- 1 -
With a frustrated sigh, Leia threw down her stylus. "What does math have to do with saving the galaxy?"
She and her best friend Winter lay on their stomachs on the floor of Leia's room, datapads and paper spread out before them. They had been studying all afternoon, and Leia was getting pretty tired of it.
Brushing a lock of white hair out of her eyes, Winter considered Leia's question while gnawing on the end of her stylus. "Well, if you flunk math, you might get held back a year, and then the galaxy would have to wait that much longer for you to save it."
"Oh, shut up, Winter. As if my father has set some kind age limit." She sat up, planting her hands on her hips and assuming a stern expression. "'Now, Leia. No saving the galaxy until you're at least eighteen.'"
Winter was unimpressed. "I think he would be more likely to say, 'Now, Leia. Quit stalling and finish your homework.'"
Leia scowled at her friend's overbearing sense of responsibility. Worse, she was probably right. "So, what problem are you on?"
"I'm on number fifteen."
Leia bit her lip. She was only on number eleven. "I'd be done already if I had a super brain like yours."
Winter gazed up at her with calm, ice blue eyes. "Photographic memory is of no help when it comes to math equations."
Leia shrugged and returned to her homework, lying back down and propping herself up on her elbows. It wasn't fair that Winter was so much better than she was at everything. She was smart and remembered everything she ever saw or heard perfectly. Adults adored her because she was meticulous and responsible. Worse, she was tall and beautiful. The awkwardness of adolescence seemed to have bypassed Winter entirely. Leia had known her all her life, and Winter just magically went from being a sweet, pretty little girl to a sweet, beautiful young woman overnight. She looked and behaved exactly the way a princess should. Except she wasn't a princess.
Leia, who was short and dumpy, with a stubby nose and baby fat still plumping her cheeks. Both girls were twelve, but Winter looked fifteen, while Leia looked eight. Leia lacked grace and elegance. She was stubborn and had an innate defiance that increasingly irked her father.
All that, and she was bad at math, too.
But despite their differences, Leia and Winter were best friends. They were a study of contrasts. One short, the other tall. One brown, the other white. One defiant, the other obedient. One a leader, and the other, fortunately, a follower.
Leia's lip curled in self-satisfaction as she hunched over her homework. Winter's one flaw -- or depending on your point of view, her one redeeming quality -- was the fact that she would always do whatever Leia asked. So ten minutes later when Leia had managed to complete only three equations and she suggested they take a break, Winter acquiesced.
Then again, by that time Winter had finished the assignment.
"Just ten minutes," Leia promised her. "Let's watch holovision." She hopped up onto the couch and grabbed the controller. Winter obligingly settled down next to her as Leia turned the viewer on and proceeded to flip through the channels at light speed. She knew Winter would catch something good.
Sure enough, within moments Winter called out, "Stop. Go back. 'CorSec: Special Division' is on."
Leia rolled her eyes, though she flipped the channel back. "You just like that show because Darik Hanan is cute."
Winter answered with a cool shrug. "What's wrong with that?"
They watched the program for a couple of minutes, then Leia casually said, "Papa and I are going to Shadowcliff this weekend. Do you want to come?"
"I'd love to!" Winter exclaimed. "Why didn't you tell me earlier? I love Shadowcliff!" Then she paused, her mind working to process this boon of fortune. "Wait a minute. We have a test on First Day. Your father wouldn't take you to Shadowcliff when we've got a test coming up."
"It's a special occasion," was Leia's innocent reply.
Anyone else would have been fooled by the act, but Winter knew her too well. Her eyes narrowing in suspicion, she asked, "What special occasion?"
Leia brushed at an imaginary speck of dust on her skirt as she casually explained, "We will be entertaining the Imperial Governor and his family."
"No!" Winter shrieked. "No way, Leia! I am not going to spend a weekend with the governor!"
Dropping her act, Leia clutched at Winter's arm, begging, "You have to come, Win! I'll die if I have to spend the whole weekend with those Imperial toads! You have to come and save my life!"
"So you can live to save the galaxy? Sorry, Leia. There are many things I'm willing to do to serve the cause, but not that. Besides, my parents would never let me go on a test weekend."
"You can tell them you'll be studying with me."
Winter crossed her arms over her chest. "No."
Leia rested her head on the other girl's shoulder, batting her eyelashes up at her. "Please? I'll do anything you ask. Anything at all."
Winter hesitated. "Anything?"
"Well.... I'll ask my folks, though I can't make any guarantees. But you have to promise me one thing."
Winter made a face. "We will not go fishing."
Leia hesitated. That was her favorite part of going to Shadowcliff. But she would give up fishing if it meant having bearable company on a weekend doomed to be spent with Imperials. For that matter, she would even promise to study all weekend. At least then she'd have an excuse to avoid the guests. "All right," she announced. "Really, Winter, you've just saved my life. The galaxy will thank you for it someday."
"I certainly hope so," Winter muttered.
Leia happily turned back to the holoviewer, but "CorSec: Special Division" had ended. She started flipping through channels again. "Really, Winter, you are the best. You have no idea how much this --"
She screeched to a halt, her thumb releasing the channel button at the sight of her father on the viewer.
"-- lament this terrible loss of life," he was saying in what appeared to be a press conference. The image cut to a reporter who said, "The assault on the capital city of Cyrene was conducted by a new class of ship called a Star Destroyer. The Empire claims the aerial assault was a punitive measure directed against dangerous insurrectionists, but some are calling it an act of brutality." The image cut once more to a ruined city, buildings crumbling, smoke and fire shrouding the devastation.
"What happened?" Winter murmured.
"I don't know," Leia said. And even on Alderaan, she knew the newsfeed was unlikely to tell the true story. Leia, however, knew exactly where she could go to learn the truth. "Come on," she said, jumping to her feet and scrambling from the room. "Let's find out."
"Leia, where are you going?" Winter called as they ran down the hall. She might be taller than Leia, but she was nowhere near as fast. She worried too much about mussing her hair. "Are you going to comm your father? I'm not sure that's a good idea."
"No, I've got a better one," Leia shouted over her shoulder. She thundered down the stairs, sliding across the floor in her stocking feet in a definitely un-princess-like manner. Behind her, Winter followed at a less-than-breakneck speed. While Leia thought nothing of running around even in a nice dress, Winter was always too concerned about her tidy appearance to want to rush too fast.
Winter called out, "Where are you --?" She stopped short when Leia dashed into her father's study. "No! You can't!" she cried.
Leia seated herself at the desk and started the computer, then glanced back to see Winter standing in the doorway, staring in horror. "Leia, that's your father's terminal!"
Leia shot her a pained expression as the computer hummed to life. "Of course it is. Why do you think I'm using it?"
"But you're not allowed!"
"Oh, stop worrying. Thanks to you, I know how to get around all Papa's security checks." She blew her friend a kiss.
"If I'd known that was why you wanted me to read all those computer manuals, I would never have done it."
"Calm down," Leia counseled, her fingers rapidly tapping the keys. "I've been doing this for ages. He doesn't know, and there's no way anyone will find out. I always erase every trace that I was ever on."
Curiosity won over prudence, and Winter slowly approached the desk, placing a hand on the back of Leia's chair as she eyed the screen. "What are you doing?"
"Accessing the StealthNet."
"Leia!" Winter squeaked. "That's dangerous! You need a secure link--"
"Of course. Why do you think I use Papa's computer?"
"But -- are you sure? If the link isn't secure, you could be incriminating your father. He could get arrested --."
With a gruff wave of her hand, Leia dismissed, "Don't be ridiculous." But it did give her a moment's pause. She couldn't bear it if she endangered her father in any way. But the fear quickly passed. She had been doing this for months. She knew her father's computer had a secure link, and anyway he did plenty of dangerous things on his own. Leia doubted her use of the computer would make him any more likely to be arrested than he already was. After all, Bail Organa was one of the leaders of the Rebel Alliance. He committed three acts of high treason before noonmeal every day.
So naturally he had a secure link to the StealthNet, the Alliance's underground network. This was where Leia could turn when she wanted to learn the latest and most accurate information about what the Empire was up to -- and wanted to learn it in more detail than her father was likely to give.
"Here we go," Leia said, as information began to scroll across the screen.
"The capital city was completely destroyed!" Winter read. "Millions killed." A picture appeared on the screen showing the carnage, dead bodies littering the streets, and Winter gasped, turning rapidly away. "I can't bear it," she whimpered, covering her face with her hands, her shoulders hunched. With her photographic memory, she would never forget the horrible image.
Leia twisted in her chair and laid a sympathetic hand on the girl's shoulder, even as her eyes stayed fixed on the screen, watching the images scroll by. "You're better off not looking, Win," she said, scarcely able to bear the images herself. But at least she would be able to forget them. Someday.
"It says the new Star Destroyers were designed for this kind of orbital attack," she reported. "Cyrene was chosen because the planetary government refused to pay taxes in protest of the Empire's racism against non-humans." Leia's brow wrinkled in concern. "Did you know there is a tax resistance movement on Alderaan? They keep submitting bills to the Assembly, but they're always defeated. Papa doesn't support the movement. He says it's too dangerous."
Her face still turned away from the screen, Winter said, "It looks like he's right."
Her father's caution often irked Leia, but she had to concede that in this case she was glad for it. She shuddered at the thought of beautiful Aldera destroyed, its white buildings charred and blackened by laser fire. She shook herself, trying to clear her mind of that image as she returned to reading, "The Alliance estimates that over two million people were killed, including Cyrene's entire government. The sector's governor will be assuming control."
Winter asked, "Cyrene is in our sector, isn't it?"
"Yes." Leia nodded grimly. "Which means my father's guest is a murderer. I won't blame you if you want to cancel the weekend."
Winter turned around and wrapped her arms around Leia, keeping her eyes averted from the screen. "I'll come for sure. There's no way I'll leave you to face that horrible man alone."
Leia raised a hand to clasp Winter's. "Thanks, Win," she said.
Alone. She wouldn't be alone with Governor Naraud anyway. She'd be with her father. But what help would he be? As Viceroy and First Chair of Alderaan, Bail Organa was expected to show his loyalty to the Empire, even while he secretly worked to overthrow it. He walked a delicate line, presenting a proper image to deflect suspicion, while maintaining close Imperial ties in order to gather crucial information for the Alliance. Leia knew her father was just as mortified as she was to be entertaining the Imperial Governor, but it was his duty to do so.
Unfortunately, that meant he expected Leia to act the part as well -- to be courteous and polite, and not accuse their guest of genocide over dinner. Bail Organa could pull it off. Leia wasn't sure that she could.
But she wanted to. More accurately, she wanted to assume a more active role in supporting the Alliance. Her father expected it someday, even trained her to that eventual end, as when he assigned her private homework correcting the propaganda in her Imperial history textdocs. But how did that really help the Alliance? Leia was ready to start real training, to learn espionage and encryption, organizing cells of resisters and establishing networks. But her father thought she was too young.
She stared at the screen, at the images of the destruction on Cyrene, her lips pressed into a thin line of determination. Children her age had not been too young to die. If she could be killed by an orbital bombardment, then she ought to have the right to fight to prevent such threats.
If only her father would listen.
- 2 -
It was late when Bail Organa finally made it home that night. Leia was waiting for him in the library, their favorite place to relax. They both loved to curl up on the couch, surrounded by so many books. Whether they read, played games, or just talked, it was nice to do so in such learned company. Bail sagged onto the couch with a groan, and Leia settled at his side, her arms around his neck, giving him a welcoming kiss. "It's good to see you, Leelee," he sighed. "I'm sorry I missed dinner."
"That's all right. Was it a whiskey day or a wine day?"
He rubbed wearily at his eyes. "Definitely a whiskey day."
Leia scrambled off the couch and went to a cabinet set in the wall, where she poured her father a drink. Returning to the couch, she handed him the glass and said, "I think you need to order a case of the whiskey, Papa."
He raised an inquiring eyebrow. "An entire case?" he asked. "Why so much?"
"You'll need it after our weekend with Governor Naraud."
Smiling, Bail tapped the tip of his daughter's nose. "You're very wise, Princess."
Assuming a regal air, Leia formally replied, "Thank you, Viceroy," then settled back down on the couch, nestling against his side. She remained silent, watching him while he slowly sipped his drink, then said, "I saw you on the news today talking about what happened on Cyrene. What is this going to mean?"
"Well, they were tax resisters, which is a form of nonviolent civil disobedience. A provocative act, certainly, yet the Empire's decision to annihilate the capital city seems way out of proportion to the seriousness of the offence."
"It was the largest mass action the Empire has ever taken against civilians," Leia commented.
Bail's eyes narrowed, and she instantly realized she had misspoken. She had read that statement off the StealthNet, a comment one of the Alliance leaders had made. Her father had to wonder where she would have heard it. She held her breath, waiting, but at last Bail sighed and let it go, sipping again at his whiskey. Leia struggled not to let her relief show, but she mentally noted that perhaps her father knew she was sneaking onto the StealthNet.
After a long pause, Bail spoke again. "It is also surely no mistake that Cyrene is largely populated by non-humans."
Leia gasped in dismay. "I hadn't thought about that!"
"No," said Bail fondly. "I don't suppose you would. You just don't see people in terms of their species, do you?"
"So the Empire picked Cyrene in order to make a point about non-humans?"
Bail nodded. "They also hoped to further the divide between humans and non-humans."
"That's terrible!" Leia lamented. "So what is the Alliance going to do?"
"There will be a series of protests and demonstrations across the galaxy, including one here on Alderaan organized by the University cell. But you and I will not attend."
Leia scoffed. "What's the point of demonstrations? They don't change the Empire's mind."
"Even though the Empire attempts to curtail free speech, we still should exercise it whenever we can," Bail pointed out. "Demonstrations, marches, public debate - these things are the lifeblood of any democracy, the way ideas are shared and issues discussed. We can never forget that, even when we live under tyranny."
"I know, I know," Leia grumbled, crossing her arms over her chest. "But I'd rather be doing something. Like pouring fish sauce in the fuel tank of the Imperial Consul's speeder."
Bail frowned in disapproval. "I sincerely hope you're joking."
Leia answered with her most innocent smile, though it looked a little too practiced to be truly effective. "Still," she said brightly, "a demonstration is better than nothing. Why won't we attend?"
"Because we already have plans for the weekend."
"Oh, yes! Governor Naraud!" Leia sat bolt upright on the couch, fists planted on her hips. "Papa, he's supposed to be taking over Cyrene!"
Another piece of information Leia shouldn't know, but Bail refrained from commenting on it. "I know," he said simply. "I contacted his office to see if he might cancel the visit, but they said he and his family are still coming." He sighed deeply. "I suppose it's for the best."
"For the best?" Leia cried, pushing herself farther away from her father. "Papa, he's a murderer!"
Bail paused, watching her, waiting for her to calm down enough to listen to him. "Don't you think it's better for us to have good relations with the man who will be running Cyrene? We may be able to use our influence to encourage restraint on his part."
"Papa, he's an Imperial! He's not going to listen!"
"Then perhaps he'll talk, and we'll learn something that might avert future disaster." Before Leia could protest again, Bail leaned forward, taking her hand in his. "Listen to me, Leia. I know this weekend will be difficult for you, but you must conduct yourself in a proper manner. Especially after what's happened, you must be very careful. You cannot do anything that might offend the governor. Is that understood?"
Leia lowered her eyes, struggling to control her emotions. "Yes, Father."
He raised her chin so she could see him. "Mouth shut, eyes and ears open. Right?"
Leia sighed and nodded. Standard operating procedure with her father. He knew that adults sometimes said important things around children, thinking they wouldn't understand. Bail and Leia worked as a team when they met with Imperials. It was his tiny way of letting her help the Alliance, but Leia noticed that the "mouth shut" part only applied to herself and not to him. Bail Organa was a master of chit-chat. He encouraged people to talk, and Leia was supposed to listen and observe to pick up on anything her father might have missed. But she thought she was old enough to open her mouth occasionally, too.
"Papa," she began, "I've been thinking."
Her father's dark eyes glinted with wry amusement. "Have you, now?"
Her lips turned down briefly before she managed to compose herself. "It seems to me that a lot of what I learn in school, while interesting, is not very useful if I'm going to help you with the Alliance. I think I need... more specialized training."
"Indeed?" he asked. He still had that infuriating glint in his eye. Sometimes Leia thought her father didn't take her seriously enough. "And what are you proposing?"
Straightening her shoulders, Leia said, "I'm proposing that I quit school and work with you."
Not surprisingly, Bail's face hardened. "You are not quitting school."
"But Papa --"
"Your studies may seem irrelevant, Leia, but you cannot be an effective leader without a basic education."
"But do I really need to be studying classic literature every day? And physical education -- I'm playing smashball when I should be learning basic fitness and survival training."
"I know you're eager to help the Alliance, but you're not old enough, and the work is too dangerous --"
"It was dangerous when Cyrene decided not to pay their taxes!" Leia shouted. "The Empire didn't care that they killed kids when they bombed the city. Even babies died! Nobody's safe, Papa! If I'm old enough to be killed by the Empire, I ought to be old enough to fight it! If they're going to shoot me out of the sky, then at least let it be for something! You risk your life for the Alliance. I should have that right, too!"
Bail stared at her, his eyes wide, and for a moment Leia thought she saw tears in his eyes. But if they were tears, he did not allow them to fall. Shaking himself, he cleared his throat. "I know you think you're ready, and I respect your passion, but I am your father, and I say you're not ready. We'll talk about it again in a couple of years, but for now you will stay in school." His eyes softened once more. "Don't be in such a great rush to grow up, Leelee."
"Don't call me Leelee," Leia cried, jumping to her feet. "I'm not a little girl!"
Again Bail waited, that "calm down" pause as Leia thought of it. But she refused to give in. Gently he said, "I know you're not a little girl, but neither are you old enough. And that's final."
Leia's fists clenched so hard, she could feel her fingernails digging into her palms. She knew she could not win this argument with him, but he was wrong. She would just have to find a way to prove it. "Fine," she said between clenched teeth. "Good night, Father."
She turned on her heel and stalked from the room, blind to Bail's worried gaze.
- 3 -
To Leia's relief, Winter's parents gave her permission to go to Shadowcliff. Bail himself came to pick the girls up from school, their bags already packed and loaded in the speeder. Another speeder followed them carrying the Naraud family, but during the ride to the mountains, Leia could pretend they didn't exist. She and Winter chatted happily away during the trip, making plans as if they didn't have obnoxious guests to contend with over the coming days.
But as they pulled up the pathway to the Organa family's mountain lodge, Leia's spirits wavered. The moment of arrival was usually one of joy, but this weekend the beloved retreat would be more of a prison. The speeder had hardly stopped before Leia opened her door and headed toward the river, but she had only gone a few steps when she heard her father's soft voice. "Leia."
That one word stopped her as effectively as if her father had grabbed her by the arm. She sighed deeply, planted a vaguely friendly smile on her face, and turned back to greet her guests.
The Narauds' speeder hovered to a stop nearby, and the family stepped out into the late afternoon sun. The governor, dressed in his steel gray Imperial uniform, Lady Naraud wearing civilian clothes just as stern as any uniform, and their three children: Jaffia, a few years older than Leia and Winter, her long hair styled elaborately on top of her head; Dal, mussed bangs hanging into his large, brown eyes; and little six-year-old Teena, who had the indecency to be cute and adorable, with fat cheeks and irresistibly curly black hair. In fact, all three of the Naraud children, even with Jaffia's haughtiness and Dal's grubby fingers, looked horrifyingly...normal.
Bail approached them. "Governor, Lady, welcome to Shadowcliff. I hope this weekend will prove a pleasant retreat for you," he greeted. "Let's get you settled into your rooms, and then we'll give you the grand tour."
Lady Naraud nodded slightly, exuding boredom, but the governor breathed the air deeply, his chest puffing out, and smiled at Bail. "How wonderful! You're fortunate to have such a lovely hideaway, Viceroy, and we're so grateful for your hospitality in sharing it with us." He turned to his children, who were standing awkwardly in the graveled path. "Look, kids! Real mountains!"
Jaffia showed as little interest as her mother, Dal was enthusiastically picking his nose as he stared up at the tall trees, and Teena whined, "I gotta go pee!"
"Dal, stop that," Lady Naraud scolded, pulling Dal's finger out of his nose, while the governor held a hand out to his youngest, saying, "Come along, sweetie. I'll take you."
As they headed up the path to the house, Bail cocked an eyebrow at Leia. "Why don't you take Jaffia and Dal to see the river? I'm sure they'd love it."
Masking her annoyance, Leia turned to the two elder children. "Would you like to?"
"Sure!" Dal said, and Jaffia didn't look completely opposed to the idea.
"It's this way," Leia indicated, and she took off on a branch of the path, Winter and the two Narauds following her. "Have you ever been to the mountains before?" she politely asked.
"Never," Dal said. "Are there wild animals here?"
"Yes," replied Leia.
"Do they ever eat anyone?"
Suppressing a laugh, Leia said, "Not that I know of. But there's a first time for everything." She glanced over at Winter, who was hiding a smile behind her hand.
Dal looked disappointed, and Jaffia stared down her nose at Leia. "Maybe the Alderaani pacifism extends to its wildlife as well."
With a sly grin, Winter offered, "Sometimes you can hear the tree lions screeching at night."
Jaffia paled. Attempting to appear aloof, she sneered, "I suppose they're vegetarians."
"No," Leia said with barely suppressed glee.
Dal seemed pleased by the news. He glanced around at the trees again, as if he could see the lions. "I thought it would be cold in the mountains," he commented.
"It'll get cold at night, but it can be quite hot during the day," Leia explained.
"Maybe we can build a fire tonight! And tomorrow we can climb some mountains!"
Leia shrugged. "Maybe." She decided that his enthusiasm was obnoxious. He probably wouldn't be able to appreciate all the wonders that Shadowcliff had to offer.
They came to the streambank, and Leia announced pointlessly, "Here's the river."
"Wow!" Dal exclaimed, looking up the mountainside where the water came tumbling down. "This is great. Can we swim in it?"
"It's not really big enough," Leia said.
Winter added, "Besides, the water is very cold. This is snow melt."
"Really?" Dal knelt down on the bank, muddying his pants legs and plunging his arm up to the elbow in the swirling water. "It's freezing!" he happily exclaimed. His eye caught on a glint of light shining at the bottom of the riverbed. "Is that gold?"
Leia froze. It was really just shiny bits of mica, but her father used to tell her it was magic river gold. How could this ignorant, repressed Imperial have the same idea?
"Don't be stupid, Dal," Jaffia scoffed. "They're just rocks." She turned to Leia and Winter. "This river's awfully noisy."
"I like it," Leia said defensively. "At night I crack my window open so I can hear it."
"I probably won't be able to sleep," Jaffia complained. "I'm just not used to such primitive wilderness."
Winter edged closer, sensing that Leia's temper might blow at any minute, but before Leia could say anything her father wouldn't approve of, Dal spoke up again from where he knelt on the riverbank. "Are there fish in this river?"
Leia glanced down at him. "Yes."
"Can we go fishing? I've never gone fishing before!"
Leia frowned. This wasn't supposed to be happening. The governor's son wasn't supposed to be fun. At her side, Winter piped up, "It's not fishing season." Leia shot her a disapproving glance. There was no such thing as a fishing season, but Winter merely smiled. Leia sighed. After all, she had promised.
"Sorry, Dal," she said.
"Awww." The boy's shoulders drooped in disappointment. He glanced back up toward the house and saw someone approaching. "Who's that?" he asked, pointing.
The girls turned and saw a woman carrying a toolbox in one hand. She limped awkwardly down the rough path, as if one of her legs was shorter than the other. Her face was lined and weathered, and a long scar cut across her forehead, over one eye and down to her jaw. To top off her bizarre, vaguely sinister appearance, she sported a shock of moss green hair. The two Naraud children shrank back, startled by the stranger's appearance, but Leia and Winter smiled warmly at her.
"Aris!" Leia called out, rushing up to the woman and hugging her around the waist. "Papa didn't tell me you were coming."
"Of course, I was coming. Your father couldn't find his own feet without me to look after him."
Her voice was brusque, almost harsh, but her blue eyes sparkled, and Leia giggled, asking, "What's the box for? Are you fixing something?"
Aris nodded farther down the stream. "An old tree fell on the footbridge. I have to fix it before you kids climb on that thing and fall into the river and break your necks."
"Can we help?" Winter asked.
Aris rolled her eyes with an exasperated air. "I'd love it," she said in a voice that clearly said otherwise.
Ignoring her sarcasm, Leia and Winter happily dashed down the path with Aris, the two Naraud children following a bit more cautiously. Further down the stream they found the damaged bridge, a long, narrow tree trunk leaning against it. The tree wasn't very large, but it had knocked several of the bridge's slats out.
As Aris waded out into the stream to get a better look, surprisingly agile despite her bad leg, Jaffia asked, "Is that your servant?"
Leia scowled to hear Aris referred to as a "that." "She's my father's personal assistant." Also an aide, an advisor, and a bodyguard, but Leia wasn't about to let Jaffia and Dal know that.
"Why does she limp like that?" Dal wanted to know.
"It's an old injury." Leia knew there was an exciting story behind Aris's scars, but of course she was considered too young to know the truth.
"She can't be a very useful servant with a bad eye and a messed up leg," Jaffia said.
"Don't judge by appearances," Leia rebuked.
They watched as Aris sought out a good grasp on the tree trunk. Jaffia said, "She doesn't actually think she can move that tree by herself, does she?"
Leia remained silent, a smug little grin on her lips. The children watched as Aris braced herself beneath the trunk and pushed up against it. The trunk slowly rose, until Aris had pushed it clear and let it fall into the stream. Leia felt a strange tingling along her scalp as Aris moved the tree. She felt it sometimes around the woman. It was the oddest sensation. She had once asked Winter about it, but Winter said she never felt anything, and she teased Leia that the strange feeling meant Leia had a crush on Aris. In truth, she did have a crush on her, but who wouldn't? Aris was definitely the most interesting grown-up Leia had ever met or even heard of, but she doubted the sensation had anything to do with her crush.
As the tree fell into the water with a splash, Dal whistled in admiration. "How did she do that?"
"Aris is very strong," Leia boasted, shooting a smug glance at Jaffia.
The girl was trying very hard not to be impressed. To divert attention away from Aris's feat, Jaffia said, "That bridge doesn't look very stable."
Leia scowled. Jaffia seemed determined to find fault with everything. "I helped build that bridge with my cousins. We had eight people standing on it once. It won't break."
"Well, I'm not getting on it," Jaffia sniffed.
Aris opened the toolbox for a hammer and some nails, and Leia called out, "Can we help?"
Aris shot her a skeptical look. "If you think you can be useful."
"Well, I'm not helping. That's servant's work," Jaffia scoffed.
Leia and Winter approached Aris, and Dal hesitated, wanting to join in but wary of Jaffia's disapproval. He glanced uncertainly at his sister.
"Don't you go there, Dal," she warned. "That bridge will fall apart any second, and you'll get hurt. We're going inside." And she grabbed Dal's hand to pull him up the path toward the house.
Leia watched them go. She knew her father would want her to go with them to act as host, but she wanted to shirk her duty for just a little while longer. She climbed carefully out onto the bridge and sat down, swinging her legs above the river. "I can hold the nails for you," she offered.
Aris smirked and handed her the nails. "Whatever would I do without you, Princess?" was her sarcastic reply.
Winter climbed out next to Leia and sighed, "Oh, Aris, you should have seen the look on Jaffia's face when you lifted that tree! Served her right, the priss."
Positioning a nail, Aris hammered it into one of the loose planks. "Why should I care about her opinion of me? She's not my boss."
"But Aris, she's just awful!" Leia scowled. "Stupid, stuck-up Imperials."
"Now who's stuck-up?" Aris replied, taking another nail. "You'd better not let your father hear you talking like that."
A bit stung, Leia retorted, "Well, he's in the house, so he won't hear me. And you won't tell him, will you?"
Aris paused in her hammering long enough to shoot Leia a warning look. "I suppose I won't," she said. "Besides, if I told him every time you did something you're not supposed to, I'd never get anything productive done."
"I knew you wouldn't tell!" Leia beamed. "And I know you hate Imperials as much as I do."
"Hate is a mighty strong word, and not one to be thrown around lightly. No one should be hated just because of what they are, not even Imperials. Prejudice of any kind is wrong." She fixed a fierce blue gaze on Leia. "Your father raised you better than that, Princess."
Leia blushed in shame. Of course Aris was right, but it just felt so good to hate Imperials! She sighed. "I know. But it's hard sometimes."
Aris's expression softened. "Yes, but you girls are smart. You know what's the right thing to do. Now, why don't you let me handle those nails while you go rescue your father? Abandoning him to deal with the Imps all by himself! I've a mind to beat you two for being so cruel to him."
"All right, all right!" the girls chorused. They scrambled to their feet and headed up toward the house, calling, "See you later, Aris!"
- 4 -
They returned to the house to find Teena playing around the logs stacked by the fireplace, Lady Naraud poring over her datapad on the couch, a glass of wine in one hand, Dal and Jaffia on either side of her, and Bail and the governor discussing the additions that had been made to the house over the years. Bail was describing how the back porch could be converted into a sleeping area to accommodate extra guests, and the governor enthusiastically called to his wife, "Meyra, dear, did you hear that? How ingenious! We'll have to remember that when we build our lodge."
Leia heard Lady Naraud mutter, "I didn't know we were building a lodge."
Dal was babbling on about the river and tree lions while she nodded, never looking up from her datapad. Jaffia whined that she hoped she got her own room, as she was too grown up to have to share with anyone. Teena got a splinter in her finger from playing with the logs and started to cry. When no one heard her over the chatter, she crossed the room to her father, tugged on his pants leg, held up her finger and began to cry again.
Leia and Winter sat side by side in an old, over-stuffed chair and watched the ruckus in mute horror, the governor fussing over a blubbering Teena, Jaffia tugging on her mother's arm, demanding to know what her room was like, Dal tugging on the other arm, gushing about the giant fish he had seen in the river, Lady Naraud ignoring them both, her eyes locked on her datapad.
Winter whispered to Leia, "This is going to be a long weekend."
Not answering, Leia took her friend's hand and pulled her out of the chair. They negotiated a path through the babbling Narauds to her father's side. Looking up at him with a sober expression, Leia said, "Papa, Winter and I have that test on First Day. We really need to study for it."
Bail looked from one to the other of them, his eyes sparkling in amusement. "We have about an hour before dinner. That should give you a good start. Be sure to use your time wisely, ladies." He quirked an eyebrow at that. "I know how much you want to spend time with your new friends."
Leia rolled her eyes. "Right, Papa," she said as she dragged Winter off to the safety of their room.
They actually did study a bit, in between complaints about their Imperial guests. Even little Teena was found to be too cloyingly cute. But there was one thing about the Narauds, at least, that interested Leia greatly.
"Lady Naraud was sure focused on whatever was on her datapad," she remarked to Winter. "She hardly paid attention to Jaffia and Dal."
"If I was their mother, I'd ignore them, too," Winter pointed out.
"I wonder what she was working on?"
Winter shrugged. "Who cares?"
"She works for the Empire, too," Leia said. "She's part of the Trade and Labor Department."
Winter's brow wrinkled. "How do you know this stuff?"
"Papa told me. Maybe she was doing some kind of business on that pad."
"Or maybe she was just working a crossword puzzle. Anyway, what does it matter? If her nose is buried in that datapad, it means she's less likely to bother us."
Leia scoffed, "She was not working on a crossword puzzle. And if she was working on business, then it might be information useful to the Alliance."
Winter sat up in alarm. "No way, Leia!" she protested. "Slicing onto your father's computer is one thing, but there is no way you're going to slice onto an Imperial official's datapad."
"Why not? It would be easy enough to do."
"Not only would it prove to my father that I'm capable of spy work, but it would show that I can do something useful for the Alliance." Her eyes took on a calculating gleam. "Maybe it'll have Imperial secrets on it."
Winter grabbed her arm. "Leia, you're crazy! You can not slice onto that datapad! You could get into so much trouble. And you don't even know if it's worth it. Surely even Imperials wouldn't be stupid enough to carry major secrets on their personal datapads. She was probably checking out the stock market or something."
"I don't think so."
"Well, you don't know so, either!"
"Which is exactly why I need to get a look at that datapad." She cocked an eyebrow at Winter. "So are you going to help me, or not?"
Winter hesitated. "Do you have a plan already?"
"Not yet," Leia admitted. "But I'll come up with one."
- 5 -
Leia and Winter dutifully, if reluctantly, emerged from their retreat when dinner was called. The adults were grouped at one end of the table, the children at the other. Lady Naraud remained quiet and sullen while her husband chatted happily away with Bail and cut up Teena's nerf steak. Leia didn't like seeing how caring the governor was with his daughter. Imperials were supposed to be evil, heartless monsters, not nice and loving fathers. In his tenderness toward Teena, Governor Naraud seemed disturbingly like - well, like Bail.
The children sat at their end of the table digging into the food and not saying much of anything. Jaffia studiously avoided looking at the girls, and Dal for the moment was engrossed in his purple cheera beans.
But Leia's father, of course, could not leave well enough alone, and he called down to the youngsters' end of the table, "Jaffia, Dal, I imagine you're quite excited about your new home."
Dal paused, his mouth full of beans, looking alarmed at being addressed by the viceroy, but Jaffia tossed her head. "Oh, I won't be going to Cyrene. I'm going to go away to a private school on Coruscant where they don't admit aliens."
Irked by the girl's condescension, Leia asked, "Then who can go there?"
Jaffia sniffed, "Only humans."
"But humans are aliens, too," Leia pointed out.
Dal guffawed and almost spat his beans out, while Jaffia protested, "We are not!"
"An alien is just anyone who is a different species from you," Winter explained. "So for example, we are aliens to Wookiees and Bothans."
"We are not!" Jaffia appealed to her father. "Papa, tell them."
"Technically speaking, they are correct," her father replied.
"Well, I'm not an alien," Jaffia protested. "I'm not going to school with any aliens, and I'm sure not living on any planet full of bug aliens."
"The Cyreneans aren't bugs," Leia said. "They're reptilian."
"What's that mean?" Dal asked.
"It means they're like snakes," Jaffia explained.
Dal's eyes grew wide in a mixture of fascination and fear. "Are they poisonous?"
"They're more like lizards," Leia said. "And they won't bite you. Cyreneans are nice."
But Dal didn't appear reassured. He shot an anxious glance at his mother. "Do I have to go to school with them?"
"Of course not," Lady Naraud assured him.
"You should," Leia said. "Winter and I go to school with all kinds of beings. It's fun. I wouldn't want to go to school where everyone was the same." Winter nodded in enthusiastic support.
"Well, I don't think aliens should be allowed to mix with humans," Jaffia said.
"Now, Jaffia," her father corrected a little nervously. "There is a place for all beings in the Empire. That's why we're going to Cyrene, to restore order and peace, and make the Cyreneans productive members of the Empire."
Looking down at her plate, Leia muttered, "That's going to be hard to do when you blew up their capital city."
Everyone around the table froze. Leia looked up to see Jaffia glaring suspiciously at her. Dal sat with his fork in his mouth, his eyes darting from Leia to his father and back again. Winter held her breath. Leia felt her blood chill as she realized what a serious error she had made. She couldn't bear to move, was afraid to look at her father for fear of the expression she might see on his face.
After a painfully long pause, the governor cleared his throat. "You have a point, little princess. The destruction of their capital was a most unfortunate event. We made every effort to work out a peaceful resolution, but when that failed, we were forced to take drastic measures. They brought it upon themselves. It is no doubt hard for a young girl like you to understand, but that is the way of the world. Sometimes leaders have to make very difficult decisions, as I'm sure your own father well knows."
Leia bit down hard enough on her tongue to draw blood. She wanted to jump up and scream in the governor's face that her father would never order the destruction of a city. But for Bail's sake she kept quiet.
The governor offered a smile. "Fortunately for the Cyreneans, the Empire is forgiving and generous. We will help them rebuild their capital. In time they will learn that they were wrong, and peace will be restored. That's what we all want, isn't it?"
"Indeed, Governor," was Bail's reply. "Well spoken. The Cyreneans are fortunate to have you as provisional ruler. You will do well by them, I'm sure. Now," Bail straightened his shoulders as if shrugging off the awkward conversation, "Dal, would you be so good as to pass the cheera beans? I believe I'm ready for seconds."
The rest of the meal passed in relative tranquility, with the conversation restricted to discussions of mountain weather and plans for the next day. Leia kept her gaze riveted to her plate and said nothing, leaving Winter to answer whenever Dal asked a question about tree lions or rivers or blizzards.
When the meal at last ended, everyone retired to the living room. Jaffia flipped on the holoviewer, Lady Naraud picked up her datapad once more, and the governor started to build a fire in the fireplace, assisted by Dal and Teena.
Leia and Winter opened the game cabinet to look for a puzzle they could work, when Leia felt a hand on her shoulder. "Leia," her father said, "might I have a word with you? You, too, Winter."
Nodding, the girls followed Bail out of the room and down the hallway to their bedroom, where they could not be overheard.
"Sit down," Bail instructed.
The girls obeyed, sitting together on the edge of the bed, hands folded in their laps, shoulders touching in a silent gesture of moral support.
Bail paced restlessly back and forth across the worn carpet on the floor. Leia inwardly winced. It was definitely bad if her father had to calm himself before launching into the inevitable lecture.
After several moments of anxious silence, Bail halted his pacing and faced the girls huddled on the bed. "Correct me if I'm wrong," he said, his voice frightfully calm, "but aren't you the same young lady who two days ago assured me she was ready to work for the Alliance?"
Leia wasn't sure she was supposed to answer, but Bail remained silent, so she ventured a timid, "Yes."
"I ask you, what use is an Alliance agent who makes blatantly provocative statements in front of the Imperial Governor himself?" Bail hissed the last words, his fury overpowering his attempt to remain calm. "The governor was very gracious. People have gotten arrested for less than that! An Alliance agent who would endanger herself or others so recklessly cannot be trusted."
"But Papa," Leia protested, "he said --"
"I don't care what he said!" Bail swiftly knelt before her, placing his large hands on her skinny knees so she could not avoid looking at him. The displeasure in his eyes made her want to cry. "We must behave as if we are loyal members of the Empire, Leia," he warned. "That means you must guard your tongue at all times. Never, never speak your true thoughts. What could you possibly accomplish by making such an accusation? Do you think you can convince him of your point of view? You yourself said Imperials will not listen to arguments. It was a selfish indulgence, a desire to have your say, no matter what the cost. And it could have cost you, Leia. It could have cost dearly."
Tears welled up in Leia's eyes. "I didn't mean it."
"I know you didn't. But this isn't a game. The Empire plays for keeps. We saw that on Cyrene. Do you want Alderaan to suffer the same fate?"
"No!" Leia cried.
"Then hold your tongue." Bail's expression softened slightly. "I know it's hard to say nothing when the governor talks about restoring peace on Cyrene. I know damn well he's talking about a peace achieved through oppression. It is so hard not to say anything, but we must keep quiet. Save your outrage for another time when it might do some good. Don't vent it in a futile gesture that could cost you your life." He glanced at Winter. "That goes for both of you."
"I'm sorry, Papa," Leia whispered.
He sat back on his heels, letting his hands fall from her knees as he studied the two girls. At last he asked, "Do you want to go back home?"
"No!" Leia protested.
Bail glanced at Winter, who shook her head. He looked back at Leia. "Can you hold your tongue?"
Both girls adamantly nodded their heads, Leia adding, "Mouth shut, eyes and ears open."
"I'll hold you to that," Bail said. "I mean it. No mistakes."
"No, Papa," Leia assured him, and Winter added, "No, sir."
He studied them for another long minute, letting them feel the weight of their promise, the seriousness of the situation. Then he opened his arms. "All right, then. Give me a hug."
The two girls threw themselves at him with such force they almost knocked him over, pressing their faces into his neck, struggling valiantly not to cry. Bail sighed deeply, releasing his own tension as he held the girls and stroked their hair.
When the girls stopped trembling, Bail released them and said, "I'll give you a couple of minutes to collect yourselves. Then I want you to wash your faces and come back out to the living room so we can work a puzzle. All of us," he stressed.
The girls nodded and kissed him on the cheek. He got to his feet, and giving them each a final pat on the head, he left the room.
When he had gone, Winter released a shaking breath. "Do you really think you can do it?" she asked Leia. "Can you really keep quiet?"
"Yes," Leia answered, her voice steeled with determination.
She would not let her father down again.
- 6 -
When the girls returned to the living room, Dal ran up to meet them. "Look at the fire we built!" he exclaimed, pointing out the flames dancing merrily in the fireplace. "I didn't know you had to build a fire. I thought you just turned it on."
"You're thinking of a gas fire," Bail pointed out, kneeling down next to the fireplace so he could admire Dal's handiwork. "They're very easy, but not nearly as fun as a good, old-fashioned log fire. Wouldn't you agree?"
"Oh, yes!" Dal exclaimed. "And it's so much bigger and noisier."
"And hotter," the governor added. "You might want to move back a bit, son, or you'll get burned." He glanced at Bail. "It appears I have a budding pyromaniac on my hands."
Teena squeezed her way through the crowd gathered by the fire, tugging on Bail's sleeve. "I helped build it, too!"
"And what a fine job you did," said Bail. "This fire will keep us all quite toasty tonight."
Leia held back from the group, still feeling out of sorts. Sometimes she really hated sharing her father with guests. But Winter pressed forward. "Are we going to roast nutroots, Uncle Bail?"
Teena and Dal looked up eagerly, but Bail only said, "Later on. Let's not use up all our fun at once. What about that puzzle?"
"What puzzle?" Dal asked. He could hardly keep up with all the new and exciting things to do at Shadowcliff. "I didn't see a projection table."
Bail stood up, brushing ashes from his knees. "It's not a holo-puzzle. It's tri-D. You'll see." He crossed the room to the game cabinet, Dal, Teena, and Winter at his heels. Glancing over to where Leia stood at the side, he offered, "Leia, would you like to suggest a puzzle that our guests might enjoy?"
Warm affection blossomed in Leia's chest. He had noticed her. Papa never forgot her. She took a step closer. "Maybe the seascape one?"
"Ah, yes. Our favorite," Bail commented, with a special smile meant just for her. He opened the cabinet and browsed through the boxes while the Naraud children wondered at the array of games. "Here it is," Bail said, carefully sliding a box from its place. "Over to the table, now. The old-fashioned kind that doesn't plug into a power source."
As the children scampered to the table and scrambled for seats, the governor observed, "'Old-fashioned' seems to be a favorite phrase of yours, Viceroy. Is it just you, or do all Alderaani favor such primitive pastimes?"
"Primitive?" Bail laughed, setting the box on the table so the children could get at the pieces. "We Alderaani appreciate the benefits of modern technology as much as anyone else, but we do cling to our 'primitive' pastimes as well. After all, technology can never substitute for family and friends."
The governor chuckled and clapped a hand on Bail's shoulder. "I like that, Viceroy! People have warned me about your strange ideas, but maybe some of your ideas aren't half bad."
"I'll take that as a compliment," Bail returned good-naturedly.
The children had set up the board, and now the pieces were scattered across the table. "Meyra, Jaffia," the governor called, "come join us!"
Lady Naraud scarcely looked up from her datapad. "You go right ahead. I'll join you later."
Jaffia, who had lost interest in the program she'd been watching on the holoviewer, was peering over the back of her chair at the group gathered around the table. She rose and slowly approached them, as if she hadn't made up her mind whether or not such a "primitive pastime" was beneath her. But she couldn't completely conceal her curiosity. "How do you play?" she asked.
Winter explained, "We use all these pieces to build a seascape. There are fish and plants and corals --"
"-- and boats!" Leia added.
"Look at this thing!" Dal exclaimed, holding up a large, eel-like creature with big teeth.
Winter continued, "Every time you work the puzzle, it's different."
Jaffia's brow furrowed in confusion. "There's no right way to do it? Then how do you win?"
"You win by keeping the puzzle from falling apart," Leia explained with a touch of impatience. "We have to work together. Otherwise the puzzle gets out of balance and won't hold together."
Jaffia slowly shook her head. "I still don't get it," she said, but she took a seat next to her father anyway and picked through the puzzle pieces.
When everyone had selected the pieces they wanted to work with, they began to construct the puzzle, building up layers and adding flora, fauna, and other odds and ends. Seven heads bent over the table, conferring about where to put the coral reef and how deep to make the trench. Dal got particularly excited over the possibility of an underwater volcano, but he was outvoted by the others, who said there wouldn't be room for it. He had to content himself with a sunken ship instead.
They'd been working on the puzzle for about an hour, when the governor pushed his chair back from the table, stretching. "Good heavens! I'm getting a crick in my neck from looking at all those tiny pieces." He called out to his wife, "Come on, Meyra, put that datapad down and take my place at the puzzle. It's really quite fun. I need to walk around for a bit and work the kinks out of my spine."
Lady Naraud closed down her 'pad and joined the others at the table while her husband took a turn around the room, inspecting the array of holopictures decorating the walls. The Naraud children eagerly showed their mother their creations. Even Jaffia was rather proud of the trench she'd been working on.
"Look! This one has tentacles!" Teena said, holding up a cephalopod.
"Mother," Jaffia whined, "Teena's been holding onto that thing all night. Tell her she has to put it in the puzzle."
"No!" Teena protested, clutching her beloved tentacle-beast to her chest.
"You should find a place for it, Teena," her mother said.
Dal suggested, "Put it in my sunken ship. It can eat this school of fish."
"I don't wanna!" scowled Teena.
While the children argued, the governor over by the picture wall called out, "Viceroy, who is this with you here?" He pointed at one of the images. "The face looks so familiar, but I can't place it."
Leia looked up and froze when she saw where the governor was pointing. Her eyes shot over to her father, who stood and slowly crossed the room to the governor's side.
"Ah, yes," Bail said, with a perfect air of nonchalance. "That's an old friend of mine."
"Yes, but who is it? I feel like I should know him."
Bail only barely paused. "That's Obi-Wan Kenobi."
"Kenobi," Naraud repeated, tapping his chin as he searched his memory. "Now I remember. He was a general." His eyes narrowed as he shot a suspicious glance at Bail. "He was a Jedi. In fact, he is on the Emperor's 'Most Wanted' list."
"Is he? I was under the impression that he had died in the purge."
Leia's eyes widened slightly. It unnerved her to know that her father could lie so convincingly. They had both seen General Kenobi alive only two years earlier.
"His death has never been confirmed," Naraud said. "Really, your Highness, I am amazed to find an image of such a wanted criminal in your family home."
Bail merely shrugged. "I've made many friends throughout my career, Governor. I first met Kenobi shortly after I became a senator. That was, what, almost thirty years ago? Certainly long before the Empire existed. He wasn't an enemy of the state back then."
"Still, I have to wonder at your choice of friends. If you saw or heard anything of this man again, I hope you would remember your duty as a loyal member of the Empire."
"I never forget my duty, Governor," was Bail's calm reply. "If I hear anything of him, I will certainly let you know."
Naraud answered with a curt nod. "And I hope in the future you will choose your friends with greater care."
"Of course," Bail smiled. "That's why I'm so glad you and your family are here as my guests."
Leia concealed her grimace by lowering her head over the puzzle. Fortunately, no one else was looking at her. Their attention was focused on the puzzle - all except Jaffia, who watched her father and Bail with a suspicious expression. Leia studied Jaffia, wondering what the girl was thinking, when she turned and met Leia's gaze. They stared silently at one another for a moment, sizing each other up like a dare, neither wanting to be the first to look away. The stare-down only ended when the two fathers returned to the table to join in the puzzle once more.
They continued working on it for another half hour or so. The puzzle was almost complete when Aris entered the room and silently approached Leia's father, leaning down to whisper discreetly in his ear. He nodded and glanced over at Leia and Winter. "Winter, your mother is calling you from Coruscant. I'll have Aris direct the call to my room so we won't disturb the others." He stood and gave a short bow to the governor. "If you'll excuse us?"
Naraud waved a hand. "Not at all."
Winter rose to follow Bail, with Leia hard on her heels. Leia tingled with excitement. Winter's mother worked in the Alderaani senate office on Coruscant, where she also maintained contact with the Alliance network. This was no family call. She almost certainly had important news to report.
They followed her father and Aris down the long hall to Bail's room at the far end of the lodge. Bail opened the door to admit the girls, pausing to glance at Aris. "The room is secure," she assured him.
"Thank you, Aris," Bail answered. He entered the room and closed the door, leaving Aris in the hall where she could pretend to be dusting so as to keep an eye out in case any of the Narauds approached.
Beneath its homey appearance, the viceroy's room in Shadowcliff was as equipped and secure as any battle command center. High-tech sensors jammed any listening devices, and the windows were shielded against surveillance. Bail approached a moss painting hanging on the wall. He pressed the buttons of the climate control panel in a certain sequence, and the painting slid up to reveal a communications panel hidden beneath it. A few more buttons, and the monitor sparked to life.
A middle-aged woman appeared on the screen. She smiled at Winter. "How are you, my dear?"
"I'm fine, Mother."
"Are you enjoying yourself? And behaving, I hope?"
The girl rolled her eyes. "Of course!"
Winter's mother smiled again, then looked at Bail. "I'm sorry to disturb you, your Highness."
"Not at all, Faria. What is it?"
"Nothing definite, I'm afraid. I just wanted to reiterate how important it is for you to keep alert to anything the governor might say. The occupation of Cyrene is moving far too quickly. We're beginning to suspect that the attack against them was more than just punishment, but was in fact an excuse to move in and take over the planet. The Empire wants something on Cyrene, but we don't know what."
"That's rather vague," Bail said. "The governor has been reluctant to talk about Cyrene. I have to be very careful, or he'll grow suspicious."
"Of course. Anything you can find out will be extremely helpful." She turned once more to the girls. "Winter, Leia, don't forget to study for your test."
Winter sighed. "Yes, mother."
They said their goodbyes, and the screen darkened, the moss painting sliding once more into place.
"Papa," Leia said, hesitating. "Have you noticed how Lady Naraud keeps working on her datapad?" She didn't want to hand her secret mission over to her father, but on the other hand, she wasn't really supposed to be doing spy work. It wouldn't be right to withhold information from him.
"Yes, I've noticed."
"Maybe she's doing Imperial work on it," Leia suggested.
"That is possible," he conceded. "But she is unlikely to be carrying important secrets around on that datapad."
Leia suppressed a scowl. Winter had said almost the exact same thing. How did anyone think the Alliance could ever make any progress if they refused to take the initiative? "But don't you think it would be a good idea to check it out?"
"Leia, as a ranking Imperial official, Lady Naraud will have strict security on that 'pad. If she discovered that we tampered with it, we would be in serious trouble. She guards that 'pad closely, but I did manage to catch a glimpse of something she was working on today."
Eagerly the girls perked up. "What was it?"
Bail raised a stern eyebrow at them. "She was writing a letter to the headmaster of Jaffia's new school. We're unlikely to learn anything important from that datapad, and the risks are too great. I'm afraid we'll just have to do this the old-fashioned way."
Leia sighed. The governor was right. That really was her father's favorite phrase. "Mouth shut, eyes and ears open," she dutifully recited.
"Right. I know it's not as exciting, but there it is. And girls -- stay away from that datapad."
"Yes, sir," Winter answered, and Leia just knew her friend was secretly relieved to have been forbidden to pursue the dangerous datapad mission. Leia merely nodded, praying that her apparent assent would satisfy her father.
It seemed to, for he extracted no further promise from her. "All right, then. Let's rejoin the others, shall we?"
They left the room and headed down the hall. Winter's step was light, and she smiled broadly as if a weight had been lifted from her shoulders. But Leia's resolve was all the more firm. She had to see that datapad.
- 7 -
That night when Leia went to bed, she lay awake for a long time, thinking about the datapad. She came up with plan after plan, turning them over in her mind, but they all relied too heavily on luck and sheer coincidence to succeed. After all, it had taken her months to break the security codes on her father's computer. How could she break onto Lady Naraud's datapad in one weekend? It seemed impossible, but Leia refused to give up. She would find a way. She finally drifted off to sleep with visions of theft and espionage in her head
The girls woke bright and early with the sun the next morning, excited as always to be at Shadowcliff. All Winter could talk about as they washed and dressed was what trails she wanted to hike and what old haunts she wanted to revisit. But Leia remained silent, still pondering the datapad.
Breakfast was a boisterous, noisy affair. Dal, the governor, and Bail talked about mountain wildlife, Teena managed to smear fruit jam all over her face, her blouse, and the table, and Jaffia hogged the sweet rolls while trying not to look like that was what she was doing. Lady Naraud, however, disappointed Leia by not bringing her datapad to the table.
After breakfast, everyone went outside to sit on the deck and enjoy the morning sun. Leia wished she would come up with an excuse to stay inside so she could hunt for the datapad, but her imagination failed her. She would have liked to enlist Aris's aid in the mission, but she had a feeling that Aris would only report her plans to her father. So when the Naraud children decided to go down to the stream to play, and Winter announced her intention to join them, Leia had no choice but to abandon her plotting, at least for a while.
The party made their way down to the stream, leaving the grown-ups to sun on the deck. Jaffia sat stiffly on a bench reading a book she'd found in the house. Leia, Winter, and Dal stripped off their shoes and socks to wade in the stream. They shrieked at the cold water and complained so much about the hard rocks hurting their feet that Teena waded into the river with her shoes on before anyone could stop her. She crouched low in the water, searching among the pebbles for treasures, while Leia and Winter threw rocks into a little pool, competing to see who could make the biggest splash.
Dal climbed onto on a smooth rock in the center of the stream, a long stick in his hand. He stared intently into the swirls of water at his feet. Without warning, he stabbed at the water, then hauled his stick back up again and sighed in disappointment.
"What are you doing?" Winter asked, perplexed.
As he balanced on the rock again, stick poised and ready, Dal said, "I read once about people who fish using spears instead of poles and lines."
Intrigued, Leia waded closer to him. "I don't think that would work here. These fish are really smart. That's why I have to be sure I'm well hidden among the bushes on the bank, or they'll see me."
"Yeah, but if I hold still long enough, they'll just think I'm a tree."
Leia doubted that, but as she'd heard of spearfishing, too, Dal's experiment piqued her interest. "If you want to catch anything," she pointed out, "you might want to carve a point on the end of your spear."
Dal blushed and protested, "I'm just practicing. I don't really expect to catch anything."
"Besides," Jaffia added, her nose buried in her book, "Mother wouldn't let you get near a knife."
Dal frowned and turned away from Jaffia toward Leia. He stuck his nose high in the air and made a snooty face. Leia giggled in spite of herself and covered her mouth with her hand so Jaffia wouldn't hear her. She glanced away and saw Teena squatting in the river nearby. "Teena," she called out, "don't stick pebbles up your nose."
The girl hastily dropped the pebbles she'd been holding and said, "I was not!"
Jaffia lowered her book and beckoned to her sister. "Come and sit next to me, Teena. The water is too cold for you."
"No, it isn't! I don't wanna sit by you."
Jaffia's expression grew stern. "Come out of that water right now!" she ordered.
"I don't have to. You're not my mama!"
"Fine, then. Catch a cold. See if I care." Jaffia picked up her book again, annoyed that her display of authority had proved futile.
"Mama doesn't care if we play in the river," Dal remarked, glancing up toward the house where their parents were visible through the trees.
Teena waded over to Leia and Winter and held out a handful of rocks. "See what I found?"
The girls obligingly fawned over Teena's treasures. "They're very pretty," Leia remarked.
"I wasn't gonna stick them up my nose."
"You'd better not," Leia cautioned, "or else we'll have to take you to the hospital and they'll have to stick a pair of pliers up your nose to get the rocks out."
The child's eyes widened in alarm, and Winter rebuked, "Leia, don't tease her."
"I'm not teasing," Leia said, then turned back to Teena. "It's true. So don't stick things up your nose."
Teena nodded, staring up at Leia as if she were the wisest person in the galaxy. "Is that what your mama told you?"
"I don't have a mama."
"Why not?" Teena asked.
"Everybody has a mama," Dal said, his spear dangling in his hand.
Leia heaved a fist-sized rock into the water, where it made a satisfying ker-plunk. "I had one," she said, "but she died when I was little."
The two younger Narauds shuddered in that universal fear of all children. Even Jaffia was listening closely, her eyes staring down at Leia over the edge of her book.
"That's awful," Dal whispered.
Leia only shrugged. "It happened a long time ago."
"Do you miss her?" Teena asked in a trembling voice, her eyes brimming with tears.
"Not really. I don't remember her much. Papa says I was too young to remember, that she died when I was a baby. But I do remember her a little." At least, she thought she did. It was hard to say. She remembered a face, and sad but kind eyes. She remembered being surrounded by a feeling of love and safety, like a soft, warm blanket. It wasn't much to go on, and it might have been someone else, not her mother at all. But she thought it was her mother. She felt such love when she remembered that face. But she didn't like to dwell too long on the insubstantial memory. It raised too many questions, questions that she was not at all eager to have answered.
She shrugged again and threw another rock into the river. "It doesn't matter. I have Papa. He's all I need."
"But the viceroy isn't your real father."
Dal and Teena whipped around to stare up the bank at their sister, who had risen from her bench, her book held loosely in her hand.
Leia glared up at Jaffia, her fists clenched at her sides, as Winter took a protective step closer. "He is too my real father."
"No, he's not," Jaffia calmly replied. "You're adopted."
"So? He's still my father!"
"If you're adopted," Jaffia said smoothly, "then by definition he's not your real father. For that matter, you're not really a real princess."
"I am too!" Leia sloshed angrily across the river toward Jaffia.
"No, you're not. You're an orphan, and your father adopted you. Do you think I don't know these things?" The girl's eyes narrowed, gleaming with a cruel light. "Do you think I can't see him for what he really is?"
"And what is he?" Leia asked, her voice quiet with menace.
Jaffia look down at Leia with an expression of utter contempt. "He's a rebel sympathizer."
Leia trembled with barely contained fury. She wanted to hit Jaffia for speaking that word with such disdain: rebel. Her disdain enraged Leia so much she found herself saying, "He is not! You take that back!"
"I bet your parents were rebels, too," Jaffia continued. "That's what the Empire does. They rescue kids from their illegal rebel parents and give them to Imperials to be raised. I bet that's what happened to you. And some day your rebel parents will come back and take you away."
"LIAR!!" Leia screamed in fury. She hurled herself out of the water and ran up the riverbank, fists flailing as she shrieked, "Liar! That's not true! Take it back!" She pummeled Jaffia with her fists and kicked her with her bare feet. Jaffia screeched and tried to pull Leia's hair, and the other children shouted and circled the fighting pair, not daring to enter the fray.
The grown-ups heard the commotion up on the deck and ran down to the riverbank. When Dal saw the two fathers approaching them, their faces taut with worry, he raised his arm and pointed at Jaffia, "She started it!"
Each man grabbed his daughter, catching the girls' arms and pulling the two of them apart. Jaffia immediately turned and threw herself into her father's embrace, sobbing hysterically, but Bail had a hard time subduing Leia. She turned and twisted in his grasp, fighting to break free so she could attack Jaffia again, all the while screeching, "Liar! Liar!"
"I'm sorry about this," Bail said to the governor as he continued to wrestle with Leia.
The governor patted his still-crying daughter's head. "That's all right. You take care of Leia. Jaffia will be fine."
Without another word, Bail picked Leia up and carried her farther down the riverbank, away from the others. Leia fought at first, but he was too strong for her, and she finally gave in, wrapping herself tightly around her father and sobbing wildly against his broad shoulder.
He carried her far down the riverbank until he came to a large boulder. He sat down, gathering Leia in his lap, and held her as she cried.
When her sobbing had slowed down to uneven wails and hiccups, and his shoulder had become quite damp with tears, he asked, "What happened?"
His question only set Leia to sobbing again. "She said you weren't my real father!"
"Well, that's nonsense, isn't it?" he said, his tone light. "You and I both know perfectly well that isn't true."
Leia's sobs quietly reduced to sniffles. "She said my real parents are rebels, and the Empire took me away from them to be raised by Imperials."
Bail sighed. "They wouldn't have been very smart to give you to me, then, would they? Anyway, I can assure you I did not get you from the Empire."
Leia sniffled, and her fingers curled into her father's hair as she considered this. "Were my parents rebels?" she quietly asked.
Her father hesitated just a moment too long. "No," he said, but his tone indicated that he was holding something back.
Bail had often told her that he would reveal the truth of her origins someday when she was old enough, but in truth Leia didn't really want to know. Her memories of her mother were pleasant but vague, like an almost forgotten dream. It was just enough to give her comfort, to reassure her that she had always been loved. She didn't want to know anything more than that, to know names or occupations or places of birth. She had about as much use for her birth parents as she did for the store from which her toys came. Too much speculation about her parents became menacing, implying that she belonged somewhere else. Each little detail would remove her a small but significant step away from Bail. That could not be borne.
She wrapped her arms tighter around Bail's neck, shivering. "What if my real father comes back?" she whispered. "What if he wants to take me away?"
Again Bail hesitated -- another reason why Leia didn't like to talk about these things. Those hesitations meant something. Bail always gave her benign answers, but first came this sinister silence, hinting at truths she had no desire to know.
"He won't come back," Bail assured her as he always did, and Leia fought to ignore the secrets hidden behind his words. "And I would never let anyone take you away from me."
That was the truth Leia most wanted to hear, the one thing in this mystery that she could trust. "You promise?" She asked not because she needed the assurance, but because she already knew the answer and liked to hear him say it.
"Absolutely I promise," he told her. "You are mine forever and always."
With a deep sigh, Leia relaxed into her father's loving embrace. The pale memory of her mother's love couldn't possibly compare with the flesh and blood of Bail Organa. He was all the family she needed; the only family she could ever want.
- 8 -
When Leia had calmed down, Bail led her back to the others for the inevitable round of apologies. Leia didn't think she ought to have to apologize at all. After all, Jaffia deserved a pounding for the things she had said. But the injustice of the situation was tempered by the fact that Governor Naraud made Jaffia apologize first. Leia was pleased to note that the governor was quite put out with his daughter.
Once the unpleasant deeds were done, the adults retreated once more to the house, taking Teena along with them for a nap. Jaffia also went inside, mortified at being forced to apologize. Winter took Leia's hand and led her off for a walk among the trees, but they quickly realized that Dal was following them.
"That little toad!" Winter whispered fiercely in Leia's ear. "Why won't he just go away?"
Leia said nothing, her gaze focused rigidly before her. She didn't want to turn around and look at Dal for fear he would take it as an invitation. But at the same time, she was a little curious as to why he would follow them.
They walked on, following a faint trail through waist-high grass. Tall, thin trees filled the grove like slender, white columns, their leaves forming a shimmering canopy far over their heads. When the wind blew, the trees seemed to whisper among themselves like a convocation of librarians. Leia liked to sit by herself on a fallen log and listen to the wind and the trees talking together. But when they reached the log, Leia did not sit down. She would find no solitude here today. Instead she walked on, Winter nervously hovering next to her.
"Where are you going?" Winter asked.
"To my tree," Leia said.
"But --." Winter's eyes darted briefly back toward Dal who was still following them, but Leia only shrugged.
They reached one of the largest trees in the grove. Leia could barely fit both her arms around its trunk. She bent down and picked up a twig and started scratching into the thin bark.
Winter hesitated a moment longer, then found a twig of her own and scratched at the bark as well. Dal hung back, watching them closely. Both girls knew he was there, but they ignored him. At last Dal gave up waiting for them to acknowledge him, and drew closer.
"What are you doing?" he asked.
Winter pretended he didn't exist, but Leia said, "We're writing our initials on the tree. We do it every year."
Dal leaned closer and saw that the black marks he thought were just uneven places on the trunk were actually letters, L.O., over and over again, with quite a few W.N.s as well, and several other sets of initials. He carefully traced one set of letters with his finger. "Are these others your friends?"
"Yes. Only I get to say who carves on this tree." She paused in her labors long enough to point out another tree nearby that was covered with marks. "That one is my papa's tree."
Dal studied it in amazement. The marks covered the tree trunk to a height of almost two meters. "Wow!" Dal exclaimed. "He must have been carving on that tree forever!"
"He doesn't really do it anymore. Those initials aren't all his. He had lots of friends carve it, too." Leia enjoyed studying all the letters on her father's tree, trying to match initials to people she knew. She finished her carving and looked at Winter to see the girl glaring fiercely at her for exposing such important secrets. Leia ignored her.
Dal scrutinized Leia's tree, commenting to Winter, "There's a lot of your initials on here."
"I come here with Leia all the time," Winter said with a haughty air. "We're practically sisters."
Dal nodded and waited, but if he expected to be invited to carve his own initials on the tree, he was to be disappointed. "You're really lucky," he said at last. "This is a great place. And your father's really nice."
Leia's cheeks flushed warmly to hear her father praised. "Thanks."
"You shouldn't listen to anything Jaffia says," Dal added. "She's just a bully. She's always picking on me."
Leia said nothing, but she wondered briefly what it would be like to have a real sister or brother.
"I'm really sorry your mother died," Dal continued. "Jaffia shouldn't have said those things. It would be awful if --." He stopped abruptly and bit his lip, looking down at his shoes almost hidden among the tall grass.
The girls waited, but he didn't continue. Winter was determined to ignore Dal completely, but Leia was curious to know what he had been about to say. Really, Dal was surprisingly non-obnoxious for an Imperial. In fact, he probably would have made a decent brother. At last she prompted, "What would be awful?"
Dal looked up, but not at Leia. His gaze was focused somewhere among the trees, and his expression was grave. "If something happened to my parents. I don't want us to go to Cyrene. I don't think those people will like my parents. What if someone tries to kill my papa?"
"That won't happen," Leia automatically dismissed, though she knew perfectly well what it was like to have a father with enemies.
"The governor of Taneris got assassinated," Dal pointed out. "And I worry about my mother, too."
Leia frowned. That seemed odd. "Why?" she asked, and Winter listened closely. Even she was curious now.
Dal gave a helpless shrug. "Something about the work she's going to do there, I think. I overheard my parents talking about it. They say there might be problems."
The two girls exchanged interested glances.
"Whenever I ask them about it," Dal continued, "they tell me not to worry, that everything will be fine. But I'm still afraid. I wish we didn't have to go there."
Leia's mind worked furiously, processing all the information Dal was giving her. She had no idea what kind of work Dal's mother might be doing that could be dangerous, but it made her all the more eager to get a look at that datapad. And maybe Dal would prove to be the key.
Slowly, carefully, Leia said, "I know what it's like to be afraid for your parents. My papa does many important things... for the Empire," she carefully added. "I worry about him, too, but he never tells me anything. He just tells me he'll be fine." Dal gave her a sympathetic look, and she knew he was hooked. She lowered her voice as if inviting him into her confidence, and he drew closer in eager expectation. "But I figured out a way to find out what he's doing. That way I don't worry."
Dal's eyes widened in awe. "Really? How?"
Winter had leaned forward, too, and Leia noticed a flash of alarm in the girl's eyes, but she ignored her. "I can slice onto my father's computer and access his private files."
Dal eyes grew as large as naku nuts. "And you don't get into trouble?"
"No. I know how to do it secretly, so he never knows." Now it was time to reel her catch in. "I noticed your mother keeps working on her datapad. If we could slice onto it, maybe we could find out what she's going to be doing on Cyrene."
Dal's body tensed with tightly coiled energy, as if the slightest touch could send him dashing off through the trees to find his mother's datapad. "Do you really think you could do that?" he asked, his voice cracking with excitement.
Leia gave a casual shrug. "Maybe. It would really help if we knew her codes, though. We wouldn't want to trigger any security alarms on her 'pad."
"How could we get those codes?"
"Well...," Leia paused. "If you could watch her when she logs onto her 'pad, you might be able to see her enter her code. Then you could tell us what it is, and we could slice into her files."
Winter squeaked in alarm, but Dal was completely engrossed.
"Do you think you can do that?" Leia asked.
"Yeah!" Dal shouted. "I mean, I could try. Wow! Would you really help me?"
Guilt twisted in Leia's stomach. She wasn't the one who would be helping him. "Sure. But you can't let her know."
"Right. Like a spy." Dal grinned.
Leia's guilt grew. The situation was perfect. If Dal could get them that code, then getting onto the 'pad would be easy. But she'd be stealing government secrets from a boy she was starting to think of as a friend. It seemed like a rotten, underhanded thing to do. She wondered if her father ever felt that way. Did he actually think of any of these Imperials as his friends? He sure seemed to like Governor Naraud. Was it hard for him to work against people he personally liked, yet whose politics he deplored? It was a troublesome dilemma, and Leia's respect for her father rose a notch.
If she was going to use Dal, she ought to offer him some consolation. Even though the boy would hopefully never know about Leia's ulterior motives, she wanted him at least to know that she considered him her friend. "Would you like to carve your initials on my tree?" she offered.
"Oh, thank you!" Dal gushed. "You're the best, Leia!" He eagerly found a twig and started scratching his initials next to Leia's own fresh marks.
As the boy worked on the tree, Leia and Winter's eyes met. Winter's worried expression reflected Leia's own misgivings, but she would not let her doubts stop her. She had a mission to accomplish.
- 9 -
Dal got his chance after lunch. While everyone else settled down for a brief nap, Lady Naraud fetched her datapad and curled up on the living room couch to work. Dal flashed Leia a brief grin before stretching out on the couch next to his mother and resting his head in her lap where he could see her working on the datapad. Leia and Winter cozied up together in the big armchair. Leia was determined to stay awake and keep a surreptitious eye on Dal, but the sun drifting in through the window was drowsily warm. The full lunch meal had left her sated, and the combined exertion of their river play, her emotional outburst, and her late-night scheming session proved to be too much for her. She dropped off to sleep almost immediately.
One satisfying doze later, the soft voices and quiet movements of people stirring roused Leia, and she blinked slowly awake. Her eyes came immediately to rest on Dal, lying sacked out in his mother's lap, his mouth hanging open and looking quite silly. She frowned crossly, wondering if he'd managed to stay awake long enough to accomplish his task. Lady Naraud had fallen asleep as well, her head resting against the back of the couch, her datapad still clutched tightly in her hand. She finally roused, but Dal lay dead to the world until Teena started fussing that she was hungry again. Her high-pitched complaints finally succeeded in penetrating Dal's consciousness, and he woke up, yawning and rubbing his eyes.
Now that everyone was up, they moved back out to the deck. The adults proposed a round of cards, and Bail asked the children, "Would you like to play, too?"
Jaffia readily agreed, but before Leia could refuse, Dal piped up, "No thank you, sir. I was kinda hoping Leia would show me where the fish live in the river."
Leia glanced at Dal who was staring at her with an expression that all too clearly said he was hiding something. "Okay," she said. "Let's go, Winter."
"Me, too!" Teena squealed as she scrambled off her chair to join them.
"No, Teena, you're too little!" Dal scolded.
Teena stamped her foot. "But I wanna see the river."
The threesome froze. They had secret work to do, and the last thing they needed was to have a six-year-old snot machine following them around.
"You can't come!" Dal insisted. "Mama, tell her!"
Not looking up from her cards, Lady Naraud said, "Teena, you've already ruined two pairs of shoes and socks playing in the water, and you only have one pair of dry shoes left. You may not play in the river."
"But, Mama," Teena whined, her face dissolving into the prelude of a tantrum.
"Listen to your mother, dear," the governor said, holding his hand out to his daughter. "Why don't you sit here on my lap and hold my cards for me?"
The promise of a cuddle proved enough to avert the tantrum, if not the tears, and Teena climbed up into her father's lap, sniffling and whining about how she wouldn't get her shoes wet, it was unfair, and she hated Dal.
Relieved, the threesome tramped down the stairs toward the river, trying far too hard to look casual. They ducked out of sight around the corner of the house and huddled against the wall.
Leaning close to the two girls, Dal announced, "I got the code! When Mama worked on her 'pad after lunch, I sat with her and saw the code and password and everything!"
"That's great!" Leia whispered. "And they're playing Nar Shadda rummy. That game lasts forever. Let's go look at the 'pad now. Do you know where she keeps it?"
"It's in her room, in the dresser."
Leia nodded. "All right. Come on." She gestured for the others to follow, and led them around to the back of the house, where they crept in through the back porch. Once inside, Leia dropped to her hands and knees. "We have to get down low. Otherwise, if they look through the window, they might see us."
The other two dropped to the floor, and Winter exclaimed, "Oh, no!"
Leia's heart stopped. "What?" she asked.
"Jaffia is seated so she can look right into the window!"
"Did she see us?"
"Not yet, but she could!"
Leia rolled her eyes. "Dummy! That's why we have to crouch low. Now be quiet. She won't see." All the same, Leia wasn't happy. If Jaffia did see them, she would squeal for sure.
They crawled across the floor on their hand and knees, creeping among the chairs in the dining area, hiding behind the sofa on their way through the living room until they reached the hall -- where they ran straight into a pair of boots.
Leia looked up, past the boots, past the work trousers, past the crossed arms, and up to the stern face of Aris, looking down at her in disapproval. "Just what do you characters think you're doing?"
Leia gulped, and Dal and Winter hovered behind her. "We're playing."
Aris arched an eyebrow. "Playing?"
"We're... tree lions, stalking our prey."
Aris's lips pressed together in what could almost be a smile. "Well, aren't you three the cutest tree lions I ever saw?" she drawled, her voice dripping with sarcasm. Leia held her breath. She knew Aris wasn't deceived, but she didn't know whether Aris would look the other way.
"Have fun playing, children," Aris said at last. "I'm going to the kitchen to see about dinner." She stepped over the three crouching spies and left them alone in the hall.
They sagged in relief. Dal panted melodramatically. "I thought she was gonna kill us!"
"Don't be stupid," Winter retorted.
"Thank goodness we fooled her!"
Leia started to point out that Aris had not been fooled at all, but she realized Dal would probably not find that reassuring. "Come on," she instructed as she scrambled to her feet.
Even though they were safely out of sight, they tiptoed cautiously toward the Narauds' bedroom, slinking inside and shutting the door carefully behind them. Once inside, Leia glanced around. "Where is it?"
"Here." Dal crossed the room to the dresser and opened the top drawer. He pulled out the datapad and held it up, a triumphant smile on his face.
"Excellent," Leia crowed.
Dal beamed and started to sit on the bed.
"No!" Leia cried out, holding her arm out to stop him. "You can't sit on the bed. They'll know we were here." She plopped onto the floor, tucking her legs beneath her and beckoned to the others to join her.
The three of them crowded together, holding the blank datapad in front of them, savoring their moment of triumph. But the moment stretched on to become something much longer than a moment. No one quite wanted to proceed.
"Here," Leia shoved the 'pad toward Dal. "You do it. It's your mother's."
"But I don't know how to use it!"
"Why not? Besides, you're the one who knows the codes."
Dal's eyes were wide. "Why can't I just tell you the code, and you do it?"
"Because it's better if you do it. I might mess it up."
"But -- but --"
Winter sighed in impatience. "Leia, just do it. This was your idea, anyway."
Leia glared at her friend, but it was two against one. She sighed and reached out a trembling finger to turn the 'pad on. The screen flared to life and the menu came up.
"Open the files," Dal prompted.
"I know that," Leia scoffed. She clicked on the menu, and various folders appeared on the screen. Personal, correspondence, recipes, work, finances.
"Try 'work,'" Dal suggested.
"No, that's too obvious," Leia said. "They always hide the secret stuff under something that doesn't make sense." She clicked "recipes." The folder opened up to show files for soups, side dishes, meats, desserts, and measurements.
"Those don't look like secret files," Dal said.
"Don't be so sure," Leia cautioned. "Who keeps measurements on their datapad?"
"What does it mean?" Dal asked.
"You know, converting different units of measurement," Winter explained. "Like, how many milliliters are in a Huttese drana." She shrugged. "She might keep measurements on her 'pad."
Leia clicked on the folder. It opened up to dry weights, liquid volume, and a folder marked Impending. "That it," Leia said, pointing to the latter. "It's always some nonsense."
"Are you sure?" Dal asked.
"There's only one way to find out." Leia clicked on the file, and the screen flashed "secure file: enter code," with a 10-second countdown. "Quick, what was the code?"
Leia hesitated. "All those numbers? Are you sure you got them right?"
"Of course I'm sure," protested Dal. "It's Jaffia's birthday, the little snit."
"Okay, here we go." Leia shakily typed them in and hit "enter." The screen went black, and the three of them leaned over the 'pad, breathless. A flicker of light, and a new screen came up, listing a row of files. Dal and Winter shrieked in excitement. "We're in! We're in! I can't believe it!"
"Shut up!" Leia hissed, her heart pounding furiously. "Do you want them to hear us?"
The others quieted down, but squirmed in excitement as they surveyed the files. "Which ones do you think we should look at?" Dal asked.
"I don't know. Let's look at as many as we can. Dal, you go stand in the hall by the window out over the deck. Don't look through it, in case they see you. Just listen to hear if the game ends or they're going to come inside. We'll stay here and look at the files. Winter can read really fast."
Dal nodded and jumped to his feet to go serve as look-out.
"You ready?" Leia asked. Winter merely nodded, her brow furrowed in concentration as she hovered over the 'pad.
One by one Leia opened files, scrolling down rapidly as Winter studied the screen. No need to go slow; Winter would remember everything perfectly. Leia opened the files too quickly to be able to read them herself. She was dying to know if they had found anything important, but she didn't want to disrupt Winter's concentration.
Leia didn't know how long they'd sat there, but they hadn't made it through all the files before Dal scooted back into the room, eyes wide. "Papa's coming inside with Teena!" he whispered.
"Quick! Shut down the pad!" Winter squeaked.
"I know that!" Leia protested, her hands sweating with panic. She hastily closed all the files one by one as Dal bounced on the balls of his feet next to the door. He glanced out at the hallway through a crack in the door. "We can't get out this way!" he frantically whispered. "He's right down the hall!"
"Blast it!" Leia exclaimed.
"Hurry! Under the bed!" Winter instructed. She dove beneath the edge of the cover, the other two wriggling after her.
They lay on their stomachs, their noses inches from the dusty floor. "Eww," Dal squealed, pointing at a dead bug snagged in the underside of the mattress.
Slapping his hand, Leia chided, "Hush!"
The door opened, and two sets of feet entered the room, one large, one small.
"Show some sense, Teena," the governor was saying. "You're a big enough girl to know that you shouldn't wear your shoes in the river."
"But the rocks hurt my bare feet," Teena complained. She climbed up on the bed, bouncing on it. The three spies prayed she wouldn't jump too hard and knock them in the head.
"Then don't get in the water. And stop bouncing on the bed." The governor's feet stopped in front of the dresser, and he knelt down to reach underneath it, where Teena's wet shoes had been set to dry. If he turned around, he would be able to see Leia, Dal and Winter hiding under the bed. They held their breaths, but he didn't look. He pulled the shoes out from under the dresser and stood up.
Teena scooted to the edge of the bed and kicked her feet against the bed frame. The motion dislodged the dead bug, which fell right in front of Dal. He jumped, bumping his head on the bottom of the mattress. The two girls grabbed him and held him still as they waited expectantly to see if they had been detected.
"Goodness gracious, Teena," the governor said. "Stop kicking the bed." He knelt and pulled off her shoes and socks. As he stuffed her toes into one of the damp shoes, Teena whimpered, "It's cold."
"That's because it's still wet."
"So if it's wet, why can't I wear them in the river?"
Naraud sighed. "Because we're trying to let them dry. If you wear these shoes in the river again, then you'll have to wear them for the rest of the day."
Teena whined some more, and at last both shoes were on her feet. As she hopped off the bed, the governor said, "Come on, now. Let's go see if we can find Dal and the others."
As the door shut behind him, the three spies squirmed out from under the bed. "The 'pad is covered with dust!" Winter said. The three of them wiped down the 'pad as best they could with their shirttails, and Dal carefully replaced it in the drawer exactly as he had found it.
They slipped back out into the hall, crawled across the living room to the back porch, scarcely minding the rugburns on their knees, and scampered out the door and up the hill. They ripped off their shoes and socks and plunged into the icy water, splashing around to make it look as if they'd been playing there all along.
"Leia!" Winter gasped, pointing at her head. "Your hair is covered in cobwebs!"
"Ewww!" Leia squealed, swatting at her hair.
"If the governor sees it, he'll wonder how it got so dirty." Winter tried to brush the cobwebs away, but they clung stubbornly to Leia's braid.
"Get them off!" Leia urged. She could hear the governor's and Teena's voices as they drew nearer.
"I'm trying!" Winter said. She pulled the hairband off the end of Leia's braid and tossed it onto the riverbank. Shaking Leia's long hair free, Winter finally managed to brush the cobwebs off just as Teena and the governor arrived. The three spies laughed and splashed at each other to cover for the fact that they were breathless from running up the mountainside.
"Well!" The governor beamed at them, holding Teena's hand. "You look like you're having fun. Do you mind if Teena joins you?"
"Not at all, sir," Winter politely replied.
"Then I'll rejoin the card game, if you don't mind. Jaffia is in danger of beating me, and I have to defend my honor." He glanced down at Teena, who had crouched on the bank and was poking at a worm she had found under a rock. "Remember what I said about your shoes, Teena," he warned, then smiled at the others and headed on down the hill.
Leia sighed in relief and glanced over at Dal. He was staring intently at her, and for a moment she feared he might say something about the datapad in front of Teena. She might be only six, but Leia knew, just as her father did, that it was never wise to say anything important around little kids. She scowled a warning at Dal, but he only said, "Your hair is so long."
Leia hesitated, gathering her hair together at the nape of her neck. "I ought to rebraid it, otherwise it gets everywhere." She waded toward the riverbank to retrieve her hairband.
"Oh, don't put it up. It's so pretty." He blushed and glanced away, then looked shyly back at her.
Leia was surprised. People were always commenting about Winter's white hair. After all, it was an unusual color, and it shone as bright as silk. Leia's hair was a far more ordinary brown. The only thing remarkable about it was its length. Loose, her hair fell to her waist. No one ever called it pretty, except her father, of course. Pleased, she tossed her head, letting her hair swing free, and decided not to rebraid it after all.
They spent the rest of the afternoon playing in the river, pretending to be a family of rock bears, catching fish with their "paws," mock-fighting, and rolling around on the muddy riverbank. No one even noticed when Teena waded into the river with her shoes on. They had so much fun just being kids that they quite forgot about their mission, or anything else.
Suddenly a loud screech interrupted their game. Startled, they looked up to see Jaffia standing on the riverbank, hands on her hips, her expression thunderous. "Look at you! You're filthy!"
"Of course we're filthy," Dal shot back. "We're bears!"
"You are not bears! And mother is going to kill you! Teena, are you wearing your shoes in the river?!"
The little girl froze, her finger in her mouth, water swirling around her drooping socks. "Please don't tell, Jaffia!"
"I won't have to tell her. You're soaking head to foot. In that freezing river, too. You'll catch your death of cold, just you wait and see."
"Nonsense!" Leia scoffed. She inhaled deeply through her nose, puffing her chest out, and exclaimed, "Fresh air and exercise! Just what the doctor ordered! And cold water stimulates the blood."
Jaffia's eyes narrowed in disdain. "Right. Well, I was supposed to call you in to dinner, but since you're all bears, you can just stay out here and eat pinecones." And with an imperious toss of her head, she stalked off down the path.
"Jaffiaaa!" Teena whined, scrambling out of the river and following after her sister.
The other three took their time, retrieving their shoes and socks before heading barefoot down to the house.
"So what did you find on the datapad?" Dal whispered as they picked their way along the path.
Leia had almost forgotten about the mission. "Oh, yeah. Well, Winter was the one who saw it all."
"Um," Winter hesitated. "There was a lot of stuff in those files. I'm not really sure what it meant."
At Dal's crestfallen expression, Leia explained, "Don't worry. She's got it all crammed in her head. Now we just need to get it out of her head so we can read it over and figure out what it means."
Puzzled, Dal asked, "Like downloading your brain?"
"Kinda," Winter said, "but we have to do it the old-fashioned way."
"What's that mean?"
Winter and Leia looked at each other. "I'm not doing it," Winter protested.
"It was your idea. You write it all out."
"But I'm not the one with the amazing wonder brain."
"I don't care! If I try to write it out, I get hand cramps."
"But I'll write it down all wrong."
Dal waved his hands to get their attention. "What you guys talking about?"
Winter scowled. "Dictation."
"We have to write it all down," Leia explained. "It takes a long time."
"I won't do it, Leia," Winter said again.
"But you want to help --," Leia caught herself just in time, "-- to help Dal, don't you?" Dal gave Winter an earnest look.
"Yes, and I did my part by getting it all in my brain. Now you have to get it out."
"I'll write it down," Dal offered. "You can dictate to me, and I'll write."
Winter smiled and opened her mouth to agree, but Leia hastily interrupted her. "No! No, it's better if Winter and I do it ourselves. After dinner, we'll tell everyone we have to study. That way it won't look suspicious. But you can't study with us, Dal. We'll write it all down, and then later tonight we'll tell you what we found."
"Well...okay," Dal said, disappointed.
They arrived at the house to hear Teena crying while her father scolded her. Jaffia appeared quite satisfied with herself. The threesome tried to sneak off to their rooms unnoticed, but the governor caught Dal and immediately gave him a tongue-lashing for not watching Teena properly -- and for making such a mess of himself.
Bail, who was more accustomed to Leia and Winter making messes of themselves, merely raised an eyebrow at them and instructed, "Go change."
The girls scampered off to their room, but not before they spied Lady Naraud in her usual place on the couch -- datapad in hand. Winter stopped and gaped in a non-spyish way, but Leia prodded her in the ribs to move on.
When they were safely in their room, Winter fretted, "She was working on her 'pad!"
"Yes," Leia replied, "and if you'd been paying attention, you'd have noticed she didn't seem to be upset that someone had been messing with it. She doesn't know! I'd say our mission was a complete success."
They hastily changed out of their muddy clothes, and Leia brushed and rebraided her hair. She'd left her hairband at the river.
"Why didn't you want Dal to help us with the dictation?" Winter asked as she pulled on some clean pants. "Maybe his handwriting is better than yours."
Leia rolled her eyes. "Honestly, Win. We're trying to steal secrets from the Empire. I like Dal, but I don't want him to know what it is we really want."
Winter thought about this. "You're right," she said. "But does that mean we're not going to help him? I mean, we said we were doing this to find out whether his mother was doing anything dangerous. What if we find out she really is doing something dangerous? Will we just not tell him?"
Leia bit her lip. "I don't know. We'll think of something."
The girls were quiet for a moment. The spy business was proving to be tricky in ways they'd never imagined.
With a shrug of her shoulders, Leia said, "Well, let's go to dinner."
- 10 -
Dinner passed in a happy manner, with Dal, Leia, and Winter gulping down their food as if they really were hungry bears. Teena still sulked, kicking her feet -- clad in her wet shoes -- against the legs of her chair, and Jaffia pretended to ignore Leia and Winter, which suited the girls just fine.
When their plates had been eaten clean, Bail leaned back in his chair. "So, what shall we do this evening? Another game?"
Leia piped up, "Winter and I should really study some more for our test."
Bail blinked at Leia in astonishment, and she immediately realized her mistake. She should have let Winter make the suggestion. Normally, Leia would never volunteer to study on her own.
"Study," Bail said slowly. "All right. You girls go study for an hour. Then I expect you to come back out and join our guests. We'll roast nutroots tonight when you're done."
Leia sighed in relief. He just thought they wanted to get away from the Narauds again, as they had done the night before. "Yes, Papa!" she said, leaping from her chair and dragging Winter with her.
They retreated once more to the sanctity of their room, shutting the door tightly behind them and climbing onto the bed.
"Okay," Leia said. "One hour isn't a long time, so let's get started."
"We could do this when we get home," Winter suggested. "After all, we really do need to study."
Leia waved her hand dismissively. "Forget it. Besides, we've got to tell Dal something, don't we?"
Winter sighed. "All right. I've been thinking about those files. They don't make a lot of sense to me. Rather than writing it all out now, let me just recite the documents one by one. You listen and see what sounds important. You're better than me at catching that political stuff. If it's important, we'll write it down."
"Good idea," Leia said. "Just -- not too loud, right? In case anyone might be listening."
Winter nodded and closed her eyes. After a few moments of concentration she began to quietly recite the files, as if she were reading from a page in front of her.
Leia stared at the coverlet between them, listening closely. She didn't like to watch Winter recite these things. If Leia didn't watch her, she could pretend Winter really was just reading something, and it was less creepy. Plus, staring at something boring like the coverlet enabled Leia to concentrate more on the words.
Some of the files were letters, some were series of numbers that seemed to be inventories, and some were more like reports. It was a lot of tedious bureaucratic stuff, most of which Leia didn't understand. After each file, Winter would crack an eye open and peer at Leia in inquiry, but Leia merely gestured for her to continue. A lot of it seemed pretty random, and Leia couldn't make much sense out of it. Any of it could be important. But if Leia couldn't figure it out, they might have to write every single document down to give to her father en masse, and that would be a real chore. Besides, what if it all proved to be worthless after all? They would have taken the risk for nothing. Leia doubted such fruitless daring would impress her father much.
On and on Winter recited while Leia sat listening, the words blurring in her ears. She closed her eyes, letting Winter's voice flow through her brain, hardly listening to individual words or numbers, the sounds almost like a song. What was the rhythm? What was the chorus? Did any pattern or theme join all these random notes together?
"Labor needs," Leia muttered, her eyes still closed. Winter stopped reciting, and Leia opened her eyes to see her friend staring at her.
"Labor needs," Leia repeated, still unsure what she was getting at. "Labor supplies. Transportation of labor."
Winter hesitated. "Didn't you say she works for the Department of Labor? So it makes sense she should be talking about labor."
Ignoring her, Leia continued, "And there was one document about 'Lyseria 20,000'."
"10,000," Winter corrected.
"Whatever. But a couple of those names I knew. They're cities on Cyrene. Maybe the others are, too."
"Well, that makes sense, doesn't it? They're going to Cyrene. Maybe it means how many people they need to fix the cities."
"But only the capital was destroyed. Some of those cities are nowhere near the capital. That document with the numbers -- did it say labor needs or supplies?"
Winter's eyes lost their focus for a moment as she concentrated. "Supplies," she said at last. "Maybe it means that's how many people they need to rebuild the capital?"
"But there were a whole lot of numbers."
Winter shrugged. "It takes a lot of people to rebuild a whole city."
Leia slid off the bed and rummaged on her desk for a stylus and a sheet of paper. "Read off those numbers again."
Winter closed her eyes and rattled off the names and numbers while Leia scribbled the figures down on her paper. When Winter finished, Leia's stylus continued to scratch over the paper as she worked out the sum. At last she announced, "176,000."
"So math proves useful after all," Winter smirked. Then her brow furrowed. "That seems like an awful lot of people. Are you sure you added it right?"
"Yes," Leia said, as she pondered the figure on her paper. "I know it would take a lot of people to rebuild the city, but -- well, nothing you recited seemed to talk about construction. Though several times she talked about a mine. What was that stuff from the mine?"
Again Winter focused before answering, "Tridentium."
"I wonder what that is?" Leia mused, opening her planetary sciences textdoc.
"Now planetary science turns out to be important, too," Winter observed. "Except I don't see what that has to do with anything."
Leia didn't answer, reading her textdoc. "Here it is. Tridentium is a rare ore that is formed in the high pressure of a plant's mantle and is forced up to the crust by seismic activity. Also found on high-density planets and moons."
"Is that on our test?" Winter fretted. "I don't remember reading about it. We're not that far in the class yet, are we?"
"Low yields... costly and labor-intensive to mine," Leia continued to read. "Used to make high-density materials, especially as plating on interstellar combat ships." She looked up at Winter. "Interstellar combat ships -- like those Star Destroyers."
Winter paused. "Well, yes. But I still don't see what that has to do with --"
"What if all those figures about 'labor supplies' are for people to work in the mines? What if the Empire wants that tridentium for their star destroyers?"
"It could be, but --"
Leia climbed back on the bed to face Winter. "Keep reciting," she ordered.
- 11 -
By the time the girls emerged from their "study session," they were convinced of the plot. But the others in the living room had their minds on another matter.
Teena hopped up from her chair. "Yay! You're here! He made us wait for you." She scowled and pointed at Leia's father.
Bail laughed. "You have perfect timing, actually. The fire has burned down to some nice coals, just right for roasting nutroots."
"Can we start now?" Teena asked eagerly.
"Absolutely," Bail answered. "Would you like to help me get the roasting pans ready?"
Teena squealed and clapped her hands, while Leia seized the opportunity to announce, "Winter and me will get the nutroots from the pantry. Dal, come help us."
Dal leapt to his feet and scrambled eagerly after them. Leia led the way to kitchen and opened the door to the pantry. It was a large storage closet, and the three of them could just fit inside. They squeezed in, and Leia held the door shut.
"So?" Dal whispered in excitement. "What did you find? The numbers didn't make sense to me."
Winter cast a nervous glance at Leia, who was finding it hard to lie to Dal. Stalling for time, Leia said, "There was a lot of stuff on the pad."
Worried, Dal prompted, "But you found something?"
Leia forced herself to smile in what she hoped was a reassuring manner. "It all seemed to be about the plans to rebuild the capital city," she said at last. "Boring stuff, really. There was nothing dangerous about it at all."
Dal's brow wrinkled, and for a moment Leia feared he wouldn't believe her. "You sure?"
"Of course, I'm sure," Leia replied in her most confident voice. "Your mother is probably going to be a hero for rebuilding the city. The Cyreneans will love her."
An ecstatic smile lit Dal's face, and Leia's stomach twitched guiltily. She glanced quickly at Winter. Her friend's expression mirrored her own unease. Steeling her resolve, Leia turned back to Dal and smiled warmly at him. "So you see? Everything is fine."
"You are the best friend ever, Leia," Dal beamed at her. "I hope you'll come visit me when we move to Cyrene."
"That would be great," replied Leia.
"Let's get the nutroots before everyone wonders why we've been gone so long," Winter suggested, desperate to change the subject.
"Right," Leia agreed, searching on the shelves for the bag of nuts.
Now that he could stop worrying about his mother, Dal's curiosity returned. "What are nutroots, anyway?"
"They're... nuts. They grow underground. Like roots," Winter attempted to explain.
"How do you roast them?" Dal asked.
"Oh, you'll see," Leia dismissed, pulling the bag of nuts off the shelf with an *oof.* "These things are heavy!"
Dal helpfully grabbed a corner of the bag, and they returned to the living room, where Bail, the governor, Jaffia, and Teena hovered by the fireplace, two roasting pans at the ready.
"Goody, goody!" Teena yelped. "I can't wait!"
Jaffia shot her a quelling look. "You don't even know what nutroots are. You just want to play in the fire."
"Now, Jaffia," her father rebuked. He looked across the room to his wife. "Meyra, are you sure you don't want to join us?"
"I doubt there's room for me. You go ahead."
Dal crouched eagerly on the hearth. "What do we do?"
Leia untied the bag and poured some of the nuts onto the floor. The size of a baby's fist, they were light brown and gnarled, with tough hulls.
"You eat these?" Jaffia protested. "You really are bears, aren't you?"
"I know they don't look very appetizing," admitted Bail, "but they're quite tasty."
"Look." Leia tossed one into the coals. It began to make a sizzling sound.
Bail heaved a long-suffering sigh. "I tried so hard to raise you right, Leelee. Yet clearly I have failed. That is not the proper way to roast nutroots."
"But your way takes too long," Leia teased back. "Besides, I like them burnt."
"What do you mean --," Dal began, but he was interrupted by a loud pop as the nut exploded, leaping out of the fire. The children jumped backwards as the nut landed on the hearth. The hull had split, revealing puffy brown innards, burned black in places.
Eagerly, Leia picked up the nut and tossed it back and forth between her hands as it cooled. Then she peeled off the hull and popped the nut into her mouth. "Mmm! Black and crispy!"
"I want to try!" Dal said.
"They're terrible that way," Bail assured him. "If you do it, you need to be careful that it doesn't hit you when it explodes. It's very hot."
While Dal and Teena both scooped up some nuts to toss into the fire, Bail opened one of the roasting pans and poured some nuts into it. "This is the proper way to do it." He closed the lid and extended the pan into the fireplace, holding it by its long handle so that it hovered a few centimeters above the coals. "You have to shake and toss it a bit so the nuts roast evenly. It takes a couple of minutes."
Teena's nut exploded, ricocheting off the chimney and landing back among the coals. "My nut!" she cried in dismay.
"Don't worry." Leia grabbed the tongs and carefully pulled the nut out of the fire, letting it drop to the hearth to cool. Dal's nut exploded next, and Leia retrieved it, too. After a few seconds, Dal and Teena pulled off the hull and eagerly devoured the innards.
Teena instantly made a face and spat hers back out again. "Yuck!"
Dal nobly chewed on and managed to swallow, but his sour expression betrayed his opinion.
"What's it like?" Jaffia asked curiously.
"It tastes kinda like a burned piece of wood," he confessed.
Leia protested, "No, it doesn't! It tastes really good!" She threw another nut into the coals.
"It does not taste good, Leia," Winter contradicted. "You're just weird." She prepared the other pan, but the Narauds' enthusiasm had been visibly dampened.
"Don't worry," Bail assured them, shaking his pan over the coals. "Done the right way, they're delicious. You'll love them."
The children watched as Winter held her pan over the coals alongside Bail's. Leia's nut exploded with a satisfying pop. Teena and Dal liked the noise, but they left the burnt nuts for Leia to enjoy alone.
After a minute or two, a muffled ping sounded from Bail's pan. He shook harder, and more pings followed in rapid succession. When the racket stopped, Bail pulled his pan out of the fireplace, raised the lid, and poured the contents into a large bowl that had been set on the floor.
The hulls had split, just as Leia's had, but the puffed nutmeat was a lovely golden brown. The children cautiously selected a nut, picked off the hull and gingerly bit off a piece.
Jaffia's face immediately lit into brilliant smile. "It's really good! It just melts in your mouth!"
"It's not like wood at all," Dal agreed. "It's yummy, like -- like fried sweetsauce."
"Fried sweetsauce?" Jaffia scoffed, but she couldn't come up with a more satisfying description. Teena said nothing, just grabbed a handful of nuts and stuffed them in her mouth as fast as she could hull them.
The governor chuckled. "It looks like your nutroots are a success, Viceroy." He sampled one himself. "They really are delicious. Meyra, try one!" He looked up, but Lady Naraud was nowhere to be seen. "Ah, well. No doubt she's back to work again. My wife just doesn't know the meaning of the word 'vacation.'"
Winter's pan began pinging, and while she finished roasting hers, Bail loaded up another pan and let Jaffia try it.
"I still like my way best," Leia said, throwing another nut into the fire.
"That's fine, dear," Bail told her. "And you may rest assured that no one will ever try to steal them from you."
Everyone got to try their hand with the roasting pans, but they couldn't cook them fast enough to keep up with the demand. The bowl emptied as rapidly as it filled up, and everyone laughed, enjoying themselves, not even minding when they accidentally burned their fingers or tongues by digging at the nuts before they had a chance to cool down.
The governor had just finished roasting a panful when he turned and saw his wife standing behind them. "Ah, Meyra, you've come back at last! You must try these. They're wonderful!"
But Lady Naraud's eyes glittered darkly in the firelight. "Viceroy," she said, her voice even more cool than usual, "there is a matter of grave concern which I must bring to your attention."
Everyone looked up to see her holding her datapad. Leia, Winter, and Dal froze in shock.
"What is the matter?" Bail asked, all innocence.
She held forth the 'pad. "This has been tampered with."
Leia glanced at her father. He appeared concerned and solicitous, but betrayed no guilt. "How do you mean?"
"Someone has accessed my 'pad, but did not log off properly before shutting it down."
Leia flushed guiltily. But it couldn't be her! She had logged off. Their execution of the plan had been perfect. Lady Naraud hadn't noticed anything when she used the 'pad before dinner. Could they have inadvertently tripped some security alarm? Her father would know it was her. She waited in anxious silence, but Bail remained calm and did not look at her. "I am sorry to hear that, madam, but I'm not sure what you wish me to do about it."
"I believe it was your servant, Aris. She has free access to the house."
"Madam," Bail replied, "Aris has been in my service for many years. She has my complete confidence. I'm disturbed to hear about your 'pad, but I assure you, Aris had nothing to do with it."
"Your loyalty to her is admirable, but perhaps you are deceived in your trust. After all, we know that you have not always chosen your friends wisely."
Bail's expression remained impassive, but his hands flexed slightly. Leia knew her father well enough to know that this accusation vexed him, but he refused to be goaded into a reaction. "Is it not possible," he ventured, "that one of your children might have accessed your 'pad, perhaps wanting to play some computer games?"
Leia shot a quick glance at Dal. He had done it, she knew it! He had said something about the numbers when they were in the pantry, but he'd never even seen the files when she and Winter got onto the 'pad. He must have accessed the 'pad later on, perhaps while Winter and Leia were in their room. She glared at him, but he remained silent, clutching the handle of the roasting pan, an almost eager expression on his face.
"My children know to respect my property," Lady Naraud assured him. "There is no way one of them would have done this. The items on my 'pad are confidential, your Highness. This breach could be construed as treason against the Empire. You have long declared your loyalty to the Emperor. Prove it now by finding the perpetrator and bringing her to justice."
Governor Naraud rose to his feet. "Now, Meyra, this is a very serious accusation you're making. Perhaps there may indeed be an error. Nevertheless," he turned to Bail, "I'm sure the Viceroy will be eager to discover whether there has been any wrongdoing on this Aris's part. After all, the best of us may be deceived by our inferiors."
Leia bit down hard on the inside of her lip to keep from leaping to Aris's defense. She glared furiously at Dal, silently urging him to come forward. But Dal only stared back at her, his lips pressed together.
Bail paused, just a beat or two too long, before saying, "Of course I will speak with Aris. If she has indeed accessed your files, I will see that justice is done. But according to Alderaani justice, she must be considered innocent unless her guilt is proved."
"Certainly, your Highness," the governor said. "Investigate her, and I, too, will look into the matter to see if there is some other explanation. One way or another, we will get to the bottom of this."
"Papa," Jaffia spoke up, "it might have been Leia."
Now all eyes turned toward Leia, and she could see the alarm in her father's eyes.
The governor cautioned, "Jaffia, you should not make unfounded accusations."
"But she could have done it when she said she was studying. All the rest of us were here in the living room."
"Leia and Winter were studying together. Are you going to say that Winter did this, too? And for what purpose?"
"They're rebel sympathizers," Jaffia sneered.
"Jaffia!" Naraud rebuked, but his wife did not share his skepticism.
"Winter," she asked, "was Leia with you the whole time?"
"Y-yes," Winter answered. Leia wondered how someone could tell the truth and yet sound so guilty at the same time.
"And did you remain in your room studying?"
"Yes, we did!" Leia interrupted hotly. "You can look at our datapads!"
Did anyone see you study in your room?" Lady Naraud continued.
Bail rose, his expression thunderous. "Madam, I will not permit you to interrogate my daughter in this manner!"
She turned a calculating gaze on him. "Are you so certain that she is innocent?"
"I am saying that it is not your place to question her."
"Meyra, the viceroy has said he will get to the bottom of this, and we will trust him to do so. I'm certain that he will be eager to prove the innocence of his household, just as I am sure he will treat this matter seriously. After all, it will not do to have such allegations shadowing the Royal House of Alderaan." The governor's tone was kindly, but his words held a definite menace.
Bail gave a slow nod. "As you say, Governor." He looked at Leia, his expression hard. "Girls, will you please come with me?"
Leia stood on trembling legs. By sheer force of will she crossed the room to her father, Winter close behind her.
The girls followed Bail down the hall to his room. They found Aris there, working on Bail's computer. She glanced up at them in surprise, and Leia almost wept to think she might be in danger.
"What has happened?" Aris asked, seeing their grave faces.
Bail held up a cautioning hand and engaged the room's shielding. Once the room had been secured, he turned to face the girls, and the expression on his face was more terrible than anything Leia had ever seen. "It seems," he said, "that someone has broken onto Lady Naraud's datapad."
"It wasn't us, Papa!" Leia protested. "It was Dal!"
"And how do you know this?"
"Because--." She stopped herself. If she told him, she'd have to reveal what she and Winter had done.
And her father knew it. "Let us do this systematically. Aris?" he asked. "Forgive me, but I must ask. Did you access Lady Naraud's datapad?"
Her eyes flickered to Leia and Winter before returning to Bail. "No, your Highness."
"And I did not access it." He turned inevitably toward Leia. "Leia, did you?"
"I didn't ask whether Dal did it. I asked whether you did."
Leia gulped, tears filling her eyes. She knew he would be disappointed, but he had it all wrong. This wasn't how she's imagined telling him. "Yes, Papa."
"We both did," Winter hastily added.
ail sighed in deep disappointment. Leia couldn't bear it. "Leia--"
"But it's not what you think, Papa! We closed the 'pad down correctly. We did everything right. She should never have known. She didn't know, because she used her 'pad right before dinner. It had to have been Dal! He got on it later but didn't close it down properly, and now he won't admit it because he wants Aris to take the blame."
"That doesn't matter," Bail said. "I gave you an order. I forbade you from messing with that 'pad. You disobeyed me, and now you have brought danger upon us all."
"But Papa, we found important things on that 'pad!"
"The Empire is going to enslave the Cyreneans and force them to work in the mines!" Winter added.
Bail hesitated. "What mines?"
"The tridentium mines!"
Bail and Aris exchanged alarmed glances at this news, and the two girls held their breaths. For a long moment, the grown-ups remained silent. In the end, it was Aris who spoke first. "It makes sense, Bail," she said. "Too much sense." When Bail remained silent, his expression sober, she turned back to the girls. "Winter, you saw the files?" She nodded wordlessly. "And you can reproduce them from your memory?" Another nod, and Aris looked back at Bail.
The Viceroy sighed, his expression still grave. "How did you get access to that 'pad?"
"We got Dal to find out his mother's codes. We did it all the right way, Papa, she wouldn't have found out if Dal hadn't -"
Bail again held up a hand, and she fell silent. "And why would Dal have given you those codes? Why would he have helped you spy on his mother?"
Leia's heart sank. Her father always knew how to get straight to the heart of the matter. "He was worried about her. We told him that if we could get onto her 'pad, we might be able to find out whether the work she would be doing on Cyrene would be dangerous or not."
Bail's penetrating dark eyes shifted from Leia to Winter and back again. "And what did you tell him when you discovered this plot?"
Shamefaced, Leia admitted, "We didn't tell him. We just told Dal she was going to help rebuild the capital."
Bail contemplated this, turning and walking across the room to stare at the moss painting that covered his communications panel. Leia glanced up at Aris, but the woman's expression remained carefully neutral. Leia was sure that Aris knew how valuable the information they had recovered was, and she had hoped Aris might put in a good word for her with her father. But Aris refused to speak, refused even to favor Leia with a sympathetic glance.
At last Bail turned around, his hands held behind his back. "I'll not deny that you girls found very important information. But the fact that you successfully accessed that 'pad does not make up for the fact that you chose your ally poorly. Dal proved to be impetuous enough to try to access the 'pad himself, yet not smart enough to do so undetected. And the fact remains that his loyalty will be first to his family and second to the Empire. You cannot count on him to support you in your little adventure. Lady Naraud knows that someone got onto her datapad, and neither you girls nor Aris has a proper alibi. Now we will have to lie to an Imperial Governor."
"But you lie to Imperials all the time!" Leia protested.
"At least I know how to do it properly," replied her father.
Leia scowled. "I'd know, too, if you taught me. I'm old enough, Papa. I can do this, but I need you to show me how."
"Enough!" Bail said. "I will not discuss this further. Now, we need to come up with a story." He paused a moment, thinking. "Aris, where were you while the girls were studying?"
"I was in here," she answered, "looking over those communiqu?s for you."
"Did anyone see you?"
"No. We can say that I went in to check up on the girls while they were studying."
"And what were you girls studying?" Bail asked.
"Planetary sciences," they answered.
"All right. When lying, you must always stick as close to the truth as possible, so you're less likely to forget the details. And you should volunteer as little information as you can in order to reduce your chances of contradicting yourself. This will have to do. And girls," he fixed them with a stern glare, "try to leave the talking to us. Focus on keeping your face relaxed. You must not react to anything they say or do, lest your expression betray you. I shouldn't have to tell you that failure is not an option we can afford."
Leia gulped and glanced at Winter. She was starting to regret the whole thing, but it was far too late now. Winter looked as frightened as Leia felt, but the two girls straightened their shoulders, prepared to do their best.
"All right, then," said Bail. "Let's go."
He led the way out of the room, followed by Aris, with the two girls bringing up the rear. Leia's heart pounded furiously in her ears as they walked down the hallway to the living room. 'Mouth shut, ears and eyes open,' she repeated to herself with each step. 'Mouth shut. Mouth shut. Mouth shut.' Right now she hoped she'd never have to speak again.
The governor's face was grave when they entered the room, and he stood up. Before Bail could say anything, the governor said, "I'm sorry, Viceroy. I inspected our room, and underneath the dresser where my wife kept her datapad, I found this." He held out his hand. Resting on his palm was Leia's hairband.
Leia sucked in her breath, despite her best effort to remain impassive. But her father merely wrinkled his brow. "I'm not sure I understand," he calmly replied.
"This hairband does not belong to either of my daughters," the governor added.
Before Bail could speak, Jaffia piped up, "That's Leia's. She was wearing it earlier today."
The governor's eyes were hard. "I remember seeing it, too. I do not think you can explain this away, Viceroy. What I want to know is: what was your daughter doing with my wife's datapad?"
For a moment, time stood still. Leia didn't know what to say. Winter stood rigidly beside her. Her father stared at the hairband in the governor's hand, and Aris kept her eyes steadfastly on Bail.
Then Dal stepped forward. "Leia didn't do it, Papa. I took her hairband when we were playing at the river today."
Surprised, the governor turned to his son. "Why would you do that?"
The boy blushed furiously and stammered, "I wanted to have it because - because -"
All at once, Leia knew why, just as she understood why Dal was speaking up to protect her now. He had a crush on her. Her betrayal of him weighed all the more heavily on her, and she almost burst with the desire to help Dal out of his scrape, but she realized her father was right. She should not volunteer information. Their stories would most likely end up contradicting each other. Dal had to get through this on his own. He was a sweet boy, but she doubted he could be trusted as an ally. Her father had been correct about that, too.
"Why did you take Leia's hairband?" the governor pressed.
Dal blushed bright red. "Because - because she's my f-friend. She didn't look at mama's datapad, either. I did."
"You know better than that, Dal."
"I know, but - but," Dal blushed and stammered, obviously flustered. "I wanted to play with Leia - but she and Winter were studying - and - and - and I was bored, and Leia told me how she sliced onto her father's computer - so I wanted to see if I could slice onto mama's datapad."
Leia's jaw dropped open in horror before she could collect herself. She glanced up in alarm at her father and was surprised to see that he had relaxed slightly.
The governor cocked an eyebrow at Bail, who gave an understated but long-suffering sigh. "My daughter does indeed get onto my computer in order to access the holonet. She promised me she'd stop doing it, but evidently --." He shrugged in disappointment and turned to Leia. "Did you tell Dal how you slice onto my computer?"
Leia hesitated, not exactly sure what she was supposed to say. She finally just followed Bail's lead. "Yes, Papa."
The governor asked, "You did not get onto my wife's datapad?"
Leia started to contradict, but Dal interrupted, "It wasn't her. It was me. I did it when she was studying."
Leia glanced at the others. Jaffia and Lady Naraud did not appear convinced in the slightest, and the governor himself still seemed to harbor doubts. But to Leia's relief, he turned to Dal and said, "I'm very disappointed in you, son. There is no excuse for what you did."
Dal lowered his head sheepishly, and Leia doubted it was an act.
Bail said, "I'm sorry that my daughter may have encouraged Dal's behavior. I will talk with her about it."
"Indeed, I hope you will," replied the governor. Leia thought she could detect a hint of amusement in his eyes. "It doesn't say much that our security can be breached by children, does it, Viceroy?"
- 12 -
Once the matter had been resolved, the two families settled down to roasting more nutroots, but Leia's father and the governor and Teena were the only ones who seemed to be genuinely enjoying themselves. Everyone else felt dissatisfied about the matter of the datapad. Jaffia and Lady Naraud regarded Leia and Winter with distrust. Dal seemed to be out of favor with everyone. Leia wanted to talk with him, to thank him for coming forward, to apologize for betraying him - to sock him on the nose for screwing everything up. But it didn't seem safe for them to sneak off for a private conversation. All conference between the two families was now under suspicion.
As for Bail and the governor, Leia found herself wondering all the more whether their apparent friendship went any deeper than appearances. Could they pull the image off because they were both such consummate politicians, or was it possible that despite their ideological differences they might actually like each other? Not for the first time did Leia find her father's ability to dissemble disturbing. There was far more to Bail Organa than met the eye. Leia almost felt sorry for any Imperial who tried to stand in her father's way. But it also worried her. Perhaps she didn't know her father as well as she thought. What was he really capable of? What deceptions could he practice? What lies had he told?
So ended the final evening of their holiday. When everyone said good night, Leia did not doubt that they were all privately relieved to be going home.
The next morning passed in a flurry of preparation and packing. When Leia and Winter left the house to bid ritual farewell to the stream, Dal managed to escape his mother's watchful eye and join them.
The three children walked up the mountain well out of sight of the house. They settled themselves on a sunny stone next to the river, and Dal picked up a fallen branch and broke off twigs, throwing them into the river, unable to meet Leia's eye. "I'm sorry I messed everything up," he said at last. "I couldn't wait for you to tell me what you'd found. I thought I could get onto the 'pad myself, but I screwed it all up."
"That's all right," Leia said. It wasn't really, but what else could she say? "It all worked out in the end. I just wish you'd come forward sooner, so Aris wouldn't have been blamed."
Dal looked up in surprise. "It would have been better if they'd thought it was her. Then neither of us would have gotten in trouble."
"But Aris would have!" Leia retorted. "If they'd thought Aris had stolen government secrets, she might have gone to jail!"
Dal paled slightly. "Oh. I just thought she'd have gotten fired."
"Fired?! Aris is my friend. I don't want anything to happen to her. And besides, she didn't do it. It's not right to let innocent people get blamed."
Dal poked his stick into the muddy bank, and he seemed genuinely ashamed. "I'm sorry. I didn't think about it that way. None of our servants are my friends."
Winter pointed out, "Even if they aren't your friends, they're still people, and you should treat them fairly."
"I guess you're right," Dal said.
"Besides," added Leia testily, "Aris isn't a servant."
They sat in silence for a while, watching the stream. Then Dal said, "Anyway, I had a great time here. This is such a great place, and you guys are really cool. Thanks for being so nice to me, even after what happened."
"You're pretty cool, too, Dal," Leia admitted. "I didn't really know what to think of you at first, but you're fun to be with. It's just Jaffia I can't stand."
"Me, too!" Dal laughed. "And she's totally wrong. You guys aren't rebel sympathizers at all."
Leia and Winter wisely refrained from correcting him.
"Anyway," Dal continued, "she'll be going off to school now. Maybe next time she won't come." He stopped suddenly, and they all wondered whether there would be a next time. "I hope my folks do invite you to visit Cyrene. It would be great to see you again."
"That would be nice," Leia politely answered.
Again they fell silent. Leia still wasn't sure how she felt about Dal. She liked him, but he was an Imperial. She'd had fun with him, but he'd almost messed everything up. Yet she couldn't place all the blame on him. However foolish Dal had been, Leia was the one who had used him. Could she and Dal truly be friends any more than their fathers could? She liked to think that somehow it was possible. She wasn't sure she wanted to have to hate every Imperial, especially if they turned out to be nice.
She pulled the band out of her hair and handed it to Dal. "If you still want this, you can have it."
Dal blushed and reached out to take it. "Thanks," he mumbled, embarrassed. He wadded the band up and shoved it deep into his pocket. "But I don't have anything to give you back."
"I have your initials on my tree," Leia pointed out. "If you come back, you'll have to carve a new set."
From down the hill, a voice called out, "Kids! It's time to go!"
The threesome hopped off the boulder and headed down the hill. Winter went first, but Dal caught Leia's arm and kissed her quickly on the cheek. Before she could react, he turned and ran down the mountainside. By the time Leia got to the bottom, Dal was already hidden in his family's speeder.
- 13 -
Leia and Winter studied for their test during the drive back home. Bail was still not pleased with their role in the whole affair. He refused to discuss the matter further, and when they got home, they scarcely had time to say good-bye before Bail banished Leia to her room. She wasn't sure if she was really being grounded, or if her father was just using the impending test as an excuse to confine her to her room. At any rate, she didn't see him for the rest of the day. She knew he had work to do, but she couldn't help but feel as if she were being punished.
Leia had dinner alone with Aris that night. She hardly felt any better in front of Aris than in front of her father. She slunk into her seat and stared guiltily at her nerf sausage. "I'm sorry I almost got you in trouble, Aris." Her eyes stung, and she sniffled. "If anything had happened to you -"
"Your father would have taken care of it. He's gotten me out of worse scrapes than that. Lady Naraud couldn't have done anything to me."
Leia looked up, curious. She knew Aris and her father had known each other for many years, since long before she was born. But much of that relationship was a mystery to her, falling into that giant category of "Things Leia Was Too Young to Know About." She knew Aris wouldn't enlighten her, even if she asked.
"Anyway," Aris continued, "it wasn't about me at all. Lady Naraud was hoping to pin something on your father. Lucky for all of us your boyfriend decided to play the hero."
"He's not my boyfriend!" Leia protested, her cheeks warm.
"Good," Aris said, her lips twisting in a smile. "I'd hate to think you'd fall for an Imperial. Still, it's not a bad idea to have Imperials fall for you, is it? People in love are willing to do all kinds of stupid things. That can come in handy."
Leia said nothing, concentrating on her meal while she contemplated the possibilities. Indeed, Dal's crush on her probably had a lot to do with everything that had happened.
After a while, she ventured, "I guess Papa is really mad at me."
"Do you think he has good reason to be mad?" Aris asked in that infuriatingly non-committal way of hers.
"We did get onto that datapad all right," Leia pointed out. "And we did find something really important. He's not going to ignore it just because we disobeyed him, is he?"
"He already spoke to Winter's parents about having his secretary take down those files from her."
"Oh. Good." Still, Leia felt a touch of resentment. Her father probably wouldn't give her and Winter proper credit for the discovery. Of course, the information was what mattered most, not who had found it. Leia was glad she'd been able to help the Alliance, especially the Cyreneans. But she had hoped her father would be impressed by their feat. Instead, all he saw was two naughty little girls who disobeyed him. He'd never accept her as a grown-up.
They didn't discuss the issue any further, and when dinner was over, Leia went back to her room. She wanted to get onto her father's computer so she could check the StealthNet to see if word of her discovery had gotten out yet, but she knew that would be a very stupid move. No doubt her father had already put up extra security barriers. Leia could eventually get around them, but right now she had had enough of betraying people: Aris, Dal, even Winter. And of course, her father.
She tried to read for a while, but found herself staring blindly at the same screen for ten minutes. She finally just gave up, got undressed, brushed her teeth, and crawled into bed, turning out the light so she could stare through her window at the moons while she tried to fall asleep.
She must have dozed off eventually, because when she woke later, only one of the moons was still visible in the window.
"Are you asleep, Leelee?" she heard her father ask.
Leia sat up to see him standing in the doorway. His image blurred, and she blinked back tears, relieved that he'd used her nickname. "I'm so sorry, Papa," she said, her voice choking.
In a few steps he was at her side, sitting on the edge of the bed and holding her against his chest. "Don't cry, Leia," he said, his voice calm and even. But it was a few minutes before she could stop.
"Are you very disappointed with me?" she sniffled.
Bail said nothing at first, just stroked her hair in silence. "I honestly don't know how to answer that question. I told you to leave that datapad alone, and you disobeyed me." He sighed deeply. "But you were right about its importance. And you did manage to retrieve the information without being detected."
"But I didn't pick a good ally," Leia reminded him.
Bail chuckled. "I'm glad to hear you listen to at least some of the things I tell you!" He hugged her again, a little too tightly. "Oh, Leia, whatever am I going to do with you?"
Pushing herself away so she could look into his face, Leia said, "Please, Papa, I know I messed things up, but I can learn. I want to help the Alliance. Please teach me!"
He studied her for a long moment, his eyes twinkling in the dark. "Aris tells me that if I don't teach you, you'll keep undertaking these missions on your own. She says I'd be wiser to accept the inevitable and make sure you know what you're doing."
Leia held her breath in expectation. She wanted to argue on her own behalf, but it was probably smarter to let Aris speak for her. Good old Aris!
"We discussed the matter at length this afternoon," Bail admitted. "I still insist you need a general education, but I could hire a private tutor instead of sending you to school. We could work out a course of study for you, and you could serve as my aide--"
"Oh, Papa! Thank you!" Leia exclaimed, throwing her arms around his neck.
Bail returned the hug, then took her hands in his, holding her back so she could look at him. "If you're going to start training with me, then you must understand that this is not a game. I will expect you to obey me, not because you're my daughter, but because you'll be an Alliance agent in training. You can't decide you'll just do your own thing. You must follow orders, even if you think you're too smart for them. If you fail to comply, you won't risk getting grounded. You'll risk getting demoted or dismissed, just like any other agent. Do you understand?"
Leia sat up straight. "Yes, sir. I'll do everything you say. I won't fail you."
"No, I don't believe you will," Bail said fondly, reaching out to ruffle her hair. "More than that, I believe you will make me very proud."
"I hope so, Papa." She gazed at him earnestly. "You're my hero, you know. I want to be just like you when I grow up."
Bail gathered her once more in his arms. "You're my hero, too, Leelee."
Leia smiled as she burrowed against her father's chest.
This was going to be great.
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