Left Guardian Welcome to Bast Castle
Right Guardian
 

Home Fiction Art Mail List Staff Links

Title: Departures and Arrivals
Author: Maia (maia@bastcastle.org)
Rating: PG
Category: AU, Adventure, Romance, some Angst.
Characters: Vader, OFC, a few other OC’s, and familiar faces.

Disclaimer: I am not making any money from this, and he doesn’t belong to me. Darn.

Summary: Some separations are easier to bear than others. Extracted from the AU ‘The Sith Lord and the Scientist.’


Imperial Center, Year 3, Month 9.

DAY 10

***

I kneel behind the Emperor and wait patiently for him to acknowledge my presence. He has called me here for some reason, and from the way he worded his summons, I suspect I will not like what he has to say.

‘What is thy bidding, my master?’ I ask when he finally turns to face me.

‘I have an errand for you to do,’ he replies.

I slowly rise to my feet. Another tedious task to look after and he has probably designed it to keep me occupied - to prevent me from seeking out Luke. Somehow I stop a hiss of annoyance from escaping. Rather than ask what he wants me to do, I stay silent and wait for my instructions.

‘Admiral Sarn is ready to demonstrate the prototype Phantom fighters,’ Palpatine announces.

‘I know. I read his report this morning,’ I admit. ‘The rebels will not expect a TIE to be equipped with a cloaking device.’

‘Then you agree that we cannot risk a security breach like the one at the Starfighter Development Facility,’ he notes.

‘That was not...’ I start a protest.

‘... your fault,’ my master finishes. ‘That was Admiral Zaarin’s installation, his project, and his responsibility. The failure was his, not yours, my old friend, but I am sending you to supervise Sarn’s test so that it doesn’t happen again. You will leave immediately.’

I was right. Another chore for him that I really don’t want to do.

‘It will be at least a day before the Executor is fully resupplied,’ I reveal, ‘and my shuttle is undergoing repairs...’

‘Immediately,’ he firmly repeats, leaving no room for further argument. ‘Take your fighter instead of your shuttle, if that is unavailable, but you will go to the Terror today. If that means your family remains here, then so be it.’

I stare at him, not sure what to say in answer. There are no facilities for me on Sarn’s flagship - no meditation pod or private quarters I can remove my helmet in. Somehow I will have to manage with the barest of necessities, using the pressurized isolation room in the Terror’s medlab to have my meals and to see to my medical needs. Worse still, Maia and the children will have to stay behind, on the Executor or in my castle, and away from my protection. There is no time nor a safe means available to send them to Vjun where they would be out of my master’s easy reach.

Palpatine’s mouth curls a little. He’s doing this deliberately - separating my family from me to prove a point and reinforce who is the master. And Maia will be vulnerable. She is too pregnant and awkward, now, to effectively defend herself or our children if attacked.

My master knows exactly why I am hesitating, refusing to respond to his command.

‘Your wife should be safe enough,’ he taunts me a little, ‘and if you are concerned that your castle’s security is inadequate, I could arrange for your family to stay within the Imperial Palace while you are gone.’

‘That will not be necessary,’ I hastily reply, somehow keeping my tone civil and the anger out of my voice, ‘but thank you for your kind offer.’

‘If you hurry, and all goes well,’ he suggests, ‘ you might return in as little as two weeks.’

I am not only being sent away, but he is ensuring that it will be for quite some time as well. The faster I get this task over with then, the better.

‘I will leave for the Terror immediately,’ I decide.

He dismisses me with a casual wave, and as I go, I can feel his eyes following me out of the throne room and sense his amusement at the predicament he has just put me in.

I have no choice but to do exactly as he has ordered, and I can’t take Maia and our children with me.

***

‘If I had words to make a day for you, I’d sing you a morning golden and new,’ I softly croon to my drowsy daughters. ‘I would make this day last for all time - give you a night deep with moonshine. If I had ... ’

Maia, my husband calls to me.

I glance over at him and finish the song I was in the midst of. The twins have just fallen asleep, so I quietly step away from them and go to join him. Ani closes the door to their room behind me. From what I can sense he’s worried and rather vexed about something, so his meeting with the Emperor must not have gone very well.

‘Ani, what’s wrong?’ I ask when he pulls me in close and holds me tight.

He gives no reply, but instead brushes my hair away from my face. I wait patiently for him to tell me what is bothering him. When he doesn’t, I shift a little and look directly into his mask.

‘The Emperor has ordered you to do something you don’t want to do, hasn’t he?’ I finally risk prodding him for the information he isn’t volunteering.

He hesitates, so I know he doesn’t want to tell me what it is. Has Ani been ordered to bring Luke in at last? Or is Mikal to be handed over to his master? Perhaps I am to be held hostage until our second son is born? My mind races, coming up with a million possibilities, each one worse than the last.

‘My presence is required on the Terror,’ he finally admits. ‘I have been ordered to leave immediately ...’

I relax a little. A trip to a ship I haven’t been on before. The change of scene might be interesting, too. This doesn’t sound all that bad.

‘... and I can’t take you or the children with me,’ he adds after a pregnant pause.

It takes a few seconds for his words to sink in.

‘What?’ I blurt out once I realize what he just said.

‘I have been commanded to go there directly and leave you behind,’ he reveals as he releases me from his embrace.

‘But why?’ I start to protest. ‘It has never been a problem before now...’

I shut up when I feel my husband’s frustration and anger at his master’s orders through our bond. He hates the situation as much as I do, but he also knows that it will be futile to try changing Palpatine’s mind.

‘It’s a lesson in obedience,’ Ani dryly states, ‘and his way of pointedly exerting his authority over me, and through me, over you. My master offered you a place in the Imperial Palace while I am away.’

My face twists into a scowl. I have no desire to be any closer to Palpatine than is absolutely necessary, and I definitely do not want the children anywhere near the Sith Lord’s master.

‘How very generous of him,’ I sarcastically note.

‘Maia,’ he quietly, patiently says. ‘There is nothing I can do about this except make sure that you and the children are as secure and well guarded as possible.’

He’s right, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.

‘Do you have to leave now?’ I ask, hoping he has a few minutes he can spend with me.

‘Yes,’ the Sith Lord answers. ‘My orders were to go immediately, but my TIE is here and I needed to see you before I left.’

I let my disappointment erase my frown. There will be no time to give him a proper kiss goodbye. Ani sighs, then feel him open our bond to its widest extent. For a minute, he teases me with that, flirting with light mental touches, letting me know exactly what we would do if he had any time to spare. My cheeks begin to turn red in reaction.

‘Shy little goddess,’ he teases. ‘That color suits you.’

That just makes my blush deepen.

‘Ani,’ I start a rebuttal.

‘Yes, dear,’ he replies instantly.

‘I love you,’ I tell him, not knowing what else to say.

‘And I love you, too,’ he assures me.

His hands settle over mine, so I take them.

‘It’s late and I must leave, now. I want you to go to bed,’ my husband orders as he leads me towards our bedroom. ‘It has been a long time since we have been apart by more than a system, so I want you in a safe spot when I make the jump to hyperspace and for the eight hours following that.’

I consider protesting, but let my words die before they reach my lips. Every time he has left me behind, I felt our bond stretch and thin. When he is close, in a nearby system, it doesn’t bother me very much, since I can still communicate easily with him if I need to.

‘How far away will you be?’ I ask while he pulls back the covers.

‘Outer Rim, Dreighton Nebula, near the Unknown Regions,’ he reveals.

‘Near ‘home’,’ I note as he starts to fuss about with how I am settled in bed.

The Sith Lord laughs a little at that, no doubt remembering the false co-ordinates he had used when he registered Earth in the Imperial archives.

‘It will be the farthest we have ever been apart,’ Ani notes before shaking a finger at me, ‘so I want you to stay in bed and rest for the evening. Once you have adjusted to the distance between us, you may get up, but not until then.’

Just to be a brat, I make a face at him.

‘Fussbudget,’ I dub him.

‘Stubborn,’ he teases.

‘And so are you!’ I give our standard reply with a laugh.

His fingers gently squeeze mine.

‘I need to go,’ he reminds me. ‘I will return as quickly as I can.’

But instead of pulling back, he spends a few more minutes standing there, holding my hand and watching me. When he finally releases it, Ani slowly, reluctantly turns away and walks to the door. He stops in our bedroom’s entrance, looks back at me, then makes his way through his private quarters, checking on Mikal and the twins before finally leaving.

It takes me a while to realize that he has left our bond fully open, so I snuggle into his pillow and concentrate on what my husband is doing. His mind is calm, so he is more settled than when he came to tell me what the Emperor’s orders were. My telepathic touch prompts a wave of support and love from him.

I’ve just cleared the sentry ships, and will make the jump now, he warns me.

I’m ready, I tell him.

I hug his pillow closer as I feel our bond begin to pull, then stretch like an elastic. He’s in hyperspace, on his way to the Outer Rim. The disorientation increases so I shut my eyes and try to ignore it. Hopefully it will be better once he is at the Terror. Ani touches my mind, gently soothing me, and doing his best to let me know all will be well. I let him ease me into sleep.

***

I lean back in my seat and concentrate on Maia, reassuring her as best I can. It was different with Padme who was not a Force sensitive. The distances we were apart never affected her and didn’t bother me to the same extent.

When I sense that my wife is asleep, I shut my eyes and do my best to ignore the effect our separation is having. The first time we were away from one another I made sure I was safely settled in my meditation pod before the Devastator jumped. A wry smile appears on my face at that memory. It was a good thing I was prepared. The disorientation I experienced was enough to make me lightheaded and dizzy. Thankfully my crew did not see me staggering around trying to get my equilibrium back.

My mind wanders onto other subjects. Sarn’s tests. Palpatine’s insistence that I leave immediately. He wants me out of the way for some reason. Hopefully he will stay away from my family. Thirsk will transfer them to the Executor as soon as he can arrange it, I remind myself. My old friend will keep them safe, as he promised to long ago.

More pleasant recollections bubble to the surface. Maia’s sweet face as she sang our girls to sleep. How I held her secure in my arms while I teased her.

I take a moment to check on my wife. She’s dreaming - and about me, of course. Her drowsiness gradually begins to seep across our bond and I find myself beginning to nod off. There’s no reason to stay awake. It will be a day before I arrive at my destination, so I relax and let myself drift.


DAY 12

When Thirsk comes into the conservatory I can tell from his face that something is wrong.

‘What is it, Commander?’ I ask as he stops in front of me.

‘You have been summoned, my lady,’ he states.

‘Summoned,’ I flatly repeat.

The commando doesn’t need to tell me who has sent for me. My husband warned me this might happen when he arrived at the Terror late last night. We should have gone to the Executor, I ruefully note. Postponing our departure by a few hours was a mistake, even though the children need some playtime before they are confined to quarters on Ani’s flagship.

‘And the children?’ I prompt him, my concern rising.

‘Were not included. The Emperor wants to see you,’ he answers. ‘I am to take you to the palace without delay.’

I bite my lip and nod. There will be no opportunity to get Ani’s advice over the Holonet, and we have discovered that our bond, other than for powerful emotions or strongly directed thoughts, is unreliable at this distance. Having a conversation with the Sith Lord while I am dealing with Palpatine won’t work since I would have to concentrate solely on reaching my husband.

Cyran looks over at me from where she is playing with Cat and I know she expects I will leave the children in her care. This time, though, I want some female company along whom I trust.

‘Cyran will come, too,’ I order, much to my aide’s discomfort. ‘Daini will keep an eye on Mikal and the twins.’

‘I shall have all of the Noghri take up their posts as well,’ Thirsk decides. He looks pointedly at me, then adds, ‘Full security detail, my lady - just in case.’

‘Just in case,’ I confirm.

With my absence, the children will be even more vulnerable, so my Chief of Security is not going to take any chances. I nod my acceptance and follow him out, Cyran trailing after me. This is one meeting I am definitely not looking forward to.

A few minutes later, Thirsk is helping me out of the airspeeder and guiding me through the doors into the Imperial Palace. I don’t protest when Kohvrekhar and his clan brothers are barred from entering with us. If I am attacked in here and with Palpatine’s blessing, there is little my Noghri bodyguards can do to defend me.

At least the old coot won’t be able to complain that I kept him waiting, I think as my little party makes its way down the Grand Corridor, passing by a number of red garbed guards. There’s no possible way I could have made the trip any faster.

The room we halt in front of is a familiar one. This must be his favourite audience chamber, I decide, and it’s one which is deliberately designed to intimidate. Today, though, it is empty of the Emperor’s courtiers and lackeys who are normally in attendance. Only the Palpatine seems to be inside. On his throne. Waiting for me. I take a deep breath and go in, pausing when I don’t hear Thirsk and Cyran behind me. When I turn, I see that they have been stopped by the guards. I should have known that I wouldn’t be allowed any companions for support.

The door closes between my friends and I, and the quiet click as it shuts sounds far louder than it really is.

‘Lady Vader,’ Palpatine calls, so I shift my attention to him.

‘Your Excellency,’ I respond, choosing the most neutral title which comes to mind.

Nothing will ever make me call him ‘master’ and I owe him no allegiance. Secretly, only in my thoughts and behind my shields, I call him by a few more choice names.

Play the scene the way Ani suggested, I remind myself. Let Palpatine think I am a harmless feather-brain. It should work since I have never let him have any hint of what I can do whenever I have been in his presence, and my husband has been careful to keep my abilities secret.

‘Come closer, child,’ he patronizingly instructs, so I slowly make my way over to him.

I am careful to stop as far from him as I expect I can safely get away with. When I start to kneel, he waves his hand, indicating I am to remain standing.

‘That won’t be necessary,’ Palpatine decides, ‘and it would not be wise for you to do anything too strenuous in your condition.’

‘Thank you,’ I politely reply.

Miserable old codger. He’s putting on his grandfatherly act, but it doesn’t fool me. I know he is not the least bit concerned with my well being except where it might affect my son - the child he plans to take from Ani and I.

I warily regard the Emperor, waiting for his next move. The room reeks with the dark side of the Force as I feel him reaching out to me in an attempt to read my mind. Ani’s warning rings in my ears. Don’t let him touch you, my husband had said, and don’t let him broach your shields.

‘You are well?’ he asks, no doubt trying a diversion to distract my concentration.

‘Yes, thank you,’ I respond.

His mental touch slides off my barriers, leaving me feeling rather filthy, as if dirty fingers had been run over my face and body. It is a truly disgusting sensation.

‘Lord Vader should be more concerned with your welfare,’ Palpatine states, using another tactic in an effort to unsettle me, ‘but I think someone else has his attention at the moment.’ When I don’t answer, he adds, ‘I am surprised that he did not find some way to take you with him, since he has rarely allowed you to be parted from his side. Perhaps he has a particular reason for leaving you here.’

Ignoring what he is implying, I focus on reinforcing my shields, adding layers from the inside where he cannot sense what I am doing. I know that Ani, after he confessed to me about Shira, has been completely faithful to me. Nothing that the Emperor says will shake my confidence in my husband’s devotion to me.

‘My husband is ever obedient to your commands, your Excellency,’ I offer in a neutral tone.

Let him chew on that for a while.

‘Which as my apprentice he should be,’ he notes after a slight pause.

I smile sweetly at him and simply nod my agreement, playing my role of scatter-brained pregnant female as best I can. The less I say, the better. That way he can’t twist my words around or use them against me.

‘But he has not been entirely truthful with you,’ Palpatine notes, changing his tactics again, ‘and I know what he has so carefully concealed from you.’

Now that he realizes he can’t get to me one way, he’s attempting to plant seeds of doubt instead, I observe, amused. How predictable can you get? This won’t work on me either, not after the conversation I had with Ani about his master’s favourite ways to manipulate someone. I have been well educated in how to avoid Palpatine’s traps, but I know, somehow, that my husband has had this specific one used on him.

The pressure against my shields increases. He must be getting frustrated.

‘My husband has a great many secrets,’ I offer in return, ‘which he does not share with me.’

I sense his intended attack an instant before he launches it. My outermost shields collapse as I yield to him. Just you wait, I think smugly, I have something special in store for you. When he reaches the barrier I had prepared, he halts, stopped cold by what he has never come up against before. Palpatine is no mathematician, so I doubt he will ever figure out how to duplicate my feat or how to get through it without using brute force, which he will be reluctant to do. For a minute or two, he presses, puzzled by what I have done. Finally he withdraws, and the condescending look which had been on his face changes to one with a bit more respect in it.

‘Well done, my lady,’ he praises. ‘Lord Vader has taught you well. Very few have managed to so easily keep me out when I want in.’

I tip my head in acknowledgement.

‘Go, now,’ he orders. ‘I have no reason to detain you any longer.’

With a slight bow, I give a brief farewell before turning to leave, ‘Thank you, your Excellency.’

‘But remember this,’ he warns in a cold, icy tone which stops me as I reach the door. ‘Your second son is mine. Never forget that.’


The Terror, Dreighton Nebula, Outer Rim, Year 3, Month 9.

DAY 13

***

I continue gazing out the viewport while I wait for Sarn to begin his latest test. He’s decided to keep the Terror cloaked while the TIE Phantoms ambush a few rebels.

The Admiral is taking his time, I note, and wasting mine.

‘My lord,’ I finally hear him approach.

‘Proceed with your test, Admiral,’ I impatiently order.

The quicker this is done with, the better. I need to return to Coruscant and my wife before Palpatine summons Maia again. Her clever trick won’t work a second time once he has figured out what she did and how to get around her shields, and she isn’t strong enough to resist him in a direct confrontation of that sort. Thankfully Thirsk has moved my family to the Executor. That won’t deter my master, but it is farther away from the Imperial Palace than my castle is.

‘The rebel patrol is approaching us now,’ Sarn notes, pointing to the ships which have just come into view.

My eyes track the three X-wings he has indicated as they cross directly in front of the Terror. Their pilots have no idea what is about to happen. There is a flash from one of the TIEs’ lasers, and a small explosion as it connects with a stabilizer on one of the X-wings. The damaged ship veers wildly out of control, colliding with another rebel craft, destroying them both. Seconds later, the remaining X-wing is hit with a laser bolt, eliminating it as well.

For a moment I stare at the spot where the TIE Phantoms are. That was a pointless and useless demonstration, and no real test of the new fighter’s capabilities. Sarn will have to come up with something else if he intends to impress me.

‘You will have to do much better than that, Admiral,’ I snap at him. ‘I will not be satisfied until I am certain I can wipe out the Rebellion.’

With that said, I spin away from him and stalk across the bridge. I am running late and need to return to my inadequate, temporary lodgings to comm my wife.

The ship’s crew disappears from the corridors as they see me coming in their direction. In the two days I have been aboard, they have learned to stay out of my way. Perhaps it is my reputation which has affected them, or maybe word of my short temper has spread. Whatever the reason, I am not going to encourage familiarity from any of them.

I don’t want to be here and it obviously shows.

The door to the rooms I have been assigned slides open at my approach. These quarters might be suitable for a Grand Admiral or the Emperor, but they are not equipped to deal with my medical needs. With a sigh, I step onto the Holonet pad and activate the controls with a wave of my hand. Maia’s image immediately appears in front of me. She must have been waiting.

‘My lord,’ she greets me aloud, while silently calling to me, Anakin.

I reach my hand out to her and see her ghostly fingers pass through my own. How I wish she was here with me.

‘My lady, my wife,’ I reply in turn, adding my love to her epithets in the way that only she can hear it. ‘My apologies for being late. The delay was unavoidable.’

A sweet, gentle smile crosses her face.

‘Tell me about your day and the children,’ I prompt her.

Maia raises an eyebrow at that as she recognizes one of our code phrases. The distance we are apart affects our bond, but I need to know what is happening. We will use inane small talk to cover what our real, private conversation is about. The Holonet can be sliced and our words eavesdropped on, so despite the effort required, it is far safer to utilize our completely secure, secret method to communicate.

‘Shmi misses you and keeps asking when you will be back,’ my wife says. ‘Mikal is busy learning his letters. I am teaching him both the Aurabesh and English characters.’

I narrow my eyes and concentrate on what she is sending to me after she speaks.

Palpatine hasn’t sent for me today, but I suspect that he will again, and soon, she warns me.

‘And my other daughter?’ I ask.

I need to get you and the children away from there, I tell her. The problem will be finding a way to justify moving you to Vjun.

‘Cat is her usual, playful self,’ she admits. ‘She is getting tired of her old toys, though.’

‘Take her shopping, then,’ I advise, teasing my wife a little, ‘and buy her some new ones.’

Maia responds with a laugh. I know she likes to go out and look at what is in the various shops and stores. Luckily, my wife is frugal in her purchases. Not that it really matters. There are more credits in my accounts than she could ever spend.

I see her bite her lip in an attempt to stop smiling at me. My little goddess, I understand you better than you think.

A shopping trip won’t be a good enough excuse, I remind her, knowing that’s where her thoughts were going.

If I can’t leave, she suggests, why don’t you give the Emperor some reason to?

‘This morning Shmi chased Mikal around and around your pod,’ Maia starts to cover the break in the flow of our conversation. ‘When they were tired of that, Mikal persuaded Cyran to play hide and seek with them...’

Draw him out and away from Coruscant? I consider this notion while she continues to tell me about our children’s antics. A diversion of some sort will be needed or bait of some kind. It will have to be something Palpatine will find irresistible. There are a few things I could try which should work.

‘... and that was what we did today,’ my wife finishes. ‘They are all asleep now, tired out by everything they were up to.’

‘A busy day for all of you, then,’ I automatically note, not really having heard a word she said.

You have decided what you are going to do, haven’t you? she shrewdly deduces.

Of course I have, I admit, amused, but it would be best if you don’t know what it is.

Sneaky Sith Lord, Maia teases.

I allow myself smile at that, letting the playful mood she has slipped into infect me. After Sarn’s foolish test, I need to relax a little.

‘Daddy!’ I hear my daughter call.

‘You should be in bed, ‘Mi,’ Maia scolds as one of our two blondes runs up to her and into the range of the Holonet terminal.

A few seconds later my youngest is in her mother’s arms, staring intently at me. She did this yesterday, too.

‘Bedtime for you, daughter,’ I remind Shmi, shaking my finger at her.

‘Daddy,’ she repeats, sounding happy to see me.

My scolding has had no apparent effect on her.

‘Time for us to go,’ my wife decides.

‘I will comm you tomorrow at the same time,’ I tell them.

I brush my hand over Shmi’s head and laugh at her attempt to grab my hologram’s glove. When she fails, she pouts, but she doesn’t protest like she did the last time. Maia repeats our parting gesture, her image’s fingers passing through my own.

‘Good night, my lady,’ I bid her farewell.

‘Good night, my lord,’ she responds in kind.

Anakin, my love, be careful, I hear across our bond before the transmission ends.

Her hologram vanishes, leaving me alone once more.


The Executor, Imperial Center, Year 3, Month 9.

DAY 14

With a sigh I settle myself in Ani’s chair and stare at the piles of paper in front of me. It’s been weeks since I last dealt with any of my correspondence, and the letters Cyran has set aside for my personal perusal have been gradually accumulating. I reluctantly take the first one from the top of the nearest stack and quickly toss it aside as not worth reading. Hopefully some of the others will be more interesting. Selecting another one, I decide to save the large, odd envelope I had spotted for later, once I am tired of the regular fare. It doesn’t take very long for me to sort things into my usual categories of ‘rejects to be sent the standard refusal,’ ‘have Cyran check into more closely,’ and ‘deal with myself.’

An hour later, Cyran joins me and with barely concealed amusement, watches my reactions to what I am reading. I drop the letter I had just finished on top of the other rejects.

‘Send the standard replies to that bunch,’ I tell my aide, pointing at the largest stack on Ani’s desk.

‘As you wish, my lady,’ she answers.

‘Cyran, these people are such obvious con artists that I wonder why they bother sending me anything,’ I complain to her. ‘Do they really think I will fall for some ridiculous story and automatically send them the credits they are asking for? Honestly. I saw the same things being tried on people back home - in fact my e-mail’s inbox was often stuffed with similar scams.’

‘I think even his lordship receives a few of those,’ Cyran admits.

My eyebrow goes up. Only a very brave, brazen, or foolish soul would be bold enough to try that sort of nonsense on my husband.

‘And...?’ I prod her for more specifics.

‘He usually has his aides tell them not to bother him again. Normally that’s sufficient enough warning. Once, when one was more persistent, Lord Vader personally arranged a suitable deterrent,’ Cyran reveals. ‘Word spread quickly and it was years before he was approached by a fake charity again.’

A few scenarios run through my mind for what Ani might have done. I decide to ask him about it when he gets back, just to satisfy my curiosity.

Finally bored with going through things in a systematic fashion, I reach over and yank the envelope which had caught my eye from the middle of the last unsorted stack.

‘What’s this?’ I ask my aide as I stare at the formal parchment in my hand. ‘It doesn’t look at all like the usual stuff.’

‘It isn’t,’ she confirms, ‘and it is legitimate.’

I give her a puzzled look as I begin reading what I assume is another letter requesting funds. The name of the institution, though, is quite a shock.

‘Cyran, I don’t remember funding this,’ I admit, a bit bewildered by what I have just discovered..

‘His lordship signed off on it when you were deathly ill at Naboo, so I am not surprised you have no memory of it,’ she tells me. ‘I suspect anything they have sent in terms of project updates has gone to him because of that.’

I nod in reply and continue reading. When I finish, I know what I am going to do.

‘We’re going,’ I decide. ‘Rhinnal is only a few hours away and if all the Noghri come along, it should be safe enough for a couple days. His lordship wants me away from Coruscant right now, anyway, and this is the perfect excuse.’

‘I’ll go find Thirsk and start our departure preparations, my lady,’ Cyran says before she gets up and heads for the door.

I don’t bother stopping her to add any further instructions. She knows what needs to be done. It’s simplest to let her and Thirsk do their jobs, and let them look after all the travel and security arrangements for the children and I. At that thought child number four makes his presence known.

‘Behave, you,’ I scold him when a well-aimed kick comes a bit too close to my bladder. ‘Mommy doesn’t want you to do that right now.’

It takes a minute or two to settle him, and in that time I shut my eyes and try to relax. At the distance we are apart, it is far easier to communicate using our bond when I can see him with the Holonet, but Ani will need to know what I am planning to do. And I will require his permission to do it, too.

Ani, love, I call to him, hoping he is free to talk and not busy with Sarn or one of those seemingly endless tests.

Maia? he soon responds.

I have good news, I tell him. I’ve found an excuse to leave Imperial Center for a few days.

There is no reply so I know he is waiting for me to supply the details.

A children’s hospital is opening tomorrow afternoon on Rhinnal, I give him a hint or two, and they have asked me to attend the ceremony as their official patron.

Silence. He’s either forgotten about that entirely or doesn’t know what to say. I give him a minute to think. Surely I won’t have to ask or remind him since he was the one who saw to it that the hospital was built in the first place.

I had forgotten about that, he finally admits. There have been too many other, more pressing matters to deal with.

It should be a good enough excuse to leave Coruscant for a while, don’t you think? I prod him again.

I know Palpatine prefers the press to have positive news to report. The difference is that usually Ani is with me during this sort of photo-op and public show. This will be the first time I will have to manage on my own, and I can feel Ani’s reluctance to let me do that flowing out from him. He really doesn’t like exposing me to any type of risk.

I don’t like it, he tells me, confirming what I just sensed. But since I have to pick between risking my master summoning you again while I am away, or you and the children going to Rhinnal without me, I will choose the latter. At least Thirsk and the Noghri can protect you there.

Everything will be fine, I reassure him with a burst of love and feel him return that emotion in kind.

Sarn is waiting for me on the bridge, he reluctantly notes, and I suspect I will have to endure another pointless test.

I love you, Ani, I bid him farewell.

I love you, too, little goddess, my husband replies, and be careful on Rhinnal..

I feel his presence fade as his level of concentration drops.

While I wait for Thirsk and Cyran to join me and go over the plans for what needs to be done, I reconsider my decision. Ani has every reason to worry about Palpatine and my venturing out on my own. But he is also right that going to Rhinnal instead of staying at Coruscant is probably the safer option. In the end, I decide that we really don’t have much choice in the matter. When my aide and security chief finally appear, I smile at both of them and prepare myself for what will, no doubt, be quite a long meeting.


Rhire, Rhinnal, Core Worlds, Year 3, Month 9.

DAY 15

Mikal’s grip on my hand tightens while we stand at the top of the shuttle’s ramp and wait for Thirsk to indicate it is safe to go down. The air is cold and I can see a dusting of snow still on the ground in places which are shaded. Soon the morning sun will melt all of that. Despite the early hour, a large crowd of officials has gathered and the usual gang of reporters are being held back by troopers.

‘Let me check to see if you are warm enough, sweetie,’ I tell my son.

He doesn’t protest as I reseal his jacket. Mikal’s nervous tugging on its collar had pulled it open at the top and I don’t want him to get chilled.

Thirsk glances at me from where he is talking to Governor Kole and his security chief. None of them want to take any chances. Even Jander Graffe, this sector’s Moff, made a point of comming Ani to personally reassure him that I would be well looked after. Somehow I suppress a snicker. All the fuss I am having to endure reminds me of royal visits back home, and my husband’s absence is making everyone more nervous than if he was actually here.

A flash of gray catches my eye as Kohvrekhar moves into position at the bottom of the shuttle’s ramp on my right. Ghazhak mirrors him to the left. I wonder what Princess Diana would have thought of my Noghri bodyguards.

My commando friend catches my attention again and nods when my eyes meet his.

‘Time to go,’ I warn Mikal, who has started to tug on his jacket again.

The official greeting party see my son and I emerge from the shuttle and their idle chatter stops immediately. From what I read last night, I know that the locals are the ones wearing the brightly patterned costumes. I recognize a few of the people, too, since Thirsk made a point of showing me their holos yesterday. The Dean of the State Medical Academy, Dr. Meccamitta, is at the back, behind all the political and military types, like the short, fat governor of nearby Ralltiir, and even Moff Graffe has come from Esseles to be here. It’s too bad Ani is stuck in the Outer Rim, I decide, since I am sure he would be making a few entertaining, private snide comments about who has shown up today and why.

‘Lady Vader,’ Moff Graffe greets me with a slight bow, ‘welcome to Rhinnal.’

‘Thank you, Moff Graffe,’ I carefully reply. Remembering Cyran’s quick lesson in local protocol, I don’t offer my hand to him.

A little girl with a bouquet of millaflowers has to be given a gentle push forward by the woman I assume is her mother. The youngster is too overwhelmed by the situation to know what to do, so I bend over and take the flowers, extracting their stems from the death grip she has on them.

‘These are very pretty. Thank you, dear,’ I reassure her.

I know this isn’t a local custom, but ever since Corulag, wherever I go, there’s usually a child or two there to give me a millaflower bouquet or wreathe for my hair. It’s become the traditional way to greet me.

‘Flower!’ Cat cries when she sees what I have. ‘Flower, mum, flower, please.’

I turn and smile at her. The twins followed me out of the shuttle and each one is firmly holding onto Cyran or Daini’s hand. After making sure Mikal will behave and not try to run off, I let his fingers go and pull a white flower for Cat and a red one for Shmi out of the bunch.

‘Here you are,’ I tell my girls, giving each one a blossom of her own.

Cat and Shmi promptly stick their noses into their flowers. Good. Playing with those will keep them busy for a few minutes while Moff Graffe and Rhinnal’s governor, Phaedras Kole, go through the boring ceremonial introductions. As they drone on, I do my best to look interested, but I wish they would hurry up so I can go inside where it is warm. The slight breeze from the south is blowing cold air up underneath my gown. Finally, Kole gestures me ahead, towards the low, round buildings at the edge of the landing area. Rik looks a bit surprised when I shove what remains of the bouquet at him, but I don’t want to carry them around. From the corner of my eye I see him look about for a place to put them. Before I can discover what he does, though, I am ushered away from Ani’s shuttle and my pilot.

‘Once we are inside it will be warmer,’ I tell Mikal, ‘and you will have a chance to play in the snow later.’

I know he wants to have some fun in the snow, like he did on Hoth, but the hospital’s official opening comes first. Thirsk will have to secure a safe area for the children to play in, too, and that might take some time.

‘There’s another welcoming ceremony to go through before we can leave for the hospital,’ Cyran warns me.

I try not to make a face. The locals will use any excuse to come up with some sort of elaborate ceremony or to justify a holiday. Only the cold and my now rather obvious pregnancy shortened what I had to stand through on the landing field. Once inside the space port, I am sure there will be more of the same.

The people who meet us in the overly warm building, though, are not what I expect. I sit down in a high-backed wooden chair and settle Mikal in the smaller one beside me. While my staff see to the twins, I let my eyes roam from one member of this new group to another. These are the clan leaders whom I read about last night, I guess, the men and women who really control much of the planet. Their bright woolen tribal clothing makes the sea of Imperial uniforms surrounding me look drab and boring in comparison.

Finally, an elderly woman steps forward. Her hair is brilliant white against the blues and greens of her gown.

‘My Lady,’ she greets me with a slight bow, ‘I am Nilsa Kieger, Speaker for the clans. We wish to present you and your family with a few gifts as is our custom with important visitors.’

I give my consent with a quick nod. This was in the files I read, so I know what to expect - at least I think I know what they will do. Only Nilsa will say anything to me directly. The others will remain silent, just as I am supposed to stay until she is finished with their gifts.

‘For your daughters,’ she says, taking two small, stuffed toys from one of her colleagues. ‘These are toy gabals, the animals we rely on.’

I accept the two white, wooly beasts and scan them quickly with the Force. Nothing harmful is present, so I give one to Shmi and the other to Cat. The girls had quickly disposed of their flowers once they saw that they would be getting something better and eagerly reach for their new toys.

‘Sheep!’ Shmi calls hers, and I know she has remembered my descriptions of those animals from home.

‘For your son, Lord Vader’s heir,’ Nilsa states as she hands me a warm, dark grey gabal-wool cloak.

I perform the same check with the Force, wave Mikal to his feet, and wait for my son to get up. He pulls off his jacket then wraps the cloak around himself. The clasp snaps together easily for him. Good. He can put it on without my help.

‘It’s just like daddy’s!’ he happily exclaims, spinning in circles just to watch the fabric flare out around him.

Nilsa smiles as she watches his antics. I meet her eyes and nod my approval and appreciation. Mikal has been wanting a cloak for months, and I had planned to give him one for his next birthday. With how fast he is growing, though, this one will need replacing by then, so the one I have hidden away will still be put to use. But for now, this one is the perfect gift for my son.

‘For your child yet unborn,’ the Speaker announces next.

This time she offers me a brightly checkered woolen blanket. I rub my cheek against it, feeling how soft it is. There is nothing to scratch a baby’s delicate skin, and I prefer natural fibers to artificial ones. Ani would approve of this, too.

‘Thank you,’ I quietly tell her, disregarding the usual protocol which would have me remain silent until she is finished.

My words cause her comrades to exchange glances, but no one dares raise a protest at my interruption.

‘For you, yourself, my Lady,’ Nilsa smoothly continues.

Her gift this time is a deep brown gown made of gabal wool. I know that it is difficult to dye gabal wool any dark color because of the traditional, natural dyes that they use. This brown must be the closest they could get to black. There is no elaborate decoration on it, unlike the tribesmen’s clothing. They must have checked to see what I normally wear and made something similar.

I carefully accept the dress, smoothing the fabric across my lap. After the hospital opening, I will change into this, I decide, to honor them as they have my family and I.

Nilsa turns away and beckons to someone I cannot see. When she is facing me once again, I can only stare at what is draped across her arms.

‘For his lordship,’ she adds, ‘to protect him in battle.’

The cloak she gives to me is heavy, tightly woven, and as black as any the Sith Lord has in his castle at Imperial Center or Vjun. Puzzled, I tip my head and give her a questioning look. From what I read, it is impossible for them to produce a natural black dye which will work on gabal wool.

‘Tenticulon ink,’ Nilsa reveals, answering my unspoken question.

I let my eyebrow go up. Those are supposedly a myth on this planet, like sailors’ tales of giant squids back home. They are said to live deep in the waters beneath Rhinnal’s ice caps, and are rarely, if ever, seen. From the murmurs around me, I am not the only skeptic in the room, but I won’t make a fuss about it or question her truthfulness. It will make a good story to tell Ani when I give him his new cloak, I decide. Sea monster ink in his cloak! Somehow I stop my smile from getting too large and spoiling the formality of the occasion.

‘I am grateful for your generous gifts, Speaker,’ I accept what she and her people have given me. ‘They are a kindness I will not soon forget.’

‘Nor, my Lady, will we ever forget what you have done for our children,’ she responds with another bow, this one slightly deeper than the first.

I can sense that the various Imperial officials around me are getting restless and bored. They see no point in dragging out what must be to them primitive local rituals. Deciding to ignore them, I speak with Nilsa for a few minutes more before signaling the end to our conversation by handing my new gown and Ani’s cloak to Rik. Cyran and Daini need to be free to look after the twins, so he is acting as my valet of sorts today.

Next stop will be the children’s hospital and then Governor Kole’s residence, where I will be spending the afternoon and staying the night.

***

I look up from the screen and debate what to do. Sarn’s most recent test, an attack on a rebel owned freighter, the Corellia Star, proved to be as pointless as his ambush on the patrol two days ago. And now our secret base at Dreighton has been revealed to the rebels by one of their pilots who has stolen that very same freighter and escaped in it.

A slight, almost imperceptible, tremor runs through the Terror. We have dropped out of hyperspace.

'My lord,’ Sarn calls over the comm.

‘Come in, Admiral,’ I reply, opening the office door with a wave of my hand.

‘My lord, Intelligence has reported that the rebel fleet is planning to attack Imdaar Alpha,’ he tells me. ‘A strike force is en route to intercept them.’

I don’t give him any indication that this is old news to me. My own sources knew of this hours ago, but it is an opportunity to truly test the effectiveness of the new TIEs.

‘We will leave for Imdaar Alpha immediately,’ I order. ‘The battle will be a proving ground for the TIE Phantoms, and our victory, the end of the Rebellion.’

‘Yes, my lord,’ he promptly answers before he gives a quick salute and leaves.

I sit back in my chair and stare at the doors which closed behind him. While the legends about the Dreighton Triangle and its reputation as a graveyard for ships have kept anyone from looking too closely, the rebels must surely know about the new fighters by now. The question is, what are they going to do in response?

For a few minutes I tap my fingers on my desk while I think.

What would I do if I were them?

My solution is an obvious one - I would steal one of the new fighters, take it back to base, and tear it apart to discover how the cloaking device works. This is something I cannot risk happening. The stealth technology is Sith technology; the same device which hides the TIE Phantoms from view exists on the Scimitar, and in a much larger size on the Terror.

I touch the comm as I make my decision.

‘Chief Engineer G’vath,’ I say when my call is answered. ‘I have a job for you to do ...’

***

I settle myself against the padded seat in the hover car and wait for Thirsk to close its dome. Most of Rhire’s population use the city’s underground shuttle system, but the Commander preferred this transportation method instead. It was safer, he had said when I asked him about it yesterday, and easier to change the route we would be taking on a moment’s notice.

To keep Mikal occupied, I start pointing out what buildings I recognize from my security briefing. As we pause beside yet another hydroelectric plant on the Frieste River, it becomes obvious that my son is completely bored with sight seeing.

‘We’ll be there soon,’ I reassure him. ‘There’s just one more ceremony and then you can go play in the snow.’

‘It’s him!’ my son yells, pointing out the window towards the river.

‘It’s who?’ I ask, wondering who has caught his attention.

‘It’s him,’ he insists, his nose pressed firmly up against the transparisteel window. ‘It’s the man who was in daddy’s castle!’

Thirsk starts sweeping the area with his eyes, looking for whoever it is my son has spotted. Our driver seems to be puzzled by the commotion, and is probably wondering what all the excitement is about. I try to see exactly who my son is talking about, but there is no one where Mikal was pointing.

‘There’s no one there,’ Thirsk finally states the obvious.

‘I don’t see anyone, either,’ I admit.

‘But he was there!’ Mikal insists.

I give Thirsk a knowing look and raise an eyebrow. This sounds like a childish attempt to get some attention, but Mikal is not one to make up stories. He has been taught to always tell the truth. There probably was someone there he recognized. Or thought he recognized.

‘You probably saw somebody who looked like someone else,’ I suggest, hoping Mikal will drop it until I can talk to Thirsk in private.

‘He looked like the man in brown robes,’ Mikal gives a bit more detail, ‘like the man daddy was talking to.’

Brown robes? Who Ani was talking to?

Oh, no.

I know exactly who my son means.

Michael, I scold my brother, what mischief are you up to now?

No answer. Well, I will have to track him down later and tell him to stay out of sight before he gets all of us into trouble.

‘He’s gone now, so I wouldn’t worry about it,’ I reassure him.

Mikal’s eyes don’t leave the spot where his mystery man was standing until the river is out of sight. Then he shifts about in his seat and stares at the floor. He doesn’t think I believed him, I sense, and is expecting he will get into trouble because of that.

‘Sometimes our eyes play tricks on us,’ I reassure him. ‘You probably saw someone, but it wasn’t who you think it was.’

‘But I did see him,’ he whispers more to himself than to me.

‘We will talk about it later,’ I decide as the hover car stops in front of the new hospital.

Thirsk is the first to get out, and I watch him survey the area, checking that he is satisfied with the local security measures before he helps me out of the car. Troopers are in evidence everywhere, and my Noghri are in the background, attempting to be inconspicuous. Ghazhak and Kohvrekhar have opted to wear very little, like they did on Hoth. They are going to get cold, I note, so hopefully this won’t take too long.

The same group of officials is crowded around the dedication plaque which is covered up, waiting for the ceremony to unveil it. Nilsa is present, but most of the other clan leaders are absent. I keep a tight grip on Mikal’s hand while I lead him to our spots. Thirsk’s briefing suggested this shouldn’t take very long. A couple of speeches by Governor Kole and Dr. Meccamitta, then my part in the ceremony, followed by a quick tour of the facilities.

While I wait for the twins to join me, I listen to the conversations going on around me. It quickly becomes apparent that Moff Graffe has no use for this new hospital.

‘It’s nothing but a pet project his Lordship is indulging her in,’ I overhear him say to Kole, ‘and a waste of credits on aliens that could be put to better use elsewhere.’

I make a point of staring directly at Graffe and Kole and have the satisfaction of seeing the Moff go a little pale before he shuts up. He doesn’t know Ani paid for most of this hospital, not I. Maybe I should make a point of saying that in the little speech I am expected to give. Keeping my eyes fixed on the two men, I slowly sit down in my chair. The Sith Lord isn’t the only one can intimidate Imperial officials when necessary. I’ve seen him do it enough times to know how to do the same myself, but this is the first time I have tried.

Cyran bends over to retrieve Shmi’s gabal toy, so I shift my attention back to my family. I don’t like the anti-alien bias which is held by many in the Empire, but there’s not much I can do about it. With time, perhaps Ani can make some changes.

‘Mother,’ Mikal whispers to me, ‘look.’

I turn to see where he is pointing. There is a slight twitch in the Force, a blur of brown robes, then whoever it was is gone around the corner of the building across the street and out of sight again. Wrinkling my forehead, I concentrate on tracking the mystery man. Unfortunately, that faint tremor in the Force is gone.

Michael? I prod at my brother, but he doesn’t respond.

‘Thirsk,’ I hiss quietly to get the Commander’s attention. ‘Mikal saw him again, this time across the street. I saw someone, as well, but he was too fast for me to identify him.’

If this is Michael playing one of his pranks, I am going to kill him.

That thought starts me giggling. It would be pretty hard to kill my Jedi ghost brother. Ani had tried, unsuccessfully, to be rid of him a couple times, but all he did was make Michael and I miserable instead. Still, my brother should know better than to joke around like this. When he does finally put in an appearance where I can talk to him, I decide I am going to give him a piece of my mind.

‘My Lady?’

The Governor’s voice brings me back to why I am here. Time to get things underway. I nod my readiness and wait for him to start speaking.

‘My fellow citizens,’ he loudly announces, quieting those who are still talking. ‘We are here on a most auspicious occasion....’

I only half-follow what he says, and the reporters look rather bored as well. It’s pretty much the same address he gave this morning. Kole probably recycles his speeches like many politicians used to do back home. The only difference is the last few sentences where he acknowledges my underwriting the cost of building the hospital and thanks me for my generosity. Then he introduces the Dean of the State Medical Academy and steps aside to let the doctor take his place.

Dr. Meccamitta is almost as tall as Ani, but far more gangly in appearance. He is silver haired and his white surgeon’s uniform is a bit out of place amid the olive green and black of the officers around him. While he says a few words, he pointedly ignores Governor Kole and Moff Graffe. Obviously the doctor and his political superiors don’t get along. Like most academics, he is quick and to the point. He avoids any rambling references to the glory of the Empire, the Emperor, or those in attendance. Instead, he merely notes that the hospital was needed and a welcome addition to what is here. There are no ‘thank yous’ at the end of his speech, I wryly observe, not that I need that sort of ego-boosting anyway.

When the doctor resumes his seat, I leave mine. It’s now my turn to say something and pull the cover off the dedicatory plaque. At least that bit is the same as would be done at home.

I take a deep breath before I start talking. This is the first time I have had to do this and I don’t want to make any mistakes.

‘Fellow citizens,’ I start with a variation on the opening everyone else has used so far. ‘The galaxy’s children - all of its children - are its future. It is the duty of us all to ensure that their health and well-being are cared for.’

I pause when I see Graffe shift a little uncomfortably. He knows I heard what he said. Time to let him know exactly what the Sith Lord thinks of that sort of attitude.

‘His lordship agreed with me when I chose to support this project,’ I calmly declare, ‘and he funded the bulk of it. We both intend to continue supporting this facility in the future.’

That statement causes a bit of a stir, so I wait for the murmurs to die down before continuing. I was quite surprised to discover that Ani has little tolerance for the prejudices which are endemic among many in the general population and military. My husband has never concealed his contempt for those with anti-alien sentiments when he has been confronted by them. On several occasions I have seen him make officers under his command eat their words when he has overheard remarks far worse than what Graffe’s was. Still, in hindsight, Ani might not be too happy that I have made his opinion public in such a manner. No help for it now, though.

‘I would like some help with the next step,’ I suggest, turning to face my son. Holding my hand out, I call him over to me, ‘Mikal?’

He bounces out of his chair, eager to do something other than sit still and behave himself. I lead him over to the cloth-covered inscription, set the rope in his hand, and help him pull the material away. It’s rather odd that despite this being a children’s hospital, the only ones in attendance are mine.

While the crowd claps and the reporters take their holos, I quickly read what is on the stone in front of me: Shmi Skywalker Memorial Children’s Hospital. Ani had named it for his mother, but I doubt that there is anyone alive today, outside of his family, who would be able to make that connection.

***

While I wait for the isolation room in Medlab to pressurize, I impatiently pace back and forth. This system is excruciatingly slow compared to what is in my private quarters on the Executor or in my castles, but there’s little choice in the facilities available to me on the Terror.

The light finally turns green on the control panel, so I remove my helmet and pour out my dinner. If I were here only a few days, I wouldn’t bother. Slowly draining the last of my meal, I consider the predicament we are in. The sooner I can return to my family, the better. Every day I am apart from my wife gives Palpatine another chance to try something. Or do something. Or plot some new mischief.

Somehow I refrain from hurling my glass across the room. That might satisfy my need to take my frustrations out by destroying something, but it won’t resolve my dilemma.

I tip my head and concentrate on my wife. She should have finished with all the official nonsense on Rhinnal by now. But she is obviously distracted by what is going on and doesn’t respond to my light mental touch. Later then, at the time we agreed to last night. We will have to come up with another excuse to keep her off Coruscant. Unfortunately my master didn’t take the bait I set out for him and leave on a ‘wild goose chase’ as Maia would dub it.

A growl escapes from me as my fingers tighten around the glass.

Time.

I am running out of time.

And every delay set in my path will make it that much harder to do what I must.

Carefully setting the once threatened glass down, I replace my helmet, and stalk out of the medical wing. There is work to be done. If I am to be stuck on this cursed ship for a few more days, I can at least see to it that the crew are doing their jobs properly. And Admiral Sarn could use a surprise inspection or two from Lord Vader...

***

The tour done, I lead my now thoroughly bored son and the rest of my entourage back to the hospital’s entrance. My mother would probably have had a million medical questions to ask, but most of the technology meant little to me. I just used my well-practiced smile, nodded at the appropriate times, and tried not to question Dr. Meccamitta too often. His tendency to roll his eyes whenever he was asked something became a bit tiresome after a while.

Mikal tugs on my hand, so I bend over to where he can whisper in my ear.

‘He’s over there again,’ my son tells me.

I quickly glance across the street to where his mystery man was before. There is that same flicker in the Force, swirl of brown robes, and then he is gone again. This is getting very old, very fast. For a moment I debate sending Thirsk or one of the Noghri after whoever this is. But if it is Michael, they won’t find any trace of him, and it will create an uproar and more trouble than I want to deal with. Plus I will have to explain a few things I would rather not.

With a sigh, I decide to let it go for now. Thirsk doesn’t know about my brother, and trying to tell him how and why I have a Jedi ghost hanging around could get a trifle awkward.

‘We have to go to Governor Kole’s residence,’ I remind him when Mikal tries to hang back and look around for his mystery man, ‘and I thought you wanted to play in the snow.’

That gets my son into the hover car, but he continues to stare out the window. He’s becoming a bit obsessed, so I make a quick decision, hoping that it’s the right one. I wait until the twins are settled and we are moving before I tap Thirsk on the shoulder.

‘Commander, we need to talk,’ I tell my friend and bodyguard.

***

I assume my place at the head of the Command Deck, turn my back on the bridge crew, and smile, though none can see it. Today’s round of impromptu inspections proved to be most entertaining and enlightening. Sarn runs a tighter ship than most, but I was still able to make a few of his officers quite miserable.

The Admiral approaches me from behind. I pointedly ignore him and the update on the ship’s status he is dutifully reciting. It’s a familiar list. All is well, so I nod in acknowledgement. There is no reason to say anything to him about it.

Sarn quickly retreats, and I resume my interrupted musings. We won’t arrive at Imdaar until early tomorrow morning and I intend to be here, in ‘my spot’ when we do. Until this evening, I will have to keep myself occupied somehow. Maia won’t have access to a private Holonet terminal, so I will use the kaleidoscope of hyperspace to help focus my thoughts instead. For a moment I close my eyes and pull an image of Maia in my castle’s conservatory with our children from my memory.

I resist the temptation to sigh and finally admit the truth to myself - I miss my family far more than I ever expected to.

***

‘So, my lady,’ Thirsk says after I finish my tale, ‘what you are telling me is that this mystery man is only a ghost - a ghost who also happens to be your brother and a Jedi?’

I wince a little at the emphasis he puts on “Jedi.” The Commander has no respect for members of that order, but at least he doesn’t hate them like many in the Empire do. A sigh escapes from me. I just knew it wouldn’t be easy to convince him that Michael is harmless - well, mostly harmless.

‘He isn’t really a Jedi,’ I try explaining again, ‘he just tends to look that way. Sometimes he wears Sith robes instead.’

Mikal runs past us, after Rik, who is his target of choice at the moment. My son’s snowball goes wide, though, narrowly missing Kohvrekhar. The Noghri quickly takes a few steps back, hopefully out of range. Shmi and Cat were out in the garden’s courtyard for a few minutes, but the novelty of playing in the snow wore off quite fast. They are inside now, napping, while I wait for their brother to wear himself out.

‘And what are we to do about your brother?’ Thirsk asks me once Mikal is out of earshot.

‘I don’t know,’ I admit. ‘It’s not like him to be this careless or reckless. If he just wanted to see what was happening, he could do that without becoming visible.’

‘That, my lady, suggests to me that it isn’t your brother we are dealing with,’ the Commander cryptically remarks.

I raise an eyebrow to encourage him to continue, but Thirsk’s attention is elsewhere. He darts from my side a fraction of a second after Ghazhak disappears behind one of the garden’s screening walls. Rik reverses direction, grabbing a rather surprised Mikal as he runs towards me.

‘Inside, now!’ the pilot orders.

Having learned my lesson about obeying my security team on Corulag, I do as I am told and bolt for the door. Thankfully Mikal doesn’t raise any protests at Rik’s treatment. He’s old enough to understand that it was necessary, but he won’t be very happy that his playtime was interrupted. Still, I can sense my son is upset and knows something is wrong. As soon as Rik sets him down, he immediately starts crying and demands a hug.

‘Rik, what is going on?’ I question him while I soothe my son.

The pilot gives his head a shake. He either doesn’t know, or doesn’t want to discuss it in front of Mikal.

‘Let’s go find Cyran,’ I suggest to Mikal once he has quieted. ‘Maybe she will go exploring with you.’

It takes a few minutes to locate my aide and send them both on a walkabout. Poking around Governor Kole’s residence will keep my son occupied while I find out what is going on. When I return to the door into the garden, Thirsk and Rik are waiting for me.

‘You need to see this, my lady,’ Thirsk tells me as he motions me through the door.

I give him a curious look, but follow him out to where he and Ghazhak had ran.

‘Our mystery man is no ghost,’ the Commander states, pointing at a fresh set of tracks in the snow. ‘He left footprints. Unfortunately, he also managed to elude us.’

A shiver goes down my spine. I had really hoped it was Michael pulling one of his pranks. Now, things could become even more complicated. Dealing with a real, live Jedi is not something I had ever planned to do. That’s Ani’s job.

‘So who is he, then, and what is he up to?’ I ask when we are back inside where it is warm again.

Thirsk jerks his head towards Mikal and Cyran, who have just appeared at the end of the hallway.

‘Your son, my lady,’ he decides. ‘The Jedi were known to be child stealers. He’s looking for a chance to grab him.’

I feel the color drain from my face. Yet another threat to worry about.

And my husband isn’t here to protect us.

***

A Jedi? I repeat my last thought.

I suspect Maia has nodded in confirmation of that even though I can’t see her.

He was Force sensitive, she reminds me, and must have used a mind trick to get past the Governor’s guards.

This is not good, not good at all. The last thing I need is some Jedi on the loose, especially one who seems intent on getting at my son. And I am stuck here for days unless I can come up with a good enough excuse to leave. But given Palpatine’s insistence that I be here, I doubt he will relent and let me go, even if it is to pursue some Jedi. All I can do is give my wife what help and advice I can from here.

Keep the children inside and close to you, I suggest to her. Tell Thirsk to get an R2 unit or two to act as sentries. No mind trick will affect a ‘droid, so they can’t be manipulated.

I pause, trying to think of what or who else might be of help to her.

Get that pesky brother of yours to make himself useful, too, I add. It’s important that there be someone with Mikal who can tell you instantly if this Jedi comes too close.

Ani, my wife calls to me, I don’t like this.

I can sense she is far more worried about the situation than she has admitted to being.

Little goddess, everything will be fine, I reassure her. You will be leaving tomorrow afternoon, and once you are home, he won’t be able to get near you. Besides, you are more than a match for any Jedi who has escaped my notice.

Her amusement at my last comment echoes across our bond. There isn’t a Jedi alive today who could best my wife, if it comes down to that, except Luke, perhaps, on one of his luckier days. But this isn’t Luke. Maia would have recognized my son’s Force signature instantly. The question then, is, who is it?

You will be alright, I try to allay her fears again. Trust Thirsk to look after your security, but stay on your guard. Don’t ...

Yes, dear, she breaks in, stopping my standard ‘security speech.’

I smile at that. She is so predictable.

Now, it’s late and after you talk to Thirsk, you should get some sleep..., I start, only to be interrupted a second time.

Fussbudget, she dubs me.

No, just your husband who loves you, I tease her in return.

I know she wants to argue with me, but she does need to rest. It has been a long day for her and the appearance of this Jedi has added more stress to what should have been a fairly routine trip. For a moment I let her feel my own concerns for her.

Good night, dearest, she capitulates, giving in without further protest.

Good night, my little wife, I reply in kind.

Her presence over our bond fades. She will have a talk with Thirsk, settle the children for the night, and hopefully sleep for at least a few hours.

For a while I consider what else I might do when a thought occurs to me. I know who I can put to use. Temporarily abandoning my post on the bridge, I go back to my assigned quarters and activate the comm in the office. The connection hisses with static, then I hear a surprised yelp and voices whispering. Obviously I have interrupted something.

‘Jixton!’ I shout at my most annoying agent.

No answer, only more frantic scurrying and the woman Jix just called ‘Red’ asking where her clothes are.

‘Jixton!’ I yell again, to make sure he can’t mistake who is calling him.

A door slams. Red has fled the scene. Bare feet approach the comm.

‘Uhm, Uncle Dee?’ my agent finally replies. ‘You have really bad timing. Really, really bad ...’

‘You are supposed to be on Corellia watching Skywalker,’ I scold him, not feeling the least bit sorry for interrupting his fun.

‘Yeah, that. He sort of gave me the slip,’ Jix admits. ‘I don’t know where he is now, but I was on my way back when I had a run in with...’

‘Jix,’ I growl at him.

He shuts up.

‘I want you to go to Rhire on Rhinnal immediately, Jix,’ I tell him. ‘A Jedi has turned up there. He’s been seen near my family and I want you to make sure he isn’t a problem.’

‘Immediately,’ I hear him grumble under his breath. ‘Why is it always ‘immediately, Jix’? Why is it never ‘when you have the time, Jix’ or ‘after you have had a few days off, Jix’?’

‘Because I want you on Rhinnal, right now,’ I snap, my patience wearing a bit thin. ‘You know my wife is in no shape to defend herself and I want her to have all the help I can send to her.’

‘I’ll be there in a few hours,’ Jix answers in a more business-like tone. ‘Aunt Em won’t have anything to worry about Uncle Dee.’

‘Good,’ I reply, though I am not impressed by his optimism. ‘Contact me once you are in place.’

I shut off the comm. Jix is no match for a fully trained Jedi, but I doubt that is what he will be up against. He should be able to distract whoever this is long enough for my family to get back safely to Coruscant. And the workout should do him some good. He’s obviously been slacking off while keeping an eye on Luke.

Now, if only I could come up with an excuse to leave tomorrow...

***

I turn over for the sixth time and try to get comfortable, but after a while, I give up. Child number four is not co-operating tonight and no matter what position I move into, he is busy with his feet within a few minutes.

‘Go to sleep, you,’ I scold my stomach. ‘Mommy needs to rest.’

My light touch with the Force quiets him again, but that probably won’t last for very long. He’s sensing my own worrying and restlessness, and responding in kind. Letting out an exasperated sigh, I get up, turn the lights on with a thought, and pad over to the chair in front of the mirrored dresser. The reflection which greets me is that of a tired, slightly frazzled looking pregnant woman.

‘Well, Maia,’ I say to myself as I start working the snarls out of my unbraided hair with my fingers, ‘this is a wonderful situation you are in. You have a Jedi on the loose and no Ani around to look after him.’

I pick up my hairbrush and continue my task while doing my best to ignore the R2 unit posted by the door. Going to bed with my hair loose was a big mistake. With all my tossing and turning it has become badly tangled. Yet another reason to miss my husband, I decide with a frown. Ani actually likes helping with my hair when it gets a bit knotted.

You should be in bed, asleep, my brother scolds me, not up and about at this hour.

Michael, I growl at him.

Tonight I don’t feel like putting up with my older brother being, well, an older brother. It was bad enough having him lecture me a few hours ago about how I shouldn’t strain myself by picking up his namesake. After two previous pregnancies, I know what I can and can’t do safely.

Mikal is still sound asleep, he reports, getting the hint to drop his worrywart routine.

Good, I decide, he doesn’t need the stress of knowing what is really going on or why all the extra security is around.

For Mikal and the twins’ rooms, Thirsk had chosen newer model astromech droids, ones which were specifically programmed for loyalty. They will instantly alert the Commander if anyone other than myself or my staff comes near my children. Cat and Shmi are too young to really understand what a droid is, but Mikal had been bursting with questions. So when I tucked my son in, I had opted for the simplest explanation for the droid’s presence in his room. I told Mikal that the R4 unit was a present from his father, and he had happily accepted his new droid. Before he went to bed, he had named it ‘Arfour.’ I smile a little at that memory. Something tells me that sooner or later my son and Arfour are going to get into plenty of mischief.

Finished with my hair at last, I braid it up for what remains of the night. I am far too alert to fall asleep, so I pick-up my datapad and start flipping randomly through the files on Rhinnal I had downloaded back on Coruscant.

Insomnia getting to you, little sister? my brother teases.

He knows I use reading to put myself to sleep.

No more than to you, I shoot back. I hate sitting around waiting for something to happen.

I start to read the part on the history of medicine, since that is reason I am here. Rhinnal has been a place of healing for centuries. Even during the Old Republic people came to this planet seeking cures, and the best doctors are still trained here today. Bored with the earlier historical sections, I jump ahead to more recent times. The next entry I look at makes my eyes go wide.

Michael, there was a Jedi Chapterhouse in Rhire, and it is still standing, still being used, even though the Jedi left during the Clone Wars, I tell him. Do you think our problem Jedi is one from that who wasn’t caught?

I don’t know, he admits, but I don’t think that’s possible. Your husband was pretty efficient at eliminating any Jedi who escaped the purges. Besides, why would he stay so close to Coruscant, on a world where he would easily be noticed?

You’re probably right, I concede, a bit disappointed that my idea was wrong. It’s more likely that this is someone who was hiding elsewhere and only came here recently.

I could go scout around and track him down for you, my brother offers. He shouldn’t be that hard for me to find, and once we know where he is, you could send Thirsk and the Noghri after him.

Not a chance, I instantly axe that notion of his. Ani wants you to stay with Mikal, and you had better do exactly that.

I sense him preparing to argue with me and insist that he should go regardless of the Sith Lord’s orders, but for once my brother shuts up about it. He knows he won’t win and that there is no point in pressing the issue. And while Michael’s proposal sounds tempting, the last thing I need is for him to take off and have the Jedi show up while he is gone. Secretly, though, I am hoping that the Jedi does appear again. Being confronted by my brother should put a good scare into him. Then my bodyguards or Ani can deal with him.

For a few more minutes, I read the rest of the entry on the Jedi Chapterhouse. It isn’t that far from the Governor’s residence. Perhaps someone should go have a look. A yawn escapes from me despite my attempt to stop it. Right now, checking out the Chapterhouse will have to wait. I am sleepy at last, so I return to bed and shut off the lights.


The Terror, Imdaar, Outer Rim, Year 3, Month 9.

DAY 16

***

While I wait for the Terror to dock with the shipyard, I stare out at Imdaar’s largest moon. Grand Admiral Batch’s research and manufacturing facility is below, protected by minefields and shields. The Admiral is a brilliant, if reclusive, engineer. How unfortunate his first attempt, powered by hibridium ore from Garos, worked as a double-blind, rendering both the ship with cloaking device and its opponents invisible to one another. The stygium crystals necessary to hide the Terror, Scimitar, and TIE Phantoms are a rare commodity and are found only on Aeten II - were found on Aeten II - I correct myself. Batch used the Tarkin’s laser to destroy that planet, turning it into rubble to gain access to the crystals he needed for this project.

I half-hear a supply shuttle asking for permission to board and the traffic controller’s confirmation of its codes before the Terror decloaks to give them access. Another officer begins the shipyard docking procedure. None of this is of concern to me, so I resume my meditations.

A few minutes later, the sound of a full-scale intruder alert breaks my train of thought.

‘What is going on, Admiral?’ I ask Sarn as I turn to face him.

‘Two rebels disguised as stormtroopers were on the supply shuttle, my Lord,’ he quickly replies. ‘They landed in Docking Bay 4 and are attempting to get to the Main Hangar.’

‘The hangar where the TIE Phantoms are,’ I flatly state.

This is exactly what I expected the rebels to do - sneak aboard and try to steal one of the new fighters. I feel a smile start to appear, but don’t let my amusement show. The rebels will soon find out soon enough that even if they succeed in their act of thievery, it won’t gain them anything.

‘They won’t make it that far,’ Sarn reassures me. ‘My men will capture them first.’

‘You had better hope that they do, Admiral,’ I warn him, shaking my finger in his face.

Then I turn back to the view I was studying earlier and pretend to ignore the reports which are coming in. For a while, the rebels manage to hide, but they are soon discovered and shoot their way into a maintenance lift which takes them to the Main Hangar. How typical. I just knew Sarn’s crew wouldn’t do their jobs.

Frantic voices fill the air as the uproar in the hangar is broadcast over the bridge comm. The rebels have managed to steal a TIE Phantom and are now busy trying to escape with it. I debate telling the Admiral what I have planned, then decide not to. Let him bear the brunt of what his incompetence will bring him.

‘They’ve entered the service corridors,’ I hear one of the crew note, ‘and are headed for the main reactor.’

I clasp my hands behind my back, prepare to brace myself, and patiently wait for what I suspect will happen next.

A low rumble echoes throughout the ship before it bucks hard as the shielding around the reactor collapses. Admiral Sarn is tossed to the floor while I remain standing, calmly, expectantly, for him to tell me what I already know. He soon regains his feet, and quickly checks on the pursuit and state of his ship.

‘Yes, Admiral?’ I prompt once he has had enough time to evaluate the situation.

‘They’ve escaped, my lord,’ he admits.

I stay silent.

‘And we can’t stop the chain reaction they started in the main reactor or disengage from dry dock,’ Sarn adds.

I freeze in place. The Terror is defenceless, disabled, and immobile. It will soon self-destruct since the explosion which is imminent cannot be contained.

Slowly, deliberately, I turn to face Sarn. He swallows hard and goes pale as he tries to meet the lenses of my mask with his eyes. I don’t bother saying another word to him or waste time executing him in my usual fashion - I simply reach out with the Force and snap his neck.

‘Send the evacuation code signal,’ I order the comm officer. ‘Clear the ship, then get yourselves to the escape pods.’

As the last of the bridge crew scramble for safety, I step around Sarn’s body and head for my TIE. There is no need to panic. I know exactly how much time I have before the reactor goes critical. At least I now have a good excuse to leave, I think ironically. No more TIE Phantoms to test and no more Admiral Sarn to supervise.

It isn’t until I am at a distance, watching the Terror explode, destroying the shipyard and space station with it, that it occurs to me that my family’s absence has been a blessing in disguise. For a long time, I brood about that. Did my master know this was going to happen? Did he keep Maia and the children at Imperial Center deliberately, to protect them? His ability to see into and manipulate the future often exceeds my own.

With a touch I activate the Holonet in my TIE, using the research facility at Dreighton to boost the signal.

‘My master,’ I greet the Emperor when he appears.

‘Lord Vader,’ he replies, ‘and in your fighter. What has happened?’

‘The Terror is no more, the TIE Phantom’s have been destroyed, and the rebels escaped with one of them,’ I succinctly summarize the situation.

Palpatine says nothing for a moment, then suggests, ‘I would hope you have a means to deprive the rebels of their prize, Lord Vader.’

I say nothing, simply touch the switch on the device I had Chief Engineer G’vath install. It will send a self-destruct signal to any TIE Phantom which has survived. The rebels will not have had enough time to disable it or to start examining the cloaking device.

‘Done,’ I confirm. ‘Destroyed by remote detonation.’

‘Return to Imperial Center. I will expect a full report after you are back,’ he curtly orders, not waiting for my acknowledgement before terminating the signal.

‘How rude,’ I growl to myself as I give the nav-computer its instructions.

At least I am returning long before he expected me to, though the circumstances could be better.

Maia, I call to my wife as hyperspace fills the transparisteel in front of me, I will be home soon and will meet you when your shuttle arrives.

***

My brother’s invisible, restless stalking of the area immediately around Mikal’s room is beginning to unsettle my bodyguards and staff who can’t see him but can still slightly sense him. So the next time an uncharacteristically anxious appearing Cyran looks in on me, I decide to do something about it.

Would you please stop that, I admonish him, trying to stop his pacing about. You are making everyone nervous. Do you really want to draw attention to yourself?

Michael becomes visible before he flops into the chair across from me. My brother is wearing his Sith Lord robes for a change. If he is accidentally seen, no one should confuse him with the Jedi. By his demeanor, though, I suspect he is thoroughly bored with keeping an eye on his nephew, and would rather be elsewhere, doing something more ‘useful.’ Giving him my best annoyed look, I select a slice from my bowl of freshly imported shuura fruit. Rhinnal is too cold to grow the delicacies I am busy eating.

Maia...

No, I cut him off before he has a chance to raise his suggestion from last night again.

But...

I said ‘no,’ I remind him. For once you are going to stay here and do as Ani has ordered.

From the look on his face, my brother is not at all impressed by my husband’s edict. I am sure that the second I am distracted, and he has an opportunity to sneak away, Michael will be off chasing the Jedi.

You are going after the Jedi, despite what the risks are, and despite the fact that Anakin will be furious with you for doing it, I state, although I am fairly certain this is exactly what he has decided to do.

Michael simply flashes his triumphant ‘I told you so’ grin in reply and vanishes.

I let out a sigh of defeat and set my fork down. For a moment, I stare at the remaining tempting dishes on the table, then give my head a shake. After my restless night, I don’t want to eat too much and make myself sick.

Why me? I ask myself as I get up and head for the fresher to have my morning soak. What did I do to earn having two exceedingly stubborn men in my life? I know if the situation were reversed that I would be hearing exactly the same arguments from Ani as I am from Michael. But in this instance, my brother has probably acted far more responsibly than my husband would. The Sith Lord would have left last night and gone on a ‘Jedi hunt’ immediately rather than stay around to guard Mikal until morning. With a touch, I set the water temperature and watch the sunken bath fill. I just hope Michael finds the Jedi quickly, before he decides to pay us another visit.

After unravelling my hair, I let my robe and nightgown fall to the floor, and lower myself into the warm water. The heat makes me a little drowsy but I refuse to give in to that. There is too much to do today and I need to be alert, especially since my brother won’t be here to help detect the Jedi before he becomes a problem.

Puzzlement wrinkles my forehead as something occurs to me. Thirsk is convinced that the Jedi is dangerous, but all he has done is spy on us. Why? If our mystery man was going to try grabbing Mikal, wouldn’t he have stayed in hiding until there were fewer witnesses present? Shouldn’t he have waited for the best opportunity, with the least risk of discovery? His behaviour makes absolutely no sense.

Another thought prompts me to sit bolt upright, sending water everywhere. My empathy is always in overdrive when I am pregnant. I should be able to easily sense this Jedi as a distinct threat, but he is not triggering that in me and I am having trouble even feeling his Force presence. Could he have a method for concealing himself with the Force, like Ani does at times?

I rapidly pull myself out of the water, dry off, and dress in my ‘working clothes,’ not one of my gowns. My lightsaber gets a new, fully charged powercell before being clipped on my belt. It’s best to be prepared. If this Jedi can hide himself from my empathy, then I seriously doubt that Michael will be capable of tracking him. And I won’t be able to provide my bodyguards with any advance warning either.

***

A jolt of surprise jars me from my sleep. Something has just startled or unsettled my wife to the point where it has affected me as well.

Maia? I call to her, but there is no answer.

She must be too preoccupied to notice me.

Pushing myself a bit more upright in my TIE’s seat, I check on the nav computer. I am almost at the last transfer point. If I am to change my flight plan, I will have only a few minutes to make that decision. But there is nothing to debate, really. My family needs me. My master and his orders can wait. Whatever punishment he inflicts on me for defying him, I will accept.

When my fighter drops from hyperspace, I break into the flight program, changing the co-ordinates for the final jump.

I should be at Rhinnal in two hours. Hopefully I will arrive before the situation gets too far out of hand, or my family is put in more danger than they already are.

***

Mikal doesn’t look up when I go to check on him. He’s been busy trying to figure out what he can and can’t get Arfour to do from what I can see.

‘Mother, can I go play in the snow with Commander Rik?’ he asks once he realizes I am watching him.

I let out a sigh. My son only uses the more formal address when he really wants something, but going outside will just make it easier for the Jedi to get close to us. It isn’t fair, but my children will have to stay indoors until we leave. Making Mikal understand and accept that, though, won’t be easy.

‘I’m sorry, sweety,’ I tell him, ‘but it isn’t safe to go outside right now.’

The unhappy pout appears instantly. I know he wants to chase around and throw snowballs at our bodyguards who are his favorite targets.

‘We have to wait for Commander Thirsk to say it is safe,’ I try capitulating a little bit.

My security chief won’t take any risks. Mikal’s playtime will just have to wait, despite what my son wants. The look on his face doesn’t change as he half-heartedly pokes at Arfour’s buttons. The droid wisely rolls back a little, out of his easy reach.

Maybe I need to come up with an alternative source of entertainment for him. I still need to go find out what connection the Jedi Chapterhouse might have with our problem Jedi. It’s nearby and it shouldn’t take very long to get the information I want. Perhaps Cyran will take Mikal for another walk around the Governor’s mansion.

‘Would you like to play with Cyran for a few minutes before we have lunch? You could go finish looking at Governor Kole’s collection of oddities,’ I offer. ‘Mommy has an errand to run, but will be back soon.’

He stops poking at the droid for a moment, then slowly nods, before following after Arfour. Typical two year old, I note, amused. Mikal won’t give up until he has figured out exactly what all of the droid’s buttons do. It’s a good thing Thirsk programmed the R4 units watching my children to move away from them in response to anything they might try, and to alert the Commander if they are too persistent. The twins aren’t a worry, but Mikal has an insatiable sense of curiosity and poor Arfour will be on the receiving end of that for quite some time to come.

‘Come along, then,’ I tell him, holding out my hand which he quickly takes. ‘Maybe the Governor will tell you some stories about what he has brought home from the other planets he’s visited.’

Only a few minutes are required to track down my aide and send her off exploring with Mikal - Arfour, two Noghri, and Rik in tow behind them. They are going to the library and small museum where Governor Kole keeps his collection of antiques from off-world. Hopefully that will be both educational and a bit of a distraction for my son.

‘I’ll follow after them and stay out of sight,’ Thirsk reassures me when he sees that I am still a bit worried. ‘If anything happens, I will comm you immediately, my Lady.’

I nod in answer. The Noghri will blend into the shadows, leading anyone watching to think Cyran and Mikal are alone except for Arfour and Rik, while Thirsk will act as a back-up.

‘I still don’t like it,’ I admit, ‘but I guess there isn’t much choice.’

His lips form a firm, grim line. He doesn’t like the situation or the plan to deal with the Jedi that we came up with after breakfast, either. The alternatives, however, were far more dangerous.

‘And,’ I reveal, tipping my head and smiling as I sense someone else in the vicinity, ‘I think you may have some unexpected help.’

Before I can be questioned about who I am referring to, I spin about and make my way to the main entrance to the mansion. If the Jedi is busy watching who is where, he will see me leave. I pick up my pace once I am out on the street. In my nondescript black tunic and leggings, and with the hood of my cloak pulled up to hide my face, no one should recognize who I am. Someone with the Force, though, will know exactly who has just crossed the street and is heading east along the road parallel to the river, towards the old Chapterhouse.

***

The stars cease being streaks of light and resolve into their more familiar points as my TIE drops from hyperspace at last. Rhinnal fills the cockpit’s main window, a blue and green world framed by brilliant white polar caps. The planetary short range sensors should detect my fighter in another minute. While I wait to be hailed, I will find out what is going on.

Activating the comm, I expect a delay before Jix answers, but he responds in only a few seconds.

‘Hi Uncle Dee,’ he whispers. ‘Had a good flight? I assume you just got here and are waiting to land.’

‘Jix,’ I growl at him, impatient for some news. ‘What is going on down there?’

‘Your son is busy asking Governor Kole every annoying question he can think of,’ he answers, obviously trying not to laugh too loud.

‘And?’ I prod.

Hearing that Mikal is safe is a relief, but not the first thing I wanted to know.

‘There’s been no sign of the Jedi you were worried about,’ Jix admits, ‘and I am doing my best to be an inconspicuous and bored janitor. Kole’s cleaning staff are pretty lax when it comes to dusting.’

When he starts a sneezing fit, I move to shut off the comm but something stops me.

No sign of the Jedi? I would have expected him to be close by, waiting for a chance to grab Mikal. This doesn’t fit with his previous pattern of behaviour. So, where could he be?

My intuition gives me a possible answer. Knowledge of my wife’s habit of getting herself into trouble makes it almost a certainty.

Oh, no.

‘Jix,’ I calmly ask, keeping the concern I am feeling out of my voice, ‘where is my wife?’

Dead silence.

‘She went out on a quick errand,’ he replies, realization dawning from his tone, ‘to the old Jedi Chapterhouse, in fact.’

Sithspit.

‘Unaccompanied?’ I prod.

Surely Maia had enough sense to take someone with her.

No answer from Jix other than a few choice Huttese curses. He has knocked over some knick-knack from the sounds the comlink is making and is trying to keep it from ending up in pieces on the floor.

‘She went alone, thinking no one would recognize her,’ I flatly state, ‘and Ghazhak has opted to shadow her.’

‘Uhm, yes, Uncle Dee,’ Jix confirms at last. ‘I saw one Noghri slip out after her.’

The main panel flashes. Planetary traffic control has recognized my TIE’s beacon and is transmitting landing instructions.

‘Stay with Mikal, Jix’ I order. ‘I will go see to my wife.’

I don’t wait for him to react before I shut off the comm. To save time, I push the sublight engines as hard as I safely can through Rhinnal’s atmosphere. I can only hope I will get to Maia before the Jedi does.

***

As I pull my cloak tighter around myself to keep the cold wind away from my body, I step backwards into the shadows and survey the area around the Chapterhouse. It isn’t as big as I expected it to be. I know it is used as a hospital and holds about one hundred patients. Once we are inside, it shouldn’t take long to search the place. I hesitate a moment longer and stare at the weathered stone facade. The solidly built spires on each corner remind me of a building I have seen elsewhere, but I cannot recall where or what it was.

I give my head a frustrated shake. More and more frequently, my fragmented memories are giving me strange clues. Few of them make much sense, and most leave me with the feeling that I am missing something important. Perhaps my brother might be willing to explain to me why the Chapterhouse seems so familiar to me, if he decides to make an appearance, that is.

‘Mal’ary’ush,’ Ghazhak says as he comes up beside me. ‘The Jedi is nowhere in sight.’

His use of my Noghri title brings a smile. My bodyguards have taken to using that in public when I am trying to be incognito. No one attempting to eavesdrop or anyone accidentally overhearing our conversation will recognize it.

‘I should hurry,’ I decide. ‘If he is here, he won’t wait long to show himself.’

Ghazhak smiles in anticipation. He’s the only one of my bodyguards who got a close look at the Jedi, which is why he is with me now. I know he wants to test himself against a type of foe he’s never dealt with before. Despite his proven defensive skills, I can’t help worrying a bit for his safety.

Glancing about the square again, I start to make my way across it, to the Chapterhouse’s main entrance. I know my bodyguard will be following close behind, so I concentrate on being as nonchalant as I can. Wealthy off-world patients often stay here. I shouldn’t draw anymore attention than anyone else from the Core - at least not until I start talking. Then, my peculiar accent will mark me as being from some outlying world. But those who are curious will probably be staring at Ghazhak, not me.

To my surprise, I am not challenged or asked for my identification. Proximity sensors simply slide the door open in front of me. I doubt getting past the reception area will be as easy. While I wait for my Noghri companion to catch up, I look about the room. The ceiling is high and vaulted, and there is no decoration, no expensive artwork to break the monotony of the grey stone walls. Bland and as inoffensive as possible seems to be the style in question.

Rather than having a droid receptionist, a middle aged man dressed in a green and blue uniform is standing at the desk. His eyes narrow as he tries to peer beneath my concealing hood.

‘May I help you?’ he finally asks.

Behind me, I hear a battle cry from Ghazhak.

‘Jedi!’ he yells as he leaps at the receptionist.

Too startled to do anything else, I drop to the floor, using the desk as cover, and peer around its corner to see what happens. I watch speechlessly as the man runs, screaming at the top of his lungs, through a set of doors which close and lock behind him. They almost crush my bodyguard, who is in hot pursuit, before he can jump back to avoid them.

‘Him,’ the Noghri growls as he prods at the door’s control panel, obviously frustrated by his quarry’s escape. ‘Was him.’

I let out a sigh as I get up off the floor. Ghazhak should have waited until we knew a bit more about whoever this is before going after him. Oh, well. Thirsk was right about him probably being disguised and right in plain sight. I just didn’t expect the Jedi to be the first person we would meet here. Too late to change things now, I decide. We did do what the plan required, and flushed the Jedi from his hiding spot, even if it didn’t quite go as anticipated. Still, his reaction was definitely not one I would have expected from a Jedi, and he didn’t have an obvious Force presence, either.

‘Well,’ I note, ‘he’s gone now, and he probably won’t be back anytime soon.’

While I am dusting myself off, the door opens, revealing a rather upset doctor. She blocks my bodyguard’s attempt to get around her long enough for the door to shut and lock again. From the way she is standing, hands on hips, and what I can sense, we are about to be thrown off the premises.

‘I don’t know who you people are,’ she snaps, ‘but I don’t appreciate my staff being attacked.’

Ghazhak glares at her.

I give him a warning to back off by hand signal. There is no reason to escalate this into a confrontation - at least not yet. Playing the pair of ignorant Outer Rim bumpkins is the way to go, I decide, since that usually works when I need to get myself out of trouble.

‘I apologize for my companion’s,...’ I hesitate, trying to think of an appropriate word to use, ‘...enthusiasm. The prospect of meeting a Jedi, you see, and the tour guide on the data chip did say....’

The doctor lets out a snort of contempt.

That explanation must have sounded as lame as I thought it did, or maybe it’s my strange accent.

‘The last Jedi left here more than two decades ago. You are far too late,’ she states, still angry. ‘Now leave, before I call security and have you removed.’

I wave Ghazhak towards the door and ignore the pair of hostile eyes I can feel on my back as we go.

Once we are outside, I return to where we had first stopped to study the Chapterhouse, in the shade of the building across the square from it. I pace back and forth for a few minutes, worrying away at what to do next.

That doctor knows something, I am sure of it, or she is protecting someone. What doesn’t make sense is the Jedi’s actions. Why didn’t he stay and try bluffing his way out of the situation? Or use the Force? Or...

‘Mal’ary’ush,’ my Noghri companion hisses at me.

I stop my restless wandering and look in the same direction he is.

There is our Jedi, apparently unaware we are nearby, and he is wearing his robes and lightsaber, instead of the medical uniform. So much for him being nondescript and inconspicuous. Perhaps he thinks there is no need to disguise himself any longer? As we watch, he slips from one area of shadow to the next, staying out of sight as much as he can, while obviously heading west, towards the Governor’s mansion. My inability to sense his Force presence, other than the odd flicker, still bothers me, but we know where he is going. It’s time for the next part of the plan.

***

That was not the best landing I have ever made, I note as the TIE stops rather abruptly, but I don’t have any time to waste. Throwing the cockpit hatch back, I get up, pull myself out, and take a quick look around once I am on the ground. Turning the Governor’s front lawn into a landing area has already drawn the attention of his guards and the locals in the area.

I decide I am not going to risk being distracted and try to get a fix on my wife with the Force before anyone can get too close. She’s calm and a bit annoyed at someone, but has sensed that I am here. If Maia was in trouble, I am sure she would tell me, so I should have a few minutes to determine exactly what is going on.

As I continue to reach out through the Force, I find that there is no ripple, no signature, of any Force users other than myself, my wife, my son, and my brother-in-law, the pest, in the immediate area. It is as Maia had warned me. The Jedi is masking himself. Still, it shouldn’t be too difficult to coerce him into revealing himself. I just need to set out the appropriate bait.

‘Lord Vader,’ I hear Governor Kole’s distinctive voice behind me. ‘What an unexpected pleasure.’

I slowly turn around, set my hands on my hips, and gaze down at him. That was fast. He must have been in his residence, and close to its main entrance, too, to reach me as quickly as he did. Following after him are a few of his staff, four troopers, Cyran, Rik, an R4 unit, and two Noghri, Thirsk and Jix, all four of whom are doing their best to not be noticed. The last member of the group is a short red-head wearing a new, dark grey cloak.

‘Daddy!’ my son shouts before launching himself at me.

Protocol, I note as I catch and lift him up in my arms, is wasted on two-year olds - especially two-year olds whose father is a Sith Lord.

‘Hello, son,’ I say to him, hoping to dampen his enthusiasm a little when he wraps his arms tightly around my neck.

It doesn’t do any good.

‘Daddy, daddy, I saw a Jedi!’ Mikal tells me, bouncing a little as I try to hang on to him.

So much for keeping that piece of information secret. Somehow I stop a sigh. Just like his mother, my two-year old seems to specialize in making my life interesting.

The surprised expression on Kole’s face reveals that he hasn’t heard about the Jedi.

‘Jedi?’ the governor asks, looking a bit puzzled. ‘There’s no Jedi here. There hasn’t been a Jedi here in decades, my Lord.’

‘Yet I have received information to the contrary,’ I calmly state as I set Mikal down and take his hand. ‘Tell me Governor Kole, who should I believe - my wife, my son, and their security staff or you?’

He has the decency to go a shade or two paler at that.

‘I can assure you, my Lord,’ Kole stammers nervously, ‘that there has not been a real Jedi here in years.’

Mikal pulls on me, but I ignore him.

‘You had better hope that is true, for your sake, Governor,’ I warn, shaking my finger at him.

The tugs on my hand grow more insistent.

‘Daddy,’ he whispers rather loudly.

‘Not now, Mikal,’ I scold.

‘But daddy,’ he continues.

‘Not now,’ I repeat.

‘My Lord,’ Cyran quietly says, nodding her head in the direction Mikal is staring, ‘you need to take a look.’

When I do, I see a Jedi, skulking in the alleyway, trying his best to hide using what little cover is available to him.

***

‘Let’s follow him,’ I suggest to Ghazhak. ‘If we are careful, he shouldn’t realize what we are doing.’

My companion grins in answer, so we wait until the Jedi has moved on a little before trailing at a safe distance after him. He pays us no attention, which has me wondering what sort of Jedi he is. Certainly he seems to be a rather inept one since he should have sensed me by now.

When a TIE streaks overhead, I stop and look upwards, recognizing it instantly. As I watch it slowly descend a few streets away, a smile crosses my face. I know exactly who has just arrived. Trust Ani to not pass up a chance at an adventure. He should have some fun with this, I decide, as I start after the Jedi again.

It isn’t until I am in sight of the Governor’s residence and can see the Sith Lord with our son and Governor Kole that I realize Ghazhak is no longer behind me. When I turn to see what has happened to him, I am grabbed, my arms pinned to my sides, and a hand firmly set over my mouth.

‘Not a sound, Lady Vader,’ a low, gravelly male voice warns next to my ear, ‘and no Force tricks, either.’

I nod my agreement. Wait and see who this is and what they want, I decide, before trying anything. His hand leaves my face and tugs at my belt, removing my saber from its hook. So much for using that in an escape attempt. While I consider my options, he drags me into the shadows, past Ghazhak who is unconscious on the ground, and away from where I can see what is going on.

***

‘Jedi,’ I hiss, furious, as I stalk towards whoever this is.

No one terrorizes my family and gets away with it, and there is no need to contain my fury. Cyran has taken Mikal back inside the Governor’s Residence. My son will be well guarded and he won’t witness any of what I plan to do.

For a moment the Jedi stands there, simply looking at me. When he finally bolts, I move to pursue him.

Then I hear Maia’s call for help.

***

Ani, I call to my husband when I see him run after the Jedi, passing right in front of where I am being held prisoner.

The Sith Lord stops instantly, letting the object of his pursuit escape. His helmet swings around as he tries to determine my location. I decide to let him know where I am and make life difficult for my captor, too.

I double over as if in pain. When the man holding me lets his grip loosen a little in response, I cross my hands over my stomach and moan. My tactics don’t prompt him to free me entirely, and he continues to tightly hold onto my upper arms. Rats.

Ani, though, has spotted us.

‘Master Tholme,’ he growls.

What?

I twist just enough to get a look at my captor’s face. The hood of his cloak has fallen back. He’s human and quite old. His hair is silvered grey, and his right eye is green while the left is artificial and blue. A terrible scar runs vertically down the left side of his face, bisecting his eyebrow.

There were two Jedi, not one?

‘Hello, Anakin,’ he calmly addresses my husband.

‘Let her go, Tholme,’ Ani orders, ignoring the fact that the Jedi has used his old name.

I decide to see if I can give him a good reason to release me, and moan again, this time using my empathy to project a bit of pain at the same time. After two labours and three births, I know how to fake the early stages. Tholme obviously felt my false labour pains because he does loosen his grip a little more. The Sith Lord inhales sharply in reaction as well.

‘Let her go, Tholme,’ Ani repeats. ‘The stress of the situation has triggered her labour far too early and I need to get her to a Med Center.’

Somehow I know this is not the position the Jedi Master had intended to find himself in, but I don’t have any safe way to let Ani know my labour pains are a ruse. If I use our bond, he might change how he is acting, even subconsciously, and give my trick away.

‘Please let me go,’ I try pleading a little, groaning a bit more as I do so.

It doesn’t work. Either Tholme doesn’t believe my act or he doesn’t care.

‘Sorry, my Lady,’ he apologizes, ‘but you are the only way I can catch a renegade Jedi. As soon as I have him in custody, I will let you go.’

I shoot my husband a concerned look. He’s grabbed me to catch Ani?

‘Don’t be insulting,’ the Sith Lord snaps in return. ‘If you think I will just surrender and walk away with you, then think again.’

‘You?’ Tholme replies with a touch of contempt. ‘Certainly not. Calling you a Jedi is an affront to the Order.’

Confused now, I shift my eyes back and forth between the two of them. This is making less sense every minute. First he spies on us, obviously after Mikal, then he grabs me to get at someone else who isn’t Ani?

‘Who are you talking about?’ I finally blurt out in frustration. ‘That other Jedi who is running around?’

‘Imono Durshana is no Jedi,’ he reveals. ‘He only pretends to be one when he isn’t working, but he was a useful decoy.’

Then who?

The answer occurs to me in a flash. There’s only one other person it could be.

Michael.

The Jedi have decided to do something about my meddling big brother at last. He once told me it was only a matter of time before they tried to rein him in.

You need to get out of here, Michael, I send out to him, hoping he is around and paying attention to what is happening. The Jedi are after you, not Ani or Mikal or I.

***

I hear Maia’s telepathic warning to her brother, but give no indication I know what she has said to him.

How typical. The pest has created another mess for me to sort out. After this, if I can find a way to lock him up for a few years, I most certainly will do so. At the moment, though, someone else is of more concern to me.

‘There is no other Jedi here,’ I growl as I walk towards them, ‘so stop wasting time and let my wife go.’

Maia inhales loudly enough for me to hear it and I feel another spike of pain from her.

So does Tholme.

He doesn’t like holding a woman in labour hostage from the warring expressions I can see on his face, but he is also determined to get who he has come here for, regardless of the cost. Appealing to his charitable side isn’t going to work.

‘I would disagree with you about the Jedi,’ he retorts. ‘You know exactly who I mean, and the faster he surrenders or the quicker you bring him to me, the sooner I will let her go.’

A snort escapes before I can stop it. Get Maia’s brother to voluntarily appear and willingly co-operate? Now that would be a first. I cross my arms over my chest and glare at Tholme.

‘This is pointless,’ I angrily state, drawing closer, bringing myself within a couple meters .

When Tholme tries to step backwards, to widen the distance between us, Maia moves uncomfortably, shifting her weight from one foot to the other. She must be getting cramps down her legs like she did just before the twins were born. I need to get her away from him and to the Maternity Hospital. There’s still three months to go in her pregnancy and even on Rhinnal, with all the advanced medical facilities which are here, our second son might not survive if he is born now.

Her restlessness prompts Tholme to reposition his hold on her, loosening his hands for a second. In that instant, Maia slams both her elbows back, into his stomach, taking him completely off guard. Not even a Jedi Master can avoid reflexively gasping for air and doubling over when someone does that to him and he has no warning. As she hurls herself forward, I light my saber, catch her hand, and swing her around, putting myself and my blade between my wife and the now recovered Tholme.

‘Well done, my Lady,’ I hear Thirsk praise from behind me.

His many patient lessons in self defense have more than paid off.

‘Get her to the Maternity Center, immediately,’ I order while my opponent moves into a ready stance, igniting his own lightsaber.

‘My Lady,’ Thirsk hints.

He’s trying to get her to leave before she can see anything which might be too upsetting for her.

‘But I’m fine,’ Maia protests. ‘It was only a ruse to get him to let me go.’

‘You will go to the Med Center anyway,’ I decide, easily blocking Tholme’s attempt to slip past me.

Trick or no trick, she’s had enough stress for one day. And the last thing my wife needs to watch is a duel where I intend to make Tholme more than pay for potentially causing her harm.

‘My Lady,’ Thirsk calls to her again.

I know she isn’t very happy with being ordered away, but she doesn’t voice any further objections. When I rotate on my heels in answer to the Jedi Master changing his own position, I can see Thirsk and Rik on either side of her, with a squad of troopers surrounding them, heading back towards the Governor’s residence.

Good.

Thirsk will make sure she is seen to.

My attention shifts back to Tholme.

Time to dispose of one Jedi Master.

***

I wait until Ani’s attention is focussed back on the Jedi before coming to a dead stop. There is no way I am going to leave him alone, not after his last encounter with Luke. Considering what his essentially untrained son was able to do, I can just imagine what Tholme is capable of, and I want to avoid patching my husband up or dragging him into the nearest Med Lab.

‘My Lady, we need to do as his Lordship has ordered,’ Thirsk patiently tries to get me to move in the direction of the requisite hospital.

My stubborn streak rears its head for the first time in months.

‘No,’ I firmly refuse. ‘He should have some back-up.’

When my body guard’s expression starts to become a bit exasperated, I set my hands on my hips and give him the same look Ani uses on me at times. The Sith Lord is the only person I haven’t been able to out-stubborn, even when I have set my mind to doing so. I know if I choose to dig in my heels about this, Commander Thirsk won’t have a chance against me.

‘I’ll send Jixton and Rik to aid his Lordship once you have been seen to,’ he gives in a little.

I move my hands from my hips and cross my arms over my chest. Thirsk should know by now that I expect to be the one to keep an eye on my husband. But before I can come up with another argument for why I should stay to watch the duel, two things happen at the same time - Tholme finally manages to get past Ani and starts running south, towards the river, and Michael arrives, dressed in his black Sith Lord robes, towing the ersatz Jedi behind him.

‘I’ve caught him for you,’ my brother happily crows. ‘He was hiding near the old Chapterhouse and thought I wouldn’t find him, but I did!’

Somehow I refrain from pushing past him and going in pursuit of my husband, who is quickly disappearing down the alley as he chases after the Jedi Master.

‘He isn’t a Jedi,’ I inform Michael as I point at Ani’s rapidly retreating back. ‘The real Jedi, the one Lord Vader is after, was using him to distract us.’

My brother doesn’t waste anytime shoving the man I assume is Imono Durshana at the troopers. He then spins about and takes off after the Jedi Master and Sith Lord, who have a fairly good head start on him.

‘I’ll go see what I can do to help,’ Michael offers over his shoulder.

‘Wait!’ I yell at him, but he doesn’t seem to hear me. ‘That Jedi is trying to catch you!’

My brother doesn’t slow down at all. Obviously he thinks Tholme isn’t a threat to him. At least he had the sense to not pull one of his vanishing acts in front of everyone, leaving me with some explaining to do.

Thirsk and I exchange knowing looks.

‘We had better go after them,’ he ironically notes, ‘before his lordship and that brother of yours can create even more chaos.’

It doesn’t take Rik very long to go get the hover car, but every second I am forced to wait makes me that much more anxious. After our transport arrives and we are off, I use my senses to track my husband, like I did on Mimban, and give Rik directions, urging him to go as fast as is safe.

I just know Ani is busy getting himself into trouble.

***

Tholme dodges around one of the locals who doesn’t move quickly enough. I don’t bother trying to avoid the man and simply shove him aside. There is no way I am letting the Jedi Master get away from me.

When Tholme finally slows, then stops, I take advantage of the pause to adjust the settings on my life support control box. The chase has taxed my systems and I need to increase my respiration rate.

‘There is no escape, Jedi,’ I growl as I point a finger at him and reignite my saber.

No, he has truly trapped himself this time. The only place he can go is over the embankment and onto the frozen river. With the early spring thaw, which is evident from the cracks in the ice, it would be suicide to try crossing it.

We stand there, each waiting for the other to do something, for a few minutes. Tholme was old when I met him years ago and is ancient now. He is as winded as I am and is waiting to catch his breath before engaging in a duel. Once he has recovered a little, rather than reaching for his own lightsaber as I expect him to, Tholme fumbles at his robe, pulling what appears to be a small holocron from inside of it. He then gives me that same knowing smile which Obi-Wan did just before I killed him. I am sure my old master was gloating about Luke, but why is Tholme looking so smug?

‘Need some help?’ Michael cheerfully volunteers from behind me.

Kreth.

Having him show up is the last thing I need.

‘You are a menace and a pest,’ I tell him. ‘Go away and bother somebody else.’

‘At least we both agree about that,’ Tholme concurs in return, throwing the holocron in my direction.

I duck and let it fly over my head. That was a pretty stupid move on his part. Then I feel a wrench in the Force and hear my wife’s horrified scream. When I turn my head to see what the problem is, there is no sign of Michael, only my wife, the holocron held tight to her chest, with Thirsk standing beside her, and Rik in the driver’s seat of hover car they must have come in.

Maia? I ask.

I need to know what prompted such a reaction from her.

She doesn’t answer immediately, but concentrates on the holocron, setting it against her cheek, apparently attempting to contact her brother.

I think Michael’s inside it, Maia finally tells me.

We’ll see to him later, I decide.

‘My lord,’ Thirsk prompts.

I focus my attention back on Tholme. He now has another offense to answer for - attempted ghostnapping.

***

When Rik stops the hover car, I get out and go to join Michael, who had arrived ahead of us and must have been watching the two combatants for a few minutes.

‘Need some help?’ my brother offers.

That won’t win him any points with my husband. I take another step closer. It’s important that I get Michael to disappear before the Jedi does something to him.

‘You are a menace and a pest,’ Ani snaps at him. ‘Go away and bother somebody else.’

‘At least we both agree about that,’ the Jedi admits.

I see Tholme throw something at Ani, but my husband moves out of the way to avoid it.

Michael doesn’t.

Whatever the object is, it hits my brother square in the chest, but it doesn’t pass through him or fall to the ground after striking him. Instead, it stays there, stuck to his front. For a second, Michael looks surprised, then there is a brilliant flash and he is gone. In that instant, the bond with my brother stretches and almost vanishes. The shock of that causes me to sway a little, until Thirsk’s hand on my arm steadies me.

Bending down, I pick up the silver and black pyramid which smacked my brother and hold it to my chest. Stretching out with the Force, I try to find him without any success. I don’t know what the Jedi has done, but my brother is no longer detectable using the Force, and I can only sense him faintly with our bond.

Michael? I desperately call out to him.

There is no answer, no echo of reassurance from him, absolutely nothing to tell me he still exists.

He’s gone. Really, truly gone this time. And I was too late to save him.

I can’t stop a slightly hysterical scream from escaping.

Ani turns to look at me.

Maia? he asks, his concern apparent over our lifebond.

I take a deep breath to calm myself. If I am going to figure out what happened to my brother, I need to give my brain and intuition a chance to work. Suspicious of what the Jedi might have done, I bring the pyramid to my cheek and poke at it with my empathy. A familiar presence is trapped within.

Relieved to know where my brother is, I tell my husband, I think Michael’s inside it.

We’ll see to him later, he reassures me.

‘My lord,’ Thirsk warns, letting Ani know there is someone else who needs to be seen to.

My husband turns back to the Jedi, who, no doubt, will be on the receiving end of what one angry Sith Lord will do once provoked.

Tholme, who has turned his lightsaber on, merely stands there, calmly watching Ani. I glare at the Jedi Master. Besides being guilty of hurting Michael, he still has the saber my husband made for me and I want that back.

‘You have quite a few things to answer for, Jedi,’ Ani hisses at him, stalking like a predator towards his trapped prey, ‘and there is no escape.’

His words prompt a flash of confused memory. It isn’t Tholme that brief vision shows battling my husband, but Luke, pinned to the floor by Ani’s blade at his throat. Somehow I know that what I have remembered is an event from the past, an echo of what has already happened. This is not part of my peculiar knowledge of the future which Ani was so determined to pry from the depths of my subconscious. During the few seconds I give my head a shake to clear it, so I can concentrate on the here and now, the Sith Lord’s saber connects with the Jedi’s.

The battle has been joined.

***

I easily parry Tholme’s attack, then prepare to try a feint. He gives me that same infuriating smile, then leaps backwards over the barrier and onto the ice below. Rushing forward, I look down, only to see him carefully making his way across the river, obviously with the intention of escape.

No Jedi is going to get away from me that easily.

Without a second thought, I shut off my saber and jump over the roadblock, intending to pursue him. A shudder makes its way through the ice under my feet when I land. The river’s frozen covering is not entirely stable, so I had best end this contest quickly. Slowly, cautiously, I set one foot after the other. Until I know just how dangerous it is, I will not risk moving too quickly.

Tholme has prudently slowed his progress as well.

‘You won’t escape from me, Jedi,’ I warn him once again.

He ignores me and continues his even, measured steps, only stopping when a popping noise begins close to where he is standing. It grows louder, building to a low rumble as a wide crack appears between Tholme and the other bank of the river. This is not good, not good at all.

The Jedi Master instantly reverses his direction in an attempt to stay ahead of the advancing fractures which are forming spider webs in the ice all around us.

Ani! Maia calls to me in a panic.

She’s watching from behind and above me, and can see that the ice is beginning to break up.

For a moment, I am torn between prudent retreat and reckless pursuit.

Then nature makes the choice for me.

The ice beneath Tholme gives way and he vanishes into the frigid water.

A second later, I join him.

***

‘Nooooo,’ I scream as Ani disappears beneath the ice, devoured by a crack which opened directly under his feet.

I can sense my husband is still alive, but that isn’t much consolation. He only has a few minutes of air inside his helmet and armour.

‘Do something, Thirsk!’ I order when the Commander restrains me from going over the barrier, down the embankment, and into the river myself.

‘Wait, my Lady,’ he tries to calm me, using his body to block my attempts to get past him. ‘Help is on the way.’

I hear Rik comming for a rescue team, but I know they won’t make it in time. If only Michael wasn’t trapped. He could have done something to aid Ani. Frustrated, I give the pyramid a shake, taking my feelings of helplessness out on it.

An ominous groaning comes from the river. The ice is starting to pile up, creating an even thicker layer above the Sith Lord.

‘Hurry,’ I whisper more to myself than anyone else. ‘Please hurry.’

I can sense that my husband is in trouble. He’s running out of air and has no way to get through the frozen ceiling above him. Fearing the worst and unable to watch the river any longer, I bury my face in Thirsk’s shoulder and wait for the inevitable.

When the sounds from below become explosive and ice fragments start to shower around us, I turn my head a little and peer carefully around the commando’s arm.

One very wet, very bedraggled Sith Lord is making his way towards us, using the Force to send chunks of ice flying away from his legs whenever they impede his movements. His cloak is gone, lost to the river, I guess. After he finally reaches the bank and is clear of the water, his soaked surcoat slaps noisily against his legs.

‘Thirsk,’ Ani growls in warning.

My bodyguard immediately lets me go.

‘I had to stop her from going in after you, my lord,’ he explains.

Expecting a public scolding for my behaviour, I do my best to look a bit contrite. Ani knows there is nothing between Thirsk and I other than friendship. He’s just making sure everybody else, including the rescue unit which has just arrived, understands exactly how things are.

‘This weapon is your life,’ Ani solemnly intones, holding my lightsaber out to me. ‘Next time, try not to lose it.’

He went after Tholme to get it back for me?

Stretching out my hand, I accept it from him, and ignoring protocol, the cold, and my audience, I go to embrace my husband.

‘Thank you, my lord,’ I reassure him, ‘I won’t lose it again.’

He doesn’t hold me for very long, but I know that’s because he doesn’t want me to get chilled.

‘We should go to the Governor’s Palace,’ I suggest, ‘and get you warmed up and dried off. I even have a replacement cloak, a gift from the local clan leaders, you can wear.’

Ani doesn’t reply and stares silently out at the river for a moment. The ice is continuing to build up, forming a dam composed of jagged white bergs.

‘What is it?’ I ask him.

‘The current pulled Tholme away from me after I took your lightsaber from him. I was too low on air to risk staying with him, so I don’t know if he survived or not,’ my husband admits. ‘If I hadn’t taken off my cloak, I would have been carried downstream, too.’

‘And?’ I continue to prod, sensing there is more to this.

‘He once faked his own death by plunging off a cliff and seemingly into a lava flow,’ Ani reveals as he guides me back to the hover car with his arm protectively about my waist. ‘As a young man he learned how to hide his Force presence from everyone, including me, so I wonder...’

‘If he had this escape planned?’ I break in.

There is a nod in answer. I secure my acceleration straps while I wait for my husband to join me.

‘Well,’ I decide, ‘if locking Michael up for a while was his goal, he most certainly succeeded at that.’

The silver and black pyramid on my lap gives no indication someone is trapped inside it. It looks more like a collectible knick-knack from some obscure world than a device designed to hold in a Force ghost. Ani picks it up, studies it for a moment, before returning it to my hand. I can feel his puzzlement. He has no idea how to release my brother from it.

‘I will have the river searched for Tholme’s body,’ he tells me, ‘but I doubt any trace of him will be found.’

‘Hopefully he is smart enough to stay well away from us, if he did manage to survive,’ I dryly note. ‘Because the next time he gets too close, I intend to let him have it.’

***

I smile as I watch Mikal pretending he’s the one flying my shuttle. Trading seats was one way to keep him occupied for a while, and he can’t do any harm. All of the controls near my command chair have been temporarily disabled.

Maia shifts a little in her sleep, so I move my arm down her back, pulling her in closer to me, and making sure my new cloak is covering her. The position she’s in, with her head nestled into my side, can’t be very comfortable. She was exhausted after today’s adventure, but staying on Rhinnal to let her rest for a few hours was not an option. Leaving as soon as possible was the only choice I had.

My orders were to return to Coruscant, and we should be there soon.

Then I will find out exactly what my master will do about the events of the last few days and my disobedience.

***


Imperial Center, Coruscant, Core Worlds, Year 3, Month 9.

DAY 17

***

I kneel slowly, taking my usual place on the floor in front of my master’s throne. His summons came early this morning, so I left without disturbing my wife’s sleep to tell her I would be gone. Surely she will read the note I left for her if she wakes before I return.

For many long minutes I am ignored, a sign of just how irritated the Emperor is.

‘So, my Apprentice, you disobeyed my orders to return directly here, and went to Rhinnal instead, where you let a Jedi Master escape,’ Palpatine finally states.

From his choice of words and tone, he is not at all pleased with me. I decide to take the safest course of action and stay silent until he has finished his lecture.

‘And before that, you allowed the TIE Phantoms to be destroyed by that miserable Rebel Alliance,’ he continues.

That’s not entirely true. Most of that debacle was Admiral Sarn’s fault. However, given his current mood, correcting him is probably not a wise idea.

His fingers tap on the arm of his chair, revealing his annoyance. I wonder what he will comment about next, but when he says nothing, I opt to do so instead.

‘My family’s security was at risk, so I had to go to Rhinnal,’ I start my defense with the first of his criticisms. ‘And Tholme’s body could have easily been washed into the ocean before the river was searched. Once there, any of the large predators ...’

‘Would have disposed of the evidence,’ Palpatine completes my explanation, ‘and you were forced, once again, to work with incompetents on the Terror.’

He pushes himself up and out of his throne, and goes to look through the window, standing there with his back to me. His favorite vantage point, I note. I stay where I am rather than risk a reprimand for not waiting for permission to rise or join him.

‘Your excuses are tiresome, Lord Vader,’ he snaps at me, ‘but at least you had enough sense to see to it that your wife came to no harm, despite Tholme getting his hands on her.’

Ah, yes. I just knew that topic would come up.

‘Punishing you, much as you have earned it,’ he delivers his verdict, ‘would only risk harm to her and through her, to your son. Instead, I will confine you to Imperial Center indefinitely. Unless I give specific orders to the contrary, you will stay here.’

I somehow stop myself from reacting to that. Pursuing Luke in person won’t be possible, and neither will be spiriting Maia away from his grasp before our second son is born. But despite what I might want to do, at the moment, I have no choice other than to obey him - until an opportunity to do what I need to arises.

The door to the chamber slides open behind me.

‘Ah, Prince Xizor,’ Palpatine greets the newcomer I cannot see. ‘Lord Vader was just leaving. I would hope he can find something useful to do which doesn’t involve the wanton destruction of valuable Imperial property.’

Ignoring his intentional barb, I deliberately, purposefully, rise to my feet and bow. I know the Falleen is busy plotting against me. He is becoming far too influential with my master and I need to do something about that. And pay him back for harming Maia and Mikal. Stalking past Xizor, I don’t bother giving him a second look. Soon, very soon, I will have the information I need to rid the galaxy of him.

As I walk down the Grand Corridor, back towards my castle, I brood about the situation I am caught in. With each passing day, my options are becoming more limited, and what little time I have left is rapidly running out, like the sand in an ancient glass timepiece.

I will be forced to make an unbearable choice, I finally realize. A choice I don’t want to make. A choice I should never have to make.

And Palpatine will be the one to force it on me, as he has such decisions in the past - decisions which always benefited him, in the end, not me.

How am I to choose between my two sons?

Between what survives of my first love and the child of my second?

I wait until I am well away from the audience chamber before I stop, pick up the nearest piece of priceless artwork, and smash it into a million fragments against the wall.

Wanton destruction of valuable Imperial property, indeed.

***

When Ani finally comes back from the Imperial Palace, I can tell he is still fuming about whatever happened between him and Palpatine. I know better than to bother him when he is in that frame of mind, so I gather up the children, who have just finished breakfast, and go to the conservatory. My husband will join us when he is ready to, once he has worked out his frustrations in his usual way on several hapless dueling droids.

‘My Lady,’ Cyran calls to me from the doorway, ‘Blitzé is here to see you and has brought someone else with her.’

I give her a puzzled look. Was I supposed to have visitors today? Somehow that must have escaped my notice when I last looked at my daily schedule.

‘Show them in,’ I reply, ‘and have the kitchen prepare some tea and juices, and something to nibble on, too.’

Thirsk will check everyone before he lets them into the room. Anyone he doesn’t know will get an even closer scrutiny, I note, amused, remembering the last time Admiral Piett’s wife Blitzé stopped by with her sister. After all of my security chief’s pointed questions and the search of her bulky dress he insisted on doing, I suspect that will be the one and only time my friend’s sister comes to see Lady Vader.

There is a splash from the fishpond where Shmi is doing her best to grab a few of its colorful occupants.

‘Leave the fish alone, Shmi,’ I scold. ‘They don’t want to be caught.’

‘Fishy!’ she happily responds, making another attempt to corner the one which she is currently pursuing.

‘Shmi,’ I firmly warn.

She ignores me and reaches into the water, her face a study in willful stubbornness, but this time she leans over that fraction too far.

‘Don’t!’ I try to stop her.

She falls into the water, head first. I wait to see if she can manage on her own, rather than going to help immediately. The pond is shallow, so she shouldn’t have any trouble getting out of it, and Shmi needs to learn to what the potential consequences of her actions might be.

‘Well,’ I tell her, once she is out of the water, ‘Mommy did warn you.’

An unhappy howl erupts from my toddler as she runs over to me. She is now dripping water everywhere. I let out a sigh as I bend over and wrap her in my cloak. In many ways, Shmi is very much like her father. Both tend to be absolutely determined to do whatever they want, regardless of the consequences, and neither one will listen to reason when it suits them to ignore it. Thankfully her sister, Cat, who is chasing Mikal around the garden, is far more compliant and obedient.

‘My Lady,’ I hear Blitzé note. ‘Your children have grown much since I saw them last.’

I look up and smile. It’s been two or three months since she last came by, and Mikal and the twins have added a few inches in that time.

‘I think the girls will eventually be closer to my height than their father’s,’ I decide as I dry Shmi’s hair, ‘but my son will be taller than I am.’

Blitzé takes a seat on one of the padded chairs across from me. Whoever she brought with her is still outside, no doubt being thoroughly inspected by Thirsk.

Cyran steps through the doors, back from her errand, sees what I am up to, and sets the tray with the tea and goodies I had ordered down on the table.

‘An unexpected swim, my Lady?’ she asks, the amusement apparent in her eyes and voice.

‘Unfortunately, yes,’ I admit. ‘She’ll need another set of clothes.’

Blitzé had caught Shmi’s attention and I can tell that my daughter is busy debating what to do. But when my friend gives her no incentive to come over to her, the stack of treats on the table is where my daughter’s focus shifts to next.

‘Treat!’ Shmi demands, pointing at the tray.

‘After you are in some dry clothes,’ I tell her. ‘Now be good and go with Cyran.’

The prospect of having something sweet to eat is all it takes to get Shmi to comply. She happily takes Cyran’s hand and allows herself to be led out. I wait until aide and daughter have left before I start laughing.

‘She is so very willful,’ I reveal to Blitzé, ‘and much of the trouble she gets into is rather amusing. But I know better than to encourage more of the same by letting her think it’s funny.’

My friend nods and gives a me knowing smile. She has a family of her own and plenty of experience with child management. I reach over to pour myself a cup of tea, first doing the same for my visitor. Mikal and Cat haven’t seen what is on the table yet, but it won’t be long before they do.

***

‘What is it?’ I snap when my sparring session is interrupted by an insistent chiming from the comm.

‘The Emperor, my lord,’ I am just as tersely informed.

What does he want now, I wonder. Hasn’t he already complicated my life enough today ?

‘Send the signal through,’ I order.

There is no point in delaying whatever he wants to discuss by going to the Imperial Palace in person.

‘Lord Vader,’ Palpatine greets me.

‘What is thy bidding, my master?’ I give my usual response.

‘It seems that one of my Tarka-Null sculptures has met with a rather unfortunate mishap,’ he tells me.

I smirk behind my mask. That was fast. One of his spies must have been following me.

‘I know that the original was owned by the late Senator Amidala of Naboo,’ he continues.

The audio-only comm connection means that he can’t see my surprise. I remember the small statue which was in Padmé’s Coruscant apartment, but I didn’t know Palpatine was aware of it.

‘Her family was rather reluctant to part with it, but common sense prevailed,’ he finishes. ‘You will go to Naboo to retrieve it for me.’

I stay silent. Confronting my first wife’s remaining relations is one thing I never expected to be ordered to do. Anytime I have been on Naboo, I have gone out of my way to avoid them and her mausoleum. This is another one of his punishments, this time disguised as a trivial errand he could have sent any of his lackeys on. It is almost an insult to be told to do it.

‘Quickly, Lord Vader,’ he adds, when I don’t respond. ‘You won’t be gone for very long, so you will leave your family here.’

‘Yes, my master,’ I automatically answer.

There is no other reply I can give, and no point in arguing with him.

Once the comm shuts off, I destroy another two dueling droids before going to find my wife. Maia will need to know I am being sent away from her again.

***

Ani opens the door, interrupting what I was about to say to Blitzé. Because of his stance, I can tell he is not in a very good mood, and so can my two visitors.

‘Perhaps we should go, my lady,’ Wynssa graciously suggests, setting her cup down as she does. ‘My husband is expecting me to be home soon.’

I give Baron Fel’s wife a quick smile. She is always a diplomat, and thanks to her acting ability, could easily read the Sith Lord’s body language. My husband wants no audience for whatever he needs to discuss with me.

‘Another time, then,’ I agree. ‘Commander Thirsk will show you out.’

My husband steps out of the way as the two women head for the door.

‘I didn’t know you were associating with famous holo-stars,’ Ani notes after they have left.

‘It was a surprise to me, too,’ I reply with a laugh. ‘She came with Blitzé today. Thirsk insisted on getting his holo of her autographed before he would let her in. I never suspected he was a fan of hers.’

‘Neither did I,’ he wryly admits.

From the sigh he lets out as he draws closer to me, I am sure Ani has bad news of some sort to deliver, and it’s probably of the type he prefers to give in private.

‘Cyran,’ I call to my aide, who is busy reading to three happy toddlers, ‘would you please take the children to our quarters for lunch?’

Her nod in response lets me know she understands why I want them to leave.

‘What is it?’ I ask my husband once we are alone.

‘My master,’ he answers, taking my hands in his.

I look up at him and tip my head to one side. That doesn’t tell me very much, but given his reaction after a previous meeting with Palpatine, I think I can guess what he has been told to do.

‘You’ve been ordered to leave me behind,’ I state, ‘while he has you running about, doing some task for him.’

‘Yes,’ is his simple response.

‘I’ll be fine,’ I reassure him, giving his hands a light squeeze. ‘If I have to, I’ll find an excuse to...’

‘You won’t be allowed off-plant,’ he cuts in. ‘I should be gone for only two or three days this time, but it’s clear to me that he intends to keep you confined to Imperial Center regardless of what errands he sends me on.’

‘To keep me close to him, you mean,’ I observe with a touch of bitterness, pulling my hands away from Ani’s.

The Sith Lord’s fingers close tightly over mine.

It won’t be forever, he tries to comfort me.

I need to shift our conversation away from what we both don’t want to discuss - how he intends to keep our son from his master. It’s better and safer, and less worry for me, if I don’t know what my husband’s future plans are until it is necessary.

‘Are you leaving now?’ I decide to ask that dreaded question.

‘Yes,’ he reveals, brushing my hair back from my face with a fingertip. ‘If I leave now, I might be able to finish my errand tomorrow morning and perhaps return by late that night.’

His hands shift, one sliding to my waist, the other gripping my arm as he helps me to my feet. I am getting to the awkward stage in my pregnancy, again, I ruefully note. Ani’s arm stays around me until we are at the base of his shuttle’s ramp, in the castle’s hangar.

‘I will be on the Executor,’ he informs me, ‘and I will call you on the Holonet tonight and tomorrow.’

‘Be careful, my lord,’ I tell him.

‘I will be, as I always am,’ Ani teases.

I wait for him to go, but he doesn’t. Instead, he simply holds my hand in his and stares at me. For some reason this parting is going to be an awkward one for both of us. Silently, I heap as many nasty curses on Palpatine’s head as I know, in every language I am familiar with.

That’s not physically possible, my husband chimes in on my thoughts, scolding me a bit, and you need to practice your Sith some more.

I childishly stick my tongue out at him and am rewarded by one of his deep, rumbling chuckles. That’s much better, I decide, when I am caught in his firm embrace.

Don’t ever change, little goddess, he tells me before he steps back, brushes a hand down my face and is gone.


Executor, Naboo, Naboo System, Year 3, Month 9.

DAY 18

***

I stare out at the planet I left an hour ago, preferring to remember the more recent of my two weddings which were performed there to my meeting this morning with Pooja Naberrie. Thankfully, she did not know who I really was, her uncle by marriage to Padmé, and was only too glad to hand over her aunt’s sculpture as quickly as she could. From a retired senator, who had lived for years on Coruscant, I would have expected some attempt to ingratiate herself for political gain, but her haste to leave my presence was almost rude. Not that I really wanted to talk to her or stay any longer than was absolutely necessary.

‘Lord Vader! Your communication with the Emperor is ready!’ I hear from the crew pit behind and below me.

Good. They have repaired the Holonet at last, so I can report a successful conclusion to this chore. I spin about and go to my quarters as quickly as I can, and once there, ignore the crated statue which has been stored to one side. It is a mocking reminder of the woman who once owned it.

Palpatine doesn’t give me a chance to tell him that it is in my possession. Instead, he dispenses with any sort of greeting and raises an old, unwelcome issue.

‘Your failure on Bespin distresses me, Vader,’ he states.

So, at the moment, I am not even worthy of addressing as his apprentice or by my Sith title. My pride bristles at that. I have done nothing to earn this degree of contempt from him. The topic of my son, though, is one I must be very careful with. Tipping my hand at this point would most certainly result in disaster. Placate Palpatine first, I decide, then see where he is taking this.

‘Luke Skywalker’s escape was unfortunate, but not fatal,’ I tell him. ‘I have sown the seeds of ambition in his mind. Rest assured, he will be ours.’

“Rest assured!” he sarcastically quotes me.

I don’t answer and wait for the rest of his tirade.

‘Ah, yes, put my faith in you!’ Palpatine continues his rant. ‘Were I to judge you by your deeds rather than your words, Vader, I would be forced to conclude you do not wish to ensnare Skywalker!’

Now that is getting a bit too close for comfort.

‘You know that is untrue!’ I immediately deny his accusation. ‘The idea to bring him to the dark side was mine!’

‘Yes, yes,’ he brushes aside my protests.

‘Even now I am redoubling my efforts to find him,’ I reveal, ‘and I have a report of a possible sighting of the rebel fleet.’

True in both instances, but I have different plans for my son than my master does.

‘I am afraid that must wait since I have a more pressing matter for you to attend to,’ he informs me. ‘Construction of the new weapon proceeds apace, but the Imperial fleet alone cannot handle our delivery requirements.’

I keep my opinion of that situation to myself. We have had enough heated arguments over that monstrosity as it is, so why is he bringing it up now?

‘To that end, when you return to Coruscant, you will negotiate shipping arrangements with Prince Xizor,’ my master orders.

‘Xizor?’ I spit out, furious. ‘Do you think it is wise to involve him in this project?’

The Falleen is the last one who should be told about any secret military project. My anger builds. At every turn Xizor is there, mocking me, baiting me, and now he is getting in the way of my plans. Killing him will be something I will savour.

‘Xizor controls the largest merchant fleet in the galaxy,’ Palpatine patiently instructs, like a teacher to a recalcitrant pupil. ‘He can be useful to us.’

‘His ties to Black Sun are too well known,’ I retort in return. ‘He is dangerous and not to be trusted with a military cargo.’

‘Black Sun indeed!’ he dismisses my reservations, pointing a finger directly at me. ‘Do not concern yourself with schoolboy rumors. Better to attend to your own duties. You have your instructions.’

His hologram vanishes, leaving me to fume in its absence. He didn’t even ask about the statue he sent me running off to fetch for him. For a moment, I consider spacing it, then decide that would only result in another pointless errand, where I am apart from my family, in retaliation. No, rather than look at that accusing crate any longer, I will have lunch in my meditation pod and debate what my next move will be.

What’s wrong, dear? I hear Maia ask over our soul bond once I am settled and my helmet is off.

She felt my foul mood, even at this distance.

The usual, I admit.

Palpatine, the rebels, or life in general? she teases.

All of them, I jokingly reply, but mostly the first of those.

There is silence while she tries to come up with a way to cheer me up, I guess. I activate the holo of her and our children I keep in my pod, and brush a finger over her ghostly face.

It doesn’t matter, I reassure her. It’s my worry, not yours.

I can sense that wasn’t what she wanted to hear from me.

I will be home by morning, I reassure her, and my orders will keep me planetside for a few days, at least.

You know I will be waiting for you, love, she tells me before her presence fades away.

For many minutes I stare at her image, considering what I need to do next. I can’t chase Luke directly, and I need someone competent in charge of the fleet. There is only one officer I can trust with that task.

‘Admiral Piett,’ I call him over the comm. ‘I need to speak with you in my quarters.’

I quickly finish my supplement drink while I wait for him to make his way from the command deck to my quarters. He will be efficient about it. Piett is never anything less than that, no matter what or who he has to deal with, including myself. It is one of his best traits and one which I wish my other officers would emulate.

My helmet descends, and the holo of my family disappears at my touch. There is no reason to let anyone see that.

‘Admiral Piett,’ I address him when he finally comes in. ‘I have been recalled to Coruscant indefinitely. The Executor will accompany me under the command of Captain Kallic.’

I can see him tense up and feel his fear through the Force. He thinks I am going to execute him?

‘You shall remain in command of the fleet and continue the hunt for the rebels,’ I swiftly add. ‘In my absence, the flag will be carried aboard the Star Destroyer Accuser. When I return from the Imperial court, you will be reassigned to the Executor.’

‘Yes, my lord,’ he replies, obviously relieved.

‘I am entrusting the fleet to you, Admiral Piett,’ I warn him to make sure he knows I will be fully aware of everything he does. ‘Do not permit yourself any failure - if any comes to my attention, be assured a new admiral will take your place immediately.’

‘Yes, Lord Vader,’ he promptly answers as he snaps a salute.

I dismiss him and smile. Piett won’t fail me. He has lasted longer than any other admiral under my command.

***



Home Fiction Art Mail List Staff Links


Graphics by Alicorna