This and That
Reviews by Sherry
Heart of Blade
Sherry, like any writer who has been writing for a while, has manuscripts languishing in her hard drive. PRIVATE ARRANGEMENTS was one such, sitting around for five years before she rewrote it and made something readable out of the story. She has another which she considers promising, her Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon meets The Forsyte Saga story. Here's a snippet.
This was not the beginning...
On a storm-whipped sea, some prayed, some puked. Catherine Blade, too cynical to pray, to proud otherwise, wedged herself between the bed and the bulkhead of her first class cabin and did her breathing exercises, ignoring the seventy-foot swells of the North Atlantic and the tossing and teetering of her steamship.
The muffled shriek, faint but entirely unexpected, nearly caused her pooled chi to scatter. Really, she'd expected a little more reserve from a deck full of members of the British upperclass.
Then something else. A more blunt sound, as if generated by a solid kick to the back of the neck. She checked for the box of matches she carried inside her blouse.
There was no light in the corridor—electricity had been cut off. She braced her feet apart, held on to the door knob behind her, and listened, diving beneath the unholy lashing of the sea, the heroic, if desperate, roar of the ship's engines, and the fearful moans in cabins all along the corridor—the abundant dinner from five hours past now tossing in stomachs as turbulent as the sea.
The shriek came again, all but lost in the howl of the storm. It came from the outside this time, further fore along the port promenade.
She walked on soft, cloth-soled shoes that made no sounds. The air in the corridor was colder and damper than it ought to be—of course, someone had opened a door to the outside in the middle of a tempest. She suspected a domestic squabble. The English were a stern people in outward appearance. But through her impersonal eavesdropping she'd learned that they did not lack for passion and injudiciousness in private.
An apse interrupted the proliferation of first-class cabins. At the two ends of the apse were doors leading onto the promenade. She stopped. She smelled blood.
She recognized the voice, though she'd never heard it in so weak a tone. "Mrs. Reynolds, are you all right?"
The light of a match showed that Mrs. Reynolds was not all right. She bled from her head. Blood smeared her face and her white dressing gown. Next to her on the carpet sprawled a large, leatherbound Bible, most likely her own that had been used against her.
The ship plunged. Mrs. Reynolds's body slid on the carpet. Catherine leaped and stayed Mrs. Reynold's before the Englishwoman's temple smashed into the bulkhead. She felt Mrs. Reynold's pulse. The older woman's skin was cold and clammy, but her pulse was strong enough—she was in no immediate danger of bleeding to death.
Althea was Mrs. Reynold's sister Mrs. Chase. Mrs. Chase could rot.
"Let's stop your bleeding," she said to Mrs. Reynolds, ripping a panel from the latter's dressing gown.
"No!" Mrs. Reynolds pushed away the make-shift bandage. "Please…Althea first."
Catherine sighed. She would comply. That was what came of a life time of deference to one's elders. "Hold this," she said, pressing the match box and the strip of fabric into Mrs. Reynold's hand.
She was soaked the moment she stepped outside. The ship slanted up. She grabbed onto a handrail. A blue-white streak of lightning tore across the black sky, illuminating needles of rain that pummeled the ankle-deep current swilling along the walkway. Illuminating a drenched Mrs. Chase, dressing gown clinging to her ripe flesh, abdomen delicately balanced on the rail, body flexed like a bow—as if she were an aerialist in midflight. Her arms flailed; her eyes screwed shut; her mouth issued gargles of incoherent terror.
A more distant lightning briefly revealed the silhouette of a man standing behind Mrs. Chase, holding on to her feet. Then the heavens erupted in pale fire. Bolts upon bolts of lightning spiked and interwove, a chandelier of the gods that would set a cold blaze to the entire ocean.
She saw the man's face.
What had the Ancients said? You can wear out soles of iron in your search, and you would come upon your quarry only when you least expect.
The murderer of her child.
A knife from her vambrace hissed through the air, the sound of its flight lost in the thunder that rended her ears. But he heard—or felt its approach. He jerked his head back at the last possible second, the knife just missing his nose.
Darkness. The ship listed sharply starboard. Mrs. Chase's copious flesh hit the deck with a thud and a splash. Catherine listened. She threw herself down on the deck as two sleeve arrows, one for each of her eyes, shot past her.
The steamer crested a swell and plunged into the hollow between waves. She allowed herself to slide forward on the smooth planks of the first class promenade. A weak lightning at the edge of the horizon offered a fleeting glow, enough for her to see his outline.
She pushed off the deck and, borrowing the ship's own downward momentum, leapt toward him, one knife in each hand. He threw a large object at her. She couldn't see, but judging from the sound it made parting the air, it had to be Mrs. Chase—there was nothing and no one else of comparable size nearby.
She flipped the knives around in her palms and caught Mrs. Chase, staggering backward upon her landing—Mrs. Chase was the weight of a prize pig and the ship had begun its laborious climb up another huge swell.
Setting Mrs. Chase down, Catherine let the small river on deck wash them both toward the door. She had to get Mrs. Chase out of the way to kill him properly.
More sleeve arrows skimmed the air currents. Fortunately for her his sleeves were sodden, as was everything else on this miserable night, and the arrows arrived without their usual vicious abruptness. She ducked one and deflected another from the back of Mrs. Chase's head with the blade of a knife.
She kicked open the door and sent both of her knives his way, buying a little time as she dragged Mrs. Chase's inert, uncooperative body inside. A match flared before Mrs. Reynold's face, a stark chiaroscuro of anxious eyes and bloodied cheeks against the blackness beyond the flickering flame. As Catherine set Mrs. Chase's head and shoulders down on the wet carpet, Mrs. Reynolds, who should have stayed in her corner, docilely suffering, found the strength to clamber up, push the door shut, and bolt it.
"No!" shouted Catherine.
He wanted to kill her almost as much as she wanted to kill him. One of them would die this night. She preferred to fight outside, where there were no helpless women underfoot.
Almost immediately the door thudded. Mrs. Reynolds yelped and dropped the match, which fizzled on the sodden carpet. Catherine grabbed the match box from her, lit another one, stuck it in Mrs. Reynold's hand, and wrapped the long scrap of dressing gown around her head. "Don't worry about Mrs. Chase. She will have bumps and bruises. But she'll be alright."
Mrs. Reynolds gripped Catherine's hand. "Thank you. Thank you for saving her."
Another heavy thump came at the door. The mooring of the deadbolt was tearing loose from the bulkhead. She tried to pull away from Mrs. Reynolds but the latter would not let go of her. "I cannot allow you to put yourself in danger for us again, Miss Blade. We will pray and throw ourselves on God's mercy."
Crack. Thump. Crack.
Impatiently, she stabbed her index finger into the back of Mrs. Reynold's wrist. The woman's fingers fell slack. Catherine rushed to the door and kicked it—it was in such a poor state now that it could be forced out as well as in.
As she drew back to gather momentum, he rammed the door once more. A flash of lightning lit the crooked edges of the door—it was already hanging loose.She slammed her entire body into the door. Her skeleton jarred as if she had thrown herself at a careening carriage. The door gave outward, enough of an opening that she slipped through.
Something came at her. She ducked. And too late realized it had been a ruse—it was only a wadded up sleeve. He'd always meant to hit her from the other side, his poisonous palm directly against her person. She shrieked: Shards of ice-cold pain bore deep into her lung.
The ship plunged bow first. She used its motion to get away from him. A section of handrail flew at her. She bent herself backward, barely avoiding the careening handrail. Her lung burned as if it had been ground under the weight of an advancing glacier.
The ship rose to meet a new, nauseatingly high wave. She slipped astern, stopping herself with the door, stressing its one remaining hinge. He surprised her by skating backward quite some distance, the sound of his motion a smooth, long glide through water.
Then, as the ship dove down, he ran toward her. She recognized it as the prelude to a monstrous leap. On flat ground, she'd do the same, running toward him, springing, meeting him in midair. But she'd be running uphill now, and against the torrent of water on deck sloshing her way. She'd never generate enough momentum to counter him properly.
In desperation, she wrenched at the door with a strength that surprised her. It came loose as his feet left the deck. Her lung was on the edge of implosion. She screamed, in agony and fear and bloodthirst, and heaved the door at him.
The door met him flat on at the height of his trajectory, nearly ten feet up in the air, at such an angle that it knocked him sideways. He went over the rail, over the rail of the deck below, and plunged into the sea. The door ricocheted into the bulkhead, bounced on the rail, and finally, it too, hit the roiling waters.
The steamer tilted up precariously. She stumbled aft, grasping for a handrail. By the time the vessel crested the wave and another lightning split the sky, he had disappeared.
She began to laugh wildly—vengeance was hers.
Then her laughter turned to a violent fit of coughing. Then she clutched at her chest and vomited, black blood into the black night.
All About Romance, the foremost romance review website, used to host a Purple Prose Parody contest every year. And over the years there have been some hilarious entries.
Sherry submitted two entries in two separate years. Her first effort, a sci-fi romp ripping off old-style Viking heroes, placed third. Her second effort, a send-up of the stereotypical virgin who offers up her virginity to a powerful rake in order to save her daddy/brother/beloved house/dying kitten, was a co-winner two years later.
It was one of the proudest moments of her writing life. Because as they say, death is easy, comedy is hard.
The Virgin and the Duke
"Please, your grace, I will do anything to save my father. Anything."
Annabel's enormous, lushly lashed blue eyes filled with tears, as her grip on his grace's sleeve tightened. He must, must help her.
The Duke of Fienworth, Fenwick Fiennes, Fiend to his friends (of course), looked down at the girl in her threadbare gown that hugged every outline of her temptingly curvaceous torso. "Anything?"
"Anything." Annabel licked her lips. She was so nervous.
"Even being my love toy for seven entire nights?" Fiend whispered suggestively.
Annabel could barely keep herself upright. Her head was spinning. Her heart pounded. Her breath came in short. "Yes, even that," she whispered back.
"What's the matter with her dad?" Victor asked, leaning over Sue Ellen's shoulder to read the small type on the laptop screen.
"He's going to rot in debtor's prison if Fiend, the duke, doesn't cancel a gaming debt he owes."
"How did Pops accumulate those debts?"
"He's an inveterate gambler."
"What the heck is she doing then? If she rescues him, he'd only gamble some more and get more indebted. Is she going to sleep with every one he owes money to?"
"Of course not!" Sue Ellen shot back indignantly. "She's a good daughter, that's all!"
"So she'll do this only once, only with this Fiend guy."
"She must be hot for him, huh? Using her old man as an excuse."
"Oh, Victor, get out of my hair! Go water the lawn or something."
"Okay, okay, Ms. Writer."
His tongue laved over the rosy aureoles. She moaned. She had never felt anything quite like it. His hand moved lower, to the junction between her legs, and covered her, his fingers teasing the petals of her womanhood.
"You are inundated with pearly nectar." He murmured, as he positioned the rod of his manhood to take her, at last.
"Can't he just say 'Your pussy is soaking wet, babe'? What kind of man calls it pearly nectar anyway—the Snapple guy?"
"Victor! I already told you that romance readers don't like words like that."
"You are a romance reader and you love it when I tell you your pussy is soaking wet."
"That's different." Sue Ellen blushed, she did like it when he talked dirty in bed.
"Next time I'm going to talk like your duke and see if you don't puke."
"Oh go away. Wash your car."
The world exploded around her. She felt herself lift off the bed and float away on soft clouds, at one with the cosmos. Stars drifted by her, rainbows opened up before her, flower petals, a million of them, fell gently around her.
"Ecstasy?" Victor was back and reading over her shoulder again.
"I didn't know they did drugs back in the Regency."
"She doesn't do drugs!"
"Then why is she hallucinating?"
"She just had an orgasm!"
"Sheesh. Why don't you just say she came her brains out?"
Sue Ellen thought about it. "Jennifer Crusie already used that one."
"Wait, wait. Did you say she just had an orgasm?"
"And this is the first time she had sex?"
"But I thought you said you never had an orgasm until like five years after you started doing it."
"I don't know." She too, felt a bit ambivalent about it. "The heroines always climax on their first time with the heroes. Everybody does it. It'd seem odd if mine doesn't."
"And let me guess. That hero of yours can make even a refrigerator come its brains out."
"You got it, wise guy. Weren't you going to wash the car?"
"Just grabbing a t-shirt, babe."
Fiend couldn't sleep. He was troubled. He couldn't understand it. In his lifetime he had bedded innumerable women, from barmaids to courtesans, Italian countesses to Russian princesses—a true profligate he was. Yet none of them had given him such pleasure, such satisfaction, such—
"What? She's the only one who'd let him do it up her ass?" Victor walked by with the t-shirt. "I hope he doesn't give her syphilis."
"Oh will you please just let me finished the goddamned scene already!"
"Going, going, gone, babe."
All right, where the hell was she?
The sharp, fantastic lightning writhed the night sky, skewering the storm clouds with its jagged electric fingers. Fierce wind battered the house, hurtling rain and angry debris against its shuttered windows.
The Duke of Fienworth sipped his warm brandy before a lively fire, enjoying the tempest, enjoying himself, and enjoying the sight of his newly arrived guest, a hooded and cloaked figure dripping puddles of water on his very expensive Turkish rug.
"Do sit down, Miss Blake."
The hooded cloak dropped to the floor. Annabel Blake strode forward and took a chair by his side. The fringes of her hair clung damply to her face. Her eyes were more brilliant than the lightning. They gleamed deviously, dangerously.
"So, the old man is at King's Bench, cursing Fate."
"He was taken there just this afternoon. No more worrying that he'd sell me to the highest bidder." Her eyes dimmed a bit. "At least for a while."
"Congratulations." The duke said softly."And you've come, honorably, to thank me for my part in getting your sire committed."
"My debts of gratitude can never be repaid, so I didn't come to do that." The duke raised one eyebrow. Miss Blake smiled and continued. "I came to have a tumble with you, Your Grace, before I board the ship for America, as a small reward for myself."
"Is that so?" His surprise could not be concealed.
"That is so." She leaned closer. "Shall we get started?"
Victor whistled. "Now that's a girl I could go for."
"You think so?" Sue Ellen beamed at him.
"Oh, yes. Whatever happened to the other story, that scene you were trying to finish?"
"That? Well, I thought about it. You were right. It was ridiculous, not to mention done to death. I'm going to send it to the Purple Prose Parody Contest at the All About Romance site instead."
"Cool! Wanna take a break and come see your car? I waxed it too."
"Sure. Let's go for a spin and make out in the back seat."
"You are not a virgin." The duke said.
Miss Blake gasped. "No! Are you?"
He laughed. "I think I like you very well indeed, Miss Blake."
The summer of 2002 was Sherry's Star Wars summer. She wrote a lot of Attack of the Clones-related stuff: mainly, a novel-length reworking of the movie from solely the point of view of the lovers, because she couldn't stop thinking that in a few years Anakin would become Darth Vader and Padmé be dead—and because she felt Uncle George had not developed the relationship properly, given how much depended upon it.
She also wrote two chapters of what nowadays would be called fan fiction. She had actually written it as a proposal for a Star Wars novel for Del Rey. Her then-agent sent it in for her. A year or so later she was told that the editor had liked her writing, but that they weren't allowed to publish stories set within the time-frame of the movies.
And so it collected dust in her C drive all these years, until now. She has refrained from re-editting it to her heart's content, because she thinks it should be a bit of a relic, so she can see how her style has evolved. She hopes it would be fun for readers who have only read her historical parlor-dramas to see how she does in a SF, action-drivensetting.
The Senator was in grave danger.
Somewhere in this galaxy, someone badly wanted her dead. On Coruscant, capital of the Galactic Republic, two attempts had been made on her life within hours of each other, the second of which convinced the Jedi Council, leaders of the protectors of the Republic, to send her back to her home planet of Naboo.
The Republic, too, was in grave danger.
For decades, it had been ailing, festering at its extremities, rotting in its core, asphyxiating beneath the weight of its bureaucracy. And now, someone badly wanted it dead. A separatist faction, led by the maverick Count Dooku, had rallied to its cause thousands of star systems disgusted by the Republic's incompetence, disunity, and ever-present stench of corruption.
An all-important piece of legislation awaited debate before the Senate. The proponents of the Military Creation Act sought to establish a standing Republican Army, to combat the separatist forces and minimize the impact of their ideas.
As the leader of the opposition, the Senator had worked for an entirely year, traveling constantly from planet to planet, in order that the Act would not muster passage, for she believed, as did many others, that it would lead to nothing but war and catastrophe.
The assassin had timed her attacks very carefully. The Senator was forced to leave on the eve of the vote that could decide the fate of the Republic. Her allies in the Senate would try to delay the vote as much as possible, but they were up against powerful forces.
All things considered, she should be seething: anger, fear, and anxiety simmering to a hot, bitter brew within her.
Except she was laughing, laughing so hard that she was covering her mouth with a hand—a childish gesture she hadn't performed since she was twelve, perhaps because that was the last time she had laughed so hard.
Concentrate without cease,
But think only of the Good, please.
Or the power of the Dark Side,
Will come to bite you on the back side.
It was a silly little ditty. But so few people thought to tell her jokes of any kind, silly or not.
She wanted to say something to the young man who had just rattled off that most juvenile piece of humor, something along the line of "Do you have anymore of those?"
But she only broke into a fresh burble of laughter.
"You like it? I know tons and tons of them," said the Padawan learner the Jedi had assigned to protect her. "Want to hear another?"
She nodded, holding onto her lower lip with her teeth so she wouldn't burst out laughing before he had even finished.
"Okay, but I warn you, it's bad." He cleared his throat, "A lightsaber is a very fine thing/It grows a meter long with a buzzy little zing/How nice to know that your Jedi robe hides/below waist, something of such magnificent size."
"Oh, no!" she managed between attacks of fresh mirth, "that is awful! And it doesn't even rhyme properly."
"I told you."
"Don't tell me you made that one up yourself," she chided softly.
"Then I won't tell you I made that one up by myself," he smirked. "But you've seen it, you have to admit, mine is of a magnificent size."
"Anakin!" She threw the fruit she had held in her other hand at him, but it stopped in the middle of its trajectory and spun as if on an axis, the Jedi holding it in place by his command of the Force. He grinned at her, showing a mouthful of strong white teeth.
Anakin Skywalker. He was twenty years of age, a Jedi Padawan on his first solo assignment, and a mere thirty centimeters from her, steering the rented landspeeder that was transporting them, at top velocity, through Naboo's Great Northern Forest.
The Senator rescued her snack out of its mid-air detention and took a bite. "Are all the Jedi this naughty or is it just you?"
"Not all, but not just me either, I think." He took a few seconds to actually think about it. "From time to time you hear hush-hush rumors about some really fun-loving Jedi who steal a couple of days between assignments to surf the cloud seas of Taklabor or wrestle the decadragons of Insoloo." A note of wistfulness seeped into his voice. "I won't mind doing some of that. But Master Obi-Wan likes to live by the rules, all of them."
And you'd like to flaunt them, or at least some of them.
The droid behind them suddenly chirped, and a line of text appeared on the onboard monitor situated between the Padawan and the Senator. They both glanced at it. It was his Master, wishing to confer.
"Patch him through, Artoo," commanded the Padawan.
R2-D2 beeped briefly in response and a flickering blue hologram appeared on the dashboard of the vehicle. Obi-Wan Kenobi stood with his hands together in the folds of his robe, his shoulder-length hair framing a lean, alert, sharp-featured face.
"M'Lady," he bowed to her.
"Master Kenobi," she acknowledged him. He was not yet a Jedi Master, but that honorific was applied to all who had achieved the rank of Jedi Knight. She did not begrudge them this little vanity. The life of a Jedi was difficult, dangerous, and often thankless.
"Did you enjoy an uneventful trip?" he inquired solicitously.
"Yes, we did. Thank you very much." They had traveled by refugee transport. The vessel had reeked, the food had been inedible, but the anonymity, thankfully, had also been unparalleled. "And you, Master, have you made headways in your investigation?"
"Some," the Jedi answered modestly. "It wasn't easy, but I have tracked down a source who was able to identify the provenance of the poison dart."
"That sounds like excellent progress to me," she replied.
"Thank you, Senator. I will try to keep you abreast of any development." He turned slightly and called his apprentice. "Anakin?"
"I'm here, Master." The apprentice hadn't slowed the landspeeder at all and drove now with one eye on the road and the other on the hologram.
"Stay vigilant, Anakin," Obi-Wan instructed. "Do not leave the Senator unguarded even for a moment. Do not pursue any suspects if it means she will be bereft of your protection."
He stopped momentarily. The Senator thought he had finished. But he wasn't. "And be mindful of the Jedi precepts, my young one."
"Yes, Master," the young one answered with alacrity.
"Good. May the Force be with you, Anakin."
"May the Force be with you too, Master."
"M'Lady," Obi-Wan bowed again.
"Go well, Master Kenobi," the Senator bade him.
"Phew. That was over quick." The Padawan turned and smiled at the Senator as soon as his Master's image dissipated.
He was as exuberant as he had been since the moment they landed on Naboo. She had thought he'd be a little annoyed to be checked on so soon. "You look like you didn't mind the directives."
"Well, it's not so hard saying 'yes, Master' when he's lightyears away. And besides, leaving you? A Corellian cargo ship couldn't drag me away from you now."
His green-blue eyes swept over her in open, masculine appreciation.
It had unsettled her, back on Coruscant, to realize that the mop-haired little boy of yore had been carrying a bright big torch for her all these many years. Not that she didn't receive her fair share of admiration, but he had been all of nine (and small enough to fit on her lap) the last time they laid eyes on each other.
Upon further consideration, however, she had decided not to be quite so alarmed about it. If he was infatuated with some ideal woman he had endowed with Padmé Amidala's likeness, then a few days with the real Padmé Amidala ought to cure it.
The real Padmè Amidala had no use for men of such a tender age that they didn't even grow beards.
Except...well, except he seemed somehow able to hold her attention, even without the aid of cute rhymes and that quick, comely smile. There was something to him, something beyond the callow, incomplete character, the mercurial temperament, and the easy, eager charm.
She wouldn't go so far as to call it magnetism. But something was there.
"What are the Jedi precepts?" she asked. The Jedi had played an indescribably important role for thousands of years, yet the average citizen knew no more about them than he did the time of Deep Antiquities, before the formation of the Republic. She was not an average citizen. She had felt it necessary to learn as much as she could about those whose vocation was the defense of peace and justice (both of which, however, diminished daily in the galaxy). And even she had never heard of the Jedi precepts.
"There is no emotion; there is peace. There is no ignorance; there is knowledge. There is no passion; there is serenity. There is no death; there is the Force," her Padawan intoned. "The Jedi precepts."
As he went on, the Senator grasped that she was listening to the core ideas at the foundation of the entire Jedi philosophy, culture, and organization. Yet he recited them as if they were items on a shopping list, with about as much regard and attachment.
"They really drill them into you," he said, referring to the Precepts. "I've seen little two-year-olds at the Temple, kids who can't even use the commode by themselves, recite the Precepts perfectly."
And she wondered whether he understood those ideas any better than those two-year-olds did.
"Is Master Kenobi afraid you'll forget them, after a few days away from the Temple?" she teased, hiding her intention to probe.
"I think he is," the Padawan mused, turning his head left and right to glance at the forest rushing by. "Everyone at the Temple seems to be of the opinion that I feel too much, that I'm not peaceful or serene enough. Especially Master Yoda. Every time he passes me in the hallways, he'd say something like 'Of anger mindful be' or 'Enemy of the Force fear is'. Frankly, I've taken detours when I see him coming my way."
Realization dawned. "So that first little ditty—Dark Side coming to bite you on the rear end—you made it."
"Yeah," he admitted. "Sometimes I wonder if Master Yoda thinks I'm headed straight for the Dark Side. I mean,"—his voice lost some of its bounce—"I could have stayed on Tatooine and thrown in my lot with the Hutts if I'd planned to be a lousy person. There's always enough work in slave trafficking, smuggling, or contract killing."
She pondered his words. For a while, neither of them spoke, and there was only the sound of wind charging by and the low grind of the landspeeder. The forest stood mutely to either side, and stretched endlessly, it seemed, before them. Somewhere above them, a bright afternoon sun shone down on the world. But beneath the dense, thick foliage that blocked out most of the sky, the color of the air was that of a green dusk. One saw well enough along the road, thanks to the light that seeped down through cracks in the leafy roof, but the gloom in the woods became impenetrable in the space of ten, fifteen meters.
This was not the Senator's favorite part of the journey to the Lake District, where she was expected to spend the coming days rusticating, young Skywalker never further away than her own shadow, until Obi-Wan Kenobi could resolve the matter of the two attempted assassinations. They were about eighty kilometers outside Brivae, the nearest town with an air/spaceport. The first ten kilometers had been cultivated fields, which gave way to rolling green pastures, then orchards, and sunlit woodlands of the sort beloved by children of all ages. In about fifteen more kilometers, the land would once again open up, meadows for as far as the eyes would see before changing into lush hills and an occasional notable peak just before one eased into the Lake District.
The Padawan too, had been glancing around more frequently and more intensely for the past twenty some kilometers. His head turned up to the green roof above them, then he spared a look over his shoulders. When he spoke, however, he was still thinking of the past.
"Do you remember that day on Coruscant, when I came around to say goodbye to you, because I thought I might not see you again after my admittance to the Jedi Order?"
"I remember." He had come to look for his friend Padmé, whom he believed to be one of the Queen's handmaidens, a useful trick in dangerous times. But Padmé the handmaiden was not to be found that day, because she was in the Queen's robe, her face covered by thick ceremonial paint, getting ready to address the Senate and plead the plight of her people. She had called for a vote of no confidence in Chancellor Valorum that day, when he failed to demonstrate adequate leadership. The consequence of that action had been the election of Senator Palpatine to the Chancellorship.
Many times in subsequent years she had wondered whether it had been the right thing to do. Things had not improved under the leadership of Senator Palpatine. He was popular among the Senators and the bureaucrats, but the Republic was in worse shape than ever.
"But we did see each other again after that," she said diplomatically. The Jedi had refused to admit him.
"Yeah, they didn't want me then." There was just a trace of bitterness to his voice, barely detectible.
"Because you were too old." Or so she had been told. The typical future Jedi entered the Temple before they had even learned to crawl.
"That's what they said." He was silent for a moment. "Do you know what Master Yoda said to me that day?"
She shook her head.
" 'Afraid to lose your mother, are you?' he said. I said, 'what does that have to do with anything?' We were there to test my affinity with the Force, not how I felt about leaving home." He took a deep, unsteady breath. "'Fear is the path to the Dark Side. Much fear I sense in you,' that was his reply."
More silence. "I don't see anything wrong in worrying about my mother."
Not many young men she knew worried about their mothers. They worried more about themselves, about girls, friends, and careers. But then again, not many young men she knew had mothers who were slaves on a lawless world.
"I wish the Jedi weren't so endlessly strict about separating everyone from their families. I wish they'd let me visit once in a while, you know, once every two years or something, just so that I can see—"
He stopped speaking. Two seconds later he slammed on the brakes. The landspeeder came to a screeching halt that threw her forward against the safety harness, hurting her chest and squeezing all the air out of her lungs, and then slumped her back against the seat.
"What's the matter?" she demanded.
"I don't know," he said. "Yet. Something doesn't feel right."
They craned their necks and scanned their surroundings. She could see nothing wrong. The tunnel-like road felt stifling. But they were in the middle of a very old forest, one that had been almost completely undisturbed since Naboo was first settled by surface dwellers, save for the opening of the road. Old forests were not romantic places.
He pressed a button, the domed roof of the landspeeder slid back. With the engines cut and the airflow over the speeder ceased, the hush was momentarily deafening, and the stillness worrisome. But within moments she began to hear the sounds of the forest, the creak of a branch, the rustle of leaves. She observed the flight of several birds between trees, and had a quick glimpse of some swift, four-legged beast leaping between lumps of undergrowth.
Her protector, however, did not seem relieved by these sounds and motions of normalcy. He stood up, leaned slightly back over his seat to gaze into the green tunnel before them.
Her hand crept under the side slit of her tunic and closed around the handle of her blaster. Beneath the tunic, she already wore a light armored vest.
"Give me your blaster," he commanded quietly.
She complied immediately.
He set the power level of the blaster to high, raised it chest level, and fired it straight ahead, at nothing in particular.
The beam of heated plasma gas traveled two hundred meters unhindered, then its energy suddenly dissipated in a quivering web of reddish sizzle.
Her heart stopped momentarily.
There was a transparent net strung directly across the path of their trajectory. Someone was waiting. She tried very hard to come up with some locally based explanations. But hunters rarely chose this part of the planet. And bandits would not bother with a section of the road where a month might pass by without any travelers.
The blaster returned to her hand. He slid back down. "I think it's for you."
He pressed a button, the recessed dome of the speeder rose from behind them and met the curvature of the front windshield just a little above and behind their heads.
"How many of them do you think are there?" she asked, referring to her would-be assassins.
"At least two, if not more." He restarted the speeder. "Stringing up a web like that takes some teamwork."
"That web, it only shook when the blaster shot hit." She thought fast. "It has a lot of give. I think it's meant to stretch when our speeder zooms into it and then catapult it back out."
"Good thing I saw it then." He turned the speeder around. "Don't want to lose control like that."
"I wonder what's their backup plan," she said darkly.
"Let's hope they don't have one."
Suddenly, when they had gone no more than ten meters, the ground itself erupted. From about one hundred meters before them, a line of detonation traveled rapidly toward them. The enemy did have a backup plan. A very crude one, but then, crude methods only persisted because they were effective.
R2-D2 whistled in alarm. Anakin Skywalker muttered something under his breath and spun the speeder one hundred eighty degrees. It shot forward into the direction of the once again invisible net. There was no other choice. The vehicle was too big to maneuver inside the forest. Getting out now, with the explosions approaching swift and deafening, and an unknown number of assailants waiting to hunt them down, was suicide.
"Can you handle a speeder?" he shouted above the din of the road blasting up in chunks and the engine roaring.
Neither as Queen nor as Senator had she many occasions to transport herself. But her security and self-defense trainings had included the handling of various basic types of motorized conveyance. "To save my life, you bet I can!" she shouted back.
"To save our lives," he reminded her as he flicked a number of switches, things that had to do with repulsor flow direction, internal vent routes, flight altitude, and duel piloting.
He dug up a tiny cylinder from a pouch on his utility belt and handed it to her. "Heat pellet. Fire it into the net."
She took it, held it between her teeth, and with fingers that trembled only very slightly, switched her dual-function blaster into projectile mode. Then she fitted the capsule into the special-options chamber of the blaster, opened the dome just a crack, stuck her hand out, and pulled the trigger.
The heat pellet made the part of net it struck into become visible again and glow a sustained blue-white against the shadowy backdrop of the forest. They were less than one hundred meters away.
As soon as she pulled her arm back in, he said, "Sit tight. I'm going to flip this thing over."
"What?" She hadn't even been aware that a landspeeder could function upside down. It'd be pinned to the ground with all its energy output pointed the wrong way. And what for?
He didn't bother to give any explanations, but merely diverted all the repulsion to the right side and shut off the source to the left. The speeder promptly rolled a half-turn in the air along its longitudinal axis. He immediately re-balanced the left-right supply.
Amazingly enough, they kept moving, a bit slower, and much too close to the ground—which she found herself staring at just outside the top, or should she say, the bottom of the dome. It was completely disorienting, to zip along in this manner, her head going heavy with all the blood rushing into it. And the little bit of give in the safety bands made her feel as if she'd slide out of those restraints if she didn't keep her ankles firmly hooked on the crook of the seat.
At this low elevation, the brutal booming of the ground shuddered fiercely through her. She couldn't help turning her head to look behind them. It was like watching a brown sky break into pieces and fall apart, just short of their own heads.
He accelerated, until it looked as if they were going to ram into the net. She gasped. He applied the brakes as aggressively as he had pushed the thrusters a few seconds ago and turned the speeder. The speeder banked and stopped half a meter short of the net, with his side facing it directly.
They had no sooner opened the dome when the first blaster shots rained down. The speeder quivered and shook as it absorbed the plasma bolts, the upward pointing repulsor flow now acting as something of a crude energy shield.
Anakin Skywalker leaned out to cut away at the net with his lightsaber. He needed to open an aperture that the landspeeder could push through. But he had barely extended his arm before he had to pull back. The assailants up the trees were excellent marksmen and they aimed to disable his outstretched
The Senator took matters into her own hands. Hoping that she was reversing directions properly with herself hanging upside down, she backed the speeder out and put it back in again with its nose practically touching the net. "Go under the front hood. They can't get you there so easily."
He did precisely that, falling out of the interior and immediately rolling under the hood. She turned the rear downward thrusters to maximum, jamming the back of the speeder to the ground.
Artoo trilled in protest as his head bonked on hard surface.
"Sorry, had to," she apologized.
The front of the speeder, as a consequence of her action, tilted up, offering him both more maneuvering space and better protection, for she had realized, from the angles of the shots, that their enemies were behind them.
The lightsaber blazed a bright blue. He struck it into the web. For a moment she panicked. The web melted against the lightsaber, dripping thickly around it, rather than tearing cleanly. He changed strategy at once. Starting from the bottom, he simply worked the property of the web to their advantage and went on melting.
The next barrage of blaster shots did little to hinder his progress. But melting was taking a lot longer than cutting. The Senator turned sideways inside, keeping one eye on her Jedi and another, more anxious one on the advancing explosions.
"Fifteen meters!" she yelled out.
He wasn't done yet. She didn't even know whether he could hear her, but he should definitely be able to hear the explosions.
Twelve meters. Ten meters. She was sweating despite the coolness of the shaded forest floor. Beads of perspiration rolled backward, up her forehead, by her ears, into her hair.
She wanted to be calm, but she was frantic. Her head kept whipping back and forth. Then she saw it, a movement to her left, a grey-clad figure plummeting down the side of a large tree trunk head first, secured at the waist by a long cable. Without even thinking, she cocked her blaster and fired. Once, twice, three times.
The figure went limp.
"They are coming down! We have to go!"
Still no response. She looked back. Five meters. Four meters, three meters. She looked around. No more assassins were coming down. They were expecting the pyrotechnical train wreck to finish their job.
No time left for him to get back in.
Artoo beeped and beeped. Her ear drums vibrated painfully with the detonations. The flying debris that preceded them threatened to obscure her vision. They pelted the side of her face and neck, hot, hard, and harsh.
She saw his lightsaber turn off, saw him grab onto the decorative grille in front with his hands, hook one boot into the indentation of the front side vent, and pushed the other one directly against the windshield.
"Okay. Go! And don't kill me!"
She sank her weight into the thruster. The speeder flew through the hole he had made in the net just as the spot of earth atop which they had hovered a moment ago blew sky high.
An angry bombardment of laser bolts followed them for nearly a quarter of a kilometer before gradually petering out.
"How do I turn this thing over?" she asked as soon as they were out of imminent danger.
"You can't!" he hollered back.
"What do you mean?!"
"It means I don't know how it could be done—not with the thrusters, anyway."
"You are kidding!"
"I'm not. I don't dare tease a Senator. Just stop this thing for now."
She did. They both got out. His face was dark with sweat and grime, his once immaculate Jedi tunic dirty and shredded. She supposed she probably didn't look a whole lot more presentable than he did.
"How about the old-fashioned way?" he asked, wiping his forehead with a sleeve, with neither looking any cleaner or filthier as a result.
She shook her head. "I guess we must."
They got R2-D2 out, had him jack one side of the speeder up as high as his tool extension could reach, and then together, they pushed it over. The speeder fell to ground with a heavy thud.
It took two tries to restart and the speeder didn't sound too healthy. But it was still working, that was good enough. She slumped against her seat, massaging her throbbing temples. "How many are following us?"
He checked the radar screen. "It registers three separate vehicles. About a nine hundred meters behind us."
"Great." And here she was drained already. "Where do you think the security breach happened?" She had a few ideas of her own, but she wanted to hear what he had to say. He was, after all, responsible for her safety now.
"Where the security breaches happened, you mean," he turned to look at her, his expression grim, a flash of anger behind the irises of his eyes. "The Queen, obviously, needs to have an entire security sweep done. Either the Throne Room is compromised, or there is a traitor among those who were present this morning."
This morning, fresh off the refugee transport, they had attended an audience with Queen Jamillia, during which the Senator revealed her plan to wait out the storm in the Lake District. It had not occurred to her to keep her destination a complete, paranoid secret. It had not occurred to her that anyone with access to that room could wish to harm her. The rampant anonymity of Coruscant was not yet endemic to Naboo. She knew the people at the Palace, from the most venerated political advisors to the rank-and-file security officers.
Besides, separatist sentiments were practically nowhere to be found on this planet. Naboo had prospered in the past decade and a content people usually preferred the status quo.
"And there is no question someone on Coruscant leaked the news of your return. Nobody was supposed to think you're here. Remember, we planted all those clues that pointed to the royal complex on Alderaan?"
"There were so few who knew," she murmured. And that made suspecting any of them even more painful, not to mention mind-boggling. "Captain Typho, Dormé, the Jedi Council, your Master, and the Chancellor, no one else."
"What about Senator Organa? You were in conference with him all morning before we left."
Was that a note a jealousy she detected in his voice?
"I only told him I had to leave the capital, not where I was going."
"And Jar Jar?"
"Same." Her head was truly pounding now. "I can't even believe we are suspecting Jar Jar!"
"He'd never willingly do anything to hurt you, but he's so gullible, anyone could coax anything out of him, given a little bit of skill."
"That's why he wasn't told." She sat up a little straighter. "I hope he doesn't do something stupid when I'm not there."
After the liberation of Naboo, Jar Jar Binks, having played a significant role in forging an alliance between the Naboo and the Gungan had, to his own great bafflement, been elected Associate Planetary Representative, the largely ceremonial position just beneath that of Senator, by a grateful Naboo public who valued purity of heart above all. Instead of the set of old vest and trousers, now he sauntered around the halls of the Senate Apartment Building in fine, somber robes of office. But while the new attire had brought out a new dignity in him, and he had lost some of his legendary physical clumsiness, his understanding of complex issues never quite took off.
"Would you please worry a little about yourself instead?" he said passionately. Really, the boy had such limited supply of patience. "Jar Jar's mistakes can be undone. You cannot be brought back from the dead, Padmé."
Very few people called her by her given name. She was "Your Highness" for eight years, and since then either "Senator Amidala" or "M'Lady," the latter an honor accorded her for life for outstanding service to her people.
"Worrying about things other than myself is a habit," she allowed herself a small smile. "It's second nature to public servants."
He spared her a disbelieving glance. "That would make you that rare public servant indeed. Coruscant is fairly crawling with public servants. And in all my years there, I've yet to see them worry about anything other than themselves."
And that, in a nutshell, was the tragedy of the Republic. If it weren't for the apathy, the ineptitude, and the greed of those who were supposed to serve its trillions of citizens, perhaps the separatist movement that now threatened to rend it in two—or worse, splinter it into many smaller, conflicting fiefdoms—would not have gained anywhere near as strong a foothold.
She sighed. "Where were we?"
His reply was drowned out by a sudden piercing screech emitted by their speeder. It lost all speed, quaked, and bucked; a thick, yellow fume billowed out from both front and rear ends.
"What in the world is going on?" The last thing they needed now was a malfunctioning transport, with multiple assassins on the chase.
Her Jedi, however, did not appear at all surprised by this turn of events. He somehow managed to veer the stalling vehicle to one side of the road, three quarters into the forest, actually, with only the smoking tail outside the tree line.
"I didn't get around to tell you," he told her as he lifted R2-D2 out. "Once a landspeeder goes the wrong way, it's fried. We were lucky it lasted as long as it did."
"Well, that answers my question as to why I never see it done," she said a bit sarcastically, "since it seems such a cool trick."
He bent down and put something on the undercarriage of the landspeeder. "Yeah, it was a lot of fun, wasn't it?" he replied, his face deadpan.
She laughed incredulously. "Speak for yourself. I haven't your taste for danger." Anyone who enjoyed podracing had to be adrenaline-addicted. And he had liked and excelled at it when he was a mere babe of nine. "So, what do we do now?"
He began walking across the road, motioning her and the droid to follow. "We can hike, if you like, and hunt for food in this forest, until Obi-Wan gives us the clear signal."
She raised an eyebrow.
"Or we do it my way. We take down our pursuers and use their transports to get to where we want to go."
"Only we can't go there anymore," she shook her head. "It's not exactly a state secret that my family has a house up here. And if they knew to intersect us on this road, they'd already know that's the part of the Lake District we were headed for."
"Fine," he said decisively as he guided R2 behind a clump of thick, brushy undergrowth. "We'll settle where to go later. We still need those transports."
He turned to her and smiled. "Do you know how to climb trees?"
* * *
He situated them across the road from R2, a little distance from the wreckage of the speeder. "They won't come that close to it," he had explained, "not all of them anyway."
She crouched low where the major limbs of their tree branched out, forming a shallow bowl atop the wide trunk, a good twenty meters above ground. He leaned out further, listening, observing the road.
She found herself looking at him with new respect.
She hadn't seen him in action since the Boonta Eve Classic event at the Mos Espa Grand Arena more than ten years ago. It was more than impressive, his skills, his cleverness, his presence of mind in a moment of crisis. Theoretically, she already knew he must be very good. And still she was astonished.
This must be what Master Qui-Gon Jinn saw in him. This must be why the late, great Jedi had been willing to break all Jedi rules to train him, with or without Jedi Council permission.
Silently, lithely, he retreated to her side.
"They are coming," he whispered in her ear, his lips against her skin.
Normally such an unrefined technique would have earned a man an instant, pitiless brushing-off. But with her heart beating at triple its normal rate and her mind focused on what she needed to accomplish in the next minute or so, she decided to postpone the lesson on courting etiquettes.
"Remember what you need to do?"
Heat from his lips surged through an entire half of her. She ignored it and nodded.
In triangular formation, three grey figures on airscooters, faces covered by grey cloth masks, cautiously approached the totaled landspeeder. They stopped about ten meters short of it. The lead figure waved a hand, one of the two riders behind him moved forward.
He got off the scooter as he came close to the speeder. Then, blaster in hand, he began making a careful circle around it on foot, finishing the circle without any mishap. Now bolder, he leaned in against the side of the vehicle to check inside the cabin.
The Senator pressed the tiny detonator the Padawan had given her.
"Are Jedi supposed to carry explosives?" she had asked, unsure. The lightsaber, as a weapon, was symbolic of the Jedi's philosophy of non-aggression. They were not, she thought, supposed to go around triggering explosions.
He had merely shrugged. "It's not a traditional option. The Jedi have too many useless traditions."
The small bomb placed just beneath the fuel tank exploded in a fireball, ripping the speeder in three high-flying pieces. A shrill female scream rent the air.
The quarry had been a woman.
The Senator held on tight to the mossy, slippery tree limb as bits of blood and tissue splattered her clothes. Her stomached churned acidly.
Across the road, R2-D2, from his hidden spot, lobbed a rock at the remaining two assassins. In that split second, as the assassins turned toward that side to look, presenting their unprotected backs, she pulled her trigger, Anakin Skywalker leapt out of the tree.
The two assassins both fell, one incapacitated by her blaster shots, the other, the group leader, knocked to the ground by the Padawan. Hurriedly, she lowered herself on the grapple-ended cable they had used to ascend the straight-growing, smooth-barked tree. By the time her feet touched the humus-soft earth, Anakin Skywalker already had his adversary pinned beneath his lightsaber and dispossessed of weapons.
The Senator checked the ground, gathering up the fallen blasters, keeping an eye on the Padawan.
"Who sent you?" He asked, ripping the mask off the assassin. It was another woman. "Tell me who sent you."
His voice was very soft, yet a shiver of cold crawled down the Senator's spine. She looked at him. His expression was devoid of everything but menace, those youthful, angelic features suddenly hard and merciless.
The assassin trembled.
"Tell me." This time, his tone wasn't quite so polite.
The assassin shook violently, her hand shuddering spasmodically on the ground.
He was doing something to her, something unseen yet terrible.
"Tell me!" He had her by her collar. Her head was pulled off the ground. He stared down into her eyes.
Her lips opened. "It's..it's...it's...it's the—"
The Senator could hardly breathe, as if she too, had been terrorized by him. Suddenly she knew what it was about him that had drawn her attention despite his youth and immaturity. It was this potent power within him, the power to wield the Force like a sledgehammer, the power to bend others to his will, the power to dominate.
But the answer never came. The woman's mouth snapped shut. Her neck fell back, the muscles of her cheeks tensed, as if she were grinding hard down on her own teeth.
The Padawan spat out something in Huttese, clamped his hands around her mouth, and tried to force her jaw open. But he was too late. She had already begun to convulse wildly, dribbles of blood coming out of her eyes, nostrils, and ears.
Ten seconds later she was dead.
"Neurotoxin?" the Senator asked, her voice not sounding too steady in her own ears.
"Probably," he replied in a monotone. "And I was so close, three more seconds and—"
He leapt up three meters in the air and somersaulted over her head. She whipped around just in time to see his lightsaber sever an arm and half of the shoulder attached to it. The limb flew several meters. Something shiny fell out of it midway, landing not far from her feet, making her jump. It was a small throwing knife, the tip of it black as the night.
She looked from the knife to her Padawan, and, reluctantly, to the mutilated man on the ground—this one was a male, as his unfastened mask revealed. His mouth was open, but no screams emerged, only ghastly, gargle-like sounds, as if his trachea bubbled over with fluid.
The Padawan crouched down. To her disbelief, she realized that he meant to force an answer from the dying man whose lungs she had already pierced and who had just lost a third of his upper body.
She understood, on an intellectual level, that the assassin was a person of few scruples and even less compassion, that he was, until seconds ago, actively engaged in activities that would have brought about her early demise. But her heart was not hardened enough to witness further torture being inflicted upon him. And torture, she knew, was probably the correct word for the method the Padawan intended.
But she needn't have worried. The assassin, having beheld how close his colleague came to revealing the source of their command and knowing his own weakened state, chose to kill himself immediately, rather than facing the possibility of having his will sacked and the information extracted by the Padawan.
She turned her head aside. But her stomach still lurched at the sound of crunching bones—the man's violent convulsions had broken his own neck.
Half a minute later, she heard the Padawan sheath his lightsaber.
"Next time, make sure they are dead," he advised.
"I hope there will never be a next time," she replied, more fervently than she had intended.
There was a second of silence. "Well," he said, "we have transports. Where shall we go?"