CHAPTER SIXTEEN

 

 

With a brief, quiet knock, the tall double-doors of Luke's office within the sprawling Cabinet, now staggered over nine complete floors of the South Tower yet still barely containing the principal administrative institutions, glided silently open. Turning from the long bank of memory-chips whose pale blue spines illuminated the run of one complete wall, Luke nodded once at the nervous Turis who bowed gawkily, a slight tremor in his voice as he announced Talon Karrde.

He really did have to do something to set the young man at ease, Luke reflected; the eagle-eyed Karrde probably thought that Luke made his life hell, for Turis to be so nervous every time he entered Luke's presence.

The mercenary sketched a bow as he entered, his usual dry, composed demeanor unable to mask the all-consuming determination which was blaring out through the Force as he struggled not to give in to the temptation to stare hawk-eyed, like the self-professed information-broker he was, taking in every detail of this most exclusive of environs that only the privileged and the prominent ever saw.

Did he realize, Luke wondered as he set forward, that he was one of them now? Luke slowed, eyes turning to the bottle in Karrde's hand.

The smuggler handed it over with an uneasy grin that lifted the edges of that wide, downward-turned moustache. "For you."

"I was always told to beware of Corellians bearing gifts." Luke hid his surprise behind quoting the old adage he remembered his uncle speaking so often.

Karrde was typically unfazed. "That's the riff-raff, I have better breeding than that… I simply choose to act like one."

Luke took the bottle of brandy, recognizing the label instantly, though Karrde made his explanations anyway. "It's Ruusan. Two hundred years old. I kept threatening to bring you some and I thought... Well, with your wedding just a few weeks away now, this might be your last opportunity to indulge in a little independent recommendation. From now on, you may find your liquor cabinet is one of many things arranged according to your wife's judgment."




The Emperor had the good grace to offer a nod of thanks as he stared a little too closely at the label, but Karrde knew him too well; knew that trace of slight discomfort which hardened his youthful features and held him to silence, setting fine lines at the corners of those mismatched eyes.

He'd grown into his role in the last year, it seemed to Karrde, presenting now the picture of composed calm despite his youth. In fact it seemed that the more difficult the situation, the more flawless the image the Emperor projected… How much then, was a defensive façade, Karrde wondered. Though he could hardly blame him; as their tentative working relationship had eased and settled, Karrde had more than once seen brief, suppressed glimpses of a young man who was very much at odds not just with the kind of stiff, formal pomp that seemed ingrained here, but also with the restrictions that a life at the top of the pile had heaped on a man known for his active military record. Karrde wondered briefly whether the whispers that the Emperor still occasionally slipped his bodyguards and indulged in a little grass-root action were true. Knowing the Emperor as he did now—and his penchant for privately hiring unmarked ships and hardware from Karrde when he had the whole of a very effective, streamlined military at his control—Karrde wouldn't put it past the man.

He did what he thought was necessary, and he expected no less from himself than those around him…

"This is a political marriage, isn't it?" Karrde realized, feeling suddenly very naïve for thinking otherwise. When the Emperor didn't reply, he added dryly, "Don't worry, you can keep the brandy either way."

The Emperor allowed a small, uncomfortable laugh as he stepped quickly away from Karrde's shrewd gaze towards the immaculately polished amber-inlaid yew console to the rear of the large room. "Maybe I'll open it now…just in case."

"Then it is," Karrde said. "I can't say I'm entirely surprised. The rumor mills always seemed to put you with a very different partner."

Luke didn't turn. "Which rumor mills are these?

Unseen, Karrde tipped his head slightly looking to the Emperor's back. "Not who, just which ones?"

"People always talk, you can't stop that." The Emperor shrugged without turning, attention on pouring the brandy. "I'd rather know how it's getting out than what they're saying. Anyway, you know you can't ever trust these things."

"To be honest this is a little theory of my own—one I've never passed on," Karrde assured. "No one's ever said it directly of course, I've just read inbetween the lines, but..."

"Go on?"

The Emperor turned and walked towards him, and before that assured, expectant stare, the smuggler suddenly found he hesitated to say it. "I've always imagined you with a nimble little redhead…or was I wrong?"

"You have a vivid imagination," the Emperor dismissed, passing a brandy glass to Karrde without speaking further.

Karrde shrugged. "She seemed more your type. Though I couldn't fault your choice in D'Arca either—from a purely aesthetic point of view, you understand."

The Emperor gave him a sideways glance in warning, and though it was indulgent, Karrde got the distinct impression that he was skating at the very edge of accepted decorum. "At least tell me you know her?"

"As well as I know many, though these days that seems irrelevant too. I most likely know the mole in my Palace… I'm probably quite close to him, considering the information he's accessed."

Karrde's eyes narrowed, missing the neat change in direction beneath the offer of a more intriguing subject matter. "You know who it is, don't you?"

The Emperor turned those sharp mismatched eyes on Karrde, expression as inscrutable as ever. "If I knew who it was, do you think I'd allow it to continue?"

"With you I never know," Karrde countered, and the two men shared a brief, amused glance. "There's no sign of the tracer virus yet?"

Not knowing where the leak was at the time, the tracer program that the Emperor had utilized had been generated by Karrde's slicer Ghent, rather than the Imperial Intel department, in an attempt to keep its existence hidden from senior Palace staff. But the Emperor had taken his customary care that even Karrde had no idea what document the tracer was connected to. "No, not yet. It must be in a closed system somewhere."

"Which means that whoever presently has it, they're not trying to pass it on any further."

"No. Presumably it went straight to its intended recipient and hasn't been passed to anyone else by him—or her. Which would mean that my mole is in direct contact with their accomplice rather than selling on the open market."

"I have heard something," Karrde said uncertainly. "It may not be true, since I have no proof, but one of my people heard that your Super Star Destroyer's itinerary for the next three months was in Rebel hands…"

"It's with the Rebellion?"

"Yes." Karrde watched the Emperor's jaw tighten, irritation burning dangerously close to the surface as he looked down, considering.

"Do you know who exactly has it?"

"No. As I said, I only had that because someone overheard specifics of it in conversation on a Rebel cruiser."

"Do they know who they heard it from?"

"No. They were only there for a few hours."

The Emperor glanced up, voice neutral. "Making a dropoff?"

"Yes—and before you ask, no, it wasn't one of my people. It was just passed on, in conversation."

"If you get anything else that way—anything at all—let me know. I want to know who has that information."

"Of course. I do have one other nugget—I mentioned a while ago that there was a call out on all channels for information regarding a certain SSD Executor."

"Go on?"

"I made a few inquiries. They wanted plans… More specifically, they want the full plans of the retrofit which was made seven years ago to the detention bay."

"Detention bay?"

"There was, I'm informed, a specialized holding cell built there."

"Ah."

The Emperor nodded, and Karrde's eyes narrowed; this had been a new one on him, though clearly the Emperor was familiar with it. "You knew about it?"

"Yes." The Emperor had that guarded look in his eye now, which Karrde had learned to interpret as, 'I'll give you exactly the information I think you might need but that's not even half the story.' "They're looking for the schematics to a reinforced, double-skinned cell designed to hold a Jedi."

Which actually didn't need much further explanation, Karrde knew; in this instance, for Jedi, read Sith.

"So they want the plans to duplicate it." Karrde waited for a reaction, some flare of outrage, but it wasn't forthcoming. "Are they in existence?"

The Emperor seemed introspect now, lost in thought. "Somewhere, probably. I'm sure I could dredge a set up, attach a copy of the tracer and leave them to be found; see if our Palace mole takes the bait."

"I thought I could perhaps get a set of false plans from you anyway—something that looks like it may be genuine and has all the official coding and seals. If I could make contact with the buyer, I might get an identity for you."



Staring at Karrde as he ran the possible scenarios, Luke considered; it was an interesting proposition. In fact, he could use both; give Karrde a set of plans and let him make contact, then allow Reece to smuggle a set out of the Palace; if whoever was dealing with Karrde then pulled out of the costly deal, it would mean that the same person was also Reece's regular contact. Which would not only irrevocably tie Reece to the Alliance—which was where the itinerary Wez had taken had apparently ended up—but maybe even give Luke the name of his contact there.

He frowned, the scar about his eye pulling with familiar pressure; but why would Reece, the inveterate Imperial, ever pass information to the Alliance? Just three months ago, when Luke had first privately admitted that his own brief contacts might progress into official talks, Wez had been all but apoplectic. Neither had mentioned that conversation since, but Wez's feelings had been crystal clear… How then, had an itinerary that Luke knew Wez had duplicated, ended up in Rebel hands?

Karrde moved just slightly, growing uncomfortable with the silence, and Luke pulled his thoughts back to the moment, knowing that the answers he needed wouldn't simply present themselves. As with everything else, they required time and attention to resolve; they needed orchestrating. "I can supply a set of the actual plans, but you'd need to deal through a third party; I don't want your organization implemented. If it does flush the informer out, I don't want any chance of a traceable link to be drawn between you and the plans."




"Of course." Karrde hesitated, uncertain whether the Emperor was protecting his plans or Karrde's organization. The truth, as ever, was probably a little of both…which may make the next request a little tricky. "I would have to have at least part of the plans uncoded and valid, so that they could be handed over for verification."

"You can have them all," the Emperor dismissed, surprising Karrde.

"You're not worried they may get hold of the plans and actually build it?"

"It isn't too much of a concern," the Emperor said knowingly, leaving Karrde to wonder what facts from the information he'd brought today had been linked together into the larger picture. Those distinctive eyes met Karrde's, and there was a confidence to the Emperor's words. Not arrogance or smugness, just quiet, a self-possessed knowledge which, as ever, posed far more questions than it answered. "I could break out of the same cell today in less than five minutes."










Unsurprisingly, when the day of the wedding finally came, Mara's name wasn't on the Duty Roster. She'd holed up in her quarters at the Palace, privacy filters on full at the windows, and had spent her time sitting at her desk, writing her letter of resignation.

She'd tuned just once to a random HoloNet channel; it was on them all. D'Arca wore a rich ruby red dress of crushed vinesilk velvet with a long train, a coronet encrusted with Corellian bloodstones, rubies and black diamonds flashing against her raven hair. 'The Scarlet Empress' they were already calling her.

When the image had cut to Luke she'd blanked the channel, unable to watch.

The day had dragged, pressing in about her and making her movements slow and listless, her breathing labored, her thoughts numb.

As night had fallen she'd wandered up through the North Tower, occasionally glancing out into the encroaching darkness as the first of the fireworks were let off by the crowds who had gathered on Coruscant, traveling in their millions to be near the Palace and share the experience. After decades of austere dogma under Palpatine's reign, their young, dashing, enigmatic new Emperor had always caught the public's interest. With the loosening of free speech, in reforms that he himself had instigated, the HoloNet and the NewsNet had been only too eager to feed their fascination, his all too obvious discomfort in the limelight only endearing him to them further. In this, as in so many other facets of his life, Mara had mused, Luke Skywalker was a typical contradiction; he was, to all intents and purposes, a popular dictator.

She'd turned away, walking the familiar halls with brooding discontent as the evening had dragged on, naturally gravitating away from the crowds of official guests who'd been awarded the ultimate boon of accommodations in the Palace's North Tower with their coveted invitation to the official celebration, only now beginning to wind down in the South Ballroom as the night waned.

Eventually, almost by default, she ended up on the nameless, little known roof garden at the very top of the North Tower used mainly to supply fresh flowers to the Palace. A hidden hideaway which she and Luke had occasionally used as a safe meeting place during their clandestine affair long ago, when Palpatine's iron will held everyone to his chosen path. Realization knotted her stomach that even then, without knowing it, she'd been losing Luke to Kiria D'Arca; whether Palpatine had lived or died, she would probably still have faced this moment.

She walked out into the still night air, reflecting that she hadn't actually been up here since, her heart twisting a little at the memories that it evoked—of laughter and exhilaration and electricity, of stealthy meetings in hidden, shadowed hideaways. Of that bone-deep feeling of completion and contentment which afforded a strange sense of invulnerability to whatever the universe tried to throw at you.

It had gotten them both through, kept them both sane...so why did the exact same feelings drive her to distraction now?

A movement in the deep shadows of the long grass in a fallow strip of ground made her jump and Mara let out a small yell as she twisted about, automatically reaching for the vibroblade sheathed against her belt at the small of her back.

"Don't jump." His quiet voice still had the power to send a twist of electricity through her.

"Why do you always say that just after you've made me do so?"

" 'Cos if I said it any earlier, I'd make you jump," came the wry reply—and stars, it was good to hear that loose Rim-world accent again. He let it slip so seldom now; it felt like a glimpse into the past.

She pulled herself together, realization belatedly hitting her. "What the hell are you doing up here anyway?"

How could she not ask…or hope.

"Nowhere else to go tonight," Luke said lightly, and Mara felt a slow smile spread across her face in the darkness.

She walked closer, squinting in the low light. He was laid out on his back in the unkempt grass of the wild fallow patch, no jacket on, glowing white dress shirt unbuttoned at collar and cuffs. Beneath his head was a roughly rolled-up throw, his arms bent back to lean on it, fingers laced behind his head to prop it up as he gazed straight up into the night sky without turning to her.

Mara stood over him for a short while, the moments convulsive with possibilities—

She should leave; she should turn around and walk away from someone obviously pretty damn confused right now… But somehow she couldn't get her body to turn or her legs to start walking. He didn't move, not once looking away from whatever held his attention so completely in the darkened sky…and eventually, without consciously making the decision, Mara settled onto the grass beside him, matching his pose, staring into the dusky night.

"What are we looking at?" she whispered at last.

"The stars," Luke said simply.

Mara frowned up into the warm orange glow of the endless city, reflected up into the haze of the Coruscant night, not a single star in sight.

"I can't see any," she said at last.

She heard the trace of the smile on his lips as he replied, "Trust me, they're up there."

There was something in his voice, something melancholy and jaded but tinged with a tired earnestness which made her smile.

"I do," she murmured quietly.

They lay there for a long time, gazing up at the cityglow and lost in their thoughts, before, at some unspoken agreement, Mara reached out her hand and felt Luke take it in his own, drawing it unhesitatingly up to rest on his chest, his thumb rubbing soothingly over her fingers.

"I used to look at the stars so much when I was a kid on Tatooine," he said wistfully at last, no trace of that perfect Coruscanti accent. It was sweet, always strangely intimate to Mara—something he did with her alone. "Different stars, of course; same thoughts though. Same hopes. Same stupid dreams."

"I think everyone has those dreams," Mara said thoughtfully.

"D'you think they work out for some people?" he asked at last.

"You know, I have no idea," she admitted after a considered pause. "I suppose so…statistically."

"… wonder what that feels like," he murmured lightly.

The silence hung for long minutes, the warmth of his touch and the gentle rhythm of his chest rising and falling against her hand lulling Mara into easy synch, a familiar, much missed gentleness which reached into her soul and fed some part of her which had been hungry for far too long, loosing the tenseness which had ground slowly tighter in body and soul over the past month, and making her feel she was finally able to breathe again. She felt completely at peace in that moment, staring up into the mute, diffuse darkness of the empty sky.

But reality reached out and tugged at her all too soon in the form of a burst of blue and violet fireworks, whistling high into the atmosphere to bloom in fleeting incandescent glory…and they both knew what was being celebrated.

Funny—that neither of them felt involved. The event, like the firework, was a distant blur of color and change, intense and unignorable but somehow strangely remote, casting little more than a play of shadows on their secret seclusion.

Mara let out a long sigh. "So what do we do now?"

"I wish I knew," Luke said with equal frankness. "All I know is that I left the woman I made Empress in her apartments two hours ago, and I have no desire or intention to go back."

"Does she know?" Mara asked quietly.

"Of course," he replied neutrally, though Mara could hear the trace of hidden guilt in his voice. "I never lied to her."

"And me?"

Unoffended, Luke fell to silent consideration, then, "Did I lie to you?"

"Not in a while," Mara realized…which left only one question: "Do you still love me?" He didn't speak, didn't move for a long time. "Do you st—"

"Don't ask me that, Mara," he whispered at last.

"I have to know."

Luke shook his head in jaded resignation. "Why? It was necessary, and it's done. We'll live…people always do. Why hurt yourself any more?"

"You think I don't already hurt? You think today wasn't like a knife in my side—that it wasn't the longest, hardest day of my life?"

Luke let out a long sigh, but she knew he was past apologizing. Felt he'd explained enough, justified enough, validated enough—maybe to himself, as well as Mara. And in his stillness, in his very presence here at all, she realized that today had been as much an ordeal for him as it had been for her, as much a test of will over wishes. It had been a knife in his soul too, twisting with that same complex mix of guilt and regret.

"Do you still love me?" she asked again, rising to face him, green eyes glassy. She had to hear. Right now, either way, desperate and hopeful and fearful, she had to hear.

"I stopped trusting you," he said at last. "I never stopped loving you."

Mara stared at the shadows of Luke's face in the darkness and watched his chest rise in a heavy, silent sigh but he said no more.
And he was right, she realized. He was right: it hurt like hell. It should have been a glorious thing, the ultimate triumph, fireworks and rhapsodies, absolute elation to hear those last words. But it was cold and it was hard and it just plain hurt.
"Bring it on," she murmured, too quiet to be heard. "I can take it."

Eventually she nestled in closer to him, wordlessly resting her head on his shoulder—and he lifted a lock of her russet hair to thread it through his fingers as they remained sheltered in this secret place, staring at those hidden stars.







When she woke, the first light of dawn was bleeding that secluded night away, morning dew hazing the blanket they'd sought refuge under as the air had cooled, though Mara still basked in the warmth of Luke's body close to hers, skin to skin. She closed her eyes against the day and sought comfort in the memories of last night; that safe, surreal haven which had given them the daring to feed their desire. She could take another three months of lonely misery for another night like last night. The memory lit a smoldering fire in her stomach which traveled on down with glorious effect and brought a wanton smile to ruby lips.

She glanced to him now, his face still relaxed in sleep, jaw just slightly loose, lips barely open, utterly appealing. No worries, no tense concern hardening his features to that rigid, unbreakable façade. He was so young, like this. He'd always looked youthful, but when he slept it was as if the years and the trials simply fell away and there he was; her Luke. Not the Emperor, not the Sith, just…her Luke. That damn pilot who'd walked into her life and turned it upside-down.

But he wasn't; he wasn't that man anymore, she knew that. He couldn't be, and survive here, let alone rise to Emperor. Yet she'd wanted that, hadn't she? For him.

Only now she didn't want it for him—she just wanted him. She'd wanted her wolf. But just like Palpatine, she hadn't been enough to hold him. She hadn't, Palpatine hadn't…and Kiria D'Arca certainly wasn't, no matter what she thought. He'd made that clear in his own inimitable way last night, when the wolf began to feel too caged and had come to bay at the moon.

Or maybe…maybe he'd come looking for the past last night too, however subconsciously; come to a place where the memories were still warm.

Wasn't that why she'd come up here, after all? Hadn't she come here remembering a time when every single day wasn't like fire and ice and every night wasn't like freefall.

Except last night. Last night he'd caught her. Last night she'd flown. Last night…

And tonight? He wouldn't come back tonight, she knew that. He'd wake up in the cold light of day and all those responsibilities and obligations would wrap themselves thickly about him and once again no one would be able to reach past them to truly touch him.
He was married. He was married now; everything else was in the past. Kiria had won. But…hadn't he come here last night looking for that past? Hadn't they spent last night living it?

And what did Kiria D'Arca have to offer against that?

D'Arca wanted to be Empress? Fine, she could have it. She could have her empty title and rot with it, for all Mara cared. It was just a title. Titles didn't keep you warm in the night and they didn't catch you when you were falling and they didn't make you fly. Let her keep her precious rank; Mara wasn't fighting for some empty title, she wanted the man. And she was as willing as ever to fight for him.

"Bring it on," she murmured again, absolutely sure; she could take it.



When she'd slipped away, leaving him still sleeping in the first flush of dawn to return to her empty quarters, Mara paused at her desk to look at the letter of resignation she'd spent long hours writing yesterday, still waiting on her automemo, ready to be transmitted…

In the still silence she reached out and blanked the screen, erasing it.

 

 

 

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

 

 

 

Luke stood close to the tall bank of windows in his bedroom staring out into the night sky. Coruscant was caught in the grip of one of its spectacular thunderstorms, flashes of incandescent lightening illuminating the wind-whipped clouds high above, their radiance like brief, broken flashes of daylight captured in the chaotic blaze of the roiling skies. Heavy squalls threw banks of rain against the thick transparisteel glass, momentarily blurring the night and reducing visibility to nothing until the wind lashed them to its edges in streaking trails, one after another. He'd watched for almost an hour now; stared out into the night as the storm threw the driving rain across bright shafts of light, twisting it this way and that through the fleeting beams like a school of frightened fish. Listened to the wind howl against the high walls of the Palace towers, its fury ripping through the trees in the rooftop gardens far below, whipping them about in a frenzied flurry.

The seasons were changing; Coruscant never took well to change—but then it wasn't alone.

The plans relating to the confinement cell fitted onboard the Executor had been copied from the central database. Commander Arco, head of Intel, had been made aware of the security leak several weeks ago, and now had a small team of nine agents working in isolation, who had registered the unauthorized file copy made earlier this evening.

Once again, all Luke could do was wait and watch, aware in every fiber of his body in that basic, elemental way that one could sense the coming of a storm, that something was moving closer every day. It didn't scare him, this sense of some hulking happening just beyond his awareness; what was left for the galaxy to throw at him? Death? Death was easy; Palpatine had taught him that in his own unique manner, pushing Luke to that brink over and over until numb familiarity dulled its edge.

Another year and it wouldn't matter anyway. He'd have enough in place to ensure that his plans were in freefall, gathering momentum… All he needed was that final, unknown inducement which would pull all the different factions together before he could move them forward…all he needed was to find it.

He turned to glance just once at the small, unadorned wooden box on the cabinet nearby, a brief, bright flash from the storm defining its hard edges. It would have appalled the immense vanity of his old Master, Luke reflected, to know that his ashes lay anonymous in a plain, nondescript box in the room of the man who had killed him. But he'd made a promise to the malicious, bitter old man in that final duel…and let the fates try to take him before he'd make it real. Just let them try.

Still, it was tortuous, this wait. This gnawing knowledge within the Force, hovering in the near distance like the pressure change before a storm, hiding in the shadows at the edges of his vision and whispering every night when he tried to sleep, scratching at his dreams and twisting them…




… … …
… … … … …
He was in the corridor again on Hosk Station; that long, dark, dirty, dusty, forgotten corridor, a broken, nightmare reality buckling and stretching the edges of the shadows. And at the far end was not the door beyond which lay the room where Leia waited; now it was barred by a far heavier battened door, agonizingly, achingly familiar.

With a hermetic hiss the door swung open and just beyond, a second door swung back on heavy brackets—and Luke knew what was within.

Yet he walked forward, unable to stop himself with all the will in the worlds.

He hesitated, holding back at the threshold, the room within black as a starless night…and without his moving the room distended, reaching out, engulfing him, surrounding him… And it was not the meeting room on Hosk; it was that cell, the cell beneath the Palace, and the door grated as it clanged shut with absolute inevitability.

Here he stood again, in the cell beneath the Palace…but not the cell. A perfect replica, the curve of the roof, the echo of Luke's harsh breathing against the arched, domed space chilling...but no ashen walls here; no perfect glowing white. These walls were black as pitch, black as nightmares, dark as death itself.

And then they were there behind him: Palpatine's guards. The guards who always came. Twelve minds as dense and hard and cold as stone. Twelve single-minded intents; twelve faceless threats. Twelve guards...only not twelve.

Not twelve minds: seven. Seven minds...why seven?

The shock of pain that jolted through him in the next moment was crippling, buckling his knees as he fell to the ground, arms about his head for protection, as he had so many times in that damn cell.

...

He gasped in the absolute silence, still hunched down...had they stopped? When had they stopped? A month ago or a minute, an hour ago or a heartbeat? Muscled slowly relaxed, still trembling in pain...

And there—there before him in that damn cell was Palpatine's throne; the Seat of Prophesy, the source of nightmares. But it wasn't Palpatine who sat statue still on the massive throne, insubstantial as a dream yet somehow solid and impenetrable as granite. Instead the images in Luke's vision shifted, pulsing in time with his heart, twisting and fragmenting within his mind, tumbling through brief, broken images of everyone he had known.

Words, moments, memories blossomed within Luke's mind, soundless and formless yet crystal clear, mixed and merged with disjointed images of the throne, brief refractions from its gilded surface glaring. They shuttered past, fragmented, quicksilver-fast, twisted and splintered and sharp as blades, and this room, this dark cell, filled with them, flashing bright and harsh in the absolute blackness until they crushed down on Luke like a physical force, pressing in, holding his ribs tight against his breath, doubling him over-

He screamed, more mental than physical, a burst of incandescent power within the Force which exploded outwards, pushing the memories back in a perfect, empty bubble about him—and for an instant everything was still, as if time itself had stopped, and Luke rose slowly within the center of this empty, dreamlike bubble while all those memories and those lives clambered at its edges, distant and obtuse.

All that was left within the still silence of the bubble was Luke...and the throne.

It alone whispered, ponderously and powerfully, like the turning of the universe... And slowly the whisper became that deep, familiar tone, jarring and discordant at first but changing as it echoed, like the receding tenor of a bell, coming into perfect, precise harmony with Luke's mind. It had no words, no conscious thought, but a pull so powerful that Luke felt as if it aligned every molecule of his body, every sliver of every thought towards it, with a need so deep and so resonant that it became his own:

~~Sit~~

The word rang within him. It rippled like a heat-haze in the air, it scorched and it burned like fire—because he knew; he knew that if he walked alone through this absolute stillness to sit on that throne, it would be his death.

And something else was here, now: close behind him in that barren space, were Palpatine's twelve guards, minds impenetrable in the still bubble, their very existence blanked in this Force-empty void, faces unreadable; unseeable... Only not twelve: seven.

Seven.

When Luke turned, stumbling about to face them, they had no force-pikes, no bars. Now they held blaster rifles, shoulder-height, unerringly aimed.

A shout sounded, the word a burst of barbed hate, filling the void completely, the bubble shattering, Luke jerking back as the word became an action:

"Fire!"

… … …




Luke jolted backwards, muscles convulsing, braced uselessly against the shots. The blow to the back of his head lit the absolute darkness with bright white light-

He let out a yell and it was a real sound, the shock of it yanking him back from the nightmare and into the real world, gasping in the darkness, body pressed against the head of the bed where he must have scrabbled during the vision, banging his head behind him, the pain dragging him back into the reality of the night, eyes wide, chest heaving.

The shadows lit bright with another actinic flash from the thunderstorm, an implacable frenzy of chaotic fury, and Luke flinched, every muscle firing.

The throne—that damn throne!

He had to see; right now, he had to see, was possessed by the need to go there right now and know that the throne was gone.

He rose and dressed quickly, pulling on clothes without seeing, shirt sliding over sweat-wet skin, mind completely gripped, obsessed by the need to see that the throne was gone.






He stood in the chill silence of the empty chamber, eyes on the scuffled footmarks in the heavy dust where many men had come in to heave the throne away. The storm railed outside, hurling itself against the windows time and again as he stood without moving for so long that his muscles buzzed and his vision dimmed, shadows writhing in the gloom.

Finally in a blur of motion he twisted round, striding so quickly from the apartments and through his guards that they barely had time to stagger back from his path. On the move again, they scattered into a loose, ill at ease group, passing quickly back to the West Tower. Luke powered up the wide, shallow-stepped staircases several steps at a time, forcing his guards to rush behind him. He strode down the long corridor without slowing, already taking his lightsaber from his belt, the tall doors before him practically bursting open to rebound forcefully against the walls. Luke was already through them, his saber the only light in the huge wooden-floored Practice Hall.

The Red Guards stopped gratefully outside the hall, positioning themselves at either side of the door, minds singing their relief at not having to follow their Emperor any further.

Luke didn't break pace, his lightsaber moving in a complicated series of arcs as he launched into a practice stanza with no warm-up, beginning at an advanced level. The practice continued for a long time in darkness, the movements becoming faster and fiercer, the only sounds reverberating through the cavernous, empty space those of the howling thunderstorm and the bright, buzzing blade cutting through air.











The call had come in three hours after midnight, rousing Mara from a disturbed sleep in which murky, troubled dreams whispered like roiling black smoke at the edges of her awareness. Contacting Nathan, she'd dressed as quickly as possible and made her way here, fretting all the way at the fragile state Luke may be in, long empty corridors whistling ominously, a pale echo of the fury of the storm outside. This was the third time in the last month that she'd been contacted in the middle of the night by Clem, head of the Emperor's Guard, with carefully phrased messages to come quickly, because only Mara or Nathan were able to disperse these situations.

When she'd arrived Nathan wasn't yet here, but Clem stood halfway down the corridor, expression set in stone. The two reliable bodyguards who had doubtless been on duty, and so had trailed Luke across the Towers, remained to either side of the Practice Hall door, but aside from that they were alone; the rule was, as few people as possible.

As Mara passed Clem towards the closed doors, the bright ruby blade of a lightsaber burst through the outside wall of the Practice Hall a few feet from one of the bodyguards as if thrown, causing the man to jump and twist away in shock as the hilt clunked into the far side of the wall, and the still-active blade fell under its own loose weight, cutting a line downwards through the stone until the weight of the hilt pulled it loosely back into the Practice Hall.

Mara gathered her own composure almost immediately, scowling silently at the man's reaction as she walked on, a picture of unconcerned confidence as the blade fell away from sight, leaving a long gash through the wall. She opened the doors and without hesitation, walked into the inky darkness beyond.




Closing the doors, Mara stood still for several seconds waiting for her eyes to adjust to the gloom. She could hear Luke's heavy breathing, but there was no starlight tonight from the long thin windows to one side of the hall, so that she knew only that he stood somewhere towards the center of the room. Turning, Mara walked slowly toward the lightsaber, which still hummed dangerously on the floor, the tip of the scarlet blade resting against the wooden boards and causing a fine wisp of smoke as it burned through.

As she crouched down to take it the blade spun away from her, twisting back and up to launch itself across the room hilt first. Mara froze for a fraction of a second, hearing the metal hilt make contact with Luke's hand as he caught it.

Giving herself one breath, she rose and turned. "Luke?"

Illuminated by the carmine glow, breathing heavily, hair wet and his shirt stuck to his body with sweat, Luke Skywalker looked anything but fragile.

A fork of blinding light split the sky behind him, making Mara flinch, and then he turned, the blazing ruby blade ripping through the air at incredible speed, becoming a blur of motion as its wielder threw himself into flips and somersaults, unconventional attacks and sweeping, powerful blows linked together, fluid and deadly, delivered with both unerring precision and raw aggression-

Suddenly he stopped dead, his hair flicking forward in slick strands as he shouted out in annoyance. Backing up several moves, he repeated the last series of offensive swings, the blade describing intricate arcs, momentary glimpses of the man who held it flashing by in the darkness. Stopping again at precisely the same moment, he muttered to himself, backing up, repeating the exercise again. And again, and again, and again, each time a little faster, the blade blurring into a wide arc of light until finally, with a shout of frustration, he hurled the lightsaber away from himself with such force that it flew the length of the room, tumbling in a swirling ribbon of radiance over the ebony floor, the smell of burning wood rising in brief coils as it made contact.

"Luke, what the hell are you..." Mara paused as he turned, the look in his eye stopping her dead.

Then he reached out without looking and the blade skittered about and lifted, hurling itself back to slap into the palm of his outstretched hand, the blade twisted away to be swung low behind its wielder, the tip almost at floor level. Luke became a scarlet silhouette as he turned sideways on to Mara, one hand before him, stalking forward in a combat stance. If he recognized her at all then he didn't show it, didn't slow his pace.

Heart pumping, Mara took three long, quick steps back and reached out to brush her hand over the control panel, the lights in the huge room illuminating in sequenced banks, making both its occupants flinch momentarily, though in her haste Mara had only activated around half of them.

Luke froze, wincing against the light, the action bunching the scar about his eye. In the dim half-light he dropped his weight onto his back leg, lightsaber still lit. Although it was held low behind him, his balance on his back foot, Mara was very much aware that he was still standing en-guarde.

The endless saber practice that had kept him sane in Palpatine's Court for so long had slowly mutated in the last few months, when the nightmares or the visions surfaced and he'd been unable to sleep. If left, he'd practice till exhaustion took him then sleep briefly, falling back on meditation to restore a tired mind and aching body.

But every time they'd become a little more dangerous, these brittle outbursts a little less controlled. Like a waking dream from which there was no escape.

Mara briefly wished she'd brought her own saber with her, if only as a back-up defense, then instantly dismissed the thought; if she'd drawn a blade she'd have no hope of stopping him, not when he was like this. For an instant she thought of the vials of serum that Luke had ordered destroyed long ago, capable of sedating him…then she glanced quickly away, cloaking the thought.

She took another step forward, speaking his name, attempting to break the moment with casual words as she had done in the past. "Luke…seriously, stop it. You're making me nervous."

He remained still, chest heaving, lightsaber still low, though his whole body language in that moment indicated someone on the edge of attack rather than making a defensive withdrawal.

Again Mara made herself move forward. "Luke… Nathan's on his way and you'll…"

"Leave," he hissed, voice vehement, head to one side, hand held out low before him in warning.

Deeply aware that this was the only warning she would receive, Mara took a further step forward, showing her outstretched, empty hands, palms up. "You know I can't do that."

Luke transferred his weight evenly to the balls of his feet as Mara took another step forward, his front hand dropping closer to his body, knees bending slightly. It was a subtle change of balance but Mara was watching for it and paused, knowing she could go no closer, the low hum of the blade vibrating the air. "Perhaps you…"

Abruptly Luke threw his weight up and back into a somersault, the blade swinging out before him, inches away from cutting Mara from hip to shoulder. Landing on his left foot, still half-crouching, he used the momentum of the jump to twist him back round to face Mara, the saber brought in tight to his body before stabbing out and up to stop inches before Mara's ribcage.

She stood very still though her chest rose and fell quickly, shocked rigid by the action. They'd sparred many times and Luke often brought his own blade close to Mara in an attempt to get her used to its presence, but she'd never once felt under any threat, no matter what.

"You're saying you're capable of hurting me? I don't believe you."

She'd had absolute conviction when she'd said that to Luke, long ago. Now, here, her heart pumping against her ribs, Mara was acutely conscious of the fact that even if Luke was aware of her presence he clearly had no idea of who she was.

He stood, suddenly lax as he glanced down, shaking his head, clearly frustrated, any trace of menace gone. The tip of the blade dropped loosely down as again he backed up three steps, pausing with his eyes closed.

Swallowing against her dry mouth Mara made to follow, but as she did so Luke again threw himself back into exactly the same sequence of moves, the speed of the change from idle to action terrifying, his lightsaber arcing round in a solid wall of light before Mara, so fast was the motion. He dropped to the crouch, twisting about, making that stab which halted an inch from her body… The moment he finished he let out an exclamation of anger, standing up and taking a few steps back, shaking his head.

"Luke, I'm going to get Hallin, okay?" He must be outside the door by now, Mara knew; dare she bring him in? The thought was overrun by a flurry of movement as again Luke went through precisely the same sequence.

This time as he finished, ribcage still heaving from the exertion, he shouted out angrily at himself, "Do it right!"

As if Mara were simply not there, he again took three steps back, head shaking, muttering unheard rebukes to himself. This time, desperate to interrupt this compulsive spiral, Mara stepped too close for Luke to repeat the movements without hitting her.

Without even looking, Luke backed up further. But Mara stepped forward again, maintaining the distance between them, a twisted repetition of the time long ago when she'd walked in on him in the Practice Hall, trying to stop him practicing when it would have damaged his badly broken arm. Then, it had been a game, Luke grinning as she'd stepped in close and he'd stepped back… "What, are we dancing now?"

Her heart ached at the memory; at the difference from then to now—at the spiraling events that had brought him to this.

Unknowing, seeming still unaware of who Mara was, Luke backed up without acknowledging her. Again Mara followed. They traversed back several more times like this until finally Luke was forced to look up at her, annoyance clipping his words, blue eyes seeming to glow with an amber-bright edge in the dim light. "Move back!"

Mara felt the heavy pressure drive against her body as Luke's hand lifted, palm out. The invisible force was more a push than a blow, a fraction of what he was capable, but it held incredible contained power as it batted against her ribcage, propelling her effortlessly back. She tried vainly to stand her ground, leaning into the push, though it forced her back several staggering steps as if all her resistance was nothing.

Already Luke was stepping back, the act forgotten or dismissed, lost within his own insular awareness as Mara forced air into her lungs to speak.

"He isn't here," she said loudly and firmly, still struggling to breathe.

Luke paused, his chain of thought broken. "…what?"

"He's not here, Luke, you know that." Mara shook her head, seeking eye contact. "He's dead."

For several long seconds Luke stared at her, breathing heavily. Finally he shook his head, muttering as he backed up again, the compulsion taking hold.

Mara stepped forward, trying again. "The move was perfect."

He shook his head without looking up. "It was too slow."

He had answered—which meant he was listening. "It was perfect. You've practiced enough tonight."

"No, it was too slow. The blade wasn't tight enough in on the turn." Luke was adamant, though Mara knew that the flaws were non-existent.

She reached out, close enough to touch him but not daring to do so in his knife-edge state. "Luke…you have to stop now."

Luke paused, breathing heavily, frustration and confusion evident in his eyes…but he hesitated. "…it was too slow…"

"Please, Luke. You know what this is, it's just the dreams." Again Mara held out her hand, aware that Luke was struggling against inner demons. Always, in all the time she'd known him, he'd had nightmares which had dragged him awake in the dead of night, shouting out in the darkness, several steps from the bed before he was even awake, tensed to fight. She knew what they were, how they'd come about, though he'd never once in all the time she'd known him spoken of his time in the cell beneath the Palace.

Luke took a halting step back, strangely vulnerable now, shaking his head, voice small. "…it was too slow…"

"No it wasn't. You can practice tomorrow. Please, Luke…"

He blinked quickly several times as if coming out of a fugue, taut muscles slowly slackening. The bass hum of the saber died as he deactivated it. Still breathing heavily, he looked down, confusion coloring his scarred features.

"I still see it," he whispered, voice broken by bewilderment, his eyes still impossibly bright in the half-shadows, though their amber edge had gone.

"See what?"

"The throne, Palpatine's throne." He said it as if it were obvious, as if it were the driving force of the universe.
Mara knew he'd been there tonight: had been told by Clem that he'd gone there first, standing for almost an hour in Palpatine's deserted quarters to stare in silence at the empty space where the throne had once stood.

"It's gone," Mara said simply. "It's gone now."

He looked to her, head coming up slowly, awareness seeping into glassy eyes. Releasing the breath she hadn't realized she was holding, Mara let the silence hang a few moments for Luke to find his focus before finally saying gently, "Perhaps you should rest?"

Luke loosed a broken breath, mismatched eyes imploring as he shook his head. "I can't..."

With nothing to say that could smother this pain, Mara stepped slowly forward, taking the saber from Luke's unresisting hand as she wrapped her arms about him in the dim shadows, holding him close…and slowly, he lifted his arms and held her.








When Kiria arrived in the wide colonnade leading to the Practice Hall, alerted by her own sources, she was politely but firmly stopped twenty paces from the doors by Commander Clem's guards.

Hallin, the Emperor's Aide whom she had spoken to at the levee, glanced back momentarily but his attention seemed focused elsewhere. Kiria wondered briefly why he hadn't entered the Practice Hall, which was clearly where the Emperor was despite the early hour, two Royal Guard holding position outside the tall doors. Wez Reece arrived and was, annoyingly, allowed immediately past the guards without challenge. Nathan Hallin walked forward to speak with him in hushed, urgent tones. Again Kiria tried to pass, and again she was stopped as the guards closed ranks before her.

This time she shouted out in frustration, and Reece immediately turned, starting forward.

"Please, Lady Kiria, you should return to your apartments."

"What's going on?"

"Nothing. Nothing's happening. Please-"

Kiria set her head to the side as she looked up at him. "I'm not a fool, Reece. The Emperor's in there…why?"

"He's practicing, Ma'am. He practices lightsaber stanza often, you know that."

"Before dawn?"

"Any hour." There was a cautious tone to his words which made Kiria frown.

"Reece, I'm not his enemy."

The Aide rubbed at his eyes, more long-suffering than tired. "I know, Ma'am. I know that. This is just…a private matter."

Kiria frowned, glancing back to the closed doors and the nervous, fretting faces of those in the corridor, Nathan Hallin passing out orders and moving guards back… And realization struck her—of who wasn't here. "Is Jade in there?"

"Commander Jade is the Emperor's personal bodyguard, Ma'am. You…"

"Is she in there?"

"… Yes."

Kiria met his eye and Reece sighed, perhaps seeing some of the distress she was trying so hard to hide. His tone when he spoke was conciliatory, supportive even. "She can stabilize him in this instance, Ma'am. She has a place here which…"

"Stabilize?" Kiria murmured, her concern clear as she hushed her voice.

"It's nothing, I assure you. Please, if you really want to help, you'll return to your apartments. I'll make time to see you tomorrow, Ma'am, and explain what I can. You have my word."

Kiria held his eye for long moments, wanting to argue… But now wasn't the time, even she could see that. She turned, pulling the long, grand train of her gown about her as she walked regally down the wide colonnade, a bright fork of lightening briefly flaring in the shadows of this secretive place, aware that she had once again been politely sidelined.











Wez Reece wasn't particularly accustomed to wandering the lower levels of the West Tower, but now was as good a time as any to become so, particularly since one of his new protégés had chosen to make her home here. Kiria D'Arca had requested such and, with his distinctive mix of wary reluctance and good grace, the Emperor had allowed her to locate her own apartments in the same Tower as his, just nine stories below. Of course, Skywalker was no stranger to the machinations of palace powerplays and knew damn well that D'Arca was setting her claim and, whatever their personal arrangements, was making a very visible statement of her new rank and power. Yet he'd allowed it anyway.

He was, Wez suspected, nursing an unspoken guilty streak in regard to his contract with D'Arca. Not sufficient that he'd lost the acumen to recognize that its value outweighed any petty personal qualms, but enough that despite his general avoidance of her, he was already in the habit of indulging her constant and diverse requests, made through varied channels, with reserved tolerance.

Ironically, this had led the various rumor-mills in the Imperial Palace to assume that it must clearly be the Emperor's infatuation for his new bride, Wez knew. If D'Arca was aware of his guilt then she certainly wasn't above exploiting it, as she'd immediately set about taking over the entirety of the Tower level and remodeling it into a vast series of sumptuous, extravagant apartments of a standard and luxury to which she very clearly intended to become thoroughly accustomed.

Not that Wez had any problem with any of this; she was Empress now, and not only should a certain standard quite rightly be maintained, but he was more than happy for D'Arca to come to appreciate this unique lifestyle—enough that she may well want more.

Like the storm, the unexpected, disquieting events of the previous night had rolled over with the dawn and could so easily now never have happened, most of the inhabitants of the sprawling Palace waking to another new day blissfully unaware that they had even taken place.

The few who did know, like Nathan, had spend the remainder of the night in sleepless worry, and less than a year ago Wez too would have been fretting, all too aware of the outrageous pressure that Skywalker withstood from all sides. Though Wez had never once worried, as Nathan so often did, that it would overwhelm the Emperor; he had absolute faith in Skywalker's ability to endure for whatever he believed in, even now. In fact, what had once seemed a strength was fast becoming an obstacle—because how did one find a crack in that armor? If Wez were loosing sleep worrying about anything of late, it had become that.

So whilst others set out this morning to make what little repairs were necessary between the storm and the night's events, Wez too set out with the same in mind—more so than most in truth, because if all went well he would do better than repair; he would rebuild. Create anew.

And fittingly, he would start today in the new Empress's pristine apartments in the West Tower.




The apartments were a hive of noise and activity, with just fifteen of the thirty-odd rooms complete despite the vast workforce of artisans which D'Arca seemed to have amassed. It didn't take Wez too long to track down the Empress however, since her interest in all this construction seemed limited to the only completed suite, considering fabrics and furnishings with an endless trail of specialist suppliers and designers.

Wez waited patiently, taking his time to study three vast new canvases which now adorned the walls of the waiting room. Skywalker had never taken any particular interest in his surroundings save for the small suite of three rooms to which he always retired in one corner of the vast Perlemian Apartments, so that the Palace remained largely as it was under Palpatine's reign, and Wez found himself quietly curious as to how far the infusion of fresh ideas brought with the new Empress would be tolerated.

Since her taste was toward the luxurious and the grand, it didn't jar here, so Wez suspected that for a while, as long as her influence didn't extend into those rooms utilized in the Emperor's daily routine, she would have free reign. But eventually her confidence would no doubt overstep her caution, and Wez was interested to see what exactly would take place when it did. To date, their interactions had been largely tolerant, but Wez was willing to bet that the new Empress felt she hadn't even begun to stamp her mark on the Palace, or its owner. In fact he was counting on it—among other things.

Large, wide-spanning plans required certain predictable, reliable facts—facts one could count on. Such as D'Arca's clear determination to establish a place for herself here… Or, for instance, the fact that unlike his predecessor, the present Emperor had the habit of leaving the odd enemy at his back. Sometimes it was part of a larger plan or occasionally, for reasons Wez had never understood, having taken their teeth he would shy back from the final blow in a fit of conscience which, as Nathan had recently pointed out, Skywalker would later disguise beneath impressively logical validations. A little trick he'd probably learned when still answering to Emperor Palpatine's constant judgments and demands, Nathan had posited. Though at other times Skywalker's more recognizable connections to the old Emperor showed through with irrefutable clarity, and he would grant them a reprieve simply to break them down again a piece at a time. It didn't really matter—the point was, he had enemies. Useable ones.

Wez glanced about the refurbished chamber, the smell of wet plaster and marble mortar still thick in the air, reflecting on the fact that when rebuilding, whether it be an Empire or an apartment, one must occasionally destroy to regain lost glory. And really, when looking for a likely candidate whose actions in this would fire Imperial wrath without a single supporting voice, there was only one man to go to:

General Crix Madine, ex-Imperial traitor and one of those few enemies who had so far managed to elude Skywalker, though not without bearing the scars. Now there was a man with an axe to grind. There was a man ripe for manipulation—and like the new Empress, Wez now had every intention of taking any opportunity offered to further his own goals.

Thus, what had originally been instigated by Wez as an easy way to trigger a few Rebel attacks on Imperial targets, and in doing so persuade his Emperor to tighten restrictions, was now morphing into a far more audacious, far-reaching plan. Wez had used Luke's own methods to make contacts within the Rebellion and gain access to Madine, handing over morsels of information to direct his attention where Wez saw fit. Nothing which would compromise Imperial security on a large scale—Wez was no traitor; quite the opposite in fact, he was a patriot—but enough to gain trust.

Five times now, long before Wez had first decided to make contact, Imperial Intel had brought to light plans by Madine to assassinate the new Emperor. But it was a plan that had never gone past its formative stage that had re-caught Wez's interest of late: Madine's intention to capture and execute the Emperor, the images to be broadcast over the ever-loosening HoloNet.

It was ironic that what had once seemed to Wez the clear argument against relaxing such laws now became the perfect opportunity. If such a thing were to happen, if the Emperor were to be lost and Jade elevated to command of the Empire under such conditions, her reaction would be swift and merciless. She would, quite rightly, be outraged by the actions of the Rebellion, turning on them with a vengeance and using every iota of Imperial military might to grind them to dust.

In the short-term she would of course seek to continue Skywalker's supposed 'reforms', but she'd know deep down that it was the loosening of such restrictions that had killed him, and in a year or so, maybe less, she would return to her roots and with the minimum of guidance from Wez, would begin to reinstate true Imperial dogma. She'd never have the magnetism that Skywalker's unique mix of ruthlessness and morality afforded him, but then the Empire had held two charismatic Sith Emperors in succession on its throne. Perhaps in that, Skywalker was right; it was time for a little stability.

That was Wez's intent; that was Plan A. In an entirely unexpected development though, the change Skywalker had made to D'Arca's title in the complex contract before their marriage, in an effort to avoid a certain happening, had simply served to clarify its potential to Wez. Because if he were able to maneuver D'Arca into the line of succession from which Skywalker had purposely excluded her, then she too would be a viable contender for leadership. In fact she may well hold the inside track, considering her background and her support.

True, Wez doubted very much that Skywalker would ever change Mara's position as his direct heir, but when Skywalker had also very helpfully brought up the possibility that the documents pertaining to the line of succession could conceivably be 'lost,' yet another avenue of opportunity had begged investigation. Yes, there were five people beside himself who knew the contents of that document, but such an unfortunate event as the Emperor's outright murder at the Rebellion's hands would be a very unstable—and therefore fluid—situation.

Despite his attempts to access, remove or potentially damage the document file however, as well as his continued attempts to pull D'Arca into the line of succession, the status-quo had thus far remained intact. Still, it was as well to spread one's risks; there was no harm in continuing to push and support both Jade and D'Arca, as long as neither realized his split loyalties. There were, after all, larger things at stake here than a few bruised egos. It was more important that Wez be allied with—and therefore have some influence on—whoever acceded to the throne than that he maintain a single loyalty anymore, in these exceptional times.

And the line of opportunity which had presented itself, inspired by the Emperor's differentiation of D'Arca's title as Empress Consort rather than Empress Regnant, had also inspired one further potential, which doubtless would not have even occurred to the Emperor himself, as of yet. For now, all that this required of Wez was a subtle clarification of just how fluid—and therefore how advantageous—this situation could be to the ambitious new Empress. The rest was up to her.




The room into which he was shown was a supreme example of her taste. Previously a suite of four already well-proportioned rooms, it was now a single lofty space, its walls decorated in great slabs of veined, moss-green agate, massive circles three-quarters the height of the room set within pieced pale agate squares, interspersed with granite pediments, the enfilade into a further three rooms of equally grand effect still under construction, though empty at the moment—which was just as well, considering what Wez had come to say.

The Empress herself was a blaze of bright scarlet against the leaden olive greens, the train of her long tabard falling in a graceful pool on the still-dusty floor, unheeded. Bowing politely, Wez set forward, concentrating his mind on the task ahead.





Kiria D'Arca turned as the Emperor's Senior Aide entered, pausing to execute his usual flawless bow just within the room as the servant backed out, leaving them alone in the echoing chamber.

"Good morning, Excellency. The apartments are proceeding most impressively."

She nodded, going through the pretense of polite niceties. "Good Morning, Commander Reece. Yes, I hope to be settled by the mid of next month,"

True to his word last night, Wez Reece had indeed contacted Kiria early after breakfast, though he had explained little, requesting instead a face-to-face meeting. When Kiria had tried to push him on the matter of speaking to the ever-reclusive Emperor, Reece had avoided the issue, making the form excuses of pre-existing commitments and citing a time later that week perhaps. Despite this, Reece had seemed at pains to let Kiria know that she had an ally in him, he being as she was, an advocate of the Empire and all that it stood for. It was this little aside that had piqued her interest—and the hope that she could drag a little more from the recalcitrant Aide about the events of the previous night.

"You intend to have the apartments finished by then?" Reece asked now, glancing about.

"Completely," Kiria said, very sure. "They also have a name; I would very much like to call them the Sigmi Apartments, in recognition of the D'Arca family's hold there, though this is of course at the Emperor's discretion. I would very much appreciate meeting with his Excellency to discuss this fact in person, though that seems a little difficult at present." She left the last hanging as a challenge, though she knew the Aide would be far from flustered by the act.

"Indeed, Ma'am. The Emperor has a very busy schedule. I will, of course, present your request, and do my best to ensure that it is met at the first opportunity."

"Perhaps when you do so, Sir, you could also ask the Emperor's indulgence in an explanation of last night."

Reece remained still for a second or two. "As I explained at the time, the Emperor was practicing, Ma'am. He often practices lightsaber stanza alone, everyone knows this."

"In the middle of the night?"

"The Emperor regularly practices well into the night. As you know, he travels frequently with the fleet so is seldom attuned to Coruscant's time."

"I see." Kiria let a knowing pause hang before speaking out. "Forgive me, Commander, I have two brothers and countless cousins who enjoy distinguished careers in the Imperial fleet… I was under the impression that it always operated on Galactic Mean Time as dictated by Imperial City."

Now it was Reece who held silent for a long time, dark eyes on hers, but if he was hoping to intimidate, he'd picked the wrong adversary. Kiria knew damn well that though she couldn't necessarily gain easy access to him, she did have the Emperor's indulgence, and she intended, in time, to hold easily as much status and power as Wez Reece. Still, his next words threw her.

"It must be very reassuring to know that one can fall back on such a wide group of familial contacts in any…unfortunate situation." Kiria's eyes widened, and he rushed to explain, his expression changing not a whit. "Please don't misunderstand, Ma'am, I was speaking only in the broadest terms. If something were to happen to the Emperor, for example, it would be most encouraging to know that such a cornerstone of support was both available and amenable."

Kiria frowned. "Nothing is about to happen to the Emperor, Commander Reece."

"Of course not, Ma'am. But one must be prepared for every possible future, and it would be advantageous to know that such support existed, were you to find yourself in the position of sole holder of the Regent's title."

Kiria narrowed her eyes. "My title as Empress is honorary, Commander Reece. I have already stated that I make no claims to greater power and have no desire to gain eminence in the line of succession."

"Of course," Reece said soothingly. "Though I regret hearing such, Excellency. Ambition is a strength, not a crime, and I always admired you as a woman of vision. Were any such situation to arise, it would place my mind at rest to know that I may count on you to take all necessary steps to stabilize and protect the Empire."

Kiria hesitated a fraction of a second, uncertain whether she was reading him correctly. "Stabilize the Empire from what, Sir…and protect it for whom?"

"For those who remain loyal to the Empire, Ma'am," Reece replied, as if this were obvious. "Those who look to the tenets of what made this Empire great and follow them to the letter. I have a particular passion for Imperial law and constitution, Ma'am; it is an incredible thing. Every statute was placed for a valid reason. Every one has its place in the greater scheme of the continued stability and prosperity of the Empire. They cannot simply be…contorted or dismissed. The continuation of the Empire is paramount."

Kiria waited, silent, and the tall Aide straightened, his voice calming again, that brief spark of obvious indignation layered now with subtler insinuations.

"Our existing constitution is a most comprehensive and minutely detailed beast, Ma'am. In the last three decades, it has written and passed into law every conceivable directive allowing for every possible event, however remarkable." Reece paused for just a moment before continuing smoothly, "You may be interested to hear, for example, that it is well established among the Royal Houses, and therefore as a legal precedent, that if there were to be a line of genetic heredity founded between the Emperor and the Empress—a legitimate heir—and the Emperor were to die, then existing constitutional law has already decreed that no matter what his age, such a genetic Heir would precede all other claims to the throne. And if, for example, such were to happen when the child was still an infant—even if it were not yet born—then existing law dictates that the statute of Lord Protector would be enacted, and a surrogate ruler would hold the throne in trust until its legal successor was of an age to rule."

Kiria narrowed her eyes just slightly. "I'm sure you're aware, Commander, that the marriage between myself and the Emperor remains a political one…for now."

"I am, Excellency. However…" The tall Aide paused, eyes falling as he spoke, his voice neutral. "If, for example, something were to happen to the Emperor in the near future, I am also aware that certain…genetic samples are stored in a secure location. And I understand that it is traditional not to publicly announce the conception of a child until at least three months into pregnancy..."

He paused, and Kiria understood exactly the offer he was placing on the table, though she remained silent.

Commander Reece continued, his first word speaking volumes. "Theoretically…whether that child had been announced or not before the Emperor's death is irrelevant. It would still be the direct, legitimate genetic heir, and as such would bring into effect the law of Lord Protector. As the nearest surviving relative, the mother of the Heir, be she Empress Regnant or Empress Consort, would automatically take the role of Lord Protector, placing her on the throne until her son is of age." Reece smiled again, giving Kiria time to digest that. "Law is such a fascinating subject, I find. Full of unexpected surprises, hidden unnoticed in its immensity."

Kiria blinked, mind rushing to consider the full meaning of all he'd so casually said. "You seem to have invested a great deal of time in studying the complexities of the law, Sir."

"As I said, it is my passion, Ma'am, and I regard it as time well invested for the greater good of the Empire. Such is never wasted."

"For the good of the Empire?"

"Always. Such constitutional tenets are the backbone of its strength. One cannot simply…change aspects of that constitution at will without a legal precedent. I look at you and your House, Excellency, and I see a true understanding of this—an appreciation of the status-quo and the stability it provides…would continue to provide, come what may."

"You see a great deal in the House of D'Arca."

He nodded gravely. "Indeed I do—and in yourself, Excellency. The potential for…greater things.

Kiria looked sharply up at him, well aware of how to play this game. "It seems at the moment, Sir, that I haven't even the backing to enable me to see the Emperor. Any greater design would surely fall by the wayside at such a basic hurdle."

Reece bowed slightly. "I will, of course, work hard to try to gain you an audience, Excellency. I'm sure you know that the Emperor has a very small and vigilant circle of trusted confidantes—but perhaps a little support from someone within it may gain you a great deal."

"I have every intention of gaining my own place in it, Commander—as a start."

Wez bowed just slightly, in preparation to leave. "I am very pleased to hear it, Ma'am. I always think it a true crime to waste a capable and motivated mind—one that with the right backing could go so very far."

Kiria nodded just once as the tall, heavy-set Aide backstepped and turned to leave, already running through the conversation again in her mind, uncertain whether she'd misread it. But no, surely not...

What to do with such information was never in question, but how…that was a veritable minefield.








Late in the day, Commander Reece had again commed Kiria's private secretary to follow up on his last promise, leaving a message stating that unfortunately the Emperor would be unable to meet with her imminently, matters of State pressing. He'd left a long, affected pause in consideration before stating that he would himself be happy to discuss this further with the Empress if she wished. If that were the case, he'd added carefully, then he knew for a fact that he would be free from seven onwards tonight, since this was when the Emperor would be otherwise engaged in the Hall of Records, conducting private reading and appraisal following his meeting with his Senior Aides, as he always did.

Kiria hadn't miss the implication, and made her unexpected entry to the Hall of Records at seven-oh-six precisely, finding the Emperor sitting alone amidst the long banks of data chips, his tailored jacket shrugged off and abandoned on a nearby chair as he sat on another, head resting in his hand whilst he bent over an autoreader, mind absorbed in the task.

"Good evening, Excellency." She didn't bother to act surprised, as if this were a chance encounter; she knew him well enough by now to know it wouldn't work.

Still, when he turned it was clear that he'd been caught unawares; he must indeed have been engrossed in his task. "Lady Kiria."

He looked tired; drawn and drained, skin pale with dark rims about his eyes, probably from his sleepless night. But he stood politely as she walked forward, and she knew he'd be gracious enough to concede now that he'd been caught.

"All alone?"

"Busy." He glanced to the door as he spoke, and it was clear from his face that he was chiding his own lack of attention, not only that he'd been caught out at all, but caught by Kiria, though she doubted very much that he would simply turn away or dismiss her, as he would have others. He'd almost certainly been informed by now that she'd been outside the Practice Hall last night—that she'd left discreetly and without protest.

So she held her ground, composed and self-possessed. "Yes, so I heard. There's such a thing as too much work, Excellency, even for an Emperor."

"If you could just let the Empire know that…"

She smiled, knowing it softened her face. "I'll do my best."

He backstepped, hoping to bring this to an opportune end, but Kiria wasn't giving in so easily. "Have you eaten?"

"What?"

"You always appear so very busy, Excellency; I hope you've eaten tonight."

"Why is everybody obsessed with my eating habits?"

"Perhaps we all feel the need to take care of you."

"I have no need of anyone's care, thank you."

Kiria studied him for long seconds, surprised by the edge in his voice, shaped by his absolute refusal of any concern. "A little company then perhaps—you seem forever isolated."

The barest flicker of wary reticence lined the edges of those distinctive, mismatched eyes. "I'm alone very little, thank you."

Kiria tilted her head, letting her belief shape her tone. "I think you're alone all the time."

Another shield dropped into place before her eyes, and Kiria found herself backpedaling verbally as the Emperor backstepped physically. "That is to say, I thought you may appreciate the company of someone outside of the official… I mean, company which had no weight of responsibility attached…"

Surprisingly, her flustered reply bought a reprieve, in the form of a half-hidden smile on his lips. "I know what you mean." He glanced quickly away, dashing Kiria's brief flare of hope. "I have very little time right now, I'm afraid. I have to be at the Practice Hall in less than an hour and I need to go over the details Commander Arco sent regarding the TSC from Fondor Shipyards…"

He stopped, and Kiria knew it must be sensitive information so made no move to push him. Trust such as that came only with time—and proof of allegiance. She carefully kept the frown from her face at his mention of the Practice Hall, knowing that this time it was a scheduled slot—and knowing who'd be there.

At first she'd thought he practiced only the lightsaber in the vast hall, knowing that there were several exceptional traditional sword and saber duelists in the Palace who attended such sessions with the Emperor—strictly by invitation only. But she'd learned a few months ago that he was long in the habit of spending two separate two-hour sessions a week practicing hand to hand combat with Palpatine's little assassin, Mara Jade.

She hadn't mentioned it, of course—not yet—though she still had it placed at the back of her thoughts as something that would eventually have to stop. Such tasks were for when she'd cemented her position, however. Right now she had foundations to build, and that much sought-after trust still required proof of allegiance. Yet she hesitated; to hold the proof was one thing, to speak it aloud—to tell the facts and not be tarnished by them—to be sure that the Emperor did not shoot the messenger…

She'd wished so very much for something to break through these barriers, something to prove her loyalty and her conviction, something crucial and significant and known to her alone… Be careful what you wish for.

He watched her for long seconds as she paused. She didn't blanche beneath that gaze, she was sure of it, but when he spoke he was absolutely without doubt.

"Something's bothering you." It wasn't a question.

She smiled slightly. "Is this how it will go—I am clear as crystal to you yet you seem utterly impenetrable to me."

She'd meant it as a joke, but he looked away, seeming almost apologetic. "I seldom read the thoughts of others unless I have a good reason... But you came here with something to say."

"Your Excellency, may I be candid?"

He stared at her for long seconds, no doubt searching to clarify what exactly she was saying. He was an intelligent man and used to his eminent position by now; he would know already that people seldom genuinely asked permission to speak the truth, because whether one said yes or no, whatever they spoke in reply could be discerned as fact.

"Always," he said at last. "I'd expect no less."

"I…didn't know whether to bring this to your attention—I've been considering all day." Again she paused, genuinely nervous, wondering whether the Emperor could sense that too…whether such a thing would work for or against her, in his eyes.

Kiria glanced up, aware that the Emperor's unique, uncanny eyes were keenly focused now, his attention intense. She wondered briefly if he were already reading her thoughts, pulling the truth from them before it passed her lips. If so she should push on, for she wanted exact control of her words and the facts in this most careful conversation.

"He…thinks he is being very discreet, I'm sure. He thinks that if he doesn't quite say the words, then what could possibly be passed on, but…forgive me, Excellency, I'm no ingénue; this particular milieu is my passion and my heritage. I know this setting and I know its language and…and I know sedition when I hear it, however subtly said."

He narrowed his eyes, completely attentive. "Go on."

"…Commander Reece came to me today, in my apartments. He…indicated that if something were to happen to you, there were ways in which I could come to power."

"What ways?"

Here Kiria stumbled; because much as she disapproved of Reece's motives, the methods he had quoted were in her own mind too, though for very different reasons. She fully intended to break into the Emperor's exclusive entourage, and from there into his life. She fully intended to become Empress in the broadest and most comprehensive meaning of the term—and that included being the mother of the heir to the Empire. Wez Reece's petty scheming had impinged upon those plans, and it was this which had held her to silent consideration for the whole day, uncertain how to proceed.

It would have been so very useful to play Reece along for a while, getting what information she could from him, using him to help her break into the Emperor's closely guarded world… But it would also have been exceedingly dangerous because sooner or later, a Sith Emperor would know the truth—maybe he even did already. There'd been no explosion, no outrage; Kiria realized abruptly that his first words had been neither a denial not an accusation, but only a search for clarification.

Perhaps then, he did already know. Kiria breathed a sigh of relief at her own promptness in bringing this forward, because if it had come to light that Kiria had hesitated for even one day in telling him, the Emperor would rightly have banished her from Court, perhaps even estranged her entirely. At the very least, what little trust existed between them would have been totally destroyed. This way, it gained her something; in fact, it gained her what she was fast coming to realize was the most valuable thing of all in the Emperor's eyes: trust. If she played her hand with care—which she always did in regard to the Emperor.

"He quoted the law, said precedents existed that could see me in power if something were to happen to you. Forgive me, Sir, I think the relevant point here is that Commander Reece spoke as if your removal was a foregone fact. It is this I wanted to bring to you. If I speak out of turn of your Aide, then I apologize, and I hope you understand that it is only out of concern for..." She trailed to silence, her eyes searching his as he looked away.

But if he wanted no direct concern from her, then it seemed that at least he understood that she had no undisclosed ambitions above those of Empress, either. "You didn't speak out of turn…thank you. You understand, this can go no further."

Kiria nodded without lifting her gaze. "Will you have him detained?"

"No."

"No?" She almost tripped over the word in her surprise. "Excellency- " She paused, searching for words.

"The matter is in hand. If I can call on you when the time is right, to repeat under oath what you just told me?"

"Under oath? Yes, of course, but Sir, you have no need to bring this to trial."

"I have every need—and to do so, I need evidence."

"Evidence?" Did he not understand? He surely knew his own supremacy. "But as Emperor, you have ultimate power beyond—"

"No one's above the law—not anymore."

"Excellency..."

"Luke."

Kiria paused mid-sentence, shocked silent by the open tone of his voice as he continued.

"I once asked you if you intended to call me Excellency forever, and you told me you wouldn't know what else to call me. Well, it's Luke."

"Luke." Kiria nodded, aware of a slow, wide smile spreading out from her lips to shape the whole of her face.

"Less of a mouthful." He shrugged self-consciously, and Kiria thought she heard the hint of something else in his accent now, something far less formal.

"But a good name."

He smiled wryly in realization. "Which you already knew."

"I did," she admitted without hesitation. "But that didn't entitle me to call you by it—until now."

He glanced down, and Kiria pulled back, nervous that she'd overstepped the mark too soon, searching for a safer topic.

"You realize this is the first time I have ever seen you without a jacket on." It was said and received with humor, but there was an underlying message beneath it which Kiria sought to emphasize. "I find I rather like you in your disarray. It seems far more…intimate. I feel I can talk to you about more everyday things."

"Like what?"

She smiled, taking the opportunity openly given. "Oh, I don't know… The fact that after I oversaw the re-opening of the Incarta Library to the public yesterday, Baron Gaton's stupid little pug dog was sick on the steps and the redoubtable Lady Bel-Tora slipped on it before anyone could have it cleaned up."

He stifled a genuine smile at that, and it changed his face entirely, melting years of brooding gravity in an instant, and curving the long scar across his cheek to an arched crescent. Kiria felt her own cheeks lift as she glanced down in mock shame. "I had to excuse myself so that I could go and laugh in privacy or I thought I'd burst." She paused, looking to him for some kind of response, hoping to pull him in. "Do you think me very unseemly?"

"I think you very human."

She set her head to one side at that, daring herself on. "Since we're speaking of human foibles, may I ask a question?"

The slightest of wary lines set in about his tired eyes, but he nodded all the same.

"Your accent," Kiria said. "It's not native?"

"Most people don't spot that."

"To be honest neither would I, but my father once told me that he remembered you speaking differently when you were first here. I've been trying to quiz Nathan Hallin on it, but he's his usual reticent self."




Luke paused, caught by the casual informality of the moment, and by the knowledge of all that Kiria had done and tried to do in the last few days… His past, of course, was a blank page; Palpatine had seen to that within weeks of his arrival here, and had been his usual thorough self. To tell Kiria too much was obviously unwise, given her father's political machinations, even though he was presently loyal to Luke. Loyalty didn't necessarily equal trustworthiness, and the ground could change beneath one's feet with incredible speed here. And of course, as time had passed he'd come to be well aware that his ambiguity lent him a certain impact, which he used, as with everything else, without hesitation. Still, it felt unfair to withhold so much from the woman who had so far been so amenable. She must surely be aware that Luke sought to keep her at arm's length, and he couldn't begin to imagine what it must feel like to be in such a position of both power and helplessness…or perhaps he could remember just that, at Palpatine's hand.

He sighed reluctantly, then allowed, "I was brought up on a Rim world—for protection, I suppose." Which was true…from a certain point of view. "If you want to hear my real accent, then wait until something goes wrong and I start cursing—I always seem to rediscover it then."

She smiled again, amused. "I can't imagine you cursing."

That genuinely surprised Luke, that she knew him so little. He hadn't realized he'd been so closed to her. "Really? You should come to the Practice Halls and watch me do lightsaber practice with remotes one day. I get a tad descriptive…Nathan says it's been an education."

"I'd very much like to do that," Kiria said easily, the smile widening on those perfect ruby lips. "Come to watch you practice, that is—not listen to you curse in a Rim-world accent."


 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

 

 

 

Mara lay back on the bare floor, the dark macassar wood cool on her heated back, eyes closed, chest still heaving from that final burst of activity.

The last fight of the evening in these combat training sessions had pretty much turned into a no-holds-barred free-for-all as Luke's skill level had advanced, and though she sometimes still managed to floor him in hand-to-hand combat, tonight when she'd finally dropped him, he'd swung round as he fell, whipping his arm out to scoop her legs from beneath her and land her on her back with a resounding thud, where she'd stayed for the last few minutes, getting her breath back.

"You fight dirty," she managed at last.

"Me?!" Luke lifted his head from the floor where he lay nearby. "I think you broke my rib."

"Quit complaining, you have others." Mara heard a thud as his head dropped back to the floor, and stared up at the distant ceiling, grinning into the gloom. "If it makes you feel any better, I hit my funny-bone when I did that."

"Wait…nope, still hurts."

"See, I'd laugh, but my funny bone's out of action."

"But not your sarcastic bone, apparently." He was speaking in that soft, easy Rim-World accent, and without looking she could hear his smile in the tone of his voice.

They remained silent for a few seconds more, the only noise in the cavernous room that of their labored breathing. Eventually Mara reached out to nudge him with the toe of her boot. "Okay, get up."

"You get up."

"I don't need the practice."

"True. You're always this sarcastic."

"Hey!" The gentle nudge turned into a loose kick. "I'm saying, if this were real, you'd have to get up before now."

"If this were real, I'd have used the Force and stopped you about the same time you entered the hall."

"No Force."

"I'm just saying, if."

Mara half-turned to launch a high-voltage glare. "You'd better use all this some day, Skywalker; I'd better not have gotten all these bruises for nothing."

"Right, 'cos that's gonna go through my head when seven guys turn up with Force-pikes: 'Wait, no, I'll use hand-to-hand instead of the Force, just so Mara's happy'."

She pulled herself onto one elbow to see Luke about three paces away where she'd floored him, still laid on his back, arms out. "I'm just saying, you'd better use this occasionally."

"I'd have thought you'd be happier if I never had to use it."

"I would, but this is you we're talking about. I'm figuring this is the best I can hope for."

Luke half-laughed. "Han used to say I was a trouble-magnet."

"See, I knew he had some semblance of intelligence somewhere in that thick Corellian skull of his."

"Hey!" He leaned over to launch a half-hearted cuff at her leg but couldn't reach and clearly couldn't be bothered trying again. "I'm gonna let you off this time."

"You're too kind." Mara pulled herself to sitting, wondering if this was the right moment; whether he'd answer her if she asked, or simply ignore her as he had twice already that day. "So are you gonna tell me what happened last night yet?"

He was silent for long moments, eyes closed. "There's nothing to tell."

"Do you remember everything?"

"I'm fine, it's not a problem. I had a vision, that's all. I just…I guess I let it get to me."

"What did you see?"

He sighed. "Seven men."

"Seven men—that's it? For seven men you almost scorched my eyebrows off?"

He smiled just slightly, eyes still closed, and she watched his breathing slow and regulate at an unnatural pace and knew he was drawing the Force to him, to better see the vision, unsure if he'd even tried to study it again himself prior to this moment. Something dense and deep sounded at the very edge of Mara's awareness, trickling up her spine like a shiver and making her scalp tighten, and she blinked quickly to disperse it, accustomed now to this familiar range of feelings, the subtle chord of their shared awareness always plucked if he summoned the Force when close to her.

"I was in the cell," he said at last. In that damn cell, and…and they were behind me; seven men."

"What seven men?" He didn't open his eyes but his jaw tensed, and Mara could tell he was considering whether to tell her more. "For once in your life, just say it," she scolded, frustrated. "Why is it so damn hard to trust anybody?"

"It's not about trust," Luke said, sitting up to wrap his arms about his knees. "It's about…"

"What?"

He half-turned his head to fix mismatched eyes on her. "Truthfully? I don't think you'll want to hear it."

"That's an avoidance if ever I heard one."

His shook his head, unable to meet her eye. "You walked out on me in that cell, Mara. You shook your head and walked away, because you said to my face that you couldn't take it. You didn't want to know anymore what was happening to me down there, you didn't want to know what Palpatine was doing. It was too hard, so you walked away."

And suddenly the pain of her own memories of that moment were nothing compared to the swell of mortified shame that surged through Mara at the raw tone in his voice; not accusation, not disappointment, just...hurt. Abandonment. He'd never once spoken of it, and she'd never once asked him; never wanted to know the hard truth. And when he'd never spoken of it, it had been easy to tell herself that he didn't want to; that it was the past, over and done, that it had no bearing on his life anymore; no effect... But the tone of his voice right now spoke volumes—and in that moment, looking at the tight lines of his face as he avoided her eyes, how could she possibly have convinced herself otherwise?

"Well maybe I'm ready now," she murmured, quietly.

He turned away, eyes closing, and when the silence lingered Mara began to wonder if he'd decided not to speak at all. Finally he let out another sigh, as if struggling to get his thoughts in order. His voice, when he spoke, was quiet and somber.

"I think it was after you'd gone that he started bringing them in. Red guards. Always twelve. They had force pikes or...or some had a bar, just a hollow bar. Sometimes he'd stay in the room and just watch, sometimes he didn't send them in until he'd left, but they always came. Every time. Twelve guards. First three times a day, then five, then six or seven… I never knew. Sometimes they'd shake me up in the middle of the night to be sure I was awake before they beat me unconscious." He fell silent again for a long time, frowning at the memory. "He took me apart down there. Every single day, he carved a little deeper and he bled me dry. Every single memory I have of that cell is absolute horror, absolute loathing…absolute dread. And every time I think of it, I remember those twelve men."

"What happened to them?" Mara whispered.

"I killed them," he said simply. "I killed them without a moment's regret. I killed them horrifically, violently…and to this day I don't regret it. All I can possibly say in my defense is that it was fast…faster than they deserved… I wonder if I'd be so lenient today."

His eyes gazed without focus into the distant shadows, the slightest of frowns lining his forehead, voice distant and detached. "And now, suddenly, they're in my dreams again. I'm in that damn cell and they're standing behind me and I know they're there…" He trailed off, unable to continue though he was clearly reliving painful memories in his mind.

Mara watched in silence, aware of how suddenly he could lose his way, of how fractured his psyche, yet how strong he was simply to have survived at all, after Palpatine's influence. But hadn't she always thought that it was Palpatine who had made him strong, through all those trials? For the first time she found herself considering that maybe…maybe he was strong anyway, and Palpatine had simply pushed Luke to the very edge of even his limits. Had it truly been to make Luke realize how strong he was, as Palpatine always claimed…or simply for his own amusement, she wondered.

He wanted his wolf, Mara knew—and perhaps it was Luke's close, Force-attuned mindset somehow impinging on her own, that specific tone at the very edge of her hearing, but with that thought a rush of images came abruptly to mind, flooding in so quickly and so intensely that Mara gasped against them—

The vision blossomed, cast in scarlet red…an old vision, potently familiar:



… … …
… … … …
A storm raging against the night…
The howl of the hunting wolf…

… … … …
… … …


Mara rose in a shocked blur and Luke was at her side instantly, knowing a vision had surfaced. "What did you see?"

She frowned, eyes skipping the dark shadows of the cavernous room. "An old vision I think, but I never remember them, just…fragments."

"You saw me," he said, absolutely sure.

I saw a wolf…had it been you even then? Mara shook her head, the vision already fading to haze as they constantly did, memories of Palpatine's ever-cutting disappointment still sharp as knives.

"You saw a moon," Luke prompted. "Do you remember—in the vision you saw a moon."

Mara looked to him. "Did you see it—did you see my vision?"

"I saw fragments." Luke hesitated, looking away, knowing instantly what was in her mind.

Mara stared for long seconds. "…Can you...take me back, make me able to see it?"

He didn't turn. "I don't know."

"You can, can't you?"

He shook his head, but still wouldn't look her in the eye. "I don't know. Perhaps. I don't think it's a good idea."

"Why?"

He finally turned, features hidden in the low light. "I don't think I should take you to a place in the Force that you can't reach alone yet."

"I want to remember the vision—I want to see it. I want to understand."

"I'll teach you that if you want me to—but gradually, not like this."

She stepped forward, taking his arms and lifting them so that he held her face in his hands. "Show me?"

Just once, she wanted to direct it—to control it, and not be at its mercy. Wanted to feel what that was like.

He sighed, still deeply unsure. "You shouldn't go where you're not supposed to."

"You'll protect me," she smiled encouragingly. "I trust you… Let me see."

He looked to her—and she understood: 'Let me see' and she would; if he did this, he wouldn't simply see into her thoughts; she would see him. If he did this, he'd have to let her beneath those perfect shields, the ones he'd spent years building to protect himself.

He shook his head. "I can't."

"You think I'll see the wolf? I always did." Didn't he realize yet that she always had. Perhaps that was even part of what drew her in.

"You don't know what it is."

Mara pressed his hands against her cheeks, the closeness everything to her. "I don't care. I don't care what it is."

He sighed gently, his thumbs stroking softly against her cheeks, his eyes still unsure, full of unspoken fears and concerns—and how could this be the wolf? How could he be?

Then he nodded, just once. Suddenly very nervous, Mara licked her lips. Her heart flipped unexpectedly, skipping a beat in her chest as if in fright, then she caught herself consciously. Squaring her jaw, she lifted her chin. "I'm ready."

In the dim, still room his fingertips were cool against her cheeks, soothing, very real, and she leaned forward into the hands which traced the line of her cheekbone, his closeness intimate, attentive, protective…

"Close your eyes," Luke whispered.


...
Prior to his father's death, and occasionally since, when they had made contact through the Force it had been simply to connect, to search out the reassuring sense of each other. Now there was a purpose, and when Luke reached out to Mara, it was like nothing before—

The floor was gone from beneath her feet with a suddenness that made her jolt, her hands grasping at his wrists, everything which was real whisked from her in an instant as she fell away from herself, heart fluttering distantly, like an echo of reality.

An incredible power took her up and surrounded her like falling into deep, frigid water, so all-encompassing that it took the air from her lungs in a gasp. She was dragged into the current with frightening speed, unable to move against it, unable to draw breath within it, the dynamic mutations dizzying, nothing solid, nothing understandable in any context she'd known.

Too much—too fast… And with perfect precision it paused, falling back away from her, giving her air and space—a moment's grace.

She made the slightest of movements, nodding her head imperceptibly, and it enfolded her again, all about her, protecting and directing, dragging her forward into a whirlpool of power which twisted away and collapsed in about her, terrifyingly kinetic, erratically unstable. She felt herself falling and had no idea if this were a mental state or whether she fell in reality, whether her body had simply collapsed beneath her. Either way, he was there to catch her, to hold her, to keep her safe and anchored, even as he pulled her deeper. And all around her his awareness, his perception, his connection to this intense, hulking mass, a deep primal pull like the turning of the galaxy, its extent too great to comprehend or define in her concept of the Force. Yet he did—he gave it form, gave it direction, restrained and controlled with skill and poise as if this were the most natural thing in the galaxy—which perhaps to him it was.

And here, now, here was Palpatine's wolf. The shadow creature he'd carved into being with such relentless, pitiless resolve, prowling in Darkness, both hidden and hunting, feral and fierce. Infinite power searching to ground, it howled for release, intense and intractable, unyielding in its hold, so much a part of him that in places it merged with his consciousness. Twisting inextricably through everything, it seemed both to answer his will and define his thoughts, tainting each one with the awareness of what it could achieve—how quickly, how easily…how cynically and callously.

Yet now, when she thought to see around and through that hulking darkness, to look for those stars in the dead of night, there were parts where there was no connection at all. Where the one withdrew from the other like oil on water. Flickers of radiant hope thread about old scars so deep and traumatic that they would never heal, the wounds cut into every aspect of his existence to create a will at once so driven and so constrained by all this, that it was both his greatest strength and his deepest weakness.

Here, at the core of his awareness, forever hidden and shielded, here was the truth. And after the brutal, discordant darkness, awareness of this flooded her with solace: a deeper understanding of that fractured psyche—because he could not be completely a creature of Darkness; it was too much against his natural state. Whatever Palpatine had done, it would never have gained him his Sith completely. It had forced the Light deeper as Luke had built ever more walls, but it would never destroy it, the very core of this being who was too enmeshed to ever break free of the shadows…but too stubborn to let go of the Light.

She wanted to reach out but she didn't know how; had no idea, no knowledge of how to make contact. She was already past all her previous perceptions of the Force and it fired a humbling realization—and a driving desire to know more. She wanted to know, in that instant, what he saw of her.

Then another opening of awareness, an expansion like falling off the edge of the galaxy, too much to possibly begin to comprehend. It stretched the limits of her consciousness, dizzying, immeasurable, opening up her thoughts in a vivid unfurling of awareness, and she tensed against the inevitable shock of some intense elemental jolt as he punched through this final impenetrable boundary: the cold, hard immovable mass of knowledge which Palpatine had instilled in her of her own limits—the perceived weakness with which he had held Mara for so long.

And it was nothing of the sort—it was nothing at all. No sense of tearing or rending, no thunderous, explosive burst. They passed through like diving into deep water, smoothly and naturally, no struggle at all. And she sensed… Now she flinched, the vision rushing in at her, enveloping her completely as never before, awareness and knowledge hitting like a body blow, fiercely intense, primal and visceral, details and impressions and perceptions indelibly writing themselves into her awareness…



… … …
… … … …
A storm raging against the night,
Duplicity and betrayal…everything in flux, everything changing, even herself. Nothing could remain untouched.
An ashen moon seared blood red.
Binary suns eclipsing and fading into twin circles carved into gold, interlocked, interbalanced, interdependent.
A vast sweep of possibilities tangled about and among them, all futures tracing back to this: this one fate, this one prophesy
Son of Suns.

… … … …
… … …



Mara jolted with a dry scream, every muscle tensing, every nerve raw, so that when her eyes came wide in shock she was already several steps away from him. He started forward, saying her name, hands outstretched.

She backed up, hand to her mouth, stomach heaving, sure that in that moment she would be sick. Too much; too vast, leaving within her the lingering, all-pervading sense of the galaxy turning slowly in infinity, a background grind like bone on bone—she could hear it, feel it.

"Mara, listen—listen to me." His hands were on her shoulders now, and she sensed him mentally shunt the shock away, trying to stabilize and steady her. "Breathe—Mara, just breathe. It's okay, it's gone. You're out…you're out now. "

She stared, every possible facet of the vision intact in the fore of her mind, cut with crystal clarity so sharp that it felt like it sliced her very thoughts to hair's-breadth slivers, aware that she was speaking too quickly, tripping over her own words, adrenaline still burning in the back of her throat. "I saw two suns…and a moon, a blood red moon. I saw two circles interlocked, etched into gold… Something written on them…I don't think I saw that before-"

Luke frowned, and still immersed in the Force, still connected to him on a level far deeper than ever before, Mara sensed so completely his burst of raw frustration, tempered by a deep disquiet. "What?"

"The Seat of Prophesy," he ground out knowingly. "You saw the inscription on the base of the throne."

"I couldn't read it, what did it say?"

Luke pursed his lips. "It's irrelevant. It's nothing."

But it wasn't: she knew that absolutely…saw his thoughts, his dread that the prophesy was following him still, that it ran with the blood in his veins, as Palpatine had always said.

Mara pushed, unwilling to let this go. "Tell me what it said?"

Luke raked his fingers through his hair, his irritation rising. "No. It's over, it's done. The throne's gone, and the prophesy with it. I'm not going to be led by it."

"Maybe it's not trying to lead you. Maybe it's trying to help you."

"Help?" Resentment gave his voice a knife-edge, and for the first time Mara understood the fractures and fears that fed it. "The last time I went to the throne I nearly killed Nathan! I won't be dictated to by it, it doesn't own me. I'm not a slave to it or to Palpatine."

And she understood this; comprehended just how much Palpatine had influenced him, what he'd done to achieve that level of control. Sensed the dark twists of frustration, resentment and bitterness that colored Luke's sense as memories swirled through the nebulous remnants of the Force which still clung to her. Marveled at that perception, that connection. "Luke, your ability...it's a gift, not a curse. You know that, don't you?"

"You don't understand."

And what could she say…it was true. Nobody did.

But she could.

"Teach me," Mara said. "Teach me everything."

She'd never wanted this, never once asked for it before, always believing that it was beyond her reach; another of Palpatine's legacies.

He wrapped his arms about himself, and though the deepened connection was already fading, she still felt Luke's reluctance with more awareness, more perception of its subtleties than ever before. His belief that simply by existing, he was fulfilling Palpatine's greatest aspiration: a single, unbroken line of heredity… His fear that because of this, he could err and somehow cause her harm. His reluctance to pass on knowledge which he still felt on some level was an affliction. Mara stepped forward, resting her slim hand on his folded arm, believing this now with a greater conviction than ever before. "I trust you."

"Trust isn't enough," he whispered. "It can eat you alive, this power."

Mara hesitated, finally truly understanding the reasons for his caution in the scope of the connection he held—or did it hold him? The intensity of it, the bone-deep awareness of something infinitely vast, like the breathing of the universe…how easily such far-reaching clarity could drive anyone to distraction. What did it feel like, to him, the weight of this centuries-old prophesy? Did it truly hold him, as he feared…or was that too another of Palpatine's manipulations? Knowing what she knew now, she understood how he would be reduced to sleepless distraction, roaming the Palace in the dead of the night to escape it, unable to sleep without hearing it—sensing it within his connection to the Force. How intense his own visions must be, striking without warning in the stillness of night, dragging and driving him forward with even a fraction of the clarity she'd just been subject to.

Had he truly thought he could stop them by ordering the throne destroyed, or had it been an act of sheer desperation, as his actions in the Practice Room had been in the dead of night, fixating on that single, complex lightsaber move, driven to repeat it over and over to correct some perceived flaw. In submersing himself so completely, had he drowned out the all-consuming sense of this power?

She couldn't say…but it was possible for her to learn, to understand as no one else could. This connection—this intense communication and comprehension, this bond which fused and united yet left each distinct, aware on the deepest level—how could she let this go? How could she go back now?

'It can eat you alive, this power.' Mara shook her head, understanding completely what he meant, but believing in him absolutely—because she'd seen him; seen the truth… And she wanted to see it again, to immerse herself in it. "You'll never let that happen."

Still he didn't look up. "This isn't a reason to learn it, Mara."

"Isn't this the perfect reason? To understand, to share, to help someone you—"

He glanced quickly up and she stopped. 'Never say it,' he'd once asked of her. 'Don't ever say it.' She leaned in. "Consider—promise me you'll consider?"

He nodded just once without looking up, and Mara knew better than to push now. She stood on the balls of her feet to kiss his cheek gently, then walked from the room in silence, her hand trailing along his arm before it fell free.




Luke didn't turn as Mara left, already regretting his promise but unable to retract it. If he did this, if he taught her, it would be for her: for her alone—because she had asked it of him. Was that a good enough reason?

His father's words whispered again in his thoughts. "Darkness cannot love. The results will be catastrophic and spiral from your control."

His feelings for Mara had led him to deny that counsel in the past; to try to defy it… And his father had paid the price.

Could he have this weakness—could he allow it without it crumbling his plans to dust and destroying all that he'd sought to protect…including Mara herself?

If so then why, when he closed his eyes and reached out into the maelstrom of the Force to study again the memory of the interlocked circles engraved into the Seat of Prophesy, did he feel like he was looking at a noose tightening about his neck?

"I am not you," he whispered quietly to his father in the empty room.



 

 

 

CHAPTER NINETEEN

 

 

Leia woke, a lingering afterimage from her dream imprinted onto the darkness before her, two interlocked rings glowing in the still silence as if she'd stared too long at their image. She sighed, blinking them away as she glanced about the small berth onboard the battered Rebel freighter Zephyr, indecipherable words of the recurring dream whispering in the shadows.

She'd boarded late that night, traveling part way to her own destination of Kwenn Space Station onboard the Zephyr under the command of General Madine. Madine; Leia sighed as she turned over and Han murmured in his sleep. She envied him his ability to sleep anywhere at any time, whilst she lay awake playing endless scenarios over and over in her head.

Madine—the loose cannon who was running his own ever-escalating little war against the Empire at the same time as Leia was seriously considering the possibility of negotiations.

Even tonight, when she'd boarded, it had become clear that he was in the middle of another unknown mission which he'd never mentioned to the Council, equipment and weapons neatly stacked to the side of the main hold. She'd asked him to explain immediately, of course, and he'd suggested a meeting in the morning, intimating that it was of great import. Tired, Leia had allowed the deferral, deeply aware that she was carrying her own private secrets in her intention to meet again with the Emperor when she split company from Madine and the Zephyr. Who was she to call others for theirs?

Because the truth was that this time it was no longer a harmless meeting. This time she had an agenda and, Force help her, it seemed at least partway in agreement with the Emperor's.

She'd thought long and hard about the Death Star; about Han's claims that Luke—that the Emperor—was trying to give her an indication of his own sincerity on a scale that only an Emperor could do. So here she was, on her way to another clandestine meeting to discuss the possibility of ceasing hostilities, whilst traveling on a ship commanded by the one man who seemed to have made it his mission to stir them up.

Did the Emperor truly want reform for his Empire? Since that first rash of edicts, there had been few others. But the Death Star… Oh, that had been a spectacle on a grand scale, and Leia had spent many a sleepless night listening to Han snore peacefully as she wondered…why just for her?

Because the fact was that by doing so, he'd placed her once again in a position where she was the holder of privileged and dangerous information, and he knew it. Admission that she'd been meeting and negotiating with the Emperor without the Council's knowledge—repeatedly now—was hardly going to unite the already quarrelling Alliance leadership. Why do that? Why give her such key information in such a way that she was completely unable to pass it on, when every day the Alliance polarized more? Why always give her just enough information that she was willing to listen, maybe even to consider, but never sufficient that she could use it as comprehensive proof of his intentions, both to the Alliance and herself?

Why show just her, why not everyone? Why not tell her why she was the sole witness? Why let this go on in such confusion, what did it gain him? Was it on purpose? If he thought he'd widen the split in the Council by persuading Leia to take a more moderate stance against Madine's increasingly militant minority then he was wasting his time; there was nothing he could do from the outside that could tear the Alliance apart, and he surely knew it. She wouldn't let it happen and she certainly wouldn't do it for him.

Was this insurance, somehow? Right now, if she chose to back out—if he did—then Leia had nothing she could pass on without damaging her own reputation easily as much as his.

And yet…still lurking at the back of her mind was that moment, that incredible moment when the Death Star that she'd been so sure would destroy Endor's moon, had itself detonated in a fiery blast, an unequivocal rejection of Imperial tyranny, a triumph of reason and rationality, a promise of hope, of potential, of freedom…

And still buzzing in the back of Leia's mind with that same radiant high that had made her heart skip a beat in exhilaration at the time, was that self same thought… Oh, but what if it were true?











Mara crossed the empty stretch of the exercise bay onboard the Imperial frigate Sol Ecliptic at a fast pace, aware that she was a few minutes late for the one-on-one combat practices she and Luke always held, whether at the Palace or onboard the SSD Patriot. They were on neither tonight of course. The Sol Ecliptic was a smaller mid-weight frigate which would attract far less attention when it arrived at Kwenn Station for the impending rendezvous, which was, of course, why Luke had chosen it. That didn't, however, exclude combat practice as usual, nor the fact that Mara was late.

Luke stood quietly to the far side of the exercise space, staring out of the narrow viewports into the raging maelstrom of lightspeed, though a half-tilt of his head let Mara know he'd sensed her arrival.

He turned as she closed, and it occurred to her that he wasn't dressed for practice, though he wore no jacket, his flawlessly fitted linen shirt reflecting the radiance of distant stars beyond the safety of the ship's shields, their sluggish light distorted by hyperspace. Without specifically looking, she noted that the top two fasteners of his shirt were undone to give him a casual air which belied the clinical military setting, and knew it would have been a conscious choice, wondering at it.

But then, that had been her permanent state of late.

It had been two weeks since they had shared Mara's vision, and Luke had not once mentioned it since. Knowing his reluctance to feel vulnerable, and aware of the intensity of the experience, Mara had held her silence, but it was becoming harder. She had so many questions about what had happened—about the Force, about her request to be taught more… And at least half of them were about the man who stood before her now, squaring his shoulders as she came to a slow stop before him.

"Here." He seemed almost nervous as he held out a small rectangular box, perhaps twice the length of Mara's hand and covered in dark green tapestry, a delicate clasp to one side.

Mara stared at it suspiciously. "If this is to get you out of combat practice, Skywalker, then you're wasting your time."

Luke smiled, as unfazed as ever by her brusque tone. "Just take the damn thing."

Frowning, Mara took the box, immediately surprised by its weight; it was incredibly heavy. She looked to him, uncertain.

"You can actually open it," he said dryly. "It's not wired to explode."

Carefully, Mara slid the small catch and lifted the lid…

Resting within, its polished surface reflecting the pure white vinesilk lining…was a lightsaber.

"I made it for you," he said simply. "You'll have to build your own eventually, but this is good enough for now—it's better than what you have. I thought you deserved something with a little more elegance."

Mara took the lightsaber from the silk-lined box, marveling at its feel in her grip, at the perfectly balanced weight which fit exactly the palm of her hand, the hilt a mix of dark, patinated copper and warm rose gold. But very simple; very understated and refined, yet obviously hand crafted. In all the time she'd trained with Palpatine, he had never once given her anything other than the simple metal tube with two inset buttons that she still used, as if he'd never thought her quite deserving enough to warrant a more personal piece, as all trained adepts…

Realization brought her eyes swiftly up to Luke's, and he nodded.

"We start tonight. I'll teach you all that I remember Master Yoda teaching me—but then it stops. I'll not teach you to turn that ability to Sith doctrines."

Jubilant, Mara launched forward, wrapping her arms around him without thinking, feeling him laugh lightly into her hair. She held him for long seconds, face against the side of his neck, feeling the pulse of his throat against her lips.

"So does that make you my Master?" she murmured playfully at last.

"No, I think it makes me your pushover," Luke said wryly, pulling free.

When she finally stepped back to hold the lightsaber out, studying the controls, Luke shook his head. "No, not with that."

Mara glanced up, uncertain, and Luke tapped at the side of his temple. "We start with this."












Leia stood in the small Captain's ready-room overlooking the Zephyr's main hold, tired from her sleepless night, watching the busy, organized chaos of a detachment clearly preparing for action as she waited for Madine.

Han was already prepping their small shuttle for takeoff, the trip to Kwenn Space Station less than a day's travel away, their journey considerably shortened by their short jaunt onboard the more powerful Zephyr. Leia too was eager to be gone, but despite her hurry she was damned if she would let Madine get away without telling her just what his Special Ops Unit was doing this time. Overheard remarks suggested that the Zephyr had just completed some pick-up in the Inner Rim, close to the branch-off of the Hydian and Perlemian shipping lanes and so dangerously within Imperial territory, though she'd heard of no action there.

She was suddenly gripped by an outrageous fear that Madine may be taking the Zephyr close to Kwenn, the planet supporting the Space Station where she was meeting the Emperor. How close was his own mission, for their routes to have intersected like this? What could she do then? How would she avoid discovery?

She would have to cancel the meeting until Madine had left the Relgim Sector, his own operation complete—but then its completion would surely summon Imperial troops into the area in response, and make her own meeting with Luke near impossible. Leia shook her head as she watched the busy hold; no, the chances of them both needing to be in the same sector at the same time was rare enough—his operation would doubtless be light-years away from Kewnn. There was nothing of military relevance in the whole system.

Still, when Madine finally entered, a whirlwind of barely controlled anticipation as he offered his distracted apologies for keeping her, Leia couldn't keep the slightest edge of tension from her stance as she met his eyes. "So tell me, General, what operation are you running this time, and why exactly did you think it necessary to withhold the details from the Council?"

Madine licked his lips nervously; there was something, some light in his eye today, some tension to his stance that hinted at rare enthusiasm. "Forgive my secrecy, Chief, but this mission has been in operation for almost a year and the closer it came to realization, the more I worried about leaks. However, today will see its completion, which means that fear is passed, so I'll be happy to explain the details and answer any questions you have. Honored in fact. I'm sure you won't be disappointed."

Leia waited, arms crossed, and Madine smiled, that same mix of edginess and anticipation in his voice as he continued. "I have an informer, an Imperial mole. He's been passing on information for almost a year now. He's high-ranking—in the Palace, we think—and he's been a source of very useful information. He gives Intel on one subject only, and that sparingly, but what he gives is always good."

"Go on?"

"He passes information about the Emperor. His actions, his itineraries. And one thing he's told me is that the Emperor's met twice now with a Rebel informer—in person."

Leia felt her ribs tense as the air left her lungs in a slow breath. "Who?"

"I don't know. But I do know that both times, he's traveled undercover with minimal security to hide this fact. And I know he's about to do so again…and this time I'm ready for him."

Lea sat slowly on the chair before the desk, her own heartbeat loud in her ears as Madine continued, his voice a distant drone.

"We'll be proceeding on to Kwenn Space Station when we drop your shuttle at the planet itself. That's where the operation will take place; that's where the Emperor will meet his contact with minimum security, for—"

"It's me," Leia said quietly, coming to a decision.

Madine hesitated; frowned. "I'm sorry?"

"It's me—the contact he's meeting is me."

The silence was terrible, Madine remaining stone-still, just staring at her.

Leia felt her breath leaving her in a slow, trembling sigh, head buzzing. But she couldn't lie to her own Council—she wouldn't let Luke make her. "It's me. It has been both times, and it is today."

Madine dropped heavily back into his own seat, closing his eyes, and Leia waited for the explosion which didn't come. In a way, it would have been easier somehow if it had. Instead, it was long seconds before he spoke, voice very quiet. "You were meeting with the Emperor?"

"Yes. The Emperor is Ghost."

"The informer?"

"I didn't know that when I went to meet with him. I thought I was meeting with…" she trailed off, no validation seeming worthy. "I didn't know it was him."

"And the second time?"

"The meetings…were a prelude to an armistice, to formal negotiations. So I agreed to return."

"The Emperor was offering negotiations?" Madine's voice was flatly disbelieving.

"Eventually."

"Ah." The tone of the short word spoke volumes.

"It was an opportunity to open a dialogue."

"And so you entered into...negotiations with the man who killed Mon Mothma?"

"I met with the man who can stop this civil war, yes. The man who commands a military army and navy of incomparable supremacy. The only man in the galaxy with the power to stop them without another shot being fired. The man who can bring about democracy by simply-"

"Democracy!" Madine practically spit the word, derisive.

"I'm not saying that I believed him," Leia said calmly. "I'm saying I was prepared to listen to what the man capable of bringing all this about, had to say. And he spoke of reconciliation—of negotiation."

"He has no concept of the words!"

"Then why bother to say them?"

"It's a game—it's all a game to him." Madine's voice was rising now. "You're talking about the discussion of talks, Ma'am—not even that! The possibility of the outside chance of a discussion leading into talks. I'm talking about the guaranteed opportunity to remove the Emperor from office. To remove a Sith from power, to even that playing field."

"...What?"

"We have a chance—a real chance—to capture him on Kwenn Station. This has been many months in preparation."

"You can't hold him," Leia said emphatically. "He's Sith. You can't hold Sith against their will!"

"I can," Madine said with absolute confidence.

Leia shook her head, and Madine turned the automemo on his desk about, pushing it toward her. "The plans to the cell that was installed on the SSD Executor. It was built specifically to hold a Sith. Presumably even Palpatine's favorite went a step too far once every so often."

Leia glanced down at the plans. "Built for Vader to hold a Sith—not you."

"This was built to be unbreakable. The walls are two half-spheres, built one within the other, with a vacuum between them. Each brick angled and interlocked, so that if you try to push them apart the links gets stronger and if you try to pull them inwards, you're pulling against an ever-increasing vacuum. The more you pull, the greater the vacuum. Each brick is precision engineered to fit and constructed from a high-density TSC aggregate. That's a military-strength alloy used in the manufacture of front-line bunkers because its structural integrity makes it bomb-proof. Once it's set, no individual brick can be broken."

"By us! By methods we know!"

Madine was unmoved. "I have other tools to keep him put."

"You're going to keep a Sith captive because you have a strongbox? Who's outside the cell, Madine? Who has to hold the key, who feeds him? How do you get that strongbox off Kwenn Station when it's crawling with Imperial stormtroopers because their Emperor is missing? One mind—any mind—he can reach and use: that's all he needs."

"They're not as all-powerful as they like us to believe. There are ways to reduce them to normal men, to make them just like us. I've seen Imperial intelligence documents from the times of the Jedi Purge, that the Alliance would never have had access to. Documents that were made available only to senior Imperial military officers, documents that don't even exist any more. This is years of research, years of raking through old myths and lore and rumors… They all have a basis, there's some small fact hidden in each of them somewhere."

"You can't just stop him being what he is, Madine."

"No, I can't…but I can stop him acting on it. I can isolate him in such a way as to…" Madine slowed then fell to silence.

"How?" Leia challenged.

"I can't tell you that. If you still go into that meeting to speak with him, you can hold him there long enough for us to act—that would be the optimum effect here. And if you do so, then I can't tell you anything—I've already told you too much. If he reads your mind, he needs to find nothing of value to him.
Chief, I guarantee you that I can catch him and I can hold him. All you need to do is change the meet point to one that I specify. Get him there, and keep him talking for five minutes, so we can move everything into place. That's all I need—I can do the rest."

"No, I can't get involved in this."

"You already are, Ma'am—and it's by the Emperor's hand. You were involved when he first chose to try to draw you out, when he first contacted you as Ghost. He's been using you, and it's time to repay the favor. This is an opportunity to make a near-perfect plan cast-iron. Draw him in and we'll do the rest."

"I won't have the Alliance be responsible for seeding anarchy."

"It won't create anarchy, it will weaken the Empire's hand—considerably. It will put our cause on everyone's lips—prove that we're a force to be reckoned with. If you want to bring them to the table, then do so with a strong arsenal—and without a Sith in power."

"And if the Emperor was the only one who would have brought them to the table? What have we done then?"

Madine shook his head. "With all due respect, Ma'am, if he'd wanted to further democracy, he could have not returned to the Empire seven years ago, after Hoth. He could have remained with the Alliance, and served the cause of freedom. If he wanted democracy, it was right here, struggling to stay alive. But he left; he returned to Palpatine and took you with him. Think! Think what you're doing—you're actually listening to the man who persuaded you once before that his motives were genuine when in fact they were lies. You're trusting the man who handed you over to Vader and Palpatine!"

Leia wavered, uncertain, and Madine lowered his voice. "Ma'am, he comes to you in secret; no troops, no fleet…does that sound like a man who intends to keep his word? Does that sound like a man who truly wishes to open negotiations leading to the recognition of the Alliance and its tenets? Why not bring others; council, arbitrators…why bring no one, unless you have no intention of keeping your word."

"And if he genuinely wants this?" Oh, it was weak, even to her ears, but what else could she say? 'I have a gut feeling.' How naïve did that make her sound. "Should we remove him from power even if…"

"You're asking me if we should remove a Sith from power? Yes!"

Leia looked down, torn, and Madine shook his head as if he felt he were being forced to state the glaringly obvious. "You cannot trust him! Remember who he is, who he was. Remember what he did to us—what he did to Mon. And now you think you can trust him? Why?! What's happened in the interim to persuade him to come to the table? Nothing!"

"We can't do this in isolation, Madine. It has to be planned as part of a larger strategy."

"We don't have the luxury of choosing our moment in this, Ma'am. What we do have, for the first and perhaps the only time ever, is a genuine, guaranteed method of accessing him and then holding him. We have, for the first time in years, a chance to remove an Emperor who holds the galaxy under oppressive rule. We have, for the first time, a chance to even the score, to level the playing field… That's what we want, isn't it? That's what we need. That's what Mon gave her life for. That's what we've all been fighting for—or am I mistaken?"

"No…no, General, you're not mistaken, but the timing…"

"The timing couldn't be better, Ma'am. The timing's perfect. We stop whatever underhand games the Emperor's playing in contacting you, and we use that game against him, to lure him in."

Leia looked up, frowning, and Madine pushed on, thinking on his feet.

"We were going to send out our own man; contact the Emperor on the Rebel frequency we'd been told he uses with his informer, and change the venue to a place of our choosing, one that's been prepared in advance. Now we don't need to rely on that subterfuge to get him into the trap. Now we have the real contact, and what's more she's unquestionably loyal to the Alliance." Madine paused. "You can change the venue—you can lead him in. You want it to go smoothly, safely?" Madine nodded decisively. "Then you can make it watertight."

Leia looked down again, mind racing… "If we do this…" She looked up to Madine again, voice steel. "If we do this, and it's successful—if you manage to hold him—then what? What had you intended?"

Madine remained silent—and that was all Leia needed. "No. Absolutely not. He stands trial, Madine. We're not murderers. We're fighting to restore justice—we have no right to put ourselves or our actions beyond it. He stands trial for his actions, according to recognized Old Republic law, with a judge and jury."

Madine's face hardened slightly. "That would be an extended, time-consuming process which…"

"He stands fair trial."

"I don't know if I can hold him that long. These are extenuating circumstances which..."

"No—nothing's beyond the law, especially here. If you're uncomfortable with this, if you feel I'm making a unilateral decision, we can wait and put it to the Council."

They remained silent, eyes locked together…and slowly, jaw grinding, Madine let out a sigh. He knew that despite everything, he had only two cast-iron supporters in the otherwise moderate Council. No one else would back him, Leia knew, not in this—and by the time he'd argued his case, the brief window of opportunity would have passed.

"That won't be necessary, Ma'am," he said at last. "I'm sure that your views represent the Council as a whole."

"Then we put him to trial."

Madine nodded once, prepared to concede. "We put him to trial."







The small hologram in the Captain's ready-room aboard the Zephyr flared into life in a bright scatter of light, Tag Massa's face appearing. They'd dropped out of lightspeed close to Kwenn Station and Leia had asked for a few moments to comm her old ally, knowing that Tag always fretted when Leia went on such meetings. She'd always looked out for her, Leia knew; always.

Now Tag smiled easily, voice as confident and unshakeable as ever.

"Good morning, Ma'am. Everything in hand?" Leia hesitated no more than a second, but it was all that Tag needed. "Something's happened, hasn't it? Something's wrong."

"No…no, nothing's wrong, just…a change of plan—a big change in plan." Why did she feel like she was admitting a mistake—like she was asking absolution?

"I have nothing reported here..." Concern flooded Tag's voice, her eyes going down to what must be a screen out of the holo-recorder's line of sight. "Are you under threat?"

"No, they've… Madine came to me this morning. He has a way to catch the Emperor—a way to hold him."

Tag straightened, eyes widening. "Is he sure?"

"He seems so. He can't tell me the details, because I'm the one who's meeting with Luke to-"

"You?!"

"He knew, Tag. He already knew someone was meeting with the Emperor—that's what his whole mission was set around. He just didn't know it was me."

"So you told him everything?"

"Yes. This has been kept quiet for too long—we don't work like that."

Tag had her hand up before her mouth, clearly at her wit's end. "You must know something?"

"I know Madine has some kind of holding cell…that's it. Don't make me think about it, Tag—I have to put it from my mind."

Tag shook her head, face pale. "Don't do it. Don't authorize it, and certainly don't become involved."

It wasn't until Tag said it that Leia realized why she had contacted her: she'd wanted to hear someone say that. She'd wanted it so very much… Leia scowled, angry at herself for needing it rather than at Tag for saying it. "I'll be fine."

"Don't do it—not this time. Bring the plans back, let the Council see them, let them be checked and approved. Don't do this now."

"It has to be now, everything's in place. It could be months, even years, before we get another chance."

"What about the talks? You said yourself that the Emperor seemed genuine. You're going to throw everything away for another of Madine's schemes—one you have no knowledge of. It may have a hundred holes in it; it may be littered with flaws."

"I very much doubt that with Madine."

"No? Like the fiasco at the Fondor Shipyards? We still don't even know what it was for!"

"TSC," Leia said. "It was for TSC. It's the military aggregate they needed to construct this holding cell—they had some at Fondor."

Tag blinked, but wouldn't be derailed. "Where has the plan even come from?"

"It's been in preparation for some time, apparently."

Tag was staring off again, obviously at her screen. "I still have no deviations from the Zephyr's pre-arranged agenda listed here; I have it scheduled as on a supply mission in the Inner Rim. This is outrageous—he can't continue to operate under these conditions!" Her eyes whipped to the lens. "Ma'am, please reconsider—just a delay. Ask Madine to send a copy of the plan to me here now. Wait until I've looked over it."

"We don't have time anymore."

Tag almost stood now, such was her alarm. "You're talking about kidnapping the Emperor—the Emperor! The response will be incredible! Are you sure this is the right action? Madine has no idea, he has no idea what he's trying to do. If he makes this attempt—if you let him and he fails—what do you think the response will be?"

"And if he succeeds? Think what we've done…"

"I am," Tag said gravely. "Because either way, you will have cast your lot—and therefore the whole of the Alliance's—in with the radicals. There's no coming back from that."

There was a quiet knock at the door to the ready-room and Leia lifted her head. From beyond came the muffled voice of the Second Lieutenant. "Ma'am, we've just picked up a frigate entering orbit—a Corellian DP-20 Gunship—the General thinks it's our bird. We need to go dark."

"I have to go, Tag," Leia said quickly, suddenly torn.

"Leia! Think about what I've said, please—and have the plans sent to me."

"We're going dark."

"Please—have them transmitted before you do."

"I will—I promise." Leia cut the connection, rising to return to the bridge… At the door she paused, Tag's pale, stricken face coming again to her mind: "Don't do it. Don't authorize it and certainly don't become involved."

Was that really why Leia had contacted her—to hear someone say those words, to be given that justification to step back? Because she had wanted to hear someone say it, she knew that now. She'd truly wanted to hear someone say it.






Madine slowed just slightly in his walk across the hold when he saw Solo leaning against the entry of the shuttle he would be using to take Chief Organa down to the surface, but he didn't stop or change course. The Corellian knew what was happening, of course; Madine had heard the raised voices before Organa had bundled him onto the shuttle and closed the entrance hatch, and it was a good half-hour before she came out again, alone.

What exactly had been said Madine didn't know, but Solo had spent the interim period skulking close to the shuttle with a face like thunder, and the Chief had found a hundred and one reasons to stay close to the bridge, restructuring the small group of guards she'd be taking with her so that Solo remained with the shuttle. Clearly he didn't approve, but he also didn't want to leave the Chief behind; a pity—Madine had nursed a private hope that the Chief's complicity might just be too much for Solo and he'd finally storm out of here on that decrepit old freighter of his and not come back.

It didn't matter though; what mattered was that Madine's plan was not only going ahead, but it was now doing so with the collaboration of the Chief of Staff. Everything was go, and as long as Leia Organa stuck to her word, this would go by the numbers. Which she would; Organa was, to Madine's mind, too young and too idealistic to hold the position she did, but she at least had the political savvy to know not to back down without fair warning once she'd given her word…though just in case, Madine had gone out of his way to remain unreachable, and would stay so until Organa was safely off the ship.

To the edge of his vision he saw Solo's chin raise, and wasn't surprised when the smuggler spoke, pushing upright.

"A little advice, General."

Madine considered walking past without stopping, but couldn't bring himself to let the Corellian think he'd been intimidated. So he stopped, turning head-on to Solo. "You have something to say, pilot?"

"Just a little friendly advice. We can all use that from time to time, huh?"

"I hardly think you have anything of value to tell me, Solo."

"I'm hurt—and to think that just the start of this year you were tellin' me how we were so very alike—that is what you said, isn't it?" Solo clicked his fingers in feigned realization, "Oh, but that was when you were tryin' to get details about the cell onboard the Executor, wasn't it?"

Madine ground his jaw but said nothing as Solo continued, pushing himself up to take a few steps forward, the embodiment of casual amity beneath a core of tight antagonism.

"But you know what's weird? I don't think it was that far from the truth. I got some stuff in common even with the likes of you. You see, I can see where you're comin' from in all this." Madine's eyes narrowed, but Solo nodded, pressing on. "Really, I can. I can see where it all fell apart… See, you lost Mothma, and she was your conscience. She kept it all in check; kept the bad stuff back—and I know just what that's like. I know I'd go crazy if I lost Leia, that I'd be looking for the same revenge, the same payback as you are right now…"

Solo shook his head slowly. "But not at this cost. Way I figure it, that's where the resemblance ends, because I'd know when I'd crossed the line—I'd know when I was overturning everything she'd ever believed in, everything she'd fought for, just to give me a chance at hurtin' someone."

Madine's lips pressed to a thin line, eyes narrowing. "You didn't know Mon like I did. And if you claim for a single moment otherwise, I'll put you down where you stand, Solo."

"No, I didn't. But I knew her well enough to know that she'd never have agreed to this."

"She would have put her name to it in a minute for the chance to bring that son of a Sith down."

"Not when there were peace talks in the offing."

"Please! You're not that naïve."

"No, I'm not—and I still think they're genuine. What does that tell you?"

"Nothing more than I haven't always known." Madine took a step closer, and Solo straightened, both men looking to intimidate the other. "You listen to me—you take one step to interfere with this and you're facing a Court-Martial…"

"Don't worry, Madine, I've given my word—and to someone who I'd care to keep it with. Though this is the last time...this is it. I'm through with the dirty little games you and your pals play. I'm through with your thinkin' you got carte blanche to just pull anyone into your private little war."

"You know where the door is."

Solo let out a rough laugh. "Seriously?! You seriously think I stay here for you? You think I give a damn about your little club and whether it flies or falls? You think I give a damn about anything you say?"

"Considering I'm your senior officer, you should."

"Yeah well, I don't do too good with authority."

"So I understand…is that what they wrote on your report at Carida?"

Solo tilted his head. "I dunno—is it what they wrote on yours?"

Madine lifted his chin. "They wrote, 'Likely to go far'."

"Yeah? They mention which direction? Me, I got a hundred places to go, a hundred people who'd help me. Where would you go, Madine? Who'd help you in a crisis? You're here because you have nowhere else to go; that's the truth of it. Remember that."

"I'm here because I believe in democracy."

"Really? How many people got to vote on whether your latest little grudge-match went through? Let's see….you…" Solo rolled his eyes, making a parody of counting on his fingers, frowning now. "Okay that's it, I'm out. I guess basically it was just you."

"And I should be bothered by that?"

"You tell me?"

"Am I bothered that I'm right—that I have the conviction to push my vision forward? No."

"Oh," Solo tilted his head dryly, "careful, Madine; sounding a little…well, like an Imperial there. You know the old maxim; take care that in fighting your enemy, you don't become it."

"I don't think there's any danger of that."

Solo clicked his fingers again. "Oh no, that's right—you already were."

"I'm not ashamed of my past, Solo. It gave me the strength of my convictions today. Gave me the skills to back them up. Gave me the knowledge and the experience to make solid judgments. Bold ones." Madine looked Solo up and down, sizing him up and dismissing him in the same glance. "I've dealt with people like you my whole life in the Empire; the dregs and the lowlifes who just won't go away—who gather at the edges of society like scum."

"We're gonna have to go out and find you a new pair of Imperial-issue jackboots to stamp around in soon, handin' out the law."

"Because I know the likes of you for what you are?"

Solo straightened again, resting his hand casually on the butt of his blaster. "I dunno, maybe you're right; I've kicked about with the dregs for a while, lived among 'em. I kinda like it down there."

"Feel right at home?" Madine drawled.

"Pretty much," Solo nodded, unoffended. "Most of 'em are better people than the average Imperial officer'll ever be. At least if they're gonna stab you in the back, they have the guts to walk up to your face and show you the vibroblade first. And down there, we don't make a lot of noise and waves. People like me…well, we don't go in for all that. We're just point and click people, you know? Know it, don't show it."

"Get to the point, Solo."

"The point is, you're trying my patience. You're putting those I care about at risk and I don't like that. You're stacking them against each other for your own little war and using guilt trips and power plays to hold 'em there…and I really don't like that."

Madine almost laughed. "Are you threatening me…you? Some mediocre, backwater smuggler with delusions of his own importance. If it wasn't for Organa, I'd have stood you in front of a firing squad six years ago, for the company you kept."

"You know what's really sad is, I believe you. But let me give you that little bit of advice—something to think on."

"I don't need your advice, Solo—and believe me, your smartmouthed threats are wasted on me."

The edge of a smile tugged at Solo's lips. "You don't want advice, that's fine, I can see where you coming from." He straightened slowly, body tilting forward in warning. "But believe me when I say that you're on very rocky ground, Madine. And listen to me when I say this, because it's the last piece of advice I'll ever give you: don't make me come after you. Not for Leia, not for Skywalker, not for anyone. I don't like what you're doing—I think it's underhanded and I think it's dirty, and if it were up to me, it wouldn't happen. You are, I promise you, barely on the right side of me toleratin' you, and that's a real fine line. That's a hairpin trigger. So my advice is this: don't push your luck puttin' Leia in the line of fire, and don't push your luck with Skywalker. If you manage to catch him—and that's a big old if—don't let me hear anything I don't like in his treatment. Don't let anything happen to him that you're not happy about someone else doin' to you…'cos believe me, someone will.

"So I guess my advice is—and this is the one and only time I'll say it…don't make an enemy out of me, Madine. Don't make me come after you." Solo turned away, his eyes never leaving Madine, his last remark passed as a low growl as he walked slowly off. "That is, believe me, one of the best pieces of advice you'll ever get."













Nathan sat in silence in front of the wide Captain's desk, rearranging the items on it as he had a habit of doing, as Luke stood to the back of the room gazing out into the inky darkness without comment, eyes on the looming bulk of Kwenn Space Station and the swarms of small and mid-range freighters, cruisers, frigates and yachts which hung in apparent chaotic disorder about it, unintimidated by the relative light-weight status of the Sol Ecliptic, carefully engineered to be the only Imperial presence here today.

It had been an unexpectedly busy morning, to Nathan's mind. Well, they had actually expected today to be hectic, but events had taken an unanticipated turn when, with less than three hours to their meeting, Organa had sent a brief message on the secure channel she used with Luke and named a new venue, almost on the opposite side of the station. She'd transmitted all the coded reassurances that everything was fine, and the Station itself had reported no noticeable activity, but it had still induced a flurry of activity onboard the Sol Ecliptic.

A small team had been on the station for five days already, watching, and they'd done a walk-by on the new venue, an old midsize Class VI bulk freighter in one of the vast long-stay docks at the lowest levels of the Station. Records had the Wasp listed as being in the same full-atmospheric berth for the last four months under repair, and the walk-by had pretty much confirmed that, a few mechanics hanging around the bay and the main sublight drives disassembled and laid out across the large bay floor.

After a brief discussion they'd decided to go ahead with the meet, with a dozen extra plain-clothes operatives placed close to the bay. Nathan also knew that without asking permission, Reece had placed another two dozen plain-clothes ops in and around the area, and now appeared to be spending his time trying hard to avoid being anywhere close to Luke, presumably in case Luke sifted that fact from his thoughts.

Fortunately, Luke hadn't really noticed yet; he'd been…distracted for the last few days to Nathan's mind, and had enough problems on his plate without the unexpected venue change this morning, dealing with which was now taking his full attention. Aside from that, Luke would also have a good portion of his thoughts on preparing himself for another round with Leia Organa, keeping one eye on larger developments and how the meeting fit into his own greater plan. Added to that, his present subtle, understated courting of the Royal Houses and his knowledge that another round of edicts were about to be made public which would further relax the constitution, along with all the usual commotion that engendered…and of course, at the back of Luke's mind would also be D'Arca.

Because no matter what he said aloud, Nathan knew damn well that Luke felt guilty about Kiria D'Arca. But he also knew that something had happened in the last month to change Luke's view of her somehow—to soften it. He'd watched them quietly for the past few months since the 'wedding,' as they'd found their way around each other and the deal they'd drawn up, and on the surface it had seemed strictly business, but Nathan had a niggling doubt that D'Arca saw it entirely that way. She certainly seemed to expend a good deal of her time in between public engagements, making subtle inroads into Luke's life, smart enough to move at his pace.

She'd even turned up at two of the group practice sessions recently. Held twice a week, these practice sessions were when Luke and a few favored and capable, if more conventional, duelists—Mara among them—would hold head-to-head lightsaber duels with practice sabers at an incredible pace. Luke practiced often with droids for greater speed and agility, but still preferred the unpredictability of sentient opponents.

Nathan often tended to the walking wounded after these sessions and had seen the injuries; simulated blades or no, they took chunks out of each other and no one seemed to notice, reminding Nathan all over again of just how undesirable any but the most sedate exercise truly was. A delicate little thing to his own mind, needing to be treated with the utmost care, Nathan's idea of sport was to place an each-way bet on the madrig races down at the open track in racing season, then settle back into the stands with his macrobinoculars and a chilled bilini.

Mara, needless to say, hadn't taken Kiria D'Arca's recent appearances very well. In fact, more than once, Nathan had found himself wondering whether he should try to step quietly up behind her and just gently take the lightsaber from her hand, afraid that given the slightest provocation, withering glares wouldn't be the only thing Mara threw at the Empress.

Mara… Something had changed there too, in the last day or so—in the way Luke was treating her and the way that he watched her when she wasn't aware of it. Luke had been training her—Nathan knew that, though he doubted anyone else did—so perhaps his seeming protectiveness of her lay with that…but then again maybe not; Mara had never struck Nathan as the type who needed protecting. Holding back, maybe…

His thoughts went naturally back to Kiria D'Arca, who had remained on Coruscant, as she always did when Luke traveled with his fleet. Despite his new trust, Luke still kept the Empress outside of his present retinue, though Nathan wouldn't be surprised if that were to change. Despite Luke's attentiveness to Mara, D'Arca was still pushing resolutely forward with her own private schedule—and somehow, Nathan didn't see Mara as being part of it.

Yes; there was a man stuck in between a rock and a hard place… Admittedly, it was the kind of problem that many other men would give their eye teeth for—never let it be said that Luke didn't like strong women who set out every single day to bend the worlds to their will—but still…

He was interrupted in his silent musing when the red-haired side of this particularly thorny problem entered the room beside Reece, Mara sparing Nathan a brief nod as Luke turned, frowning at her.

"Why are you in combat dress?"

Mara looked down. "I'm not."

"You're in civilian clothes and you have a blaster, a vibroblade and a lightsaber on you."

Nathan looked her up and down; she wore a fitted, sleeveless gilet in chocolate brown hide and dark, overstitched leggings with brown, knee-length boots which both laced and buckled, sporting the kind of flat sole that lent itself to drop-kicks and high-speed pursuits. She had not a loose piece of clothing on her, even her hair braided back. How exactly she was concealing this small arsenal he didn't know—perhaps that was your first lesson in assassin's class. He'd spent his formative years learning to stitch people up and she'd spent hers learning…well, quite the opposite.

Mara didn't even bother to ask Luke how he knew—clearly it must be a Force thing, Nathan reflected wryly.

"Well, we're due down on Kwenn Station in…"

"I am, not you."

Nathan almost flinched; if Luke liked headstrong women, then he still wasn't afraid to give them orders.

Mara frowned. "I always come."

"Not this time."

"Why?"

"It's too dangerous."

Again Nathan suppressed a wince; now he was just trying to get her back up.

"Dangerous? What's dangerous is to leave you on your own. Why shouldn't I go?"

Luke hesitated briefly, his tone amicable, if decisive. "You work it out, Mara."

Reece stepped forward—stupidly or bravely, Nathan couldn't decide which—in a diplomatic attempt to smooth things over. "The Emperor has a point, Commander Jade."

"Point?" Mara turned on Reece. "I would have thought the point was that I'm his bodyguard and that's kinda difficult to do from a distance of two thousand klicks."

"You're also a Senior Aide and…"

"Please…" She rolled her eyes, arms crossed.

"You're a Senior Aide," Reece continued, undaunted. "Firstly, it wouldn't do for you to be- "

Mara tipped her head. "Don't—do not—start quoting numbers at me, Reece."

"I'm simply stating the facts; as second-in-line to the throne, logistically, yourself and the Emperor shouldn't..."

"Fine, I abdicate that position."

"Be reasonable."

"I am being reasonable. Who goes in with him, if not me?"

"Commander Clem has several exceptional…"

"Please! Bring them in here now and leave us alone for one minute. We'll see who walks out of this room and who's on the floor."

Luke's voice was quiet, but the resolve in it turned everyone's head. "You're not going, Mara, that's the end of it—this isn't a discussion. I'll take Vassigo."

Nathan straightened slightly in his chair and Mara glanced to him, still scowling. With a conspiratorial, encouraging nod he indicated the door, and pursing her lips, Mara took the more politic option for once and turned to leave, Reece following her, undoubtedly to inform Vassigo of the change in plans—and to stay beneath Luke's radar, Nath reflected wryly.





Still staring out at the distant station, Luke remained silent as the room emptied save for Nathan. Luke hadn't missed the little nod he'd given to Mara, but since it had ended the meeting, he'd let it pass. Now, with the room empty save himself and Nath, Luke knew the medic was figuring he'd have a better chance of getting to the truth. And since he'd know damn well that Luke probably already knew his intention, Nath seemed to have decided that there was little point in prevaricating.

"May I ask why exactly you're excluding Mara?" he asked quietly.

"No," Luke said simply.

"Ah."

Silence held for long minutes, in which Luke stared resolutely out of the viewport, hands clasped tightly behind his back.

Nath rearranged the items on the desk again, glancing casually at the stats of the Wasp, whose ID Luke had downloaded into the Ecliptic's files for dissemination whilst he'd been studying its layout. If Leia was using it for the meet, then that meant that it was a Rebel-owned freighter and its stats should be logged as such across the Imperial military network. Whatever else Luke was hoping to achieve in his dealings with Leia, he was still a realist; a Rebel ship was a Rebel ship and intel was intel.

Nath tried again. "Is it to do with your training her?"

"No."

"Well then I'm confused. You trust her, don't you?"

"Nathan…" There was a warning in Luke's voice now, but Nath simply took that as meaning that he was getting close to the truth and plowed on.

"You want to know why you can't trust Mara? It's because you haven't forgiven her for your father's death, and you can't do that because to do it, you'd have to forgive yourself as well, for the same reasons."

"This isn't about…"

"No, hear me out. It's not Mara you don't like, that much is obvious; if you did she'd be long gone, but she's still here. I don't know what she did, and the truth is that I don't think it matters—and nor do you. What matters is what you did—or what you believe you did. I know you, I swear I know you better than I know Reece sometimes, and I know you blame yourself for whatever happened that day, don't you? In fact, don't even answer, because I know I'm right."

"It wasn't Mara's fault—I know that." Yes, he'd been cut deep by Mara's actions, but he knew Palpatine, knew the power games and the subtle plays his old Master had always combined to such devastating effect. The truth was, it wasn't Mara's fault; it was his, for ever telling her. He'd been responsible for his father's death, he knew that absolutely.

Nath leaned forward. "Luke, it wasn't your fault either. But until you accept that your father made his own decision of his own free will, then you'll always hold yourself responsible. You said yourself there was no fight; that it was a single blow. I think he didn't fight for a reason, Luke. I think he wanted to pass that message on to you—that he chose to free your hands. He could have fought, he could have tried to escape, but he chose his path. Don't diminish that by holding yourself or anyone else responsible. Give him this; this claim, this resolve, this decision. Give him this and be proud of him—because that's what he would have wanted."

Luke shook his head, stepping back. "I can't do this now. I have to go."

"Let me come." Nathan had risen, such was his worry, clearly aware that something was going on here.

"No."

"Why?"

Luke studied his friend: the nervousness in his face and his sense, the tension emanating from him now, though he strove to remain casual. He knew something was going on; he wouldn't be Nath if he didn't. If he knew the truth about Reece…what would he do? If he knew the truth about Mara… Did she even know herself?

"Not this time, Nath."

"Why not?"

Nathan's voice was cracking, but still Luke couldn't bring himself to say it aloud, not to Nathan. He looked away, reminded of the delicate line he was treading. The temptation to ask Nathan, even obliquely, about Reece's actions was burning. If anyone had noticed any change or unusual behavior, if anyone had any clue, however small, as to what Reece was planning, it would be Nathan. But of everyone, Luke depended on Nathan the most, despite his friend's relationship with Reece. He couldn't put Nath in that position; wouldn't use him without Nath's knowledge, and certainly wouldn't put him in a position where he had to choose sides.

When he had proof, he would tell Nathan. He could do it then. When he had independent proof, Nathan would know that it wasn't Luke's doing; that he'd given Reece every possible chance. Luke had too little left to risk it over Reece's betrayal. He wouldn't lose Nathan when he lost Reece. He couldn't let that happen, wouldn't take that chance. Any personal risk paled before this final loss of friendship.

"Nath…just…be careful. Be careful who you trust, all right? Things can change here so quickly, you know that, and I don't want you to be caught in the middle of it."

Nathan frowned, shaking his head. "You and Wez, with your secrets and your intrigues, what are you cooking up now? He said pretty much the same thing to me yesterday, you know that?"

"What did he…" Luke broke off, shaking his head in self-censure. "Wait, don't answer—don't answer that."




Nathan studied Luke for long seconds as he stared out into nothing, a heavy frown darkening the shadows about eyes already shaded by too little sleep, his reticent silence insular and brittle. Whatever was bothering him—and it seemed to Nathan far greater than this meeting today—he wasn't ready to talk yet.

Sighing, Nathan looked for a new tack, glancing away and burying his worried expression completely as he leaned back against the desk with exaggerated ease, plucking a subject from the air, the more obscure, the better to break Luke's darkening line of thought. "So when are you going to give me my own Star Destroyer?"

Luke turned, dragged from his reverie by the unexpected. "What?"

"My own." Nathan grinned blithely as he sat back on the edge of the Captain's desk. "You keep having them built and giving them to members of your navy…when do I get one?"

Luke stared at him for long seconds, but the ploy had worked, his brooding mood broken as he shook his head, stifling a smile. On the display shelf to the far side of the ready-room was the usual display of scale models of ship-types, and Luke took the heavy, small-scale cast replica of a Star Destroyer and walked back to give the hand-sized, intricately detailed model to Nathan. "Here. Let me know when you have your naming ceremony."

Nathan stared at it. "I was thinking of something a little larger."

"I'll tell you what," Luke said good-humoredly, "if you haven't broken that or lost it in five years time, I'll think about it."

"You're on," Nathan said gamely.

Luke watched him a second too long, bringing Nathan's eyes up. "What?"

"Did you think about my proposal?"

"What proposal?"

"I asked you to think about becoming a diplomat."

Nathan frowned. "Were you serious? I didn't think you were."

"Of course I was serious."

"I don't want to be a diplomat. I don't want to be in the Navy either, come to that. What's wrong with being your physician?"

"You're not my physician, you're a Senior Aide."

Nathan tilted his head. "Well then, how come I'm the one who always stitches you up?"

"I'm serious. I just…I need people whom I can trust in positions of power, Nath. I need people like you."

"You need me to keep you in one piece."

"I can get a hundred medics—you're worth more to me than that. Especially now."

Nathan glanced down. "Are there things you aren't telling me?"

"Yes," Luke said simply, then glanced away, clearly uneasy.

"Wez is…nervous. He worries, you know; he doesn't sleep before these meetings… He hasn't slept all week. He thinks there are things you aren't telling us. Important things."

"There are." Luke sighed. "I don't distrust you, Nathan, it's not that. But this…this runs too deep. This is something I have to let happen; it has to run its course. Any less would always leave doubts…here and elsewhere."

"And what is its course?"

"That I don't know. But when it does happen, I know you'll understand why."

"But not yet?"

"I'm not excluding you without good reason. I would never do that, you know that, don't you?"

"Yes."

"Then you understand I'm not happy with it, but this is something I have to do. It has to play out because if I step in now to stop it, it'll always be between us, you understand?"

"No, I don't understand," Nathan said calmly. "But I accept it."

"Thank you." Luke sat behind his desk to study the autoreader there, the tone in his voice indicating that he considered the matter dealt with now. But as ever, Nathan wasn't so easily derailed.

"I just…I worry."

"About me?" Luke glanced up to flash that youthful smile, the one he hid behind so often. "Don't worry about me, Nath. I'm bombproof."

Nathan allowed a small smile. "You know, sometimes I think you just might be. And then I remember that there's just one thing that can tear you apart…and that's you. And I remember just how willing you are to do that. How willing you've been in the past, when the mood takes you. You see, I trust you completely, in everything—except that. And nothing you've said today reassures me. In fact it makes me worry all the more."

Luke glanced away, clearly uncomfortable beneath his friend's shrewd assessment. "Get out of here, I have to go soon and I haven't even studied the layout of this damn freighter yet."

As Nathan set off, Luke spoke out again. "And think about what I asked—about taking a new position."

"I'll think on it—if you take Mara with you."

Luke hesitated a long time, so Nathan pushed on. "It's unfair to leave her here if you're not even going to give her a reason, and you know it. Either take her or tell her why—and don't give me that silent stare, because if it won't work on me then it certainly won't work on Mara." Still Luke remained silent, so Nathan played his new ace. "Consider this my test of my diplomatic potential."

Luke let out a long sigh, dragging his fingers through unruly hair. "Fine, you win," he looked up sharply, "this time. But this is it—this is the last time."

Nathan took a step back towards Luke, pulling out the chair opposite his desk. "Can I ask what's prompted this new cautious streak?"

"No—and don't sit down again."

Nathan sat anyway, eyes narrowing solicitously. "See, if it were concern for yourself I'd be rather pleased, I confess. But inferring that Mara isn't more than capable of looking after herself… I can't help but think that's the very opposite of healthy."

"Why is everybody obsessing about Mara today?"

Nathan knew Luke well enough to recognize his trademark avoidance when he heard it: answering a question with another question. "Nobody is—except you."

"No, I'm not—and why have you sat down?"

"Are you taking Mara?"

Luke sighed again, finally caving in. "Yes, I'll take Mara. But as of today she's to be fazed out of active duty as bodyguard."

Nathan paused, shocked. "You want to dismiss her?"

"No! No…but I want her sidelined into a less dangerous position; I want her off the front line. Put Wez on it; he seems to feel he has some kind of vested interest at the moment. I don't want her access reduced and I don't want her present status diminished…if anything, I'd like to see it increased. She's always had unofficial authority equal to Reece's level—let's make that formal. Let's make her someone who would plausibly be next in line to the throne; let's ease that in. Tell Wez to set that in place and I'll authorize any changes when I get back."

There was something deeply reassuring in Luke's words which swept away all earlier worries Nathan had felt—that his concern for Mara hadn't changed, his closeness hadn't dimmed. In all the time that Nathan had known them, Luke and Mara had tumbled through the most volatile, unpredictable, tempestuous and flat-out dangerous relationship that Nathan had ever known, yet the notion that it should end seemed utterly unthinkable to him now. As long as they were together, all was right with the universe at some basic, fundamental level. Everything else could be dealt with.

He smiled as he rose, clicking his heels neatly in a brief bow before turning to the door. Luke let him reach it before he spoke out.

"Nath…aren't you forgetting something?"

Nathan frowned, uncertain, and Luke glanced meaningfully at the model Star Destroyer still laying on his desk. Realizing, Nathan took two steps back as Luke picked up the model Destroyer and threw it underhand—

Nathan paused and backstepped slightly, missing the model but managing to bat it awkwardly up into the air twice before finally making a fumbled catch as it fell.

"What," he said, effecting his customary look of hurt dignity. "I caught it in the end, didn't I?"

Luke steepled his fingers before his mouth to hide the smile that Nathan had worked so hard to instigate. "You know, I'm not sure you can use that as a legal defense for charges of negligence in a military Court-martial."

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER TWENTY

 

 

The massive hull of the battered, dilapidated mid-bulk freighter stretched the length of the cavernous and cluttered Bay Forty-eight on Kwenn Station, typical of the kind of venue Leia always seemed to name for such meetings, Luke reflected. Big as it was, it was being stored in a pressurized bay rather than an open dock, the slick, barely visible atmospheric shield keeping the starry black vacuum of space at bay behind it. Beside him, Mara loosed a huff at the state of the ramshackle freighter, the first time she'd spoken since they'd landed. If she was still sore at him for trying to exclude her then she'd better get used to it for the foreseeable future, he mused—at least with this kind of front-line operation.

"Well, one thing's for sure," she growled, her breath visible in the cold hangar, "it's not going anywhere real fast."

Bringing a small security contingent, whom they'd left in ones and two's at key points as they traversed the industrial underbelly of Kwenn Station, they'd headed for the extensive commercial docks and repair facilities whose wide, ramshackle corridors were littered and lined with decades of abandoned equipment and wrecked machinery.

Unusually, Han hadn't been at the sliding hangar doors to Repair Bay Forty-eight, where Luke had left the final two of his own plain-clothes ops in an uneasy standoff with two wary Rebel lookouts, only Mara continuing on into the bay with him—though Han was on the station somewhere, his distant, indistinct sense an edgy, ill-at-ease mix of concern and simmering anger.

Luke glanced down at Mara's words, looking to the mass of engine components laid out across the bay floor, yawning gaps to the rear of the old Class VI bulk freighter set about with inlet pipes, cooling arrays and directional vents, marking where the engines had been stripped away. Probably why it was being stored atmospherically; that was a lot of work to do in vacuum.

Still, it was a big old freighter and it could hide a lot of secrets. Warily, Luke reached out with the Force to get some sense of it, picking out Leia's presence to the fore of the freighter immediately, nervous but resolute as ever. Aside from Leia and one other sentient—a Sullustan, he thought—he could detect no one else either in the ship or the bay, though there were a few too many alert minds in the near vicinity—Rebel backup, he figured. Luke smiled at the sensation of Mara reaching out her own tentative tendrils of newly trained awareness, briefly considering asking her the species of the second sentient before dismissing the idea; now wasn't the time for lessons.

The inside of the battered freighter was no better than its exterior, half of the lights down and the doors opening with the kind of asthmatic hiss that Luke instantly associated with any number of old vessels he'd lived in and flown from when still a pilot in the Alliance.

"Well, somebody's using it." Mara's words pulled Luke out of his reverie as he glanced back to her. She was looking to the floor and he followed her gaze, instantly realizing; in the low light, the center of the corridor was clear of the dust which gathered at its edges.

"You picking anything up?" Luke asked, glancing down the long corridor; the big old freighter echoed his voice back to him, the passageway disappearing into gloom. Something…

"Oh, so now you want my opinion," Mara said gamely. "An hour ago, you didn't want me to come, but now suddenly it's what do you think, Mara?"

Luke half-turned, amused. "Well, I thought since you were here, you should probably do something. So what do you think, Red?"

"I think…somebody well ahead, but that's it."

"One person?"

"Yeah."

Luke widened his own awareness, knowing that Mara would have sensed Leia, by far the stronger presence. "Want to lead the way?"

Mara arched her eyebrows. "You think I can't home in on her?"

"I think you can't resist a challenge."

She grinned, her pale skin a warm glow in the artificial light. "Call that a challenge?"




They'd made two wrong turns by the time they got there, though Luke hadn't said so aloud; it was a long walk and she'd still done pretty damn well to home in on one sense in a ship of this size. Mara slowed as they came to the open door, a bright light reflecting down the slowly curving walkway, and Luke afforded himself only the slightest hesitation to gather his thoughts before entering.


Leia sat at a scratched table, hands tightly clasped. Aside from the chairs, it was the only furnishing in the cool, musty room. The walls were corroded where they met the floor, paint peeling back and bubbling, and everywhere was that faint smell of old, overheated coolant. For a second Luke felt a pang of nostalgia for his former life, imagining the echo of footfalls and chatter and laughter that would fill this old freighter when it was in use by the Alliance. Was this why Leia did it—brought him to places like this—or was this simply her life?

He glanced down at her now, at the clothes she wore: pale pants with scuffed white boots and a white, high-necked top beneath the old padded vest she had worn so often on Hoth to keep her warm, her hair braided and wound into a looped knot at the nape of her neck.

She would return tonight to some tattered, barely working ship to share a meal in a crowded and noisy mess-hall with people she had known and trusted for years. It was that loss he felt most keenly of all: the sense of camaraderie, of mutual beliefs and values, hopes and goals. That was what Palpatine had ripped away from him…and every time he tried to rebuild that sense of trust, something or someone came along and shattered it.

Again he felt that ache of nostalgia for the life he'd left behind, and again he resolutely pushed it away; he had a different life now, a different path—and even that would change again soon, not by his own choice. That realization burned in his chest for long seconds before he pushed it away, still intensely aware of Mara's close presence in the small ante-room outside.

Later—he'd deal with that problem later.

That problem… Deal with it how? It wasn't a problem, it was the loss of everything he'd sworn to his old Master, the loss of everything he'd been so sure he would never grant Palpatine. But then he hadn't; it had been of Mara's choosing, surely, though arguing now seemed petty and pointless. Still, he had no idea if he was pleased or petrified… No, that wasn't true; he was terrified. Luke shook his head slightly, eyes unfocused. "Bad blood." Palpatine's words came unbidden to his mind: "Did they tell you what you really are? It's instinctive, ingrained into every cell of your being… Bad blood… Your destiny runs in your veins."

Leia straightened slightly in her chair and Luke jolted, dragging his mind back to the moment, suddenly aware of her eyes on him; concentrate!

He sat, taking the moment to pull himself together, so that when he lifted his gaze again he knew that his face was unreadable, his eyes blank. He had faced Palpatine a hundred times, more fractious and under worse circumstances than this, and had still managed to pursue his own agenda. Leia Organa had, for reasons Luke could never quite lock down, more than one way to get under his skin, but as each discussion between them raised the stakes, this meeting today was too important to allow it to end in anything less than substantial progress—one way or another.






Watching the Emperor sit, Leia reminded herself of her already-decided course of action: she would throw herself totally into these talks, let them fill her mind and her attention completely, every question and counter. She would think of nothing else—there was nothing else—nothing outside of these talks and this room. Only this; concentrate on this.

She studied the man who sat before her, his scarred face unreadable, mismatched eyes sharp and attentive and subtly guarded, hair a mass of loose, unruly waves which on others might have lent a certain youthful, careless air, but on him conferred only a contradictory confusion; a man too young and too unorthodox for the role forced upon him… But then was she any different?

Her thoughts went again to the small picture of him that she'd found in Han's pocket; the indomitable Emperor, confident and unyielding…and yet she remembered so well that shy pilot, humble and unassuming—and which was real, because surely they couldn't both be…could they?

She straightened again; cleared her throat. "I suppose congratulations are in order."

He frowned deeply, expression somewhere between shock and alarm, the act pulling at the upper edge of his scar where it cut through his eyebrow. "For what?"

"Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think I heard something about a marriage on one or two of the HoloNet channels eight weeks ago," Leia said dryly. You would have had to be a hermit living in a sealed cave to have missed it, the newly freed-up media channels going into a frenzy. Anything at all to do with the enigmatic Emperor and his far-from-retiring new bride were splashed all over every news channel from Helska to Hoth.

"Oh."

Leia frowned, confused—because everything she'd ever known about the man sitting opposite her right now said that he'd actually genuinely forgotten that fact.

He resettled beneath her gaze, his defenses rising. "What?"

Leia paused, ignoring the curt tone of the challenge. "You seem...distracted?"

Those distinctive eyes locked on hers for a moment before flicking away, voice completely neutral. "I'm fine, thank you."

"I was just..." Leia hesitated, then dismissed it with a shake of her head. "Never mind."

She settled into her own chair, bracing, forcing herself to focus on the moment and nothing else. In truth, every meeting with the new Emperor demanded no less, whatever the circumstances. "Before we go any further, I need to know something—the truth."

He remained silent, waiting in invitation, so Leia pressed on. "You can read thoughts, can't you—like a Jedi?"

"Something like that."

"Yes or no?"

"Yes." He didn't hesitate, seeming more comfortable now beneath her suspicious questions.

"Individual thoughts?"

"With you, yes."

"What does that mean?"

"It means yes, I can read specific thoughts."

"Word-perfect?"

"Why are you asking this?"

"Answer me."

"I think I've answered enough questions—answer mine."

Leia lifted her chin. "Because I can't continue these talks if I know you're reading my thoughts."

He tipped his head. "Do you have something to hide?"

There was only wry amusement in his voice, but Leia felt her heart pound. "Yes. I'm the leader of the Rebellion against you, of course I have things to hide."

"I'm well aware that you hide things from me. If I were bringing you here simply to rifle through your thoughts for information then firstly…well, first I wouldn't need to meet with you at all. I need only be close to you to read your..."

"How close?"

"With you? Anywhere on this space station would be close enough." He tilted his head. "And no, you haven't unwittingly given away Rebel secrets without realizing it, for the simple reason that I haven't looked. I haven't tried to read your thoughts above passive awareness."

"Why?"

"It would hardly nurture trust between us, now would it? I want you to feel that you can trust me."

"Feel…or actually be able to?"

"Are we arguing semantics already?"

Leia held Luke's gaze in silence, and he sighed. "These talks are a trust exercise—why would I jeopardize that?"

"Because it's very easy for you to do so without being found out."

"A lot of things would be very easy for me to do—that doesn't make them right."

From anybody else it would have been the perfect answer, Leia knew. The one fact that needed no further explanation: if something was wrong, then one simply shouldn't do it. From him... Was it an automatic response, or a calculated one—had he, in fact, read her thoughts to know exactly what she wanted to hear? Leia pursed her lips, annoyed at being so vulnerable. "Have you ever read my thoughts?"

Luke leaned back in his chair, seeming to tire of this line of questions now. "No, not above passive awareness, which I can't block."

"Which is what?"

"A background awareness of your mood…which right now is just a little guarded," he said dryly.

"Can you read thoughts that I choose to keep hidden?"

"Yes…but not without your knowing."

"Why?"

He leaned forward. "Why don't we cut to the chase here and I give my word that I'll not look into your head without your permission."

"Why can't you read them?"

Those pale eyes hardened, and for a moment Leia thought that he'd stand and simply walk away—perhaps for a moment he considered it—then he sighed, running his hand through unruly locks. "I can read them, I just told you. But I can't read them without forcing you to think about them…and believe me, if I started digging around in your head and directing your thoughts, you'd know about it."

"I want your word that you won't."

"I've already given it."

"Say it again."

"I give you my word as…" he paused, seemed genuinely at a loss as to what to swear on, "I give you my word, that I will not turn your head inside out for some petty little scrap of information, no matter how important you personally may think it to…"

"Properly."

He stifled a smile. "I give you my word that I'll not attempt to read your thoughts. Nor have I in the past. Happy?"

Leia relaxed incrementally. "Is there a way to stop you reading my thoughts—how would I do that?"

"You don't."

"Why not?"

"Because I'm very good at this. Because my connection with the Force is more acute than…" He broke off, as if studying his own words, then looked back to Leia. "You can't. It's that simple. Even you can't."

"Even me?"

For a second she saw something in his eye, some brief flash of frustration at his own words, and wondered if it were a slip. But it was gone in an instant, and he pushed the conversation on without pause, his tone purposely provocative.

"You have my word—can we now discuss something of actual value which would warrant my bothering to give it."

"Such as?"

"You tell me, you asked for this meeting."

She could so easily have challenged him, Leia knew, but she wasn't biting, not this time. Instead she hesitated, looking for another path, a way to break down those barriers. Why, she didn't know—perhaps because she felt that this would be the last time he trusted her. She felt a pang of genuine guilt at that, and wondered at it. Not now; don't think about it now.

"Han trusts you," she said at last. "Absolutely."

Luke looked down, jaw tightening as Leia pushed on. "He does…yet he wouldn't let me come here alone today. He trusts you absolutely…and not at all. You tell me what I'm supposed to do with that?"

"You want to know what you should do? Trust me. Call a ceasefire. Do this, and let me prove my intentions. Compromise—give me this one chance."

"Give me a reason to." It was a request, not a challenge.

"I've given you them!" Luke said. "I gave you your troops back against the advice of my council and the tenets of my own military. I gave you the second Death Star…against the wishes of my council, believe me. I think I've brought enough to this table to prove my intentions…what will you bring?"

Leia held quiet, aware that thus far, she'd brought nothing but her time… And now, she'd brought enemies. She paused, taking a quick breath, fighting to clear that line of thought, and when she looked up to him his eyes were narrowed, curious. Had he read her thoughts? He didn't move, eyes steady on her, and Leia considered, freshly unsure.

Because the fact was that Luke had made all the gestures, taken all the chances…or were they that at all? Had they cost him so very much? Like the bottle of Alderaanian mead he'd given an astronomical four weeks pay to buy and bring to her when he'd still been a Rebel pilot, were they noble, benevolent gestures or, to a man with limitless power, were they nothing more than empty acts of coercion?

Leia shook her head, freshly unsure. "Who are you…really?"

It all came back to that one question for Leia: what was real and what was feigned. He didn't speak as Luke Skywalker used to—not the accent, any accent could be faked with sufficient lessons and a good linguist—he didn't use the same terms and colloquialisms; the pattern of his speech had changed, not simply the dialect. Could you learn those things too, being submersed in another sociolect? And how often had she seen him anyway—three hours in the last seven years? Five? Hardly a fair representation, given how guarded he was around her.

Was he making a conscious choice to seem different before her, to distance himself from the man he once was—might have been, Leia corrected herself—and if so, why? What did it gain him, this distance?

"You're an unfathomable man," she said at last. Narrowing her eyes, she touched on the truth of it. "The question is, is it by choice?"

"Haven't we been over this?"

"Yes, but never to any conclusion…and every time I see you, I feel like I'm looking at a different man—sometimes in the course of a single conversation."

He hesitated, seeming taken aback at her directness, so Leia tried again, spurred on by the realization and her memories of their last encounter. "Sometimes…sometimes when I look at you, I still see him so clearly. I still see Luke Skywalker. And so I can't help but wonder if he's still in there. If he's…"

"No," Luke said simply, the word absolute.

Leia stuck to her guns. "I think he is. I can see no other reason why the Emperor would give us the new Death Star."

"I didn't give it to you." He was pulling back again, his tone sharpening. "I simply showed you its existence."
"Then destroyed it…and right now, I think I'm finally realizing why."

That momentary tightening around his eyes was visible in the scar which curved noticeably at his frown: curiosity—the need to know… Was it because he didn't know himself why he'd done it, Leia wondered? Was the ambiguous and contradictory facade that he presented more than skin-deep? Now, looking into his eyes in this moment, seeing that fraction of hidden uncertainty beneath a near-perfect mask, it seemed so obvious to her.

"You see, for an Emperor, a dictator, I would think that something as potent as a Death Star would be a valuable asset to be pressed into service at the first possible opportunity…but Luke Skywalker—the Luke Skywalker I knew—he wouldn't be able to bear its existence."

Those ice-blue eyes narrowed further. "I've managed to bear its existence for two years already. In fact I helped build it."

"Yet you didn't use it."

"I don't need it," he dismissed. "And what makes you think that's the only one?"

For a scarlet second Leia wondered—but even as the panic came, it subsided, and she shook her head. "Because you wouldn't use something like that. Luke Skywalker wouldn't…and so I don't think the Emperor would either."

"Now you think me honorable?" He almost laughed, and when she tipped her head in annoyance, he smiled genuinely. "Just not honorable enough to rule?"

"I don't think any one individual can be."

"What makes you think ten individuals can be—or a hundred? Human nature is human nature. The fault is simply magnified."

"The more candidates who jointly make the decision, the more individual traits are nullified by the group."

"It didn't quite work that way for the Senate."

"The Senate existed for millennia."

"Then crumbled under its own flaws—yet you want to recreate it exactly."

"And you want to sweep it completely aside, good and bad."

"No, I want to find the middle road. I want to reinstate a Senate whose powers are not absolute."

"So you're making a puppet government."

"I'm looking for a way forward."

"Which conveniently happens to leave you in ultimate control."

"Why do you think you'll rule any better than me?"

Luke's challenge took Leia aback, that he could even ask the question. "We would represent the will of the people!"

"All of them?" Luke asked. "Or merely those who happen to share your particular views?"

"I doubt many share yours."

"Which doesn't necessarily make mine wrong," he replied pointedly. "And even if it did, that still doesn't necessarily make yours right."

"People have a right to make that choice themselves."

"Even if they're wrong, if all they'll do is exacerbate the situation with a knee-jerk reaction?"

"Yes, even then! They have a right to make their own mistakes." Leia shook her head, uncertain how she'd been forced into some kind of admission that they would. "Give them a chance to vote—see who they really want in power."

"Maybe you'd be surprised."

"Then go ahead," she challenged, throwing down the gauntlet.

But he only watched, amused at her indignant fervor, leaving Leia to wonder at what point he'd become the jaded politician.

"No," he stated simply. "The time isn't right yet."

And there it was again; that subtle promise of what was to come, keeping her hopeful, maintaining a dialogue when all she wanted to do—what she should do—was storm from the room and leave him to Madine.

So why did she stay?

Because the truth was she really didn't know—didn't know what he intended. Was it to reinstate a Senate and gradually increase its powers to the point where it could assume full command, as he'd said….or did he have no intention of ever stepping down, leaving it forever toothless, a shadow illusion of democracy. Empty lipservice to mislead and deceive. And still he wore that polite, distanced smile, as if at any moment he could simply stand up and leave if it no longer amused him. Yet he said all the right things…

"When everything's secure, I'll open the ballots."

"So when you've had enough time to rig the votes, is that what you're saying?" Leia asked.

"I would never do that. But I won't rush through unsound practices to answer to the Alliance's private agendas either."

"Or your own?"

"Democracy can't be rushed, I've already realized that. It can't be held to a timetable."

"If you don't intend to hold free elections, then what are we even discussing here?"

"I will hold elections…when the time is right. When everything is in place to back up that consensus. I told you before, certain conditions need to be addressed before then."

"We need to lay down our arms."

"There needs to be a cessation of hostilities—on both our parts."

"You want me to cease the very thing that's forcing you into these talks, on the off-chance that at some vague point in the future, you just might hold an election?"

"Nothing you're doing is forcing me into anything," he said with casual assurance.

"Then why are you here?"

"If you genuinely believe that I'll give you nothing, then why are you here?" he countered.

The brief flash of her altered reasons to bring him here today flared in her mind, and Leia tamped it down ruthlessly, speaking for no other reason that to take up her thoughts. "Sometimes I wonder."

"Then let me tell you. You're here because you want to see an end to this. You want to see a united Empire under democratic rule, and you want to see that with as little bloodshed as possible—which is exactly what I want to see. I could take you out very easily, Leia, believe me. I could continue to usher in changes to the constitution which would make your Rebellion redundant. I could give the people overnight what you're so willing to fight for, and in doing so leave you meaningless and obsolete."

"Then why don't you?"

"Because it would be me giving them that, managed by those who support the existing regime. It would be the very thing you're accusing me of—absolute rule under a different name. I need people in power who would be as passionate about democracy as you are. Not to build their own power base, but because they believed they were doing the right thing. I need people in power who would be prepared to fight for those beliefs tooth and nail, if only in the political arena. I need people who hold democracy among their highest values. I don't have these people—not enough to form a cohesive government. By its nature, the Empire has suppressed them for almost three decades. I simply don't have these people…but you do. You said it yourself: numbers and diversity can even out the extremes so that individual traits are nullified—Imperial and Alliance representatives could stand side by side."

Leia shook her head, taken by the power in his words, the apparent sincerity…wanting to believe, but as unsure as ever that he was telling her the truth. Needing to be wary for the sake of the Alliance. "You say this, but I saw you named Emperor in Palpatine's Throne Room before Palpatine's Court. I saw you in command on the bridge of an Imperial Star Destroyer."

"You also saw me help you to escape from one. You've seen me continually work towards removing the old Imperial Court since my accession. I've effectively nullified it, as you well know."

"So you've taken what little power was elsewhere and redirected it through yourself?"

"It has the power it always had, which is the power to petition the Emperor to change or enact the law. No one in Court ever had any actual authority save by the Emperor's express permission, and that to back up whatever Palpatine wanted. It became nothing more than a collection of sycophants, and I'd disassemble what's left of it tomorrow if I could. It still exists as a body because it's tied into the Imperial legal and administrative systems. When I have an effective means to place that power elsewhere, I will. Until then Court remains, in theory at least."

Leia narrowed her eyes. "Is that what you're offering us, the façade of democracy?"

He was completely unmoved by her tone. "You know that's not true."

"How do I know that's not true?"

"Because I could very easily create the pretense of democracy without ever having to include something as contentious and inflammatory as the Rebel Alliance."

"The words of a true Sith Emperor."

He only set his head to one side, the tiny sliver of his impeccable, high-collared white shirt glowing in the low light. "I'm disappointed; I thought you were beyond such limiting views. Life is seldom black and white." He glanced down, taking in her appearance with a perfunctory, amused glance. "Though tonight we seem to be the exception which proves the rule."

Leia looked to his clothes, darkly opulent, subtly understated, absolute black, and remembered her own, pure white, a conscious choice today to underline her belief in the old Senate before a Sith Emperor…

Was he telling the truth, did he need the free-thinkers who had fought for their beliefs—those who could be relied on to struggle for those same values under political circumstances. It was all very logical; they were exactly what a new Senate would need. They were also exactly what a continuing Empire would like to single out and destroy.

"It's not what you see and it's not what they call me, Leia—it's what I do that defines me."

Was it simply a reminder of their first meeting, Leia wondered, or was it a genuine appeal, his voice strangely vulnerable in that moment, drawing her in, calling her on.

"And what will you do?" she asked, her voice a whisper.





Eyes on Leia's tightly clasped hands, Luke hesitated, aware of her tenseness—aware at least partly, of why. He'd sensed some crosscurrent of change today; some subtle shift, half-hidden, which had given him pause… Yet he'd felt drawn on by the one thing he truly trusted: the Force had urged in subtle ways every day on his journey here. Had whispered into his dreams and waking thoughts, charging them with the same pressing need to open up to Leia that he felt in this moment. To gain her trust, now or never.

"I'll take Palpatine's Empire apart."

"And replace it with your own?"

It was a wall of skeptical doubt, and everything he tried was rebuffed. Should he simply stop trying?

"If that was all I wanted, then why would I be here?"

"You tell me?"

"I can't. There would be no reason. If I wanted power I have it…but I'll say it again, power is a means to an end, not an end in itself."





Leia hesitated, aware on some level that something had changed. It came in the tone of his voice, in the set of his shoulders…it came as a sense from the pit of her stomach. She leaned forward, such was her fervor— "Abdicate."

She watched Luke sit back wearily, head to one side as he rubbed at the bridge of his nose, knowing they'd come to this point before. She felt the moment falter. Still, he answered, laying down the same facts again. "I would do so, but..."

"Then do so—"

"But…" Luke repeated pointedly, "someone would have to step into that breach. Someone would still have to lead the Empire toward a more moderate path. Someone would have to broker the ceasefire and turn that fragile, volatile peace into democracy—a fair democracy with representation for all. And who could I trust to do that?"

"I'd do it."

"A Rebel?"

Leia arched her eyebrows. "Surely we'll be represented in your future democracy anyway—that is what you're offering, isn't it? Why not before?"

"Because you'd never hold the Empire in one piece—you'd certainly never hold the Moffs together. Even if you weren't already known as the leader of the Rebellion against their Empire they'd never accept you. You'd be viewed as a radical before you'd even begun to make changes. I served Palatine for years—I was Commander-in-Chief of the Core Fleet, and even I balance on that brink, little as I've done to redress the bias. The Empire's power is based on its massive military and that military is notoriously conservative. You'd never control them or even hold them in check, and if you didn't they'd form a formidable, organized force against you within months—maybe even weeks."

"I control a military now."

"Not like this," he said with conviction. "You control a military who want to be controlled—they have a single goal and a reason to pull together. Mine are a very different breed. They say I'm a wolf—then that's the pack…and if they smell blood, if they see the slightest weakness, they'll turn on you and rip you to shreds, leader or no."

Leia frowned, taken by the strength of belief in his words, the clear conviction that he was quoting absolute fact—he, after all, knew them. Was he so ruthless because he had to be, because if he didn't maintain control then they would take it from him—by force?

"What would happen if you abdicated?" she asked at last, genuinely curious.

He shrugged, his manner dismissive. "First of all they'd do their utmost to kill me—no point in risking a change of heart. Then they'd take down most of my close advisors in the belief that one of them would be the next in line of succession and therefore a genuine threat. Kiria would be next, because although she has no direct entitlement she'd still be a figure for the Royal Houses to rally round, since they have a vested interest in maintaining traditional lines of entitlement—and because they'd close ranks against a threat to one of their own; that's simply what they do. I should imagine they'd probably remove any of my remaining close associates within the Palace hierarchy and the military as quickly as possible in the following weeks, to avoid any backlash and any possible threat to back up the legal bequeath of power, before they finally turned on each other." Luke paused, but Leia remained silent, genuinely listening, aware that tellingly, he'd obviously given this a lot of thought.

"Every Grand Moff with a superiority complex would be looking to take the lead—which would be all of them—splitting the military up in the process. The Army and Navy would separate out and form their own factions—I could probably name seven or eight serious contenders—and anyone else without control of a sizeable military contingent of at least a dozen well-placed sectors would be wheedled out within weeks. The Empire would polarize into systems or Sectors loyal to or under the control of one faction or another. And I've not even started on the aristocrats in the Royal Houses who, with the traditional line of entitlement gone, would start collaborating and dealing and generally adding to the anarchy. Despite that, I doubt that anyone could hold down more than a few linked Sectors, which makes nice, close borders to raid when supply lines dried up and no one had the complete list of provisions and ordnance necessary to maintain their own little power base. Retaliations would follow…and civil war would erupt, even be instigated in places, for personal gain. Remember, these would be military leaders—if you give a man a hammer, he sees every problem as a nail. They'd seek a military solution because that's what they understand and that's where their strength lay, and they would play to it. And they'd have the power and the position to force everyone else to do so—to meet them on their terms."

"Then remove the Moffs first."

He smiled at that. "Remove them how? There are almost a thousand. Are you suggesting I make them step down—because that would solve nothing; they'd maintain their contacts and their ambitions, and nothing fuels the fire of unrest better than a good dose of offended resentment. At present they're bound by my laws; by the rules and regulations of the military they serve in. If they decide to challenge me then they're trapped and hindered by those same laws—Palpatine wasn't a fool; he'd give no one enough power to threaten him. Or are you perhaps suggesting removing them more…permanently? In which case, removing all of those who represented a threat would generate a power vacuum which would be impossible to manage without creating that which you've just sought to eradicate. And surely the Alliance doesn't condone such extreme action anyway?"

Leia blinked just once at the stream of considered, coherent information; was this the same man who had burst into her cell onboard the Death Star to blithely identify himself as her rescuer without the slightest idea as to how they were going to get out again? The man who had run them onto the stub of a bridge and promptly shot the controls out without a second thought given to how they were actually going to cross the chasm?

The man who had stepped forward in the Death Star hangar in General Kenobi's defense without a moment's consideration as to his own safety.

The man who'd flown against the Death Star—against a million to one odds. Knowingly.

For the first time in a long time, Leia looked into those mismatched eyes and wondered…

What if he had been?

What if he had been that man and had to go through all that he had endured in the last seven years? What if Luke Skywalker—the Luke Skywalker she knew—what if he was real?

What would it have done to him, to have lived this life…faced these trials?

It wouldn't have broken him, not Luke. But it would have changed him, forced him to be something else just to survive. Even Han admitted that; that the Luke Skywalker he knew would be fundamentally changed by all he'd been through. Was that what she was looking at now? Or was she just letting her heart rule her head?

When she finally found her voice it was quiet and calm, tempered by the considerations rushing through her thoughts. "You could remove the Grand Moffs and replace them with Alliance Commanders—they wouldn't allow the deposed Moffs any further contact with the military."

"Seriously—you seriously think the Imperial military would take orders from an Alliance Commander, at any level, let alone Sector Command?" Luke shook his head, amused but not to the point that he was dismissive—and why, Leia thought, why despite everything, could she still not think of him by any other name?

She looked again to those unsettling but so very familiar eyes as he continued, prepared to talk this out; to discuss and not simply overrule. "They're too entrenched. It would only polarize the situation further, send more defectors to the discharged Moff's side in support of the Empire they knew. Change has to be slow. We have to have everything in place before it comes, from the top down."

"Then replace them with men within your own ranks—those you trust."

"All of those I trust are already in positions of power, believe me. But it's a big Empire and they don't begin to cover it…yet. Trustworthy men who also seek positions of power are few and far between, and those who can successfully hold the pack at bay without being ripped to shreds are fewer still. Trust me, I know."

"So you leave those who are unsuitable in power?"

"I like my enemies where I can see them," Luke countered easily—and instantly straightened, seeing his own slip.

"Is that why I'm here?" she challenged.

Luke rubbed at the bridge of his nose again, weary. "You know that's not true."

She sighed and narrowed her eyes, trying to re-evaluate the man she thought she knew in light of all he had said today. He was a leader now, and a calculating one, with all the trappings that entailed: agendas and objectives and a shrewd awareness of his own power and position, as well as the conviction that he would have to maintain both in order to achieve his goals. The question was, what exactly were those goals and how far was he willing to go to fulfill them? He'd already had the gall to depose a Sith Emperor—by extension, one had to assume that removing any other obstruction to his power base was equally acceptable.

"But that's just the thing," she murmured at last. "I don't. You move forward and backward in the same argument—in the same sentence sometimes."

"That doesn't mean my objectives do—only the means of getting there. That's why you have to trust me—you have to find that confidence, because without it this will never work. That's what this is…it's my asking you if you can hold to that belief, that no matter what I say or do publicly, I'm still heading in the same direction."

"Democracy."

"A working democracy," he corrected.

"And how do you make it work?"

"I don't know yet…" He leaned forward, and the smile on his lips was genuine, daring, energized. "Why don't we find out?"

And oh, in that moment Leia wanted so much to follow him, wanted to trust him, wanted to...

She glanced down guiltily, the reality of this situation blooming cold within her. "Madine thinks we can get there without you."

The smile fell instantly from his lips. "Madine ran with the pack too long. He can't be trusted—you know that, don't you?"

"This from the man who lets his own pack-wolves run free."

"No, I control my pack; I've told you, follow my rules."

Leia frowned, aware of the change in him as his voice hardened, yet strangely unthreatened by it. She examined that thought, that gut feeling. "The truth is that for a wolf, you so rarely bare your teeth…"

"That doesn't mean I don't bite—only that I seldom make empty threats."

Thoughts running back over the last seven years, Leia slowly shook her head. "I think you bite only when you're cornered."

"Then I would suggest you stop trying to corner me."

"You know that I'm not," she said, aware that it was only half-true. Something was stirring now, sounding at the very edge of her thoughts, that same constant tone which rang, pitch-perfect, in the dead of night when she couldn't sleep. That same bone-deep awareness of some connection unmade, something so obvious as to be right here before her eyes, and yet it remained as always just beyond her grasp. She paused, taken up by that feeling, the knowledge of something so close she could almost touch it. "I think…the more I know you, the more I think that you do only what you perceive of as necessary… I just don't know if that's enough; enough to trust the fate of the Alliance to you."

He sighed as he looked down, fingers dragging through his hair. "You're judging me on what you've heard, not by what you know."

"What else can I judge you on?" Leia said.

He leaned forward, and Leia could almost feel his need for…something: some connection, some breakthrough. "You knew me for so long, Leia. Forget what anyone else says, what do your instincts tell you—what does your heart tell you?"

She leaned back, licking at dry lips in uncertainty as that tone, that constant, perfect tone, reverberated with a resonance she'd never known before.

He shook his head. "I can't give you proof, Leia—I can't ever give you proof, because we're both standing on shifting sand. You're just going to have to trust me. Just take one step and trust me."

"Trust you, how can I trust you? How can I trust The Wolf…"


And there it was.

Leia stuttered to silence, unable to believe she'd never seen it before—but she'd never once called him that divisive name, never acknowledged him as such. Now, having said it aloud...oh, it was so obvious!

Her dreams; her constant dreams! The black wolf who'd prowled in her shadow, always there, always waiting…this was what they were about!

He hesitated, knowing that she'd reached some kind of epiphany but uncertain what… And all Leia could do was stare—just stare at the man who'd stalked her dreams for six long years.

Looking away from that feral gaze she glanced down…and her eyes were taken by his hands, loosely clasped on the table before him, close enough that she could…

As she had done in her dreams, Leia reached out—and he jerked back as if burned; as if her touch, any touch, could cut like a knife. She remembered all the times long ago that he'd held her and laughed with her, how deeply they'd connected, how they'd bonded so spontaneously and intuitively, like two halves of the same whole. Remembered him gathering her up and spinning her round when he'd returned to Yavin after the Death Star; remembered his joy and his life and his exuberance.

"Luke…" she hesitated, "what did they do to you?"

He shrank back, intensely uncomfortable, and she knew her softly spoken words had momentarily broken through, had shattered those thick shields…

Then his eyes hooded, chin raising a fraction. "No more than you did, Leia."

"Me?"

"They used me—but you…you betrayed me."

"What was I supposed to do?"

"Believe! Believe in me—in the man you knew so well. Am I a fool for asking you to do now what you couldn't do then? We were so close…was our friendship so fragile that you couldn't do that? Did it mean so little?"

"It wasn't about us, it wasn't ever about us. It was about keeping the Alliance alive."

"And telling them did that?"

"Yes! If you were a spy…"

"If ?" He almost laughed the word. "Now you say if. What would it have cost you to say it then—what would it really have cost the Alliance to wait and watch? What would it have cost you to do the same when I was named Heir. Had I really become such a threat overnight? What had I ever done to the Alliance in all the time that I was on Coruscant to make me such a threat?"

"You were heir to Palpatine's throne!" Leia was almost shouting, spurred on by his own sudden burst of emotion.

"That didn't make me Palpatine."

"We didn't know that!"

"You knew me—but you still trusted some tenuous collection of implied lies over years of friendship!" He fell back in his chair, all his anger spent. "All we'd gone through together, all we'd been—was it worth so little to you?"

He halted, no more to say, and Leia too paused, her own reasoning and validations finally aired, long-denied frustrations and accusations finally set aside.

She shook her head, voice quiet. "Tell me I was wrong?"

It was practically a plea; all he had to do was say it, just once.

But he shook his head slowly, as unwilling as ever to give her the easy way out, though his voice was as much an apology as a justification. "I can't tell you that—you have to make that decision alone. If you can't believe in me, I can never make this work. Outside of this room, I will constantly say things and take actions which will seem contrary to this agreement in every way, and you're gonna have to trust that I'm still working to that same goal—despite everything I seem to do. Whatever else happens outside of this room, you and I have to believe. We have to trust each other…or we have nothing."

"I…" Leia paused; for the first time, she paused and she looked not outwards, at the bigger picture and her greater cause, protected by the immunity and the detachment it afforded, but inwards, at her own heart, always cautious and guarded. At his, bruised and betrayed. She thought again of those endless dreams in the tangled darkness, of the illusive wolf which had never, in years of encounters, never once bitten, only hovered in the shadows, waiting... And he was waiting still.

Was it pride that held her back, the fear that he'd make a fool of her again, as Madine had said? Was that all that was left of her? Fears and pride and betrayal? Oh, how her father would have lamented; he, who had held faith right to the end.

Where was her own hope? Where was her faith in those she'd once trusted so completely and so instinctively? Where was the girl Luke Skywalker had gathered in his arms and spun about at Yavin, the girl he'd given so much to save...had he saved her at all?

She'd committed so much to the Alliance, given so much to hold that flame alight... but in doing so, had she lost some vital part of it within herself?

She looked to the man before her, clothed in black, wrapped about in shadows…yet he had doggedly held on to this deepest part of himself. Because he believed—he believed in her, despite everything. Despite all that had gone before, he had faith that she would do the right thing.

And if he could keep that spark alight through everything...then so could she. And she knew exactly the first step she needed to take to find that path again. "I should have trusted you; I should have tried."

Something in his face softened; something in his eyes gave, or maybe it was something in her own…but suddenly she was looking at Luke Skywalker—and where had he come from? What had changed in the Emperor's face to make him so completely Luke again?

Looking into that face, looking at the friend she'd laughed with and cried with and hugged and held...and hurt, so badly, the words came easily. "I'm sorry," Leia said. "I am so very, very sorry—can you forgive me, Luke?" She didn't care about the Emperor or even the Sith. She only wanted him to forgive—Luke Skywalker.

He looked away, suddenly as uncertain as Luke had ever been. "I made mistakes too, I know that."

What pushed her to ask the next question she didn't know, but the moment it had left her lips she realized its significance. "Do you believe you're doing the right thing now?"

It was a fraction of a second's hesitation; a broken heartbeat. "Yes."

Not quite—again; push again. "Do you believe you always have?"





And there it was again, Luke knew, all wrapped up about her—in his eyes on her delicate, tightly clasped hands, in that sense of urgency which twisted the Force with need, pressing in about him, demanding action. Gain her trust… Now or never.

So that where normally he would have avoided or rebuffed the searching questions, now, in this moment, he felt moved to answer them. Honestly.

"I told you before, I'm past any help. The Empire isn't; that has to be the focus here."

"Nobody's past help."

Luke stared, feeling he could fall into those huge, compassionate eyes the rich, dark brown of heartwood… The color of heartwood—where had he heard that?

He shook his head, broke his own chain of thought. "I am. By my own making. I'm not asking you or anyone else to forgive me. I'm asking you to help something bigger—something that matters."





Rebuffed, Leia blinked at the mercurial change as Luke tamped down any personal considerations in favor of his goal, transforming himself completely in the space of a single sentence. How could he think himself so unimportant?

"Perhaps in helping one I help the other."

"I'm past any reprieve. I've fallen too far, done too much I'm asha—" He broke the word, but it was too late.

Ashamed of, Leia knew; and you couldn't feel shame unless you were aware of your mistakes; remorseful. He didn't simply acknowledge his errors—he regretted them.

He regretted them! In the space of a single slip, a different man sat before her…or maybe a very familiar one.

"Luke, we all stumble," Leia said, intensely aware that the conversation was charting new territory.

"Stumble?" He shook his head, scarred lips widening to an empty, self-depreciating smile. "No, I didn't stumble. I fell…and I kept on falling. And now I find I'm so far from the light that I can't even begin to battle my way back. These aren't mistakes; they're not momentary lapses or fleeting miscalculations. These are glaring flaws and they're mine alone, and I can't step back from them—they're part of me." He swallowed, hands clamping to fists. "But they accomplish a greater objective—a more important goal."

Leia frowned, freshly uncertain. It seemed as if he'd made this case a thousand times in his own head and could come to no other conclusion save to damn himself. "I don't understand."

"Do you believe in destiny?" Sky blue eyes locked on hers, his tone earnest.

"No."

He smiled just slightly, barely a twitch. "Do you believe in heredity? I'm the son of a Sith Lord; the Darkness is in me—it runs with the blood through my veins."

"I don't believe that if you've done something wrong in your life then you're lost—irredeemable."

"The Jedi believed it. Ben did, and Yoda."

"Then they were wrong," Leia said firmly.

A ghost of a smile touched his scarred lips as he leveled the words at her that she had charged against him so often. "Just like that?"

"Yes, just like that," Leia said, for the first time absolutely sure. For him—about him.

He looked away, voice barely a murmur, the change mercurial as ever.

"You once said…you told me I had no concept of hell, save how to inflict it on others…" He trailed to silence as Leia winced at her own accusation, a shallow frown momentarily taking his still-youthful features to the same age as his world-weary eyes. "…I never believed in hell—I never thought the universe could be that cruel. But if you'd asked, I would have said that hell was fire and brimstone; a massive, heaving, teeming place, a million souls crowded in, suffering for their sins. Punishment, payback…retribution.

"Now, I know without a doubt that it exists—but I find it's not like that at all. Hell is an empty room. Hell is the still of night. Hell is me, alone with my mind and my memories and my regrets. Hell is my life."

It was a momentary glimpse, a fleeting sense of a torn and tortured soul. Moved by the absolute desolation in those words she reached across the table and took his hand—and it was soft and warm and so very human.

Those haunted eyes came to hers. "If I could change that—if there were any way, any way at all that I could change that…don't you think I would have done so already?"

Something inside her broke at the appeal in those words, some final span breached. "Luke…"

It hit her like a body-blow, widened her eyes in realization, tightening her fingers about his until her nails pressed tensely into flesh.

What had seemed so right less than an hour ago was now absolutely, unquestionably wrong—she could feel it in every fiber of her body, feel it lighting the blood through her veins, the knowledge so overpowering that it was difficult to speak through her constricted throat. "You have to go—quickly!"





Luke frowned, his mind clearing instantly, snapping back to the moment in reaction to her fear. "Why?"

Leia leaned forward, the word less than a whisper. "Madine!"

Luke lifted his chin, reaching out with his senses…but there was nothing—no one close save Mara, no perceived threat other than Leia's outright panic.

"They're here—now!" she whispered. "They're all around you."

He set his head slightly to the side and refined his senses, eyes half-closing, looking for anything no matter how small…

…but there was nothing—absolutely nothing…and that was wrong.

He turned razor-sharp perception on it, and now, when he knew what he was looking for, they were all around him. Bubbles: rifts in his perception. Holes where the Force simply didn't exist.

Luke rose quickly, the chair clattering back behind him unheeded. There was little point in subtlety; if he was being watched or eavesdropped upon then Leia wouldn't have told him as directly as she had—or perhaps she felt he had so little time.

Mara had opened the door before he reached it, blaster in her hand, having sensed his sudden agitation though she clearly hadn't perceived the rifts yet. "What is it?"

"Something…" He couldn't explain it, couldn't pin it down. He'd never sensed anything like it before.

Mara turned immediately to Leia, blaster raising. "I'm guessing you already know, so…"

Luke caught her arm as it came up, pushing the blaster aside. "She's the one who warned me."

Luke almost told Mara to reach out with the Force, intending to guide her, to show her the rifts, but caught himself in time. Despite this new level of trust between himself and Leia there was no need for her to know Mara's abilities. "We need to move now." He turned back to Leia. "Is there a safe way?"





Staring at Luke where he'd paused at the door, the dark shadows of the corridor already engulfing him, Leia shook her head, unsure why she was helping him but knowing absolutely that she should. "I don't know—I really don't. I don't even know how they're doing it. They told me nothing so you wouldn't realize."

He nodded to the table and chairs, indicating their conversations. "This isn't over?"

Leia felt a smile come to her lips unbidden. "No. In fact I think this is finally beginning."

She watched as, despite everything, Luke's face broke into a wide, genuine smile—and oh, he looked so much like the Luke she'd known. In that instant the last six years compressed into a single pang of doubt so small as to be insignificant. She felt her own tentative smile widen, felt some buzz of elated empathy connect between them—

—and then he was gone, his footsteps barely a whisper lost in the shadows.

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

 

 

They were moving down the half-lit corridors at speed, little short of a run, retracing their steps back towards one of the freighter's two open loading bays and into the space station beyond, though that was actually plan B; the fact was, they were angling their path, hoping to make a far quicker exit at the first emergency airlock they managed to reach en-route.

"Wait!" Luke slowed yet again, taking Mara's arm. "Not that way."

Mara cursed beneath her breath, frustration burning in her stomach. "That puts the next nearest airlock on this level on…" she paused, running the schematics in her head, wishing she'd had more time to study them, "port side, a way forward of us."

They'd run a strangely circuitous route for a short while, before Mara had finally voiced her confusion and Luke had stopped briefly to guide her burgeoning powers within the Force, instructing her to look for the edges of the rifts rather than the rifts themselves, like seeing a star in the night sky by not looking directly at it, so that she began, with great concentration, to perceive of the voids in the Force about them.

"Ysalamiri." She'd known immediately, having been told of them by Palpatine long ago—seen them up close even, though her old master wouldn't accompany her or allow even one of the small, velvet-furred creatures into the Imperial Palace.

Luke had drawn in a breath, nodding as if it all became clear. "Do you sense how many?"

Mara closed her eyes in concentration. "No, just clumps—I don't know, three clumps, maybe four?"

"Try twenty, maybe twenty-five, some large, some smaller. They overlap sometimes—and they're getting closer."

"So they're mobile."

Luke nodded, starting off again at a slow run. "I've seen Intel images—they looked small enough to be easily carried."

"How did the Rebels find out about them?" Mara growled, picking up pace beside him. "It's not exactly common knowledge."

"Did Reece know about them?"

"Reece? No, I don't think so." Mara turned sharply. "You don't think the person he was passing information on to was Organa?"

"No. I asked her directly about some Intel I knew Reece had passed on once, and she didn't even flinch."

"Reece would never help the Rebellion. Whatever he's doing, it wouldn't be that, he's too committed to the Empire."

"I don't think he's after the Empire; he's after me."

Mara's run turned to a jog, then she slowed to a stop, realization coloring her voice. "Wait a minute—did you know this was a trap?"

Luke slowed, glancing down the corridor, wanting to be gone. "Not specifically. I knew Reece has been like a spooked mynock all week—even Nathan said he was jumpy—and I knew something was wrong with Leia the moment I saw her. But I didn't know what exactly."

"You wanted to see what she'd do…" Mara frowned, the final realization striking. "Or rather, if she'd go through with it." She shook her head. "Still playing sabacc, huh? Same game, different chips."

"Before you explode, I'd like to point out that I didn't want you to come."

"You think I would have exploded less if I'd found out that you knew it was a trap and walked into it alone on purpose?"

In the midst of all their problems, Luke grinned. "Well, I think you would have been further away, at least."

Mara nodded dryly. "Yeah, you would still have heard it."

Luke glanced back down the corridor. "What I didn't allow for is Madine."

"Reece passed the information to Madine?"

"I thought he was just playing the Royal Houses—Kiria said he actually took an offer to her directly. But Madine would be the better bet if Reece was aiming this at me and not the Empire. Madine and I have a long history and Reece knows that, plus he knows this is the single time that security's at an absolute minimum, to keep these meetings quiet." Luke began to backstep down the corridor, taking Mara's arm, wanting to get moving again. "What I particularly didn't allow for is Madine and ysalamiri—we need to keep moving."






Leia walked quickly across the small meeting room as Luke and the slim redhead left, but they were still gone by the time she'd reached the door, the only sound she could hear in the empty, half-lit corridor that of her own heart against her ribs, loud as a drum in her ears.

Because she'd done it; she'd been the one to tell him to run. Her hand came to her face, heart still pounding…she'd done the right thing, hadn't she? She had—she knew it.

A half-dozen Rebel troops in Special Ops gear came around the far corner and passed her, working their advance in two's at a slow, wary pace, weapons ready. Only one of them nodded in acknowledgment as Leia watched them go, frowning at the heavy packs they wore on their back—some kind of a frame…was that something live in the frame?

They passed, and something swirled at the back of Leia's mind, leaving her momentarily dizzy, as if someone had just pulled the floor from under her feet…then just as quickly the sensation was gone, and Leia blinked, shaking her head.

As they rounded the far corner she was alone again, staring at nothing as she wondered at her own actions and listened in the absolute silence to the small voice at the back of her mind, that hazy, indefinable gut feeling so often overwhelmed by the massive weight of responsibilities which lay heavy on her shoulders.

But in that moment…in that moment when she'd sat staring into those uncanny mismatched eyes, it had seemed so totally, overwhelmingly right.

She had done the right thing in warning him; she knew it absolutely.

She'd thought she would feel foolish by now for having helped him, angry at herself for having betrayed her own cause, but…no. No; she'd done the right thing.

Leia thought briefly of Han, who had remained with the shuttle, wanting no part of this. She wanted desperately to tell him, to share this epiphany of exhilarating and terrifying consequences. He'd have returned to the Zephyr by now though, the plan being for Leia and all those aboard the Wasp to rendezvous with the Zephyr a half light-year from the space station… She was still staring absently out of the corridor viewport, wondering how exactly they were going to do that from the engineless Wasp, when she realized they were moving.






Mara ran at a fast jog down the corridor, her holdout blaster in her hand. It was compact and lightweight, and hardly a match for what Luke had counted grimly into the several dozen trained and presumably well-armed soldiers who were onboard, based on the rifts he'd perceived in the Force. As yet, Mara hadn't seen a single one—not a shot fired.

Not that she was complaining. She didn't mind stretching the odds a little, but one compact holdout blaster against several dozen E-11's or maybe even A-280's was pushing the envelope even for her. Confined corridors weren't exactly ideal ground to have to cover at speed either, both of them wary that any combination of men, weaponry and hardware could be concealed around the next bend or behind any of the multitude of closed doors they passed.

It was also a big freighter at maybe one hundred-eighty meters, which meant a lot of long corridors to skirt those multiple massive storage bays, and that too was working against them in terms of time to reach either an airlock or the exit bays to the rear of the freighter.

Mara pulled her comlink out and tried it again on the run. "Still blocking the comm channels."

"No problem, I can just use the Force to link with a Force-sensitive onboard the Sol Ecliptic and…" He paused, voice dry and teasing rather than angry. "Oh wait, you're right here beside me."

Mara narrowed her eyes as they ran. "How long have you been waiting to say that?"

"Pretty much since we first started running," Luke said easily, voice hitching as they jogged.

They slowed as they came to a blind bend, and Mara lifted her gun and hugged the corner, crouching down before she risked a glance around the edge of the wall.

"Clear."

They were five paces down the corridor when Luke paused, eyes ahead. "Rifts."

"How many?"

"Too many."

Mara glanced to him. "Through or round?"

Luke stared, and Mara sensed his frustration; that he was itching to say, 'Through'… Instead he ground his jaw, backstepping. "Round—find another corridor. Are we still heading towards the airlock?"

"Roughly." They were aiming for one of the four airlocks which staggered the length of the big freighter, hoping their intention would be disguised by their more obvious bearing towards the rear bays.

But right now they were backtracking again, opening doors they'd just run past in search of an alternative route, forced to crab diagonally across the ship towards the nearest airlock. Luke glanced down the corridor they'd just come from. "Are they shutting down the lights behind us?"

"Yeah, 'cos that's gonna bother us," Mara said dryly.

"It will if they get those ysalamiri close enough," Luke said, frowning down the long corridor. "That blast door at the far end was unlocked earlier; we passed through it."

"Fine," Mara muttered. "I've had just about enough of this."

Pulling out the lightsaber Luke had made for her, Mara activated it and pushed the blade down into the floor. A brief flash of sparks lit the semi-darkness as she hit a power cable, and Luke shied back, guarding his eyes from the blinding flare.

"What are you doing?"

"I'm sick and tired of following their little route-plan," Mara said, moving the saber along the floor as fast as the resistance-rated power cables beneath heavy plasteel floor plates would let her. "I think I'll make my own way out, thanks."

Realizing, Luke glanced about. "The side wall is closer."

"Yeah?" As Mara pulled her saber free the floor seemed to shift briefly beneath her feet, making her stagger to hold her balance momentarily as she glanced to Luke. "Was that you?"

He too had his arms out to balance. "No…is it the freighter?"

"Doing what—it has no sublight engines."

Luke glanced about, and Mara felt those finely honed senses spreading wide without diluting, reaching through the unsettling rifts to the open bay beyond. "Something's…they've dropped the bay shields outside; the bay's open to space."

"Great. Well, we're not going out through a side wall now—or the airlock. Not without oxygen masks."

"We could probably…" He paused as that unsettling shift pulled at more basic senses. "We're moving."

"They have no sublights!" Mara repeated, though she too could feel the subtle change, internal balance adapting. "Is there gravity in the bay? You can't alter…" She paused, realization sparking between them in the same instant. "We're under tow!"

"It must have been waiting outside the bay," Luke said. "It's pulling us out."

A tug, Mara realized; a tugship must have been waiting somewhere in the mire of traffic outside the bay to lock a tractor beam onto the side of the freighter when the bay shields dropped, opening them to space. Luke's next question made the burning in her gut rise into her throat.

"Did this thing have lightspeed engines connected up?"

Mara stared, a terrible suspicion coming over her. The sublight engines had been spread out over the hangar bay floor, but…
"We need to move," Luke said, taking her arm again. "We can't stay still—they're closing in."

"Open space—we can use the emergency lifepods," Mara said immediately, though Luke shook his head.

"That's the first thing I would have sabotaged…or filled with ysalamiri and troopers. This isn't a spur of the moment thing, this is well planned."

"Stock bays then," Mara said, knowing he was right; she'd come to the same conclusions even as she'd suggested the lifepods. "We need transport."

"At this point, I'd take a suit," Luke said—then slowed. "Wait."

"Again?! Why don't we just go through them?"

"Because the rifts are getting fewer but bigger, so I'm assuming they're grouping up."

"How much bigger?"

Luke stared down the darkened corridor, his frown pulling the scar about his eye into that familiar crescent. "Big. Two corridors high and the same distance around."

Mara stared ahead, the void just barely discernible to her still-maturing perceptions. "How many people?"
"I don't know."

"Roughly." They backtracked again, opening doors as they spoke, looking for an alternative route.

"Did I mention it's a void?"

"Well, how many individual bubbles would make up that space?" Neither paused from opening the run of doors as they spoke, voices calmly conversational but just a little too clipped.

"Firstly, I didn't spend that long comparing actual bubble size, secondly you're assuming there's only one soldier per individual rift and thirdly…"

"Thirdly, you've finally picked up pontificating with numbers from Reece." Mara said, head on one side.

Luke closed his eyes. "I have got to stop doing that."

"Here!"

Luke turned to join Mara as they set off down the corridor she'd found. They'd made three turns before another lurch indicated the ship's gathering momentum.

"We're out of the bay," Mara said, not breaking her run.






Onboard the Imperial frigate Sol Ecliptic, the atmosphere was beginning to tighten. They'd realized several minutes ago that their comm link with Luke and his ops unit was being blocked, but that wasn't entirely unexpected in this type of situation.

Still, the two ops units Wez had set on the station as backup had immediately been activated and sent to the area—and had soon disappeared into the blanketed silence.

Wez remained to the front of the bridge, coordinating efforts, pleased that he'd been able to make some show of concern and trustworthiness in having already placed contingency troops onboard the station to send to the Emperor's aid. He'd had no guarantee that Madine, Wez's ace in the hole, would move today and no idea what the Rebel General would actually do if he did, but all the information Wez had passed on had been leading Madine in this direction. Now he just had to make a good show of concerned diligence, and trust that the ex-Imperial strategist was as good as his reputation. Skywalker had beaten the General before, but it was always on an even playing field; this time, he didn't know Madine would even be here, and Wez had taken the time to give every possible piece of relevant information he could, before finally giving Madine a place and a date.

Now all he could do was react to events as they happened, as everyone else did, though with a very different end goal in mind. Madine was well known to have a personal grudge against the Emperor, and when he'd been an Imperial, he'd had a reputation for settling such things with ruthless finality.

"Helm?" The Captain's tense voice pulled Wez back to the moment, standing on the Sol Ecliptic's bridge as the small frigate navigated itself between the flurry of general traffic and around the edge of the massive space station.

"We'll have a line of sight in less than a minute, Sir. There's nothing big enough to be a Class VI freighter's engines registering on scans though."

The Tactical officer raised his head. "Sir, we have a relayed message from Ops Two, still in the jamming zone. They've reached Bay Forty-eight and say the main doors are closed down on—it's open to space. They can't get entry."

Wez turned, voice tight with concern which wasn't entirely faked; he would like to extricate Jade if he could. If not…well then, he always had Kiria D'Arca in reserve. "Tell them to backtrack and find some suits—and get me the station's commander on the comm."




To the rear of the bridge, Nathan had taken to chewing at his thumbnail, watching the smooth operations of a military ship in an active situation. He should be used to this by now; he'd been on the bridge enough times with Luke, even at full alert. And in both previous meetings between Luke and Organa, there had been jamming on both sides; this was nothing unusual, he told himself again… But Bay Forty-eight was now open to vacuum—surely that wasn't right?

He looked to Wez, who stood cool and unshakeable beside the Ecliptic's Captain. Ever-cautious Wez, who'd sent the two extra tactical teams in almost immediately after he'd lost contact with Luke.

"Fastest course," Wez said now to Helm as the Ecliptic's Captain turned to Tactical.

"Charge up the batteries, TIEs on standby, shields on full."

Nathan straightened a little more. This was all normal, he assured himself silently; this was just precautions.

"Sir," the Comm Officer glanced up, frowning, "I have incoming on a standard Intel channel; it's marked 'critical.' The comm's from an agent named Argot."

Wez frowned. "Ignore it; Argot doesn't use standard channels. In fact, decode it if it's a standard code and send it to my desk, I'll read it later. See if Intel can get a trace on it."

Nathan walked quickly over, grateful for something to do even if no one else deemed it important. He glanced down to the officer. "Can you decode it here?"

If it was Argot who had risked sending a message on a standard channel which anyone could decode, it must be serious; all comms from Argot were usually sent on a secure code, and Argot knew that only Luke had the key. It occurred to Nathan only now as he was thinking about it, that if Argot had sent it under standard encrypt, then he hadn't expected Luke to be onboard to read it. Frowning at that, Nathan glanced to the screen on the comm console as the message decrypted—and cursed under his breath, adrenaline rising to the back of his throat.

"Wez, you really need to read this." Nathan turned to the Captain, hearing the tight tremor in his own voice. "I think we should sound battle stations."






There were ten Special Ops soldiers on the Wasp's bridge when Leia entered, Madine among them, most of them gathered round the bank of virtual screens to the front of the bridge, watching closely as the General directed his troops.

What drew her eye more than anything else was the incongruous plexiglass dome attached to the ceiling, a tubular frame made up of two of the backpacks which she'd seen the Special Ops troopers wearing earlier within it, and wrapped about them…were those things again. Are they alive?

"Sir!" The man on tactical looked up from his console, his words drawing Leia's eyes away from the dome. "The Sol Ecliptic is on the move; she's on an intercept course."

"Time to breakout speed?" Madine asked tightly.

"Three minutes, Sir; approximately the same as the Ecliptic's intercept."

Leia glanced out across the wide viewpane, which gave about a three hundred degree viewing angle, but the Imperial frigate wasn't in sight yet. A thought occurred and she glanced back: breakout speed?

Her eyes fell on Helm Control, where a good eighty percent of the lights which would give standard subspace engine readout were dark, of course, the Wasp moving only because she was under tow… So what were the other twenty percent of active lights for—because something was clearly powering up.

She only needed one step closer to realize.






"Go through them," Mara said as she and Luke slowed to a halt, a big enough void in the Force before them that even she could pick it out, though she couldn't define its edges exactly. Luke was being uncharacteristically cautious and she didn't know why; normally he would have drawn his lightsaber and headed directly for the nearest group of soldiers and she knew it, ysalamiri or no.

Instead he shook his head. "We have one blaster between us."

"We have two lightsabers and we can block—you can block a dozen blasters in your sleep."

"And if they get just one of the ysalamiri close—"

"The bubbles aren't blaster-proof and neither are the lizards. You keep the blaster shots off me and I'll shoot it."

"I'm talking about on the floor above or below us, where we can't see it coming—close enough to extend the rift about me. They must be watching us, because they're closing and opening blast doors around us; they know exactly where we are. If they move ysalamiri in and we're caught in the rift, I can't protect you."

Mara frowned, forced to start running again because Luke had already turned about and set off. "We need to get you a blaster."

"Look for a single rift—a small one."

Mara nodded grimly as she ran. "That the guy holding your blaster?"

"Yeah—and I want to see an ysalamiri."

They'd made it a good distance closer to where they knew the rear bays were, still without encountering a single soldier, before Luke came to a slow stop. "Want the good or bad news?"

"Does it get any worse than this?"

He raised his eyebrows and she sighed. "Fine—good."

The Sol Ecliptic's closing—I can sense it. Too many minds to be anything else."

"Bad?" Mara felt herself bracing.

"The rear bay's less than a minute that way—and so are maybe twenty or thirty ysalamiri."
"Between us and the bay?"

Luke nodded. "Unless we can get round somehow."

"There should be another bay directly above on the next level up, but I don't know if it has any transport. We'd need to backtrack to get up a level."

"I don't think we have that long."

Mara turned to look down the darkened corridor behind them, aware of a very different kind of shadow which was blotting out her perceptions. "Well, they're closing from behind."

Luke shrugged. "One way or another, we need to get into that bay."

Mara took a few steps down a side-corridor before realizing that it too held those dark voids.

Luke's eyes remained ahead. "I don't think there's anyone with some of the ysalamiri close to the bay—some haven't moved at all. They might just be to stop us from moving forward toward them—or to corral us into the bay."

"Let's find out which, shall we?"






A slow-motion drag pulled at the hull beneath Leia's feet as the old freighter gathered momentum and changed direction. She glanced out to see a second tug, this time to the front, the docking bay long gone as the freighter gathered speed under the pull of duel tugs.

Frowning, Leia's eyes dropped again to the helm status lights…and she knew absolutely what Madine was going to do.

Her eyes turned again to the mysterious plasteel bubble at ceiling height.

"Ysalamiri." Madine's voice close behind her made Leia jump. "There are several mentions of them in restricted documents gained at the end of the Clone Wars. Imperial Command Staff had access to some of the high-level Intel retrieved from the storage facility in the Old Republic Jedi Temple. They supposedly create a space about them in which a Force-sensitive's abilities are neutralized." He smiled proudly. "They seem to be working."

"They're alive?" Leia asked, uncertain.

Madine glanced up, appreciative. "Evolution's elegant like that—no matter how smart a mouse it builds, somewhere out there, it also has something you can use as a trap. And just in case they don't work, well then I have a little extra insurance in the form of man-made bio-science—and friends in high places. But they seem to be doing their job right now."

"They're working?"

Madine nodded. "I've been watching our guests on the security lenses; every time they come close to an ambush, he slows down."

"He can sense the soldiers?"

"No, that wouldn't stop him, I don't think. What's stopping him is that he knows he's going into an area where his skills count for nothing. Somehow, he knows where the ysalamiri are and he knows the extent of their effects. If he's changing course, it's because of the ysalamiri—and that means they work. I have sixty troops onboard this ship, two units armed with specialist weapons. Since they seem a little reticent to oblige in walking into an ambush, I need to get just one man in a firing position."

Tactical turned to the General. "He's trying to get to the bays, Sir."

"Tell Lieutenant Kelo to take the shuttle out right now, then bring the bay shields online. Bring all troops aft to the bay and lock down all other exits, let's get him in there. It's nice and open—we'll have a good line of fire. Tell them not to take any chances, just contain him. We can sort it out when we go to lightspeed."

"What about the woman, Sir?"

Madine shook his head, leaving Leia to walk forward to the tactical display. "Not important. Get rid of her. Helm?"

"About a minute and a half to lightspeed velocity, Sir. Hyperdrive's online and primed, and the tugs have coordinates to get us on course. They'll release us for the jump when we're up to speed."

"Don't wait for my signal—just jump when you're green."

Leia's head was buzzing, realization freezing her breath in her chest, heart pounding. When the Wasp was turned clear of the station and onto its path and the tugs had brought it to breakout velocity in gravity-free space, the lightspeed engines would engage. They'd jump clear—with Luke onboard. There was a good chance they'd actually catch him; because of Leia, they'd catch him. She'd brought him here, she'd let him believe it was safe—she'd warned him too late of the truth. Because of her, they'd catch him.

They were clear of the station and almost into open space when the Imperial frigate Sol Ecliptic came into view to the edge of the viewscreen, its first ranging shots lighting bright streaks across the battered Rebel freighter's bow, the last one catching the shields and rattling the ship, the floor bucking beneath her feet.






They were close to the lower bay when the ship rocked awkwardly, making them stagger slightly.

"Turbolaser fire," Mara said knowingly.

Luke nodded without slowing. "The Sol Ecliptic."

The rifts in the Force were getting closer and larger now, enfolding them on all sides, though there was a single clear line kept open.

"How many soldiers?" Mara asked again, breathless, as they both were.

"Pick a number," Luke said. "Fifty—a hundred?"

He still had no gun, which was far too much of a coincidence considering the amount of armed soldiers on this ship, based on the amount of rifts in the Force; the plan was clearly to avoid he and Mara at all costs and try to direct them by locking and unlocking blast doors from some central location, leaving ysalamiri at the far side of each closed door to stop Luke simply ripping them open again with the Force, should they try to double back. Luke was sorely tempted to try to open the doors anyway using their lightsabers, to go looking for a blaster, save for the time it would waste. He was pretty damn sure that every single blast door they'd passed through would now be locked down; they were being corralled neatly towards the main bays at the rear of the freighter.

He glanced again to Mara as they ran, inwardly cursing his decision to let her come today. He'd known something was going to happen, but he'd let himself be persuaded, let opportunities for escape that he'd normally take without hesitation pass, rather than put Mara at risk. And now…

Now they were both well aware that this was probably a trap they were about to spring in the docking bay, but it was also their only way off this ship, the only possible landing for the gunboats that Luke knew would be heading their way from the Ecliptic. His hand brushed unthinkingly against his saber as he slowed and he took it from his belt, thumb to the trigger; again he was tempted to start cutting his own path with it to at least hinder Madine's plans, but was unwilling to risk wasting time, aware on some subliminal level that it was running out.

"Bet you wish we'd done more lightsaber practice now, huh?" Mara joked mirthlessly, glancing to Luke's hand.

"If I were wishing, I'd wish we were back on the Sol Ecliptic," Luke said, slowing to a walk before the half-open bay doors. "Or that the ysalamiri weren't here, in which case this would have been nothing more than a little light exercise. Ready?"






Leia stood several steps back, close to the auxiliary console, her eyes on the strange creatures lying docilely against the thick tubes in the plasteel globe. Bright flares of the Imperial frigate's fire reflected in its surface as they streaked across the Wasp's bow in close succession, catching the shields and rattling the ship.

"Incoming!" Tactical said. "The Imperial frigate's got line-of-sight and it's coming in hot. I have two TIE squadrons and two gunboats on my scopes, already launched."

Madine strode quickly to Tactical. "Time to intercept?"

"Eight of the TIEs and one of the gunboats will make contact before we can jump, Sir. Shields are on eighty percent."

"Keep them tiled aft, the gunboat'll try to get under them."

Gunboat: landing craft, Leia knew. They were trying to get onboard—trying to get to Luke. Another long-range blast impacted against the shields, this one a direct hit which rocked the Wasp precariously, taking Leia's eyes down to the unmanned secondary tactical console at her hip as she grabbed at its corner to steady herself; they had augmented military shielding, but under direct fire it was fading fast.

"Shields down to seventy percent, Sir."

"Keep them between us and the gunboats; we'll take a hit elsewhere if we have to, to keep those gunboats out."

Leia's eyes darted between the incoming TIEs and gunboats, and the unmanned tactical console, her attention on the eroding shield readouts and the slow countdown to breakout velocity for lightspeed. They were almost in position, the hyperspace engines up to full power…they'd make it, she realized. It would be a bumpy ride, but they'd actually make it—

And in that moment, it was so easy; she'd thought it would be some monumental struggle between duty and conscience, between past friendship and present loyalties...but it was none of that. It wasn't even a choice; it was a gut feeling of such innate power and conviction that all she could do was act.

She reached out to the unmanned console and toggled the board switches, dropping the Wasp's shields.






Onboard the forward gunboat, Wez stood stiffly behind the two pilots, Clem, ten stormtroopers and a further half-dozen Special Ops soldiers behind him, weapons ready.

They were flying at full tilt to match the Rebel freighter's speed, close enough to be able to see inside the two stacked bays now. They could see movement in both, but the Wasp's military-rated shields were holding them back, unable to push through.

Wez pursed his lips, annoyed; he hadn't wanted to lose Jade at the same time as Skywalker. She was his primary choice as replacement, but…

With a ripple of dissipating current, the dense shields before them dissolved. Wez grinned, leaning forward. "Go, go, go!"






Luke was in the bay, he and Mara pinned down by a flurry of intense blaster fire, forced to take cover behind fast-disintegrating storage crates. The laser bolts were a constant stream, clearly meant more to hold them still than to actually bring them down, their aim often wild, but the sheer massed quantity was doing the job, the soldiers clearly emptying their blasters in continuous fire then reloading, their number making for a near-continuous stream.

They'd made it further in than they had any right to, but Luke could see how Mara was holding her own handgun now; see that it was running hot in her hands. There were seven dead soldiers in the bay, three of whom Mara had brought down and four Luke, deflecting bolts back to their originators with his lightsaber. But all five had fallen within the ever-increasing influence of the ysalamiri, so that although their blaster rifles lay on the floor beside them, they may as well be back on Kwenn Station for all the use they were to Luke.

He glanced to Mara; saw her mouth, 'Well this isn't working' to him—though he heard nothing over the cacophony of blaster bolts—and came to the decision he'd been mulling over for the last minute. Activating his saber into the deck plates, he began to cut, the drag from shielded cables making the hilt reverberate up his arm.

"What are you doing now?" she yelled.

Luke glanced up from his task. "We're leaving this party."

He had no intention of doing so...but Mara could—and if Luke stayed, he was pretty damn sure they wouldn't follow her. He could buy her a chance to backtrack; odds she could deal with. The blastboats had to be close by now.

As he looked back down, the small area of awareness left to him in the Force shrinking rapidly to a narrow fissure, Mara grabbed his arm, shouting his name. Luke glanced up to the back of the docking bay in time to see the freighter's external defensive shields drop, their pale milky signature clearing to give a perfect view of the fast-receding Kwenn Station and incoming TIEs…and a closing gunboat coming in hot, its nose up a fraction too high—

And Luke knew what was going to happen.


He figured he had less than a minute. He turned to Mara, still crouched beside him. "Listen to me. You need to go to my private office, to the isolated data store there. Do a search for a document called 'Extrapolated Rim Fleet movements,' dated last year. You'll need a password to open it as well as the DNA check; the password is 'emerald eyes,' got it? Say it back."

Mara nodded, flinching from the bright flares of too-close blaster bolts. "Document, rim fleet movements, password is emerald eyes." She paused, realizing it was her: emerald eyes.

"Open it. It's everything—the long-term plan, the strategy for the next five years, everything I intended. If I don't—"

"Don't even—"

"Listen! If I don't make it back, everything is in there. I can't make you do any of it, just like Palpatine couldn't make me follow his…but I can ask. I can hope." He shook his head. "Don't let this derail it, Mara. Don't let a few radicals destroy six years of my life and everything I was pushing toward."

"I don't need to see it—I won't open it." They both paused, the sounds of their pursuers closing—on him. It was him they wanted, Luke knew, him they'd all stay with if he and Mara split up. The gunboat was roaring overhead now—into the upper bay; Luke had known it would from the angle of the nose. There was one way up there from this bay: an exposed ladderway further into their bay. Too exposed.

"Promise me you'll read it." Luke was already half-rising, starting to step back; he'd got Mara into this—now he'd get her out.

"No!" Mara snatched his arm, eyes wide in realization. "Why are you even saying this, I'm not leaving you here."

They didn't have time to argue, he needed to get her out—if that was all he managed, then it was enough. He had to get her out. Tell her anything, tell her what she wants to hear— "Damn straight you won't. I'm banking on you, Mara, to find me and get me out. You'll know where to find me with the Force—no one else can do that."

She didn't have the ability, of course. No one did, not to track someone systems away—but she didn't know that. Still, she held onto him as Luke tried to backstep.

"No, I'm not leaving you. Last time, I walked away, I know I did. You said it yourself, I walked away—well not this time. I'm not leaving…"

"Mara!" He caught his temper, quieted his voice. "Get the hell out of here. There's no time for this."





Mara clutched at Luke's arm as he tried to push her away, real panic flaring for the first time today. "Why would I leave you?" Luke forestalled further arguments by wrapping strong fingers about the back of her neck and pulling her to him, kissing her passionately—and why did she believe that was the last time he ever would?

The far doors slid open and there was the scuffing of many feet as more Rebel troops entered the bay, unseen behind the cover of the packing crates. This time the new blaster fire sounded different, the hollow thunk of compressed air. Something ricocheted off their cover with a hollow pang, another whistling close by in a blur, a solid projectile which embedded in the wall nearby. Mara glanced, attention momentarily taken by the bright tuft of red—a dart?

"Go!" Luke pushed her away, backing up fast—then he paused to turn back, a grin on his face as he whispered her name. "Mara! Anakin—his name should be Anakin."

She frowned, uncertain what he meant, but he'd already turned away, moving swiftly back towards the troops, using the crates for cover but letting them see him momentarily; drawing their attention. Mara turned and ran.

She ran—but it wasn't away. It wasn't to leave him here; never that. She could hear the whine of the gunship's engines in the bay above and she knew it would be brimming with guards and weapons. He only had to hold them a minute—just one minute and she'd be back with the numbers to stop Madine's troops dead.

He only had to hold them a minute.

One minute without getting himself killed.

She climbed the narrow access ladder at speed, concentrating on getting one hand over the other, the whine of the gunboat's engine in the bay above growing closer. Seconds—she only needed seconds…

And then he was gone; in a flash, from moment to moment, Luke was gone.

She spun about, heart pounding—but he was there. He was right there, close to where she'd left him, sidestepping to new cover as Madine's troops closed in. Mara shook her head, trying to clear it, her perceptions within the Force blank. Too many ysalamiri, she realized, crowded together, blanketing out the Force over a wide range as Madine's troops moved ever closer… Which meant Luke was cut off from the Force; he had no powers, nothing to counter the Rebel troopers' guns!

Mara turned about, cursing as she covered the remaining rungs at top speed, releasing the overhead hatch with trembling hands and throwing it open, the noise of the military gunboat above ear-splitting.

It was close to the hatch, its side doors open as it hovered, stormtroopers and Special Ops leaning out of either side, a few dropping clear as the hatch was opened wide, the first splashes of laser fire from Rebels in the bay impacting on the gunboat as the crouching stormtroopers gave return fire.

Someone pointed, and the gunboat crabbed, tilting as it moved closer. The firefight increased as the gunboat tried to put itself between Mara and the Rebels in the upper bay, the first few shots beginning to focus on her now. The noise was incredible as it came to a landing directly before her, whipping strands of loose hair about Mara's face as Reece jumped out, Clem leaning down through the hatch, his blaster rifle trained on the Rebel troops.

Mara half-pulled herself through the access hatch, frantic. "Here! Over here! Give me a blaster! Luke…"

Reece landed on the run and grabbed her by the top of her arm, hauling her clear of the narrow access hatch and yanking her back into the gunboat. The air was knocked from her lungs in a winded gasp and the blaster she held jolted from her grip as the back of Mara's hand caught painfully against the edge of the hatch. Still gasping, unable to pull a breath to speak, Mara struggled to pull free against Reece's hold, but he was already turning to the pilot as he held tight to her arm. "Go! Go!"

The gunboat lifted, raking at a steep angle as it turned and powered free of the bay, stormtroopers holding their arms out to pull companions into the open hold, everyone staggering as the ship caught the first burst of heavy-arms fire; someone in the bay had finally pulled out an anti-aircraft gun. Everyone was thrown across the small gunboat, the hold hatch sliding shut beside Mara just as they cleared the bay's atmospheric shields, a blinding splash of multiple heavy laser blasts impacting on the armored hull and darkening the ship's lights as power automatically rerouted to the shields.

Mara was on her feet, grabbing for the back of the cockpit chair, still gasping for air. "Turn around! Turn us round!"

Reece was beside her in an instant, hand on the pilot's shoulder. "Stay on course."

The ship weaved slightly but resumed its course, Mara frantic as the distance increased by the second. "Turn us around—that's an order!"

"Stay on course," Reece repeated, voice steel. "That's an order from the Emperor."

Mara whirled on him, incensed. Reece was fast for a big man but now all that bulk which had enabled him to manhandle Mara onboard worked against him, and the blaster from his hip-holster was in her fist and at his chest before he could react—

"Bastard! Bastard son of a Hutt. You sold him out! You sold him to them!"

In that second all Mara wanted to do was spray Reece over the inside of the gunboat, but Clem was beside her, his own blaster leveled, though in that moment he clearly had no idea where to point it, Reece holding the higher rank.

"HE'S the traitor—the informer!" Mara yelled, livid. "Luke knew, he knew it was Reece." The other troopers were hovering now, blasters raising, though they too were uncertain what to do. "Why are we here?!" Mara shouted. "Why are we here when Luke's back there? Because of his order! Intel knows; contact them—contact Arco. They have a team watching him but Luke said…" she broke slightly at this but caught herself, "he said wait—he wanted proof."

Slowly all the blasters turned to Reece, and Mara had the momentary satisfaction of seeing his shoulders drop a fraction. Seeing the look in his eye when he realized he was exposed. But it was empty and aching and drowned by greater fears.

Clem whirled on the pilot, Reece's previous order—supposedly in the Emperor's name—instantly dismissed. "Bring us about!"

The gunboat banked again as it turned in a tight curve back towards the freighter, piling on every ounce of thrust it could muster as it accelerated toward the Rebel ship, the glow from incoming laser blasts lighting the open cockpit as the pilot struggled to hold course. "Tile shields to front only; put any extra power in the engines—everything we've got!"

The gunboat weaved and bucked as more shots hit, internal lights dimming to hold the shields against repeated impacts. The bright flare of a high-power turbolaser whited out Mara's vision as the Sol Eclipse scored a direct hit to the Rebel freighter near the bridge, TIEs racing past to engage the enemy… But Mara knew already that it was futile; that they were too far away, that the freighter would make hyperspace before they reached it.

A sob hitched in the back of her throat, half fury, half fear as she stood, able to do nothing more than watch the freighter accelerate to lightspeed, disappearing in a flash of engine backwash. Knowing that Luke was gone, that they had no idea where, that he would be moved from place to place, from ship to ship…

…if he wasn't already dead.

She staggered back, reality turning an inverse loop, leaving her dizzy and numb and nauseous.

She was two steps back into the cramped hold before she remembered who was behind her and turned on Reece, eyes ablaze, grabbing at his jacket and yanking him forward. "You're gonna wish I had shot you, Reece. I'll see you hang for this—everything they do to him, I'll do to you. Then I'll turn you inside out and show you your own devious, scheming, faithless heart before you die!"

Mara's blaster was pushed up beneath Reece's jaw, hand beginning to tremble, a high-pitched buzzing in her ears and reality still one step away. Some sense seethed within her, pushing her on as never before, screaming for action, for vengeance—it would be so easy to pull the trigger...

Clem stepped carefully to her side, cool and self-possessed as ever, laying a hand gently on her arm. "Ma'am, we need to question him. He may have information vital to the situation."

As he spoke, one of the troopers stepped forward to pull a set of restraints from his belt to bind Reece's hands behind his back, pushing him bodily down onto the bench behind him.

Clem's voice, stalwart as ever, was a distant dream in Mara's numbed mind as he recited the official arraign: "Wez Reece, you are ordered to stand down in the name of the Emperor. The charge you are accused of is High Treason, and you will be taken into detention until such a time as that charge will be dealt with in a Court of Law according to Imperial Justice."

Reece didn't react, only looked at Mara as she released him in a shove, feeling angry words lock in her throat, the first tears starting to cloud her eyes as she turned back to stare out at empty space.

She'd lost him—she'd lost Luke
.

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

 

 

Madine sat at his desk onboard the Wasp, five lightyears from Kwenn. They'd sustained heavy damage in those last few seconds, the bridge taking a glancing hit whilst the shields were down and several of his crew injured—including the Chief of Staff, who was on the bridge at the time.

The Wasp had enough redundant systems that someone in engineering had sent the ship into lightspeed and saved all their hides, as well as the mission, but five soldiers had been transferred back over to the Zephyr along with the Chief of Staff, all suffering serious injuries. Five soldiers—so he'd lost fourteen in all; not too bad. Acceptable losses.

They were still trying to patch together the wreck that was the Wasp's bridge in readiness for their next jump, using supplies taken from the Zephyr before it had set off toward Home One with the injured Chief of Staff onboard… As well as trying to lock down what exactly had happened in those last few seconds when the shields had failed; the bridge consoles were well past any system-retrieval.

But at the end of the day it didn't matter; the mission had been a complete success. Madine had the Emperor unconscious and in the cell, he was clear and free, and the Wasp would be ship-shape—or at least enough to make another jump—within the hour.

Meanwhile, Madine was taking the realspace opportunity to check up on Chief Organa's condition, waiting to be put through to the medicenter onboard the Home One now that the Zephyr had docked there.

"Good evening, General Madine," the perfectly synthesized voice of a 2-1B droid said in sympathetic tones. "May I be of assistance?"

"Yes, I need to check on the status of Chief Organa."

"Please state your security clearance, sir."

"Clearance is Alpha, Alpha Indigo, three-nine-two."

"Thank you, sir. Chief Organa's condition is stable. She sustained a blow to the head and minor internal injuries, as well as lacerations to one arm which resulted in substantial blood loss. Unfortunately she has an unusual blood-group, and we're unable as yet to find a suitable donor—there are none onboard Home One. The patient has a previous history of poor toleration of synthetic simulates."

"There's no Alderaanian survivors onboard Home One?"

"I'm afraid none are suitable, due to the patient's mixed-origin parentage, sir. I must reassure you that this is in no way life-threatening, though it will slow her recovery a little. I would have preferred to have the option of a transfusion."

Madine frowned; mixed-origin parentage wasn't at all unusual in an Empire which spanned star-systems, but Chief Organa was a member of the Alderaanian Royal House. Everyone knew of the Alderaanian Ascendency Contention and how it was settled; her parentage was surely from the House Antilles and House Organa? He shrugged, dismissing the fact as irrelevant; what mattered was that the success of his mission wouldn't be overshadowed by the death or serious injury of the Chief of Staff. The droid was still speaking, though Madine was barely listening now.

"… that hers is a very rare genetic variant. I extended the parameters of the donor search to encompass the fleet, but with no success, I'm afraid. Records identify that the only viable donor was a Rebel pilot who died on Hoth, and he left no freeze-stored donations of blood or plasma."

Madine's hand was already resting on the comlink's cutoff button, having gained all he needed to know and mentally running through the necessary words to sign off quickly…when he paused. "Hoth…a pilot?"

"Yes, sir, a pilot of some note, I believe. Unit Commander Luke Skywalker."

The comment, so casually thrown out, had so nearly passed Madine by unnoticed—until that name was spoken. Now he stiffened. "Do you have a DNA code for Skywalker?"

"No, General, only a marker on his closed medical record listing his rare blood group. I believe more detailed information was classified by Mon Mothma on Commander Skywalker's death."

No…let this drop; why even bother to ask… "Do you have a full genetic code for Leia Organa?"

"Of course, sir."

Madine considered long moments, alternately dismissing the facts as pure coincidence and wondering at the unlikely fluke. "And there are no other possible donors?"

"None, sir. As I said, it is an unprecedented genetic variant. We are presently trying to alter the properties of the synthetic simulate but with no success so far."

"What are her chances without the transfusion?"

"As I said, they are excellent, General. This will slow her recovery time a little, that is all."

Madine cut the connection, wary of keeping it open too long whilst the Wasp remained in realspace, something uneasy scratching at the back of his thoughts and leaving him restless and jittery… But this was too anomalous to even consider.

Tag Massa, the Alliance's Intel Chief, had listed yet again in her monthly overview that another sweep had come up blank in their ongoing search for the spy in their midst. Again Massa had hypothesized that, based on available extrapolations, the spy had access to a high level of security information, in all probability at Command level…

No, this was his nerves still jangling from the mission.

He sighed and wiped at his eyes, fingers trailing down his face to rub his beard in thought as he gazed out into the empty void of space, distant stars dotting the darkness, trying to make sense of the facts…

The thought was so outrageous as to be dismissed immediately, if only on career grounds—one didn't throw dirt at the figurehead of the Rebel Alliance; it was political suicide. But it hovered in the back of Madine's mind, demanding attention. Because no matter how hard he tried to ignore it now, it had sown some seed of uncertainty. Finally he conceded, telling himself that he needed to put the thought to rest in order to move forward and there was one simple way to do that.

He needed to speak to someone onboard the Home One whom he could trust unconditionally, one person who'd always maintained absolute neutrality, her position demanding no less.

Madine opened a connection to Tag Massa on a secure channel. She was there immediately, tense expression visible even over the small holoprojector. "Sir. I understand the mission was a success…do you have the Emperor there? Is he alive?"

"We have him, Tag. Whether he stays in one piece is another matter."

Massa frowned. "Sir, may I respectfully remind you that you don't have the authority to make any such decisions until..."

Madine cut across her, not wishing to hear this now. "I need you to access a file for me." He paused. "Everything we say in this conversation is to be regarded as classified; its existence is to be scrubbed from the logs, do you understand?"

Massa paused, lips tightening. "Yes, sir, I understand."

"You have a full copy of the Emperor's files from the time he spent with the Alliance?"

"Yes, sir, it's stored in the secure Intel vault."

"There's also a blood sample stored in the restricted-access medical system onboard Home One. I need you to take Skywalker's medical records and have his DNA breakdown checked against that blood sample…then I need you to ask the Two-OneBee droid treating Leia Organa to make a comparative study."

"With the Emperor? For what reason, sir?"

"Massa, I need you to follow orders on this. Don't let anyone else know you're doing it, particularly Organa."

Massa hesitated, clearly uneasy at so great a breach of protocol. "Sir, I can't withhold information from the head of the Alliance."

Madine paused, but he could trust Massa, he was sure. She'd been Special Ops long before she'd been Intel, and her eye had always been on the greater picture. "She may not…" He broke off, but knew that the Intel Chief understood. "This needs to be done, Massa. It needs to be done quietly and it needs to be now."




On Home One, Tag Massa scowled at Madine's holo. If he was trying to establish some link between the Chief and…surely not; the Emperor would know—wouldn't he already know? But then Madine now had access to him. Had he learned something already?

Aware of Madine's eyes on her, she pursed her lips and nodded once. "I'll see to it, sir. How will I get in touch with you?"

"We'll keep position here and be reachable for another hour. After that we jump again so I'll have to contact you. Try to get back to me before that."

"Of course, sir." Tag cut the transmission, deeply disturbed by this unexpected turn of events and aware that all her usual lines of contact were cut. All she could do was follow her existing standing orders, and react to information on that basis as it came in, as uncertain as anyone else what the outcome would be.








"Yes, Chief Massa?" The 2-1B droid turned expectantly when she entered the outer medibay, and she glanced around before continuing, deeply uneasy for so many reasons.

"I need you to do a check for me. There's a medical record with a DNA breakdown on this chip which corresponds to a high-security blood sample stored in your medical vaults." Tag chose not to give a name to the sample, knowing it would be stored by reference number only. "It's classified information—be sure to treat it as such. I'd like a comparison between this and Chief Organa's DNA. This is a Class-A Security rated order—discuss it with no one. I want the results as soon as possible."

"Of course, sir. I'm afraid that to execute the order I will require a member of the Chiefs of Staff to access the secure blood sample."

"I'll provide authorization clearance."

"Thank you, sir. May I ask to whom the medical file pertains?"

"That's classified," Tag said simply. "I'd appreciate it if you could begin this now."

"Of course. You may wait outside if…"

"No, I'll wait in the room," Tag said firmly. "Please continue."

The droid turned to begin its work as Tag backed up to the far wall, unable to quite outpace the uneasy mix of guilt and nerves which shadowed her step.
















Luke woke slowly, mind numb with a heavy stillness that left him silent and listless, listening to his own breathing as his vision slowly cleared and he realized that he was staring at a roughly plastered wall a few inches from his face.

He was aware of being cold—of the cool, hard floor pressing against him down one side. Of the pain in his neck from the position he lay in, of the deep ache in his right shoulder which had never quite left since the assassination attempt, always taking any opportunity to resurface. As he came round a little more he became aware of that particular stillness that dulled the sound about him, deadening it to a familiar hushed weight.

Luke's heart skipped in bone-deep recognition and he scuffled backwards, fighting to scrabble upright, struggling awkwardly because his hands and ankles were bound. For that first scarlet second memories merged with reality and he was twenty-two again, locked in the bright white cell beneath the Imperial Palace, waiting for Palpatine to enter. Moments burst forth in a scarlet smear across his thoughts, triggered by the familiarity of his new prison. Memories of white, actinic light which seared his eyes, sharp arcs of power that lashed and slashed, arcing through him and searching to ground, raw power so intense that it cramped muscles and paralyzed lungs. Of burnt flesh and scorched air, of wild fury and vindictive rage. No time, no awareness, only torment so profound that everything else was scorched away… Of twelve Red Guard.

His shoulder hit the wall behind him with a heavy jolt which stopped him dead, breaking the moment and leaving him gasping for air, chest heaving…

And slowly, very slowly as he stared, wild-eyed, his mind registered that the cell wall before him was not blinding white but dull, permacrete gray. It was not plastered and smoothed to a polished sheen but bare blocks which grazed his arm through thin cloth as he pressed against them, their interlocking construction clearly visible, the angled edges roughly cemented. The floor too was the same cast gray, rough and pocked, some mineral content in the aggregate.

Still breathing shakily he glanced about, more recent memories dropping into place with terrible clarity. No Palpatine here, no Red Guard with pipes and force pikes…but just as bad.

Out of the pan and into the fire.

He glanced to the old and worn gray flightsuit he was now wearing, feet bare; to his hands, already throbbing steadily from too-tight binders, automatically reaching out with the Force to pull in the power to break the binders which held…he froze, eyes wide, breath still.

There was nothing; no contact, no rush of awareness, no widening of perceptions. No Force. Nothing. Adrenaline though, hot and burning in the back of his throat as he remembered the meeting with Leia, and the impenetrable emptiness which surrounded himself and Mara…Mara!

Luke twisted about, his neck and shoulders wrenching in a jarring pain—but aside from himself the cell was empty.

They could just as easily have her nearby, in another cell. They had no need to keep her in a double-skinned cell like this; this was to hold a Jedi and no one knew of Mara's abilities.

She could be nearby, injured or unconscious…

Don't let her be hurt. He made every plea and every pact with anything he'd ever believed in to keep her safe, to protect her. For long seconds he remained paralyzed with fear, unable to move past this one, terrifying fact, his mind not on himself but on her. He could handle this, he could dig in and let it wash over him, as he had so many times with Palpatine…but if they hurt her, if they even threatened to…

Luke bit down, admonishing his own racing thoughts; she could have escaped—she surely had. He'd told her to, cajoled her, ordered her to, buying her what time he could, knowing that if they split up Madine's men would concentrate on him. She should be free now. They were so close to the chance; he'd seen her on the narrow rungs of the ladderway, he remembered that—she must be gone…

His breathing slowly calmed as he ran the last few seconds he remembered over and over in his head; he'd pulled back to draw their attention, moved out to let himself be seen, knowing they'd follow him and ignore Mara…and he remembered the sound of the gunboat in the bay above—had it taken off? He remembered the sound of the engines changing pitch, flaring…if it had taken off then she'd surely been onboard.

But his own memory fell to darkness before he could be sure and despite his resolve, Luke was left with the nagging fear that Madine would drag her into the cell and put a gun to her head, because if he did…if he did, then Luke would give anything to buy her life. That was the fact, wasn't it? It had worked for Palpatine and it would work here, now. Hadn't he admitted it to Leia; that whatever else he was, he was still that man who wouldn't leave his friends to die on Bespin. He would give anything…everything to save her life. Hers, and…

That old familiar snick and rush of equalizing air pressures sounded as the door opened behind him, bringing Luke's head around. The air rushed in as Luke's eardrums sealed momentarily, his mind registering distantly that the vacuum system they had here was insufficient, before Madine entered the cell, three armed soldiers ahead of him, three behind him.

He stood for long seconds watching Luke rise awkwardly, before loosing the blaster in the hip holster he wore and stepping closer.

"Your Excellency," he said slowly, words both savoring and mocking.

"Crix Madine." Before that mocking face Luke found his center, if only to deprive his jailor of the pleasure of seeing the cracks. He looked Madine briefly up and down before holding his gaze on the man's face in closer study. "You're getting old."

"Maturing," Madine said in reply. "Something you'll never enjoy."

"I'd say I already have the edge on you in that," Luke replied coolly. "I tend not to undermine my own Chief of Staff's attempts at forging galactic peace on a personal whim."

"No…you simply decapitate your leader when he gets in your way." Madine smiled grimly. "Oh, I'm sorry—it was sudden death following a short illness, wasn't it?"

"That's right. You should be careful—that kind of affliction that can strike out of the blue, when you least expect it."

Unconcerned, Madine nodded slowly, taking his time to study his prize captive.

"I think you're gonna give me trouble," Madine stated tightly, and Luke remained still, holding his stare, aware that he was baiting the man but unwilling as yet to back down.

When he didn't reply, Madine stepped closer, prompting, "Are you?"

"You seem to be the one holding the blaster," Luke observed calmly. It felt somehow…right that he should once more find himself like this: alone, facing off against an adversary who had the stronger hand; whom he knew would turn on him with the sole intent of making his life as unpleasant as possible. Who would clearly take great pleasure in pushing just to see when Luke would break. There was a strange comfort in familiarity—even this.

Madine narrowed his eyes, amused by Luke's observation. "That's right, I am—and doesn't it just eat you up inside?"

Again Luke didn't answer, making Madine grin. "You don't like me, do you? You think I'm a traitor to your treasured Empire."

"I think you should stop projecting your own guilty conscience onto others, Madine," Luke replied, holding his ground. "We all do things which we know are questionable. Learn to live with it. I actually couldn't care less about you personally. But I don't like what you're doing…to the Alliance."

"Really?" Madine sneered. "'cos I don't think I like what you're doing to the Empire."

"I don't think you have a say anymore," Luke stated flatly.

"I'd say the same of you with the Alliance—except you do, don't you? In fact not only do you have a say, I think you may well have a vested interest…am I right?" Madine leaned in as if his next words were for Luke alone. "You see, I know about Leia Organa."

Luke's face remained a mask, no reaction visible in his face or in his even, dismissive voice. "I would assume so, since that's how you got to me."

Madine shook his head just slightly, a tight sneer on his lips and in his voice. "No, I know everything."

Luke frowned just slightly; did he? Could he possibly know what Luke had intended? No—if Madine knew the truth then that meant that Leia must have, and it would have been the first thing on her agenda when they'd met. In fact, she probably would have never organized that third meeting, knowing that if Luke couldn't get the deal he needed then, he would have used their meetings to tear the Alliance apart. No, she didn't know… A twist of trepidation occurred, stilling his thoughts—or was that why she'd handed him over to Madine? Stop double-guessing yourself.

Madine's eyes remained steady on him, and Luke raised his chin fractionally, voice even. "You're clearly looking for some kind of reaction to that, but I'm afraid I can't give one—I don't know what you're talking about."

"Is that a fact?" Madine said, becoming more and more irritated at his captive's apparent calm. "Because here's the thing, see—I have a few interesting facts of my own. But let's back them up, shall we, just so we're all crystal clear."

As he spoke, Madine gestured one of the guards forward. The man passed his blaster rifle to a comrade before stepping in, pulling out a pocket-sized perspex box as he did so. He took a small sample syringe from it and reached out for the binders on Luke's wrists, pulling his hands up. Luke let the man turn his right hand over, not sure what this was about, his eyes still on Madine as the guard pressed the short clear vial to his skin then hit the other end, the needle pushing through its sterile guard and into the flesh of his palm below his thumb.

The man frowned, slapping the syringe again. "He doesn't bleed!" There was a nervousness in the soldier's voice which was infectious, as the other men began glancing to each other uncertainly.

Madine was less impressed. "Oh, he bleeds," he stated, eyes on Luke, the unspoken threat obvious. "Your Sith Emperor is flesh and blood just like the rest of us." He turned to the guard, head set to one side, voice sardonic. "You might want to try the other hand—that one's prosthetic."

The man dropped Luke's hand, cursing at his own uneasy nerves. One of the others laughed, releasing his own nervous tension. "Got the jitters there, Tinel?"

Luke said nothing, letting the man lift his other hand without comment, glancing just once to take in his face now that he had a name, aware that their deeply wary preconceptions could be useful—or a hindrance; time would tell.

The man slapped the stubby sample syringe against his left palm and the short, wide needle sank in, quickly filling the small chamber with blood.

Madine remained near, trying to intimidate by his close presence, taking the sample to hold it up before Luke. "Well, well; Sith bleed, just like the rest of us—isn't that interesting."

He turned, throwing the sample back to Tinel, who was already stepping back, still eager to get clear.

"That'll clear a few things up, I'm sure…and we'll be happy to disseminate the information across the HoloNet. Maybe our enigmatic new Emperor won't be quite seem as all-powerful when he has a past, like the rest of us."

Luke met Madine's tight-lipped smile with one of his own. "There are no answers there, Madine. Just more questions."

If he thought it would provide some conclusive background, then Madine was wrong; there were no samples of his father's blood still in existence, and even if he had one—and could prove the sample's reliability—it gained him nothing other than a single link to another mystery.

"Oh, I think I have all the answers, Excellency," he assured, offering the last with a curled lip. "This is for the benefit of others. Nothing blows all those divisive, whispered rumors apart like cold truth."

"Really?" Luke asked dryly. "Then tell me where I was born. Tell me that and I'll believe you."

Madine shook his head, that deriding smile still in his eye, as if he thought Luke was trying to catch him out. Then he leaned forward close enough to whisper...close enough that Luke could have struck out and snapped his neck, even without the Force, or used the heel of his hand to shatter the bone of Madine's nose and drive it up into his skull, killing him instantly… But he couldn't resist; he just couldn't resist the temptation to listen—

Madine murmured quietly, intending for some reason that the word remain between the two of them before leaning back, that knowing, self-congratulatory look still in his eye.

Then he turned and walked from the small cell, the six guards following, backing from the room with blasters drawn before the door sealed with a hermetic hiss… And still Luke remained frozen, gaze held on the far wall as it had been when Madine had spoken, unable quite to wipe frown from the corners of his eyes…

Why had he said 'Alderaan'?

 

 

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