|"I was only gone a moment." Tawaline lowered her tear-streaked face into her hands. A wide ridiculous bonnet still dangled from her fingers - the emerald bow knotted there. "It was hot. I went to get hats for us all. Jemmy and Ara were on the bridge." She pulled the ribbon loose, staring at it while her chin trembled. "Jemmiah said there was a man who wanted to kill her, and I said... Oh Ancestors! I said she'd be safe."
Qui-Gon understood only too well how she felt. He stood removed from the family, in the light of one of the narrow casement windows, looking out onto the grounds. He knew that he must look like a man absorbed in planning, turning different paths to revenge over in his mind. But he was not.
All that could be done had already been done. The spaceport had no record of any foreign ship other than his own, but an embargo was in place nevertheless. If it was Merdan he would not be able to take her offworld. Small comfort, considering what it was he had intended to do to her.
Obi-Wan's warning, Qui-Gon thought had spared him, perhaps, the first sickening jolt of surprise - returned him one moment in which he might have stood stupidly thinking 'This can't be happening.' But instead it had given him guilt. If only I'd listened to Obi, or to Jemmy...
He shut down the thought ruthlessly. 'If only' would not help anyone, and he had other things to think about - like how to get her safely back.
Turning from the bright view he met Kaemon's shamefaced gaze. "I'm so sorry, my friend. So sorry this has happened in my house. And I know you only brought her here because you believed in my protection."
Qui-Gon breathed out. There is no passion, there is serenity. He didn't need guilt or anger, only the Force. "The life of a Jedi, or a Jedi's ward, is never safe, Kaemon. Let us not waste energy on useless regrets."
"No regrets?" Hana, Kaemon's wife, looked up at him with her teeth bared. "You don't know. You don't..." She held little Ara's unconscious body closer. A tear splashed on the sleeping cheek. He felt horror from her - horror and guilt, like Kaemon's but far stronger. As a woman, perhaps the fear was that much nearer to her, and she could imagine all the better what was happening to his daughter even now.
There is no anger. There is no anger.
Jemmy had warned him Merdan was having her followed, and he had not believed it. The odd thing was, he still did not believe it. "But who else would be so stupid as to abduct a girl dressed as a Jedi apprentice? Who else would care so little about the wrath of the Order?"
He only realised he had spoken aloud when Tawaline dropped the hat and rose, hands clenched over her heart. "Oh, Master Jinn, forgive me! I didn't know the garments were a protection - I only saw how ugly they were. I gave her one of my gowns. I'm so sorry!"
All at once their combined remorse seemed a little ridiculous. He reached out to pat the girl's shoulder reassuringly. "You didn't kidnap her Tawaline. Kaemon, Hana, you're guilty of nothing but kindness. Please don't distress yourselves any more."
He might have said something dreadful. Hana lurched to her feet, fixed a wild gaze on the wall just past his shoulder. "I don't... I can't talk about this any more. Leave me alone!" Still carrying Ara she fled, loosed red hair flicking like a comet into the darkness of the hall.
Strange. Qui-Gon watched her retreating form curiously. What was behind this excess of suffering?
"I'll make sure she's alright." Tawaline curtseyed - a shaken bob of apology - and hurried after her mother. Qui-Gon turned his frown on Kaemon.
"We were married by abduction," the warlord explained soberly, "It's an accepted part of our tradition. If a man can snatch his bride from the fortified house of his enemies then he must have both courage and cunning. He's proved that he's worthy of her."
"But still it must be," Qui-Gon said carefully, "A traumatic experience for the woman."
"They get over it." said Kaemon, with equal care, "She loves me now. But perhaps her memory of it is less pleasant than I hoped."
Qui-Gon turned back to the window. In his mind he was now watching two girls walk across the immaculate lawn outside. A child and a teenager in fluttering gowns too expensive to belong to anyone other than the daughters of the Lord. He knew the idea was right before it had even taken its full form. "Do all Tawaline's suitors know what she looks like?"
"That would be very improper." Kaemon had picked up a wine glass, now he set it down in distracted gentleness, frozen in the act of sitting down. "You mean...?"
"It explains how he got through the forcefield - how he got a key. He's one of your neighbours or enemies - he's either visited and acquired one, or had ample time to bribe or suborn a servant."
The stone sill of the window was rough. When Qui-Gon lifted his hands he saw the palms grazed - he had been gripping so hard.
"Morgien!" Kaemon exclaimed suddenly. Everything cowed or apologetic vanished from him as he launched himself towards the door. "He swore blind we'd regret breaking troth with him. And now the foul traitor has snatched Jemmiah thinking her to be Tawaline. I will call out my men and I will burn him from his house!"
Qui-Gon's skinned palm left a faint dark print as he pulled Kaemon back by the elbow. "We will go and talk to Kiffan. After all, Tawaline is his family too now. This is an ideal opportunity for you to learn to be allies."
"Ancestors!" Kaemon took a sudden step away from him, like someone who sees a demon behind his friend's eyes. "You want to talk some more? I had heard the Jedi were cold and unfeeling, but I hadn't believed it of you, Master Jinn."
"I don't understand," Qui-Gon said, savouring the relief, allowing it to shake his voice, "None of your people would beat or abuse a future wife. She's alive and being treated well. It's far better than I hoped." His smile faltered as he saw the look of distaste fade from Kaemon's brown eyes - to be replaced by pity.
"Oh, my friend. But she isn't a future wife is she? As soon as they find out they've snatched the wrong girl your Jemmiah will become an unbearable humiliation to them. One they could not risk having found out."
Somehow the moment of joy had made everything worse. There is no fear, there is the Force. No dread, only... Qui-Gon knew why the Jedi sought their coldness - emotions like these could cripple. "So the minute she says anything - with her Corellian accent..."
He had to sit down, just for a moment. Just to breathe, just to focus. Force help me. Whatever I do now, it may be too late.
"She's probably already dead."
"Is she dead?" It was a young man's voice, horrified and awestruck. Jemmiah knew better than to open her eyes - let them talk freely, believing her to be unconscious. She was surprised to be still alive, surprised too at how easily the skills of imprisonment came back - eavesdropping and secrecy and silence.
"Of course not." A woman. The deep, rounded voice of a woman who has always been in charge. "Thought she'd be awake and fighting by now. Weak, isn't she?"
"I didn't realise we were going to use weapons." Floorboards creaked as the youth paced. His words doppellered from one end of the room to the other, "The whole thing is so much less... So much more horrible than I thought. I almost wish..."
A disgusted noise, and the bed creaked under Jemmiah. Weight sank into the mattress at her side and she had to fight not to tense up, but to allow herself to slide limply against the boned smoothness of what must be a corset.
"Ancestors! You have as much spine as a jelly. Learn this, my son, your father and I have taken many risks to secure Tawaline for you. Some gratitude is in order."
"I'm sorry, mother. I understand that after they rejected our offer in favour of that disgusting creep Angien, this was all we could do. I am grateful, honestly."
He didn't sound it, Jemmiah thought. The boy sounded browbeaten and afraid. As for her, she didn't know what to feel. Not Merdan at all. They weren't even after me. This is some weird practical joke on the part of the Universe. I guess Qui-Gee would call it the Will of the Force. She wished she was like him, and could listen for what to do now.
Part of her wanted to sit up and say 'You've got the wrong girl, now take me home.' But something in the boy's cowed air didn't seem right. Were these really the kind of people who would laugh off such a huge mistake?
"Enough of this malingering," the woman declared briskly. She leaned forward - the weight shifted - and there were the sounds of unscrewing; a metal lid coming off something glass. Then Jemmiah's nose was assaulted by such a stench of ammonia and decay that her whole body convulsed. Her eyes, nose and mouth stang as if acid had been poured into them. She coughed and spluttered, wiped tears. A big solid face came into view - surrounded by bejewelled curls.
"So, Kaemon's daughter, time to wake up."
"If I send ten men here with an ion cannon..."
"You see this gatehouse? The foundations are weak. That's where you want to deploy the cannon. In the meantime, I can lead a small squad - about fifty or so - here to breach the wall in secret."
Lamplight fell on the two bent heads; one sandy blond, one brown, as the warlords hunched over their copy of Kiffan's map. A common enemy had reconciled their differences swifter and more completely than any month of negotiation. When Qui-Gon came into the room they pushed back their chairs - perhaps unconsciously - to sit shoulder to shoulder and raise identical frowns at him. So quickly he had become the outsider in their friendship.
The Force is using this to bring them together, he thought, and felt the bitterness of the smile even as it twisted his mouth, I hope it's worth the price.
Nevertheless, it was his job - the purpose of his existence - to aid the Force where he could. If he could reinforce this new truce by making himself seem more alien, then so be it. "Gentlemen, I'd like you to hold off your revenge."
"The bastard killed your daughter and besmirched the honour of all our families. And you do nothing? What kind of a man are you?!"
There is no emotion, there is peace. Qui-Gon had decided to believe that Jemmy was alive. Kiffan's focus on the alternative was not helpful at this point.
"I don't think either of those things are proved," he said, calmly. "My ward is a very intelligent and resourceful young woman, who has had some practice at living in a situation of great danger." He smiled at Kaemon - one father to another. "Indeed since the age of ten she's been a master at twisting strong men to her will... There's a possibility that she lives."
Kaemon gritted his teeth as the desire to hit something warred with caution. Eventually he got up to pour a third glass of wine and said, "So what are you going to do?"
"Frightened little mouse." The woman drew herself up - so tall! - and gazed down her nose at Jemmiah, who had shuffled away from her and now huddled against the wall. "Is this really the daughter of a Lord? Anyone would think..."
She took a step backwards, narrowing her puffy hazel eyes. A hand drifted to the plunge of her straining bodice, bringing out, from a concealed scabbard between her breasts, a jewelled stiletto. It gleamed like a thunderbolt in her grip. "Anyone would think you were a dressed up commoner."
Jemmiah twisted away only just in time - the grabbing hand tore the green scarf from her hair, but at least now she knew. "How dare you!" she exclaimed, drawing herself up, stiff backed, pitching her voice to mimic Tawaline's. "How dare you!"
Sometimes a lie makes the best truth. She thought of Qui-Gon, quoting the Jedi saying with a certain amount of distaste, But always truth makes the best lie. "When my father finds out about this you are going to be *so* sorry!"
"Ah." The woman smiled, almost approvingly. Holding out a plump hand with exquisite nails she offered the scarf back, calculation in her eyes. It was a test.
"I will take nothing from you!" Fear kindled to real anger in Jemmiah. She didn't need to act to play this part. "Take me back to my family at once."
"Dear child," the knife slid back into its holster, its hilt like a diamond brooch against the blue satin and wide expanse of powdered chest. The voice too had gone from open to concealed threat, "Your family do not want you back."
"Of course they do." Rote defiance this time; Jemmiah found it hard enough to believe her Jedi family wanted her at the best of times.
"Oh no." The Lady of the house smiled again - another one of her weapons. "You were unconscious for a long time. We are not barbarians; we didn't need you to experience the trauma of being claimed. But rest assured, no-one wants you back now you are spoiled."
|The Price Of Freedom Part 3