Chapter 1

Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn sighed deeply as he strode down the hall. The Council felt he had been inactive for too long, and he knew it. They had been patient as he mourned the death of his dear friend Tahl. And now they were waiting for him to decide he was ready to resume his active life as a Jedi.

Except he wasn’t. And he was not sure he ever would be.

Qui-Gon turned a corner, heading for the Council room. The Council had summoned him, but hadn’t explained why. Perhaps they had grown tired of waiting. Perhaps they were going to send him on a mission anyway.

Maybe it is for the best, Qui-Gon thought, trying to make himself believe it. He’d been attempting to convince himself of so many things lately, though he did not often succeed. And at least it will be good for Obi-Wan.

Qui-Gon’s Padawan walked noiselessly beside him, his face a mask of perfect calm. Qui-Gon knew what lurked underneath. He could feel the tension growing between him and his apprentice. He sensed that Obi-Wan wanted to speak, and yet he was uncharacteristically silent.

Though Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan had never been far apart over the last few months, in many ways Qui-Gon had deserted his apprentice. He wished he could say something to reassure Obi-Wan. Soothing speeches used to come so easily. But Jedi wisdom felt somehow hollow to him now. He would not offer the boy empty words.

Pausing outside the Council room, Obi-Wan turned to his Master. Qui-Gon saw he was about to speak, but before he could say anything the Council room doors hissed open.

Only three of the twelve Council seats were filled. Qui-Gon was not surprised to see so few members present. He greeted his old friends and stood before them in a familiar circle.

Yoda, Mace Windu, and Plo Koon thanked the Jedi team for coming. Their eyes passed briefly over Obi-Wan, then rested on Qui-Gon. They were obviously concerned.

Qui-Gon could feel the Council members looking deep inside him, trying to determine if sending him on a mission was the right decision. He was surprised to find that he could not hold their gaze. Rather than lifting his burden of sorrow, their caring made him painfully aware of the weight he was bearing.

Looking past the seated Masters to the Coruscant skyline, Qui-Gon tried to settle his feelings. He wondered yet again why he could not let this flood of emotion flow through him. He had been taught to do just that by great teachers — some now seated before him — and it had always worked. Yet it did not work now.

Obi-Wan shifted his feet, and Qui-Gon realized that the silence had gone on for too long.

“We’ve received a request from Senator Crote of Frego,” Mace Windu began at last. “He has asked for Jedi assistance in transporting a witness to Coruscant to testify before the Senate.”

Qui-Gon nodded. Protecting important witnesses was routine for the Jedi. As he’d suspected, this first assignment — something easy. A distraction. That was why there were only three members of the Council present.

“A simple task it is not,” Yoda said, as if in answer to Qui-Gon’s thoughts. “There is much danger on Frego.”

Mace Windu continued to study Qui-Gon’s face. “We would not send you if we did not think you were ready. Do you feel ready, Qui-Gon?”

Qui-Gon did not know. He had no desire to leave the Temple, or even his simple rooms. But it would not be fair to Obi-Wan to live in seclusion forever.

“I am ready,” Qui-Gon replied, more firmly than he believed.

Qui-Gon could feel Obi-Wan’s relief. It rushed from him like a breath that had been held for a long time and finally released. The Council members too, seemed to relax upon hearing Qui-Gon’s words. They stopped searching his thoughts. They had the answer they wanted. Qui-Gon hoped he had made the right decision.

“As Yoda said, the situation is complicated,” Plo Koon said. “We’ve asked Jocasta Nu to give you all of the information you need before you depart.” He gestured toward the Temple archives.

“Go now you must,” Yoda added gravely.

“We fear the danger for the witness is growing. The sooner you get to Frego, the better,” Mace said, dismissing Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan with a wave of his hand. “May the Force be with you.”

Qui-Gon nodded and walked slowly out of the circular room, followed by Obi-Wan. Even after hearing the Masters’ cautionary words, he felt sure that the mission would be so simple to complete… as long as his spirit didn’t fail him.

Jocasta Nu was a thin, wispy Jedi with long graying hair that she wore in a tight bun. She stood up from her work table the moment the Jedi entered the room. The picture of efficiency, she gathered her materials and gestured toward another, larger table, asking Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan to take a seat.

“I understand that time is of the essence,” Jocasta said. She did not bother with introductions. It did not matter. Qui-Gon had encountered the Temple archivist before, and surely Obi-Wan knew who she was. She briefed many Jedi teams before they went out on important missions.

In the past Qui-Gon had preferred to use other sources to get this information. He had grown used to working with Tahl, and hadn’t met with Jocasta that often since he took Obi-Wan as an apprentice four years ago.

“The witness is Lena Cobral.” Jocasta showed them a holo image of a light young woman with dark hair twisted into an elaborate bun.” She is the widowed wife of Rutin Cobral.”

The image of the young woman vanished and a man appeared in her place. He was young, fairly tall, with short brown hair, and a relaxed smile. “Rutin was recently killed, and his murderer is still at large.”

“Is that unusual?” Qui-Gon asked. “I thought Frego was a planet ruled by criminals.”

Jocasta looked slightly annoyed at the interruption, but continued. “The Cobral family is the largest power on Frego. They are in charge of a crime ring that has successfully controlled the government for twenty years. Rutin’s father died a few years ago, of natural causes. It was widely believed that Rutin was being groomed to take over, although he has two brothers who are older than he is. Solan is the oldest and the new leader of the Cobral.”

A shorter, stockier version of Rutin appeared on the screen. Besides his brother’s height, Solan also lacked his thick head of hair and genuine smile. He was nearly bald and his scowl looked permanent.

“Solan is well known on his planet, widely feared and respected. He gets what he needs through threats, violence, and influence.”

Now that Jocasta was through imparting information, she was prepared to answer Qui-Gon’s question.

“It is not unusual for murders to go uninvestigated on Frego. But it is unusual for a favored member of the Cobral family to be killed, particularly without vengeance.”

Though Qui-Gon’s expression did not change, he felt a fresh wave of grief wash through him. He longed more than ever for Tahl — for her cynicism, her quick mind, and her habit of dispensing information in a way that naturally led Qui-Gon’s thoughts in the proper direction.

Qui-Gon reminded himself that theirs was a relationship that had taken years to develop. And that the connection he had with Tahl was one he would never have with the Temple archivist. Or anyone else, probably.

“Lena married into the Cobral family three years ago,” Jocasta went on. “There was a rumor that Rutin no longer wanted to be involved in his family’s dealings. Although he could not easily divorce himself from the crime business, Senator Crote has told us that Rutin was prepared to testify before the Senate against his family. He wanted to put an end to the crime ring altogether. Not long after Rutin agreed to testify, he was killed.” Jocasta took a breath, but did not allow more than a second to pass before going on.

“Last night we received a secret communication from Lena. Senator Crote did as well. She has decided to take up her husband’s cause and testify against the Cobral herself.” Jocasta pushed several documents on a datapad across the table toward the Jedi. “Everything you need is here.”

Qui-Gon stood and took the datapad. “Thank you,” he said curtly. “We may be contacting you if we need further assistance.”

“Of course,” Jocasta nodded. “May the Force be with you.”

Qui-Gon nodded blankly in return. How could he trust that the Force would be with him?” Where had it been when he’d needed it the most? He and Tahl had pledged their love for each other. But nothing — not that love, not the Jedi, not the Force — had been able to save her.

It did not take long for Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan to gather supplies for the short journey. Soon they were stepping onto the freighter that would take them to Frego.

Distracted and exhausted, Qui-Gon was anxious to retire to his quarters as soon as they were on board. He was about to say as much to Obi-Wan when his Padawan spoke.

“Master, I know that these last few months have been hard on you.” Obi-Wan reached out a hand toward Qui-Gon’s shoulder but let it drop, barely brushing his Master’s brown sleeve. “And I … well, I can’t help remembering what you told me when Bant was missing in the Temple. You said that the darkest time is the time when it is most important that you follow the Jedi Code. If you let your emotions fl—”

“Thank you, Obi-Wan,” Qui-Gon cut him off. “You have learned well what I’ve taught you. One day you will make a fine Jedi Master.” He turned and made his way quickly toward his quarters. He could sense the boy behind him, standing, bewildered.

Qui-Gon knew his apprentice was only trying to make him feel better. But he could not bear to listen to the wisdom that was now failing him. He simply wanted to be alone.