*\\o *\\o *\\o *\\o *\\o Part 1
"They've arrived. At least most of them. Master Rancisis assured me that they're all planetside."
Over the comlink, Minosly heard Chairman Wid sigh with relief. One more detail taken care of; five thousand more free-floating fragments to catch. Minosly's chauffeur pulled out of the parking space at the Sludo Hostel and zoomed up and into traffic on their way to the spaceport to greet another group of arriving dignitaries. By the time he got there, he hoped he would know where he was going to put them.
"Uh, Chairman. . ."
"What?" The voice on the com pounced on him.
"I was just thinking; maybe we won't need them for the investiture after all? I was thinking they might not be missed."
"What are you talking about?" his boss's voice demanded. "The Senate sent thirty Jedi to attend Olan's inauguration. I'd think that people would notice thirty Jedi missing from the ceremony, don't you?"
"Possibly not these Jedi."
"What's wrong with them?"
"They look a bit. . . shabby." The driver swerved to avoid a large-load transport that had ignored their official flashers and siren.
"Jedi always look like that. It's part of their mystique."
"I've seen Jedi on Coruscant. Well, some of these ones are alright, I suppose, but the others don't look as . . . capable as the ones I've seen at the Senate. Especially Rancisis. He's all weedy, gray beard and long claws and he just sits on a cushion and stares at you."
"I hope you didn't say that to him; he's a member of the Jedi Council."
"Really?" Minosly looked out at the cityscape whizzing past, slower traffic pulling aside for them. They were going to be late. "I mean, no, of course I didn't say anything. I am a professional.
"I just think that maybe when the Senate passed on our request for an honor guard, the Jedi thought that a ceremony wasn't that important and . . . just took anyone who hangs around the Temple and sent them on a free trip." There was a short silence on the other end of the comlink.
"Minosly, I don't care if they're slathered in mud and got weeds growing in their ears. They're Jedi. They'll do," the Chairman said in a tone that was not to be questioned.
"Who's minding them?"
"I've got that woman, that one that the outer provinces sent us, Noeris. She's young and a little short of this level of experience, but she's smart enough."
"Hmmmph, that'll keep the provincial chief happy; she's her niece," the chairman's voice grumbled. "Good choice. Now, where are you?"
Minosly cringed. "We're on Grand Way just getting - - - "
"What?! You're LATE! They're landing. . . . !"
*\\o *\\o *\\o *\\o *\\o
An official government air speeder swung down to the ground level street, the driver-droid bringing it to a stop at the front entrance of an ornately decorated building. Xanatos Son-of-Crion popped the door open as soon as the transport stopped. He stepped out. Standing and facing his destination, he hoped that the Sludo (which supposedly meant Rooms-in-Splendor) Hostel lived up to its name. He and his Padawan had been living rough for their last three missions and he was looking forward to not having to shake out dirt, bits of plants and dead bugs from his robe in the morning.
He looked up at the five-story edifice. It was some kind of clean, white stone-composite with tall, narrow windows and every bit of non-window surface was covered with rows of decorative statuary of scantily clad persons waving limbs and appendages, lounging in comfort among plants, serving droids, plentiful food and otherwise portraying an idyllic existence.
He waved a hand. "Bring the packs, Bruck."
Xanatos did not bother turning around to see his Padawan's scowl. He sighed over his apprentice's new, surly and hormonal attitude. He heard the appropriate thumping and foot dragging behind him as he climbed the steps.
A shiny silver humanoid-style protocol droid met him in the entryway.
"Greetings Master Jedi, Greetings! Please, allow us to serve you and your most illustrious selves! I am the head butler and concierge, En-Cee-Two."
"You can take our luggage to our room. I'm sure my Padawan doesn't want it."
Bruck slouched forward and dumped the packs practically on the droid's feet. It hopped into action.
"Oh, yes! Of course. En-Six, come here at once!"
A squat binary cart whirred out. It was equally polished and remarkably quick. Xanatos strode past the droids and entered the large courtyard inside. Open to the sky, it featured a flowering garden surrounding a central swimming pool. And although it had the appearance of being open to the outside, the courtyard was obviously atmosphere controlled, judging by the brisk breeze just past the threshold and the warm comfortable air around him now.
"Aaaah." He turned his eyes admiringly up to the spherical anti-grav field hovering two stories above the water. The huge energy bubble simultaneously supplied extra light and a convenient exercise space for the hostel guests. Xanatos spotted four Jedi already taking advantage of the facility as they twirled and zoomed about within the glowing, semi-reflective spherical boundary.
Rapidly advancing tik-tiking footsteps caught his attention and he turned to his left.
"Greetings Master Jedi. I am Attendant Noeris, your liaison to the Piernis Union. We are honored that the Jedi Council has sent you to attend Prefect Olan's inauguration," a small, smartly-dressed woman gushed up at him. Xanatos detected a small gasp coming up beside him and in the corner of his eye, he saw his Padawan gaping at her like a person dying of thirst and now gazing at a sparkling spring of cool water.
She was pretty and looked close enough to his age, certainly no more than twenty standard years. Her purple hair was cut short to her well-shaped head and her bronze skin was flawlessly smooth. Her purple and blue striped suit hugged the feminine curves of her body perfectly. Her eyes were purple-blue with dark purple lines drown around them, making her look even more wide-eyed and innocent than she already was. Next to him, Bruck nervously smoothed his pale blond hair and brushed at his robe in a futile attempt to look less travel-worn than he was.
"You must be," she consulted the comp-screen that she had hugged to her body, "Jedi Knight Xanatos Son-of-Crion." She politely bobbed her head at him. "And Padawan Learner Bruck Chun." Her eyes quickly flicked up-and-down his youthful body, something she had not done for the Master, and her cheeks dimpled as she lowered her purple-blue eyes.
"Ah-hem, I am here to serve," she addressed Xanatos again. "Anything you need, any comfort that I can provide, please, do not hesitate to ask." She gestured toward a wide hostel desk attended by another shiny droid and a matronly woman giving it instructions from a computer screen. "You two are the last of your group to arrive. I'll just check you in."
Xanatos waved a hand. "Thank-you, Attendant Noeris, or should we just call you Noeris?"
"Anything you wish," she cheerfully replied.
"Then Noeris it will be. Please, show my Padawan to our room. Bruck, take care of our packs. And take as much time as you need with the fair Noeris here while I partake of these excellent surroundings." He bowed himself away and turned away to hide his grin.
His own coming-of-age had been traumatic, confusing, embarrassing, and exhausting, all magnified to super-nova-sized proportions by the Jedi philosophy of wisdom-is-only-gained-from-doing. He had often berated his Master for letting him go through all that, but now that he was the Master to his own apprentice going through the same agony, he could see that Qui-Gon had told him everything he needed to know; it had simply never stuck to his brain as being important until it was seared in by bitter experience. Some of the memories could still make him wince.
Bruck had been instructed in all the medical, anatomical, developmental and psychological details that could be driven into his thick skull. Of course, Jedi training also strictly discouraged indulgences of the flesh, but on this point even the Jedi recognized that puberty needed more than mediation. Xanatos knew full well that Bruck had already investigated what he could do with his own hands and his developing manhood. But he was now going through the angst of working out where it should be applied. He most definitely preferred females and small, compact, perky, curvy ones like Noeris most reliably got his attention. But he was struggling with the conflict of an increasing physical desire and a desperate, almost instinctive fear of failure. Being a Jedi, he had been taught since he could speak to always be in control of himself; that just made his condition worse. Xanatos had come to believe that being a Jedi was a bit unnatural and his Padawan's current state just reinforced that belief.
A few more of their party strolled above the courtyard on walkways bedecked with more plants, draping over elaborately styled and carved balustrades. The hostel rooms appeared to be on all sides, four stories of them, doors and wide windows looking down on the walkways, garden, pool and communal courtyard. It felt more like a family estate than a commercial hostel. And whoever had built it seemed to think that a blank wall was a crime against nature; even more carvings crowded the inside surfaces than the exterior of the building.
"Dwani! Don't even think it!"
The sudden shout came from a Ruroph Master who had just jumped up from his seat at a table on the ground floor. His chair clanged down on the ground behind him. Xanatos followed his glare up to where two older Padawans stood at the balustrade on the roof. One of them had a booted foot up on the sturdy, decorated barrier; a long thin braid hung down from behind one pointed ear protruding from his thick hair, black against the sky. He reluctantly put his foot down.
Xanatos could see that a jump from that height would land them on the force field bubble and if they didn't bounce off onto a nearby walkway, they could fall through and into the pool. Either way it could be a lot of fun. But the intended stunt was spoiled for now. The other Padawan backed away; he was Chiss or Chibbi or something similar, the same height as his comrade but with bright red hair against his sky-blue skin and with a much more stoutly built.
The Master snarled and switched his large, bushy black tail. Then, righting his chair, he sat down again at a small table across from a Chibbi Master with pale blue eyes and a shock of silvery white hair against his fading blue skin and wearing a well-worn pale gray-brown robe. Xanatos had seen them in the Temple, but he did not know their names. He was now gone on missions more than he was back on Coruscant, doing the Jedi Order's dirty work all over the galaxy and not just in the bowels of the Temple.
"Hah! Finally got here!" A familiar gruff shout called to him and Xanatos turned to see his dear friend, Master Craglar in loose tunic and pants, making his way toward him from what looked like the hostel salon. And right behind him was his old Master, Qui-Gon Jinn, tall and imposing in his usual dark brown robe.
Xanatos grinned and spread his arms wide. "And just when I thought the Senate had given us some quality accommodations. But they can't have, can they? Not if they let the likes of you in here."
Craglar laughed, his whiskers rising. "And I was wondering what the mossatz had dragged in." He mockingly sniffed the air, his whiskers twitching. Xanatos moved to embrace him, but reflexively drew back when he got close enough.
"Ah, my fine friend, I see that you ate something particularly vile for lunch, just for me."
Craglar laughed again with another pungent exhale before they warmly embraced. When they served together in the lower levels of the Jedi Temple during Xanatos's dark depressive years after he was knighted for killing his own sire, they kept order amidst the refuse that rained down from above; Craglar had taught him quite a lot about smells.
"So, this is the kind of mission they send old Masters like you on? Looking pretty for the Jedi Order?"
He did not look pretty. Craglar looked more wrinkled and grayer and not in a way that Xanatos liked. He was old when Xanatos first met him when they served with the Temple Custodians; now he was obviously moving slower and more carefully. But the mischievous gleam in his eyes was reassuring.
"Huuuh! Pretty is the messes I'll have to clean up when I get back."
They both shared a disdain for the unrealistic ideals of Temple life and an appreciation for the practicality of keeping it running.
"And you, my old Master." Xanatos released Craglar and turned to Qui-Gon. "This kind of thing is a bit below your exalted level. What did you do to piss off the Council this time?"
Qui-Gon Jinn was a senior Jedi Master, one of the best saber masters in the Order and well respected for his intuition with the Living Force. If not for his interpretations of the Will of the Force that so often drew disapproval from the Council, he likely would have been selected to join them long ago.
His very blue eyes smiling back, Qui-Gon pretended innocence. "I and my Padawan were merely in the vicinity. And this task will only take a couple of days."
Xanatos felt a genuine smile creeping onto his own lips; it was amazing how long separations actually produced a nostalgic fondness for his old Master. They hugged as real comrades, their shared past only memories.
"As I understand it, all we're supposed to do is stand and salute while Prefect Olan takes an oath not to cheat, rob and steal from the citizenry." Xanatos said as they separated. Then he brushed at the front of his robe as if preparing for a serious ritual. "I think I can manage that."
"The salute comes afterwards," Qui-Gon explained. "There is to be a briefing and rehearsal tomorrow and then the ceremony the day after that."
"And otherwise, we are to make ourselves comfortable." Xanatos scanned the pleasant surroundings. "I just hope we don't scare the other guests away."
"Hah!" Craglar grinned. "No other guests. It's just us. And their minder, Noeris."
"And they did request that we stay discretely out of sight until we are needed." Qui-Gon's eyes also scanned the garden courtyard appreciatively. "So, they gave us comfortable accommodations, away from the all the other official diplomatic gatherings and celebrations. We are not expected to attend any of them."
Xanatos's eyes widened at their good fortune. "Yet another bonus. But still . . . thirty Jedi in one hostel. What could happen?" he asked with mock innocence. "I know Master Rancisis is leading this party, but who else is here?"
Craglar grimaced. "Whoever they could spare. Ugh. Tulo and Hwilhumah are in one suite on the third level with me along with Tulo's Padawan, Mo, and Knight Nomo.
"You're in a room with Masters Tulo and Hwilhumah?"
"Aaaugh." Craglar waved a dismissive hand. "Not in the same room; I have my own. But those randy old ladies are a bit too close for my comfort."
Craglar pointed up toward the rooms above. "Allisi Jogli and her Padawan, Lumy Bata, along with Master Mili and Junis Ablinith are in the other suite on the third level and Master Bra'Ahkit has the other single room on our floor." He pointed at the bushy-tailed Jedi at the café table. "Hah! He's two levels away from his Padawan, Hageh Dwani, who has his own room on the fifth level." He grinned. "He's the one who was looking at taking a dive off the roof just now. Hah-hah." He slapped Qui-Gon's back. "He's supposed to be strong in the Living Force and Bra'ahkit has already talked to Qui-Gon here about getting in a little training on disciplining that."
Xanatos made a face. "He must be desperate if he's coming to you for discipline."
Folding his arms before him, Qui-Gon raised his brows. "I am quite disciplined. In my own way."
Craglar gestured to the blue-skinned Jedi at the café. "That is Master Rurlees Zron. He shares a room on the fourth level with his Padawan, Dezrote Noy, who was also ready to dive from the roof with his friend Dwani." Next, he pointed toward the anti-grav bubble above the pool. "There's Mazzd, Wilo Gren," he pointed out two Duro, a slender Master and stout Padawan spinning around each other. "They have one double on the fourth level. The other two are Mora Bilds and Sahdi Widi; they have the other double on the fourth level." Two female Twi'leks, one green-skinned, one golden yellow, swam circles in the air in the lower part of the huge anti-grav bubble.
"And Rancisis has his own room on the fourth level, too. " He glanced about. "He's slithering around here somewhere." Craglar lifted his head and pointed toward the people sitting at another grouping of tables and chairs on the other side of the pool. "That's Florin." A thin, gray elderly Weequay. "And Erum Omo." A young human woman with easily visible short red-gold hair. "They have two single rooms on the fifth level.
"Then there's Lida Elin Po and Nyenis at the other table - - - look at the size of that meeket they're eating; it's half as big as my head - - - they're sharing a double on the fourth level. And that's Edalel Ton, he's got a single on the fourth level." Ton's small Quermian head bobbed above the others on his long pale neck.
Craglar looked about. "Hrrrph. I don't see Yui Tk'wos. She's got a single on the fourth level. Probably in her room. And I don't know where Alod Ken and his Padawan, Yag, have gotten to, but they've got singles on the fourth and fifth levels." He scrunched up his wrinkled face in thought. "That leaves you and your Padawan with the last double room." He grinned and exhaled another aromatic breath. "I hope you're getting along well."
Xanatos's shoulders dropped. "I thought we were. But lately . . . .," he said with genuine regret. "He's really been improving. His focus is good. Mostly. He's a bit weak on mind influencing, which is probably for the best until he matures a bit more. It takes me twice as long in a saber match to disarm him than it did last year." He paused, sure that there had to be more positives, but they weren't coming to him. "But just lately . . . . he's been impatient with everything . . . and . . . " Xanatos paused on the word 'angry', practically a swear word among Jedi, and leapt onto another positive. "He's stopped automatically comparing himself to anyone we meet. Now he only does it for Humanoids near his own age." He glanced back in the direction of where Noeris had led Bruck. "Unless they're female and pretty."
Qui-Gon's brows lifted and Xanatos was sure he saw his lips quiver in a suppressed grin. Craglar didn't suppress his grin at all.
"Time for the old Master to see his old Padawan paid back by the next generation." He snickered in undisguised anticipation and slapped Qui-Gon on the back. Qui-Gon' remained impassive until Craglar's amusement dissolved in a flemmy cough, spittle going in all directions. He waved off the others' concern and wiped his slobbering mouth on an already soiled wide brown sleeve of his tunic.
"Maybe you'll do more than hint about your mis-spent emergence - - " cough-cough, " - - at least when you pass on that wisdom to that snotty kid you've been dragging around the galaxy." Craglar flashed a knowing grin at Xanatos and then nodded toward Qui-Gon. "He won't say a word about what he put you through. But he's not above dropping a few hints."
"Hah!" Xanatos almost shouted in near-outrage. "What I put HIM through? Oh, my fine old friend, Master Qui-Gon here is not as harmless as he looks. I had my faults," he admitted, putting a hand to his chest. "And blind as my old Master was to too many of them, my coming-of-age was the one time when he was always ahead of me. Watching me stumble from disaster to humiliation, letting me learn from misfortune. The old-fashioned Jedi way."
"It seemed the only way you would learn." Qui-Gon shrugged, obviously not feeling any guilt at all about Xanatos's youthful traumas. "At least you never left your boots behind at any more brothels after Samatros."
Craglar's long white whiskers perked up as if he could smell the juicy gossip, but Qui-Gon failed to deliver. Glancing behind him, Xanatos gratefully spotted a change of subject coming down the stairs with the young, tender and very perky Noeris.
"Speaking of learning, and Learners . . . "
Both elder Jedi followed his lead and Xanatos was rewarded with the sudden drop of Craglar's long whiskers and Qui-Gon's wide eyed stare. He grinned.
"Yes, isn't it amazing about Padawans? Just add a little water to them and they grow all on their own."
Neither Craglar nor Qui-Gon had seen his apprentice for more than two standard years, so the new, bigger, broader Bruck was a satisfying shock for them.
Xanatos noted that Bruck and Noeris had chosen to slowly walk together from the fourth level by way of the stairs and not take the lift. Bruck's whole body looked both desperate to get nearer and terrified of getting too close to the young woman who smiled and chatted, gesturing with her hands. If she was aware of his total focus on her, she was not showing it. Their descent seemed to slow even more as they approached the ground level. Another Padawan emerged from an archway, passing a bush by the foot of the stairs.
"Aaaah, I see that yours still needs a little more watering," Xanatos commented to Qui-Gon. Bruck Chun had always been bigger than Obi-Wan Kenobi though they were the same species and close to the same age, but now the difference was even greater. Bruck's body was filling out to full manhood and looked as if he might be nearly as tall as Qui-Gon Jinn while Obi-Wan Kenobi was still a slender boy.
They were too far away to hear, but Kenobi obviously said something to Noeris. She skipped down the last few steps and engaged him in a quick conversation before bouncing off toward the hostel's front desk where she turned back toward him with a friendly wave and smile before disappearing behind a side door.
"Hunh?" Craglar lifted his head and whiskers.
Bruck had stormed down the stairs. Coming from behind, he pushed Obi-Wan who went flying. But he had little chance to recover his balance before Bruck seized him by the front of his tunic, pulling his up almost off his feet and shaking him violently.
"It would seem that your Padawan . . . " but the rest of Qui-Gon's cold comment was lost as Craglar sprinted toward the two.
The elder Jedi was using the Force and it jolted the other two Masters to follow. But Craglar got there first and swiftly separated them by pulling Bruck away and shoving his drooling snout in the young Human's face. Bruck was too shocked to resist. The long white whiskers worked back and forth as Craglar took a really good whiff of Bruck. Obi-Wan stumbled away in the general direction of Qui-Gon.
Snarling, Craglar released Bruck. Xanatos saw two long streams of spittal decorating the front of his Padawan's tunic. Straightening, Bruck backed away a couple paces.
"Stay," Craglar commanded before turning away and rejoining them. He seized Xanatos's arm in a brutal grip as he dragged him away. Concerned, Qui-Gon followed with his still stunned apprentice.
"Get your Padawan to a med-center, Xanatos," Craglar rumbled as soon as they were out of hearing distance of Bruck.
"What?" The words seemed to bounce inside Xanatos's head without forming a meaning. "What? I know he was - - - "
Craglar's hands gripped his collar, tightening it around his throat. Xanatos felt warm drool soaking the front of his own tunic as he stared cross-eyed back at Craglar's glare.
"Get your Padawan to a med-center. Now."
*\\o *\\o *\\o *\\o *\\o End Part 1