As Sarolyn Lordan and Neema-Da-Boda scrubbed the flagstones outside the Kitchen Suite, they considered the discovery they had made in the Library during the night. The entire Republic would be at risk if they failed to stop Mandalore, and billions of people could suffer the most appalling death imaginable should the genetically modified Black Rot spores ever be released upon a populated world.

Sarolyn stopped scrubbing, leaving Neema to continue. She had suddenly felt worried, uneasy, as if somebody was trying to contact her. She concentrated, searching the Force for a clearer picture. She could feel that something had gone horribly wrong for someone, and that whoever it was needed her help.

"Sarolyn," said Neema as she stopped for a quick breather. "Are you all right?"

Sarolyn was kneeling on the wet stones with her eyes closed, breathing deeply. Neema was worried.

"There’s a disturbance in the Force," whispered Sarolyn, well aware of the consequences that careless talk could bring.

"Yes," said Neema. "I sense it too."

"Senator Thraurrallgisc of Sorensia's been arrested by Mandalore’s police. He was helping the Council in the same way as we."

"He was quite a character in the Senate, apparently," said Neema, recalling the time when the grizzled old Wookiee had visited Naboo for talks with Senator Sondleman and the King.

"He’s an outspoken opponent of MHG and the Chancellor," said Sarolyn as they returned to their work, "and there was a massive riot on Sorensia when I was there with Master Bil-Kit."

"What happened?"

"You know that Rhoufheigh’s privatised most of Sorensia’s industry," said Sarolyn, "including the police and armed forces?"

"Yes," said Neema with uncertainty. She tended not to take much notice of the news reports.

"Well, most of the planet’s now controlled by Mandalore. He is instituting a 'Corporate Restructure', involving the loss of nearly half of the workforce, and he’s using Sorensia as a template. The surviving workers will be put on performance-related pay, with massive cuts in their wages, and they will all have to reapply for their jobs each year. According to Mandalore’s confidential records, should the Sorensian Restructure be a success, then all MHG staff across the galaxy could be affected."

Neema was beginning to understand the state of affairs. "No wonder they’re angry. They feel betrayed by the Republic. They’re thinking, “Why us?”

"It’s because Sorensia’s a socialist planet, and Mandalore thinks that the local attitudes are bad for business," said Sarolyn as she rinsed her brush in the bucket before them. "The Council sent us to there to monitor the situation. They suspected that the police were abusing their powers, and when we arrived there, the atmosphere could be cut with a knife. The Force was badly distorted."

Sarolyn pulled up a small weed that had sprouted between the stones. "There was a demo while we were there," she continued, "and the police were well prepared. Mandalore had declared a State of Emergency, which acted as a cue for the shocktroopers to brutally suppress the workers. Many lives were lost." Sarolyn looked sadly at Neema. "Master Bil-Kit faced Japhta in a lightsabre duel, and he gave his life so I could get away."

There was a long silence as the two girls thought about Bil-Kit Jinn, before Neema spoke again. "That’s awful. Mandalore’s obviously covering something up."

"Yes, Neema," said Sarolyn. "I sense that those Sorensians have been brutally and illegally subdued and that Senator Thraurrallgisc needs our help."

Jen trudged through the open door with a mop and bucket. She tipped the dirty water down the drain before turning to Neema and Sarolyn who were busy scrubbing.

"Li says we’ve got to go back in," said the bored Jen. "Fett’s due for the Inspection."

Sarolyn and Neema emptied their bucket before joining Jen in the scullery. Li, the Ishi Tib, was fussing around, ensuring that everything was spotless and in perfect order in readiness for Fett’s visit.

"You’d better put those in the wash," said Li, indicating to the girls’ filthy boiler suits as he polished a sign on the wall.

The three girls quickly made their way to the changing room where they dumped their overalls into the laundry droid. The battered droid beeped before shuddering into action.

The girls entered the kitchen to find the chefs and the other kitchen staff standing to attention around the edge of the room. Li urgently motioned for them to take their places in the line.

"Your bonnet isn’t straight," whispered Jen to Sarolyn as they stood side by side. Sarolyn smiled and nodded her thanks, straightening her headgear as the door slid open.

A convoy of senior staff streamed into the kitchen like a train pulling into a station. The Butler and Housekeeper led the precession, bearing expressions of extreme, exaggerated disdain upon their faces. Neema, watching them, fought to keep her laughter concealed.

Surrounded by her advisors and a pair of guardtroopers, Japhta Fett, dressed in a gold-weave, jewel-studded dress, followed the cortège. Her eyes were shadowed with make-up, and she exuded a strong perfume that filled the room with its flowery, herbal fragrance. The House Steward brought up the rear.

The line of servants wrenched themselves to an even tighter attention as Japhta paced along their ranks. Sarolyn concentrated, willing Fett to walk past without noticing her. Sarolyn could not afford to be recognised, and she could not tell whether or not the monster that had murdered Bil-Kit Jinn would remember her from their close encounter on Sorensia. She was worried that her past might betray her.

Sarolyn caught sight of a lightsabre hanging from Japhta’s belt, possibly the same weapon used against her beloved Master. The weapon was made from rare and valuable metals complemented by ornate filigree work along its handgrip. Sarolyn could feel her own lightsabre concealed beneath her uniform, and she felt reassured. She could easily subdue the guards, but the Force was strong with Japhta.

If she were exposed here and now, Sarolyn guessed that she would have quite a fight on her hands, a fight she could easily lose. Her defeat would certainly make things difficult for the Council. Mandalore would move even quicker to complete the Black Rot and use it, with incalculable consequences for the whole of the Republic.

The catlike, blonde form of Japhta Fett drew level with Sarolyn. Stomach churning with unease, Sarolyn blocked her thoughts with the Force, projecting the illusion that she was not Sarolyn Lordan, and that they had never before met. She hoped that the trick would work.

Surrounded by her crowd of bootlickers, Japhta walked slowly and wordlessly past. Sarolyn breathed a discreet sigh of relief as Fett’s attention moved on. Sarolyn had barely relaxed her guard when Japhta turned back as if she had remembered something. She peered up into Sarolyn’s big, brown eyes.

"You’re new here," stated Japhta coldly. "What’s your name?"

"Sara, My Lady," said Sarolyn meekly. "Sara Antilles."

Apparently satisfied, Japhta returned to her inspection, casting a lingering gaze at Sarolyn. Fett’s eyes narrowed. There was something familiar about this strange new girl with the tall, graceful figure, a sense of aloofness as the girl looked down her shapely nose with her soft, doe eyes.

There's a disturbance in the Force, thought Japhta as she turned away, a disturbance that could only mean—

The Jedi was right beside her, and Japhta knew exactly who it was.

I'll let her think I haven't seen her, and she might well cause much bloodshed, but she will not escape.

Forward to Chapter 29

Back to Chapter 27