Renewal: Chapter Twenty-Three Rated PG
Ivy

"Why donít you come with us?"

"To Coruscant?"

They lay in her bed. There was no mangled Force divide separating them, no negative space, no physical distance. Their skin was cocooned from chest to toe, and Luke felt beautifully overwhelmed, unlike himself, pressing his fingers into her flesh along her back, devouring her with invisible fingerprints and psychic touches. His mind was high with illusions and things that shouldnít be; his heart was light and singing. With the Tasí interest in her looming, it was only natural that he offer her a means of retreat, a lamasery. Luke grinned and rested his ear on the fold of his arm. "Yes. To Coruscant."

"What of my uncle?" It was more an impulsive protest than a question.

"We have room on the ship for both of you," he replied, although that wasnít what sheíd meant, and he didnít want to admit he had no answer.

So he proceeded to tell her about core world. About the city structures that stretched over five thousand feet above the surface. About how the farms and gardens and parks were all constructed in specially contained buildings with their own interior ecosystems — about how you could enter one and not know you were on the most populated planet in the galaxy. About the myriad of species and languages and colors and vibrant ring of life that had seeped into the architecture and rendered the entire planet alive (that was Lukeís Force-enhanced impression, and he tried to explain that, not wanting her to feel left out because she couldnít). He omitted that atmospheric dampeners converted carbon dioxide to oxygen due to shortage of plant-life, and said nothing about the fact that the planet generated so much artificial light that it was impossible to see the stars. He left out the dark and poverty riddled sunken levels of the city where crime flourished like weeds and survival of the fittest warred on between sentient and non-sentient creatures.

"I donít know," she murmured doubtfully when he finished, brushing a tendril of hair away from her eyes. "Iíd enjoy it for a time because it would be new to me and then I wouldnít. Yes, Iím an outsider on my own world but I would still be an outsider on yours."

"Iím an outsider there," he insisted. "Every second person you meet wasnít born there and is trying to make their way." Luke scratched his cheek and punched down the lumpy faded cushion. "WellÖ thatís not counting my sister, who is the Princess of the society insiders. And the political circles." He started tugging at the fraying edges of the cushion with pretended disinterestedness. "But you could go anywhere you want, travel. You donít even have to come for me." That came out badly. "I mean, Iíd like it if you did, but donít feel you have to."

Hataj knitted her brows, one plain, one adorned, together. "Then why are you asking me to go with you?"

"Because I donít want to leave you here." It was on the tip of his tongue to say it. Or, "youíll have a chance for something better," but he didnít want to sound patronizing, so he asked, "Are you happy here?"

The look on her face was wistful — not as though she was recalling happiness, no not that. She was only dreaming up an answer to his question. "This is my home," she said finally. "I do love it, when it comes down to it. Iíve never even thought of traveling. And then ..." Abruptly, she cast her wistfulness aside. Her voice heightened with exaggerated excitement and she swept the quilted blanket up over her head, eyes shimmering the way light did on moving water. Then she set her chin lopsidedly on his chest. "I can see explaining it all to my uncle. You see Uncle Harmakh, to avoid the Tas Iíve decided to run off with the Jedi Skywalker across the galaxy to the center of the universe. And weíre making you come along."

Laughing, Luke drew the blanket over both their heads. Maybe it was possible to fall in love with someone youíd only known a few short days. Or, conversely, maybe it wasnít and this was something else entirely he was feeling, more lust than love but heíd acted on it and he was privately glad of it. Whether the future had been waiting for him or he had preserved it by his actions ceased to concern him. Now they had passed a point that could not be undone, a passing that had been as raw with emotion as it had been gentle in its resolution. They could come to know each other. They could learn.

"You could give it a try," he said, encouragingly, still wanting to take back his blunder of moments ago. He reached up and drew fine strands of her hair between his fingers, let them slip away helplessly. "I figure we feel this sort of connection with one out of a million people. Like weíve always known each other."

"Do you feel this sort of connection often?" Her body moved over his suggestively. A cool hand settled on his hip.

"No." Then he remembered the time resentfully, wanting to roll over and devour her. "Iím going to be late for a meeting with a ghost who goes by Kadann." With that he rolled her back and climbed free of the small bed.

"Who is that?"

"Iím not sure exactly." Most of what Luke knew was unsubstantiated rumours. He shared them. "Heís been a seer to the Empire, to Palpatine for as long as any records go back — since the New Orderís earliest days. He foretold the destruction of both Death Stars, of the Rebellionís ultimate victory. Supposedly he lives in a space station that patrols the Nu Territories — Scardia or something. He writes his prophecies down, reads them to his followers."

Hataj ran her index finger across her bottom lip. "A Death Star?"

Luke reached for his shirt. "A massive space station capable of destroying entire planets."

"Oh." She shivered.


"We destroyed it," he added. "There are no more."


"Are you afraid of him?"

"No. Although ... I donít understand what he wants from me. I guess Iím going to find out soon — Iím late enough to the Tasí banquet as it is."

"Wait." Hataj sat up and pressed the edges of the quilt to her breast. "Thatís where youíre meeting him?"

Lukeís face asked the question.

"Iím part of the Tasí extended family," she explained. "We attend every state affair — or at least receive an invitation. We received no notice of an event tonight."

"He might have forgotten?" Luke began searching for his boots. And he heard it, felt the soft tugs at his subconscious for the first time, opening his senses wide, for heíd closed himself off from Leia without being cognizant of it, a reflex or a innate impulse devised to guard his privacy. Her pleas were as weary as they were frantic in their intensity.

Luke, Luke, Luke ...

"This would be the first time in my entire life," she finished.

* * * * *

Luke, she thought. Where are you?

For the umpteenth time, Leiaís frustration and indignation threatened to transform into full-blown panic. Again, her cellmate came to rest beside her as though he sensed this and squeezed her shoulder.

She was tired, hungry and worried. Theyíd been locked in the bare-bones cell without a trace of their captors for over two hours. The episode on the Falcon was beginning to feel as though it had happened several lifetimes ago. To tell the truth, sheíd expected his over-reaction to be worse. Han was hotheaded; he could shoot his mouth off with the best of them, (her own temper wasnít always to her credit either, thinking back to that night on Tatooine when sheíd flaunted the affair). Already, she was prepared to cram it into the infinitesimal abyss with all the other fights theyíd had. Even her parting words were beginning to suffuse her with a sense of contrition. Let him know it as it was. She didnít want it to eat away at him any longer. She wanted the past few months behind them once and for all.

Just as his shoulder-squeezing began evolving into a full-scale attack on the mass of knots at the base of her neck, she heard herself make him an offer. "I can have Winter handle it from now on."

The overture seemed to catch him off-guard. He dropped his hand and drew in a quick breath as if to say something. Then he swayed his head.

"What?"

"You donít have to do that," he muttered quickly, glancing toward the energy fence and the empty corridor.

She hesitated for a moment. Winter might find it an unusual request, but she would take the task with little comment. Never forget the unusualness of it, but take it and perform it well. "Yes I do," she reaffirmed, straightening her skirts. "It wonít look particularly professional of me but Iíll think of something to tell her."

"What about the Survivorís Fund?" His throat bulged as he swallowed. "Look, I donít want you to lose-"

"We wonít," she reassured him. We wonít ...

"Thatís what you want?"

After a few seconds for thought, she said, "Yes, itís what I want." And she meant it.

"Huh." Han scratched the bridge of his nose with his thumb, looking relieved beneath his hand and trying to hide it from her. "In case I hadnít mentioned it yet, feel free to start calling me a wagyx whenever you want."

Leia wiped away a greenish smudge from his cheekbone with the heel of her palm. "How about I save that for whoeverís holding us?"

Han began playing with the piece of ribbon braided into the neckline of her dress. "Thatíll work. Although, Iím curious about one thing."

"Iíll never tell."

"Oh, come on."

"In your panic attack over all of the credits and worlds I might have dancing at my fingertips, I guess you never thought about where I consider home to be after the last few years, did you?"

"Where would that be?"

Leia rested her forehead against the fuzzy material of his shirt and stared at his battered combat boots. The truth, in this case, was almost too lamentable to put into words — she was only realizing the irony of it all then. It began to make her angry at him again, but he was doing something with her hair that would turn it into a ratís nest, but felt incredibly good, with his fingertips sliding from her crown to the nape of her neck and back again. It might have sounded silly to say it or try to explain it, but she could almost feel that he loved her through his fingertips, just by the way he was stroking her scalp as though he had a thousand years to do just that. So she made no move to escape, although emotional physics dictated that she should pull away, spurn the touch of the person who had inflicted the recent damage despite what she might have done to deserve it. Because despite everything, Han had a knack for always making her feel that way and she never wanted to lose him. She said, just as dark splotches materialized on the toe of his right boot and her throat began to tighten, "You can really be an idiot sometimes."

"Leia, Iím sorry."

"I know," she nearly said, but she changed it to "me too," at the last second. The power play between them had to end once and for all. "And the nearest thing I have to a home is actually closer to a beat up looking, jury-rigged Corellian YT-1300 freighter than even I want to admit."

Hanís mouth joined the fingers dancing across the back of her neck. His tongue and teeth were playing over her skin, sending a thrill down her spine. "Betcha I know this place real well."

"Yes you do," she whispered. Han was tipping her head to kiss her but before their lips touched, clapping sounded from the hall. She wrenched her head free and pivoted.

A pair of men was watching them.

Both were clad in dark nondescript robes, partly opened at the top to reveal black standard issue Imperial uniforms. One had snow-white hair and was extremely pale and thin. The blue of his veins bulged visibly at his temples, beneath which dark eyes shone with an unnatural sheen, as though he were a backstreet glitbiter. Leia could see several gold-tipped rank cylinders slitted into his upper right pocket, although his insignia was partially covered by the robe. He fit the description of the man Han had seen downtown at the Dancing Duuvhal. By the expression on Hanís face beside her, she was fairly sure he recognized him. The second man was a squat and very stubborn looking Rafan, whose distinctive blonde and brown striped mane was so closely cropped that Leia could see the corresponding epidermal pigmentation beneath his hair. He was smirking to himself with his hands frozen together in a final applaud.

"Iím so happy you could make it to the show," Han said in an emphatically dry and humorless tone. "Weíd have sold tickets but you didnít leave us with a means to advertise."

Leia wasnít as interested in exchanging pleasantries. "What do you think youíre doing holding us?"

"Imperial Intelligence has sufficient reason."

She allayed her fears long enough to roll her eyes and look extremely annoyed that she was missing one-hundred types of local hors díoeuvres and aperitifs, as well as the company of the Tasí wives. "You have absolutely no jurisdiction on Yashuvhu. When the New Republic discovers-"

"That weíve taken you into custody? Yes, itís unfortunate that General Skywalker requested that the Tas not reply to the New Republicís query concerning yourselves, isnít it?"

Vos. The way Luke had put it, heíd more or less not Ďencouragedí the Tas to reply, but the impact was going to be just as disastrous if they got them off-planet. No one would know — not only where he or sheíd been, but also where they were going. Seeing no other recourse, Leia lied, grinning coolly without showing her teeth. "Iíve contacted Mon Mothma personally since our arrival. Donít think the New Republic wonít seek retribution swiftly."

"By the time they realize you are missing, it will no longer be of concern to you."

"Thatís what you think," she retorted, wondering why an Imperial agent would be wearing his rank cylinders off ship. For access to what or where? The Vibre-class assault cruiser wasnít big enough to have secured areas. But a Star Destroyer would... If itís insystem ...

No.

She didnít want to know that yet. There was little they could do with the energy fence still in place — other than argue futilely with the agents and try to gather as much information as possible. If the agents were here with the Supreme Prophet Kadann, then they had come to Yashuvhu seeking one person and that one person was Luke. The capture of she and Han was simply a lucrative fringe benefit.

"And oh ... The local government has agreed to dispose of your ship for us, Solo. Weíd add it to our fleet if it was remotely space-worthy, but since its structural integrity is in question theyíll harvest it for parts. You wonít be needing it where youíre going."

"Why donít you go tell your imploding government to shove it, you piece of stim-pickled krillhead."

The agent still didnít twitch a facial muscle. "General Solo, your mouthís reputation precedes you."

Wasnít I just thinking that minutes ago? Leia thought, catching Hanís face out of the corner of her eye. His cheek was spasming and his jaw was seized tightly. When she dropped her gaze she saw that Hanís hands were balled up so tightly into fists the veins were popping out just below his knuckles. Leave it to an Imperial agent to kick it him where it would hurt most. Sometimes her upbringing managed to fall short of the right thing to say.

"Weíll move them one at a time," the Rafan commanded, drawing back his robes and withdrawing a slim, arm-length weapon made of spun graphite. Leia recognized the stunted force pike and reflexively shuddered. The insulated handgrip was the only part of the weapon that wouldnít stun a full-grown Wookiee into dreams about forest gods, and once fully activated, the powered tip was capable of slicing through metal as though it were atomized butter. The energy fence was disabled with a quiet hiss, and then she and Han were left facing the two agents unarmed. A second force pike pointed in their direction and hummed quietly with ultrasonic-vibrations.

"Youíre making a big mistake," she countered, trying to remember if that particular argument had ever actually been effective. She noticed the duuvhal had grown shy or wisely disappeared from sight, although she could still smell the pungent musk from the hall.

"Her, out," the white haired man ordered.

Han growled and stretched an arm out to block her. "Over my dead body."

"It would most likely be, Corellian," the agent declared, shoving the weapon to within inches of his ribcage. "The bounty for you alive is not much higher than for you dead."

"Han," Leia pleaded, sidestepping carefully forward with her hands raised in a helpless gesture. They all knew it for a fact. She and Luke alone were worth a million credits. Each. Alive. "Iíll go."

"Say, arenít you forgetting something," Han said suddenly, without moving.

"What would that be?"

Han grinned wildly. "Niras is here and heís going to kill you."

What in the mother of the universe? Leia thought.

"What?" both agents said in unison.

"Heís here on Yashuvhu," Han added, lowering his voice ominously. "Just as Kadann predicted. Did you know he killed one thousand women and children here before turning his own kin over to the Emperor? Cause he did. Iím sure youíve heard about the women and children who died years ago — that was his doing. And Iím sure youíve already heard about the massacre on Baskarn. Wait until he gets done with you. He didnít like it when they tried to take him into custody last time."

The pale-skinned man composed himself. "Skywalker has shown not the slightest bit of evidence that he is Niras."

It was worth a shot. Picking up Hanís bluff where heíd left off, Leia furthered the story. "General Skywalker is hanging onto his sanity by a slim margin of control and came here trying to exorcise himself of Nirasí demon. We only came to support him. None of us knows how much time he has before he cracks. You put him on your Assault Cruiser and thereís no telling what heíll do to you or the men on your ship. He studied with the Emperor after all. Heís more powerful than even ... Vaderís son."

The agent leaned over and breathed quietly. "My dear, Niras would have no qualms about turning you over to us. I doubt heíll lift a finger to save you, so spare us your fictitious concerns for our well being. And if he is Luke Skywalker — whom I assure you, we know he is — we take all the spoils of war back to an Imperial system for trial."

"Weíll die before that happens?" she whispered back. Theyíre not buying this, she thought, just as Han asked, "What makes you so sure? You ever meet anyone who magically picked up a language overnight?"

This time, Hanís efforts to rattle them were effective. Not even Imperial Intelligence would have data regarding Luke Skywalkerís seasonal employment as a teenager. Foreigners would have no idea that Lukeís linguistic skills were lacking, that his spoken Yashuvhi was broken and accented — at least, not without listening to him extensively. And Basic was the rigorously enforced lingua franca of the Empire. Because of this, many dedicated Imperial servants were unilingual; it was obvious they hadnít been able to hear the difference.

"I heard it in the recordings of the day they arrived," said the Rafan, sounding as though he half-expected Niras to come floating down the halls and disembowel him at any moment. (Yes, Leia thought. Their very first transport the evening they had arrived — the one Han had called an antique. That was the one place they hadnít been able to check for listening devices.) "He was talking to all of them; all of the Tasí priests."

Han shrugged and promptly capitalized on their irresolution. "I speak near seven languages fluently. Another handful passably. Let me tell you, I never soaked in syntax or vocabulary in a matter of days. Cause, when he woke up on Baskarn, he just knew. Iíve been sleeping with my blaster under my pillow ever since."

Leia smiled inside. He did that virtually every night, everywhere. Just then, she felt her brother reaching for her.

"Force-enhanced learning?" the Rafan replied. "I read somewhere Jedi could do that?"

The other agent searched both their faces scrupulously, then waved the pike again. "Move!"

"Hey. Will you watch it with that thing," Han blustered. "We donít bite." He pointed to the duuvhal, which had crept up behind the pair and was flicking its long greasy tongue over its lips again. "That thing does though. Donít piss it off."

Leia had only taken two steps forward by now, so determined was she to stall. A man who looked thoroughly spice-happy when he was stone-cold sober and didnít care that he was planning on shuttling Palpatineís old lackey across the star system was not her idea of the Ďideal escortí. The disregarded reptile elevated the feathers along its ruff and tail, staring unblinking with rapt intensity behind her (as if Han was commanding it to do something, though she couldnít imagine what). Recalling that the creatures were poisonous, she began praying fervently that the thing would launch itself at the agent's throat.

It did.

There was a flash of green sailing through the air and a howl from the second agent. Just as the duuvhal sprang, Han lurched into a roaring, screaming dive at the agent, thrusting Leia to the wayside so forcefully she heard the sound of her skull thwacking the wall.

* * * * *

In the eerily silent manor, Luke Skywalker searched for answers. Despite the fact that the Tas was hosting an extravagant farewell dinner for his guests, the halls were barren, vacant even of servants. The portals to all bedchambers, lounge areas, offices and dining rooms were sealed shut. There were no voices tapering off from within, no laughter, and no sounds of life. The scenario was oddly reminiscent of his arrival on Bespin, when no one had stopped him as heíd searched for his friend and sibling. There werenít even any guards.

And his Force senses were tingling madly with grim apprehension.

It was as it had been then, almost as if they were waiting for him — and the carrion scent of an ambush was as familiar to him as the texture of sand. Luke peered cautiously around each bend, stretching out with his senses. If his initial feeling was correct, Han and Leia were deeper within the manor, somewhere below him. It had taken some convincing for Hataj to stay put; now he was extremely grateful that he had. He couldnít protect her and find the others at the same time.

After a cursory check of the main floor, Luke went to the banquet hall, wanting to see for himself that no one was there. The place whereíd heíd first encountered the Tas of Yashuvhu was barren save for one small table in the center, scattered with pebbly flowers and dishes covered with woven baskets. The lighting within the walls was dim, so that they shone like the inside nacre of a sea mollusk's shell, glassy and pale.

There was only one other guest, and he recognized him without having met him before. The same way he had sensed that Sarin was a Jedi, he knew the man awaiting him to be another Force user.

The meeting was upon him.

The Supreme Prophet Kadann was definitely human stock, although it was difficult to pin down to which region of the galaxy he had been born. On the edges of the line between upper middle age and old age, his appearance struck Luke as nearly alien, humanoid rather than ordinary human. Waxen ethereal skin gave way to black hair threaded thickly with grey. His lips were pale and washed out, thin and pinched. Even his nails were somehow alien, tapered to points, like the mottled claws of a vrelt, resting against his robes which gleamed like a shadow on still water, swimming with the shining walls behind him

Luke gestured to the vacant chamber. "A meeting of two?"

"I thought it was more appropriate that we conduct this in private."

"Where are Han Solo and Leia Organa?"

"We arranged to keep them detained downstairs for a small time. Just so that our business could be attended to first. Theyíve not been harmed. You have my word."

Despite his odd, rather ghostly appearance, the Supreme Prophetís voice was deep and tonal, charismatic even. It was easy to picture him reading his quatrains before legions of followers, all rapt with the ecstasy of belief. Granted, Kadannís word might not be worth its weight in air. After a few deep breaths and he tamped the impulse to go for Han and Leia — he had a chance to learn what Kadann wanted and why before he staged a rescue — that was if Han and Leia didnít manage to rescue themselves first. There was a chance he might be reasonable, after all. Luke started off grand. "I have no business with you that I know of. Niras Alia Quíaristoff, if he indeed exists, languishes in his own hell on the planet where he was exiled. Iím afraid youíve wasted your time coming here for me."

"On the contrary," Kadann proclaimed, taking a seat. "To meet the first Jedi of the new millenium, New Order, is always an honor."

Meeting with the Supreme Prophet, contrariwise, was not what Luke considered an honor, but he was cautious. After a momentís pause, Luke relented, taking up a seat across from him and spreading his hands wide. "Then you admit your own prophecies are flawed?"

"I concede events occur that alter them after they are written. As occurs with everything in the Force."

And what do you do when your prophecies are tenable? Leak information that results in the manipulation of events. The question was; how far was he willing to go to substantiate his writings? In direct reaction to his prophecies the Razionís Edge had been sabotaged, and that sabotage had supported the fulfillment of a prediction. "Itís interesting, isnít it?" Luke ventured. "Acts of war, recently undertaken by a few individuals sympathetic to the Empire Ė inadvertently assisted your campaign."

"A genuine conundrum, it is, it is." This he said as though it truly baffled him, ignoring Lukeís unspoken query and lifting an upturned basket. He fingered the speckled earthen pot that was beneath it. "Would you like tea?"

"Iíve had enough local tea, thank you."

Kadann sighed and set the basket on the tablecloth and flowers, frowning. "Your hostility is misplaced. Iíve only come to share my knowledge with you — to assist you."

"Pardon me? Your motivation to share knowledge is based on what? Honor? Goodwill? I donít think so." Luke set an elbow down and leaned forward, trying to shut out the appetizing smells of steaming hot food. "There is nothing that you could give me that I would take from you, even if it were free."

"Donít be foolish, young one." The Dark side Prophet narrowed his eyes and dipped his finger in an empty bowl. He idly traced the contours. "Donít be foolish. I know you well. Do you still blame yourself for what happened to your sister?"

Luke felt cold and sick inside, as though an invisible hand had reached inside and gathered his intestines into a ball. "What are you talking about?"

"Why she lost her unborn child. Surely you know that." Kadann savored the young manís confusion and sharp intake of breath the way he would a fine wine, trolling information drop by drop. "Oh ... but that was also foreseen. Life and death are always absolute. It is how they come to be that wavers, just as it was long ordained that your fatherís trail of blood extend from one generation to the next." The prophet tapped his forehead. "There is much I choose not to inscribe in my texts."

"It had nothing to do with him," the Jedi replied. "Anakin Skywalker has been dead for nearly three years.

"You presuppose the dead cannot harm us?" He smiled in a manner that was meant to be solacing, but didnít quite succeed. "By now youíve learned that is a misconception."

Luke gave a derisive snort and struggled to keep his posture noncombatant, his rising emotions concealed as he searched his recent memories. An irregularity with her blood and immune system. A condition, she had called it — one that had been treated and taken care of, and not related to Vader at all. Yet, Leiaís defensiveness on Tatooine when pressed had been real, hadnít it?

How the prophet knew any of this was a mystery, but he was efficiently jabbing needles in the sorest of recent events. Luke reminded himself that this was what Kadann excelled at, just as the Yashuvhi Jedi had been healers, Kadann saw and twisted around. He found a crack and he pried it open. Whatever he claimed here would be calculated to provoke him or pique his curiosity. But for what? "I donít care to speak of my sister any longer."

"Very well then."

"What is it you want exactly?"

"Yes ... letís talk about you."

"As I said, I am not Niras-"

"No. You are not."

The underlying meaning jolted him. "You knew him."

"Of course I knew him. And he knew me." Kadann touched a finger to his forehead. "Do you remember anything about your time as him?"

"No, I donít." Luke reflected on the men who died down in the jungles of Baskarn, on what had nearly happened to Leia that night in the jungles, on the women and children of Yashuvhu. "He was a murderer. He was sent to the Korriban station." He almost asked what the station had been for, but he knew enough. Jedi had died there.

"I also knew your father," the prophet ventured quietly.

Luke nearly lurched involuntarily from his seat. "Did you?"

"Yes. Although I sincerely doubt he knew who I was. He seldom paid attention to the lesser phalanxes surrounding the Emperor — quite focused on one man and one man only. His mentor."

In all these years Luke had yet to find someone other than Master Yoda or Obi-Wan Kenobi who had known his father — and theyíd told him precious little. The want to ask Kadann to tell him more burned inside him like a fired up nerve. But Luke didnít dare. Everything heíd told Hataj about the seer was true, along with the darker rumours — that the other High Prophets believed a life lost for the good of prophecy was a worthy means of death. The trouble was, the victims never knew it. The seer was dangerous when he didnít get what he wanted. Luke pressed his lips tightly together — it was obvious he was expected to ask more. Then he spoke; "Iím not so naÔve to believe youíre here to offer me anything for free."

Kadann pointed a strange reptilian fingernail at him. "You seek instruction. You wonder why your father turned. Yes, I know preclusion and prophecy. I know the darker arts, as a war tactician knows his enemy. There is much I can teach you. There is much of the dark side you should learn — more completely."

More completely. Luke mentally sidestepped the reference to his brush with the dark side, recalling that Kadann had been one of the few whoíd heard the tapes of the throne room battle. "As intriguing as this conversation is, as much as I want to know my father, and as much as you might seek to enlighten me, I will refuse you on all counts."

"You donít understand." Kadannís voice arched higher. "Whoever receives my blessing before the remnants — and I donít presuppose the same arrogance as the rest of the Imperial factions; it is indeed remnants spread across the galaxy — whomever receives my benediction, shall be accepted. With my help, you could bring the Imperials over to the New Republic. You could unite both factions. It would be easy. You could be a great leader."

Luke began shaking his head again. Only a child would posit that intergalactic affairs could be solved by a handshake. The New Republic and the Empire would unite when ... well, as Han was fond of saying these days, when Hoth was listed as tropical in the Falconís spacerís guide. The wounds Palpatineís New Order had sown were bloody and barely scabbed over by the past three years. The ligaments that bound the new federation together were weak and untested. Half of recent New Republic inductees would balk and vote for secession. Another bloody war would follow. What Kadann was suggesting would take a dictator to carry out, not an elected leader.

"It wouldnít be easy," Luke countered, wondering what exactly Kadann would get out of such an arrangement. Power? Oddly, he sense that Kadann was less interested in leading himself than in aligning himself with power Ė with someone he could influence. He was weakening. A new and very welcome though occurred to him. "If you are truly a seer you know that the New Republic will win. Palpatine was so drunk on his own power, on his own unadulterated hatred, that he failed to see his own limitations. He failed to see that in the process of obtaining the souls and lives of those around him heíd damned himself. Now heís gone and whatís left of the Empire is crumbling in upon itself. Thereís a lesson for all of us there."

"What if I told you that you were right?"

"Youíd be confirming all that I already believe."

Kadann smiled with meticulously planned amusement. "The son of Darth Vader is an optimist, is he? What if I were to tell you that you might be the one to undo everything the New Republic has accomplished."

"I would tell you that itís not possible." Luke glanced toward the southwest entrance of the chamber. Leiaís energy was beyond it. "Your solicitation is nearsighted. I want to teach," he explained. "Iím not interested in remaining with the New Republic service any longer than they need me. Iím not like my father."

The prophet nodded. "You shall teach."

"Then you see, youíve wasted your time coming here for me."

Ignoring him, Kadann filled a pair of small glasses inlaid with gold rings and set one before him. "There is so much to be seen. You scoff at me now, and yet you will take this opportunity when the time comes. I have foreseen it. What will happen is unavoidable. It is your destiny, just as it was your fatherís, and from that decisive moment forward, your future will be uncertain."

The words had a vaguely familiar ring about them, although he couldnít quite recall ever hearing them before. "Iíll take my chances and rely on my own judgement."

"Yes, Jedi Skywalker, you do that and you shall be the one responsible for returning the Emperor to power. Your own judgement in the future will lead you there."

"That will never happen." This conversation kept coming back to haunt him like a broken holo-recording. First Sarin on Baskarn, now Kadann. "Heís dead."

"Or he still exists," Kadann replied, unrelentingly.

"What is it you want?"

The Prophet extended his hand palm up. "Perhaps you might indulge me before you go and we adjourn. Have some tea," he offered again. "It clears the mind and clears the spirit. Itís my private brew. It comes from the fungus-infested bark of the Endorian tree. Tell me what you see, and if you still are not convinced as far as Iím concerned, you shall be free to go."

Luke batted at the tabletop with his knuckles. "I already said I donít care for it."

"Donít be afraid. Only you can find the answers."

The prophet had made no attempt to call for back up. And, as sheltered as his Jedi knowledge was, he knew such chemical substances existed that enhanced the ability to glimpse the future. At least, heíd read about them. And he was curious. Kadannís pre-knowledge of events was frightening. He wanted to see — wanted to see if there was any truth to what he was saying. "This is all you ask?"

"Yes."

Luke squinted. The tea looked like soot and ashes mixed with tepid water. It sounded too disgusting for him to be lying about it. Fungus-infested bark? He lifted the cup to his lips and sipped a small amount, refusing to swallow it without rolling it around in his mouth first. That was a mistake; the beverage was so putridly bitter he wanted to spit it out to spare the back of his tongue further torment, but he forced it down. Kadann finished his in one gulp, as though it was Tandorian sweetwater. After one more taste he set his next to a covered platter.

Nothing changed at first.

"Open your heart and your mind," Kadann said.

Luke felt a trickle of sweaty apprehension run through him. He rested his the back of his hand on his forehead as if to see if his flesh felt warm, but he couldnít tell if his forehead was warm against his the back of his hand or his hand was cool against his forehead. The banquet hall was so quiescent the lights buzzed inside the walls like nafens in the night.

Then the vision settled across his sight like incense-smoke, like a scarf of the finest carmine silk drawn over his face. He saw the flash of a pale white blade, behind which a woman hid, veiling her features with a long mane of dark hair. There were voices overlapping, as though a thousand separate beings shouted into the great canyons of his homeworld and their echoes never found them again. He struggled to break through the whispers and screams, and between them, in flashes, he recognized the emperorís voice ... and himself.

I will teach you things you never have imagined. It is your destiny my friend ... to succeed your father ... to wield my discipline over the wolds that have betrayed me! You can still conquer me ... by learning the secrets of the dark side. We both know there is no other way for you. Destiny has forced me to follow the path our father took ... it was the only way ...

So vulnerable ... so inexperienced ... and yet it is she who holds the key to the future! You will kill your sister if I ask it you will kill your sister if I ask it you will kill your sister if I ask it ...

Choking, Luke actively forced the chemical from his brain and body. Heart pounding, he scanned the vicinity and then deeper within himself, his heart, his mind. He sensed none of the darkness that had been at once part of him and reaching for him. Still whispering urgently at the back of his mind was his sister. "Itís time to come home, Luke. Itís time to come home ..."

Kadann was nearly smiling. "What do you see? What do you see?"

Luke gritted his teeth. It means nothing. It means nothing at all.

* * * * *

Other than the duuvhal, Leia was the only conscious being when the melee ended. Considering how sound of a smack to the head sheíd taken, that was just barely. Her few coherent thoughts were survival instincts — that they flee before more agents arrived — until she saw that Han was laying on his back like a sack of un-husked milk tubers waiting to be tossed on a city skyhopper. Well, of course. What heíd done — charging the agent — was insane, although it took another fuzzy moment to piece together that heíd likely done it to prevent the agent not being mauled from slapping the energy fence back on.

Good for them. But bad for Han. She didnít know how long it would be before someone noticed the agents were delayed.

Desperate, Leia darted to the fallen pair. Both lay on their backs. The Rafan bore a jagged throat wound. The other agentís bloodied wrist was resting over his heart. Although their eyes were open and they were still breathing, neither had reached for a comlink. Neither made a sound. The duuvhalís venom had paralyzed them at lightspeed.

"Thereís no antidote," she murmured to herself, and the pale eyelashes of one man fluttered. Leia wondered if he was conscious and cursing her. Her skin crawled thinking about it. "Iím sorry," she thought aloud. "But you should have known better."

Leia rifled through their belt pouches quickly, found what she was looking for and wrinkled her nose. All variety of law enforcement agents generally carried a generic brand of stim-shot with them which could jolt prisoners back into a state of groggy, cooperative wakefulness when needed. The drugs werenít always safe and they werenít usually employed except when absolutely necessary — which was now. On second thought, she grabbed a force pike too.

The duuvhal was crouched next to Hanís head and lapping at his cheek. Leia shooed it back, crouched, and pressed the dispenser up against his neck.

After one discharge, Han began moaning to show it was working. The second hit him like a rapid shot of adrenaline. He snapped awake, breathing heavily and promptly drew his body into a twisted ball, as though he was in extreme pain, groaning and coughing.

Stricken with worry, Leia dropped to her knees on the squalid ground and brushed his hair from his eyes. His face was contorted in agony, his teeth bared in rictus of pain. The pike had only been set for stun when he ran toward it, and sheíd never seen anyone react to a stun this way. Frightened, panicked, she tugged his shirt up, in search of a visible injury. There was no blood, no broken skin, no bruising. "Han?"

"Uhnnn."

"Han? Han?

Uhnnn erupted into a volley of swears.

Leia pulled her hands back and set them on her knees. He was, if it were possible, angrier than he was in pain. "Whatís wrong?"

His voice sounded as though an Imperial Walker was in the process of slowly putting its foot down on his diaphragm. "The bastard shifted the pike down right before I hit it."

"Oh," Leia murmured, unclear what that meant. His leg? His knee? "Where?"

"Think about it."

Leia exclaimed, "Oh!" and covered her mouth, torn between offering sympathy and laughing hysterically. Han had taken the bulk of the blow in the groin (there werenít many other injuries that temporarily left grown men incapacitated and in fetal positions). It wasnít funny, but it was, and underneath it she was terrified if she couldnít get him up his feet they werenít going to be alive for very long. She couldnít hear anyone coming yet. It didnít seem fair to ask, but she didnít know what else to do. "Uh ... can you walk?"

Hanís eyes were still slits. "Do I look like I can walk?"

"Not quite."

"If youíd just left me unconscious a little longer this wonderful feeling might have passed before I woke up."

"Iíll keep that in mind for next time," she replied, thinking, if Han is captured because of this heíll never forgive himself. No, actually, Iíll never forgive myself. With that she gathered one arm over her shoulder and summoned every bit of strength she had to haul him to his feet. Tomorrow, sheíd be lucky if she could get out of bed — if she had a real bed and wasnít residing in the local Star Destroyerís cellblock. Han hugged her as though she was a support beam, making distressing hissing sounds.

The going was nearly infeasible. Despite the fact that Han was conscious and mentally alert, his body was still very in the throes of the stun, and he staggered and labored to align one foot in front of the other. It was like walking a wrecked drunk back to his room after a dozen Starshines too many — while being on a ship dodging asteroids in an asteroid field. Leia hung on, propelling him against the wall so that he wouldnít fall over on top of her. She was afraid to give him any more of the stimulant, and anyway sheíd dropped the tiny canister on the cell floor behind them. They bungled their way past half a dozen empty cells, toward the winding ramp at the end of the hall. Fiery opaline stone peeked back at them from around the bend.

"Wonder if this is where he sends his wives when they disobey?" Han muttered sarcastically. "Surprise, surprise. Letís go crash the party."

"Uh ..." Fighting to ignore her screaming muscles and the fact that she was sure her back had just gone out three times in a row, Leia contemplated their options. She wasnít physically strong enough to propel Han up an incline in his current state, and if they encountered any unfriendly individuals he going to be much help either. There were no footsteps sounding from them but there undoubtedly would be soon. To the left of the ramp was a small door built into the wall, similar to a laundry chute or garbage chute. Praying it proved to be neither, she half-dragged, half-willed Han over to it, saying, "I have an idea."

It failed to impress him. "This is your idea?"

"It probably leads to the kitchens," she insisted, very hopefully. Yashuvhu had no droids that Leia had seen, and it made perfect sense for them to employ such old-fashioned means of delivering meals throughout the wings. She pressed the controls at the right, and to her relief, the panels separated and revealed nothing more than a shiny miniature turbolift. The allacrete chamber was barely big enough for the two of them to sit upright in, but it would have to do. "Anyway, you wonít make it far like this and I canít carry you."

"I think you need to find the brain that came with your head."

"Do you have a better idea?"

Han closed his eyes, wearing the same weary expression he did whenever she mentioned the words, Ďstate dinner.í "No."

She took advantage of his current state and shoved him in headfirst. After yelping, and with some help, he managed to flop over and haul himself into an upright position. Then she lifted his legs and forced his knees to bend so that his feet fit too.

Task accomplished, Leia paused. You could leave him here and go look for Luke yourself ... No. Han would be unarmed if he were found. She couldnít risk that. She crawled inside and hauled the train of her gown in after her. Their friendly champion, which had been following them, jumped and whined, not wanting to be left behind.

"No way," Leia muttered.

"No, no, little fellow. Youíre not coming with us," Han admonished. "You go that way and if anyone comes after us, you bite Ďem hard."

It ogled Han trustingly, and then began pit patting down the hall.

"That thing is actually listening to you." Leia paused to wonder before manually slapping the outside controls and whipping her hands back inside. She still wasnít sure what Han had done to get it to attack the agents in the first place.

"Yeah, itís kind of frightening."

As soon as the lift began moving, Leia fumbled in the darkness and spread the force pike between them, activating it and holding it parallel to the lift floor. Warning Han not to move a finger, she counted to five and jammed it sideways through the wall of the lift and switched it off. The poleís blade caught, arching downwards; the lift strained and shuddered, and then the safety mechanisms kicked in.

Then they waited, quieting their erratic breathing beneath their arms and drawing their limbs in tight whenever they heard footsteps outside in the corridors. At least once it sounded as though an entire brigade of the Imperial agents ran past. If the Imperials assumed they had escaped, they were going to assume theyíd gotten as far away as possible, and quickly.

Soon the lift was hot, the air stuffy and stale with nervous sweat. Leaving prisoners tied up (in any number of uncomfortable positions) to recover from a stun blast was a popular form of mild torment, favored by bounty hunters, the Espo and the Empire (most civilized worlds outlawed it). It was a horrid way to shake off the lingering muscle cramps and tingling spasms. Therefore, Han was squirming miserably within minutes, bracing his legs in absurd positions over her head. Sympathetic, Leia rubbed fiercely at his calves and chatted to distract him. She told him that sheíd sensed Luke nearby right before the duuvhal had sprung. And commended him on his quick thinking. At least, it had caused the agents to pause long enough for the duuvhal to act.

"Yeah, the language factor," Han said, between groaning under his breath. "It would have made me think twice. Itís kind of nutty if you ask me — that of all the places in the world we might wind up heíd speak it, but at least I can chalk it all up to rational explanations. They canít. Itís only a pity theyíre not going to be able to pass that information on to their superiors." Han shifted his seat around again. "You get the feeling they donít really care about Kadann finding a new leader for their order or was that just me?"

"Theyíd rather kill Vaderís son," Leia ventured anxiously. Million credit bounty or not, Luke would not survive the return trip. They, however, would.

"We wonít let that happen." Hanís determined grimace was there, albeit in the dark. She felt his fingers trying to give hers a squeeze just as he resumed trying to stretch out his legs in the tiny enclosure. Then he said, "Iím getting a hell of headache."

Leia realized she had quite the headache herself, and switched from his calve to his thigh, recalling something he had said to her in the hours before they arrived at Elrood weeks ago. Trying to sound casual, she asked, "Is it actually true that a well-aimed stun blast has some rather unpleasant side effects?"

"Why? You worried?"

There wasnít enough light for her to see Han smirking, but he didnít sound worried, so Leia decided she wouldnít either. "Never mind."

"Itís kind of like concussions," he went on. "If youíre human and you get more than five, they pull you out of the Smashball League altogether." Han sighed grievously. "This might be very bad for our sex life, damn it. I should have pulled myself off the court long ago."

Leia whacked him with the cuff of her sleeve.

Han started laughing. "Iím so glad you have your priorities in order, Your Highness." Then he leaned over and, even though they were already whispering, added more quietly, "Why donít you just move your hand a little higher and check."

Warm-cheeked, Leia got in a few more slaps with her sleeve before they decided it had been silent outside long enough for them to dare moving. She wrestled the pike free and swept it around the lift ceiling, remembering to cut it at an outward angle so it wouldnít cave in on them. Grainy light filtered down from the cracks in the sealed paneling up above, breaking up the blinding darkness. They were about halfway to the next floor.

Leia popped up the cutout ceiling, pushed off of Hanís shoulder into an upright position, and set the ceiling piece on its side by her feet. The air was cooler and she instantly felt more clear-headed. She tugged at her gown, plastered to her back and the undersides of her breast with sweat, and leaned back against the cool polished stone within the shaft. Han clumsily followed suit. By the time he was upright, the lift was creaking and whining with every movement.

"Iíve always wondered what it would feel like to be walled up alive," he commented wryly. "Now I know. I donít like it."

It was true enough. They were facing each other with the walls at their elbows and backs. She lifted an eyebrow in the heady darkness. "Maybe youíd like it better back in our cell."

"Oh, cute," Han answered, loosely embracing her. "I know Iíve heard that one before. I think Iíve said that one before. And you seem to have an pronounced affinity for bizarre escape tactics and tight enclosed spaces."

"Hey, thatís not my fault." She contemplated the circles he was tracing along the back of her ribcage. His hands were working just fine again, and she was about to comment on it when warm, firm lips pressed her back.

"Just making sure they worked," he whispered against the nape of her neck. "Thereís the beginning of your thanks. I owe you big."

Leia smiled against him. "I know."

Then Han said, "Sweetheart, marry me."

"What?" Leia held her breath. Sheíd heard him but had trouble processing what heíd just said.

"I want you to marry me. Thatís what I just said."

The bulk of her brain was furiously in shock. The rest was overwhelmed, speechless. She might have asked him if was serious, except that she could feel that his entire body had tensed all over, as immobile as the granite surrounding them. The cords along his neck were jutting out. Her breath came out in a long whoosh, and then, "Weíre hiding in a food service shaft," came out after it, as if that somehow made the proposition an impossibility. "Er ... no," she stammered. Damn it Leia. Say something that makes sense. Anything. "Wait. Thatís not what I meant."

"Okay, look." Han cupped her face, sounding uncharacteristically serious. "I figure we havenít exactly had many of our moments during peacetime. It might be bad very luck to start now. Itís definitely too late for you to trade me in for someone with a clean past and reputable acquaintances," he continued. "So, yes or no. I love you and thatís that and if you say Ďnoí then we might be stuck in here for very long time until you-"

Leia seized him by the shoulders and nodded eagerly. "Yes."

"Yes?"

"Yes, you crazy Corellian. I love you too." She hopped, winding one leg around his thigh and bracing a knee against the stone while she pressed her lips to his. There was at least one thing in the horribly fragile universe that was strong and good and wonderful and she was hanging onto him for dear life. She kissed him once, and then drew her mouth along the line of his jaw, below his earlobe, to the underside of his chin.

After a moment, he crushed her back against the wall and began laughing. His smile had never been quite as crooked or as charming as it was now. "Lady, this means our truce is going to be official and youíre not going to be able to get rid of me."

"Iím counting on that," she murmured.

"And Sweetheart, itís gonna be all over."

Leia knew what he meant and she kissed him harder.

Han added, a trifle desperately, "Okay stop or weíre not going to find that brother of yours."

She bit her lip, grinning. "Just checking."

* * * * *

"You donít know what youíre giving up," the Supreme Prophet was saying.

"I do," Luke replied, wondering how long it would take him to find Han and Leia. The false philanthropy was fading fast. Just then, his sister burst into the chamber at a full run, followed by Han.

"Where were you?" Leia panted, taking in the barren hall and coming to the same conclusion he had when heíd first arrived. What had once been a lovely gown was now lank, streaked with dirt and torn in at least four places. Her hair was in disarray and barely held back. Han was just as dirt-stained, looking as though heíd tumbled out of one of the Falconís engine cores brandishing a force pike. Other than that, they physically looked none the worse for wear. "This is the farewell banquet?" Han asked at the same time.

"Sorry," Luke murmured, feeling awkward. "I didnít know. And yes."

"Did they get you too?" Han asked Luke.

"No, I came here on my own."

"Crazy Jedi," the Corellian muttered, shaking his head. "Crazy Imperials. Crazy planet. Can we leave now? Iíve had all I can take."

"Iím working on it."

"I hope itís going well."

It wasnít. Throughout the exchange, Luke kept a keen eye on Kadannís movements across the table, and saw him click something small around his wrist several times. Imperials suddenly began amassing in the posterns surrounding the hall. However, only one agent actually entered, striding briskly to the prophet, making his obeisance known with a quick bow. Then he turned toward to trio, disgust evident on his angular face. "Agents Kranus and Ruur are dead."

"I didnít do it," Han insisted, angling the weapon threateningly in the vicinity of the Imperialís midsection.

The man glowered and set his hand on his blaster, but the end of the pike stayed him from action. "They were attacked by one of the ... one of the ..." He grimaced terribly. "Well, it appears one of the Tasí pets bit them."

A duuvhal? Luke raised on eyebrow in question. Leia nodded at him.

Han began counting the waiting brigade amassing outside the hall. "Hey Luke," he said. "You always say the Force is an extension of your will. How about we will walk out of here and these guys will start doing the Bantha Breakfast Biscuit Ballet?"

"Thatís not what it means," Luke returned.

"Heís been nearly proton-shocked and a few other unpleasant things today," Leia explained apologetically. "Please donít mind him."

Against his will, Luke felt the corner of his mouth twitch, but he couldnít afford to let his concentration break. Beneath Soloís rather belligerent attitude, Luke didnít need the Force to know that Han blamed him, and rightly so, for getting them into this mess. Now he was saying, less than eloquently, get us out of it. "Kadann, tell your agents to back off, and give us leave to depart. Youíve nothing to gain from me. If they attempt to take us captive, they will die."

The Prophet uncharitably declined his assistance. "As far as Iím concerned, you are free to go. However, they may differ with me. I canít help you otherwise. "

Pathetic, he thought, not dangerous. Kadann was barely in control of the agents whoíd accompanied him to Yashuvhu. Perhaps Luke had been his last hope, his last stretch for real power. This was going to be messy. "Iím not going to change my mind."

The Imperial Commander stepped forward. "Either you come willingly and save your friends, or we resort to less pleasant alternatives."

"Thatís still up to me."

All eyes turned to see the Tas Mosíir enter at a somber pace, flanked by his troupe of royal guards.

"Weíll have back-up here within the hour, Your Grace. Thereís nothing you can do."

"Heís lying," Luke said, drawing the bluff from the manís mind easily. "Half a day."

Leia sighed with relief. The Tas turned to the Imperial Commander. "My planetary forces are on alert and outnumber yours one-thousand to one within the city. I can have back-up here within the hour."

"We had a deal, Your Grace."

"Iím creedbound by my own discretion and nothing more," the Tas replied, turning his attention toward Luke alone. "We had an arrangement, didnít we?"

"Sheís a very nice girl," Luke replied, trying to ignore Leiaís rather scrupulous wonder to his right. Yes, believe it or not, the deal is that inane. He wanted to know what I thought of her. Even if it is merely a smokescreen. And now heís responsible for setting us up.

The Tas Mosíir nodded reproachfully. "Thatís all, Jedi Skywalker?"

"Thatís all." Luke stayed his reach for the lightsaber at his hip. The Tas couldnít know he was lying unless he already knew, and then, Luke didnít know why he didnít just come out and say it. Unless he was going to turn this episode into a matter of honor, and then, Luke still resolved not to tell him unless he had no other choice. At the moment, the Royal Guard, armed with only old-fashioned stunners, concerned him because he had no desire to injure men who were obeying orders. There had to be a peaceful means to end the conflict; one that involved the three of them on the Falcon, and the Imperials returning to whatever Star Destroyer they called home empty-handed. One that did not involve the truth about Hataj.

"Are we free to go?" Leia asked, looking less optimistic by the second. "This is becoming rather insufferable."

"Indeed it is," the Imperial Commander agreed, straightening his lapels and insignia band. Again he muttered coarsely to himself. "We had a deal."

"Let them go, Tas Mosíir."

The voice belonged to a woman. Hataj strode across the hall with her head held high, her dark hair drawn tightly back, lips pinched. She refused to meet Lukeís eyes, staring straight at the Tas without hesitation. "Let them go because Iím asking you to," she implored.

"Hataj donít," Luke begged. Donít, donít, doní ...

"Thereís no other way," she said.


To Chapter Twenty-Two | To Chapter Twenty-Four

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