|"The results have come in." Tawaline hesitated in the doorway, though her perfume stole into the room and filled it with flowers.
Jemmy raised her head slightly from where it was pillowed on her knees. "Oh."
"You're not pregnant. They don't think he ever touched you."
She put her head down again, looked out onto the garden passively. "Oh."
The older girl gave a strangled cry of annoyance, surged into the room. Tawaline was stately in her many skirts, like Riarda's mother, and there was something of the same ruthlessness in the way she pulled the shutters over Jemmy's view, stood, hands on hips, waiting for something. "Is that all you're going to say?"
"What do you want me to say?" Jemmiah wasn't sure why she was still afraid, why she felt so broken. It was all over now. Riarda hadn't touched her, so everything was back to normal between herself and Master Jinn, wasn't it? Why then did she never want to see him again?
"What I want?" Tawaline had opened her wardrobe and was throwing garments onto the bed - the colourless, anonymous, Jedi clothes she had earlier scorned. "I want you to tell me you don't blame me for what happened."
Jemmiah laughed, surprising herself, "I don't blame you. You're not the one who forced me to come here against my will, even though he knew I was afraid."
"But what you were afraid of didn't happen." Tawaline stopped short of trying to strip Jemmy from her nightclothes. Instead she moved into the adjoining bathroom, drew hot water, put out soap and combs with determined energy.
"Something else did." Jemmiah said, annoyed, "That was just as bad. If he hadn't insisted, I would be safe at home, and Riarda wouldn't be dead."
"Poor little Pietr would still be rotting in a dungeon." Tawaline retorted sharply. "I would have been taken instead. Morgien would be at war with the Draconi, Kiffan would be at war with Tunnoka over me... And you would never have known what your guardian was prepared to go through to get you back."
"It's what he did for me that I'm having most difficulty forgiving him for."
She could not get the feeling of whiplash out of her back, and her forehead was bruised from the blow which broken her husband's neck. No matter what she listened to, underlying it there was always the muffled crack of a throat being crushed under a man's boot. She could not forget the look of calm on Qui-Gon's face as he snuffed out that life.
Master Jinn is as cold-blooded a killer as Merdan ever was. Maybe even more. Where does that leave me?
Lord Kiffan turned from the window to prop his foot against an embroidered stool. Already he behaved as if he was at home.
"There." Kaemon pressed his seal to the last document, pushed back his chair and smiled. "This is a new dawn for us. Together, Kiffan and I have allied with the Draconi. We will be a force so strong no one will dare attack us."
He cocked his head to look knowingly at Qui-Gon, "And Pietr insists that our alliance should not start any wars. So for the first time in generations we have a chance for a real peace. This is your doing, my friend."
"I was a tool," said Qui-Gon without much bitterness, "That's all. Will the wedding be tomorrow?"
"Yes. You'll be the guest of honour."
Sometimes, Qui-Gon thought, it was ..wearing.. that your own problems were so invisible. Sometimes it would have been nice to have a shoulder to cry on. "Kaemon, I think a wedding would bring back bad memories for Jemmiah right now. Would you be very insulted if we didn't attend?"
"How is she?"
"I don't know. She won't talk to me."
"What?" Kaemon was incredulous. "You risked your life to save her. Doesn't that count for anything?"
"Apparently not." Qui-Gon caught himself, heard how sullen he sounded. He had always been something of a championship sulker in his youth, but this was hardly the place for it. "Kaemon, she grew up among pirates. I was different from them because I saved lives. Now how is she to tell us apart?"
Kaemon snorted in disbelief. "I thought you said she was intelligent."
Sadly, Qui-Gon smiled a little, "The ways of the heart are complex."
"Huh! If she can't tell black from white, what are you teaching her, Master Jedi?"
I don't know. I really don't know.
"She'll bounce back," said Kaemon optimistically, "They always do."
Outside the room, Qui-Gon sagged against the wall, bowed his head and filled his hands with the warm mass of his hair - a habit of comfort he'd developed in the creche, sorely missed during a stressful apprenticeship. You're a wreck, Master Jinn, he thought wryly.
Losing Jemmiah had been, in its small way, as traumatic as losing Xan. No, that wasn't too melodramatic a comparison. The thought of her silent unresponsiveness gnawed at him. He might indeed still lose her over this.
I should talk to her. His hands tightened on his hair, tugging. He took that as his body's way of disagreeing with him, and indeed it was wiser than he was. If I bring my emotional problems to the meeting, how can I help her?
Meditation then, as if before battle. He straightened, smoothed down hair and robe. No-one had seen the moment of weakness. He had not betrayed the Order by letting anyone see that he was only human - unfortunately.
Striding into the gardens he found a spot where the lush grass and play of reflected light practically demanded meditation. It was pleasant to sink to his knees without begrudging the wasted time.
Never less than hot, the ardent sun pushed through his many layers of clothing, through skin and muscle and bone, soothing strains he only became aware of by their departure. The throb of his many bruises eased. In a discipline opposite that of traditional meditation he became aware of this moment in all its complexity - sound of water, smell of grass, pond weed, pollen, movement of the breeze, seep of the soil's dampness around his knees. He lost himself not in emptiness, but in the fullness of the living moment.
When he returned, buoyed on a calm as large as the world, it was with a sense of being liberated from emotion in order to act. Neither death was avoidable, so I will not feel guilty. What I did, I did. Only what I must do now needs to concern me.
A presence settled to the ground at his right. He had a sense of shadowed brightness, innocence wounded. And after all, his were not the only problems in this house.
"Hello, Ara." Opening his eyes, he smiled down on the little girl. Her small face was shaded with weariness and fear, and she clutched her doll tighter to her chest as she spoke.
"Mama would like to speak to you." Her gaze slid away from him, he followed it to see Hana settling down under her parasol on the terrace, a jug of purple wine frosting in front of her. She was wiping a finger through the condensation, not looking.
"Mama says she wants to talk privately. She says I should go play." Araniyah's hazel eyes brimmed with tears. "You won't make me, will you?"
Since she had awoken, Ara had clung to her mother's skirts like a toddler, desperate for security. But she could not listen in on this conversation. "Ara," he said gently, "I do need to speak to your mother alone. But you don't have to play. Could you go inside and tell Jemmiah that we'll be leaving in a hour? I know she'll want to say goodbye to you."
The little girl nodded, serious and brave. "I can do that."
He tried not to regret the braced line of her back as she walked away, too mature for her seven years. Growing up is so hard. At least it was within his power to protect some part of her innocence.
Sighing, he rose and went to stand by Hana on the bare stone gleam of the terrace. When his shadow fell over her hands she looked up, finally, unable to meet his eyes, gaze focusing somewhere around the level of his collarbone. She looked worn and delicate, but sane. "I wanted to thank you, Master Jinn, for not telling them."
She returned her gaze to the wine, sipping as if to moisten a suddenly dry mouth. "I don't know if Kaemon could have forgiven me for arranging it...and I do love him." Finally her glance strayed to his face, but was gone before he could see anything but fear. "I don't deserve such consideration."
Nor does Araniyah deserve to know it was her own mother who invited the gunman to invade her garden and shoot her.
"It would do no good - and a great deal of ill - if I told." He frowned, stepping closer, crowding into her personal space, not sure if such intimidation was called for, acting on instinct. "But take care that nothing of the same kind happens to Ara. I will continue to take a friendly interest in your family."
She gulped, then bent her head under the threat. "You are too kind."
Ow! ow, ow, ow, ow! "Oh chuuba!" Jemmy bared her teeth and cursed as softly as she could manage, cradling her throbbing hand and dancing with agony. Her knuckle was swollen and split - it had not been a good idea to try and deform the kriffing ring by hitting it with a wrench. But I can't get the *sleemo* off.
She was back in Jedi clothes, and against Ben's pale sleeves the wedding ring looked even more of an outcast's brand. She wanted rid of it. She wanted rid of the memories and of all the things that had changed. She wanted the universe to go back to how it was when things were simpler. Back to the days when you could tell the good guys and the bad guys apart, just by looking.
But the platinum band was snug, and the flesh of her hands bunched as she tugged at it, so all that happened was the new edges cutting into her knuckle, marking her with the line of a ring in blood.
A ring of blood. Yes, that's exactly what it is. Riarda's blood, Tunnoka's blood, and ..oh frag it.. it could have so easily been Qui-Gon's.
No, she wasn't going to think about Qui-Gon; about how blasted calm and untouchable he was, how he never suffered guilt or remorse, how she hated herself because even now she knew he was a trained killer, she still couldn't stop caring about him.
Stupid, stupid man. '"Leave me alone!"' she'd said to him as she came on board. '"Just go away."' And he - stupid man that he was - had left her alone and gone away. Didn't he understand anything?
She stormed into the cabin's small fresher, squeezed a palmful of runny soap into her hand - Should have thought of this before, make it slippy, - rubbed it over her finger.
"EEEaaaarggghhh!" Detergent filled the cuts with scouring flame. Pain shot up to her elbow, all the tendons rigid as her whole forearm felt as if it had been filled with acid. She looked down at her bleeding, purpled knuckle and couldn't - could not - bear the thought of forcing the sharp edged metal into it again.
"Oh! Oh..." she had no curse strong enough, "You...!" Lifting the bloodstained shiny hand she smashed it into the mirror. "Maybe I should just cut the fragging finger off!"
Qui-Gon had not come into the room. He stood just outside the doorframe, one hand resting on the chime. Why didn't he come in? It wasn't like she could have stopped him or anything. And why did he look so...so scared?
"Jemmiah, you screamed. What's wrong?"
Abruptly, at his look of helplessness, she realised one of the things which did make him different from Merdan's men. Even now, if she told him to go away, he would. She had power over him. Maybe it was only power he allowed her to have, but it was real nonetheless. If she didn't want him to come in, he would not.
She moved into the centre of the room, held out her hand to him. "I can't get the kriffing thing off."
He was at her side in an instant, taking the mauled hand into his to examine it, eyes and mouth thin with sympathetic pain. "Gods, Jemmiah. One of the fingerbones is broken. Why couldn't you have asked for my help before you did this to yourself?"
Silence. One of those undersea moments of drowning in time. She looked at her guardian, hunkered down in front of her, her injury cradled on his calloused palms. How many times had these hands killed for the greater good of the galaxy? How did he bear it?
His question pressed her, and she breathed in, surrendering. "Because I'm afraid of you."
A terrible, unforgivable thing to say, let alone feel, after everything he had done for her. Now he would turn from her. He would get up in contempt and leave the room, and it would be as if she'd told him about the other thing - her defilement. Force help her, because however much he scared her, she didn't want him to go away.
More silence, so unbearable that she had to look at him. He looked...relieved? How was that possible? Unless - a clench of cold around her heart - he had been waiting for an excuse to get rid of her. Was he truly glad she feared him?
"Jemmiah," he settled to the ground beside her, smiling. His expressive eyes were full of wonder, softening his harsh face. Did he hear something different from what I actually said?
The large hand turned and encircled her wrist, tugging slightly. She took the invitation and came closer, edging into a wary hug which should have been uncomfortable but instead made her feel paradoxically safe. "I think that's the first honest thing you've told me about yourself in years," Qui-Gon murmured over her head, "Thank you."
"You don't hate me?"
His arms tightened fractionally around her and he lowered his head, so that she was surrounded by warmth. "You don't hate me?"
Stupid man. How could he ever think that? If she feared him it was because she cared about him so much - he could hurt her so much, if he chose. "No of course not!" she said, so indignant that he laughed - a chuckle shaking the chest she leaned against.
"Then I think we can deal with our fears together."
Our fears? Jemmiah thought, sceptically. She turned the thought around, couldn't find anywhere where it would fit. Leaving her space to think, perhaps, Qui-Gon moved away, taking the lightsabre from his belt, and said "Show me the ring again."
"Like you're ever afraid of anything, Master J," Jemmiah said, holding out the crooked, swelling finger. "You don't need to humour me you know."
"And you don't know everything, young lady." The sabre hummed into life, summer-forest light steady, floating in the cabin, while he held her hand in both of his, keeping it motionless. "I was terrified the whole time. I might have lost you."
"Um." Important as these revelations were, the tip of the weapon was millimetres from her skin, "Shouldn't you be concentrating on piloting?"
"I am," he said, with a touch of his old, smug amusement, "I'm just distracting us both from thoughts of what might go wrong at this point. Would you like to count to ten?"
"Get it over with." Jemmiah closed her eyes. Wouldn't the ring conduct the sabre's searing heat? Was there some Force-trick he could do to prevent that, or was she going to end up with a burn scar as the phantom mark of her illusory marriage? Kriff, it was going to hurt.
Qui-Gon held the ring, which had been sliced through by his lightsabre, in the palm of his hand, looking down on it with an odd expression. He turned away from her, drifted to a seat but did not manage to sit down, staring all the time at the broken circle he'd taken from her.
"How did you...?" her voice fell into a well of pain and was silenced there. It was oddly reassuring to see the normally imperturbable Jedi react if he had wounds in his own past as deep as hers. Maybe Quiggy's human after all. Maybe he *can* understand. Damn sure, Merdan wouldn't be vulnerable enough to grieve over a trinket like that.
"What is it?" she asked gently.
He looked up, pale eyes full of shadows and sadness. "It was the sign of...of a child I lost. Thank you, Jemmiah. Thank you that it's now going to be a sign of a daughter restored."
She wanted to cry. Not quite sure why. Not quite sure how everything was resolved, when in fact they had hardly spoken about it. But crying was not her style, or Master Jinn's, she sniffed it back, resolutely. "Restored? You going to leave me with my finger hanging off like this? Shall I maybe just duct-tape it back on?"
Qui-Gon laughed, put the ring down on the table and found the first aid kit. "It wouldn't be the first time. I do a very good duct-tape splint, as Obi-Wan can testify."
"You do know Ben's never going to let you hear the end of this one." She chewed on her bottom lip as the painkiller was sprayed on, "I wonder if I can run a book on how many times he's going to say 'I told you so,' in the first day."
"Master, I don't want to have to say this, but I did tell you." Obi-Wan put down a plate full of roughly cut sandwiches in front of Jemmiah, and frowned suspiciously as she leaned past his shoulder, raised three fingers and smirked. Qui-Gon tried to hide his answering smile behind a mug of tea, but knew he had failed when Obi-Wan's top lip thinned with disapproval.
"I did warn you it was dangerous." Behind his back, Jemmiah raised a fourth finger, still playing the game, though Qui-Gon could tell the repetition was getting to her. She might yet catch Obi-Wan's resentment and unforgive him. He didn't want that to happen.
"But, Master, with all due respect, you never listen. And then you rush off into peril and get hurt. I wish just for once you'd let me..."
Protect you. The words were unspoken, but Qui-Gon acknowledged his young Padawan's devotion anyway. There would be no punishment for the boy's blatant lack of respect, he honoured its intention.
"Obi-Wan," he waited until the boy settled on the end of the couch, opposite Jemmiah, "It is not your place to protect me from danger. I may sometimes be permitted to protect you, but only if it is the will of the Force. We live to serve, not to be safe."
"What about Jemmiah then?" Obi-Wan's gray-blue eyes were like frost on the ocean - a much deeper bitterness beneath them than Jemmiah's safe return seemed to warrant. "She's not a Jedi. Didn't you think about her safety?"
He settled to the couch between them, the weight making both of them lean towards him. Their youth made them look so alike - ardent, unsure, innocent. He wished he had something better to give them than just the bitter wisdom of experience. But such wisdom as he had, it was his duty to teach.
Outside the window a network of jewels was thrown across the sky and the small moons of skyhooks glowed like many opals in the night. He leaned back, arms behind his head, tried to see the true stars. "Let me tell you a story," he said.
Obi-Wan and Jemmiah exchanged a glance of youthful incredulity, but apparently decided to humour him.
"A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away," he began, traditionally, "There lived a great king, called Ar'gossi. Now Ar'gossi had many enemies, and though he was rich and powerful, he was a frightened man, because he faced the threat of assassination every day."
Qui-Gon wondered if Jemmiah recognised her own situation yet. Probably not, if she was anything like Obi-Wan then analogy would go straight over her head. But the story might linger.
"One day Ar'gossi determined that he would make himself safe. He could not trust his servants, so he dismissed them. Anywhere outside the house he could be shot by a sniper, or kidnapped, so he stayed inside."
Jemmiah nodded approvingly. This was what she would have done Qui-Gon thought, this was what she was doing, under the threat of Merdan. Was he being cruel, in telling this? Imposing his own beliefs? Who else's beliefs should I explain? At the very least they will understand *me* better.
"But that wasn't enough." Qui-Gon went on, "Ar'gossi could not be sure, in his palace, that the assassin was not concealed behind a drape or pillar - or spying on him from another room. So he had a small chamber made. The chamber was of duranium - blast proof, bomb proof, with a door which only he could open. It had a bed and a fresher inside, nothing more. He went inside, and he had the first night of sleep he had achieved in months. 'Surely' he thought, 'Surely I'm safe now.'"
Obi-Wan had caught the story's drift. Jemmiah, less accustomed to Jedi teaching parables was frowning, disturbed but still intrigued.
"But in the morning," Qui-Gon said grimly, "Ar'gossi realised he hadn't been clever enough. A cunning assassin could still poison the water supply, or introduce an airborne toxin through the ventilation system. A Jedi assassin could electrocute him from the light source, or simply mind-control him into opening the door."
Something of the story's horror had infected the quiet twilight of their common room. Unconsciously the two youngsters had edged inwards - not quite daring to touch him. Qui-Gon unfolded his arms and pulled them closer. It was an unpleasant tale. It had haunted him for years; still did, if he allowed it to.
"So, desperate to be at peace, frantic to know himself safe, Ar'gossi disconnected the power, water and air from his tiny room. Then he ventured out into the perilous world one last time. Returning with an arc-torch, he welded the door shut with himself inside, and finally, finally the fear was gone."
"But without any air..." Jemmiah protested, the big copper eyes looking cheated, as if she'd expected a happy ending.
"Yes," he said sadly, "He suffocated in the dark. And if - in the end - he did cry out for help we don't know, because there was no one there to hear."
"That's horrible!" Jemmiah got up in protest, "You call that a bedtime story? Evla's going to have your guts when she hears about this."
He smiled at her vehemence. She was definitely feeling better. "What should King Ar'gossi have done instead, Padawan?"
Obi-Wan at least understood that he had received a lesson, though by the look on his face he hadn't appreciated it. "He should have taken reasonable precautions, and then abandoned the fear, Master. Because the fear destroyed his life more thoroughly than a blaster could have."
So elegant a summary. Despite his prickly temper, Obi-Wan was a fine student. Qui-Gon smiled, proud and content - he was a lucky man to have two such children.
"So you see I did believe your warning, Obi-Wan," he said quietly, "I chose to disregard it only because it's not possible for any of us to live without danger. Danger is the price of freedom."
|The Price Of Freedom: Part Seven