I wanted to make a few slight changes, so I uploaded a new chapter. Thanks again to anyone who was reading this story!

Chapter 20

In the end, they let her go. Viraess knew that Skywalker and Solo would be completely within their rights to take her into custody and bring her back to Coruscant as a prisoner of war. But after that searing moment when the Jedi looked into her eyes and read the horror and despair within her soul -- and when she had stared into the face of her enemy and seen nothing but pity and compassion -- Skywalker had somehow known that she posed no future threat.

The group of commandos who accompanied the two New Republic leaders had respectfully gathered up Markus' body and brought him back to the Morning Star. From somewhere within the prison complex Lando Calrissian produced a stasis-field generator, and it now hummed gently in the cabin where Markus lay, preserving him for the trip to Lanarsk Prime. Viraess had sworn to herself she would return him to his mother so that he might lie in the family mausoleum. And after that --

The thought of her homeworld filled her with a fierce, aching longing. How she wished she could stay there, return to the home where she had grown up, bury herself away from the ongoing struggles of the galaxy. But she knew that once she had fulfilled her promise to take Markus home she would have to face Grand Moff Kezler. Certainly she would have no real peace until she relinquished her position on the High Command. Even then she had no idea whether Kezler would accept her resignation. Perhaps it would amuse him to see her as a private citizen once more. Or perhaps he would simply have her executed for failing him. At this point Viraess didn't much care which was to be her fate.

Sarka had already departed Kessel, although Viraess had made sure the bounty hunter received the compensation she had earned. Of course Viraess could not access the Imperial coffers from the computers on the prison colony -- but she could pull the money from her own accounts. Somewhere over the past few years, between the trust from her grandmother and her generous salary from the Navy, Viraess had become quite wealthy. The thought of the healthy balances in her various accounts brought her no real pleasure, but at least she had the means to ensure that she could pay Sarka what Viraess felt was owed her. Perhaps if Sarka had kept her mouth shut things would have turned out differently, but recriminations at this point would be useless.

Now Viraess stepped aboard her ship once more, making sure it was ready for the trip to Lanarsk Prime. One team of commandos had already returned to the Nebulon-B frigate in orbit, along with the prisoners they had rescued from the mining facility. Calrissian had spoken as if he planned to stay on Kessel for a while; Viraess had overheard his request for additional New Republic forces to establish a temporary garrison on the planet until he could be certain it was secure. She supposed that was wise. The glitterstim spice and the profits it could generate were too tempting a target to be left in the hands of a few miners. It was a resource the New Republic should cultivate.

She paused in the corridor outside the small cabin where Markus lay and stood there for a long moment, looking in at his still form on the narrow bed. Almost she could pretend that he just slept; the stasis generator would keep him frozen as he was, and his profile in the dim light was as clean and handsome as ever. But his chest beneath the dark blanket did not rise and fall, and she knew if she went to him and touched his shoulder there would be no response.

The tears rose again, but this time Viraess blinked them away angrily. Bad enough that she should have dissolved like that in front of the Jedi Knight. Once the sobs had arisen in her there had been no stopping them for a good while, and by the time she had recovered even a shaky composure she had wondered whether she wept not just for Markus but for the innocence she had lost on Carida; for her brother, dead in the skies over Endor so many years ago; for every friend and compatriot she had lost during the years of this long, bitter war. She wept now for all the times before when she could not.

"Almost ready?" a quiet voice asked behind her, and she turned to see Luke Skywalker looking on her with sad eyes.

"Yes," she said briefly. Her voice sounded thick even to her. Clearing her throat, Viraess went on, "Thank you."

For a second the Jedi looked almost surprised. Then he replied, "I'm glad you have a home to go to." His gaze flickered to Markus' still form. "And a safe resting place for Dr. Klem."

Home, she thought, and wondered what that truly was. How many years had passed since she had called the gracious house in Ariston her home? And what would her reception there be? Her father would try to understand, but her mother had always overflowed with ambitions for her daughter. That Viraess would choose to leave the High Command voluntarily would be a crushing disgrace to the woman who had been active in COMPNOR since the time she was an adolescent. Then she sighed and shook her head. Your parents are the least of your worries, she thought.

Aloud, Viraess said only, "I look forward to returning to Lanarsk Prime."

And the Jedi, perhaps reading her chaotic thoughts, gave one last glance at Markus before shifting his calm blue gaze to her. "May your journey be a safe one," he said, then turned and left.

She could hear the light click of his boots against the metal gangplank, and knew she was alone on the ship once more. "Good-bye," Viraess said softly, although if someone had asked her at that moment whether she was addressing Luke Skywalker or the still form of Markus Klem, she would have been hard-pressed to know for certain.

He and Solo and the remainder of the commandos would be gone soon enough. They only lingered to see that she got away safely, and even as she moved forward to the cockpit she could hear the sounds of activity within the hangar as the last of the troops got into their transport. Lando's pretty little yacht, the Lady Luck, was tucked away into one corner of the hangar as well, since he would be remaining here for a time.

But Viraess had nothing to hold her on Kessel, and she activated the controls to retract the gangplank, then powered up the repulsors. The Morning Star had apparently suffered no harm during the time she was in the hands of Matteson's men, and Viraess was glad of that, if nothing else. The little ship had served her well, and she had come to love it the way she loved every starship she had called her own, from her TIE trainer at the Academy to the sleek and deadly Super Star Destroyer Overlord. Ships could be almost living beings at times, and like almost any other creature, they needed love and respect to flourish.

Viraess guided her ship out of the hangar and up, away from the rusty, mottled landscape of Kessel. Off to starboard she could see the NRI troop transport lift from the surface in parallel with the Morning Star, and it flashed its landing lights at her once, as if in farewell. Then they curved away from another as they sought the freedom of space.

On the outer edges of the Kessel system's gravity well Viraess paused. Her coordinates were already plotted in, and everything had been prepared for the jump to lightspeed, but she hesitated, her hand hovering over the controls. She had left so much behind in this system -- the future she had thought she wanted, and the past she had too long denied. Perhaps it was only fitting to stop for a few moments to pay her last respects.

The NRI transports, followed by the Nebulon-B frigate, jumped into hyperspace, the shock of their disappearance sending flickering distortion waves across the starfield. Viraess lifted one hand in a gesture of farewell. How odd, she thought, to have found such respect and regard from those who should have been her mortal enemies. She knew that, if the roles had been somehow reversed, there were few in the Empire who would have done the same for Solo and Skywalker.

It was time. She still would have almost twenty standard hours to plot strategies and plan during her trip back to Lanarsk Prime, and it would do her no further good to linger here.

Viraess leaned forward to toggle the switch that would send the Morning Star into hyperspace, and a flicker at the very corner of the forward viewscreen caught her eye. Sitting upright, she turned, and saw three Victory-Class Star Destroyers sail majestically into realspace.

No one dared to ask any real questions. She'd hailed the lead ship, the Vindicator, and transmitted her private codes directly to its captain, who had responded immediately and with the utmost deference. And once she'd come on board the Star Destroyer, the Morning Star looking distinctly out of place among a phalanx of TIE fighters and Lambda-class shuttles in the aft hangar bay, she'd only had to say, "Business of the Grand Moff," before she was ushered to a spacious cabin on the forward deck. The traces of personal belongings there that hadn't been hidden away indicated she had been given Captain Meere's own quarters.

Once she safely esconced in the cabin, and the door had shut behind her, Viraess dropped down on the padded chair in front of the computer console. Her legs suddenly felt as if they could not support her weight any longer. So close, she thought, so close...and now what?

It turned out the three ships were here on Kezler's direct order. Somehow he'd made the connection to Kessel, and sent a sufficient force to recover her. Whether he knew or had even guessed at her betrayal Viraess had no idea. Certainly she had been treated with all courtesy, and she'd managed to convince Captain Meere that Kessel was deserted and not worth investigating. She could only hope that Lando and the people who had remained with him had detected the Star Destroyers' presence and would have the sense to lie low until the three ships once again exited the system.

Now they were traveling at top speeds back to the Veil Nebula, back to the Overlord, and Viraess knew she could do nothing to extricate herself. Of course she had known that at some point she would have to confront Kezler, but she hadn't expected such a meeting to come so quickly. She'd thought she would have time to regroup, time to bury the dead. But again the capriciousness of fate or whatever other force ruled the galaxy had decreed otherwise. She could only go along and pray that she survived the ride.

At least Markus was as safe as she could make him; Viraess had informed Captain Meere that Markus had been a loyal citizen of Lanarsk Prime, caught by a traitor's blaster, and that she had intended to take him home for a proper burial. Even as she'd uttered the lies she'd gotten the impression that somewhere, somehow, her dead friend was laughing at her, at her continued need for duplicity.

A holo portrait on the desktop in front of her caught her attention, and Viraess lifted it for closer inspection. It showed Captain Meere, a fair-haired woman who must have been his wife, and a grinning, gap-toothed girl of about six or seven standard years. They seemed a happy, ordinary-looking little family, and suddenly Viraess envied them. Oh, no doubt his wife struggled with the long periods of separation while her husband was away on his various missions, and perhaps Captain Meere sometimes fretted over missed recitals and milestones he wasn't around to witness, but she would have given anything to have their commonplace troubles.

But that way led only to self-pity, and Viraess shook her head at herself. You're still alive, she thought. Alive, when so many others were not. The one she couldn't mourn was Commodore Matteson. Unlike many others she had known in the Imperial armed forces, Viraess considered the taking of a life to be an act of last resort. But if there was anyone who had needed killing, it was Matteson. At least she had put one thing right in the universe by removing him from it.

For now, she had to prepare herself. At least she had this comfortable cabin and its 'fresher at her disposal. Unfortunately, she had no uniforms with her -- she couldn't have risked Markus discovering them, after all -- and Viraess doubted anyone on board had anything that would fit her. No, she would have to face Kezler in civilian clothing, but perhaps that was only proper. After that interview, she doubted she would ever wear a uniform again.

Everything on board the Overlord seemed as she had left it. Somehow the ship looked sterile and alien to her, but Viraess knew that was only because of what she had suffered through over the past few days. Once her only dream had been to serve the Empire, and now?

Lieutenant Venn, her adjutant, met her in the forward hangar where she had docked the Morning Star. Beneath his neutral expression she thought she detected a trace of unease, but his voice was pleasant enough as he greeted her. "Welcome back, Admiral," he said, and for a second his gaze flickered as he took in her civilian attire, the slim black pants and light spider-silk shirt.

"Grand Moff Kezler is expecting me?" she asked, ignoring the questions in his eyes. Not even Venn had known the object of her mission, but he had been told that she would not be traveling in an official capacity, so her clothing shouldn't have been that surprising.

"Yes, ma'am." Instantly Venn was all business again. "He instructed me to see that you went to him immediately."

As she had known he would. Well, at least she'd had time to clean herself up a bit, and although she felt hollow and tired, she knew that on the surface she looked relatively unchanged.

Viraess allowed her adjutant to lead her to the forward deck where the Imperial suite was located, even though she probably could have made her way there blindfolded if necessary. Most of the personnel she passed in the corridors knew her well enough by sight that they still saluted as she passed, despite her lack of uniform. Once she even felt a slight smile pull at her mouth as a very junior lieutenant -- probably freshly commissioned during her absence -- began to breeze past her, only to be elbowed in the ribs and have something whispered in his ear by his companion, who wore a commander's rank bar. The poor lieutenant looked as if he'd been Force-piked, and then he had blushed red and somehow managed a sloppy salute.

"Carry on, lieutenant," Viraess said, without missing a beat, but somehow the little encounter put her in a slightly better humor. She wondered, with a touch of rueful amusement, if the shock had just taken a few years off that boy's life.

But then they reached the antechamber that fronted Kezler's suite, and Venn paused beside her.

"Thank you, Venn." Viraess stared at the double doors, at the two red-robed Imperial guards who stood there in impassive silence. Irrelevantly, she realized she had never asked her adjutant what his first name was. And perhaps now she would never know.

Taking a breath, she turned from the lieutenant and moved toward the doors. Still silent, one of the guards activated the switch to open them, and they retracted with a soft hiss of repulsors. Then she went inside.

Viraess had thought that Kezler would be waiting in the conference room where he usually met with her, but she was mistaken. Almost immediately he stepped away from the large transparisteel viewscreen that took up most of the far wall and moved toward her. "Admiral," he said.

"Grand Moff Kezler," she replied, with a sense of inward relief that at least her voice sounded steady and firm.

"Sit with me," he instructed, and indicated a group of heavily upholstered divans clustered around a table of polished zebba-wood. A very old, graceful-looking caf decanter of gleaming silver sat on the burnished surface, flanked by a pair of equally antique cups.

Uneasy, she took the seat he had requested. The divan felt overly soft beneath her, and she perched at its edge, wondering at his seeing her here, in the hospitality section of the suite, and not in the conference room. The very informality of the setup only increased her disquiet. Surely this was not the sort of place for a debriefing.

Kezler took his own place on the divan to her right. She could not recall ever being this close to him before, and she looked over at him, feeling her disquiet increase as the cold blue eyes held her own for a moment. Something in their depths made the breath catch in her throat.

But he said only, "Caf?" and leaned over the table, pouring the steaming liquid into a cup so elegant and fragile Viraess thought she could see the light glowing through its translucent sides.

"Thank you," she replied, and took the cup from him. Curling her cold fingers around the warm porcelain, she breathed in the aromatic steam, trying to let the familiar scent bring some measure of calm to her mind.

Kezler did the same for himself, then settled down once more on the divan he occupied -- although Viraess noted he remained as upright as she, his back never touching the furniture. The cup of caf sat neglected in his hand, however, as he looked over at her.

"So," he said, and paused. His head tilted slightly to one side, and the glowing sconce on the wall behind him cast an odd ruddy glow over his fair hair.

Viraess suddenly realized that the lighting in here was much dimmer than she had recalled; instead of the glare of the white overhead panels, the suite was illuminated only by the wall sconces and a few torch-shaped lamps at the far end of the main room. The darkness of her surroundings seemed to lend an air of secrecy to their discussion, and she waited, dreading what she knew must come next.

"No Markus Klem, and no Corona Project," Kezler went on. "You realize this does need some sort of explanation."

"Of course, sir," she said. Deliberately she took a sip from her cup, feeling the hot liquid course down her throat and spread a welcome warmth into her knotted insides. Its comfort gave her courage. "I won't deny it, Grand Moff Kezler. I had Markus Klem in my hands, but we encountered an unexpected adversary on Kessel."

"Matteson," he said, and she started, then realized that of course he would have read her preliminary report.

"Yes, sir. His operatives forced my ship from hyperspace and brought us to the prison colony on Kessel. It was while we were imprisoned there that Klem was unfortunately killed and the data destroyed." How cool she sounded, how calm and unaffected, as if the events she had just described had not changed her forever. But she knew that her very life depended on Kezler believing her plausible lies, and she was a novice when compared to a COMPNOR professional who had been schooled in deception the way she had been trained in four-dimensional fleet deployments.

"And how could such a thing occur?" Kezler's voice was silky, calm -- and Viraess knew that meant nothing at all.

But she also knew that she could lay all sorts of perfidy at Matteson's feet -- the gods only knew the man was guilty enough of various other crimes. A few more certainly wouldn't change anything. "Matteson somehow discovered what Markus was carrying, sir. He tried to seize the data, but Markus was able to destroy the microdisks on which it was stored. In retaliation, Matteson shot him." Lies, nothing but lies, but there was enough truth woven into her story that she hoped it would be strong enough to pass Kezler's inspection.

"And how is it you were unable to discover the microdisks prior to your capture by Matteson?"

Again, no accusation in the smooth, cultured voice, no change of expression, but Viraess knew better than to take any comfort from Kezler's apparent mildness. She would not bother to make excuses here; after all, she was a naval officer, not an Intelligence agent, and Markus' subterfuge had been too clever for her. Better to admit to her failure and get it over with. "Sir, he concealed the microdisks inside some New Republic currency he was carrying. Of course I had seen the coins when I went through his belongings, but at the time they did not seem particularly noteworthy, either by weight or appearance. Many people traveling in the Outer Rim carry hard currency instead of relying on credit vouchers."

"True." Kezler steepled his fingers under his chin and watched her for moment. "And when the data was finally revealed, you did nothing to attempt to recover it?"

Without blinking, Viraess met his stare. "Matteson had me bound at the time, sir. There was nothing I could do to stop Klem from destroying the data, or the Commodore for murdering him over it." If you believe it hard enough, it can be true, she thought fiercely, repeating the mantra over in her mind. This is the only truth. This is what really happened...

After a few seconds Kezler nodded slightly. Viraess could almost feel the instant he withdrew his laser-hard stare from her; the sensation reminded her of being on board a ship caught in a tractor beam and having the beam suddenly switched off. "And what happened to Matteson?"

I shot him, she thought, then took a breath and said, "The base had been controlled by a New Republic affiliate named Lando Calrissian before Matteson seized it. Calrissian returned with NRI operatives and retook the base. At that point Matteson was killed, and I was freed."

"I would have thought they would keep you for questioning."

Viraess lifted her head and gave Kezler as guileless a look as she could manage. "Sir, the cover you provided worked admirably. They had no reason to believe I was anyone but a charter pilot, caught there by the Interdictor Matteson had stolen."

"Yes, the missing ships. And Kessel is where they all ended up?"

"As far as I've been able to determine, sir. Unfortunately, they appear to have all been destroyed by the New Republic forces that came in to retake the system."

At that Kezler frowned slightly. "A tremendous loss," he said.

"Yes, sir." On that point at least they could both agree. Just because she didn't particularly want to lead the Imperial Navy any longer didn't mean she desired it to be weakened in any way.

The Grand Moff sat in silence for a moment, then lifted his own cup of caf to his lips and drank. He appeared to be thinking over everything she had just related; Viraess could only hope the story was plausible enough that he wouldn't question her further. "It must have been difficult for you," he said at last.

"Sir?" Why would Kezler care whether or not the situation had upset her personally?

"You have known Markus Klem since you were a child, have you not? My sources tell me you were close at one time. I would think that seeing him die would be...troubling."

To cover her confusion, Viraess drank from her own caf. It was cooling rapidly, and she could not take the same comfort from it now that she had a few minutes earlier. But she looked at Kezler with as direct a gaze as she could manage, and replied, "Sir, I was on a mission for the Empire. My only regret is that I was unable to secure the data you requested or, failing that, at least bring Markus to Imperial space where he could be questioned directly." Was that really her own voice, so cold, so impersonal? Was she really discussing the betrayal of the man she had vowed to save with such apparent unconcern?

But Kezler seemed to believe her; even as she watched him she noted a subtle softening along the jaw line, and he appeared to look on her with something almost approaching warmth. And why not? In his eyes, she had done everything she could. He had no way of knowing the doubt which had seized her, the sea-change that had caused her to realize that she still loved Markus -- and hated what the Empire had forced her to do.

His slight approval made it even more difficult for Viraess to utter the words she knew she had to say. But she realized she had to divorce herself from the Navy now, or she would never again have the courage to do so. She went on, "Sir, I have failed you. You have neither the Corona Project data nor Markus Klem. I know how important this mission was to the future of the Empire. And so I must respectfully request to resign my commission."

She didn't know what she had expected. Surprise? A swift denial of her request? But she received neither. Instead, Kezler watched her carefully, and a slow smile touched his mouth. "Tell me, Shelarne," he said, "have you been briefed as to the current status of the High Command?"

The use of her first name was not lost on her. Warily, she replied, "Has the status changed, sir?" Viraess thought she had detected an undercurrent of unease while she was on board the Vindicator, but she had merely attributed the feeling to the possibility that the ship's crew was uncomfortable with having such a high-ranking officer aboard.

"During your absence, Moff Naren attempted to orchestrate a coup." The Grand Moff drank from his cup once more, then set it down on the table. "He was found out, and dealt with. Grand Generals Linzer and Nivri were foolish enough to follow along with Naren, and they too have been relieved of their commands -- and their lives."

The shock threatened to overwhelm her for a moment, but Viraess willed herself to calm. Not that she didn't believe Naren was capable of such a thing -- she'd known too well how the head of Intelligence had despised Kezler. But she had expected more of Nivri and Linzer, both men whom she had respected. What had they possibly hoped to accomplish? But with them gone, she realized, the Grand Moff truly had the Empire completely within his grasp. No doubt he had already appointed his own puppets to fill their positions. All that remained was the Navy -- and she had just handed it to him.

Dismay filled her, followed sharply by relief. The Empire was all Kezler had ever desired -- let him have it. Of course he would not protest her resignation. He would accept it, perhaps grateful that she had come up with a way to save face and walk away from her command without question. There would be no one left to contest him, no barriers to the absolute control he had always wanted.

And I can go home, she thought. Away from all this, back to Lanarsk Prime. I can attempt to become myself again. She could take Markus home to his mother, and hold Lizhbeta Klem as they mourned the man they had both loved.

"The Navy is yours, sir," she said. The words I don't want it hung unspoken between them.

"Thank you, Shelarne," he replied gravely. Then that strange expression crossed his face again as he looked at her. Viraess felt a chill as she suddenly put a name to it: hunger. "I respect your decision. But do not think that your duty to the Empire is ended with your resignation."

"Sir?" The room seemed freezing, the silk of her shirt icy against the back of her neck.

"An Empire needs an Emperor, Shelarne. The High Command is finished. It is time for me to take my father's name and rule as I should have done all along."

In silence, she waited. She knew there was more.

"But an Emperor needs an Empress," he continued softly.

With that, Viraess looked up at him. Past the smooth, handsome features to the cold ambition and barely masked desire in his eyes.

I should have known there was no way out, she thought, and forced herself to keep her head high. He would not see her despair, or her sudden fear. "I don't know what to say, sir," she managed at last, knowing how weak the words sounded. But she felt she should say anything to prolong the moment, to give her the time to think of some way to escape.

She knew there was none, however.

"There are only two things you can say, Shelarne," Kezler replied. "Yes, or no."

Too well did she know what a denial would cost her. To refuse such a request could lead only to death. Are there fates worse than death? she thought, and wanted to give a despairing laugh. Perhaps she had read that somewhere, but she had survived what Matteson had forced on her, and since then had always thought the notion antiquated and foolish. And Kezler was no Matteson, after all. He was offering her what he no doubt thought was the highest honor he could give.

She thought suddenly of the Jedi Skywalker, and the calm compassion he had showed her. Certainly she should have hated him because of who he was, but she'd discovered she could not. He had given friendship and expected nothing in return. And he had given her one more gift -- the understanding that an enemy didn't always have to remain an enemy.

Perhaps if she consented to rule at Kezler's side she could bring some peace to the galaxy -- perhaps she could help him to understand that it didn't have to be all or nothing between the Empire and the New Republic. Perhaps she could finally find some way to reclaim her lost honor by pursuing an end to a conflict that had already claimed so many lives.

Viraess reached out and placed her hand in Kezler's. His fingers felt smooth and warm, and she felt them tighten on her own as he appeared to realize what the gesture meant. She smiled at him, and watched his lips slowly lift in return.

"Yes," she said.