Renewal: Chapter Nineteen Rated PG
Ivy

Hataj didn’t look surprised to see him standing on her doorstep again. This time he came alone, without his sister, without an ordered invitation from the Tas Mos’ir. Today she wore brightly colored skirts and her hair was loose about her shoulders. Her tone was warm. "Jedi Skywalker, come in."

"Luke," he instructed. Being called Jedi, or Commander, General — those titles never felt as though they fit. Formality didn’t suit him the way it did Leia. "You slipped off on me yesterday." It was accurate enough. He’d gone to check on Leia and when he’d returned to the common room there’d been no sign of her, and he’d spent the rest of the day suffering beneath the deluge of questions brimming in his hyperactive brain.

"I asked the guards to bring me home. It was late."

For an inexplicable reason, Luke challenged her further, cutting short her excuse. It wasn’t like him, but inside he felt rather petulant about her vanishing act, and he felt, as though they were old friends, ribbing each other about their bad habits with no ill feeling. He crossed his arms sternly. "You might have said goodbye."

Tapping her fingertips together, she said, "I apologize for my mood yesterday. The Tas sending you here wasn’t your fault. I was angry with him, not you and your sister. You were the messenger, the guest, so to speak. And ..." She opened her palms wide. "Good enough for you, Luke?"

Luke grinned. "Nearly. Is your uncle here?"

"He’s in Karush."

"Karush?"

"It’s a village, about an hour from here by transport. He should be back soon, though."

Faltering slightly, for he had in fact expected her uncle to be home and had hoped to question him, he gestured to the doorways. "Do you think he’d mind if I stepped into his office again? I just want to take a look, or a feel."

"Oh, I’m sure he wouldn’t mind."

Staring a fraction of a second longer than was polite, Luke followed. Her skirts swished with every step, swimming about her ankles and growing taut about her thighs. As one who had grown used to relying on the Force to feel people out for so many years, her lack of a presence, or blocked presence, resulted in something akin to a constant and intense fascination. At least, that’s what the he told himself. Throughout yammansk yesterday, he’d been trying to read her, trying to get a feel for her hostility, a reason. And he’d been picking up nothing from the Force. Thus it made perfect sense that his ordinary visual senses and instincts would be focused on her.

The office was the same as they had left it. Native masonry techniques left the curved walls smooth and polished. Beside the plain desk were stacks of datafiles. Nothing about the chamber was extraordinary.

Luke approached the desk, closed his eyes, and stretched a mental a hand into dark waters, trespassing without knowing what hidden dangers might react in return. The incident with Leia had concerned him. It had been all he could do to not call for some type of medic immediately. After the miscarriage and whatever complications there’d been, he was unconvinced her fainting and her recent medical history weren’t connected. Granted, he had felt the energy emanating from that room, the vibrant tremor of aimless power running through it, as though in search of a new conduit. A surge? Sure. It might blindside someone and knock him or her out. Who knew?

All was still, calm, unlike that pinnacle moment yesterday when the Force had roared with a coiled strength, so powerfully it had jolted him from two chambers away, channeled by ...

Leia?

If she had channeled it, Luke knew it had not been by conscious choice. Perhaps the Force had gathered its strength all these years, sprung at her like a hrosma tiger, exhausted itself. There was nothing today, though in his mind he could so clearly see his sister lying prone.

"What happened?"

"Luke what happened
?"

The rain of crimson had begun flowing freely, and her fingers had stretched out below her chin, mystified, trying to catch it. Her other hand had been braced against the cobbled stone floor.

"Where am I? Where am I? Where is she? Where did she go?"

"She?" He had asked his sister three times before she’d been able to respond. "She?"

"Anything?"

The voice jarred him, higher than he’d been expecting, with foreign intonations. Luke shook his head, forcing the image of Leia from his mind. "You said it had happened before, that there’d been others here with the gift? Who were Force-sensitive?"

"Not since I was a little girl." She used a clean sleeve to sweep away a new layer of dust from the dark-wooded desktop, perusing the room as though she too, were trying to imagine what had happened there all those years ago. "It happened to a friend of my great uncle’s who was visiting us."

His brain went instantly hyperactive again, as it had yesterday. He was facing a woman near his own age. If they had been here, those with the gift, and she could remember it, it was long after the purges had ended. It meant they might still be alive. "There’ve been others here that you remember? Do you know where they are now?"

"Why, they’re in hiding," she told him, making a quick gesture with her hands that was either religious or superstitious. Luke couldn’t tell. "They never told anyone where they were going."

"But you remember them ... and ..." The past had replayed itself before. "What can you tell me about what my sister saw?"

"Not much more than I already have. She was a friend of my uncle’s. It was once a guestroom — she and her husband were visiting. After she died no one used that room for over a decade until my uncle converted it into his office."

They returned to the common room in silence. Luke was debating whether to ask if he might wait for her uncle when Hataj gathered up a long shawl and scarf from a cubbyhole just inside the front entrance. "I needed to run a few errands," she explained. "I was going to wait until my neighbor is up, but since you’re here ..."

The suggestion passed Luke over. They stood waiting, and then Hataj said, "I need a chaperone."

"Oh. Am I permitted?"

"You’re confusing traditions as you know them with ours," she explained, twisting the pelt-lined scarf about her throat. "I can be with anyone — simply not alone."

"I see." The news was something of a relief. Han and Leia had set off earlier, and they hadn’t been sure it whether or not they were breaking customs or local law. Han had taken his Right I.D. just in case anyone asked, hoping no one would more than give it a cursory glance. "What would happen if you were alone?"

Frowning at him as though he were daft, Hataj said, "I would be unsafe."

From what? The reasoning struck him as rather unprofound, even more so once they started on their way. Sundries of passers-by gave them not a second glance. Yashuvhu was anything if not orderly and civilized, and he would not have described Hataj as helpless. Leia, for instance, was a prime example of a woman well trained in self-defense and offense.

The errands she’d wanted to do were all in the immediate area. Stopping here and there, Luke began to see the subtle undertones of the culture. The shopkeepers nodded to her almost imperceptibly before she spoke, and after seeing several do so, it began to seem less a cultural habit born of unequal gender roles, more a sign of obeisance toward her. In contrast, the Tas Mos’ir, with his booming ‘you may speak,’ had been less than respectful by being so vocal with his permissiveness.

After their third shop, he tried again to delve into the seemingly inconsistent customs. "My sister finds the traditions difficult to understand."

The subtle prodding was less than successful. "She’s not one of us," Hataj replied simply. "Of course it must be difficult for her. How is she feeling by the way?"

"She’s well. Shaken up, understandably, but well." Leia had, in fact, appeared at breakfast bright-eyed and rosy cheeked, debating over the list of items to retrieve from the Falcon with Han.

"You two seem very close."

"I like to think we are," he said truthfully. "But we weren’t raised together, so I’m still learning. You don’t have any brothers or sisters?"

"No, just my uncle." A familiar finality was about her words. There was no need to ask about parents. "Where are you and your sister from?"

"My sister was from Alderaan," he answered, letting the emphasis on was drop slightly.

"Hmm." She shrugged. "I’ve never heard of Alderaan."

The crumpled laugh that almost escaped him was for wonder. Yashuvhu was so isolated it didn’t matter. She might never have heard of Darth Vader. That the Empire had possessed the power to destroy worlds was a legend, a myth even. During the war Luke had waited out a few long nights with Wedge and the other Rogue Squadron pilots, in foreign hangers, forgotten backwater rendezvous points. Conversation in the outer rims, even mid-rim, was often a decade behind history. Inevitably, people spoke of rumors. "No, no ... They did. I heard of it. Arcan? Arraban? No wait, maybe it was in the Serrot Sector. Do you remember? It might have been a moon."

Luke struggled to overtake the awkward speechlessness descending upon him. If he began talking about Alderaan, he would have to go into what happened to it and he didn’t want to. Not today. "Myself, I grew up nearer to your parts, on Tatooine."

"But I do know Tatooine." She began nodding to herself earnestly. "Oh, I know of Tatooine, yes! That’s where our devout settlers went. They left about the same time our healers did."

By nature of guiding the conversation, Luke realized what it was about her that caught him. The vague familiarity about her finally clicked. She reminded him of the girls back home, the hardworking ones who wanted nothing more than to marry the most prosperous moisture farmer and raise a few children, who were sweet on the most simple futures, having not been raised to dream outside the box. Naďve in the ways of the galaxy, skilled with crops and meals, direct and well-intentioned. They wound up like Beru; with sun wrinkles crinkling around their eyes, their skin rough and leathery, hardened, but still the same. She had that same air about her, the same untarnished determination.

Luke let the edge of his eyetooth pinch at the corner of his lip. "I never knew why they came to Tatooine. According to rumor it was for religious reasons."

Hataj shifted her purchases from one arm to the other. "You could say that. Many felt that we were straying from the old ways, that our misfortunes — what happened to our healers and Jedi — were our punishment for straying. And so they departed, seeking divine blessing on the planet famous for its twin suns." She grinned broadly. "That’s the polite version of our history. The truth is they believed the Tas to be too secular."

"You mentioned a virus from that time? How many people did it affect?"

"Near a thousand in and around Eligel Proper."

Without thinking, Luke gave her a mental brushing, seeking clarification, and received none. A virus that caused serious heart problems and killed people while they were sleeping. No. Leia had been concise. She’d said, choking, strangling, and wide awake.

"Those were very dark days for my people. It’s not often spoken about." Hataj pointed to a courtyard tucked between edifices and rounded city streets. "Come. Let me show you something."

A congregation of stone bodies welcomed them. Luke had seen them all over in the preceding days. They were ubiquitous, the women and children, in pairs, in triplicate. They wandered into the semi-circle of totemic monuments, with Hataj drawing his attention to this figure or that, telling them where they had lived, when they had died, whom they had left behind. She knew their life facts by rote, their stories. They were spirituous, the women clutching children’s hands, children clutching skirts, their features all glistening in the cold, ice forming like teardrops in the crevices and crags. Though he scanned for them, it did not take long to realize that there were no men.

"No," she explained when he inquired. "It only affected younger women, mothers-to-be, infants and young children. That was what made it so cruel, so horrible for us."

Luke set his hand upon one, traced the contours of the child’s face from cheek to chin. Han had complained the other day that the statues gave him the creeps, that every time he turned around there was another one, moony-eyed, staring at him. Now he understood. Without thinking, he heard himself say, "My sister miscarried a few weeks ago."

"I’m so sorry. That explains her reaction the other day at your guest house. The way she looked."

"In part." For the moment he allowed himself to remember the niece he’d been able to feel, picturing Leia with her new secretive smile, with the novel warmth about her that had been so beautiful. He wasn’t sure why he was sharing, thinking next that perhaps he shouldn’t be, that he had no right to tell her any of this. However, he also felt better saying it to someone. "Oh. She’ll be all right. She seems to be doing all right."

"I’m sure she will." The dark haired woman took a deep breath, speaking with emotion. "My mother died of the plague, the virus too."

It was Luke's turn to say he was sorry.

"I don’t remember. But my full title in our language is, ‘Hataj Yva ‘chi gnyis spangs pa.’ Do you know what that means?"

"It’s an older dialect, isn’t it," Luke responded, shaking his head.

"It means, ‘one who has escaped birth and death.’ They say they arrived the minute after she died and cut me out and I breathed."

Luke struggled to suppress a shudder. "That’s awful."

"I never think of it anymore. I’m used to it. People do regard me oddly because of it — or they did when I was growing up. I never trusted them, or they never trusted me. I could feel it, even when I was little and they thought I didn’t notice." She turned her decorated cheek, almost curiously. "You know that feeling you get when people are watching you? And you look up to catch them, but they’re always looking somewhere else. And eventually, you think, it’s not possible that everybody is always looking somewhere else. Why wouldn’t someone be looking at me? It’s not in my imagination. I know it’s because of how I was born."

"I can relate to that more than I can even begin to explain," Luke murmured. It hadn’t been how he was born, but who he was born to, and it hadn’t been strictly others either. His immediate family had watched him too, reacted to him fearfully. He’d explained to Leia that long-ago morning outside their tent when she’d been struggling with morning sickness, and his greatest concerns had been that her children not grow up feeling the same scarring sense of isolation.

Hataj reached over and squeezed his hand. "Yes. I thought so." Each cobalt eyebrow suddenly rose in turn, inquisitively. "What is it you wanted to meet with my uncle about? It’s because of his work, isn’t it — rather the work he used to do with the healers, keeping records?"

Luke nodded. "He’s the only person on Yashuvhu who can able to help me."

"Perhaps he’ll be back before us."

* * * * *

"I’m not picking up a damn thing," the unruly-haired man muttered, wiping the lens of his macro-binoculars. He resumed his search through the eyepiece. "Absolutely nothing. Oblivyn ...

"Xerbet
," The last Princess of Alderaan added.

"Nilcha."

"Zaxxixx
..."

Han made a god-awful squeak, followed by a short burst of rapid squeaks so shrill she covered her ears.

"What in the world ..."

"Akwin," he announced, beaming. "Their underwater dialect. And I’m going to call it."

Leia blew out a frustrated lung-full of air, too distracted to contemplate where or why Han would ever have learned the shrieking chatter of a species that split its time between the land and sea. This had been a long shot. To anyone who saw them, they were a couple of city tourists who’d rented a carriage for the day and were carousing around the city’s edge, touring the festive landscape and tempting a massive allergy attack. As if that was a common sight here. So far, they’d not seen another soul, unless they counted the dozen or so wild duuvhals sunning themselves in the roads. Stowed between them were heat sensors, radiotropic sensors and other portable state-of-the-art reconnaissance equipment. Both of them had extensive experience with this sort of search. If there were any ships buried in the forests, even camouflaged to avoid sensor detection, anywhere within a kilometer of where they passed, they would have picked up an anomaly, but the tour of the city limits was fruitless. They’d covered North, East and South, and were steadily making their way West.

Their portable map-viewer lay activated on the dashboard. There were five villages ringing the outskirts of Eligel Proper. They’d taken a drive through and around all five in just under as many hours. Han reasoned they had to be near the city, but not near enough to be spotted by everyday folk.

Leia loathed the notion of waiting for the Imperials to find them first. When questioned, Han was adamant about the boots, as he had been all along. "I’m dead sure of what I saw. How often am I wrong?" he kept replying, and even Leia had to admit at last, "Not very."

"I mean," Han continued, to no one in particular, since Leia had heard him so many times today she’d starting tuning him out, "they could be beyond any of the villages in the outskirts, underground. We don’t have time to search the entire planet and if I petition for a visa to do reconnaissance work with the Falcon it’s probably not going to go over so well."

The sensors beeped a response this time. Han abruptly killed the engines, letting the vessel idle to a slow stop. "There," he said.

Assuming he’d spied something off in the distance to accompany the beep, she tried to follow his line of sight, rising half off her seat. There was a ridge arising behind the forests to their left. Nothing flashing, nothing metal. No stormtroopers. "What do you see?"

Han toggled a few sensor switches until it beeped back at him again. "There’s something interesting over there. Could be a local mining outpost again ... but ..." His finger traced the snaking line in the middle of the map’s viewer. "A river would be a very strange place for a mining installation, wouldn’t it?"

Seeing that they would have to investigate on foot, they sought a good cover for the carriage, scanning the roadside treeline. There were quite a few pockets recessing deeper into the woods, and they selected one that provided adequate cover from passers-by.

Leia felt anxious, though for the most part, her sense of foreboding rested in the unnerving experience yesterday, a growing malign sentiment that Yashuvhu and she bore a connection she couldn’t comprehend. And given the chance, she wasn’t sure she even wanted to know the origin. Truly, she wanted to get off-planet as soon as possible. She wanted to go anywhere else. Jangling nerves and too much attention from the Tas and his family weren’t helping. One state dinner remained in their honor, (or in Luke’s honor, to be accurate. Leia was certain if she and Han dropped off the edge of Yashuvhu, no one but Luke would notice), but that wasn’t for two days. After that, they would likely be leaving. After that they would return to Coruscant and hope for the best.

They bundled up in their clothing, tightened their collars, packing their gear into a satchel. The last of the carriage's heat leaked from the vents. Leia peered through the transparisteel, watched her breath fog the window over, drew on a pair of gloves and steeled herself for the cold. It was supposed to snow soon. According to one of their guards, it should have snowed weeks ago but they were in the middle of a drought. She hoped they were gone before it did, prayed that they were, and went to open her side hatch just as Han caught her arm above the wrist.

"Problem?" she asked.

"No, no. Just hang on. I thought we could talk for a minute. While we’re alone."

Talk? Leia experienced a ping-ponging sensation in her chest, her heart and lungs seizing in unison. This was a new Han. She didn’t like the element of surprise this new Han had on her, saying things he never would have before, wanting to talk when she didn’t want to. Her instincts were instantly on edge. She’d had a bad night. They both knew that. Her nightmares tended to come in waves. "Talk about what?"

He shrugged. "This morning."

She squirmed uneasily. "What about this morning?"

"I heard you crying."

"Oh."

"And I could tell when you came out of the 'fresher."

It hadn’t been a big deal, she’d thought, and she certainly hadn’t thought he had heard her, for she’d been trying very hard to be quite. But he said that last part as though to say, see, I have proof, so there was no point in claiming otherwise. She’d awoken very early and discovered that the shot Tryll had given her before she departed Baskarn was one hundred percent effective. Her body’s normal functions were emotionally loaded, had triggered or renewed the fading sense of loss. For a brief time, it had been a new loss all over again. She didn’t know what she’d been hoping. She couldn’t figure herself out, though the grief had somewhat passed.

Han wasn’t going to understand any of this on his own. Either they had a painfully complicated discussion, right now, right here in the middle of the forests, or they had a simple one. Leia opted for simple mainly because it seemed ludicrous to start a heart-to-heart in the midst of their search for a clandestine Imperial faction. She said, "It was nothing. I got my period. I felt like crying, so I did. That’s all there was to it."

"Hormones," he mumbled under his breath, sounding as though he’d solved the mystery all by himself, had her all figured out.

Yeah that’s right Solo, she thought bitterly. I’m a cliché, the quintessential human female. She knew he didn’t know better but she wished he would think.

He still hadn’t let go of her arm. He gave it a squeeze. Leia couldn’t help but think he was holding it so that she couldn’t run from him. "Other than that you’re all right?"

"Of course, I’m all right. Why wouldn’t I be all right?"

"Got me. Well, let’s go have our look-see close up," Han declared, releasing her and clearing the edge of the carriage in one hop. Then he held up his hands and easily swung her down through his side.

The forests buffeting the roads were a coniferous variety. The upswept whorls of spiny bracts were creamy white with rusty patches, like cumulous clouds with a blistering sun setting behind them. Oozing resin blisters and oblong sapsucker holes spotted the long arching trunks and the red-purple seeds crunched pleasantly beneath her boots. It was a far cry from the jungles of Baskarn.

It was also all alien enough to make her nervous.

Apprehension wasn’t the only emotion nagging at her. Beneath the apprehension, she felt vaguely angry too, and she examined the source as they marched. Because you wanted him to pry and he didn’t, she wondered. Well, you could tell him. "Han," she thought out loud.

"Huh?" he mumbled, as he always did when he was half paying attention.

Purposely vague in order to marshal up courage, as she was only deciding as she spoke to reveal any of this to him, she slowed her steps and said, "You never asked me what happened that day."

Predictably, his hazel eyes bore their share of mystification. "Which day are we talking about?"

"On Elrood," she said simply.

That stopped him dead in his tracks. His eyes sharpened insightfully, sizing her up. "You said you made a mistake, right?"

She adopted his ploy. If Han Solo’s instincts were always on the credit, than her own record for staying cool and collected was impeccable. "And when, Han Solo, have you ever known me to make a mistake like that?"

"Never."

"Never."

"Is there more? Is there some redeeming part to it all you forgot to tell me about?"

She swallowed hard. "Are you sure you want me to tell you?"

"Sweetheart, I’m asking aren’t I?"

With that Leia took a deep breath and set the entire story free. Of the mother and her child. Of how it had felt to her. Of how it had caught her off guard. That she hadn’t known she would react that way.

Han scuffed one boot toe through in the seeds from start to finish. He wore his Sabaac face. "I wish you’d told me all this when it happened," he said when she was done.

"Do you?" There were so many things she might have told him — more he might have asked. In an unguarded moment, Han might have asked her why she’d decided to go through with the pregnancy when there were other options available; when it meant sacrificing her career, when it meant unavailing the New Republic of the Organa dream, of her father’s dream. After these past weeks, she had given up worrying that he would, and she quashed the foolish impulse to ask him why he hadn’t. "Would it have changed anything if I did?"

"No. Maybe. I would have been less hard on you."

Leia was tempted to quip, "When, standing upright or beneath the engineering station?" So much had been thrown to the wind in recent weeks, his lack of restraint with words and opinions spilling over into the parts of their relationship that were more physical. In his own right, he had returned to their pairing as a changed man. Recalling that side of Han, the extent of his passion that afternoon, sent warm shivers up and down her legs. But she knew he only meant he might have believed her less inept, less of a worry. "I’ve never done anything like that — forgotten where I was. Not when Alderaan was destroyed, not when Vader had you put in carbon freeze. I’ve never blocked out what was going on around me. Not like that. I stayed in control —"

He reached down and traced the curve along her cheekbone, the edge of the tattoo she'd grown accustomed to seeing in the mirror. "It’s not worth beating yourself up over. It happens to everyone."

"I almost got you killed. You had a right be angry."

Demonstrating his usual sublime indifference to danger, Han was grinning. "And that’s what? The first time you’ve done that? Cause I can count at least a dozen others if I think back hard enough. And you’re not the first person to ever put me in a situation like that?"

The princess smiled. "No, actually. I’m pretty sure I’m not."

"See."

"See," she repeated, matching the triumphant tone. Leia dropped her gaze, poked out her toe and butted it up against his larger boot. She sniffed against the cold and kept talking. "On Alderaan, we didn’t believe in gods or any one gods, but we did believe in a greater energy guiding us, surrounding us. We believed that if we called to it, it would answer, guide us. Not so different from the Force, but not the same. I’ve spent many, many hours contemplating why they are so similar yet separate." She took another deep breath. "We had rituals too, prayers for the loss if a child that hadn’t been born. I can’t remember what they would have done. I wasn’t old enough to take part."

They’d been practiced more for their comfort value, more to allow for public grieving than for religious purposes. Her memories were vague and distorted by youthful impressions. Still, for the first time in her young life she could almost understand the need for them. When she tipped her face back Han had a cynical brow raised, and his smile was gone.

"But you were old enough to run plans for the Rebellion and serve in the Senate?"

She shifted her narrow shoulders up and down. "I would never have been encouraged to marry so young, bear children. They would have been the heirs apparent to the throne, though we had no governing power save the power we earned under the Republic. Decisions such as those weren’t contemplated lightly in my household."

"Yes," Han nodded. "I can see why. Gods forbid the family political dynasty collapse due to bad genes."

"Hey." Leia elbowed him fast, a fierce jab above his hip.

"Ooh! What? Watch the wisecracks?" Han feigned hurt and clutched at his side. "They have their rituals on Corellia too, I think. There’s a tome even. ‘A Hundred Dreams about Hundred Heavens’ or something. Children get their own, the born and unborn." Without breaking eye contact, he rubbed thoughtfully at his cheek. "So what are we really talking about here?"

Leia shifted her shoulders again. "I’m not sure. I think the Force is the nearest thing to an otherworldly power I believe in. We’re all a part of it. We all belong. But it doesn’t ... It doesn’t —"

"—help to know that," he finished. "I know."

"Maybe." Suddenly Han had moved nearer. As though he meant to embrace her or put an arm about her, and he was regarding her tenderly and looked like he cared. "Don’t," she replied icily, locking her elbows and pushing him back. He probably didn’t know what else to do, probably meant well, but any compassion and pity would be her undoing. "Let’s just go run the check, okay."

With a puzzled expression, Han readied his equipment, then dropped the discussion as casually as she had initiated it. "Sure. If that’s what you want."

They began the two hundred or so meter climb to the top of the ridge through the forest. Though it wasn’t far, the slashy uneven terrain was enough to leave her short of breath. It had been a while, it seemed, since she’d exercised or exerted herself — certainly not so much these past weeks. She'd run the gauntlet in that respect on Baskarn over those few weeks, but the shape she’d arrived at the base in was less than ideal, or even what one might consider healthy.

As soon as the reached the top Han dropped to his knees and crawled the last few meters on his belly. Winded, Leia followed suit.

"Ahh ... ah ... " Han muttered. "Well, well, well. I’d say we’ve found something very interesting."

Interesting indeed.

Far below, resting beside a river so massive it appeared to be on the verge of swallowing the horizon, lay a Vibre-class Assault Cruiser.

Before the Battle of Endor, they’d been the toast of the Imperial Fleets. They were triangular and plated with stealth-coated matte black armor. At 100 meters in length, with retractable wings, they were easily docked within the massive Star Destroyers. While not truly attack vessels, they were outfitted with ion cannons, tractor beams and cutting lasers, not to mention that they were very well shielded. Additionally, the unusual finish made them slightly impervious to sensory detection — at least, from a great distance, they were capable of distorting data and making themselves appear as the random magnetic energy fields which occasionally clumped together in space, drifting aimlessly.

One thing was for certain. The Assault Cruiser had certainly not drifted aimlessly to Yashuvhu and landed just beyond the capital city limits.

"They can’t hold more than eighty troops with crew," Han mumbled.

"Is that supposed to be a good thing?" she asked, worriedly. "Because that’s actually eighty more than I want the three of us to be up against."

Han shook his head and continued studying his sensor pack. "If she came in fully manned. I’m getting inconclusive readings for on board — unless the entire crew has embedded itself with the city limits. Or else that hull is blocking me." Passing her the sensor-pack, Han unsnapped his macrobinoculars. "Wait a second. We have two standing sentry. Here. Take a look."

Leia let out her breath out in one long sigh of relief. Inspection of the men revealed two Imperial agents dressed in standard military greys. The Royal Imperial Guard wore crimson robes and body armor that resembled that of the Mandalorian Death Watch syndicate and the Thyrsus Sun Guards. According to rumors, they’d added a thin line of black trim in honor of the Emperor. She said, "They might be scanning, too."

"Doubt it. We’ll wait a few and see if they’re headed in this direction."

Spirits sapped by their discovery and at the same time relieved, Leia rested her chin on her arms. They might not know with whom they were dealing, but at least they knew with whom they were not dealing. The Royal Imperial Guard had been her biggest fear all along.

The Royal Imperial Guard has contracts out on both of you, dead or alive, so high they’ll bankrupt themselves trying to pay it.

That’s what Harkness and Raventhorn had told them and they were not to be taken lightly. When she returned to Coruscant, she was going to have review her security — and worry about who might have slipped genetic samples to the Guard to begin with.

"I wonder how it’s going with the girl," Han asked idly.

The girl? Leia’s brain scrambled. "Hataj?"

"Yeah."

The yeah said it all. As did the arching eyebrow and accompanying smirk. Sometimes Leia didn’t know where his brain got its delusions. "Oh, seriously. You’re not thinking ..."

"They were looking very friendly when I went back out there yesterday. I interrupted them. You didn’t see it. He was giving her the look."

"The look?"

"The look. You know, the kind you used to get."

Leia pressed her lips together. "I know we had this talk once about —"

"—things I should never-ever bring up. Yes. Still, for the sake of comparison, Gaerial, Shira Brie ... Simsarri, you."

She gave her head a vehement shake. "You imagined it. You dreamed it up. She barely spoke to us yesterday. She had no interest in speaking with either of us, she has an axe to grind with Tas we know nothing about."

"It must have all changed when you weren’t paying attention."

"I was with them all afternoon and I have no idea what you’re talking about. Besides, Luke is nice to everyone. He can’t help it."

"I’ve seen him help it," Han countered. "He can help it when he wants to, just fine."

Simsarri? Leia struggled to put a face to that name and failed. "Wait? Who was Simsarri?"

"You’re absolutely right," Han declared evasively. "My overly vivid imagination has gotten the better of me yet again. I don’t know what I’m talking about."

Opting to save her interrogation for another day, Leia nodded and resumed surveying. The pair had yet to move. "All right if they’re scanning we’d know by now. Should we go down and take a closer look?"

"No," Han said, reaching into his bag and withdrawing a fist-sized device. He tucked it inside his jacket "Not we. I’ll go down and take a look. You cover me from here — you’ll have a better vantage point."

"Your faith in my targeting abilities astounds me," she commented sarcastically, drawing her blaster from her tie-down holster and flipping off the safety. Scuffling her body down a little deeper into the seeds, Leia double-checked the sight. The two men were chatting, arms tight across their chests in the cold. Merely a perfunctory watch of sorts — they didn’t appear to be that concerned about being found out. Any shots would be long ones, and she couldn’t guarantee hitting a moving target from so great a distance.

Han reached over and patted her rear end, brushed his lips across her cheek. "I have absolute faith in you. So long as you hit something and distract them."

For a moment, she pressed her cold nose against the warmth of his neck. "Don’t do anything brave or stupid."

"I would never. I’m just going to take a look. No problem. Trust me."

"Oh bother," she sighed. "I know I’ve heard that line before, Slick."

"I thought I said you weren’t allowed to call me that," Han grumbled.

Leia drew herself back and winked. "You weren’t allowed to bring up old history either."

* * * * *

Luke felt horrible.

Visions of his Uncle Owen lecturing him, making him feel small and worthless in the bowels of the garage compound were freshly awakened. Hataj had the same look about her now that he’d felt back then, as though in his uncle’s eyes his trivial sufferings had been in vain, as though his feelings has been worthless, he opinions without merit.

Beside Hataj stood her Uncle Harmakh, hissing so rapidly in their native tongue that Luke couldn’t follow, or catch more than an occasional word. Though he had the hands of a middle-aged man, the frame, the leanness, he looked decades older. His eyes were heavy and deep-set, shadowed by a thick brow. It made his expression hard to read, made him look perpetually incensed or chronically suspicious, though at this very moment there was no mistaking that he was incensed. He was the type of man that children probably ran from. Loss and tragedy, Luke ascertained, not years.

Again, Luke attempted to intervene, with enough sense to bide his words carefully. "I assure you I’m only here to ask a few questions. Then I’ll go."

The aged Yashuvhite cast his attention his way, his features grave. "And what did the Tas Mos’ir ask for in exchange for my information?"

"Ask for?" Luke held out his hands. "He asked me to meet her. Nothing more."

Hataj stamped her foot. "Uncle don’t! Stop this! He’s not involved."

"He is involved!"

What am I involved in? Luke wondered. "The Tas asked what I thought of her?" he said, thinking furiously. Why the Tas Mos’ir was so intent on getting his opinion of a local girl was still unknown to him. The ruler had been deceptive to an extent throughout their meeting, but it had not overly concerned him these past few days. Now it seemed that it should have. What had he missed?

"Have you not stopped to contemplate what he meant by that?"

"I thought ..." Luke began. "I thought ..."

Wife?

No sooner had the word come to him than an intense despair tore at his soul. He felt as though he’d just stepped in quicksand and it was sucking him in inch-by-inch, slowly suffocating him. As had happened with the Tas Mos’ir that first night, his repeated attempts to feel for Hataj rendered him hypersensitive to the projected emotions of others. And her uncle emitted a grief so profound, Luke was nearly shamefaced inside at sensing so much from another man. New understanding dawned.

Wife. Of course, it almost made sense.

When had it been taken from her?

"Do you know?" Harmakh asked, his voice remote. "Do you?"

"I won’t tell the Tas what it is he suspects," Luke promised in a low voice.

"You gave the Tas Mos’ir your word," Harmakh, replied, shaking his head slowly and thrusting a closed fist into mid-air. "Why should I believe you if you give me yours?"

"Had the Tas revealed his true intentions I would likely have refused or sought a way around it."

Harmakh lowered his fist, drawing in his elbow to his side, and for a second Luke thought he meant to move across the room and strike him. Instead he widened his palm and let the hand hang uselessly at his tide. "Leave us," he commanded his niece.

Luke watched her go, unable to speak at first. Then he said, "It’s not possible. It isn’t, there’s no way." The innermost recesses of his heart did not believe it. Jedi, taking from potential Jedi gifts with which they had been born, going against nature, against the will of the Force. "How did you do it?"

"I didn’t do it."

"Then who —"

"Her father. There was a way, once upon a time. It was little-used, regarded as sacrilege, but it saved her life." Her uncle bowed his chin stiffly. "But I cannot protect her from the Tas and his suspicions."

"He wants another wife," Luke mumbled. "But it can’t be undone. It can’t be undone and it’s useless to her."

Harmakh looked up sharply and moved beside him. He placed a palm against Luke’s shoulder, over the same area Sarin had healed. "It’s not her he wants. It’s her offspring. At the next round of royal succession discussions, he can claim his blood runs with the ancient settlers, with the Force. He’ll marry her in a heartbeat if he believes his heirs will be the new generation of healers, of prophets ... of your kind. He’ll take her — if he thinks for one second that she might bear them to his throne. And I would sooner be dead and buried than sentence my niece to be another wife of his."

The room felt as though it had grown colder since their return.

Harmakh stared. "Perhaps I should go back as far as I can."

* * * * *

Han slid footfirst down the leeway slope of the ridge. At the bottom he rolled into the brush, taking care to drag his long legs up tight to his chest so that he wouldn’t be visible if anyone happened to look in his direction. Then he watched and waited. Being brave or stupid were not on his private agenda but he wanted get on board and check it out. And since he hadn’t had the foresight to borrow Luke’s lightsaber, carving through the hull (which he would have loved to do, just so that he could have the pleasure of imagining their faces when they found the gaping hull breach) was not going to be an option.

However, if the men were standing guard, then they might have left a hatch open and that’s what he was counting on. If they hadn’t, he was going to have to try an old-fashioned ship break-in.

Han half-scurried, half crawled through the bushes beneath the belly of the ship, hiding behind the ship’s feet, which were meter square rests spaced evenly in pairs from her bow to her stern. The wind was blowing in his direction, and he could catch snippets of voices, of conversation, but not whole words. He couldn’t see the two men, but he could see the entry ramp, and that it was down.

Moments later Han discovered that while the ramp was down, the inner portal divider was sealed tight. Grabbing the passive field generator he’d stashed inside his coat, Han clipped it beside the portal’s security system and activated it. Then he lifted the thin panel off the security lock and studied the wires inside. He’d had ample training on bypassing this type of system, lifetimes of it. The Empire never upgraded such menial systems. People just didn’t usually march up to docked Imperial ships and try to break in (although Han had, twice). A second later the portal whirred open for him.

He stepped inside the ship, holding his breath, listening for the guards outside. There were no sounds. After a moment’s debate, he left the portal open. If he needed to run, he wanted to be able to run, and the pair might assume they’d left it open besides. At least, he hoped that’s what they would assume.

The ship was quiet, but did not feel abandoned or empty. Han trespassed cautiously. Striding quietly down the first corridor, he passed the galley and the head bunkrooms. Someone was snoring behind one of the privacy screens. An empty plate sat on the table in the common room.

There were several voices speaking up ahead. Not wanting to press his luck, Han ducked into the fresher doorway and listened intently. The command center on this model of ship was typically stationed just behind the cockpit, which was where he assumed the voices were coming from. Counting the snorer and the men outside, the tally so far was seven. Moreover, Han had a good feeling the pale-haired man he’d spotted in town was not on board. He listened to the speakers chat about who was going to work on the full-spectrum transceiver, thinking he wasn’t going to learn anything helpful after all, when finally, the discussion became interesting.

"How many more days?"

"It’s up to him."

"I say we just make our move."

"He wants to wait. We can’t move too quickly with Skywalker. Especially not with the other two in the picture."

The other two. Han edged a little closer, cautiously eyeing his shadow, which was straining a little too far ahead of him for his liking.

"I thought he said he doesn’t care about the other two."

"There are other options."

Something about the man’s words made Han’s stomach go worm-like and uneasy. He’d never prided himself on being on the Empire’s most wanted list, nor did he relish that type of caring, but he was used to it. "There are other options" sounded like, "it doesn’t matter if they’re dead or alive," or "he’ll turn them over to the highest bidder and hang on to Skywalker."

A series of metallic clinks came from the entrance ramp down the hall. Suddenly feeling that he’d learned enough, Han took a step back, scanning to his left and right, seeking another means off-board. The cuff of his coat brushed against a fire retardant foam dispenser, which clanked noisily against the bulkhead wall.

"Marrix? Is that you?" Someone from the command center shouted. "You’re late for your shift."

Swearing mentally, Han reached for his blaster, wondering how long he would go undiscovered if he locked himself in the fresher cubicle. He swiftly decided if he did that he might as well put his hands up and ask for their most spacious cell.

From the other end of the corridor, someone was asking who’d left the hatch open.

Distraction! Distraction! Han silently commanded Leia. Now! Now! Now!

As if on cue, there was burst of fire outside that reverberated along the hull, and then a series of shouts both from both ends of the hall. There was little time to wait. Han fired twice toward the command center, wanting nothing more than to make sure no one fired at his back. Desperate to get off the ship, Han charged back down the corridor like a madman. He encountered the first man boarding shoulder first and threw all of his body weight into the collision. The impact knocked the Imperial off his feet and directly into the man behind him. The two tumbled head over heels down the gradient.

Recovering his balance by catching his hands on the stanchion before inertia vaulted him onto the body pile, Han took two steps down and leapt over the roiling pair. Overestimating his ability to land gracefully, or even on two limbs, Han came down hard onto all fours. Without looking behind him, he scrambled to his feet and began running, ignoring the shouts. A new volley of blasts screeched, and he prayed they were Leia covering him. Searching for the nearest escape route, he ran straight to the bank where from the waters were running as dark and deadly as the Corellian rivers to hell of legend. There was a steep drop-off along the river’s edge and no gradual descent to deeper waters. Han tried to make his mind a blank and jumped.

Then splat.

The impact winded him immediately. Then the cold kicked in. Above the neck, he felt as though he’d taken a sledgehammer to the temple. Most of his body felt as though it had been dropped into carbon freeze, cold and burning at the same time — or so that tiny sliver of nascent memory screamed to him, from the second when the smoke and the darkness had taken Leia’s face. Either that or every inch of his bare skin felt like it had been doused with liquid nitrogen, but he’d never been unfortunate enough to experience that firsthand.

Han tried to hold his breath and kicked with every ounce of strength in his body until he broke the surface, shrugging off his jacket so that it wouldn’t drown him. The current was carrying him along more quickly than he’d expected, and he struggled to make his way toward shoal water, thrashing his legs clumsily in an attempt to keep his head above water. After a few moments, his feet were squishing along a semi-solid bottom. Soon after he was crawling onto the shore.

Whatever distance he’d been carried, he was no longer within eyeshot of the bend around which the ship was hidden. Praying Leia had seen his dive, he forced himself to his feet, feeling heavy as an overweight bantha and hot all over. Knowing if he didn’t get moving immediately that hypothermia would set in, Han dragged himself through the forest hoping the road ran parallel to the river for the duration. That last thing he needed now was to be out disorientated and lost while soaking wet in sub-zero temperatures. Much to his relief, the road materialized minutes later, and the carriage was speeding toward him. It promptly screeched to a halt beside him.

"Nothing brave, nothing stupid," Leia began, shaking her head, looking amused and relieved and worried at the same time. "Oh you must be so cold. Did the sea creatures here understand Akwin?"

"Funny, Sweetheart." Han fell inside, tried to tear his shirts over his head, and discovered his fingers weren’t working. Or they obeyed, but only about ten seconds after his brain sent the command to them, and by then, he wound up pawing at his holster instead.

Leia leaned over and twisted her hands in the dripping fabric at his waist. "Get your arms up."

Together they wrestled him free of the upper clothing. They tossed the sodden shirts onto the back seat with their equipment, where they landed with a loud wet thwack. Leia quickly switched the heat to full blast, and removed the coat she’d borrowed from him. Shivering, he took the cumbrous garment into his numb hands but did not put it on. When he looked down, he saw that his chest and stomach were covered in an impressive display of angry goose bumps. "Did anybody see you?" he asked.

She shook her head. "I don’t think so. I fired wild until you went for your swim and hightailed out of there."

"Good." Han felt safe enough for the time being. They hadn’t had any visible means of following them. He noticed a few new scratches on her face and hands, and reasoned ‘hightailing it out of there’ had been a breakneck crash through the brush. He rubbed his hands together, trying to restore sensation, planning to try and get his boots off as soon as he’d recovered enough dexterity.

"What did you find out?"

Han gave a contemptuous snort. "We’ve got Imperials in the vicinity and the Tas Mos’ir is fully aware of whatever is going on. And they want your brother."

"Stang."

"Frack." Han muttered, shaking violently and amused to discover his sense of humor was not currently in the claws of Yashuvhi crustaceans. "Gfersh. I know I can swear in more languages than you."

"Well, naturally," Leia replied. "Anyone who worked for a Hutt for as long as you did should have quite the vocabulary."


To Chapter Eighteen | To Chapter Twenty

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