Here we go - the sequel you never thought you'd see! ;P
Just to mention, I never thought you would either - although the end is written, the last few chapters
leading up to it aren't, yet. Hopefully I'll be able to write faster than I post, but if there's the occasional dropped week, you'll know why.
For those who like to know the greater story scheme, this completed story is running at 33 chapters, and as ever, I'll be posting every other week.
I should also point out that this story is un-beta'd so any mistakes are mine, mine, mine.
Since I've thrown people in other stories by not mentioning this up-front, I'd like to state that
This is a sequel!
You really need to read the first story, named Empire's Son, before you read this one. Trust me, it will make zero sense otherwise!
Plus, hey, you get to read a completed story and decide if you want to stick around for the sequel :)
Apparently I can't even link to another of my own stories within this Fanfiction site any more as that would be
a blatant abuse of the system (!?) so I'm afraid you'd have to go to my
bio page and look up the Empire's Son story there.
I'd also like to give a huge shout-out to my long-time friend Kataja, who's reading through and egging me on at the mo.
We've made it our mission to do this to each-other, so go read her fab stuff and comment (look her up under Author in
the search box), and then she'll write some more!
That's it. Hope you enjoy!
EMPIRE'S SON II
Luke folded his hand when the Duro next to him threw his own chip-cards down in disgust. He knew for a fact that he had the best hand at the table, but he'd already won five games tonight—ones when there'd been enough credits in the pot to make it worth his while—and he didn't like to win too often. People tended to remember how often you'd won rather than whether you'd won the big pots, he'd found, so he was in the habit of regularly throwing games these days, if the stakes didn't rise fast enough. It didn't do to be the one who always aggressively pushed the pot up either; you got a name for yourself that way, and the one thing every card-sharp grifter could do without, was a reputation.
He could have made more on higher stakes tables of course, but he never sat at the big tables. People were also more likely to remember you if you sat at the big tables, and he preferred to ply his particular trade among the safe anonymity of lesser games in less prestigious cantinas. With a little patience you could eke out a living at the fringe of any spaceport, and no-one was any the wiser. Wasn't much of a living, but then compared to his life to date, Luke figured it didn't have to be.
It wasn't that he lacked the skills to move up the ladder a little. He'd grown up under the harsh and readily-critical eyes of the Emperor himself, and Indo—the Imperial Viscount who Palpatine had charged with Luke's education on Coruscant from the age of eleven—had accomplished his task with ever-efficient zeal. So Luke spoke the eight most common languages fluently, could fly anything from a mid-sized freighter down to a TIE Interceptor or a swoop, could navigate, had a sound knowledge of quantum mechanics, AI, general programming, flight system mechanics, and could kill a man twice his weight, silently and with his bare hands—even without the Force.
But despite these being routine prerequisites for his old life in the Imperial Ubiqtorate, it turned out that there wasn't a lot of demand that particular skill-set in the real galaxy outside of the Imperial palace's lofty walls…particularly when you were trying to live your life below the official radar. Well, aside from smuggling, bounty hunting and general 'heavy', of course, none of which he had any particular interest in, having spent most of his life serving the other side of the law enforcement fence, so to speak. Plus the last thing a trained Sith assassin needed was someone egging him on.
And also, as it turned out—since in his old life everyone had acted as if these were normal skills for any sixteen year old—the ability to do such things for someone of his age and not much over shoulder-height to the average man, wasn't as common as he'd just naturally assumed.
He leaned back as the Dug opposite gathered the chip-set metal cards and shuffled them inexpertly, pursing supple lips below his wet snout in concentration as Luke made a quick glance around the cantina out of habit, as he fingered his black-dyed hair back from his eyes. Black was still relatively new; it had been fair two months ago—more so than his natural color—and his now brown eyes had been green. But he made a habit of changing them with each new planet he wound up on, and this time black had been the nearest packet on the shelf.
Not that anyone was looking for him. But the death of both the Emperor and Vader at the Imperial Drydock near Corsin, at the hands of the Rebellion—aided, ironically enough, by ex-Imperial pilot Han Solo, the one person whom Luke had actually believed he could trust—had still thrust Luke into a very different world. One where his Imperial connections would have gotten his throat cut down some dark alley at the first opportunity…very likely after a brutal beating first, because a lone ex-Imperial officer, even a rogue one, was just too good an opportunity to miss. Though they'd have had to work quickly, if they wanted to get to Luke before the Ubiqtorate, Imperial Intel, the navy, the army…and pretty much anyone else of any rank in the Empire, had they known Luke had survived. Which right now, they didn't. Right now, the Empire had not surprisingly listed everyone at the site of the Emperor's assassination as deceased, their remains lost when all the Star Destroyers docked on Corsin deep-space platform had been destroyed in the chain-reaction of explosions which had robbed the Empire of it ruler and its second-in-command, in one fell swoop. And given that, even at sixteen years old, Luke's sole task had been to protect an Emperor who had been assassinated, he felt no pressing need to return.
He'd woken up about an hour and three lightyears from the explosion, bundled into a shuttle by his f— by Vader, in some misguided attempt at…what? Luke didn't even know. He knew that Vader had found out just minutes before that the youth he'd persecuted mercilessly was his son, though what had been going on inside Vader's head when he'd wrestled Luke into unconsciousness to load him onto a shuttle, then gone after Palpatine—the man who had lied to them both, having known the truth since Luke had arrived on Coruscant aged seven, believing himself the son of Bail and Breha Organa—Luke would never comprehend. Vader had known that a Rebel freighter loaded with explosives was just minutes away from impact with the Star Destroyer that he, Luke and Palpatine were onboard—had actually told Luke that, then had refused Luke the comlink to warn their Master.
An act of revenge, for Palpatine's deceit? Blind fury, at being lied to and manipulated by the man he'd helped to put in power? Vader had never bothered to tell him.
Just occasionally, when he thought about it, he dared to hope that it had been some brief, once in a lifetime flare of protectiveness… But given his abusive and explosive relationship with Vader up to that very minute—given the fact that even knowing the truth they had still met with lightsabers in their hands, Luke sent to kill Vader by Palpatine, and Vader more than willing to use force to further his own private intentions—Luke had nothing with which to back up that unlikely theory. So he'd turned his thoughts away, not willing to hope even now, when all hope was safely spent. He'd learned his lessons well.
He'd woken alone and disorientated at the edge of the Rim systems, still suffering badly from the effects of the overdose that Han had used in his attempt to get Luke away from the doomed Corsin Drydock. Woken in a ship whose controls had been carefully scuppered by someone who knew what they were doing. Not sufficient that they weren't repairable, but enough to leave Luke adrift for several days as he'd made the necessary repairs, listening over long-range incoming comms as everything he'd known had fallen slowly to pieces. His Master and Vader—to all intents Palpatine's only logical successor—dead, the Empire floundering, the Rebels gaining ground as people whispered then spoke then shouted openly of insurrection. A chain reaction that had flared through the Rim systems and pushed in as far as parts of the volatile Colonies.
By the time he'd had the drive systems and outgoing comms working again, he'd already realized that returning wasn't an option.
He'd destroyed the Imperial shuttle at the first stop, on some forsaken backwater Rim world he'd managed to coax the cross-wired drive systems into reaching. It had markings and internal OS codes which would have identified it as belonging to the Emperor's Star Destroyer Conqueror if it had been recovered, so he'd stripped it of anything he could sell then rigged it with onboard explosives, abandoning any ID he'd had with it before trudging two days across an unknown wasteland on some barely-populated planet, to reach what passed for civilization in this part of the galaxy. And having finally reached it, he'd realized something profoundly important…
He had nowhere to go. His life—his entire life, as he'd known it—was over.
Had Palpatine been alive Luke wouldn't have even hesitated in returning…well, maybe that wasn't quite true, but the sense of duty that had been hammered into him from childhood would have prevailed, he knew that. But Palpatine was dead, and Luke's loyalty had always been to the man and not his Empire. As far as he was concerned, there was nothing to return to.
Which didn't mean that he had a viable alternative.
It had taken him three hungry months to find out that there was one thing that he could do, completely below the radar and for which a youthful, innocent face was a positive boon; sabacc. In every spaceport in every city on every planet in the Rim, there were at least a hundred games going down. For someone who'd had quantum mechanics and pure math drilled into him with one-on-one lessons twelve hours a day, seven days a week, calculating the odds was easy—even counting the cards wasn't that hard. For someone who could read people's minds, neither was even necessary. Sometimes, just for the hell of it, he didn't even bother using the Force for a whole session. Then it became two sessions, then three…and as time had gone by and he'd spent long runs of silent, empty nights laid on a string of grubby beds in grimy rooms, he'd had a long time to think hard on that…on why. He stayed away from it entirely now, other than passive awareness, which he couldn't avoid—though if he could get enough spice into himself without passing out, even that could be pushed back to a whisper which clung to the edge of dark dreams.
And in his waking hours he made the rounds of dark cantinas, playing sabacc. If you stuck around the spaceports there was always a steady stream of new faces who thought they saw easy pickings in the form of a seventeen year old kid with credits on the table. That had its down side too, of course; you were always having to prove to disgruntled losers just why it was inadvisable to try to retrieve their credits the moment you headed out of the cantina and down the dark streets in the early hours of the morning. And occasionally, if there was any kind of syndicate in port that you hadn't spotted, you had to be prepared to take a beating rather than draw too much attention to yourself and your abilities. But then Luke had learned to roll with the punches long before he'd fallen back on this particular dismal existence.
And you could only stay in any one place for so long, anyway. The faces at the tables kept on changing, but the regulars in the shadows of the cantina and behind the bar started getting a little too curious. You couldn't win too much, or if you did, you had to be prepared to move on within a day or so. He'd bought himself a few good quality ID's, but face-match technology was face-match technology, and no amount of iris-dying or cuts and colors of hair changed the points-average triangulation of his facial features. The safest thing to do was to stay below the radar, out in the Rim systems.
On the plus side, with the Rebellion gaining support to the point that outlying planets were actually openly declaring themselves independent from Imperial rule without even so much as a blaster raised, confirming whether there had been any survivors of the Corsin Drydock catastrophe—aside from Vader or the Emperor himself—was so far down the beleaguered Imperial military's priority list as to be non-existent. Which was just as well, because if they'd found him, they would have had some pretty searching questions as to why he was alive when the Emperor he'd sworn his life to protect, wasn't. And when his answers weren't the ones that they wanted to hear, Luke knew from his own execution of standard Imperial procedure that he wouldn't even have made it out of the interrogation cell to stand against some wall before they shot him.
All in all, not a great incentive to return.
On the other hand, out here in the sticks where the Rebel Alliance was gaining a serious foothold, it didn't do too well to be known to have been as closely associated not simply with the Empire but with the Emperor himself, as Luke had. In fact the way things were going, since the assassination he'd suddenly found himself with the kind of past that could get him put up against a wall and shot on either side of the fence—always a sobering thought to start every day with.
Which was why he'd found that the best course of action was to get non compos mentis by noon. And though he occasionally fell back on 70 proof, his preferred method remained spice—though it took more, these days.
Except that…Luke paused, studying his own thoughts as he eyed his sabacc cards. For days now, something had been itching at the corners of his dimmed awareness. Some sense of…what? Something closing, someone searching…for him. It whispered occasionally as he surfaced from the numb silence that only spice could offer, that half-heard scratch whose origin he could never quite lock down. Sometimes it seemed benign, other times assertive. Aggressive, even. It had been there for months, and though he'd always had some sense of staying ahead of it, it seemed, of late, to be closing in…
Leia Skywalker stepped off the ramp of the scoutship and onto dry, dusty soil that reminded her of home—but here the dust was a dark, mossy green instead of the golden, sun-baked sand of Tatooine. She glanced about as Han stepped past her, kicking at the loose soil as he looked beyond the dilapidated hollow in the ground that passed for a landing platform around here, and towards the close cluster of hunched, single-storey buildings, a local township that had formed around the warren of landing platforms and lock-up storage bays, likely none of which were legal.
Lifting and resettling the blaster he'd taken to wearing in a fast-draw holster at his hip, he glanced back to her. "Cantinas?"
"Cantinas," Leia nodded.
They'd followed Luke's trail for months now, whenever they had time or an opportunity, whilst moving with the Alliance from Rim-world planet to Rim-world planet, looking to stabilize newly-liberated systems or drum up fresh support for the Rebel Alliance.
It wasn't as hard as it had once been. Nine months after Palpatine's death the Empire remained locked in its own internal struggle for leadership as a loose conglomerate of high-profile Moffs sought to hold it all together whilst striving to ensure they ended up on top of the pile. The late Emperor hadn't exactly been one for delegating responsibility, and aside from…from her father, Vader, there had been no-one else who had the universally recognized right to step into Palpatine's role. Grand Moff Tarkin would have been the only other stand-out candidate, and his demise onboard the Death Star just months before the Emperor himself had died, removed that safety net. So the Empire had floundered within its own internal competition for ultimate power, and still did so almost a year after Palpatine's death, giving the Alliance endless uninterrupted opportunities to seek support, especially in the outlying systems.
And it was here, too, that Leia's brother had fled, burying himself among the disaffected who lived on the fringe of any society, particularly out in the Rim, where even Imperial law had only ever been intermittent.
She'd picked his trail up at Tatooine, where he'd sent her his one and only communication to let her know that he'd survived the Alliance attack that had killed his Master, Palpatine. He'd been as elusive as ever but Han, having originally met her brother when he'd been assigned to Luke as an aide in the Imperial palace, knew Luke well—far better than Leia herself—so he had a knack for rooting out the kind of places that Luke would have fallen back on, and for reasoning out his actions and direction when he moved on. And slowly, a pattern had begun to form; a template for her brother's life, now. Vague stories of a gambler would crop up, not much more than a kid, who drifted into some out of the way Rim town on any available transport with nothing more than a scuffed hold-all and the clothes he stood up in, and somehow managed to cajole his way into a few games of sabacc with what little credits he had…
He'd take a room somewhere quiet and keep to himself, staying for a month or two, careful not to play too often at the same cantina. At seventeen he was young enough that people noticed, but still, he left a hard trail to follow. It was Han who first suggested that they check out the local spice dens and dealers, much to Leia's surprise. But sure enough, the moment that the unknown gambler started upping his wins, the spice would follow…and every time, he made a few too many enemies along the way. Fights would ensue. Sometimes the unknown gambler was sober and spice-free and he'd trounce all comers. Other times, he wasn't so lucky. He didn't seem to care. Eventually, he'd drift on to the next spaceport on the next planet, travelling ever further out to the very edge of the Rim worlds, forever running…
But now and again, as they had today, Leia and Han would get a lucky break and find out that he might be close. To date, they'd always petered to nothing as Luke had moved on before they'd pinned him down. But this time...this time they were so close she could feel it. She couldn't sense his presence, of course; even now Luke was far too wary to ever slip so completely, old habits too ingrained. But something diffuse and elusive whispered at the very edge of her awareness, and it drew her on like a siren.
"This is it." She turned to Han, grabbing at his wrist as her heart pounded. "He's here, somewhere. He's here, on Rishi."
"You want to get something to eat?" Luke asked without turning, raising his voice to be heard over the asthmatic air con unit.
Sat to the head of the bed—the only place to sit in the cramped room—he was using a small pocket knife to scribe into the cracked varnish of the bedside cabinet. Crowded amongst other scratched sketches, it was Capellan script, so stylized as to be almost unreadable. He remembered the original artwork, painted in bold strokes of moss green onto a huge canvas. Remembered sitting before it where it had hung on the wall of his room, bloodied and bruised from yet another run-in with Palpatine for some perceived misstep, and translating the words for Han. At the time, he'd believed that Han could grasp their relevance in the life forced upon Luke since childhood by his Master… turned out he'd been wrong. Or maybe not; certainly Han's actions had eventually forced Luke into living those words to their utmost.
He narrowed his eyes and tilted his head to stare at the carved words a second longer…
With a dry laugh he stabbed the knife into their center, rolling back onto the bed to stare at the stained ceiling of… whatever the hell cantina he'd rented digs over this time; he couldn't remember. Imperial, that was it; The Grand Imperial. It had made him laugh. It was a decrepit, tumble-down little four story place squeezed between a rent-by-the-day storage facility and a derelict eaterie, on the outskirts of the local spaceport. If Palpatine had seen it he would have had it razed to the ground in outrage.
But it was safe, even if it wasn't that clean. The rooms had good locks and private 'freshers, and that made it a palace, these days.
"I gotta head out." Her voice was distant, drifting through the door from where she stood in the small prefab 'fresher, smudging kohl around her eyes. "I'm working tonight."
He rose as she spoke, walking forward to lean on the jamb. "Where do you work, again?"
She looked at him skeptically. "You really wanna know?"
"No." No point in lying. "I was just making conversation."
He was ninety-nine percent desperate for her to leave. She'd been here three nights now, and that was two longer than he let most stay. He'd let her because she seemed less inclined to want to believe that this was leading somewhere. Because she had his habits, and was just as screwed up in her own way as he was, so she didn't judge him. Let her stay because sometimes, his own dismal existence got to him so much that even the spice didn't knock it back. She'd smiled at him in some cantina where she was serving, and asked him what he'd be doing with the credits he'd won that night…and what the hell, he didn't have anything else to do with them. You could always find someone willing to spend whatever you had—he'd learned that long before he'd left Coruscant.
But now he just wanted her to leave. He knew how to be alone; this just made him uneasy. Ninety-nine percent of him wanted her to leave…but some small, suppressed sliver was desperate for her to stay, because he knew—he knew—that eventually, if he was alone, the dreams would come.
Sometimes they were predictable; old memories sharpened to painful precision by the Force; moments when his Master had turned on him with brutal malice, nothing held back, his rage loosed without compunction on a boy of eight, ten, twelve—it didn't matter. It never had. The dread of that first moment, that instant when his Master reached out, incensed, hands grasping, lips curled back in a brute snarl, and Luke had no idea what he would do; how bad it would be this time. And Force help him if he flinched back; that incurred the worst reprisals of all. The ones that never seemed to end. Or worse, they finally would, leaving him huddled on the floor, gasping and dazed as his tormentor stalked away…then whirled about, returning to inflict one more round of vindictive fury—
and Luke would shock awake, already curled up in defense, arms about his head, whole body tensed against the next incoming blow.
Other times…other times there was no specific moment, no sharply-remembered strike. Instead a particular acuity would come over him, and it was as if his Master was actually in the room with him in that moment…right there, but stood unseen behind him, spouting rage and wrath with such vehemence. Yet not a word could be heard in these surreal moments, the silence itself a scream, profoundly disturbing. A judgment which found him wanting, his failure crushing. So absolutely real were these dreams, so acutely intense, it seemed that if Luke had opened his eyes and turned, his Master would be there, bellowing into Luke's face, lips curled back from wasted teeth, ocher eyes glowing in bitter frenzy. So potent were they that he'd scrabble wildly back as he woke to stare about some grim, grubby little room without seeing, chest heaving, heart pounding. Have to rise to check the locks and turn every light on to dispel the shadows before he sat on the edge of his tousled bed, chiding his own stupidity as he trembled, the remnants of the dream still screaming inside his head…
Until eventually he'd reach for the one thing which silenced it, and spice himself into numb oblivion. The only way he could leave the nightmares behind.
Then he'd wake up, and start all over again.
Leia leaned across the cantina bar, careful to keep her arms from the rings and puddles that ran into each other across its surface, unwiped.
"So he was here? How long ago?" She was pushing, she knew, but whilst the bartender had little to no interest in her problems, he seemed to have even less in protecting his regular patrons, so was answering more out of boredom than anything else.
"Few days, maybe."
"Does he come in often?"
"Every third night or so. He plays the tables."
"Do you know where he's staying?"
The man straightened slightly, and Leia could sense that she'd crossed the line between what was permissible, and what could easily be bounty or law enforcement. Her hand, resting on the stained bar, made a subtle arc, first two fingers outstretched as she focused fine tendrils of the Force at a mind so easy to influence that she could have done it in her sleep. "Do you know where he's staying?"
"…no…no, I don't know where he's staying."
"Does anyone here?"
"…no, nobody here."
"Other cantinas then—which others does he go to?"
"…the Shakedown…the Borehole…the Black Nova…" He trailed off, eyes unfocused; he'd run out of answers for her.
"Will he be here tonight?"
"I don't know. Probably not."
"Which cantina, then?" You had to prompt every single word.
"…Borehole…probably the Borehole. Maybe the Shakedown."
She turned at Han's voice.
He was stood in the shadows close to one of the booths, where he'd walked in his casual sweep of the room as they'd entered—still the soldier, nine months after he'd thrown his lot in with the Rebel Alliance. His eyes were on the stained surface, and she walked quickly over, drawn by the tightness of his voice. Looking down, she followed his gaze…
Drawn into the ring-stained surface, almost lost against a mass of intermixed marks from long years of usage, was a fast, rough sketch of a woman, head tipped back, eyes wide in fear.
"His mother," Han said, then quickly added, "Adopted mother. Breha Organa."
She knew the story, recounted by Han in husky, outraged tones. Knew that Palpatine had ordered Bail and Breha Organa to be executed whilst they were knelt in front of an eleven year old Luke, the ultimate punishment for some perceived misstep. The image—that exact image of Breha in that moment—had remained carved into Luke's memories into adulthood…how could it not? That, and hundreds more, he scratched and sketched onto any surface at random as they occurred to him, with obsessive frequency. A map of his mind… and a trail of breadcrumbs to follow.
Running her fingers over the image, she looked to Han, more sure than ever. "He's here right now, on Rishi."
Slouched in a chair to one of the five sabacc tables at the back of the Black Nova, Luke stared at his cards without really seeing, mind straying. The spice he'd smoked earlier in the day had worn off and that vague, looming sense had begun to solidify at the back of his mind once more. But far stronger right now, in the semi-darkness of the grubby cantina, the vision that had driven him to turn to the spice this morning tried again to break through. It came more often these days, so much so that occasionally it sliced into his waking hours. Always the same; that same vision he'd recounted to his Master on Coruscant a year earlier. The same dark corridor beneath a mountain, the sound of bubbles in air, the whole surreal scene wrapped about with an unspoken accusation so loud that at night, alone, it would jolt him awake, four steps from his bed before he realized it. He shook his head, willing it clear and dragging himself back to the moment before the vision could pull him down.
Moving uneasily in his chair he looked to his chip-cards, toying with folding a good hand; too soon after his last win. He didn't like this. Didn't like it at all. Somehow, as the night's players had ebbed and flowed about the table he'd sat at, he'd ended up in a big game. Glancing to the door he considered cutting for the night and heading to the Shakedown, uneasy again as that sense of something closing gnawed at the edge of his attention…
Luke turned and lifted his head to look up at the dark-skinned human male who flashed a self-assured grin. He was better dressed than most, more self-possessed, with easy humor in his smooth voice. He was also looking to win some serious money tonight, Luke could see it absolutely.
He opened his mouth to object, but the big Duro to his right him rapped its knuckles on the table in its species' version of a nod as it growled, "You got the credits, you can take the chair."
Luke looked back to his chip-cards, ill at ease; more credits on the table. He should bow out in a game or two. Fold out of play and head on to the next cantina. He'd take just one more win and call it a night…
Nine games on, he was still sat at the table. He'd found a battered spice stick in one of the pockets of the scuffed hide jacket he wore, and stupidly, he'd lit it. Never spice up and gamble, otherwise you did stupid things, like stay sat at the table as the stakes rose and the players dropped out, and worse…worse, you started fumbling round for another spice stick.
The urbane gambler—Calrissian, he'd claimed his name was—had naturally taken the opportunity offered, and whispered something to the Twi'lek server with a half-grin and a quick wink. She'd disappeared, and when she came back it was with another two spice sticks. His pleasure, Calrissian had said, as he produced a flare-lighter and held it out with a steady hand.
Luke probably looked like easy pickings to him—hell, he'd think the same of anyone else who was stupid enough to smoke spice and gamble at the same time. They may as well just throw their credits up in the air and walk away.
Except of course, Luke knew, as he nodded and lit the spice stick, and felt his body drop down a notch as his heart pounded and his thoughts numbed…unlike everybody else, he didn't actually have to succumb. Unlike everyone else, he could clear the effects of this small amount of spice out of his system in one minute flat. He didn't, not yet—waste of spice—but he could, when he felt like it.
Calrissian went back to his game a happier man, concentrating on the Duro and the Dug now, figuring that Luke wasn't even in the running any more, save a resource to strip dry.
Luke smiled and looked back to his chip-cards, which were blurred just slightly, now. He really should do something about that...in a few minutes time.
"Kuso." Luke spat the curse, aware from the overconfident bet from the Duro to his right that it had improved its hand on the tilt of the chip-cards as the central console had once again randomly changed their values. The Dug had already folded, and for a second Luke hesitated, allowing everyone to see it, before he threw his credits in to match the bet. Let them decide whether it was a play; whether he had a good hand or a bad one.
Sat opposite him, the dark-skinned gambler spoke without looking up, voice casually conversational as he threw in his stake. "You're a long way from home."
Luke glanced over. "What?"
"You just cursed in Coruscanti," the sharp gambler observed.
Luke feigned interest in studying his cards, his growl more of a challenge than a question. "Do I sound Coruscanti to you?"
It hadn't been that hard to lose his accent—he'd been taught three by some prissy protocol droid in linguistics classes, in preparation for his life as an Emperor's Hand—so to be called for his unthinking curse was galling.
"No," the gambler allowed, looking to quietly size his opponent up. "But people generally curse in their home language."
The Duro dealt the final round as Calrissian spoke, and everyone paused, eyes on the central console…but it didn't loose the random electronic pip that indicated it had changed any of the cards' face values yet again. With the briefest pursing of its mobile lips, the Duro pushed the pot a little higher with a fifty-credit raise. Wasn't quite so very confident now, it seemed.
Both Calrissian and Luke held their gazes on him for a few seconds, and each knew that the other was mentally reassessing…then their narrowed eyes met.
"If you're looking to throw my game," Luke said, "you're gonna have to come up with something a little more inventive than random guesses at my home planet."
"Hey, not my problem who or where you're running from. Just making conversation." The gambler flashed that smooth grin. "Make the evening go a little faster."
Luke smiled thinly. "Oh I'm sorry, are we Rim-dwellers boring you? How about this—I raise five hundred." Beside him, the Duro jolted straight at the strength of the challenge. Luke's eyes didn't move from Calrissian's. "Little more interesting for you now?"
The gambler tipped his head, that easy smile intact. "And I'm supposed to assume that I hacked you off sufficiently to force a reckless bet from you, so I'd meet it, right?"
Neither even bothered looking to the Duro; the game was with each other.
Calrissian threw his cards in, face down. "I'll fold."
With a loud, guttural grunt of frustration, the Duro did likewise, hoping to stay alive by following his fellow player's hunch.
"Kerarasae," Luke said with a brief grin: spoilsport, in Coruscanti.
He threw his cards face down to the table as he reached out to take the pot that Calrissian had relinquished, without ever showing the garbage hand he'd held. Sometimes you had to have the nerve to play to your own tells as much as your opponents. And if you did, you sure as hell didn't show your cards afterwards. If Calrissian had wanted to know Luke's form that much, he could have put his credits on the table and forced Luke to turn his cards…but he hadn't.
It wasn't often that he chose to buy himself out of a mistake by raising the pot, but he'd wanted to know if Calrissian was the type to try to do the same, if he had a little attitude thrown at him. As it was, the man'd had the calm under fire and the self-possessed poise to back down—all be it on the wrong hand of cards.
This could get interesting.
People began watching as the stakes rose more meaningfully over the next two games, something else that Luke would have normally shied away from. But tonight he let it be, taking a final, long pull on the stub of the spice stick before he dropped it to the floor. So he was still comfortably mellow and therefore, in retrospect, embarrassingly inattentive when a man staggered unevenly forward and lifted his hand to point at Luke, drunk enough to speak too loudly. "I know you—you're Ubiqtorate!"
The atmosphere in the bar instantly cooled by degrees as faces turned, drawn by the drunken man's loud accusation. Ubiqtorate were the hidden face at the very top of the Imperial Intel machine, the pinnacle of State power, disliked even by their own military for their stealthy, all-pervading influence. They'd been fast and typically ruthless in their move to step into the power void that the Emperor and Vader's death had created, and they weren't particularly fussy about their methods of ensuring that they stayed there, by all accounts—not that they'd ever been that scrupulous about their methods of maintaining Imperial power in the first place. So to invoke the presence of one of their number in a dingy back-room cantina, let alone on a Rebel-allied planet, was tantamount to citing a death sentence. Luke straightened subtly, and in the same moment the warm, all-enveloping cloudiness of the spice fizzed as he purged it from his system, leaving overwrought senses flinching at the fast withdrawal as the man continued to speak.
"You arrested Meck Odom for treason, on Danuta Imperial Base. Just strolled in there and dragged him out of the medicenter in binders, when he'd been shot. I saw you put the cuffs on him!"
Part of Luke's fast-sobering mind was already looking for viable excuses, as the other part wallowed in his own bad fortune. Typical—typical of his luck, that the man should turn up here and recognize him, even in civilian clothes and with black-dyed hair. He didn't even vaguely remember the man; probably some random officer present on the base at the time that Luke had waded in. He'd never really bothered to register the other staff and crew.
This was why they'd always taught him never to let himself be seen. Always stay in the shadows…and generally he'd done so. But he'd taken a particular dislike to the Danuta base commander, who had lied to and obstructed him at the time, so the opportunity to stir up a little mischief and hack the man off whilst offending not just his sense of pride but his standing in front of his men, had been just too tempting. But like every other single thing in his entire life, it was coming back to bite him, now.
"You're drunk," Luke murmured, looking back to his chip-cards.
"You're Ubiqtorate! I remember you!"
"How the hell old do you think I am? I'm barely old enough to be in here legally, and you're telling me I'm Ubiqtorate? You're off your face." Luke kept his eyes on his cards, but when the man, and more importantly the attention of the room, didn't waver, his besieged thoughts finally dredged up a counter-accusation which he said slowly, as if just realizing. "Wait a minute…are you an Imperial? You just said it was an Imperial base—are you Imperial military?"
He had the satisfaction of sensing the attention in the room swing away from himself a little and towards the drunken man, who straightened slightly. "Hey I'm nobody—I was a grunt. You're Ubiqtorate!"
"Please," Luke rasped in dry dismissal. "I'm not old enough to sign up even if I wanted to. And I'm sure as hell not military material, let alone Ubiqtorate. Now get out of my damn face."
He looked down again, aware that the man wouldn't go and that the dispute was now the sole subject of attention for everyone in the room, whether mildly suspicious or just enjoying the show…then he got his first break of the evening. As part of his ongoing drunken sway, the man stepped back a fraction too far and stumbled on something unseen on the dingy cantina's floor—
Instantly Luke reached out with the Force to change the stumble into a fall with serious momentum, slipping the man's legs out beneath him at the same time as he pinned his arm, so that the drunk fell with a shocked, truncated yelp to land with a heavy crack of his skull on the filthy floor. Despite having shied away from any premeditated Force contact for months, it was still nothing at all for Luke to reach into his mind at the same time and twist ever so subtly, so that his accusor was actually out cold before he even hit the ground—though he resisted the urge that fired in that same second to compress the Darkness just a little harder and make sure that the idiot never woke up again. Only, in truth, because it would have brought stormtroopers.
He stared for a moment as everyone else did, as if waiting for the man to rise and continue, before eventually he glanced to one of his opponents, rolling his eyes dryly.
"So drunk he can't even get up," he dismissed casually, looking not at the sharp Calrissian, but at the Duro sat to his right. Always look to the easiest touch first; he'd be the most likely to let it pass, and if one did then others often followed, and let the matter settle without further intervention. Sentient nature. They'd taught him that too, in the endless hours of lessons.
"Ubiqtorate…right." Luke flashed his most youthful grin, leaning back and down into his seat as he dragged his hand through his hair to pull it carelessly back whilst he turned to his cards, knowing that he looked even younger than his age if it wasn't half-covering his face, using that and his slight frame to his advantage. "I look like Ubiqtorate to you?"
He said it casually, as if not expecting an answer, his eyes already back to the chip-cards in his hand as if his thoughts were on the game, the momentary disturbance already dismissed. The Duro stared for a few seconds…then let out a hoarse laugh before looking back to his own cards. The Dug watched a second longer, then glanced to the Duro and did the same, attention returning to the game. Calrissian stared the longest of course… before he too looked slowly away, not so much convinced as not really caring.
Luke forced his shoulders to drop their tension as he stared at his chip-cards without seeing, knowing that this was it. He glanced back up at the remaining players, aware now that he needed to skin everyone here tonight. Subtly—not too quickly—but he needed to mop up before he returned to his rented room and packed. This was his last night on Rishi. Thanks to some drunken ex-Imperial he'd met once for all of ten minutes and never even spoken to, it was time to move on again.