They stepped out into the fresh, afternoon Verratan sunshine. It was delightful, fragrant, clean, warm. Luke took a deep breath, the first fresh air it seemed he had enjoyed in ages. Mara was ebullient. "The space port's not much, but it is pretty, isn't it?"
The port was indeed small. They were surrounded by three or four derelict freighters and some other smaller ships that could not have been airborne in the last ten years. Rotting camouflage netting ineffectually concealed the craft from nonexistent prying eyes. An officious, squat grey building, dotted with neat windows and a large warehouse were the only structures. Beyond the fence demarking the port, lush, green scenery rolled into the horizon.
Luke spotted one mechanical loader and about ten scruffy, darkly dressed men, all clustered at the bottom of the ramp-- the welcoming and hopefully unloading committee. Thinking of Mara's earlier statement that it was labor that was cheap here, he recognized that the ratio of person to mechanical was about the inverse of what would be expected for any other space port.
Mara ran down the ramp, and straight into the arms of a burly, grey, immensely fat, bearded man. It could, Luke thought, only be Yur. The man kissed Mara soundly on both cheeks than picked her up and swung her around.
Luke followed more sedately, with Artoo trailing behind. The other men began their ascent up the ramp, pushing by him, nodding a greeting, and courteously tipping the black caps most of them wore. They were otherwise silent, following a well established routine. Luke could feel their idle interest, and even, strangely, amusement at his own presence; they were clearly surprised to see a droid.
Mara tore herself from Yur's all encompassing embrace, taking a step toward Luke, hand outstretched. "Come on, I want you to meet Yur."
She pulled him toward Yur, but before she could make the introduction, Luke fell under the raking, wary gaze of the older man.
Yur said nothing immediately, then let out a heavy, weary sigh. "Inta," he chided her, wagging a finger in Mara's direction, "not another one? When will you learn?"
Mara blushed to her ears; for Luke it was one of the most humorous moments ever in his association with Mara. Mara sputtered a protest. "No Yur, really, it's not like that. This is my friend Luke. I've known him for a long time."
Luke reached out to take the older man's hand, and felt again, an intense scrutiny, and then to his astonishment, sensed Yur extend a tendril of the Force. Yur's Force sense grazed over him, not probing exactly, but judging, taking measure. Yur stood quietly, considering, then offered his own hand. "No Inta, I see that he is not like the others." Now that was an intriguing observation.
"Well my friend Luke, Tirgu Muresh welcomes you. We sorrow only that your first view of our lovely home is limited to so shabby and unimpressive a place as this port."
"Thank you. It's very nice to meet you. Mara has told me a lot about you and your family."
Yur eyed him speculatively, curving one corner of his lip up and stroking his greying beard. "It is interesting, is it not, young Luke that Mara has told us nothing of you?"
Yur turned to a slightly agitated Mara, and stroked her cheek tenderly with a meaty paw. "Now Inta, do not fret. We will not damage your friend. Dona has prepared a feast in honor of your return to us. Will you join us tonight?" Yur paused, including Luke in an expansive gesture, but giving a shrewd glance at Mara. "Friend, you are also invited."
"Of course, I would love to come." was Luke's prompt response.
As Mara gave Yur a clout on the arm that was barely eye level for her, Luke felt that he had just missed something important between her and Yur. "Yes, Yur, we will both be there. And in answer to your unasked question, yes, I will bring the brandy."
Yur smiled a partly toothless, crooked grin, "This shall be a wonderful night. I shall tell Dona that our corsair will dine with us, and that she will bring her friend Luke. Now, I must return to my duties." He gave Mara another squeeze and then, with a nimbleness at odds with his rotund form, trotted into the administrative building.
Mara watched him go. "Quite a character, isn't he?"
"What did he mean, I'm not like the other ones?" Luke thought he knew exactly what Yur had meant but was eager to hear Mara's attempt at an explanation.
Mara shrugged, exuding embarrassment. "He doesn't usually appreciate my taste in co-pilots." Then she was brusque, efficient again. "Would you oversee the unloading?" With a jerk of her head she gestured to the loaders beginning to emerge from the ship. "They know what to do, but someone should still be there." She pointed to the larger building. "It should all go into the bonded warehouse. I'll deal with the port authority."
Luke nodded, saying softly, "Why don't you take Artoo, see if he can plug into an access port."
"Good idea, I'll meet you back here in a few." Mara tucked a data pad and the port papers under her arm and headed into the building, Artoo in her wake.
Luke followed the cargo to the warehouse and gave the loaders the go ahead to begin storing the cartons. An elderly, gnarled man, in rough, tweedy garb, was perched on a stool, outside the warehouse -- evidently the gate keeper. As Luke turned toward him, the man spat on the ground and grunted a greeting, his weathered visage reflecting a lifetime of hard work and bad dental care. Again, and even more astoundingly, from such a seemingly grubby personage, Luke felt the man extend a Force wave, as if in a bid to ascertain the stranger in their midst.
"Ya with Jade?" His accent was so viscous, Luke could barely understand him.
"Yes. May I join you, while they unload?" The man said nothing, but pulled a green bottle from under his stool and handed it to Luke. It bore no label, but smelled of wine. Not wanting to appear discourteous, Luke, with some apprehension, took a tentative swallow. It was indeed wine, and based upon the knowledge gained from thirteen days of wine tasting with Mara, Luke recognized that it was not too bad.
He crouched down on the ground, and handed the bottle back. "I'm Luke."
Rheumy, red eyes stared back at him. "Stoica."
"Good to meet you Stoica, thanks for sharing your bottle."
Stoica grunted again. "You're not like Jade's usual."
"I've heard that." They sat in silence as the loaders trooped back and forth. A large, hulking building in the distance, at Luke's line of vision, caught his attention. He pointed to it. "What's that?"
Stoica eyed him curiously. "Bacchanalia warehouse and space port."
"It's got its own port?"
Stoica nodded, and Luke felt him direct harsh resentment at the distant building.
Luke stared again at the building, then reached out to sense the place through the Force. It seemed so new, incongruous and, in testing the feeling, secret, in the otherwise pastoral landscape. The building was pre-fabricated -- it could only have been transported here in very large pieces and at tremendous cost. Luke started as he felt another Force touch from Stoica; there was a sharpness and wit in the man Luke had missed before. Stoica had recognized his kinship to him as another Force-sensitive.
Stoica handed him the bottle again. "Definitely not like the others."
"The Bacchanalia is new, isn't it?" Luke asked him.
Stoica spat again in disgust on the ground and nodded. "Damn Imps. Brought in their own people, built their own building, don't even use our space port so the lads can get a few credits. Nope, the Imps brought in their own, use their own, pay their own."
"What are they doing there? It's a huge facility."
Stoica gazed at him carefully, weighing, balancing, then he shrugged, held up his bottle and afforded Luke a toothless, yellow grimace. "They're selling our wine."
Luke did not have the opportunity to query Stoica further for one of the loaders interrupted him to check and count the cartons. By the time he had completed the task, the men were all clustered about, the mood, boisterous as they swilled out of bottles from Stoica's cache, apparently kept for such occasions as these. Luke imagined that there was not much activity at the port, and the unloading today probably meant some hard credits for people obviously in need of them. However stingy Mara may be with her customers, he suspected, based upon her strong views of Imperial exploitation, that she would compensate the loaders well. He hesitated and made mental contact with Mara -- she seemed preoccupied, still dealing with Customs officials. Joining the gang was easily the superior alternative.
Stoica introduced him all around. Bottles were passed and they quizzed him on the latest smashball scores and team trades. Luke regretted that his own information was over three weeks old. Several made a point of repeating what had become a common refrain, that Luke was indeed not much like the "others," and if their reaction was in any way a reliable indicator, Luke bore up well under the comparison.
One sturdy, affable fellow, none the worse for a bottle already downed, clapped a companionable arm over Luke's shoulder. "First run with Jade?"
Luke noticed several smirks in his direction, and for some irrational reason, felt the need to correct this unfounded perception of Mara's proclivities. "I'm just the temp -- she needed a co-pilot at the last minute, and asked me to fill in. I've known her a long time."
Another gave a gruff and knowing chuckle. "Where'd she dump the last one?"
"Rishi, I think." They all laughed.
"So you pilot much?"
"Some." Determined to keep the conversation from getting too detailed, he diverted them to another subject. "How long's that warehouse been up?" He pointed to the Bacchanalia facility. His question prompted a heated debate, and eventually the conclusion that several huge freighters had indeed delivered the building some four months previously.
"Why'd they build their own port with one here?"
Stoica had not been alone in his resentment. Angry denunciations erupted. "Don't know why." "Don't trust us." "Feed their own." "All they're do'in is sell'n wine, doesn't make any sense." "Why the big secret." These were evidently well-rehearsed complaints.
"But even if they aren't using this port, wouldn't they at least need loaders?"
One of the men bellowed indignantly, "They won't even hire us for that."
"Well, if you all aren't doing the work, who is?"
As Luke had hoped, they began reeling off names, all apparently members of Imperial families, or their off-planet retainers. Periodically, Luke injected a question about someone he had never heard of, "Where's he from?" "Which family is he with?" and "Is he from the Corellia sector?" Finally, the name he was looking for, surfaced.
"And Witt worked there too."
"Haven't seen Borkin in a while."
"Came from off planet, 'bout six months ago."
When Borkin showed up in Tirgu degenerated into another dispute, before again they settled for somewhere between six and eight months previously.
Luke proffered, "I may know him. Isn't he sort of pale, brown hair, looks like his best friend just died?" As Stoica awarded him a dubious look, Luke realized that however hazy the others had become with the wine, Stoica was brightly alert and was not fooled by his ploy.
Stoica lurched with a hoarse, "That's him."
"Any idea how I could look him up?"
No one knew the answer to this query; they did not know where he lived, where "Witt" came from, or where he might have gone. Several of them were certain that Borkin had not been to the "Spot" in several weeks.
Stoica interjected, "Nosy kid. Pok'n where he shouldn't be. Ask'n questions that shouldn't be answered. Pretty obviously not what he seemed to be." He looked at Luke pointedly, and muttered softly enough that the others did not hear, "Not that you would know anything about that now would you son?"
Luke let the matter drop, and the conversation moved onto other topics.
Mara joined them shortly thereafter, with a smile to the loaders. They tipped their caps in her direction and one of them handed her a bottle. She was a striking, impressive figure, a lone slim female among over a dozen men, glinting hair, her head tilted back as she downed several deep swallows from the bottle. The effect was lost on no one.
She wiped her lips with the back of her hand. "Thanks Danut. Dealing with those damned customs agents is thirsty work."
She turned to Luke, and he responded before she could ask, "Everything's off loaded and secured."
Mara smiled her appreciation to the assembled team, "Well, gentleman, thanks once again for your work. You can collect your credits inside. And I'll be glad to buy you all rounds at the Spot tomorrow night." They all took turns shaking her hand and then dispersed into the building in high spirits, leaving Mara and Luke standing next to Stoica still on his stool.
Taking another pull from the bottle, Mara noticed, for the first time, the distant warehouse. Luke confirmed her silent inquiry with a carefully phrased, neutral statement, "It's called the Bacchanalia warehouse and space port. Been up about four months."
She gazed at it, sensing the same things Luke had, its size, its newness, the expense implicit in those things, its secretive aura, then turned back to them, with a dazzling smile for Stoica. "So how are you Stoica? Have you been keeping my co-pilot out of trouble?"
Stoica mocked her ruse with a cackle, "Captain, if he's just a co-pilot, then you're just a Trader."
Mara's smile abruptly vanished, and Luke heard in his mind, "What's that all about?"
Luke replied silently to her, "He's very sharp and Force-sensitive."
Stoica looked from one of them to the other, and they realized that he had heard their exchange. "Quite a team you two, eh?" He laughed again. "Not to worry, children. Secrets are safe with me." Then he became more serious, gesturing them closer to his weathered, stubbled face and winey breath. "Just to save you both some trouble, your friend Borkin, better know as dim Witt, showed up here 'bout eight months ago on a freighter that had no freight when it came and none when it left. If I noticed it, someone else probably did too. He was a pest; asked a lot of questions and had credits to buy everyone drinks even when he didn't have a job. He did finally get work as a loader at Bacchanalia and no one's heard from him since."
Stoica retrieved his bottle from Mara, took a long gulp, leaned back in his chair, and pulled his black cap over his eyes. "Gonna nap now til the next ship comes in."
Mara gave him a gentle pat on the shoulder. "Thanks Stoica, sleep well."
They left him dozing in the warm sun, legs outstretched, chair tipped back, nose and mouth upright. A peaceful and very loud snore erupted.
Luke cracked, "Do you suppose he passed out from all the wine, or just doesn't want to talk to us anymore?"
"Couldn't say. I sure don't want to ask him." She tugged his elbow. "Come on, let's close the ship down, gather our gear."
"Any problem with the Customs office?"
Mara gave an impatient flick of her hand. "Just the usual bureaucrats. No problems with the dump either. I told them I wanted to plug in and get the trading price list directly and look at recent port entries so I'd know my competition. They weren't crazy about the idea, but they couldn't really say no. It should all be public information." She continued in a more admiring tone, "I can't understand a thing it says, but your unit was at it a while. I will say, it does show a lot of initiative. It probably copied everything in the computer."
They went up the ramp, and into the ship. She added, "Let's head forward first. There are a couple things we need to do there. Did you get anything?"
"You heard most of it. Stoica is obviously very perceptive, does he ever leave that spot?"
As they pushed into the cabin, Mara peered out through the view screen at the still, apparently slumbering, figure. "Probably not."
"I'm glad you warned me about the probing. Both he and Yur gave me the once over."
Mara swung around in surprise, "Really? I suppose it's because you're new here. Did you at least avoid smashing into them?"
Mara got the rejoinder her question merited. "No actually I made a point of flinging them both across the port, didn't you notice?"
She made a face at him. "You are so witty."
"Speaking of wit, or the lack of it... " Luke trailed off.
Mara finished the thought somberly, "It doesn't sound good does it?"
Luke uttered a disgusted humph. "Sounds like sheer incompetence to me. The loaders all complained that Bacchanalia wasn't hiring anyone local. You've got to wonder how Borkin got a job there. He probably walked right into it."
"They, whoever, they are, probably had him nailed the minute he landed." They were both subdued, mulling the disturbing ramifications. Luke began calling up coordinates on the navicomputer. "We'd better..."
Mara finished this sentence as well. "Yeah, it's a standard procedure for me, but make sure we do it. If we have to leave in a hurry, we may not have the luxury of dallying while the navicomputer gives us a safe jump."
There was no joking, no sarcasm, no button pushing here. Work was work, play was play, and neither of them, when it really mattered, had survived this long by confusing the two. After studying the readouts, Luke found a good spot, a short distance out, and entered the coordinates.
Mara concentrated on shutting down the principal systems. She then reached under the console and disengaged her slave circuit control, staring at it, attempting to identify what had driven her to the decision she had just made. She held the remote out to him. "I don't normally do this, but I think you should know the slaver sequence."
Luke watched as she punched in a series. "Got it?" He nodded.
"I'll keep the slaver on me at all times. If you need to, you can call up the ship. Its range will extend to all of Tirgu. On Corellia, when the Human League jammed the signals, I was still able to bring the ship to where Leia and I were by comlaser remote. If the ship's in visual range, use this command sequence. It will activate the beam, and you can fly her to you." She demonstrated. He took the slaver from her and repeated both sequences.
"Good." She took the circuit control back and slipped it into her pocket.
"Do you think we made a mistake using my first name?"
Mara drummed her fingers on the console. "Well, I never intended to call you Skywalker around here, no matter how aggravating you got." She gave him a wry glance. "I guess you'll get your wish at least, I'll be using your first name. Did you sense any suspicion or recognition?"
"No. They do know I'm not your usual co-pilot type."
He made the statement factually, no irony or humor intended and Mara inferred none in her acknowledgment. "Can't help that now. I still don't think it's a problem. Your face hasn't been plastered across the nets or gossip pages the last few years, so actually seeing you isn't likely to jog any recent memories."
Luke sighed wearily. "You get hunted for so long, you do tend to get a little paranoid."
"Hey, with me stalking you, paranoia would be a perfectly rational reaction." She continued more soberly, "Can you think of any reason why your being here would matter to anybody? It's not as if there are any dark Jedi Masters or Emperor clones out there looking for new disciples."
Luke added, "You said yourself, there's no bounty on me. Still, anyone who knows their Thrawn histories would certainly be suspicious."
"Sure, in the Core, I doubt either of us would exactly be able to do uncover work. But around here, it's assumed I harbor Imperial tendencies -- people would not think I would be hanging around someone who's been on a Hero of the Rebellion trading card." She shook her head, "If that latest Tales story had shown here, I would be more concerned."
Luke gave a bark of laughter. "Who would believe that trash?"
"You'd be surprised. I'm sure that last episode has fueled the rumors about us that have circulated for a long time in some circles. Just be thankful it hasn't traveled this far."
"What kind of rumors?"
She shrugged. "The sorts of things that are probably in my NRI file and yours as well. The kind of manipulative garbage that is being used to string the billions along who are waiting for the next Tales episode." Mara sighed irritably with the recollection that she had been duped by a holovid producer. "We'll have some damage control to do when we get back." It was Luke's turn to be irritated. "I'm getting really annoyed at the number of people apparently so interested in my personal life."
Mara scowled at his memory lapse. "Your personal problems were why I couldn't get a decent night's sleep for three weeks, why your brother-in-law called me up in the middle of the night to go hold your hand, and the whole reason Vader decided to drop by for a visit."
"I guess I had forgotten that," Luke muttered apologetically, still wondering at her enduring anger at his father's perceived invasion. He returned to the subject at hand. "So we don't think that my being here is likely to trigger an Imperial manhunt, right?" As Mara nodded reluctantly, he verbalized what she had been thinking, "Then why are we so worried?"
He sat quietly, trying to pinpoint his nagging concern, the sense of foreboding that had quietly crept up behind him. To explore this growing unease further he focused inward, finding and opening himself to the possible avenues of the future. He felt Mara observing, and then stretch out through the Force to make the journey with him-- although this was a skill Palpatine had denied her, she was able to augment his own awareness.
Yet, even with the clarity she lent to his visions, the images were confused, and what was revealed offered no comfort. Blood, pain, fire, fear, a cold, searching menace, the ship roaring to life in a dark night, the sounds of shouting and blaster fire, an explosion, the acrid odor of burned flesh.
As the montage ended, neither spoke at first, considering, interpreting what the Force had shown them. Luke stood, "We both have our lightsabers. If we're done up here, we'd better check your weapons closet."
Mara keyed the closet open, taking her favorite wrist holster down from its assigned place. Pulling her sleeve up, she slapped it on her arm and, with practiced ease, began the awkward maneuvers required to strap a wrist holster on with only one hand. As Mara grabbed the upper strap with her teeth to hold it in place, Luke took her arm, straightened it at the elbow, and hooked the upper strap into the right gusset. He repeated the movement with the lower strap, and then fingered the holster, trying to shift it on her arm.
"Too tight?" Red hair tumbled as she shook her head no. Reaching into the closet, Luke took one of Mara's compact little blasters off the shelf. "I recognize this." He confirmed the power pack was fully charged and handed it to her. She turned it back and forth, eyeing the safety, the barrel, the triggering, peered through the sight, and then hefted it into the sheath. Luke pulled her sleeve back down, and Mara flexed her arm, testing the blaster's weight and ride in the holster.
"Feels good. We'll bring the extra."
Luke took the other one down, repeating the check of the power supply and physical integrity. "What else do you have?"
She grimaced. "Not a whole lot. I've never thought I needed it for this run."
They found three detonators, a concussion grenade, a canister of tearing gas and two explosion kits, not really lethal, but containing fuses, mini-detonators and enough bang to take out pesky obstacles.
As he surveyed the piled weaponry, Luke quipped, "Imagine Mara, some women just have clothes in their closets."
Mara, sitting cross-legged on the deck, was engrossed in carefully confirming the internal pressure of the gas in the canister. She replied absently, "That's me, always prepared for a good time."
"Looks like I'll finally get the chance to party with you." He joined her on the deck and began testing the fail-safes and charges on the detonators and grenade.
"I told you before I'm a fun person." Satisfied that the pressure gauge was showing an accurate read in acceptable ranges, Mara looked up from her work to the slightly rumpled figure sitting across from her on the deck. She watched, captivated by Luke's delicate, confident handling of the grenade. She added, "Anyone who brings a thermal detonator to a party is fun in my book."
He glanced up at her with a roguish grin, "It's a new variation on the old BYOB."
So suddenly perceiving in Luke, the old combination of brash and deadly intensity, Mara unexpectedly felt a warm clutch in her gut, unfamiliar to her now only because of the man who had just prompted it. "Bring your own...?"
Luke bent over again, "Bomb." In a swift, fluid movement he lobbed the grenade at her, and she caught it in one hand, the explosive contacting her hand with a firm slap.
"Just think Skywalker, some men give women flowers."
He reached for one of the detonators, and began turning it over carefully verifying that the charges were still live. "Well, if I see a really nice blaster, and you're good, maybe I'll buy it for you."
Mara stood, thinking it very perverse that at that moment she might have actually preferred flowers. Feeling an acute need for a diversion from these disturbing thoughts, she focused instead on fishing out a skein of rope, a glow lamp, comm links and several grappling hooks as he continued the check of their other gear.
Luke had finished with the explosives and was beginning to pack them when he caught an inexplicable flash from Mara. She was staring at two gas masks she had pulled from the closet. At first he thought she was remembering their escapades with the mask from earlier, but as quickly dismissed the absurdly romantic notion. She was intent, searching, serious and then abruptly reached into the closet and grabbed two more masks.
"Don't ask me to explain it, I can't." She was almost defensive.
"No explanations needed," Luke said quietly, "I understand."
"I had the same feeling during part of your vision -- the same cold, threat."
"Then we'd be fools to ignore it." He turned back to finish stowing the gear.
* * *
Yur rejoined them as Mara was showing Luke the lock down sequence for the ship. The big man was effusive and Stoica still slumbering. Yur was quite eager to break into the heavy crate Mara had kept aside containing his yet to be paid for brandy. His enthusiasm notwithstanding, she was able to exhort a promise from him to not open more than one bottle until they arrived for dinner. On learning that Luke and Mara had decided to walk the modest three kilometers into town, Yur then delivered a windy lecture on the important sites to be seen. He recounted the Village Museum, where one could behold historical reproductions of the houses of Tirgu Muresh and the other cities of Verrat; the Farming Museum, where one could review a history of agriculture on Verrat; the Wine Museum, where once could sample the fine vintages of Tirgu; the ruins of Founders' Hall; the ruins of a Verrat Temple; the ruins of the first port and commercial center; the ruins of the site on which the first colonists landed; the city central park; and various other sites of even less compelling tourist interest.
Mara had obviously heard the tour before, and Luke could sense her amused tolerance in sitting through it one more time. To Luke, who had indeed seen much of the beauty and excitement of the galaxy, Yur's immense pride in even these objects of seeming dubious historical value was both admirable and poignant, underscoring how little the Imperial occupation had left for the Verratans themselves.
Mara gently assured Yur that she would indeed at least point out these important historical treasures to "friend Luke." Only then were they able to extricate themselves from Yur's inexhaustible instruction.
The walk was indeed an astounding experience, although certainly not for the extensive reasons Yur had recounted. Recalling Mara's explanation that Verrat permitted the Imperials to return to some ancient colonial past, the journey was one, not only of distance, but also in time. There were few vehicles, and the ones that seemed to actually be running, as opposed to merely rusting on the roadside, were decrepit. Luke was amazed to see even animal labor in use, plowing fields, being ridden, or pulling makeshift carts. It was not, in his experience, typical for yesh, shaggy quadruped ruminants, to be shuffling along the main highway between a space port and a population center. But the logic of their use on Verrat was inescapable -- there were no replacement parts, you could grow rather than import the fuel, and it was possible to make a new one before an old one broke down.
Even forewarned of the Imperial lavish profligacy, nothing could have prepared him for the mansions that dotted the roadside. The homes, if buildings so large could fairly be characterized as such, peeked out from behind imposing walls and screens of trees. They sported gigantic facades of stone and wood, turrets, windows stretching from the ground to three and four stories up -- everything about them was outsized and proudly ostentatious. Gaudy, opulent, and pretentious, the massive, multi-tier, rambling structures were testaments to the universal truth that money is not a guarantor of taste.
Something was obviously missing from the picture of colonial grandeur. "Where do the Verratans live?"
Mara looked in distaste at a particularly offensive blight on the landscape. "The Imps razed the Verratan homes to build these things. The Verratans now live where the work is, near the farms, and outside the security perimeter."
The road took them straight through the central gate of the quaint walled city of Tirgu Muresh. By way of orientation, Mara cautioned him that although getting from place to place was not difficult, finding a particular destination was fiendishly challenging, both because the street names changed every few blocks, and because the Imperials had renamed the streets after their revered military commanders, planetary governors and emperors. There were no fewer than ten different streets incorporating the word "Palpatine." The native population however, in willful, subtle protest, continued to call the streets by their old names, and could do so in either Basic or Verratan. Asking for directions was, therefore a navigational gamble.
This instruction in city geography degenerated into an argument when Luke loftily observed that he had never been lost and would never need to ask for directions. Mara berated him for this arrogance, believing that the issue was not that Jedi Masters are natural navigators, but that men would prefer to waste time wandering for an hour rather than risk admitting that they are lost and asking someone for directions.
They ceased squabbling only because the thronging commotion on the main boulevard made any heated dispute impossible. Their destination in the city center required traversing the Imperial Avenue of Palpatine, which on this day, was a bustling hive of commercial activity, an exotic melding of agricultural fair, livestock auction and wine festival. Verratans had erected squalid little kiosks along the avenue and were briskly trading in local products-- produce, wine, flowers, meats, cheeses, wood working, pottery, and other handcrafts. The dealing Verratans were shouting at one another, gesticulating wildly. Those not occupied in such good natured, albeit voluble, life and death bargaining were encamped on street corners, in the back of yesh carts or outside kiosks drinking tiny cups of cups of tea, and much larger glasses of wine. The lowing, clucking, nipping and swishing livestock on the street added to the chaos.
In contrast to the free wheeling bargaining in local commodities that crowded the sidewalks and spilled into the streets, immaculate stores lining the pavement were devoted to Imperial business. Delicacies and rarities from across the galaxy were artfully displayed in storefront windows. Through the windows, impeccable clerks and their stiff customers engaged in a more civilized parody of the earnest barter occurring only steps away.
Mara dawdled in front of the Imperial store displays, studying the products, comparing them to her own goods. In keeping with the tenet that if you have to ask, it is too expensive, few of the products displayed indicated pricing. The prices she did see were very encouraging -- the fish eggs and spirits she espied seemed to be commanding a much higher price than what she recalled from previous runs.
After being buffeted by indignant poultry and nearly sandwiched between a kiosk and a slow moving yesh, Luke interrupted her calculations with a gasp, "Is it always this insane?"
Mara surveyed the commotion spread out before them, stepping lightly to avoid a pile of squished vegetables. "This is a pretty typical market day, but prices seem higher to me."
The traffic thickened to nearly impassable density as they neared the city center. It became a contest of will and speed to duck the gap toothed Verratans thrusting dead birds, produce and suspect pottery at them; they began repeating as a continual mantra "No thank you, not interested, thank you, but no."
The middle of such a carnival seemed an improbable location for the only hotel in town, and it was with great relief that they finally pushed their way through the crowd to the front steps of the "The Hotel Imperial." With a nod to the unprepossessing name, Mara said, "It's not as bad as the name would suggest. Beats another night on the ship and the bar's open late."
As they entered through a revolving door, in itself an oddity in a galaxy operating on panels and slides, the noise and tumult abruptly dimmed. The lobby was strikingly old fashioned -- a gracefully arched portico, polished wood, stone and brass fixtures, worn rugs over stone, and richly covered, but slightly shabby overstuffed furniture. The overall effect was one of strained, battered elegance. Luke had to help Artoo negotiate the revolving door, and then caught up with Mara at the counter.
The clerk, a middle aged, precise and decorous man, was, Luke realized, the first native Verratan he had seen who did not have broken and dirty fingernails. He was all smiles for Mara.
"Welcome back, Captain Jade. It is a pleasure to have you among our guests again."
"No cazut i shtea, Adran. It's nice to be back."
Adran squinted slightly, looking over Mara's shoulder, and with a comprehending glance, taking in Luke's presence behind her. "Your usual room Captain?"
Mara hesitated, and Luke was amused to feel her rising discomfort at that simple, no doubt normally routine, question. He could not wait to see how she would handle this one. Just to gall her, Luke caught Adran's eye, stepped closer to Mara, and made a point of putting his hand on her shoulder. Adran looked at the hand, then back at Mara, his face impassive and unreadable.
"No, Adran." She tried lightly shrugging off his hand, but Luke held fast. "Two rooms, at least one with an access port and display."
The temptation was too great. Luke chimed in, "But please see that they are adjoining." As cool as Mara normally was under pressure, her blast of suppressed outrage was all the more potent. He was going to catch hell for this, but boy was it fun.
Adran gave Mara no opportunity to issue a countermand, however awkward it may have appeared. The adroit clerk immediately produced two key cards. She managed, barely, to keep her composure through the registration process.
"Thank you Captain Jade, enjoy your stay. One of the stewards will bring your bags up."
Feeling Adran's gaze as they moved away from the counter, Luke took the game a step further, slipping his hand to the small of Mara's back, as if steering her toward the lift. As they entered the lift and turned, Luke broadly winked at the observant clerk, and as the door slid shut, he was rewarded with a crack in the formal little man's stern demeanor as Adran's shoulders and head jumped in muffled merriment.
Luke's own amusement was fleeting. As soon as the door closed, Mara seized his left hand and yanked his fore and middle fingers apart in an abrupt, and very painful snap. "What the hell was that all about?" she demanded angrily.
Luke was shaking his hand and wondering if maybe she had broken a bone. "Hey, it's not my fault if you're suddenly having to demonstrate your new found virtue to every Verratan you meet."
"Adjoining rooms? I was going to ask him to put you in the basement."
"What Mara, afraid you can't handle us Gamorreans any closer than that?" Mara turned absolutely scarlet with rage, which fortunately she was unable to vent on his remaining fingers because the lift stopped to admit more passengers.
Mara's ire only escalated when they found their rooms on the fourth floor and learned that the corroded ancient lock on the common door separating them had long since abandoned any functional purpose. With that discovery Mara expressed her displeasure by tripping Luke from behind and flipping him to the floor. She awarded him a snide, "Too bad you're not wet," stalked into her own room and slammed the door, its rusted lock rattling ominously, but futilely.
Luke just lay on the floor for a time nursing his bruised hand and shoulder. He had fallen on his elbow, and the shooting pains up his arm did not lessen immediately. He really should learn to respect her volatility -- it was not so much the temper that was the problem, it was the pain that frequently accompanied her outbursts. With landing, he had thought fewer opportunities for Mara-baiting would present themselves. Even a Jedi Master could still be wrong about some things.
Artoo rolled over to him, his dome swiveling and emitting what Luke interpreted as whistles of concern. A man, his droid, a raving bitch lunatic and adjoining hotel rooms that could not be locked-- it was a predicament worthy of Duke. He wondered what Duke would do in such circumstances, and concluded that emulating the super hero's example would mean his own rapid demise by some excruciating means. More circumspection in Mara's training may have been called for. She had been formidable before their work. He was no longer certain that his own once superior skills would save him if Mara were in a truly lethal mood.
Time for a gesture of good will. "Why don't you roll on into her room, find an access port, and start going through the trading data? If prices have risen as much as she thinks, it should improve her temper, and may preserve my limbs."
Artoo issued another worried whistle. It was remarkable that an entity capable of communicating only in a binary language could convey such a range of emotion. Even without Threepio around, Luke thought he understood the little droid's anxiety -- he frequently shared it in Mara's company. "Don't worry. Even if prices have fallen, I don't think she would deactivate you just to spite me." Luke thought a moment further. "But just to be certain you don't get caught in any crossfire, don't go into her room until after I go."
Luke stumbled to his feet -- time to go exploring, without a map, and leave the Master Trader to her profiteering.
* * *
Mara, lying on her bed and staring at the canopy, heard Luke leave. She had been fervently wishing upon him a variety of nasty punishments, -- his fair features trampled by a yesh cart somewhere near the bottom of the list, and plucking out his fingernails one by one near the top. As Skywalker's little astromech pushed through the door into her room, she shifted quickly, dropped her blaster into her hand, and contemplated the pleasure of just blasting the thing into the street. Although it was amusing to see the droid twist in apprehension at the blaster she had trained on its vital parts, she did not want to pay the damage deposit to the hotel, and did want the data it was carrying in its rusted guts.
She sheathed the blaster. "Oh, come on in, despite what he might have told you, I'm not going to convert you to scrap and slag. Go plug in, and let's see what's going on."
Mara joined the droid at the computer terminal. "Let's start with prices -- give me the most recent prices on each of the goods I've got, then we'll compare those prices with the sale prices from my last three trips, and my costs for the goods and then we'll compute the percentage changes."
The rodents running on the treadmill, or whatever the aged hotel computer used as a power source, whirred to life. The exasperating Skywalker was forgotten as she began studying the entries with a critical eye, and then mounting elation. Prices were high, very, very high. Her initial reaction had not been wrong, and this promised to be a very profitable trip.
The sky outside was dark and the room dim when Luke returned a few hours later. He quietly stood in the doorway between their rooms, admiring the carnage. Mara was sprawled on the bed, on her stomach, her back to him, bare feet swaying back and forth. Data pads and printouts were strewn about her and on the floor. Artoo was plugged into the access port, numbers and figures scrolling by on the terminal.
"Now I'm trying still to get a fix on any demand changes." Luke realized she was speaking to Artoo. "Compare for my top ten selling products, the total amount of product estimated to have been imported quarterly over the last two standard years, any information on excess inventories and then extrapolate the estimated demand for the same product in the interval between this and my last trip."
She did not turn around, but continued, without pausing for breath, "Well, don't just stand there, farm boy. Get over here and take a look at what's going to make me rich."
Luke crossed the room. "Didn't your mother ever tell you not to read in the dark?" He used a Force nudge to turn on the overhead light, pulled his shoes off, and joined her, lying across the width of the bed.
"Uh, thanks, I didn't notice it had gotten dark." She did not glance up from the data pad.
He inched over and forward on his stomach like a limbless reptile to get a better view of the pad. "What did you find?"
Mara keyed a command into the pad, and columns appeared. She ran her finger down the row. "Comparing the prices I charged for these goods during my last trip to the prices now being paid for the same or similar goods, we are looking at increases on average of 50%. As you can see, averages being what they are, many are even higher."
Luke followed her fingertip along the column. "You said prices can fluctuate, and you were last here over 200 days ago, are these kinds of increases typical?"
Mara opened another file, and the two screens of information appeared side by side, permitting a comparison. "These are the increases I have seen historically, over the last five years." As he compared the figures, she continued, "Prices on the whole have risen, and there are some blips and aberrant bumps but ..."
"Never that high, or that fast."
"Or, most importantly across so many categories of products."
Mara turned her head to look at him; her eyes were pitted, lined with red, her hair coiled into a bedraggled knot. She had rolled up, pulled down, and otherwise mostly twisted her flight suit around her body. Such uncharacteristic disarray had obviously resulted from a single-minded, methodical attack on the puzzle before her. He did not need any Force sensitivity to read her smug satisfaction, intense eagerness and overlaying it all, fatigue. "Have you been at this all afternoon?"
She waved him off impatiently. "The thing we have to ask ourselves is why the increase?"
Luke sat up and leaned against the headboard of the bed. "Prices usually go up for two reasons, increase in demand or decrease in supply." He stopped, feeling her excitement rise another notch. "And can I assume from that predatory gleam in your eye that those manifests you got from the Customs office indicate that supplies of much sought after Imperial delicacies have not declined in the last seven standard months?"
As she nodded vigorously, the precarious knot came apart, releasing her hair in webby tangles. Her sharp mind plunging ahead with no time to waste on such niceties, she tied the mass into another messy twist. "With no appreciable change in supply, I've been trying to estimate whether there have been any particular increases in demand to account for the increase in prices. When there are no records of purchases, for instance sales, consumption or luxury taxes, it's hard to guess if consumers are buying more products. But so far, we haven't found evidence of a large party, event or fad, a move to hoard goods, or anything else that would result in such a jump in demand for goods across the board."
Privately noting her unusual use of the word "we" to no doubt include Artoo, Luke thought a moment about the implications of her observations. "So if there is no increase in demand, or decrease in supply to explain the prices, the only explanation is . . . ."
Mara interrupted him, and they finished the sentence in tandem, "An increase in credits."
Mara rolled over and sat up, resting her chin on her knees and hugging her legs tight. "It looks like a classic inflationary model -- too many credits chasing too few goods, and it's driving prices for the goods up."
"And with the constraints here, the normal correcting factors can't operate -- taking credits out of circulation or bringing in more goods."
Mara cocked her head at him in a lopsided grin, "I'll make a trader out of you yet Skywalker. There's still hope for you if you ever decide to leave the jungle and join the rest of us out here."
Her oblique compliment merited a chuckle, "What a ringing endorsement, I didn't know I was such a project."
"So having figured out this economic puzzle . . .."
"And not incidentally resulting in enormous profits for you."
Mara flashed a wicked smile. "As an opportunist in matters of money, I have no intention of letting this opportunity pass by unexploited. But as I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted, why are so many credits ending up in Imp hands for the purchase of luxury goods? I thought it could be counterfeit, but . . .."
Luke shook his head adamantly, "It's not only very hard to do, it's very easy to detect with the right equipment." He paused. "What we are seeing may be the same phenomenon Borkin claimed he found with Bacchanalia, evidence of a lot of excess cash in Tirgu."
Mara, still wound into a tight little ball, toppled over onto her side. She muttered into the bed. "Question is, where is all this new found wealth coming from?"
Luke had to turn his head and body sideways to try to maintain the conversation; her peculiar contortions were unnerving. "Could whatever is going on at Bacchanalia be causing the infusion of credits?"
As Mara twisted around again, stretching out to reach the floor and rummage among the printouts, he asked "Or maybe the activity in the Bacchanalia account isn't the cause, but just one of the effects?"
Mara selected one of the printouts and clambered back onto the bed. She flopped next to him, settling against the headboard with a crunch and an inarticulate grunt. "This is a summary of all outgoing product manifests reported to Tirgu Customs over the last year."
Luke leaned over to study it. "Not much until about four months ago." He went further down the list. "Well here's Bacchanalia . . ." He stopped, lifted the cover page in her hands to behold a long list of shipments, and whistled appreciatively.
Mara nodded her agreement. "They've been busy, haven't they?"
Luke pried the printout from her and started counting. "If these manifests are accurate, Bacchanalia is shipping hundreds of cases of Verratan wine a week. Mara, who would be willing to buy that much Verratan wine? It's not that good, is it?"
"Don't ever tell a Verratan that. They are very proud of their wine. But no, you are right, it's good, but not that good. I think it's indistinguishable from the lesser vintages of a dozen worlds."
Luke returned to his review of the shipping manifest. "Did you notice the values Bacchanalia is declaring for the wine -- looks like, ahh, around two hundred or so credits per case. That seems pretty unremarkable to me."
Mara yawned mightily, looking over his shoulder. "It is. It's not particularly high, but it's not absurdly low either. Of course, we don't know what they are selling it for on the open market, but at these values, once you factor in the costs to export, there is a lot of wine out there that is cheaper than anything from Verrat, and of higher quality. If there had been the demand to cover the cost and expense to export it, I would have done it years ago."
Luke tossed the manifest aside in frustration. "Besides, even if Bacchanalia was somehow getting rich selling hundreds of cases of mediocre wine, I don't see how that could translate into the kind of credit flood we think we are seeing."
Mara banged against the headboard again with a gusty humph and shut her eyes. "None of this makes any sense to me. Maybe the manifests are forged . . . ."
Luke added, "Or Borkin was right, and Bacchanalia is smuggling, but using the wine for cover." Mara listed to one side, rubbing her bleary eyes. "Yeah, but apart from the simple expense of getting to a place this remote, have you seen anything here so valuable it's worth risking the belt for?"
Luke looked hard into the drained, pale face. "Are you up for the dinner tonight? You look beat."
"No, I'll be fine. I think the stress of the run is finally catching up to me." Mara yawned again.
Luke grabbed a pillow, set it next to him, then put an arm around her shoulder, and gently tipped her over, bringing her weary head down to rest. "Why don't you catch a nap? I want to look at the rest of this data. We aren't due at Yur's for another two hours."
Mara resisted for a fraction of a second before collapsing into an inelegant heap. "Okay." Her breathing settled into the even rhythm of sleep a few minutes later.
Luke continued his review of the manifest, retrieving the other data pads and printouts, without disturbing the quiet, slumbering pile at his side. He saw the same things she had. No interruption in the supply of sought-after Imperial rarities that would justify the rocketing prices; no obvious event that could trigger a surge in demand for so many products. Hoarding made no sense; if for some reason the Imperial population had become nervous, they would have just left, not gone on a buying binge.
He also reviewed outgoing passenger lists hoping for a clue to the failure of the net. Based upon a sudden spike in passenger traffic four standard months ago, he thought he had found the approximate time the failures might have occurred. They would need more information, hopefully from Yur, before they would be able to piece together a complete picture of that part of the mystery.
And speaking of mysteries, he put down the printouts and turned his attention to Mara. Her face was turned away, his view limited to her fine, strong profile, and a fall of hair, still pulled into a ratty twist. He poised his hand over her supine form, and then relented to the impulse thwarted so many other times during the flight. He softly loosened the knot at her neck, running his fingers through the smooth, silky tangles. With the caresses, Luke felt, as he had feared he would, a renewed twinge, an unfolding that bitter disillusionment, years of ascetic deprivation, and even the burden of simple age had all but permanently crushed.
So the rumormongers of the galaxy had linked the two of them -- they no doubt both assumed too much, and understood too little. Luke knew the pendulum, at least for him, was swinging again. Mara's angry outbursts, her impetuous moods, and especially those occasional unguarded moments were, he thought, betraying a similar confusion. The Tales of Duke and Tara did not do justice to the delicate, exquisite struggle of their namesakes.
Twining his fingers lightly in her hair, brushing her collar, temple, the line of her back and hip with a whispered touch, he at last, confronted the paradox. Control, focus, peace, serenity, these were the way for a Jedi; all were wholly incompatible with the almost forgotten sensations stirred by the tempest beside him, now only momentarily becalmed. The power he had seen in her, that was so like his own, that he had badgered her to develop and trained her to use, was what most drew him to her, and was the very thing most perilous to him. Luke could see no escape from that inexorable conclusion.
He sighed and tipped his head back, gazing at the tattered canopy, tracing the fading, dusty pattern in the worn fabric. The life long battle against the Dark Side permitted no such vulnerability, left him no room for emotion for someone like Mara. It was far better for a Jedi to simply kill desire than attempt to sort through the potentially dire consequences of acting on it. With the ease that had come only with long practice, he quelled the brief flicker she had kindled, extinguishing the feeling before it could spread. Gathering up the printouts, he left her to sleep.
* * *
Mara rapped on the adjoining door with her foot, her hands simultaneously occupied with pulling on one shoe, taming her hair, and fastening jewelry. "You about ready?"
The door swung, and Skywalker was standing there in fulfillment of her worst nightmares, scrubbed, shaved, in mostly pressed clothing and carrying a bouquet of flowers.
Before Mara could stammer an appropriate rejoinder, he smirked, "I told you before I'll get you a blaster. These are for our hostess."
Mara recovered quickly. "That's a very thoughtful gesture, and very appropriate." She limped across the room for the other shoe. "Make sure to count the blooms, there should only be an odd number."
"It's bad luck to give an even number of flowers to someone." Retrieving the shoe, and finishing her final adjustments in front of a mirror, she could see him counting the bouquet. In the reflection, Luke pulled one long blue flower out of the bunch, stared at it a moment, and then set it on the table.
As she pivoted around again to face him, Luke gave her an appraising look, prompting her to ask, "Well?"
"That's interesting, I don't think I've ever seen you in a skirt before."
Mara struck her head with the flat of her hand in dumb amazement. "If we are ever going to find you a girlfriend, you are going to have to do better than that. 'Interesting,' is not a compliment. For future reference, neither is 'different,' 'unusual,' or 'unique.' If I have to give you advice on social dating conventions, you are going to have to up my commission to 25% Now try again, you obviously need the practice."
He grinned, a little abashed, "Why Mara, you look very nice."
"Thank you." Shrugging into an over tunic, which conveniently and not coincidentally concealed both her utility belt and her wrist holster, Mara circled around him. "You look quite presentable too, Luke." She drawled his name out just to prove she could do it. "But," she tugged the shoulder of his jacket straight, "this is a little big for you."
"Hey, it's all borrowed rags. If you don't like it, just make sure your next co-pilot wears my size."
Heading down to the hotel transport, Luke told her about his afternoon, "I found the Sunspot Cantina, and without a map."
Mara fired back, "Yes, but did you get lost trying to find it, and did more than an hour pass before you asked directions?"
As they entered the lift, he granted her a little victory, "Yes to both."
"Did you make contact with Kyle?"
He shook his head, "I had a glass, told them I was your co-pilot, asked a few questions. None of them know a Dazern Kyle; even the bartender hadn't heard of her."
As they left the lift, and crossed the lobby, Mara frowned, "I don't like the sound of that."
"One thing that was strange. They thought maybe I had the wrong name. Kyle is apparently an Imp family name. It is one of the lesser families, but they all thought it was hilarious that any Imperial woman would show up at the Spot."
The speeder and its courteous Verratan driver were waiting to take them to the North Tunnel of Tirgu. Mara had explained that tunnels under the city connected the shielded city proper from the unshielded Verratan villages and the farms. The Remschi's were not far from the North Tunnel; they would be able to walk back to the hotel at the end of the evening. As the ancient vehicle belched to life, Mara interrupted the driver before he was able to begin what promised to be a prolonged lecture on the beauties of Tirgu Muresh by night, "Does Bacchanalia have an office in the city?"
"Oh yes, Captain Jade, not far from here, off the Via of the Vines."
She whispered to Luke, "That's now the Grand Moff Avenue. Do you want to check it out? We have the time, and I thought it might be 'interesting.'" She lightly accented the last word.
Luke ignored her good humored jibe, "I was going to make the same suggestion."
Mara asked the driver, "Can we stop there, please? My co-pilot and I want to see if they need a ship for a run."
Their driver was nothing if not obliging, and informative. Executing a belabored turn, he said, "I will of course take you there immediately, Captain. I'm sorry to say, though that I do not believe Bacchanalia will be interested in your excellent and reputable services." He finished wistfully, "Like all else, they have hired their own pilots from off planet." The speeder lurched to a stop at a modest store front a few blocks from the hotel. Although it was full dark, and early evening, the streets were still busy with pedestrian and yesh traffic, last minute shopping and trading. The "Bacchanalia Trading Company SRL" sign was brightly lit.
As they moved toward the door, Mara whispered, "I should probably do the talking. Why don't you scope out the place, and try to get a feel for what's going on? Remember, there may a Force sensitive in there."
He held the door for her, and Mara strode into the busy office. Ten people, all clanging away on computer terminals stopped as one to gaze at the newcomers. A short, greasy man, oozed up to them before they were halfway into the foyer. He extended his hand first to Mara, and as she took it, Luke could feel her strong, distasteful reaction. "How may I help you?" Mara was crisp and polite. "I'm Captain Jade of the certified Trading Alliance ship Jade's Fire. This is my co-pilot." Luke nodded, but said nothing.
"I am very pleased to meet you Captain. I am Eugen Vitz, the office manager, welcome to The Bacchanalia Trading Company. How may I help you?" he repeated.
Luke could smell the tension as Vitz broke out into a nervous sweat. Luke's regard for Mara's dissembling edged up another notch as she sparkled one of her winning, oh so genuine smiles at Vitz.
"Actually, sir, I am here to ask if there is anything the Jade's Fire can do for you. We arrived in system today, and will be leaving in three days. I never like to leave with an empty hold and have not yet had the opportunity to do business with your company. I would like to negotiate a trading run with you. I have traded here for many years and can provide you with excellent references."
During her pleasant offer, Luke, remembering the lesson from Stoica, gently, slowly opened himself to the Force. Not sensing any other Force users, he cautiously reached out with the heightened awareness it gave him. He met a wall of anxious fear and grating animosity.
Even as he took a step back from the impact of that hostile reaction, Vitz began steering them backwards toward the door.
"Of course, Captain Jade. We so appreciate your interest." Vitz moved even closer to Mara, forcing her to withdraw further. He smiled, revealing a row of sharp, yellow teeth. "Unfortunately, we have already retained sufficient cargo space with our existing carriers for the next six standard months. Perhaps you should contact us then?"
Having pushed her almost to the exit, Mara halted her retreat so firmly, Vitz bumped into her. She extended her hand with another smile, forcing him to step away from her in order to return the polite gesture. "Thank you, Mr. Vitz. I will indeed check in with Bacchanalia on my next run here. Also, should you find that your needs change in the interim, contact any of the major brokers here, Buchu, Corydalis, or Rhuta. They can put you in touch with me. And," she promptly produced a holocard, "this is my card. I look forward to doing business with you in the future."
Vitz took the card gingerly, by the corner, as if fearing it would bite him, "Of course."
They piled back into the speeder and their driver set off for the North Tunnel. Mara repeatedly wiped her hand on her skirt. "After that shake, all I want to do is bathe. What a disgusting creature."
Luke agreed, adding, "And a very unconvincing liar. Clever of you to make him back off like that."
"Yes, well obvious tactics like that never work with me. Did you get anything?"
Luke was teasingly evasive, "Such as...?"
Mara was not in a mood for games, "You know what I mean, don't aggravate me."
"Well what did you get?"
Mara snorted with contempt. "Stop being coy. I was concentrating on getting slimed."
"Now Mara, do we need to rehearse your split concentration lessons?"
"Now Luke, do I need to break a few of your bones? Will you please answer my question, did you sense anything in there?"
"You mean something other than the fact they were very disturbed by our intrusion, that they wanted us out of there as quickly as possible, that several blanked their computer screens and shuffled papers so we couldn't see what they were doing, that there are at least two terminals an Artoo unit could access, that NRI may not have communications equipment that sophisticated and that the door between our rooms at the hotel is in better condition than the locks I saw to that office? Things like that?"
She gave him a shove with her elbow. "Yeah, things like that."
"No, I didn't see anything at all that would make me want to go back there. What about you?"
"I think a tour of the ruins of the Founders Hall would be more interesting," she glibly retorted. Mara paused, then added in a soft, teasing voice, "And I saw at least three access ports."
Luke returned the nudge, "I was just testing you."
"Oh sure, 'Master.'" She emphasized the title with a sarcastic twist. "Maybe you need to learn a few things from a different sort of Master."
* * *
As they tromped through the long dark tunnel to emerge on the unprotected other side, Luke wondered if everyone going to dinner parties on this side of town traveled with bunches of odd numbered flowers and a glow lamp. "Should I even ask why there are no street lights on this side of the barrier?"
The glow lamp bobbled in Mara's hand as they trod the uneven and pitted pavement. "Energy is expensive and there is no authority to maintain such things as public lighting. The Imps will maintain sanitation and basic public works like roads, but only because they need a healthy, mobile work force. It's not too much further."
They passed dimly lit block apartment buildings and narrow row houses. "So anything else I need to know for dinner tonight?"
"Well, there will probably be over 30 people there . . ."
"I thought this was just a family dinner."
"It is, Yur and Dona have ten children who have survived to adulthood. Last I was here, eight of them had married, and most of the married ones already had at least one child. It can be quite overwhelming. Make you wish for the solitude of Yavin."
"O.K. I think I can handle that. Anything else?"
"At the end of the meal, Yur will offer you a home brew from his own still. It's a traditional spirit called tolinka; don't refuse it, but trust me, don't try to keep up with Yur either. He will drown you, and then I'll have to carry you home."
She paused so long he had to prompt her, "What?"
"Well, just be prepared. I've known them a long time, and you're the first person I've ever brought over. They'll be curious."
Luke was able to keep his tone bland, betraying no amusement, "I understand."
Mara's voice became stern, "And remember about the Force. Yur's already probed you, but there are several in the family with a strong Force gift. Be careful, don't do anything fancy. Dona especially would disembowel you."
"I promise I'll behave."
"And we'll ask Yur about the net failures. We can also talk with him about Borkin and Bacchanalia, although he probably already knows we're interested. Just don't tell him why. They don't know about what I was, or the work I've done for the NR. I want to keep it that way."
Mara stopped at a row house at the end of a block of absolutely identical gates and row houses. Torches blazed on the walk and warm yellow lights shone through lacy curtains. "Why do I feel like I'm being brought home to meet the family?"
Mara laughed. "Not bad, although a more appropriate analogy may be a piece of livestock being appraised before auction."
"As long as no one asks to check my teeth," was Luke's slightly edgy response.
The door flew open and a herd of children thundered out, spilling onto the path, in a head long contest to wrap themselves around Mara's legs. A chorus of "Auntie Inta, Auntie Inta" erupted. The shepherds were clustered at the top of the step, sternly, and futilely calling the unruly flock to heel. Children firmly affixed to every limb, Mara labored up the steps, and into the waiting, eager arms of the Remschi's numerous family.
Mara had warned him, but sometimes words do not do justice to the experience. Luke followed slowly up after her, the throng having absorbed Mara and squeezed through the front door. He felt rather ridiculous slowly ascending the steps, with a bouquet in one hand and in the other, the glow lamp Mara quickly surrendered to him upon the children's assault. He paused at the open door, uncertain whether to enter. Mara was lost in the crush of embraces and kisses.
A boy peeled off from the crowd, and tottered toward him, one fist in his mouth, a model craft clutched in the other. He held the model up to Luke. "Who're ya?"
Luke stooped down to meet his greeter eye to eye, "I'm Luke. Who are you?"
The toddler stared at him with wide, dark eyes, and considered the question carefully, finally pronouncing with the infinite solemnity only a child can muster, "Toman."
"Well Toman, that's a nice ship you have there."
"Inta got it fer me."
"Really? Can I see it?"
Toman offered the model, a New Republic X Wing, complete with its own tiny astromech droid.
"Toman, do you want to be a pilot like Inta when you grow up?"
The child nodded, then suddenly attacked with a fit of shyness, fled to the refuge of a nearby dark skirt. Luke slowly stood, to meet the rest of the woman who went with the skirt. She was deeply browned, in a shapeless, somber garment and starched apron, her coarse, streaked black hair drawn into a severe knot. She reached out with both hands to help Luke up, relieving him of his burdens.
"Ah forgive us, that Toman is the first to welcome you to our home."
"Thank you, Madam . . . "
She shook his hands. "No, to Mara's friend, I am Dona." Dona stood on her toes, kissing him on both cheeks.
"So Yur and now Toman have told me." Dona smiled, looking down at the flowers. "Lovely, thank you for your unnecessary gift." Luke saw that she was actually counting the blooms. "Very thoughtful." She looked up again, "I apologize for our discourtesy. We only ask your forbearance. Mara has been away for a long time."
Dona's kind words were much at odds with his sense of her deep skepticism. As Luke felt her extend a confident, gentle probe, he had to steel himself to not react to it. Dona emanated a rich, serene aura through the Force; he knew few who were endowed with such a distinct, strong presence. As he concentrated on relaxation, peace, relaying that he was non-threatening, Dona immediately perceived even this innocuous gesture. Her eyes narrowed and her wariness increased, even as her smile widened.
Mara interrupted the tableau, coming forward to Dona. The two women clasped hands and kissed on each cheek, in what Luke soon learned was the customary Verratan greeting. Yur, head and shoulders above the rest, announced in a roaring voice, "And now we must all welcome Inta's friend Luke." Any lingering misgivings from his welcome were dispelled as the Remschi clan all surged to greet him, each of the some 20 adults, grasping his hands and kissing him first on one cheek, and then the other. Even Force recall was not going help him keep the shouted, ringing names straight.
In the orgy of embraces he heard a laugh in his mind, "You'll be quizzed on everyone's names at dinner." He knew Mara was very much aware of his discomfiture.
There was, fortunately, no such examination. Yur, every bit the generous, boisterous host, distributed glasses and ale, offering the first of many toasts to the lovely, talented Inta and her friend. The family then all crowded around a table so long, it extended from one small, cramped room of the flat, into the next. The table was groaning under the weight of steamed, pickled, mashed, roasted, baked and broiled food. In a certain, peculiar rhythm, each of the many courses had its own beverage -- first ale, three different wines then, before paralysis could set in completely, Mara's brandy.
The meal concluded with tolinka, a pure, devastatingly clear spiced ethanol. Mara joined the men in the drinking etiquette, which required them to swallow the tumbler-full in a gulp, slam the glass down, and shout "sherrifee," loosely translated Luke thought as "May I not go blind from what I just drank."
Luke acquitted himself so well, Yur offered to refill his glass several times. Grateful of Mara's warning, Luke begged off, but delighted Yur immensely with a request to take a bottle of the poison home. He was able to say truthfully that tolinka was indeed, like nothing he had ever tasted in the galaxy. If things ever got really dicey during the trip, Luke figured he and Mara could probably take out the entire space port with one bottle of Yur's home brew and a fuse.
* * *
After the dinner, Yur steered Luke to a corner. Easing his bulk into a deep chair, cradling his beloved brandy with one hand, he gestured Luke to the other chair. "Come, come, I must learn of you, of Inta's friend."
Although admiring the man's candor, Luke was not mollified. He sat warily at the edge of the chair, facing Yur.
"So, how long have you known Inta?"
Well that was innocent enough. "About 10 years ago, we met when she was working for Talon Karrde."
Yur narrowed his eyes, admiring the golden color of the liquid fire in his glass. "Karrde. An interesting man. His impulses are, I think, nobler than he realizes or cares to admit."
Luke smiled. "I think that's true. Karrde long proclaimed himself a neutral profiteer, but his actions indicated otherwise."
"His sponsorship was an important step for Inta. How did you meet her?"
Luke could answer the question truthfully, albeit by halves. "I was stranded in deep space with a cracked drive; Mara was piloting for Karrde and found my ship."
Yur continued eyeing and sipping his brandy, his seemingly disinterested posture, Luke realized, a clever ploy. Yur was carefully evaluating every word, every nuance of their conversation, firing questions at odd intervals, allowing pauses to hang, no doubt hoping Luke would offer more.
After another long gap, Yur asked, "So Luke, how do you earn your way? A young man of your talents is not always Inta's co-pilot I think?"
Again, Luke deemed half-answers probably safe, "I teach a far amount. I pilot some."
"A teacher. I see. Where do you live?"
Luke shrugged noncommittedly, "Like Mara, I live in different places. I don't really have a permanent home. I go where my students are."
"Well, we all come from somewhere. You have sprouted wings, but where are your roots?"
Luke was unsure if Yur's own truth sense was strong enough to detect falsehoods, and regardless, he did not wish to lie outright. His response was carefully phrased. "I was a farmer on a desert world you have never heard of for the first part of my life; most of my family died during the war." That was as far as he was willing to go, and Yur seemed to understand that he had pushed Luke to that limit. He was, nevertheless, totally unprepared for the next volley.
"So why have you not married Inta?"
Luke stared at Yur in opened-mouth amazement at the audacious question. He shook his head. "No, it's like Mara told you, it's, we're, we're old friends."
Yur chuckled deeply. "Ahh, no one would ever marry an old friend."
Luke was afraid he was actually blushing. He knew that Yur was manipulating him, that Yur had asked the question, not for any particular information, or serious interest, but to observe his own composure under stress. And Luke was not bearing up well under Yur's piercing scrutiny. He was finally able only to mutter "Really, it's not like that at all."
"Why not? Oh, I see, perhaps you are already married."
"Well, no, it's just, well, we're not ...." Luke finished lamely.
It was time to call in reinforcements. He searched and by sight and through the Force, found Mara, across the room with Yur's oldest daughter, Rodica. Their heads were bent in an earnest exchange, Luke realized, about himself, Mara fending off similar inquiries from Rodica. As he focused on the women's conversation, he felt Yur use the Force, but this time more assertively, in an effort to gauge his feelings .... It was a reflexive act, Luke could not check it; his barrier slammed down on Yur.
The brandy sloshed in his glass as Yur winced with the impact. Luke feeling the other man's surprise and chagrin, tried stammering an apology. Yur held up a warning hand, shaking his head, sincerely contrite, "Forgive me Luke. The fault is mine." Mara glanced up at them. She was still intent with Rodica, but Luke heard in his mind "Everything okay?"
He responded silently to her, "Fine." She smiled fleetingly in his direction before returning to Rodica.
Watching Mara, meters apart, and yet so attuned to her, the same feelings that had haunted him earlier that day selected this already uncomfortable moment to leap to life. Luke abruptly locked his rigid control into place, but not quickly enough. Yur was staring at him, comprehending both the link and Luke's sudden, confused reaction. Luke lowered his eyes, struggling to quiet his flush of embarrassment.
Yur returned to his brandy, allowing Luke, in a merciful pause, an opportunity to regain his shattered poise. Feeling a swell of sympathetic compassion, he then heard Yur softly say, "It is always so complicated." Luke could only nod.
As if nothing had transpired, Yur began in a jocular mode, "So I understand that you and Mara are interested in dim Witt Borkin?"
"Yes." Luke was so relieved at the course change, his quick response may have seemed callous. He added, "He seems to have disappeared, and we have some friends who are concerned for him."
"Borkin was a poor selection." When Luke did not respond to the implicit query, Yur continued blandly, "But Stoica has already told you of dim Witt's careless behavior, and his singular misfortune in obtaining work at Bacchanalia."
"It did seem strange that he was hired there, when no one else was."
"Indeed." Yur was pensive, swirling and sipping his brandy. "More caution on his part might very well have averted whatever hazard into which he seems to have blundered. Tirgu is a small place, and we," Luke knew Yur referred to the native Verratans, "are, for the most part, a close community. Borkin has most certainly disappeared, and if he were in Tirgu among us, we would know."
Luke asked, "Do you think he might have left Tirgu?"
Yur shook his head with conviction. "If Borkin had left from the space port, I believe I would have known of it," a brief, ambiguous smile flickered, "by one means or another."
"Of course, Bacchanalia has its own port now as well."
"True." They were silent until Luke ventured, "Could Borkin be with one of the Imperial families?"
Stroking his beard thoughtfully, Yur did not answer immediately, cataloging the Imps in his mind. "You must realize that all of the families require many Verratan workers, as cooks, maids, drivers, caretakers, waiters, whatever lowly service we can perform for them. It is likely the staff would know if Borkin were in one of the houses, whether as guest or prisoner. I have not heard anything, but will certainly make some inquiries." He extended his arm out, to encompass the room, saying with some resignation and bitterness, "Why my own family works for twenty or more different households -- much can be accomplished here."
Yur's voice lowered to whisper a confidence. "Although I perceive that you and Mara bring more sophistication to this matter that our young, misplaced friend, I caution you to leave this to me. It will be difficult for you to seek dim Witt without also repeating his errors. For reasons Stoica no doubt made clear to you, circumspection is called for, now perhaps more than before."
Luke nodded his agreement. "Something else Yur. We are also looking for a woman, named Dazern Kyle. Do you know her?"
Yur slapped Luke's knee with rough amusement. "You and Inta have misplaced many friends, Luke. Does such trouble always follow the two of you?"
Luke grinned at Yur's perceptiveness, "Sometimes it does seem that way."
"Well, in answer to your question, my wife will be reassured that no, I do not know a woman named Dazern Kyle. The family name though is familiar to me." Yur's voice boomed, "Rodica, Inta, you have gossiped long enough, come join us, help us solve a problem." Yur gestured his daughter closer, his own oversized figure dwarfing the diminutive Rodica.
Luke scooted over in his seat to make room for Mara, "We were talking about Dazern Kyle." Mara nodded.
"Rodica, my child, you have heard our guest's inquiry, and you know so many of the families. Do you know this woman?"
Rodica's brow furrowed with more deep lines than so young a woman should bear, "I don't know anyone who works for the Kyle family. They hire few, since they themselves must operate a trade. They manage the Credit Exchange."
Luke and Mara exchanged a glance, Luke muttering under his breath, "It figures."
Mara explained to Yur and Rodica, "We didn't know that, but it's not surprising. We'll look for her there."
Dona then interrupted them with a call to her daughter, "Rodica, it is your turn in the kitchen, dishes are still be done."
Luke's eyes widened, "Dishes? You mean, washing dishes?"
Rodica and Mara both laughed at him, Mara awarding him yet another painful jab, "What, you expect a kitchen droid to do the work?"
Rodica stood, stretching her hand out to Luke, "Come, here is something new for you."
Yur immediately protested this rude treatment of their guest, but Mara scolded him, "Now Yur, Rodica is right." She smirked, "Luke has been learning all sorts of new things as my co-pilot. Doing dishes is just another part of his training."
Prodded from the side, summoned from above, and his reputation at stake, Luke allowed Rodica to draw him up, saluting Mara good naturedly, "Aye Cap'n." Hearing Mara begin questioning Yur about the security net, he wove with Rodica through the family, furniture and children into the kitchen.
A pile of plates and glasses awaited them, neatly stacked on the counter, a basin of soapy water at the ready. Rodica donned an apron, "I will spare you the indignity of an apron. Have you really never done this before?"
"Of course I have. I've lived alone for a long time; there are some things every bachelor has to learn. Wash or dry?"
Her laugh was teasing, lilting, "I thought as much. It is just a game with you and Mara isn't it?" She went on, not expecting a reply, "I shall wash; with the work I do in the vineyards, my hands are never really clean anymore."
They tackled the stack. "So you work at the vineyards?"
"Yes. The vineyards of Tirgu Muresh produce much excellent wine, now, of course being sold by the Bacchanalia company. Do you know of them?"
"Mara just learned about Bacchanalia recently."
Rodica exuded a quiet pride. "At one time, the Empire brought vines from all over the galaxy here for cultivation. Some vines are over one hundred years old. Only recently have we begun to recapture the skills necessary to truly reap what the vines give us."
They were interrupted by a little girl in a coarse, carefully starched brown smock who pushed through the door, cautiously bearing a dirty plate in her hands. Startled to see the grown ups, she halted. Charged with her errand, she mustered her courage, and cautiously edged forward with her precious load, raising her hands over her head, standing on tip toes to carefully slide the plate onto the counter before turning to face them. Rodica awarded her a warm, mock serious "Thank you, Alyne." Alyne looked from Rodica to Luke, and back to Rodica, and then fled.
They both laughed, although to Luke, Rodica's own gaiety was forced. As she wiped a tear from her eye with the back of her soapy right hand, he was suddenly drawn to Rodica's left hand, which had dropped to her own waist. In the Force he felt a powerful throb, a throb independent of the rhythm of Rodica's own pulse.
He blurted it out without thinking, "You're pregnant."
Rodica gasped in amazement, then spread her apron across her front, "How could you know that? I have only . . . ."
Luke silently cursed his blunder; this was not a preferred way to remain inconspicuous. "I'm sorry, I could just tell. Congratulations."
She continued staring at him, then extended a gentle Force tendril. As with the others he had met, her awareness was strong, but unfocused, like a sixth sense perceiving a part of the world invisible to others. This time he reciprocated the light probe; as he did so, comprehension dawned in her face.
Rodica said nothing, pivoting away from him, and returning calmly to the basin of dishes. "Thank you for your kind wishes," her voice was flat, expressionless. She immersed several glasses and began carefully washing them. Methodically rinsing one, she handed it to him, saying softly, entreatingly, "I would ask, however, that you not speak of this to anyone in my family, or to Mara." She continued her chore with a painstaking care, Luke suddenly realizing, that was reflective not of what the task at hand demanded, but of other, far weightier issues.
Her distress was so great, he could not stay silent, "What do you mean?"
Not looking at him, seemingly absorbed in mundane washing and rinsing, she finally said slowly, "Sorin, my husband and I must decide soon whether to terminate this pregnancy." She rinsed another glass, delicately placing it in his empty hands, then returned to the basin. "Forgive me for shocking you. I know that views on this subject vary widely."
Luke said nothing, attempting, with little success to match her casual effort, to quiet his visceral reaction to her announcement. Her reasons, her motivations utterly eluded him. He knew it was not his place to judge this woman or the morays of her culture; yet, the Jedi could not let this go unchallenged. He finally asked, "I don't know that I understand why."
Rodica paused over the basin, staring at her tiny, rough hands before submerging them. She raised a stemmed glass from the water to the light, studying a large bubble trapped in the glass, moving it slowly, observing the iridescent shape shift, slide, and then pop. "This is my fourth pregnancy. The first time, I miscarried; the second, the child was born early and died. Then, a year ago, I was working in the vineyards and miscarried again; there is no medical care available -- I nearly bled to death among the red wine grapes. The mid-wife believes that the child is unlikely to survive and that this pregnancy will kill me."
Rodica calmly rinsed the final glass, and the washing done, snagged a towel and began drying the fragile vessel. She said matter of factly, with no rancor, "So Luke, do not judge us so quickly."
For a second time that evening, Luke felt the color rise in his face. Her gentle candor and just admonition was wrenching. "I'm sorry, I didn't know."
She set down the glass and picked up another, "No, of course not. How could you know of our life here?" Only her deep sigh betrayed the toll of the explanation she in no way owed him. "As with so many other things, we have only the quick and brutal options, the hard choices. Here, terminating a pregnancy is far easier than preventing one."
The dishes done, Rodica took his towel and her own, hanging them neatly on a rod. She smiled at him, "You will speak of this to no one?" and began moving toward the door, confident in his discretion.
Luke made a sudden decision, "Rodica." At his call, she turned back, frowning. He began again, "Rodica, you know that you have a certain gift?" As he spoke, he reached out slowly to her again through the Force.
Rodica stared at him, then nodded, and he felt her own, strong, untrained awareness stir. She whispered, "We do not call it a gift. And in this matter, foresight has failed. The future is dark to me."
"I can help you find that foresight."
She touched his arm lightly, her eyes wide, bright and damp with hope, "Truly?"
She recoiled slightly as he raised his hands to touch her face, "Don't be afraid." Luke gently reached into her mind, telling her, "Focus on the child, think of that spark, of that little flame, do you see it?" He felt her quail at the task, "No, it's all right, I'll show you," and as Luke guided her there, they both felt, at the same instance, the strength, the lively health of the fetus within her.
With a touch Luke shifted Rodica's awareness again, finding where her latent ability rested, releasing the future for her which had been locked behind her dark fear. An image rolled before them, a little girl very much like Alyne, running on sunlit grass toward them, to an older Rodica and another man Luke knew must be Sorin. Rodica gasped at the import of the vision, calling out "Lumeninta, little light," her surge of elation so joyous to be almost painful to him.
As the vision faded, Rodica grasped his hands, her voice full, trembling, "Thank you Luke, I . . ." She broke off suddenly, stiffening.
Luke turned, but sensed before he saw the reason for Rodica's stab of uncertainty. Dona was standing as a forbidding, severe guard at the door.
Rodica swallowed convulsively, nodded at her mother's unspoken order, and darted out of the kitchen, leaving Luke alone with Dona. She was rigid with tightly leashed fury. That she did alter her seeming calm stance made her wrath all the more terrible. Dona's focus was resolute, absolute. The only thing more potent than the raw, untrained power pulsating in her stern form was the force of will which had subdued it. Without such control, she would be devastating; with it, she seemed indomitable. The complete mastery shamed him.
Responding to the torrent of emotion, Yur and Mara pushed their way into the kitchen, both with the same look of concern and curiosity. Dona shooed them away smiling, "Now you two cannot monopolize him all night. I will not damage your friend Mara. We are just having a talk."
Luke heard Mara's own silent query in his head, but brushed her aside with a gentle, "Later." Yur did not believe a word his wife had said, but left reluctantly, shaking his head mournfully.
Alone again, Dona turned back to him. She began her frigid interrogation. "Did Mara tell you nothing of what we believe?"
"No, she did, don't blame her."
Her retort was one of composed ferocity, "Then I can only assume that you are so stupid that you do not understand or so arrogant that what we believe is of no consequence to you."
It was as if Yoda himself had issued the reprimand, wounding to the core. "No, that's not it, I . . . "
"Silence." Her soft command brooked no refusal. She looked at him closely, her distinct, keen awareness washing over him. Dona then began slowly, "We have a word in our language -- for when one receives a valuable gift not worth its cost -- a delicate pack animal that eats more than it can carry, a coat with intricate detail, beautiful to look upon but that cannot be washed and offers no warmth. I think you know this word?"
Luke shook his head in wordless denial.
"We call both the gift and the giver 'jedi.'"
Luke faltered over his explanation, "I was only showing Rodica how to do so something she already knew; her innate ability was there, I only showed her how to find it."
"Oh, and because we all have the innate ability to do wrong, does this excuse those who merely show us how to do harm, or provide us with the means to do so?"
"But," he stammered, "she is pregnant, and needed to know whether she or the baby would live, whether she should terminate her pregnancy."
Her anger did not lessen, but became more intense, more contradictory, as it warred with her desire to know what he and Rodica had seen. She bowed her head, in acknowledgement of the weakness that compelled her to ask with a whisper, "What did you see?"
"They will both live."
Her eyes closed in silent relief, before flying open again with an accusatory glare, "The end result cannot forgive what you have done. What if the vision had shown otherwise? Her death, or that of the child? Were you prepared to show her that as well? Did you consider that possibility?"
It was a question Luke could not possibly answer. He said nothing, did not attempt to justify his action. Any explanation would only infuriate her further. He stood quietly, and after a few moments, Dona cloaked her own power, wrapping herself again in an aura of supreme calm.
She began speaking in a measured voice, "I know that you intended no evil in your assistance to my daughter. But having borne this burden for longer than you, I will remind you that when we think we know the future, we abdicate responsibility for making that future."
He ventured again, "I'm sorry. I know that the future is in motion, . . ."
Dona cut him off, "And knowing this you still sought it, sought to show it to Rodica? To one who does not understand these things as you and I do?" She shook her head, "Speak no more of this. I," she stumbled over the admission, "I have learned not to trust my own visions." She continued levelly, "We can only hope for Rodica's sake that your vision is true. Emotion, what we wish to see, often clouds the path. If you do not know this, learn it now. Otherwise, you may do harm, to yourself and others."
As Luke nodded at her rebuke, thinking of the similar lesson of Bespin, Dona suddenly grasped his hands. Her eyes widened in understanding, as she somehow shared with him that awful memory on the platform.
"So, it is as I suspected." She sighed heavily, sadly. "We know more of Mara than she believes, but out of deference to her desire to keep her worlds apart, stay silent on this." She turned his hands over in her small, hard brown ones, fingering the perfect right one, and the calloused left. "When she lived with us, we came to share her dreams. And although she never spoke of these things, we knew what she had been, whose hand had controlled her," Dona looked at his right hand intently, then released him, raising her eyes to burrow into him, "And we know who she blamed for her loss."
She sighed again, shaking her head. "When my husband told me that Mara would bring someone tonight and what his name was, I had thought it at most, a peculiar coincidence. I see now that it is no coincidence."
Luke ventured tentatively, "No, it isn't."
Dona frowned with bemused confusion, "I must say, I do not understand what is between you and her."
"If Mara has not said anything, I don't believe I should either," Luke responded, trying to salvage whatever shreds of his dignity remained.
Her insight denied him even that, "You hope to atone for your own lack of discipline now by implying that I seek information from you I could not hope to obtain from Mara. I meant only that we know how she long sought your death."
"That was a long time ago."
"True." There was more in her statement than she revealed, but she did not elaborate. Dona continued, "We have over the years, seen a change in Mara, felt her power and confidence grow. Are you responsible for this?"
"Partly. She has many natural gifts that," he paused, "others have exploited. I've helped her to correct the damage, and to develop her own skills." The good will and respect of this dignified, powerful woman mattered immensely to him; Luke hoped that with this acknowledgment, he might earn her esteem. He was mistaken.
Dona's comprehending gaze seemed to lay bear his very soul, discerning his strength, his control, his weaknesses and failings. He felt, not respect from her, but pity, sadness, and like Yur, compassion. She stepped closer to him, raised a hand to his cheek, as in a benediction, "My son, you take much upon yourself in this, and I think other things as well. A true Jedi."
Luke felt his throat tighten, thinking of her words, thinking how they echoed his own doubts of the lonely path his life had taken. At that instant, a rush of children crashed through the kitchen, Toman leading the way, in a whirling firefight. Toman barreled into Luke breathless, the others in hot pursuit. They raced in circles, shouting, "Found him, found him Inta!" before blasting out of the kitchen again.
Dona smiled, this time with warmth and humor. "I believe that is your summons Luke. Mara will be worried that I have damaged you, my assurances notwithstanding."
Luke laughed, "I don't think so. Not Mara. If you damaged me, it would only save her the trouble."
Dona patted his cheek again, with affectionate tolerance. "So you think? Well, my friend, in all these years, Mara has never brought someone here before. She would have only merged these two separate worlds of hers if she trusted you, if you were important to her in some way."
* * *
The embraces, good byes, and well wishes took almost as long as the dinner itself. There were also several more toasts with Yur's tolinka -- to health, happiness, and a safe trip home, the latter particularly important given the state of the guests. By the end, Mara was glad neither she nor Luke was driving. As a parting gift, Yur gave them each a wine bottle refilled with tolinka.
To a chorus of cheers, they tripped down the steps and into the dark street, weaving slightly from Yur's generous hospitality. Almost as soon as they were out of earshot of the house, the question Mara had been withholding burst out, "What was that all about with Dona?"
"Nothing," was the surly reply.
"Pretty big nothing if both Yur and I felt it."
"I really don't want to talk about."
They continued in silence through the dark tunnel, up the other side, to the shielded city, continuing along the lit, deserted avenue. The glow lamp illuminated their path, jumping and jostling with the unsteady hands who alternated carrying it.
Luke finally blurted unprompted, "I used the Force to help Rodica."
Mara spun around, "What?!? Why the hell did you do that?"
Mara cut into his explanation, furious, "Didn't I warn you? Didn't you listen? I'm surprised Dona didn't just throw you out."
He grabbed her arm, "Mara, let me explain, please." She yanked free of him, swearing, and strode away from the arrogant fool. "Please, just listen," he called after her.
Mara whirled around again, prepared to deliver more scathing invective. Luke was slumping against the low wall bordering the walk, dejected, disconsolate. Sith, how she hated these episodes of morose despondency, even when he had no one but himself to blame. She stalked back to the hunched form, and stood in front of him, arms folded across her chest, tapping her foot impatiently. "All right, explain, I'm waiting."
Luke continued staring down at the ground, and finally the story came out, hesitant word by word. "Rodica is..." He started again. "We were doing the dishes. And she, well I figured out that she is pregnant."
Mara started in shock at his revelation, "But she..."
"I know. She told me. She said that she and Sorin were trying to decide whether to terminate the pregnancy."
Mara softened slightly for Rodica, and for the foolish Jedi, who was, at his core, a farm boy who would never learn better. Like a thread tying one to the other, as her anger drained, Luke responded, looking up to meet her gaze. She saw remorse and guilt there.
"So what happened?"
"I helped her reach the fetus, and then helped her find their future. She was able to see that both she and her little girl would survive." Mara exhaled with relief the breath she did not know she had been holding, "And Dona caught you?"
"And gave you an Imperial tongue lashing."
Luke continued ruefully, "I didn't mean to do anything wrong. I, I just couldn't stand by and let her do something like that if I could help her see a better way." Luke hung his head again miserably.
Mara drew a step closer to his self-contained barrier. Tentatively resting one hand on each of his wretched shoulders, she almost pulled back herself as Luke flinched with the unexpected physical solicitude. She cleared her throat roughly. "Most people face these things every day without the benefit of foresight. You..." Hesitating, she amended, unusually inclusive, "...we shouldn't presume to make those decisions for them."
"That's what Dona said," he muttered.
Mara squeezed his shoulders, saying with a gentleness that surprised her, "She's right."
He straightened in a challenge, catching her eye, "So are you saying you wouldn't have done the same thing?"
"You know I can't project into the future," she snapped, now angry, recoiling.
Luke raised his hands, resting one on each of her arms, subtly halting her retreat. "No, but you would have known how to show Rodica."
"I ..." Mara intended to disavow his charge, but suddenly knew it would be a lie to do so. Stang, it was impossible to deny self-knowledge with a Jedi Master around. She bowed her head, in resignation, touching her forehead to his. Her confession was as halting as his. "I probably would have done the same thing."
They stood there for some time, not speaking, each comforted with the unexpected discovery that there was someone else who understood that powerful gifts sometimes are worth the price they may exact.
Mara broke off first, placing the flat of her palms on his chest, "I have an idea." She pushed him lightly for emphasis.
Luke arched an eyebrow, taking a more secure hold of her that was almost, but not entirely, unwelcome, "Yes?"
Mara squirmed slightly under his hands. "I say we go back to the hotel," she paused, leading him on, even though he knew exactly where she was going.
"Okay, then what?"
She stopped fidgeting, "And get Artoo."
She leaned forward, whispering in his ear, "Go break some laws."
He laughed, "What kind of laws?"
Mara tipped back slightly, then forward again, to whisper in the other ear, "Breaking and entering."
They hurried back to the hotel, hustled through the empty lobby and upstairs. By the time Mara slipped into Luke's room, he had readied Artoo and like her, had changed into darker clothing. She had the glow lamp and the bottle of tolinka; their explosives kit was slung over her shoulder.
"I'm ready to party. How about you?" She pried the cork off with her teeth, took a burning mouthful, and handed him the bottle, "Even if this is mine, I'll let you have some."
Luke took a deep swallow, and handed it back, "Let's go."
They quickly exited the hotel, moving as stealthily as Artoo permitted through the darkened streets, both reaching through the Force for any movement. Nothing was awake for blocks, the entire city seemingly in a peaceful slumber. They arrived at the Bacchanalia store front without incident, it, like the streets, empty.
"Check the building, see if there's anything we need to get passed," Mara hissed. She was studying the front door.
Luke returned a few moments later, silently, and quite suddenly at her elbow. "No cameras, triggers, or alarms I can find. How do you want to get in, cut a hole?"
He had his lightsaber half way off and out before she could stop him. "Not so fast, Jedi." Luke pivoted, staring down at her with a tight grin and a flash of disappointment. What had gotten into the Master?
"Aren't you going to make me come up with some convoluted legal justification for violating local laws and breaking into a building?" Mara accused in an amused whisper.
Luke's response was to test the handle of the locked door impatiently. "I'll be sure to report you to the magistrate. Right now, I want to know what they are doing in there."
Mara elbowed him again. "Well, if you don't make a citizen's arrest, I think I can satisfy your curiosity." She reached into her pocket and pulled out a slim credit transfer card. Flexing it back and forth, she then forced the card between the door and the door jam. She grunted softly, "I have better tools, but sometimes, only the old-fashioned method works on old-fashioned doors." Sliding the card down the length of the door to the handle, she began working the spring mechanism. They heard a soft click and the door swung open.
"Master Locksmith too, I see." Mara was left standing at the threshold as Luke pushed by her into the darkened office. Artoo followed right behind him, rolling to the nearest access port.
"I'll check the communications logs, you go check Vitz's computer." Mara would have snapped at Luke's curt near-order, but she was already headed to the terminal when he delivered it.
As Luke rifled through the office with the care and enthusiasm of a smuggler, Mara began her assault on the Bacchanalia network. Vitz's computer was simple in the way that only immense cost and sophistication afford. Irritation with the Jedi disappeared in her eagerness to share the discoveries. "Skywalker, take a look."
Luke eased his way over to the terminal, stooping behind her to share the view of the illuminated screen. Mara felt his hands contact her seat's back, gripping the hard plastic as he steadied into a crouch anyone but a Jedi would find hopelessly awkward. They studied the screen together.
In her ear, Luke whispered, "Vitz is very organized, isn't he?"
"Typical Imp," she snorted softly. "Remind me to thank him. It's these file names. 'Investors,' 'Targets,' 'Buyers,' 'Prospects,' and 'Suckers.' I wonder what a 'Sucker' file would mean, any ideas?"
"No," came back hoarse and quiet over her shoulder. She felt the hair at her neck move with his breath. "What's in the files?"
"Lists?" Mara heard the puzzlement and felt a restless finger tap the back of her chair.
"Lists and lists of names, addresses, people, thousands of people.
"Better copy them all," he said, again with a hint of command.
"Chip's already in the computer. How's Artoo doing?"
"I think he's about done." Mara again felt his breath on her nape as he leaned forward to study the screen. "Will Artoo be able to get this all off their network?"
"Yeah. He should. I'll copy the important stuff just to make sure."
Luke reached toward the display, his arm brushing against her as he pointed to files called "Financial Statements," "Prospectus," and "Dividends." "Make sure you copy those."
Mara backtracked. "I already did. What have you found?"
"Not much. They are buying and selling lots and lots of wine all over the galaxy, but predominantly in the Core. We were right about the equipment though. It's top of the line, brand new. Have you found the credit records?"
She shook her head, saying quietly, "I keep looking, but nothing yet."
"Maybe we'll have to get them direct from the Credit Exchange?"
"You sound awfully wistful for a defender of peace and order, Skywalker. If the credit records aren't here, we'll think of something."
"We can always just break some more laws."
Mara's skin prickled at the provocative, intent whisper in her ear, her heart involuntarily giving so loud a thump, she was positive he must have felt it. The low chuckle that followed confirmed that he had. Damned Jedi.
Tension filled warmth rose in the room. Mara felt Luke's piercing and considerable regard divert from study of the computer entries, to her. Resolutely ignoring him, she stared ahead at the screen, and finally stammered, "We could try breaking into the Exchange, but . . .." She lost her words as a finger began toying with the earring dangling from her right ear. She shrugged off the finger with a gruff gesture, "Cut it out Jedi."
His voice came closer, softer, "Why?"
"Because I don't like it, that's why."
The finger returned, this time pressing lightly on her throat to take measure of a pounding pulse, "Liar." His hands reached around, encircling and trapping her. Purposefully, and quite deliberately, he swiveled her chair around so that Mara stared, dumbfounded into the face of her truly unknown assailant.
Suddenly they both froze, sensing at the same time, someone outside approaching the office. Mara dove off the chair, careening clumsily into Luke. They both tumbled onto the floor, and scrambled into the cramped space underneath the desk. She fumbled up to the desktop and blanked her computer screen. Luke cast about for Artoo, who was illuminated in a green glow at the access port.
"Great timing Skywalker."
Mara felt Luke stretch out cautiously with the Force. Not knowing if the person was sensitive, they did not want to alert him to their presence if he was. A relaxed, slightly alert man, moved into their awareness.
"Night watchman," Luke murmured.
Mara used the Force, and dimmed the light around Artoo.
Crouched, almost on top of one another, elbows and knees thrust painfully into the other's sides, wedged under the desk, they waited, in the dark, hearing as the man paced along the walk outside the Bacchanalia door. Then with slow, even steps, the watchman continued his rounds, moving down the street, finally fading into the night. Still they waited, sensing each other's quick breathing and the damp smell of anxiety.
Luke crawled out first, then helped Mara rise. While he confirmed that Artoo had completed the dump, Mara closed down the computer, stowed the chip, and collected their party kit. "Let's get out of here." Certain the street was deserted once again, they bolted out and back to the hotel.
In Luke's room, Mara broke open the bottle. "You throw one hell of a party, Skywalker." She took a deep draught and then surrendered it to him.
He raised the bottle in salute, "Sherrifee, my partner in crime."
Mara retrieved the bottle, proffering another toast, "To breaking more laws." The words slipped out carelessly before she thought to censor them.
They stood awkwardly, in silence. Mara, anxious to avoid a replay of what had occurred before the computer terminal, abruptly beat a retreat to the safety of her own room. Not wanting to know what Luke was thinking, what he was feeling, not wanting him to sense her own turmoil, she cut off even the simple link that had come to bind them. She immediately regretted her childishness, recognizing that sealing off her own emotions was as likely to send the wrong message as broadcasting them.
From behind the unlocked door Mara sought to make amends. She whispered into his mind, "Beats rotting in the jungle doesn't it? I told you this would be fun."
"You were right, Mara."
"'You were right, Mara.' I like the sound of that. Say it more often Skywalker, and I might let you come with me again."
She felt his yawn, a concession to the demands of a long day. "Maybe, but remind me the next time you invite me to a dinner party, to decline the invitation."
The appropriate retort came to her in a flash, "Now you know how I feel around your family Skywalker."