The Emerald Price Chapter 31

By Ash Darklighter

Disclaimer:- The characters and situations used in this story are the property of George Lucas and Lucasfilm Ltd. I am only using them for some entertainment and will not even make one Republican credit from this endeavour. This is set around eight to ten years after Luke and Mara met each other for the first time. This one is for all the girls on the AA list and of course for Mona – what would I do without you? My thanks also to Niqella and Rhea for their encouragement and invaluable suggestions.

Elrood

Mara sat next to Altra Adremetis in the back seat of their speeder with Feenus driving. She gazed about her without much interest as they left the spaceport. Most of the buildings in this area were dilapidated and run down. There wasn't much to see but Mara couldn't help the feeling that many eyes watched them as they left. She sighed inwardly. Perhaps she was becoming paranoid but this place still had the power to unnerve her.

"We live in the older part of the city," Altra confided. "We have a small apartment there. It's much nicer than the industrial sector and cheaper than the modern residential quarter."

"Oh." Mara couldn't think of anything else to say. She sat for a few more minutes letting the awkward silence build. Then she could stand it no longer. "Captain Adremetis…Mistress…"

"It's Altra and Feenus," the older woman said quietly. "Luke talked so much about you that I feel I know you already." There was another silence. Altra turned her head and began to study Mara closely. "You really are very lovely, Jedi Jade," Altra said suddenly. "I can see why he's in love with you."

Mara opened and shut her mouth, astonishment written across her face. This was not what she had expected at all from the conservatively dressed woman beside her. "He…Luke? Oh."

"But then you already have a lover. It's a pity."

"Altra!" Feenus objected loudly from the front seat. He groaned. His wife was one of the most sensible, level-headed women he knew but every so often she would suddenly turn…well, female in his opinion and blurt out the first thing that came into her head. They knew virtually nothing about this young woman except that the galaxy's foremost Jedi Knight had dropped everything to come after her.

"That is none of your business." Mara's tone was frosty. How did they know? Then it struck her – it was obvious. Luke had still thought that she was involved with Lando. Force, that seemed like years and years ago – almost another lifetime. How had she ever been so misguided as to let Karrde and Lando talk her into it?

"I did not mean to offend," Altra said. "But you did not see Luke's face when he was gripping that holo of you that he carries everywhere with him for grim death. He thought he was going to lose you for ever."

"He nearly did," Feenus muttered.

Altra pressed on, her voice urgent. "I wouldn't have liked to have seen what the effects of that loss would have done to him. He was desperate, Mara."

Luke carried a holo of her with him. Mara hadn't known that but she knew that he loved her. He had one of her in his quarters on Yavin IV but then, he had holos of all his friends and family. But he had one of her with him. That was special. "I don't have a lover," she mumbled, her voice barely audible above the hum of the speeder's engine. It figured that Solo and Skywalker had come across this strange pair of humans. They were the kind of beings that Luke and the Corellian managed to collect on their travels about the galaxy. There was always somebody somewhere who could help.

"You don't have a lover?" Altra echoed.

"No."

"Well, you should. There's that poor man eating his heart out for you and you're not doing anything about it?"

"Steady on." Mara said coldly, holding up her hand. "Why should I? I manage quite well on my own."

Feenus smothered a bark of dark laughter but he didn't do it quite well enough and a choked sound emerged. Mara glared at the back of his head.

"Keep your mind out of the gutter," she snapped.

"You don't strike me as a typical Jedi," he said thoughtfully.

"You've known many?" Mara said sardonically. "When you were working for the Empire, Mr ex-Imperial soldier, the only Jedi in your vicinity was Darth Vader and he was more dark Sith Lord than Jedi. Jedi don't choke people for no reason. I haven't always been a Jedi." Mara gave a malicious grin.

"You haven't?" Altra asked.

"No, I used to be an assassin." She delivered the information in a matter of fact tone.

"What!"

"You heard me." Her lip curled. "I used to be an assassin for Emperor Palpatine himself and I can recognise an Imperially trained soldier a system away." Mara nodded towards the stiff back of Feenus Adremetis.

Disconcerted by Mara's candour, Altra sat back. "I thought you were a trader."

"I was but originally I was an assassin - a personal agent for Palpatine. I did his bidding. If he wanted someone dead then they were as good as."

Altra knew Mara was trying to shock her and she had succeeded. "And Luke is training you to be a Jedi?"

"Yes."

"Are there many assassins training to become knights?"

"As far as I can tell, I'm the first." Mara pointed at Feenus. "So why did he leave the Imperial fold?"

"There were many reasons. He didn't like what the Empire was doing," Altra answered.

"I know he speaks," Mara muttered, trying to get a rise out of the man. His sense reminded her of a thermal detonator all wired up and ready to blow.

"Slavery," Feenus said shortly, holding onto his irritation.

"Anything else?" asked Mara.

"Han Solo."

"We knew Han when he was an Imperial soldier," Altra explained. "Feenus and Han were at the Academy together."

"Ah," Mara said. "Solo is too independent a man to have ever been the model Imp." She now had an idea how things had developed.

"Han has always been his own man. Not an easy thing to do and stick to it." She stretched out a hand towards her husband and shrugged. "I know someone else not too far away from me that is exactly the same."

"Some men seem to manage," Mara said almost to herself. She, too, knew someone who was his own man. 'Oh, Luke' she thought.

"How long have you been a Jedi?" Altra asked as Feenus turned the speeder into the older part of the city.

"I've always had the ability to touch the Force. It's only recently that I've made my total commitment to the Jedi Order. It was something I had to think deeply about – not a decision to be taken lightly. I'm not actually a Jedi Knight yet. This is the final part of my training."

"It was after you recovered from what happened out here a year ago."

"Yes. That played a major part in my decision to take the final step. I vowed never to be caught out like that again. But Luke's been hounding me for years about it."

"I would imagine he's difficult to say no to."

"In some ways but our early history was not as friends. I used to find it all too easy to say 'no' to Luke. He was my enemy and I wanted to kill him. I failed." She gave a self-deprecating smile. "Sometimes he makes me so angry that I still want to kill him."

Altra grinned. "That's because he's a man, Jedi Jade. It goes with the y chromosomes."

"For me it was a matter of pride. He would ask and I would say no. I did not need the Jedi. I had been taught too long to hate them – how could I hate what I was myself?" she finished in a whisper, her words lost beneath the speeder's engine.

"Ah, pride…" Altra jerked her head in the direction of her husband. "It's a common fault."

Mara nodded. "A hard one to break. But my decision to become a Jedi had to be based on more than my experience out here. It is a lifetime commitment."

"Yes, I can see that." Altra smoothed a wrinkle from the fabric of her uniform-like outfit and then seemingly out of the blue began to encroach even more into areas that Mara considered to be very private. "So you don't have a lover any more?"

"Why are you so interested in my business?" Mara demanded, feeling exasperated.

"I like Luke," was the answer.

"For some strange reason a lot of people like him. Me…"

Altra shook her head. "Don't dismiss him," she said thinking that Mara would make another smart but derogatory comment about the man who had gone out of his way to save her life.

"I'm not…Luke is my friend."

"Well, treat him as if he is. You are quick to mock and that can be hurtful. Does Luke know that it's a defence mechanism? I see it in others around me and therefore I recognise it in you."

"Now hold on a minute…" Mara began to say angrily.

Altra cut her off. "I helped you once before. You may not remember much about it but… You owe me some answers. I'm not asking for blood."

Mara's mouth flattened. The woman had a point. Once she might have dispatched her for her temerity…in her old life. Things were different now. "My relationship with my former associate had been set up for business purposes. It never really existed at all. It was a cover."

"A cover?" Altra sighed. She remembered the naked pain on the Jedi's face. "Luke thought it was real."

"He was meant to." Mara's voice was defensive. "What kind of a cover would it be if everyone saw through it?"

"You could still have told Luke. He can surely keep a secret."

"What good would it have done?" Mara said bitterly. The fake relationship with Lando hadn't been her idea. Perhaps if Luke had stopped avoiding them she might have told him.

"It stopped him from getting too close," Altra guessed sagely.

"I've just met you today!" Mara exclaimed. "Don't you think you are a little too personal with your questions and opinions?"

"Didn't you nearly die not too long ago? No one could have asked you any questions then. You wouldn't have been alive to care." Altra countered neatly.

Feenus chuckled. "My wife is a clever woman, Jedi Jade. Don't underestimate her."

"I never underestimate anyone," Mara said, although she wondered if that was true. As she stared into the narrowing streets a shiver ran down her spine. "How exactly did Skywalker get me out?"

Altra frowned "Get you out? Oh…you mean how did he rescue you?" She twisted her head around to look at Mara. "He hasn't told you?"

"Bits and pieces," she said. "It's like getting money out of a Hutt."

"Damn near impossible, huh?" asked Feenus. "I always knew these Jedi types could be close-mouthed." He chuckled darkly. "He dressed up as a psychotic prince from a neighbouring system. This guy…Aesophas… wanted to buy slaves for his Tellen mines and Solo played the part of his long-suffering aide. I thought he was going to give the Corellian a heart attack a couple of times. Skywalker really had him going. They can both think on their feet." His last comment was said with a hint of unwilling admiration.

"Skywalker picked a real guy? Of course, he would have to," Mara corrected herself. "It's too easy to disprove otherwise. Keep the fiction as close to fact as possible. Less chance of making a mistake." It was something she had chanted to herself on many occasions. It had saved her life. "Skywalker and Solo were both leaders during the Rebellion. I suspect that can help with the playacting. Whatever the impression they can sometimes give you, they are hardly amateurs."

"The likeness was frightening," Feenus admitted. "Thank whatever deity watches over us that it was a resemblance only. The real Prince Aesophas is a menace. I now have people watching him just in case he does need workers for his mines. He's not getting slave labour if I have anything to say about it." He checked at a deserted crossroad. "We're not far from our apartment now," he said as he turned the speeder into another winding alley.

"Good…" she said, her mind busy. "And Luke? How…? He arrives and immediately strikes it lucky?"

"That's about it. We came across him and Han in the middle of a pitched fight between the local bullies and one of the city district communities - the one next to ours in fact. A swoop gang in the pay of the slaving syndicate were threatening to take a young boy from his grandmother."

"And Luke dived in. That rescue complex he has." Mara shook her head despairingly. She was going to have to keep a closer eye on her man. And he was hers. She just had to convince him of that.

"We'd been trying to set up a meeting with the leader of the syndicate for months and your Jedi Master friend wangles it in one day."

"With some help from Han," Altra put in."

"And yourselves," Mara concluded. You had the background knowledge. They couldn't have done it without you and I thank you for that."

"If we hadn't helped, Skywalker would have busted you out of there single-handedly and ruined most of our operation. We had no choice," Feenus snapped.

Mara's face held a resigned expression. "He has a save the world, save a damsel in distress, hell, save anyone complex."

"Luckily for you," Feenus retorted.

"Yeah, but one of these days he's going to get himself killed."

"He walked in there, cool as a night on Hoth and bought you as a pleasure slave," Altra said. "He was most convincing."

"He had to be," Feenus admitted. "Or we were all dead."

"He kept that part quiet," Mara muttered, "the big woolly-brained bantha. Pleasure slave – hah!" But again she saw in her mind the wintry pale blue eyes coming closer and a shiver ran through her body. She wasn't sure if it was anticipation or revulsion – the eyes had been cold. But the little stray thought lingered. 'Luke…pleasure? Oh yes.'

Altra smiled sympathetically. "That was the only time I saw his mask slip a little bit and no one else noticed apart from Han. When he kissed you…"

"Kissed…" Mara exclaimed quietly. "Oh, hell."

"Yeah," Feenus said sardonically. "It was all very romantic until you turned and punched him in the mouth."

"I hit him?" Mara moaned. "Shit."

"Hard," Feenus put in with relish. "Blood trickling down his chin. What a mess. You have an effective right hook."

"He was okay about it," Altra reassured the Jedi woman.

"He would be," she muttered irritably and then glanced at Altra. "I made him bleed?"

"Oh yes. It must have hurt," Feenus said.

"Stang," she swore and resisted the impulse to put her head in her hands. Mara wondered if Luke perhaps doubted the welcome she would give him in her arms. Was that the reason he shied from offering her his love. He thought she might hit him again? She knew she had his love but then, Luke didn't know how she felt. She had to tell him.

"Luke's presence distracted the syndicate and we were able to plant trackers, bugs and metal corroding droids that can eat through struts and supports and weaken the fabric of the building. He got us inside. We could do nothing otherwise."

"I used to use those devices myself," Mara admitted, recovering. Here she was on familiar ground. Discussing Skywalker and the way he made her feel was new territory whereas infiltration and sabotage were common every day procedures. "Most effective," she said with satisfaction, her eyes appearing vividly green all of a sudden. "So, you were an Imperial soldier."

"I was, and a good one," Feenus said quietly. "Yes, my training gave me the ability to be able to destroy the place very soon after we'd visited. I do not regret that training."

"I know."

"What I regret is not knowing, then, the truth behind that Imperial ideology. I do now."

"Good," Mara muttered as her nerves began to prickle. She knew that feeling - it had never let her down before. Something was wrong. Mara reached out into the Force, finding the source of the trouble and inadvertently touching a familiar presence far closer than he should have been. As she did so, her eyes widened. "I might have known…" She should have been surprised but she wasn't. "We're being followed," she hissed, trying to look as if nothing was wrong. "And it's not just by some of our friends."

"Damn!" Feenus muttered.

Mara's hand slipped beneath her cloak reaching for the comforting feel of her lightsaber. "You must have really upset someone today."

"We exist," Feenus quipped, showing Mara for the first time why he'd once been a friend of Han Solo's. "They're not showing up on the scopes yet."

"How can you tell?" Altra asked.

"Part of it is through my sensitivity to the Force." Mara's glance scanned the surrounding buildings. "My danger sense is highly developed through past experience. I've learned not to ignore it." She looked across at Altra and found her expertly wielding a top of the range blaster pistol.

"Yes, I can use it. At least we have a little time to prepare."

Mara grinned; even through she could feel the adrenaline begin to pump its way through her body. "Just checking."

Feenus pressed his foot harder on the accelerator increasing their speed. "I should have known that Belfro would find some way to remove us from the talks. But I never thought that he would be quite this direct."

"He must be worried," Mara concluded thoughtfully.

Feenus gave a grunt of assent. "He would say tomorrow that we didn't turn up because we were not interested in co-operating with the official security group."

"And are you?"

"Of course. We know far more about the habits of the slavers than they do. Our problem is that we do not have enough system-wide resources to do it alone. We need each other. It's as simple as that." He flicked a switch on the control panel. "Miko?"

"On our way," the tinny, disembodied voice answered.

"How did they…?" Feenus muttered trying to steer and grope for his blaster pistol at the same time.

Altra was meanwhile digging in a black canvas bag at her feet. "Thermal detonators," she said.

"You carry thermal detonators with you?" Mara asked.

"Yes. I also have extra power packs, spare ammunition…"

"I get the holo," Mara murmured. She stretched out with the Force seeking the presence she had just found to be nearer than it should have been. Luke Skywalker was not on Yavin IV where she had left him. He was here on Elrood. "Oh… and I think we may have extra help." She sighed. He had to interfere. Him and his save the galaxy complex again.

'No, sweetheart,' his voice sounded loud and clear through their bond. For once he wasn't trying to hide its strength. 'I'm nowhere near enough to your current position to help. You are on your own. I think you should manage. Feenus and Altra strike me as the type who are prepared for any emergency. This is their territory and they know it well. The rest of the Adremetis' people are on their way. Watch who you are shooting at. Check if they are friend or foe.'

'Thanks for nothing, Skywalker,' Mara sent back. 'For once, Jedi, I could have done with your help.'

Mara could see his warm smile in her mind's eye and he'd called her 'sweetheart'. His brother-in-law used that endearment for his wife. 'For once, Jade?' he queried. 'You wound me.'

'Nerf,' Mara retorted. 'But I'm not alone, farmboy – never alone. I have the Force.' Suddenly her world brightened as, for just an instant, she could almost feel the light caress gently on her cheek.

'The right answer, Knight Jade. Be careful.'

'That's funny coming from you, bacta boy.'

'Please, Mara.' A hint of worried, loving concern revealed itself.

'Sure,' she replied. 'I'll be careful.' She felt him withdrawing from her, raising his shields. She felt the loss but knew he was only doing it so that she could concentrate on what she had to do.

Then the sound of another speeder alerted them to the fact that they were definitely no longer alone.

Mara grasped her saber in her hand and looked at Altra. "May the Force be with us."

"It will be," the older woman said, her blaster clutched tightly in her hand. "It has to be."

"The rest of my people are not far away," Feenus said reassuringly. "Beridor must have sent them."

"No." Mara shook her head. "It was Luke."

Luke frowned as he followed Beridor into the dim interior of the Merry Pirate's main room. Mara would be okay. He wasn't surprised that she'd discovered his presence on Elrood. It was inevitable with the strength of the link that had forged between them. Luckily he and Beridor had arranged to have some extra security for Feenus and Altra. Their own people would provide the safest guard. They knew the territory. He wished he was there to safeguard Mara but knew that she didn't need him. Force, he wished that she did but in another way entirely.

"How did you get on with Altra and Feenus yesterday?" Beridor asked.

"What?" Luke mumbled, his face a picture of concern.

"They'll be all right," Beridor reassured him. "Feenus has trained his people well - Imperial Academy on Raithal and all that - and he has your lady with them. She's a trained Jedi too."

"She is. Feenus and Altra were surprised to see me at first." Luke said with a faint smile. "They're not certain about the outcome of these talks at all. They think the sabacc deck has been loaded against them."

"Probably has." Beridor stared around him at the rest of the room. "Corruption in high places isn't restricted to the Core."

"I never thought it was," Luke said wryly. "In fact, it is easier to perpetrate out here. The Rebellion drew much of its strength from many of the worlds out on the Rim."

"Come on, I need to show you some things. It may be what we need to make some of the politicians listen to us." Quickly he led Luke to a side door. "Mal'orch has a place through the back that we use when we need it."

"Phew," Luke exclaimed, waving his hand in front of his face glad to be out of the smoky environment and ran a quick purification of his systems, removing the unwelcome toxins from his blood.

"There are people here who don't want to be seen," Beridor said with a knowing smile.

"I've used that way of hiding on a number of occasions myself but I must admit to not liking smoky atmospheres." He sighed. "Now show me what you have. I get the feeling that time is against us."

Beridor moved to an ancient computer and began tapping away at the keyboard and it began unwillingly spouting figures. "This is what we have on the members of the ruling party. Prime Minister Belfro was very friendly with General Raitt. They met together on a number of occasions…even socially." He touched the screen gently with a long thin finger and a list of files began to scroll down in front of them. "Then there is the…"

"Raitt!" Luke interrupted as he thought for a minute. "The ex-imperial general in charge of the slaving syndicate?"

"Yeah, that's the bastard. He died before he could be brought to justice for all the crimes he committed."

"And you think he was 'friendly' with the prime minister?"

"I do but the proof I have is circumstantial. It's not enough." He pushed a set of holos in Luke's direction. They showed the thin, cruel face of Raitt smiling and shaking hands with the prime minister at some sort of dinner.

Luke ran his experienced eyes over the data and pointed at a couple of transactions. Those look suspicious to me." He ran his feelings through his Force senses and those two sets of figures sang out as being the important ones.

"We downloaded those from the computers they didn't manage to wipe at the syndicate headquarters. As soon as we moved in they got rid of most of the evidence."

"But not all," Luke said with a smile in his voice. "Can your people source just these two figures? I know we have little time but…"

"No. Although I say that we didn't find much it would take us too long to check every single record. I think we've only managed to get through about five percent of what we actually found. This would really help us if you've struck lucky."

"There's no such thing as luck," Luke managed to say. He wanted to reach out and see how Mara was faring. In fact he wanted to do more than that. He wanted to wave his hand and wave away all her problems. But it wasn't his place to do so and she would not thank him for it despite what she'd said. She had to manage this on her own.

Beridor, picked up a comlink and spoke rapidly into it. When he was finished he turned to Luke. "One of the guys is good with information like we have here. As I said, there was just too much to wade through. We've been making slow progress."

"Check these two." He pointed again at the two sets of data, his fingers lightly grazing the screen. "My Force instincts tell me these are the ones you need."

"Right." Beridor gabbled something quickly into the com using a language Luke was not familiar with. "I've just sent those particular files through to our best slicer."

"Good. We haven't much time."

"It will be enough. I wonder how the talks went today?"

"I think they had their ups and downs," Luke said thoughtfully. "I was monitoring from afar but I can't do it too closely or the other Jedi will know that I'm here. Mara has already discovered that I'm not where she left me."

"They don't know that you're here?"

"Two of them do, the leader of the Jedi delegation and now Mara – the others…no. "Actually…" Luke's face was rueful. "Jedi Ix Io, is the only member of the Jedi delegation who doesn't know. Well, he'll find out soon enough."

"Why aren't you in charge of the talks?"

"Governments cannot expect me to deal with every problem. The galaxy is too vast an expanse. The other Jedi need experience."

"Why did you tell, Jade?"

"I didn't but she has just found out that I'm here. Mara and I are too strongly connected through the Force. She can feel my presence if I'm near. My shields weren't strong enough. It shows I Have work to do of my own."

"The tall woman with the rather fierce stare? I saw her on the holonet."

"Kirana Ti of Dathomir."

"One of the witches? I've heard of them. I thought they dressed in lizard skins and rode rancors? I would like to see one of those. I've heard about them – fearsome beasts so they say."

"Some of them do but it would be rather impractical to have a rancor here and they can be quite awe-inspiring." Luke's voice was dry.

"And Mara?" Recognition dawned across Beridor's thin face. "Your lady," he said with satisfaction. "She's very beautiful. You're a lucky man."

Luke wondered if denying Mara belonged to him was worthwhile any more. No-one seemed to believe him. "Yes, I am," he whispered. He knew that everyone had got it wrong. He couldn't own a beautiful thing like Mara Jade. With one glance from her fascinating green eyes, Mara had captured him. He belonged to her, body and soul, and always would.

Mara felt the immediate danger and with the snap-hiss familiar to all Jedi ignited her saber, the blue blade fizzing into life. For a moment Feenus and Altra just stared until a shot whistled too close to them. "Wake up," Mara screamed, her saber blocking and parrying the fire.

"Stang!" Feenus swore as he stepped on the accelerator pedal and the speeder flew around a corner into what Mara hoped wasn't a dead end. It looked like one.

"We're trapped in here!" Mara exclaimed.

"No," Altra answered standing up, a holo-imager in her hands. "We're not."

Mara froze. The woman was actually taking holos at a time like this? "What are you doing?" she screeched. "Get down for sith's sake. We have to get out of here."

"And we will, said Altra, throwing the holo-imager onto the floor of the vehicle and picking up her blaster again. "We have rooms in the building behind us and there is a narrow lane over there. We have an escape route."

"All we need is a little more time," Feenus muttered, killing the engine. "Altra, a detonator…" he said and grabbed a thermal detonator from his wife. "Thanks." He lobbed the sphere towards their attackers. There was a bright burst of fire as the detonator exploded.

Mara blinked as she slipped her wrist blaster from its usual hiding place and blasted off a couple of shots before replacing it and taking up her saber again. The Jedi had won over the assassin but she would never give up her favourite blaster. Luke would never expect her to. With an air of satisfaction, Mara jerked up her saber to meet a volley of blaster fire as if it was directed where she willed it in slow motion. She sank deeper into the Force and could almost predict where her weapon needed to be.

Feenus flicked open his com and began shouting into it. "Where are you?"

A burst of static could be heard and then a voice yelling something in return.

"Where are they?" Altra asked crouching behind the speeder as she fired off a volley of rapid fire.

"Down!" ordered Mara, her saber snapping up in front of where Altra had been sending the shot spinning harmlessly into the permacrete surface of the road.

"Next street," her husband answered. "Some of them are going to circle around and come up behind the prime minister's little friends." He chuckled darkly. "The others will cover our get away. Right, when I give the signal, Altra go. The lane is clear. After that, Jedi Jade…"

"No." Mara contradicted him. "Then you go. I can look after myself." She stretched out through the Force. "I promised myself that I would never be taken against my will again. These Forces were not expecting you to be accompanied by one of the Jedi. There is much confusion and consternation in their ranks. Have you by any chance got a smoke bomb?"

Feenus nodded. "Yes, Ma'am." He passed Mara a round object rather like one of the thermal detonators and watched as she accurately lobbed it straight into the centre of their foes rendering them almost blind. He raised his own blaster and aimed a few more shots into the confusion ahead. "Altra…"

His wife nodded and slipped into the narrow lane and disappeared. A few moments later, Feenus did the same. Mara grabbed the remaining bag of ammunition - no sense leaving it for the wrong person to find - and followed the other two into the gap between the buildings.

Thankfully the lane was short and twisting providing immediate cover from any remaining fire and at the other end she was greeted by the sight of Feenus and Altra surrounded by a phalanx of men and women in grey uniforms exactly like the ones they were wearing. It paid to know your territory and these people did.

"Did you get anything?" a dark haired man asked urgently.

"I think so." Altra held up her holo-imager. "Sometimes I wonder about the intelligence of the ruling party, Miko. They were wearing official uniforms."

"And you have a clear image," the man persisted.

Altra shrugged. "I cannot say yet how clear."

"This is Jedi Mara Jade," Feenus said. "She's here on behalf of the New Republic to oversee the talks."

"Jedi Jade," one of the others acknowledged. "We must thank you for your help."

"Sure," Mara said, embarrassed at being thanked for doing so little. "But I'm here on behalf of the Jedi. We are a separate body from the New Republic. We are acting as independent arbiters." She gave a quick scan of the surroundings. "Should we not go inside?"

'Mara…are you all right?'

'I'm fine, farmboy. Your charges are safe.'

'What about you?'

'Stop worrying, Luke. I'm fine…we're all fine. I'll see you tomorrow.'

'We're meeting at the Merry Pirate…'

'I'd better stay with Feenus and Altra…just in case.'

She felt his disappointment. 'I thought…'

'Goodnight, Luke,' Mara sent back and then stared up at the darkening sky. Luke had sounded hopeful. Did he want to see her tonight? She would think about it. First, she had to make sure Altra and Feenus were safe. "I really do suggest that we get inside. They may return with friends."

Miko nodded. "Knight Jade is right, boss. They may be foolish enough to come back for more."

Altra dismissed her comrades with a brief nod. "This way, Mara." She led the way through some narrow streets, doubling back in case they were still being followed but Mara couldn't sense anything. They were safe.

"We live here," Altra said, pointing to a well kept building. "Top floor." She turned to look at Feenus. "Do you think that they know where we…"

Mara stretched out once more but could sense nothing. "Its fine," she reassured the older woman. "I cannot sense any other surprises waiting for you. I suspect that this is a last ditch attempt to derail your involvement in this part of the treaty talks."

"Come on," Feenus urged. "I want to get inside. We must check the holo-imager. It was a good idea, Altra, if a little dangerous."

Altra's grey-green eyes warmed and she chuckled lightly. "We need all the proof we can get."

"I agree," Mara said

Mara smiled and followed the couple as they led their way into a quiet hall and entered the turbolift to the topmost floor and the comfortable apartment they inhabited. "Make yourself at home," Feenus said brusquely. "I must check in with Beridor."

"He knows we're safe," Mara said. "I spoke to Luke."

"How…?"

"We can communicate through the Force."

"Of course, I should have known."

"Beridor is with Luke?" Altra nodded. "It makes sense."

There was no time for pleasantries but Mara did manage to take in the impression of a warm and attractive home. There was something about it that reminded her of the quarters she shared on Yavin IV with Luke. She could feel the love around her; she thought with a bittersweet smile and envied its openness.

"Go to the study with Feenus," Altra urged, removing her uniform jacket and throwing it carelessly on the sofa. "I'll go and make us something to eat. It won't be anything fancy."

"That's okay," Mara murmured. "'Anything' will be fine. Luke says I exist on ration bars. He's always trying to get me to eat something that's not been reconstituted with the texture of cardboard."

"Ah, the joy of ration bars," Feenus said, his smile sardonic as he took the holo-imager from his wife's hands. "The Empire never did manage to get those to taste appetising."

"Neither did the New Republic," Mara said, her face twisting into a scowl of distaste. "I don't mind them really but…"

"It's not real food, is it? Altra is a good cook when she has the time and she enjoys it." Feenus looked at the holo-imager and winced at the damage to the case. "I only hope we have something we can use in here but I'm doubtful." However his mood changed when he saw the flashing light on his communications console. "That's Beridor's signal."

Feenus slid into his chair and began swiftly flicking switches. The monitor switched on revealing a thin faced man, his features almost skeletal, dominated by a pair of large, dark eyes. "Beridor? What news?"

"We have them, my friend. We have them." His smile split his bony face, altering his normally severe appearance completely.

Kirana Ti stalked around the suite which had been reserved for the Jedi. She'd read the transcripts of the previous two days. "The prime minister wants to ally with the New Republic but is not prepared to compromise on certain issues."

Ix Io was pragmatic. "He must have been involved with the slaving syndicate. Oh, perhaps not obviously but a handout here and there. A few little luxuries in return for that blind eye. It is often the way bureaucracy works."

"Can we prove it?"

"I don't know. This will not be resolved today, next week or even next year."

"For a being raised on a planet that shuns the outside world, how can you be so sure?"

"We have politicians and civil servant personnel on Nazzar also. They are inward looking even more than these people are. They are also xenophobic. The beings from worlds in the Kathol Rift are egalitarian in that they don't mind what species they enslave but it is less likely to be humans. Mara was lucky to survive."

"Yes, I agree."

"We need to talk to Lady Winter," Ix Io decided, "…and hopefully Mara has talked to the beings forming the anti-slaving group."

"Good idea. I would like to see what Lady Winter's opinion is." Kirana Ti reached for her cloak and as she did so, her comlink chirruped softly. "Yes?"

"Who is it?" asked the Nazzar.

"It is Mara." The Dathomirian's voice caught in her throat as she exclaimed, "They did what!"

"Trouble?" Ix Io asked tersely.

"Some. Mara, can you send…? You can. Okay. And you are staying with Captain Adremetis for the time being? Good." Kirana flicked off her comlink. "Mara has information that we need to deliver to Lady Winter and the rest of the New Republic delegation. She's sending it to us now."

"Mara's alright?"

"Government forces attacked Captain Adremetis and his wife!" Kirana Ti declared. "I suspected interference but I did not really think that…"

"You were wise to send Mara with them," Ix Io declared. "Do they have proof? We cannot just accuse…"

"They have pictures of their attackers who were so confident of their success that they tried to ambush them in daylight."

The Nazzar sighed. "I hate to put a damper on things but anyone can don a uniform. As I said, we need names as well as images."

"Are you sure you didn't study law in a former life?" Kirana Ti said, amazed. The tall alien was proving to be constantly full of surprises.

"Well…I have studied many subjects on Nazzar. I did earn a business degree and part of that had some galactic law included."

"I sometimes wonder if the Old Republic had it wrong when they took their recruits from the cradle. Life experience can be a useful thing – a business degree!" she muttered. The Jedi woman moved to her communications console and slipped a disc into one of the slots.

"Is that Mara's information?"

"Yes – that's it." Kirana Ti slipped the disc into a pocket on her tunic. "Come on – we're going out."

"We will be being watched."

"Of course we'll be watched. That's why I sent word to Lady Winter to meet us elsewhere."

"Call our…minders and ask if they can take us sightseeing. I fancy a stroll around part of the Elrood Bazaar."

"Of course," Ix Io's long face showed his amusement. "I believe it is rightly famous throughout the entire galaxy…and very large."

"Easy to lose oneself in?"

"Definitely."

Winter Celchu knew enough about galactic politics to span several lifetimes and she knew not to relax just yet. None of the proceedings that had taken place in the debating chamber at government House had surprised her. Worlds this far out on the rim were too used to dealing with matters in their own way. The Empire had considered them too far away from the Core to be useful other than as a prison world or a source of cheap, slave labour or resources.

It was telling that such worlds had bred many of the Rebellion's finest.

The click on her comlink was enough to alert her that Kirana Ti wanted a meeting away from the holo-cameras and hidden listening devices installed in her suite. Winter had located them within minutes of her being installed in this room. It was almost expected that she would be monitored. Thankfully the New Republic, once rebel, techs had several ways of disrupting such annoyances.

Winter gathered her clothes together and retreated to the 'fresher. It was the only place without any surveillance equipment. She gave a wry smile. At least the ruling government on Elrood allowed her some privacy. She pulled off her flowing gown and dressed quickly in a simple tunic and pants of dark blue. Pulling her white hair away from her face, she braided it tightly and secured it with a band.

Moving back into the bedroom, Winter placed a necklace around her neck and made it seem that she was preparing for bed, going as far as pulling down the bedclothes. With deft hands she fiddled with the teardrop shaped pendant and all the monitors went blank just for a moment. When the pictures resumed it appeared to any observers that Lady Winter Celchu was fast asleep.

Winter left the room and avoided the turbolift to slip down the back stairs and out into the warm evening air. For people who had spent years on the run, Winter and her staff found it relatively easy to leave the hotel undetected.

"Ma'am?"

Winter smiled at her two most trusted security guards. "No problems, Cruden. Evening, Flalik. I left a 'me' shape in the bed. Most convincing I assure you. There's no need to be anxious."

"Anxious, Ladyship?" the Talz murmured. It was difficult to tell if he was amused or not. "We have left Sertes and Johnson to act as decoy guard. They have taken their usual positions outside your suite."

"Where are we headed?" asked Cruden - a burly, stoic human who was prepared to put up with whatever foibles his mistress had. Over the years he had learned to trust her instincts.

"We're heading back to the spaceport. A rundown cantina, I believe, is our destination."

"Why can't we meet in some nice café?" Cruden asked. "In daylight."

"Because that's where I might be expected to go. A lady like me wouldn't dream of going to these low-down places."

"I must remember to tell Colonel Celchu that one," retorted the Talz, placing Winter's cloak around her shoulders.

"It's probably no worse than the one he'll be sitting in right this minute with the rest of his cronies. And I'll be sober."

"I suppose that could be true."

"Trust me. I know my husband and it is none of his business what I do with my spare time."

"I think the Colonel might disagree with you on that one."

"He can disagree all he likes. It won't make any difference."

The Merry Pirate

With a sigh Mal'orch scratched the persistent itch that had been bothering him all evening. First Beridor had arrived with the blue-eyed man he'd met with a couple of days previously claiming that this was a Jedi knight. He could be - but the bartender wasn't totally convinced. He seemed rather ordinary and low key to be such a being. The silver cylinder hanging from his waist could be a lightsaber but it could be anything. Unless he saw it in action he had no real proof. Now another two strangers had arrived, both discreetly wearing similar objects shaped like lightsabers.

Beridor had peered over the bar, his black eyes sparkling, and then nodded vigorously. So Mal'orch had discreetly signalled to the two and had led them to join Beridor and the Jedi Knight in the back room.

"We're waiting for a lady. She has two bodyguards with her."

"A lady?" he queried. "Here?"

"This is a good place to meet. No one suspects here. This is the last place a lady would go to."

"Whatever."

Sure enough, a matter of minutes later, the woman had arrived with her two minders.

Beridor eased through the crowd of spacers all enjoying a little down time before their next job. "My lady?" he said. "We're through the back. It's better there. Would you like a drink?"

"I'll have a glass of lum," she said to the barman.

Mal'orch's eyes bulged in surprise. "Lum, my lady?"

"I like it. I got used to it a long time ago. This kind of place almost seems like home," Winter said with a wistful gleam in her smoky grey eyes. "It's hard to explain but I like lum and the cloudier the better. The places I go these days don't always serve it."

So the bemused bartender had delivered a large pitcher of cloudy lum to the strange assortment of people in the back room and left them to whatever concerns they were discussing.

The first surprise was for Ix Io when Luke was found to be amongst them. "Master Skywalker!" he exclaimed."Did you know about this?" he asked Kirana Ti.

"Yes," she said. "Master Skywalker told me about it before we left."

"Just in case," Luke murmured. "But you're handling this fine so far – both of you." He looked at Kirana Ti as he said this and she smiled. "Over to you, Kirana."

Kirana Ti took control of the meeting. "Welcome. This is not how we would have preferred to meet but at least we can air our suspicions and reveal any findings."

"Our rooms are being watched both inside and out," Ix Io said. "I know I half expected this but it was still a surprise. Kirana Ti decided that I should return to our ship after the meeting instead of going to the hotel. I have been monitoring various transports entering and leaving the system. Several of them contained slaves although one of the spaceport security guards tells me that such traffic has slowed down over the last few months."

"There was no attempt to stop it?" asked Kirana Ti. "Of course, there wouldn't be. It's not illegal in this sector."

Beridor's thin face lit up. "Numbers are down? Yes! Since the headquarters of the syndicate were destroyed, slaving in this system has been hit badly. They have set up their bases elsewhere now – it is to be expected. I want to make it so difficult for them that they cannot do it anywhere in this entire sector."

"I agree," Winter said firmly.

Kirana Ti sipped at her glass. "I received word from Mara not long ago. I sent her with Captain Adremetis and his wife. First of all, they helped her when she was here on Elrood once before and she wanted to talk to them about it and second, and more important, we felt that their lives were endangered after the scene this afternoon. They were ambushed near their home but managed to rout their attackers with Mara's help. No one was hurt."

"They are seen as a real threat to the existence of a way of life that has gone on for many years," Ix Io said thoughtfully. "Corruption can be found in the highest of offices."

"I wish that were not so," Winter said. "But it happens. Do we have proof?"

While the discussions had been taking place, Luke had been standing next to a fairly modern looking com centre. "Information coming through," he said.

Beridor jumped up and began scanning through the files being shown on the vid-screen. "We have them!" he declared. "The files all correspond to times and places and the names are not insignificant."

"Good," Luke said, a smile breaking across his face as he studied the data. "This looks like exactly what we need."

"There's more," the tall humanoid said with satisfaction. "Altra took holo-images of their assailants…" He stared at the others. "It must have been during the fight. She's a cool headed lady – too much so for her own good sometimes. We have managed to corroborate their identities with beings employed by the ruling party."

"Even better," said Ix Io.

"I have spoken to the leader of the opposing party, Count Moso Doffrio," Kirana Ti volunteered. "He has been briefed about the situation and if Lady Winter is willing, we are to meet with him tomorrow morning."

"Good," Winter said briskly. "He will arrange to deal with Prime Minister Belfro?"

"You mean ex-prime minister," said Kirana Ti, with a glance at Luke who nodded.

"Yes, it's a good idea," he said mildly.

"Ix Io has declared himself happy to work with Count Doffrio."

"I am happy to work with whoever is the best for Elrood but I am going to see the Count very shortly." The Nazzar checked his wrist chrono. "He is sending a vehicle to collect me in an hour. We will meet with Lady Winter and Kirana Ti tomorrow morning. Count Doffrio and I are to have a discussion with the chief of the planetary security. If Belfro is to be removed from office, it has to be done within a legal framework."

"Good, everything's settled then," declared Winter.

Luke shifted restlessly and then a smile crossed his face. "Mara!"

The door slid open and Mara walked in. "I thought I was missing the party."

"There is no party," Ix Io declared.

Mara glanced at Luke and stifled a grin. "It's just a figure of speech." Honestly, the Nazzar was going to have to unbend a little if he was to make his way in the real universe.

"Ah, I see." His long equine face brightened. "What about Captain Adremetis and his wife? They are unhurt?"

Mara grinned. She'd left the couple in a flurry of preparations. Feenus now felt they had a real chance. "Preparing their deputation for tomorrow. They didn't need me for that. Some of your people arrived to aid them so they also have protection."

Luke pulled out a chair for Mara beside him and pushed an empty glass in her direction. "Here." He grabbed the large jug and poured it splashily into her glass. "Have a glass of lum. I think you've earned it."

"Thanks," she replied sardonically as she slid into the chair. "If this had been a job for Karrde I would get paid, too." She licked one of the droplets off her finger and watched fascinated as Luke's eyes darkened.

"I can't quite promise that, Jade, but…"

Making a decision he knew was the right one. It was time. Luke stood up and raised his glass. Kirana Ti grinned and joined him. She had already guessed his intent.

"I would like to confer the rank of Jedi Knight on Mara Jade and Ix Io. May the Force be with them. May they continue to grow and learn."

The two new knights were speechless.