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Title: Hoth and Bespin
Author: Maia (maia@bastcastle.org)
Rating: PG-13
Characters: Vader, OFC, a few other OC’s, and familiar faces.
Category: AU, Adventure, Romance, some Angst.

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

Summary: The events of the battle at Hoth and Vader’s visit to Bespin from a different perspective. Extracted from the AU ‘The Sith Lord and the Scientist.’


The Executor, Dorvalla, Elrood Sector, Month 5, Year 3.

DAY 4

I am happily playing with Mikal and the twins when Ani interrupts.

Maia? he prompts.

I am instantly alert. He’s up on the bridge and probably bored out of his mind.

I am not bored, Ani instantly scolds. I need you to tell me what was in those reports you set aside two weeks ago.

Just a minute, I tell him.

I quickly go to his office and pick up the half dozen reports I had left on his desk.

I have them here. Give me a minute to have another look at them, I ask as I try to walk back to the den and read at the same time.

Don’t bother giving me an in depth analysis, just an overview, he crankily orders.

Someone’s a bit testy today. Ozzel must be getting on his nerves again.

They’re just theft reports, Ani. Odd stuff that stuck out and probably is of no significance, I admit.

Tell me anyway.

He really wants to know this. Very well, then, I’ll read him the list.

Heavy equipment components, heaters, clothing designed to handle sub-zero temperatures, ....

It is going to take several minutes to go through it all.

... field generators, airspeeder parts...

Stop, right there, he asks, and give me the technical information on those.

Good grief. I turn to the detailed run down of exactly what was stolen and start rattling off serial numbers and technical names which mean nothing to me.

They obviously mean something to the Sith Lord.

They have set up their new base on an ice world, he decides, breaking into my listing. Hoth, to be exact.

He figured that out from a list of spare parts? Well, I am not going to argue with him.

I hear some mental laughter from him.

Not only from your list, he informs me, sounding rather pleased, but from Veers’ suggestion to check this sector for rebels and the probe droid transmission which just came in.

And? I ask, curious how he did it.

Some of the parts were for converting T-47 airspeeders for use under cold conditions. The same speeders which were recorded by the probe droid, he reveals.

Ozzel won’t be too pleased, I guess.

No, he isn’t, especially since Piett just made him look like a fool, Ani gloats a bit.

So for once it wasn’t the Sith Lord who embarrassed the Admiral.

I let out a resigned sigh. Soon Ani will be spending all his time chasing rebels again and I will be worrying about him getting hurt.

I’ll be there in a few minutes for an early lunch, he warns, and to see that the children are prepared. The Hoth system is not far from our current position and soon you will need to secure them.

I bite my lip at that. Mikal knows the drill since we have gone through this with him before, but the twins will not be happy. They will need to be safely anchored in their crib and I can already imagine their cries of protest.

Is that really necessary, Ani? I ask. The ship has never been hit ...

... since the rebels were evacuating Yavin, he finishes for me. But do you want to risk their being hurt?

No, I decide.

I will have to keep the children occupied and distracted then. Hopefully the battle will be a short one.

‘If all goes well,’ the Sith Lord notes as he arrives at last, ‘there will be a clean planetary bombardment and very few rebels will escape into space.’

Mikal runs to where his father is standing in the main doorway. The twins have heard Ani’s voice as well and are doing their best to crawl in his direction. I scoop Shmi up in my arms and put her back in the playpen. Cat manages to escape from the den before I catch up with her.

‘No,’ I hear Ani firmly tell Mikal, ‘No son, you can’t watch the battle with me.’

I look over at the two of them. Ani is kneeling so his helmet is close to our son’s eye level. It sounds like our son is trying to talk his father into a trip up to the bridge again. Poor Mikal. He has wanted to go up there with Ani for weeks. Too bad Ozzel is still in charge. I am sure that with any other Admiral, my eldest would have had his wish granted long ago.

‘Now I want you to promise me that you will obey your mother,’ the Sith Lord asks, ‘and help her look after your sisters.’

I see Mikal nod an affirmative and wrap his arms around his father’s neck. He has become a sweet tempered and obedient child now that the terrible twos have passed. And having a bit of discipline administered by Thirsk has helped, too, I admit to myself. I return to the den, set Cat in with her sister and let the two men in my life have some time to themselves.

They come into the den a few minutes later, Mikal pulling hard at Ani’s hand in an attempt to have him move faster.

‘Hurry up, daddy,’ he insists, ‘and fix it.’

I give my husband a puzzled look.

‘I promised him I would set the screen to show the view from the bridge,’ Ani admits. ‘That way he can see the Hoth system when we arrive in two hours.’

Is that wise? I ask. I don’t want him seeing anything too upsetting.

I’ll deactivate the channel before it comes to that, he reassures me.

It takes him only a minute to make the adjustments, and the familiar kaleidoscope of hyperspace soon fills the wall screen. Mikal stares at it, fascinated. I avoid looking at it, not wanting to get too dizzy.

‘Lunchtime for me,’ my husband reminds me as he shoos Mikal away.

I retrieve Shmi from the playpen, hand her to Ani, and pick up Cat before following the rest of my family back towards our bedroom. The Sith Lord will have little time with us since he always spends the hours right before a battle preparing himself in his meditation pod. And he will be too busy and distracted during and after the attack to be thinking or worrying about us.

To give Ani a few extra minutes with them, I settle the children on our bed and retrieve a few things from the kitchen for him. My husband is happily tickling the giggling and squirming twins when I return. I set his lunch on the table and quietly watch their play. How unfortunate that no one else will ever see this, but Ani has to maintain his public image. And judging from what happened when he found out about my latest pregnancy, he is still very much a Sith Lord who will act according to that nature despite his love for me and his family.

I feel his eyes on me. He knows what I am thinking.

There is silence for a few seconds while we stare at one another. Then Mikal tugs on his father’s hand and Ani’s attention is no longer fixed on me. My son wants his father to have a quick game of ‘I spy’ with him. I sink into my chair to wait for them to finish their brief competition. After a few minutes, Ani lets Mikal win, and nudges all three children into sleep. He leaves his helmet on despite the fact that he could now remove it if he wanted to, and because of that, I know he is going to have one of those discussions I dread with me.

‘We have been through this before, Maia,’ he coldly reminds me, ‘and I am not going to go over that well trodden ground yet again.’

This is the Sith Lord speaking, not my Anakin. I bite my lip. He sees it.

‘Stop that,’ he warns. ‘I am not two different men. You should have accepted that by now.’

My eyes slide from him to Mikal who is sound asleep beside him. Ani’s helmet tips to follow my gaze.

‘You still find it hard to reconcile my actions as his father with those I perform as the Emperor’s military commander,’ he states.

I hesitate a moment, then nod. He knows I do, so there is no point in trying to hide it.

There is a hiss as he removes the dome of his helmet. It is set aside on the bed and quickly joined by his mask and vocoder. Ani rises to his feet next and gives me one of his sterner looks. I can sense that he has started to let the dark side take hold of him.

‘Come here,’ Ani orders and his tone brooks no defiance.

I obey.

Once I am within arm’s length, he grabs me. I struggle for a moment, then stop and force myself to comply. Resistance of a physical sort is futile anyway. He touches our bond, and reaches out to me across it.

Then Ani rips down the protective barriers in my mind.

I whimper as coldness envelopes me and bury my face in his robes. There is no warmth, no light, only endless, pitiless, cold and darkness. Is this what he lives with? How can he stand it?

I begin to shiver involuntarily as my body becomes a battleground between the light in my own soul and the darkness from Ani’s.

Help me, Ani, I call to him when the brand on my left arm starts to burn.

The Sith Lord holds me closer in answer. Only when the burning stops does he replace the barriers he had earlier removed, blocking his darkness from my mind once again. He turns my face to look into his now, and his eyes terrify me. They are no longer a brilliant pale blue, but gold rimmed with red like his master’s. A panicked scream starts in my throat, only to be silenced by his mouth on mine. His kiss is gentle, sweet, not savage as I expect it to be. My arm aches and a light touch from him soothes it.

Ani? I wonder.

Our kiss is broken. His eyes fade, resuming their normal color.

‘You are my merati, my beloved bondmate. I have marked and claimed you as such,’ he tells me, his fingers lingering over the Sith hieroglyphics on my skin. ‘You have nothing to fear. My rage and darkness will never touch you again.’

I pull him closer and shut my eyes. So this is what is inscribed on my armbands and etched into my flesh.

‘I must go and prepare myself,’ he warns me.

‘What about your lunch?’ I ask.

‘I’ll have it in my pod after the ship exits hyperspace,’ he decides.

Ani releases me, replaces his helmet. He ruffles Mikal’s hair with his hand and leaves me to see to our sleeping children. I sink onto the bed and stare at my arm.

The branded text is no longer black, but the same golden-red shade the Sith Lord’s eyes were.

Two hours later I am sitting in the den with Mikal, waiting for the Executor to enter the Hoth system. The twins are secure in their crib. Hopefully they will not wake until after any danger has passed and I can safely release them.

‘Mommy, look!’ Mikal calls.

I glance up at the screen. We have arrived. The streaks of hyperspace are gone, replaced by a view of the Avenger ahead of us and the forward sections of the Executor which are visible from the bridge. Ozzel has put Needa’s ship in the point position again. That was probably as much a political choice as a strategic one.

‘What’s that?’ my son asks, pointing at a bright planet in the distance.

I stare at it. My mind clicks, a fragment of memory surfaces.

Oh, no.

‘Hoth,’ I whisper to him, horrified. ‘The Admiral has just made a terrible mistake.’

I don’t wait to explain my actions, simply pick Mikal up, ignoring his protests, and carry him back to his bedroom. He does his best to try and escape from me.

‘Into bed with you,’ I firmly order, grabbing my squirming son with both hands.

‘Daddy promised!’ he howls as he tries to get up off his bed.

‘I’m sorry, sweety, but right now you have to be safely strapped in,’ I apologize.

He is no match for me and soon gives up. I cinch a gravity belt around his waist and activate it.

‘I know daddy promised that you could watch,’ I tell him, ‘but it isn’t safe to do that any longer.’

I let out a sigh when I hear a few unhappy sniffles.

‘I will try to make it up to you,’ I promise him.

When Mikal has finally settled down and is quietly playing with his scruffy bantha, I go back to the den to take another look at the screen. The fleet hasn’t moved in the few minutes my errand took. I shake my head in frustration. This is the worst tactical error Ozzel has made yet.

I hear the main door to Ani’s quarters activate through the open den door. Flattening myself against the wall, I inch along, intending to eavesdrop a bit. The sound of mechanisms on Sith Lord’s meditation chamber reaches my ears next. Someone has disturbed him. This must be important then.

‘What is it, General?’ Ani asks.

‘My Lord,’ Veers answers, ‘the fleet has moved out of light-speed. Com-Scan has detected an energy field protecting an area of the sixth planet in the Hoth system. The field is strong enough to deflect any bombardment.’

No, I think to myself. Ozzel has really done it this time.

‘The rebels are alerted to our presence,’ the Sith Lord states. ‘Admiral Ozzel came out of light-speed too close to the system.’

I can sense his rising anger.

‘He felt surprise was wiser ....’Veers tries to justify Ozzel’s tactic.

‘He is as clumsy as he is stupid,’ Ani snaps, breaking in. He pauses for a second, then orders, ‘General, prepare your troops for a surface attack.’

This is not at all what my husband had in mind. I hear the door open and shut as Veers leaves. A few seconds later, there is the sound of a comm-channel activating. Ani must be going to find out exactly what is happening.

‘Lord Vader, the fleet has moved out of light-speed and we are preparing to ...’ Ozzel answers the call, his sentence abruptly stopped by a gasp.

Ani deliberately ignores Ozzel’s distress.

‘You have failed me for the last time, Admiral,’ the Sith Lord states.

‘Captain Piett,’ he summons.

Now what?

‘Yes, my Lord,’ the Executor’s Captain promptly replies.

I begin to hear gagging sounds in the background. One of my hands flies to my mouth and my stomach begins to lurch a little. Ani’s anger and frustration has won at last, and he has finally decided he can safely get rid of Ozzel.

‘Make ready to land our troops beyond the energy field,’ the Sith Lord orders, ‘and deploy the fleet so that nothing gets out of the system. You are in command now, Admiral Piett.’

The horrid choking noises which had continued throughout Ani’s commands culminate in a terrible death rattle and thump as Ozzel succumbs and falls to the deck. I bolt for the ‘fresher at that. While I know my husband has done this before, I have never witnessed it.

So much for my lunch, I think miserably once I am sitting on the ‘fresher floor.

Booted footsteps prompt me to look up.

‘Pregnancy sickness?’ Ani asks as he kneels beside me.

I shake my head. It’s too early for that yet.

A hand brushes my cheek.

‘You saw it, then,’ he decides.

‘No, heard,’ I own up.

If I had seen it - I shut my eyes. Don’t go there, I scold myself when my insides threaten to revolt again.

At another touch to my face, the nausea fades. He helps me to my feet, and guides me into the bedroom, glancing in at our children as we pass the open door. All three are sound asleep.

‘You should not have been eavesdropping on me,’ Ani scolds while he tucks me into bed.

‘I was curious,’ I admit.

He steps away from me, shakes a scolding finger, and orders, ‘I have warned you repeatedly about that. Now promise me - no more spying.’

I open my mouth to protest, then close it again. Next time, I might hear or see something worse.

‘I promise,’ I concede.

‘Good. Now I am going to the command deck,’ he tells me. ‘Ozzel’s blunder has given the rebels enough time to evacuate their base. I need to make sure Piett has the fleet positioned to intercept any transports. Fortunately none of their capital ships are in system. You can stay in bed and rest until I tell you otherwise.’

I watch him go. There’s nothing I can do to help Ani except make sure he has no reason to worry about his family. Any noise from the children’s room will alert me, so I decide to go and watch the battle on the screen in the den.

We have drawn considerably closer to Hoth. It fills much of the screen now. I wait, expecting some sort of attack, but nothing happens. Then I see Veers’ troop transports heading down towards the planet. The rebels seem to make no attempt to stop him. Well, Ani did say they had no ships in system.

Ten minutes after Veers’ forces are no longer visible, the first shots from a ground based ion cannon flash into space and hit the Avenger, knocking it out of position. These are followed immediately by a transport and two small fighters who do their best to evade that ship’s guns. Somehow the rebels escape.

Score one for the rebels, I decide.

For the next hour, I count rebel ships. Six have been destroyed from what I have seen, but my view is restricted to what is in front of Ani’s flagship. I debate contacting him. My husband left the Executor a while ago to lead the troops entering the rebel base, and I am wondering what is happening down there. Remember what he said about curiosity, I remind myself. He won’t appreciate a distraction from me, so I decide to wait until he is back to find out what he has been up to.

When no more rebel ships have appeared for quite some time, I get up and check on the children. Mikal is awake, quietly playing with his bantha toy again, and Cat and Shmi are beginning to stir. Soon I will have to send the twins back to sleep unless Ani lets me free them. I drop my slippers on the floor and settle myself beside my son to have a quick nap.

A touch to my shoulder wakes me up. I open my eyes and see the twins happily crawling about in their crib. Mikal has left my side, and his gravity belt is back on the shelf.

‘I’ve freed the children,’ Ani tells me. ‘There is no danger to them now.’

I push myself upright and catch his hand before he can leave.

‘Everything went as expected, then?’ I ask.

‘Not exactly,’ he admits. ‘Only sixteen transports destroyed and the Millennium Falcon has not been caught yet. I should have killed Ozzel months ago. If I had, this would not have happened.’

I release his hand and let him go. Ani still has work to do.

When he returns, I am busy cleaning up the mess Cat made of her dinner. The kitchen floor is splattered with blue milk. Next time, I scold myself, make sure the top of her bottle is more securely attached. I look up when I hear the holonet activate and the den door close. Ani is making sure that there is no more eavesdropping by me today.

The Sith Lord comes into the kitchen a few minutes later. At first he is in a rather contemplative mood, but he starts laughing at me as he surveys the disaster on the floor. I give him my best annoyed look.

‘What’s so funny about that, Sith Lord?’ I growl at him.

‘Nothing,’ he teases. ‘I have to go back to the bridge, but it is reassuring to see you like this.’

‘Ani,...’ I warn.

‘Barefoot,’ he notes, pointing at my unshod feet, ‘pregnant,’ the finger is aimed at my middle now, ‘and in the kitchen!’ he finishes, indicating the room with a wave of his hand.

I stare, at him, speechless. He just continues to laugh as he heads to the main door. A few seconds later, I follow him and hurl the wet towel in my hands in his direction. It hits the back of his helmet with a loud slap. Ani ignores it.

‘You are such a brat!’ I scold him as he makes his escape out into the corridor.

I go and retrieve my impromptu missile. There is still a mess in the kitchen to clean up.


The Executor, Hoth System. Month 5, Year 3.

DAY 7

It’s midnight and Ani hasn’t come to bed yet. I grab his pillow, then wrap myself around it. He’s been resting in his pod when he needs to, and won’t join me until either the Millennium Falcon has been captured, or he knows it has escaped from him. I let out a sigh and decide to brood a little. Ever since the Executor was unveiled to the public the Sith Lord has been obsessed with catching Luke and his friends. Ozzel’s tendency to do as he pleased didn’t make that easy for Ani, but I know my husband has used other means to track down his prey.

I pull Ani’s pillow closer, stuff my nose into the mothsilk, and inhale the scents on it. His soap and leather armour are the strongest ones, but his male body odour is there, too.

‘Stealing my pillow again?’ he teases from the doorway.

‘Maybe,’ I tease back.

He moves to the side of the bed and sits next to me.

‘I can spare a few minutes for you,’ he decides.

The Sith Lord takes my hand, rubs the back of it with his thumb, then brushes away the hair on my cheek as he tucks a few stray strands behind my ear.

‘Is there anything you can tell me about the Millennium Falcon and her crew?’ he asks. ‘Anything at all that might help me catch them?’

I stare at him, surprised. So, this isn’t just a social visit from him.

‘I don’t think so,’ I try playing ignorant.

‘Maia,’ Ani warns.

I should have known that wouldn’t work with him.

‘Luke told me the hyperdrive has a habit of malfunctioning at the worst possible times. Han and Chewie were always fixing something on it,’ I admit. ‘I think it must be held together with Corellian spit and Wookiee hair.’

‘They must be having trouble with it,’ he decides, ‘and it isn’t something they can easily fix.’

I give him a perplexed look.

‘If it was a simple problem, they would have repaired it, left the asteroid field, and attempted to jump by now,’ the Sith Lord explains. ‘Since they haven’t, it isn’t.’

‘What are you going to do?’ I ask.

Maybe he will actually tell me his plans for once.

‘I could wait for their attempt to escape or try to flush them out of their hiding spot,’ Ani tells me, ‘but I have a much better idea I am using instead ....’

I tip my head to listen, expecting to hear more.

Ani notices my interest, and finishes, ‘... but that is not for you to know about, curious one.’

He won’t tell me. Rats.

‘Since you won’t tell me, I’m going back to sleep,’ I decide.

‘Stubborn,’ Ani teases.

I ignore him and shut my eyes. He laughs as I feel his weight leave the bed.

‘Sleep, little goddess,’ he soothes. ‘I’ll be back when I can spare the time.’

When I wake in the morning, Ani is beside me. I roll over and look into his face. Judging from how deeply asleep he is, he must have been up quite late. I carefully inch myself backwards, intending to get up without disturbing him so he can snooze a bit longer. It doesn’t work. Two blue eyes snap open and blink a few times before focussing on me.

‘Good morning, love,’ I tell him before giving him a quick kiss.

His eyes shut again. Someone is not very happy with last night’s events from what I can sense.

‘They escaped, didn’t they?’ I risk the question.

‘Yes,’ Ani answers, ‘but it was not a total loss.’

‘Oh?’ I prod. There’s more to this, then.

‘I left the Avenger in the point position,’ he states.

He doesn’t need to tell me anymore than that. Needa failed to catch the rebels. Ozzel’s crony has suffered the Admiral’s fate. Ani has rid himself of two problems in the last few hours. It will be much harder for high command to interfere with the Sith Lord’s plans now.

Ani’s eyes open again. Seeing that he is now wide awake, I run a finger down his nose and give him another kiss. If he is willing, I want some fun.

‘I can’t stay in bed any longer,’ he tells me. ‘I need to supervise the search of the rebel base today. They evacuated it in such a hurry that mistakes may have been made and information left behind.’

I snuggle in closer and let my hands wander down his chest. Maybe I can persuade him otherwise.

‘Behave, wife,’ he growls as he grabs my hands.

No fun for me this morning then. Rats. From what Ani has said he will be occupied on Hoth today, so no fun later, either.

I toss aside the blankets, get up out of bed and check on the children. Arms slide around my waist as I lift Cat from the crib.

‘Put her back and join me for a shower,’ the Sith Lord whispers in my ear.

Cat is promptly set down. I allow him to pull me along by my hand to the ‘fresher. From previous experience I know Ani isn’t interested in fooling around - he just wants some company. He slides my nightgown down from my shoulders, letting it pool around my feet. His fingers trace the golden Sith hieroglyphics on my arm.

‘What does it say, Ani?’ I ask him.

He has never given me the translation.

The Sith Lord is silent a moment, his fingers poised, motionless on my arm. Then he takes my hand, brings it to his lips and kisses my wrist. Obviously I am not going to get an answer from him.

>Maia, she who is the most favoured one of Lord Vader,< Ani reads off of the bracelet above the hand he is still holding, running a finger along the text as he speaks.

Alright, the same inscription is on my other bracelet and the arm band above my right elbow. Now what does the one on my upper left arm say?

>Maia, she who is the consort of Lord Vader,< he supplies for the remaining arm band, again using a finger to follow the Sith as he says it.

I wait impatiently to hear the last one, the one branded into my skin.

‘MažŠ sith nebet merati nyt Vader sith neb,’ Ani offers in a variation of the Sith he has taught me to speak.

I blink at him. The only words I recognize and know the meaning of are my name, his name, and ‘sith’.

‘What?’ I blurt out.

‘MažŠ sith nebet merati nyt Vader sith neb,’ he repeats.

‘Which means...’ I try to get a translation.

‘Exactly what I said,’ he teases.

I debate whether I should push my luck and persist in trying to get an answer or not. For once, I decide to pry it out of him if I can.

‘Sith Lord,’ I growl at him, ‘you are not being very helpful.’

‘I am being as helpful as I can,’ he teases me some more.

‘Ani....’ I start to scold.

He shuts me up with a kiss, steering me towards the shower with his hands as he does so. Firmly grabbing my waist, he lifts me over the edge of the bath while he activates the hot water spray.

Hurry up and have a shower, he scolds.

I nod my silent agreement against his chest and let the water splash over me. My hands fall away from him when I step out from under the shower. I need to go. He wants privacy to look after himself, and the children require my attention. A hand catches my wrist, delaying my departure for a moment, as he pulls me back for a brief, but passionate kiss.

‘I won’t be long,’ he warns, so I hurry out and make sure his breakfast is ready for him.

Mikal is awake when I return to the children’s bedroom. He bounces out of bed and makes a bee-line for his father who is in the process of putting his armour on. Ani hands our son one of his shinguards to hold while he attaches the other.

I retrieve the twins and carry them both to where Ani can see them. Cat is the hungrier of the two, so I feed her first, then her sister. They are just over eight months old and showing no signs of walking any time soon. Crawling, though, they are both quite adept at that, I decide as Shmi rapidly crosses the floor to her father.

‘No,’ Mikal scolds her when she grabs at Ani’s robes. ‘You are too little and can’t help daddy.’

Our son gently pulls her away and tries to steer her back in my direction. She stubbornly ignores his efforts, this time using the top my husband’s boot, digging her fingers into its convenient lip, in an attempt to pull herself up.

‘No,’ Mikal repeats.

‘It’s alright, son,’ the Sith Lord tells him as he lifts our youngest child up and cradles her close. ‘She just wants a bit of attention.’

I watch as he rocks her in his arms and speaks to her in Sith for a few minutes. Shmi babbles at him in return, making a few tries to mimic what her father is saying.

‘You will have her convinced she’s the prettiest girl alive if you keep that up,’ I tease him.

That earns me a smile from my husband, but he doesn’t stop his stream of comments until he has brought her to me and handed her over.

‘All of my girls are the prettiest in the galaxy,’ he declares with a smile. ‘I often forget to tell them that.’

‘Flatterer,’ I teasingly accuse.

He chuckles at that and assumes his seat at the table while I return Shmi to the floor. This time her destination of choice is the set of colourful blocks scattered in the corner. Ani watches her go, then takes my hand and gives it a reassuring squeeze.

‘I chose wisely and well that day on your homeworld when I decided you would be my wife,’ he tells me. ‘You have produced such perfect children for me. I know the next one will be both powerful and intelligent - a son you will be proud of - and one who will be my strongest future ally. The other two to come will be just as useful, if in other ways.’

I suppress a flinch at the words he has opted to use. That’s the Sith Lord aspect of his personality coming out.

His eyes return to mine, but he makes no comment, merely releases my hand and takes up the glass with his breakfast in it.

Mikal sits in his small chair beside us, picks away at his own meal, and stares at his father.

‘Daddy,’ he says after a few minutes.

‘Yes, son,’ Ani replies, sounding amused at our son’s boldness.

‘I want to go with you today,’ Mikal quietly requests.

I give my husband a questioning look.

Is it safe enough? I ask him.

The base has been cleared and secured, and there are no rebels left on planet or in the system, he admits. I can take Thirsk and a couple of the Noghri with me, too.

Well, if he’s going, I am going, too, I insist.

Far too many days have passed since I have had a chance to get off the Executor and I won’t let this opportunity slip by if I can help it. Ani will just have to organize our escorts and we will be off.

Stubborn little wife, he teases me.

‘Yes, Mikal, you can go with me today,’ Ani tells our son.

An excited, happy cry emerges from Mikal as he abandons his chair and launches himself at his father. Ani picks him up, lets our son wrap his arms around his neck, and holds his eldest close to his chest.

‘That obviously is a “thank you, father”,’ he teases in reminder.

‘Thank you, father,’ Mikal promptly repeats.

‘Now finish your breakfast and do as your mother tells you,’ Ani instructs, ‘while I make the necessary arrangements.’

An hour later we are in Ani’s shuttle, waiting for clearance to land from the ground team. Mikal pulls at his warm clothes again. I know he hates the bright orange color he has been forced to wear. To reassure him, I take his hand and give it a squeeze. As long as he is wearing his thermal coat, he can’t hide. All of the ‘troopers will know by sight who he is, too, ensuring that he won’t come to any harm if we are separated. My own black armor and clothing identify me to them, as well.

‘Stay inside the areas flagged with green markers,’ Ani warns us. ‘The base sustained heavy damage in places and the spots marked with red are unstable.’

I nod in answer. Mikal wants to play outside in the snow, so we won’t be exploring too much inside the rebel’s hideout anyway. And once he is tired and cold, which won’t take very long, I will bring him back to the shuttle to warm up and have a nap.

The Sith Lord’s shuttle lands. As I walk down its ramp, I gaze around the deserted hangar. A few troop transports which brought the survey and salvage team from the Executor are here as well. Large blocks of ice from the ceiling fill part of one side. Looking up, I can see where they had fallen from. An area to definitely avoid, I decide.

Mikal pulls on my hand.

‘Play, mommy,’ he demands.

‘I’ll take him outside for a while,’ I tell Ani. ‘It will be your turn after his nap is done.’

We cross the hangar, entourage in tow. Thirsk is well-bundled up against the cold, but my two Noghri escorts opted to wear very little, claiming it would interfere with their bodyguard duties. They are going to get cold, I suspect, feeling a bit guilty, so Mikal had better have his fun in the snow quickly.

There is an excited squeal as Mikal tears from my side and jumps into the closest snowbank. He sinks into the top layer of newly fallen snow and proceeds to roll around in it, doing his best to get soaked to the skin. I start laughing at him. My first reaction to seeing snow was the same, from what I remember of my mother’s stories of it.

‘You will get cold if you keep that up,’ I scold him.

It does no good. He simply sits up and tries digging a hole next to him with his mitten clad hands. When he can’t break through the icy layer beneath the fresh snow, he resorts to making snow balls.

Trust my son to figure that one out so fast, I decide, as Thirsk dodges Mikal’s first ineptly tossed missile. The next one he fires at Ghazhak who also steps aside and backs out of range. A frown appears as he carefully aims the third one. His target of choice this time is Rik, who had piloted the shuttle down, and now has wandered by to see what all the excitement is about. Mikal’s softly packed projectile hits the Commander right in the middle of his face, bursts apart, and slides down his chin after it impacts.

I start laughing at the sheepish look on Rik’s face.

‘Like father, like son,’ the pilot mutters under his breath. ‘Galactic menaces both.’

Mikal’s next snowball catches Rik between the shoulders as he hurriedly makes his retreat. Rik ducks behind a stack of crates after that and I know he is up to something. I play along and pretend he is gone.

‘Let’s build something,’ I suggest to my son.

Soon we are rolling snow and stacking it into a snowman. There’s nothing to decorate it with, so I content myself by telling Mikal what my brothers and I would do when we were children. Thirsk views the proceedings with an amused expression, and the Noghri stay well out of Mikal’s throwing range. They are still close enough to help if needed, though.

Then I hear a fierce growl from behind a nearby snowbank. For a moment I consider grabbing my ‘saber, but my senses tell me what is going on, so I take my hand away from its hilt and relax.

‘Mommy?’ Mikal nervously asks.

‘It’s a monster,’ I tell him, playing along.

Ani warned us about the Wampas, and my son hasn’t forgotten that. His eyes go wide as another growl sounds from Rik’s hiding place. I sense the Commander shift position. Rik’s next growl is considerably nearer. The third comes from behind the snowbank Mikal had first jumped in.

That’s as close as my son can stand.

Mikal takes a step backwards, then turns about and runs into the hangar as fast as he can. I follow after him, curious to see what will happen, and to be close at hand if I am needed.

‘Monster!’ he screams as he goes, ignoring Rik’s laughter mixed with more growls as the pilot continues to chase him.

‘It’s just a harmless game,’ I warn off my Noghri bodyguards who have moved to deal with Rik.

When Ani appears in one if the hangar’s doors, no doubt drawn by the noise, Mikal piles into him and clings to his legs.

‘Monster, daddy, monster!’ he howls.

‘I think your monster has a name,’ his father notes as he picks up our son.

Mikal wraps his arms around Ani’s neck and looks accusingly at Rik from his safe vantage point. His indignant expression as he realizes who the ‘monster’ was is rather priceless.

‘Next time, don’t throw snowballs at me,’ Rik scolds him, waving a finger at Mikal like the Sith Lord sometimes does.

I try not to laugh as my husband lets the Commander chastise our son. A verbal reprimand from someone other than Ani or myself, once in a while, when appropriate will help keep Mikal in line.

‘You should apologize, my son,’ the Sith Lord suggests when Rik is finished.

There is a mumbled, ‘Sorry,’ from Mikal which the Commander accepts before he heads back to the shuttle.

I do my best to hide a smile, but I know Ani has seen it anyway.

‘I will take him to the Command Center with me so you can look around for a while,’ he offers as he sets Mikal down and takes a firm grip on his hand.

He asked me earlier to walk around the base to see if that will trigger one of my memories, and my empathy is strong enough that I might sense something he would miss. I nod my agreement. With Mikal elsewhere, he won’t be a distraction to me.

I watch Ani lead Mikal towards the base’s Command Center. Ani will supervise the search from there while I look about. After telling him how the sight of Hoth brought echoes of familiarity to mind, he expects that I will remember something.

I give my head a shake. My husband is going to be disappointed, I think. The hangar did nothing in that sense.

‘Where to first, my Lady?’ Thirsk asks.

‘Let’s start with the living quarters,’ I suggest. ‘The search teams will be concentrating on the Command Center and military areas first so there will be fewer distractions if we go there ahead of them.’

He waves me to the nearest corridor, but walks ahead of me as a precaution. Ever the bodyguard, I note, amused, as Ghazhak tags along behind us. His clan-brother Kohvrekhar stayed with Mikal and Ani.

The base must be carved from a solid block of ice, I decide as we walk along. It’s cold and not a very pleasant place to be. For many of the rebels it must have been a shock, too, since they had chosen to use temperate or jungle worlds as hideouts in the past. I rub my hands together in an attempt to keep them warm. Even with my heavy gloves and thermal clothing, my hands feel cold.

Psychologically cold, not physically cold.

I stop dead and tip my head as I reach out with the Force. Someone recently had a heated argument here and my senses have picked up on it. A vision of Han and Leia swims before my eyes, then vanishes. Lovers’ quarrel. Nothing of interest.

I dismiss it and keep walking, but that is the only strong impression I encounter in the personal areas of the base.

‘My Lady, should we try somewhere else?’ Thirsk suggests when he sees I am getting frustrated.

He steers me into the medical wing next.

I stop dead in a doorway, then take a step back.

For a brief second, the image of an injured Luke, suspended in bacta, flashes in my mind. Then it is gone again. I wander through the wards, trail my fingers over several of the treatment tables and beds. Fleeting emotions tumble in the air around me, but again, nothing strong enough to be of any use.

When I reach the bed Luke had been in, I stop.

The ghost of his Force presence sings to me. He has grown much stronger in the two intervening years since those few days I spent with him on the Falcon and Garqi. I let a frown crease my forehead. Ani will have to do something about Luke, sooner or later. The Emperor won’t like the idea of him becoming a potential threat.

‘There’s not much here, either,’ I tell Thirsk.

He nods, and I follow him out the door and down the corridor again, heading back to the hangar bay and the shelter of Ani’s shuttle.

***

Mikal tugs at my hand as I lead him along to the Command Center. I know he wants me to hurry, so I deliberately slow my pace instead.

‘Behave,’ I softly growl at him.

It does no good. He just pulls harder. The prospect of spending some time with me off-ship has him completely fired up.

And Rik chasing him across the hangar hasn’t helped.

We are partway to the Command Center when I hear a low growl down one of the side corridors.

‘Monster?’ Mikal quietly asks.

‘Monster,’ I calmly confirm as I push him back at Kohvrekhar and ignite my ‘saber.

***

I stop dead in my tracks as the Force sends a warning tingling through my body. It takes a moment to locate the source, orient myself, and move in that direction. When my senses start screaming at me, I begin to run, Thirsk and Ghazhak hot on my heels.

As I round a corner, I see Kohvrekhar swing Mikal away from his father, towards me, while Ani disappears down an adjacent hallway. The sounds of a lightsaber’s distinct hum and a rather loud growl echo against the white ice walls.

‘Wampa,’ Thirsk identifies the source of the latter from behind me.

Mikal throws himself at me.

‘Mommy,’ he calls.

I brush the top of his head, soothing him, before I send him over to Thirsk with a nudge from my hands.

‘Be good for Commander Thirsk while I go help daddy,’ I tell him.

Then I head over to the same corridor Ani took, not quite sure what I will find.

***

The growls continue as I stalk down the corridor, heading for their source. This section of the base should have been cleared of these creatures, but one has obviously made it past the ‘troopers and succeeded in coming quite close to the Command Center. It should only take me a moment to deal with it.

I sense the creature’s intention to attack seconds before a large furry white arm takes a swipe at me from a half-open doorway.

***

I see Ani ahead of me, and gasp when the Wampa attacks him. But the Sith Lord moves in a blur. His blade is even quicker as it connects with the ice creature’s arm. There is an inhuman howl of pain and anger as one large severed limb drops to the floor with a thud. My husband’s next lightening fast swing is up, then downwards, through the doorway, so I don’t see the ‘saber connect. The sudden silence tells me that the blow, regardless, was fatal.

It doesn’t take long for me to close the distance between us.

‘It was a young one, judging by the small size of its horns,’ Ani dryly observes as he drives his ‘saber through the Wampa’s skull, ensuring it really is dead. ‘Young and desperate. A combination which leads to risky and foolhardy acts in many species.’

I nod in answer. The smell of burnt fur and flesh, and blood escaping from a severed artery is starting to make me feel sick.

He turns his head to look at me. The ‘saber shuts off.

‘You look a bit ill. Perhaps you should take Mikal and return to the Executor,’ he suggests.

‘No, I’ll be fine,’ I insist. ‘He should spend some time with you today. I can go lie down in the medical wing for a while, if you want me to.’

A gloved hand brushes my face, then is lifted away as he waves a finger in front of my nose.

‘Go lie down,’ Ani orders. ‘I’ll keep Mikal busy for the next hour. Then it’s back to the shuttle and the Executor for both of you.’

An arm slides about my waist as he guides me to where our son is waiting.

***

I leave Mikal in Thirsk’s capable hands and go to fetch Maia from the base’s medical wing. She needed the rest despite her denials and stubborn attempts to hide it.

Ghazhak moves away from the door he is guarding when I approach. I nod at him in approval. He’s made sure she is secure, but hasn’t intruded on her space. Dismissing him with a wave of my hand, I go in the room and shut the door behind me.

Maia is lying on her side, black cloak wrapped tightly around her. Her hair has fanned out a bit and spilled over the pillow and gloved hand she is resting her cheek on.

Red and black against stark white. What a contrast those three colors make. For a moment I stare at her, remembering the children’s tale she told me about a sleeping princess trapped in an ice castle. How I wish I could wake her with a kiss like the prince does in that story.

Instead I reach down and gently stroke her cheek.

‘Maia,’ I softly call to her, wishing that for once my vocoder could properly convey the emotions I want it to.

Her eyes flutter and forehead wrinkles as realization slowly dawns.

‘Time to go back to the ship,’ I quietly remind her as I brush her cheek again.

This time my wife responds with a smile.

‘Anakin,’ she sleepily answers.

‘Not here,’ I scold a little. ‘Don’t use that name here.’

Her eyes open at that and she looks puzzled for a moment until her surroundings become familiar.

‘Sorry, my Lord,’ she apologizes, ‘I forgot where I was.’

‘It doesn’t matter,’ I decide.

There is no one to overhear, no listening or recording devices to spy on us.

I offer my hand. She takes it.

It’s time for us to return to my ship.

***


The Executor, Rutan, Elrood Sector, Outer Rim. Year 3, Month 6.

DAY 33

I look up from my datapad when Ani opens the door to the den. Cat instantly takes a few steps away from my chair in his direction, letting go of its arm, before falling on her rear with a soft thump.

‘Just like her sister, she’s getting closer to walking every day,’ he notes as he picks up his eldest daughter.

The Sith Lord returns her to where Shmi is playing with Mikal’s well-chewed, moth-eaten looking bantha. Our twins are almost one year old and keeping them confined has become more and more difficult.

‘They need to practice a bit more,’ I decide, ‘and work on their balance, too.’

I catch his hand when he offers it.

‘I will be going to the Avenger today,’ he tells me.

This doesn’t surprise me at all. Ever since Needa’s removal, Ani has kept a close eye on that ship’s crew. I know he is concerned that his politically motivated execution of the Avenger’s Captain might prompt a few to defect to the rebellion. Or to plot some sort of mischief.

‘Can I go daddy?’ Mikal asks.

‘Not today,’ my husband firmly replies. ‘Another time, my son.’

He gives my hand a squeeze, runs a finger down my cheek and is gone.

‘Now,’ I say, returning my attention to my eldest. ‘Where were we in reading about Rutan’s history?’

‘Prince Leed,’ he reminds me.

‘Ah, yes, the Prince who didn’t want to go home,’ I tell him.

I pause while I pull the story back to the front of my mind. Rutan and its sister planet Senali once had a practice of swapping the heirs to one another’s thrones. With a smile, I pick up my datapad, find the text I need, and resume reading aloud.

***

I leave the Avenger’s bridge crew to spend a few minutes alone in meditation in the tactical simulator room. With a touch to the projector’s controls, the local planets and systems appear in the air around me.

While I stare at them, I begin to once again speculate on where Solo and the Falcon could be. I know that ship cannot go far on its sub-light engines alone, and their supplies will be limited as well. It must be somewhere in the local sector. Unless they managed to reach a safe haven and make repairs, I remind myself.

Suppressing a frustrated sigh, I turn to stare out the transparisteel viewport.

Not one of the bounty hunters I summoned has contacted me with results. Solo and his friends have gone completely to ground. And time is running out.

I need Luke at my side as my ally.

Sooner, now, rather than later.

‘Lord Vader,’ I hear Lietenant Ch’arb say nervously as he enters the room, disturbing my thoughts.

I turn and take the three steps down from the observation platform to the floor as he introduces the tardy bounty hunter Awarru Tark. Perhaps I should make him the late Awarru Tark, I think in irritation, considering the rather lame excuse he just gave for missing the meeting he had been invited to earlier.

‘Your delay is your responsibility,’ I snap at him, annoyed. ‘Now, are we to do business or do you truly wish to risk my disfavour?’

His reply is lost in the explosion produced when he hurls four small silver concussion grenades at the door the Lieutenant just exited through.

***

I drop my datapad to the floor as pain and shock rips through me.

‘Ani?’ I gasp.

‘Mommy?’ Mikal asks, sounding unsure of what is happening.

***

My head snaps around as Tark manages to roundhouse kick me in the mask, sending me into the nearest wall. While I am down on the floor still recovering from that, I instinctively tip my head back, barely avoiding a blast from a laser hidden at his wrist.

I tap into the Force and hurl him upwards into the ceiling, holding him pinned in place there as I get to my feet.

Who is this bounty hunter? And why is he so determined to kill me?

I hear Maia’s calls to me, feel her absorb the pain I am experiencing. In her hypersensitive pregnant state every injury to me produces agony in her. It would be best, then, if I finish this quickly, before any harm might come to her or my child she is carrying.

More concussion grenades appear from somewhere on Tark’s body, rain down around me, and shred my cloak and tunic as they implode against the floor.

Every thought about my wife vanishes as I realize I might be fighting not only for her and my son’s lives, but for my own as well.

***

‘Ani?’ I gasp again as I slide out of the chair to my knees. Ani, answer me, please!

He’s in trouble, big trouble, and far too wrapped up in defending himself to respond to my frantic mental calls.

‘Contact Commander Thirsk using the comm,’ I order Mikal. ‘Tell him your father needs his help.’

Then I shut my eyes and let myself slump to the floor.

***

I bend forward slightly to shield myself from further blasts, deflecting the worst of them away from me with the Force. Unfortunately by doing so I lose my concentration on Tark for a moment. He falls to the floor behind me.

A killing machine, I think, disgusted as I spin about to face him. This is no man I am fighting, merely a weapon sent by one of my enemies to destroy me.

When he launches himself at me, I catch his forearms, holding them in a death grip as tentacles tipped with hooked durasteel blades burst from his midsection and wrists. They are too close for me to avoid, I note, as what remains of my tattered tunic is sliced into ribbons. There are only seconds remaining to me before my armour is breached.

We stare at one another, locked in place. His face is no longer even human in appearance - his jaw has fallen away revealing a mouthful of fangs and razor-sharp mandibles.

My choices are limited now. I cannot release his arms nor can I physically move to defend myself.

***

I hear Mikal activate the comm and his toddler’s attempts to make the Commander understand the situation.

‘Mommy’s hurt,’ he tells Thirsk, ‘daddy’s hurt.’

‘Where is your mother, Mikal?’ my friend calmly asks him.

‘On the floor, hurt,’ he replies, trying to get Thirsk to do something.

The frustration and fear my son is feeling is beginning to spill out. He’s crying now, making his voice almost inaudible and undecipherable. My poor little boy, I think, he can feel through the Force that something is terribly wrong, but he doesn’t understand what it is or how he can help.

I force myself to take a deep breath or two, drag myself up a little, and speak as clearly and loudly as I can.

***

In desperation, I use the only means of defence I have left. Reaching into the Force once again, I slam into his conscious self, past the mental walls of his hatred for me, hoping I can take control of Tark’s mind.

The being I find within is not Tark, but another, one who was once called Stauz Czycz.

Another who holds me responsible for his world’s destruction.

It is another nameless world to me. One of many in the catalog of those I have destroyed in the Emperor’s name.

Falleen. Firrerre. Talay. Innumerable others.

How many more will I add to that list?

And like myself, his losses turned him to darkness, led him to sacrifice himself in the name of love. Love of his ruined homeworld, love of his dead wife, his lost son. But at least I didn’t carve up what was left of my body, I grimly note as he hurls me violently from his mind.

The shock of the disconnection paralyzes both of us for a brief moment.

***

‘His Lordship is in trouble,’ I whisper a warning to Thirsk. ‘He’s being attacked and you need to get help to him immediately.’

The Commander hears me, and I know he is checking on the situation over on the Avenger.

‘The simulator room he’s trapped in has been sealed shut by an explosion,’ he tells me. ‘A team has been working to get it open.’

I nod at that and wait for him to continue.

‘I’ll be at your quarters momentarily,’ I hear him say just before I collapse on the floor again.

***

That brief moment is all the time I need to make use of the vulnerability my foray into his mind revealed. I touch the Force, then play a similar trick on him to the one Obi-wan once used on me.

In the same instant, I nudge a switch with the Force, shutting off his implanted force-field generator, release his wrists, and ignite my ‘saber. With one crude doubled handed swing his head and a number of tentacles are severed and land on the floor.

As the Avenger’s rescue team blows a hole through the fused blast doors, I pull a few more tentacles from my back and drop them next to Stauz’s head.

‘You’re late and you’re slow,’ I growl at Lieutenant Ch’arb.

I deliberately toss the last tentacle which was wrapped around myself at him.

He barely dodges it and goes as white as can be.

I must be quite a sight. My cloak and robe are in rags, my leather body suit is sliced through to my skin in a few places, and the durasteel of my chest armour was scoured by the tips of those tentacles. Each spot where I am bruised is beginning to ache, every cut is now stinging from sweat which has run into it, fueling my foul mood.

This battle was too close a contest.

And I am not accustomed to almost losing a fight.

It is an unwelcome, unpleasant feeling to know that one such as this, such a close reflection of myself, almost succeeded in besting me.

‘Ready my shuttle,’ I snap.

I want to return to the Executor and my quarters so I can survey the damage to my body and armor in private.

And I need to show Maia that I am alright.

***

Maia, I hear Ani call to me.

Ani, I promptly reply as I try to sit up.

Thirsk quickly restrains me.

‘You must lie down and rest, my Lady,’ he insists.

I bite my lip and obey. He must have picked me up off the floor and carried me in here.

‘The children,’ I blurt out.

‘Are fine,’ he reassures me. ‘Cyran calmed Mikal down and she’s now keeping them busy...’

‘And?’ I break in.

‘... and His Lordship is on his way back here as we speak,’ he smoothly finishes.

I lie back against the pillow and close my eyes. Ani will be here soon.

I’m fine, he reassures me, but you need to do as you are told and rest for a while.

***

I kiss her forehead once she is soundly asleep and go put on my helmet. Maia and the children won’t wake until morning.

I want to spend some time alone in meditation, so I retreat to my pod and remove my mask once again. While I relax, I consider the day’s events. My armor was easily replaced and my injuries quickly repaired.

The unease I feel is more due to who Stauz was than what he did; my discomfort a reflection of what he was willing to do to himself, to what he made himself into.

I cast a glance towards where Maia is sleeping.

She dragged me back from a similar abyss, a like fate. Pulled me away from a life of total darkness and despair. Saved what remained of my humanity.

For that I will be forever in her debt.

But I can never admit that to her.

The comm chimes. I set it to audio-only mode and wait.

‘Lord Vader, sir, there is a message for you from Bespin,’ Piett reports.

I smile. Solo’s hideaway has been discovered at last. Luke will be there, too. It won’t be long before my son is with me.

‘I will receive the message on the bridge,’ I tell the Admiral.

I will hear what I already know, send the Executor on her way, and show myself to the crew to discount any rumors of weakness. My helmet descends from the pod’s ceiling, seals itself to my mask. As I get to my feet, I reflect on Stauz again. He was more machine than man when he died.

Dismissing him from my mind, I head towards the command deck.

There are other more immediate concerns requiring my attention.

***


The Executor, Bespin, Bespin System,Year 3.

Midsummer Festival Week - DAY 1

Replacing my nausea patch, I turn my head to smile at my husband. These patches work much better than the old ones. I must admit that Reena’s replacement has been far more concerned with keeping me comfortable than her predecessor ever was.

I frown a little at that. Reena resigned and left, returning to her homeworld, without even saying goodbye. That hurts a little. The doctor was always kind to me, but I guess her family came first. And from what Ani said, they needed her more than I do.

‘Go put on that new gown of yours,’ my husband suggests, kissing my shoulder and giving my, for the moment, still flat stomach a rub, before he adds, ‘I want to show you off today.’

‘Oh?’ I prompt.

‘I thought you might want to go shopping for the twins,’ he explains, ‘and I will be meeting with Cloud City’s administrator this afternoon.’

‘Another late tax payment?’ I tease.

‘No,’ he tells me. ‘Other important business.’

Business he won’t discuss with me, no doubt. I turn completely now, and kiss him lightly on the mouth.

‘I’ll go get dressed, then,’ I say as I leave him to his own morning routine.

Shopping for the twin’s birthday presents should be fun. I’ll bring Mikal along, too, so he can pick out a few toys for himself.

***

I listen, half-distracted, to Maia telling Mikal about the city we will be landing in shortly. My thoughts are more focussed on how to get Calrissian to do as I need him to. Perhaps I should have brought Fett with me today, but I don’t want Maia to know who I have in my employ or why. He can meet me in Cloud City later.

Fett’s intelligence on Solo’s movements was a welcome break, but I expected no less from that master bounty hunter. The Falcon will be here in two days at their present speed. I will have time to set my trap.

‘Monsters?’ I hear my son ask.

‘No monsters here,’ Maia reassures him with a laugh. ‘The air squids won’t come too close to the shuttle, and we won’t be any place that is dangerous.’

I sense her quick glance over at me.

‘It’s completely safe,’ I echo her words to reinforce them. ‘There is nothing to be afraid of.’

Mikal has been wary of leaving our quarters ever since Hoth. I want to be sure he forgets the Wampa incident as quickly as possible. It wouldn’t do for my son to be afraid of going new places.

***

I nod at Ani and look ahead, through the cockpit, out the windows. Cloud City is growing larger. We will be landing soon.

‘There are many shops and places of entertainment,’ Ani admits, ‘and also casinos. The run-down area called Port Town is full of cantinas and disreputable characters.’

‘We won’t be going anywhere near there,’ I decide.

I won’t expose my son to any danger if I can help it.

‘Baron Calrissian has set aside the entire executive floor of the Kerros Tower for our personal use,’ my husband tells me, reaching over to squeeze my hand. ‘The Noghri and Cyran will stay there with the twins while you go shopping with Daini, Rik, and Thirsk. I will meet you later and perhaps go sightseeing with all of you.’

Several podcars have joined out TIE escort, I note, leading the shuttle by a respectful distance. Rik follows them in, gently setting us down on our assigned landing platform. While we wait for the official greeting party, I unstrap the twins, hand Shmi to Daini and Cat to Cyran. Mikal has already freed himself and is impatiently waiting for the ramp to drop.

So much for my son being afraid. His curiosity and urge to go exploring have superceded any previous reluctance. I take him by the hand and hold him back as we walk down the ramp, trailing after Ani who insisted on being the first out.

‘My Lord,’ I quietly say when I see just how far above the city streets we are.

‘It’s in as enclosed a space as is safe,’ he reveals.

I swallow hard. Just my luck. He’s more concerned with security than my fear of heights.

‘Take my arm,’ he offers.

I do so as Baron Calrissian and his entourage finally join us.

‘Lord Vader, Lady Vader,’ he greets us with a huge smile, ‘I am Lando Calrissian, administrator of Cloud City. If I may ask, what brings you to our gracious city?’

‘Personal business,’ Ani promptly states.

‘Shopping,’ I cheekily add.

I see the Baron’s dark eyes shift over to me, then settle on Mikal.

‘And who do we have here?’ he smoothly asks.

Mikal stares at him, no doubt fascinated by Lando’s dark complection and bright clothing.

‘My son and heir,’ Ani supplies.

Mikal moves behind me a little in an attempt to hide, no doubt unsure about the attention he is receiving from this stranger.

Lando’s eyes move again, this time to the twins. It then occurs to me that this is their first appearance in public, save for an official holo portrait we were required to pose for a few months ago.

‘My daughters,’ the Sith Lord coolly adds before he can be asked.

The Baron nods at that, taking the unspoken hint that further enquiries will not be welcome.

‘I’ve seen to it that your accommodations are prepared... ’ he starts, but Ani dismisses his explanation with a wave of his hand.

‘Don’t waste my time with pleasantries,’ my husband warns. ‘I will have my private meeting with you immediately.’

Calrissian nods again, but this time I catch a hint of fear from him.

He’s hiding something, I tell Ani, tightening my grip on Mikal’s hand.

Of course he’s hiding something, the Sith Lord answers, amused. Some of his profit making activities are illegal. He has a lot to lose if I start prying into his Tibanna gas mining operations.

‘Commander Thirsk will secure our quarters,’ Ani announces. ‘My own staff and security team will act as bodyguards.’

Lando looks a bit relieved at that. I guess he would rather not have that responsibility if he can help it. After the incident with the reporter at the Abersaith Aviary on Corulag, few local officials have wanted to handle my security. The price of failure, Ani’s wrath, is something they would prefer to avoid.

‘Then my aide will escort your Lady and children to your rooms while we conduct our business meeting in my office,’ the Baron concedes.

Ani leaves us in the care of the man who is Lando’s aide. Then he turns and walks swiftly away much to the Baron’s chagrin. Cloud City’s administrator looks rather silly half-running to keep up with my husband.

‘This way, my Lady,’ the aide offers, sweeping his arm in a graceful gesture.

***

I refuse to slow down for Calrissian. It’s important he understand exactly who is in charge here immediately. And I know his type. Former gambler and swindler turned respectable. He won’t want to risk his comfortable position and lifestyle by refusing to do as I need him to.

Not that his co-operation is really required. I could station a garrison here and take control, but why go to that effort when it isn’t necessary? And I want everything to appear to be running normally from the outside. The garrison will be a useful threat to hold over his head if I need to.

His office door opens. I enter, step around his desk and take his chair, forcing Calrissian to remain standing in front of me. He shifts nervously from one foot to another then stops himself and moves closer in an attempt to disguise his discomfort.

Perfect.

I have him exactly where I want him.

‘I am here about a personal matter,’ I flatly state, ‘a matter which may prove to be mutually beneficial.’

‘Sounds interesting,’ he coolly answers, trying to not appear intimidated.

‘In two days a “friend” of yours will arrive,’ I tell him. ‘Han Solo, to be exact.’

Surely he knows about the price on his old acquaintance’s head.

‘That lousy, no-good swindler still owes me quite a bit,’ he snaps to cover his surprised reaction.

He had no idea Solo was on his way here.

‘Good,’ I reply, ‘then I’m certain I will have your complete co-operation in this matter.’

Not that he has any choice in it, anyway. I see him struggle with himself for a moment, then finally give in.

Ah, yes, so predictable, so easy to manipulate.

I begin to outline what I want and what he needs to do for me...

***

The opulence surrounding me indicates that those normally housed in this suite expect nothing less than the very best. I find that it makes me feel a bit uncomfortable. After living in Ani’s sparsely furnished quarters for over three years, anything more seems a bit excessive.

Mikal lets go of my hand, runs into the room which will be his and promptly climbs into the middle of the bed. It’s much bigger than his bunk on the Executor and has a bit of spring, too, I note as he jumps on it a few times.

‘Mikal, don’t do that,’ I scold him a little.

He lets himself fall onto his back and simply lies there, laughing. How typical.

He’s just like I was at his age, my brother chimes in without appearing visibly.

More like Jamie, I reply.

I was too young at the time to have any memories of Michael at his nephew’s age, but I do know what my son’s other uncle was like.

Being a terror runs in both sides of the family, he admits.

Oh? I prompt, curious to see what he might reveal about my husband, but my brother has left again.

I let out an annoyed snort. Trust him to drop a hint and take off. He’s as bad as the Sith Lord is when it comes to keeping secrets and teasing me about it.

‘We have settled the twins in their room, my Lady,’ Cyran tells me. ‘They should sleep for an hour or two.’

I leave Mikal to unpack his bag of toys and peek quickly into the second bedroom. Cat and Shmi are sound asleep, each on her back, arms and legs splayed out as widely as they can go. Good. Time to go shopping for a while.

‘Let’s go right away, Thirsk,’ I whisper to the Commander when he comes by to see what I am staring at. ‘If we are fast, they won’t notice I am gone.’

It takes a few minutes to locate Rik and Daini, enlist their help to corral Mikal who is busy exploring every room he can get into, and head to the turbolift. I face away from the transparisteel windows and stare at the panel indicating each floor we pass.

This is going to be a difficult place for me to visit, I wryly note, since everything seems to be designed to show off the height of the buildings and the brightly coloured clouds surrounding the city.

The lift stops. Thirsk peers out, quickly surveys the area, then steps out. He’s being cautious. I follow him, Mikal in tow, and head towards the district with the shops I decided to go to earlier. All have been notified in advance of my visit. There won’t be anyone else inside to disturb us or distract the staff. And my purchases will be treated confidentially, for a day or two, at least. Then every store manager will be boasting about Lady Vader’s patronage.

I decide I don’t care.

This is my first opportunity to do some serious shopping.

Thirsk goes into the business at the top of my list and quickly returns.

‘It’s clear, my Lady,’ he tells me.

I nod and go in. First thing on my to buy list are Cat and Shmi’s birthday presents. This toy store should have something suitable.

‘Go pick something out for yourself,’ I tell Mikal as I walk around looking at the various items on the shelves.

Many are a puzzle to me. I want something simple - like the toys from my own childhood - not these bizarre gadgets and high-tech gizmos. Randomly selecting a bright silver ball, I turn it about in my hands, dropping it when it begins to vibrate. It bounces off the floor and rolls away. Not sure what else to do, I leave it where it is and go to find what Mikal has discovered.

He’s happily playing with a model TIE. It’s not as detailed or nice as the one Ani made him, but my son obviously likes it anyway.

‘Do you want that one?’ I ask him.

He puts it back on the shelf and shakes his head.

‘No,’ he admits. ‘Daddy’s is much better.’

I let out a sigh. Deciding what to get the twins is not going to be as easy as I thought it would be. While I start to wonder what I should do, Mikal wanders away, looking at the shelves as he goes.

‘This one!’ he cries out, grabbing his selection.

Another furry bantha. I should have known. His old one has been loved almost to death.

‘Are you sure?’ I give him a chance to choose something else.

He holds it tight to his chest and nods.

‘Shmi can have my old one,’ he offers. ‘I want this one.’

‘Let Commander Thirsk check it out first,’ I tell him.

One brown bantha is rather reluctantly submitted for inspection and rapidly reclaimed when Thirsk is finished with it.

‘It’s safe, my Lady,’ he pronounces as Mikal snatches back his prize.

‘I’ll take two more of them,’ I tell the female shopkeeper who has been silently hovering in the background.

The twins will each want their own once they see what their brother has.

For the next hour I walk back and forth through the store. Daini and Rik do their best to make suggestions, but in the end, I simply follow Mikal around and set aside whatever he plays with for more than a minute or two.

Finally bored, my son plunks himself down with his toy of choice and starts making rumbling noises.

‘Grrr,’ he growls, attacking Rik’s ankle with his new bantha.

Mikal hasn’t forgotten the pilot’s prank back on Hoth.

‘Banthas don’t growl,’ Rik reminds him.

‘Mine does,’ my son insists as he continues to assail Rik. ‘Grrrr, grrrr, grrrr.’

Told you he’s just like I was, my invisible brother pipes in.

Scram, pest, I shoo him away, trying not to laugh.

‘Here,’ I say, handing my credit chip to the shopkeeper. ‘I think it’s time to go.’

I don’t bother looking at the total or worrying about what my purchases cost. It’s not important, and Ani can buy thousands of real banthas for our children if he wants to.

Thirsk quickly hands the four packages to Rik and sends him back to the hotel. He won’t risk someone tampering with what I have bought. The pilot will catch up with us at our next stop.

***

I leave Calrissian’s office completely satisfied with my plans. He will hand Solo and his companions over to me. It is just a matter of waiting for them.

‘Solo had better arrive on time,’ I growl at Fett when he joins me in the corridor.

‘He will be here,’ he reassures me. ‘He has nowhere else go.’

True, I admit to myself. There is no other safe haven within the Millenium Falcon’s range.

‘And when he arrives, once I have Skywalker, you may do as you please with Solo,’ I decide. ‘Just make sure he will never be a problem to me again. He’s interfered with my plans too many times in the past to go unpunished for it.’

‘As you wish,’ Fett concedes.

I dismiss him before anyone can see the two of us together.

Now to find out what Maia has been up to in my absence.

***

Thirsk orders Daini off with my last set of purchases. I could return to the hotel now, but my curiosity is demanding an answer. Not too far from the shop I finished my spending spree in is Cloud City’s most famous gambling establishment, the Royal.

I wonder if it is like the casinos back home.

***

I quickly make my way to the Kerros Tower Hotel. My presence sparks a few fearful, curious glances, but no one dares to stop or challenge me. Even in this distant outpost my reputation is well known.

Leaving the turbolift, I almost run directly into Daini who quickly steps back.

‘Sorry, my Lord,’ she apologizes before darting around me and disappearing, going back down to the hotel’s lower lobby.

Her hasty retreat confirms what I feel from my life-bond and sense from the Force. Maia is not in our suite. She’s still out shopping. Perhaps letting her loose with an unlimited credit chip was not such a good idea after all.

That opinion is reinforced when my eyes settle on the large stack of parcels in our temporary bedroom.

What does she expect to do with all this stuff?

I pick up the topmost box and open it, then promptly replace the lid. She won’t like me snooping too much given what was in that particular package. Setting it back in place, I decide to check on the twins. Both are sound asleep under Cyran’s watchful eye. All is well there, and my wife should be back soon.

Then why am I beginning to feel uneasy?

My comlink chimes.

‘Yes, what is it?’ I snap, annoyed with the interruption.

‘Uncle Dee?’ I hear Jix chirp.

‘Yes, Jix,’ I reply, doing my best to resist the urge to sigh.

‘You had better get down here, fast,’ he advises.

‘And where is “here”?’ I prod him.

‘The Royal,’ he answers as the channel cuts out.

Why is he in a casino? If he’s taken a detour for a drink instead of keeping an eye on my wife as I ordered him to, I am going to kill him.

Then realization dawns.

Oh, no.

***

I shove another stack of chips forward and wait. This is great fun, I must admit. Gambling is easy once you figure out the rules and the equations you need to predict what you might be dealt. The old man next to me folds immediately, but the Twi’lek refuses to budge and matches my bet as does the Hutt across the table.

They’re both bluffing, Michael whispers in my mind. I looked at their cards.

Sneak, I tease.

Just trying to help, he admits.

The bid has come back to me again. I take another card, stare at it and frown. Not the best of hands, but I can win with it. With a firm touch, I add to the large pile of chips, deeds, and other bits representing valuable items in the center of the table.

Silence falls around us as the Twi’lek sets his cards face down on the table, stands up and backs away. It’s become too rich a game for him.

It’s just me and Gardulla now.

And I get the impression she doesn’t like to lose.

***

I do my best not to run despite the conversations I am hearing around me.

It would not do for me to be seen in a panic.

What can she be thinking? I keep asking myself.

The crowd gathered around the high stakes sabacc table parts, almost reluctantly, as I draw closer. I see the large, familiar bulk of a particularly hated Hutt occupying a good portion of the space to one side of the room.

‘Jix,’ I hiss as I come up behind my agent.

He has the decency to jump in surprise. The background noise must have covered my approach.

‘Umm, hi uncle Dee,’ he sheepishly greets me.

‘You were supposed to keep an eye on her, not let her get into trouble,’ I snap at him, annoyed.

He rolls his eyes.

‘Jixton,’ I growl.

‘Trying to keep Aunt Em out of trouble is a lost cause and about as easy as doing the same with you,’ he teases.

His gaze returns to the scene in front of us.

‘She’s bankrupted a couple of the local crime lords already, just did that to the sector’s Black Sun vigo, and is on the verge of doing the same to Gardulla, too,’ Jix reveals. ‘This hand they’re playing now should do it.’

I stare at the back of his head in disbelief then shift my attention to what I can see of my wife. Ignoring the protests of those around us, I push my way forward to Maia’s side.

I arrive in time to see and hear her call the game.

***

‘Show your cards, Gardulla,’ I calmly tell the Hutt, laying my own down on the table.

I know she can’t win.

Michael only confirmed what my mathematical gift told me a few minutes ago.

Loud spluttering noises emerge from her large, drooling mouth. She half-throws her cards at me and points an accusing finger.

‘Cheat!’ she loudly accuses. ‘You must be cheating! No one wins that many hands in a row!’

‘My wife does not cheat, Gardulla,’ I hear Ani’s voice coldly inform her. ‘Unlike others I could name.’

Silence falls over the room.

My husband has impeccable timing, I decide as I shift Mikal on my lap and turn my head to look at the Sith Lord. Our son quickly makes his opinion known.

‘Daddy!’ he happily exclaims. ‘Mommy won!’

‘That she did,’ another familiar voice notes, ‘and honestly, too.’

Baron Calrissian is here as well.

‘But I would suggest you take your winnings and refrain from gambling in the future, my Lady,’ he adds. ‘There are those who might not appreciate the demonstration of your mathematical skills as much as I did.’

Damn.

Busted.

Just like Ani warned I would be.

And I just know I am going to get quite a lecture from my husband about it, too.

***

I wait until the evening, after Mikal is safely in bed, the twins are asleep and we are alone in our bedroom.

‘That was a very dangerous thing to do,’ I growl at her.

My cloak snaps as I spin about and shake my finger at her again.

Her mouth opens and shuts. I know she wants to protest that it was completely safe, but she has no idea who she just won several rather large fortunes from.

‘Do you know who you were playing against?’ I ask, setting my hands on my hips.

Maia shakes her head.

I let out a frustrated sigh.

There’s little point in frightening her with the details, so I will tell her just enough to make sure she doesn’t do anything so foolish again.

‘Lonay, the Twi’lek you were playing against, is one of Black Sun’s vigos,’ I reveal, ‘one of that crime syndicate’s leading figures.’

A frown appears on her face. Obviously what I just said means nothing to her.

‘Like the mafia on your homeworld,’ I suggest.

‘Oh,’ Maia quietly answers at last.

‘And Gardulla once owned me,’ I confess.

Her eyes go wide.

‘So I find myself unable to be upset with you for bankrupting and humiliating that particular Hutt,’ I admit.

No, I am not really that angry about this afternoon’s sabacc game. Xizor will have heard how my wife publicly humbled his vigo by now, and Gardulla deserved what her greediness earned her. Maia’s little foray into gambling has been to my benefit, actually.

But I am not going to tell her that.

***

Ani finishes his lecture, so I select the top package from the stack, retreat to the ‘fresher and close its door. He’s not as angry as he is pretending to be and I can sense that he is actually a bit pleased with what happened, even though he won’t admit it.

I start filling the large, deep bath with hot water and dump some aromatic oil I bought today into it. As the tub fills, I let my dress fall down on to the tiles, around my feet, and look at myself in the large floor to ceiling mirrors. My stomach is just starting to round out a bit, I note, and my breasts are getting large again. At least I have been spared any stretch marks from my previous two pregnancies.

Setting my hand over son number two, I quickly look in at him. How bright he shines in the Force. With a touch I bump up the shields I have over him. Ani insisted I put them in place the same day this child of ours was conceived and I have been careful to always maintain them.

Not that it matters, I admit, letting my hand fall away again. Palpatine has already staked his claim on this child of mine. Ani will have no choice but to hand him over, despite any protests or fight I might put up over it. All I can do is hope that my husband will figure out a way to prevent that from happening before it is too late.

With a sigh, I give up brooding about the future and go ease myself into the hot water which is waiting for me.

I wake a while later.

The water is still warm so I couldn’t have slept for very long. I smile ruefully to myself. My old friend, pregnancy induced fatigue, is back, but the brief rest will help me stay awake a bit longer. And I hope I will have a reason to stay awake a bit longer.

I haul myself out of the water and select a large towel to wrap myself in. When I go to fuss with my hair, I spot a white one, yank it out and stare at it, then drop it on the counter. That’s the very first one I’ve found, but at my age, I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised. My hair dries quickly under the warming lights, so I open my parcel, toss the box aside and slide the nightgown in it over my head.

Then I slip back into the bedroom, intending to surprise my husband.

***

I strip off as much of my armor as is safe and settle myself in front of the large window to meditate. It takes little time to lose myself in the swirling patterns of the gas clouds in the distance.

What does the future hold, I wonder?

I know what Maia’s dream shows, what she insists will be, and I have the secrets I found in her mind to draw on, but my visions of late have revealed a slightly different series of events. Some are similar, some identical, others completely changed. And those which have come to pass have been near enough to her memories in their details that I am beginning to question my own ability to see into the future.

Such foresight as hers is unusual and unprecedented, yet it makes no sense that she has it - and had it before she became attuned to the Force.

And why? Why does she have this knowledge and how did she obtain it?

It is a frustrating puzzle I cannot solve, a question she no longer has the answers for.

For now, though, I decide to ignore Maia’s strange prescience and concentrate on my own impressions of the immediate future.

***

Ani’s sitting, cross-legged on the floor, in front of the window. I quietly go to him and take my place at his side.

After a moment, his hand reaches over and takes mine.

‘Maia,’ he softly calls my name.

I see his helmet turn so he can look at me.

‘Like it?’ I quietly ask.

His head tips down as he checks out my new nightgown. It’s a deep blue mothsilk neglige which hugs all my curves. I won’t fit into it for very long, but today I just couldn’t resist buying it.

‘It’s...’ he starts. I wait for him to finish, suspecting I will hear suitable or adequate, but he surprises me by saying, ‘...beautiful.’

‘It’s beautiful,’ he repeats, ‘just like my wife is.’

‘Flatterer,’ I tease, then admit, ‘I found a white hair tonight.’

‘You’re such an old lady,’ he suggests with a laugh.

I stick my tongue out at him and join in.

An arm wraps around my waist as he pulls me close. His other hand strokes across my stomach.

‘Checking on him?’ I ask, though I can sense he is doing exactly that.

‘He’s fine. Healthy, strong, growing rapidly,’ Ani informs me. ‘Everything will be alright.’

‘Will it?’ I raise the question which has me the most concerned. ‘I know the Emperor wants him, Ani.’

The Sith Lord turns his head away, looks out at the distant sunset once more.

‘I know what I must give him in exchange for our son, Maia,’ he reveals to me, ‘but I find myself reluctant to do it.’

When I try to ask him what he is talking about, he silences me with a finger across my lips.

‘I want to forget about that for tonight,’ he derails any further inquiries from me. ‘I want to enjoy myself with my wife and for once not worry about the future.’

His grip on my hand tightens as he gets to his feet, pulls me to mine, and leads me over to the bed.


Cloud City, Bespin, Bespin System,Year 3.

Midsummer Festival Week - DAY 3

‘Ooof,’ I cry out as one very rambunctious and heavy two and a half year old pounces on me, waking me from my midafternoon nap.

‘Mikal,’ I scold a little, ‘you are getting too big to do that.’

‘Where’s daddy?’ he promptly asks.

I lean back into the pillow and close my eyes. This is a question I want the answer to myself. He was here when I fell asleep.

Ani? I call to my husband.

I’m in a meeting with Calrissian, he promptly answers. I’ll have dinner with you, later.

‘He’s busy, sweety,’ I tell my son. ‘He’ll be back for dinner.’

Mikal sticks his lip out in a pout. It’s then I remember that Ani promised to take him on a tour of the city today.

‘Would you like to go out exploring with me?’ I suggest.

The pout gets larger.

I let out a sigh. It’s hard for Mikal to understand that his father is often called away, often forced to break his word when it comes to spending time with us. His other obligations will always take precedence. And I know Ani is up to something again. He’s been quiet and reserved the last two days, and prone to spending hours in meditation staring silently out at the clouds. This brooding mood has begun to worry me, too.

Whatever he has planned is something he really doesn’t want to do - it’s something he is being forced into doing.

***

Maia’s gone from the suite when I finally arrive. I know she’s taken Mikal out sightseeing - which is something I was supposed to do with him today. But instead I found myself in Calrissian’s office arranging how I want Solo and his companions handed over to me.

Frustrated, I curl my hands into fists, then release them again.

My family needs me to be a husband and father, but increasingly I am torn away from them. It seems I never have any time for them anymore.

Time.

It is always a question of time.

There is never enough of that elusive, precious thing in one’s life.

I make a decision and activate the comm.

‘Yes, my Lord?’ Calrissian answers.

‘Change in plans,’ I inform him. ‘Keep Solo and his travelling companions occupied until after I have had dinner with my family. Then bring them to me. I will meet them in the dining room instead of greeting them at the landing platform as we previously discussed.’

I cut off his reply and quickly leave the hotel behind.

***

Hello, beautiful, I hear in my mind.

I turn around and spy my husband making his way down the street towards us.

‘Daddy!’ Mikal lets out a happy squeal when he sees who has caught my attention.

He tugs at my hand so I let him go, then watch our son dart away from me directly to his father. Ani ignores the stares from those around us and catches his son, swinging him up into the air before setting him down again.

‘Let’s go for a walk, my lady,’ Ani suggests when he reaches my side.

I reach for Mikal’s hand, but my son would rather hold his father’s. The Sith Lord doesn’t seem to care at the moment, so I take his arm and let him lead us along, my bodyguards trailing behind.

We wander aimlessly around the exclusive shopping district, stopping a couple of times to look at store displays which catch Mikal’s eye, but what interests my son the most is the iced dessert parlour. He spends quite a few minutes deciding what he wants before settling on what looks like the equivalent of chocolate. For myself I have my usual neema fruit flavoured delicacy.

Ani doesn’t hurry us at all. He seems quite content to putter and do whatever Mikal or I come up with. It’s like there’s nothing in the universe he’d rather do than waste time with us.

My husband has never been this indulgent in public before.

Are you feeling alright? I finally work up the nerve to ask.

Perfectly fine, he assures me. Just wanted to spend some time with my family today.

He gives my hand a surreptitious squeeze before turning to look at Mikal. Like all youngsters, he’s tried to eat his ‘ice cream’ too fast and is making funny faces as the frozen treat affects his mouth.

‘Mikal, don’t eat it so quickly,’ I scold him.

It does no good of course. The ice cream continues to disappear as rapidly as he can manage it. Once it’s gone, I make sure Mikal cleans the evidence of his greediness from his face. He’s enjoying himself today, being a kid like any other on an afternoon outing with his parents.

Thank you, I tell Ani when our day winds down and we are returning to the hotel for dinner.

His comlink chimes, but rather than ignore it, he waves us on ahead while he answers it in private. Something must be going on, I note when I hear a frustrated growl and then a barely audible snapped comment.

***

I growl at Calrissian in irritation. He knows I am out with my family and do not wish to be disturbed.

‘What do you mean he isn’t with them?’ I snap at him.

‘Skywalker did not arrive with Solo,’ he patiently repeats. ‘Solo’s Wookiee co-pilot Chewbacca, a woman called Leia, and a droid were all who disembarked when he arrived. My repair crews found no one else on board, and the security cameras didn’t show anyone else leaving the ship.’

I reach out with the Force, searching for my son, only to have his words confirmed.

Luke is not in Cloud City.

I glare at the comlink in my hand. This is not what I had planned, but I can use Luke’s friends to draw my son in. If he knows they are in trouble, he won’t be able to stay away. His loyalty to them will demand that he come to their aid. He is exactly like I was at his age - if Obi-Wan needed rescuing I would not let anything or anyone stand in my way.

‘Bring them to me as I asked you to,’ I order. ‘I will have to slightly alter my plans.’

Yes, I decide, I will use Luke’s friends.

First to bring him to me, then to keep him in line. Their future safety will depend on his conduct.

Shoving the comlink back out of sight, I hurry to join my wife. Maia looks puzzled at my delay, so I take her hand again and pull her along.

‘It was nothing important,’ I tell her. ‘Just an annoyance I had to deal with.’

It would be best if she doesn’t know what I have planned. She is too close to Luke and his friends. Things like what I must do to them will only upset her.

***

I know he isn’t telling me the truth, that he’s hiding something, but this isn’t the time or place to try to get it from him. That com-call had to do with whatever his ‘private business’ with Cloud City’s administrator is, so I doubt he will tell me, even if I ask.

‘I think it’s time for dinner,’ I announce to everyone. ‘Let’s go eat.’

The dining room is the same one from yesterday, I note with a sigh. White, plain, stark. I would rather be in a cafeteria somewhere than this bland, boring room.

Ani settles himself at the head of the table, so I seat myself to his right. Mikal grabs the other chair next to his father. My bodyguards make themselves as inconspicuous as they can, not that they can really do that against those white walls.

I reach over and fill Mikal’s glass, then my own and wait.

Ani seems too distracted to make small talk, so I abandon that idea and concentrate on asking Mikal what he liked about this afternoon and what we might do tomorrow. My son happily chatters away. The Sith Lord, though, says very little. I decide to leave him to his musings.

After our meal arrives, Ani is a bit more talkative, but it’s to cover the combination of anticipation and reluctance I am feeling from him, not because he is interested in Mikal’s childish banter.

Something is going to happen soon. I can sense it and so can my husband.

I firmly shove my plate away and watch Mikal finish picking away at the remains of his dessert. He wants more ice cream, of course, rather than the tart piece of cake in his bowl.

‘Mommy,’ he says, leaving his meal half-eaten. ‘Something is going to happen.’

I glance at Ani. Even our son can feel it.

‘Something always happens,’ Ani teases him. ‘It’s just a matter of waiting.’

‘Yes, it is,’ I confirm.

Hopefully my husband will own up to what is going on today. He hasn’t been his usual self at all. When Ani still stays silent, though, I decide it’s time to go.

‘Naptime,’ I firmly tell my son. ‘Back to your room and no arguing.’

‘I will catch up with you later,’ Ani announces.

‘Oh?’ I ask, curious.

‘Another meeting,’ he confesses. ‘I will wait for my appointment here.’

So this is what has been distracting him.

‘Later then, upstairs,’ I agree.

Under the table, out of sight, I cheekily brush his leg with my foot, flirting a little.

As we head down the corridor, I can’t help noticing the almost-familiar figure in battle-worn green armour who passes us. I turn my head, see him disappear into the dining room we just left. So that is who Ani is meeting. Some disreputable type he didn’t want us to know about.

‘Mommy!’ Mikal calls to me.

I shrug my shoulders and hurry along after my son. My curiosity will have to wait. Ani won’t appreciate my prying into ‘his business.’

***

‘Skywalker isn’t with them,’ I tell Fett when he joins me. ‘You will have to wait until I have who I want before you can take Solo to Jabba.’

‘As you wish,’ he replies.

There is no argument, no wasted words from him. He knows there is no point in disputing my decision.

I sense Calrissian’s approach. He is not happy that I have forced him betray his old friend, but he won’t break our deal either. One smuggler and his companions are a small price to pay in exchange for his own security.

The doors to the dining room slide open, so I rise to my feet to greet my dinner ‘guests.’ Solo glares at his old friend, hurt and shock warring for dominance on his face.

Ah, yes, betrayal realized.

His intentions are clearly evident through the Force, so I let him draw his blaster and fire. With a casual gesture, I deflect the bolts aside, then rip his weapon from his hand, catch it in mine and set in down on the table in front of me.

‘We would be honoured if you would join us,’ I calmly state.

‘Sorry, friend,’ Calrissian apologizes. ‘I had no choice. They arrived right before you did.’

‘I’m sorry, too,’ Solo snaps back.

I resume my seat as Solo and his two companions enter the dining room and take theirs.

This meal will undoubtedly be a far less pleasant one than the dinner I just finished with my family.

***

I settle Mikal into bed, check quickly on my sleeping twins, then retire to my bedroom for the evening. For a moment I consider having a bath, but dismiss the idea.

Something is about to happen.

I can feel it.

Then pain, overwhelming pain and agony, flows over me through the Force, swamps my senses. The floor rushes towards me as I pitch forward onto my knees. It isn’t the Sith Lord I am feeling this from, but whoever it is, is someone known to me. But I am not going to try to reach out to them to see who it is. I dare not risk that, not in my pregnant condition.

Surely Ani knows what is going on.

Ani! I cry out to my husband. What is happening?

I feel him reach out to me, touch my mind.

And then I am in darkness.

***

I silently indulge in a few choice Huttese curses as I use our bond to touch Maia’s mind and shove her into unconsciousness.

I should have known her empathy would pick up on Solo’s pain.

Hurrying away from the writhing smuggler, I quickly dismiss Calrissian and Fett’s concerns. Solo won’t be permanently harmed, nor will Leia or the Wookiee, but their pain will call out to Luke in the same way it did to my wife. One short torture session will be all that is required to have him come running to their aid.

My feet rapidly take me to the hotel and our suite. Maia is sprawled across the floor of our bedroom, where she must have been when I knocked her out. I let my curses become audible.

‘That’s enough,’ I growl into my comlink to the officer overseeing my prisoners. ‘Take Solo and the Princess to the Wookiee’s holding cell and leave them there unmolested.’

I drop the comlink on the table, kneel down and gently lift my wife from the floor. Her head lolls against my chest as I move her. She is completely limp in my arms. Pulling the covers back, I set her down carefully. It takes no time at all to settle her in the bed, drop my cloak on the floor, and join her.

I let out a resigned sigh and brush her stomach with my hand. She will probably be unhappy and full of questions I can’t answer when she wakes.

‘My little son,’ I address my unborn child. ‘What an unbearable choice I must make - either lose you to my master or pay an equally terrible price to him to keep you.’

Maia stirs so I move my hand to her face and stroke her cheek.

‘My little goddess,’ I softly call to her.

‘Ani?’ she whispers in response.

‘Go to sleep,’ I suggest when she tries to move a little. ‘You’ve had a shock and must rest.’

I can sense her stubbornness rearing its head. She wants to ask me what happened, needs to know what is going on.

‘I’ll stay here with you,’ I offer in an attempt to distract her. ‘You fainted and I found you unconscious on the floor.’

Her forehead crinkles as she frowns, thinking about what just occurred. Does she know I was responsible for that or not? Or has she forgotten the fleeting moments of pain before I intervened?

‘I guess I must have,’ she finally decides, ‘but it’s early in the evening. Don’t you still have things to do?’

‘Time with you,’ I reply, ‘only time with you.’

It will be a day before Luke arrives, and I know what I will have to do before then.

But that is a concern for tomorrow.

I wrap Maia in a protective embrace. Right now, she needs me.

Tomorrow and my worries about it can wait.

***


Midsummer Festival Week - DAY 5

I give Ani another puzzled glance. His insistence that I return to the Executor with the children this morning tells me that whatever he has been planning the last week or two is about to come to a head. He wants us away from here when that happens just in case something goes wrong.

Cyran and Daini stay in the shuttle with the twins and the rest of my staff. My husband joins me at the bottom of the boarding ramp, after securing Mikal in his seat, and leads me back outside.

‘Be careful, my lord,’ I say to him.

His gloved fingers trail down my cheek so I lean into his touch.

‘I will be, my lady,’ he reassures me.

Then he spins about and quickly strides away, cloak billowing after him, caught in an early morning breeze. I watch until he is out of sight before turning to go into the shuttle’s cabin again.

The Force sings to me of heavy portents.

Fragments of my shattered memories beckon.

Today.

Everything will change today.

And there is nothing I can do to help my husband.

‘Be good,’ I remind Mikal when he starts squirming in his seat.

All I can do is ensure his family is out of harm’s way.

***

Thankfully Maia is safely away from this mess, I think as I quickly stride away from the reactor shaft gantry Luke just fell from. No, I reluctantly correct myself, not fell from - threw himself from.

Calrissian’s announcement has produced complete chaos. Disgusted, I shove aside those not fast or mindful enough to get out of my way. If I hurry, I might be able to get to Luke before his friends do.

‘See that my shuttle is ready,’ I snap at my aide who has finally made an appearance.

As I draw closer to the landing platform, I realize I am too late. There is no point in trying to retrieve my son from under Cloud City. Luke is now on the Falcon. To the Executor, then. I will catch them all in one fell swoop.

***

The Sith Lord is back on his flagship from what I can sense, but he’s not at all concerned with me. His focus is completely on someone else. Tipping my head, I hear him silently call to Luke again, but deciding to mind my own business and not spy on him, I tune out the rest of their telepathic conversation. Eavesdropping will just get me into trouble.

Sitting down on the bed with a thump, I give my shoulder another careful rub. It still hurts and there is a bright red burn mark on my arm. I suspect it reflects where Luke’s lightsaber cut through Ani’s armour.

I should have known my husband’s plotting was another trap for Luke, I ruefully think. The minute the Rebel’s ‘Jedi’ dropped from hyperspace, I felt him nearby. Once he was here, it was only a matter of time before the two of them became involved in another duel.

I carefully stretch out my senses. Ani is still up on the command deck and Luke is close, no doubt on the Falcon with his friends. Both men are quite conflicted from what I can feel, and experiencing physical pain and emotional upheaval. Yanking myself back, I decide it would be best if I prepare for the Sith Lord’s return to his quarters. His arm will need to be seen to.

With a frustrated sigh, I go get the medkit from the ‘fresher and set it on the table beside Ani’s glass and container full of supplement drink.

Why does it seem that his encounters with rebels, and Luke in particular, almost always result in my patching him up?

***

I silently stare at the spot where the Falcon and my son were brief seconds ago.

I almost had them.

So close, so very close, and still they have eluded me once again.

Somehow I rein in my frustrated sigh as I turn around. Piett watches my every move. Fear is pouring off him in waves. This, however, was not his fault, but that of whoever on that ship reactivated the hyperdrive. I should not have let Calrissian repair that ship. Instead, I should have dumped it into Bespin’s gravity well and let that gas giant crush it, permanently ridding the galaxy and myself of its annoying tendency to somehow escape from me.

At least Solo won’t be a problem again. That’s one consolation. No more last minute rescues from him, and no more interference with my plans.

I stalk past the Admiral, ignoring the many fearful and curious eyes which follow me as I leave the bridge.

There’s something I must retrieve from the depths of Cloud City.

***

It is several hours before the Sith Lord returns to his quarters, and when he does, he has a small, sealed transport box in his hands. From the den doorway I watch him carry that into his office where he leaves it before coming to join me.

‘You were injured,’ I scold him a little.

He lightly touches my bare arm, ghosting his fingers over the fading red mark.

‘I let myself be distracted for a moment,’ he admits. ‘I should have been more careful.’

‘Come, sit down, and have something to drink while I look after it,’ I suggest. ‘You haven’t eaten properly in days.’

Ani doesn’t object as he accompanies me into the bedroom, but he is in a strange and pensive mood as he removes his armor. When he strips off his body suit, I see the burn on his arm. So I was right about what was the source of my mark and the pain I felt across our soul-bond earlier in the day.

‘Ani, what happened?’ I ask.

He looks at me, and I know he does not want to tell me what I want to know.

‘Very well, then,’ I tell him, a hint of hurt in my voice, ‘keep your secret. You certainly have enough of them.’

Without waiting for his answer, I open the medkit and start removing the things I will need to see to him. While I could simply heal him with the Force, he will not allow me to help him in that manner.

The Sith Lord is deep in thought, sitting in his chair, when I move to his side. A careful examination of his injury reveals to me that, as I suspected, he has been in a duel with someone wielding a lightsaber. Obviously it was Luke again. Rather than confront my husband with this, I simply tend to his wound. As I finish, I sense one of our daughters waking, so I go to her crib in the children’s bedroom and bring her back to ours.

‘Hush little Cat,’ I croon to her, ‘mother is here.’

She is an easy baby to manage, quiet and undemanding, like her older brother Mikal was when he was her age. It is evening feeding time for her and her sleeping sister, so I hold her in my arms, sit on the edge of the bed, and give her a cup of blue milk to drink. My husband watches the two of us, and I can sense that he has made a decision about something.

‘Maia, my little goddess, I have several confessions to make,’ Ani reveals. ‘You are not my first wife. I had another who died long ago. Her name was Padmť.’

I turn and stare at him. So this is the mysterious Padmť whose name he once called while he dreamt. Deep down inside I feel a twinge of jealousy. He has never said my name when he is asleep.

‘That’s not all,’ he continues, ‘I had a son with her, but I only learned of his existence three years ago from that fool who was playing a Jedi Master on your homeworld. This son is the Jedi I have been pursuing.’

To cover my shock, I fuss over our daughter, shifting her from one position on my lap to another. Luke is his son? How could I not know this? I can’t believe that his own son tried to kill him.

‘Luke?’ I blurt out. ‘Luke is your son?’

‘My love, he did not know I was his father,’ Ani admits. ‘I only told him that today, and he did not take it very well. He ran from me in fact.’

‘Ani, why did you keep this from me?’ I can’t help asking.

‘It seemed the wise thing to do, at the time, to strip what you knew from your mind to protect you,’ he confesses. ‘I hid my knowledge of his existence from the Emperor as well and paid a high price for my silence. You know which day I am speaking of.’

I shiver a bit. I remember that day. That horrid day when our soul-bond became fully active and I felt everything that the Emperor did to him. He returned to the Executor from the Imperial palace, beaten and battered by his master’s punishments, only to collapse in my arms. Ani had refused to tell me the reason then, only stated it was for a foolish mistake he had made. It was days before he could move without pain, and all I could do was watch and hold him to me.

‘Your master wants you to catch your Jedi son, doesn’t he?’ I shrewdly deduce.

The Sith Lord stays silent at my question, and I know I have asked something that I should not have. He seems to be contemplating another thing which does not please him, as well, judging from the fleeting expressions on his face.

Catherine has finished her evening meal so I retrieve her younger sister, feed her, then singing a foolish cradle song as I do, I soothe them to sleep with my Jedi abilities. I do not want our twins to wake tonight, not when my husband desperately needs to rest. When I am sure they will not stir, I lock their crib in place and cover them for the night. I stay beside them, watching my twin girls sleep for a minute before returning to our bedroom and closing the door.

‘Ani, you need to rest,’ I scold him a little. ‘I have made sure Cat and Shmi will sleep through the night. Come to bed, my love. Things will look better in the morning, they always do.’

‘To bed, yes,’ he agrees, ‘but I want to do something other than sleep. I want to feel you beneath me tonight.’

I look sideways at him. Yes, I admit to myself, I want him too. But now? Tonight? After all the stresses of today and his injury?

Injury be damned, Ani decides, answering my thought. I want my wife.

Before I can come up with any further objections, I am swept into his arms and carried to the bed.


The Executor, Wayland, Wayland System, Year 3, Month 7.

DAY 4

I know we are somewhere in the Outer Rim again, but from Ani’s silence when I first asked, I won’t try again for an answer. Wherever we are, he has a meeting with the Emperor today. A shiver threatens to takeover my body. I don’t want to be anywhere near the Sith Lord’s master.

To steady myself, I give my stomach a rub. It’s been almost four Earth months since that day, and my pregnancy sickness has finally subsided. With careful touches, I measure how much bigger I am today. Soon I will be trying to hide a bulging middle again. I let my hands fall away from my body.

Ani hasn’t said anything to me about how he plans to protect his youngest son from his master, but I know he is running out of time. And I know there is no point in pressing the matter, either. He will tell me what he is up to eventually. I just hope it is before it’s too late for me to be of any help to him.

I slip out of the bedroom, past his closed pod, and sneak into his office again.

That sealed, climate controlled, transport box is still sitting in the center of his desk.

I reach over to touch it, then yank my fingers back.

My curiosity is demanding an answer to what is locked and hidden inside, but snooping and spying will just get me into trouble. Frustrated, I glare at that box. I have caught Ani sitting at his desk, staring silently at it several times in the last few days. Whatever is in it has prompted a brooding, unhappy mood in my husband, a mood even the twins’ birthday party failed to lift for very long.

‘Maia,’ I hear him call my name from behind me.

I slowly turn around and prepare to make a strategic retreat.

‘You want to know what’s in it, don’t you?’ Ani asks.

No point in denying it, so I nod my answer to him.

The Sith Lord closes the space between us, reaches down and sets one gloved hand atop the box. He looks at it then back up at me. There is a long, slow sigh from him.

‘Towards the end of my duel with Luke,’ he tells me, ‘I had to make a choice. He had backed himself into a corner and I needed him to either come with me willingly or surrender. As long as he was able to fight me physically, he wouldn’t listen, and after he managed to wound me, I lost my temper, so I ...’

His voice trails off into silence.

‘... so I disarmed him. Literally,’ he finishes after a moment.

I wrap my arms around myself and cast a glance down at the box. This is what has been bothering him, then. He maimed his son.

‘It’s in there,’ I guess.

‘Yes,’ he reluctantly admits. ‘His hand and my old ‘saber. My master wants both for his collection.’

‘And today you will deliver them,’ I surmise.

‘Trophies,’ Ani wryly classifies them as he lifts the transport box from his desk and tucks it under his left arm. ‘Trophies for him to gloat over.’

His right hand trails gloved fingertips down my cheek.

‘Hopefully it will distract him enough that he won’t insist on seeing you today,’ he tells me, his hand tracing a path down to rest over his youngest child. ‘I would prefer that he doesn’t think too much about my other sons.’

With that he spins about and is gone, taking my two Noghri bodyguards with him. Ghazhak and Kohvrekhar were quite willing to accompany my husband off his flagship for the afternoon. They need a change in scene once in a while, just like I do, I decide.

***

I leave the throne room, the Emperor, and his Mount Tantiss stronghold far behind. As I expected, Luke’s hand proved to be a suitable, sufficient distraction. There was no command from my master to bring Maia before him.

The Executor looms through the shuttle’s viewports.

Imperial Center will be confining, and Xizor remains to be dealt with. My agents haven’t yet recovered the evidence I need to discredit him, but it will be found, sooner or later. I curl my hand into a fist. Once the proof is in my possession, I will enjoy crushing him like the petty criminal he is. Savor punishing him for harming my wife.

And Luke...

Delaying the search for my son ...

Palpatine knows how much I want to find my son, if he can’t entirely read my intentions.

I refrain from giving my head a frustrated shake. Time is rapidly running out - Maia is approaching the halfway point in her pregnancy. Any delay will make it that much more difficult to find Luke, to persuade him to join me.

Temporarily confined to quarters - that’s what this order to stay in one place is in reality. I will send others out instead, then, to pursue Luke, to drive him to me as I have already done with Shira. Even if I cannot hunt him myself, others can. And will. If the rewards are great enough.

I hoist myself out of my seat, wait impatiently for the ramp to descend. Today has proven to be enlightening.

My master knows I am determined to catch my son.

But he doesn’t know what I plan to do once I have him.

***


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