During Princess Leia's teenage years, she discovers a friend in an unlikely -- and disturbing -- person: Lord Vader.
Half-heard whispers in the night.
"He'll see her. He can't miss his own -- "
"Obi-Wan told you that she can -- "
"I don't care! I won't take chances! I have to hide her. He may not recognize her alone, but he'll know if she's with me. I can't hide it, not in my eyes, not with her here."
Hands lifting her up.
"It's so small, too small, she'll be frightened... "
"She'll be all right. Won't you, my brave little one?"
Placed in the bright box, with the warmth of her mother's scent and the cushions of her clothes.
A soft hand, caressing her face. "Be still and strong, little one. You have your father's heart and your mother's love. Don't be afraid."
A bright bauble glistens, then the trunk closes and the light disappears.
In the darkness, soft breathing. She is safe here. She is still and strong.
Ten years later.
The Empire was not welcome on Alderaan.
Leia Organa knew that, even at twelve. She could hear her father's anxiety in the coolness that had crept into his speech, see it in the stiff set of his shoulders. Leia felt the tension in the air, like the static electricity before a lightning storm. Imperial visits were feared and hated.
But Bail Organa often needed to negotiate with the Imperial bureaucracy for the release of political prisoners, so there was no avoiding the contact. He also orchestrated disaster relief efforts in several systems, and sometimes needed to ask the Empire to release one of the ships sent for such a mercy mission. The Empire had never trusted these ships, and they were often boarded and confiscated. Once, they had detained a ship bound for the plague-ridden world of Gonjua for six weeks and hundreds of people had died. Leia wanted to burn every pockmarked face into the Empire's memory for that, but Father insisted that she learn how to submerge her anger and behave like a princess at all times.
Imperial visits were common, but visits from Lord Vader were not. A message had arrived earlier that Vader was to be expected. It was brief and chilling: "I have been sent to conclude the negotiations." There were rumors about how Lord Vader concluded negotiations. None of them mentioned mutually beneficial compromises.
Leia put on her best day-gown -- an antique lavender one, with wide sleeves and a faded blue sash, made for a long-ago queen -- and pulled her hair into a high crown of braids, secured with a silver comb that bore the crest of the royal house. She wanted to show Lord Vader the strength of a united Alderaan, the devotion to the old traditions that had bound the world together before the Empire, and would last when the Empire was a forgotten nightmare.
She checked her face in the mirror, and wished that she was old enough to wear makeup, or that Mother would give a brief respite from her rule against doing so before her thirteenth birthday. She had a fond memory -- one of her secret memories -- of having her face painted in bright, theatrical colors by a kind woman with sad eyes, who had spoken to her softly and tenderly, and smiled as she made the vibrant marks on Leia's face. She herself couldn't have been more than three, but she remembered that
the woman had playfully dabbed a bit of red on each cheek, and smiled and cooed as Leia returned the gesture, poking her own pudgy finger once on each of the woman's cheeks. Leia didn't know who the woman was, though she had suspicions on the matter that hovered between memory and a dream. Her father merely told her that maybe, when she was older, he would explain. For now, she was never to speak of the woman, or even to think of her frequently. It wasn't an easy instruction to obey. The woman haunted her.
She went downstairs to join her father.
Bail Organa glanced sideways at Leia when she arrived in the Great Hall, smiling slightly at her dress; she'd known he would understand the choice. She smiled back, and he put a hand on her shoulder as she came to him. "You are certain that this is what you would do?" he asked. "Last time you saw Lord Vader, you ran as soon as he spoke to you."
Leia felt the blood rush up into her cheeks. "I was seven," she said. "And stupid. I was scared of his breathing machine. I'm not anymore."
"Are you sure that was all?" Father's eyebrows drew down, drawing his gaze inward with them. His eyes seemed to darken. "He didn't say anything that struck you as strange or frightening, did he?"
A strange bird began to flutter in Leia's heart at the odd question, but she caged it. It was understandable that Father was concerned. There were matters in the Organa household that did not bear a great deal of Imperial scrutiny, and Leia was aware enough of them to make her conversation with Vader of interest to him. "He told me I was good at handling my new speeder bike," she said, shrugging. "I just didn't like that he'd noticed me. I guess he was trying to be nice."
"I find that somewhat unlikely." He looked back toward the arch, and shook his head. "You're sure it was just the breathing machine?"
Leia thought about telling her father about the strange feeling she'd had when Lord Vader had looked at her, as if some insect was buzzing inside her head, darting this way and that, looking for something to feed on. When it had drawn close to her secret memory of the pretty lady with the sad eyes, some instinct in her mind had risen up and swatted it away as effortlessly as if it were a swampfly. She didn't understand how she'd done it, but it hadn't been difficult, and she knew she could do it again. Princess Leia Organa was not afraid of swampflies. So it wasn't exactly a lie when she told her father, "No, it was just the breathing machine."
Beyond the huge arch that generated the forcefield of the palace's front door Leia could see the line of the Imperial convoy. It wasn't large -- just six vehicles -- but it dominated everything it passed, a cold steel knife stabbing into the living flesh of the world. It pulled in front of the palace, and a hatch opened in the middle shuttle.
Lord Vader stepped out of it.
He looked straight through the forcefield, and Leia knew he was looking at her from behind those plexisteel eyeguards. It was crazy, but she was absolutely sure of it. She straightened her shoulders and raised her chin. She was a princess of Alderaan. She was not afraid.
The forcefield was deactivated, and Lord Vader strode inside. Four guards followed in his wake, but he never even glanced at them.
Bail Organa took a step forward. "Lord Vader," he said, giving a small bow. "My home is open to you, as it always has been."
"You have small choice in the matter, Organa," Vader said. He glanced at Leia. "I am pleased to see you again, Your Highness," he said.
Leia's temper rose up like a draigon at the way Vader had treated her father, but she saw how well Father retained his composure, how dignified he remained in the face of the insult, and longed to be like him. "My daughter will observe our negotiations," he said.
"If that is your wish."
Lord Vader led the way into an anteroom, not even bothering to give Bail the appearance of being the host in his own home.
Behave like a princess, Leia reminded herself. At all times. She caught her temper and choked it as she followed them. It was still struggling to free itself when negotiations began.
Vader was fond of the young princess.
Granted, it was a detached fondness, a sort of academic interest -- fascination, perhaps -- but it was a fondness nonetheless. It puzzled him. He felt very little now. The strong feelings, like anger or aggression, flowed quickly and easily when he needed them. But this was a feeling of a different order, a strange leap of his blood, and he wasn't entirely comfortable with it. The child reminded him of
HER, he supposed, with her long dark hair and royal title. And certainly, the child had known --HER... in her infancy -- this was where she had been before the end. He had tried to read the girl's memories once, to see what was there. Foolish, he realized now, to have been obsessed with finding mere scraps of information, on the off chance that they would make a pattern leading him to --
He stopped thinking about that; it was not comforting to him. He no longer felt the desperate need to simply see the pictures in her mind, any more than he felt the need to open the trunk where he kept the things of HERS that Sach? had brought to him, though he still occasionally found himself doing so. Habits died hard.
It had been a purely personal search. The rebel Organa was not foolish enough to divulge vital information about the Rebellion to his seven-year-old daughter.
What fascinated him about the princess, though, was the almost unconscious way she had blocked her mind from his when he had tried to access it. There had been a strong sense of being struck back, of being caught by the wind of the Force and thrown aside. He had not heard of anyone else with this particular talent. Many people were simply blank slates -- they never reached into the Force, and left no footprints on it to be traced. Neither Bail nor Sach? Organa was open to him at all, and never had been, even in days when they had no reason to hide. They were simply invisible, in any but the most rudimentary ways. Their daughter, on the other hand, was visible and strong. She would need a mentor at some point. She called out like a beacon in a crowded room; even those who weren't attuned to the Force could feel the power of it. She would be a great leader someday.
They reached the meeting room near Organa's office, and Organa and the princess sat together at one end of the small conference table. Vader himself preferred to stand. His full height inspired quicker negotiations. The guards for both sides lined the walls, in an alternating pattern, as was the custom on Alderaan.
Organa spoke first. "Until our medical ship is returned from Ampinua, I see little room for negotiation."
Vader paid no heed to the absolute tone of Organa's voice. "We captured a rebel commander named Jaet Bishapi on Ampinua."
"Bishapi is a physician. He has made no secret of his political views, but you and the Empire know full well that he has never acted on them."
"You are assuming an antiquated legal system, Organa. Bishapi has broken no fewer than thirteen Imperial laws, including laws against sedition, which carry a death penalty. His execution is scheduled within the next forty-eight hours." Vader watched Organa carefully, but let his gaze take in the girl as she sat fuming beside him. He could sense that she was embarrassed for her father's powerlessness, but he could find nothing more specific about her. He was sorry he had allowed her to witness the negotiations. Rebel or not, Organa needn't be shamed in front of his child.
Still, her presence had not been Vader's idea.
"I imagine," Organa said, "that you would not have been sent to deliver this message unless the Empire wants to bargain for something. We both know that Bishapi is no real threat."
Vader slowly raised an eyebrow under his mask, realizing partway through the motion that no one would be able to see it. "Do we?" Of course, that was the Empire's official position -- the point of coming here was to use Bishapi's life as a bargaining chip to disarm the fleet of ships Organa had at his command -- but Vader was not as certain as the Emperor or the Governors on this matter. Bishapi traveled to unstable worlds, and spread his sedition among people who had little to lose, like the Ampinuans. Stricken by natural disasters and greedy despots who operated outside the laws of either Republic or Empire, Ampinua was ripe for political unrest.
But it was not his choice. If it had been up to Vader, the Empire would have sent in engineers to repair the damage and governors to establish order in the chaos, but Ampinua had been deemed non-essential, just as Bishapi had been declared a non-threat.
"Lord Vader," Organa began, "there is little to be gained for either of us by parrying on obvious points. I am well aware that you and the Empire are willing to bargain for Bishapi's life. You are equally well aware that I will do so."
Young Leia was staring stonily at her hands, folded neatly on the table. She had apparently been instructed not to speak. Pity. Vader would have liked to hear what she had to say. "Very well, Organa. If that is what you wish. Your fleet is suspected of transporting weapons to the Rebel Alliance. It will no longer do so."
"You've never found any evidence of such a thing."
"Do not insult my intelligence."
To Organa's credit, he said nothing.
Leia's hands were clasped tightly together, and Vader could see the slight flicker of motion as she flexed one finger after another in a rhythmic pattern. She wanted to be tapping them in her impatience and rising temper.
Vader continued. "Alderaan has been a seedbed of discontent from the beginning. Bishapi is a symptom of a larger problem, which I intend to solve today. We will return your physician to you. And you will disarm. Fully and immediately."
Leia stood, and banged her hand on the table. "That would leave us without any way to defend ourselves against your thugs!"
"Leia, you may leave the room. Now," Organa said.
Vader considered forbidding it, but it would be improper for him to contradict the girl's father in matters that were not Imperial.
Leia's nostrils flared a few times, then she turned on her heel and left the room.
"I apologize, Lord Vader," Organa said. "She has a rather volatile temper at times. I had thought she would have learned to control it by now."
Vader did not accept the apology. He thought less of Organa for making it. Such a temper might have proven an asset to this girl, but it was being trained out of her as surely as if she were a padawan. By the time she reached adulthood, she was certain to have become as much of a
her father was.
"Shall we return to our negotiations?" he asked dryly.
Leia paced the hall outside of her father's study, her gown billowing behind her in a cloud of sheer fabric. She knew she was in trouble. She knew she had broken her promise not to speak. And she knew that she got in more trouble for losing her temper than for any other crime she regularly committed, since -- according to Father, at least -- it gave away too much and interfered in delicate negotiations. The royal house of Alderaan had officially declared the temper of the princess to be a matter of planetary security.
Well, why shouldn't I be mad? The whole thing is a humiliating mess. No one should talk to my father like that. And the Empire has no business stopping medical ships, or telling any world that it's not allowed to defend itself anymore. If negotiations are too delicate to handle the truth, maybe the negotiations should change.
She reached the end of the hall and turned smartly, pacing back the other direction. She had a list of things to tell Lord Vader, and she wished now that she had done so, as long as she was going to be in trouble anyway.
The door to Bail's study slid up, and he called her inside.
He was sitting behind his large desk, several viewscreens raised and showing him different images. He motioned for Leia to sit down. She knew the routine -- he wouldn't start speaking to her until he thought she had sufficiently calmed herself. She breathed deeply and watched him scan the news, and waited to be addressed.
"You broke your word," he said at last.
"I know, Father. I'm sorry."
"Had you been conducting the negotiations, you might have cost Jaet Bishapi his life. I will not lie to you and say that anger cannot be a tool, but it is a blunt and crude one, and it is more likely to destroy negotiations than salvage anything."
She sighed deeply. "Then you're going to disarm?"
"We have no choice in the matter. It was either disarm now and get Bishapi, or have Bishapi executed, then receive another order to disarm, this time with the backing of a military much stronger than anything we can muster. You need to understand the political realities of living in a world under suspicion. Lord Vader made the Empire's position quite clear."
"I hate him," Leia muttered, half under her breath.
"You fear him."
"I do not! I'm not afraid of him anymore. I just hate him, and I wish he was dead."
"Leia!" Bail Organa was around his desk in three large steps, and his hands dug into the muscles in Leia's upper arms. "Don't you ever say that again! Do you hear me? You must not say that, or think that. Ever."
"Why not? He wishes other people dead. He wishes Jaet Bishapi dead."
"What Lord Vader wishes or does not wish is not my concern. I am not responsible for him. I am responsible for you, and I am telling you now that you must never wish such a thing, not even in your most secret heart. You would come to regret it. Deeply"
Bail looked at her sadly, then looked away and let go of her arms. "Because thoughts like that poison the mind, Leia," he said finally. "I will not tell you not to fear Lord Vader -- and please do not give me any more bravado on that count, because if you don't fear him, you're a fool; there is reason to fear him. I will not tell you not to hate him, though it is my hope that... that you will either learn to pity him, or at the very least to hate him for the right reasons."
Pity him? "What are the right reasons?" she asked.
"Lord Vader was a great man once," Bail said softly. "Behind that mask is a man who could have done great works in the name of all that was good. He is strong, and he could have wielded that strength against the Emperor. He stole himself from the galaxy, Leia. He stole himself from you."
Leia stared at a ray of sunshine coming through the high windows. A mote of dust was floating in it. Her father was hiding something. She didn't like that, but she was used to it. "So I'm supposed to feel sorry for him?"
"Vader is a prisoner held by the chains he forged himself, Leia. I don't know if that means you should feel sorry for him or despise him all the more. That's something you have to decide. I just want you to remember it. But whatever you do, you must not wish him dead. If you are going to make pointless wishes, wish..." He shook his head. "It doesn't matter. You will not attend any more diplomatic functions until I am convinced that you know how to comport yourself." He turned ostentatiously toward a viewscreen. The meeting was over. Leia left the room without saying goodnight.
She wandered the halls for nearly an hour, watching the sunset from many different windows, her mind restless. Something in her father's intensity had disturbed her, for reasons she could not name. There was something at the edge of her memory, trying to surface. It was near the secret memory. Something about
(be still and strong... don't be afraid)
She pushed it away. She was not supposed to think of this, and at the moment that seemed like the sanest rule that existed in her life. She pulled the comb out of her hair, and tucked it in her sash, then went to watch the rest of the sunset from the Great Hall, through the arch.
Lord Vader was already there, standing at the center of the door, a black mountain against the vivid red of the sky. He was aware of her presence, though she wasn't sure how, or how she knew it.
Well, she wasn't going to miss the sunset just because he was in her favorite spot. She wasn't afraid of Lord Vader, and it wasn't bravado, like Father thought.
"Good evening, Your Highness," he said. "I would be pleased if you would join me."
Leia wasn't sure what to do with the invitation. She had no desire to join Lord Vader, and was vaguely insulted at being invited to a sunset in her own house by anyone, but to turn around and leave would mean she was letting him alter her plans. She settled for saying, "Hello, Lord Vader," and sitting down on the wide steps of the grand staircase.
That strange buzzing appeared in her mind again, startling her momentarily before she recognized it. It buzzed toward her meeting with her father, and she shunted it easily aside, as she had before. It hovered near thoughts of her mother, and of school, and she let it stay for a moment; there was nothing threatening. Finally, as she'd known it would, it sought out her secret memory. She needed to make no effort to push it away. It was an instinct, like blocking a blow with her hands. The strength of the reaction startled her, as her mind seemed to push outward against Vader like a hot wind, pushing a fire back in on itself. It was much stronger than it had been when she was seven. She didn't let her face register that she was aware of anything out of the ordinary. Lessons in diplomacy were good for something after all.
Leia looked up. She hadn't realized that Lord Vader had been speaking to her. "I'm sorry? I didn't hear you well."
"The last time I was here, you were racing a rather nice speeder bike against a rather unworthy opponent. Do you still race?"
Of all the strange questions Leia had been asked, this one seemed to her the most surreal. Darth Vader, standing in her father's Great Hall, after having humiliated him in negotiations, asking calmly -- like any other adult trying to strike up a conversation with a strange child -- if she still raced her speeder bike. She couldn't imagine why he would be interested in such a thing, yet she remembered vaguely that he had been watching that race five years before, and had evinced more interest in it than either of her parents.
"No," she answered. "My parents really didn't like it very much, so I stopped." That much was true; they had purely hated it when she had zipped through the local park, racing against her friend Zeria, and seemed only to hate it more when she protested that she enjoyed doing it.
"A pity," Lord Vader said thoughtfully. "It is a pleasant pastime for a child." He turned back toward the arch, and looked at the now darkened sky.
"No one ever beat me. Not Zeria, not anyone."
"Then it seems to me you were in need of more talented enemies."
Leia smiled despite herself, then hid it quickly, remembering why Vader was here, and who he was. Why should she take pleasure in his approve of such a silly thing? Who was he to approve or not approve? But she couldn't deny that she did take pleasure in it, and that she found it strangely comforting to think that Lord Vader might have some mundane interests that had nothing to do with executing doctors and "concluding" negotiations.
She looked at him guardedly, at the black cape, at the lights of his breathing apparatus. It was grotesque, and she thought he could have done something about it if he was inclined to, but he wasn't completely repulsive. He was just a man with a medical condition that required certain machinery.
"I regret what you witnessed this afternoon, Your Highness," he said. "It is necessary to the stability of the Empire to quash the Rebellion quickly. Once that is accomplished, we can put structures in place to handle emergencies like the one on Ampinua more efficiently."
"What kind of structures?"
Vader turned and looked at her, and she imagined a look of surprise under his mask. Then he began to explain.
Vader had, in fact, been taken by surprise by her sudden question. Organa's daughter, willing to listen to someone else's point of view?
But this child had a way of surprising him. The moment of being caught in the surge of energy from her mind had been intriguing and powerful. And now, she was listening attentively as they walked around the grounds and he spoke of his view of the galaxy, about how he wanted to use the power of the Empire to settle territories out into the Outer Rim, to restore order and make possible a civilized life, even for people
trapped on worlds whose natural tendency was toward chaos. He could bring in schools and courts, and organize disaster relief far better than Organa ever could with his ragtag collection of out-of-repair starships. The people would realize, at last, that order was helpful to them, that the order protected them in a way they had never been protected under the corrupt Old Republic. The Emperor would see to it that the same standard of justice applied to all the people of the galaxy. He had promised that much. As soon as the war was over and the resistance crushed.
"But how is it justice to keep medicine away from people, like you did on Gonjua?" she asked.
"It is a dangerous time, Your Highness. We must be vigilant. It is unfortunate that many people choose to mix terrorism with benevolence. We must stop the first, even if it requires impeding the second, if we are to maintain order."
Leia frowned. "It's still not right. No one was bombing anything. It was just medicine."
"It was regrettable," Vader agreed. "But unavoidable. Perhaps we should speak of other matters now. We are approaching an impasse."
Her eyes narrowed, but she shrugged an agreement. The conversation drifted for several minutes, skating over the edges of many topics, but came back, naturally enough, to its beginning, to her racing. She appeared to have decided that they could share this ground, and clearly was glad to have someone with whom to discuss it.
Even me, Vader thought. She is glad even for my company in this matter. It was an unsettling thought. People were rarely glad of his company in any matter, and he considered this a proper state of affairs. But he was glad of the company as well, and searched his mind for the manners of light conversation that he had long since abandoned.
"...and I probably could have gone faster, but my speeder bike wouldn't go with me."
"Have you considered altering the engines?"
"I don't know much about them. I mean, a little bit, but I don't think I could change them around, at least not without help."
"Perhaps I will teach you."
"Why do you know about racing?"
It came out easily and unexpectedly, though he had not spoken of any part of his past for many years. "I raced when I was a child."
"What did you race?"
A voice in Vader's mind -- the voice of a man who could no longer be allowed to exist -- tried to speak to her question, to tell her about the dunes and rocks of Tatooine, about the exhilaration of traveling at speeds that would make her speeder bike look like it was standing still. Vader did not give that voice any quarter, even now, when it could do no harm. It occasionally cleared its throat to speak on other matters and he had no interest in its opinions at those times. Better to cut it off in all situations than to risk its nattering interruptions when it counted. "It no longer matters," he said. "It was another lifetime."
Leia did not press the issue. She might have been forming her own opinions, and Vader would not stop her from doing so. It occurred to him that befriending the princess might prove useful in his future dealings with Organa. And at a later date, she might prove to be a powerful ally. He savored the thought of that. He would be glad to claim Organa's daughter to the Empire. If it would help to allow her to imagine him as a child racing just as she did (or as she wished she did), then he would allow her to spin the fantasy.
More comfortable, now that he understood his own reasoning, he resumed the conversation. "And what of you, Your Highness? You say you no longer race. What occupies your time now?"
"Tutors and school," she answered. "And learning diplomacy. That takes up a lot of my time. And learning to control my temper, which my father says ought to take up all my time."
"You can gain respect in a negotiation by not backing down," Vader said, feeding what he knew well was her belief.
"That's what I've been saying! But it didn't seem to work well today. And I am sorry for interrupting the negotiations. I was out of place."
"You have no need to apologize, Your Highness. The reason it didn't work today, as you put it, is that you were in a position in which you had no options. In a stronger position, a well-controlled display of defiance might have been quite effective. It was a girl not much older than you are who began to dismantle the Republic with just such a show of defiance in the Senate."
"I know that story."
"I thought you might." Vader decided to press the issue. "Do you know who that girl was? I believe she might have been here for some time when you were young."
Instantly, the girl's guard went up. He could feel the howling wind of it coming out from her mind and see the sudden tension in her shoulders. HER presence was obviously something the girl did not want to discuss, or had been forbidden to discuss, although Vader failed to see Organa's reasoning for the latter. "I see I've made you uncomfortable, Your Highness. I should apologize now," he said. "I'm sure it was simply too far back in your memory to be of note."
The wind subsided, and Leia smiled. "It no longer matters," she said. "It was another lifetime."
For a brief moment, Vader was angry, then he realized that she meant only to share a jest with him. She had no reason to believe his question was of great import to either of them. He wished he could laugh briefly, to reassure her that he knew it was a jest, but he had long ago lost that ability.
He suspected it wasn't necessary. For the moment at least, she'd granted him some kind of provisional trust. That would be enough to start on.
He waited for the voice in his mind to protest, but it was, for once, silent.
Leia dreamed of her mother that night.
Not her adoptive mother. Sach? Organa was certainly beloved to her, and no one outside of Leia's mind would be allowed to refer to her as anything other than her real mother. But inside Leia's mind was another woman, the sad-eyed woman who never left her. In the privacy of almost unremembered dreams, Leia always called her "Mother."
They were together in a world of shifting rocks and sudden drop-offs, with fires burning all around them. The woman waited at the top of cliff, her hands clasped behind her back, looking out across the desolation. Leia climbed up to her. Her feet made no sound on the hard rock, nor did the stones she dislodged -- the only sound in this place was the quiet whisper of the wind, an unceasing, even hiss-shush that seemed to come from everywhere.
Leia reached the top, and stood beside her truemother, not knowing what to say in such a place, or if she would have a voice at all. The woman turned.
Her face was painted like a doll's. There was something else about her, something strange that Leia couldn't place. "We all have to wear masks sometimes," she said at last, and to Leia's relief, the sound was clear and gentle. "There are faces we can't let them see."
"Let who see?"
"That's the riddle, isn't it? Who is the only person who can never see behind a mask?"
Leia thought about it, and the answer came to her with no fanfare; it was obvious. "The person who can't see behind a mask is the person wearing it," she said.
"That's right, little one." Her voice became firm, almost dangerous. "And that means, no matter what you may see behind a mask, you must never assume that the person wearing it will see the same. Be mindful. Take nothing for granted." She smiled, and ran a hand over Leia's cheek. "But don't stop looking, my love. Don't ever stop looking."
The woman's makeup faded away first, revealing her ageless, beautiful face. In the instant before she faded away entirely, a deep shadow passed over her, and Leia thought she saw another shape, a true shape beneath, but it was gone before she could recognize it.
Then the vision disappeared, and Leia was left on the burning plain. She wandered it until she awoke.
It was only on the edge of waking, in the no-man's land of dawn, that she realized what had been strange about her mother: in her secret memories, and in all her other dreams, the woman had soft brown eyes, much like Leia's own. In this dream, her eyes had blazed out from behind the makeup -- and they were an intense, storm-cloud blue.
Jaet Bishapi arrived a week later, released from his cellblock with an apology from the Empire for the "unfortunate detention" he had suffered. They had no actual evidence of his activities within the Rebellion, so Father had been able to make his deal stick.
Bishapi was a human of indeterminate age, with young eyes and long white hair that flew wildly in the wind. He laughed easily, and sang in a loud, booming voice. Leia liked him a great deal, but thought he might not be entirely sane.
"Yes," he said one night after supper, not long after he got in, "Ampinua is in a bad way. The usual fever, of course. I offered them a cure." He wiggled his eyebrows.
"Which I'm sure they gratefully took," Mother said.
"Took it? Why, they were already trying to figure out how to make the medicine themselves. I just gave them the right formula."
Leia wished they wouldn't speak in such obvious codes; if they were going to speak of the Rebellion, they should do so outright, or at least in secret phrases that couldn't be understood by any nearby five-year-old. Besides, there were other priorities on Ampinua, and they came before the Rebellion, just as they should have come before the Empire on Gonjua. "The tidal wave," she said, "was it really as bad as they say? Did it really go all the way across a city?"
Bishapi nodded, becoming serious. "Yes, Your Highness. I didn't mean to make light of the disaster. An undersea quake raised a huge wave, and it moved cleanly across the isthmus, where Fazon, one of the chief cities of Ampinua, lies. Many people had evacuated when the scientists predicted a plate shift, but people can be very stubborn when it comes to leaving their homes, and there were many who decided to stay and ride it out. All but a very few of them were killed. And the water supply has been tainted, which really is causing a disturbing digestive illness to spread among the survivors. It was a tragedy. Many lives were lost and destroyed, and many of Fazon's priceless works of art have been lost forever."
Leia tried to imagine it, a wall of water sweeping across a city, destroying everything in its path and leaving misery and disease in its wake. Her heart went out to these people she did not know, and she longed to go there and comfort them.
"I want to help," she said.
The three adults all looked at her keenly, a sudden silence falling on them. Leia could hear a whistlebug in the garden outside, humming to the evening.
"There is little you can do, Leia," Father said after awhile.
"I can give medicine to people. And I can help clean up the rubble. Please. I want to help them."
"No," Mother said.
Bishapi had been shaking his head all along. "This is not a good idea, Your Highness. Geologic instability is only one of Ampinua's problems. It has also been largely usurped by a man called Mol Zokusa, an ex-Imperial officer who was dishonorably discharged by Lord Vader."
Mother looked up sharply. "Vader?"
"There is a certain irony in it, isn't there?" Bishapi shook his head. "Zokusa is a thug. Vader considers him corrupt. And Vader destroys anything he considers corrupt. It's common knowledge that Vader wanted him executed, but was over-ridden by the Governors." He snorted a humorless laugh. "Then again, even Vader has to be right sometimes. Law of chance. Zokusa is a despot. He needs to be taken down."
"Really, Jaet," Mother said. "I thought we left that sort of thinking to the Empire."
"You haven't seen them, Sach?," Bishapi said. "Zokusa funnels nearly everything through his own personal treasury. He takes his pick of the women. He sends his thugs out after anyone who he thinks he hasn't stolen enough from yet. If we back down from people like Zokusa, then Vader has one up on us."
Two unrelated things happened the next month.
The first was that the disarming of Alderaan began. Lord Vader oversaw it personally. It was a humiliating moment for the planet, and Leia felt it keenly, but it gave her many more chances to speak to Vader. She had lost all fear at his appearance, and found -- somewhat disturbingly -- that she could speak to him easily, about many subjects. Racing kept coming back, but she also discovered his knack with anything mechanical, and he listened attentively while she complained about her linguistics tutor. There was no single thing she could pinpoint in these talks, no memory that she would later identify as the seed of a friendship, no unique understanding they reached. It was just... something, a sense of belonging and understanding that nourished a part of her soul she hadn't even realized was starving.
Her parents had objected to the talks at first, but their arguments were hollow, and Leia had won her case easily. She could keep secrets, and she didn't find Vader's blatant Imperial proselytizing at all alluring. She tried to listen through his polemics to find whatever good ideas might be hidden in the dark morass of his mind. She hadn't found any yet, but she was certain they existed. His desires were in the right place; surely he must have some thoughts of how to achieve them that weren't brutal, simplistic, or self-defeating
The other event was her friend Zeria's thirteenth birthday.
The two girls had been friends for as long as Leia could recall, though their families had little to do with one another. Zeria's parents owned a market in town, and they had met when Leia and her mother had gone on a rare royal outing. They'd hit it off so famously that arrangements had been made for them to continue playing together, despite the vast differences in their lives.
Zeria's birthday party was going to be the first of the Thirteenths. Like many cultures, Alderaan had once held thirteen to be the age of majority, and it remained the most heavily celebrated birthday in a child's life. Zeria had decided on a masquerade to be held in the Hall of Memory, with the theme of creatures from Alderaan's ancient myths. Zeria had chosen to be the angel Uali. Leia, as her best friend, agreed to be Uali's sidekick, Voj, who was generally the one who got the pair in trouble. Leia secretly preferred Voj, though Uali was supposed to be the Alderaanian ideal; Voj, at least, took the initiative now and then.
The costume was the bright red of sunset, with a feathered mask that covered most of Leia's face. The gown skimmed her body, clinging to curves she hadn't realized she'd been developing until she put it on. She felt acutely self-conscious, and was glad of the diaphanous cape that draped over her shoulders and down to her waist, covering the disturbing new shapes.
Zeria's costume was the same, except in the blue of the sky at noon. They sat together on the dais, and the first half of the party -- the dinner -- went splendidly. Leia offered a funny toast (a light wine was allowed at Thirteenths), and Zeria swore they would be best friends forever.
If so, either "forever" or "best friends" meant something different to Zeria than it did to Leia. After dinner, there was a formal dance. The boys crowded around Zeria, and she agreed to dance with each of them. No one, however, asked Leia, and she was left stranded alone on the dais. Every now and then, Zeria would pass by with a wave, but she never stopped to talk, and never sent anyone else over. Apparently, no one had much interest in talking to "Her Highness," or so Leia gathered from overheard comments. It seemed to be an assumption that some kind of very complex protocol would be involved in approaching her, and no one wanted to risk a mistake.
She watched from behind her feathered mask, and tried not to be disappointed. It didn't work. Unable to conceal it, she slipped outside after an hour, thinking only to get some fresh air.
Her speeder bike was hovering where she'd left it earlier, beside Zeria's. She hooked it over to her with the remote that dangled on her bracelet disguised as a charm, and climbed on. With no particularly planned destination, she slid out into the night.
At first, she just meandered over the rolling hills, feeling the wind billowing back her gown, and flattening the feathers of her mask against her face. She dipped into the shallow valleys, following the courses of the small creeks, sometimes low and under the branches of the trees, sometimes high above them. Had anyone told her that her eyes had been closed nearly half the time, she would not have believed it.
She found herself at last in the park where she and Zeria had raced when they were children, the place where Lord Vader had watched her and complimented her, and the place where she had run away from him without a word. She'd been foolish.
She glanced around quickly, to see if she was alone. Satisfied, she bent low over the steering column, and hit the thrusters.
She was astounded by the speed at first. It had been so long that she'd forgotten what it felt like to really fly. But she gained control, feeling the turns of the track and the shimmies of the machine through some network of nerves that reached beyond her body. She increased her speed.
Once around the long track, twice. Ducking under artfully constructed obstacles, and over the rolling hurdles. Zipping between two crafted shrubs.
Third and fourth revolutions. It wasn't her imagination. The speeder bike was going faster than it was supposed to be able to. She didn't stop to question it -- she pushed the thruster further, and took it as far as it would go.
Under, around, over. A controlled spin through the landscaped canyon. Her heart was racing, her face flushed with exhilaration under the mask. Her gown and her hair flew behind her in a river of red and brown. She should be wearing a helmet, she knew, but this...
She came out onto the open stretch, and almost missed the hulking black form against the night sky. She veered, and was sure she had lost control -- she had time to think, that'll teach me about the helmet -- but found the speeder righting itself and slowing, turning back toward the center.
Vader was waiting there for her, his hand slightly raised.
He was controlling her speeder. She didn't like that much, but supposed she probably owed him her life. Of course, if he hadn't been standing there, she wouldn't have had to veer.
"Good evening, Your Highness," he said.
The speeder stopped, and Leia climbed off of it. "Hello, Lord Vader."
"I see you have discovered the modifications I made to your engines."
Leia's eyes darted to her speeder bike. So that was why it had been going faster. "I think you might have warned me."
"I didn't imagine you would take it to a speed you were unable to control. You didn't. You flew well. Do you enjoy the power of it?"
A part of Leia was tempted to scream that she could have been killed, that it was high handed of him to tamper with her property without her consent, that his questions were intrusive. Instead, she smiled broadly, nodding, the corners of her mouth tickling against the feathered mask. "Thank you," she said.
"An early gift. I believe your Thirteenth is coming soon?"
"Next month." She had not thought yet about her own celebration, and now didn't want one. The lines of dutiful faces waiting to get their dances over with were too awful an image to contemplate for long.
He nodded. "I will no longer be on Alderaan at the time. The disarmament will be complete within two weeks."
Leia sighed. It was not one of the matters she could discuss with him. There weren't even any shared axioms upon which to base an argument. "Where will you be next?" she asked.
"That is not for your ears, Your Highness."
She shrugged. Such statements were not new to her. Jaet Bishapi had said something similar when he'd left last week. "Will you return here?"
"Perhaps. Someday. If it becomes necessary. I am somewhat unwelcome here."
It would have been good form to contradict him, but they had dispensed with good form early on, and she preferred not to lie to him. "I should get back to Zeria's party," she said. "Before I'm missed. It wasn't very polite of me to sneak away."
"It would be unfortunate to waste such a beautiful costume."
"Do you really think it's pretty?"
"I consider you lovely."
Lovely. The warmth of the word filled her chest, and she stood straighter. He didn't lie to her any more than she lied to him. If he said she was lovely, she was. She had never been lovely before.
"Thank you," she said again.
She climbed back onto her speeder, and returned to Zeria's party. As it turned out, she had been missed, if not greatly. A few of the boys noticed her windblown hair, and the confidence she carried herself with. Something certainly made them look. Two of them asked her to dance, then there was a circle of them. Zeria saluted her from across the room. Leia winked back at her from behind her mask.
Maybe parties weren't so awful.
She began looking forward to her own Thirteenth.
Vader watched the princess glide off toward town, smiling ruefully behind his own mask. It was a smile that no one on this world would have associated with him... except maybe Sach?, but she had flown offworld the day he'd arrived, and at any rate could not see it any more than anyone else could. His plan to bring Leia into the Empire seemed to be failing -- she was a stubborn child -- but he still found himself enjoying her company.
There were those, he knew, who would impute something improper to his attitude. In general, he did not object to people assuming the worst of him -- it was usually true, and generally useful -- but in this case, the idea sickened him. He knew the power of the Dark Side, and had given himself to it, but he was not deviant, not in that way. Such grotesqueries were for people like Zokusa, who thought the universe existed to sate their base desires.
Vader despised them.
He thought the princess a lovely child; that was true. But a child. Not an object of desire, except in such a way as any adult desired to protect a child and raise it in his own image. He supposed he did desire her in that way, but the Princess was someone else's child to mold, someone else's child to protect. To pretend otherwise would be as grave an offense as the Jedi had committed, refusing children to their parents and parents to their children.
He would try to influence Leia, but she was not his to raise. The child who would have been -- the boy, whose presence he had felt briefly before it blazed out -- was lost to the darkness of time, lost with HER, and with the life that had burned away from him.
It would actually be considerably less than two weeks before he left. Alderaan's stash of armaments was less than the Empire had estimated, and Vader had guessed what had become of the discrepancy. The ship that had left last week had been far too large for the amount of legal cargo it carried. The commander of the stormtroopers who had examined it swore that it had been checked from stem to stern, but Vader believed the man to be a fool -- the cargo holds he described searching would only take up half the space the ship had for them. Alderaan's machinery of war had been moved, right under his nose, along, he was certain, with Bishapi. And there was little doubt as to their common destination, and his report to the Emperor had finally resulted in permission to follow personally.
Vader relished the chance to go to Ampinua at last, and solve all the problems of that world once and for all.
Leia returned home just before midnight -- long after her usual curfew, but Thirteenths were special, and carried special privileges -- humming a popular dance tune under her breath and pretending to dance with handsome Mip Luha, who had twirled her around the floor twice earlier. She was thinking about her own Thirteenth in earnest now, unable to imagine a way to top Zeria's.
"And who's this masked woman?" someone said, picking her up and swinging her around. He laughed loudly.
She pulled off her mask, and turned to smile at Jaet Bishapi. "I thought you were gone!"
"I was. Now, I'm not. Come, your father is on the balcony." He held out his arms. "Shall we dance our way to him?"
Leia dropped a curtsey, and let Bishapi lead her across the Great Hall, through the dining room, and out onto the balcony, where her father stood and applauded. Leia collapsed into a comfortable chair, laughing. Much had happened; the night had soared back and forth between despair and exhilaration, and she was exhausted. She wondered what she might dream about tonight.
"We've been talking," Father said. "And I sent a careful message to your mother on Malastare. She has finally agreed."
"Agreed to what?"
"Generous impulses should not be forbidden." Father stood, and looked out across the plains. Leia wondered if he'd seen her racing earlier. She hoped not.
"I'm sorry?" she said.
"Ampinua," Bishapi jumped in. "I'm returning to Ampinua soon. If you want to help, Your Highness, you are more than welcome to."
Leia sat up straight, both her gaiety and her exhaustion evaporating. "Ampinua?" she repeated.
Father turned back to her and nodded. "Yes. This is a simple enough mission. Jaet will have you inoculated against the viruses that are spreading before you go. You will do as he says, though. Your mother and I are both concerned about the political situation. Jaet has promised to keep you out of it."
"Which political situation?" she asked. She didn't mean to sound disingenuous; she really wasn't sure if they meant the Rebellion, or the despot Zokusa that Bishapi and Vader both wanted dead.
"Any political situation," Father said. "I have no desire to see you go to war with anyone just yet."
"Neither do I," Bishapi reassured him. "But I do want to see you stand up and do what you believe in doing. And I think you're good company. It will do my heart good to have you along. What do you say?"
Leia thought about asking if she'd be home in time for her Thirteenth, but realized that would sound childish and selfish. And besides, what better way to come of age than by actually entering her parents' work?
She smiled. "I say, what do I pack?"
She dreamed nothing that night, because her waking thoughts were too quick and excited to allow sleep.
Ampinua, she thought. A chance to really
(solve all the problems of that world)
make a difference.
At last.Part Two: Problem-Solvers
In the cramped darkness, a touch on her mind. She reaches for it.
There is no place to move, and she feels safe here, deep in her mother's scent. She is still. But her othermind is not. Her othermind wants only to touch what has touched it.
The closed world tips suddenly, and she almost forgets not to make a sound. Then there is a rocking motion, and she feels herself being carried away -- ripped away -- from some great, magnetic power. She wants to cry, but she knows she cannot. Something wraps itself around her heart, soothing her and making her strong.
Then, bright light, and slender arms lifting her up. "Hush, now. Hush, my little one. Everything is all right." The voice is high and shaky and frightened, and not the one she wants so much. "Everything will be all right. Mother is here."
Leia Organa spent her thirteenth birthday preparing for the journey to Ampinua.
Her few close friends came by for dinner -- well, really only Zeria, though Mip Luha dropped off flowers -- and Bishapi and her parents offered the toasts in a quick celebration. She was officially given control of the two droids -- R2-D2 and C-3PO -- that she had been told were hers for as long as she could remember. Not that it mattered; Bishapi absolutely refused to allow her to bring them on the mission, so her first act as their mistress was to return them to her mother's care for a time. Mother gave her makeup -- marking the end of the childhood rule -- and Father gave her a necklace of shimmering pink stones. Bishapi, somewhat more practical, gave her a blaster, and taught her to shoot. She learned quickly. Neither of her parents liked it much, but she gathered that permission had been given.
She went back to her bedroom after the celebration, to check and double check her packing. She knew that she had everything she'd been told to bring, but she found herself unable to concentrate on anything else. There was a knock at her door, and she absently keyed the remote to open it.
Sach? Organa came in and sat down on the bed, smiling at Leia with a mixture of pride and sadness. "You'll be fine," she said, beckoning Leia to sit down beside her. "Don't worry. You need to calm down enough to get some sleep before you leave."
"I don't think I can."
Sach? took her hand. "Leia, there's something I want to talk to you about."
A knot twisted itself tight in Leia's stomach, but she tried not to let it show on her face. "What is it?"
"It's about Lord Vader. I am... uncomfortable with this friendship."
"I know." Leia bit her lip. "You don't need to be. He just tries to tell me about the Empire. It's good to see things from their point of view sometimes, isn't it?"
Sach? shrugged, nonplused. "What does he tell you?"
"He thinks the Outer Rim territories need a firmer hand from the Empire to keep the criminals under control." Leia smiled. "And he says I shouldn't try so hard to control my temper."
"These are not new positions for him. Then again, he rarely has new positions. He's very set in his ways."
"I've noticed. But so am I. You don't need to worry about him convincing me of anything stupid."
"I'm not worried about that. I'm just concerned, in a more general way. Vader is a dangerous man, Leia. You're sure he's said nothing non-political to you?"
(I consider you lovely)
Leia felt the blood drain from her face, wondering if that was what Mother was worried about, if she was afraid that Vader's attentions were inappropriate. It was a strange and disturbing thought. "We don't always talk politics," she admitted finally. "But there's nothing... Mother, there's nothing for you to... Mother, don't be ridiculous. He helped me with my speeder bike. He fixed the thrusters so they would go faster."
Sach? laughed. "Well, that's a relief. That is a position that hasn't changed over time, either. Though I do wish you'd keep your speed down. I worry." She brushed Leia's hair off her forehead with a gentle hand. "I'm sorry to have upset you, Leia. I'm glad you have found something to say to him. Very few people do anymore. But please, promise me you'll be careful. I will never trust him."
"I promise. I do know how to keep secrets. You know I'd never betray you or Father. Or anyone else."
"I know you wouldn't, love, not even by accident." She smiled, and settled Leia into the crook of her arm, as she always had whenever Leia had a troubling dream or a scraped knee. Leia leaned comfortably into it. "But I do wonder what it is that he wants from you. And what it is you want from him."
Leia shook her head helplessly, not knowing how to explain to her mother what it was she had sought -- and found -- in this friendship. She found herself unable to express the odd sense of... of fitting that she had when she was with Vader (another oddity -- Leia rarely had trouble speaking on any subject). She wasn't sure she wanted to examine it too closely.
"He likes me," she settled for after awhile. "It's nice. He doesn't like anyone else."
"I suppose I understand that," Sach? said. "Now, get some sleep. Promise me you'll try?"
Leia promised, and her mother left her to another sleepless night.
Early the next morning, she left with Bishapi for the docks. There was a great deal of secrecy, as Bishapi had once again had a warrant issued for his arrest. "This may take some strategy," he said, winking. "But nothing we can't handle."
Leia was excited by the danger, though she didn't admit it, and didn't think she had to; Bishapi was in high form himself. She hid with him in the back of a supply truck, and snuck on board the medical ship that was waiting for them. The captain -- a quirky Calamarian named Sorgar -- slid a panel open in the wall. It was wired to the communication system, but the wires concealed a small hiding place. Leia and Bishapi climbed inside. The panel slid closed again and darkness
(be strong and still, little one. you have your father's heart and your mother's love. don't be afraid.)
enveloped them. The ship was boarded only a few minutes after launch, and Leia was sure they would find her by the sound of her furiously beating heart. They stopped and pulled up floor panels -- she could hear them right in front of the hiding place -- and checked the instruments that were wired into the walls. Leia could see a spark arching between wires as the comm system was activated. They did not move the panel that hid the compartment.
There was a hard jolt as the ship jumped into hyperspace, then Sorgar opened the compartment and let them out. "We shouldn't have more trouble with them," he said. "The Empire has other things to do. We're not carrying weapons."
"That's where you're wrong, Sorgar," Bishapi said. "We're carrying the best weapons of all -- we're carrying the Rebellion itself to Ampinua."
The trip took only a few hours. Leia occupied the time by reviewing what she knew of Ampinua and its people. It was a native settlement, not a colony of any world. Ampinuans were a small-statured race, but willowy and thin, with translucent wings that -- in certain circumstances -- could carry them over the ground for a few feet, but were largely vestigial. An Outer Rim territory that had never really been invested in the Old Republic, it was a world that had lived in serene isolation before the Empire (or so Bishapi said; Leia didn't think anyone was quite so doggedly serene for so long). For many centuries, its only trading partner had been the neighboring world of La'azum, but a ferocious drought on that world had brought cataclysmic economic consequences to Ampinua in the past ten years. La'azum had once been the source of much of Ampinua's food, traded for with an odd assortment of gems and fuel mined from Ampinua's heavily salinated plains. They had been able to recover some of this land to farm, but their economic structure had fallen into disarray, even before the great seismic shifts had begun to re-shape the continents.
Nature abhors a vacuum, even one of her own creation, and the vacuum of Ampinua's empty structure was filled with the most loathsome scavengers in the galaxy. Mol Zokusa, formerly an admiral in the Imperial fleet, had arrived four years ago with ambitions just limited enough to stay beneath the Emperor's level of concern. He had no desire to challenge the Empire, only to enrich and aggrandize himself. The Empire -- with the notable exception of Lord Vader -- had not objected. Now, Zokusa's thugs roamed freely over the plains. There were reports that they controlled some of the freshwater springs and were charging taxes on their use for the first time in Ampinua's history. Worst of all, they stood in the way of the disaster relief, for reasons Leia could not even guess at. Even assuming pure self-interest, she could see no course of rational self-interest that would cause them to behave in such a manner.
"There's your difficulty," Bishapi told her. "You're assuming there's something rational about it. There's not. Zokusa and his men are just out to demonstrate that they're running the show on Ampinua. They'll use it up, then let themselves be chased out in a few years. It's happened before. It will happen again. Our concern with it at the moment is that we will need to deal with the strutting little nerf-breeder if we want to get through to the people."
"I'd imagine he won't be happy if you start urging rebellion."
"I'm not interested in making him happy. But you're right, of course. Men like Zokusa want more than anything to avoid the attention of the Empire, and maintain their -- how to put it? -- their privacy. Becoming involved in the Rebellion is not a good way to accomplish that. So they are my enemies as much as any stormtroopers. And perhaps more your enemies, Your Highness. You have yet to do anything to upset the Empire, other than traveling with me."
"I haven't upset Zokusa yet, either."
"You haven't been listening. You have no need to upset Zokusa. In fact, enmity is not even my concern. You must simply be extremely careful dealing with these men."
Sorgar began the landing cycle a few moments later, and brought the ship to a stop on a high plateau on the north central plains. There was apparently some kind of agreement in place, as a circle of men -- mostly human, though one Wookiee stood sentry -- was waiting for them to disembark. Grumbling, Sorgar used a remote to call a floatsled from the hold. It bore a large metal box. ("Tribute," Bishapi explained.)
Sorgar handled the tribute, then Bishapi led Leia outside. He put his arm firmly across her shoulders.
"Well, well," one of the men said, "I see we have more tribute!"
There was general raucous laughter.
"My assistant and I will be traveling to Fazon now," Bishapi told them. "I believe the agreement involved transport?"
"I don't remember that," the first man said, stepping forward. "Yeah, I think maybe we should go to Zokusa's place first. I think this is his kind of tribute, more than those pathetic trinkets Sorgar brought us for landing." He put a hand on Leia's face.
Leia drew back in disgust. "Get your hands off of me," she said icily.
More laughter from the ranks. The guard who had touched her reached for her again.
For the first -- and only -- time in Leia Organa's life, she consciously reached for Vader's advice. He'd said that she should use her temper, never let a bully get the upper hand. It was time to test the theory. She felt her new blaster resting lightly against her leg. Drawing back had freed her from Bishapi's protective arm, and she could move easily. In a quick motion, she drew the blaster, and aimed it at the guard. "I think Dr. Bishapi said we were headed for Fazon," she said. "And I think you ought to take us there."
"Leia!" Bishapi growled, stepping between her and the guards, and knocking her blaster off its target.
But the thug just laughed. "Ah, she's better than tribute. When'd you start shrinking your guards, Bishapi?"
There was general laughter in the circle, then a small hovercraft appeared over the edge of the plateau. They'd just been playing, as Leia had gambled.
The Wookiee gestured for them to follow him. They boarded the hovercraft, and headed out.
Vader loathed the ceremony Zokusa had created for his arrival.
He had always been somewhat indifferent to ceremony, though he recognized its practical value in establishing authority, but to be honored by this... thug... was revolting.
It would be sensible to simply kill Zokusa outright, he supposed, but no matter how many men he had killed, he had never really developed a taste for the act of murder. He did not shrink from the blood on his hands or waste time on regrets about it; neither did he revel in its presence or take any joy from its stench.
He could wait. Zokusa was bound to give him a better excuse for it than his loathsome existence soon enough. It would be fair, and honorable, and necessary.
But it would be done.
Zokusa's men parted in military formation, and Zokusa himself stepped forward to greet Vader. "My lord," he said, "I was pleased to receive notice of your visit."
Vader continued walking when he reached the end of the shuttle's gangplank, signaling Zokusa to join him. He didn't particularly care that the man had to take two steps for each of his own to keep up with the pace. "There is no need for such pretense, Zokusa. There are reports of Rebel activity here on Ampinua."
"A ship left the Alderaan system earlier today with medical supplies. The Empire has reason to believe the rebel Jaet Bishapi was aboard it. His purpose is to spread sedition in Fazon. As the leader of Ampinua -- a title which I recall you claiming for yourself -- you will be held accountable for his actions unless he is brought to me." Vader glanced sideways at Zokusa, whose normally complacent face was twitching with anxiety. Good. Vader would have liked to unsettle him further, but there was no time for it. Zokusa shook his head. "Why would I join the Rebellion, my lord? Look around you! I have no reason to rebel against the Empire. I am perfectly content."
"Your contentment and that of those you have set yourself to rule over are clearly not the same thing."
"I have no tolerance for sedition, Lord Vader. Traitors are punished to the full extent of the law."
"I'm sure they are, when you can be bothered to find them."
They reached the entrance to the cavernous building Zokusa had appropriated as his home. The door opened, and Zokusa led the way inside. "If the Empire will share its information with me, I will be more than happy to prosecute all Rebels found in this system. I would be happy to supply some of my leaders to La'azum as well."
"Yes, I'm sure you would be quite happy to expand your reach. The Empire would be less happy with it."
Zokusa seemed less sure what to do with that statement. He blinked twice, then turned and clapped his hands smartly. Three Ampinuan females, dressed in flimsy clothing, hovered in the doorway, their wings straining to keep their feet off the ground. Zokusa smirked. "I like to see them fly," he confided. "Gives them a real glimmer."
Vader's eyes narrowed beneath his mask. All it would take was a tiny flicker from the Dark Side, to leave this monstrosity grasping at his throat. "I prefer," he said, "to see them able to move. Let them down."
Zokusa shrugged, and signaled to the women, who gratefully lowered themselves to the floor. "These are yours," he said high-handedly to Vader. "To serve whatever needs you might have during your visit."
The Ampinuans looked at their feet, and Vader knew they were hoping his needs would be simple. They had no need to worry. But he was acutely embarrassed to think of what horrible fate they were imagining. It fouled his mood considerably. There had been a time when their faces might have been different, a time when they would have been glad to see him. A time when he had been fair to look upon, and had caught the eye of --
A time that no longer was. "My need during this visit, Zokusa, is to put an end to the rebel recruitment and arms dealing that goes on here under the guise of medical attention. You will find the rebels in Fazon, I have no doubt. You may bring them to me yourself, or I will call for a garrison to be stationed here." In fact, Vader intended to call for a garrison at the first excuse he was given, but as a threat, it was more effective in a world like this if the despot controlling it thought there was a chance to avoid it.
"Yes, my lord," Zokusa said. "I have people stationed near Fazon -- to help the unfortunate victims of the tidal wave, of course. I will have them seek out your rebels." He gave a short, ill-mannered bow and left.
Vader waved off the young women he had been "given," and went to the large window to look out across the plains.
The voice was quiet, afraid... but determined. He turned toward it.
One of the Ampinuan women remained at the door, her eyes cast downward. Her hair was a deep purple and it cascaded to her waist, more of a covering than the scant robe she had been given. She was slightly more than half Vader's height, and looked fragile.
"You have been given leave," he said.
"I do not wish leave."
"I have no need of you." He turned away. He could feel her nervousness radiating outward like heat. She wanted something of him, and had resigned herself to doing whatever he asked of her in return, though the thought was repulsive to her. He let go of her mind, not wanting to see any more. "You may go," he said again.
She still didn't leave.
Vader turned back to her. "Very well. What is it you want? I make no promises and ask no return."
For the first time, she looked up. Her eyes were dark violet, only slightly lighter than her hair. They were large for her face, as seemed to be true with most of the Ampinuans. "I am called Rejuo," she said. "I'm an engineer. I've examined the design of the TIE fighters -- at least what I could access, and discover from a malfunctioning fighter that Zokusa has here. I believe I can improve their maneuverability."
"I have tried to contact the Empire, but little attention has been paid. Zokusa plans to submit my designs as his own. He says that the Empire will pay no heed to an Ampinuan woman."
Vader nodded. It was true, though not a matter he particularly understood in his Master's vision. It was likely that they were missing talent. "I will see your designs," he said. "And judge them fairly."
She smiled, then closed and opened her large eyes slowly and gave a shallow bow. "I will put them in order, Lord Vader, and return promptly."
"You might want to toss the blaster up front," the human guard said, looking over his shoulder at Leia.
"I don't think so," she said.
Bishapi gave her a sharp look. "Do as he says, Leia. If any Imperial agent finds a weapon with us, the Empire can use it as an excuse to arrest you for treason."
"So why did you give it to me?"
"You will need it in Fazon." His eyes flashed a warning, and she understood -- she was not to keep the blaster in her possession until they had left the control of Zokusa's men, because until they went their separate ways, they could be betrayed to the Empire at any moment. She reluctantly handed the blaster to the guard.
The plains slid away beneath them, some green and fertile, others caked white with salt. Bishapi looked suspicious. "I don't recognize these landmarks," he said.
"We're taking you the long way," the human guard said. The Wookiee driver hooted something in return. The human smiled. "Goroga says it's the scenic route. Last time, you came by the sea, along with the rest of the garbage."
He turned back around, and Leia settled back into the seat. There was a low hum to the speeder, and it lulled her as it pulled them all over the fields. The wind tugged at her hair, a relaxing massage. She had not slept much the night before, and, despite her best efforts, she drifted away from the world. Just before her eyes slipped shut, she saw Bishapi smile at her, and knew it was all right.
At first, she didn't realize she was dreaming. She was still looking out across an endless plain, the wind was still beating across her face. But gradually, she realized that she was standing still now, on a high place above the plain, that the wind was blowing up... that it was the wind of a firestorm. The plain was burning. She had been here before, but this time, she was alone. Far in the distance, she could see a figure standing watch, a man or a boy, but he was far beyond her reach.
Two paths wound down the high place. One was choked with thorns and brambles, the other was broken and jagged, with sharp drops that suggested instability. Still, Leia thought the second looked more promising -- if she could just avoid a sudden shift of the ground, she should be able to get down safely. And she did feel a need to go down there. She was needed there.
She took a step down, and the world shook violently, the path falling away from her entirely. It picked up some way down, coming close to the other path. It would be easy to make the crossing there, if she made it that far. In the distance, the boy-or-man turned slightly. Leia could feel him willing her to try the path of thorns.
She looked at the brambles, the blood on the thorns, the tracks of unknown creatures that made their homes in the dark. She couldn't take that path.
A flare blazed on the horizon, and Leia remembered that whatever was waiting down there cared little how she got down. She would be strong and brave. She would try.
She stepped into the thorns.
The speeder stopped abruptly, and Leia sat up straight, suddenly awake. Another contingent of Zokusa's guards had surrounded them. Beside her, Jaet Bishapi was also on the alert. His eyes were darting from one face to another, and Leia thought she saw a hint of fear.
"This is not Fazon," he said. "We are nowhere near Fazon. This is Tellzara."
The human guard raised a hand. "Okay, boys, who put his money on two hours? I figured it'd take 'im three."
Goroga laughed loudly, and barked at a few of the new guards. They joined him. Then a low, amused voice came over the din. "My, my... isn't this quite the entourage to draw the Empire's attention. An old man and a little girl."
Leia looked around.
"Who are you?" she demanded, giving her voice the most imperious ring she could muster. "Who are you and how dare you waylay a medical team?"
"I am Mol Zokusa, young lady," he said, "and I suggest you learn to keep a civil tongue in your head. I can't do anything for Dr. Bishapi -- he's the one the Empire is looking for -- but you... I could do quite a lot for you." He gestured to his guard. "Take the good doctor to our guest."
Our guest. The Empire.
Leia tried to jump for her blaster, but she wasn't fast enough. Two of Zokusa's guards dragged Bishapi out of the speeder, and threw Leia's weapon into a puddle of saltwater. She felt a hand on her arm, and turned to find Zokusa giving her a leering smile. "I think I'll keep this one for myself," he said.
Leia tried to scramble across the seat, but Zokusa was larger and faster. He caught her around the waist, and pulled her out.
"Let me go!" she ordered, struggling against him. "Let me go immediately!"
"I would, if I were you, Zokusa," Bishapi said in a low voice. "I really, really would."
"Well, old man, you're not me. I've got a planet to run. You've got your own execution to attend. I'm happy with the positioning. Are you?"
The guards dragged Bishapi off toward a looming building.
Leia kicked with all her might, and broke free of Zokusa's grip. She dove for the puddle where her blaster had landed, and it came into her hand easily. She spun, aimed, and...
The water had fried the circuits.
Zokusa laughed merrily. "Oh, I can see we'll have a fine time together. Bring her to my chambers," he ordered his guards.
Leia had a fighting heart, but she knew well that an unarmed girl didn't stand a chance against five armed men. She let them lead her away.
Vader waited patiently in Zokusa's lair, looking at screen after screen of Rejuo's designs. She stood beside him, gaining confidence as she re-entered her own arena, pointing out flaws in the current designs, and explaining the notes she'd made on her modifications. Vader approved of them, and made a few further suggestions, building on her ideas. He regretted that he would be unable to work personally on a prototype, but assured her that she would do so. He would see to the difficulties of Imperial policy on non-humans in responsible positions. He would not have the Empire lose such a talent over petty cosmetic concerns.
She thanked him -- not the ceremonial thanks of a supplicant, but the professional if somewhat distracted thanks of an engineer with a project that excited her. He left her to her blueprints, and went to Zokusa's main hall, where a fire had been built in the fireplace. He would have had it otherwise -- he retained a distaste for fire -- but did nothing about it. He would not be waiting long for Bishapi.
Zokusa's thugs dragged him in only an hour later. It looked like they'd spent part of that time making it look like there had been a fight. The doctor was bruised and bloodied, and one eye was swollen nearly shut.
"Here you go, Lord Vader," one of them said, not bothering with the formality. "One rebel. That's all there was."
Vader dismissed them. He reached out to Bishapi's mind to find out if there were any others with him, found the usual blank slate, and resorted to more mundane methods of information-gathering.
"You are under a sentence of death, Bishapi," Vader told him calmly. "I am sure you are aware of this."
Bishapi tossed back his head, white hair spilling over his shoulder. "Are you going to do it yourself, Vader? Cut me into bits and throw me into an incinerator, like you did my brother?"
Vader remembered Bishapi's brother. He remembered everyone he'd killed. There had been a fight, and he had severed an arm, but there had been no cutting "to bits," nor had there been an incinerator. The bodies of those killed in the raid had been honorably cremated. They had fought well, and had simply been outmatched. Vader neither indulged in the battlefield psychosis that some men were prone to, nor allowed men under his command to do so. He was ruthless and he was cruel when necessary, but he was not possessed by bloodlust, and he bore no ill will to the dead.
But Bishapi did not draw any such distinctions, and Vader felt little compulsion to correct his impressions. He no longer sought adulation, only fear and obedience. "I will turn you over to the Senate and the courts. They will punish you under the law."
"Law," Bishapi spat the word. "The only law in the Empire is what Palpatine can get his killer slaves to carry out."
Vader spun on him, grabbed him by the throat, and dangled him above the floor. He was a Jedi knight, or had been once. He was no one's slave. He dropped Bishapi in disgust. "Who is with you?"
To his surprise, Bishapi answered immediately. "Leia Organa."
"The princess?" Vader felt as if someone had kicked him in the stomach. The interrogation of Bishapi seemed suddenly unimportant. Young Leia, with this rebel scum... it shouldn't have surprised him, he knew, but he thought perhaps she had --
A terrible thought occurred to him. "Where is she?"
"Zokusa," Bishapi said. "Where do you think?"
There was little time for planning, and no time to waste making choices. He drew his lightsaber, and struck Bishapi low on his right leg; he wouldn't be going anywhere. Then he set off to find Leia.
Jaet Bishapi waited until Vader had disappeared down the hallway before he screamed. His foot was not amputated, but it would have been better if it had been. The lightsaber would have cauterized the wound, and he could have crept away, which was, of course, Vader's point in choosing this injury. As it was, the wound itself was cauterized, but his foot was still attached to his leg by a bit of flesh over an inch thick, with no bone to support it. There was no way to escape, and no way to help Leia.
Not that Leia would need his help. The girl's parents had allowed her to befriend Vader, for reasons that made little sense to Bishapi. Sach?'s excuse of letting the girl practice diplomatic skills was laughable. Bail's reasoning sounded truer -- he said that forbidding the friendship would make Leia ask far too many questions, as it was not something they normally did -- but Bishapi couldn't imagine a question she might ask that was so dangerous as to outweigh the danger of allowing her to enter Vader's world.
His leg shifted, and the pain in the remaining flesh screamed into his mind.
The thought of leaving Leia in the care of Lord Vader's was not an easy one for him, but he saw little choice in the matter. She was safe. Vader would come to her aid, because of whatever strange thing existed between them.
Then he will come back and kill me.
He was lying beside the fireplace. Old, heavy iron tools sat decoratively on either side of it, including an axe that had once been used to cut wood. Bishapi dragged himself across the floor, his wound stretching and contracting with each movement, and finally put his hands on it.
He took a series of deep breaths, then sat up. Taking the axe in his left hand, he forced the wound in his right leg to its widest opening.
The axe dropped.
Bishapi blacked out for a moment, and came to in a sticky pool of blood. He pushed the axe into the fire for a moment, then pressed the hot metal against the wound. He screamed, despite himself, but no one came.
He crawled away, leaving his right foot on the hearth, a lone sentry in the empty hall.
Leia was pushed into the chamber without ceremony, and landed on a pile of pillows. It was a lavish room, scented with spices and draped with some kind of plush fabric. A great crystal chandelier hung from the ceiling, and the chamber was speckled with the tiny arcs of color that it tossed onto the walls. Leia set about looking for a way out.
There were no windows at a reachable height, and even the high windows had been barred. Leia thought there was little chance of escaping that way. The walls were otherwise blank, except for the door she'd been thrown through. She would have to go out the way she came in. It was guarded. She would have to... remove the guards.
Her stomach rolled inside her. She didn't want to kill anyone, but she didn't intend to stay here one minute more than she had to, either. She had a right to try and escape. If it meant fighting her way out, then she would fight.
Making the decision was moot, though, unless she could find a weapon. Her blaster was long gone, and she saw nothing lying fortuitously around. She picked up one of the pillows, put it over her face. She could still breathe. It would take too long. She considered taking one of the draperies, turning it into a garrote. But they were too long and wide to handle, and she had nothing to cut them with. A cord led up beside one of them. She wandered over to it to examine it, thinking that perhaps it could be snapped. She pulled it from its holder, and found that it had a great weight attached to it. The chandelier wavered at the pressure.
The door slid open, and Zokusa came in. "Do you like it?" he asked. "I think you make a beautiful addition."
"I am a princess of Alderaan," she said. "You don't seriously believe you can keep me here, do you?"
He shrugged. "Why not? Bishapi has been turned over as a rebel. I'll just let on that you were killed in the fighting."
The weight of the chandelier tugged the cord roughly against her fingers. "My parents won't believe that. Neither will the Imperial courts."
"The Imperial courts will hardly trouble themselves over a companion of Bishapi's. No, my pretty one, you'll be here for quite some time." He came over to her, ran a hand down her side.
Leia shoved him away, letting go of the cord at the same moment. The chandelier came crashing to the floor behind them. Zokusa was distracted for a moment. Leia ran under his arm and for the door. He recovered quickly, and tried to snag her jacket. He missed the grip, but knocked Leia off balance, and she went sprawling into the pillows, now mined with bits of crystal. Her hands and face were scratched.
Vaguely, she heard the sounds of a struggle outside, and thought that maybe Bishapi had gotten away and come after her. "Help!" she called.
Zokusa grabbed her again, roughly this time. She managed to reach behind her, and grab a piece of crystal. As she swung it wildly at Zokusa, the door opened behind him. He turned and stumbled toward it. Leia looked down at her hands, and saw blood on them. She screamed, and dropped the crystal. It was small and blunt, and she thought she might have crushed Zokusa's nose into his brain with it.
Then there was a buzzing sound and a flash of bright red light. Zokusa fell in front of her, a scorched mark across his chest. She hadn't done that. She couldn't have done that. The blood on her hands must be her own.
It was then that she registered the steady sound of Vader's mechanical breathing. She looked up at him. His lightsaber was still drawn and still glowing in the dimness of Zokusa's chamber. She had never seen that kind of weapon before. He had killed Zokusa. She looked toward the door, where several guards lay dead outside.
"Thank you," she whispered, not certain how to react to violence and death done to protect her.
"You are in poor company, Your Highness," Vader said, and left.
Leia wiped the cut on her hand on her jacket -- it was small, but it had bled profusely -- then followed him.
Vader discovered Bishapi's escape a moment later, the gruesome reminder lying on the hearth in a pool of blood. He didn't want the princess to see it -- she had already seen more than she should have today -- but there was little to be done about it. If he put it into the fire, the smell would be worse than the sight.
It didn't matter. Leia was closer behind him than he thought. She stood in the doorway, her eyes wide, then ran into the next room. He heard a retching sound. He had considered telling her that she had struck the killing blow against Zokusa -- Vader had deliberately destroyed the evidence when he struck the dying man -- but he didn't think she was ready for that knowledge today.
He considered carefully what ought to be done about her. He couldn't ignore the fact that she had traveled here with Bishapi, which, at the very least, suggested connections to the rebel underground. Yet she was clearly unarmed, and only a child, after all -- certainly she was not involved in the Rebellion proper.
At least not yet. She would be dangerous if that ever changed.
Perhaps that wasn't what she was here to do. Her concern with Gonjua had been for the transportation of medicine. Perhaps she had been misguided by Bishapi, and meant only to offer assistance in Fazon. Vader was willing to consider this possibility. He needed to discuss it with her.
He left the hall, and followed Leia into a small room to the side. She was making no effort to hide, psychically or physically, and he found her easily, crouched on the hearth beside another blazing fireplace. "Rise, Leia," he said.
She rose. She was shaky, but getting herself under control. "Am I under arrest?"
"Not at present." He turned away from her. "You will understand, of course, that I must question you. Where is Jaet Bishapi?"
"I don't know. Except for his foot. You left that by the fireplace in the other room."
Vader was inclined to believe her on this matter. He doubted that Bishapi had anticipated Imperial action on Ampinua, and had probably not devised a plan of reunion. He had simply deserted her, leaving her to a fate he himself probably considered worse than Zokusa. "You were here to distribute medical supplies?"
"Yes. It was just a mercy mission. Why did you stop it?"
"There is an arrest warrant for Bishapi. You know that, or you wouldn't have felt a need to leave Alderaan in secret."
"Why did you feel the need to stop a medical transport ship coming off of a disarmed planet?"
Vader smiled at her, though she didn't know it. "As it happens, Your Highness, I am questioning you. You are not questioning me."
"I answered the only question you asked. I came here with medicine." She looked at him crossly. "You said you wanted justice in the Outer Rim territories. That's all I was trying to bring. It's not just to let people starve and die. Did you really mean what you said?"
Vader's first instinct was to anger, but it was replaced quickly by another idea. It was, possibly, not too late to win her after all. "Yes, I did, Your Highness. Did you?"
"What do you mean? Of course I did."
"Then perhaps you should have considered working through Imperial channels. I am able to open them, if you need me to. You need only ask."
He turned away from her again, giving her a chance to consider it.
Leia was getting her bearings back.
She had never been in a fight before, let alone seen anyone die, but she found she could handle it. There was a place inside of her that she could put it all into, and let it sit there until the edges weren't so sharp. She could go on. To her relief, she did not find that she actually liked the fighting. She could do it without becoming --
She glanced nervously at Lord Vader.
Without becoming dark, she thought. She could do what she needed to do without becoming it. Still, there were strange thoughts in her mind, and she needed to answer them.
She didn't know if it was this new experience, or her new surroundings, or the fact that Vader had just saved her life, but the Dark Lord was making more sense to her than she would have liked him to. Why had they been following such a circuitous route to Fazon, when a more efficient way existed, but hadn't been tried at all? Was it right to withhold aid because they didn't want that aid to appear to come from the Empire?
She didn't care for the line of thought that said it didn't matter how something was accomplished, as long as it was accomplished. But she cared no more for creating a false shortage of necessities in order to make a political point. Starvation and disease were not political tools, to be picked up by one side or another and used as leverage points. Leia wondered if there was a line somewhere between the two ideas that she could find her balance on.
She took a deep breath, and straightened. "Lord Vader?" she said.
He turned. A phantom breeze caught his cloak and it billowed toward the fire. It came nowhere near the flames, but he caught it quickly and deliberately, and took a step back.
Leia frowned. Lord Vader's movement had not been panicked or hysterical, but it had been? odd.
Is he afraid of fire?
She dismissed the idea as ridiculous. Lord Vader feared nothing. That was the one thing everyone agreed about.
It wasn't her concern.
She bent her head in the standard ceremonial manner. It was not a ritual she liked, but if she was going to do this, she was going to do it properly. "I ask leave of the Empire to distribute medical supplies in the city of Fazon, on the world of Ampinua."
"Lift your head, Your Highness. Leave is granted."
Leia looked up. Vader was standing passively in front of her, his face unreadable behind the mask. He nodded slightly. "I thank you, my lord," she said quietly.
"You may dispense with the ceremony. You and your medical supplies will have Imperial guard. If Bishapi makes contact with you, you will report him to me immediately."
Leia did not agree to this. Under no circumstance would she betray Bishapi or any other rebel to Vader. But this was not a position in which defiance would earn respect, so she said nothing.
Without further talk, they removed the detritus of the fights. Leia buried Jaet Bishapi's foot, and Vader made a pyre to burn the bodies of Zokusa and his guards. Leia helped carry them out and lay them on the wood. Most of the Ampinuans held in the lair had used the opportunity of the fracas to escape, though one woman did remain, efficiently cleaning up the mess in the hallways. Leia found Zokusa's keypad and released the others; Vader, under Imperial authority, officially freed them from any oaths or debts of servitude that they may have been forced into.
The sun was setting by the time they finished, and Leia didn't want to remain stranded at Zokusa's lair. Vader could not, at any rate, sleep there -- it was the first time she learned anything about the facts of his physical condition -- so they returned together to his Star Destroyer, leaving the sole remaining Ampinuan woman in charge on the surface. They spoke little of what had happened. They both understood that actual discussion of why Leia was on Ampinua would lead to great unpleasantness, and with that avenue of conversation entirely closed, too many other lines of conversation were stifled.
A wedge, Leia felt, had been put between them. It was the first one; she knew more would come, and regretted it.
He took her to a small cabin. "It is sparse," he said. "But you will not be staying here long."
Leia nodded. "Lord Vader, I... "
For a moment, she could see herself running to him, throwing her arms around his waist as a small child would. She would have liked to hear him tell her that everything would be all right -- his voice was comforting, even if nothing else about him was -- and to be held tight, just for a minute. She could even imagine what it would feel like, the pressure of the respiratory machinery against her cheek, the strong artificial arms crossed protectively behind her, that odd smell of leather and electricity that surrounded him filling her lungs. But she knew she would never act on such a thought. She was not a child any longer, and Vader was not a man one would approach in such a manner.
And besides, he chopped Jaet's foot off just to keep him still. Remember that before you start thinking that he's just a nice man with a breathing problem.
"Thank you," she said sincerely, after what seemed like a long time. "Thank you for helping me."
Vader nodded curtly and left, heading across the ship to the sealed chamber where he slept. Leia watched him go, then shut the door. She sat on the uncomfortable cot, bereft of her nightclothes, any proper linens, any familiar comforts. She laid her head down on the bare surface, drew her knees to her chest, and fell asleep.
Darth Vader rarely dreamed now. He didn't consider this a loss. His dreams had always been troubling to him, harbingers of terror and pain. He was glad to be rid of them.
On the rare occasions when he did dream, it was intense, every object limned in the fire that scorched his soul. Sometimes, he could feel himself burning, see through the rings of fire that were his eyelashes. Sometimes he was sure the pneumatic devices had failed, and he could no longer draw his breath. Sometimes he saw Obi-Wan standing over him with a lightsaber, only to have the image fade into a face that would not take shape for him -- a kind face, a face full of compassion... but a face that would lead to his death as inevitably as night followed sunset.
So he knew that even when a dream began kindly, it would end in terror.
The night he spent over Ampinua, he dreamed a kind dream. He was young again and grand, and strong. He bore the blue lightsaber he had carried into so many battles, but it was quiet at his side in the peaceful, sunlit afternoon.
SHE was with him, and he held her to his heart, and kissed her beautiful face, and buried his hands in her dark hair. She had come to him after all, or perhaps he had gone to her. She smiled at him, then laughed lightly and ran off across the spring-flowered fields. He heard himself laugh, a sound he had not heard in his waking life for many years, and he followed her.
Lightning split the clear sky, and thunder shook the world. He heard her scream ahead of him. Another bolt of lightning came down, setting the fields ablaze around him. The sky was inky black. Vader fought toward waking. He didn't want to be in this place.
But SHE was out there in the flames. He had to save her. He pushed forward, the flames searing him as he went. He found her atop a cliff, on an outcropping of rock suspended over an endless abyss, keeping her balance by grasping the cliff face with one arm. She looked at him with wounded eyes. "Then it will end here?"
He wanted to tell her that it would not, that there was no chasm they couldn't cross together, but found that he could only reach out to her in a mute request. To his horror, his hand had become mechanical again.
She looked down into the chasm, then back up at him. He saw in her eyes what she meant to do, but he couldn't stop her. She let go, and tumbled into the chasm. He could only watch her fall. As she fell, she changed, first becoming indistinct, then becoming that other face, the kind face Vader did not know, then falling out of sight down the chasm that had now become metallic and regular. Something tried to come together in his mind, but the vision disappeared.
He chose not to remember the dream upon waking.
The relief effort on Ampinua was successful. Leia found Sorgar's ship -- the captain claimed to be shocked to learn that Bishapi had been stowed aboard it, though of course he'd known that the little girl was playing hide and seek during the boarding and had simply been afraid to come out -- and retrieved the supplies Bishapi had brought and intended to distribute as he could. She made connections to several members of the Imperial Senate, and arranged for food and supplies to be brought in from other sectors, using civilian ships when possible, but the Imperial star fleet if nothing else was available.
With all the activity going on, one could not blame her, of course, for not noticing certain shipments, including a small transport that carried several boxes of gems from Ampinua to Corellia, in payment for a handful of cartons of bacta. If there was one more box than was accounted for by the payment, it escaped her eye entirely. Bishapi's flight off of Corellia would be delayed enough by the medical attention to his leg that it could escape many other eyes as well.
She returned to Alderaan after a month, and was surprised to find herself something of a celebrity. She had expected to be a pariah, a traitor, an Imperial sympathizer. Instead, a grassroots organization had grown up in her support, and they greeted her with a shower of flower petals, and cries of "Peace!"
"They want you to run for the Senate," Bail told her when she arrived at home. "I'm giving up my seat after this term."
"Why would they want me to run? I only just turned thirteen. All they've seen me do is..." She shook her head. "They saw me give in and use the Imperial star fleet to get what I wanted."
"That's not what they saw," Sach? said. "They saw you reach out to another world, show the strength of Alderaan in a new way. And they saw you build a bridge to the Empire. Not everyone on Alderaan is invested in the Rebellion. Some are weary of the fighting and want to make peace." Her voice had a hard edge to it. She had little liking for people who chose to give up.
Leia looked out the window, where the crowd was gathered, humming an old folk tune. "But that's not what I did. I didn't make peace with the Empire. I practically surrendered to it!"
Bail laughed heartily. "Leia, you don't realize what you did. Not only did you not surrender to the Empire, you actually bent it to your own will. I'm not sure that's a good thing, but I am absolutely certain it isn't surrender."
Leia wanted to laugh along with him, but she hadn't missed what he had said. "Was it a good thing?" she asked her parents. "Did I do the right thing?"
Sach? put an arm around her, but it seemed perfunctory. "You did the only thing, Leia."
But Leia didn't want to be told that she'd been backed into a corner and taken the only route out -- she wanted to be right. "That's not what I asked. I want to know if I did what was right."
Sach? and Bail glanced at each other nervously, then looked back at Leia. "It's not a decision I would have made," Bail said. "You've put Ampinua into Imperial hands."
"They're better hands than Zokusa's."
"Are they?" Sach? wandered over to the window, standing beside Leia and looking out over the crowd. Leia had the strange feeling that there was a glass wall between them. She'd told her mother what had happened, how Zokusa had treated her; how could Mother still ask that? "Leia, the Empire is not a passing rain cloud, like Zokusa, however disgusting he may have been. It's a great spider, trying to catch all of us in its web. You had no choice on Ampinua. Nature itself took matters out of any of our hands. It was the right thing not to let people die, if that's what you're asking."
"Then you are answered."
Leia considered pushing the matter further, but didn't. There was something strange in her mother's mood. Something distant and distancing. "Did Bishapi arrive safely?"
Sach? grimaced. "Bishapi is on Sullust. He is no longer welcome here."
"You may have sacrificed a small principle in favor of a greater one. He sacrificed you to save himself. Whatever blood is in your veins, Leia, you are my daughter, and I will not give aid and comfort to a man who betrayed you."
Leia drew back from her, eyes wide.
It stabbed Leia to the heart. Her parents never spoke of her adoption, ever. But now she had broken with them, she had allied herself to the Empire, and suddenly, this distance, those words, whatever blood...
She turned and went to the main hall. At the door, she turned around, and spoke through a tight throat. "My blood and I will be going to our room now," she said, not looking at her mother. "We'll eat dinner there."
"Leia -- "
She barely made it into her haven before the shaking started. What had that meant? Why say it now? She bit her lip, willing herself not to cry. She could face down Vader when she needed to, and she had been willing to fight Zokusa hand to hand. She had smuggled Jaet Bishapi off planet right under the Empire's nose. Why was she on the verge of tears -- fearful ones at that -- over an offhand comment that was bound to come up someday?
She took a deep breath to steady herself. It wasn't fair. She couldn't talk to her parents about what had happened; they would nod and say they were glad Vader had helped her, but please don't trust him. She knew that as well as she knew the color of her own eyes. And she couldn't explain the way in which she actually did trust him.
"Oh, Your Highness!" a cheerful, metallic voice piped up. "You have come home! You see, Artoo, I told you she'd be quite all right."
Leia looked up. She'd forgotten that the droids were in her possession now. She wiped her eyes, and couldn't resist a smile at the sight of her old companion, knowing full well that he had been fretting his circuits away while Artoo beeped optimistic messages to him. The beating of her heart slowed somewhat. "Hi, Threepio," she said. "It's good to see you, too."
"You look fully functional, Your Highness. Artoo wishes you welcome home as well."
"Thank you, R2-D2," she said. "Now, Threepio, can you fill me in on what's happened here since I left?"
The protocol droid gave a mechanical sigh, then launched into a scandalized monologue about the gossip of Aldera. After an hour, Leia was laughing at the antics of her friend Zeria, who had joined the "Leia for Senate!" brigade, apparently on the rationale that a Senator for a best friend might be able to introduce her to the handsome boys who recorded music on Coruscant, or at least that was what she said in most of the notes she'd left in Threepio's memory banks. She'd gotten serious once, saying that she really believed Leia would be a good Senator. Leia was beginning to give the matter more serious thought herself.
There was a knock, and Leia knew it would be her mother before she opened the door to let her in.
Sach? sat down beside her, her eyes cast down. "I'm sorry, Leia. I didn't mean to say that. I meant just the opposite, I meant -- "
Leia smiled. "I know what you meant, Mother. But why say that now? Why even think about it?"
"Lord Vader hurt someone I cared about very much," Mother said. "Your birth mother, in fact."
Leia looked up at her involuntarily. That was an idea she couldn't quite grasp and didn't know what to do with. "My birth mother? Are you going to tell me about her?"
"No. Not today. Perhaps someday. But that is why I was thinking about it, Leia. Not because I stopped thinking of you as my own daughter, but because at that moment I was thinking of you as hers. Can you forgive me for speaking carelessly?"
Leia nodded, and let Sach? put an arm around her.
"But I learned something else about Lord Vader just now, on a call from Sullust," Sach? said. "According to Jaet Bishapi -- whom I know will not make up kind stories about Vader -- he has also helped and saved someone I care about very much. My daughter. It's a confusing thing to know."
Leia sniffed. "I've noticed."
"You did the right thing, Leia," Sach? said in a firm voice after awhile. "Not just the only thing, but the right thing. You were wiser than the adults entrusted with your care. Your heart didn't mislead you." She kissed her forehead.
"Thank you, Mother."
"Then you'll join us for dinner?"
"The evenings are starting to get chilly. I thought we'd eat by the fireplace in the ballroom."
Leia nodded and smiled, and Sach? started to leave.
Sach? turned around. "What is it?"
"You've known Lord Vader for a long time, haven't you?"
She frowned. "Yes," she said carefully. "I've known him since long before you were born. Why?"
"It's just?" Leia bit her lip. "He acted a little strange around the fireplace in Zokusa's hall. Do you know if he's? well, not afraid, of course, but? you know, if he? doesn't like fire?"
Sach? looked at her for a long time, an oddly distant, evaluative gaze. After awhile, she nodded. "You observe well, Leia," she said. "That's something that will be helpful to you."
"I don't know all the details of Lord Vader's accident, the one that left him in that suit. I doubt there is anyone left alive who knows all the details. But he was burned badly. His lungs were burned. That much I do know. I don't know if he fears fire or hates it for that, but I have no doubt that it figures prominently in his mind."
"I almost asked him about it."
"He wouldn't have told you."
Leia sighed. "I know. I guess it's not my business. I just wanted to understand. What was he like before?"
"Younger," Mother said, her tone very definitely closing the subject. "We all were. I need to go talk to the cook about dinner. I'll see you in an hour." She left.
Threepio, who had stood quietly by through most of the talk, resumed his tales. Leia listened to him with half an ear, and walked to her window to see the crowd outside. Zeria had joined them, and was waving a red sign that said "Run for our lives, Leia!"
She smiled. It was a terrible slogan. And a crazy idea. She would be shouted down. She had alienated the rebels outside her circle with her maneuver on Ampinua, and Imperialists would distrust her because of her known associations. It would be impossible to get anything done.
Run for our lives, indeed. She'd probably end up running for her own.
But she would run.Part Three: Playing Politics
"These belonged to -- "
"I know to whom they belonged, Sach?."
"Take them. Take them and keep them and remember the price she paid for you. Remember -- "
"I do not forget."
"You have forgotten everything, Ani -- "
The fire raging up at the hated name. The twitch in the power of the Force. "And you forget yourself, Sach?."
Hands reaching to her throat. The defiant look. "You... haven't won."
"Perhaps not. But it is only a matter of time." The rage subsiding, the sound of an indrawn breath.
"I shouldn't have come. What do I care anymore what you remember or don't remember? I leave you to your victory! May it bring you all you deserve."
The trunk, gleaming in the ray of sunlight from the open door.
Finally alone, the doors and windows closed, safe in his isolation, he opens it.
"Influence?" the holotoon said, batting its oversize eyes giving a vapid smile. It wore Leia's face over Vader's armor (with exaggerated female curves beneath it), and carried a red lightsaber in one hand and a case of medical supplies in the other. Its hair was braided to resemble Vader's helmet. "I can't imagine what you mean..."
Leia stuck her tongue out at it -- she was alone in her campaign headquarters for once, and could do so -- but didn't turn it off. It was the only one of the underground cartoons that really struck a nerve with her, partly because she feared that there might be a grain of truth in it somewhere, and she was determined to desensitize herself to it. She had been running her campaign for over a year now, but she felt no closer to the end of it than she had at the beginning. An endless cycle of dinners, of public appearances, of interviews with the press. Her personal life was paraded across the holonews at every opportunity, though so far the truly personal matters, the secrets, had not been approached.
She was glad to be only fourteen; she hadn't had time to accumulate any real scandals, though the more malicious critics had tried to create them. She'd been portrayed both as Jaet Bishapi's mistress and as Lord Vader's in a series of scatological holotoons run in an underground newsweb. She didn't take them as personally as she took the other -- the "Influence?" holotoon -- but it was a ridiculous accusation with which she was growing increasingly impatient.
She sighed, and tried to fit a strangely shaped piece of wood into a puzzle she'd been given by a supporter ("To calm your nerves," he'd said, and that was a laugh). She thought she could see where it went, but there was no way she could put it there without upsetting the balance of the whole tower. She tried anyway, reaching carefully into the structure with skilled fingers...
"Influence?" the holotoon said, and laughed.
Leia's hand jerked, and the tower came crashing down.
"I can't imagine what you mean..."
The holo disappeared. "Stop watching it, Leia," Bail Organa said behind her. He came into the room. "The polls show that almost ninety percent of the population considers this a non-issue. Of those, almost fifteen percent think that you're the one doing the influencing. Politics can be messy, Leia. You know that. When I ran, they dragged me through the mud, too. It's a rite of passage. Once you get to the Senate -- and I have no doubt that you will -- you'll hear the same story from every other Senator you meet."
Leia knew this was true. "He wants to support me," she said. "Lord Vader, I mean. He contacted me, and said he wants to offer Imperial support."
"What does he want in return?"
"And your inclination in the matter?"
"I don't know. I haven't talked to him much since Ampinua. And Mother said that he..." She bit her lip, and looked shyly at her father; she wasn't sure how much her parents told each other. "She said that he hurt my birth mother."
"She said that?"
"Yes. Is it true?"
"Yes. I suppose it is. I don't wish to discuss this with you further until you're older."
"How old?" Leia fought against an urge to stomp her foot, or throw something across the room. It was a simple question, the simplest of all, and one whose answer mattered to her. How had Vader hurt her mother? And why? Was it deliberate? "I'm running for the Imperial Senate. I organized a relief effort for an entire planet. I helped get a thug out of power. How old do I have to be before you tell me who my mother was? I'm ready."
"Her name was Padm? Naberrie," Father said.
Leia was already prepared for the next round of arguments. She would say, "I've earned your trust," and show how she had. She had even been opening her mouth to speak when it registered that her father had actually answered her. That he had given her the name, the secret name. The answer.
She whispered the name into her own mind, over and over. Padm? Naberrie. My mother's name was Padm? Naberrie. She had a name. She was real. "Padm? Naberrie," she said. "That's Naboo. That's how she knew us."
"She knew us through many paths," Father said. "Beyond that, you may be ready, but I'm not. And it is a name you are not to mention to Vader under any circumstance."
Leia looked out the window. She would not consider discussing personal matters with Vader, not the really personal ones anyway. She knew to never discuss her adoption with anyone at all, and she understood through some kind of osmosis that it had to do with her own safety -- which left one thing that she needed to know. "Did he kill her?"
"No. He didn't kill her. But he broke her trust. She was hurt."
Leia bit her lip. "Should I hate him for it? For her? Is that one of the right reasons?"
"No. She would not have wanted that. She wouldn't have wanted you to hate anyone, least of all? well, least of all for her sake."
Leia nodded, trying to assimilate the information. "He saved me on Ampinua."
"He was once a great man." He put a hand on Leia's arm. "But, Leia," Father said, "you can't judge him on what he once was. Not what I remember, and not what your mother remembers. Either of your mothers. You have to make the judgments based on what you know yourself."
He had told her that once before, and she still didn't know if she believed him. She could find no record of Vader's past anywhere. He had appeared out of nowhere as the Emperor's good right arm, as far as she could tell.
Leia went to the table, and started gathering up the pieces of her puzzle. She would probably start it again tomorrow -- it didn't exactly calm her nerves, but it gave her something to do other than worry about the poll numbers and sneak attacks from her opponents. She had never had trouble reaching a conclusion before this business with Vader. Things were clear to her. She planted her feet firmly in her positions, and felt certain they were right. She let her conscience and her instincts guide her, and they were never hesitant.
Now, her heart wasn't speaking clearly, and her mind was racing itself in circles. He hurt her, he saved me. He kills, he rescues. He imprisons rebels without trial, he frees Ampinuan slaves. It made her head spin. What was real? What was just an image? How much of his reputation was a big shadow cast from smaller acts?
"I need to know more," she said finally. "I can't judge him until I know what's real."
"Good luck with that project," Father said. "Let me know if you get anywhere."
The princess had grown up a great deal in the past year, Vader noticed when she appeared on his viewscreen, and was now wearing her hair up in a loose twist of curls and braids. Her gown was of a classic style. Vader suspected that she was deliberately trying to look older than her fourteen years. It was a strategy he had a great deal of experience with. It was effective.
"I'm pleased to hear from you, Your Highness," he said. "Have you considered the offer of Imperial support for your campaign?"
"I've considered it." She nodded briefly, her smile fading. "Lord Vader, I'm sure you understand that it might prove... awkward. The editorials have been unkind."
"I see." It was clear that there was more she was trying to decide how to say to him, and he did not hurry her.
"I don't want to run a constantly defensive campaign. I'm not responding to the editorials, at least not in kind. Most of them don't deserve answering at all. But I want to avoid the appearance of..." She bit her lower lip, drew it through her teeth. "Of influence," she said finally.
"Of course you do."
"Then you aren't angry with me?" She looked up, eyes questioning. Vader was surprised to see that it was a genuinely inquisitive look. She wasn't afraid he was angry with her -- she was worried that she might be alienating him. It was a strange and unsettling thought.
"I am not angry with you," he said. She bade him farewell, and the transmission was cut.
In curiosity, Vader searched the holonews that came from Alderaan. The main organs of the press treated her with respect for the most part, but the seditious, irresponsible reporters of the underground Rebellion had orchestrated a truly hideous smear campaign. She was right to "avoid the appearance of influence," as she'd put it. Yet the worst of them, the cartoon that placed the girl in his own likeness, was compelling to him, if disturbing. He didn't wish this monstrous appearance on anyone. But
(influence? I can't imagine what you mean)
there was something about the belief that he'd had something to do with shaping her that he found deeply satisfying. His temptation was to send in troops to shut down the underground press, but that would not help Leia's cause, or be of any particular benefit to the Empire. The articles were so blatantly vulgar and uninformed that he could not imagine reasonably intelligent people would pay them any heed.
Still, perhaps after the elections, when it could do little harm, he would do something about them. Meanwhile, he had politics of his own to attend to. The regional governor of the world of Motibi had been agitating for a factory on that world to be converted for the production of the new star fleet, based on the Ampinuan woman Rejuo's designs. She had visited and reported the facility satisfactory, but Vader had his doubts about the world itself. His spies reported a grassroots Rebel movement, small and disorganized, but zealous. It seemed an unwise choice for a facility that would certainly be targeted.
But Vader had strained his political credit to the limit in having Rejuo appointed head of the project. They were her designs and she understood the requirements better than anyone else, but of course placing a non-human (and a woman to boot) in such a position had taken a certain amount of political compromise. He would simply have to keep a close eye on Motibi, and be ready to act decisively.
Leia turned off her transmitter. Calls off-world were expensive, but she'd owed Vader a response, and wanted to judge his response for herself. He'd seemed accepting. That was a good sign. She went downstairs to join her parents for dinner, hoping her choice in this would alleviate some of the tension that had been building among them. A year ago, Mother had been ready to reconsider her opinion of Leia's friendship with Vader, but the smear campaign -- particularly the filthy cartoons -- had frustrated her back to her original position, and she was upset that Leia had even considered accepting support. Father played the arbiter between them, but Leia knew his sympathies were with Mother.
Mother was sitting at one end of the table, looking edgy. She had been keeping track of the campaign, and always seemed on the ready to lash out at Leia's opponents. It was all Leia could do to keep her from making a spectacle of herself. Father sat at the other end of the table, waiting more patiently. He looked up when Leia came in, eyebrows raised.
"Well?" he said. "What was your decision?"
"I declined Imperial support," Leia told him.
Mother relaxed visibly, closed her eyes, opened them again. "I'm glad to hear that."
"The polls are optimistic," she said, sitting down and slathering a piece of bread with clotted cream. "It looks like the moderate vote is going to come to me. Fasiol Nadiv might carry the underground, and Gralek has a pretty strong vote with the isolationists."
"Then the news is good."
"It's good enough."
"And the other matter?" Father asked.
"Is still unresolved."
Mother shook her head, and pushed her chair away from the table. "Leia, you need to put an end to this. Quickly. It will end up costing you more than votes."
Leia was bone-weary of the subject. "Yes, Mother, your opinions on this aren't the best kept secrets in the Empire."
"Watch your tone," Father said. "Your mother is coming from longer experience than you are."
"I thought you weren't taking sides. I thought you said I was supposed to try and pity him."
"Oh, Bail, you didn't!" Mother said, turning on him. "Please tell me you didn't say that to her."
"I did. And I stand by it."
Mother slammed her hand against the wall in frustration, but Leia's parents never denied one another the right to differing opinions. After awhile, she turned, came to Leia, took her hands. "Leia, I know he can be charming. It's something a lot of people don't know, but those of us who remember... who remember him before his accident... are well aware of how he can draw people in. He'll win you. Then he will break your trust. You can count on it. He will hurt you in the end."
"Because he hurt my birth mother."
"No. Because he hurts everyone he touches."
"How did he hurt her?"
Mother drew back. "What does it matter how he hurt her? Isn't it enough for you to know that he did?"
"If you won't tell me the truth about that, how do I know you're telling the truth about anything? Who were my parents?"
"We are your parents," Father said firmly. "And you must trust us to do what is right."
"How can I trust you when you won't tell me anything?" Leia stormed out of the room. She knew her parents, and she did love and trust them, but she knew that they would tell her nothing. The blood pounded in her head, the world took on a pale red haze, the abyss opened before her. She squeezed her eyes shut against it, waiting for her temper to let go of her. She was a candidate for the Imperial Senate; she couldn't afford to act like a spoiled teenager.
The reddish haze had become real with the sunset by the time she opened her eyes. Her head ached, but she was all right. It wasn't fair, but it was her life, and she knew her parents meant her no harm.
She could hear their voices, low and private, as she passed the dining room. Mother was crying. Leia only caught the words "can't trust him" and "terrified," and decided that it would be better for her to stay away, to let Mother get her fear out of her system. She tiptoed upstairs to her room, her mother's quiet sobbing and soft whispers in her mind, and beneath that, the question that repeated itself like a homing beacon, the question that her parents would never answer.
Who am I?
She curled up in one corner of her bed, her pillow hugged tightly against her, and told herself what she always did -- that what mattered was who raised her, who had told her stories, who had tended her scraped knees. She held on to her love for her parents with a death grip; she would not betray them, not let go of them. They were her parents. She shouldn't have questioned.
Yes, but who am I? Who am I, really?
She slept and dreamed twice. The first dream was a comforting blur of sunlight and warmth, the freedom of flight, but the echo of her own mind's nervous question. She glanced up and saw something strange about the sky
(son of the suns)
and then she was somewhere else, a great dark abyss, bridged by a glorious web of spun glass. She was clinging to it, suspended above the pit, her hands bleeding from being cut on the glass, and she could hear it cracking. The web shivered. It was weak and fragile, and deadly for all its beauty. Far below her was the broken body of the sad-eyed woman Leia knew now as her birth mother, Padm? Naberrie.
The eyes opened, the alien blue glow lighting up the darkness. One bloody hand reached up toward her, and she was trying to reach down when she became aware of the sound surrounding them, everywhere -- the soft, even, mechanical intake of breath.
Vader was here. He was everywhere in this place. She had to pull herself out before he found her intruding here. She had to --
-- wake up.
That was the secret. Wake up and think about something else. Anything else. She opened her eyes, and pulled her mind back to herself. It was three hours before dawn. She shivered, then got up and wrote her notes for the Senatorial debate that was coming up.
She won it easily.
The next year and a half went quickly for Leia, in a blur of debating, touring, and general campaigning. She went into the country and spoke earnestly to the isolationists. She didn't win them, but she did learn from them the fierce love of the roots of her own world, and came to understand the desire to stay out of other people's affairs, though she could not share that desire. She debated Fasiel Nadiv in his home territory, the back alleys of Aldera, where the underground writers had their dens. They stopped posting scatological holotoons of her, and some of the less fanatic among them even offered a cautious support -- she had convinced them that it would be easier to defeat the Empire than to defeat an endless series of Zokusas on a trail of ruined Ampinuas. Some hungered for war and didn't care about distinctions that would make it shorter. Most just wanted to end the fighting and go back to life as it had once been, as it had always been, in the time before the darkness came.
Her father prepared to step down from his seat, briefing all three candidates on what issues he was allowed to speak of, and training them in Imperial protocol. Leia knew much of it, but she learned alongside her opponents as if it was the first time she had seen it. The cam-droids were trailing them, and Leia would not take advantage of her upbringing to make Gralek and Nadiv look uninformed.
The issues Father was allowed to speak of were banal, to say the least, but each of the three candidates dutifully prepared a speech, voicing the views he or she would speak in Alderaan's name, on one of them. Leia carried this contest, speaking on droids' rights. She had wanted to have Threepio accompany her, but her mother convinced her that people might see him as a toy she had brought along for show.
Shortly after her fifteenth birthday, she had occasion to be glad she had refused Imperial support. From the remote world of Motibi came reports of stormtroopers burning cities to the ground, of scorched hillsides, of an Imperial garrison marching hundreds of accused traitors into prison camps. Leia denounced it, in the most impassioned speech she had ever given. She said that such a thing should never happen, not to any world. She spoke of the love she had gained for her own countryside, and the horror she had of seeing something so terrible happen to it.
It was not meant as a campaign speech; it had simply come out when a reporter had asked for a comment "from the candidate most closely associated with Imperial interests." Leia had been close to tears in her disillusion, but they had not come out. She was giving no thought to the race when she said the Senate needed to put controls on this, to re-establish civilian authority over the military. If any idea about her campaign was going through her mind, it was that it was over, and she might as well go home. The last thing she expected was that Gralek would withdraw from the race, and the isolationists would swing wildly in her support. They wanted her to make sure they were protected from such a ghastly, unprovoked attack.
Nevertheless, the election was not a landslide. The Motibi affair had solidified the underground, and swelled its ranks. Nadiv gave her a good run, and the numbers were close until late into the night, when a surge of her supporters apparently all descended on the polls at once (she later learned that many of the late votes were isolationists from the country, and had been dealing with a power outage that barely ended in time to vote). Nadiv conceded gracefully, and she asked if she might consult with him about various matters before she left. She'd made connections in the underground. She wanted to make sure they were represented.
The evening before she left -- it was only a month shy of her sixteenth birthday -- her parents gave her a farewell party. Mother gave her a box of seeds, supposedly for every plant that was native to Alderaan. She said she'd heard of the custom of such collecting on the world of Gala, and thought it would be nice for Leia to try to keep a garden of Alderaan with her on Coruscant. Leia didn't have the heart to tell her that she had a brown thumb, and doubted she'd have time to wander gardens. She would take the seeds with her, and keep them until she found time for them? if that ever came.
Mother also gave her a small wooden pendant, marked with strange symbols. "This is not to be worn," she said. "But it is yours, and it should go with you to Coruscant."
Leia took it curiously. She knew by now that it wouldn't be explained, so she didn't ask. There was a faint scent to the wood. It smelled familiar.
Father gave her a necklace of chalcedony, the official signet stone of her office. He placed it around her neck with great ceremony, and Leia promised to uphold the honor he had given to the delegation. He also confided with her, for the first time, the names of two prominent senators involved in the Rebellion. "Don't move too fast," he cautioned her. "You will be watched when you first arrive, and they know it. They aren't sure what to make of you. You will have to make your positions clear."
"I'm glad you trust me, Father."
Bail Organa smiled. "I know you better than they do."
Vader had not been idle during the three years of Leia's campaign.
The sorry business in Motibi had been the inevitable endpoint of the governor's foolishness. The saboteurs had hit only two months after the refurbishing of the factory had been completed, and Rejuo had lost a year's work of preparation. The governor, of course, had blamed her for the fiasco instead of his own obstinacy, and Vader had found it necessary to defend her position yet again.
"People will talk," she'd said with a bitter grin, and in fact, people had talked, but Vader had ways to silence wagging tongues. He had enough trouble keeping a good engineer in an engineering job without the gossips assigning her an entirely different sort of employment. He'd been able to maintain her position as the head of the design crew, but the new factory, on La'azum, was under more direct military leadership. That it was a lieutenant almost fresh out of the academy was a slap in the face on the surface of it, but Vader had learned that young Piett was a fair man, and gave Rejuo control when she required it.
On the matter of Motibi, there had been little choice. The Rebels had been well connected. Vader had ordered a planet-wide sweep of every major city. Forty saboteurs were arrested, along with slightly over two hundred collaborators. A fire had started in the factory, and the wind had swept it across the dry grasses. It had razed most of the city of Gilna. Vader was aware that it was believed to have been set deliberately, and he did not discourage the belief. Fear was an excellent deterrent.
There had been no sabotage here on La'azum, and Vader thought it unlikely. The Empire was welcomed here. The new, faster fleet would be complete within the next year, and pilots were already being trained on a set of prototypes. The Rebellion would be crushed, and the war could end. Palpatine would keep the promises he'd made, and Vader would be free to pursue other interests, all those crusades he had laid aside long ago to serve the Empire, the crusades that had once meant so much to him that he'd been willing to turn his back on everything he valued in order to bring them about.
He turned to find the young commander standing at the door. "Yes, Lieutenant Piett?"
"You wished to be informed of the outcome of the elections on Alderaan. We have just received word that young Princess Leia has taken the seat, over the rebel Nadiv."
"Thank you, Lieutenant," Vader said. He started to say, That is good news, but he couldn't be certain of it. Had Motibi made Alderaan afraid of being involved in the Rebellion? Or had the princess become more appealing to the underground? If so, why? He had seen a replay of her impassioned speech after Motibi, and knew that she was genuinely angry. But had she used this anger to win rebel votes? Was it true anger, anger she was invested in, as he had been in his anger at the Old Republic?
He chose not to think about that too closely, and dismissed Piett with an impatient wave. A congratulatory call was in order, at any rate.
He found her in her own chambers, and could see in the background that she was packing for her voyage. She looked up at him hesitantly, and he knew, without needing to make an attempt at probing her mind, that her victory had been bought at the Empire's expense.
She had chosen. But such choices need not be permanent.
"Your Highness," he said. "It is my understanding that congratulations are in order."
"Thank you, Lord Vader," she said, looking down.
"The Senate and the military rarely see eye to eye," he said carefully. "It is my profound hope that we can avoid any... conflict. It would be unfortunate to mar our friendship."
For a moment, she stood perfectly still, her brown eyes as blank as if they were covered by eyeguards. Then she blinked and smiled. She recognized the game perfectly well. "That is also my hope, Lord Vader. So I hope the military will remember that it is answerable to the Senate."
"We are answerable to the Emperor."
"Who is, theoretically, also answerable to the Senate."
"Theory and practice are different matters, Your Highness. I look forward to discussing this issue with you in person someday."
She laughed briefly, and her smile became puzzled. "You know," she said, "actually, so do I." The laugh faded and she became serious. "I can't allow another Motibi. I need you to know that."
"It is not for you to allow or disallow, Your Highness. It is in the best interest of all involved to end this conflict quickly."
She looked down. "Did you order the fire set?"
Vader paused. He did not generally find it useful to admit losing control. But Leia was a unique case; fear did not motivate her as fully as justice and loyalty did. "The fire was an unfortunate accident."
"And the arrests?"
"Those arrested will see trial."
"I'll be watching carefully."
"As will I."
She started to reach for the disconnect, then looked up again and said, "Thank you for telling me the truth."
"I have small patience for lies, Your Highness."
She nodded, gave him a long, steady look, then cut the connection.
Vader left the line open for some time, letting it hum idly in his chamber. This could, he thought, become complicated.
Leia slept more easily that night than she had in months. The election was over, the tensions with her parents had faded again, and Lord Vader still trusted her, at least enough to intelligently discuss the issue that gnawed at her. She supposed it was naive to believe him, but something about his explanation had struck her as true.
The next morning, she dressed for the first time in the shimmering white uniform of Alderaan's official delegation -- a simple shift for traveling, with a modestly scooped neck and long sleeves -- and left her home to board the Tantive IV, the ship designated for Alderaan's Senator. A crowd had gathered, and they cheered her wildly. She smiled and waved, then embarked on her new life. She would never set foot on Alderaan again.
She arrived on Coruscant on her sixteenth birthday, which went uncelebrated, and was briefed on the more important issues the Senate was debating. They were of greater weight than the issues her father had been allowed to discuss with her during the campaign, but they would hardly be considered of vast import in the grand scheme of things. Budget allocations, for the few things that had not been reserved for "the Emperor's discretion," those things on which the Empire spent revenue without going through channels, matters of administration in Outer Rim territories, and anti-smuggling efforts, for the most part. The trials of the Motibi rebels were approaching, but Leia was unsure how to involve herself in them.
After a week, it occurred to her to pay a call on Lord Vader. She didn't decide she was going to do it until she was on her way, so she hadn't called ahead for directions, and had to find her way through the strange trafficways to the nondescript neighborhood where he was known to live. One identical building after another, then finally the one with the proper number. It had no distinguishing markings at all, except perhaps that the windows beside the door were covered with solid metal. She wondered if he lived without the mask inside. She didn't think he could, but she supposed it was possible, and that would explain the opacity. It would be quite a curiosity factor, to peek in a window and see Lord Vader without his face.
His mask, she corrected herself.
There was a tug at Leia's sleeve, and she turned to find an older woman standing behind her, a hopeful expression on her face. "May I help you?" Leia asked.
"I..." The woman shook her head. "I'm sorry; I thought you were... but I suppose you couldn't be, could you... such a young, pretty thing."
"Thank you, ma'am. You thought I was who?"
The woman shook her head. "It was an old woman's poor eyesight. You'll not find Lord Vader at home, if that's what you're after, though I can't see why a nice thing like you would be after that. He's almost never here, thanks be to all that is good in the galaxy." She spat on the walkway. "Lives in his big Star Destroyers now. Up in the dark. This place is just a storehouse. Sometimes a workshop, I think, though I don't like to imagine what devilry he's brewing here."
Leia guessed that, in his home, it was probably refinements to his breathing apparatus and so on, but said nothing about it. "Lord Vader has been kind to me," she said, hoping to stop the conversation before it led to sedition.
The woman scanned her from head to toe. "Aye, that I don't doubt," she said. "I don't doubt it at all." She sniffed, and disappeared back into the crowd before Leia realized, with a blush, what she must have assumed.
She rang the signal bell, but, as the woman had surmised, there was no answer to it. Her curiosity not stifled, she followed the small walkway around the building, looking for windows that might not be covered. Finally, at the back entrance, she found a tiny round window above the entrance pad. She stood on her toes and looked into it.
It looked more like a hangar. A vast empty space, with crates lined neatly along the walls, each closed and locked like a crypt. They were like the buildings on this street -- nameless and identical. She could imagine that inside each one, tools and other objects were arranged neatly, by type and frequency of use. A place for everything, and everything in order. Far across the vast room, she could see the front door, and beside it, a smaller box. A trunk.
(...hide her oh no not in there it's too small but he'll see he can't miss his own...)
Leia felt her eyes go wide, and forced herself to blink.
(...can't miss his own...)
The hot wind blew up in her mind again, forcing all the sparks that were trying to coalesce away from one another. They flew to far corners of her mind, and let her breathe. She counted under her breath, and waited for all the memories to retreat entirely.
So he had a trunk.
So she had a memory of a trunk. There was no reason she should make a connection between the two. None at all. She decided that her curiosity was settled, and went back to her quarters adjacent to the Senate.
Vader did not return to his house -- he didn't think of it as his home -- for three months after Leia's arrival on Coruscant. It did not occur to him that she might have wanted to see him, and he did not attempt to contact her, though, in some way, he longed to see her. He did not think of the world as particularly more his own than any other, and certainly did not think of it as hers yet, and the thought of meeting with her simply did not cross his mind.
He sensed that someone had been prowling around outside his house. Any number of someones actually; it was something of a game for local children to try and catch him in. He had covered all of his windows, or at least all of them that mattered. The doors were both covered entirely when he was... exposed... at any rate.
He keyed a command that opened a box midway down the main room and activated the six droids he stored in it. They scurried around the hall, arranging the sterile environment, setting up the miserable machinery of his life. The walls of the large hyperbaric chamber rose and locked, and Darth Vader removed his mask. He ate furtively, looking nervously at the walls, and commanded the droids to help him wash.
Most of the connections to his limbs were deactivated for the process, and he felt weak and powerless. He had once caught his own reflection in a droid's smooth covering. He had destroyed that droid in a fit of rage -- not his proudest moment; even he had to admit that -- then dulled the surfaces on all the others. Now, he never needed to see the ruin of his own face, or remember the time when it had been fair to look upon, when he had not needed to use fear in negotiations because people were drawn to the wry, easy grin, and wanted to be on his side. He no longer remembered that face, or the name that went with it. Both had been burned away in purifying fire.
The pieces of his suit were put back together and locked into place, returning his limbs to their full strength. He didn't replace the mask yet. The large chamber provided his only true respite from it, and no one would see him inside it. He wandered around the space, not certain what to do with himself. Palpatine had no current instructions for him, and there was no ongoing project. He supposed he knew where he would end up, but he was still disgusted to find himself drawing the trunk to him. It had been over a year since he last opened it. Of course, it had also been over a year since he'd last been here.
He used the Force to pop the lock open, and raised the cover. The smell wafted out. He supposed it was faint, but he never really smelled anything else, and he found it overpowering. A bit of perfume, he thought, that smelled like the great red flowers of the Naboo swamp. The underscent of pancake makeup. Some other fragrance, familiar, but unnamable. And under all of it, a smell that had just been uniquely... HERS.
He drew out a bracelet, a delicate strand of gold, and remembered it glittering in the flicker of firelight. It was dwarfed against his mechanical hand, barely fitting around two of his fingers. But he handled it gently, almost reverently, draping it over the edge of the trunk. Some of her clothes were folded at the bottom. He ran his hand over them, but could neither feel them nor remember what it had felt like to touch them when SHE had breathed beneath their delicate volume. The most prized item in the trunk was a pin that had held up an elaborate hairstyle -- he didn't know which one -- and still bore, like a trophy, a single strand of dark hair. Anakin ran it across his cheek, along the line of his scar.
He dropped it.
That name had no business being in his head.
He picked up the pin and the bracelet, and placed them back in the trunk, locking it securely. He should dispose of this. Immediately.
He put it back in its place near the door.
The droids returned at his command, and replaced his mask, making the intricate connections that were just too much to handle with his bulky mechanical fingers. The helmet, shiny and opaque, was put back, covering the livid scar.
Vader commanded the walls of his chamber to rise, and left it and its degrading memories behind him.
Leia knew she was being watched.
It wasn't just the Empire, which was so arrogant that it didn't even bother to disguise its probe droids as they floated around Coruscant, looking into the windows they'd been programmed to look into. Most Senators had learned how to fool them early, with holograms, free-standing screens, opaque windows, and many other methods. Leia herself opted for decorative screens with paintings of the Alderaanian countryside. She had programmed R2-D2 to occasionally transmit holograms and move around, to confuse the probes with excess motion. She was still trying to think of something for C-3PO to do, as he seemed disappointed by his exclusion in the ruse, but nothing else seemed necessary. She settled for giving him a subroutine which would cause him to identify his owner as Captain Antilles -- the commander of the Tantive IV -- if he were to be asked by anyone whose voice prints were not in a pre-selected group. He seemed a bit nonplused with this assignment, but he ran the subroutine several times to test it.
The Empire wasn't always easy to avoid, but they had so far not been particularly attentive.
She was also being watched by the Rebellion.
She noticed that the two Senators her father had mentioned to her -- beautiful Nizia Mati of La'azum and T'Neka Tral of Sullust -- had found opportunities to attend many official functions with her, though they never spoke to her privately. There were others whose faces she was beginning to grow accustomed to as well -- a lanky amphibian-type creature she saw frequently in the marketplace; the Calamarian Sorgar, whom she knew to be associated with Bishapi, who seemed too often to find her at the local cafe that had become her haunt; the Corellian General Madine, an honorably discharged Imperial officer who was rumored among rebels to have sabotaged one of his own missions, and who always seemed to be the mechanic on duty when Leia came to the shop he owned to have her droids serviced.
The Senate returned to session four months after Leia's arrival on Coruscant, after its lengthy mid-year recess. She dressed in the most formal of her white gowns, with the chalcedony necklace to signify her place. Her hair was braided into a high crown, with a long curl cascading from its center.
She'd had time to familiarize herself with most of the major issues, and to acquaint herself with some of the nearby delegations, but nothing had quite prepared her for the experience of entering the vast cavern of the Senate, with its floating platforms and echoing spaces. She felt very small.
The chancellor's seat was empty, of course -- Palpatine had locked himself away years ago -- but the two seats flanking it were occupied by the Imperial governors Tarkin and Fre'lach, who conducted much of the Emperor's political business here. Both were rumored to be ruthless, and neither especially valued the input of the Senate, but they were, at least in theory, in charge.
Tarkin stepped forward. "It is my honor to return this august body to session," he said briefly. "A proposal to allocate funds to build a monument in honor of the Imperial dead on Motibi was made and seconded at our last meeting. The chair now recognizes the Senator from the sovereign system of Motibi."
A platform detached itself from a space near the base of the chamber. As it was quite far from her, Leia watched it rise on her viewscreen. The Motibi were a large, strong species, with pinkish eyes and long limbs covered with course white hair. "Honorable Senators," the delegate began, "as you may imagine, the people of Motibi object to this measure, at least until the facts of the matter have been ascertained. Over two hundred of our citizens have been taken into Imperial custody, and their friends and families have heard nothing from them. No trial date has been set. Until this more pressing issue is attended to, Motibi moves to table the discussion of the monument allocation."
There was silence. It was an attempt to use a frivolous issue to call attention to a more serious one, one that had been taken out of the Senate's hands. Leia had hoped for a chance to bring up Motibi -- her constituents had been clear about wanting their objections to the actions voiced -- but she was surprised it had come so quickly and so easily. Now or never, she thought, and stood. She signaled for recognition.
Tarkin looked at the light on his panel. "The chair recognizes the Senator from Alderaan, and welcomes Princess Leia Organa to this role." It was not a kindness -- he was reminding her, along with every other delegate, in no uncertain terms, that she was inexperienced, and should have listened and learned longer. She didn't care.
"The people of Alderaan are in sympathy with Motibi's plight," she said. "It is unrealistic to ask for such an allocation before the questions this incident raised have been answered. The fair and just trial of the Motibi prisoners must be completed before this body can be asked to debate such an extravagance. Alderaan seconds the motion."
"How surprising," Tarkin said dryly. "It has been moved and seconded to postpone this debate until the completion of the treason trials. Does anyone wish to speak before voting?"
No one did. The move to postpone was passed almost unanimously, much to Tarkin's obvious annoyance. The look on his face made Leia glad. She decided to speak as frequently as she could.
Over the next several days, she noticed that most of the rebels she'd grown accustomed to seemed to have faded into the woodwork, not approaching her or watching her. It was easy to understand -- Imperial watchers had doubled their numbers. They were waiting for the Alliance to contact her, or for her to contact them. Instead, she contacted Lord Vader. He agreed to meet her at a hangar that served as a base for the Imperial Fleet of Coruscant.
The atmospheric controls had chosen this day for a light rain, to cleanse the air of excess water vapor. Leia dressed in one of her Senatorial gowns (she was beginning to wish heartily for some reason to wear something else, but knew one would not arise for some time), and wrapped herself in a long white cape with a hood to keep out the rain. It only occurred to her when she was halfway to the hangar that she would look like a parody of the man she had gone to meet. There was little to be done about it now.
He was standing at the great window when she arrived, a black shadow in the gray mists. He looked at her briefly, appeared to recognize the unintended parody, then turned to look out at the city. Leia hoped he wasn't offended. It would not have been her choice to do so.
"You seem to have attracted attention, Your Highness," he said. "You might choose your battles more carefully."
"I moved for a trial," she reminded him, "not an unconditional release. I moved for justice. I told you I would be watching the situation."
"The trials of traitors are no longer in the purview of the Senate."
"Do you really think that's right?"
"I believe it is right to end this conflict, as quickly as possible. The Senate -- present company excluded, naturally -- will take the longest possible route to the least decisive conclusion." He finally turned back to her. "You know this is true, Your Highness. You would move more quickly yourself, if you had the means."
Leia did know that it was true, but some instinct told her not to give Vader this leeway in the conversation. "Lord Vader, I didn't come here to engage you in the same debate I've engaged the Senate in. I've broken no law, and called for a proper trial under Imperial procedure. Why am I under surveillance?"
"Don't be disingenuous, Your Highness. It doesn't suit you."
"Please, let me walk out my door without seeing ten stormtroopers loitering on my front walk."
"What you ask is not in my power to grant," Vader told her.
"They're under your command!"
"And, as you reminded me, the military is ultimately answerable to the Senate. My orders come from Governor Tarkin."
"Marvelous. Of all the people to take orders from, you take them from Tarkin."
"Only as far as the Emperor has given him power. In this matter, he has been given full authority. I must obey him."
"Then I guess I need to talk to Tarkin."
"I would not recommend that course of action, Your Highness." Vader looked carefully around the room. "If, in time, we have become convinced that you are not involved with the Rebellion, the surveillance will undoubtedly stop. We do not have unlimited resources."
Leia shook her head, hating that he dared lie to her. However often she told herself that she couldn't trust him, couldn't count on him, she found that it stabbed her deeply to be treated like any other potential rebel, as though he didn't know her, as if he didn't respect her. "Don't be disingenuous, Lord Vader," she said. "It doesn't suit you." She turned and left.
Vader didn't bother trying to contradict her. He did not enjoy lies (in fact, he loathed them; he had been told too many over the course of his life), and was glad not to have to spin a deeper one. She would always be watched. If she wanted to find a more private life, she would have to learn to be more clever.
He did, however, plan to begin cutting the obvious troops over the next several weeks. Leia was smart enough to be suspicious of the Empire, but naive enough to believe that the Alliance would protect itself. She would not seek them out. But she would believe that they would not seek her until the danger was past.
Vader knew better. They would find her. Then eventually, they would reveal the leaders to her.
He didn't want to use her like this. It seemed to him almost as filthy as the vile rumors that had spread. But he had little choice in the matter.
Leia didn't trust it when the stormtroopers really did disappear from her front walk a few weeks later. Nizia Mati , in a very cautious contact in the Senate chamber, had suggested that it was because the trials were finally being held, and she had so far not shown any inclination to free the rebels by force, even though the verdict was a foregone conclusion. Leia wondered. It made sense, she supposed, and Mati did have more experience than she did.
She spoke to Vader at the Fleet headquarters again, and thanked him, cautiously, for withdrawing the excessive surveillance. He seemed distant, and did not tell her she was welcome. She tried to bring up other matters -- minor points on which they had shared interests in the past -- but he drew himself away from her, and left her alone in the hangar. She remained there for nearly an hour, hoping he would come back out, hoping they could speak again, though she didn't know what she wanted to talk about. In the end, she realized that he would not return, that he was uninterested in her, that she must have overstepped the bounds of their friendship by asking him to cut the surveillance. She smiled weakly at the young officer staffing the security desk, left another note of gratitude to Lord Vader, and went home.
Afterwards, she felt unutterably sad. She went home and slept fitfully, dreaming of the night he'd found her in the park racing her speeder bike, and of the day he'd saved her life on Ampinua. In the dream, she really did put her arms around him, and he really did hold her close and tell her that everything would be all right. She woke at midnight, feeling heartsick and lonely.
The apartment felt cold and drafty; she changed into daytime clothes and made herself a cup of hot tea to warm up. Outside her window, the endless strings of traffic moved against the night sky, caring nothing for the insignificant creature that watched them from its tiny nest.
"There now, Your Highness," a gentle voice said, and she turned to find C-3PO. "Is there anything I can do to help you sleep?"
She smiled at him. The protocol droid could be an annoyance, but he had been programmed to be kind (or perhaps was so by his own nature; as a child she'd thought him sentient, and she still sometimes wondered), and she found him a comfort now. "No, Threepio," she said. "I just need to pull myself up out of the abyss."
"Abyss, Your Highness?"
"Poetic license." She sat down on the couch. "Maybe... maybe you could tell me a story, as you used to when I was a child. Do you remember any of the stories?"
"Why, yes, Your Highness. That occurred after my memory wipe. But I'm not much of a storyteller."
"You used to play stories in a woman's voice. Do you have that programming in memory?"
"Yes!" Threepio sounded inordinately pleased with the suggestion. A moment later, he spoke again, but it wasn't his own voice. It was a soft woman's voice that Leia didn't know. "Once upon a time," she said, "a young queen ruled a beautiful world. But her advisors were faithless..."
Leia smiled to herself and closed her eyes. She hadn't heard the story for a long time. It had a magic boy in it and ended with the queen learning from him that she was capable of taking things into her own hands. She didn't know which world the fairy tale had come from, but she thought it a fine story, and it eased her heart.
Threepio didn't get a chance to finish. He'd only gotten to the part where the magic boy was in a race (riding a dangerous, fire-breathing dragon that no one else dared tame) when a quiet bell told Leia that someone was at the door. Reluctantly, she asked Threepio to stop, and went to answer it.
The creature at her door was not one she had seen before. His hood was wrapped tightly over his head, and she couldn't see his face clearly. He held up his hand, and in it was a small slip of paper, with a group of indecipherable marks on it. She didn't know what the marks meant, but she knew their origin -- they were the same ones that had been on the wooden pendant her mother had given her before she'd left. She had kept it hidden, as promised, so the only people who would know about it were people her parents trusted.
Leia looked around nervously. She saw no guards, but didn't feel safe. Still, the Rebels would know if she was being watched, wouldn't they?
When the creature signaled for her to follow him out into the night, she did.
"We lost them going into the old city, my lord."
"It is not of concern. She has been contacted. Continue your surveillance, Lieutenant Piett. Do not act too quickly."
"Yes, my lord."
"Do not harm the princess herself. If she is harmed, you will answer to me."
"If she becomes involved, Lord Vader -- "
"If she becomes too deeply involved, Lieutenant, I will take responsibility for her myself."
Piett turned sharply and went to assemble his surveillance team. Vader went to the rail of the balcony. Here in the upper stories of the intelligence headquarters, he could see the whole reach of the Senate district, and the edges of the seedy world that surrounded it. She was down there somewhere, headed into the war, placing herself among his enemies. He had watched her earlier as she waited for him, not knowing what she expected of him. Would tonight be different if he had dealt with her differently?
He suspected not. Leia was a stubborn and willful child. He would miss her.
Perhaps at a later date he could try, one more time, to convince her not to waste her talent on such a fruitless and destructive pursuit. For now, he could not afford to approach her.
As he turned, a gleam of Coruscant's artificial light caught the ruined up thrust of a steel girder, curving into the night sky. The Temple. As always when he looked upon it -- something he did less often now than he once had -- he thought that he should complete the destruction, take down the ruins to make room for something more useful. But there never seemed to be time, and it was also
(destroy the final remnant of the Order)
see the physical sign of the destruction of the ancient arrogance of the Jedi.
He let the image hold his mind for only a moment. He had more urgent matters to attend to this evening.
Leia didn't know what the old building was, but it had an air of sanctity about it, despite its near-complete destruction. The obvious ritual design on the floor, the high arching windows, the ruined circle of stones that had once been seats... all suggested high ceremony.
Robed and hooded figures stood in the circle, hidden in the shadows. Leia felt conspicuous in the center of the room, the white robes of Alderaan glowing faintly in the moonlight. The chill of autumn penetrated the thin cloth, and she shivered. Her melancholy was fading in the excitement of this mystery.
"Hello, Senator," a disembodied voice said.
"Hello," Leia responded uncertainly.
A woman's gentle laugh. "You don't need to be afraid. We're hiding our faces for our own security -- you have nothing to fear from us."
"I'm not afraid."
"Why do you wish to join the Rebel Alliance?"
"Because I hate the Empire."
One of the figures straightened his back, perceptibly coming to attention. "And what would you replace it with, Your Highness?" His voice was gentle and familiar, but firm.
"It's easy to say you hate something. It's not always quite as easy to explain how you would replace it. The Alliance is not a negative, existing only to overthrow the Empire."
Leia lowered her eyes, embarrassed by the scolding, and wondering if she would be sent away in shame. She took a moment to gather her thoughts, then spoke in the same, even tones she had used in the Senate this afternoon. "I know we can't move backwards, Sir. I -- " She lost her nerve. The leaders of the Rebellion were reputed to have been leaders in the Old Republic.
"Your Highness?" another woman said. "What is your vision?"
Leia thought of Lord Vader at that moment. If she could discuss politics with him -- with a man who struck terror into the hearts of nearly everyone who saw him -- why should she hesitate here? The thought cut her with the realization that the friendship was over, that what she was doing now would seal its doom, but in the end that made her feel stronger. She was willing to make that sacrifice for the Rebellion. It wasn't a child's game.
It was nonsense, at any rate, the question they were asking her, or at least that she suspected they were asking her. Her disagreements with the Old Republic were real, but they were far less serious than her hatred of the Empire. And besides, if the Rebel Alliance simply reinstated the Old Republic, all the same weaknesses would be there, all the weaknesses that had angered Vader and the galaxy to the point of calling for change at any cost. She took a deep breath, and raised her head.
"We have to remember our mistakes," she said. "The Old Republic had degenerated, and left itself no room to react to crises, or to individuals. You can't have justice that way. My vision is a galaxy where people are free, and the government is an organ for justice and a servant of the citizens. We should return to the forms of the Old Republic; I don't dispute that. But we can't afford to worship and romanticize it as blindly as I've seen in some circles. There were real problems. My vision, if that's what you want to call it, involves solving them. The point of going to war with the Empire is not just to destroy it -- though I was not lying when I said I hated the Empire, and will be glad to see it fall -- but to take the lessons we've learned, at high tuition, and use them to build a better galaxy."
There was silence. Leia tried to see into the shadows, to imagine their faces. Were they impressed? Did they think she was trying to impress them? Did they dislike what she'd said? Were they insulted?
No answer to those questions came.
There was a tapping of keypads, and Leia realized that they were communicating with one another.
The tapping stopped, and the gentle, familiar voice spoke out of the darkness. "There is one question which remains: what is the nature of your friendship with Lord Vader?"
Leia smiled weakly, but felt confident. "I wondered when you would get to that."
"And the answer is?"
"He has been kind to me," she said automatically. "I dislike the fact that we are divided in this war. But we are divided. If your question is about where my loyalty would lie in a direct conflict, it's the easiest one I've had to answer. I would never betray the Alliance to Lord Vader, or to anyone else. I would never give him an inch in a fight. I care for him, but if he was my enemy in battle, I would..." She swallowed. "I would do what I must. My loyalty is to the Alliance. That is my oath."
It was presumptuous, she knew, to make an oath before being accepted. But it was the truth, and she would have made the oath even if the Alliance rejected her entirely.
The figure that had stepped forward first stepped further into the light. "Then welcome to the Rebellion, Leia," he said, lowering his hood. It was Bail Organa. He wrapped his arms around her and kissed her head.
The others came into the light and showed themselves. Senators Mati and Tral. Mon Mothma. A billed, amphibious creature that Leia vaguely recognized as a Gungan of Naboo; he said his name was Tarpals. A female Toydarian called Ampa. Several Senators that Leia knew were there, more than she had imagined. Some had closer ties to the Empire than she herself did. And, to her delight, Jaet Bishapi.
They opened their circle to her, and held her close within it. She felt safe and warm as they drew around her. The celebration didn't last long -- the building was in a forbidden quarter of the city, and there was fear of being discovered here -- and each Alliance member made his way home separately, with the exception of Bail and Leia.
"I was proud of you tonight," Father said when they were alone. Leia was looking up through the ruined ceiling at the starry sky. "You spoke well, and betrayed no one."
"I was afraid I would be asked to."
She moved back to the center of the room, standing at the center of the design. It had been defaced at some point. The cold was penetrating now, and she wanted to get back to her quarters. But there was something about this place -- something awesome and powerful, and a part of her felt like she'd always been here and always would be.
Then her father was there with her, and put an arm around her shoulders. "Shall we leave now?" he asked.
Leia and her father left the ruined temple to its forlorn loneliness, and went together to the manufactured warmth of the city.Part Four: Imperial Entanglements
All the empty spaces. They seem to last forever.
"How do we tell her? What do we say?"
"I think she knows, Bail. Look at her."
The dark, lonely spot, where the safe-place was. The still-and-strong place. She curls into it, and pulls an imaginary cover over herself.
A warm body, curling around her. "My poor little one. Poor all of us." A kiss, someone else's tear against her face. "But you know, don't you?"
The word, always stuck in her mouth before, never easy to get her lips around. But now, the need to say it. And she is gone, to the empty places. "Mother."
"Yes, love," the other says. "Mother."
Jaet Bishapi fell back into the shadows in a rush, as the phalanx of stormtroopers turned the corner in formation. The factory was working at high speed, staffed both by efficient Imperial troops and by closely-watched prisoners. Getting in would not be easy. Getting out would be next to impossible, but was not as important. He felt the weight of the detonators in the packsack. He could set the Empire's fleet back ten years in one night. And tear down something Vader built. That, he admitted to himself, also held a strong attraction. He was glad of an excuse to finally do it.
A maddening itch made him look down, and he realized that his mechanical foot had landed in some kind of insect nest. Damnable thing never felt where it was going until it was too late to get out of it. He dropped further into the shadow, and brushed the insects off of his legs. There was a time when he would have known (and cared) what they were called, but Dr. Bishapi had long since lost his interest in knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Now they were just a nuisance and a --
Lights flashed in the night, and a siren went up. Alarm! For a confused moment, Bishapi thought they had bugged the nest. Then he realized that it was just an escaped prisoner alarm.
He sighed. They would go into full lockdown now. He wouldn't be able to get in. This had happened twice before, and he was beginning to wonder if these were staged escapes, to excuse lockdowns. He wouldn't put it past the Empire.
He needed more information. He needed to know the way in, what the shifting schedule was. He needed someone who might be able to catch a glimpse behind the Empire's masks.
Luckily, he knew just such a someone.
"... so I told my parents they could just fly off... "
Leia smiled politely at the wildly-dressed boy across the table from her, as he went on with his rambling monologue. She'd agreed to let him take her to dinner (though he'd said it would be easier to avoid "his public" if they ate at her home), but at some point she had forgotten his name, and it wouldn't be polite to take her calendar out and check while he was talking.
"... I figure, if they can't take a few loud drums, it's their problem... "
He was some sort of musician. Zeria had sent her a message and asked if she could please-please-PLEASE get a thumbprinted holo of him, and when he'd asked for a date in return, it had seemed like the polite thing to do. And Leia was curious. She knew very few people her own age on Coruscant, and had never been on an actual date before.
She didn't think she would be on another any time soon.
"...and that's when I told my manager, Hey, you want me up there on that stage, you can bloody well get me a few more credits for it... "
She found she could feign interest by staring at one absurd piece of jewelry after another; the boy obviously considered himself a tough rebel. She smiled at the thought. He was a singer, for crying out loud, and had never rebelled against anything real in his life, nor was he a particularly tough character (though she had to admit that after experiencing Zokusa or Vader, or, for that matter, Bishapi, she was hard to impress on that count). He returned her smile, assuming it was meant for whatever he was talking about.
"...I don't know what these screaming little girls think; they got no other life. This one little kid told me she'd bought two copies of everything I sang, and I told her not to buy anymore, 'cause I don't want any little freaks like that around..."
Leia sipped the ruby bliel thoughtfully. It was too sweet, but she had a lingering childhood fondness for the flavor. She supposed it would disappear in time.
"...so they follow you everywhere, and you just want to smack 'em sometimes..."
An Imperial probe droid swooped down and looked in the window. She had a mad urge to wave to it. She saw more of it than she did most people now. She restrained herself, barely, and wondered if she could think of anything unobtrusive that might get her arrested if the probe saw. That would give her an unimpeachable excuse to end this.
"... but there was this one girl on Tatooine -- this was back when I was still playing backwaters like Mos Eisley -- slinky little thing, said her name was Camie. One of those hick country girls that'll throw themselves at anyone. You should've seen the sorry farmboy she was trying to get away from. Called him 'Wormie,' of all things..."
Doorbells were a gift of the Maker.
Leia was so relieved by the interruption that she didn't bother to see who it was before keying the door open from the remote on her wristband. She was standing to greet her visitor when her date -- for the first time in nearly an hour -- fell silent.
In the silence, the hiss of an indrawn breath. The forced exhalation.
For a panicked instant, Leia thought she really was going to be arrested (and it suddenly didn't seem like an exciting diversion), then she realized that Vader hardly would have signaled his arrival if he were here to arrest her. She turned to him, and offered a smile that was only slightly strained. "Lord Vader," she said. "Please come in. Welcome to my home."
He came into her parlor, looking acutely uncomfortable in the posh surroundings.
There was a crash behind her, and she glanced back involuntarily. Her date had gotten up too quickly, and knocked his chair into a freestanding vase. "Uh, sorry... I... " He looked nervously at Vader, then grabbed his jacket. "I just remembered, I gotta... I got some people to see. Maybe some other time." He left abruptly, circling around Vader as surely as if a wall had been built in a large circumference around the Dark Lord.
Leia tried to suppress a giggle, and mostly succeeded.
Vader nodded slightly, a gesture that Leia took as a replacement for a smile. His voice was as good-humored as she had ever heard it. "I question your choice of companions," he said.
Leia finally gave up and laughed. "A lot of people say that to me."
Another nod. "I would imagine so."
There was an awkward moment of remembering that they were now divided, then Leia fell back on her manners. She gestured to the table. "Would you care to join me for dessert?"
"I am unable to do so, Your Highness."
Leia blushed, suddenly realizing that of course he couldn't eat outside his bubble, and her invitation would only remind him of it. Her embarrassment faded to a vague pity, and she wondered how long it had been since he'd broken bread with another sentient creature. "I'm sorry," she said. "I didn't think about it in time."
"You need not apologize. It is... somewhat rare for a companion not to take notice of this condition. I take no offense."
Leia nodded. "Is there something you need of me, Lord Vader?"
Vader looked out the window, noticed the probe droid. "Walk with me, Your Highness. We have matters to discuss."
There was no question of not going. Leia took a cloak from her closet, locked her door, and followed him out.
He set an uncomfortably quick pace, and despite his professed desire to speak to her, said nothing as they walked. He led her past the Senate chambers, up a level, and across a series of walkways to another narrow staircase. They went up for several more levels, until Leia began to lose her breath from the altitude and exertion. Finally, they emerged onto what seemed to be a landing platform, many levels above the main part of the city. There was nothing special about it, except for the sheer drops on three sides... and the fact, Leia realized, that they were above the altitude at which the standard probe droids were able to function. She was alone with Vader. Was it for her protection? For his own? Was he planning to kill her here? Or to defect to the Alliance? To arrest her, or to help her?
She wished she understood him better. Or at all.
He walked to the very edge of the platform, still saying nothing. His cape flew back in the wind. Leia pulled her own cloak more tightly around her shoulders -- it was cold up here. She glanced down and noticed that the platform was made of interlocking squares of metal. Between them, they looked like the end of a chess game, the last piece on either side, moving aimlessly around the board. She wondered who had been checkmated.
Finally, he turned to her. "Your Highness," he said, "you could have a brilliant career in the Empire."
"I don't want a career in the Empire."
He came to her, knelt before her so they were eye to eye, and wrapped his large hands around her upper arms. It wasn't a rough gesture, nor did it seem meant to confine. It was merely a connection, almost a tender one.
The thought crossed her mind that her opponents would have a field day with the image, as it would feed into their perverse fantasies. And she could imagine herself slipping into his arms right now, letting him hold her, wrapping herself inside his overwhelming presence. She thought he wanted her to. But it wasn't what they would make of it. It was a different sort of holding altogether.
"I cannot protect you forever, Leia," he said. "If you place yourself as my enemy, you will be my enemy. Do you know what that means?"
Leia nodded dumbly, not knowing what to do or say.
"It is not what I wish," Vader said. "I ask you to reconsider. If you move through channels, as you have in your relief efforts, you could accomplish a great deal more than you will with your Rebellion."
"What do you want of me? I have reconsidered. Then I reconsidered again. And again. The answer doesn't change." She bit her lip. "I have to do what's right."
She had expected the hands to tighten on her arms, possibly to snap a bone like a twig. Instead, his grip became looser, and one hand came up and cradled her face. His thumb ran lightly across her cheekbone. She felt something both soft and sharp under her finger, and realized that her own hand had risen to his wrist, and was skating along the neat crease of his leather glove. She had never stood so close to him before, so close that she could see, behind the deeply tinted eyeguards, the shadowy suggestions of his eyes.
For an instant, an image came unbidden to her mind -- a young, strong man with blue eyes so stormy and intense that they were only partially offset by his casual grin and easy laughter. Leia knew those eyes from somewhere, knew she could place them if only she had time.
Then he was gone.
Vader let go of her abruptly and stood up. "Of course, Your Highness," he said. "We must all do what we feel is right. I apologize for that... indiscretion."
A bitter wind blew up from below, and stole what little warmth there had been on the platform, tearing it harshly out of the folds of Leia's cloak. The top of an Imperial transport came into view, and its engines drowned out all speech. It landed at the far end, and Governor Tarkin stepped out of it. "Lord Vader," he said without ceremony, "your presence is required on La'azum. The Inferno awaits your arrival. You will leave immediately."
Leia had never directly seen Vader take an order before. He had always seemed perfectly in control of his surroundings. But when Tarkin delivered his instructions, Vader simply nodded curtly, wished her farewell, and left.
Tarkin smiled at her. "You assume far too much of Vader, and give him more credit than he has earned," he said. "He is under my command, not vice versa."
"I'm well aware of Imperial bureaucracy," Leia said, not wanting to let Tarkin know that she'd tacitly assumed Vader operated outside of it. "It's hard to miss a system that manages to combine all the inertia of the Republic with all the brutality of the Empire. But at least it seems to be blessedly inefficient."
"As charming and respectful in midair as you are in the Senate. What a lovely trait." He gestured to his transport. "Come, Your Highness. I'll give you a ride back to your quarters."
Leia realized with dismay that she hadn't been paying close enough attention when Vader brought her here, and it would take some time to find her way back alone. "Thank you," she said. "But I prefer to walk."
Vader had swallowed the humiliating order on the landing platform, and now, on the shuttle to his Star Destroyer, it sat heavily inside of him, turning loathsome and poisonous. Tarkin hadn't needed to issue his commands in front of Leia. He could have waited. And he should have remembered that, no matter what the bureaucratic structure was, Vader had ways to pay back such an insult.
And, yet, he'd taken it, and he supposed there was nothing to be done about it now. Leia had seen him in a far weaker position before Tarkin's arrival. He regretted that. His intention had been to try and convince her of her potential within the Empire, not to use... whatever it was between them... to manipulate her. Yet when he'd seen her standing there in the wind, a small white creature in the cold sky of Coruscant, he'd wanted to be close to her, to shelter her. And when she'd said that there were things she couldn't do, places she couldn't follow him --
No, that had not been Leia. Leia had not said that. That had been another voice, echoing Leia's words in his mind. The beloved voice that somehow always made him weak. His mind had flown back to the last time he'd seen HER, held her in his arms. He'd sought her out on Alderaan without any clear idea why, and followed her voice to a balcony where she'd been hiding with Sach?, whispering just below his understanding. Sach? had left hesitantly, dragging the trunk back inside with her, leaving them alone for the last time.
It was after his accident, but before the miserable suit was complete. The mask covered half his face, and he had draped his misshapen form in a deep hooded robe. SHE had seen him, and lowered the hood, and looked upon him with sadness, but no horror.
"Oh, Ani," she'd sighed, and somehow, from her, the name didn't send up a wall of fire in his mind. "My poor Ani." She kissed the burned skin under his eye, and held his ungloved hand to her face. There was still some flesh on it then. Infections had taken what little was left in the years since.
But her eyes were far away, her voice coming from beyond a great divide. He hadn't yet mastered the vocoder that read his speech patterns, and was still trying to time his speech to the enforced breath rhythms of the pneumatics, instead of depending on the motions of his mouth to activate the machinery. It was his own voice, attached to his own vocal chords. Perhaps a bit deeper, but his own. But he couldn't seem to make it speak the words he would have it form. For now, he was only able to speak short, inadequate sentences.
"Our child?" he asked, seeing that her gown once again fell flat against her. "Where?"
She closed her eyes. "I lost our child, Ani."
He felt she was lying, remembered something, some sense he'd gotten from Kenobi. But her grief was real. It was so real he could feel it even through the blocks she always kept up in her mind. She was in pain over the child. "I, too," he said. "I lost him."
"Yes," she said. "I know." She turned to him, and leaned her head against the machinery of his chest, and he wrapped his arms around her.
"Come with me." He stroked her hair. He could not say there would be another child. They both knew there never would be, not anymore. But there could be... something. "Come, my love."
"The answer doesn't change. I have to do what's right."
No. That had been what Leia had said, just now. Not what Amida -- what SHE -- had said so long ago. His mind had no business taking him back there. He didn't want to go. He had a different life now. There were no more pitying glances, only fear and quick obedience. It was better this way. The other man he had been was gone. With HER, and with their lost child.
The shuttle docked, and Vader went out into the bay of the Inferno. Captain Derjan was waiting for him, and gave the usual courtesies. They calmed Vader. Things were in order. He reached the bridge, and Lieutenant Piett gave him a report on the disturbances on La'azum.
"Nothing of significance," he said. "An escaped prisoner who was recaptured. A bit of a riot on the assembly line, easily controlled."
"Why is my presence required, if there is nothing of significance?"
It would have given Piett a chance to place the blame on someone else's shoulders, to say, "Well, I, of course, told them you needn't be bothered." But Piett was a good and honest officer, who would not have said such a thing even if true. Vader respected him, and that was not a common honor for Imperial officers to receive. Piett took responsibility for what happened under his watch.
"We have noted signs of rebel surveillance," he explained. "In examining the perimeter after the escapee was returned, we found several small camps. There is either one persistent spy, or a group of them. It could also be natives, but Kel Rejuo and I thought it prudent to assume the worst."
"You have done well, Lieutenant. I will examine the disturbance myself."
"Thank you, my lord."
Vader acknowledged his thanks publicly, and privately resolved to recommend him for a better post than La'azum the next time he spoke to Palpatine. Perhaps Rejuo could resume that command in time, though he would have to approach the subject carefully.
He considered going to his chamber to meditate, but decided that he could be of more use on the bridge. Meditation seemed like a poor idea. He'd spent too much time with his own mind already today.
Leia found that her feet remembered the way home better than her mind did. Without thinking about it -- she wasn't sure she could have thought anyway; the conversation was swimming in her mind, that strange, gentle gesture -- she followed the narrow staircases and the walkways Vader had led her along earlier, and much sooner than she had anticipated, she saw the top of the Senate's vast dome. She wondered if she was finally becoming accustomed to Coruscant.
The first thing she noticed when she got home was that her door was unlocked. A hot fury rose up -- had Vader led her so far away, pretended such tenderness that her heart had almost broken, just to send a team of searchers into her quarters while she was gone? What a fool she was! A silly, deluded child, to believe that... just when she'd thought he was --
The voice came from inside the apartment, and Leia realized that she had opened her door, and was just standing and staring at the locking mechanism. She looked up, and saw her mother standing beside the table. She'd been picking up the last remnants of Leia's dinner date. Had it only been an hour ago?
Leia blinked and smiled widely, unambiguously glad of her company for the first time today. She ran to Sach?, and hugged her tightly. "Mother! I'm so glad to see you! Why are you here?"
Sach? pulled away, a surprised smile on her face. "Well, I'm happy you got to 'glad to see you' before 'why are you here?'!" She linked her arm through Leia's, and they sat down together on the sofa. "As it happens, I'm here to see someone very important."
"The new Senator from Alderaan. I understand she's distinguished herself quite well."
Leia blushed. "Did you really come to see me, Mother?"
"Yes. And it's not even in your official capacity. It just gets lonely back on Alderaan. Your father has his other responsibilities. My own have been altered somewhat of late."
"It's not important." She glanced over Leia's shoulder as subtly as she could, and Leia realized that the probe droid must have come back. It wouldn't do to discuss Mother's "other responsibilities." "I had Threepio let me in. I still have an override. I hope it's all right?"
"Of course it is!"
"You seem to have had company earlier," Sach? said, glancing at the table. "Anything you want to tell me about?"
"Nothing I even want to think about." She laughed, then told her mother briefly about the date.
Sach? rolled her eyes. "Honestly, Leia, you don't need to date a boy just because he asks."
"I'll keep that in mind."
"How did you finally get out of it?"
Leia's smile fell. "An old friend stopped by," she said tensely, and knew from her mother's face that she didn't need to specify which old friend. All the day's strangeness -- the utter failure of her first date, her walk with Vader, that strange tender gesture, Tarkin's interruption -- came into her mind at once. She burst into completely unexpected tears, and put her arms around Sach?'s neck, clinging to her as she had when she was small. "I'm so glad to see you!" she said again. "I'm really, really glad."
Sach? smoothed her windblown hair, and kissed the crown of her head. "It's okay, Leia." Her voice was soft and gentle, but confused. "Everything's just fine."
After a long while, Leia explained what had happened. "I just don't understand him. I really don't. Why can he be so kind one minute and then... do what he did to Bishapi?"
Sach? sighed. "What he did to Bishapi is a mild thing, comparatively. Vader kills, brutally and frequently. He doesn't take delight in it -- at least I don't believe he does -- but he certainly doesn't hesitate."
"But when he talks to me..."
"I know, Leia. At first, I thought it was a game, but what you tell me... I'm disturbed by it." She shook her head. "I can't tell you that his affection for you is unreal. I think it's real enough to disturb even him. But it will not stop him from hurting you if he feels he has a reason to do so. Don't give him your trust, Leia. He'll break it."
"Of course I don't trust him." Trust Vader? Hadn't she immediately suspected that he'd broken into her quarters?
"You don't distrust him either," Sach? said, her eyes narrowed. "Not really, or at least not enough."
"Maybe if I did trust him... I mean, if someone did... I mean... you know what I mean, Mother. Maybe... "
"Maybe he'll suddenly reform and rejoin the human race? I've heard the theory before. From someone who knew him better, and for whom he had a good deal more affection. It didn't end happily." Sach? gave Leia a bitter smile. "The Empire owns Vader. He left the human race a long time ago. I'm not sure it's worth wanting him back."
Rejuo was waiting at the factory's entrance when Vader arrived on La'azum, and led him out to the perimeter without any preliminaries. She had changed a great deal since Motibi, in an aggressive attempt to gain the respect that should have been hers by position and talent. Her wings had been surgically removed, her hair cut short and styled severely. Her soft, traditional Ampinuan clothes had been replaced by something that resembled an Imperial uniform. She had still not been granted a commission, and was addressed only by the Ampinuan honorific "Kel". The situation was unacceptable, but Vader had been able to do very little to ease it. Perhaps someday.
When he was Master.
"...and you can see here, Lord Vader," she said, stooping to point to a pile of ashes on the ground, "that this camp was set up for some time. It may well have been for observation."
"Was a fire observed?"
"No, sir. This is just beyond our perimeter, and I'm afraid it went unnoticed."
"Very well, Kel Rejuo," Vader said. "What else has been found?"
"Three similar camps. And this." She led him along the perimeter, about ten meters from the camp, to a collapsed frinchesil nest. The burrowing insects were crawling everywhere, trying to rebuild it. "We have been meaning to destroy this nest for some time -- the frinchesils have been pests -- but we've now put off action until we can properly inspect the damage. It wasn't caused by any of my people. We discovered it the morning after the escape."
"It wasn't made by your escapee?"
"No. He ran the other way. And there is some indication that whoever stepped on the nest was headed toward the factory, not away from it."
Vader reached into the Force, trying to find any traces that had been left on its surface here. It frequently was more effective than trying to read any particular person. Here, he sensed frustration, impatient waiting, anger, lust for vengeance. And annoyance.
He bent, to look more closely at the footprint in the nest. Solid, unremarkable. He looked at the one behind it. Smaller, less heavy. More carefully placed. Real... the other was mechanical.
The feelings could have belonged to any number of rebels, and the mechanical foot could have belonged to anyone. But the combination of the two things pointed to one obvious conclusion.
Bishapi. The rebel scum who hadn't even had enough honor to stay with the princess on Ampinua, after he'd blundered her into the situation in the first place.
"I need to contact the Empire, Kel Rejuo," he said. "I must use your private communications room."
She nodded, and led him into the factory. Her office was on an upper floor. She keyed in her security codes, and left the computer waiting for Vader's higher level clearance. Vader thanked her, and waited for her to leave.
Tarkin responded with his usual contempt. Why Palpatine had given him authority -- over his own apprentice, no less -- was a mystery. "Yes, Lord Vader? Have you found something, or is this merely a courtesy call?"
"Bishapi has been investigating the factory."
"That filthy spy? Well, remove him at once. I believe him to be responsible for the sabotage of a transport that killed two Imperial governors last month."
Vader thought Bishapi might well go up in his estimation, if he kept choosing his targets so wisely. "Bishapi has disappeared again. He will certainly make contact with the Alliance soon."
"Probably with your... friend... the young princess."
Vader didn't want to agree with him, but knew he was right. Bishapi would think Leia a primary link to the Empire, and try to use her to get inside. He was not convinced that she would resist the temptation to do so. "In all likelihood," he said.
"Very well, then. Return to Coruscant, and have her followed until he makes contact with her. I won't have this petty troublemaker wandering around free. It is time to put a stop to him once and for all."
"As you wish."
Leia had had little contact with the Alliance since her initiation, which her father had told her to expect -- sneaking her out of Imperial range had been dangerous, and a cool down time was necessary to deflect suspicion. Let them think she'd run off to meet a boy. Leia hadn't much liked it, but she supposed she understood it. Her father himself had left a few days later, knowing that a social family visit would look suspicious if it lasted any longer.
A mother visiting her teenage daughter for the first time in a year and half, on the other hand... it could go on indefinitely, as long as Leia remembered to act annoyed from time to time, which wasn't all that easy. Leia was developing a whole new view of Sach? Organa, and it fascinated her. This woman had assembled a real army! Up until now, Leia had assumed that the Rebellion was carried out on a case by case basis, by loners like Bishapi. Sach? agreed that it had been so for most of its existence, but things were about to change. It was coming close to the time to really take on the Empire. Most of this was conveyed by coded language, or in quick bits of conversation when Sach? was convinced they were alone. Leia wanted to know and learn everything.
"You need to be patient," Sach? told her, darting through the garment district of Coruscant two weeks after her arrival. The constant motion -- in the places where a mother and daughter could be expected to be -- was a foil for the probe droids. Leia had suggested climbing above their range, as Vader had, but Sach? had told her (through a laugh as she examined a particularly ugly piece of jewelry) that it would only raise suspicions and bring real spies, who weren't as easily fooled. Today, they were looking at formal dresses, giving them an excuse to drape cloth over their faces and lean in and whisper to one another.
"I know, I know," Leia said. She stopped at a small store, and looked in the window at an absurd purple dress. Sach? pulled her on by -- very maternal, but also a sign that the shop was known to have snoops. "But there's so much to do."
"You don't know the half of it."
"That's the problem!"
Sach? laughed, and looked up at the sky, where traffic of all sorts flew above them. "How I wish there were real birds!" she said. "There are in other places, you know. A whole flock of them, in fact." It was an obvious code -- she was telling Leia that the Alliance had assembled a fleet; Leia had lived with her parents long enough to know that -- so she padded it with extraneous talk. "When I was growing up on Naboo, there were birds everywhere, and I loved to see them..."
Leia listened eagerly. Much of what she said really was about the flocking habits of birds on the ruined planet of Naboo, but it was enough of an in for Leia to ask how many "birds" were in a "flock." She wasn't sure what kind of ships each bird species referred to, but Sach?'s tone of fond reminiscence was very convincing when she explained that there were several hundred in some kinds, but only a few in others. "You should see them fly, though -- really very skillful!" She was starting to speak vaguely about a large nest when a fruit peddler approached them.
"Ruby jerises! Makons from Sullust! Pallies!" The peddler held out a small round fruit. "Try a pallie, Ma'am?"
Sach? took the fruit. "My very favorite, I'll take two." She paid the peddler, and took two pallies.
Leia was about to bite hers when Sach? suddenly grabbed it and switched, muttering about clumsiness. She turned it over, and Leia saw a pattern of red lines drawn into the fruit's skin. Sach? glanced at it briefly, closed her eyes, then opened them to check again, then bit the design away. She pointed toward a dress shop at a small intersection, then led Leia briskly toward it, and past it, down the small street, and into an alleyway. Leia wasn't given a chance to ask questions.
The fruit peddler tried to run after them when she saw two "merchants" leave their stalls to follow, but she never had a chance. Four stormtroopers emerged from the shop behind her, grabbed her arms, and marched her off. She was certain she would die. After nearly ten years in an Imperial prison camp, she wished she had.
They had taken a complicated route to the old city, braiding one traffic pattern to another, traveling almost aimlessly, circling the transit system at high speed but managing to take nearly three hours to reach anything that looked like a stopping point. Sach? had spoken cheerfully the whole time, pretending to inspect her purchases. Leia was growing exhausted by the time they finally arrived at the battered, vandalized door -- one of many such in this forsaken neighborhood. She had not been surprised when Jaet Bishapi himself answered the signal. Mati and Tral were also there, along with a small group of people Leia did not know.
Bishapi was in high spirits, and, Leia thought, a little drunk. Mother briefed him on the fleet, not bothering with the code; this was apparently considered a safe house. She also said that there was a base on a moon of Yavin, and that it was fully staffed.
Bishapi gave a joyous whoop. "Well, I say it's time we get this going, don't you Sach?? Let's hit their fleet. It's almost over!" He started to reach for Sach?, then changed his mind and picked Leia up. He swung her around. "They have a lot of resources sunk into this new fleet Vader is building. And the same old Imperial idiocy -- they have it all in one place. We can set them back ten years in a single night."
"Very good," Tral said dryly. "Then we'll only be ten years behind them, instead of twenty."
Mati rolled her eyes. "Our fleet is in fine shape. I've seen it. We aren't flying junk."
Bishapi ignored them both, and turned to Leia. "And, Your Highness, that brings us to you."
Sach? looked up sharply, but said nothing.
"Yes. We're having a little trouble getting into the factory. We'll need you to go in for us."
"I don't think that's wise," Sach? said.
"All she has to do is bat those pretty brown eyes of hers in the right direction, and she's in."
Leia's heart sank. She supposed the request was inevitable, but she'd hoped it wouldn't come. She tried to deflect it, though she knew better than to pretend she didn't know what was meant. "I haven't spoken to Lord Vader regularly in several months," she said. "Actually, I haven't really spoken to him regularly since La'azum? "
"But you have his ear and his trust," Bishapi answered.
"If I do have his trust," she said, "I couldn't... it wouldn't be proper for me to betray it."
"Proper?" Bishapi nearly leaped off of Mati's couch, his white hair flying wildly around him. "It would be proper for you to march into his Star Destroyer and pull all the plugs out of that machine!"
"Please, Jaet," Sach? said quietly, "let it go."
Bishapi acknowledged her with an impatient wave, then knelt in front of Leia. For a moment, she expected him to touch her face gently, say that he could not protect her forever. Instead, he spoke in a quieter voice. "I admire your sense of duty, Your Highness," he said, "but Vader does not deserve your trust, nor to have his own respected."
"That's not right..."
Bishapi had stood again, and was pulling at his hair. "He murdered my brother with a flick of his wrist! He vaporized a shipload of physicians near Corellia. He cares nothing for anyone's life, including his own, and that is not human at all. Not any kind of thinking creature. Vader is Palpatine's pet assassin, Your Highness. If you start thinking of him as anything else, he will only end up tearing your throat out."
"I will not do as you ask, Jaet."
She didn't see it coming. The back of Bishapi's hand came at her like a hammer's blow, and she was thrown into the tattered couch.
"What kind of game do you think you're playing?" Then, his face horror-stricken, he tried to help her up, muttering that he was sorry, that he hadn't meant to...
Leia stared at him, eyes wide. She'd always suspected he was crazy, but in an eccentric, amusing way. Now, he was just mad. The man she was seeing now was the man who had cut off his own foot to spite the Empire.
Sach? pulled him back, and Mati and Tral helped subdue him. Sach? turned to Leia, who was still sitting on the couch, stunned into immobility. "Get home, Leia. Take the longest route you can and keep your eyes open. We'll take care of this."
Leia got up, dazed, and she stumbled out the door. She knew better than to head for home. No matter how shocked and surprised she was, she had enough wits to know that she might be followed. It wasn't until she got back to the marketplace that she learned that the damage had already been done. She didn't bother to hide her route back.
If there is an irony to betrayal, it is this:
Vader was more deeply fond of the princess than she was of him. He valued being with a person who no longer shuddered at his appearance, who spoke to him as she would speak to any other human being. He felt fiercely protective of her, as he had of someone else, long ago.
Yet it had never occurred to him -- not even as she risked her position to avoid betraying his trust -- that he should not complete the task assigned to him. The Rebellion threatened the peace of the galaxy, and it needed to be destroyed. Following her to their lair would hasten that destruction, therefore it was the right thing to do.
He might have refused had he been asked to dispose of the princess herself, but that order would not be given; she would too easily become a martyr. Hurting her feelings was not a serious consideration.
As to her companions, he didn't give them a second thought. Bishapi had ceased being a non-threat with his attack on the gubernatorial shuttle. The others, whoever they would turn out to be, were undoubtedly well aware of it, and involved just as deeply.
The spies had temporarily lost her in the public transportation, but she had been spotted again, in the company of a woman whom the spies had been unable to identify. It had taken only a few minutes to ascertain which door they had disappeared behind.
As he had hoped, the princess left the meeting early. She disappeared down an alley, then Vader ordered his troops inside.
The twelve stormtroopers blew the door inward with no trouble, and a woman's scream told Vader that damage had already been done. He walked through the smoke, and saw the broken body of a woman on the floor. Dark hair, fine red gown. Half of her face was gone, but in a moment of terrible memory, he recognized the other half. In another life, she had been his friend.
The voice in Vader's mind howled in inchoate regret. He did not care for its input, and turned it off as coolly as he could turn off a holo-projector. It fell silent.
Two more shots, and a man and woman went down. Senators. Tral and Mati. He memorized their faces as well as he could. They were known rebels, but had served their worlds honorably. He burned their faces into his mind, so he would not forget the price paid to end this war once and for all.
A wild yell, and Vader felt himself pummeled from the side. There were shots, but Vader deflected them. He wanted some answers from this, not just death. He took Bishapi by the throat, and held him a foot above the floor. The bones in his neck were fragile, his windpipe easily crushed. Vader's anger was hot and powerful. It was all he could do to keep it under control.
He reached into the Force, pushed his way into Bishapi's mind as far as he could go. It was easier like this, literally holding Bishapi's life in his hands...
But the image that came first was what was first in Bishapi's mind. Vader saw his fist rising, saw it striking Leia, saw her falling back toward the wall. Before he could stop himself, his fist had tightened, and he heard the crack of bones. Bishapi's eyes bulged outward. Vader thought he was smiling in satisfaction. He threw the corpse across the room.
"Burn it!" He stooped to pick Sach? up off the floor. She, at least, would be properly honored.
Naboo, one week later.
Leia stood beside the pyre on the desolate world of Naboo, where her mother had always expressed a desire to return at the end of things. She tried to imagine it as it once was, but her mind was as scarred as the land, and she could only see it through the veil of destruction. Her father was by her side. A hot anger burned in her soul, blazing brighter than the pyre before her. And a deep shame. It was her fault.
Always, it came back to Vader, in the end and in the beginning. She had found him outside Bishapi's apartment, carrying her mother out of the fire. Her first thought had been that he'd rescued her -- rescued! -- and then she'd seen the open wound on her mother's head, and understood everything. He'd followed her. He'd used her to kill rebels, and to kill her own mother. She had screamed in her fury. Vader had simply the body in her arms. He had expressed some kind of sorrowful platitude, and she had screamed again. She didn't know what she'd said. She had stayed there, holding her mother's body until authorities arrived to take them both away.
Vader. In the end and in the beginning. But now and forever, it would be the end.
"It is not your fault, Leia," Bail said, putting his hands on her shoulders. "It's a danger we all know. We all live with it. Your mother knew this could happen."
"I didn't distrust him enough. She said so."
Bail said no more, and Leia knew it was because he couldn't argue with it. She had allowed this to happen. It wouldn't happen again.
She looked across the pyre. People had gathered here on the ruined plains. The Empire had the gall to send representatives. And far back, a prisoner was guarded by a phalanx of stormtroopers. Bail had looked disturbed, but said only that she was the last of Queen Amidala's handmaidens, now that Sach? was gone. The woman stood in lonely silence, heavily hooded and weighed down with grief. When she had first appeared, Leia had commented that she must have some clout to be released for a funeral. Bail had said that, in all likelihood, it was not a privilege, but a punishment -- she was being forced to witness the end of her world.
As was Leia. A tear burned out of her eye, cutting a path down her cheek. Then the tears ended, and she watched her mother's body burn as her anger rose higher and higher inside her.
Finally, the pyre collapsed, and the crowd began to disperse. Leia paid little attention to the people passing her, wishing peace to her and to her father. She nodded curtly to them. Then suddenly, the last handmaiden stood before her. Her hood hid her face almost completely. Leia waited for her to say "Peace to your soul, child" -- the common consolation -- but instead she put her hand on Leia's shoulder and said, "Be mindful of your anger, Leia. I see it in your eyes. It will have you."
Leia looked up, the hate rising with the anger. "I have a right to be angry! That's my mother!"
"Take care not to buy your rights with your soul. Your mother wouldn't want that."
The voice was gentle and soft, but Leia couldn't stand it. She pulled away from the hand on her shoulder, and went to stand by the remains of the pyre. The stormtroopers took the handmaiden away. Leia's father waited until she was out of sight, then came to her. Leia wouldn't allow his touch, either.
She stayed until the last ember burned out. Every flame was recorded in her mind. She would push them back out, and burn the Empire with the heat of her fury.
It was not evident to the people around her. When she returned to Coruscant, she was subdued, but she returned to her business, arguing cases before Tarkin and organizing disaster relief for the unfortunate worlds of the galaxy. She even used Imperial channels. It wouldn't do to call attention to herself. There were rumors that she had been recruited by the Rebel spies in the Senate, but there was no corroborating evidence. Bishapi's lair had been burned clean. The Empire did not question her presence, because they had been reminded that a Senatorial inquiry into the "tragic accident" might prove awkward. So Leia was allowed to go about her business.
No one blamed her for not speaking to Vader anymore, and Vader never attempted to contact her. She used her freedom well.
She had Zeria send her speeder bike from Alderaan. She could use some other vehicle, but she had plans for this one. She contacted Tarpals and Madine, and sent them to gather troops for assault. She prepared the Tantive IV for a voyage, and scoured it for tracking devices. She had no intention of following her scheduled flight plan. It wouldn't take her directly where she was going, of course. It would develop engine trouble somewhere near Sullust, where Madine had arranged for new transportation.
She had it planned. She would finish what Bishapi started, and use the army her mother had built. She would go to La'azum. As soon as everything, and everyone, was in place.
Vader arrived on La'azum a week after Rejuo informed him that the final assembly work was set up. He wanted to inspect the components for himself. Rejuo's modifications looked promising, providing steadier and more precise handling. She had surprised even him by improving the propulsion system on a whim. The new fleet would be able to out fly anything the Alliance had.
Vader had been forbidden to join the Imperial contingent at Naboo for Sach?'s funeral, and he suspected that he wouldn't have been welcome. He had never seen such hate as had been in Leia's eyes when she screamed at him. And screaming was all it had been -- a crazed, inarticulate accusation. He'd thought she might lose hold after that. But the reports from Coruscant said that she was adjusting after all. Vader had pulled back the spies. Her circle of rebel companions was gone. Including Sach?. Vader's mind kept circling around memories he did not care to think about. Leia was not the only one who would hate him for this death.
"My lord?" Rejuo said, breaking into his thoughts. "Are you satisfied with the components?"
"Yes, Kel Rejuo. You have done well. I will see to it that you are properly compensated. You have my personal apologies for the rather substandard treatment you have received thus far."
"You owe me no apologies, Lord Vader," she mumbled, and looked away. Vader picked up on a streak of embarrassed affection -- even a strange kind of attraction -- and was taken aback by it. Surely, she was joking.
She led him out of the work area, where the component prototypes had been placed for his inspection, and toward the offices. It was night, and most of the workers had been given leave while the factory was converted for its final push. Vader could hear his footsteps echoing.
Into this barely broken silence, the attack came without warning.
Most of the defenses around the plant had been placed to deflect guerilla warfare, and had proved effective in stopping all rebel sabotage. The rebels had never launched a full-scale attack before, and precautions had been woefully small in this area.
An explosion rocked the north wing of the building, and the roof above them was torn away. Vader saw the shadow of a boxy X-wing fighter, then the blast of a laser canon. He pulled Rejuo toward an exit. Flames lit the hallway as another X-wing fired on the building.
"The components!" Rejuo shouted, running toward the workroom.
Vader pulled her back. "Leave them!" he ordered. "Get out of this building."
Another ship began its bombing run. Vader used the Force to knock it violently off course, and was gratified to hear it crash into the rocks beyond the perimeter.
Vader and Rejuo reached the factory's exit just as the roof fell in behind them, sending out a cloud of metal fragments. Vader looked back at it involuntarily, then noticed that Rejuo had fallen still beside him. He turned back to her, and noticed the rebel ten feet away. It was a human, female judging by the vague shape in the shadows, small-built and tense. She was sitting on a speeder bike, wrapped in camouflage from head to toe, goggles over her eyes, blaster raised.
"Goodbye," she said, and raised her blaster. It was not aimed at either Vader or Rejuo, but at the ground.
The shot came before Vader comprehended what she was doing. A wall of fire shot up in a semi-circle around the door, closing them in. A flame tasted the edge of Vader's cape, and licked upward.
The rebel watched this, then turned the speeder bike around, and deliberately accelerated past the normal range. Into the range he had installed four years before.
Vader pushed the fire away, and got Rejuo out of the circle, pushing her back toward the wall to stand between her and a further attack, though he didn't believe one was coming. Leia had done what she'd come to do. He let part of his cape burn away, but stopped the flame before it did any real damage.
She had watched him burn. Stood and watched and waited for it. And let him know who she was. She had --
An explosion rocked the building, and the wall burst outward in a shower of metal and fire. Vader was clear of it, but Rejuo, standing in its protection, was struck from behind. He saw it like a terrible nightmare, her small body crushed under a pile of bricks, her hair lit in an obscene halo of fire, her face distorted by the heat of it. He used the Force to push the bricks outward, unheeding of them as they glanced off his armor, then picked her up carefully. She was gasping for breath, and blood trailed from her nose.
There would be time later for anger at Leia -- a lot of time -- but now, he had to get medical attention for Rejuo. He carried her to his shuttle, which had somehow been missed in the general destruction, and flew her up to the Inferno, where a medical droid would be waiting in his chamber. He could hear her labored breathing from the shadows, a horrible echo of his own. Worse, he could hear her moaning in pain. She was awake, and he didn't dare let her slip into unconscious oblivion.
A squadron of TIE fighters flew out in formation to defend the shuttle. Most had been involved in the attack on the Rebel ships, but the short battle seemed to be over. They escorted him to the docking bay, and then he sent them to hunt down any remaining ships in the sector. The Rebellion would not emerge from this unscathed.
He stayed with Rejuo in the chamber as the droid tended her. Her eyes flitted from fixture to fixture, terrified of her reflection. "All will be well," he said.
She coughed, then cried for the pain of it. Her lungs were crushed. She would need a respirator, and soon.
The feather weight of her hand on his arm. He turned to her. "You are in need of something?"
She nodded. "Can't?" she said. Her good arm gestured weakly at her chest, her body. "Can't... do this."
"It is unpleasant," Vader agreed. "But livable."
"Can't," she said again, turning her wounded face from him. "Help me."
A jumble of images came into his mind, as she pushed them out at him in a desperate plea. She saw herself within the Empire, the constant snickering raised to a new level. She saw herself among her own people, shunned for the life she'd chosen off-world. And her face...
He heard her sob. Her beautiful face was a ruin. She wasn't a vain woman, but this seemed to cut her most deeply. Vader understood this better than she thought.
"Help me," she whispered again. "Please."
He stood beside the examining table, tilted up to forty-five degrees to ease her breathing while the droid worked. "You are certain?"
Her eyes blinked rapidly, and she nodded. A gasp for air.
Vader dismissed the surgeon droid.
"Then it comes to this."
"Yes... Lord Vader... I..."
He sensed the words she meant to speak, and did not wish her to say them. He wouldn't have her last experience be a rejection. "I shall miss you," he said. "You will not be forgotten."
"...thank you... for... all. I would not... have it... otherwise."
Her eyes slid shut, and he thought she might slip away on her own, but she didn't. They opened again, deep with pain and grief. He placed his hand over her throat, caressed it gently. "You are certain?" he asked, one last time.
"Certain," she whispered.
He brushed her hair carefully away from her face with his free hand. "Goodbye, my friend," he said, and pressed down with his thumb. He felt her windpipe collapse under the pressure, and the life slipped out of her quickly. The corpse did not look peaceful. They never did. It just looked empty. He called for the medical droids to have her taken care of. She would be buried with Imperial honors.
Leia's face rose up in his mind, the hateful, cold set of her chin as she'd fired. He saw the flames rising up again, the wall collapsing, Rejuo falling beneath it. And Leia, watching. Waiting.
His rage was not hot, but cold and reassuring. The game was over. She had chosen, and she had betrayed him. There would be no more coddling of this child, no more protection. She had put herself outside the circle of his life. The voice in his mind could howl all it liked; he would give it no quarter.
At least not now.
Later, perhaps, on Coruscant, the walls closed around him and the thin gold chain twisted around his fingers... then, just maybe he would let that voice speak, if it still had something to say. Maybe he would mourn his own broken heart. Maybe he would speak to... to HER... in his mind, as he had been wont to do in the past, holding her few remaining possessions to his heart.
Or maybe he would finally throw them into the incinerator where they belonged, and have done with it.
Leia was shaking when she reached her transport, hidden in the hills of La'azum, and her stomach couldn't take the pressure change upon liftoff. She had never been sick in flight before.
The pilot was in high spirits, congratulating her on a successful first mission. It wasn't a victory, precisely -- the Alliance had gained nothing but time -- but hadn't it been grand? Hadn't they showed the Empire that they were to be taken seriously now?
Leia saw the flames in her mind, creeping up the edge of Vader's cape. The woman beside him, jumping desperately away.
What have I become?
She arrived on Sullust, and General Madine led her back to the Tantive IV. "Engines are fixed, Your Highness." He flashed her a grin.
"I watched a man burn."
Madine said nothing to her. He led her onto her ship, and got her to her quarters. "Rest," he finally said. "You need sleep."
"I wanted to kill him."
"Get some rest. I'll get Captain Antilles. He'll have you safe on Coruscant in no time."
Leia took the order. She lay down on the great, soft bed that had been provided as an ambassadorial perk. She'd never slept in it, but now, she was so tired, so...
I watched him burn.
The tears didn't come suddenly. They began slowly and unimpressively, building bit by bit into a torrent. But they were silent. Leia didn't even know she was crying when she finally drifted off to sleep, though crying was the first thing she was aware of in her dream.
It was not her own. It was just a soft sound in the abyss, far below her. She was trapped again in the web of spun glass, her hands and feet bleeding from the cuts. The web shattered, and she fell into the darkness.
A cool wind caught her, placed her gently down on solid nothingness. Beside her, her birth mother was sitting on a rock, back to the world, crying in the dark. Her hair was up, but a thin braid trailed down behind one ear. She wore a tan tunic and trousers, and looked very small. Leia reached out to her.
"Go away. You are not my daughter."
Leia looked down at herself. She was dressed in one of her white gowns, but it was drenched in blood. She screamed.
"What did you expect?" her mother asked.
"I didn't mean to -- I never wanted to -- "
"That is a lie."
Leia fell to her knees in front of her mother. "Please! Forgive me! I'm sorry! I'll never... Oh, I swear, I can't be like this! Please! Help me!"
Time in dreams is strange -- it seemed both instantaneous and an eternity before Leia felt the cool finger lift her face up. Her mother's eyes, blue as the desert sky, glowed softly in the darkness. "My Leia," she said. "My beautiful girl."
The relief was palpable. Leia felt her entire body relax, and she fell into her mother's arms. When she looked down at herself, she saw that the blood was fading from her gown. "I won't go down that path," she promised, over and over. "I won't. I can't."
"You can. But you won't. You're turning back now." A gentle hand cupped her face, the thumb caressing her cheekbone. She looked up. Her mother was smiling again, soft and sad.
There was a crackling sound in the darkness, and Leia looked up to see the web reforming itself in the emptiness, beautiful and distant. Then she became aware of the other sound, the harsh breathing.
Her mother stood, agitated. "He is angry, Leia. You need to hide, and hide well. He will not forgive you. Do not ask."
Leia glanced around fearfully. The sound was everywhere.
"You'll be safe here," her mother said, pulling around the rock she had been sitting on, which Leia could now see was a trunk, or perhaps it hadn't been a trunk until she saw that it was. "But you must hurry. He'll see. He can't miss his own -- "
Leia shook her head, willing the sentence not to be finished.
"You have your father's heart and your mother's love," she said. "Be still and strong."
Leia climbed into the trunk, and the cover closed. She was wrapped in the warm sent of flowers and her truemother. She was still and strong, hidden once again, and safe.
The trunk was set carefully aside, in its place beside the door. It was not opened again. Nor was it incinerated.
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