Title: Lumina Timeframe: Three or so years after ROTS Author's Note: This was written as a response to a 2007 challenge at the resource thread for original characters. The prompt was to find out if it really is true that everyone has a price. It is also a companion story to my short fanfiction novel Ashmé. I can't link to it here (since it is rated explicit for several rather good reasons) but you can find it at my AO3 account. But you needn't have read it first, since it seems--based off the number of responses I received when I first posted it from people who were unfamiliar with the novel--to read well enough on its own. Revised version posted 1.20.2015. -------------- Lumina Everything was quiet in the gardens when I came out. The sky had darkened into a bruised-grey color, and the first of the gardenlights was spilling its white light across the main path. I turned down one of the lesser used dirt paths. It wasn’t likely that anyone would see me, but I like to be careful. I heard a nightbird shriek up in the ornamental pine trees near the riverside wall. It was a real bird, too—the gardeners told the Queen it is the natural, and best, way, and she agreed. They’re probably right, but the natural way means tolerating the droppings the birds splatter all over the walks. I sat down on a driftwood bench near the ornamental stream. It moves at a sliding, gently slow pace, and there were several green silk lily pads floating about on it. Most people find it to be soothing. I know Aimeé does. But I don’t. Recently, I had overheard several of the palace aides coo over it during their afternoon break. Oh, it is just so darling. And those flowers— (The gardeners planted white lake roses alongside the banks to symbolize the Queen’s intellectual purity. Personally, I think they smell like the Queen’s white flour makeup. I am quite certain that proper, real flowers don’t smell like that.) That afternoon, we had worn our barkbrown cloaks with the sloppy hoods. It’s difficult to see with them on, which is no way to dress as a bodyguard. I have complained about that in private with the others more than a few times. But now I was glad enough to have my hood up. I could see well enough to make out the path going through the crowd of old lilac trees. I watched it while I waited for the man I had come there to meet. One minute. Two minutes. Then another minute crawled past. Alas--and I do mean that—I have never been good at being patient. The trees twitched their leaves in the breeze, and the Queen Yarm roses were making their stickywarm perfume. Then I heard someone walking down on the main path. I waited. When he came into sight, I dropped my hood down. Even if he hadn’t already seen me, he knew who I was. “I was beginning to wonder where you were,” I said. My voice wobbled, and I had to clear my throat. I had sounded much younger than I needed to. “I can only apologize,” he said. “I meant to be here sooner, but I was delayed.” He may have meant that. I won’t pretend that I know what he thought when he spoke to me. I smiled, the politely-sharp smile I knew before I entered the Queen’s service, in return. That time, I could feel his start of surprise—he hid it back, but not quickly enough. He had never seen me smile before. I had always been as earnestly serious, as loyal, as he must have expected me to be. His name was Garen Borreno. He was an agent with Chommel Sector Intelligence, and he had told me he reported to a contact in Moff Panaka’s staff. That day, he wore another forgettably dull dark suit, and he had dark sleep-bruises under his eyes. He needed to shave—I could make out the coal-dust stubble on his dark skin—and I wondered if that was deliberate. But he had combed his shaggy-curly hair into order. He wasn’t handsome. I wouldn’t have looked at him a second time on the street, even if he wasn’t years too old for me. But I had begun to admit that he wasn’t plain either. “But I know you haven’t much time,” he said. ‘So we shouldn’t waste it. Have you considered what we discussed before, handmaiden?” Handmaiden, he said, almost with disapproval. (That was the only way he would ever address me. It’s true enough that our personal information isn’t included in the palace records, since only Captain Bibble needs to know any of that. But Agent Borreno should have found it out. It was his business to know secrets.) “I have,” I said. “But I don’t know what you expect me to do with it. The Queen will listen to me, and she does respect my opinions, but she is not easily led.” “No, she wouldn’t be,” he said. He paused, and I waited while he thought out what he was going to say next. Well, I wasn’t going to prompt him along. Then: “I haven’t heard from my source in the cabinet. I’m going to guess that means there haven’t been any new developments.” “That’s a good thing,” I said, watching the trees behind him. A bird sitting in the shadows of the leaves fluttered its wings open. “It is good, isn’t it?” “The Emperor is occupied with more complicated matters—and that is only what he allow the holonets to show. He has chosen to overlook the Queen’s actions for the moment. But I’m afraid she can’t avoid the consequences for much longer.” The bird settled down on another branch. It had moonlight-white feathers and a little thorn beak, and I wondered what its name was. “What do you want me to do with that?” He let his breath out in a fist-tightened sigh before he spoke. And I could admit that that I had sounded (especially since I am, according to my long ago teachers, such an intelligent young woman) obtuse. “You have a choice to make. You can die for your Queen’s ideals, though I personally think that would be a waste. Or you can save Naboo—and save her. I think you understand what I mean.” His voice remained calm, even flat, but he looked intense—even passionate, of all the emotions—that I blinked as I forced myself to look back at him. “Yes,” I said. I had heard what he hadn’t said, what he wanted me to figure out on my own: You have to save Naboo from her. “I think I do.” “But of course, I don’t expect you to have results straight away,” he said. “We may not have much time, but we still have some. And I do have some idea of what I’ve asked of you.” “I suppose I ought to thank you,” I said. When we had first met, when he had told me the secret of his identity, he had assured me the same thing, that he--and I shall just go ahead and quote him-- understood what this meant for me. He didn’t. He couldn’t even hope to—and yes, that was in part, or mostly, because he wasn’t from Naboo. I knew that, even if he wanted to think otherwise. “There’s no need for that,” he said. “But I shouldn’t keep you from your duties any further. Good evening, handmaiden.” “Good evening, Agent Borreno,” I said, echoing his words back at him. He walked away, past the lilac trees, and then on towards the shadows of the main path. The rest of the lights had blinked on, and I could only see a few scattered pin-sharp stars in the black sky above them. None of the moons were showing. I waited, but I couldn’t hear anyone else moving about. The garden was empty for the night. Finally, I slid up to my feet, and followed the path back towards the palace. -- Esteé was watching from the picture window in the bedroom as I walked up to the private gardenside entrance. She was blurred by the ice-thick plexiglass, but I could make out her dark bruised-blue dress and her long braid of hair. Her face was blank, like a closed door, but she had to have seen me as I walked out of the gardens. The curtains shivered next to her, and I looked away first. But when I reached the Queen’s suite, and went into the bedroom, it was as empty as it had been when I’d left. The Queen had left for the state dinner for the Lake country governor, along with Aimeé and Sorché, nearly an hour before. The door to our personal drawing room had been left open. Esteé was there, sitting on the red velvet bench with the stiff wulf-clawed feet, with a paper bag of candy. She looked up as I came in, and: “Where were you just now, Caité?” It took some effort, but I only shrugged as I took off my cloak and dropped it into a faint over the back of the one of the chairs. “Oh, nothing. I only went out for a short walk. I thought I told you that before I left.” She shrugged back. “Perhaps you did.” The bag whispered as she reached in and took out another rose-pink cream candy and tossed it into her mouth. I could hear the sounds as she chewed and swallowed it. She picked out another piece of candy, and then stopped to look over at me: “They’re rather sweet, but you can have one if you like,” she said. “That’s all right,” I said. Esteé knows, of course, that I don’t care for sweets. I’m not even certain the Queen remembers that. But she would. She may have even remembered—though I’ve only mentioned it several times—that I don’t care for flowers cut in bouquets. It’s an acceptable enough opinion, and yes, they’re dead, but I have to admit my reason is a rather shallow one. It’s certainly (since I’m going ahead and being honest) a personal one. My mother worked at a floral shop for several years, before she managed to get married for the second time. It might have been klicks below our social class, but well: the woman hadn’t any other skills. She had barely even finished secondary school. I still remember seeing her, when I went by there after school, having to cower into a bow for the ladies who swept in with their demands—and occasionally, even for their handmaidens. I suppose she’s happy enough now. She’s good with minor emotions like that. I heard only last month that she had another baby. And even though I loathed the shop, and the masses of jeweled-bright, oh so exquisite flowers, I’ve gotten beyond that now. I don’t know. Esteé set the bag aside next to her. I had intended to go back to my own room, but I wandered over towards the window. I couldn’t have known, and I wouldn’t have suspected, that she wanted to talk. Maybe, oh just maybe, I wanted to give her the chance. “I hadn’t known you liked to walk out in the gardens,” she said. “Actually, if I remember what you told Brisaé correctly, you thought it was boring.” She was right—I had told Brisaé that once, with almost those exact words. “Well, yes. But I needed to get out for a few minutes, so I decided to give it a go.” “I know how to keep secrets,” she said, with a speedercrash lurch. But now that I look back, it only seemed out of place, and it certainly wasn’t sudden. It was the only thing she had left to say to us, and though we hadn’t mentioned it, and I don’t think I could have admitted it, we all knew. That might have even included the Queen. “Of course, you do,” I said. “We all do. It’s an important part of our job. Esteé, I don’t know what you’re trying to get at here.” “Really,” she said, and gave a snorted hahaha. “You’ve never asked me what happened when I was away. That’s very kind of you, I suppose—since you must want to know.” I stared at the window in front of me, and the drowned reflection of the room inside—and the reflection of Esteé standing behind me. I couldn’t stand to turn back and face her, but I could still see her anyhow. She pushed a loose handful of hair behind her ear. Her eyes were glaring burnt-black holes, ghost eyes, and her mouth slumped into a frown. She looked defiant. I didn’t want to find out what she would say, what she would confess to, next. “It doesn’t matter,” I said, when I could finally open my mouth. “We don’t blame you for—whatever happened there. The Queen doesn’t blame you. We’re trained for many things, but not to withstand torture. And Intelligence agents know how to break people who are.” She didn’t seem to have heard me: “It was my duty to bear her secrets, all of her secrets. And I never ever forgot that. But after a while, I thought they were going to finish up and actually kill me. You can’t imagine that sort of thing. I never could have. But I should have thought on my duty, instead of my stupid life--” “We shouldn’t talk about this,” I said. When she exhaled, her breath seemed to scream out. Then she swallowed, and even forced her mouth into a smile. “You’re right. Of course, you’re right.” She picked up the bag of candies, and I watched her reflection move towards the door. She is supposed to (well, obviously) resemble the Queen, and she does look like her sister or a closely related cousin. That night, that moment, she looked like the Queen’s ghost. I shook my head, as though trying to get that thought out. Then she was gone, without bothering with a parting pleasantry. I supposed she had gone to hide in her room until the Queen returned. I went back down the hallway, and into the bedroom, and into the royal wardrobe, and started looking through the three newest frocks. They smelled of dusty-soft velvet and faintly, so faintly, the dressmaker’s perfume. We hadn’t chosen the Queen’s dress for her morning meetings, and I needed something to do. -- Later, hours later, I let myself into the Queen’s bedroom after I finished with the routine security check of her suite. She didn’t hear me inside whatever dream she was in, and I walked—in the whispersoft glide I can’t believe I once had to practice, again and again, to learn—over to her bed. The nightlamp glowed with a snow gleaming white light on her bedside table. She was lying on her side, facing away from it, her hair spilled over her cheek. She looked almost as sweetly innocent as the public, the millions of people she never forgets, have decided to think she is. She hasn’t looked that young when she’s awake for years. My breathing echoed too loudly in my ears, and I stepped back. I hadn’t come there so I could disturb her. I wasn’t quite sure why I had come there. But I knew what I had to do next: I was going to save the Queen. Maybe Agent Borreno would have thought—if only privately, and to himself—that I had a choice about that. But I had already made that choice the instant I was chosen as one of her handmaidens, when I still thought I would only serve as a waiting-lady. I had to save her. (From herself. From the Empire. From men like Inquisitor Mevath. He had also told me, as he watched me through his eyepiece and actually smiled, that I had a choice.) Then—I admitted for the first time—things would be all right. I wouldn’t have to die for the Queen to make the unfortunately right decision. Brisaé would return to her place with us, and soon, we would only have to remember all this. Whatever happens, I will protect you, I said in a static-scratched whisper before I left for my own room, and the rest of the night. The Queen didn’t move in her sleep. That’s all I can do. I hope it will be enough. After I changed into my nightdress, I put on my wrapper and sat down on the window seat and looked out through the darkness to the firebug lamps lighting the public walk over the nearest waterfall. I don’t know how long I sat there. But after several hours, I must have fallen asleep, because the next moment I remember, I was jerking back from the window glass, and wiping drool off my chin. The birds were screaming in a choir in the trees below my window. When I looked on above them, beyond the palace roofs, I saw the first rain-faded light had bloomed in the sky.