Disclaimer: "Problem-Solvers" was written purely for personal
amusement, and involves no money. It is intended as an interpretation of
some events in the Star Wars universe, not as any infringement upon Lucasfilm's
(Father's Heart, Part 2)
Leia Organa spent her thirteenth birthday preparing for the journey to Ampinua.
Her few close friends came by for dinner -- well, really only Zeria, though Mip Luha dropped off flowers -- and Bishapi and her parents offered the toasts in a quick celebration. She was officially given control of the two droids -- R2-D2 and C-3PO -- that she had been told were hers for as long as she could remember. Not that it mattered; Bishapi absolutely refused to allow her to bring them on the mission, so her first act as their mistress was to return them to her mother's care for a time. Mother gave her makeup -- marking the end of the childhood rule -- and Father gave her a necklace of shimmering pink stones. Bishapi, somewhat more practical, gave her a blaster, and taught her to shoot. She learned quickly.
She went back to her bedroom after the celebration, to check and double check her packing. She knew that she had everything she'd been told to bring, but she found herself unable to concentrate on anything else. There was a knock at her door, and she absently keyed the remote to open it.
Saché Organa came in and sat down on the bed, smiling at Leia with a mixture of pride and sadness. "You'll be fine," she said, beckoning Leia to sit down beside her. "Don't worry. You need to calm down enough to get some sleep before you leave."
"I don't think I can."
Saché took her hand. "Leia, there's something I want to talk to you about."
A knot twisted itself tight in Leia's stomach, but she tried not to let it show on her face. "What is it?"
"It's about Lord Vader. I am... uncomfortable with this friendship."
"I know." Leia bit her lip. "You don't need to be. He just tries to tell me about the Empire. It's good to see things from their point of view sometimes, isn't it?"
Saché shrugged, nonplused. "What does he tell you?"
"He thinks the outer rim territories need a firmer hand from the Empire to keep the criminals under control." Leia smiled. "And he says I shouldn't try so hard to control my temper."
"These are not new positions for him. Then again, he rarely has new positions. He's very set in his ways."
"I've noticed. But so am I. You don't need to worry about him convincing me of anything stupid."
"I'm not worried about that. I'm just concerned, in a more general way. Vader is a dangerous man, Leia. You're sure he's said nothing non-political to you?"
(I consider you lovely)
Leia felt the blood drain from her face, wondering if that was what Mother was worried about, if she was afraid that Vader's attentions were inappropriate. It was a strange and disturbing thought. "We don't always talk politics," she admitted finally. "But there's nothing... Mother, there's nothing for you to... Mother, don't be ridiculous. He helped me with my speeder bike. He fixed the thrusters so they would go faster."
Saché laughed. "Well, that's a relief. That is a position that hasn't changed over time, either. Though I do wish you'd keep your speed down. I worry." She brushed Leia's hair off her forehead with a gentle hand. "I'm sorry to have upset you, Leia. I'm glad you have found something to say to him. Very few people do anymore. But please, promise me you'll be careful. I will never trust him."
"I promise. I do know how to keep secrets. You know I'd never betray you or Father. Or anyone else."
"I know you wouldn't, love, not even by accident." She smiled, and settled Leia into the crook of her arm, as she always had whenever Leia had a troubling dream or a scraped knee. Leia leaned comfortably into it. "But I do wonder what it is that he wants from you. And what it is you want from him."
Leia shook her head helplessly, not knowing how to explain to her mother what it was she had sought -- and found -- in this friendship. She found herself unable to express the odd sense of... of fitting that she had when she was with Vader (another oddity -- Leia rarely had trouble speaking on any subject). During those visits, there were occasional moments when Leia felt fully herself. No airs, no diplomacy, no self-imposed censoring. Just comfortable moments when she felt like she was in the presence of someone who would understand... she didn't know what it was she believed Vader would understand, but she could feel it hovering around their conversations like a shared rainshield. She wasn't sure she wanted to examine it too closely. "He likes me," she settled for after awhile. "It's nice. He doesn't like anyone else."
"I suppose I understand that," Saché said. "Now, get some sleep. Promise me you'll try?"
Leia promised, and her mother left her to another sleepless night.
Early the next morning, she left with Bishapi for the docks. There was a great deal of secrecy, as Bishapi had once again had a warrant issued for his arrest. "This may take some strategy," he said, winking. "But nothing we can't handle."
Leia was excited by the danger, though she didn't admit it (and didn't think she had to; Bishapi was in high form himself). She hid with him in the back of a supply truck, and snuck on board the medical ship that was waiting for them. The captain -- a quirky Calamarian named Sorgar -- slid a panel open in the wall. It was wired to the communication system, but the wires concealed a small hiding place. Leia and Bishapi climbed inside. The panel slid closed again and
(be strong and still, little one. you have your father's heart and your mother's love. don't be afraid.)
darkness enveloped them. The ship was boarded only a few minutes after launch, and Leia was sure they would find her by the sound of her furiously beating heart. They stopped and pulled up floor panels -- she could hear them right in front of the hiding place -- and checked the instruments that were wired into the walls. Leia could see a spark arching between wires as the comm system was activated. They did not move the panel that hid the compartment.
There was a hard jolt as the ship jumped into hyperspace, then Sorgar opened the compartment and let them out. "We shouldn't have more trouble with them," he said. "The Empire has other things to do. We're not carrying weapons."
"That's where you're wrong, Sorgar," Bishapi said. "We're carrying the best weapons of all -- we're carrying the Rebellion itself to Ampinua."
The trip took only a few hours. Leia occupied the time by reviewing what she knew of Ampinua and its people. It was a native settlement, not a colony of any world. Ampinuans were a small-statured race, but willowy and thin, with translucent wings that -- in certain circumstances -- could carry them over the ground for a few feet, but were largely vestigial. An outer rim territory that had never really been invested in the Old Republic, it was world that had lived in serene isolation before the Empire (or so Bishapi said; Leia didn't think anyone was quite so doggedly serene for so long). For many centuries, its only trading partner had been the neighboring world of La'azum, but a ferocious drought on that world had brought cataclysmic economic consequences to Ampinua in the past ten years. La'azum had once been the source of much of Ampinua's food, traded for with an odd assortment of gems and fuel mined from Ampinua's heavily salinated plains. They had been able to recover some of this land to farm, but their economic structure had fallen into disarray, even before the great seismic shifts had begun to re-shape the continents.
Nature abhors a vacuum, even one of her own creation, and the vacuum of Ampinua's empty structure was filled with the most loathsome scavengers in the galaxy. Mol Zokusa, formerly an admiral in the Imperial fleet, had arrived four years ago with ambitions just limited enough to stay beneath the Emperor's level of concern. He had no desire to challenge the Empire, only to enrich and aggrandize himself. The Empire -- with the notable exception of Lord Vader -- had not objected. Now, Zokusa's thugs roamed freely over the plains. There were reports that they controlled some of the freshwater springs and were charging taxes on their use for the first time in Ampinua's history. Worst of all, they stood in the way of the disaster relief, for reasons Leia could not even guess at. Even assuming pure self-interest, she could see no course of rational self-interest that would cause them to behave in such a manner.
"There's your difficulty," Bishapi told her. "You're assuming there's something rational about it. There's not. Zokusa and his men are just out to demonstrate that they're running the show on Ampinua. They'll use it up, then let themselves be chased out in a few years. It's happened before. It will happen again. Our concern with it at the moment is that we will need to deal with the strutting little nerf-breeder if we want to get through to the people."
"I'd imagine he won't be happy if you start urging rebellion."
"I'm not interested in making him happy. But you're right, of course. Men like Zokusa want more than anything to avoid the attention of the Empire, and maintain their -- how to put it? -- their privacy. Becoming involved in the Rebellion is not a good way to accomplish that. So they are my enemies as much as any stormtroopers. And perhaps more your enemies, Your Highness. You have yet to do anything to upset the Empire, other than travelling with me."
"I haven't upset Zokusa yet, either."
"You haven't been listening. You have no need to upset Zokusa. In fact, enmity is not even my concern. You must simply be extremely careful dealing with these men."
Sorgar began the landing cycle a few moments later, and brought the ship to a stop on a high plateau on the north central plains. There was apparently some kind of agreement in place, as a circle of men -- mostly human, though one Wookiee stood sentry -- was waiting for them to disembark. Grumbling, Sorgar used a remote to call a floatsled from the hold. It bore a large metal box. ("Tribute," Bishapi explained.)
Sorgar handled the tribute, then Bishapi led Leia outside. He put his arm firmly across her shoulders.
"Well, well," one of the men said, "I see we have more tribute!"
There was general raucous laughter.
"My assistant and I will be travelling to Fazon now," Bishapi told them. "I believe the agreement involved transport?"
"I don't remember that," the first man said, stepping forward. "Yeah, I think maybe we should go to Zokusa's place first. I think this is his kind of tribute, more than those pathetic trinkets Sorgar brought us for landing." He put a hand on Leia's face.
Leia drew back in disgust. "Get your hands off of me," she said icily.
More laughter from the ranks. The guard who had touched her reached for her again.
For the first -- and only -- time in Leia Organa's life, she consciously reached for Vader's advice. He'd said that she should use her temper, never let a bully get the upper hand. It was time to test the theory. She felt her new blaster resting lightly against her leg. Drawing back had freed her from Bishapi's protective arm, and she could move easily. In a quick motion, she drew the blaster, and aimed it at Zokusa's thug. "I think Dr. Bishapi said we were headed for Fazon," she said. "And I think you ought to take us there."
"Leia!" Bishapi growled, stepping between her and the guards, and knocking her blaster off its target.
But the thug just laughed. "Ah, she's better than tribute. When'd you start shrinking your guards, Bishapi?"
There was general laughter in the circle, then a small hovercraft appeared over the edge of the plateau. They'd just been playing, as Leia had suspected.
The Wookiee gestured for them to follow him. They boarded the hovercraft, and headed out.
Vader loathed the ceremony Zokusa had created for his arrival.
He had always been somewhat indifferent to ceremony, though he recognized its practical value in establishing authority, but to be honored by this... thug... was revolting.
It would be sensible to simply kill Zokusa outright, he supposed, but no matter how many men he had killed, he had never really developed a taste for the act of murder. He could wait. Zokusa was bound to give him a better excuse for it than his loathsome existence soon enough. It would be fair, and honorable, and necessary.
But it would be done.
Zokusa's men parted in military formation, and Zokusa himself stepped forward to greet Vader. "My lord," he said, "I was pleased to receive notice of your visit."
Vader continued walking when he reached the end of the shuttle's gangplank, signaling Zokusa to join him. He didn't particularly care that the man had to take two steps for each of his own to keep up with the pace. "There is no need for such pretense, Zokusa. There are reports of Rebel activity here on Ampinua."
"A ship left the Alderaan system earlier today with medical supplies.
The Empire has reason to believe the rebel Jaet Bishapi was aboard it.
His purpose is to spread sedition in Fazon. As the leader of Ampinua --
a title which I recall you claiming for yourself -- you will be held accountable
for his actions unless he is brought to me." Vader glanced sideways at
Zokusa, whose normally complacent face was twitching with anxiety. Good.
Vader would have liked to unsettle him further, but there was not time
"Your contentment and that of those you have set yourself to rule over are clearly not the same thing."
"I have no tolerance for sedition, Lord Vader. Traitors are punished to the full extent of the law."
"I'm sure they are, when you can be bothered to find them."
They reached the entrance to the cavernous building Zokusa had appropriated as his home. The door opened, and Zokusa led the way inside. "If the Empire will share its information with me, I will be more than happy to prosecute all Rebels found in this system. I would be happy to supply some of my leaders to La'azum as well."
"Yes, I'm sure you would be quite happy to expand your reach. The Empire would be less happy with it."
Zokusa seemed less sure what to do with that statement. He blinked twice, then turned and clapped his hands smartly. Three Ampinuan females, dressed in flimsy clothing, hovered in the doorway, their wings straining to keep their feet off the ground. Zokusa smirked. "I like to see them fly," he confided. "Gives them a real glimmer."
Vader's eyes narrowed beneath his mask. All it would take was a tiny flicker from the Dark Side, to leave this monstrosity grasping at his throat. "I prefer," he said, "to see them able to move. Let them down."
Zokusa shrugged, and signaled to the women, who gratefully lowered themselves to the floor. "These are yours," he said high-handedly to Vader. "To serve whatever needs you might have during your visit."
The Ampinuans looked at their feet, and Vader knew they were hoping his needs would be simple. They had no need to worry. But he was acutely embarrassed to think of what horrible fate they were imagining. It fouled his mood considerably. There had been a time when their faces might have been different, a time when he had been --
A time that no longer was. "My need during this visit, Zokusa, is to put an end to the rebel recruitment and arms dealing that goes on here under the guise of medical attention. You will find the rebels in Fazon, I have no doubt. You may bring them to me yourself, or I will call for a garrison to be stationed here." In fact, Vader intended to call for a garrison at the first excuse he was given, but as a threat, it was more effective in a world like this if the despot controlling it thought there was a chance to avoid it.
"Yes, my lord," Zokusa said. "I have people stationed near Fazon -- to help the unfortunate victims of the tidal wave, of course. I will have them seek out your rebels." He retired to his room with two Ampinuans.
Vader waved off the young women he had been "given," and went to the large window to look out across the plains.
The voice was quiet, afraid... but determined. He turned toward it.
One of the Ampinuan women remained at the door, her eyes cast downward. Her hair was a deep purple and it cascaded to her waist, more of a covering than the scant robe she had been given. She was slightly more than half Vader's height, and looked fragile.
"You have been given leave," he said.
"I do not wish leave."
"I have no need of you." He turned away, but she didn't leave. He could feel her nervousness radiating outward like heat. She wanted something of him, and had resigned herself to doing whatever he asked of her in return, though the thought was repulsive to her. He let go of her mind, not wanting to see any more. "You may go," he said again.
She still didn't leave.
Vader turned back to her. "Very well. What is it you want? I make no promises and ask no return."
For the first time, she looked up. Her eyes were dark violet, only slightly lighter than her hair. They were large for her face, as seemed to be true with most of the Ampinuans. "I am called Rejuo," she said. "I'm an engineer. I've examined the design of the TIE fighters -- at least what I could access, and discover from a malfunctioning fighter that Zokusa has here. I believe I can improve their maneuverability."
"I have tried to contact the Empire, but little attention has been paid. Zokusa plans to submit my designs as his own. He says that the Empire will pay no heed to an Ampinuan woman."
Vader nodded. It was true, though not a matter he particularly understood in his Master's vision. It was likely that they were missing talent. "I will see your designs," he said. "And judge them fairly."
She smiled, then closed and opened her large eyes slowly and gave a shallow bow. "I will put them in order, Lord Vader, and return promptly."
"You might want to toss the blaster up front," the human guard said, looking over his shoulder at Leia.
"I don't think so," she said.
Bishapi gave her a sharp look. "Do as he says, Leia. If any Imperial agent finds a weapon with us, the Empire can use it as an excuse to arrest you for treason."
"So why did you give it to me?"
"You will need it in Fazon." His eyes flashed a warning, and she understood -- she was not to keep the blaster in her possession until they had left the control of Zokusa's men, because until they went their separate ways, they could be betrayed to the Empire at any moment. She reluctantly handed the blaster to the guard.
The plains slid away beneath them, some green and fertile, others caked white with salt. Bishapi looked suspicious. "I don't recognize these landmarks," he said.
"We're taking you the long way," the human guard said. The Wookiee driver hooted something in return. The human smiled. "Goroga says it's the scenic route. Last time, you came by the sea, along with the rest of the garbage."
He turned back around, and Leia settled back into the seat. There was a low hum to the speeder, and it lulled her as it pulled them all over the fields. The wind tugged at her hair, a relaxing massage. She had not slept much the night before, and, despite her best efforts, she drifted away from the world. Just before her eyes slipped shut, she saw Bishapi smile at her, and knew it was all right.
At first, she didn't realize she was dreaming. She was still looking out across an endless plain, the wind was still beating across her face. But gradually, she realized that she was standing still now, on a high place above the plain, that the wind was blowing up... that it was the wind of a firestorm. The plain was burning. She had been here before, but his time, she was alone. Far in the distance, she could see a figure standing watch, a man or a boy, but he was far beyond her reach.
Two paths wound down the high place. One was choked with thorns and brambles, the other was broken and jagged, with sharp drops that suggested instability. Still, Leia thought the second looked more promising -- if she could just avoid a sudden shift of the ground, she should be able to get down safely. And she did feel a need to go down there. She was needed there.
She took a step down, and the world shook violently, the path falling away from her entirely. It picked up some way down, coming close to the other path. It would be easy to make the crossing there, if she made it that far. In the distance, the boy-or-man turned slightly. Leia could feel him willing her to try the path of thorns.
She looked at the brambles, the blood on the thorns, the tracks of unknown creatures that made their homes in the dark. She couldn't take that path.
A flare blazed on the horizon, and Leia remembered that whatever was waiting down there cared little how she got down. She would be strong and brave. She would try.
She stepped into the thorns.
The speeder stopped abruptly, and Leia sat up straight, suddenly awake. Another contingent of Zokusa's guards had surrounded them. Beside her, Jaet Bishapi was also on the alert. His eyes were darting from one face to another, and Leia thought she saw a hint of fear.
"This is not Fazon," he said. "We are nowhere near Fazon. This is Tellzara."
The human guard raised a hand. "Okay, boys, who put his money on two hours? I figured it'd take 'im three."
Goroga laughed loudly, and barked at a few of the new guards. They joined him. Then a low, amused voice came over the din. "My, my... isn't this quite the entourage to draw the Empire's attention. An old man and a little girl."
Leia looked around.
"Who are you?" she demanded, giving her voice the most imperious ring she could muster. "Who are you and how dare you waylay a medical team?"
"I am Mol Zokosa, young lady," he said, "and I suggest you learn to keep a civil tongue in your head. I can't do anything for Dr. Bishapi -- he's the one the Empire is looking for -- but you... I could do quite a lot for you." He gestured to his guard. "Take the good doctor to Lord Vader."
Leia tried to jump for her blaster, but she wasn't fast enough. Two of Zokusa's guards dragged Bishapi out of the speeder, and threw Leia's weapon into a puddle of saltwater. She felt a hand on her arm, and turned to find Zokusa giving her a leering smile. "I think I'll keep this one for myself," he said.
Leia tried to scramble across the seat, but Zokusa was larger and faster. He caught her around the waist, and pulled her out.
"Let me go!" she ordered, struggling against him. "Let me go immediately!"
"I would, if I were you, Zokusa," Bishapi said in a low voice. "I really, really would."
"Well, old man, you're not me. I've got a planet to run. You've got your own execution to attend. I'm happy with the positioning. Are you?"
The guards dragged Bishapi off toward a looming building.
Leia kicked with all her might, and broke free of Zokusa's grip. She dove for the puddle where her blaster had landed, and it came into her hand easily. She spun, aimed, and...
The water had fried the circuits.
Zokusa laughed merrily. "Oh, I can see we'll have a fine time together. Bring her to my chambers," he ordered his guards.
Leia had a fighting heart, but she knew well that an unarmed girl didn't stand a chance against five armed men. She let them lead her away.
Vader waited patiently in Zokusa's lair, looking at screen after screen of Rejuo's designs. She stood beside him, gaining confidence as she re-entered her own arena, pointing out flaws in the current designs, and explaining the notes she'd made on her modifications. Vader approved of them, and made a few further suggestions, building on her ideas. He regretted that he would be unable to work personally on a prototype, but assured her that she would do so. He would see to the difficulties of Imperial policy on non-humans in responsible positions. He would not have the Empire lose such a talent over petty cosmetic concerns.
She thanked him -- not the ceremonial thanks of a supplicant, but the professional (if somewhat distracted) thanks of an engineer with a project that excited her. He left her to her blueprints, and went to Zokusa's main hall, where a fire had been built in the fireplace. He would have had it otherwise -- he retained a distaste for fire -- but did nothing about it. He would not be waiting long for Bishapi.
Zokusa's thugs dragged him in only an hour later. It looked like they'd spent part of that time making it look like there had been a fight. The doctor was bruised and bloodied, and one eye was swollen nearly shut.
"Here you go, Lord Vader," one of them said, not bothering with the formality. "One rebel. That's all there was."
Vader dismissed them. He reached out to Bishapi's mind to find out if there were any others with him, found the usual blank slate, and resorted to more mundane methods of information-gathering.
"You are under a sentence of death, Bishapi," Vader told him calmly. "I am sure you are aware of this."
Bishapi tossed back his head, white hair spilling over his shoulder. "Are you going to do it yourself, Vader? Cut me into bits and throw me into an incinerator, like you did my brother?"
Vader remembered Bishapi's brother. He remembered everyone he'd killed. There had been a fight, and he had severed an arm, but there had been no cutting "to bits," nor had there been an incinerator. The bodies of those killed in the raid had been honorably cremated. They had fought well, and had simply been outmatched. Vader neither indulged in the battlefield psychosis that some men were prone to, nor allowed men under his command to do so. He was ruthless and he was cruel when necessary, but he was not possessed by bloodlust, and he bore no ill will to the dead.
But Bishapi did not draw any such distinctions, and Vader felt little compulsion to correct his impressions. He no longer sought adulation, only fear and obedience. "I will turn you over to the Senate and the courts. They will punish you under the law."
"Law," Bishapi spat the word. "The only law in the Empire is what Palpatine can get his attack dogs to carry out."
Vader spun on him, grabbed him by the throat, and dangled him above the floor. He was a Jedi knight, or had been once. He was no one's attack dog. He dropped Bishapi in disgust. "Who is with you?"
To his surprise, Bishapi answered immediately. "Leia Organa."
"The princess?" Vader felt as if someone had kicked him in the stomach. The interrogation of Bishapi seemed suddenly unimportant. Young Leia, with this rebel scum... it shouldn't have surprised him, he knew, but he thought perhaps she had --
A terrible thought occurred to him. "Where is she?"
"Zokusa," Bishapi said. "Where do you think?"
There was little time for planning, and no time to waste making choices. He drew his lightsaber, and struck Bishapi low on his right leg; he wouldn't be going anywhere. Then he set off to find Leia.
Jaet Bishapi waited until Vader had disappeared down the hallway before he screamed. His foot was not amputated, but it would have been better if it had been. The lightsaber would have cauterized the wound, and he could have crept away (which was, of course, Vader's point in choosing this injury). As it was, the wound itself was cauterized, but his foot was still attached to his leg by a bit of flesh over an inch thick, with no bone to support it. There was no way to escape, and no way to help Leia.
Not that Leia would need his help. The girl's parents had allowed her to befriend Vader, for reasons that made little sense to Bishapi. Saché's excuse of letting the girl practice diplomatic skills was laughable. Bail's reasoning sounded truer -- he said that forbidding the friendship would make Leia ask far too many questions, as it was not something they normally did -- but Bishapi couldn't imagine a question she might ask that was so dangerous as to outweigh the danger of allowing her to enter Vader's world.
His leg shifted, and the pain in the remaining flesh screamed into his mind. He didn't have time to consider the mysteries of the Organa household. The fact of the matter was that Vader was, if nothing else, predictable. He would come to Leia's aid.
Then he will come back and kill me.
The thought of leaving Leia in Vader's sole care was not an easy one for him, but he saw little choice in the matter. She was safe. He was not.
He was lying beside the fireplace. Old, heavy iron tools sat decoratively on either side of it, including an axe that had once been used to cut wood. Bishapi dragged himself across the floor, his wound stretching and contracting with each movement, and finally put his hands on it.
He took a series of deep breaths, then sat up. Taking the axe in his left hand, he forced the wound in his right leg to its widest opening.
The axe dropped.
Bishapi blacked out for a moment, and came to in a sticky pool of blood. He pushed the axe into the fire for a moment, then pressed the hot metal against the wound. He screamed, despite himself, but no one came.
He crawled away, leaving his right foot on the hearth, a lone sentry in the empty hall.
Leia was pushed into the chamber without ceremony, and landed on a pile of pillows. It was a lavish room, scented with spices and draped with some kind of plush fabric. A great crystal chandelier hung from the ceiling, and the chamber was speckled with the tiny arcs of color that it tossed onto the walls. Leia set about looking for a way out.
There were no windows at a reachable height, and even the high windows had been barred. Leia thought there was little chance of escaping that way. The walls were otherwise blank, except for the door she'd been thrown through. She would have to go out the way she came in. It was guarded. She would have to... remove the guards.
Her stomach rolled inside her. She didn't want to kill anyone, but she didn't intend to stay here one minute more than she had to, either. She had a right to try and escape. If it meant fighting her way out, then she would fight.
Making the decision was moot, though, unless she could find a weapon. Her blaster was long gone, and she saw nothing lying fortuitously around. She picked up one of the pillows, put it over her face. She could still breathe. It would take too long. She considered taking one of the draperies, turning it into a garrote. But they were too long and wide to handle, and she had nothing to cut them with. A cord led up beside one of them. She wandered over to it to examine it, thinking that perhaps it could be snapped. She pulled it from its holder, and found that it had a great weight attached to it. The chandelier wavered at the pressure.
The door slid open, and Zokusa came in. "Do you like it?" he asked. "I think you make a beautiful addition."
"I am a princess of Alderaan," she said. "You don't seriously believe you can keep me here, do you?"
He shrugged. "Why not? Bishapi has been turned over as a rebel. I'll just let on that you were killed in the fighting."
The weight of the chandelier tugged the cord roughly against her fingers. "My parents won't believe that. Neither will the Imperial courts."
"The Imperial courts will hardly trouble themselves over a companion of Bishapi's. No, my pretty one, you'll be here for quite some time." He came over to her, ran a hand down her side.
Leia shoved him away, letting go of the cord at the same moment. The chandelier came crashing to the floor behind them. Zokusa was distracted for a moment. Leia ran under his arm and for the door. He recovered quickly, and tried to snag her jacket. He missed the grip, but knocked Leia off balance, and she went sprawling into the pillows, now mined with bits of crystal. Her hands and face were scratched.
Vaguely, she heard the sounds of a struggle outside, and thought that maybe Bishapi had gotten away and come after her. "Help!" she called.
Zokusa grabbed her again, roughly this time. She managed to reach behind her, and grab a piece of crystal. As she swung it wildly at Zokusa, the door opened behind him. He turned and stumbled toward it. Leia looked down at her hands, and saw blood on them. She screamed, and dropped the crystal. It was small and blunt, and she thought she might have crushed Zokusa's nose into his brain with it.
Then there was a buzzing sound and a flash of bright red light. Zokusa fell in front of her, a scorched mark across his chest. She hadn't done that. The blood on her hands must have been her own.
It was then that she registered the steady sound of Vader's mechanical breathing. She looked up at him. His lightsaber was still drawn and still glowing in the dimness of Zokusa's chamber. She had never seen that kind of weapon before. He had killed Zokusa. She looked toward the door, where several guards lay dead outside.
"Thank you," she whispered, not certain how to react to violence and death done to protect her.
"You are in poor company, Your Highness" Vader said, and left.
Leia wiped the cut on her hand on her jacket -- it was small, but it had bled profusely -- then followed him.
Vader discovered Bishapi's escape a moment later, the gruesome reminder lying on the hearth in a pool of blood. He didn't want the princess to see it -- she had already seen more than she should have today -- but there was little to be done about it. If he put it into the fire, the smell would be worse than the sight.
It didn't matter. Leia was closer behind him than he thought. She stood in the doorway, her eyes wide, then ran into the next room. He heard a retching sound. He had considered telling her that she had struck the killing blow against Zokusa -- Vader had deliberately destroyed the evidence when he struck the dying man -- but he didn't think she was ready for that knowledge today.
He considered carefully what ought to be done about her. He couldn't ignore the fact that she had traveled here with Bishapi, which, at the very least, suggested connections to the rebel underground. Yet she was clearly unarmed, and only a child, after all -- certainly she was not involved in the Rebellion proper.
At least not yet. She would be dangerous if that ever changed.
He had no wish to destroy her. He had gone to her aid because he thought her full of great potential. He didn't wish to see her taken to Coruscant for trial. Nor did he wish her to go on with Bishapi's business of spreading the Rebellion in the system.
Perhaps that wasn't what she was here to do. Her concern with Gonjua had been for the transportation of medicine. Perhaps she had been misguided by Bishapi, and meant only to offer assistance in Fazon. Vader was willing to consider this possibility. He needed to discuss it with her.
He left the hall, and followed Leia into a small room to the side. She was making no effort to hide, psychically or physically, and he found her easily. She was sitting on the floor beside the door. "Rise, Leia," he said.
She rose. She was shaky, but getting herself under control. "Am I under arrest?"
"Not at present." He turned away from her. "You will understand, of course, that I must question you. Where is Jaet Bishapi?"
"I don't know. Except for his foot. You left that by the fireplace."
Vader was inclined to believe her on this matter. He doubted that Bishapi had anticipated Imperial action on Ampinua, and had probably not devised a plan of reunion. He had simply deserted her, leaving her to a fate he himself probably considered worse than Zokusa. "You were here to distribute medical supplies?"
"Yes. It was just a mercy mission. Why did you stop it?"
"There is an arrest warrant for Bishapi. You know that, or you wouldn't have felt a need to leave Alderaan in secret."
"Why did you feel the need to stop a medical transport ship coming off of a disarmed planet?"
Vader smiled at her, though she didn't know it. "As it happens, Your Highness, I am questioning you. You are not questioning me."
"I answered the only question you asked. I came here with medicine." She looked at him crossly. "You said you wanted justice in the outer rim territories. That's all I was trying to bring. It's not just to let people starve and die. Did you really mean what you said?"
Vader's first instinct was to anger, but it was replaced quickly by another idea. It was, possibly, not too late to win her after all. "Yes, I did, Your Highness. Did you?"
"What do you mean? Of course I did."
"Then perhaps you should have considered working through Imperial channels. I am able to open them, if you need me to. You need only ask."
He turned away from her again, giving her a chance to consider it.
Leia was getting her bearings back.
She had never been in a fight before, let alone seen anyone die, but she found she could handle it. There was a place inside of her that she could put it all into, and let it sit there until the edges weren't so sharp. She could go on. To her relief, she did not find that she actually liked the fighting. She could do it without becoming --
She glanced nervously at Lord Vader.
Without becoming dark, she thought. She could do what she needed to do without becoming it. Still, there were strange thoughts in her mind, and she needed to answer them.
She didn't know if it was this new experience, or her new surroundings, or the fact that Vader had just saved her life, but the Dark Lord was making more sense to her than she would have liked him to. Why had they been following such a circuitous route to Fazon, when a more efficient way existed, but hadn't been tried at all? Was it right to withhold aid because they didn't want that aid to appear to come from the Empire?
She didn't care for the line of thought that said it didn't matter how something was accomplished, as long as it was accomplished. But she cared no more for creating a false shortage of necessities in order to make a political point. Starvation and disease were not political tools, to be picked up by one side or another and used as leverage points. Leia wondered if there was a line somewhere between the two ideas that she could find her balance on.
She took a deep breath, and straightened. "Lord Vader?" she said.
She bent her head in the standard ceremonial manner. It was not a ritual she liked, but if she was going to do this, she was going to do it properly. "I ask leave of the Empire to distribute medical supplies in the city of Fazon, on the world of Ampinua."
"Lift your head, Your Highness. Leave is granted."
Leia looked up. Vader was standing passively in front of her, his face unreadable. He nodded slightly. "I thank you, my lord," she said quietly.
"You may dispense with the ceremony. You and your medical supplies will have Imperial guard. If Bishapi makes contact with you, you will report him to me immediately."
Leia did not agree to this. Under no circumstance would she betray Bishapi or any other rebel to Vader. But this was not a position in which defiance would earn respect, so she said nothing.
Without further talk, they removed the detritus of the fights. Leia buried Jaet Bishapi's foot, and Vader made a pyre to burn the bodies of Zokusa and his guards. Leia helped carry them out and lay them on the wood. Most of the Ampinuans held in the lair had used the opportunity of the fracas to escape, though one woman did remain, efficiently cleaning up the mess in the hallways. Leia found Zokusa's keypad and released the others; Vader, under Imperial authority, officially freed them from any oaths or debts of servitude that they may have been forced into.
The sun was setting by the time they finished, and Leia didn't want to remain stranded at Zokusa's lair. Vader could not, at any rate, sleep there -- it was the first time she learned anything about the facts of his physical condition -- so they returned together to his Star Destroyer, leaving the sole remaining Ampinuan woman in charge on the surface. They spoke little of what had happened. A wedge, Leia felt, had been put between them. It was the first one; she knew more would come, and regretted it.
He took her to a small cabin. "It is sparse," he said. "But you will not be staying here long."
Leia nodded. "Lord Vader, I... "
For a moment, she could see herself running to him, throwing her arms around his waist as a small child would. She would have liked to hear him tell her that everything would be all right -- his voice was comforting, even if nothing else about him was -- and to be held tight, just for a minute. But she knew she would never act on such a thought. She was not a child any longer, and Vader was not a man one would approach in such a manner.
And besides, he chopped Jaet's foot off just to keep him still. Remember that before you start thinking that he's just a nice man with breathing problem.
"Thank you," she said sincerely, after what seemed like a long time. "Thank you for helping me."
Vader nodded curtly and left, heading across the ship to the sealed chamber where he slept. Leia watched him go, then shut the door. She sat on the uncomfortable cot, bereft of her nightclothes, any proper linens, any familiar comforts. She laid her head down on the bare surface, drew her knees to her chest, and fell asleep.
Darth Vader rarely dreamed now. He didn't consider this a loss. His dreams had always been troubling to him, harbingers of terror and pain. He was glad to be rid of them.
On the rare occasions when he did dream, it was intense, every object lined in the fire that scorched his soul. Sometimes, he could feel himself burning, see through the rings of fire that were his eyelashes. Sometimes he was sure the pneumatic devices had failed, and he could no longer draw his breath. Sometimes he saw Obi-Wan standing over him with a lightsaber, only to have the image fade into a face that would not take shape for him -- a kind face, a face full of compassion... but a face that would lead to his death as inevitably as night followed sunset.
So he knew that even when a dream began kindly, it would end in terror.
The night he spent over Ampinua, he dreamed a kind dream. He was young again and grand, and strong. He bore the blue lightsaber he had carried into so many battles, but it was quiet at his side in the peaceful, sunlit afternoon.
SHE was with him, and he held her to his heart, and kissed her beautiful face, and buried his hands in her dark hair. She had come to him after all, or perhaps he had gone to her. She smiled at him, then laughed lightly, and ran off across the spring-flowered fields. He heard himself laugh, a sound he had not heard in his waking life for many years, and he followed her.
Lightning split the clear sky, and thunder shook the world. He heard her scream ahead of him. Another bolt of lightning came down, setting the fields ablaze around him. The sky was inky black. Vader fought toward waking. He didn't want to be in this place.
But SHE was out there in the flames. He had to save her. He pushed forward, the flames searing him as he went. He found her atop a cliff, on an outcropping of rock suspended over an endless abyss, keeping her balance by grasping the cliff face with one arm. She looked at him with wounded eyes. "Then it will end here?"
He wanted to tell her that it would not, that there was no chasm they couldn't cross together, but found that he could only reach out to her in a mute request. To his horror, his hand had become mechanical again.
She looked down into the chasm, then back up at him. He saw in her eyes what she meant to do, but he couldn't stop her. She let go, and tumbled into the chasm. He could only watch her fall.
He chose not to remember the dream upon waking.
The relief effort on Ampinua was successful. Leia found Sorgar's ship -- the captain claimed to be shocked to learn that Bishapi had been stowed aboard it, though of course he'd known that the little girl was playing hide and seek during the boarding and had simply been afraid to come out -- and retrieved the supplies Bishapi had brought and intended to distribute as he could. She made connections to several members of the Imperial Senate, and arranged for food and supplies to be brought in from other sectors, using civilian ships when possible, but the Imperial starfleet if nothing else was available.
With all the activity going on, one could not blame her, of course, for not noticing certain shipments, including a small transport that carried several boxes of gems from Ampinua to Corellia, in payment for a handful of cartons of bacta. If there was one more box than was accounted for by the payment, it escaped her eye entirely. Bishapi's flight off of Corellia would be delayed enough by the medical attention to his leg that it could escape many other eyes as well.
She returned to Alderaan after a month, and was surprised to find herself something of a celebrity. She had expected to be a pariah, a traitor, an Imperial sympathizer. Instead, a grassroots organization had grown up in her support, and they greeted her with a shower of flower petals, and cries of "Peace!"
"They want you to run for the Senate," Bail told her when she arrived at home. "I'm giving up my seat after this term."
"Why would they want me to run? I only just turned thirteen. All they've seen me do is... " She shook her head. "They saw me give in and use the Imperial starfleet to get what I wanted."
"That's not what they saw," Saché said. "They saw you reach out to another world, show the strength of Alderaan in a new way. And they saw you build a bridge to the Empire. Not everyone on Alderaan is invested in the Rebellion. Some are weary of the fighting and want to make peace." Her voice had a hard edge to it. She had little liking for people who chose to give up.
Leia looked out the window, where the crowd was gathered, humming an old folk tune. "But that's not what I did. I didn't make peace with the Empire. I practically surrendered to it!"
Bail laughed heartily. "Leia, you don't realize what you did. Not only did you not surrender to the Empire, you actually bent it to your own will. I'm not sure that's a good thing, but I am absolutely certain it isn't surrender."
Leia wanted to laugh along with him, but she hadn't missed what he had said. "Was it a good thing?" she asked her parents. "Did I do the right thing?"
Saché put an arm around her, but it seemed perfunctory. "You did the only thing, Leia."
But Leia didn't want to be told that she'd been backed into a corner and taken the only route out -- she wanted to be right. "That's not what I asked. I want to know if I did what was right."
Saché and Bail glanced at each other nervously, then looked back at Leia. "It's not a decision I would have made," Bail said. "You've put Ampinua into Imperial hands."
"They're better hands than Zokusa's."
"Are they?" Saché wandered over to the window, standing beside Leia and looking out over the crowd. Leia had the strange feeling that there was a glass wall between them. "Leia, the Empire is not a passing raincloud, like Zokusa. It's a great spider, trying to catch all of us in its web. You had no choice on Ampinua. Nature itself took matters out of any of our hands. It was the right thing not to let people die, if that's what you're asking."
"Then you are answered."
Leia considered pushing the matter further, but didn't. There was something strange in her mother's mood. Something distant and distancing. "Did Bishapi arrive safely?"
Saché grimaced. "Bishapi is on Sullust. He is no longer welcome here."
"You may have sacrificed a small principle in favor of a greater one. He sacrificed you to save himself. Whatever blood is in your veins, Leia, you are my daughter, and I will not give aid and comfort to a man who betrayed you."
Leia drew back from her, eyes wide.
It stabbed Leia to the heart. Her parents never spoke of her adoption, ever. But now she had broken with them, she had allied herself to the Empire, and suddenly, this distance, those words, whatever blood...
She turned and went to the main hall. At the door, she turned around, and spoke through a tight throat. "My blood and I will be going to our room now," she said, not looking at her mother. "We'll eat dinner there."
"Leia -- "
She barely made it into her haven before the shaking started. What had that meant? Why say it now? She bit her lip, willing herself not to cry. She could face down Vader when she needed to, and she had been willing to fight Zokusa hand to hand. She had smuggled Jaet Bishapi off planet right under the Empire's nose. Why was she on the verge of tears -- fearful ones at that -- over an offhand comment that was bound to come up someday?
She took a deep breath to steady herself. It wasn't fair. She couldn't talk to her parents about what had happened; they would nod and say they were glad Vader had helped her, but please don't trust him. She knew that as well as she knew the color of her own eyes. And she couldn't explain the way in which she actually did trust him.
"Oh, Your Highness!" a cheerful, metallic voice piped up. "You have come home! You see, Artoo, I told you she'd be quite all right."
Leia looked up. She'd forgotten that the droids were in her possession now. She wiped her eyes, and couldn't resist a smile at the sight of her old companion, knowing that he had been fretting his circuits away while Artoo beeped optimistic messages to him. The beating of her heart slowed somewhat. "Hi, Threepio," she said. "It's good to see you, too."
"You look fully functional, Your Highness. Artoo wishes you welcome home as well."
"Thank you, R2-D2," she said. "Now, Threepio, can you fill me in on what's happened here since I left?"
The protocol droid gave a mechanical sigh, then launched into a scandalized monologue about the gossip of Alderra. After an hour, Leia was laughing at the antics of her friend Zeria, who had joined the "Leia for Senate!" brigade, apparently on the rationale that a Senator for a best friend might be able to introduce her to the handsome boys who recorded music on Coruscant, or at least that was what she said in most of the notes she'd left in Threepio's memory banks. She'd gotten serious once, saying that she really believed Leia would be a good Senator. Leia was beginning to give the matter more serious thought herself.
There was a knock, and Leia knew it would be her mother before she opened the door to let her in.
Saché sat down beside her, her eyes cast down. "I'm sorry, Leia. I didn't mean to say that. I meant just the opposite, I meant -- "
Leia smiled. "I know what you meant, Mother. But why say that now? Why even think about it?"
"Lord Vader hurt someone I cared about very much," Mother said. "Your birth mother, in fact."
Leia looked up at her involuntarily. That was an idea she couldn't quite grasp and didn't know what to do with. "My birth mother? Are you going to tell me about her?"
"No. Not today. Perhaps someday. But that is why I was thinking about it, Leia. Not because I stopped thinking of you as my own daughter, but because at that moment I was thinking of you as hers. Can you forgive me for speaking carelessly?"
Leia nodded, and let Saché put an arm around her.
"But I learned something else about Lord Vader just now, on a call from Sullust," Saché said. "According to Jaet Bishapi -- whom I know well will not make up kind stories about Vader -- he has also helped and saved someone I care about very much. My daughter. It's a confusing thing to know."
Leia sniffed. "I've noticed."
"You did the right thing, Leia," Saché said in a firm voice after awhile. "Not just the only thing, but the right thing. You were wiser than the adults entrusted with your care. Your heart didn't mislead you." She kissed her forehead.
"Thank you, Mother."
"Then you'll join us for dinner?"
Leia nodded and smiled, and Saché left the room. Threepio, who had stood quietly by through most of the talk, resumed his tales. Leia listened to him with half an ear, and walked to her window to see the crowd outside. Zeria had joined them, and was waving a red sign that said "Run for our lives, Leia!"
She smiled. It was a terrible slogan. And a crazy idea. She would be shouted down. She had alienated the rebels outside her circle with her maneuver on Ampinua, and Imperialists would distrust her because of her known associations. It would be impossible to get anything done.
Run for our lives, indeed. She'd probably end up running for her own.
But, she thought, she would run.