Coruscant, Medical Research Center
Cilghal raised her head, gave what passed for a sideways look to Leia, and turned back to the diagnostic table. Kam Salusar and Kyp Durron stood off to one side, silent. A color palette of bright lines ran soft, then bright, on the console. Leia stared hard at it, as if by the strength of her gaze alone, she could conjure up some image of what was happening, what had to be happening inside the two humans, laying prone and unconscious in two separate rooms, on two brightly lit beds. A torrent of diagnostic sound filtered through a force field, its energy flickering only when someone inadvertently got too close to it. The sounds rose and fell, like some mechanical beast breathing in an ominous, technological cave.
Cilghal broke the silence as she came forward, to just where the energy field began. Again she glanced at the human woman in front of her, waiting and weary. The dark eyes were haunted, though the hair was now neatly braided. The Chief of State was dressed for a party, but her restrained garment was forgotten as she simply stood, motionlessness surrounding her, surrounding them, three Jedi, all like statues of the dead standing only to empty homage.
Cilghal, Jedi herself, motioned at a sensor embedded in the wall. It purred and she moved through from the protected space into the waiting area. A short rustle greeted her motion, as all qx three moved closer together, gathering. The Mon Calarmari gestured quietly, a meaningful gesture for humans, but for her only a learned response. She nodded in Leia's direction.
"Tionne is still comatose," Cilghal said quietly.
"Is she hurt?" This was Kyp, frowning.
Cilghal turned to him. "She has sustained no injuries," she replied quickly. "Do you wish to attempt awakening?"
The three looked at each other, a long moment, then Leia stepped forward. "Yes," she said. "But first, what about Luke?"
Cilghal made no motion, but something about her manner became wary. "Master Skywalker is not responsive at this time," she said, an uncertainty straining through her soft, watered voice.
Leia's gaze wandered back over to the diagnostic panel. "But the panel indicates he's....."
Cilghal responded immediately, her words flowing into the sterile air of the room. "He is alive but he, too, is in a comatose state." She faced Kam again. "It was you?"
Again Kam nodded, gesturing quietly. Cilghal regarded him with some sort of unreadable, Calamarian stare. "Perhaps I should examine you also, Jedi Salusar."
Kam closed his eyes, suddenly wanting only rest; deep, cleansing rest. The world seemed dark, as if someone had turned out the lights in the room, or like deep winter in the polar regions........ "I'm fine, I just need sleep," he said, opening his eyes. "What do you want to know?"
Cilghal looked unbelieving but went along with it. "Was Master Skywalker conscious when you entered the trance with him?"
Kam sighed seeming, momentarily, to back away from the question. "If he had been, I don't think I would've been able to keep him under." His eyes were strained for a moment, but, glancing at the others, he continued, "I didn't sense his consciousness, Cilghal."
At this, Leia's face lost its heavy mask and her eyes held a quick, fleeting, overwhelming fear. She closed her eyes, hanging on to that control, that Jedi serenity that so marked her brother, that made her so invulnerable. The other three, abashed by such a strong show of emotion, stepped back, as if pushed physically away from the small woman in the evening gown. A moment passed, a walk on a tightrope all in the blink of an eye, and she opened her eyes again. They were dark, beautiful and calm.
Kyp glanced with unsullied admiration at her, but she did not appear to notice. "I'll see Tionne first," she said.
Cilghal closed her eyes, bringing her formidable, mental powers to bear. A mild stimulant had been applied to Tionne's flaccid arm and the festive colors on a small, diagnostic panel pulsated in something akin to a reading of actual consciousness. Cilghal stepped back. and glanced at Leia. "Are you ready?"
Leia gathered herself and put a deft hand into Tionne's. Quietly, as if falling into a light sleep, she let herself go, feeling a strong wave of disorientation as she touched Tionne's mind. She resisted the urge to let go as a wave of pure fright bombarded her. Slowly, slowly she pushed it away, willing it gone, vanished. It faded, a thunderstorm falling into ragged clouds on a spring day. Tionne's head moved.
Cilghal put a delicate hand on Leia's arm and held still, supporting the minds as they flowed back toward consciousness and control. Leia's strong presence, a bright light in the Force, filtered through Tionne's weak and bruised mind, calling her out of reluctant darkness. But Tionne was resistant to returning to the world of words and light. It was as if the mind fled, searching for places to hide as children do when they play a seeking game at twilight. The consciousness flitted, a quicksilver thing, from one barrier to the next, vanishing and reappearing all in one easy motion. Cilghal tightened her grip and Leia frowned reflexively.
A burst of noise from the pulsating panel signaled a resurgence, an awakening. Pain began to filter through Tionne's mind. Leia felt the emotions flowing, riverwater in murky flood. She felt Tionne's hope, her fleeting happiness, a deepening, unwilling suspicion giving way to wariness, then finally trembling, paralyzing fear. Leia saw the red blade fly up through a gray darkness, saw her brother's face, its purity ripped and sullied. A red light shone in torrid background, rainwater dribbled from somewhere and a keening, rising cry angled up through night. Or was it dawn? The cry was swallowed whole by a ripping darkness as Luke faded, dissolving into the very air.
Tionne sat up and shouted something. At the same moment, Leia shuddered and stepped backward, almost falling into Cilghal who supported her for a rising second. The link was broken. Tionne sat, staring, tears washing over her fragile face. Leia, regaining her balance, merely stood, gazing back at the erstwhile Jedi, an expression of shock fading to understanding. Cilghal bowed her head.
Outside, in the waiting room, Kyp moved toward the energy field, to be forcibly held by Kam in a moment of complete helplessness. "No!" Kam said, the unspoken word flying like hot coals through the energized air. Kyp only struggled, but seconds later, he held still, sensing, regular, pulsating consciousness; like thumping heartbeat on a clear night. Pain knifed through and he realized Tionne was conscious.
"Let go," Kyp whispered, glancing down at the hand on his forearm.
"She's alright," Kam replied, his hand falling away.
Kam merely nodded, but Kyp instantly knew the other Jedi's uncertainty. He did not bother to reply. He felt the same way.
Cilghal retreated from the table as Leia moved back toward it. Tionne remained straight-backed, but her eyes had begun to blink and the expression on her face registered surprise. Tears streaked down her cheeks and she put a trembling hand up to push at a stray hair. It stopped as she felt the surgical headcovering. She fingered it, experimentally, and gazed around her, squinting. Cilghal said something soft and the lights dimmed to a more comfortable setting.
Tionne glanced around, eyes wary and frightened. She jerked, startled as she recognized Leia. Involuntarily, she moved away and handed for what Leia could only assume was a lightsaber. But her small hand clutched at thin air. She blinked and opened her mouth to speak.
"Luke?" she said, her voice was weak but quite normal. Her lips began to tremble.
"No, not Luke, Tionne," Leia said tenderly, as if talking a to frightened child.
The voice became more agitated. "Luke! Where's Luke! He was right here, talking to me, but then..... then........"
Leia was there, she saw what Tionne saw. "No, no, Tionne it's not real! Luke's....."
But Tionne rushed on, babbling. "There was a sword and a light and, maybe, sunrise......." She turned a face, blanched of all color, to Leia's. "Did you see it too?"
Leia did not hesitate. "Yes, I did, Tionne," she said, a mother to a child. "But it's gone now, you can sleep."
Tionne's face grew unbelieving. "Sleep?" she asked, as if she had never heard the word before.
"Sleep," Leia repeated if it were a mantra. A quiet feeling descended as the agitated woman turned inward on herself, her eyes closing slowly, unwillingly. Leia helped her lay back on the diagnostic bed. Tionne's body fell limp, washed out and rag weak. A breathless moment passed and then her breath became regular and quiet. Leia glanced at Cilghal.
The Jedi merely nodded, watching. Leia smiled. In the outer room, Kam turned to Kyp, smiling in relief, but his friend, too, was asleep.
Cilghal allowed Leia to return to her living quarters very early in the morning. The children were long asleep and she knew that Han should be. One of them had to be coherent the next day and she knew it wasn't going to be her. She smiled quickly at a guard, keyed a lock and sighed deeply as the door slid shut with a satisfying *click.* Quite suddenly, she put a trembling hand up to catch the wall and another reached out to take it, startling her.
"What....?" she said, her voice rising.
Another came after it, pulling her. She smiled sadly. It looked like Han wasn't going to be coherent either. He pulled her to him and they turned for the kitchen. She allowed herself to be pulled along, her head on his shoulder, her face a study in exhaustion. He deposited her gently at a small table and produced a warm, mellow beverage. Quietly, he slid a chair over next to hers, allowing her to lean against him as she sipped at the lemon scented mellowness. For a time, all was silent.
"We almost couldn't reach her," she said finally, placing the cup carefully on the table.
He stroked the hair away from her sweat-soaked face. "Were you able to get anything out of her?"
She lifted her head to the caressing movement and furrowed her brow. "Most of it, some things still aren't clear," She sighed and put a hand to the back of her neck. "I don't doubt that she remembers everything, I just don't trust our technique. It's as if....." she searched for the word, puzzling at the cup in her hand. "It's like there's something there, matching our every move, something we can't shake....."
He looked puzzled. "What do you mean?"
She did not look at him. "Just that. Something's at work, and, I'm beginning to believe that something actually attacked her......"
"Was she able to confirm what Kam said?" he asked, not too sure if he really wanted to know.
There was a melancholy sigh. "From what we've been able to gather, unfortunately, she did. As far as she's concerned, it was definitely Luke."
A silence haunted them for a time as they both considered the situation. "Han?" she said at last, lifting her face to his. "Do you really think Luke could do this?"
Han's face settled and the closed, smuggler's expression she remembered from their early time together made him seem younger. "I don't know, Leia," he replied, his voice only feeling its way. "All I know is that Luke can't tell us, and the only person who can, you don't trust."
She looked straight ahead, not reassured. He watched her face for a moment and then, pulling her gently to a standing position, led her off to bed and the black, lightless sleep that comes with exhaustion.
The next day, late, Leia waited in her personal conference room. The beveled window, now showing the weak light of afternoon, glimmered stately to one side. Cilghal was there, along with Kam Salusar. Han Solo remained off to one side, Chewbacca taking up a large space at the back. Mara Jade entered the room, in her usual uniform of comfortable flight suit. She nodded at the Chief of State, graced everyone else in the room with a sharp gaze and sat down.
Leia turned back toward the table and the door clicked into a locked position. The anteroom disappeared behind it as she gave it a sharp glance. Turning, she drew a breath and began. "I want to thank you all for coming on such short notice," she said pleasantly, noting Mara particularly. She sighed. "And, as you all know, we have a problem on Yavin. I have summoned the Jedi here to give me a preliminary explanation. Perhaps, with a little brainstorming" she smiled quickly, "we can avert more trouble. However, I believe a legal investigation will begin shortly...."
"Have any charges been filed?" This came from Mara, who had leaned back in her uncomfortable chair, her green eyes hooded.
Leia sighed. "No, not officially. But an investigation is due to begin today. That's when the committee representative will reach Yavin IV." She gave Kam a look.
"They've already arrived," he put in. His voice was tired, but his eyes were clear.
"Good," Leia said. "Then, let's get on with it." She paused, collecting herself. "As you all know by now, I had a disturbing vision several days ago, regarding my brother and the woman, Tionne. My husband," she smiled wryly here, apologizing with her voice, "was up with me most of the night because of it, and if any lapses occurred because of that, I want to take this opportunity to apologize."
A general nodding greeted this statement.
She smiled mirthlessly to herself and moved on. "At any rate, what I saw was a vision of my brother attacking Tionne, his administrator." The words fell, brutal and short, through the muted air, seeming to rest on the polished table for a moment before dissolving back into nothingness. A general uncomfortable feeling sized the room and everyone looked away.
"Are you sure it wasn't a dream?" This was Mara, ever practical.
"Positive," Leia said, fixing her with an expectant gaze. "Particularly since Jedi Salusar sent a transmission that confirmed this. And with that, I will turn the story over to him." She nodded at Kam and sat back, her lips pursed into an even line.
Kam shifted in his chair and momentarily wished himself anywhere but where he was. "During the quiet hour," he began, his gaze flicking at his small audience, "there was a disturbance in the Force about dawn. Jedi Streen and I went to investigate and found we could not sense Master Skywalker at all." He pulled at a breath. "I sent Streen up to the Master's room, while I followed the disturbance to Tionne's chamber. I sensed the Master along with Tionne there and I would have left them in peace....." here he gave the room a hard look, "if not for an overwhelming sense of evil." He paused, put his large hands together for a moment and then continued. "It was then that I heard screaming, but I'm certain it wasn't Tionne....... I broke in, but she was the only one there."
"Who talked to her first?" Mara again.
"I did," Kam said sadly. "She seemed calm. She told me what happened, that Master Skywalker had come to her during the night, that she had....." another sharp look, ".....resisted him, that he grew angry with her and attempted to kill her before vanishing....."
"You mean that Skywalker disappeared into thin air," the practical voice from the other side of the room put in. A wistful look was accompanied by a shaking head. "It's part of the program, I guess....." Mara Jade lifted her head and smiled, but it was a hard look nonetheless. "What did Streen see?"
Kam straightened. "When Streen arrived, Master Skywalker was sitting up." Kam closed his eyes in something like pain. "The Master shouted something and then fell into unconsciousness. He could not wake him."
She nodded. "And how long was Tionne conscious?"
Kam looked directly at her. "She remained lucid for several minutes, while we attempted to find out what happened. Then she, too, fell into a coma. She's only come out of it last night." He gave Leia a meaningful look. "I sent the transmission right after I spoke to her the first time...."
"Which was evidently intercepted by a news organization," Leia sighed. "I heard it on the 'net right after I received your message, Kam." She shook her head weary but resigned.
"Did anyone actually see Skywalker in Tionne's rooms?" Mara asked, point blank.
Kam sighed. "I didn't."
"She has confirmed it, since, however. At least, she believes Luke was in her room," Leia put in formally.
Jade's brows lifted. "Delusionary?"
Kam shrugged. "She's not reputed to have a lot of Force sense, but I don't believe she's insane," he said, his careful judgment..
This produced a moment of thought. "Well, perhaps she *is* delusionary," Mara said, to a general silence.
Leia gazed around at the table. Cilghal was expressionless as only the Calamari can be, Han looked slightly worried but aloof, Kam was studying his hands, and Mara Jade gazed straight back at her.
"I don't think so," Kam put in after a time, laying his hands down on the table. Han's face softened. "Up to now, as far as we all know, she's been quite sane. There's no reason for her to make up something like this." A long silence, punctuated with rippling thoughts, followed as Kam continued to think. Leia, sensing he was not finished, put up a small hand, holding the room to silence.
Finally, after seeming to choke on the words, the young Jedi began to speak again. "Especially, since she's been in love with Master Skywalker for quite a while now." Kam said finally, looking sorrowful. Leia caught a flash of something, but was unable to follow it. "She thought...." he hesitated, as if deciding whether or not he should break a confidence. Then he continued, his voice very soft. "She thought that, since ...... Callista was not returning, that Master Skywalker needed companionship......"
"How did she know Callista was not returning?" This came from Leia, whose eyes narrowed as she gazed at Kam's downcast face.
He sighed in a tiresome way, his eyes narrowing. "Because, Callista sent a message..."
Everyone in the conference room sat back in amazement, including Leia. The only person who remained as before was Han, his face frozen in realization.
Kam looked surprised. "The Academy got the message over six months ago. I thought everyone knew....."
Leia glanced around the room, seeking something........ "I wasn't aware of this. Was anyone else?"
A slow shaking of heads answered this question. Han's face was a study in astonishment, mixed with sorrow and, perhaps, disgust. Chewbacca put in a comment which seemed self-explanatory. Kam glanced around, off balance.
"I was there when the message came in. It wasn't even encrypted," he said.
"Who took it?" Leia asked, although she already knew.
"Tionne did, of course. She took care of all that on Yavin."
Leia turned to Cilghal. "Do you think Luke knows?"
Cilghal shook her head. "There is no way to know, Leia," she replied, her soft voice calm. "I have not been able to communicate with him since he was brought in. And Jedi Salasar has been unable to break his trance."
Leia's brow furrowed. "What does that mean?"
"It means that Master Skywalker will have to come out of it on his own," Kam said, his face puckering in something like guilt.
Leia glanced around in something like distress and resisted the temptation to lay her head on the table. A moment of silence stretched, thin and washed, like old laundry drying in hazy sunlight. Kam's hands were splayed on the table, but the others were leaning forward, as if to catch a half heard sound, some noise, some small pattern of conversation just on the edge of hearing. After allowing a composing silence to pass, Leia stood. "Well, that's all then. I think we need to find that message. Kam?"
"I'll tell Kyp," he replied simply.
Leia, now alone with Han, sighed and spoke. "Well, this puts an edge on it," she said after a time.
Han nodded. "How do you think Tionne hid it from him?"
"I'm not too sure, but evidently, she's a lot stronger than she's let on.
Han's face wrinkled in an effort to think. "But, it still doesn't make a lot of sense," he said, thinking out loud. "Did she really think that when Callista left she could just step in? Even Tionne had to know better than that. And, why would she sit on the information so long? If she was really so infatuated with Luke, I would think she'd have rushed the message to him..." He hesitated, as if he did not the like the picture that drew itself inside his head.
"And what?" Leia prompted, although she thought she knew.
Han shook his head wryly. "And been there to comfort him. Typical woman move," he added, forgetting himself.
Leia's eyes snapped but her movements remained restrained. "That so?" She shifted her stance. "And what makes you such an expert?"
He glanced up at her, guilty, as if caught stealing fruit from a neighbor's tree. "Uh, I was just thinking out loud....." he began.
She smiled at him, a hard expression, but filled with promises. "It's alright, Mr. Smuggler Playboy, I understand how women throw themselves at you when you own your own ship..."
Han smiled back, mirroring her expression. "Until they see the ship..."
She laughed outright, the first time she'd done so in days. He smiled at the sound, took her arm in an almost courtly gesture, and together they left the room.
Leia resisted the urge to take the afternoon off. It was a beautiful day, just spring, and a wildlife refuge on the roof of one of the nearby buildings was beckoning. But, there was duty and obligation, not to mention strange, political conundrums mixed liberally with pure terror. She shook her head at her husband, left him smiling in spite of her refusal and headed for yet another conference room.
On the way, she stopped by her anteroom to pick up Admiral Ackbar and an obviously impatient Major Knezar, the new NRI representative. She smiled warmly, if formally at the Admiral and gave a pleasant nod at the NRI man.
"Are you ready?" she asked, as if it were an obvious question.
Ackbar almost seemed to smile. "Are you sure about this, Leia?" he asked, concern lacing his accented words with an edging of thoughtfulness.
She gave him a wistful expression, dropping her defenses for a moment. "As ready as I'm ever going to be, Admiral," she said, genuine friendliness cutting through her formality like sunlight falling through a cloudy day.
He only nodded. "I would like to present," he said, turning slightly, "Major Knezar, of NRI. When you have the time, he has a report to present, background briefing and what-have-you. You're going to need all the help you can get, Your Excellency."
She turned to the man who was so brimming with impatience that he was practically elbowing aside the aging Calamarian Admiral. "Thank you for being so patient," she began with great diplomacy, expertly disarming him with few words. "You may present your report after the meeting." Her eyes slid to a chrono on the wall. "I believe we're late, so if you please...." and gesturing slightly she turned and led the way up the crowded corridor. The Major, off balance, almost had to run to keep up with her.
They arrived to a half full conference room laced liberally with afternoon boredom. Mara Jade was there, following orders to show up at a certain time. Leia exchanged a glance with the Jedi woman and settled herself at the head of the table. No other Jedi were present.
A few lower level functionaries of the Intersystems Relations Committee were already seated almost dejectedly around the table. Outside of Mara's presence, it looked like it was going to be yet another stultifying afternoon. A speculative thought rose in the back, like a mirage in a dying desert, that maybe there would be an interesting discussion regarding the Smuggler's Alliance. After all, why else would the Jade woman be present?
And then, of course, there was the juicy gossip scattering all over town, like trees seeding the in the spring, about Master Skywalker and a reputed love nest at the Jedi Academy on Yavin IV. The fact that Master Skywalker was Chief of State Leia Organa Solo's twin brother only made this story all that much more entertaining. And lately, Leia did look a little tired, it was agreed, but since Master Skywalker had not yet, reputedly, come out of his mysterious trance, she must be worried sick.
An amused older generation likened it to one of the great crises during the last days of the Old Republic, when Anakin Skywalker had been defeated in an astonishing lightsaber duel by his erstwhile teacher and master, General Obi-wan Kenobi. That incident had taken Coruscant by storm. Still, it had held great trouble for the Old Republic, signaling, as it turned out, the beginning of the end. Some were worried. But the younger people, not remembering, were only entertained.
Here the Skywalker clan was at it again. It appeared that Master Luke had finally gotten too full of himself and fallen into something, but was it really the Darkside, or was it just more like the regular temptations of life? There was divided opinion on this, some being more sympathetic to the eccentric Jedi Master than others.
Here he was, a hero of the Rebellion, with a certain mystical power only half understood, a knight of legend returned from the past. And now he had fallen from grace. The press couldn't get enough of it. At first it was only an intercepted transmission, but now, this very morning, a tell-all story had been published by the most widely-read 'net circular in town. The press was in a feeding frenzy.
Leia knew all of this. Every last word of it. She made sure she knew such things. And she knew, if only by virtue of her Jedi skills, what people were saying behind her back. She also knew that things were a great deal more serious than most believed.
Not giving in even a millimeter, she raised her gaze from the datapad she held in her steady hand. Her delicate face, so small and fineboned, now held with ease the power and authority she had finally grown to shoulder with grace. The revolutionary of days past had vanished. Now she was the leader, steady, noble, commanding.
Gazing straight ahead, she reached out a hand. It's power immediately halted the torrent of whispered verbiage that flowed around the cramped room like a restless stream. The dark eyes were stern. A consternation sized the functionaries seated there, cutting glibness to white, skeletal silence. It fell, light but shroud-like, into the room. And without further ceremony, the meeting began.
Sunset on Rasclann IV was soft and unremarkable. The avian wildlife had already resorted to the heavy rustling and singing that greet all transitions from day to night. A bird landed on the balcony, its head moving in a jerky, reflexive motion. Cocking its head, it gave the overly thin woman standing there a rather pointed look, took a seed off the wooden floor and flitted away, a translucent, moving jewel in the red colored air.
She sighed, a slight woman, not pretty, with a military bearing. But she stood, oddly tender, feeding the birds on the porch at sunset. A stray breeze whisped through her hair, which was loose down her back. She moved her head, following the motion of another bird as it landed, gave her a quizzical look, took it's prize and sparkled into the dark colors of the surrounding forest.
"I thought maybe I'd find you here," a voice came from behind.
She started and half turned, her face settling into a hard expression. "Don't be cross....." she began.
His arm wrapped around her waspish waist as he stepped up behind her. He was on the tall side, dark haired, too young for her perhaps, but with a face that was pleasant enough. He turned his face toward the sunset, the birds chittered in the dark trees, momentarily frightened.
"What do you see?" she asked, not an idle question.
He shrugged. "Only a sunset and birds flying," he replied.
She turned toward him, eyes glancing steel and then softening. "No, I mean, out there...."
He smiled, but it was a hard expression. "I've had no visions in over a week," he put in, his voice quickening. "Not since the one about Skywalker. I told you, they don't come to me all the time, only on occasion." He paused to caress her neck with a finely boned hand.
She pulled away from him. "What do you think Organa will do?"
He smiled at her. "Accept our terms, at least for a time," he replied, stepping away from her. "After all, how can they not, after all their noble words about freedom and democracy?" He breathed a deep breath, pulling at the cooling evening air. "It's a perfect plan......." He turned back to her, a glinting affection showing in his blue eyes.
She looked away. "I had hoped we would have heard by now."
"Organa Solo has to run it by the High Council and then the full Senate," he said, sitting casually on a railing. "This will take time, not to mention quelling any opposition she will inevitably face." His face was smug for a moment, thinking. "I should think the Bothans will be upset, not to mention the Noghri..... Kashyyyk won't be happy, either. She's got her work cut out for her this time."
"The Noghri have been moved, haven't they?" she asked idly, turning back toward the forest.
He shrugged, careless. "I suppose. That planet of theirs was almost destroyed during the Clone Wars. Mother always said that they would not have survived long there, even if father had lived."
She gave him a quizzical look. "She said that? She....."
He moved over to her, pulled her close, putting a finger to her lips. "Shhhhh, Jelila. We should rest now. Mother's due in tomorrow and together we'll wait. But for now....." He bent his head and kissed her with surprising passion for one so cold edged. His arms pulled at her body with sudden urgency as his hands slid down her back.
She pulled away just enough to give him a sideways look, unsuited to her ragged looks, coy and willing. "Are you sure she still doesn't know about us?"
He only paused long enough to smile at her. "If you conceive, she'll know soon enough."
"You'd be the perfect father..." she murmured, her voice lowering
He pulled his face away from her, laughing. "Irek Ismaren has a son... I like the sound of it..."
A jeweled bird flitted past, it's colors fading into the twilight. A cool breeze came up, chilly and slightly uncomfortable. He pulled at her sleeve and together they made their way back across the wooden porch. The door opened of its own accord and shut again behind them, as they vanished noiselessly into the shadowed house.
Roganda Ismaren, the only one of the Emperor's concubines reputed to have conceived and been brought to term, arrived the next morning. Her shuttle landed, and, with a minimum of escort she made her way into the isolated house. Irek was waiting. Jelila Daala, the representative of Otdjel, remained in the background. Roganda smiled, her voice holding just the right inflection. "Irek, it's good to see you looking so well! You've grown." She gave Daala a speculative look. "And how are you, dear?" she said, a slight haughtiness in her voice.
Daala looked straight into those beautiful, childlike eyes and said simply, "I'm fine, Roganda."
Irek came up to take his mother's arm. "We're just getting ready to eat. Are you hungry?"
Roganda smiled at her only son. "Certainly." She waved at the escort. "You may leave now," she said, not even casting a glance in their direction. Irek, too, turned carelessly away. Only Jelila Daala stood, suddenly off balance, uncertain as to her position. A stinging irritation raked through her heart. Roganda always had that effect on her. She knew, from experience that neither mother nor son would notice her absence for a time. When together, they were like lovers whispering, heads together, shameless. Banishing the thought with a disgusted grimace, she followed them up the path to the house.
Roganda settled into the house over the days, taking over a small room on the first floor. The two women vied for Irek's attention, a situation he seemed to enjoy. But, as time passed, Daala found herself, more and more often, retreating to the side verandah. Often, she just gazed into the distance, thinking. For the first time in her life, she thought about her time in the Imperial Navy, about how she'd had to struggle, how she'd been stymied at each turn. She thought long and hard about Moff Tarkin, her mentor and lover, who had advanced her career. Reluctantly she had to consider what his motives really were, what he had really wanted out of her.
She remembered the years of stillness, completely isolated at the Maw Installation, going through exercises, plotting ever more intricate and complicated military maneuvers, training, always training. A lot of good it had done her, she thought bitterly. She had been so prepared, so thorough, so smart. But not before one Jedi adept had came along and almost wiped her out. A twinge of mortification swept through her. The harsh words, the unkind references, the jokes, they all swam back through streams of memory, taunting, hurting. That's what she was now, a joke.
Time went by and the birds settled around her, accepting her as a natural part of their environment. She, for her turn, after a period of resistance, began to feed them and, in secret, make over their small accomplishments. She even had a few of the bolder ones eating out of her hands. When she thought about it, she found herself grimacing and wondered, but only half-heartedly, what her enemies in the New Republic would say if they knew that the violently temperamental, erstwhile admiral, Jelila Daala was content these days just to sit and feed a few stray birds.
The days passed. The birds raised their young with a frantic enthusiasm. Daala kept the house in the absence of housekeeping and cleaning droids while Irek trained with his mother. The components planted into his head when he was but an infant were now a full part of his mind.
And his organic, jedi powers had grown immensely. He had always been gifted with the Force and he was developing beyond even Roganda's wildest dreams. But still, Daala knew that Roganda was not satisfied. Roganda knew well, as did Daala herself, the power that ran in the Skywalker family, knew how powerful Luke and his sister had become. They were, against all odds, formidable opponents. Still, everyone had their weaknesses, and Daala knew, one of Roganda's talents was searching out weakness.
One evening, after the dinner hour, they were all out on the verandah of the isolated house. Irek was sitting casually on the railing, searching the westward landscape. Roganda had sunk into a small, overstuffed chair to the side, a shawl wrapped securely around her alabaster arms. Daala sat stiffly, a little of the way, on another hard chair brought from the kitchen. She crossed her legs with impatience, seeking privacy and comfort. For a solid moment, she wished Roganda anywhere but here.
Roganda turned her beautiful face to Daala, smiled and Daala knew, without being told, that Roganda had discerned her thought. Daala turned her face away, to hide something. Was it sadness? Was this feeling bitterness? she wondered, feeling too old for her chronological years. Feeling helpless, she glanced down at her veined hands. She pushed the fingers together. But no, she was happier now than she had ever been in her life.
She turned to look back over at Irek. His face was no longer the callow face of an adolescent. He was a man, now, almost full grown. His dark hair fell in solid waves over his head and neck. His skin held the same pallor as his mother's but his eyes were a piercing blue, the kind of color that she had only ever read about or seen described on holovids. His face was fine, with high cheekbones and aristocratic features. It was strange, though. A thought ran through her mind, fleeting and swift, almost beyond catching. He did not look much like the old pictures of the Emperor as a young man, or even like the archived vids of Senator Palpatine in his prime. He looked completely different. Maybe that was Roganda, Daala told herself.
Roganda sighed and stretched, seeming at ease. Daala waited, resisting the temptation to go and investigate the small doings in a nest just under the edge of the railing. She could hear the baby birds chirping for their mother, she saw the mated pair swinging around, flying just out of range. But she knew she should not call attention to it. Resolutely, she put the birds out of her mind. Roganda spoke.
"I've had some interesting news, of late," she said, her soft, child's voice playing like wafts of silk through the air.
Daala, her attention torn by the peaceful birds, was only half listening.
"My training is almost complete," Irek said evenly, not heeding his mother, his voice assured in the colored air. Daala, gazing at him, felt her heart leap in its place. Quickly, she averted her gaze. But not before Irek noticed. He gave her one of his secret smiles and resumed his study of the horizon.
"You're doing very well, much better than we'd hoped," Roganda nodded to him, fishing for that fickle attention. But then she hesitated, as if taken by a disturbing thought. Daala wondered, through a flash of coldness, if this was real or just a well-rehearsed act. She decided on the latter. "Still, there's been some concern that you need more.....in depth....training," Roganda went on, seeming to feel her way.
Something strange here. Even Daala could sense the uncertainty. What was the old lady up to now?
Irek's face was serious. "But, there are no more Jedi to learn from," he said flatly, as if it were a generally known fact. "The only school is on Yavin....."
"I'm not talking about a school," Roganda put in, cutting him off. "I'm talking about a Jedi." A silence filled the place for a time, curving off the railings.
"What do you mean, Mother?" His attention fully garnered, his voice was guarded.
"I mean that I believe we have located a Jedi willing to teach you," she said, for a moment, quite joyous.
"Who? All the Jedi were destroyed......." he said quick, but still flat, as if discussing the price of wood at the local market.
Roganda sighed. "That's not for you to know, but the committee is having him brought here....."
"To Rasclann!?" Irek replied, disgust filling his voice. "All I want to do is leave this filthy place and they're sending a Jedi here?
Roganda backed away a bit. "This planet's not as bad as all that," she protested. Daala realized, in another cold flash, that she was not at all surprised by his outburst.
He rose, his long legs filling up space as he began to pace. "You don't understand," he said quickly, his haughtiness taking control. "I'm beyond teaching, now. I was but a child in Belsavis." Here he frowned, but moved on. "But now, now I know so much......." His gaze was taken by the forested darkness. Daala followed it but found it was only lingering on the hidden middle distance. She smiled, but it was a private smile.
Roganda spoke. "Irek," she said so tenderly that Daala turned her head back to look. Roganda was never tender. "Irek, you must be ready to face the Skywalkers. They've defeated everyone..... everything we've thrown at them, including Vader and the Emperor himself." Her face changed slightly, a longing entered it, faintly tapping from the sides. "You may be our last hope ....... our only hope."
Irek looked back at her and stopped pacing. He considered his mother with a long, assessing look. She was still ethereal and thin, with wrists barely the size of saplings in dead winter. And her hair, black, long and straight, held no hint of gray. But something about the small face was different. Where before she had seemed to fly with the small birds, now she was earthbound, held to small branches, content. She was waiting, expectant. A feigned helplessness had departed, to be replaced with the real thing. He held still, waiting, deciding. His gaze was blue and predatory, flashing within the growing twilight. But when he spoke, his voice signaled acceptance. "Then it will be as you say, Mother."
Roganda bowed her head in triumph. "I knew you'd see reason," she said in her small voice. "You will be more powerful than even Master Skywalker, more powerful than the Princess, more powerful than the Emperor himself......" She closed her beautiful eyes and sighed in a simmering way, as if the vision she was seeing was unbearably beautiful. She clutched her arms tightly about her. "You are his rightful heir, Irek," she said after a silence filled with songbirds. "You will rule his Empire...."
Daala gave Irek a sharp look and found she could not get his attention. Her brow furrowed with a flash of worry, but she dismissed it with a shrug and continued to listen for the small rustling sounds, the barely heard flash of feathers as winged creatures swooped lower and lower from a darkening sky.
Roganda stood, surprising Daala. Immediately Irek was at her side. "I am tired," Roganda said, taking in Irek, Daala, the verandah and, finally, the sunset. "I have some work to do tomorrow. If you will excuse me....."
She moved off quickly, brushing at Irek's silent offer of help the way old people do when they do not want to be helped. "No, you stay here. Perhaps, you will be able to see something...."
Irek gave Daala a guilty glance but his mother did not notice. "I'll try, Mother," he replied simply.
Roganda vanished back into the house and the two remaining humans turned toward the sunset, watching as birds made mad, dark streaks across the lowering sun, shivered as the weather began to cool and the sun fell below the blue-black horizon. Daala moved closer to him, but he pushed her away, casting a worried look over his shoulder.
Daala froze, her stance suddenly uncomfortable and stiff. After a listening time, he turned to her. "We can't let her know, Jelila," he said, with as much tenderness as his arrogant features would allow. "She would not approve....."
Daala nodded. "I know, it's just that I......" her voice broke with the strength of secret passion.
Sorely tempted, casting a side glance at the darkened house, he moved toward her, pulling her shoulders, enfolding her in his greedy arms. "I feel it, too," he said fiercely, whispering. "I want you, every minute, every hour...." He held her away, the better to see her face in the fading light. "I'll tell her, Jelila, I'll ask, don't worry. But for now, it's too soon.....while we're rebuilding the Empire there'll be no time...."
She put a veined hand over his mouth, relishing the feel of his lips on her fingers. "I know," she said simply, halting him in mid sentence. "How long?"
"Not until I am fully trained," he replied, his whisper breaking her heart.
Slowly, as if considering something, she turned from him, letting his hands slip away. Her face lit as she studied the fading, red light and the jewel-like birds that adorned it like flashing sapphires on an expensive woman.
He leaned into her, catching her by the waist. "What do you see?" he asked, his voice barely audible.
"Only a sunset and flying birds," she replied quietly. "And, perhaps, the wedding of the next Emperor......"
His face did not change, but something in his eyes glinted, a deep, clear desire pounding through his being, focused by the Force, enveloping them in blind lust. "Jelila," Irek whispered, with much more tenderness than he had first intended. She put a hand up to his, signaling acceptance. Quietly, with true grace, she turned. Then, he taking her by the hand, they too disappeared back into the house. A light in one of the bedrooms flicked on and, after a restless time, flicked out again. But Roganda's room remained always dark, where she sat, gazing at a star and biding her time.