Luke sat in the purposeful, focused silence of his offices in The Cabinet, high up in the South Tower of the Imperial Palace on Coruscant, the long bank of tall transparisteel doors flung open along one wall, rain patting against the pale travertine stone of the balcony beyond.
Far below, playing a constant tune all their own, was the reverberating metallic clatter of the regimented flagpoles which lined the long stretch of the 'pennant balcony' in the Main Palace, known to the thousands who worked and lived here as The Monolith. Flags from hundreds of planets were set on poles close to the top of the massive, imposing bulk of the hundred-story Monolith, the center of government, commerce and the military for the Empire.
As obsessive and paranoid as Palpatine was, he had always kept all power as close to hand as he could, and now, a year into the new Emperor's reign, it stayed here simply because it was the most efficient way to manage the massive logistical problem which comprised the far-spanning reach of the immense Empire, specifically designed for the purpose.
In this, as in many things, the new Emperor was gaining a reputation as pragmatic in every sense of the word: at times practical and unpretentious, at others callous and impenetrable, coolly ruthless, already a notoriously dangerous man to cross.
But then, none of this was a surprise to those few who remained from the old days of Emperor Palpatine's Court; although he was aged just twenty-five when he'd been officially recognized as the old Emperor's Heir, Palpatine's protégé had attended Court far longer. Whilst everyone had expected a lengthy initiation into his new position, there were those in Court and the military who had laid their claim early and supported the new Heir, either openly or surreptitiously, and those sharp enough to have invested the time in learning what they could about him had long studied his form and his mercurial, erratic nature.
Because of his abilities, it had often been whispered that he was Palpatine's son, but then it had also been whispered that he was Vader's son, and whatever the young Emperor knew he kept to himself, not in the habit of handing out information. Even his name was a mystery; Palpatine had always called him his Wolf, Commander of his Fleet, his feral Jedi. No name…never a name.
Even now, he was referred to simply as 'The Emperor.' Excellency or Sir, if one was privileged enough to speak to him firsthand. Servants occasionally claimed to have overheard a name spoken in the privacy of his quarters by those closest to him: Luke, they said, but that was of little use to those who tried to trace the identity of their new Emperor.
People had whispered, of course—how Palpatine's death had followed so quickly, only a year after his Heir's acknowledgment. How regimented and organized The Heir's accession was, almost like a coup in its military precision.
But no one said it out loud—or if they did, it was only once.
Now the flags rustled in the high wind which whipped about the sides of the Monolith, their irregular clattering chatter still audible through the doors of the office in which the Emperor sat.
He was, as ever, impeccably dressed in a military-cut suit of darkest blue, though in the privacy of his office, the jacket was presently hanging on the back of a chair to the far side of the sizeable room, the high stand collar of his white linen shirt barely covering the heavy, indented scar to the right side of his neck. That and the faded scar which ran from above his eyebrow down the right side of his face and through his lips were visible reminders of a Rebel assassination attempt two years earlier on the announcement of his accession to Heir Apparent, as were his mismatched eyes. His right eye, injured in that bomb blast, still held a dark flash twisted through the pale pupil, rendering once-blue eyes disconcertingly mismatched.
Why he had chosen to keep these scars nobody knew—save the few, of course. Those who had been present at the time knew that it was the old Emperor's choice, the Heir still unconscious, comatose for weeks following the near-successful attempt.
But near-success was another word for failure, and to hypothesize what might have been had the attempt been successful was an empty exercise. As it was, what could have been a crippling and costly descent into anarchy and civil war on the old Emperor's death was molded into an effective, well-organized transition, supporters already waiting in the wings for the day when their investment of support in the Heir would be paid off in influence when he came to power, and so holding a vested interest in stabilizing and maintaining the new Emperor's rule. Meticulously and judiciously recruited from the military and the always-influential Royal Houses, their numbers were sufficient to hold together a fledgling regime for its first precarious year against opportunistic powerplays and self-serving sedition.
Detractors as well as supporters had been anticipated within the Royal Houses, as had a certain amount of resistance in the old-school military, though the public were enthusiastic, particularly when changes came about soon after the new Emperor's accession. Those with more political savvy watched with a muted cynicism, awaiting the long-term outcomes.
To date in the year he had held office, the new Emperor had walked a fine line between progressive and traditionalist, the only outward changes made coming within weeks of his investiture in the form of amends to the constitution, relaxing access to the HoloNet and re-evaluating the old Imperial 'Classification of Sentient Species Act' instigated by Palpatine, commonly referred to as the Slavery Edict.
No longer could a sentient of any species be indentured, paid less, or have his free movement restricted because of his 'classification,' a fact which now theoretically banned the legalized slavery which had long existed in Palpatine's reign. In practice, Class-E citizens—non-humans previously subject to the Classification of Sentient Species Act—accounted for nearly a quarter of sentient beings, so that the complications of enforcing such an edict were massive, and visible change ponderously slow. The Core and Colony Systems, conversely the least likely to home Class-E citizens, were really the only systems where enforcement and policing of the new laws was immediately practicable. But even here, dissolution of the old edit was regulated by the very people who were responsible for policing its instigation two decades earlier—the Imperial military—so change was as much a case of re-education as of enforcement, and such things always took time.
Detractors claimed that the actual wording of the changes to the Classification of Sentient Species Act were vague enough to allow for a certain amount of interpretation, typical of Imperial statements of power, and certainly the Emperor who was praised for instigating the changes was also acknowledged as an unyielding authoritarian, holding a massive military and the power-hungry Royal Houses in check, by force and without the slightest compunction if necessary. But such powerplays were achieved in the highest echelons of power and not for the public domain.
To most, he was regarded as a more moderate replacement for the old Emperor, and despite the fact that in the main, power and restrictions remained exactly as before, these more public concessions, brought about so quickly, had bought him popularity. Limited public appearances—unheard of in his predecessor's rule—had given the Empire a human face and the citizenry a sense of genuine change, something which was evident all over the newly relaxed HoloNet.
Those same new freedoms of speech also enabled detractors to claim loudly that these concessions were little more than a popularity stunt—a veneer of reform laid over the stifling restrictions of the same old Empire. Despite new edicts vaunted as an easing of certain freedoms of speech, any use of the HoloNet to cite, seek, encourage or disseminate organized insurrection—and by extension and explicit reference the Rebellion—remained illegal. Any member of such an organization, anyone who aided, funded or supplied any member, and anyone who facilitated their existence by either tacit disregard or undeclared knowledge, still faced summary execution.
But then it came as no surprise within the still-outlawed Rebel Alliance that a man already notorious for mercurial changes of temperament would alternately repeal and enact the founding principles of his old Master's totalitarian State as he saw fit. The Empire was still the Empire, and the new Emperor had yet to truly make his presence felt beyond that first burst of edicts which could yet turn out to be conciliatory lipservice.
The one thing he had done since his accession was to reinforce his position and power base, both politically and militarily, another anticipated move. He was, after all, Emperor Palpatine's favored savant, a sobering fact which held more weight in the long run than any spontaneous edict issued within days of his investiture.
The man himself sat loosely, absorbed in his work, elbows resting on the wide span of the polished burr-wood desk. His head rested in his hand as he studied the autoreader, applied concentration rendering him oblivious to the view which few citizens would ever get to see, the rarest of all luxuries on Coruscant: that of an open skyline which filled one's vision to its edges until massive, mature trees from the extensive, manicured roof gardens of the Palace Monolith reached up to feather the rain-grey sky into the irregular skyline of the city below. And silence…or as near as one came on the Capital Planet, sufficient that the strictly enforced perimeter of the distant traffic was little more than a subtle murmur, and one could hear the sound of Coruscant's frequent rain on the balcony beyond the tall glass doors.
In this calm, almost meditative hush, the Emperor's office was a hive of discreet, disciplined impetus and practical, unpretentious intent. Piles of printed flimsiplast were loosely stacked and organized across every surface, many others pinned onto a series of boards which had been attached over the ornately carved and inlaid plasterwork on the long run of the far wall, masking it completely. Rows of files and file-chips, each marked by a sliver of pale blue light, stretched the length of one wall in a self-contained reference system, others scattered seemingly at random across the wide desk he worked at.
None of this file-and-retrieval system was linked into the mainframe, and access to the locked system was DNA- and password-coded. This was the Emperor's personal database—the truth about the Empire, they said: past, present and future. Right of entry remained the ultimate goal for so many; the final, fiercely guarded objective that spelled acceptance into the inner sanctum and the privileged, exclusive entourage to which only the trusted few held access.
This was where the new Empire was being formed; where the new Emperor was carving his own vision into the galaxy he ruled.
Head resting in his right hand, Luke rubbed subconsciously at the scar through his eyebrow as he read the day's dispatches, forcing himself to concentrate. But it was difficult today; much as he disliked dwelling on past events, today stood out in his mind.
Two years ago tonight, just before midnight, Palpatine had announced Luke as Heir Apparent to the Empire, and in doing so had started in motion the long chain of events which had led up to today.
Before that date, Luke had been…adrift. Thanks to Palpatine's scheming, he had long-since been abandoned by the Rebel Alliance and caged and controlled by the Emperor, yet he'd existed in a strange limbo of chaotic, tangled ties. Tied inescapably to Palpatine's relentless coercions and manipulations, always sufficient to hold Luke here but never quite sufficient to turn his loyalties completely, Luke's loyalties to the principles of the Rebel Alliance and his Jedi heritage had, despite Ben and Yoda's calculating lies, still been very much part of his values and ethics.
In the end, thanks to Palpatine's announcement, the Alliance had irrevocably rejected Luke rather than the other way around. He still held a private suspicion that his recognition as Heir had been little more than a ploy on his Master's part to induce a reaction from the Alliance whom Luke had still defended before his Master, in words if not in action any more.
If Palpatine had not made that announcement, not recognized Luke as Heir, then Madine would probably never have been able to convince Mon Mothma to authorize the assassination attempt which had almost killed Luke.
Luke would never have realized how isolated he truly was, vulnerable on all sides because of his own irresolute hesitancy.
Would never have made that decision to finally pursue his own goals.
Would never have looked for potential in the Empire or the flaws in the Alliance.
Would never have sought to use them—to turn his knowledge, good and bad, of both institutions to serve his own interests.
Would never have bartered with his Sith Master for the right to hunt down Mothma in exchange for the location of Master Yoda.
So it had been, for a short while, a resounding success for Palpatine…and ultimately, a devastating failure, compound events rolling out of everyone's control to their inevitable conclusion.
Still, at the time, the Rebellion's assassination attempt had alienated Luke irretrievably, and his father's concern at Luke's appalling injuries had fired the first sparks of acceptance after long years of deep distrust and outright animosity on Luke's part. Tolerance that had ultimately led to Luke's agreement, after years of resentful rejection, to help his father in overthrowing the Emperor. A pact which had led to the Emperor killing Vader when he'd found out the truth. From Mara.
From the one person Luke had wanted—needed—to trust. The one person he should have been entitled to trust. Intentionally or not, she'd ripped what little Luke had to call his own to shreds and scattered it to the winds. Left him in pieces; wounds that would never heal.
For one second, for one long second that day as Luke had stood with his hand about her throat, the desire to close his fingers had been overwhelming. To finish what he'd started; what he'd intended when he'd reached out and grabbed her, snapping her about and powering her back against the hard wall with a satisfying thud.
Just…close his thoughts and open his soul and let all that fire and fury and desolate, blinding rage take hold. But his father would still have been dead, and laying blame elsewhere was easy. Taking his own share was as crippling as the loss itself.
Luke glanced up, eyes coming to rest on the small, tooled silver form of the holo-emitter which he had found in his father's apartments at the Palace. He'd finally gone there after his father's cremation, just days before his official investiture as Emperor, searching for…something. Some solace, some sense of connection, however painful. There had been precious little which had seemed truly personal there; almost nothing which hinted at the private life of its inhabitant.
Two things had caught his eye as he wandered around the silent, impersonal rooms; the painting of the lake and mountains, which Luke had been drawn to when he had first visited his father, had again pulled him in like a magnet. There was something—something there. Memory, longing, desire, regret… A barbed tangle of emotions and senses all twisted through with his father's unique signature. He'd had the painting taken to his own quarters before sealing his father's apartments, everything exactly as it had been left.
But one other thing had caught his eye; had drawn him to it like a siren call.
A burst of organic curves sat in the soulless white interior of the barometric chamber that Luke had felt so reluctant to enter: a small, finely etched holo-transmitter resting on one of the interior surfaces. He'd remained at the entrance of the chamber for long minutes, even considered using the Force to pull it to him before chiding his own queasy reluctance and entering the chamber, the draw of the object overcoming his deep misgivings.
It was the age of the tarnished silver emitter which had struck him—at least a couple of decades, maybe older, the surface etching and inlays worn smooth in places from handling. Breath tensing in his lungs, he'd activated the holo-image in a burst of vibrant static—
A young woman had appeared, seen from the waist up, robed in an incredible gown of dark purple and peacock blue, a wide, intricately tooled ornamental headdress holding walnut brown hair back from her face to cascade in dark curls over her shoulders and down her back as she turned aside.
"Don't—Annie, don't, I look terrible."
There was a smile on her ruby lips and in her warm, dark eyes.
Annie…Anakin! She was speaking to his father! Was this…was this his... He couldn't say it, couldn't even think it.
"You look beautiful."
Was that his father's voice? His real voice, not modulated by machinery. It had sounded so…young.
I'm fat," the woman bemoaned, voice full of self-depreciating humor.
She smiled indulgently, let out a little laugh in response to something unseen as the image shook slightly.
"Stop," she repeated affectionately, lowering her head.
"But I'll take it with me back to the Outer Rim—take you with me. Carry you in my pocket everywhere."
So young, so…alive. "Really?" She looked up at that, soft, brown eyes looking directly into the lens, suddenly serious. "Then take this: I love you, Annie. I always will."
It tore Luke's heart, the feeling in those words—the promise, the passion…the brittle undercurrent of unspoken anxiety. He sat for a long time in the chamber, staring mutely at the final image of the delicate, dark-haired woman. A moment frozen in time. Wild potential, absolute commitment, every possible future—
"I'm fat." "You're glowing."
She was pregnant; she was already pregnant when his father had recorded this holo.
No more than eight months later, she was dead.
Now, Luke reached out to finger the cool surface of the vintage holo-emitter where it sat on his desk, though he didn't activate it; he seldom did. In a way, it hurt more to have this fleeting glimpse than to remain completely unaware.
Sometimes…on the rare occasions when he did activate it to stare in silent melancholy at the stranger who had been his mother, sometimes just for a moment he glimpsed someone else in the haunting image of the delicate, dark-haired woman with big brown eyes… Then it was gone, his attention taken completely by the vibrant woman before him, probably younger than himself when the image was created.
He ran his finger across the time-smoothed etching of the transmitter, his mind inevitably straying in the still silence of the room.
Regrets; Darkness was full of them. It wove them into a cloak and wrapped you up in them. It twisted them into a rope and bound you to it. It honed them into a blade whose wounds never healed.
The Darkness which had given Luke the resolve to bring Palpatine down had been the same which had driven Palpatine to kill his father, and vengeance had been a bitter, empty thing with no more substance than a shadow, because it changed nothing save to pull Luke further from the light.
Time afforded perspective, but a year after the event Luke found no respite other than to acknowledge the facts as he saw them. Comprehension of the truth had cut like a thousand knives, a reprisal far worse than any spiteful punishment his vindictive Master had conjured over years of torture and trials—because now, as then, he could come to only one conclusion. The person truly responsible for his father's death…had been Luke himself.
He had set events in motion as much as Mara—that was the fact. Yes, she'd betrayed him, but he'd made the decision not to let Mara go with him to Mosiin that day. He should have realized that Palpatine would be wary because of the incredible Force disturbance that morning, that he would be looking for any breaks from the norm. He should have taken Mara to Mosiin. He should have realized.
But that day—that whole day, from the first hazy light of dawn when he'd sensed the snarling tangle of upheaval which had twisted within the Force, wrenching him from sleep and wrapping him about in its influence, dragging him along in its conversion—that whole day had been an exercise in inevitability; in the absolute will of the Force. He saw that now…
Hindsight was a cruel teacher.
Everything — everything had spiraled from his control with the unstoppable force of the galaxy turning. Every moment, every struggle, every opposition had been like trying to stand in a tornado, like trying to breathe in a sandstorm. Every instant he resisted had felt like he was the dissenting obstruction, the disruptive impediment resisting the unassailable will of the Force, and whatever he did that day, it felt as if he would have been dragged, kicking and screaming, to the same inevitable conclusion.
Fate. Overwhelming, invincible, unassailable.
His thoughts went to Han Solo, to his claim long ago that there was no such thing as fate—that we cut our own paths in this galaxy. A lifetime ago on the Millennium Falcon, arguing with Ben Kenobi… Had that really happened—was it ever real? So long ago…
His mind wandered to the massive stone hangar at the Massassi Temple on Yavin's sanctuary moon, to Han's offer, as Luke had been preparing to take his X-Wing up against the first Death Star. That fateful moment that had changed his life, wrenched him from easy anonymity to center-stage in a conflict which had been raging before he was born.
Palpatine had once told Luke that it had been a small price to pay, the destruction of the first Death Star in exchange for flushing the last of the Jedi out of hiding.
It could have been so very different.
"Why don't you come with me? You're pretty good in a fight—I could use you."
Knowing all that he did now, almost nine years of struggle and strife on his shoulders, too many deaths to remember crowding the haunted shadows…would he have gone?
Should he have?
Would it have been better if he'd just turned his back on the galaxy and gone? Disappeared into a small, insignificant life. Just walked away—from the Force, from the Rebellion, from everything?
Should he have gone?
What had he truly accomplished, paid for in blood and sweat and tears? He'd removed Palpatine only to become him. Stepped into that breach and taken on the mantle as Emperor simply to stop anyone else from doing the same. And now, in this place, confronted by the necessities of maintaining the peace...was he so very different?
All the intentions he'd had, all the hopes which had held him together for so long...they remained as unattainable as ever, and every step he tried to take towards them seemed only to increase that distance—save one path. The easy, effortless path; to simply take—to power through objections and protests, to grind them underfoot with the authority and the abilities at his disposal. It could gain him all he wanted...but he had no idea, none at all, whether that was a good thing or a bad one.
Because it was not the Light which whispered every minute of every day, which hunched impatiently and skulked and brooded, searching for focus, eager for existence, for the slightest grounds to be invoked and directed. Potent and persuasive, offering everything—the easy path, the utmost achievement, limitless power. It was not the Light which called him on, one moment whispering and coercing in silent voice, the next howling and demanding, so much like his old Master. It was not the Light which Palpatine had ingrained with brutal, relentless, pitiless precision.
Every moment of every day had become a struggle to maintain equity, and he had no one left to turn to for guidance, no one left to offer any kind of perspective, good or bad. There were times when he would have taken either to ease the storm within—had done in the past. He was lost in that storm and he knew it. But knowing one was lost didn't grant one the ability to find the way, and he had been dragged so far from the light by Palpatine that he didn't even know where to look anymore; didn't know where to begin his search—or even how.
If he just knew what needed to be done…but all was Darkness and it was here by his own making. He had no right to turn to the Light and ask compassion or clemency. No right to look to it for aid.
And yet it hadn't abandoned him. And despite the turmoil within, he wouldn't abandon it—couldn't. Whatever the price, he would pay it to simply touch some part of himself that was not smothered and stifled and slave to Palpatine's Darkness.
But that Darkness pressed in and pressed down like deep, dark water, always looking for weakness; for any ingress, no matter how small. It twisted frustration into anger and anger into actions all too easily and the deed was done before he'd even begun to think of the consequences. And still it seeped in, feeding on his frustration and disillusionment and doubt.
And sometimes he was just too tired to fight anymore.
Before others, he was the Emperor. Decisive, resolute, indomitable. That perfect image projected outwards for all to see. And no one crossed him—not twice. He had drawn his lines in the sand and many times when he'd needed to, he'd taken that Darkness and given it sway. Before others, diamond-hard shields reflected the perfect image of their perceptions of him, whatever that image may be.
Here, alone, as he glanced past the small holo-emitter to the open doors where the rain patted gently down onto the balcony beyond, all he heard was the deafening sound of his own isolation, a profound, kinetic stillness that ripped through his mind and sat in his soul like the weight of the galaxy. And all he felt was tired. Endlessly, mind-numbingly tired, so that all he could do was sit in the still solitude of the stately, imposing room and stare into the rain, watching the shadows crawl up the buildings as the darkness closed in.
Talon Karrde stood alone on the wide balcony that stretched the length of the impressive White Room, one of the many grand reception rooms in the elite habitation towers of the Imperial Palace on Coruscant, enjoying that enviable view, and with it the self-satisfied kick that came with the knowledge that he, the man who had less than a decade ago taken control of a small, unconventional group of smugglers and information-brokers, was presently standing in the private apartments of the Emperor, no less.
The temptation to wander casually along the extent of the pale stone balcony to its far end, and what he knew was the inner sanctum of the new Emperor, was an almost irresistible urge to a self-confessed information-junkie like himself. But Karrde wasn't so stupid as to think that his invitation stretched nearly as far as the long balcony, and he had a feeling that those ceremonial guards who stood just inside the doors of the opulent White Room behind him may well prove to be a little more than decorative if he pushed his welcome.
New Emperor; barely a year in and everyone was still watching, waiting to see what he'd do. Ironically, many old clients had turned to Karrde's organization for information, though none knew of his long-standing working arrangement with said Emperor, of course, forged before he was even Heir Apparent, freshly promoted to Commander-in-Chief of the Core Fleet. Karrde had politely declined most, but he was still operating a business and had taken a few jobs which wouldn't represent a conflict of interest should the Emperor find out. On a personal level, Karrde suspected the Emperor was an accommodating man, but he'd always made it clear that business was business—and when your business was running an Empire, you tended to have a lot of weight to throw around should you need it.
Not that such was his style; he'd always been, to Karrde's mind, a perfect example of that old tenet of understated authority, "Talk quietly and carry a big stick."
A noise in the room behind him brought Karrde's head around and the tall, dark-haired Aide Karrde knew to be Wez Reece strode forward. The reason Karrde knew him to be Wez Reece was that three years ago, the then-Commander of the Core Fleet had charged Karrde with getting every scrap of information he could on the man, who had already been the Commander's Aide for three years. It probably wasn't even that he didn't trust the man, it was just that—well, business was business.
Reece paused, indicating for Karrde to follow, before setting off down the wide, lofty corridors and across a massive central hallway with an immense stained-glass cupola high above, then into another imposing room, this time with no guards at the door. Surprisingly really, because when he entered, it was to see the Emperor stepping round from behind a wide, polished desk. He nodded once to Karrde, who dropped his head, bringing his heels together in as near as he came to a military bow. He probably should make more of an effort, but the Emperor had never seemed the type to call someone on such things, and he didn't today either.
"Karrde," he acknowledged simply as Reece left, and the smuggler nodded again, trying hard to resist the temptation to study what was clearly a private office in the sprawling Perlemian Apartments, widely known in Intel circles to be the Emperor's private residence within the mile-square bulk of the massive Palace.
It had, surprisingly, turned out to be business as usual between Karrde and the new Emperor, very little changing between his time as Heir and his accession to the throne—but then there was very little time between the two either. Not that anyone was mourning Palpatine's death...
Still, Karrde would have given six months' profits to find out what had really happened, because it sure as hell wouldn't have been the official line of 'sudden death after a short illness.'
"Nice place you have here," Karrde deadpanned. "Very roomy."
"It gets a little cold in winter," the Emperor replied in kind.
"Yes, I would imagine the bills get a little high. Fortunately you own an Empire, so I assume that's not a problem."
"I run an Empire—I don't own it."
Karrde wondered if the younger man knew just how much he'd given away of his own perception of both himself and his position here in that quick reply. Possibly so, because he moved the conversation on very quickly, leaning back against his desk, arms and ankles crossed. "I need a few clean ships—high-status inter- and exo-atmospheric shuttles with clean civilian histories; no links to either myself or you."
Karrde frowned. "I can fly three clicks from here and buy you two of those from a legitimate dealer."
"These need upgraded weapons and shields, well-masked; nothing visible. And decent drives. Plus spotless ID's; they can't have been re-registered or transferred in the last year. Their ID needs to have military exemption—again, no contact with myself or Coruscant."
"Anything else?" This was turning into quite a list.
"Less than two years old, top-of-the-line civilian versions but nothing too flashy. Something old money would buy; middle-aged executive types…" The Emperor turned mismatched eyes skywards as he ran through his list. "No, nothing else…. Mini-bar maybe?"
Karrde raised heavy eyebrows. "Very funny. Permanently or just a loan?"
"Just a loan. Short-term."
"Just to clarify—for pricing, you understand—is this like the short-term loan I gave you for Bothawui?"
The Emperor actually smiled at that, looking far too young for his station, if only for a second. "I lose two ships in the whole time I've known you, and you can't let it drop."
Karrde felt his own lip twitch beneath his heavy moustache, but held it, affecting injured pride. "Well, they were very good ships."
"And as I remember, I gave you two very good ships in return—in fact I'd swear I saw one of them crossing a picket-line in the Bajic Sector on security footage just a few weeks ago."
Karrde's pause was just a second too long. "I was dropping off a book I borrowed from an old friend."
The Emperor tilted his head, tone unreadable as ever. "Really? Well, he must be running quite a library down there, because I'm told you made the trip eleven times that week."
What was interesting was that just seven months ago, the new Emperor had very considerately provided Karrde with a high-level Imperial recognition code which meant that his ships could now fly anywhere without interference or challenge from Imperial forces, from the local grunts right up to Ubiqtorate level. As much as he worked for the Emperor, Karrde had never made any secret of the fact that he still had other clients, yet the code had been handed over with no provisos as to where and when it could be used. As simply as that, Karrde had been given the ultimate prize which every smuggling organization dreamed of, the smuggler's equivalent of a krayt dragon's jewel: free, unhindered passage. Anywhere.
Of course, he didn't use it all the time; presumably the code was unique to his organization, and if his ships broadcast it constantly, Karrde may as well provide the Emperor with a map and a schedule of everywhere he went and everyone he saw. Karrde didn't for a moment believe that was why he'd been given the code, but despite his youth, the Emperor was hardly naïve; he knew damn well that if he wanted to keep tabs on Karrde's organization then this easy enticement would be the ideal way. Nothing personal, of course, but business was business.
What was really interesting, however, was that on those particular deliveries, Karrde hadn't even used it. So he chose his next words with care. "I wasn't aware that the Emperor took such a grass-roots-level approach to policing his Empire."
"I don't, but apparently Black Sun takes a very grass-roots approach to dealing with its competitors."
Black Sun: the crime syndicate who'd made their ascent and held their monopoly by serving Palpatine. Apparently Karrde's little group had been doing a tad too well and so had come to their notice, though they clearly didn't know it was at the Emperor's behest. "They sold you the information?"
"They gave it free of charge. A good-will gesture, they said. I'm guessing they don't like a little competition."
"Yes, they don't exactly welcome a free trade environment," Karrde deadpanned. "Did they quote us by name?"
"They quoted your name, your organization and the present location of your main base. I got the distinct impression that if I'd asked for your shoe size they'd have told me that and where you bought your last three pairs of boots."
"Interesting." Recognizing another group's ships was one thing, but base locations were something else. Karrde took a great deal of care that his organization stayed below the radar, and if someone in Black Sun had his main base co-ordinates, then that meant he had a mole.
Which was, of course, what the Emperor had so indirectly highlighted.
"The Valiant will pass by the supplied location in another week to do a security sweep," the Emperor continued. "I trust that's sufficient time?"
To clear a main base? Barely, particularly given that chances were, Karrde would be taking Black Sun's mole with them. But having received this information, the Emperor had to be seen to be acting on it, or risk his ties to Karrde's organization being discovered.
There was no particular risk to himself, of course; it was Karrde who would be in the crosshairs. Xizor didn't take well to anyone muscling in on his territory. The fact was that the Emperor could just as easily use Black Sun for all those delicate little jobs that he'd prefer not to be made public, just as his predecessor had. But he'd stuck with Karrde. He'd made the deal, the commitment, and he'd stuck with it.
Which said a lot about the man, Karrde felt—and maybe a little about himself.
He nodded decisively. "One week will be fine. Where do you want the shuttles delivered?"
The Emperor considered, all business again. "The SD Peremptory. It's touring the Core Systems at the moment—I presume you can find it—I need the shuttles in the next five days."
"Whilst we're bugging out of our main base?"
"Think of it as two less ships to worry about."
"I always worry about ships that I lend to you," Karrde said dryly.
"Really?" The Emperor flashed another smile which made him look far too young. "Well, I suppose one of us has to."
Han rounded the corner into the long run of Intel rooms onboard Home One, always a hive of activity. He always felt just a little uneasy here—as if he were under scrutiny. Old reflexes, he supposed. Leia glanced back from her position in Tag Massa's office, the privacy screens not engaged so that the walls were clear glass. Tag too glanced up as he neared, her stoic, neutral expression giving nothing away as he entered.
"Morning, ladies." Probably shouldn't have said that; now he'd got their backs up and he'd only just walked in the door… It was that shrewd look in Tag Massa's eye that always made him double-think himself. Pretty much equidistant in age between Han and Leia, Tag Massa had eleven years of solid work with the Alliance under her belt, so it took a lot to get to her—which was why Han tried so often, he supposed. "Looking particularly cheery today."
Leia ignored the remark and Massa simply raised an eyebrow, calculating brown eyes remaining on him, watching for a reaction as Leia spoke.
"We—or rather I—had a communication this morning from Ghost."
It was the name that Intel had given the unknown Imperial informer who regularly sent information Leia's way, because despite all their attempts to tease out his identity, the mysterious sympathizer had remained resolutely hidden. Still, he'd passed on consistently reliable information throughout the last four years, and both Massa and Leia trusted him. For himself, Han needed to see this particular ghost before he could believe. Old habits died hard.
"What'd he say?"
"He wants to meet," Leia said, to the point as ever. "He has information. Something he needs to pass over face to face."
They'd always figured, based on the kind of information Ghost supplied, that he was a military officer, probably in the Core Fleet. He wouldn't be the first to be passing on information, though they'd had not one new informer since the constitutional reforms. Still, Massa already had five on Intel's books who occasionally sent some nugget her way and word had it that Madine had recently cut his own little deal with an unknown informer. Though he denied it, Han suspected that Madine knew his snitch's identity, and Massa had the names of four of her five informers—which left Ghost. "Fine. Tell him I'll go."
Leia shook her head. "It has to be me."
Han almost laughed. "Yeah, right." It didn't seem so funny when no one else seemed to get the joke. "Seriously? You're seriously considering meeting this guy? Why does it have to be you?"
"Because I'm the one he made contact with. I'm the one he remembered from the Senate, when I represented Alderaan."
"I don't mean originally, I mean now—but while we're at it, what the hell kind of Imperial officer ever attended the Senate at all?"
"The kind who's aware of the greater picture, Han," Leia said. "The kind who was questioning the actions of his superiors and the tenets of the Empire. The kind who may well have decided to pass information on—if he could find someone he trusted to pass that information on to."
"I doubt very much that he actually ever attended the Senate," Massa said evenly. Her natural inclination was always to have reservations about everybody, a point all Intel officers seemed to share. Leia turned, and Massa tempered her words with a shrug. "More likely he listened to the news on the HoloNet like everybody else. Profiling says he may well be an Alderaanian survivor, which would explain his choice of contact. He's made a few references over the years..."
"Thranta." Han nodded, of the code-name that Ghost always referred to Leia by, protecting her identity as well as his own, should any message be intercepted.
Massa nodded. "Thranta is one. He's also made oblique references to Chiniar and Belleau-a-Lir. If he had family on Alderaan it could well have swayed his loyalties or cemented his resolve. We've never actually had bad information from him," Massa admitted cautiously. "He doesn't always have the details but he's never been wrong. It always has a military basis, generally fleet-biased, and we've had two Imperial codes from him in the last year—ones we hadn't broken at the time. The level of clearance he seems to have access to leads Profiles to think he's in Communications, probably a mid-ranking officer. If he is a comm officer, he may well have come across significant information and recognized it for what it is."
Han frowned. "What does he have?"
Leia passed the autoreader she was holding, and Han scanned the message quickly—and knew instantly why she'd risk this.
"The full codes," Leia said. "He says he has a full set of codes for the Patriot."
It was Massa who shrugged, her voice neutral. "As I said, he's never sent us bad information before. Out of date, but never inaccurate."
And it was true, Han knew. Sometimes the information Ghost sent was close to the wire in terms of counter-action, but it was never wrong. If he really did have a set of codes…
Still... "Tell him I'll make the meet."
Leia shook her head. "You know he won't trust anyone but me."
Han glanced at Massa, who raised her eyebrows in a silent show of frustration at Leia's insistence, giving the impression that she'd already been through this repeatedly and Leia wasn't budging.
"I've been his contact for four years, Han, long before I held this position," Leia insisted. "I've always been his sole contact. He wouldn't trust anybody else, you know that."
He never had. Any attempts to take over the contact by Massa or her Intel agents had been rebuffed. Ghost spoke only to Leia. Short messages, the information a jumble of anything he seemed able to lay his hands on, but always with that military slant. And recently, the quality of that information had spoken of a promotion—but not to this level.
Massa was clearly thinking on the same lines. "He shouldn't have this and he knows it. We think he's nervous. This is high-level stuff; if he gets caught with it, even without passing it on, it's treason. I'm guessing he doesn't know who he can trust right now. Leia's worked with him for years; he knows her, he trusts her."
Han glanced back to the autoreader, his own curiosity peaked; if this was real…
"Do you think he could have been discovered and they're stringing him along—that this is some bigger trap?"
Massa shook her head. "It's not the kind of action the Empire generally gets involved in, plus even if they knew Ghost was passing information over, they wouldn't know who to without having taken him in and interrogated him, in which case we're assuming the message wouldn't have had his usual coded reassurances. Standard Imperial procedure is to cut the leak off as soon as possible to minimize damage."
"Even now?" Leia pushed. Shifting methods of operation had begun to seep down through the military even here, with the new Emperor's more direct involvement.
"We've had no instances of it," Massa said with certainty.
Han glanced from Leia to the Intel Chief, knowing her innate caution. "D'you think she should go?"
Massa clenched her jaw, eyes turning back to the reader on the desk as she considered. It was tempting information, for sure, but he knew she'd weigh up the pro's with the con's. "I would say the contact is genuine—that is, we've had no reason to doubt him in four years of contact. He never pushes for any return favors, he's not interested in expanding his contact list here and he never asks for return communications, only a single-line acknowledgment that we've received the information. We've known him for a long time and he's never deviated from that. This is the first time he's ever asked for face-to-face contact and considering what he's carrying, I think the request is valid. That doesn't mean that I think this is advisable."
Leia, as ever, skewered Massa with her directness. "If it were you?"
Massa paused again, hands steepling before her pursed lips in deliberation. "If it were me, with this much on the line and a reliable agent with four years' dependability behind him then yes, I'd go. But," she paused, looking to Leia, who was smiling triumphantly, "But…I still think we should make at least one more very serious effort to have Ghost meet a representative instead. I'd be prepared to go myself, or have General Madine make contact if he'd consent to either. And if he doesn't, I would want to lay down some very serious precautions."
Han raised his chin as he looked to Leia, knowing right where they should start. "Number one is, I go with you."
In the Admiral's ready-room onboard the Super Star Destroyer Patriot, Luke could feel his composure fraying, his jaw and his shoulders tightening in subconscious response. Every now and again he stopped and turned away from his desk to make himself take three slow breaths, relax tense muscles, close tired, burning eyes and dissipate mounting frustrations by power of will. For all the good it did him.
Three days into the journey and he hadn't once slept, torn by doubts about the mission he'd set himself, the specifics of which he hadn't even admitted to his own staff yet.
Today he'd explain to them. They knew the vague outline anyway; they just didn't realize it was imminent. He would allow a little dissent and a little disquiet about his handling this in person, but he wouldn't be swayed or derailed. The plan, originally initiated when he was Commander-in-Chief of the fleet, was too far gone anyway—which was part of why he hadn't revealed specifics until now; it limited his entourage's responses. He would push it through and dismiss his own private doubts along with the unease of those around him, Luke ordered himself. There was no room for a personal attack of conscience here, and even if there were, a single spark would hardly light the darkness.
Swinging his chair about, his eyes wandered to the wide sweep of the viewpane and the blur of kinetic energy which unfolded outside the safe, shielded bubble of the Destroyer, watching blankly as the multi-colored lights of hyperspace twisted in rainbow irregularity through the vast tracts of bright white, the radiance of distant stars leaving trailing ghosts of their wake as the Destroyer hurtled past the sluggish speed of light. Watched until the room about him began to shrink to dull darkness by comparison and it burned into his retinas so that he could see it as a diffuse crimson glow when he closed his eyes—
A knock at the door snapped Luke's senses back to the moment and he twisted his chair back to his desk, resting his hand on the autoreader there as he used the Force to clear his sight and identify who was waiting on the other side of the door…then relaxing slightly as he realized who it was.
The door slid back and Nathan Hallin stepped in, sketching a propriety bow before entering with the morning's dispatches. Not generally his responsibility, Luke knew, but Nath had probably taken it upon himself to do this today when he realized that Luke hadn't slept again.
Nathan Hallin was one of the trusted few, having known him since Luke had first arrived in Imperial hands following his duel with his father at Bespin. Already one of Lord Vader's private medics onboard his Star Destroyer, Hallin had been charged to treat the battered man whom he believed at the time to be an Imperial spy before, at Palpatine's command, he had been reassigned as a member of Luke's personal staff. Luke had kept him close ever since, their friendship always effortless, finding a comfortable balance between formal and personal as the situation allowed.
"Good morning," Nathan said, placing the sheaf of hard-copy documents and their corresponding data chips on a rare patch of bare surface to the edge of Luke's desk. "Dispatches, I think."
"Thanks, Nathan," Luke acknowledged without looking up, making a show of being lost in his work though he doubted the sharp medic was fooled.
That brought Luke's head up. "What?"
A Lieutenant-adjutant from Luke's own staff was walking in with a tray, bowing politely.
"Did I order it?" Luke prompted, his scowl creasing the scar above his eyebrow.
"No, but if I didn't arrange it Reece would have my head," the slight medic said with a grin, speaking of Wez Reece, Luke's long-time Aide, co-conspirator and major-domo.
Now Luke couldn't help but smile at the medic's claim. "What did I not order?" he asked dryly as the tray was set on his desk.
"Cadin," Nathan announced of the grilled grain-bread, with an undeserved and overly enthusiastic flourish. "And fruit."
Luke raised his eyebrows as the adjutant bowed and left. "That was uncharacteristically healthy of me."
"Well, perhaps it was because you knew your medic would be in the room and you wanted to impress him with your wholesome eating regime," Hallin continued glibly. "Though I have to say it's not working—I'm onto you and have decided to make it my mission to clean up your diet."
Luke raised an eyebrow, unconvinced, but caught up as ever in Nathan's buoyant mood; the medic had an uncanny knack of always knowing the right tact to take. "Did I at least order caf?"
"No, you did not, on account of being awake for about three days straight now, as far as I can tell."
"I would think now is the time I'd need it most," Luke said wryly.
Conceding, Hallin bowed slightly. "I'll get some sent up," he acknowledged before backstepping smoothly to leave, the door sliding quietly closed behind him.
Luke lifted the cover from the tray, moved the food around on the plates, dropped the napkin on it and replaced the cover without eating, before turning back to his work. He sat quietly at his desk for a time, head in his hands as he loaded up and read through the day's dispatches, making notes and organizing them accordingly.
He remained engrossed in his work for a long time before pausing to stare at the hand which held his automemo's stylus. Frowning, he lifted his hand before his face; it was shaking. He stared for several seconds, willing it still, before slamming it down hard on the desk in frustration.
An hour past , he still hadn't eaten—he had no stomach for it at the moment, his mind on the necessities of the customary daily meeting. He was in the large neutral grey boardroom adjacent to his office, tired and wired, in the middle of a long discussion about the morning's dispatches with Reece, Hallin, Mara and Commander Clem, Admiral Joss and General Arco both attending by way of holo-connections.
Dispatches which had once again reported Moffs Terrin and Kato making their own little powerplays in response to the latest changes to the Military Concessions Act, small as they were. The old guard who had served Palpatine were used to sweeping personal powers and some had not taken well to Luke's reforms—but then he hadn't expected them to.
Carefully implemented to reveal, among other things, detractors and probable opposition in the military before it became entrenched, the changes had accomplished the task with unexpected efficacy. Still, despite the dissent it had stirred up, it had still enabled Luke to move forward, albeit covertly. He had those whom he considered trustworthy and an undisclosed timetable in his head for removing those he didn't. Because the fact was that he needed a suitably loyal military and, more problematically, the backing of the elitist Royal Houses before he began to truly make his presence felt. Already dissent in both these areas had slowed Luke, and Reece constantly fretted at the smallest change for fear that these two major factions might sway the tide of public approval too.
He needed something to unite the three groups—public, political and military. Something which would pull them all into a single accord and enable him to direct all that attention where he chose, before he could move forward. Presently one or another group constantly forced Luke's hand in some unanticipated way, and shot his timetable to pieces—and right now it seemed to be the military's turn. Luke had already removed one Moff last month; to eliminate another two so soon was unacceptable—it implied a lack of control of one's military and left far too much of a power vacuum to be easily controlled. Luke let out a silent laugh at that; his Master would have been proud of him.
"…plus we have no reason to believe at this time that they're working with any outside agent or passing on any sensitive information," Arco, Luke's Intelligence Chief continued. "We presently have automated and sentient tails on both of them, so should that change, we'll know."
Luke sighed, considering. He was already working to maneuver those he trusted into positions of power in both the military and state politics without too much of an upheaval, which would only shake the whole precarious structure even more. He'd needed another year, two at the most, to set everything in place before coming to power…and his father alive. But neither had happened…so he had to work with what he had.
"Well realistically, to remove both of them now is impractical."
Beside Luke, Reece shifted in his chair. "We could limit their effect by separating them—reassign one of them to the Core Fleet. The next tour of the Inner Systems is due to start in a week or so."
Which might not be a bad idea, Luke considered; it might also drive a wedge between them for one Moff to wonder why the other had been reassigned to what was generally considered to be the more prestigious fleet. He nodded slowly, turning to Arco. "Who would you say is the most ambitious of the two?"
The Intel Chief glanced down at his autoreader though he clearly already knew. "Moff Terrin is well known to feel that he's been passed over for Grand Moff several times."
Luke turned to Reece. "Reassign Kato to the Core Fleet. When's the next State Dinner?"
Reece frowned, taken unawares by the left-field question. "That you'll be attending? I think…that would be the annual re-opening of the Colony Systems' Executive Assembly in three weeks' time. The relevant military, Ambassadors and Royal Houses will attend."
"Send him an invitation. Assign him a suite at the Palace for the night of the Dinner." Even more than they had been with Palpatine, such exceptional invitations and permissions were public statements of recognition and favor.
Clem, head of the Emperor's Private Guard and officially responsible for his safety, moved uneasily in his seat but as usual said nothing, only logged away the necessity to up the guard.
Mara frowned. "You want to get close enough to read his mind?"
"No," Luke replied easily. Among this select group, the specifics of his abilities were well known, as was his willingness to use them to further his own ends. But that wasn't his intention here. "Let's see how solid that little collaboration of theirs really is—see if it can withstand a little resentful friction."
"One final thing," Arco added before the meeting broke up. "Black Sun have contacted us again on their old channels. They claim to have information relating to another assassination plot."
Which would make it three this month, Luke reflected; a pity—he'd been hoping to bring the figure down from last month. Still, not too bad. His first month in power there had been eleven—and those were the plots the newly restructured Intel department knew about.
Clem and Nathan Hallin both sat up a little straighter, Clem the stoic professional and Nathan always nervy about such things. "From?"
"They're trying to trace the contact back now. The lead was from an agent on Corellia." Arco was clearly uncomfortable that he didn't yet have the answer.
"We need to lock that down, Sir," Clem said evenly. "Do we have a date—even a rough window?"
"Presently no," Arco admitted. "The message only came in about five hours ago."
"Why didn't the Guard receive a copy immediately?" Luke interceded on Clem's behalf, knowing it was what would be going through the staunch man's head though he wouldn't voice it out loud here.
"I'll check on that, Sir. If it's a break in communications we'll iron it out."
"Do so. Let me know what it was."
"Sir." Arco nodded in acknowledgment, contrite but not nervous, knowing that neither his job nor his reputation were on the line here; it was simply a flaw being addressed and corrected.
Still, at least he'd felt secure enough to come out with what little information he did have, rather than wait until he had everything for fear of chastisement, Luke reflected. Within this small, trusted entourage, he needed to foster complete confidence, constructive dispute and disagreement not only allowed but encouraged—though not necessarily accepted or incorporated.
Hallin settled back slightly and voiced the thought that Luke had known was coming. "I wonder whether it's entirely advisable to go to Corellia next month as planned."
"Yes, it is," Luke said firmly. "We don't change plans under duress. Ever."
"Chances are it could well turn out to relate to one of the existing plans we're aware of," Reece assured.
"Or it could be Black Sun trying to re-establish their previous position with the new Emperor," Mara added, ever-suspicious.
As with many other latecomers, Black Sun had waited too long before risking association with the new Heir, so that Luke had formed his own arrangement with Karrde's far smaller group, and he wasn't about to break that unspoken contract.
Although Talon Karrde wasn't included in his official entourage, Luke still regarded the man as dependable and trustworthy, with his own code of ethics and honor, which put Karrde about as close as anyone got to Luke these days. Another long-lasting lesson from Palpatine which had been carved into Luke's soul with his usual ruthless efficiency: friendship or connections in any form were nothing more than a weakness waiting to be exploited. The few that Luke maintained had already been in place by the time Palpatine's manipulations had taken hold, and even these final few his Master had used again and again to prove his point. Some he had ripped away, some Luke had eventually given willingly, though he always sold the release for a high price.
Some—the few, the oldest, those he had truly trusted—they had done the most damage of all. Palpatine had set the scene, but they had taught the lessons…
Betrayal was a harsh teacher, but one never forgot. Or forgave.
Luke tuned back into the conversation as it wound down, Reece leading as usual, all business.
"… but I think until we have more information we should hold fire on any reaction. General Arco, can we have a dedicated unit on this?"
"Already assigned, Sir. As soon as anything comes in I'll circulate it."
Reece, always chair at such meetings, glanced one last time to his autoreader. "Then I think we're done for today?"
As ever, he looked back to Luke for approval, and Luke nodded, standing. "Thank you, gentlemen." He glanced immediately to Mara, who raised an arched eyebrow at him but didn't correct him.
As the group made to move out, Luke spoke again. "Wez, Nathan?"
Both men paused and stepped aside, recognizing the request to remain. Mara too remained, but then whatever else her relationship to the Emperor, her position as Luke's personal bodyguard—completely independent of Commander Clem's dedicated Guard Unit which was officially responsible for the Emperor's safety—had never been relinquished.
Luke waited until the door had closed before he continued. "I have confirmation from Argot that Leia Organa has decided to meet Ghost's request."
He didn't bother to mention that he'd had this information for over two weeks—they'd work it out.
"On the commercial staging post at Devaron's magnetic pole. It's nondescript, inconspicuous ground on the edge of the Core Fleet's jurisdiction. Presumably she's picked it because she thinks the static interference there will buy her a little added insurance."
"What made her finally bite?" Hallin asked.
Under the guise of a fictional Imperial informer, Luke had been trying long before he'd held power to get Leia Organa to step out of the safety of her troops and be in a predictable place at a specific time, just as he'd done with Mothma a few years earlier. She'd been impressively wily—though she apparently had one weakness:
"I gave her the one bait she couldn't resist—me. She thinks her informer is going to hand over a set of memory chips containing the algorithm code which will give her class-one access to the SSD Patriot. Presumably she thinks it'll buy her a chance at the Emperor."
"Be careful what you wish for," Hallin said wryly, knowing that Luke would find dry amusement in the fact that the Rebel leader was about to get close to the Emperor far sooner than she'd intended. "So who does she think she's meeting?"
Luke shrugged. "I never gave a name, but everything I've given her to date should suggest it's a mid-level technical officer from the Core Fleet. I let her name the venue herself and it's within the time-frame and standard Duty Schedule of nine Core Fleet Star Destroyers, so she obviously thinks that's the case. As long as nothing's visibly wrong when she lands, she'll believe it safe."
"When will you try to get her to hold a summit of the joint heads of Imperial and Rebel leadership?" Reece pushed, eager to move what had been a painfully slow plan forward.
Luke smiled at his impatience. "I said she was an idealist, Wez, not that she was stupid. I won't even mention it for the first few meetings—if possible I'd like it to appear her idea. I'll just keep the talk to vague promises this time; I need to pull her in, make her come back. Once I have her used to coming back and nothing untoward happening, I can start nudging her towards bringing others with her."
Long before he'd even gone after Mothma, Luke had made anonymous contact with Leia, posing as a rebel sympathizer and hinting at Alderaanian roots. Over the years he'd fed her an assortment of truthful, if carefully selected information, his ultimate gain always to instigate a face-to-face meeting.
When he'd eventually been forced to admit this to Hallin and Reece after the first year, he'd been able to pass it off with the relatively sketchy explanation that he intended to use her as a connection to gain him access to the leaders of the Rebellion, based on the fact that he knew her personally and could predict and therefore manipulate her.
Now his own accession to Emperor had complicated things considerably on far too many levels, and Luke had been forced to modify a fictitious plan which he had never intended to use in the first place, whilst still ensuring that the new front remained flexible enough to serve his true needs.
He found it suitably ironic that Palpatine's relentless manipulations and constant lessons were one of the shaping influences which would aid Luke in his final revenge on his old Master—because despite what he had told those closest to him, Luke's eventual goal bore only a passing resemblance to the plan he spoke out loud, even here among the loyal elite.
Trust remained the one luxury that even an Emperor could not afford.
"… so we need to have a full unit at Devaron and hidden at least a full week before." Reece was thinking out loud, committing the facts to memory so they could be passed verbally on to Clem. Nothing of this plan was to be recorded anywhere, by Luke's standing command. "Probably break a few select units of the 701st down and separate them off; lose them in the staging post's general workforce."
"Not too many," Luke warned, aware of how overly protective Wez could be. None of them liked Luke engaging in any genuine action now, military or otherwise, but it simply wasn't his style to stand at a safe distance and direct; he preferred getting his hands dirty. Fortunately no one actually had the power anymore to say no, though Luke was well aware of the fact that Clem, Wez and Nathan were playing a long-term strategy to slowly wean him off such things. "Argot said they'll have about a dozen men go down to the staging post with Organa. A tramp freighter will be used to get to Devaron with a crew of about sixty, including the task force."
Over the years Argot had remained a carefully managed commodity, used as little as possible. When Luke did utilize the information provided, he always took care to disperse and deflect any blame, taking any opportunity presented to muddy the waters of Argot's identity. Despite this, the information smuggled out wasn't always perfect, General Madine in particular being a loose cannon with a habit of running his own private campaigns using his own hand-picked Special Ops team. To date, Luke had been frustratingly unable to infiltrate them, a fact that particularly irked him because whilst still with the Alliance, he had served as one of Madine's S.O. pilots and probably knew over half the men in the unit personally.
Reece considered the plan aloud. "Two units assigned to the staging post then, and another four satellite units within close-reaction time."
"I think that's overkill," Luke dismissed. "We're not trying to actually catch anybody and we don't need to overpower them; everyone who arrives will leave unimpeded. A single unit in the staging post will be ample."
"One unit in the staging post is insufficient protection and you know it," Nathan said firmly, stepping in to back Reece up, aware that the troopers who accompanied Luke to the surface would be in effect his only bodyguard. Things like this were as much a struggle as they had always been, finally coming down to little more than a haggling match in which Nathan and Wez always presented a united front.
"Fine. You can place two units in the staging post but no others on the surface. If they're close enough to react then they're close enough to show up on any detailed scans done of the area and if they're far enough away that they can't be picked up on the scans then they're no use to me anyway."
"Detailed scans won't be possible with Devaron's interference," Reece countered.
"Neither will comm contact with any secondary satellite units, for the same reason," Luke rationalized, turning Reece's logic back on him. "Two close units, broken up in the workforce, are more practical."
Nathan was clearly about to launch into one more round of negotiations when Reece surprised him by nodding agreement. "Two units it is. And a Star Destroyer in orbit, presumably. If you're supposedly a fleet officer, it's logical that you have to come from a Destroyer."
"We're en-route to the Peremptory now," Luke said, casually dropping the bombshell that they were already in the middle of this mission before burying it in a rush of further information. "I'll transfer over and travel the rest of the way incognito. I've already spoken to Karrde, who's supplied two untraceable and upgraded civilian shuttles, which are waiting on the Peremptory. I'll take one down to the surface on the day, the second can contain a mix of genuine officers and members of the 701st. We have ten days to make arrangements—I'm assuming that you have no problems making them en-route."
"Wait a minute," Mara spoke out first. "We're going there now?!"
"We're on our way to rendezvous with the Peremptory , yes," Luke said evenly, confirming just how imminent this whole plan was then immediately pushing forward without allowing further comment on the fact. "The Patriot will make a short stop for the transfer then continue down the Corellian Trade Spine with Reece and Nathan remaining here on-board, to continue the pretence that I'm also still here. I'll transfer over to the Peremptory anonymously and travel on to Devaron on her standard tour of duty, which will bring her into Devaron's orbit in ten days' time."
"How long have you known?" Mara asked, far too experienced to be fazed by the burst of purposely digressive information, eyes afire.
"A short while," Luke allowed, giving no specifics simply because he wouldn't be called on any decision.
"This is…very short notice, Excellency," Reece rallied, his tone both frustrated and official. "We need to make arrangements at Devaron, there are back-ups to be…"
"There are three units of the 701st already in orbit around Devaron onboard the unmarked freighter Vireo, ready to deploy," Luke said of his own regiment, which he always utilized in such missions. He continued immediately, still sweeping over the fact that all this had been done without consultation by forcing Reece to deal with the details of the mission, rather than address the lack of notification. "As just agreed, two of them will be dispersed in the station over the next few days. You'll need to check the station's personnel and place them as you see fit, Wez; liaise with Mara on that. We rendezvous with the Peremptory in one day's time, and whilst we're in realspace you can relay all further arrangements. As I said, you'll need to remain onboard the Patriot to continue the charade that I'm here. If you wish, you can co-ordinate the mission's arrangements from the Patriot, but I need it to be a long way from here before you drop into realspace—I don't want to scare them off."
"I see," Reece said coolly, clearly aware that he wasn't going to be given the chance to address the lack of notification. "I'll make arrangements; I'd like to be in realspace and in contact with the Peremptory when the mission is active. I'd prefer to control this mission myself, even if it's remotely, if that's acceptable."
"That's fine," Luke acknowledged, the moment dealt with as far as he was concerned.
Everyone fell to momentary silence, in which Luke stared unabashed at some detail on his autoreader; this kind of powerplay was second nature to him now, even here among friends. The silence stretched, unbroken.
"…So—sorry, this meeting is ten days away?" Nathan clarified, always appearing a few minutes behind in such conversations. Luke often suspected he did it on purpose, just to pull Luke back to the root of the issue.
"Ten days, yes. As I said, the 701st are presently awaiting Reece's orders to position them, and I have a choice of clean civilian shuttles to take down to the surface."
"And they're….already in the Peremptory?" Nathan said mildly, underlining just how long ago Luke must have known about this in order to make such arrangements. There was no censure in his voice, just a wry reluctance to have the wool pulled over his eyes.
"Yes," Luke said simply, gazing evenly at the medic.
The silence lasted for a few seconds before Nathan brightened. "So you could actually take the third detachment of the 701st in the shuttle with you just in…"
"No," Luke said, though there was tolerant exasperation in his voice at Nathan's tenacity. "Any security who will be there on the day, will have been there a week in advance. If the Rebels have an ounce of sense they'll scan every shuttle coming down from the Peremptory, whilst they're still in high orbit. I don't want to shield the shuttle I'm travelling on and have them wonder why—I don't want anything out of place"
"Take Mara," Nathan said firmly. "When you get to the surface the interference means you'll have no comm contact unless you happen to be near a landline—I'd just be happier if you had someone with you."
Luke set his head to one side. "What exactly do you think Mara can do that I can't?"
"Aside from double your arsenal, presumably," Mara countered dryly, confident in her own abilities—but then it was with good reason.
Shorter than Luke by a headheight, petite and fine-boned, Mara still somehow managed to project a powerhouse of capability, her self-confidence rolling from her in waves. But then people needed to have a healthy dose of self-confidence to live their lives around a Sith, Luke supposed—or willful stubbornness and no option, as he'd had with Palpatine.
Luke shook his head. "This has nothing to do with ability."
Holding his own before the Emperor as very few people would be allowed to do, Nathan didn't say more—but then he knew he didn't need to. He and Luke had known each other a long time, and unlike Reece, who had always maintained a professional distance, and Mara, whose relationship with Luke had never truly recovered after the death of Luke's father, Nathan's own association with Luke was that of a friend first and an advisor second. So he knew that Luke would know exactly what was on his mind: that he was, as ever, considering the man, not the Sith.
Luke had after all faced down Palpatine, a Sith Master—that was his physical capability now; he was, quite simply, unsurpassed. The fact was that skilled as Mara undoubtedly was, she wasn't Sith-trained in the way that Luke was, so there was in truth very little she could accomplish that Luke wasn't capable of with one arm tied behind his back. Save one thing: Mara wouldn't be taking any emotional baggage with her into a dangerous situation.
This would be the first time that Luke had spoken to Leia Organa since he had very first been brought to the Emperor six years ago. Since Organa had betrayed him—carried back the counterfeit information that had turned the Rebel Alliance against Luke and left him imprisoned, abandoned and isolated, to face Palpatine's wrath alone.
And despite Luke's claims—beliefs even—to the contrary, there was surely still some spark there, to Nathan's mind. Why else would Luke have put off telling them that this mission was finally going ahead? In not telling them, he'd avoided having to look too closely himself, which obviously made him so uneasy that he'd already lost three nights' sleep over it.
Luke himself had admitted to Nathan more than once that he and Leia Organa had been close friends, and the simple fact that Luke had invested so much time in directing her course since long before Palpatine had died, picking her specifically for this role and even ensuring she escaped custody at Bothawui, and then again over Coruscant... Such things spoke for themselves as far as Nathan was concerned. Luke had risked his neck and Palpatine's wrath to get Organa out when she'd been an easy target caught in an Imperial trap at the Patriot's launch, the Emperor close enough to watch Luke's every move. He'd later claimed it was to protect this very plan, but had it been anybody else, Nathan wondered if Luke would have reacted so extremely, or whether he would have simply let Palpatine's trap play out and edited his own plans accordingly when the dust had settled.
Luke had his reasons for naming Organa as the linchpin of this plan of course, and they seemed valid to Nathan. That he knew her personally, which meant he could predict her and therefore manipulate her made her the perfect candidate, Nathan couldn't deny it. But Luke was a master of bending the facts to suit his needs, a lesson hard learned under duress beneath the watchful attention of the old Emperor. Reece, ever the soldier, saw the logistics and the possible security threats to the Emperor, because when he looked at Luke, that was what he saw: he saw the Emperor. Nathan saw the man, the result of a long, close friendship. He had been there when no one else had; had known Luke longer than anyone else, even Mara. And he had always seen the man, strengths and flaws both.
Everyone else may be moving comfortably along, confident in Luke's unruffled assurances of the greater picture, but Nathan knew that there was more going on here, though he'd never say so out loud. If Luke was keeping things from them then it was for a good reason, and Nathan had faith—he had faith in the man, not the image he projected for others.
Now, Luke stared at him for long seconds and Nathan tried not to blink before those mismatched eyes… Was he reading Nathan mind? Or did he already know exactly what Nathan meant in asking that Luke take Mara with him?
"Fine," Luke acquiesced, standing and so effectively bringing an end to the discussion, since everyone else was forced to do likewise—despite the reduction of such ingrained traditions, to sit in the Emperor's presence whilst he was standing remained an unthinkable breach in etiquette. "Mara, you'll come down to the surface with me. Take the second shuttle and we'll meet in the base. I'll try not to let it get too boring for you."
"I'll bring a book," Mara countered dryly.
Wez Reece had entered the turbolift, playing the meeting over and over in his head, before he finally decided to speak out to Nathan. He kept his tone light and his eyes dead ahead, as if this were casual conversation, no more. "Do you think there are things he isn't telling us?"
Nathan turned, glancing up, his manner comfortable and familiar, both with Wez and with Luke. "Of course—but if he's not telling us it's with good reason, I imagine."
"I worry," Wez said bluntly.
"The changes—to the constitution. They're too radical." At Nathan's pointed silence, Wez added, "The backlash was inevitable, and I think it's not over yet. It could easily destabilize us."
"I'm sure he won't let it come to that. Besides, it was his intent all along to incite a reaction, you know that."
Wez thought he detected just a shade less certainty in Nathan's voice now, because he knew Wez was right—that the Emperor could have accomplished the same ends with a less extreme approach…which left Wez wondering...
"I think he made the changes believing them to be less extreme than they were," Wez said diplomatically. When Nathan remained silent Wez finally gave up some part of the truth, testing the water. "He thought them…right. He believed there'd be a backlash from the military because it restricted their powers, however lightly, but he thought that everyone else would just view them as the right thing to do—because he did."
"You think he's wrong?" Nathan prompted.
"I think he'll continue to implement these reforms—more so if opposition were to settle. I fear this is the tip of the iceberg."
Nathan dived into the thick of it, clearly unused to Wez tiptoeing round him like this. "You think he's too lenient. Too progressionist."
"You have to admit, some of his views are…unanticipated."
"Do you want Palpatine back?"
"No, of course not."
"You said yourself Palpatine had served his purpose, had his time. The Empire was ready for a new course."
"Ready for a more moderate course—not to be disassembled entirely."
"You know he won't do that. I think things will stabilize and the changes he'll make will be for the greater good…and I happen to think he's right," Nathan said firmly. "Much of the Empire's old constitution was questionable, some of it grossly unfair."
"That's treason," Wez said calmly.
"It's fact. And soon there'll be reforms in place which will make it possible to say such things in public."
Wez straightened. "Who told you that?"
"Nobody. But I'd bet a month's wages that it'll be fact within two years. Probably sooner."
And that doesn't worry you? Wez thought. The Empire was slipping away already. Being rewritten a line at a time by the new Emperor whom Wez had thought he'd known so well. And rightly or wrongly, Hallin clearly intended to stand by him as he did so.
There'd be no help here—but there were other avenues to explore.
Holding back, Mara remained to the rear of the room as Hallin and Reece made their polite withdrawal, bowing despite the fact that Luke was turned away from them now, gazing dispassionately out into the ever-shifting tumult of hyperspace.
Hearing their voices fade as they set off down the corridor beyond, already deep in discussion, Mara watched as Luke let his shoulders slump and lowered his head, lifting his hand as he closed his eyes to rub at his temple.
She stood for a long time watching him from behind, his head still dipped, lost in thought.
When she reached out to brush her fingers through his hair he started, turning half about. It was a second or two before Mara realized that he was so tired that she'd actually surprised him. He must have been paying so little attention that he'd thought she'd left with Reece and Hallin when he'd dismissed them—but then Mara observed few protocols, even publicly.
She frowned, hiding the slightest hint of uneasy doubt from her features before, flicking long, loose curls of her hair back with casual grace, she stepped close to him and stood on tip-toe, hand to his chest as she reached up to kiss him lightly, her lips brushing against the old scar on his cheek.
Sometimes he let her this close…sometimes not.
"You look tired," Mara observed as she stepped back, eyes calculating.
"I'm fine," Luke said distantly, turning away.
"Actually I was being kind," Mara said at his dismissal of her concern. "You look terrible."
He didn't turn, but Mara could hear the dry humor in his voice. "Thank you...you look wonderful."
"That's because I sleep at night," Mara said, refusing to be pushed off-course. "When did you last do so?"
And right there, in that passing statement, Mara recognized a summing up of their strained relationship for the last year since his father's death. Because she actually had no idea. They were still close, closer than any mere friendship, but since that fateful day, Luke had slept alone.
It had been a subtle avoidance… Just for a few days, when he came out of the medi-bay. Then just up until the inauguration. Then a little while longer, until everything settled and the pressure eased. And the months had gone by…
She knew Luke felt he'd been betrayed, and in truth, how could she possibly argue her culpability in the events leading to his father's death? Ironically, she also knew that if she had betrayed only Luke—condemned him alone, by revealing only his own disobedience to the Emperor—then he probably would have forgiven her. He'd done so in the past. No, it was the involvement of his father that had been inexcusable to Luke. The damage had been there, and it seemed irreparable.
He'd tried, she knew; tried to forgive, to move on in the months following. But it had eaten away at their foundations and though Luke couldn't bring himself to dismiss her from his presence entirely, what had once been a passionate, all-consuming closeness had cooled to an uneven melting pot of mixed emotions. Betrayal, bitterness, need and nostalgia changed the ground beneath her feet from day to day—from minute to minute sometimes, when Luke was tired and struggling with warring factions of his own psyche, cracks caused by Palpatine's relentless, ruthless harrying in his desire to drag a Sith from the Jedi he'd held…
Only he never had quite separated the two. Because occasionally, Luke's mood would lighten and he'd seem so close to the brash pilot who had been brought here six years ago. The man who had charmed her and intrigued her with his ready smile and his easy, indomitable manner long before Palpatine's bleak, discordant teachings had taken hold. Occasionally he still looked at her that same way, still responded with fierce, passionate intensity when she touched him or kissed him and he gathered her up and held her to him in a moment of spontaneous, impulsive sincerity…
But the moments were all the more precious for their rarity, and Mara was left with the heart-rending impression that Luke felt as much prey to his own erratic instability as did those about him.
"You should sleep," she said at last, eyes still on him.
"I'll bear that in mind. Is that what you stayed to tell me?" His tone was curt, but Mara let it go, turning to look out over the roiling blur of hyperspace.
"Is it the nightmares?" she asked quietly.
It had always been so when they'd slept together, striking in the dead of night to jolt Luke upright with a yell, several steps across the room with chest heaving before he even realized he was awake. The nightmares which, like the scars she remembered so well criss-crossing his skin, would never fade completely. Palpatine's precious lessons, carved into him, body and soul both. Years of relentless chastisement doled out without hesitation in an attempt to control that which he both desired and feared.
She'd never gotten used to the nightmares in all the time they'd been together; never gotten used to him lurching up and shouting out in the darkness… And neither had he.
"Can we change the subject?" he said simply, and Mara let the moment slide, aware of his fragile state.
"Do you think this will work?" she asked at last. "Do you think she'll trust you?"
"Not at first," Luke replied, more willing to talk on this less personal issue. "But I think past history will buy me the time I need. She doesn't have to like me, she just has to listen to me."
"Will you use the Force?"
Luke's jaw tightened slightly, and Mara searched his face from side-on, looking for reasons. She didn't bother trying to read him, of course—he'd never really opened his mind to her, first because he had been plotting against her master, and now because…well, because.
"I'll use whatever I need to make her trust me," he said at last, voice neutral.
Mara remained silent for a long time and Luke waited, knowing of course that she was searching for the words. "Are you sure this is what you want?"
"That wasn't what you intended to ask."
She pursed her lips, glancing up at him. "Are you sure you can go through with this?"
"Why wouldn't I?"
Mara shrugged incrementally, trying a different tack. "Hallin's worried."
"That's Hallin's natural state," Luke dismissed easily. "I'd be more concerned if he wasn't."
"That doesn't mean to say he's wrong."
Luke turned smoothly to face her, mismatched eyes steady. "Do you think I won't go through with it?"
Oh, she'd walked straight into that one.
"I was just saying Hallin was worried."
"That's not what I asked."
"I believe you'll do whatever you think is required," Mara said, believing this completely. "I just worry about the cost."
He projected the perfect image of steadfast confidence, every inch the Emperor, the fine blade Palpatine had forged in the heat of adversity—but that wasn't the truth of it at all, Mara knew. Palpatine had invested years in purging his Sith advocate of human weaknesses, had honed his soul to a razor-edge. In many ways he'd succeeded…but not entirely—and Luke hated him for it. Some days for his success, others for his failure.
"There is no cost," he said, turning away. "You're looking for sentiments that no longer exist."
Mara held silent for a few seconds, but Luke didn't look to her. "I believe you can do this," she said with a steady voice. "I believe you will do this—you'll do whatever you consider necessary. That's the problem."
All the headstrong will and resilience which had kept him alive for so long under Palpatine's attention, even that had been twisted through with Darkness, so that now Luke would turn it just as easily on himself as anyone else.
Whatever achieved his goal.
"She has no hold on me anymore if that's what you're worried about; she can't hurt me."
"I know that. I just wanted to be sure that you did."
"Of course I did." He turned, voice dry and brittle. "I'm unfeeling, unreachable…didn't you know? Don't you listen to the whispers in Court?"
"He made you strong," Mara said, aware that his thoughts were on Palpatine. "Immaterial of how he did it, he made you what you are."
"I don't like what I am."
And there—there was the fracture that tore at him, tightening his voice as Mara sensed the change envelop him like a shadow, induced by the mere mention of his old Master.
"You're Emperor!" she said, lost as ever as to how that could be anything but a desirable thing.
"Is that all you see when you look at me?" The disappointment was painfully evident in his voice.
It had always been there Mara knew, carefully fed by Palpatine, this particular twist of crippling self-doubt. The absolute conviction that no one could be interested in him for his own merits, that all they saw was his position and wealth. Occasionally some tiny sliver of that disillusionment would show, and it always bit when it did.
The last six years had been trial after trial heaped on his shoulders and he'd done what he had to just to survive. One of the very few who knew what he'd truly been through, Mara didn't begrudge him that. She knew what was going on in his head, the lessons he'd learned—that he couldn't afford sentiment, couldn't allow closeness.
So he pushed her away, time and again.
"Because if that's all you see, I can find a hundred more like you—a thousand."
"You know it's not," Mara said flatly, aware that once again as it had personalized, the conversation had taken a more precarious turn, Luke's mercurial temperament swinging instantly from composed to fractious.
He laughed derisively. "You're a poor liar, Mara Jade."
"I'm not lying," she said, meeting his eyes.
A Force-sensitive part-trained by Palpatine, she'd long held the ability to shield her thoughts, though not always entirely successfully from Luke as his own ability grew. Those shields were in place now, and she felt the undisguised brush of his mind against hers, though he made no attempt to break through. The fact that she had them was enough in this instance; an admission that her words were at least partially contrary to her thoughts. He had made his point.
He glanced away dismissively. "Running the percentages, then. How much you stay to be with the Emperor and how much to be with Luke Skywalker."
It was a low blow, not least because in her own darker moments she wondered whether it hinted at the truth. "I'm here because I want to be with both—because they're the same person."
He wrapped his arms about himself, wide shoulders hunching forward, and even without seeing his face Mara could sense the change creep over him again, and knew that the knowledge of what he was about to do in coldly using someone he had once trusted so implicitly was breaking him apart inside. Despite everything, despite every resolve and every logic and all of his Sith training, this was biting deep. So deep that the only way he could deal with it was to close that part of himself off and lock it away. Only he never quite did—could never quite let go.
One more splinter in an already fractured psyche.
He would do it though, because just as with Mothma, he believed it needed to be done. But he wasn't proud of himself or the deceits and manipulations he employed…and it was breaking him apart, even if he couldn't see it.
"They are the same person," Mara repeated.
He didn't turn but the change in his voice was striking, all earlier hostility gone, leaving only an empty bitterness and muted vulnerability, like a shadow falling over him. "That's just it, Mara—they're not."
Something was wrong…something was very, very wrong.
Leia had known it from the moment she stepped foot on the staging post at Devaron's South Pole two days ago—some vague, undefined tremor at the back of her mind. She'd put it down to nerves. It was over a year since she'd last been on a mission, and that had hardly been a soaring success, so this was just nerves…just nerves.
Nothing was out of place—nothing amiss. It had gone perfectly: textbook. Not so much as a peep from the watchers stationed in the base a full eight days before, watching traffic movement and monitoring comm channels. Nothing out of the ordinary; just one more second-rate base which serviced commerce and the military. A little run-down, a little tired, frayed routines which had been in place for years rolling on with scant attention and casual familiarity.
The ISD Peremptory had turned up a half-day early, but that wasn't so unusual on a Tour of Duty as extended as the Core Loop, and there was nothing untoward in the comms coming from the bristling Destroyer. A higher than normal number of long-distance comms, but only to central hubs. Nothing to worry about…nothing to worry about.
Troopers came down to the station on standard duties in standard numbers, overseeing supply lines. Five unaccountable ships left the Destroyer's hangar to land on Devaron. Three were private craft and landed on the staging post, the other two were tracked and landed well outside the base, in the nearby continent of Calasia. Nothing to worry about.
Why did she keep repeating that like a mantra?
Rebels had watched all three private craft from the moment they set down, guided in on lights as they made their final descent, the pole's wave-scattering effects cutting in as they closed with the ore-laden ground. Four officers disembarked from the first shuttle, clearly on ground-leave. All mid-level, all male; any one of them could be their informer. In fact all four of them could, in a pact—it wasn't unknown.
Leia had split her small group to leave watchers on each of them, one to tag each officer. They'd checked into the best inn on the station and made their way straight to the casino. They'd stayed there ever since.
The second shuttle to land had contained two older officers and two troopers. They too had been watched from a distance, and had gone to the administration base. Leia's group had spliced into the staging post's surveillance two days ago, but they hadn't gotten past the main security codes, so had lost the group within minutes when they'd moved into restricted corridors. She'd split the group a second time to leave two men behind, one for each officer, with orders to mark them coming out of the base and pass it on when they did.
So now they were down to the last shuttle. It had been another three officers: two men and a woman with long, dark hair, wearing a black Intel uniform. The men wore officers' uniforms but walked like professional soldiers. The woman walked like she could take either or both of them down without breaking a sweat.
Leia had split the group again: three more left behind to mark them, Han and Chewie staying with the woman—he'd said she made his trigger-finger itch.
Leia had made her way to the meeting place in the maintenance corridors beneath the base with the three remaining Rebel soldiers; not a huge amount of back-up, but Han and his group were within comm distance still, close enough that the scattering effect of Devaron's pole hadn't cancelled out the signal. Besides it was fine. Everything was fine, nothing to worry about… Grief, why did she keep repeating that?!
They arrived thirty minutes early, the meeting place a maintenance side-room which serviced the heating system deep in the bowels of the busy staging-post, hidden among endless maintenance access corridors threaded through with pipes and conduits, the guts of the station, keeping the polar elements at bay.
It was old and it was grubby in these unseen spaces, overheated lubricant mixing with decades of dust to cover scratched, paint-chipped surfaces and tired machinery in a film of thick grime, visible as the lights flickered on by sensor in each new section, the corridors behind them stuttering to darkness as doors closed. It reminded Leia of the engine rooms of practically every Rebel corvette or destroyer she'd ever flown on. Her hand went to rest against the butt of the blaster she wore, and she silently chided her own nerves; she wasn't afraid of a little darkness.
She checked the number on the door—room seventeen. They were heading for room five.
The comm made her physically jump as it went off at her hip, and she heard Exley behind her curse under his breath, and Gorin behind him snicker. Pursing her lips momentarily, she lifted the comlink. "What?"
"I lost her." It was Han, and Leia knew exactly what he was talking about.
"You're kidding me. I give you one person to watch…"
"They all went into the records library. The two officers came out and went into the admin block but she wasn't with them. We had a guy on both exits and I just did a walk-through but she wasn't there. I'm coming to your position now."
"Go and find the woman."
There was a brief pause. "That's why I'm coming to you, sweetheart."
Leia sighed, aware of the three soldiers waiting patiently, their eyes on her. She glanced to the door number; they were at twelve now. Close enough to continue. The Empire seldom simply watched those it believed to be traitors; people were arrested and disappeared for far less. It would be fine; everything was fine… Why did she keep thinking that?!
"Fine," she said quietly into the comlink. "Just don't barge in and scare my contact."
She set forward again, resting her hand on her blaster; it was fine, everything was fine… Damnit, Leia, stop saying that!
Room eight…alone from here on in. She paused, glancing back; no sign of Han yet. Coley had remained on watch in room twelve, their rear guard. Exley and Gorin slowed, uncertain.
Leia nodded once, putting forward the image of the consummate, courageous soldier. "You two wait here and keep your eyes open. If I'm more than five minutes, comm me. If I answer with anything other than 'go ahead,' something's wrong."
They nodded, backing up…and Leia pressed the door release, setting forward again, the sound of the soldiers instantly dulling to nothing as the door slid solidly shut behind her. Room seven…six. Everything was fine…
Chiding her own hesitation, Leia hit the release to room five and stepped inside.
The lights were low, but then they'd been that in the previous several rooms, the area clearly used by droids more than people. She walked forward into the gloom of the empty room, the low rush of contained air through old pipes providing a background hum which dampened her footfalls…
It trickled up her spine in a tremor of awareness, raising the hairs on the back of her neck as the door closed with a solid thud behind her—
He stepped out of the shadows as if he was one of them—and why hadn't she seen him sooner; he'd been right there.
"Hello, Leia." His voice was quiet and calm and instantly recognizable.
Her hand had gone to her blaster as the door had closed, and she wrenched it free, pointing it at his chest and firing without hesitation. She pulled the trigger again and again, the bolts burning across the short distance between them, shot after shot after shot, igniting the room burst after burst, like lightening striking—
And Luke… Luke simply batted them aside, as Vader had on Cloud City; as his father had. His father.
He twisted his hand, fingers outstretched—and the blaster misfired; then again, then again, and Leia just kept on pulling the trigger, the blaster sounding only dead, empty clicks.
Finally when she slowed, he lifted his eyebrows—and his eyes were the same pale blue, that same sky blue that had laughed with her and cried with her and shared her secrets…and told her lies. Only not quite the same.
"Are you finished?" he asked, voice cool and amused and accusing all in one.
"No—you're still alive," Leia bit out.
"You know it would take more than a gun to bring me down, Highness."
Leia lifted her chin. "I'm not afraid of you."
"Then put the gun down."
"I thought it couldn't harm you?"
He held out his hand and the gun wrenched from Leia's tight grip, pulling her forward a step such was the force.
"Still, there shouldn't be such things between old friends." As he spoke so casually he walked forward into the light, his hand holding Leia's gun falling to his side.
Leia half-turned but caught herself; there seemed little point in trying to open the door behind her. She'd seen what he'd done onboard the Patriot over Coruscant, ripping open the heavy double-bolted blast door in order that she could escape… Escape. He'd tried to help her then, albeit unconventionally…so what was this now?
Uncertain, she turned back and saw, really saw for the first time the man standing before her…and grief, he looked so much like an old friend. He was slimmer at the hips and wider at the shoulder, skin pale, hair falling in a loose tangle of open curls to brush the tops of his shoulders. The scar…the scar was deeper than she'd imagined, a fluid, irregular line which twisted down one side of his face, at once unsettling and fascinating.
"Were we ever that?" she asked at last, looking into those pale blue eyes after so long an absence. He'd always had such wonderful sky-blue eyes, always on the verge of smiling. Now his right eye was cast through with a twist of darkest red-brown which obscured half of its blue, striking in its contrast, surrounded by a scar so deep that it pulled as he smiled, shrugging casually beneath her scrutiny, coolly unmoved.
A memory cut through Leia's thoughts—of running, of throwing herself into his arms after he'd destroyed the Death Star, of his swinging her round, laughing. He'd been everything to her in that moment: friend, savior, brother-in-arms. A kindred spirit sharing every dream and hope—a part of her soul.
"You're a cruel man…" She said the words without realizing, a thought murmured out loud.
He stopped absolutely still, his face almost unreadable—but Leia knew him too well, so the tiny flickers of emotion which passed across those blue eyes were there to be read as she could read no one else, not even Han.
Surprise, of course, that she had uttered them at all. Then regret; genuine pain that she would think such a thing of him, followed quickly by indignation which tensed muscles in face and body alike.
For a second she thought he would strike out at her, then the moment passed, to be replaced by that detached, insular amusement again.
"Life is cruel—I merely keep pace." Those sharp eyes skewered her. "It wasn't I who betrayed."
"What about Mon?" Leia challenged.
He stepped closer, turning his head slightly so that the long heavy scar which ran from above his right eye down the length of his cheek to cut through his lips was clear, though Leia could hardly fail to have seen it.
"I believe she landed the first blow," he said pointedly, that perfect Coruscanti accent strange coming from his mouth.
Leia held her silence, uncertain what to say, and Luke began a slow circle round her as she remained facing forwards, holding her ground, wondering how she had come to fear the man she once cared so much for.
"Actually that's untrue," he said from behind her in consideration of his own words, his unexpected closeness making Leia jump despite herself as his voice turned from detached and amused to hard and demanding. "You did that…why did you betray me?"
"I didn't," she denied; a guilty reflex.
"Liar." He seemed amused again rather than angry. "Only you knew—only you could have told them."
So he had known who he was. He must have. "I showed them the evidence. They made their own decision."
"Thus absolving you of all guilt. How wonderfully clear your conscience must be."
"And yours?" Leia challenged, lifting her chin.
He paused before her, smiling that enigmatic smile, nothing revealed, neither remorse nor regret. "I have no conscience," he said easily. "I'm way beyond hope."
"Of what?" she whispered…and he resumed his slow walk around her with a shrug.
"Contrition, compassion." Recognition of his own flaws gave Leia a momentary burst of hope, before he shot it down completely. "Whatever—it doesn't matter. Caring what you think, perhaps."
"Were you a spy?" she had to ask.
"What do you think?"
"I'm asking you," Leia said, frustration giving her courage. "Giving you a chance to defend yourself."
"It's a little late for that, isn't it?" he whispered from close behind again, making her start. "Six years too late.
Where was your justice then?"
Leia clamped her jaw as she turned. "I swore I wouldn't regret what I did."
He tilted his head, mismatched eyes regarding her with cool, calculating interest. She'd always remembered them as so open, so passionate, so artless. Were her memories so wrong?
"Vader—my father—said that to me once, too."
He said the words dispassionately, though aware of their power. Still, it shook Leia to the core. To suspect the truth was one thing; to hear him speak it, give that title to the man he had once cursed so desperately for murdering Kenobi before his eyes, was profoundly disturbing.
A flash of insight hit her at the memory: that she knew these things as facts, but Luke had lived them. Had been forced to find a way through those devastating truths, to acknowledge and come to terms with them. For a brief instant she felt such pity for him…then wondered if she should feel anything at all.
Wasn't the real truth that Skywalker rooted out and betrayed Kenobi to the Empire—led him into a trap? But Luke's grief had seemed so genuine at the time… What was true and what was a lie?
"What did you reply?" she said at last, aware of his eyes on her.
He frowned just slightly, the finest of lines forming about those still-youthful eyes. "I believe I told him the decision was not his to make," he stated obscurely, both avoiding and answering the question, accusing Leia of the same charge.
Leia frowned, freshly uncertain at the unspoken implication. "Did he…did Vader betray you by taking you to the Emperor?" she whispered.
Luke looked away, avoiding her searching gaze—the first time he had done this. It was a momentary melting of his shields, his manner changing before her eyes, his words shocking in their vulnerability. "No. My father could never betray me; I never trusted him. Betrayal requires trust—" He looked back to her now. "Only a friend can betray."
Leia froze beneath those cool eyes, stomach churning at the accusation—
Then the slightest hint of a smile curved the corners of Luke's scarred lips, the disturbingly capricious change masking completely that brief flash of emotion, the man she had known instantly buried beneath the Emperor he had become.
"Was I wrong?" Leia whispered, prepared in that moment to believe whatever he offered.
Luke studied her closely...and in that stretched moment, looking into his eyes, Leia thought he would cry out—that everything would be explained: a ghastly mistake, compounded and escalated, everything she knew now that she wanted to hear...
Then he stepped back; a moment's grace to regain his center, so that when he spoke, his voice was level and dismissive. "You made your decision long ago. Clearly you felt then that the sparse information at hand was sufficient to condemn me."
"I had to tell them."
"And you did; you made your decision, you allowed them theirs…and then you backed them when they acted upon it... I've been forced to deal with the consequences every day since...you'll have to do the same."
"Tell me I was wrong?" It was more an appeal than a question, her heart momentarily overruling all else. But he shook his head, completely composed, all such personal considerations buried.
"This is immaterial. What matters is where we are now. I am Emperor and you lead a rebellion against me. And it will stop."
Leia recoiled at this sudden change in persona, the momentary glimpse of the man she knew completely repressed beneath the man who spoke now with such authoritative tones.
"Palpatine toyed with your rebellion for twenty years for his own amusement and to serve his ends. He used you…and you let him. You helped him stabilize his Empire, provided an excuse for more laws and restrictions than he could have ever raised without the inflated threat of your supposed actions. But I no longer need those excuses. The Empire is established, permanently."
"But it's no longer Palpatine's Empire—it's mine." He overrode her as if she had not spoken at all, and it was a testament to his experience and command—to how much he'd really changed—that Leia let him do so. She was no stranger to the tactic and would never normally allow it against her, yet she let him continue.
"And I will treat it as such. I intend to ease restrictions put in place to deal with the Rebellion, to continue to relax laws which have restricted civilian freedoms. To reinstate personal sentient rights—all rights. Freedom of movement and liberties of speech, the right to protection by the State, the right to trial by a jury of peers, to constitutional equality. To lead my Empire forward on a course which will eventually see the restoration of a democratic State. And to do all this, I'm willing to open a dialogue with the Rebel Alliance—or more specifically, with you."
Leia stared, speechless, feeling her jaw slacken as her mind raced to keep up with this whirlwind turn of events. She'd thought she had walked into a trap—that Luke would laugh in her face and watch her dragged to an Imperial detention center, as he'd done with Mon. And yet she was still here, talking to the Emperor! Or Luke, or whoever the hell this lightening twist of conflicting, confusing actions was.
And now…now, everything she'd ever wanted, everything the Alliance had fought for her whole life, was suddenly being offered to them on a plate—by the Emperor, no less. By Darth Vader's son. By The Wolf; the man who'd killed Mon Mothma. The man who'd lured the leader of the Alliance out into the open with cold manipulations, then removed her by handing her over to Palpatine, throwing the Rebellion into confusion and chaos.
Was he doing the same with her now? Could she trust the Wolf?
"What can I do to prove my commitment?" he asked openly, a ghost of a smile touching those scarred lips.
"Step down," Leia said immediately. "Abdicate."
He grinned at that, as if she had asked for a moon on a plate. "Realistically?"
"Step down—or I'll make you," Leia said, deadly serious.
"As you did my predecessor?" he mocked without true malice. "I brought Palpatine down, not you. You see that's the trouble with black and white, it's forced to extremes. Real life is lived in a thousand shades of grey. It's that which brought Palpatine down. This," he said of himself. "And I'll bring his Empire down too, if I can."
Leia stared, simply stared at him, lost all over again as to who and what he was. He ran from one extreme to the other in a single sentence. From black to white and back again, neither and both in the same moment. But wasn't that what he was trying to tell her? Could she believe him—and even if she did…did that mean she could trust him?
"Now you think I'm telling you what you want to hear," he said, clearly amused at the confusion he'd sown.
Leia scowled. "Are you reading my thoughts?"
"Hardly, it's written all over your face," he countered easily, unoffended. "And anyway, I know you too well."
Leia tried to gather her wits around this amazing shift of events, completely lost. "Then why…why tell me like this—why not make it public? Invite the Alliance to official negotiations?"
He stared at her for several seconds, as if he simply couldn't believe that she'd asked the question. When he finally replied, that same dry, detached amusement was still audible in his tone.
"Firstly, because it would be an outrageous and unnecessary show of weakness on my part. Secondly, because it could easily instigate a civil war—turn the Royal Houses and my own military against me and result in my losing half my Moffs before I beat some sense of what I can only laughably describe as loyalty back into them. Thirdly, because even if that didn't happen, I would have to deal with a string of assassination attempts…above and beyond the normal quota, you understand—I hate to disappoint you but you're not the only people with an axe to grind with the Emperor. And, oh yes, lastly, because I don't think you'd attend. If you had any political savvy at all, you'd just sit back and watch the fireworks as my Empire tore itself apart. In your position, I certainly would."
Leia stared, just stared, unable to believe how much he'd changed—been forced to change. He was a leader now, with all the far-reaching awareness that such a position demanded. When she'd last seen him he'd been—what? Half farmboy, half soldier, if his murky past was true. Still finding his place in the larger galaxy. Always fated for greater things; one could see that even then. But this—this was no idealistic savant at war with his own intractable emotions. This was a man of vision, confident of his intentions and aware that he possessed the resolve, the willpower and the position to fulfill them…good or bad.
"That's a lot of very carefully considered reasons," Leia said warily.
"I can understand your doubts," Luke stated politically. "My having aided in the capture and therefore by extension the execution of your previous leader would raise certain reservations…"
"Murder," Leia corrected vehemently.
"I'm not here to argue semantics with you," he dismissed mildly, unoffended.
"Then let me go."
Luke raised his eyebrows at that. "You are not being held, Princess."
Leia searched his even gaze for long seconds with no idea whatsoever as to what was really going on in his mind. And she shouldn't try to learn, she admonished herself.
Don't get pulled in.
She turned without another word and headed for the door. She was almost there, hand reaching out for the release, when his words stopped her cold.
" 'It's not what you call us and it's not where we stand. It's what we do which defines us,' " he recited evenly. "Quite a speech. Do you recognize it?"
Leia spoke without turning. "My father."
"Yes. Bail Organa said it on behalf of the fledgling Rebellion when it was first challenged as unlawful by Palpatine's puppet Senate…but I think he would have agreed that it holds relevance no matter who we are."
"Or what?" Leia challenged without turning—and the brittle silence which followed made her heart pound against her ribs.
But there was no reaction, no explosion of indignant fury. Instead, his voice was a quiet murmur, a shocking burst of genuine regret. "When did it come to this, Leia? When did I become less than human in your eyes?"
"When you served Palpatine," Leia said resolutely, refusing to turn, to be pulled in once again.
"How wonderfully simplistic your world is," he observed without malice. "I envy it."
"It doesn't excuse your actions."
"No, it doesn't," he said simply, the honesty in his voice turning her around. For a moment—for just an instant—he was Luke Skywalker again, those expressive, vulnerable sky blue eyes staring out at her, begging for understanding.
Realizing her compassion he raised his chin, the insular, emotionless mask falling again, the change instantaneous, quicksilver fast. "But then I didn't come here for your forgiveness."
"Then what did you come for?"
Leia narrowed her eyes at that, freshly cautious in this guarded game of words. He tilted his head, voice softening.
"I'm offering you everything you ever wanted, Princess. Everything you need. Everything the galaxy needs…without another drop of blood being shed."
Leia shook her head, unwilling to be persuaded. "If you're offering any kind of deal it's because we're a threat to you."
"Hardly." That instant hardening, evasive and amused.
"You've rescinded the Slavery Edict already. Because of us—because of the threat we represent."
He actually smiled at that. "Please—don't flatter yourselves. You're an annoyance, that's all. A minor complication. A little exercise for the Fleet. You won't stop me doing anything I intend to do."
"Listen to yourself!" Leia said. "You sound just like the Emperor!"
"I am the Emperor," he countered decisively.
"Palpatine," Leia hissed. "You sound just like Palpatine."
Luke set his head on one side, her words not touching him at all. "Believe me, I sound nothing like Palpatine. And I am nothing like Palpatine, despite what you think—or do you believe this meeting would ever have taken place under his rule?"
"This meeting hasn't taken place anyway," Leia said knowingly. "If I told anyone, I'm sure you'd disavow it."
He took a step back, trying a different tack. "I never thought it of you…"
"…What?" She frowned, unsure.
"That you'd allow your personal feelings to come before the greater good. I always thought you a better leader than that."
That stopped Leia dead for long seconds, uncertainty creeping in—was she doing just that? She looked up to see him watching her closely and squared her jaw, though some of her surety was gone. "I won't lead the Alliance into a trap."
"I believe you," he replied instantly. "No leader would knowingly do that. But I thought you were more—I thought you had vision. The foresight to see past other people's preconceptions."
Again she paused, pulled unwillingly in and turned about by the sudden intense sincerity in his words, the faith. The need.
"We have a chance here, Leia, as never before. Two new leaders; a chance to sweep away all the old prejudices, to begin again." He stepped forward, eyes wild and hopeful. "This is what people want, Leia—what they need. And it will never come again. Never. Two new powers—every possibility. This will go down in history as a defining moment. I can think of no other being with the strength of spirit and the drive and the vision to take this opportunity and make it their own. It's not enough to be a leader, Leia. It's not enough to have a goal—you have to find a path to get there, to get everyone there. And if you see it, you have to seize it with both hands…because it may never come again."
Leia stared…just stared at him for an eternity, huge dark eyes searching his own, looking for something—within him, within herself. She wanted to believe, she knew that now. Despite everything she had said aloud of him, everything she'd thought she felt…here, now, she wanted to believe that there was some spark of decency in him. She wanted to scratch the surface of the new Emperor and find Luke Skywalker. Find the man who'd swept her up and spun her about with such heartfelt sincerity and admirable principles, so close to the ones he'd just declared with such intense, unguarded passion.
Or was it all a game—an act before a wary, critical audience?
Because the man who stood before her now looked nothing like the brother-in-arms she'd lost, scars visible and invisible marking his demeanor… But something whispered—something warmed her soul and froze her heart in the same instant to be this close to him again. Something bound them together…it always had.
He sighed, voice quiet and low. "You're looking for assurances, and I can't give you any, because I'm putting my own leadership on the line too. This may all crumble…but it won't be for want of my commitment." He looked up at her, the question unspoken…
"I…need time to consider…" There was his victory—and they both knew it.
He only took a step back graciously. "Of course. You can contact me when you're ready to talk further."
"… How—if I choose to do so?" She knew that she would…and so did he.
As usual… All this time… Would she have broken the contact if she'd known it was Luke? Yes, absolutely.
It had taken this: to be face to face, to look into those eyes again and see the soul within, to feel that strange…something in her own soul warm in reply, like finding some lost part of herself. Despite every misgiving, to walk away now believing they would never speak again would be like cutting off a limb… She simply couldn't contemplate it.
"You should go," he said at last, taking another step back. "Your people will be waiting…"
She stared for long seconds into his face, at once achingly familiar and shockingly changed…then turned in silence, hand to the door release.
She paused, unable to turn back, stomach tightened into a nauseous knot at the uneasy confusion in his hesitant voice… But he didn't speak again, and eventually Leia set forward into the corridor beyond, the door sliding closed behind her to consign him to the shadows once again.
The slim access door behind Luke slid open and Mara stepped silently forward into the splash of bright light, her unfitted taupe jumpsuit melting her into the shadows the moment the door closed, the black wig she'd sported long since abandoned in favor of a maintenance cap, her russet hair twisted up beneath it. Luke didn't turn to her, lost in thought, clearly ill at ease before a tide of old memories.
"Do you think she bought it?" Mara asked as she stepped level, looking to pull him from his trance.
He was still staring at the door Organa had left through, trying hard not to let it show just how much it had unbalanced him. "We'll find out soon enough."
"And if she decides not to take the chance?" She watched him closely, wondering why Luke hadn't simply read Organa's thoughts.
"Then I'll remove her," Luke said without hesitation, turning abruptly away from the far door. "Replace her with someone who will."
Mara narrowed her eyes, unsure if he was simply saying what he knew she wanted to hear; he always played his cards close to his chest, even with her. Palpatine had instilled that lesson too well. "I thought you said it had to be her? That's why you put her in power."
"I said I put her in power because I could read and predict her," Luke corrected easily, automatically evasive, though she hadn't been trying to trip him up. "If she doesn't contact me then clearly I'm wrong—which renders her valueless to me."
He finally turned, flashing that easy, charming, apparently open smile—the armor he hid behind so often. "You worry too much, Red," he assured, walking past her and down the narrow side-corridor.
Mara was left alone, frowning at his back...remembering the countless times that Palpatine had said the same thing in that same, dismissive tone.
Squinting in the low morning light, Mara walked briskly through the wide, galleried corridors of the North Tower heading for the Cabinet Rooms in the South, knowing that on his first full day after having returned to the Palace, Luke would be there, attending to his Empire; he'd probably been there since dawn.
Which made her late, though her shift didn't actually start for another forty minutes. Still, she hurried her pace.
Fact was, you pretty much had to walk briskly anywhere within the sprawling corridors of the Palace if you intended to get to your destination before midday. And anyway, the exercise woke her up, she reflected, as she glanced out over the wide space which separated the four lofty Residential Towers where they sat in a neat square atop the roof of the Main Palace, another burst of low-lying sunlight streaming in through the curved glass wall of the galleried corridor.
Staggered well apart to let long shafts of light into their center, each of the Towers rose from the grand, partially glass-roofed atrium of the Crossways, the sole entrance to the Towers, whose arched and vaulted ceiling was supported by regimented rows of carved, gracefully fluted columns.
As she ascended the South Tower, Mara glanced up and across the tops of the trees to the North Tower opposite, an identical curved wall of ninety stories of dark mercury-colored privacy glass, the subtly reflective finish of the curved Towers mirroring each other back and forth in a never-ending optical illusion. 'The Palace of Mirrors' they'd called it in Palpatine's time, in subtle double-entendre at the amount of secret alliances, private pacts and scheming manipulations it hid behind its glittering façade.
Had so very much changed since the old Emperor's demise? Yes and no.
Inside the Main Palace beneath the Towers it seemed like a different world to Mara from that which she had known since childhood, at once completely familiar and yet unmistakably changed.
There were still lots of people, yes, but then the huge bulk of the Main Palace had always been a city within itself, easily swallowing its plentiful inhabitants up in its massive, monolithic structure even in the busiest areas around the 'public' courtyards, where security-cleared staff and dignitaries were free to congregate.
In the early part of Palpatine's reign, all control had been centralized to the mile-square bulk of the Main Palace, his notorious distrust of anyone demanding that he maintain all power within easy reach and close scrutiny. Even now during Luke's reign, although a notable amount of control was being transferred to regional locations, the ability to make major or long-reaching decisions still remained solely within the Palace, requiring a huge staff to assimilate, prioritize, allocate and act upon the incredible amount of data coming in daily from the vast reaches of the Empire.
But unlike the past, people who served the Emperor in these areas were no longer obliged to live their lives restricted to the confines of the Main Palace, though many still remained in the virtual city of the Staff Habitation Zones toward the upper levels. And for the first time—for the very first time since the Palace had been constructed—there was a scattering of alien lifeforms among the humans.
Unthinkable in Palpatine's reign save by his own favor, Luke's relaxation of the Classification Edict had begun to show even here, in the slow turnover of staff, military and civilian. Still, it was the brave few, Mara reflected, who had the guts to come and work within the Main Palace; the new equality was rigidly enforced here, but almost two decades of human-only existence had to have embedded certain prejudices.
It was strange to think that all that bustling life was still going on in the Monolith below the four private Residential Towers, which seemed now forever empty and echoing by comparison. The huge numbers of people required to 'attend Court' in Palpatine's reign were long gone, most having been either currying favor and power from Palpatine, or else little more than thinly disguised hostages—permanent 'guests' of the Emperor, kept close to ensure obedience in others, or simply wreak revenge. In fact, now there was little 'Court' to be seen.
The old Emperor had enjoyed the trappings of his position but had remained uninterested in the minutiae other than to confirm his control. To own it was enough. Skywalker, on the other hand, remained consistently immersed in the day-to-day running of his Empire. He had a job to do, an end goal to achieve…and though Mara wasn't sure yet exactly what that was, she knew that the first stages were already set in motion and constantly monitored. Occasionally, she felt she saw fragments of the bigger picture, then Luke would contradict them entirely—but always with reason, everything so indisputably logical. In fact, she reflected wryly, she'd begun to follow Nathan Hallin's lead in dismissing on principle anything which seemed undeniably plausible or flawlessly rational.
No, she knew Luke, and he had a bigger picture in mind here even if he wasn't willing to share it; in that he was very much like his old Master. But then, she supposed he was entitled to such behavior; he was after all, Emperor.
Albeit a very different kind of Emperor.
Already, within a year of his accession, Court, which had been held nightly in Palpatine's reign, was nothing more than show: empty, powerless lip-service paid to previous tradition. Luke had presided less than a dozen times in the last year—and even then only when convention marked some kind of milestone which traditionally required the Emperor's attendance. Knowing him as she did, Mara also saw what he hid so well behind his veneer of scornful disdain: that he was privately embarrassed by such things—that people were required to stand when he stood and sit when he sat and listen when he spoke. Which didn't stop him using such empty protocols when he felt it necessary; another lesson he'd learned at the old Emperor's hand.
There were, of course, many dignitaries who still remained to fulfill their responsibilities or who held apartments here at the Emperor's discretion, and the East Tower was still equipped to handle huge influxes of guests for official functions. But invitations to the Residential Towers were rare indeed, and all the more valued because of it—another fact Luke knew and used to his own advantage when necessary.
So there were still a few 'Survivors'— Royal Houses who had retained the ultimate recognition of permanent apartments assigned within the Palace, an unspoken expression of power and favor. It was one such Royal House which was on Mara's mind now as she made her way to the Cabinet, where Luke would be holding much sought-after private audiences all morning to listen to grievances, mediate disputes which had remained unresolved by lesser powers, and allocate support or threats as necessary.
Beladon D'Arca, one such Survivor, had formally requested an audience with the Emperor, which seemed strange to Mara since his prominent support for Luke had meant that he generally had access to the Emperor with only a few days' notice anyway. Why make this conventional request?
Presumably it must be some official business, or perhaps something to do with the imminent launch of the latest Star Destroyer, the Sterling, at which he had been invited to stand as Master of Ceremonies. Still, one other name had jumped off the 'Authorized Residents in Attendance' list, updated daily and sent out to all security personnel; his daughter, Kiria D'Arca, was presently a guest of the Imperial Palace.
It was hardly surprising; long-favored by Palpatine, the Royal House of D'Arca were all over the highest levels of the Imperial military, and had held apartments in the East Tower long before Luke became Emperor. Their conspicuous early support of Luke during his own accession had guaranteed their continued survival, evidenced by the fact that Luke had had never revoked consent to maintain a residence within the Palace, though the fact that this had somehow become an open-ended invitation for Kiria D'Arca had always irked Mara.
And her all-too-regular visits hadn't failed to come to the notice of both the HoloNet and the various rival Intelligence agencies in operation even here, either. Palace Intel had intersected another report recently before sending it carefully on its way, this one bound for a Bothan group and therefore probably the Rebel Alliance. This particular report regarding Kiria D'Arca's continued presence came to no conclusions—that was for the analysts further up the ladder—but the amount of detail in it hinted at the importance that D'Arca was gaining in relation to the Emperor.
There were four recent images included of her, olive-skinned and fine-featured, with that amazing river of raven hair falling down her back and huge, dark, almond eyes, intelligent and calculating. Far too much so for Mara's liking.
D'Arca had graduated from the prestigious Magrody Institute but despite many offers had failed to take any formal position, instead relaxing into the blue-chip lifestyle which her family's wealth and position could easily afford. A waste of a fine intellect and an exemplary education, the Intel files said.
Mara wasn't so sure. Kiria D'Arca had ambition alright, and she was putting every inch of her considerable abilities into forwarding it. Her family's status had gotten her into the Imperial Palace and then close to Luke, but she'd done the rest herself—no mean feat. Luke was notoriously wary of outsiders but had tolerated her slow, sly insinuation into his broader civic retinue without comment—though without interest either. And having gotten onto the fringes, for some reason Mara couldn't figure, D'Arca hadn't pressed her advantage further. Because even if Luke couldn't see or wasn't bothering to acknowledge the truth, Mara was well aware of D'Arca's intent; she knew a rival when she was looking at one.
And it hadn't been missed elsewhere either. Mara had also read the profile given to the Rebels by the Bothan network earlier this year, and though it had some inaccuracies, most of which Mara knew Palpatine had long ago purposely seeded to be found, by and large it was surprisingly correct.
Eight years older than Luke, which Mara knew wouldn't even be considered by him, D'Arca was described as ambitious and driving in her psyche profile, despite her disinterest in securing any recognized position. Witty and urbane, polished and cultured, she had moved in the highest circles from childhood, well-versed in the intricacies of Palace life, having gained official standing in Court and attended many times towards the end of Palpatine's reign.
The ideal, well-matched companion for the new Emperor, the psyche profile had offered helpfully, curling Mara's lip.
Despite her knowledge to the contrary, it irked Mara that reports often listed D'Arca as having been connected romantically with the Emperor, with the fact that her family held official apartments within the Palace seeming to be considered confirmation. In fact, D'Arca had long been drifting in and out of Luke's life at random, never any pressure, close to Luke for a week or so then notably absent for months, seeming not at all concerned by this fact. Perhaps because she always managed to drift back in again, Mara reflected dryly.
Still, the report had tipped D'Arca as a more permanent Consort in the future—possibly even Empress. It had, of course, always been assumed that Skywalker would make a political marriage, and even in the most conservative cliques, Kiria D'Arca held a place in the list of probable candidates. She'd made her first advances into Court towards the end of Palpatine's reign and even then, to Mara's eye, she'd had her goals well defined. Ambitious as she was, D'Arca certainly wouldn't allow something as minor as a change of Emperor to derail those plans. And Mara hadn't failed to note the wording of the most recent Intel report: that D'Arca had been her 'usual attentive self' in regard to the new Emperor.
Which could well be jumping to conclusions, Mara knew—or being led to them—and if Luke was seeking to play some political game, then he would certainly be doing the latter. Still, possible scenarios were running unbidden through her mind when Mara finally reached the grand inset archway which marked the Imperial Cabinet, the corridors of power within the Palace.
Nodding at General Secretary Virran as she passed, Mara was already on her way to the Emperor's Cabinet Office when the man leaned forward slightly over his immaculately tidy desk to correct her.
"Receiving Room," he said simply, and Mara dug in her heel and did a quick about-turn to pass him again on her way back along the wide main corridor, noting Clem stood to loose attention at the far end, two further guards outside the tall, wide doors. Palpatine had always held such audiences in a massive formal Throne Room within the Cabinet, built specifically for the purpose, sitting on a throne atop a raised dais, no underplay of his position or power. Luke, uncomfortable with such ostentatious powerplays, had ordered the room redesigned and split into smaller, less grandiose rooms. Now the majority of meetings were held in a chamber which, although still imposing, had far more the atmosphere of a luxurious, well-appointed office than a formal Throne Room.
She pulled to a stop before Clem who glanced meaningfully at the chrono on his comlink as he handed her a small earbud already set to today's frequency. Knocking once, Mara waited for permission then entered, still pushing the speaker into her ear as she took up position just inside the door, Luke glancing up briefly from his meeting in acknowledgment.
By mid-morning a few border disputes had been put to rest in no uncertain terms and, despite the Minister of Extra-Planetary Trade Levy's advice, the planet Leritor had been allowed a one-year suspension of levies providing such funds were reinvested as aid to its major continent following devastating cyclones earlier that year.
Too indulgent by half, Mara reflected, though not so much that he hadn't had a quarterly proof-of-investments covenant set in place, to be delivered directly to the system's Moff—and put the fear of death into Leritor's Planetary Governor should Luke find such proofs wanting.
Mara remained at the inside of the massive doors as she always did, half-listening to the constant security chatter on the earbud. Stood to a loose attention, she fulfilled every concept of her public role as bodyguard, silent and discrete and oozing consummate aptitude.
A polite knock signaled the next audience and the tall doors slid aside to admit Lieutenant Bareskig, the morning's adjutant, with the next petitioner.
"Excellency, may I present Beladon D'Arca, head of the Royal House D'Arca, Planetary Governor of Borleias, Teyr, Govan and Sigmi."
Unseen by the man as he entered, Mara narrowed her green eyes to slits, suspicion and dislike written all over her face. Luke glanced at her momentarily and couldn't help but let out a grin which he wrestled into a dignified smile as he turned to D'Arca.
"Excellency," Beladon oozed, stepping forward to make a perfect official bow, never too ingratiating, never too insolent, and always for the exact time required. "It's always an honor."
Luke nodded. "Beladon. What brings you to my office?"
"If I may, Excellency, I'd like to request a private audience."
Guiti, who had been witnessing and recording the day's meetings from an inconspicuous corner, glanced up to Luke, who leaned back in the conforming chair behind his expansive desk.
Curiosity peaked, Mara looked to Luke for a reaction, noting his expression change, tone mildly reproving. "Perhaps this should have been an unofficial audience, Beladon."
"Forgive me, Excellency," D'Arca said with no hint of apology. "I considered it both a…personal and a political situation, though I would appreciate your indulgence in conducting it privately."
Luke narrowed his eyes, but nodded once in assent without turning. Guiti rose and, with a polite bow, made his exit. Mara stayed long seconds, uncertain, but when Luke glanced to her, expression unreadable, she too made a short bow and left, the heavy doors sliding silently closed behind her, leaving her with an undefined sense of impending trouble.
In the wide corridor outside, Clem raised an eyebrow. "What's going on?"
Mara struggled against the temptation to turn around and press her ear to the closed door. "D'Arca thinks he's entitled to private chit-chats now," she scorned, frustrated that Luke had allowed it but knowing he wouldn't have done so lightly.
Still, she'd give a month's pay to be on the other side of those doors right now.
As the door closed in silence, leaving only himself and D'Arca in the room, Luke rose and walked over to the bank of windows which overlooked the front elevation of the Palace to gaze out in silence down the long open avenue which ran in a perfectly straight line to the perimeter of the Palace grounds in the far distance, manicured lawns and intricately paved walkways laid with mathematical precision. His eye was inexorably drawn to the Oval, the grand, alabaster and glass hall nestled in its own gardens to the outer edge of the Palace grounds, used only for the most formal events of State.
He stood in silence and waited for D'Arca to make his move, as he knew the man would; accustomed to holding Palpatine's favor, he'd never been lacking in confidence. Just how much so had become apparent on the old Emperor's death. Within hours, D'Arca was working hard to secure an audience with Luke, though of course none were offered for anyone before his investiture, no matter what. Still, despite this refusal, D'Arca had gone to great lengths to publicly proclaim his loyalty to the new Emperor and to ensure that other Royal Houses did likewise.
In any event he was offered an audience just five days after the public accession ceremony, which still made him one of the very first to secure a private audience with the new Emperor. When he finally came face to face, what he had to say had been unexpected to say the very least.
Luke had watched the older man walk nervously into the ostentatious grandeur of the substantial Presence Chamber in his apartments, its tall, barreled ceiling returning the soft glow from inlaid goldwork onto pale turquoise walls, six huge elaborate rock-crystal chandeliers reflecting and refracting the daylight, each one easily twice a man's height, hanging in precarious splendor from a ceiling perhaps five times the elevation of a normal room, only the vast and never once utilized ballroom to the west wing of Luke's sprawling apartments equaling it. This mass of dazzling refractions reflected down onto substantial gold and turquoise matched furnishings built specifically for the room, though they remained dwarfed by the grand proportions despite their bulk and quantity. It was a room built to impress, and even Luke's location when his visitors arrived—three quarters of the way down the chamber so that the petitioner had to make a long, self-conscious walk to be even within earshot of their new Emperor—had been considered and planned in advance.
The imposing room had been chosen very carefully by Reece for the first round of personal audiences, granted only to the most influential of petitioners on a strictly controlled schedule. At that point, just five days into Luke's reign, the most important aspects being presented to others were the unassailable position and the assured continuity which the new Emperor embodied—and every effort was put into relating that to the elite in a manner they could understand.
Luke had already spent two days in full State Dress nodding at the apparently endless array of Royals, Planetary Representatives, political cognizanti and military elite who were paraded before him to bow and personally pledge loyalty and allegiance following his accession. After the first hundred or so he recognized practically nobody and by mid-afternoon on the first day, despite adamantly stating that he would not sit on anything resembling a throne, Luke's undisclosed injuries meant that a heavy carved chair was brought in. By day two, he'd perfected the vague head-tilt-and-nod which accompanied any break in the monotonous drone of the Master of Ceremonies, indicating that he'd just finished rattling off yet another individual's name, formal title and rank. All so that those attending could claim to have been presented to the new Emperor and to have met him in person.
Now, on day five of his rule and without once yet having spoken to his Cabinet, Luke needed to make more personal acknowledgments and reassure allies old and new.
Which was where D'Arca came in.
In his late sixties and with a lifetime of experience in politics, both under the Old Republic and the Empire's rule, D'Arca had been one of the very early supporters of Palpatine. At the time, his family had been a minor but longstanding Royal House holding deeds of precedence in the Corporate Sector, but their timely support, both monetarily and politically, of the fledgling Empire had earned them massive status. Continued collaboration had parlayed that into control of three planets in the Core Systems and two more in the Corporate Sector, and two decades of significant marriages and carefully managed military careers had gained them power across the political field—something D'Arca was clearly intent on fostering with the new Emperor, it seemed.
Yet he seemed nervous now, despite his open support… Too nervous, as he walked the long stretch across the room towards Luke. Why was he so nervous? Because you're Emperor now.
Somehow, despite everything that had happened in the last several days, that notion still eluded Luke. He very much suspected that he was still in some kind of denial because of the sheer absurdity of it.
D'Arca, however, seemed to be coming to terms with the change with surprising ease. "May I offer you my most sincere congratulations on your accession, Excellency."
Luke eyed the man with cool reserve; they'd spoken only a few times in the past; he actually somehow seemed to have spoken far more to the man's daughter, whose name escaped him, than to D'Arca himself despite his obvious attempts at familiarity. He'd always seemed altogether too eager to please for Luke's liking. "Thank you, D'Arca."
"Please, Excellency, I'd be honored if you continued to call me Beladon." The man bowed slightly so didn't notice Luke's raised eyebrow; to his knowledge, he'd never once referred to D'Arca by his given name.
"As you wish."
"I came to confirm my continued unconditional support, Excellency, on behalf of myself and the House of D'Arca in any and all its manifestations—though I'm sure you knew you commanded such. The D'Arcas have always enjoyed a close relationship with the Emperor."
Luke stifled a smile, feeling rather like he was watching a lapdog climbing into its master's chair the moment he left the room. "Even when the Emperor has changed?"
"Ah, but we already have a far-reaching accord between our Houses, Excellency… I trust that remains intact?"
Luke frowned at that, aware that they were finally getting to the reason for D'Arca's visit. "And that would be?"
D'Arca's show of confusion was half for show but half-genuine, Luke sensed. "Forgive me, Excellency… I trust you were aware of the accord which had been agreed between the House D'Arca and the Emp…the late Emperor on your behalf?
Now that was an act; D'Arca knew damn well that whatever had been agreed between himself and Palpatine, Luke had not been privy to it, though clearly he was somehow integral—which made Luke all the less willing to play these games. "Palpatine is dead. Any agreement or accord you made with him died with him," Luke stated unconditionally.
Again D'Arca paused with a wary bow of his head, clearly searching for the right words. "As you say Excellency, however…the accord was made by Palpatine with only your advantage in mind, Sir, and…"
"Palpatine did very little for my advantage, D'Arca, and if it were so very much to my favor I doubt that he would have had a reason for keeping this…supposed accord from me."
"I believe that perhaps Emperor Palpatine did not wish you to feel unnecessarily pressured, Excellency. He believed that you would come to the same conclusion by your own logic."
"You mean he felt it would be easier to coerce rather than command, is that what you're trying to say?" Luke challenged, never one for prevaricating. "And what was he trying so hard to maneuver into being this time?"
D'Arca hesitated, clearly uncomfortable with such directness but, political chameleon that he was, he braced, clearly intending to let his own behavior be shaped by the new Emperor's. "The Emperor felt it would be in your best interest for him to arrange an accord between yourself and the Royal House of D'Arca. This I thought you knew, Sir."
Which the man had already said several times, Luke reflected. It was the specifics which were worrying D'Arca—it was they which he constantly skirted round. "What kind of accord?"
"He sought, I believe, to more closely tie your own future to the House D'Arca. He believed such would underpin your political stability—that we would lend our considerable influence to your hand."
Luke raised an eyebrow. "Which is already your duty as loyal citizens."
"Of course, Excellency; we would always do all that we could to aid the Emperor. However…the late Emperor, in his wisdom, felt that a more public statement of solidarity would give you the sound political and patrician foundations to command the Royal Houses."
"Are you telling me that the Royal Houses are disloyal?" It was doutless the case; the Royal Houses were long-standing and entrenched and dissent was inevitable to some degree, as it always had been, even in Palpatine's reign. The Empire had existed for a quarter of a century—some of the Royal Houses could trace their bloodlines and their heritage back thousands of years. And whilst Luke was reasonably confident that none would openly challenge his actions as Emperor, he was also well aware that they could so very easily make his life—and more importantly his plans—difficult.
"No, no, Excellency, there is no open dissent, I assure you. But the D'Arca family has many connections and generations of familiarity and expertise in this field, and would be honored to be allowed to commit all that experience to you in your new position."
He was doing the big sell, Luke knew; he really wanted this supposed accord to come off… Which left Luke wondering what exactly the D'Arcas got out of the deal. In an effort to stop all this procrastination and get him to the point, Luke threw the man a bone.
"Your loyalty is already appreciated. Don't believe that I didn't value the support you have already provided. To continue such an…accord would, of course, be beneficial. However…" He let loose what he hoped was an encouraging smile though from the look on D'Arca's face the man clearly felt he was looking into the eyes of a wolf. "I am unclear as to what exactly the House D'Arca gains from such an…accord. Aside from my gratitude, of course."
"Which is sufficient in itself, Excellency," the man ingratiated. "Though the accord agreed with Emperor Palpatine on your behalf was for a more…formal acknowledgement which would be visible and recognizable to all. A more binding one."
Finally! "Go on?"
Beladon hesitated only a moment this time. "He felt…that the best way to cement the accord would be a marriage between yourself and the heir to the House D'Arca."
And there, right there, a myriad of tiny details fell into place for Luke—
The order from Palpatine, seeming so pointless at the time, to accompany him to the seldom-used Winter Palace a year ago.
The coincidental absence of Mara at the time, sent on a mission for the Emperor. The attendance of Beladon D'Arca's daughter Kiria at the Winter Palace retreat.
The invitation from Beladon, extended for the first time there but several times since, that Luke should always feel free to avail himself of the hunting lodges or stately homes in any of his family's private estates on various planets. The curious insistence that this was, of course, an open invitation at any time to any of the D'Arca's many properties. His eagerness to speak to Luke—to be seen to do so—in Court.
Luke having been commanded to both speak with and lead the first dance with Kiria D'Arca in the last ball he had been ordered to attend whilst Palpatine was still Emperor…and finally, Beladon D'Arca's willingness to back Luke so actively when he came to power.
Beladon was putting forward a good act now of being surprised that Luke didn't already know, but the truth was he'd tripped himself up in this conversation already. When he first came in he was clearly nervous, aware of the fact that he was going to have to tell the new Emperor of significant plans made on his behalf without his knowledge or consent, and try to salvage what he could now that Palpatine, the only one capable of enforcing them, was gone.
Luke's automatic reaction was the urge to laugh in D'Arca's face; to dismiss this out of hand simply on principle. He took a sharp breath in to do so…
But something held him to silence at the last second, some rational voice at the back of his mind evaluating the advantages on offer. Was it cold logic—or was it the whisper of the Force?
The truth was it offered him a great deal; D'Arca had already helped stabilize his sovereignty in rushed, unforeseen circumstances. He didn't like the man, not one bit, but even the small changes Luke had enacted in the existing constitution had caused massive shockwaves throughout the ruling elite, and they were a fraction of his eventual intent. If he wanted to stabilize his reign and still push his plans forward then he was going to need some heavyweight political backing in an arena where his experience was limited. A man of D'Arca's power and connections would be a useful ally and an invaluable teacher, it couldn't be denied—and what better way to ensure D'Arca's complete commitment than to tie his own family's fate into Luke's?
And at this point, Luke knew he'd rather have D'Arca as an ally than an adversary destabilizing the already rocky arena—and if he did turn out to be a problem…well then, didn't Luke's old Master always say to keep his enemies close?
Or was this how it always began, Luke reflected; deals made, compromises reached.
Palpatine didn't give a damn about Luke but he would have wanted to maintain the stability of his precious Empire—his Sith dynasty—when he was gone. Even though he didn't know at the time just how imminent that was, the deal which he'd struck with D'Arca would presumably have been for just that: to stabilize during the period of flux.
Luke could almost hear his old Master's arguments, could hear exactly the terms Palpatine would have quoted to his advocate; that what Luke did within the privacy of the marriage and whether he bothered to maintain either the accord or the marriage when his power base was secured, Palpatine didn't care. What was important was that it was there when it was needed, until Luke had established his reign.
And he was right; D'Arca could provide access to a pre-existing hierarchy in which Luke presently had little sway, a foundation to work and learn from, political experience and far-reaching connections which no one in Luke's present entourage could provide. He didn't trust the man, but as long as it was in both their interests it could be a useful tool, and that was what the marriage provided—it guaranteed D'Arca's obligation. Palpatine would have seen it as exactly that and no more—and he would have expected the same of his advocate.
Luke realized he was still staring at D'Arca, who was watching attentively, his face and sense a mixture of hope, desperation and desire. He took a breath in again, and when he spoke his voice was impassive and reserved…but it was all that D'Arca needed to hear:
"Tell me the details."
That meeting had been almost a year ago and although Luke had said that he would deliberate, he knew he had come to the end of what could be reasonably considered such a period and D'Arca was here today looking for answers.
And to be fair, although he'd had no guarantees in that whole time, D'Arca had diligently maintained his support of the new Emperor.
Luke had used the time to take the 'accord' particulars away and discuss them privately with Nathan and Reece. Nathan, ever the romantic, had deplored the whole notion but Reece, always the realist, had seen the same advantages that Luke had. When it became clear that Luke was seriously considering this, Nathan had been as pragmatic as ever, offering unconditional support and a critical eye.
Luke wasn't stupid enough to believe that the details D'Arca provided would have been the details that he'd agreed with Palpatine; the crafty politician was definitely shrewd enough and bold enough to have shifted the deal in his favor by the time Luke found out what was actually going on—that was part of what made him so valuable—but if D'Arca wanted this deal then it would be on Luke's terms and not his, though he'd probably expected that.
Strangely it was only in his discussions with Nathan that Luke had realized that there was a third person in this contract, and he hadn't yet heard a single word of her opinion. Kiria D'Arca would have her life irrevocably changed by the…accord—Luke could neither think nor name it as anything more yet—and he needed to know what she felt. He needed to speak to her face to face. Because this would never be more than a political marriage—a formal arrangement to the benefit of two parties which may be annulled at any time—and he had to be sure that she understood that; he needed her to go into this with her eyes open.
Nathan had claimed Luke's concern was an attempt to assuage his own guilt, and perhaps it was, but no matter what the benefits, Luke found he couldn't step past this obstacle if Kiria D'Arca was unwilling or unsure. He was used to living empty shams and public charades if they achieved his goals. The question was, could she?
With one year passed and this delicate contract no further towards fruition, Beladon D'Arca now walked slowly to join his Emperor at the bank of tall windows, careful to remain a respectful distance away as he looked out into the fresh spring morning. A year into his reign, the new Emperor had been nothing if not unpredictable, and Beladon had learned early—almost as early as he'd realized that the prudent path was to disconnect himself from the previously powerful Court as quickly as possible—that to push or pressure the man was never advisable.
"They have forecast a warm summer this year, Excellency." Beladon paused just slightly. "I have always liked the height of summer. It makes every event feel exceptional."
As usual, the Emperor didn't particularly appreciate his polite subtext. "Like a wedding, perhaps?"
Beladon lowered his head just slightly. "At your Excellency's discretion, of course."
The Emperor remained still, and Beladon risked a sideways glance. Save for the scars, both deep and superficial, his face still had the enviable, unlined luminosity of youth, making it difficult to assign all the disquieting rumors which whistled about in hushed whispers, to the slight, reclusive young man. But there was something about him, something in his eyes and the abrupt, smooth strength of his movements which gave him an undeniable edge and made even Beladon nervous. Palpatine had at least been predictable; the man standing beside him now was famously mercurial, spinning from emotionless detachment to intense outbursts in the blink of an eye.
In the years since Beladon had first seen the Emperor's protégé in Court, he had changed so completely as to be almost unrecognizable. The youth who had stood with such patently uneasy disquiet behind the Emperor's throne had become a leader of men, emanating an effortless, confident power which broached no dissent, with glacial eyes which could reduce even veteran Courtiers to abject silence in moments.
Which didn't discourage Beladon. He'd put two decades of faithful duty in at the old Emperor's side and now the opportunity to advance that position—to consolidate it—was so close he could taste it. The final reward for years of diligent service. He'd so nearly lost it all—had watched it fall away from his grasp with the announcement of Palpatine's death a year ago. It had been Kiria who had pursued it, unwilling to let the task she'd begun at the Winter Palace and continued at every opportunity in Court falter, strong enough and bright enough to cut her own path forward.
Beladon would have continued as the Emperor had already ordained, slowly trying to ease his beautiful, talented daughter into the new Emperor's life and hoping for the best. It was Kiria, claiming to know her quarry, who had suggested a more direct approach. And though he'd had his doubts, having spoken to the new Emperor and remaining as close as was possible since his accession, in retrospect Beladon knew his daughter was right. The new Emperor, unlike his predecessor, appreciated directness and responded to it favorably. As Kiria had predicted, he had taken his time and considered the advantages logically, no immediate, indignant outbursts or unconsidered refusals despite his obvious upper hand. She had, as ever, done her homework and learned her subject.
Still, it was a gamble, such directness, and all that Beladon could hope now was that the risk paid off. The Emperor tilted his head slightly without looking to Beladon, clearly at pains to underline that this was not yet an acceptance of anything. "I will speak to Kiria D'Arca in my apartments tonight, at seven."
At that he abruptly turned and walked to his desk, the audience clearly over as far as he was concerned.
Delighted, Beladon bowed low and backstepped, making a hasty exit from the room lest the unpredictable Emperor change his mind.
Luke sat rubbing his temples, watching Mara return as D'Arca made his exit with yet another deep bow to the Emperor, Mara affording him the smallest of unenthusiastic nods as they passed, making the long plait of her red hair drop forward over her shoulder as she raised one arched eyebrow at Luke curiously from her position by the door.
Mara—the only complication, as she always had been, one way or another.
She was both his steadfast strength and his greatest weakness. But then hadn't his old Master always warned him that she would be the latter? Though anything which Palpatine said had to be treated with caution; he had a habit of making sure that his own prophesies came true. The wily old Sith had placed her there to be a weakness, Luke knew; something to blame, when in fact Luke's fate was all his own making, the weaknesses his own. His compassion, his isolation, his need. His search for some kind of kinship with his father, knowing the risks. His desire for a closeness with Mara, despite Palpatine's warning.
And now once again she was a complication, a reason for him to hesitate when he felt such guilt at what he was about to do to her in the name of necessity. Because everything which the D'Arcas were offering, he needed.
He could, of course, bide his time and gain wider support over several years, in which the present status-quo would continue, the mindset of both Imperials and Rebels would polarize further, the death-toll would mount and Luke would eventually be forced to destroy the Rebellion, and in doing so, the opportunity they presented.
If he was to follow his own goals, it needed to be now; once he had lost the initiative, it was gone forever. He hadn't been lying to Leia when he'd said that this was a defining moment: a chance that would never come again. And one way or another, whether it was by working with Leia or against her, he would take it.
And if he did, to have the D'Arcas wide-ranging influence throughout the other Royal Houses, in the Core Systems and beyond, at his disposal would be an unexpected windfall—one which may possibly offset the unexpected necessity for Luke to take power this soon. He'd already taken the time to lay foundations with the military which would ensure their backing—as much as possible—but had been robbed of the time necessary to lay foundations within the more entrenched Royal Houses. Of course, Luke didn't truly need the political minefield that was the Royal Houses any more than he needed the Rebellion. He was well aware that he could use the military to push any change through; despite the occasional dissenting Moff, he still had their unwavering support… But that was rather missing the point.
Still, the very reason why he wanted to use the Royal Houses—their power at a planetary level in terms of independent leadership—meant that they were a force to be reckoned with in political terms, if Luke chose not to simply ride rough-shod over them as his old Master always had. Luke wanted their dissent; their willingness to question and challenge as they always had—just not right now.
And D'Arca's deal offered a short-cut to control them, with guaranteed support. Because if they were tied to him, it would be as much in the interest of the D'Arcas to maintain stability as it would be in his. They were offering a contract which would lock in their support for years to come, whether they agreed with his plans or not.
All he had to do was marry Kiria D'Arca. If he did that, he would have them, and through them, acceptance into, and support from, the insular, elitist Royal Houses.
And all he had to do was marry Kiria D'Arca. She was beautiful, clever, witty…it was hardly an onerous task. He didn't know her that well, but what little time he'd spent in her company he had been comfortable enough, and she genuinely seemed to enjoy his. And even that didn't matter; this was a pact, nothing more. Their obligations to each other consisted of turning up on the day…
So why was this so hard? It was a contract, made binding by a legal commitment. Legal, not physical, not spiritual. And when he met her tonight, he would ensure that D'Arca realized that too; she struck him as an intelligent woman, not given to bouts of romantic delusion.
Luke sighed, leaning forward to rub at the bridge of his nose; so why, every time he closed his eyes, finally sure it was the right thing to do, did he see sharp, forest-green eyes and a blaze of red-gold hair? Because there it was again: his ultimate weakness. She could have been a strength—should have been a strength—but when he'd finally given her his trust, she'd betrayed him. Within hours she'd told the Emperor everything, knowing there would be dire consequences. He couldn't trust her. That was the fact; he couldn't trust her. Everything else was irrelevant; every other feeling, every other desire. She'd cost him everything—and he couldn't bring himself to give her that chance again.
"Trust is a weakness," Palpatine had scolded again and again; had laid bare the weakness and the painful cost of such intolerable failings. Even today, with his old Master long gone, Luke still tried to scourge himself of such flaws… Or were they flaws at all? Were they simply humanity? A way for Palpatine to manipulate him by asking the impossible?
Always with Palpatine it had been games within games, giving Luke what he needed then showing him the error of his need, making him push it away. Trying to convince him that the flaws were of his own making, that it was all his own fault.
But some things had been… It was his weakness that had caused the death of his father; it was after all he who had allowed his father in, seeking some bond. He who had allowed Mara close because he thought he could trust her. It was his weakness which had caused his father's death. His weakness that had set all of this in motion.
And now, knowing that, was he doubling that fault in allowing Mara to stay—allowing himself that weakness still?
Surely then, this arrangement was better. No emotional commitment needed; a simple business proposition. No emotion, no liability, no weakness. Only the facts; the stability he required which they would provide—the kudos and status he offered them in return. There had been no shortage of other offers; pretty much anyone with a daughter of marriageable age had taken the slightest opportunity to present them to the new Emperor in knowing, hopeful tones. But this was by far the best deal on the table and if nothing else, it would cease the endless gossip.
And cut Mara out of his life. Achieve by default the one thing which Luke knew he could not do himself.
Because despite everything, some part of him still wanted to go to her now and gather her up in his arms and tell her that he…that he still wanted, that he still needed. Take her hand and run. Just run until they reached the end of the galaxy.
But he'd made that offer once, on the eve of his accession to Emperor: "Come with me—we'll leave now, tonight."
The offer to leave all this behind and live normal lives, be normal people. Grow old and care for each other and…what? He didn't even know; didn't even remember what normal people did anymore. It didn't matter; she'd wanted him to stay. Be Emperor. Rule, as Palpatine had. She'd wanted the man she'd spent her whole life revering and serving. She'd wanted Luke as well, he knew that, but she'd wanted more. Neither was ever enough—she wanted both.
So he'd stayed. Not completely because of her, he'd be lying if he claimed that. But if she'd said yes in that moment, if she'd said to start the engines of the scoutship and just fly out of there without ever looking back, he would have done so as the words left her mouth, without hesitation. But she hadn't.
So he'd stayed.…
And every single day since, he'd struggled to balance on the knife-edge between Light and Darkness. But then it was an old skill even then, to hold himself together, smooth the cracks by force of will, set his eye on the goal and just power ahead as he'd always been able to do. Nothing was healed, nothing was dealt with. The cracks were still there beneath the façade, fractures too deep to repair. Old wounds, inflicted long ago in agonizing, slow slivers, increment by grating, ripping increment. And somehow, somewhere along the way, just to endure one more day, he'd become completely disassociated from the pilot who'd been dragged down to the cells below the Palace.
Somehow….he'd left Luke Skywalker in that cell. Had to, simply to survive. Had become a completely different person—even he saw that. The Emperor's Wolf; his advocate. Powerful and potent, imposing and respected—but just as trapped and as isolated here as the Rebel pilot had ever been. And over the years those disparate personalities had become more and more polarized, he knew that—could see it himself though he was powerless to stop it. Tormented and tortured, he'd had everything that he was ripped from him, and in a final effort to hold on to some semblance of sanity he'd relinquished it. But it hadn't relinquished him.
The naïve pilot who'd been dragged down to the cells below the Palace still occasionally whispered…and some part of him still couldn't help but listen. Much as it tore him apart to do so.
He remembered vividly the moment when everything changed. When he'd faced Palpatine, knowing the black-hearted Sith had murdered his father with neither pity nor remorse. Remembered the moment, the instant that he known he would give anything, pay any price to bring his father's murderer down.
And he'd known what that price was. The decision he'd made wasn't blind.
When he had dueled Vader five years earlier, Luke hadn't truly given in to the Dark Side; he had, in that final moment, been unable to kill his father—had stepped back. Yes, he'd come close, but he'd stepped back from the precipice. And spent the next five years torn between Darkness and conscience, Palpatine goading and guiding him on.
Until he'd turned on his Master… And this time—this time he'd truly wanted it. So much that he was prepared to give anything for it…
So he'd finally embraced—truly embraced, without reservation or coercion—the Dark Side. Because it had offered him the chance to achieve all that he desired: Palpatine's destruction. His thoughts hadn't for one moment moved beyond that single, driving goal. No ulterior motive, no long-term plan; quite the opposite in fact. In that moment, he'd been willing to sell everything—his own future and the Empire's. In that bleak moment, he'd been willing to sell them all just to hurt Palpatine. To stop the man who had so pitilessly destroyed his father's life and his own. For that, in that moment, he would have gladly paid any price—
And he had. The most costly price of all.
He paid it anew every single day, in his steely determination to fulfill the vow he'd made to the bitter, rancorous old man who had so pitilessly ripped his life apart. He paid it knowingly. Willingly.
So somewhere inside, every day since, he had to wonder:
Had Palpatine won anyway?
It hadn't gone well. But then, for the Commander-in-Chief of the Rebel Alliance to admit that she'd gone out on a mission that she'd conveniently forgotten to mention to her own Chiefs of Staff was never really going to go down that well, Leia knew.
And really, that was the high point. It pretty much went downhill from there. And when it wasn't going downhill, Madine and his supporters were putting their all into re-aiming it that way.
"What is their problem?" Han grumbled, as he and Leia finally split off from the others at the end of the excruciating meeting, headed to a quieter side-corridor onboard Home One.
Leia shrugged, trying hard to remain indifferent. "They had a point."
"Yeah? Well I must've missed it in between all of Madine's posturing."
Leia had to smile. "He was on-form today. But then I guess I gave him something to aim at."
Han considerately didn't mention that she could've given them a whole lot more.
She hadn't told them, of course. She hadn't even told Han for a full day, and when she did tell him, he'd seemed disturbed by his own ambivalence in those first few seconds, surprisingly uncomfortable with the thought that Luke had now turned his attention to Leia.
"Are you gonna tell them?" he asked at last.
Leia pursed her lips, fine frown lines wrinkling her brow. "When I'm ready—when the time's right."
"There's a right time for that?"
"There's a wrong time," Leia countered. "And that's now." It had been…surprisingly easy to withhold that vital fact. Perhaps because she didn't want to have to deal with all the conflicts and contradictions it embodied right now. Probably because she didn't want to face another round with Madine, Leia reflected wryly.
Or maybe she didn't want to be told she couldn't go back… Leia frowned at that; was it true?
No… no, the one person she had discussed it with was Tag Massa, her Intel chief. And Tag, Leia had known before she'd told her, wouldn't want her to go back. In fact she'd turned on Han, unable to believe he'd let Leia go in the first place. It had taken long minutes to calm her down, but little to persuade her to hold her silence on this; Tag had always looked after Leia's interests, she knew; always looked out for her.
"When you tell Madine, can I be there to see if his head explodes?" Han asked glibly. "I'm figuring it's either that or he'll actually try to get his own Commander-in-Chief arrested for treason… Then he'll try to blame it on me somehow; he generally tries to make pretty much anything else that gets thrown around here stick to me."
"He's just embracing the democratic process," Leia said dryly of the ex-Imperial Commander. "Anyway, I thought he was your new best buddy?"
Madine had made several approaches to Han in the last few months, Leia knew, ostensibly overtures to friendship in which he'd made all the right noises. Still, Han was wary, and if there was one thing Han Solo had, it was a honed sense of survival; if he thought Madine was up to something, then Leia believed him. What it was, she didn't know. Han had run through everything Madine had spoken about, but it was all vague; general talk well within safe bounds. The past mostly—old missions, old successes and failures, Mon Mothma and the impact of her loss, Han and Leia's capture by the Empire at Bespin. Nothing specific.
"Yeah, we're regular pals now," Han dismissed dryly. "In fact, he's put in a request for Blue Wing to accompany the mission on his little jaunt out to Fondor."
"The shipyards." Leia winced. She'd sanctioned the planned attack months earlier and now felt some stab of guilt after her meeting with Luke. She blinked quickly, shaking her head in annoyance; with the Emperor. "Well we can't stop it now."
"Are you sayin' you would have?" Han asked, tone deceptively light.
"Yes. No…" Leia shook her head again. "I just don't know. How can I believe him—how can I believe anything he says?"
"You tell me," Han said. "Then tell him and see what he does. You might be surprised."
"I can't go back, not yet… If I do, I need to let Fondor blow over first."
"I think the kid's past taking stuff like that personally," Han assured. "If he did, he wouldn't have spoken to you in the first place."
"Unless his offer isn't genuine."
"If his offer wasn't genuine why do it at all? Why not just shoot us out of orbit when we arrived, or arrest you on the station?"
"I don't know. I don't know what he gains, but it must be something."
"You know, you trust him more than you think."
Leia frowned. "Why do you say that?"
"If you didn't, you would have told 'em in that Council meeting exactly who you met on Devaron. But you wanted to give him a chance—the chance he wouldn't have had with Madine and you know it."
"Madine's a soldier," Leia said impassively. "He thinks the only way to stop this is by force."
Han glanced to her, surprised at her words. "You don't think he's right? Because you should tell me now before I go squeeze my ass back into that A-Wing cockpit for another ten-hour shift."
Leia ignored his sarcastic tone; he wouldn't be Han without it. "I think that would have been the only way to stop Palpatine; it's all he understood. Luke…I don't know. I guess I thought…hoped…" She shrugged again, that strange, surreal meeting foremost in her thoughts. "I just don't know."
Was it real? Was anything he'd said real? Han wanted to believe because he and Luke had a history, but Massa…despite her official line, Leia had a feeling that privately, Massa felt pretty much the same—and there was no connection there, no history. "But it's pretty much academic now, all things considered."
"Well then, why is he talking to you?"
Leia sighed, feeling this conversation, as well as her every thought on Luke, was going round and round in circles. The Emperor, damn it! Not Luke, the Emperor!
Han glanced to her. "You okay?"
" 'Cos you were muttering to yourself just then."
"I'm fine," Leia repeated. "But thanks for pointing that out."
They walked on in silence for a few steps before Han spoke again.
"You were dreaming again last night."
Leia faltered just slightly, the recurring image of the wolf coming vividly to mind, though until Han had just spoken, she'd completely forgotten. She'd had the dreams since Alderaan, in endless permutations. The only constant remained the wolf, its sleek black fur catching the moonlight, one moment there, the next lost in her shadow, circling Leia so closely that she heard its breath, heard its claws on the stone beneath her feet. Always there, in her shadow…
"It was the wolf," Leia admitted. "I dreamed of the wolf."
Leia shook her head, the dream at once intensely real and yet as vague and shifting as firesmoke. "I tried… I tried to reach out to it again."
Knowing how much it disturbed her and how long it had been with her, and searching for a way to break the dreams, Han had pointed out that in all the dreams Leia had ever had, she'd never once reached out to touch the wolf. In almost a decade of dreams, it had never once attacked her, and she had never once tried to reach out to it, as if some uneasy standoff was maintained. It had wreaked havoc and chaos and fear and fury around her, but in every single dream she'd remained unharmed. Maybe it was time to break the status-quo, he'd said. It had never once attacked her…
"Did you do it?" Han asked quietly.
Leia nodded, wrapping her arms about herself. "When I reached out to it…it just sat on its haunches in front of me and waited…"
The courage, the resolve it had taken for Leia to reach out to the wolf had been months in the making. So many times she'd reached out then been unable to touch that living shadow. And when she did it, when she finally reached out to rest the tips of trembling fingers against its neck, its fur was thick and dense, warm close to its heated skin, and she'd gathered it between her fingers as they ran through it, smooth against her palm…
And something amazing had happened.
"It turned into a man, knelt with one knee on the floor."
Leia shook her head in frustration, as lost with this as Han was. "It…he was wearing a heavy black cloak with a…a wolf-skin cowl, and it was completely dark beneath it, like the sky in the dead of night. I couldn't see his face. I kept…I kept trying to kneel; trying to kneel down and reach out to touch his face…But I couldn't quite bring myself to do it. I couldn't bring myself to reach beneath that fur cowl."
She shivered involuntarily, her whole body trembling for a second, and Han doffed his jacket to wrap it about her shoulders, using the action to pull her to him in the momentarily quiet of the corridor. "Here. I've heard it's what all the best-dressed royalty are wearing this season."
Leia smiled, pulled from her reverie by his unexpected chivalry. "Very retro."
"I like to call it a classic," he said, grinning. "Well-loved."
"By loved, you mean dragged across the floor, walked on, torn, worn and tattered."
"Hey, that baby's in her prime—just like me."
Leia nodded, dryly teasing. "Just like you."
"I gotta go. I'm always late for briefings and I'm the one who's supposed to be giving 'em. You gonna be okay?"
She nodded, reassured, and Han backstepped down the corridor towards the main hangar, pointing to his jacket, "Hey, don't get too attached to that high-end style statement—I'm gonna want it back."
Leia tilted her head. "Believe me, flyboy, you can have it."
Walking back toward the CommandCenter, Leia slipped her arms into Han's battered old jacket, the weight and the feel of it comforting, its size completely engulfing her. Smiling, she tucked her hands into the deep pockets and her finger caught against something, nail embedding into the sticky surface. Pulling a face, Leia dragged her hand out and shook it until the old piece of unwrapped, lint-covered candy came free, a fine roll of it sticking beneath her nails. Typical.
Fumbling through the other pockets, she emptied them of an assortment of wrappers, tech fuses, half a broken memory chip, two ticket stubs, a half-smoked spice stick and indeterminate fluff. Muttering, Leia undid the breast pockets and pulled a piece of torn-edged flimsiplast card out from one, folded in half to fit.
Opening it stopped her dead in the corridor, the shock holding her attention completely, the bustle of people around her fading to nothing. In her hand, creased and battered, its corners worn and the image lost in places, was an old-fashioned, two-D image.
They'd been released in limited numbers on the event of the new Emperor's first year in office, their allocation carefully controlled, presented only to a select group to make sure that they became a sought-after commodity before they were even distributed. How Han had come by one Leia didn't know, but it seemed genuine, the official seal in the lower corner still intact. The image itself, two-dimensional and printed onto foiled flimsiplast with a sepia tone to hint at age and continuity, held Leia's gaze completely, her smile melting away.
It was Luke…
But this wasn't the shy, unassuming farmboy she thought she'd known so well. It wasn't the fledgling pilot who'd launched against the Death Star. It wasn't the seasoned Alliance Wing Commander who'd flown countless missions against a hostile enemy without ever losing his nerve, or the newly commissioned Unit Commander still flying with the Rogues when they'd bugged out of Hoth. It wasn't even the image of the newly declared Emperor that had been issued on the day of his investiture, formal and stilted and ill at ease. That had been a carefully arranged portrait immediately following the ceremony in what Leia knew was the old Throne Room, the new Emperor standing stiffly before inlaid gilded and enameled panels, dressed in a long, richly embroidered cloak lined in pure white garral-fur, the gold-on-black woven train dripping down the steps of the dais beside him. In heavy chains of office and gem-encrusted insignia he'd looked guarded, uncomfortable even, his hands tightly clasped at his sides, his back unnaturally straight, every aspect of the formal image clearly meticulously orchestrated and manipulated to illustrate the epitome of Imperial monarchy.
But this one…this one, released only a year later, was a very different image. Superficially so similar, it nevertheless told a very different story. This time there was no Throne Room, there were no carefully managed connections to the old regime, though the man in the image was absolutely the Emperor.
This time, the man stood casually but confidently on an open balcony, the Capital behind him, the rising sun at his back. He wore a stand-collared dress suit, but the insignia of his station were toned down to a few restrained Order stars worn on the impeccably fitted dress jacket, a single chain of office about his shoulders. The carefully arranged folds of that previous heavy, sumptuously fur-lined cloak were gone too. This time his mantle was simpler: fine, black vinesilk with a smooth white lining. The Imperial Arms were still embroidered on its breast, but the cloak was left to fall where it willed, no careful arrangement here, no fastidious composition or elaborate orchestrations tolerated.
This was very clearly a man who was no longer willing to be dictated to. This was a man comfortable with his position and his power. This was a man who felt he had nothing to prove anymore, with a confidence and a bearing which underscored those facts with quiet, contained, composure. But one thing remained—the Emperor still held a lightsaber in his hand.
Leia reached out to run her finger gently over the worn image, remembering vividly when she had watched in rapt silence as the man she had been so close to was named Emperor... Was it really the same person? Looking at the image now, she could see only the barest resemblance between the easy-going, self-effacing pilot and the stately, compelling man who stared out from the image with such insular intensity. Some part of her doubted, some part of her wished…
Was this the man she knew? The same man who had spent four weeks' pay on a bottle of mead from the destroyed Alderaan and given it to her, just to see her face when he did so? Four weeks pay!
Had it been the incredible, selfless gesture she'd thought at the time…or was it simply that the astronomical price didn't matter, not to him—not to someone who'd grown up in the limitless, opulent affluence of the ImperialPalace?
Was it the selfless gift of a much-missed friend…or was it the cold manipulations of Palpatine's Heir?
Was it benevolent compassion—or nothing at all?
On her way between the staff offices and the library in Luke's privy apartments that evening, Mara frowned, pausing to listen to the earbud comm she wore which was linked into the security channels.
Who had they just said was at the main doors?
She turned about and made her way quickly to the lofty domed cupola which intersected the apartment's main corridors…and sure enough, there she was.
Kiria D'Arca. Being politely shown to the White Drawing Room, judging from her direction. Seeing Mara, Kiria narrowed almond eyes and drew herself up to her full height, which was hardly tall, though she exuded a kind of innate superiority through the act.
Never one to be browbeaten, Mara stopped, head tilting to one side in her best, I've seen it all before stance, and the two women passed with not a single word spoken and yet volumes communicated.
It was only when the petite woman had passed that Mara allowed herself any sign of alarm, turning to watch her glide onwards unperturbed, the short train of her tastefully refined ruby red gown rustling on the marble floors, that river of glossy raven hair falling in smooth perfection down her back.
What the hell was she doing here—in Luke's private apartments no less! Nobody came to Luke's private apartments. Everybody was seen in the Cabinet or the State Rooms.
Mara turned mechanically and walked on, her heart pounding. The ambitious socialite had been linked to Luke many times in the past across the HoloNet, and Mara wouldn't put it past her to have engineered the gossip herself, in the hope of putting some ideas in Luke's head. Certainly D'Arca had made repeated stays at the Palace towards the end of Palpatine's reign. At the time, Luke had teased Mara for her jealousy. It was nothing, he'd always assured her, Palpatine playing his games, most likely. A subject for wry amusement between the secret lovers.
But Kiria's attendance at the Palace had continued…and now Palpatine was long gone, and D'Arca was still here, and it didn't seem so very funny any more.
She shook her head, ordering her racing imagination to quiet. It was probably an innocent meeting. The woman had been a frequent visitor to the Palace in the last two years. Her family even held an apartment here at Luke's indulgence, and her father could, Mara supposed, be considered a member of Luke's extended retinue, lending his political prowess to the new Emperor with surprising zeal. Yes, she could have any number of reasons to visit the Palace… How many guests stayed there at any given time? Dozens, easily.
But here—in Luke's apartments…
A knot of foreboding tightened into Mara's stomach and pushed the air from her lungs. This wasn't good; for Luke to see her here, to allow others to see her here…this wasn't good.
Kiria D'Arca held herself tall as she passed the Jade woman, one of Palpatine's old agents long associated with the Emperor in whispered tones throughout the Palace.
She was well aware that this would be her main opposition; though there was no proof either way it was still occasionally whispered that the new Emperor was having a secret affair with his personal bodyguard—among others. Still, Kiria was inclined to believe this particular rumor, and was hoping that a few carefully phrased questions and some close scrutiny would afford her the facts tonight.
Whatever the truth, Jade was the only other woman close to the Emperor, a member of his inner retinue long before his accession, and so either way she was a force to be reckoned with.
The tall double doors at the end of the long corridor opened onto a vast, coffer-ceiling room, its restrained tones of cool, creamy white with accents of rose gold soothing despite its grand dimensions. But then Kiria was used to living on such a scale, so it was the room's occupant rather than its magnificence which held her eye.
Taking a deep breath and ordering herself to concentrate, she stepped forward and bowed correctly, waiting for the doors to be closed so that they were alone before she stepped forward.
Everything she knew about this man told her that she would have to be on her guard; that he didn't appreciate wordplay or prevarication. Speak the truth. No avoidances and absolutely no lies.
"Excellency; it's a pleasure to meet you again." Uncertain when he said nothing, Kiria glanced about the room. "This is a beautiful chamber—so very light and restful."
Stop it! Stop speaking just to fill the silence! He already knows why you're here, and he knows that you know. Speak the truth; say what's in your head. They say he can tell anyway. "Forgive me—I find I'm rather nervous tonight."
He smiled slightly at that, glancing down, and Kiria relaxed a fraction; he wasn't trying to be awkward then. Perhaps he had as little idea of what to say as she did.
"Yes, uncharted territory does that," he said graciously, and Kiria flashed him her best smile, made exceptional by the fact that she genuinely meant it.
The slightest of frowns shadowed his face, as if he were uncomfortable at that, before he continued in neutral tones. "I presume that your father has discussed with you exactly why you are here."
Again that impassive tone after a brief silence. "I would have said I feel honored, but I understand the choice was not yours, either." No punches pulled there, Kiria reflected.
"However, that doesn't mean to say I can't appreciate the advantages," he continued.
She would have hoped for a double-entendre there but saw no such thing in his eyes, though his next word, spoken with a straight face but a hint of amusement, revealed that he too had seen it. "Politically."
So that was what this was for, this resolute, detached tone and businesslike manner. He wanted it all out in the open, cards on the table. This was a strategic contract for him and nothing more. "Yes, it seems we have a great deal to offer each other…politically," Kiria echoed, hoping to clarify her understanding.
He remained silent and she took the opportunity to glance at him, taking in that tense, kinetic stillness which always emanated from him, that distant air which he wore like a shield. What was underneath?
He was impeccably dressed as ever, in a dark high-collared suit with military boots, the slightest line of a white linen shirt visible at his neck and cuffs. All very formal, as he always was, everything calculated to keep people at a distance.
She'd heard that when practicing lightsaber, as he did almost nightly, in the heat of summer he would occasionally strip off his white athletic shirt and practice in only his fitted trousers, and could occasionally be seen wandering back through the West Tower in the same way, a towel about his shoulders, though Kiria couldn't imagine such a thing of the man she saw before her now. Or perhaps she could; he was strong and straight, wide at the shoulder and slim at his hips, the carefully tailored suits accentuating his athletic form… Yes, she could very well imagine that.
Realizing her thoughts were straying, she ordered her mind back to the moment and glanced back to those coolly calculating eyes, framed by that heavily scarred face, not a hint of emotion visible.
Not a hint of emotion…
She had just taken her time to peruse him from head to toe and if his abilities were true, he had doubtless sensed every sensation that had passed through her at that, but if it roused any reciprocal feelings from the man standing before her, then he hid them very well. She wondered momentarily at others in his entourage with whom a rapport had been claimed in quiet whispers, then dismissed them, staying with her intuition.
Kiria hesitated, then gathered her courage. "Forgive me, Excellency…may I speak candidly?"
His chin rose a fraction. "Of course."
"Sir, I am well aware of the fact that this accord was not of your own suggestion, but I don't believe that renders it invalid as a concept. I appreciate that you are viewing this simply as a political contract and I'm happy to do the same. I expect no more from it, or from you. If that's your concern, then rest assured I understand what's going on. I'm not stupid and I'm not naïve."
He broke into a genuine smile, head tilting slightly in acquiescence, and she realized that somehow, for an instant, she'd gotten through all those shields.
"No, I don't think that for a moment."
It occurred to Kiria that if the Emperor was in a relationship with Jade then it would be because he was attracted to her. He could have anybody—anyone at all. The fact that he'd chosen Jade meant something. Kiria wanted to slap her head for not realizing sooner; Jade was well-known within the Palace for speaking her mind and consequences be damned. She never held back and she never sugar-coated. She was a strong, opinionated woman with a mind of her own and no reluctance to share the views within it. That was what Skywalker favored; that was what he'd chosen with every possible selection on the menu, and that was what he'd just responded to in Kiria herself.
She smiled, altering her stance accordingly, tailoring her actions to his preference with the ease of a practiced socialite. "I appreciate, as I'm sure you do, that as Empress I and my family would hold a vested interest in maintaining the status-quo as it presently stands. I have aspirations—for myself, for my family and for the Empire—and based on your actions to date, I feel they are comparable to your own. I believe that you will do only what you see as genuinely constructive and beneficial to your Empire, and I respect that; I would like to be a part of it. We have matching goals, Excellency, and I will do everything in my power to maintain your ability to reach them. I will be what you need me to be, politically, publicly and privately. We would be a good working partnership, which is, I'm sure, what we both desire of this association."
She paused, momentary hesitance betraying her nervousness despite the confident, self-possessed tone of her voice, the Emperor's expression having changed not a whit, any hint of his true thoughts perfectly concealed.
Luke remained still, aware that something had changed in D'Arca's mental stance. It was an impressive speech, all the more so because he sensed its impromptu nature.
He felt his guilt slowly easing as he got the measure of Kiria D'Arca. He'd been in her company many times, but before now she'd been a distant presence at the edge of his awareness, one of the large group of ambitious individuals who existed at the periphery of the social elite who had long used the Palace as their battle-ground. As such, above Palpatine's direct order, he'd never really bothered to notice her; seldom even spoken to her and never in this way, with so much at stake, all the cards on the table. Now, reaching out and getting a sense of the woman behind her words, he felt himself settling into this situation with far more ease.
To date, Kiria D'Arca had been all manners and front but now, as he began to look beneath, he saw something far more reassuring. Yes, she was manipulative—or trying to be—but she was fighting for something which she clearly very much wanted, and within her words he'd sensed a basic honesty which gave him hope that he may be looking at a possible collaborator, if not necessarily for the reasons she claimed.
If she gained her prize, he was pretty sure that she'd remain committed to doing everything in her considerable ability to maintain Luke's power base and therefore her own, even when he began to make far-reaching changes to the basic principles of Palpatine's Empire. She very clearly wanted to be Empress, aware of the kudos and the power it would afford her family—and herself. And more importantly, she was willing to do whatever it took to gain and to hold onto that title. Including backing Luke in whatever action he saw fit. So in her own way, she wasn't lying when she said they had similar goals; as long as he was Emperor his goals served her ambition, so she would back them unconditionally, whatever they were. It was as simple as that. Which was, he supposed, all that he could hope for in such a business deal.
"That's a very persuasive speech," he said at last into the lingering silence.
"Perhaps because it comes from the heart," Kiria said simply in reply. The heart. "You understand that this will be nothing more than a political contract?"
Kiria paused, then took the chance. "I understand that you may have pre-existing…associations, and I have no desire or claim to change them."
She watched him closely but still his face gave nothing away. Then again she hadn't expected it to; as she searched his eyes, her gaze was drawn once again to the pale, uneven scar to the right side of his face, beginning above his eyebrow and trailing a jagged, broken line down his cheek and through his lips to trail off at his chin, continuing in a deep indent to the side of his throat, the tip of which was just visible above that perfectly tailored collar. He had held the scar as long as she'd known of him, though she'd seen earlier images of him without it. He'd seemed so youthful by comparison, the severity of the scar lending gravitas to a still-young face… Perhaps that was why he kept it. She would…no. She'd been about to conclude that she would ask him one day, but she couldn't ever imagine doing such a thing: getting past enough of those shields to learn the truth.
He glanced aside beneath her study, though she doubted it would be from discomfort; as Heir and now Emperor, he was probably very accustomed to the stares of others. Uncomfortable at his pensive silence, Kiria tried again to pull the Emperor into conversation. "Is there perhaps something you would like to ask me?"
"No. Yes," he said, the one following immediately on the tail of the other. "When we first met in the WinterPalace—did you know of this even then?"
"No, Excellency, I did not," she assured.
"That's not the full answer," he said, no chastisement in his voice but absolutely assured of that fact. Kiria felt herself straighten slightly beneath that perceptive mind, uncomfortably exposed. He held those searching eyes on her, making no apology.
"No one had said such, but I…admit that I accepted the invitation to the WinterPalace with the sole aim of making an impression on you." His expression changed not a whit—and why did that make her more nervous, not less? "In my defense, I thought that you must have requested my presence, otherwise you would not yourself have been present. You had gained your reputation for your military service, rather than your political attendance."
The slightest tilt of his head was all he needed to express his doubt and force a further confession from her. "Perhaps I felt that Emperor Palpatine had some kind of hand in the matter, but since you were there I thought…" Kiria trailed off, freshly uncertain, before finding her center again, angry at herself for her uncharacteristic lack of poise. "May I ask a question?"
He raised his eyebrows, but nodded consent.
"When we spoke at the reception to launch the Patriot, you claimed you did not remember our first meeting at the WinterPalace. You seem to have regained the memory."
"That bothered you?" he asked neutrally, then, before Kiria could answer, he turned away, tone brusque, all business again. "I'm afraid you were caught up in wider schemes. My private and political lives remain inextricably entwined. If you find that unnerving then perhaps this is not the…career for you."
"I find it fascinating—in every facet," Kiria countered, holding his eye.
He stared at her for long seconds, and when he spoke his tone was anything but amused. "I think you fail to realize just how…undesirable a thing I consider it, Lady Kiria. My personal life and my public role are not facets to be merged. It leads so easily to misunderstandings."
It had, in hindsight, been exactly the wrong thing for her to say, Kiria realized. She'd just spent her whole time here reassuring him that she understood the fact that this was a business arrangement, no more, then she'd out and out flirted with him and told him that she saw no difference between his public and personal lives. It was hardly surprising that he'd shot her down and she was now back to square one…worse even, because now he was less sure of her than when she'd come in.
"You're right—I didn't mean to imply otherwise."
He glanced down, looked away, his silence speaking volumes, and Kiria could see her opportunity drifting away by her own hand. Not because he didn't view the arrangement as beneficial, Kiria knew, but because…what? It was any suggestion of a more personal connection that brought those shields up.
Even as Heir, he was well known for being a private man, his close entourage small and select. His accession to Emperor would only have increased the outside pressure from those hoping to curry favor and secure a place in the new regime. Was his discomfort at her attempted familiarity because he personally chose those he allowed close…or was the truth that he allowed no one close?
Or was it simply that the position she was vying for was already at least partially filled?
Aware that this would be her only chance, Kiria steeled her nerves and pressed on, offering her final persuasion. "As you said, Excellency, this would be a practical partnership and nothing more. Whatever private associations that you have are of course your own business, though I would appreciate your Excellency's discretion in this. If I may; this marriage is about public and legal recognition of your spouse—your Empress. Whom you choose as your consort is a private matter."
And there it was: the clause she had privately been unwilling to give on, unless she believed it absolutely necessary. The clause that Palpatine had demanded.
But the new Emperor was notorious for digging his heels in and flouting expectations or outside pressure when he was The Heir, and the longer this matter remained unresolved, the more likely it was to spiral from Kiria's control. Her greatest fear was that he would face pressure from his own advisors—and indeed her father—and if he remained true to his reputation, he may simply elect to nullify all attempts to corner him and secretly wed Jade, thus robbing Kiria of any legal claim to the position of Empress.
He may offer the sham of an official marriage but if he'd already married the Jade woman, then all of Kiria's lawful claims would be questionable. Even if the new Emperor changed the law to accommodate her position, it would remain ambiguous in the eyes of the stubbornly traditionalist Royal Houses. And since it was here that the D'Arcas held their power base, it was here that the particulars of the accord would be tried and scrutinized.
A consort was a consort, nothing more; in such a position, Jade would be dismissed as little more than a dalliance on the part of the Emperor. But if he formalized their union in any way…
It would be an intolerable situation for Kiria to enter into any kind of contract under those circumstances. Her claim to title—and more importantly, that of any children she may bear—would always be in dispute. For Palpatine, the line of heredity had been a non-negotiable stipulation, and not in her favor. But Palpatine was gone, and with him the strict constraints which would have ordained the line of heir apparent. For now, Kiria should be pragmatic; this would do. The particulars could be sorted out and dealt with at leisure once her marriage and her position had been legally ratified. After that, she had literally years to slowly and subtly correct any and all undesired circumstances.
She had been hoping—unreasonably, she realized, the more she spoke to him—that her forthrightness would force the same from him; that he would either confirm or deny his supposed relationship with his bodyguard, and clarify once and for all the ground underfoot. She should have known better; Palpatine had constantly changed the rules in every play he made, and his Heir would be more than familiar with both experiencing it and instigating such things.
As it was, he simply studied her closely for long seconds, mismatched eyes unblinking.
"That's quite a compromise," he said at last, still studying her.
"Most things of true value in life are," Kiria replied—and for some reason that triggered a genuine smile in him, sufficient that he glanced down to hide it. When he looked up again, she sensed an altogether more confident, convinced attitude.
"Compromise is good," he said at last. "Compromise I understand."
"Compromise it is then," Kiria stated firmly, holding his eye.
He nodded once, and for a split second she thought he might give his answer here and now—though even as the thought occurred, she knew better. Instead when he spoke, his brisk tone indicated that the audience was concluding, "Well, this has been…interesting."
She smiled and chanced her nerve. "Yes—uncharted territory often is."
He didn't miss the reference and this time his smile came easier, the genuine, unguarded effect appealing.
"Is there anything else you would like to ask of me, Excellency?" she asked, not wishing to overstay her welcome.
"Yes," he replied without hesitation. "May I call you Kiria?"
Now it was her turn to feel that smile spread slowly across her face. "I would be honored, Excellency."
She bowed politely and backstepped and, turning away, was halfway across the room before the question she anticipated was finally issued.
"Do you still intend to call me Excellency?"
Kiria half-turned, still backstepping away from him with her hands clasped behind her back, the action an outrageous breach of protocol, but a calculated one. "I'm afraid that I wouldn't know what else to call you."
He set his head to one side, amused but not for a moment fooled. "Oh, I'm sure you do your homework better than that."
"I do," she admitted, "but you do yours better. I remain, as everybody does with you I suspect, in the dark."
She had intended the words as a passing comment, a game reply on which to make her exit. Yet they seemed to have the opposite effect, his half-smile melting away as if a shadow had crossed his face and his soul in the same instant.
Kiria walked slowly down the grand, high-ceilinged hallway and beneath the imposing glass cupola at its center, completely lost in thought, considering the meeting. It wasn't often that she was played; she was always the player, the manipulator. She was the schemer, not the target. She was beautiful and smart and witty and desirable; she knew that, and she'd carved a very prestigious place for herself in Palpatine's Empire on those terms. She'd spent her life in this most elite of social spheres and knew every nuance of its customs and traditions, knew the rules to every game here, public and private… But she still couldn't peg that conversation down.
Half interview, half informal chat, it had flipped in quicksilver turns from playing the game to purposely misplaying it to just plain, candid honesty. Like the man himself.
And it had left her bewildered, struggling to keep up with a conversation that was neither one game nor the other, an exercise in both uncovering the truth and stating the way it would be.
She'd gone in there intending to flirt and persuade, and she'd had the rules laid down for her in no uncertain terms. He'd been in turns formal and reserved, then strangely warm. Not quite open—never that—but…accommodating. Amicable. Vulnerable even, once or twice… And fascinating.
Power always was, however it was meted out.
Kiria allowed a private smile to her ruby lips as she lifted her chin; yes…quite fascinating.
Luke stood at the window to his private office, rubbing his fingers across his forehead to ease the tension there. For days he'd had a building headache, like a tone just beyond hearing at the edges of his thoughts.
He turned quickly, aware that there was an expectant silence behind him. "Say that again?"
Talon Karrde frowned, aware that the Emperor's mind was elsewhere but not surprised; based on his own experience of herding little more than a few dozen smugglers, he felt he could safely assume that running an Empire could regularly get the wrong side of untenable. "I said there's a general call out for information regarding a certain SSD Executor."
The Emperor frowned at the Intel regarding Darth Vader's old command. "What about it?"
Karrde noted the Emperor's change in stance, the subtle tensing of his back as he straightened, completely focused again in that mildly unsettling way he had of switching in the space of a single blink.
"Nothing specific that I can define as yet, just plans and schematics," Karrde admitted. "I have feelers out though. I'll let you know as soon as I have more."
"Send me a copy of the details you have," the Emperor said. "Who's put the call out?"
"I don't know… I've tried to trace it back but so far have come up blank. It didn't come through their usual channels, but I think it's the Rebel Alliance."
It was interesting that the Emperor would even ask such a thing, Karrde reflected; that he would invite the opinion of someone like Karrde. Because Karrde was pretty damn sure that it wasn't the kind of thing that someone brought up in these exalted halls would generally do… Which beggared the question, why would he? Or maybe, to turn that on its head, if he did…then where was he brought up?
Karrde shrugged. "Wording, mostly. The way it was distributed; it came in from the Rim, from a few sources at once, so whoever wants it is well-scattered out that way. Plus of course, who else would want it?"
The Emperor hesitated, considering. "Who would want the schematics of an eight-year-old Destroyer anyway?"
"Yes," Karrde said thoughtfully. "Struck me as odd, too. I thought it was perhaps DEMP technology, but I understand they already have it."
"They don't have the shield system yet. Nor the means to direct the charge, we think."
"Which means they can't fire it off," Karrde said, nodding. He'd been curious as to why it hadn't been used by the Rebels. It seemed the perfect guerrilla tool; maximum damage for minimum effort.
"In point of fact they've already used it." The Emperor's admission of this to Karrde was flattering, but he also knew the way that the man thought; if this got out now, he'd know it was Karrde—and he knew that Karrde knew that too. "It didn't work out too well for them."
"They built one?"
"Stole it. Or rather, stole the parts to make two of them, then destroyed one when discharging the other."
"So they still have one?"
"Presuming they can get it working," the Emperor allowed, seeming none too concerned. "It was a prototype."
"You're not worried they'll use it?"
"Why do you think we're running overtime to shield major military installations?"
"What about principal cities?"
The Emperor shook his head, confident. "They wouldn't do that; they never hit civilian targets."
Karrde half-shrugged. "I heard Madine hit a colony on Toprawa less than a year ago."
"Yes, he did, and was severely reprimanded, so I hear. He was trying to destroy the new relay station there—the last one was destroyed by Rebels, what…nine years ago. We finally completed its replacement and Madine thought he'd make a statement by destroying it again."
"I heard that. The Rebel group who destroyed the original were killed to a man. Those who weren't shot, committed suicide."
And then something remarkable happened; Karrde watched, fascinated, as the Emperor actually hesitated, visibly uncomfortable. Then he turned away, voice unnaturally even. "Yes. To protect their mission."
Karrde frowned. "The destruction of a relay station?"
The Emperor had taken to carefully rearranging the flimsiplast sheets on the desk behind him, his impassive manner not quite hiding a troubled inner sense. "No, not actually. They had a different mission—one they chose to protect with their lives. Which was why the Alli…the Rebellion took exception to the reactivation of a new Imperial relay station there."
Karrde watched closely, aware that this was the most uncomfortable he'd ever seen the man. He glanced quickly down as the Emperor turned to him, all business again. "But unfortunately Madine got a little over-zealous in his identification of the enemy kill-zone, and their Y-Wings delivered a good portion of their ordnance over the expanded township there. What had been the site of one of the Rebellion's most cherished memorials to Rebel principles and spirit, became their first civilian tragedy."
"I didn't know that," Karrde admitted, genuinely surprised that a self-confessed information-dealer such as himself didn't know something as relevant as this, particularly when it was old news.
"No," the Emperor replied without meeting his eye. "We put a lot of effort into keeping it very quiet."
Which was a strange thing, taken on face value, Karrde reflected. Because when your main opposition causes a civilian tragedy, you generally make the fact well known, particularly considering that they would do the same to you in the blink of an eye. What reason then, did the new Emperor have to contain such a thing—because it must have been quite a feat to do so to this degree.
Equilibrium restored, the Emperor turned those shrewd, mismatched eyes on Karrde, ever-perceptive. "Now you're wondering why I kept it quiet."
"It crossed my mind," Karrde admitted with a far-too-casual shrug.
The Emperor smiled as he turned away, that cool, intensely calculating manner abruptly coming to the fore. "Oh don't worry, we'll use it. But when I say so and on my terms. That's the kind of fact that one doesn't waste."
"You don't like him, do you?"
The Emperor turned sharply. "Who?"
"Madine, the Rebel General." An ex-Imperial Commander, fervently pursuing his campaigns against the new Emperor with the kind of zeal that only the converted could muster. Karrde had heard the mutterings; of late, even his own Rebel Alliance considered him increasingly radical.
He watched as the Emperor blinked slowly, the act made disconcerting by those bizarrely mismatched eyes. "Madine is irrelevant. I don't have the time for personal grudges."
"I've heard he rather dislikes you," Karrde pushed out of curiosity.
The Emperor grinned—and for once, the smile didn't reveal his youth; this was a very different smile. "Good. I work very hard to keep it that way."
Karrde glanced down, freshly aware that to cross this man was a dangerous thing—and wondering, in that instant, from the way it had been spoken, whether there was more here than met the eye.
Luke hesitated at Karrde's obvious discomfort, pulling himself back from the twist of dark self-satisfaction fired by the knowledge that he made Crix Madine's life difficult. It was true though; that he couldn't afford personal grudges. Still, it often seemed that Madine went out of his way to provoke Luke, so it was deeply satisfying to know that the favor was returned. And if it served his greater goals, then all the better.
"Madine's unimportant," Luke dismissed, leaning back against his desk to consciously present a more relaxed image, looking to move Karrde's thoughts on. "What else do you have for me?"
"Just one more thing. I wondered if you knew…"
Karrde hesitated diplomatically, and Luke didn't push. As with others who were close to him, Luke worked hard to foster that sense of trust with Karrde; the feeling that anything could be said with impunity.
Coming to some internal decision, Karrde looked up. "I think you have a high-level mole in the Palace."
Luke tensed, instantly focused on this new fact. "The Palace?"
"Yes… We've heard murmurs in the past, but we'd thought it was a member of the fleet—a comm officer, my contact told me."
Luke relaxed slightly, hearing Karrde quote the alter-ego he'd created to allow himself to communicate with Leia. Strange to hear it come back to him now as Intel. "Is that common knowledge—that the leak is an Imperial fleet officer?"
"No, I don't think so. The Bothans know."
"So it soon will be." Awkward; made their meetings more of a risk.
"I could check; see who it goes out to?" Karrde offered.
"No, leave it be. I'll deal with it."
The smuggler nodded, then pushed on. "From what I understand, the new information isn't consistent with that, though. It could conceivably be two separate informers."
"Both supplying the Rebellion?"
"That I don't know," Karrde admitted. "This is simply the scuttlebutt in the cantinas."
"Which cantinas are they?"
"The ones your Intel operatives wouldn't get past the door in," Karrde said dryly. "Well, not the real door anyway."
Luke glanced away, unoffended. The temptation, as ever, was to try himself. He was pretty sure he could get into the right places given a few weeks… He didn't even need that in truth; he just needed to be close enough to pick through the thoughts of those nearby. But then, he never had a few weeks anymore. A few hours were a luxury. He rubbed at his eyes, aware that he had gone silent again, listening absently to that constant tone which still reverberated in the back of his mind.
Conscious of Karrde's eyes on him, Luke pulled his thoughts to the present. "Find out what they're passing on and who to—anything at all."
"So you don't think it's the Fleet Officer?"
Luke shrugged, then caught himself: an Emperor didn't allow such uncertainties. "If you get me the information, I'll know."
Nodding, Karrde tucked away with interest the fact that the Emperor clearly already knew about the fleet officer—enough even to know specifically the information he was passing on. That was clearly how he intended to separate out whether it was one or two informers. "And if there does turn out to be a second informer?"
"Oh well that's easily solved," the Emperor deadpanned. "I'll just run a quick check of the eight thousand four hundred staff who work in the Palace Towers and I'm sure it'll pop right up."
Karrde held the trace of a grin from his lips; it amused him no end that the leader of the Empire had an inappropriately sardonic strip, and he was becoming used to these lightening-fast flips of temperament. He hesitated to say it, but… "I thought you could tell. With..." Karrde paused, unsure quite what to say.
"You assume I'm in regular contact with all eight thousand staff."
"Aren't you?" Karrde asked with mock seriousness, and the Emperor allowed a slight smile.
"This from the man who's been carrying a Black Sun operative from base to base."
"Touché," Karrde returned without offence, inclining his head. "I could be wrong about the leak, of course; the information's scant."
"But you don't think so."
"I'll let you know. In the meantime, what will you do?"
"I'll try not to lose any sleep over it," the Emperor said dryly, presenting the same model of quiet confidence that he always did.
Though today for the first time, Karrde thought he'd seen a few chinks in that perfect permasteel armor, leading him to wonder again at the blank page that was the new Emperor's past...and to wonder what happened when, if ever, that perfect façade faltered.
Luke woke with a shout, wrenching up and scrambling back in the same moment until he hit the high headboard behind him, the strength of the Force-shield he'd unwittingly thrown out wrenching back the sweat-soaked covers about him, his eyes wide, chest still heaving.
He stared into the darkness as reality seeped back in, blinking rapidly, his heart still beating so loudly he could hear it in his short, shallow breaths. Slowly coming round, still staring into nothing, he stilled; listened within momentarily…and it was there. It was always there now.
It had started as a distant tone at the edge of Luke's mind when he'd returned to the Palace after Devaron, a sound just beyond hearing which had built steadily at the back of his awareness for weeks. And there was something else; something achingly familiar in the call. Some distant memory which collapsed into itself every time he reached for it, veiled recognition of that same perfect attunement which pressed in with dull denseness and knife-sharp clarity in the same instant. An absolute, magnetic draw, a summons which he alone heard, the sound pure and perfect and unrelenting, constantly gathering, until eventually it became as stringent and jarring as steel grating against steel, demanding attention.
For days he'd stubbornly refused to give, adamantly ignored its call. Now, in the dark of the night, still breathing heavily as the nightmares of his past settled once again into the shadowed corners, he knew how futile that was. With a sigh part frustration and part resignation, he rose.
The fine fossilstone of the mosaic marble floor was cold against his bare feet, making the moment real and pushing back the nightmare which still clung to his waking thoughts as he paced alone through the vast suite which was his bedroom and into the dressing room beyond. He closed tired eyes against old memories, then opened them against the visions which still lurked in the dark of his mind, trying to ignore their barbed scratch against his sanity, like fingernails down the inside of his skull.
Dressing, Luke walked quietly to the tall windows, gazing out at the city glittering beneath him, a constant pulse of light and life. He stared a long time into the night, mesmerized by the changing patterns of ever-moving lights, aware that despite its closeness, it may as well be light-years away from him. He stood in the absolute center of the universe, yet remained forever isolated. How many beings envied him for being here? How many beings would change places with him if they knew what it had cost—what it still took from him every day?
In the still of night, the familiar rooms felt more like the confined prison of his past than at any other time, the walls closing in about Luke, the silence unbearable, the demand in the back of his mind still ringing in that pitch-perfect tone…
He turned abruptly, grabbing a shirt and striding through his apartments.
When the doors to his private chambers were flung forcefully open by some unseen source and the Emperor strode through, barefoot and with shirt open, the night-watch guards didn't so much as glance at each other before falling into pace a discrete distance behind. This was often the way that nights went here, the Emperor walking the halls of his sprawling apartment through the night like a caged animal, exhausted but unable to sleep.
Unlike most nights however, the Emperor surprised them by simply keeping on walking in a straight line as he reached the tall double doors of his apartments, heading out into the Palace Tower still barefoot, a second set of guards falling in behind with hardly a broken step.
Still, somebody had the sense to contact higher powers.
Followed at a discrete distance, the Emperor strode through the Palace, quickly at first, then slowing as he seemed to calm, eventually thinking to button his shirt as he crossed the path of a member of the night staff, who diligently looked the other way, bowing at the last moment as if uncertain whether to acknowledge that this was the Emperor or not.
Pausing occasionally, tilting his head as if listening, he headed up, away from his own apartments and the bustle of the lower levels, which would still be staffed even at this hour, and into the quiet stillness beyond. He walked wide, carved stairwell after wide stairwell, traversing the long, galleried bridges which joined the Towers occasionally, bare feet patting on the cool marble, emerging at each level and pausing only briefly before heading on again. It was only when he had passed into the quiet stillness of the barred levels in the South Tower that the Emperor stopped dead as if suddenly realizing where he was, staring at the dwarfing proportions of the darkened entrance's grand, looming arch. He stood brooding for a long time before the sealed doors, his back to the guards, the silence lying heavy.
The guards glanced to each other, but one shook his head, moving to stand to straight attention in the wide, empty hallway of the vast entranceway to Palpatine's apartments, declared out of bounds on the new Emperor's accession. No one dared approach, everyone prepared to wait this out as the Emperor stood alone in exactly the same position, exactly the same stance, minutes ticking by.
Minutes ticking by... Luke stood before the lofty double-doors and stared at his old Master's apartments, sealed on his death at Luke's command, the whole five levels closed down. Knowledge of its existence remained always though, like a dirty stain at the edge of Luke's awareness, the stagnant torpor of the place a cloying monument to self-serving greed, leaching into the shadows and darkness.
And then there was this: this single, stringent tone, this faded whisper from within.
Luke reached out with the Force and the doors slid reluctantly back into their housings, the darkness beyond absolute. Squaring his shoulders, he walked alone into the shadows. He had nothing to fear; he was, after all, one of them.
The silent step of his bare feet made no sound in the overwhelming grandeur of the massive atrium, its scale designed to dwarf all who entered. After only one year, a heavy pall of dust lay on the jet-black polished stone, Luke's path through it tracked lightly, lifting it into the air to pick out the slim shafts of light which reached into the brooding gloom.
He strode the length of the vast space without hesitation, immersed in the silence, searching for the source of that singular pitch. The closer he came the more it drew him, a siren song calling him on, quickening his step, tightening his chest in anticipation as he tried to lock it down; the familiarity of it, the connection, the implication, the memory just beyond grasp.
Walking the cavernous halls and long, echoing enfilades, eyes turning neither left nor right, he slowed at large, heavily carved doors which grated open into another vast chamber, its walls a dark, dour crimson—
and stopped dead.
Before him, left here at Luke's own order, was the once-magnificent Sunburst Throne. Battered and broken during the fateful duel which had cost Palpatine his life, it stood ruined and abandoned, a fine film of dust reducing the once-glowing facets to dull lifelessness.
Luke's eyes were drawn to the twisted and misshapen sunburst flares radiating from the massive engraved sun which formed the backrest of the throne. In the endless hours that he had stood behind that throne in Court, Luke had often stared at the sun's mirror-image to the throne's rear, the lowest sunbursts resting on the pale marble floor, the two suns connected front and back, a perfect match. They had always reminded Luke in some distant way of Tatooine's twin suns, though they were nothing of the sort, simply another expression of the dual representations which littered the throne. Another opportunity for scholars through the ages to read significant meanings onto things they knew nothing about, whilst claiming its relevance a priceless artifact, ancient and sacrosanct.
The Sunburst Throne…the Seat of Prophesy. It was said that in the indecipherable, archaic text hidden within the etched designs of the massive sunburst was the key to a power capable of changing the course of the galaxy. Secrets guarded and handed down over the ages with near-religious zeal, endless variations and permutations documented and carefully considered, slowly crafted into the fateful Son of Suns prophesy which had hung like chains first about his father's neck and then about Luke's own.
The Sunburst Throne…in the heavy, stagnant stillness, it was the dull, dusty throne which resonated, practically vibrated with that silent tone of perfect pitch which echoed all the way down to Luke's soul.
Luke stared at the scribed words of the portentous prophesy, engraved into the throne's golden surface, near-hidden by heavy dust, their fluid flow broken by the crumpled twists of the ruined sunburst... Yet they held his attention completely, as they always had. Drawing him in, whispering in the muted silence, calling and cajoling, scratching at the back of his awareness, the connection flawless, fascinating…
Luke blinked, shaking his head as he took a broken step back, dispersing the connection by force of will, unwilling to be led as he had been in the past.
No more prophesies. They'd destroyed his father's life and he wouldn't bow to them any more. This ended now.
In a fit of anger his eyes hardened, his chin lifting a fraction of an inch as he raised his open hand and brought the Force to bear—
The invisible blow impacted with a massively powerful burst of kinetic energy, but the throne only toppled backwards, landing on its back with a leaden thud as dust billowed out in a cloud about it, thrown up into the fine shard of light which cut through the gloom.
Luke turned, tried so hard to look away-
But a sliver of light now sliced across the underside of the beaten metal throne, catching on the complex etching which covered even the base beneath the seat, its edges gleaming through the dust-filled haze…
And from the corner of his eye Luke saw something there. His head froze, eyes locked, completely captured...
It seemed at first glance to be a continuation of the intricate design of interlinked circles that scribed in ornate, elaborate patterns over the whole throne...but slowly as he stared, as that perfect pitch sung, the lines writhed, the complex design falling into place. Nothing changed…and yet now, etched into the underside of the seat in two interlocked circles, were stretched hieroglyphs, their letters so distorted as to be little more than a scrawling decoration.
Luke stared, unable to turn away¬—
As so much else on the seat of prophesy, the words were written twice, one circle within the other, the direction of the letters reversed, the subtle inscriptions carved in fine, fluid lines. The slim rays of shuttered light traced their shape, catching across the carvings, the only sound in the profound, still silence that of Luke's own heartbeat, loud in his ears—and that pitch-perfect tone.
For a second they seemed alien, unreadable—but as he stared mesmerized at the faceted rose-gold carvings, just as it had done before, an insular acuity whispered up his spine, resonating through the Force…and the words swam effortlessly into his consciousness, forming complete and unbidden. Written twice, each time as a circle, they linked one within the other with no beginning and no end.
Luke frowned, eyes tracing the curve of the scribings, the words transmuted with flawless clarity—
"—And he balances on the biting blade whilst devils and angels whisper—
—And she balances the fates of the worlds whilst head and heart make war—"
The word, quietly whispered, shattered Luke's rapt attention with an almost physical force. He span about, arm raised, fingers outstretched. The Force surged through him, its energy crackling to his open palm and lighting it with an intense, sulfurous flare, igniting into power which arced from his fingers, searching to ground—
Nathan flinched back, eyes wide—
and Luke caught the power, contained it, the energy crackling back within like knife-blows, a burst of scarlet pain firing through him to tense every muscle and rip the breath from his lungs with incredible force. He was left gasping, breathless, the shock of it throwing reality to a distant blur for long seconds…
Slowly, still doubled half-over by the wrenching, stabbing spasms, he became aware of Nathan speaking as he stepped in, hand to Luke's shoulder to steady him, though Luke had no idea what he said, the implications of his own barely halted actions chilling.
It would have killed him, Luke knew. The energy he'd focused, the draw on the Force he'd summoned to contain it…he would have killed Nathan.
As the pain ebbed, he was filled with a burning fury. At himself for the momentary lapse, at Nathan for risking the intrusion, at the Force itself, that it would have done the deed indiscriminately. At the throne, for its damning distraction…
The throne; Luke turned to it, incensed, pushing Nathan's hand away as he straightened. "Get it out," he snarled to Nathan, hearing the rage in his own voice and not caring. "I want it out of here!"
Shocked, Nathan took a hasty step back at the unfamiliar ferocity twisting Luke's voice, at the feral fierceness in his glassy eyes, almost aglow in the low light. "Out of here? Where do you want me to put it?"
He could see Luke struggling to bring his emotions under control, his body tense and wired, voice reduced to a flat, grating growl.
"Just get it out. I want it out of the Towers, I want it out of the Palace. In fact, smelt it down."
Nathan hesitated, uncertain what was going on here, what had unhinged Luke to this degree, pushing him over the edge. "Smelt it?"
"Smelt it. Melt it down. I want it destroyed, I want it gone. Permanently. No more prophesies—no more!"
Luke turned on his heel to stalk from the room, leaving Nathan to look back at the tarnished ruin of the toppled throne, aware that he'd just seen something of great import though he had no idea what it was or why it had unbalanced Luke so completely.
Knowing only that it, this—this place, this task, this past, this path…it was taking Luke to pieces.
When Mara entered Luke’s office in the Cabinet the following morning she’d already been alerted as to the previous night’s happenings by Hallin. She’d sensed them herself on some level anyway, the faint attenuation in the Force which she’d always shared with Luke having sounded a strident chord for days now, despite his denied disquiet. In fact, if anything it seemed worse, not better, this morning. She stayed close, protective as ever, though she had the good sense not to mention the night’s events, aware that any open concern would be rebuffed.
Wez Reece broke the brittle silence as he entered with the morning dispatches, knocking politely on the door though there was hardly any point—Luke would have sensed his approach long ago.
“Good morning, Excellency. Dispatches,” Reece announced as he set forward, placing the four small datacards on a small clearing to the edge of Luke’s wide, cluttered desk.
“Thank you, Wez.” Luke glanced up distractedly. “Oh, I was looking for the datacard on the new Star Destroyer, Sterling—I thought I’d left it in the data store?”
Wez glanced to the substantial information storage system to Luke’s left, where all sensitive data chips were gathered, their edges aglow with diffuse blue radiance. “Is it not there?” He walked casually over, frowning. “I saw it yesterday. When were you looking?”
“Yesterday,” Luke replied, reaching out to take the dispatches Reece had placed on his desk and accidentally knocking them away. They slid back over the far side of the crowded desk and Mara stepped forward to retrieve them from the floor, surprised that Luke had been so clumsy.
As she crouched, she glanced to his face and was left with the sudden intense feeling that this wasn’t the fact at all; this was something else. He reached out his hand and the small chips flew in neat succession into his palm yet he still seemed to pause, eyes to the floor.
Reece continued without turning, apparently unaware. “Perhaps it…ah, here it is. Would you like it?”
“Please,” Luke acknowledged without turning as he sat back down, already loading the first of the dispatch chips into his autoreader. “Thanks, Wez—what will I do without you.”
The tall, heavily built Corellian smiled slightly, bowing wide shoulders as he placed the datacard on Luke’s desk, and Mara settled back on her chair as Reece left, the lofty double-doors sliding shut behind him. Long seconds passed in silence, somehow strangely tense to Mara’s senses…
Mara heard a muffled click as the door mechanism locked, and she turned to glance at it momentarily, knowing that Luke must have done it using the Force…
In the next second, everything flew forward off Luke’s desk as if thrown, flashing by to bounce from the wall behind her as she flinched away, and Luke let out a yell of frustration as he hammered the heel of his hand against the solid desk as he stood. “Stupid! Stupid, stupid…”
His chair fell back and he turned on it, catching it with his hand to launch it back against the wall behind him, part under his own strength, part augmented by the Force, so that it hit with a wrenching shriek, smashing to pieces as he stepped clear of the desk. Without pausing, he grabbed it by the front corner to heave it back with all the power of his arm and shoulder behind it, and Mara sensed the mental whirlwind that was the Force raise to sudden hurricane levels, lifting the desk to launch it across the chamber, one leg skittering as it careened half-controlled the length of the room to smash spectacularly against what was left of the chair, the massive weight hitting the wall with a reverberating blow which loosed plaster and knocked datacards and readers from nearby shelves.
Mara had stood and taken two steps back without even realizing it, her heart pounding against her ribs.
Luke turned on his heel and stalked toward the glass doors onto the balcony, flung open with enough force to rebound against their hinges. He was in the doorway by the time Mara began to wonder whether it would be wise to follow him, and he turned on her, eyes ablaze. “NO!”
She was left to a shocked silence, glancing uneasily about the devastated room. Slowly it percolated through her seized mind that someone was banging frantically at the doors behind her, and she forced numb legs to work and turned, walking shakily to the doors. They didn’t open as she brushed her hand over the release and she glanced to it, remembering that it had been locked, numbly going through the motions of keying in the release code before she manually slid the door open just slightly. “Yes?”
There were eight Royal Guard on the other side of the door, all with weapons drawn, plus four plain-clothes security led by Clem, who was repeatedly keying the door code from his side. All made to move forward but stopped as Mara opened the door no further.
“Everything’s fine,” Mara said mechanically, not even knowing herself what was going on.
“Ma’am, we need to enter—please step aside.” Clem’s tone didn’t invite argument.
Mara held her ground, the fact that Luke had bothered to lock the door lodged in her thoughts. “Everything’s fine,” she repeated. “The Emperor doesn’t wish to be disturbed…”
Clem was already moving purposely forward, shouldering at the sliding door—it was after all, their job to protect him, and the heavy desk must have shaken the walls with its impact. Still, they remained polite as Clem pushed the door aside, Mara still so surprised at Luke’s outburst that she let them. They were all in the room by the time they saw the Emperor standing safely on the balcony, turning toward them.
It was of course Clem, Luke’s Palace bodyguard long before he became Emperor—before he had even been pronounced Heir—who spoke out first. “Sir, are you…”
Luke walked slowly back toward them, his stance and voice taut. “I’m fine. Everything’s fine. Nothing happened.”
Mara felt the tight tendrils of the Force slice subtly past her, converging on the guards, pinpoint-sharp, power and focus flawlessly applied.
“Nothing happened,” Luke repeated, mismatched blue eyes like crystal as he held their gaze. “As you were.”
They filed slowly from the room, eyes straight ahead, leaving Mara to close the door silently behind them.
Luke remained still for several seconds, eyes on the closed door, and she knew he was still touching those minds, clearing the last trails of hesitant uncertainty from them as the guards returned to their posts.
Finally he turned to Mara, jaw tight, eyes hard and wild. “Wez is passing on information.”
“W…what!?” Mara stuttered. Wez had always been loyal, had been with Luke when Palpatine was on the throne, willing to commit treason to gain Luke the power to overthrow him. He would never do this, he would never betray Luke…would he?
“I don’t know who to, but I will soon enough. Karrde warned me that I had a high-level leak. The Destroyer documents Wez copied and passed on have a tracer embedded. The moment they’re loaded into any system they’ll drop a coded virus into it. Every time it’s opened or passes to another system it’ll take a system ID imprint and leave a tracer. The first time it enters a system with HoloNet capabilities it’ll transmit the map of tracers.”
Mara shook her head, still disbelieving, “Wez?!”
“Wez. A year ago I would have put him in the top three people I trusted. He’s fourth in line to the throne… I need to change that—quietly.”
“Why?” What else was there to say?
Luke shook his head. “Does it matter? It’s not under duress, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
“But he knows what you can do.” Wez had originally been assigned to Luke by Palpatine because he had a naturally ‘quiet mind.’ But not a completely unreadable one, and certainly not to someone of Luke’s abilities.
“People always think they can fool it, that they can circumvent it somehow, you know that.”
It was beginning to settle in now, Mara’s shock twisting tighter into outrage. “The hypocritical smear of Hutt-slime! How dare he? After all you’ve done…you gave him the kind of power and opportunities that he’d never’ve had with Palpatine and this is how he repays you.”
Strangely, Luke’s own temper seemed to subside a little before Mara’s hot-headed indignation. “I should have known—I should have seen it coming. If he was willing to betray Palpatine to put me in power, then he’ll think nothing of betraying me to another.”
“Who?” She kept coming back to this, but it was paramount in her mind.
“I don’t know.” He looked to her, eyes fire and fury. “But I intend to find out.”
Luke endured the rest of the day on autopilot, his mind locked on Reece’s betrayal, thoughts racing, searching for reasons, for failings in his own actions which must surely have incited Reece’s decision to turn traitor. By evening, he couldn’t bear to see him, withdrawing to his private rooms as dusk fell to stand alone in the darkness, alternately outraged and wounded, frustrated by the awareness that he could do nothing to act on his knowledge, for so many reasons.
Aloud, to Mara, he’d cited damage control—the need to find out who exactly Reece was passing information on to, plus the opportunity to feed him false information to be passed on in the future. In private he had no idea, none whatsoever, what he would say to Nathan. How he could possibly broach the subject? The fact was that he had no proof, and whilst as a Force-sensitive Luke didn’t need any further proof, to condemn Reece simply on his own word would seem far too much like a personal whim, and he knew it would drive a wedge between himself and Nathan that perhaps would never heal.
It shouldn’t matter, he knew; it shouldn’t matter to him whether Nathan liked or loathed him, only that he obeyed him. But that wasn’t enough. Despite everything, Luke held with a reckless need to what little he had left, and Nathan was part of that. His Master would have laughed at him, Luke knew; laughed in his face, that first he could be wounded by Reece’s actions, and second he was so weak that even knowing the truth, Luke still curbed his own responses and continued to risk so much simply to spare another’s feelings. To avoid having to pass on the information that would make Nathan feel as desolate and as dismayed as Luke did right now.
And he was risking it all again, he knew, in his continued trust of others despite every lesson he’d been taught. Because he had no guarantee that Nathan would remain loyal, nor even Mara. Mara he didn’t trust as it was, in truth. He barely ever had, and when he had, she had betrayed himself and his father with appalling consequences. And yet still she was here. Still Reece was here…and still Luke bled—his Master’s words from long ago: “Trust alone will make you truly bleed, child. Trust alone can mutilate and maim. Betrayal is the most brutal butcher.”
He could rely on no one—that was the truth. He could rely on no one here, not even those he claimed to trust, with the truth of what he was planning for Palpatine’s Empire.
“You cannot trust.” His Master had said it so many times. The words rang around and around in Luke's head as he watched the last light of day drain from an inky sky. “If I leave you with one knowledge, it shall be that: you cannot trust.”
With a light knock at the door, Turis, the newest Adjutant to join Luke's staff, stepped timorously forward. “Forgive me, Excellency, Commander—”
“I told you not to disturb me.” Luke didn’t turn.
“Sir, I was advised that you’d wish to see any members of your Council even—”
“Then I fail to see the problem.” The youth was already backing out of the door as Luke half-turned, voice sharp. “Wait.”
Turis froze as Luke turned completely, features hard, the day’s events percolating down into this final provocation. “I hadn’t finished. Are you in the habit of turning your back in the middle of a conversation?”
“No Sir! I apolo—”
“Because I can assure you, it is something that I will tolerate only once—and even then...”
A pale, slim hand rested on the young man’s shoulder, and Mara stepped into the darkened room. Luke watched her calculating gaze take in the scene: his voice, his stance. Watched her casually pull the youth back as she stepped forward, centering all attention on herself. She still believed herself immune to his shifting disposition. It irked him that she was at least partially right.
“It was my fault,” Mara said evenly as she stepped forward. “I told him you’d want to see me. If you’re going to shout, do it at me.”
Mara walked forward past Turis, taking in Luke’s silhouette before the bank of windows, his stance wire-tight, his eyes seeming almost to glow in the low light. He turned coolly away, eyes to the distant city. She didn’t slow; hesitation inferred nerves, and of everyone, Mara knew that she alone could handle Palpatine’s Wolf when he chose to bare his teeth like this. So she walked forward, pausing to run her hand over the sensor plate and activate the lights, hoping to break his brooding temper. The lofty, rock-crystal glowpads in the huge gilded and coffered ceiling faded up—and just as quickly faded back down again, the brief tilt of Luke's chin indicating that he’d used the Force to extinguish them.
She’d intended to inform him of the quiet damage control that had been set in place to limit Reece’s liability without his knowledge, but that had suddenly become of secondary importance to diffusing Luke's frame of mind before it escalated, as it occasionally did of late.
“You scare him,” Mara said evenly as the Adjutant closed the doors, bowing several times as if unsure when exactly he should do it, the bright flare of light from the hall beyond extinguished to leave only the reflected glow of the city.
“I scare most people,” Luke said dispassionately. “I’m a monster, didn’t you know?”
“Not to me.”
“You’re alone in that opinion, doesn’t that tell you something?”
“It tells me you hide the truth well. But then you always did.”
He laughed bitterly at that, turning away. “Perhaps I hide it from you.”
“Hallin trusts you.” Mara countered, very sure.
“Hallin suffers the same blindness you do.” He raised an eyebrow at her burst of surprise as it radiated out through the Force. “Or did you think I didn’t know?”
“It doesn’t make him wrong. Perhaps we see the truth.”
Luke brought his hand up to massage at the bridge of his nose, seeming deathly tired. “No one sees the truth, Mara. I don’t think there even is such a thing anymore—not here.”
Mara watched him, wondering why that unsettled her so very much; she had lived here most of her life and it certainly wasn’t news to her. It wasn’t the fact that he was probably right that bothered her, it was…the fact that he accepted it. “You’ve changed.”
“That’s rich, coming from one of those who changed me,” he said without rancor.
Still, she felt stung. “Me?”
Luke remained immobile for a few seconds, head still set to one side, and Mara could tell he was reining in his temper. Trying hard to keep an emotive subject light and not quite succeeding, in his present state.
“You liked the old Luke?” he asked. “All you had to do was just unlock the door to the cell I was in, Mara. Just once. Anytime. You had a long time to figure that out.”
“All you had to do was turn around and leave, Skywalker. You were in that cell a fraction of the time you were here before Palpatine died.”
“I stayed for you! To protect you and Hallin and Reece—” He stopped at Reece’s name, all his anger gone in a flash, so that when he continued his voice was quiet and level again. “If I’d left, you’d have all been dead before I even cleared the Palace grounds, Palpatine made that quite clear.”
“Hey, I can take care of myself.”
“From Palpatine?” Luke said flatly. “Don’t flatter yourself.”
“Palpatine’s not the only one who played his games,” Mara held. But it was, as ever, difficult to insult somebody who thought worse of their own actions than anyone around them.
“Wel,l I learned at the feet of a Master. You should be proud of me; he was.”
She lost a little of her bluster at that, aware of the lockjam of emotions that lay behind the casual acceptance of her accusation. “He made you strong, made you ready for this. Do you think the man who first came here could have held the Empire together?”
“That’s right,” Luke mocked of his old Master. “He was practically a saint. I should have a statue built in his honor…oh wait, he already did that. Repeatedly.”
Mar straightened slightly, aware that in his present mood he was baiting her for no other reason than to see how far he could. “He created the Empire you now command.”
“For himself; everything he ever did was self-serving—or have you forgotten that?”
“He created a legacy he intended to pass on.”
“He ensured his precious Sith dynasty. That’s all he was doing.”
“No, you were more than that. You were his opus, his obsession.”
“Not me,” Luke denied. “This bloodline. This legacy. That’s all he cared about.”
“He always spoke of the Skywalker line as if they were different in some way; unique.”
Luke hesitated, and Mara knew that he was curious, despite his simmering resentment. “Unique how?”
“He always viewed you as completely separate from other Jedi, a…a different breed altogether. He said the strength of your connection to the Force reflected that.” She paused, searching old memories, taking the opportunity to draw him in. “He said you were the next evolutionary step.”
“And why does everyone assume that nature never makes a mistake?” Luke glanced immediately away, clearly not wishing to be pulled into that line of conversation. “Anyway, evolution had nothing to do with us. We were brought into being by intervention.”
“What do you mean?”
Luke watched Mara straighten slightly, that sharp, analytical mind always looking for answers, searching to understand, to stabilize. Because he knew what was in her mind: that she thought him increasingly impulsive, volatile…perhaps she was right. Perhaps that was part of his heritage too. He didn’t have the truth himself; that was the fact of it. He knew that Palpatine had been speaking honestly when he’d disclosed his account of Darth Plagueis and old Sith lore, and of using the Force itself to will life into being, to create his father…but that didn’t make it true. That didn’t prove anything. It didn’t decide Luke’s destiny or tie him in to a prophesy written before he was born—did it?
Mara was Force-sensitive, one of the few left. She at least could understand… But all the time, his Master’s voice whispered old warnings: “Don’t trust, never trust.”
And those green eyes held steady on him, waiting patiently…
“Nothing,” he avoided at last, turning away. She was at once his weakness and his strength, his lifeline and yet a reminder of what he was. What he had become in order to protect himself—his goals.
Mara frowned but let his avoidance pass, instead adding, “He said you were a product of the Force in a way that no other Jedi has ever been. He was proud of you.”
“He was proud of himself,” Luke corrected. “For creating me.”
“He trained you as he never trained Vader. I always had the feeling that Palpatine had expected so much more from Vader; that something had happened, that he’d failed to deliver in some way. When Palpatine realized who you were—that Vader had a son—he was ecstatic. He turned huge resources over to finding you.”
“Vader was injured,” Luke admitted, eyes remaining on the distant, ever-moving glow of the Capital. “Around the same time that I was born. He lost part of his connection to the Force then, though he was still more powerful than most Jedi. But as you said, Palpatine wanted the prime, the unique.”
And so his father had become irrelevant, Luke knew, useful only as a stepping-stone to Palpatine’s bright new hope.
Watching him now, a shadow in the brooding darkness, one thought came to Mara’s mind. Palpatine had wanted his wolf –
A rush of images came abruptly to the fore; a vision from long ago, cast scarlet red…
...A storm raging against the night…
The howl of the hunting wolf…
Luke was there instantly, knowing a vision had surfaced. “What did you see?”
And wasn’t that exactly what Palpatine had asked her when she’d first seen the vision? Mara frowned, eyes skipping the dark shadows of the cavernous room as she shook her head, the vision fading as they always did. “An old vision, but… I don’t remember it—I never remember them."
“You saw me,” he said without reservation.
The one fragment of the vision which had remained came like an echo to Mara's mind: the howl of the wolf. …Had it been you all along?
“A moon—you saw a moon,” Luke prompted.
Mara frowned as realization occurred. “Did you see what I saw?”
Luke backed off, turning away. “No. Fragments, that’s all.”
“Would I…if you trained me, would I see more?”
She saw his head drop, his shoulders tensing. “Why would you want to be trained?”
“Didn’t you?” He’d taught her fragments in the past, of course, unable to risk more when Palpatine was alive, but adamant that despite her master’s opinion, Mara was capable of so much more. Now, it seemed, he was less willing.
“After everything you’ve seen, would you still want this?”
Mara frowned. “Do you regret it so much? After all it’s achieved for you, could you ever relinquish it?”
Luke didn’t turn, eyes on the distant lights. “You assume I want to be here.”
“You assume it wasn’t always your destiny.”
“And there it is again,” Luke said bitterly. “Destiny snapping at my heels. There’s no such thing.”
“Palpatine believed it.” Mara took a half-step forward. “He told me so the very first time he saw you.”
“Palpatine was just playing his self-absorbed little games. All he saw when he looked at me was an opportunity which he sought to use. An opportunity which he thought he’d lost when my father was injured.”
“Why you—why not any other Jedi? He had ample opportunities.”
“It had to be this bloodline. Palpatine created it to fulfill a prophesy—that’s the only reason he did it. He thought he would gain more power for his own ends, nothing more.” Luke shook his head. “That’s why he trained me. Vader’s connection to the Force was damaged when he was injured. I was simply a chance at fulfilling the prophesy again. That’s all he saw: a promise of greater power.”
A terrible comprehension was beginning to form in Mara's mind. “Wait…created—not trained.”
Mara saw clearly in the tightening of Luke's shoulders that he recognized his slip. Then he seemed quite suddenly to calm, shoulders dropping, voice softening.
“Palpatine believed he created this line.” He said it in a tired rush as if, by speaking it quickly, he could have it over with once and for all.
“Through the Force.” Luke brought his hand up to rub at his temple again, exhausted; resigned. “My father was the very first of this line, created by the Force—by Palpatine’s manipulation of the Force to induce life. That’s why we have this connection, this attunement. This curse.”
He didn’t look; couldn’t meet her eyes. “We were created by Darkness. How can we be anything else? If this is evolution, then how can we fight our nature?”
And there—for the first time, she truly understood. Comprehended the depths of his fear, the burden he’d held so long in silence. If Darkness was used to create him, he believed he could never be anything more.
“Is that even possible?”
Luke shrugged. “I’m here.”
Mara's mind raced at the consequences that this implied… “His dynasty—his Sith dynasty. It really would be his.”
“For what it’s worth—his precious dynasty goes no further than me.”
Realization constricted Mara’s stomach with queasy revulsion, leaving her cold. All he’d done to Luke—the pitiless ordeals, endless condemnations, the brutal chastisements and cold manipulations, all in the name of control.
And Luke had known this, all of it. Known it was his creator who treated him this way.
“But why did he…” She couldn’t say it, suddenly. Couldn’t bring herself to call it the torture that it was.
“Why did he do anything? Out of self-serving greed. He didn’t have access to that greater power or connection himself so he created what he believed would achieve it, incited the Force to create life…as a tool, a contrivance which he would own completely, to use as he saw fit. That’s all I was—don’t ever think otherwise. When he looked at me all he saw was that potential…the power that he could turn to his own ends. So he brought it into being without the slightest consideration as to whether he could control the thing he had created. Whether anyone could.”
She knew now the fear behind his words. “And you?”
“I don’t for a moment claim control.”
“Yet you do. Every day.”
“Not completely. I give the illusion, nothing more.” He paused, knowing what was in Mara’s thoughts. “And neither can you…control this. I told you that a long time ago and nothing has changed.”
She remained still as Luke turned away; let the silence hang. Eventually he spoke, a curiosity, a need in his voice despite his reluctance to ask. “Why do you think you can control it?”
Always it, as if his own abilities were a separate entity entirely; an enemy. “I don’t. But I believe you can, and that’s good enough for me.”
“And if you’re wrong?”
“You’re not Palpatine. And you’re not your father.”
“Again, I think you’re in the minority believing that.”
“You’d never use someone as your father did.”
Luke turned to her, outraged– but then what could he say? He knew the limits of his relationship with his father, Mara knew. He wasn’t blind. Instead he let his features relax into cool indifference, retreating behind well-honed shields. “I am my father’s son, Mara.”
“Not in every way.”
“You’re a fool to trust me. How many times have I told you that, and still you don’t understand—don’t want to.”
“I understand,” she said simply.
“No. Despite everything I’ve just said, you still don’t. If you did, you wouldn’t stay.” He shook his head slowly, no more than a shadowed outline in the low light. “Bad blood, Mara…I use everyone, if they let me.”
“I don’t let you,” she assured confidently.
“Then why are you still here? Either I’m using you or you’re using me, Mara…which is it today?”
Mara was silent for long seconds, stung in a way that only he could. Still, she saw through his snipe as only she could. “Why do you always push me away?”
He turned away again, quieting. “To protect you.”
“And yourself. If no one gets in anymore, no one can hurt you—isn’t that right?”
“Never let it be said that I don’t learn from my mistakes.”
“Nor I from mine,” Mara said with conviction, hoping to break through those shields.
But he didn’t look back. They both knew the conversation had strayed too close to the unspeakable rift between them; that from here it could only degenerate. She at least had the good sense to turn and walk from the darkened room, leaving him to his thoughts.
Luke didn’t turn as Mara left, already regretting his words but unable to retract them.
Could he ever forgive her?
Darkness could not forgive, could not heal. Could not love.
And yet he had, he supposed, loved his father…though he’d never quite forgiven Vader for the burden he’d placed on his son’s shoulders. Perhaps he’d even loved Mara… But she too had betrayed him. Yet he couldn’t send her away, held captive between warring emotions.
His father’s words, so stubbornly refuted by Luke, whispered again in his thoughts: “Darkness cannot love. The results will be catastrophic and spiral from your control.”
Darkness could not love—it could not heal; it could not forgive.
Yet he had healed himself once before, after the explosion—accelerated repairs to a broken body and restored injuries which should have been damaged beyond recovery.
Could he heal this now, this deeper wound?
Could he forgive?
Luke rose early, unable to sleep, reaching his office whilst the sky was still dark, nodding acknowledgement to the night staff who rose from their chairs in polite, if mild, surprise. The Emperor was already known for appearing in his offices at any hour of the day or night, and his office worked around the clock in three shifts every day of the year, along with many others in the Palace. The Empire never slept—nor at the moment did the Emperor, Luke reflected wryly.
He’d managed three hours of solid work before the Palace began to stir, a subtle change in his perception signaling the gradual waking of many minds, the gentle mental whisper rising to a constant background chatter in the massive edifice about him by the time that dawn had crawled up the lofty heights and down the monumental drops of the Capital’s towering buildings.
He was staring at the open sky beyond the wide run of the balcony when a gentle knock sounded on the door.
“Come,” Luke acknowledged, already knowing who it was.
The door slid back into its housing and Nathan Hallin glanced around its edge as if uncertain to enter. Luke lifted an eyebrow, his perfectly annunciated accent momentarily forgotten beneath mock suspicion. “You aren’t here to force me to eat healthy breakfasts again, are you?”
Hallin let the slightest of offended smiles cross his face. “Have you eaten breakfast?”
“Then no. Was there fruit involved?”
“I don’t do fruit before eleven,” Luke held out, and the medic dropped his head in acquiescence.
“I’ll give you that one. And order some juice for you at eleven. I have dispatches here.” He set forward into the room handing them over.
“Sit,” Luke invited, appreciative of the company.
They talked of nothing as Luke worked, Nathan always entertaining, always sociable and forthcoming…and the longer they spoke, the more the knot in Luke’s stomach tightened, until he could stand it no more, the guilt eating at him.
Sooner or later, he was going to have to tell Nathan about Reece, if only to be sure that Nathan didn’t unwittingly pass any information on. And how did he do that? How did he say that the man whom he, and particularly Nathan, thought they had known so well was in fact smuggling information out of the Palace and on to who knew where?
“Interesting?” Nathan prompted.
Luke glanced up. “What?”
“I said is it interesting, because you’ve been staring at that particular dispatch for the last ten minutes…scowling in fact.”
Luke looked down, unaware of what was even written on the autoreader he held. “Very boring.”
“What is it?”
Completely blank, Luke was forced to look again at the ‘reader before he could answer. “The contract with the D’Arcas—details of the agreement.”
Nathan nodded, the small, knowing smile on his face making it clear just how well aware he was that until that moment, Luke hadn’t even known what he was staring at. “The contract?”
“Are we not allowed to call it a marriage?”
Luke set the reader down to launch a high-voltage glare across the wide desk towards Nathan, who was as resolutely unmoved by it as he’d always been.
“I only ask because you never do. It’s the contract, it’s the agreement, it's the event… you’ve even called it the deal once, did you know that?”
“Call it what you want, Nathan,” Luke held levelly without looking up. “I really don’t care.”
Nathan leaned back, studying his friend; noting the fine lines of tension at the edges of his eyes, the dark circles beneath from too many sleepless nights, which made pale blue eyes unnaturally vivid. He knew, of course, why Luke was seriously considering this offer. Knew his reasons and his justifications. Luke had, in fact, taken great care to lay them out for consideration with measured, rational deliberation—a little too much care, to Nathan’s mind. As if he were validating them not only to Nathan and Reece, but to himself as well.
Had Beladon D'Arca not brought this to Luke, then Nathan doubted Luke would even have considered pursuing such a course. But now, as with everything else in his life, he was weighing up the odds and the advantages, and assessing them against his larger goals—the possible advantage of control of an influential elite who had the power to make his life difficult, against the minimal disadvantage of his own uneasy conscience.
Because whatever Luke was planning in his grand scheme, he claimed he needed the Royal Houses. Preferably, he needed their assent, or at the very least their willing disregard. Which was where the D’Arcas came in—and Kiria in particular. Because Luke had long since learned on Coruscant that either you played the game, or the game played you.
For the very reason that Luke had danced with her almost two years ago at the launch of the Patriot, he was now willing to wed Kiria D’Arca. Not simply to play the game, but to be seen to be playing the game. The Royal Houses were traditionalist, deeply entrenched; centuries of bloodlines, annals of heritage and history. This was a notoriously proud, insular society where new power and wealth were considered gauche. Luke’s position bought him their attention, even their respect, on a strictly habitual basis—but not their loyalty.
Palpatine had controlled them by brute force and by the massive contrivance of Court and its endless customs and machinations. Luke had, to all productive purposes, dismantled the latter and unless cornered, was unwilling to resort to the former. Consequently there was only one way to exert any control on this influential, elite society—and that was to be a member of it.
But one did not ‘break into’ this society; it could not be bought, and could only occasionally be bullied. It could not be awed and it would not be split beyond internal wranglings; if an outside threat was made to any of its kind, it automatically closed ranks. There had always been only two ways in; either one was born into it and so included by birthright…or one married into it. Nathan knew it…and Luke knew it too.
So deep down, Nathan already knew that the real question was, as ever, not how much Luke was willing to surrender to his goals…but rather, how to deal with the aftermath of his doing so. With that knowledge foremost in his mind, he began to pick nervously at the edge of that wide polished desk, searching for the right words…
Which was enough for Luke to let out a resigned sigh as he leaned back. “Come on, out with it then.”
Nathan affected a shrug, studying the grain of the wood as if it were the most interesting thing in the universe. “I was just curious, I suppose…as to where Mara fits into the plans you so meticulously underlined for us. It just seemed strange that she wasn’t mentioned…or there when you explained all this.”
Luke ground his jaw as he glanced away, a rare show of guilt. “Mara doesn’t fit into it—which was why she wasn’t there.”
“Ah,” Nathan nodded knowingly. “Because one can’t help but feel there’s a certain…overlap.”
“Mara’s position here is as Aide and bodyguard,” Luke said evenly. “It has been for a long time.”
“Are you sure?” Nathan pushed. “Because you need to be.”
“Do I look like I’m sure?” Luke asked, momentary uncertainty breaking through those diamond shields. Then he shook his head quickly, speaking as much to himself as Nathan. “There’s too much happened between Mara and myself. Too much to ever go back.”
“Why...why this time?”
The simplicity of Nathan’s honest question seemed to floor Luke, stopping him dead. He rubbed his hands over tired eyes, clearly not wanting this discussion now. “Things happened, Nathan. Things you don’t know about.”
Nathan nodded diplomatically, having long since learned that any attempt to draw Luke out on this seemed only to fan the flames of his reticence. But it wasn’t hard to read between the lines.
The change could be traced back to the day, exactly—to the fateful day that changed everything. Before that, Luke and Mara were inseparable, indissoluble—and Force knew, Nathan had tried in the early days—but they’d withstood every possible test. Luke forgave Mara everything; far, far more than Nathan would ever have thought possible, their bond existing in some insular netherworld which rose very deliberately above the harsh reality of their daily lives.
And then Luke’s father had died, killed by the Emperor, and though Luke had never told him the facts, Nathan knew Mara was involved somehow. One of the few people left in whom Luke had held any kind of trust had betrayed him; been instrumental in his father's death. Luke had never said as much, of course, but events on that fateful day and the resultant crumbling of a relationship which had withstood every possible test previously, had been message enough.
Luke had built endless shields about himself, using the remoteness of his position as Emperor to isolate himself into a self-imposed solitude, distance the great protector. Very few were allowed in any more, save for the few who had known him before Palpatine had begun his work. Closeness was a weakness; Palpatine had underlined that again and again in his dealings with Luke: that he could be controlled through the people around him, manipulated.
Rightly or wrongly, despite Palpatine’s every warning, Mara had been part of Luke’s strength; no matter what he said out loud, he had trusted her. And she had betrayed him, and in doing so delivered the Emperor’s final lesson with such force that it had been a body-blow from which Luke had never recovered.
And on some level, Nathan worried that this contract was just another conveniently offered way for Luke to distance himself, another way to avoid having to trust again. Another way to avoid ever being put into that situation again.
And if so, he felt a certain redhead may well have words to say about that.
Mara sat quietly in her quarters, eating dinner from the styrene tray she had heated it up in and going through the latest batch of standard Intel coming down the wire. She’d been intending to check any traffic on the bug set up in Reece’s office and on his comlinks. Luke had forbidden her to place them directly inside Reece and Hallin’s apartment, then had promptly warned her off doing it anyway behind his back; there were times when having a boss who could read her mind definitely cramped her style. Instead, as she skipped through the Intel, checking headers on the more than two hundred pieces in this batch, a thread caught her eye simply because of the reference name: Kiria D'Arca.
What was interesting was that this little nugget had been caught coming in, not going out. It had purportedly been recorded by someone from high orbit and sold to Black Sun who had, with their usual eager desire to re-establish old working relationships, presented it to Palace Intel free of charge—to stop it getting out into the information market, they’d piously claimed.
Mara called up the new file, curious. The heiress seemed to have spent a great deal of time here in the Palace recently, making it her mission to carefully insinuate herself into Luke’s life. Rumors were rife that her relationship to the Emperor was more than platonic, and despite her knowledge to the contrary, it irked Mara no end.
A 2-D short was attached to the report and she called it up. Heavily cleaned up, with much interpolation in the low light, it was taken from high orbit at night, looking down on the Palace Towers. A huge amount of jamming and counter-surveillance blanketed the Palace, making the only reliable images those taken using basic light-sensitive equipment, so that the absence of any flight-paths about the Palace and well out into orbit made it difficult to grab anything of any real worth. What little was available generally offered nothing more than confirmation that certain people were at the Palace at certain times, and that often grainy and indistinct. There were, Mara knew, huge programs written specifically to separate and recognize from a distance individuals within the military who frequented the Palace, all fleet officers’ uniforms up to the rank of Grand Moff being the same color and cut. Still, she had to admit that she had difficulties telling the Imperial military apart from ten paces sometimes, never mind high orbit.
Biting her lip as she tilted her head, it took Mara long moments to orient the view….then release the breath she didn’t notice she’d been holding at the realization that it wasn’t Luke’s apartments.
The petite woman walked casually out onto one of the wide balconies of the East Tower, leaning over the carved stone balustrade. Her long dress of shimmering ruby red clung to svelte curves, pooling at her feet, the absolute black of her raven hair falling in a shining mane down her back, held perfectly in place by the vague form of an ornate silver headdress. For a moment Mara thought she was alone, gazing mutely out into the night…then a figure moved into the doorway behind her, its shadow cutting a long strip through the bright pool of light from the room beyond.
Leaning casually against the door jamb, body atilt in that familiar manner, was Luke. She was sure of it. He wore a dark fitted jacket, the reflective line of his lightsaber just visible at his hip against his dark trousers as it glinted in a flash from the bright lights of the room behind him.
Mara squinted, leaning in closer to the screen to study the small, grainy image…
The woman turned to speak as he raised a glass to his mouth before, with a shrug and a tilt of his head, he turned to disappear into the room. D’Arca followed gracefully, the train of her fitted dress twinkling in the low light.
Mara stared at the final image of an empty balcony for a long time, a plethora of questions whirling round her head.
What was she doing there? What was he doing there? Why hadn’t he mentioned it? Did she have any right to ask? If she did, would she seem accusing and petty?
It was probably an innocent meeting, she reassured herself quickly. D’Arca’s being here was no surprise; she was clearly doing her level best to secure herself a permanent place in Luke’s retinue at the moment. She could have invited Luke to her apartments and he’d felt duty-bound to…
Mara shook her head, jaw setting; who was she kidding—Luke was Emperor! He didn’t have to do anything.
She studied the image closer, mind flipping back to reassurance again; it didn’t actually mean anything. Luke wasn’t stupid; he would see right through D’Arca’s little games, and there was no guilt attached to manipulating someone who was seeking to manipulate you. He could have been there for any number of reasons, none of them the ones D'Arca intended. Or he may simply view this as a political obligation, given her family’s zealous support leading up to and following his accession. But ambitious as she was, D’Arca would no doubt be rather adept at wrapping men round her little finger; they had probably taught that as a lesson at that expensive Finishing School she went to. Hell, with her kind of breeding, she’d probably been taking lessons since she was old enough to stand up and demand attention.
Mara could feel the indignant scowl settling on her face; maybe it was about time she had a little word with D'Arca…in person.
The grand, galleried corridors of the East Tower, where the few elite who still maintained apartments within the Palace Towers were gathered, glowed crimson in the evening light as the setting sun bounced from the curved mercury-glass walls of the four towers to reflect in perpetuity, its reflection trapped between them until it fell below the horizon.
Mara passed dignitaries who talked quietly between themselves, their work officially over, though for some this was their true vocation. A good deal of pacts and agreements were still bartered this way in Palpatine’s Palace of Mirrors, despite Luke's attempts to clamp down. The few who recognized Mara nodded politely in recognition of her status; she was one of what were privately referred to as ‘The Survivors’—those who had maintained their position despite the changeover of power. There were few other ‘Survivors’ who had any real knowledge of her past, even here, and those who did knew better than to speak it out loud—one of the reasons that merited their survival.
Mara slowed at the wide atrium to the D'Arcas’ apartments, one of the largest residences held, spreading over a full quarter of one level in the East Tower. Four D’Arca-liveried guards stood to the main entrance, private guards tolerated in small numbers here in the East Tower, though strictly forbidden elsewhere. It didn’t really matter; Mara could have taken all four without breaking a sweat. As it was, she was hoping for a discrete word with the Lady of the house, so she was prepared to play the game, announcing her name and rank and waiting this out.
Shown to a reception room, Mara walked to glance out of the high windows onto the balcony beyond—and recognized where she was.
“You have a message for me?” Kiria D'Arca’s speed of reaction surprised Mara as she turned back, the slim, delicate woman entering quickly. She must have come as soon as she’d been told.
A flash of intense scarlet beneath her velvet tabard of inky grey as she glided forward reminded Mara instantly of the night when the woman had walked past her in Luke's apartments, head held high, and the memory instantly narrowed Mara's eyes. “Message?”
D'Arca paused almost at the center of the room, seeming amused at her own misunderstanding. “Oh—I thought you were delivering a message…from the Emperor.”
Mara took a half-step forward, holding out the small datacard. “No, I came to hand this over—I thought you might want it.”
D'Arca frowned without taking it. “What is it?”
“It’s an image from high orbit. Yourself and the Emperor, I believe…on that balcony behind me.”
D'Arca’s face changed just slightly, eyes narrowing warily in realization as to what this really was. “Oh, that’s right…you’re his little bodyguard.”
Mara felt her hackles rise as a slow, empty smile widened her lips. “Among other things.”
D'Arca looked her up and down, unfazed. “Of course. I remember you now. Commander Jade, isn’t it? You were Palpatine’s little assassin, his trained garrall.”
“Among other things.”
D'Arca glanced back down to the data chip. “Is this all you came for?”
“This…and a little clarification.”
A slow smile of realization came to those rosebud lips. “He hasn’t told you.”
“Told me what?”
The woman remained still for several seconds as if gauging Mara, those mahogany-brown eyes missing nothing. “Forgive me,” she said at last. “If the Emperor did not see fit to tell you, then I hardly feel it is my place. If you have anything to raise, it should be with him.”
“Right,” Mara said. “I’ll just go rushing in, guns blazing, demanding the facts, huh?”
Kiria gave the slightest of shrugs. “However you wish. I’m sure he’s used to such from you.”
“Perhaps I should mention it was you who told me to do it?”
“I did no such thing,” Kiria said smoothly.
The two women fell to silence for long seconds, regarding each other, the first real volley fired.
“Tell me, Commander Jade, were you loyal to your old master?”
Mara's chin rose. “Are you accusing me of treason now?”
“No, quite the opposite. I actually believe that you were a loyal and dedicated vassal. That you followed Emperor Palpatine’s orders to the letter. And I wonder…would you still?”
“Would you like the truth, Commander Jade? Would you like to know what Emperor Palpatine—the man who trained you and placed you here, and to whom you swore absolute loyalty—had ordained? If I told you the truth, would you honor his command?”
Mara desperately wanted to say no. Wanted to turn on her heel and not give the woman the satisfaction, but some part of her burned to know, even though she knew Kiria's words would be divisive… She remained still, and D'Arca continued, voice a honeyed mix of coldness and compassion.
“Because you were never meant to remain with him, Commander Jade. You were a means to an end, a resource to fulfill a requirement, chosen for that reason alone. You were a convenience for your old master, Mara Jade, and a temporary one at that. Palpatine never intended for you to be anything more than a passing interest to his Heir—a momentary distraction.”
Palpatine’s words from long ago cut through Mara’s memories like a knife: “We do not speak enough of your new role, my dear… You were among the very first I considered.” “Among the very first…”
With a terrible clarity, Mara realized that she was looking at her replacement.
And D'Arca knew it, those sharp eyes missing nothing. Nor did she miss the opportunity it presented.
“You are beautiful,” Kiria allowed, as she stepped close to study Mara, making her cheeks flush uncharacteristically to be the object of scrutiny from such flawless perfection. “In a rustic, uninspiring way,” Kiria added without malice. “You think that will hold him, because it has thus far, but things are about to change, Mara Jade. He is Emperor now—and I believe he is a good Emperor, an intelligent man. I believe he takes his position and his responsibilities very seriously.”
“Are you saying I don’t?” Mara challenged, still stung by D'Arca’s words.
“Do you?” The slightest of lines set at the corners of Kiria’s almond eyes as she narrowed them doubtfully. “And if so, do you seriously think for one second that he can afford such follies or indulgences as you anymore? You’re a trinket and that is all you will ever be, because as little as I know him, I recognize a born leader when I am in one’s presence, and he is everything that his station demands. Believe me when I tell you that he’ll come to realize that there is no room in his life for such…personal amusements any more. He is the Emperor now, and he is justly surrounded by polished diamonds—his crude, vulgar little trinket will very soon lose its sparkle.”
D’Arca set her head to one side, dark doe-eyes coolly disparaging, continuing in those perfectly modulated tones. “The hard truth is that you will always be a gutter-snipe. One of Palpatine’s strange little experiments that just won’t go away, a toy that he used for a while to distract his protégé. But Palpatine’s gone, and so is your influence, and the new Emperor will never keep you, not now—he’s too shrewd for that. He knows what Palpatine knew and was preparing for. He knows that what he needs now is to cement his reign, his legitimacy, and to do that, he needs to marry into an old family such as the D’Arcas. He has the power and I have the bloodline…and you have neither, which makes you surplus to requirements. If you cared for him at all, if you had a single noble bone in your swain, provincial body, you would scurry on back to whichever gutter you were dragged from and disappear.”
The coolly biting words left Mara speechless—for all of ten seconds. “I may not have the bloodline, but I’ve got more integrity in my little finger than you have in your whole scrawny little body.”
Kiria set her head to one side, soft tone edged by steel. “Enough to leave?”
“To make way for you?!” Mara was incredulous.
“To answer Palpatine’s command.”
“It’s funny how this command I never heard just happens to coincide with your interests.”
Kiria didn’t answer immediately; instead, she began a slow walk towards the wide sweep of the balcony, clearly considering her next move. Mara tensed for the coming volley; she didn’t have to wait too long.
“I had hoped to appeal to your sense of duty, Commander Jade,” Kiria said coolly. “I don’t wish this to be reduced to common acrimony. I would like to think that given the facts and the opportunity—and a little time to consider the appropriate path—you would bow out gracefully.”
“And leave the field clear for you? How very charitable of me.”
“How very dutiful,” Kiria corrected pointedly.
“You know, if someone other than you had asked, I might just have thought about it…but for you?” Mara shook her head. “No. I don’t think I’ll consign Luke to that.”
Kiria’s mahogany eyes widened slightly, and Mara didn’t miss the subtle realization of what it meant: she hadn’t known—D'Arca hadn’t even known Luke’s real name. That was the extent of their involvement to date. She almost laughed aloud. “You want a fight, that’s fine. I’m used to fighting for everything I’ve got.”
Those almond eyes narrowed again. “I’m sure you are. You look like you would be.”
“And you look like you’ve never had to fight for anything in your life—which isn’t the advantage you think.”
As soon as she’d said it Mara bit her tongue at giving so much away to her rival, knowing that Luke would find D'Arca’s practiced, polished facade arrogant and elitist; that her perfect veneer would hide nothing of the woman within, not from him.
“In point of fact, you’re right,” Kiria purred in perfect cadence. “I’m not used to fighting, I’m used to winning—very quickly.”
“That’s because you’ve never fought me before,” Mara said.
“On the contrary I have,” Kiria corrected mildly. “That’s why I’m here today. And I did it so well that you never even knew. Palpatine had a simple choice to make—you or me.”
Mara tilted her head to concede the fact; she hadn’t thought about it in those terms, but Palpatine must have at some point made the decision he hadn’t had the time to bring about: to replace Mara with Kiria. Because when she looked back, he had certainly begun subtle manipulations to casually incorporate the woman into Luke’s life—to begin to form a connection. The betrayal twisted Mara’s stomach, but still she had the focus to point out the obvious. “Unfortunately Palpatine’s not here anymore.”
“That’s less of a drawback than you would imagine,” Kiria maintained, eyes again taking in Mara as a whole, as if she were still sizing up her opponent. “If he were, certain…concessions would have had to be made to maintain my association with The Heir. Now I’m freed of them.”
“As am I.” Mara saw the slight uncertainty in D'Arca’s face but barely had time to wonder at it before the woman launched into her next volley.
“Do you know him at all, this man you claim to protect?” Mara hesitated, and it was all the encouragement Kiria needed. “Because if you did, you’d know that he needs this. He knows it. That’s why he will do it—because strategically, it’s the right thing to do. He will do it because he needs this. He will do it because it finally frees him to move forward. He will do it for many reasons, but he will do it. You stand here to claim some connection, yet you would willingly make this difficult for him.”
“He doesn’t have to do anything.”
A tight smile made those ruby lips seem hard. “Don’t—don’t be naïve. Don’t deceive yourself and worse, don’t try to deceive him. Don’t make this harder. Of course he has to do this. He knows it, his advisors know it—even you do, deep down.”
“See, that’s the thing,” Mara said. “I don’t. And no matter how many different ways you find to back up your claims, it doesn’t make them true.”
“Let me ask you this then: are you doing what he wants in coming here tonight…or are you fulfilling your own agenda, Commander Jade?” Kiria lifted her hands, faceted stones from heavy rings catching the light. “Please, don’t answer now, to me. This answer is to yourself alone. Are you truly doing what you believe is right for your Empire and your Emperor …or are you answering your own selfish wishes?”
Mara set her head on one side. “Oh, that’s good…you’re very, very good.”
“Perhaps I’m simply right.”
“You know, I think you actually believe you are.”
“Whatever you may choose to believe, Commander, I have the Emperor’s best interests at heart.”
“Because they serve you.”
“Because I serve him, Commander Jade—as do you. Remember that.”
Mara lifted her chin. “I’ve never forgotten it.”
“Then I trust that loyalty and logic will prevail. The former is an admirable trait in any citizen…the latter is proof of true loyalty.” Kiria glanced down to Mara’s hand. “You may keep the datacard, Commander Jade.” She turned, one hand subconsciously falling to her side to fan the train of her elegant gown neatly aside, a scarlet flash against dusky velvet, her final words delivered as she left the room without looking back. “I have no need of it. I have the real article.”
Luke stood outside the door of Mara's apartment in the North Tower, the hour late, the galleried corridor empty.
He’d waited long hours and taken great care to make sure that his trip here was unseen, and now he was risking all that by standing in the corridor and simply staring at her door, the night’s events running over in his head.
Kiria D'Arca had attended the state dinner to mark the annual re-opening of the Colony Systems’ Executive Assembly tonight, and as the evening had ground on for Luke, she had managed to turn what should have been just another tedious ordeal into an impending problem when, as if by accident, she had casually dropped into her conversation with him the fact that his bodyguard Jade had visited her two days earlier.
The flash of guilt that had fired through Luke had surprised him. “Mara? Why?”
“She wished to make her loyalties clear, shall we say. I suppose she wanted only to protect you. It’s nothing, really. Don’t be angry with her.”
Luke had cooled, wondering if D'Arca really believed that he could be so easily led by divisive words. “Then why bring it up?
Kiria had shrugged slightly and the heavy, ruby-encrusted necklace about her slender throat had glinted in the low light. “I suppose I didn’t want you to hear it from somewhere else. Now I’m afraid you’re angry with me.”
Luke had, in truth, been angry at himself. He should have known that there were no secrets here, if even one person other than himself knew the truth. Never trust. And anyway, he should have been the one to bring this to Mara. He couldn’t, in all conscience, be angry with her…and there it was again: conscience. Palpatine would have laughed in his face, would have ridiculed the pitiful flaw and scorned Luke's weakness.
Weakness…standing before Mara's door, Luke thought back to Kiria D'Arca’s words, spoken with such reasonable restraint and tolerance, but absolute certainty:
“If I may…as I said before, how you chose to occupy your private time is your own affair, Excellency, and I have already stated that I will never question it. But I see what you are doing in your public life, the changes you seek to put in place. I have watched you for a year now, and I know that what you have done is only the beginning.”
Luke had glanced up, surprised at her acumen, though he’d automatically denied her words, unwilling to be cornered. “I thought you were sharper than to believe the HoloNet hype.”
“I am,” she had said simply. “I’m also sharp enough to come to my own conclusions…as I know you are, Excellency. You know that the changes you’re putting in place require support, stability. And you know that I can give you that—that’s why you haven’t dismissed this out of hand. You intend to build a new Empire and I want to be part of that. I make no further requests. I understand the hard compromises which are sometimes necessary to achieve one’s goals, as I believe you do. I understand my place in this course of action, as I believe you do.” She hesitated, her omission of Mara’s name politely pointed, and Luke had sensed the sharp twist of uncertainty that she held in check behind her ambition as she pushed forward. “The simple truth is that no one else can achieve for you what you need right now. No one else could be Empress and you know it—not if you intend to continue these reforms.”
Luke had turned away, but to her credit, D’Arca had once again stuck to her guns.
“Please don’t misunderstand; I bear her no ill will. I feel no threat from her, because I know that you will have already considered all that I’ve said long before tonight, and drawn your own conclusions. I certainly know that you will look beyond any…personal considerations. And so, I hope, will she—despite her words.”
“You will look beyond any personal considerations.”
Luke sighed, staring at the closed door before him as those words rang through his head. She was right, of course; he would. But what gave him the right to expect the same from those around him?
His discussion with Nathan just days before came to mind, Nathan skewering the problem as ever. “I was just curious, as to where Mara fits into the plans…”
“Are you sure? Because you need to be.”
Moments; a hundred moments came rushing in as he stood before Mara’s door, wracked by indecision, responsibilities and desires colliding.
Mara’s words, long ago: “You’re saying that you’re capable of hurting me? I don’t believe you.”
Nathan, as ever cutting to the heart of the matter: “So you do trust her?”
“No, I don’t trust her.”
“…Would it be completely foolish of me to ask what you’re doing with her then?”
“Do I complicate things?” Mara’s earnest question to Luke—and his honest answer: “Yes, incredibly.”
His father’s damning judgment, which Luke had carried like a curse ever since: “We are solitary creatures by necessity. We can only destroy that which we value. You cannot be close to another– you cannot allow another to be close to you. Failure is inevitable and the consequences will spiral from your control.” “I am not you.” Luke had whispered his reply a hundred times, less sure by the day. Tonight the words wouldn’t come.
Instead, he remembered the night he had told Mara of his father’s warning…an admission of his own feelings. “Someone once told me that I could only destroy that which I loved.”
“You know I…”
“Don’t say it. Don’t ever say it.”
“…..What if I’ve cursed us both already?”
“You’re allowing her too close.” His father’s words still stung, and Luke still heard the empty promise he’d made in reply. “She’s not a weakness because I won’t allow her to be. Is that what you wanted to hear?”
Reece’s advice on the night of the Patriot’s launch: “You need to inspire confidence by example—by a method they recognize in a language they understand... You need to start acting like the Statesman they need you to be.”
“It’s not enough to be a leader.” His own words to Leia, just weeks ago. “It’s not enough to have a goal—you have to find a path to get there, to get everyone there. And if you see it, you have to seize it with both hands…because it may never come again”
How many times had he accused others of hypocrisy? He had no right to ask any less of himself than he asked of an enemy. No reason, no justification, no validation. No right.
Letting his breath out in a long, unsteady sigh, Luke stepped forward and knocked lightly on the door.