Sarolyn and Gertran sat around the table chatting as Maré scuttled back and forth in the kitchen. The young Padawan offered to help with the washing up, but Maré would hear nothing of it.
"Which is the best way to get to Fort Myreion?" asked Sarolyn.
Gertran blew his nose into his handkerchief. "Well," he said genially, "there’s a train that goes to Myreionill, which is about two miles from the Fort."
Sarolyn glanced at the clock on the wall. She needed to get going as soon as possible. "Do you know how often they run?"
"Not offhand," said Gertran as he scratched his ear, "but don’t worry. I’ll give you a lift to the station if you like."
Sarolyn smiled. In many ways Gertran reminded her of Master Bil-Kit. "Thank you," she said as the problem melted away. "Thank you ever so much."
Sarolyn stood up and strode out to the kitchen, where Maré was busy wiping the work surface. "Thanks for making me feel so welcome, Maré. What do I owe you?"
Maré looked up at Sarolyn and smiled. "Let’s just call it four and nine, dear."
Sarolyn fished out a handful of coins from her utility pouch and paid her host with two silver halfcorells. "Keep the threefin," said Sarolyn as the elderly landlady pocketed the coins. "You’ve been so good to me."
"Gertran will take you to the station when you’re ready, Sara," said Maré. "Good luck with your new job."
Sarolyn thanked Maré, who returned to her chores. The young Jedi picked up her holdall and waited in the hallway.
"Got everything?" asked Gertran as he donned his long, drab overcoat and cap. Sarolyn nodded and he beckoned towards the back door. "Speeder’s out in the garage," he said as he opened the door, revealing a small, neatly kept garden and outbuilding, which Sarolyn presumed to be the garage.
Gertran was of a minority in Theed for owning his own landspeeder. The low, sleek vehicle was surrounded by various items of junk and the garage smelt of fuel and oil.
Gertran opened the cockpit and motioned to Sarolyn. "Jump in," he said briskly from the driver’s seat. As he started up the engines, he pointed a remote control handset at the garage doors, which swung open with silent efficiency.
"Saves me opening them myself," said Gertran as he manoeuvred the speeder into the street.
The journey to Theed’s North Station was quick, and before long, they were parking outside.
"Good luck, Sara," said Gertran from the open cockpit as Sarolyn climbed out. She waved goodbye and rushed into the station. As Gertran watched his young guest depart, he thought about all the rumours he had heard about Fort Myreion. Sighing to himself as he reversed out from his parking space, he sincerely hoped that Sara would be safe.
Naboo’s railway system stretched across the landmasses of the planet like a vast spider’s web. It was one of the oldest artificial structures on Naboo, having been built by a now-extinct civilisation long before the humans colonised the world.
The Naboo had inherited the ancient network of tracks when the first settlers arrived, and the railway had been developed, expanded and electrified over the centuries, with fast modern transcontinental trains speeding through the countryside, connecting the farthest towns in a matter of hours. The hub of the network lay at Keren, the largest city on Naboo, and Theed was served by a generous daily service.
Theed’s North Station, like all of the city’s buildings, was elegant. The tracks sat beneath a high, transparisteel roof supported by polished marble pillars. The station, with its clean platforms and potted plants, conveyed an air of grandeur, as if rail travel was an event in itself.
Sarolyn sat down and caught sight of a train approaching her platform. A voice floated out as if from nowhere:
"Platform four for the Myreionill service, calling at Solluval and Myreionill only."
As her train drew closer, Sarolyn studied the track below. Two running rails upon duracrete sleepers were accompanied by a third rail that supplied the electric current, an arrangement that was primitive yet efficient.
The Myreionill train screeched to a halt. This particular train was not one of the sleek, modern expresses; instead, it was a museum piece. It consisted of four carriages of an archaic design, perhaps centuries old; each coach was festooned with doors along each side. The train bore a dirty version of the Railway’s traditional green.
Sarolyn climbed aboard, gently closing the door behind her. The seats were high-backed, deep and comfortable, the upholstery having been softened by generations of commuters, and the wood-panelled saloon was dimly lit. There was a musty smell. Other passengers boarded with the slamming of doors as the motor charged up with a clanking whine.
As Sarolyn gazed out of the narrow window by her seat, the timeworn old train jolted into motion and ground lethargically forward. The station slipped away as the train coursed around the outskirts of Theed, giving its occupants an intimate view of the houses bordering the track.
Sarolyn relaxed and leant her head on the side-cushion beside the window. She thought about Gertran and Maré and how they had made her, a complete stranger, feel welcome and at home, like one of the family. Something that could be guaranteed never to happen on the brash worlds of the Core. Indeed, Sarolyn reflected, if her hosts had been living on a planet such as Coruscant, they would certainly have been conned, robbed, or even murdered by those whose only thoughts were for themselves.
Sarolyn sighed as the train continued its jolting, rocking motion. Master Bil-Kit was right to express concern for society. Naboo was one of the last bastions of the Old Republic, a Republic that had not been tainted by Chancellor Rhoufheigh’s policies, a Republic where people gave consideration for their neighbours. A Republic where tradition still ruled over ill-conceived progress. Sarolyn hoped that the Naboo were strong enough to resist pressure from the Core to conform with Rhoufheigh’s ideals, otherwise, as Bil-Kit feared, the decay could engulf the galaxy.
As the city of Theed receded, Sarolyn considered her future. Her destiny lay before her and it was time to prove herself to her Masters.
* * *
Out on the plain, the rain was unrelenting. The gorse was sodden, and the ditches that crisscrossed the links were overflowing with water.
Two figures struggled through the torrents, fighting through the mud as they concentrated on reaching the mountains in the distance.
The weather had been deteriorating since the morning, and as a sheet of lightning flashed across the sky, Ayo prayed that the storm stayed away, for in such open surroundings, the three of them could easily be struck.
Ayo shivered. He was soaked, and his backpack felt like a block of lead. The rain ran into his nose and mouth, causing him to sneeze, and the wind, carrying salt from the sea, blew across his ears, causing them to sting.
He glanced at Yarua, who seemed to be having a worse time than he. The Wookiee’s fur was saturated, clinging to his body like a rug. He looked utterly miserable. Zibeon, on the other hand, was safely tucked away inside Yarua’s rucksack. Due to his size, there was absolutely no way that he could keep up with his companions. His flippers and stumpy legs were more suited to swimming than walking.
The day was still young, and the three of them still had far to go. The hills loomed in the distance, and it seemed to Ayo that he and his friends were chasing them away.
* * *
The rain had obscured the view as the train pulled sluggishly into Myreionill, the terminus of this relatively short branch line from Theed. Sarolyn hurriedly reached into her holdall and retrieved her Jedi cloak. She draped the garment over her shoulders and opened the door as the train screeched to a halt.
Bracing herself against the curtain of water that fell from the edge of the platform canopy, Sarolyn leapt from the train and rushed through the ticket barrier. She stood in the porch with a few of the other passengers, all waiting for the weather to clear. A crack of thunder caused somebody to tut in annoyance. The rain seemed to be here for the duration.
Better now than never, thought Sarolyn as she pulled up her hood and stepped out into the deluge.
A narrow, winding road led from the small fishing town of Myreionill along the cliff top towards the Plain. The road was flooded and the sea had become an incoherent mist.
Sarolyn was soaked to the skin. Her cloak and robes clung to her body and her hair straggled over her face as she trudged onward.
At the top of the cliff, the road turned away from the sea and followed a high perimeter wall topped with vibrowire. Every so often, a sign was fixed to the stonework warning trespassers of their fate should they breach this defence.
Sarolyn looked back at the route she had taken. Myreionill lay huddled within its cove with the main road and railway snaking away. She knew where she was, for behind the wall lay the vast sprawl of Fort Myreion, the Country Residence of Lord Koraetor Mandalore.
The Estate covered several thousand square miles of the Myreion peninsula. Mandalore valued his privacy. In addition to the perimeter wall, concealed pressure sensors in the ground and spy cameras atop pylons completed the picture.
The centrepiece of Fort Myreion was the Mansion itself. an overindulgent monstrosity of a palace that lounged across the countryside like a large, white cake. There had been a public outcry when Mandalore purchased the land. The Mansion was out of character with traditional Naboo architecture, but the main bugbear was the tight security that barred the general public from what had previously been Common Land. Mandalore, however, bought the affections of the Naboo by injecting large sums of cash into local concerns, and he and Japhta Fett had played host to King Eadwig, Senator Sondleman and their entourages on many occasions, throwing lavish parties and banquets for royalty, the Supreme Chancellor and other celebrities from across the Republic.
After a long, waterlogged trek Sarolyn came to a break in the seemingly endless wall. A solid, durasteel gate bridged the gap. A sign that read Servants’ Entrance: No unauthorised entry was fixed alongside.
Sarolyn looked around for a doorbell or other device that could alert the occupants of her arrival. She jumped back with a start as a robot eyeball shot out from an opening in the gate. It looked at her, swivelling upon its fixings as it spoke in a rasping tone.
"This is private property. State your name, company and business."
"My name is Sara," said Sarolyn, looking up at the eyeball that was scrutinising her, "and I’ve come for an interview for the maid’s post."
The eyeball retracted back into its chamber, the panel snapping shut as the gate swung open with an electronic whine. Sarolyn walked briskly across the courtyard to the servants’ entrance, where two MHG guardtroopers, clad in the smart, blue and silver armour of the shocktrooper elite, flanked the open door.
The two troops examined the drenched Sarolyn, remaining silent as they escorted her through the door and into the corridor, tightly flanking her in a manner intended purely to intimidate.
The outside door dropped to the ground with an aggressive sneeze as the guardtroopers marched Sarolyn along a busy corridor. Maids and footmen scurried about their business like traffic on a road. The corridor was long and wide with an arcaded ceiling of frosted transparisteel that amplified the patter of the rain outside.
Before long, Sarolyn and the guards arrived at a door marked House Sitting Room. One of the troops pushed a button alongside, and the door flew open. Sarolyn was shoved into the room behind.
"Wait," snarled the modulated voice of the guardtrooper as he and his colleague turned and left. The door hissed shut behind then, dropping to the parquet floor like a guillotine blade.
Sarolyn looked around. The House Sitting Room consisted of a small hall with a transparent roof, as if it were unsure whether to be a regular room or a fully-fledged conservatory. There were no side windows, but a pair of glazed swing doors led outside to a courtyard. Two long benches flanked the room, accompanied by a number of scruffy, wooden chairs. The room was otherwise bare.
Sarolyn was not alone. Two other girls shared one of the benches, happily chatting to each other. They broke off from their conversation as Sarolyn, still cold and wet from the rain, joined them.
One of the girls was tall, almost Sarolyn’s height but of a heavier build. She had long dark hair and a cheeky expression on her face. The other was shorter, with a dainty, petite build. Her intense, grey eyes bore a serious, almost disdainful expression, and her light brown hair was cut to shoulder length, the locks surrounding her features like a halo.
"Hi," smiled the petite girl to Sarolyn. "Welcome to the Slave Camp. I’m Jacqué."
"Sara," said Sarolyn, grinning at Jacqué’s name for the Mansion. "Are you two here for interviews as well?"
"Yes," said the taller girl with a giggle as she looked with amusement at Sarolyn’s bedraggled form. "Look’s like you’ve had a bit of a soaking. By the way, my name’s Stefné."
"Nice to meet you both," said Sarolyn as she hoisted her holdall onto the bench beside her. "I was caught in the rain on my way up from the station." Sarolyn stood up and removed her sodden cloak before sitting down again. Her robes were also saturated.
"Have you come far?" asked Jacqué.
"Alderaan," lied Sarolyn. Although these two girls seemed genuine enough, it was far too risky for her to reveal her true origins.
"Alderaan?" said Jacqué with disbelief. It was virtually unknown for servants to be recruited from offworld. "That’s a long way to come for a servant’s job."
The door hissed open, and a guardtrooper marched in, brandishing a towel. The troop threw the towel at Sarolyn, who caught it deftly with one hand.
"Dry," spat the guard, before turning and leaving the door plunging shut behind him. The two other girls giggled, their hands covering their mouths with embarrassment.
"What a gorgeous hunk of a man!" said Stefné with more than a hint of sarcasm. Sarolyn laughed as she dried her hair.
"There’s a bathroom over there, if you want to dry yourself properly," said Jacqué, pointing to a side door.
"Thanks, Jacqué," said Sarolyn as she picked up her holdall.
The bathroom was more of a storeroom with a washbasin, but Sarolyn was thankful that she could change her clothes in private. As she disrobed and dried her body, she considered her mission here. Somewhere in this vast, sprawling mansion was the computer that stored Mandalore’s private records, records to which she had to gain access if she were to blow the whistle on his exploitation, profiteering and abuse of power. Once she had the facts in her hand, she could then expose Mandalore’s activities to the Senate and the Council.
Sarolyn kept her thoughts to herself as she donned her dress before returning to the Sitting Room. She could sense that everything must work according to plan, otherwise she could be killed, and her failure could have serious repercussions across the whole of the Jedi Order.
"Where’s Jacqué?" asked Sarolyn as she sat down beside Stefné.
"She’s gone for her interview," said Stefné. "Two guards came for her just after you went out to change."
"Good luck to her," said Sarolyn with trepidation. She hoped that the guardtroopers were not too rough with little Jacqué.
The door sneezed open and a guard marched in, dragging Jacqué by the arm.
"Wait!" he snarled. The sentry turned to Sarolyn, who looked meekly back at him. "You! Tall skinny one! Out!" The guard indicated for Sarolyn to accompany him.
"Such charm!" murmured a sarcastic Sarolyn to the other girls as the guardtrooper grabbed her by the arm and pulled her through the door.
"Ow!" winced Sarolyn as her captor dragged her along the corridor. ‘"You’re hurting me!"
Eventually they arrived at a door marked Housekeeper, beside which was a status display consisting of a pushbutton and red, yellow and green lights that indicated whether the Housekeeper wished to be disturbed. The guardtrooper pushed the button and the green light flashed ‘ENTER’. The door slid open.
The Housekeeper’s office was plain but comfortably furnished, with a fading rug on the floor, a painting on the wall, and a potted amidala plant on the windowsill. The plant bore a single large, orange flower.
Two chairs and a desk dominated the room, upon which resided a pile of paperwork and a computer terminal. Behind the desk sat the Housekeeper, a small, thin, sour looking woman whose curly grey hair was tied back with a bow, and whose face bore the expression of a supercilious turkey. She sat straight-backed in her seat, typing information into the computer with a brusque elegance.
The guardtrooper turned and slunk away, leaving Sarolyn alone with this formidable-looking woman. The Housekeeper broke off from her typing and studied her visitor with disapproval.
"Miss Sara..." puzzled the Housekeeper. "You have a surname, I presume?"
Sarolyn had not thought of as surname. It was something that she had carelessly overlooked when she adopted her disguise. She chose the commonest name she could recall and hoped for the best.
"Antilles," she answered quietly, staring at her boots in the manner of Bil-Kit Jinn.
"You will address me as 'ma’am'," said the Housekeeper with an air of scorn. The old woman had little time for impudence from girls whom she considered to be little more than naughty children in need of discipline.
"Sorry, ma’am," said Sarolyn with a faint smile. The Housekeeper shuffled her paperwork and picked up a pen.
"Why do you wish to work here?" demanded the old woman.
This was the best opportunity for Sarolyn to use her carefully rehearsed story. She put in into motion. "I worked as a housemaid for-"
"We’re not the slightest bit interested in your past exploits, young lady. Why do you want this job? What makes you think that we require your services?"
Sarolyn was taken aback by the old woman’s dismissal of her supposed skills, but she did not show it. "I’m diligent and hard-working, ma’am," she said, a picture of submissiveness.
The Housekeeper gave Sarolyn a tight-lipped look of weary scepticism. She had heard it all many times before. "They all say that. Do you have your references to hand?"
Sarolyn knew she had no references, and she could hardly mention Yoda and Dessk. She was fully aware that in this day and age, the economic climate meant that there was much cheap labour to be hired, particularly in domestic service to the wealthy, currently the largest industry in the Republic. In this time of economic boom, the rich exercised a considerable power over their workers. This included the writing of personal references, vital for the securing of further employment. In the harsh environment of the modern Republic, no references meant no work and no work meant no food.
Sarolyn reached out with the Force, manipulating the old woman’s mind with a wave of her long, slender hand. "You don’t need to see my references."
"I don’t need to see your references," said the Housekeeper, unaware that she was the subject of a Jedi mind trick.
"I’m sure you’ll be pleased with my work," suggested Sarolyn, staring at the woman with her big, brown eyes.
Sarolyn made a discreet motion with her fingers and the Housekeeper smiled politely, her jowls lifting like a pair of curtains.
"I’m sure we’ll be pleased with your work," said the old woman in a quiet, measured tone as she clasped together her hands on the desk, "and I am very happy to say that you have got the job. What do you say?"
"Thank you, ma’am. I’m very grateful."
The Housekeeper reached into a desk drawer and pulled out a portable body scanner, a card folder and a disposable dentist's mirror. She activated the scanner and ran it over Sarolyn’s body. The young Jedi reached out with the Force so that her lightsabre, safely concealed within her dress, was ignored.
"Good," said the Housekeeper. "No weapons, drugs or money."
The old woman unwrapped the dentist's mirror from its sterile covering. ‘Open wide,’ she ordered, pointing the mirror at Sarolyn’s mouth.
Sarolyn opened her mouth and the Housekeeper inserted the mirror, inspecting the girl’s teeth as if she were an animal.
"Nice and healthy," said the Housekeeper with her small, polite smile as she threw the mirror into the waste paper basket, "like all young girls should be. You will be paid a starting salary of six dataries per standard year... "
Six credits! thought Sarolyn with disbelief as the Housekeeper continued her introductory lecture. The young Jedi did a quick mental calculation: Six credits...that’s a hundred and twenty skillin...barely half a corell per standard week. A pittance! Two and six a week. Sarolyn seriously wondered how somebody as wealthy as Mandalore could get away with paying such paltry wages.
"...and you will sleep in the female servants’ quarters,’ the Housekeeper continued. ‘You will be seen and not heard, and you will show obedience and respect to your superiors at all times."
The Housekeeper carried on as she walked over to a cupboard set into the wall. "You are now a servant not only of Lord Mandalore and Lady Fett, but also of the Senior Staff," she said as she opened the cupboard doors to reveal shelves filled with green-and-white servants’ uniforms on one side and a pile of booklets on the other. She produced a pen-like laser measure from her pinafore pocket, activated it and ran it from head to toe along Sarolyn’s body. She checked the reading and reached into the cupboard for a uniform and one of the booklets, lecturing all the while.
"You are forbidden to leave the House without due authorisation, nor are you to fraternise with the male servants." The Housekeeper handed Sarolyn the clothes and the book. "Here’s your uniform and a copy of the House Rules," she said as she returned to her seat and produced an official-looking document. "I strongly suggest that you read and learn them, because should you be seen to break any of them, you will be dismissed and removed forthwith, and we will see that you never work again."
The Housekeeper handed over the document and a pen. This was Sarolyn’s employment contract, and the print was illegibly small. "Sign immediately, please." The Housekeeper knew that there were certain clauses within the Contract that relieved Sarolyn of most of her employment rights. The old woman was anxious that they were not read in detail.
Sarolyn duly obliged, signing the form and returning it. The Housekeeper nodded her thanks and pressed a button on the desk.
The door opened and a guardtrooper marched in and grabbed Sarolyn by the arm. The housekeeper did not look up from her writing as her new employee was hauled away.
As the guardtrooper dragged her along the corridor, Sarolyn considered her presence here in Fort Myreion. She was now within striking distance of Lord Mandalore’s inner circle, and the only way that the powerful tycoon could be brought to heel was from within. The time would come, that much she could sense, but she knew that she might have to be infinitely patient.Forward to Chapter 20 Back to Chapter 18 Home