I'm providing it here for the curious souls who may want to know more about the Five Star Stories as seen through Jedi eyes, or who want some possible spoilers for the first two chapters of "Master" - just be warned that this is a rough draft, so nothing in it is carved in stone and is subject to change at my whim. Plus, where it stops is where it STOPS. I'm not going to continue it in this form, only in the doji.
I've scattered scans from the FSS manga through this draft, where appropriate, so that you can see the characters as they were originally drawn.
/The Joker System is composed of four stars and their habitable planets. The predominately humanoid population of the planets is organized into separate nations, governed either democratically or by hereditary royalty.../
Qui-Gon sighed, letting the words on the reader scroll past without seeing them as he closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the wall. There were few enough of them and he had committed them to memory days before. Reviewing them only proved that his memory remained accurate.
It was by far one of the longer trips he had ever been obliged to make on assignment - flung on the farthest reaches of the outer rim, the Joker System and its planets were not part of the Republic and nearly as far as one could go in populated space from Coruscant. Broken into several countries on each planet, there was no one body large enough to claim a seat on the Senate. Still, as the limited contact between the Republic and the system was predominately for the purpose of rather lucrative trade, there had been members of the Senate quite willing to listen to the request of the envoy from the planet Delta Belune.
A request which, when boiled down to its bare structure, stated that outside - and impartial - assistance was needed in a diplomatic matter. With politics between the interior kingdoms being somewhat volatile and fearing that any sudden outburst would interfere with trade, the request had been passed through the Senate and had, eventually, been voiced to the Jedi Council; yes, it was not, strictly speaking, a matter for the Republic or the Jedi. But in the interest of maintaining good relations, if a Jedi diplomat might possibly be available...
Rested from previous assignments - and yes, if he was strictly truthful with himself, beginning to become restless - Qui-Gon had accepted the assignment when it was broached to him. The briefing for it, the notes of which resided on the reader in his hand, had been appallingly short. Next to nothing was known of the immediate situation, other then that the request came directly from the Emperor of the Amaterasu Kingdom Demesne on the planet Delta Belune, one of the more powerful kingdoms in the Joker System. Likewise, as an outer rim system closed to anything but trade, there was precious little known about the population or structure of the system itself beyond the barest facts. It had been a bit late to decline the assignment when he had already agreed to it and it would neither be the first nor the last time he went into an assignment with little or no information, but it didn't make him any more pleased about it.
Many days and countless hyperspace jumps later, the blue and white swirled beauty of Delta Belune had finally, lazily, spun into sight beyond the viewport. The transport captain, a long featured man of perpetually morose demeanor, had alerted his Jedi passengers when they had entered the spatial boundaries of the Joker System. It had given Qui-Gon and his Padawan time to re-pack their belongings and, once done, review what little there was to know. After that there was nothing to do but wait - something they had grown exceedingly good at over the previous days.
Switching off the reader, Qui-Gon rose from the edge of the narrow sleeping couch in his quarters and paced to the viewport. Beyond, the streaking streams of hyperspace had mercifully given way to the bright, steady points of star light that were familiar to the eye, now slowly being eclipsed by the edge of the planet itself. Tucking the reader into his belt, the Jedi Master reached up to check by touch the tie in his hair, smoothing back wayward strands. A diplomatic assignment, probably to be filled with meetings between diplomatic parties and various state functions, in which the Jedi would be needed as intermediaries and impartial witnesses. Of all possible assignments it was, conceivably, the least harmful to go into with inadequate information.
A quiet, soft touch skated through the bond he shared with his Padawan, one which he automatically returned. The door of the chamber hissed open to reveal the young man, silhouette rimmed in the lights of the corridor. "Master?" he called softly. "The captain says we will be landing shortly."
"Thank you, Obi-Wan," Qui-Gon replied gravely, turning away from the viewport and the sight beyond. Crossing the room, he paused to scoop up his bag, slinging the strap across one broad shoulder. "Are you ready?" At Obi-Wan's nod he smiled, fingers automatically brushing the other man's shoulder as he gestured for Obi-Wan to proceed him. "Then I suppose we shouldn't keep the good captain waiting."
The heart of the AKD was something called Float Temple - an apt name, the Jedi found, watching from the larger viewport of the transport control room as the long hovering island, tiny at first and rapidly enlarging to encompass the capitol upon its surface, came into sight. Massive repulsers dotted its rocky underbelly, keeping the island afloat upon the winds nearly a mile above the rolling ocean below. Qui-Gon shared a glance with his Padawan, catching Obi-Wan's startled expression in the briefly lifted brows. It was an extravagant display of sheer hubris, the showpiece of an empire powerful enough to afford such gestures, and spoke as an eloquent prologue of what they might expect to find.
The palace itself, as the transport dropped down across it, was a cluster of towers and delicate spires at the broad end of the island, many bearing the blood red spike of the AKDs emblem upon their gleaming sides. The architecture itself held an organic, archaic feel, different from the broad, solid construction found on Coruscant. The landing field set aside for them lay outside the palace grounds, ringed round with signals. After a last word with the captain Qui-Gon ushered his Padawan before him, heading for the docking bay of the transport.
There was a soft bump as the transport touched down to the ground, the sound reverberating through the metal hull. Qui-Gon folded his hands within his sleeves, waiting patiently, supressing a small smile as he glimpsed his Padawan unconsciouly mimicing the gesture. The doors to the bay cracked and hissed as the seal released, the landing ramp dropping down to let in the bright yellow light of the planet and the sweet, cool scent of the air.
The welcome set out before them was, Qui-Gon thought privately, a bit much - but, considering the capitol itself, probably in keeping with the trappings of the kingdom. A white cloaked honor guard had assembled before the transport and snapped to attention as the ramp dropped. The cloaks covered the wearers from head to toe, shadowing face and form, only the red edged tabard with the AKD's emblem relieving the stark lines. Impractical but impressive to view, Qui-Gon acknowledged, stepping firmly down from the ramp and striding without hurry through the human corridor, Obi-Wan at his heels.
An final figure, cloak pushed back to reveal the face of an older man, hair just beginning to be touched with grey, met them at the end of the line of guards. "Honorable Jedi of the Republic," he greeted them in crisp, important tones. Qui-Gon answered the man's bow with his own, straightening just as the man stepped aside to let them by, indicating the figure beyond him. "It is my honor to present you to the Princess Lachesis."
The princess was not, at first glance, terribly proposing. The top of her head did not reach Qui-Gon's shoulder, though the delicate points of the crystal tiara topping the soft brown cap of her hair added a few scant inches. She was, to look at, incredibly fragile - younger than Obi-Wan, slender and slight, with huge lavender eyes in a pale, heart shaped face. Her dress was cream white, edged in gold lace, the short, thigh length skirt suited for the girl child that she obviously was. Humanoid population, the files had said, and it was certainly true - but that allowed for a certain amount of variation within the norm and she displayed that as well in a elfin beauty that was a little too perfect and in the impossibly long, graceful lines of arm and leg as she stood demurely, hands clasped before her.
There was nothing about her, physically, that looked anything but precisely what her title proclaimed her - a young royal princess of a powerful kingdom, quite likely pampered by family and servants but trained well in the attitudes and deportment of state functions. There was nothing at all, certainly, that should have made a Jedi Master unaccountably tense as he stared down at her. Nothing, except the unseen wave of Force power that radiated from her, washing over both of the Jedi in nearly palpable ripples.
Qui-Gon heard Obi-Wan's breath catch slightly and sent a wordless warning and reassurance to the younger man. There was no overt threat in the girl, only the strong sensation of the Force that clustered, naturally, around her. Keeping his face schooled to nothing but polite greeting, Qui-Gon bowed low before her, catching Obi-Wan's echo of the gesture from the corner of his eyes. "Your Highness," he said, "Supreme Chancellor Valorum of the Republic Senate sends his greetings, and the hope that our services will be of assistance to the Amaterasu Kingdom Demesne."
The princess blushed faintly, dropping a graceful half curtsy. She would not, quite, make eye contact and Qui-Gon did not press the issue for fear of offending local custom. "On behalf of Emperor Amaterasu Des Grand Adas no Mikado, I bid you welcome to the AKD," she said quietly, her light, clear voice as delicate as her appearance. That bit of formality done, she smiled, a shy expression that made the Jedi Master mentally recalculate her age to even younger by a year or so. "The Emperor awaits your arrival at the palace. I'm to take you there."
"Thank you, your Highness," Qui-Gon replied. "My name is Qui-Gon Jinn. This," he gestured to his left, where Obi-Wan stood a pace behind and to the side, "is my Padawan, Obi-Wan Kenobi."
The princess bobbed a second small curtsy. "Then I am Lachesis, if it please you, Sir Jinn, Padawan Obi-Wan," she said with a smile, though a small curious frown accompanied a glance towards the younger Jedi. If the Joker System had no greater information on the Republic than the Republic had of them, it was likely that she had no idea what the title of 'padawan' meant. "This way, please."
She lead them to a open topped land speeder beyond the edges of the landing circle. Behind them, a barked command from the older man dismissed the honor guard. Another man, clad in crisp uniform white and red, met the three of them at the speeder and held the door as they climbed into it, the Jedi deferring to the princess as she arranged herself neatly on the seat. The driver, another uniformed woman, brought the engine to life and set the speeder off along a path that lead towards the towers of the palace at a speed that would not blow overly much wind into the faces of the passengers.
Though nothing but mild curiosity for the landscape showed on his face, Obi-Wan's body radiated an interior tension that his Master could feel and Qui-Gon had a fair idea of the reason why even before the younger man reached out along their bond, his thoughts a whisper. [Master, did you see...?]
[Yes, I did. Peace, my young Padawan.] He had seen, all too plainly, as they had climbed into the speeder. Uncloaked, the uniforms of the guards were sensible arrangements of tunic, trousers and boots - formal, in their straight, squared off lines, but functional. What had caught the eye of both Jedi had been the slim, silvery hilt of what appeared to be a lightsaber grip, clipped to the belt even as the Jedi themselves wore their own.
Obi-Wan's eyes flashed back to the Jedi Master for a moment, the younger man's mouth set in a thin line. Qui-Gon tightened his jaw and looked resolutely ahead. [The technology was not always unknown outside the ranks of the Jedi, Obi-Wan.]
The only answer was a wordless burst of disbelief and the mental equivalent of a finger pointed, strongly, to the presence of the Princess Lachesis beside them - more importantly, to the gathered Force which still rippled from her. As Qui-Gon had no answer to the unasked question he remained silent, while cursing, internally, the obvious gaps in their briefing.
They rode in silence for a time until the princess turned towards them. "If I may ask," she said hesitantly, "your Republic - it's formed of hundreds of kingdoms, all ruled by one Senate?"
"Thousands," Qui-Gon corrected gently. "Thousands of worlds, each governed by one or two central governments, each government represented in the voice of the Senate."
The princess' luminous eyes grew slightly larger. "So many," she said wonderingly. "And your Jedi keep control through all of them?"
"Not control, peace. And not through force," Qui-Gon assured her. "The Jedi are not an army. We are diplomats and impartial judges in matters of dispute. We do not interfere - we go where the members of the Senate request our presence, to lend assistance."
"Ah." A shadow passed over her expression, darkening her eyes. "The Joker System would benefit from something like that," she said sadly.
"We will do what we can while here," Qui-Gon assured her, drawing forth another shy smile.
Up close, the palace grounds were a study in shape and space. The driver pulled the speeder up alongside a broad path that lead to wide shallow steps, and from there to a gracefully pillared veranda. The woman leapt out to hold the door for them again and in the guise of nodding to her politely Qui-Gon took a closer look at the hilt clipped to her belt. The controls studs were not precisely the same, but not so dissimilar that he wasn't fairly certain he could have wielded the weapon if necessary. It was, without a doubt, a lightsaber.
Lachesis lead the way up the stairs and through a massive pair of doors emblazoned with the red AKD crossed spike. Inside, the sense of towering space did not diminish. The ceilings of the hall arched high overhead, lit brightly by windows set far above. Red carpeting ran over pale tiles down the center of rows of carved pillars. Made to a giant scale, the feeling was one of white light and open space, dwarfing those who walked its length.
They passed several people as they walked, courtiers in elaborate formal dress and several more white dressed guards, some of whom paused to nod their heads or call a greeting to the princess. Lachesis responded with a cheerful smile and wave, not standing on formality. Quietly studying those they passed, Qui-Gon noted that the physical characteristics of the princess were not shared by all of the populace, most of whom matched the human standard except for a few other young girls, dressed in short skirts and black leggings that emphasized the unnatural length of their legs.
More white cloaked guards stood outside the doors Lachesis lead them to, somber and almost sinister in their imposing presence. They stepped aside as the princess approached, the doors swinging open soundlessly. Taking a breath and automatically reaching for the reassuring press of Obi-Wan's presence against his side, Qui-Gon followed the slim girl into the room, feeling the doors close behind them.
The figure seated in a high backed chair at a long table rose to its feet to greet them. Tall and willow thin, the Emperor bore the same graceful length of limb as Lachesis, a trait Qui-Gon was beginning to place as something hereditary to the ruling line. The albino pale face was ethereally beautiful, framed by long, flowing silvery hair; the Jedi Master had only the dubious source of their briefing to trust that the Emperor was, indeed, male. Elaborately layered white gowns drifted about the slim figure, pale upon pale until the only color was the blood red piping along the robes.
Lachesis stopped several feet away, dropping a deeper curtsy as the Jedi bowed behind her. "The Jedi from the Republic Senate," she announced, "Sir Qui-Gon Jinn and his Padawan Obi-Wan Kenobi."
"Welcome, Honorable Jedi." The Emperor's voice was as ambiguous as the figure, neither male nor female. Piercing red eyes swept over them, a slender hand gracefully gesturing them to the chairs surrounding the table. "Please, make yourself comfortable. Lachesis?"
As they seated themselves, the Emperor resuming his former seat, Lachesis fetched a tea service from a sideboard and, with quiet grace, served them each a cup of pale, fragrant brew. Done, she retreated to one side, standing so quiet she nearly subsided into the surroundings of the room.
The Emperor lifted his cup, sipping from it as he continued to survey the seated Jedi. Qui-Gon could feel the touch of the Force swirling around the man - not nearly as strongly as it did around Lachesis, but traceable nonetheless. Cradeling the small cup in his large hands, letting the heat of it warm his palms, Qui-Gon returned the man's gaze frankly.
Setting the cup aside, the Emperor leaned back slightly, hands clasped on the table before him. "So," he said softly, voice inflected with quiet thought. "Fabled Jedi from the very heart of the great Republic." The eerie red gaze passed over the younger man, focusing on Qui-Gon. "Is it true that you are a society of honor? Impartial, serving the greater good?" The gaze sharpened slightly, a subtle challenge in the Emperor's voice. "Men capable of keeping a confidence, when required?"
It was not the greeting Qui-Gon had expected, feeling his Padawan tense another notch beside him. Keeping any surprise from his face, the Jedi Master calmly inclined his head. "The Jedi serve peace," he said mildly. "We are here to assist however we may in the diplomatic incident that you requested our help in."
The pale face tilted slightly to one side. "And if I must request your silence on a matter during the course of your assistance?"
"It would depend on the situation, my Lord," Qui-Gon replied. "We must do what we can to resolve the problem here on Delta Belune, and we do not serve any one government."
The Emperor considered, then nodded slightly, coming to a decision. "The matter I would have your silence on is the source of the problem," he said with a small, tight smile. Closing his eyes, he sighed softly to himself, some of the tension in his stance draining away. Reaching up, slender fingers threaded themselves into silvery hair, loosening tiny pins and peeling the whole of it away.
Beneath the wig, slicked back tight to the skull with errant curls bound back, the natural hair was a golden shade of blonde. "Sir Jinn, I am not Emperor Amaterasu." The voice shifted, becoming more clearly a woman's firm tones. "My name is Princess Aisha Codante, Knight of the First Easter Mirage Corps. I am Amaterasu's body double - I stand in for him on brief occasions, when he must be elsewhere." She sighed, running a hand lightly over her bound hair. "The problem, Sir Jinn, is that Amaterasu is missing, and has been for nearly a month."
The Jedi Master took the information in, letting it settle in his mind. Beside him, Obi-Wan's had actually relaxed slightly, as though, now that the surprise had been displayed, he could better cope with the feeling of being left in the dark.
Qui-Gon regarded the woman before him for several moments, then gently put the teacup down, settling back in his chair. "Princess Aisha," he said, letting the slightest trace of question touch his voice. She nodded, affirming. Taken out from the role of androgyny, he could see the handsome beauty in her face and placed her age within the same decade as his Padawan's - the later half, but no older. Letting his gaze stray to where the Princess Lachesis stood he could tell nothing; her expression remained calmly set, betraying none of her thoughts.
"Your Highness," Qui-Gon sighed, addressing the title to Aisha. "I think it might be best if you start at the beginning and tell me what there is to know - and, more importantly, why I and my Padawan are here."
Aisha's age was betrayed not so much in the clear skin of her countenance but in the way she held herself - where Lachesis displayed the charming innocence of the young Aisha was naught but cooly collected business. "Of course, Sir Jinn," she replied firmly.
The teacups had been cleared away, the long table covered over with maps drawn upon parchment that displayed the Joker System, its stars and accompanying planets. More maps, showing the surface of the inhabited planets with the boundries of the seperate countries marked in splashes of color, had been scattered over the star charts. Outside the tall glassed doors leading to a balcony, the sun was beginning to dye the sky a vibrant shade of orange and red as it sank below the ocean.
Explaining the basics of the problem had taken less than half an hour. Amaterasu had a habit, when troubled or merely restless, of donning different clothes and name and venturing out into the common populace of the system. When Qui-Gon had looked askance at the distinctive coloring of skin and eye and the silvery wig which Aisha had resumed, the woman had merely chuckled. The young princess Lachesis had, when asked, fetched a flat, two dimensional photograph within a frame and given it to the Jedi Master. "There," she had said almost proudly, pointing. "He's there."
Qui-Gon had studied the picture, tilting it so that Obi-Wan could see as well. It was a charming shot, showing a seated androgynous young man with long brown hair caught up into a thick braid that hung across one shoulder. He was smiling into the picture, dark eyes shining. Clustered around him, hanging on shoulder and lap, were three small girls of similar age and with the obvious resembalance of sisters, all with shades of dark hair and dressed in red skirts, with huge eyes and the delighted smiles of young children.
Obi-Wan had reached for the picture, taking it from Qui-Gon's hand. Frowning slightly, he studied it, then held it back to Lachesis, pointing to one girl leaning against the man's knee. "That's you?" he asked.
Lachesis blushed, taking the picture back. "Yes," she had admitted. "And my sisters."
Qui-Gon had nodded slightly, considering. "Then the picture is... eight? Ten years old?" he had asked, making a guess of the princess' age both in the picture and currently.
Lachesis had blinked slightly. "Eighteen years," she had replied blandly, forcing a startled Qui-Gon to place her age as much older than he had originally thought.
"I didn't mean to offend," he had said hastily. "I only needed to know how much older the Emperor would appear now."
"Oh!" Lachesis had exclaimed and Aisha had laughed outright.
"No different at all," she had assured him with an enigmatic smile. "Amaterasu hasn't aged in years."
The rest of the story had proceeded in a manner that was predictable from what they already knew. Hair dyed brown, skin and eye color changed, Amaterasu's favored guise was that of a young man known by the name of Ladios Sopp. Dressed in commoner clothes, he was free to wander where he would and remain unrecognized. The alias of Ladios Sopp had earned a reputation on its own as a skilled mechanical designer of some sort - the terms Aisha used had been unfamiliar to the Jedi - which allowed Amaterasu access to certain rings of acquaintances and people whom, as Emperor, he would not have been welcome among.
When he left on such trips it was common practice that the people of the AKD were not to know that their Emperor was gone - to preserve that belief, he left behind Princess Aisha, second in rank among his personal knights; who could, with the aid of cosmetics, imitate him well enough to fool all but those closest to him. However, it was also common practice that at least one knight would accompany him at a distance to protect the Emperor, and that regular reports of his whereabouts and doings would return to Aisha.
The trouble, then, was that the knight who had accompanied him had lost all trace of the man and no one had heard anything of Amaterasu - in disguise or out - for weeks.
It was a short and fairly straightforward description of the problem. The explanations that had dragged long through the afternoon had begun when Qui-Gon had asked why the search for their missing ruler could not be carried out by the knights and proper personel of the AKD.
Rubbing a hand across his eyes, Qui-Gon studied the laid out maps somewhat sourly. Aisha had talked non-stop for hours, and not a word of it wasted information or idyll gossip. The interior politics of the Joker System were far more volatile then anyone outside had been lead to believe. Rife with declared or incipient wars, both civil and external, the countries of the inhabited planets were not at rest. At best, there was a fragile balance that threatened to collapse or shift with every move made by any one country. The AKD itself was not without its own interior troubles - Aisha had admitted that she would not trust the secret of the Emperor's activities or absence with more then a bare handful of the most trustworthy knights, for fear of the reaction if the news was known.
"What sort of reaction?" Qui-Gon had asked. "Confusion? Panic?"
"Rebellion," Aisha had replied, not meeting the Jedi Master's eyes. "There would be bloodshed between the knights. That's the last thing we need."
The sunset outside was fast approaching its final blaze of glory. Obi-Wan, who had remained silent during the briefing, absorbing what was said, looked up from the map he was studying which contained a pin, bright red, driven through the coordinates of Amaterasu's last known position. "Master," he said quietly, drawing Qui-Gon's attention. "We're coming to this later then we should. With so much time passed between then and now, nearly anything could have happened. We need to consider all the possibilities."
"I know, Padawan," Qui-Gon replied, pressing his thumb to the bridge of his nose where a slow ache had begun. He pushed the sensation away, letting the Force soothe it.
Aisha leaned her hip back against the edge of the table, crossing her thin arms as she studied Qui-Gon. "What are you saying?" she asked bluntly.
Obi-Wan answered. "That you may need to consider the possibility that Emperor Amaterasu might be dead," he said evenly.
Startled, Aisha glanced at him, frowning slightly. Lachesis, hovering behind Aisha, started. "No," she said softly, almost a whisper.
Qui-Gon straightened, feeling the tension in his spine from long hours of sitting. "Princess?"
Flustered, Lachesis clasped her hands together, wringing them slightly. "No," she repeated. "He's not dead." She cast a pleading glance to Aisha. "I would have felt it if he died."
"Ah." Alert now, Qui-Gon studied her more closely. There had been no point in the conversation when any question could have been appropriately voiced, but he could still feel the Force power that emmenated from both women. "You're bonded with the Emperor, then?" he asked gently.
Expressionless, Aisha shrugged slightly. "Amaterasu married Lachesis," she said, a touch shortly, something the Jedi Master filed away under interesting information.
Lachesis nodded, confirming Aisha's words. It only scratched the barest surface of what the Jedi Master wanted to ask them about their knowledge of the Force, but at the least, if Lachesis knew enough of the bond to know if Amaterasu was harmed, it was a place to start.
"Alright, then," Qui-Gon sighed. "We will assume that the Emperor is alive. But where, and why, and whether or not he is being held by an outside force remains to be seen. You," he turned his gaze to Aisha, "say that the knights of the AKD can not be sent in to search for him for two reasons. One, because most of them should not be told about it at all, and two, because if they are seen - in uniform or out - and recognized then public interest will be taken and a possible political situation will arise with the local country. For the same reasons you can not ask the government of Phillmore for assitance. And that," he finished wryly, "is why you requested the assistance of the Jedi. You need someone from outside, someone unknown to this System, with no other alliances, who can conduct the search for you."
Aisha smiled, an almost hard expression on her pale face. "Do you find a flaw in my reasoning, Sir Jinn?"
"On the surface, no," Qui-Gon admitted. "With the exception that I am not certain two people - Jedi or no - are capable of this." He gestured to the map stuck through with a pin. "That, your Highness, is an entire planet - one with ready and easy access to all of the other planets in the systems. Three and a half weeks is a long time. The Emperor could be anywhere."
"They say that Jedi are adept at finding the truth," Aisha mused. "*That* is what I need of you, Sir Jinn. Find me the truth. Amaterasu leaves ripples everywhere he goes, no matter what face he wears. Fine me those ripples. Find me a clue, a rumor - anything." The blood red of her gaze was fierce, her tone the ringing clarity of a ruler. Qui-Gon hesitated, meeting that gaze, then finally bowed his head.
"We can but try, your Highness," he replied. "I can guarantee nothing."
"You can guarantee that you will try," Aisha said firmly. "That is something more then the nothing we had before you came."
"Very well," Qui-Gon acknowledged. He rose to his feet, Obi-Wan rising as well. "If transportation can be provided, we will begin on the morrow."
"Of course," Aisha began, but Lachesis made a small sound of protest. The older woman frowned, turning towards her.
"They can't go like that," Lachesis almost whispered, eyes wide.
Aisha turned back to them, her gaze sweeping over them both. Qui-Gon raised his brow, wordlessly questioning. Both Jedi were dressed as they always were, cream tunics and earthtoned cloaks, the lines neat and crisp, shaken out freshly for their arrival. Having seen the elaborate and stiff costumes of the courtiers they had passed in the corridor, Qui-Gon was prepared to admit that Jedi robes were quite drab in comparison - but also less attention attracting, which was precisely what they would need.
"She's right," Aisha admitted. "Oh, you can, Sir Jinn, though other clothes can be provided if you like. But..." She shook her head, glancing at Obi-Wan. "I realize the Republic operates differently than we do. But here, in the Joker System, it isn't the same. Your Fatima..." Seeing Qui-Gon's frown, she spread her hands slightly, then indicated Obi-Wan. "I'm sorry. I don't recall the word you used."
"Padawan?" Qui-Gon prompted gingerly.
"Yes," Aisha smiled, pleased. "Here, we would say Fatima. And I am sorry, Sir Jinn, but here he shouldn't go into public like that. It simply isn't done."
Qui-Gon caught Obi-Wan's eye. The younger man looked grim but shrugged slightly, a burst of weary resignation slipping through their bond. He was aware, as well as Qui-Gon was, that, where ever possible, local customs should be followed while on diplomatic assignment. It would hardly be the first time that custom had required wearing or consuming or doing something unpleasant - usually to the pride, a fact that Obi-Wan's wryly humorous touch across their bond reminded Qui-Gon of.
"My apologies, your Highness," Qui-Gon told Aisha with a small bow. "I'm afraid what information on local custom that the Senate could supply us with was rather inadequate. In what way has Obi-Wan offended?"
"Oh, I'm not offended," Aisha assured them, smiling. "But it would be dangerous in public. It's obvious what you're wearing is some sort of uniform to you, but the general populace does not know what a Jedi is or how to recognize one - what you're wearing would look like civilian clothes to them. The cloak is good, but without it there is nothing to mark your Padawan as anything other than a young man."
[And what else am I supposed to be?] Obi-Wan inquired silently with exasperated humor. Qui-Gon mentally hushed him.
"Would it perhaps not be better if we were both dressed as civilians, to blend with the local populace?" the Jedi Master inquired. "We are trying not to raise attention to ourselves."
"I don't know about the Republic," Aisha replied archly, "but here, the weapon at your belt marks you as a Headliner. For a non-Headliner - a civilian - to carry one is illegal. The choices, then, are two. Either you look and dress the part of what you both very obviously are - Headliner and Fatima - or yes, civilian clothing and an alternate weapon can be provided to you. However, your Padawan will have to remain behind. It would also be illegal for him to be in the company of a civilian."
Momentarily floundering, Qui-Gon attempted to recall anything in what little they knew that would counteract what Aisha was telling them. A Headliner was, so far as he could recall, hereditary nobility - not necessarily royalty, but a step above standard civilian. The word Aisha acquainted with Padawan, 'Fatima', he didn't know at all and had no idea what social strictures came with the position.
"If we were both dressed as civilians? Nothing more then two normal men?" he inquired.
"And if he is found out?" Aisha asked. "The penalty is death. For both of you."
[That sounds serious, Master,] Obi-Wan whispered dryly against his thoughts. Qui-Gon could not help but agree. [The rank of minor nobility might be useful.] Again, Qui-Gon was forced to agree - denied the status that came with being Jedi in the bounds of the Republic, they might need what privledge and weight came with the rank offered.
"If proper attire can be provided, your Highness," Obi-Wan said aloud, "I will be happy to abide by Joker custom."
Gritting his teeth, Qui-Gon tried one last angle. "If we're dressed as Headliners from the AKD..."
Aisha waved her hand, dismissing his concern. "Headliners can come from anywhere. Provided you aren't a knight in the service of any particular government, little heed will be paid to you. I'll see that proper papers and identification are provided for you both, and a suit for your Fatima."
"Thank you," Qui-Gon replied wryly. "I would like to begin as early as possible tomorrow."
"Of course, and it's getting late," Aisha replied. "Lachesis will show you to your rooms. I'll have your dinners sent there."
"Thank you, your Highness. There is one more thing." At Aisha's questioning look, Qui-Gon shrugged slightly. "I believe our conversation proves that the information we were given about your customs is not adequate. If there is any more information that could be provided regarding the ettiquete and laws governing the rank we are to assume..."
Aisha sighed slightly, absently curling a lock of silvery hair around her finger. "I'm not sure I would know where to begin telling you things, Sir Jinn."
"And I do now know the right questions to ask, obviously," Qui-Gon returned wryly. "Perhaps a few simple texts on law and common ettiquete? We haven't time for much more, but it might at least keep us from creating an international incident."
The princess winced slightly, sighing wearily. "Yes. I'll have something sent to you with dinner. Will that be sufficient?"
"I fear it will have to be," Qui-Gon allowed. Aisha nodded. For a moment the facade of regal serenity broke, revealing the worry in her eyes and the line of her mouth. Bowing, the Jedi Master put what reassurance he could in his voice. "We will do what we can, your Highness."
"Thank you," she replied softly. A delicate hand stretched out for a moment, the motion arrested in mid act and turned into an imperious wave. "I'm selfish to keep you any longer. Good night, Honorable Jedi. I will see you on the morrow. Lachesis, if you please?"
Stepping forward, the young princess beckoned the Jedi to follow her. Both men bowed again to Aisha, though Qui-Gon noted that Lachesis did not. The cloaked guards - the same or different, he could not tell - still stood before the door. They came to attention as Lachesis emerged, the Jedi trailing in her wake.
Silent, she lead them through the Palace corridors to another set of smaller doors, which she threw open to reveal a richly appointed sitting room. "The bedrooms are to either side, the bath to the far right," she told them, and then showed them a small set of controls set beside the main door. "If you need anything, please don't hesitate to call."
"Thank you, your Highness." Qui-Gon hesitated. Lachesis had, over the course of the afternoon talks, become more and more silent. The ready smile she had displayed at their meeting was gone, replaced with wide eyed worry that brought a pallor to her delicate features and a sorrowful curve to her mouth. "Princess Lachesis... if the Emperor is alive, then there is hope."
The girl closed her eyes, dashing a hand across them quickly. "Yes," she agreed, a little choked. "I know." Her eyes, when she opened them, were a deep, dark violet with unshed tears in their depth. "He won't die," she said with conviction. "I just... don't want to see him hurt." She drew in a shakey breath, clasping her trembling hands together. "There's too much of that already."
Qui-Gon touched her shoulder gently. The innocence was still there but the flightly child of the afternoon was gone, replaced by a young, grieving wife who's only choice was to continue a difficult deception of normalacy for the sake of her kingdom. Lachesis glanced up, surprised at his touch, then managed a wan smile. "I'm sure you'll find him," she said softly. Slipping away, she curtsied quickly and retreated, the doors closing behind her.
Obi-Wan was the first to break the silence of the suite, moving to one of the couches and flinging himself down into its cushions. "Force," he muttered, hands over his eyes. "How do we always end up with these assignments?"
Qui-Gon smiled ruefully. Slipping out of his cloak, he laid it across the back of the couch across from Obi-Wan. "The Force sends us where it will," he replied, then added with a small grin, "though one might say it does seem to have a fondness for things like this."
"This entire System is on the brink of war," Obi-Wan sighed. "And we're to go into that blind? Master, we have little or no hope of accomplishing anything."
"Never give up hope, Padawan," Qui-Gon murmmured. "We will have to trust in the guidance of the Force."
A soft knock at the door brought both men up, alert. Qui-Gon motioned Obi-Wan back to his seat, crossing to the doors and opening them. A young woman stood in the corridor, a covered cart beside her.
"Oh!" she exclaimed softly when he opened the door. She bobbed a graceful curtsy. "Honorable Jedi, Sir - I brought food, and the texts you requested."
"Ah, good." Qui-Gon stepped back, letting her roll the cart into the room. As she passed him it was almost anti-climactic to discover that she, as well, radiated Force energy. He was begining to think, with some dismay, that more of the populace then not contained some Force sensitivity. In figure she resembled the Princess Lachesis, with the same long, slender limbs. Her dress was more severe, a simple black and red skirt over neat white shirt and black leggings like the other girls they had seen in the corridors. "Thank you...?" Qui-Gon let his voice trail off, offering her the chance to supply her name.
She seemed slightly startled to be asked. "Alecto, sir," she replied quietly. "Fatima to Lady Aisha."
On the couch, Obi-Wan leaned forward abruptly, studying her. Qui-Gon did as well, trying to determine what, precisely, set her aside in the rank of Fatima. Other than the physical characteristics, which his Padawan could hardly be expected to emulate, there remained only her clothes and a single large red jewel, cut into neat facets, which nestled in her dark hair above her forehead. She kept her gaze slightly downcast, as Lachesis had, something he took note of. Her stance was quiet, unobtrusive - the way Lachesis had stood during their talks and much, Qui-Gon admited, the way Obi-Wan was want to stand behind his Master when Qui-Gon was addressing others.
"With your permission, sir," she said, her voice quietly calm without being shy, "I am to take measurements for your Fatima's clothes."
Qui-Gon nodded. "Obi-Wan," he called, but the younger man had already stood to join them.
"That would be me," Obi-Wan told her, smiling. Again she seemed slightly surprised, blinking at him. As she did so Qui-Gon glimpsed her eyes more fully. There was an odd, overly bright luminous quality to them, as though the deep aqua color of them tinted not only iris but pupil and white as well, so that the whole were shades of one color.
Surprised or no, she said little else, suggesting only that Obi-Wan might take his outer tunic off to make the measurements more accurate. Qui-Gon sat on the couch, watching as his Padawan good naturedly removed both outer tunics and belt, standing in the center of the room with arms outstretched. Alecto produced a cord with measurements marked on its length, quickly and professionally taking the young man's sizes for shirt and trousers.
"Are you related to Princess Lachesis?" Obi-Wan asked, curious about the passing similarities between the two girls. Alecto's quick fingers wrapped the cord around one arm, before whisking it away to measure the length of the arm itself. The girl took no physical notes of the measurements, seemingly memorizing them all easily.
Her expression did not change overly much, though she seemed pleased. "Yes," she answered. "Lachesis is my younger sister."
"Then are you a princess too?" he asked, curious.
"No," she replied from behind him, reaching around to measure his chest. "I am Fatima to the Lady Aisha."
"But if you're sisters...?"
"Lachesis married Emperor Amaterasu," Alecto pointed out.
Obi-Wan nodded slightly, beginning to understand. "The princess showed us a picture of her and her sisters, when you were children."
"Oh no," Alecto denied, shaking her head. She was crouched down at his feet, measuring from waist to ankle. "Those were her *sisters*," she said, putting emphasis on the word. "Father's triplets." Her expression turned fainly sad. "They were his last."
"I'm sorry," Obi-Wan replied automatically. "Then... you're their older sister? There's four of you?"
Done with her measuring, Alecto stood, coiling the cord neatly between her hands. "Four? No, of course not. Clotho is the youngest, the last. She's number forty-five."
Dumbfounded, Obi-Wan stared after her as she turned away, curtsied to the seated Qui-Gon and swiftly left the room. He shook his head, running a hand over the short brush of his hair. "Master? Did you hear that?"
"Forty-five," Qui-Gon mused. "Multiple wives, perhaps. Or... they appear primarily humanoid, but there are many variations. If the young are born in litters..." He shook his head, dismissing the idea. "There wouldn't be any emphasis on triplets if multiple births were normal. Multiple spouses, then, or artificial gestation."
"Let's hope there's more information in those texts," Obi-Wan said grimly. Uncovering the cart, he picked up the top of a stack of data readers, tossing one to Qui-Gon and another back to his former seat before picking up a plate and beginning to fill it from the various dishes.
Qui-Gon flicked on the reader, glancing at the text. 'Common Law in the Joker System, vol 1 of 7'. He sighed, turning it off again and climbing to his feet to join Obi-Wan in fetching a plate. It promised to be a very long night.
The beds, when they finally sought them, bleary eyed from reading, were soft and deep. Far too much information - which was still not nearly enough - richochetted through Qui-Gon's dreams in confusing snippets of unfamiliar names and places peopled by long limbed girls with large eyes in pale faces. He woke to sunlight streaming brightly through the thin white curtains and the sound of soft voices in the outer room.
A few quick minutes let him pull on clothes and smooth his hair, enough to present a decent appearance to anyone looking. Taking a breath, he opened the door of the sleeping room, unsure of whom he would find.
He saw the women first. Alecto was there, looking no different than she had the night before. Lachesis looked less the royal Princess, her gold dress cut of stiffer cloth and more severe lines. Black leggings emphasized her limbs and a jewel, like Alecto's but a sapphire blue, sparkled against her hair. Both girls curtsied, bidding him good morning.
"Good morning, Princess, Fatima," he returned, walking out into the room. It was only as he did so that he saw his Padawan.
Gone were the draped lines and soft cream of Jedi robes. In their place, crisp black trousers and boots seemed to hug and emphasize the younger man's legs, giving them an appearance of length. The outer tunic - a dress jacket of sorts - was cut to accent the width of shoulders and chest in shades of deep, royal blue studded through with glittering gold. The effect was very stylized, a suit one might see on the floor of the Senate or other state function, formal and dignified.
The clothes, however were secondary. Obi-Wan's eyes had taken on the luminous quality Qui-Gon had glimpsed in Alecto's, making them pools of deep aqua, set larger in his face, more exotic. He stood quiet, gaze downcast, shoulders back but the posture almost subservient in its quiet attitude.
Qui-Gon realized he was staring. Swallowing, he stepped forward. The girls parted to let him by, Obi-Wan straightening as his Master approached him. Reaching out, Qui-Gon gently tipped the younger man's chin, turning his face fully into the light. Frowning, he studied the blue on blue effect. "Padawan?" he asked quietly. "Your eyes..."
"Eye shields, Master," Obi-Wan responded. He glanced back to the two women, the motion barely trackable beneath the layered color. "May I?"
"Yes," Lachesis replied. Glancing at her, Qui-Gon saw that she, too, had donned whatever created the effect for her violet eyes held the same glassy, almost blank countenance.
"But only with your Master," Alecto said firmly. "Never in public."
Obi-Wan ducked his head slightly, smiling. "They've been teaching me rudimentary behavior," he told Qui-Gon quietly, pitching his voice for his Master's ears alone. "I have the feeling the Lady Alecto thinks I shouldn't be allowed to button my own shirt at this point."
Qui-Gon did not smile, nudging the younger man. "Your eyes?"
"A moment, Master - I'm not used to this." Reaching up, Obi-Wan held back the lid of one eye, looking down until edges of white began to show. Qui-Gon winced slightly as the younger man, with his free hand, quickly slid a fingertip across the surface of his eye. Blinking, one eye now looking as it always did, albeit slightly bloodshot, he held out his hand.
Balanced on fingertip, the eye shield was a nearly translucent iridescent material, cupped and shaped to hug the surface of the eye. Qui-Gon studied it critically. "It doesn't interfear with your sight, does it?"
Obi-Wan shook his head. "It makes things slightly darker," he confessed, "but after a minute it's not even distracting."
Nodding, the Jedi Master stepped back to survey the dichotomy of the effect. The shield remaining in his Padawan's other eye reflected the light, giving the enlarging effect, and from a distance it muted and disguised the subtle motions which conveyed emotion through gaze. "What is their purpose?" he asked the two women, gesturing Obi-Wan to resume.
"Purpose?" Alecto sounded almost confused, as though it had never occured to her to question why she wore them.
Qui-Gon caught the hint of a sidelong glance that Lachesis gave the other woman. Leaning over, the Princess said something to her quietly, to which Alecto responded "Yes, of course," and, with a nod to the two men, left the room. Lachesis watched her go, then turned back with a small sigh.
"My apologies, Sir Jinn," she said quietly. "I sent her to see to Lady Aisha." She hesitated, shrugging slightly. "Alecto... would not understand."
"I am afraid I don't either, your Highness," Qui-Gon said a bit gruffly. He watched, critically, as Obi-Wan slipped the lens back into his eye. The gestures had the look of something the women must have made the young man practice several times already.
Lachesis clasped her hands together, her expression troubled. "Forgive me if I offer offense," she began. "But... in your Republic... Your Fatimas are not placed under mind control?"
"Under *what*?" Qui-Gon rasped, feeling Obi-Wan fairly snap with abrupt tension beside him.
The princess almost smiled, watching Obi-Wan's reaction. "No, I didn't think so," she said, and for a moment something - the Jedi Master might almost have called it longing - touched her expression. Shaking her head, she sighed. "Things are different, here. Fatimas are placed under mind control very early. Most commands are simple. We are to choose Masters from among Headliners only - once chosen, we are to remain loyal to our Master unto death. All commands of the Master must be obeyed."
Stunned, Qui-Gon lowered himself to one of the couches. Obi-Wan, mouth ajar, stood frozen where he was. "'We'," Qui-Gon said slowly, picking through her words. "You are...?"
"Fatima to my Lord Amaterasu," Lachesis acknowledged with a nod.
"I am beginning to think, your Highness," Qui-Gon said after a moment, "that 'Fatima' is not the best translation for 'Padawan'."
Lachesis tilted her head slightly. "Do you?" she asked.
He felt the ripple in the Force - it was the only warning they had, for she moved faster than the physical eye could follow. Gleaming golden yellow, the blade of her saber, and Qui-Gon surged up, hand reaching for the hilt that he had not yet clipped to his belt. Obi-Wan spun aside, the attack going past him by a meager hair's breadth. Force propelled speed drew his own lightsaber, the blue blade humming into existance to meet Lachesis' whirling second strike.
Sparks flew as the blades clashed, crackling. They held, Obi-Wan astonished, Lachesis unruffled in the slightest, her expression considering. After a moment she stepped back, switching off her saber and returning it to her belt. "'Padawan' is an equivalent translation for 'Fatima'," she announced, resuming the conversation as though nothing at all had occured.
Qui-Gon was on his feet, fairly vibrating with tension, but Obi-Wan hesitantly held up a hand. Switching off his saber, he regarded the princess. "Why?" he asked simply.
"You blocked me," Lachesis replied. "Only another Fatima or a Headliner could have done so. Sir Jinn is obviously a Headliner. You are bound to him. Therefore, you are his Fatima."
"And if he hadn't blocked you?" Qui-Gon snapped. "Could you have pulled that blow without injuring him?"
Lachesis looked startled. "It was set on stun," she assured him. After a moment Obi-Wan began to laugh, softly, dropping down onto the couch.