FOLLOW THE MONEY
Mara was pacing. She had been up for over an hour, had some tea, remembered where she was and then regrettably, what her last disturbing thoughts had been before falling asleep. Shutting her mind from those murky, dangerous permutations, she pulled the blanket more closely around her shivering form, warding off the chill of the Tirgu morning and contemplated her conundrum. Skywalker was still sleeping off the previous day's exertions in the next room and Mara wanted his droid. The droid was in the room with Skywalker. She could wake Skywalker, but she would rather just have the droid. The lure of the inner workings of Bacchanalia only meters away was a powerful incentive for overcoming her reluctance to venture into that room.
Mara ultimately opted for the subtle approach. Brandishing her blaster, she silently coaxed Artoo into her room with the promise of evisceration if it didn't cooperate.
She had intended to spend a quiet hour or two perusing financial data. Other women might prefer the gossip section of the morning news, a nice romance novel, or their favorite space opera. Mara eschewed prattle, despised romance of any sort and saw no purpose in squandering energy on the travails of fictional characters. For her, the drama of a company's profit and loss statements made for more compelling reading.
This morning, however, concentration and focus deserted her. The intricacies of her own space opera proved too distracting for even the purported Bacchanalia balance sheet. Her mind kept flying back to how she had acquired the data; what had happened during her review of the purloined files the night before -- the dizzying fear of discovery, the intoxicating danger and tension all woven into the dark illicitness of a criminal act. That the experience had thrilled her was not a surprise; that Skywalker had been the catalyst, and that he had shed his contemptible control to also revel in the thrill was.
The episode was demanding a reappraisal she had long postponed and had hoped to forestall altogether. In moments of candor, she knew that her own unattractive traits of a demanding and remote temperament had not been conducive to successful long term relationships. Although she would have never admitted it to him, his observation that she had compromised intimacy for independence and self-sufficiency had been unerringly insightful.
It had been a deliberate choice; she knew herself to be a loyal friend, a shrewd trader, and a desirable woman. The compromise had come in the ordering; she seldom risked business with friends or lovers; lovers were never more than casual friends whose inevitable loss would be not missed; and close friends whose loss would be missed were never lovers. Approaching forty years of age, she had no regrets and saw no reason to alter the formula now.
No, the problem was with him, not with her. Mara partly blamed herself. With her goading, he was reassessing the fulfillment of years as a hermetic Master to a flock of fawning acolytes. If Skywalker had stayed the master of mind and body, he would not now be savoring the exhilaration of life on the other side, the shuddering thrill of restraint giving way to caprice or desire. She could not fault him; she herself craved the same things; the exquisite excitement of delicately balancing control and impulse, discretion and reckless abandon, temperance and passion. He was walking a tense, sharp edged line, wavering first one way, than another and Mara was trapped in the emotional wake of his self discovery.
If this had happened when they first met, things might have been very different; she might have killed him, and if unsuccessful, their association might have taken a different, more personal turn. A decade ago, younger, not yet entrenched in separate, self-contained lives, they might have found a rhythm, a balance of power. But long since locked in a dance unfettered by romance, their partnership had never demanded the compromise or shared vulnerability of an intimate relationship. To alter the steps now was impossible, for doing so would require one partner to accede to the other. Mara was certain that these recent dalliances aside, he would never relinquish his uncompromising self-control, and failing that, she would forever be a student to the Master.
Mara returned to the Bacchanalia data. These were concrete, resolvable problems that followed predictable patterns and rules.
Some time later she heard the groggy mind next door begin to stir. She waited a few moments, and then ventured to the damned unlocked door. If he had been in the basement, such courtesies would have been immaterial. "I've got tea, do you want some?" She heard only a mumbled, incoherent response, apparently a yes.
She drew the blanket more firmly about her and then shuffled into the room, bearing the carafe and two cups. There was a lump in the bed denying the march of morning into afternoon. Setting a cup down on the nightstand next to the end she thought was his head, Mara then retreated, nestling into a chair as an animal circling before finding its rest.
The lump groaned and then mumbled, "Thanks. Is this just the after effects of Yur's home brew?" A hand emerged from under the covers and fumbled for the remedial cup, drawing it in.
Mara sipped from her own cup. "Probably. But we had a busy day. Although it seems ages ago, we did get through the belt yesterday."
Another groan. "And then one of the worst dinner parties of my entire life."
Mara tried to muster sympathy. "Well I can't believe you have been to all that many."
The head and torso emerged with a cringe. "All the more reason why this one was such a disaster."
Mara issued as a prim reprimand as a wild haired woman swaddled in blankets could. "Well dinner guests usually do not make a point of breaking social and cultural taboos and getting a lecture by the hostess."
Speaking through a yawn, Skywalker confessed, "Oh yeah, I guess that happened too."
This time Mara groaned. "What else did you do?"
Drawing strength from the hot stimulant, Luke felt better prepared for Mara's condemnation. He looked over at her and was immediately heartened; Mara had curled into a chair, presumably tucking her legs under her. The ambiguity of her means of support resulted because nothing was visible except the legs of the chair and her head; the rest was swathed in a fluffy pink blanket. The image was both deceptively fragile and ridiculous; for a myriad of reasons, pink was not Mara's color. "Well Yur tried probing me again, and this time I smashed into him."
"Unbelievable," said the disembodied head.
Luke was torn between pulling a pillow over his own head or pummeling the raving bitch lunatic with it. "Part of this is not my fault, so stop making it sound as if I'm to blame here. For all your talk about Force courtesy, no one has extended the same courtesy to me."
"What did you do?" she asked in a tone as frigid as the room.
"Gosh, Mara, what would you do under those circumstance, hmm? Just let a stranger rake through your emotional state? You know our shielding is almost automatic, particularly in the face of an untrained probe. Yur deliberately put me off balance, asked some very rude questions, and then tried a very aggressive probe."
Suspicious skepticism laced her query, "Yur? Really? What could he have possibly said to deserve the crushing blow of his life you no doubt leveled?"
"Trust me, he is very protective of you. He asked me why I had not married you."
Her censure evaporated into stunned silence. "Oh." She smiled slightly. "Poor Jedi. I had a similar problem with Rodica. I tried to explain, but it was difficult to do so without also telling her who you really were."
"Mara, they figured that out." When she did not respond, he continued, "Dona knew I was a Jedi from almost the moment I walked in the door. She sensed my artificial hand, knew what I had done to Rodica. It didn't take any tremendous leaps in logic, particularly because . . ." His voice trailed off.
"Well she knows who you are too, what you were, as she described it, 'whose hand controlled you.' I don't think her choice of words was accidental."
She slumped glumly into the blanket and chair.
"Dona said that she even knew that you had wanted to kill me."
"There you go using the past tense again, Skywalker." Her light answer was contradicted by a swell of frustration.
A mound of pink fuzz shrugged with resignation. "I guess I just don't want all that to interfere with my work here."
Thinking again of the neatly labeled files of her organized life, Luke thought he understood the real reason for her perturbation. "Well, I think it's impossible to conceal anything from Dona. Do you have any idea how powerful she is? If it's any consolation, Dona said they've known ever since you lived with them, but they haven't said anything because they knew you wanted to keep these things separate."
Mara said sourly, "Am I that obvious?"
Luke did not know what to say; to him it had become obvious. "I suppose you can't keep everything so segregated, sometimes the lines do get blurred." He didn't think that his mild statement merited the glare he received. Luke changed the subject to spare himself a lashing he was not prepared to receive. "I notice Artoo is missing. Have you disintegrated him, or just couldn't keep your hands off my droid?"
Mara unfolded herself from the chair. "I snuck in earlier and stole it."
"Well, thanks for letting me sleep in."
Mara's response was lofty. "That wasn't hard. All I wanted was the droid."
"Were you able to figure out what the 'Sucker List' was?"
Mara furrowed her face in a quizzical expression. "Sort of. According to the file, it appears that every "sucker" has bought wine from Bacchanalia within the last four months. But 'sucker' is a peculiar term to use to describe one's loyal customers."
"So what's on for today?"
"Since yesterday was a market day, I want to wait until tomorrow to sell the remaining cargo. And I want to spend some time with that data."
"You know Mara, I think we should open a credit account at the Tirgu Muresh Credit Exchange operated by the eminent Kyle family."
"You know, Luke, I think that's a fine idea."
Mara was camped in front of the terminal with Artoo when Luke joined her a short while later. Mara could not help flinching at his approach from behind, and noted that he gave her a respectful distance. She was simultaneously relieved and annoyed. And then became annoyed at the fact that she was annoyed. Leave it to a Jedi to make everything complicated.
"Do you ever leave that terminal?"
"Hey, profit is a powerful incentive for me."
"And you call me boring." Luke pulled up a chair to share the view of the screen. "Find anything else?"
"I'd hoped to find correspondence with the some of the people on the lists, but either it wasn't in the Bacchanalia network, or they delete all the files."
Luke stared at the files scrolling by. "I missed your conversation with Yur. Did he know anything about the net failure?"
She continued staring ahead, but answered, "Yes and no. Yes they happened, no, he doesn't know anything about it other than that it did happen. He was on duty the first time. He said the net just crashed, went down completely. Lasted only a few minutes, and apart from his encounter with you, it was, no doubt, the most alarming experience of his life. The second time, supposedly the same thing. They had some techs working on it and they couldn't find a problem."
"So Borkin was right that far."
"Yes. And but for the latest bit of incompetence regarding the Credit Exchange, I might have even forgiven him."
Luke's response was similarly disdainful. "It takes a certain amount of temerity for an agent to cite his own runner as his 'confidential source.' Wait, go back a minute, let's take a look at that one."
Mara moved back up the file roster to "Investors," saying as she did so, "But if Dazern Kyle is his source in the Exchange, why didn't his report contain better information about Bacchanalia?"
They waited while the ancient computer weighed the alternatives of opening the file, or collapsing into electronic rubble. Luke muttered with some irritation, both with the computer and the lack of any NRI support, "We could ask her that if she ever makes an appearance."
Mara kept hitting the enter key, foolishly thinking that it might motivate the rodents powering the computer. "Maybe she can't because she's in the same place Borkin is."
Her comment made him recall other parts of the dinner party from hell. "Yur knew we were looking for Borkin."
Mara continued looking at the flashing "please wait while accessing file" message on the screen. "Did he tell you that before or after you cudgeled him?"
Typical, just typical. "He told me right after I explained to him that marriage to you was likely to be fatal to me. Yur was very understanding."
She finally turned to look at him, curving her mouth into a sardonic smile. "You make it sound as if I'm unique. I'd lay odds that no would-be bride of yours would make it through the courtship stage without becoming murderous."
"Mara, what do you do when you don't have me around to hone your wit to such a sharp edge? Pull the wings off insects?"
The computer finally ceased accessing, and began showing the Investor file. Mara replied smugly, "I kick Ewoks around."
"Ha! I should have known. Is this something specific to Ewoks, or just soft, cute things in general?"
Mara countered stoutly, "Ewoks look like something invented by a holovid producer to encourage the purchase of children's toys tied to Tales of the Jedi. I dislike them on principle."
During Mara's defense of her antipathy to all things cute, Luke exploited the opportunity and commandeered the terminal controls from her. "There's an awful lot of them aren't there," Luke said, referring to the names in the Investor file. "No one seems to have more than about a 1% interest. That's spreading ownership pretty thin. Recognize the names?"
Mara reached over his blocking elbow and arm, seized the view commands and began studying the scrolling list. "Some of them, I don't know if it's a shock really, it seems to be most of the major Imperial families here in Tirgu."
Luke thought they had found something important, a small but significant piece of an intricate puzzle. "Well, maybe that's where your credit influx is coming from."
"You mean the Bacchanalia owners are in fact getting rich selling mediocre wine and have more credits to throw around for goods here in Tirgu?"
"It's not out of the question, if, as it appears, the Bacchanalia owners are the same people who normally buy your goods. What made me think of it was something we'd see on Tatooine. In that kind of isolated one crop economy, a good harvest was always a mixed blessing. With prosperity, you had more credits and had more to spend, but so did everybody else. You end up competing with everyone for the same goods, and driving the prices up."
If she continued to surprise him, Luke was no less a continuing surprise to her. "Pretty soon you'll be adding Master Economist and Master Trader to your titles, Skywalker. Remind me, should the day ever come, to never try to compete with you."
Luke, having wrested the terminal controls from her to close down the investor file, and preoccupied with reviewing the menu options, replied distantly, "We compete every minute of every day. That's what we're doing now. Let's see if can find a record of Bacchanalia payments or dividends to its investors."
After an hour of bruised ribs and elbows in a jostling match over access to the terminal, the rodents finally expired from the demands placed upon them and the computer crashed. If records of the dividends paid to Bacchanalia owners existed in the computer's primeval innards, they were inaccessible until the power source had time to feed and rest.
This time Mara was the voice of reason and restraint. "Tsk, tsk Jedi Master, what has happened to that renowned composure?"
Through gritted teeth Luke responded, "I will be much more composed if you let me throw the damn thing out the window."
"Only if you agree to pay the damage deposit. Besides, there might be a wrongful injury action against you if you hurt a passer by. And why resort to such violent means when there are alternatives."
Luke was not mollified. "But I'd feel better."
"Certainly, but imagine how much better you'd feel if we just stole the records from the Credit Exchange."
"Ah, true. And perhaps make contact with the elusive Miss Kyle."
* * *
They entered the Tirgu Muresh Credit Exchange, and conveniently found "Dazern Kyle" under the heading "New Accounts." They were directed to a cubicle toward the rear, a name plate on the prefabricated divider read "Miss Dazern Kyle," and was decorated with stenciled hearts and flowers.
A breathtakingly beautiful girl in a smashing pink suit sat behind a desk, her hands folded carefully. Unlike Mara, she looked fabulous in pink. "Miss Kyle?" Mara asked. Miss Kyle stood to greet her guests. Mara took the limp hand Kyle offered, saying "I'm Captain Mara Jade."
"Hello, Captain Jade." Kyle seated was lovely, Kyle standing, was astounding -- porcelain perfect face framed by dark ringlets, statuesque, legs to her chin, impeccable style. Having sold several of them before, Mara knew Kyle's hand tailored suit ran in the thousands of credits.
Kyle shook Luke's hand with an inquiring glance, "I'm Luke, the co-pilot."
"Well, won't you both be seated. And your droid too, how cute. Does it talk?"
Mara was slightly startled, the conversation not having begun as she expected on several fronts -- Kyle was very cool for one so young to not betray even a hint of recognition, she hoped Skywalker would not embarrass her by drooling, she thought most people knew astromech droids only communicated in binary and she had never heard of any droid referred to as "cute."
"No, Miss Kyle, regrettably my unit does not know Basic."
Kyle gave a little resigned shrug, "What can we do for you today?"
"I came in system yesterday, intending to sell my cargo. Given the amounts involved I want to open a credit account here." During the conversation, Luke had been carefully reading Kyle. He knew she was not Force sensitive, indeed she seemed insensitive to practically everything.
Kyle began assembling the necessary documentation on her tidy work space, "Certainly. The Exchange appreciates your business. How large a deposit will you be making to the account ,Captain Jade?"
"Ten thousand." Silently, Mara asked Luke, "She didn't recognize my name, did she?"
"Not that I could tell."
Mara began completing the deposit cards. "My droid carries my credit deposit and withdrawal records. It will need to connect with the Exchange computer so that I will be able to access those records later and execute my transactions."
It was a lame excuse, but they had figured for Kyle all they needed was a plausible reason. Kyle however became confused. "Well, that's very unusual. I will need to check with the manager."
Mara said nothing, continuing to complete the account process, providing a thumb scan and proffering her credit transfer card. She began casually, "I haven't been here for several months and some of my old haunts have closed. Do you know where we could get some sunburns?"
Kyle furrowed her pretty features into a small frown, "I'm afraid there aren't any nice beaches in Tirgu."
Mara's dissembling inspired reverence; although Luke could feel her wariness rise with Kyle's failure to provide the appropriate acknowledgement, she did not hesitate a moment. "Actually, I meant the drink."
"Oh, well I suppose some of the restaurants might serve them."
Mara returned to the account records, sending to Luke a thought, "Is this a set up? Is she for real?"
He responded silently, "I don't get any concealment or anxiety. She simply didn't recognize the code word."
Luke tried a different approach. "What about the Sunspot Cantina?" He thought the reference might jog Kyle's apparently unused faculties of memory and reason.
Dazern blushed with maidenly offense. "The Sunspot Cantina? Oh I'm sure I don't know. I never go there. It's not a place for respectable women."
Luke heard a triumphant jeer in his mind, "Well, here's your respectable girlfriend, can I get my commission now?"
He shot Mara a glare, and tried again with a riskier query. "Miss Kyle, we thought we might meet a friend of yours there, Witten Borkin?"
With the mention of Borkin's name, they finally hit their mark. Tears welled in Dazern's delicate blue eyes, "Oh, do you know where Witten is? I've been so worried about him."
Luke and Mara came to the same conclusion at the same instant -- there was nothing feigned in Dazern's anxious, emotional reaction. Although astounded and disgusted that this was the supposed NRI agent runner, Kyle was legitimate; she was also apparently an idiot.
Mara scanned the exchange, saw no one observing their activities, and flashed a "go ahead" to Luke. Luke said quietly to the distraught, snuffling girl, "Dazern, we have some mutual friends who are worried about him too."
Comprehension suddenly dawned, a light shining in the empty rooms of her brain. Dazern opened her neat little desk, and removed a booktape bearing the title "New Republic Intelligence Verrat Briefing Guide." She started to say, "Oh, I think I know who you are now, Captain Jade. You must be from . . .."
Mara immediately dropped her data pad on top of the Guide, pinching Dazern's immaculately manicured hands, and interrupting her ill advised commentary. "Sweetie," Mara said in her most pleasantly dangerous voice, "why don't we open the account, let me plug the droid in, and then we can go somewhere nice and quiet for a little chat?"
Luke casually picked up the data pad and the booktape, removing the classified material from Dazern's possession forever.
"Captain," Dazern protested, "you broke one of my nails."
Rather than lunging across the desk at Dazern to systematically break the remaining four nails on her frail, white right hand, Mara elected an alternatively wicked tactic. She affected outrageous remorse. "I'm so sorry, Dazern. And they are such pretty nails, too." Mara felt a mental wince from Luke, and pressed on. "I bet you work hard on them don't you?"
The girl nodded with serious pride. "I put a different coat of polish on every day to match my outfits."
"Oh, Luke did you notice that?" Mara ogled admiringly. "Every day? Dazern, I have an idea," Mara gushed in a confiding tone. "Let's finish this nasty financial stuff, and then we'll buy you a nice beverage at some establishment suitable for respectable women such as yourself. You'd like that, wouldn't you?" Mara heard chortling laughter in her head.
Incredibly, Dazern objected again as Artoo made the connection to the access port at the desk and began the data dump. Dazern whispered so loudly, it was a miracle the entire exchange was not privy to their activity, "I really should ask the manager. It might copy confidential records."
Luke responded with astonishment, "No? Really? Mara, would your droid do something like that?"
Mara placed a hand over her heart, "Your respectability and discretion are admirable Dazern. But, I give you my word as a lady...." She had to pause to clear the whopping guffaw from her mind. "The droid will only do what I've instructed it to do. Now, where can we get that drink? I know I would like something frozen and sweet, with an umbrella in it."
Dazern cooed, "Oh, I like those too."
"I just knew you would Dazern. The perfect drink for respectable women." She accented the word with a mental punctuation mark, just to make sure Luke got the message.
The dump complete, Dazern recommended a charming, and fortunately mostly empty, restaurant near the Exchange. True to her word, Mara did indeed order and quickly down two frozen pink drinks, having lost the mental battle with Luke on the advisability of ordering an entire pitcher each just to get through the interview. Luke removed the paper umbrellas from easy reach, thereby thwarting Mara's silent pledge to poke Dazern's eyes out with them.
Mara's peculiarly reckless humor left Luke to attempt the debriefing, "Dazern, do you understand who we are?"
"I think so, but I could I please look at my book for a moment?"
She fumbled through the readout, and after much face screwing and little sighs, eventually found the entry about contacting Mara. "Well it says that you trade here, Mara, and that I could contact you if I needed to, and that you would probably tell Chief of State Organa Solo, General Solo or Jedi Master Skywalker." She looked up at Mara with wondrous awe. "Do you really know them?" She turned her lovely eyes on Luke, "Isn't it funny that your name is Luke too?"
Luke heard an unspoken plea, "Can I just kill her, please?"
"Dazern, you don't even need to go through Mara, I'm Luke Skywalker."
"Oh sure. Stop teasing me. Everyone knows he doesn't look anything like you."
Mara stifled a laugh, suspecting the source of Dazern's misconception and anticipating some further fun. She asked seriously, "How would you know that, Dazern?"
"Because I've seen all of the Tales of the Jedi -- you don't look like him at all."
Feeling Luke's flustered reaction, Mara was bent on encouraging these fascinating revelations. She queried, "You don't see any resemblance, Dazern?"
The girl shook her head, curls bouncing off her padded pink shoulders. "No, the real Luke Skywalker is much younger..."
Mara and Luke both choked, Luke almost losing his drink on the table. Mara whispered into his mind, "Bet you'd let me kill her now."
Oblivious, Dazern babbled on. "He's more ..." She sighed wistfully, "Dashing, very handsome."
Between the asphyxiation and horror, Luke was as pink as Dazern's suit and drink.
Dazern blinked at Luke apologetically, "Not that you are not very nice, Luke, but the real Master Skywalker is a hero, you know."
Mara was beginning to worry, admonishing Luke silently that if he died on the spot, she'd kill him because she would have such a hard time finding another co-pilot in Tirgu to get through the belt. She slid a glass of water to him as Luke glowered at her.
Dazern prattled, "Besides," she added, "if you were really Luke Skywalker, you wouldn't be with Mara."
Seeing an opening, Luke pounced before Mara could, "Why is that Dazern?"
"It's obvious, isn't it Luke? I have seen all the other Tales, and Mara, you are much too old for him."
Luke squelched his own laughter as he saw Mara finger her blaster. He sent her a stern mental warning.
"I'd be doing evolution a favor," she responded with conviction.
"Will you behave?"
"Anything you say, grandpa."
Luke began again, "Dazern, New Republic Intelligence sent us here because Borkin has missed his last two drops. We understand that he went to work at the Bacchanalia warehouse about eight weeks ago, and no one has seen him since. Can you tell us what happened?"
Dazern was very helpful; she burst into tears. Mara rolled her eyes and began handing table linens to the weepy girl, secretly elated to see Dazern's carefully applied cosmetics streak down her face.
She sobbed. "Daddy got Witten a job at the Warehouse. He went to work there and then after three days, just didn't come home. I'm so worried." The sob dissolved into a wail, "I asked Daddy to try to find him, but he wouldn't help me. He never liked Witten, doesn't approve of our marriage . . .."
Her revelation shocked Luke into momentary silence and jarred Mara out of her sardonic humor, "Dazern, are you and Borkin married?"
"No, but we are engaged. Once Witten uncovered Bacchanalia, we were going to leave Tirgu and go to Coruscant."
"Do you know what Borkin thought was going on at Bacchanalia?" Mara asked.
Tears began dripping down her face again. "He didn't know. It was just suspicious. That's why he wanted the job at the Warehouse." She heaved, "Oh, will you be able to rescue him?"
Luke administered a reassuring pat, "We'll see what we can do Dazern. But we do need some more information from you. You'll help us won't you?"
Mara might have felt a chance twinge with Luke's concern for the girl, but for the mild condescension she had detected in his voice.
Dazern snuffled back her tears, wiping her runny nose with the back of her hand, looking suddenly far younger even than she actually was. She smiled weakly, "I'll try Luke."
He asked, "How did you become a runner?"
Her brief response encapsulated a life philosophy, "A what?"
"An agent runner, the person responsible for agents here?"
"What agents, Luke?"
He heard Mara ask, "Wanna borrow my blaster?" Luke shook his head at Mara, confusing Dazern further. He tapped the briefing guide, "The agents described in here."
"Oh, well there's Witten but he's not an agent, he's my fiance." Unable to decipher the non sequiturs, Mara responded to his silent plea. She stepped into the conversation, but not before asking, "To kill or to question?"
"At this point, I don't know if I care" was his frustrated response.
Mara began conversationally, "So Dazern, how did you meet Witten?"
Dazern was enthusiastic with a question she could answer, "Oh, the same way I met you and Luke. He came into the Exchange to open an account."
"Really? What a coincidence. Did Witt give you that Guide?"
Dazern shook her head, dark ringlets flopping elegantly about her. "No. A man came into the Exchange about a year ago. We talked several times, and before he left, he asked if I wanted to earn some extra money doing very confidential work. Well you know how careful I was with your droid, he knew that I would keep everything secret."
"And you've done a fine job. So what did this man tell you?"
Dazern said slowly, "well, he gave me the Guide, and promised me 5,000 credits a year if I helped people who came to me like Witten did."
Mara did not miss a sly edge that had crept into Dazern's voice. "How did you help Witten?"
Dazern hesitated, then offered obliquely, "Well, Daddy goes off planet quite a bit. There were sometimes a few extra things in his luggage. He also thinks I have some girlfriends on Coruscant. I've also insisted that Daddy make sure the Exchange has good communications equipment, and of course since our family manages it, well, you know."
"I understand. Now has anyone else come to you for help besides Witten?"
Dazern responded carefully, "No, except for you and Luke of course."
Mara smiled, "And we appreciate what you've done Dazern."
"Thank you Mara, I, I..." A fountain of tears began gushing again.
Luke surveyed the room, concerned at the amount of attention Dazern was drawing, and feeling more than a little uncomfortable with all of this uncontrolled emotion -- such episodes were simply not very common at the Jedi Academy. He muttered some awkward platitude, and this time Mara gave him a searing glare. He heard in his mind "Worse than useless," and realized Mara was actually referring to him, not Dazern.
Mara moved over to sit next to the weeping girl and put an arm around her. If Mara had thought Vader providing counsel to lonely hearts was bizarre, the sight of Mara offering sisterly solicitude was no less incongruous. Mara gestured imperiously for Luke to hand her a glass of water and some more linens.
"Now crying isn't going to help. You've been alone for weeks now, haven't you?" Dazern nodded, blowing her nose violently into the napkin Mara proffered. "And no one to talk to about this, and your father being so mean. What about your mother, or do you have any brothers or sisters?"
"Only my parents knew, it was a secret. And Mummy feels the same way as Daddy."
Mara dabbed some water on one of the napkins and began cleaning the smears from Dazern's now less than perfect visage. "Mara, it's awful here, it's so lonely. There's nothing to do. And I got this money, and I thought I could save, get passage, go somewhere. Then, I met Witten, and it all seemed possible . . . " Her voice broke again.
"Now, don't worry, as Luke told you, we'll try to find him."
Dazern seized her hand. "Really you will? You'll help us escape?"
Suddenly realizing what Dazern was asking, the girl, in a moment of intuition, understood Mara's misgivings.
"Promise if you find Witten you won't leave me here."
Mara tried retreating, "Now . . ." but Dazern blocked the escape, "Promise, please."
"But Dazern . . ."
"Mara, please. Don't you know what that's like, to be separated from someone you love so much?"
Mara felt Luke's wince at that outburst. She concentrated on wiping another little streak from the corner of the girl's now red rimmed eyes, "No, Dazern, I don't know what that's like." She added silently, "But I know someone who does." Aloud, she continued, "And I promise, we won't leave you here. Now, why don't you go freshen up a bit, we still need to talk about a few things, okay?"
As she left, Mara growled, "Not a word, farm boy."
Luke shook his head, his disapproval, evident. "I don't need to say anything. You know this complicates things enormously."
Mara nodded, slamming the remainder of both her drink and Dazern's. "I don't suffer fools gladly, except when they are the victims of another's folly. The one who deserves the slow burn is the agent who recruited her."
"Who would have expected you to be such a sentimentalist?"
Mara was twirling a paper parasol between her fingers, lightly tapping its pointed end. "You know, the Emperor always taught me to exploit what circumstance gave me. Would you like a lesson in that now?"
Luke edged slightly away from her. "That's something I just love about you Mara, you are so soft and cuddly, and yet I never know when a casual conversation can become life-threatening."
Dazern returned, a little puffy but none the worse for the bouts of crying. She knew nothing more that could help them, exchanging with them information on where she lived, how they could contact her and where she could reach them. Mara had deep misgivings exposing the girl; she, Luke and even Borkin for all his idiocy knew what was involved here, Dazern did not.
She tried to impart some of her fear to Dazern. "I want you to listen very carefully, and I don't want you to tell anyone about this, do you understand? If Witten is still in Tirgu, he is probably a prisoner somewhere. We need you to do three things. First, listen. Don't talk, just listen, if you hear anything, contact us. Second, if we come looking for you, be ready to move, and fast. It might be in the middle of your work, or in the middle of the night, but whenever it is, you're going to have to leave right away. Finally, please think about this. It may all come to nothing."
Mara suddenly remembered Luke's vision and thought otherwise. "But it could also be dangerous, very dangerous. If you're willing to take these risks for Witten, fine, but we won't think any less of you if you don't."
Dazern, however, remained resolute. So they left her at the Exchange, and subdued, walked to the hotel.
Luke observed at one point, "You know, she's not as stupid as she pretended to be."
"I know. She has kept her mouth shut, had the sense to stay out of places she knew she didn't belong, was rather calculating in her decision to take the money, and actually quite clever in how she handled the message drops. And having her at the Credit Exchange did mean access to communications and financial records. It was tremendous foresight on the part of her initial NRI contact, or simply fortuitous."
"Maybe some of both."
Mara interjected heatedly, "But whoever recruited her should never have exposed her that way. She clearly has no idea what she is playing with. She's barely out of her teens. And Borkin should have never fallen in love with his own runner." She finished angrily, "You don't run an intelligence operation that way and expect it to succeed."
Luke said nothing immediately. He was staring at the ground, slowing along the dirty sidewalk, kicking and shuffling.
Mara finally prompted him. "What is it?"
"I was just thinking that age isn't really the issue is it? By the time we were her age, I had killed hundreds of thousands of people in the first Death Star; you were a trained assassin and spy. Leia had been a Senator, a military leader and had seen the death of a few billion people with the destruction of her entire world. I tend to think that Dazern's world experience is a little more typical than ours, don't you?"
They said nothing else for the remainder of the walk.
Returning, Luke broke their silence, "Do you mind if I work on the computer in your room, and see what Artoo got on Bacchanalia?"
"No, go ahead, I'll join you in a little while."
Mara left him at the terminal, and went out to the balcony outside her room, wrapping herself in a rare moment of solitude. For two people who spent much time alone, she and Skywalker had been treading in the other's space a great deal of late.
After the riotous activity of the previous day, the street below was quiet. Mara contemplated other contrasts, staring at her hands, comparing them to Kyle's own flawless manicure. Mara didn't think she had ever worn nail polish in her life. With these hands she had repaired hyperdrives, serviced every type of vehicle imaginable, entertained audiences, served drinks, closed deals worth hundreds of thousands of credits, piloted ships, blown enemies out of the sky, scintillated lovers, taken life, spared life. What would it be like, she wondered, to go through a day where the greatest task for your hands was to match nail polish to clothes to lip color? Non-humanoid species from a dozen systems were not as alien to her as Kyle was.
She pondered Luke's comparison. In contrast to Kyle, Mara felt small, deadly, cynical, and old. It was not merely that almost 20 years separated them; she had never had the girl's faith or trust, had never felt the comfort of home or family, had never enjoyed the pleasures of courtship. Mara had carried out her first assassination before the age of 18. The Emperor had robbed her of youth, of innocence, of romance, of all the things Kyle had and still enjoyed.
For what kind of bond would you abandon the security and stability Kyle had to embark upon unknown dangers and risks? She doubted that Borkin was worth that kind of sacrifice of any woman. And yet Dazern had pledged her loyalty to him. What would it be like to be separated from someone you loved?
She glanced in at Skywalker, glued to the terminal. For all his aggravating, glaring shortcomings, he had so inspired that kind of feeling that Callista had leaped into the body of another woman just to be with him; twit though she was, he very nearly lost his soul when she left him.
Mara certainly lived in the world far more than he, and yet in this, Skywalker, for all his emotional and physical isolation, had the better of her. Mara could no more imagine someone feeling such love for her than she could imagine bestowing it on a man. It was incomprehensible to her. Viewing, as she did, relationships in utilitarian terms, love and romance were very untidy concepts.
She scowled, disturbed that too much time around Skywalker and people like Dazern was disrupting her balance and priorities. Mara was a person of action, and left introspection and the foibles of love to philosophers, poets and naive, romantic idealists. She headed back inside, this kind of self-reflection led to things very foreign to Mara, things not unlike regret and doubt.
As she entered, Luke did not look around, but asked, "Feeling better?"
Mara's reply was tart, "I felt fine before. I was just considering what color nail polish to put on tonight."
Her blithe answer had not fooled him. "Funny, I had the impression you were carrying on an internal dialogue on the nature of love."
Damn him, no privacy at all. "I did that too, but it was a really short conversation. It began and ended with amazement that anyone could fall in love with such a fool as Borkin."
There was more than a hint of superiority in his reply, an irritating echo of her own musings, "You can't control everything, Mara. Love doesn't tend to fit into the places you allot for it."
"Skywalker, if you want to compete with me in that arena as well, don't bother. I'll cede you the victory. Now if you're done with your moralizing, want to tell me what you've found?"
Luke moved his chair over to make room for her, but took a firm hold of the terminal controls. "We were right about the dividends. In the last few months, the owners of Bacchanalia have received tens of thousands of credits from the company"
"So they are getting rich selling mediocre wine?"
She tried to muscle the control from him to scroll through the screen, but Luke held it fast.
"Yep, and apparently keeping and spending all the money in Tirgu. I don't know why they would spend it here, instead of doing the logical thing and transferring it off planet."
Mara interjected, "I don't know why either, but I'm glad they have it to spend on my goods."
He chuckled. "Anyway, that's probably why prices have gone up so much. But I'll tell you something else. Even with all the money the owners are making, there's still more the company is not disbursing. What is being paid out in dividends to the Bacchanalia owners is nothing compared to what has been coming into Bacchanalia in payments."
"You mean there's cash sitting around that won't be spent on the purchase of my cargo? I'm deeply offended."
In spite of the squabbling and jostling for control of the computer, they were able to establish that Bacchanalia had raked in hundreds of millions of credits from buyers across the galaxy. They saw that the dividends paid to the Bacchanalia owners in Tirgu, although very large, accounted for only a small fraction of the total credits taken in by the company. They then began a painstaking and tumultuous search to discover both what could account for such stupendous sales of simple local wine and, since the profits were not being distributed to the Bacchanalia owners, where the remaining credits were being spent.
Mara erupted after the computer crashed a third time. "You've tasted the Verratan wine, would you pay this kind of money for a bottle?"
"Of course not, which means there's got to be something here that they are smuggling; something that there is so much of and that is so valuable, they've been shipping it continuously for four months."
Mara felt her jaw lock in grinding frustration. "Of course there's got to be something. But based on this data, we have no way of tracing what those goods might be. We also know that huge sums of credits are coming in, and much smaller sums are going to shareholders -- that means there is a lot leftover that is going somewhere. We can't follow the goods so we should follow the money."
The computer lurched to life, and Luke seized the controls again.
When they almost came to blows over which credit transfer files to plunder, Mara took a break. The day had worn into early evening and she at least was ready for a little liquid cheer. "I'm going down to the bar to pick up a bottle. There is no way I can continue to look at that data with you unless I am better fortified."
"You're the one who keeps crashing the computer by hitting the enter button a thousand times," Luke scoffed.
Oh she wanted to wring his neck. "And you keep trying to look at thirteen files at once. If we only opened one at a time in a systematic way, we wouldn't have to wait 30 minutes every time we want to look at something new."
He swore at her retreating back, "I'm being creative. You just can't deal with anything unless it's linear."
Mara stormed out and down to the bar, paying premium top credit for tall, straight brandy. Skywalker was in her room, on her computer, in her life, in her mind, and under her skin. If the bartender thought it unusual to see a woman seated at a bar pounding her head into the counter he gave no sign.
She finished her brandy and then weighed the more economical alternatives of tolinka or Verratan wine. They were headed to the Spot tonight and it seemed a little early for liquid lightening. Mara had just started a bottle of white wine when she felt the jolt four floors away. Startling the bartender, Mara grabbed the bottle, shouted at him to put in on her tab, bolted into the lobby, plowed into a pensioner, and eschewing the sluggish lift, sprinted up the stairs to their rooms. "What is it, what'd you find?"
Skywalker swiveled from the terminal to face her, bleak and grim. "I think I could use some of that, if you didn't spill all of it in your mad dash up here."
She handed him the bottle, repeating more anxiously, "What did you find?"
He gestured her over to her seat, letting her review the screen while taking a deep draught from the bottle, grimacing slightly at the wine's sweet taste. He let the significance of the data before her sink in, then offered wryly, "Mara, I knew it was competitive out there but isn't this a little extreme?"
She said nothing immediately, studying the neat columns documenting Bacchanalia's payment history and outgoing credit transfers to and deposits into the accounts of other businesses. Mara took the bottle back and matching his same dry tone added, "Maybe it's just a very aggressive attempt to monopolize the intergalactic wine market."
They both leaned back at the same time and sighed, sharing silently the same thoughts, that it was time to get back to work again, that maybe they were too old and complacent for this kind of thing, that circumstance had once again paired them with a competent partner who could handle a fire fight. Passing the bottle back and forth, they stared at the detailed record of huge Bacchanalia payments to every major arms dealer and weapons supplier in the galaxy.
Putting her feet up on the desk, Mara shut her eyes and began massaging her temples, wondering why every trip with Skywalker seemed to end this way. Luke tilted his own chair back, running his hand through hair that might be thinner and a little greyer after this was over. "I don't see how a merchant selling this kind of wine could be making enough money to buy a Star Destroyer, do you?" he asked.
Mara was idly reading the wine label. "Cut throat competition aside, I'd like to know why Bacchanalia feels the need for a squadron of short range fighters and all that blast armor."
Luke emitted a weary snort. "Looks like a few more people decided to join our party."
"I just wish they had just sent their regrets. Someone who brings a thermal detonator might be fun, but Skywalker, someone who brings an AT-AT is just a gate crasher."
* * *
After several more hours in front of the terminal, Luke and Mara had a clearer picture of Bacchanalia's activity -- the company had sprouted from nowhere; shipping and selling cheap local wine throughout the galaxy, Bacchanalia had earned hundreds of millions in credits in a few short months and had then embarked upon the ambitious acquisition of some very sophisticated and nasty weaponry.
In the middle of Bacchanalia's most recent cash flow statement, Luke abruptly snatched the terminal controls from Mara and closed down the screen. "I've had enough. Everything we look at adds only marginally to our understanding of what is going on and increases my concern over what we do understand by a factor of 10 or so. Bacchanalia is smuggling. And with the profits, they are buying a lot of offensive military hardware. Even if that's all we report to Coruscant, we will have done more than NRI could accomplish here."
Mara first sputtered that he took her terminal control, then felt relieved that he did, then wanted to argue about it. She finally laughed and stood, stretching muscles abused by too much close computer work. "You're right. Make sure to note the occasion, it doesn't happen very often." She paced about the room. "But we still should see if we can find Borkin. Yur will probably stop by the Spot tonight. We can ask him if he's learned anything. And I owe the boys a drink."
Luke shrugged. "Sure, I'm up for the Spot."
"And . . ."
Hearing that mischievous tone in Mara's voice, Luke immediately became wary. "Uh oh."
Mara was pleased to turn the tables; Luke was still seated at the terminal, enabling her to stalk him from behind. She wrapped an arm around his neck in, for the moment, a gentle head lock.
He tilted his head back, to meet the gaze of his antagonist, "What do you have in mind now?"
Mara tightened her grip ever so slightly, "Pursuit of profit."
"You do the pursuing, I get the profit."
Ahh, he should have guessed, "Verrat's too far, I told you that."
Her throttling strengthened, "Sorry, but I'm not going to let this opportunity for enrichment pass me by. Despite Dazern's concerns, you might find some girl respectable enough even for your tastes at the Spot. Besides, after your performance last night, it's clear to me that you have been out of circulation way too long. You need the practice."
Luke could not help but grin, even if she could also snap his neck in a fit of pique. He took a gamble in his reply; if Mara became violent, he could always break her arm or flip her over the terminal onto the floor, and could probably do so before she choked him. "I so admire the sensitive and ladylike way in which you express yourself. And it's reassuring to know that you have your best interests at heart."
She stared down at his upturned face, "I know I said I would charge you extra for dating advice, but I'm in a charitable mood, so here's a freebie. I suggest you stick to that aw shucks, farm boy charm. Bat those baby blues of yours, and maybe some sweet young thing will fall for it."
"How flattering that you've noticed the color of my eyes."
It was impossible to fluster her; she tightened her grip to the level of almost, but not quite discomfort and shut her eyes, "I bet you know the color of mine Skywalker."
"Uhh, brown right?"
She bent down and whispered, "Liar."
* * *
The only thing more seedy than the outside of the Sunspot Cantina was the inside. It was indistinguishable from every other minor cantina, in every other minor city, on every other minor planet in the galaxy. When Luke and Mara descended into the Spot's smoky, dark depths, they were greeted by a chorus of shouted cheer. The credit supply had apparently just arrived. Mara waved to her friends arrayed at the bar, snagged two drinks and then joined Luke at a booth along the wall. In keeping with the Tirgu milieu, the patrons were all human, and the bar only served home grown brews -- bitter, sharp tasting, potent, potentially lethal in sufficient quantities. Mara was thrilled, Luke, a little more dubious.
Mara slid in, across from Luke pushing both drinks across the table at him. "Now, do you know the two drink ploy?"
It was like she was speaking a different language. "The what?"
"You should always have two drinks, your own and a fresh one. If you get into a nice, 'conversation,' you can offer her the drink. If you need to escape, you tell her that you had gotten the drink for me, and that I'll be very annoyed if I don't get it real soon." She was exuberant, irrepressible,
"Mara, are you enjoying this reaffirmation of your Master status?"
Her voice was low and ominously gay in response. "You have no idea." She continued with alarming earnestness, "Do you think you'll recognize the standard lines, besides 'want to go and look at some star lines?'"
That foreign language again. "Lines?"
Mara uttered an exaggerated, exasperated sigh. "Yes, lines. Do you come here often? Not from around here are you? You have beautiful eyes, they are the window to your soul. So, enough about me, tell me about you. And if you decide to dance, don't embarrass my instruction O.K.? I do have standards."
"And what will you be doing during all of this?" Luke was certain he already knew.
Her crafty smile was pure evil at times. "I thought I would work on split concentration exercises."
"Don't hang your mouth open like that Skywalker, it's very unbecoming. I intend to keep an ear on your progress, provide running advice."
Luke sighed with mock despair, "I knew I'd regret seeing you complete your training. And where will you bestow the remainder of your concentration?"
"Looking for a co-pilot."
He had thought as much, "Well maybe I'll work on my split concentration too. I can no doubt pick up a few pointers from the Master, right?"
She slipped out of the booth, "Well I'm off."
Luke was truly alarmed, "What, you're just going to leave me here?"
She gave him a hard, amused look. "Skywalker, you've been in the rancor den, faced down Darth Vader, the Emperor, the clone of the Emperor, a dead dark Lord of the Sith, the clone of a crazy Jedi Master, and worst of all, survived a hyperspace jump with me. What could you possibly have to worry about in a bar? Well, let me amend that, in this bar. Besides, make a note of it, this is twice in one day, some kind of galactic record no doubt -- you were right, no woman will come near you if I sit too close."
"You're right Mara." She laughed, and headed to the waiting arms and gullets of about a dozen men, slapping a credit transfer card on the bar.
Luke felt ridiculous, but not for long. He spied a cluster of women at one end of the room, and nodded to them. Almost the moment Mara was out of physical earshot, one of the women began making her way deliberately across the bar. "Physical" was the important qualifier, because Luke heard in his head, "Blonde approaching on a near vector, intercept course."
She was lovely, in a soft, pleasant sort of way. "Anyone sitting here?" Luke was amazed he remembered the correct response, "Not unless you do." He heard, "Good answer Jedi."
"I'm Mihella, you must be Luke."
To his surprise Mihella slid into the seat next to, rather than across from, him. "That's right, how did you know that?"
Mihella shrugged, it was a dainty, pleasing gesture. "Everyone knows Captain Jade brought a new co-pilot. But . . ." she hesitated, with a wary glance toward the bar.
"Well, she won't mind will she?"
Luke was a little confused. "You mean Mara, mind what?"
Mihella peeked at him out of the corner of her warm brown eye. "Well, the guys had said that you weren't Captain Jade's usual. But we" she motioned at her girlfriends across the bar carefully monitoring their exchange, "we weren't sure. I wouldn't want her angry with me for poaching."
Luke heard Mara's smug aside, "She's a smart girl, Skywalker."
Finally understanding the misapprehension, he shook his head, with a laugh. "No, the 'guys' were right. I've known Mara for a long time, her co-pilot backed out at the last minute and she asked me to fill in." Luke gave a nod toward the bar, Mara having disappeared in a circle of young male admirers. "She certainly wouldn't mind."
"You are so right, Skywalker, but don't go any further until you find out how much she's worth."
He retorted, "You're just jealous because you haven't yet matched my quick success with Mihella."
"Ha. We'll see who gets invited to look at star lines first."
Ignorant of the exchange, Mihella gave a sigh of genuine relief, and smiling, moved in a little closer, "Can I have a sip?" Although he did not object, Luke was surprised when Mihella started drinking from his own glass.
Mara was whooping, "That was quick work Skywalker, not bad for an old Jedi."
"I thought so," Mihella said.
This was going to get confusing, "You thought so, what?"
Mihella spoke sagely and with a tone of much experience in such matters, "You don't seem like Captain Jade's type at all."
In response to the hooting laughter in his head, Luke issued a reproving, "Pay more attention to your own admirers." To Mihella he could only chuckle at the observation, "I think you're probably right. But why do you think so?"
She took another sip of his drink. "You're more, mature."
Not the ringing compliment he was expecting. "Now that's the second time today a pretty woman has called me old."
Mihella flushed, stammering and embarrassed -- it was a charming, and probably deliberate, effect. "That isn't what I meant at all. I just meant, well, Captain Jade usually prefers," she looked over at the bar to the tall, overly confident, good-looking youngsters swarming around Mara, "Well, like that."
Having seen their clones on and off for years in Mara's company, Luke knew instantly what Mihella meant.
Mihella turned her soupy eyes to him, "And I can tell that you're nothing like them, are you Luke?"
Mara hissed into his mind, "Hey Skywalker, don't you recognize this script?"
"Well Mihella, if that's the basis for comparison then I agree with you, I am definitely not her type."
"And," Mihella edged over confidingly, "if I may be say so, I don't think she's your type either."
"Come on Jedi, ask her the question, ask it."
Luke was mortified he was able to get the ridiculous line out without blushing or excessive sarcasm, "So if Mara isn't my type who is?"
Mara and Mihella both responded, "Why someone like me of course."
Luke glared at the redheaded joker at the bar. She had a drink in one hand, and a well muscled hand and arm wrapped around her shoulder-- the arm and hand belonging to one of what Mihella euphemistically referred to as "Captain Jade's type." Several others were clamoring competitively for her attention. "Mara, better make sure they can drink legally in here."
"I already asked Jedi, they're all above the age of consent."
Mihella noticed his interest in the bar activities. "It's always like that when she comes."
"She's very popular, attractive, rich, quite generous."
For Luke it was yet another part of that strange mosaic that was Mara. It was ironic to him that these flattering men really had no understanding of that complex, dangerous personality; he abruptly realized that their ignorance was quite calculated on Mara's part.
Mihella continued, "Most of them are pilots, or think they are. They sit around here waiting for Captain Jade to hire them on, or for Bacchanalia to call up a Verratan pilot after one of their off world ships goes down in the belt. Neither has ever happened."
Although interested in pursuing these riveting observations, Luke caught something wistful in her voice. Mihella had been watching Mara and her extra appendage with more intensity than good form in a bar normally dictated. Luke asked, "Is he a special friend of yours?"
"Maybe," Mihella paused, "a little. But as you can see," she nodded toward the young man glued to Mara, "Dran has other priorities." Mihella arrested any embarrassment Luke might have felt for Mara. "It's not that I mind. Everyone knows Captain Jade can be a ticket out of here."
Luke knew he should not have been shocked by the mercurial calculation, and with some quick thinking, came up with the appropriate co-pilot script for the conversation. "She does pay well."
Mihella nodded seriously. "Very well. And in hard credits, not goods. She treats her crews well, they get good experience. She might get them started in trading. But as I said, I don't think it will happen."
"It might. Since I'm just the temp, I won't be doing more than this run with her."
Mihella helped herself to more of his drink, saying slyly, "I'm surprised to hear you say that. It seemed to me you know Captain Jade very well."
Luke did not rise to her verbal probe. "We've known each other a long time, met a few years after the war."
Mihella's mouth formed an attractive little "oh." She asked casually, "What war was that?"
At first Luke thought she had made some joke that had simply eluded him. "The Rebellion against the Empire."
"You mean like on Tales of the Jedi?"
He heard jeering laughter again, and responded smartly, "You ask your date if he knows who the Chief of State is."
He tuned in and overheard Mara ask, "So what do you think of Organa Solo's new coalition in the Senate?"
The deafening silence spoke volumes. "You did say you liked them dumb, Mara."
To Mihella he said, "Well the Tales are highly fictionalized, but most of them are based on real events."
Mihella was all amazement, "Really? Wow. I didn't know that."
Although Luke was relieved that he had not been recognized during the trip, he was astounded that someone could also be so ignorant, and was struggling to avoid leaping to any hasty and unflattering conclusions. "Are you familiar with the Annals of the Rebellion or the Thrawn Histories?"
"Are those episodes from the Tales? I don't think I've seen them." Even puzzled, Mihella was very attractive.
"No, they're not holovids, they're historical accounts of what really happened."
"Oh. Well, I was never very good at history." She took another sip, and rested a hand on his arm. "But enough about all that dry, boring stuff with old and dead people, tell me about you..."
Mara tore herself away from Dran's inexpert mangling for a look at what was going on at the booth. From Mara's view, Mihella seemed to be crowding Skywalker into the corner. The sight was irritating for many reasons, Mara doubting that the well endowed blonde at his side could appreciate the few good qualities Skywalker had, although maybe Mihella had all the qualities he was seeking.
Although she attempted to banish such thoughts, and then to banish the fact that she even had the thoughts in the first place, Dran was, regrettably, not providing an adequate distraction for her. Mara abandoned any pretense of following the rambling exhortations of his extraordinary skills in pilot simulation games. Earning points for creativity; in a variation of a line even Mara had not heard before, Dran wanted to show her his scar from a knife fight. She begged off, wondering if showing him a few of her own scars would silence his ill-placed bravado. Which ones to show occupied her for a while: the scars earned during the Emperor's hand to hand combat training, the healed blaster burns, the head and torso injuries from that crack up in the Dreadnaught battle, the lingering damage C'baoth had inflicted, the freshly heeled gash earned from swinging out of the Corona House windows. She doubted that Dran's bitty scar compared with the 15 centimeter vibro knife slash down her right flank earned in a bar fight. She was, for a while, diverted by speculation on where Skywalker's scars could be found.
Luke was trying to explain to the thoroughly muddled Mihella that he had lived on Coruscant, that it was indeed a real place and not some exotic dessert, that it was the seat of the galactic government and not at all like what was depicted in the Tales of the Jedi series. It was with considerable relief when Mara interjected, "Stimulating conversation, Skywalker? You can bring that extra drink over any time."
Mara tried not to laugh audibly at the chagrin in his voice, "She already drank it. Mihella thinks I'm the most wonderful, fascinating person she's ever met. She's told me several times already."
"I guess she doesn't know you as well as I do."
Luke overheard Mara issuing a stern reprimand to Dran to keep his hands to himself. "Now, Mara, what did you expect from such a youngster?"
He could hear the exasperation, even in his mind, "Jedi I expected someone whose brain is in his head, rather than..."
"Now Mara, don't be crude."
"If he asks me one more time to go and look at star lines, he'll see stars all right, but no lines."
"You may be ahead of me then. Mihella has only asked me three, no, just asked again, four times."
After administering another hard shove at Dran, she asked, "Hey Skywalker, if you uh, want to make some arrangements . . ."
She heard a very firm voice say, "No."
"Positive. Don't you know the Jedi Code, only dinner and a holovid on the first date?"
She was laughing so hard she missed at first the familiar Force sense sweep the room. She heard Luke say, "Did you get that?"
Mara looked around, and then waved at Yur, directing him to where Luke was. "Excuse me Dran, I have some business to attend to with my co-pilot. Would you be a sweetie, have a drink or two until I'm done and just watch over Mihella for me?"
She heard Luke making similar noises to Mihella, and direct the girl to Dran. Mara was immensely relieved that with both Luke and Yur in the bar, she had been able to duck Dran's clumsy attempt at a kiss and bit too familiar caress. The latter, she had threatened to remedy by cutting his hand off. She wished that Dran would have a conversation with Luke -- who would be sure to impress upon the fly boy that such threats should be taken seriously.
She joined them at the booth, giving Yur a kiss on both cheeks, and sliding in next to Luke. "Yur, can I get you something?"
"Thank you Inta, but no. I did not mean to interrupt your evening." Mara knew Luke felt as uncomfortable as she -- both of them, and for the same irrational reasons, would have preferred that Yur not have observed Mihella or Dran.
Luke interrupted hastily and with genuine feeling, "No Yur, we were hoping you would come."
"Unfortunately my friends, I have nothing to report to you." Even above the din of the bar, Yur dropped his voice conspiratorially. "It is, as I told you before, highly unlikely that Borkin is a guest, willing or no, in any Imperial establishment in Tirgu which employs Verratans."
Luke asked, "Do most of the Imperial homes and businesses hire locals?"
Mara answered, "Virtually all of them, right Yur?"
"I believe so Inta. Remember also that it may not be necessary for many Verratans to actually see Mr. Borkin to comprehend whether he is in fact near."
Mara and Luke agreed, an imprisoned man would be likely to broadcast distress strongly enough for even untrained Force sensitives in the vicinity to detect.
Yur continued, "I believe that if your friend is still alive and in Tirgu, he is likely carefully shielded from outsiders." They both sensed Yur's own cautious scanning of the cantina, before he added, "Also, a man came to the Port today Mara. I did not know or recognize him. He was very interested in you, in your ship, your cargo, and" his eyes flickered toward Luke, "your co-pilot."
"Did he board me?"
"No. But he did inspect your stowed cargo. I believe he was satisfied that it was what in fact it is. You are well known here. Nevertheless, it was an unusual visit."
Luke said slowly, "Yur, can you tell us anything special about this man?"
Yur smiled secretly, whimsically. "Regrettably Luke, I cannot. He was a confident, older man, very, I believe the word you use is 'controlled.' Perhaps you understand why I cannot offer more?" Yur stood, easing his way carefully out of the booth, "I must go now, and leave the pleasures of youth to those who may enjoy them more than I. Dona awaits me, and she would be concerned if I tarried in such company." He afforded them a jocular wink, "Mara, Luke, good evening. I am sure we will meet again tomorrow," and left them.
Mara watched him go. "Just another piece of bad news."
"Do you think Borkin might be at Bacchanalia?"
Mara grimaced with an abrupt shake. "Your guess is as good as mine. We'll have to check it out. These people are serious, I don't know why they would keep him alive or, if alive in Tirgu."
Luke agreed with her assessment, and added, "I sure don't like the idea of someone taking such an interest in us."
"I don't either. But we haven't sensed any pursuit or surveillance." Mara glanced about the bar. "And as Yur said, I'm known here. Even if whoever was checking us out knows where my loyalties really lie, the fact is, I'm here on legitimate trading business and have been doing it for years."
Luke pointed out the obvious he knew Mara had already realized, "That cover would be gone in an instant if they figured out who your co-pilot really is."
"Well, no levitating for you then, 'Luke.'"
"I'll try to remember, Captain."
Mara scrambled out of the booth, "Let's see how are friends are getting along."
They returned to the party; Dran and Mihella were perhaps a mite embarrassed -- Dran had taken Mara's advice to heart and was thoroughly enmeshed with Mihella, she draped about him like a piece of clingy clothing. To the minds of that couple, Luke and Mara were the definite interlopers. Dran, Mihella, and their other young friends had begun ordering glasses of ale and lining them in rows on the bar.
"Mara, is that the start of what I think it is?"
She nodded with a grin, "Looks like ale races to me."
Luke mused, "I wonder if I remember how to play."
"Well, allow me to refresh your long term recall. Two teams, and the team who finish the row of ale first wins." Silently she added, "Imagine how well this would work with Jedi control -- just open up that throat and pour it down."
Dran blurted out, "Hey, you old folks think you're up for an ale relay?"
The bar became quite silent and collectively held its breath as Mara and Luke simultaneously swung around to stare down the youngster. No one in the bar was under any misapprehension -- Dran had just provoked two very dangerous people. Mara caught Luke's eye and he gave her a humorous wink, both thinking the same thing. She held up a credit transfer card, "My co-pilot and I always love a challenge."
She threw the card down on the bar, as Luke said "Ladies, gentlemen, the Captain and I will take you all on. Pick your relay team, we'll even give you a . . ." he paused and Mara injected, "two man head start."
It was never even a contest. Although several of the men were very skilled, they were simply no match for the Jade Team-- Luke and Mara able to down glasses one after another in blindingly quick and coherent succession. It was a new and very successful Force application neither had tried before. After four runs with different combinations of six men teams on the other side, Luke graciously extended their handicap to three. After another few runs, Luke and Mara begged off, leaving the youngsters to race themselves into a stupor. Ten or more races later, the bartender ordered last call.
Luke and Mara were very pleased with their night's work -- bodies littered the floor and all without drawing a weapon. The bartender was so excited he gave them a glass of tolinka for the road. Mihella had fallen asleep across a table, and Dran was trying without much success to rouse his friend. He kept poking the sagging blonde, "Miha, Miha, wake up, gotta take ya home."
It was a doleful sight. In response to Luke's nonverbal query, Mara reluctantly agreed. "You're right. This carnage is partially our fault. You get him, I'll take the sleeping beauty."
Luke went over to the despondent man, "Come on Dran, we're going home."
Mara gulped down the rest of her drink and made her way to Mihella. After studying the situation for a moment, she righted the limp, unconscious girl, and slung Mihella over her shoulder. Stooped with her load, Mara wove her way through the bodies and upturned tables and trudged out of the bar. Luke was right behind her, guiding the only slightly more coherent Dran up the steps.
Outside, Dran gestured wildly, "There, that's it," pointing in the direction of a hulking speeder.
Luke gasped, "Head over there Mara."
Outside, Mara found the easiest way to maneuver the blonde was to drag her, and although sorely tempted to do so by the legs, opted for lugging Mihella by the arms across the road toward the open speeder.
Dran blurted, "Miha, don't leave me."
"Don't worry Dran," Luke reassured the drunken pilot, "she's coming with you."
Mara reached the speeder, and with a final heave, shoved Mihella head first into the back seat, the woman's feet sticking ludicrously into the air like a slaughtered animal. She turned back to help Luke with the reeling, babbling would-be pilot. "Gotta take Miha home," were Dran's last words before stumbling, slipping through Luke's arms, and collapsing with a heavy thud onto the ground. Mara and Luke each took one arm and hauled him to the speeder. Unceremoniously, they dumped Dran next to his comatose friend.
Luke climbed into the driver's side of the speeder, Mara joined him sitting heavily on the passenger side. "That's the last time we ever challenge anyone to a drinking game."
Luke glanced over his shoulder at the blissfully sleeping couple in the back seat. "Think they'll be okay back there?"
Mara stretched, trying to relieve the cramp in her arm from carrying the heavy Mihella. "I suppose. We should probably stick around a little while. Make sure they are both really out. Neither of them should try to drive this thing."
"So Mara, do all your evenings out end this way?"
"You mean drunk, in the back seat of a speeder, with a third rate pilot from a backwater planet?"
"A little testy aren't we?" he wondered. "I was just joking."
Mara was indeed in a sour mood, and the ache in her neck and left shoulder wasn't helping. She began rubbing them with her right hand, attempting more casually, "Did you have fun?"
Luke was not completely truthful, "Sure. What about you, did you have fun?"
Mara lied too, "Sure, up until this last bit. Your would-be girlfriend weighs a lot."
Luke looked back at the sleeping woman, "She's nice, but prettier when she's awake." At Mara's poorly concealed flash of annoyance, he added, "Too bad she's dumb as a rock."
Mara gave a humph of laughter and slumped over the console. She muttered, "On my last trip here, I thought Dran was very attractive. He seemed rather pathetic tonight."
Seeing her still rubbing her arm, Luke reached over. "Here, let me give a try," and buried his fingers into the firm muscle of her shoulder.
Mara grunted softly, finally admitting, "I thought it would be fun to see him, but I just didn't have the good time I thought I would." As he continued working her shoulder, Mara felt the tension and her irritable mood drain, and thought unguardedly, that her past and future co-pilots were not measuring up very well against Skywalker.
"Maybe your standards have changed," Luke observed softly.
At his words, Mara stiffened, pulling away, saying abruptly, "Thanks, feels better now." She slid further across the seat, wondering why she kept inviting these confrontations, cursing the circumstance that now put her with Skywalker in an open, battered speeder, on a deserted, dark street, in the middle of the night with a couple of drunks passed out in the back.
His amused response to her brusque withdrawal rankled and the air of condescension she detected aggravated her further. "What's so funny?"
"I was just thinking about something Dona said last night."
Mara unwisely took the bait. "What'd she say?"
"That she didn't understand what was between us."
His unsubtle probe provoked a reaction, albeit an aggressive one. Luke had just provided Mara with the excuse she had needed to vent her ill temper, "Why are you telling me this?"
He shrugged, "You asked. I just thought it was a perceptive comment."
She knew exactly why he had made the not-so-ambiguous observation, and had no intention of letting him slither out of it. "Try again, Skywalker. You were just hoping for some kind of weird confession from me weren't you?"
"No, of course not." The stammering indicated otherwise. "I just thought it was interesting, that's all."
"Like hell you do." Mara was furious, at him for so easily reading her, and at herself for so carelessly giving him something to read. "You're just playing games again. I know exactly what's between us, you're the one who can't keep it straight."
Now bitten, Luke struck back, "I suggest you get a tighter rein on your thoughts before trying to lecture me. Nothing that's gone on between us since we left Yavin entitles you to claim any high ground."
"You keep forgetting why I went to Yavin in the first place."
"I recall something about you needing a competent pilot."
"It's amazing that someone your age has never learned more about adult behavior," Mara exploded. "If you don't recognize a face saving gesture, I'll certainly not bother with one again. Next time I'll leave you to rot, find my own co-pilot, and spare myself the aggravation, the kind of arrogance, I'm getting from you."
"You just don't like the fact that you can't dominate me the way you do all those grateful boys you've rescued from whatever rock they're on." She was so transparent. "Don't expect me to stay in the right place in your ordered existence. I'm not doing anything to suit you."
Mara coiled, then struck with venom. "Your capacity for self-delusion is astounding. Let me enlighten you, since you obviously don't have a clue. You're attracted to me but you can't let go of that damn control for a minute. So you just whine and agonize, and keep toying with me, and never give me the satisfaction of slapping you really hard and ..."
"And what?" His laugh was laced with scorn. "You slapping someone who comes onto you? Right, whose the deluded one. I'm probably the only pilot between here and Coruscant that you haven't slept with."
"Careful, Skywalker, that sounds an awful lot like jealousy to me."
"I'm not interested in used goods, Master Trader."
With the last exchange of profoundly hurtful insults, their control gave way -- heat, anger and frustration burst out, the Dark Side sweeping them into a spiteful, violent torrent. As Mara swung her arm back to deliver a raking blow across his face, Luke grabbed her wrist, fully prepared to snap it. A loud snore from the back seat intervened.
Luke dropped her hand as if it scalded him, turning away. Eyes smarting, blood singing in her ears, Mara fought for and finally regained her control. She groaned, burying her head in her hands, "Oh gods, Luke, I'm sorry."
He did not look at her, his eyes fixed on the desolate street. When at last Luke spoke, his voice quavered, rasping and despairing. "Mara, I don't even think the things about other people that I somehow say to you."
Mara shrank into the corner of the narrow seat, pulling herself into an impervious, contained ball. With unheard of self-reproach, she confessed, wrenchingly bitter, "I don't exactly bring out the best in you."
Luke slid over to her, "That's not it." She winced as he brought an arm around her rigid body, "It's both of us. No one else could do or say what we do and say to each other, or hurt us the way we hurt one another."
At those fearful words, Mara felt panic rise and envelop her. Trembling, she yanked free, denying the import of his statement, "I don't want that kind of power."
As Luke put a hand on her arm again, she recoiled from the touch, from his words. "It's too late, you..."
She cut him off, desperate. "No, don't say it, I'm telling you, I don't want it ..."
"Mara," he began more firmly, "why don't you want to see this?"
"No!" Shrugging him off, disavowing the power they had over one another, a power she had never sought and did not want, Mara leveled her one remaining weapon, severing her Force link to Luke.
The stricken look Mara saw as her light winked out within him compounded her panic. Trapped in the cramped confines, she scrambled, desperate for an escape.
But Luke would not, could not, let her go. He grasped her, pinning her into the corner with one hand, stroking her face with other. "I know why you're doing this. After what Palpatine did to you, I know this is the last thing you would have ever looked for."
She felt him reach to her again, now in the Force. "I'm sorry, Mara. I never intended it either. But don't shut me out now."
She tensed, feral, caged, straining against him. Mara would flee, or fight before she could allow this to happen.
He entreated again, "Don't run, please."
She couldn't bear it. She couldn't stand to hear the plea, couldn't stand knowing that she could hurt him, that he could hurt her, or that either of them might regret doing so.
"Stay." With the whisper, she felt Luke open to her. She wavered, poised at the edge of flight. He caressed her again, "Please."
With a strangled, muffled cry, Mara relented, burying her head in his shoulder, seeking through the Force an awareness as strong and as wounded as her own.
Heads bent, arms softly draped, the Force knit them in a consoling, gentle embrace. With the shared empathy Luke admitted what he foolishly had only just realized, "Sometimes, maybe I am jealous."
Her response was tinged with returning humor. "At this rate, you have nothing to worry about Jedi."
He drew her fierce, lithe body closer. "Neither do you." Luke was learning that the softness and pliant complacency of someone like Mihella was a poor substitute for the allure of Mara's power, her prowling shape, and piercing intelligence. Twined with her mind and body, his craving for a release from the burdens of his Mastery, the ache to possess her restless energy, threatened to engulf him, overwhelming his faltering grasp of peaceful restraint.
Still linked, Mara felt the turmoil, saw in troubled eyes the struggle beneath the surface. She sensed the subtle change in Luke, and she realized in herself. She felt the introduction of a new element in their bond, saw suddenly another power she had over him, and he over her. Mara hesitated for a heartbeat, and then reached down deeper into the Force, finding and strengthening his focus and self-control, and her own.
Calm washed over them. Luke gently pushed her out of his awareness, even as she withdrew. He murmured, "You can't cross that line either, can you?"
She sighed deeply, contented with the compromise. "No, and I won't try to force you to if I can't." Mara twisted her head up to catch his eye, "It's an agreement I can live with."
Luke did not answer right away, but finally sighed his assent, "Me too." He paused, winding a loose strand of red hair around a finger, thinking that his thoughts on the subject changed almost on the hour, and sometimes were not even that consistent.
Another snore, this one apparently from Mihella drifted by. Mara glanced over at the heaps in the back seat, "I should have killed you while I had the chance, would have saved me a lot of trouble."
"What, and miss all this fun?"
Amid a chorus of snores, Mara responded, "You have strange notions of fun Skywalker. It's the middle of the night, we're in a derelict speeder, have a drunken pair in the back seat, a couple of blasters, and two light sabers. Fun is not the word that leaps to mind."
Luke cupped a hand under her chin, "Don't forget the droid, adjoining hotel rooms, a bottle and a half of liquid lightening and enough explosives to take out a block or two."
Mara slid one arm around his neck, saying as she did so, "Under the circumstances, I think there's only one thing to do then, don't you?"
He approached close enough to whisper, "Break some more laws?"
Her delighted laughter was almost enough to make him instantly reconsider their agreement of only moments before. She confided, "Fortune has put a speeder at our disposal. I had been worried we'd need to steal one, but I'm sure Dran wouldn't mind lending his. But just to be sure, I'll ask. Dran, do you mind if we borrow your speeder for a little illegal activity?" A thunderous snore from the back seat answered. "See? Thank you so much Dran, I knew you wouldn't mind."
Mara pulled Luke's head down nearer to her own, a seductively dangerous edge in her voice, "I'm thirsty and in the mood for a bottle of wine or three. Do you think the Bacchanalia warehouse might have some?"
"So we add vehicle theft, public drunkenness, and carrying concealed incendiary devices to breaking and entering and theft?"
"I think that about covers it. Having followed the money, I now want to follow the wine."
* * *
In a repeat of the previous night, they returned first to the hotel for the party kit, and opted to leave Artoo behind. Data was not object for this excursion. As before, everything was quiet and deserted; Luke piloting, Dran and Mihella still snoring away serenely in the back, they headed out of town as quickly and quietly as the poorly serviced speeder permitted. Within a kilometer of the hulking Bacchanalia warehouse Luke parked the speeder in a depression behind a low hill, leaving Dran and Mihella sleeping in the back seat. He and Mara intended to approach the facility on foot.
A hundred meters from the security fence perimeter they silently sank down into the damp grass on a hill which provided a good vista of most of the compound. A few of the buildings in the complex were lit; most were reassuringly dark and silent. Luke reached out for a tentative sense of the place, telling Mara, "I think there are about 10 to 15 people inside, most concentrated there." He pointed to a large, windowed, lit building.
Mara had been scanning the fence, scoping the trees and the grounds for motion sensors and cameras. A breeze stirred the trees overhead, and she saw a leaf blow gently into the fence and pop with a slight sizzle. "Electrified fence of some sort. I don't sense any other surveillance equipment."
"So, what are our objectives, apart from satisfying your thirst?"
Mara ran through the options. "Find out if Borkin is there. Find out what they are smuggling."
"I don't get a sense of anything particularly ominous in there, do you?"
"No. We'll check again when we get in closer, but even prisoners have to sleep. Maybe we can find a terminal, ask the computer where we deliver prisoner meals."
Luke scanned the facility spread out before them. "So if I were a wine merchant, where would I put the goods I'm smuggling?" He finished as Mara said silently, "Near the landing pads."
"There, those flood lights -- no ships but looks like a landing pad to me."
"Yep. See those ramps and loaders -- I bet that's their storage and shipping area. What do you think?"
In response Mara inched on her stomach back down the hill. "Let's walk around, closer to that area."
From that side, a careful closer inspection revealed a tightly sealed, dark low building, ramps and lifts descending to the landing pad. They slunk to within 30 meters of the building, only the security fence and an expanse of grass, walkways and an unlit loading dock separating them from a door to the building. A sweep of the area confirmed that all was peacefully quiet -- the little activity centered in the apparent administrative building on the other side of the complex.
With the Force, Mara directed another leaf toward the fence; they heard the same sizzle as it contacted the current. The fence was probably 3 meters high -- too tall to just jump, even with Force enhanced muscles. "Any ideas, Skywalker? I suppose we could try the front door?" Her tone indicated how little she liked that possibility.
Luke was looking at the tree that partially shielded them, "I think an old fashioned method would work here as well. It's a good thing Bacchanalia hasn't been concerned with intense scrutiny of its activities. How are you at tree climbing?"
Mara looked up, noting that some of the tree's branches hung over the fence, into the compound. She reached into the party kit, producing a skein of rope. "We might need this to get out again."
Luke nodded, "I did a lot of climbing when I was training -- I make the juniors do it on Yavin. I bet they'd love to see me in a tree now."
"Why don't I go first -- I weigh less, and if something goes wrong, you can probably get me out of there faster." Luke stood, cupping a hand to give Mara a boost up the tree. She clambered up, and then stopped to consider the branching routes. Luke whispered in her mind, "Try the second one up, it looks about as sturdy, but extends further in." She climbed up one more branch, then began sliding across, stopping to loop and tie the rope around the sturdy branch. She left it coiled -- no need to run the risk of alerting someone with a dangling rope, and if they needed it, it would be possible to release it through the Force.
Mara took a firm hold of the branch, and then dropped, hanging for a moment, before landing with a gentle thud and roll onto the grass on the other side. It was easy, and Skywalker was right behind her.
Luke caught up with her at the door to the building. Mara was staring at the multiple numbered and lettered buttons on the locking mechanism. "Doesn't look like a transfer card will work this time."
She put her hand over the lock and shut her eyes, "Just give me a minute, it's a sequence lock, and I think there may be enough residue for the lock to remember its own code."
Garbled though her explanation was, Luke thought he understood what she meant. Mara paused, and then punched a sequence -- the lock light turned from red to green, and the door slid open.
They slipped through the door, into the dark storeroom. But for the dozens of crates and cartons, it was empty and silent. Moving quickly along the wall, Mara made for the end of room, "I've got to know what's in these things."
Luke hung back, closer to the door, and began prying the lid off one good sized crate. "These are big enough to hold almost anything." Mara was still working her box, as Luke popped his open, and began rummaging through the packing material. Wine bottles were carefully nestled in the first layer, and the second, and the third. He pushed deeper into the box, "Mara, there's nothing here, it's just wine."
With its profits, Bacchanalia had been buying from every major arms dealer for months -- Luke was certain evidence of the smuggling had to be somewhere. He moved to another partially opened carton, and found the same thing, bottles of wine. He quickly tried a third, finding the same. After all of this, it seemed ludicrous, impossible to him that Bacchanalia was really after all, just another wine merchant. "Maybe there's a different storehouse, or maybe they're getting goods off planet somewhere . . ."
He started, feeling an intense reaction from Mara, shock, amazement, and most of all, amusement. "What is it, what did you find? All I've got is wine."
She was sitting on the floor, with two bottles in her lap, studying them. He felt as much as saw the bemused expression spreading across her face, "Those clever bastards."
"What's in your box? All I've found were wine bottles. Is there something special in the bottle?"
Mara shook her head, laughing softly, and then so hard and quietly she could barely speak. She finally gasped, "Look at the labels, Skywalker. It's not what's in the bottle, it's what's on the label."
Luke delved into one of the cartons and pulled out a bottle, apparently of red wine, although difficult to determine in the dim light. "It says its vintage from, ah, 25 years ago, a muscanion, from a vineyard in Adonveer. That was on Alderaan wasn't it?" He walked over to her, and she was shaking with laughter. "What is it?"
Mara wiped her eyes as he joined her on the dusty floor.
"Mine are from Alderaan too. They are probably all from Alderaan."
"So? What's all this Alderaani wine doing here? Why's that funny?"
She jostled him roughly with an elbow. "Skywalker, recall your lessons on supply and demand. Alderaani vineyards used to produce some of the finest wines in the galaxy. A certain Death Star 20 years ago ended that. There's no supply, it's gone, no one can make anymore. Do you have any idea what the going rate is for a case of Alderaani muscanion, or cavernol, any vintage, any year?"
He still didn't understand. "A lot I should think?"
"It's incalculable. I've only seen the rare bottle or two in 10 years of trading and those bottles went for oh, I don't know, upwards of 30,000 credits. Maybe more. A case really could make a sizeable downpayment on a Star Destroyer, pay the salaries of a battalion of troops for a year, buy all that blast armor."
"But where could all of this have come from? There are cases and cases of it. They've been shipping for months."
Mara laughed again, "Recall the sucker list, Skywalker." She patted his cheek with a dirty hand. "You're too honest. There's not this much Alderaani wine left in the entire galaxy. It's Verratan wine, with Alderaani labels. It's a fraud, a very clever fraud, being perpetrated by rich Imperials, on other rich Imperials who would love nothing more than drinking to a bygone era with a glass from an obliterated rebel stronghold."
They sat together, in the dust, amid packing crates and stuffing, in the dark, mulling the implications of what they had learned that day. "Mara, what do you need to build an Empire?"
"A commander to lead it."
She gestured about the room, "Credits to buy it."
Luke rummaged in his pockets, "I think a toast is in order." He produced a screw, and with considerably more expertise than two weeks previously, began opening one of the bottles.
Mara brushed hair out of her eyes, leaving a grimy mark on her forehead. "Do you think that's a good idea?"
He shrugged, and slid the cork out, "Probably not."
She grinned and handed him another bottle, "One for each of us."
"Of course." Luke opened the other bottle, and returned it to Mara.
They clinked bottles, Mara offering a toast, "Sherrifee, to where the money led."
"No cazut i shtea. To floating a navy on a sea of wine."