Willow Rosenberg looked out the viewport of the Radiant VII as the ship sped towards the peaceful garden planet of Naboo. No, she admonished herself. It wasn't quite so peaceful these days. Not since the Trade Federation had blockaded it following the events of the disastrous Eriadu Trade Summit six months prior. She had been at the Temple at the time, and had heard very little about it. And event then it wasn't enough to satisfy her curiosity.
She smiled slightly as she thought that. Most of her contemporaries had said that she was unlike most Jedi, with an intuitive need to know just about everything there was to know about the galaxy. It had been a trait that would have sent her straight to the Jedi ExplorCorps had she not been taken as an apprentice.
She suddenly found herself thinking of her life previous to her life as a Jedi. With the Jedi mandating a creed that prevented forming attachments to one's own life, it was rather difficult for her to find out about it. Being the curious little Jedi that she was, she often found a way to uncover that which others didn't want her to know.
Her parents were typical people. Of her father, there had been little mention. There were references to the fact that he was among those who worked at the Obroan Institute for Archaeology on Obroa-Skai. There was also a posting on the Holonet regarding his accidental death when a new wing was being constructed. Of her mother there was much more info. She was a social psychologist at the University of Coruscant, who was among the most popular teachers there. Undercover information from various sources mentioned her as a friendly and gregarious person who often held people's best interests at heart, but tended to base her discussions with others on analytical data and research projects than actual conversation.
She had thought about getting in touch with her mother, but there had been complications. The Jedi, as a rule, did not allow parents of children given into their care to have contact with their offspring once they had begun formal training. Being ten years old at the time, she couldn't quite understand what that meant, and had snuck out of the Temple one night to track her down.
That trip had ended in disaster, and Willow shuddered as she recalled the events of that day not that long ago...
She was lost. She had no means to contact the Temple. She had no means to defend herself.
Which meant, rather bluntly, that she wasn't going to survive.
Willow had been stumbling around for hours in the undercity, hoping to find a familiar face that could lead her back to the Temple. Not that she wanted to do that, but the idea of getting a dressing down from Master Yoda or Master Windu over her unexplained departure was, in her eyes, a punishment that would be much better than staying here.
It was then that she came across the door of one of the many nightclubs that populated the area. She knew that she wouldn't be allowed inside, but trying was certainly better than nothing at all.
As she moved to the door, it suddenly slid open, revealing a pair of figures. One of whom immediately pointed a blaster rifle in her direction.
"Outta the way, kid. I got business to deal with."
Before Willow could do anything, the person's companion reached for something in her robe, and the next thing she knew, a green bar of light had sliced through the man's blaster, the barrel of which clattered to the floor.
The man attempted to flee, but his companion executed a perfect flip to land in front of him, executing a fierce backhand that sent him crashing into the ferrocrete wall behind him. The figure moved quickly to place binders on the man, then moved over to talk to her.
"Are you OK?"
Things had gone too fast for her, and she was still shaken up, too terrified to use the Jedi calming techniques she had been taught. All she could do was shake her head rather violently.
"I'm glad," the figure said in reply, and it was only then that it registered in Willow's brain that the figure was a female. She had a dark cloak on, making her features unrecognizable. Willow couldn't help herself any longer, and began to cry silently.
The female brought a hand up to dry away the tears. "Don't be afraid," she said in a calm and soothing manner. "I've called Republic Security. They should be here in a few minutes and then we'll head back to the Temple and find out where you belong."
Willow's eyes exploded. "The Temple? You mean...you're a Jedi?"
The woman let out a small laugh. "Trust me, friend. I may look meek and innocent, but when push comes to shove, I can swing a lightsaber with the best of them."
Willow didn't know why, but she suddenly didn't feel so afraid of her surroundings anymore. "You must be even better than Master Yoda."
The woman laughed again. "I wouldn't say I'm as good as Master Yoda, but I can certainly hold my own."
Willow smiled, then remembered the circumstances which had led her to where she was now. "You're not going to get into trouble, are you? I mean, I'd hate to have the Council punish you because I interrupted your assignment and had to..."
The woman placed a finger on Willow's lips to quiet her. "Don't worry. We can still get what we need to know through an interrogation." She gave Willow a glance. "But might I ask what a Youngling is doing outside of the Temple at night?"
Willow blushed and began to stutter. "I...I..."
The woman took her hand. "That's OK. You don't have to explain to me. Once Republic Security gets here, we'll head back to the Temple. It's still three and a half hours before dawn, so we can get back with no problems."
Willow instantly brightened. The last thing she wanted was to get a dressing down from Master Yoda. Or even worse, Master Windu. "Thank you."
"You're welcome," the woman replied.
Willow got up and brushed the dirt and dust off her tunic. "Miss, what's your name?"
The woman moved to lower the hood of the cloak that she wore, exposing to Willow the most beautiful face she could imagine. It was framed by a halo of blond hair that accentuated her features rather well. The thing that most entranced Willow, however, was her deep blue eyes, the color of the oceans on Mon Calamari. The kind that someone like Willow could dive into without hesitation.
"It's Tara," the woman replied. "Tara Maclay."
Willow turned away from the viewport, silently admonishing herself for letting herself daydream, and turned to look at her Master, who had appeared at the doorway leading from the bridge. Clad in the standard Jedi robes, she looked quite different than she had that night not too long ago.
"But no less cute," Willow thought to herself, then silently admonished herself, hoping that her Master wouldn't pick up her thoughts through the Force. Thankfully, she had apparently not. Or at least, had not make it aware, either publicly or privately.
"We're approaching Naboo now," Tara continued, making no indication that she had picked up anything from Willow. "Qui-Gon wants us to join him and Obi-Wan at the hatch."
Willow moved to join her Master as they walked down the corridor to meet the other Jedi.
"Why do you think the Trade Federation has blockaded Naboo, Master?" Willow asked Tara.
Tara shook her head. "I don't know, Willow. Tensions have been rather strained between the Trade Federation and the Republic for quite some time. Some think that it was inevitable that this would have happened, others think that the Nebula Front's assassination of the Trade Federation Directorate at the Eriadu Trade Summit escalated a controllable situation to the point where even the slightest of diplomatic mistakes would have caused this."
"It must be pretty serious for the Chancellor to send Jedi to secretly resolve the situation," Willow noted.
Tara sighed. "Indeed. And especially to do so without consulting the Senate. If they become aware of it, the Supreme Chancellor could find himself facing serious trouble. But I must admit, this entire scenario seems...out of character for the Trade Federation. I would have thought that the assassination of the Directorate would have caused them to be more cautious, especially with the Neimoidians now in full control."
Willow and Tara had reached the hatch as the ship set down on the deck of the Trade Federation ship, and bowed respectfully to the two Jedi standing in front of it. Obi-Wan had nodded to reply to Willow, while Tara took Qui-Gon's nod with a simple nod in return.
"Master Qui-Gon," Tara said.
"Master Maclay," Qui-Gon replied, pressing the hatch release and moved to raise the hood of his cloak. "Be prepared for anything."
The four Jedi had been met at the hanger bay door by a protocol droid who identified itself as TC-14 and led them to a nearby conference room.
"We are greatly honored by your visit, Ambassadors," the droid was saying. "Make yourselves comfortable. My master will be with you shortly."
Qui-Gon and Tara, being the senior Jedi of the group, nodded in reply. Then, once the hatch had withdrawn, all four Jedi removed their hoods.
"I have a bad feeling about this," Obi-Wan said without preamble.
Willow tried to stop herself from smiling. Among the Padawans, Obi-Wan was well known for being pessimistic in any situation.
"I don't sense anything," Qui-Gon replied, who looked to Tara, who shook her head in the negative, indicating that she had felt no negativity or deception either. After all, what harm could come from a simple droid and a group of individuals who, at their most basic, were spineless cowards?
Still, the thought didn't seem to want to leave Obi-Wan's mind. "It's not about the mission, Masters," he admitted. "It's something elsewhere...elusive."
"Don't center on your anxiety," Tara cautioned.
"Master Maclay is right, Padawan," Qui-Gon added. "Keep your concentration here and now, where it belongs."
Willow couldn't help but sympathize with Obi-Wan. She too had feelings of dread about the situation. Something was subtly twitching at her through the Force, but knowing that to act in her usual manner would be detrimental to the situation, so she had kept silent about it. Knowing that Obi-Wan held a similar view, for reasons she could not begin to fathom, made her feel more at ease.
"But Master Yoda said I should be mindful of the future," Obi-Wan pressed. "On the Unifying Force..."
"But not at the expense of the moment," Tara interrupted.
"Indeed," Qui-Gon agreed. "Be mindful of the Living Force, young Padawans."
"Yes, Masters," both Willow and Obi-Wan said in reply. They had been moving towards the transparisteel window at the opposite end of the room. Willow and Obi-Wan took seats at the table while Tara and Qui-Gon looked out the viewport.
"How do you think the Viceroy will deal with the Chancellor's demands?" Willow asked.
The Trade Federation is interested in profit, not war," Tara rebuked. "Given no other options, they will back down rather than initiate a conflict."
"We've dealt with them before," Qui-Gon continued. "Trust us. The negotiations will be short."
On the bridge, TC-14 had delivered her report to her masters, Viceroy Nute Gunray and Captain Daultay Dofine, both of whom were less than happy to receive it.
"What?!" Gunray hissed. "What did you say?"
"The ambassadors are Jedi Knights, I believe," TC-14 replied neutrally. "Two of them are Jedi Masters. And my infrared vision mode showed objects hidden under their robes. Objects consistent with Jedi lightsabers."
Dofine could barely contain his fear. "I knew it! They're here to force a settlement! We're done for!"
Gunray waved his hands violently. "Stay calm! And go distract them. I will contact Lord Sidious."
Dofine stared at Gunray as if he had turned into Hutt. "Are you brain dead? I'm not going in there with two Jedi!"
"I'm not going, either," Gunray admitted. "But they won't leave until they've talked to us. Someone must delay them."
Dofine looked at TC-14. "Send the droid."
Willow looked up from the table, expecting to see the delegation from the Trade Federation arriving to finally begin the negotiations. Instead, she sighed internally as she discovered that it was merely TC-14 returning with a tray and several cups, which she began to distribute to the four Jedi.
"Is it in their nature to make us wait this long?" Obi-Wan asked, politely accepting a cup from the droid.
Qui-Gon shook his head. "No. They would not have staged a blockade without at least a contingency plan to deal with Republic negotiators. I wonder why they're delaying?"
"They must be hiding something," Tara said, raising her hand as TC-14 approached to offer her a drink.
"Let's be sure to ask them what that something is," Willow said as she took a sip of the drink the droid offered.
"If they ever arrive," Obi-Wan pointed out.
On the bridge, Gunray and Dofine, now joined by Rune Haako, who served the Federation as their Settlement Officer, stood in awe as a holographic image appeared in front of them. It was a humanoid figure that, although the same height as the three Neimoidians, somehow managed to tower over them. The humanoid wore a cloak, the hood of which was draped over his head, making all but his lower jaw invisible to those who were watching.
"Greetings, my Lord Sidious," Gunray said to the figure, the other two following suit.
"What is it?" Sidious asked.
"The Chancellor has sent Ambassadors to force a settlement," Gunray said.
"I know," Sidious stated.
Before any more could be said, Dofine stepped forward, wringing his hands. "This scheme of yours has failed, Lord Sidious. The blockade is finished. We dare not go up against the Jedi."
The lower portion of Sidious' face, the only part that could be seen, broke out in a scowl. "You seem to be more afraid of the Jedi than of me. Viceroy, I don't want this stunted slime in my sight again. Understood?"
Gunray nodded, and passed a look at Dofine who, not needing to be told twice, moved away as fast as his legs could take him.
Gunray turned back to the hologram as Sidious continued. "This turn of events is unfortunate. We must accelerate our plans. Begin landing your troops."
Gunray was taken aback. "My Lord, is that legal?"
Sidious sneered. "I will make it legal."
This appeared to please Gunray, but there was still one thing that needed to be taken care of. "And the Jedi?"
"The Chancellor should never have brought them into this," Sidious replied. "Kill them immediately and destroy their ship."
Gunray didn't feel that this was such a good idea. But on the other hand, he knew that to disagree with Lord Sidious was tantamount to declaring a death sentence against oneself. That lesson has been taught too close to home lately, with the death of his former Deputy Viceroy, Hath Monchar. And it was a lesson that he was not too eager to have taught to him again through anyone, least of all himself.
"Yes, my Lord," he said in reply. "As you wish."