Author's Note: Thank you for your reviews. This part covers the immediate aftermath of the explosion, as the three delegations decide whether or to continue the peace conference. There is also some Obidala stuff here, as Padme wakes up in someone's arms - guess whose. More Obidala to come, as the romance now steps up a gear. Enjoy.
Part 15: To Follow, If They Chose To Do So.
Nineve Jade had carried out her orders well. No one was hurt within the explosion. The conference room was an absolute mess, full of shards from broken transparisteel, Paisian mahogany, and linen, soaked in liquid from the pitchers provided for hydration, that nourishment slightly heated by the explosion, but everyone had survived the blast. All were thrown to the floor from the force of the impact, so while it was highly possible that everyone possessed a few bumps and bruises, but no injuries, life threatening or otherwise. Exactly what the dark lord of the Sith had ordered.
Padmé blinked away the dust from the debris as she opened her eyes. Unconsciously she nuzzled the soft, yet firm piece of furnishing she was resting on, somehow having landed upon it, thrown there by the force of the explosion. Except she soon realised that it wasn't a piece of soft furnishing. Below her ear there sounded the steady beat of a heart. Hesitantly she shifted herself until she caught sight of the face of the being to whom the organ belonged. His features were instantly recognisable. Grey blue eyes silently returned her gaze.
She remembered him frowning at something right before the blast. An empty chair, recently vacated, in the area of the room assigned to the confederacy delegation. He must have leapt over the desk to protect her as the explosion struck. And now she lay upon his chest, his arm wrapped round her waist. It felt like the safest place in the universe. Her mind recalled the last time she was in her husband's arms, just before they parted in her cruiser on the docking platform beside the Senate. Anakin had been a bundle of conflicting emotions, despair at their parting, their honeymoon cut short, anger at the outside forces interfering with them, frustration at having to hide their relationship from the universe. Her calm determination to put up with it only seemed to irritate him all the more.
When they separated, she to go to the Senate, he to the Temple, her relief was palpable. Along with her guilt for feeling like that. Searching her memories, she cast her mind further back, desperately trying to recall a time when she felt as safe in her husband's arms as felt in Obi-Wan's right now. The result was both disappointing and disturbing. Even in the blissful days spent at Varykino after their wedding she hadn't felt this kind of untouchable peacefulness. With Anakin it was always a nervous anticipation as to what was going to swing his mood next. Here, in Obi-Wan's arms, she knew nothing could disturb them, not even the Order's conflicting views on attachment. She was filled with the comforting temptation of wanting to lie here forever.
And upon that realisation came another more disturbing revelation concerning the future stability of her marriage, causing her to hurriedly rise from her position. She stilled as his hand came up to assist her, cautiously checking her over. He had done that once before she recalled, when they were surrounded by droidekas on Geonosis. Afterwards the wounds on her back hadn't hurt quite so much. Turning, she paused, her mind silently contemplating the infinitesimal distance from his mouth to hers. It would be so easy to just slip and kiss him. Already her overactive imagination was speculating on what would happen if she did, and how wonderful it would feel.
Startled, she rose to her feet, rapidly putting some distance between them, glancing around the remains of the room to survey the damage. Around them the rest of the delegates were also rising to their feet, members of the Order assisting those who were experiencing some difficulty. Dust fell from their once immaculate expensive tailoring, covering the parts of the floor which weren't already cluttered with debris from the explosion. They were lucky that the ceiling still held, otherwise the entire structure of the hotel could have caved in on top of them.
Turning, she peered through the motes of dust to the large frame which once held the transparisteel, staring at the contrasting sunny countryside which surrounded the hotel complex, full of lush green grass, blooming flowers, ripening plants, buzzing insects and fluttering avians. As far as the rest of Pais was concerned, nothing had occurred to disrupt its ordinary afternoon. Stretching her senses, Padmé caught the faint sound of an engine gunning; the familiar telltale whine of a star ship taking off. Raising a hand to protect her eyes from the glare of the sun, she squinted until her pupils located the small craft, steadily climbing into the atmosphere and from there to space.
Presumably whoever was flying the little silver craft was responsible for the chaos of the conference room. Pais rarely attracted tourists, taking care to put peace talks above all other catering to the usual hotel kind of clientele. Located as it was on the border between Republic and Separatist controlled space hardly gave it a suitable refuelling status either, as most travellers preferred to chose the more business minded systems of either side which were only a parsec or so away that the extra particle of fuel required didn't matter so much.
She wondered if Obi-Wan or anyone else had managed to get a good look at whoever it was who had caused the explosion and just exited the atmosphere. Not that it mattered, for it was highly unlikely that they would be able to identify them. A saboteur who had taken this much care to cause an explosion which only damaged the room as opposed to the occupants themselves would doubtless be just as careful when it came to protecting their identity and affiliation. Assuming they worked for anyone that is. For all they knew who it was could be an independent operator.
A conclusion quickly rejected almost as soon as she thought of it. No independent had anything to gain by making sure the peace process failed, unless one counted the dark lord of the Sith whom the Jedi were searching for, and Padmé doubted that he worked alone, not when one considered how many conflicts the Order believed he was responsible for causing. He'd managed to get his apprentice inside one of the most secure parts of Theed palace to kill a Jedi master after all. Not to mention organising the blockade which had caused the Jedi and his apprentice to be sent there in the first place. That could not have been done by one being alone, it would have taken time, planning and a measure of trust that the Trade Federation would carry out their blockade.
Who now played a major component in the Separatist Confederacy. Not for the first time did she contemplate the possibility that the Sith lord might be behind the Separatists as well. Count Dooku, according Anakin and Obi-Wan was a Sith, the new apprentice, who had replaced the one Obi-Wan killed on Naboo. Or former Sith, if his desire for peace was still to be believed. For all they knew this explosion could have been his scheme all along, to show the Republic, the Order and the Confederacy that peace was out of the question.
That was what most of the opposition in the Senate had put forward when they debated over this proposal in the first place. Their arguments had been convincing, unrelenting even. But they numbered only a small minority, compared to the majority of Senators who still firmly believed that there could be a way to form an alliance with the Confederacy, one which operated on peace rather than war. Too many for all to attend this peace conference, which was a good thing, because if news of this got back to the Core, they would need their supporters arguing that this explosion only deepened their commitment to peace, rather than weakening it.
Was there still to be a peace, she wondered, her gaze instinctively travelling towards the area of the room assigned to the Confederacy, realising the full horror that the saboteur had caused once more. The distrust which days of talks and the kind assistance from their hosts had slowly erased would now return, if indeed it had ever completely disappeared in the first place. After days of establishing the foundation for a peaceful, working alliance, they were now back to square one.
Obi-Wan was making his way over to Count Dooku, lending the former Jedi Master a hand in order to help him rise from the floor. The magnate of Serenno looked aged by the explosion, possessing an old world weariness about his appearance, grateful for the support of his Padawan's Padawan. Gracefully making the motion look apparently so much less than it was, Obi-Wan helped the Count to his feet and casually checked him over, as the rest of the Jedi were doing with the other delegates.
After making sure everyone was okay, as whole they went to work on shifting what they could of debris from the explosion. Paisians were ill-equipped to deal with this type of clearing, having never experienced terrorist threats before. Their host, after he was helped to his feet by a Jedi, stood staring at the cleanup operation, obviously at a loss as to what to do, before realising that with this room destroyed another would be needed for the rest of the talks. Knowing that the people around him would not appreciate a reminder as to what they came here to create, he quietly exited the room and went about organising another.
Assuming there would be any more peace talks, that is. Cooperation was all very well when there was something before them that no one could find something to disagree about, unless someone happened to ask who caused the explosion that is, but when the debris was cleared there was no way of knowing how any of the delegates would talk to each other. Whether they would too busy searching for someone amongst them who looked guilty or gleeful and blaming them for the explosion. Or that it wouldn't matter who was to blame for the destruction, the mere fact of it occurring would be enough to put all three parties at odds with each other once more.
It was obvious who the fingers of blame would be pointed at first, even before the none too discreet glances were aimed at them after a path across the entire remains of the room had been cleared. Suddenly it was as if that path created a division where previously there was none. Using the cleared narrow space as an excuse to separate, to revert to their delegations as they continued the cleanup. Occasional glances shot across the line, as if some unguarded expression would give away the guilty party. Although most of the delegates from the Senate and the Jedi had been chosen because of their reputable reputations, all of them were vulnerable to prejudice, and it was only to be expected that the preconceived notions about the Confederacy would soon expose those prejudices.
The division wasn't broken until the Paisian host returned. He made his entrance quietly enough, his arrival unheard even by the Jedi, who were no doubt preoccupied by the mental speculation on who could be responsible for the explosion, and the tension in the room since its occurrence. Before speaking he momentarily surveyed the clean up operation happening before him with a kind of envy, knowing that his species' inability to cope with such situations would have never achieved this much during his absence, nor appear so composed whilst doing so either.
"If I may interrupt," he began, causing the delegates to come to a halt, stretch to their full heights, and turned to look at him as he spoke. He waited until he had their sole focus, before adding, "the new conference room is ready for the rest of the peace talks, if you would care to join me there, I shall show you the way."
"I notice you didn't ask if any of us still wanted to continue with the peace talks," one of the delegates uttered.
"In all honesty I confess that such a thought had not occurred to me," their host replied. "Should I be asking the question?"
For all their natural deference to their clientele, the Paisians were not afraid of using psychological warfare when it came to reconciling two warring sides, as was shown by the host's technique of flipping the question back to the delegates, giving them the responsibility of answering, making it appear that the whole fate of a treaty rested solely on them.
"Did you miss what happened here?" The delegate asked, gesturing at the remnants of the debris which had yet to allocated a temporary pile in some area of the room until more suitable cleanup equipment could arrive. "Do you really think any of us would want to continue talking with them after what they just did?"
"So you're accusing us of arranging this explosion?" A delegate from the Republic Senate asked, outraged.
"Oh, don't look so surprised," the first delegate remarked. "Politicians are not above arranging circumstances such as these to come out on top. Nor are the Jedi, for that matter."
There was a momentary pause as everyone was shocked into silence by the accusation just thrust at an Order who prided itself on integrity and honesty. However it was only momentary. Thanks to the recent propaganda campaign against them, such accusations were fast becoming normal, and while the disgust at being the recipient of them had not disappeared, the inability to respond had long ago.
"You dare to accuse the Jedi Order of causing such an atrocity?" one of its less tactful delegate masters queried in incredulous tone.
"Hardly an atrocity when no one dies, is it?" the first delegate pointed out somewhat smugly as if the fact that there had been no loss of life proved that the Jedi were responsible.
If anyone did think of a pithy comeback to that last question it was beyond the hearing range of the Paisian, and not through any disability to his health, for the voice of whoever it was became lost in the melee of the full-scale argument which erupted at that moment. Helplessly he watched as the previously peaceful conference disintegrated right before his eyes, with the delegates shouting at each other, warily thankful that only the Jedi were allowed to carry weapons upon his world, though he would not have put the other delegates above the practice of smuggling devices in if they could.
Just when he was about to despair of the parties ever reaching a pause, let alone a peaceful conclusion, the elder being who was head of the Confederacy delegation called out for silence, his ability in the Force put to good use as he applied it to his voice so the words were audible to all concerned. For a moment the Paisian wondered if the Order would be willing to train his species to convey such a technique, for it could prove useful in future conferences. But then he realised that it might not be as half as effective without the power of the Force behind it.
"Gentle beings, I believe that finding or proving whoever is responsible for this atrocity is a moot point," Count Dooku continued. "The fact is that the explosion occurred. And if we allow it to destroy the delicate trust which I dare to hope we have been building between us these past few days, then we are giving those responsible exactly the victory that they desired by arranging the explosion in the first place. May I suggest that we deprive them of the achievement of such a goal and continue working towards establishing a peace treaty."
The magnate of Serenno didn't wait for an answer to his eloquently worded statement. Instead with an elegant grace which belied his age and contrasted strongly with the current state of the room, he turned about and headed for the exit, disappearing from view seconds later, leaving the rest of his delegation, and everyone else behind.
To follow, if they chose to do so.
To be continued...