The air was damp and musty in the tunnels. Hewn from solid sandstone deep beneath the Palace, the tunnels were originally built as an additional security measure for Naboo's ruler and staff in the event of planetary invasion. Like the veins in a beating heart, passageways spidered outward in all directions from a central chamber, located directly under the throne room. Rivulets of water – residue from the waterfalls framing one side of the Palace – gleamed dully in the torchlight of several wrought iron lanterns, hung all around the circumference of the circular chamber. Large columns, elegantly carved from the stone by a skilled artist now dead for ten generations, guarded the entryways that loomed blackly in the dim light.
Queen Apailana sat at the head of a roughly oblong stone slab, doubling as a conference table, in the center of the underground room. She appeared to be the only one out of the dozen handmaidens, guards, and government officials crowding her side of the chamber that was relatively at ease with their current situation. Her small hands were folded lightly atop the gritty stone, and her childlike features were composed…but her large eyes glittered dangerously from the shadowed hollows beneath her brow as she met the stare of the one seated across from her. The young monarch could not see his face – only vague outlines of an aquiline nose and a firm mouth, illuminated by the yellow-orange firelight.
The visitor had arrived on Naboo about ten days ago, stumbling into the Palace and demanding to speak to the Queen. He had been almost catatonic; eyes dull and unfocused, the skin of his face a sickly white, he requested asylum – and collapsed when it was granted.
Apailana had ordered her personal physician to conduct a thorough examination, and she had determined that his physical exhaustion stemmed from some sort of psychological trauma. She had also discovered and treated several unhealed wounds caused by high-heat energy beams, as well as unusual electrical burns on his chest and torso. He appeared to be a human male in his early to mid-twenties, but there was nothing else about him that could help identify him.
As he slept without waking for nearly thirty-six hours, Apailana sent out several missives to the surrounding systems' governments as well as an official inquiry to the Republic Galactic Intelligence Bureau – but no definitive information could be found.
When he finally came to, the young Queen had found herself thrust into a quagmire of complexity.
The young man revealed himself to be a Jedi – a Padawan who had been left for dead on the battlefield and had skirted the edges of the Separatist fleet in the Outer Rim for many months, looking for an opportunity to strike back. He had told Apailana that he had no desire to return to the Jedi Order – "Let them think me dead" – but when Order 66 smeared the blood of his onetime kin across the galaxy, he decided to act.
Stealing a ship from the Palace's hangar, he had disappeared for days…only to return a couple of hours ago this very morning while Apailana was meeting with Senator Amidala's sister, leading an entourage of six fugitive Jedi, including a seriously wounded Padawan. "Help us," he had begged, and the Queen had never before seen such emotion on his hardened face. She had agreed without hesitation, though in retrospect, she should have paused to consider the consequences.
Apailana's gaze shifted from him, slowly drifting along the silent hooded figures standing in a loose semicircle on the opposite side of the chamber. She felt a brief rush of relief upon spotting the now-healing Padawan, a young Cathar female no more than twelve or thirteen seasons, seated beside him at the table.
The Padawan's bright green eyes glowed in the darkness; her species was able to see much more clearly than humans in limited light like these tunnels, but when she looked at Apailana, the Queen felt chilled by the bleak emptiness in her unblinking stare. It was the same emptiness she saw in all of their eyes. The emptiness of loss.
Returning her level gaze to him, their impromptu commander by no design of his own, Apailana let a few more moments pass in silence, and then spoke. "I am not certain," she replied with deliberate care, "that you understand what you are asking of me. I am responsible for the stability and well-being of my planet and its people. In the eyes of the New Order, I am already an apostate. If it is discovered that my loyalties do not lie with the Empire, Palpatine's retribution will be swift and brutal." She paused, and leaned forward, praying that he would sense with that mysterious Force her desire to help – as well as her firm resolve not to risk having so many lives heaped upon her conscience.
"The Palace will remain a safe haven for you and your comrades…but I cannot – I will not – condone an open confrontation with Imperial soldiers. It would endanger the lives of my people…and that is a price too high for me to pay. Moreover, your evidence of a contingent stationed here on Naboo, in this city, is circumstantial at best."
A low hiss echoed throughout the chamber, blanketing its occupants in a feeling of primal malice. Several Royal guards' hands brushed over their holstered blasters in response, as though reassuring themselves that they were capable of protecting their Queen.
The Cathar Padawan was glaring at Apailana, her feline features twisted into a vicious snarl that bared her sharpened teeth. Apailana noticed abstractly that the Padawan's face was a golden tan color, and could just make out the shadows of auburn stripes on her cheeks and forehead as they disappeared into the cowl of her robe. Stripes were rare for the Cathar – the marks usually faded when a child reached adolescence.
Because of its uncommonness, striped fur was thought to be the marking of a great warrior. The Queen wondered if that was the reason this Padawan's parents had given her to the Jedi for training – to fulfill some great destiny heralded by a physical trait.
He held up his hand, the one closest to the young Cathar, and the hissing noise abruptly cut off, though her green eyes blazed within the shadowed confines of her hood. "I assure you that there is something amiss inside the city," he responded coolly. "We can all feel it; danger, lying in wait, to be triggered by some outside force. It must be uncovered before it is too late."
"You ask Her Majesty to jeopardize the safety of our planet based on your 'feeling'?" The incredulous and somewhat condescending remark came from one of Apailana's advisors, a young man chosen for his tactical knowledge – not his negotiating skills.
The Cathar Padawan leaned forward, ignoring the restraining arm thrown across her path, her lips rippling in a growl that erupted from low in her throat. Splaying her hands on the stone, the fingers curled slightly like the claws of a hunter, she asked in a quiet, deadly tone, "Do you doubt the words of a Jedi?" Her vertical pupils narrowed as she stared the advisor down, practically daring him to reply.
Apailana intended to try and diffuse the situation – but unfortunately, her advisor decided to take matters into his own hands. "We need proof that the Empire is meddling in the affairs of Naboo – solid evidence that confirms your suspicions – before we allow you to act."
"Allow us?" she exclaimed, the snarl more pronounced and far more threatening in nature on her face. Her fingertips contracted atop the makeshift table, the nails digging into the coarse stone. "Who do you think –?"
"Enough, Jiera!" He clapped a firm hand on her shoulder, holding her in place. "Be mindful of your feelings," he admonished sternly. "You are a Jedi. Control yourself."
Jiera settled back into her seat, her murderous expression fading as her stiff shoulders rose and fell in a deep breath. Her hands relaxed and slid from the table to rest limply on her lap, and the emptiness slowly returned to her jewel-toned eyes. The other hooded figures had not moved so much as a millimeter throughout the entire exchange, standing about the room like living statues and watching both seen and unseen fluctuations in the chamber's atmosphere.
The Queen chose to breach the tense aftermath, stating with calm poise, "My advisor, perhaps, speaks out of turn." She could not turn around to see how her veiled reprimand was received…but there was no mistaking the hint of satisfaction glimmering in Jiera's emerald orbs. "Your request is not a question of proof, but of substance. What is it that you hope to accomplish if it is granted?"
"Peace of mind, Your Majesty," he responded immediately. "We were taken by surprise five days ago. Many of us have lost Masters, apprentices, and friends…all falling under the blasterfire of those whom we thought were our allies." His silver-grey eyes glinted metallic with resolve. "We do not intend to be caught off-guard again."
"And this…venture will give all of you some measure of peace?"
He could hear the reluctant notes of agreement in Apailana's question, and could probably sense it as well. His gaze brightened considerably, though he kept his expression carefully neutral.
Of course, others in the chamber heard the change of emotion in her voice as well. Shuffling footsteps resonated softly behind her chair, and a dismayed advisor cried out, "Your Majesty! Surely you do not –"
Apailana flung up her hand, palm outward, and a choked silence followed.
He replied in a low voice, "All we are seeking is your permission to scout around the city for any potential leads. Only one of us will leave the Palace at a time. We will not be seen. We simply wish to determine the source of the danger we sense harbored somewhere within the city – not to start a war with the Empire." The neutrality covering his shadowed features evaporated, revealing a glimpse of deeply-rooted pain. "I have had enough of war to last me several lifetimes."
A barely audible whisper of agreement floated among the cloaked figures. Apailana studied him for a moment, and then her gaze turned inward, contemplating her next step.
The minutes passed, marked by the flickering torchlight and the impatient shifting of the Queen's entourage. Jiera had sunk into a meditation trance; the injuries she had sustained during the battle that had claimed her Master were extensive – but she was bred to be resilient, and possessed an iron will. It was hard for him to believe, when he glanced at her now-serene expression, that this was the same Padawan whom he had spotted in the frozen wastelands of Mygeeto, covered in her own blood and barely clinging to life.
In a way, Jiera's survival had given him hope. Hope that the universe was not totally lost to the black disease of the dark side. Hope that the Jedi could somehow rise from the ashes and save the Republic.
Hope that what had once been lost could be restored.
None of the others knew, had even guessed, that he had another reason to search the city of Theed. They could never know that reason; he had acquired much practice in the art of secrecy over the last four years, and it helped to protect the most selfish desire of his life – the one thing that had sustained him all during the war.
He had no guarantee of finding her. It was a foolish hope; he knew that. Yet he found that he could not prevent his heart from thundering fiercely inside his chest, filling him up with the fervent belief that somehow, some way, he would see her again.
His hand plunged into a side pocket in his robes, the fingers enclosing tightly around the token of his belief. It had cost him a great deal to preserve this trinket, something that his Master would have called a frivolous attachment, but he did not regret it.
The only regret he had – the one that kept him awake every night with notions of what could have been – was that he had not listened to her. He had chosen to go back to the war, to a winless battle, appeasing his ingrained sense of duty…and it had cost him everything.
The Force stirred, then; like pebbles tossed into a pond, feelings skittered across the placid stillness of the chamber, and Jiera opened her eyes in response to the change. He kept his hand hidden inside the folds of his cloak, and looked up just as Queen Apailana straightened in her chair.
"Very well," the teenaged ruler said slowly, as though each word were weighted with unforeseen consequences, "you are hereby granted my permission to conduct your investigation of probable infiltration in Theed."
The line of his shoulders dropped visibly, a release of pent-up tension, and she stared hard at him, her dark eyes both somber and compelling. "I must have your word, however, that this operation will proceed with the utmost discretion."
He answered without hesitation. "I give you my solemn vow, Your Majesty."
Apailana nodded once, interlacing her slim fingers and resting them on the stone slab. She kept her gaze on her hands as she concluded in a low murmur, "If for any reason you or one of your companions reveals themselves to these clone troopers and it is reported to Coruscant… For the sake of my people, I must disavow all knowledge of your presence on Naboo."
His respect for the young Queen increased tenfold. Reading her emotions in the Force, he was able to discern that Apailana dreaded any altercation with the Empire's created army – but that fear was not based solely on how such a conflict would affect the welfare of her people. She feared the repercussions that Palpatine would exact on this small group of Jedi that had, for lack of a better term, become uninvited houseguests. He was touched by her concern; apparently, not everyone in the galaxy bought into the Emperor's propaganda about the Jedi Order betraying the Republic.
The Queen raised her eyes and he met her gaze, adding a silent promise to his vow. He would do everything in his power to one day repay his debt to the girl who had been elected to lead her people in these turbulent times.
"I understand," he said, and reached for his hood. Lowering the cowl out of respect for Apailana, a thin braid of ink-black hair snaked behind the curve of his left ear and tumbled over one broad shoulder, his hair mussed and pulled back in a short ponytail at the back of his head. His features were chiseled and angular, the cheekbones more hollow from lack of proper nutrition, but his face was handsome nonetheless.
He had olive-toned skin, darkened by the light of many suns since he had arrived at the Palace ten days ago, and the irises of his eyes looked like liquid silver, with a darker ring of charcoal around the outer edges.
He stood smoothly and strode over to the Queen. The guards grew apprehensive, but Apailana was merely curious as she watched him approach. He lowered himself to one knee before her. "We owe you our lives, Your Majesty," he stated quietly. "You gave me asylum and medical attention when you could have easily sent me away, or turned me over to the Empire. Thank you."
Apailana masked her surprise well – but he could still sense it, though it was nearly invisible on her face. She lifted her hand towards him; he recognized the gesture and clasped it with his own, rising to his feet. He assisted her in standing, and the guards instantly came to attention while the low mutterings of the Queen's entourage ceased.
"Forgive me," she spoke up suddenly, and seemed almost…embarrassed. "You have stayed here with us for nearly two weeks and yet…I do not know your name."
He smiled – the first time he could remember using the expression in a long while – and replied warmly, "It is my fault for skipping the introductions, Your Majesty – not yours." He released her hand and bowed formally. "My name is Kai Oren."
"It is an honor to make your acquaintance, Jedi Oren."
He shook his head. "Please, call me Kai. I no longer feel like a Jedi." He said this lightly, with a small smile on his lips, but his eyes were tight and guarded.
Apailana inclined her head, smoothing the folds of her gown in a brief, automatic motion. "As you wish. If our discussion is concluded, I have other matters to attend to in the Palace."
He watched the Queen walk through the eastern corridor, a quartet of handmaidens surrounding her as she departed, and was followed by the advisors and Royal guards.
When it was certain that they were alone, the other Jedi removed their hoods and gathered loosely around Kai. He perched himself on the end of the stone slab and dug around in his pocket, pulling out a tiny object and rolling it around absently in his palm.
"You should not have lied to her." One of the Jedi, an older man with grey hair peppering his ginger-colored hair and beard, scolded as he drew near.
"Every word I said was the truth," he retorted, staring at the object in his hand.
"Except for your name."
Kai was quiet for moment. Then he murmured in a subdued tone, "Old habits die hard, Daven. If the Queen were to check the Republic archives and discover that I'm supposed to be dead…we could lose the very thin thread of trust we have gained between us and the Naboo."
"And how much worse will that trust be damaged if she finds out you have been lying?" Daven shot back.
"It is a risk I have to take."
Daven shook his head, sighing heavily. Laying a hand on Kai's shoulder, the older Jedi said in a low voice, "You keep playing the risks against one another, my young friend, and eventually you will lose everything."
Kai looked up, offering him a bleak smile. "I already have." His gaze drifted back to his palm, running his thumb back and forth over the item in his hand. It was a perfectly shaped and polished crystal – a brilliant yellow-orange gem that sparkled in the glow of the flames suspended above them.
"You have not lost your name." Daven sat down beside him, watching the young man's face as he stared at the crystal. "And you have not lost the title of Jedi."
"No?" His tone was scarcely a whisper, and saturated with grief. "According to the Jedi Council, Padawan Learner Cian Wynn died on Jabiim two and half years ago." He began reciting in a dull monotone, "'His lightsaber, damaged beyond repair, was salvaged by a local three days after Republic troops evacuated the planet.'"
Daven spoke earnestly, "But you are not dead, Cian. If you were, none of us would be here right now. We owe you our lives."
The younger man exhaled slowly, and Daven could feel his despair start to ebb, receding like the tide. Clapping him on the arm, he suggested mildly, "Now come on; let's work out a plan for the first sweep of the city." He pushed to his feet and headed for the others, who had wisely retreated a short distance away from the pair during their conversation.
Cian twirled the crystal between his fingertips a few more times, his pensive gaze focused intently on its topaz depths. The memory of wide brown eyes, flecked with russet and gold, warmed his soul – before he abruptly clamped down on the thought and buried it in a far corner of his mind. No matter what Daven or any of the others said, Cian Wynn would not exist until he saw her again.
He tucked the crystal inside his robes and stood upright. Master Cam had once told him to live in the present moment – but for Cian, there was no present. There was only the past, riddled with a myriad of unresolved issues…and the future, hovering just below the horizon like a rising sun – or a ferocious storm.
The key to connecting the past to the future did not lie with Cian. It floated out there, somewhere, elusive and ambiguous.
But change was coming. The Force had been…different these last few days, ever since that inexplicable explosion of energy, and Cian could sense that the threads weaving together the tapestry of all life were shifting, forming a new outcome than the one originally intended. What that meant for him, Cian did not know. He only knew that he refused to pass into the next life without seeing her – hearing her voice and touching her skin – one last time.
As he joined the others, immersing himself in their discussion about their first scouting expedition of Theed tonight, Jiera insisting to everyone that she was able to take the first shift – her name resounded in his heart like a bell, clear and lovely and overflowing with steadfast devotion.