By B. L. Lindley Anderson

Scifi / Action

Chapter 1

Qui-Gon was walking to his quarters. It was good to be going to a familiar and relaxing place after returning from a taxing mission. He stopped and tapped in the lock code on the keypad next to his door, which slid aside with a whisper of noise. The knight walked in and settled himself on the sofa. He removed one boot and was just about to kick the other off when the comm unit on his desk sounded. Qui-Gon leaped up and hobbled quickly, one boot on and one boot off. He hoped to get to it before the answering device took over to record a message.

“Qui-Gon Jinn.”

“Qui-Gon, glad you were there.” Chancellor Finis Valorum must be home. His voice was too relaxed for this call to be coming from his office in the senate building.

“Finis, how are you? Good to hear from you.”

“I’m well. Mei sends her best. How about you? In top Jedi form, I’m sure.”

The knight laughed. His friend never gave up hazing the Jedi, accusing him of thinking the knights were above “mere mortals”, something that had begun early in their acquaintance when Qui-Gon tried to duck encounters with the brash young military officer. “Well…you have declared yourself the knowledgeable one about such things. And I certainly wouldn’t dream of contradicting you…”

“That’s very wise of you.” Chancellor Valorum paused only seconds to hear Qui-Gon’s reaction, and then he pressed on before the Jedi could sidetrack him. “I know this comes late, but my schedule changes as rapidly as the traffic control signals. I’ve had a date change for a reception…at the last moment. Seems a senator had to dash back to his planet to…ah…check on his assets after a coup.”

“I’m sure that he is quite concerned about his people and government as well.”

“Sure, of course. Did I say otherwise?” Valorum said in an overly innocent voice.

“Again, I wouldn’t dream of contradicting you,” Qui-Gon grinned and tried to hold back his laugh.

“Back to the real point. Since Mei and I have a free evening now, I was wondering if it’s too late to invite you and Obi-Wan over for supper.”

“Well, no, not at all. We’d be pleased…and if Obi-Wan has already eaten, somehow I don’t think he’d mind a second helping.”

Valorum chuckled. “Fine. I’ll let Tillia know he’s coming. See you shortly?”

“As soon as I can locate Obi-Wan.”

“I’ll get it!” the voice called out. Then a blur flashed through a couple of rooms, resolving itself into a girl as the blur became stationary at the door. For anyone to get this close to the supreme chancellor’s penthouse, that person would have gone through several security check points. Knowing this, Tillia, the chancellor’s youngest daughter, didn’t hesitate to open the door…especially when she knew who was most likely on the other side.

“Obi-Wan,” she said in joy, then remembered herself with a blush. Tillia had been a surprise to her parents, quite a surprise coming so belatedly in their lives. She was several years younger than Obi-Wan, but entertained a not-so-secret crush. After gathering herself, she remembered her role as hostess. Properly she curtsied. “Please come in. Hello Master Qui-Gon.”

“Ms. Valorum,” Obi-Wan said with a bow as he stepped in, causing the girl’s face to turn a darker red.

“Well, we don’t need a servant to answer the door for us,” Mei said as she walked in. “It’s so good to see you again, Qui-Gon.” She held out a hand to him. “And you also, Obi-Wan. Please come this way. Finis must be hungry. He never goes into the kitchen…except to harass the cook when a meal isn’t done quickly enough for him.”

Obi-Wan grabbed Tillia from behind and hoisted her into his arms. “I’ve got something for you,” he said. “A present from another planet we went to a little while ago.”

“You’re ruining my sweet innocent daughter. Spoiling her rotten with gifts. Now she expects something every time anyone comes here…including me.” Finis Valorum stood tall and regal in a long royal blue tunic and pants with a maroon cummerbund. He had his hands on his hips and a lock of mock anger on his face.

“You’re spoiling my apprentice with all this rich food,” Qui-Gon countered. “We never eat like this at the temple. Obi-Wan is never satisfied for days after we’ve had a meal with the Valorums.”

Obi-Wan and Tillia both seemed uncomfortable with all the attention. Qui-Gon smiled and put a hand on his padawan’s shoulder. “Well…show her the gift.”

The girl quickly ripped wrapping paper away and opened a box to reveal a shiny dark stone with flecks of lighter minerals scattered in it. “Ohhh,” she said as she withdrew it slowly, a chain coming behind it.

“I found it on the planet and had it made into a pendant for you. Do you like it?”

“Oh yes, Obi-Wan!” Tillia threw her arms around his neck.

Finis came close to Qui-Gon and lowered his voice. “She might get him after all. She certainly seems to have stolen his heart.” He grinned. “But, I can’t think of a finer young man for her to be wooed by.”

“Wooed?” Qui-Gon said. “She’s still a bit young for that, isn’t she?”

She doesn’t think so.”

“All right, young lady,” Mei said as they lingered at the table. “I think it’s time for you to get to bed. Tomorrow is a school day.”

“Yes, Mom,” Tillia answered neutrally. She wanted to disagree but knew the penalty for it, and didn’t want to be embarrassed before their guests.

“Do you need help?”

“Mo-ther, please,” she replied indignantly. Then the girl made her rounds telling her parents and the two Jedi good night and giving each a hug.

“Come,” Finis said. “Let’s go in the den. We can have coffee in there and talk for a while.”

“What are you grinning about?” Mei looked askance at her husband.

“Oh…I was just thinking. Remembering the old days. Tillia reminds me so much of you, especially when we met. Doesn’t she, Qui-Gon?”

“Tillia is rather like her mother,” the Jedi answered.

“Oh, you two,” Mei said as she walked into the den and settled on the sofa. “Tillia is nothing like me.” With a straight face she went on, “She’s much more determined, firm, and confident than I was.”

Valorum laughed heartily. “How can you say that? I’ll never forget our first meeting. Speaking of determined, firm and confident.” He turned to look at Qui-Gon. “You remember, don’t you?”

“How could I forget? I have to say, looking back that I am amazed that you two get along as well as you do. I had doubts for a long time that your relationship would last.” He shook his head. “Still married and still happy after all these years. I never would have believed it after that first meeting.”

“I have to admit, I agree with you,” Valorum said. “I wondered myself.”

“And I,” Mei added.

“Uh…excuse me,” Obi-Wan said quietly. “Uh, was it really that bad when you two met?”

Qui-Gon chuckled, “It was like a dewback and a bantha.”

“You’ve never told the boy about it?” Finis asked. “Never told him about how the three of us met the first time? About you…your hair cut…and how that, that bureaucrat used you?”

Now Obi-Wan was very interested. “Used him? What do you mean?”

“Qui-Gon,” he shook his head, “you didn’t tell your apprentice stories when he was a kid?”

“Well, yes, I did. I told him stories about some of the old Jedi masters and about…”

“Ah! I should have known you would do that. You didn’t tell him any of the good stories because Jedi don’t do that sort of thing…craving adventure and all that. Obi-Wan, you have to hear this one. You have to know how your master…and Mei almost fell for each other,” he grinned.

“What?” Obi-Wan said in shock.

“Finis!” Mei said.

“Please, tell me,” Obi-Wan said as he sat forward in his chair.

“Okay…I had to have some help to get the first part of this right. I didn’t believe Qui-Gon when he told me he never made a pass at Mei. So I had to ask someone who was there when they were sent on their mission.”


“Shh! Let me think. Now…Mei had been asked to go…no, that’s not right. The second time she volunteered…”

Qui-Gon Jinn sat with big hands resting in his lap. He was concentrating on his breathing. It was the way to keep from worrying. It was what he should do. The young man was trying to remember all the lessons about focus. It was with a mix of longing, nostalgia, and determination that he regarded the lessons. The Jedi was on his second mission after being knighted. He was proud to have been chosen for this important mission. Then rebuked himself sharply at once. He should not allow pride to seep in. However, also, deep within himself, down where no one else could see, he felt doubt. After all, this was important, and he was not very experienced…at least not on his own. As a padawan he had faced many negotiations at his master’s side, and contributed readily and deftly. Qui-Gon knew he could not allow these feelings to dominate him. He must control them, and at this moment while he still had the luxury of time. Once the transport arrived at Quirila he would have to concentrate on what would happen there and his focus would have to be more instinctive. The new knight could not simply call a halt to the talks so he could make sure he was in sync with the Force. That was the example from his master that he was putting attention on just now, being in connection with the Force while his awareness was on another subject.

“Easier will it become,” Yoda had told him once. “That is why practice you must. With practice will it become natural. Fill you the Force will because open yourself to it you will. Then leave you it will not unless close your mind to its leading you do.” The diminutive green master pushed home his point by assigning the young Qui-Gon a complex task and then suddenly stopping him in the middle of it to check his connection with the Force. It was annoying to Qui-Gon at first. Just when he would be deep in concentration, the venerable master would stop him and begin interrogating him with what seemed irrelevant questions at the time. However, over the years the odd teaching technique did its job. Qui-Gon was sure of his relationship to the Force…most of the time. He realized that he still had much to learn. Just because he was now a knight didn’t mean it was time to quit being a student. That was another point Master Yoda had made certain that he understood. Qui-Gon was a quick study and it had not taken him long to understand there was yet much to know even though no longer an apprentice. If he had doubted it, his first solo mission as a knight removed those doubts. Yoda assured him he had done well. However, in retrospect all that young Qui-Gon could see were his mistakes, not his successes.

“Learn from your mistakes you must, but let them posses you, you must not! Find the balance. See what you accomplished, but without pride. Recognize what went wrong…and learn why.”

The young knight reached up and ran a hand through his short chestnut hair. The padawan cut was beginning to acquire length, but it was still short and stuck straight out, looking as if the man had too much static charge in his hair. That was far from his thoughts however, as he ran his master’s words and Yoda’s additional teachings again and again through his mind.

“Do you mind if I sit here?” A voice intruded on his reverie.

Qui-Gon looked up, slowly coming out of his trance. A pretty young woman stood before him. He remembered being introduced to her. Mei Lera, a member of the negotiating team. The Republic and the Jedi council had decided to combine forces and sent a group of seasoned diplomats, supplemented by the knight. He would be key to the success of the talks because of his strong connection to the living Force. Qui-Gon could read people well. His instincts about other beings were sharp and sure. The race with which they would be negotiating was infamous for their ability to confer while plotting ambush, attack or revenge. The Republic practically begged for a Jedi to “read” the group, and the Jedi relented.

“Not at all,” he replied. “Please.”

“I’m not interrupting, am I?” Mei asked as she sat down. Her long brown hair was pulled back tightly into a neat bun. She wore just enough make up to compliment her natural good looks. A faint clean fresh scent of her minimal perfume reached Qui-Gon’s nose. Mei was not a token female. She was an experienced and able negotiator, a tough one many had said. The petite woman had faced down some ugly, barbaric beings, and won the respect of some. He had heard the word “spitfire” among the men on the negotiating team when they spoke of her.

“No,” he answered. “I was just thinking,” he said impassively. Qui-Gon was still trying to figure out politicians…on both sides of disputes. He found dealing with them easier if he gave away little about himself and what was going on in his mind. That gave him the advantage of sensing what emanated from the politicos, while not giving them clues about himself.

“Oh, were you only thinking or were you meditating?” Her interest seemed genuine. So many people who didn’t understand the Force seemed to enjoy taunting Jedi about their mysticism. A trait particularly common to bureaucrats. However, Mei seemed in earnest.

“Some of both,” the knight allowed. “Thinking about our mission and making sure I am ready.”

“Oh, I’m sure you are,” she smiled. “I’m sure the council wouldn’t have assigned you otherwise. They recognize the sensitivity of this situation. If you are concerned because you think the others question your ability as a young negotiator…”

“No. I cannot allow myself to be distracted by others’ doubts. I was merely trying to be sure of my link with the Force. It will be important.”

“Yes, it will. The Narans are very devious. We will very much need your abilities. This is not the first diplomatic group to travel to their planet. Most of the mediators in the previous group were killed, either outright or tortured. They were accused of spying for the Narans’ enemies, the Kleites.”

Mei spoke so automatically about the situation. Qui-Gon couldn’t help but wonder if it was her much-spoken-of control…or if she didn’t completely understand the situation. None of mediators could afford to go into this naïvely.

“You understand the implications? That you could be killed or tortured.”

The light faded from her dark eyes. “Yes,” she said in determination. “I understand it completely. I told you most of the mediators were killed. I was one who was not. I was tortured and sent back to Coruscant as proof of what they had done. Would you like to see verification of my statement? I can show you the scar. It still says ‘spy’ on my back. Burned into me while another raped me.” Mei turned away from the Jedi and stared at the wall. “I understand the implications better than you do.”

There was a long silence. “I’m very sorry, Ms. Lera. I did not mean to offend you. Your manner is so calm that I did not understand.”

As if a switch were turned, she was back to her pleasant, diplomatic demeanor. “I understand, but I have to be calm about it. I have trained myself to be. If I allow myself to suffer instead of coming to terms with it, then they have won the victory. By learning to overcome the past, I win the victory.”

Now the young Jedi understood the high esteem Mei was held in. She was a very strong woman as well as an able diplomat. He stared at her in admiration. Perhaps he could learn some things from her. Learn wherever you can. Lessons come from other than the Jedi also. That and the story she had told were on his mind and he didn’t realize he continued to stare.

“Am I now an oddity in your sight? Spoiled goods? Frail helpless woman? Tough bitch? Let’s see…what other descriptions have they used about me?” She tapped her chin as she thought.

“No Ms. Lera. You are not an oddity. You are a rare person. I know you will be of value to our mission.” It was the utmost compliment that he felt comfortable with. This was a situation he had not been in before and was not at all prepared for it.

She smiled a little. “Overly defensive. I know. Funny isn’t it? I can accept what happened to me on Quirila better than I can others’ reaction to it. My apologies.”

“Not necessary. It was traumatic and trauma is hard to deal with no matter who you are…or what you are.”

Mei sat back in her chair. “I think I’m going to like you, Qui-Gon Jinn. Your viewpoint is very refreshing among these stuffy and very prejudiced diplomatic types.” Then she became serious. “You’ve heard about past efforts to negotiate and the results. What do you think our chances are?”

He was genuinely surprised that she was so interested in his inexpert opinion. “I think you probably understand that much better than I do…especially since you have…dealt with these people before.”

“However, my experience with them colors my judgment. You can be more objective.”

The knight was silent as he considered. He intertwined his fingers and rested his hands in his lap. “To be honest, I don’t expect it to go well. The Narans are treacherous and they really do not want these negotiations. They seem to relish their conflict with the Kleites. It is hard to impress anything on a race which does not desire it.” That was a lesson he had learned well, the hard way, as a padawan.

“You think we are wasting our time?”

“Well, no. I didn’t say that.” He suddenly felt defensive but tried not to react to the feeling. “I said it would be difficult, not impossible.” The young man was trying to sense Mei. What was her game…and he was sure that as a bureaucrat she had one. Was this a test of the new knight, to see how he would handle pressure? Just as he’d felt it was safe to talk with the strong woman, she changed tacks and now he decided to withdraw back into his shell.

“Good. You do understand the situation well. You will be more helpful than a yes man. There is a peace keeping force there now, sent by the Republic. So hostilities have quieted…somewhat. Both sides have broken the ceasefire. The Republic forces have their hands full.”

Qui-Gon merely nodded his head, uncertain of what response to give. He reached up to the spot where his braid had been. It used to be a habit of his to toy with it in times of uncertainty. It gave his nervous hands something to do, until he remembered to re-focus on the Force. It was hard to get used to its absence after all the years of having be careful of the tail getting caught. The young man put his hand on his knee and drew in a breath.

Mei was looking over some notes she had made for herself. “Commander Finis Valorum is in charge of the peace keepers there. I know his family lineage has quite a reputation in the Senate. I’ve heard he is a good pilot.”

“That is what I have heard as well,” he replied mostly to have something to say. His wariness was in place now.

“Hmph. Hotshot pilots. Arrogant jerks in my experience,” she muttered without looking up. Then the subject was changed instantly. “We should arrive tomorrow. It will be a taxing mission however it comes out.”

Qui-Gon again ran his hand through his stubby hair unconsciously. His mind was not on what Mei was saying. Something in the Force drew his attention. The knight suddenly felt distressed. He had a bad feeling. The Force was trying to tell him something. He just wasn’t able to fully comprehend it at the moment. Patience you must have. In its own time does the Force reveal itself. Focus on it you must instead of your desire to know more. Qui-Gon drew in another breath and allowed the Force to fill him with peace.

No one on the transport understood better than Mei the need to be careful of the Narans. The diplomatic team had not made any sign that they intended to leave the craft yet. They were still waiting an acknowledgment from the governor of this province. Even though these people were not trustworthy, without assurances from the government for their safety, the team would not set a toe on the planet surface.

“You know them, Mei,” a tall middle-aged man said. “What do you think is going on?”

“They are testing us,” she answered tersely. “The governor would like nothing better than to have reason to arrest us. He’s waiting to see how long we’ll wait before we disembark.”

“We could be sitting here for days then,” he said in frustration. “I’m going…by myself. The rest of you stay here. I’ll go on to the governor’s mansion.”

“Don’t do it, Bara!” the woman said firmly as she grasped his elbow. “You’ll be killed.”

“I know why you think so…but I don’t think they would so lightly kill the chief diplomat for the Republic.”

“If you believe that, you are a fool,” Mei said calmly. “He would kill you for no reason. If you give him a reason, you just speed your death.”

“I must agree with her,” Qui-Gon spoke up.

Bara turned to face the knight. “You? And what do you know of the Narans? You’ve never dealt with them before. You’ve never dealt with a lot of things before.” He raised an eyebrow and turned away.

“Sir, I was asked to come because of what I could sense from these people. Even here, inside the transport, outside the city, I can feel the hatred from these people. It is a free-floating hatred, not directed at one specific thing. I have to think they will take it out on whatever is convenient.” The man scoffed.

“I’d listen to him, Bara,” Mei replied. “He knows what he is talking about. Even if you think him too inexperienced as a negotiator, he does have the Force. And you don’t.”

Bara whirled around to face the petite woman. It seemed obvious to the young knight that these two had tangled before. He could see it on Bara’s face, sense it in the air. The man wanted a reason to put her in her place. Qui-Gon briefly wondered what place Bara had picked for her.

The man had his mouth open ready to respond when someone called out to him. “Mr. Laan, a communication for you.”

There was likely only one person calling for him, the governor. However, instead of hurrying to take the call, he took the time to glare at Mei…and at Qui-Gon. Then he spun on his heel and stomped away.

The woman sighed. “He’s going to get himself killed…and maybe us too.”

“He seems quick tempered for a diplomat,” Qui-Gon said cautiously.

“Bara has much patience for others, but little for his colleagues. Something to keep in mind when dealing with him.”

“I’ll remember that.”

“We will be picked up by a speeder caravan and taken to the mansion,” Bara was briefing his team. “As a show of good faith that we will not meet the same fate as the last negotiators,” he stole a glance at Mei, “someone from the Republic peacekeeping force will be at the mansion also. I need not point out to you that one individual, even if it is a military type, does not guarantee our safety. It is imperative that we not give them a reason to label us as spies. No one is authorized to leave the governor’s mansion without my specific permission. We will all stay together.” He turned to face Qui-Gon. “And I expect you to follow my directions also, Jedi or not.”

“Of course,” he replied evenly. “You are in charge of the team.” Qui-Gon tried not to say it as if it were so obvious.

Governor Talus sat at a huge dark wood desk. It was carved with ornate, detailed designs and gleamed as light struck it. Some poor soul had to dig the dust out of those curlicues. There was not a dull area anywhere on the desk. The man was big too. He stood and towered over his guests, even Qui-Gon. The mostly human appearing being was swarthy and rough looking even in his regal clothes. But all of the Narans were like that. On Coruscant they might have been mistaken for homeless people. Talus’ skin looked as if it were flaking off him and his dark hair was wild, as if he never combed it. Wild but not matted. Expecting the odd looking character to smell as strong as he looked, Bara was great surprised and relieved when the governor shook his hand firmly and a light musky scent reached him. Talus’ voice was a surprise as well. A big gruff looking man deserved a rich bass voice.

Somewhere in the lower tenor range Talus said, “It’s a great honor to meet you, sir. Please have a seat.” He moved to a large table to the side of his desk. The office was huge and had a long conference table by the window. There were no curtains or other covering over the window and bright light streamed in on the tabletop. The room was painted a pale blue color. There were no lights because the room was adequately bright without any added illumination. The wall opposite the window was one long bookcase. Even with their barbarous attitude, the Narans still cherished knowledge and clung to their beloved old ways of printing books rather than committing all knowledge to electronic devices. Decoration in the room was spare. Aside from the desk everything else was utilitarian.

Talus stood to one side of the table as Bara introduced his small group of negotiators. The governor shook each person’s hand. Mei was not surprised at his reaction to her. It had only been short of a year since she was last here and Talus acted as if he had never seen her before. But to do otherwise would be to admit the crimes Talus had committed against her and the others. Even though he sent her back as evidence of what he would and could do to anyone who dared interfere, Talus denied that he had done anything wrong. Punishment for war criminals and spies he had said, and then blamed it on his over zealous army, denying knowledge. However, Mei knew. She had heard from his own mouth the penalty pronounced on her and the others. And he had carried out her sentence.

“Ah…a Jedi. I am honored…but, Mr. Laan…aren’t they warriors? What am I to think of you bringing him along?”

Before the diplomat could respond, Qui-Gon preferred his own answer. “Jedi only attack in self-defense, Governor. I am here as a negotiator, not a warrior.” The knight ignored the sour look Bara was giving him.

“I see. Well, now that is settled. Please have a seat, lady and gentlemen.” The big man lowered himself into a chair. “What is it I can do for you?”

“I hope it is what we can do for you, Governor,” Bara Laan replied. “I hope we can help you end this war. It has gone on for a very long time. Certainly you wish to see it over as well.”

“Of course. Only a madman would want to see the continued slaughter. We welcome your efforts. I am afraid you are talking to the wrong person however. You should take up negotiations with the Kleites. They are the aggressors.”

Bara knew very well who had started this war. However, he didn’t see the point of arguing the issue. It would only sidetrack their talks.

“I appreciate that, Governor. However, since you seem a willing and reasonable man, perhaps you will talk with us first. We could come to some terms to present to the Kleites.”

“Yes, maybe it will work that way. Very well.”

Qui-Gon didn’t mean to stare at the big man. It was hard not to though. The feelings pouring off the man were intense. He was lying and the Jedi knew it as well as if it were written across Talus’ forehead. He felt hate and irritation at them all, but most especially at Bara, the one who seemed to be the leader of this group. The knight could also feel the intense hate aimed at Mei. Qui-Gon knew that he must keep an eye on her. If he were not careful, she would not survive this time.

The strong eye contact that Qui-Gon kept on Talus was not lost on Mei. As Bara had been talking, she had been studying the Jedi. His face was unreadable, but his eyes were hard and dark. The woman knew there must be a reason for it. From the short time she had been around the Jedi, his blue eyes had always gleamed with curiosity, with interest, with question. Whatever he studied, he studied with the openness to learn. That light and that openness were gone.

It was with purpose that Mei had maneuvered herself to sit next to Qui-Gon. With the toe of her shoe she poked his boot. Startled, he looked at her. With all that she could put into it, she tried to project her question to him, believing he would know, by way of the Force, what she wanted to know.

And looking into her face, he could sense her deep desire to know. He didn’t have to probe to determine what she wanted to know. With as small a motion as he could make without being noticed by all, the knight shook his head from side to side just once. Mei’s face turned grave and she looked back to Talus.

It had been a long day. Bara inquired about the possibility of a couple of his negotiators meeting with the Kleites on some neutral territory while he continued his talks with Talus. The governor promised to look into the possibility. After the talk he had given on the transport about staying together, some of the Republic representatives gave each other odd looks, but decided the very experienced diplomat knew what he was doing.

Mei had to contain herself. She knew that she and Bara were in for a long, probably hostile talk later. Qui-Gon was alarmed at the request also. He could sense the malice deepen in Talus when the issue was brought up. Sending negotiators away would put them in danger.

“I’m sorry we didn’t accomplish more today, Mr. Laan. We put in the entire day…but have little to show.”

“Little is better than nothing,” Bara said with a smile. “Opening negotiations is the hardest part. Tomorrow will be more fruitful, I am confident.”

“I, as well. I would like to have a little time to clear up some paperwork, if you will excuse me. My servant will show you to your rooms upstairs. There will be a dinner and reception tonight for you. I will see you there.” He stood and bowed slightly to his guests.

“If you will come with me,” a tall but not as broad Naran said to them. The group walked out into the corridor behind the big servant. At once a man who had been sprawled in a chair just outside the door got to his feet. It was a member of the Republic forces, they could tell by his uniform insignia. The man stood just short of Qui-Gon’s height with jet-black hair and piercing blue eyes. He cut a sharp figure in his blue flight suit. The man snapped a smart salute.

“Commander Finis Valorum to serve you, sir.”

The lead negotiator extended his hand. “I’m Bara Laan, Commander Valorum,” he said in a cool tone. “I was wondering where you were.”

In a firm tone he replied. “I have been here all day, sir. The fact that I was indisposed and unable to greet you when you arrived does not reflect my attitude…sir.”

Bara leaned close and whispered, “Just because you are a Valorum don’t think you can treat me as you please. Your commanding officer will hear of your insubordinate behavior.”

The commander tried not to grin as he helpfully supplied, “My commanding officer is General Ora. He will be pleased to hear from you.”

The diplomat glared at the officer, but Valorum would not meet his stare. He continued to look straight ahead. Laan began to walk away.

Valorum held his posture until his eyes fell on Mei. Then he grinned and put a hand to his cap. “Ma’am,” he said. She glared at him without pausing and made no reply. He continued to stare until he realized the group was leaving him behind. Valorum hurried up beside the last person in the train: Qui-Gon.

“You’re a Jedi, aren’t you? The robe, and the saber.” He regarded the young knight.

“Yes,” Qui-Gon answered. “Are you the only military man here? At the governor’s mansion, I mean.”

“Yes. Is that a problem?” he asked in mock confusion.

It was obvious the Jedi didn’t approve of the seemingly flippant attitude. He stared in silence for several seconds. Then in an even tone he responded, “I’m just…concerned.” He emphasized, “About the safety of the team. After all, you are only one against…all these guards.”

“That bothers you?” A scant grin played at Valorum’s lips. “I thought the Jedi were powerful. You have that power…the Force? You don’t think you can take care of them?”

“I can’t stop an entire army…and that is essentially what I would have to do. If any of the Narans decide to harm the negotiators, the entire province would most likely be on their side.”

“Got you worried do they? Doesn’t sound like you got much done today, in the way of negotiations.”

“No. We did not.” He studied the commander as they walked. The Jedi hoped his true attitude wasn’t as cavalier as it outwardly appeared.

However, as indifferent as the officer seemed, he was intently taking in the mansion, the guards, the team members, and all that Qui-Gon was saying. Valorum had learned long ago that a confident attitude creates doubt in those who oppose you. He had not realized that over the years his attitude had mixed with his self-confidence and presented him as arrogant and haughty. Inside he had the same misgivings that Qui-Gon did. However, he didn’t feel that he should reflect that to the diplomats. Valorum had to be free to observe and plan. He did not need to worry about babysitting a group of nervous bureaucrats.

“Don’t be concerned,” he lowered his voice. “I may be the only one right here in the mansion, but I have many troops at my disposal. They are not all on the border.”

Qui-Gon nodded slowly. It eased his worry only a small amount. He knew how many men were here and it still seemed a small force compared to the possible enemies they might have to face.

The Jedi stood to the side of the large reception hall. Qui-Gon was only here to be polite. If he could have avoided this without slighting anyone, he would have. However, he understood his duty and so he attended. The knight ate until he was satisfied and then had taken up this position to be out of the way, and to hopefully be out of the traffic flow enough that he would not have to socialize. It was not that he disliked people. The Jedi disliked politicians who tried to play mind games with him. He sensed many emotions in the room. From fear to hate to hilarity. It was too much however, and he had to withdraw to keep from being overwhelmed. A close union with the living Force could be a disadvantage at times.

“I hoped to get a chance to talk to you.”

Qui-Gon turned to see Mei standing there. He was startled. She looked so very different. On the transport and during the negotiations she had worn very utilitarian clothing…plain, dull. For this more formal occasion she had donned a light green floor length gown. It had a full back, which came up close to her neck. The bun was gone and her dark hair cascaded over her shoulders.

She laughed lightly. “You look at me as if I were an alien. Do I look so very different?”

He composed himself before he answered. “Yes Ms. Lera you do look quite different. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean…to stare…” he stammered and felt his face warm. He tried to control all he felt, and hoped it didn’t show.

Mei gave him a break and changed the subject. She was suddenly serious. “What did you sense from Talus today? I take it you didn’t get a good feeling from him.”

“No, I did not. I sense anger and hate from him. A small amount of worry, but mostly anger and hate. I do not wish to alarm the team, but,” he hesitated slightly, “I fear for your safety.”

She was silent for a long moment. “I would like for you to tell this to Bara before the night is over. He and I had a talk earlier in his room. As I fear, he intends to split us up. I could not get him to listen to me. I hope he will listen to you.”

“Mr. Laan does not place much trust in me, I’m afraid. He may not want to hear what I have to tell him.”

“I know, but we have to try. It’s important.”

“Well, look at you,” a smooth voice said.

Qui-Gon and Mei turned to see Commander Valorum in his dress blues. He was giving Mei an appraising stare. Her face turned pink, not from embarrassment, but from anger.

“Commander Valorum,” she said coolly. “How nice of you to join us. We were having a private conversation.”

“My apologies. I didn’t know that you could have a private conversation at such a function.” His blue eyes twinkled merrily.

“Excuse me. Perhaps I should be more direct. Would you excuse us, please?”

“Of course,” he inclined his head. “I’ll visit the buffet. Perhaps a little later, when your conversation cools down, then I could come back.” He turned to leave.

Mei was boiling inside at the implication. She was trying not to show it, but was close to loosing her carefully-fought-for calm demeanor. “Our interest in each other is strictly professional, Commander. It is possible for a man and a woman to have such a relationship. I don’t suppose you would know about that, however.”

The officer stopped and turned to reply. “Of course I realize that is possible. I have such relationships. I just wasn’t sure if you cultivated them also.”

The petite woman took a couple of steps in his direction so she could lower her voice. Too many people around them were becoming interested. “I am not one of those fawning giddy girls who flock around you on Coruscant at the diplomatic functions. If that is the opinion that you have of me, I suggest you change it quickly. You are here to serve the negotiating team, not…seduce it.” Mei turned and walked quickly away.

Valorum was unfazed. On the contrary, he was trying not to smile. He put his hands behind his back and walked toward Qui-Gon as he watched the departing beauty. “Hard to believe a diplomat would get so easily flustered. She must be attracted to me.”

“I beg your pardon?” the knight said in confusion.

“Well, I must have hit it pretty close to the mark to get her that upset. If she weren’t trying to hide her interest, why would she get so angry? Especially Mei Lera. They say she has ice water in her veins. That ice water seemed a little warm just now. Don’t you think?”

Qui-Gon drew in a breath. He had to keep his focus. If there were something that he was going to allow to get to him, it would not be this cocky rocket jockey. “Don’t you think you should be more concerned with the safety of the diplomats?” He left unspoken the other thought. Instead of trying to further your sexual exploits. The Jedi was not completely surprised. He had heard the talk about Finis Valorum around the senate. As a padawan he had spent many hours in the senate building in his role as ambassador alongside his master. Many senators engaged in the pass time of gossip, and the high-profile Valorum family was often a target. Many political types had come from the family and they had many friends in the senate…and many enemies.

Finis, especially, had become a favorite subject. He was very bright and talented and had risen quickly through the military ranks. He hoped to follow in the “family business” and enter the political arena himself. The young man had followed his father’s advice and entered the military as the first rung into the political world. Finis made officer earlier than usual, due entirely to his ability. However, the gossips all insisted it was his family name that had done it for him. He was well liked by the men he served with, and even though cocky, was not arrogant. That was one of the things his fellow pilots liked. Finis was not one of the conceited officers.

By nature and by environment, the young man had a persuasive, suave air to him. He studied his father and other relatives to learn rhetoric and reason. That made him a magnet for the bureaucrats when he did attend political functions. Finis enjoyed a good debate and could argue either side of an issue, no matter what his personal stance.

His striking good looks made the young officer a magnet for the ladies at political functions. Finis took it in stride. He enjoyed a lady’s company and made no secret of it. However, his exploits away from the parties were greatly overstated. It was actually the exception rather than the rule that he would whisk a diplomat’s daughter away and despoil her…not that he never indulged…. However, as he told his father once, he would have to be superhuman to live up to the stories that circulated about that part of his life. The elder Valorum was relieved to know that and encouraged his son to squash the rumors. Finis merely laughed. “What do I care what the gossips say about me? It doesn’t matter. They have their minds made up. If I try to tell them otherwise, it will only inflame them. It will not cool the talk. They will only think I am trying to cover something up then.”

Qui-Gon had heard the talk. Even though he did not indulge in it, it was hard not to overhear some amount of it. And so far, it seemed to be true. The knight wondered if the talk of Valorum’s military abilities were equally true. He fervently hoped so. The team would need that great faculty…if it did exist.

“I am thinking of the team,” Finis said casually. “I’ve been here for some time…what was your name?”

“Qui-Gon Jinn.”

“Well Qui-Gon, I know the Narans, their views and their customs. I’m not worried about it. Things will work out.” His confidence was not as flippant as it sounded. It had grown out of the many skirmishes and hardships he and his men had been through. Valorum had come to trust his men to give all…to their very life. More than one had made the ultimate sacrifice. However, he was not so confident as to ignore the Narans. The commander had learned of their treachery first hand not long after arriving. It was experience that made him comfortable with his plans and his men. It was neither arrogance nor indifference, no matter how it appeared to observers. However, another lesson he had learned from his political family was not to let your true feelings show, either good or bad. Someone would always be looking for a way to use that against you.

“I wish I had your confidence, Commander.”

The young officer had been watching the people around the room. Now he turned to face the knight. “I didn’t think Jedi worried. I thought you were supposed to be…controlled. Don’t you use the Force to take care of things like that?”

“Yes, self-control is learned from the Force, which also strengthens us. However, worry is not the same as concern.”

Valorum rubbed his chin. “Yes, I suppose that is true. So, you’re not worried…just concerned?”

Qui-Gon was beginning to lose his control. Frustration filled him. Valorum was more than just annoying. He was so self-centered that he seemed not to think others worth his trouble. Also, the way he liked to play mind games with Qui-Gon wearied the knight. This officer was very different than most Qui-Gon had interfaced with. He wondered how Valorum had managed to move up so quickly. The rumors must be true. It was his family name that had done it for him.

“If you will excuse me.”

“Did I offend you too? Two in just a few minutes, and one of each gender. That has to be a new record.” Valorum began to walk next to the knight as the knight tried to leave him behind. “Was it that I intruded on your conversation with the lady?” he asked innocently.

Qui-Gon drew in a breath and tried not to release it as a sigh. He very much wanted to be away from the smug pilot. “As Ms. Lera indicated, our interest in each other is professional. I think you are out of line, Commander.”

“As a commander, I am. As a man, I’m not,” he grinned. “I was just trying to find out if Ms. Lera is…attached.”

“I wouldn’t know. I have not discussed that with her.”

“Oh…yeah. Makes sense. Jedi are celibate…aren’t they? Too bad. It might help you loosen up. The Force doesn’t seem to be helping you with that. Not all it’s rumored to be, is it? I’m not surprised. It seems like…black magic to me. Mumbo-jumbo and meditate and all your problems are solved. No,” he shook his head, “doesn’t sound realistic to me.”

“There is much more to it than that, Commander,” Qui-Gon responded carefully, keeping his calm with effort. “You have greatly oversimplified something that you obviously don’t understand. It is not magic and it doesn’t simply ‘fix’ everything. However, it does help me in every area of life where I need help. That is what matters to me.” Qui-Gon again tried to walk away, but Valorum would not be shaken. He walked alongside the Jedi and looked around the room.

“Look at that,” he nodded toward Talus. The big man was laughing raucously with a very attractive woman close at his side. “I’ve heard that he starts drinking with his breakfast and doesn’t quit until bed time. And that she is more than just a secretary.” He glanced at the Jedi to see if he would take the bait. Just how much could this knight take? He was only human after all.

In a cool voice, Qui-Gon replied, “It is hard not to hear some amount of gossip in passing. However, I do not traffic in it. I don’t repeat it and I prefer not to hear it, Commander.”

Finis grabbed his arm to stop him. Qui-Gon gently pulled away and looked at the pilot who was grinning. “I grant that a lot of gossip is exaggerated. However, it has to start for some reason. There’s a kernel of truth in all of it. And,” he waved his hand dismissively, “you never know when you will hear something…useful. You can learn a lot that may serve you well in the future. You never know when some tidbit could buy you information…or helpful action. Qui-Gon, let me teach you. You have to deal with politicians…much as it pains you. So you have to learn to play their games. Gossip is one of them. Listen, learn…and remember.”

“Thank you for the education, Commander Valorum,” Qui-Gon responded stiffly. “But I prefer my own methods and my own teachers. Please excuse me.” He bowed slightly and quickly walked away. Qui-Gon was glad Valorum didn’t follow…finally. He was beginning to lose focus and if the officer persisted, the Jedi would probably have lost his temper.

Finis took a couple of steps to his side and leaned against a pillar. Other people, especially politicians or diplomats, seemed very intimidated by the Jedi. Valorum mused that it must be because those people thought the Jedi would see inside them, and all their dirty secrets. He, on the other hand, was little concerned if a Jedi did look inside him. No, he was not perfect, but neither were the Jedi. They were mere beings of flesh…of some sort. Just because they had the Force didn’t make them infallible. The officer was certain they had their own dirty little secrets. It was just easier for them to keep those secrets.

He grinned as he watched the Jedi walk away. It was true then, what they said about the Jedi. They did have a great amount of self-control. Although Valorum thought that he had been close to Qui-Gon’s breaking point. Then again, he was newly knighted, the commander reminded himself. Maybe he should cut the kid a break. Couldn’t afford to shake him up too much on such an important mission, but the pilot couldn’t help himself either. He had heard so much about the mysterious Jedi and had very few close up and personal encounters with any. He knew that as a politician he would interact with them. So he wanted to begin to find out about them now. Yes, Qui-Gon might be just the case study for him since he was a new knight. It would be interesting to see just how he would grow and change, even only on this mission. He put that thought away for the moment and glanced around for the petite woman in the pale green dress.

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