It came out of hyperspace in a blaze of color and power, the accompanying contingent of smaller security ships whipping into real-time about it as the small flotilla came to a halt with the kind of pinpoint precision only ever accomplished by the military.
It was Nubian, the new ST12000, a big, sleek yacht designed for the high-end market and every bit as luxurious on the inside as the outside. About it were six small frigates and two fighter wings, everything spotless, as befitted the travelling mode of the Alderaanian Royal Family.
A big contingent, they were firing up sublight engines and closing ranks now that they had their bearings and had synchronized systems again. Unusually large, considering their destiny—though in truth, it was their destiny which had prompted it.
Still, refusing to attend the State Celebration on Coruscant to commemorate seven years of Imperial rule—the planet had now been renamed Imperial Center in the Emperor's effort to claim it, though no one referred to it as such privately—was not an option, even for Bail Organa, ruler of Alderaan and its representative in the Imperial Senate. Or rather, what was left of the Senate seven years after Supreme Chancellor Palpatine had taken the Chair and declared himself Emperor in an overwhelming, lightening-fast coup.
Bail, and therefore Alderaan, had been on the wrong side of that coup but had survived, if only because the upheaval in those first few years had necessitated a certain leeway for those in the public eye.
But such allowances were long gone now as the Emperor gained ever tighter control, and Bail knew full well he had to hide his dissent from prying eyes or end up a near-pariah, like Mon Mothma, long his advocate in the Old Republic's Senate.
And he had other reasons to be anxious too, as the glowing orb of Coruscant came slowly into view on the bridge of the yacht—reasons far closer to home and heart.
Fifteen stories below, the door to the sumptuous living quarters slid smoothly back into its cavity, turning Queen Breha's head toward it as a small model of an Alderaanian zero-g fighter was guided in at stomach height to an accompanying 'vrrrrrrr' of engine noise, the small boy who held it before him now beginning a slow pass of the room, trailing the toy along the walls, one eye closed.
On its path, the small toy made a brief detour to trail across the surface of a low table scattered with colored pencils and creased, smudged pictures, every one of which Breha would keep to pin in bright drifts across the walls of his room, always the proud parent, encouraging her son endlessly in this, as everything else.
"What do you have there?" Breha asked, smiling indulgently to hide her unease before her son as he continued his circuit, his mop of blond curls and round apple cheeks all that were visible with his head tilted in applied concentration as he continued his loop, answering absently without looking up.
"This is a fighter—my fighter. I'm the pilot flying the fastest ship in the galaxy."
"And who gave you that?" Breha smiled.
"Captain Antilles," the boy said, of Breha's second cousin and loyal family retainer, always close to hand.
Though even Raymus Antilles didn't know the truth about Luke's heritage—even that was too much of a risk to take. As, in Breha's mind, was bringing her son here to the Imperial Court, even if only for a few days. But the 'invitation' had been very specific: the Alderaanian Royal House was commanded to attend the three-day celebrations to mark seven years of Imperial rule.
Seven years—the boy's lifetime. Knowledge of that only made Breha more uneasy, but she hid it before her son, for his sake. "And where are you flying to, little pilot?"
"Home," he said absently. "At a hundred thousand million clicks—faster."
"Faster than that?" she asked indulgently, wondering whether he had picked up on the nerves of herself and her husband anyway. He'd slept only fitfully for the last few nights of their journey, though generally he loved being on the yacht.
"But you've not even seen Coruscant yet, little pilot. Don't you want to see the center of the Empire?"
He shook his head decisively, slowing to a stop, big blue eyes still on the toy in his hand. "It's all…shadows and tangles," he said without looking, clearly struggling to put into words the thoughts in his head. "Like a forest at night."
His mother stilled, unsettled, before smiling again, her voice brittle. "Forests are beautiful places, Luke, even at night. Enchanted; full of fairies and sprites."
"And monsters and ogres," he muttered, still without looking.
As the slow turn of the yacht brought the majestic phenomenon of the ecumenopolis of Coruscant into view at the edge of the room's viewpane, Breha set forward and took her son's hand in hope of dispelling his reluctance, feeling the slight pull as he resisted.
"Look—look, here it is now. See how beautiful it is? It's never dark on Coruscant, Luke. Look at all the lights!"
"Look at all the shadows in between." He pulled back against his mother's hand, uncharacteristically reluctant, his usual bright anticipation at seeing any new planet completely quashed. "I don't like it."
Normally he was bouncing off the walls with excitement at this point in any journey, dashing between the Bridge and the exit ramp, whipping himself up into a whirlwind of animated enthusiasm. Was this just a childish mood, or something deeper?
"Luke, how can you not like it, you haven't been there yet." Breha crouched down to wrap her arm about him, giving him a slight squeeze as he leaned into her comforting presence, reassured as only a child in the arms of his mother could feel.
"It's…shadows," he repeated inarticulately, leaning into the curve of her neck as he wrapped an arm about her. "Shadows and tangles."
The Royal yacht came to rest on the black-slabbed landing platform of the near-completed Imperial Palace, a huge, hulking ziggurat whose massive, angled walls of blue-gray stone stood a mile square at their base, casting deep, far-reaching shadows in the evening light. Hunched upon the brooding bulk of the main building, a second stage of near-equal proportions rose skyward in angled banks so vast that they seemed absolutely without scale. Only the vague lines of endless scaffold from which construction droids worked day and night gave any true sense of the whole structure's immense scale.
Built to awe rather than inspire, its daunting magnificence declared the unassailable supremacy of the new Empire...and absolute power of its Emperor.
Glancing out across the bleak austerity of its imposing grandeur, Bail Organa, Viceroy of Alderaan, steeled himself for the days ahead. The ramp had lowered to face eight parade-ground rows of white Imperial armor, lined with just one narrow row of familiar chalcedony-blue, the livery of House Organa. Bail glanced to his son, brought to the entrance ramp by Breha, her worries hidden with iron will behind her sweet, serene face.
"Three days, Luke, that's all," he assured, unsettled by Luke's solemn silence—though in truth, he didn't know whether he was seeking to reassure his son, his wife, or himself.
The usual formal pleasantries were exchanged with the Emperor's representatives—the man himself was seldom seen, even here—before Imperial pilots boarded the yacht to remove it to a more remote site, 'due to the number of vessels attending the celebration,' of course.
Which meant that now they were effectively stranded in the Palace, just like every other dignitary here. Even without an appearance, their glorious Emperor was adept at reducing the most influential of figures to precarious vulnerability in the name of palace protocol.
And so the endless tirade of functions and festivities began, a show of Imperial solidarity before a deeply wary public, all empty smiles and nervous glances, nobody daring to speak the truth and have the Empire's wrath turned on their planet—those who were even allowed to attend.
The Emperor had long since stopped bothering to court any non-human species, going as far as to turn a blind eye to the outrageous exploitation of many on Rim worlds which fell nothing short of slavery. Bail had long been a critic of Imperial policies in this, but it had achieved little other than to gain Alderaan a reputation as recalcitrant and fractious. Neither Bail nor Breha regretted their stands in the name of democracy, though as time passed they had both become aware of just how dangerous such dissent was becoming, particularly with a young son to protect.
So here, now, they conspired to have Luke remain always in the apartments which had been supplied to the Alderaanian Royal House within the Imperial Palace for the duration of the functions, desperate to protect him. To have refused to bring him would have only drawn attention to the boy—better to keep him hidden in plain view, hoping that the Emperor's legendary dislike of children would mean that although they had followed to the letter the command to attend, they would not need to expose him to any more danger than necessary.
The fact that Darth Vader, Palpatine's henchman and more importantly, a Force-sensitive, was not attending the event had been an indescribable relief to himself and his wife; both knew that the son they raised as their own was the product of an illicit union between a long-dead Jedi and a fellow Senator whom Bail had known well and missed deeply, Amidala, the abdicated Queen of Naboo.
When Bail had taken the boy from Kenobi, the Jedi Master had identified the father as his old padawan. Skywalker had been acknowledged by all as a powerful Jedi despite his youth, and it was clearly expected that his son too would be an exceptional Jedi—if they were to train him.
Amidala herself had protected the father's identity to the grave, aware of the gravity of their transgression; Jedi were strongly discouraged from making any emotional attachment, Bail knew, due to the ties, ambiguities and distractions it caused. Children in particular were strictly censured. It had long been known that the direct offspring of a Jedi tended to contain abnormally elevated levels of midichlorians—a concentration notably higher than the donor parent, inducing an unprecedented connection to the Force in all its facets.
As such they were considered inherently unstable, their attuned abilities too great to control, generally thought to be a high risk to train as opposed to those with natural, spontaneously occurring Force sensitivity. Though there had not been such an individual for generations, Bail had heard whispers that the last unfortunate was secreted away by the Jedi and spent her entire life interned within the confines of the Jedi Temple, certainly never ill-treated, but constantly constrained, her every action monitored by the Council. Who would want such a stifling fate for their child, even with the best of intentions of a greater good?
Even if she were alive, Amidala's son—one of twins—would still be in mortal danger in the new Empire simply by virtue of lineage; Jedi were now considered enemies of the state subject to summary execution, and in the weeks following the coup it had become sickeningly clear that this edict applied to any and all Force-sensitives, regardless of age and training. It was telling indeed that the first act of the new Empire had been the total genocide of a unique race, accomplished with cold precision and unconditional prejudice.
Bringing his adopted son to Coruscant then, had been a daunting prospect for Bail—far more so if Lord Vader had been stalking the halls of the Imperial Palace.
Highly placed in the Emperor's Court, Vader had been charged with the annihilation of all Jedi and had followed this command with legendary zeal. The surviving Jedi whom Bail had occasionally helped to avoid Imperial 'justice' had all claimed that Vader was Force-sensitive, perhaps even a fallen Jedi—the reason for his unprecedented ability to track and single out remaining Jedi.
Though none knew the history of Bail's adopted son, many of these fugitives had realized very quickly when in his company that the boy was Force-sensitive, all turning to Bail with somber, regretful eyes and warning to keep the boy hidden. Master Yoda, who had been present when Kenobi had first handed the newly born Luke over to Bail, had cautioned in solemn, serious tones that the boy must remain safely distant from Coruscant until he was old enough to be brought to Yoda by Master Kenobi for training.
His late father had been an incredibly powerful Jedi, only just finding his feet as the galaxy about him crumbled, still testing his limits when the coup had been launched. It had always been accepted that Anakin Skywalker was different; that he had, in some way, a destiny to fulfill linked with the old prophesies from the Journal of the Whills. When this did not happen, it was Anakin's son on whom anticipation of the prophecy fell.
Exactly what happened to him following Palpatine's coup no one seemed willing to say, though Bail had an idea that his Master, Obi-Wan Kenobi, knew the truth. Presumably he had fought and fallen alongside his fellow Jedi, despite his exceptional ability.
Because of his father's aptitude, it had often been implied that Luke would one day be expected to train as a Jedi—that he would lead the covert Rebellion that Bail had spent years surreptitiously supporting and funding. To have a Jedi—a particularly gifted Jedi—stand at the head of such an army would, he knew, not only be a counter to Vader, but a rallying point for those who needed such icons to follow.
Leia too would be closely watched, they hinted, her own destiny carefully shaped. It was Luke though, on whom both Kenobi and Yoda had seemed to concentrate their expectations.
Such a heavy fate hanging over his son's head filled Bail with dread sometimes, to the point that he occasionally wished that he'd upheld his original choice to take Luke's twin sister instead. But having contacted Breha and talked it through, their decision had changed, and he had not for a single moment regretted taking Luke.
Just six days old when Bail had brought him to Alderaan, hiding Luke's arrival had been so easy in the upheaval of Civil War. Breha had gone into seclusion for a few months, before his 'birth' was announced as if he were the natural child of the Regents. It had necessitated his birth certificate listing Luke as five months younger than his real age, but the boy was small and fine-boned, delicate like his mother, and the discrepancy had never been queried.
And every day—every day he grew a little more; so fast. Already Bail could see the hint of a headstrong, idealistic young man in the spirited, inquisitive child who ran with such buoyant irreverence through the hushed halls of the Alderaanian Royal Palace, upending Court and terrorizing his tutors. His son had become the center of his life—so brimming with eagerness and optimism, with an unstoppable enthusiasm for, and curiosity about, everything.
Bail smiled warmly at that, aware of how often he felt like he was trying to hold on to a whirlwind. So much so, that he worried about taking Luke to the ever-solemn Master Yoda for training when the time came; fretted that his son would run endless hoops around the venerable Jedi and make the poor creature's life one long, head-spinning string of answers to endless questions as to 'why?' and 'how?'.
And just as much, he worried simply that he would miss the boy—that he would miss this tiny tornado of endless energy and boisterous exuberance. Often the only reason that Bail could carry on this distasteful pretense day after day was in the hope that ultimately it would provide a better galaxy for Luke and his whole generation.
Luke had been hidden for so long in plain sight that surely, since Vader—the only known Sith and therefore the only possible threat to Luke's anonymity—would not be in attendance, it would be less obvious to simply brazen out the trip for three short days, they had reasoned.
Three short days… Now that they were here, every one seemed an eternity.
Having attended functions throughout their final day, tired and wired, with plastic smiles frozen on aching faces, Bail and Breha were returning to their apartments to change for the massive State banquet which would be held tonight. Behind them, their honor guard of four Alderaanian troops were closely flanked by two dark-uniformed Palace Guards, but they were far enough back that Bail felt, if not comfortable with their presence, then at least not threatened by it.
This final night of the celebrations would be the first time that the Emperor himself would be attending, a rare personal appearance from the reclusive man who held Court by night and seemed forever reluctant to step into the light of day.
Once again, at Bail's casual request to the Emperor's Adjutant, Saté Pestage, he had been able to excuse his son from the banquet due to his young age, the poor boy having spent the last three days cooped up in the austere, oppressive surroundings of the cavernous, soulless suite of rooms assigned to the Alderaanian Royal House. He'd remained quiet and subdued, somehow knowing not to make a fuss or a noise, not at all the usual bright, excitable seven-year-old Bail knew and loved.
"Almost done," Bail murmured to his wife in reassurance. "One more night and then we're gone."
"And next year?" Breha queried, tiredness audible in her voice.
The celebrations were an annual event and though this was the first time that Luke's age had led to his being included on the invitation, it clearly would be standard from now on. Bail sighed heavily, turning the last corner of the tall, cavernous hallway leading to the sumptuous apartments—
And froze, heart in his mouth.
Eight scarlet-robed Royal Guard stood to smart attention outside the door, the six Alderaanian guards who were presently on watch there eyeing them with wary, helpless stares, everybody tense.
Bail set forward at a near-run, rushing into the apartment and heading for the door before which a further two Royal Guard stood without turning, Pestage, the Emperor's adjutant, in the doorway.
He burst into the room, breathless—
Luke sat on the long, heavy chaise, back very straight, still small enough that his feet were dangling clear of the floor, hands clenched nervously on his lap. Abandoned beside him on the dark, richly brocaded chaise were pencils and paper, a flash of vivid color in the unrelentingly gloomy chamber. His pale blue eyes turned anxiously to his father as Bail stepped forward and though he clearly wanted to run to Bail he held his place, frozen to tense immobility.
Opposite him, dressed in heavy black robes and a claret-colored cowl, sat the Emperor.
He turned, pale yellow eyes regarding Bail with arrogant amusement, his thin, reedy voice grating up Bail's spine. "Ah, Senator Organa. You have an intriguing son—quite captivating."
For several seconds Bail could only stare, voiceless, hearing his wife rush into the room behind him, hearing the slight inarticulate sound, half-shock, half-fear, escape the back of her throat—
Then he gathered his wits and bowed deeply to cover his unease. "Your Majesty, this is an unexpected honor."
"Really? Unexpected?" There was a note of dry derision in the Emperor's tone as he stood in a rustle of raven robes and Bail remained silent, afraid that anything he did would condemn his son, terrified his own guilt would be written over his face despite years of political expertise.
He knows nothing—how could he, without Vader? Stop panicking and think!
"Forgive me, Your Majesty; you have met my wife, Queen Breha, of the House Antilles. And this is our son, Luke." As he spoke, Bail reached out his hand in invitation but Luke remained frozen, hands together, small fingers tightly laced.
"We have been speaking, your son and I," the Emperor said, turning to the boy as he ignored Bail's words completely. "It seems we have a great deal in common. And Saté tells me that you have kept the poor child cooped up in these apartments since your arrival, Viceroy."
"At your indulgence, Your Majesty, I feel he is perhaps a little young to…"
"Nonsense," Palpatine dismissed without allowing Bail to finish. "The sooner a child learns his place in the galaxy, the sooner he will settle, don't you agree?" The last was issued with permasteel behind it, Palpatine already turning away, a response neither expected nor encouraged.
He looked to the young child, who withered back, eyes wide as the Emperor rose, casting a dark shadow across him. "Come, boy. I will show you my Empire—and I will tell you your place in it."
Luke glanced to his father in alarm, looking for assistance, but Palpatine spoke out before Bail could reason a reply. "Your parents must make ready for the banquet tonight. I will take you to the roof and show you the Oval, the building they will travel to, less than a mile from here in the grounds of my Palace."
When Luke still didn't move the Emperor's voice came sharper, twisting like a knife in Bail's knotted stomach. "Stand up!"
"It's all right, Luke," Bail assured quickly, trying hard to hide the fear in his voice, hearing the pounding of his heart in his breath. "It's fine, really. You can go—we'll be right here. It's fine."
Palpatine smiled a death's-head grin, spoiled teeth against wan flesh. "You can watch your parents' speeder leave, on its way to the Oval. Wave them goodbye."
Luke lowered his dangling feet down from the massive chaise, blond curls bobbing as he stood uncertainly, hands clasped to his chest. He was desperately scared and clearly aware of the tense atmosphere in the room, of the fear rolling off his father and the overwhelming confidence of the dark-dressed man with the yellow eyes.
He took a quarter-step forward, eyes to his father…
A pale, withered hand reached out from the Emperor's black robes, long fingers bone-white, nails curving to yellowed claws. "Give me your hand, child."
Both Bail and Breha remained somehow upright as their son reached tremulously out, his small, delicate hand engulfed by the Emperor's, the action both controlling and claiming in the same moment.
And what could they do but stand aside as Palpatine set forward, Luke reaching out as he passed his mother to trail the tips of his fingers across her powder-blue gown, the two Royal Guard at the doorway falling into place behind their son as he glanced back through their ranks, pulled reluctantly forward by the man who held him now.
The Emperor paused imperceptibly, eyes meeting Saté's, who lowered his gaze in a half-nod of acknowledgement.
As they turned the last corner out of the apartments Bail reached out to grab his wife, who had set forward with a broken cry. Holding her to himself, he whispered reassurances he wished he believed. "It's all right—it's all right, Breha. He'll be back within the hour. He'll be fine. He'll be fine if we can just brazen this out."
He steered her firmly away, trying not to make a scene before the eight Red Guard who had remained at the doorway to the apartment, knowing it would only endanger their son further. The Emperor knew nothing—without Vader's Force sensitivity he had no reason to suspect Luke of being anything more than he seemed: Bail and Breha's son. This was simply a power game, a chastisement for Luke's non-attendance during the last few days' official events, probably pointed out by Pestage.
Still, it had brought home to Bail his son's vulnerability here and he simply couldn't risk Palpatine's further interest. With hushed encouragement he walked his wife through to the dressing rooms where their somber, dark evening clothes were laid out ready, motioning for Captain Antilles to follow.
Breha collapsed down onto a chair, trembling hands to her mouth, torn inside by the sight of her son being led away. Bail was barely able to console her, himself still struck by the memory of Luke's eyes, wide with fear and confusion as to why his father would tell him to go—would let the stranger take him.
As Captain Antilles leaned in, Bail whispered, "We need to smuggle Luke off-planet tonight—quickly and quietly, the moment he gets back. Get him to one of the Corvettes and hit lightspeed. Don't return to Alderaan—go to Tatooine. Find Kenobi."
Captain Antilles nodded without blinking, though he did think to ask one more question, glancing to his cousin Breha. "Yourself and the Queen, Sir?"
Bail blinked, not having thought any further than his son's safety; in removing Luke they condemned themselves too, but the alternatives were too horrific to consider.
His whole life, his plans—for his son, for his wife, for his people—everything was turned upside down in an instant…but the sight of Luke's hand as Palpatine's had engulfed it, of the fear in his son's eyes, was burned into Bail's thoughts.
"We'll get out as soon as you send a comm confirming that Luke is off-planet. We'll go immediately after the State Banquet, but we need to brazen this out until then or they'll suspect something. Make preparations with the guards—we'll commandeer the transport which brings us back to the Palace and go straight to the landing platform. Be sure there's a transport prepped and tell the yacht to make ready to run—quietly."
Raymus Antilles nodded briskly and left, mind already racing with what needed to be done.
He was in the turbolift, thoughts on tactics and timings, when the scarlet-robed Royal Guard who had remained outside the Organas' apartment turned to enter, intent on carrying out the Emperor's commands to the letter.
Luke stood on a high, open balcony near the top of the daunting bulk of the Imperial Palace, its dim, faceted sides scaling endless stories before trailing into open pipework and scaffold which stretched up into the cold pitch of night, the tiny lights of construction droids weaving in and out of the hulking construction far above. Staring along its vast, open structure, a stray memory burst with absolute clarity for Luke, sending an involuntary shiver up his spine: that of a dead kobuck he'd come across that spring in the open ranges close to home, whose pale, delicate bones had pierced through its decomposing hide. This place too seemed a dead, skeletal thing, bones breaking through its hulking carcass.
Led through endless halls of identical, dark-dressed stone, the dark man's fingers tight about his wrist, Luke had no sense of where he was any more, or how to get back to his parents and safety. He stood as far as he reasonably could from the cloaked man, his back to the corner at which the wall and the open balcony met, his fair curls whipped up to disarray by the high wind which pierced the dark shadows and sheeted across the sheer drop before them.
"Look," the dark man intoned, vibrant yellow eyes searching Luke, leaving him more and more anxious. "Look anywhere, in any direction. This is my Empire—everything in it belongs to me. Everything."
As he spoke he made an expansive gesture with his arm—and in the next second he'd grasped Luke's wrist, yanking him forward and lifting him up, helpless.
Luke gasped but didn't cry out, shocked by the speed at which the black-robed man moved. He was hauled up and out, his feet hanging precariously over the towering drop for long, breathless seconds before he was placed with solid force on the carved slope of the balustrade's handrail. He slipped and scrabbled, struggling for grip, forced to grab at the arms which grasped tight about his ribs, holding him at the very edge of the precipice.
"Everything here is mine, to do with as I will. Even you," the dark man said ominously, leaning in to Luke from behind and forcing his balance off so that he had to press back against the man's shoulder to keep from lurching forward, desperately unstable. The hands which held Luke loosened and he gripped tightly to the dark man's arm, his slight form buffeted by the high winds which whistled through the open scaffold. One foot slipped forward off the handrail, the back of his calf smarting and stinging as it grazed against the edge of the carved stone, his shoe lost to the drop, disappearing into darkness.
"Stop!" Luke's voice was small and scared and angry all at once, breath stolen away by the wind.
The dark man paused as if realizing. "Are you afraid?" His voice was a mocking dare as he loosed his hands, his hold slackening completely. "Stand up, child—I won't let you go."
Luke struggled to maintain balance, hand grasping uselessly at the loose folds of the Emperor's sleeve as that last support was pulled away to leave him balanced precariously on the uneven surface, hand outstretched over the terrifying drop into darkness.
"Is that so hard?" the dark man asked—and Luke turned to realize that the hands he'd thought would be close behind him were gone completely, loose at the dark man's sides, and Luke was alone on the narrow ledge, no support, no safety…completely alone.
Heart in his throat, he turned in slow, deliberate movements, taking two cautious steps along the narrow, angled stone to the high wall at the edge of the balcony, the winds dragging at him as he grabbed it like a lifeline. He crouched, moving his grip to the handrail, finally balanced enough to scramble down to the safety of solid ground, heart pounding against tight ribs, adrenaline burning his throat.
"You let me go," he said, bewildered. "You said you wouldn't let me go and you did."
"I lied," the dark man said easily, completely unmoved by Luke's breathless disillusionment. "That is my first lesson to you and the only one that I will ever give you for free: I cannot be trusted, child. Nobody can. Ever."
There was the cut of a blade in those words, delivered like a blow with neither guilt nor accountability, and Luke was left to uneasy confusion beneath them, legs still trembling, as the baleful man continued.
"You are alone in this life, child, remember that. No one will help you, no one will defend you, and no one will provide for you. Whatever you gain, it will be by your own hands and your own will. You are utterly alone."
"...is nothing," he spat, derisive.
In that second, fed by fear and fury and the adrenaline of the moment, Luke's lips narrowed to a terse line and his hand balled to a fist as he pulled it back to deliver a roundhand blow at the man who had spoken so harshly of his mother.
The dark man caught it mid-swing as if it were nothing at all, long fingernails digging into Luke's wrist as he hoisted it up, almost yanking Luke from the floor as he shook it. "What a malicious little streak of temper you have. You need to learn respect."
"Let me go!" Luke fumbled uselessly at the unyielding grip on his arm, soft skin bleeding beneath the drag of those nails. "I want my father!"
The grating sound of mocking laughter fell on Luke from above as the old man effortlessly twisted him about by the arm he held and dragged him forward, locking Luke in place between his body and the heavy carved balustrade as he pressed behind him, leaving him helpless against his tormentor's strength. "See? There are your parents, child. Down below."
All defiance was instantly forgotten as Luke saw the distant figure of his father walk over one of the scattered landing platforms set into the angled walls of the palace far below, to the enclosed executive speeder which waited. Still in the pale grey suit he had worn earlier, his father was little more than a distant speck against the unremitting black of the polished basalt landing platform, his mother close behind, the train of her powder-blue dress lifted and tugged by the squall. The memory of the warm brushed silk, soft against his fingers as he'd reached out for her when the dark man had led him away, made something inside Luke twist and snap in fear.
He stretched on tip-toe to shout out to them, wriggling one arm free to stretch his fingers out across the dark divide. But they didn't hear, the wind which howled through the open pipes of the scaffolding whipping the words away into the night as soon as they left his mouth.
The sedan speeder set off at a graceful pace from the platform.
"Say goodbye, child," the dark-dressed man said with expectant relish.
Still standing on tip-toe to see over the heavy balustrade, Luke was taking a breath, about to shout his father's name…when the speeder exploded in a violent blast of color and fury, the heat of the shockwave rumbling past a split-second later to rake through the curls of his hair, leaving the word, the memory, the hope dead, stolen away in a blazing, sun-bright instant.
Just three weeks into her eleventh year, Leia Skywalker pulled her loose hat down against the all-pervading rays of Tatooine's twin suns, squinting against their brilliance and the mirages they conjured... But no, there really was a man walking alone and on foot across the plains, heading for the homestead, the distortion of the heat haze making him appear to float just above the pale sand.
She turned to run the short distance to the edge of the sunken courtyard, yelling the whole way. "Aunt Beru—Aunt Beru! There's a man walking alone…walking alone in the suns."
Wiping her hands, Beru came from the kitchen, looking up from the sunken well of the courtyard, barely shaded as the suns began to sink. "Do we know him, sweetie?"
Leia turned back, pulling her hat off to reposition it, short, chocolate brown locks bleached to pale highlights beneath the fury of those suns. Her skin too was a rich, dark tan from years of play beneath them, her pale trousers and short white tunic dusted with a fine layer of dry sand, as everything was here, inside and out.
"No…no, I don't think so."
Uncle Owen had come from the garage now, drawn by the noise. "Leia, would you quit yelling like a Tusken."
Leia glanced back across the plain. The man had grown closer, his feet firmly on the ground now. Dressed in a long cloak, its wide hood pulled up as defense from the relentless suns, he walked with an easy, measured pace, unyielding even to Tatooine's incredible heat.
"There's a man…"
Uncle Owen was already climbing the worn steps out of the courtyard. He slowed as he reached the top and was finally able to see for himself, and his perpetual frown deepened, lips pursed to a thin line.
"Leia, go inside." He rested one hand to her shoulder to hurry her along, turning to Aunt Beru below. "It's Kenobi."
"Can't come here and expect… We can protect her—can you? …Safe here… Rubbish! You're talking rot, with your theories and your maybe's…"
Then came the man's voice again, quietly insistent. She knew of him, of course—had heard her aunt and uncle, as well as others in Anchorhead, speak of his eccentricities—but she'd never met him. In fact, she was surprised Uncle Owen had let him in the house, after all that he'd said.
There was the low thrum of the main room's holoprojector activating…then a long, fraught silence, in which Leia could hear the muffled sound of a holo: a voice talking about Coruscant, about a celebration there…a news-holo maybe, from the tone of the voice. It paused, then played again, exactly the same words. Curiosity overtaking her fear, Leia cracked open her door and leaned into the hall. From there she could see the glow of the holo on the far wall of the living space…could see the edge of the image itself. It was a zoomed, shaky image of a wide balcony, beings with rich clothes and somber faces stood well back, looking down.
"There!" The cloaked man paused the image. "There—you see him?"
"There—the boy dressed in black! Wait, he comes forward in a moment. Palpatine pulls him forward."
There was a prolonged pause, and Leia risked leaning round the corner again to see the shaky image, but was forced to pull back quickly as her uncle straightened, voice dismissive. "That could be anybody."
"We've enhanced the image and…"
"You said he was dead." Her uncle's voice, brusque as ever, broached no argument.
"We thought he was. The palace declared at the time that there were no survivors of the assassination."
"We know it's him, Owen—we're sure. I'm sorry, I'm so sorry. It's just not safe here anymore."
"Of course she's safe. Who'd look here?"
"Anakin might. Owen, if he knows he has a son, he may know the complete truth. If the boy's alive, then we have to assume that he's been on Coruscant, hidden, since Bail Organa's death. And we simply can't afford to..."
"Bail was killed four years ago, and whatever he knew died with him—the boy probably knew nothing."
"I can't afford to take that chance, Owen. I'm sorry."
"It's not your decision to make."
"… Are you seriously telling me you'd choose to take that risk on Leia's behalf?"
Leia frowned at the mention of her name, aware from the tension in their voices that everyone was acutely serious.
Her aunt spoke out, voice trembling with emotion. "Owen, we knew…we always knew that this might happen."
"Beru, he comes in here with some barely visible image and says it's the boy…"
"Owen, we have to think about what's best for Leia now… Owen, please."
"He just comes in here and…"
"Wait…" There was a rustle of rough cloth as the cloaked man turned slightly and Leia paused, holding her breath. "She's listening."
Aunt Beru came quickly into the hallway as Leia retreated, but she didn't shout or scold when she caught her. Instead she gathered Leia up in a hug so close it stifled and scared her. "Oh, you will always be my little piri, Leia. My little desert flower."
"Is something wrong?"
"No, sweetheart, nothing's wrong. You just have to go away for a while, that's all. Oh, I'll miss you so much."
"I don't want to go." Leia heard the near-panic in her own voice.
Aunt Beru leaned back to smooth a wisp of hair from Leia's face and tuck it behind her ear. "I don't want you to go either, sweetheart, I really don't. But we can write all the time, send messages and pictures—you'll do that, won't you, you'll send me lots of pictures?"
"And Ben will look after you, he really will. He'll take you somewhere safe. Come and meet him, sweetheart, come and say hello."
Leia held back against her aunt's pull. "I want to stay here."
"But you'll get to ride on a starship, Leia, won't that be fun? A real starship in space!"
Leia softened a little at that, looking back towards the living quarters where the man had leaned around the corner, smiling sadly. He crouched to her level as she allowed herself to be coaxed in by her aunt, his hand out to her. His greying hair was streaked with dark blond, more of the same in the salt-and-pepper colors of his gruffy beard. And his eyes, like his voice, were kind and gentle.
"Hello, Leia, I'm very pleased to meet you. That's a nice hat you have."
She softened a little at his praise. "It keeps the suns from my eyes… You should wear one."
"And you shouldn't go walking in the desert alone. Everybody knows that."
"You're very right."
"…Do you have a starship?"
"No, but I have a very good friend who has one, and she's waiting at Mos Eisley. Would you like to see it, maybe take a ride? Perhaps we can sit you in the co-pilot's chair, have your first lesson—would you like that?"
"Leia," her aunt's hand rested reassuringly to the small of Leia's back, "this is Ben Kenobi. He's been here on Tatooine for a long time now, helping us to keep you safe."
"Helping?" Leia bunched her features in doubt. She might not have met him, but she'd sure heard her uncle talk about him. "But Uncle Owen says he's crazy."
Behind Ben, her uncle straightened uncomfortably, and Aunt Beru let out a horrified, "Leia!"
"No, that's all right," Ben said, amused. He leaned forward conspiratorially. "I'm incognito."
"Is that another word for crazy?"
"Leia!" Both Aunt Beru and Uncle Owen spoke out this time.
Ben only grinned beneath his beard, fine lines creasing about his eyes. He winked at her, as if sharing some common joke.
"But why do I have to go?" Leia wailed, clutching for Aunt Beru's skirt.
"You just have to, sweetheart," her aunt said, voice breaking.
Before her, Ben Kenobi tilted his head. "Leia, something very important has happened, a long way from here…but because of it, we know you're not safe any more. Not here. I'm going to take you somewhere where you will be. That's why I'm here."
"I don't know yet. But I know that you'll be safe there…and I know that we have to go today."
"I have school tomorrow." It was a last-ditch protest and she knew it.
"You'll learn lots of new things, Leia—I promise."
There was something in his voice that hinted at more than sand-dusted schoolrooms and the same old text on the same old datapads…
Her aunt leaned in, gently pushing to try to turn Leia about. "Why don't we go and pack some things, Leia, so you're all ready to go."
Leia's momentary fascination dissipated. "But I can come back, right?"
Her aunt and uncle remained silent, but the cloaked man—Ben—nodded, his smile visible beneath that sandy-blond beard. "Well, we need to sort a rather large problem out first, and it may take quite a while, but I certainly hope so. Perhaps by that time, you'll be able to fly your own ship back, what do you think?"
For the first time since Ben had arrived, Leia smiled, taken by the thought that she would do just that.
It was just another ramshackle launch bay on the edge of Mos Eisley, but when they entered through the battered, sand-scoured door, the starship which rested within caught Leia's eye immediately, its sleek lines and gleaming finish too clean and too new for its surroundings.
She was tired and she was dusty, and Ben had taken to carrying her across town to the spaceport, her bag over one of his shoulders, her head rested against the other. But she turned as he entered the bay, nothing more elaborate than a banked dish hollowed from the ground, Tatooine's all-pervasive sand making a credible effort to reclaim even that.
And then the woman walked from the ship.
Wearing a beautiful shift dress of pure white and a wide, golden chain about her neck, she glided down the ramp towards them, smiling beatifically. Tall and straight, with fine features and russet hair, she had a face Leia instantly trusted.
Ben leaned forward to put Leia down, straightening with a quiet groan. "Leia Skywalker, this is Mon Mothma, a very good friend of mine. She'll take us to our rendezvous, where the Alliance are waiting. That's where we'll stay from now on—with them."
Leia barely heard, squinting up in awe at the woman's serene expression…and the words came easily. "Are you a queen?"
The woman glanced to Ben, her regal features softening further. "No, I'm not a queen, Leia… I'm a politician—or rather, I was."
"You're not any more?"
"No, I gave it up to travel with a very special lady, on General Kenobi's suggestion."
Leia glanced back to Ben…General Kenobi?
"We should...get underway," Ben said, glancing about.
Mon looked immediately to him. "Is there something wrong?"
"No, but the sooner we can get Leia under the protection of the fleet, the better I'll feel."
They turned to walk to the ship and Leia glanced up from between them, reaching out across Ben to run her fingers along its smooth, spotless hull.
"Ben said I could sit in the co-pilot's seat and learn to fly," she tried, not really expecting to be allowed, having seen the ship. Still, if you didn't try, you never got anywhere.
Mon Mothma glanced to Ben over her head, and even Leia heard the embarrassment in his voice. "I said…uh—well, I thought..."
Mon's hand rested on Leia's shoulder, her warm voice tinged with amusement. "Well then, we'll have to see what we can do. I wouldn't want to be responsible for a Jedi Master not keeping his word."
Leia glanced briefly up, rolling that word about in her head: Jedi. They were, she'd been taught at school, the betrayers, the traitors… But always, Aunt Beru had rebuffed such things with quiet scorn, and even Uncle Owen, who had zero interest in dealings outside of Anchorhead, never mind Tatooine, had dismissed it out of hand, grumbling about governments and spin.
Aunt Beru may have been being her usual tolerant self, but Uncle Owen? He had a mean streak the width of the Dune Sea, so if he still said it was a load of eopie dung, then the matter was pretty much settled, to Leia's mind. What wasn't settled, was why her teacher and her history texts were wrong. She glanced up, about to voice her question, but the conversation had moved on about her, as Ben leaned slightly forward to place a hand to Leia's back.
"Thank you, Mon…Leia?"
All of Leia's questions were forgotten in the flare of realization that she was actually going to get a chance to sit in the pilot's seat, and fly. She, Leia Skywalker, was going to be a pilot! Nudged by Ben and knowing her part, Leia smiled genuinely. "Thank you, Mz Mothma."
"You're very welcome, Leia—and I think you should call me Mon, since we'll be seeing a lot of each other."
Eyes everywhere as she held on to the rough fabric of Ben's cloak, Leia allowed herself to be guided up the ship's ramp, the gracious tone of his voice already familiar enough to be soothing.
"I very much appreciate all that you're doing, Mon—and so will Leia, though she doesn't know it yet."
As they stepped into the cool interior Leia was barely listening, endlessly impressed by the pristine ship. Unheeded, Mon's voice held a grave tone, edged by steely determination. "Well, as you say, it's our duty to prepare her, Master Kenobi. And if so, then we should prepare her for anything…and we should start today."
Coruscant, four years later
Lieutenant Han Solo stepped off the transport and pulled at the high collar of his standard-issue officer's uniform, undoing the top three buttons as he walked to the edge of the platform, a two-day leave pass and twelve weeks' pay burning a hole in his pocket.
The trooper at the guard box ran Han's passcard through the system and handed it back, saluting smartly. "Have a good weekend, Lieutenant."
Han glanced about; back on Coruscant after his third run to the back of beyond, he knew he was near the Mosiin province, but that was about it. "Any interesting night-life around here?"
The stormtrooper looked him up and down a second, but they were close enough in rank that he answered honestly. "How interesting are you looking for, Sir?"
Han shrugged, glancing at the distant lights. "I got two days—it'd better be pretty damn interesting."
The trooper nodded his head to the side. "Try the Dyging district, near the Palace. There're a couple of good cantinas there, but they're way down in the depths. The Atlas is good if you're looking to gamble your money, the Dirty Dug's good if you want something in return."
"Thanks." Han turned, gesturing with his hand. "That way?"
"Go down ten levels and you can get a public speeder. It's not really the kind of walk you should do alone, Sir."
Han nodded, turning and setting off into the night as his breath misted before him. How the hell did he always seem to get shore-leave on the part of a planet that was winter?
The Dirty Dug had four bouncers on the door, but by the time he got there, Han had already taken off his Imperial Navy jacket and pulled on a more comfortable pilot's jacket he had from his time on Carida. It still singled him out as Imperial Navy, but this far down in the depths, there was a galaxy of difference between being a grunt and being an officer. He shoved the dress jacket into his duffle and pulled up his collar, paying the speeder cab and stepping out into the Coruscant night.
On his fifth drink and finally getting that warm glow, Han leaned back against the bar and took in the room;: it was big and smoky—so smoky you could probably get high on the fumes without actually bothering buying the spice sticks. A tough childhood growing up the hard way under the scant care and absolute rule of a smuggler, bounty hunter, con-man and all-round lowlife bruiser named Garris Shrike, still let Han pick out the various types with ease. The booths against the walls were mainly pushers, dealers and buyers, looking to ply their trade with minimal trouble. The rowdy crowd who sported fast-draw holsters and confident grins were smugglers and gamblers, looking for the next job or spending the credits they'd earned on the last one. Moving between them all with the smooth grace of the predators they were, smelling out their prey and providing living proof of the age-old adage that a drunk and his credits were soon parted, were the frails and the twinks, looking for a trick.
He sighed comfortably, leaning back; somehow the Academy had never quite gotten that deep-rooted sense of feelin' right at home in a joint like this out of Han.
His eyes, roving the crowd, paused at the booth in the corner, mainly because the small glowball at the center of the table, which was the only light in the booths, was broken, so its lone resident was in shadows. The bright tip of a spice stick flared momentarily, lighting its occupant's face in an amber glow. Not much more than a kid, he was maybe fifteen at the very most, with wild, fair hair and a fading bruise on his jawline that looked like it had already turned every color of the rainbow. Slouched back, he had his booted feet up on the table, ankles crossed, the empty shot glass balanced on his lap already filled with ash. Head resting on the back of the seat, he stared up at the ceiling with the stump of a spice stick in his mouth, looking way too comfortable in a joint like this.
Han's eyes lingered as he tried to categorize the kid, but he just…didn't fit; didn't quite fit any of the types here. Probably a twink, cruising for a trick; yeah, he was the right age, right build—fresh-faced and old-eyed. Han set his head to one side in consideration; kid sure didn't seem to be trying too hard though. Maybe he was just a buyer—the shot glass on his lap already had three stubbed spice-sticks in it, and the kid didn't look like he was planning on leaving any time soon. Han turned away, resuming his scan of the room to look for something a little more to his tastes, the kid instantly forgotten.
The night passed and the bar filled and the room got so noisy you had to shout to be heard, but Han liked 'em like that, so he was grinning at one of the working girls who had hit him up for a drink and was starting to talk business when the conversation behind him, shouted over the noise, drifted into hearing.
"Hey, hey! Someone's tryin' to hit on Spice-boy!"
It was the amused enthusiasm of that last voice which caught Han's attention.
He knew instantly who they were talking about, and as the evening had progressed, he'd ended up pushed further and further along the crowded bar towards that last dark booth, so he only had to take a step to the right to get a view, pushing the pink-haired frail who was all over him to one side.
Sure enough, a big burly spacer was leaning over the table in that last dark booth, weaving slightly, a Weequay half a step behind him, egging him on. Clearly the kid had ignored him once, because now the burly human was pressing forward and nudging him none-too-gently. Han didn't hear what the guy said, but the kid glanced up this time, singularly unimpressed.
What was weird was that despite the incessant noise, the kid's quiet, clipped voice carried perfectly. "My name? It's 'Get-the-hell-out-of-my-face, nerf-breath'."
About the same moment as Han pulled a brief face, amazed at the kid's lip, he heard the two spectators at the bar beside him both go, "Yeah!" and "No way."
It took a good three seconds for the brawny spacer to register the insult, then he let out a roar—
And all hell broke loose.
The kid was grabbed by the scruff and hauled bodily out of the booth, several patrons around him knocked back in the flurry as the drunk spacer backpaced, still hold of the kid by the scruff, drinks and curses loosed as the knock-on effect spread outwards like a wave. In the center, the big spacer had dragged the kid clear when he suddenly staggered back a few steps, clutching his midriff. The moment he was loosed, the kid took a half-step back and landed a high kick on the spacer's jaw as he bent double, snapping his head round with a resounding 'clack' of teeth.
Grimacing, Han got his first real glimpse at the twink—and realized just how much of a kid he really was, less than shoulder-height to the drunk spacer, slight and slim and seriously outgunned. In fact, if the kid had any sense at all, he would have taken the opportunity and made a run for it because clearly the spacer, who was probably carrying twice the kid's bodyweight, was now madder than all hells.
Instead, as the guy straightened and powered forward, arms wide, the kid made a few fast steps on the spot to set his bodyweight in anticipation, bracing. Han flinched at the coming blow, wondering if the kid had a death-wish—
Then the big spacer was staggering to the side and the kid hardly seemed to have moved, save for a half-twist to drop a fast knee into his opponent's side as he passed, making the spacer stagger into a heavy table, winded. Dragged half-round with him when he'd made that last blow, the kid caught his balance, hand out before him in warning as the thickset spacer rose with a roar, upturning the table.
"Don't—" That was as far as the kid got. The big spacer plowed forward—
The kid pulled off a lightening fast snap-kick to his throat, dropping him on the spot, leaving him gasping for air…
Han had no intention of interfering, simply enjoying the show with everyone else, when the flash of something bright and reflective caught his eye in the Weequay's hand as it advanced on the kid's back—
"Hey!" Han pushed through the crowd, close enough to reach out as the Weequay pulled his arm back to make a strike for the kid at neck-level, a vibroblade humming in his grip—
Hand tightening about the Weequay's wrist, Han yanked backward, twisting it against its natural movement. The wicked blade fell to the floor with a heavy metallic clatter as the kid twisted about and dodged to the side in anticipation.
The Weequay turned on Han with a guttural growl as Han backed up a step, hands out to calm him…
Then a high-powered shot rang out, flashing over the heads of the melee and forcing everyone to duck. The band, which had continued merrily on through all of this, finally stuttered to silence.
Han turned…to see four stormtroopers at the doorway, blasters trained on the crowd.
Great; he'd been on leave all of four hours and he'd managed to get himself arrested… Just great.
All four of them got detained, their ID's taken before they were even loaded into the back of the transports, Han and the kid in one and the two spacers in the other. The Weequay muttered something in patois as he passed, and the kid shouted something back in pretty passable Weequay as the trooper restrained him, voice weary. Clearly this was the end of a long shift for him.
"Hey—hey, you're in enough trouble as it is."
"I'm in trouble? Have you read that ID?" The kid knocked at the trooper's hand but he didn't loosen his grip.
"Yeah I read it. Aren't you a little young for Intel?"
The second trooper laughed, the sound rough and metallic coming through his vo-coder.
The kid turned, voice ice. "Back off, trooper."
This time the troopers found it less amusing. The one who had hold of the kid's arm shook him roughly. "Hey, you want to make it resisting arrest too?"
The kid glared and for a moment Han thought he might actually make a go of it… Then he suddenly seemed to calm and let out a short laugh. "No, what the hell, I got nothing else to do tonight."
So now they were sitting on bunks to either side of a cell, Han wondering how the hell two days' leave had managed to go so spectacularly wrong. Four hours was a new low, even for him.
The cell was small and plain, no allowance for creature comforts made, so each of them sat at opposite sides on the hard shelf-like bunks, as the kid chewed his nail and stared silently through the clear plasteel wall and into the empty security corridor beyond, lost in his own thoughts. Han couldn't work out whether he was putting on a very passable indifferent front for his cellmate's benefit, or whether he really was that unfazed. Maybe the latter; twinks in any port got themselves arrested on a weekly basis. Most of the troopers knew the ones on their beat by name.
Slight and sinewy, this one wore dark hide pants and a fitted gray shirt, casually undone halfway down his chest, effortlessly dissolute. He turned slowly to Han without blinking, and Han held his eye a few seconds before he looked casually away; he wasn't gonna be stared down by some pint-sized juvenile.
The kid watched him a few seconds more before, distractedly, he patted the pockets of the dark, fitted jacket he wore and pulled out a small pouch. Glancing from the corner of his eye, Han frowned; surely not…
The kid pulled a slim, neatly twisted roll and an engraved pewter strike-lighter from the bag. Depressing the strike until the end glowed, he absently lit the spice stick.
"Sith, kid, what the hell you tryin' to do, get us shot?"
The kid looked to Han for a few seconds, as if remembering he was there, then turned away again to stare into nothing.
Han pursed his lips. "Fine. You know what? Go right ahead and get yourself shot, I don't care. Let 'em take you out back and try to knock some sense into you. Hell, it might even work."
"It never has before."
Han turned away, annoyed at the smartass backhand comment; fine, if that's the way he wanted to play it, let him. He glared at the empty corridor…and lasted all of three seconds before he turned back again, finger pointing. "Hey, in case you didn't notice, it was me who pulled that Weequay with the vibroblade off your back."
The slight kid glanced back, looking Han over through the haze of smoke from the spice stick. "I already had him pegged."
Just at the moment when Han had taken a breath to tell him a few home truths, the kid added quietly, "But thanks."
It was blunt but sincere, and Han relaxed again, studying the kid. Now, looking closer, despite his bruises and his dark-rimmed eyes he was way too well-dressed to be a twink, though he still had that worldly air about him. Had a Coruscant accent though; definitely upper-class refined.
Again the kid took a long time to answer, as if trying to decide whether to admit even that much.
"Hey, makes no odds to me," Han said in reassurance. "Look, just ask 'em not to press charges 'cos you want to enrol in military school when you're eighteen. They know that you won't get in with a record, an' if they think you want to join up, they'll go easy on you."
"I'm sure they'll let me out any time now," the kid said with quiet, understated confidence.
"Whatever. Just tell them the military school thing, okay? Tell 'em you're tryin' to get into Carida."
"Like you did?"
Han frowned, surprised, and the kid nodded his head toward the patch on the arm of Han's old flight jacket. "Carida."
Han shook his head. "It doesn't say Carida."
"It has a pale blue rim with a gold edge on the unit patch—that means you trained on Carida."
Han nodded; kid was good. "Don't tell me—military family, right?"
For a moment Han thought the kid wouldn't reply, then he nodded. "You could say that."
Rich kid then, Han thought. Probably end up at Carida one way or another anyway. "How old are you?"
The kid took a long drag on the spice stick. "Too old."
It should have been funny, ridiculous even…but Han frowned at the grim cynicism in that remark. "You worried your folks'll find out?"
He'd seen a few of them on Carida—the insular, reticent ones from wealthy families. Those whose arrogant, career-military fathers and pretentious, over-ambitious mothers pushed them to be something they weren't. You soon realized that despite their wealth, you actually pitied them.
"Listen, if you don't want your folks to know, just plead the Carida thing. Tell the duty officer who processes you that you regret everything and you realize you were in the wrong…but lose the spice stick," Han added pointedly.
"It's fine," the kid dismissed evenly without turning. He paused, glancing to the empty corridor as he stood. "In fact, here's my ride now."
Han frowned—and seconds later, the heavy door to the detention block slid open and a mature man in a seriously expensive suit walked into the detention center's corridor, glancing worriedly through the clear cell walls.
"Luke?" The man paused before the cell door, turning to the Duty Officer with undisguised scorn in his voice. "Open the door."
It was the speed at which the duty officer complied that piqued Han's interest.
"Are you all right?" The man glanced the kid up and down as he walked calmly from the cell without answering. As the kid passed him, the man took the spice stick from his mouth and dropped it to the floor, stubbing it out beneath hand-stitched boots without comment from either of them. "You said you wouldn't do this again."
"No, you said I shouldn't do this again."
"If he finds out…"
"I'm sure he already knows by now," the kid said cynically, then paused, turning. "Are you staying there?"
Han rose quickly. "Me? No, not if the door's open."
The well-dressed man frowned at Han, cool gray eyes beneath trim, dark hair, greying at the temples. For a moment it seemed like he was going to argue the point, but the kid was already leaving the detention block. Han passed the older man, treated to a haughty stare but not stopped by either him or the duty officer. Kid was clearly from a very wealthy family, he reflected.
Just how wealthy became clear as he stepped out into the sharp dawn air and saw the stately closed-top ambassadorial speeder double-parked outside the stationhouse, a military speeder ahead of it and another behind, the small flags on its wings denoting serious rank. Two very badly disguised plain-clothes bodyguards stood beside it, eyes everywhere, hands resting very close to the openings of their carefully tailored jackets.
Considering the area, Han didn't blame them.
The well-dressed man stood expectantly beside the open door of the speeder and the kid paused, turning to Han. "I'd offer you a lift, but trust me when I say it would be very bad for your career—and your health."
Han shrugged, dragging his eyes away from the smart sedan and the plain-clothes minders. "Well, my career's already shot, but I kinda like my health so I guess I'll start walking." He looked the kid up and down. "Thanks, kid, it's been…interesting. I always like to spend half my leave in a detention center. Reminds me of home." He paused, suddenly unwilling to leave, freshly aware of how slight and young the kid really was, little more than shoulder height to Han. "You gonna be okay? They look pissed."
The kid glanced to the sedan, casually dismissive. "They're just worried I'm going to make a break for it. I'm tempted to, just to see what they'll do."
Han looked to them, unsure if the kid was joking or not. "They look awful twitchy."
The kid remained still, suddenly talkative, clearly reluctant to get into the speeder. "That's because they're listening to every word we say and now they're worried I might do just what I said. Like you are."
The suited man took a half-step forward, arm outstretched. "Luke?"
The kid paused for just a second more, then walked away without another word, the door auto-closing as the well-dressed man entered the sedan behind him. The two minders gauged Han with professional appraisal before turning away.
Stood in the light dawn drizzle, Han watched them enter the speeders before and behind the big, blacked-out sedan, then the whole cavalcade set off with smooth precision, leaving Han to gaze at the military registrations as they rose upwards.
He stared for a few moments more before pulling up his collar and setting off into the breaking dawn, eager to be gone before the stormtroopers who were watching from the viewpanes of the stationhouse behind him changed their mind.
Eyes dead ahead, Han Solo marched into the Deck Officer's neatly arranged office onboard the Star Destroyer Gauntlet, coming to a halt to snap off a quick salute as he clicked his heels. It was three weeks since his planet-leave, and to date no word seemed to have been passed on about the whole debacle, so he'd actually begun to think that he'd gotten away with it. Which would have been a good thing, considering that he already had a court-martial hanging over his head.
Then this. Hauled into the D.O.'s office in the middle of his shift without a word—never a good sign.
If it had been his own Wing Commander then at least Han would have had a chance to get his side of the story out. Commander Tory was a good officer who'd come up through the ranks the hard way, and wasn't above cutting a little slack for the pilots in his Wing. But Han and his wingman had been ordered in from a standard duty flight by higher powers, and Han sent immediately here on landing, still in his flightsuit with his gloss black TIE helmet beneath his arm.
"At ease, Lieutenant." The Deck Officer was reading his automemo with exaggerated interest, so Han was left to stare dead ahead for a ridiculously long time, waiting for the punchline. The D.O. didn't even look up to deliver it. "Says here you're awaiting a hearing on a General Charge of serious misconduct and gross insubordination."
The D.O. leaned back to study him. "That's quite a litigation."
"It's presently just a charge, Sir. Nothing's been tried yet."
"Are you telling me you didn't do it?"
"I'm saying it hasn't gone to trial yet, Sir."
The D.O. stared for long, dry moments, voice disbelieving. "You realize you could get drummed out of service for trying to help some Wookiee, though?"
"As I said, Sir, it hasn't gone to trial yet."
The Deck Officer glared at him, but Han was used to that particular stare from his superiors, so held the man's stare without flinching.
Eventually, the D.O. rolled his eyes back to the automemo. "Well, at least by the time it does, you'll not be an embarrassment to this ship."
"You're being reassigned, Lieutenant," the D.O. said unceremoniously. "You're going planetside."
Han scowled; what the hell? "Reassigned?"
"Friends in high places?" the D.O. asked contemptuously. "Family connections? Or did you just sleep with the right Senator's daughter?"
"…Reassigned?" It was all Han had to say.
The Deck Officer stood, throwing the automemo across the desk at Han. "Put your thumbprint to the memo and pack your kit, Lieutenant Solo. You're someone else's problem now."
Something was very wrong, Han knew… On a big scale—the kind that made his palms sweat.
He'd read the reassignment about two dozen times now, and he still couldn't quite work out what the hell kinda joke someone somewhere was trying to play here.
He was presently dressed in his best olive green Navy dress uniform, starched collar scratching at his neck as he followed two guys in dark blue uniforms down a corridor big enough to fly his TIE down and then some, wondering what the hell was going on. He'd been following them for quite a while now, but then it was a big building…a very big building.
The imposing pyramidal bulk of blue-stone Imperial Palace was, as every kid brought up under Imperial rule knew by heart, three hundred stories in total, and right now Han felt like he'd walked about half of it. He'd already spent over two hours in the main military complex at its base whilst an assortment of ever-more-senior officers had dropped by to glare at him and study the reassignment memo, before managing to hand what was very clearly a headache of massive proportions on to somebody else. Finally, when they seemed to have run out of people to blame—and damned if they didn't seem to have tried everyone in the whole place, whilst Han had waited—they'd commed up to the people on other end of the reassignment mandate.
Another hour in which, by the sounds of it, the people in question tried very hard to offload this problem onto someone—anyone—else, before they finally seemed to have run out of options and said, "Bring him up."
So here he was. In the Imperial Palace—the actual Imperial Palace. Not really the kinda thing that happened to your average TIE pilot. Particularly not the kinda thing that happened to one awaiting court-martial.
They'd taken turbolifts up and across so many levels now that Han no longer had any idea of where he was, other than to note that the ubiquitous white-clad stormtroopers had given way to a more ornate dark blue palace livery. The occasional span of windows which seemed to run floor to ceiling for twenty or thirty levels in a single span, now showed the highest levels of the most elite buildings on Coruscant slowly falling away, so they must be within the body of the second stage of the three-stage behemoth by now, Han guessed. Plus the Spartan corridors had gotten wider and, if not more ornate, then certainly grander in scale, their dark mosaic marble floors increasingly complex. He had a feeling that the higher they went, the more ridiculously immense the cavernous spaces would turn out to be, which made it just as well that they were maybe just halfway up, 'cos he already couldn't take much more of this. All in all, he was now so far out of his depth that he was almost to the point where he wondered whether, if he just went for it and shouted something outrageous into the hushed reverence of the austere, fifteen-story atrium he was crossing right now, he might actually wake up.
Then the blue-dressed guards had peeled off the echoing atrium and into a long corridor housing what were clearly private apartments, several per corridor. The third had its tall doors already open, and they marched into a dark wooden interior hallway hung with a long run of large canvases, abstract splashes of muted tones in the dour, windowless space.
The first room they entered, just inside the door, was a welcome relief from the endless corridors of sparse austerity, its dark gloss walls covered with whiteboards and auto-uploading calendars and pieces of flimsiplast marked with arrows and urgents and the occasional 'LOOK!' tag, and whilst the wide desks were inlaid and polished hardwoods, they were scattered with the kinds of everyday paraphernalia and clutter which any working office would have. Two men in black military uniforms looked up in unison, their expressions a mixture of confusion and mild interest.
"Yours, I believe," one of the guards said dryly, then turned about and left without another word.
Glancing to the men's chests with the swift, automatic skim that any conscript had, Han noted that despite their youth they were both Lieutenant Commanders, so he made a brief salute and waited for the poodoo to hit.
The nearest man, the younger of the two, made a sort of semi-embarrassed half-salute as he stood, looking Han up and down. "Lieutenant Solo, right?"
"Second Lieutenant, yes, sir."
"You, uh…don't happen to know who sent you, do you?"
Here we go: it's all been a terrible mistake—some kinda mix-up at HQ. Go back down the ten million levels you just spent the last two hours getting up, and don't come back. "No, sir."
"Ah…see, neither do we."
Han was left standing to attention and staring at the two men, who stared back, obviously at as much of a loss as he was. The silence stretched to excruciating lengths…
"Um…" The younger man stepped forward again. "I'm Gorn…Therne Gorn—of the Ixtlar Gorns. This is Ashtor, from the Kailor Ashtors—big family." Gorn paused, his eyes remaining expectantly on Han.
"Uh, Han…Han Solo."
"Of…?" The younger man stared, clearly awaiting a run-down of Han's social status and pedigree. He seemed friendly enough to Han, it was just that they were obviously on different pages here.
"I…don't think I know the Corellian Solos. Are you…part of the aristocracy there? Or politics perhaps…commerce?"
"Not even nearly…sir."
Gorn straightened, smiling. "Oh, that's okay—between ourselves, we don't really use military rank much, not inside the apartment. Except when Indo's around, of course."
"… Okay then." Han heard the bemusement in his own voice.
The next protracted silence was saved by the sharp click of footfalls down the hard tiles of the corridor outside, and Han turned to the first familiar face he'd seen all day.
Gorn too seemed relieved. "Oh, sir, this is the man who had the commission. I told them to send him up until we sort this out, but it all seems in order. We're trying to track the originator of the commission now, without much luck. His name is Lieutenant Solo, sir. Lieutenant, this is Viscount Indo."
Han nodded. "Yeah, we met."
Gorn frowned, surprise audible in his voice. "Really?"
"Yeah." Not having the slightest idea as to how to greet a viscount, Han settled for a nod, since the man wasn't military. "You came to pick that kid up from a Trooper's Sector House in the Dyging District."
The guy—Indo—hadn't changed. He still stood pole-straight, immaculately dressed with that same sabacc stare, ninety percent superior and nine percent condescending, with just a twist of jaded distain. "I believe you're mistaken, Lieutenant."
"I was the pilot who got dragged in with him, remember?"
"You're mistaken," Indo repeated coolly. "Luke doesn't leave the Palace without permission, he never visits the likes of the Dyging District and he certainly doesn't find himself in Sector Houses."
Han was suddenly, intensely aware of the fact that the room had fallen to uncomfortable silence. Great—fantastic start. "Right, yeah…you're right."
The viscount didn't blink an eye, so the uneasy silence remained until Gorn finally sought to break it. "The Viscount's Luke's primary adjutant and tutor, Solo. He's always been with him, since Luke was a kid."
Indo turned that cool, fixed stare on Gorn, instantly correcting the familiarity of the aide's tone. "Luke was never a 'kid,' Lieutenant Commander Gorn; he was a minor. Where are Lieutenant Solo's commission details?" Indo took the proffered datapad, scanning through it as Han stared.
Sure as hell looked like the same guy to him, Han reflected—and the kid had been called Luke. This was getting uncomfortably weird. Seriously, what were the chances of his meeting the guy again, like this?
Indo glanced up from the automemo. "This seems to be in order…"
Gorn shook his head. "That's what we thought. I checked it, but…"
"I think I see what's happened here," Indo said ominously, something in his voice indicating that he'd realized where the commission had come from. Didn't seem that interested in sharing the fact though, Han reflected. Indo looked to Gorn. "Take Lieutenant Solo round and show him where he can and can't go. You should arrange for the correct ID cylinders too." Indo looked Han up and down as he turned to leave. "And point him in the direction of a decent tailor—that uniform looks like it was standard issue."
Han turned to Gorn, keeping his voice low as Indo left the room, those precisely spaced footfalls receding. "What the hell's wrong with standard issue? 'Course it's standard issue, I'm a pilot."
Gorn brightened. "Really, you were a pilot?"
"I am a pilot," Han corrected.
Gorn winked amiably. "Yeah, you see any TIE fighters here, pilot?"
Han pursed his lips, freshly sure that some kind of terrible mistake had been made and he wasn't even supposed to be here. Gorn chatted on regardless, his manner bright and genial. "I'll get you to a tailor this afternoon, if we get time. Indo's pretty up on keeping everyone in line here—if you don't have a decent uniform by the end of the week, he'll come down on you."
Han glanced down the wide corridor outside, seeing no sign of the viscount. "He the boss round here?"
"Pretty much. He's not military, but he's the Senior Adjutant, so he generally does all the hiring and firing, and makes sure that everything runs smoothly—and he has the contacts and the status to back it up, so it's best to keep on his good side. We'll get you set up with a few tailor-made uniforms by the start of next week, don't worry."
"What's wrong with the one I got on?"
Gorn laughed easily. "No one wears standard issue here, Solo, and absolutely no one in an adjutant position wears olive drab—you stand out like a sore thumb. You have to wear duty dress here. Black though, not drab."
"Why not drab?"
" 'Cos you're an XO now, pal—special commission. We wear black…all special commissions wear black uniform. Have you been paid yet?"
"Indo'll arrange for a sub of your first month's salary—two service uniforms'll cost about that much."
"A month's salary!"
"Yep. Then you'll need to get maybe two off-duties up to Indo's exacting standards in case you have to go plain-clothes, and one full dress, for State occasions… I guess you should have an XO pilot's uniform too, in case you're needed to fly."
"How much is that little bundle gonna rush me?"
"Well, let's just say you won't get much change from half a year's salary. But we'll start off with just the service uniforms, 'cos a lot of people don't last too long here."
"Thanks," Han muttered, scowling. "That makes me feel so much better."
Gorn set out of the office with Han in tow, and they'd barely walked a few steps before Gorn turned again, chatty as ever. "You're a real mystery, Solo. No one knows who you are. How'd you get a commission here?"
"It just kinda arrived, I think."
"Seriously, commissions as XO's in the Imperial Palace don't just kinda arrive," Gorn grinned, clearly fascinated. "C'mon, how'd you get it?"
"Like I said, it just arrived yesterday, out of the blue."
Gorn slowed, looking a little closer at Han. "You know that people spend their entire career and half their fortune trying to get a commission in the palace, don't you?"
Han shrugged. "Yeah…ironic, huh?"
Gorn shook his head, amused, as they continued down the long corridor. It was cold and impersonal, echoing their footfalls back to them like walking through a stately home. Han couldn't see a single damn reason why anyone would want a job here, though judging from his accent, Gorn's probably very wealthy family clearly didn't hold with that view. And speaking of parents...
"So, this Luke kid, he's Indo's, right?"
"Luke? No, his last name's Antilles. He's a ward of court."
"You know, ward of court. No parents, no living relatives. The Emperor's his legal guardian, but Indo actually looks after him. He always has…that's what people say. Someone once told me it was Indo who brought him to Court, but I don't know if that's true. I've heard that Indo knew his family, but then again, most people say Luke came to Court sort of, four years ago, and I'm pretty sure that's not right, either. Well," Indo shrugged casually, "most people don't say anything because Luke keeps a pretty low profile, but if you listen when Luke and Indo talk… I dunno. Myself, I'm pretty damn sure Luke came to Court much earlier. But he was definitely here when he was eleven, 'cos that's when the assassination attempt was."
Han stopped dead. "Wait a minute, the what?"
"Yeah, the Rebels tried to assassinate him when he was eleven. First time Luke was seen on Coruscant, they say, and there was an assassination attempt just a few months later, aimed right at him. A kid—can you believe that?"
"Why him—why the kid?"
"Oh…" Gorn looked quickly away, as if he'd been caught out. "Just…he can do stuff, you know? There were still a few renegade Jedi fighting with the Rebels at the time, so they must have known. They must have, because they actually sent Jedi on the raid. I heard that it was when the last member of the Jedi High Council—the Grand Master or something—was killed, right here in the palace."
"Okay, wind back… Do stuff?"
"Uh, you need to talk to Indo about that." Gorn glanced down, then awkwardly moved the subject along. "Don't get me wrong, Luke's fine, he really is. He's just kind of a little…wayward sometimes. Indo can handle him though; Indo looks after Luke a lot. He pushes him hard, but basically that's his job and, you know, Luke's a smart kid, he can take it. You probably did see Luke at that stormtrooper Sector-House, though—I mean, he's basically a good kid, he's just…you know, a bit unruly. Who wouldn't be?"
Han nodded; there you go. Rich kid, family hobnobbed with Viscounts, had a tough break and got left on his own, but fell on his feet when he ended up here. Got spoiled—way too much of everything around here except discipline, Han figured. Now the kid was growing up enough to start really going off the rails…enough, in fact, that this Indo guy had pulled a few strings and got the kid a few military babysitters.
Gorn shrugged as he set forward again. "He tends to sneak out a lot—Indo goes crazy. I swear, that kid can squeeze through the gap under a door sometimes." Gorn glanced up and down the corridor nervously, lowering his voice. "But we're not allowed to talk about it, even between ourselves—Indo's rules. Why was he in a Sector-House this time?"
Han didn't miss those last two words. "Oh, he got in a fight in a bar."
Han grinned. "Honestly? Some stashed-up spacer was hittin' on him—great big guy."
"Seriously? What'd Luke do to him?"
"He was pretty good in a fight actually. He was holding his own in a tussle with a guy who was twice his size, and…I seriously suspect your pretty good kid was off his face on spice."
"Probably why he didn't just kill the guy," Gorn said casually, before glancing meaningfully back to Han. "Oh, and never, ever give him…y'know, stuff to smoke. If Indo finds out you've given him spice, you're out. Discharged on the spot. All the stuff from your apartment's waiting for you at the main gate in a storage box, and it's all you'll have for a long time, if you know what I mean, 'cos you're out of the military entirely and you won't be working in the Core systems again, that's for sure. No references, no pension, nothing. The last guy wasn't even military, he was Count Sofani, of the Mydos Six Sofani's? When Indo found out, he had Intel officers turn up at his apartments and basically march the man from the palace and escort him off-planet there and then. By the time Sofani got back to Mydos, all his accounts had been frozen and—what do you know—all his debts had just been called in. Within the week, Intel had dug up some very damning information about Sofani's political dealings—enough to have him detained at the Emperor's pleasure, I heard. Bankrupted and ostracized the whole family—no one dare even talk to them any more. C'mon, I'll give you the tour. Have you been given an apartment yet?"
"Uh, yeah, I haven't been there though… About the Sofani guy who ended up in detention…?"
"Oh, don't worry about it, just, you know, don't ever cross Indo. Or Luke…but that's different. You'll be fine with Luke. He's kinda the instant incendiary: big explosion in the moment, then it's all over. Indo's more the slow-burning fuse type. Where's your apartment?"
"Uh…base structure, main palace…I'm guessing that's the lowest chunk, right?"
Gorn grinned again, rolling his eyes. "Level, what level? All staff and aides are in the base structure."
"Uh…one-sixty, north quadrant, I think. Is that far?"
"One thing you'll learn pretty quick around here, Solo: everything's far. Except Indo, of course—Indo's apartment is nearby," Gorn added amicably as he set off down the dark-panelled central corridor of the soulless apartment again. Beside him, Han felt he should tip-toe quietly, like he was in a museum or something. Gorn's explanations weren't helping either. "Okay, these are the State Rooms—in other words, nobody ever uses them. Luke uses the library for lessons—eight 'till eight, every single day if he's in the palace, but that's it. If he disappears, check there before you sound the alert…and the roof—always check the roofs—of the ziggurat and the turrets…but you'll need permission to go into the turrets."
"Wait, go back a bit—I thought this place was Indo's?"
"Indo's? No, his is two levels down."
"So you're saying this whole place belongs to…the Antilles kid?"
"Yeah, but he's not really here that often these days. He tends to move with the fleet a lot, which is good, because he gets itchy feet when he's in the palace. You won't mind fleet travel though, 'cos you've got your space legs, right?"
"Yeah. Uh…seriously, this is the kid's?"
"It's really not very grand compared to a lot here. This is pretty average, believe me. He wouldn't even have this much if he didn't need some of the rooms for official stuff. Plus the Emperor likes him reasonably close and the higher up the palace you go, the bigger and better the apartments."
"He lives here on his own? How the hell old is he?"
"He's fifteen. He got his own apartment a year or so ago when he was in the Emperor's good books—always a rarity. He'd just come back from D-Eight-Red—in the Ringali Nebula?" Gorn shrugged when Han shook his head. "It's some specialist military base, training elites. Luke aced the course in less than a year—in fact, just over six months—but then Indo had expected him to. When he came back, he had some fragment of information on Lord Vader or something, and he wouldn't let it go. Kept on digging, like he does. Eventually he turned up something pretty big to take to the Emperor and…well, long story, but the upshot was that the Emperor assigned this apartment to him."
"So he lives alone in an apartment, aged fifteen?"
Gorn nodded. "We look out for him though—that's our job. It's much easier now, too. When I first started Luke was in one of the rooms in the guest wing of the Emperor's apartments in the turrets, and only Indo was allowed into the apartments. The rest of us were sixteen levels down in the upper ziggurat, so it was just impossible. Okay, so the room we're in now, this is the Red Room. If someone has an official appointment, you show them into here to wait, and you always wait with them."
Han blinked at the brisk change of subject, glancing about him. Like the rest of the dour apartment, it was orderly and austere, the walls a dark gunmetal gray scagliato which had been buffed to a dull sheen, the high ceiling pale gray. The ascetic furniture was oversized and unembellished, all stark, hard corners of burnished metal and flawlessly polished ebony, not a single fingermark in sight.
"Why is it the Red Room?"
"Used to have a big red canvas up on that wall," Gorn replied, pointing. "I have no idea where it is any more. They change a lot." He continued his dizzying crash-course with no apparent concept of the fact that this was way too much to take in all at once. "It doesn't happen often that Luke gets visitors, but we're getting a few more as he gets older, and if we do, you damn well better get it right, 'cos it's usually one of the Emperor's lackeys and believe me, they're just going to go straight back and report every detail to him."
"Show 'em to the Red Room, right," Han said, trying to commit it to memory.
"How far they get down this enfilade depends on how important they are. Red Room is just general: aides, military, people like that. This room is-"
"What the hell's an enfilade?"
"This is—a run of big, formal rooms that lead one into the other. All the apartments belonging to members of the Emperor's Household have them here, even the minor ones like this." Gorn started a slow walk through the long run of empty, pristine, echoing chambers, offering a running commentary as he did so, which left Han feeling like he was taking the five-credit tour. "So this second room is where you bring slightly higher dignitaries, high-ranking military, officials, Governors, that kinda thing: you walk them into here. We rarely get them…the occasional Moff maybe."
"Am I supposed to remember all this?"
"Yep. Third room here is titled visitors, so that'd be Lords, Ladies, Counts, that kinda stuff. If Indo were an official visitor, he'd be shown into here. This final room is where you show your actual royalty to: princes, rulers, that kinda thing. We've never had any of those, of course—except the Emperor, and he can pretty much go where he wants. It is his palace, right?"
"Wait a minute…you get the actual Emperor in here?"
"Oh yeah, a few times now."
"The actual, real Emperor?" Han checked, disbelieving; there were a good few guys in the squadron who were convinced the man didn't really exist.
"I told you, he's Luke's legal guardian. Luke's folks are all dead. He stays here in the palace under the Emperor's wardship. He always has."
They'd walked the length of the long enfilade now, and came to a slow halt at the far side of the final room before a wide, tall wall of hand-rolled mercury-glass mirrors. Distorted by the irregular imperfections of the multiple small panes, their reflections were lost among the stark, broken shadows of the dark room about them. Brief slivers of the white winter sky beyond the banked windows fragmented the image further, into an ever-changing mosaic of near-abstract diffractions.
"Through there are Luke's private rooms. You don't, on any account, ever go in there without permission. He goes crazy."
Han studied the reflective wall, its sliding, flush fit doors barely visible in the endless mirrored panes. "Have you been in there?"
"Sure, yeah, lots of times, but never without permission. There's another three rooms past there, and it's the same deal as out here; the further in, the less public—you only go into the one you're invited into, right?"
Han gave something between a nod and a shrug. "Whatever."
"Oh, and don't ever give Luke a stylus. Indo'll come down on you big-time for that."
"Yeah, you know, an ink stylus, for handwriting and stuff."
"Yeah, I know what a stylus is," Han deadpanned. "Why can't he have a stylus?"
"He just can't." Gorn shrugged enigmatically. "Watch he doesn't steal them too. He gets 'em all the time, but we have to take them off him…well, Indo does—don't you try. Masco once tried to take one and ended up with it rammed through the center of his palm…left us soon after that. Uuh…I guess the rooms back there are kinda…different. Don't stare."
"Depends what his mood is. We don't put a lot of furniture back there."
Han stared at Gorn's reflection in the mirrored wall. "What the hell does that mean?"
"We just…don't. Indo's the only one who goes past these doors without permission. The rest of us can go in as long as we have permission. The doors'll open when you get your cylinder transmitters for clearance. You just gotta walk up, like this."
Gorn walked toward the doors, and at the last moment Han heard a smooth snick as some internal lock was released. He glanced inside as the glass doors slid smoothly open, but little was visible, the windows obviously set on full privacy so that the rooms within were dark. Han had a vague impression of the continuation of the enfilade, the rooms joined by archways. One carved and upholstered chair was visible, laid on its side in the gloom of the nearest room, but aside from that they seemed empty. Weirdly, Gorn made no move to righten it. Instead he simply backed up, and the doors automatically slid shut on unseen runners.
"He like it dark?" Han asked, frowning.
Gorn shrugged, unperturbed. "Today he does—well, for about three weeks actually. Indo keeps going in and raising the privacy shields and Luke keeps yelling and shouting and putting 'em back down."
"Great," Han muttered unenthusiastically. What kinda mad house was he in now?
"He's okay mostly," Gorn said with an easy shrug. "Just, y'know, if it looks like he's gonna go off on one, comm Indo. That's the one thing Indo'll never get at you for; you can comm him any time, day or night, if you even think Luke's gonna throw a fit—any time at all. In fact, he'll come down on you for not comming him."
"Go off on one?"
"Sure, you learn to spot the signs and just give him a wide berth until it's over. Best not to get involved. Things get broken and, you know, it's good if it's not you."
"What the hell does that mean?"
Gorn just shrugged, heading back through the cold, formal rooms. Han took one glance back at the wide sweep of the dark, undulating mirrors before he followed, less sure than ever. "Maybe I shouldn't shell out for those uniforms just yet."
Turned out they had all the time in the galaxy to get Han to a tailor; he did nothing but sit on a chair in that damn staff room for the next three weeks.
He'd been there for less than one of them before he realized that not only had someone made a mistake, but it had been a cruel one…and he needed to correct it. He needed a transfer out of here. He was a pilot, not a babysitter for some rich kid who, admittedly, Han hadn't seen much more than the back of his head maybe three times since he'd arrived. But still…
After the second week, in which no one turned up to tell him what precisely he was supposed to be doing, and Gorn just kept on telling him to basically keep his head down and draw his paycheck, Han started looking for an out.
Of course, it turned out that the only one with the authority to initiate and authorize his transfer was Viscount Indo, who pretty much ignored him even if Han was in the same room as the guy…and maybe the mystery wiseass who had somehow connived to dump him here in the first place.
It was only when Han realized on reading the flickering automated wall calendar one day, that the kid hadn't even been in the palace for the last two days—and he only realized that because Gorn started getting antsy about word of Indo's return—that Han started looking into ways to extricate himself from a job that seemed, basically, to consist of sitting in an office with Gorn and Ashtor and listening to them discuss yet again just who had upset whom, who had slept with whom, who had landed a bigger apartment or a promotion, and who was out on their ear.
Enough was enough. Cushy number or no, he needed to get himself out without making the court-martial that was hanging over his head any worse. What he needed to do was apply a little of that legendary Solo logic…and fortunately, he seemed to have all the time in the galaxy to do it.
By the time a month was up, that court-martial was starting to look like a pretty reasonable alternative…
"So, I worked out what you're doing here," Gorn said with a self-satisfied grin one morning as they entered the apartment together, each carrying a mug of hot caf. Gorn was, as ever, immaculately turned out, all crease-free and starched. Han, much as he'd suspected, seemed capable of making even a thousand-credit tailor-made uniform look a bit frayed at the edges—but then that was pretty much like he felt himself, most mornings.
Gorn's words woke him up though. "Seriously?"
"Yep. Indo left his personal log open on his datapad when he left the office for a few minutes last night, and I happened to browse a page or two. Seems Luke went on one of his little walkabouts a month or so ago, and this time he managed to get into the main military hub and slice an access into the mainframe, using borrowed command codes. Whilst he was there, he reassigned Commander Hotil—you don't know him, but he hacked Luke off a couple of months back—to some Outer Rim research station in the back-end of nowhere, requisitioned a high-end military swoop to be delivered to the SD Immortal—that's our usual ride—and apparently logged a little personnel-shuffle of a certain Lieutenant Solo."
"So this is the kid's fault?"
"What the hell did he do that for?"
Gorn shrugged. "Dunno. You said he met you in some cantina a while ago, right? Maybe he liked you."
"Well then, why would he bring me here?"
"I dunno." Gorn slowed down to stare at a huge canvas on the wall as he added distantly, "Maybe he didn't like you. Is that new?"
Han glanced to the canvas, dark red and black in frenzied, broken bands. "Wasn't it in the library?"
"Speaking of where things should be, shouldn't I be in the military—I mean the actual military, actually flying."
"And getting shot at? Why would you want that?"
" 'Cos I like flying."
"What about the getting shot at?"
"You know, it's starting to sound more and more appealing when this is the alternative," Han said acerbically. "At least I was doing something. I had a career…not necessarily going to plan, but still."
"This is a great career. You'll make it up the command levels far faster here than you ever would flying. You just have to put your face about, network a little."
"Do I seem like the kinda guy who networks to you? Anyhow, I don't want to be stuck behind some desk, I want a Flight Command. I want my own Wing."
"Don't worry, you'll get a promotion pretty quick. Indo doesn't like to have the lower ranks on Luke's staff, so he'll hustle your name through if it looks like you're staying. And the duty rotation is only two years here—Indo doesn't like people hanging round much longer than that."
"How long have you been here?"
"About two years—but I keep my head down, so I figure I might make another year yet. I've had two promotions, and if I leave on good terms, I'll get another then, as a handshake. Plus I'll have made the kind of connections that keeps them coming—not that I intend leaving the palace. But if you can stick it out, you'll probably get the same."
Han rolled his eyes, but Gorn had a point, clinical as it was. He wondered briefly whether he could stick out two years around here on the off-chance that he might get that promotion, before dismissing it. Fast track or not, two years in that office would shoot all his reflexes to hell, completely aside from the fact that he'd be brain-dead from listening to Gorn's endless gossip.
"You said you wanted a Command rank," Gorn continued, still craning his neck to look back at the canvas. "I don't think that was in the library, you know. I think it was in Luke's rooms. He must have arrived back after our shift change last night."
"Where does he go?"
"This time? The Outer Rim. I think I've heard him mention the Horuz System a few times—the Emperor has some pet project going on out there. Very hush-hush." Gorn leaned sideways as he walked, to see into the Red Room at the far end of the dark corridor, its stark austerity broken by the brief splashes of vivid color from massive canvases. "Yeah, he's back. He'd had some new artwork delivered—it was stacked up in the enfilade."
"He buys art?"
"Yeah—good stuff too. If he's just opened that new delivery, he'll have hung it in his own rooms, behind the mirrored wall. But it's so full in there that he has to put something elsewhere to fit new in now, which is why there's so much art on the walls out here."
"That kid has way too much allowance."
What he didn't appear to have, Han was beginning to realize, was a life of his own.
Luke Antilles, as it turned out, was intensively tutored to a strict regime laid down by Viscount Indo, a run of specialist tutors appearing throughout the day from eight in the morning to eight at night, seven days a week—unless he was, as Gorn referred to it, 'at the Emperor's call,' which may mean he was gone for hours or days with no apparent notice. Though that didn't excuse him from lessons, it seemed. Instead, Indo travelled everywhere with him to assiduously ensure that time was laid aside for study late into the night if necessary, continuing via holo-link to the Viscount's exacting expectations.
Based on what else Gorn had said, how exactly Indo managed to get the kid to sit down for any lessons, Han didn't know. But in fact, Gorn said that all his tutors described him as an exemplary pupil. Apparently the kid was smart and fast, with a good head for languages and technology. Which was just as well, Han figured, since the amount of spice he'd seen the kid smoke in the Dirty Dug cantina had to have taken a fair few brain cells out all on its own. Gorn had also said that the kid applied himself to study simply because the Emperor had told him to, in no uncertain terms, adding in hushed tones that while there were very few people who could ever dictate to the kid what exactly he should and would do, the one person who could, every time, was Palpatine.
When Han had asked what the Emperor thought of the rest of the kid's wayward behavior, Gorn had shrugged, typically unconcerned. "I think as long as Luke does whatever the Emperor says whenever he says it, Palpatine's not interested in anything else…and as far as Indo's concerned, if Palpatine doesn't specifically ask, we don't offer. House rules."
The Viscount himself had arrived back in the apartment late yesterday evening, a sure sign that the Antilles kid must be in the palace somewhere, since Indo never seemed more than ten paces away from the kid. Sure enough, Luke had walked past the office that morning, eating breakfast on the move—the kid never seemed to eat at a table, wandering corridors with a plate or sometimes just a napkin in his hand, or sitting perched on the console table outside the library, between tutors.
Gorn had leaned backwards in his chair to watch him pass, then stood to press 'update' on the automated wall chart, which flickered then refreshed, now fully loaded with the day's arrangements. "Yep, he's back—they're already filling his days, poor kid. I should have known—Sini, in the Cabinet Office, she said that the brass are all here, and they're looking nervous. Apparently there was some kind of prison break somewhere, or something."
"Did you know he was coming back?" Han asked.
Gorn glanced briefly to Ashtor, who was still staring at the schedule. "No, we never know anything, unless we're actually going with him."
It hardly surprised Han that the kid had reappeared and nobody even knew. Fact was, Han saw him pretty much the same amount whether the kid was in the building or on another planet. The only difference was that if he was here, he appeared briefly first thing in the morning after Indo arrived, was either in lessons or gone all day, then eventually reappeared late at night, spending more hours in the library with Indo and some tutor or another, before locking himself up behind that mirrored wall.
Still, as morning wore on into afternoon and the automated wall-chart flickered up ever more arrangements, the generally easygoing Gorn slowly devolved into a nervous panic. By the time night fell, one final appointment uploaded and Gorn stood, rolling his eyes. "Great, now he's summoned to a conference tonight. I'll bet he's gonna go walkabout…I can tell. Damnit. Keep your eyes and ears open."
"He's going to disappear—head out for the night, after the meeting's over."
"Head out where?"
"Anywhere. He hates the palace at the best of times, and this meeting's with the Emperor. That always gives him itchy feet." Gorn glanced to Ashtor. "Maybe I should request extra guards?"
Ashtor raised an eyebrow, tone dryly disparaging. "Yeah, like that helps. You're better just keeping it to ourselves and hoping he gets back by morning."
They fell to silence at the sound of footsteps coming back up the wide, echoing hallway.
Carrying a scarlet-lined black jacket over his shoulder, the kid walked quickly past without a sideways glance, but by now Han hadn't expected anything more—
Then the light steps on the hard terrazzo tiles paused, and the kid backstepped into the doorway. Everyone stood, as the kid frowned at Han.
Han froze, aware of the confusion on the kid's face. He knew this had all been some terrible mistake…
Then the kid's eyes lit with recognition. "Han Solo—the pilot!"
"You were getting a dishonorable discharge."
"I looked you up on the military records system. Some commander…Nyklas…recommended a dishonorable discharge for gross insubordination and disobeying a direct order. Something about a Wookiee?"
"Oh, that discharge," Han said. "Wait a minute, I haven't even had the disciplinary hearing yet."
"Oh it's a discharge. You were out." The kid nodded as if this was old news.
"I haven't had the hearing yet!"
Kid grinned, unconcerned—and Han was reminded anew just how young he really was, slight and fresh-faced, but still with that unsettling, worldly air—and way too amused at Han's predicament. "What can I say, file said they held it in your absence—they do that a lot—you're out."
Han glanced down. "Man, do you know how much I paid for this damn uniform?!"
"I took your file over," the kid said matter-of-factly. "Got you transferred to the palace. You're fine."
Han hesitated. "So I'm not out?"
"No. You were re-commissioned here."
So that was why the kid had… Han glanced up. "Uh, about that…"
A second set of footfalls sounded and Viscount Indo came to a halt at the door, one hand out to guide the kid forward without touching him. "We're late, Luke."
Kid didn't even look. "Just a guess, but I think they'll start without us."
"Do you want to have to explain to the Emperor why you're late?"
The kid glanced to the side, instantly evasive, and Indo nodded. "Neither do I, which is why we should go."
Luke looked to Han. "We should take our new Lieutenant with us."
"No, really, I'm fine here," Han avoided quickly.
"He's a pilot, Luke, not a trained aide," Indo said disdainfully. "He shouldn't even be here."
"What, all he has to do is sit in a chair and nod. That's all anyone does at these things."
"I very much doubt that the Lieutenant can be trusted to do even that," Indo disparaged.
Han felt his hackles rise at the Viscount's tone. "It's all I've done since I've been here, anyway. I seem to be managing pretty well."
Luke grinned. "See?"
Indo ignored Han entirely. "Luke, think very carefully, the Emperor is hardly in the best of humor as it is. Do you really want to be the one who's forced to take responsibility for this man's actions when he performs some inevitable faux pas?"
"Thanks a lot," Han said, offended.
"What, he has to sit in a corner." The kid was warming to the idea now, clearly amused at the ruckus he'd started.
Indo kept that sabacc-face intact. "I'll ask you again, think very carefully. What do you know about this man?"
"I know he pulled a Weequay with a knife off my back."
"In a cantina in the Dyging district."
The kid took a step back, affecting scandalized disbelief. "Are you judging a man by the cantinas he drinks in? This, from the man who said I should never trust snap-judgments?"
"I am judging a man based on his military and civilian record, neither of which shines. And this isn't the time for this discussion."
"You're right—Solo, put your dress uniform on, we're late."
Han took a step forward—then stopped, suddenly wondering how the hell he'd ended up arguing to go. "Actually, I gotta go with Indo on this…"
Indo turned. "Viscount Indo."
The kid grinned wickedly. "See? He's a natural! Just get him in his dress uniform…"
"Luke, you're prevaricating."
"What, it takes ten minutes…"
Next thing Han knew, he was fastening up his dress jacket and wondering how the hell he'd gone from arguing against going to whatever the hell this meeting was, to walking down a corridor fiddling with the collar of his brand new dress uniform. Damn Indo, for annoying him so much he'd argued to come. He stared daggers at the man's back as they traversed endless corridors on their way to whatever the hell meeting this was.
The kid drew alongside him, grinning impishly. "I can make that work for you if you like?"
"That stare—I can give it a bit of…presence."
Han frowned, uncertain what the kid meant by that. Before he could ask, Indo turned, clearly not happy with his charge speaking to Han at all. "Luke, put your jacket on. We're nearly there."
The kid pulled his jacket on as Han fingered at his own stiff collar one last time. In truth, he hadn't expected to use it this soon…hell, he hadn't expected to use it ever. He glanced down as realization hit him that the kid was wearing a military jacket which would had to have been tailor made, so young was he…
Han did a fast double-take, then looked quickly away. But he hadn't missed the subtleties of it.
At first glance or to the uninitiated, the uniform was the same as any of the multitude of Special Commission Officers who milled about the palace: black, side-fastening jacket and pants, black boots. The first clue differentiating it from any other Special Commission uniform was the fact that it carried no rank, its only insignia a narrow silver bar to the edge of either side of the collar. Because of that, Han had peripherally taken in the fine black grossgrain trim on the edges of the jacket and the outer seam of the pants. They were subtle indicators, but then they were meant to be. Together, they identified their wearer as belonging to the apex of the Imperial Intel agency, the elite branch that supposedly acted in tandem with, but everyone knew actually existed in barely disguised rivalry to, the more visible Imperial Security Bureau.
Part military, part political in its power base, the infamous Ubiqtorate occupied the pinnacle of the Imperial power machine, its structure and numbers a closely guarded secret even within the regular military. They operated with absolute authority in both civilian and military sectors, their status unequalled. Always respected but seldom well-received, they were as likely to wear civilian clothes and melt into the background as they were to wade in and demand total control… And the kid was, what—fifteen?
Playing toy soldiers, Han reflected wryly. How could it be anything more?
The vast ceiling of the outer waiting room was set with an ornate plaster circle within a square, painted with a muted rendition of rolled maps and old-fashioned octants, quadrants and astrolabes, gilded gold against dark midnight blue. The rest of the room was relentlessly austere, the high walls a dark, liver-red scagliola which made even the massive proportions of this room seem overbearing, its rows of plain ebony chairs lined with neat precision to either wall.
Han was still staring up at that incredible painted ceiling when Indo leaned closer, voice barely a murmur. "Let me make this very clear, Lieutenant Solo—you will do exactly as I tell you. You will follow my lead in all things. If I stand, you stand. If I bow, you bow. You will keep your head and your eyes down, and your mouth firmly shut, until you know what you are doing…which may be some time, I fear."
The Antilles kid half-turned, grinning. "And don't get into any conversations with the Moffs—you never know which one's about to sink without a trace, and if they go down, you don't want to get caught in the backwash."
Han glanced around at the assortment of serious rank and command insignia on display by men who milled about with stern, worried faces—so much so that Han didn't know who he was meant to acknowledge first.
Beside him, Indo murmured quietly. "Don't salute—unless one of them talks directly to you, which I very much doubt."
Luke had moved forward of them a little by now, heading directly for the tall doors to the far side of the crowded room, which were closed and watched over by two blue-robed guards. He didn't slow as he reached them, but at the last moment the two guards stood aside and he walked through the opening doors without comment, into an even larger chamber beyond.
Now this was majestic, Han reflected. The kid's quarters were big, but they were cold and they were dark and they were somber. This was what a palace was supposed to look like. Easily three stories high, the vast oval room had a floor-to-ceiling run of tall, narrow windows along one side, the space between each window set with a towering reeded pillar in crimson-veined granite. Faceted leaded lights refracted the scarlet tones of the setting sun across a huge oval table, which echoed exactly the proportions of the room itself, obviously built specifically to fit. A series of dark portraits of vast proportions hung on the opposite wall, their inhabitants glaring imperiously down on those convened below, who encompassed the cream of Imperial military, the kind of uniforms that Han had never actually seen before, save in holopics.
Immediately they entered the room, Indo turning to his left, taking his place among a line of what looked like other aides, most of them in Imperial uniform. Still, they made plenty of space for the Viscount, shuffling back respectfully to either side. Han followed, having to fight a little to gain his place, giving a few quiet sorry's and 'scuse me's.
The kid, it seemed, had done exactly what he'd warned Han against, setting out across the lengthy room without slowing, weaving through the military brass who were gathered without sitting around that flawlessly polished oval table, arrayed with datapads and memo cards and other assorted proof that the room's inhabitants were industriously busy on the Empire's behalf. The kid nodded occasionally as he passed through them—even spoke to a few—then paused to lean on the edge of the table and study the big, complex holo of what looked like a set of schematics, lit up in 3D in the table's center.
Han leaned to the side, where Indo was watching intently. "So how come junior gets to rub shoulders with the brass?"
Indo didn't turn, his full attention remaining on Luke. "Firstly, don't call him junior. Secondly, he has years of knowledge of the political landscape at this high level, as well as in-depth knowledge of the personal and professional lives of everyone present. When you have that—and his rank—you can enter the floor."
Indo's eyes, still on Luke, narrowed. "Did he just pick something up?"
Han scowled, turning back to the kid, who was moving away from the table now. Indo had taken a step forward, obviously intending to go after him, when the tall double-doors of the vast oval chamber opened again and two actual Red Guard walked in to stand to its sides—actual Red Guard! You never saw…
The hollow tak of something hard against the stone floor seemed to reverberate somewhere in the center of Han's brain as everyone abruptly stood parade-ground straight.
The man who walked into the room, a gnarled but polished cane in his right hand, broke off any other thought Han had.
Dressed in robes of dark, rich brown, overstitched with heavy embroidery in black and blood-red, and wearing a ruby-red cowl, the cloaked man passed slowly, a slight stoop to his step… But he still had the presence to reduce that room of high-ranking, influential men to anxious silence—and Han with them.
The man didn't once look to the side, didn't deign to acknowledge anyone there as he walked slowly to the head of that long table, his face hidden in the shadows of his richly stitched cowl and silhouetted by the fading light of the tall windows…but every man in that room bowed low as he passed, and even Han didn't need any prompting from Indo to do the same. It just seemed…proper. An unspoken demand that required no further prompting.
An aide dutifully pulled out the carved chair at the head of the table and, still silhouetted from Han's viewpoint, the Emperor, the actual, real Emperor—and make no mistake, it was the man himself—sat.
At a nod of allowance from that heavy cowl, the officers about the table took their seats. Han almost sat then, but Indo's iron grip clutched at his arm and stopped him. It wasn't until all those about the table were seated that the aides about the sides of the room seemed able to do the same. Han was briefly seized by the sudden, absurd worry in the solemn atmosphere that he might miss the chair behind him and topple to the floor, bringing all eyes to him…but he made it just fine, letting out a silent sigh of relief, wondering why he felt so edgy.
He glanced again to the man who spoke in low, gravelly, demanding tones…yeah—that's why.
The tense, strained atmosphere never left the room, but eventually the meeting began to settle down to business and the straight-backed men about the table fell into discussion about some new piece of hardware and the problems therein—which seemed many and complicated. Han had stopped listening, instead glancing around the room with a slow shake of his head. Who'd've ever thought in a million years that Han Solo would get inside the Imperial palace—legitimately!
He was still congratulating himself when beside him, Indo let out a low, slow, worried word within an anxious groan. "No…."
Han turned, seeing that Indo was still watching the kid. Luke was in a chair whose back was against the tall windows, neither sitting with the brass nor to the back of the room with the aides, his seat almost level with the Emperor but well to the side. Seeming to pay little attention as the military's finest ran through their presentation, he was instead glancing around the room as if looking for something. Han scowled, wondering what the kid was doing… Then he noticed the stylus in his hand, and Gorn's warning came back to him: "Don't ever give him a stylus…"
On the massive oval desk, as well as datapads, there were neat sheaves of flimsiplast placed with careful precision in purpose-made, open topped boxes between every two people, and the kid's eyes had fallen on them. He straightened a little…and beside Han, Indo tensed.
"Luke…no." It was murmured so quietly that Han barely heard it…but bizarrely the kid glanced up to Indo.
Luke scowled, but settled back into his chair, glancing around again, clearly looking for something else. He looked briefly to the wall behind him, eyeing the long drapes of pale fabric which edged the tall bank of windows, and for the first time, Han heard the starched-straight Indo curse under his breath as he leaned forward, voice no more than a whisper but deadly serious. "Don't you dare…"
The kid stared for a few seconds longer, seeming to consider it…then sat back again, scanning the room. Failing anything else, after a moment or two, he turned his left hand palm-up and began to write on it with the stylus he held.
Beside Han, Indo's shoulders slouched in relief, the momentary panic clearly over. For the next two hours, as the brass discussed developments regarding some kind of super-weapon that Han had never heard of, the kid sat with the stylus. For a while, Han figured he must be making notes, though if that was the case, why exactly Indo had practically had a fit was a mystery. Whatever he was writing, eventually the kid seemed to have covered the palm of his hand, and began writing on the back, then moved up to his wrist, then—and this was weird— failing any other space, he wet his thumb and wiped his palm clean to start again…
At the end of the meeting as the Emperor stood and dismissed his Generals, the kid quickly made to leave with the rest of the men present. But as he crossed to the side of the Emperor, a hand shot out from that dark robe and clutched at his arm. Beside Han, Indo stiffened, halting as the kid did. He took Han by the sleeve of his jacket, subtly guiding him to the door but remaining in the room. "Stand still and keep quiet."
The big chamber slowly emptied of officers and aides until only Han and Indo were left to one end of the huge room, with Luke and the Emperor at the other, the Emperor keeping hold of the kid's arm, which was now raised slightly as if in defense, as Luke remained immobile, eyes down.
When the doors finally closed, Palpatine dragged the kid around before him. "It seems you had trouble maintaining even the most fundamental level of concentration this evening."
It was the first time Han had heard anything even approaching nerves in the kid's voice. The first time he'd seemed his age.
Hand still tight on the kid's arm, the Emperor's features remained hidden by distance and the shadows of his cowl, but his eyes…as he briefly tilted his head the light caught them, ochre yellow and almost glowing, completely focused on the kid he held.
"No? Where exactly did the prisoner riot originate?"
"Cell block twenty-one-eighty. That's a political block."
"Where did the firefights occur?"
"The hangars close to the station's equator."
"Eighty-four-G, eighty-five-G and the superlaser's Fire Control Room."
"What were Lemelisk's revised degradation levels on the station's primary power?"
"Seven percent in orbit, two percent in deep space. Fifteen under battle conditions."
"Changed to forty guns per linear mile, a mix of low-range laser, pulsed turbolaser and ion turrets."
"How many manned?"
"Seventy percent can be manned. All can be changed over on a selective cluster configuration to the new Sienar predictive analysis system for auto-targeting."
"Distance of projectile shields from the surface?"
"Six hundred feet."
The kid hesitated—and the Emperor instantly released his wrist to launch a heavy backhand slap across his face, sufficient power behind it to make him stagger a step to the side.
Han stared, shocked, as Indo's hand tightened on the sleeve of his jacket, though the Viscount's eyes remained down, face calm as the Emperor railed at the kid, harsh voice openly scornful.
"You're useless to me—a waste of my time and effort. Stand up straight! Look at me when I speak to you!"
Luke straightened, chin rising beneath the Emperor's baleful glare.
Those pale eyes narrowed for long seconds before Palpatine spoke again, his tone dripping acerbic disapproval. "Always the disappointment, when I had such hopes for you. Weak little blue eyed boy…will you ever grow up?"
The kid remained stock still, back straight, face completely neutral as he held the Emperor's eyes. Han stared, riveted to the spot even without Indo's hand, unable to believe what he was seeing.
The Emperor turned away, dismissive. "Get out."
The kid bowed mechanically and backed up before turning to leave, face a perfect mask as he passed Han, eyes dead ahead, his cheek scarlet from the blow.
It wasn't until they'd cleared several steps past the outer room, empty now save for Red Guards, that Han found his voice and turned on Indo. "Seriously, was that for real?!"
Indo kept his eyes forward, rasping a quick, "Quiet!"
They walked several corridors in silence, Han still reeling from the shock of the Emperor's actions. Occasionally he glanced to the kid, who kept his head down, jaw tight. They were a good ten corridors away before Indo said calmly, "Tell me the tiling rate of the station's shields?"
The kid didn't turn. "Ninety-seven percent of total surface area."
"Luke, you can't dry up under pressure like that. You have to keep a clear head."
"It gains you nothing and causes endless problems."
"The one person you always need to impress…you'd never do this with anyone else."
"I know that."
Han couldn't keep quiet any longer. "Hey, lay off the kid. I'd've forgotten my own name if the guy was in my face like that!"
Indo turned on him. "That guy is His Imperial Majesty, the Emperor, and if you ever refer to him as anything else in my presence again I shall have you court-martialled, do you understand?"
"Fine, whatever. That's just one more fact to add to my 'guaranteed memory meltdown' scenario."
Luke glanced to Han, face laced with confusion, and Han wondered in that moment whether anyone here actually stood up for the kid, ever.
Certainly Indo seemed more put out by Han's validation of the kid's actions than what had just happened as a consequence. "Thank you for your considered opinion, Lieutenant Solo. However, Luke has lived here practically all his life. The Emperor is his mentor and his Master, and Luke has lived under his roof and his guidance every day for many years—" he turned to the kid, voice stern but calm, "and so he should no longer make that kind of error—ever."
"There were three hundred-eleven changes to the schematics this time," the kid said, irked. "Three hundred-eleven! Does that sound like a near-operational battle station to you…or does it sound like someone trying desperately to cover over the cracks? And why do I have to remember them anyway? I'm never going near the damn thing again. This is all just part of Tarkin's little play for power. The Tarkin Doctrine." He said the last as a disbelieving aside, voice scornful.
Han frowned. "Tarkin Doctrine?"
Luke turned, his hand briefly going to his face where Palpatine had struck it. "An exercise in the blindingly obvious written by a man blinded by his own ambition."
"Are you saying that the Emperor is wrong in his ratification of the document?" Indo asked calmly.
"No!" Shock and denial were evident in the speed at which the kid replied, before his voice calmed a little. "No, I'm not saying the Emperor is wrong—of course I'm not. I'm saying that Tarkin's as guilty of political opportunism as those he criticizes. I'm saying that his battle station is too big to possibly police its construction, let alone its actions in pitch battle. He couldn't even put down a riot in his own detention center… No one even knows if partial plans were transmitted, or who to—it was a fiasco!"
"Have you spoken of your concerns with the Emperor?"
Luke glanced down, silenced, and they walked on for a while before Indo spoke out again. "You'll spend an extra two hours tonight going over the minutes of the meeting and the changes to the schematics."
Han too turned his head. "What?!"
Luke glanced to Han, amused at their shared dismay. Han was granted a less-than-impressed glare from Indo though, who had clearly expected Han to back him up rather than side with Luke, before he turned back to the kid.
"Unless you'd like to face the Emperor equally unprepared tomorrow, you will take the time to learn this—because I can guarantee you that he will quiz you further the next time he sees you."
"Fine," the kid said, resigned.
They reached the Red Room in the apartment before Indo spoke again, his tone as businesslike as ever. "Go and change—I'll have dinner sent up, and the information transferred to your datapad in the library." He paused to lift Luke's wrist. Han saw a glimpse of his hand and realized that the kid hadn't been writing on it at all, as he'd assumed. Instead, for a split second, drawn in fine black ink on the kid's palm, Han saw a scratchy sketch of the nervous faces of two of the Moffs who'd been sitting opposite the kid at the table earlier. On the back of his hand as Indo turned it, was another sketch of one of the Red Guard who had been standing by the door.
"And wash that off," Indo said dismissively.
The kid took his hand back and walked forward to his own rooms without comment.
"Luke?" Indo's tone softened. "Do you want ice for your cheek?"
"No, it's fine."
The kid paused, and Indo took a step towards him, hand out. "Stylus, please?"
Luke sighed and shook his arm…and the stolen stylus dropped from his sleeve. He passed it over without comment before continuing on alone into the gloom of his private rooms, the door closing behind him.
Indo watched until the kid had gone, before turning to walk away without comment, leaving Han to stand alone in the empty grandeur of the cold, dark enfilade.
"Crazy," he muttered, as he headed back to the relative comfort of the small office to the front of the apartment. "Absolutely crazy."
"Medication." Indo spoke without further explanation as he walked into the library.
Han had come down there ten minutes ago when Indo had commed the staff office to check that there was someone sitting with the kid to make sure he was studying whilst Indo was out of the apartment, and Gorn had informed the viscount that of course there was, at the same time gesticulating wildly for Han to go find Luke.
He'd found him exactly where he should be, elbows leaned on the wide library table, which was spread with several datapads, an assortment of datacards, and even what looked like three authentic fossils in a dark red stone. Underneath the nearest were what appeared to be the smashed remains of several more datacards, their fragmented pieces ground into the flawless glasslike sheen of the polished wooden desktop. Han had glanced at them a few seconds, but made no further comment. Seeing no point in getting involved when he fully intended to be out of here at the first opportunity, he'd simply sat down, giving a brief half-shrug when the kid had looked to him from under unruly bangs.
"Indo sent me," Han had said simply.
"Of course," the kid muttered dryly, turning back to his datapad.
They'd sat in silence for a few minutes before the kid started scrabbling around the remaining datacards and pulled one out, having to put his thumbprint to it for clearance when it was loaded into the datapad. "Here. Communiqué ten-forty-four point nine-two: The Tarkin Doctrine."
"What I was talking about earlier—Grand Moff Tarkin's rewriting of the glaringly obvious. Palpatine gave him command of the Outer Rim Territories Oversector for it."
Han looked uneasily at the datapad. "Should I be seeing that?"
"No," the kid said. "You want to read it or not?"
Unable to resist, Han took the datapad and scanned the document, ignoring the kid's amused comment of, "You are such a pushover."
To: His Imperial Majesty, Emperor Palpatine
Uneasy at looking in the first place, Han began skip-reading,
…Imperial Fleet … all-encompassing … swift, systematic response to rebellion… respond to threats quickly … bypass any delays caused by political opportunism …
Average stuff, Han thought—nothing new. It was about here that he slowed though, feeling his throat constrict as phrases started jumping out:
… rule through the fear of force … cow thousands of worlds … one undeniable and overwhelming symbol … a weapon so powerful … subjugate a thousand worlds … force enough to dispatch an entire system, power enough to shatter planets … let fear keep systems in line …
I am ready to begin work to implement these steps at your word.
Han looked up to see the kid watching him closely. He glared back down at the datapad. "Seriously, you believe this crock?"
Luke shrugged. "The Emperor does. Clearly he can read something of value between the lines."
Han slid the datapad back onto the wide desk. "Yeah, I can't see it myself."
The kid grinned. "Maybe that's why he's Emperor and you're not."
"Is this guy for real?"
"Tarkin? His ego's about as overinflated as his ambition, but he's serious."
"What the hell is he even…" Han straightened. "The superweapon! It's the one they were talking about in the meeting today!"
"It's codenamed the Death Star."
… Power enough to shatter planets…
"They've actually built this?"
The kid nodded casually. "They've built it."
… one undeniable and overwhelming symbol…
"Does it work?"
Luke took back the datapad, shrugging. "They've already fired the PoC near Kessel."
"PoC—proof of concept. The superlaser capable of destroying planets." He said this as if it were nothing, quickly taking the conversation back to his original reason. "The point is, Tarkin seriously thinks that just because he can build some scaled down skeletal shell, he can deliver the real thing and make it capable of offensive and defensive action. But the real thing has fifteen thousand laser cannons, a hypermatter reactor, twenty-four command hubs… They've been making literally hundreds of changes week in, week out. This thing has one-hundred-twenty-three hyperdrive field generators tied into a single navigational matrix, just to make it move. Proof of concept isn't proof of viability. Tarkin's a military strategist, but his ego's too big for him to hand control of this project over to specialists like Sienar or Kuat. Instead, to keep it secret, he's farming it out piecemeal, with no one company viewing the whole project, whilst Tarkin's relying on a small group of specialists who are, and I can tell you this for a fact because I've met them, basically scared for their jobs, their careers and their lives. As many problems as they're highlighting when they finally get these systems together from all these separate contractors, how likely do you think it is that they're bringing the really big ones to him—the ones that could take months or even years to iron out? They have major power issues; that superlaser they're so proud of can only fire a full pulse off once every twenty-four hours and the hypermatter reactor and the field generators eat so much power that the shields can only tile at ninety-seven percent of surface area. Those are problems I can see—me!"
"You think it won't work?"
"I think they'll be able to point it at something and fire it off. I think they'll be able to move a lot of troops on it and launch them from what's basically the most expensive military platform ever built. Beyond that…"
Han waited, but the kid didn't say more. He wondered, for all the things Indo had checked and re-checked that the kid knew…had he asked the one relevant point? "Do you think it's right?"
"To build something like this—something capable of this kind of destruction."
Luke's eyes narrowed just slightly. "Palpatine does. That's enough for me."
"It's not a trick question, I'm just asking what you think."
"I think Palpatine's the Emperor, which means he's the one you should ask that of…but of course, you shouldn't ask. He's the Emperor—you do as he tells you."
"But I'm asking you," Han maintained doggedly. "What if your finger's on that button?"
Indo's arrival forestalled any further discussion, the Viscount's eyes narrowing momentarily as he looked from the kid to Han. Luke had already reached swiftly out to pull the datacard from the pad before the door was fully open, so that by the time Indo entered, Luke's head was resting in his hands as he stared coolly at some random screen, tufts of pale blond hair sticking every which way through his fingers.
Indo stepped forward, placing down the glass of water he carried to lift the fossil and look at the broken datacards beneath. For the first time, Han realized that the kid had been using one of the sharper fragments to score into the table's polished surface the image of a woman, her features no more than a scratched outline.
Indo used the side of the fossil to push at the shattered datacards. "What were these?"
"I believe they were phacopida from the Devonian period on Chad," the kid said dryly without looking up.
"I mean the datacards, not the fossils."
"That I don't know…I was bored. I assume that somebody used a hammer at some point to get our old phacopidas here out of the ground…I thought it was only fair that they get their turn at hammering something else."
Indo's eyes flicked to Han, who straightened slightly. "Hey, they were like that when I got here."
With a final glance to the ruined datacards, Indo put three small blue pills onto the table beside Luke. "Tablets."
"I don't need them tonight."
"In that case, what difference does it make if you take them?" There was a no-nonsense tone to Indo's voice which indicated that this was a regular nightly contention.
Luke looked up, eyes full of mischief. "Sneaky. Is this some kind of reverse-psychology thing to baffle me?"
"No, this is a higher concept, it's called the truth. Take your tablets." Indo lifted the glass of water and held it out. The kid hesitated a moment, so that Han thought he might make a go of it, then sighed and took the three small tablets, placing them on his datapad screen.
Han watched, fascinated, as Luke spent long moments arranging them in a neat, straight line, taking care to position them equidistantly, eyes half-closed in judgment whilst Indo waited without comment, as if this too were a nightly routine. Finally, Luke took the glass and took all three in quick succession, a brief gulp of water between each.
"Mouth," Indo said simply, and the kid opened his mouth as Indo leaned forward, clearly checking he'd actually swallowed them.
The ritual over, Indo walked across the room to settle on a chair. "Have you downloaded and read the minutes of the meeting?"
"I'm doing it now."
Indo stared for a few seconds. "I presume you've already done your compulsory reading?"
"To chapter seventeen?"
"Did you finish your coursework?"
"Languages are coursework," the kid replied without looking up.
"Did you complete them?"
"Astrophysics is also coursework."
"All nine pages?"
"Did you write the debrief report for Admiral Dern?"
"Have you eaten supper?"
"Leave me alone." It was said quietly and without hostility, but somehow the kid seemed to get across the point that he meant it, and Indo fell silent, activating his own datapad without further comment.
Han stifled a grin, aware that he would've gotten antsy after the first question. Still, now that he'd actually seen them together, they seemed to have a relaxed, if businesslike manner between them, comfortable without being familiar. There was an ease to it though, a palpable informality. Based on what Gorn had said, maybe the Viscount was the only constant in the kid's life—beside the Emperor, of course. And having finally met him, Han wasn't at all sure if that was a good thing.
When he rose to return to the staff room, Gorn was still there, sitting at his desk despite the late hour.
"Indo's on the kid's case again already," Han said as he walked in.
Gorn shrugged. "Indo's always on the kid's case—it's what he does."
"Maybe if he gave him a break occasionally, the kid wouldn't be so much of a problem."
"Ah, go easy on the guy, he's had it pretty hard, from what I've heard."
"What have you heard?" Han asked. You could always rely on Gorn to know the gossip.
This time though, Gorn didn't smile. "You know his wife died in childbirth, right?"
Han straightened slightly. "I didn't even know he'd been married, let alone that he has a kid."
"He doesn't. His son died, about five years ago. Only child."
"Really?" Han actually felt a pang of sympathy.
Gorn nodded, glancing to the door as he lowered his voice further. "He was fourteen. Indo had dedicated a huge amount of time and effort to him, using this intensive syllabus system. Got him through the best schools, with the best grades—had great plans for him. Eventually Dubrail—that was his name—Dubrail earned a place at the J. Aubrey Academy on Corulag. You heard of it?"
" The Inter-Planetary Academy of Excellence in Leadership, that's what it styles itself—and it's not exaggerating. It's basically the fast-track to a serious high-end career in the military. I'm talking Admiral or Moff by your forties, that kind of level. They take about a hundred candidates a year, all boarding, and let me tell you, they have the choice of the absolute best. Places are incredibly hotly contested—I once heard the application rate was over three hundred per place. That's basically everyone who can make the grade. Dubrail made it with flying colors, in the top ten percent on the entry, and stayed up there every test, they say. I mean the kid was made—he had it all, his whole life lining neatly up in front of him, everything Indo wanted for him. A year and a half later he was dead." Gorn shook his head. "Fourteen years old…tragic waste. Indo took it really hard—who wouldn't? Kid was his life, he did everything to get Dubrail ahead, moved mountains, you know? Then just like that he was gone. Indo was..."
It was barely a noise, but Han reacted all the same with a quick jerk of his head, letting Gorn know someone was outside. A second later Indo entered, that sabacc face perfectly in place as he looked to Gorn.
"May I presume that Lieutenant Commander Ashtor is on duty tonight?"
Gorn straightened. "Yes, Sir. He starts in…"
"He started five minutes ago—or rather, his shift did. Inform him that I will make a note of such in the log, and I expect him to remain behind to inform me of his reasons tomorrow morning."
Indo glanced to Han. "You are dismissed, Lieutenant Solo. Lieutenant Commander Gorn, please remain until Lieutenant Commander Ashtor arrives, and ensure that the office is sufficiently secure on your departure—I trust you understand?"
Han paused on his way out; he hadn't seriously expected to get past anyway.
"May I assume that you have already signed a non-disclosure contract on entering the palace?"
"I dunno. I pretty much signed my life, my liberty and most of my vital organs over to the military when I joined, if that's what you mean."
Indo smiled dryly. "In the meeting today, you were privy to highly sensitive military material—information that could compromise the security of the State. It will not be the last time. You appreciate that whilst here, you will be expected to comport yourself with exceptional discretion…in every way."
Indo held his gaze without blinking. "You know where the library is, Lieutenant Solo—you're free to use it to look any of those words up, should you feel the need."
Han held the Viscount's eye for long seconds, his brief burst of compassion for the guy already spent…but it was late and he was tired, and it would be so very easy to pick an argument right now—and he was betting Indo knew it.
In the end, he gave a brief lopsided grin and walked away, reflecting on Gorn's claim this morning that two years would secure Han's much-wanted promotion. Seriously, he'd be lucky to make it two months…
Watching the Corellian closely, Viscount Indo stepped back in invitation as Lieutenant Solo hesitated for a moment…then walked through the staffroom door and headed for the main exit. Indo stared after him, eyes narrowed. He disliked Corellians at the best of times. They tended towards stubbornness in the face of recognized authority and rules, which was hardly conducive to palace living, and certainly not a suitable role-model for an already unruly and impulsive Luke Antilles.
It was no easy feat to begin with, to hold the boy steady beneath both Palpatine and Vader's critical eye. It had taken unorthodox methods at times, but he had done it—still did it, every day. And now, having achieved the near impossible, he was loathed to have a new face come in here and begin to rock the whole, precarious structure.
But Indo would wait this one out. He could, of course, have the Corellian removed tomorrow, should he so wish. Could have him marched from the palace tonight—or simply 'disappeared'… But he wouldn't. Luke had gone to the trouble of actually breaking into the military hub down in the palace's main ziggurat in order to track down a man he had met for only a few hours because, as he had argued when Indo had confronted him with the magically appearing commission documents on the day of Solo's arrival, he trusted him—or he thought he could.
So for Indo to step in now was obviously ill-advised, if he didn't want Solo to become a bone of contention between himself and Luke. That would be quite unacceptable—and quite unnecessary.
The Corellian would, Indo very much suspected, quickly prove to be an undesirable influence on Luke…and then he would be removed one way or another, as so many others had been, at the Emperor's convenience.
And Indo would have done nothing. His hands—and just as importantly around Luke, his mind—would be clean, and Luke's frustrations and anger aimed elsewhere. Which would enable Indo to maintain that all-important stability…here, at least. And after a few weeks, a month perhaps, the dust would settle and old routines would hold sway again. Until next time.
In the meantime, Solo was a minor inconvenience, another face which would come and go. There had been many over the years; the Emperor had seen to that. Providing stability for Luke—or indeed any sense of reassurance or continuity—was the last thing on the Emperor's agenda.
And Luke…well the boy had no concept of such anyway, so he didn't miss what he had never learned to expect. The deaths of Bail and Breha Organa—and Indo was one of the very few who knew the facts of the Organa's supposed assassination—had left the boy to face the trials of growing up without the protection that their position could have afforded him. Though perhaps even that had been an illusion. Once the Emperor had found him, Indo suspected that the outcome for Luke would have been much the same whatever his lineage. Certainly the boy had been quickly disassociated from any link to his heritage as Bail Organa's heir, in order to ensure his invisibility, and therefore his usefulness.
Luke had been forced to find his own way under Palpatine's uncompromising authority, harsh lessons indelibly written into an impressionably young mind. Yet the boy was blindly loyal and utterly dedicated despite, or perhaps because of, all that Palpatine had done. He felt no gratitude towards his mentor—it was, after all, Palpatine's fault that he was here and alone in the first place, and Luke knew it—but formative years beneath the Emperor's manipulations had left Luke desperate to please a man whom he was now old enough to realize would only ever find him lacking. A fact which had only fed Luke's recklessness as he grew.
For his own part, Indo had recognized his place in the scheme of things very early on, just as the boy had known his, clarified by the Emperor with his customary cutting accuracy and effect, no allowance made for the child's age.
Indo had been the stabilizer here, he knew. The constant. His duties, when they had finally been engaged, had been clearly laid down by the Emperor, and Indo had held assiduously to them—and because of that, had remained when so many others had been removed from the boy's life. Or perhaps it was the fact that, like Saté pestage, who also knew the connection between the silent, huddled little ragamuffin of those first few years, and the assassinated heir to Alderaan's throne, Indo also knew the value of silence.
He was, essentially, a tutor. A guardian, charged with taking an eleven-year-old boy who had received no formal education and no real contact with the outside world for four long years, having lost even the most basic social skills and parameters under Palpatine's close influence, and easing him back into the galaxy.
There were very few who would even remember the unknown, pitiably neglected boy under Palpatine's control in those early years, let alone associate him with the capable young man in the black Ubiqtorate uniform, after four years of Indo's influence. Perhaps that was the truth of why Indo had been allowed to remain when so many others had come and gone: he was very, very good at his job.
Though there remained flaws in his charge. Luke had lost not only his childhood to Palpatine, but his adolescence to the strict rules and conventions which Indo had set in place in an attempt not simply to educate him, but to provide the structure and stability which Luke had needed to survive. Even now, Luke could shift from composed to fractious in the space between heartbeats, or fall into the silent, insular unresponsiveness of his childhood for days at a time…though more recently, he'd found a new way to level and numb the peaks and troughs…
Long years of history that Solo didn't understand—probably didn't even care about. He simply objected, as a knee-jerk response, to the boy's close supervision and way of life without bothering to understand why. He had no idea of what Indo had done for the boy. Of what he did every day, to hold Luke together. To give him, if not actual protection—no one could offer that—then at least a method of coping.
It hadn't always been the case, though Indo had had his reasons.
He had first seen Luke as a frightened child, immediately after Bail and Breha Organa's assassination. At the time, with the whole palace in uproar, Indo hadn't even known who the boy brought to his quarters was, no connection mentioned between the assassination and the young child in Saté Pestage's possession. Few in the palace had even known that Bail and Breha Organa's son and heir was there in the first place; he had attended not a single function during the three-day event.
Why exactly Indo had been chosen as opposed to any other, he didn't know to this day. At the time Indo had, of course, never once met the Emperor in person. He had begun to attend Court only because of his ambitions for his own son, Dubrail, who had already begun to excel in reward for Indo's intensive efforts at education, feeding Indo's hopes of an auspicious career for him. Perhaps he had been chosen because it was known in Court that Dubrail was approximately the same age as Luke, or perhaps because of his successes with Dubrail's education, or simply that his ambitions for his son were clear.
Whatever, Indo remembered vividly the shock which had been hard to hide when he had answered the summons to his apartment door in the lower ziggurat, to see the Emperor's major-domo Saté Pestage standing there…with a child.
Still wearing the heavy formal robes and mult-layered headdress of Court, Pestage had walked immediately into Indo's apartments, the small child being practically dragged along by the wrist, blond curly hair bobbing above sun-tanned skin, half-running to keep up, half struggling to pull free.
The boy had been passed immediately over with only the briefest of explanation, more emphasis placed on the importance of Indo's silence in the upcoming days—at the Emperor's direct command—than on whom the child was or why he was in Pestage's possession. As he had made to leave, Pestage had taken one last opportunity to underline the importance of Indo's silence, and mention had been made of Dubrail—of the boy's prospects. Indo had no idea whether it had been a promise or a threat…but either way, he'd understood the rules of the game.
He'd had little hands-on experience with children this young. In the absence of a mother, his own son had been cared for on a day-to-day basis by trained professionals, who presumably had an interest in such things. Indo had taken an interest in Dubrail's mind, not his material needs. Still, it hadn't taken long for him to realize that the poor child delivered to his door was traumatized almost beyond words.
Uncertain what to do and with Pestage's stipulation of discretion still ringing in his ears, Indo had sent down to the kitchens for food, which the boy had not touched, before, baffled and unsure what else one was supposed to do with children, Indo had taken the boy to the guest suite in his own apartment.
He was, of course, vaguely aware that one was not supposed to leave such a young child without supervision, but had no idea just what such 'supervision' entailed. So he had taken the boy to the guest suite, indicated where the en-suite refresher was, pointed out the bed, and then left, locking him in, aware that he was in reality doing no more to comfort the child than anyone else seemed to have done.
Just before midnight, Indo had returned to check on the boy, to find him still in almost the exact spot he had been left over three hours earlier, crouched down beside the doorway, arms wrapped about his knees. Though he doubted that the boy would sleep, Indo had ordered him to bed, the young boy so small and the rather grand bed so high that a deeply uncomfortable Indo had been required to lift the child up onto it at arms' length.
Pestage had returned in the morning. Not to check on the boy himself, but that Indo had done nothing to reveal the boy's existence. When Indo had unlocked the door, it was to again find the child exactly as he'd left him, huddled up against the head of the bed, fully dressed, eyes swollen and red from crying. Coolly unmoved, Pestage had leaned in closely to look the still-tearful child up and down, then had left without once speaking to him, advising Indo to do the same and to keep the door locked.
As the day had passed, Indo had occasionally heard sobs from the room but seldom entered, unsure what to do even if he had. He took the boy food which wasn't eaten, and tried first ordering him to silence then patting him a few times in vague reassurance… Nothing made any difference.
Should Indo have made the connection at the time? There was no reason to. Early that morning the palace had publicly confirmed the assassination of the Alderaanian Royal Family in a statement that assigned blame for the attack to the fledgling Rebellion, stating that there were no survivors. It had occurred to him, of course, to wonder if the boy was connected to the previous night's events—perhaps the son of an injured guard that Pestage had known—but his attempts to gain anything from the traumatized child were fruitless. The boy remained uncommunicative, either staring into the middle distance or sobbing near-silently, eyes dry now, no tears left.
It was four more days before the Alderaanian Royal House had acknowledged that the Sovereigns' only son and heir had also been on Coruscant, and killed in the assassination.
Then Indo had seen the images—then he had made that connection…and then, he had recognized that it was already too late. He could of course have spoken out. If he had thought that it would have changed anything, perhaps he might have. But by that time, the Emperor had already claimed the boy, and had made it very clear to Indo that his continued 'favor'—and by extension, his son's future—rested on Indo's silence about the boy's heritage.
In fact, Palpatine had sent for the boy the following evening after his arrival. Saté Pestage had returned to Indo's apartments well into the evening, with an unnecessary accompaniment of four Red Guard and a command from the Emperor that he would see the child now. With him, he had brought clothes of a far lower quality than the boy presently wore…and a set of powered clippers. Pestage had ordered the still wide-awake boy to dress, before ordering Indo from the room. When the boy had emerged, pulled forward by the shoulder of his new clothes, his eyes were still red as he'd stared blankly down at the floor before him, his mop of pale hair shorn rough and short.
They walked immediately to the Throne Room, escorted by the Red Guard, passing without pause through the Attendants' Hall, which was as far as Indo had ever previously been, even after five years of Court attendance. Indo had been left with the silent child in the Waiting Room under the close study of Palpatine's scarlet-clad guards, trying to ignore the shallow breaths of the boy who pressed against his leg. It had occurred to him only then that he may be delivering a lamb to the wolves. He'd glanced down at the young boy, who looked up at him in silence, red-rimmed eyes full of trepidation, hair shorn so short that Indo could see where the teeth of the clippers had grazed his scalp, and had felt some helpless need to give hollow reassurance in the face of the child's nerves.
"This is the Emperor," Indo had said, aware that his own nervousness was making his manner unintentionally curt, and the boy more nervous than ever. "Bow when I do, and don't speak unless you're spoken to. Remember this and everything will be all right."
Then the imposing floor-to-ceiling doors had swept open and the assemblage of cold, calculating, curious faces had turned towards them, necks craning for a better view as the boy shrank back. Worried that he might turn and run, Indo had reached down intending to take the boy's wrist and was surprised when a small hand had grasped his like a lifeline.
Momentarily touched by the action, Indo leaned quickly down to whisper his last advice. "Don't show your fear."
It had taken a hard tug to pull the child forward. They came to a halt to the center of the shadowed chamber, the boy very quiet and still, his eyes on the Emperor. He hadn't bowed when Indo had, though he'd stayed very close. Indo remembered shaking his hand free of the boy's, and having felt instantly and uncharacteristically guilty for doing so.
Eventually, after an uncomfortable, protracted silence, Palpatine had risen and walked forward, eyes never leaving the boy, who had surprisingly held his ground as Indo had backed up two steps. Reaching out, Palpatine had taken the child's chin in one pale hand, lifting his face, long nails pressing to tanned skin.
"So this is the boy who requires a patron." The Emperor's thin smile bared pitted, yellowed teeth as he leaned in over the child. "You look very much like your father."
Indo distinctly remembered frowning, uncertain, because it had seemed clear from this that the Emperor knew the boy. Perhaps he should have realized more in the course of the short conversation. Certainly, he had known that something was amiss when the Emperor's words had implied that the boy had been brought to Court by Indo himself, seeking the Emperor's sponsorship. But apprehensive himself, and having no intention of challenging his Emperor or making an enemy of the likes of Saté Pestage, Indo had seen no reason to contradict.
In retrospect—and Indo was one of the very few who knew that even Luke's hidden connection to the Alderaanian Royal House of Organa was by adoption, not birthright, and the boy was actually the son of a renegade Jedi—Luke looked, then and now, a good deal like his father. Perhaps it was this which had always galled the Emperor so.
At the time, Indo's whole attention had been taken when the child, who had been shock-silent in all his time with Indo, had taken a half-step forward, the most forthright Indo had seen him since his arrival.
A momentary flare of hope had sounded in the child's voice, hoarse from crying. "Where is he?"
The Emperor had tilted his head, glancing once to Indo as if it had been he who had furnished the Emperor with the truth. "I am sorry, child—you are alone now. You know that."
"I want to go home," the boy had said quietly, hands wrapped one within the other and pressed nervously to his chest as he looked to the only man he believed had the power to help him.
Instead, Palpatine had turned to walk slowly away, taking his time to settle once more on his throne, those sharp ochre-yellow eyes studying the anxious boy.
It was a long time before he spoke, and when he did so, it was with absolute finality. "This is your home now. Everything which passed before is gone. You will stay here, with me."
Something had prickled at the back of Indo's neck at the threat implicit in those words, and he had made his one and only attempt at rescue, reaching down to take the boy's shoulder protectively. "Forgive me, Excellency—the boy is still very young to remain in…"
"He will stay with me." Palpatine had not looked to Indo, nor changed his tone in the slightest, but Indo had known with absolute certainty that the boy was lost…and released his grip. As he had done so, the child had backed up to grasp the fabric of Indo's gown, suddenly very afraid, though he couldn't have understood the import of the words.
"Court will retire, for tonight," the Emperor had announced, finally looking up from the boy.
Courtiers had bowed in reverential silence and filed in quiet rows from his presence, until only Indo and the boy remained in the magnificent chamber, facing Palpatine and Pestage, Red Guards at the doors.
As the Courtiers had left, Indo had considered his options, though he'd known he had few.
Either he could object and be forcibly separated from the boy—and probably expelled from Court, which would injure his own son's standing here irrevocably…or he could turn around and walk meekly from the room, leaving the unknown child at the mercy of the Emperor, which in truth he was anyway. That much was clear.
At least, Indo had reflected, if he did nothing and so remained in Court, he could keep an eye on the child, if only from a distance.
He was rationalizing, and even then, he had known it. But in truth there was no choice to make. The Emperor's will was absolute—if he wanted control of the child, then he would take him.
Bowing deeply, Indo had taken three backward steps before he had turned and walked calmly to the door, hearing Palpatine mutter to Pestage as he did so.
The boy, of course, had tried to follow, almost reaching the door before Pestage had caught up with him from the shadows, grabbing him from behind and causing him to shout out in shock.
Indo hadn't paused, hadn't turned…he'd simply kept on walking without looking back, the child's frantic cries echoing in his ears long after the actual sounds were faded by distance.
Han glanced down the main enfilade and back to the entrance of the apartment. Indo wasn't about, so Han was comfortable enough here after six weeks that he took a lungful of air and yelled at the top of his voice, "Luke? LUKE!"
Gorn came out from a side corridor at a run, eyes wide. "Geez, Solo—I think Indo probably heard that in his own apartment."
"You found him?" Han asked.
"Yeah, that's why I'm hollering his name like this." He noticed as he spoke that the wide double-doors out onto the Red Room's narrow balcony—more a decorative feature than an actual useable space—were just slightly ajar, and walked over, muttering under his breath.
Sure enough, sitting in silence on the stone floor and creasing the freshly pressed dress suit that Indo had brought up an hour earlier, was Luke Antilles.
Han pulled the doors open. "Don't even try to say that you didn't hear me shouting."
"I heard you," the kid replied without looking. In the fading dusk, the bright tip of a spice stick glowed as he drew on it, a curl of scarlet smoke rising momentarily before it was taken by the wind. Ruby, they called it, because the small, resin-bound crystals, which could be smoked or eaten, were a deep, translucent red.
"You're kidding me, right?" Han said. "Does Indo know you're doing this?"
The kid still didn't look up. "Why don't you scuttle off and tell him."
"Why don't you just put the damn thing out so I don't have to. C'mon, you know the rules around here, what am I supposed to do?"
The kid only looked up at Han and took another long draw. Sighing, Han glanced back inside, then stepped out and sat down on the narrow strip of cold stone floor beside him. "Where do you even get this stuff?"
"The magic spice pixy leaves it under my pillow when I'm a good boy. What do you care?"
Han ignored that completely. "Is that why you sneak out all the time to the cantinas—to pick it up?"
"Where d'you get it then?"
The kid didn't speak, and Han sighed, looking out into the dusk. "You know the last guy you got it off, Count Sofani, he ended up in detention."
"I'll try to muster up a little remorse sometime," the kid replied dryly, eyes on the horizon.
"Hey, the guy got bankrupted and thrown in detention for giving you this stuff!"
"Please—you don't know what he was expecting in return."
Han turned sharply, and the kid shrugged. "No, I didn't. But remember that next time you're passing judgment so freely with half the facts."
"What are the whole facts then?"
"The ones you need to know?" The kid looked skyward in feigned consideration. "Let's see… Well, generally speaking, you don't cross me and I won't cross you…unless I take a personal dislike to you, of course. In which case, it's open season."
"You're all heart."
"Really?" The kid took another long pull on the spice stick. "'Cos most people say I'm all mouth, and I'm pretty sure I can't be both."
"Yeah, actually, I'll go with the mouth thing," Han said. "Seriously, do you really need that thing right now? I ask because you're supposed to be at this…whatever… dinner-convention-ball thing in a half-hour, and from what little I've seen, I'd lay credits down that old yellow eyes doesn't take kindly to latecomers."
"Old yellow eyes?" It made the kid grin at least, his expression just a fraction less guarded. "It's a reception, and have you ever been to one of these things?"
"Well then, we're back to you not having all the facts, which means you get no say. I've been attending them since I was thirteen, and yes, I can state categorically that I really, really need this right now." The kid's eyes remained on Han for a few seconds more, as if sizing him up. "I'll tell you what though, I'll trade you—you can have the spice stick…"
Han held out his hand expectantly as the kid continued…
"…if you come along tonight."
Han yanked back his hand, and the kid raised his eyebrows knowingly, his expression way too worldly. "Ah, see, not quite as eager any more, are you? Think about what's going through your head right now, Solo. Just how much you don't want to go to some pointless assemblage of dry old men with too many medals, who've talked and talked and talked for so long that they don't even remember what it was like to actually be on the ground with their own soldiers any more—if they ever were in the first place. And we're just talking about the one night here—myself, I've attended easily a couple of hundred of these tortures. That's why I need the spice stick."
"Yeah, but this is, y'know, the kinda stuff you do."
"That doesn't mean I like it."
"No, but since you've done a couple of hundred, I'm assuming that at least you're used to it."
Luke took another long draw on the spice stick, staring at Han through the wisps of red smoke. "You're absolutely right, I see what you're saying here—it is about time you got used to them too."
"Me! I didn't say anything of the…"
The kid grinned into Han's panic. "Pull out your dress suit, Solo."
"Wait, Indo does those things with you. I don't wanna go stepping on his toes."
"From what I've seen, you don't seem too concerned any other time."
"I'm the wrong person for this," Han said emphatically. "Not only do I not know what to do, I don't even care."
"As Palpatine said to me two years ago, it's about time you learned."
"But…this stuff's useful to you, you live in this world. Me, it's wasted on."
"Where exactly do you live and work, Solo?"
"Yeah, but that's just until I get outta here."
The kid rose, all business. "Yeah, I've been waiting for the same thing since I was seven. Don't hold your breath."
"Seriously, I don't belong here—at all! Why don't you give this commission to someone who wants to be here?"
"And why would I do that?"
"C'mon, there are people who actually, genuinely want this job. Requisition one of them—make their year."
"Do I seem like the kind of person who generally goes around looking for ways to make anyone's year?"
"Now's a good time to start. They might even like you for it."
"I don't need to be liked. I've lived this long without it and I get along just fine. Now put your jacket on, polish your boots, and get ready for a fight."
"Fight?" Han stood, his face twisting into a lopsided frown. "I thought we were going to a dinner?"
Luke shrugged, jutting his chin to indicate the palace behind him as he took a final pull on the spice stick, burning it back to the stump before he flicked it out into the darkness. "Around here, it's the same thing."
The reception hall was a long, narrow room with ebony floors and lofty walls dressed with dark, heavy slabs of polished stone, whose spans of stark splendor stretched high above to the midnight blue curves of a ribbed and ridged ceiling. To each end of the solemn and magnificent space was the vaulted semicircle of a massive apse, each lined in dark mercury mosaic, their muted tones reflecting fragmented slivers of those who passed beneath.
Commanding completely one of those huge domed apses was a tribune—a raised dais set apart from the hall and the hordes below, its insinuation clear. Sitting on a heavy, carved seat in regal isolation, distanced from the mill of the masses about him, Palpatine watched with cool curiosity, easily able to pick out one individual in the drifting assemblage. The subject of his attention was almost lost in the crowd, but the boy's own attention, completely centered on the suspect industrialist that Palpatine had ordered him to gain the confidence of, sang out as a pure note in the muggy mud of massed minds.
Luke Antilles had been in the massive hall less than fifteen minutes and had almost immediately singled out his target, following at a discreet distance to study the industrialist's habits—all of which he would doubtless have learned well in advance from Intel, but Viscount Indo had done his job well and the boy knew that there was nothing like confirming the details— until he felt he had his plan of attack. Tonight, it would probably revolve around the boy's own youthful countenance and slight, waiflike frame, enabling him to feign adolescent enthusiasm and awed intimidation, Palpatine knew. The boy would be smiling and charming and so artfully guileless that one could not possibly, conceivably imagine him as anything but genuine.
He hated the man in truth; Palpatine could sense that already. But only in the same way that he hated most: as a kind of reflex action, a last-gasp attempt at self-preservation in a galaxy that Palpatine had taken great care to illustrate was utterly pitiless and relentlessly cruel. And the boy had always been such a fast learner. How well he played these games. In a year, perhaps less, his learning would be at an end and he would be instated as an Emperor's Hand, a life of servitude and loyalty before him—for exactly as long as he remained unconditionally and unquestioningly loyal, of course.
What a find—a gift in fact, brought here to the Imperial palace itself!
Palpatine's thin lips twitched in a momentary smile—yes, a gift in so many ways.
They had tried to keep the boy from him, of course, just as they had tried to keep Anakin from him, but the Dark Side had always served Palpatine well, and it hadn't failed him in bringing the boy to his attention. Another instrument to use as he saw fit, just as his father had been.
He looked so much like Anakin sometimes…though fortunately the boy remained slighter and lighter than his true father, a combination of his mother's inherited build and the hardship of his first four years here dictating his physique. And with fairish hair and blue eyes, he still looked enough like Kenobi that, after many years of judicious influence, Vader remained convinced that the boy was Kenobi's, and Palpatine's supreme game remained intact.
It had been such a simple task, to alter the past of a child already protected by misdirection and lies, to Palpatine's own ends. To give the boy yet another identity, when his own, right down to his significant date of birth, had been so well hidden that he didn't even know it himself. And where better to place the blame than at the feet of the man whom Vader already held responsible for the loss of his wife and his unborn child: Anakin's old mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi. To associate the boy with Kenobi would forever damn and alienate him in Vader's eyes.
And the boy himself… With his lack of knowledge of his true identity and years alone with Palpatine, he accepted anything that his Master cared to tell him.
To change Kenobi's medical records—long since retrieved from the intact database in the razed Jedi Temple—before Vader's initial return had been effortless. As for the boy's past, nothing had been documented in the hope of protecting him, but to be sure, Palpatine had kept him carefully hidden for those first four years, until any chance of a connection or of recognition had died down…and of course, until he was satisfied that his hold on the child was absolute.
Certainly the solemn, insular child whom Palpatine had finally allowed to be seen on the event of the eleventh State Celebration on Coruscant, bore little resemblance to the seven-year-old declared murdered during the assassination of his supposed 'parents.' The chubby, fair-haired cherub had grown sallow and gaunt, hair darkening with age, skin pale from years without the sun. Still, the boy's appearance had been carefully stage-managed to catch the eyes of a very specific audience, sufficient to draw both Kenobi and Master Yoda out of hiding and enable Palpatine to bring to a satisfying conclusion the duel which he had begun with the diminutive Jedi Master eleven years earlier in the Senate Chamber.
Unlikely as any connection was, the Alderaanian Royal Houses had begun asking questions within weeks of the boy's reappearance. Clearly they had been tipped off, probably by Kenobi, who had escaped despite Vader's pursuit. The boy himself had long grown up believing himself Kenobi's unrevealed and illegitimate son, so that whilst he'd been encouraged to denigrate and rebuff any connection with his renegade 'father' Kenobi, he also felt no real ties to Alderaan, and didn't react to the Organa's interest—or rather, and more gratifyingly, he had looked to Palpatine to judge what his reaction should be.
Still, to have that division of the boy's attention was intolerable to Palpatine. Alderaan had long been ignored despite its agitation, but this was the final straw. Its government was dismantled and its Royal Prerogative revoked—a lesson to all the Royal Houses that even they were not beyond the Emperor's reach. The planet and system of Alderaan had existed under martial law ever since, a very public lesson on why one did not question one's Emperor—ever.
The boy was his alone, the promise of power which Palpatine had set in motion with Anakin's discovery once again within reach. And what a twisted little amusement to play out; Vader's son, spending every day in close proximity to his own father, neither father nor son aware of the truth.
So oblivious, in fact, that the boy was alive only because of Palpatine's daily intervention. Vader was relentlessly eager to remove his Kenobi's supposed son permanently—but had settled, because of Palpatine's claiming of the child for himself, for making the boy's life utter hell.
Vader, whose power and attunement to the Force had been everything that Palpatine's should have been. Because for all the power he himself held, Palpatine knew that Anakin had embodied more. And that one fact had always gnawed at him: that it should have been him—it should have been he who had held that connection, that raw power, not Anakin.
Palpatine deserved it, he himself and alone, for his own ends. He would have used it, drawn on it without restraint to gain everything he had desired so much sooner—so much easier! It should have been his. He shouldn't need to keep Vader alive, useful as he was. He shouldn't need to rely on anything…that power should have been his.
His lip curled in resentment. Even now, when that connection had been broken and diminished, the knowledge of Anakin's ability still fired a flare of resentment in Palpatine. Even now, he hated that which he needed, for the very fact that he still needed it.
And then his son! A son, carrying his father's power, his father's connection—that same flawless, profound connection, at once magnetic and galling in its intensity.
It had all seemed so promising; Vader's child…Anakin's child. Another chance to own the power that should have been Palpatine's by rights, but this time in its ascendancy, not fractured or tainted, as Vader's was. So he had taken the boy, barely seven, to make that power an extension of his own, to be used at will. And all this in front of Vader. Right beneath his nose, Palpatine had taken the only thing that he knew would ever have been of value to Vader…and mutilated it, blighted it…owned it. Held for himself that one thing which Vader would have valued above all else, just as Vader held that which Palpatine desired: power.
An eye for an eye. Vader held the power which Palpatine knew that he alone so rightly deserved…and Palpatine held his child.
He grinned, settling back slightly in self-congratulation. Not simply held, but so much more… Because Vader hated the boy he believed so completely to be Kenobi's—hated him with a vengeance, with a loathing and a rage so great that simply to be near him was a fuse burning down.
How often had Palpatine already had to step between them when that resentment had escalated into action? How many times would Vader have unknowingly killed his own child, given the chance? How wonderfully, delightfully gratifying to know that—to know that it was he who had instigated it.
Because every day Palpatine looked to Vader and saw a power he could never himself hold…and so every day, he had made it his mission to possess the single thing which would have meant so much more to Vader.
A perfect little game, played out for his own private amusement. And so very useful. Perhaps in those first years, he had been a little…over-zealous, first in taking out his frustration that the boy existed at all, and second that he had seemed so utterly unmanageable. But they had forged a path, he and the child. From the boy's first arrival here as the seven-year-old heir to the throne of Alderaan, to the long hours invested in a unique schooling with no constraints, no conditions, hours on days on years, shaping a mind still young and pliable and placing a thousand tight controls in anticipation of that power blossoming, to his reintroduction to the galaxy as an unknown, aged eleven, Palpatine had been the boy's life. His universe. He had made sure of that. There was no one else—no other focus, good or bad.
When he'd known that he held the boy completely, that his word and his will was law, he'd finally acquiesced and begun to return his little project to the greater galaxy…but there had been problems.
Always, with the boy, there were problems.
It had been a difficult adjustment—but then Palpatine didn't require of him that the boy be comfortable or content, only useful. Still, careful control had been required to manage a slow reintroduction to the galaxy that the boy had been isolated from for so long. A shrewd choice of tutor, of routine, and he had stabilized—though he had never quite readjusted.
Because for all his training, the boy exhibited only brief, erratic surges of intense ability which spiralled into being then fell away within days—hours, sometimes. The connection was there—it blazed into being then flickered to nothing, a momentary flare of incandescent brilliance, like looking at a sun, and then…gone, despite every possible spur. A dismal trail into muddy mediocrity. He could have taken any Force-sensitive child and reaped from them the same assets that the boy now exhibited—already had.
He'd made no secret of this to the child: his disappointment, his displeasure, his open disapproval. It made no difference. The boy maintained that wary air of guarded detachment, torn between the need to please a Master who had always asked everything of him and, as he'd grown, some muted desire for autonomy which he must know by now that Palpatine would never grant.
He knew of course, that the boy had long since fallen back on spice to ease the demands of a pressured existence, knew that it was this which fired such heated guilt and cool validations in viscount Indo's mind as he struggled to control an unstable and impulsive charge. But then he sensed the same in so many facets of the viscount's reserved relationship with the boy, and in truth, such personal foibles were of little relevance. What was important was that Indo obeyed his Emperor's command. That he was loyal and he was reliable, and he was capable of realizing the raw potential that Palpatine had seen in the boy, without ever turning a professional relationship into a personal one.
The spice was of no importance. The boy had come into Palpatine's presence under its influence only once…and never again; Palpatine had made sure of that. Had made his standpoint quite clear.
The boy was still wayward, always unruly, often callous and occasionally malicious—though never, ever with Palpatine. Those valuable early years had instilled deference too deeply, and a healthy fear for the Master who had ruled with an iron rod for so long. It was quite an appealing combination, this knowingly wicked and casually cutting streak—as long as he could rule the boy completely. And if he thought for one moment that he could not…well then, the boy was disposable. Completely.
Palpatine smiled, eyes fixed on the youth whose slight frame left him almost lost in the crowd, his distant disquiet tangible. Fifteen years old, on the very cusp of adult life…and so wonderfully, painfully aware of just exactly how brief his life had the potential to be.
Even standing with his back to the dais, Luke was still uncomfortably aware of his Master's critical eyes on him, a scrutiny which felt like it burned into his back, so intense was it, leaving him edgy and anxious. Eventually, unable to stand it any more, he placed himself beyond his Master's eyes if not his awareness, stepping beneath the sweeping curve of the double-stairway to the center of the imposing hall as he moved through the crowds with a smooth grace, completely at home among the primped masses. All that color and finery beneath the grim and daunting darkness of the massive hall, as if they thought they could ever counter the shadows of this place. All those jewels, some faceted and cut crystal, others in the form of rank and insignia. They were all trinkets of one type or another, designed to tell the same story—that of wealth and power.
He slowed among the leisurely flow of pampered bodies which shoaled unseeing to either side of him. He'd learned a long time ago to be invisible in a crowd; how to make others look away, uneasy beneath intense blue eyes. Standing still in the throng, he closed them now, as he opened his senses to the complex perceptions of the myriad of minds about him, as abstract and as gaudy as the clothes they wore, becoming a blur of senses and motion as he held that massed perception of a thousand thoughts in delicate balance...
His Master said that this was his particular gift: to sense more closely than most. He had spent long hours training Luke to hone that ability, among others… But in all those punishing hours, he had never once taught Luke how to silence the tumult of minds about him, the torrent of incessant voices which mingled to a constant clamor, loud enough to make him flinch beneath their stringent roar.
The echo of too many thoughts in the massive hall, the massed sense of many minds, nervous and wired, self-seeking and serving, took him instantly back to his childhood. To that same sense of being invisible amongst so many, alone in the crowd, an awkward inconvenience avoided and ignored.
It had been a strange prison, that of his youth. For four years, he had been locked, day and night, within the vast, echoing grandeur of the Throne Room, a huge, imposing chamber twice the size of even this stately ballroom. Day and night, month on month, year on year. So long that it became his universe, and his Master…despite his ink-black robes, his dark-dressed Master was so clearly the sun, the thing about which all else revolved. The thing which could give him sustenance or leave him cold…or worse, burn with a terrible fury.
To a child, four years was an eternity. A third of his life lived in that one chamber, either crowded with throngs of people as this hall was today, or deathly silent in the absolute darkness, echoing the myriad of unknown noises which any room threw out in the silent pitch of night.
At times, his prison was shot through with color and vibrancy which he himself had never been a part of, courtiers flitting past like so many dazzling butterflies, and just as ethereal to Luke as a child. Because none of them looked at him. None of them met his eye. He existed outside of their world of comfort and plenty. He starved amid gluttony, he froze surrounded by opulent furs and smooth-spun silk. He bled, without a hand raised to him in comfort.
A surreal existence in which he had been a ghost, a cipher knowingly ignored by all but his dark-dressed Master, until even that attention became craved.
And all that time, his Master had taught. Taught by example, by order, by demand.
There were times when his teachings made no sense to a child too young to understand. There were others when his words had struck so close to home that Luke's head and his heart had ached in empathy, left abandoned and alone for hours in the silence of long nights, too hungry and too cold to sleep, too exhausted to be truly awake.
The Jedi, his Master had taught him with absolute disdain, sought their precious calm in such times. Meditated for hours in their futile quest to strip their being of emotion, believing that too much emotion could cloud the judgment and freeze the mind. Futile goals, his Master had said, because that very thing which the Jedi sought to purge, was the source of true power. Sith power.
Yet in those first months, it had been the brusquely dismissed Jedi teachings, and not those of the Sith, which had seemed to Luke so intuitive and true. There were so many times when Luke would have given everything to purge himself of emotion, crouched silent and terrified in the darkness of that vast, echoing hall as he'd watched the shadows crawl, abandoned and forgotten in the baleful dark of endless nights.
But time… They said time was the great healer, though it had never been that for Luke; never. But it was a teacher; it granted perspective, imposed endurance. And, occasionally, it bestowed clarity. Because too little emotion, as the Jedi advocated—too little, and Luke doubted he would have survived his early years with Palpatine at all. How could you give everything, make that investment, consign every resource physically and mentally to the moment, without the spur of fear, of fury, of grim desperation? Nature had gifted this to every living being, the fundamental expression of existence; the intrinsic ability to endure, to survive, to commit all to the moment, fired by the emotions therein.
In terms of actual, physical time, the years he had been imprisoned in the surreal, shadowed netherworld of the windowless Throne Room were a fraction of Luke's life. In terms of his soul, of their effect upon him, they stretched behind and before him like eternity. A cold stillness at his core, as if those grim and silent nights remained within him.
He remembered distinctly that primal instinct, that drive to survive which had sent him hiding in the darkness, finding the smallest space. The cramped and hidden refuges he'd crush himself into for some semblance of safety.
Or the nights with full moons in which he would chase down the circle of light which shone into his dark world from the high, circular skylight. There were no other windows in his Master's Throne Room—there was no world beyond this one vast chamber… Except when the moon was full. Then, it washed its soft glow through that one high transom, and he used to seek out and curl up in that circle of light…and in the night when he woke and it was gone, sliding silently away, he remembered scrabbling desperately in the darkness to get to it again, that tiny circle of pale moonlight, as if it could protect him from the darkness all around.
Seven years old, alone and afraid, it had seemed like even the light had deserted him—even it now consigned him to the shadows. That was all that was left to him now. He could only huddle, arms wrapped about himself, and listen to every scrape and every scratch in the empty underhangs and darkest corners of that massive, echoing chamber, big enough that it took long, nerve-rending minutes to walk from one side to another, whilst those looming shadows reached out to engulf him as he listened all the while to the creaks and scuffs and grating grinds. The soft drag of imagined footfalls, hidden in a darkness so dense that it writhed with a life all its own. It stalked, it waited, it whispered…
In his childhood, even within fleeting memories of Alderaan, he'd had a recurring dream, a nightmare that he'd stood in the half-shadows on the very threshold of darkness, the safety of daylight just beyond. One step more and he would stand in the light. One step more and he could run free.
And then somehow, without his moving, the darkness would seep about him and he would hear the rasping breath of the creature move behind him, huge and heavy, freezing the breath in his lungs and paralyzing him in terror…then the darkness would close about him, stealing his senses, rendering him blind and helpless—
—and it would pounce.
Incredible weight, raw power, a body-blow which would knock the air from his lungs in a gasp, driving him to his knees. Vice-like, inescapable hold, like claws ensnared in skin and scalp which wrenched him from behind, yanking him bodily back…
Always dragging him back into darkness.
And every night in his childhood, his Master had locked him, alone, into the smothering, impenetrable pitch of the dark Throne Room. Every single night, he had locked Luke into that nightmare…
And every day, the harsh, brutal reality of his life had paled it by comparison.
Absolutely alone, he had dug deep for that primal sense, that resilience, that instinct to survive by any means.
By the time he was eleven, he no longer feared the monster hiding in the darkness.
He'd become it.
Luke blinked rapidly, moving his head just slightly, rebuffing as much as he could the flare of old memories fired by the contact of too many close minds about him. He pushed them away as he always had done, the only way he knew to silence the hoards, the only way his Master had ever taught him. He turned to the one other mind that was louder, the one mind that resonated within the Force: his Master. By concentrating on that one mind, that one connection, Luke could drown out so much else; reduce the blaring din to a distant, clawing clatter at the edges of his perceptions. It gave him strength, that bond, that tie. Pulled wayward thoughts into a kind of focus.
Opening his eyes, Luke started forward again through the crowds, letting them scatter subconsciously before him as he slipped through their masses like a shark on the hunt.
Standing to one side of the heaving hall, body atilt as he leaned against the wall, Han watched from a distance, fascinated. The kid had stood stock still beneath the divided curve of the double stairwell, right in the middle of the flow of people, for almost ten minutes…and not a single one had accidentally knocked him or jostled him, though his back was to the flow. Not one. They all just…drifted to the side at the last moment, without ever looking at him. No one hassled him, no one glared, no one said anything, they just all stepped aside without seeming to register that he was there at all.
The kid blinked suddenly, eyes opening as he shook his head slightly…then he started forward, serious scowling eyes on some old overdressed, overbearing guy who'd just passed him. The man turned—and instantly the kid's expression changed, a shy, deferential half-smile coming from nowhere as he bobbed his head slightly and started up conversation.
Which, given the kid's general disposition, was pretty damn weird in itself, Han reflected. In fact, it was the weirdest thing he'd seen today—and that was saying something. They spoke for a good while as the kid nodded, holding constant eye-contact, the older guy seeming to have an awful lot to say to a fifteen-year-old kid.
Way too much, in fact. Kid was clearly stuck, Han realized. He walked forward to the kid's back, and was getting pretty close before he noticed him put the hand which was by his side behind his back to wave subtly. Definitely stuck, Han reflected.
He stepped in, nodding to the other man. "Sorry, could I…'scuse me, sorry." He turned to the kid. "Uh, Luke? You have a comm."
The kid turned, something a little too intense in his eyes. "What?"
"Comm—you have a comm." Han looked to the expensively dressed man, smiling widely. "Just need to borrow him for a minute."
Kid didn't even pause. "Go away."
The big man, too, seemed put out, looking Han up and down and dismissing him in the same instant. "We're busy here, soldier."
Han nodded, a tight smile plastered over his offense. "Just one minute…important business."
The man raised one eyebrow, disbelieving. "Who?"
Han floundered for a moment, searching his memory for someone who'd put the fear of all hells into the pompous man… Moff Tarkin's name was on his lips just as the kid put out a hand.
"Wait—don't!" He glanced back to the man, voice apologetic. "Let me just…deal with this."
The man rolled his eyes, snubbed. "Take the comm."
"No, it's not that, it's just…"
The man waved his hand in casual dismissal, eyes roving the crowd now. "Take the call."
"Maybe we can talk later?"
The big man looked Luke up and down for a second, lips pursed as if in consideration. "I'm sure."
He set off into the crowds, leaving Luke to smile at his back just a little too long.
The kid waited a few more seconds before turning on Han, that sunny smile instantly gone. "Thanks a lot."
"That's one you owe me, junior."
"Yeah, that was my mark," the kid said dryly.
"That was my mark…the man I'm supposed to draw out and read tonight. Thanks to you, I'm going to have to try to follow him round so I can look for an opportunity to start up conversation all over again. That's not gonna look weird at all, now is it?"
Han stared for a good three seconds. "…What?"
"Seriously, do you think I come to these things for the fun of it? I have a job to do, and tonight it's to get that guy talking to see if I can find out whether he knows about the fact that a tenth of the ordnance that his factories are manufacturing falls into Rebel hands, or whether he really is that stupid. I was just being so impressed that he ran a weapons facility," the kid said with dry distaste, "then you barge in."
"You were waving your hand behind your back!"
"Yes! That was me telling you to go away!"
"What, am I psychic now?"
"Clearly not, so I'll say it out loud again, shall I…go away."
"You made me come here!"
"That was just because I didn't see why I should suffer alone." The kid stretched up to glance through the crowd, trying to keep the man he'd been speaking to in view. "Now I can't go back to him for another hour without it seeming contrived, thanks to you."
"Well clearly you don't need me," Han tried. "Does that mean I can go?"
"Remember that whole 'I don't see why I should suffer alone' thing? Now it's double, since you've stuck me here for another hour."
"How can it be double?"
"You want me to stick this thing out all night? Cos I can do that…" Luke glanced about, frowning. "Great, now I've lost him entirely. You go that way, I'll go the other."
Muttering a curse, Han glanced back before he set off. "What'd he look like again?"
"Please—he had a pale green jacket and a red sash on. How long did you look at him?" The kid was already moving off, his slight frame almost instantly lost in the crowd.
Muttering his private opinion of the kid, high-class parties, and life in general, Han set off in the opposite direction.
He'd made it all the way around the massive ballroom—which had taken a good ten minutes—and was halfway through his second loop, cursing at the realization that not only could he not see the red and green-striped lunkhead but he'd also now lost the diminutive kid, when he stopped still, so surprised that he actually did a double-take.
Luke was standing to one side of the hall facing a young man balanced on the very edge of adulthood, as he was. Both were slim with short, dark blond hair and pale eyes, both of a similar manner and comportment, though the unknown courtier wore expensive clothes in pale colors, a complete contrast to the dark, somber suit that Luke wore.
For a second Han thought they might be friends, complaining and consoling each other about having to attend what even he thought was a mind-numbingly dull function—or maybe both kids had some kind of mission here tonight and they were comparing notes… Hell, maybe the Ubiqtorate recruited all their agents this young.
But even from this distance, there was something in the stranger's stance that hinted at a confrontation, though Luke remained as self-possessed and neutral as ever. Han slowed, uncertain what to do, and maybe just a little satisfied that the kid was having as bad a time as he was.
The stranger took a half-step forward as he continued to speak, his head tilting slightly as those fine features arranged into a thin sneer, though his words were too quiet to carry. Luke held his ground unmoved, and uttered some unheard reply. Whatever it was, the unknown youth felt compelled to retreat a short step, leaving Han to reflect that he'd give a week's pay to know what was being spoken—if, of course, he hadn't promised the next six months of it to the shop that had made his damn uniforms.
Luke leaned subtly forward, forcing Aramil to take a quarter-step back in reaction. Sensing the brief flare of Aramil's annoyance at his own retreat brought an undisguised, and very knowing, smile to Luke's face.
Fuelled by that, Aramil found his nerve—and aimed it squarely at Luke. "Don't play your little confidence games with me. I know what you are, Sith. You think you can threaten me with impunity? I'm under Palpatine's protection, lest you forget."
Luke maintained the slightest of empty smiles on his face, though it never touched his eyes. "You're a toy, Aramil—a momentary distraction. Whatever position you think you have, believe me, it's not even nearly unassailable. Swimming in the sea doesn't make you a shark—and you're surrounded by professional predators here."
"Please, spare me the powerplays. I'm untouchable and you know it…and it's just eating you up inside."
Luke couldn't be more dismissive, his eyes returning to the crowd in search of his mark, whom he'd spotted crossing the far side of the hall. "Go home and look in a mirror, Aramil. When you've worked out what's really going on you may gain some scrap of sense—and of your place here."
"Oh, I know my place," Aramil sneered. "It's right above yours. You think you're close to the Emperor, you think you have his ear—well forget it. You're old news. You're yesterday's curiosity."
Luke shook his head just slightly, peripherally aware of those around them trying to take a few subtle steps back before the fireworks started. The fact was that he wasn't looking for an argument tonight. He had a job to do, and it wouldn't be achieved by drawing attention to himself. "You're an embarrassment, Aramil—you're a joke. Everyone knows it but you." He glanced away, boring of the pointless standoff and the minor annoyance it caused. "Don't try to go against me. I eat little things like you every day."
"You've had your day. Now it's mine." Aramil looked Luke up and down, eyes measuring him and naïvely dismissing him. "And you know, I think I'm feeling a little hungry myself."
That brought Luke's eyes back, voice cooling by degrees. "Don't—don't think I can't bring you down, and don't think I'll have even a splinter of mercy if I do."
"Why don't you go ahead and try and we'll see just who makes a meal out of who."
Luke paused a long time, calculating gaze meeting the self-satisfied dare of the young man.
"Really?" He knew he'd pay for it, and he knew exactly how, but in that moment it didn't really matter. "You want to swim with the sharks? Fine. Tonight."
The handsome young man frowned slightly as fine lines wrinkled his youthful face in betrayal of the momentary uncertainty that blasted out from him in the Force. "What?"
Luke was already drawing the Force about him—slowly, subtly, whiting out both their emotions like a thickening blanket of snow. "Tonight. I'll settle this tonight—and I'll do it through Palpatine. Just to let you know how precarious your position always was here, Aramil."
Luke paused briefly before the man's confusion, already sending out a fine tendril beyond that blank bubble; the barest shiver, the tremble of a single thought, a forged emotion purposely concealed but subtly revealed, silent as a sigh: interest, amity; rapt attention…
It took only a second to cast that lure out and gain the audience he required. His Master's head snapped about as if a blaster shot had gone off. Even with his back to Palpatine, Luke could sense the instantaneous shift of focus, and with it the fact that the game was in play. He leaned forward a fraction too far, an increment too close, careful that his head hid Aramil's shock from the Emperor.
As if sharing a secret, he brought his mouth to the man's ear, his hand reaching out to rest against Aramil's chest as he whispered quietly, forcing his listener to lean unconsciously forward to hear.
A shivering buzz raced through him as the Force surged in at his command; a brief moment of heightened awareness, wrapped about and veiled from his Master's prying eyes. The palm of Luke's hand rested on the smooth silk of Aramil's shirt, and for a single beat—just one single beat—he called on the Force to stop the man's heart; felt it pound against the palm of his hand in resurgence as he released his invisible grip and murmured softly, "Feel that? That's it. You're already dead, Aramil…killed by an empty whisper."
Pulling back, Luke arranged a carefully forged degree of reluctance in his thoughts and projected a sliver out into the Force, though his eyes, seen only by Aramil, were hard and taunting. As he stepped back, he allowed the hand which had rested against Aramil's heart to pause momentarily on his arm in an empty gesture of fellowship before he turned, holding Aramil's uncertain gaze until the last second as he walked slowly away.
When he finally reached the tall bank of leaded windows at the far side of the hall, his back to the room, Luke reached out to brush his Master's senses with feather-light subtlety before allowing the slightest of self-satisfied smiles to shade his face. He hadn't needed to check, in truth; he used the trick rarely, but it had never yet failed.
He would pay, of course. His Master would read the youth easily, when he had Aramil dragged before him without Luke's subtle masking of his emotions. But by then it would be too late. Even realizing, Palpatine would still lash out in frustration at the only person immediately before him. Then he would summon Luke, furious not that Luke had sought to remove the youth—that was near-immaterial—but that he had thought for one moment to involve his Master in the game, and more importantly, that he'd had the ability to do so.
He shouldn't have done it, shouldn't have used the Force so flagrantly without his Master's bidding. Not when he so often lacked the ability to call it up at all. It was for that, more than any other transgression, that Luke knew he'd pay. But he was used to that. There was nothing his Master could threaten that he hadn't already done, yet Luke was still here; he survived. He had lived his whole life like this, as long as he could remember…and when one lived one's life in hell, fire and brimstone became the norm.
"What was that about?" Solo approached, breaking Luke's gaze away from Aramil, who had turned to walk a few uncertain steps, hand going briefly to his chest. Luke glanced to the Corellian…but it didn't for one moment occur to him to tell the truth.
"Politics," he shrugged easily, leaving Solo to glance back to the well-dressed young man, openly curious.
"Didn't look like politics," Solo said, searching Luke's face for any clues.
Luke turned, indifference lending a distant, disingenuous smile to the corners of his lips. "Court politics never does. It has a life all its own…and it's a dangerous game for the newcomer." His eyes flicked to the side without quite touching Aramil. "Tiny sprats should wait a while before they try to swim with sharks."
Solo glanced again to Aramil. "What did you say to him?"
"I said goodbye."
Han made a point to keep his eye on the other man as the night wore on, and the kid returned to his mark twice for extended conversations, Han ignored or forgotten beneath the execution of his duties.
When the Emperor retired, he noted that Saté Pestage reappeared a few minutes later, making his way discretely to the unknown man. It wasn't hard to interpret the look on his face as the Emperor's aide spoke; that momentary burst of dread bordering on panic. The man left immediately with Pestage…
And that was the last Han ever saw or heard of him, in Court or otherwise. He simply disappeared.
Morning was another tired walk across a ridiculous number of levels, the monumental, minimalist architecture dark and dour even in the light of day. Han shook his head, telling himself that he really, really had to get a reassignment. Meeting Gorn, who was his usual chipper self despite the early hour, didn't help.
As they rounded the last turn to the now-familiar corridor outside Luke's apartment, their fresh cafs in hand, both Han and Gorn stepped quickly aside as Professor Lentic, whom Han knew was the kid's physics tutor, hustled hastily between them and out, head down.
Han glanced back over his shoulder as Lentic hurried away. "Where's he off to? Luke not back yet?"
He'd wandered back to the apartment and hung around a few extra hours last night, but the kid hadn't reappeared, so eventually Han had turned in, knowing he had an early shift the next day. Now, he was wondering whether the kid had managed to sneak out of the palace entirely and not yet returned, as Gorn said he did sometimes.
They walked into the apartment…and heard the ruckus from the door. Unseen, Luke was yelling at the top of his voice, almost hoarse already. Han paused, listening to lock the sound down to the library just the other side of the dark main corridor, where a hell of an argument sounded like it was going on.
"Oh, I dunno," Gorn said just a little too brightly, "sounds like he's back to me."
As they slowed, an almighty crash made both Han and Gorn physically jump. The run of large canvasses, hung on the adjoining wall between the library and the corridor they were standing in, all lifted slightly as Han felt a tremor beneath his feet, as if someone had just flown a TIE into the building. A second later, the kid came storming out of the room, still yelling.
"…can't get out of my face then get out of my apartment!"
Viscount Indo followed two steps behind, voice calm as ever. "The fact that you do not like the truth makes it no less valid. It was reckless, childish and petty to act as you did when…"
Luke spun about, arm raised to point at Indo. "Out! What about that word do you not understand!"
"If you think that throwing a tantrum will change anyth…"
The kid tensed and for a brief second Han felt something… Like a pressure seal failing in deep space, as the air around him seemed to compress then expand, making his ears pop. In front of him, Indo staggered two paces back…
Luke remained still, feet planted, head tilted, eyes ablaze.
His back to Han, Indo straightened, quiet and breathless, but unyielding. "Don't."
The kid didn't move, voice a low warning. "Don't push me then."
It was only now that Han noticed that the kid had a developing black eye and a series of scuffed scratches to the same side of his face.
Indo held firm. "Everything you did was by your own decision. If you choose to act irresponsibly then you must expect consequences."
The kid straightened slightly, almost laughing. "My decision?"
"You knew what would happen if you turned on Aramil—"
"I never touched him!"
"You forced the Emperor to react—you chose to do that."
The kid laughed out loud, bitter and biting. It broke to nothing almost immediately as he clutched at his ribs, stifling a gasp. Glaring at Indo, he wheeled about to stalk away into the Red Room.
Han watched, amazed, as Indo immediately set after him. That guy really didn't know when to quit…
At the last second Luke swung about, hand lifting, his palm spread—
Six paces in front of him, the doors slammed closed in Indo's face with enough power to rattle them and rustle the Viscount's perfect robes. He waited barely a second before palming the entry plate.
Han could only stare as Indo walked calmly into the room, the doors closing behind him as he pressed their closure panel. Immediately the kid's voice rang out and another incredible whump sounded as something impacted against the wall, clattering as its broken parts fell to the floor.
Finding his feet, Han set forward. Gorn took a fast grip on his arm. "Listen to me, Solo, let me give you some very sound advice: don't get involved. You keep your head down, you keep your thoughts to yourself and you don't get involved. Do that, and you'll have your promotion and be out of here in the standard turn around of staff. I told you before, things have a habit of getting broken around here and believe me, it can very easily be you if you get yourself in the middle of this. I've seen it enough times."
"Just…trust me on this one. Indo knows Luke—he gets away with stuff no one else would dare, especially with this kind of…"
The doors to the Red Room opened slightly as Indo stepped coolly through, instantly palming them closed, though they reverberated to a huge blow from the other side a second after he'd done so. Indo looked up the corridor to meet Han and Gorn's open stares, his flat voice gripped by just a trace of tightness. "I assume you both have duties which don't involve standing around in empty corridors?"
Neither of them moved, other than to flinch as another huge thud sounded from the room behind Indo, making the doors clatter in their frame. Even Indo, his hands behind his back and still resting on the doors' activation plate, reacted to that one—though that perfect sabacc-face was instantly reinstated as he continued to stare them down. "Well?"
Still holding Han's sleeve, Gorn eased him backwards towards the small staffroom without a word. Han held Indo's eye as he let himself be pulled, another wall-shaking blow sounding as the kid shouted out from the room, unseen.
In the small, bright staffroom, Han and Gorn remained still, listening to the continuing ruckus which vibrated the floor beneath their feet…
As it seemed to subside, Han turned to Gorn and opened his mouth to speak. Another resounding whump sounded…then silence.
"Okay, what the hell's going on?" Han finally asked, words practically merging into one.
Gorn shrugged, casually starting up the virtual screens and memo ports as if it were any other day. "I told you, Luke gets a little…you know."
"You know. No, I don't know! What the hell was all that noise?"
"Oh, that's just Luke throwing stuff around."
"What, has he got a Wookiee in there with him?"
"Heh, no—very funny." Gorn laughed genuinely.
Han was at the end of his tether. "Don't mess with me, Gorn—what the hell was that?"
"I told you, he has…these…outbursts. Now you know what one looks like, at least. You can usually tell if he's going into one—he actually goes quieter when he's about to really…"
Indo's appearance at the door reduced Gorn to instant silence. The Viscount glanced from Han to Gorn with narrowed, knowing eyes, before speaking as if nothing at all were out of place.
"Lieutenant Solo, inform Flight Control that we require a shuttle and two TIE escorts for…"
Luke appeared behind Indo, turning all attention to himself. His voice was unnaturally calm, though he was breathing heavily. "Solo, get your jacket, you're with me. Gorn, inform Flight Control we'll be leaving for Sinto Barracks on the Emperor's order. Viscount Indo will give you the details." He turned away immediately to head for the exit.
Indo and Han glanced to each other…then both set off after him. Indo got there first. "Luke, you need accompanying on this mission to…"
Luke didn't even slow down. "Thank you, Viscount, but this is a military mission and so should be comprised of military personnel. Lieutenant Solo has been cleared for such, and I'd hate to break protocol. You tell me often enough how ridiculously important it is to you."
"Luke, if you wish to make a point then you have done so, but I strongly..."
The kid stopped dead in the corridor but didn't turn, his tone clipped and serious. "Stop following me, or I will make a real point."
He remained still for a few seconds more…then continued on alone.
Still pulling his jacket on, Han was stopped by Indo's hand on his arm as he passed, grip like steel. Luke had stepped into a side room to the end of the corridor, and Indo spoke in fast, hushed tones.
"Watch his surroundings closely—don't let things get out of hand or agitate him further. You may consider yourself authorized to do whatever you have to, to minimize that." Han glanced down at his arm, but Indo didn't release him. "It's about time you took a little responsibility, Lieutenant Solo. You're in a position of extreme trust and privilege. Start acting like you might actually deserve it. If you think the situation—or Luke—is escalating beyond your control, comm me."
"You don't like letting him out on his own much, do you?"
"I also expect you to act like a genuine adjutant…including saluting Luke and acknowledging his rank. Lieutenant Gorn may have his relaxed little system in the apartment, which he thinks I don't know about, but outside you act like the soldier you're meant to be—and that includes treating Luke like the officer he is."
"Luke Antilles holds the rank of lieutenant commander in the Ubiqtorate. You will treat him as such."
"Wait, he holds a Lieutenant Commander's rank… You're saying that I have to salute a fifteen-year-old kid?"
"I'm saying that you should salute any and every lieutenant commander, second lieutenant Solo."
Luke stepped from the side-room, his black Ubiqtorate jacket fastened. Looking down the corridor, he held still until Indo released his hold on Han…then turned and strode out of the apartment without a word.
It was only when they were alone and the kid had slowed just slightly, one hand resting against his ribs, that Han realized he was limping too.
"You okay?" he tried.
"Perfect," the kid said dryly. "Ecstatic, in fact. Thrilled. High on life."
"Want me to shut up?"
The silence held as they boarded the Reinar shuttle, sitting opposite each other in the small cabin, as Luke stared out into the middle distance. They'd been travelling a good ten minutes before he finally stirred, patting down his pockets and cursing before he looked to Han. "I suppose it's too much to ask if you have a spice stick?"
"Pretty much, but kudos for tryin'," Han replied dryly.
The kid's eyes narrowed. "Thank you. I can't tell you how much your opinion of me matters."
He stood up to glance around the small passenger cabin, balancing easily though the small shuttle ducked and dipped constantly in the day's high winds. Lifting his hands to the top of the compartment walls, he winced once and wrapped one arm about his ribs again, before standing on the seat to run his fingers along wire conduits and stowing racks at ceiling level. Finally he grinned—and pulled out a battered spice stick.
"See? Always pays to use the same three shuttles!" He stepped down, rolling the red-wrapped spice stick between his palms to compress it, and put it in his mouth. "You got a light?"
"Do you actually ever carry anything of value about your person?"
Han didn't get a chance to reply before the kid turned about to head for the cockpit, staggering only slightly as the shuttle made a wayward tip to one side. When he reappeared a moment later, it was behind a cloud of that same scarlet smoke. Instantly calmed, he sat heavily down and stared openly at Han, who returned the stare as the kid took a long, thoughtful pull on the spice stick.
"So what did Indo say to you?" the kid asked at last, casually talkative now. "Giving you last minute advice on how to handle a firebrand?"
"He said I should call you sir."
Luke laughed lightly. "Judging from the look in your eye right now I can't see that happening."
"Oh, didn't that just kill you?"
Han glanced down. "How long have you worn that uniform?"
"A year." The words came out in a scarlet haze of spice-sharp smoke.
"They don't take fourteen-year-olds in the military."
"The Ubiqtorate isn't the military."
"Then what the hell is it?"
"What the hell is it, sir," the kid corrected—but gamely, well aware of the irony. He paused a second, taking another slug of the spice stick and watching the ruby smoke roll up to ceiling level. "We're the Emperor's right hand…which is ironic really, 'cos that's what I'm training for anyway."
"Never mind. You don't like us, do you?"
"I have something of a problem with fifteen-year-old spice-junkies holding the rank of lieutenant commander," Han came back. "How many missions have you been on exactly?"
Luke stared at the ceiling a moment. "Uh…eleven. Mostly field."
"Right," Han dismissed, nodding.
"Plus an assortment of snub-nose dogfights. I kinda like pitch battle in a TIE—I would have liked to have been a pilot. I don't like that thing when you come back afterwards and you're hyper for hours though… D'you get that?"
"You fly a TIE," Han said skeptically.
"Interceptor…a variant, actually," Luke nodded. "Can't see a damn thing out of a standard TIE. I have no idea how you fly them."
"You know those things've got scopes in the cockpit and inter-spacial HUD in the helmet faceplate, don't you?" Han said dryly.
"Please, don't even try to defend them. I've flown the Advanced a few times, but I prefer the Interceptor—it's tighter on the turn, it has a lower profile and visibility's better. Not much use having all those extra weapons on the Advanced if you can't see where to shoot them. I've seen the Advanced Mark Two that they're already working on, with the Interceptor's wing configuration—that's not to full prototype yet. Nice though."
Han stared for long seconds… "Well, this is great. I do three years at the academy and fly every supply and babysitting mission in the ass-end of the galaxy, and I get one lousy rank bar and a court-martial. And I get to call a kid who flies Interceptors and Advanced TIEs at the age of fifteen, Sir."
"What—maybe I'm a good pilot."
"Hey, I'm a great pilot."
"Ah, but were you at fifteen?" the kid asked knowingly. "And actually, I'm almost sixteen."
The kid screwed his face up. "Yeah, I just heard that myself—that was embarrassing. Maybe I should put this out, I'm probably gonna need a clear head when I get there." He grinned, eyes remaining on Han as he stubbed the spice stick out on the side of the shuttle wall, burning a smutty stain into the polished panelling. "For when I'm ordering all my elders and betters about."
"Little late to clear your head, isn't it?"
"No, I can clear this out with a few minutes' notice," the kid said cryptically.
"Where the hell do you get it from anyway?"
"Seriously, you don't know? Cos I could name fifteen places within minutes of the palace."
"You said you don't get it from the cantinas."
"I never said these places were cantinas."
"I mean credits," Han said, tiring of the word-games. "Where're you getting the credits for all this stuff?"
"The palace is a pretty big place."
"Yeah, you gotta love it for that." Luke grinned. "My favorite is unfilled-in ID's, military and civilian—you can pick them up from the main administration hub in the base ziggurat, if you know where to look. They always sell well. Or military medals from overstuffed Moffs —they go pretty well too. Not regalia though—they belong to the planet they're from, not the person wearing them." He half-shrugged. "You have to have some rules."
"So wait a minute, you steal stuff from the palace…actually from the Moffs?"
"Only the ones I don't like. And don't give me that look. I know you've got a light-fingered past yourself—I read your file, including the amount of trouble you got into as a minor. In fact, I wanted to ask you about how you..."
"I'm not gonna give you pointers!"
The kid grinned again as he turned to glance out of the viewport, typically unrepentant. "What, they shouldn't just leave stuff lying around if they don't want it taken."
"You're telling me they leave valuable insignia lying around?" Han asked doubtfully.
"Yeah…I mean, you know, in safes, but it's still just lying around."
"You can crack safes?"
"No, but I can crack thoughts. I can generally pick up all I need from the Moff's head in a five or ten-minute conversation—get him talking on anything, guide the talk back to palace security then rifle through his thoughts a little, pick it clean out."
"What d'you mean, pick it clean out?"
"A little party trick I can do. Hey, there's got to be some worthwhile reason to attend state dinners, right?"
The kid grinned, his laissez-faire humor so infectious that Han had to laugh, turning away to shake his head as Luke continued.
"I don't do it much—I don't really need to do it at all. Mostly, it just keeps my hand in. If I possibly can, I like to be close by when they realize their stuff's gone the next day. Being in the room and acting outraged on their behalf is the icing on the cake. Most of them don't deserve those medals they wear anyway. I'd never take one from someone who'd earned it."
"Not like you, huh? 'Cos you've earned that silver bar on your collar," Han said without malice, warming to the kid.
"As a matter of fact, I have," the kid said casually, rising. "We're here. Do you think you can manage the sir thing?"
"I'll give it a try…sir."
The escort shuttle settled first, so that their stormtrooper escort were already out and waiting by the time their own shuttle came in for a neat, precision landing. As the ramp lowered and Han followed Luke out, he was treated to his first ever experience of being the cause of a nervous Imperial reception, rather than the guy fretting, as the five senior officers of the Sinto Military Base snapped to nervous attention.
They'd made it to about ten paces before the commanding officer started to scowl, his eyes flicking quickly between Han and Luke as he tried to work out why the only guy coming toward him who looked old enough to be a soldier on active duty was walking behind the youth in the black Ubiqtorate uniform. Han held back another half pace just to let the Commander know who was in charge, and Luke wasn't slow to step forward, his voice businesslike.
"Commander Wenlock, I believe? You have a probable collaborator for me?"
Commander Wenlock was still staring between the kid in front of him with a black eye and half a dozen scrapes along his jawline, and Han, standing silently behind him, face straight and serious. Mouth slightly open, Wenlock looked for all the galaxy like he was waiting for someone to let him in on the joke any minute now. Han figured this had to be the average reception for the kid, all things considered, so he was curious about what would happen next.
"Commander Wenlock?" Luke prompted again, voice terser, in no mood for games.
Neither, it seemed, was Commander Wenlock. He glanced once to the uniform Luke wore, then looked straight to Han. "I was told that a Ubiqtorate officer would be arriving to take possession of the prisoner."
Luke glanced away. "You speak over my head one more time, commander, and you'll be a lieutenant by the end of the day."
After a brief, taut silence, the commander glanced down, deigning to notice him. "You're the officer the Ubiqtorate sent?"
The kid matched his tone exactly. "You're the commander in charge of this base?"
"I had expected someone a shade more…experienced," the commander said deprecatingly.
"Yeah, I'd expected somebody bright enough to know not to cross a Ubiqtorate officer, but there you go—we work with what we're supplied," Luke said dryly, turning now to indicate Han. "This is Lieutenant Solo."
The kid patently didn't supply his own name, Han noticed.
Wenlock looked Han up and down, his distaste not improving any. "He's not Ubiqtorate."
"No, we don't travel in little packs," Luke told him, glancing to the assembled officers behind Wenlock. "We don't generally feel the need for group support on evey decision we make. Where's your detention center?"
It turned out that the suspected collaborator was an Imperial crewman, caught making information dumps to memory cards early this morning, before his shift began. He still had the cards on his person when he'd been caught in one of the secondary Ops rooms. Stupid, to think they could get away with it this far inside the Core, Han reflected. Twice over, to try to do it from inside a military base. Everyone knew the penalty for insurrection.
They didn't go down to the detention center when they entered the building, though. Turned out the man was still in the Ops room that he'd been caught in, under guard.
The commander paused at the entry to the command levels, indicating the biometric scanner on the console. "Your IDs, please?"
Han stepped forward automatically, looking into the detection lens, only mildly surprised that he'd been asked, considering he was already wearing ID cylinders in his top pocket. The system came up with his ID and image, confirming his permissions.
Wenlock looked expectantly at Luke….who didn't move. "My ID is UB-65068, commander. If you need to verify that, then contact the Ubiqtorate on official channels. They'll confirm it."
"Scans are standard protocol for unknown officers entering command levels of high-security bases," Wenlock said. "And on the handover of prisoners."
"Ubiqtorate don't hand out biometric information, commander. I'd've thought even you knew that."
"This is still my military base," the commander said without moving.
"No, this is the Emperor's military base, you're simply a serving officer. You've done a good job in identifying a conspirator…try not to parlay it into a demotion."
When Wenlock remained still, Luke glanced away with a sigh, giving every impression of tiring of this game. "Look, I'm younger than you expected, given my rank. I get that—I see your point." For a second, Han genuinely thought the kid was going to back down as he stepped a little closer to Wenlock, voice quieting. "Here's mine… It's not my fault that it's taken you forty years to attain half my rank. I'm not answerable for your frustrations at your own shortcomings. I am, however, aware of my own, one of which is that today, I am on a very, very short fuse. I therefore suggest you stop baiting me, because I can, believe me, walk straight over you far easier than I can work around you, and I'm in no mood at the moment to do any polite sidestepping… So what do you say you get out of my way and off my back before I trample all over this sad little excuse for a power trip you're trying so hard to pull on me?"
Wenlock stared for long seconds…then turned to one of his own staff. "Lieutenant Saff, take the officer's ID and run it by Ubiqtorate. Check his credentials."
All in all, Han figured, it was pretty fair to say that the kid wasn't in the best of moods when they reached the Ops room. And he probably already knew that chances were, he'd face much the same reception from the man held inside—which made it an odd choice that someone would send him on this mission at all, Han reflected, particularly since it didn't seem like the kind of thing the kid usually did. It occurred to Han briefly to wonder whether that was exactly why he'd been sent to do this job today, as Luke's claim back at the staffroom that they were here on the Emperor's order came to mind. Clearly he'd somehow hacked Palpatine off last night…would the man take enough of an interest to make sure that the kid had a bad day as well as a black eye?
The door to the secondary Ops room slid back. It was empty save for a seated man, two stormtroopers slightly behind him. He looked up, anger and resolve written all over his stony expression, the barest cast of nerves in his eyes. The deadpan resolve wavered to a second of obvious uncertainty as Luke entered, Han, Commander Wenlock and one of Wenlock's lieutenants a half step behind.
"Stand up," Luke said without preamble.
The man's eyes flicked guardedly to Wenlock, then back to Luke. "Who are you?"
Luke looked to the troopers. "Stand him up."
The troopers didn't even pause; as far as they were concerned, if someone was wearing an officer's uniform, you did what you were told. One reached forward to pull the chair back, forcing the man to stand, stumbling slightly as he did so.
Luke had already turned half away to Wenlock. "Why isn't he wearing binders?"
"We have two troopers in the room," Wenlock came back coolly.
Luke held his eyes for two or three seconds, and even Han winced internally; any military man knew you showed a clear line of command in front of a prisoner. You presented an absolutely united front.
Luke turned back to the man. "First Lieutenant Kern Derrig, you stand charged with conspiracy to overthrow the Empire, premeditated failure of military duty, and passing sensitive information to enemies of the State. You will be taken into detention until such a time as that charge is answered to the satisfaction of the State. Conspiracy is a class one charge and entitles you to no defense or council. Do you understand the full charges brought against you?"
Han knew the official arraign; he'd heard it more than once himself, in his youth. Not conspiracy, of course—that was way out of his league.
"Do you understand the full charges brought against you?" Luke repeated. He'd stayed to the far side of the room from Derrig, Han noted, but then Derrig was a big man. Kid probably figured that standing close enough that you were forced to look up at a man you were arresting wasn't setting the right tone.
The same thought was clearly going through Derrig's head, as he looked again from Commander Wenlock to Luke. "You're a kid," he said, voice scathing.
"With my whole life before me," Luke replied calmly. "You, on the other hand, are a dead man—give or take a day or two."
He walked slightly to the side to finger through the small pile of datacards placed on the console there.
"Five datacards on your person, Derrig. That's pretty damning. Information about transmission codes from the mainframe, I'm told. Decoding algorithms, remote access, retrieval protocols…all very specific. And for a very specific military base, as I'm sure you know."
The man lifted his chin. "I don't know what you're talking about."
Instead of answering, Luke looked to the two stormtroopers behind the man. "You can wait outside."
As they filed out without comment, Han automatically moved to reposition himself a little further down the room, closer to Derrig. Luke waited without speaking until the door closed behind the troopers. The moment it had, his eyes went back to the suspected traitor.
"I'm talking about secure comms passing through Sinto Military Base on their way from the Horuz System and the Maw Installation. I'm talking about the location of the Sanctuary Pipeline…which I'm betting is on one of these datacards—am I right?"
"It's not me who failed in my duty," Derrig rasped. "It's the Empire."
"That's not your call to make, Lieutenant Derrig—especially not when you're wearing that uniform. You made an oath of allegiance to your Emperor."
"He doesn't deserve allegiance."
The kid straightened, visibly offended. "I would think very carefully on what you choose to say, Lieutenant Derrig. The order I received said to go to Sinto Barracks and retrieve a collaborator for questioning…it didn't specify what condition he had to be in."
Derrig let out a brief laugh. "And you're going to do what?"
"Let me clarify something very important to you, Derrig: you belong to the Ubiqtorate now. You belong to me. Your life is, quite literally, in my hands…and I'm a very careless man." He tilted his head in reference to Derrig's earlier denunciation. "Must be all the exuberance of youth. Or maybe it's that while other kids were pulling the legs off spiders, I was doing the same with insects like you. You'll be amazed, you really will, how much a man can bleed and not quite die. But blood's just blood—it's how you get it out that counts."
He walked forward a few measured steps as he spoke, expression about as dark as Han had ever seen on the kid, laced with wicked amusement. Han wasn't sure if Luke was launching into some routine, if he was on the defensive after Wenlock's derision, or if the kid really was that fractious right now, but there was a truly cold menace to his voice as he continued, edged with blunt, up-front candor.
"Obviously I'm not expecting you to say anything right now—in fact, I'd go so far as to say I'd be disappointed if you did. I'm just…laying out the ground rules, shall we say. Something to bear in mind when the interrogation starts. That's when the real fun begins…for me, anyway."
Derrig's eyes narrowed…but he was starting to take the kid seriously. Han didn't blame him, as Luke sustained those same politely hostile tones.
"Don't misunderstand me, I'm not your interrogator. That's a highly specialized job that requires daily practice. But I am the man who ended up with your file in my hand this morning, which makes me the man who makes the call as to whether I think we've got all the information we can get from you…or not. The one who can heat up your interrogation, or end it at any time. And that makes me the center of your life from now on. The beginning, the middle…and the end of it. And unfortunately for you—well, you've got the delinquent. You've got the one who has absolutely no moral code and zero principles…someone who does this just for kicks. Someone who knows exactly how guilty you are right now, just from looking at you. I know you've done this many times, that you've been passing this on to someone outside of this base, and that right now, you're worried about the other five datacards hidden in the backturn of the third washbasin in the gym on the second level, ready for the next drop…aren't you?"
Han could see the masked shock in Derrig's face as his lips tightened to a thin line. He frowned himself, wondering when the hell Wenlock had told Luke that without Han hearing—how Wenlock knew at all. Luke had turned to casually walk away again, hands to his back. "I know everything about you, Lieutenant Kern Derrig, and I know everything you did… But I'm still putting you through interrogation, because that's—"
"Hey!" Han yelled out a warning, launching forward as Derrig moved in a flash of speed, hands reaching into his jacket sleeve to pull something free.
It was a specialist holdout blaster, compact but deadly. Han powered forward, knowing he wouldn't reach the man in time as he levelled it at Luke, vaguely aware of the kid spinning back round at the edge of his vision…
And suddenly Derrig was wrenched back—in an instant, as if a silent explosion had detonated affecting him alone, yanking him brutally off his feet in an awkward tumble of limbs, the violence of the act tearing the blaster from his grip as it fired into the floor before him.
He hit the back wall with a sickening smack, remaining there for an excruciating few seconds, his eyes wide, mouth open in a silent shout…
The blood which pumped from his nose as his eyes rolled back was altogether too thick and too dark, and Derrig fell forward like deadweight, limbs loose, head rolling. A bright, scarlet smear on the wall marked the impact behind his head: too much blood, too quickly. Everyone in the room remained frozen in shocked silence as the mangled, broken body slid to the ground, dark, arterial blood matting his hair and oozing from his nose in a surge as he hit the floor.
Han blinked and turned…to see the kid still frozen in place, one hand splayed out before him.
Had he done that—had the kid done that?!
"Wait!" Luke launched forward to the man, dropping to his knees on the bloody floor to drag him over, face up. "Don't die—don't die yet!"
His splayed hand pressed against the dying man's forehead and the man shuddered, back arching. Luke leaned in closer as Derrig's eyes opened to stare manically at him.
"Everything," Luke whispered. "Tell me everything…" The man shuddered, body convulsing as he let out a shocked, scarlet-spattered gasp, eyes wide on the kid who leaned in close, hand to his temple.…
Han stared, shocked, not knowing what he was seeing.
Derrig's chest hitched in its final convulsions, then went lax. For long seconds Luke still stared, crouched over, his own breath halted… When he pulled his hand free it was with a gasp, as if by conscious and strenuous effort.
Breathing hard, the kid stared, transfixed, as the dead man's head fell heavily back onto the already sticky scarlet floor…then, as if becoming aware of Han's gaze on him, he stood upright, lifting his chin a fraction too far, a scowl holding about that youthful face for the barest of seconds. He made a brief tug at his uniform to straighten it, then crouched again to wipe his blood-wet hands over the corpse's clothes before he bent to pick up the small holdout blaster, turning it over in his hands.
"That's it? He thought he'd kill me with this?" He held it up with a steady hand, voice dismissive. "He may as well have thrown it at me."
Han glanced down, seeing not the small holdout blaster in Luke's hand, but the dead man's blood beneath his fingernails. He stared as the kid—the kid—turned coolly about, issuing orders as if nothing untoward had happened, eyes on Wenlock's lieutenant.
"Put the body in stasis and have it sent to Intel at the Palace for autopsy."
"Yes, sir." The lieutenant stepped forward without hesitation, pretty damn ready to give the kid some respect now.
Luke's voice was that of someone running through routine. "Seal his quarters, ready for forensics—as well as the gym on the second level. Nobody touches his belongings, his comlinks, the terminals he used, the ships he flew, his speeders—nothing. This base is now locked down by command of the Ubiqtorate, until further notice. No leave, no comms, nothing comes in, nothing goes out 'till Intel clears you. You know the routine." Luke had reached Commander Wenlock now, and stopped, his voice taking on a brittle edge.
"And you…" Fuming, the kid held up the blood-smeared holdout blaster. "You didn't search him?"
"Yes, sir!" The commander stared, eyes still wide with shock—and Han didn't fail to notice that he'd suddenly remembered the kid's rank and seemed eager to use it.
"Yes, sir?" Luke almost yelled as he aped the commander. "How? Visually?! How can you miss a firearm, idiot!"
"He should have been in detention, strip-searched and in standard-issue grays already. Instead you left him up here, barely confined, unrestrained, and searched so shoddily that he managed to conceal a holdout blaster! I'm surrounded by incompetence!"
"I'm sorry, sir, I…"
"Oh? Well, that's all right then. Maybe you'd like to come back with me to stand in front of the Emperor and say that? I'm sure he'll be very understanding. In fact based on your actions today, maybe I should take you back as a collaborator."
The base commander's eyes went wider still, prepared to believe now that the youth had that kind of authority. "Sir, I had no idea…!"
"I wouldn't go bandying that around if I were you, Commander." Luke was dismissive now, anger cooling to frosty indifference as he held out the blaster expectantly. Wenlock took it, then instantly lifted it from his hand by the barrel, his lip curling in distaste at the blood-wet imprint it left as Luke walked from the room without looking back. "If you want to keep your commission, I'd suggest you have something better than that by the time an Intel unit gets here."
Sat on the shuttle, Luke patted his pockets as it rose, silently cursing the fact that his uniform allowed no room to carry personal belongings. Clamping his jaw, he tried not to think about the spice he needed right now, aware of Solo's wary eyes on him.
The Corellian actually thought Luke was feeling guilty for having killed the man, he knew, when in fact that couldn't be further from his thoughts. Instead, Luke's full attention was given over to what exactly he would tell the Emperor when he returned to the palace empty-handed. Because whatever it was, it wouldn't be enough.
They remained quiet for a long time during the journey back, Solo's gaze surreptitiously flitting again and again back to Luke who, wrapped up in his own frustrations and brooding in silent clouds of self-depreciating anger, ignored him.
Eventually, his sense blasting out a driving need to know, Solo voiced his thoughts. "What's it like?"
"…What?" Brought out of his fugue-like frustration, Luke glanced across.
"That…" Solo said ineloquently, having no vocabulary for the world he now inhabited, "that…stuff you did. It's the Force, isn't it? What's it like?"
"The Force?" Luke asked, surprised, although he really shouldn't be. He liked Solo for just this reason—because he wasn't the type to get intimidated. He stubbornly refused to be ruled by awe or fear. He was uneasy, of course, wary of this new and unfathomable thing, but time would temper that, and turn apprehension into cautious familiarity. Which was the closest Luke ever came to any kind of friendship…and he liked to maintain that detached distance. There was safety in solitude—for both of them.
He stared at Solo, suddenly curious as to just how far he could push the man. "I could turn you inside out and rip you to pieces and you couldn't hope to stop me. Even if you knew—if I allowed you to know my intent. Even if you held a gun to my head you still couldn't stop me. In the amount of time it took for that single impulse to go from your brain to your trigger finger, you'd already be dead. Fractured and fragmented, reduced to nothing in the blink of an eye… Or I could make it slow—rupture your spleen, collapse your lungs, tear at the arteries in your brain—take memories or awareness with absolute precision. Blind you or break you a bone at a time."
A long, considered silence stretched, measured by the even gaze held in those sharp brown eyes…
"I was thinking more along the lines of, 'Okay, I guess'," Solo said at last, breaking the moment with humor. "Or maybe, 'It gives me a bit of a headache sometimes'."
The smallest suggestion of a smile brushed Luke's lips as he sat back, amused, the tension completely dissipated.
"I don't get headaches," he lied easily, turning away. "I give them."
Solo lifted his eyebrows in a quick shrug of acknowledgment before asking, "Just out of curiosity, you ever…lose an adjutant?"
"No, I generally know where most of them end up."
"Aha." Solo set his head on one side, that blithe lop-sided smile still hanging on his face, as if it had the power to protect him from anything. "So…my predecessor, for instance, when he left, did he have all his limbs intact?"
"Near as dammit," Luke said without elaborating.
"Just wondering." Solo grinned easily, the atmosphere completely alleviated now by the mixture of his easygoing nature and stubborn refusal to be browbeaten. "Cos the amount of credit that they're payin' me…I could maybe lose a digit, somethin' like that, but most of my major limbs I'm very attached to—and I'd like to stay that way."
Luke resettled, amused. "He was missing an eye," he allowed at last, watching Solo consider this for brief moments.
"See, I kinda like both of mine. Helps with that whole depth perception thing—always useful for a pilot."
Again Luke let the silence hang, but this time it was less fraught, more gamely. "But then, he was missing that when he came into my employ," he said finally, turning away.
What he should offer, he knew, what Solo was searching for, in view of the day's events, was some kind of reassurance that his position here afforded him a certain immunity. But it would be an empty reassurance and Luke knew it. He didn't know himself what his reaction would be from incident to incident. He certainly hadn't gone into the garrison today intending to kill the man…
And even if he did offer some pointless guarantee, it wasn't necessarily Luke that Solo should worry about. It was Palpatine who had removed Luke's previous adjutant…and the last time he'd seen him, the man was in good health. Though then again, Luke hadn't been there when his Master had turned on the man.
He glanced to Solo, feeling a flare of guilt as a deeper knowledge came to the fore. Because people died around him. One way or another, people died. That was a fact, inevitable and inescapable: everyone caught up in his life eventually paid the price. No point in getting attached. No point in bothering to view anyone around him as anything more than a temporary amusement. Only he and Palpatine, the Master who was privy to Luke's guilty secret, remained—that was the way his Master ordained it. Some lasted longer than others, by dint of their usefulness or simple convenience, but the longer they stayed, the more that death mark stained them. He needed do nothing—neither acknowledge nor deny it, intervene or withdraw. They still died. Darkness surrounded him…it always had, his Master had said, and proven, time and again. Darkness and death…that was what he knew; what he feared and embraced, because he couldn't walk away. It was, his Master whispered with such merciless conviction, what he was made of.
Solo turned, aware of Luke's eyes on him, and Luke glanced away to stare out into wispy cirrus clouds, as turbulence rocked the shuttle just slightly, its grumbling vibrations reassuring. The pilot should drop below the tropopause, Luke reflected distantly. This close to the palace region, the massive buildings themselves acted like mountain ranges in their scale and density, their peaks and troughs altering wind shear and convection. A few hundred feet would pull them clear of it.
Amused at his own ability to change a line of thought so completely in avoidance of unpleasant truths, Luke glanced back to Solo, who had taken his own eyes back to the tedious view. No, the Corellian was sharp; if he didn't like the heat, he was smart enough and confident enough to step away from the fire, Luke was sure. Though he didn't think Solo would.
Strange how people found each other—saw a part of themselves reflected in another and gained some sense of place from it. In Solo, Luke saw someone who had lived his life on the brink for so long that it was normal for him now. In fact he actually needed it; would willingly push to the very edge of catastrophic failure every once in a while, just to feel alive. Luke understood that; he'd lived his life beneath that same pressure. No reprieves, no protection from the possibility of failure and its customary reprisals.
Security, like stability, had always been...an empty concept, for Luke. And anyway, as Indo so often said, it was only ever some imagined ideal, and there was no place for naïve ideals in real life. No point in craving something that simply didn't exist—not here.
Luke rose, heading for the cockpit to put his first report in, knowing that it should be his version that the Emperor read first, rather than the base Commander's probably less than glowing account.
They arrived back at the palace just before dusk, as Han craned round in his seat to watch the hulking structure loom above Coruscant's skyline, its inky blue sandstone reducing it to a sharp contrast of dark, inset shadows and gargantuan slabs of smooth-faced stone, lit by huge floodlights from below.
They hadn't talked much for the rest of the journey back, though Han had been aware of the kid's eyes on him. He'd wanted to ask more— about what the kid could do, about what he had done, about this Force thing…but word came in long before they'd landed that Luke was summoned to the Emperor's presence and the kid, not surprisingly, had fallen back to silent brooding.
And slowly, as Han had watched in silence, his focus taken by the twin drops of blood on Luke's neck, which had spattered from the dying man's final breath, it all came together. Why the kid was here, why he wore that uniform, how valuable he could be to Palpatine…it all slotted into place with perfect precision.
Just to underline the Emperor's command, a junior officer—still probably five years older than Luke—was waiting on the Palace's military pad with word of that immediate summons. They walked the endless corridors from one of the restricted landing pads in the main monolith, moving higher through the stark structure of the upper ziggurat towards the Emperor's private territory, the turrets.
Han had never once entered—and from the sounds of things, practically no one else did, even here. This was the final reserve, the elite inner sanctum whose entrance was barred and guarded, access to which so many here seemed to dedicate their lives to achieving. The guards who lined the long walk of the monumental entrance were dressed in scarlet, their faces unseen, their stillness unsettling. The officer who approached as they neared nodded once to Luke in recognition, and had the thick slab-doors of clear, cord-strung transparisteel which barred the imposing entrance retracted, the huge double-doors beyond sliding majestically back. Apparently the kid was well-known here, his face enough to open doors. Han briefly remembered Gorn's words—that Luke had lived here; in the austere grandeur of the Emperor's private apartments.
Just what that must have been like was brought home to him as endless stretches of silent hallways, tall and imposing, drew Han's eyes up to their distant, heavily corniced rooflines, repetitive details picked out in stark, dark shades. Many of the stories-high corridors were unadorned, save for precisely placed arrangements of sterile, pristine furniture which were dwarfed by their surroundings, serving only to emphasize the immense scale of their setting. Tall slabs of heavy cut stone or dark, polished wood loomed in the pensive silence of hollow, overbearing spaces which echoed every step and whisper.
Luke walked a half step ahead of Han in tense silence, without once looking to either side or needing to pause for his bearings as they walked the countless identical halls. He slowed to a stop before tall doors of figured ebony, bracing straight and setting his jaw in silence as they slowly opened.
They entered a huge chamber clad entirely in polished red basalt, square-cut columns supporting the heavy mass of a dark, coffered ceiling, the flawlessly polished flagstones reflecting already lofty pillars to double the height of the vast, imposing hall. As the hard stone underfoot reverberated to their boot-steps, a small group of serious men in dark robes turned to glance and whisper—the first time Han had seen anyone other than guards.
Luke slowed, dropping his voice as he spoke to Han. "Listen, this may get a little…volatile. Don't do anything, understand?"
Han's mind went back to the kid's last run-in with the Emperor—to the unexpected and unrestrained blow which had sent the kid staggering to the side. His eyes went briefly to the still-forming bruises he'd seen on the kid's face that morning. "It was Palpatine who did that, wasn't it?"
The kid glanced down. "Indo was right, it was my own fault."
"How was…" Han caught himself; now wasn't the time. "Listen, why don't we wait—let him cool down?"
"He doesn't cool down, he stews. The longer you leave it, the more he thinks on it and the angrier he gets… Maybe you shouldn't come in."
"Or maybe you could just tell him it was me who…"
"No! Don't ever tell him anything was you, understand?" The kid had stopped to turn on Han, genuinely anxious. Whispers rose from the far side of the hall, and Luke glanced briefly their way, quieting his own voice again. "You should…you should wait here."
Han straightened, reluctant to leave the kid to face the music alone. "What, you think I'm incapable of keeping my mouth shut, like anyone else?"
"Pretty much." The kid had turned to start walking again, so that Han had to rush to catch up, suddenly determined not to let the kid go in there alone.
"Hey, I can keep quiet."
"You've never kept quiet about a thing in your life."
"Yes I have!"
The kid threw a brief scowl at Han, voice low. "I read why they court-marshalled you."
"Totally different situation." They were getting closer to the clique now—closer to the doors. Han kept pace. "C'mon, I...I don't want you to go in on your own, alright?"
Luke glanced to him then quickly away, visibly uneasy. "I'm fine. I've managed a long time without you here."
"Well now you don't have to."
The kid stopped dead, Han's words turning him about. "Why do you care?"
Han wondered if the kid had any idea how he looked as he said that, half question, half appeal. Fifteen years old and barely to Han's shoulder-height, already scuffed and roughed up from his last meeting with what was clearly the only man he was even vaguely afraid of…but ready to go back in there to face the music, if only because he knew damn well that he had absolutely no choice. And Han remembered what that felt like.
Concern, respect…some weird sense of connection with a kid he had nothing and everything in common with…in the end, he said none of that—if the kid was what Han thought he was, then he'd pretty much know anyway. He just shrugged inarticulately. "C'mon, let me do this."
Luke held his eye for long seconds, torn… "Your word—give me your word that you'll keep quiet."
"Absolutely," Han agreed instantly, grasping at the offer.
"This is important."
"…Okay, I get it. I can do this."
The kid didn't say anything more as they set forward again. Didn't look to Han at all as they passed through the somber men, regarded with the kind of look normally reserved for those about to face the firing squad. Han swore he could even feel it coming from the Red Guard.
Stood before the doors, Pestage nodded once as he moved to press the release plate. "His Excellency is waiting for you."
Luke braced, walking forward without pause as the doors to the audience chamber swung back, Han close behind him.
They were barely six paces into the cavernous chamber when the Emperor turned. "You!"
He strode forward, the polished cane he normally relied on so heavily forgotten in his fury. Luke backstepped quickly as the Emperor came forward with pale hands outstretched, long fingers grasping.
He reached Luke and grabbed at the scruff of his uniformed jacket, his other hand taking a hank of hair as he powered the unresisting kid backwards past Han and to the side, until his body and head made contact with one of the massive pillars set into the side wall with a thud loud enough to make him gasp.
No more than ten paces away with his back to Han, Palpatine closed to within inches of the kid's face, voice cracked with rage as he banged the kid's head back again. "I give you one task—one task!" He wheeled about, dragging the boy with him, and Han took a step forward, the drive to intervene overwhelming.
The next second the Emperor released him in a throw. Luke half-flinched, half steeled himself not to as he came to a stop, straightening instantly.
Five paces away now, Palpatine wasn't interested. "I ordered you to bring one man back here for interrogation and you failed to do so. Why!"
"He had a blaster!"
His back still to Han, Palpatine stalked slowly forward again and the kid spoke faster.
"I only meant to stop him."
"Don't lie to me. You can pluck a single eyelash at sixty paces—you're perfectly capable of stopping a man from firing some irrelevant sidearm. You could have taken the weapon, you could have knocked him unconscious, deflected the bolt… You could have done as I ordered and kept him alive!"
The kid didn't get a chance to finish. As he spoke, Palpatine brought his hand out, palm flat, and Han watched wide eyed as the same invisible force that Luke had used to throw the spy against the wall a few hours earlier, was now turned on Luke by the Emperor, hurling the kid back helplessly to impact against the tall, squared pillars which stood between the wide windows. He hit with enough force to knock the air from his lungs in a gasp and drop him to the floor in a huddle, struggling for breath.
This time Han started forward, but Palpatine had already reached the boy, grabbing at his hair to yank his head up. "Don't ever give excuses to me…don't dare give validations. I don't care!"
Han stopped again, torn between his word and the reality of the situation. The kid said nothing, yielding completely beneath the onslaught… And maybe he knew from long experience just how to handle this, because the Emperor glared for a few seconds more then turned away, anger satiated, still shaking his head.
"The man made you kill him—he forced your hand." Palpatine rolled his eyes in annoyance as he turned back to Luke, his tone that of someone stating the glaringly obvious as he slowly worked himself into a fury again, voice rising. "He knew that if you killed him, there'd be no way to know of accomplices or contacts. Dead men tell no tales. Now we have no leads, no way to continue this, and no idea how much information has been leaked already. Now we have a cold trail. With a prisoner we could have found out who he was working for and with, what had been passed over, how deep the infiltration went."
The Emperor was almost on him again now.
"I had…" Luke was still wheezing, struggling for breath as he remained hunched, voice broken by uneven gasps. "I got something…from the man's head… As he died, I got something. Images…buildings. A place, a meeting. A name—Skyhook."
Palpatine stopped, silent for long seconds. "Go on."
"He didn't have any image of…he didn't know precisely why, but he knew he needed to get information from the construction sites—the Maw Installation and Horuz. I said the names and sensed his reaction. And the images I saw, the building, it was on Coruscant. In...in the lower levels of the Myzicc District. I recognized the streets."
"That's less than an hour from here."
Luke nodded, hand to his face now where his nose had started to bleed. "He knew somebody there—thought it was safe. Skyhook is something to do with that."
"Stand up." Palpatine's voice was quiet and clipped, but with his back still to Han, there was no way to read his face.
The kid rose, still obviously in a lot of pain, his breath short and one arm about his ribs. But he stood up and he looked Palpatine in the eye, struggling to level out his breathing.
"No, Master—but I'll get it from what I have."
"You seem very sure."
"He was dying—he was past withholding or trying to deceive. I…I guided his thoughts then followed them back."
Palpatine stepped forward and Luke instantly stepped back, but the pillar behind him stopped any escape as the Emperor closed on the boy, one gaunt hand snaking out to wrap about the back of Luke's neck as he made to sidestep then thought better of it and held still, leaning back from that wire-tight grip, shoulders tensing.
Though his face was hidden in the shadows of that dark cowl, even at this distance Palpatine's baleful ocher eyes were visible to Han, fixed on the kid as the Emperor pulled him in regardless. "Show me."
Han watched the kid close his eyes, head tilting forward without hesitation. The Emperor too stilled…then let out a brief, snorting laugh which curled dry lips into a satisfied sneer. He opened his eyes, the threat in his tone belying his words.
"You're a very clever child, do you know that?"
"Thank you, Master."
"Very clever." Hand still about the kid's neck, Palpatine pulled a little harder, and Han could see Luke trying to lean back against the pressure as the Emperor continued, his voice gracious, though his words were anything but. "I've killed men for less than you've done today, you know that too."
The Emperor nodded, inches from Luke's face, those keen yellow eyes all that were visible in the shadows of his heavy cowl. "And what makes you think you are exempt, even now?"
"Nothing? Then you think I should kill you?"
"Make up your mind, child."
Luke stayed silent, and Han shifted uncomfortably from across the room, uncertain what to do. Vivid ocher eyes came to rest on him for a second then flicked back to the boy. "You're making your new toy soldier nervous. Stand up straight."
The kid straightened as the Emperor watched, eyes narrowed in critical judgment…then nodded. "You did well, to pull useful images from the flurry of a dying man's thoughts—to hold that contact as he perished. Yes, you did well."
His hand still about the back of the kid's head, the Emperor leaned in as Luke glanced down, so that his forehead rested on Luke's. He murmured something Han couldn't quite hear, and Luke nodded slightly without speaking…
Then Palpatine stepped back to walk away, and Luke pushed himself off from the pillar and limped to the exit without once looking to Han, who glanced between them, wondering what was said. Reaching the door, Luke struggled to bow, hand clutching his ribs, though the Emperor didn't even bother to acknowledge it. As the doors behind them opened, Han did the same, for no other reason right then than that Luke had, and he didn't want to make this any worse.
They reached the threshold of the door before the Emperor spoke again, eyes remaining on the evening shadows of the cityscape far below. "We shall speak again on this later, child."
Beside Han, the kid's shoulders froze momentarily as he broke pace…then he walked in silence from the chamber, and through the massive, echoing stretch of the red-stone ante-room beyond.
No one looked or commented as Luke limped past—and Han didn't expect them to. Even he, he reflected bitterly, was beginning to learn when and where to speak out…and when to look the other way.
So he walked slowly down those stark, somber corridors beside the limping kid, knowing better than to offer help.
They arrived back at Luke's rooms in silence, their pace having slowed as Luke's breathing had labored, his discomfort obvious. Twice he'd actually stopped for a few seconds, grating his jaw against his mounting struggle. Both times, Han had simply stood, waiting without watching, knowing that any attempt to reach out or try to help the kid would be rebuffed.
Han walked all the way down through the apartment to the mirrored wall with Luke, before the kid simply shook his head, disappearing into the gloom of his own rooms in silence, Han once again left on the outside.
For a second he stared at Luke's receding back, weighing whether to go in anyway, but as the dark mercury-glass doors closed he heard the sound of running in the corridor behind him, and a distorted form was reflected as it barrelled forward in the uneven panes of irregular glass. Han turned as Gorn slowed, eyes wide, face pale. "The Emperor wants to see you."
"Wants to see me?"
"What'd you do, Solo?"
"Well Pestage just commed down from the Audience Chamber, and the Emperor wants to see you now. As in right now." When Han still didn't move, Gorn stepped close, plucking at his sleeve. "As in, right now—and run."
Han was at the turrets inside fifteen minutes, passing through the same set of guards as before, but ID'd this time, his name checked against a screen of awaited 'visitors.'
He was escorted just three corridors in through those same towering hallways which reduced all who walked through them to insignificance, then marched across the massive, echoing space of another spartan hall whose ominous silence left him feeling that he should tiptoe through the vast, empty space, its ornate clusters of hanging lights unlit. Standing outside the tall doors of the Audience Chamber, under the close scrutiny of the Red Guards, Han rubbed at the high collar of his uniform and wondered what the hell he'd done, to be dragged up before Palpatine. Obviously it was about today, of course, but if the Emperor had something to say, why not say it when he'd been with the kid not an hour earlier—why this?
The Emperor. Han swallowed to get some moisture into his dry mouth, and in the still silence, it seemed ridiculously loud. Hell's teeth, get a grip, Solo.
The doors swung open and Saté Pestage stared with silent disapproval, nodding Han in. The vast chamber was dark and silent, banks of hanging glow-orbs barely lit, so that their meager light did little more than define the shadows. Han's footfalls echoed and reverberated between the vaulted ceiling and long rows of tall pillars, no furnishings to soften their resonance. To the far end of the long chamber, a single figure cloaked in richly brocaded, inky garnet robes stood hunched before the three-story windows, staring out over the city. Pondering all he possessed, Han supposed.
He made himself maintain measured strides, coming to a slow halt before the single step of the barely raised dais. Did you still bow if the guy wasn't looking at you? Remembering that the kid had done so earlier today, Han inclined at the hip, bringing his heels together with military precision. When he straightened, his face was that little bit harder…because he remembered what else this man had done to the kid.
The tall doors drew silently closed behind him as Pestage left, and Han was alone, staring at the hunched back of the man who ruled the galaxy.
"Lieutenant Solo, of Corellia." The Emperor didn't turn.
Did he answer? Han wasn't even entirely sure what to call the man. Indo hadn't mentioned this…clearly hadn't expected it. "Uh, yes…Sir."
"A pilot in my military."
"With a less than exemplary record."
Han didn't speak—there was little to say against that.
"And now an adjutant to my ward. The first, in fact, that I have not myself appointed. The boy grows up. A pity…but then, he's as amusing a distraction as he ever was." The Emperor still hadn't turned, his grating voice even, conversational almost. "Viscount Indo disapproves of my ward's choice, you should know. Myself, I feel now is a good time for the boy to be exposed to outside influences. He will see them often in his intended vocation, and if he stumbles at the first hurdle, well then what use is he to me?"
The Emperor finally turned…and this close, Han could see the wasted suggestion of waxen skin beneath the heavy cowl he wore, in places chalky white, in others almost bruised, so thin was it. He felt his lip twitch and tightened his jaw, fighting to hold the Emperor's eye when every instinct blared to look away.
Palpatine took a step forward, leaning heavily on that burred and gnarled cane again…and the sulphur-yellow eyes that met Han's seemed almost to glow in the shadows of that deep cowl. Han tensed against the desire to step back, and the man before him loosed a slow grin, papery flesh folding in deep lines.
"As fascinating a potential as he embodies to become an agent on my behalf, if he cannot fulfill my basic expectations…well then, what further use is he? You understand—I have invested a great deal of time and effort in this boy's education, Lieutenant Solo…a great deal. I would hate to see my efforts…undermined."
The Emperor turned away again to stare out over the city, and Han loosed the breath he hadn't even known he was holding. If the Emperor heard, he chose not to mention it.
"The boy, Luke…he was very young when he came into my care, very young." The Emperor paused slightly, considering. "Or not young enough; it's difficult to say. His first years here were…trying, I think. It took us a while to find our way around each other. It seemed every day was given over entirely to establishing precedents. The rules of life—my rules."
Having seen just exactly how those rules were laid down, Han felt his lip curl just slightly. Those ochre eyes came back to him as one corner of the Emperor's mouth twitched in a lipless grin.
"But children are such wonderfully resilient creatures, I've found." Palpatine glanced away, tilting his head in consideration as the heavy folds of his rich gown resettled about him. "Fascinating, because you see, they have no life experience; whatever they encounter for the first time, if no one acts as if it is out of place, then they accept it as…well, normal. They have no frame of reference, you see…quite fascinating."
Han moved slightly and the Emperor turned, as if remembering his presence. Those gleaming eyes skewered him, sharp and penetrating. "You think me harsh with the boy." His snide smile widened to a grin—dark, pitted teeth against sallow skin. "Oh don't bother to deny it… But then, I don't think you would bother with that, would you? You see the universe as it is, Lieutenant Solo. And you speak that way too, hmm?"
Palpatine smiled as Han remained still, jaw tightening. "Or, in the absence of something amenable to say, you remain silent. An admirable trait. Perhaps the next time you think me over-strict, you should remember what he is—what he is capable of."
Han held his silence, though inside he was burning to ask just what exactly the Emperor was capable of, that he'd turned those same abilities on the kid today. The Emperor paused just a fraction, as if to give him the opportunity to say just what was on his mind…and Han remained still, lips pursed.
Grinning, the Emperor continued. "Before you judge, you should think back to your experiences with the boy today…or on the next example, which I'm sure he will soon provide. A child, capable of killing by power of thought alone, Lieutenant Solo. One person, ten, a hundred, it makes no difference to him. A single thought. Imagine—to simply think something, and it comes into being. That's what he's capable of. How uncompromising would you imagine one must be in one's self-control, to master such a power? How disciplined, even as a child? You look at him and you see a boy, Lieutenant Solo—you are mistaken. You are looking at a weapon capable of immense destruction, on a scale you cannot imagine. He is a walking time-bomb, as all his kind were… Yet I let him live, relatively unconstrained. All I ask in return is that he conforms to certain rules, rules put in place to protect those around him—yourself included. And if he breaks those rules then yes, I am unforgiving. I am harsh. But I do it for the greater good—that he learns to control what he is. That he learns to serve his Empire and his Emperor. That he learns to live in conventional society and to comport himself with restraint when he walks among lesser beings."
Han's lip twitched again at that, and those yellow eyes filled with malicious amusement at realization of the unthinking insult. Han pursed his lips, refusing to be drawn as the Emperor held his eyes for long, expectant moments, before turning again to stare out across the haze of the city below, voice contemplative.
"There are those who said he should not live, knowing what he was. Few know of course, but those who do, I trust their judgment…yet I overrode them. I protected him. I still do… And I do so for one reason: he has a use here, a duty, a calling of far greater importance. He will serve his Emperor in a very special position—one that I have trained him for his whole life. He will become an Emperor's Hand, an extension of my will, answerable to me alone and…ah, I see their reputation precedes them!"
Han's chin lifted fractionally, though aside from that, he'd been sure that nothing had been visible on his face. But he knew of Emperor's Hands; had heard whispers about them. Rumors of someone who knew someone who'd heard of someone who had seen one in action once, but nothing more. Had heard that they were the most capable, the most fanatical, the most devoted… And slowly, it all came together.
Imperial Intel—the Ubiqtorate, which pervaded and controlled the military and the public spheres completely—was simply a proving ground for the kid, Han realized. A way to get him used to taking and giving orders in Palpatine's name. A way to expose him to every facet of the military and its workings so that when he went dark and became a Hand, he'd be able to disappear in any position there, familiar with its workings. A shadow, moving from assignment to assignment, answerable only to…to the man who'd just stated without the slightest guilt that his 'protection' of the kid extended exactly as far as Luke remained useful. Fifteen, and his whole life was already worked out for him.
"Emperor's Hands are like no other," Palpatine continued smugly. "They obey completely, without hesitation and without question…so you can understand how very important it is to me whom the boy comes into contact with at this influential time in his life. You can appreciate that I need to have complete confidence in those around him…or he ceases to be of value to me."
Palpatine paused meaningfully, head tilting so that the light flashed across pale skin and made narrowed eyes seem to glow. "I trust that, knowing this, you will endeavor to ensure the boy's continued value to me. You understand—I have known the boy for a very long time, and he keeps no secrets from me, ever. If I were to believe that you were in any way circumventing the ideals that I have spent so long instilling—those of fealty and loyalty and obedience—if I were ever to believe that my little experiment had been…compromised, then it would be terminated…along with all its components. I trust I have made my intentions clear?"
Han remained silent, and the corner of the Emperor's thin mouth lifted just slightly in mocking amusement. "This has been a most interesting discussion. A valuable opportunity to air our views and our standpoints…the ones which matter, anyway. It has, I hope, brought us to a greater understanding of our roles…and their limitations." The Emperor was already turning away in dismissal. "You may return to your duties, Lieutenant Solin."
"Solo," Han corrected.
Palpatine's eyes came to his…and this time, Han held that stare without blinking. Held it for long seconds…until eventually that sallow skin folded into an empty smile.
Han nodded once, then saluted sharply and made a precise military turn, walking from the room without looking back…listening to his heart pound in his chest the whole way.
By the time he got back to the apartment, he'd grappled his frayed nerves into some kind of order again, half amused and half disbelieving of his recklessly stupid stunt in those last moments, mouth still dry at the thought of it.
Still, he thought he'd held his piece admirably, all things considered. There was no way, no way at all, that someone like Palpatine—a man who had just gone to the trouble of calling for and reading Han's military and civilian records—would have forgotten his name. It was a deliberate little powerplay. Rash as it was, he might have been tempted to say a hell of a lot more, had it not just been made patently obvious that his own actions would reflect on the kid, Indo's warning that Luke would eventually be answerable for some 'inevitable faux-pas' the only thing that had stopped Han from pushing further. That and the guy with the glowing yellow eyes, of course.
Inevitable faux-pas… Han had a feeling he'd been given that first one for free; he also got the distinct impression that it was a once-only occurrence.
Walking into the kid's apartment, he leaned into the staff office and Gorn, who was rubbing at a spot on the wall just inside the door, looked up, wide eyed. "What did he want?"
Han rolled his eyes. "He wanted to know why some guy named Therne Gorn couldn't keep his nose out of anyone's business."
Gorn paled. "Really?"
"No, not really," Han said, amused at the reaction he'd instigated—but a little clearer, having met Palpatine face to face now, as to why.
Han looked to the spot that Gorn was rubbing; there on the wall, just below the lighting plate, was a perfect fine-line sketch of Gorn, asleep on his office chair, his booted feet up on the desk, head lolled back and to one side, mouth slightly open.
Gorn too, looked at it. "Oh, I just took that temporary long-range schedule off to trash it and this was underneath. Luke must have tiptoed in here in the early hours some morning when I was on duty. Must have drawn it, put the schedule back up then crept off again—sneaky little Dug. Nice little time-bomb waiting to be discovered, if I'd taken that schedule down in front of Indo. I've been trying to clean it off before Indo sees it anyway, but the ink won't wash off."
"Why'd he draw it on the wall?"
"You're kidding, right? He draws on anything—I'm lucky he didn't draw on me. Seriously! One time I fell asleep and he drew on my forehead. I didn't even know until I went to the 'fresher."
Han laughed, momentarily distracted. "That kid really needs a pad of flimsiplast."
"Don't give him flimsiplast—Indo'll go mad." Gorn lifted a freshly printed hard-copy schedule and positioned it over the sketch, its edge pushed awkwardly against the doorframe in order to cover the entire sketch. "I think we're going to have to stick long-range schedules over it forever now… What d'you think?"
Han raised his eyebrows, unconvinced. "Great, fine. Have you seen Luke?"
"No, I think he's kicking around though."
Han stepped back out, ignoring Gorn's further questions. He was on his way to the mirrored rooms when something made him pause and turn to those double doors which opened out onto the narrow ledge of the balconet. When he got close he saw they were open a crack.
He stepped out onto the ledge, and the kid was sitting on the floor of the narrow space, legs out before him, ankles threaded between the balustrade to dangle over the drop. In his mouth was a half-smoked spice stick, another stub already on the balconet floor beside him.
He didn't look up. "So what did he say?"
Han closed the doors and sat down, forced to pull his knees up in the confined space as he looked up into the sharp, clear night sky.
Luke turned, voice quiet. "He offer you money to walk away? A title maybe?"
"Actually it was more of a 'Don't step outta line, or I'll come get your sorry ass.' "
"Really? 'Cos you don't strike me as the kind of guy who would…oh, wait." The kid nodded, voice resigned and way too knowing for his age. "It was a 'Don't get the kid to step outta line or I'll come get his sorry ass,' wasn't it?"
Han didn't speak and Luke shrugged, voice casual. "Don't worry about that. He's been hanging that over my head long before you arrived."
"Yeah, I figured you don't seem the type who needs any extra help hacking people off," Han nodded lightly.
They remained silent for a while as Luke took a couple of long, lazy draws on the spice stick, its dark red smoke taken almost instantly by the night's cool wind. Eventually he leaned over slightly to offer it to Han, who took it off him only to flick it over the balustrade. The kid said nothing, simply lifted a small marquetry box from his other side and took out another spice stick, a momentary flash of bright orange flaring in the darkness as he lit it up.
"You shouldn't smoke those things, you know," Han said at last. "They'll…" kill you.
"So when are you leaving?" Luke asked without preamble.
"People generally take a big step back very soon after Palpatine has his little talk with them."
"Likes to have all your attention, doesn't he?"
"He likes to have all of everybody's attention. He generally gets it, one way or another."
Han glanced sideways, slowly reassessing his opinion of the kid who was sitting beside him, nose still bloody from hours ago, with yesterday's bruises darkening beneath his eyes. "You know, I think we should start again."
Luke glanced to him, confused. "Start what?"
"I've heard a lot of stuff since I've been here…but I just realized, very little of it was actually firsthand." Han leaned over, hand out. "Solo—Han Solo: naval lieutenant, second class. TIE Pilot. Way, way out of his depth here."
The kid stared a few seconds, the glowing spice stick hanging loose at the corner of his mouth. Then he shrugged, and reached his hand out with wry amusement. "Luke Antilles. Treading water…on and off."
"So how'd you end up here?"
"Long story…and if you're leaving tonight, you should probably start packing."
"Well, you know, if he'd offered to make me a wealthy man, I just might've gone. Title? Maybe... But a rap on the knuckles?" Han pulled an unimpressed face. "I don't think so."
The kid loosed a youthful smile, then looked away, tone serious. "You should be careful. He doesn't give many warnings."
"So I see."
Luke glanced down, turning the red-papered spice stick in his fingers. "He was right—I shouldn't've killed the man. Derrig. Kern Derrig" He said the last deliberately, as if to remind himself that the man had a name.
"He pulled a gun on you."
"That the first guy you ever killed?"
Luke laughed lightly, eyes remaining on the spice stick. "No…no."
"That the first guy you ever got in trouble for killing?"
Again that quiet laugh. "Well, this month."
Han stared for long moments again… "So how come you can do that stuff?"
The kid seemed to consider for a while before he spoke, though his next words clarified why. "My father was a Jedi… Palpatine told me a long time ago, in the first few nights I was here. Well, he told Vader, and I was there. Vader and my father…they had a history, I think, because Vader went wild, incensed, absolutely outraged." Luke's voice trailed off as old memories held him to silence for long moments… When he spoke again, it was perfectly level. "So really, as the illegitimate son of an outlawed Jedi, I should have been killed in the purges—that's what they say."
He said it with such clinical disinterest, Han thought, wondering how many times the kid had been told that already: "Be grateful—you should be dead now."
"What was his name?"
"Kenobi," Luke said. "Obi-Wan Kenobi."
They sat in silence for a few minutes, as Luke blew neat scarlet smoke rings out into the clear night, to be taken by the wind.
Han tried again. "So you knew him?"
"No. I knew his name, from when Palpatine had told Vader who my father was. I sneaked into the Intel mainframe in the main palace ziggurat a few years back and tracked down some old records. They have all the pre-Empire records there—the real ones," Luke added casually, eyes on the dark horizon. "Kenobi was some General in the Clone Wars. I saw a picture of him, when he was about…maybe twenty or thirty, I think."
"Yeah? You look like him?"
The kid shrugged. "I guess. He had blue eyes and dark blond hair. He looked my build though, which is depressing."
Luke shrugged again. "I was kinda hoping I'd get a growth spurt soon."
Han couldn't help but smile. "You're about average for your age."
The kid glanced at him, knowing beyond his years. "I don't know if you've noticed, but average doesn't really cut it around here."
Han laughed, glancing out across the endless pinpoint lights of the distant city. Then his smile fell away. "So I guess he's dead, huh?"
Luke shook his head but didn't look up, instead concentrating on blowing across the tip of the spice stick, so that it glowed brightly. "He's still alive. He's a militant—an anarchist. He was one of the original instigators of the plot to kill Palpatine during the Clone Wars, and he tried to kill Vader too. Palpatine says he's a coward who uses the Rebels to hide behind, but they're too stupid to see it…he says he's a thug and a murderer."
"What do you say?"
Again the kid shrugged, kicking his heels. "I guess he's right."
"Does Kenobi know about you?"
"I don't know. He's never…never tried to speak to me or anything—get a message to me… I don't know." The kid was faltering, though he kept that neutral expression perfectly in place, feigning interest in blowing smoky red rings again, which dissipated into the night. "They tried to kill me when I was about eleven—the Rebels. They broke into the Palace, but Vader was waiting for them. Palpatine killed the last member of the Jedi Council, named…Yoda, I think. Vader fought with Kenobi, but he got away. Palpatine was fuming for weeks."
"So, wait—if they broke into the palace and tried to kill you, Kenobi must know you exist?"
"Maybe they just knew I was Sith or something, I don't know."
"You never asked?"
Luke shook his head. "Palpatine goes crazy…I mean, really crazy."
"Tonight?" The kid glanced across, uncertain, then realized and shook his head. "No, I mean really crazy. Tonight was nothing."
Han narrowed his eyes, but held quiet, not looking to rock the boat; the kid clearly had enough unanswered questions without his adding to them. Anyway, after his little talk with the Emperor, it was the future not the past that was preying on Han's mind now—the kid's, not his own. "So what are you gonna do with your life when you grow up?"
"I am grown up."
"Yeah?" Han stifled a smile. "So what are you gonna do with your life?"
"I'm doing it. I'm serving the Emperor."
"Is that what you wanna do…or is that what he's told you that you should do?" Han asked carefully. "Is that why you joined the Ubiqtorate?"
"I didn't join," Luke laughed quietly. "I just woke up one morning and the uniform had been delivered."
"But you put it on."
"I know you've only just met Palpatine, but let me tell you, if he sends you a uniform, believe me, you put it on."
"You know, you don't have to do everything he says."
Luke glanced back into the room behind him to make sure it was empty, clearly shocked. "Seriously? Are you sure you've met Palpatine?"
Han glanced down, torn. The Emperor's tacit threats were playing over with unsettling clarity in his head…but he had to know whether this was what the kid actually wanted. Had to say it. "He doesn't own you, Luke. You could walk out of here tomorrow if you didn't like the way things were going, you know that, right?"
The kid looked quickly up at Han, then away again, voice neutral and far too worldly. "You should be careful who you say things like that to...me, for a start."
"So am I. You can't say it. Not here—not ever."
The spice stick flared one last time before the kid stubbed it out on the floor beside him. "So, will you leave?" Luke asked again, his tone impassive, betraying neither hope nor judgment as he concentrated instead on using the burnt ashes to draw smudged lines into the mottled blue surface of the stone. Drawn in a few fast strokes, it was a single eye, opened wide as if in shock, the pupil rubbed in a dark circle before the ashes ran out.
"Leave?" Han pursed his lips… "Nah, think I'll stick around for a while, see what's what. You comin' in—it's freezing out here."
He stood and offered the kid his hand. Luke stared for a few seconds, but stood on his own, hands clutched about his midriff. "Still sore," he said, by way of an avoidance.
He didn't touch people much, Han had noticed; and even Indo never touched him.
Han nodded, feeling that despite everything, he'd gotten something good out of the day's sorry events. He felt like he finally knew what was going on around here…and knowing, he felt that first twitch right in the center of his chest, that tiny, tenacious impulse to make a difference.
Because he understood this. This wasn't so very different to Han's own childhood, growing up with the low-life Shrike, whose word was law, and Sith help you if you ever crossed him. Funny, in that situation, growing up in that pressure keg…what had Palpatine said? It became normal, because you didn't know any different.
He'd clawed his way out from under that only because somebody else had helped him. Dewlanna, the old Wookiee who'd been cook and general den-mother for the ragtag gaggle of lost kids that Shrike had held in thrall to finance his own little crime empire, had stepped in. And with everything to lose and nothing to gain, she'd shown Han what was possible—that there was a life beside the one he knew. And when Han had made to run, it had been Dewlanna who had gained him that opportunity—and paid with her life. He'd carried that remorse around a long time now. Aside from her, Han had never in his whole life seen a single good thing he could pull from his whole sorry childhood—until now.
Because he understood this. He understood what it was like to be where the kid was now. That it wasn't that you couldn't work out how to get out, it was more that you didn't understand why you should—didn't know what was wrong in the first place. He'd always told himself that he'd make it up to Dewlanna one day, repay that debt, though he'd never once known how.
Now—right now—it seemed as clear as the night sky.
Han arrived in the apartment the next morning to the news that the kid was gone—legitimately this time. Ashtor, on night duty, had left word that Luke had been summoned to Palpatine's presence in the early hours of the morning, not returning.
"Where's the kid now?"
"He's not back yet," Gorn shrugged, still reading the memo left on the system last night by the always-efficient Indo.
"Uuh…doesn't say, other than that they're on the SD Immortal—we use the Immortal a lot…and the Vendetta—it just says they're off-planet on official business, which apparently we're too far down the pecking order to know—though Indo may have not mentioned it anywhere because he knew that Ashtor would pick this up." Gorn straightened. "Hey, if we're lucky, he'll still be away for B-Day."
Han scowled at the only half-faked dread in Gorn's voice.
"What the hell's B-Day?"
"Birthday," Gorn said simply, "Luke's birthday."
Han pulled a face, instantly horrified. "What, do they have a party or somethin'?"
Even knowing him as little as he did, Han really couldn't imagine it of the kid. On the other hand, he was perfectly willing to believe that the galaxy could be so cruel as to inflict a dozen pre-pubescent teens on him.
Gorn shook his head, hands out. "Hell no, nothing like that! Nothing at all. We absolutely do not do anything for his birthday—except maybe brace."
"He doesn't like 'em. Gets a bit stir-crazy on the week leading up…as you've seen. Whatever you do, don't mention it to him. Not a word. Uh-oh…" Gorn was staring at his own datapad, which was still downloading the morning's messages.
"Well, I have a friend in the main military hub…"
Gorn ignored that. "And he's messaged me that his Commander, Kaplan—you know him? He's got three meetings confirmed at the end of this week with Lord Vader—here in the palace."
Vader—the kid had mentioned Vader's reaction to his existence the previous night: 'Vader and my father…they had a history, I think, because…Vader went wild, incensed, absolutely outraged.'
"That's bad, right?"
"Bad, tipping towards catastrophic, if Vader's around when it's Luke's birthday."
"What is it, between them?"
"I don't know."
"C'mon, you know everything."
Gorn shook his head. "I don't know that. I know damn well that something is there."
"You must know more than that—you're Therne Gorn!" Han ribbed. "You know everything that's going on in this place!" It was near-inconceivable to him that he actually knew a piece of information in this puzzle that Gorn didn't—about Luke's real father, Kenobi.
Gorn shrugged. "I really don't know. I do know that they're constantly at loggerheads, and I'm pretty damn sure that Luke is jealous of Vader for the same reason that Vader's jealous of Luke. To Luke, Vader's allowed all this freedom and autonomy by Palpatine, whilst he's forever under close scrutiny, Palpatine always watching for any misstep or error. Luke sees Vader allowed all this independence, whilst he's continually being held back and chastised."
Han nodded, realizing that it was that which would make Luke take the commission as Emperor's Hand too: the opportunity to be away from here.
"On the other hand," Gorn continued, "Vader sees this kid who arrived from nowhere, and now commands all of the Emperor's attention, whilst Vader's old news, practically ignored by comparison—save for when he's summoned back to Palpatine's presence to fulfil some order. The Emperor takes a daily interest in what Luke does, he always keeps Luke close. He gives him commissions, he gives him personally assigned tasks…Vader's jealous! I'm telling you, Palpatine couldn't have done a better job of setting them against each other if he'd actually been trying."
"Maybe he is. He doesn't seem to go out of his way to make the kid's life any easier."
"Oh, believe me, they don't need any outside encouragement. Earlier this year, they were both in an official conference with the Emperor and five Moffs, and the argument actually got to the point where they both stood up so fast they knocked their chairs over behind them. Vader pulled his saber…and Luke pulled his! Luke isn't even supposed to wear a saber without permission! He'd taken it in there looking for a fight."
"Lightsaber." Gorn rolled his eyes as if stating the obvious. "You know Sith carry lightsabers, right? Like Jedi."
"Yeah, I know they carry lightsabers," Han said. He was military; he'd seen the same list of prohibited weapons that any soldier had. Heard the same jokes about not trying to take 'em off anyone over the age of forty and wearing a homespun cloak. "I didn't know the kid had one."
"C'mon, he practices almost every day, you must've seen him setting off out of here in his gear with Indo? When he was practicing with Vader we used to have a sweep going in the palace about…never mind. The point is, Luke has one but he's not allowed to carry it. Indo's kept it locked up since then—not that that'd slow Luke down that much."
"Maybe he'd taken it there because he knew that Vader was doing the same."
"You don't take a concealed weapon into the Emperor's presence—ever!"
"I heard it was an open face-off from either side of the table until the Emperor ordered them to stand down. Luke got sent back here. Palpatine was livid—I mean absolutely incensed. I don't know what happened to Vader, but Luke spent four nights in the medi-center and another week back here in the apartment—which didn't matter that much because he was confined to quarters anyway." Gorn shook his head, mind more on their present problem. "Indo'll go into overdrive if Vader's in the palace."
"You know, I can't figure that guy out."
"Who, Indo? Don't even try. Could be worse—someone once told me Saté Pestage had tried pretty damn hard to get control of Luke when he first arrived."
"Come on, you've seen how much prestige it gave Indo—how much access to the Emperor. Unlike most others, Pestage was presumably close enough to the Emperor already to know what would happen when Luke arrived."
"Seriously, would it have been that different?" Han asked doubtfully.
"Hell yes! Indo at least knew how to deal with kids. I mean, with a son of his own at least he had some idea of…of how messed up Luke actually was."
"You said he lost his son?"
Han hesitated… "How old was he?"
"Dubrail? Fourteen." Gorn quietened, suddenly serious. "Indo wanted everything for him—but he expected everything from him too, from what I heard. Had this intensive learning thing set up…I'm guessing it was pretty much the same hours that Luke does now. I dunno," Gorn shrugged briefly, "I think that's a lot for a kid. Worked though—Dubrail Indo got admitted to the most elite Corps Academy going."
"J. Aubrey Academy. The place to go, if you know what I mean? Top of the leagues eleven years running. Most sought after, most advantageous…but takes just a hundred new students a year. Wealth and position makes no difference to getting in; they're givens. You basically register your kid when they're born and hope to hell that you can push them enough that they've got even a chance of a place there. Dubrail was in the top ten percent on entry. And those who get in, they push them—I mean really push them. The drop-out level after year one is almost fifty percent. Indo was always aiming to get Dubrail in—I'm talking about aiming the kid's whole life toward it—so when he got accepted, it was smiles all round, right? Except that one night in the last semester of his second year, Dubrail Indo stepped off the top of the power-chute tower, without a 'chute. There was a huge inquest, of course, which pointed at failure to ascertain welfare under stress, that kind of thing, but basically, it was pressure. They didn't say that, they called it a rational stability issue and cited 'death by misadventure' on his death certificate, but that's what it was."
"He committed suicide—a kid?"
"I hear Indo took it really, really hard. He wouldn't take time from his duties in Court, but…I think it was just because he didn't know what else to do. Everything he'd done had revolved around Dubrail—around getting him ready for this high-flying career. That was about six years ago. Palpatine appointed Indo as Luke's tutor and Adjutant almost four years ago, and he took the role and his responsibilities very seriously."
"Yeah, tell me about it. Why him?"
"Honestly? Nobody knows. It's not like Palpatine knew him really well or anything. I mean, Indo was already in Court trying to carve out a niche for his own kid, but from what I hear, he didn't have any great connections. A few people say they remember Indo as bringing Luke to Court in the first place, looking for Palpatine's sponsorship, but you know Indo, he's pretty damn tight-lipped. I do know that he was already known for the tutoring system he'd used on his own son, this intensive syllabus system—kind of a hothouse education, you know? I heard Luke was pretty wayward, back then."
"Not like now, then?" Han drawled sarcastically.
"No, I mean really wayward. Wouldn't even speak, wouldn't…"
"Just…like a wild thing—that's what I heard. I mean, he's gotten better even since I've been here. I can see a hell of a difference from two years ago. Indo's had this learning programme and all these specialist tutors and everything, early morning to late night, seven days a week. From what I can tell, I think he's basically educated Luke from scratch in the last four years. And it's not like he's an easy kid to work with. Really, the only one who has any kind of control over him is Palpatine. Indo gets him to do stuff, but it's more kinda wearing him down until he gets bored of arguing, rather than actually dictating anything. Plus they have a whole history together, and there's not many constants in Luke's life. "
"Maybe that's what he needs—someone he can count on."
Gorn shook his head, reading between the lines. "Don't do it, Solo. Let me tell you something: Luke doesn't like people getting too close to him—and if by some miracle they do, Palpatine removes them anyway. That's what I told you: you don't get involved. Not here. Luke likes it that way, Indo likes it that way, and Palpatine likes it that way."
There was no hint of a threat, but there was a clear warning in Gorn's pointedly spoken words. Han wondered briefly whether Gorn had seen him sitting on the balcony last night, speaking with the kid. Would he tell Indo if he had?
"Why would Indo care?"
" 'Cos he's spent years making sure he's the only person Luke ever turns to beside Palpatine."
"Well then, why does Palpatine allow it, if he doesn't like anyone near the kid?"
"Come on, you've seen how Indo is with Luke. He's not a threat to Palpatine because he backs up everything the Emperor says or does. He always has. Indo…" Gorn glanced to the door, voice dropping even further. "Indo serves his own ends."
"Then why does Luke let him close? He'd know that about Indo—you know what the kid can do."
"Look around you. You've seen how Luke's grown up here, he doesn't know any better. How could he? To him, this is normal. Plus Indo holds him together, Luke knows that."
"He doesn't need it."
"No? Have you been in his rooms yet, Solo? Been in the end room, behind the glass doors?"
Han hesitated. "No…"
Gorn sighed, looking away down the direction of the darkened enfilade. "He's not nearly as together as he seems."
"What's in there?"
"Luke's in there. That room's never changed, not since the day he arrived here—except the walls, of course. The rest of his life…it's just a well-camouflaged repetition of that room—some kid desperately struggling to make sense of it all whilst everyone around him looks the other way or ignores it…or worse, just paints over it like it's not even there. Like it'll just go away." Gorn shook his head sadly. "But if it doesn't that's okay—'cos we've always got more paint."
They were gone two more days before word came of their return, and even then, the sky was dark before Luke made it back to his apartment, walking quickly down the main corridor to his quarters, his step not slowing until it was lost behind the mirrored doors of his private rooms.
Han had intended to count to ten—give the kid some time. He'd made it all the way to four before he rose abruptly and walked quickly from the office, intending to follow. He hadn't seen Indo, who spoke out from the library as Han passed the door.
"Where do you think you're going, lieutenant?"
"I just…wanted to…" Make sure he was okay? It sounded stupid now.
"Your intervention is not required, Lieutenant Solo. I think you've done enough for now, don't you?" Indo glanced to the plain-faced chrono on the wall, which timed out the hours the kid spent every day with his endless string of tutors. "Your duty shift is over anyway. Perhaps as you leave, you can manage to inform Lieutenant Commander Ashtor to order Luke some food, and place his tablets on the tray. Luke will be attending another tactical meeting shortly."
"But is he… I mean, he's okay, right? He was in trouble…Palpatine said he'd speak to him again. It sounded like…" a threat.
"Palpatine is correctly referred to as The Emperor or His Imperial Majesty."
Han ignored that. "You know what happened with the spy over at Sinto Military Base, right? Luke…he actually…"
"I am aware of the incident, yes," Indo said curtly. "It has been dealt with, as have its reprimands and ramifications. You needn't concern yourself further."
Indo turned away, leaving Han acutely aware that his own actions at Sinto Base had been assessed too, and clearly deemed insufficient by Indo's exacting standards. He followed Indo into the library, where the viscount was arranging datapads and memory chips for tomorrow's lessons. "Hey, if someone had told me what exactly the kid could do, I might have been in some kinda position to…I don't know, whatever. But you've got everyone screwed up so tight around here that no one dare even talk about it."
"Luke's abilities are not common knowledge by the Emperor's command, Lieutenant Solo. If you feel that you're unable to comply with that order, then you can place your formal request for a transfer on my desk at any time. In the meantime, as I said, your duty shift is finished."
Sitting in the echoing grandeur of the War Room, whose dark, mottled marble walls scaled to muted shadows high above, the wide expanse of its glass roof looking out into Coruscant's night sky, Luke listened distractedly
With Operation Strike Fear in full swing and the Invincible riding high on its destruction of the Rebel base on Brigia, Admiral Holigén, as part of the same strike-force but without a victory under his belt yet, clearly felt he had something to prove as he conveyed to the Emperor his plan to corner a group of Rebels known to be in hiding out in Hutt Space. The holographic map of known space, big enough to spread its radiant glow across the entire hall, had been reduced to just that sector—to the planet Moralan and its near space—whose glow was reflected in the massive polished table, along with the nine tense officers who surrounded it.
Seated to one side of his Master and close enough to be out of his eyeline, Luke let out a brief, silent sigh as he turned away from the serious faces of the officers present, resisting the temptation to roll his eyes; they were idiots. Lackeys with no more brains than to say 'Yes, Excellency' on cue. The Rebels had four hyperspace routes spanning their position near Moralan, and the major junction of the Periphery within a day's reach, but Admiral Holigén thought he could waltz in there with a five-destroyer fleet and just one Interdictor and hold them. He was wrong; completely wrong. Even Luke could see that.
Palpatine turned slowly from his seat at the head of the table, voice a low growl. "You have something to say perhaps, child?"
The warning was there in his tone but Luke spoke out anyway, aiming his words towards Holigén, frustrated by the blatant flaw. "They won't form up like that—you think they're a military force and they're not. Discipline isn't drummed into them the same way, and they know they're not fighting from a position of even comparable firepower. They're a guerrilla force and they know it. You're reacting as if they'll try to hold their ground, when they have absolutely nothing to defend there and therefore no reason to hold formation when they're not looking for an all-out fight. The moment they see the Interdictor they'll scatter and break for cover, taking any path to get clear for hyperspace, and to make it impossible for us to track so many vectors. They'll just drop back into realspace whenever they're clear and re-program the jump for their intended destination. You're preparing for an orderly retreat and it won't happen that way at—"
"That is your opinion?" Palpatine asked quietly, his low whisper enough to silence Luke, who faltered, aware of just how cool his Master's tone had become.
"You believe yourself, a boy of fifteen, to have a greater comprehension than the finest military strategists my Empire can assemble?"
"No, Master, I…"
"And yet you contradict them. In their presence…in my presence." Palpatine had turned fully now, as the room grew quiet about him. "Do you seek to insult me? To embarrass me? You think perhaps your vision is more accurate than mine, more far-reaching?"
Luke glanced up at that. "No!"
Palpatine's hand flashed out like a striking cobra to close about Luke's neck, sharp nails to soft skin. He pulled Luke in, and as those ochre eyes searched his own, Luke knew the insult would come.
"You're not a Sith, not even nearly… You're just a blue-eyed boy. You're a child who plays with fire." He released Luke with a push, turning away dismissively. "When you look at me with a Sith's eyes, then you are entitled to an opinion. Until then, you're nothing. A minor distraction—an insignificant annoyance which takes up too much of my valuable time already."
Luke gritted his teeth, aware that his pale blue eyes were his ignominy. Because despite all that he'd done at his Master's command, his eyes had never changed, as a true Sith's did. His Master said it was because he was too young; because he had no real concept of his actions or their consequences. But he was almost sixteen—he was no longer a child, and a life lived in Palpatine's shadow had taught him in excruciating detail just how devastating the consequence of one man's disposition could be on those around him; how destructive it was to withstand another's fury. How gruelling and how punishing. He understood cause and effect; understood the shattering of hope and the splintering of security which came from the knowledge of one's own vulnerability. Was it a weakness, that he comprehended all that—that he shared silent empathy with his own and his Master's victims?
His Master felt nothing, Luke knew; nothing at all… But then he had never existed as Luke had, a life of intense pressure and oppression, always judged, always berated. Never sufficient, never enough for the Master who barely tolerated him, who at best ignored him and at worst… He couldn't imagine his Master as ever being weak, or lacking, or in any way vulnerable. Couldn't imagine him being anything less than the absolute center of the galaxy, the one indomitable will around which all other things orbited.
He watched without blinking as his Master turned away, feeling, as always, that complex twist of relief and abandonment, in knowing he was already forgotten. Palpatine settled into the heavy chair again, beckoning his advisors on, the glow of the holo-image painting their features pale and graven.
Luke remained still for long moments before his Master looked to him again, face twisting in disgust. "Why are you still here? Get out."
Luke stood and bowed once, accustomed to the terseness of the dismissal, but as he stepped away, he was called again.
"Wait. Come back and stand here. Try to learn something."
There was that same growl of bitter disappointment that he always heard in his Master's voice, and Luke was deathly tired. But he turned about immediately and stood in precisely the spot his Master had indicated, by the side of that heavy carved chair. Trying to pay attention, knowing already the ships and the Moffs and the Admirals in play. Knowing that the blockade his Master's strategists planned had flaws and shortcomings which the Rebellion would surely exploit, albeit unknowingly. But he held his tongue. If his Master wanted his opinion he would ask for it, and since he didn't, there would be a reason for these oversights, if only to wheedle out the weaker elements of his counsel.
Luke glanced once around the table at the nine advisors present; it would be Holigén whose head would roll, he guessed, already mentally striking the man from his internal register of palace dignitaries. His Master glanced his way, and Luke quickly brought his eyes back to the holo, concentrating should he be questioned later.
Palpatine dismissed his Moffs and his generals as the meeting drew to a close, watching them leave in a cloud of bowing deference. The boy tried to stay with the group, but he knew what was coming… Still, Palpatine let him get to the very threshold of the door before he spoke.
The boy stiffened slightly, then turned about to walk back into the cavernous room, silently bracing for whatever would befall him this time. What a gratifying thing it was, to hold someone so completely that they would willingly walk towards their fate.
Visually, the boy was nothing: a little shadow, slight and slim, not yet fully grown. He kept his eyes down, the bruises which had blackened them three days ago beginning to fade now, as he tried so hard to remain respectful and placatory, penitent without even knowing why. But in the Force…in the Force—
Most trained Force-sensitives could be easily identified within the Force by the pulsing corona of their abilities and their connection, which remained ever-present within the perceptions of any astute Force-user. The boy was different. He was imbued with it, he vibrated with it in every cell of his being, just as his father once had. Incredible connection and power.
And Palpatine was drawn to and loathed the boy because of it.
He had dedicated his life to bringing this power into existence: it was his. He had created it, he owned it. But he should have realized, should have understood the bitter pill that he had to swallow in its creation. Because to control the power he'd created was not to experience it. Instead he could only watch as another embodied the connection and the capability which remained forever close enough to touch…but not to experience himself.
Sensing his Master's resentment without understanding it, the boy moved uneasily. Palpatine turned on him, lip lifting into a sneer. "You broadcast your presence like a beacon—have you no control?"
"You…you told me never to suppress m…"
"It's intolerable. Offensive. You're Sith—a Sith is capable of hiding their presence completely. From now on, you will keep it shrouded, at all times."
Beneath even Palpatine's perceptive senses, the boy's Force-presence shrank to nothing in a heartbeat, ever-compliant. Perfect control…today. Tomorrow it could be wildly different, that same power muted or near-inaccessible. No reason that Palpatine could see, no pattern. Just random fluctuations, which grew worse with every year.
To Palpatine, discovery of this new source of his power had been a serendipitous accident, and one that he had grasped with both hands. This line was his, created for his own advantage and exploitation. It was the power itself that Palpatine saw—that it was linked to another being, a child, no less, was neither here nor there; it was still his, to do with as he willed. So he'd taken the child. Tyrannized and tormented it, twisted it and bled it dry, before it was even full grown, binding the child to him, desperate to control it, impatient to use it.
What possible choice did the boy have, confined and bereft of anyone who would even try to help him, anyone who even cared to see. Vulnerable and bewildered, he'd crouched before the endless storm and let its fury sheet over him, unable to do anything more, invisible and ignored by all, abandoned to his persecutor's every whim. He'd suffered and starved and endured, as Palpatine had dragged him through Darkness. Had goaded the child into desperate, mindless fury and laughed at his helplessness. Had showed him hope only to dash it, had given him moments of freedom only for the pleasure of ripping them from him one more time. What could the boy do, but learn to exist in this house of daggers and Darkness. And days and months and years had passed, in a childhood outside of reality or mercy, until the boy flinched away from any outside relief or reprieve offered, knowing from hard experience that it wouldn't last, that it was the cruellest of all tricks, the harshest of lessons.
He still bore the scars of that final cut with his past, Palpatine knew that…but it had been the right choice, to enforce it upon him in that moment. Now, like his father, the boy had at his core the still-weeping wound that had torn him from any other and bound him to Palpatine in both his hatred and his shame. In his absolute knowledge that his Master would do anything to maintain that hold. No one was allowed close—ever. Palpatine had made that very clear.
A hard lesson for a child to learn. Palpatine could have lost the boy forever to that moment—to that act. That was always the gamble; that in taking a mind—adult or child—to that moment, in breaking a soul and a will with the riptide of emotions that one must create, one may misstep. Miscalculate. Misjudge. The finest of lines, the greatest of gambles, the most perfect of moments—as it had been with his father.
His father… The barest shade of a smile passed Palpatine's lips, in appreciation of that fact—and what he was about to say. "Lord Vader will be returning to the palace tomorrow. He has already made known his…disappointment at your recent actions."
The boy flinched—actually flinched at the news of Vader's impending return, pale eyes seeming bright against fading bruises. Then instantly he was angry at his own lapse, mouth pressing to a thin line. Palpatine felt his lips tug to a thin smile, aware of just how much the boy looked like his father—like his real father: like Anakin. And yet Palpatine had invested so many years of judicious persuasion that the boy was Obi-Wan Kenobi's, that Vader still saw only his old mentor in the boy. And the boy's build, made slight probably by a combination of his mother's genes and his formative years beneath Palpatine's hand, served to underline the lie, in Vader's eyes.
And it had been such a simple lie—to identify the already-hidden boy as Kenobi's and not Anakin's. Vader had spent seven years mourning the loss of his wife and unborn child because of Kenobi. It had been so easy to feed that resentment, to take the lies already woven to hide the boy's past and turn them to his own ends, twist them for his own amusement. A game played on so many levels.
Because the truth—the truth that he would never once utter—was that Anakin had been the embodiment of all that Palpatine had desired for himself: power and prodigy, all so close, yet never his. And every year as Palpatine had watched Anakin grow, that power had increased beyond all expectations, so that even as he'd congratulated himself for recognizing such promise, Palpatine had felt those first stirrings of resentment. Fury that he could influence yet never himself experience such an instinctive, intuitive connection. That he was relegated to base manipulations in order to control it. To watch as it was wielded and ultimately wasted by Anakin, thrown away in blind rage.
And all, as it turned out, over a woman. The very thing which had given Palpatine the means to control Anakin had been that which had reduced Anakin's power to the level of any other Jedi. He should have been pleased; the power he'd so coveted and resented had been taken from Anakin -that and so much more.
But it hadn't been enough. He'd wanted more. A deeper hurt, a greater revenge for the one whose abilities had so eclipsed his own.
And then the boy, Anakin's son, had come into Palpatine's hands…and oh, that was true retribution. To steal from him his only son, to turn the two against each other so completely. It gave Palpatine a private, glowing satisfaction to know all that he'd done. To own so much that should, by rights, have been Anakin's. To bully and brutalize the boy, and to encourage his unknowing father to do the same. What a wonderful, warming revenge. Every time he visited it on the boy—every time he saw Vader do the same—it brought a stifled smile of enjoyment.
"Lord Vader will arrive tomorrow…" Palpatine hesitated as he studied the boy closely, letting his private smile widen into a slight laugh, as if in casual realization. "It will be nine years, almost to the day, since you arrived here yourself."
The boy glanced down, a haunted frown taking his features.
"How mundane your life was then. How pitifully small and safe." Palpatine stepped forward and reached out to rest his hand lightly to a cheek still suffuse with the glow of youth, and the boy tensed, but didn't recoil. "We were meant to find each other, you and I," he whispered into those troubled eyes. "You were meant to be here. To serve. Everything else is irrelevant… Remember that."
Leaning forward, he placed a tender kiss against the fading bruise of the eye he had blackened in a rage just three days earlier. Deeply unsure, the boy blinked at the last moment, his lashes brushing Palpatine's lips as they held there just a second before he stepped back, releasing the bewildered child.
Turning away, Palpatine flicked one hand in brusque dismissal as he returned to the empty table to study the glowing holo. Ignored, the boy remained still for a long time…
Eventually he stirred, bowing once to his Master before he walked quickly from the huge hall, leaving Palpatine to smile into the encroaching shadows.
Han slapped disgustedly at the comlink in the staff office, closing the channel.
"Well, the meeting finished two hours ago, and the aide on duty says that Luke stayed a few minutes afterward, then left."
He wasn't here, of course. Han wasn't even surprised; he'd long since learned that Luke's leaving one place had little connection to his arriving at another on time—or at all, if the mood was on him. When he'd first arrived, Han had been—reasonably, he'd thought—confused as to why exactly Indo felt the need to have someone accompany the kid pretty much everywhere he went. Now—now Han found himself wondering why exactly no one had been assigned to accompany Luke to the tactical meeting. Yes, it had been strictly authorized personnel, but hell, he would have waited outside.
As it was, they'd tried everywhere now and drawn a blank. Most night it wouldn't have been a problem, but apparently the fact that it was the eve of Luke's birthday made everyone extra-antsy.
Indo was staring at a palace layout, asking Gorn the same questions he'd asked three times already. "He's not on the main ziggurat roof?"
Gorn shook his head. "No, Sir."
"The landing platforms?"
"The roof of the State Legislature?"
Gorn was, Han had to admit, pretty patient with the guy. He also sounded like a droid whose voice-system was stuck.
"No register of him passing through any outer ward gates?"
"The practice halls?"
At a mile square, the Imperial palace was a big place if you wanted to lose yourself—especially if, like the kid, you had years of experience in doing just that. Though disappearing wasn't as easy as Han had first imagined; every main hallway in every public space was monitored, he'd learned.
Beside him, Indo hesitated in pensive consideration, then straightened to comm security. An unknown voice came over the comlink. "Main Ops."
"This is Viscount Indo…I need you to do a security check on an apartment door for me."
"The apartment reference is S1074. Check for an entry."
"That's in the VIP apartments of the South Quadrant… Sir, I have that listed as a prohibited area."
"Has there been an entry?"
There was a long pause, in which Han wondered just exactly what was going on here…
"Sir, I have a single incursion listed, over an hour ago. There's nothing on the security monitors for that floor though… I'll log for Security to go over there and…"
"No need, trooper, I have it in hand. I'll go right now."
The security officer paused, uncertain…then caved to Indo's rank. "Acknowledged, sir. I'm going to have to send someone over to check in an hour or two, though."
"Two hours is fine. Thank you."
Indo stepped back from the console…and Han moved quickly to the door. "That's all right, I'll go."
Indo lifted one eyebrow. "You have no idea what…"
"I'll go," Han repeated firmly.
Indo stared for a few seconds through narrowed eyes, then nodded slowly. "Fine."
Han paused uncertainly at the door of apartment S1074, one of many senior guest apartments generally reserved for visiting dignitaries. Palming the door entry as he wondered why exactly this one was out of bounds, Han stepped inside.
The long hallway was dark and cold, its still silence eerie. Tall panels of figured ebony lined the walls, the floor a dark, marbled stone, though its true color was difficult to tell beneath the heavy pall of dust which lay everywhere. Just how long had it been prohibited?
Han glanced down the unlit corridor, which fell to thick and distant shadows, a vague suggestion of the substantial scale of the empty apartment indicated by regimented rows of double-height doors. In the dust before him there was a narrow track of footprints; a path walked often enough to keep it at bay…but only ever to one room. Han started forward, aware of muting his footfalls as he walked, uneasy somehow at the thought of shouting Luke's name. The track in the dust stopped only at the third door, which was already open, though there was no light within. Han paused without entering. The forlorn, musty darkness and the scale of the barely lit room made it nothing more than a black void. The kid was in there somewhere though—Han could smell the Ruby spice from here.
Straightening, he took a silent step into the gloom—and jumped at the quiet voice which came from the floor to one side of the heavy door-frame.
"Don't go any further."
Twisting to his side, Han looked down. Luke was sitting just inside the door as if reluctant to go into the room, his legs pulled up close and his arms wrapped about them. Perfectly still, he was barely a presence in the shadows, eyes to the center of the room, completely lost in his own thoughts. The bright flare of a spice stick lit a brief glow about him, enough for Han to see others spent and stubbed out on the floor near his boot.
"Luke?" Han paused, voice little more than a whisper. "You okay?"
The kid just tightened his arms about himself, insular and distant.
Han glanced into the shadows of the darkened room, looking about. In the shuttered light which reached it from the main entrance, it seemed just like any other guest apartment, albeit with that distant sense of long-abandonment, underlined by the film of dust which had settled deeply about its dull surfaces. The furniture was dark and heavy, the high walls panelled in that same figured ebony as the hall, which absorbed what little light there was. Stark and somber, its stillness seemed to hold the room in stasis, removed from time. To the center, a long, low oval table in black marble stood before a stark angular chaise, two more matching chairs opposite, the dust and the shadows rendering their fabric dull black.
Han looked back to the kid, who stared ahead, lost in thought. He followed his gaze back to that heavy black chaise, struggling to make some connection, some reason as to why the kid would be here, huddled in the shadows of the musty room. "What is this place?"
"This is where it happened," Luke said numbly, voice distant. "This is where it ended."
"This is the last place—the last place that I was with them. With…" He trailed to nothing, having no words to continue.
"This is the room I was in when Palpatine came to claim me," Luke whispered at last.
Han glanced about, feeling a sudden chill run up his spine. "How old were you?"
The spice stick flared brightly in the gloom, lighting Luke's still face, the smell of the scarlet smoke bitter and heady from this close.
"Seven," Luke said at last, voice completely without emotion. "It was one week after my seventh birthday, and I was sitting right there."
Seven…so why did Gorn think that Luke had arrived here aged eleven? Han moved to crouch beside the kid as the spice stick flared again, its curl of ruby smoke the only color in the somber room. "What happened?"
Luke didn't speak for a long time, and when he did, it was no answer at all. In fact it raised a hundred questions.
"My mother…she lost a pearl hairpin here. Father had bought them for her earlier that year, and she was so upset when she lost one. I'd never seen her cry before…she cried so much." He let out the barest bitter laugh within a breath. "I was too young to realize what else she was crying about. I spent hour on hour in this apartment that day, trying to find that damn pearl hairpin, because I wanted to make her happy again. I couldn't understand why I couldn't find it…I could always find anything, even then."
"I never did find it. For years afterwards, every time I came here, I always used to look…I always looked." Luke's voice was a hoarse whisper, eyes glassy in the near darkness. "I never found it."
Han stared for long seconds, pulled down into the kid's misery…then he shook his head as he dragged himself free, standing. "Well, c'mon, let's find it now."
The kid didn't move, and Han paused. "Luke?"
"You don't get it, do you? I didn't either. For the longest time, I kept coming back here to look, hoping…hoping to find something that was hers." He shook his head slowly. "She never lost a pearl hairpin. I spent that whole last day that she was here, looking for a hairpin that she'd never lost… But what else could she tell a seven year old boy to explain why she'd cried every day since we'd arrived here?"
Han felt a surge of emotions rise up to lock his throat, so that his words were a broken whisper. "What happened…that last day?"
The kid shook his head mutely, staring into a room dark as the crypt, and Han's burning desire to know was replaced by a protective surge which made everything else, in this moment, unimportant. "Luke, whatever happened, it wasn't your fault. None of it was your fault."
"It was all my fault," the kid said emotionlessly. "This was all because of me, Palpatine never hid that. I know the truth, I'm not stupid. I know that I'm just another opportunity to him, otherwise he would have killed me in the purges."
"…What does he want?"
"I don't know a lot about Vader's past, but I think he was already under the Jedi's protection when Palpatine found him. He prized Vader away from them, but he had to do it quietly, had to hide what he was doing, had to give Vader so much autonomy, or risk losing him entirely. So Vader wasn't enough, I suppose—not for Palpatine. He wanted more…and he found it."
"He found you."
Luke stared into those pitch shadows, voice distant. "This time, Palpatine could ensure that he owned the child completely, with no one to stop him, no one to intercede. Now he had his control. He had his apprentice…and I had a Master. He wouldn't let anyone else near me. Always him. Only him. And I didn't care, because it was all I knew. Nothing else existed—no matter what he did, nothing else existed… I can remember that quite clearly."
Again Luke paused to take a series of short breaths, then he was very still for a long time, not breathing at all.
"He said tonight that we were meant to find each other. That I was meant to be here. He told me to remember that."
Han shook his head, angry at the open manipulations of a man who had neither conscience nor compassion. "Listen to me, he's wrong. He's saying this stuff to control you."
Luke only shook his head, voice barely a whisper. "You don't understand."
"Oh, I understand that yellow-eyed son-of-a-Sith perfectly," Han growled.
"And what about me—do you understand me? What I did?" The kid's voice slowly took on an edge. "A few short months here, and you've got everything pinned down, right?"
Han straightened, taking a step back in the gloom. "I think I'm gettin' it, yeah."
"People spend their whole lives here, whispering secrets, and they don't know the truth. But you—two months, and you've got it down." The kid's voice was rising in anger now, his face still hidden in the shadows. "Only you don't. Because you don't know the truth. Nobody does, except me and him. You don't know anything about me—about this…all of this."
"Hey, I'm just trying to help."
"How exactly? A pat on the back and a few empty words; 'Chin up, kid, hang in there'. You have no idea what happened. What do you even care…who asked you to care? In fact, who asked you to come up here at all?"
Han stared, uncertain why the kid was overreacting so wildly. Frustrated that he couldn't see Luke's face to read his reaction, he stepped to the side, hand reaching out to the long console table there to feel at the base of a heavy lamp for the on-sensor—and the kid lunged up.
"Don't touch it! Don't touch anything here!"
"What the hell?" Eyes on the kid as he scrabbled upright, Han's hand hit something in the darkness, small and light. He twisted about to grab at it, but he was a half-step too far away, the shuttered light too dim…
The coral box shattered as it hit the hard stone floor, tiny shards scattering into the shadows. Han turned instantly, an apology on his lips…
"Out!" Luke launched forward, palms landing flat to Han's chest to shove him hard, pushing him forcibly back. "Get out!"
The kid's hands were still out before him, palms flat…
The weight which landed against Han's body a second later wasn't a blow, but it was a solid wall of immense pressure, powering him backwards as his mind reeled to catch up with a phenomenon that it couldn't fathom. Luke stepped forward to deliver another flat-handed push, more anger than any real force, but it was backed up by that unrelenting invisible impetus. Trying vainly to stand his ground, Han stumbled back into the hallway, clouds of dust rising at the movement.
"This place isn't for you!" Luke kept on pushing, forcing Han down the hallway in a broken stagger.
Han lurched unstoppably back through the main doorway and out into the bright light beyond as Luke broke the contact, both physical and mental. As the kid backed into the darkness Han caught himself to step forward—and the massive apartment door slid shut, separating them.
"Luke? Luke!" He hammered on the door, palming the release, but it remained firmly shut. Finally, glancing to the surveillance lens at the far end of the empty corridor, Han punched the door in frustration before turning on his heel to stalk away, shaking his head and muttering a choice Corellian curse.
Indo walked the long corridors to the prohibited apartment, trusting that Luke would have had time to calm by now. Solo had returned frustrated and angry, probably knowing that Indo had sent him there unprepared on purpose, Indo mused.
It was a testament to long familiarity that Indo was confident of knowing just exactly the right tact and tone to take here—unlike Solo. In fact, Indo had relied on that, seeing his opportunity when the Corellian had offered. Solo had been getting undesirably close to Luke over the last few weeks, and it had been time to tarnish the pilot's reputation somewhat—as well as underline Indo's own safe familiarity.
There was little that meant anything to the boy, but the apartment which had been inhabited by Bail and Breha Organa held an almost shrine-like significance to him. Palpatine had left it untouched, probably knowing that it would fester like a wound in the boy's already-damaged psyche. But there was more even than that, Indo suspected—something which ate at the boy, something which burned—and to this day, Indo had no idea what.
He wondered, sometimes, why Luke chose to come back here again and again for contact with a past which seemed only ever to scald. But then, although it marked the end of his previous life, it also held the frail memories of the very last place where he had felt some kind of contentment, Indo supposed—of safety. So it was always to here that Luke would retreat when at his most troubled. To send Solo bumbling into this place without knowing its relevance would, Indo had known, likely drive a wedge between them. There were rules here, unspoken but imperative, and as much as Solo seemed intent on creeping into Luke's life, his coming here would only have highlighted his status as an outsider.
Indo unlocked the door and stepped into the still apartment without subtlety, using the noise to announce his presence, but taking his time, giving Luke the space he would need to prepare for the intrusion. Squinting in the darkness, he walked the narrow path through the dust to the third door, knowing exactly where the boy would be—but paused in the doorway of the room, knowing he should step no further. Luke's voice came from the floor beside him.
"Don't you ever sleep, Indo?"
His voice was calm, tinged with the private melancholy which this place always evoked. Indo glanced to him just once, before looking out across the broken shadows.
"I sleep whenever you do," he answered smoothly. "I am hoping to do so very soon."
"That was subtle."
"My humor becomes a tad blunt after midnight."
"Then go to bed," Luke chastised affectionately.
Indo held his ground expectantly.
"Fine." Luke rose to his feet, glancing about one last time as he made to leave. "I swear you think I'm still eleven years old. You'd organize my whole life for me if you could."
"I thought I already did." Knowing how much these dusty rooms meant, Indo crouched to pick up the spent stubs of the scarlet papered spice sticks.
"I just let you think that…I learned to do that when I was twelve." Luke too crouched down, using his bare hand to brush the ash away.
Indo paused at the doors to the deserted apartment, taking care to check that the lock had engaged. Luke didn't comment on the fact of course, though Indo knew he would have registered it.
They entered Luke's apartment together, Indo pausing before a tray which had been left in the Red Room at his order. "Your tablets." Luke pursed his lips, but Indo held his ground. "Please?"
Sighing, Luke lined the tablets up on the hard-edged, etched-metal table before taking them quickly, one after the other. Tonight, Indo didn't ask to check.
Luke hesitated as he put the glass down, eyes remaining on it. "I think I shouted at Solo."
"I'm sure he can take it," Indo replied simply.
"He broke the coral box."
"The one to the right of the door—on the console?"
"I'll go back tonight—gather the pieces," Indo promised, attributing the boy's muted disposition to this.
"I'll come—I should come."
"No, it's after midnight. You should sleep," Indo chastised gently. "I'll put them in the arcwood bowl, beneath the console. Perhaps they can be reassembled by a jeweller."
"No, leave them in the bowl."
Indo nodded, knowing that the boy would rather them stay in the room, even like this. "Of course. Now, go to bed."
Still the boy didn't move. "Vader's coming."
"When?" The word was clipped by Indo's constricting throat.
"Tomorrow…today, in fact."
"For how long?"
"I don't know…and no, I couldn't."
Indo frowned. "What?"
"Avoid him. Lay low or leave for a few days. You know Palpatine wouldn't allow that."
This was the true reason for Luke's melancholy, Indo realized—the reason he had retreated to the apartment tonight. "He won't stay long. The Death Star is operational in just weeks now. He's probably been summoned to answer for why exactly the 501st took so long to quell the riots onboard."
Luke nodded as he glanced down. "Gorn heard that it's looking likely that some information regarding the Death Star was copied, but because of damage, they don't even know what exactly."
"Well then, take heart in the fact that this will be an uncomfortable visit for Lord Vader."
"He'll find some way to put it back on me," Luke said tiredly. "Probably he'll say that if the spy at Sinto Barracks had been brought in alive, they could have already extracted some reliable information."
"…Is he right?"
"No, but that won't stop him. It never has before."
"Luke, you will always have enemies. That's a simple fact of life."
Luke's chin raised, defiant. "I'm not afraid of him."
"I know that…and believe me, so does he."
Mollified, Luke nodded, turning to leave.
"Luke…" Indo hesitated, uneasy. "You'd do well to have a clear head in the morning."
The boy stared for a few seconds, understanding Indo's meaning. But he had nothing left to be fractious, so eventually he half-nodded in acquiescence. "I'm done for tonight."
Indo nodded as the mercury-mirrored doors to Luke's darkened rooms opened. "Sleep well," he said absently, though the doors were already closing.
"Go to bed!" came the shout from the room beyond, making Indo smile.
Feeling that equilibrium had been at least partway restored, Indo walked comfortably through the darkened rooms, starting the long walk back to the prohibited apartment. Lord Vader's arrival was untimely to say the least, and would have to be carefully managed in order to avoid another catastrophe on a par with Vader's last visit. It occurred only now to Indo to wonder whether the Emperor had specifically summoned Vader…but it made no difference in the long run. Vader and Luke seldom needed any excuse to become incendiary.
Perhaps in retrospect, now had been a bad timing to instigate Solo's disgrace…but then again, perhaps not. The boy's stability was paramount, and Solo remained an unnecessary complication which, if Indo couldn't directly remove, he could certainly distance.
He wondered occasionally at his more drastic actions to maintain the status-quo here…but if he had regrets, then they were from the more distant past. If he had failed Luke, then it had been in the boy's first years here…and he hadn't been alone.
Unbidden memories came to the fore—of Palpatine, of the child he had oppressed and terrorized so pitilessly, of the passive collaboration of those around, in allowing it to happen. And Indo had been no better, preferring the convenience of choosing not to see the truth—but what else could he have done?
What could anybody have done?
It had been made very clear to him, in no uncertain terms, that his opinion was not encouraged. The day following the boy's arrival in Court—and the Emperor's claiming of him—Indo had been turned back from the Presence Room by Pestage, with the well-known phrase, "The Emperor does not require your attendance today."
It was a stock phrase delivered to certain people daily, indicating that the individual was out of favor. It would often be spoken to the same individual for months on end, though they were still expected to attend the Presence Room outside the Throne Room daily.
And Indo did, every day listening closely for any intrigue which would serve or hamper his own son's rise—and coincidentally listening for any word on the unknown boy.
And word was not favorable. From that first day, the boy had remained locked in the Throne Room, whether Court was held or not, whether Palpatine was there or not. Gossip circulated that the child was often bruised and bloody, injured or completely unresponsive. Those who were allowed entry to Palpatine's elite inner Court came out with whispered tales of maltreatment; of extreme, violent reproaches if the child spoke or even moved without Palpatine's permission—sometimes there seemed no provocation at all, the Emperor simply turned on the boy, seeking him out if he had hidden in the vast chamber.
Then he somehow managed to steal away from the guarded Throne Room where he was locked alone every night, and it seemed that the whole Palace was awakened, Palpatine himself stalking the long, dark halls looking for the boy.
Pestage and ten Red Guards had demanded entry to Indo's apartments. Indo had, of course, allowed them to search his quarters, since the boy wasn't there—why would they assume he would run to a place he had only been in for few hours, especially since it was Indo who had handed the boy over to the Emperor? He hadn't known the boy's intended fate at the time, but the boy didn't know that.
Not knowing the Palace, tired and malnourished, he hadn't managed to get far, found within the hour. Retribution had been swift and merciless, doled out as only Palpatine could, the fact that its victim was only a child not for one moment entering the equation.
For the first time since he had been taken by the Emperor, Indo heard that the boy spent five nights away from the Throne Room. In the intensive care ward of the Palace medicenter—under heavy guard, of course.
And for the first time, people began to whisper that it would be better if the child had died.
Everyone assumed that he would in the long-run anyway—he simply couldn't survive this level of abuse for much longer.
But he did survive, and time passed.
It was almost six months before Indo saw the boy again. Six months before the Emperor decided that he had clarified sufficiently to Indo why it was not advisable to speak out against him in Court, as he had done in defense of the boy that first night.
He was lucky that he hadn't been expelled entirely. But even that had turned out to be a manipulation.
Still, when Indo had finally been allowed access to the Throne Room again, where the boy was almost permanently imprisoned now, he had immediately searched for the child.
What he had seen…had been something else entirely.
Huddled into the corner of the room to the back of the dais behind the throne was a twisted pile of dirty rags. Feet bare, arms wrapped about himself against the cold of the winter evening, was a fragile, emaciated creature, empty eyes staring out of a gaunt, pale face, blue with bruises, scuffed with scars, some still red and angry, others already so old as to have faded. Those pale eyes shadowed by dark bruises met no one's face and held no hope, no prospect of reprieve, far too old for the small, frail body they stared out from.
And nobody looked; nobody approached him or offered any kind of acknowledgement. The boy's eyes rested momentarily on Indo's, but if there was any kind of recognition there then they did not let it show, moving immediately on, the boy lost in his own private misery.
He had struggled to his feet when Emperor Palpatine had swept regally into the room, bowing low as the rest of the Court did.
When Palpatine had settled on his throne, he had glanced behind him, his voice harsh. "Boy!"
In all the years Indo saw him in Court, he never once heard Palpatine call Luke by name. But then, Indo soon ceased to think of him in those terms too—he was hardly the same child who had been brought here.
The boy had made a sound, half-sigh, half-whimper which had churned Indo's stomach. But he had set immediately forward to stop beside the throne, the whole galaxy, for him, clearly consisting only of himself and the Emperor. Palpatine had grabbed at his arm and hauled him down to a spot near his feet, the child immediately understanding and dropping to his knees on the marble floor, head down, body tense.
"Stay there. Don't move."
That remained his only interaction with the child for the next five hours, during which time Indo watched the boy remain so still as to be unnerving, even his eyes never straying from the spot to the center of the room, no matter what took place around him. No noise, no commotion, nothing moved his head, his hands, his eyes.
The Emperor walked regally between the rows of inclined Courtiers, always the first to leave when Court retired. He paused before Indo, who had calmly risen at a gesture from his Emperor.
"Indo—we have missed you in Court. You will find that very little has changed. Rules and traditions are things which are upheld, as ever."
It was a none-too-subtle dig at Indo's departure from such in answering back to the Emperor in defense of the boy, and he wasn't about to be excluded for another six months for something so pointless.
"Just as you say, Excellency. Always."
Palpatine had smiled graciously, playing the part of the magnanimous ruler so well. Then, as the thought occurred, he'd turned slightly to the side. "Boy!"
The child rose quickly and slipped his way through the crushing crowd, looking neither left nor right, his uneven gait favoring his injured leg, which took no weight at all. When he arrived he made no sound, just stopped, body tense, head tilted in rapt attention, though he didn't meet the Emperor's eyes.
"Do you remember Viscount Indo?" the Emperor prompted, reaching out to rest his hand on the slight boy's shoulder, skin and bone now. The child had flinched, arm rising slightly, then looked quickly up through bruised-black eyes to study Indo's face for a few seconds, though Indo could not find it in himself to look when confronted by the empty stare, aware that the child's full attention was on the Emperor anyway.
He shook his head, eyes down again.
"Speak out, boy!" Palpatine snapped, grabbing a handful of hair to shake the child's head violently.
Strangely, the boy did not cry out, nor even lift his hands up further to protect himself. He just waited, shoulders tensed until the act was over, staggering against the ferocity of it, then without hesitation spoke out, though his voice was small and broken.
"No," Palpatine repeated, releasing his hold slightly, though his fingers remained caught in the boy's knotted hair, nails to his scalp. "But perhaps he remembers you. Which would be…inopportune, wouldn't it?"
The boy made a slight double-take, knowing that a certain answer was expected of him, and that he must give it immediately.
"Y-yyy…yes?" he'd hazarded, tensed arms half-raised to ward off the expected assault, the alternate reply already on his lips.
"Yes," Palpatine had repeated, his eyes never having left Indo, the message explicit.
"As you say, Excellency. Though I'm afraid…I have no memory of meeting the boy." If the only way that Indo could remain in Court to serve his own son's interests was to offer vagaries about a child who to all intents and purposes didn't even exist any more, then he could do that.
It seemed adequate for the Emperor, who twitched one side of his lip up in a satisfied grin. "And how is your son, Viscount? I hear great things of him."
"He is very well, thank you, Excellency. Eager to be back."
"Good, good. I am told you are an exemplary influence—an outstanding educator. I foresee a great future for him here in my Court, if he is as commendably loyal as his father… Yes, a great future."
Bowing again, Indo had felt a flare of pride at the Emperor's recognition of Dubrail…though his eyes couldn't help but go back to the boy who still cringed beneath the Emperor's grasping grip.
Feeling that he had made the deal quite clear, the Emperor had turned to make his way from the chamber. And though his head was respectfully lowered, Indo's eyes had stayed on the boy who limped beside him, his head down, Indo's face already forgotten.
"Stay there," Palpatine growled simply as he reached the exit of the Throne Room.
The boy had halted without quite passing the threshold, gaze remaining after the Emperor—or perhaps simply on the world outside the confines of his opulent prison.
Courtiers had filed out past the hunched child, brushing and jostling him until he backed up, limping past Indo to return, resigned, to the corner behind the dais.
In all, the child endured four years alone and at the mercy of Palpatine, with no one in Court daring to intercede. No one, Indo included, choosing to see as he spiralled down from a normal, if anxious and isolated child, into a silent, traumatized, feral creature, prey to Palpatine's remorseless abuse with all thought of retaliation beaten from him.
Occasionally Indo, who remained at Court, still pursuing his own son's future, would see the boy huddled in a corner in the Throne Room, becoming steadily more skeletal and less responsive, those huge blue eyes going from bewildered and desperate to blank and beaten. But the abject, disturbed creature hiding in the shadows of the Throne Room, weak and listless from hunger, at once terrorized by and bound to the Emperor, remained ignored by all, no one able to acknowledge the appalling maltreatment which the now-silent boy endured. He no longer looked for lenience, for any kind of acknowledgement or aid from those around him. He no longer met people's eyes, since they chose never to meet his. He simply survived, from day to day; from hour to hour sometimes, when the Emperor's relentless wraith was upon him.
And like everybody else, Indo had looked the other way. Privately, it pained him to see the boy like this, since he reminded Indo so much of his own son. But for Dubrail's sake, he averted his eyes, like everyone else. He held his silence. He looked away.
In those dark days, much as he had so clearly loathed him, even Lord Vader had ignored the boy completely—though he had more than made up for the reprieve since. So Indo expected no clemency when the Dark Lord arrived at the palace today—on Luke's sixteenth birthday, of all days. Nor would Vader be unforthcoming in his opinion of Luke's recent actions at Sinto Barracks. And the Emperor, as always, would listen.
If only the boy had been handed over to Indo aged seven, none of this would have been a problem. All of his flaws, his behavior, his wilder and darker traits, all stemmed from his years in the Throne Room, and Indo knew it. He knew too, of course, why the Emperor had done it: to control the boy completely. Or perhaps it was deeper than that… Sometimes Indo wondered whether he knew the whole truth—whether anybody ever would, where the boy was concerned…
Certainly, if Lord Vader knew more, then he had never deigned to share the facts with Indo. And what Indo knew, he would likewise never willingly share with Lord Vader. He frowned, reflecting again on Luke's retreat to that same deserted apartment time and again…
Considered Luke's private room at the end of the enfilade, hidden from prying eyes.
Scattered facts that could never come together, Indo knew. Only the boy and Palpatine knew the truth. He wondered, often, if it was that which had bound them together.