The future Queen of Naboo stood in the middle of the ceremonial grove with thirteen young women lined up in front of her. She had grown familiar with each of them over the last five days. They ranged in age from 12 to 24, though each had her height and long hair, and enough resemblance to her that they could be made up at an hour’s notice to look like her if need be. Each of them were also brave, strong, and had spent months training for their new duty. But still it overwhelmed her, the idea that thirteen women would now swear the next four years, if not eight, and even after that almost their lives to her.
Captain Panaka nodded to the first. “It is time.”
She approached her new mistress, and knelt in front of the tiny pool of water at her feet. “Padme Amidala, I, Sabé Andierre, swear to you my life and my death. I will serve you ever faithfully, and protect you, until my death, or yours, which will not happen as long as it is in my power to prevent it.” The oath was unchanged from back when it really was for life, because the position of Queen was likewise. Even now, after she stepped down to the throne Padmé would remain able to call Sabé back into her service if for any reason she should have need for her.
“Stand.” Sabé obeyed, then she walked around Padmé, and stood behind her, though Padmé could see her reflection in the pool. She bent her head, and Panaka placed a dark hood over it, obscuring her face. That was how she would live from then on, standing behind the Queen, noone quite sure who she was.
Padmé could not help but feel her heart clench a little. If Sabé had been older, maybe she wouldn't have been as bothered. But she was only 16. Her eyes fell on the younger members of the group. They lingered especially on the twelve-year old girl. With the exception of the handmaidens of the ten-year old Queen Roninil several centuries ago, there had never been a younger girl to make this pledge in service to her Queen.
Sabé was the bravest of the thirteen, and she was the ringleader. No matter who else was on duty, Sabé would be in command of them, and she would always be the first choice of decoy.
Padmé felt better about the next handmaiden, of only because at 24, Rabe Excenil was the oldest. But this hadn't been her first choice of career; she'd wanted to be a dancer. Yet she might have been the ringleader herself, if it weren’t for her age and complexion, both of which meant more work in disguising her as the future Queen. She came from the less inhabited side of Naboo.
Eirtaé Lasara was 20. She was slightly different in her position then the rest of the principal five, who would be with Padmé at all times. Though she did not lack in strength or skill with a weapon, she had been chosen specifically for her expertise in royal protocol and other diplomatic affairs. It was typical for one of the main five and another one of the thirteen handmaidens to be chosen as such in order to assist any King or Queen who had not been born into a political family, which Padmé had certainly not been. She had run for Queen herself, though she had dropped out of race early, and Padmé suspected when she left office she would run again.
That the final two of the first five had made it that far surprised Padmé, due to their young age; indeed, they were the youngest of the thirteen. Saché Aeyinson was only 13, Yané Carinda only 12. They both were fierce fighters, despite their young age, perhaps too aggressively so. Yané’s father was a weapons maker, and she was the best markswoman of the thirteen.
When Yané had stepped behind Padmé and been shrouded, the remaining eight stepped forward. They would not serve in as many duties as the first five, but their lives would be just as uprooted by their duties, and their pledge was the same. Briné Salmune, 17, not an official protocol expert, but an informal expert on the Gunguns. Coté Lanlin,, 16, who carried around with her rumors of a strange childhood, and stranger powers, which might or might not be like those of the Jedi. Lané Catalin, 14, another girl from a political family, the auxiliary protocol expert. Vatié Bibble, 15, daughter to the governor. She hesitated as she spoke the vow, and Padmé despite all the girl's words to the contrary feared her father had pressured her into her path, though it was hard for her to imagine Sio Bibble doing such a thing to his daughter.
It was again a comfort to see the next three, who were older. Losté Maiterrie, 19, a fellow farmer’s daughter. Ené Warsilo, 20, born in the Lake country like Briné, but her family had moved to Theed when she was relatively young. Ardré Kartik, 21, who like Coté was said to have a mysterious past and mysterious powers.
When only one girl stood next to Captain Panaka, there was a pause. Everyone knew this last girl had not been meant to be a handmaiden. Before she had turned 13, the age of majority on Naboo, her parents had entered her into the running, believing King Veruna would win another term, but those who served a King or Queen began their training before the actual election determined whether or not they would finish it; they had wanted her to benefit from that. But she had been 13 after the election, and to the open shock of her parents, she had declared she would go through with it, and they could not legally stop her.
“You can still leave,” Captain Panaka reminded her. “Once you take the oath there is no turning back, but even now, there is no penalty...”
But without waiting for his nod, she fell to her knees, nearly into the pool. “Padmé Amidala," she spoke frighteningly quickly. "I, Moré Yelnina, swear to you my life and my death. I will serve you ever faithfully, and protect you, until my death, or yours, which will not happen as long as it is in my power to prevent it.” Her fists clenched as she spoke, but her voice did not waver. There was utter silence in the grove.
The Panaka remembered himself. “Rise.”
It was a long walk for Moré, who had been put as the lowest ranking of the handmaidens by a man who had planned to replace her with an alternate grateful to have made it in. His shadow lay over her, and when she stepped behind Ardré the shadows of all twelve of the other handmaidens shaded her face, before Panaka covered it with the hood.
“Follow me.” He walked out of the grove. The women followed him single file, just possibly the only time they would walk together in their current formation. The coronation had been rehearsed with them divided into separate lines, and after that, the lesser eight’s duties would take them in and out of the Queen’s actual presence at such a rate that the fourteen of them might never again be gathered all together.
Single file they stepped onto the open-air transport. Padmé Amidala sat next to her head of security. Her handmaidens sat opposite them.
“As an elite force," Captain Panaka said to them. "You are officially under my authority. However, in dangerous situations, you will likely have to act on your own, as a completely autonomous unit. As you know, you are ranked in the order in which you sit now, starting with Sabé. Each of you is to consider yourself under the authority of the highest-ranking handmaiden within your immediate vicinity at all times.”
Even under their hoods, Padmé could see several of the handmaidens hiding amused expressions. Even if “dangerous situations” did not prove entirely non-existent during the next four or eight years, they were sure to be fairly rare.
The wild area where the handmaidens’ training camp had been held was falling away, and Theed was visible in the distance. Now Padmé spoke to her new handmaidens for the first time as their mistress. It was strange now, but she had the sad feeling she'd get used to it. “We will enter the city through the back gate and will quickly find ourselves within the old gatehouse, where the Queen always emerges for the parade.” They already knew the rest. Within that gatehouse, they would set about what would be their most common task, and they all hoped would prove their most vital one: dressing and making the Queen up for her public appearance.
The transport slid into the gatehouse and came to stop in front of a door. Panaka nodded to Padmé and left them there. Self-consciously she rose, and passed through the door.
The room was much as she had expected it. Simple furnished, well lit, and with a very large mirror. There was a cabinet on one wall, and a closet in which hung her coronation outfit.
She heard Sabé say to Rabé, “You're the only one amoung the five of us really able to properly oversee this. Take command.”
Rabé barked out orders as if she had been doing so all her life. “All right, Briné, start unloading the outfit. It’ll probably need ironing in at least one place. Ardré, check the cabinet for an iron. If there isn’t one, Eirtaé will need to go for one; she'll know where one is.”
“No need.” Ardré pulled an adaptable iron off one of the cabinet’s shelves. From the opened doors of the cabinet came the smell of many perfumes and oils, and other liquids Padmé could not identify immediately.
“Good. Vatié, could we have the holo-model of the hairstyle up? Though after all that time in the grove, we need to wash her hair. There must be some hairwash in there, but someone needs to get water. Lané, if you could? And Sabé, could you please get her to sit down?”
All three handmaidens bolted, and Padmé felt her shoulders being gripped and herself gently ushered into a seat, her hair pulled over the back. Another command from Rabé, and Losté and Ené were behind her, unpinning; she could see their forms in the mirror.
Rabé was peering over her face like a general peering over a war map. “We’ll apply the face powder after her hair is dry, but before we dress her. The dress is high-cut, but I think we should cover most of the shoulder and collar area. The red we’ll apply last of all. Ah, hairwash, thank you, Coté. Did you take a look at our powder supply?”
“Thought so, but wanted to make sure. Milady, you need to undress.”
Padmé removed her cloak, her shoes, her stockings, and her dress, and watched as Yané received them. She was surprised at feeling no embarrassment at sitting in her underclothes amoung a crowd of chattering people, but instead she felt excited. The thoughts kept running through her head, In only a few hours I will be Queen, they’re getting the robes ready, how am I going to handle this, I’m only 14, I’m too young...
“I have water, could somebody give me a hand?” Lané had returned carrying a full pail. “How are we going to do this?”
“We need some sort of strong sprayer. Does anyone know where we can find one?”
Moré gave an eager response: she knew exactly where to find one, she would go get it, and then she was gone. Padmé saw Sabé’s look of concern follow her. The head handmaiden herself was helping Lané carry the water.
Fortunate Sabé, to be able to take on responsibility without even thinking about it. And Rabé, who needed only a word. Though they were not without excitement, any of them. Saché had joined Losté and Ené in taking the pins, which were now nearly all out, and arranging them in front of the mirror, and her hands were visibly trembling. Others were not as obvious, but when Rabé gave her orders, she in fact was speaking a bit louder than usual, so as to be heard over everyone else’s voices. Padmé couldn’t quite make out what anyone was saying; not even Losté and Ené, who were right next to her, but that did not matter. What told their mistress far more was the handmaidens' tone, a mix of tension and joy. They talked to relieve their hearts a little.
This was as much a ritual for them as it was for her. Their commitment might not be nearly as wide as hers in scope, but it was just a big to them, and the solidifying of it was just as powerful, but there were no public display of showiness for them, no basking in glory. That was not their way.