Authors: Sean Stewart
For Caitlin and Rosie, bright and brave as any Padawans, and Christine, my swashbuckling companion and guide to this galaxy, and all the others too.
he sun was setting on Coruscant. Shadows ran like black water, filling up the the alleys first, then climbing steadily higher, a tide of darkness rising to drown the capital. Twilight's gloom spread over retail districts and medcenters, and crept like a dark stain up the walls of the Chancellor's residence as the sun slipped below the horizon. Soon only the rooftops were gilded with the day's last yellow light; then the shadows conquered them, too, swarming up the pinnacles of the Senate Building and the spires of the Jedi Temple. The long day of the Republic had come to an end.
Dusk on Coruscant.
On a moonless night a million standard years earlier, perhaps even before the rise of sentient beings, sunset would have meant darkness absolute, except for the distant burn of the stars. Not now. Even during galactic war, Coruscant was still the blazing heart of the greatest civilization in the history of the galaxy. As the sun retreated, the great city began to sparkle with innumerable lights. Speeders darted between tall towers like glow-flies dancing in meadows of transparisteel. Signs flared to life along every street, blinking bright promises at evening passersby. Lights came on in the windows of apartments and stores and offices.
So life goes on despite the gathering dark,
Senator PadmÃ© Amidala thought, looking out her window.
Each individual life burning bravely, like a candle raised against the night.
She kept her eyes on the spaceport landing platform nearest to the Jedi Temple. “It isn't a luxury,” she said.
A handmaiden turned to look at her, puzzled. “Pardon?”
“Hope. It isn't a luxury. It's our duty,” PadmÃ© said.
The handmaiden started to stammer a reply, but PadmÃ© cut her off. “Someone's landing,” she said.
A ship settled like a dragonfly on the landing platform nearest to the Temple, lights burning at its tail and wingtips. PadmÃ© grabbed for a pair of macrobinoculars and tabbed the night-vision settings, trying to read the designation on the courier's battle-scarred side. Searching the hooded figure climbing from the cockpit.
Slowly PadmÃ© put the macrobinoculars aside. “It's not him,” she said.
Chief Technician Boz Addle loved all the ships in his care, but he had a special affection for the sleek couriers. He ran a gloved hand along the metal flank of the Hoersch-Kessel
-class fast courier
Limit of Vision
that had just come home. “Electrical sparking, meteorite pocking, a couple of laser cannon burns,” he murmured. His hand paused over a nasty gash where part of the ship's protective laminate had boiled away, showing a mass of fused wiring studded with shrapnel. “And unless I miss my guess, you took a few proton hits to boot.”
Jedi Master Jai Maruk clambered out of the cockpit. His face was gaunt, stitched with shrapnel cuts, and puckered by a bad burn that lay in a bar of charred flesh across his cheek. Half healed on the frantic trip home, the burned skin had bubbled and turned stiff, pulling up one corner of his mouth. The chief technician regarded him gravely. “You promised you'd bring my ship back without a scratch, Master Maruk.”
Grim smile. “I lied.”
The duty medic bustled forward. “Let me check you out.” He paused, squinting more closely at the slashing burn mark on the Jedi's cheek. “Master Maruk! Whatâ”
“There's no time for that now. I must speak to the Jedi Council at onceâas many as can be found, anyway.”
“But Master Marukâ”
The Jedi waved him off. “Forgive me, medic, but now is not the time. I have a message to deliver that cannot wait, and I have been left, very much on purpose, in good enough shape to deliver it.” Again the grim smile. He strode away, pausing only at the docking bay doors. “Chief Boz,” he said more gently.
“Sorry about the ship.”
The medic and the chief technician stood side by side on the landing platform and watched him leave. “Lightsaber burns?” Boz asked.
The medic nodded, wide-eyed.
The chief tech spat thoughtfully on the deck. “Thought so.”
The Clone Wars like a mighty hand had flung Jedi throughout the stars, leaving only a few senior Jedi Knights in the Temple at any time. Yoda, of course, as Master of the Order and military adviser to the Chancellor, was nearly always on Coruscant. Tonight only two others had joined him to hear Jai Maruk's story: Jai Maruk's close friend Master Ilena Xan, nicknamed Iron Hand by the studentsâshe taught hand-to-hand combat, and her specialty was joint locksâand Jedi Council member Mace Windu, who was too intimidating for nicknames.
“We were running recon in the Outer Rim,” Jai said. “Began to think there was something funny going on in the neighborhood of the Hydian Way. Little drab transports kept popping up, like a mermyn-trail leading into and out of the Wayland region. Nothing so unusual about that, the Trade Federation has the whole region locked downâ¦but these were popping in from strange coordinates. Deep-space vectors, not local traffic. I got a funny feeling about them, so I dressed up one of the clone transports in pirate's colors and sent it to intercept. Turned out that little commercial shuttle had legs on it like a Neimoidian jakrab. Dropped down a burst of plasma fire and jumped to hyperspace in a heartbeat.”
Master Yoda's wrinkled brow rose. “In a nerf's coat, this krayt dragon was.”
“Exactly.” Master Jai Maruk glanced down at his right hand, which was trembling. An ugly char mark was burned across his palm. He regarded the hand steadily. The trembling stopped.
A young Padawan, a red-haired girl of perhaps fourteen, came into the room with a pitcher of water and some glasses on a tray. Bowing, she placed them on a low table. Master Xan poured a tumbler of water and gave it to Jai. He stared at the glassy, oozing skin on the palm of his burned hand, forced it to curl around the tumbler, and drank.
“So the Trade Federation was shipping something important into the Hydian Way,” Jai continued. “Why? Not new ordnance; we don't have any significant troop concentrations out there. And why the disguise? They could wear their fleet colors proudlyâit would scare off any pirates or casual raiders, like my poor clone troopers had pretended to be.”
“There has to be something there we aren't supposed to know about,” Ilena said.
Mace Windu studied the lightsaber burns on Jai Maruk's cheek. “Or
Yoda tapped out a pattern on the Council Chamber floor with his cane. “One of these krayts, followed it did you.”
“But you were caught,” Mace said.
Jai's face tightened. “I tracked them to a rendezvous on Vjun.”
Master Yoda stirred and shook his head. The others looked to him. “Strong in the dark side, Vjun is,” he murmured. “Know you the stories?”
They looked at him blankly.
The corners of Yoda's mouth turned down. “A trial of being old is this: remembering which thing one has said into which young ears. But
knows; I remember we spoke of it when he was only a Padawanâ¦”
The other Jedi stared. “Who knows?” Master Xan asked.
Yoda waved the question off with his stick. “It matters not. Master Maruk, continue.”
Jai took another sip of water. “At first I remained sun-side, hidden from my krayt, but when it stayed dirtside for longer than just refueling, I had to risk following it to the surface. I made a soft landing many kilometers away, I kept my heat and IR signatures crushed down, I swear itâ” He slowed to a stop. His hand was trembling again. “It doesn't matter. She caught me.”
“She?” Master Xan asked.
A gasp came from the Padawan who had brought the water. Yoda glanced over, furrowing his face into a mass of stern wrinkles. Only those who knew him very well could have detected the light of amusement in his eye. “Little pitchers, big ears they have! Duties to attend to, have you not, Scout?”
“Not really,” she said. “We've finished dinner, and there's nothing urgent I have to do before tomorrow. I mean, I was intending to practice in the training room, but that couldâ”
The girl flushed and stuttered to a halt under the massed gaze of the Jedi Masters. “Padawan Scout,” Mace Windu said deliberately, “I am surprised to hear you have this much free time, given the upcoming Apprentice Tournament. I hate to think you might be bored. Would you like me to
you something to do?”
The girl gulped. “No, Master. Not necessary. As you sayâpracticeâI shouldâ¦” She bowed and backed out of the room, sliding the door almost shut, until they could see only one green eye. “But if there's anything else you need, don't hesitate toâ”
“Right!” And with a click the door slid shut.
Mace Windu shook his head. “The Force is weak in that one. I don't knowâ”
Master Xan held up her hand, and Mace fell silent. Xan's fingers truly were like iron, sheathed with muscle, the joints knotted from years of hand-to-hand combat training. She flicked her hand at the door in a gentle Force push. The door thunked and they heard a muffled yelp. A moment later, embarrassed footsteps pattered away down the corridor.
Mace Windu shook his head impatiently. “I don't know what Chankar saw in her.”
“We'll never know now,” Jai Maruk said. Together they paused in remembrance of Chankar Kim, another Jedi fallen in the ring at Geonosis. At first, there had been ceremonies and vigils memorializing that horrible slaughter. But time and the war had gone on, and the Temple was now bleeding from more than that one great wound. Every week or two, another report would come in of a comrade lost in a battle on Thustra, or blown up in high space over Wayland, or assassinated in a diplomatic mission to Devaron.
“Frankly,” Mace said, “I was surprised she was ever chosen to be a Padawan.”
The tip of Yoda's cane swirled slowly over the chamber floor, as if he were stirring the depths of a pond visible only to him. “To the Agricultural Corps she should be sent, think you?”
“Actually, yes, I do.” A note of sympathy entered Mace Windu's voice. “There is no dishonor in that. When you see how hard she has to fight just to keep up with children years younger than she isâ¦Perhaps it would be kinder to let her work at her own level.”
Yoda cocked his head and looked curiously at him. “See her struggle do I, as well. But if you make her stop, tell you it is âkind,' she will not!”
“Maybe not,” Jai Maruk said grimly. “But children do not always want what is best for them.”
“Nor do Jedi Masters,” Yoda said dryly.
The burned Jedi forged on. “Let's be honest. Not every pairing of Jedi Knight and Padawan will be Obi-Wan and Anakin, granted, but the truth is
we are at war.
To send a Jedi into battle with a Padawan who cannot be trusted to hold her own is to needlessly risk two livesâlives the Republic cannot afford to throw away.”
“The Force is not as strong in Scout as it should be,” Ilena agreed. “But I've had her in my classes for years. Her technique is good. She is smart and she is loyal. She tries.”
“There is no
” Master Maruk said, unconsciously letting his voice slip into the Yoda imitation for which, a lifetime ago, he had been famous among the young boys of the Jedi Temple. “There is only
The other three Jedi in the room glanced guiltily at Yoda. He snorted, but laugh lines crinkled around his eyes. “Mm. Thinking of students, I am. Best then I should go to battle with him in whom the Force is strongest, hmm? With young Skywalker, think you?”
“He's not polished,” Ilena said.
“And too impulsive,” Mace added.
“Hm.” Yoda stirred again with his stick. “Then best of all would be the strongest student, yes? Wisest? Most learned in the ways of the Force?” He nodded. “Best of all, Dooku would be!” His eyes found the other Jedi, one by one: and one by one, they looked away. “Our great student!” Yoda's ears flexed, then drooped. “Our great failure.”
The ancient Master hobbled over to the tray and poured himself a glass of water. “Enough. The rest of your story, tell us, Master Maruk.”
“Ventress found me,” Jai said. “We fought. I lost.” His burned hand was shaking again. “She took my lightsaber. I composed myself for the killing blow, but instead she took me prisoner. She blindfolded me and bundled me into a speeder for a short ride, no more than an hour. Count Dooku was waiting at the end of it.”
“Ah!” Mace Windu leaned forward. “So Dooku is on Vjun!”
“You escaped from Dooku and Ventress alive!” Ilena said.
A mirthless smile tugged on Jai Maruk's burned cheek. “Make no mistake, I am here because Dooku wanted me here. Ventress would have killed me if she could, she made that very plain, but Dooku wanted a messenger. One he could
” the Jedi said, his voice heavy with irony. “One who would report here first, and not to the Senate. He was very particular about thatâI was to deliver my message to Master Yoda, and only in the Temple, far from other ears.”
“And what was this urgent message?” Mace Windu said.
“He says he wants peace.”
Jai Maruk looked at the disbelieving faces of the Jedi and shrugged.
“Peace!” Master Xan spat out. “Bioweapons slaughter innocents by the millions on Honoghr and he wants peace! The Republic is falling like burned logs into the fire and he wants peace! I can imagine exactly the kind of peace he means.”
“Dooku anticipated we might be, ah,
” Jai Maruk reached for a pocket under his cloak. “He would send me back, he said, with an offering and a question for Master Yoda. The offering was my life. But the question was thisâ¦” He drew his hand from his pocket and opened it. There on his shaking palm was a shellâa single, quite ordinary shell, such as a child might find on the seashore of a hundred worlds.