Somewhere in the distance, she heard a man scream.
It was high and agonized, and she tried to tell herself that it couldn't possibly be Han, but of course she knew she was lying. Not only could it be Han, it could hardly be anyone else.
Another scream. Was she even hearing it with her ears? Or was it coming across some connection between them, echoing through newly built rooms they would never inhabit together?/p>
I'll tell you everything, anything... just don't make me hear that anymore.
But there was no one with her to tell. The stormtroopers had dragged her back to the quarters she'd shared with Han and locked the doors. Vader had gone off after Han and Chewie. She was alone, and no one was asking her any questions.
At least not yet, a cool and reasonable voice said firmly in her mind. It wasn't precisely her own. It spoke in a variant of her voice, because it wasn't really using words ? she was supplying them ? but the sense of being spoken to by someone outside of herself was pervasive. You must be wary, young Leia, and you must be strong. The only question that matters today is the one you must never answer.
There was another scream. Leia covered her ears, but it didn't block it out at all.
Leia, think. If you cannot bear being here, then you would do yourself, Han, and many others a service by escaping.
She laughed bitterly. Escape was easy to think about, but hard to accomplish. She was locked into a sealed room kilometers above a toxic planet, with Imperial soldiers patrolling all the routes to the ships (she supposed).
Still, it was better than doing nothing, and infinitely better than listening to those screams that wouldn't leave her head.
Leia breathed deeply to calm herself, then examined her situation. She'd loved the pretty red thing she was wearing when it had been brought over to her... soft, feminine, the sort of thing she remembered her mother
(be still and strong little one)
wearing in the Palace. Even now, with Cloud City a sour taste in her mouth, it was bitter to think of letting it go ? bitter because it was sad to relinquish beauty, bitter because she'd been forced back into the war before she'd had a chance to really understand how blessed a respite could be.
But there was no help for it. She had to escape, and long flowing robes would only get caught in the doorways.
The Empire had been kind enough to lock her into the rooms she'd been sharing with Han. She pulled her white uniform from the drawer she'd stashed it in that morning with the cheerful hope that she'd never need it again. Within a minute ? Leia had never seen much sense in dwelling on sentiment ? the princess had become a warrior again.
Something about changing her appearance calmed her mind, made it possible for her to think clearly, despite the screams. It was a question of finding the most logical escape route (or the one least likely to be watched), then taking the steps necessary to use it.
The door would be guarded, and she was unarmed. It would be a waste of time to try and break the lock.
The windows looked into the upper atmosphere of Bespin. They had no mechanism to be opened because the toxic gases sometimes seeped up. And if she were to break through the window, there was nowhere to go outside. Ultimately, she had to get back into the city, and back to the Millennium Falcon. The covers on her old standby escape ? the ventilation system ? were built into the wall; there was no question of removing one.
Leia frowned at the room. It was beautiful, but no less effective for containment than her cell on the Death Star. She couldn't go to the sides, and she couldn't go up. The only option left was down ? surely, there would be some sort of drainage. A septic system, at the very least. It would be smelly and horrible, but that was the price she would have to pay for not being careful enough here.
She was on her knees in the 'fresher, prying at the tiles on the floor, when her time ran out.
It didn't begin with the sound of the door, though she tried to convince herself later that it had. It began with a rush of pure, overpowering energy that washed over her like a tidal wave. She recognized it immediately ? she had known Vader for the better part of her life (and the worse part of it), and she knew what it felt like to be overwhelmed by him.
But it was different. It wasn't just power. It was... desperation? Something, anyway. It stopped her in the midst of her frantic and now pointless labor. She was already frozen and waiting when the door opened in the room behind her.
Vader considered waiting for the Princess to leave the 'fresher ? she was a princess and a lady, and he had no desire even now to humiliate her ? but when he glanced toward the door, he saw bits of broken tile spilled onto the carpet.
She was trying to escape.
Let her escape, a weary part of his mind whispered, a part that remembered Leia as a child on Alderaan, trusting him against all the wisdom of her elders. It had ended, of course, during the violent raid on Coruscant when her mother had died... but until then, she had been something close to a friend. She is not of interest to you ? the boy has already begun his journey ? and she possesses no information of interest to the war effort. Let Leia go. Let her be free.
But that was out of the question because...
It didn't matter why.
She would not return to her friends in the Rebellion. And he could not, of course, risk Luke deciding that the danger had passed.
And she did have one bit of information somewhere in her mind that Vader wanted.
It was not strictly necessary to know if Luke had been with Padm? on Alderaan. In all likelihood, he would have been too young to remember her anyway. But if Luke had known her, if she had told him at least something of what had become of his father, then the upcoming meeting would be somewhat easier. Vader, at any rate, wanted to know what to expect. It was a subject that would need to be approached with caution.
"A classic ploy, your Highness," he said, coming around the doorframe. "If somewhat beneath you."
"It seemed like a more pleasant way to spend the afternoon than the one I imagine you have planned." She looked over his shoulder. "Where's your little toy with the needles?"
Vader gave her credit ? she almost kept the tremor out of her voice, and her face might have fooled any other man. But he knew Leia Organa, knew the set of her features and the sense of her presence. She was afraid. He had given her reason to fear him in the past.
"I see no need for such barbarism in this instance."
Somewhere beyond the door, the stormtroopers sent another charge of current through Solo, and he screamed.
The Princess flinched back as if struck ? Vader wasn't sure she even knew she was reacting. It was as though...
A revolting idea occurred to Vader, and he drew away from her. The pirate. The foul-mouthed smuggler. The filthy street scum who was indebted to the slaving Hutts.
And she had permitted him to... to touch her. He allowed himself to imagine it no further than a touch.
Without any clear idea why, he bent forward and grabbed her by the elbow, pulling her to her feet. "Your choices have grown progressively worse."
She shook her arm violently in his grasp. He could tell that it was causing her pain ? certainly more than it was causing him ? but he didn't let go. She stopped struggling, drew her head backward, and spat at him.
There was no sensation in the mask, and he didn't know where her spittle had hit him, so he didn't bother raising his free hand to wipe pointlessly at it. Instead, he pulled her out into the main room. He let go of her when the momentum would take her forward, and she spilled onto the white sofa, her legs splayed.
She scrambled to her feet, standing on top of the cushions. "So it's come to this?" she almost screeched. "After all these years, this? I should have known it would. I don't know why I ever believed it was beyond you. I don't know ? "
A rage ripped up through Vader as he realized what she was talking about, what she was accusing him of contemplating. He raised his hand and the sofa flew backward into the wall, toppling her onto the floor.
"How dare you," he whispered.
She rolled forward and pushed herself up. She was on her hands and knees, trying to find her balance. She lifted her head, and her face was hateful. "How dare I?"
"You disgrace yourself."
Her eyes widened in anger, making tense circles that seemed to be trying to escape her face. "Oh, yes. I'm certain that's your concern. That I not disgrace myself." She laughed ? a high, cackling sound that didn't even bear a passing semblance to humor ? and threw her arms out in a shaky parody of magnanimity. "Lord Vader, protector of my innocence and defender of my honor!" When she turned again, she had lost some control of her expression. Her lip was curled up, and her eyes were drawn in toward one another, etching a sharp line down between her brows. "What do you really want?"
Vader stood silently and let her rage pour over him. It was energizing, in its own strange way. He had always valued her honesty and courage, however misguided. And the Princess had great power, should she choose to use it. He had felt her rage once, after her mother's death, when she had come after him and set fire to the Ampinuan night, tried to burn him... but she had pulled back then, and had never reached for her powerful anger in battle again.
And further, the angrier she got, the more she felt, the more power she was sending into the Force. Luke would feel this.
Which was, of course, the point.
Vader wondered if Luke could get anything more concrete than sheer power out of the Princess' mind. He'd never been able to himself, but she wouldn't have any reason to hide from his son.
She seemed to have run out of words, and she just glared at him, her chest rising and falling in a rapid staccato, the sound of her breath a counterpoint to the sound of his own, in double-time.
He waited for her to turn her acid tongue back to her accusation, and steeled himself against the inevitable jibes when she recognized that... that as well as being an affront to his honor, the action she had intimated was quite impossible. He had learned to live with that over the years, but it was not something of which he cared to be reminded.
But she didn't choose that path.
Instead, she turned away from him and cupped her elbows. "Han knows nothing," she said. "You have no need to torture him."
"I will decide what my needs are, Your Highness."
She squared her shoulders and rounded on him. Her voice was controlled, but dripping with disdain. "I once thought you had some honor. I thought you were wrong on every particular, but at least you stuck to your own warped principles. But you're just like the rest, aren't you? As cruel as Palpatine and as corrupt as Tarkin."
His hands were around her upper arms before he noticed that he was moving. The word, the accusation, a hundred times worse than the other. He lifted her from the floor. He could feel her feet beating pointlessly at his knees. His thumbs seemed to be pressing very deeply into her flesh. "Never make such a comparison again, Your Highness." He shook her once, hard, and her head snapped back and forth.
She looked at him vaguely when her neck recovered somewhat. "Hurt you, did it?" she whispered.
He dropped her, turning away before she hit the floor. He felt a tug on his shoulder as she landed on a corner of his cape, then rolled away.
For Luke. She must project. She must be angry. To bring Luke. I will tolerate her insolence because it has a purpose.
Vader hooked his hands onto his belt. For a moment, he had nearly forgotten why he was here, nearly forgotten the search he had devoted the last three years to. Luke. It was about his son, and nothing more. Anything the Princess had to say was merely a tool to use in that endeavor.
"I regret losing your good opinion," he said, modulating his voice to a softer tone. He looked back at her. "There was a time when I valued it."
"It was a lie then." She got to her feet, then made her dizzy way to the sofa. He'd forgotten for a moment that he might have injured her head. "I once thought you might know something worth talking about, but that's a long way from a 'good opinion.'"
"Lying doesn't suit you, Leia," he said. He had not used her proper name for many years ? not since their relationship had grown cooler and more formal ? but she took no notice of it. "I have long memories of our years together."
"Yeah. Me, too. I particularly value the one where you were kind enough to visit me in prison on board the Death Star. And the support you gave me when my homeworld was destroyed. And of course we can't forget you bringing me my mother's body. Can I look forward to you handing me Han's as well?" Her voice rasped on the last, and Vader could tell that she really did fear this. She whirled away, apparently less than certain what her face was projecting. There were, Vader reflected, advantages to masks. "I have a very long memory," she said.
And that was the segue Vader had been waiting for, the gateway to the one subject that might matter today. "How long?"
Her shoulders tensed. "What do you mean?"
"I asked you long ago?when you were a child?about a woman. A woman who once stayed in the Palace on Alderaan."
"And I told you I didn't remember her."
"Do not lie to me."
"My private memories are neither your business nor the Empire's."
"The woman. Did she have a child with her at any time? A child close to your own age?"
"If I don't remember this woman, why would I remember a child?"
Vader had never been able to read the Princess well, but he could sense high anxiety now, the pounding of her heart and even a slight trembling in her hands. He'd known that speaking of Padm? had been a taboo to her as a child, but he could not imagine why she would continue to act on it. "The woman is dead," he said. "Nothing you say could be of consequence to her. Did she ever have a child with her?"
The princess gritted her teeth loudly, but said nothing.
Vader raised one hand and pointed at her. Her body slowly turned, though she fought the control as hard as she could. She was untrained and had no chance of ultimate success, but she held her own.
"Did she ever have a child with her?" Vader repeated.
A bit of sarcasm flickered to life in Leia's eyes. "No, I was an adult at the time. I've actually been aging backwards."
Vader bit back an acid response. The Princess had always been a difficult young woman. "A child other than you. A child of her own."
She pressed her lips together tightly. "I am not going to stand here answering pointless questions about my parents' friends."
"You would prefer, perhaps, to answer other sorts of questions? Perhaps you would like to discuss the location of the Rebel rendezvous point?"
"I knew it," she snorted, not without some relief.
"Unfortunately, Your Highness, I am as likely as you are to obtain that information." Something of a lie, but not entirely implausible. "And at the moment, I prefer to discuss the woman. Senator Amidala."
Her face wrinkled in genuine confusion for a moment, then she shrugged. "I don't know about Senator Amidala. I never saw her. My mother was one of her handmaidens when she was the queen of Naboo."
Vader traced the energy surrounding the Princess. She believed, at least, that she was telling the truth. "Then perhaps another handmaiden. Padm? Naberrie?"
Her jaw set and she turned away. That name at least clearly meant something to her.
"Your Highness, did she have a child with her?"
She looked over her shoulder at him coolly.
Maybe Luke knows everything. Maybe he's told Leia and she is deliberately protecting him.
No. On reflection, it seemed unlikely. If the boy had not come to him, then he probably harbored some misguided shame about his origins, and would not have shared them with this woman he admired. Unless, of course, they both remembered... that would explain why Luke had come for her on the Death Star. Kenobi, of course, would have been satisfied to get the plans to the Rebellion. He would not have troubled himself to rescue Leia.
"Did Padm? Naberrie have her own child with her on Alderaan?"
"She had my mother's child with her." She raised an eyebrow. "Why do you care?"
"That is not your concern. Answer the question, Your Highness."
The simple, flat syllable enraged him again, and he strode across the room, barricading her against the wall with his arms. "Answer me now!"
Leia squared her shoulders and raised her chin defiantly. "I will never tell you my mother's secrets."
Padm? and her handmaidens and the damnable secrecy! It had been passed down like an heirloom, even when the secret could harm no one. Vader clenched his fist and pressed it hard against the wall. The secret of Luke's existence had not been Sach? Organa's to keep, but Leia clearly intended to hold on to it, and he had learned three years ago that when Leia chose to keep a secret, it was futile to attempt to take it from her. At any rate, the tone of her voice was enough to tell him that the Princess, at least, considered the secret something she owned, not something that belonged to anyone else. So he would have to assume that Luke knew nothing.
Vader grabbed her by the elbow and yanked her across the room to the door. He opened it, and transferred her to the stormtroopers outside. "Take her to her companion," he said.
"Yes, sir. Any stops on the way?"
The voice was leering. Disgusting.
Vader looked at him steadily. "Take her where you were instructed to take her, officer. And if I hear of any misconduct with this prisoner by any member of your squadron, it will be your last moment this side of death."
"Hypocrite," Leia bit out, then allowed the guards to lead her away.
Vader watched them go, then took one last look through the suite. There was nothing.
And he had no more time to waste. Luke was already on the way, and the test of the carbon chamber had not yet been made.
Leia could barely feel the prods of the stormtroopers as they herded her through the corridors.
Her head still hurt from being snapped back and forth, but the dizziness that made her careen from one soldier to another had nothing to do with the physical injuries inherent in any conversation she had with Vader these days.
Did Padm? Naberrie have her own child with her on Alderaan?
Her father had only given her one instruction about Padm? Naberrie: "It is a name you are not to mention to Vader under any circumstance."
Some distant, analytical part of her mind wanted to know ? demanded to know ? why the only question Vader asked was about her long-ago birth mother, but she couldn't think about that now. It had hurt, fighting with him, talking about her... and knowing that Han was somewhere nearby, hurting, for the sake of questions no one could answer.
She wanted desperately to talk to Han about it, but when the stormtroopers opened a door, she saw him struggling to stand with Chewie's help, and she knew she would say nothing about it at all.
Original cover by FernWithy. HTML formatting copyright 2003 TheForce.Net LLC.