August 3, 1999
Massed humanity packed the ramps leading into the coliseum, brilliantly dyed clothing blending together to create a variegated rainbow of hues. From his position on one of the uppermost balconies of the Empress's palace, Qui-Gon Jinn watched the hoard move through the arched entrances, streaming down the stairs toward their seats.
There was a soft knock on the door and the Jedi turned from the balcony, his sure strides carrying him across the ornately woven carpeting to the equally intricately carved door. He waved a hand in front of the sensor and the portal slid back, revealing a formally dressed servant who bowed stiffly upon seeing the other man.
"Sar Gonn? The Empress is prepared to attend the Games and requests that you accompany her." The summons may have been diffident but the fact that it was a summons was clear as was the fact that the servitor would back up his words with force if need be.
"I am deeply honored to be included in the Empress's party and look forward to spending a stimulating evening in her company," the Jedi replied evenly, plucking his midnight blue cape from the stand near the door and fastening the gold encrusted clasps around his neck. A small twitch of his shoulders and the heavy cloth fell into perfect folds over his exquisitely tailored clothing, it's hem just brushing the tops of his polished leather boots.
The servant didn't comment but something in his posture said that he doubted the man before him would survive long in the Empress's presence, either emotionally or physically. His stride was purposefully swift, designed to make the other man hurry and appear before Golgatha's ruler flushed and out of breath, giving her an immediate advantage in their dealings. The only problem with this was that the visitor didn't appear affected by the pace at all; he was breathing as easily when they arrived at the throne room as when they had left his quarters.
"Sar Jai Gonn to see the Empress." With those curt words, the servitor handed Qui-Gon off to the footman and vanished down a side hallway on another errand.
"Sar Gonn," the new man bowed as he ushered him inside. "The Empress is looking forward to seeing what you think of her Games."
"I am sure that I will find them amusing but that they will pale in comparison to the opportunity to spend time in her presence."
"A pretty speech, Sar Gonn, I hope you have more in store for me this evening." The husky voice floated through the diaphanous golden curtains that closed off the majority of the room and then Golgatha's Empress appeared.
Tall and regal with white blonde hair and deep brown eyes, Elina Nepasa was a beautiful woman but also a cold and calculating one. Never married, she played her countless suitors against each other - often to the death - as a means of amusement. The Empress possessed both a keenly analytical mind and a brutally cruel streak and woe to anyone who went against her.
It was her petition to have Golgatha admitted to the Republic that had Qui-Gon here - but in a guise other than his normal role of a Jedi Master. Several delegations had visited the remote planet and all had returned with favorable reports. Be that as it may, Chancellor Valorum still had doubts and had authorized this clandestine mission to determine if any of the half-whispered rumors that were spread through the populous were true.
"Empress Nepasa," Qui-Gon murmured, bowing low and kissing the air above the woman's proffered hand. To touch the royal person without a direct invitation was considered a severe breech of protocol, one that could technically be punished by death. "I would gladly offer you any of my services that you would so desire to make use of."
The role of gracious courtier was one that the Jedi Master didn't often play but he was adept enough in the maneuverings of court politics to have been the Council's first choice for this mission. His cover as a representative for one of the trading franchises was simple but thorough enough to stand up to the most rigorous of background checks while still providing a way for the Jedi to meet the Empress and maneuver through her court. From what the delegations had seen, the Golgathans were anxious to expand their contact and trade with other systems and his visit had been well received so far.
The Empress smiled coolly and nodded for her entourage to follow them as she allowed Qui-Gon to escort her from the room and toward her private entryway to the Arena.
Deep in the tunnels under the massive stadium the roar of the blood-thirsty crowd was audible only as a muted whisper that was lost in the noise of men and women preparing themselves for battle. Rough laughter followed a joke made by one of the veterans and the keen rasp of metal on metal could be heard as weapons were carefully honed and sheathed.
Activity hummed throughout the crowded preparation room and in the past there had been blood spilt here as well as on the sands above as tempers flared during the long wait between scheduled bouts. Only one corner of the immense area was devoid of motion, it's solitary occupant sitting silently on a rough-woven mat, arms and legs folded, eyes closed and head bowed, the close-cropped sandy red hair the only distinguishing characteristic visible to a casual observer.
The man's clothing was plain but functional; close-cut black leather trousers and boots, a leather vest held closed by three simple metal clasps, wrist bracers studded with metal bands and shin guards designed in the same manner. Everything about him spoke of understated danger - a fact that was driven home by the way the other combatants gave his area of the room a wide berth when they passed.
A small steel hoop threaded through his left earlobe winked dully in the glow of the overhead lights. Aside from this, the only other jewelry the man wore was a series of five slim bands on the ring finger of his right hand. Alternating silver and black, each represented a victory in the mid- or end of the year Games and told all who were knowledgeable in such things that this man was the Champion of the Arena and had been for the past two and a half years.
"Who's going against Ben tonight?" one of the combatants whispered to the person beside him as he flicked a nervous glance in the champion's direction. None of the seasoned gladiators challenged him any longer - they had learned that was a swift way to an early grave.
The woman shrugged and examined the edge on her dagger, testing it with the callused edge of her thumb then going back to work on it. "Some stranger I heard. Came in from the outer islands full of gas as to how he's going to take him down."
"Who'd they get this time?" Contrary to what the spectators thought, the combatants knew the real reason the champion fought and that it had nothing to do with glory or honoring the Empress.
"A family from the market quarter. Heard the guards got a little rough with one of the daughters too..."
"He's not going to be happy when he hears that."
The woman glanced toward the man sitting in the corner and shivered lightly before turning away. "Is he ever happy?"
The other fighter snorted at that and returned to his work though his gaze kept straying to the solitary figure across the room. Deep, even breaths caused the champion's chest to move but other than that he was utterly still, a killing machine made of well toned flesh and muscle soon to be set free to do the Empress's bidding on the sands.
"Have you had the chance to attend the Games before this Sar Gonn?"
The Empress posed the question as they passed through the security field that closed off her private box and entered the sumptuous room. Viewing screens were scattered throughout the area, affording those who had the privilege of watching the events from here unobstructed views of the battles going on below. For those who had come to socialize, all manner of food, drinks and drugs were available. Betting was highly encouraged and many a fortune had been won or lost over one of the black marble tables scattered throughout the main room.
"I am afraid I have not had the opportunity yet, Empress, though I have heard much about them." Much about them indeed: it was difficult to have a conversation with anyone on this planet without the topic coming up in some way. While competition was a healthy way of honing skills, the level of obsession and blood-thirstiness this culture had raised it to made the Jedi uncomfortable and he wondered that none of the other delegations had found it objectionable.
Smiling serenely, the Empress turned and walked to the small-scale version of her throne centered on the forcefield shielded balcony overlooking the Arena sands. Guards, servants and hangers-on scuttled out of her way, lurking on the edges of her field of vision, prepared to jump at her slightest gesture. Settling herself on the seat, she looked out over the oval ring below, watching as a pair of workers dragged the body of the fighter who had just been defeated off the blood splattered sand.
"A lower level bout," she commented, dismissing the fighters and their efforts with a languid wave of her hand. "The more interesting ones will begin soon."
Keeping his expression devoid of anything but polite interest and his tone equally neutral, Qui-Gon looked from the woman next to him to the Arena floor. "Considering the possibility of fatalities out there, do you have difficulties finding people to compete in the Games?"
The Empress shook her head at that, plainly amused by the question. "No, Sar Gonn, we never have a problem finding willing combatants. For those from the poorer sections of the city and planet, the Games represent a way for them to earn a better life for themselves and their families."
"So participation is voluntary?"
"But of course! To force someone to fight for their life is barbaric. I am ashamed to say that in our distant past we allowed such practices but they have long been abolished."
Nodding and accepting the drink the server offered after she had presented the Empress with hers, Qui-Gon looked back out over the mottled tan of the Arena floor, wondering what kind of person would make their living out there. Relaxing his mental shields a fraction, he reached for the Force.
There was little chance of discovery; the people of this planet were almost totally insensitive to the workings of the Force though it flowed through them just as it did through every living being in the universe. Past attempts at this sort of probing had netted the Jedi little information but this time there was a flare of contact before it was abruptly broken off, leaving Qui-Gon wary.
A small tremor ran through the champion's body and he raised his head before opening his eyes. A flicker of confusion showed in their blue-green depths before it was replaced by a cold stare that was totally devoid of emotion. There had been something out there but what it was he had no idea.
Relegating the question to the far corner of his mind, the man stood, the movement smooth and powerful, involving not one wasted motion. Usually his meditations before a match gave him a sense of purpose, a feeling of what was going to happen but today that had been strangely absent. Instead he was left with a lingering foreboding.
Conscious of the eyes that tracked him, he moved through a series of stretches designed to loosen already inhumanly fluid muscles. Through it all, the depth and cadence of his breathing never faltered and his expression never changed, as if he was viewing the whole process with a bored detachment.
That routine complete, he pulled off the rings and earring, setting them inside the lid of a small black chest. A thorough examination of the catches and buckles on his garments followed, ending only when he was sure that nothing would work loose or provide a handhold for his opponent. Lastly, daggers were sheathed at his waist, on the opposite thigh and in a boot and slim, long-bladed sword was belted into place, the metal on all the weapons the same dull black as the champion's earring.
A small, wiry man dressed in elegant clothes took the sign of preparation as an invitation to come over, though he waited respectfully until the younger man glanced at him before initiating a conversation.
"Cratos." The reply was short, a barely detectable change in the tone indicating a query as to why the other man was there.
Muddy brown eyes shifted left and right before centering back on the fighter's face. "Heard something you might be interested in knowing."
Cratos was a notorious gossip-monger though his information tended to be right more often than not - a fact that also meant his prices were subsequently higher.
Ben crossed his arms over his chest, his expression impassive. "Regarding?"
"Gods, let a man get a word in edgewise, Ken'ba!" The attempt at levity went unnoticed or at least uncommented on and the information broker shook his head in disgust. "You would think they would have trained a sense of humor into you somewhere along the line."
"Cratos . . ." A subtle tensing in the champion's body and the smaller man darted back several steps, watching Ben warily.
"Word is that your opponent tonight is from the lower Dalanes."
"Tell me something I don't know or go away."
""Do you know what they edge their blades with?" Seeing that he had the champion's attention, Cratos continued. "Miriken sap. Bad stuff - you may be immune to most of the crap junk-fighters use but this is different, knock you flat within a day from even a scratch."
"Then you can come to my funeral and hit people up for money there."
"Ben, Ben, Ben . . ." The shorter man shook his head, sending a glossy neon blue tinted curl onto his forehead. "Now why do you think I would do such a thing to you? Would I have even bothered to tell you about the poison if I didn't have an antidote?"
A curl of the champion's lip met that question. "If it was worth enough to you."
Cratos sighed, then shrugged his shoulders. "You know me too well, but you are also one of my best customers so I would rather not be without your money if I don't have to. 5000 jinsas and the antidote is yours."
"You believe that he's going to get close enough to touch me?"
"Would you rather wait until tomorrow to find out? Besides, if you die, who's going to avenge that pretty little shop-keeper's daughter the guards have been playing with this afternoon?"
Eyeing the other man coldly for a moment, Ben then turned and pulled a small bag from the black chest. "Names," he whispered, the words low and deadly.
The information-broker swallowed and darted a look over his shoulder at the others in the room. "Chebek, Lander and Manok." The words were run together but still discernable and Ben nodded.
"And the antidote?" The fighter easily caught the small vial and tossed the bag to the other man once he had verified its contents.
Cratos didn't bother to check the amount of money in the bag, in all the years he had dealt with Ben Ken'ba the other man had never cheated him and besides, he didn't want to take his eyes off the warrior. "One more thing I'll tell you for free, Champion, the Empress is going to be calling for you after tonight's match. She has a visitor she wants to impress so I'd be prepared for the worst."
Ken'ba's eyebrows arched upward sardonically and he flipped the vial from hand to hand. "Cratos I've lived through the worst, whatever she has planned for me tonight will be nothing compared to that.
Battle after battle had been fought, the skill displayed by the participants increasing proportionally as the sun sank toward the horizon, edging the sky with the same coppery red that darkened the rutted sand below. Qui-Gon had counted at least four deaths over the course of the afternoon and several others had been injured so seriously that it was doubtful that they would survive.
Aware that the others in the small group seated nearby were watching his reactions as much as the action below, the Jedi kept his expression carefully neutral, commenting on the skill of a particular fighter and chuckling as some of the others made jokes but keeping his real emotions well hidden.
The currents of the Force swirled around them with raw, unconstrained energy, leaving him feeling as if he was standing too near an ungrounded circuit. Decades, possibly centuries of bloodshed had left a definite aura here that was heightened by the fresh violence. How could anyone live near the Arena or even attend the Games regularly without becoming tainted by the corruption? Qui-Gon did not have an answer to this but the time he had spent here left him feeling unclean, as if a layer of grime had accumulated on his skin.
An increase in the pitch of the conversations around him drew the Jedi's attention back to his surroundings, specifically to the garishly clothed young man tugging at his sleeve. "Care to make a wager on the last fight Sar Gonn?"
The man's voice was as offensive as his choice in garments and Qui-Gon gave a thin, slightly sardonic smile. "I am afraid you have me at a disadvantage as I know nothing of either of the fighters in the match."
Nonplused by the implicit rejection of his offer, the lordling gestured to the Arena, grinning slyly. "If you wish, you can wait until they have entered the Sands to choose who you would like to bet on."
"And how much do you wish to wager on this match?"
"Say... my money against your consideration for my House when trade negotiations come up?"
Qui-Gon schooled his face into an expression of mild surprise. "Such considerations do not come lightly, you do know that?"
"But a favorable position at the onset of trade negotiations is a prize well worth the risk." A fanfare of music and the noble's green eyes narrowed as he smiled. "10,000 jinsas against your word that we will be well received when the planet joins the Republic, is it a bet?"
Two figures emerged from tunnels on opposite sides of the cavernous Arena, moving toward each other with slow, purposeful strides.
"And I have the choice of combatants?"
"Your choice, Sar Gonn, they are approaching the box now."
One look at the fighters and it was plain the other man expected him to choose immediately, but the fictional Jai Gonn was no fool and he studied both men closely before speaking.
The one on the right was huge, standing well over two meters in height with a thick mop of black hair that had been braided and twisted into a variety of plaits - all apparently meaning something to his culture. Thick bodied but solid, he had the look of a Calathrian rock-bear: dangerous, powerful and unpredictable. Immaculate gray body armor fit as if it had been molded to him and he carried a two-handed broad sword, hefting it with easy skill.
The fighter on the left couldn't have massed more than two-thirds of his opponent's weight and the top of his head barely cleared the other man's shoulder but there was something about him . . . Clad in unrelieved black leathers that revealed a lean, lithe body which looked to be designed more for gymnastics or dancing than brutal warfare, he waited, eyes focused on the Empress's box but his attention clearly on the man beside him. His rusty brown hair was cut short but that didn't prevent Qui-Gon from noticing the white streak arching back from his temple on the right side of his face. The other man may have reminded the Jedi of a rock-bear but this one was a sand shark - the mythical desert wolf of Beltron 3 that strikes without warning, it's attacks too swift to be seen but brutally deadly.
"Sar Gonn? Your choice?"
Anticipation dripped from the noble's words and it was clear that many of the nearby guests were also awaiting his reply. A fleeting brush with the Force confirmed his suspicions - the young gladiator was the source of the contact Qui-Gon had felt earlier. Roiling energy spilled from the man's motionless body, belaying his calm appearance. It was a strange sensation, being this close to so much raw power, like standing near an unshielded power core running at maximum output.
"The one on the left." The Jedi Master's comment drew a small gasp from the other man and a round of barely muffled snickers from the others. Apparently he had been expected to choose the rock-bear instead of the wolf. Ahh well, as the members of the Council knew, Qui-Gon was not one for doing what was expected of him.
"A wise choice Sar Gonn," Empress Nepasa laughed, highly amused at her courtier's discomfort. "And one Celdesk is probably even now regretting." She turned her head enough to look at the now red-faced noble. "The wager has been heard and witnessed, I do hope you have the funds on your person darling. I would hate to think that you had bet with something you did not possess."
"My thanks Empress and I am sure that Sar Celdesk has the funds he wagered - if not and he proves to be the loser in this matter I am sure that other arrangements can be made."
The noble paled at the look in the trade representative's eyes but held his tongue for fear of offending his empress - all the while damning the chance that had led Jai Gonn to choose Ben Ken'ba to wager on.
Heat, a spray of grit from an errant breeze that had somehow found it's way down to the sand, the deafening roar of the crowd; all these coalesced into a mass of sensations, each precise and distinct but all blended into a composite that was at once beautiful and deadly.
"Today you die, Ken'ba."
The low growl came from his opponent but as an intimidation tactic it had little weight and Ben kept his gaze trained on the Empress, awaiting her signal to begin. If the fool next to him had any idea of how many times he had heard those words . . .
There was a new face in the Bitch's box today, visible at the periphery of his vision. Now was not the time to wonder at the new entrant into Nepasa's circle of hangers-on, but Ben filed the information away for later retrieval. On Golgatha, knowledge was every bit as important as fighting skills in the intricate games of cat and mouse enacted by and around the court and lack of it could be just as deadly.
Centering his focus back on the Empress, his hand loosely grasping his sword, his muscles singing in anticipation of the signal, Ben waited. The bout would begin when she commanded and, on a whim, she sometimes let this moment drag out painfully. Damn, there it was again, that same elusive brush against - against what he had no idea. It felt like a pack of fire gnats trailing over his skin - or more precisely - over his mind. Unsettling but almost tantalizing familiar, the knowledge of the source of that touch danced just out of his grasp, proving as resistant to capture as the gnats he likened it to.
A resonant tone from overhead brought the champion's thoughts careening back to the moment at hand and he threw himself into a diving roll, avoiding the islander's lethal swing by the smallest of margins. Leaping to his feet, already parrying the next blow, Ben pushed everything other than the battle from his mind, losing himself in the lightning fast moves that had earned him his reputation and his position.
Spitting out a curse at missing his chance, the islander waded into the fray, intent on wearing down his opponent by the sheer force of his blows. His face twisted as somehow Ken'ba blocked or totally avoided each sword thrust, twisting his body in impossible directions to remain untouched.
The fighters broke apart, circling each other warily, gauging strengths and searching out openings while the thunder of the spectators' voices beat down at them like a padded sledge hammer. A slight tensing of his muscles, and Ben leapt, flipping over his opponent's head, his sword flashing down to cut a shallow gash in the other man's upper arm. The champion's body settled into a position familiar to all his fans and the noise from the crowd grew appreciatively as they howled their approval.
Qui-Gon had been watching the duel intently, studying the combatants' different styles and trying to understand how someone as powerful in the Force as the smaller man seemed to be had ended up here on a planet of Force-blind people. He wasn't of the Dark Side, that much the Jedi could tell from his surface probing, but there was a strange, almost wild taint to the aura around him - parts of it were highly ordered while other portions were barely restrained chaos.
"You seem to be watching my champion closely Sar Gonn. What do you think of his fighting skills?"
"He is indeed most adept, Empress. It is easy to see how he has attained the position he holds." As Qui-Gon spoke, the black-clad fighter leapt over his opponent's head, flipping and spinning as he slashed downward with his sword. The man's use of the Force in the move was blatant and that coupled with pose the champion settled himself into upon landing struck a chord deep within the Jedi Master, making him lose track of the Empress's next comment.
How in all the hells of the Sith had a gladiator on an outer rim planet learned the opening kata to the Kal'treva? Surprise added effort to Qui-Gon's passive probing, the strength of his questing mind flaring against roughly formed shields with an incandescence that left afterimages behind his eyelids. The fighter staggered at the pressure, momentarily disoriented, and Qui-Gon broke off the contact, damning himself for a fool.
Pain. Pressure. An aching sense of loss. All these collided within the finite space of Ben's mind, threatening to burst through the confines of flesh and bone and spill themselves on the sands that had seen so much violence in the past. Eyes reflexively closing against the agony throbbing in his skull, the champion staggered in mid-step, losing the rhythm of his movements and letting his sword dip.
The crowd gasped in shock and the islander pressed his advantage, crowding closer and raining blows which were barely deflected. Finding an opening when Ken'ba lunged to the side, he stomped down on the other man's knee, grinding it beneath his weight and feeling bones break and muscle tear.
Ignoring the white-hot pain that shot through his leg, Ben raked the tip of his sword across the larger man's thigh, drawing blood and slicing through the thick, meaty muscle. The pressure in his head was fading now and he took advantage of the islander's surprise to flip to his feet, favoring his left leg, a look of grim determination on his features.
"Come on, Ken'ba, let us finish this." The islander's dark eyes shone with blood-lust as the two circled each other, their movements an awkward parody of the earlier dance due to their injuries.
"I agree, Malanese, it is time to finish this."
Elina Nepasa watched with interest the way the franchise representative was studying the battle - and more importantly the way his attention was focused on Ben Ken'ba. It was more than the wish to win his wager that motivated Jai Gonn's focus, of that much she was certain.
He was interested in something and interests could be exploited as easily as weaknesses. Her lips thinning in a knowing smile, the Empress motioned a retainer over and issued her commands, her voice low enough to keep the orders away from the prying ears of her court. Weaknesses led to control and control was something she desired, especially when it would lead to more power in her dealings with the Republic.
His shattered knee was already swelling, throbbing against the confines of his trousers in a sickening manner, but Ben's expression remained stoic as he accepted the pain, letting it flow over and through him until it receded to more manageable proportions.
The Bitch really was probably enjoying this immensely. It was rare that he was caught so flat-footed and if he survived - when he survived - he would surely hear about it. For a moment he considered letting the islander get through his guard, but it was a fleeting thought. There were debts outstanding and he had sworn he would not give in to the tempting call of oblivion until they were all paid in full - with interest.
A feint to the right drew Malanese in, and their swords clashed with a flare of sparks as the hardened durasteel edges grated together. Both men fought to push the other off balance and Ben slid back a step, ducking under the roundhouse swing and plucking his dagger from his boot at the same time. Timing his next move with the larger man's attack, Ken'ba blocked the next blow with a one-handed defense, then his knife was sliding home in the other man's eye, sending a wash of blood over his hand. The battle was over, the unavoidable conclusion reached.
Lungs heaving with the combination of adrenaline overload, pain, and fatigue, Ben sheathed his sword before cleaning his knife and replacing it in his boot. His movements slow and measured, the champion turned, each step a conscious effort to keep from limping, sheer determination the only thing keeping him upright.
"I name you victor, Ben Ken'ba." The Empress's voice was amplified to the degree that it boomed out over the noise of the crowd. "Present yourself in my audience hall once you have been attended to for your reward."
"It is both an honor and privilege to obey you, my Empress." Bowing low though his eyes never left the box above, Ben backed the requisite three steps before straightening, ignoring the screams of adulation that followed him as he left the sands.
The chill of the gladiator's stare lingered after he exited the Arena, clinging to Qui-Gon like a sheen of hoar-frost. He was right to have compared the other man to a desert wolf. Ken'ba had shown no more mercy or regret than one of the predators and had proved just as deadly.
Though he was sickened by the causal killing he had witnessed here today, the Jedi was still burning with curiosity as to the identity of the other man. He was using what could only be the Order's training in an obscene manner and Qui-Gon was determined to discover the reason why.
"I noticed you watching my champion. I will introduce you to him when he arrives at the reception." The statement was delivered with gracious ease as well as the inference that this was not something offered to all of the Empress's guests. "Ben can be quite a challenge but with the right incentives he performs amazing feats - quite amazing feats. It is a shame that this was not one of his better bouts."
The calculating gleam in the woman's eyes warned Qui-Gon of what she was planning but he merely nodded graciously. "It would be a great honor to meet the man, Empress, but surely he needs medical attention?"
Dark eyes narrowed and pale lips thinned as the Empress smiled. "He will be there, Sar Gonn. I can assure you of that."
"The knee needs complete regen Ben, I can't guarantee the results of anything quicker." The medic looked up from the results displayed on her scanner and sighed at the expression on the fighter's face - it was one she had seen many times before.
"Do what you can tonight, Maryja, I'll see about getting the whole thing done tomorrow."
"Can you do a complete regen in an hour?" His sharp question sliced across her protest, leaving it dangling in the air between them.
"No and you know it."
"Well that's how long I have to get to the audience hall. Fix what you can and I'll deal with the rest when I'm able."
The look on the medic's wide face was mutinous but she obeyed, slamming her instruments on the table in silent expression of her anger. "Do you want me to take care of the slice on your shoulder or do you want to bleed all over her furniture while you're hobbling around?"
"What slice?" Knowledge of the wound brought the sharp stinging into focus and he bit back a viscous curse, realizing the islander had tagged him after all. "Do me a favor Maryja, check for Miriken sap in it, would you?"
A light pressure against the bare skin of his back was followed by an exhaled breath as the result of the scan glowed on the data screen. "I hope you have the antidote, Ben, I really do."
Well Cratos, this is one I owe you, he thought, reaching for the chest which had been brought into the room along with the rest of his things once it was clear that he had been the victor in the battle - dead men had no need for privacy or medical attention.
Keying the small thumb lock, he flipped the lid up then scowled when he saw the compartment he had placed the vial in earlier now held only a small note.
~To ensure your good behavior tonight I have taken the liberty of relieving you of this item. Do as you are told and it will be returned to you tomorrow.~
Of course. Why should he expect anything else? This was Golgatha after all.
"Ben?" The medic was looking at him, a worried frown etching her brow into deep groves. "What is it?"
"Nothing." The sound of the lid falling meshed with the single word, all but obliterating it. "Just get the knee fixed as well as you can Maryja, I'm expected at the palace."
The audience hall might have been carved from a massive iceflow for all the warmth it presented. The furnishings were cold and sterile. Everything was done in white and silver, all the accessories sculpted from the finest crystal. As the backdrop for the multi-hued costumes of the courtiers it was strangely compelling, the perfect setting for the bright garments and elaborate jewelry favored by Golgathan society.
Nodding politely to those he had already met and making gracious small-talk, Qui-Gon studied the people around him. Watching their maneuverings and posturings with interest as these silent communications told him much more than their carefully selected words ever did. A glass containing a tart, pale green liqueur gave him a convenient excuse to avoid the stronger drinks that were available, though some of the others in attendance had no such compunctions.
The Empress had yet to make her appearance and her champion was likewise absent, causing the Jedi to wonder if the man was going to attend the festivities or if his injuries had been too severe.
"Sar Gonn?" It was the Empress's majordomo, a stern looking man who radiated disapproval of everyone and everything around him.
Tilting his head fractionally to acknowledge the other man, Qui-Gon waited silently to see what he wanted.
"The Empress would like you to have this. She said that you will understand what it is for when the time is right - and that she believes you will enjoy the evening's outcome because of it." Extending an elegantly manicured hand, the older man offered the Jedi a small, white velvet bag. The weight of the pouch was negligible and Qui-Gon glanced curiously at the other man before unknotting the crimson ties and shaking the contents out into his palm.
At his uncomprehending look, the majordomo smiled thinly. "You will understand when the time comes, Sar Gonn. Suffice to say that someone here will be very interested in the contents of that vial. Have a pleasant evening." Sketching a bow, the aide backed away, vanishing into the crowd.
And I thought the Senate was full of plots and intrigue, the Jedi sighed to himself while probing the contents of the vial with the Force. Some kind of drug, that much he could be sure of, but the specific composition was new to him.
"Ah Sar Gonn, there you are." The Empress's throaty voice proceeded her arrival and he dutifully kissed the air over her hand once again after tucking the pouch into his pocket.
"I have been awaiting your arrival Empress, as I knew the celebration was a pale mockery of itself until then." The honeyed phrases came easily, without thought, and brought a look of pleasure to the woman's face.
"If I had known that my absence had such an effect on you I would have not delayed my arrival." The calculating look in her brown eyes put Qui-Gon on edge but he kept his expression serene as she gestured to someone off to the side. "There is someone I would like you to meet, a person who I am sure will make your evening more entertaining than I possibly could."
Looking in the direction the Empress indicated, Qui-Gon found himself confronted by a vision clothed in tight white leather and crystal - death and sexuality twined together in one menacing, compelling package.
"Sar Jai Gonn, allow me to present my Champion, Ben Ken'ba."
Looking at the outfit he had been provided for the evening, Ben swallowed a growl of disgust. It was a display night, that much was evident. Running a hand through his still damp hair, he unslung the towel from around his lean hips and moved toward the clothes stand, a slight stiffness in his gait the only visible sign of the abuse his body had been through earlier.
Letting the rough cloth drop to the floor, he began to dress, easing the supple white leather pants over his half-healed knee, then donning socks and matching boots. A soft leather doublet in the same blinding shade followed, falling over his hips and held closed at the waist by a small silver clasp, leaving his most of his chest exposed.
Leather lined silver bracers, a thick belt inlaid with multifaceted crystals, a heavy silver chain that was more a collar than anything, his earring and rings and the costume was complete.
Must have decided that I should match the room tonight. In all reality is wasn't nearly as bad as some of the things he'd been forced to wear to these little parties. It was only the residual ache in his knee and the knowledge that the Miriken sap was slowly making inroads into his body that had him on edge.
Deal with whatever she has in store for you. Get the antidote. Then worry about the rest. It was as good a plan as any considering the circumstances, though open for improvement.
Settling a stim-stick between his teeth and crunching down on it to release a flood of adrenaline into his system, the fighter rolled his shoulders, ignoring for now the chill centered in the half-healed cut on his shoulder-blade. No weapons. Gods he hated that little rule, but then considering how many people felt about the Empress, it was understandable. Besides, there were more ways to kill than by artificial means. Natural ones worked just as nicely and they were so much more . . . personal.
The trip to the palace took far less time than he would have liked and soon Ben found himself ensconced in one of the private anti-rooms that opened onto the banquet hall. His eyes tracked the regal form of Elina Nepasa as she stalked through the door and strode up to him, her hand flashing out to connect with his cheek with a violence that left echoes ringing in the silent chamber.
"You dare to attempt to make a fool of me by your actions on the Sands? That battle was pitiful. By all rights you should be the one feeding the hounds right now, not Malanese."
"As my Empress believes." The answer was mild and emotionless. Ben's eyes were focused somewhere over the woman's left shoulder, the reddening palm print on his cheek the only indication of the blow she had dealt him.
"You would do well to remember that Ken'ba," she snapped, grabbing his chin and wrenching his face around to look into her eyes. "Remember also who has the power here and what will happen if you do not please me. The family has been released but they can easily be replaced or brought back and this time their stay will not be as pleasant."
He remained silent, hands clasped behind his back to avoid the temptation of tearing the Bitch's throat out, waiting to hear what she had to say next. Patience had been drilled into him from his earliest memories and it was something he excelled at. All things would come in their due time. It was simply a matter of opportunity.
"We have a guest, one who showed an inordinate interest in you earlier. He has what you need. If you please him, you will receive it. If you do not . . ." She smiled coldly at that and ran a hand down his bare chest. "Then I suppose there will be several funerals tomorrow and I will be naming a new Champion come mid-year."
If it wasn't for the fact that innocents would pay for his refusal to cooperate, Ben simply would have taken a seat and remained in the room, letting the poison work through his system until it stilled his heart. As it was however, others would pay for any attempt at rebellion so he merely quirked a wry half-smile and bowed to his tormentor. "Gods forbid I deny the people their excitement. Introduce us and I shall make sure he has a night he does not forget any time soon."
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