But, propt on beds of amaranth and moly,
How sweet - while warm airs lull us, blowing lowly -
With half-dropt eyelid still,
Beneath a heaven dark and holy,
To watch the long bright river drawing slowly
His waters from the purple hill -
To hear the dewy echoes calling
From cave to cave through the thick-twinéd vine -
To watch the emerald-colored water falling
Through many a woven acanthus-wreath divine!
Only to hear and see the far-off sparkling brine,
Only to hear were sweet, stretched out beneath the pine.
- Alfred, Lord Tennyson, "The Lotus-Eaters" 133-144.
- - - - -
" It's hard to believe there's a war going on somewhere, isn't it, General Kenobi?"
Obi-Wan looked from the drink in his hand to his hostess. He had drifted away from the crowd in the grand ballroom, seeking some respite from the continual questions the other guests had for him. While military officials weren't rare in Phinyan society, visits from the Jedi were. Both he and Anakin had been the center of attention since their arrival. Obi-Wan assumed, both from the Phinyan's blasé attitude toward the wars and the way they fawned all over the Jedi, that the small planet's inhabitants had no idea just how close the fighting was to their home.
For Obi-Wan, however, the reality of war was never far away. He could never manage to push the atrocities he had seen to the back of his mind. Instead, they lingered behind his every thought and action. The scent of blood, the sound of blaster fire, the vacant look in a eyes of a man that he himself had killed - Obi-Wan had experienced all these things, even in his youth, but not with such intensity or frequency. A respite from the suffering would be blessed, if only he could forget for just a few moments.
" Indeed, Phinya is a beautiful, peaceful planet," Obi-Wan replied, "and your gardens, Mistress Valla, are even more lovely. It almost feels as if the wars don't exist here, as if they had all been left behind somewhere far away."
" Almost. Yet you still carry the weight of the galaxy on your shoulders and refuse to put it down." The young woman leaned against the railing of the balcony and turned away from Obi-Wan.
They stood for a few minutes without speaking, the music from the ballroom drifting out on a breeze as it rose above the chatter, only to fall again and leave the air still and calm. Valla reached down and plucked a leaf from the plants that grew around the balcony.
" They're quite ancient, the gardens that is." She played with the small, yellow leaf as she talked. "No records exist of them having been planted. They seem to have always been here; the palace was built so as to compliment the gardens, instead of the other way around. All descriptions of the gardens are the same, from every age of Phinyan history. It is as if the gardens are immutable, immortal."
" Like the gods themselves." Obi-Wan remarked. In the silver moonlight the gardens had an ephemeral quality about them, making Valla's tale all the more believable. "Mythic."
" Yes. It is said that those whom the gods - or I suppose, in your case, the Force - favor are allowed to experience some of the gardens' magic."
A sharp laugh sounded from the doorway to the balcony, followed by loud, quick footsteps. Both Obi-Wan and Valla turned around to meet the smile of her brother.
" Don't tell me she's making you listen to that nonsense, General. Next thing you know Valla will try to convince you that there are sprites lurking in the forests beyond the gardens."
" Be quiet, Lerros. We were having quite a nice conversation before you came and bothered us." She dropped the leaf from the balcony and crossed her arms over her chest. "Why don't you go join the rest?"
A few more of the guests joined them soon enough, and there was no reason for Lerros to go back. The party, it seemed, followed him. In no time, Obi-Wan was in the same situation that he had been before he left the ballroom. A growing sense of restlessness made him impatient with the idle chatter, his smile becoming more forced with each polite reply he made.
After a few more minutes of extreme discomfort, Obi-Wan managed to politely excuse himself. He needed to escape the head-aching monotony of high society, the endless discussions about the Republic Navy or the Jedi Order that never even touched on the true function of either. He needed to stop being the general for the evening.
Sith, he needed to get out of this uniform.
With a frustrated sigh Obi-Wan strode across the ballroom and headed for the main staircase. He knew if he went out the front doors, he could easily find his way to the gardens. Once his mind was clear, he would be able to retire to his own chambers for the night.
A hand caught his elbow before he started to descend the stairs. Obi-Wan stretched to relax the tightness in his shoulders, glancing up to look at the young man in a trim, black fighter pilot's dress uniform.
" Master." Anakin stood next to him. "Should I wait up for you?"
" No, no, Ani. I'm just going for a short walk; you go to sleep. You could use the rest I'm sure." He started to move away.
" Obi-Wan?" Anakin's hand still rested on his arm. "Are you going near the forest?"
" I might. Why?"
" Oh, nothing. Just be careful. I was there earlier. It gave me a very odd feeling."
" Sprites?" Obi-Wan ventured.
Anakin gave him an odd look then shook his head quickly.
" No." He shrugged. "More like ghosts."
Uncomfortable. Boring. Hot. Boring. Awkward. Boring. Pretentious. Boring.
A false smile plastered on his face, Wedge made a list of all the adjectives he could use to describe the party on Phinya. The small planet had recently elected to join the New Republic after having been liberated from Imperial control. Rogue Squadron's role in freeing Phinya had been integral; there was no way Wedge could have gotten out of attending the celebration, save becoming one with the Force. That option, he thought as he took another sip of his now warm champagne, seemed viable, as he was close to dying of boredom.
No, that was unfair. The people of Phinya were doing their best to entertain their guests. He should be thankful for the respite from warfare, even if diplomatic functions like this seemed more tedious than any of the missions on which Wedge had served. Someday, when all the fighting was done, when all the peace treaties were signed, then there would be true rest. Not the forced gaiety of parties like this, where half the guests pretended that the war with the Empire didn't exist, and the other half talked of it constantly, but in tones surreptitious and guilty. In both cases, the knowledge of war hovered at the edges of every conversation despite the attempt at escapism.
Escape. Yes, Wedge would have given anything for a few minutes of escape. Not just from the party, but from everything.
With a contained sigh, Wedge scanned the ballroom. From where he stood, he could either skirt the edges of the room to the main exit or cut across the dance floor to find one of the many balconies. Luke caught his eye before Wedge could make up his mind. Breaking off his conversation with their hosts, he nodded and slipped through the crowd toward Wedge.
" Mistress Vallina wonders why you refuse to dance." Luke looked sideways at Wedge as he took a drink from the glass in his hand.
" Did she send you here to try and persuade me?"
" No. Don't worry, I explained to her that it was a much better idea to keep you off the dance floor." Luke replied quickly.
A smile crossed Wedge's face, chasing away the flicker of annoyance. He and Luke laughed for a moment before settling into a companionable silence. The music had slowed to a delicate waltz, many of the couples who had lined the walls during the more intense dances now stepping onto the dance floor.
" I don't see you out there either, Master Skywalker." Wedge commented.
Luke shrugged. "Dancing is one of those Jedi skills I haven't perfected yet, I suppose."
" Well, when you learn, then you can teach me."
" That means I get to lead, General."
" Of course, Master."
Much of the talk in the room had quieted and allowed the music to fill the space left. Between the rise and fall of notes snatches of conversation could be heard. Without the annoying babble, the atmosphere became almost soothing. However, the slightly oppressive warmth increased with the activity in the room and Wedge ran a finger around the collar of his uniform. Luke gave him an understanding look, motioning toward the balcony with his glass.
" Have you seen the gardens? They're legendary, both for their beauty and the myths about them. And," the ice in Luke's glass clinked as he set it down, "I bet it's a whole lot cooler out there than in here."
Staring across the dance floor, Wedge caught a glimpse of night sky and breeze-tossed branches through the balcony doors. The view was tempting with its promise of cool air and a clear sky. Wedge realized how uncomfortable the undertunic he wore under his jacket was.
" Myths? Really. Are they true?" He asked, imagining the feel of the night air over his skin, its taste in his mouth.
" The Phinyans believe them."
Wedge felt warmth as Luke's hand hovered above his, then reached out to take the glass away from Wedge.
" Why don't you go out there? I'll meet you in a few minutes, after I've given our regards to Mistress Vallina and her husband."
" Are you sure?" Wedge asked and tried to keep the relief out of his voice.
" Would you prefer I drag you onto the dance floor? I'm sure we'd be asked to leave after that."
" I could live without the humiliation, but thanks anyway."
" All right, go on then. I'll be along in a few minutes." Luke smiled, turned away and slid through the crowd just as easily as he had earlier.
Keeping close to the wall, Wedge made his way to the main exit and headed for the grand staircase. With every step he took away from the ballroom and toward the doors, he felt a sense of expectation bubble inside him. When he walked out into the cool night, it was as if he had entered another world.
Neither ghosts nor sprites did he find upon entering the gardens. But the excitement in the air was palpable, as if the Force were planning something. Obi-Wan grinned to himself. His own senses were buzzing as the energy from the surrounding life forms surrounded him. The night was pure and fresh, a silver light washing over the grass and flowers. Even the tangled bushes looked elegant in the moonlight, their leaves twisting around short branches or straining towards the skies to receive the first rays of sun come morning.
A path had never been cut through the gardens nor had the flowers ever been planted in arranged beds. Clusters of pinks, reds, and yellows sprinkled the soft grass with color and when Obi-Wan looked down at the toes of his boots, he found that a thin coating of pollen and dew glistened there. Even that was magical - damp gold dust on the toes of his black leather boots, shiny like the fairy dust places like this were rumored to have.
More enchanting than the untamed beauty of the gardens, however, was the mysterious dark of the forest beyond. Just behind the gardens, the tree line thinned and indicated the entrance to a small forest on the estate. Tiny white flowers peppered the moss and damp grass that made up the forest's floor. Obi-Wan found himself drawn to the simple elegance, more so than he would have ever imagined. But the stars shone so brightly that night, the air was so sharp, tinged with the scent of dirt and flowers, and the night was so calm. So much calmer than any night he had experienced in many years.
As soon as Obi-Wan entered the forest, he noticed that the moonlight made the white flowers appear silver. Not just silvery, but as if cast and molded with pure metal. Looking up, he saw that not just the flowers, but the trees, the leaves and bark, the moss and grass, even his uniform, black in ordinary light, were silver. Obi-Wan clasped his hands behind his back and lifted his face to the heavens.
He felt the motion in the Force, but before he could reach out toward the sensation, it flickered. A tiny disturbance in the Force, not great enough to be either evil or good. Just a tiny flickering that made the silver light flash with brilliance that Obi-Wan almost swore he hadn't really seen. For, in an instant, the light flashed again, from silver to color. It would flicker again that night, Obi-Wan knew or rather, felt, somehow. He would have to wait for it, and wouldn't be able to leave until it did.
He also knew something else.
Obi-Wan was no longer alone in the gardens.
Continued in Part Two