Johun shifted in his seat, trying to find a more comfortable position and thinking how much easier it had been to bear the burden of starship travel in his youth. But he was no longer a teenager on the cusp of manhood. He was taller, for one thing-a full 1.85 meters in height. And his slight frame had become corded with taut, wiry muscle. The only remnant of the young man he had been was the blond hair that still hung down to his shoulders-a sharp contrast with the scruffy black beard that covered the line of his jaw.
He shifted again and glared pointedly at Tarsus Valorum, resting easily in the seat across from him. The Chancellor was in his sixties now, though apart from a slight graying of his hair around the temples he looked very much as he had the first day Johun had met him. Tarsus met the Jedi's fierce gaze with a smile and a shrug... the closest thing Johun would ever get to an apology for having to endure the long interstellar flight aboard this second-rate vessel.
The New Dawn was an Emissary-class shuttle-serviceable, but far from luxurious. It would have been a simple matter for Tarsus
Valorum, former Supreme Chancellor of the Galactic Republic, to request a more extravagant ship for his personal use: one of the new Cygnus Theta-class shuttles, or possibly even the magnificent Consular space cruisers so popular among the diplomatic community. Given his previous position, there was little doubt the Senate would have approved the funds for the purchase. But Valorum had insisted that the tiny New Dawn, with her two-person crew, passenger seating for six, and Class Six hyperdrive, was more than adequate for his needs now that he had officially stepped down from his position.
It was a small gesture of modesty and practicality that spoke volumes about the man himself. Over the years Johun had observed the Chancellor in public and in private, and the more he got to know him the more respect he had for him. But that wasn't to say the man couldn't be stubborn and even obstinate, as he'd proved when he refused the Senate's offer of an honor guard accompaniment for his diplomatic missions.
A retired politician is no threat to anybody, he'd argued. And I'm certainly not important enough anymore for others to put themselves in harm's way for my sake.
Johun still traveled at his side, but that was by his choice, not the Chancellor's. He knew how valuable Valorum remained to the Republic, and he knew there were enemies who would do him harm if given the chance. He had tried several times to convince Tarsus to travel with more security, with no success. So until his stubborn friend agreed to a personal guard detail, Johun was determined to accompany him on every mission.
"I hope we get there soon," Johun muttered, giving voice to his discomfort.
"You could always enter one of your meditative trances to pass the time " the Chancellor said jokingly. "You're not one for idle conversation anyway."
Tarsus only permitted Johun to accompany him because of the long-standing relationship between them. The Jedi had been a member of the Chancellor's Guard through most of Valorum's first four-year term and the entirety of the second. Now his official position was Jedi adviser, though Johun would never presume to "advise" the Chancellor about anything.
Tarsus Valorum was known throughout the galaxy as the man who saved the Republic. Spearheading the Ruusan Reformations through the Senate, he had ushered in a new age of peace, prosperity, and expansion. Yet it wasn't what he had accomplished that made him a great man in Johun's eyes; it was how he had done it.
Serving at the Chancellor's side, the Jedi had seen the true power of words and ideas. Tarsus Valorum was a man of deep conviction- that rare breed of politician who truly believed his own words. Determined to create a Golden Age for the citizens of the galaxy, he had pursued with tireless vigor his dream of a reborn and reunited Republic. Hundreds of worlds that had fallen away during the last few centuries of war and galactic turmoil were brought back into the Republic fold during his reign. And when his term of service ended and the time came for him to pass his position over to his successor, he made sure everything was in place for her to continue his work.
Most amazingly, the great reunification had been accomplished with a minimum of bloodshed and battles. Relying on ambassadors and treaties, he had accomplished what could never be done through armies and war. To win a world, you must win the hearts and minds of its people, the Chancellor had once explained, shortly after Johun had been assigned to him. Now, after a decade of witnessing all Valorum had achieved, he knew truer words had never been spoken.
"Estimated arrival in five minutes," the voice of the pilot crackled over the shipboard intercom. "Prepare for landing."
Johun gave an exaggerated sigh of relief, and the Chancellor chuckled softly. It was a familiar routine to both men. Even though he was retired, Tarsus was not a man to simply step aside from the realm of politics. He remained a vigorous advocate for the Republic. In the two years since his term of office had ended, Johun had accompanied him on over fifty personal diplomatic missions... like the one they were on now.
The planet of Serenno was an important world to the Republic. The ruling noble families were among the wealthiest individuals in the galaxy. In addition to donating enormous sums to highly visible charitable and political organizations, they had the financial capital to help underwrite massive government infrastructure projects.
More important, their vast resources also enabled them to fund groups that were opposed to the Republic should they so choose. Separatist factions often sought out wealthy benefactors in Carannia, Saffia, and Fiyarro, Serenno's three largest cities.
Valorum had come to meet with the heads of the six most powerful families on the world. He hoped to convince them to use their influence to persuade the other families to cut off all funding to anti-Republic factions. It was a difficult mission, as the Counts of Serenno were not known for acceding to the demands of outsiders.
To make negotiations easier, the visit was being conducted through unofficial channels. Valorum had once explained to John that many rulers and politicians behaved quite differently when their actions were exposed to the public eye. Too often they would simply give the appearance of meeting expectations, a tactic Tarsus personally despised. In a public forum officials would frequently offer promises of support to a cause they did not believe in, only to reverst their position once public awareness of the issue faded.
Conversely, rulers might oppose or reject an idea they supported so as not to appear weak-minded or easy to manipulate. Such was the case on Serenno. If it was widely known that a representative of the
Republic was coming to pressure them into action, they would oppose him on mere principle.
Never trust a promise made in front of a holoprojector, the Chancellor often warned. If you want to get anything done, you need to meet behind dosed doors and look a person right in the eye.
"Making final approach" the pilot announced, and Johun felt their shuttle bank slightly to port.
They were scheduled to touch down at the private spaceport of Count Nalju, head of one of Serenno's six Great Houses and a staunch ally of the Republic. Landing at a secluded location on the Nalju family estate, they would take a landspeeder to prearranged meetings with representatives from each of the Great Houses in turn so Valorum could plead his case.
They felt the slight bump of touchdown and heard the whoosh of the exit ramp descending. Eager to get out and stretch his legs, Johun jumped to his feet.
"Shall we disembark, Your Excellency?" he asked, using the honorific to which the Chancellor was still entitled even in retirement.
Valorum rose from his chair, then made one last check of his appearance. Johun was dressed in the traditional brown-and-tan garments of his Order, but Tarsus was wearing an elaborate outfit in the custom and fashion of Serenno royalty. He had been fitted with dark blue trousers and a loose white shirt, both handmade by master tailors. Draped over his shoulders was a silken cape of midnight black-a gift from Count Nalju. The edges of the cape, along with the collar and cuffs of his shirt, were embroidered with a repeating pattern of three overlapping white circles set against a blue background, the emblem and colors of House Nalju.
The entire outfit had been fashioned from only the finest and most expensive materials; Johun shuddered to imagine what it had cost. Yet the garment was a symbol of the unwavering support House
Nalju gave to the former Chancellor's cause. Without the sponsorship of a powerful and long-standing House, the nobility would simply dismiss Valorum as an outsider or inferior.
Johun knew that Tarsus could have asked the Senate to reimburse him for the expense. However, as was his nature, Valorum had chosen to pay for it himself.
They disembarked to find themselves on a small landing pad constructed atop a tall outcropping of stone rising up like a pillar from the ocean. Fifty meters away stood the towering cliffs of the shoreline, their tops the same height as the landing pad. A single two-meter-wide durasteel walkway connected the landing pad to the clifftops. Halfway along the walkway, perfectly centered between the cliffs and the landing pad, was a wider five-by-five-meter platform, supported underneath by a crisscrossing skeleton of reinforced girders.
There were no railings on either the landing pad or the catwalk. Johun knew the lack of railings-like so many other aspects of Serenno's culture-were symbolic. There was a long-standing tradition of fierce independence among the nobility. Railings on the walkway or the landing pad would have been a sign of weakness, an admission of frailty and mortality that would have undermined House Nalju's pride and position. Even so, the Jedi couldn't help but worry about the Chancellor's safety when he contemplated the fifty-meter fall off the edge to the cold waters below.
The sole purpose of their arrival was to avoid fanfare and attention, so it was no surprise that there were only a handful of people waiting to meet them. Johun guessed they were servants from Count Nalju's household retinue, as they wore clothing similar to Valorum's custom-made cape.
Four figures were huddled together on the platform in the middle of the walkway waiting for them, buffeted by the stiff ocean breeze that tugged at their clothes and made their capes flutter out behind them. Three of them were human-two men and one woman. The fourth was a male Twi'lek with bright red skin; Johun wondered if it was some type of status symbol for the nobles to employ a Lethan among their household staff.
Waiting on the clifftops beyond the platform were two more servants, standing beside the landspeeder that would whisk them away to their appointed meetings. Unlike those on the platform, they were too far away for Johun to make out any details that might indicate species or gender.
The New Dawns engines shut down, only to be replaced by the crashing rhythm of the surf as it pounded itself relentlessly against the face of the cliffs.
"Not my first choice of places to touch down," Johun noted, raising his voice loud enough that Tarsus could hear him over the waves and wind.
"Well, I did ask Nalju to let us land someplace remote," Tarsus shouted back with a laugh. "I see they only came out halfway to meet us," he added, nodding his head in the direction of the four figures waiting on the platform.
"Would you go any farther out on this walkway than you had to?" Johun asked.
"I guess not," the Chancellor admitted, then put his head down against the rising wind and made his way out onto the walkway.
Johun followed a moment later, though he felt a sudden uneasiness about the entire situation.
"Be careful," he called ahead to Valorum. "If you go over the edge I can't promise I'll catch you."
The other man either didn't hear him or was too busy concentrating on making his way safely across to respond.
They were only a few meters away from the platform's edge when
Johun was hit with a powerful premonition, an undeniable disturbance in the Force that warned him something terrible was about to happen. To this point his attention had been focused on Valorum's progress across the treacherous walkway. Now he opened up his awareness and allowed the Force to flow through him, painting a perfect picture of their entire surroundings.
The four figures waiting for them on the platform were armed with blasters and vibro-weapons. The two by the landspeeder-a short, heavyset man whose arms and neck were covered in green and purple tattoos and a Chiss female-were also armed. More alarmingly, the Chiss seemed to be concealing something in her hand.
Even without turning around, his heightened awareness allowed him to see the New Dawn resting on the landing pad behind him. Around the circumference of the pillar, just below the edge and carefully hidden from view, he sensed something explosive. He guessed that what the Chiss held in her hand was a remote detonator.
Johun took in every detail of the scene in the blink of an eye. Even so, he wasn't fast enough to save the New Dawn or her crew. The Chiss flipped the switch in her hand, and the charges wired around the landing pad exploded. The blast ripped through the ship's exterior, leaving great smoking holes in her unarmored hull. The shrapnel fragments shredded the pilot and navigator inside, killing them instantly.
The top half of the landing pad's stone column crumbled away, sending the New Dawn tumbling down. It ricocheted off the pillar's jagged rock face then hit the water with an echoing smack, sending a spray of foam shooting skyward; it sank almost instantly beneath the cold, frothing surface.
As the landing pad fell away the durasteel walkway buckled and bent, sending Valorum toppling over the edge. Empowered by the Force, Johun leapt forward and landed on his stomach, his arm shooting out over the edge to catch Valorum by the corner of his cape an instant before he plunged to his death. The Chancellor dangled there for a second before Johun heaved him up with one hand, swinging him by the cape so he dropped safely on the listing walkway behind the Jedi.
Johun ignited the green blade of his lightsaber just in time to deflect a blaster bolt fired at him by the woman on the platform, then scrambled to his feet to face his attackers. They hesitated at the sight of his trademark weapon, considering their chances against a Jedi,
Their delay gave Johun a chance to evaluate the situation. Retreat was impossible: the section of the durasteel walkway they stood on now jutted out at a descending angle from the platform where their enemies gathered; the far end had been sheared away and now dropped off into empty sky. The only escape was to go forward toward the cliffs-even if it meant going through his enemies.
"Don't move!" he shouted to Valorum as he leapt forward, landing on the platform even as the woman and both men drew their vi-broswords and attacked. Only the Twi'lek held back.
All three wielded weapons laced with cortosis, allowing their blades to clash with Johun's lightsaber without being sliced in two. It only took the first pass for him to realize each one was a highly skilled opponent. Deflecting a quick slash intended to disembowel him by the first man, Johun wheeled to intercept a hard swipe at his neck from the woman. He delivered a spinning round kick to her side, sending her reeling even as he reached behind his back with his lightsaber to parry a savage thrust by the third man at his unprotected flank.
Johun's training in lightsaber combat was limited to the strikes and parries of Form VI, Niman, the most balanced of all the styles. Colloquially know as the Diplomat's Form, Niman had no specific strengths or weaknesses. Its general versatility had served him well during the unpredictable grand melees of the Ruusan battlefields. But over the past decade he had made only the most basic efforts to maintain his skill with the blade. Instead he had focused his attention on developing diplomatic talents. Yet he was still a Jedi, and a formidable foe for anyone to face.
He may have been outnumbered, but his enemies attacked as individuals, unable to coordinate the timing of their strikes. The woman regained her balance and rushed in, but Johun spun to the side and shoved her toward the first man. Her momentum sent her crashing into her partner, both of them tumbling to the ground in a tangled mess of limbs.
Knowing that the other two were momentarily incapacitated, he focused all his attention on the second man. Attacking as a trio, they had forced Johun onto the defensive. One-on-one, however, he was able to press the action. He came at his lone opponent aggressively, holding nothing back, knowing he was fighting to save not just himself but the Chancellor, as well. His blade danced and sizzled, moving too swiftly for the eye to follow.
The man fell back under the assault, frantically parrying the blows and retreating until he felt his heels dangling over the platform's edge. In desperation he lunged forward with a clumsy stab at Johun's chest. The Jedi simply slapped his blade aside and ended the assassin's life with a single cut of the lightsaber across his chest.
The other two were back on their feet now. The woman rushed toward him recklessly yet again. This time Johun stood his ground, ducking under the wide, flat arc of her blade sweeping in from the side. He reached out with his left hand and seized her wrist as he rolled onto his back, using the momentum of her own charge against her. Pulling hard on her wrist, he tumbled backward and brought both feet up, planting them in the middle of her stomach. He completed the move by kicking out with both legs, sending her flying up and over the platform's edge. She screamed all the way down, her cries ending abruptly when she struck the water and rocks below.
Johun was already back on his feet, bracing for the first man's next attack. But rather than face him alone, his remaining adversary turned to flee, making a break for the walkway leading from the platform back to the shore.
He passed the Twi'lek at a dead run, then stopped as his body went rigid and his hands flew to his throat. He turned around slowly so he was facing Johun, clutching the bloody gash just beneath his jaw as he toppled forward and fell facedown on the platform.
It happened so fast it took a moment to register on Johun. Then he noticed the small, crescent-shaped blades clutched in each of the Twi'lek's hands. They looked like miniature sickles; the one in his left hand was a bright silver, the one in the right dripped with red.
The Chiss and the tattooed man had been making their way toward the platform to join the battle. Seeing the Twi'lek cut their escaping accomplice down, they abruptly reconsidered. Faced with a wrathful Jedi Knight and an ally who would kill them if they tried to flee the confrontation on the platform, they made the only logical choice and raced back up the walkway to their waiting vehicle. Piling in, they fired up the engines and sped away, wanting no part of a plan that had gone so wrong.
Stepping over the still-gasping body of the accomplice he had just killed, the Twi'lek dropped into a fighting crouch. He didn't seem to know or care that the other two had abandoned him. His lekku hung down behind him like twin tails, the tips twitching and curling in anticipation.
"I've always wanted to test my skills against a Jedi," he said, issuing the challenge.
Johun was more than willing to accept. He leapt forward, moving with the blinding speed of the Force as he stabbed his lightsaber squarely at the Twi'lek's chest to put a quick end to their confrontation. With an almost casual grace, the red-skinned Twi'lek merely leaned backward and twisted out of the way, slashing out with the strange crescent blades at Johun's throat.
The Jedi turned his body at the last second, avoiding the first blade completely, but catching the other with the meat of his right shoulder. It sliced deep into the muscle, eliciting a grunt of pain from Johun.
He wheeled back around to see the Twi'lek in the same low crouch, holding the crescent blades up in front of him like a boxer. Johun approached more cautiously this time, recognizing that this opponent was far more dangerous than the other three put together.
Using tight slashes and quick cuts, he probed his enemy's defenses with his lightsaber, trying to learn the patterns and rhythms of his foe's unfamiliar weapons. The Twi'lek slapped each blow aside with contemptuous ease, alternating hands so he could always leave one of the crescents up in a defensive position.
The unusual weapons sacrificed reach for speed and maneuverability, Johun realized. He was vulnerable if he let the Twi'lek get in close, but if he could keep him at a distance he had the advantage. The Twi'lek seemed to realize this, too, and began to move in slowly.
Johun tried to force him back with a sequence of aggressive attacks, but he was unable to penetrate the Twi'lek's defenses. No matter what he tried, his enemy was always able to keep at least one of the crescent blades back to parry his blows.
Frustrated, Johun overextended on one of his strikes, bringing the lightsaber in a fraction of a centimeter too high and wide and putting too much weight on his front foot. The mistake nearly proved fatal.
The Twi'lek swatted Johun's blade aside and stepped forward, closing the distance between them to less than a meter as he slid inside the arc of the lightsaber's effective range. The sickle of his left hand sliced down in a high vertical strike as the one in his right carved a low horizontal slash. Johun was able to backpedal and avoid the initial blows, but he wasn't so lucky when his opponent reversed his attack, allowing the crescent blades to retrace their original paths in the opposite direction.
One of the blades sliced upward, opening a gash in Johun's cheek and narrowly missing his eye. The other left a long, shallow cut along the left side of the Jedi's ribs-painful but not debilitating.
His enemy was in too close for Johun to bring his lightsaber to bear effectively; all he could do was butt with his head, sending his brow smashing hard into the Twi'lek's face. There was a wet crunch as the cartilage of his enemy's nose crumpled beneath the impact. The Twi'lek staggered back, then dropped once more into his fighting crouch. Blood flowed freely from his nostrils, the dark crimson flow visible even against his bright red complexion.
Johun tried to gather the Force to hurl his opponent off the platform's edge. But gathering the Force required concentration, and for a fraction of an instant it drew his focus away from the battle. His enemy sensed his momentary lapse and sprang forward, the sickles carving deadly semicircular arcs through the air.
Johun threw himself backward at the last instant, the power he'd accumulated disappearing harmlessly as he fell into a full retreat to avoid the lethal assault. Dropping low to the ground, he tried to swipe the feet out from under the Twi'lek. His opponent anticipated the move and leapt nimbly over his outstretched foot, bringing his knee up to strike Johun square in the jaw.
Seeing stars, Johun rolled clear, narrowly avoiding decapitation, as the crescent blades swooped in again. He regained his feet and took a wild swipe at his opponent. Dodging the blow, the Twi'lek swooped in close, and Johun was forced to give ground yet again to survive another series of lightning-fast blows.
The Twi'lek pressed the attack, staying close enough to Johun that the Jedi's only options were blocks and parries. Darting from side to side he cut off Johan's paths of retreat, slowly backing him up until he was balanced on the platform's edge.
Johun knew he couldn't beat the Twi'lek. His opponent was faster, his skills honed by years of intense training. He could continue to fight, but the outcome was inevitable-he was going to die on this platform. He could not escape his fate-yet he could still sacrifice himself to save the Chancellor.
There is no death; there is only the Force.
The Twi'lek had braced himself in preparation for a desperate counterattack, expecting Johun to try to fight his way clear of the platform's ledge. Instead the Jedi dropped his weapon and both hands shot forward to clutch tightly onto the front of his opponent's shirt. The handle of Johun's lightsaber clattered on the platform's durasteel surface, the blade extinguished the moment it fell from his hand.
The unexpected move caught the Twi'lek completely off guard, and he hesitated for a split second before his eyes went wide with fear and dawning comprehension. He slashed frantically at Johun's wrists and forearms, carving deep gashes into the flesh. But the Jedi's grip never faltered.
With his heels already dangling over the precipice, Johun simply had to let himself fall backward, dragging his enemy with him. The Twi'lek screamed as they plunged toward the deadly rocks jutting up from the waves fifty meters below; Johun felt nothing but a serene inner peace.
They seemed to fall forever, the world moving in slow motion as Johun surrendered himself fully to the power of the Force. It flowed through him, stronger than he had ever felt it before. The instant before they hit the water he looked into the terrified eyes of his foe and smiled. He had never felt more at peace than he did in that moment.
Dropping from fifty meters into the ocean was nothing like diving into a pool; the surface tension of the water struck them with the impact of a sledgehammer. During the fall they had turned slightly, so the impact took Johun on the right side. He felt his ribs crack, and then a cold shock as the freezing waters enveloped them.
It took Johun several seconds to realize he wasn't dead. Even missing the rocks, a fall from that height should have been lethal. Yet somehow he had survived, though he was now sinking quickly into the ocean's angry depths. The Force, he thought in amazement. He had given himself over to its power during the fall; in return it had spared his life.
He realized he was still clutching tightly to the front of the Twi'lek's shirt. Through the murky waters he could see his opponent's head lolling to the side at an unnatural angle, his neck broken when they had slammed into the unyielding ocean surface.
Releasing his grip he swam toward the surface, pulling with powerful strokes. Just as his lungs threatened to give out, he breached, gasping and swallowing huge gulps of air. The girders supporting the platform rose up out of the water before him, only a few meters away. He kicked his legs and reached out to grab the slick, wet durasteel with hands already going numb in the chill waters, then began the long slow climb back to the top.
Blood poured freely from the cuts to his forearms. But though the wounds were deep, they hadn't struck any critical nerves or tendons, and he was able to use his hands to help him along as he clambered up the girders.
He had reached the halfway point when he paused to rest, shivering in the wind. A voice called his name; looking up, he saw the face of Chancellor Valorum staring down at him. Knowing he needed to save his breath for the rest of the climb, Johun's only response was a weak wave of acknowledgment.
Half a meter from the top Valorum's arm reached down over the edge to clasp his own. The exhausted Jedi was grateful for the aid as the Chancellor helped him clamber up and back onto the safety of the platform. Johun tried to stand, but his limbs betrayed him. All he could manage was to roll onto his back and stare up at the sky, panting and wheezing as he tried to catch his breath.
"You saved my life," the Chancellor said, sitting down beside him to wait for the Jedi to recover from his ordeal. "I can never repay you for what you have done, but if there is ever anything you want of me you need only ask."
"There is one thing." Johun gasped from his back, still too tired to even try to sit up. "Hire yourself a kriffmg security team "