|"I have a bad feeling about this." Obi-Wan struggled weakly with the coverings. Why did they make these things so heavy? Why did they always get so entangled, so you ended up mummified and helpless?
"Not again, Obi-Wan." Though the large hands were gentle and deft as they freed him from the bedding, pulled him up and helped him sit, Master Jinn's tone was not at all sympathetic. "And is this one any more specific than the last?"
Obi-Wan's head burned, and even under the bandage the movement of air was a torment on the bone-deep scald over his temple. He didn't want to have to deal with his master's anger right now. He didn't even want to know why Qui-Gon was angry. Some anti-Jedi fanatic takes a pot shot at me and that's my fault? "I...I don't know what you mean, Master."
"You were so busy contemplating your vague anxiety during the mission that you missed the actual moment of threat." Qui-Gon's fingertips brushed the skin beneath Obi-Wan's bandage and came away bloody. His mouth and shadowed eyes thinned. "Your last 'bad feeling' almost killed you, Padawan. So I ask; is this one detailed enough to be a useful warning? Or is it just another dangerous distraction?"
I have a bad feeling, and then someone tries to wipe me out, Obi-Wan thought with rising frustration, You'd think that would qualify as accurate. "Please don't take Jemmiah with you. If you don't take her I don't get the bad feeling. If you do - things turn dangerous."
"For her or for me?" Qui-Gon leaned forward, elbows on knees, to study Obi-Wan's face.
At the look of earnest enquiry Obi-Wan's annoyance eased a little. Maybe he is listening. Maybe I can protect him this time. Maybe I can protect them both. "Does it matter who's at risk - you or her?"
Qui-Gon leaned back, astonished. "It makes all the difference in the galaxy."
Not to me.
Why, Obi-Wan wondered, with an anger born of helpless fear, did Qui-Gon put no importance at all on his own safety? Was it humility - because he truly felt his fate did not matter? Arrogance - the certainty that nothing could touch him? Or was it something stranger - a resignation to the Force's purpose more profound than the demand to survive? Either way Obi-Wan hated it; hated having to accept that in some small corner of his mind Qui-Gon didn't care if he lived or died, and there was no way to make him care.
If I say I know it's Jemmiah. That I know he's taking her into danger, it might - just might - make him stop.
But it would be a lie. He didn't really know anything beyond the sick press of dread in his stomach - the unfocused certainty of doom. Can I lie to my Master? Can I lie about the Force? Would he ever trust me again if I did?
Miserable, crushed, he couldn't find the energy even to complain when Simeon came to change the soaked dressing on his head. "I don't know, Master," he said at last. "I can't see that far. I only know that if you take her with you you may both be in danger."
Agony soared through his head as the bandage was loosened. He wanted to shake Qui-Gon; maybe tie him down, lock him in his quarters till the danger was passed. But all he had the strength for was to bite back tears and grab a fist full of Qui-Gon's worn old tunic - soft as a comfort blanket in his grasp.
"Please don't take her with you, Master. Please."
Qui-Gon gently disengaged the death-grip on his clothes and stood. "Oh, Padawan," he rested a hand on Obi-Wan's head and bestowed a small but twisted smile, "Why do you let these phantom futures distress you? It hasn't happened yet. It may never happen. Be calm and focus on your task, which is to get better. I'll want to see you perform kossa rin yu when I return... Without the slicing off your own foot manoeuvre you added last time."
He wasn't going to listen, was he? He never did listen. Obi-Wan wondered why he'd even bothered to speak. "Please, Master."
He couldn't interpret the look he got in return. Annoyance, resignation, guilt, affectionate concern, all of it buoyed on the surface of that unruffled Jedi calm. Qui-Gon sighed, like a mountain settling, "I must go where I'm led, Obi-Wan. But thank you for the warning. I will...be alert."
The big smile now, as if Master Jinn believed that everything had been settled. Everything was fine. "May the Force be with you, Padawan."
"You too, Master." Obi-Wan collapsed against his pillows and watched Qui-Gon stride away with the easy, confident walk of a man who believes he is prepared for anything. And perhaps he was. Perhaps it was stupid to worry about him. But Jemmy... Can Jemmy handle it? Force, I hope so. I hope...
Sedative, or exhaustion pulled at him. He fought it, madly, sure there must be some way, even now, to prevent the two most important people in his life from departing into a peril from which he could not save them.
He failed; fell asleep. When he awoke they were gone.
"So you see I can't go." Jemmiah looked up from the sea of ruined fabric with a brilliant smile. A smile which was heartbreakingly false. "I mean I'm really sorry. It sounds like a blast - big society wedding, five day party, just the sort of thing we Corellians love."
She held up a once white dress, now grey and mysteriously shrunken. "But look at what the stupid laundry droids did to all my stuff. I can't go without clothes."
He took the garment from her to examine it. "It's not so bad, Jemmiah. It'll do as a shirt."
"Oh yeah. Thus speaks the Grunge Master. Look who I'm talking to. How long have you had that tunic? Fifteen years? And I know for a fact you only picked that colour robe so Ben could bleed on it without leaving stains."
The simple joke was like touching a live cable - a moment of stunned suspense and then a flashback took him, nauseatingly, physically real. The feeling of Obi-Wan's limp body cradled against his chest, liquid warmth seeping through the fabric of his robe to coat his shoulder with gore where the boy's head lolled. So close this time. So close...
And all because of premonition, distracting the boy's attention from the bare instant he had to defend himself.
The recent confirmation that Obi-Wan would live had filled him with the same anger a parent feels, having snatched their child from the path of a reckless speeder. An anger which meant 'How could you frighten me like that? I thought I'd lost you!'
I was harsh to him, he thought, sighing. And I don't think he understood why. But there was little point in trying to explain - Obi-Wan would be deep in sedated sleep by now, and time was short.
He turned his attention back to Jemmiah. She had brightened - the aura of terror fading as she believed his attention distracted by the change of subject.
But he was not so distracted as to miss the smell of dye, or the extra humidity in the air caused by repeated use of the quarters' small fresher. She did this herself. Destroyed her whole wardrobe in an effort to get me to leave her behind.
It would have been a relief to be angry about it - the wanton wreckage of property, the lying, the attempt to manipulate him, the sheer insincerity with which she smiled at him now. Easy to be angry. Harder to step back and see that these were strategies she had learned as a slave, perfected in order to survive.
She was dealing with him as she had been taught to deal with men. He could hardly blame her for that. "Well, Tangles, you'll have to wear some of Obi-Wan's old stuff. We can get you a presentation dress once we get there."
Watching closely he saw the flinch before she asked with feigned concern. "Isn't that illegal? Dressing as a Jedi if you're not one?"
He breathed in to dissipate the sadness. When she's afraid everyone is her enemy, even me... I have allowed her to remain a slave far too long. "Jemmiah. Tell me why you're trying to get out of this and we will have an honest discussion. Don't insult yourself with any more excuses."
Her posture slumped and the lower lip compressed as if to hold back tears. The extraordinary copper eyes seemed to enlarge, until all you saw were two swimming mirrors of unhappiness. It was remarkable how this thirteen year old, Jedi raised, could look again like the mortally ill waif he'd brought out of Hell.
Oh no, little one. Not this time.
"Jemmiah, I don't want the pitiful look. Just the truth. What is your objection to this?"
He thought he could guess. But he didn't want to have to guess. After three years together he felt - perhaps irrationally - that he deserved at least a little trust.
Her fiery auburn hair had curled into the corner of her mouth. He reached out to brush it away and she cringed. Actually cringed from him.
"Tangles?" That small, involuntary movement stopped his heart, made the universe cold around him. Intolerable.
"I'll go and pack then. It'll only take a moment." She had her head down. Tidying away the warped garments with swift efficiency, her presence drew in on itself as if to hide - 'don't notice me' messages spilling out from her into the Force.
She couldn't distract or trick him, so she would obey. Anything but open up and share her thoughts. Anything but treat him as a person, instead of one of Rufus Merdan's clients.
Gods! She had disappeared into her room and returned with a packed bag before he had time to recover from the shock of her reaction to him. It's not her fault. Not her fault. The only men she remembers are Merdan's guards and the bastards who patronised his brothel. Of course, deep down, she believes that you are like them. It takes time to build confidence. Oh, he understood it well. But still it hurt.
"Let's go then," Jemmiah smiled, brittle-bright, "Don't want the pilot in a stew because we made him late."
Qui-Gon leaned over Jemmiah's shoulder as the ship banked and circled above the landing pad. Out of the window a storybook landscape looked all the more childlike for being far below. "You see the castle?" White, with towers and turrets, banners - blue and yellow - snapping in the breeze. He hoped she would see its fairytale glamour, as well as feel the reassurance of its massive walls.
The fortress rose out of the arm of the mountains as if carved there. Qui-Gon's battle trained eye took automatic note of covered battlements, murder-holes, salley-ports and fields of fire, even as he enjoyed its picturesque anachronism.
Sun shone on a moat silver as steel. Fat, wing-clipped birds the size of a man ran in flocks from the roar of the settling spaceship, sweeping across fields of purple grain. "That's the home of my friend Kaemon Zabrik. It's his daughter, Tawaline, who's going to be married."
"It's just a social call, then?" Jemmy turned her eyes in the direction he pointed, but they were focused inwards. She closed her teeth on a fingernail and worried it gently. "We could go back after the actual wedding? If we didn't want to stay for the party?"
Alternately listless and bright beyond bearing, Jemmiah's attitude had begun to both concern and annoy him. But he suspected that was what she had in mind - wearing him down with her misery.
"Not quite." He smiled, oddly proud of the fact that she was such a worthy opponent. "This is a very... traditional culture. Almost a heroic culture. The addition of high technology hasn't changed that. It's astonishing, in fact, the way they've retained archaic structures and modes of thought even while trading openly with such places as Coruscant."
Her eyes glazed. Obviously his ethnological fascination was not catching, and unlike Obi-Wan she had no duty to listen to it. To the point then. "Tawaline is marrying the son of a family with whom her father has recently been at feud."
"They've been trying to kill each other?"
Some of the sparkle he associated with her returned briefly, "They sound like in-laws already."
He chuckled and returned the impish smile. Odd to see her clothed like an apprentice - the layers and sashes giving her small frame added bulk. It made him feel more comfortable with her; more happy to teach; more sure. "As you can imagine there are a lot of differences to negotiate before the marriage has any chance of success. Whose fault some of the killings were. What wergield should be paid for them. The Bride-price, so on. I'm here as a neutral arbiter in those talks."
"They're selling her?" Jemmy's outrage was like the flash from the window when ship's repulsors met the force-field over the castle. "And you're letting them?"
He could almost see her mind working; throwing up plans to liberate the bride and pay back her oppressive kinsmen. Like Obi-Wan on the ship to Bandomeer she couldn't resist getting involved. Good. He would not make the mistake this time of ignoring all that youthful zeal.
"Will you take on a mission for me, Jemmiah?"
"Me?" Fully awake now, her own fears forgotten, Jemmiah responded like a Jedi to the challenge - with delight - and he almost wished it was something more serious, so that she would have a greater sense of achievement when she succeeded.
"Kaemon assures me that Tawaline is happy with the marriage. Tawaline assures me of it." He sighed, "But I'm her father's friend, and I can't be sure she's not just being dutiful. With you though - a little sister, someone close to her own age - she may feel free to speak. I need to know she's willing, before I sign her life away."
Lots of lessons in this, and he didn't know if she'd guess all of them: I need your help. I trust you. You can make a difference. Those were some. Another was Freedom is a matter of choice. If she learned any of them the anguish of forcing her to come would be worthwhile.
He had known as soon as the request arrived that he had to bring Jemmiah with him, though at first he hadn't known why. Then, only a week ago, she had been shopping with Evla and seen a man she thought she recognised as one of Merdan's goons. With every wile at her command she had resisted going outside the Temple ever since.
To see her thus imprisoned by her own fear was bitter. While Merdan ruled her mind and her actions, Qui-Gon couldn't positively say that he had freed her from anything - he had only made her jail a little more comfortable.
Time for her to face the risks of life. She was thirteen now - the age when Jedi padawans take up the Outward Path. At her age Qui-Gon had been a Warlord on Chorios II, G'emela had saved the First Prime of Iridonia from pirates, Obi-Wan had fought off a flock of draigons. Jemmiah was no less formidable a person, she had just been trained in terror instead of independence. It was time for that to change.
"Oh, I'll wheedle the truth out of her, don't you worry." Jemmiah grinned, looking happier than she had in days. She braced her small hands against the window as dust settled, the repulsors cut off and the ship touched smoothly to ground. When the guards - blastproof armour strange under their heraldic surcoats - pulled out the landing ramp she was first out of the door.
Not even considering the possibility of a sniper, he thought. They would have to have a talk about the need to balance freedom with vigilance. Then he sighed. Now you're getting paranoid too, Jinn. We're only here to speak to friends. Try and relax. It's not exactly dangerous, is it?
|The Price Of Freedom: Part 1