"Aren't you dead?" Jacen murmured, pulling a pillow over his face.
The voice chuckled in death with the strangely musical quality Vergere had possessed in life. You didn't answer my question.
"If you want an answer, wait until I'm awake," he moaned. Why was he still hearing her? The war was over, and the Jedi had gone back to the admittedly more difficult job of preserving peace and establishing order in the galaxy.
Jacen Solo, the stern tone finally woke him.
Jacen sighed, pulling the pillow from his head. He'd slept possibly four hours in the last three days, and had really been looking forward to a blissful twelve hours of rest. "If I could correct a single mistake, would I?"
Precisely, Vergere said.
"Yes," he whispered. The mission that had gone wrong. The mission that killed Anakin, had resulted in his own capture and had sent Jaina spiraling towards the dark side. The mission that had nearly destroyed his family.
Even if you could, should you?
He really got tired of internal philosophical debates that always took place with her voice involved. "Go away. There's no point in brooding."
Not much else to do when you're dead.
He made a sound of frustration, sitting up in the bed. "Was there something you wanted me to do?"
She sounded entirely amused. Possibly, I just want to correct a mistake.
"I thought you didn't make mistakes," he mumbled.
Hindsight is perfect in the afterlife, she proclaimed.
"Good to know. Go away."
She laughed again. Go to sleep. Dream.
He did. The mission to destroy the voxyn queen would be indelibly marked in his memory and it haunted his dreams.
But it wasn't Anakin's death that was replaying over and over in his head, or Jaina's terrifying burst of darkness, the darkness that had been so encompassing it physically tore it at him. No, what haunted him now was Vergere pulling away from a red-headed young woman who stared after him in sorrow.
"That's it?" he asked into the fuzzy remembrance. "That's all you're fussing about?"
The dream Vergere turned to him and laughed. Being in the next life gives you certain privileges. The rest is up to you.
He pulled a pillow back over his head and fell into a now dreamless sleep. He woke in the morning, clear-headed and with no memory of any conversation.
Armed with a mug of caf, Jacen felt ready to face the galaxy. He looked out the window at the seas of Mon Calamari and opened himself, allowing the life that teemed in those oceans to fill him like a breath of fresh air. It really was a beautiful morning.
He took another sip of his drink. Iella had given him this caf maker and he didn't think it made anything weaker than full-fledged CorSec strength caf.
The doorbell to his apartment rang, and Jacen set his mug down to answer it. "Uncle Luke! Come in, please."
Luke Skywalker entered his nephew's apartment with a smile as Jacen turned to retrieve his caf. The apartment was unsurprisingly bare, considering Jacen's frequent absences, but a rotating holo of his family and friends graced the table, giving the empty quarters a touch of warmth. Luke saw a picture of himself and Ben, one of Mara and Anakin standing proudly, lightsabers lit and held over head, one of Han and Leia and Jacen, one of Jaina sticking her tongue out at the viewer.
"Caf?" Jacen offered, gesturing towards the pot still brewing on the counter.
Luke shook his head. "No-thank you, though. Jacen, I know you've just gotten back, but-"
Jacen held up a hand. "I've already had enough caf to keep me awake for the next week and a half. What do you need?"
"Queen Mother Tenel Ka called me requesting I send her assistance," Luke said.
Jacen's mug paused on its way to his mouth. "Tenel Ka asked for help?"
Luke nodded. "She didn't get into why she needed help, but I'd imagine her grandmother is once again up to something and she needs someone she trusts to go where she can't."
"When do I leave?" Jacen asked.
"Your transport leaves in three hours," Luke said, handing Jacen a datacard. "Thank you, Jacen."
"No problem," Jacen said. "Sure you won't stay for breakfast?"
"Can't," Luke said. "Council meeting, which I'm going to be late for if I don't get moving."
"Have fun with that," Jacen said as his uncle left to avoid facing the wrath of his wife.
Chuckling to himself, Jacen retrieved the datacard. His laughter subsided as he considered it-for Tenel Ka to have called and asked for help, something had to be up. Tapping the datacard against the counter, Jacen set down his caf and went to pack.
Hapes was a beautiful as he remembered, Jacen thought as he stepped off the transport at the landing field at the Fountain Palace. The beauty was a thin veneer for the most part, a pristine surface that hid a festering well of lies and deceit-words that Tenel Ka had once used to describe her grandmother.
An attendant hurried out to meet him, arms tucked into the sleeves of his robes as he bolted out onto the landing pad with a harassed expression on his face. "Master Jedi Solo, I welcome you. I am Jonlin Kos. Her Majesty is in her audience chamber attending to disputes. If you will follow me?"
The man turned before Jacen could get a word in edgewise, and shrugging, Jacen followed the hyperactive member of Tenel Ka's entourage. Another attendant took his bag at the door, and as Jacen was lead at top speed through the ornate halls of the Fountain Palace, he realized that it was probably a good thing he'd gone ahead and worn his formal robes-otherwise Jonlin Kos would have insisted he change, and waiting for the Jedi Master to do so might have worked the little man into such a fever that he simply shook himself to death.
"A moment," Kos said after bypassing those waiting in line to have their disputes settled by the Queen Mother, barely pausing at the door to the audience chamber. Someone grumbled behind them, and Kos turned sharply. "Her Majesty has ordered it so. Hold your tongue."
The grumbling stopped and Kos opened the doors, leading Jacen inside.
"Your Majesty," Kos announced, his voice suddenly artificially deepening in the presence of the queen. "Master Jedi Jacen Solo."
Jacen looked up towards the throne at the other end of the room and saw her. Time stood still for a moment as Kos quickly ushered the two women who had come to have their dispute settled from the room. Jacen took a moment to stare at her in awe.
If it were possible, she'd become even more beautiful-as if the someone had taken the teenaged beauty she'd once had and distilled it to shape the mature woman before him now.
Despite the Hapan attire she wore, her hair was braided and feathered in a manner suitable for a Dathomiri warrior, and her eyes were the same-always searching for signs of danger, be it political or physical. She stood at the announcement of Jacen's presence.
He strode forward, his cloak billowing out behind him as he knelt before her. "Your Majesty, I am honored to answer your summons and I am at your disposal."
"The honor is ours, Master Jedi Solo," Tenel Ka said. "We are pleased that you have answered our call, and you are most welcome on Hapes. Please, rise."
He did, quietly, tucking his arms into his sleeves. "How may I serve you, Your Majesty?"
She looked at her attendants. "Clear the hall."
Jonlin Kos evidently was the only one brave enough to speak up-"Your Majesty, there are others still waiting out-"
Tenel Ka silenced him. "The queen has made her wishes known. Obey."
They scurried from the hall, and as the door closed behind them. Jacen still stood here, waiting, but she too seemed transfixed by the sight of him. Awkwardly clearing his throat in a way he hadn't had to do since he was a teenager, he finally spoke. "Want to hear a joke?"
She stepped down off the dais, one of her rare smiles lighting up her face as did so, the ice now broken between them. "Jacen, my friend!"
He laughed, coming forward to meet her in a hug. "How are you?"
"I am well," she said, pulling back to look at him. "My apologies for a moment ago-I do not mean to seem pretentious."
He brushed it off. "Forget it. I understand."
"Come," she said. "We will walk in my garden. For now, tell me, how is Jaina?"
He took her arm, understanding her wish to speak where no one could possibly overhear their conversation. "She's out in the Unknown Regions visiting Jag's family at the moment. They both went out there about two weeks ago, I guess. They should be back before too much longer."
"And you?" she inquired as they strolled through the hall towards the palace gardens.
He shrugged. "Oh, you know me. I've been staying busy-keeping the peace and all that good stuff. How about you?"
"I am well," she said. "My father has been of great help to me in making appearances and taking care of day to day management to free my time for matters that more require my attention."
They stepped out into the garden, and Tenel Ka led him to a bench near the middle. "We can speak freely here. My audience chamber is routinely monitored by my grandmother."
"Why did you call?" Jacen asked. "What's happened?"
She took a deep breath. "My position as queen is tenuous at best," she said, the sunlight glinting off her hair. "And while I never wished to be queen, I will not leave Hapes to the rule of my relatives. I am not without my own spies, but they have become scarce as of late-strange accidents, mysterious disappearances."
He took in this information quietly. "What can I do?"
"I have gathered enough information to know that an assassination attempt is being planned. I believe it will take place in a few days, at the celebration of my fifth year as queen. It would be appropriately symbolic-I have endured similar attempts on every anniversary of my reign. And while I have been able to handle those, this is not the same."
Her hand tightened into a fist, and Jacen gently placed his own hand over hers. "Why is it different this time?"
Her grey eyes met his. "I am having visions. The sense of surrounding danger never leaves me." She looked back down. "I am sorry to pull you away, but-"
He held up a hand to stop her. "It's okay. These visions-what happened in them?"
"They were fractured," she said. She looked up at him again and he saw how troubled she was by them.
"May I?" he asked softly. She nodded.
He opened himself to her, for the first time in years, and he felt her do the same. As he connected with her, he wondered briefly why he'd ever stopped.
The memories of her visions assaulted him with their clarity and intensity. Visions of lightsaber flashing, running down the halls of the Fountain Palace, confrontations with Ta'a Chume, and a dizzyingly terrifying leap. But present in all of them was an overwhelming sense of darkness-the kind he had not felt since the war.
And suddenly, more visions battered him, ones that weren't coming from Tenel Ka's memory. More fighting, an emerald and a turquoise lightsaber flashing in tandem, shouting, and people running.
With a sudden breath, Jacen broke away from Tenel Ka. She too, was still in her astonishment. "What the hell was that?"
She shook her head. "Do you understand why I have called for assistance?"
He nodded. "Yeah, I get it."
"I cannot travel freely any longer," Tenel Ka said, "and my responsibilities do not give me time to investigate on my own. I need your help."
"Ahem," a voice cleared his throat from the edge of the clearing where they sat. Jacen looked up to see Jonlin Kos standing there. "Your Majesty, Her Ladyship Ta'a Chume requests your presence in the audience chamber. At your convenience, of course," he amended, although Jacen was sure that the old woman had not phrased her request so politely.
"So it begins," Tenel Ka said softly enough that Kos could not hear. "You have been here less than twenty minutes, and already, she knows."
"You've been out here more than an hour, Your Majesty," Kos said, correcting the last part of Tenel Ka's statement.
"An hour?" Jacen said. He hadn't realized they'd lost track of time that badly.
"Yes, Master Jedi," Kos answered.
Tenel Ka rose gracefully from her seat. "Very well. Return to the Audience Chamber and inform our grandmother that we will meet her there presently. Cancel the rest of our audience appointments for the day, and clear our schedule for this evening."
She turned to Jacen. "Dine with me tonight?"
He rose, inclining his head in a respectful bow. "As you wish, my lady."
Kos still stood there, waiting for any further instructions. "You are dismissed," Tenel Ka said, before the man ran off to do her bidding.
"I'm sorry your grandmother has ruined yet another pleasant afternoon," Jacen said, offering her a lop-sided smile.
"It has not been the first, and will most certainly not be the last," she answered him. He extended his arm to her, and she accepted it as they returned to the palace walls. "I will assign Jonlin Kos to you. He is a trustworthy man and will assist you in anything you need."
"Sounds like a plan," he answered. "I'll poke around a bit this afternoon. See if I can just get some general impressions."
"Indeed," Tenel Ka said. "My grandmother awaits my presence. I will see you this evening?"
"Can't wait," he said, flashing her a roguish wink. "It's good to see you again, Tenel Ka. I mean it."
She nodded gracefully in thanks. "It is good to see you again as well, my friend." She turned to leave and as she did so, Jacen could see the subtle change as she walked along, her persona shifting from that of the warrior woman he had known to that of the majestic Queen Mother of Hapes. He watched her turn the corner before leaving the hall himself.
He had work to do.
Tenel Ka entered her audience chamber, reminding herself-as she did every time she saw her grandmother-that she, Tenel Ka Chume Ta' Djo, was Queen Mother of Hapes, a Jedi Knight, and a member of the Dathomiri Singing Mountain Clan, the most fearsome warrior women on the planet.
She needed every bit of that strength and fearsomeness that she could muster to face down her grandmother.
"Tenel Ka," her grandmother said, turning towards her, and Tenel Ka felt a momentary bristle of displeasure creep along her back. Ta'a Chume had never paid Teneniel Djo the respect she deserved by referring to her as Your Majesty, and she seemed determined to do the same for Teneniel's daughter. "I hear that Master Jedi Solo has arrived on Hapes."
"Your ears reach far," Tenel Ka observed wryly. "He has arrived."
"Why was I not informed as to his impending visit?" the woman demanded. "I should at least-"
Tenel Ka raised a hand. "You were not informed because we did not wish it so," she said. "Master Solo is a personal friend and is visiting because we requested it."
"Lonely, are you?" her grandmother said. "If I'd known that, then I could have made arrangements for you to meet someone. There are any number of noble young men vying for your hand, who would be happy for you merely to grace them with your presence, much less spend time with them."
"We have no interest in your noble young men," Tenel Ka proclaimed.
Her grandmother raised an eyebrow that meant she was inferring a conclusion Tenel Ka did not intend from that statement. "But perhaps interest in Master Jedi Solo?"
"You presume too much," Tenel Ka uttered.
Her grandmother gave her that tiny smile that was as close to a smirk as Ta'a Chume ever allowed herself. "I suppose then that you won't mind me joining you for dinner then. I'll have the meal prepared at the usual time."
Tenel Ka attempted not to grit her teeth in her grandmother's presence. "That will be satisfactory."
Ta'a Chume turned and left, and Tenel Ka allowed herself a sound of frustration at the fact that she had been outmaneuvered again. It happened with less frequency now, but Ta'a Chume was extremely adept at manipulation, and still slightly unsettled by the visions, Tenel Ka had let her guard down enough for it to happen.
Taking a deep, cleansing breath, Tenel Ka checked her chrono and headed down for the daily fleet reports.
After wandering the halls of the palace for most of the afternoon, Jacen found himself standing before Tenel Ka's suite, the location where she had deemed they would have dinner that night. Jonlin Kos had offered to escort him to her rooms, and Jacen had struggled to keep from laughing as he solemnly informed the attendant that he could find the way himself. Kos had scampered off to manage something else, and Jacen had burst out laughing.
The door opened, and he jerked a thumb back behind him. "You'll never-"
He stopped mid-sentence when he realized that the woman before him was not Tenel Ka but Ta'a Chume. The old woman looked at him. "I'll never what, Master Jedi Solo?"
He smiled tightly, the good mood he'd been in suddenly vanishing at the sight of the matriarch. "It's of no consequence, my lady."
She moved aside to grant him entrance, and found Tenel Ka sitting on the sofa discussing a report with her father. "Friend Jacen. My grandmother and father have elected to join us tonight."
Well, there went any chance of getting to speak to her alone that night. Isolder looked properly apologetic for intruding, but Ta'a Chume immediately stepped into the role of hostess. "I will call for the meal, if you will all be seated."
Isolder rose, offering his daughter his arm. Jacen pulled out her chair and she sat. His hand brushed her shoulder as he moved around the table to claim his own seat next to her, the contact allowing him a sense of her thoughts, while silently communicating to her that everything was fine. The imperceptible nod of her head as Isolder helped his mother seat herself told him that she'd received his message.
"Master Jedi Solo," Ta'a Chume said, settling herself as befitting an aging monarch. "I presume that my granddaughter has told you the reason she has had you visit."
Well, she wasn't wasting any time at all, and Jacen let his shields down for barely a moment to find Tenel Ka's mind. "My lady, I did not think friends needed a reason to visit one another. If my friend cannot come to me, then I will come to her."
"Very kind of you to do so," Isolder jumped in to forestall any remark his mother might make. "It can get very lonely in the palace, even though one is surrounded by people."
"Quite," Tenel Ka said, reaching for her wine glass. She raised her glass. "To friendship."
Jacen smiled as he and Isolder clinked their glasses against hers and Ta'a Chume was forced to do the same. "Tell us, Master Jedi, how are things on Mon Calamari?" Isolder continued, obviously attempting to guide the conversation to issues that his mother was unlikely to inflame.
Ta'a Chume had years of experience in outmaneuvering her son. "Come now, Isolder. The dinner table is hardly a place to discuss galactic business." A spark glinted behind the old woman's eyes as she turned to Jacen. "Do tell us what you have planned while you are on Hapes."
The waiters brought the food in, setting plates of greens down in front of them. "Whatever Her Majesty wishes," he said. He looked down at the salad, picking up his fork and flashed upon a memory. "Remember when we ate dinner on Coruscant and Zekk ate the centerpiece thinking it was a salad?"
The flash of merriment in Tenel Ka's eyes assured him that she did remember. "I do. I remember stopping C-3PO from serving the ambassador as well."
"I don't think I'd ever seen Anakin look quite that surprised, when you handed him the ambassador's plate," Jacen recalled, the same merriment flashing to his smile.
"He was very good about it," Tenel Ka reminded him, picking up her fork to take a bite of her salad. Even though Anakin had been gone for nearly five years, she could still see the biting grief under Jacen's recollection.
Jacen flashed her a grin that Ta'a Chume could not see from her position at the table. Those had been good days. He glanced back down at his food, trying to listen to whatever Isolder was saying, but his gaze still strayed to Tenel Ka.
His danger sense flared suddenly, and his hand snapped out to grab Tenel Ka's wrist before she could put the bite of her salad in her mouth, just as her own danger sense flared and she dropped the fork. Jacen's head whipped around, as the waiter dropped his tray and took off out the door.
Dinner forgotten, Jacen bolted from the table after him, hearing Tenel Ka call for the palace security into her comlink, her fleeting steps not far behind him. A burst of Force speed, and he was on the man, pushing him to the ground.
"Who are you?" he demanded, rolling the man over, a fist ready to bury itself into the waiter's face.
The waiter smiled, and Jacen felt a sudden sense of unease congeal in his stomach. "No one worth concerning yourself with."
Jacen swore as the man fell limp, his head bumping against the floor in a manner that would have been painful had the man not just committed suicide. A mark on his neck caught Jacen's eye, and he pulled the collar of the man's jacket aside. A tattoo, one that looked vaguely familiar, marked his neck.
Tenel Ka and Isolder skidded to a stop behind Jacen. "He is dead," Tenel Ka said.
"Yeah," Jacen said, rising, his face set into a stony mask. Ta'a Chume gracefully appeared behind Isolder and Tenel Ka and looked over the dead man with little concern. Snapping her fingers, she motioned for the security guards that had arrived only seconds later to pick him up.
Jacen met Tenel Ka's troubled gaze. "Are you all right?"
"I am fine," she said. "But I believe I've lost my appetite."
He sat on his bed, meditating on the events of the evening. Mara would probably fuss at him for meditating on the comfortable surface, but Jacen had always found that the mind could only absorb what the rear end could endure, and he had plenty to think about tonight.
A soft knock at the door caused him to open his eyes and place a hand on his lightsaber. "Enter."
Tenel Ka slipped into the room, a voluminous robe wrapped around her body and her hair unbraided. "Jacen, my friend."
He smiled. "I was just trying to figure out how to get to your suite without being seen."
She crossed the room quickly, sitting on the bed to face him. "It is easier for me to escape my guards than for you to get past them. I apologize for dinner this evening."
"It wasn't your fault," he said. "You can't help your grandmother."
Her lips tightened into a thin line, a habit she'd apparently acquired since becoming queen. "I should have been able to stop her."
"Tenel Ka, look at me," he said, his voice soft but commanding. "It was dinner. It's no big deal. Save it for when it matters."
She sighed. "You are correct, my friend. I am-under a great deal of stress."
"You've got a right to be," he said, leaning back against the headboard of the bed. "Did you get any word on that tattoo?"
She shook her head. "Security is still running the pattern through the main databanks, but it could take a few days, and it may still not show up. Although the practice has been nearly completely discontinued on Hapes and some of our more urban worlds, women on some of our rural words continue to mark their men."
Her eyes fell upon his bare chest, and he suddenly felt self-conscious as her hand barely lifted. "Sometimes the men are tattooed or branded. They show that he is the property of the woman who claims him."
"Property," he said, with a sharp intake of breath as her hand lightly rested on one of the scars he'd sustained during his time with the Yuuzhan Vong. Her fingers traced along the lines as he slowly sat back up, and he felt an electric tingle spread along his skin.
Her hand continued its leisurely exploration of his chest and abdomen, tracing from one scar to another, and he closed his eyes. She found where Vergere had stabbed him, and he grasped her wrist. "Stop," he said hollowly.
She jerked her hand back, and he saw a wave of emotions pass over her face. "I am sorry. I forget my place."
"No," he said, grabbing for her hand again as she rose from the bed. "I didn't mean for you to go-I just-"
She didn't pull away from him this time as he gently tugged her to sit back down, and he tucked a strand of her hair behind her ear. "I don't want you to do anything you might regret later," he said, his voice soft.
She was so very close. "I could never regret you."
He held her gaze for a moment in a sharing of emotions that was more intimate than even opening himself to her in the Force. She leaned forward, barely, and placed a kiss on his cheek. "I should go before someone realizes that I am missing."
"Right," he said as she rose from the bed once again. She was almost at the door before he found his voice again. "Sleep well, Tenel Ka."
A twitch of a smile creased the corner of her eyes. "Sleep well, Jacen."
The door closed behind her, and Jacen took a deep breath. He leaned back, only to find that a solid knock against the back of the head by a headboard brought one back to reality in a matter of seconds.
He woke the next morning, refreshed. He showered and dressed and was toweling the remainder of the dampness from his hair when a knock at the door to his room sounded. "Come in."
Jonlin Kos entered the room. "Master Jedi Solo. Her Majesty has requested that you join her for the morning meal on her veranda."
Jacen tossed the towel over the back of his chair. "Of course."
Kos led the way to the veranda where Tenel Ka sat, dressed in the lizard skin armour she had favoured during her time at the Academy, perusing the stack of reports for the day. "Jacen, my friend. Sit, please."
Breakfast had already been set before them, and Jacen sat. "Sleep well?" he asked.
She nodded, setting down her datapad and reaching for the juice. She poured him a glass before serving herself. "Lightly, but well."
His mouth twitched at her humour, and he took a sip from his glass. "I notice we're eating without interruption this morning."
"My grandmother does not rise so early as she once did," Tenel Ka said. "Plotting is better done late at night, and she must make up for lost time."
He bit his lip to keep from laughing, but he could see the mischief present in her eyes. "Anything on the waiter?"
She shook her head as she reached for a pastry. "We are still waiting."
He averted his eyes from the expanse of bare leg her armour revealed, and focused them on her face. "I hate waiting."
"Patience is a way of life for the Jedi," she reminded him gently.
"Doesn't mean I have to like it," he said.
An advisor knocked at the glass door separating the veranda from the palace interior, and Tenel Ka motioned for her to come in. "The security reports from last night, Your Majesty."
Tenel Ka scanned through it quickly before handing it back to her. "Thank you. You are dismissed."
The woman turned and left the same way she had come. "Is it like this every morning?" Jacen asked.
"Most of the time, it is quite a bit worse," Tenel Ka said. "However, my father has taken over the planning of the ball, which has provided me a respite from the matters of protocol for the time being."
"You don't sound very excited about it," he observed, digging into his breakfast.
"Formal events are a waste of time," she said firmly. "And my grandmother will be sure to foist upon me any number of young men in whom I have no interest."
Jacen glanced at her over the top of his juice glass. "She wants great-grandchildren, does she?"
"She wants an excuse to take me from the throne," Tenel Ka said dryly.
"There's got to be someone out there you like," he said, carefully steering his thoughts from the memory of her fingers trailing across his chest the night before.
"Someone," she murmured, avoiding his gaze.
The awkward silence grew as they both ate their breakfast. "We did not discuss your impressions of the palace," Tenel Ka finally said.
He shook his head. "Everything here is so mired in intrigue and deception, it's hard to get a read on anything. Everyone has an agenda, but I can't focus on any of them. They're all up to something, but I can't tell what. But I feel the danger now. It's getting closer."
"It is as I feared," she said. "Their chosen time approaches."
Impulsively, Jacen covered her hand with his own. "I'm not going to let them do anything to you."
"And I will not let them do anything to you," she returned.
"We'll make a deal," he said, answering the challenge implicit in her words. "We protect each other. Always."
She clasped the hand covering hers. "We always have."
"Always will," he replied.
And there it was again, that discomfited silence between them, and she pulled her hand away to finish her meal.
"Spar with me this afternoon?" she asked. "I do not often have the chance to hone my lightsaber skills with an opponent."
Jacen smiled. "You're on."
He wandered around the halls again, waiting for Jonlin Kos to come and find him whenever Tenel Ka escaped her duties long enough to spar. He still felt frustrated at the lack of information he was getting from the Force or from anyone around him.
He passed by the great hall and stopped outside the doors for a moment, watching the swarms of people hurrying to finish the decorations for the anniversary ball. Isolder stood in the middle of the mass confusion, an annoyed look on his face as a woman apparently disagreed with him over one the arrangements.
Jacen entered the room close enough to be able to hear the conversation, and heard Isolder finally give in. The woman evidently wasn't finished, and having mercy on his friend's father, Jacen interrupted smoothly. "My apologies, madam. May I borrow His Highness for a moment?"
She nodded her assent and turned away, and Isolder breathed a sigh of relief. "I wonder some days if even my mother can take that woman on."
Jacen held back a laugh. "I thought perhaps you could use a rescue, and I had hoped to speak with you, sir." He glanced around. "Someplace perhaps not so crowded."
Isolder nodded in understanding. "This way. There is a gap in the security field where we can speak in peace."
He led Jacen down the hall to a corner. "Here."
"I assume you know by now that Tenel Ka did not call me here as a friend," Jacen said softly. "I was hoping you might be able to tell me something she hasn't been able to."
"I'm afraid I don't know any more than she does," Isolder said quietly. "I hear grumbles among the staff a bit more, but none of them have seemed necessarily directed at Tenel Ka-if you're asking if I've heard anyone plotting, the answer is no."
Jacen frowned. "What about her enemies? Is there anyone really brave enough to try this?"
"My mother," Isolder said. "The attempted poisoning is characteristic of the way she operates."
"It wasn't her," Jacen said, shaking his head. "I'm certain of that. There's something more; something bigger than Ta'a Chume going on here."
"Vast conspiracies are not uncommon in the Hapan court, Master Jedi," Isolder said.
"Not this vast," Jacen said. "And not with this much danger involved, or this much determination. Even Ta'a Chume has a bit of hidden guilt over what she does. This is almost fanatical."
"If my mother feels guilt over her actions, you are the first to see it," Isolder said. "Security for the ball has been tripled, though, and Tenel Ka is adept at looking out for herself."
"Which may not do any good if the threat is in her own security forces," Jacen said quietly. An approaching presence caught his attention, and he looked up. "Someone's coming."
Isolder nodded, escaping in the other direction, and Jacen turned the corner to find Jonlin Kos waiting for him. "Ah, Master Jedi Solo. Her Majesty is ready for you now."
Tenel Ka leaned over, touching her nose to her knees and stretching out the sore muscles in her back. It felt good to be able to move without the hindrance of the royal garb she was often forced to wear in the name of protocol.
She looked up as the door slid open and Jacen entered. Jonlin made a move to follow, but a single stare from the queen caused him to back up and leave. "Training alone sometimes is a battle within itself."
Jacen laughed as he swung his cloak from his shoulders. "I'd imagine so." He took up his position across from her, his lightsaber held in his hand. "I went by the great hall. The preparations are going well, I thought."
Tenel Ka gave him a look that he correctly interpreted as apathy as far as the ball went. "Shall we begin?"
Jacen took a deep breath and held the hilt of his lightsaber in the ready position. She did the same, and they lit them with the characteristic snap-hiss. He swept his lightsaber down in a salute, and she followed, and they began to circle.
She took the first attack, and Jacen took a step back, his lightsaber crashing against hers. She parried, and he ducked the following wide swing, recognizing her need to let loose some of her aggressive feelings. He knocked her swing aside, coming back up, turning back around in the process to face her in the middle of the floor.
He took the offensive this time, pushing forward with strike after strike. He took another swing and she summoned the Force to her, leaping over his head, her lightsaber flashing off as she somersaulted to her feet and reigniting as she stood.
She came back at him the patterns they'd learned long ago, and had him on the defensive once again. Jacen, knowing that he was going to lose unless he thought of something quickly, acted.
She barely stopped as Jacen's Force sense suddenly vanished, and his lightsaber reached out to swing hers from her hand. She jumped backwards, but his foot swung out and caught her ankle, dropping her to the floor.
She rolled to the side, but he caught her, pinning her to the ground, and suddenly reappeared in her senses, and she could tell that he was entirely too pleased with himself. "Caught you," he said.
"You cheated," she said.
He shrugged. "Well, yeah."
He'd loosed his grip slightly, and Tenel Ka struck a blow to the inside of his leg with her knee without warning. In less than a second, their positions were reversed and she was sitting squarely on his chest, pinning him to the ground.
"Ow," he said. "That hurt."
She raised an eyebrow in a challenging glance, as she sat back, and he propped himself up on his elbows. "I am out of practice," she admitted.
"Well, you're not the one stuck on the floor," he said. "You seem to be doing pretty good to me."
She reached out to brush a lock of hair from his forehead. "Your skills have not diminished either."
Her fingers grazed against his face and he could not avert his eyes from her face. "Tenel Ka-" he whispered.
She gently leaned her forehead against his. He could feel her breath warm his lips, and he couldn't help himself. Throwing every thought of caution and propriety to the wind, he tilted his head forward to claim what he'd wanted ever since he'd met her. His lips were barely centimeters from hers-
"What is going on here?" a shrill voice proclaimed from the door, and their heads both turned towards the sound, cracking together painfully. Tenel Ka scrambled off of him, extending her hand to help him up off the floor.
"Grandmother," Tenel Ka said. "You were not announced."
The old woman's fury was unmatched at that moment. "No, I was not." Her gaze raked across her granddaughter's face and across the face of the Jedi standing next to her, slightly red. "Apparently, that was rather fortuitous. Have you any idea what this could have meant if someone other than myself had walked in? You, and this Jedi."
Tenel Ka drew herself up to her full height, the lizard skin armour gracing her imposing presence with the reminder that she was, at heart, a warrior. "My personal life is of no concern to you, Grandmother."
"Obviously, it is of no concern to you!" the old matriarch exclaimed.
"Grandmother, silence!" Tenel Ka said, her voice carrying the barest hint of a Force compulsion, and Ta'a Chume fell quiet. "Leave my presence immediately and tend to the preparations for the celebration."
The matriarch pressed her lips tightly together, but there was no way for her to get around Tenel Ka's words. Turning sharply on her heel, she left the room.
Jacen gently came up behind Tenel Ka and placed his hands on her sagging shoulders, giving a squeeze. "You all right?"
"I understand why this place killed my mother," she said softly. "It drained her."
"It won't happen to you," he reassured her.
"It already is," she said, without turning around. Her lightsaber sailed smoothly to her hand before she followed her grandmother's path and Jacen was left to himself in the training room, watching her disappear again.
He didn't see her again for two days.
"Master Jedi Solo! Master Jedi Solo!" a voice said behind him, and Jacen didn't have to turn to know it was Jonlin Kos hurrying to catch him-the unnecessarily frantic tone of voice told him that much.
"Yes, Jonlin?" he said patiently.
"May I inquire as to your destination?" the man said.
"I was planning on going out into the city again," Jacen said. "Her Majesty seems not to require my assistance today."
If a trace of bitterness had crept its way into Jacen's voice, Kos did not acknowledge it. "On the contrary, Master Jedi. Her Majesty has extended a personal invitation for you to accompany her to the ball tonight."
This perked Jacen's interest. "She has?"
"Yes, Master Jedi," Kos said. "And Her Ladyship has asked for your presence as soon as possible."
The bit of joy that Jacen had felt at being asked to accompany Tenel Ka to the ball was immediately sucked out by the prospect of facing Ta'a Chume. "Of course."
Jonlin showed him to the matriarch's suite, and Ta'a Chume rose gracefully from her seat. "Master Jedi Solo." She handed him a datapad. "As you can see, the attempt at matching the tattoo on the back of the waiter's neck was unsuccessful."
He took the datapad from her, trying not to let his surprise at her directness show. "Unfortunate."
Tenel Ka's grandmother poured herself a glass of water. "My granddaughter has asked for you to accompany her?"
Jacen raised his head, experimentally opening his senses towards the former queen. "She has."
Ta'a Chume kept her emotions carefully under guard. "You will protect her, of course?"
His stony expression would have said it if his voice had not. "With my life, if need be."
"My spies have not come to any conclusions regarding this conspiracy," the woman said, and Jacen could feel the truth she was speaking. "Whether I approve of Tenel Ka's choices, she is still my granddaughter and I have no wish to see her harmed."
"Of course not," Jacen said.
"The same, Master Jedi, does not hold true for you," Ta'a Chume said, not even bothering to veil her threat. "When this threat has been neutralized, you will leave Hapes and you will not return."
"That is for Queen Mother Tenel Ka to decide," Jacen said, his mild tone one designed to infuriate.
"You are too presumptuous to speak that way in the presence of a woman, Master Jedi," Ta'a Chume said.
"Perhaps," Jacen said. "If that is all, Your Ladyship?"
"For now," Ta'a Chume said, her voice quietly dangerous. "You are dismissed, Master Jedi."
He bowed. "My lady."
Jacen watched Tenel Ka shoo away the attendants surrounding her as she stood before the entrance to the grand hall, Jonlin Kos fussing even more than normal. "Where is he?" she asked.
"Right here, Your Majesty," he answered from behind her, and she turned.
Jacen stared as Tenel Ka turned in response to his voice. The simple, form-fitting silver sheath she wore left little to the imagination, as it was slit nearly halfway up her thighs, but the simplicity of the design only made it considerably more elegant than the more ostentatious dress that Ta'a Chume wore. Her hair was gathered in a mass of braids at the nape of her neck, the clip holding them back at a level with the high collar of her dress, and her tiara sat firmly upon her head. "You look lovely," he managed.
"I am pleased you think so," she said softly. She pressed an object into his hand, and he recognized the rancor tooth that was the hilt of her lightsaber. "I am afraid my attire does not suit this at the moment-"
"I understand," he said, clipping it to his own belt. "You want it close anyway."
"Are we quite prepared?" Ta'a Chume interrupted. At her granddaughter's regal nod, she turned to Jonlin Kos. "Little man, inform the sergeant-at-arms."
Jonlin scurried to do so, and Jacen took Tenel Ka's arm, offering her a smile, despite the nervousness he felt-partially from being on display to the Hapan Court, but also because the ethereal sense of danger seemed to be getting stronger. As her hand rested upon his own, he felt the same reluctance to enter the hall running through her.
"Her Worship, the Queen Former, Ta'a Chume and His Highness, the Prince Dowager, Isolder!" the sergeant-at-arms announced to the crowd, and polite applause and bows met the arrival of the two members of the Hapan Royal House.
Jacen and Tenel Ka took a step forward, and he felt her take a breath to ready herself for this task. "Her Majesty, Queen Mother Tenel Ka Chume Ta' Djo, Ruler of the Sixty-Three Worlds, Ereneda, Ambassador of Hapes to the Galactic Alliance, Master Jedi, and heir to the Singing Mountain Clan of Dathomir, and Master Jedi Jacen Solo!"
They stepped forward into the great hall, and Jacen took in his breath in wonder. The hall, now with decorations completed, had been transformed into a green and white wonder, Dathomiri plants and Hapan flowers intermingled in celebration of the Queen Mother's dual heritage, and Jacen had a suspicion that this was what the woman in charge of the protocol for the occasion had been arguing about with Isolder. Apparently, Isolder had finally won the argument.
With a nod from Ta'a Chume, the music began, and Jacen bowed to Tenel Ka. She nodded in return, and he faced her, taking her hand in his and placing the other on her hip, and they began to twirl around the dance floor.
Jacen was uncomfortably aware of murderous glances being shot his direction by several young men in the room. "Let me guess," he whispered to Tenel Ka. "These gentlemen would like for me to disappear?"
"Highly likely," Tenel Ka said, her voice just as low. "Many of these men have offered themselves to be Prince Consort."
He spun her out and back. As she returned to his grasp, he took another glance over her shoulder, now not looking at the young men, but his eyes tracing the room, looking for any sign foul doings. "Prince Consort, you say?" he asked, returning his attention to her face. "And would you have any of them?"
"I would not," Tenel Ka said. "I would have no one my grandmother selected for me."
He spun her again in the complicated steps of the dance, thankful to his mother for making him learn back in the days when she had been Chief of State of the New Republic. "Well, your grandmother threatened me this afternoon. Would that move me up your list of possible suitors?"
Her eyes widened at that statement, partly in outrage at Ta'a Chume's presumption, but partly because of the suggestion inherent in that question. "It could."
He grinned as they turned. "Do you have any idea how much I've missed you?"
"You could have come to visit before now," Tenel Ka said.
"You're right," he said contritely. "I could have. And I should have. But can't I make up for it now?"
"It depends on your methods for making it up," she informed him, and he felt a flush rise to his cheeks. Avoiding her gaze, he focused his attention over her shoulder again-and a tattoo rising above the collar of one of security guards caught his attention.
His danger sense flared, and he pushed Tenel Ka to the ground as a blaster bolt came too close to his head, singeing his hair.
Screams sounded as the courtiers ran in a panic and Jacen felt himself being pushed back by Tenel Ka as another blaster bolt came too close. "Shavit," he swore viciously, hauling himself to his feet. The security guard turned, racing away.
Tenel Ka was immediately back up, her lightsaber leaping to her hand as Jacen took off after the security guard, shedding his cloak as he moved. Losing her shoes and ripping her crown from her head and flinging it to her father, she followed Jacen, catching him without difficulty as he pushed his way through the panicking crowd.
He stopped at the corridor. "This way, come on!"
She raced after him, her bare feet slapping against the marble floors of the Fountain Palace, and Jacen caught sight of the red uniform of the Hapan Royal Security. "There!"
They flew up the stairs, hearing a door slam as the guard shut the door to the roof, and a blaster bolt sounded, locking the door in place.
Tenel Ka would have none of that. Seeing her intention, Jacen also lit his own lightsaber, and with smooth practiced movements, they sliced around the outside of the door, and with a heave, Jacen pushed it over.
The guard was standing at the edge of the roof, shouting something to those below. "Stand down," Tenel Ka ordered.
The guard gave her a smile that made her doubt his sanity, and with that smile, let himself fall over the edge of the building.
They rushed forward, too late to save him as the body crumpled into a heap in front of the palace gates. "There-" Tenel Ka pointed as someone began shouting and pointing towards them. The viewer drew his blaster and let off three shots before taking off across the courtyard.
"We'll never get down there in time," Jacen said. He looked around. "Ready to take a leap of faith?"
She nodded, and they backed up about five steps, just as security guards burst onto the roof. Watching with shouts of horror, the guards raced to the parapet as Jacen and Tenel Ka took a running leap from the top of the Fountain Palace.
Working together, they slowed one another's descent, Jacen keeping Tenel Ka from dropping at a terminal speed, Tenel Ka doing the same for him. They both hit the ground, hard, tumbling head over heels before rising to continue the chase.
"Stop!" Jacen bellowed, using the Force to push the man over. He fell, but continued on.
"Jacen, my friend," Tenel Ka said, grasping his arm. "He may lead us to the others."
Gritting his teeth, Jacen agreed. "You should go back to the palace."
Was that ever the wrong thing to say. "I am a Jedi, Jacen Solo, first and foremost. Do not forget it."
They didn't have time to have this argument, and knowing that even if they did, he would lose, Jacen sighed, and they continued the chase.
The area around the Fountain Palace was reasonably well protected, but as Jacen hoisted Tenel Ka over the fence surrounding the courtyard, he remembered the discovery he had made during his exploration of the city-directly outside the royal property stood a cesspool of life.
However, they did have a single advantage. When two Jedi, one of them the queen, ran through a crowd with lightsabers lit, yelling for people to move, they moved.
Tenel Ka caught another flash of red. "Jacen!"
Jacen, his face set, took off forward, Tenel Ka following him, heedless of the damage the litter and broken glass pieces on the streets were doing to the soles of her feet. The guard turned down a back alley, and Jacen recklessly followed him.
Tenel Ka skidded to a halt when she saw what was waiting for them. A gang of men and women stood there, weapons at the ready, a few with blasters, most with clubs and primitively made knives.
"Master Jedi," a voice said from the darkness. A very calm, very controlled voice. A voice that knew he had the advantage. "You may lower your weapons. We mean you no harm. Only Her Majesty is our prey."
Jacen's lightsaber stood ready in front of him. "To get to her, you have to go through me."
"You are welcome to try, Master Jedi," the voice said, coming into the light. "But we will overpower you, and as I say, we have no wish to harm you." The figure belonging to the voice lifted its head, and Jacen felt his stomach turn. "After all, why would we harm one we worship as a god?"
"I don't get it," Jacen said, his eyes tracking from one member to another. Some of them were staring at them, and others were nervously looking back and forth at one another in anticipation, and Jacen could see the distinctive tattoo at the base of their necks. Clarity hit him with the subtlety of a Star Destroyer. "Stars-but you're not Yuuzhan Vong-"
"Correct, Great One," the figure said, throwing back the cloak, and Jacen could see the intricate tattoos on the man's face, the mutilations to his face and the visible portions of his body. "But we have embraced their ways, and we recognize you as the avatar of Yun-Yammka." His finger raised to point at Tenel Ka, who still stood ready to take on any foe that approached her. "She stood in the way."
"I have done nothing to you," Tenel Ka said as Jacen blurted, "Are you stupid?"
"You stand in the way of the leadership of the avatar of Yun-Yammka! It is only our good fortune that he was the Jedi to come to your aid, and not another who would only relay the message of our victory! Once you are dead, he will have nothing else connecting him to this life, and he will be free to lead us to glory!" His eyes were bright with madness, and Jacen suddenly realized he wasn't dealing with merely some political intrigue, although someone in the palace had to have realized they could use this to their advantage. No, he was dealing with a cult.
Jacen tried to take a page out of his sister's datapad. "Then as your ruler, I command you to stand down and come with me."
"No!" the figure shrieked. "Not until she is dead can Yun-Yammka enter into the Master Jedi and truly become the avatar of the god of war! Now, my followers!"
Jacen wasted no time, moving forward, his lightsaber held high-and stepped straight into a Force-empty environment. Tenel Ka too, had moved forward, and realized that they had stepped into an area surrounded by ysalamiri.
But the warrior queen was not without her resources, and despite being cut off from the Force, she moved quickly, slicing the barrels of two blasters, leaving the blunt implements for last.
Jacen retreated within himself, disconnecting himself from the traditional sense of the Force and into the one that Vergere had pushed upon him. The ysalamiri were Vong-enhanced, had to be, as there was no other way to get ysalamiri these days, and with four strokes, he'd taken them all out.
The Force back, he and Tenel Ka blurred through the rest of their opponents, backs to one another, covering each other. But the fanatics kept coming, despite odds that would have caused most sensible people to give up.
But their fanaticism was predictable, and Jacen took advantage of it. Yanking Tenel Ka out of the way, he summoned every bit of control he had, and with one mighty push, slammed the four last men into the wall hard enough to knock them unconscious.
Their leader still stood there, and his mouth fell open. "Oh, Yun-Yammka, have mercy upon your servant, please?"
"Get up," Jacen said, his voice barely containing his anger. "Who are you?"
The leader looked to the sky. "No one that concerns you." He dropped to the ground.
Jacen swore again, letting his lightsaber fall to his side. "He could have told us who started this."
Tenel Ka carefully stepped around the bodies to rest her hand on his shoulder. "I will find them, I assure you. They cannot stay hidden for long."
He took a moment to glance at her. Her hair had fallen from the clip and her Hapan finery was shredded along the skirt bottom. A scratch made its way lengthwise down her arm, and her bare feet showed signs of wanting to bleed.
Shutting off his lightsaber, he hooked it to his belt. "You okay?"
"I am well," she assured him. He tucked a strand of her wayward hair behind her ear. "Come. We should return."
He laughed mirthlessly. "I bet no one forgets this anniversary celebration."
While Tenel Ka would have preferred simply to have washed her feet and applied a bacta patch to the bottom of each one, her grandmother had insisted on calling the court physicians, and what would have taken Tenel Ka fifteen minutes to do ended up lasting an hour and a half.
Finally, thanks to Isolder and a few terse words on Tenel Ka's part to Ta'a Chume, the physicians and her family disappeared. The door closed and Jacen watched her relax. "Need anything?"
"A glass of water would be appreciated," she said, and he walked over to the table where the pitcher of water sat. He brought it back to her, perching on the edge of the sofa where she sat, her feet propped up on the arm. "Thank you."
He took a breath. "I need to return to Mon Calamari. I'll be leaving in the morning."
She set her glass of water down. "I will be sorry to see you leave."
"I'll be sorry to go," he said. "No rest for the wicked, I'm afraid."
She squirmed a bit against the couch in an effort to scratch at the bacta patch covering the cut on her arm. He laughed, taking her arm and rubbing his hand down the patch. "Better?"
"Yes, thank you," she said. His hand fell to her side, and she clasped it in her own. "And I should thank you for coming to my assistance."
"Like I could have done anything else," he said. "I'll always come for you."
She cupped his face with her hand. "I know."
He turned his head to place a kiss on her palm, glancing at her for her reaction. Her gaze remained fixed on his face, and he leaned forward.
He met her waiting lips gently, and she sat up, wrapping her arm around his neck. His hands found their way to her waist, and even after they'd broken the kiss, he couldn't bring himself to let her go.
She finally leaned back enough to touch her forehead to his. "You should get some rest. You have a long trip ahead of you."
He sighed, and nodded. "I know. I'm trying not to think about it."
"Perhaps," she suggested, "next time you have a few days, you could return here."
"That could be a while," he replied.
"Then we should make good use of the time we have," she said, her lips touching his.
"Absolutely," he murmured, leaning over her.
Noting that Master Jedi Solo was not leaving Her Majesty's suite anytime soon, Jonlin Kos smiled in satisfaction and finally took a leisurely walk towards his quarters.
Original cover by ThePodSquad. HTML formatting copyright 2005 TheForce.Net LLC.