It was a balmy, summer’s evening in the Naboo city of Theed as Sarolyn Lordan stepped out from the passenger cruiser and out onto the courtyard. The passengers, including her Sullustan friend, had filed out and dispersed, each going their separate ways.
Theed was not a large city, and by the standards of the Core Worlds it was sparsely populated. The spaceport was quiet, for there were no other scheduled landings for days. A few other passengers sat patiently in the small, comfortable departure lounge, waiting to board the ship from which Sarolyn had disembarked. The young Jedi cast her gaze around the port and compared it with the dirt and gloom of Sorensia. Theed was clean and bright, and there was no questioning of her preference for the more cultured worlds of the Republic.
The spaceport lobby was elegantly designed, with polished hardwood check-in counters and three chandeliers that hung in a row from the high ceiling. Sarolyn stood at one of the counters speaking with a clerk seated behind a videoscreen that was set into the leather desktop.
"Yes, of course, madam," smiled the clerk to Sarolyn. "The Underway’s just down those stairs over there," he said, pointing to the far end of the lobby, "and it’ll take you straight to the city centre. The trains are fairly frequent."
"What are the fares like?"
The clerk chuckled. "There’s a flat fare of twofin across the whole of the Theed Underway, and it goes right out into the country on some lines. There’s plenty of trains so you won’t have long to wait."
Sarolyn smiled. "Do you have a list of hotels and boarding houses in the city? I’m not after anything special."
The clerk tapped a code into a hidden keypad. There was a quiet whirr and he tore off a sheet of paper that had appeared from below the screen. He handed the sheet to Sarolyn.
"Here’s a list of the hotels and boarding houses recommended by the Tourist Office," said the clerk. "May I particularly recommend the Senators Arms. It’s basic, but I know the owners, and I’m sure you’ll enjoy your stay there."
Sarolyn smiled, her pale, doe-eyed face lighting up like the sun peering out from behind a cloud. "Thank you ever so much for your help," she said as she turned and headed for the stairs.
The Theed Underway was an underground railway that ran in watertight tunnels laid through the network of natural caves beneath the city. In the vestibule at the bottom of the escalators, Sarolyn studied the map of the network. Her journey to the city centre seemed simple enough.
* * *
Ayo and Yarua picked their way through the dense woodland of the swamp. Both of them carried large backpacks and weapons on their belts. Ayo led the way, closely followed by Yarua, who carried Zibeon Munt on his shoulders. The forest had a musty smell, and shafts of yellowing sunlight filtered through the trees.
The three travellers stepped out of the woodland and into a wide, grassy plain that was punctuated with sand dunes. Ayo stopped and studied the map. He called over to Yarua and Zibeon, and the three of them sat down upon a low mound of long grass.
"We’ve just crossed into the Theeland Links, Naboo Territory," said Ayo with a groan as he slung his backpack onto the grass beside him. Yarua had done likewise, and he lay on his back, chewing a grass stalk that jutted from his mouth like a yellow antenna as he stared at the darkening sky. The sun was low on the horizon, and the subtle hillocks were given a new dimension of depth as they disappeared into shadow.
"I bet you two are tired," said Ayo. Yarua grunted absently and Zibeon nodded. "We’ll camp here for the night," he added, nudging Yarua, who was lying contentedly with closed eyes. "We’d better get the tent up before we get too comfy."
Zibeon smiled his toothy smile and laughed, a high vibrato from a small, dry voice.
* * *
Sarolyn emerged from the Underway at the Kings Square, a picturesque marketplace near the centre of Theed. She looked around at the elegant, dome-topped buildings, the clean, paved street and the statue of a long-dead Naboo composer perched upon a plinth in the centre of the square.
As the sunlight decreased the market traders around the statue packed away the last of their wares, loading various forms of transport that ranged from rickshaws to floating landspeeders. The smell of fish hung in the air as stalls were dismantled for the night, leaving just the tubular metal tarpaulin supports as monuments of the day’s trade.
Sarolyn studied her map and found the position of the Senators Arms. The inn was not far from the square, no more than a minute or two’s walk. She looked at the other names on the list. Should the Arms be full, she should still have plenty of choice. The Jedi were not fussy.
The inn lay at the end of a side-street that led of from the Kings Square. It was one of the oldest buildings in Theed, timber framed, with a creamy, white daub on the walls and rough, terracotta tiles on its gabled roof. A sign hung from the front wall, depicting a complex emblem within a scroll: the Senators Arms.
The low front door was open, and Sarolyn entered, bowing her head to avoid the thick, wooden lintel. Inside, an elderly man stood behind the bar, wiping a row of drinking-glasses before placing them upon a high shelf above the bar. He turned from his chore and welcomed his visitor.
"Good evening, miss," he said, smiling politely. "What can I get you?"
The regulars in the pub looked up from their drinks, as if inspecting Sarolyn before returning to their conversations. A veil of smoke hung in the air.
Sarolyn smiled at the man. "I was wondering if you have any rooms for the night," she said politely. The old man put down the glass he was polishing and laid the cloth neatly over the handpumps.
"My wife deals with the rooms," he said pleasantly as he opened the door that led from behind the bar to the kitchen. "Maré," he called. "We’ve got a guest."
A frail, white-haired old lady scuttled through to the public area and smiled at Sarolyn as she studied her.
"Have you come far, dear?" asked Maré in a slow, deliberate voice.
"Alderaan," lied Sarolyn. "I’m due for an interview at Fort Myreion for a maid’s job," she added, returning to the truth.
"Sounds like hard work," said Maré with a smile. "Come with me, dear," she invited, motioning towards the stairs. "I’ll show you to your room."
Sarolyn followed Maré up the narrow, creaky staircase. The smell of beer mixed with the foody odours of the kitchen permeated the pub, a homely, not unpleasant smell.
"I’m Sara," lied Sarolyn as they reached the top of the stairs. She stuck to the abbreviated form of her name so she could safely disguise herself. A full pseudonym would be too easy to forget. Under no circumstances must she let it be known that a Jedi was on the planet.
"I’m Maré," said the old lady as she shakily opened a low door, "and that’s my husband, Gertran, downstairs behind the bar."
"Nice to meet you both," smiled Sarolyn as she followed Maré into a spacious bedroom. The room was light and cosy. Dominating the left hand wall was a wide, soft-looking bed, which was faced by a large, carved bibblewood wardrobe. Because of the great age of the building, rumoured by some to be over two thousand years old, there was not a single straight line or right angle in the entire room. Walls, ceiling and floor sloped at the most interesting angles in relation to each other.
Maré gestured around the room. "All the rooms are the same, really," she said casually. "The bed’s nice and comfy, and there are extra blankets should you feel cold in the night. There’s a teleweb up there," she added, pointing to a flat videoscreen that was fixed to the wall with an anglepoise bracket, a concession to technology in an establishment that was very much a throwback to a gentler, simpler age.
Sarolyn surveyed the room. The pub had more character than the whole of Coruscant combined, and the Living Force within could tell many stories from the millennia in which the building had been standing.
"Sounds fine," said Sarolyn as she rubbed together her hands. "I’ll take it."
Maré smiled at Sarolyn and produced a tangle of old-fashioned, mechanical keys, her hands shaking as she fumbled with them. "I’m sure you’ll love it here," she said as she found the correct key for the room and handed it to Sarolyn. "Here’s the key."
Sarolyn thanked Maré as she slung her holdall onto the bed. Maré gazed thoughtfully at Sarolyn’s tall, thin figure. A girl shouldn’t look like that, she mused. There’s nothing to her. She’ll need feeding up if she’s to work all hours scrubbing the floor for His Nibs.
"I’ll be doing dinner in an hour, Sara," said Maré as she turned to leave the room. "Would you like to join Gertran and myself in a little something?"
"That’s very kind of you, Maré," said Sarolyn, touched that she should be invited to dine with the landlady and her husband. "Thank you."
Maré looked sheepishly at her young guest. "Oh, I almost forgot, silly old me," she flustered from the landing. "The bathroom’s just down the landing, first door at the top of the stairs."
"Thanks," smiled Sarolyn as she closed the bedroom door. Inside the room, Sarolyn unpacked her things and untied her hair, which cascaded in waves over her shoulders. It was a long journey from the Temple, and she felt tired and stale. Gathering her wash kit and towel, Sarolyn made her way to the bathroom, locking her bedroom door behind her. A soak in the bath before dinner would be perfect.
As she locked the bathroom door, Sarolyn unwrapped her scrying-glass from its hiding place in her towel. She knew that once inside Mandalore’s palace, she would have little, if no opportunity to contact the Temple. Sarolyn gazed into the glass and concentrated.
A wizened, green face appeared in the glass, eyes closed in contemplation. The eyes opened and stared back at Sarolyn. Yoda smiled. "Forgotten about us, have you?"
"No, Master," said Sarolyn quietly. "This might be my last chance to speak with you. I’m on Naboo, and I’ve got an interview at Fort Myreion for the post of housemaid. It’s the closest I can get to Mandalore on my own."
"Done well you have young Padawan," said Yoda. "About the flu epidemic, and Mandalore’s involvement you must learn. Remember, undercover you are. Told you before, clever is Mandalore, and friend of Jedi he is not. Careful you must be."
"Yes, my Master." said Sarolyn as Yoda’s image dissipated into mist. "I will do as you bid."
* * *
The sun had set, leaving just a faint glow of twilight in the west. The smallest sliver of Naboo’s larger moon hung above the dark plain and two of the star system’s innermost planets were arranged in the darkening sky like jewels.
The tent had been securely pitched next to a low, thorny tree, and the campfire burned with a warm, yellow glow as it cast it light upon the faces of the three figures around it. Yarua held a toasting fork over the fire, and a small fish was impaled on the tines, dripping hot fat over the burning logs. Each drop of meat juice spluttered as it hit the flames.
The Wookiee waved the fish as Zibeon and grunted, inviting him to take it. The small, shy Zephoid Zez tentatively sniffed the fish and touched it with a webbed claw.
"It’s a fish, Zibeon," said Ayo as he cooked one for himself.
"F...issshh," repeated Zibeon
"Tasty fish," said Ayo as he gestured for Zibeon to take it. "Careful," he warned, shaking his fingers in a burning motion. "It’s hot."
Zibeon gently took the fish from the fork and set to work on it, his fangs tearing the flesh from the bones. He licked his lips and smiled.
"You like that?" grinned Ayo. "There’s plenty more where that came from. We’d better finish them before they go off."
The campfire continued to burn, fuelled by wood from the shrubs that dotted the links, and the trio retired to the tent. Inside, Yarua snored loudly and Ayo lay cocooned within his sleeping bag, oblivious to the noise.
Zibeon, however, could not settle. He sat quietly in Yarua’s rucksack, shaking with grief as the memories of his last moments at the Nest flooded back. Memories of his mate and his pups, memories of his friends and pack-mates in the nest, choking from the gas and dying in the tunnels. He thought about the Chief Zez and whimpered pitifully. Zibeon hoped that she had died quickly.
Then there were his pups. Zibeon winced with pain as if his heart had been torn from his chest by a massive, armoured hand. He had lost everything, everything that he had loved. Zibeon felt cold, vulnerable and alone.
The little Zez climbed shakily out from the rucksack and waddled outside, treading over the sleeping Yarua’s feet. He stood in the open, a small, vulnerable creature gazing at the dying embers of the fire, his face flickering in its light.
Zibeon stared at the stars overhead. They shone down, millions of glowing pinpricks, some bright and twinkling that made shapes in the sky, and countless fainter ones, some barely visible to the eye. A milky band of light bisected the heavens like a silvery stream.
Like all Zephoid Zez, Zibeon believed that the stars were the souls of the dead, transported to their place in the sky by the River of Light. Gazing skyward, Zibeon could see his Pack looking down at him. He stared harder, and, as his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he caught sight of a faint cluster of seven stars arranged in a tight circular pattern almost directly overhead.
Zibeon smiled up at the cluster. He suddenly felt at peace as he watched his family waving down to him, their fangs bared with happiness and love. Zibeon returned to the tent and climbed back into Yarua’s backpack. He fell asleep, sound in the knowledge that his loved ones were at peace.
Zibeon sighed with contentment as he snuggled up into the cosy warmth of the rucksack. He might have lost everything from his past, but he had gained much in its place.