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XII.

Can I burn the mazes I grow?

Can I?

I don't think so.

(G. & S. Bettens)

***

She rose in the early morning hours as quietly as she could, lest she wake Obi-Wan, and left the sleeping chamber. In a sudden impulse of motherliness she had placed one of the deep blue blankets over him before she left.

Once outside, she took a deep breath and stretched. Abused muscles screamed in protest. Her spinal column popped audibly in even, short intervals. Vertebra by vertebra. Padme groaned. She was most definitely *not* going to spend another night like that.

The sun didn't seem to have the strength to send much light through the heavy clouds and the temple buildings remained an uncomfortable grey.

She scurried towards the Atrium with fast steps and disrobed to take a bath. The water of the azure-coloured basin was always warm here, and smelled balmy.

It had become her habit to spend the early hours here, just before she bid the morning greeting and had a light breakfast. This time she stayed longer than usual.

First, heavy raindrops started to fall through the Atrium‘s open air well and they sparkled in all rainbow colours in the soft lights. The basin was sheltered from the elements and offered protection from the metallic tasting coolness which came along with the rain. The bluish water released its warmth in the sluggishly rising clouds of steam.

Padmé closed her eyes and let her thoughts wander for a few minutes. It was pleasant, living without her handmaidens for a while, making sure that she was still very much capable of taking care of herself. In the palace it was an easy thing to doubt. But a queen was a queen was a queen. It was frowned upon when there was too much rebellion against the palace rules.

Padmé held her breath and sank underwater. For a while she stayed there, opened her eyes and watched little bubbles of air rising to the surface from her nose and mouth. With an audible snort she pushed her head through the water‘s surface and laughed out loud - how long had it been since she'd last done this?

Her laughter echoed loudly from the Atrium‘s walls and disappeared through the open air well. One hand flew to her mouth and she hid her smile with a timid gesture. This really was childish.

She rose with a quick movement and watched the water cascading off her skin like scented pearls, leaving it shining in a silvery blue. Too pale, too skinny. No, she didn‘t always feel at home in her body.

Sighing, she wrapped herself in a big towel, rubbed herself dry and slid into a fresh tunic.

Unhurriedly, she stepped out between the Atrium‘s columns while she brushed

her hair with determined strokes. When the brush stopped at a knot in her hair and pulled it painfully, she sent one hopeful glance toward the door of the sleeping chamber. She toyed with the idea of waking him, but dismissed the thought quickly. A light pang became palpable under her heart. Was she more dependant on her handmaidens than she thought?

Her handmaidens . . .

Padmé‘s thoughts wandered towards Theed, to her city, her throne. She wondered how Sabé was doing. Was she just being woken? Was she bidding the morning greeting? Was she getting ready for the first audience?

Disquiet settled in Padmé. The happiness of the morning disappeared. She had never been separated from her duties as queen for so long since she had been elected. She felt lazy, irresponsible for pushing the burden onto Sabé‘s shoulders.

But the healer‘s head been strict in their judgment. It would have been no use to discuss the matter, not even for the queen. In case of a confrontation about an issue like this, the healer‘s authority was above the queen‘s. But how much longer was this ritual going to take?

Padmé finished brushing her hair and curled it into a tight knot.

She climbed the few stairs towards the long-stretched dining hall and ate a purposely meagre breakfast which hardly satisfied her stomach. She had no time for food.

If she couldn‘t be in Theed, benefiting her people, she could at least make sure her abilities didn‘t rust. There was never a fault in wanting to learn more.

She sipped at the hot tea and promptly burned her tongue. With an undignified gesture she set the cup down and left the dining hall.

The rain swooshed down in front of the covered patio. Steady, lashing, unstoppable. It had been raining for more than an hour now, and a careful glance towards the sky showed her that no improvement would be in sight anytime soon.

But right now the weather was none of her concern.

She scurried under the covering into the adjacent building and pushed open the heavy door.

The scent of age greeted her. The room behind the door started to glow in a soft light when she entered.

The temple‘s library. It was about time she started doing something productive.

***

Sabé‘s day began with a pounding headache. The weak sunlight which streamed through the high windows hurt her eyes. She wished nothing more than to be allowed to sink back to the refreshing sleep from which the loud knock on the door had awoken her. But it was repeated, patiently but determinedly, once, and a second time.

Sabé groaned inwardly. What was the benefit in carrying the queen‘s title for a short period of time if she wasn‘t even allowed to sleep as long as she wished?

She made a face when the knocking started up again.

With a tired gesture she pushed the sheets aside, let her legs slide out of the bed and struggled into an upright position. The headache hammered behind her forehead. Yesterday's tenseness hadn‘t eased overnight, but rather had grown worse and sprang back to life with full force. She would have loved to just sink back.

"Mistress?" Eirtae‘s voice penetrated the door, slightly dampened. It was no use, and Sabé knew it. Sighing, she slipped into the shimmersilk robe, endeavouring to take the upright, royal stance as soon as the wings of the doors would open.

"Come in."

She moved her hand in the direction of the door and it swung open.

Handmaiden‘s rushed quietly into the queen‘s bedchamber. They started to push back the covers and spread out garments for the day. From the adjacent room the invigorating smell of freshly brewed tea and the just recently brought breakfast wafted in.

Still with her back to the handmaidens, Sabé pulled back the heavy curtains and opened the floor-length side of the window. Cool, moist air welcomed her and and eased the pounding behind her forehead. She took a deep breath, filling her lungs with the fresh air.

The handmaidens behind her retreated quietly and left her to the morning ritual.

The queen‘s morning greeting was traditionally given while she was on her own. No one disturbed the ruler in this, nor did they disturb her locum tenens.

Sabé stepped out between the curtains billowing in the light draft and onto the terrace. Raindrops created little bubbles when they hit the narrow puddles of water on the bright marble. Within minutes she was soaked, the silken robe clinging to her contours. She didn‘t care. Sabé turned her face towards the barely visible morning sun and clearly intoned the words, dating back to ancient times.

When she had ended, her voice died down to a whisper and she added: "Give me strength."

She returned to the bedchamber where Rabé fussed over her, giving her fresh robes.

She breakfasted and donned the royal garments. Still the pain didn't lessen, but the leaden fatigue had disappeared and she regarded the day with new optimism.

What had she told the young novice the day before?

"Strength."

It was about time to listen to her own advice.

***

The usual morning sounds hung over the refectory. Clattering cups, plate being pushed back and forth, clinking flatware, the soft pinking of the spoons in the cups, subdued murmuring.

The high priestess Aethra glanced over the long tables of the novices, acolytes and priestesses. It was amazing how little the daily routines changed although the past day‘s horrors still cast long shadows.

The murmuring was different now, that much she realised. Normally the musical laughter of children could be heard wafting over from the novices' tables. At the acolytes' tables, dreams were often discussed so avidly that it held a high entertainment value for the tables surrounding them and more often than not caused muted giggles. Those were soothing sounds, even for the strict head priestesss of the temple.

But this morning was different. A lot of the girls and women given into her charge held their heads lowered, and talked to each other more softly than usual. In many faces she saw exhaustion, dark rings under red-rimmed eyes.

During her nightly rounds through the temple's long halls, Aethra had stood in front of many doors.. Normally there was always at least one novice trying to sneak out of her room just to be caught by her.

Not this night. Behind many doors she could hear quiet sobs. Some of the older girls had been allowed to help the priestesses and comfort the younger ones. Those girls were pale as ghosts in the morning, they looked emaciated, their faces beyond tired.

Aethra shivered. She couldn‘t be soft towards her charges. Mustn‘t pamper them and take them off their duties. But by Naboo‘s two moon‘s, her heart almost broke over the unabashed hopelessness which hung over the refectory like a dark cloud.

She hadn‘t slept last night. Which wasn‘t unusual per se, as the tall woman never slept much. But she only rarely did because she didn‘t know what to do.

She had spent much of the night putting together new timetables for the healers. They had to work in shifts, or the women would collapse from exhaustion soon.

She had had the morbid thought that it had been good that only such a small part of the city had been affected. Looking at the number of healers and novices now, they could not have handled a bigger catastrophe.

Calculations had to be done, and she had to ask the palace to contact the Republic. Their bacta supplies had already been running dangerously low, and yesterday‘s accident had exhausted them almost completely.

Aethra could have trusted in her own healing abilities, but in emergencies like this, she preferred the bacta. The native Naboo healing needed time, and, here and now, time was the one thing that was slipping rapidly through their fingers.

Mechanically she raised the cup to her mouth and forced herself to drink. She had to be a role model for the novices. For the acolytes. And no less for the priestesses.

With an uneasy feeling she noticed that Reaja was watching her. The smaller priestess with her sharp, kind eyes saw exactly what was going on inside Aethra. The high priestess hid a crease in her normally always perfect gown with a casual gesture. Reaja saw the movement and smiled, but went back to her breakfast without even another glance.

Inwardly, Aethra valued the fact that she couldn‘t feel the least amount of satisfaction from the smaller priestess.

Unwillingly, she swallowed a few bites of the bread, knowing that her body needed the energy.

In front of the high windows the rain fell and dipped the day into a murky twilight.

That wouldn‘t help the priestesses' work at the scene of the accident at all.

Luckily she had been informed by the leader of the rescue team late last night that only a few persons were still missing. Only a few healers would be needed out there.

Nevertheless the temple‘s capacity was at its limits and it would be difficult enough to give medical attention to every injured person. But that would change as soon as the Republic's transport ships reached Theed. Yet until then she had to somehow ration what they still had.

With one last, unwilling sip from her cup, Aethra rose majestically to her full height. Abruptly there was a deathly silence in the refectory.

Hundreds of pairs of eyes - brown, black, green, blue - fastened upon her, curious as to what she had to say. Aethra knew her responsibility well. Her next words could mean success or defeat for the temple this day.

***

"I didn‘t know there was a library here."

The calm assessment made Padmé flinch fiercely. She gave Obi-Wan a withering glare over her shoulder.

"Give me a heart attack, why don‘t you?!"

She shook her head and turned back towards the datapads she had been working on. But she couldn't concentrate any longer on the writing in front of her.

It was about time he finally woke up. She had been up since before sunrise and had read so much that the letters had started dancing before her eyes.

A glance at her chrono revealed to her that it was earlier than she had expected. Had the time been passing more slowly? Or had she been estimating incorrectly?

She shook her head slightly against the irrelevant chain of thought. There was so much to think about . . . And so little time to learn it all. Just what had she been doing during those last days? She had neglected her duties, hadn‘t cared the least bit about filling her days here with a purpose. She had done nothing for her people. What kind of a queen was she? The queen was expected to stand above everything and everyone. The people of Naboo expected a strength in her they couldn‘t find themselves. And she was letting herself go!

Padmé suddenly remembered that Obi-Wan was still standing behind her and she turned around half way with a brusque gesture. "Have you eaten?"

He nodded and smiled.

"Good." She dismissed him from her thoughts and turned towards the pad once again. She had better things to do than to constantly worry about him. She kept on studying for about ten minutes until his presence sent an unpleasant tingling up and down her neck. Padmé tried to ignore it as best as she could, but the attempt failed. The longer she felt his gaze upon her, the more nervous she became, the less she was able to concentrate.

"Yes, Obi-Wan. " Padmé threw the pad onto the table with vigour, rose and stretched her tense shoulders. With an unnerved glance in his direction she continued: "Yes, there is a library here. This is a healer‘s temple - From where do you think they get all their wisdom? The fact that this particular temple is used only rarely does not mean that it is not fully functional. Was there anything else you wanted to know?"

An amused twinkle rushed through his eyes, colouring the usual green-blue grey for a few seconds. "What are you doing here?"

Padmé rolled her eyes and sank back onto the slim wooden bench in front of the dark, polished desk. "I‘m reading."

"No, really, now?"

She shot him another withering glance. "I really don‘t have the time for mediocre conversations now, Obi-Wan. Was there anything else you wanted?" Inwardly she cringed at her sharp tone of voice, but her facade stayed calm, royal.

The gleam in his eyes died. His shoulders squared. "No, nothing."

It pained her, seeing him step out into the rain. She couldn‘t even tell where the sudden wave of hostility towards him had come from.

Padmé was restless. More restless than she had been for a long time. She hadn‘t received any messages from Theed during all this time they'd been in this old temple - not a single message.

Had she underestimated Sabé? The so very natural help of the handmaiden - was the other woman, in the end, better than she had assumed? Padmé had seen Sabé in action, knew just how good her decoy was. What if she was too good? Were they still going to need her if only Sabé played her role well enough?

‚They would send for me if they really needed me.‘

The thought swam in her head and disquieted her. Was she really important? Was she needed? Was she really more than just a replaceable icon?

Was she needed? By anyone?

The rain clattered against the darkened windows and did not answer her questions.

All of a sudden she wished she hadn‘t pushed Obi-Wan away.

***

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