Nestled in the mountains of Toli, a lone castle loomed over a small hamlet of citizens like a great guard or bird of prey. The House of Bacaard, it was called. Routine supply and commerce trade trafficked in and out of the castle routinely, along with imports of a more sentient nature.
"Turn around, girl." A severe-looking woman regarded her new charge skeptically. "You're older than I expected, but pleasant enough in appearance. Come. I will show you to your room."
"Thank you." Mara Jade followed as instructed, memorizing and internally mapping the floor plan of winding corridors through the elaborate castle.
Baron Bacaard, the heir to a family fortune, had spared no expense in designing and furnishing his opulent home. Most of the household staff and subsidiaries believed themselves to be the benefactors of a family dynasty, built on the export and trade of raw shimmersilk, their most precious local commodity.
Only those closest to the Baron knew that the shimmersilk manufacture provided a front for his true source of wealth: prostitution and espionage.
His life of criminal luxury would have, no doubt, continued uncontested had he not made the fatal error of selling information to enemies of the Empire. It had taken time, but Imperial Intelligence had finally located the source of treachery.
And it ends tonight, Mara thought. The reconnaissance phase of her mission complete, the Emperor's Hand now presented herself to the Mistress of the House to set in motion the final chain of events that would bring the Baron's treason to an end.
"Here we are." The mistress ushered Mara into a small but clean chamber. "Your garments are already prepared and will be provided each evening according to the individual tastes of your companion for the night. This isn't your first time, is it?" she asked, almost as an afterthought.
"Good. Because that would never do." The mistress turned with a rustle of her full skirt and pointed to the door opposite them. "You have a private refresher and you are required to be clean and well-groomed. We have a reputation to uphold."
The older woman turned, eyeing Mara critically. "Take your hair down," she instructed. Mara complied, reaching behind her neck to undo the braid that held her red-gold mane. "That color is...different," she commented. "Can you curl it?"
"Do so. I believe you will find the necessary styling utensils in your dresser. And finally," she pulled a narrow, black band from the depths of her long sleeve, "your collar." Mara watched her place the object on the dressing table and felt a knot form in the pit of her stomach.
The mistress turned toward the door. "You may prepare yourself now. One of the other women will come for you when it is time." She regarded the newcomer down the bridge of her nose. "Welcome to the House of Bacaard."
Left alone, Mara studied the gown already laid out for her on the bed. Apparently, her "companion" for the night had an affinity for black silk and jewels. The dress was decorated with them in what would be suggestive designs once donned by a human female.
Mara pulled a face and headed into the refresher, muttering, "Time to get this over with."
Bathed and dressed in the form-fitting gown, Mara arranged curled locks around her shoulders and reached for the final accessory - the slave collar. She picked it up, inspecting the offensive object for any sign of monitoring devices. It appeared to be nothing more than a hinged band and she placed it around her neck, only to have it fall off as soon as she let it go. She looked at it again. The clasp was obvious, but popped apart each time she attempted to fasten the collar around her neck.
Mara frowned, leaning closer to the mirror. Perhaps it was defective.
"You have to prick your skin," said a voice from behind.
Startled, Mara spun around to find a girl standing in her doorway.
"There's a little needle," the girl continued, "right beside the clasp. Prick your neck then push it together."
Mara followed her instruction and, sure enough, the clasp sealed immediately when touched by a red droplet of blood. "Interesting," Mara murmured, running her finger along the now-seamless collar. It was an eccentric bit of technology in the otherwise antiquated surroundings. "But how does it come off?"
"It doesn't," she answered. "Although, I know one woman who managed to cut hers off. Sliced her neck up pretty bad, though."
"It won't explode or anything, will it?" Mara asked with growing alarm. Her schedule was tight enough without having to find a way to remove the collar before escaping the castle.
"No," the girl said with a smile. "It's not a restraint. Just a reminder that you belong to the Baron now."
The girl entered and perched on the edge of bed. Mara noticed for the first time that she was wearing an identical collar and joined her on the bed. "How long have you worked here?"
"Two years." The young woman began to swing her legs in a girlish fashion, making the blonde ringlets around her delicate face bounce.
"How old are you?" Mara asked. The child looked barely beyond the age of consent.
"Twenty," she answered.
Same age as me, Mara mused, although the girl's petite frame and sweet smile made her appear much younger. Her thoughts soon hardened at the implication.
"That seems very young to begin this...occupation," Mara said carefully.
If the girl took offense, she gave no indication. "Some guests prefer younger companions," she said, shrugging indifferently. "It's a living."
Mara clamped her jaw to keep it from gaping. "What about your parents? Do they know - what you do here?"
"They're dead, along with the rest of my family," she clipped. "The mining accident at Dinlal. I'm sure you heard about it."
"I did." Mara searched her memory. "But the Empire set up a relocation program for the families of the victims."
"Yes, and it would have taken money and transportation to enroll. Two things I didn't have when the Baron took me in off the streets." The girl turned to face Mara directly. "And if this job is so terrible, why are you here?"
"I'm sorry. That's not what I meant." Mara softened her tone. "I - I needed a job, too."
The younger woman smiled, reaching for Mara's hand. "It isn't bad, really. The Baron is very generous, and he doesn't let the guests hurt us."
A chime sounded in the corridor and the girl jumped off the bed. "That's our cue. I'm Esme, by the way." She extended her hand.
Mara took her hand gently. "I'm Bria. Nice to meet you."
The Great Hall was large, with finely-attired guests milling around numerous bars or seated at various dining tables. The Baron himself was perched above the scene on a throne fit for no less than Hapan royalty.
Esme guided Mara to an arch-shaped alcove where the mistress awaited them. "Stay here," Esme instructed quietly. "She will introduce you."
Mara nodded as the mistress motioned Esme forward. The younger woman approached the Baron gracefully, her soft blue skirts trailing behind her. A brief exchange later, Esme descended the dais and joined a large, boisterous man at his table.
Feeling a touch on her shoulder, Mara moved forward and stood dutifully in front of the Baron. He was not unattractive and ran his practiced eye over her with approval.
"Do you know what is expected of you, girl?"
"It is my pleasure to serve," Mara answered with a small curtsey. Fortunately for her, she would be long gone before the expectations even approached fruition.
"Well-spoken and attractive. Very nice. Perhaps I will have need of your company myself in the future," he said. "But tonight, Viscount Quentin is expecting you."
Mara lowered her eyes demurely. "Thank you, Excellency."
The mistress stepped up behind Mara and ushered her to a table occupied by a garishly-clad nobleman and his small entourage. Mara slid into the seat beside the Viscount and smiled sweetly up at him. "My lord, if it pleases you, I shall be joining you tonight. My name is-"
"Doesn't matter," the Viscount slurred, wrapping a heavy arm around her shoulders and pulling her closer. "You'll answer to whatever I call you."
"Yes, my lord." Mara shifted so as to not be directly in front of his face. His breath reeked of alcohol and the mildly-nauseating aroma of spiced hoge.
Taking only an occasional sip of wine at the Viscount's bidding, Mara discreetly studied the layout of the room as conversation droned around her. Her companion's heavily jeweled fingers traveled down her arm once or twice, but stayed otherwise on her shoulder when not shoveling food into his mouth.
Pretending to adjust her bracelet, Mara glanced at a hidden chrono within the beads. It was almost time. Mara leaned close to the Viscount. "Excuse me, my lord," she said, adding a hint of desire to her voice. "I need to prepare myself."
He glanced at her briefly. "Hurry back."
"Of course," she acquiesced. "I shall return momentarily. Thank you, my lord."
According to her investigation, the castle had a minimal defense system but it would be able to hold off an invasion force long enough for the Baron to escape. The control room was located not far from the Great Hall and Mara slipped behind a heavy tapestry and out of the Hall without being noticed.
She made her way silently down the corridor and tapped the access panel to the control room. The defense systems were automated and, typically, the control room was empty. Unfortunately, a technician was working when she arrived and Mara feigned surprise. "Oh! I'm sorry. I must have taken a wrong turn. Could you tell me how to get back to the Hall?"
"Sure." The young man stood, grinning stupidly with an expression that made her wonder if he saw many women in his life. "It's right down-"
He crumpled to the floor without finishing the sentence, bone fragments shattered into his brain by one violent blow to the nose. Mara tamped down a moment of regret. He'd only been doing his job, but this part of her mission was too important to risk leaving witnesses. Pushing the body aside, she locked the door behind her and went to work.
Hacking into the main terminal was easy enough, as was locating the input to the alarm systems, but disarming the surveillance and weapons towers took longer than she expected. She glanced at her chrono - it was going to be close. Having scrambled the codes that would enable manual activation of panic and lock-down programs, Mara pulled a fingerprint removal cloth from her pocket and swiped it over the terminal. It wasn't likely that her actions would be discovered before the Executor arrived, but she never took chances.
Hurrying down the corridor, she joined a group mingling their way into the Hall and casually approached the bar closest to Esme's table. The younger girl had been partially pulled onto her companion's lap and one of his large, meaty hands was resting possessively on her leg.
Mara fought to keep a look of disgust from her face. Thanks to the Emperor's training, she could defend herself against any man in this room or several of them, if necessary. But Esme was completely vulnerable, stripped of even the most basic right of concession to intimacy. An unexpected swell of protectiveness began to form in her gut.
Spotting Mara, Esme excused herself and made a wavering path to the bar. Her eyes were glassy and part of the drink in her hand sloshed over the edge onto her arm. "Have some," she said, holding the cup out to Mara. "It helps."
"No, thanks." Mara eased the cup from her hand and placed it on the bar.
Grasping Esme by the shoulders, Mara pulled her aside and lowered her voice. "Listen to me. Imperial troops will be arriving soon. When they do, stay with me. I'll get you out of here."
"What?" Esme gaped. "Imperial troo-"
"Shhhh!" Mara chastised. "Drink some caf. You'll need to be alert."
Esme complied, requesting a cup of caf from the bartender and eyeing Mara warily. "You don't really work here, do you?"
"I do, for now." Mara glanced around the room. "But no - I won't be staying. And when I leave, you're coming with me."
A commotion erupted at the back of the Hall, followed by ranks of armor-clad soldiers, the stormtroopers of the 501st Legion, pushing their way through the guests. Clearly caught unawares, House Guards hurried forward to form a perimeter around the Baron as the troopers parted the crowd, apparently making a path.
"Here we go," Mara hissed, pulling Esme back against the wall.
The Baron was on his feet, demanding to know the cause of this intrusion, when the ominous figure of Darth Vader strode into the Hall. Esme gasped aloud, clamping her hand over her mouth and cowering even closer to the wall.
Vader stopped in front of the throne, hooking his thumbs into his belt in an almost casual stance. His baritone voice interrupted the Baron's rant without preamble. "You have been a thorn in the Empire's side long enough, Baron Bacaard. You will cease your illegal activities or your House will be taken into the custody of the Empire."
Mara pulled Esme down behind the bar. "What happens now?" Esme whispered.
"Well, if the Baron is smart, he'll agree to the terms and no one gets hurt," Mara answered. They could no longer hear the conversation, but the Baron suddenly pulled a blaster from his hip and pointed it directly at the dark lord.
"Hmph," Mara snorted. "Looks like he's not going to be smart. Follow me. This could get messy."
Together, they eased quietly along the wall, headed toward the main exit. They had almost made it when the room behind them exploded in pandemonium. Screams and blaster shots echoed through the Hall as the House Guards began trading fire with the stormtroopers.
Terrified guests flocked to the exits, blocking the main routes of escape. "This way!" Mara pulled Esme through a secondary door and took off down the corridor at a dead run, only to run skidding into a firefight at the end of the hall.
Esme screamed and Mara pushed her to the floor. "Get down!" Mara spotted a heavy decorative bench and heaved it onto its side, crawling behind it for cover.
"Can't the Imperials help us get out?" Esme asked, panicking. "I thought you were with them."
"They won't know me. I'm-" Mara stopped. What was she going to say? I'm an elite Force-sensitive operative trained by the Emperor and known only to those highest in his command? The girl looked confused enough already. "I'm undercover," she answered simply.
Crawling forward, she snatched a fallen blaster and began picking off Guards one at a time, hoping to clear their exit. One of the Guards returned fire in Mara's direction and the floor-to-ceiling window behind them shattered, hurling shards of transparisteel onto their clothes and skin.
A large piece lodged itself in Mara's exposed leg and she collapsed behind the bench, biting her lips together to silence the reflexive cry of pain. The shard was only protruding a few centimeters, but was deep enough to have possibly hit a major blood vessel. She wasn't bleeding, which meant the transparisteel could be acting as an occlusive barrier. Mara decided it would be safer to leave it in place rather than try to remove it just yet.
Esme reached for the blaster. "I'll get them!"
"No!" Mara protested, her danger sense tingling at the back of her neck. "Stay down!"
As if on cue, a concussion grenade detonated in front of her, sending the Esme flying backwards into the wall.
Mara swore fiercely, scooting to her side. Esme was breathing but unconscious, with no sign of waking anytime soon. Mara waited for the sounds of blaster fire to die out and kicked off her heeled shoes, which would only impede her now with an injured leg.
Peering around the corner of the bench to make sure the coast was clear, Mara pulled Esme up to as much of a standing position as she could manage and started down the corridor, supporting and dragging the younger woman along.
It was slow going, with Mara's leg giving out under Esme's weight every few meters. She collapsed at the end of the corridor, panting. The Imperial shuttle was now visible through the exit directly across from her, and she struggled back to her feet with a grunt, this time grabbing Esme under the arms to pull her out of the castle.
Stumbling on the rocky terrain, Mara fell again, landing unceremoniously in the dirt beside a portable weapons tower from the shuttle. Stormtroopers filed past on the other side and up the transport ramp with the towering form of Darth Vader not far behind them.
An Imperial lieutenant descended the ramp, flanked by two stormtroopers, and saluted Vader sharply. "My lord, we are ready for departure."
"Is the Emperor's agent on board?" Vader's voice rumbled.
"Agent, my lord?" the lieutenant stammered.
"A young woman has been working here covertly," Vader continued. "Or perhaps you failed to notice that there was no warning or resistance upon our arrival?"
The captain began to sweat. "Um...Sir...I don't-"
Mara staggered from behind the tower with the still-unconscious Esme in tow. "I'm over here!"
She almost made it to the ramp before a spasm of pain drove her to her knees in front of Vader and the officer. Mara gritted her teeth against the pain and glared up at them. "I told her I'd get her out," she announced defiantly.
The lieutenant sneered. "Just leave her, girl. She's only a slave," he spat.
There was a swirl of black capes, and Mara was knocked backwards by the force of Vader's rage. The lieutenant fell - dead before he hit the ground.
Stepping over the body, Vader motioned to the troopers at the foot of the ramp. "Assist the women to the medical bay. And," he turned to face Mara directly, "see that your leg is tended, Hand."
Mara nodded, licking her dry lips. "Yes, Lord. Thank you."
One of the stormtroopers knelt beside her and, leaning heavily on his white-armored arm, she rose and limped up the ramp.
Moving swiftly through the sterile halls of Imperial Center's medical facility, Mara came to a stop in front of a treatment bay and palmed the door open.
Esme, clean and bandaged, smiled up at her from the cot. "Hi!"
Mara sat down beside her. "Feeling better?"
Esme nodded, her blonde curls bobbing. "I feel great! The medic is a droid. Can you believe that?"
"Yes," Mara answered, suppressing a grin. "Here. I have something for you." She handed her a small case.
"What is it?"
"I've arranged for you to join the Imperial relocation program. They will help you find a job and place to live. These are your certificates and transport vouchers."
Esme shook her head, pushing the case away and reflexively reaching for a collar at her neck that was no longer there. "Oh, no - I can't pay."
"You don't have to," Mara reassured her. "But you do need to hurry. The transport will be leaving soon."
Esme followed Mara through the maze of corridors and lifts to the transport hangar, gaping openly at the sophistication of her surroundings. Her eyes grew wide as she approached the massive passenger ship that would take her to her new life.
"Take this." Mara pressed another, smaller case into her hands. "It's enough credits to keep you on your feet for a while without having to - find other sources of income."
The younger woman fingered the case, tears forming in her blue eyes. "I can't pay you back." She looked up at her benefactor. "Why are you doing this?"
Mara regarded her gently. Because I could have been you - alone or orphaned, struggling to survive, if the Emperor had not taken me into his service. If he'd not given me this life, she thought.
Squeezing Esme's hands, she smiled. "Because some things are sacred. Like freedom. And the right to choose who - the right to choose your lovers."
Esme looked down at the credits and threw her arms around Mara's neck. "Thank you! I'm so glad I met you, Bria."
Surprised, Mara returned the embrace awkwardly. "You're welcome." She held Esme at arm's length carefully. "Now go on. The transport won't wait."
Esme grinned tearfully and turned toward the shuttle. Mara watched her join the crowd in line for admittance and took a deep, grateful breath. Leaving the hangar, she made her way to the Palace, returning to the sanctuary of her Master.
Original cover by rhonderoo. HTML formatting copyright 2006 TheForce.Net LLC.