"I survived for us. I survived it for a child, for a future of Alderaan. I survived for nothing!"
"The child you love doesn't have to be the one you carried."
"It's all I've thought about today. Every child I saw on the streets, every report I heard from Dantooine or Seleucami of the war refugees and the orphans..."
"You're finally thinking the way I do."
"I should have known better, but I wanted her...so badly..."
"She will be loved with us."
The words of comfort that had given both of them so much hope should not have forced Breha from sleep. Nor should they have robbed her of her breath. Nevertheless, she awoke with the feeling that she had been drowning and her lungs strained for air that flowed easily into them. Her hands clawed at the air, but found nothing to defend herself against.
She felt as if she had every reason to panic, but could not find a single reason why.
With that realization, others came. Her first instinct after such a rush of emotion was to reach for Bail. This seemed to serve the dual purpose of reassuring him that she knew he was there and confirming that he had not left her to her own vulnerabilities.
Tonight, however, she fully intended to turn in to his embrace and found herself staring at the blankets that he had thrown back. Her hands found the sheets to be cool beneath her touch. A glance at the chronometer confirmed that it had been a mere two hours since they had retired to bed.
In any other circumstances, she'd have assumed that he needed to arise early for the sake of their people, but resigning himself to less than an hour of sleep was a criminal act in the Organa household. Instead of waiting for him to return, she peeled back the blankets as well and turned to reach for her dressing gown.
It was not really necessary, since what even the Tatooins would call a Tusken Summer was lingering for a while this year. Bail had even permitted her to keep the windows ajar tonight so that the warm breezes coming off the sea could fill the room. She preferred to wear it, though, because it felt like an embrace until Bail could render it unnecessary by giving her one of his own.
It was two hours past midnight, so there could be only one place that she would find him. In fact, when she opened the balcony door that adjoined Leia's room, he gave her a rather sheepish smile that might have convinced her of his well-being at any other time. For now, it admitted that she had caught him in the act of needing some specialized comfort.
She could see past the familiar grin, however, to the lines around his eyes that seemed to multiply every time she looked at him. She knew that when she pulled him into her arms, there were new knots in his back muscles and there were too many things that he seemed to withhold from the words he said to her.
It was an immensely difficult task not to resent the secret that his tension suggested, but she had enough experience with fear and danger in her life. He had forced her to give voice to those fears from the first day of their marriage simply because they had promised in that marriage ceremony to bear one another's burdens in all times, in all things and in all places.
He had demanded to share her pain through the illness that had nearly taken her life four years ago as well as the despair that ensued when they learned that it would forever deny her the opportunity of carrying a child of her own.
He had demanded to feel her anguish, but seemed to not trust her to do the same for him.
"What's haunting you?" she asked quietly, moving to sit on the padded bench next to him.
Their familiar retort was out of his mouth in an instant, an instinct and a defense. "Everything and nothing at all," he insisted.
For a politician, he was a very unconvincing liar at times.
Leia was curled comfortably in his lap, her head tucked perfectly beneath his chin. Each time that she saw him with the three-year-old bundle of energy and light that they were blessed to call their own, she noticed that Bail and Leia seemed to grow in proportion to each other, so that they never outgrew the strength of that embrace. He shifted her in the circle of his arms, still not rousing their daughter from her comfortable sleep, then reached out with his right arm to draw the last member of their family in as well. At some unspoken signal, he let Leia slide in his embrace so that her dark-tressed head rested comfortably in Breha's lap.
She would always feel like that, as if she were a welcome visitor to the understanding that Bail had with Leia. It was not to say that she would ever love Leia less, but the High Princess of Alderaan was very remarkably her father's daughter.
He drew in a deep breath when she did not press the issue and, naturally, attempted to change the subject. "It's time to return to Aldera," he observed. "The Council will be reconvening by the end of the month and I can't afford to keep them on anything but a very short leash."
She had to press a fist to her mouth to stifle the laugh that threatened to erupt from her. "I think they can take care of themselves more than you think," she chided. "Besides, Leia loves it here."
Of course Leia loved it here. The palace at Antibes, where they spent their summers, was the seat of the crown-princess and every person in this city knew it. This balcony overlooked the port and the sea beyond and Leia would always be begging to walk the streets by the end of breakfast.
She simply loved the people at Antibes in the same way they loved her. They had adopted each other, both because they had no other choice and because they could find no fault with each other. Breha envied that kind of innocent admiration.
"She does," Bail agreed. "Sometimes, I wish we could keep her here forever."
Breha wasn't sure whether he wished that for his beloved daughter's sake or for his own. Perhaps it was because this was also the one place that they could escape where her sickness had confined her too many times for their own good.
That didn't seem to be the extent of his distress, however and no amount of rumination or nostalgia could make her forget that they were huddled together at 0200, hoping that their three-year-old daughter could give them something to hope in. Something was innately wrong about that.
"What's haunting you?" she asked once more.
This time, he did not avoid the question, but he did not quite answer it either. Instead, he passed over a datapad and waited for her to understand.
She hated this sort of report. It was the kind of form letter from Intelligence that explained little but cold facts and the main players. She read it, though, because he always seemed to consider that it told a more complete tale than what he could speak.
She read in silence for a long minute, her breath quickening at the mention of the rising crime rates. It was hardly surprising, since Alderaan was pacifist by principle and practice, but no amount of pacifism could convince some of the dissenting citizens.
Offworlders would see it differently. They would look at the same report and see the percentage of crimes committed by non-humans and refugees. Breha could not attribute all lack of compassion to offworlders alone, but those who were not Taia's children would not understand that Alderaan would not hold a refugee population responsible for the actions of a few individuals.
"It's bad enough that it's happening here," Bail stated, "but I don't know how to keep this from the Empire."
"We have to," she said sharply without bothering to quiet her voice.
Leia stirred abruptly and Bail held a finger to his lips.
"M'mi," Leia muttered.
Breha stroked her hair lightly, lulling her back into sleep, but her apologetic gaze went to Bail instead.
"I know," he said once Leia's breath had steadied once more. "I wish there were a way to make sure that the Empire will stay out of this, but you know the new laws on alien activities."
"I know," she agreed.
The Empire would know simply because they automatically assumed that all aliens were criminals. By the new laws, Alderaan's government was responsible for the criminal activity simply because it thought differently.
It was not a complete explanation, but she was beginning to understand what had kept Bail awake tonight.
"We need to contain it," he thought out loud, "but we cannot allow the Empire to help with that or they will have a reason to believe that we need a more permanent solution. We can't stop the flow of refugees because they have so few places to go, but we can't afford this kind of activity."
She had to smile slightly at his familiar litany, but it felt like an automatic and pre-fabricated gesture and she hated it for being as much of a reflex as Bail's deceptive sense of well-being.
"It's time to go back to Aldera," she echoed his earlier statement. "The Council will not let us bear this burden alone."
From that late-night meeting, she began counting the days in a kind of apprehensive fear. She hoped that, soon enough, her mind would allow her to think of the days of peace rather than the time since the last crisis, but it seemed as if even that was impossible.
At three days, the crisis was contained both with the help of the refugees themselves and the Constabulary.
At five days, the Council passed a law to set up a militia that would leave the power of guarding the peace in the hands of the citizens as well as those who made a career of protection.
At seven days, however, she was awakened in the early hours by the announcement that an Imperial Star Destroyer was in orbit.
"Identification?" Bail asked immediately.
"The Devastator," Breha guessed without waiting for an answer.
The comms officer nodded. "They're 'asking' for a landing permit," he explained. "I don't think there's an option to say no."
That went without saying, since Lord Vader was showing a remarkable amount of patience just in asking for a landing permit in the first place. Actually waiting for that permit would be unheard of.
"They'll be touching down in ten minutes," Bail said, his fingers closing around her wrist as if she needed to be restrained. "Give them the landing permit and we will receive Lord Vader in the Grand Audience Chamber."
Breha wasn't sure at all that it was a wise idea. On the one hand, the Chamber would be 'appropriate' for the visit of such an important figure in the Empire. On the other, he might prefer privacy and the Chamber would blatantly refuse him that.
They were both in the traditionally formal robes that their stations required, but not the full regalia of royalty. Even as Bail guided her towards their quarters, she began running through a catalogue of what would be appropriate for the situation.
The first words out of his mouth, however, had nothing to do with keeping up appearances. "We cannot let him know about Leia."
Her brow wrinkled at the illogical statement, since a three-year-old girl with a head full of ringlets and a mind full of fairy tales would not pose a threat to the Dark Lord.
"She is no Jedi," Breha protested, pulling away. "You said that her tests proved that having Jedi parents had not, in fact, made her an heir to that legacy."
"I know," he said urgently, keeping her arm in his grip, "but that is not what I am speaking of."
The strain in his voice that matched every sign of tension that he had so carefully concealed stopped her dead in her tracks and she turned to face him.
"You lied," she whispered.
"She is no Jedi," he promised, "and everything that I have told you is true."
"You lied," she repeated, her voice shrilling. "Not about her powers, but by what you left out."
He did not argue with that and she yanked her arm free, shrinking away from him as if the omission were a physical threat.
"What in the name of Taia did you leave out?" she demanded.
He said nothing.
"Tell me," she keened. "You said she was a war orphan, like so many of the others here and that her mother had died. What part of that story was a lie?"
For a long moment, he was absolutely silent and she knew that he had moved from the need to conceal details to the urgency of telling her what would protect them all.
"She is a war orphan," he promised. "I watched, helpless, as her mother died."
"Who?" she hissed.
"Padm?," he confessed.
The Senator she had known too briefly, who had come here expecting nothing more than an emotional haven and who had been one of their kindred spirits. Bail had given her a place in Alderaan's roll of martyrs, but had never explained why. Because of the woman she had been, Breha had felt that no explanation was necessary.
"And the father?"
His voice trembled just as much as hers as he finally spoke the truth he had feared for three years and when the words finally came out, they were not a surprise.
"He will be in the Chamber in eight minutes' time."
She was not a violent woman, but at that moment, her fists lashed out, pounding against his chest and flailing against him as she tried to drive him and the truth out of the room.
"He can't have her!" was the only thing she could howl by way of protest and condemnation.
He shouldn't have told her.
This was, without a doubt, one of the greatest crises to face Alderaan since the fall of the Republic, even since the day that she had taken the throne and she needed all of her concentration to be focused on the task at hand. Lives depended on it, not just hers or those of the people that the Empire dared to call criminals.
Bail had no right to have told her. Not now. Not this late.
He should have stopped lying to her three years ago, should have never started and it was far too late to repair the damage that had been done by telling her that Leia belonged to the parents who loved her and no one else.
All Breha could hope for was damage control and she wasn't even sure that it was possible.
The single act of mercy that Bail had performed today was in going ahead to the Grand Audience Chamber in order to forestall Vader. It wouldn't last long, of course-Vader was not one for pleasantries or small talk-but it gave her a few moments to dress calmly and keep herself from curling into a fetal position.
Normally, she would choose the court robes based on the station or affiliation of the person seeking an audience, but her mind refused to work that way today. Instead, her hands lingered over each gown and remembered which ones she had last worn around Leia.
The green shimmersilk shift was the one that she had worn when kissing Leia good night after a long day of conferences last week. It had been carefully cleaned by the staff, so probably wouldn't present much of a problem.
The uncharacteristically lightweight blue shift had come with them on a trip to the shore three days ago. It might be too informal, but it smelled more of the sea winds and zhiyu flowers than of the soap that Leia used in her nightly bath.
It was unlikely that Vader would notice that sort of thing. She didn't even know if the fire that had put him in that suit had left him with the ability to smell, but the fear that Bail had forced upon her only minutes before was more powerful than hope right now and she could not take chances.
The one gown she found that held no trace of Leia was one that she rarely wore. It was a dark-red velvet affair of an almost military cut with gold piping on the sleeves and a twisting pattern of embroidery along the cuffs. It was, at the very least, more stern in nature than she'd have preferred, but it was also appropriate for battling what Vader intended to do.
She dressed quickly, then coiled her long hair in a braid that wrapped around her head. It would expose her long neck, more thin than slender these days. Finally, she refastened the signet of office around her neck and signaled for the guards.
She hated the need for personal security as much as Bail, which was why he usually accompanied her, but she hardly felt safe at the moment, no matter how many blasters surrounded her.
That sentiment was only enhanced by Lord Vader's presence. He was obviously agitated, since he seemed to be pacing, but she couldn't tell if he were impatient or if he were trying to intimidate her esteemed viceroy.
"Lord Vader," she greeted.
There were few who would dare to leave it at that, since he was considered to be as important a 'dignitary' as the Emperor himself, but it was the practice of all Alderaanians to observe the hierarchy of the world where they were situated. If she had been his guest, she would have deferred.
Instead, she permitted him to bow in reverence to his royal superior and returned the gesture with a polite courtesy.
"Please," she said graciously with a wave of her hand, "be seated."
It was almost a comical sight, since he was being received in a room that elevated the throne above the subjects. In any other chamber, Breha had insisted on following the same protocol of equality that her father had practiced. She was not above her people, so the throne in the private chambers was more of a comfortable chair at a conference table.
Here, Lord Vader had to know that he would not be permitted to be in control.
He took the proffered seat, seemingly oblivious to the murmurs of those who were also waiting for an audience. She hardly expected him to wait for her to speak.
She was not disappointed.
"Traitors are in our midst," he said flatly. "You would be wise to remedy that."
Breha arched one narrow eyebrow. "Lord Vader," she chided, "you have visited our world before, so I would expect you to remember my distaste for hyperbole."
"I recall it," he retorted, "but I doubt that the High Court of Alderaan remembers what the definition of a traitor is."
She could barely remember the duty she had to herself to keep breathing, keep thinking coherently. There was too great a danger that he would pick up on something.
Breha was accustomed to getting through these meetings by thinking of what she would play with Leia afterwards. She could not afford to be that sentimental today.
"'One who betrays one's world, a cause, or a trust, especially one who commits treason,'" Breha recited.
Bail had betrayed their world by putting all of her citizens in danger.
He had betrayed the cause of justice by lying for its sake.
He had betrayed her trust.
She didn't even know what to trust any more.
He had betrayed her trust because he simply did not trust her enough to speak the name of their child's mother three years ago.
He had betrayed them all because he thought the names of Padme and Anakin were too dangerous to put into words.
"And the accomplice," Vader reminded.
She inclined her head, while her mind demanded to know if she had been an accomplice by trusting her husband. "And the accomplice," she agreed. "It is why we have..."
"You have turned a blind eye to the rebel factions here because you are misguided as your father," he hissed.
She had not turned a blind eye to anything except what was right under her nose.
"Lord Vader," she said sharply, "it will do you no good to grandstand, so come to the point."
On any other day, she might have seen Bail covering a smile or at least looking amused. On a bad day, he might have even shot her a warning look, for all the good it would have done him. If he could not have communicated so blatantly, he would have used the physical touch on her arm or in holding her hand that would have anchored her.
Instead, he had not dared to look at her since leaving their quarters. His hands remained flat on his thighs as if he were surrounded by strangers.
Maybe he was.
"The point," Lord Vader said after a moment's consideration, "is that Alderaan's High Court has let the minor incursions of a refugee population to fester."
"I beg to differ," Breha said in the same flat tone with which he had begun this conversation.
"I am not interested in your opinion," he said. "I am interested in eliminating threats to the Empire."
She nodded slightly, allowing no emotion to remain on her face as they came to the crux of the matter. "We have a militia in place," she assured him, though she knew it was an exercise in futility, "and they will be more than willing to aid the Empire in apprehending those involved."
"That won't be necessary."
She had somehow known that his answer would be along those lines, but still, she would not show the fear. Instead, she let her features remain blank while her eyes remained fixed on his eyeshields. He would see just as much emotion in her as she saw in him.
"I tend to disagree," she said quietly, her voice as intense as if she were bellowing at him.
"I did not say that you had a choice," he retorted.
Resistance was both pointless and rather suicidal, but she had to give the impression that she was being docile and compliant for the sake of diplomacy.
"What do you propose?" she asked dryly. "Purges?"
"As necessary," he agreed.
As necessary, not if necessary. This was already far beyond her control and she hated it.
"There is no such thing as 'as necessary,'" she bit out. "There are a few individuals responsible and if you have any sense of justice as the Emperor claims, you will hold them responsible."
"And the accomplice," Vader reiterated. "Those populations have been harboring the criminals. They have been keeping them from justice and that makes them accomplices if nothing else will. They must be held accountable."
"As necessary," she dared to echo.
She could have sworn that he sucked in a breath of annoyance, but that was probably nothing more than an inopportune cycling of his respirator.
"Tread carefully, Your Majesty," he warned.
"I always do," she shot back.
Bail's hand finally reached for hers and she did not have the presence of mind to refuse him, but she noticed as their fingers intertwined that his hand was shaking just as much as hers.
"Alderaan will take care of the issue," she asserted, "because the crime was against Alderaan, nothing more. If we ever should require the Empire's assistance..."
"You pretend ignorance of the Seventh Vengeance's destruction, then?" Vader asked almost casually.
It was the latest of acts of espionage against the Empire and had eliminated a brand-new Imperial-class Star Destroyer. To her knowledge, the perpetrators were as yet unidentified.
"Of course not," she scoffed. "We are, after all, a Core world."
"Then you cannot pretend ignorance of the involvement of six Caamasi," he asserted, "all of whom have been identified among the refugee populations of Alderaan."
She utterly forgot to fear for Leia's safety, just for the several heartbeats that it took for her to formulate an answer.
"I can," she retorted. "You have shown no proof..."
"What proof is needed on a world run by Rebel sympathizers?"
It took every ounce of diplomatic training that her father had given her to keep her expression neutral. "You have shown no proof of that," she protested.
"Don't insult my intelligence," he recommended.
She had no words to refute that.
"Neither of us has an acceptable resolution," she observed. "What are the alternatives?"
He did not hesitate in laying forth a plan this time, but his tone was gloating instead of harsh and Bail's hand tightened around her own.
"We could leave those who are simply accomplices alive," he suggested, "but contained."
"You cannot imprison an entire world," Bail interjected for the first time.
Vader did not look at him, but his tone was anything but dismissive. "A disarmament would essentially accomplish the same thing."
His tone was so mild and reasonable that she almost missed the meaning of the statement. Before she could respond, however, Bail was on his feet, ready to place himself in the line of fire instead.
"Absolutely not," he snarled.
"You would prefer Purges?" Vader countered. "The alternative may lead to a world at war."
He did not want to prevent a war. He simply wanted to eliminate the ability to wage it.
"Bail," Breha said sharply.
He did not look at her, only released her hand and left the room with long, echoing strides. For her part, she was left with nothing but despair and a shrinking number of options.
Vader seemed to have not noticed the viceroy's departure at all. She imagined that this was how he appeared in battle, only deviating from his course when the target in his sights had been disabled or destroyed.
"Will you not see reason for your daughter's sake?" was his next weapon.
If she had been standing, she might have been knocked back a step by the force of that question, but instead, she drew away and shut down her mind so that he could neither use it against her nor go searching for answers.
There was no guarantee that it would work and, more likely, Vader would delve deeper simply because she attempted to hide something. He gave no indication of such intentions, however and she kept her gaze locked on his.
"The Empire is not blind to the future of Alderaan," he remarked unapologetically.
It was a fairly neutral statement, but one that she hated to search for further meaning.
"For Alderaan's sake," she said carefully, "I will consider it until the morning and then give you my answer."
That was as dismissive a statement as any and Vader responded to it, straightening to his full height and bowing in a perfunctory, grudging manner.
Then, without waiting for the chamberlain to make her excuses, she fled in Bail's footsteps.
She found him in Leia's empty room, since their daughter would be out with Guardian Lioye until midday, but he seemed not to have noticed that no one was there until she entered alone as well.
"You did not tell him?" he asked.
"You think me a fool?" she suggested.
His hands balled into fists as if he wanted to strike something or someone, possibly Vader, possibly her. "Never," he said earnestly. "That's my place."
"And you've acquitted yourself well in that duty today," she snapped. "You claim to understand the principle of acceptable risk, but would rather have a massacre than..."
"You would leave Alderaan defenseless," he retorted. "Where is the sense in that?"
She wanted to argue that she was not siding with Vader, that nothing had changed. "Would you rather give Vader the ability to conduct his purges whenever the need arises?"
He shook his head firmly. "This is a no-win situation," he agreed, "but you are conceding defeat."
For a long moment, there were no words that she could have provided. She could not argue against the shared fear, but she could not find words for an adequate explanation. Instead, she sat next to him and let her hand find his, forcing the weight of her fingers to steady the tremor this time.
"Not defeat," she claimed. "All we need to do is keep the Empire from victory until the odds are better."
He sighed and his grip tightened briefly. "If we disarm now," he reasoned, "Vader will not have much reason to visit again."
"And his eye will not be fixed on who Leia might look like one day," she prompted.
"It's not a permanent solution," Bail mused, "but it may give us the time we need."
It was the only peace that they could offer to each other, but for now, it was enough.
Original cover by DarthIshtar. HTML formatting copyright 2006 TheForce.Net LLC.