Part 9: Men Are But Gilded Loam or Painted Clay.
(Richard II act I, sc. 1, l.177)
Senator Palpatine cast his eyes over the polls before him and growled sithly. No matter how many times he counted, or in how many ways he approached them, the numbers refused to tally to his liking. It was no use. He could ignore the facts no longer. The election was lost. In fact, it had been lost some time ago, shortly after the Trade Federation's blockade of Naboo was routed by Queen Amidala. He had counted on that thinly disguised invasion winning him a sizeable vote of sympathy from a naive and horrified Senate. Instead, his sovereign's swift and successful reaction accorded him nothing. He could not even bask in the reflected glory of her victory, for no part of it was attributable to his council, either to her or in the Senate.
Whilst the invasion was in place, the Supreme Chancellor's seat was there for the taking. It needed only a failed appeal to languish in committee, followed by a vote of no confidence. He had prepared himself for such action, advised his Queen, however indirectly, to take such a route. But she had refused and instead took to her own initiative and not involved the Senate at all. Her victory had reduced him to the rank of a Senator from a provincial world which was quite capable of managing itself, without any interference from the Galactic Republic. He had lost whatever weight of support or authority he ever had in the Senate.
What was more galling, was that he had underestimated his new sovereign. He had assumed that her background and her youth, along with his offer of support, would convince her to depend upon him for solutions to whatever problems might arise during her reign. Not that she would have enough wits about her to solve them herself. Clearly, it had been a mistake to usurp her predecessor, King Veruna, a far more corruptible soul, but there was nothing he could do to restore that failed monarch now.
He should have had a backup scheme in place, he should have prepared himself for the probability of failure, instead of casting his entire lot on one play of the dice. However, dwelling on such defeats would gain him nothing now. Instead it would only deepen his losses. He must accept that hand which he had been dealt, and move on.
Fingering aside the display of the latest election polls, he turned the holoscreen before him on to another, equally distasteful view. It was a starchart of the known galaxy, coded to his search for the convergence of midi-chlorians which his master had created, but not possessed the means or the knowledge to place in a convenient location, where he may observe the life that he wished to mould at his leisure. Since the death of his master Sidious had taken up the search for that powerful being in the hope of finding then turning him into a useful tool in the dark side of the Force and a willing accomplice in his schemes for the end of the Republic. Many systems had been methodically scoured, and then ruled out. But there were countless others left to be investigated. Including the sector in which his sovereign was currently occupied.
Arkanis. Palpatine tapped the area in question, calling up the number of habitable planets and what information the Republic and his own sources had to hand about the system. He knew not why Amidala had chosen to involve herself in the their affairs. Arkanis lay within the Outer Rim, and hardly ever bothered the Republic, a service that was returned in the same manner by the Senate, who hardly troubled itself with the system's joys or woes. There was little that was redeemable about Arkanis, which was rife with Hutts and other forms of villainy. Her goal to eliminate slavery from the place was admirable, but he doubted it would succeed. He knew her background, her work in the Relief Movement before she moved into politics. It was reason enough for her quest. But all the same, his sithly senses pricked, though he knew not why.
With a wave of his hand and the Force, he called for his apprentice. Darth Maul, a Zabrak from Dathomir, whom he had trained almost from the crèche to do his bidding. A formidable warrior, with only ambition to fulfil his master's goals, rather than his own. Perhaps, given time, he would come to realise a need for his own mastery, but Palpatine would not grant him such longevity. When that time came, there would be others to take his place, all equally willing to be used as a tool upon the universe.
Maul dropped to his knees before him, his head bowed in submissive obedience. "What is thy bidding, my master?"
"I have a task for you, my apprentice," Palpatine began, in his guise as Sidious, dark lord of the Sith. Maul did not yet know of his other identity and would not learn precisely who his master was until Sidious deemed it necessary. "You shall travel to the Arkanis sector. While you are there, you are to seek out the Queen of the Naboo. She shall pay for the rout of the Blockade upon her homeworld. You shall see to it. Her death will reveal our return from the Shadows to the Jedi Order. And whilst you are there, you shall continue our search for the one in whom the convergence of midi-chlorians resides. And when you have found them, you shall bring them to me, for I have a use for them."
"Yes, my master," Maul replied. "Shall I kill the Jedi as well?"
Sidious smiled evilly. "Are you so eager to go up against the Jedi, my apprentice? Very well, I shall grant you the liberty to try. But be wary. If the convergence is found, their capture is your priority. The Jedi can wait. Their end will come."
"Yes, my Master."
With a wave of his hand, Sidious dismissed his apprentice, before tossing aside the trappings of the darkside. As Senator once more, he considered the aftermath of his apprentice's success. The death of his Queen would call for an election on Naboo, restoring the sympathy to support his own campaign. The Nubian Throne would be his for the taking.
Everything was proceeding as he had foreseen.
That elusive feeling which he had first experienced aboard the ship enroute to Naboo to negotiate with the trade Federation, returned to Obi-Wan when they reached Anchorhead, quite suddenly and without warning. Unlike the first, he had a certain liberty to focus upon the sensation, without a word of caution to be mindful of the future but not at the expense of the present from his master. Qui-Gon was far away on Coruscant and though it would not do to ignore his wise advice, the burden of success in this mission lay solely with him and it was for him alone to judge whether he should take heed of the feeling or not. The first time he had failed to do so, it cost the life of several beings, notably the crew of the ship that they used to travel to Naboo. This time, the stakes were higher, for they were on a planet outside of the Republic's laws, at the mercy of the local authorities if matters went south.
Until now the mission had gone well. He travelled from Coruscant to Naboo without incident, feeling delighted to meet with Queen Amidala once more. He knew that his feelings for her were still present, but during his absence from her he had come to terms with their impact on him, with guidance from the Force, and decided not to press them upon her unless she spoke of feeling such first. That ancient energy had assured him that what he felt for her was not a violation of the Code, but instead something noble and holy, that no vows to the Jedi could displace or tarnish. The Force had told him he could serve both his duty and his love, that he did not, nor would not be required to chose one over the other.
However, while such feelings were understood by him, it remained to be seen if they were acknowledged and understood by Padmé. She was younger than he, even when he considered the two years of maturity which girls often held over boys. Her duty, given to her by the Naboo was of a greater and more consuming concern as well, though if his friends and masters heard that he considered it such, they would disagree. He doubted that she was aware of what he felt and it would not be right to force such awareness upon her.
He noticed something else about her too, which caused him to adhere to this decision even more so. It was a certain sadness, mixed with a nervous anticipation, as though she was pinning all her hopes on an event that she was unsure would come to pass. It could be that she was concerned with her task to eradicate slavery in the Outer Rim, the subject of their mission, which in his mind was an optimistic goal at best, but he felt that the source of her turmoil lay deeper than that.
He kept a careful eye on her as they made the journey from Naboo to Tatooine, as well as throughout the various meetings and tours which they conducted on the planet. After travelling back to Bestine from Mos Espa, her state of emotional unrest appeared to ease alittle, although Obi-Wan could not determine why, other than the meetings with the local councillors were going well, turning what was an optimistic goal into a very real possibility.
Anchorhead was to be their last port of call on Tatooine, where the treaty between the Arkanis and Chommell Sectors was to be agreed upon and finalised. One of the oldest settlements on Tatooine, and an ancient mining town, it was located about eighty kilometres from the spaceport of Mos Eisley, where they had spent the previous day, visiting the slaves and their overlords, before returning to the Queen's yacht, which would berth at the Great Chott Salt Flats, rather than in Mos Eisley, which like most settlements on Tatooine was a notorious hive of opportunity for scum and villainy, not forgetting the Hutts as well, until they were ready to leave the planet.
Obi-Wan was looking forward to the departure, ever since he began to experience that ominous feeling, similar to what he had felt above Naboo, only a few months before. The mission had gone so well until then, he would be relieved if it continued to do so, and that certain elusiveness was nothing more than a figment of his imagination. But on a planet such as Tatooine, even with all the security around them, he could not be so optimistic.
He held his breath as they toured Anchorhead, visiting various businesses and homes, talking with the slaves and slavers before gathering in the local council building, where the treaty was finalised. As Padmé shook hands with the leaders, Obi-Wan felt some more of her emotional unrest ease once more, even as his increased another notch.
It was on their way to the ship that his anxiety proved to be well-founded. Stationed upon the sandy flats, barring them access to their ship, was a hooded figure, the sight of which caused them to halt in sudden horror. Obi-Wan heard Padmé gasp behind him, and as he advanced forward she reached out a hand to grasp his cloak in an effort to restrain him. Without moving his eyes from the figure, Obi-Wan gently detached her fingers and returned them to her side, unable to refrain from bestowing a brief caress with his own as he did so.
"I'll handle this," he remarked calmly to Captain Panaka, though the tone of his voice was a mask, for inside himself lay a ferment of quiet dread. Of all things which could have a been a reason for his elusive bad feeling, the darkly hooded figure before him was not something that he had considered. Yet strangely, the sight did not take him completely by surprise. Unconsciously a part of him had prepared for this, even though there was nothing to indicate such an encounter.
As he approached, the figure dropped his hooded cloak from his body, revealing a black tattooed Zabrak. His booted legs stretched out into a battle ready stance, whilst his hand retrieved a weapon from his waist. Obi-Wan did not have to glance at the cylindrical hilt to know that it was a lightsaber. From the moment he caught sight of the being he had realised what they would be carrying instinctively.
With a slight force aided motion he called his own into his hand, and shed his desert brown robes from his shoulders. Before him, his opponent ignited his blade, his hand holding the weapon above the sand, as the red crystal beam extended outwards from both ends. That unexpected sight Obi-Wan accepted calmly, for there was nothing he could do to avoid the combat now, but the state of his inner being could determine what result the encounter would render towards himself and his adversary.
Putting some distance between himself and the Naboo, Obi-Wan advanced forward, his lightsaber at the ready. Beneath his boots the sand shifted with each step he took, limiting the form of saber art he could use. His Master had specialised in one, Ataru, and encouraged him to do so likewise, but during his training Master Drallig had taught him to embrace an understanding of all forms, and it was a combination of those that he prepared to use now. Ataru relied on highly athletic moves which were quite impractical on this desert surface, requiring him to incorporate other forms of saber art, such as Niman, which made use of his abilities within the Force, and the economy of motion and efficiency that Soresu employed, which might allow him to outlast this foe.
Survival was imperative, not only because of his duty to protect Padmé and her retinue, but also because he would need to tell the Council of who he fought, or provide additional views that the security scanners on the Nubian yacht might have missed. At least he hoped that someone on board the ship were training the cams on the creature before him, preparing to shield the ship and those on board, rather than the alternative of the Zabrak forcing his way in and killing everyone.
The being before certainly appeared to be lethally capable of committing such an act. Everything about him seemed to suggest that he was a highly trained assassin who would treat any attempt to parley as contemptible and cowardly. Even waiting for his foe to prepare themselves for battle looked to be a reluctant performance. He was restless, eager for the duel to begin. His eyes never moved from Obi-Wan's form, surveying him as a hunter would their prey. And finding them all the inferior into the bargain.
Obi-Wan did not intend to give him the satisfaction of a prey, whether the fight was a long encounter or over in series of short, sharp, thrusts. Above them the twin suns beat down with the dying heat of early afternoon, whilst below their boots the hard salty grains of sand that belonged to the Chott Flats surrendered to the pressure of the heeled soles. He had dealt with desert environments before, so he suspected that those grains would soon swirl around them once the duel began in earnest, caught by the draft of wind that their moves would create.
A growl from his opponent took his thoughts away from observing and evaluating their makeshift arena. Another caused him to come to terms with all of his doubts and fears, accept their existence and then let them go. Silently he nodded at his foe, a signal that it was up to him to make the first move.
The Zabrak obliged and closed the distance between them fast, striking at Obi-Wan with a hard, aggressive thrust that nearly sent him reeling from the impact. Raising his own blade to meet that of his opponent's, he pushed back, the crystal beams sizzling from the collision. A series of equally hard, aggressive thrusts followed the first, each testing his strength to the limit. He was out of his depth, a fact he had come to terms with before the duel. But there was nothing like unlearning what he had learned in the here and now, rather than storing that prospect for the future. Balance in all, something Qui-Gon Jinn had striven to teach him and something he must master to live by, now that he was on the brink of his knighthood.
Although a part of him wished that this was not the way he would earn it. Ten years and more of training in something which he had worked so hard to achieve, which he almost missed the chance to strive for, and he had come full circle, battling against the odds. Last time it had been his own insecurities and fears, this time it was, well he could only think of one word to describe this creature before him, and it was a term he did not like to use lightly, if at all. Nor would the Council either, and their own minds would be troubled just as much as his was by the return of their ancient enemies from the shadows.
But the larger implications could wait, and it was not important to assign a particular term or title to the creature before him just now. He should be more concerned with the wisdom of his Master's adage, and focus on the here and now. Such as the aggressive moves of the Zabrak, whose saber was pressing against his own in a heavily set fashion. He too was determined, and it was about time that he began to show it. Battling the red blade away from his own blue one for the moment, Obi-Wan reversed the thrust, then struck out with a spinning kick. The gritty sand of the salt flats swirled around him as he did so, throwing a small measure of confusion towards his opponent.
Another growl was what he received in return, followed by some saber thrusts that showed his foe was annoyed by the attack catching him off guard, rather than it having a significant effect upon him. Obi-Wan was not surprised, for they were evenly matched in terms of skill and age. It was in terms of experience and aggression that they differed, at least as far as he could discern from this bout.
Pressing his lightsaber into the crystal red blade that belonged to the creature, Obi-Wan exchanged close strikes, forcing himself to keep his gaze fixed on the eyes of his foe, whose black pupils returned the studying look with fierce ferocity. Put together with the sable coloured tattoos that covered his blood red flesh, it made for a fearsome sight. It was as if a monster from his nightmares had suddenly emerged into his world. Not just from his nightmares, but all those of his Order, for this close he could feel the hatred, the darkness invading his senses, seeking to conquer him. He knew now that the term he was thinking about applying to the Zabrak was utterly appropriate, for there only one word that could describe this creature, aside from his name.
Sith. Previously believed to be wiped out over a millennia ago by the Order, during the battles that were recorded in the annals of history as the Ruusan Wars. Many Jedi privately disagreed with that official line, reasoning that not all those Sith whose existence had been known of were recovered from amongst those who were slain. Others in the Order also reasoned that while light existed, so did darkness, for balance was in the nature of all things. But there just as there were many who had in a sense prepared themselves for this, so were there those who would not believe that the enemy which they had not seen for over a millennia could hide themselves in the shadows, waiting and watching for the day when they might return to avenge their ancestors.
Obi-Wan had learned of this history just as others did, during his initiate and padawan training, but it was not until he became aware of his Master's tragic history concerning his last apprentice before him, that he contemplated the possibility of the return of the Sith. Before Xanatos, the dark side was something which barred an initiate from becoming a padawan, that damned them forever in the eyes of the Order. Encountering it, as he had done in his master's former apprentice, Obi-Wan learned that there were degrees of darkness, just as there were degrees of light, and the distance from one shade to the next was often indeterminable.
The degree of dark that lay between Xanatos and the Zabrak who fought him now was a broad gulf of an ocean's length and just as deadly. With each strike of his double saber, the grimly tattooed warrior displayed a fresh facet of evil intent, which threatened to bring his death. Obi-Wan held his own, although he was all too aware that his skill might not prove enough to ensure he or the Naboo escaped such a fate. But he did not let that awareness rule him, even when a misstep or a saber thrust struck too close, laying him open to such a possibility.
Beneath him the sand of the Chott Flats shifted in tune to the pressure brought upon the grains by his booted soles, as well as those of his opponent. The extreme heat from Tatooine's twin suns also played a part in determining how firm or how uncertain lay the ground upon which they fought, melting or crystallising each particle in their turn. When a misstep occurred, that combination could prove merciless to both Sith and Jedi.
While the heat of the suns ruled the field, casting a deadly heat upon the ground as well as upon himself and his opponent, their glare often proving blinding when reflected off the red and blue crossed blades, Obi-Wan knew that it could not last forever. The suns had been at their zenith when he and the Naboo left Bestine for the Chott Flats. Now they were beginning the slow descent into the equally deadly cold that was Tatooine's night. He could not afford to let the duel linger until their eventual disappearance into the horizon. Such a passage of time between the beginning and then would wring havoc on him as well as the Zabrak.
So he strove to put pressure upon his opponent, returning force for force in the hope that it might cause his foe to make a misstep which he could use to his advantage. The Zabrak might be his superior in terms of saber skill and sithly aggression, but given his previously impatient attitude before the commencement of this bout, there was a possibility that he would tire before Obi-Wan did. And it was up to Obi-Wan to make that happen.
He was not aware of the final blow until it had been made and was beyond his ability to alter. Time, or rather the concept of such a passage became changeable during duels, slowing and speeding up events in a fashion that was subject to its own whim rather than those who attempted to apply a measure to it. Within that vagary was an all absorbing inclusion, from which few emerged to recall the event with a degree of accuracy. Even those who witnessed the duels were subject to such failures in memory, no matter in which combatant they held a vested interest. Later he would recall a half swallowed gasp originating from someone within the Naboo occurring upon the moment the final blow was struck. Something inside him knew and determined that the sound was female and came from Padmé, though he doubted that she would remember making such a cry.
From himself and his opponent there was nothing but silence. Even the harsh clash made from blue crystal striking red was strangely hushed, as was the final blow that followed, hitting at an unguarded piece of darkly clothed flesh. Cauterised upon impact, no blood seeped from the wound to trickle down the body and disturb the sudden peace. The Zabrak froze before him, his misstep startling him into a stillness he did not yet realise would prove mortal. While his mind fought on, the hands that gripped the red double tipped saber seeking to return the thrust, only to fail at the attempt, as his body surrendered to the fate which had been dealt.
Awareness returned to Obi-Wan as the two halves of his opponent felt to rest upon the sand of the Chott Flats before him. He stood frozen at the sight, his sea shaded eyes blinking as he came to terms with what he had just done. Sai tok was considered by some Jedi to be a form of desecration that was best avoided if possible. It represented a potentially Sith-like desire to destroy one's opponent, not the inner focus of defeating the danger of a enemy that was usually held to be the goal of every Jedi. Yet Obi-Wan remembered the words of Master Cin Drallig, who taught all padawans lightsaber instruction at the Temple. A Jedi should not hesitate to use any combat technique to kill a Sith Lord. The goal was to defeat the danger they pose, not their destruction.
Though the duel would exist in fragments within his memory, the image of the foe that he had slain lying upon the sand would haunt him forever and with vivid clarity. Now it was no longer a monster from his nightmares, the wound he had dealt made the Zabrak flesh and being. Something to observe with compassion, to reflect over and to debate in the years that followed, as to whether he had done the right thing in slaying him. He had killed before, such an act was not a new concept to him, but that did not mean that he treated each death with any less degree of feeling than he had felt upon committing his first.
It was that compassion which decided his next move. He would not leave the two halves of his foe at the mercy of the creatures who prayed upon the dead on Tatooine. Sith or not, whatever tenet the Zabrak could have claimed to follow, he was, like Obi-Wan, a servant of the Force, and thus should be accorded the same rites that any Jedi was entitled to. So he gathered what materials could be found to hand, and surrounded the remains with the makeshift trappings of a funeral pyre.
The Naboo leant a hand, silently offering assistance as he quietly set about performing this service and together with him stood witness until the end, when nothing but ashes remained, to be blown across the desert, as small as its grains of sand.