Han Solo breathed a heavy sigh of relief as he saw the Millennium Falcon occupying its private platform at the Imperial Palace. He had deliberately altered his "intended" flight path just to see for himself what he had already been told by Leia. Not that he doubted her, of course. He just wanted to see his prized ship.
"So, about Thrawn..." Han started.
"I've got to agree with you," Mara said, albeit hesitantly. "It's got to be handled discreetly. A panic would be catastrophic."
"So then," Lando asked, "we all agree to talk to General Bel Iblis about it first."
The other three humans in the shuttle's cockpit nodded their heads in agreement.
"That goes for the Noghri as well, Elkh'nimh," Luke said to the alien standing in the passageway between the cockpit and crew compartment.
"I obey, Son of Vader," he replied reluctantly. "But the Noghri people deserve justice."
"You'll get it. I promise. But you must be patient."
Elkh'nimh nodded, then headed back to inform his fellow Noghri.
By now the Falcon had come into full view.
"Looks like Karrde came through with flying colors," Luke commented. "In fact, I think he even patched up that hole Kyp gave us."
"Wonder how much he's going to charge me for it," Han muttered.
"Don't worry, Solo," Mara said, patting his right shoulder from where she sat behind him. "I'm sure it won't take any more than, oh, five years to finish the payments."
"Gee, thanks," he replied. "And here I thought in-laws were supposed to be supportive."
"You must realize that farmboy here," she said with a mild chuckle and tilting her head in Luke's direction, "isn't exactly the average brother-in-law."
Luke just rolled his eyes.
"Oh," Han said as he turned to give her a sly look, "and I suppose from now on, you're going to be the average sister-in-law?"
Mara's only reply was a huge, mocking grin.
Seemingly carved out of the side of the kilometers high building, the hangar's doors opened like a mouth to swallow up the incoming shuttle. Han Solo switched the shuttle over to full repulsors and started the landing cycle. The Lambda-class shuttle's lower wings folded gracefully upward into their storage positions, which unlocked the craft's landing gear, allowing the stubby legs to extend.
Shadow from the relatively dimly lit hangar spread slowly but surely from bow to stern as the shuttle crept through the doors and out of the warm afternoon sunlight. Once fully inside, the shuttle touched down with a thump and a burst of vapor from the shock absorbers on the landing gear. The hangar's doors had already begun to close before it had touched the cold steel floor.
A few seconds later, another cloud of vapor was released with a hiss as the shuttle's internal pressure was allowed to equalize with the outside, permitting the ramp to extend safely. The ramp lowered to the hangar floor with the sound of whirring servos leading to a loud thud.
Han Solo emerged first, to find himself in the embrace of his wife before he was even halfway down the ramp.
"Hey! Told you there'd be no problem," Han said with a lopsided grin.
"Like always," Leia agreed with a relieved laugh. "We do, however, have some things to discuss."
"Can't it wait?"
"You know better than that," Leia replied with a softly stern glare at her husband.
"Thanks. Destroy a guy's dream, why don't you?"
Luke and Mara came down the ramp next, casually parting to get around Han and Leia. The Solos turned to watch as the couple moved back into their previous side-by-side formation: close but not too close. More like occasional friends than anything else. Leia looked at Han quizzically, getting only a shrug in reply.
They turned to follow Luke and Mara down the ramp to where Bel Iblis stood waiting.
Lando Calrissian looked on as the Noghri solemnly lifted the body of their fallen comrade and headed out of the shuttle. It was disturbingly awkward, as the body of Rukh had been rigidly posed when it was mounted. And the way its head had been not quite perfectly stitched back on...
He shuddered slightly as he backed against a storage compartment door to let the Noghri by. Once past, he started on his own egress, but was startled by the sound of metallic tapping inside the compartment door. Odd, last he checked Artoo was still plugged in to the ship's computer...
Standing to the side of the door with his blaster drawn and ready, he keyed the latch release.
"It's about time you landed. These travel arrangements you made were far from acceptable. Why, this closet was so thoroughly infested with dust, I'll need a week long bath in premium-grade lubricant to even begin to feel clean. Don't even get me started on the smell!"
Lando stared in silence for a moment, then slowly shook his head in disbelief.
"Disappointing, indeed," Bel Iblis replied, his tone sounding far more than just disappointed, bordering on hopeless.
"As far as I'm concerned," Han huffed, "the galaxy's already a better place without her."
"I didn't mean to imply otherwise, but be that as it may," the senator/general continued, "the Sun Crusher terror must be stopped at all costs."
"She didn't know anything," Mara offered. "And I mean that," she mumbled in addition.
"So you didn't get any use out of G-2M0? Well," he said in answer to his own question, "obviously not."
"Oh, yeah, I meant to talk to you about Tumor."
"He hates being called that, Solo."
"Tumor?" Leia asked, a bemused and confused smirk on her face.
"Wait a second, you mean you've called him that before?"
"Um, well," Bel Iblis started, his face flushing slightly. "It doesn't really matter right now. Where is he? We need him back at the analysis center."
"We... that is..." Han stuttered. "We kind of left him aboard the ship that picked us up..."
"Right now, I'd say he's probably floating around the Icu system in a million pieces."
"Mara!" Luke scolded.
"Why, I've never been so insulted in all my life," came an overly proper voice from the direction of the shuttle. Han and Luke froze immediately, their faces covered in disbelief. Mara caught the drift and rolled her eyes. Bel Iblis gave the two an accusatory glare, as if they had arranged this deliberately. Leia just looked confused.
Luke and Han parted and turned, allowing the rest of the group to see G-2M0 strolling up to the party as only a protocol droid can, his bright silver skin with gold trim now tarnished and very slightly dusty. The two opted not to look for themselves.
"Senator Bel Iblis! You can not imagine what a relief it is to see you again, sir!" G-2M0 exclaimed as he shoved his way between Han and Luke. It was debatable whether they had left enough room or Tumor had set his arms akimbo on purpose. The droid extended his hand, which the senator took, albeit with a look of mild annoyance. "These people you assigned me to are but crude ruffians! Why, even the Jedi acted like a common hooligan! Then there were those beastly creatures with their knives, and that foul-mouthed and equally foul-tempered little astromech unit!"
About that time, Lando finally managed to join the group, moving to fill the hole Han and Luke had left for Tumor.
"Lando..." Han asked, his voice tired and frustrated, "how...?"
"He claims he figured out on his own that we were going to the shuttle bay and stowed away."
"It wasn't that difficult," G-2M0 asserted. "In fact, it would take a fool not to realize that you had no intention of performing the duty which Senator Bel Iblis assigned you. The only purpose to this wasteful foray was to rescue this woman." Combining the way he said it with the flippant hand gesture he used to indicate Mara, it was clear he didn't think much of her either.
"Anyway," Lando continued, opting to ignore the droid's commentary, "seems he got to the shuttle and hid there long before we did."
"A simple matter for an advanced droid of my caliber, especially compared with the low intelligence capacity of the riffraff you associate with. To think that my precious time was wasted to rescue this... harlot, why..."
"Watch it, Tumor," Mara growled, heavily emphasizing his "nickname." "Last person who called me that is now her own little nebula."
Even G-2M0 was given pause.
"Well," Bel Iblis said at last, deciding that nothing more would be accomplished in the present circumstances, "I think that's enough for now. We'll have a more complete debriefing later. You probably want to get rested after all this. Come along, Tumo... I mean, G-2M0."
"Yes, Senator Bel Iblis," G-2M0 answered, then turned to follow him out of the hangar. Just before he walked out the door, he turned back and gave Han, Luke, and Lando a condescending look. Good thing droids don't have tongues, they all would agree later. And a very good thing he left when he did, since Artoo was by then down the ramp with his arc welding attachment fully extended and charged.
"He really is a Tumor. Just when you think you're rid of him..."
"Luke!" his sister scolded.
Greenish-brown reptilian hands hefted a pair of macrobinoculars inside a relatively modest hotel room overlooking a medium freighter docking facility about ten kilometers from the governmental center of Imperial City. Pressed firmly to its face, the alien studied the starport in general, and a particular modified Corellian Action-VI class freighter in detail.
For almost ten minutes it stood unmoving: carefully observing the comings and goings of the crew, port personnel, security guards, and droids. Once satisfied, it handed the binoculars to its associate who quickly stepped forward to have a look. With a raspy, hissing voice, it returned the binoculars while giving its opinion on the situation.
After a few moments of discussion, the two came to an agreement, and set to making preparations for the coming night.
Though they should have expected it, seeing Talon Karrde and Fynn Torve sitting on the couch in their suite took Luke and Mara by complete surprise.
"I guess I should have told you about that," Leia apologized with a smile. "I let them in."
"That's okay," Luke answered, though his tone hinted that he wasn't really wanting any company at the moment. "Karrde, Torve, good to see you."
"Same to you," Karrde said as he got up and walked toward the new arrivals. "And especially to you," he added, at first shaking hands with, then hugging Mara.
"Come on, Karrde," Mara said with a smile as she returned a brief squeeze and pat on the back, "not in front of the family."
When Karrde had pulled away with a strange look of confusion on his face, Mara greeted Torve. He settled for just a handshake.
"Now that we're all back together again," Karrde began once everyone was inside and the door closed, "mind telling me why you left Torve and I behind?"
Artoo blurted out something that sounded none too complimentary. Immediately after the droid had vented its steam, Han told the tale of Tumor in a more understandable way, though no more complimentary than Artoo. Luke and Lando offered their own impressions to the tale.
Karrde and Torve expressed their interest in "meeting" this protocol droid, but before they could act out their desire, there was a knock on the suite's door.
"That's probably one or two guys I asked to meet us here," Karrde said pleasantly.
His assumption proved totally false, as it was not a "guy" but Winter who appeared when Leia opened the door.
"Senator Bel Iblis would like to talk to Han now," she told Leia in her typically calm manner.
"Han," Leia beckoned her husband.
The bewildered Han Solo stepped forward. "Uh, sure... but... why is she here? Where's Anakin?"
"I tried to catch your attention as you were leaving Coruscant, but you were obviously in too much of a hurry," Winter replied.
"Wait, you mean that was you?"
"I'll explain as we walk. Come along."
By the time the Inexorable had entered hyperspace for its return to the Icu system and rendezvous with the Chimaera, Pellaeon still knew nothing about what Grand Admiral Thrawn had been doing for most of the previous week.
Though the man was tight lipped, Pellaeon could read from Thrawn's expressions and general demeanor that something had gone extremely well. Unfortunately, there was no way to tell if what this Thrawn saw as "extremely well" was a good thing or a bad thing. Captain Ardes wasn't saying anything, either.
"Is something troubling you, Captain Pellaeon?" he asked, apparently in the mood for small talk now that the swirling mottle of hyperspace was all that could be seen outside the bridge viewports.
"Yes sir," he admitted, then silently cautioned himself about how he was about to proceed. "I was wondering what has developed concerning the Sun Crusher."
"Yes, of course," Thrawn replied. "You needn't worry about it. I've taken care of the problem."
"So, we have the tracking device?"
"Yes. In fact, the Inexorable is now equipped with it. Once we return to Enigma base, I wish to have it duplicated and installed on all my command ships. Lieutenant Karns developed a truly impressive system."
That wasn't so bad. No wonder Thrawn was so pleased. Nevertheless, something still wasn't quite right here...
"Sir," he observed carefully, not sure if he really ought to bring it up, "I noticed on the way back up to the ship that several tractor beams were missing."
"Yes, we'll need to replace them," Thrawn answered easily, not at all perturbed by the question. "There are also a few improvements that will need to be made."
"Of course, Admiral," Pellaeon answered, realizing that Thrawn was not interested in telling him why they needed replacing. "Sir, back to the Sun Crusher... Since we have the tracking device, do we know where it is currently?"
"Oh, most definitely," Thrawn answered. His slight chuckle spoke volumes. "As I said before, there's no longer any need to concern yourself with it."
Could it be? Had he actually... But how?
"Now Captain Pellaeon," Thrawn said, his tone indicating that the conversation was now over and it was back to business, "I want you to contact Enigma and inquire on the status of the spyship conversion work, as well as Scimitar Mk. II production. Also, issue the order for all off-duty spyships to deploy to their assigned Plan 4 defensive positions. The Sun Crusher may be gone, but the Jedi who piloted it is still at large, and I want him caught."
"Understood, sir," Pellaeon assured Thrawn. In truth, he really didn't understand at all. But he would obey the Grand Admiral. At least for the time being.
As Pellaeon turned toward a communications station, a memory of his time on Boelis came to mind. His security clearance where the Enigma forces were concerned was more than adequate; in fact it was far more than any mere Captain ought to have. Still, now might be a good time...
Pellaeon looked around the Inexorable's bridge carefully, noting that Captain Ardes and his first officer were engaged in conversation on the other side of the crew pits from where he and Thrawn stood. The stormtroopers guarding the door were likewise relatively distant. Taking a deep breath, he turned back toward Thrawn.
"Is there some sort of problem, Captain?"
"No problem, sir," Pellaeon explained, his voice hushed, "as of yet. Admiral..." he hesitated, not really wanting to go on, but realizing that this had to be done. "Admiral, I'm somewhat concerned with whether I am authorized to issue such orders. I may have seniority over many of the other Captains, but..."
"Captain," Thrawn interrupted with a raised hand, his voice taking on the same hushed volume as Pellaeon's. He motioned for Pellaeon to follow him off the bridge and into a conference room just behind it. Pellaeon followed, fearful of what was to follow.
Once inside with the door shut, Thrawn continued, his voice now full volume. "There's no need to be so nervous. I understand what you are asking, and you have every right to. You have served the Empire, and especially me, with great diligence and distinction. Your loyalty is beyond measure, and your discipline and competence considerable. Some officers seek rank only for the glory and status it affords. Some have to be pushed upward to force them to take on greater responsibility than they desire to take. Others accept greater burdens than those they are required to carry at their present level, sometimes as a matter of ambition, but often as a matter of dedication and principle. You could have asked me at any time, you know. Now that you finally have, I would be pleased to promote you to the rank of Rear Admiral. You have more than earned it."
Pellaeon was stunned for a few moments. That had gone far easier than expected.
"A... Admiral Thrawn," he stumbled over his words. "Th... thank you, sir..."
"Not enough?" Thrawn asked, apparently taking Pellaeon's hesitation the wrong way. "I suppose I could promote you to Vice Admiral instead... would that be acceptable?"
Pellaeon could tell that Thrawn was not being sarcastic - he really meant it. But with what was sure to happen soon; with what was already happening; it might not be wise to advance like that.
"No, sir," Pellaeon answered, but quickly clarified. "I mean, Rear Admiral is fine, sir. I do not believe I am ready for Vice Admiral."
"You have already taken on the burdens of at least a Vice Admiral, Captain Pellaeon. In my assessment, you are more than ready. However, I will honor your request. Congratulations, Rear Admiral Pellaeon."
A half hour after Han had left with Winter, the "guys" Karrde was expecting finally arrived. For Mara at least, it was well worth the wait.
"Aves!" she exclaimed as she practically leapt off the couch arm she had been sitting on. She grabbed his hand in a hearty two hand grip. "You made it! I've been worried for weeks!"
"As if I haven't been worried sick over what became of you?" Aves retorted, but his smile was warm as a Tatooine afternoon. "You saved us, after all."
"Nothing you wouldn't do, right?"
"True," Aves agreed with a laugh, "but not nearly as well."
"Aves is being too modest," Karrde said as he stood to shake hands with his former - perhaps even current - employee. "He and Ghent sought me out and gave me all the info they could. They offered whatever help I needed to rescue you, as soon as you were found."
"Speaking of Ghent," Aves said, then stepped aside so that the young slicer could enter the suite.
"Uh, hi," Ghent said awkwardly. His clothing and hair was it's typical state of unkempt, and he looked as aloof as usual, but there was a definite sense of joy about him.
"Ghent, it's been too long," Mara said, shaking his hand as she had Aves'.
"I'm really glad you're okay, Mara," he said uneasily. "I tried to find you. I really did. But I failed. I'm sorry..."
"There's nothing to be sorry about," she assured him. "And you helped so much..."
"I'll say," Luke offered. "Those programs of yours worked wonders. Couldn't have done it without them."
"But I couldn't go there... I couldn't come after you. After what you did for me at Sacrota, and then you ended up in an Imperial cell in my place... I just owe you so much."
Mara put her hands on his shoulders and looked Ghent right in the eyes. "Ghent, you've done more for me than you know. In fact, if anything is owed, I'm the one who owes you."
"But..." Ghent started.
Mara didn't let him finish. She leaned forward and kissed his cheek. "Thank you," she whispered in his ear.
Ghent, his face bright red, just stood there a minute with a stupid-looking grin. Finally, he worked up enough control to stutter out, "Y... You're welcome..."
"Good goin', kid," Torve congratulated as he clapped Ghent on the back. "Not many can claim to have been kissed by Mara Jade. And I don't know of anyone else that can make that claim honestly."
Lando jumped a little at that comment, but no one noticed. Nor did anyone really notice Leia's subtle smile.
"Now that we're all here together," Karrde said, "we have some business to attend to. Considering the current state of the galaxy, I've decided it's time for me to come out of retirement and re-form my organization."
"That'll be easy," Aves snorted. "It's not like any of us really left."
"Yes, but we'll all be back together above the table. As above the table as the smuggling business gets, that is," he explained to Leia. "Aves and Torve, I need you to wait here for a couple days until the Etherway arrives. Ghent and Mara, I'd like you to come with me on the Wild Karrde when we leave tomorrow."
Luke was about to protest, but held his tongue. Mara, however, did not.
"I'm afraid I can't go, Karrde."
"I said, I can't go," she repeated, then took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "I'm staying here."
"Staying here?" Aves asked in disbelief. "But why? The Smugglers' Alliance doesn't have much to do with Coruscant itself."
"There are some political deal-cutting duties here," Mara reminded him. "However, it's not just that. I... I want to take some time off from my traveling obligations."
"To stay on Coruscant?" Karrde asked.
"Not necessarily the whole time. I just don't want to be visiting four different planets a week."
"For how long?"
"I think..." she started, then paused to do some sort of calculation in her head. "About a year. After that, I'm not sure."
"A year?" Torve repeated. "You can't just take a year off!"
"Sorry, but something's come up, and it's going to be consuming a lot of my time in the not-too-distant future."
No one noticed, but at this point Leia's eyes were wide and her mouth slightly open. Han hadn't had the time to mention this to her.
Karrde sighed in surrender. "I suppose there's nothing I can say to dissuade you. You deserve the time off. I don't dispute that. Especially considering what you've been through lately. I suppose... Mara, if you want it," he said with a bit of reluctance, "you can use one of the apartments I maintain here on Coruscant. It's yours for the year, no rent."
"Karrde," Mara said, taken aback. "I don't know what to say."
"Just say you'll take it," he prompted. "You're one of my very best."
"Thank you. I really mean it. But I can't accept."
"Then where will you stay, Mara?" Ghent asked.
"Well," she said, a lopsided grin creeping into her expression, "I plan on staying here."
"Here, in the palace?" Karrde asked.
"No... I mean here... in this suite," she answered as she walked over to stand behind where Luke sat. "With my husband."
The night sky over Imperial city - indeed, over all of Coruscant - was starless. The planet's moons were visible, as were hundreds, if not thousands, of moving lights denoting starships, satellites, aircars, or space stations; but not a star could be seen in the wash of light from the planet-spanning city.
For the average sentient however, it was still plenty dark enough for sneaking around.
"What's wrong, hee?" Chin asked in response to Sturm's sudden cough. Drang immediately sat, waiting for his handler to start moving again. "Air here not fresh enough for you fellows?"
Sturm let out a short growl as if to reply. Drang started scratching his face with a hind leg.
Chin let out a sigh. "You fellows are out of shape. Too long on the ship. We have the rest of the night to go! Come on."
He jerked on the leashes, bringing the vornskrs up again and ready to walk. Having been cooped up on the Wild Karrde for the better part of a week, he had decided that now would be a good time to take Talon Karrde's pets on a stroll around the ship's landing platform. Theoretically they could act as guard beasts, but in his experience with the two, Chin knew the only thing they really got excited about was Jedi. At least, ever since they met one. Wild vornskrs would be better for guarding in the traditional sense, but far too hard to control.
Walking the animals gave him a chance to look around the perimeter himself. Being as he was charged with security of the Wild Karrde, it was a "finishing touch" to his efforts that he took quite seriously.
He rounded the southeast corner of the platform for the fifth time, now facing the walkway to a nearby warehouse that the Wild Karrde would have filled had it been carrying a cargo on this visit. Nevertheless, there were still some crates sitting there; left over from a previous freighter's visit, or perhaps awaiting the next. This time, however, something caught his eye.
A large humanoid silhouette moved from behind one box to another; tall, with a short snout and rather long arms, but heavily built. Chin continued walking the Vornskrs as if he had seen nothing, hoping to not spook whoever it was watching him and lure the stranger into making another motion.
It worked. A few seconds later, it moved to another crate. Chin brought his comlink up nonchalantly to report the interloper. He received a soft burst of static.
"What's this, hee?" he exclaimed. The vornskrs were already getting agitated.
The whoomping sound of a concussion grenade launcher firing from somewhere behind him sent him diving for the deck, attempting to tackle and cover the vornskrs in the process, just before the grenade itself went off.
"So..." Torve started uncertainly, being the first of the smugglers to find his voice after Mara's revelation, "when did this happen?"
"About a year ago," Mara answered, blushing slightly. "After the Emperor died again, we kind of decided that, well, we hang together or we hang separately. Oh, and Karrde: I may have grumbled about it back then, but thank you for keeping me clear of the deep core at the time. I probably would have ended up with Luke anyway, but on Palpatine's side."
"Sure, no problem," Karrde said, more from reflex than anything else. He was still stunned.
"Since we had both been under the Emperor's control for a while," Luke pitched in, "it seemed reasonable that we could reinforce each other somehow."
"So then, this was some sort of rational, logical decision?" Aves asked sarcastically.
"Believe it or not, that's how he asked me. Then he went and claimed it was an accident, and that he meant to ask me to help him found his academy."
"That really was what I planned on asking her," Luke defended, "but the wrong proposal slipped out instead. I don't know what came over me."
"Or so he says," Mara commented.
"It's true!" Luke insisted.
"Now Luke," Lando interrupted, "give me some bearings here - when and where did this take place?"
"At the rededication of the South Wing of the Palace, a couple months after we returned to Coruscant," Luke explained.
"I was kind of suspicious when he asked me to meet him in the victory gardens on the roof."
"The Victory Gardens?" Lando repeated. "Luke, you surprise me. Never thought you to be such a romantic!"
"No, I didn't mean anything of the sort! I just needed to talk to her alone, away from the party!"
"About a proposal," Torve filled in, chuckling softly.
"Yes, but not that kind of proposal," Luke insisted. "For some reason, after I lined out all the reasons I wanted Mara to help me found the academy, I asked 'will you marry me' instead of 'will you help me.' It's like the words just popped into my mouth."
"Didn't look that way to me," Mara said, giving Luke a mildly accusatory glare. "He goes on about how well we work together, how much alike we are, how we can be stronger together than apart, and all the while he's more nervous than a droid at a Gamorrean family reunion. Plus the garden. What was I supposed to think?"
"I tried to apologize, but she wouldn't let me."
"He sets me up like that, asks me to marry him, then claims it was all a big mistake and it'll never happen again. You don't think I'd let him get away with that, do you?"
"Well, no, but..." Karrde replied.
"Come to think of it," Lando reminisced, "I was at that party. Yeah, Luke and Mara did disappear for a while. I think Leia stepped out for some fresh air not long after they left. Did you see them at the Garden, Leia?"
"Huh?" Leia said, strangely unsettled. "No, I didn't see them at the garden."
"This makes no sense, though," Aves commented. "Mara, since when have you been so reckless?"
"For that matter," Torve added, "when did Skywalker get that reckless? I've heard lots of gals say they wanted to marry a Jedi, but most guys I know are too scared of Mara to even suggest it."
"Gee, thanks Torve," Mara muttered. "That makes me feel really good."
"The odd thing is," Luke resumed, "I really did want to ask her to marry me. I just thought it would be better if I waited until we had been teaching together for a while before I brought it up. I thought for sure she'd be angry and never see me again when I blurted it out that night."
"I guess that explains Skywalker," Aves concluded, "but what about you, Mara?"
"Me?" Mara asked in a mock-hurt tone. "You didn't believe that I was just turning his joke against him?"
Aves gave her a firm "No, I don't believe you" stare. For that matter, so did Torve.
"Oh, all right," she said at last. "You guys are no fun. Yes, as a matter of fact, I did fall for the farmboy. Hid it pretty well, didn't I?" She laughed a little, then shook her head. "Funny thing is, I even had myself fooled. But when he asked me that question then shied away from it and said it would never happen again, I guess I believed it. My gut instinct was to not let that happen. Then when I agreed, I felt really good - like I had made the right decision."
"So then," Lando summed up, "you decided to get married on the spur of a moment. But why didn't you tell anyone?"
"We did," Mara replied. "Can't have a wedding without witnesses, right?"
"Well, that's a given," Torve grumbled, "but why didn't you tell us?"
"Because they were afraid of what it might do to their reputations," Leia broke in to the conversation. The way she said it indicated she wasn't exactly pleased with it, either.
"That's ridiculous!" Aves exclaimed.
"Actually," Torve said thoughtfully, "it's not so ridiculous. Given what Mara and Skywalker do, it really would have compromised their ability to perform their duties."
"Which is why we're changing our duties now," Mara informed him. "Karrde," she asked of the smuggler chief, still sitting on the couch and hanging his head in stunned silence, "are you okay?"
"What?" he started. "Oh, no I'm fine. I just... How did you keep this a secret for so long? And from me? Right there, in front of my eyes, and I never even suspected..."
"It wasn't easy," Luke admitted. "Especially on Yavin..."
"Luke, shh," his wife scolded.
"Ghent," Karrde said to the young man standing silently in a corner, "you've been awfully quiet. Don't tell me you already knew about this?"
"M-me?" Ghent replied. "No, I didn't know... But it wasn't much of a surprise really. I always thought there was something between them, ever since Myrkr."
Everyone just stared at Ghent for a while.
"So," Karrde finally broke the silence, "what brings about your decision to let the secret out now? Just the rescue, or..." he paused, then got an odd look in his eyes "...is there something else you haven't told us?"
"Somehow," Leia commented with an odd smile, "I think there is."
"Oh, yeah..." Lando confirmed.
"Would someone please tell me what's going on here?" Luke begged.
"Emperors Black Bones!" Torve swore abruptly. "Don't tell me it's twins!"
Even Mara stumbled a little at that. Luke nearly passed out.
"No, Torve. Only one," she corrected. "And believe me, one is enough for now."
They were inside before any of the perimeter guards knew what hit them. And the snoops further out had been silenced by the comlink jamming screen still being projected from four hidden transmitters. It was certain to alert local law enforcement, but the infiltrators planned to be gone long before they arrived.
Using a rusty piece of pipe scavenged from among the discarded crates near the warehouse, the Wild Karrde's entry ramp was wedged open. The ship's security seal thus defeated, two pairs of Trandoshan feet were soon stomping around inside the freighter.
Raylic gripped the bars of his cell in the Wild Karrde's brig, pressing his face against the small square window in the door in a mostly vain attempt to see what was making all the ruckus. Some sort of attack was underway, but from here there was little he could do. Escape opportunity was available. Unfortunately, he lacked an escape route. Days of careful study of every square millimeter of the cell had quenched his hope of getting loose by himself.
None of Karrde's people were in the corridor at the moment, the door guard having left about 5 minutes previously to assist in repelling boarders or something. With a painful squeeze against the bars, he caught a glimpse of the doorway, and saw it was sealed tight.
He drew back from the door and started pacing. If an opportunity arose, he'd be ready for it, but there was no point in making himself uncomfortable for no reason. He stopped pacing instantly when he heard the hiss of the hallway door opening and heavy footsteps enter through it.
Raylic practically flew back to the cell door to see who had entered. Arranged as they were, he couldn't see anything until a horrifying face moved right in front of his, not 10 centimeters away.
He stumbled back as the reptilian visage pulled away, to be replaced with another that was even more fierce. The second one then stepped back, and appeared to be shifting around for some reason...
The cell, if not the whole ship, shook with the impact that left a foot-sized dent in the door and a crack of light along the bottom and the side with the locking mechanism. Two sets of three clawed fingers appeared in the area beneath the door and hefted it upward, bending it as much as they retracted it up into the wall and ceiling above.
"Who are you?" Raylic asked. There were any number of people it could have been, and most of them meant bad news for the smuggler.
Just in front of the door stood a large Trandoshan in a yellow flight suit with white straps. A smoking grenade launcher slung over one arm and a concussion rifle strapped across his back. He leaned under the now worthless door and took a good look at Raylic, then growl-hissed something in his own language and stepped back into the hall and to the side.
Another Trandoshan promptly stepped into the doorway. A familiar one...
"Raylic," it hissed, "You are unharmed?"
"Kressk!" Raylic gasped. He rushed forward to grasp his fellow smuggler's outstretched hand. "How did you find me?"
"You're not the only of usss with connectionssss," Kressk explained. "I tried to contact you in Nerraw, but failed."
The other Trandoshan chose that moment to poke his head back into the cell and growl something.
"We mussst be going," Kressk informed Raylic. "We have transssport waiting outssside."
"Is that who I think it is?" Raylic asked as he ducked out the door after Kressk.
"Yesss," he replied.
"So you really do know him!" the impressed Raylic exclaimed.
"You humansss would call him my cousssin. Here," Kressk handed him a blaster. Currently, it was set on stun.
"Kressk, when we get out of here," Raylic noted, "we've got a leak to plug."
"I feared asss much. Do you know who it isss?"
"Yeah, I know who it is," Raylic replied, switching over his blaster to kill with a loud click. "And there's a few folks I'd like to introduce him to."
"So, care to tell me why you asked me out here?"
"Calrissian, now's as good a time as any."
"For what?" Lando asked, his footsteps echoing in the nearly vacant Imperial Palace hallway.
"That business deal I mentioned back in Nerraw. You didn't forget, did you?"
With all that had been happening, he hadn't thought about it at all. In fact, he couldn't imagine how Karrde could have been thinking about it, either. But now that Karrde mentioned it...
"No, no, I didn't forget it. Just been a little preoccupied."
"Understandable," Karrde agreed. "You really didn't know about that, did you?"
"Would I have been making a fool of myself trying to impress her if I did?"
"Trying to... Calrissian, what are you talking about?"
"Oh, uh, nothing."
Karrde's stare made it clear that he did not believe the word "nothing" was at all accurate.
Lando coughed slightly. "Anyway, about this deal?"
"Oh yes, the deal. I have heard that you recently did rather well at the blob races."
"Should I even ask how you came to know that?"
"Come now, Calrissian, it was all over the entire sector's holonet."
"Great," Lando muttered. "Just the kind of fame I wanted."
"I also understand," Karrde continued, "that you are in the market for a new starship."
Lando stopped in mid stride. "And I suppose you have one to sell me."
"You suppose correctly."
"Now Karrde, don't try to con me here. I wrote the book on used starship dealing."
"There are at least a million books on that subject," Karrde noted sardonically. "And not many of them have a chapter on how to lose the best ship on your lot in a sabacc game."
"Sure, drag that up, why don't you," the exasperated Lando said. "Fine, what is it you're offering."
"I've come into possession of a Space Yacht, one which might fit in with a lifestyle such as your own."
"A Space Yacht. All right, just what kind of Space Yacht are we talking about here? I won't settle for less than the best, you know."
"Oh, I know it," Karrde agreed. "It happens to be a SoroSuub Luxury 3000 model, less than five years old, with the executive plus package."
There weren't too many of those made, and Lando's own dearly departed Lady Luck had been one of them.
"All right, I'm interested."
"Thought you would be."
"Tell me, though," Lando asked, "where did it come from? And what condition is it in? I'm not interested in poorly maintained merchandise."
"It's in good enough condition. I had to hose a Rybet out of it and use more disinfectant than I care to remember to get rid of the stench, but other than that, there's nothing wrong with it. A miracle considering where I found it."
A Rybet? "Where did you find it?"
"Ah, that would be revealing a trade secret," Karrde warned. "Let's just say it was a good ways off from its last reported position, and even farther from rightful owner."
"Dealing in stolen ships, Karrde?" Lando asked.
"No, not exactly dealing. More like recovering," Karrde corrected. "For a small finders fee, plus maintenance and storage, I think I can present you with something you're bound to appreciate."
"How much?" Lando asked gruffly.
"I'm tempted to ask how much you've got, but considering what you've just gone through for Mara, I'll be generous. How about..."
He was interrupted by the squawk of his comlink.
"Chief, we've had a break-in," came the voice of Chin. He sounded injured. "And a break-out."