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Conspiracy

von JazzyJedi

(Takes place before, during and after "Choice")

Saché shuffled into the Royal Chambers, faded red fuzzy slippers scuffling the floor as she entered. The hood of her forest green gown was still down. Her hair stuck out at odd angles, an uncombed mess.

She yawned loudly, drawing attention from every girl in the room. Eirtaé and Yané frowned, Rabé rolled her eyes in mock despair, and Sabé put her finger to her lips, then pointed to her three month old daughter in her arms. Amidala, still under the expert ministrations of Rabé's deft fingers, could only shift her eyes in the mirror to watch what was taking place behind her. The Queen tried not to let a grin show through, knowing it would only encourage Saché to continue such misbehavior.

Eirtaé jumped up and immediately began fussing over the minute details of the young handmaiden's gown. "Saché! You're not nearly ready! We go to court in just a few minutes." She straightened the velvet folds and arranged them as the patterns indicated.

"Taé-Taé, would you relax? Rabé's not done with the Queen's hair yet. I've got plenty of time."

Saché chewed for a moment, then a large pink bubble emerged from her mouth. The other girls watched with apprehension as it grew in size, expanding until it threatened to burst and cover her face with sticky goo. When it seemed that the gum could stretch no further, she inhaled it all back safely into her mouth.

The young women's eyes widened in amazement. Saché merely shrugged modestly.

"You know I hate it when you call me 'Taé-Taé'," the blonde groaned. Her pale skin reddening, she turned to the Queen.

"Your Highness, may I be excused for a moment?"

"Yes, you may, " Amidala replied seriously. Her eyes were the only sign of her reluctant amusement.

The moment Eirtaé had left, Saché reached into her bag, grabbed a tissue, and removed the gum, pitching it into the wastecan. She retrieved the shoes that matched her gown, and replaced the old slippers.

Yané tilted her head and studied her cohort. "Why do you aggravate her so?"

"Because she's so aggravating. I know how to act, and what to do and say while on duty. You'd think we've been together long enough now for her to notice that. When we're not on display, we're entitled to relax. We are all still young, after all. Let's live a little!"

Sabé shifted the baby to a new position in the crook of her arm. "Be careful when you live a little, Saché. You may get more than you bargain for." Her tone was slightly stern, even though she was smiling.

"Meira Girl," Saché exclaimed as she bent down to play with the child. She lowered her voice so that only Sabé and the baby could hear her. "Don't you worry. Your mommy doesn't regret you for a minute. If she were gonna give you up, you'd be in a Temple nursery right now."

Sabé scowled. Almost whispering, she replied, "My love for my daughter doesn't allow you to live recklessly. Learn from my experience, Saché."

Saché winked at her friend, then rose and turned to address everyone in the room. "So, speaking of living a little, who wants to go out tonight?" Noticing that Rabé was finishing her work on Amidala, Saché sidled up next to the Queen, using a bit of the mirror to arrange her own hair.

"Your Highness, don't you think it's time to let Padmé come out and play?"

Amidala gave her an understanding glance. "You've found someplace new, haven't you?"

"Haven't been there yet, the word on the street is it's the place to go. I overheard a couple of young men speak of it. I caught only bits of the conversation, but it sounds like the latest rage!"

"I'm sorry, I can't go tonight. My parents are going to be in town this evening and I'd have to get up early tomorrow anyway."

Saché shrugged, then scanned the rest of the room. "Anybody?"

Yané sighed. "All right, after my lesson with the Healer, I'll join you. How much do you know about this place? Are you sure it's safe?"

"It'll be fine," Saché responded. "Even if it gets a little rough, we can handle it. We are Naboo's Finest!"

Yané shook her head. "Sometimes I do think you should be studied. OK, I'll be there. We'll work out the details later."

Rabé smiled. "I'll see if Rowan would like to go. If he doesn't, I'll come by a little late. How's that?"

Saché nodded. "Sabé?"

"No, I'm not going anywhere for a while yet. I'll stay here tonight, if that's all right with Her Highness." Sabé looked to Amidala. The Queen signaled her permission with a short nod.

"Very well, it's settled," Saché said, "now we'll...." She was interrupted by a chime.

"Later-it's time for us to get to work," Amidala commanded, assuming her court voice. Saché made a couple of last second adjustments, skipped for a step or two to take her place in line, and the women exited the chamber for the day.

***

Wandering the side streets of Theed, Saché chose a roundabout route to the club. A cool breeze was coming from the direction of the river, carrying with it many delectible fragrances wafting out of each doorway. She caught and savored the scents as she strolled through the district. This was one of her favorite little alleyways, and she guessed that even if blindfolded, she'd be able to discern her location by the distinctive aromas and sounds. A candy shop was making fresh pralines with nuts, the warm, sweet smell drifting through the screened window. The florist was next, his seasonal blooms bearing a pleasing fragrance. Music floated from another open doorway, the lazy melody exhilarating and soothing at once. The young woman smiled with contentment. She did love the Queen and her job, but private time like this was necessary to refresh her soul.

Her winding walk took her near a few rows of street vendors. She veered from her path to see what each stall had to offer. She found such things as decorative beads, incense, and knickknacks of all kinds. She browsed, nodding at each merchant, but only giving a quick glance at the merchandise.

She stopped when she came to a booth with many colors of scarves among the offerings. She looked at her street clothes and suddenly felt the formfitting black outfit, while smart, was far too plain. It could do with a hint of color, something that would catch some young man's eye.

As she looked over the items, a streak of red stood out against the more somber shades that surrounded it. It seemed the perfect choice. "May I have that red scarf?" she asked, stretching to point it out.

The middle-aged man smiled, and glanced in the direction indicated. His eyes narrowed slightly. "Are you certain you want that one, Milady?"

"Yes, please. Let me see it," she pressed. "I'd like to try it with this outfit. The color is so eye-catching."

"That it is, Milady, but perhaps you should try several others before you make up your mind. The blue here, now that's classy, too," he stated, pulling down another piece of fabric.

Now annoyed, Saché's tone grew more insistent. "No, I want the red. The color will suit me just fine. Now, please let me have it and pay you, so I can be on my way. I have to meet some friends in just a few minutes." She hesitated, thinking perhaps she had been too short with him. She tried a different approach. "Red's my flag color and it'll show that I mean business." She added a wink to win him over.

To her great surprise, he warmed up immediately. "Ah, I see now," he replied, and winked back. "Very well then, Milady, the red is what you shall have." He handed it over with a flourish.

Saché drew herself up with satisfaction at her victory. She took the offering with a dainty wave and smiled as she handed over the payment. She tied the scarf around her neck, flashed one last smile at the vendor and moved on.

As she got within sight of the club, she saw she wasn't the only one who wanted to try the place out this night. There was a crowd milling around in front of the stone facade of the entrance, and there seemed to be no established order yet as to who got in or how.

Standing on tiptoe, Saché looked over the scene. There was no sign of Rabé or Yané. She checked the chronometer and saw the hour was a bit early yet, so she had no reason to be concerned.

Three handsome men, near to her age, strolled by. Saché chose to observe them carefully. They appeared unattached, and were laughing casually among themselves. The odds had never looked better outside the Palace, so she fell in behind them until they stopped for a moment to look in a shop window, then she made her move.

"Excuse me," she said, flashing her most fetching smile. "This is my first time here. Can you show a girl how to slip inside?"

The three men turned at her question. As soon as they saw her, their eyes grew wide. One, brown haired and boyish looking, recovered quickly. He returned her smile with a warm one of his own.

"Indeed we can, Milady. I must admit, we did not expect such boldness this early. Come with us." He offered his arm and Saché took it, feeling very pleased with herself.

The group bypassed the line that was forming and was already a block long. They proceeded straight to the door. The bouncer seemed to recognize the brown haired man and waved him in. Saché began to sense that either she had made the best move of the night, or a terrible mistake.

Casting furtive glances all around, the men seemed to let a casual facade drop just a bit, and headed directly to a closed door at the rear of the club. Reaching inside their robes, they pulled out red scarves, matching Saché's, and tied them around their necks.

She looked up at her companion, hoping that her growing apprehension did not show. He pushed the door open, motioned for her to enter and smiled.

"Welcome to your first Faction meeting, pretty lady."



As he guided Saché to a seat in the first row, her companion spoke to her cordially. "It was very smart of you to pick me out of the crowd. Not too many know me yet, but they will. When the rightful Queen is on the throne and that elected impostor is back on the farm, everyone will be thanking me. Now, you sit right here and we'll talk after the meeting."

As he took the stand, the room darkened, the lone spotlight shining on him, giving him a warm glow.

"Gentlemen and Ladies, I'd like to thank you for coming tonight. I'm Dunyan, and I'd like to talk to you about why we're here. How many of you are satisfied with how Queen Amidala has handled the affairs of our world? You all know she is about to seal a deal with the Gungan race for a trade alliance."

Many in the room hissed, or even cried out. A voice from the back yelled, "A real ruler would have never left us open to invasion in the first place! That's when we had to turn to the Frogs!"

Saché heard other phrases of discontent. A couple of them even seemed to suggest violence. Fear grew within her, fear for her Queen and herself. She played along with the crowd, knowing it was the only way she would be allowed to leave unharmed.

At the more radical of the suggestions, the charismatic leader shook his head benevolently. "Now, we're not advocating that, at least not yet. It is my hope that this can be done without that kind of drastic action. We are a peaceful people at heart, and I intend to see that peace continue if at all possible, while we carry out our mission. We simply want to see the proper sovereign ruling, not a Frog lover who does business with the Gungans. We don't need their help. We can govern our own trading. This proposed alliance will do nothing but take money from our pockets. With your assistance, we can remove Amidala and let her return to her role as a private citizen."

Someone shouted out, "Who would rule? You, Dunyan?" Applause accompanied that proposal.

He assumed a humble air. "Me? I'm not worthy, nor would I ever suggest such a thing. We have found the rightful heir to the throne; her line traces back unbroken to the last member of the true Royal Family. She wishes to claim her birthright and lead us as we become a stronger planet."

Saché chanced a question of her own. "Who is the rightful Queen? When do we get to see her?"

Dunyan saw it was Saché who had spoken and smiled directly at her. In other circumstances, that would have melted all her resistance, but here and now, it chilled her to the bone. She kept up her front, and waited for his answer.

"A fair question. Right now, we must keep her identity hidden for her own protection. I promise you, once the time is right, and it's safe, we can announce her in the fashion she deserves."

Saché went numb after that. She heard many slanderous things about the Gungans and Amidala, but tried to block them out so that she could get through the experience without giving herself away. A part of her wished to jump to the podium and tell these people how wrong they were, but of course that would have done no good.

After what seemed ages, the meeting was finally adjourned. She got out of her seat, hoping to slip away from Dunyan before he could single her out and speak to her further. He was delayed by people wanting to speak to him, so she thought she might have a chance.

She exited the back room with the group, her nerves screaming, sick to her stomach. She prayed that she was retaining the outward signs of composure.

A stranger from the crowd leered at her and smiled. "Hey, they said we should act casual. How about a drink? I don't need to run off right away."

Saché nodded and flashed a half smile back. "Sure."

Those who had been in the meeting started spreading out a bit and gravitated toward the bar to chat. Saché sipped her drink and made innocuous remarks in response to whatever she was asked. Whenever she could, she looked for the other handmaidens, hoping that they had been able to get in.

Another round of drinks had been delivered. Dunyan was working the room, and had soon made his way round to Saché.

"So pretty lady, what was your name again?"

Saché was trying to stammer out some reply, when she felt a hand on her shoulder. "'Cousin Ché-Ché! We've been looking everywhere for you! Oh Sir, thank you for taking care of my cousin. We're from out of town, and we were so worried we'd lose her." She turned around and saw Eirtaé and Yané behind her.

Dunyan turned on the charm with even more vigor when he got an eyeful of the other two girls. "Beauty runs in the family, I see."

Saché piped in, "Oh yes, my cousin Taé-Taé has always been a head turner. Even so, she's a straight arrow, very loyal to family, friends, Queen Amidala." She winked at Dunyan.

"Oh, I see," he responded politely. He bowed slightly to the three girls. "I hope to see you again, Ché-Ché. You know you can find me here. Go and have a lovely evening with your cousins." With one last glance at Saché, he went back to his rounds.

With Saché leading, they exited the club, casually, but quickly. Rabé was making her way toward them, when she saw their demeanor and following their lead, joined in, matching the attitude of the group flawlessly. Their subjects of conversation were hair and makeup until they were far away from the club.

At last, when it seemed they were at a safe distance, Saché turned around to face the other women. "Were we followed?"

Yané shook her head. "No, not a chance. I'd have caught it by now. What's going on?"

Saché bit her lip and held back her tears. "Something terrible-we have to get home before I say more. Eirtaé, I didn't expect you, but I'm so glad you showed up. How did you know I was in trouble?"

The blonde grinned. "A gorgeous man was looking at you, and you weren't flirting. Unusual behavior for you, to say the least."



As soon as they had returned safely to the Palace, Saché alerted Panaka of an imminent threat to her Highness.

"We need to have a meeting immediately, Captain," Saché insisted.

"This time of night? Are you sure?" he responded slowly. It was clear he had been roused out of a sound sleep.

"Right now, Captain! This is of the utmost urgency. I can't speak of it over the com. I'll see you in the Throne Room as soon as possible. The other handmaidens and Minister Calle will be joining us."

As it was the middle of the night, no one was in uniform. Saché, Eirtaé and Yané were first to the meeting place. Amidala showed up with her hair down, and in casual robes, accompanied by Rabé. Sabé carried Meira and settled in one of the seats reserved for the Queen's advisors. She and her daughter were trying hard to stay awake. Panaka was last, stomping in, his annoyance very clear.

"Saché, please begin," Amidala requested.

As Saché related what she had heard, the other women in the room gasped. Sabé instinctively cuddled Meira in a protective gesture. Panaka began pacing frantically, even more so than during the Trade Federation's invasion. The Queen remained cool and in control, analytical of the situation, as was her manner.

"A threat from within--from our own people," Panaka fumed.

"Just a few of them," Sabé pointed out. "We know that the majority are in favor of the Queen's administration. Perhaps this is leftover frustration from the Federation's occupation and will burn itself out. We must take precautions in any case. Your Highness, I suggest that we train additional handmaidens, at least two more. One to take my former position, and a sixth, to add to the rotation. We cannot afford to let your bodyguards be anything less than fully alert while on duty."

Amidala nodded in agreement. "Captain, you and Minister Calle look into that, first thing in the morning. Saché, did you get the feeling that this movement is contained, or does it seem to go beyond Theed?"

Saché thought for a moment and shrugged. "Your Highness, it's hard to say. I regret that I allowed my emotions to cloud my observation skills at that time. I ask your forgiveness."

Amidala smiled to reassure her. "It's understandable, given the situation you found yourself in. But prepare to put your fears aside, handmaiden. We will require you to return to this place. You are in the unique position of having gained their trust. You will have to be Our eyes and ears and gather as much information as you can. Only then can We ascertain if this Faction is truly a threat."

The Queen turned to Sabé. "Minister, you and your father are experts in covert tactics. The two of you will take Saché in hand and begin training her as soon as possible."

Sabé inclined her head toward the Queen. "Of course, Your Highness."

Saché fought the misgivings she had and looked at Sabé gratefully. If she could trust anyone to teach her well, it was definitely the Minister.

"The rest of you know what we are to look for. Be on your guard when We are in public. We will discuss this again when more information has come to light. For now, We believe they are not well organized enough to be a major threat to Us, but they are not to be taken lightly. Understood?"

All the handmaidens bowed in agreement.

"Very well, this meeting is adjourned."

***

Saché sipped her drink and waited for those wearing the scarves to make their move. She had been given no trouble at the door. The bouncer had allowed her in with a nod.

Her apprehension was growing. In the last week she had been trained in as much Covert Ops and spy tactics as Sabé and Lieutenant Uzza could cram into such a short frame of time. Even so, something told her that they did not think the few days that had been alloted were nearly enough to prepare her for the job ahead.

Sabé had cautioned her. "Remember, all you are to do is to gather information. Don't confront anyone, or try to be a heroine. If you are suspected or your person is threatened, hit the panic button and our people will retrieve you."

At the time, Saché had dismissed such advice. She even snorted at Sabé. "You, your father and Panaka have trained me. I'm qualified to be a bodyguard of the Queen herself, not to mention that I did quite well on Naboo during the invasion. Don't you trust me?"

Sabé had sighed. "Of course I do. So does Panaka and the Queen. That's why you're on this mission. But this is different from anything you've done before. Just be mindful of the dangers involved."

Sitting here in the bar with no one to turn to, Saché began to understand what her friend and trainer had been trying to tell her. Even when the Queen and Panaka had left with three of her teammates, she still had Yané as a companion and cohort. The enemy had been out in the open and one simply avoided them. Now, she had to opearate alone and act as a friend and compatriot to people that she despised. This wasn't going to be easy.

Dunyan entered the club and a path seemed to open up for him. He spotted her across the room, and made his way over.

"Hello again, pretty lady! On your own tonight?"

She flashed her most charming smile. "On my own? Not here. All my friends are here."

The leader looked impressed. "That's the spirit! I can see that you and I will get along just fine." He offered his arm.

As Saché took it and walked with Dunyan to the meeting room, she noticed envious stares from some of the young women they passed. She pondered the irony-she would give anything not to be with this man. She caught sight of a couple of Panaka's agents that had made it to the bar and would be nearby in case of trouble and that gave her brief comfort as she entered the back chamber.

Dunyan grinned at her as they moved to the front of the room. "I want to get to know you better. Let me get you a drink after the meeting."

Saché nodded. "I'd like that."

"What's your name? I know your nickname, but it's too familar for us just yet. What shall I call you?" Dunyan purred.

Saché's cheeks warmed as she felt the blush coming on. "Call me Chélynne."

"How lovely! Sit here, and I'll be with you soon," the charming leader said, indicating the same front row seat she had been in before, near his podium. She hadn't noticed before, but it must be a seat of privilege. She glanced around before sitting and caught a few dark looks thrown her way.

She took a deep breath, and pushed her fears to the background. She had to focus on what she was here to do. She called upon her new skills to observe this event and recall it in exact detail later.

It was clear that Dunyan's charisma remained strong. He continued his condescending oration on the relationship between the Gungans and Amidala's administration. He reiterated his disapproval of the imminent treaty, scorned how it would take money away from the Naboo, and that the races would inevitably begin to mix, with Gungans living in Theed, and Naboo migrating to Otoh Gunga. He promised guidance from the Queen they should have had all along, and that she would be a ruler that would let the entire Republic know that their race was not to be underestimated. The audience cheered as they had before.

Many details of this meeting were similar to the last, but Saché sensed subtle differences. The room appeared to contain more occupants this time. She noticed a slight edge that had not been in Dunyan's voice before. He seemed a bit more threatening and less benevolent.

Saché began to wonder how far he could go and still rally the people in the way he was able to now. She considered for a moment what a shame it was for him and all of Naboo that he wasted his talent in an evil and racist pursuit. Realizing that it distracted her from her task, she pushed the notion away, and returned to her job.

Dunyan was wrapping up his presentation. "And next week, I'll have special guests. Our movement is growing, slowly, but surely. Our first representatives from outside of Theed will be present!"

The sick feeling returned to the pit of her stomach as Dunyan descended to meet with his followers. She kept her cool and waited patiently for him to finish mingling and rejoin her.

***

The meetings went on, and Saché continued to gather information. Her identity remained secret, even when she knew she'd been followed by one of Dunyan's operatives. She'd been set up with an apartment, a job as a clerk in a small firm and a cover story. Everything was going as planned. She was proud of what she was doing for the Queen, not only as her trusted servant, but as a friend.

Still, something was starting to nag at her as the days went on into weeks of undercover work and meetings. She occasionally found herself attracted to Dunyan. It was a feeling that horrified her as soon as she noticed it. She buried it as quickly as possible when it did crop up. That little voice of conscience told her she should talk to Rabé about it, but that would be nearly impossible. Direct contact with the Palace or the handmaidens would jeopardize the mission and her life.

The big day finally arrived. It was time for the formal signing of the joint trade agreement between the Naboo and the Gungans. The treaty had been approved of by the Queen's advisors and the overwhelming majority of the public, so the atmosphere was festive. At least everywhere else it was.

Saché was in her role as an up and coming member of The Faction during the planetwide holocast of the ceremony. As she picked out details of the Throne Room, she had to fight back tears. She missed her life as a handmaiden, and the company of her true friends.

Dunyan was silent as the event proceeded, but the other members jeered derisively. Then the unexpected happened.

"As a sign of this Alliance, I am honored to introduce a new handmaiden into my service," Amidala intoned in her solemn court manner.

A female Gungan stepped forward, clad in the same attire as the young Naboo women, bowed to the Queen, and took her place among the other handmaidens. Saché was shocked, and more than a little hurt, to see her stand in the spot where she so wanted to be.

The group exploded into various reactions. There were moans of disgust, growls of anger, and mutterings of what should be done to the Queen and this new Frog.

Dunyan uncrossed his arms and pointed at the holo. "There! Did you catch that?"

"What?" a man next to him asked.

"Look at Panaka. See his face?" The Captain was indeed giving the Gungan female a sour look. " I'd venture a guess that he's no more fond of the Frogs than we are."

"Maybe not, but what's he going to do about it?" Saché remarked. "He's sworn to serve the Queen."

"He's sworn to serve Naboo," Dunyan corrected. "Perhaps when Amidala assumed the throne, he thought that serving her meant serving his people. Now it's clear that it does not. The Frog has taken an elite position, one that should go to a young woman of noble Naboo heritage--someone like you, Chélynne."

Saché almost choked. She thought for a moment that Dunyan might be onto her, but as she looked into his dark brown eyes and saw only warmth. Oh Force, she thought to herself. As a misguided part of her conscience nagged her, she almost wished there was suspection there.

He gave her a smile that matched the glow in his eyes. "I have a favor to ask you, Dear."

"Yes," Saché nodded.

"I would like you to find out if the good Captain would be an appropriate recruit for our group. It's possible that he shares our interests. I'll let you know when to go meet with him. Will you do this for us?" He stroked her cheek with a finger.

She gave the leader a slight bow. "As you wish, Dunyan."

A few days later, Saché was at the rendevous point. It was a place she knew well, near the Palace grounds. Many of the officers came to this club to relax after hours. Panaka should be showing up soon. She had been able to get a coded message to the Captain, warning him of the ruse and advising him to play along to a point. Since she was sure of how things would go, she was relaxed and at ease. Besides, it would be good to see Panaka again. Perhaps they would get enough privacy for her to hear some news of what was going on in the Palace.

"Saché! Hey, where you been, long time, no see," a young man yelled from behind her.

She froze in place and swallowed hard. She didn't turn around.

A hand was on her shoulder. "Saché, why do you want to be like that? Don't you know one of your old boyfriends anymore?"

She shifted to face a young Palace Guard. "Sir, you must be mistaken. I don't know you."

The young man looked confused. "But...I could have sworn..."

Rowan stepped from the club's doorway. "Come on, Shane, leave her alone. She looks like Saché, but she's not. Sorry, Miss. My friend here has...ah... celebrated a bit too much."

"No problem. Thank you, Sir." Saché sent Rowan a heartfelt look of gratitude. He returned it with understanding, and led his companion away.

In a nearby doorway, a cloaked man noted the event, and smiled to himself.

A few moments later, Panaka strolled by. Saché made her move, engaging him in conversation, then suggesting that the Gungan handmaiden was perhaps a controversial play by the Queen. Panaka responded as she had suggested. He agreed with the statement.

She then proposed that they find someplace private to talk. He nodded and took her to the manager's office in the club. As soon as the door closed behind them, Saché fell into his arms and burst into tears. Panaka held her and let her cry the fear and tension out of her system.

"How much longer do I have to go on with this?" she sobbed.

The Captain patted her back. "Not for long. We have almost all the evidence we need, thanks to you. I promise, you'll be back in the Palace before Sabé returns from Coruscant."

"Oh no, she's gone and done it! She's going to take Meira to the Temple. I didn't even get to say goodbye!" Saché sniffed.

"We don't know that she's going to give the baby up. She left today, and she admitted that she hadn't made up her mind yet. Courage, Saché. Just hang in there a little longer."

Straightening herself out, she nodded, and gave Panaka a salute. She then gave him a report and data that she had collected since the last transmission. She felt a sense of hope when she was done, as if this step put her closer to returning to her handmaiden job and home.

"Well done, " Panaka comfirmed. "One more question. Why did they choose to contact me? Didn't they realize it was risky to attempt to recruit someone so close to the Queen? How could they question my loyalty?"

Saché hesitated. She knew the truth would hurt and put the Captain on the defensive. She hoped he would trust her enough to realize the spirit in which she would answer.

"I'll be honest with you. Captain, your attitude toward the Gungans is not the most gracious and open. It comes dangerously close to theirs. They spotted that and thought you may be sympathetic to their cause."

Panaka shot her a shocked glare. He growled and opened his mouth to sputter a protest, but then stopped and reflected.

"That gives me something to think about. Thank you for your candor."

"And thank you, Captain, for your understanding."

"You'd better get back out there before they suspect. The Queen and the other ladies send their love and best wishes. We all want you back soon. I'll be sending for you before long. Keep up the good work, Saché."

The young woman saluted, and exited the room, leaving Panaka with his thoughts.

***

The young Gungan female peeked around the corner and ducked back when she saw Panaka striding down the great hall, a serious look in his eyes. She took a deep breath and gathered her courage. The Captain intimidated her, but she would speak to him.

She had learned recently that her relation to Boss Nass as his niece could be interpreted as making her a princess. She was humble, and did not let this lead her into conceit. Rather, she used the information to boost her sagging self esteem. She was alone in a culture that was strange to her. The other handmaidens and the Queen treated her well, but she longed to be more than just a symbol of a trade agreement. She wanted to prove herself on her own terms and fit into the group. It seemed to her that the best way to do that was to join the handmaidens in their training and other activities.

So far, Panaka had put her off everytime she wanted to talk to him about training. He was always busy, and waved away her attempts to intiate conversation. She determined that he would not avoid the subject now.

I am a Gungan Princess, she thought to herself. I have the right to ask for this.

She stepped into the hall in front of Panaka and gave him a bow. "Meesa...I would spake to you, Captain." Her accent was heavy, but her sweet clear voice delivered the Basic words in a careful and deliberate manner.

Panaka studied her. She was getting better with the Basic. Perhaps this would work out after all. Remembering his caveat from Saché, he decided to hear her out this time.

"Yes, of course, Jeré. You are right to come to me about anything you wish. Let's go to my office."

Jeré's large eyes got even bigger with astonishment, but she joined Panaka at his side.

When they reached the office and closed the door, the Captain motioned for Jeré to sit. "What are your concerns, handmaiden?"

"I wouldsa join in the training with the other ladies, Captain. It is what I should do for this job."

Panaka nodded. He was impressed with the sincerity of her desire. "That's what you've wanted all along, isn't it?"

Jeré nodded vigorously.

The Captain smiled. For the first time in his life, he actually liked a Gungan. He held out his gloved hand to her. "I'm sorry we haven't had this meeting before. I'll have to admit, I'm not really sure how to train a Gungan. But you can help us learn. I'd be proud to have you join us on the training course. As soon as Minister Calle gets back, we'll set it up. Is that all?"

A huge grin of relief spread across her face. "Yes! Thank you, Captain."

"Very well. We'll get you out there in a few days."

***

Saché's spirit was renewed after her conversation with the Captain. Having a chance to unload with Panaka and get his reassurance had been what she needed to go on with the mission. She almost bounced on the way back to The Faction's meeting room. She had to stop a block before she was there to get in character, remembering that she was supposed to be bringing bad news.

She opened the door and entered the room, wearing the saddest look she could possibly muster. She looked up at Dunyan as if she were about to cry.

"There, there, Chélynne. It didn't go well?"

"I've failed you, Dunyan. You and everyone else who was counting on me." Saché sniffed. She reminded herself not to lay it on too thick.

"Come here, my Dear. At least you got back to us. You were very brave." Dunyan held out his arms and Saché went to him and allowed herself to be embraced.

"You haven't failed us. That avenue was just not meant to be. I have another plan in mind that I think you are qualified for. How are you with a blaster?"

Saché hoped her alarm at that question didn't show on her face. "I've never touched one. I've always been afraid of them. Why do you ask?" She bit her lip, thinking it might make the lie more convincing.

"I'll let you know more soon. I have to make a plan tonight. Everyone, this meeting is adjourned, be back this time tommorrow night. We have to take a bigger step."

As the group broke up, Dunyan kissed Saché's forehead. "Be brave. I may be asking a lot of you, but I'm sure you can do it. I'll talk to you later."

The next night Dunyan was ready as everyone took their places. As usual, he asked Saché to sit up front and hinted that she was to have a special part in the plan. She nodded eagerly and dug her fingernails into her palms to concentrate on her duty to observe so she could make her report. She wished that this would be the last time. Her feelings told her things were about to get too big for her to stay concealed any longer.

From his seat at the table, he started the presentation. "Thank you for your attendance, everyone. Now before I disclose my plan, I'd like to show you why Chélynne is perfect for the role she is to play. The Queen has an entourage of handmaidens, similar to her in height and build. If we can copy one of their gowns, she will be able to pass as a handmaiden and get close to the Queen. This is a most important job. I'm trusting you, Chélynne. I know you can help us." He looked deeply into Saché's eyes as he spoke the last sentence.

From the rear of the room, a laugh started, low at first. As it increased in volume, it deepened.

Dunyan broke eye contact with Saché and cast an angry glare to see who was causing the disturbance.

A broad dark man with a sly look on his face spoke. "You're a fool, Dunyan. I've suspected as much for some time; now I'm sure of it."

Dunyan rose from his seat. His challenger stood and took wide strides across the room to stand in front of the group.

"There is a reason she's the perfect size for a handmaiden's gown." He pointed an accusing finger. "That's because she is one!"

Everyone, including Saché, gasped at the accusation. She began reaching under her outer robe for the panic button that would alert Panaka's people.

Her accuser grabbed her wrist. "Keep your hands where we can see them at all times, my lady."

Dunyan shot Saché a confused look, but steeled himself. "Chélynne has proven herself to me. What evidence do you have of your allegation, Piers?"

Piers produced a series of holo images recorded the day before of Saché's accidental encouter with a palace guard and another leading him away.

"So someone thought she was an old friend. That's not proof. It happens all the time," Dunyan stated confidently.

The members of the group were beginning to whisper among themselves as Piers responded. "Perhaps not...if that was all I had to show you. One of the things I found interesting was the name he called her. Saché-one of the names of Amidala's coterie of personal bodyguards."

Piers shot Saché a dark, satisfied look, then continued. "I took the liberty of doing a bit of digging. It's very difficult to get images of the faces of the handmaidens. Keeping themselves covered and maintaining a low profile are among the techniques they use to cause confusion when the Queen is in danger. But I have found an image that is confirmed to be Saché, who, by the way, has not made a public appearance with Amidala for a few weeks now. "

When the image flashed up on the holo, it wasn't the clearest of pictures but it was close enough. The shape of her eyes, chin and nose matched up well enough for all to see that she was the one standing before them.

She turned to face Dunyan and was surprised to see pain in his eyes as he felt the full impact of what had just taken place.

Dunyan motioned to one of the female members to check her for any surveillance devices. When the panic button was found, it was quickly destroyed. The young woman who had made the discovery whispered to her.

"Idiot! You could have had it all. Do you know what I would have given to be in your position?"

Saché could only stare at her in amazement.

The mood among the group began to change. Its unity disintegrated into discord. Saché took some comfort in the fact that with her cover blown, The Faction had turned its anger from Amidala to itself and perhaps that would be enough to destroy it from within.

Piers glared at Dunyan. "Are you going to kill her, or do I have to do that for you, too?"

A woman stood up from the auidience. "Wait! While I don't want Amidala on the throne, I will not support anything that brings any harm to one of our people. We won't kill a Naboo while I'm a part of this group. We'll keep her prisoner. A hostage could be useful."

"Thank you, Rayanne, that's just what I was thinking," Dunyan said.

"However, I do think Piers has one thing right. Perhaps you're not cut out to lead us after all, if you missed such a ploy as the Queen and Panaka have pulled on us with Saché. I move that we select a new leader, one who will be more cautious, but not resort to violence."

Some members began to change their support to Piers, some to Rayanne. When it became evident that there would be a battle for power, Dunyan ordered Saché taken away.

She was blindfolded and thrown into a vehicle of some kind. To distract herself from her dilemma, she concentrated on the sounds and the smells of whatever they were passing.

The splash of the river on concrete walls.

The motors of boats speeding through the water.

The exotic scent of a deli's meats.

Voices getting farther away.

The vehicle entering an enclosed area, and the door slamming into place behind it.

She was pulled up and led to another room in a large building. As soon as the blindfold was removed, she was thrown and locked into a closet.

***

Sabé was taking a short nap as Rabé sat up and kept on eye on the progress of the ship on its course to Naboo. It had started as a pleasant slumber, but suddenly, her dream shifted to blackness.

She started picking up on different sensations, related only to what she could hear or smell. Water was nearby, as she heard waves and small craft. These were common sounds when one walked around the river in Theed.

Something unique registered as aromatic. It seemed to be food. It was obviously not any of the spices she was familiar with, but she found it an enticing smell, one that she would remember if she came across it again.

There had been crowd noise, but it was getting fainter now. Then suddenly a hum that was like one would hear in an enclosed speeder changed. Where it had been the sound of the vehicle in the outdoors, now the timbre of the engine noise suggested that it was reverberating off on walls in a large enclosed warehouse type of structure. A loud slamming, that of a garage door confirmed the hint.

Sabé awoke with a start.

Rabé turned around, concern etched into her face. "Bad dream?"

Sabé shook her head. "No. I think I can find Saché. How much longer to Naboo?"

"Another couple of days. We can't do anything until then," Rabé replied.

"Do we have detailed maps on board of Theed?"

"Yes, but what...?"

"I have an idea. It's worth a shot," Sabe answered as she jumped up from the cot and sat at the desk to pull up the information.

***

Saché didn't know how long she had been in the small, dark recess. When she did get a reprive, a female Faction member would take her to the 'fresher or give her a bit of food. By the time her eyes got used to normal light, she was shoved back into her cell and the door locked. A sense of claustrophobia started to develop and her feeling of dread increased every time she had to return to that uncomfortable place. She fought against the despair, still clinging to the belief that rescue would come at any hour now.

One day, the routine was different. Her sense of timing told her that she should have been let out for a brief respite. She began to worry, wondering why they were late.

It wasn't long after that she could hear the disturbance going on outside. There was an explosion and the sound of blaster fire. She put her ear to the door, trying to figure out what was happening.

Shouting, more blaster fire, and running through the halls were the sounds that met her ears. Then it became hard to breathe. She scrambled back from the door as the blasters came closer. Grabbing a bit of cloth, she covered her face, hoping that would help block the effects of what had to be gas seeping through the cracks where the door didn't quite fit the frame.

More loud noises, and now the sounds of wood and plaster disintegrating carried though the heavy oak door that was between her and the outside. Fear sufaced in her, so she tried piling clothing on top of herself for camoflauge.

"Captain, she's here," a voice shouted. It was familar, but she couldn't place whose it was.

"How do you know that?"

"I just know. Saché, stand back from the door! We're here to get you out!"

The odor of burning wood and molten metal stung Sache's nostrils, and she gagged, fighting that and the gas. The door was flung open, and bright daylight blinded her, hurting her eyes and giving her a splitting headache.

When she could make out anything at all, she saw silhouttes of three figures in the doorway, dressed from head to toe in black, with monstrous alien faces. Screaming, she pushed herself as far back as the closet would allow.

The figure in the center ripped off part of its face and pushed back a hood. "Saché, it's me, Sabé. I'm with Panaka and Eirtaé. We've come to take you home." Saché recognized her friend, and began sobbing. Sabé pulled another mask from her belt and placed it over Saché's face. "Here, this will let you breathe. Come on, Honey! Breathe! We've got to go."

Sabé replaced her mask. She and Eirataé hoisted Saché up and carried her out as Panaka cleared the way ahead of them. The last thing Saché remembered before she passed out was being laid on a gurney in an ambulance with Yané and the Healer hovering over her.

***

Saché woke, inhaled deeply and stretched her aching body the entire length of the hospital bed. As soon as she did, she regretted it. Gasping with the pain, she focused on controlling her discomfort. After a moment, she felt some relief and turned over.

Sabé was leaning against the doorway of a balcony, still dressed in the black jumpsuit. She had undone the tight bun that kept her long brunette hair back during the rescue, and now it hung down to her waist. Her head was bowed in meditation, her arms crossed. When she heard Saché stirring she looked up and smiled, though she was clearly exhausted.

"Feeling better?"

Saché returned the smile, but hers was not as broad. "Um hmm. Still a bit shaky."

"That's only natural. Yané and her mentor will be working with you to regain your strength. You'll be back on the job as a handmaiden soon."

"What became of The Faction?" Saché asked.

"We've got most of them rounded up. From your reports, we think Dunyan is the key figure. With him in our custody, the odds are the few left will disband and scatter. The Queen is safer now, thanks to your work." Sabé reported.

Saché nodded. She stared at Sabé, curiousity evident in her gaze.

After a few moments of scrutiny, the Minister became uncomfortable.

"What is it?" Sabé asked, raising an eyebrow.

"How did you do it? How could you have possibly known where to find me?"

Sabé uncrossed her arms and shrugged. "I can't explain it all yet. The Force led me, I think. Your focus on your sensations during your move helped quite a lot. You sent out some important clues. Basically what it boiled down to is that I wanted to know where you were, and I followed the direction that felt right."

Saché laughed softly. "So you do have the power. You'll be able to get us through anything. I thought you might be gifted, and so you are. From what I heard of your time with Jedi Kenobi and what I've seen of you with Meira, I could tell that you were able to sense what they needed before they knew it themselves."

Sabé held her hands up. "Wait a minute. I am grateful for your confidence, but I don't deserve it. I can't do that all the time, or with everybody. I'm not properly trained, so I can't call upon it at will. My sensitivity to Kenobi may be only temporary. I think it was so we could have Meira. As for my bond with the baby, that's because she's my daughter, and I must attend to her needs. I won't promise you that I can ever find a hidden hostage again. Don't get reckless on me."

Saché closed her eyes as she relaxed. "Modest too, I see. Very well. Don't worry, Sabé. I will try to avoid dangerous situations."

Sabé walked over to her friend and touched her shoulder. "That's all I can ask. I don't expect you to stop being a free spirit. Just be careful. Goodnight, Saché"

Saché held up her hand as Sabé dimmed the light.

"Meira? You spoke of her in present tense..."

Sabé's soft smile was answer enough.

"Goodnight, Sabé," Saché managed to get out before closing her eyes.

EPILOGUE

Saché had just finished her first run over the training area, and was shaking out her arms after the exercise. Panaka approached her with a smile.

"So, what do you think? It's not going to take me long to get back into the swing of things, eh?"

"Not at all," the captain nodded. "I had no doubts about you. The big surprise is our Gungan lady. I'm sorry now that I waited this long to train her."

The young Gungan female took her place at the start of the course and waited for the signal. It flashed, and she began her run, leaping and tumbling to dodge the blaster bolts the training droids fired at her. Along the way, she hit the target areas on the droids to shut them off. Even though she made it look easy, everyone marveled at her ability. The course was designed to be tough, so they knew how hard she had been working to get up to speed with the other handmaidens.

Sabé joined Panaka and Saché as they watched the Gungan complete her run. "Looks like we'll have to up the difficulty level for Jeré. She's catching on faster than even I anticipated. Not bad at all for someone who was expected to act only in an honorary capacity."

"You've got to give her credit. She wants to do this thing right. She's only obligated to be here for a year. I wonder if she'll stay longer?" Saché commented.

"I rather think that Boss Nass won't give up his favorite niece longer than that. I don't know for sure, though. Perhaps if she pleads that she needs more time to learn languages..." Panaka mused.

Sabé nodded. "Oh, yes, that is why she wanted to come over in the first place isn't it? That's taking a bit more time, but I'm sure she will excel at those skills as well. She is truly one of the best and the brightest. I'm glad they chose her as the exchange."

The three Naboo watched Jeré complete her run. She caught sight of them and approached them, so that Sabé and Panaka might evaluate her efforts.

"Howsa," Jeré began, then shook her head in frustration. "How did I do?"

Panaka nodded at her. "Very good. The Minister noticed that you've improved so much, that we'll have to continue your training on an advanced level." He nodded toward Sabé.

"Yes," Sabé agreed. "We'll begin with that tommorrow. I'll see you in the morning. You're dismissed 'till then. Thank you, Jeré."

The Gungan beamed. "Thank you!" As she reached the gate to the training range, Eirtaé entered, accompanied by a striking redhead. When they met, Jeré and Eirtaé exchanged brief greetings. The new girl remained silent but cast a critical gaze over the Gungan. For a moment, Saché thought she spotted the same expression she had seen so often on the faces of Faction members, but if it had been there, it had been covered up so quickly, that she could not be sure.

When Eirtaé finished the conversation, she brought her charge over to Sabé, Panaka and Saché. "I would like to present the latest addition to our corps. Liraé has just arrived, so I thought I should bring her over right away to meet you."

Panaka nodded. "Welcome. Chancellor Palpatine himself has recommended you highly, so we're expecting great things. Come with me and the Minister, and we'll get you set up. See you later, Saché."

As they departed, Saché studied the redhead. She was the same height as the rest of the Naboo girls, and she walked with a regal bearing. On the surface, she seemed to fit the profile of a handmaiden well. However, Saché felt something strange, as though this girl should not be taken at face value. She dismissed the notion as the result of what her mission had done to her imagination, and turned her thoughts to her schedule for the rest of the day.

***

In a small room located in a Theed warehouse, those who remained of The Faction were in discussion.

"So when do we get our revenge on the spy--now or later?" a woman coughed.

The man in a dark cloak at the head of the table rose, holding up his hands. "We don't make that decision. We await orders from Coruscant. Nothing will be done 'till then.

The End