Nor were they the first pair of Jedi sent in to attempt to diffuse the situation when it grew unusually fraught. But they were, it was supposed, walking into a more dangerous situation than most, which was perhaps why Master Windu and his eighteen-year-old padawan had been selected for the mission in the first place.
“Queen Votorina has claimed to be present,” Master Windu noted as they waited to dock at the Trade Federation vessel which headed the latest blockade. “And I believe she is, though likely not as herself.”
“Won’t she who acts as the Queen be someone to be reckoned with in her own right? Doesn’t she use her Force-sensitive handmaiden as a decoy when dealing with Jedi?” A girl who was completely untrained, of course, because her parents had refused to give her up, but apparently unnervingly perceptive.
“She has in the past, but I suspect now that they know we have identified her, she won’t even be there. Naboo handmaidens depend on anonymity. It took me a great deal of trouble to find the information I gave you on Sabé Andierre, her head handmaiden and our most likely decoy.”
Information on Andierre, and twelve other names, with notes on which ones came from more famous families, the only easily accessible information on the girls, and which four of them were likely to be present. Andierre was a year older than the Queen, who was a year older than Padmé; all thirteen handmaidens were within ten years of the Queen’s age. They were a group supposedly politically inactive, making a splendid show of pomp and ceremony around their mistress, but in fact capable of far more than that, and dangerous to underestimate. It was Padmé’s task to keep an eye on them at the upcoming negotiations.
They had started the talks already when the two Jedi got to the conference chamber. At least defining “talks” loosely. Viceroy Nute Gunray was ranting at Queen Votorina/Sabé Andierre, who was having trouble getting a word in. According to what Padmé had read, Andierre probably had a lot of experience posing as the Queen, but not as posing as her in an diplomatic situation where she was required to do this kind of talking. Her observations made Padmé certain of this, and that it was indeed her, even before Master Windu said, “I see you started without us,” in a clear commanding voice that silenced Gunray instantly.
“He was quite eager to speak, Master Jedi,” replied Andierre. As she and her Master sat, Padmé’s eyes traveled to the five handmaidens with her to observe their reactions. Nothing that stood out so far. No Force sensitivity either; her Master had been right.
“Yes, I am. Naboo has been behaving atrociously in response to our perfectly legal blockade!” Gunray said to them, slamming his fists on the table for emphasis. The handmaidens all had identical looks of outrage.
“How so?” Andierre and Master Windu asked it together.
“Well, I don’t think you two are even necessary to this situation!” He shook his finger at the two Jedi. “Queen Votorina and myself are perfectly capable of coming to a mutual agreement on our own. And yet she insists on calling you in to bully me.”
“We were sent with the overwhelming approval of the Senate,” Master Windu reminded him.
“And if you are seeking peaceful agreement,” Andierre added, successfully turning her voice icy cold, though Padmé could detect at least some of her alarm, “why do I hear battle droids marching right outside this room?”
Neimoidians tended not to give much away in their facial expressions, but Gunray’s dismayed reaction revealed enough. Padmé was impressed with the handmaiden; she herself hadn’t thought anything of the sound of metallic footsteps outside.
Still, watching the handmaidens now, she was very quickly able to tell which one was Queen Votorina. They were muting their reactions fairly well, and were helped by the concealing clothes they wore, but they were subtly moving in preparation to protect both Andierre and the young woman sitting closest to her.
“Padmé, up!” Without thinking, Padmé obediently leapt for her chair, just before it exploded, as did the likewise newly-empty chair next to her. Another moment and Master Windu had Gunray struggling in his powerful hold, the tip of his lightsaber blade at his throat. “Viceroy Gunray, you are hearby under arrest, for attempted murder.”
“Attempted murder?” retorted Gunray, just before the doors to the conference room opened and battle droids came in with guns blazing. "If you are attempting to arrest me without proper authority, well, I am sure, of course, that I can convince the Senate I was forced to act in self-defense."
“Behind me!” Padmé ordered. Lightsaber ignited, she threw herself in front of the young women, all of whom had blaster pistols out, Andierre included. Master Windu released Gunray and also took position as the latter laughed. “How do you expect to get out of here? How will you save the Queen? Do you even know which one of them the Queen is?”
Padmé felt the dismay behind her, but replied coolly, “I do know, but you won’t get me to tell you.”
“I don’t need to!” Gunray crowed back. “I only need to defend myself against all of them, and while it is clear you won't let me go while any of you still live, there are a hundred battle droids out there!”
Normally, Padmé thought, they might have managed that. Not without some trouble obviously, and that many droids perhaps would have subdued many a lesser Jedi, but Master Windu was very powerful, and thanks to his training, she wasn’t so easy to defeat herself. But getting the Queen and her handmaidens to safety seemed an impossible situation, even if they didn’t blow up their ship, which more likely than not they would do.
Then Padmé saw her Master’s eyes travel to the ventilation shaft, made large because of certain Neimoidian breathing irregularities, and she knew what they were going to try.
The girls were all standing already; as the battle droids swarmed in, she took hold of the nearest and began pushing them as a group towards the wall, deflecting blaster bolts with her lightsaber as she moved. Master Windu had flown into action, taking out droids so quickly he seemed a blur even to Padmé. She turned back towards the shaft, and with one swipe of her lightsaber had it open. “Crawl in.” And she pressed the Queen down, giving away who she was, but in a minute or so that wouldn’t matter anyway.
“No!” Gunray ran towards them, clumsy firing, but Padmé easily deflected his own bolts back onto his arms and legs, causing him to collapse. But as she did, one blaster shot hit one of the handmaidens, who fell dead, the only cry being one of “Saché!” from one of the other ones, the youngest, Padme thought.
One of the handmaidens was following her Queen into the shaft while Andierre fired at the droids, but the young girl who had cried out advanced forward, furiously releasing such a reckless volley of shots that Padmé was relieved when she didn’t hit Master Windu. She seized her by the arm. “Revenge does no good. Follow your Queen into the shaft.”
The girl looked like she was going to protest, but Andierre too took her arm, and said, “She’s right, Yané. Go.” The last of the four handmaidens helped Yané into the shaft and followed herself, while Master Windu was forced back towards them.
Hoping he was letting himself be forced back for his own purposes, Padmé directed Andierre into the shaft with a firm look. She then crawled in herself, her legs scrambling over Andierre’s fancy robes, still deflecting bolts as best she could.
Finally Master Windu squeezed himself in after her, then used the Force to break off the back of one of the conference chairs and seal the opening, submerging them into darkness. “That should hold them long enough for us to lose them.”
“What about the Viceroy?” Padmé asked.
“We will report this deed to the Senate. I fear the Trade Federation will launch an invasion, if they are not already doing so right now. You will have to come to Coruscant with us, Your Highness.”
“Flee my planet as it is invaded?” they heard the Queen’s horrified voice ask.
“You may need to press charges against the Viceroy and the Federation in person. He has avoided facing charges on that technicality before.”
Padmé could sense the Queen was still unhappy, and said, “Your Highness, I can guess at what you are feeling at the idea of running. And I myself understand the loyalty and love of Naboo, though I spent only the first five years of my life here. But if you are to stop the Trade Federation, you must do this.”
“We have no time to argue,” Master Windu declared, and she could feel his irritation at her. “We won’t get our own transport off the control ship intact; they'll see to that. We’ll take the Viceroy’s personal transport. It’s not too far from here. Come on.”
“I will come with you to Coruscant.” Queen Votorina replied, and they began crawling down the shaft in the direction Master Windu directed.
It was difficult for Andierre to crawl in her fancy outfit; Padmé found herself helping her along. She could feel the girl trembling. She wasn’t the only one; one of the others, Yané probably, had started quietly weeping, but she felt something stir around Andierre, she wasn’t sure what. So she asked, “What’s wrong?”
“I failed,” replied the other girl simply.
“You did not. You defended your Queen, and we’ll get you all to safety.”
“He knew I wasn’t her. You knew who she was.”
“He’s been fighting Naboo long enough to expect someone would be posing as the Queen. And he didn’t know which one she was either.”
“We lost Saché. We couldn’t even rescue her body.”
That feeling of failure was one Padmé knew and understood. “You cannot dwell on what you can’t change, Sabé Andierre.”
“You even knew my name,” she sighed.
Suddenly Padmé wondered if she’d be switched out, the same way the supposed Force-sensitive handmaiden had been. “Does that hurt you? Practically, I mean?”
“Not really. That we expect, in the end.” But it clearly didn’t make her feel much better.
They squeezed their way around a corner just as Padmé finally understood what the Force was whispering to her. She took Sabé Andierre’s hand, and said, “Focus not on what has happened, but what you must do, and how you must prepare yourself. I foresee a future for you much like this one, but on a wider scale. In the end you may be the one forgotten, but you will do good for more people than you, or they, will know.”
Sensing she had at last provided comfort, she left her to join her Master. “How much further is it?”
“Now you finally come up here,” he replied, displeased, it seemed, by her delaying for the sake of compassion. Well, he’d been afraid of her agreeing with him too much in earlier years, and if the reasons for his fear was her weakness, the fact still remained she wasn’t supposed to be a clone of him anyway.
And here it was best she cut through his arrogance before it got too strong again. “If I hadn’t spoken to the Queen that way, she might not have agreed to come with us. You should not underestimate the attitude of the Naboo in this matter, and I say that as someone who was born here.”
“I would have persuaded her in time. And you know I wish you were not so attached to this planet.”
“It’s not as bad as you think it is. It is a trouble, I admit that, but I have been meditating on the matter since we started our journey here, and I can handle it.” She sensed his releasing his irritation, and realized they were quite close to their destination. She allowed herself one more comment: “And don’t be so sure you could have persuaded the Queen after we got on board before she would have launched herself back towards Naboo in one of the escape pods. I tell you, those born on Naboo do not abandon it easily.” Even I didn’t.
Then she carefully cleared her mind of all interfering thought, as Mace sliced open another grating, and they stared up at the small army of battle droids guarding the Viceroy’s ship. “There a few more coming in,” he whispered, “but they’re probably using most of their guard in the larger bays.”
Queen Votorina had come up behind them and was craning herself over their shoulders. “Still looks like a number of them.”
“We’ll take them while the five of you run to the ship.”
“I-” the Queen started.
“Naboo depends on you getting safely to Coruscant,” Padmé reminded her. No disapproval from her Master this time, thankfully.
“Very well.” Then Padmé was opening herself up to the Force, feeling her Master do the same beside her, until their minds joined to it and to each other’s, and they both sprang into the docking bay, lightsabers and limbs moving in counterpoint.
Clearing a path, they took opposite sides of it. Padmé was only vaguely aware of the fugitives they were protecting racing across the floor of the bay, knowing only the Force flying through her, propelling her blade through foe after foe, and the touch of her Master’s mind, her holding to the Light there against the wild aggression that came perilously close to claiming her, and then his directing her back to the ship, snapping her out of it, as she and he turned and ran up the ramp.
She was breathless; her body felt oddly loose, her legs as if they might fail her. She wondered, once she had enough thought to, if Vaapad was something one ever got used to. She’d have to ask her Master. Later; they still had to get out of here.
She joined him at the ship’s controls. He was punching in commands. “We’re lifting up. This ship has to have weapons somewhere, see if you can find them.”
Padmé scanned the controls, finally put her hand over the relevant one. “Good. It’s no use firing at the ships themselves, but you can use them if they send anything after us, then we only need to get out of range. Strap yourself in; I’m going to make the jump to lightspeed as soon as possible.”
Then it was only a matter of minutes, twisting and turning to avoid gunfire, Master Windu giving himself over to Force with an ease his apprentice didn’t quite have yet while piloting, before they were in hyperspace and it was over.
Master Windu stood, and said, “I will see to our guests. You need to meditate now.” Padmé knew better than to argue with him over that.