What a crazy year. Hope you all stayed safe and healthy!
And once more, many thanks to Virodeil for invaluable input.
In theory, there were about equal numbers of Imperial and Alliance suspects. And yet, Luke couldn't shake the feeling that this was not a case of Imperial infighting, but factions on the opposing side jockeying for power in the wake of the Alliance losing its primary raison d'être.
Leia seemed worried, too, if one knew how to look past the princessly mask, and his sister was too used to having Imperials after her to show any worry about that.
Han was frowning, ditto for Jix, Wedge and Zev, while Chewie literally had the hair at the back of his neck raised.
On the Imperial side, Gen. Ashen was instinctively outraged at the accusation of a leak within the Palace; but, perhaps remembering the infiltration by the Hands, he made no protest.
Lord Vader was … hard to read. The young Jedi couldn't sort out the hodgepodge of emotions flickering through the black flames before the deep mechanic voice cut short his efforts.
"It is perfectly possible that Bel Iblis has cultivated his own sources within the Empire, and connections acquired during his long years as a senator here on Coruscant are especially likely," the vocoder rumbled, showing that Luke's father was at least considering an Imperial mole.
However, Lord Vader seemed to share his son's sentiments on the matter, as the black flames carried a decidedly stronger conviction when the deep mechanic voice went on, "And yet, it is at least as probable that dissatisfied factions high up in the Alliance are seeking support elsewhere – or at least a mine sniffer to test out the dangers of dissent."
The black helmet tilted fractionally towards the Alliance Intelligence Chief. "Given your track record, General Madine, I am sure you have a suspect – or suspects – already."
"If I had, the suspicion would be entirely unsubstantiated," said general deflected.
The Sithlord was having none of that. "Under the circumstances, I would accept an educated guess."
"I won't," Madine gave back bluntly. "A baseless accusation now will only serve to alienate any parties involved, and the situation is volatile enough as it is. I will not ruin our relations with anyone without a definite, thoroughly proven reason!"
For several tense seconds, Lord Vader's displeasure at being brushed off weighed on the room like gravity suddenly tripling, but then the Sithlord relented. "Very well. I trust that you will inform all relevant parties the moment you have found your reason, General."
And that is the sound of Father being impressed, Luke realized. There had been little shift in the sharp growl of the vocoder, but still, Madine's refusal to cave under pressure was clearly a point in the Alliance general's favor.
A beat of consideration later, the deep mechanic voice went on, "Commander Jir will coordinate the investigation on the Imperial side. Expect him to contact you later today to coordinate with you as well, General."
Jir wasn't a name that meant anything to the young Jedi. But on second thought, maybe Luke had met the man already – and more than once, even – and simply never learned the name to go with the face. Perhaps Jir was the black-clad commander that had twice arrested the young Jedi, both on the Lady and on Endor ….
Madine's curt, "Of course," drew Luke from his musings.
In the silence that followed, Han cleared his throat.
"Aside from the shadowy threat behind it all, maybe we should take a look at the man in front, too?" he drawled. "I mean, the last time anyone tried to pull Contemplanys, it was during the Clone Wars and it didn't work out then. And it's not like I ever met the guy in person, but from all I've heard about him, Bel Iblis isn't the type to make the same mistake twice – and now he goes and makes the exact same call as he did back then! I can't see him doing that unless he thinks circumstances have changed to his advantage, or else he was just calling your bluff, Leia, and never intended to go through with it.
'Cept then, you hit him with a Pure Sabacc," here the ex-smuggler-turned-general nodded from the princess to Lord Vader, gracing the Sithlord with a sardonic smile, "and he couldn't pull out anymore. Not without losing everything he had in the pot, at least, and so he had to start bluffing in return."
Han shrugged. "Like I said, I don't know him, so I couldn't say which it is. He looked pretty serious about it, but then he's been a senator, so he's got to have the Sabacc face down pat …."
"Thank you so much for the endorsement," Leia said dryly, before she added, clearly thinking aloud, "Circumstances have changed – but I do not see how Bel Iblis would consider this an advantage. His previous enactment of Contemplanys Hermi was in protest to the discussion of the Military Creation Act, about two months before the Clone Army's existence was revealed. The Clone Wars had not yet started at that point – and that was exactly what Bel Iblis tried to avoid, or at least to keep away from Corellia."
A contemplative hum. "Of course, we are not at war now, either, but there is a very large and obvious army around, that Corellia cannot simply ignore …."
The princess frowned thoughtfully. "That said, Contemplanys is not – or ever was, for that matter – a purely political but practically empty gesture: Corellia is a major trade hub and a Core world, and the main part of the traffic there is perfectly legitimate commerce. If they go into isolation – even partially – trade takes a dip throughout the entire Core region and all along the Corellian Run and Trade Spine. Twenty-six years ago, it deprived the Banking Clan of a good chunk of their revenue, and while this wasn't enough to stop them sponsoring the Separatists, it did hurt them. Now …"
"Now," the deep mechanic voice cut in, "it wouldn't be quite as hard an economic hit. The Empire has established a number of connections between the Hydian Way and the Corellian Run. But of course, Palpatine was Chancellor back then, and he had two decades and a half to ensure that the same tactic wouldn't work against him twice."
There was little more that could be said on the topic without further evidence, and so Madine excused himself to start with his investigations, while the main group turned their attention back at the rest of the incoming messages.
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It was evening again, when the stream of messages started to slow, though Leia crushed most of her party's hopes by brushing off Wedge's relieved, "Oh, finally!" with a tired, "They won't stop coming for a few days, yet."
Then, however, she straightened her shoulders and announced, "But the most important ones should be through, by now."
And then it turned out that her notes on said important ones had condensed into a preliminary travel plan – pending further discussion with the rest of the Alliance High Command – to make the most of the invitations offered.
Black flames cooled markedly at the mention of the Alliance High Command, which added further fuel to the young Jedi's suspicion that his father considered an Alliance renegade more likely than an Imperial one.
Still, Lord Vader didn't outright veto the idea of further input from that side, even if his disdain – or maybe distrust – for the distant Alliance higher-ups was palpable. He did make a point of approving the plan as it stood, though.
The grand tour of the galaxy would start at Naboo, bypassing all of the Core worlds along the route, which would leave Corellia aside without openly snubbing them.
Second stop was Tatooine, which would double as the real-life demonstration for the proclamation that would precede anyone's departure from Coruscant: namely, that all slavery and slave trade was illegal everywhere, and to be prosecuted to the letter of the law from now on, no matter which species were involved as either slaver or slave.
Then there would come a zigzag course through Outer and Mid Rim, possibly with a side trip through Hutt Space, in case the latter showed – the expected – noncompliance to the aforementioned ban on slavery.
The exact planets to visit along the route were still open to debate, but Bothawui would have to be on the list for political reasons on the Alliance side. The same was true for Kashyyk and Mon Cala, technically speaking, but those visits were expected to be much less trying.
Honoghr was a stop Lord Vader put on the list, despite the lack of an official invitation, which caused a pair of Noghri to perk up and briefly fade out of the background. Situated in the Kessel sector, it would also bring attention to that area as a whole, marking it as no longer as 'out-of-sight, out-of-mind' as it had been before.
Once the outer fringes of the galaxy were done, probably with Mon Cala as the last stop, the tour would turn back towards the Core, likely along the Hydian Way.
"If you're that far out, you might say hello on Mandalore, too, since you are in the area …," Han drawled at that point, then lost the glib tone and added, "You could jink through Carida, too, impress the kids, you know."
The princess frowned thoughtfully, then made another note. "Good idea. On the way back, Chandrila is more or less a must – and likewise Corellia, if they haven't cut themselves off by then. I want to end in the Alderaan system – but I'm not sure if I'm not just indulging myself there …."
"You should! Indulge yourself, I mean," the young Jedi said forcefully, before anyone else could. "We're indulging all kinds of other people, too! And, I hate to say it that way, but it's as strong a symbol as Naboo is, and that makes it a proper bookend for it, too."
Chewie rumbled assent, the rest of the room followed, and then the last thing to decide was what kind of transport to use for the tour.
There would be some mix of Alliance and Empire escorts, certainly, the exact size of which would be determined at a later time, but for the diplomatic party itself ….
"I'd like to use some sort of neutral vessel, but where would I find one of those?" Leia commented wistfully.
The vocoder made an odd sound that Luke identified, tentatively, as their father clearing his throat.
"I might be able to supply one of those," the deep mechanic voice offered.
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Lord Vader had his own vast residence on Coruscant, an austere dark monolith not far from the Imperial Palace. He was not exactly inviting the Alliance group for a tour, but tolerated Leia's dwindled entourage to accompany the princess for a look at the proposed 'neutral vessel'.
From the landing bay for the shuttle, it was only a few steps down a stark grey corridor to a set of massive Force-locked blast doors.
Beyond those lay an enormous hangar, filled to the brim with ships of every size from slim one-person gliders to medium-sized transports. All of which showed a tendency towards the sleek and fast, and usually also towards the black and deadly.
Luke bit his tongue hard enough to taste blood to keep himself from asking if he could stay for a while. Since, if he had the run of this treasure trove, he wouldn't get anything done until he'd given all of them a whirl. And that would take weeks if not months of time which they didn't have right now.
Jix whistled softly at the sight, and the Sithlord, without turning, announced, "If you touch anything, I will know, Jixton. And I will be most displeased!"
A hiss of the ventilator. And then, grudgingly, "But since you are here already, you may look."
Most of the men looked torn – Jix just looked improbably innocent – until Leia huffed and said, "I do not need six people to hold my hand while I seek out a reasonable transport. Go ahead and browse, I will be perfectly safe!"
The group split at that point.
Wedge and Zev went one way. Jix made a decent attempt to simply disappear until he found a giant Wookie following him like a wary sheepdog. And Han and Luke tried to have their eyes everywhere but stayed around the princess.
The latter, thankfully, regarded the bouquet of shipwright masterpieces with a more practical eye, dismissing all of the smaller ones and those that were obvious about being military prototypes.
There was something just a bit off, though, the young Jedi thought, about the unerring course his sister set towards a gleaming dagger-shape hiding in a far corner of the hangar.
Or the way the silvery ship felt vaguely familiar to him, too.
"You're sure, Princess?" Han asked skeptically, pulling the young Jedi out of the eerie feeling of déjà-vu. "I mean, she's pretty, alright, but …."
Black flames flared.
"Are you implying that she is all glitter but no substance, Captain Solo?" the vocoder rumbled. And while the deep mechanic voice was almost as soft as it could go, Luke heard warning sirens going off in his head.
Han's hand dropped to where there would have been a blaster at his hip under less politic circumstances – and then loosened his posture with visible effort. The Corellian gave the Sithlord a sharp look.
"Are we even talking about the ship here?" he asked with a wave towards perfectly polished chromium. Without awaiting a reaction, he went on, "She's a fast one, no doubt about that. And I'm sure she'll fit nice and snug between two stardestroyers and enough fighters to walk from one destroyer to the other. But you can't land her with half a fleet in tow, not when you're trying to be diplomatic, and so some onboard firepower would be nice, too."
The ex-smuggler gestured expansively. "In case things get undiplomatic all of a sudden … Ow!"
Leia had somehow moved herself from heading straight for the gangplank to standing solidly between her father and her lover as soon as the argument had commenced, but now she had dug her elbow into Han's ribs.
"It's been known to happen!" the Corellian defended his stance.
"I am sure you would know all about the undiplomatic, Solo," Lord Vader commented wryly. "But do not let the exterior mislead you. The Mirage has some surprises yet."
Mirage. Luke could totally agree with the name. The mirror-finish chromium might be a dazzling, eye-catching sight in the utilitarian hangar the ship was standing in – or probably anywhere else on Coruscant – but put her down in the desert and the ship would just melt into the heat shimmers.
And yet, the name was unfamiliar but the ship somehow was not!?
"Did she have another name, at some point?" the young Jedi asked slowly.
The black flames twitched oddly.
"Not that I know of," the vocoder rumbled after a long moment. "When the ship should have been officially named, the situation was rather … hectic, and so she was only ever known as 'the Royal Starship', I believe, until I gave her this name."
"Royal Starship," Leia repeated pensively. "I think I have heard that term before, when I was very young. But I cannot place it, right now."
She eyed her father shrewdly. "Should I know it?"
"Organa – Bail Organa – knew about the Royal Starship. He might have mentioned her. Or perhaps Panaka? He captained her for a while and later kept up a cordial relationship with the Alderaani court," Lord Vader conceded.
The Sithlord felt strangely … hesitant in the Force, prompting Luke to cut in with, "But I didn't. And the ship still feels familiar. Why is that?"
Black flames flared again, if less outraged and more … pained, this time.
"This was your mother's ship," their father ground out. "She spent a lot of time on her, including while pregnant with the two of you. That might have left … an imprint of a sort."
The black flames roiled violently, and the way Leia narrowed her eyes at a point just off the towering black-armored figure, she was sensing at least part of that.
She had just opened her mouth to reply when Lord Vader burst out, "The Royal Starship was the cause I ever met Padmé – and then it was the site where I nearly killed her, in the end!"
Han was reaching for Leia to pull her behind him – the Corellian had no way of sensing the Force but could recognize violent anger when he saw it! – and the young Jedi had just drawn breath to point out that their father hadn't killed his wife, when the Sithlord harshly reigned back his temper and turned back towards the gleaming ship.
The ventilator hissed once, twice, thrice, before the vocoder gave one final snarl. "When I first saw the ship afterwards, I wrecked her completely!"
"And then you rebuilt her from the ground up. That's a good omen," Luke declared firmly. "Leia, is there any diplomatic reason not to use, uh, Queen Padmé's ship for a visit to Naboo? Or a likelihood that anyone would draw too much of a conclusion, Father? Because I like this ship. I think we should take her. Even if it would be a shame to take her to Tatooine afterwards: the first wisp of sand breeze from the desert would ruin the finish …."
"She has been to Tatooine before," their father commented. "And maybe, … maybe she should come full circle."
There was no … closure on his tone, but something that held the hope of getting there, someday. And that, the young Jedi thought, was a good start.
 Wedge immediately stepped forward to pledge the Rogues as part of said escort.
A/N: Mon Cala is a world at the back of beyond – it's literally further away from the bright center of the galaxy than Tatooine! (But I always thought Luke was speaking metaphorically there, anyways. ;) It's really inconvenient to plot a flight plan there – but if you do, you're really showing your regard for every last corner of the galaxy, I guess. ;P