At the sound of Leia?s high-pitched command, Bail lifted his gaze from the ever-shifting datascreens filled with mindless Senate drivel. For over an hour he had been sitting in the shade of the palace veranda, attempting to work quietly so he wouldn?t distract his daughter. He spared a few seconds to track the progress of her latest endeavor ? to train her new pet. The sight of the diminutive child trying to wrestle a wuicka twice her size into submission was silly enough to curl the corner of his mouth.
"Wuickly, come," Leia said, popping her fists onto her hips. With her lower lip firmly stuck out, the five-year-old looked every inch of serious as she scrutinized her predicament.
Bail could practically see the possibilities run their course behind her dark eyes. Infinite options all simply to cajole the enormous furry canine into doing her will. A cant of the head. A tilt of the hip. An arch of the brow. She had considered it all. Newly determined, Leia marched around to the wuicka?s backside, bent over ? and began to push.
"She is quite a fighter, that one, sir."
Bail turned to find his Chief of Staff standing just over his shoulder. All joy in the moment fled Bail?s heart; he had told D?Ajou to not bother him today, save an emergency. Today was to be a day of quiet reflection ? some rare time alone with Leia. A moment of peace among the chaos that had become his life in the Imperial Senate.
In the Empire, time and peace were fleeting, as elusive as a shoikler one tried to catch in the hand. An endless stream of disturbances to be quieted, incidents to be handled, emergencies to be addressed. What emergency, Bail wondered, would steal another set of precious minutes from his daughter? Had she not sacrificed enough in the name of Imperial "peace"?
As Bail pondered the many circumstances that might have erupted into the moment?s drama, D?Ajou maintained a serene, almost jubilant, expression. Oddly, he exhibited none of the usual signs of impending doom that so often shrouded his countenance. D?Ajou had been Bail?s Chief of Staff since the Clone Wars, and he was a man to be trusted. So perhaps this time it was important, but not bad.
Bail inhaled. "What is it, D?Ajou?"
The white-haired man bowed his head curtly. "I apologize, sir, for the interruption. There is a young lady here to speak with you."
D?Ajou had one soft spot ? the plight of the struggling outland cities, whose citizens had been resisting the policies of their sector?s Imperial governor, and suffering for it. There was always a pleading insurgent or hungry mother? "If it is another of the FEA representatives, she will have to ?"
"No, sir. This is not about that." D?Ajou glanced over his shoulder, then back. "This young lady is a maiden from the high country. She is in need of a helping hand. Her plight is one the Emperor has brought on so many of those closest to him."
His aide?s cues froze Bail?s blood. What had been done to Padm??s homeworld was something no one spoke of. The fear of such atrocities befalling another planet kept all others in line. No other system wished to become another example of Imperial might like poor Naboo. Bail had pledged on Leia?s life that he would do whatever it took to ensure Alderaan remained a haven for his daughter to grow up happy and secure. Casting one quick glance back to be sure she was completely immersed in her wuicka?s training, he snatched D?Ajou by the tunic.
"What possible tragedy have you let into this house?" Bail hissed under his breath. "How dare you risk Alderaan?s peace?"
D?Ajou swallowed. "This one risk?uh?she is most skilled in covering her steps. I only ask that you give the lady a minute of your time, judge for yourself."
Bail trusted this man standing bravely before him. He had trusted him with his life and many of his secrets. D?Ajou glanced quickly at little Leia, who now tugged on the wuicka?s lead to no avail. Leia. Naboo. Secrets. They were all interconnected.
If she was who she claimed, this young woman was risking just as many secrets, and her life, to see him.
"Very well. A minute, no more."
"Thank you, sir," D?Ajou whispered before whisking from the room. He returned not more than a few seconds later. Checking the veranda left and right, he finally gestured to someone inside. "You are safe."
The cloaked frame of a woman emerged from the shadows, but refused to leave them completely. Bail crossed the few steps to the arched opening and met her there.
The woman was hidden beneath the cowl of a deep blue cloak. The luxurious, detailed material enfolded and enveloped her, making her into nothing more than the shadow she stood within. Instantly, Bail recognized the abilities of one trained to walk hidden even in the light.
The covered head bowed. "Thank you, kind sir, for your hospitality."
Bail stiffened, crossing his arms. "You have a minute. I would suggest you get to your point."
"Yes." Lithe fingers grasped either side of the hood and gracefully pulled it back. "I suppose I ?"
"By the grace of Alderaan! Sa ?"
"Sabyne," she interjected, then dipped her head respectfully in time with a practiced curtsie. "Sabyne Leperrie."
Bail paused, stunned. Realizing his mouth was agape, he snapped it shut.
He couldn?t manage words. Not yet. He had thought them all dead. Every last one, when Naboo had fallen. Yet here stood one of the last links between Padm? Naberrie and a rebellion born one terrifying day on Coruscant. On the day the Empire had become a reality, Padm? alone had foreseen the horrible crush of Palpatine?s rule upon those who would stand against him. She had instructed him to be a good little Senator, and then set the seeds of revolution into the wind, charging a few loyal friends with spreading this new hope far and wide.
A tug at his sleeve brought Bail to his senses. He forced himself to stop staring at this woman ? Padm??s virtual double ? and look down at his daughter. "Yes, my little princess?"
Smile, he reminded himself. And so he did, because Leia missed nothing.
"Wuickly won?t come."
As Bail glanced across the veranda, his eyes paused on the endless vista of snow-capped mountains. How easy would it be to just run away into their depths? Run. Hide. Live a simple life of solitude, leaving the galaxy to suffer its fate.
"Father." The impertinent version this time.
Bail?s gaze located the mutinous canine sprawled across the cool stone floor, tongue lolling, his well fed belly turned up to the sky. Bail stroked his beard in all seriousness, even as he envied the wuicka?s carefree abandon.
Glancing back down at his daughter, he said, "Have you tried everything you can think of?"
Leia nodded vigorously.
"And then a few more?"
She squinted for an instant. "Of course."
"A wise woman pointed out to me that sometimes the most successful course is the least obvious." Bail kneeled down, taking Leia by the shoulders. "I believe you can convince Wuickly to see things your way."
He patted her plaited hair tenderly. "Go give Wuickly something to think about, hmm?"
"Okay." Leia started toward the veranda, then hesitated. "Shouldn?t I say hello to the lady first?"
Bail shot a passing glance at Sab? ? Sabyne ? who appeared completely captivated by Leia. "Yes, I suppose that would be the proper thing to do. Leia, this is Sabyne, a friend. Sabyne, may I present Princess Leia Ysbell Organa of Alderaan."
As Bail stood, Leia executed a perfect curtsy. "It is an honor to meet you."
Sabyne curtsied in return. "The honor is all mine, milady."
Leia regarded their guest. "Did you know my mother?"
Sabyne offered a trained smile. "Every good citizen would, milady." A studied and perfectly worded answer. Handmaiden training, it seemed, was not easily lost.
"But you are not a citizen," Leia countered.
"Child," Bail snapped.
She twisted her gaze back to her father. "She looks like me and ?"
"Leia Ysbell," Bail said, hand flying up to point back at the veranda, "tend to your wuicka."
The lower lip came out, and for half a second Bail thought his daughter would cry. But she was royalty through and through. With her head hung low, Leia did as she had been bade. Only the slightest shuffle of her feet was any indication of her opinion on the matter. Bail watched Leia until she dropped to her knees and wrapped her arms around her contented pet.
"She is perceptive," Sabyne noted. Like her mother was left unsaid.
"And too smart for her own good, I fear," Bail added. "When she was three, Leia had already begun to notice the difference in her skin complexion from Brehu and me."
"It was a natural progression from there, I suppose."
"Yes," Bail said. "We have tried to instill in Leia the importance of not discussing her heritage openly, but she is a ?"
Bail couldn?t help the slight grin. Sab?, of course, would know better than most. "That she is."
"I would like to help Leia," Sabyne said in a whoosh of breath.
The grin was gone. "I do not think that is wise."
She was Naboo. Not only that, from Padm??s personal staff. The risks were enormous. Beyond enormous. Incalculable.
"I understand." There was no disappointment in her eyes. Only resolve. "May I say goodbye before I take my leave, then?"
It was the least he could do. "Of course."
"Thank you, Senator."
Sab? stepped into the afternoon light and drifted the short distance to Leia. Guilt and any number of similar emotions washed over Bail as he watched the woman who had sworn to protect Padm? bend down to address his lost friend?s child. He wouldn?t ? he couldn?t ? endanger the stability of Alderaan for any person. Sab? was a resourceful woman; she would find a place among the stars. She would fight the good fight, just not here and now.
Leia appeared riveted on the handmaiden?s words. The exchange was brief, but there was some import to the moment. Like history passing hands. Bail wondered what little piece of Padm? Sab? had chosen to leave behind. Then it was done, and Sabyne glided his way.
"Thank you again, Senator." She glanced back for one final look at Leia. "Take good care of her."
"I will." He inhaled sharply. "Where will you go from here?"
"My duty is still to Padm?, to her legacy," Sab? answered while drawing up her hood once more. In one act she became the nameless face that would forever fight the claws of oppression.
"May the Force be with you, then."
"I would rather it not," she whispered. With a tip of the head, she was gone.
Bail gazed off into the mountains again. As he had become accustomed to lately, he shoved the unease from his mind, back to a hidden corner for another time. There were many things he did these days that were counter to his nature, but they were necessary.
The simple sound of unadulterated joy lifted Bail?s heart, and he wondered what could make his daughter so happy. To say he was astonished when he looked to her would have been an understatement. He watched, speechless, as Leia paraded around the veranda with the lumbering wuicka in tow.
Leia beamed over in mid-step. "I did it."
A second later, Leia tackled Wuickly. "Good boy!"
Something had changed in the child from just a few minutes past. If it were possible, she now reflected even more of her mother?s charismatic charm, the ability to unite purposes reflected in the happy waggle of the wuicka?s tail. There were some lessons only a woman of noble training ? a handmaiden ? could impart.
Suddenly, Bail found himself running. He ran into the palace, out of their private suites, and started down the hall to the staff offices. He didn?t have to go more than a few more steps before spotting her.
"Sab?-yne." He sprinted up to the handmaiden and took her by the arm. He asked everything and only one thing of her. "Please. Stay."
Original cover by Lady Padme. HTML formatting copyright 2006 TheForce.Net LLC.