Title: Marauder Author: snowduchess Characters: Tenel Ka, Jacen, a few Hapans, and some eels Timeframe: Pre-Dark Nest Trilogy. Genre/Warnings: Romance. Innuendo and implied adult content. Summary: The time of the Marauder's Masquerade has come. Queen Mother Tenel Ka Djo obligingly hosts the affair and quickly finds herself drawn to one Marauder in particular. She never expected to find familiar eyes behind the mask. --------------------------------------------The anticipation in the air was thick enough to taste. The royal city of Tenel Ka Chume’Dan bustled with activity as people from across the Cluster flocked to the heart of Hapes. Docking bays and lodging facilities were filled to capacity, while the many markets and vendors were struggling to keep up with the new overflow of demand. The streets were buzzing with excited chatter from normal residents and travelers alike. From the balcony of her private palace chambers, the Queen Mother overlooked her city with an expression of mild fascination. Holiday observances had been suspended during the Yuuzhan Vong War and the tenuous recovery period after. In that time, she had forgotten how something as innocuous as a party could cause such a stir among the prim and proper citizenry of the Hapes Consortium. Of course, this wasn’t just any holiday. To appease her nobles, she had agreed to let the traditional festivities resume, and the night would bring the Marauder’s Masquerade: one of Hapes’ most prominent annual celebrations. With almost six years of pent-up energy and a young, vibrant queen on the throne, this year’s masquerade was promising to be the largest in decades. Hosted within the regal walls of Fountain Palace, all attendees save the Queen Mother herself would don costumes and masks to hide their identities from each other, freeing themselves of propriety and repercussion. The men of the Hapan nobility would assume the roles of Marauders, parodies of the Lorell Raiders that had first colonized the Hapes Cluster, while the women happily played the Maidens they sought to plunder. Both would mingle in a shameless night of drink and dance, sweat and skin. The most ambitious Marauders (and occasional Maiden) would take on the challenge of ‘capturing’ the Queen Mother and her affections for the night. It was, by many accounts, three steps shy of an orgy. Her father needed no persuasion to excuse himself from attending the festival. Having played a Marauder for many years, first as a bachelor and later as the Queen Mother’s consort, Isolder knew exactly the sort of debauchery that went on just as well as he knew the sort of things he didn’t want to witness his daughter partaking in. Fountain Palace itself was in a frenzy as final arrangements were made. Decorators flitted about as they added the last few touches to the Villa, where the masquerade would be held. Caterers unloaded their supply ships and slaved away to prepare enough food and drink for the extensive guest list. Musicians and other entertainment troupes set up their equipment in their designated areas. The Hapan Royal Guard diligently tackled the dilemma of security for the coming event. Turning from the balcony, Tenel Ka reentered her suite, pausing when she caught sight of her reflection in the mirror. Not even twenty-two years of age, and already there was little left of the young warrior she once was. In her place was the incarnation of the Ta’a Chume, a perfect balance of power, beauty, and the intelligence to wield them. The sheath gown she wore hugged her curves, accentuating her still youthful form. The provokingly open neckline of the halter plunged to her navel and left her back bare. The skirt fell past her calves with an asymmetrical slit running across her thighs and up to her waist, where generously-spaced lacing over her hip taunted the imagination. The main body of the dress was a deep jungle green, while the edges of the halter and slit were lined by bands of blood red and citrine yellow respectively; the colors of the highly venomous Kodashi Vipers of Dathomir. The shimmering fabric was even lightly textured to resemble reptilian scaling. Her entourage wouldn’t make the correlation, of course; one more source of amusement added to her list of private indulgences. While she didn’t wear a mask, the gem-encrusted Crown of Hapes was ever present across her forehead, and her beauticians had painted a striking design of exotic colors around her eyes. Her braids, which had grown quite long in the years since her coronation, were drawn together and coiled regally atop her head. Bangles of genuine Kodashi skin encircled her right wrist and left ankle: gifts from her maternal great-grandmother. Inciting a layer of distress greater than her wardrobe was the absent weight of her lightsaber. She had continued to carry the weapon as a reminder of her devotion, but with every passing year, Tenel Ka felt her ties to the Jedi Order unravel just a little bit more. Now she would face her first night without it and wondered how long it would be before she stopped carrying it altogether. A second reflection abruptly joined hers in the mirror. His form was garbed in a cobalt tunic and teal vest over dark trousers, and the silver sash around his waist matched the silver mask covering his face. Had she not sensed him enter her quarters, she might have been startled; he was supposed to meet her at the Villa. Someone was starting the game early. “You. What are you doing here?” she demanded without facing him. “Seeking treasure beyond that of gem and coin.” “Do you seek also to have your head removed from neck and shoulder? It is a daring maneuver, prowling the Queen Mother’s chambers unannounced,” she chided. “A venture of requisite risk.” “So it seems. Tell me your name so I know what to have inscribed on the trophy plate.” “Orpheo, Majesty.” Tenel Ka studied the masked man in the mirror. His real name was Gwayne Ontares. He had the handsome features and athletic build typical a man of the Cluster, punctuated by a mane of blonde hair and dark blue eyes. Twenty-eight and eldest son of loyalist Ducha Elayne Ontares of Ut, he was one of the few males of legitimate noble title. While most men of the upper classes had no true title or holdings except the grace of blood or marital relation to women in power, Gwayne had inherited the status of Duch’da following the death of his older sister, Rayne. Wrapping his arms around her waist, Gwayne placed a kiss on her shoulder. His voice dropped to a murmur as he slipped out of character. “I would not protest if you wished to skip formalities and remain here.” “Ah. You assume you will be returning to my chambers tonight.” “I hope only to retain your favor.” “Then I suggest leaving your arrogance at the door.” Gwayne was unfazed as he traced her collarbone under the edge of her dress. “I intend to leave many things at the door, my queen.” Abandoning the mirror’s reflection, Tenel Ka met his gaze over her shoulder and returned his kiss. Formality. That was the term the man had used, and that was all any of it was. While his assumptions would likely hold accurate, Gwayne was not the first she had invited to her bed, and he would certainly not be the last. It had been a difficult role to step into. As Queen Mother, she was responsible for maintaining the balance of power within the Consortium, and the intricate game of give-and-take was far removed from her core ideals. As hard as she had tried to stay firm, she quickly found herself yielding to four thousand years of tradition and, as with her ties to the Jedi, felt the last vestiges of her old self slipping away. A raven-haired young woman stepped quietly into the room, prompting Tenel Ka to break from Gwayne. “Forgive me, Queen Mother. Your guests are arriving.” “And Commander Vai?” “Waiting in the corridor.” “See that the rooms are prepared in my absence.” The Chume’san bowed. “It will be done, my lady.” “And Mi’ri.” Tenel Ka held the young attendant’s gaze, a woman she had known since they were both children. Chume’san was the highest station a palace servant could attain: the personal handmaiden of the Queen Mother, held in trusted favor above all others. Unlike her peers, Mi’ri bore the permanent mark of the Ta’a Chume between her shoulder blades. “Remain here until I return. I would not have you become the plaything of some ill-mannered parasite.” Mi’ri bowed again, this time with a wave of relief rolling off her. “Yes, Queen Mother.” As the Chume’san went off to complete her duties, Gwayne lifted Tenel Ka’s hand to his lips. “Her Majesty is a goddess among mortals.” “A fact well known throughout the ages.” She entwined their fingers. “Come, Orpheo. As you have infiltrated this far into my domain, you may as well accompany me down to the Villa.” “It would be a pleasure, Queen Mother.” With Commander Vai leading the way and two additional armed Hapan Royal Guards shadowing behind, they made their way down to the southern guest courtyard, which served as the main access to their destination. The Villa was already brimming with masqueraders, all of whom paused their mingling long enough to pay respects to their queen. As with all areas of Fountain Palace, the Villa held its own distinct artistic design. Four sunken square pools of fresh water served as the focus of the main floor. Lined with decorative stone tiles, each shallow pool was home to several Copper-vein Eels from Dreena. The eels were harmless, their lustrous black color mottled by striking veins of copper in a simple imitation of more dangerous predators from the same region. The ceiling of the Villa was actually the massive interconnected trio of architectural sails that hooded the southeastern wing of Fountain Palace. The sloping frames of the inner and middle sails bore expansive openings through which one could see four of the seven moons in the night sky. The outer sail sheltered a grand terrace that jutted out over the basalt crags, granting view of the royal city below. A row of ornate pillars standing along each wall formed a slightly more private ring outside the core of the Villa. The eastern and western row of pillars each converged into elaborate stone archways, the latter accentuating the entrance from the courtyard and the former crowning the Queen Mother’s dais. Instead of a throne, her dais held a plush bed of pillows large enough to accommodate the Queen Mother and several companions. A pair of female officers of the Royal Guard, clothed in formal uniform and without masks, stood to either side of the dais. The decorative wall behind them was actually two-way transparisteel with a hidden door, concealing the rest of their squadron—one of five ready to come to their queen’s aid at a moment’s notice. In addition to the live band, there were alternating performances by naked male fire dancers, nearly naked female pole artists, stunt acrobats, and stage combatants. All were masked in spirit of the holiday. Palace servants filtered discreetly through the throngs of guests carrying trays of wine and appetizers. The men were bare-chested with only a brief loin wrap. The women wore open halters that tied to a sarong at their hips; a humble echo of their queen. Both wore the braided Charubah-steel collars typical of their status and expressionless full-face masks absent holes for the nose and mouth. The neutral garb easily distinguished servant from guest without detracting from the night’s illusion. Many of the Marauders were already seeking to win favor, presenting Tenel Ka with extensive compliments, expensive trinkets, or shows of physical prowess rivaling that of the professional performers. In the midst of their clambering, a lean Marauder dressed in modest creams and reds approached. In place of elaborate offerings, he held up a single Nebula Lily, its speckled lavender petals darkening to near black in its core. “And whom should I thank for so thoughtful a gift?” Tenel Ka asked. “Taurus, Queen Mother.” She accepted the flower and pressed a kiss to his cheek. “Thank you, Taurus.” Kel D’rak was the youngest of her consorts at seventeen. Quiet and cautious with his inexperience, he didn’t push her boundaries as many of his peers did, nor did he ply her with overabundant flatteries. Though her father had chastised her for entertaining Kel’s immature courtship, Tenel Ka made a point of keeping diverse company, if only to avoid boredom. “Come,” she beckoned. “You will join me.” Waving away the ring of people around her, she reclined on her pillowed dais with Gwayne and Kel to either side. Her armed escort had vanished from sight, though Tenel Ka knew they were still keeping close watch over her. For all the years of built up anticipation, the night did not disappoint. The music was exotic and engaging, and the spectacle performers were putting on impressive shows. Her glass was never empty of gold wine, and her two attending consorts took pleasure in feeding her caramelized berries and brandy-soaked peaches. Their caresses began innocently enough, but as the evening wore on and the wine set in, innocence turned more insistent. It was when Gwayne began brushing his lips over her jawbone that Tenel Ka sensed another pair of eyes on her. Even with only a cursory look, she found that he stood out from the other Marauders. In a sea of vivid colors of every shade, he wore a suit of sleek black. The open coat was trimmed with embroidered gold piping and a column of large gold buttons on either side. The black silk scarf tied around his neck disappeared into a black vest, showing only a hint of the white dress shirt underneath. His hands were gloved, and his dark hair was styled back with gel. His mask was black as well except for the blazes of emerald that swept back from the eyes and the gold swirls of embroidery that encompassed them. Out of habit, she extended her Force senses and briefly touched his mind. His presence was not one she recognized. In fact, it was rather unremarkable, almost out of place among the colorful flares of her better-known guests. Curious, she spared him another glance. Something about him struck a note of familiarity, but she couldn’t place it. Her attention was wrested away as Gwayne painted brandy down her throat and chest with a peach slice, his tongue dutifully erasing the sticky trails. When Kel held out a pair of berries, she closed her lips around the fruit along with the fingertips surrounding them, inciting him to lavish her pulse point with gentle nips. Gwayne then met her with the peach slice held in his teeth, letting her take it from him with a kiss. She drew a deep breath and relaxed back into the pillows as Kel’s fingers found the inside of her thigh through the slit in her dress. Though he traced tantalizing patterns across her skin, he wasn’t foolish enough to venture higher. She drank the wine that poured from Gwayne’s lips as he hovered over her, kissing him deeply at the end of his offering. As she parted from her consort with a final stroke of his tongue, Tenel Ka sensed a shade of jealousy tint her mystery guest’s lingering gaze. Envy, at least, was a reaction she anticipated from her admirers. Emboldened by her indulgence, Gwayne pulled Tenel Ka to her feet and onto the main floor of the Villa. The music had turned seductively dark, a carnal melody screaming of predator and prey. She faltered briefly; though the sisters of the Singing Mountain Clan often moved their bodies freely in ritual, she had rarely been one to dance. With the gold wine pulsing through her bloodstream, however, her discomfort was ebbing away. Shoulder against shoulder and legs interwoven, there was little space between them as they rocked forward and backward to the beat. They twisted under each other’s arm and continued their rhythmic sway. Tenel Ka took the opportunity to glance over her consort’s shoulder to where the dark guest had stood, but he was nowhere to be seen. Assuming the man found an easier quarry to pursue, she brought her focus back to her dance with Gwayne. Not ten steps later, a sudden tug on the hand brought her face to face with her mystery Marauder. Amber-brown eyes burned behind his black mask. With a tiny bow of his head, he raised her captured hand between them, and they circled each other palm to palm. After a slow twirl under his arm, he held Tenel Ka flush against him. Gaze never leaving hers, the Marauder slid down the length of her body, his hands gliding over her curves and down her thighs. A flutter of arousal coursed through her at feeling the man’s hot breath on her stomach, turning into a spike as he climbed back up her torso. The combined attentions of Gwayne and Kel hadn’t affected her like this. Her body was responding to the black-clad Marauder as though it knew something she didn’t, and Tenel Ka had the nagging feeling he knew it as well. Disorienting her further, the passion of his touch thoroughly defied the bland persona he gave off. Resolutely stepping in, Gwayne took her hand and lifted it to the back of his neck, carrying her away from his rival. Her consort doubled his effort and led her in the same palm to palm step as the other man had, while Tenel Ka kept an eye on the dark Marauder to gauge his reaction. It may have been the way the light played across his face, but he almost looked amused. Allowing them a few moments, the Marauder then moved back into the Queen Mother’s circle. Tenel Ka switched her gaze between him and Gwayne, hesitating only a moment before wrapping her arm around her mystery guest’s neck. She felt the pang of frustration sting her consort, but her interest had unquestionably shifted. The Marauder circled around behind her, letting his fingers trail from one shoulder across her throat to the other. She reached back to hold onto his neck as she dipped her body against his. The remainder of their dance passed without interruption, and it wasn’t until the song changed that Tenel Ka finally spoke to him. “And what shall I call you?” His response was a quiet rumble. “Apollo, Majesty.” “Apollo,” she echoed, testing the name. Like the Marauder himself, the name bore a note of familiarity she couldn’t yet place. “Lay with me.” Tenel Ka was anything but naïve; her choice of phrasing held an enticing connotation and a simple test. Without knowing who he was, she was forced to rely on alternative methods to decipher his ultimate motives. An offhand gesture prompted Kel to stand, and he took his dismissal with a deferential bow. Tenel Ka accepted Apollo’s hand as she reclined onto her pillows, easily turning her attention to the beginning stage combat display as he carefully settled down beside her. Apollo’s eyes were likewise on the performers and his mind was calm, his caress growing almost lazy in its unassuming nature as he drew slow circles around her navel. In contrast, his skin was flushed, a light sheen of sweat dotted his hairline, and his breathing was too deep for a person completely at ease. His fingers traveled up her ribs and down the inside of her left biceps. Surprising her yet again, he went on to trace the cusp of her severed arm with tender confidence, something most men in her circle seemed afraid to do. In many ways, he was reminding her of— A leather glove hit the floor at Apollo’s feet, interrupting her thought. Gwayne was perched in front of her companion, waiting for the man’s response with tense arms and a steady glower. Apollo’s eyes turned to her in unspoken question, but all she gave him was the lift of a brow. With unhurried precision and the barest hint of a smile, the black-clad Marauder leaned across the short distance separating them and kissed the flesh just beneath her ear. The gesture of promise, she expected. The shiver it sent down her spine, she did not. Apollo plucked the glove off the floor as he stood, tossing it back to Gwayne. The nobles and performers had already taken notice and began clearing from the center of the Villa. Dueling was a frequent custom within the Cluster; it came as no surprise the masquerade would yield one such contest. “The challenge has been made and accepted,” Tenel Ka declared, her voice ringing clearly through the hall and silencing any remaining chatter. “The duel will end at first draw of blood.” Each took a sword from the stage combatants, wasting no time with words or ceremony. As the cadence of clashing durasteel echoed through the Villa, Tenel Ka briefly wished for the sound of lightsabers. She quickly cleared her mind of the thought; that life was behind her. Almost immediately, she recognized the difference between the two men, one that would determine the victor. Gwayne was practiced in dueling as it related to Hapan culture. Apollo was showing the skill of one experienced in real-world combat. And he was holding back. As Gwayne grew more frustrated, his ripostes grew more forceful. Apollo took the aggression in stride, though it was also clear he was becoming less concerned with sparing the nobleman’s pride. The Marauder sidestepped a thrust, bringing the flat side of his blade around to connect solidly with the Duch’da’s back. Tenel Ka frowned as Gwayne stumbled forward; Apollo could have ended the duel right then. Instead, the Marauder took a few casual steps in the opposite direction, only turning around in time to avoid an angry chop. He met the oncoming blade with his own, also grabbing Gwayne’s wrist with his free hand. With a quick pivot, Apollo flipped Gwayne over his shoulder, landing the nobleman perilously close to one of the eel pools. The Queen Mother watched in dismay as Gwayne hooked his fingers around an unsuspecting eel and flung it out of the pool at his opponent. As though expecting it, Apollo caught the squirming creature in the crook of his left elbow and deftly ignored the accompanying spray of water as the nobleman charged him with furious strikes. Staving off a jab aimed at his head, Apollo drove his blade forward along Gwayne’s as he hammered his fist into the man’s nose. With a sharp snap of the Marauder’s wrist, Gwayne’s sword flew from his hand. Apollo brought his arm full circle to right hook the Duch’da in the chin, rapidly reversing for an elbow to the bridge of his already bleeding nose and following through with a vicious upward backhand that knocked the man’s mask off his face. With relentless momentum, Apollo spun around to deliver a second elbow—this time to the chest—before pulling his sword in a tight arc across his body. The hiss of durasteel grazing flesh sounded through the Villa. “Enough.” Tenel Ka’s command came before Gwayne could retaliate, and both men relented as she stepped between them. As Apollo carefully lowered the hapless eel back into its pool and brushed water from his jacket, the Queen Mother took gentle hold of her consort’s bruised chin. A shallow gash marred his cheek, the first droplets of blood just beginning to trickle out. “Apollo is victor.” While the circle of masqueraders broke into eager prattle, Tenel Ka spoke to her consort in a private tone. “Have this taken care of and retire for the night.” Gwayne opened his mouth to argue, but she cut him off. “That was not a request.” Reluctantly, the Duch’da bowed his head in submission. “…Ereneda.” “And Gwayne,” she called quietly. “Never use one of my eels as a weapon again.” Gwayne cringed at the rebuke as he turned to leave, only to find Apollo holding out his silver mask with a smug grin. The nobleman took it wordlessly and retreated from the Villa. “Orpheo bleeds freely,” the Queen Mother pondered aloud. “I wouldn’t worry. He looks like a quick eeler.” The pun gave Tenel Ka pause, during which Apollo continued. “I hope Her Majesty is not disappointed.” “You have some skill with a blade.” Apollo stepped closer and took her hand in his. “Worthy of your affections?” Before he could raise it to his lips, Tenel Ka pulled from his grasp and gestured to one of the stage performers. “Do not think them so easily stolen,” she cautioned as the combatant handed her his sword. “I enjoy a challenge.” She didn’t grace him with a gradual buildup, instead diving headlong into powerful and complex combination attacks. While Apollo boosted his efforts enough to match her, he was clearly still holding back, a detail as irritating as it was considerate. In fact, his style had turned almost playful. On more than one occasion, he penetrated her defenses only to back off without pressing his advantage. At the same time, he intentionally left himself wide open until the last possible instant. It was her game, and yet she was the one being toyed with. Blocking an insultingly tame forward slash, Tenel Ka met Apollo’s gaze across their locked blades. “I hope you are not holding back just to please me.” “No, Majesty. I have not yet begun to pleasure you.” Her heart skipped when she noticed the teasing curve to the corner of his mouth. She would know that smirk anywhere, and the answer that had eluded her all night fell into place: Apollo was the name of a lightsaber. His lightsaber. The revelation sparked a new set of questions, but she forced them to the back of her mind in favor of playing out the rest of her game. She shoved hard against Apollo’s sword and drove him further back with a series of rapid but hefty hacks. She dodged a thrust and lassoed her arm around his neck with a sharp tug, twisting herself around to roll across his back. She planted her feet at his other side, speared her blade toward his still-bent form, and waited. Apollo cautiously straightened his stance, his eyes falling to the sword tip digging into his jacket directly over his heart. The right corner of his mouth curled up. “It would seem my pursuit ends here.” Courteously, Apollo took the sword from her and handed it off to its original owner. “But what an exhilarating pursuit it was.” With a respectful bow and a kiss to her palm, he melted into the throng of cheering Hapans. He had let her win, of course. While there was a time when she could have beaten him fairly, she was too long out of practice. It took several minutes for the commotion to die down and the performances to resume, but once all had settled, Tenel Ka went in search of her Marauder. She waded through the flirtations of her drunken guests and passed under the archway onto the terrace. There he stood, his back turned and eyes trained on the darkened horizon. She came up beside him, casually resting her arm on the stone rail as she gazed out at her city below. Apollo kept his silence and waited for her to speak first. The glow of torches and bonfires flickered throughout the streets, and the sounds of the lower class celebrations drifted up the basalt cliffs to her ears. “I am trying to decide if I should be insulted.” “And what have I done to plague Her Majesty with such a question?” the Marauder asked. “I did not give you leave to walk away from me.” “My apologies. It seemed the best way to extract you from your other contenders.” “Is that what you are doing? Separating me from the crowd to better make your abduction?” “A time-honored strategy.” “Ah.” “Call for help if you must. It won’t matter.” “Aha. And how many of my guards would you kill in your escape? Ten? Twenty?” Apollo turned and brought their faces close enough for the noses to touch and their breath to mingle. “I would kill a hundred if it meant a single taste of your lips.” When Apollo withdrew just beyond her reach, she released the air in her lungs with an unfulfilled sigh. “But no less,” she muttered. “I told you I enjoy a challenge.” “A challenge, I can provide myself,” Tenel Ka reminded, running her fingers down the side of his mask. “There is no need to involve the Royal Guard.” “And what did Her Majesty have in mind?” Apollo gently caught her hand before she could lift the mask from his face. “You would break the rules of your own game? I thought the Queen Mother was not supposed to know the identity of her Marauder.” “And if she knows anyway?” “Then I have failed in my night’s endeavor more than once.” “You believe the night a failure, and yet here I am with you instead of in there with Taurus and the others.” “Because you know who I am now.” Tenel Ka hesitated. How accurate was his claim considering the man’s allure before she realized who he was? Maybe she had known his identity on a subconscious level, and the stir of old feelings drew her to him. Or maybe she hadn’t known, and their personal history had no bearing on her current attraction. “Perhaps,” she conceded. “Does that mean nothing to you?” He drew her closer by the waist. “Maybe it means everything.” He brushed his nose along her cheek, lowering his head to murmur in her ear. “Does it excite you? Knowing I could take you right here in front of them?” The thought had occurred to her. With Apollo’s identity secret to all but her, not a single one of her guests save a jealous consort would look twice. Many of them would be too busy with their own indiscretions. Those ‘three steps shy’ were closing fast. “I am not one for an audience.” “The display with your mannequins suggests otherwise.” This time, she almost smiled at the pun. Almost. “Take care, Apollo. You are looking green around the eyes.” “A jest from the Queen Mother. Now I know I have insulted you.” He took her hand and placed seductive kisses along the inside of her wrist. “Allow me the chance to beg forgiveness.” Pulling from his grasp, she made her way across the terrace. “Later. For now, my presence is required.” She paused in the archway and met his eyes over her shoulder. “You are welcome to join me.” She didn’t wait to see if he would follow. She strode back into the main hall of the Villa, greeted by the bow of the lead fire dancer and his troupe. “Permission, Ereneda.” She gestured for them to proceed. “Please.” As she returned to her dais, the dancers relit their staves and ropes, and the musicians began pounding out a percussive primal beat. She chose not to look up as Apollo joined her. She did, however, notice that he lay closer to her now, hip against hip with his weight-bearing arm close behind her. She felt surreal. Like the masquerade had become a holovid she was watching instead of living. The spinning fires seemed to slow, becoming languid figures of molten light. The dancers seemed to blur in and out of existence, shapeless anchors to the fires they wielded. She spared Apollo a sidelong glance, entranced by the way the spiraling light of the fire staves flickered across his mask. Now it was so painfully clear. The color of his eyes, the cut of his jaw and curve of his lips, the caress on her severed arm. How could she not have realized it sooner? She had assumed he was halfway across the galaxy on his quest for knowledge. The possibility that he would show up unannounced under an alias tonight of all nights hadn’t occurred to her. She certainly hadn’t anticipated a guest so adept in the Force; to dampen his presence was one thing, but to project a false one was something else entirely. The fact that he seemed familiar with the masquerade’s traditions was even more baffling; he had never before been so overt with his intentions. Clearly she was not the only one who had changed over the years. It was well enough, she thought. No longer the reticent love-struck teenager, she had no further patience for adolescent angst and waning expectation. She would have him tonight. Of that, she had no doubt. She couldn’t deny the now blatant difference. His was the same lazy caress as before, but the tingling heat his fingertips painted across her flesh radiated with twice the intensity. His breath on her shoulder came just as evenly, but the quiver it left in her stomach threatened to rattle her entire body. She sucked in a breath when his lips once again found the spot beneath her ear. Yes, it was different now. Gwayne and Kel were long forgotten, and waiting for the fire dancers to finish their performance had become what the entire night had been from the start. Formality. “Come with me.” She could feel him smirk against her flesh. “As often as possible.” Careful not to draw too much attention, Tenel Ka took Apollo’s arm and led him out of Villa through a more discreet secondary exit. Within moments, her armed escort was back at her side, ensuring unhindered passage to her chambers. Apollo trailed along behind her, obediently keeping his hands to himself under the scrutinizing stares of the many palace guards. His smirk, however, was fixed firmly in place until they entered the common room of her suite. There, the lights were turned down to a low setting, and a sweet mixture of incense was lit. A warm flame crackled in the white alabas fireplace, contrasted by the cool breeze rustling through the open doors of her balcony. Fresh linens had undoubtedly been placed in the bedroom and refresher. When Mi’ri emerged from one of the adjacent rooms, Tenel Ka met her with a low murmur. “Thank you, Mi’ri. That will be all.” The Chume’san wordlessly exited the chambers with a bow. Tenel Ka stepped over to the fireplace, where she proceeded to remove her bangles and earrings. She left the jewelry on the mantle, trusting Mi’ri to take care of it in the morning. Kicking off her sandals, she pulled out the pin that held her braids up, letting them fall loose from their coil. Only the circlet across her forehead—the Crown of Hapes—was left in place. Finished, she crossed to the other side of the chamber. Apollo remained where he was: motionless in the center of the common room as he watched her, his hands clasped casually behind his back. He had long ago dropped the veil hiding his true presence, but his thoughts were still carefully concealed. He was covering his nervousness well. Pausing in the doorway to her bedroom, she held out her hand in silent invitation. Her companion made no move to accept. “All your teasing, and you had not considered what would happen next?” she wondered. At first breaking eye contact, Apollo hesitated another moment before slowly walking to her and placing his hand in hers. “I’ve dreamt of it for years.” “And?” she prompted, drawing him closer. He ran the backs of his fingers over her cheek. “My dreams don’t do you justice.” Releasing his hand, she reached up to trace the ridges of his mask again, this time making no attempt to remove it. Letting her fingers drift lower to brush along his jawbone, she lifted her gaze to find his brown eyes inches away from hers, watching her intently. “Jacen.” Though the name came out as no more than a whisper, the Marauder gave an almost imperceptible shake of his head. “Not tonight.” Burying a hand in her braids, he pulled her into a hard kiss. He wasn’t gentle. The Marauder had claimed his prize with aggressive enthusiasm, and she had only encouraged him. True to his word, he came with her as often as possible, pushing her well into the early hours of the morning as though making up for lost time. Only when they both collapsed from exhaustion did he lace their fingers together, his whispers of affection in her ear lulling her to sleep. The sun rose a short while later, spilling light into her chambers and causing her to stir from slumber. She didn’t have to open her eyes to know he was gone, just as the Marauder should be. With the sheets beside her cold and her chambers absent male presence, Tenel Ka found herself wondering if her lover had been a dream; if she had consumed too much wine, invited another suitor to her room, and fallen into fantasy. Stretching her fatigued body, she glanced towards her balcony doors only to stop short. There, on the pillow next to her, was Apollo’s mask. She rolled onto her side and ran her fingers over the now familiar contours of the sculpted leather, longing to see the face it had hidden. As memories of the night’s activities washed over her, she allowed herself a small sated smile. It would only be a matter of time before her Marauder came to her again. And then there would be no mask to hide behind.