CHAPTER 1
Vergence

"Master Jinn we should send."

Council assignments were traditionally decided upon early each Atunda. The Council received hundreds of requests each week for Jedi intervention, but the list was pared down by the senior members before their first meeting and then discussed with the full quorum.

Today's discussion was an exception, however. None of the Council members were blind to the situation on Naboo. The conflict with their allies in the Trade Federation was too well-publicized and the request for aid was as inevitable as the changing of the seasons. The only question that remained was who should be appointed to the task.

"I agree," Mace Windu commented. "He will deal swiftly and wisely with the current crisis."

Depa Billaba quelled a smile. It was unusual to hear such a ringing endorsement from her old master, but the situation with the Federation was a delicate one. Qui-Gon was wise enough to deal diplomatically with the Neimoidians, but shrewd enough to deal unconventionally should the need arise.

"Regrettably, he is indisposed," Ki-Adi-Mundi interjected.

"On Muunilinst he is," Yoda recalled. "Consider this to be of greater importance do we?"

It went unsaid that with the request coming personally from the Chancellor, they had to consider it to be of great importance. The selection of the Jedi assigned to the Naboo crisis was a crucial matter.

"Perhaps a different approach is necessary," Depa considered. "Perhaps a Council member."

Mace's gaze remained unfocused for a moment and silence fell. His gift for seeing the shatterpoints of a situation had proven invaluable in the past and his insight was not to be rushed.

When he did not speak after more than a minute, Adi turned to Master Yoda and spoke in a low voice so as not to disturb the Koruun Master. "I feel that Master Jinn would be the wisest choice," she murmured. "Would it be possible to send a relief team to replace him in the Banking Clan negotiations?"

Yoda allowed a small smile. "Appreciate this Qui-Gon would. His duty he will do, but banking he enjoys not."

"Yet he narrowly averted disaster on Eriadu," Yarael Poof reminded them. "And members of the Trade Federation were killed there. Perhaps it is unwise to send him into a similar situation."

"He is correct." All eyes turned back to Master Windu at this statement. His eyes had focused once more and there was an almost hard determination in his stare. "I must go."

Immediately heads started nodding. As the Master of the Order, it would be appropriate for him to take this prestigious assignment. His position would give weight to his negotiating skills and perhaps induce the Neimoidians to pay heed to his recommendations.

And, should matters escalate into the dreaded state of war, there was no man more capable of minimizing the damage. He was an army unto himself, though it was sometimes difficult to rein him in. As his Padawan, she had rarely needed to do so.

"And I would be honored for Master Billaba to accompany me," Mace continued. "You are quite skilled in the arts needed for this mission."

She was long since blushing at her Master's infrequent praises, but she still felt a swell of gratitude for his commendation. It had been too long since they stood against the evils of the Galaxy together.

"I learned from the best, Master Windu," she commented. "I would be honored to join you."

"Then decided it is,' Yoda pronounced. "Assist the people of Naboo you will."

"I will inform the Chancellor personally," Master Windu stated. "Master Billaba, please meet me in two hours at my chambers for further instructions."

It had been years since she went on a mission with her old Master, but she was not yet out of practice. Depa arrived at the sparsely decorated quarters that they had shared with her bags packed and a fresh set of robes on her back.

Mace did not smile at her customary readiness, but nodded his approval. "Our transport is waiting at Eastport," he announced without so much as a greeting. "We will review the mission briefing on the way."

"Yes, Master." She followed him into the living room and stood at respectful attention while he gathered his own luggage. "Did the Chancellor have any further communication from the Queen?"

"No," he responded, "but her ambassador, Senator Palpatine, took the time to personally approve of our involvement. He remembers you fondly, if the word can be applied to the man."

She did not have much familiarity with the man, but she had served as the Council's emissary in last year's budget hearings. He had argued strongly in favor of more funding for Jedi projects and while she had not formed an opinion of the man, she had admired his resolve.

"His faith in us is not unfounded," she said confidently. "The Federation's heavy-handed tactics are unacceptable."

"I'm glad we agree on that," Mace said dryly. "Shall we be going?"

She did not answer the question, but gave him the same kind of direct stare that he had used when assigning her to the mission. "Master, if I may, what did you see in the Council chamber?"

It was rare for someone to question his judgment these days, but she was allowed to get away with it. After all, she was the closest thing he had to a daughter and her insolence was that of a child asking a parent too many questions at worst.

"I saw many possible shatterpoints," Mace said after a moment's consideration. "No matter the outcome of our negotiations, the oncoming storm has the power to change many things. We must tread carefully."

That was as clear an answer as she could expect from him and the rest should be left to the will of the Force. Perhaps she could continue the conversation when they were on their way.

"Yes, Master," Depa said respectfully. "Let's be going.
*****

One of the first acts of the newly-elected Queen Amidala had been to ratify a new trade taxation bill that the Republic Senate had passed. She had discussed it carefully with her still-unfamiliar council of advisors and weighed all of the pros and cons, but in the end the choice had been a simple one. She had solemnly pressed her thumb to a reader on a datacard, affixed her official seal of office and sent it with the next diplomatic packet that was personally delivered to Coruscant. Queen Amidala had not doubted that she had done the right thing because it would lead to greater prosperity and a stable commercial industry.

Too little time had passed since that day and for all intents and purposes, Queen Amidala still stood by her decision to support the legislation. Padme Naberrie, on the other hand, allowed herself a few doubts. She had believed that there was no other course of action, but she looked towards the stars each day and wondered when the blockading fleet would turn into an invasion force. She communicated earnestly with her ambassadors on Coruscant, but she felt her heart flutter at the thought of negotiations conducted under duress.

She still believed that while standing against the Trade Federation's 'request' for a treaty of tariff exemption was not the only thing that could be done, it was the only honorable thing that could have been done. Fortunately, Senator Palpatine had felt the same way and when the blockade had gone into effect, he had gone directly and respectfully to the Chancellor.

"Milady?"

There was a chain of command, of course. The Senator should have taken the matter to the Defense Oversight Committee members. They would work with the Department of Justice to discover whether or not the Trade Federation could be indicted for any crimes against a member state. In the meantime, Naboo could have called on its more powerful allies on Alderaan and Chandrila, so that they could attempt to bully the Federation into withdrawing.

But Senator Palpatine was never one for chains of command. He despised inaction and loathed impotence and when his homeworld had been threatened, he had contacted Chancellor Valorum and asked what the Republic would do to stop it.

"Milady?"
They should not have needed Republic intervention at all. The Federation had given them two months to reconsider their decision to uphold the taxation. Those two months would not have changed her mind, but they would have given her time to prevent a war. One month and three days after their ultimatum, a sentry fighter pilot had reported inbound Federation ships. They were not of the diplomatic vessel class, but droid control ships that left no question that they were prepared to send in an army for the negotiations. Perhaps it was cheating to bypass the various committees and enlist the Chancellor's help, but the Federation was no better. They had done only what was necessary.
"Milady?"

Padme turned away from the window in her private chambers to find Sabe waiting on her. She must have been distracted for some time, since she'd known Sabe to keep her silence for ten minutes before intruding.

"I'm sorry," she said quickly. "My mind was elsewhere."

In earlier days, when there were no duties more odious than hearing appeals passed up from the local courts, Sabe might have made a joke here. She saw a flash of humor in the other girl's eyes for just a moment as if her decoy had been thinking the same thing.

"The Chancellor commed a few minutes ago to request that you contact him, Your Majesty," Sabe said formally. "Shall I attend you for the conversation or would you like one of the others to take that duty?"

It was their verbal code for whether or not Sabe would be acting as decoy. "Please have Eirtae stand guard," she requested. "And let the Chancellor know that I will be contacting him personally in twenty standard minutes if that meets with his approval."

"Yes, milady."

Sabe bowed and left the room. Padme immediately went to her vanity, brushing her out in preparation for one of the customarily elaborate hairstyles that she wore on a daily basis. Chancellor Valorum merited nothing less than her full court regalia.

By the time Rabe entered a few moments later, she had shrugged off both the attitude of Padme and the grey summer gown that she had been wearing as her off-duty uniform. She extended a hand from behind the privacy screen and Rabe obediently handed her a slip that would be appropriate for any of her gowns.

"The royal blue brocade, I think," Amidala called out.

"Yes, Your Majesty," Rabe replied.

She liked this gown because it was appropriately formal, but lighter than most of the others. It covered her from chin to floor, but had no oppressive underskirts or stifling closed collars. It also went on more easily than the others, since she could slip it over her head and then be cinched into it in less than a minute. Sache had jokingly referred to it as her Emergency Regality Kit.

Once it was fitted to Rabe's liking, the softspoken handmaiden went to work on her hair. There was no time for one of the more elaborate headdresses, but she coiled Amidala's hair carefully into a complicated bun and settled a simple strand of pearls across the crown of her head.

By the time Sabe returned to announce that the Chancellor would be expecting them in three minutes, the royal makeup had been applied. They moved quickly through the royal wing to reach the long-range communications suite. If the full council had been required, they could have arranged for a comm projector in the throne room, but for tonight's occasion, it was enough to have her seated in a replica.

When the holoprojector whirred to life, the Chancellor's expression did nothing to ease her fears. She paused for a deep breath and then inclined her head in a respectful bow. He was one of the few people who truly outranked her in terms of station and she was not about to forget his kindness in handling the crisis himself.

"Your Exellency," she said. "Thank you for granting me an audience."

"Your Majesty," Valorum replied with a bow of his own. "I only wish I had better news for you."

"The Republic will not be sending help?" Her voice nearly cracked on that last statement and she lowered her voice to avoid having it happen again. "What are we to do?"

"You must trust me," he commented. "I had hoped to tell you that the Federation will be withdrawing from your borders, but that has not been arranged as of yet. Rather than resort to something unconstitutional, I have requested third-party assistance." At this, he smiled. "The Jedi Order has agreed to intervene."

The Jedi. It was not the miraculous intervention that she had hoped for, but the Jedi were in an unique position. They outranked few people, but even thugs deferred to their authority and if they were sent by the Chancellor himself, the Trade Federation would not dare ignore that power.

"That is most pleasing news," she said, allowing a hint of relief to creep into her voice. "When will the Jedi be dispatched?"

"By my leave, they have already departed," Valorum said. "They will be sending word to me when they have arrived, but less than a day from now, they are expected to contact Your Majesty to arrange the negotiations. The Trade Federation will answer for their actions against the Naboo."

"Thank you, Chancellor," Amidala replied. "You have been most gracious to our people."

"Your Senator Palpatine has been most persuasive," he rejoined dryly. "I only regret that we were not able to forestall the crisis."

It was the same thing that he had said before, but this time, he had results to support his claim. Amidala bowed her head deeply, leaving it in that position for nearly a minute to show the depth of her gratitude.

"If there is anything that we can do to assist in the proceedings, please inform me."

"I will," Valorum assured her. "Good evening to you, Your Majesty."

"And to you, Chancellor."

The communication cut off a few seconds later and she sat still for a long moment. Hope was not yet a possibility—even the Jedi could only do so much—but the gnawing, acidic despair that had been her constant companion for weeks seemed to have lost a little of its power.

"Your Majesty?" Rabe asked. "Would you like me to call a special meeting of the advisory council for the morning?"

"Yes." Of course that was the next step. She would not be alone in these negotiations and they needed to establish parameters and demands. She stood slowly and turned to smile at her attentive handmaiden. "And please have Sabe assist me in my quarters once we have returned."

Rabe, not one to take offense at her preferences, nodded. "I will see to it, Your Majesty."

She murmured a few words into her commlink as they returned to the Queen's apartment and Sabe was waiting at the door that led from the handmaidens' wing to her quarters. The two young women exchanged places without comment and Sabe followed her to a more private setting.

The makeup was first to go and Padme waited until her hair was uncoiled before speaking. "The Jedi are coming to our aid," she announced.

"That's wonderful," Sabe blurted out sincerely. "The Federation will have to listen."

Her chief handmaiden was skilled at imitating her in word and deed and tonight was one example of when they even thought alike. Padme nodded and reached for the laces that cinched her into her dress.

"I trust that I can call on you for aid?"

Sabe's hands froze in the middle of unbraiding her hair. "Your Majesty," she said stiffly, "I'm not sure that's…"

"Wise?" Padme finished. "I won't expect you to stand in for me the entire time, but I need to be in a position where I can observe objectively. I need to be able to overhear things as only an aide can. I hope that I can trust you to speak for me while I carry out those tasks."

It went without saying that they would be rehearsing just how she would speak until then. When Panaka had first called upon Sabe to bear the weight of the decoy position, they had shared many amusing nights teaching Sabe to sound just as pompous as the Queen she served. She was schooled in Amidala's dialect, policies and personal history and the next day's preparations would be little more than an information upgrade to a highly-efficient system.

"I will do my best," Sabe promised.