The Art of War - Part 10
Disclaimer: All characters, locations and concepts Star Wars belong to George Lucas. This story was written for fun and is not an attempt to make profit or infringe copyrights. The original ideas contained in this story belong to the author.
Chapter 10 - Encounters
Mara watched the Grand Admiral closely. He was sitting very quietly amidst the glowing displays circling his chair in his very private meditation chamber. It was an almost serene picture, Mara thought quietly. With nothing else to do, she let her mind wander, scrutinizing the recent happenings. They had arrived at the Noghri world Honorgh almost a week ago and Thrawn had immediately made his move. He had explained to her that the Noghri held a special place with the Dark Lord, something she found hard to believe. But the Grand Admiral apparently knew Vader better than she did. It was easy to free a single person, Thrawn had told her, but when the lives of so many were at stake one could not take any risks. Which seemed logical. But they were dealing with Vader, after all, and Vader followed his own logic.
This morning though Jay Gerran had confirmed the Dark Lord's willingness to meet with Thrawn. And Mara was actually pretty excited about that. What was Vader planning to do? He would not surrender just like that, Mara was certain. There must be something he held secret, and the Grand Admiral knew that too. Thrawn had been going on about that at length, actually. But he was certain that Vader would not let the rebels fall without some justified reasons. Of course, the apparent hostilities between the Sith and the Alliance Command seemed very promising in that respect, but not enough. Which was why the Grand Admiral was so concentrated right now. If he could anticipate the Dark Lord's motives he would win. And wouldn't that be fun.
"You are making a mistake. And if you leave now I will find you wherever you go. I will find you, Padmé. You will stay here, or suffer my revenge. If you leave now, Padmé, I swear I will kill you."
Those words, spoken in scorn what seemed a lifetime ago were haunting Anakin now. He had regretted them immediately once they were issued, but by then it had already been too late. He remembered Padmé's eyes widening in fear and how she had taken a step back, the small, hurt sobs as he had let her go again. She had not said a thing. And he had been too proud to ask her forgiveness. He had come back to Coruscant, hoping for her insight, her reassurance and strength to soothe that nagging feeling of failure tearing at his soul. How disappointed he had been when Padmé had told him that she was leaving, that she had not trusted him anymore. Had she not seen how much he had needed her back then?
In his lonely battle he had been assaulted from all sides and the tension had been threatening to suffocate him. The Jedi Council had made it clear that they did not approve of his course of action, had sent him to Alderaan of all places to cool down. The peaceful world had done nothing to ease his growing restlessness, the feeling that everything was getting out of control. And then Padmé had left him too. He had felt her withdraw from him then, closing off her heart, only strengthening his fears that he had lost her, had lost everything. And he had known just who to blame.
Fighting Obi-Wan had only been another mistake in a long series.
Waking up always was the hardest part. His eyes hurt in the cold lights of the sterile room they had put him in and the chilly air made him shiver. Unable to move at all, he would simply stare up at the ceiling, imagining the stars above, telling himself that he was lying underneath the night sky above Tatooine or Naboo, not confined to his bed, shackled down by these cursed machines. Wishful thinking, he knew. His mouth was swollen and he was almost certain that his jaw had been broken. There was little he remembered of the happenings on Eol Sha. And maybe that was just for the best. He recalled fighting Obi-Wan, his own anger at his one-time friend and master, and the end of Anakin Skywalker.
I am Anakin, he reminded himself. Repeatedly.
But he knew very well that nothing was as before. And his captor took great delight in telling him that over and over again. Palpatine's blue eyes regarded him with unmistakable mocking as he stepped closer to the patient hanging on to what little was left of his life. Of himself. Anakin had not even dared to assess his own condition, fearing the worst and loathing what he had let himself become. Leaning closer, the Chancellor smiled coldly.
"Your wife was officially reported dead two weeks ago." His smile deepened. "Apparently she drowned in the lake above Otoh Gunga. Some even speak of murder."
At first his mind froze, his brain shutting down as an icy coldness swept over him, rendering his feelings numb. Dead? Anakin's eyes narrowed for the smallest fraction of a second as he rallied himself and his mind translated the words into their true meaning. Impossible. Obi-Wan would have told him, wouldn't he? If anything happens to me, I want you to keep her safe, he had asked his friend before leaving for Alderaan on his lonely mission three months before. He had returned only to find that Padmé did not trust him anymore, that no one seemed to trust him at all. He had been furious at Obi-Wan for sending her away, for turning her against him. But still, his friend would have told him if anything had happened to her.
Two weeks ago he had been on his way to Eol Sha.
Suddenly realizing the truth, Anakin took a deep breath through the machine that had replaced his lungs. Forcing a smile on his dried-out lips, he met Palpatine's gaze levelly.
"Brilliant," he wheezed laboriously, forcing his mouth to cooperate.
"Isn't it though? The Naboo blame the Gungans for her death and some even believe that you killed her yourself. Fools. Your friends have abandoned you long ago, Skywalker. There is no turning back for you."
"But... there is... a way," Anakin whispered weakly, fighting down the pain.
"There always is, my friend. Always. And I can show it to you."
Anakin stared at him for a long time unblinking. Padmé's supposed death would rekindle the animosities between the Gungans and the Naboo she had managed to lay to rest almost a decade ago. The result may very well be a civil war or, knowing Palpatine's plan, even something worse. He would use the tragedy in his favor, pressing for a quick ratification on the Cloning Act. He could even blame the Jedi for having failed to protect the queen. It truly was a brilliant move, one that had trapped his opponent effectively. Anakin might know that Padmé was not really dead, that it had probably been her bodyguard who had been found murdered on Naboo, but who would believe him? Especially now. Obi-Wan had seen him die on Eol Sha.
His life was in Palpatine's hands and the Chancellor was offering to teach him everything there was to know of the game he had started, stumbling into its hidden mazes and traps like a fool. And although Anakin was certain that his plan itself was right and that it was the only way to defeat Palpatine, he also knew that he had indeed a lot to learn until they could meet as equals. It was true what Palpatine had said: he had no friends left. He could not go back. But he could take Palpatine's offer and turn that gift against him. Someday. An old saying came to his mind: patience is the virtue of the warrior. He might have lost this battle, but he could still win the war. Nodding grimly, Anakin made his choice.
"Then show me."
Heaving a deep sigh, Anakin Skywalker opened his eyes and shook off the memories. For a long time he simply stared straight ahead, unseeing, and finally an ironic smile appeared on his lips.
"I thought myself really clever back then," he declared, sarcasm dripping off every word.
"You did, indeed."
Anakin smiled at his friend expectantly.
"You believe that I should have said something else?" Obi-Wan inquired coolly.
"Actually yes, but you would only lecture me about pride again."
Throwing up his hands in a defensive gesture, Obi-Wan shrugged in mock discomfort.
"The Force only knows that there is no one alive who could best you at this game. But you are right: pride is not for the Jedi."
Hugging his arms around his legs and drawing them up to his chest Anakin rested his chin on his knees pensively. No one alive. He grimaced in disdain. But Obi-Wan had a point. He still was too proud. And he could only hope that somewhere along the way he could learn that lesson in humility he apparently needed so badly. For now though, he refused to surrender his ego, telling himself that there was no one who could defeat him, although Thrawn had made quite an impressive try. As long as he remained aloof, shielding his emotions from any unwelcome intrusion, he was invulnerable. His children were very capable of taking care of themselves, and if not, there were always ways to help them without taking an active part, as Nuron had proven with Luke. There was always a way. At least that was what he believed.
"You are right, Obi-Wan, I know. But sometimes pride can be a very effective shield."
"Are you sure that you really need it?"
Anakin stared blankly at his friend before he answered in a small voice:
Obi-Wan folded his arms in front of his chest and shook his head ominously, gaining himself an angry growl from the Dark Lord.
"You are trying to hold on to them and keep them apart at the same time. But you must realize that this cannot work in the long run, Anakin. You told Master Yoda once that you have never learned to forgive, but you did with me, didn't you? In the end?"
"Yes," came the sullen reply.
"Then why can't you just surrender your pride too?"
"Surrender is a greater pain than you might imagine."
"For you, yes. But you are running up against a wall right now and surrender is your only way to break through. Don't you see? Neither your strength nor your wits can help you there."
"Palpatine broke me by turning my feelings against me."
"Forget him, Anakin. You of all people should know that a general who does not share the life of his troops will lose their trust. You are only human, after all."
"I cannot allow myself to become weak now. Maybe later, but not now."
"Well, I surely am not going to force you to do anything, even if I could. But when the time comes I hope that you will make the right choice."
"The right choice," Anakin snorted then continued in a more somber tone: "Tell me, what did Padmé think of what happened back then?"
"At first her mind was rigid with fear, understandably, and it took me long hours to convince her that there was no possibility whatsoever that you of all people would have made the mistake of confusing her with Sabé. In the end though she did come to see the truth. And I did too. You had gone too far, but I was certain that you could still come back."
"Is that why you let Luke keep his true name?"
"To mark the way home for you. Padmé was furious."
"And that was why she left Tatooine?"
"To be with her daughter for some time and away from me. She thought I had betrayed her by taking your side. And when I realized later that you were indeed lost I became very worried. But by then it was too late to change what had already been done."
Anakin did not reply and finally Obi-Wan faded away, leaving his friend alone to ponder the many questions their conversation had sparked in his mind. Anakin was preparing to meet with Thrawn and time was running out. Although he had allowed the Imperial warlord to gain the upper hand, or at least had made Thrawn believe to, there were still a few factors to take care of. Convincing the Alliance Command to accept Leia as new leader was one of them. And so far he had not found the time to talk to Nuron and he was not sure if he should reveal anything to her after all, not with Padmé on Korriban with Roj Kell. Of course, Chi'in was also still there to keep an eye on her, but still... And he was not certain if Nuron was completely loyal to him anymore.
A difficult situation. Sighing deeply he rose. One step at a time. He would have to think about this and soon, but right now he did not feel up to developing any effective plan, not with what Obi-Wan had told him. For now he just needed some time alone to sort out his feelings and thoughts. Anakin knew very well that he had already given up moving unseen in favor of throwing Thrawn off balance, and thereby he had made himself seem more vulnerable. Which he was not in the least. Thrawn might believe that the Alliance did not trust him or the former Imperial troops, but what he saw was not the same as what was truly going on. When Leia took over everything would change.
But now the Grand Admiral thought that he had found a flaw in the design of the Dark Lord's plan: the Noghri. Anakin had not been best pleased when Palpatine had given the responsibility for their mission deployments and the control over their home-planet over to Thrawn when the Grand Admiral had left for the Unknown Regions. The Noghri used a formality that the Admiral did not care for at all and he did make them feel that too. In short, he did not care. Well, time to make him do so. And if not for the Noghri, then for someone else.
Months ago he had prepared his battle-ground, sending Chi'in into the Unknown Regions on a spy mission that had confirmed his suspicions concerning the Grand Admiral. The admiral's people, the Chiss, were living at the very edge of disaster and now they had been deprived of the Admiral's badly needed genius. Anakin had developed his initial plan further, using the information Chi'in had brought him, and now he would lure Thrawn to a certain planet for negotiations. A planet that had been cleared of any dangers by Nuron, also months ago. He growled softly in remembrance of her assignment. She had failed back then, and her failure was still haunting her. It was frustrating, really, that she had so little backbone at times. Anakin sighed deeply. But he cared for her still. And somehow he would manage to make all of his cruelty up to her. Someday.
"Look at that, will ya?" Jix exclaimed in disgust, gesturing over the endless rows of nutrient bubbles lining the crew quarters aboard the Executor. Leia and Mon Mothma had been following him quietly, both wearing thoughtful expressions. The rebel leader stepped forward cautiously, frowning, and touched one of the cylinders tentatively:
"How curious. And you say that there are more on the other decks?"
"Very strange. What are those?"
"Cloning tanks," Leia replied calmly.
"Clones?" Mon Mothma asked in bewilderment.
The Princess nodded. She did not like the feel of this ship, not at all. Apart from a team of scientists they were the only ones alive on board and it made her skin crawl. She had accompanied Jix on his first scouting round through the Super Star Destroyer and had shared their findings with Admiral Piett. He had been the one who had filled her in on the clones. Since the Empire did lack sufficient troops, Grand Admiral Thrawn had had the glorious idea of manning the Executor with a crew consisting mostly of clones. It had been thought as a last resort, but considering the Empire's current state it was indeed time for desperate measures.
"Thrawn is apparently on his way to some secret location to get the missing pieces for growing them," Leia explained softly," Genetic material has already been taken and stands ready for the process."
This ship felt like a tomb, a giant grave. That was what made her so uncomfortable. She wanted to get off board and fast.
"How did he know about all this?"
"Lord Vader sent him a message through Mara, I believe, some datacards containing valuable information."
The moment she had said it Leia knew it had been a mistake. Mon Mothma turned towards her, incredulous at first, then full of anger.
"He did what?"
"That is treason, do you realize that?"
"I am sure he had his reasons."
"He always does, doesn't he?"
Leia's face hardened and when she replied her voice was wintry cold.
"It does not matter. What does are the results."
"Have you come so far then? To tell me that the ends justify the means?"
"No. Not at all. But you cannot just assume that he was wrong in doing so. You cannot be certain that moving the way he did, he did not he save the lives of thousands who would have died in a senseless battle to gain control of this ship."
"And you are certain of that?"
"This ship is huge and running it does cost a fortune. To us it is of no use and the Empire lacks the resources too. Don't you see? Lord Vader has offered Thrawn this way out and I am sure that he did not do it out of compassion or anything. There is another purpose behind that."
Leia clicked her mouth shut. She did not know if Anakin wanted the Alliance Command to know exactly what he was planning to do. They might go so far and try to prevent him from leaving. Gritting her teeth Leia realized her mistake: by keeping silent she had made Mon Mothma suspicious, she could feel it. What a mess.
Jix was standing a few meters apart, behind the rebel leader, and his right hand was hovering dangerously close to the blaster hanging from his belt. Leia smiled at him reassuringly. Turning towards Mon Mothma, the Princess' expression became serious once more:
"Have you ever heard about the strategy of courting the enemy? Making him feel safe? Estranging his most trusted advisors and gaining the support of his people?"
"Yes. Of course. And that is what Lord Vader is doing?"
"No. This is what we must do. Lorth Needa and Tomas Piett are counted among the best Imperial command has to offer and both are with us now. Thrawn has been relieved of his command and he is left with only one ship, maybe two. The government is under public pressure and what people want is peace and stability. The Empire has been thrown into chaos. This is our chance."
"What about Thrawn? Won't they call him back?"
"I am almost sure of that. And here time is against us. Which is exactly why Lord Vader is leaving."
"He will meet with the Grand Admiral? He will truly surrender? To what purpose?"
"Frankly, I do not know. But he will keep Thrawn off our backs. Our task is taking control of Coruscant. Now."
To Leia's great surprise Mon Mothma's anger faded and she smiled at the Princess warmly.
"Thank you. I must admit that Lord Vader has taught you very well. And although I still believe you are far too young for this sort of responsibility, I fear I will have to trust his judgement once more."
"Needa and Piett will be helping me."
Mon Mothma sighed deeply.
"Lord Vader has outmaneuvered us and now all we can do is stand aside and offer you our support. Which we will do, of course. I had, for a time, forgotten the purpose of all this, that it is for the best of everyone, nor for our own personal gain. To get taught that lesson by Darth Vader of all people is, in a way, very humiliating. I guess that is why we refused to see the truth at first. And because of his absolutely infuriating behavior," she added with a tiny smile.
"He can be pretty demanding at times, yes," the Princess agreed slowly.
Why the sudden change? Mon Mothma had been absolutely furious after their retreat from Hoth and very hostile towards Leia's father. There must be something behind all this, she mused inwardly. A slight frown appeared on Leia's face as her suspicion deepened. There was someone she needed to talk to very soon.
She was standing at a window, very straight, her head held high and her eyes fixed into the distance. Approaching her, Anakin could feel her longing, her uneasiness and the pain. He came to a halt a few steps behind her and studied her reflection in the transparisteel viewport. Nuron's eyes were yellow slits and her mouth was drawn tight in a stubborn pout. For a while neither said a word. Finally Anakin decided to make the first move. Closing the distance he laid a hand gently on her shoulder and immediately she tensed, as if expecting the punishment to continue.
"I will not hurt you," he told her quietly, but did not let go.
"It is not my place to question your actions, Lord Vader."
He smiled at the defiance in her tone, her stiff-backed pride.
"True, indeed. But neither is it mine to treat you like a child."
She turned around in surprise.
"I am a Sith. I obey the Dark Lord. I am not a child."
"You are an individual. And you are responsible for your actions. Which is why I punished you. Not because you are a Sith. Or a child."
"But you said... You said that you own me."
"You are, among everything else, a soldier, Nuron. And in that you are mine. This is something I teach all of my agents. I will tolerate their independent actions, but only so far. I explicitly forbade you to interfere. Yet you chose to ignore my orders."
"Lord Kell said-"
"Roj Kell has nothing to say on that matter. I carry the responsibility for the success of this operation. I alone am in command."
"There is no but. He is lucky to still be alive. As you know very well. I came here to apologize, Nuron, but I can see that you still are not inclined to see the error of your ways."
"You told me once that I have to stand for what I believe in."
"I believe in honesty, Lord Vader. And I believe in you. And for a time I thought that you believed in me too. What has changed?"
"You have, Nuron. You have lost your independence. Why I know that? Because else you would have saved my son not because Lord Kell told you to, but because you would have understood my request as a message to you."
"To remember what I have taught you. That simple, Nuron. But I realize too that I have been away for too long, that I did not have the time to finish your training properly. You must have felt incomplete and Roj Kell eagerly moved in to fill you with his dreams of glory. Am I right?"
Nuron stared at him, her yellow eyes unfathomable. Still, Anakin could feel the sudden feeling of betrayal slam into her as she finally understood what exactly he had punished her for. Taking a long step away from him she swallowed hard, setting her mouth in a grim line. Without another word she whirled around and stormed down the corridor, vanishing from sight. Anakin shook his head slowly, refraining from monitoring her feelings and thoughts through the Force. He had made the first step, but the next one would have to come from her. It would take her some time to sort out her desires and wishes, to admit her errors and to accept what she had learned. But in the end Nuron would understand that she had let herself become trapped. And as a warrior, she would not tolerate that at all.
Meditating in his small room, Luke was well aware of his sister approaching even before she tentatively knocked at the door. Rising gracefully he went over to open it for her. He gave her a warm smile and hugged her tightly before leading her over to sit on the bed. Leia stared at him, her dark eyes hard and questioning.
"How was your trip to the Executor?"
"Interesting. Did you talk to Mon Mothma?"
Luke winced slightly at the accusation. "They came to me, actually. The three of them. They wanted to know if you had changed in any way."
"I see. And what did you tell them?"
"It was ridiculous. Do you know that they actually thought that Father was turning you into a Sith?" He barked a small laugh but Leia kept very still. So he continued more earnestly: "I told them that he was teaching you strategy and that this has got nothing to do with the Force. He does not even use it himself when planning his moves."
"He did teach me about the Force too," Leia explained coolly, daring him to say anything against that. Luke looked at her pensively.
"And how did you feel about it?"
"Good, actually," she replied, just a bit too flippantly.
Luke gave her an uneasy smile, sensing that there was more behind that comment. Was she perhaps afraid that the Command's concerns were justified? If so, she was badly mistaken. Maybe she had felt it too, but chosen to ignore it, but their father was not at all what he seemed.
"Do you know that Nuron was his apprentice before you?"
She shook her head slightly.
"I am fairly certain that Father did not teach her only strategy and tactics either. He lectured her about the Force, about responsibility, about Life and about being a guardian."
"Sounds like your Master Yoda."
"You mean he has taught her how to be a Jedi Knight?"
Throwing up his hands helplessly Luke started pacing the floor:
"I am not sure where exactly Father stands on all this. He obviously has a different point of view from Master Yoda and I blame that on his life as a warrior, constantly fighting. No wonder his vision got warped quite a bit. He punished Nuron and felt bad about it afterwards - I could feel his pain across the room, you know? But he thinks emotions will make him weak. Which prompts the question who he is expecting to fight. Thrawn? I do not believe that this would trouble him so. No. There is something else. And when he told us that Mother is with the Sith on Korriban I got it."
"The Sith, Leia, are the key. This whole plan is nothing but an elaborate ruse to distract them from realizing his true intent. The fact that he is helping the Alliance win the war is just a welcome side effect. Didn't you ask yourself why he would ever consider joining Thrawn?"
"And did you ever ask yourself why he never told us about them? That there are more?"
"Well, no. I guess he thinks the less we know, the less we are in danger. Nuron says he is the Sith's battle-leader and that he is responsible for the whole plan."
"You talked to her?"
"You did too. I found her in his office, after - you know."
Luke blushed slightly: "You would have done the same in my place. Anyway. She said as Dark Lord, the Sith Council has to follow his orders in war-times. I guess that is the whole reason why he agreed to take this post as-"
"Executor," Leia prompted him with a small smile.
"Yes. I know what you mean. He has planned this long before he ever became Darth Vader, I believe. And you know what that means, don't you?"
When he saw her eyes widen in understanding, Luke smiled down at his sister warmly.
"I do not like the way the Alliance Command sees him," she said suddenly and Luke simply nodded. "We should talk to them. They trusted you because they know you have been trained as a Jedi. They will trust him too when they realize what he really is. Who he is."
"They will be afraid, Leia."
"Why should they? He is our father. He is a Jedi Knight."
"He is too dangerous."
"You know Mon Mothma. She does not like people being smarter than herself."
They shared a laugh. "You are right," Leia admitted finally. "Unfortunately. And I can see that you have learned a lot on Dagobah."
"She will try to get back in control once he is gone."
"I know. She already is trying to make me feel accepted. But I do not mind her taking over. She knows what she wants and what she wants is good. She is much more experienced at politics than I am and I will gladly learn from her. As long as she lets me do my job first."
The Alliance Command had followed the Dark Lord's call and now they were all assembled again in the Castle's huge meeting room, a bit forlorn, only the five of them. Mon Mothma was seated between her generals, as usual, facing Leia and Anakin across the table. Once everyone had settled down, Anakin did not waste any time. Rising gracefully he gestured towards the holoproj and almost immediately an image of Coruscant materialized, spinning slowly above the table's smooth surface.
"With the loss of the Executor and Admiral Piett the government is facing increasing pressure from the people. Our sources report that more and more protests are being voiced and there is a mutual call for peace and safety from random attacks by Imperial troops. They are as afraid of their government as the government is afraid of us. Grand Admiral Thrawn has been replaced and it will take some time, even if they call him back, for him to return to Coruscant. In the mean-time my best guess is that Admirals Griff and Ozzel, the most senior members of the Navy Command, will take over."
"Have you heard anything from our teams on the planet?" Mon Mothma asked suddenly.
"And that does not worry you?"
"No. If they had been discovered we would have heard by now. So we will assume that they are in position and ready to strike. Princess Leia has prepared the plans for the attack on Coruscant. Princess, if you please?"
Taking his seat again, he watched Leia stand up, just a little bit flustered by the intent gazes of the three people facing her. She bent over the holoproj controls, staring hard at the image. Straightening again, Leia cleared her throat once and nodded at the small assembly thoughtfully.
"The purpose of this operation will be not only the conquest of the capital, but also a symbol of unity. The Imperial government has lost the support of its people and they are looking to the Navy to save their necks, at the same time fearing a renewed military rule. With our covert operations we have made sure that the public does not harbor any love for the military and the government knows that too. And we will have to make good use of those contrasting sentiments."
Two more planets appeared, while the image shrunk to a smaller scale.
"We have to distract the military enough to assure an easy victory. Thanks to Jixton's interference they will be expecting us to strike at Gyndine and we will, with a superior force. At the same time another attack will be lead on Duro, drawing more ships away from Coruscant. And while they are occupied, our strike teams will make their move and infiltrate the Imperial Palace. When our main task force arrives," pushing a button Leia let a fleet of five Star Destroyers and five capital warships of different types converge on the planet, "the sentinel ships left behind by the Navy will certainly not be taken by surprise, and I daresay that the government will expect this battle to turn in the Empire's favor. Their major worry will be a public uprising. And by the time they realize that the enemy is already right on their door-step it will be too late."
"But they will not give up without a fight," General Dodonna injected.
"No. The Navy will strike back, I am certain of that, but Coruscant will be secured without a fight. And that is most important."
"How are you proposing to make the Navy surrender then?"
"Without the government's support they cannot survive. With no goal to reach and nothing to defend, their resolve will be broken. Unity will be torn apart when the troops realize that they are fighting a losing battle. They will surrender. Trust me."
"Will you be leading the attack yourself, Princess?"
"No. I am entrusting our Gyndine fleet into the able hands of General Dodonna and Admiral Piett." She smiled at their surprise. "Captain Needa will take command of the Duro operations. To forestall your questions: I myself will leave for Coruscant, once our main force is in position and the attacks on Duro and Gyndine have started."
Mon Mothma nodded slowly while General Dodonna's eyes narrowed. He had realized the purpose of this setup apparently. This way each of the commanders would be dependent on the other's success. There would be no back-stabbing, no rivalry, just one common goal.
"What about General Rieekan?"
"He will accompany me to Coruscant, together with Luke Skywalker."
"And Lord Vader?"
"Is leaving today," Anakin told them and rose. "If all is settled then?"
"You are leaving?"
"Just what I said, Mon Mothma."
"No. I will be taking my aide with me."
"And, if I may ask, where are you going?"
"You may ask, but you may not get an answer."
She scowled at him. "Mind your manners. What about your agent? Is she leaving too?"
"Very well. Then this only leaves us to wish you good luck on whatever your mission might be."
"Thank you. I will give your regards to the Grand Admiral."
"Do that, Lord Vader, do that." This time the Alliance leader smiled openly. "And may the Force be with you."
When Leia and Luke went to see their father off in his chambers a few hours later, they found Wrenga Jixton lurking in the hallway in front of the door, looking quite miserable. When he saw the twins approaching though, he straightened up from his slouch, his expression turning passive, even arrogant. Leia smiled at him warmly.
"Jix, what's up?"
"Nothing. I am just - waiting," he added, shooting an annoyed glance at the still closed door.
Leia followed his gaze, frowning.
"But I can feel him in there. Why-"
Stopping herself short she blushed at Jix' angry scowl. He threw up his hands in disgust and started pacing in front of the twins, growling something under his breath.
"What was that?" Luke asked as gently as he could.
"I said," Jix almost shouted, "that he is ignoring me. Completely."
"The Executor? Is that it? He is still mad at you?"
"Mad? If he were mad at me I would probably be in intensive care, sharing the room with Piett. But he doesn't even seem to care, you know? He knows that I have been waiting out here for half an hour!"
The twins shared a glance and Leia raised her eyebrows knowingly. Wrenga Jixton hated being ignored and he especially hated being ignored by the Dark Lord. They both could feel that the Corellian was at the brink of despair right now, desperately seeking some reaction to his disobedience, some acknowledgement for his reckless endeavor. Sighing deeply, Leia stepped forward to pat his shoulder amiably, thereby stopping him in his tracks. He stared down at her, his blue eyes throwing angry sparks, but gradually his face softened again and in the end she could feel him relax a bit.
"We'll talk to him, all right?"
"You think that will help?" he replied gruffly.
"Probably not, but we can certainly try."
Just then the door opened and Leia turned around to see her father stride out of his room, eyes fixed thoughtfully into the distance. They fell in step with him, half-running to keep up, as he made his way for the Castle's main landing pad where a shuttle was already waiting for him. Leia shot a glance at Luke, who was grinning openly. They could both feel the stiff hurt pride in their father and Jix' anger at the Dark Lord. The tension between the two men was almost palpable, and furthermore the whole affair was getting ridiculous.
"Will you two be all right?"
Leia almost jumped at the sudden sound of her father's voice.
"I guess so. They seem relatively tame now that everything is settled."
"Good. Luke, I want you to keep an eye on Nuron."
"In your place I would not be so sure of that, son."
"Understood. And who will take care of you? Gerran?"
"Gerran?" Jix yelped, scandalized, from somewhere in the back of the small group.
Whirling around abruptly Anakin brought the agent up short, looming over the startled Corellian like a huge black cloud.
"You object?" he asked very softly and very coldly.
"It will be dangerous," Jix answered weakly and Leia could really bear with him.
A cruel smile appeared on the Dark Lord's lips.
"At least he is following my orders."
"You did not say that you did not want the Executor here!" the other man shouted defensively.
"I didn't, did I? I also distinctly remember myself telling you that your operation was to remain secret. Secret. Have you ever heard of that word? Does it, in your mind, encompass stealing a 12.800 meter long Super Star Destroyer more or less under the eyes of the Imperial Navy?"
"Spare me, Jix. You are staying here."
"What? That is-"
"Unfair? Was that the word you were looking for?"
Clamping his mouth shut, Jix simply stared up at him. Anakin gave him a triumphant smile, turned around again and left, with Luke by his side, not looking back once. Remaining behind sullenly, Jix folded his arms in front of his chest, clearly hurt. For an instance Leia hesitated before following her father and brother, trying to find any way to soothe the agent.
"I'll be okay, Princess. Just go ahead."
"We'll talk later, all right?"
Anakin strode onto the landing pad only to find Nuron waiting for him. She was facing him proudly and he could feel the sudden tension rising from Luke by his side. Clearly the boy was expecting another confrontation. Motioning for him to stay behind the Dark Lord approached the warrior casually. She stood at ease at the lowered landing ramp of his ship and it was clear that she had made a decision. Good. Nodding at her once he hooked his thumbs behind his belt, waiting for her to talk. She hesitated for a moment, clearly taken aback by the fact that he was forcing her to make the first step, something reserved only for emergencies. Custom demanded that she, as a common warrior, wait until she was given permission to speak. It annoyed Anakin greatly that Nuron apparently had not yet managed to come to terms with what he had told her and what he was expecting of her. She was still unsure of herself. Well, what did you expect in such a short time? he asked himself resignedly.
"I have heard that you are leaving, Lord Vader," she began, and the accusation in her tone for not having been informed by him first rankled immensely.
"Do you have any orders for me?"
"Yes, I do. You will go to Wayland and prepare everything for the Grand Admiral's arrival."
Nuron flinched visibly, but then her face hardened again. "I will do as you say. And this time I will not fail you."
"You did not fail your mission back then, you failed yourself."
She stiffened at that, her glowing eyes blank. But Anakin was hurting her deliberately with the past. Nuron was unable to overcome herself and it was his duty as her master to forge her into what she needed to be. Stronger. Far stronger than this. He watched her impassively for a while, letting her wonder. But when he spoke again his tone was completely earnest: "You did not trust yourself then, but the question is, what do you think now?"
"I trust the faith you have in me."
That is not enough, Anakin thought almost sadly. Aloud he said: "So you do trust me?"
"I am not sure anymore. I... have a feeling that I know what you are planning. Please. Think about it once more."
Her voice had dropped to a soft whisper and only then did Anakin realize what she must be going through. He had given her a home on Korriban, people to care for her and an upbringing that was designed to prepare her for her destiny to come. A glorious one as a warrior, as a strategist, a Sith. She had grown up in the belief that the Sith were invincible, that one day she would rule by their side. And now he was going to take that dream from her. Just as he had destroyed her hopes of taking his place one day. Truly shocked at what a mess he had made. Anakin shook his head slowly and reached out to touch her shoulder. But she took a step back, evading him, her face a show of cold pride.
"I did not mean to hurt you like this, Nuron."
"You did not care," she shot back hoarsely.
"Yes, you are right. I did not see you as the very capable young warrior you are, but as a tool for my plans. I realize now that thinking that way was a mistake. But unfortunately this is neither the place nor the time to make it undone. All I can say is that I am sorry."
Nuron did not answer but he could see her jaw working furiously to keep her from blurting out a reply that she feared might sound childish or immature or even unprofessional. For that was how she had seen herself so far and what she had hoped her mentor had seen in her too. A professional, an equal even, maybe.
"I am sorry for disappointing you like this," she said finally, her voice choked with silent tears.
Brushing past him she left, ignoring Luke standing in a respectable distance that would have prevented him from overhearing their conversation. He was looking at her thoughtfully, then came forward to join his father at the ship. Both men turned around, watching as Leia hurried onto the pad, frowning at the warrior headed in the opposite direction. The two women's eyes locked for a moment and then Nuron nodded at the Princess a quiet acknowledgement, the finality of it nearly breaking Anakin's heart.
"I have been such a fool," he whispered, remembering Obi-Wan's words. But he had tried, hadn't he?
"You did well. But it could have been better," Luke said quietly and again his father was helpless in the face of the young Jedi's astoundingly mature wisdom and insight.
"What is it that I am doing wrong? Can you tell me?"
"Well. Master Yoda would say that you have to find out by yourself. But maybe I can give you a hint by reminding you of just who taught you to play this game."
Leia's arrival prevented any answer, but Anakin understood well enough. Of course. That was what Obi-Wan had told him too. And Padmé had been shocked when he had proposed using calculated manipulation in her quest to bring the Republic back to a democracy. Although a deft politician herself, she had always refrained from discrediting an opponent with false evidence and uncalled for accusations. He was acting like a Sith, and worse, he was acting just like Palpatine. But he had been aware of that, hadn't he? Which was exactly why he was leaving the field to Leia now. She was so much like her mother. Even now, looking down at her smiling face Anakin could see Padmé's features in hers, and once again he vowed that he would never let his daughter be hurt the way he had hurt her mother.
"Are you all right?" she asked tentatively, a concerned smile on her lips.
"Yes," he answered weakly and stepped forward to embrace her: "Take care, Princess."
"Jix and Luke will be watching over me, so don't you worry."
Letting go of her again, Anakin hugged Luke tightly, regretting that he had had so little time for him after his son had returned from Myrk. But he would make up for that later, when all of this was over. Somehow.
"May the Force be with you," he said, smiling as Luke turned his clear blue eyes up to look at him.
"Just come back to us."
Luke found Nuron practicing in one of the more abandoned parts of Bast Castle. She had selected a huge chamber on the uppermost floor overlooking the distant plains and the sky painted red with the setting sun's dying light. The warrior was going through her fencing exercises with a fluid grace, moving from one pose to the next in a never-ending dance. Luke stood watching her for a long time until she stopped abruptly in a high guard position, her back forming a straight line with her arms, her neck and right leg, with her blade stabbing down, blocking an imaginary overhand blow. Shutting down the lightsaber she straightened up again and turned to face him.
"What do you want?"
He shrugged uncomfortably. "Well, it sounds a bit strange, but I do feel out of place here. Everyone seems to know what they are supposed to do and even though Leia says she'll be happy to have me along, I get the feeling that she has other things to worry about."
"The attack on Coruscant."
"And you came up here to seek what, distraction?" She smiled at the thought of that.
Their eyes locked and for a moment Luke felt electrified, just looking at her. Nuron's yellow eyes were like shining mirrors of gold, reflecting the dying light of the sun. He smiled a bit at her beautiful face. But the spell had been broken and already the warrior was moving towards the windowpane to gather up her long cloak that she had left there. Clipping her lightsaber to her belt she ignored Luke deliberately, or so he thought.
"And why have you truly come?" she asked suddenly, her tone too light, hiding her nervousness. And nervous she was, that he could feel.
"To talk," Luke answered and started walking towards her slowly.
Whirling around she faced him again and this time the coldness in her stance was unmistakable. The young Jedi stopped short, trying to understand what exactly was going on with her.
"And what about?"
He shrugged again: "Whatever."
"Small talk?" Nuron snorted and shook her head. Heading for the door she was smiling to herself.
"Nuron," he called her softly and she looked over her shoulder at him questioningly.
"Whatever you do, consider the consequences. Revenge and unforgiveness are the way to the dark side and I think I understand enough of the Sith to know that the dark is not your way, Nuron."
She did not answer, but her eyes flickered for a second before she turned back towards the door and left without looking back again. Luke bit his lower lip in frustration. He had not intended to come up here to lecture her at all. But it was strange how just being around her shook him off-balance and confused him. Shaking his head he smiled. Confusion was not for the Jedi. He would have to talk to her properly. Once she was back they would have all the time in the galaxy.
The Millennium Falcon dropped out of hyperspace a few clicks away from Nar Shadaa and the Wilde Karrde was already waiting for them there, hanging lazily in open space. Hailing the freighter, Han's fingers drummed over the comm console in an impatient rhythm that was getting on Chewbacca's nerves.
"All right, all right!" Han told his co-pilot defensively when the Wookiee roared at him.
"Millennium Falcon, you got some problems?" Karrde asked coolly.
"No, not at all," the Corellian huffed indignantly.
"Good. Because we might get some over here."
"What do you mean?"
"Check your sensors and tell me what you see off starboard."
Han frowned at his display: "A Star Destroyer?"
"Headed our way. My guess is that we have landed right in its exit vector."
"Then we should get out of it fast, don't you think?"
Throttling up the ship to full speed Han let the Falcon glide into formation with the Wilde Karrde and they made their way towards the planet side by side. Undoubtedly the smuggler chief's sensor officer was eyeing his readouts just as critically as Chewbacca. But so far the huge warship had not seemed inclined to even acknowledge their presence, let alone tried to hail them. So far, so good. Swinging in a wide arc to the right, they put a bit more distance between themselves and the Destroyer, just in case.
"Are you running or what?" Karrde asked suspiciously.
"No, just a bit of caution here. Wanna come along? I just want to get out of their guns' reach."
"That does sound reasonable."
But the sudden maneuver had not remained undetected. The Imperial ship changed its course ever so slightly, gliding smoothly towards the two freighters. Han watched the Destroyer loom ever closer, unsure of what to do. If they tried to flee now they would surely have a few TIEs on their trail before they could ever make the jump to safety.
"Any ideas?" he asked Chewie under his breath, his eyes fixed straight ahead. The Wookiee growled slowly. "Yes, you're right. She is too well known. But we got her into Coruscant and out, so maybe we can manage one Star Destroyer also."
"Unidentified freighter, this is the Imperial Star Destroyer Relentless. State your business."
Han felt all color drain from his face. The Relentless? Grand Admiral Thrawn's personal flagship? Moaning softly he hesitated before answering the call.
"Er, we are in need of some repairs and fuel."
"It is a long flight from Gyndine, isn't it, Millennium Falcon?" a new voice asked smoothly and Han felt his heart skip a beat. That was him! Had to be. Thrawn himself. Oh man.
"Indeed. Sir," he added as an after-thought. There was a small laugh on the other end.
"Well, enjoy your stay on Nar Shadaa. The Chimaera sends her regards."
"Really? How - nice."
He was going to let them go! He truly was-
"She will be arriving here shortly, by the way. So if I were you I would finish my business as quickly as possible."
"Don't you worry," Han replied sourly and cut the transmission. "Real clever. Thank you so much. Karrde!"
"I heard it, Solo. He sounds like a nice guy, doesn't he?"
"Slick. Reminds me of someone else, actually."
"So, what do we do now? Head home to base?"
"No? You want to sit here waiting for the Chimaera to arrive?"
"No, it was true what I told Thrawn. We really need fuel and the forward deflector could use some work."
"Great. Now you are telling me. Well. I know some people. Just follow us. And try not to get lost."
"Just lead the way."
The Wilde Karrde headed towards the distant planet at full speed and when they hit the atmosphere Han cursed wildly, cutting power to a minimum to compensate for the defective shield. They had almost lost sight of the other ship when they turned into the maze of the vertical city of Nar Shadaa, but Chewie's sharp eyes spotted the smuggler again soon. Dancing through the traffic wildly the two freighters mad their way deeper and down, into the underground. It was a twenty-minute flight of near catastrophes and confusing maneuvers, but in the end the Millennium Falcon touched down unharmed next to the Wilde Karrde on the landing pad of what looked like a repair shop.
Han powered down his ship and sighed deeply before leaving the cockpit, following Chewie aft. Han nodded at the fifteen Alliance troopers, but most of them returned that friendly gesture with a grim glare. The Corellian simply shrugged. It had, after all, not been his fault that the ride had been so rough. Waving them onward, he followed his co-pilot down the landing ramp, where Karrde was already waiting for them. "Welcome to Nar Shadaa," he said with a mocking smile. Indicating the tall man standing next to him he gave Han a nod:
"This is Shug Ninx, who owns this place. Say hello to Han Solo and Chewbacca."
Ninx nodded: "We know each other."
Laughing quietly Karrde shook his head. "Of course. Come on. We don't have much time."
Han and Shug shook hands and shared a smile. "Haven't seen you in a long time."
Han shrugged. "Well, we have been keeping busy."
"So I heard. You are with the Rebels now?"
"Most of the time."
"Karrde has made a deal with them too."
"Yeah, I know. Listen. An Imperial Star Destroyer just pulled out of the system. Anyone know what they wanted?"
"I could make inquiries."
"Good. That would be great. You tell me who can give me that information and I go and get it while you take care of the Falcon."
The sound of the turbolift's servo-motors as the car came up to the highest level filled the silent chamber with an eerie song. But Darth Sidious was already expecting his visitor. He had felt her arrive hours ago, her mind an angry beacon flashing in the darkness of her soul. So, Lord Vader's little Sith bitch was here. He remembered her, if only because of her resemblance to his very first apprentice, Darth Maul. She even bore his last name, didn't she? Nuron Sarin, yes that was it. Settling down on the throne, an exact copy of the one back on Coruscant, the Sith Master smiled to himself knowingly. She might become useful, that one. So fierce and yet so vulnerable. Her reasons for coming here were unimportant. She could not possibly know what was awaiting her in the bowls of the Wayland mountains.
The door to the lift slid open and she exited the car cautiously. Yet, as she moved closer, Sidious realized that she did not hesitate at all. Had she been here before? Of course she had! Rising from his seat impatiently, he called her name. She stopped her advance, uncertainty flashing across her mind in an instance.
"Who are you?" A young voice, full of determination and fear.
"Come closer, my child," he answered calmly, his voice dropping to a pleasant purr. In response the red blade of her lightsaber came to life in an angry hiss.
"I am warning you," she called. "I killed one such as yourself before."
Chuckling softly Sidious waved her closer and she had no choice but to comply. She was strong in the Force, but not that strong either. "I thought as much. The guardian I had left to protect this place was gone, reportedly dead, when I arrived here."
"You? But Lord Sidious did-" He heard her quiet gasp across the distance that still separated them.
"Yes, little one. I am alive."
Mara stood next to the Grand Admiral as the Relentless moved towards her jump-point slowly, leaving Nar Shadaa behind. The encounter with Solo had shaken her, she had to admit, and she was curious why Thrawn had let them go. If they found out exactly what kind of business they had been conducting... But no. Thrawn had taken care of that, hadn't he? Permanently. Still, he did seem uncharacteristically thoughtful. And she could very well understand what was bothering him. They had just received news of the attack on Gyndine and the disappearance of the Executor and Admiral Piett. Which was the whole reason for the delay in leaving the planet.
Now Thrawn was waiting for a certain message to arrive. Coruscant had no choice but to call him back into service, now that Piett was gone. And when they did, the Grand Admiral would have to decide quickly if their current mission was still justified. Mara closed her eyes for a moment and unbidden the memory of her very first vision flooded back into her mind: Vader aboard the bridge of a Star Destroyer, standing guard, and someone hidden in the shadows. That someone had to be Thrawn, she was almost certain of that.
"Sir," a youngish lieutenant said softly as he came to a halt behind them.
"What is it?"
"A call for you. It is Coruscant."
Taking a deep breath the Grand Admiral turned around slowly, his glowing eyes boring into the officer's head.
"Coruscant, you say? Very well. I will take it in my private quarters. Mara Jade, you are taking command."
"Yes, sir," she answered smartly and smiled as she watched him leave unhurriedly.
In some ways Vader and the Grand Admiral were pretty similar to each other, Mara mused. But the one difference was that Thrawn accepted the role of the military as subordinate to the government. The Dark Lord was used to exercising sole control and hated having someone else interfere, especially politicians. A stance that did not sit well with the Alliance Command, she knew. On the other hand he was too important to the Rebels and they would tolerate his arrogance for as long as was needed. But no further. Contrary to that, Thrawn's calm competence did not only convince his troops of his skills, but also soothed the government immensely.
How grateful they must have been when he had taken over. While the senior Navy officers surely had not liked him taking over the post of Fleet Commander, it had also been they who had suggested him in the first place. And the whole machine was running on smoothly. Mara found that she liked that. There were no moody outbursts, no unexplained orders, no secrets. Thrawn was in command, and fully so. Serving under him had given her back some of the stability and security she had felt when serving as the Emperor's Hand. He did not treat her as if she were a child or incompetent. And, most important, he did not play with her. She was very grateful that Vader had let her go like this. He had known how she had felt and acted accordingly. When the Grand Admiral stepped up to her quietly, she was taken completely by surprise.
"Good news, sir?"
"Coruscant has requested me to return to the capital to resume command of our troops."
"And, will you?"
Thrawn shook his head slightly, but did not answer.
"Sir, if I may?" He looked at her, curious. "I know this might sound strange or even preposterous, but I just know that Coruscant is not the right place to go."
"It isn't, is it? I feel the same. There is nothing we can accomplish by leaving for Coruscant and I can issue my orders from here. No, you are right. First things first. Helmsman!" he called out sharply. "Take us to Korriban."
"What is it now, Gerran?" Anakin asked wearily, concentrating on landing the shuttle in front of the great mountain dominating the tiny village he had selected for touch-down on Wayland.
The aide shrugged uncomfortably. "Well, I have been asking myself why we are stopping here instead of taking a direct route to Korriban."
"The meeting with the Grand Admiral, sir. You changed the location, don't you remember?"
"What? I never did!" Anakin almost yelped, totally surprised. But the sensation turned into anger almost immediately. There had been too many unpleasant surprises of late.
"But your agent said... and I thought you had done so in order to confuse everyone..."
Anakin turned his head to regard the spy very coldly. The truth was understood between them, but so far Jay Gerran had not admitted his allegiance so freely. Something must really be bothering him. "My agent? She told you to change the meeting place? And why did you not confirm that order with me?"
"Who am I to question you and your agents?"
"Shut up. This is bad enough. Korriban.... Damn!" Smashing a fist against the control board angrily the Dark Lord cursed his own stupidity. He had known that he could not trust Nuron entirely! Even Chi'in had warned him! "This is Kell's doing. I should have eliminated him right away. To believe that he would cooperate...."
"He is not to be underestimated. Your Grand Admiral will stand no chance against him. And if he gets off Korriban... Can you contact Thrawn?"
"Now? I... I don't think so. It takes a special encrypt program. He won't accept any other."
"Man, this is an emergency! I do not care about what might happen to the Grand Admiral, but if Kell gets his hands on the Relentless there is no telling what he might do with it."
"Or the ID scrambler," Gerran added gloomily.
"From Nar Shadaa. It was supposed to be a precaution and-"
"It does not matter. So, we cannot contact Thrawn, right? Then we will have to play this the hard way."
The landing was pretty rough, but Anakin was too upset to bother. Knowing Roj Kell, the old Sith would have planned this whole thing so that Anakin would be too late no matter what. So the only thing he could do now was to get his agents out of there. He had to contact Chi'in and tell him to leave Korriban immediately. There was nothing he could do about Thrawn now. Punching in the comm code for Korriban he stared at the blank display, disbelieving.
Closing his eyes he felt icy dread reach for his mind. Nuron! She had already been waiting with the shuttle. If she had disabled the ship's comm ... Of course he could repair it but that would take time. And they could not intercept the fleet headed for Coruscant either. Growling softly the Dark Lord turned toward Jay Gerran.
"We are going to Nar Shadaa."
"Why Nar Shadaa?"
"You'll see. But first we have a look around."
He rose from his seat reluctantly. If Nuron had done all that, she would not be waiting for them now, that was for sure. Well, he still had the Force and Chi'in would understand. And then they could act.
Seated on her bed, Padmé was staring at the glowing wall, breathing the fragrant scent of the red blossoms deeply, and let her mind wander. And what if Anakin did betray the Sith? Would it be so bad? He was playing games, yes, but this gamble served a good purpose. The Sith are your enemies, she admonished herself, shaking her head. But what Lord Kell had told her was the truth. Anakin manipulated others and he did it to secure the Emperor's power and thereby his own. But Palpatine was dead, wasn't he? For Force's sake, Anakin had betrayed the Jedi! Burying her head in her hands she started sobbing quietly, unable to hold her fear and confusion back any longer.
"Oh, Anakin," she whispered, desperate.
Gasping in surprise she looked up and wiped away the tears, embarrassed. "Chi'in," she breathed, "I-"
To her surprise he hurried over to her and dropped down on his knees, laying his hands on hers soothingly. "Please, listen to me. Your husband has spoken to me about you often. He told me what a brave and strong woman you are, how smart and devious."
"Devious?" Padmé asked, suspicious. But then she felt a smile begin to form on her lips. It truly sounded like something Anakin would say. Squeezing the Noghri's clawed hands she inclined her head slowly. "Chi'in, I appreciate your support, very much so, but I have to face the truth."
"What Lord Kell is telling you is only half of the truth. He is testing you. And what you have shown him so far is not worthy of a queen. Not worthy of you."
"Please, hear me out. I do not want to hurt you, but the truth, the real truth, sometimes is more painful than what we wish the truth to be."
"What do you mean?"
"I do not know everything, you understand, but what I know is this: your husband has been fighting Palpatine for decades and now he has succeeded. He will not let you down. He never has let you down. Do you understand?"
She drew her hands away and rose, fuming. "You have no idea!"
"Lady Vader, I can see your doubts. You do not want this to be true, but Lord Kell's truth is the easy way out. That way you can put all the blame on your husband."
"And he is not to blame?" Padmé asked icily.
Getting to his feet again Chi'in stepped up very close to her. "Why don't you ask him yourself?"
"He is here?" Her hands flew to her throat in shock and a sudden dizzy spell made her knees turn to jelly. And Chi'in made no move to catch her when she fell. Sitting down on the hard floor Padmé closed her eyes. "Why do you torment me so?"
"Lord Vader has contacted me. We will meet him on Nar Shadaa. But we will have to hurry. If Lord Kell finds out..."
Chi'in jerked upright like a puppet at the sound of that soft voice before he spun around to face the man leaning in the doorway elegantly. Roj Kell had his eyebrows raised ever so slightly and his arms were crossed easily in front of his chest. Taking a step back and to the side Padmé tensed in anticipation of the attack that must surely come. But Chi'in did not wait for that. He moved toward the tall Sith Lord immediately and the former queen thought she could see something metallic flash in his hands. Knives, maybe.
They met in deadly silence head-on and in that silence the sound of a single word uttered by the white-haired Sith blew her mind away. Losing her balance Padmé dropped to the ground, only to find Chi'in already on the floor. His breathing came ragged and dark blood was trinkling from his snout. Large eyes impassive he stared up at Roj Kell calmly. Too calm, for Padmé's taste.
"Fool. Did you believe I did not know about Lord Vader's so-called back-up? But you are too late, far too late. He has lost already."
"No!" she gasped softly, her thoughts wandering astray in a mind confused with too many lies and uncertainties. Ignoring her Kell stepped closer to the fallen Noghri warrior, but kept a cautious distance from his quarry.
"But yes, just now he is trying to pick up the broken pieces of his scheme. Did you think I would give him time to recover? A lesson in trust, Chi'in, that he has failed to learn. He knew that Nuron was not reliable anymore and yet he did nothing about it. You warned him, did you not? And he did not listen. He never does. Stubborn, foolish. And far too proud. He expected her to grow the way you did, like he did. But she is soft, too much so."
"What did you do?" Chi'in whispered weakly.
"She betrayed him, the way I told her to. And your precious Dark Lord's actions toward her saved me a lot of trouble. The fact that you wanted to leave tells me that he is aware of that betrayal now. And he has asked you to meet him. Interesting." Quirking a quick smile, the old Sith brought his attention on Padmé. When he came towards her she tried to get away from him, but only met the wall at her back.
"Trust," he said softly and dropped down next to her, his right hand casually brushing over Chi'in's face. "You have learned not to trust, haven't you? Darth Sidious taught you your lesson very well."
She clenched her teeth determinedly, but out of the corner of her eye she noticed with some alarm that the Noghri was hardly breathing at all now. "What do you know?" she asked at last, trying to think of some way to get out of here.
"I know enough. I know why you were hiding all those years. I know your fear and your heart."
"You know nothing of that!"
"Really? Do not assume too much, Padmé Naberrie. Or too little." He rose abruptly and a casual kick sent Chi'in's prone body sliding across the floor and out of the way. Looking down at the warrior pensively Kell extended a hand toward Padmé. When she did not take it she found herself being dragged upright by an unseen Force. "I would advise you not to cross me. We are leaving."
"Where to?" she bit out, her eyes still on Chi'in, searching for any life-signs.
"To Nar Shadaa."
Wrenga Jixton was furious. Not only had Vader chosen to ignore him, no, he was also taking Jay Gerran with him, of all people. Jay Gerran, that pathetic wimp who would faint at the mere sight of an enemy Star Destroyer, let alone stormtroopers. What had the Dark Lord thought to accomplish with that? Yes, of course Jix understood that his being left behind was some sort of punishment, but it was true, this trip would be dangerous.
"Jix, calm down," the Princess admonished him yet again.
He was pacing her office, striding up and down the length of the room like a caged animal and he was surprised at how tolerant she had been so far. But then, she probably thought that she had to make up for her father's arrogance.
"Calm down? Thrawn will never agree to any deal with him, you know?"
She sighed: "And don't you think that my father has considered that too?"
"Sure, but I just know that this will go wrong somehow. Thrawn is not someone who will grant him any advantage just to be cordial, as he has already proven. They are not playing anymore. This is serious business."
"You don't say."
"And besides, even your father will be hard-pressed to stand against the Relentless all alone. And don't tell me that he has Gerran with him, cause the man is more of a curse than a blessing"
"He doesn't need a bodyguard."
"No? We'll see about that!"
This time Leia actually smiled at him: "You know Jix, your protectiveness is a bit exaggerated."
"Protectiveness? Don't come to me when it is too late. I am warning you. Thrawn is not playing fair."
"Why should he? It is not as if my father is playing fair either."
"Then you know what he is planning?"
"No. But from experience I would guess that it is something nasty."
"Then let us just hope that it will not back-fire on him."
"If it comes to that, Jix, you have my permission to interfere. Until then I just want you to calm down and relax. We will leave for Coruscant tomorrow."
"Fine. Coruscant. Haven't been there in a long time. Great."
It was the next morning and Luke was hurrying through the castle's vast corridors on his way to the hangars. The fleet would leave in two hours and he had better get aboard. The young Jedi found that he was actually looking forward to the operation that lay ahead. Coruscant. He had always dreamed of going there some day and during his days as a Rebel pilot he had talked with his comrades often about what glory might await them there. But he had grown since then. Smiling to himself he thought back on his master's words. A Jedi did not crave adventure and battle. A Jedi was always calm and composed. Well. He tried.
When he noticed a familiar figure up ahead he quickened his pace until he drew level with the Corellian agent. Jix threw him a casual glance and gave him a nod.
"So you are going to Coruscant," he said suddenly. "You'd better watch yourself there, kid. It's not a nice place."
"That must be the understatement of the century!" Luke laughed.
"Could be," Jix replied, but he sounded pensive, as if his mind were on something else entirely.
"So, where are you going that you cannot keep an eye on me?"
"You are getting good at that," the other told him appraisingly. "Not as good as your father though. He'd probably already know, but then, he does now too."
"Apparently he's changed his plans. Guess he doesn't want to take chances with any Imperial agents that might have survived."
Luke looked at the older man, slightly bewildered: "What are you talking about?"
"The meeting with Thrawn, of course. Damn, he really didn't tell anyone, did he? He's changed the location. They are going to meet on Korriban."
"Yep. I remember he went there sometimes. Only recently too. A few months back."
"And you are going there alone?"
Jix shrugged easily. "Think I would let Jay Gerran ruin my reputation? Thrawn will try to get his dirty hands on Vader and I will prevent it, if I can."
"You don't trust his judgement, do you?"
"No. Not really. He's done some pretty foolish things of late and this is too important. Besides, your sister asked me to go once she heard."
Luke smiled slowly before he shook his head in wonder. "But you can't even fly a ship!"
"Mara taught me. I can do fairly well in sims."
But that's not reality, Luke wanted to reply, but there had been something in Jix' tone that held him back. Something to do with Mara. Of course. She was with the Grand Admiral. And going to Korriban now meant that Jix would see her again sooner. The young man's smile widened. "I am sure she did a good job on your flying skills." Jix nodded at him thoughtfully.
"Sure. I'll see ya on Coruscant."
"Good luck to you. And may the Force be with you."
"I got your father. That's enough for anyone."
As the tiny shuttle left hyperspace to enter space around Nar Shadaa, Roj Kell threw a dark look across the hold to where his prisoner lay sleeping in one of the seats. Her head was pillowed on slender arms and her dark hair, done up neatly in a long braid, hung over her shoulders and down her back. It was no natural sleep though that brought Padmé Naberrie some rest now. During their trip together they had played a game that had seen her on the losing side due to lack of information. While she knew nothing about him, he knew her better than even she did. It wound her up and made her shake with fear on the inside. For a time her dread had become too much even for him and he had sent her into a Force-induced stupor to have some rest himself. It was frustrating, really. She was like a broken doll, with nothing to counter him, as he had hoped she would. There was no challenge here and for a moment he had considered killing her for good measure, as punishment for disappointing him like that.
But he needed her still.
Up ahead Sedriss was piloting the ship toward the port, with Vill Goir offering what little assistance the young man needed. They had followed Kell without questioning, the deaths of Nefta and Sa-Di too fresh in their memory to dismiss. Both had felt the change that had taken place in Roj Kell and both realized that this change was deadly.
Snorting softly, he rose and walked over to stand between the two Sith's seats, his eyes locked on the planet ahead. He could feel their fearful wariness as intensely as he could feel the darkness growing in his mind. It was a shield he was holding on to unconsciously, but they could not know that. All they knew was that the man they had known to be always in control of himself and others, always calm and rational, was burning with a black fire of insane fury, a storm only waiting to be released. In fact he found that change uncomfortable himself. It was very hard to keep the darkness in check, but he could not allow himself any outburst just now. And yet the uneasiness the two younger Sith felt was also very useful, especially since they did have no clue what was happening to his mental defenses. Their fear strengthened him immensely and he needed that strength badly. Right now his anger served as protection against an ancient bond that had been tainted when he had first joined the Sith. And yet, before his inner eye he imagined tiny cracks appearing in that gloomy wall of darkness, threatening to break through his defenses at a moment's notice. The balance was shifting and the prophecy was close to its fulfillment.
Sidious believed it to mean a balance of numbers, a symbol for the rise of the Sith. For centuries a strict rule had allowed only two to exist at a time, a master and an apprentice. But with the birth of Anakin Skywalker, the Chosen One, everything seemed to have changed. And Sidious had been eager to make the young boy his, to turn him into the tool for the Jedi's destruction.
In the end only two Jedi had been left and the Sith had grown. Why Sidious had allowed those two to live, Kell had a hard time to understand. It seemed to be a matter of pride and recognition of his mastery, as was the case with most of the Sith Master's endeavors. To let the greatest Jedi Master of all times survive though was more than foolish in Roj Kell's eyes.
Resuming his seat in the back of the ship, he brooded quietly about what his errant student had failed to grasp. The prophecy dated back to times long past, centuries before he himself had been born, and it was a legend of the Sith. A legend of his own people, adopted by the Dark Jedi who had conquered them.
Balance was the essence of their teachings, a balance he had lost a long time ago and had never cared or dared to return to. Darkness prevailed in his very presence since he had bonded with his master Exar Kun, a darkness that was his shield and weapon, while the Force itself sustained his being, allowing him to survive time and again, and grow in knowledge and wisdom. Three thousand years had passed since he had pledged himself to the Force and broken that pledge by joining darkness. Three thousand years of keeping the balance and his back to the light. A complicated arrangement that had never failed to amaze him.
For a little less than three thousand years Roj Kell had fought for keeping evil alive, strengthening the Sith or Jedi, whatever was required to keep that picture of black and white in the heads of both. But now that was changing. Darth Vader was firmly steering toward an inner balance that would set him at the place Roj Kell had occupied for such a short time, as true guardian of the Force. The Sith, or those who had survived, had learned that balance too. And the old ways were dying fast.
But Roj Kell was a survivor. There was only one way to change the course of fate, if one were so optimistic as to give this possibility any chance. To turn the balance into chaos once more, to resurrect the borders that had separated Jedi and Sith for millennia. And he would start with the Dark Lord himself. He was even willing to kill every one of Vader's students, and his family, to ensure that the prophecy would not come to be.
The key to everything was Padmé Naberrie. Reaching out, he stroked her left cheek tenderly, his mind invading hers to reassure himself that he was doing the right thing. This was about survival, nothing else. It always was.
"A queen of sorrow you have become. But you saw the darkness in your own heart, did you not?" he asked her softly, knowing full well that she could not hear his words.
He closed his eyes slowly, cruising the dark ocean that was his own mind, searching for something long forgotten, but never truly lost. But remembering had become harder now that he was so close to crossing the line he had been walking for the past three thousand years. And maybe that was for the best.
Three days had passed since their arrival on Nar Shadaa and Han Solo was getting impatient. Shug had not been able to retrieve the information he had promised so far and the Corellian had almost resigned any hope of getting it at all. And to make matters worse, Karrde had abandoned him and Chewbacca under the excuse of dire business he had elsewhere in the city. Right now Han and his Wookiee friend were walking along the merchants' district conducting their own search. The Falcon was prepped up nicely again, but Solo had vowed not to leave before he did not have something.
When suddenly alarms started wailing throughout the city though, his face turned sour. And Chewbacca roared angrily at him, making it very clear that he did not appreciate the mess his friend had gotten them into at all.
"Cool down, buddy. It's just an Imperial Star Destroyer," Han said sarcastically as Chewie dragged him into a side corridor, nagging on. "And besides, there is nothing more refreshing than a few Imps on our trail, dontcha think? No? Well, suit yourself."
When the Wookiee let go of his arm abruptly, turning his indignant face down on him, Han knew that he had made a mistake. Chewbacca huffed something and left, vanishing in the darkened hallways.
"Hey! Wait! I didn't... Oh, well. I don't need you, you know? I can do this all by myself."
Storming off in the opposite direction from the one his friend had taken, Han was fuming inwardly. The alarms could only mean that the Chimaera had arrived, probably with a very upset Captain at the helm. He did not know exactly how much damage the Executor had inflicted on the much smaller ship, but apparently it had not kept her from following the two freighters here. Just as Thrawn had predicted.
The warship was probably just now deploying its troops to search for them down here. Maybe he should get back to Shug's shop after all.
To his surprise the alarms ceased their angry howling pretty soon. Suddenly breaking into a faster trot, Han started cursing under his breath: the Captain did not even have to send his own troops down here. This was Nar Shadaa, after all, and on this planet everyone was out for a profit.
"There you are," Karrde greeted him coolly. "Do you know that the Chimaera has just declared Nar Shadaa to be under military order? That is, if they do not deliver our heads to the Captain in the course of 24 hours." Han scowled at him fiercely. "Oh, you know already? Good. Maybe now we can get out of here?"
"We still don't know what the Relentless was doing here," Han hissed angrily.
"You want to wait for Captain Palleon to tell you, in an interrogation cell, perhaps? Go ahead. But I am leaving."
Chewbacca wrapped his friend in a protective embrace that was just the tiniest bit too tight for Solo's taste: "All right, all right. I get it. Let's go then."
"So glad you agree. Let's go gather our teams."
Whirling around Han felt the blood drain from his face. He stared at the tall man striding up to him grim-faced, unable to respond to the call. But Anakin Skywalker simply planted himself in front of him and nodded.
"What are you doing here? I thought you were to meet with-" stopping himself the Corellian shrugged uncomfortably. "Why're you here?" He craned his neck to look past the Dark Lord at the short man standing a bit apart, his face twitching nervously. "And Gerran too. Well, well, well. So?"
"A change of plans."
"There's a Star Destroyer guarding the planet."
"Still, we have to stay here."
Han threw a doubtful look toward where Karrde was waiting. The smuggler chief was eyeing the newcomers suspiciously. "I am not sure if they will agree to that."
"We do not need them."
"Page is in position, right?"
"And Leia on her way."
Han watched the Dark Lord's face turn into a wry grimace. "I guess so."
"What?" the Corellian exclaimed, grabbing the front of Skywalker's shirt anxiously. "What is it with Leia?"
"An unforeseen complication. And they are committed now. We will never reach them in time."
"What happened?" Han shouted, shaking the other hard.
Anakin Skywalker very carefully took the Corellian's wrists in his hands and freed himself. "Calm down. Our blue friend is in trouble."
"But that's good!"
"This particular sort of trouble is not. We have to call off the attack on Coruscant."
"We won't get that sort of chance again."
The Dark Lord smiled coldly. "Ah, but we will get a chance. That is a huge difference."
"Do you mean ... Oh, no!" Groaning softly, Han slapped his forehead hard. "You are honestly telling me that we are trapped here on Nar Shadaa while Leia and the rest are running straight into a trap? How can you stay so calm?"
"Do I have any other choice? Now, tell your friends to be off. Then we will hide your ship."
Talon Karrde watched the newcomers warily. Apparently Solo knew the man well, but the way he was gesticulating could only mean trouble of some sort. Well. They could not stay here in any case.
Just as he started walking over to tell the Corellian that they were leaving, Aves came running up to him, his face flushed red.
"What is it?"
"He's here," Aves gasped.
"The guy I was tracking, remember? He's here. I went through port registration and he's not even changed his ID."
"Either he's stupid or else he doesn't know," Karrde mused aloud. This was a tricky situation. The Chimaera undoubtedly was sending down drop ships already, and with the ultimatum ticking on, they would not last long if they stayed anyway. "Aves, we do not know who is behind this."
"What if it's Thrawn? Then we'd have a bargaining chip and the Rebels can go to hell for all we care."
"Maybe we do care," the pirate chief said quietly. "And if he knows so much he could be valuable for the Alliance too. I say we take the risk."
Aves shrugged. "You're the boss. As long as we get out of here again..."
But Karrde wasn't listening anymore. "Solo!"
Turning toward the others, Anakin saw Han frown.
"This is Karrde?" he asked quietly.
The Corellian merely nodded. "What do you want?" he called instead to the pirate chief.
"I have some information that might be useful to you," Karrde explained once he had joined them. "Some time ago we heard a rumor that I found quite interesting. Apparently there is someone out there who knows a great many things. Goes by the name of Roj Kell."
"What?" Anakin exclaimed, totally shocked and confused. "Who told you?"
"As I said, it was a rumor at first. I had Aves check it out." He waved in the vague direction of a man watching them thoughtfully from a distance. Immediately Anakin was asking himself if this Aves was a reliable source, but Karrde seemed to trust him completely. "He tracked a few informants down and they confirmed it. The info seems to be solid."
But Anakin shook his head firmly. "No, this can't be true. It is a ruse. The question is, who initiated it and to what purpose?"
"How do you know?" Karrde demanded, but Han lay a soothing hand on his arm.
"Ssh, let him think."
"Thank you so much, Solo. Karrde, I know for a fact that this Kell does exist and I also know that no one would ever tell you about him, because no one is supposed to know about him."
"I am a Sith, as is he." And then realization dawned on him. "He could not have executed that plan himself and the only one who could have is Palpatine." Slapping his forehead hard, Anakin groaned softly. Of course! The clones on Wayland! The ones he had thought to bait Thrawn with. If Palpatine had somehow managed to - But no, that was impossible, wasn't it? And yet.... Palpatine had initiated the Cloning Act.... And it all fell into place.
Nodding grimly at both Karrde and Han he felt his jaw muscles clench in dire anticipation. "You are right. We have to find him."
But Karrde was staring at him, shocked. "You are a Sith?" His gaze locked on Han. "He is your new commander?" The Corellian nodded. "And who the hell is leading your troops against Coruscant?"
Landing had been much harder than he had anticipated, but, as he exited the small fighter's cockpit hurriedly, Jix thought it could have been worse. Yeah, the thing could have gone up in flames. Luckily such things never were depicted in such graphic detail during sim runs. Propping his hands on his hip and massaging his aching back the Corellian surveyed the damage critically. But even to his inexpert eye one thing was clear: this fighter would not get off the ground again. Damn! And there's a Star Destroyer in orbit too. It was the Relentless, had to be. And sheer chance had let him come in from the other side of the system. Still, what if their sensors had picked him up? He was fairly certain that none could penetrate the storm layer covering the entire planet, if only because the weather had played havoc with his own instruments upon touching down.
Well, I just gotta find Vader, he told himself and looked around. Taking one of his blasters from its holster, he started to scan the valley more closely. No one seemed to be around. Strange.
Walking toward what looked like some ancient ruins, Jix kept a cautious watch over his surroundings. He had to be prepared for anything, especially with someone like Thrawn around. Although, he thought wrily, Vader's surprises were probably worse.
As he was stalking closer his ears picked up a steady roaring sound that could not really be part of the storm raging overhead. And indeed, when he looked up he could just make out a stark white Imperial-class shuttle break through the grey clouds. Okay, here they come. The Corellian made a dash forward and found some shelter behind a small stone heap that looked too neat to be natural. Readying himself he settled down to wait.
After a while he could hear shouted orders, then silence. He risked a small peak around the stones and smiled. Stormtroopers, of course. Very carefully he eased around the rocks, still in a crouch, completely focused on the soldiers before him. They were uneasy, he could tell by their stance and gestures. Undoubtedly they didn't like the fact that their sensors weren't working properly. Of course, that was just as well. He could use any advantage he could get.
His eyes widened ever so slightly when he noticed a smaller figure, not dressed in white armor, but a black jumpsuit. Her red hair was like a beacon against the black surroundings and Jix heaved a tiny sigh of relief. So Mara was all right. And that white-uniformed man ahead of her had to be the Grand Admiral. Just perfect. The shuttle took off again and the agent nodded in admiration. Of course. Leave your quarry no way to escape, that was an old rule, but it worked only if you had overwhelming forces on your side. Jix wondered briefly if Vader would fall for this at all.
But where was Vader? When Mara and the Admiral vanished into the ruins, leaving the troopers behind, Jix made his move.
Slinking along the wet ground, he was so concentrated on the threat ahead that he was completely taken by surprise when something moved over there and attacked the totally shocked troopers at impossible speed, but not quite fast enough. When one of the soldiers took aim at the attacker's back, the Corellian took that one out without a second thought. Well, I never liked those morons much.
Mara stepped off the shuttle's landing ramp gingerly, following Thrawn and trying to keep an eye on their surroundings at the same time. Landing in this storm had been a horror ride, but the planet's surface did not look any more inviting than the weather. Black cliffs rose into the sky miles high all around them, wrapped in thick layers of clouds and mist. A light drizzle was settling over the small assembly, but it did nothing to lessen the heat of the place. Mara was shaking nevertheless. Just like the Grand Admiral, she wore a nutrient cage strapped to her back and she could feel the Ysalamiri's cool reptilian skin rub against her neck. It almost made her wish that she had not chosen to put her hair up. Too late for that.
Holding on to her blaster, she studied the fifteen stormtroopers marching out of the shuttle's belly critically. They too were equipped with nutrient cages.
Next to her Thrawn was patiently waiting for everyone to take their assigned places before he gave the signal to advance. They had landed in the only valley they had been able to make out, a flat plateau of slick black stones like huge, irregularly shaped flagstones. No one was to be seen and Mara cursed the Ysalamiri on her back, for she had no possibility to determine if anyone was here at all. But one of the troopers was already scrutinizing the readout of the heat-detector he wore instead of an Ysalamiri. She doubted the thing would work at these temperatures. To her surprise he held out a hand suddenly, indicating a target.
Mara took a deep breath. They were supposed to meet Vader here somewhere, but, knowing the Dark Lord, she was sure that he had prepared some surprise for them. As they marched on, they gradually became aware of the ghostly silence permeating the valley. Up ahead they could just make out what seemed to be the ruins of some great structure. Mara frowned. Looking over at the Grand Admiral, she saw him purse his lips thoughtfully, then hold up his hand, signaling for everyone to stop. They stood there motionless, listening to the wind roaring down from the mountains. Nothing stirred at all.
The Grand Admiral started walking onward again, toward what looked like the entrance to an underground cave. Mara's uneasiness grew. They had not detected anything indicating the presence of another ship on the planet. So they had to assume that the Dark Lord was not yet here, or else he had found some means to shield it from their sensors. For instance by hiding it inside some mountain. Which meant that the single presence they had been able to detect was either he or someone else.
She took the lead, ignoring Thrawn's surprised face, and slipped closer to the entrance. Drawing her blaster, she risked a glance around to orient herself. "Anyone here?" she asked finally, cautiously stepping into the darkened cave beyond. She could hear water dripping everywhere and some sort of glowing moss covered the walls with a faint light.
Behind her she could hear the Grand Admiral draw a sharp breath. "This looks like a tomb," he commented finally, his words echoing strangely in the confined quarters.
Suddenly the sound of blaster fire rang through the silence. Whirling around, Mara made a dash for the entrance only to stare at the scene laid out before her. Underneath the storm-ridden sky of Korriban the bodies of their stormtrooper escort were scattered carelessly and a short, gray-skinned alien was standing calmly amidst the carnage, his red-bladed lightsaber still activated.
Mara stared. Next to the warrior stood Jix! He was watching her cautiously, a hand hovering over the blaster still stuck in its holster, the other weapon held firmly in his right hand. Then, blue eyes shifting in cool calculation, he raised his arm to aim the blaster straight at the Grand Admiral. That one frowned ever so slightly.
Jix raised his eyebrows. "You know, I was just going to introduce myself, Grand Admiral. Friend or foe?"
Mara hissed angrily. Jix and his smart-mouth comments! But then, she wasn't so sure about Thrawn herself anymore either.
"Let's make it friend, why don't we?" the Admiral replied, his tone one of open amusement. "That might save us a lot of problems."
Jix quirked one of his quick, ironic smiles and shrugged. "Sure. You won't get an argument from me," he said cheerfully and nodded.
Mara only shook her head. The fact that he was apparently giving up so easily could only mean that he was stuck with this assignment, whatever it might have been in the first place. What was he doing here anyway? At her side Thrawn was staring at the alien. "A Noghri. Interesting." The other did not answer. "Well, now that you have disposed of my troops, what do you want?"
Deactivating the lightsaber the warrior hooked it back to his belt with an elegant motion, then bowed respectfully before the Grand Admiral. "An honor to meet you in person, Syndic Mitth'raw'nuruodo."
The expression that flashed across the Admiral's face was shocking. Surprise, betrayaland curiosity were all mixed together in a storm of emotions that flashed across his features lighting quick and was gone again. "You know my name, it would seem," Thrawn bit out, his glowing eyes narrowing.
The alien quirked a tired smile. "So I do." Bowing again he bared needle-sharp teeth in a wry grimace. "You will not find Lord Vader here, Grand Admiral. Nor anyone else of the Lords."
"There are others?" Apparently Thrawn had caught himself once more and again radiated the cool competence Mara had grown used to.
The nameless Noghri hesitated for the merest fraction of a second. "There is one."
"You held my homeworld hostage to force the Dark Lord to surrender...." Mara froze and she saw Jix tense at the short alien's side. That one merely raised a clawed hand to prevent any rash words or actions. "But for now we shall suspend all hostilities. More important matters need to be resolved."
Inclining his head softly, Thrawn nodded once. "I see. Then tell me, what do you want?"
Thrawn was eyeing the Sith warily. Technically he was alone among enemies and he had to be very careful in determining their motivations and evaluating their needs. There was a Star Destroyer in orbit, true, and he and Mara still had the Ysalamiris, but his troops would be too late to act, even if they carried out their orders perfectly. Which meant that less than ten minutes from now the Relentless would be set to red alert and attack, and that now was the time to find out if the former Emperor's Hand was true to her word. The nameless Noghri took a step forward gingerly, balanced on his toes in a way that would allow him to counter any attack with speed and some force. Interesting that a warrior such as this one had retained his heritage despite the power that the Force would give him. Whatever he was, he was not like Palpatine, not at all.
"Very well," the alien said softly and again Thrawn noted that his Basic was almost flawless. The growling accent of his native tongue barely showed through. "My wish is very simple. I know that you cannot trust us, and I accept that. But if you still want to win you will have to do as I say."
Us? The Admiral refrained from taking a look around, but he could see Jixton's eyes track their surroundings more closely. The man was good, the perfect bodyguard. "Do what?" he asked at last.
"Lord Vader is in grave danger. And you will need his support most of all in the time to come."
"Maybe, maybe not. What sort of danger?"
"A matter of trust."
"And why should I care about that? Why did he not show up here to meet me?"
"Lord Kell has betrayed him."
"Lord Kell? Roj Kell?" Thrawn frowned. Intelligence had picked up some rumors surrounding that name, but he had not given those rumors much credit. And that for one good reason. "As far as I recall the story of Roj Kell is a legend that dates back as far as the Sith Wars."
The Noghri stopped his silent advance. "You know that this legend has some merit."
How did he know? He knew far too much as it was, but this... As if he had been to - Raising his eyebrows in surprise Thrawn shook his head. "What has that got to do with everything?"
"All I can say is that if you do not go to Nar Shadaa now, neither you nor anyone else will survive the battle to come."