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Beyond - Legends Interregnum II (Action/Drama | Luke/Mara, Kyp, Pellaeon, Wedge | Epic) [Complete]

Discussion in 'Fan Fiction- Before, Saga, and Beyond' started by Bel505, Sep 30, 2021.

  1. Bel505

    Bel505 Jedi Grand Master star 2

    Jul 4, 2006
    Chapter Six

    Newly-promoted Admiral Gilad Pellaeon watched as two of his prized cadets ran through a training drill. Cadet Deleste occupied the sensors station, working his way through a number of target analysis drills, asked to respond quickly as simulated foes appeared and disappeared at the edges of Chimaera's sensors. His partner, Cadet Mytov, took the identifications and made snap-decisions about how to respond to each one. The two of them were among the finest of the cadets in the class Pellaeon was going to graduate, and unless they made a terrible mess of the sim, they would be graduating second and third in their class—which meant that Pellaeon would be hosting them for dinner that evening.

    That was one of the honors and responsibilities of Pellaeon's position as their finishing instructor. He hadn't been at Carida all that long—just six months—but they had been as rewarding as the months he'd spent as Thrawn's flag captain. Thrawn had taught Pellaeon so much in that time, and now it was Pellaeon's job to make sure that knowledge was not forgotten by the fleet.

    Deleste and Mytov's fingers flew with the energy of youth and the precision of training, Mytov holding one hand on his ear as he issued rapid-fire instructions; Deleste made sure that he knew what they were dealing with, his expression never flinching. In the other crew pit Lieutenant Tschel was running the exercise, tossing increasingly vague and uncertain shadows at Deleste, forcing him to make judgment calls rather than obvious decisions.

    Pellaeon watched as they worked, increasingly impressed as—

    The computer screen froze up; the simulated ships suddenly vanished. As the alarm klaxon started to sound, the border of the tactical screen that Deleste and Mytov were using went red.

    "Status change! Hyperspace emergence!" shouted someone in the portside crew pit, but the primary sensor station was still occupied by Deleste and Mytov. The two men didn't miss a beat. Deleste made the identification and forwarded it to Mytov, who pressed the key on his desk and spoke over the intercom without a moment's hesitation. "Confirm one Executor-class Super Star Destroyer!"

    Pellaeon's blood ran cold. A Super Star Destroyer? That had to be Lusankya! The New Republic was mad to attack Carida, with all its extensive defenses and the hefty fleet presence, but if they were going to do it, leading with Lusankya was the way to start!

    He stabbed the com. "All ships transition into standard combat fleet formation! Fighter squadrons scramble! Inform Carida control that we'll need all ground-based fighter squadrons—"

    He was interrupted by Mytov's voice. "Vessel identified as Reaper, Grand Moff Kaine arriving."

    Pellaeon cut his orders short. He took a breath, newfound irritation replacing concern. Moffs. They always felt the need to throw their weight around. "Belay those previous orders," he muttered and released the com pickup switch.

    Lieutenant Tschel was at his side, one hand holding a datapad and the other on the com pickup in his ear. "Grand Moff Kaine sends greetings and respectfully requests permission to come aboard. He understands that you're hosting the last meal for this year's graduating class tonight and indicates his desire to attend."

    Pellaeon kept his face neutral. "Very well Lieutenant. Tell the Grand Moff that we will be waiting for him. Helm, assume escort formation with Reaper." He pressed a different button on the command board; this one buzzed his steward. "It would seem we have company. Prepare a ceremonial side party and add another seat to the dinner table for tonight. Also, take out our more expensive wines, I think. The Chandrilan, if we have any left."

    That left just one last thing to attend to.

    Pellaeon walked over to the starboard crew pit and looked down at Deleste and Mytov. The two men had been shoved aside by Chimaera's normal crew, but the truth was they'd done the job as well as anyone could have. It had not been intended, but it had been a superb test. "Congratulations are in order," Pellaeon ground out, annoyed at being caught off-guard. "You both pass with flying colors."

    The two young men smiled like schoolboys.

    * * *​

    Pellaeon waited as his guests filed into the room. Their backs were parade ground straight, their step possessing the kind of precision granted by elite training at the Caridan Military Academy, they were the best of the best of the year's graduating class. The stewards waited against the walls of the room as the three cadets walked the gauntlet between the handful of officers who would be joining them for dinner at the long dining table. Each of the three stopped at their assigned seat, standing beside it as they waited for permission to sit.

    Out the starboard window was Carida. A pleasant world, with unusually thick white clouds and enormous, sometimes mountainous land masses spotted with numerous lakes and rivers, it was important for a number of reasons. Firstly, it was home to the primary Imperial fleet and stormtrooper academies, and as such was one of the only places left in the Empire that still produced high-quality young officers for the Starfleet. Just as importantly, Carida was located close to the center of the galaxy, about equidistant between Coruscant and Kuat, while also being close to the Hydian Way. The combination made it valuable strategically as well, forcing the New Republic to place numerous ships in proximity. That led to Carida being the second most fortified planetary system in what was left of the ragged confederation of Moffs and Warlords that still laughably called itself the "Empire", with dozens of Star Destroyers and smaller craft always present at any given time, and an array of Golan defense platforms that would give even a Super Star Destroyer pause.

    Even with that impressive array of defenses, Pellaeon knew it was a matter of time before the New Republic came for them here. The question was only how long it would be.

    When was it, Pellaeon thought, that he had gone from an officer in the Imperial Starfleet, the most powerful military the galaxy had ever seen, to an officer desperately trying to keep hold of what little they had left? And these young men would be asked to fight a war that had begun before they were born, a war that Pellaeon's generation had frittered away with complacency and arrogance.

    Like his cadets, Pellaeon stood, waiting.

    The yeoman at the door straightened and brought a whistle to his lips. He blew out a salute, and every man in the room straightened as one. The large doors that the cadets had walked through swung open again. The man who walked in was tall, with grey hair and a regal bearing that had been trained into him from youth. The Grand Moff's uniform he wore aided the effect, and Pellaeon adopted the studious officer's mask he had also learned as a cadet, allowing it to break only long enough to check and make sure his three students were maintaining theirs.

    Pellaeon's arm rose to tender the salute that protocol demanded. "Welcome aboard Chimaera, sir. It is our honor to receive you."

    He had never met Grand Moff Kaine in person. On one occasion he could recall Thrawn negotiating with Kaine over the holocomm, instructing Kaine to maneuver the Outer Rim Fleet to reinforce the forward units responsible for the bulk of the fighting. It had been a careful dance, because Kaine had technically outranked Thrawn. Kaine's reluctance to fully commit to Thrawn's campaign had forced Thrawn to make suboptimal decisions time and again, Pellaeon thought resentfully. Had Reaper been present at Bilbringi, and not hidden in reserve where Kaine could be sure that nothing would happen to the priceless artifact of his personal prestige, that battle would have ended differently. Very differently indeed.

    But his resentment could not be allowed to show. Any Imperial officer with Pellaeon's years of service knew that expressing such sentiments would be counterproductive and quite possibly fatal.

    "Thank you, Admiral," Kaine returned the salute with twinned careful military precision, and yet it was somehow still more casual and relaxed than Pellaeon's own. The Grand Moff turned his attention on the three cadets. "And these young men are the ones we are here to offer proper honors to?" he asked.

    "Yes sir," Pellaeon replied. "Cadet Nalle, step forward."

    Hacery Nalle was the youngest of the three. A good half-meter shorter than either of his comrades, he had the solid compact frame characteristic of the best TIE fighter pilots. And Nalle was the best. Pellaeon had even heard quiet comparisons to the legendary Baron Soontir Fel, which was a comparison the surprisingly shy young man clearly rejected.

    "Cadet Nalle will graduate first in his class this year," Pellaeon recited. "He has passed every exam given to him, and has set the fourth-highest marks ever on his flying practicals."

    Kaine circled the table and shook Nalle's hand. "Cadet Nalle. Tell me, Cadet, do you have a preferred posting?"

    Nalle's cheeks had gone red, contrasting vividly with his dark hair and pale skin. "I'm h-happy to accept any assignment the Empire would honor me with, sir!" he said with only a momentary fumbling of words.

    "Of course," Kaine replied. "But you forget, I graduated from Carida too, as did Admiral Pellaeon. Everyone knows that while you will take any position, there is always one you're hoping for."

    The abashed smile made Nalle look even younger than he was. "O-of course, sir." He shrugged his shoulders slightly. "I'm really hoping for a TIE Defender squadron, sir," he admitted.

    "I don't blame you," Kaine said cheekily.

    Pellaeon waited another moment, then resumed the recitation. "Cadet Deleste, step forward."

    Two men who looked more dissimilar rarely stood next to one another. Hacery Nalle was short and pale; Cienis Deleste was tall and dark, with a muscular build that would have suited a stormtrooper. But while Deleste probably could have been a stormtrooper, and indeed had initially been admitted to that service branch, the Starfleet had a long history of plucking talented recruits out of the Corps. Deleste, Pellaeon had no doubt, was destined to rise the ranks quickly—he had more raw talent than any other Caridan cadet Pellaeon had known at that age—and he wondered, mournfully, what Thrawn would have made of the young man if given the chance.

    "Cadet Deleste will graduate second in his class this year," Pellaeon said, "and his teachers tell me he has both tactical and strategic prowess beyond that of any average cadet. Like Cadet Nalle, he has surpassed many of the marks set by his predecessors. I have had the opportunity to put him through some simulations based on battles in my own experience, and he has proven to be quick-witted and calm under pressure."

    "Cadet Deleste," Kaine greeted him. Where Kaine had looked down on Nalle, he had to look up at Deleste, something that struck Pellaeon as humorous; he suspected that when, fifteen or twenty years from now and Deleste was in command of the Imperial Starfleet, he would think back to this moment and smile at the memory. "I have reviewed your record," Kaine announced; if the fact that Kaine was shorter than Deleste bothered him, he wasn't letting it show. "It is very impressive indeed. In fact, during my last meeting with General Alsdoxe he took the time to complain at length about the fact that the Starfleet had stolen you away from the Stormtrooper Corps."

    The slight smile that creased Deleste's cheek faded quickly. "Thank you. Sir."

    "Admiral Pellaeon also thinks very highly of you," Kaine continued. "Tell me, Cadet, do you have a preferred assignment?"

    "First Officer on a Lancer-class Frigate. Sir," Deleste replied promptly.

    Kaine's eyebrows both rose. "An interesting choice. Why?"

    "Lancers are often commanded by Commanders or even Lieutenant Commanders," Deleste explained. "A Lieutenant serving as first officer would not be out of place. The heart of the New Republic's combat doctrine is their use of snubfighters. The best counter the Empire has to a massed snubfighter assault is a Lancer. Sir."

    Kaine looked over at Pellaeon. "You're right, Admiral. He is sharp."

    "Yes, sir," Pellaeon replied stiffly. He waited until Kaine gave a small nod, then continued the ceremony. "Cadet Mytov, step forward."

    The last of the three top graduates into the Imperial Starfleet that year was a seeming balance between his two fellows. Not as short or pale as Nalle, nor as tall or dark as Deleste, Mytov had none of Deleste's brilliance or Nalle's piloting skill. Instead, he was a dedicated, hardworking young man. Pellaeon had liked him at once and already put through a formal requisition to have him assigned to Chimaera. He wasn't sure if he would get to keep Mytov or not, but he hoped he would. It would be good to have him on the bridge, as an example to the mostly-conscripted men that crewed Chimaera.

    "Cadet Mytov will graduate third in his class this year," Pellaeon continued the formalized ritual of the last meal. "He is the finest electronic warfare specialist of his class, and has the talent and work ethic to make himself into the finest electronic warfare specialist of the Starfleet."

    "Tell me, Cadet Mytov," Kaine said cheerfully, "are you aware that Admiral Pellaeon has already put in a formal requisition to have you assigned to Chimaera as his chief EW specialist?"

    Mytov had not been expecting the question. His eyes flicked to Pellaeon, who kept his own expression perfectly stiff. Mytov quickly returned his attention to Kaine, who watched him with the curious expectancy of a man awaiting an answer. "I was not, sir," he said. "I am honored."

    "As you should be," Kaine agreed. He stepped back, folding his hands behind his back. "Are the three of you prepared?"

    All three men straightened. They fell into a neat line before Kaine, each folding both of their arms behind their back. Their uniforms were perfectly pressed, their outfits trim and neat, and for a brief moment Pellaeon reverted back to his own last meal. He'd not graduated high enough in his class to have the last meal with the local Senator or Sector Governor, but it had still been a triumphant occasion.

    The oath was different now than it had been, but not that different. Not different in any way that truly mattered.

    There was a rhythmic quality as the three men recited their oath. "I declare that I will be faithful, and bear true allegiance to the Galactic Empire, and that I will, as in duty bound, honestly and faithfully defend the citizens of the Empire and the Emperor, his heirs and successors, in person, position and dignity against all enemies, from within and without, and will observe and obey all orders of the Admirals and officers set over me, until I am dead or rendered unfit to serve."

    Pellaeon's lips moved along with the words. He knew them all, even the few that had changed during his service. I will, in duty bound, honestly and faithfully defend the citizens of the Empire and the Emperor, his heirs and successors, in person, position and dignity against all enemies.

    Loyalty had still been pledged to the Republic when Pellaeon was a cadet, and to the Senate instead of to the Emperor and his heirs. Those had not been the only changes. At some point ISB had convinced the Emperor to add "from within and without" to the old cadences, and the change in the rhythm still threw Pellaeon when he wasn't careful.

    But it had not changed that much. The spirit of the oath was the same now as when he had sworn it himself for the first time.

    Kaine pinned the rank plaques of Lieutenants to the chests of the three men. "Then, as a Grand Moff of the Empire, I welcome you formally into its service. Lieutenant Nalle, Lieutenant Deleste, and Lieutenant Mytov, long may you serve the Empire."

    Nalle's voice was quiet compared to the other two, but Deleste and Mytov's voices echoed with the proper response as their bootheels clicked together. "Yes, sir!"

    * * *​

    Through Chimaera's large observation window Reaper blotted out Carida's sun, casting Chimaera in dark shadow. It reminded Pellaeon of serving alongside Executor, at Endor and before, and what it was like to have the sheer size and muscle of a Super Star Destroyer as both sword and shield.

    Across the table, Kaine was launching a final assault on his seared turbot and delicately steamed greens with a barely-restrained gusto. When the assault was complete, he placed his knife and fork across his plate and turned his full attention back to Pellaeon. "Tell me, Admiral, how do you like teaching?"

    Pellaeon put his own utensils down and rested his hands across his lap. "I find it rewarding, sir, beyond my initial expectations. I believe my time serving with Grand Admiral Thrawn stirred in me the desire to refine raw recruits into fine officers fit for Imperial service."

    Pellaeon thought he could see Kaine's expression flicker with distaste at Thrawn's name, but it was hard to be certain. He probably should have restrained himself, but he had never had the proper political sensibilities one really needed for flag rank. "I am told you are very skilled at it," Kaine said.

    "Thank you, sir."

    "Well-regarded even, by long-service staff and students alike. The Starfleet had intended to leave you in your post, perhaps even make you Commandant of the Academy," Kaine continued.

    Pellaeon sat up with surprise, both at the idea that he had been considered for Commandant—he found the idea inspired an unexpected longing—and at the implication that he would shortly be leaving his post. "Chimaera and I are being reassigned?" he asked.

    "Not immediately, but you will be shortly," Kaine confirmed. "Unfortunately, with the loss of Admiral Rogriss, the Starfleet is being forced to reshuffle assignments once again to fill vacancies." Kaine had the tailored precision typical of the New Order; his clipped Coruscanti accent was perfectly aristocratic, despite the fact that Kaine was not from Coruscant. "We cannot spare either you or Chimaera for training duty, I'm afraid. I am sorry to pull you away from teaching."

    The swell of sorrow that sang through Pellaeon at the mention of Rogriss' death was still all too fresh. Details were extremely scarce, but what information they did have indicated that Agonizer had been separated from the rest of her fleet and vanished in an area fiercely patrolled by a New Republic task force. Their pressure on Eriadu had spread Rogriss' fleet too thin trying to cover all its territories and trade. As had become usual in these days, the Empire had asked its commanders to do too much with too little, and a good man had paid the price.

    "The Council of Moffs," Kaine continued—blithely ignoring that of the dozens of men who still comprised the Council of Moffs, his was the voice that truly mattered— "Has decided to assemble a new rapid response formation that will be able to counter the New Republic's coming offensive. It will assemble here at Carida, and the Admiralty is working to find as many ships as possible so that you can actually do the job being asked of you."

    "Of course, sir," Pellaeon agreed. An odd sort of nervousness twinged in his gut as he realized this would be his first fleet command. He wondered if this was why Kaine was at Carida at all—was the Oversector finally, finally going to get serious about defending more than its own regional borders? Was that why Reaper unexpectedly loomed over the planet, as a declaration to the New Republic that Carida could not, would not fall? A truly united Empire under Kaine's leadership—as distasteful and politically-minded as Pellaeon might find him personally—was a far more potent rival for the New Republic than the splintered remnant it had been since Thrawn's death. "I endeavour to serve, sir."

    Kaine turned to the trio of newly-minted Lieutenants. "Gentlemen," he said, causing all three to straighten in their chairs, subtly tugging on their uniforms to make sure any wrinkles were straightened—they needn't have bothered, the tailoring on their new uniforms was far better than the tailoring on their cadets' uniforms had been—and gave Kaine their undivided attention. He nodded approvingly. "Lieutenant Mytov, you have been assigned to Chimaera, as a senior electronic warfare officer. I trust that the officers and crew of the Chimaera will complete your training to the highest standards of the fleet."

    "We certainly will," Pellaeon put in firmly.

    "Thank you sir," the Lieutenant said, with the same eager flush of youth that Pellaeon had seen on the face of many a young officer.

    "Lieutenant Nalle, you have been assigned to the 212th Imperial Flight Wing. It's a new formation, but in the morning you'll receive your formal transfer order to the carrier that will be assigned to Admiral Pellaeon." Kaine's smile was coy. "I believe you'll be satisfied with the 212th's fighter complement, too."

    Nalle gasped; the young pilot was utterly unable to keep the grin from growing on his face. "Yes sir!"

    "And you, Lieutenant Deleste," Kaine turned towards Deleste, whose lips curled with anticipation. "You are going to come with me."

    The faint beginnings of a smile vanished from the man's face. "Sir?" he asked in confusion, with some clear worry in his voice. His dark eyes flicked over to Pellaeon, who tried to impart calm on the promising young officer with his gaze alone.

    "I'm afraid you won't be getting that Lancer position, Lieutenant," Kaine said apologetically. "But there is an opening on Reaper's bridge."

    Deleste processed this information quickly. "Of course. Sir, I would be honored."

    "Then, since it's getting late and I'm expecting some company later, let's be on our way. I've already had your belongings transferred to Reaper, and Admiral Deshorn will be more than happy to brief you on your new duties the moment we arrive."

    Curious, Pellaeon thought. Deleste's record must have stood out to more than just him. For the young man to be given a posting on Reaper's bridge was not overly surprising—as the flagship of the Imperial Starfleet, Reaper was a coveted posting and a footstool to rapid promotion, as Executor had been before it—but Admirals were not in the habit of briefing officers straight out of the academy themselves.

    Pellaeon suspected that the next time he saw Deleste, the young man would be a Lieutenant Commander, at least.

    "Thank you. Sir."

    Kaine offered Pellaeon a handshake, which Pellaeon accepted. "Good luck, Admiral. I'll be in touch with more information on your new fleet sometime tomorrow. In the meantime," Kaine smiled, the perfectly tailored smile that a confident Imperial Moff would wear whether or not he was truly confident, "do enjoy your evening."

    * * *​

    Cienis Deleste and his two fellow cadets—no, Deleste thought, Lieutenants now—clustered together. Nalle, who barely came chest-high on Deleste, was chatting excitedly. This was common, when they were out of earshot of superior officers.

    "Congratulations, Cee!" the young man who had beaten Deleste for the top spot in the graduating class said, his voice carrying with it fervent and honest admiration.

    Deleste couldn't help but grin at Nalle's enthusiasm. "You too, Hack," he replied as he allowed the young man to hug him. It wasn't dignified, but Pellaeon and Kaine were exchanging a brief word and not paying them any attention.

    Mytov didn't hug him, but did offer him a firm handshake. "Congratulations, Cee," he repeated Nalle's words. Mytov's smile wasn't as broad, but it was there. They'd had a robust competition to see who would come in second, but it had never become personal.

    "Thank you, Phelik," Deleste replied more formally, matching the other's tone. "We both got good postings—you get to keep working with the Old Man on Chimaera, and I get Reaper." He shrugged, trying not to be too smug about it and mostly failing. Everyone in the fleet knew that assignment to Reaper was fast-track to fleet rank.

    He would succeed. Deleste could still remember the expressions of his parents when the conscription order had come through; could remember the expressions of his fellow cadets when they heard his Outer Rim accent and the conscripted flag on his personnel file. Mytov had never been one of the bullies, but his native Coruscanti accent was a constant reminder of who he was and what he had. Deleste's lack of one, despite his best efforts to adopt it, never went unnoticed by his teachers.

    Mytov shrugged. "I'm alright with how it shook out. You earned it, Cee."

    "Yes, he did," said a new voice. Grand Moff Kaine stepped into the conversation circle. "And now he must get to work. Reaper needs fresh blood. Come along, Lieutenant Deleste."

    Nalle winked and waved. Mytov clicked his heels together and offered a salute to a superior officer. Deleste followed Kaine. "Thank you for selecting me. Sir."

    "No need to thank me, Lieutenant," Kaine said. "You earned your way to where you are, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise." The two men walked through the large, ornate doors out of Chimaera's formal dining hall and into the more typical, sterile corridors of the ship's halls. A group of Stormtroopers were there; they fell into a defensive box formation around Kaine and Deleste, escorting them towards the hangar. "Although I was biased in favor of your success."

    Deleste frowned. "Sir?"

    "You and I share a homeworld, Lieutenant," Kaine explained. "It may not be the largest world in the Empire, and it is rather far out on the Rim, but I expect that you'll not be the last young man from Sartinaynian to join the Starfleet."

    "I see." Deleste wondered if Kaine knew that he had been conscripted. Then he wondered if Kaine would care. Either way, he didn't bring it up.

    The shuttle trip from Chimaera to Reaper was quick; the express lift from the hangar to the bridge was not. Deleste found himself sitting with the Grand Moff, surrounded by Stormtroopers; porter droids had taken his bags to move into his new quarters, but the Grand Moff wanted him to see Reaper's bridge.

    Conversation petered out as the lift continued its rocketing motion from the hangar towards the bridge. Even moving as fast as it was, they were still a long way from the bridge. Deleste sat and waited, his hands folded with deceptive calm on his lap, still not quite believing he was here. Everything had happened so quickly!

    Kaine was reading a datapad. As Deleste watched him—careful not to be too obvious about it—the Grand Moff's expression went through a few quick transformations. At first thunderous, then resigned, and finally resolved. Deleste tensed as Kaine looked up and caught him watching. To his surprise, the Grand Moff merely shrugged. "The only constant is change, Lieutenant," he said.

    Deleste was not bold enough to ask him what he meant, and Kaine did not elaborate.

    * * *​

    Now an Admiral, Pellaeon had been forced to vacate Chimaera's captain's quarters. Eventually Chimaera would be assigned a new CO to serve as his flag captain, after all. He had found himself with two choices, both of them distasteful. He could either move into Grand Admiral Thrawn's old office suite, complete with holoprojectors for art that Pellaeon still did not appreciate—despite his best efforts—or he could move into the more traditional Admiral's quarters. But those quarters had belonged to another man Pellaeon had considered a friend, and Teren Rogriss' somber ghost followed him whenever he was inside.

    Rogriss had left him a letter and a bottle of expensive whiskey on the desk. Pellaeon had yet to open the whiskey.

    It was a quiet office. Pellaeon had nothing to decorate it with—no portraits of a wife or children, no portrait of Chimaera—and he made a mental note to find something meaningful to fill the space. Examining the datapad on his desk, which was filled with briefing information from Commander Dreyf about the New Republic's fleet movements, he idly wondered if perhaps General Antilles was an artist, and if so how Thrawn would have gone about acquiring some of his art.

    There was a knock on the door. Pellaeon looked up; he still was not used to being on this side of the desk. "Come."

    It slid open and Nzem Dreyf entered with his usual catlike grace. Of middling height and leanly muscular, with dark skin and narrow, intelligent eyes, Dreyf wasn't that far removed from his training either. But even a few months of a combat-heavy campaign were enough to give someone the gravitas of a much older man. Pellaeon thought approvingly.

    "Admiral," Dreyf greeted him.

    "You've heard about our upcoming change in orders?" Pellaeon asked.

    "Yes, Admiral," Dreyf said with a nod. He came to stand before the desk, placing a fresh datapad down and then folding his hands behind his back. "Best indications are we'll be assigned four Imperial I-class Star Destroyers, led by Gorgon. They had been part of the picket forces at Ord Trasi. We'll also have at least two Victory-class Star Destroyers, and whatever other small craft can be scrounged. I believe that Kaine intends to transfer to us at least two of the Oversector's Enforcer-class picket cruisers as well."

    "The ones with some non-human crew?"

    "Yes, sir."

    Pellaeon pursed his lips. Well, if they stay aboard their own ships and are kept under control by their human commanding officers, it shouldn't pose a problem. "And a fleet carrier, from what Kaine suggested earlier."

    "There's an old Venator being retrofitted," Dreyf said thoughtfully. "Magistrate. She might be for us."

    "And then we're going to be sent to stop Antilles," Pellaeon stated flatly. It was not a sure thing, but it seemed a safe guess. "And his Super Star Destroyer." It could be worse, Pellaeon thought. Bel Iblis could still be in command of the enemy.

    Dreyf couldn't hide his wince. "Yes, sir."

    Pellaeon just nodded. He would do his duty, and he would do it without complaint. Whining set a poor example. "Get me anything you have on Antilles, his staff, and his fleet. There's got to be something Intelligence overlooked, there always is." He turned the datapad face down on his desk, his gaze drawn to the bottle still sitting on it. "Any update on the Rogriss investigation?"

    "No sir," Dreyf said apologetically. "I'm afraid not."

    Pellaeon sighed. "I should send his children letters, belongings, something. And get me the com codes for the families of Agonizer's crew. Someone should make sure they get condolence letters."

    "I'll acquire their locations and find a way for you to contact them, sir."

    "Thank you, Commander," Pellaeon said, actual thankfulness touching his voice. The world had shrunk around him the last year. So many people he'd called friends, whose company he'd treasured, were dead now. Thrawn and Rogriss had been important to him. Their deaths hurt more than just professionally.

    He knew Rogriss had been a widower, but it was the least he could do to reach out to the Admiral's children—Asori and Terek, if he remembered correctly—and make sure they were doing all right. He owed his dead friend at least that much.

    Last edited: Nov 13, 2021
    Chyntuck likes this.
  2. Gabri_Jade

    Gabri_Jade Fanfic Archive Editor Emeritus star 5 VIP

    Nov 9, 2002
    I like the thought that Pellaeon considers himself essentially Thrawn's heir; it's very in character.

    lol, Moffs do be that way

    Sometimes I forget how many non-combat support staff these ships and bases require, and then when I'm reminded of it, I think of all the story potential there. Can you imagine the stories Pellaeon's steward has to tell?

    This is an excellent detail :D

    Because Pellaeon is one of the better Imperials, sometimes you forget that he's still in fact a devoted Imperial, and thus almost certainly a bigot like this [face_plain]

    I feel like I never have as much to say on the early plot-heavy chapters because I don't know where they're going yet and I rarely know the characters as well as in the Rebellion/NR scenes, but it's excellently written, as always :D
    Bel505 likes this.
  3. Bel505

    Bel505 Jedi Grand Master star 2

    Jul 4, 2006
    Chapter Seven

    Colonel Kaday Carias had spent much of his life aboard ISB intelligence vessels. They were always comfortable, well-furnished, well-equipped vessels, the finest that the Empire had to offer—and thus, the finest that the galaxy had to offer. Each was different. ISB did not have a standard design or configuration, that way even if one ship was compromised it would not jeopardize the anonymity of the rest, but he always knew when he was aboard an ISB ship. They had a hominess to them, like the perfect old leather sitting chair. Carias actually felt more comfortable aboard them than he did at home with his wife and children; he certainly spent more time aboard them than he did with his wife. Violet Envy in particular was luxurious, with large open lounge spaces that could be used for diplomatic work.

    But the trip back from Yavin was suffocating. The ship felt tiny; rooms that had been refuge became prisons. He knew the rest of his squad were unnerved by the new version of Brakiss that stalked the ship's short corridors like a phantom, casting long shadows in every direction he looked. It was like the ship's air recyclers had started to break down and were emitting a steady mist that was only barely breathable. Every breath was unsatisfying. Every bite to eat was nauseating, every touch was foreign.

    He had no idea what was happening and that was maddening.

    Brakiss had barely acknowledged them since they had left Yavin. He'd taken up residence in the ship's cargo hold and locked them out, and when Carias went close he swore he heard the Inquisitor—the apprentice Inquisitor—talking to himself.

    Carias desperately wished Drayneen had returned with Brakiss from the ancient Sith ruins. She at least had been as normal as Inquisitors ever were, friendly and chatty while maintaining her proper distance. She'd been predictable. She hadn't sucked the air out of a room like a breached bulkhead, hadn't looked at him with cold, almost ageless eyes and a smile that made him feel like a nexu's prey.

    From the helm, Major Welko turned to face him. His normally healthy tan was gone, leaving him pasty and pale. "We'll be dropping out of hyperspace in two minutes, Colonel."

    "Very good, Major," Carias replied, folding his hands together. If Drayneen had still been with them, this would be the moment to com her and invite her to the bridge for their arrival, but if Brakiss didn't want to be here Carias was just as happy for him to not be here. "Another successful assignment."

    "Of course, sir," agreed Welko, turning back to the helm. Despite the agreement, there was discomfort in the man's tone, as if he had gravel in his shoes. They were all on edge, exhausted more than they ought to be. It was making them irritable.

    Carias felt more than heard Brakiss' sudden arrival, the soft breathing and whisper-soft step that betrayed his presence. As the Inquisitor arrived, the ship dropped smoothly out of hyperspace, the spinning lights twisting and straightening with the typical, momentary mild nausea of a hyperspace transition.

    The Carida system was a fortress, and they were pinged with no less than a half-dozen sensors and coms within the first ten seconds of their arrival. "Send our clearance codes," Carias ordered calmly, folding his hands on his lap and trying to ignore the way Brakiss' eyes on his head made the hair on the back of his neck stand up.

    Welko gave a professional nod. He, too, was carefully not looking in Brakiss' direction. "We have recognition from the Carida System Patrol. Reaper has already arrived, Colonel."

    "Take us in for docking." Carias finally turned to look at Brakiss. "Do you need access to the holocomm to report to the Grand Inquisitor?"

    Brakiss was silent for a moment, his eyes looking through Carias rather than at him, with a slightly distracted expression. "Not yet," Brakiss said when the moment passed. He still looked young, too slim for his frame, with a waif-like vulnerability. That physical reality did not match the gaze or presence, the way he seemed to fill the entire cockpit just by standing in the doorway. "I'll contact the Grand Inquisitor after our meeting with the Grand Moff."

    Our meeting? Carias hadn't realized that Brakiss would be part of that meeting. His gaze dipped, seeing the amulet that hung around Brakiss' neck, a steel chain attached to an intricate golden clasp, inlaid with a large, gleaming ruby gemstone. But if he did not press back now, he never would. "Forgive me, Inquisitor, but I believe Grand Moff Kaine wishes to meet with me alone."

    The air in the cockpit seemed to drop by a few degrees. Carias successfully fought the urge to shiver as Brakiss' cool blue gaze turned fully on him, as if really looking at him for the first time. Then Brakiss' gaze unfocused, the Inquisitor's head tilting slightly. After a few seconds, he blinked and looked again at Carias, his focus renewed. "As you wish," Brakiss acceded. "I await instructions."

    Then, bizarrely, the Inquisitor simply turned and left.

    Carias slumped slightly, unable to hide his relief. He wasn't the only one; Welko let out a long breath. "There's something about him I find damned unnerving," muttered Welko.

    "He is an Inquisitor," Carias said, with just enough levity to send a ripple of polite laughter through his ISB team. "Bring us to Reaper. I'm sure the Grand Moff has a new job for us."

    * * *​

    Carias had an odd sensation of deja-vu as he rode the interior lift from the hangar to Reaper's bridge, relaxing as he finally got a bit of distance from Brakiss. The Inquisitor stayed back on the freighter, reporting in to the Grand Inquisitor via the HoloNet; Carias was endlessly relieved that Brakiss had not insisted on accompanying him to meet with Kaine.

    Kaine's office was unchanged from his last visit, although instead of Entralla, the holographic displays projected images of Star Destroyer after Star Destroyer, in neat intimidating formation, with the massive repair and construction facilities all orbiting Carida beyond them. TIE fighters performed their normal patrols, soaring by outside on either side, silent.

    Kaine himself sat behind his desk, looking at a holographic display of the galaxy. Carias marched to his usual spot, thumped his polished boots together and snapped off a salute. The routine felt somehow empty, the salute imperfect, the click of his heels lacking the normal snap. "Colonel Carias reporting as ordered, sir."

    "Sit down, Kaday," Kaine said, sounding tired. As Carias sat, Kaine leaned back in his chair, leaving the holographic display—which Carias now could see portrayed a galactic map of both Imperial and Rebel-held territory—active. "Your mission went well?"

    "We suffered a casualty, but I believe so," Carias said with a nod. His lips tightened as he thought about the mission. There was something else that had happened, they'd found something hadn't they… and something about Brakiss had been bothering Carias for the entire trip back… but now that he tried to remember it, he couldn't quite put his finger on it…

    "Well, I hope whatever artifact you found keeps Halmere happy. I can't spare you on any more of his archaeological expeditions," Kaine said, clearly not too bothered about it.

    Carias tried one more time to remember, focusing on his memory of Brakiss, saw a flicker of gold and ruby in memory—

    Kaine's voice interrupted his attempt at recollection. "I have bad news," he said.

    That brought Carias fully out of the past and into the present. "Bad news?"

    "Moff Mosbree has brokered a deal with the New Republic, or is about to," Kaine explained, his voice resigned and exhausted. "The Quintad Houses want to formally exit the war. It's only a matter of time before Eriadu declares independence from the Empire."

    Carias went pale, a wave of disbelief turning into horrified anger. "That's treason!"

    "It is," Kaine agreed. "Without the consent of the Council of Moffs, they don't have the authority to conduct their own foreign policy, much less leave the Empire. But there isn't very much we can do about it."

    "Yes there is!" Carias retorted hotly. All his concerns about his last mission were burned away under his sudden indignant rage at the betrayal. "I can do to them what I did to Rendili! I'll contact the ISB cadre in Seswenna Sector. I'll make sure that the Quintad Houses know there is punishment for treason, just as I made sure Rendili knew it!"

    He expected Kaine to share his fire. Kaine, apparently, did not. Instead, he gestured at the map. "Look, Kaday. The Empire is shrinking. Warlord after Warlord has fallen, sector after sector has been lost. The Deep Core Moffs aren't even talking to each other anymore, and they're barely talking to me. We can't stop Eriadu from leaving, we can only punish them after the fact, and either way we lose their resource base. Worse, it's not just Eriadu. I know the Corellian Diktat has begun to reconsider the benefits of Imperial membership, and some of the more prominent business interests in the Oversector have quietly communicated to me that they're open to peace as well, if it means regaining access to the galactic market."

    Carias' lips twisted into an outraged snarl. "We'll fight them all," he hissed. "The New Order is superior, we've proven that before and we'll prove it again! We'll be stronger without the traitors and the cowards! Give me a cadre of true Imperial patriots, true patriots Ardus, and I can do anything!"

    Once again, he expected Kaine to share his fire. Maybe the younger Ardus Kaine, who had heard such words from his father, would have. Vilardo Kaine certainly would have. But this older Ardus Kaine apparently did not. "No, Kaday," Kaine shook his head. "I will not throw away what the Empire still has in a vain attempt to regain what it has already lost."

    Sudden horrified realization spiraled through him. No, Carias thought, ISB discipline locking his expression in place as though it had been carved from transparisteel. No, not Ardus too. Not Ardus too!

    But, deep in Carias' gut, he was surprised to find that he wasn't surprised. Not really. Kaine hadn't fought the Rebellion with all his might after Endor; instead, he'd retreated to the Oversector with his ships and created his own semi-independent polity. He hadn't gone to war and conquered his neighbors; he hadn't subdued the other warlords. Instead, he'd put his mind to economic development. To infrastructure. He'd built a fleet capable of defense, without the army required for reconquest. He'd made concessions, made compromises. He'd even allowed aliens to serve on his warships, despite all their inadequacies and the risk of espionage.

    Carias had told himself, in those moments of quiet doubt, that it had all been necessary for the preservation of the New Order. But it hadn't been. Instead, Kaine had bartered the New Order away, one small, innocuous reform at a time.

    As if a film had been lifted from Kaday Carias' eyes, he saw his friend of three decades anew. His heart pounded furiously in his chest, a voice whispering quietly in his mind. You know what you need to do.

    Kaday Carias was nothing if not an exceptional actor. He found the rage, the horror, the betrayal, and he suppressed them. To feel those emotions so intensely at this moment would be impossible to hide, so he had to save them for later. He had a more important task in the present. His expression shifted to resigned sympathy and he offered his old friend a sad, exhausted smile. "You're right, of course," he sighed. "I'm thinking with my heart and not my head." Carias fell into an open chair and rubbed his face with both hands. "It's over, isn't it."

    Kaine deactivated the holoprojector and the maps of the Empire and Rebellion vanished off his desk. "The only question is how it ends. On our terms, or on theirs. If we end it on our terms, now, from a position of relative strength…"

    "Have you discussed this with the Reb—the New Republic?" Carias asked, his voice nearly shaking, the words a tangy poison on his lips.

    "Not in any detail," Kaine admitted. "But I know the terms they demanded from Eriadu, and I have reason to believe that if we accepted similar terms they would be amenable. There have been overtures through back channels… I believe Councilor Organa Solo has been the main instigator of them."

    Treason treason treason treason… "What comes next, then?" Carias asked soberly.

    "Next we need to hold negotiations," Kaine explained. "Unfortunately, I don't trust any members of my diplomatic corps to keep the secret. The economic interests in the Oversector will be divided—half will be thrilled to regain access to the Galactic Market, the other half will be furious that we'll be banning slavery—"

    Catering to the alien. The coward. Strength is what wins wars. He never had the strength needed for this, if he did he would be Emperor already.

    "—and of course, dealing with ISB and the Inquisitorius will require certain delicacy," Kaine finished. "You're going to have to help me come up with a plan to isolate the forces that will resist any move towards peace so we can mitigate the damage they can do to the prosperity and interests of the Oversector."

    He wants to betray the New Order. He wants to destroy it. To lay it low. He never really cared about it in the first place, did he? No. He never did. It was important that not a hint of the thoughts going through Carias' mind be evident, not a hint of his rage or indignance. Yes, they had been friends for decades, but Kaine should know better. Know him better. He was just trying to please his father; his courage died with Vilardo.

    That was the key, wasn't it. For Kaine, the Empire and the New Order and ISB had all been mere means to an end. He'd never understood what it meant to be a patriot. For Carias, the Empire was the end. It was all that mattered. Kaine hadn't been on Coruscant for the Battle of Coruscant. He hadn't watched warships fall from the sky, smashing buildings, killing millions.

    Kaine was a fool to think that Carias would put their friendship above the New Order. A fool. I serve the Empire. "Of course," he said, rubbing his lip. "So, how do you plan to conduct the negotiations?"

    "I intend to do that myself," Kaine said, pressing his hands together. "Nothing less will communicate our sincerity. And it must be done with utmost secrecy. No one can know, Kaday, not before we are ready to act. No one!"

    "You're right," Carias lied. "Then you intend to travel to Coruscant?"

    Kaine nodded. "I do." He smiled, a soft, sad smile, one worn with age and experience. One that had lost its luster, lost its teeth. "We're going to save the Empire, Kaday. Not the way we wanted to, or the way we expected to, but we're going to save it all the same. Everything we can."

    Carias' return smile was just as old and tired. But he wondered if Kaine would note the sudden flicker of fire in his eyes as the possibilities started to unfold before him. "Yes, Ardus," he said. "We are. You and me. For the good of the Empire."

    * * *​

    Brakiss had decided to keep the small room he had been assigned, rather than moving into Drayneen's more luxurious suite. It had everything he needed, and the smaller size meant it was easier to sweep for listening devices.

    That was important. Despite the fact that his newfound mentor had no voice in the traditional sense, Brakiss instinctively fell into verbal communication unless he specifically avoided it.

    Tell me more about the Emperor.

    "I don't know much more than I already told you," Brakiss explained. He brought up the ship's HoloNet connection—since they were docked aboard Reaper, they also had access to the command ship's own databases—and integrated his datapad into the Inquisitorius' network. "He was a Sith Lord who used his power to rule the galaxy."

    An inheritor, then. The voice was stronger and more distinctive now, more recognizably not Brakiss' own. There were times, especially the first day or two, that Exar Kun's voice was hard to distinguish from his own; the thoughts seemed to come from inside him even though they did not. But now the voice had an accent, a timbre, a personality, and Brakiss knew it for what it was. And the Jedi are dead? He killed them?

    "Almost all of them. In the last year a new Jedi Order has begun to grow. So far it has only two members—Luke Skywalker, and a former Inquisitor named Kam Solusar." Brakiss skimmed through the Inquisitorius' record, letting Exar Kun view the files they had on both men through his eyes. Solusar's record included his entire service record, page after page of assignments and mission reports. He had not been the most prolific Inquisitor, but Solusar's five confirmed kills had been extremely respectable.

    Only two Jedi remain. So close to extinction. Brakiss shivered at the sudden swell of emotion, a combination of rage and gloating that chilled the air in the room and rose goosebumps all along Brakiss' arms and neck. We will extinguish their ancient order.

    Brakiss exhaled. It was strange beyond words, feeling Exar Kun's emotions so intimately, carrying around the dead Sith Lord's emotions and personality like a symbiont (or a parasite). But the rage… there was a sea of hate, right there at his fingertips. Exar Kun had shown him how to find his own, but Brakiss' anger paled in comparison to the pain and rage and hate that Exar Kun carried around. Exar Kun's soul was hate and intent, fury distilled to a grim, executioner's purpose. "There are others with Jedi potential," Brakiss cautioned him. "Skywalker's sister, Leia Organa Solo. It is said her children are too."

    We will kill them as well. Brakiss felt his lips twitch into a smile, and wasn't sure if it was his or Exar Kun's. I turned Jedi to my cause and they ever disappointed me. I will not make the same mistake twice.

    "What about the rest of the Inquisitorius?" Brakiss asked.

    We will use them as long as they are useful, and then destroy them too. Exar Kun's voice was quiet and calm, but Brakiss could feel the intensity that hid below that calm. Could feel the fire and fury, fed by thousands of years of imprisonment in the temple on Yavin 4. It was consuming, dark with an unspent lust for life and revenge. Revenge on the Jedi. Revenge on the Republic. Revenge on all who had wronged him.

    And to get his revenge, he would give Brakiss all the power the Force had to offer. Brakiss could feel that power, could feel his growing ability to tap into it with the ghost's help. The Dark Side was the essence of that power, and Brakiss would take it and demand the respect he had heretofore been denied.

    He would show them. He would show them all.

    Good, Exar Kun's voice gloated softly. Your hate has made you powerful. The voice faded, and Brakiss could almost feel the foreign mind focus, concentrating. Open the door to your room… now.

    Brakiss hit the door release and it slid open. He found Colonel Carias standing there. The ISB man looked harrowed and worn, and there was something about his expression… something about his sense in the Force…

    He has been betrayed. He too is a tool, and a tool with many other tools. There was a slow, amused cackle. He will use us, and in exchange we will use him.

    Brakiss found himself speaking without thinking. It felt almost natural, and he thought the words were his, but it was hard to be sure. "Colonel Carias," he said in greeting. "Come in. Seal the door behind you."

    Carias had flinched when the door opened. He glanced down the corridor of the freighter, a tight, confined space which merely served to allow passengers to reach their own private spaces, then slipped into the room. It slid shut behind him; Carias pressed the door latch.

    The room wasn't really large enough for two, but it did have a small table in one corner with two chairs on the two open sides. "Sit down, Colonel," Brakiss invited. "What do you need from the Inquisitorius?"

    His guest hesitated. If he sits, Exar Kun's voice explained softly in the back of Brakiss' mind, that suggests he accepts a degree of subordination. He may hesitate. Let him feel like he is still in control.

    Brakiss offered the slightest of bows, the kind that offered respect without offering deference. "Or, should I say, what can the Inquisitorius do for the Imperial Security Bureau?"

    The shift in perspective was enough. Carias stayed standing, his back going ramrod Imperial-straight as he folded his hands behind his back. Brakiss did his best to imitate the gesture; his failure did not seem to weigh as heavily on Carias as it had during their first meeting. "The Inquisitorius and ISB have always been the twin pillars of the New Order," Carias said, his voice harsh, like gravel scraping over permacrete. "The Moffs, the Starfleet, the Stormtrooper corps… They are tools of the Empire. We are the Empire."

    Do not contradict him, Exar Kun cautioned. We need him to help us kill the Jedi.

    Brakiss lapsed into years of recited propaganda, drilled into him during his childhood by educators and HoloNet broadcasts. "The New Order saved the galaxy from civil war. The leaders of the Rebellion serve nothing but their own corrupt leaders."

    Carias' posture relaxed with relief. "The lack of faith in the New Order is most dangerous from within," he said. Each word was said with agonized strain. Even to a non-Force wielder his pain would have been obvious.

    Betrayal by the enemy within is always more dangerous than an assault by the foreign, Exar Kun whispered.

    "Betrayal by the enemy within is always more dangerous than an assault by the foreign," Brakiss echoed.

    Carias flinched as if struck, then sighed with reluctant agreement. "Yes. And more painful." The ISB Colonel clenched his fist and banged it on his thigh.

    He believes there are three threats to his New Order, Exar Kun continued. I have seen them in his mind. He knows what he wishes to ask of you, and of your Inquisitorius, but he does not have the strength to speak it. We will do it for him.

    Brakiss settled into one of the chairs at the table. He poured two glasses of water, took one himself and took a sip, then passed the second to Carias, gesturing at the open chair. The Colonel hesitated and then sat.

    "There are three threats to the New Order," Brakiss said, letting Exar Kun prompt the words, finding it easier and easier to merge his voice with the ancient Sith Lord's intent. "There is, of course, the Rebellion. But it is a fragile thing, held together by a few capable leaders. It has almost fractured before, and it cannot stand if divided."

    Carias sipped the water, watching Brakiss with intent interest now. Brakiss could almost hear the other man's thoughts. I will teach you to listen, when we have more time.

    "Second is the responsibility of the Inquisitorius: the Jedi. And third…" Brakiss paused, letting the moment linger, letting Exar Kun seep into the minds around them, steal their secrets, and feed the precise words he needed back to Brakiss. "Are those who may mean well, in their way, but have become blind to what needs to be done."

    Carias' hand squeezed hard on the glass he held, so hard that Brakiss feared he might shatter it. But the glass, like everything else aboard ship, was of fine make and withstood the sudden application of pressure. "I believe we can address all three," Carias said, his voice hoarse. "There is an opportunity coming, but I cannot act alone. I need allies, allies loyal to the New Order, loyal to Palpatine's vision for the galaxy. Truly, unhesitatingly loyal."

    "The Inquisitorius stands ready," Brakiss said simply.

    In the back of his mind, he could hear Exar Kun laughing, the sound of a champion after a final victory. Some men are so delightfully predictable. He will serve.

    "What is it you believe we should do?" prompted Brakiss.

    "It will be difficult and require careful timing," Carias said carefully. He watched the water in his glass, swirling it. "But if performed properly, I believe we can cripple the New Republic, restore the Empire to proper leadership, and wound the Jedi all with one blow. All it will really cost—" Carias put the glass back down, watching as the water returned to perfect stillness, then looked up to meet Brakiss' gaze "—is the life of my best friend."

    * * *​

    Lieutenant Cienis Deleste had been assigned to Reaper's starfighter support team. It had not been his first choice, or his second, but it was an important position. The Rebellion's starfighter-heavy doctrine had plagued the Empire's Star Destroyers, even its Super Star Destroyers (the loss of Executor haunted the Starfleet's nightmares still), and so more attention was being paid to countering it. Lancer-class frigates were positively ancient, dating all the way back to the earliest days of the Clone Wars, but despite their age they remained a potent foil for a starfighter assault. In their absence—and there weren't many of them left, so their absence was the default state—the Empire relied on its TIEs.

    And thus relied on men like Deleste to manage them.

    As he organized the maintenance requests, checked the duty logs, and generally performed all the boring administrative tasks required to keep TIE squadrons operational, he wondered if Hack ever knew all the work that went into keeping him flying. He also wondered if this officer track meant he was destined to command one of the Empire's carriers.

    His personal datapad beeped. That particular sound was one that indicated a priority message, so he turned away from what he was doing and fetched it. The message was short and simple and shattered the tedium of administrative paperwork. His heart thudding in his chest, Deleste worked to obey the instructions he had been given. First, he identified the ISB ship the orders indicated—an unobtrusive Minstrel-class space yacht named Violet Envy—to be prepared for assignment. Second, he ordered the yacht to be fully stocked with the requested supplies, up to maximum capacity for its crew and passengers.

    Third, he ordered the hangar cleared—not just of non-essential personnel, but of everyone.

    Finally, he stood. Reaper's crew pit was a crowded space even outside of combat, and he strode through the rows of computers and officers before approaching the primary ladder and climbing up onto the main walk. Holding his datapad in one hand, he approached his commanding officer with all the confident purpose of a seasoned veteran.

    He hoped.

    "Admiral Deshorn? Sir?"

    Reaper's commanding officer, a grey-haired, square-faced rock of a man, turned towards him. "Ah, Lieutenant Deleste," Deshorn said, the words drawn from him slowly, as if just recalling Deleste's identity. "What is it?"

    Deleste handed him the datapad. "I've been ordered to deliver this to you. Sir."

    Deshorn took it with a frown, reviewing it with impressive speed. Both the man's eyebrows lifted as he reached the bottom of the orders, then he carefully pressed a button that would delete the entire message. "Come along, Lieutenant," Deshorn said.

    Deleste followed silently as they marched across Reaper's bridge and stepped into the express lift.

    "Do you know what this is about, Lieutenant?"

    "No. Sir."

    "That will continue to be your answer, understood?"

    "Yes. Sir."

    Deleste was careful not to look at Deshorn, keeping his back parade-ground straight, his chin properly lifted, seeking the meditative calm that Pellaeon had suggested he seek. Pellaeon had admitted that he himself had never found the practice productive, but Grand Admiral Thrawn had meditated at least once a day, which was good enough for Deleste.

    "Oh, stand easy, Lieutenant. This isn't going to be a short ride, and if you try to maintain parade rest for the entire trip you'll strain something."

    When they arrived—at one of Reaper's secondary hangars, this one utterly abandoned as per his orders—they found the ISB team already moving equipment and supplies into the yacht, with the ISB-assigned crew preparing the ship for departure.

    One of the ISB personnel—he wore the uniform of a Colonel, and had the look of ISB royalty—approached Deleste and Deshorn. "Admiral Deshorn," he greeted.

    "Colonel Carias," replied Deshorn.

    "Here to see us off?"

    "I would like to speak to the Grand Moff before his departure."

    Carias' expression was tired and dismissive. "I'll let him know you are here," the Colonel said, his tone as dismissive as his expression. Like the rest of his men, Carias wore the cream-colored outfit of the Imperial Security Bureau aboard ship, setting himself and the rest of his men apart from the normal Starfleet. His casual disrespect got Deleste's hackles up, but a small gesture from Deshorn—a hand, lifting subtly in a gesture of calm—made him resist the urge to object.

    "Calm, Lieutenant," Deshorn murmured as Carias exited earshot. "You do not want to irritate ISB. Only Admirals can get away with that, and even then it is a risk."

    Deleste bit his lip. Deshorn was right of course—everyone at the academy warned cadets not to step afoul of ISB—but that didn't mean the slight didn't sting.

    "You'll learn," Deshorn continued, keeping his voice just as quiet even as the distance between them and Carias continued to grow, "that there are things that are and are not worth fighting for. Pick your battles carefully, Lieutenant."

    They waited five minutes, then Grand Moff Kaine himself emerged from the lift. He was wearing a dress uniform, more formal and regal than even a Grand Moff's typical garb, and he approached the two Fleet officers first. "Stu," he greeted Deshorn.

    "Grand Moff Kaine," replied Deshorn. The two men stepped close together, shoulders touching as they whispered. "Are you sure, Ardus?"

    "There's no time to lose," Kaine whispered back. "I've spent too long dithering, and each week that goes by without action risks a greater confrontation with the New Republic. I want to begin negotiations before they send Lusankya hunting."

    Deshorn sighed heavily. "Are you sure you can trust Carias?"

    Kaine lifted an eyebrow and smiled. "Come now, Stu. Don't be ridiculous. I've been friends with Kaday for decades." Kaine patted Deshorn's back. "I'll be back in a few weeks with a peace treaty in hand. After that, we can put our other plans into effect." With that, Kaine stepped away from Deshorn and turned his attention to Deleste.

    Deleste snapped a salute. "Sir!"

    "At ease, Lieutenant. Good job today. I trust you will keep these events quiet?"

    "As ordered. Sir."

    "Good." Kaine patted Deshorn's back one more time. "You worry too much."

    They watched as Kaine boarded the yacht. Within minutes it was humming with readiness, and then it lifted up on repulsors, glided sideways until it was aligned with the magnetically-sealed hangar bay door, and dropped out of sight.

    "Come along, Lieutenant," Deshorn said, executing a perfect parade-ground turn and beginning the long march to the lift. "And remember your orders."

    Last edited: Nov 13, 2021
    Chyntuck likes this.
  4. WarmNyota_SweetAyesha

    WarmNyota_SweetAyesha Chosen One star 8

    Aug 31, 2004
    Superb POVs from all concerned with their schemes within schemes. =D= Carias and Brakiss are the most 'effective' at subterfuge :p
    Last edited: Nov 15, 2021
    Bel505 likes this.
  5. Bel505

    Bel505 Jedi Grand Master star 2

    Jul 4, 2006
    Author's Note: out of curiosity, how many people are reading this here? Keeping this updated in three places is a fair amount of work.

    Chapter Eight

    Mara could count on one hand the number of social engagements she had attended for fun. Oh, she'd gone to the opera or the symphony, both of which had been favored getaways of hers during her time as the Emperor's Hand. And she and Luke had gone on a number of small events that normal people would have called dates. She had also gone to any number of social engagements for work: getting to know a target for later infiltration or interrogation, or to establish a personal link with potential assets, that kind of thing.

    Going to Leia's for a private get together, however, was none of those things. She was not attending because there was some pressing business need (although, as the liaison between the Smugglers' Alliance and the New Republic government, staying in Leia's good graces was important). She also was not attending alone, as she had always gone to the opera alone. No, she was attending because Luke was attending. He'd slipped his arm through hers, kissed her on the cheek, told her she looked lovely and then whisked her away.

    (She had unlinked her arm from his as they traveled past the Imperial Palace's unavoidable security cameras and potential sludgenews plants. So for the newsies hadn't yet picked up on their relationship, a fact for which Mara was grateful. She dreaded the inevitable moment when that stopped being true.)

    They swept into the Solo family apartment together. Winter was positively glowing as she greeted them at the door, embracing first Luke and then (much more awkwardly, though Mara did hug her back) Mara.

    Mara glanced around as Luke and Winter engaged in conversation. "We're still getting ready for the move," Winter was saying as she led them into the living room, offering them both a glass of Alderaanian spring wine. "There's also tea if you want to join me in the consumption of non-alcoholic beverages," she added.

    "When are you due?" asked Luke.

    "Three months." Winter grinned at him. "This is partially your fault, you know. The pool money went to the Benvevolent's Fund, but the winner got an all-expenses-paid trip to a vacation retreat of their choice." She rested her hands on her enlarged stomach. "Luckily, Tycho was able to take some vacation time of his own, and we decided to visit New Alderaan." Winter's expression became wry. "It seems some new beginnings inspire others."

    Mara flushed. The reminder that Winter had been a party to betting on her love life, and had successfully guessed not only the year but the month (and the week!) that she and Luke would embark on a romantic relationship, was both baffling and embarrassing—especially since Winter had made her bet long before Mara had even begun to consider the possibility.

    Thankfully, none of Luke's family had needled her too much about it. It simply was, and they accepted her with barely any hesitation. Mara found the entire thing deeply confusing, but was getting used to it.

    It was … kind of nice, actually.

    Luke was shaking his head with an amused smile. "Wedge authorized Tycho's leave, doesn't that also make it his fault? Also I'm pretty sure Tycho—"

    "Please." Winter snorted. "I'm trying to make you acknowledge my solid insight. All I'm getting is the evasive farm boy caught out after dark."

    However Luke had intended to reply to that, it was lost under a sudden flurry of movement. Mara's own danger awareness kicked in too late, and the missile struck her solidly in the leg—and bounced off.

    "Ra-ra!" Jaina Solo cried in excitement, despite being puddled at Mara's feet and having some difficulty standing.

    "Unca Wuke!" Jacen's own ambush had been more successful. Luke plucked him off the ground, lifting him up as if it was the easiest thing in the world.

    "Hello Jacen!" Luke greeted energetically.

    Mara knelt down and Jaina mauled her with tiny hands, grabbing at clothes or hair in her effort to get a grip. "Ra-ra!" Jaina repeated insistently. Swallowing, Mara lifted Jaina and hugged the tiny human creature back.

    She could feel Luke watching her. She could feel Winter watching her. She could even feel Han distractedly watching her, from where he was standing near the entrance to his kitchen fortress, but the embarrassment at being caught hugging Jaina somehow never came. Jaina had such large emotions for such a tiny creature, Mara thought, and she was happy because Mara was here.

    That was kind of nice, too.

    Distracted as she was, she didn't notice as the room began to fill in around them. She jerked in surprise at the new voices. "Hey there, Rogue Solo," Wedge Antilles greeted Jacen, who waved his little hand at Wedge in return, offering a shy smile.

    "Waj!" cried Jaina, waving both hands at him.

    "And hello there, other Rogue Solo," said Wedge with a laugh. He offered Mara a polite smile; she felt the hint of blush start to grow. "And what's my fault?" he asked Luke.

    Luke nodded at Winter, who had slipped into Tycho's arms with her usual subtle ease. "Don't worry," Luke said. "I don't think Winter's really too concerned about which of us set in motion the events that led them to this moment."

    Wedge laughed. "Oh! No, probably not." He grinned at the couple, who was ignoring them. "Though I was the one who approved Tycho's request for vacation time."

    "If anything," Han drawled, finally approaching from where he'd been half-monitoring the kitchen—the rich aroma of some kind of roast was now redolent in the living room— "It's Janson's fault."

    Luke, Wedge, and Mara all stared at him, nonplussed.

    "Hey," Han blustered. "I don't know what you were talking about, but if it involves fault, it's usually Janson. I even heard," Han said, leaning in closer with a conspiratorial whisper, "that sometimes, during the Zinsj hunt, Wedge would give him kitchen duty for no reason at all when things got too quiet."

    "Usually that was followed by things becoming too loud," Wedge said with a laugh.

    "I remember that," Han said, with a suspicious, almost predatory gleam. "Come here, General," he took Antilles by the arm. "My kids' future Aunt and Uncle seem to have taken over babysitting responsibilities, and I don't wanna distract Winter and Tycho. Threepio is busy at a Council meeting; some note came in a couple hours ago that sent Leia running. So I—" Han paused theatrically, "—am giving you kitchen duty until your better half arrives to rescue you."

    Wedge's expression shifted from amiability to exaggerated horror, and Mara had to fight a smile.

    It was only after Han and Antilles had vanished back into the kitchen that Mara fully registered what Han had said, but by then she'd been subjected to the heart-meltingly adoring gaze of dark brown eyes so similar to Solo's and her sudden panic was surprisingly muted.

    * * *​

    Leia held the datapad like it was a precious object. And it was.

    Mon Mothma's office was not particularly large. For a long time she'd been attended to by Malan Tugrina who, like Winter, had been an Alderaanian who possessed a perfect holographic memory. But Tugrina had died almost two years before, the victim of one of Warlord Zsinj's plots against the New Republic hierarchy, and Mon Mothma had never replaced him. Protocol droids came and went, never living up to her expectations—and never filling the hole in her heart where Tugrina had been.

    The New Republic's Chief of State didn't need a lot of space on most occasions, but that meant Leia had no room for excited pacing after she handed the datapad off to Mon Mothma and waited for her to finish reading it.

    There were any number of ways Mon Mothma could respond to the information on the datapad, but she responded in the way Leia had expected: with calm, studious consideration. "Grand Moff Kaine is coming here." Her blue eyes pierced Leia. "You did not invite him?"

    Leia shook her head. "I had mentioned a willingness to meet, but I did not expect for him to volunteer to come to Coruscant—certainly not with such a limited entourage." She leaned in, lowering her voice conspiratorially. "He would not be so bold if he were not serious, and if he did not think he had a good chance at success. He must have been laying the foundations for this for quite some time."

    "Our Intelligence services did not pick up anything of the sort," Mon Mothma said skeptically. "And I know General Cracken has been attentive to this matter." She leaned back in her chair.

    "We have to try," Leia encouraged.

    "Yes, of course," Mon Mothma agreed, though she waited longer than Leia had expected to do so. "I would like a second opinion," she said suddenly, and pressed the buzzer on her desk. "Threepio, would you please find Councilor Bel Iblis and tell him to come to my office?"

    "Right away, Madam Chief of State," Threepio's voice said over the intercom.

    "Garm?" Leia asked cautiously.

    Mon Mothma shrugged. "I know he's in, and he's likely to be more skeptical than most. If you can persuade him, you can persuade the rest of the Provisional Council—and myself."

    That was a challenge, and Leia would rise to meet it.

    * * *​

    Garm was skeptical, but in the end she persuaded him. "There is no reason not to try," Leia insisted. "They're allowing us to set the terms of the meeting and the security arrangements."

    When Mon Mothma and Bel Iblis looked at each other, it was as if Leia could feel the weight of the years and struggle between them. They had founded the Rebel Alliance together, with her father Bail Organa. Bail's death had divided them, and Mon Mothma's singular charisma and leadership had pushed even someone as vital as Bel Iblis to the side. Now they were collaborators again, and the awkwardness was clear to everyone.

    But that awkwardness was not obvious in the silent communication they shared before they both turned back to Leia. "Very well, Leia," Mon Mothma agreed. "I will have the diplomatic corps reserve a space where secret negotiations can take place. You may assemble your diplomatic team and give it a try." Mon Mothma's expression was neither enthusiastic nor skeptical, but bearing her typical calm reserve. "And for the sake of the Republic, I hope you can come to acceptable terms. If Kaine withdraws his Oversector Outer from the Empire as Eriadu plans to, it would be a decisive blow to the Empire's military and economic capacity. And having Muunilist return to the galactic market would be a boon to the New Republic."

    Leia nodded.

    Mon Mothma checked her elegant wristchrono and sighed. "I'm afraid I'm late for dinner with my daughter."

    The blood rushed from Leia's face. "Oh no," she moaned. "It's the Anniversary of the Alderaanian Compact. I have company tonight."

    "Yes Mistress, they would have arrived some time ago," Threepio said. "I tried to tell you we were running behind schedule, but—"

    "I know, Threepio," Leia sighed. "Well, hopefully they started without us."

    The flush of sorrow and loneliness surprised Leia and it took her a moment to pinpoint its source. Garm was in his seat, looking thoughtful, but through the Force Leia could feel the sudden sense of alone-ness.

    "Han wouldn't," Mon Mothma observed. "Now go home and see your family."

    The older woman had lost her son at Hoth, but still had her daughter Leida—the two were not as close as Mon Mothma wanted, due to the intensity of her work, but the Chandrilan kept making an effort and they were family. Leia had Han and Jacen and Jaina, not to mention Luke and their circle of friends. Garm had lost his family to the Empire, and had left his adopted family in the New Republic Fleet behind in space.

    In her mind's eye, Leia could almost see the quiet, sparsely furnished flat that he lived in, Filled with legal documents and intelligence briefings, a sparse wardrobe, some holos, and maintained by droids without even the time to develop personality quirks.

    "Garm, I'm—well, Han and Winter are—hosting a dinner tonight at my apartment. Wedge and Tycho are there too, if you want to join us?"

    Mon Mothma paused, glancing at Garm without trying to be obvious about it.

    Garm hesitated, and Leia offered him a reassuring smile. "I'm sure Wedge would want to see you again before he and Lusankya embark on their campaign," she prodded.

    "If it won't be an imposition," he replied cautiously.

    "Nonsense," Leia assured him, taking his arm. "Han always cooks enough to feed a regiment. Let's go, Threepio." She winced as she glanced at the chrono again. "Han is going to be furious."

    He wasn't. He was concerned, which was somehow worse.

    * * *​

    It was an odd sensation, Tycho thought. Being in Leia Organa's apartment, with his arm around his wife Winter—the closest thing the Princess had to a sister—watching Han Solo do the best he could to maintain some Alderaanian pre-meal traditions. The toast he'd offered when Leia had finally rushed in the door—with a very awkward looking Garm Bel Iblis on her arm—had been from the Alderaanian court, surely something Winter had taught him. Despite the etiquette classes at the Imperial Academy, Tycho suspected that standing on ceremony had never been a particular concern of Han's prior to his meeting Leia. At some point that had changed. Han looked and sounded painfully awkward, but his effort was real.

    From the way Leia smiled at him, it was also appreciated.

    The signing of the Alderaanian Compact had created Alderaan's last Constitutional government more than two thousand years before the world's destruction. It had been a minor Alderaanian holiday which had gradually gained significance as a moment for family and friends to come together and share a meal. Since Alderaan's destruction the holiday had, for years, gone uncelebrated—it had become a moment of pain, a reminder of all those who weren't there. But the Alderaanian Council had made a point of trying to bring it back, and the Candle of Remembrance had been added so that the dead could be remembered and present for the holiday.

    Winter lit the single candle, taking the role of "Rememberer" and making a circuit of the table before passing it to Chewbacca, who, fur neatly brushed and expression solemn in his role as Family Guardian, growled a benediction before placing in the center of the large, overstuffed dining table. "We are daughters and sons of Alderaan," Leia said, while the others remained in respectful silence. The guests paid respect, but his wife sat with the quiet reverence of one who could relive her memories of her dead homeworld with a kind of clarity that Tycho both envied and was glad not to have. "We have come together in memory of Alderaan, so that while our world may be gone, its people will live on."

    With the dedication done, the meal began. It was quiet but not somber, now that the dedication was done, and conversation ticked up as the Alderaanian dishes dwindled one after another.

    Tycho rested his hand on Winter's back and enjoyed the warmth her presence prompted. The idea of living on bore new meaning for him now. When he'd been young, still in the Imperial service and engaged to marry Nyiestra, the plan had been to wait until he had served five years before they started thinking about a family. Then he'd never doubted that he would have children. But since Alderaan's destruction, and his dedication to the cause of destroying the Empire as thoroughly as it had obliterated Alderaan, it had never been something he'd considered even once. He and Winter had never even talked about having children—they hadn't even been married, and had no intention of becoming so until after the Empire was well and dead and the New Republic on stable footing.

    Neither of them had expected either of those things to occur while they were young enough to have children.

    He curled his fingers in her hair, stroking the back of her neck gently. She sipped some of her horrible green tea and offered him a perfect smile.

    On the other side of the table, Kyp Durron and Garm Bel Iblis were having an animated conversation about the Empire. "—some recruits join the Starfighter Corps," General Bel Iblis was explaining. "I expect Solo has given you some training already?"

    "We have a simulator on the Falcon," Kyp said. "But I'm not as good as he is."

    "Not surprising, he's got a lot of experience." Bel Iblis nodded at Tycho. "Colonel Celchu here is probably the best fighter pilot left in the Corps, now that General Antilles—" Bel Iblis nodded across the table, at where Solo and Wedge were in close conversation with Luke, while Iella and Mara made amused faces while talking to each other in low voices "—has been kicked upstairs to command the Fifth Fleet." Bel Iblis looked at Tycho. "How's Rogue Squadron doing with all the new faces?"

    Tycho put down his fork and knife. "It's taking some getting used to," he replied. "But the pilots are all exceptional and—" he hesitated only for a moment, hiding a wince "—haven't made themselves too difficult."

    "Your new Hapan pilot hasn't made herself too difficult?"

    The blunt skepticism of the question revealed the wince Tycho had previously hidden. Major Runamaren Vehourr was the squadron's new token Hapan, a veteran combat pilot with a long history of anti-piracy service. She had headed up one of Hapes' elite snubfighter squadrons, was a capable leader, and an excellent, experienced pilot.

    She also instinctively treated males as subordinates, which had created a great deal of tension between her and the rest of the squadron. Corran found her so aggravating that he kept sending transfer requests to different units: the Wraiths, High Flight Squadron, anything with an X-wing. Wes had tinkered with her com so that when she spoke, her voice sounded like an underwater Threepio droid. Tycho had put her on maintenance after she'd contradicted him in a squadron briefing. Inyri—who had received Runamaren as her new wingmate after Plourr's departure, and had been sulking about it for weeks—had almost put the Hapan through a bulkhead when Runmaren spoke down to her as a commoner. But as trying as Runamaren was, she was getting better—and the Rogues were getting better at interacting with her.

    "Not too difficult," Tycho lied, taking a cautious sip of the lamentable green tea that he had in lieu of a nice glass of spring wine.

    "You're from Alderaan like Winter, right?" Kyp asked. There was an intensity in that gaze, Tycho thought. It was one he recognized, one Tycho had seen in his own eyes when he looked in the mirror for years after Alderaan. One he still saw before battle, sometimes.

    Tycho nodded. "Yes, Winter and I are both from Alderaan." He turned towards Kyp, reluctantly taking his arm from around Winter's back to do so; she glanced at the conversation before returning to her chat with Leia, saying something about Grand Moff Kaine in hushed tones. "The Empire destroyed my home," Tycho continued. "It destroyed Alderaan, just as it destroyed your homeworld and a thousand other worlds. And those of us who survive—" he gestured at Kyp, then at himself "—we feel the need to fight back. To make sure that the Empire can never, ever do such evil again."

    The Solo family's ward nodded.

    "Take that passion," Tycho said, reaching out to tap Kyp on the forehead. "Hold on to it. But don't let it become hate. Hate makes you stupid and gets you killed. Make it into purpose, instead. Don't fight to avenge those we lost, fight to protect those who still live. Winter and I visited New Alderaan because it's not enough to destroy the enemy who took Alderaan from us, we have to rebuild what we lost." He gestured at the flame of remembrance in the center of the table. "If we just hate the Empire, that flame will go out."

    The conversation on the other side of the table had stopped; Tycho glanced over and met Luke's eyes briefly. Luke nodded his agreement. "Tycho is right," Luke said.

    Kyp's attention moved from Tycho to Luke.

    "I know Kam has taught you about this too," Luke explained. "But the way of the Jedi, it's not just about those of us who have the Force. Anyone can be consumed by the Dark Side—by hate and the desire for revenge. Even some of the pilots we've flown with have been."

    "Too many," added Wedge.

    "Even some of us have," added Bel Iblis darkly. "For a time."

    Wedge and Tycho glanced at each other, both wincing. Tycho remembered the months after his defection and his desire to murder every Imperial in the galaxy. He knew Wedge well enough to see the murder of Wedge's parents—and Wedge's subsequent revenge—flash before his friend's eyes.

    Only Luke had never really fallen prey to it, Tycho thought. That was why Luke was the best of them. But I'll be damned if he hasn't been tempted now and again.

    "So when we fight," Luke continued, "because we have to fight against something like the Empire and its evil, we need to make sure we do it with the right intentions, and in the right way. Otherwise we risk becoming the very thing we fight against." He held up a gloved hand and clenched it with a sigh.

    Tycho saw Mara's arm shift towards Luke. She didn't look at him—her attention was on Kyp—but her instinct to comfort Luke was obvious.

    Maybe I should see if I can move my bet on their engagement date up a few months.

    "Ladies and Gentlemen!"

    All attention was drawn to the kitchen, where Lando had swept into the room, his long cape fluttering behind him. Threepio followed, pushing a cart. The cart had a large tray atop it.

    There was a new scent in the room. Tycho inhaled deeply, soaking it in as he wracked his brain. The scent was familiar, but he hadn't smelled its like in many years—not since—

    Winter, who had turned to face him, set aside her usually controlled mein to grace everyone around them with a broad, genuine grin.

    "If I may interrupt your festivities," Lando continued enthusiastically, "I have managed to procure the best possible dessert to top off our lovely time together. In memory of Alderaan, I have here—" Lando lifted the top covering the tray "—Alderaanian T'iil seed cake, with the ingredients fresh from Borleias, courtesy of the Smugglers' Alliance!"

    The conversation about the Empire forgotten, dessert was a cavalcade of tears and memories, savoring the rich, sweet nutty flavor of an almost forgotten delicacy of a lost world.

    * * *​

    Like the first dinner she'd ever eaten with the Solos, Mara unceremoniously nominated herself for the post-dinner collection of dishes and clean-up. That wasn't so bad, though, and it didn't take long to pile the dishes on the counter next to where Han was both working with them and trying to chase a very determined-looking Leia away from the sink. Mara glared at him, still not forgiving him for his earlier snark—though she refused to think about his comment beyond that—and left him to clean the dishes alone.

    "Well, hello there," Lando greeted her at the door to the kitchen, "Don't look now Han, but the beautiful Lady Jade has decided to grace your humble galley with her elegant presence."

    She lifted a wet dish off the drying rack and put it in his hands. "Solo needs your help drying the dishes," she announced as she slipped past him. "Thanks for the cake."

    His amused laugh suggested he didn't take the dismissal personally.

    Luke was deep in conversation with Iella, Winter, and Leia. The twins were gone—they had long ago reached their bedtime—and Mara found she felt a loss at their absence. There was something about their innocent affection that she liked. Liked quite a lot.

    Rather than joining them she moved to stand by the window. The towers of the Imperial Palace dotted across, slightly obscuring the view of the Senate District, and the voluminous rows of airspeeders carefully making their way through the sky, directed by their on-board computers, a requirement in close proximity to the Senate Dome and the Palace. There she stood quietly and reflected on the remnants of toddler-style mayhem and adventure with a small, secret smile, until she felt a somewhat familiar presence focus on her and close in.

    "Enjoying the view, Jade?" It was Antilles.

    She turned to face him and examined the man more closely than she had when they'd entered, or when he'd sat opposite Luke and Iella. The New Republic general stood comfortably in a casual ensemble a few years out of date, with the light wear marks of something thrown on without much thought, for an evening among friends. He looked nothing like the commanding officer of one of the most powerful warships in the galaxy.

    Clearly Leia hasn't performed as his style consultant, and Iella doesn't care about a man's suit as much as the man himself. That didn't surprise her, of course, but in the Imperial Court it had usually been the other way around. She offered him a small, confirming nod. "A bit, yes. Sometimes all the conversation can be a bit much, and everyone is much more familiar and direct than even my crews on the Fringe."

    The Corellian smiled. "They do sneak up on you, don't they? The kindness, the solicitation, the food, it's a three pronged charm offensive." He sighed theatrically. "It can be a bit much."

    Mara arched an eyebrow. "Now that you've softened me up, is this the part where you say: 'Luke is my best friend and If you hurt him I command an entire battle group and have lots of commandos who can expertly dispose of bodies?'"

    Her own defensiveness surprised her. Truth be told, Luke's friends—X-wing pilots mostly, no strangers to combat—had taken his relationship in stride and hadn't sold that information to sludgenews. She'd managed to secure explicit commitments to silence from the Wild Karrde's crew as well, although she suspected that Chin's obedience had less to do with his fear of her than it did his respect for Karrde. Clearly she had some work left to do on him.

    Antilles huffed a brief laugh. "No, those kinds of threats are for insecure paternal types. You're not likely to be intimidated, and Luke's more of an idiot brother who keeps rushing headlong into yet another scrape with death." His smile was wryly amused. "Besides," he added with a shrug, "I think you're good for him."

    Her arched eyebrow lifted even higher. "You do?"

    Wedge gestured at her with his glass of wine. "You know Luke pretty well at this point, right?"

    Mara didn't answer that.

    Wedge took her silence as an affirmation. "What would you say his biggest problem is?"

    Mara thought about that. Luke, offering her a hand in friendship even after she'd threatened to kill him. Luke, kneeling down next to a man he'd just fought, who was still armed with a lightsaber, to offer comfort. Luke, who had walked into Imperial custody because he hoped he could convince his father to turn away from a lifetime of evil on the basis of little more than a gut instinct. "Optimism."

    That elicited another laugh and a nod. "Exactly." Wedge took a sip of his wine, then put the glass down on the side table between the couch and the window. "The rest of the galaxy sees him as an unstoppable force, but the Rogues… we know better. He's a man, like any other, and he can't just hope his way through problems. He needs a bit of practicality, someone grounded." He gestured at her with both hands.

    She pressed her lips together. "Hmm," she muttered.

    "And you love him," Wedge said simply. "Love him. Not the Jedi."

    She felt her cheeks flush. How was that so obvious to people when she still sometimes had trouble admitting it to herself? Not knowing what to say, she said nothing.

    "So, instead of threatening you, thank you." Wedge retrieved his wine glass and took another sip. "But really, it's more of a thank you for guarding Iella than anything to do with Luke. And I mean this purely selfishly, I can assure you. I've been sleeping a lot better since the two of you started teaming up on jobs." He shrugged. "That and we—" he gestured at himself first, then Mara "—should be friends. I consider Luke one of my best friends, and Iella is one of your best friends and my better half. We've talked a little bit here and there, but social rules say we ought to be friends too."

    "What are the rules for friends of friends getting to know each other?" Mara asked curiously.

    Wedge tapped his wine glass. "Well, it's been a while since I cracked an etiquette primer, but I recall idle conversation is a good place to start. Maybe some basic questions… where are you from, what do you do for a living, although—" he shrugged "—the Rogues pulled most of that out of NRI's file on you after it became clear that Luke had a crush on you."

    Mara wondered just how early that had been. After Wayland? Even earlier? She returned to slightly safer ground. "NRI? That's supposed to be classified," she said sharply, imagining the Rogues clustered around a briefing table, talking about Luke's crush as they read her intelligence file and tried to decide whether her being a former Imperial assassin was a pro or a con.

    "I am a General, and I have some very unexpected connections. There have to be some perks of the job." He nodded at her. "As far as my history goes, I'm sure Luke has mentioned bits and pieces."

    "Luke doesn't talk much about your background, but I know other than the Rogues and Iella you don't have much family."

    Wedge sighed, leaning his shoulder against the transparisteel that separated the interior of the Imperial Palace from the cool air of a Coruscant evening. "Most of us have lost people. I lost my parents when I was a teenager." He nodded at her. "Did you ever come across Baron Soontir Fel while you were in the Imperial service?"

    She frowned. The name was familiar. "The pilot?" Her frown deepened as she rummaged around in memory, groping for the right ones. "I've heard of him. They say he defeated Darth Vader in a contest of piloting skill. He was married to some famous HoloNet actress and defected to the Rebellion not that long after Endor. I haven't heard anything about him in a while, though."

    "He went missing a few years ago, before we took Coruscant. We think Isard picked him up and we haven't heard anything since, other than a few warlords using his name and reputation as a recruitment device." Wedge drained his wine glass, his expression tired. "The famous HoloNet actress he is married to? Her stage name was Wynssa Starflare, but she was born Syal Antilles."

    Mara froze, working the implications of that through her head.

    Wedge continued, sounding exhausted. "She left home when I was seven," he explained. "She was much older than I was, talented and ambitious. Real star quality, whatever that is. When he was with the Rogues, Fel told me that she was safe, but he refused to say more. Then he went missing and I still don't have any idea where to even start looking."

    "I'm sorry," Mara said, and meant it.

    "After I took command of Lusankya, I felt like I was an actor playing the role of fleet admiral," Wedge admitted. "I would wonder what advice Syal would have had." He shook his head. "We've all lost people," he explained after the moment passed. "Even you." He went on, refusing to stop just because she had tensed and looked away. "Just because you can't remember the family you lost, it doesn't mean you didn't lose them. And maybe, someday, when you feel ready, that loss will be something you can mourn, too."

    She wondered if Luke had talked to him about this, but even as the thought flashed through her mind she knew he hadn't. The flush of annoyed anger passed quickly. "Maybe."

    The Corellian's lips quirked. "Sorry, that got a bit personal. But with all of today's remembrances of our dead… well, I guess I wanted you to know that someone other than Luke remembers that you've lost as much as the rest of us have."

    The sudden swell of emotion surprised her. She turned back, looking at the dinner table, where the Alderaanian remembrance candle still burned—the memory of all that had been lost, and a reminder of how important it was to rebuild.

    Mara didn't usually think about her own parents. All she really remembered, in the flashes of occasional memory and nightmare, was that they hadn't wanted her to go. Maintaining her calm and poise took a bit more effort than she usually needed. "You're a storied snubjockey. Everyone knows that they have no common sense." She gestured at Luke, still in conversation with his sister.

    Wedge gave a smile, seemingly reassured that he hadn't stepped past some invisible line. "It's not all lasers and daring maneuvers. With the squadrons I've led I'm half-parent, half-morale officer and half-amateur psychoanalyst who works from an acceleration couch without an actual license."

    "That's three halves. I thought Rebel pilots had to be half-decent at maths for astrogation."

    "No, math is demanding and there's only so much of me to go around." Wedge winked. "That's what we keep our astromechs around for."

    They shared a chuckle. It felt weird. Good. But weird. Wedge had casually been more aggressive than even Luke was at prodding at parts of her past and history—Luke tended to let her bring things to him when she was ready—but Wedge had identified a fissure in her shields and shattered them with a pinprick of precise pressure.

    She was beginning to think she'd underestimated him and felt a bit foolish for it. He'd taken Lusankya from Isard. Then they'd given him Lusankya to command. He could keep up with Iella. Of course there is more to Antilles than a typical snubfighter thrillmonkey.

    She took a slow breath, tracking back over the conversation.

    "Next up for friends of friends after origins and occupation is hobbies," he said helpfully.

    She tilted her head. "Do you sew? Partake in bad romance holodramas? Dance the Corellian Cheek-Step?" She blinked. "Read?"

    "Why Jade," Wedge said with a laugh. "I do believe you just made a joke." He winked. "In order: scant resources and combat operations mean I've been known to sew, and Iella deems my dancing acceptable. But really I only have the one Hobbie, and I'm very glad I've been able to keep him in relatively good working order despite the Empire's best efforts. Now, my Janson on the other hand…"

    They shared another laugh. It was starting to feel natural.

    Across the room, Iella glanced at them from her place in the ongoing conversation with Luke, Mara, and Winter, and waved them over.

    "I think we're being summoned." Wedge smiled—a casual smile, bespeaking comfort between friends. "Must be about time to get home." He sighed. "We only have a few more days before the Fifth Fleet will be setting out on the Bespin campaign."

    Her returning smile wasn't quite as comfortable. It was subtle, unpracticed. But it was there. "Antilles," she said, with a hint of playfulness that she played up by adopting a slight Corellian lilt. She finally extended a hand. "Good hunting."

    He couldn't quite match her easy shift of accent as he took the proffered hand, but he tried. "Jade," he said, with an attempted Coruscanti hauteur that was quite absurd. "Do try and keep the Boss in one piece."

    * * *​

    Their guests trickled out, alone or in pairs. The room was empty now; the sound of Han washing dishes in the kitchen was one of the only ones left. Chewbacca was the one who took the Alderaanian remembrance candle and moved it near the window that looked out over the city, letting it burn down of its own accord.

    "So you think Kaine is serious?" Luke asked Leia.

    Leia shrugged. "I don't know. I think he wants peace, but I don't know how much he wants peace. The fact that he's coming here is a good sign."

    Her brother's expression was not particularly confident. "I hope so," Luke said. He shook his head. "I feel… I don't know how to describe it. Like something isn't right. Like the galaxy is just out of balance, and everything is wobbling around me." He took a deep breath. "Kam wants to see me tomorrow. He said he thinks he found something important and we might need to take a trip off-world to deal with it, but didn't want to say anything else over comms."

    "That's the trouble with our family Luke," Leia said softly. "We've been through so much that it's hard to tell new dangers from the usual background radiation of mortal peril we deal with daily. All the same, I'll be careful." She took his arm and squeezed it. "You should be careful, too."

    Luke smiled. "I will." He nodded subtly back at where Mara was standing near the window. She and Chewbacca were near one another, both watching the candle flame, talking to one another quietly. "You have Han," he murmured. "And Chewie, and Mobvekhar and Cakhmaim."

    "You have Mara?" Leia asked quietly, feeling her tension lift as Luke's own expression lightened.

    "Yeah," Luke agreed, smiling more broadly. "We have each other."

    * * *​

    Being a teacher of the Jedi arts was strange for Kam Solusar.

    He could remember his youth: the time spent at the small Jedi Temple on Solon. He had never been a typical Jedi apprentice. Ranik Solusar has been nearly exiled from the order after he admitted having fathered Kam, and for his transgressions they had both been sent out to the edges of Hutt space, where Ranik could do some good keeping an eye on the cartels while Kam grew up. Kam's own status had always been ambiguous, despite his talents, but the Jedi Order had never needed to decide what to do when he came of age; the death of the Republic and the death of the Old Jedi Order had made all such decisions moot.

    That had not made Kam's life easier. He flinched at the memory of Darth Vader's sudden arrival at their sanctuary, at the memory of the red blade as it rent through his father. After that, Kam had been twisted into a bringer of misery, a hunter of the fallen, a slayer of the living.

    And then… he had been free.

    After Palpatine's demise at Endor had loosened his bindings to the Dark, Kam had been truly lost. Through all the travails he had eventually, finally, come to Luke, and that had led him here.

    "Feel the light on your skin," he encouraged Kyp Durron. "Feel the energy within." He watched as Kyp struggled. The young man, who had lived so much of his life in a darkness much more literal than the one Kam had survived, found direct sunlight disconcerting at times, but it also made him more acutely aware of just how much energy was in a simple beam of light. "Good," Kam encouraged as Kyp settled. "Now, reach out with your feelings. Think about the light on your skin, about the energy you feel there. Think about that energy, and search for the Force."

    Coruscant was an interesting place to be a student of the Force, Kam thought. There was so much life there, so much sentient life, that it could be overwhelming. Places where fewer people and aliens lived were less energetic, but the Force in such places was also nearer to tranquil, compared to the almost manic energy of Coruscant.

    Kyp's could not command the Force very well, yet. His uses were instinctive, without thought or even conscious intent much of the time, which was both impressive and dangerous. Kam was trying to let him feel the Force more intently, let him always know it was there, all the life of the universe bottled up small enough to hold and yet also omnipresent.

    "It is life. It is light," Ranik Solusar said into Kam's memories. "It is love, and it is renewal. It is all, and it is one."

    Kam had no idea if that was some kind of Jedi benediction, or just something Ranik had said once that he remembered. There was no mention of it in any of the Jedi records that Luke had recovered from Dathomir, and there was nothing of real value left in what Palpatine had left behind.

    He doubted if there would be anything of real value in what Vader had left behind. The Inquisitors had been much too thorough at seeing it all destroyed. He had been much too thorough at seeing it all destroyed.

    Kyp didn't notice Kam's bout of self-flagellation. He was breathing, quiet and still, the light from Coruscant's sun cascading down through the transparisteel over his skin, columns of light cast over and across him, dust motes glittering in the beams.

    Kyp was a natural.

    The door slid open, bringing Kam and Kyp's attention to it. Luke Skywalker, like Kam, was dressed in the robes that they had chosen for the new Jedi, cream-colored with a brown belt, boots, and cloak. Mara Jade followed him in, pointedly wearing a comfortable spacer's jacket over colorful shipknits, paired with a trim gun belt that had a hook for her lightsaber.

    He had considered asking either Luke or Mara why she had not joined the Jedi order when it was so clear that she had both the ability and the inclination. He had not done so. Asking Luke seemed intrusive; asking Mara seemed like an invitation to expose oneself to withering sarcasm at best and vibroknives at worst, so Kam defaulted to his considered silence.

    "Jedi Solusar," Luke greeted him. "And hello, Kyp. Don't let us distract you from your meditations—I could feel your focus from outside, I'm sorry to have disrupted it."

    "Jedi Skywalker, Miss Jade," Kam greeted them in return.

    "Oh, that's okay," Kyp said, waving his hand and sliding back out of the light.

    Luke turned his attention to Kam. "You said you wanted to meet to discuss Vjun?"

    "Vjun is not a particularly pleasant place," Mara said sourly.

    "You're familiar with it?" Kam asked curiously. They had both been servants of the Empire, he knew, but he'd been under the impression that she had primarily served the Emperor—

    "Only by reputation. Palpatine mentioned it a time or two, mostly in reference to where Vader was in any given week and to warn me never to go there without his specific orders."

    "Vader would have killed you," Kam said with certainty.

    "I have no doubt," Mara muttered.

    Beside them, Kyp had an awkward, unhappy expression. Kam knew that Kyp hated being reminded of Kam and Mara's Imperial service history—or of Han's, for that matter, or even Leia's time in the Imperial Senate. Kyp's hatred of the Empire ran very, very deep; a fissure within which lurked the blackness of despair and resentment. It was healing, thanks to Han and Leia, but even once the fissure had faded to a shallower scar, its mark would remain for life.

    "Why do you think Vjun is important?" asked Luke.

    "I was sorting through the items and information we recovered from Vader's Palace here on Coruscant," Kam explained. "I found a datapad, one with information on various locations around the galaxy of interest to Force users. The only one I recognized was Vjun." He withdrew the datapad in question from one of the many voluminous pockets that his Jedi robes offered, one of the many perks of the new outfit. "I don't know why exactly, but I have this feeling that it is important that we travel there."

    Luke took the datapad, examined it, then handed it to Mara. She reviewed it with a much more aggrieved expression than Luke had.

    "I've meditated on it," Kam continued. "Every day for the last week. It's like I can … hear a voice summoning me there. Like I need to be there. I don't know how to explain it. It's not like anything else I've experienced before."

    "Vjun was Vader's personal fortress," Mara pointed out. "It wasn't a pleasure resort. And even without Vader's presence, the planet's history is unpleasant to say the least. A more miserable world would be hard to find."

    "Which is why Vader chose it for his palace," Luke murmured. "There are many things he might have left behind there. Things that it may be important for us to find. Or things that it may be important for us to prevent others from finding."

    "Vader wasn't the kind to keep trophies," Mara muttered.

    Luke's eyes were on Kam, blue and piercing. "What do you think, Kam?"

    He shook his head. "I think I need to go and see for myself," Kam said. His voice quieted. "It has been a long, long time since I heard the Force this clearly," he added. "It wants me there."

    They gazed at each other as Kyp watched them from his place on the floor. "I agree," Luke said.

    "Can I come?" asked Kyp hopefully.

    Kam turned his attention to his student. He and Luke shared a glance. "Not this time," said Kam. "We're not sure how dangerous this mission is going to be, and Vjun is strong in the Dark Side. It would be better for you to be fully trained before treading there."

    "Besides," Luke added before Kyp's face could fall. "Someone needs to stay here and keep an eye on my niece and nephew."

    The sudden deferral of responsibility to Kyp made the young man's disappointment transform into enthusiasm. "Okay," Kyp agreed.

    Mara sighed. "I'll get the Tempered Mettle ready. We can leave tomorrow."

    "You don't have to come, Mara," Luke pointed out. "This isn't a Smugglers' Alliance mission like Bespin was."

    "You can say that all you like," Mara muttered. "You're still not going without me. If we're going to walk into Bast Castle, we're going to do it right: prepared for anything."

    [Go to Table of Contents]​
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  6. WarmNyota_SweetAyesha

    WarmNyota_SweetAyesha Chosen One star 8

    Aug 31, 2004
    [face_dancing] [face_love] [face_love] [face_dancing] I adored Mara with everybody [face_laugh] Especially with Wedge!! Amazing voice you've given him. I adore that she's getting comfy moreso with friendships and I always laugh at how obvious she and Luke are about being together even while being discreet ;)
    Mara with the Solo kids is just too adorbs for words!

    I like that she doesn't even hesitate to say I'm going with you to Vjun.


    I do hope you continue to post here @Bel505 ... if you stop, please give me the link elsewhere.
    Last edited: Nov 19, 2021
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  7. Gabri_Jade

    Gabri_Jade Fanfic Archive Editor Emeritus star 5 VIP

    Nov 9, 2002
    Some amazing descriptions here :cool:

    Creeeeepy [face_worried]

    Ah, a true believer o_O

    Yeah, well, Carias isn't Emperor either, now is he?

    The Empire was built on an awful lot of ego o_O

    lol, look at Winter go :p

    That's no joke, babies and toddlers totally maul you. Astonishing how strong those tiny hands are

    Aw [face_love]

    Can you imagine Han taking etiquette classes? The mere idea cracks me up :p

    The Wraiths would eat stick-in-the-mud Corran alive.

    ....I'd pay to read that, actually

    Heh, just ask Winter :p

    Aw. Even if Wedge didn't really have that in mind, it's nice to see a story where Luke still has close friends who might well be that protective of him [face_love]

    Accurate. Completely accurate.

    lol, I'm betting the Rogues argued amongst themselves over whether it was a pro or con :p

    [face_love] =((

    Ha, I can just imagine Wedge trying to pull off a prim Coruscanti accent :p

    This is the perfect summation. The Skywalker/Solos do not lead normal lives :p

    Sarcasm or vibroknives, I love it :p

    Yeah, but Vader had lousy judgement :p

    lol, yes, this is our Mara

    I feel like Luke and Mara on Vjun has all sorts of story potential :D
    Bel505 and WarmNyota_SweetAyesha like this.
  8. Bel505

    Bel505 Jedi Grand Master star 2

    Jul 4, 2006
    Yeah, when you're dealing with Sith, that tends to happen...
    Yeah, when you're dealing with ISB, that tends to happen! ;) But more seriously, ISB is more than just the Empire's secret police. They're the Empire's revolutionary guard: the true believers, the most dedicated, and the ones with the most to lose. They're also probably the most delusional.
    Yes! Yes I can. [face_laugh]
    Wes: Pro
    Hobbie: Con
    Yeah. :(
    An inarguable statement.
    Ugh, Vjun.... well, we're going to find out!
  9. Bel505

    Bel505 Jedi Grand Master star 2

    Jul 4, 2006
    Chapter Nine

    Rain on Vjun was a terrible thing. Acid drops swirled and spattered in every direction, the howling wind carrying them every which way, battering structures and leaving them dilapidated and broken, and slaying all but the hardiest plants as they grappled for life in the poisoned dirt. Deprived of nutrients by the biting rain, the plants that remained only gave the illusion of life, a spreading green moss that would devour the skin off an unconscious man, if given half a day to do so.

    It was an evil world. Kam did not think such things lightly—he had been to many worlds during his time as an Inquisitor, and had seen many acts of greed, hate, or spite so powerful that they had left an imprint of the Dark in their wake. The plants continued to grow, but shriveled and twisted, a dark mirror of their healthy selves. The animals grew mean, attacking even when it was unwise—even if it meant that every last member of the pack would fall to blaster fire, or to a lightsaber. Such places were common in the wake of the Inquisitorius' efforts, for they carried pain and death, hunting and slaying, each corpse of a Jedi a void where life had once thrived, even in hiding.

    Each corpse of a Jedi mirroring that of his father, even the ones he himself had left behind.

    That was Vjun. All of Vjun. A world gone mad, the stories had said at the time. Slaughter and mayhem, an impossible infection that had carved through its population. The world was drenched in the blood of its former inhabitants, not even the acid rain strong enough to wash it all away. It soaked into the moss, filled the storm clouds, and ran free through the rivers. Vjun was not a world any longer, Vjun was the emptiness where a world, once full of life and joy, had been lost to the galaxy forever.

    Vjun was where Darth Vader had made himself at home.

    Kam glanced sideways. Mara and Slips were at the pilot and copilot seats, trying to decide where to set Tempered Mettle down, looking for something that might offer the freighter at least a little protection from the corrosive effects of the rain. Beside them, Luke peered through the forward windows, his expression tight. Mara paused in her litany about the dangers to her ship to look up at him, and her hand carefully left the controls to interlace with his. Luke pulled himself away from his observation of Vjun to look down at her and offered her a reassuring smile. "I'm all right," he said.

    Mara watched him a second longer before nodding and releasing her grip so she could take the controls back. "How far are we from Bast Castle?" she asked Kam.

    The maps that Kam had been forced to memorize were etched into his brain. "It overlooks the beach, on the other side of the mountain range," he said, gesturing at the swell of peaks that stretched out before them. "There was a city up the coast from it that was abandoned during the catastrophe." Lightning scorched the sky, slashing down at the ground and at Tempered Mettle, but the ship's shields absorbed the blows.

    "There are people there," Luke murmured softly. "At the castle." He leaned forward towards the forward windows. "At least one of them is Force-strong," he added, sounding distant and focused, the strain of effort showing in his expression.

    "Inquisitors," Kam said, certain. "Perhaps some of them occupied Vader's castle after his death."

    Luke and Mara wore matching frowns now. "We're not looking for a fight," Mara said, pulling back on the controls to end their forward motion. The freighter hovered in the air on its repulsorlifts, the mountain peaks blocking the view of the ocean beyond. Splatters of raindrops fell around Tempered Mettle, vaporizing when they made impact with the ship's shields. "If there's a contingent of Inquisitors here, right now, that means we're outnumbered and probably outgunned. We might want to consider aborting the mission, or doing more extensive recon before we attempt an infiltration."

    "I don't remember you being so cautious before we infiltrated Thrawn's Star Destroyer to rescue Karrde," Luke said. There was a hint of tease in his voice, Kam thought, but it was buried under concern and focus; Luke's attention was still locked on the castle he could not see.

    "We had a deadline," Mara reminded him. "And at the very least I knew we were going aboard a Star Destroyer. They're all the same." She wrinkled her nose and shrugged. "Or they were."

    "I don't think we can wait that long," Kam found himself saying. Luke and Mara both turned towards him with expressions of polite question and he swallowed, feeling unaccountably nervous. "I don't know why," he admitted warily. "There's something the Force has been trying to tell me, something calling me here. Something important. I don't think this… insistence… I feel is the kind of thing a—" he hesitated before using the word "—Jedi should ignore."

    Whether he felt worthy of the title or not was irrelevant. A Jedi listened when the Force called. He lived in the moment, he accepted the guidance it offered. He followed. And the Force was leading him—leading them—to Bast Castle. There was a reason for that.

    To his surprise, it was Mara who conceded first. "Fine," she muttered, wrinkling her nose. "But we're not going to be able to just fly up to the castle and land like we expected. We're going to need someplace to put down, someplace acid rain won't eat my ship's hull armor while we're gone. Then we're going to need to trek through the rain without losing our skin, infiltrate the castle, and find whatever it is that the Force wants us to find, all while being stalked by Inquisitors." A hint of amusement showed on her features. "Not the worst assignment I've ever had. All right, Slips, bring us around to the north, we're going to look for someplace to land where it won't take us a month to hike back down."

    Artoo whistled mournfully as they made their way through the blackened night sky, circling a mountain peak. As they passed through the low-lying clouds an endless, acidic ocean emerged in front of them, dark waves crashing against the shore as the tide came in, pulled by Vjun's large, gleaming moon. It was beautiful, Kam thought, if somewhat lonely. Silver light illuminated the long beach below as it stretched along the mountain spine that followed much of the coast. In the far, far distance he could see the tallest peak, the one upon which Bast Castle was mounted, all the rest mere hills by comparison.

    Along the coast were an array of deserted houses. Structures melted to slag by years of acid rain. Lonely walls, standing alone with no roof to cover them. Fallen towers and abandoned farms, overgrown by the carnivorous moss. Civilization did not last long without people there to sustain it, Kam thought.

    There was a ping on Mara's console and she swore. "We've been spotted," she announced unceremoniously. "They're pinging our IFF. I'm not seeing any targeting scanners—"

    "Unidentified freighter, this is Bitter End, identification code Gamma-One-Zero-Echo-Dash-Isk-Senth. Identify yourself immediately."

    Artoo whistled mournfully, wheeling forward and back as he plugged into the ship's computer. Mara held up her hand. "Quiet!" she ordered. "Artoo, revert us back to the manufacturer's IFF." She didn't wait for the droid to respond, instead pressing her thumb down on the blinking button. When she spoke again, her native Coruscanti accent was more intense than normal; Mara usually spoke without any identifiable accent at all. "Bitter End, this is L6000-H-82688. Authorization code Delta-Five-Five-Echo-Dash-Isk-Senth. Requesting landing and provisioning. Confirm authentication and report status." She lifted her thumb from the com pickup. "Don't say a word," she murmured to Kam and Luke.

    The voice that came back was annoyed, with a clear hint of exhaustion. "L6000, this is Bitter End. Your authorization code is valid but expired. Confirm."

    Mara grinned thinly. "Bitter End, your authorization is valid but expired." She adopted a put-upon tone, but one with just enough force behind it to imply that her patience had strict limits. "Let's not play these games. Direct me to a landing pad, preferably one that offers protection from the rain."

    The freighter tilted its nose downwards, homing in on the source of the communication. A small village was settled up against the coast, the roads that had once led to it all washed away and overgrown. Two landing pads were visible now, as well as two hastily-constructed gunnery towers, the twinned turbolaser batteries swinging to point in their direction. Kam reached for but didn't bring up Tempered Mettle's firing controls—activating the array would surely be noticed by the people on the ground, and Mara evidently thought they could talk their way through this.

    "That's an ISB authorization code," Mara murmured as she reduced their velocity further, now hovering high above the pair of landing pads. From this distance, they could see the structures here were in better shape than any others they had passed, with thick roofs that stood up to the constant spatter of the acid rain and were elevated off the ground to avoid storm surges. "This ship used to be ISB, and after a few unpleasant run-ins with their operatives Palpatine took steps to make sure I could blend if I had to." She gestured at herself. "Catriona Lavalle." She pointed at Kam and Luke. "Lackey One and Lackey Two. Stay out of sight and let me do the talking. If one of you has to be seen, make sure it's Lackey One."

    "Why do I have to be Lackey Two?" Luke murmured playfully.

    "Because he's taller and scarier looking," Mara retorted. "Yes, that is actually the reason. That and they'd recognize you."

    Kam considered pointing out that at least Luke hadn't been an Inquisitor.

    The com flickered back to life, the hiss of static dissipating quickly. The voice on the other end of the line was now more respectful. "L6000, you are cleared for landing."

    "Thank you, Bitter End," Mara said, a hint of annoyed sarcasm in her voice.

    "You know we're not going to have much in the way of provisions."

    "I am well aware, Bitter End. As you are well aware, if I had a viable alternative I would be anywhere else but here. This isn't exactly what I would consider a vacation spot. If you have a replacement YKL fuel shunt on hand, have it delivered when I land. If not, I'll want a full inventory of what you do have available. L6000-H-82688 out."

    With confident skill, Mara and Slips brought the freighter down onto the landing pad, then slid the ship back under a simple overhang that offered rudimentary protection from the acid rain. "We're going to need to give the ship a full overhaul when we're back on Coruscant," Mara murmured, shaking her head with annoyance. "Alright then. We all need to change, but especially me. I have gear in the armory."

    * * *​

    Mara's flight from the Empire had been unplanned. The Emperor's death had been a sudden, furiously unexpected blow. The sudden severing of her bond to Palpatine, on top of his frantic last command impressing itself upon her mind, had left Mara near catatonic. When she had woken it had been in a cell, with one of Ysanne Isard's goons interrogating her.

    She had never had a chance to return to L6000-H-82688, which she had since given the name Tempered Mettle as a declaration of her present resolve and a concession to Karrde's preference for puns. Instead she had run, casting herself adrift into the galaxy. Then came the wandering, lonely and confused, looking for purpose in a galaxy gone mad. Palpatine had been her touchstone, her anchor. In his absence she went on, doing the best that she could, surviving—until she had stumbled across Karrde and asked for a job.

    The life she had lived as Emperor's Hand had been left behind her—for good, she thought—and she had begun a new one. A better one. One where her life was her own, and then more recently shared with Luke and not Palpatine, and where the sharing was equal and honest, not one-sided. One she could leave if she wished. One she could use to keep investigating the insistent question that had dogged her for so long and likely would for the rest of her life.

    Who is Mara Jade?

    So when she pulled open doors to her armory, revealing the array of equipment that she had been forced to abandon in the wake of Palpatine's death, it was with decidedly mixed feelings.

    The next part was simple. She removed the armor of the Emperor's Hand and put it on. The outfit began with a comfortable, snug layer of blaster-resistant synthfabric. Then a set of light, flexible armor which could be covered easily with a casual outfit. High boots, a weapons belt, and unobtrusive knee pads finished the gear—not counting the blaster on her right hip and the vibroblade sheathes hidden in her boots. Reluctantly, she left her lightsaber behind, placing it in the armory on the provided hook. It wasn't the kind of weapon an ISB operative would carry.

    She turned towards Luke, found him watching her with an expression that revealed the debate going on behind his eyes. Much to her consternation, Luke was one of the few sentients in the galaxy who found her scowl attractive, a fact about him she would never understand, and Mara dressed to be deadly only heightened his attraction to her. But he knew as well as she did—maybe even better than she did—how hard she had fought to leave the Emperor's Hand in her past.

    It didn't matter. She needed to be an Imperial to make this work, so an Imperial she would be. "Stay on the ship," she instructed him. "We shouldn't have gotten rid of our disguises after Bespin, but there's nothing to be done about it now."

    "We were expecting my father's empty castle," Luke said with a shrug. "We didn't know the Inquisitors and ISB decided to turn it into a delightful summer retreat." His gaze was intent, affection and concern swirling together in his heart as he stepped near. He took her hands in hers. "Be careful," he murmured.

    "Luke," Mara said with a sigh, rolling her eyes even as she stepped into his embrace, her arms twining around him. "I'm about to walk into an ISB contingent with nothing more than my armor and an old cover. Being careful isn't exactly an option here."

    His fingers ran up her spine, sending a shiver through her. Her fingers tightened on his back and she leaned up, kissing him with slow determination. I'll be alright. This is what I do.

    "Kam and I are available for quick backup," he murmured against her lips as he held her close. "And we've got the ship and my X-wing."

    "I'll be alright," she reassured him confidently. It helped that she was as confident as she sounded. She kissed him again, then walked past him, carrying his love with her as she immersed herself in the person she needed to be. Colonel Catriona Lavalle. ISB. Coruscanti.

    She slapped the hatch release, the ship's forward ramp lowering. Outside there was the sound of whipping rain and breeze, and Mara pulled on a pair of protective goggles, just in case some of the acidic rain was blown under the flimsily-constructed hangar. There were three people waiting for her. The leader was an ISB officer wearing a Captain's rank insignia—that was good, it meant her persona had the advantage of rank—and he was flanked by two ISB stormtroopers.

    She stalked down the hangar, summoning the irritation and demanding self-confidence typical of ISB senior officers, especially in the presence of subordinates. "Do you have my fuel shunt?" she demanded, leaning into her native Coruscanti accent and pointing at the ceiling. "I certainly don't intend to remain on this pitiful rock for any longer than my repairs demand." She pointed at the officer in the middle. "Name and ISB Ident."

    The officer was caught off guard by her command of the conversation. "Captain Linscome," he replied. "Zeta-Alpha-Gamma-Zero-Zero-Five."

    Mara placed her hand on her ear, as if receiving confirmation from either a member of her crew or from her ship's main computer. "Good enough," she muttered. "So, do you have it?" She pointed at the two stormtroopers. "If the answer is yes, go fetch it. If the answer is no, what do you have I can use to fix my ship?"

    "My pardon, Colonel," Linscome awkwardly tried to re-insert himself into the conversation. He nodded at the two Stormtroopers. "Go fetch our spare parts for the Colonel," he confirmed. As they trotted back into the acid rain, he returned his attention to Mara, who was now studiously ignoring him as she examined Tempered Mettle's supposedly-damaged engine. "Colonel!" he called, hurrying after her. "Colonel, I need your ISB Ident. And the main database is also requesting you provide a status update." He looked awkward. "Frankly, ma'am, the system says you haven't reported a status update in almost six years. It's quite insistent that I give it something."

    "Epsilon-Beta-Beta-Nine-Nine-Seven," Mara replied breezily, without turning to look at him. She removed the outer casing on Tempered Mettle's engine, lifting the heavy metal covering and placing it down carefully. Then she glanced around, saw a stool sitting in the corner of the hangar, and went and grabbed it. As she pulled it towards her ship's engine, she spared Linscome a glance.

    He was an older man, much older than Mara herself. He was junior for his age, but not as junior as his rank suggested. ISB had preferred to keep its officers—even its senior-most officers—at relatively low ranks, with almost no one ever exceeding the rank of Colonel. ISB personnel had delighted in being Colonels that could command Admirals, or Lieutenants that could intimidate Captains. An ISB Captain being permanently stationed here on Vjun suggested that their presence was considered important by at least someone in their decentralized hierarchy—although that might just be Linscome himself.

    She needed to figure it out quick.

    "Ma'am?" Linscome prodded.

    "Hmmm? Oh," Mara replied, turning from her seat on the stool. She pushed her hair back, scowling with annoyance. "To be blunt, I've been operating off book." She nodded at him. "You're familiar with the explosion at the Bank of Heurkea? The one that destabilized the Dac economy for the better part of four months? Or the assassination of the Patriarch of the Dza clan four years ago?" She paused, holding up a hand and ticking off a litany of events. "The execution of Grand Admiral Grant? Or the betrayal and disappearance of Soontir Fel?" She shook her head. "I had a line on Crix Madine, but I couldn't pull it off."

    Linscome was staring at her. "All of those were ISB operations?"

    Mara scoffed. "ISB operations. Hardly, Captain." She shook her head, then glared at him. "To be blunt, current ISB leadership is an embarrassment, compared to the officer corps we had at our height. We never recovered from the death of Colonel Yularen at Yavin. They're ISB operations in the sense that I'm ISB, and I've been carrying out those operations." She pointed at him. "Feel free to put that in the computer." She put all the remembered righteous anger of the Emperor's Hand into her expression and voice. All the determined intent, all the self-confident belief. "I'm sure Grand Moff Kaine, the coward, would be happy to know that someone has been doing ISB's work the last five years." She tore a piece of the engine out angrily. "Someone has to fight for the New Order, and if I have to do it my own damn self, I bloody well will."

    The ISB Captain was watching her warily, but not as warily as he had been. ISB, more than any other Imperial institution other than maybe the Inquisitorius, had operated in independent cells. An ISB Colonel, like the identity Mara had co-opted, had enormous latitude to operate on her own authority, and Mara suspected that with the death of the Emperor that had become only more true. A rogue ISB operative, on her own, carrying out ISB missions, was all-too-plausible.

    The list of operations she gave were suspicious accidents. The "bombing" at the Bank of Heurkea, one of the major Mon Calamari financial institutions, had been (to the best of anyone's knowledge) nothing more than an accident. Grand Admiral Grant had defected to the New Republic years before and gone into quiet retirement—but he could have been quietly murdered, and the New Republic not admit it for fear of discouraging future defections. Fel, of course, she knew from Wedge had vanished and never been found.

    The ISB man's greatest wariness came when she attacked Grand Moff Kaine, but apparently Linscome had heard such sentiments from other ISB officers before. "Yes ma'am. I'll update your file, but if you would fill out a formal set of mission reports—"

    The look Mara sent him was positively venomous.

    He laughed awkwardly. "Yes. I'll do my best based on your summary." He frowned. "Ma'am, if you don't mind—how did you find out about this facility? Our presence here is only a year old, and you've been out of contact with ISB for much longer than that."

    "I'm from the Imperial Security Bureau," Mara said. For the first time in the conversation, she offered the man a particularly winsome smile. "We always know, Captain." She gestured at her ship. "This won't take me long to fix with the proper tools. I'll need a meal and a proper shower, and ideally I'd like to restock my blaster power packs and get a new supply of explosives—whatever you have available, the higher the grade the better." She winked, putting no levity into it. "I may have a few more targets in mind."

    "I'll reach out to the Inquisitors," Linscome promised. "They have more supplies than we do, and Vader apparently left a lot of equipment behind. I'm sure we can get you whatever you need."

    "Tell me, Captain," Mara asked, dismissively turning back to continue 'fixing' her ship's undamaged engine. She thwacked it with a hydrospanner—if they checked it now, it would be broken, but not broken enough to prevent her from flying. "How has it been, working more closely with the Inquisitorius?" She turned to peer at him with the narrowed, intent gaze of a skilled interrogator. "I hope they're being properly respectful."

    This line of questioning brought a look of intense discomfort to Linscome's face. "It is a work in progress," he admitted. "To be honest, they rely more on us than we do on them—their numbers are simply too small to provide much institutional support."

    Mara scoffed. "They have you hunting Jedi, do they?" she asked. That had to be what he meant—the Inquisitorius' only charge was to hunt and destroy Jedi or their lore. Such agents usually had to be Force sensitive—that was the easiest way to identify Jedi attempting to hide their Force sensitivity—which, combined with Vader's notorious tendency to slay his own assets, had kept their numbers small. So if ISB was providing Inquisitors with support, that had to mean they'd taken up some of those Jedi-hunting responsibilities for themselves.

    Linscome was clearly torn between his increasing belief that she was an ISB agent, and not quite knowing what to do with an ISB agent who had been rogue for half a decade. She tilted her head at him, challengingly, as if daring him to refuse to tell her, and he stiffened. "There are no Jedi, other than the pretenders on Coruscant," he replied. "But they have pointed us towards possible Jedi artifacts and relics, and teams of ISB agents and Inquisitors have been traveling to each one. We've destroyed five such sites in the last year."

    He practically glowed with pride, and Mara rewarded him for his story with a smile. "Well done," she said approvingly, the kind of professional sanction a general might offer a promising junior officer.

    "Yes, ma'am," he agreed. "Our last joint operation was at a place called Exis Station. There wasn't much left there, but we did manage to capture a Force-strong scavenger and a few other artifacts that the Inquisitors seemed… excited… to have in custody." He shrugged. "Have you ever heard of something called a holocron?" he asked.

    Mara shook her head. "My focus has been on traitors, not Jedi." That was a gentle chastisement, as rooting out traitors was ISB's directive—the threats to the New Order from within—but she didn't speak it as one.

    "Apparently they're Jedi magic," Linscome explained, either not catching the rebuke or deciding to ignore it. "Pasiq says they hold Jedi wisdom, training, and secrets. She's attempting to draw its secrets out. If she can—" Linscome's voice went hard "—then perhaps we can use it to win the war."

    Mara doubted it, but she'd seen the way one powerful Force user and one genius could rewrite the rules of galactic politics in a matter of months. She shrugged, using her hydrospanner to hit her ship's engine again, repairing some of the damage she'd inflicted as she whacked the metal back into something closer to its appropriate shape. "What will win the war," Mara said with dark passion typical of ISB operatives, "is good, loyal soldiers of the Empire, commitment, and the death of all traitors." She hit the engine again, harder this time. "All of them, Captain."

    There were two kinds of ISB operatives: the ones who served because it brought them wealth, power, and status, and the ones who served because they believed in the New Order. Colonel Catriona Lavalle was the latter.

    "Yes ma'am!" Linscome agreed, snapping to attention.

    Behind him, the two stormtroopers who had been dispatched to bring spare parts returned. "Finally," Mara groused, hopping off her stool and going over. She peered through the collection of parts, snatching up the replacement part. "Perfect. I'll seal this back up, then have a meal and a shower and a good night's sleep, then finish the repairs and get back out of your hair in the morning," she said.

    "We have techs who can fix the ship for you, ma'am."

    "The only person who touches my ship," Mara hissed at him, "is me. Clear?"

    Linscome winced. "Clear, ma'am."

    Mara tossed the hydrospanner into the crate with the parts. Outside, the rain had temporarily let up, reduced to a trickle instead of a maelstrom.

    * * *​

    Following Mara through the Force was not as difficult as it had been the first few times they had tried this. The sensation of sharing her vision, of seeing what she saw, hearing what she heard, was disorienting, but the more they tried it—or the longer they were together as a couple—the easier it had become. Luke murmured to Kam, the two of them plotting out a map of first the hangar facility, then of the hastily-constructed (but still clearly the recipient of ISB's usual lavish investment of funds) ISB operations facility.

    "I haven't seen very many people," Luke continued. "The two stormtroopers and the ISB captain so far…" he paused, following Mara's vision as she glanced down hallways, quickly tracing the layout he saw. Mara entered a cafeteria, which was empty but had enough tables to seat about sixteen people, if people had packed into it all at once.

    Probably a staff of four officers, Mara thought to him, the cadences of her thoughts identifying them as hers, tinged with the comfortable edge of intimate affection that had come to characterize all the thoughts and emotions shared via the invisible string that bound them together. Then I'd guess eight stormtroopers, maybe ten, maybe six, depending on how active this operations team is. This strikes me as a coordinating center, more focused on integrating ISB and Inquisitorius operations than running their own independent teams.

    Luke relayed the information to Kam. In the cafeteria, Mara grabbed a stash of Imperial ration bars, a flash-frozen meal, and a double-sized cup of caf. The ISB captain who had been watching her departed, but one of the stormtroopers remained, keeping a watchful eye. Should I be concerned? he asked.

    He could feel as Mara subtly observed the stormtrooper as he subtly observed her. Probably not immediately, she returned after consideration. My cover should hold up to initial scrutiny, but when they go digging they'll realize I look identical to the second-in-command of the Smugglers' Alliance. I'm not as low profile as I used to be. The stormtrooper watched Mara nonchalantly as she ate her flash-meal and drank her caf. Mara, in turn, ignored the stormtrooper, except in the awareness offered by her peripheral vision and the Force. You saw the liftspeeder doors I passed on the way in?

    I saw them, he confirmed. Between Mara's entry to the base facility and her arrival at the cafeteria, one of the hallways she passed had featured two wide, sealed lift doors. Wider than a usual turbolift, it probably represented the entrance to a liftspeeder—a high speed turbolift that would travel along at ground level at airspeeder velocity—that traveled along the coast to Castle Bast farther up the beach.

    Mara stood and stretched, before placing her tray in the disposal. I think I can get you access to it, she sent. Once you're inside, you and Kam can go investigate Bast Castle while I keep the ISB team distracted. I just need to get access to the main security terminal. He could feel her reaction to his sudden wariness, the soothing affection and mild annoyance that was her typical response to his desire to keep her out of danger. Skywalker, she scolded gently. I have my ship. I'll be fine. A hint of disdain replaced her affection. It's just ISB. Nothing I can't handle.

    Luke followed her through the Force as she was led to a spare room, with all the typical amenities for a visiting officer, including a computer terminal. She thanked the stormtrooper, then shut the door in his face.

    What do you want us to do? he asked once she was safely ensconced.


    * * *​

    Randel Linscome rather detested Vjun. Working with the Inquisitorius wasn't so bad—he'd actually come to like and respect them more than he'd expected when the orders had first come down from on high—even if he thought the work they were being asked to do was outside of ISB's proper purview. Moments of excitement were few and far between, the hunt for a new artifact or Jedi talent usually wild bantha chases across the galaxy, accomplishing little. That wasn't always the case, as the mission to Exis Station just a few days before had proven, but it was mostly the case.

    Colonel Catriona Lavalle was easily the most interesting thing to happen at the Bitter End Imperial Security Bureau station since he'd established it a little more than a year before, as part of Grand Moff Kaine and Colonel Carias' reorganization of ISB.

    Her record was exemplary if erratic. He tabbed through the summary file—mission reports, all years old now, which described an exceptional if bizarrely atypical ISB agent. She had been recruited out of Imperial Intelligence and put into accelerated training at an extremely young age, then operated largely autonomously. Dedicated to hunting down treasonous elements, she had targeted enemies of the New Order and eliminated them—always without making her assassinations obvious. An accident here. A sudden illness there.

    Since Endor, and ISB's further fragmentation as the Empire's central hierarchy fell apart, she had not bothered to report to anyone. He checked each of the stories she'd told him, and each fit Lavalle's operational profile: quiet, unheralded deaths or accidents that had outsized impacts, always harmful to the Rebellion in one way or another.

    If she was genuine, she was one of ISB's finest.

    The problem was Randel Linscome was pretty sure she wasn't.

    Last edited: Nov 25, 2021
    Chyntuck and Gabri_Jade like this.
  10. Bel505

    Bel505 Jedi Grand Master star 2

    Jul 4, 2006
    Chapter Ten

    The yacht Violet Envy was perfectly suited for diplomatic duty. Grand Moff Kaine occupied the stateroom alone; Carias had let him be during their trip to Coruscant, both because he didn't want to disturb him, and because he'd spent every free minute making his own plans.

    Not everything could be prepared in advance. ISB's assets on Coruscant were extremely thin, having been largely expended over the years and were difficult to replace. Unfortunately, most of the Coruscanti families that ISB would have recruited from—including Carias' own—had been among those to abandon the planet when the Rebellion had conquered it, which left few true loyalists (at least, loyalists who could be confirmed as such) among Coruscant's remaining population. But there were other options for Carias to procure what he would need.

    Just as importantly, Carias had quietly ordered a number of personnel reassignments. Every Imperial warship carried some ISB personnel to monitor the loyalty of its crew—both officially and unofficially—but that might not be enough to assure loyalty in the days to come, so Carias pushed some judicious personnel shuffling to put the right people in the right places.

    His new second-in-command, Lieutenant Brinner, swiveled in the chair at the yacht's electronic warfare and communications station. Carias had left Welko to look after ISB's affairs aboard Reaper, secure in the knowledge that the man was loyal, capable, and ruthless enough for the job. In his absence, Brinner was competent enough; a brick of a man who looked like he had a Gonk droid for a grandparent, he lacked Welko's well-honed accuracy with a blaster pistol, but made up for it with close-combat skills and unhesitating loyalty. "Ten minutes to Coruscant, sir."

    Carias pressed the intercom button on the arm of his command chair. "We're ten minutes out of Coruscant," he announced to the crew. "Confirm all weapons powered down. We don't want to get into a shooting match with the Rebellion's First Fleet." He glanced over at the gunnery station, where the console's running lights showed only the dimmed grey of disasbled turbolasers.

    The whisper-soft footsteps that heralded Brakiss' arrival seemed to get quieter and quieter each time he approached. "Are all preparations made?" Brakiss asked quietly, in that voice that was so much older than the teenager he was, or the teenager he had been when Carias had met him only a few days before.

    "The last communications went out during our brief stopover at Brentaal," Carias murmured, keeping his voice too quiet for even his loyal bridge crew to easily overhear. "All that remains is to discuss the matter with the Grand Inquisitor." Carias swiveled his chair towards Brakiss, folding his hands across his lap as he did. "Arrangements have been made to take care of that after we arrive on Coruscant?"

    Brakiss merely smiled, which Carias took as a confirmation.

    The Inquisitors will do their job, Carias thought to himself, believing it more as he remembered their reputations. The Empire needs them. Even if the Force is incomprehensible, the last few years have proven that it is indispensable to the New Order.

    The final minutes lingered, excruciating silence making them feel like hours. The only one of them that looked calm was Brakiss, but the lingering aura of menace around the man offered a premonition of tempest. Brinner's expression was irritated, but that was Brinner's normal condition.

    There was a soft ding as the doors opened and Grand Moff Kaine entered. Kaine wore his full dress uniform, a concession to tradition that Carias knew Kaine usually disdained. On the left breast, under his rank plaque which marked him as the senior-most Moff in the Empire, one of the awards drew Carias' attention. Carias had one just like it, on his own dress uniform; a ISB distinguished service ribbon. They were no longer awarded—only the Emperor himself had possessed that privilege.

    Kaine had earned it, once. But seeing it on his chest now made Carias silently furious. Treason, his mind whispered, unbidden. He has no right.

    Kaine did not seem to notice where Carias' attention had wandered to. "Have we arrived?" he asked.

    "Very nearly, sir," Carias answered, tearing his attention away and adopting his best unhurried commander impression.

    With the typical subtle lurch of a hyperspace transition, Violet Envy returned to normal space. It had been years since Carias had been back to Coruscant, and the sudden sight of the world brought decades of memories. Growing up outside the Senate District during the final years of the Republic. The Battle of Coruscant and the battleships that had fallen from the sky, leaving trails of fiery debris which impaled structures and people with equal ease. The Declaration of Empire and the security it immediately brought to the people of the new Imperial Center. The reassurance and calm, the ease of life, the flush of patriotism and fervor.

    Directly in front of them was a massive Executor-class Super Star Destroyer. There was a moment of flushed relief, a reminder of the first time the vessels had entered Imperial service, of the assurance that they would destroy the Rebellion once and for all—

    On each of the ship's flanks was an enormous Rebel crest, gleaming in red.

    The flush of rage was quickly suppressed. The determined intent was not. He glared at Lusankya, and at the planet that turned below. I will see the Rebellion burn, even if I have to scorch my homeworld to do it.

    * * *​

    The meeting was not taking place in the Imperial palace. The palace was, unfortunately, far too conspicuous and busy to sneak an Imperial Grand Moff in and out without being seen. Instead, they'd selected a large hotel complex twenty minutes outside of the former Imperial Center, one known for its discretion. After renting the top three floors for themselves and their Imperial counterparts, they'd moved in, getting comfortable for what Leia expected would be an extended few days—if not longer—of preliminary negotiations.

    In anticipation of Grand Moff Kaine's arrival, Leia put together a security and observation team that was second to none. Colonel Kapp Dendo, Crix Madine's protégé, and his Noghri commando team were assigned to security and subterfuge. Their job would be first to keep an eye on Kaine and his entourage, and second to make sure that no one else—especially no one with newsie ties—could do the same.

    With security covered by the best commandos that the New Republic had to offer, Leia then established a political, military, and intelligence analysis team. Garm Bel Iblis knew the military situation better than anyone else, so he served as the military advisor. Leia could do the political analysis herself, but she preferred to have Winter as her aide, knowing that Winter would remember anything that Leia might forget herself, and could make connections that others would miss. Finally, Iella sat at the other side of the table, quietly reading from a briefing book while she drank a cup of steaming hot caf, wearing an expression of focused, attentive calm that Leia had come to expect from the woman.

    There was a knock on the door, then Kapp slipped into the room; Leia caught a momentary glimpse of one of his Noghri team in the hallway beyond. Kapp was one of the more recognizable members of commando squads trained by Crix Madine—with the typical reddish skin and horns of a Devaronian, he could never disguise himself as a human—which left him often on missions of a less covert nature. "We've got the confirmation code," he announced, with a kind of stiff enunciation that betrayed both his uncertainties about the wisdom of this entire project and his determination to do his duty. "There's a transport on approach. Violet Envy. We've directed it to land on the rooftop pad. My team has just confirmed again that the floors are secure, no sign of listening devices or sludgenews operatives anywhere."

    She and Winter shared a look; Leia's long-time aide, who had been with Leia even going back to their childhood on Alderaan, and then during Leia's time in the Imperial Senate, offered the same confirming nod and phrase she had been giving ever since they were children. "Yes, Princess."

    "Are you sure you don't want me to accompany you?" Garm asked, looking even more unhappy than Kapp. "Having someone military in the room might send a more confident message—"

    "No," Leia interrupted with a shake of her head. "Our military superiority is already clear, I don't need to drive it home. This moment is one for conciliation." The corner of her mouth twitched, and she gave Garm a small, confident smirk. "We can always bring Kerrithrarr to one of the later sessions," she suggested. "Besides, I'll have Cakhmaim. He should be intimidating enough."

    Garm didn't smile back. His serious expression was stiff with thoughtfulness. But he nodded his reluctant agreement after a glance at Cakhmaim. "All right. I'll stay here and observe with Agent Wessiri."

    Leia and Winter stood, and Leia straightened her formal clothes. She'd spent far too long debating over what to wear. Han's suggestion, that she wear the combat gear she'd worn on Endor, had been amusing but… insufficiently diplomatic, and she had ultimately settled on a simple white outfit she'd often worn during her stint in the Imperial Senate. With a final nod to Garm and Iella, they turned to leave.

    Beside them, Cakhmaim's silent, intimidating presence was a shield against all the threats in the world. The Noghri led them out of the lounge they'd turned into their temporary negotiating headquarters,

    The hotel complex had been built well-near seven centuries before, during a high point in the history of the Old Republic. The Molalla Astor Hotel and Resort was an enormous complex, distant enough from the Senate District to offer anonymity while still close enough to make a morning commute practical. Two differents structures (the Molalla and the Astor) linked together by enormous, transparisteel passageways that offered a scenic view of Coruscant's ever-overbusy skyways attracted offworld tourists; its extensive security and privacy policies, rentable office space, library, and secure holocoms attracted politicians, ambassadors, and their aides.

    Leia knew that rumors were swirling all around Coruscant why the top three floors of the Astor had been booked for a week, but General Cracken had produced several persuasive and salacious cover stories and a dozen body-doubles who were—if they were succeeding at their mission—currently leading sludgenews all over Coruscant (and some nearby systems).

    Cakhmaim led the way as they traveled from the rooms that had been assigned to the New Republic to the ones that had been assigned to the Empire. Grand Moff Kaine should have landed on the roof of the Astor, on one of the hotel's very private landing pads, and his security detail would surely be performing a sweep before allowing the Grand Moff to disembark on the enemy-held world.

    The Mollala Astor felt eerily empty. The hotel's decor was cream and gold and its halls carved with ornate patterns and carpentry. The efforts of craftsmen from across the galaxy had gone into its creation, and those efforts had produced a famously beautiful structure. During the height of the Old Republic, it would have been filled with dignitaries of all species. The hotel had declined under the Empire, with all its amenities for non-human species largely unneeded. Today it was completely empty, the void a looming presence of its own—a reminder of the stakes they fought for.

    Cakhmaim pulled open the doors at the end of the hallway, a puff of stale air emerging as they yawed open.

    The conference room was rectangular, with one entrance on either side, meant for two equal partners. That equality would have been an affront to previous Imperial warlords, who had never acknowledged the New Republic as an equal partner, but Kaine had not objected when she had suggested it. That, plus the fact that Kaine had decided to come at all, was enough to give Leia hope that perhaps there was room for an agreement to be made.

    Leia and Winter took the two chairs on the Republic side of the room. Two lamps rested on the desk, casting a warm light that filled their side of the room; additional light came in through an array of windows on either side of the room, but those windows were offset behind a second wall that did not quite reach the ceiling. This both allowed some light to enter the room, but also ensured that neither sludgenews nor espionage could get a glimpse of the affairs within the room.

    The worst part of a diplomatic negotiation was the waiting. Once everyone was together in a room, instinct and experience took over. But the minutes before the negotiation were agony. Leia ran through a silent litany of all the things that could go wrong, the demands that could be made, the potential consequences of failure. The dangers of Imperial intransigence, the risks of Imperial hardliners like ISB sabotaging the meeting, the possibility that the Provisional Council would reject whatever terms Leia could come to with Kaine.

    "I recognize that expression," Winter said mildly from beside her. "The first time I saw it we were waiting to take our first form exams." She pointed at Leia. "You were listing the names of our five most important monarchs."

    Leia's focus shifted from the impending negotiation back into the past. "I still don't remember," she laughed. "There's Darrus and Breha, after that I forget." The tension broken, Leia offered Winter a smile. "Thanks."

    "You're welcome," Winter replied lightly, mirroring Leia's smile. She rested her hand on her stomach. "Don't worry. In a few months I'm sure I'll be relying on you to keep me from worrying."

    "They are arriving," Cakhmaim growled, making them both jump. The Noghri made his way across the room—in haste without being hurried—and pulled the doors open. As Leia and Winter stood, they could see three men on the other side of the threshold. After Cakhmaim checked them for weapons—to the clear annoyance of one of the men, a compact man with greying hair who wore a Colonel's uniform—they entered, and Leia got a good look at each of them.

    She recognized the man leading the trio immediately. Grand Moff Kaine was unmistakable, looking every bit like a classic Imperial Moff. He didn't look like his predecessor, Grand Moff Tarkin; Tarkin had been pasty, with a gaze that was menacing even when it wasn't meant to be. Kaine was younger, with a thicker head of hair and more color. His expression was stiff and emotionless, but his face lacked the edge of inherent menace that had so defined Tarkin.

    Behind him was the man in the Colonel's uniform. He was shorter than Kaine, stockier and more powerfully built. He was Kaine's version of Winter, Leia decided—his aide and confidante, there to provide counsel. Unlike Winter, though, the Colonel was probably there to be the more aggressive voice, to allow Kaine to seem like the voice of measured reason.

    The last of the trio was the most curious. A very young man, one certainly not much older than Kyp was, he seemed to have stolen all the youth from the other two. His hair was as blonde as her brother's, and his eyes just as blue. He was the only member of the trio not wearing an Imperial uniform; instead, the young man had on a plain-looking outfit, formal but not too formal. He seemed too young to be security, Leia thought. Perhaps he was an additional aide?

    Kaine and Leia approached one another in the center of the room, the meters of the hallway seeming to stretch. Compared to the three Imperial figures, Leia, Winter, and Cakhmaim were diminutive, almost comically so, and Leia was glad the sludgenews was not present; the headlines the next day would not have been able to resist a pointed commentary.

    Kaine took her proffered hand. "Councilor Organa Solo," he said.

    Her hand was small in his, but she made sure that her grip was firm. "Grand Moff Kaine. Welcome to Coruscant. May I introduce you to my aide, Winter Celchu, and the leader of my personal guard, Cakhmaim, warrior of the clan Eikh'mir."

    The Imperial Grand Moff released his grip, allowing her to exchange a handshake with the Colonel who accompanied him. "Thank you, Councilor. This is Colonel Carias. He's an old friend of mine and is serving as my principal guard and advisor for these negotiations."

    Carias' smile was cold; the man didn't even make an attempt at being genuine. "Princess."

    Leia hid a wince. Kaine might be cooperative, but Carias was going to be a problem. She waited for Winter to exchange a handshake with Carias, then glanced behind Kaine at the young man who Kaine had not introduced. She waited for an introduction; when one did not seem forthcoming, she prompted it. "And this is…"

    "Brakiss," the young man introduced himself. He offered a shy smile and took Leia's hand gingerly, with none of the firm grip of Kaine or Carias. And yet, Leia thought, there was something about him that made her distinctly uneasy. Those blue eyes were almost unnaturally so…

    "Oh, my apologies," Kaine interrupted her musing, drawing her attention back to him. "Brakiss is serving as an aide for Colonel Carias and myself. He's here mostly for record-keeping and observation." He gestured at the pair of desks. "Shall we sit? I suspect there is going to be a great deal of talking, and seats and water would both be welcome."

    * * *
    It took them an hour and a half simply to finish hammering out an agreement about the current state of galactic affairs. Every time Leia referred to the New Republic as a legitimate governing body, Carias objected—and every time he did, Leia wanted to smack him. The Empire's intransigence on these issues had become an increasing problem, especially when it came to treatment of prisoners; while the New Republic diligently kept Imperial prisoners of war in expectation of returning them to the Empire in prisoner exchanges, New Republic prisoners held by the Empire had more uncertain chances.

    These people can be utterly infuriating, Leia thought, hiding her scowl as Winter and Carias went through an extended, increasingly heated exchange about the proper obligations of combatants in wartime.

    But, the longer the meeting went on, the more confident Leia became. Carias was intransigent, but he wasn't the one dictating the meeting. Kaine was. And Kaine had repeatedly stepped in to assure them that Imperial forces under his command had and would continue to treat the New Republic as an equal government. Carias' scowl at those words had vanished quickly; whatever his reluctance, he was willing to follow Kaine's lead, at least so far.

    "The New Republic has certain necessary expectations," Leia laid out their demands, the same ones she and Mon Mothma had written and then run by the rest of the Provisional Council. "First, the recognition of the New Republic's legitimacy as an equal government." That was necessary for the negotiations to even begin; just by being here, Kaine had implicitly offered that much. "Second, the end of all military operations against territory currently held by the New Republic. Third, the end of slavery within the Oversector Outer, verified by New Republic monitors. And fourth, political considerations for Imperial worlds unsatisfied with its current governing arrangement."

    Carias' expression was that of a looming thunderstorm. Kaine's lips tightened as she laid out each of their demands, from the easiest ones to the more strenuous ones. "If you believe," the Colonel ground out slowly, as if trying to speak while chewing shattered transparisteel, "that the Empire will ever permit New Republic inspectors unfettered access to all elements of its economy, then you are a fool as well as a traitor!"

    Long years of diplomatic training, and Bail Organa's strenuous lessons about never letting her ire show—lessons which Leia had never been all that good at following—were the only thing that kept a hot retort from spilling free. What makes you think you can stop us, Imperial scum? she barely managed not to snarl. "The New Republic's stance on slavery is very clear," she replied instead, her fury confined to a slight increase in volume and passion.

    Kaine raised his hand; to Leia's relief, Carias receded back a half-step, deferring to the Grand Moff. "I have had discussions with the leading luminaries of the Oversector's economy," he said. The emphasis was interesting. Kaine's emphasis on 'the Oversector' rather than 'the Empire' matched what she already expected from the man. Kaine rapped his fingers on the desk, keeping all attention on him—and keeping Carias momentarily quiet. "Finding a way to satisfy the New Republic's concerns about the institution of slavery in a way that will not be overly burdensome will be difficult," he conceded. "But I am willing to concede in principle that the Oversector would end the practice and seek to satisfy the Republic in our efforts to do so, over a reasonable transition period."

    Leia could drive a Super Star Destroyer through a loophole that large.

    "As for political considerations, that is a more complicated topic. But—" he held up a hand to forestall Leia's impending commentary "—I am willing to consider the restoration of the Imperial Senate in its previous governing role, with room for expansion of that role where appropriate."

    Leia and Winter glanced at each other. Even with both of their sabacc faces in full effect, Leia could see, and understand, the other woman's surprise. "I see," Leia said, folding her hands together.

    "But there are, of course, considerations the Oversector would want as well," Kaine continued. "First, the end to all trade restrictions. Full, open access to the galactic market, without the embargoes on Oversector-produced goods or services that are currently in place. Second, the option for planetary systems and populations currently part of the New Republic to forgo their membership in the New Republic and freely vote to join the Oversector if they choose to do so."

    That could be a problem. If primarily human systems like Kuat, ones with insular societies and continuing prejudices, had the option to leave the New Republic for the Empire— especially an Empire that could operate freely in the galactic market—they might just take it. Overnight the Empire could regain major shipyards, strategic systems, and enlarge its economic base.

    It would be a hard sell with the Provisional Council. But it would also be a difficult thing for the New Republic to refuse, with its rhetorical emphasis on freedom and self-determination. These people cannot be trusted, she thought, feeling decades of resentments and pain and the memory of Alderaan all swirl in her mind.

    "Finally," she heard Kaine continue, "We must discuss the New Republic's intentions when it comes to prosecuting individuals it holds responsible for acts illegal under the law of the Republic." Kaine leaned forward, his voice darkening, as if carrying the weight of every act. "To put it simply, if the New Republic insists on holding every individual with a history of Imperial service accountable for every act it finds distasteful, it will make a negotiated end to the conflict impossible. What reason is there to put down their arms, if the New Republic will come and arrest them, take away their freedom or perhaps even their lives, once they have disarmed? I have prepared a list of acts that the New Republic formally intends to prosecute, and will insist that as part of any peace agreement subjects of the Oversector be formally granted amnesty for such acts." He handed a datapad to Winter, who took it. "The Oversector will not put down its arms just to hand its people over to the whims of the Republic."

    To demand so much, Leia thought grudgingly, when his Empire is at fault for everything. She stared at the man. There was no hint of insincerity in Kaine's voice, or even in his sense in the Force. Carias, behind him, was clearly annoyed by the entire exercise, but he was difficult to read, shrouded by his bitterness and close-mindedness. But Kaine had every hint of being genuine. This is Tarkin's heir, she thought, feeling the hollowness of horror. His predecessor murdered my world. Winter's world. Billions of innocents. For a demonstration. And he asks us for concessions? For amnesty?

    Leia was tempted to tell him to go kriff himself. To stand up, put her hands on the table, and explain in slow, excruciating terms exactly what the New Republic would do to every Imperial and Imperial sympathizer. To send Wedge and Lusankya to raze a hundred Imperial planets. To show the Empire what it was like to be on the wrong end of a blaster rifle or interrogation droid!

    Her anger simmered, and she found her attention drawn to Carias, who seemed in an equal state. She and Carias scowled at each other. Leia took a deep breath, let it out again. Her fury was only natural, she reassured herself. But it would lead her, and all the people relying on her, down a path of further bloodshed. With an effort, she looked away from the aggrieved Imperial and turned to his superior.

    Kaine was still waiting. She gave him nothing. "I will take it to the Provisional Council," she said. "But even if they agree to your terms—and I am not sure they will—this is the easy part. Finding a way to take the broad outline of this agreement, and turn it into a document we can both abide by in practice will be far more difficult."

    The Grand Moff's expression was that of ice slowly thawing. Carias' expression was that of the nearby raging bonfire that had induced the thaw. For the first time since the negotiations began, Leia's attention was drawn to the last member of the Imperial delegation. Brakiss was sitting in a chair back near the door the Imperials had entered through. He had been sitting there the entire time, taking notes quietly on a datapad. He hadn't said a single word, nor received any attention from either of the more senior Imperials.

    Their eyes met in one of those moments of accidental connection. In such moments, Leia's experience was that they ended awkwardly—suddenly looking away, or a small, disarming smile. But Brakiss did not look away and he did not smile. His icy gaze was locked upon her, boring, deep and inexorable, with the kind of demanding focus that Leia would not have expected from a man of his age.

    "You're right of course," Kaine said, and Leia was forced to break the staring contest, her attention returning to the Grand Moff, a sudden chill suffusing through her. "But this negotiation ended in a better place than I had expected, to be honest. I believe it is possible for the Oversector to give you what you ask for. And you have not rejected our demands out of hand." He stood, offering Leia his hand. "The galaxy has known war for too long, Councilor Organa Solo," he said seriously. "My entire life has been one of warfare; if not against the Rebellion, then against the Separatists. The people of the Oversector deserve peace."

    The people of the Oversector might, Leia thought sourly. But do you? You, Grand Moff Tarkin's heir, a founder of ISB, a creator of dread and a servant of death? And even if there was peace between the Republic and an independent Oversector, that would not bring peace to the Republic. The other warlords would not just disappear, the ISB forces which had murdered tens of thousands at Rendili and still more on a hundred thousand other worlds, they would not concede. How many worlds would suffer in the interim?

    He does not deserve peace, her mind whispered. But the thought was unbefitting, and one Leia could not afford in her position, so she pushed it aside.

    The handshake she exchanged with Carias was less amicable. His eyes blazed with an angry fury, but there was more than anger in it. In his gaze, and in his Force sense, she could sense a resigned sorrow. Whether Carias wanted to admit it to her or not, it was over and he knew it. "Princess," he growled, no sign of that knowledge showing on his face.

    Winter exchanged handshakes with the two men, then they turned and departed, their Imperial uniforms shrinking as they approached the exit. Leia and Winter watched them go.

    As he turned to exit, Brakiss offered her a smile before he closed the doors behind them. The expression sent a terrified shiver down Leia's spine, and she had no idea why exactly she was so afraid.

    * * *​

    They returned to the operations room. Garm and Iella were each holding fresh cups of caf, talking quietly. As Leia and Winter entered, they offered Winter a cup of tea, and Leia the blackest of black caf. "We thought you would need these, under the circumstances," Iella said. "We also have some ryshcate, if you want something sweet."

    Leia gratefully took a sip of the strong caf. "Thank you."

    "What did you think of the Imperials?" asked Garm, sipping his own caf.

    Leia opened her mouth to speak, but Winter got there first. "I think we have a serious problem," she announced.

    Leia turned towards her, frowning. Winter hadn't touched her tea yet, and was turning back towards them from the computer set at the desk. "What do you mean?"

    "I recognized Kaine's aide," Winter said flatly, her expression dark. "He's not from the Imperial army. He's ISB." She held up a datapad, which presented a tiny little face that unmistakably belonged to the Grand Moff's aide. "Colonel Kaday Carias, from Coruscant."

    * * *​

    The suite that had been reserved for them underwent a thorough sweep by Carias' team before he allowed any of them to enter. He didn't really believe that the Rebellion would stoop to assassination—especially not when Kaine was perfectly willing to give peacefully everything they might take in war—but it was still necessary. When it was finished, and they were assured that the room was safe for both lives and secrets, they entered.

    Kaine lumbered into a heavy chair, leaning back with a sigh. Carias made his way to the window, looking out over the city. This was a quieter part of Coruscant compared to the Palace District, but it was still Coruscant. The long rows of vehicles streamed through the sky, just as they had when he had served here as a young officer, and just as they had when he had been a child. The world had been the heart of the Old Republic, and even more the heart of the Empire, with its young men and women enlisting by the millions to serve the Empire in any capacity possible.

    Palpatine had saved them all. He'd protected them as Chancellor, he'd won the war. He'd fought off attempts to seize the Republic by insidious forces, both from within and from without. The recruitment stations had made it clear it was the responsibility of every human to serve, and serve they had. Coruscant, and the other Core Worlds of course, had provided the foundation of the Empire.

    And now Coruscant served a new master. One whose corruption was evident even in something as mundane as the construction of the hotel room he stood within. Carias wondered if Councilor Organa Solo had considered—even noticed—the disrespect she paid her guests by giving them a hotel room which had originally been built for non-human guests. The built-in humidifier—meant to turn the air heavy with moisture, probably to increase the comfort of an amphibian sentient—combined with the moisture-resistant furniture and electronics was proof enough of that.

    "What did you think, Kaday?"

    Carias turned away from the window, drawing the curtains closed, and then activating the manual tint to polarize them fully, preventing any espionage through the transparisteel. "I think they ask for a lot and offer very little," he said honestly.

    "I have no doubt that they believe the same," Kaine replied, stroking his jaw. "Councilor Solo is probably having that discussion with Mon Mothma and the Provisional Council as we speak." He waved his hand in the air. "I can imagine the debates. The incredulity that we would demand so much." He shook his head. "But we cannot offer anything more than our people back home would accept."

    Speak for yourself, Carias thought bitterly. You've already offered more than I would give. "True," he said instead of the words truly believed. "There will be Imperial worlds reluctant to accept your bargain." He considered his words carefully. "Carida in particular is devoted to the New Order and will be reluctant."

    "Carida is an island," Kaine replied dismissively. "Without support from the Oversector, it could not even provide for its own economic needs."

    People care about more than the economy, Ardus! He had to fight back the bubbling outrage. They care about what is right. About purity of spirit and purpose. You knew that when you founded the Imperial Security Bureau. When did you forget it? His thoughts took on a plaintive tone, as if pleading his friend to understand. Was it when your father died? Or after Endor? When did you lose your fighting spirit?

    But he kept his mouth shut.

    "Tomorrow we'll find out how they respond," Kaine was saying. "I have no doubt that the more militant figures in the Provisional Council—Kerrithrarr, Sian Tevv—are speaking against our offer, preferring to force our hand." Kaine stood, walking over to the provided amenities, pouring a cup of caf that Carias' team had tested and cleared of any possible dangers. Kaine sighed as he took a sip. "Not bad, although it's not as good as Garqi caf," he murmured, taking another sip. He turned back to Carias, putting the cup back down on the table. "I suppose we'll have something to offer on the galactic market after we have access to it again."

    "So it would seem," Carias said, biting his tongue.

    Kaine started to meander around the room, pacing. That had always been a habit of his, Carias thought—when Kaine wanted to think, he preferred to do so while in motion. "Our intelligence suggests that the two most important members of the Provisional Council—after Mon Mothma, of course—will be Councilors Garm Bel Iblis and Fey'lya. Both have a history of being more militant, so if they decide to embrace our proposal, that could go a long way to convincing the others to go along." Kaine stopped his pacing for long enough to retrieve his cup for a sip. "But Fey'lya in particular is unpredictable."

    "What do you think will happen then?" Carias asked.

    "I'm not sure," Kaine replied. "But I expect tomorrow to be very interesting."

    * * *​

    Brakiss stood near the door, silent, concentrating on the voice of a dead man.

    Can you hear them? Exar Kun's voice had an utterly foreign accent, unlike any that Brakiss had ever heard. There were many, many accents in the galaxy, of every conceivable variety, but when he heard Kun's it felt different, almost profound. Kun's accent wasn't one from some distant world, which had been cut off from the galaxy and developed its own dialect, after all. His voice was of the past, a forgotten accent.

    What was old was new again.

    He concentrated on the two men. Carias and Kaine were discussing the meeting with Councilor Organa Solo and the prospects for peace with the New Republic.

    And he could hear them. Carias in particular was so furious, so profoundly angry, that Brakiss found it astonishing both that Carias managed to keep the emotion from his expression and that Kaine did not notice.

    People often see what they wish to see, Kun whispered. Their friends, their family, their lovers. Sometimes the Dark creeps into the soul too quickly and too quietly to be easily seen. And even when they do see, sometimes they pretend they do not, because the truth is too painful to admit. There was amusement in that voice, and gloating. Just because a man is powerful does not mean he is not human.

    It was still hard to pick out the precise content of the thoughts, though. Even concentrating as he was, the emotion came easier. Happiness, sadness, anger, fear; they all radiated outwards towards the aware mind. But pushing harder than that was more difficult, especially when—

    Do not press too hard, Kun murmured, as he had several times before. His voice was unlike Drayneen's—there was demand, lingering menace, but not the same kind of cutting, tormenting whip. Kun offered power; Drayneen had demanded it. Kun was a true Master; Drayneen had been a playacting novice who had not really understood the Force or the nature of power at all. If you press too hard, Kun continued, even the Force-blind can sometimes notice your presence. And if you press much too hard, you can break a mind altogether.

    Neither Carias nor Kaine seemed to notice his presence much at all. Brakiss had been uncertain when Kun had encouraged him to volunteer to attend the negotiations—after all, he was still a mere Apprentice Inquisitor in their eyes—but Kun had assured him that neither man would find his presence too alarming or injurious, and he had been right, as always. Brakiss hadn't found the meeting particularly interesting, himself, but Kun had wanted to be there.

    Brakiss kept Kun's amulet close. He wasn't sure if the amulet carried Kun's presence, or merely made it easier for them to communicate, but either way it was his ticket to power and it stayed with him at all times.

    The meeting was coming to a close. Carias and Kaine were exchanging departing pleasantries and handshakes, then Carias was sweeping past Brakiss. Brakiss turned to follow on Carias' heels, the two men stepped out into the ornate, intricately designed hallways of their hotel.

    "With me," Carias ordered, marching off.

    With annoyance, Brakiss followed.

    Save your anger for later, Kun encouraged. You will need it. But showing too much of it, too soon, will jeopardize your position now.

    The Violet Envy rested on the hotel's roof hangar. Its ramp was open and two ISB stormtroopers stood on either side of it, keeping diligent watch. They saluted as Carias strode up the ramp between them, and kept the salute up until Brakiss had passed. Once aboard, Carias led them in the direction of Violet Envy's holocomm unit, a small room with a fancy, full-body projector that would have allowed the Emperor—had he ever been interested in talking to a lowly ISB operations team—to appear with proper grandeur.

    Never let it be said, Brakiss thought sourly, that ISB did not have its priorities in order.

    We must discuss our plans for the Empire, Exar Kun whispered in his mind.

    Feeling the prompt tug at his lips, Brakiss obediently allowed Kun to turn the thought into spoken words. "We must discuss our plans for the Empire," he said.

    Carias looked at him now, his casual disrespect turning into something closer to the obedience he had displayed at Yavin. "Yes, we do," he said, as if speaking to an equal. "And it will not be enough to discuss it solely between us. I can assure ISB is prepared to do its part when the time comes, but we will need the Inquisitorius as well."

    "I have relayed your proposal to the Grand Inquisitor," Brakiss said. "He is prepared to discuss the matter."

    "By all means," Carias agreed.

    Brakiss moved to the holocomm and inputted the codes that would connect with the Grand Inquisitor on Entralla. It took a few minutes. First Violet Envy needed to relay the request to Coruscant's HoloNet node, then the initial connection had to be made through hyperspace. The security precautions to ensure encryption in the event of eavesdropping on the nodes between Coruscant and Entralla needed to be fully in place as well—especially given New Republic Intelligence's certain monitoring of all their communications.

    Grand Inquisitor Halmere was not that old. A young man when Palpatine had seized control of the Empire, his history was shrouded in mystery—quite deliberately, Brakiss suspected, as Halmere, Lanu Pasiq, and other inaugural members of the Inquisitorius had long since destroyed all the records. But the gossip was that he had been a member of the Jedi's Agricultural Corps: a Jedi apprentice who had failed his training.

    Halmere was tall. He was also as blonde as Brakiss, but that was where the similarities ended. Halmere was enormous and hard, aged with lines that made him appear older than he was. Brakiss only knew he was blonde from his bushy eyebrows, as his hairline was entirely covered by a black hood that joined a long, flowing black cloak that was too long, hiding his legs and feet entirely from view. Over the cloak he wore white armor that covered his torso but left his sides bare.

    Brakiss had always thought it made Halmere look like he was wearing an apron, but sharing that thought would be exceedingly unwise.

    Exar Kun seemed amused by it, though. This is your leader? Your great Jedi killer? He scoffed. The centuries that have passed have diminished the galaxy's standards.

    "Grand Inquisitor Halmere," Brakiss said, with the appropriate gravitas.

    "Inquisitor Brakiss," Halmere said slowly, his cold, dark eyes almost lifeless.

    "Grand Inquisitor, Colonel Carias wishes to speak to you."

    "I have expected this," Halmere said, with the weight of foresight.

    Exar Kun scoffed. A pretender playacting as a fallen Jedi. I will make you so much greater than this, my young apprentice.

    "Grand Inquisitor," Carias took control of the conversation, and Brakiss let him. "You and I both know the current state of the Empire cannot last. The Council of Moffs is slow and divided. It barely exercises control over the territory that remains—and it does not exercise any control to speak of over the Deep Core Warlords. If the Empire is to survive, if it is to thrive, the Empire requires new leadership."

    "You propose yourself?"

    Brakiss could feel Exar Kun concentrating. Could feel the presence reaching out with the Force, focusing on Carias. He wasn't sure what the spirit was attempting to do, exactly, but he reached out as well, trying to understand what was being done, and why…

    "No, Grand Inquisitor. I believe that great responsibility must fall to you. With me as your principal advisor, of course. Something of a duumvirate, one might say."

    Brakiss blinked in surprise. He would not have guessed Carias to be the type to willingly pass power to another.

    Do not be too surprised. Some men merely wish for a strong voice to guide them. They are easily led. For all his posturing, the Colonel is such a man.

    "I see," Halmere said. The projection rippled. "What do you propose?"

    "There are many traitors in the Empire, Grand Inquisitor. We must find the ones in the greatest positions of power and root them out, replace them with those who will be loyal. Once we have, the Empire will fall in line. It has been craving strong leadership—even Thrawn commanded it, and he was not even human."

    Carias didn't need to say who he meant. All four of them—Carias, Halmere, Brakiss, and Exar Kun—knew that Grand Moff Kaine would have to be the first to fall.

    The first. Not the last.

    "What do you require?" Halmere asked.

    "A credit line I can access here on Coruscant and the ability to escape the hotel and meet with contacts so that I can convert those credits into assets," Carias explained. "And I need to smuggle a second team into Imperial Center, to give me more freedom of action and… pursue goals shared by ISB and the Inquisitorius."

    "I can provide credits," Halmere agreed. "I will coordinate with ISB to give you your team. And Brakiss can ensure your ability to come and go freely. You can do this, Apprentice Inquisitor Brakiss?"

    "Yes, Grand Inquisitor," Brakiss said without thinking.

    "Good." Halmere's smile was thin. "It would seem our closer collaboration will bear more fruit than either of us expected, Colonel."

    "You are loyal to the New Order," Carias said. "And so am I."
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  11. Gabri_Jade

    Gabri_Jade Fanfic Archive Editor Emeritus star 5 VIP

    Nov 9, 2002
    It's been a long time since I read that book, but I remember thinking that it was surprisingly good, and Vjun was horrifyingly memorable.


    lol :p

    Ever watch the show Life After People? I thought it was fascinating and somewhat unsettling.

    I love watching Mara slip into different mindsets on a moment's notice like this. As awful as her life as Emperor's Hand was, she mastered a wide variety of useful skills during it, and is wildly intelligent and talented and confident to have done so and survived it all.


    It feels almost silly to pull this one sentence, especially since it states such a well-known truth. But it's such a well-known truth that it's easy to overlook the essence of it: the misery of the five years that followed was largely because Mara had had no time to plan. If she had, even a relatively brief space of time would have been enough for her to pull an incredible amount of resources, and her story could have gone very differently. [face_thinking]

    Yup, that's at the core of it all. Palpatine really did a number on this poor girl :(

    This just absolutely cracks me up :p

    And this is a core aspect of who Mara Jade is: utterly and completely determined to do whatever needs to be done, no matter the personal cost.

    All I have to say here is that I think Catriona Lavalle is a really pretty name :cool:

    Look at the Emperor's Hand go :p


    I will never understand the choices most of the EU made about what powers the Force could be and was used for, and which were neglected. Denning literally had Jedi use the Force to lengthen a pregnancy (come on now), clear one's complexion after crying (I am not making that up), and as a replacement for magboots or crazy glue (at least one Jedi "Force-stuck" themselves in place on a ship hull), but here's a character who has a pronounced talent for telepathy, a Force ability that the OT itself established as canon and which would have all sorts of potential applications, and it's basically never mentioned again after TTT. Sure, groups of Jedi have their fancy battle melds in the NJO, but Mara's own telepathy (which had to have been intrinsic to her rather than some extension of Palpatine's abilities, because if he just wanted a random Force-sensitive child to train, there were plenty in the Jedi Temple to choose from, yet they were all slaughtered. This really only makes sense if Mara's talent was a rare one and Palpatine saw it and knew he could use it to his own ends well enough to make her training worthwhile) gets forgotten entirely.

    Hee :D

    Reminds me of The Hunt For Red October and the political officer aboard.

    What a great line :p

    Isn't he a lovely person o_O

    Some really neat world-building details here, I like it a lot :D

    I love getting to see more of Winter's personality in this story :D


    Okay, Leia, now put that together with your uncharacteristic rage a little earlier...

    Winter's memory is just such a helpful narrative device sometimes :D

    More world-building that also tells us more about a character's mindset and personality, I love it :cool:

    These are useful details, I'm making mental notes for possible later use in my own writing

    This should all be very interesting :cool:
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  12. Bel505

    Bel505 Jedi Grand Master star 2

    Jul 4, 2006
    Yoda: Dark Rendezvous is a great book, one of my favorites! I read it for the first time to prepare to write this fic, and was stunned at how good it was.

    I have not! But I've seen advertisements for it and similar shows. It's remarkable how fast civilization goes to ruin without people there.

    So, in this chronology she's basically gotten back one thing: her ship. (She also got back her dress and some knick-knacks, but basically her ship.) Which is also what she would probably have fled with, at least until she could trade it out for something she knew was untraceable. And that comes with equipment and weapons and the freedom of movement and cargo capacity so she could take hauler jobs... if she'd had any forewarning, or hadn't been imprisoned by Isard while she was vulnerable after the Emperor's death, she would have left Coruscant with an arsenal and a fortune.

    She might've felt guilty about it too... and I worry for Luke in this circumstance. Her time impoverished, like her time as the Emperor's Hand, was not fun, but it taught her a lot. Wealth would have meant she could sustain her isolation...

    It is confusing. The Force became basically just another magic system, and I'm not really fond of that. I like the Force best when it's about intuition and guidance, hunches and empathy, and—this fic uses this the most—telepathy. I find bombastic uses of the Force annoying most of the time, and I'm also not a fan of the Force turning Jedi into superheroes.

    As for Mara in particular, it's baffling how her telepathy basically never comes up again. Zahn doesn't even use it in the Duology! He does have Luke and Mara do some of the "shared sensations" that I'm doing here though, and they're not as good at it ... but they're also not a couple at the time in the Duology.

    Both our Jedi and our Sith are using telepathy extensively in this fic, it's very much a running theme.

    And it should! Although I haven't seen Hunt for Red October (I know, I know), the Soviet commissar system is definitely a model for what I'm describing here. (The French did it too during the French Revolution, and I see ISB as basically a revolutionary guard institution, most similar to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Iran, but with aspects of the Nazi SS, the East German Stasi, the Soviet KGB, and others.

    Hmmmm.... [face_thinking]
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  13. Bel505

    Bel505 Jedi Grand Master star 2

    Jul 4, 2006
    Chapter Eleven

    Carias made his escape from the Molalla Astor only with an extraordinary amount of difficulty. The Rebellion's security precautions were extensive, and the traitorous, barbaric Noghri were some of the best operatives in the galaxy, likely even on par with ISB stormtroopers, thanks to all the attention Darth Vader had lavished on the little beasts. But the Grand Inquisitor had promised him that Brakiss would see to his escape out into the wilds of Coruscant, and so he had. Carias had been able to cause a subtle diversion of the hotel's electronic monitoring system, and Brakiss had diverted the guards long enough for Carias to slip out unnoticed.

    It was an odd thing to watch, Carias thought. How quiet, gangly Brakiss was able to reach out with a simple wave of his hand and compel a pair of perfectly competent Rebellion thugs to simply overlook his departure.

    "The Force has a strong influence on the weak minded," Brakiss had said, with a weighty confidence that he had not possessed prior to their brief mission on Yavin. Carias still did not know what exactly it was that had occurred at the ancient ruins Brakiss and Drayneen had visited, but Brakiss had returned a changed soul—one that Carias could make use of, one with power. Carias was never one to let a resource go to waste, and he intended to use Brakiss, to use the Inquisition, and with their help to save the Empire he and they so loved.

    Once he had escaped the Molalla Astor, Carias vanished into the throngs of people that made up the massive population of Coruscant and went to work. First he rented an airspeeder. That was easy enough, especially with the stash of New Republic credits he carried with him, and he set it on autopilot after picking its destination.

    Laying back in his comfortable driver's seat, he watched as the airspeeder rose up into the sky, up to its maximum safe altitude, and settled into the rows of cross-continental travel that criss-crossed the planet in low orbit. On either side Coruscant's skyhooks glittered, gleaming with all the indications of wealth and power that they only possessed because of the Empire's accomplishment and the Emperor's will.

    Below, the lights of the city became a giant smear, glowing from hemisphere to hemisphere, only spotted with darkness in a handful of places.

    It was odd, being home. He'd seen this sight thousands of times, every day for years. Traveling from his home to ISB headquarters on the outskirts of the Palace District, or out to Uscru for an evening's entertainment (especially in the years before he'd been married), he'd never thought much of the view. It simply was. But after half a decade of exile, after Isard had given the order to withdraw and abandon the world, being here again was like a breath of fresh, renewing air.

    It was a shame his children had not gotten to spend their own young adult years on Coruscant, as he had. But, perhaps in a few years, after they had retaken the world, they would get to enjoy Coruscant as it had been. Free and prosperous, clean and safe, under the watchful eye of the Empire as it had been, and as it should be.

    It was the Emperor's absence that was the problem, Carias ruminated, watching the cityscape fly by underneath him, the airspeeder's autopilot keeping him securely locked in the straight line of speeders that stretched out before him, like a rope of light cascading into the horizon. The Emperor had been the great man the galaxy needed, the wise man. Chancellor and then Emperor, he had proven his ability to keep the galaxy from flying apart at the seams under the counterpressures of so many alien species. His strength in the Force, which Carias did not and could not understand, had been the linchpin of the galaxy.

    Carias wasn't sure if Grand Inquisitor Halmere would be up to filling Palpatine's shoes, but surely he would be better than Isard or Thrawn or Kaine. Surely he could grow into the role. And if he could not, then all there was for the future of the galaxy was the chaos and civil war that had defined the Old Republic, so they had nothing to lose.

    It was a long trip from the Palace District to Argosy District, especially in his battered, hired airspeeder. Had Coruscant still been under Imperial control, he would have hopped a ride on an orbital shuttle and made a quick space hop; that would have reduced the time required for the trip by at least eighty percent. But there was no way to do that without going through some kind of security screening. Instead, he allowed himself to nap with the steady calm of a seasoned operative who knew that nothing was likely to happen to him just then—and even if it did, there was nothing he could do about it.

    When he woke, his back ached despite the plush bucket seat. The light from the row of airspeeders faded against the light from Coruscant's sun, the endless grid of structures still flowing beneath his airspeeder.

    The autopilot beeped, letting him know he was within ten minutes of his destination. Returning the airspeeder to manual control, he instructed the computer to find a landing pad in Argosy District in the vicinity of Eyrie Tower.

    Then he started to jerk the controls violently, threatening to send the airspeeder out of control. Wrenching hard on the control wheel he flung the airspeeder out of line, brushing alarmingly close to a massive residential tower; within, he could see the faces of Coruscanti residents staring in horror through the transparisteel. He wrenched the wheel back hard the other direction, sending the airspeeder weaving through the neat row of vehicles, sending them scattering as some of their drivers took back manual control themselves in a panic. In a matter of moments, he'd taken the neat, orderly morning commute and turned it into a mass of chaos, airspeeders rushing randomly in every direction, sometimes bumping into one another, grazing close to structures.

    It was only another few seconds before the airspeeder's computer locked him out. The controls made a loud, buzzing sound and the wheel shook violently every time he touched it.

    On the display, words scrolled in a bright red.


    Carias knew four different ways to override the autopilot, but that wasn't part of his plan.

    The chaotic mess of airspeeders was slowly reforming into its previous orderly line. It was a slow process, and he did not join it. Instead, his airspeeder diverted out of line towards the large, flat top of a nearby structure. It came to a comfortable stop and the repulsorlifts died, leaving only silence in the cockpit and the faint ticking of cooling repulsor coils.

    He popped the canopy of the airspeeder—much to the autopilot's displeasure as it reminded him that he was not supposed to leave the vehicle, and climbed out. If he didn't stretch soon his limbs felt as though they would lock up, and the fresh, faintly-acrid air of memory offered a more vibrant tang than the warm recycled air sucked through the cabin filters.

    It took nearly ten minutes before he finally heard the whirring of an approaching airspeeder. Painted in the colors of the Coruscant Constabulary, it was a typical rapid-response unit, armed with an anti-personnel blaster turret and equipped with space for a few dozen detainees. It settled down next to his airspeeder, lights flashing.

    A three man Constabulary team approached, armed with stun weapons. The leader checked his datapad then peered at Carias. "Jandor Lamk?" he asked.

    "That's me," Carias affirmed, lifting his chin belligerently.

    "According to your airspeeder's drive unit, you began driving erratically," the Constable replied. "Nearly caused a major traffic disturbance. Have you been imbibing any substances that would impair your ability to make sound judgments, or are you suffering from fatigue?"

    The words had a rote quality to them, as if they were being recited from memory. Which they probably were. "No," Carias replied honestly. "I slept on the trip here, and feel free to search my speeder—you won't find any intoxicants."

    "We will," the Constable said. He waved one of his compatriots forward, who immediately began searching the airspeeder, running his scanner over the cushions and bulkheads. "Did you get distracted while driving? Drop an item and reach for it? Have you had any recent psychological episodes?"

    "No," Carias replied, folding his hands across his chest.

    The man looking over his airspeeder exited the vehicle. "The drive unit confirms that he swerved out of traffic, nearly hit a building, then swerved back into traffic. It says both actions were deliberate."

    Carias arched an eyebrow challengingly.

    The lead Constable sighed. "Can you explain that?"

    Carias shook his head. "No."

    The Constable's annoyance was clearly growing. "All right. Two options. We can issue you a citation, lock your airspeeder's drive unit, and send you on your way under autopilot. The airspeeder will take you to your preferred destination. You'll have to visit one of the driving centers for recertification before your drive unit will be unlocked. Or we can take you in, give you a full psychological screening at the station, and confirm your fitness before returning your vehicle to you."

    Put in this situation, ninety-nine percent of Coruscant's natives chose to travel via autopilot. Carias had never counted himself among the ordinary. "Full psych screening," he said.

    The three Constables look at each other with matching frowns. "Fine," the leader muttered. "Get in the patrol airspeeder and we'll take you to the local HQ." He pointed at one of his companions. "Comm the Doc's office, tell them we're going to need a psych droid or a nurse for a screening. But—" he eyed Carias with a frown "—tell them there's no hurry."

    "Right," the other Constable drawled.

    They scanned him, patted him down, then pushed him into the back of the rapid response airspeeder. Carias folded his hands over his lap. "How long will this take?" he asked.

    "Probably the rest of the day," the most junior of the three Constables replied, strapping himself into the gunner's seat. "I hope you didn't have any plans."

    "I don't think this will be too much of a disruption," Carias replied. "I was just on my way to see a painting at one of the local galleries. The Night Aubade. Are you familiar with it?"

    The Constable frowned and shook his head, shrugging his shoulders. "Never heard of it," he said. "Which gallery in the District is it displayed at?"

    But while the junior Constable didn't respond, there was a telltale hitch in the motions of the other two, sitting in the airspeeder's two front seats. The senior man shifted to look back at them. "Don't smalltalk with the suspect, Junior," he berated, while simultaneously giving Carias a longer look.

    Carias stared back, unblinking.

    The junior Constable went quiet. In the front, the other two leaned towards each other, talking quietly as the airspeeder leapt into the sky.

    * * *​

    Carias never made it into the holding cells. His arrival at the Constabulary station saw him immediately handed off to a droid, which escorted him—at an uncomfortable pace—to a lift and then up two stories. Carias noted that the droid was equipped with a jamming system which blacked out all the holocams as they moved, erasing any record of his presence.

    Good. At least Black Sun hadn't lost too much of its touch when Xizor died.

    Instead of a holding cell, he was pushed into a small, semi-comfortable waiting room. A bottle of water sat on a table, and a handful of decorations provided some color to all four walls of the room.

    There was no window and no holocam.

    He waited twenty minutes before the door opened. "Who are you?" a gruff male voice said sourly.

    Carias turned around, crossing his arms across his chest. "Are you the local Vigo?" he asked.

    The man—middle height, with the kind of build that offered the ability to physically intimidate—had a cold expression which grew only colder. "Anyone who knows to ask that question should know better than to ask it," he scowled.

    "That would be true," Carias agreed, "except for the fact that I'm in a hurry and don't have the time or patience to play all the normal games. I want to see the Vigo." He folded his arms behind his back. "How many credits to expedite this rigamarole?"

    "Are you trying to bribe me?"

    "Yes. How many credits?"

    The man's lips firmed together. He took a step forward, but he wasn't that much larger than Carias and clearly had none of Carias' training.

    A thug, not a killer, Carias thought dismissively.

    "Fifty thousand," the guard said.

    Carias had to fight back a smile. Instead, he scoffed, shaking his head. "For a bit of convenience? Try fifteen."



    "Fifteen for me," the man said. "Thirty for my boss."

    After waiting for an appropriately long amount of time, Carias nodded. "Fine," he agreed. He held out his hand. The man hesitated for a moment, then handed Carias a datapad, one with a connection to Coruscant's HoloNet node. Within a few minutes Carias had connected to one of ISB's remaining throwaway accounts and emptied it into the provided account number.

    The man took the datapad back and examined it. Then he slid it into his jacket. "Come with me," he said sourly.

    * * *​

    The second waiting room was much fancier than the first, and this one had windows. The top floor of the building he was in—he wasn't sure which one it was—had a fantastic view of the rest of Argosy District. With the glittering arrays of airspeeders, framed with massive towers, Argosy District was almost as spectacular as the Palace District. And in the very center of the view was Eyrie Tower, the biggest building of them all. Opaque walls rising near-vertically into the sky, supported by elaborate, unnecessary buttresses. At the top of those buttresses was a large flat roof that served as a massive landing pad.

    Eyrie Tower was one of the more visually spectacular structures on Coruscant. It was old compared to the Imperial Palace, which Palpatine had constructed as part of a massive renovation of much older structures, and Eyrie Tower combined architectural styles to merge pre-Republican and post-Imperial, as if to say "I was here before you got here, and I'll be here after you leave."

    Black Sun had always been arrogant, Carias thought with amusement. But, like a borrat infestation, each nest was annoyingly hard to kill. Sometimes it was just easier to collaborate with the vermin.

    The man who entered was younger than Carias, lean, intelligent-looking, and infinitely more dangerous than the jobber who had brought him from the Constabulary station. He sized Carias up quickly, then brushed past him to an array of drinks lined against one of the room's walls. When the man turned back to face him, looking somewhat like one of Carias' children wanting an extra dessert, his mouth opened to speak and Carias preempted him.

    "Vigo Roeder," he said.

    Roeder went stiff with surprise, his cup of caf stopping halfway to his lips. He put the cup back down on the small plate that accompanied it, his dark eyes blazing in Carias' direction. "How can you possibly—"

    Carias cut him off again. "Five hundred thousand credits."

    "Excuse me?"

    "Five hundred thousand credits," Carias repeated patiently. "That's what I'm offering you in exchange for your assistance with a business arrangement."

    "And what makes you think—"

    "Let me explain the situation to you, as I understand it," Carias interrupted him yet again. "You are the local Vigo. The only native Coruscanti Vigo. And yet, your position has not been as profitable as it ought to be. In the last six months Black Sun has moved most of its operations off of Coruscant and the new Underlord—Fliry Vorru—has refused to explain why. This is the center of galactic trade, and you've been ordered not to interfere with the New Republic in any way." Saying the words 'New Republic' was like acid, but not saying them would surely give away Carias' allegiances, and he preferred to save that just a little longer.

    Roeder's expression, which had started annoyed, then shifted into something that was probably hiding surprise, had now become one of polite curiosity. "Go on."

    "Black Sun was your ticket to wealth and power," Carias continued. "And instead of wealth you're getting handouts, and instead of power you find you spend most of your day dealing with traffic violations and delinquents." He gestured at himself. "Like a good member of the local Constabulary."

    "And you'll pay me five hundred thousand credits and help me escape this supposed purgatory?" Roeder asked skeptically.

    "Hardly," Carias replied. "I'll pay you five hundred thousand credits, promise to pay you more as one of my assets, and I'll make you the head of Black Sun, or a new underworld enterprise if you would prefer, here on Coruscant when the Empire returns to power."

    "When the Empire—" Roeder laughed in astonished surprise. "You mean to tell me that you're an Imperial asset?"

    "No, you are an Imperial asset. I am an Imperial representative." Carias folded his arms across his chest. "Five hundred thousand credits," he promised. "I know that Vorru has ordered you not to interfere with the New Republic's affairs. But you're not seeing any of the money Mon Mothma must be paying him, are you? How much do you think it is? Millions? Billions?" He allowed his expression to grow into a smirk, even as he watched Roeder's twist into a frown.

    "If I did agree to help you, what then?"

    "The Empire will return to power on Coruscant," Carias said confidently. "That is inevitable. This world begs for the Empire, for the Empire's leadership. It craves it, just as the galaxy does. Order imposed in place of chaos." He gestured magnanimously at Roeder. "Black Sun and the Empire coexisted. Vorru himself is proof of that, after all. But Vorru will not be allowed to stand, not after he chose to align with the Rebels. Black Sun will need a new leader. A new Xizor." He smiled, the sharklike smile that he had once had many more occasions to use. "A human Xizor."

    Common sense and ambition were at war in Vigo Roeder. Carias was no Force user, but he could read the two competing impulses as clearly as a true empath. "What is it you want?" he asked.

    Carias held out his hand. "Datapad?" he asked.

    Roeder withdrew one from a pocket. He tapped on it, using his fingerprint to confirm his identity, then handed it to Carias with a lifted eyebrow. Carias took it and with a few quick commands emptied the Inquisitorius accounts Halmere had provided before handing it back.

    As Roeder took it and started to look to make sure the transfer was complete, Carias answered his question. "I have a list of items I need delivered immediately. The only one that will be complicated for a man of your means to acquire in the required time is Yerite. And a delayed reaction dispersal device."

    Roeder had gone white. "Yerite?" he gaped. "You can't be serious."

    "Five hundred thousand credits serious," Carias countered. "And I need it by tomorrow. I don't need a lot. Half a gram. Even a quarter gram will do."

    That did not cause the Black Sun Vigo to relax. Nor should it, really, Carias thought. Yerite was a nerve agent, and one of the deadlier ones that could be produced. It wasn't the most deadly, nor was it the easiest to use, but it had one particular characteristic that made it especially appealing to Kaday Carias.

    "Yerite is a highly controlled substance," Roeder said, as if that was something Carias wouldn't already know. "Ever since it was used on Kashyyyk—"

    "I am aware of its use on Kashyyyk," Carias said, letting a hint of fury leak into his voice. Yerite was not an Imperial weapon, nor was it a weapon the Empire had ever used. Relatively primitive by Imperial standards, it had been a wartime weapon used exactly once that Carias was familiar with: during the Wookiee uprising that had expelled the Empire from their homeworld and ended the Empire's slaving operations. A Rebel operative had slipped yerite into the air supply of the Star Destroyer Subjugator.

    The sudden death of the Star Destroyer's entire crew had been catastrophic for the Empire's defense of Kashyyyk, and the combination of an uprising on the planet by the primitives, who had slaughtered the ground troopers nearly to the last man, and a Rebel attack on the suddenly insufficient orbital defenses, had been more than the garrison could withstand.

    The Empire had made a great deal of publicity out of the debacle, and the New Republic formally banned yerite's use several years later.

    "I am aware of its use on Kashyyyk," Carias repeated. "And I nonetheless require a small supply of yerite. By tomorrow." He offered Roeder a soothing smile. "If you can provide it, you will set yourself on the road to more power and wealth than you ever dreamed possible."

    * * *​

    "The Councilor from Kashyyyk disagrees with your assessment," Threepio was explaining, though that much did not need translating. The Wookiee's growl of fury dominated the room even more effortlessly than his bulk. "That Grand Moff Kaine is accompanied by an ISB agent—an agent suspected of no fewer than a half-dozen terrorist attacks against the New Republic—is a sure sign that his stated intentions are not genuine."

    "I'm afraid I have to agree," Garm Bel Iblis growled. Leia turned towards him; the rest of the Provisional Council did likewise. "I have to reiterate my earlier opinion: ISB will not tolerate peace with the New Republic."

    "They might," Borsk Fey'lya interrupted, "if we offered them all the terms demanded by the Grand Moff. Immunity from prosecution combined with access to galactic markets would give many former Imperials the opportunity to get rich." The prospect did not sound appealing to the Bothan, and Leia couldn't blame him.

    "Are you sure this Colonel Carias is ISB?" asked Mon Mothma.

    Winter nodded her certainty. "I never forget a face," she said with deadly certainty. "I recognized him immediately. We recovered a number of ISB's personnel files when we took their headquarters here on Coruscant; they had not done a thorough enough job destroying their local database."

    "I should add," said the calm, confident voice of Iella Wessiri, "that NRI has reason to believe that Carias has been personally involved in multiple actions against our interests. While I cannot prove his involvement, we suspect he was involved in ISB's attack on Rendili following its accession to the New Republic, and perhaps even the leader of that operation. This is not a former ISB operative, someone who has been inactive and is now serving in another role. NRI assesses that he is currently an active ISB asset, and as a Colonel—the highest rank typically given to ISB officers—he stands in its upper hierarchy."

    That sent dark scowls across the room. The attack on Rendili—cowardly sabotage that had left fifteen thousand Rendili dockyard workers dead—had outraged more than just the New Republic's citizenry. For weeks afterwards, the only concern of the Provisional Council had been first how to track down those responsible, and second how to punish the Empire.

    It had utterly derailed negotiations over the Concordat, which Leia suspected had been part of the point.

    She didn't disagree with either Winter or Iella, but she couldn't let the chance to end the war slip away. "Even if he was involved," she put in, feeling all attention draw back towards her, "that does not mean that Kaine isn't serious about peace now." She took a breath, wondering how much she should lean on her Jedi instincts to help make her argument, and decided that now was not the time to leave any of her persuasive weapons holstered. "I got a good sense of Kaine," she said earnestly. "He infuriated me more than once, and I know I irritated him. But I didn't sense anything from him other than a genuine desire for peace. He knows his territories are suffering, isolated as they are, and he cares about that."

    "Kaine may genuinely want peace," Garm objected. "But that doesn't mean that Carias does."

    Leia frowned, thinking back to the meeting. Carias had certainly been the angrier of the pair, but she had found him harder to read than Kaine. All that ISB subterfuge training, probably.

    "We will be meeting with him again the day after tomorrow," Leia pointed out with a sigh. "We can confront him about Carias then."

    "I believe that I should attend the meeting," said Mon Mothma. With those simple, calm words, from her typically soothing voice, all attention returned to the Chief of State of the New Republic. "Kaine is the leader of his territory. The Oversector Outer is his domain, after all. As senior as you are, Leia," Mon Mothma nodded at her deferentially, "and as much as I trust your judgment, I would like to have a sense of the man myself." Her lips pressed together in an expression that boded poorly for the future of the negotiations.

    "You're welcome to lead the negotiating team of course," Leia allowed deferentially.

    Mon Mothma looked slowly at each member of her Provisional Council, letting her gaze linger on Kerrithrarr. "I understand your concerns, Councilor Kerrithrarr," she said. "And I share them. If this Colonel Carias is up to anything, we will take steps to ensure his plot fails." She looked at Iella. "Agent Wessiri, I am putting you in command of security at the Molalla Astor. I believe you and Colonel Dendo have a preexisting working relationship. Do inform General Cracken that NRI is instructed to focus its counterintelligence efforts on ISB."

    "Of course, madam Chief of State," Iella said obediently.

    "In addition," Mon Mothma continued, "we will instruct the Imperials that Colonel Carias will not be permitted to be part of the negotiating team tomorrow."

    Leia sat up, frowning. If the Empire took that as an insult—

    "Yes, Leia," the New Republic's Chief of State preempted, "they may indeed object. But unless I misread your report, you assess that Grand Moff Kaine is intent on achieving peace. If something as simple as expelling his aide from a meeting is enough to derail him from that goal, then I would judge that he was never as serious as he has seemed."

    Leia settled back into her chair, nodding. She couldn't disagree with that logic.

    "Whether Kaine is serious or not, and whatever Carias' intent," Mon Mothma continued, "we have other affairs at hand. We cannot allow the Empire to distract us from the Grand Concordat. Our new government, when it is in place, will cement the New Republic as the sole legitimate galactic authority. We must have the document ready for ratification as soon as possible. It is the responsibility of everyone in this room, all of us who have fought so long and so hard to restore the Republic, not to allow the Empire to provide a single impediment between us and the achievement of that long sought goal."

    The Provisional Council did not always get along. There were disagreements, vivid and vicious, personal and impersonal. But its every member had been committed to the mission of the Rebellion for decades. Those simple words were like a rededication, and Leia could feel the swell of shared unity and determination.

    They would win. They would. Their cause was just.

    No other outcome was permissible.

    * * *​

    Iella stopped Leia on the way out of the Council meeting. "I want to replace Winter as your aide at the meeting," she said.

    Leia frowned. "Why?" Beside her, Winter joined them, looking equally curious.

    "Because of my new assignment as head of security," Iella replied, keeping her voice down. "I have no doubt that since we're excluding Carias from the meeting that they won't allow your aide to join them in the negotiations, so you're not going to be losing the benefit of Winter's memory either way. It will allow me to get close enough to do some good, and maybe to keep an eye on Carias. I'd like to try to slip a tracker on him."

    "Are you sure that's a good idea?" Leia asked skeptically. "If you're caught, you might risk derailing the negotiations altogether."

    "I won't get caught," Iella replied confidently. "And even if I did get caught, it would just be normal intelligence efforts, nothing out of the ordinary. What could Kaine say? That us keeping an eye on his ISB aide is out of the bounds of the appropriate?"

    Leia wasn't sure that Kaine would be so magnanimous. But at the same time, she didn't like that he'd brought an ISB man into the negotiations, and she certainly didn't like that he hadn't warned them about his presence in advance. "All right," she agreed unhappily. "Winter, I guess you'll get the day off."

    Winter rolled her eyes. "Yes, Princess."

    Across the room, Leia found her gaze drawn to Mon Mothma. Their eyes met and Mon Mothma sent Leia a meaningful look, one she immediately understood. "Or, you can keep working on the Concordat," Leia corrected. "While I'm distracted with the Empire. The Concordat is the more important of the two problems to solve. With a contract to form a new government in hand, raising the forces required to destroy the Empire will be much easier." She turned to look at Winter. "We need the document. Then we need to persuade the Senate and the galaxy that it is the right thing to do."

    "Don't underestimate the Empire," warned Iella. "It may be weakened but it is far from dead. And if it does die, the process is not likely to be pretty or bloodless."

    "That will be up to Grand Moff Kaine," Leia said, a premonition of dread shivering through her. "It will be his choice. But…" her voice grew hard. "If he starts anything, I promise we'll finish it."
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  14. Gabri_Jade

    Gabri_Jade Fanfic Archive Editor Emeritus star 5 VIP

    Nov 9, 2002
    There's a whole bunch of arrogant people running around, each thinking they're using the other. Quite unpleasant, and also can lead to blind spots...

    Speaking of blind spots! The Republic, whatever its faults, gave plenty of indications of wealth and power. It was old money; the Empire was gauche nouveau riche :p

    Excellent reveal :D

    I gotta respect the straightforwardness


    Well, that can't be good. o_O

    I like the team spirit, Leia, but there ain't no guarantees here, just causes or not [face_thinking]

    I really am enjoying sassy Winter :p
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  15. Bel505

    Bel505 Jedi Grand Master star 2

    Jul 4, 2006
    The Empire is just a tangle of exploitation. Who's actually using whom is an open question, probably only defined by the outcome.
    Both were basically defined by corruption, in the end. This, though, this is just Carias' fantasies.
    No... no probably not...
    Winter's the best!
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  16. Bel505

    Bel505 Jedi Grand Master star 2

    Jul 4, 2006
    Chapter Twelve

    The Bitter End operations center was still practically pristine, perfumed with the scent of purpose-built infrastructure: durasteel, with the slightly acidic tang of adhesive. The ISB and Inquisitorius’ working relationship was equally new, less than a year old, brought about following the collapse of Grand Admiral Thrawn’s campaign against the New Republic and the fear both of instability within what was left of the Empire and of the rumors of a new Jedi order. Both fears had been proven to be well-founded, and while the working relationship between ISB and the Inquisitorius had yet to be proven effective at combating those issues, Randel Linscome still had faith that it would, sooner or later.

    He didn’t touch the communications link between Bitter End Ops and Bast Castle. Like the glidewalk that connected the ISB base with Vader’s former castle, it was for use in emergencies only.

    If Catriona Lavalle was indeed a phony, she was an extraordinarily good one, complete with a ship that certainly had belonged to ISB at some point—he had confirmed its manufacturing identification, the purchase order, and the peculiarities of L6000-H-82688’s silhouette—and its ISB identification codes. He didn’t want to admit to the Inquisitors that ISB could be infiltrated so convincingly, nor did he want to ask them for help confining her until he was sure that she was, indeed, an infiltrator.

    The problem was the codes she had given him. Her ship authorization code was one of the old Echo-Isk-Senth codes, and her personal identification code was one of the Epsilon-Beta codes. Both of those codes were expired—and he had deliberately given her a faulty personal identification code. Her performative confirmation of his code had therefore been a lie.

    That wasn’t enough to confirm she wasn’t ISB. It was enough for him to order her quarters sealed and watched.

    But then, he was ISB. He probably would have done that anyway.

    He turned Bitter End’s holocom back on, waiting for the link to ISB’s central command to re-engage. One of the downsides of being in a new facility, he thought sourly, was he did not have the full ISB database on Vjun. Instead, he was stuck interacting with it remotely, linking in to the Ubiqtorate base on Yaga Minor.

    It took ten minutes for the full datafile on Colonel Catriona Lavalle to be deposited at his station. The files were old, dating back to just before the Battle of Yavin, and full of detail. Lavalle’s full history, from her tenure at the Imperial military academy at Carida to her recruitment by ISB, then an array of assignments and missions, all of which had been conducted solo. According to the file, she had been one of ISB’s rare roving agents: clever, calculating, and completely autonomous.

    Linscome stroked his lip, leaning back in his chair. Unfortunately, that meant she might actually be who she said she was. If she had continued to operate independently, it had been outside of ISB’s informal hierarchy, and that would explain why she hadn’t known his personal identification was faulty. It wouldn’t explain why she had lied about being able to confirm it, but plenty of ISB officers—including some of the best—had given up on even the pretense of organizational structure and gone entirely rogue after Endor.

    Uncertain, he checked each of the names and operations she had listed. He could confirm in some cases that incidents had taken place—the Bank of Heurkea explosion, for instance—but could not confirm they were ISB operations.

    His frown deepened. Again, that didn’t mean she wasn’t telling the truth. ISB operations weren’t always advertised.

    The door to the ops center opened and the stormtrooper he had left to bring Lavalle to her room entered, armored boots clicking on clean, unscuffed floors. “ISB-4977,” Linscome greeted him.

    ISB-4977 saluted. “I escorted Colonel Lavalle to one of the secure guest rooms in B-block, sir,” the stormtrooper reported, with the crisp Coruscanti accent typical of long-serving operatives. Younger recruits had the accent less and less, and their adoption of it to fit in never came off quite right. “As ordered, I sealed the room. We also scanned her ship for life forms, but didn’t detect any.”

    “Good,” Linscome praised. “What do you think of her?”

    ISB-4977 hesitated, then offered an awkward shrug of his shoulders. “Young for an ISB Colonel. Determined. She carries herself like a capable operative would, constantly aware of her surroundings even if she tries to be casual. Impeccable control of her body language.”

    None of that was helpful.

    “Very well,” Linscome said. “Maximum internal security until further notice. Lock down access to the hangar, and detail two stormtroopers to keep watch on her room.”

    “Yes, sir.” The stormtrooper turned and departed.

    That left Linscome alone. He settled into the comfortable chair at the desk, resting his arms on both arm rests as he leaned back. The image of Colonel Lavalle stared back at him, both the one provided in her file and the one from the base’s surveillance system.

    She actually looked familiar, now that he took the time to really look at her. Young, in both the older picture and the newer one, with red-gold hair and green eyes. Her coloring set her apart from most humans, but there were a few million people on Commenor alone with red hair and green eyes. He clicked through other pictures from the surveillance system, changing his focus from her appearance to her outfit. That kind of getup had never been ISB standard, but it had been available and it wasn’t surprising that someone with Lavalle’s service record and operational pattern would have acquired one.

    He stroked his chin thoughtfully, clicking through some more holos. He stopped on one in particular—it had been taken shortly after her landing, when she had been expressing annoyance about the current state of ISB. Her expression was one of dismissive disgust, and his sense of familiarity redoubled again. He recognized that expression. Had he interacted with Lavalle years ago, before Endor? No, certainly he would remember her, and there was nothing in her service record that suggested they would have crossed paths.

    Linscome closed his eyes, concentrating. If he had seen her before, where had it been?

    On a hunch, Linscome called up the most recent Inquisitorius reports. He didn’t read them regularly, but he read them often enough to be able to not humiliate himself talking to Inquisitor Pasiq (which meant about once every two weeks, before their scheduled update meetings). He started sorting through them, taking a quick look at each one.

    There! He stopped and sat up. It had been a report from about four months before. There were three images. Luke Skywalker was first; the picture had been snapped by sludgenews during their “Return of the Jedi?” series. He was training with a tall man, who the ISB report tagged as one Kam Solusar.

    If it did turn out that Lavalle was an infiltrator, at least he’d be able to counter the Inquisitorius’ accusations by pointing out that Solusar was one of theirs.

    The next image was another image of Skywalker and Solusar, the pair of them training with a young man. The attachéd sludgenews article had a few sensationalist lines about him—Linscome skimmed it to find his name, a Kyp Durron—and his supposed Force potential, quoting some unnamed (probably fictional) Senatorial aide. It wasn’t what he was looking for either, so he clicked past to the last image.

    He froze.

    There she was. Colonel Catriona Lavalle—except that wasn’t her name. The caption said she was named Mara Jade. She was sitting next to Skywalker, glaring at the holocam with a ferocious, disdainful expression; next to her Skywalker was laughing and just starting to notice what Jade had already seen.

    The article described her—Mara Jade, associate of Talon Karrde. She was currently performing a bureaucratic function for the Smugglers’ Alliance. Linscome tensed as he read on, because it was rumored that she, too, was a Jedi potential. She and Skywalker had apparently been frequently seen in close company of late.

    Linscome was already reaching for his wall locker. It contained heavier armament than his usual sidearm.

    With unnerved haste he turned to the security panel and checked for Jade’s current location; it obediently reported that she still was where ISB-4977 had left her.

    He forced himself to relax. She was locked in a room and not going anywhere. That gave him some time to decide what to do.

    He should call the Inquisitors. That was their function, after all—capture and kill Jedi. It would be embarrassing, but better to give Lanu Pasiq some entertainment than allow a Jedi to make a fool of him.

    But… there was no reason to act hastily. He already had her in custody. If he performed their job for them, with equal skill, he’d be able to lord that over Pasiq for years, and wouldn’t that be satisfying.

    He walked across the ops center to the holocomm. Quickly reopening the link to the ISB database, he input a new query, asking for any and all information on Mara Jade. It took the typical few minutes, each one passing sluggishly, before the link was fully established and then he waited for the download to complete. With nervy anticipation, he accessed the file.


    “Command invalid?” he said out loud in surprise. That was a new one. He tried again, again requesting the file to open.


    With a frown he queued up a second download of the file, just in case it had been corrupted during its journey across the HoloNet. Then he queried the computer for more information on the error. “What exactly does ‘command invalid’ mean?” he asked himself.

    He really wished that ISB had bothered to assign a dedicated slicer to Bitter End.

    The holocomm beeped that the second download was complete. With a shrug he attempted to access the new copy of the Mara Jade file.


    “Which command?” he asked the computer, exasperated. “All I asked you to do was open an intelligence report.”

    The computer didn’t reply. It did flicker and freeze up briefly, as if responding to some other unknown command. He tapped his keypad, and was relieved when it responded to his keystrokes after about fifteen seconds of unresponsiveness.

    He checked the security panel again, just to be safe. Jade hadn’t moved, so he took some additional time to fight with the computer. After three additional minutes of frustration he gave up. “I hope there’s a tech available at Yaga Minor,” he muttered, commanding the holocomm to make a connection with the Ubiqtorate, requesting to communicate directly with someone present there.

    Again, he had to wait. He watched the dot that marked Jade’s presence. It was still—likely sleeping. Remarkable, he thought to himself, that she was able to sleep while in the belly of an ISB holding facility. What had her plan been, anyway?

    A commander dressed in an Imperial uniform appeared in the display. “Lieutenant Redsall, Imperial Ubiqtorate. What can I do for you, Captain Linscome?”

    “Lieutenant, I want you to open a personnel file for me,” Linscome ordered. “On Mara Jade. You’ll find it in the Smugglers’ Alliance directory.”

    “Just a moment, sir.” There was a pause as Redsall accessed his own computer, the display fuzzing. HoloNet connections weren’t always stable, and secure ones were slower than most. “That’s odd,” Redsall said slowly. “I’m getting an error message.” Redsall shook his head with a frown. “It’s telling me that my access command is invalid.” Redsall looked as perplexed as Linscome felt. “Hold on, I’m going to try to open this up using the other terminal.”

    Linscome’s heartbeat quickened. They were having the same computer issue? Was it trouble with the file, or—

    The screen abruptly fuzzed out and went black.


    The words gleamed on the monitor, mocking him, and now Linscome was well and truly concerned.

    He was staring at the dot that was Jade, still sleeping peacefully in the room she’d been confined to, wondering who and what she was, when all the lights in the Bitter End operations center went dark.

    * * *​

    Through the forward windows of Tempered Mettle, Luke watched all the base’s lights flicker and die. After about five seconds, red emergency lighting clicked on, which combined with the acid rain pounding outdoors to made the entire facility look like it was drenched in raining blood.

    Move now.

    Luke and Kam rushed down the freighter’s stairs; Luke used the Force to bring Artoo down behind them more quietly than he would otherwise have managed. The droid didn’t make his normal sound of unhappy woe that was typical during flight without a starfighter, which meant that Artoo was as focused as Luke and Kam were. Behind them they closed the ramp and secured it.

    Alarms started to wail.

    I’ve got them confused but it won’t last long. Move, Luke!

    The fact that Kam was wearing his Jensaarai armor still struck Luke as unnerving, but he understood the logic. Kam reported that some—but not all—members of the Inquisitorius wielded lightsabers. The cortosis-weave armor was designed to combat them, as most lightsabers would suffer temporary failures after contact with cortosis.

    The sight of Kam in his armor remained intimidating, even now that Luke knew him better. Kam was nearly two meters tall and when he wore his armor he resembled nothing more than a gigantic bronze golem. His d’oemir bear mask gave him a ferocious look that Luke wasn’t quite sure was appropriate for a Jedi, but the protection it offered was too valuable to forego for appearance’s sake. The armor hindered their attempt at stealth, but it was well oiled and did not make as much noise as it looked like it ought.

    Keeping their attention out for ISB, Luke followed Mara’s mental instructions. Artoo plugged into the interface right beside the door, and it only took him about two minutes before the door yawed open with the quiet cranking sound of recent, quality construction.

    They slipped inside and found the lighting indoors to match the lighting outdoors. Red emergency lighting illuminated the halls, a quiet, unnerving stillness and the sense of alarm and haste, even if there was no one visible.

    First door on your right.

    Luke drew his blaster, sweeping it down the corridor. The expensive, custom electroscope had numerous nifty functions, one of which was infrared. Luke used it to look for any signs of body heat while he and Kam both used the Force to search for potential foes. They didn’t run into any, which suggested that Mara’s distraction was, for the moment, doing its job.

    They ducked into the door at the end of the hall. At the end of the hall were the wide, sealed doors of a liftspeeder. Artoo went straight for the computer interface, making a soft warbling sound of concentration as he attempted to override the base’s security—luckily, with the help of Mara’s command codes, the little droid made swift work of it.

    The doors slid open. Inside was indeed a turbolift, settled inside of an extended, metal tube that would carry the lift at high speed down the coast to Bast Castle. Kam stepped inside and started examining the controls; Luke turned to Artoo. “You know what to do, Artoo?” he asked quietly.

    Artoo whistled an affirmative.

    Luke reached out with the Force, sending a tendril of consciousness to the end of the thread that bound him to Mara. Are you sure?

    I wouldn’t have suggested it if I wasn’t sure. You go investigate the Castle. Artoo and I can play hide and seek with ISB. Her mental sense leaned into his and for a moment he allowed himself to lean back. Go, Luke.

    I love you, Mara.

    Mara’s exasperated affection was the cure for many ills. Show me later, Farmboy.

    Luke smiled softly, stepped into the liftspeeder next to Kam and nodded to Artoo. “Good luck Artoo. And look after Mara for me.”

    Artoo’s whistle of determination and confidence was the cure for all the rest of Luke’s ills.

    * * *​

    Linscome stepped into the corridor, holding a lifeform scanner in one hand and a blaster pistol in the other. He’d also taken the time to strap a blaster rifle to his back—he was rated “master expert” with an E-11, he’d had taken the necessary hours to maintain that skill over the years—and all the same, he’d added a bandolier of grenades to his growing arsenal.

    All the communications were out, and despite his best efforts the operations center’ computers refused to respond. As best he could tell, Jade had simply ordered the base’s main power generator to shut down, and her ship was blanketing the area with a comms jammer which was—annoyingly—standard ISB issue.

    There was a unit of four approaching down the corridor, and Linscome headed to meet them. ISB-4977 and his men stopped; ISB-4977 offered a salute while the others took up the watch. “I left two men guarding Colonel Lavalle’s room,” the stormtrooper reported, drawing down from his salute.

    Linscome handed one of the stormtroopers the lifeform scanner, holstering his pistol and taking the rifle in a confident two-handed grip. “Colonel Lavalle is not her name. She’s Mara Jade, a New Republic asset,” he grated out with annoyance. “She somehow managed to penetrate our computer network.” He fell into the center of the stormtrooper formation, letting them put a protective box around him. “Lead the way, trooper.”

    The gleaming red emergency lights put red, shadowed silhouettes around the four troopers, making their armor and helmets even more intimidating than was normal. Other than the steady beeping of the lifeform scanner, and the occasional staticky fuzz from one of their comms, it was silent.

    Linscome tried, as best he could, to work through what he knew about Jade. What was she here for? This ISB facility didn’t have much to offer, as it went—and that she even knew about it was strange, given the amount of secrecy that had been invested in the operation.

    But Jade’s immediate goals weighed less heavily on him than her apparent history. Whoever she was, she’d put together an impeccable ISB cover—as an ISB Colonel no less—which had laid in the ISB database for nearly a decade before being used. That file hadn’t been planted recently—if it had been, that suggested a breach at the Ubiqtorate, which would be a much, much bigger problem—but predated Endor, predated even the destruction of the Death Star at Yavin and the struggle over leadership that had paralyzed ISB after the death of Colonel Yularen.

    As weird as Jade being here was… that forged file was the next best thing to impossible.

    How had she done it?

    They stopped at the end of the hall and entered Beta Block. The synchronized boots of the stormtroopers clicked on the floor rhythmically, with the confidence of Imperial training and the menace of ISB. They were the best, he reassured himself. There was no entity in the galaxy with the kind of training and experience of ISB. It was a ruthless, cutthroat organization, everyone earned their place at the top through a gauntlet of struggle. That was how they kept the Empire in check, it was how they found and terminated traitors, it was how they preserved the New Order.

    The tiny voice in the back of his mind that asked why they were losing the war was ruthlessly suppressed.

    When they reached Jade’s quarters, they found no guards standing watch outside her door.

    “Is she in there?” he asked.

    The stormtrooper holding the lifeform scanner nodded his helmeted head, sending shadows across the ridges of his armored eyes. “Yes, sir.”

    “Stand back, sir,” said ISB-4977. Linscome stepped back. One stormtrooper moved on either side of the door, and the third stood in front of it, his armored hand holding a passkey that would release the door lock. When the order came, it was unceremonious and lacked all drama. “Go.”

    The central stormtrooper swiped the card. The door clicked open and the three leading stormtroopers rushed in, fanning out on either side. There was the sound of stumbling and surprise, a curse, and no blaster fire.

    ISB-4977 and Linscome entered after them, their weapons at the ready. As they entered, one of the stormtroopers already inside activated the room’s emergency lights.

    On the floor of the room were two dead stormtroopers, illuminated in gleaming red. ISB-4977 knelt down and examined each body slowly. “Vibroblade,” he rumbled. “She took them by surprise. Clean kills.” His hand traced along the fabric that covered the gap between each trooper’s armor and his helmet. “Took ISB-8812 in the neck,” he explained, “then put the blade through ISB-9191’s side. Expertly done.”

    Linscome nodded, not really surprised. “She’s not here?”

    “Look, sir,” said one of the other stormtroopers. He held up a small device. “This was resting on the middle of the bed.”

    With a frown, Linscome went to examine it. It wasn’t a large device—easily hidden on a person’s body, like an oversized datapad—and it had no obvious function. He took it in one hand, gave it a closer look, then brought it next to the lifeform scanner.

    “It’s producing the lifeform reading we’re detecting,” ISB-4977 said, sounding disgusted, though through the armor it was hard to tell. “She baited us.” He turned, looking around the room. “How did she get out of here?”

    “I don’t know,” Linscome said darkly. “But there’s only one thing she might have of interest on this forsaken planet. On me, move out at the double-quick.”

    The liftspeeder traveled across glidewalk between the new ISB bunker and the older castle with its more dilapidated docking facilities and receiving area. It took only a few short minutes before the liftspeeder slowed to a stop. Luke peeked his head out the door. Outside was the base of a mountain which stretched up almost vertically. With his long experience of breaking into, getting lost in, and rushing out of Imperial installations, Luke judged that the support was likely artificial and the Castle was supported by repulsorlifts, not just bedrock, much like the largest buildings on Coruscant. As such, he was not surprised to encounter a small Imperial-vintage turbolift built into the base of the mountain. The surprising part was that it beeped as they approached and its doors slid open obediently.

    Luke glanced at Kam. “Do we need to be worried?”

    Kam frowned, peering up at the mountain above them. “Not yet,” he said. The two of them darted out of the liftspeeder through the acid rain, using a pair of somewhat-protective ponchos as shields for long enough to make it into the second turbolift. The plastic material they were made of oozed as they entered the lift, and Luke and Kam dropped the now useless ponchos with matching grimaces.

    The door slid shut, and a control panel next to the door beeped.


    Luke nodded at Kam. Kam stepped up next to the panel, hesitating as his hand hovered above the buttons.

    “What is it?”

    “Trying to decide how much of a bad idea this is,” Kam rumbled. “The fact that I’ve joined you is common knowledge now, and the Inquisitorius has to be aware of my switch of allegiance. These codes aren’t personalized, but maybe they’ve been changed.”

    Luke closed his eyes. He could still feel Mara, more distant now, glittering in the Force with all the promise of the future. He could feel the life on Vjun, such as it was, the background hum of the world. It was malicious life, which had bodied out all competition and was, as a consequence, slowly starving to death itself, but it was still life and in the Force it was not so different from any other plant. He could feel the Inquisitors—it was easier now that they were closer, and he had a better feel for how many of them there were. Maybe a half dozen, with only one true Force-adept among them, he thought—unless they were shielding themselves, which was depressingly plausible.

    But standing there in the turbolift, he did not feel any imminent, life-threatening dangers. He glanced at Kam. “Are we all right?”

    Kam was likely making the same evaluation, asking his own instincts, the insight and wisdom the Force offered, the same questions that Luke was. In answer to the question, Kam punched in the code. The lift controls beeped twice, a confirmation, and it started to move, lurching and then steadying as it rose upwards against the force of gravity.

    They both held their breath.

    When nothing happened, Kam shrugged. “For the moment.”

    * * *​

    The interior of Bast Castle was grim.

    They emerged into an octagonal room, with corridors extending in the four cardinal directions after a brief set of stairs. The walls were fused from chemically-bonded blocks of plain permacrete, fuzzy with strange lichens and dripping with acidic condensation. Other than that there was no decoration or guidance, nothing to indicate location or importance. A handful of maintenance droids—which themselves did not look all that well maintained—were fighting a losing battle against water damage from at least one leak somewhere in the ceiling. There were long streaks of moisture stains along the walls and floors, and the entire structure had a depressing, damp smell.

    “Pleasant,” Kam muttered, glancing in each direction.

    Reaching out in the Force, Luke concentrated, working to make himself as small in the Force as he could. All life had a presence, and Force-sensitives in particular felt like pebbles falling into a calm pond, radiating outwards, noticeable to those who knew to look for them. Luke was that pebble, and he did his best to make as few ripples as he could. Beside him, Kam was doing the same.

    For a moment, Luke wondered what had made his father choose this miserable place as his residence. What had it been about Vjun that drew Anakin Skywalker to it? Part of it, he knew, had to have been the Dark Side. Vjun was a place of sorrows and horror, and he felt the Dark Side strongly all around them, making its own presence felt. The remembered agonies had imprinted on this world and, like the ripples that Luke’s presence made, the ripples from sorrows past washed over them both like a rising tide.

    Beside him Kam tensed, lost in memories. Luke rested a brief hand on Kam’s shoulder; felt the taller man’s relief at the touch and heard his breathing slow again.

    Luke peered in each direction. Towards the north he felt only Vjun, almost serene in the constant ebb and flow of its ancient rage and sorrow. In each other direction, the background hum of the planet was dwarfed by Vader. Vader’s sense of betrayal and sorrowful rage; his torment and the pleasure he took from inflicting that torment on others. Making them feel what he had felt. He had been betrayed by the galaxy, by everything and everyone he had ever loved, and so he did his best to forget that love, to focus on what he could control: the galaxy, the Empire, his subjects, and destroy everything and everyone that refused to submit.

    By the time Luke had known Vader, the man had been more than just that creature. But here, it was impossible to hear the heartbeat that had been Vader’s memory of family. Of Luke’s mother, a woman whose name Luke still did not even know, and of the fantasy of children which had disrupted the painful imbalance that this place represented.

    Here, Vader had been the man who ordered the death of Luke’s Aunt and Uncle, stood by and watched the destruction of Alderaan, tortured Leia, and slain Ben. The conflict that Luke felt within him at Bespin and Endor had been a latent potential only, dormant.

    It was an unpleasant reminder of just how far Anakin Skywalker had fallen.

    Luckily, for all that, it appeared they were still unnoticed. Luke was wary of reaching out in the Force to scan for potential foes—being Force sensitives themselves, it was a good way to alert the Inquisitors to his and Kam’s presence. Luke took a breath, feeling all the life of Vjun around them, letting the Force soothe his tension.

    “I wish I had a better idea of what we’re doing here,” Kam muttered. “Mara said they’d captured a holocron?”

    “That’s why I like working with Iella and Mara,” Luke murmured. “They’re investigators, and often give substance to my hunches.” Luke glanced around, judging the room they were in, and trying to visualize the most likely spaces around them. “Mara said they’d captured someone at a place called Exis Station,” he added quietly. “And that this person had a holocron that the Inquisitors thought might be valuable.” He nodded ahead of them. “But as valuable as an actual holocron might be, that someone comes first.”

    Kam’s intention and protective instinct gleamed quietly in the Force. “Let’s go this way and hope we find them.”

    Luke adopted a quick, hasty trot towards the nearest corridor. They had to travel up a half-dozen permacrete stairs, passing by a maintenance droid steadfastly scrubbing at the walls, trying to burnish away water damage.

    Ducking past the droid, they entered a large open room. It had a pair of turbolifts against each wall, and a bay of battered, dimmed windows through which they could see and hear the pounding of the acid rain beyond. The middle of the room was some kind of training space—there were scars from blaster and lightsaber strikes, and each of the four heavy pillars that were arranged in a square in the middle of the room had suffered grievous damage.

    Luke could feel Vader’s rage, almost see the crumpled wrecks of droids and men.

    “Holocrons can contain a lot of knowledge,” Kam said quietly, fighting to prevent the sounds from carrying far, “much of it of unquestionable provenance, and since it must be accessed by a Jedi, it will likely be untainted. It might be as valuable of a resource as the records you retrieved from Dathomir, maybe even more.”

    “We’ve got to find it first,” Luke muttered, “Let’s not put the pod before the engines—”

    Instinctively, both men ducked behind one of the permacrete pillars. They pushed their backs against it—Kam holding very still to avoid the scraping sound of metal against permacrete—as voices echoed through the central room they had just exited.

    “The ISB station has lost power?” a woman’s voice cut archly through the din, in a prim Coruscanti accent. There was a matching laugh. “Oh, I’ll be holding that over Captain Linscome’s head for years, I can assure you.”

    “Inquisitor,” said a new male voice with clear concern. “Sensor records indicate that a ship landed at Bitter End just before the power went out. ISB may be having trouble with a prisoner.”

    “A prisoner?” the Inquisitor asked with a frown. “The only prisoner on Vjun is in our custody.”

    Next to Luke, Kam’s fingers wiggled. Luke glanced up, leaning towards the bigger man to allow for a near-silent whisper. “I recognize her voice,” Kam breathed, barely audible. “Pasiq. Former Jedi Agricorps.”

    Luke frowned and nodded. “We can’t let them send reinforcements after Mara,” he murmured back, wishing that he and Kam had as much facility with telepathic communication as he and Mara did.

    “—ISB should not be taking prisoners to Bitter End,” Pasiq was saying with a frown. “Nor should they be conducting operations here without our knowledge. They’re here at our request and with our permission. Any visitors to Vjun should be cleared with the Inquisitorius.”

    There was a lengthy pause, and Luke could feel as Pasiq stretched out to the Force. She reached out, making the energy generated by all Vjun’s stunted life her own, channeling that to expand her awareness. Luke withdrew his Force presence as much as he could, shrinking the ripples he made until the pool was nearly still—

    “I see…” Pasiq mused. “You are right, Saniel. Something is indeed wrong.”

    Kam flinched, his Force-sense tightening with dismay. “Sorry,” he muttered.

    “Hello again, Inquisitor Solusar,” Pasiq called out, louder now. Her voice echoed through the permacrete halls, the multidirectional echo giving her voice the illusion of omnipresence. “It’s been a long time. I thought you were dead—or I did, until you started appearing in the Coruscant sludgenews.” There was a sound of murmuring, then footsteps running hurriedly away.

    Luke nodded at Kam, both of them still carefully staying out of sight. If he wasn’t mistaken, Pasiq was still only aware of Kam.

    “Lanu,” Kam said. He didn’t have to put any special heft into his voice for it to carry. He spoke, and the permacrete walls amplified it enough to be easily heard from quite a distance.

    The sound of a scoff echoed back. “Is that all you have to say?” The room seemed to grow darker around them as Pasiq embraced old anger—a sense of betrayal, of resentment, and…

    Luke hesitated, frowning. Mourning? Yes, wrapped up in Pasiq’s anger was a distinct sense of melancholy and loss. He glanced at Kam, whose lips were pressed firmly together. Noting his glance, Kam held up a hand, indicating that Luke should stay quiet and try to keep his presence hidden.

    “Vader died,” Kam said. “The Emperor died. I left and sought absolution.”

    “Absolution?” Pasiq responded, disbelieving, as if Kam had said something unbelievably mundane in response to a question that demanded the profound. “Absolution. Yes, you left—you left and now you call yourself a Jedi, do you?” The scoff was louder this time. “A Jedi. As if the title holds some important power and is not as empty and soulless as it has ever been. Do they know what you’ve done?”

    “Don’t deceive yourself,” Kam said, his solid voice more comfortable now. “You wanted to be a Jedi too. You sought a Master, to grow to be a Knight.” His voice softened. “I know you did, Lanu. You may have done wrong, but you could achieve some measure of peace now, if you are open to it.”

    “Achieve it now?” She laughed mockingly. “The Jedi rejected me, Kam. They let me languish, year after year, waiting to be chosen by someone as their padawan. They tormented me with promises of a future, of responsibility, and then they discarded me because I had become too old.” There was old anger in that voice, Luke thought. Very old anger, old pain, which had been allowed to fester for decades, poison in her soul.

    “Palpatine and his ilk twisted the Jedi just as they twisted the Republic. The Jedi have to change,” Kam replied with a quiet, sincere earnestness. “A new Jedi Order for a new generation and a changed galaxy. You could help us forge it anew.”

    “I have my new Jedi Order,” Lanu hissed furiously, her voice closer now. There were heavy footsteps arriving, reinforcements there to add to her strength. “What is the Inquisitorius if not the Jedi Order without the lies? We have the power of the Force. We alone. And if you do not join us, then we murder you. We don’t leave you to languish pointlessly in menial service for a lifetime. We give the gift of mercy, a quick death, rather than allowing talent to be wasted in a mediocre existence. Don’t we, Kam?”

    There was the snap-hiss of a lightsaber, and a glow of red cast over the room, matching shadows projected in columns by each of the permacrete supports.

    Pasiq gripped her lightsaber with both hands. She stalked towards Kam’s voice, catlike but flanked by heavier footsteps. Her saber’s glow illuminated her dark hair and darker eyes, adding shadow and menace to her otherwise ordinary face.

    * * *​

    Lanu’s lightsaber hummed as she spun the blade comfortably through a lazy twirl. She looked to her side. Her fellow Inquisitor, Saniel, strode forward, behind and beside her; the rest of the Inquisitorius’ strike team readied its myriad assortment of weaponry with the casual motions that spoke of long practice.

    The Inquisitorial attachés were armed and trained specifically to capture and kill Jedi with all manner of weaponry ranging from gas grenades, shock prods, and flechette rifles to web grenades and phirk batons.

    Saniel was not much taller than she was. He was wiry and physically tough, but his Force abilities had always been limited. Kam was bigger, he was tougher, and he was stronger in the Force, and that combination would mean Saniel was no match for him. For that matter, Lanu herself was outmatched one on one—but there were ways to even the odds.

    “Saniel,” she said offhand to the other Inquisitor, “take the second squad and kill the prisoner.” She smiled with satisfaction as she felt a flicker of surprise from Kam, followed quickly by an almost-imperceptible tremor of fear and anger in his Force sense. Anything to put him off kilter would help her win the coming fight.

    Solusar stepped out from behind the pillar and she saw him for the first time. It was definitely Kam—it was his voice, his build—but strangely, he was dressed from head to toe in a set of bronzium armor with an ursoid mask that obscured his face. A Jedi he might now claim to be, but he wasn’t garbed in their robes.

    “Armor, Kam?” she taunted. “Losing your nerve in your old age?”

    Kam’s response was to ignite his lightsaber. It did not match the gleaming red of Lanu’s, as the lightsaber he had wielded for the Inquisitorius would have. The bright blue joined Lanu’s red, the two colors clashing and casting purple light over the space between them.

    Saniel was in the middle of turning, waving at some of the men to join him, when Kam’s voice cut through the twinned hum of lightsabers. “Saniel,” Kam ground out, bringing the Inquisitor’s footsteps to a halt. “Tell your squad to stand down and place their weapons on the ground. There need be no violence today.” He lifted the blade up slowly, holding it in a stance that was more aggressive; the tension in his body was taut with the potential for motion. “If you do not stand down, however, I will use whatever force is required to stop you.”

    Lanu scowled at him. “You are going to have other things to worry about, Kam,” she hissed. “We still have unfinished business.”

    Infuriatingly, Kam ignored her. “What is it to be, Inquisitor?” he asked Saniel, lifting his saber higher aggressively.

    Saniel’s helmeted head pivoted to Kam, then back to her. Then he and his squad fled. Kam started after him.

    In a fury Lanu put herself between Kam and the fleeting Saniel. “You can’t just walk away,” she hissed, “not again!”

    Finally, finally Kam focused on her. “Lanu,” the tall Jedi said sadly, “you’ll find that I can.” He charged, their lightsabers clashing; he was just as strong as she remembered, their sabers screeching against one another as he forced her aside, then he was past, footfalls heavy as he raced after Saniel and his team. Lanu gathered herself for a leap at his unprotected back—

    The Force closed around her. An impossible invisible grip locked around her, preventing her leap, almost causing her to trip over her feet and topple onto the ground. In the momentary pause Kam outpaced her and hammered aside one of the armored attachés. The man fell, broken, and then Kam was gone.

    The grip around her relaxed. She spun, the sudden swell of presence behind her growing, blazing like a sun in her awareness. Standing there was another figure, dressed in all-too-familiar Jedi robes, an unlit lightsaber in his hand. His cool blue eyes were measuring and confident, and she could see the power in them.

    Pasiq swallowed hard, sudden fear seizing her. She took a half-step back, lifting her blade defensively. Her Inquisitorial attachés took up positions on either side of her, offering backup, but the Jedi before her was not cowed. He took a small step forward, lifting his unlit lightsaber and pointing it towards them. Nervousness flooded through her, paired with sudden, horrified recognition.

    Luke Skywalker!

    “Your business is with me,” Skywalker said mildly. He thumbed his lightsaber; the emerald blade extended. The green glow washed around him, pushing back the unsettling red as he stood like a Renchentree in the path of howling floodwaters. His voice turned to durasteel. “Surrender.”
    Chyntuck likes this.
  17. scienfictionfan

    scienfictionfan Jedi Knight star 1

    Jan 1, 2020
    Honestly, I have never had that much sympathy for the Jedi initiates who were not selected as Padawans and then joined the Sith and then blamed the Jedi for their own choices. Even if they did not meet the requirements to be a Jedi Knight, they were not just thrown out but offered membership in one of the various service corps serving the galaxy, and if they wished to leave the Jedi that option was open to them. They were provided an excellent education, enough for any number of potential jobs, even if they did not meet the requirements to be a Jedi Knight, and we see many former Jedi both initiates and former Knights who went on to do jobs like be Republic advisors, intelligence agents, or in one example a leader of a planet and, that was one who had been expelled for stealing a Sith holocron and had spent time in prison.

    Also, most of the Inquisitors claim they were forced to join the Sith yet, there were dozens if not hundreds of members of the various service corps captured by the Sith and offered the same chance to live if they betrayed their comrades yet, the overwhelming majority we see choose to die rather than betray their oaths. It suggests that the flaw was with the future Inquisitor's not the Jedi and that the Jedi were correct to refuse training and Knighthood to ones who might fall. More than their potential moral failing there is also the fact that being a Jedi was and remains a dangerous job that if you screw up can lead to death either for yourself or worse for others and so having minimum standards for who's allowed to become one makes sense. It's just like how we won't allow someone to be a doctor even if they really wish it, they have to meet minimum standards and pass tests because otherwise they could kill someone. The difference is if a Jedi screws up it could lead to tens, hundreds, thousands, millions, or in the worst-case billions of deaths. Honestly, I think accepting responsibility for your actions while a Sith or serving them is one of the perquisites for redemption and seems to be the biggest problem for dark siders leaving the dark for the light and is the big difference between Kam and Lanu.
    Last edited: Jan 6, 2022
    Bel505 likes this.
  18. Bel505

    Bel505 Jedi Grand Master star 2

    Jul 4, 2006
    Lanu's got a lot going on in her soul. I hesitate to say too much because there's more to come, but there are some clear distinctions between how she ended up with the Inquisitors and how Kam did... and why she ended up here and he didn't. As Kam pointed out way back in Chapter ... uh, 2 or 3 ... all the Inquisitors had the same chance to leave that he did, after Endor, and that included Lanu.

    That said, I don't think her criticism is entirely without merit. I read Yoda: Dark Rendezvous while writing this, and I do wonder
    what would have happened to Scout if Yoda had lost that bet.
    Last edited: Jan 6, 2022
  19. Bel505

    Bel505 Jedi Grand Master star 2

    Jul 4, 2006
    Chapter Thirteen

    The corridor that led from Beta Block back to the facility's main entrance was a short one, gleaming the scantily interspersed red emergency lights. Jade had to be after the Holocron, that was the only thing that made any sense. Silently, Linscome berated himself for mentioning it—he had even suspected her, and he'd still mentioned it! But it probably hadn't mattered. Maybe the scavenger they'd captured had been in contact with Coruscant and had been carrying some tracking device they'd missed. That had to be it, nothing else made any sense.

    "Did you hear that?" asked ISB-4977, bringing the company to a halt. Two stormtroopers dropped to one knee, pointing their E-11s down the corridor in each direction; the third manipulated the lifesigns detector, looking for anything that might be Jade. ISB-4977 peered down the corridor ahead of them with a frown. "Something mechanical."

    Linscome checked his rifle's power pack. "Keep moving," he murmured. "Slow."

    They made their way slowly, footsteps as quiet as four stormtroopers and an Imperial officer could be. Hands gripped blasters with nervy fingertips, as even the highly-trained professionals of the ISB Stormtrooper Corps—who received the best training in the Empire—found the slow, careful movements unnerving. ISB stormtroopers weren't stealth units, they were enforcers. They knocked down doors, arrested traitors, and made an example for the citizens. An example of discipline, patriotism, and fear. An example of power.

    They made a quick left, two troopers watching their rear. ISB-4977 tapped one of them on the shoulder and gestured at the ground. The second trooper nodded and stopped, dropping to his knee and taking up the rear guard position.

    Silently, the rest of them made their way down the rest of the corridor. In front of them were the large doors to the liftspeeder that connected Bitter End to Bast Castle. Linscome swiped his access key. With an obedient beep, the controls flickered to green and then the doors slid open.

    ISB-4977 and his troopers rushed into the room, their blasters and glowlights sweeping over every corner of the room. When no blasters were fired, Linscome entered after them.

    "Clear, sir."

    * * *​

    From his place watching the team's rear, ISB-6768 peered down the darkened corridor, the barrel of his E-11 dipping. Red lights flickered down the full length of the hallway, giving illusions of motion that he had to fight the urge to shoot. But he'd been trained at Carida before joining the ISB, by the best teachers the Empire had to offer. Decades of combat experience had been at his disposal, and psychological reprogramming, and together they provided calm surety of the rightness of the Imperial cause.

    His hand clenched on the barrel, holding the weapon steady.

    Using a button on his wrist brace he clicked through the various settings on his helmet. Being ISB equipment it was the finest in the Empire, with multiple settings for different lighting conditions. He tested each one to see which gave him the best field of vision, licking his lips under his helmet as he concentrated. Duty and training overrode the fear another man might have felt, he thought proudly, because he was a stormtrooper of the Empire, and stormtroopers felt no—

    There was a flicker of movement down the hallway and his blaster snapped up. But it wasn't a person… he frowned and flicked back through the settings. There was something producing heat down there that was moving, but that certainly didn't look like a human—or a biped at all. It slid across the floor, a small cylindrical shape topped with a dome. It stopped at the end of the hall and he pointed his blaster at it, flicking the glowlight on his blaster to a higher, more concentrated setting and illuminating the potential target with light.

    The astromech droid he could now see clearly turned its head to look at him. There was a low, mournful, slightly wary warble of sound, and ISB-6768's finger lifted off the trigger of his E-11. He opened his mouth, beginning to call to his superiors to inform them of the droid—

    He never heard her coming.

    * * *​


    The sound from their rear guard ended almost as quickly as it had begun. The half-syllable cut off with a gurgling, gasping sound.

    ISB-4977 fired a shot at the shadowy figure, but Jade—now dressed from head to toe in black, she'd seemingly added a mask to her outfit to cover her hair and face—gripped ISB-6768's corpse and twisted it in front of her. The blaster shot slammed into stormtrooper armor, sending the armor and the body inside toppling to the ground with a heavy thud while Jade vanished from view.

    "After her!" Linscome ordered, a knot in his throat, and the three stormtroopers he had left surged forward—

    The blast doors slammed shut, locking them inside.

    * * *​

    "Get the door open!" Linscome hissed. His remaining stormtroopers were attempting to do just that, but whatever Jade had done had completely scrambled the door's electronic locking mechanism, making it impossible to command the door to release. They spent ten minutes fighting with it before giving up. They were discussing more potent alternatives when his comlink crackled.

    "I wouldn't advise using your explosives to open the door." Jade's voice was cool, with more than a hint of warning in it. "You probably can, but I already have what I need from you and you're safe where you are. If you come out of there you become a threat again."

    Linscome ignored her. ISB-4977 affixed three small explosives to the door, checked to make sure the explosion wouldn't be too big and kill all of them outright, and then waved them into the room. In the back of the room were the doors to the liftspeeder's landing dock; they had already managed to get those open, but the lift was presently docked over at Bast Castle which left the long tube another dead end. They hopped down off the platform, ducking down into the tube to hide, protected by both the doors and the platform.

    Each of the ISB men braced themselves, their feet against the tracks for the liftspeeder, their backs against the permacrete platform.

    His comlink crackled again. "Last warning. Stay where you are or I'll kill all of you."

    Linscome glowered with annoyance. "Do it," he ordered, and ISB-4977 pressed the button.

    There was a boom and the sound of shattering transparisteel. Shards of sharp, transparent material showered over them, raining down onto the platform above and into the liftspeeder tube. Some of the shards fell around their armored feet; none of them were hurt.

    The three stormtroopers spun around once, their helmets and torsos poking out over the platform, E-11 blaster rifles pointed in the direction of the exit. The interior door, which exited from the small waiting room and into the liftspeeder dock, was completely shattered from the force of the explosion, all its shards blown in their direction, glimmering in the red emergency lighting. The exterior door was completely gone, blown to smithereens, along with much of the wall on either side. Small fires smoldered among chunks of permacrete; many of the emergency lights had been destroyed, leaving the outer hall blanketed in darkness.

    The comlink didn't make another sound, nor did they come under attack.

    The stormtroopers climbed back up first, then ISB-4977 gave him a hand and pulled him back up onto the platform. Boots scraped over fragments of transparisteel as they creeped towards the exit, rifles at the ready.

    * * *​

    "Idiots," Mara sighed as her ship's computer reported the explosion below. She waited five seconds, then hit the firing key.

    Tempered Mettle was a well-armed ship for its size. Armed with two rapid-fire proton torpedo launchers—both fully loaded—it had more than enough firepower to flatten the entire ISB compound. But proton torpedoes were expensive and flattening the entire compound was a bit more than necessary.

    Luckily, the ship also mounted a single turbolaser. A spinal mount, the ship's primary gun could only fire directly forwards. Drawing power from Tempered Mettle's main reactor, it also reduced the amount of power available to the ship's engines and shields when in use… but a single shot from the spinal mount was more devastating than even a proton torpedo would be.

    Under other circumstances, degrading the ship's shields to fire the main gun would be risky. With the base's power disabled, though, their defensive turbolaser mounts were out of action.

    The disguised emitter in the freighter's nose unleashed a single bolt of green energy. It slammed directly into the ISB compound's liftspeeder dock, blasting through the roof, the floor, the foundation, and a meter or so into bedrock before dissipating.

    Even Artoo was silent as they regarded the effects of their handiwork. His dome swiveled to look at her, then back at the destruction they had wrought.

    Mara could feel the temptation of satisfaction. Of the thought that the four ISB men had gotten exactly what they deserved. Vjun sang out that she should enjoy her victory, revel in it even. But she felt more than just Vjun—she felt Luke. Felt Luke's resignation that he would have to fight and kill. Felt his refusal to take pleasure in the fact that he could do both.

    She deactivated her ship's turbolaser and redirected power to engines and shields. "Come on Artoo," she said. "Get in your socket. Let's go help your Master."

    * * *​

    Luke Skywalker held his lightsaber in a confident two-handed grip. Across the room, Lanu Pasiq stared at him, the sudden almost feral fear at his unexpected appearance was matched by the tension he could feel in the Force. Vjun's dark environment fed it, hissing insidiously at her—and at him. Take satisfaction in how she fears you, it whispered. You are Luke Skywalker. Jedi Knight. Conqueror of the Emperor, son of Darth Vader. Bringer of righteous wrath. Show her why she should fear you.

    But Luke knew better. Those thoughts did not belong to some disembodied Dark Side consciousness. They were his own worst impulses, and they were lies. He was Luke Skywalker, yes, and he was a Jedi Knight—that much Yoda had granted him. He was even the son of Darth Vader, who had returned to the Light in the end. But Luke had not conquered the Emperor, and he would not be a bringer of wrath.

    Justice… perhaps. If necessary.

    So he calmed himself, letting Vjun's tongues of remembered hate wash over him, sliding away like oil repelled by water. In their center he was calm. Centered.

    He spoke. "You were an Apprentice, Lanu Pasiq," he said, remembering what Kam had told him, and the words he'd heard them exchange. "It isn't too late. Not for any of you." He put as much assurance into his voice as he could. All the hopes he had for the possibilities. Kam had brought so much to Luke's own knowledge of the Force. Kam's remembered training was an invaluable asset. Lanu was older than Kam by a few years. She surely remembered even more. "I want to hear about your training. I know you feel betrayed by the Jedi but I want you to tell me how and why. I want to know about every mistake the Jedi Order made so that they aren't repeated."

    There was a flicker in Lanu's eyes. A moment of hesitation. Luke could almost see a kernel of indecision grow and his own hope grew in response.

    "I know they weren't perfect," Luke continued. "We don't intend to recreate the Order as it was. The new Order will be new, for a changed galaxy. Yoda would not have trained me if he wasn't prepared for that." Luke lowered his lightsaber slightly, a gesture of disarmament, offering peace.

    "Not perfect," Lanu echoed, and Luke's hope started to fade as he could feel the kernel of indecision vanish into a fireball of fury. "Not perfect!" She trembled with anger, cackling almost maniacally. "They used us. Consumed us. Stole the lives we might have had, tried to remake us in their own image. And when they failed!—" the pretense of calm vanished fully into a furious scream of rage, one that echoed through the Force. Vjun screamed back, the Dark Side empowering her fury, adding to her hate the remembered pain of a world's brutal death. Luke lifted his lightsaber into a full guard position, shifting his feet in anticipation of a strike, sinking deeper into the Force, seeking the candle of Light in the sea of Darkness, and finding it— "when they failed! Not us, not me, them! When they failed us they tossed us aside like we were nothing! They claimed it was a privilege, the Agricorps. That we served the greater good. That we brought hope to the galaxy. But we'd been promised greatness and they made us farmers!"

    Another person might have exhausted their anger and seen reason. With Vjun feeding Lanu's hate, and her acute sense of betrayal, the Inquisitor was just getting started.

    Luke took a deep breath, bolstered his calm, and spoke sadly. "I was a farmer."

    As Lanu strode forward and her attachés brought their weapons to bear, Luke steeled himself and spoke no more, filled with a dreadful vision.

    He feared he was going to have to kill her.

    He hoped he was wrong.

    Lanu came in like a feral animal, vicious and fast. Luke felt a vortex of Dark thoughts as she charged with her saber outstretched, her Inquisitor's robes streaming behind her to reveal matte armor similar to Mara's.

    The Inquisitor's lightsaber jabbed at him, trying to spear through him with a quick thrust.

    Luke didn't intend to make it that easy for her. Trusting the Force to guide his footwork, he stepped to the side. Her thrust struck only void and her momentum carried her past him. Luke spun, using a quick jab to distract one of Lanu's guards, and using the Force to push Lanu forward. She stumbled another step forward—right into the guard Luke had just distracted.

    The man dropped, partially-bisected. Despite having just killed one of her own, Lanu didn't even hesitate, spinning back towards him and snarling as she bored in again.

    "You're no Jedi!"


    "Jedi were emotionless!"


    "Jedi were graceful and strong!"

    Her lightsaber came at Luke again and again, swings interspersed between curses, but each of her strikes was easily batted away. Each voided strike caused a hisses of indignation and anger, and her strikes became more erratic—if also more dangerous—as she allowed a berserker's instincts to conquer her.

    Or so he had thought.

    He had been preparing for her to attack him again when, instead of a lightsaber thrust, he found himself pelted with smoke grenades. They didn't land within reach of his lightsaber, but once they hit the ground they filled the air with a thick, blinding smoke, and all he could see of his foe was the sweep of her robes.

    Her two remaining attachés tried to use the smoke cover to kill him with projectile rounds, but the Force was his ally. Bursts of segmented flechettes whined past him to thud into his surroundings, creating more smoke and permacrete dust in the hazy air around him. The scent of burning intermingled with the damp, producing an unpleasant, acrid smell.

    Her voice echoed from the smoke-filled dark corners. "Jedi didn't hesitate when they knew they had to kill!"

    Luke whirled behind one of the columns interspersed through the training room for greater protection from those flechette rifles. Tossing his saber to his left hand, he drew his blaster with his right, bringing up the electroscope to see through the haze.

    She almost surprised him.

    The Inquisitor charged at him out of the smoke, her lightsaber slashing partway through one of the permacrete columns, the tip of its blade nearly extending enough to catch him. The attack steered Luke into the path of an armored attaché with a scattershot slugthrower pointed directly at him.

    He was ready.

    In deep communion with the Force and relying on every erg of combat experience he had, Luke continued his spin. He lifted Pasiq's blade with the saber in his left hand, cleaving the permacrete column cleanly in two and leaving a gaping slice in the otherwise solid construction, while the blaster in his right hand seemed to flow up of its own accord. A pair of red bursts lanced from it into the attaché in front of him. The man dropped as the blaster bolts burned through his stun-resistant armor and lay twitching on the ground as he died.

    A second attaché's flechette rifle coughed and Luke dropped to the floor as needles howled towards him. He dodged the worst, but felt a screaming pain as two flechettes grazed over his arm and chest. Suppressing the pain with a grimace, he hurled his lightsaber at the man who had just shot him. The green blade scythed mercilessly through the attaché and fell to the ground, spinning until the lightsaber automatically disengaged and the emerald glow vanished.

    The third attaché was coming around behind him. Luke's blaster flowed up again and he snapped off a shot, catching the man just under his chin and above his chestplate. Luke twisted and threw himself into a roll, down and away just as Lanu thrusted the tip of her lightsaber at him again. He hit the ground heavily and she came after him with a vicious downward slash.

    Reaching out with the Force, Luke holstered his blaster and summoned his lightsaber back to his hand. It flew across the room and into his grip with a reassuring, familiar thud. He reignited the blade just in time to block Lanu's killing blow with a column of concentrated plasma. Her red blade gleamed as it ground against his green, her eyes on fire with hate… and with fear.

    They sprang apart, Luke flipping back up to his feet. Both were breathing heavily, but now she was alone. Her eyes tracked over the corpses of her men and their fallen slugthrowers. With a snarl she reached out in the Force, gripping grenades from their belts and flinging them at Luke. He scythed through them, redirected some back beneath their prior owners and rendered others useless as he pursued.

    Her feet slapped against the permacrete floor as he chased after her, following her through the dripping, vacant corridors. Her fear and anger swelled in the air, heavy and thick, pressing down against him. He cut through it, acknowledging his pain and fear, releasing them back to the Force, and refusing to let it divert him or feed his worst impulses.

    At the far end of his bond with Mara, vibrating like the far end of a taut string held between them, he could feel her own determined calm. She gleamed in the Force, bright against the Darkness that surrounded her. His bond with Kam was not so potent but his fellow Jedi was in the thick of battle, holding tight to his own touchstones: his recent redemption and the memory of his father.

    Lanu did not have to fight against the shadows of Vjun. She took all its hate and pain and draped them around herself like heavy armored robes, elegant and empowering. She sprinted ahead, charging through an open door that led into a darkened room, full of what looked like lighted exhibits, all empty except one. The air in this room was fresher, less musty, likely as a precaution for preservation…

    In the center of the room was a pedestal, and in the center of that pedestal was a blue cube. It floated a few inches over its stand, held in the air by some kind of repulsor, glowing with dim inner light.

    The Inquisitor spun around, holding her lightsaber over the device, her eyes desperate and fiery. "I'll destroy it!" she screamed.

    Luke stumbled to a stop, holding his own lightsaber before him protectively.

    "I'll destroy it," Lanu hissed, much more calmly as he stopped. She shifted her weight, moving to put the pedestal between them, her lightsaber held in both hands, hovering inches away from the cube. "It's the holocron we took from Exis Station," she said, scowling at him as she wagged her lightsaber from side to side threateningly. "The scavenger found it, then we found her."

    He hesitated. The holocron was valuable—very valuable—and preserving it was a priority. But then, so too was preserving Lanu's life, if he could. He reached out to the Force to help choose his words, hoping Vjun's darkness would not draw him down the wrong path. "I don't think you can destroy it." He said the words softly, almost too softly to overhear with the hum of their lightsabers. He could see her lean forward slightly, almost unwillingly. "Not because it's protected in some way, but because of what it represents. A pathway away from darkness, a welcome beacon of light."

    He stepped closer, his gaze moving from Lanu to the holocron. As if in response, the holocron suddenly gleamed with a new, lambent light. It opened, flowering, and Lanu's eyes flickered down to look at the sudden radiance—

    Luke moved up to interpose himself, beating her blade aside; grounding himself in the Force and on solid footing next to the holocron.

    He was ready for her response. He wasn't quite ready for its vehemance or desperation. "I'll take this whole castle down around me, I swear!" she howled. He could feel her reach out with the Force, reach for the Dark Side that surrounded them, reach and tear and rip as she gathered its power to herself, flooded with rage and energy and the entire castle shuddered with her exertion, rock grinding underneath his feet, immovable permacrete starting to tremble—

    But that wasn't her plan, and he realized that just in time to save his own life.

    She triggered a static grenade. His vision went white, blinding him to her attack, but he heard her saber change pitch as she swung it towards him. Trusting the Force to guide his defense, he intercepted her swing with his blade. The clash of her saber against his was sudden and intense and she drove into him with all her momentum and Force-empowered strength. He could feel her using both hands to push his arm—and the lightsaber that was held in the hand at the end of that arm—back towards his face. The blade's plasma was hot, the weapon's gleam too much for his star-filled vision to focus—

    Luke didn't think. He didn't have time to think. He struggled to get to his blaster while resisting her powerful, Force-infused lunge with his blade. His blaster came free and Luke shoved it against her armor and pulled the trigger.

    With his ringing ears, Luke felt more than heard its loud report.

    As Kam had reported months ago, their armor could lessen the power of kill shots, while the underlayer dispersed stun blasts. But a blaster set to kill at point blank range…

    Pasiq staggered back, the armor around her gut a large, smoking wound. Her lightsaber fell from her suddenly limp hand, twisting and sputtering on the ground. With a flick of the Force he sent her blade spinning away, then holstered his blaster and deactivated his lightsaber. He caught her as she slumped, collapsing to her knees, her weight heavy against him.

    The rage was gone from her now. Decades of accumulated hate, dating back to the earliest days of the Empire and the obliteration of the Jedi, fled. She stared at him, and in her eyes Luke could suddenly see the despondent young woman she had once been, failed by her Order, found and twisted by Vader. She took a hitching breath, looking down at the hole in her armor with a pale grimace.

    Pasiq looked back at him, this time with a glint of respect that edged out the pain. "Not much of a… J-Jedi move, the blast… blaster… "

    "As you mentioned earlier," Luke said softly as he helped her to the ground, his eyes still seared but his vision starting to return, "I'm not much of a Jedi."

    Her armor scraped over the permacrete and Pasiq choked out a laugh and groaned in pain. She fixed him with a softened gaze. Sadly, and with a final effort, she croaked, "Don't… forget me…"

    "I won't," Luke promised honestly, knowing that there was no chance he would. He tried to make her comfortable, using the Force to take some of her pain. "You're not alone," Luke reassured Pasiq, taking her hand, and reaching out into the whirlwind of her dark despair with a tendril of his consciousness. "The Force is with you." He noticed a weak grasp in return, and felt, more than heard:

    And I am one with the Force.

    Lanu Pasiq died with her eyes open.

    Luke gently closed them and arranged her body respectfully.

    On the pedestal next to him the holocron continued to gleam a steady blue. He could feel it in the Force, too: a beacon of Light on a world of Darkness.

    * * *​

    Inquisitor Saniel had only a few seconds to prepare. His team had managed to construct a very impromptu barricade in the minute that Lanu had bought him before Solusar pursued. Now he listened in silence as Solusar approached that barricade, defended by a squad of the Empire's finest.

    He couldn't see Solusar yet, so he focused on what he could hear, and what he could remember seeing. Solusar's bronze armor hadn't looked particularly advanced, certainly nowhere near the extraordinarily expensive, blaster resistant armor Saniel's squad had the luxury of wearing. But the armor surely had a purpose, and he had to assume that it would be an effective protection against at least some blaster fire. The armor plus the lightsaber would make blasters a liability. He hoped Solusar wouldn't be prepared for their alternative choice of weapon.

    They waited. All was still, but he could feel the would-be Jedi's presence. Sweat tickled his brow as he held his breath, feeling the tension of his men rise as they wondered what their foe was up to...

    All was silent. He didn't hear the hum of a lightsaber. Solusar might be in a full armor suit but he hasn't drawn his saber yet. Perhaps…

    The ex-Inquisitor stepped into the light at the end of the corridor, bronze armor gleaming.

    Saniel never had to give the order. As his squad opened fire, their projectile weapons and shock rifles hurled a flurry of metal fragments and barely-harnessed electricity down the corridor, and Solusar raised a hand. The lights went dark and the failed Inquisitor disappeared behind a haze of permacrete dust raised by errant projectiles hitting everything except Kam Solusar.

    * * *

    Kam knew his armor couldn't take too many projectile hits, but the bronzium underlying the cortosis was strong. He should know. He had forged it himself.

    He strode forward with his sabers still unlit. His father's was in his left hand, closest to his heart. As the electricity blasts and projectile needles rushed at him Kam reached out, felt the Force, and hauled shards of the fragile permacrete wall into a shield ahead of him as he moved ever onward.

    As the rain of fire petered out to a trickle he grasped the rocky material, now reduced to dusty gravel ahead of him, and flung it ahead of him with the Force, battering and blinding the contingent of Inquisitorial troopers. It was not their fault, he thought as they fought to recover. Not their fault that he knew their tactics and weapons, their habits and intentions. He had been one of them. He had been one of their commanders, even. He knew them even better than they knew themselves, and the Force had never been with him as strongly as it was now.

    The Dark was there too. He could feel it, hovering in the air around him. The air was as thick with the Dark as it was with moisture, practically soaked in it. But he was not the wayward child that Vader had taken from his father's corpse, nor was he the misguided young man who suffered his impressment as bravely as he could have. He was not the confused mercenary who had fought Mara Jade and Luke Skywalker on Coruscant and Linuri. He was not any of those things, not anymore.

    He knew what he was. He had faced that trial, and he had surpassed it. It had taken him decades of confused struggle and the help of a kind young Jedi who had taken his hand and offered him the reassurance no one else had been able to give.

    Kam Solusar, former Inquisitor, now Jedi, lit his twinned blue blades and charged headlong into the press of his former colleagues, bellowing a guttural war cry.

    They rose to greet him.

    * * *​

    The woman in the cramped cell prepared to pass another day, much like the others she had passed before. They only called her Prisoner Eshk-89437, but Tionne remembered her name, repeated it inside her head, kept it guarded for the day she could use it again as a free being.

    She was a singer, a scavenger, a tale-teller. She was not human. Not entirely.

    "Near enough to pass if you try. Don't worry, dear, you won't stand out. Not until you want to."

    Her Gram-Gram had said that once, while tying Tionne's silver hair back across her slightly-higher-than-human forehead. Gram-Gram had then kissed her goodbye before sending her off for the first day at school. Rindao was a backwater, but thanks to its proximity to the Senex Trace trade route (and the lack of many alternatives in the Hadar Sector) it rated a second-tier regional trooper academy.

    A trooper academy meant Imperials, and Imperials meant you had to be careful if you didn't fit in.

    One day, her Gram-Gram had not been careful enough. Gram-Gram had been a marvelous musician and singer, but more dangerously she was a keeper of old stories. Some of those stories the Empire did not appreciate hearing. Stories about the adventures of the champion Nomi Sunrider and the fallen Ulic Qel-Droma, or of the determination of Kerra Holt, or of the luminous and ageless Master Fay. One otherwise fine afternoon, trooper cadets had taken exception to songs about the gold-dusted days of the Old Republic and the adventures of the Jedi. They'd beaten the old woman to death in the town square, and Tionne had fled with only the clothes on her back and her Gram-Gram's ancient double-viol.

    Another woman might have shied away from taking up Gram-Gram's profession, given her rather gruesome fate. But Tionne had never been normal—even her admirers sometimes claimed she was not entirely sane—and she was not about to let those songs fade away and be forgotten, as so many other tales of the Jedi had been. So she took up Gram-Gram's instruments, singing those same songs to pay for transit on the starways (where a surprising number of people wanted to hear them, but would not admit that publicly), running and moving when she felt flickers of more-than-polite interest. She made her way around the Outer Rim in search of Jedi history, adding more songs to her repertoire as she carefully excavated things the Empire had buried.

    Until she too had not been careful enough.

    By her own internal reckoning, it had been twenty-six standard days since she'd last seen a sun. Twenty-six days ago the Imperials had run her down on Exis Station. Thankfully, the Inquisitorius' extreme measures hadn't started yet. So far they'd just stuck to the basics. Sleep deprivation, psychotropics, and silence with some light coercion.

    Well, her sleep hygiene was already terrible, psychotropics were fun, silence let her compose, and she hadn't yet met an ISB goon who could throw a punch that really hurt. Certainly not more than that disgruntled customer on Daluuj, anyway.

    Clearly the Inquisitorius didn't have any experience singing in spaceport cantinas for tips, or they would have come up with a tougher interrogation routine.

    She didn't have an ounce of quit in her. So she sat in darkness, wrote songs in her head, and when she felt particularly brave she sang them, bawling out half-remembered Jedi heroics in a clear contralto in the pitch-dark. It annoyed the Inquisitors to no end.

    Usually it earned her a beating. Today, she sang and she sang and they never came. With a frown she stopped and stood, trying to stretch out as she wondered where the Inquisitors were. Surely they didn't have something better to do than torment her, so where were they?

    That was when she started to hear the sounds of combat. A chaotic medley of screams and blaster fire, and an odd humming sound that wasn't quite like anything she'd ever heard before. Her stomach lurched at the sounds of pain and death, the walls seeming to close in around her, the already confined space becoming oppressive and nearly vicious—

    And then it stopped. Like the first light shining through a cloud-filled stormy sky, she abruptly knew everything was going to be alright. She didn't know how she knew, she didn't know what it meant, but everything was going to be alright. A crash of relief broke over her; she sagged back against the wall and waited.

    Sure enough, the cell door hissed open. On the other side was a living suit of bronze armor—or, perhaps, an almost impossibly tall figure dressed head to toe in bronze-colored armor—looking like something out of Gram-Gram's less plausible stories. Its face was covered not with a helm, but with a pure-white ursoid mask, thick with teeth.

    She greeted the interloping suit of armor with a friendly smile through her bruises, then her eyes widened. The humming continued, because in its hand was a lightsaber. A lightsaber! She'd never even seen a lightsaber! (Well, not an ignited one anyway, that one Inquisitor who had captured her kept one on their belt, and the schutta hadn't even let her take a look at it.)

    All her life collecting Jedi lore, preserving it for future generations, and right here—in front of her!—was a suit of armor with a lightsaber. With two lightsabers, she corrected as she noted a second hilt hanging from its belt! The blue blade cast a soothing light over the room, and it hummed with a pleasant, slightly undulating sound which gave it a nice back-beat. Distractedly she wondered if she could incorporate a lightsaber into her music…

    "I'm Kam Solusar," the masked suit of armor said. It—he—spoke in a resonant, pleasant Rim timbre, one that echoed through the confined space. "I'm here to rescue you." He unstrapped his mask and removed it, revealing a pleasantly-attractive middle-aged human with hair even whiter than her own inhuman silver.

    She stared at him in astonishment. It took her a few moments to compose herself. "My name is Tionne," she said with every ounce of poise she could muster. "And I've been looking for you. Well. Looking for any Jedi. But those scum-huffing schuttas have my Gram-Gram's double-viol somewhere in this permacrete nightmare, and I'd appreciate your assistance in helping me get it back. They also took this odd talking Jedi cube-thing from me and seemed very excited about it, so I don't think they should be allowed to keep that either." She quickly considered her other needs, and blushed with sudden recollection. "And, could I possibly get a ride off this rock? They destroyed my transport."

    She felt a glimmer of warm amusement from the tall man, well-matched to his sudden smile that was banked like a small spark in the encompassing darkness. His gaze was wary but also respectful, which was better than most of her audiences. "It would be my honor, Tionne."

    They found the double-viol down the hall, with some of Tionne's other possessions. She cradled it with all the adoration the precious, precious instrument deserved, checking it over for any possible damage.

    Luckily, the double-viol was heavy and even tougher than she was.

    The rustle of movement from down the hall presaged the appearance of an Inquisitorial attaché in casual dress. Unarmored but not unarmed, the guard charged into the room then stopped short as he saw Kam's enormous frame—and the lightsaber still glowing in the Jedi's hand.

    Tionne got only three words into her profanity-laced battle-song before she slammed the fat end of the double-viol into the trooper's head like a Gamorrean's battleaxe. One of the strings on the instrument twanged and something in the Inquisitor's neck went pop. She hit him again, taking out twenty-six days worth of frustration with two swift blows.

    The guard dropped, either unconscious or dead.

    She turned towards Kam and found him staring at her with astonishment. "Where are we, anyway?" she asked without missing a beat. "This place looks like it was constructed by the Imperial Ministry for Making People Miserable."

    It took a few seconds for Kam's voice to begin working again. "Vader's Castle."

    Tionne stopped dead. "Say what now?"

    "I am not joking," the big man replied, his astonishment fading into amusement.

    "Sithspit." She gaped at him. "This is going to be my most epic ballad ever."

    * * *​

    Kam led Tionne through the halls and up a series of winding stairs. The chaos of combat was fading, the swirl of the Dark going from rolling boil to Vjun's more typical lingering menace. They found Luke on the Castle's rooftop landing pad, shaded from the world's typical acid rain as it spat and sizzled down. In the distance the sun was starting to rise, purplish light leaking up over the horizon. Far nearer than the sun was the sound of a ship with active repulsorlifts, and just as he was about to make halting introductions a trio of spotlights abruptly appeared, sweeping over the landing pad, and the nose of the Tempered Mettle became visible through the downpour.

    Beside him, Luke blinked rapidly, apparently recovering from the effects of a flash grenade. They shared a nod.

    Tionne waved at him wildly. "Heeey!" she shouted over the sound of rain and repulsorlifts. "Thank you!"

    She was nothing short of astonishing, Kam thought. She was covered in bruises, clearly hadn't eaten well, and had been in solitary confinement (except for her jailors) for nearly a month. And she still had the brightness of heart for enthusiasm! Well. Either that or she was a wild optimist. He sent an inquiring glance over to Luke, who was still blinking, and the other Jedi just smiled.

    Clearly, she wouldn't be alone.

    Covering themselves up as best they could, using the Force to disperse the drops into a lighter mist, they sprinted through the rain and up the Tempered Mettle's forward ramp. All three of them toppled to the deck, gasping for breath, enjoying the cool scent of recycled air rather than Vjun's own damp misery as Artoo's jubilant beeps and whistles resounded through the ship.

    "I think I hate that place," Tionne said cheerfully.

    To his surprise, Kam found he was able to laugh. Apparently, Luke could too.

    As the ramp raised and the ship rotated and rose to boost towards an orbital trajectory, Tionne sat up straight. "Did we recover the glowing blue Jedi box?"

    She's known us for all of five minutes, and we're already a 'we'? Kam mused silently.

    "Well, you were our first priority." Luke said. He made a show of patting himself down, wincing when he brushed over flechette grazes, and then Kam watched with amusement as Luke finally fished the holocron out of his pocket, holding it up on his palm with an exhausted smile. "But yes."

    Tionne breathed with relief, then stared at Luke with surprise and burgeoning awe. "Tarkin's teeth, you're Luke Skywalker. I've seen your holodramas! You're a little shorter than I pictured, but wow, they weren't kidding about those eyes."

    Luke blushed and laughed. "I wouldn't believe everything you see on the HoloNet."

    She shifted the double viol, and held out her hand. "Where are my manners? I'm Tionne. I found that talking Jedi box on an ancient space station—Exis Station." She shook her head. "The Inquisitors destroyed it on our way out. I'm afraid there's nothing else left."

    "That's all right," Luke said seriously as he accepted the offered handshake. "I believe we found everything we came for. I've got to talk to our pilot, but you look like you've been through the wars."

    The silver-haired woman nodded mutely. Her silence—clearly not a natural state for her—betrayed just how true that statement was.

    "Of the three of us, I think Kam, er… Jedi Solusar has the most medical training. Let's get you into one of the empty rooms and see if anything needs treatment with what we have on hand, and then we can all get acquainted." He sighed and tucked the holocron in his pocket, stretching. "I'll start working on dinner."

    Kam felt a flicker of uncertainty from Tionne, well-masked and gone in an instant.

    "We do have," Kam offered warily, "a female pilot if you'd prefer someone else, or we can wait until we're back on Coruscant to see to your injuries, if they're not serious…"

    Tionne hesitated, considering, then shook her head definitively.

    "Not at all. It's just a scan and some needles, and anyway, I've got a good feeling about you. Those almost never let me down. Alright, handsome Jedi, let's go play Medtech."

    Astonished, Kam blushed. He placed his mask inside its cubbyhole, handed Luke a tube of bacta salve from his belt, and led Tionne up the stairs to the ship's main deck as she chattered on irrepressibly.

    * * *​

    Mara had turned control of her ship over to Slips, the piloting droid beeping his typical deep, dour commentary as he brought the ship up into the Vjun sky. Luke watched as the heavy, moisture laden clouds parted for their passage and Tempered Mettle lifted through them into the brighter skies of Vjun's upper atmosphere.

    The oppressive shadow of Vjun faded as they put distance between them and the world. It was, Luke thought, such a relief to leave.

    He settled into the chair next to Mara. She turned to look at him as he did, her green eyes knowing. They had a hard time hiding anything from one another now. Luke knew that had made her uncomfortable at first, that she had silently feared that if he saw too deeply into her soul he might be repulsed by what he found. Once she realized that he wasn't scared—not of her, not of her past—but genuinely wanted to share all her burdens, and let her share his, her fear had passed into quiet melancholy and acceptance.

    His hand slipped into hers. She squeezed back, offering him a quick, comforting smile.

    He could see Lanu's face, her last moments, her dying breath. "Don't forget me."

    Lanu Pasiq had been a Jedi Apprentice. She had never become a full Jedi, but she'd been brought into one of the old Order's service branches. She had been tasked with doing good in the galaxy, helping people thrive, making sure starvation touched no one. How had she become… what she was? Had her resentment against the Order been there from the start, or had it been something Vader had inculcated?

    Mara could feel his tension, and her thumb stroked gently over his hand until he finally looked at her again. Her usual masked calm, worn as a matter of habit, faded as she relaxed in his presence.

    Lanu's death had been surprisingly quiet, Luke thought. Her rage had fled. All she had wanted was to be remembered.

    He would remember her, whether he wanted to or not.

    "I think she regretted all her choices, in the end," Luke said finally. "It was like she saw clearly everything that had led up to that moment and wished things had been different." He shook his head, looking down at his lap and away from Mara, the tube of bacta momentarily forgotten.

    "She made her own choices," Mara countered. Her voice softened as she felt him tense. "The Empire… Palpatine… they twist everyone they touch," she said. "Some more than others. Had the Empire never risen, who would she have been? I don't know, neither do you. Neither did she, probably."

    "Maybe she would have been content to be a farmer," Luke sighed. "I wish I'd been able to help her. Help all of them."

    Mara rested her hand on his wrist. "I know," she murmured. "But I'm just glad you came out of that fight alive. If she had killed you, how many other people in the galaxy would go without your help?" How many people, he heard her think but not say, would have to go on without you?

    He turned to face her, taking both her hands in his own. She gazed back, unhesitating, her brilliant green eyes sympathetic—and so, so relieved. "If she had," Luke murmured, leaning in closer, "If it was my time, you would have helped them instead. But I won't leave you without one hell of a fight."

    She snorted, shaking her head dismissively, before taking him in her arms and holding him close.
    Last edited: Jan 20, 2022
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  20. Gabri_Jade

    Gabri_Jade Fanfic Archive Editor Emeritus star 5 VIP

    Nov 9, 2002
    Good sensory details!

    Heh, I really love Mara being so effectively confusing :cool:

    That's our girl :p

    Heh :D

    Ah, Vjun. Always scenic o_O

    Is that the custom electroscope that Mara bought him? [face_love]


    Well, when you've got the Emperor himself forging your cover... :p


    Evocative description, I like :D

    I'd have stayed put, let me tell you

    This is an excellent section to showcase just why Luke is so good at leading the Jedi: impressive self-awareness and determination to hold to the right course. The EU would have been a lot better overall if they'd paid more attention to keeping Luke's characterization accurate.

    Correct. Any interpretation that has Luke trying to recreate what came before, be it parts of the EU or the ST or anything else, is overlooking a really important and obvious truth.

    Lovely bit of description!


    I really only know Tionne from the NJO and Union, but in those books she always struck me as forgettable and insipid. This Tionne has a fully realized personality, and it is delightful :D


    I can see it being kind of like a theremin :p

    What you did here, I see it :luke:

    [face_rofl] [face_rofl]

    I love this Tionne [face_love]

    Poor Luke :p

    [face_love] [face_love] [face_love]
    Bel505 likes this.
  21. Rivad_Bacar2

    Rivad_Bacar2 Jedi Master star 1

    Nov 1, 2004
    A small note to say that while I am barely started in book 1, the characterization, plot, and tone you and your co-author have established are AMAZING! It will take me a long time to catch up, but you should be very proud of what you have created.

    Someone find me some professional cover art-I want this series on my hardback bookshelf... =D=
    Bel505 likes this.
  22. Bel505

    Bel505 Jedi Grand Master star 2

    Jul 4, 2006
    Mara has quite effectively made sure he doesn't leave his blaster at home... if he left that thing in a closet there'd be hell to pay!

    That would answer so many of his questions. I doubt he'd like the answers much though.


    A lot of the credit for Tionne goes to DrMckay. He gave her the chaotic energy in the first draft (described her as a "hippy chick with a shotgun on the passenger seat of her beat-up Volkswagen" and that fit so perfectly). One of the things we try to do is introduce new characters while also not letting the character count get too high? So, for instance, in the last novel we spent plenty of time with Atril, and I adore Atril, but she's not a main character in this novel, while Tionne steps into the spotlight. And Kyp was just a bit-part in the last novel, but in this one he steps fully into the spotlight, while Corran and the Rogues step back. Not everyone can get the spotlight in every novel, so picking our cast is important.

    We picked Tionne! She's so fun.
    Gabri_Jade likes this.
  23. Bel505

    Bel505 Jedi Grand Master star 2

    Jul 4, 2006
    Thank you so much! Please, feel free to leave feedback (in the old thread, or over on Ao3 it's a little easier to leave chapter by chapter feedback when you feel inspired); it helps others find the work, and it means so much to DrMckay and me to hear that people appreciate our work—we are very proud of it (and are super excited for people to get the rest of this novel)!
    Gabri_Jade likes this.
  24. Bel505

    Bel505 Jedi Grand Master star 2

    Jul 4, 2006
    Chapter 14

    Tempered Mettle echoed with the calming hum of her hyperdrive as Mara exited the quarters she shared with Luke. He was already awake, of course; Luke's sleeping patterns reflected many years waking to calibrate moisture vaporators before dawn. She reached out with the Force, extending her consciousness until she found him. He was still weary after Vjun, but it was more mental than physical and the way his spirit brightened when he felt her touch was more than enough to make her smile.

    She wished, some mornings, that Luke was not an early riser. The experience of having a body next to hers while she slept was a novel one—and an uneasy novelty, at first. Over the months since they had embarked on their romantic experiment it had gradually transformed from novelty to normal, and rapidly from normal to longed-for comfort.

    Mara shook her head with annoyance. If she was being so sentimental, she thought, she clearly needed a harsh blast of morning caf to get her edge back.

    As she entered the ship's galley and lounge she realized the hyperspace hum was not the only sound she was hearing. Their guest—Tionne, she called herself—was sitting perched on the arm of the most comfortable chair in the lounge, thrumming on her massive club of an instrument, trying to duplicate the hum of Tempered Mettle's engines.

    Tionne looked human, but she had two characteristics that set her apart. Her silver hair could be accomplished artificially, but bore none of the signs of artificial dye; her eyes were a pale, whitish-grey. The combination gave her a somewhat ethereal appearance, and contrasted noticeably with tanned skin—likely earned exploring harsh Outer Rim worlds.

    The minstrel stopped her strumming and offered Mara a shy smile. "Hi there," she said with a wave. "We didn't really get to say hello last night, I'm Tionne." She gestured around herself lightly before strumming a few new chords. "I heard this beautiful lady is all yours?"

    "Mara," said Mara with a curt nod. "And if you mean the ship, then yes." She strode purposefully across the room to the very, very expensive caf maker Luke had purchased for her on the day they'd chosen to celebrate as her lifeday.

    Luke had insisted they pick one, Mara had frustratedly retorted "fine, it's today," and to her astonishment he managed to get her a gift, take her to dinner, and get them tickets to a performance of the Coruscant Symphony all in the next six hours. It had been a night to remember.

    She wondered how many favors he'd blithely burned through to make her smile.

    "Mara," mused Tionne. "It's a good name for lyrics." Tionne tilted her head to the side, gazing past Mara rather than at her, repeating Mara's name a few times, trying different intonations.

    She was harmless, Mara decided. Mildly unnerving, but harmless.

    Tionne strummed on her instrument some more as Mara poured her caf. "The Inquisitors caught me on Exis Station," Tionne explained, playing a few more notes. Mara was impressed by her obvious skill—and by the double-viol's rather impressive range. "They destroyed the station afterwards, the nerfs," Tionne sighed, "but at least we recovered the Jedi box thing."

    "Holocron," Mara said between sips of caf, idly wondering where Luke was and if he had made breakfast or if she should dip into her supply of ration bars—

    "That's what Kam said," Tionne agreed absently. "What rhymes with holocron…"

    Mara was just about to go for her ration bars when Luke and Kam walked in, followed by Artoo. "Good morning, Mara," said Luke. "Take a seat, I'll make something simple for breakfast."

    She considered objecting that a ration bar would be fine and decided not to. Luke would insist, and she could feel the melancholy still clinging to him after the battles on Vjun. Mara, for her part, had no doubt that each and every one of the deaths had been absolutely necessary. Luke, being Luke, would never be convinced of that.

    Besides, she thought fondly, he practically glows in the galley when he cooks, it's all "Aunt Beru sliced this that way," or "Uncle Owen refused to boil vegetables, says it's a pointless waste of water." It will make him feel better.

    Tionne hopped down off the arm of her chair. "Have you figured out how to make the holocron talk again?" she asked curiously, taking a seat at the galley's center table. As she sat, Luke cooked up some eggs and toast using the kitchen equipment. It wasn't fancy by any means, but as the scents of cooking food filled the galley, Mara had to admit that waiting for a real meal was better than ration bars.

    Kam placed the holocron in the center of the table. It gleamed a dull sapphire, inner light undulating. "I can feel it in the Force," Kam said. "But so far it hasn't responded to me."

    "That's odd," Tionne said. She sat down at the circular table across from Kam, reaching out to pluck the holocron from where it rested. "It was pretty chatty with me. Just started glowing and then—" she waved her hand "—talking." She peered at it intently, but nothing happened. A frown grew on her face and creased her brow. "I think it was glowing brighter when I found it," she said with a somberness that was somehow at odds with her demeanor otherwise. "I hope the Imps didn't break it."

    "I don't think they broke it," said Luke confidently. He placed a plate of eggs in front of each of them, then put one down for himself; the scent of spices made Mara's stomach growl, and Luke's cocky grin was a sure sign he hadn't missed it.

    Mara rolled her eyes and took a bite. Luke wasn't up to Han's standards as a cook, but he was certainly better than she was—though that wasn't saying much.

    "Why not?" Kam asked, taking the holocron back from Tionne and returning it to the center of the table.

    "Because I can still feel it in the Force," Luke said seriously as he sat down. "Just like you can." He leaned forward, his gaze intent on the object. "I think we should all concentrate on it," he said after a long moment. "Like you're trying to establish telepathic communication with someone nearby. Focus on it like it was a sentient mind and just… say hello."

    Kam leaned in. Mara and Tionne did not.

    "You too, Tionne," Luke encouraged. "It responded to you before, you said it did—maybe it will again."

    "I'm no Jedi," Tionne said skeptically. "Maybe I should sing to it instead."

    Luke laughed, and Mara noted the way Kam's lips twitched—it was rare to see the big Jedi smile, but that was not the first time she had seen him smile since Tionne had come on board.

    "Concentrate on it and sing in your head," Luke suggested, also smiling, though that was not so unusual. "Pretend it can hear your thoughts. Entice it as you would an audience."

    "Hopefully it won't wake up and demand its credits back," Tionne muttered. "It wouldn't be the first time." But she did as bidden.

    Luke's familiar blue eyes moved from Tionne to Mara. He arched an eyebrow, silently inviting her to participate. She folded her arms across her chest. "I'm not a Jedi," she pointed out.

    "Neither is Tionne," Luke replied. "And we both know that of the four of us, you have the most natural talent for telepathy."

    Mara scowled at him stubbornly. If she started getting involved in these little seances, before too long she'd be participating in other Jedi rituals. One step would lead to another, and then another, and before she knew it she'd be a Jedi in all but name, having made a commitment to the nascent Order that she still wasn't sure she was ready for. If she chose to become a Jedi—if, not when, if—it would be a decision she made, of her own volition, for the right reasons. Not because she slipped into it when she wasn't paying attention, not because she cared about Luke.

    But he was right. She did have the most natural talent for telepathy. And he was smiling that damned smile, the one that annoyed her and made her want to kiss it off his Farmboy face. It didn't help that she was pretty sure he could pick up at least the spirit of her thoughts, feel her annoyance with this entire exercise, and know she didn't really want to participate.

    It also didn't help that if she refused, it would just disappoint him. He hoped she would help. He hoped. If she chose not to, he wouldn't be angry, he wouldn't stop… loving… her.

    She sighed heavily. But he hoped, and there was nothing in the galaxy more dangerous than Luke Skywalker's hope.

    The entire mental debate had taken less than five seconds.

    "Point," she relented. She leaned in, concentrating on the holocron, opening the corner of her mind that she allowed the foreign to touch.

    She heard an awkward Hello from Kam as the Jedi reached out to the device.

    Tionne was into the third verse of some Jedi song about someone named Nomi Sunrider; Mara shut her back out.

    From Luke, there were no words, but a sensation of welcome, like he was inviting someone into his home. But Tempered Mettle was her home, and with the casual ease that had inexplicably come into existence somewhere between Myrkr and here, her mind slid against Luke's, adding her own confirmation of the offer. Yes, she thought, confirming Luke's wordless message. You are welcome here.

    The holocron's dull blue became bright. They all pulled back in surprise as the cube's inner light suddenly swelled, becoming momentarily painful to look at, and then above the device a hologram—if it could be called a hologram, for it was more realistic and lifelike than any hologram that Mara had ever seen before—gradually consolidated into the image of an alien from a species that Mara did not recognize. It was from an insectoid species, covered with constantly shifting chitinous plates; the creature's face was rounded with a long, elongated snout which provided nothing that a human could recognize as an expression. It was distinctly masculine in appearance, so Mara assumed he was male, and had two large, surprisingly expressive compound eyes.

    "Greetings, Jedi," he said. "I am one of the guardians of this holocron."

    "Greetings," replied Luke, his eyes practically glowing with the exultation of victory. He bowed his head. "I am Jedi Knight Luke Skywalker." He introduced each of the others. "What does it mean to be a guardian?"

    The holocron spirit bowed its head, which made its large hunched back even more prominent. "A Jedi can put a small piece of their spirit in a holocron, imbuing it with some of their wisdom. I, Jedi Master Vodo Siosk-Baas, was among the first to do so with this holocron. Many others after me did so as well. Together, we are the twenty guardians."

    "I see," Luke said. Mara had to admit she understood his excitement. A find like this was extraordinary—and was everything that Luke had spent the years since Endor searching for. A true mentor—not a living mentor, perhaps, but a mentor nonetheless—to help guide the Order, to teach him how to teach others. A sudden weight seemed to lift off Luke's shoulders, as if—

    "I am afraid that if this holocron has been found, it brings ill tidings," said Vodo-Siosk Baas. "We have been dormant for thousands of years, destined to be found only when the time is right and our wisdom is most needed."

    "Yes. Much has happened," Luke agreed heavily. He took a deep breath, and Mara could feel him steeling himself to tell the holocron the bad news. That the Jedi Order had been nearly destroyed, and was reduced to two—

    "Yes," Vodo-Siosk Baas said seriously. "I must tell you of the Great Sith War that occurred four thousand years ago."

    Luke stopped, confused. Kam looked equally so. Tionne did not. "I know about that," she offered cheerfully. "That was during Nomi Sunrider's time."

    "That song you were singing in your head?" Mara asked in surprise.

    Tionne nodded.

    "That war was caused by a student of mine, Exar Kun, who found hidden teachings of the ancient Sith," said Baas. "He imitated their ways and used them to form his own philosophy of the Jedi Code, a distortion of all we know to be true and right. With this knowledge, Exar Kun established a vast and powerful brotherhood and claimed the title Dark Lord of the Sith."

    That made all of them freeze. A chill ran down Mara's spine, thinking of that title, and how Palpatine had deployed its dread glory so magnificently.

    "I am afraid he is not dead," said Vodo-Siosk Baas, and if they had been frozen before, they were positively statuesque now, their whole bodies turned to stone with surprise and apprehension. "Not in the manner intended for all living beings in the Force. And if he is not stopped, the harm he could bring is incalculable."

    Mara had a wide vocabulary of profanity obtained from some truly varied experiences in a lifetime of covert service. She spoke numerous languages and was moderately proficient in several others.

    In a colorful diatribe she ran the length and breadth of the Outer Rim's Trade tongues and did not repeat herself once.

    Baas remained motionless himself, fuzzing in and out of focus. Kam swallowed, but said nothing. Luke looked very scandalized, and Mara caught the brief impression of an equally scandalized middle aged woman who could only be Aunt Beru.

    Tionne tipped her an approving nod and strummed along.

    * * *​

    "—Sithpawn!" Mara finished, irate. As Luke watched with real concern, Mara slowly sank back into her chair, suddenly exhausted. She rubbed her temple. "We just finished dealing with one Dark Jedi. Now, what, we're dealing with a Sith ghost? Can't they just stay dead?"

    Luke couldn't blame her. He felt much the same.

    Vodo-Siosk Baas slowly shook his holographic head, his exoskeleton shivering as if he were still a living creature. "It is difficult to explain what he is now," the long-dead Jedi Master said.

    The holocron shimmered, and Vodo-Siosk Baas vanished. A new Jedi—another Master from those ancient times, Luke guessed, appeared in his place. A human or near-human woman, she was aged, with greying rusty brown hair and blue eyes, and spoke as if carrying the weight of the galaxy on her shoulders. "At the end of the war, we tracked him to a temple he had constructed in his own honor. An entire army of Jedi Knights—every Knight the galaxy had—came together to end the era of Exar Kun." She looked away briefly, swallowing hard. "He had slain or corrupted so much of our order, including his own master, Vodo-Siosk Baas," she said somberly. "Our ships filled the sky above his temple, but when we arrived to fight his armies and destroy him once and for all… we found the land around the temple afire for a thousand kilometers in every direction, and when the fire was out Exar Kun was nowhere to be found. There was nothing left."

    Tionne was staring at the figure, eyes wide, for once not gently plucking at the strings of her double-viol. "Master Sunrider?" she asked in astonishment.

    The hologram nodded and offered Tionne a small smile. "Though my deeds are somewhat exaggerated in your ballad." She looked at Luke, Kam, and Mara in turn. "Exar Kun's body was never found and, between then and when this holocron was hidden by the Order, he never re-emerged."

    "He's never spoken of as dead. Only vanished," confirmed Tionne. "But no one has seen him since, at least not in any of the records or songs I've seen and heard. He's infamous and every tale he features in shows a terminal inability to keep a low profile. An ego, a desire to be noticed, to corrupt and cause pain to Jedi. If he had returned, it would have been noticed."

    "What makes you sure he's still alive?" Mara asked the holocron stiffly. "Or between life and death?"

    Jedi Master Nomi Sunrider smiled, then vanished. In her place was once again Vodo-Siosk Baas. "Exar Kun murdered me," the fallen Jedi Master said. The insectoid trembled—in sorrow, in anger, Luke could not tell—then bowed his head and closed his compound eyes. "I failed him, as only a Master can fail," Baas admitted. "But the bond between Master and Apprentice is not so easily broken." One of his tentacle-like hands touched his carapace. "This holocron contains some of the spirit of Vodo-Siosk Baas. I can still feel that my Apprentice lives. As if at the bottom of the deepest ocean, or buried in the heart of a gas giant, my student lives. Powerful, arrogant, broken and consumed by the power of the Dark Side… but not dead. Not truly."

    "Why now?" Mara demanded. "Why is this being told to us now? It's been thousands of years—" she paused, looking to Tionne for confirmation; Tionne nodded "—thousands of years since this Exar Kun terrorized the galaxy. You've had this knowledge all along! Why wasn't this dealt with a thousand years ago, or two thousand, when there were still hundreds of Jedi there to fight him?"

    In response, the holocron produced a third figure. This new figure was insectoid, as Vodo-Siosk Baas had been, but of a clearly different species—one Luke recognized. The new Jedi Master was a Gand: they had a pair of bulbous compound eyes and chitinous exoskeleton like Baas, but was short of stature and had hands with three powerful fingers and a mandibled beak (a feature that Gand almost always covered with a breathing mask when among humans). "I am Zuudnan Vaclya, Findsman and Jedi Master," he said. "I was the last Jedi to possess this holocron before now." His mandibles chittered. "It is a particular skill of the Findsmen to know the when. The vital moment." The Gand offered a very human-like shrug. "The when is now."

    "You hid the holocron away," Tionne said with wonderment. "You hid it away on Exis Station, and then abandoned it, lost for eons. You hid it away in the hopes that it would be found when it was needed."

    "Not in the hope," Zuudnan Vaclya said with a small shake of his head. "For a Jedi, finding the right place is not so very difficult." The Gand's compound eyes gazed at Luke, as if those words were particularly meant for him, but Luke had no idea what he meant. Whatever the Gand's intent, he went on. "The when is now, and the people are you." He gestured expansively at all of them. "The Jedi of the Order of today."

    Tionne looked behind her, then turned back with a look of confusion. "You mean them—" she pointed at the other three people at the table "—right?"

    "Not all of us accept that title," Mara interrupted, her voice grating. "If the when is now, and the who is us, then where is the where?"

    It was Nomi Sunrider who answered. "A jungle moon of a distant, forgotten gas giant," she said, "called Yavin."

    The members of the newly appointed Jedi Order of today stared at her.

    Luke was the one who spoke, and his words lacked all the studied gravity he had previously used to converse with the shades of the bygone Masters.

    "You have got to be kidding me."

    * * *​

    Tempered Mettle's navicomputer and Artoo were working to calculate the fastest hyperspace route to Yavin 4 while Luke and Mara tried to sleep. In Mara's—their—quarters, she was currently pacing like a caged nexu.

    She hadn't objected when Luke said they had to go to Yavin. She knew as well as he did the dangers of a master of the Dark Side—she might be the only person alive to know those dangers even better than he did. But she wasn't happy about it.

    "You notice they gave us when, where, and who," Mara said, stopping to look at him. "But not how."

    "I did notice. I'm not sure they know," Luke replied with a sigh. He hung his lightsaber up in Mara's wall armory, next to her own. "Kam and Tionne are going to keep talking with them a while longer. There are seventeen other guardians of that holocron we haven't met yet—maybe one of them knows something."

    "I doubt it," Mara said sourly. "If they did know how to defeat Exar Kun, they would have done it already, not waited until now and given the task to us." She shook her head. "Something has clearly changed to bring this to a head at this moment."

    "Maybe it was the destruction of the Death Star," Luke said somberly. "Maybe the deaths of all of those people offered Exar Kun a source of power. Or maybe the Rebellion disturbed him while we were in the Massassi ruins. Or maybe—"

    "Stop looking for reasons to blame yourself," Mara cut him off. She put both her hands on her hips. "This isn't your fault."

    "I wasn't—" Luke objected, but his voice trailed away. Ever since the echo of Nomi Sunrider had said Yavin he had been looking for a reason to blame himself. Those deaths, all those deaths, still haunted his dreams some nights. Mara knew it, too—they had discussed them more than once.

    "You were," she said curtly.

    He nodded, no longer denying it. "I was," he agreed. "And you're right. It's not my fault. But I've got to deal with it all the same."

    "We've got to deal with it, Farmboy. I'm not a Jedi, I don't care what they called me, but I'm also not letting you waltz into a Sith Lord's vacation home alone. We've already done that once this week and we scraped by through luck and the skin of our teeth. Sure we've got a prisoner, a holocron, and whatever else I pried out of ISB's computers, but I don't think we'll be that lucky again."

    He considered arguing with her. Considered bringing up the fact that the holocron had named them all Jedi. Not just him and Kam, but Mara and Tionne too. But Mara had made it clear that she was not about to accept the title, and he and all the spirits of bygone Jedi would just have to lump it.

    He didn't consider it for long. Instead, he just smiled and moved towards her. "I feel better having you with us any way I can get you. Besides, you're our ride."

    "I'm billing the Order for fuel. I know you're good for it." The words were stiff at first, but they faded to a murmur as he slowly moved into proximity.

    "I'd like to think my cooking has paid for some of our passage, Captain Jade."

    Mara sounded just a bit breathless. "I have some ideas about how you can work off the rest of it. As I recall, there's something you have to show me."

    He smiled and ducked his head bashfully. She melted.

    * * *​

    Uncle Owen's speeder raced along the ridge, heading back towards the Lars family farm. In the passenger seat, Luke leaned against the door, his brow damp with sweat. He was exhausted. One of the main vaporators on the ridge had broken down the afternoon before, and he'd started work on it just after supper and had only finished it after the suns had set. Owen had picked him up and given him a packed meal from Aunt Beru, which he'd devoured in short order, and now he was tired.

    He watched the sky. One in particular was completely stationary, a perfectly still point all year long. That star was the end of the Dragon's tail, and Luke had years before learned to use it for navigation. Now, Owen was keeping it forward, following it towards home.

    "Why is that star always still, while all the others move?" Luke asked.

    "There are always some constants in the universe," Owen said. "And the Dragon's tail is one of them."

    That wasn't much of an answer. Luke wondered if that star had its own planets, and if those planets were better to live on than Tatooine. He figured they had to be.

    "You can always count on the Dragon," Owen was saying. "They're ferocious and protective. They're inexorable beasts, unstoppable. The only way to stop a Dragon is to cheat. Once they've made up their mind to do something, you can be sure it'll get done."

    Luke sighed. He'd just look up why the star appeared stationary on the local HoloNet the next time he went to Mos Espa. The library there had a link which could on a good day access the Arkanis sector hub.

    He blinked, then rubbed his eyes. But that didn't change anything—the Dragon's tail was growing dimmer. He looked quickly at the stars around it, but they remained just as bright. He watched it longer, willing his brain to concentrate, his eyes to function properly, but it was still dimming… and as he watched, the star vanished.

    "Uncle Owen!" he turned—

    In the chair beside him was a skeleton, charred beyond recognition, smoldering in the speeder's bucket seat.

    Luke sat bolt upright, gasping for breath. Beside him there was a flurry of motion and the long form of Mara's blaster pistol whipped up and pointed directly at the door to their cabin. "What is it?!" she gasped, adrenaline burning through her veins and sleep instantly banished.

    He panted for breath, putting the horrifying image out of his head. He turned away, bowed over; Mara glanced at him, both hands on her blaster, still pointing the weapon at the door. "Nightmare," he explained sorrowfully, blood pounding in his chest and skull. He willed himself to calm, drawing on the Force to help the process.

    He found no calm. Instead, sudden realization and horror flooded him. Mara felt it, her hands lifting the blaster back up—she had started to relax her guard. "What is it?" she asked again, sounding more worried now.

    "Leia's in trouble," he said, sure of it. "We have to get to Coruscant. Now."

    Instead of asking questions, Mara was out of bed and gone within seconds. Less than a minute later, Tempered Mettle dropped out of hyperspace and spun on a different vector. Shortly after, they jumped again.

    This time, the ship's engines didn't have the calm hum of cruising speed, but the stressed whine of a hyperdrive being pushed beyond its redlines.

    * * *​

    Brakiss performed his morning exercise routine, getting ready for what promised to be a busy day. He worked his way through the typical stretches before taking advantage of the Molalla Astor's extensive suite of exercise equipment. By the time he was done, his exercise clothes were damp with sweat and he was breathing heavily.

    Exar Kun's voice was quiet. He could feel the Sith's concentration, focused and distant. Often, Exar Kun's consciousness hid alongside Brakiss' just behind his eyes, a second mind with a second voice, carrying ancient wisdom and power. But other times Exar Kun felt more distant, his voice quieter, as if he had moved elsewhere in the universe. This was one of those times.

    Is something wrong? He merely needed to let the thought form in his mind fully, words springing into existence, and Exar Kun would hear.

    Slowly, over minutes, Exar Kun's presence pooled against his once again. The Sith amulet that Brakiss wore warmed to the touch, not quite burning against the skin of Brakiss' chest, but not far from it either.

    I felt something through the Force, Exar Kun replied, in his archaic accent. The Jedi prepare to move against us.

    "What?" Brakiss said out loud. "How can they know… how can they know anything?"

    They are Jedi, Exar Kun replied quietly, as if that was explanation enough. Do not worry. I will make sure that they meet us in the place of my greatest power.

    "We are going to kill the Jedi here on Coruscant," Brakiss said, perhaps brashly.

    You are not ready to fight a Jedi, the voice chastised him firmly. You do not have a lightsaber and we will have to acquire one before you are ready for that. Here on Coruscant you are not targeting Jedi, you are targeting children with Jedi potential.

    "I know," Brakiss repeated, annoyed.

    The voice grew cold. The difference is important. Do not overestimate what you can do without my help and do not think yourself invincible. The amulet that Brakiss wore against his chest pulsed, as if a reminder of its presence, seeming to grow hot and then cool once more. When we become stronger we will be unstoppable, but my powers are yet limited and you are still an apprentice.

    Brakiss' expression tightened, his annoyance growing. "If you teach me more, I would be able to do more even without your help."

    Mastery is not achieved in a day, no matter the teacher, Exar Kun hissed in his ear contemptuously.

    It took twenty minutes for Brakiss to finish his preparation for the morning session. He dressed in casual, unremarkable civilian clothing, choosing to go entirely unarmed. Exiting the Molalla Astor for the rest of the morning's plans would be easier without weapons in hand, and he could always procure weapons from the supplies Carias had provided.

    In the conference lounge that the Molalla Astor provided for the Imperial contingent, he found Colonel Carias and Grand Moff Kaine conferring quietly. He entered, allowing Exar Kun to diminish their reaction to his presence. Surely Kaine ought to be more alarmed than he was by the young Inquisitor in their presence, given the sensitivity of the matters at hand, but he barely seemed to register Brakiss' presence. And Carias, Brakiss' co-conspirator, didn't even spare him a glance.

    "—clear that you won't be permitted in the meeting today," Kaine was saying. "They've discovered your personnel file, know you are ISB, and are unhappy about it."

    Carias turned away, his expression tight. He shook his head. "I'm sorry, Ardus. I know we're friends, but I can't help but think you should have brought someone else for the negotiations. Admiral Deshorn, or a representative of Dynamic Automata. Or Governor Dekeet. Someone without my ISB ties."

    "I have ISB ties, too," Kaine pointed out with a shake of his head. "And I don't trust any of them." He placed his hand on Carias' back. "Besides, this works out just fine. You withdraw from the meeting as a concession to their sensibilities, and I can explain to the New Republic that your presence here proves that ISB won't undermine the negotiations. We can commit to keeping ISB in line and even using it to prevent the other factions back home from becoming a problem."

    In Brakiss' mind, Exar Kun's focus was obvious. He could almost feel the Sith spirit concentrating on Kaine, putting all the intensity of his attention on the Grand Moff. Reaching out through the Force, from beyond even the veil of death itself, to feed Kaine's ego and confidence. To blind him to even the suspicion that he might be so, so very wrong about the man he was talking to.

    Carias played his part. The ISB Colonel's genial smile appeared utterly genuine and slightly rueful. "You always did think three steps ahead, Ardus." Carias nodded. "You're right of course." The ISB man turned away, moving to stand near the caf machine, starting to make two cups. "Do you think that the New Republic's Provisional Council will give you what you're asking for?"

    "I think we have a better chance of getting it from the Provisional Council than we would from the full Senate," Kaine replied. "Which is the other reason to do this now, before they finalize their Grand Concordat."

    The ISB Colonel poured two cups of caf. As he turned back towards Kaine, his eyes focused on Brakiss, as if noticing him for the first time. Then he looked away, striding towards Kaine with a cup in each hand.

    "Thank you," Kaine said, taking the one Carias offered. The Grand Moff shook his head ruefully. "With the Provisional Council, we must persuade five or six of nine people that peace is in their interest, despite our requests. Once the Senate is reformed, we would have to persuade hundreds or thousands of people, all of whom bear a grudge against the Empire."

    "It can't work," Carias said, watching Kaine take a sip of his caf. "The New Republic can't possibly stand. It will just be the Old Republic all over again, tottering under its own bloated weight."

    Kaine did not seem convinced this was right. In fact, Brakiss thought, the tiny shake of the Grand Moff's head betrayed an even deeper disagreement. But Kaine did not vocalize that disagreement. "We'll see," Kaine said instead. "If it does collapse, we'll be in a perfect position to exercise greater influence."

    "Yes, of course," Carias said, almost a whisper.

    Sorrow poured off him in waves, but with it was patriotism and determination. The fervent desire to do what needed to be done. And, most of all, the knowledge that the course was now set and could not be changed.

    It was an odd mix of emotions, Brakiss thought.

    They waited until Kaine departed, then Carias turned to Brakiss. "We'll need to escape from here again," he said. "I have some additional equipment to help us make our escape this time."

    It won't be a problem, whispered Exar Kun.

    "It won't be a problem," echoed Brakiss.

    "Good." Carias' eyes were hard. "Today is the day the Empire finally asserts itself. Today is the day we begin our restoration to power."

    Deluded fool, Exar Kun derided the older man silently. He sees only what is in front of his face. A sense of smug satisfaction gleamed in the Force, and Exar Kun shared it with Brakiss, letting them revel in it together. The day the restoration began was when you found me among the ghosts of the Massassi, my young apprentice. This man, his Empire… neither of them matters. All that does matter is you, me, and the Jedi. Everything else is but a means to an end.

    Brakiss pictured himself seated on a throne like Palpatine's, clad in the darkest black robes, Ottegan silk to contrast with his pale face, and he smiled.

    * * *​

    "Are we ready?" asked Mon Mothma quietly. Her voice was its usual preternatural calm, reflecting her almost impossibly-even temper.

    Leia had seen Mon Mothma aggravated, annoyed, even angry. But the New Republic's Chief of State did not often let those emotions touch her, and when they did it was always very well-regulated. The HoloNet caricatures of Mon Mothma portrayed her as an emotionless automaton: heartless or disconnected from reality, with a perpetually blank expression.

    The artists who drew those caricatures did not have Leia's advantages. She could feel Mon Mothma's turmoil, her uncertainty, and her deep and abiding passions. Mon Mothma was the farthest thing from an automaton, but she also had spent the last thirty years making herself into the perfect rival for Palpatine. Trustworthy, rational, patient, calm, forgiving, steadfast.

    And absolutely ruthless, when she had to be.

    "Yes," Leia replied.

    Behind them, Iella Wessiri was dressed in one of Winter's handmaiden's outfits: elegant, serviceable, not flashy. She was distinctly uncomfortable, but when she noticed Leia's regard she confirmed her readiness. "I don't know how Winter moves in this, but I'm ready."

    "Good," Leia said. "Then we just need to wait until the meeting—

    Iella's comlink chirped and she withdrew it from her pocket. "Wessiri."

    "I'm sorry to disturb you, ma'am, but Councilor Bel Iblis is here and would like to speak to the negotiating team before the negotiations begin."

    Leia frowned, sharing a look with Mon Mothma.

    Iella lifted her eyebrows at them. "Do I let him in?"

    Mon Mothma nodded. "Go ahead." Her expression had tightened, Leia noticed—almost imperceptibly, but for it to reach Mon Mothma's usual statue-like visage, it had to mean something.

    "Send him in," Iella said into her comlink.

    The doors slid open and Bel Iblis walked in. He looked distinctly nervous, dressed… Leia paused, frowning. Bel Iblis was dressed in his General's uniform, not his civilian outfit. Why would he…?

    "Councilor Bel Iblis," Mon Mothma said. She had not missed Bel Iblis' wardrobe choice either. "Or should I call you General?"

    Bel Iblis took a deep breath. He glanced at Leia only briefly, but he approached Mon Mothma. "Chief of State… Mon." His shift from formal to informal caught Mon Mothma off guard; Leia saw the sudden flicker of surprise in her expression, mirrored by the flicker in her emotions. "I want your permission to replace you in the meeting today."

    Leia tensed—


    Mon Mothma's response was not what Leia expected. But, in hindsight she wasn't sure what she had expected. She knew Mon Mothma and Bel Iblis had a lot of history, and that their history had included a multiplicity of political differences that had finally led to a final split, one which had lasted a decade before Bel Iblis had returned to the fold. Bel Iblis had stood distant, expecting—fearing—that Mon Mothma would win the civil war only to make herself Empress, and that distrust still cut Mon Mothma deeply.

    They had gotten past it. Bel Iblis' embarrassment and Mon Mothma's indignation were both subsumed under their shared desire to defeat the Empire and create a lasting new Republic, but that was not the same as saying it had been forgotten.

    "Two reasons." Garm folded his arms behind his back, as if presenting an official report to a superior officer. "First, we're intending to press the Empire for concessions, while also offering some. Having a military officer in the room will send the message that we won't back down if these negotiations are unsuccessful. We will press the campaign to its conclusion, and we will win." He looked at Leia. "I know you have your own military history, Leia, and can make that case as well as anyone, but I think we should drive it home as deeply as possible—and I think that Kaine may hear it more clearly coming from me, especially given the misogyny inherent in the Imperial hierarchy."

    Leia pressed her lips together with annoyance, but Garm was right.

    "And the second reason?"

    Garm turned back to Mon Mothma, his expression serious. "You are the heart of the New Republic, Mon," he admitted awkwardly. "I'm just an ornery Corellian cuss. You leading our negotiations is giving them too much, too soon. Make them earn the privilege of your company. If we send you in there now, after letting Leia lead the negotiations alone—and after they breached protocol by bringing ISB into the room—we might be sending a message that is too conciliatory."

    "You know the point here is to make peace?" Mon Mothma asked, her gaze intense.

    "Yes," Garm said firmly. "Peace, if they will accept it. War, if they will not." He smiled thinly. "Apathy, never."

    Mon Mothma watched him for a long time. Seconds stretched as she examined him with such intensity that Leia would have squirmed, in Garm's place. "Alright," she said finally. "Your logic is sound." She stepped forward and put an arm on his shoulder. "The Republic is in your hands now, Garm," she said quietly. "As it always has been."

    Garm then bowed his head. "I'm sorry we were at odds for as long as we were. And I won't let you down, Mon. I promise."
    Chyntuck likes this.
  25. Bel505

    Bel505 Jedi Grand Master star 2

    Jul 4, 2006
    Chapter Fifteen

    There were days, Han Solo thought tiredly, that he wished his life were not so complicated. That he could sweep up his family, toss them into the Falcon, and jet off into peaceful obscurity. Find some small, out of the way world that only smugglers bothered to visit, buy a house with plenty of space and a nice yard. Someplace where Leia wouldn't be instantly recognized and no one knew the name Han Solo, where Jacen and Jaina could grow up without needing constant Noghri supervision, where Chewbacca could bring his family without them having to go through fifteen layers of Palace Security. Someplace Winter didn't have to be Leia's political aide and could just be her sister.

    Around the time he started imagining Luke's wife coming to visit the vision fell apart. It wasn't that he didn't like Mara—quite the contrary, he liked her a lot—it was just that he couldn't imagine her ever settling down.

    Still, it was a nice fantasy.

    Reality, however, was far less peaceful. Taking the twins on a peaceful stroll around Coruscant was a production. First, he needed all the kid stuff—luckily, today he had Winter around to help him with that, but she was almost six months pregnant and he didn't want to push too many responsibilities off on her—and that took a large carrying bag, well-stocked with everything that could imaginably be needed (which was an astonishingly large number of items). Second, he needed to get Jacen and Jaina settled into the airspeeder—he had Chewbacca to help with that, and the Wookiee was great with kids. Then he needed to fly the airspeeder, because he'd be damned if he'd use the autopilot, and yes he could let Chewbacca or Mobvekhar have the controls but he liked to fly, thank you, and he wasn't going to give away his increasingly rare opportunities to do so.

    Kyp was low maintenance. The kid was even carrying the baby bag, his small contribution to managing the chaos.

    It wasn't like they were going to the Manarai Mountains! It was just a nice, kid-friendly walking garden on the top of the Aargan Building that they'd been to before, which had butterflies that Jacen particularly liked. The last time they'd visited—a few months before—Jacen had stumbled after the fluttering insects with a rapt expression, with Mobvekhar chasing after him with normal diligence. Even better, it was close to one of the main planetary landing routes, because while Jaina liked butterflies, she liked ships more.

    It was rare they were both happy at once, and he had Winter to help him today, so he was going to take the kids out to see the blasted butterflies, was that really too much to ask!?

    "Nice and easy," he muttered, the kids sobbing like tortured souls behind him as Winter did her best to soothe them.

    Next to him, Chewie had his big, furry hands over his ears. Han didn't blame him.

    With more poise than he felt, Han brought the airspeeder to land in a secluded landing pad behind a waist-height hedge maze. Evacuating the airspeeder was marginally easier than getting into it had been—Han didn't want to think about how difficult getting the kids back to the Palace would be, so he didn't, one step at a time—and then Jacen and Jaina were crying while outside of the airspeeder instead of inside of it, and Han counted that up as a small victory.

    Chewie carried Jacen. "Take him to see the butterflies," Han gasped out as he gathered up Jaina, Winter providing support. His daughter was utterly infuriated about something and damned if Han had any idea what it was, she was usually the better behaved of the two. "They'll make him feel better, they always do."

    Chewbacca roared his agreement—momentarily drowning out the wails of the twins, then bounded off.

    Threepio was helping himself out of the back of the airspeeder. "Oh my, I do believe Master Jacen and Mistress Jaina are unhappy this morning. I do wonder what might have upset them so, but I've read in the various child-rearing journals that—"

    The incredulous scowl Han sent him shut him up, momentarily. Han gathered up Jaina in both arms, patting her back reassuringly, and started to head in the direction of the best view of the starships.

    Threepio tottered behind him as the distance increased. The droid leaned towards Winter, who was following behind at a comfortable pace. "I do believe that whatever has upset the twins is not limited to pre-adolescents."

    "Just be glad mine isn't born yet," Winter said.

    Her tone suggested she was more amused than upset by the entire affair. But that was okay, Han thought viciously. Someday soon, he'd be the one laughing. Just wait until her kid is two.

    * * *​

    Leia couldn't quite shake her sense of uneasiness. There were plenty of things that could be causing it: the upcoming meeting with Grand Moff Kaine, the uncertainty about his intentions and the real prospects for peace, the upcoming move from the Imperial Palace to the Senatorial Skyhook, Winter's pregnancy, the fact that Luke had gone off to investigate Vader's castle on Vjun, the upcoming military campaign against the Empire… the possibilities felt almost innumerate. She wished she'd spent more time training with Luke and Kam, learning how to use the Force to navigate her intuitions, but there was never enough time. The New Republic and her family took every ounce of attention she had, especially with the pressures of the peace negotiations and the Grand Concordat.

    Winter wasn't with her, and Leia felt her absence acutely. Instead, Iella Wessiri was there, dressed up like one of Leia's handmaidens. Iella carried the look well, though the prim and proper, stately elegance that Winter wore like battle armor was not what the NRI agent preferred (it was too hard to run in, among other things). Iella had also dyed her normal dark blond hair white, and today she had applied sufficient makeup to change the lines of her face, making identifying her even more difficult.

    Leia felt a brief flash of envy, as she had not been allowed to be anonymous at any point in her life; being the daughter of Bail and Breha Organa had seen to that. But for Iella, her anonymity was a necessary requirement of her job.

    I wonder if Sludgenews has figured out that all the women Wedge keeps being reported with are the exact same height.

    Just as she was about to ask Iella, the door to the room opened and put paid to her musings. Both women turned to peer at the nicely-furnished doorway. Into the conference lounge that served as their pre-negotiations War Room walked Garm Bel Iblis. General Garm Bel Iblis, who declared which title he preferred today with his choice of outfit: a senior New Republic Defense Force dress uniform, white on black with a red sash, littered with medals and service ribbons.

    "Ladies," Garm greeted them.

    "Good morning, Garm," Leia said, sipping her caf and feeling the liquid burnish her keenness of mind. The caf and adrenaline intermingled in her blood, and she drew gently on the Force to enhance her focus. "Are all the preparations complete?"

    Iella had her hand on her ear, and was murmuring into her comlink quietly. She nodded at Leia and Garm, waiting for the voice in her ear to stop speaking. "We're prepared," she announced. "The Chief of State will join me in the observation lounge while the meeting is ongoing. Palace Security has locked down the building as tightly as possible and have confirmed that Colonel Carias will not be attending." She frowned. "No one has seen him, so there's been no chance to slip a tracker on him. I'm going to keep an eye on their quarters."

    "Good," growled Garm. "Keep ISB as far away from the negotiations as possible."

    "Yes," Leia sighed. "All right. Let's do it."

    "Good luck," said Iella quietly.

    * * *​

    Garm Bel Iblis felt sick. The tension of responsibility curdled in his gut, and combined with the nerves of almost-juvenile inexperience. It had been decades since he had been a politician, and he'd never been all that diplomatic. But here he was, Senator Garm Bel Iblis again, volunteering for diplomatic duty.

    The fact that Mon Mothma was relying on him, that Leia Organa Solo was relying on him, and that the New Republic was relying on him, steeled his resolve. He was needed. His duty called, and he had never ignored a call to duty—even, perhaps, in moments he should have.

    "Are you all right, Garm?" Leia asked quietly, just outside the door to the meeting room.

    He missed Sena. She'd have been able to cover for him in these moments of uncertainty, step in to offer a few words that would buy him ten or fifteen seconds to find his center. But he'd ordered her to stay behind with Wedge and the fleet—and her son, who also served in that same fleet—and so she wasn't here.

    At least his uniform boots meant he didn't have any shoelaces to tie together.

    Thankfully, a moment of insecurity in front of Leia was not as embarrassing as a moment of insecurity in front of Mon Mothma would have been. The former was acceptable. The latter was not. "I've been playing a different kind of game for many years," he confessed. "I'm not used to negotiating without having a cruiser's guns pointing in the direction of the enemy."

    "If it makes you feel better, Lusankya's in orbit above," Leia said, eyes swinging briefly skyward. "We made sure to have Wedge keep her there." A small smirk crossed her lips. "I never minded negotiating with the benefit of a few big guns pointed the other direction myself." Her smiled faded. "It certainly is more fun than being on the other side."

    "Well," Garm said, bringing her attention back from whatever dreadful memory was causing that haunted look, "to answer your question, Councilor, yes. I am ready." He nodded and offered her his arm in an old-fashioned, courtly gesture. "Shall we?"

    Leia's nod was decisive as she accepted. "Yes. Let's go deliver our terms."

    This time, Grand Moff Kaine was already there waiting for them.

    They went to work.

    * * *​

    "—must express our concerns about your choice of aides," Garm Bel Iblis was saying. As he spoke, Leia watched Grand Moff Kaine, who had an expert sabacc face—the kind of sabacc face that even Lando did not have, because Lando had never played for such high stakes. "We requested that Colonel Carias not join us for this meeting because New Republic Intelligence has identified him as a high-ranking member of the Imperial Security Bureau. Even worse, while we cannot yet prove it, we highly suspect that Carias was involved in the attack on Rendili."

    "Let me set your concerns at ease," Kaine replied smoothly, with the alacrity of anticipation. "First, you surely both know that I myself served in the Imperial Security Bureau. I was among the Bureau's founders, in fact. It was in that capacity I met Kaday Carias. He joined ISB for the same reason I did: because we felt that it was needed in the chaotic final months of the Separatist crisis."

    Leia did not like where this was going. Unease and annoyance mixed together in her, but she found she was not as angry as she had been during the previous day's negotiation. With a frown, she glanced around… that was a bit odd. They had only requested Carias not attend, but had given permission for Kaine to bring his other aide. But Brakiss was nowhere to be seen. For Kaine to come alone was strange…

    "Kaday is a patriot," Carias continued, "because he believed, as I did, the Empire was necessary to secure galactic stability and prosperity. In the places where the Empire rules, we believe that remains true and that the Republic's efforts to alter the current balance of power by removing systems from Imperial control represents a serious threat to galactic stability."

    Garm responded before Leia could roll her eyes. "Excuse me, Grand Moff Kaine, but we are at war."

    "Yes, we are—"

    She definitely did not like where this was going.

    "—and as long as we are at war, acts of war are going to continue. That is why I am here. To try to end the war."

    A spike of anger flashed through Leia. "What happened at Rendili was no typical act of war," she said, attempting to keep her anger out of her voice, and succeeding. "Civilians were killed…"

    "The facilities that were destroyed," Kaine said firmly, "were engaged in the construction of New Republic warships, or they were about to be. Your new Mareschal-class escort carriers, I believe. That makes them legitimate targets."

    "Does that mean—"

    "What it means, Councilors," Kaine cut Bel Iblis off, "is that I am here to end the war. I cannot promise you that no Imperials will continue to fight the New Republic, because I speak only for the Oversector. What I can promise you is that the Oversector will not, and without the Oversector's military capacity the Empire poses no serious threat to you." He pointed at them. "The fact that I have Carias' support, despite his involvement at Rendili, should tell you that I have ISB well in hand. I also have the firm support of the Inquisitorius." He moved his finger from pointing at them, to making contact with the table. "The question is not whether I am serious about peace. The question is are you?"

    He at least thought he was serious. The Force made that clear, not that Leia really needed it. She'd been good at reading people long before she'd started exploring her Force talents.

    "I believe the answer to that," Garm Bel Iblis' voice was quiet. "Is that we are winning. The fact that the Empire is willing to resort to such desperate measures is proof of that." His was a passionate voice, the voice of a man who had lost his family to the Empire, had devoted his life to fighting it—and was on the verge of winning that fight. "You are willing to negotiate. Very well. So are we. We all want the fighting to stop. The question is not, however, will the fighting stop—it will. The question is where will the final line be drawn, and how much more pain we will have to inflict before we figure that out."

    Kaine's eyes were dark. "I am not here to surrender unconditionally. And your Republic will find that if it chooses to aggress against the Oversector, that we are prepared to fight for every sector and system within our territory."

    "You can fight," Bel Iblis said. His tone drew Leia's attention; he spoke with grim certainty and foresight, and his tone was that of dread warning. "But while we may be willing to grant pardons to you and many of your subordinates as part of a peace arrangement, I can promise you that we will not be granting any pardons if you force us to fight to the very end." Bel Iblis leaned forward, using every inch of his frame to loom towards Kaine, his back casting shadows over the desk between them.

    The staring contest between the two men produced an almost tangible tension in the air between them. And yet, as Leia regarded them, it was not the threat of violence she perceived first and foremost. In the Force, she could feel Bel Iblis' determination, his resolve—but also his willingness to make the compromise he had just offered, and his dire hope that Kaine would accept it. And from Kaine, she could feel his matching determination and resolve—but also his relief that Bel Iblis had started by indicating the willingness to bargain, not with the subsequent threat.

    The staring contest was interrupted when Kaine suddenly burped. When he burped a second time, both he and Bel Iblis couldn't help but laugh. Kaine offered a rueful smile. "Pardon me. I should make better breakfast choices."

    There was an opening here, Leia thought. The eye of the needle was narrow, but it was also present, where before had been implacable durasteel. Her anger at Kaine, and the Empire—which had verged almost on fury during the first meeting—faded as she focused on the problem before her. It was time to get this meeting back on track. "We should focus on the specifics," she said. "As Councilor Bel Iblis has said, the New Republic is willing to offer pardons for crimes up to and including…"

    Her voice faded as Kaine's face suddenly contorted into an expression of extreme discomfort. He turned away, letting out a violent cough. His hand flew to cover his mouth—

    Leia's sudden concern turned to mounting horror. She saw that the skin on the back of Kaine's hand was rapidly starting to blister, a rash spreading even as she watched from his wrist up to the forearm visible where his uniform ended. "I'm… sorry," Kaine hacked out, coughing again, even more violently. He rubbed at his eyes, his now seemingly sunburnt hand coming away moist as his eyes began to tear—

    Bel Iblis let out a vicious Corellian curse she'd never even heard Han use before. He was not a young man, but he moved like one as he sprinted away from the table back towards the door they had entered through, slamming his hand into the door controls and sealing it shut.

    There was a chemical smell, Leia noted. Faint…

    Kaine's hair was starting to curl. His chin and cheeks were reddened with spreading blisters, tears pouring down his face, his reddened eyes looking out at Leia with confusion. "What is…?"

    "Seal the building!" Bel Iblis was gasping for breath. "Seal the building, there's Yerite in the air supply!"

    Leia could hear Mon Mothma and Iella Wessiri talking over each other over the com, their voices pitching higher with increased concern, as her eyes started to water. "Yerite?" she asked, gazing down at her hand and noting, with distant detachment, that her own skin was starting to redden. "Yerite's banned…"

    Across from her, Kaine was staring at them both with disbelief. "Yerite?" he managed to say between coughs. "But… how…" he shook his head, dazed. "Yerite… like… Subjugator?"

    Bel Iblis dropped his comlink and seized Leia in both his arms. "Leia, listen to me," he insisted…

    His voice seemed like it was coming from so very, very far away. She looked up at him, his familiar features, watching his skin blister, tears start to fall from his eyes. It wasn't that painful, Leia thought, it itched more than it hurt really, but it was starting to be hard to focus…


    Leia abruptly came back to full attention. A wave of fear washed over her through the Force, of sudden, catastrophic terror. The terror of toddlers. The terror of her twins. She gasped out, Bel Iblis' expression suddenly coming fully into focus, and she grabbed at him with both hands, strength returning. "My babies!" she gasped.

    "Listen, Leia!" Bel Iblis snarled. His tone was almost vicious and it, combined with the stinging lash of fear whipping across her through the Force, brought her back to the moment. Bel Iblis coughed—across the table, Kaine was coughing furiously—but whatever was happening, it was affecting Kaine far more quickly than it was her and Bel Iblis. "You have to go into a Jedi trance. A trance! Now!"

    "I've… never done one before!" she stammered, starting to cough herself now. The sense of fear through the Force was intensifying… "Han… Jacen, Jaina!"

    "You have to," Bel Iblis was begging. "Stay with me, Leia!" he demanded. "Stay with me. Luke has to have taught you the basics, and we don't have time to debate it. Now, Leia!" His hands squeezed her biceps, but his strength was starting to slacken. "If… if you want to see the twins again, Leia, please, you have to put yourself in a trance." He was crying now, crying freely and furiously, just as she was. "Please! The Republic needs you!"

    Oh, Leia realized. Oh, I'm about to die.

    The corner of her mind that was still able to focus remembered the long, excruciating debates about Yerite, the controversy of its use during the liberation of Kashyyyk, and her fervent support for banning its future use.

    She gazed up into Bel Iblis' teary eyes, Kaine's coughing becoming even more violent now. She felt the twins, terrified of something, and knew that right now, she could not help them. She thought back on the scanty training sessions she'd done with Luke, on the times they'd practiced trances.

    Bel Iblis was still holding her, pleading with her incoherently now, but his words were coming slower, his speech sloppier. As the itch that started on her hands and arms spread over her entire body, and tears scorched their way down her cheeks, she focused on the Force. Everything faded. She sank into the Force, feeling a swell of power rise up to meet her. There was so much of it, she thought as she faded. So much life on Coruscant, a constant gleam, like every star in the sky and every world and every plant and every animal and every sentient all were pricking her skin with a needle of light.

    It itched. It itched so much.

    Han, she thought, wishing that he could share her thoughts like Luke could with Mara. Han, look after our babies. I love you.

    And then she was lost.

    * * *​

    Leia went limp in his arms and Garm didn't know if she was alive or dead. All he could do was hope she would live, that she had put herself into a Jedi trance and that the trance would keep her alive. He was crying—it was impossible not to, one of the many effects of Yerite had on humans was extreme stimulation of the tear ducts—and the itching sensation was beginning to turn into the burning sensation that presaged death.

    His gaze was tugged upwards, by that unknowable impulse that sometimes drew the gaze to meet the gaze of another. He found Grand Moff Kaine gazing back at him, slumped in a chair on the other side of their negotiating table. Their coughing was starting to fade along with the itching as the effects of Yerite grew more severe.

    Kaine's expression was one of dull, disbelieving shock. "How did it come to this," he was saying, over and over again. "Peace was there for the taking, and I just don't… I can't believe it."

    Garm pulled Leia in close, hugging her limp form and silently willing her to live as he watched Kaine, an odd sort of sympathy coming over him. It was getting hard to focus, hard to concentrate, but Kaine's shattered expression was too real to be an act.

    The Grand Moff had that glazed, agonized look, no longer looking at Garm, but through him, seeing someone or something else before him. "He is my friend," Kaine mumbled, Yerite or betrayal eliciting a new wave of tears, and then Kaine collapsed in the chair, convulsing.

    Garm gathered the last of his strength and lay Leia's body down on the table, just in case his own convulsions might cause him to accidentally harm her, one last time silently willing her to live. It had been a long road, he thought. Long and lonely. He had lost the Republic. He'd lost his wife and his children. He'd lost Corellia. He'd lost the Rebellion.

    The itching had progressed to a burning sensation now.

    But it wasn't so bad, he thought dimly. They'd won their legitimacy. And Wedge would lead the fleet, and Mon would lead the Republic, and together they would free Corellia from the Empire. They would. They would free Corellia from the Empire. They would…

    Perhaps it was just a physical response, a memory triggered by a dying brain, but Garm Bel Iblis coughed, sputtered, and started to sing.

    "As I walked out in the streets of Old Coronet
    As I walked out in Coronet one day
    I spied a young spacer, all wrapped in white dressings
    Wrapped in white dressings, as cold as the void,
    I boldly stepped up to, and kindly did ask him
    Why are you wrapped in dressings so white,
    My body is injured, and sadly disordered…"

    * * *​

    Watching the negotiations from their secured room, confusion had been followed swiftly by concern, and from there to fury, fear, and panic in equal measure. Iella Wessiri could barely hear herself over the pounding in her ears, and suddenly she was shouting in the comlink, ordering a lockdown, evacuation, and investigation in a trio of breaths. Then she ran for an emergency case on the wall, shoved a rebreather mask over Mon Mothma's face and donned her own.


    There had been no reports of injuries elsewhere in the building, which was the only saving grace, but the sight of Leia falling prone, followed by Kaine and Bel Iblis—she refused to watch, instead focusing on getting the security forces moving.

    Next to her, Mon Mothma stared numbly at the vidscreen with the clear curving section of an emergency rebreather misting over her face. The New Republic's Chief of State clasped her hands together with a look of horrified despair as she watched her old political ally and opponent crumple around the woman who had become her protege.

    "Lock down the Molalla Astor!" Iella ordered. Her analytical mind was already at work, ticking through suspects, but she couldn't quite bring herself to believe that the Empire would assassinate their own Grand Moff!

    And then, Kaine's dying words: "But he is my friend."

    "Find Colonel Carias," she snarled furiously. "Take full biological precautions, then find and detain everyone. If they resist, you have my authorization to use lethal force." Her order was acknowledged, and she rushed over to Mon Mothma. "I have to get you out of here, Madam Chief of State." She gestured at Leia's stone-faced Noghri bodyguard. "Cakhmaim, watch over Mon Mothma."

    The Noghri's distracted gaze, glassy with shock that looked alien on his near-hideous features, found hers. "But the Lady Skywalker, my oath…"

    "Cakhmaim!" Iella snapped. "If she's in a trance, there's nothing you can do for her. And if she's dead, it's already too late. This government, embodied in Mon, is Leia's life as much as her promise to your people." The words struck the Noghri like a slap; he reared back, and she softened her next words. "Help who you can now," she reassured him, "and on my honor we will do everything we can for Leia when we can."

    She didn't wait to see what he had to say, rushing to Mon Mothma. She took the woman's arm, hurrying her towards the door. "With me, Madam Chief of State," she insisted, ushering her into the protective gauntlet of New Republic security, the quartet of commandos in full armor, led by Kapp Dendo and all of them as stone-faced as Cakhmaim. "We need to get out of—"

    The building rocked. The walls around them shuddered from the sudden wrenching blow, sending Mon Mothma toppling into her guards, a trio of them catching her as one to keep her from falling. Only Cakhmaim seemed steady on his feet as the building rocked again, the second explosion even larger than the first.

    "What is that?" Kapp shouted over the ringing in all their ears, as he and Iella stood, weapons ready and scanning in all directions. The other troopers bore Mon Mothma to the ground and lay across her, protecting her with their backs.

    The building seemed to sway, trembling on its foundations, and Iella heard the telltale whine of its emergency repulsorlifts—never a good sign—as large chunks of the carved alabaster ceiling started to rain down. One of them caught her in the back and she hit the floor hard, her head striking the ground as she toppled forward; her hand came away bloody as she probed at the wound. She tried to look to see where Mon Mothma was, to make sure the New Republic's Chief of State was still alive, because if Leia was dead—her mind shied away from the possibility, terror coursing through her confused and atypically unsteady thoughts—if Leia was dead, then the Republic needed Mon Mothma, needed her desperately—

    Another chunk of shrapnel sent pain arcing through her arm, and the last thing Iella remembered seeing was Cakhmaim's focused gaze as the Noghri tossed Mon Mothma's still form over his shoulders and started to run towards the turbolift.

    The last thing Iella remembered hearing was Garm Bel Iblis' voice, haltingly singing the Spacer's Lament over the building's comm system like a revenant spirit.

    "So, beat the drum slowly and play the flute lowly
    Sing the Death March as you carry me along,
    Take me to the gravesite, there lay me in state
    For I'm a young spacer and I know I've done wrong…"


    Another chunk of the ceiling collapsed. Dazed and bloody, Iella found herself hefted and slung over Kapp's armored shoulder in a combat carry as the Devaronian lifted her away.

    * * *​

    As Han and Winter attempted to calm Jaina, Kyp did his best to simply stay out of the way. The Aargan Building was taller than most of the buildings around it, which made sure the garden on the building's roof received plenty of sunlight. That was a blessing for the plants, but a burden for Kyp, as the glare from Coruscant's sun was harsh on his eyes. He fumbled in the family pack, retrieving a pair of protective glasses that Han had bought for him. With them on he blinked a few times, waiting for the scorch-blurs in his vision from sun-glare to clear.

    It was a beautiful garden. Greenery had been non-existent on Kessel, and Kyp found being surrounded by plants a remarkably soothing experience—especially after he had begun meditation under Luke and Kam's guidance.

    "It is pleasant here, isn't it," Threepio said from behind him. "It reminds me of the great Queen's Garden on Alderaan. That was on the ground of course, not on top of a structure, and it had more running water, but it had the same kind of hedge rows."

    Now that he could see, Kyp took a closer look at the gardens. It seemed to have tiers, with outer rows of hedges low enough to see people walking amongst them, but they grew taller and taller until even Chewbacca's head would not be visible beyond the tallest hedge. Among the hedges were small squares, each one with a massive tree—of many different varieties—with stretched branches providing shade to benches that the guests could sit on. Insects of all kinds—benign kinds—buzzed and hummed, zipping from flower to flower, Coruscant's carefully weather-controlled environment making it friendly to them year-round.

    Each square also had pieces of art: sculptures made by artists of different species, arranged in geometric shapes and depicting scenes of all different kinds. Security droids unobtrusively hummed around, nearly-silent as they hovered, probably to ensure that no one did harm to the carefully designed environment.

    "This building is owned by the InterGalactic Banking Clan," Threepio explained. That meant nothing to Kyp, so he just nodded and allowed Threepio to prattle on about the history of the clan and the importance of having a garden like this for its public image on Coruscant.

    "Yes, yes," Kyp replied distractedly, not listening. The weather was perfect, with the sun's warmth providing a perfect amount of heat for the semi-shaded public space, but… Kyp shivered as a tendril of ice creeped up the back of his spine. Threepio's prattle faded as Kyp closed his eyes.

    On Kessel, especially towards the end of his time in the Spice Mines, he'd sometimes just known when things were not right. He'd know the right days to avoid the more dangerous mines, or when his fellow prisoners were in bad moods. The touch of premonition was ice even in Kessel's chill; it felt as frosty as vacuum to him now.

    He hurried off, Threepio toddling after him, as the kindly protocol droid wondered aloud what exactly it was he had said to chase Kyp away.

    Kyp caught up to Han and Winter in one of the garden's many squares. They were seated on a bench, watching Jaina run about, pointing up at the starships as they traveled through the sky and up into orbit, excitedly trying to name them.

    "Han!" he called, coming to a stop in front of Han and Winter, feeling foolish when they both turned to look at him with expectant eyes. Jaina stopped too, tilting her tiny head as she peered up at Kyp, her hand on Winter's knee for balance. Kyp swallowed. "I'm… I think something's wrong, Han," he said, feeling even more foolish with every spoken word. "I've got a bad feeling. Like a phantom just walked through me."

    Han and Winter looked at each other, then Han took his comlink off his belt. "Chewie, Mobvekhar, Kyp thinks something's up."

    "It's probably nothing," Kyp added—

    "Kid, when someone with the Force says they've got a bad feeling, I've learned to take it damn seriously," Han cut him off. That just made Kyp feel foolish. What if he was wrong? What if it was nothing? What if it was just—

    Winter pulled out her own comlink. "Iella are you there?" she asked, then frowned as the comlink emitted a burst of static. She and Han shared another look. "Jammed." The white-haired aide shaded her eyes with a hand, scanning the sky and examining her surroundings, then nodded subtly at an airspeeder which was circling the building without trying to land. "See that?" she said to Han, her voice dark with sudden suspicion. "That airspeeder is marked media. The way it's acting, I'd guess it's sludgenews here to get holos of the family for tomorrow's daily. But—" she shook her head "—do you see those markings? Those insignias belong to a sludgenews outlet that went under more than a year ago."

    "You're saying they're fake," Han said, not looking at the speeder. When Kyp turned to look at it, Han grabbed him so that he didn't. "No, don't look. If they don't realize we've made them, we've got a better chance of dealing with it." He flicked his comlink again, but this time he too got a burst of static.

    Han grabbed Jaina, ignoring her cry of objection as he placed her in their deceptively-well-armored hoverstroller. "Okay. Let's find some cover. I don't want to get caught out in the open."

    "Oh my," Threepio said, making Kyp jump. Once again, Kyp had forgotten the droid's presence. "What do you want me to do, Master Han?"

    "The most important job of all," Han said. "If any of us run for the airspeeder, they'll know their op is busted. But you might be able to get to it and fly off without being noticed. So get back to the airspeeder and go for help."

    "I see," Threepio said, very seriously. His eyes flickered once. "Of course, sir. I shall endeavour not to let you down."

    * * *​

    Brakiss could feel Exar Kun, hidden away in the back of his mind. Could feel the heat of the amulet on his chest, nearly glowing with power as the Sith ghost concentrated on something. Preparation, though for what, Brakiss did not know exactly. For the impending attack? Surely Exar Kun's powers would not be needed to deal with two toddlers and a handful of Force-blind adults. Silently, Brakiss wondered why exactly it was so important that they kill these two children here and now; if there was some prophecy, or instinct, that demanded it. But if there was, Exar Kun was not inclined to share it.

    The ISB team was dressed in civilian clothing. Carias was nowhere to be seen; the last Brakiss had seen of him was when they'd made their final escape from the Molalla Astor with Brinner, and that had been many hours earlier. In his absence, the brick-faced Lieutenant Brinner caressed his weapons almost lovingly, checking every single setting, and then rechecking them. The rest of the ISB team had been smuggled into Coruscant and armed by Carias' contact. Brakiss thought them closer to droids than people.

    "Weapons check," ordered Brinner, in the growl that he had in place of a voice. The rest of the team obeyed, their actions a mimicry of Brinner's own tests.

    They were disturbingly quiet. In their minds, there was nothing but intent and rage; the fury of distilled purpose. Even Carias had not been so single-mindedly intent. Every man was imagining murder, minds clear of fear or worry, nearly selfless in their dedication to mission—

    His eyes widened, and he had to fight back the urge to verbalize the question. Are you… his mental voice trailed away.

    Slowly, he felt Exar Kun slowly turn back to him, the dead Sith's mind swimming back into focus. I give them purpose. Brakiss could almost see the formless spirit smile, and could feel his smug self-satisfaction. They did not need much encouragement, but all servants require proper focus.

    Brakiss swallowed hard, unsure whether to be impressed or horrified. Ultimately, he settled on both, adding a large dollop of avarice to the mix. He watched the ISB team as they wordlessly prepared to rush to their deaths, determined to see their mission through with not a single thought as to their own fates. Their families or desires, their hopes and dreams, were all locked behind an impenetrable barrier where they could no longer touch their waking minds.

    He did not need to verbalize his question. Exar Kun answered it unprompted. Yes, my apprentice. All that I know how to do, you will know how to do. Someday, they will all follow you.

    The Dark Side stirred as Brakiss allowed the image to form within his mind. The galaxy and all its sentients on their knees. Respect, unified and complete, catering to his every whim. All the Inquisitors serving him, admitting his superiority.

    He wanted.

    Focus, my apprentice, Exar Kun whispered, chastising him. Dominate the present and the future takes care of itself.

    Yes, Master.

    The airspeeder they had acquired lowered itself towards the Aargan Building, settling down into a landing spot concealed by a grove of trees. Their team checked their weapons, then Lieutenant Brinner turned to look at Brakiss, obedient and expectant. "Awaiting your order, sir," the man said.

    It took effort for Brakiss to smooth the smile from his lips. "Let's do it."

    The dozen men of the ISB squad filed out. If not for their size and blaster rifles, the men could have blended in with a crowd of human civilians. As it was, they took advantage of the hedges to conceal their weapons below their waists, splitting into small teams of four and moved to box in their targets.

    Even Exar Kun's voice went silent, but his Force sense magnified, shedding perfect and opaque darkness. Tendrils reached in all directions as the Sith conducted a dark opera, directing his musicians with exquisite precision. But for the first time since they had begun their association, Brakiss could also sense strain, and feel how the effort ate at Exar Kun's spirit.

    Help me, Exar Kun whispered, and his essence mingled with Brakiss', drawing on the Inquisitor's Force gift as well as his own. Brakiss gave willingly, reaching out into the Force. He thought of Halmere and Drayneen, of Carias and Lanu Pasiq, of their disrespect. He let it stoke the rage he kept in his gut, ever-churning, and that was a conduit to power. Coruscant had so much to spare, with all the lives of all its denizens; in the deeper levels the poverty and pain had its own well of resentment that Brakiss drank deeply from. All that power he gave to Exar Kun.

    The ghost laughed, a laugh of relief and satisfaction. Oh yes! Exar Kun cried out. I live again!

    Brakiss was about to ask what he meant when a blaster bolt punched through the hedge just ahead of him.

    A Wookiee bellow of rage was heard on the far side of tall hedges, mingled with a toddler's cries and more blaster fire. Brakiss could not see the combat, but did catch sight of the mangled corpse of an ISB operative as it flew over the row of hedges.

    He ducked behind a tree, keeping out of sight, while the team of four accompanying him sprinted forward, entering a large square.

    There was already a blaster fight ongoing. An armored hover-stroller had been turned into a makeshift barricade. Han Solo had a blaster in a two handed grip, shooting over the barricade at the ISB squad and their barking blaster rifles; next to him Winter had a holdout blaster, also firing. One of her blaster shots took the point man on Brakiss' team in the face and he fell to the ground. A second shot took Brinner in the arm, but he only snarled and fired back, putting a three-round burst into the stroller.

    Behind the stoller, a dark-haired young man held one of the Solo twins protectively, keeping his head down.

    The sudden scream of repulsorlifts, followed by a gust of air, drew Brakiss' attention away from the fight to the sky. He threw himself to the ground just in time as the Solo family aircar ripped through the greenery, just above his head—and through the tree he had been hiding behind, causing splinters to explode all around him like small grenades. The golden droid in the driver's seat had a horrified expression—or as horrified as a droid with limited facial expressiveness could make—as the airspeeder careened drunkenly through the square, bouncing off the ground and then up into the sky before spinning off into the distance, its engine smoking and blaster-scarred and slowly losing altitude.

    * * *​

    Two-year old Jaina Solo was crying in Kyp Durron's arms with the fury of Force-born terror. The shadow of Dark swirled around them with burgeoning winds, making the ice that had been crawling down Kyp's spine turn to permafrost.

    "And… now!"

    As Threepio careened over their heads, Winter and Han emerged, their assault timed perfectly. Winter wielded an exceedingly elegant holdout blaster, one that Kyp had not known she carried, and she used one arm to brace the other and improve her accuracy. She fired four times, killing two of their assailants with a pair of blaster shots each. Han was even bolder. He stood, holding his famous DL-44 in both hands. The weapon snarled once, twice, and attackers slumped to the earth—

    Mobvekhar exploded into the square. The Noghri guard was already wounded, one of his arms hanging limply at his side, but there was not a hint of hesitation in his grey-skinned alien face. Armed only with a vibroblade, he carved through the remaining assailants viciously. Blood erupted from a neck wound from one man, then from a leg wound on a second, and then Kyp cried out in horror as a third man shot Mobvekhar with a chopped-down riot rifle at point blank range, sending a barely-contained spray of coherent energy into his chest. The Noghri fell back and was still, and the man who shot him swung his rifle towards Han.

    The moment slowed to a crawl. Kyp saw it all. He saw what had just happened, and what was about to. In the Force he could see Chewbacca, wounded and cradling Jacen's sobbing form in one giant paw. He could see Jacen's twin, a tiny bundle of trembling light, her head buried in his chest. He saw Mobvekhar fall, his vibroblade glistening with the blood of at least two men, probably more. And he could see Han's blaster coming around towards the man who had just killed the Noghri, and he could see that man's rifle swinging towards Han a split second faster. A double blast took Han in the thigh and hip and he dropped. Han's blaster shot went wild, firing off into the sky as he fell at Kyp's feet, hissing in pain as he clawed his way onto his back, raising his blaster again with a single trembling hand.

    There were only three of them left, but Winter couldn't aim in every direction at once, and her holdout blaster's power pack was very small.





    Kyp could feel Han's helpless fury. Could feel Winter's dawning understanding that none of them would be leaving this fight alive and her cold determination to make every shot count. Could feel Chewie, desperately trying to make his way back into the fight despite his own wounds.

    I have to do something! Kyp thought of Kessel, of the mines. Han had saved him, saved him because he could and because it was the right thing to do. He and Leia had taken him into their home and made him family. The Noghri… poor, dead Mobvekhar… had called him Kyp clan Solo, because he was family.

    Not strong enough! All memories of breathing techniques and calming meditation were gone from his mind, consumed under the swell of desperation. The Force was with him, and it was not calming. It was a tempest, summoned to him because he needed it. Because this could not be allowed to happen.

    I'm not strong enough and Han and Chewie and Jacen and Jaina and Winter are all going to die. Tycho is going to be alone, and Leia is going to be alone, and no one should ever be alone! They don't deserve this. I don't deserve this!

    Kyp Durron felt a red rage surging at the corners of his consciousness, and he gave it full lease. His focus narrowed to the surviving assassins as they swung their weapons towards him and Jaina and Winter. With Jaina in his left arm, he stood, extended his right hand, and closed it to a fist.

    Red-hot fragments of shrapnel, burnt off the hover-stroller, were caught in his Force grip. So too were pebbles from the walking paths and a chunk of airspeeder fuselage. Jagged lumps of metal and stone leapt into the air like missiles.

    * * *​

    One second the fight was nearly won. The next second, all of the members of their ISB team were dead. Brinner, the last to fall, bore an expression of stunned disbelief on his blunt features as he dropped like a puppet with cut strings, impaled by a fairly substantial chunk of metal.

    The air around the dark-haired young man who had killed them was heavy with power. All that darkness that Brakiss had drawn on, had given to Exar Kun, swirled away from Brakiss and the young man drank it down. The raven-haired youth inhaled and it filled him with strength that Brakiss could almost see. He had taken that strength and unleashed it in a single burst of Force strength that was utterly unlike anything Brakiss had ever seen, or even heard of. Now the boy exhaled and stood shellshocked, staring at the three corpses he had made.

    Brakiss could feel him blazing in the Force.

    Another Jedi!

    Brakiss reached for his weapons—

    Stop! Exar Kun's voice was stunned. Stunned—and exultant. Let them go, the ghost ordered. We must escape before we are spotted. Now!

    Confused, Brakiss obeyed. Retreating from his hiding spot, he tossed aside his rifle and vibroblades and joined the crowd of panicked bystanders fleeing for the exits, finally noticing dopplered sirens as Constabulary airspeeders converged on the building. He followed those crowds, accepting instructions from the authorities as they arrived to give them, and vanished into the warren of Coruscant's midlevels.

    Master? Why did we let them escape?

    When they were safe, halfway between the sky and the Undercity, Exar Kun finally answered his question.

    Because, my young apprentice, Exar Kun responded, his mental voice quiet, as if tired from the exertion of the day, if we had stayed we would have been seen, and you are not nearly ready. It would seem those who would call themselves Sith and lay claim to my legacy have kept none of my patience or restraint.

    Brakiss felt a flare of doubt. There had been something else in Exar Kun's Force-sense, an emotion that went far beyond a mere desire to survive. And?

    And because, the ghost confirmed Brakiss' suspicions, I believe we have discovered your new Apprentice. After all, did not your Emperor Palpatine have his Lord Vader?
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