword than a beskad that wasn't a surprise. Up close, I could see the hilt with my eyes drawn to the pommel which was indeed stylised with a large cat. The eyes of that cat were yellow gems, mirroring Miraj's golden eyes.

"It is, Princess. Something I know well since not only have I fought Mandalorians with them, but I have one myself. A gift to celebrate my trials," I explained as I glanced at Hara. She nodded in thanks at the free information even as Miraj's eyes lit up and she came closer.

"Then you will be the one to tutor me on its use," she stated with a smirk, her free hand coming to rest on her hip. Behind her, several male Zygerrians glared at me; annoyed at me continually gaining the attention of what they wanted.

"I am uncertain if I'll have the time to do so, unless your father is willing for the negotiations to drag on for several months. However, when I can, I will try to find the time to offer pointers." While the idea of teaching her was more appealing than sitting around a table each day listening to the delegates talk, I was reluctant to help her of all people become more dangerous. Still, I couldn't outright reject her request, not without offending her and her father.

"Perhaps you would like to hear a tale of Cameron using his blade?" Dred cut in before Miraj could respond; likely with a complaint or two. "While I've already heard and seen the recordings of his verd'goten and the battle he fought in Keldabe, I'd enjoy hearing them from the man behind them. And perhaps, if time allows, he might deign to tell us of a duel he fought to save a world from enslavement."

Miraj's face shifted in an instant. Gone was any anger at my gentle rejection, replaced now by curiosity. "Yes, I'd like to hear that." Before I could say anything, she moved toward a chair next to me, the one Rhork was in, and waited. Rhork understood what she wanted and stood, offering the seat to her. As she sat, she pulled it closer until she was, perhaps, too close. However, no one was going to call her on this. "Regale us with the tales of your battles."

I glared at Dred. While I was glad that he'd diverted Miraj's annoyance at me not wanting to tutor her or get dragged back to the dance floor for a fourth round, I'd now be forced to sit here and retell war stories. While that was the better choice, it wasn't something I particularly wanted to do so publicly. And of course, there was a good chance that no matter how much I tried to undersell my battles, Miraj's interest in me would only grow because of this.

Fucking wonderful.

… …

… …

Several hours later, with the banquet still going strong, I slipped from the hall and stepped onto an isolated balcony. The cool air of the night was refreshing and, if one ignored where I was, the sight of the city bathed in moonlight was enchanting. However, it only took one look, and the sight of a random Zygerrian somewhere far below scalding a servant, to shatter that illusion.

I glared at the Zygerrian and considered for a moment using the Force to remove him, however, I decided against it. Even if the servant somehow avoided punishment now, because there'd be no way for them to explain what had happened to others, they'd be punished worse later. I wasn't happy about that but knew I had to accept it.

The sounds of the banquet filtered out from behind me, filling the air with soft music, though not everyone was still there. Queen Radej along with the assistants from SoroSuub, Adascorp, the IGBC and about half the Zygerrians. All four negotiators were still present when I'd slipped away for some air, with them, Shaak and Dred joining Medes and Miraj at the royal table.

We'd ended up there as Miraj, after hearing about the Battle of Keldabe, had insisted I recount the story to her parents. Radej had left after the re-viewing of my verd'goten – I'd have to think of a way to thank Dred for having that with him – though she, along with her husband, had been impressed that I'd taken down the greater krayt dragon alone. Given the way that Miraj was all but hanging off my arm after that, and the fact her father didn't mind, I was growing concerned about how the royal family regarded me. Thankfully, Shaak was still around, having been at the royal table when Miraj had brought me over and had made it clear that once the mission was over, we'd be returning to the Temple, or I'd have been worried Medes might try to betroth me to his daughter.

Medes had particularly enjoyed the telling of my duel on Zonama Sekot and spoken about how he'd heard of the incredible starships they produced. Shaak had then revealed Raven was one such vessel, and Miraj had all but demanded a flight or two in her. While I'd prefer to keep the princess as far away from Raven – not to mention Fenrir and Simvyl – there was little I could do to deny the request. Not after Shaak had given her approval to the idea, so long as I didn't mind.

Honestly, I wondered if Shaak wasn't enjoying the attention I was getting in some way; almost as if it diverted attention from her.

Still, after more time drinking with Medes and the others, I'd asked to be excused for some fresh air. Though I was giving serious consideration to simply teleporting back to Raven and calling it a night. Yes, it would be rude, but with Medes having insisted that I and Shaak join the royal family on a tour of their summer palace tomorrow, I wanted some hours away from Miraj.

"Ah, Master Jedi. I was hoping to speak with you privately for a moment."

I looked upward, wondering just how I'd pissed off the Force this time so that it'd decided to bring Ce Serd, the IGBC delegate, to the same balcony I was currently enjoying my solitude on. I considered using the Force to either make him forget I was here or perhaps, even arrange an accident for him. However, Detection confirmed his guards were only a few metres away and, as always, would be on the lookout for anything untoward.

"Director Serd," I said slowly as I turned, pushing aside my weariness with this evening, "how may I help you exactly?" My tone wasn't as calm as I'd have liked and the Muun oddly flinched as I faced him.

"While I understand you'd prefer some solitude, and personally, I would enjoy retiring to my quarters, I'm afraid there is, ah, a private matter I must discuss with you." He paused and looked around the balcony as if wondering if there were spies nearby or something. "One that cannot take place here."

My brow creased at the odd nervousness he was displaying. During the negotiations, he was always in control of himself and seemingly disinterested in everything, so for him to be this unbalanced was odd. Observe gave me nothing, other than hinting the representative of the IGBC he'd been worried about had arrived, so I could only assume that someone higher on the food chain at the IGBC wished to talk with me. Which sounded about as much fun as a five-hour meditation session with Yoda.

"Oh, is this the moment where you take me somewhere and either coerce my cooperation or move to remove me from the talk?" I asked with a chuckle to make clear I was teasing. However, my joke landed like a wet brick.

"Certainly not! To insinuate that…" He snapped, only to blink, which was always an odd thing to see on a Muun. "Ah, yes, a joke. My apologies for missing that." He coughed out one of the fakest laughs I'd ever heard before shaking his head. "No, as I said this is a private matter concerning you and the IGBC. One I can assure you has no bearing on the negotiations."

"Oh?" Yeah, it had to be to do with whoever this representative was. Other than the IGBC being large backers of the Lord of the Rings series of holomovies, with the first one only now entering principal production on Alderaan, I couldn't think of what connection I had to them. Hell, the movie connection was tenuous at best as my identity was kept hidden from everyone bar my agents with secure holocalls and voice distortion tricks. Now if my agent/publisher had revealed my identity that would be a breach of contract – as I'd ensured if they did leak that info they'd be cut out of any further profits from the series – then there couldn't be any way the IGBC knew who I truly was.

"Yes. It is a relatively minor matter, but still, not one best carried out near the ears of others." He stepped back, one arm indicating the door off the balcony. "If you wish, you could speak with your Master first. I believe she is still in the banquet hall."

That calmed my nerves immensely, not that I was overly concerned about going somewhere alone with the Muun and his guards. While they were considered a threat, if things somehow got too hot, I'd simply teleport away. "No, that won't be necessary. Please, lead the way."

The Muun blinked again before nodding and then stepping through the door. As I followed, I reached out through the Force.

[Master, Director Serd wishes to speak with me about a matter he claims is not linked to the negotiations.]

I sensed Shaak's confusion as she replied mentally. [About what specifically?]

[He won't say, but I believe it might have to do with a special representative of the IGBC who has possibly arrived this evening.]

Shaak seemed to chuckle through the link. [I could've sworn someone said their ability wasn't offering insights into the delegates. Do you need me to join you?]

[No, Master. I simply wished to let you know on the off chance this was a prelude to something else.]

[Hmm, is that Master Dooku I hear in you?] I smirked at that. [Regardless. If you feel comfortable handling it alone, do so. However, if things turn out unexpectedly, let me know. I will try to keep Princess Miraj occupied until you return, but sadly I seem far less interesting to her than you.]

I bit back a groan at her joke as I felt her mind close the connection. I had no intention of returning to the banquet now, planning to use this meeting as the excuse I needed to slink away into the night. Given Miraj's behaviour today and tonight, I doubted it would take much to have her forget about my disappearance. Though to ensure that I wasn't intercepted by a servant, the moment this meeting was over, I'd be teleporting back to Raven.

As I followed Minister Serd through the corridors of the palace, I took note of his guards. Currently, there were four of them, two in front of him and two behind me, and all were Iotan. It wasn't a species I knew much about beyond them serving the IGBC as personal guards and sometimes a small private army if there was a need. Observe told me that each on their own was a moderate threat to me, but since none were Force-sensitive, I felt I could take them with relative ease if the need arose.

Still, the guards were good, working in their pairs to ensure no one came upon us, be they servants or would-be assassins. About ten minutes after leaving the balcony we reached the small area of the palace given over to the IGBC for these negotiations. After passing another four Iotans, Serd stopped outside one door and lowered his head.

I reached out with the Force and sensed only one being inside the room. With that known, I stepped forward and walked through the doors as they slid back silently to allow me entry.

The room inside was dark, lit only by moonlight that slipped in through closed windows. However, I knew I wasn't alone as the sound of someone breathing slowly, steadily through a mask. For a split-second, I had a wild fear that I'd somehow been led into a trap with Darth Vader before reason reasserted itself. This was shortly followed by a shiver racing up my spine as I realised who it was just before they stepped out of a shadow.

"Ah, Cameron Shan," Hego Damask began as he approached, a hand outstretched, "It's been some time since we last spoke."

I shook his hand while trying to calm my nerves. "Magister Damask, this is unexpected; so much so I was concerned for a moment this was some sort of ambush," I added to hopefully hide the shifting in my emotions at seeing him here.

Damask laughed, a sound that sounded off because of the mask. "Nothing of the sort. I was following these negotiations closely since Damask Holdings would be a major part of the contract once it's earned." He broke the handshake and used the arm to indicate a sofa. "When I learnt you were the Jedi responsible for brokering an agreement, my interest was piqued. Then, when I heard that Dred Yomaget was on his way, I felt it wise to do so as well. Between the three of us, I'm sure we can come to an amicable agreement, however, that is for tomorrow. For tonight, I'd hoped to simply catch up with the young man who saved my life."

"There is no need for that, Magister, though I am grateful for the distraction," I replied with a smile that I hoped didn't appear forced. Having Darth Plagueis turn up for these negotiations was almost the last thing I wanted to happen. Particularly since I suspected his interest was less in the contract and more in me. That had me wondering just what about Zonama Sekot and the Vong had Sidious told him and how much of that story, if any, he would try to draw out of me tonight.

"Was the banquet as unenjoyable as I suspect?" He asked with a chuckle that sounded odd as fuck due to his mask.

"The banquet was fine," I said slowly, trying to play the role of someone not knowing the truth. "I simply grew tired of the attention of a particular female Zygerrian."


I leaned back on the sofa, doing my best to appear relaxed and ignore the insanity of the fact I was about to complain about her interest in me to Darth Plagueis. Hopefully, this assignment didn't get any weirder than this as I wasn't sure I could survive that.

… …

… …

As always, this story is crossposted on Questionable Questing and Archive of our Own. (And soon, hopefully, Royal Road).

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May the Force be with you. Always.