"Any news from Coruscant?" Al'than'erudo asked as calmly as he could, but in truth he was extremely worried over a number of things, including the fact that the Emperor Ja'han'mandana had reportedly taken over the operation. And since he hated being out of touch, he had contacted Andarack, relying on the technical finesse of Karrde's organisation to ensure a secure holo-feed. And Al'than'erudo had not expected the usually so composed warrior to appear so upset.
"No news," Andarack clan Rim'kai growled. "Apart from what we already knew from Ja'han'mandana. I have followed Mahel Sivaraya as far as the NRI headquarters and I am certain he has succumbed to the emperor's wishes and given himself up. The NRI is trying to keep an eye on me too, but while I let them have a small victory by allowing them to catch a glimpse of me, I won't be able to keep that game up for long. I have to be careful. There are enemies out here."
"A threat to you, Andarack?" the Chiss inquired politely. He did not want to put the warrior off by belittling his abilities. And though he doubted anyone could best Andarack in battle, it never hurt to have this thought confirmed.
As expected, the Noghri shook his head, but the next moment he raised his right hand to his brow and uttered a soft moan. "It is not them I fear," he confessed.
"I tried to contact the Cor'dan, but he blocked me from his mind. The backlash was quite vicious."
"Then he is busy?"
Al'than'erudo took a deep breath. "We have to be very careful now. Nothing is clear. Of course, the Council can exist as an organisation apart from any government, but that is not what we want. We need the trust of the Republic, and the Empire. Else, I fear, they will turn against us."
"They already have, Al'than'erudo. You have heard the senators. They believe Jiliha. They want to believe her, because they are still afraid of us, of Lord Skywalker, of Naas Deron. Weary of having a conscience nagging at the back of their minds. You understand?"
"Very philosophical. So what to do? Withdraw from politics? Lead a normal life? Be something else from what we are? You for one could not do that and neither could I," Al'than'erudo reminded him.
Andarack shook his head. "No. What we need is a lesson. Unfortunately, I have no idea who could implement that lesson."
"I knew someone once," Al'than'erudo offered with a shrug. "But he would be prime suspect, would he not?"
"You are referring to Skywalker?" The Noghri mustered a vicious grin. "I was actually thinking of someone else."
The head of the Council needed a moment to digest this suggestion. He knew that someone too, of course, and he was aware of the knowledge that slumbered within the entrails of the Seeker interface. But – "Too risky," he stated at last. "Especially considering that it were his past actions that sparked this discussion anew. The Senate was outraged at the news of what took place on N'zoth, and our enemies will use that sentiment in their favour."
Andarack did not answer at first and for a moment Al'than'erudo felt uncertain. The Noghri Sith Lord appeared suddenly more distant than before and there was something dark in his large eyes, something elusive. A secret? Suddenly he leaned forward and the Chiss instinctively took a step back, so intense was this gesture. "Al'than'erudo, do you have any idea what it means to be always hunted, to be always feared? You don't. None on the Council do, except for Lord Skywalker and his wife. I have no home, no family. I have only my dedication to the Sith and their beliefs. I will not – and that I truly mean – will not deny who and what I am. Neither will Naas Deron."
Swallowing slowly, Al'than'erudo thought about what to reply. "A lesson will not gain us anything, it did not gain us freedom the last time either," he reminded his counterpart at last.
"No," Andarack agreed sharply. "That is true. But there are things in the making that will change this galaxy forever, just as Lord Kell has foreseen. His dream will come true, Al'than'erudo. The Sith will rule again."
Shocked, the Chiss replied with a frown, "I do not see how, and I do not see how a lesson will bring that change about. And I strongly doubt the Republic or the Chiss Empire would allow the Sith to rise again."
"I did not say they would rule the galaxy," Andarack said dismissively. "But they will rule the Sith Empire, once it is reunited."
"If the Yuuzhan Vong agree."
"They will, believe me."
"What makes you so certain?"
Andarack sighed. "Belief is the key, and Naas Deron has diligently sown the seeds of his own belief across the Empire. It may not be so apparent on Byss, but elsewhere it thrives. But that is not everything. As I said, a lesson is needed, and –"
The sound of the door opening behind Al'than'erudo made both of them pause. Turning around, the Chiss frowned at the newcomer, but quickly realised that the woman who had appeared in the doorway carried an urgent message. "What is it?" he asked gently.
"Al'than'erudo," Marianna Selvik, his secretary, began, "We have news from Nuron Sarin-Skywalker. She and her son are returning just now to Naboo, along with the Solo twins."
Elated, Al'than'erudo turned back toward Andarack with a happy smile. "That is good news, I say."
"Call me again, once they have made their report," the Noghri simply replied, then broke the connection.
Al'than'erudo nodded, then asked, "Marianna, could you please send Master Sarin-Skywalker and her companions to see me once they have landed? Thank you."
"As you wish, Al'than'erudo," she replied and hurried out.
The Chiss stood silent for a moment, then moved across his office toward the desk. He was the only Council member present on Naboo right now, with Mon Mothma and Bred Antham on Coruscant, and both Ishare Luvo and Mith'raw'noruodo in Chiss space. But he felt that he could not deal with this situation on his own. He needed someone to discuss his next moves with, and only one name came to mind: Padmé Amidala Skywalker. He would ask her to join him in Theed, immediately.
"Where is my blue dress"? Padmé cried out even as she sorted through her wardrobe. "It's not here, Anja!"
Her friend and assistant appeared in the doorway and crossed her arms across her chest. "Padmé, it is not as if you need to dress up for Al'than'erudo. Or your family."
The former senator hung her head and smiled. "You are right, of course. I'll just wear that dark suit, how about that?"
"Good idea. How about you get dressed while I go and fetch Amerie?"
"Yes, do that. Thank you. She will be so happy to see her mother and brother again." And I will be glad to have Jacen and Jaina with me, she thought. They had not heard anything from Anakin or Leia and Han for days, ever since that unfortunate incident on Coruscant. The media claimed the bomb that had killed fifteen people had been laid by one Lomin Domain Carr, but there had been no official statement on the incident yet. Padmé had been worried sick over her daughter's fate, fearing that Leia might have been caught in the backlash of the explosion, only to learn that both she and her husband had left Coruscant along with Anakin in a highly illegal fashion. Which had also been part of the media coverage. Why had Leia allowed her father to get himself in such a predicament? The fact that the Millennium Falcon had ignored orders issued both by ground control and by the ships patrolling the perimeter around Coruscant threw a light of suspicion on the Council as well as the former Dark Lord. Which was also Anakin's fault, he should have known what consequences this flight would entail. And still he had decided to rather risk suspicion than stay on Coruscant. Why? Because he feared that they would be stranded on the capital world while their enemies had free reign to plot their downfall? Possibly. But he should also have realised that the Council's position was such that an exception could have been made for them. Except – except if the Council itself were to be framed for the attack in any case. She knew, of course, what the discussion about Roj Kell's horrendous deeds on N'zoth and the recording from the incident on Korriban, which had involved both Jacen and Jaina, meant. Someone was trying to convince the New Republic that it was better off without the Council and without the Sith Empire. But could the Republic safely take on both? Not really. The Chiss Empire would not stand for it, and that was a very powerful player indeed. Ja'han'mandana was a pragmatic. He benefited both from the Council and the Sith Empire. So whatever their unknown adversaries were planning, they also had to have taken that fact into consideration. Padmé though could see no way the Chiss could be blamed for anything that was happening right now. Not directly, that was. And then a thought struck her: Thrawn and Ishare Luvo, Anakin's allies from twenty years ago, were assembling a fleet in Chiss territory. An open provocation, if ever the New Republic learned that it was being created to detain Republic forces, should their commanders decide to move against Byss. And if that happened, there would be war once more. Dazed by the thought, Padmé had to sit herself down on the edge of the bed.
"Padmé?" It was Anja, who had come back, with Amerie held securely in her arms. "What is it? You look terrible."
"Oh," she mustered a weak protest, "is that so? Perhaps I should not have chosen this dark colour after all."
"It looks good on you," her friend assured her gently. "Let's get moving, all right? Al'than'erudo and the others are waiting for us."
"Yes," Padmé answered after a moment's hesitation. "We really need to talk to them." Rising from her seat she walked over to brush a hand through her grand-daughter's thick hair. Amerie smiled at her beautifully and at once Padmé's sad mood was blown away. "Will you prepare the speeder?" she asked Anja, who nodded and set Amerie down on the floor. Padmé gently took the girl's hand in hers and slowly led her along the corridor, toward the door. "Amerie, dear, no dreams of late?" she asked. "No more dreams of the bone queen and the boy?"
"No, none," the girl piped up.
"You haven't seen the boy again either, have you?"
Amerie only shook her head, but there was a faraway look in her golden eyes that made Padmé wonder. "Is Mama all right? And Khammy?" the girl asked suddenly.
"Hm? Yes, I believe they are," Padmé replied as gently as she could.
An hour later the trio was on its way to Al'than'erudo's office. An informal meeting then, for which Padmé was glad. She would have hated having to meet her daughter-in-law and her grand-children in the stately but cool atmosphere of the Council Chamber. Amerie still clung to her hand and was gazing in wonder at all the sights surrounding her. She had been to Theed before, of course, but she had been but a baby back then. Their steps reverberated from the tall ceiling, it was so quiet, and Padmé felt acutely reminded of the fact that she and Al'than'erudo were the only ones present from the Council. Not a thought she cherished right now. Suddenly Amerie freed herself from her grandmother's gentle grasp and her small shoes pattered across the polished floor as she dove for the slender boy who had just appeared in the far doorway down the hall. "Khammy!" she yelled, her voice soaring high like the trill of a bird's song. Padmé laughed out loud at her enthusiasm. And Khameir surely would not let his little sister best him on that. He ran toward her with a huge grin on his beautiful face and his blue eyes sparkled with pure joy when he embraced his sister and pressed her close to his chest. "Hey, sweet-heart!" he murmured as Padmé and Anja joined the siblings. "I've missed you."
"I am glad you're back," Amerie replied earnestly.
Padmé looked up from the pretty tableau to smile at Jacen and Jaina, who were coming toward them just now, Nuron and Al'than'erudo in tow. The former Counsellor could tell that the Chiss was not overly thrilled by the fact that she had brought Amerie along. "A good day to you, Padmé," he said nevertheless, gracious as ever. "I was just telling Master Sarin-Skywalker that I wanted to wait for you to join us, before we begin. Perhaps, Anja, you could take Amerie for a walk in the gardens? The weather is too fine for a little girl to spend hours in a dusty office, am I right?"
"Of course," Padmé replied calmly. "Anja, would you please wait for us outside?" But when her friend made as if to take Amerie from Khameir's arms Padmé put a hand on her elbow and shook her head. "Amerie will stay."
Nodding, Anja retreated without another word, then Padmé swept past the sour-looking Chiss into the office that had once been her own. The others followed her somewhat sheepishly, but she could not care less. She noticed very well that Amerie clung to her brother with a triumphant smirk on her face.
"Let us all take a seat," Al'than'erudo suggested, calm as ever. "Please." He waited until everyone had followed that request, then took a place behind his desk. "Now, first of all I want to express my great relief at seeing you all back safe and unharmed. You have been out of touch, so I will summarise what has happened out here so far. As you know, I had sent Lord Skywalker, Mon Mothma and Bred Antham to Coruscant to present our findings concerning the translation of the message found on N'zoth, but unfortunately the Republic Senate had little interest in hearing our story. Instead it not so subtly accused the Council of interfering on behalf of the Sith Empire. Then the news came in from Byss that Empress Yana Dar has been suspending civil rights for the Yuuzhan Vong populace, and just before you came in I received news that Yana Dar has died in a supposed attack on the Citadel on Byss." He paused, to let this sink in, and Padmé felt her mind go blank. She heard Nuron bite out a vicious, angry curse, and a disbelieving gasp from the twins.
"No!" It was Jacen, who jumped up from his seat, his face drained of all colour. "No! That cannot be! Naas Deron would never allow that to happen! This is a ruse, is it not?"
"If it were, it would be a very stupid one," Al'than'erudo commented in a low growl. "No, I fear this is the truth. Counsellor Jiliha n'Averone has reportedly taken over the government."
"What about Franzis?" Nuron asked then. "Any news of him?"
The Chiss shook his head. "No news. And as far as I can tell we won't get any confirmation for the time being either. Naas Deron is unavailable. He hurt Andarack, when he tried to contact him. But," the Chiss continued, "the empress' death is no news to us. Lord Skywalker has already warned us that this would happen. The Seeker predicted just that. And I dare say that Naas Deron knew of this occurrence beforehand. Else he would not have asked Yana to send her daughter abroad."
Padmé nodded gravely. "Yet I confess that I hoped this could be averted," she replied, her tone as sad as she felt. "Poor Luzaya. I pity her."
"We all do, I am sure," Al'than'erudo retorted somewhat harshly. "But we have a responsibility to the future. The Council's position is precarious, for many reasons. There has been an attack on the Senate during which fifteen people died and prime suspect is one Lomin Domain Carr. The Yuuzhan Vong warrior the Senate saw you, Jacen and Jaina, slay on Korriban. They might now suspect this to have been a diversion, to make the Republic believe he was dead, while he was on Coruscant plotting this attack. Your grandfather and his associates tried to disperse that suspicion by proving that it was not Mahel Sivaraya who died on Korriban, but they were unconvincing. Therefore Emperor Ja'han'mandana has asked Mahel Sivaraya himself to surrender to the New Republic, to clear up that misunderstanding at least."
"Mahel would never leave Luzaya's side," Jacen protested. "Where are they now?"
"Ja'han'mandana had sent his own agents to Bakura at the same time you found yourself there. Two agents you know, Jix and Mara. They took Mahel and Luzaya to Coruscant and are now escorting the princess to Csilla, where she will be safe. The fact, though, that the New Republic government has not yet cleared up the misunderstanding surrounding Mahel, despite their having him in custody, is disturbing."
"Telmann Page is not available," Padmé reported then. "He could not be part of the conspiracy, could he?"
"Perhaps he simply does not know who to trust himself either," Khameir suggested hen.
"And maybe he needs further proof to convince himself he can believe the council," his mother added. "Proof that we have brought back from Ordesha." With these words she rose and took a recorder out of the inside pocket of her jacket. "This, Al'than'erudo, is a recording of the confession made by Anteres Plawal on Ordesha in which he confirms that there is a conspiracy out to destroy the Sith, and the Council." Padmé saw the irritation on her feline face when the Chiss did not react and she almost pitied her daughter-in-law. "What?" Nuron demanded, impatient. "Do you think this is no good?"
Al'than'erudo sighed. "A confession is all very well, but can you prove this is not just a fake? A fake that is supposed to prove the Council's innocence?"
"There were witnesses too," Nuron tried, "though you are right, they will deny any involvement. Still, I believe Telmann Page should have this. He can begin investigating and uncover more proof. Everything he needs."
"Yes," Al'than'erudo agreed
with a nod. "Thank you. I will give it to him when I see him on Coruscant."
"You are going to Coruscant?" Padmé asked, aghast. This she had not expected.
"The Council must not be seen hiding from these accusations. I must be there to defend our stance. And do it well," he added with a crooked smile. "Too much is at stake."
Suddenly Jacen raised a hand. "There is something else," he said. "Something we witnessed on Ordesha."
"And what was that?"
"The beginning of the Jedi's destruction, the genocide committed against the Jen-People on Os'jen'thana."
"Oh?" Al'than'erudo interestedly cocked his head to one side. "Tell me more."
Jacen took a deep breath. "It all began with our leaving Bakura with Alowyn Kattaran, the NRI agent we first me aboard the Freedom," he began. "Kattaran was acting strangely, and he was the one who took us to Korriban. Only there did we realise that he was actually Yuuzhan Vong. Don't you see? This conspiracy is not only restricted to the New Republic. The Yuuzhan Vong have a stake in it too."
"I see," the Chiss said noncommittally, but a worried frown appeared on his forehead. "This is valuable information indeed. Continue, please."
Jacen closed his eyes, as if to concentrate, then nodded. "All right. We were rescued by the apparition of a little boy, Liyuma, who took us to Ordesha. I do not know how he did that, but we were in one place one moment and at another place the next one. On Os'jen'thana, at the time the Jedi came there to destroy the Sith supposedly hiding there."
"Impossible," Al'than'erudo snapped, but Jacen shook his head in denial. "No, sir, this is the truth. We tried to get the Jedi to see the truth and prevent the Jen from being slaughtered, but we had no chance. The past cannot be altered, we had to learn that the hard way, but we managed to change the hearts of these Jedi, at least I hope we did. In that we proved that it could have been different. This sounds strange, I know, but Khameir and Aunt Nuron can confirm this."
"Yes," the Zabrak agreed. "This is true. Khameir and I ventured to a cave which was of great religious value to the Jen, obviously. There we met the spirit of Alda Magor, former Cor'dan of the Jen, and she asked my son to perform a service for her, for her own offspring."
"Liyuma," Padmé breathed enthralled by that tale.
"Yes. Liyuma." Nuron smiled at her own son then, and urged him with a nod to continue the tale. Khameir hesitated, but then he, too, stood, just like Jacen, and said, "All of this is not easy to believe, I know that, but such is magic. What I found was that indeed the past could not be altered, but that apparently small deeds can mean the downfall of a noble order. The Jedi did not know what they were doing on Os'jen'thana, and how that would affect them in the future. The same is happening now. The New Republic and some citizens of the Sith Empire still cling to their past views of the Sith and mean to get rid of them forever. I understand their fear, but it is that fear we need to fight. We have to show them that the Council, and the Sith Empire, are no threat to them, that we mean no harm. But we cannot simply vanish from the face of this galaxy either."
"Trust is what they need," Al'than'erudo agreed. "But how to give them that? A lot of these people remember Anakin Skywalker as Darth Vader, all of them remember Palpatine's rule. The time has not come yet."
"It will never come, if we do not actively seize the moment and shape the future," Khameir stated then.
The silence that followed those words was thick and hard, like permacrete, and Padmé found it difficult to find her breath again. But Al'than'erudo beat her to an outraged reply. "What you are suggesting, young man, is exactly what we need to avoid. Do you realize that?"
"No." Khameir shook his head. "We have to stand up for ourselves."
"And risk our deaths? This is exactly what they want to make of us. Tyrants, Khameir."
"Tyrants?" the young man replied bitterly. "Savage Yuuzhan Vong like Mahel Sivaraya, despots like Yana Dar? They are being stripped of their true identity, don't you see? And the same will happen to us, if we do not make it very clear what and who we are."
"And who and what would that be?" the Chiss challenged him coldly.
"Guardians, Al'than'erudo. Just that."
The Chiss was silent for a moment, then he said, "Young man, I think you and I have to have a private talk. Now."
Khameir simply nodded.
Once the others had all left, Khameir was suddenly uncertain whether he had done the right thing. But he had done what was required of him, had he not? They had nothing to hide.
"Yes?" Nervous, he whirled around to look up at the tall Chiss.
"Khameir," Al'than'erudo began calmly, "I appreciate your commitment to the Sith tradition. But surely you have learned form your father, most of all, that the Jedi, as guardians, are restricted by their own rules."
He nodded. "Of course. But in the past the Jedi have been leaders, politicians, they were respected throughout the galaxy. Why can't we return to that?"
"Because there are no Jedi left."
"Yes. That is what the people see. They see Darth Vader as a free man, unpunished for deeds too horrible to forget. He was the one who helped destroy the Jedi, Khameir, you know that. Why can't you understand that people are uneasy with the fact that the early Republic government excused his past deeds with what he did to free the galaxy from Palpatine's grasp. All of his sacrifices, all that cannot be recognised. Not yet."
"It never will be, if we do not change people's views of the Sith, don't you agree?"
"And who would you point out as example of what the Sith are today, Khameir? Naas Deron?" Al'than'erudo angrily shook his head. "That man is so cold that even I am afraid of what he might be capable of doing if things don't go his way. And Andarack? Andarack is honourable and smart, but he is a killer, always was. Then who is left?"
"Yana Dar was a fine ruler," Khameir suggested firmly.
"She is dead, boy."
"Chi'in clan Rim'kai and my grandfather are not bad either."
"We already discussed your grandfather. And Chi'in is the wisest being I know, but he did not come forward to reclaim the past when he could have. He always remained second to Anakin, second to the Empress, even as Dark Lord. No one knows just how valuable he was in bringing that war to an end. Without Chi'in, the Emperor would still rule." Frowning, Al'than'erudo came closer and gently took Khameir's face in his hands. "Khameir, what happened to you on Ordesha? Why are you so angry now? What is it that is bothering you? Have you seen something? Then tell me, for I can certainly use any help I can get. And that I do not confess lightly. I am going to leave for Coruscant today, knowing full well that I must rely on you, on your grandparents, your parents, all my allies, to back me up. But we must face our fears to succeed. Is that what you are trying to tell me?"
Khameir was shocked by that outburst coming from the usually so cool Chiss. But nevertheless he said, "I believe we have the means and the allies to change something. Mahel Sivaraya, for one, and Luzaya Dan. They will turn the tide, I know it!"
"If they survive this crisis, Khameir."
"They will survive."
"What happened on Ordesha, Khameir? Tell me. Please."
Khameir took a deep breath. "Do you believe in second chances, Al'than'erudo?"
"What do you mean by that?"
"Liyuma was there, he was real, Al'than'erudo. He killed Anteres Plawal for his foolishness, the way he would have done had he been his alter ego, and I did not prevent it. I let it happen. Because it was right."
"That is murder, Khameir," Al'than'erudo gasped, truly shocked. "You should not have let him do that!"
"I could not have prevented it," the boy replied with a shake of his head. "He did not care for what I thought, all he cared for was his own judgement. And what he saw in Plawal was a liar, a deceitful creature that sought to destroy the Yuuzhan Vong once and for all, millions of innocents, just for one reason: because Yana Dar had given them a home. Because she had had the grace to see beyond their ruler's villainess and welcomed them back into the community where they belonged. Because, Al'than'erudo, this man, Anteres Plawal, was jealous of her generosity, something he himself lacked. That is the entire reason for this conspiracy, Al'than'erudo. They are jealous, and they want to hide the fact that they themselves are greedy, selfish and totally lack any respect for life. They do not want anyone watching over what is right or wrong, all they want is a government that acts in their financial interest, a government that satisfies their foolish desire for vengeance. They cannot bear the thought of their own impurity."
"You cannot purify their souls," Al'than'erudo grated out, his voice choked by anger. "Who do you think you are, boy? Who do you think you are, that you can elevate your views above everyone else's?"
"Not everyone, Al'than'erudo. Don't you see? All I want is to set an example for all those people who can show forgiveness, who are generous at heart, who want that security of having someone watching over them."
The Chiss closed his eyes and heaved a deep sigh. "You are an idealist, just like your father. But real life doesn't work that way. People are selfish, they are greedy. You won't change that."
Khameir felt his lips peel back in a mirthless smile when he replied, "Then let us seize the moment, Al'than'erudo, and show this galaxy what it truly means to live in anarchy."
For a long moment only silence reigned. Al'than'erudo's glowing red eyes stared at him in open astonishment, and Khameir could tell that the tall alien's mind was racing with an effort to understand whether or not he had truly meant that. "You are very clever, Khameir," he said at last. "One could almost believe that you have just recently attended the Roj Kell School of Cunning Arguments."
Khameir laughed at that. "Perhaps I have," he answered with a grin. "Will you bring that argument to Coruscant?"
With a sigh Al'than'erudo relaxed and nodded. "I will."
"Everything all right?" Padmé asked in some concern when the door to Al'than'erudo's office opened to admit Khameir. The boy nodded and went down on his haunches with a smile to embrace his sister once again. Over his head, Padmé noticed Al'than'erudo gazing at her. On impulse, she walked over to join him in his office. He closed the door behind them slowly. "What was going on in here?"
"The question is, what is going on with your grand-son? He has changed, that much is clear."
She nodded. "Yes, I fear so. Nuron told me a few other things while the two of your were busy. According to her, Alda Magor's spirit had been bound to that cave by her son's power, to await the arrival of a Jedi and show them what occurred on Ordesha all those millennia ago. The same seems to be true of Liyuma, but he seems to be real, no spirit. Which is impossible."
"Khameir was talking of second chances. I believe he might have meant that Roj Kell was given a second chance. Which would go contrary to what your son uncovered on N'zoth."
"Would it? This is not the Roj Kell we know, this is a little boy who is acting on his instincts and by the rules of his dead people."
"I am almost afraid to ask where he has vanished to."
Padmé shrugged. "Actually, he is here."
"What!" He took a step back. "Where?"
"On board the Morning Glory, Nuron tells me, fast asleep."
He closed his eyes with a low groan. "Oh, my stars, Just what we need now."
"You will want to see him?"
Al'than'erudo turned away, but nodded. "I guess, yes." He heaved a deep breath. "But first we will need to speak to Mith'raw'noruodo and Ishare Luvo to inform them of the most recent happenings."
Padmé nodded in agreement, then settled down on the chair she had previously occupied, waiting for Al'than'erudo to establish a holo-feed to the Council fleet in Chiss space. It took a while and Padmé used that opportunity to let her mind wander. Nuron had seemed so very calm when speaking about Liyuma, as if it were the most natural thing in the world to have her fiercest enemy return to the living in the shape of an innocent child. But the Zabrak seemed convinced that this was exactly what Roj Kell had meant in his confession by claiming that what had been given, would not be returned. When becoming Cor'dan, he had given up his life, part of his own self, Padmé realised. He had sacrificed three thousand years for his role as Cor'dan, was it not only fair, that he sought to reclaim part of that by returning now? Or was this something else entirely? Sudden doubts flashed through her mind. What if this child was not who it appeared to be? For some reason she had to think of Irek, Roj Kell's son. Could it not have been just as easy to clone the man himself? Of course, any clone of his would be older than eight years. Should be.
Her thoughts disappeared into reality when she stood to join Al'than'erudo. "We are online?"
"Yes, my lady," Thrawn replied in his usual, smooth manner as his image flashed into existence. Beside him, Ishare Luvo appeared in full battle armour. "Greetings, my lady," he grated out cheerfully. "And greetings to you too, Al'than'erudo."
"Thank you," the Chiss nodded with a smile. "How are you progressing?"
"Well," Mith'raw'noruodo answered. "We have the vectors for every possible approach, now we prepare the battle-groups for alternate attack and defence patterns. A successful manoeuvre, so far."
"I am glad to hear it. But we have urgent news for you."
"Urgent news?" Ishare Luvo seemed more annoyed than surprised. "What news?"
"The Council will soon face a few charges concerning Roj Kell's legacy on N'zoth. I am leaving for Coruscant today to defend our stance."
"Alone?" Thrawn inquired suspiciously. "I hope not."
"Andarack is already on planet. And Mahel Sivaraya will be there also."
The older Chiss gave a thoughtful nod. "A useful ally and asset. Anything else? Have the twins returned?"
"They have," Padmé reported, "and they have brought back trouble, namely a boy named Liyuma. You know who I am talking about."
"Impossible." That was Ishare Luvo, whose lips peeled back to reveal his sharp teeth. "That cannot be."
"He is right," Thrawn conceded. "I, too, find this hard to believe."
Padmé threw Al'than'erudo a troubled glance, saw, that he was unsure of what to answer, since he had not met the boy himself yet, but the former Counsellor gathered her courage quickly and said, "A thought came to me just a few minutes ago, concerning the appearance of the boy. Although he appears to share quite a few memories with the real Liyuma, I am concerned over the fact that the conspiracy we are faced with consists not only of New Republic citizens, but also of subjects of the Sith Empress, among them Yuuzhan Vong."
"You are thinking of the shapers," Thrawn finished her thought. "This coincides with something the Emperor has spotted on Laa'kuan. Someone has been snooping around Roj Kell's grave."
"Could this – boy," she hesitated to call Liyuma that, "have been grown, then?"
"It is certainly a possibility," the Chiss commander confirmed. "Al'than'erudo, can you verify this? Your healing skills should allow you to spot any genetic anomaly," he added.
The Head of the Council nodded gravely. "The boy is in our custody and I will study him, before I leave for Coruscant. The question remains in any case: what to do with him? If he is what we all fear he is, our nemesis come back from the grave, should we deal with him as we would have, had he survived the last war? And if he is something else, how can we use him to track his creators down and confront them?"
It was Thrawn who answered first, not surprisingly. His glowing eyes were unfathomable when he said, "Had he survived the war he would have been tried for his many crimes, starting with genocide of the Yevetha. You realize the problem? We are being given the solution to our dilemma, just like that. We could present the guilty party to the Senate and wash our hands clean of any accusations concerning our failure to prevent that genocide. The easy way out. This confirms what we fear, does it not? Just like Roj Kell to make such a deceptive offer, to test our ideals. Can we sacrifice that child in good conscience? I will want to speak to him, Al'than'erudo. Have him brought to me. And keep us posted on the latest developments on Coruscant, once you're there. Padmé," he concluded with a nod, "keep well."
"Wait!" she called out, when he moved to cut the transmission. He waited in polite silence, until she continued, "I fear that there is even more to this conspiracy. Should it be revealed to the New Republic that the Council is indeed taking sides and assembling a fleet to protect the Chiss or the Sith Empire against New Republic military interference our enemies will have all the evidence they need to justify actions against us."
Ishare Luvo bellowed a ferocious laugh. "An intriguing thought," he growled, "but how should they become aware of it? These channels are secure, and the Chiss won't betray us."
"It never hurts to be cautious," Thrawn admonished him quietly. "And that we will be. I am going to speak to the Emperor and there will be some changes in command. Ishare Luvo and I will never have been here, you see? This will have to suffice, for now. We will keep you posted on what is happening out here."
With that he did end the transmission and only the image of Ishare Luvo remained. The Lappa gazed at Al'than'erudo and Padmé in silence for a long moment, then he nodded and said, "I understand your concern, we both do, but we have to contend with the political schemes launched against us from Coruscant and Byss, as well as find out what exactly has been happening out here in the Unknown Regions. Your son, Padmé, is investigating those happenings. The Chiss have noticed that someone has obviously disturbed Roj Kell's grave on Laa'kuan. There is something growing out there. Something powerful. We fear that the Sith are behind this, namely Naas Deron. Therefore it is imperative that your son finishes his mission quickly and travels on to Byss. Therefore we will be needing someone else to assist us in this investigation. The Syndic suggested sending Master Sarin-Skywalker, since all of our other Sith agents are tied up elsewhere. Will you ask her to come?"
For some reason Padmé found herself thinking not of Nuron but Khameir. This was where he should be, she could feel it in her bones. "I will tell her," she agreed at last. "And when you say that all of our Sith agents are tied up in other assignments I assume you know where my husband and my daughter are headed?"
"They will be joining the Emperor at Almashin to speak to Luzaya Dan, once she arrives here."
Padmé heaved a sigh of relief. "That is good news. Thank you. And we will keep you informed. I am looking forward to seeing both of you in person again soon, Ishare Luvo."
He smiled at her, then nodded. "We will see each other again."
Then the transmission ended, leaving Al'than'erudo and Padmé very thoughtful.
"They are taking control over events out of our hands;" the Chiss commented quietly, prompting Padmé to answer, without thinking, "Were we in control? I had not noticed." She saw him turn his head out of the corner of her eye and blushed a fiery red. "I am sorry," she hastened to assure him, but he merely sighed, then said, "No, you are quite right. We are not in control. Someone else is and I really want to know who that is."
Jaina was watching her cousin cautiously, wondering what was so different about him. The lanky youth was bent over the small boy who lay curled up in a comfortable ball of deepest sleep in one of the bunks aboard the Morning Glory and appeared extremely thoughtful. Jaina understood that Khameir had somehow bonded with that boy, Liyuma, back on Ordesha and for some reason that made her feel slightly jealous. Had it not been she who had first encountered the child, the first who had recognized his true identity? And still he had chosen another protector. For protector Khameir was, a guardian. What had Alda Magor called him? Naghasan Khameir Sarin-Skywalker. Sighing, Jaina crossed her arms in front of her chest and turned her head to gaze across the rec area into the cockpit, where her aunt Nuron was busy studying star charts. She had no idea what the Zabrak was looking for, but at the same time she could not bring herself to walking over and asking her. Jacen was busy too, trying to raise any signal from the Millennium falcon. His sister could tell by the frustration she felt from him that he was not succeeding. Which was frightening. They had no idea where their parents had vanished to. Which made her duck her head guiltily at the thought of what Luzaya Dan had lost. She pitied the princess very much, she herself could not imagine what she would do if her parents perished. Sure, she knew that someday that would be inevitable, but she did not want to think about their mortality, not now. Then the sound of footsteps on the extended landing ramp caught her attention and she pushed her back off the wall she had been leaning against to welcome the newcomers. Grandmother was smiling at her gently and Anja, following in her wake along with little Amerie, echoed that expression. Only Al'than'erudo seemed preoccupied. "Where is he?" the Chiss asked bluntly, and for once Jacen found the gaze from his glowing eyes disturbing. There was something cold lingering in his gaze.
"Asleep." That was Khameir, who was coming around the corner to join them.
The Chiss met the young man's bleu eyes for a moment, then nodded. "Will you show me to him?"
By now Nuron and Jacen had become aware of the new arrivals and were also coming over to greet them. Nuron in particular seemed very determined for some reason. "You have come to see the boy?" she asked the Chiss, before her gaze flicked over to Padmé, who smiled at her.
"Yes," Al'than'erudo answered, but was already moving toward Khameir, who turned around to lead the way.
As Jaina had expected, craning her neck to see over Nuron's shoulder in the suddenly crowded cabin housing the bunks, Liyuma woke fast upon their arrival. His eyes opened abruptly, their as no in between sleep and waking, no confusion in his gaze, only calm. She heard Grandmother draw a sharp breath but before she could think further on that reaction Al'than'erudo had already moved forward. Jaina noticed that the Chiss did not make an effort to put the child at ease, he was towering easily over the small figure and his gaze was incredibly stern when he reached out to touch the child's forehead. Liyuma did not stir, yet Jaina thought she saw a tiny, tiny smile linger in the corners of his mouth. It made her shiver. The examination lasted only for a few moments and afterwards Al'than'erudo took a step away from the bunk and turned to face the small group with him. "He does not speak?"
"No, not that we have noticed," Khameir replied calmly.
Al'than'erudo nodded to himself and smiled. "Well," he began, "I do not know how to put this, for I myself am not sure whether it is good or bad news." Jaina felt her breath catch and felt the same surprise from her twin brother. Then the Chiss continued, "All I can say for certain is that the body is not grown from a human womb. The genetic makeup is partly human, but most of it is Yuuzhan Vong. The mind, though, that is, as they say, a different kettle of fish." He laughed at that expression. "A miracle he let me touch that at all, but there are no defences there, nothing. Which is incredible, considering – " He stopped himself then, but Jaina understood well enough. The late Roj Kell would never have left his mind unguarded. Was that a good sign then? Then she noticed the very sombre expression on Al'than'erudo's face.
"Considering what?" Nuron demanded to know at last.
The Chiss closed his eyes for a moment and they all saw him shiver. It was a shocking sight. "You realise, don't you, what this means. The boy is no natural being, but his mind – his mind is one we have come to fear, one unbridled by the rules his alter ego subjected himself to. A mind which can be taught, which can be formed, for good or evil, that is in our hands. He remembers the past, though his perspective is a different one, neutral, if you will."
"Why doesn't he speak, then?" Jacen wanted to know.
"He is fully capable of speech, but for now he has chosen to observe, I believe, to learn."
"He is Force-strong," Nuron stated then. "Else he could not have done what he did on Korriban and Ordesha. Am I right?"
"Strong, yes," Al'than'erudo agreed. "Though I have never felt anything like this before. But his power is not what frightens me. What frightens me is to think of who has created this being. Don't you see the cruelty of it all? To bind this spirit into an unnatural vessel, that was exactly what Sidious tried and failed to accomplish. And this mind does not rail against his fate, this mind is content to watch. It is – incredible."
"He has killed Anteres Plawal," Khameir reminded them then. "So he has a purpose. Whether that purpose was indoctrinated into that mind by someone else of born of memories we must ascertain. The Cor'dan will know what to make of this."
"You are not going anywhere near that man!" That was Aunt Nuron, who moved to angrily confront her offspring about that foolish suggestion.
"No, that is true," Al'than'erudo injected calmly, before Khameir could reply. "Mith'raw'noruodo has asked me to have the boy brought to him. Since he follows you, Khameir, I want you to bring him to Csilla."
"I want to go along," Jacen piped up then and Jaina felt her jaw drop. "There must have been a reason why he chose us to witness what we did on Ordesha," he explained determinedly. "I want to know who has sent him to find us."
"Danger, Jacen Solo," Al'than'erudo admonished him, "is never to be taken lightly. And Nuron is right, Khameir, you will not interfere with Naas Deron. Your father will deal with him. You will do as I say and go to Csilla."
"Out of the way?" the youth asked lightly.
The Chiss laughed out loud. "Do not worry, I will need to use all arguments I can to convince the Senate, including yours. I am not sending you away so you cannot interfere. But I want you to learn first. Learn from your elders, for they indeed know life better than you do. Learn from Mith'raw'noruodo, from Ishare Luvo and your grandfather. They can all teach you. And teach that boy too."
Jaina wondered what Al'than'erudo had meant when he had mentioned Khameir's arguments. What had they been talking about? Then Aunt Nuron said, "I will be accompanying you, Al'than'erudo. You need an eye-witness, and someone to watch your back on Coruscant."
He shook his head. "Andarack is already on Coruscant."
"Someone you can trust without reservations," Nuron continued calmly. "Someone unaffected by whatever plans the Cor'dan is pursuing. You know where Andarack's loyalties lie."
"Indeed I do," Al'than'erudo answered softly. "Then we are agreed. Khameir and Liyuma will head for Chiss space, along with Jacen. Jaina? Don't you want to accompany your brother?"
"Yes," she replied with a hurried nod. An adventure on their own, only the three of them, as adults. That was something to look forward to. To continue what they had begun on Ordesha.
"Nuron will be accompanying me to Coruscant and Padmé, I ask you to travel to Bilbringi to ensure that the Confederate Zone is on our side, should all diplomatic efforts fail."
"Will you be isolating the New Republic then?" That was Khameir, incredibly perceptive.
Jaina shivered when the Chiss nodded and said, "If it becomes necessary."
Luke stood very still as the figure came across the room toward him and the shadows that had clung to it previously were peeled away by the light. The Yuuzhan Vong was a female, very much so, with a tall, slender body and a striking face. She was beautiful, a savage beauty, that fit her surroundings perfectly. And he noticed that she had scarred herself to achieve that appearance. Her cheekbones protruded through the flesh of her face, a stark white that reflected the light. Her hair, jet-black, was long and sleek, and her eyes, set wide apart and framing a long, straight nose, sparkled like pale green gem stones. But most amazing was the fluid grace with which she moved. So familiar.
"Surprised?" she asked in perfect Basic. Luke had almost expected her voice to sound like it did, a deep, warm contralto, with silver bells floating above those deeper tones like butterflies. It was magical, that voice. No subtlety. No restrictions. It went straight to the heart.