It had been a hard climb to the top of the hill. To Ayo, the steep mountain path along a muddy stream bed had seemed endless, and he thought that his legs were about to give way at any moment. He sat at the summit, with his head in his hands, staring at the grass in an attempt to return the blood to his head. His ears rang, and the pulse pounded in his neck.
Yarua, on the other hand, admired the view. They were at the top of the highest point in this range, and the remainder of the hills stretched out, before giving way to a wide moor that disappeared over the horizon. Zibeon had climbed out from Yarua’s rucksack and was staring, wide-eyed, around him. Ayo sat up and rummaged through his own bag for the Gungan map. Once he had unfurled it and located their position, he called over his companions. Yarua heaved himself to Ayo’s side and Zibeon waddled across to join them.
"According to this," said Ayo, pointing to the map, "we’re at the top of Kathra Sug." Zibeon squeaked with interest. "And the farm," he continued, pointing to the valleys ahead, "is somewhere down there."
Ayo rolled up the map and stashed it back into the rucksack, exchanging it for a large bottle of Merenzane Gold, from which he took a long, grateful swig. He wiped the top of the bottle and passed it to Yarua, who purred with appreciation.
"Thought it’d perk us up a bit," gasped Ayo as the alcohol rushed to his head. Yarua took a mouthful and gave a relaxed belch that made Zibeon laugh.
"You want some?" asked Ayo to Zibeon as Yarua offered him the bottle. Zibeon cocked his head, wondering as to the contents.
"You won’t want much, Zib. It’ll put hairs on your chest."
Zibeon took the bottle from Yarua and gave it a cautious sniff before taking a sip. Ayo laughed as the Zez looked down at his bulbous chest as if he were expecting hairs to sprout from it at any moment. Yarua playfully rubbed Zibeon’s head as he retrieved the bottle, returning it to Ayo.
Yarua brought out the cold remains of the fish that they had cooked the previous night over the campfire. As he unwrapped the parcel from its covering of metal foil, the meat fell away from the bones.
Ayo grimaced with distaste as the sight and smell of the cold fish. "Ugh! That’s revolting!" he said, trying hard not to vomit. "Chuck it away!" Ayo waved his hand before his nose in an attempt to waft away the odour of decomposing flesh. "Besides, I’ve got some sarnies in my bag, and we can always catch one of those little furry things we keep seeing."
Ayo reached inside his rucksack and fished out an airtight box packed with sandwiches that he had prepared before leaving the ship. As he shared them out, Yarua hoisted the electrobinoculars from his own bag and grunted as he scanned the valleys.
"Found the farm, Yarua?" asked Ayo, reaching out for the binocs. "Let’s have a look." Yarua handed them to Ayo, who almost dropped them. He had forgotten how heavy they were.
Before Ayo could heave them to his eyes, he was interrupted from a muffled bleeping from within his rucksack.
"Sound’s like Peetoo wants us," said Ayo, dropping the binocs and rummaging for the source of the noise. He retrieved the computer terminal, unfolded it and set it down upon the grass before them, extending its aerial in order to gain a clear signal.
Yarua uttered a stream of grunts and barks as he pointed to the monitor screen. Ayo leant forward for a closer look as he swigged more Merenzane Gold.
"Yeah, you’re right, Yarua," said Ayo, pointing to the display, "there’s a fleet of ships coming out of hyperspace in sector ten, right ascension fifty-eight degrees, declination forty-six north." He asked Peetoo to download the charts from the navicomputer. "According to the charts," he said as a chart of Naboo’s sky appeared on the screen, "that’s the relative position of the Capital."
Yarua grunted a reply.
"Wait. A wing of fighters are intercepting it, but they’re not Naboo fighters." Ayo turned to Yarua and Zibeon. "This could mean only one thing: Mandalore and his 'bit-on-the-side' are on the way."
* * *
Glinting in the sunlight, the three golden ships of Japhta Fett’s Personal Starfleet raced towards Naboo, flanked by their chaperone of F-wing fighters.
Aboard the leading vessel, Japhta relaxed in the passenger cabin, smoking a cigarette fixed into a long wampa-horn holder. She smiled to herself as she sipped l’lahsh from a tall, fluted glass. Her droid hovered nearby.
"Thriatizedd," said Japhta, turning to the droid, "tell the Ground Staff that we’ll be landing shortly." The droid floated away, drifting towards the ladder vestibule that led to the cockpit upstairs.
Japhta returned to her drink and reached into a small locker beside her couch, from which she produced a mirror and a vibrant, red lipstick. Gazing intently into the glass, she began to apply the lipstick, confident that her pilot would steer with the smoothness of flight to which she was accustomed.
In usual circumstances, Japhta flew the Millennium Falcon herself, she as the captain and Thriatizedd as the co-pilot, working in liaison with the computer systems. She needed no other crew, for the Force guided her hands and mind as she negotiated the ship’s controls. This journey was an exception, for she was taking a well-earned rest at her Master’s Country Residence.
* * *
Far below, the thin soup was bland and tasteless, but it was a welcome break from the seemingly endless drudgery of the scullery. Here, servant hierarchy was clearly defined: the upper servants attended to the Master and Mistress whilst the lower servants waited upon the upper. Sarolyn sat with her new friends at a long, wooden table in the Servants’ Hall as they sipped their watery broth. As she sat there, she considered the standing of herself and her colleagues alongside her. Within the strict pecking order, they were the lowest of the low.
"This soup is revolting!" complained Jacqué in disgust as she took a swig.
Jen shrugged her shoulders. She had been here for the last two years, and had grown accustomed to the meagre food. "You’ll just have to get used to it," she said with apathy.
Sarolyn had no complaints about the menu. Bland though it was, it fulfilled its function of supplying nutrients to the body, and that was all a Jedi needed. Taste and appearances were irrelevant.
Jacqué still knew very little about Sara, as she was called. She suspected that the willowy, dark-haired girl was not what she claimed to be. Sara seemed familiar, as if they had met before.
Sarolyn looked at Jacqué and smiled. There was something familiar about the dainty, mousey-haired girl with the grey eyes and serious face, and she was sure they had already met, some time in the past. She attempted to probe Jacqué’s mind with the Force, but found her to be hiding behind an impenetrable barrier. A trick that she herself had learnt as part of basic Jedi training.
Sarolyn finished her soup. The Force is with Jacqué, she thought as a bell rang, summoning the attention of the dining servants.
"The Mistress’s transport will be landing in ten standard minutes," said a voice over the loudspeaker. "All staff are to report to their stations forthwith."
"We’d better get back," said Jen, "or Adoum’ll flip."
In the Kitchen, the wol cabasshite was being marinated in a sticky blend of fruit juices and herbs in preparation for roasting. Sarolyn and the other girls arrived to find Adoum methodically preparing its stuffing. He stood at the central worktable making short work of the creature’s long tongue, dicing it and mixing it with a spicy vegetable purée before adding a splash of red wine. He handed the bowl of stuffing to Jen, who put it in the refrigerator.
The washing up seemed endless. The upper servants, including all of the administrative staff, had eaten their lunch, and the remains were left for Sarolyn and her friends to tackle so that the scullery could be readied for the next invasion of tableware.
* * *
The Hangar consisted of a wide, squat building set approximately ten miles along the coast from the Mansion. It had been built for the exclusive use of Mandalore’s personal starships and their escort fighters.
The Millennium Falcon and its sister ships hovered above the expanse of ferrocrete outside the Hangar as the F-wings, now redundant, soared away.
As the ships settled to the ground, a convoy of landspeeders and a carriage pod drew to a halt nearby. The Upper Servants climbed out from the speeders and stood to attention. The pod consisted of a green, floating passenger cabin from which projected two heavy-duty cables, each linked to a jet engine, the complete assembly held aloft by repulsors. A bright energy arc bound the engines, fidgeting restlessly between them.
The hatch of the Millennium Falcon opened, and Japhta Fett, dressed in a white wampa-fur coat, slinked down the ramp, surrounded by her ever-present escort of guardtroopers. Dignitaries, troops and support staff emerged from the sister ships, including Minister Whyteleafe, who had been specially invited to visit Fort Myreion in acknowledgement for the support he had lent MHG over the years.
As Japhta neared the line of waiting servants, the Steward, Butler and Housekeeper, in all the pomp and splendour of a Grand Reception, stepped forward and kneeled before their Mistress. The Steward kissed Japhta’s hand.
"For the income provided for our families," said the Steward, "and the roof over our heads, may Lord Mandalore make us truly thankful."
Japhta motioned for them to rise, turning to them as she slithered to the open hatch of the pod.
"I’m afraid His Lordship is unable to join us. He has several important meetings on Coruscant."
"Yes, of course, My Lady," said the Steward, rubbing together his hands as Japhta was helped aboard.
The pod’s engines fired to full thrust and the phalanx of servants filed back to their landspeeders, leaving the golden trio of Falcons alone as they drifted to the safety of the Hangar.Forward to Chapter 22 Back to Chapter 20 Home