Thanks immensely to all those who have sent in such nice reviews for Pledge, and a special welcome to Countess Jackman. I really appreciate it!
To Nerca Beyul: I pronounce 'Jaco' as 'Jake-o.' Everyone else's questions should be answered in this last chapter. I'll start posting the next book by the end of the week.
A Journey of Discovery ― Book Two: Pledge
Lando Calrissian swept into the Gilded Star Nightclub with his usual debonair style. As his eyes adjusted to the dimly lit lounge, the first patron he was able to recognize was a rather large Wookiee hunched in a too-small chair at the end of an out-of-the-way booth.
"Han! Leia!" he greeted the other occupants of the booth, huddled together in the dim corner. "Hi-ya, Chewie," he added as he signaled his drink order to a passing droid waiter and slid onto the remaining empty bench. "Fancy meeting you three here."
"Han has some bizarre notion that having a Synthian cocktail in this dive will calm my nerves." Leia shrank back further into the shadows in the hope that no one of importance would recognize her in such a seedy bar. "He and Chewie literally abducted me and Threepio as we were coming out of my office."
"Where is our favorite protocol droid?" Lando glanced around the smoky room. Colored lights strobed across the ceiling and walls in time with the blaring chords of a lusty tune.
"He's supposed to be guarding the speeder," Han said with a snort. "Though he's probably locked himself inside it, quaking in his metal boots."
"Ah." The former baron administrator reached across the table to stroke Leia's hand, ignoring Han's scowl of disapproval. "And what does a beautiful woman like you have to be nervous about?"
"Oh, it's just Luke." The princess pulled back her hands, settling them in her lap.
"When isn't it about Luke?" Han drawled, stretching his arms out along the back of the bench.
Leia gave him an exasperated frown before continuing. "It's nine days past his scheduled arrival date on Lorrd, and still no one has heard from him. How can I not worry?"
"I told you we should give him his ten-day window before chasing after him," Han reiterated.
"And I don't know how you can act so unconcerned when Luke is who-knows-where with that abrasive Mara Jade."
"Ah, the incomparable Miss Jade. True, she is one icy woman." Lando leaned back, smoothing his mustache with his thumb and forefinger. "How she can possibly resist my extraordinary charms is beyond me."
"She's one of a kind, all right," Han agreed.
"Still, I always get the feeling that I've seen her before. Under totally different circumstances, though." The dark-skinned gambler's brow furrowed in thought. "There's just something about her face, or maybe it's those eyes."
"She doesn't seem to have recognized you," Han pointed out. "Has she ever so much as given you the time of day?"
"Hmmm, not yet. But I am a man of eternal hope. If only I'd gotten to see her as a dancer." Lando closed his eyes in peaceful reflection. "I can just envision her in a skimpy little dancing costume." He peered across the table. "Maybe something like that snappy outfit Jabba found for you, Leia."
"Hey, now," the princess's paramour objected immediately.
"I'm not imagining Leia back in it, Han ol' buddy," Lando assured his friend. "I'm imagining Mara Jade – twirling, dipping, stretching ... I can just picture her ..." he trailed off wistfully.
Leia's face suddenly scrunched up in thought. "So can I," she whispered, causing Han's eyebrows to shoot up.
"You're ... you're imagining Mara ... in a dancing getup?" Han couldn't believe he was even voicing such an absurd suggestion.
Leia turned slowly toward him, eyes clouded in deep introspection and confusion. "I ... feel like I've seen her in such an outfit. She was different somehow ..."
Lando took up her trail of thought. "It's the hair. Her hair was different."
"Guys, her hair was different when we first met her, remember? Her and Luke were both brunettes."
"Believe me," the gambler replied, "I haven't forgotten that first meeting. But no, that's not the look I had in mind."
"Black!" Leia blurted out. "She had black hair."
Lando was nodding in agreement. "Yeah, that's it. Black hair, but those same brilliant eyes. Her skin tone was darker ..."
"And she had tattoos in ... various spots ..." Leia added self-consciously.
Chewie growled questioningly, and Han concurred. "Right." He looked at Lando and Leia. "Just what kind of spice are you two on?"
Leia swatted at him. "I know I've seen her, just like we described."
"Okay, okay, I believe you." Han slumped in resignation. "So, where did you see her?"
Leia and Lando looked at each other, then spoke simultaneously. "Jabba's."
Han started to open his mouth to reply, but Chewie beat him to it.
/You saw Mara Jade at Jabba's?./
"Yeah," Lando confirmed. "We did."
Leia looked quizzically at Han, not having mastered the Wookiee tongue yet, and he translated as Chewbacca continued.
/Are you sure it was her?. /
"Didn't you see her, Chewie?" Leia asked their furry companion.
/I was taken immediately to the dungeons, remember. /
"And I couldn't see my hand in front of my face," Han put in.
"And Luke decided to play footsie with the rancor as soon as he got there," Lando added.
/There is someone else who could corroborate this assumption./
"Goldenrod ..." Han murmured. He glanced at Leia, who was already thumbing on her comlink.
"Threepio? Come inside right away; we're in the back left corner."
"Yes, mistress," came the tinny response.
As soon as the protocol droid shuffled his way to their table, Han began the interrogation. "You know Luke's friend, Mara Jade, right?"
"Yes, of course, General Solo. Miss Jade is usually ... civil ... to me. At least when Master Luke is nearby."
"All right, Goldie," Lando said. "Access those wonderful memory banks you're always bragging about and think back to when you were in Jabba's palace."
"Jabba the Hutt's? Oh my, what a dreadful place that was. Just dreadful. A veritable den of debauchery."
"Yeah, yeah. Now, do you recall anyone at Jabba's that looked like Mara?"
See-Threepio cocked his head to one side, sifting through his data banks. "Yes, General Calrissian, there was a dancer who resembled Miss Jade. But her name was Miss Arica." His golden head swiveled to each of the sentient beings before him, then he addressed his mistress. "Am I to understand that you suspect Miss Arica was in fact Miss Jade?"
"That's exactly what we suspect, Threepio," Leia answered.
"So the question is, what would Mara Jade have been doing in a slime pit like Jabba's?" Han voiced the puzzle that was running through all their minds.
"She was a dancer," Lando spoke up. "Maybe she worked there, till Jabba's glorious demise, then moved up to the Imperial court."
Han and Leia exchanged glances, and the princess pursed her lips.
"No," Han answered for both of them, shaking his head. "The timing's off. By the time we got off Tatooine, Palpatine was reportedly on his way to the Death Star. I doubt he stopped on his way out to interview dancers."
"Besides," Leia added, "didn't she say she'd been at the palace for nearly two years?"
"So our question now is, what was she, really?"
/You have to ask?./ Chewbacca interjected.
"No, we don't," Han drawled slowly, and Leia didn't need a translation this time. "A dancer with some self-defense training, my foot! She was an Imp spy!"
"She was following us." Leia scooted forward, resting her elbows on the rickety plasteel table.
"But why didn't she act? Even if she didn't recognize Lando, you and Chewie were there in plain sight and I was thawed out a half day before Luke came. Why wasn't the place crawling with stormtroopers to arrest us?"
"Before ... Luke ... came," Leia mouthed hesitantly, fearfully. "She didn't act because she was waiting for him to show up."
"If I may interject," a prissy voice interrupted.
"Quiet," Han ordered gruffly, but Leia stopped him with a glare.
"Go ahead, Threepio."
"Miss Arica ... er, Miss Jade ... did inquire about Master Luke."
The heads of Han, Leia, and Lando all snapped up instantaneously, and Chewbacca let out a threatening growl.
"You talked to her?" Han practically shouted.
"Why, yes." Threepio took a step backward. "She was rather friendly, actually. She asked about Master Luke's holomessage. I assured her that it had to be a mistake, that Master Luke would never abandon Artoo and me in that awful place. She then asked if I believed that Master Luke would in fact be coming to rescue me."
Han frustratedly wiped his face with one hand.
"She wanted to make sure Luke was coming," Leia murmured, almost to herself.
"The Emperor and Vader wanted Luke more than all the rest of us combined," Han agreed.
"And by the time Luke did appear, things moved so quickly that she didn't have a chance to bring in her backup," Lando reasoned.
/But what about her now?./ Chewbacca asked no one in particular.
"Good question." Han looked at Leia as she touched his arm. "Chewie wants to know, if she was an Imperial spy then, what is she now?"
"She could have truly defected, after the Emperor died."
"That's awfully optimistic," he replied. "How often do we get that lucky?"
The diminutive woman bit her lip worriedly. "But consider the consequences of the other choice."
"She's ensconced herself into the heart of the Alliance," Han answered, slamming a closed fist down. "Hell, she didn't even have to convince anyone she was a dancer. She had Luke to do that for her."
"She's been stringing him along this whole time, playing him for a fool," Lando put in.
Han nodded. "Honing her Force skills with the galaxy's only Jedi Knight; prying who knows how many government secrets out of him." He looked at the others in frustration. "We all know how trusting Luke is. He meets a beautiful woman who pays some attention to him and helps him escape, and who shares that Force mumbo-jumbo with him ..."
"She biding her time until she can lure him right into the hands of what's left of the Empire," Lando commented.
"Or until she's trained enough to be able to overpower him," Han continued.
"And ... kill him." Leia's eyes grew wide. "Luke has no idea who she truly is. This whole Lorrd trip could be a trap, and he's flying right into it. The directive that only Force-strong individuals could come, the mysterious ship trouble ..." She gripped Han's arm tightly. "We have to go after him. Now, Han. There's not a moment to lose."
The former smuggler patted her hand in comfort. "We will. But it'll take awhile to prep the Falcon." He gave Leia an encouraging smile. "We'll leave as soon as we can."
"And I'm coming, too," Lando said. "No gorgeous female is going to pull the banthawool over Lando Calrissian's eyes and get away with it."
Chewie also rumbled his declaration of assistance.
"But what if—" Leia couldn't bring herself to say aloud the possibility that they could already be too late.
"He's not on Lorrd yet," Han tried to explain. "If she's gonna make a move against him, she either already has ..." He hurried on at the sight of Leia's choked expression. "Or she's waiting until they're established on Lorrd." He hugged his lover tightly. "Besides, when we first heard about his message, didn't you feel that he was all right? Do you still have the same feeling?"
Leia nodded slowly. "Yes, I think so. But he's so far away, I'm not really sure."
"We'll be there in two days tops," Han pledged. "Maybe even sooner. Remember, I've got the—"
"Fasted hunk of junk in the galaxy," three voices finished for him.
Hiley and Jaco stood transfixed, gaping in awe at the metal monstrosity sitting before them. Even their drobbins pawed the ground nervously and snorted, their nostrils flaring wide in fright.
Luke and Mara urged their own mounts forward, talking soothingly to the reluctant animals. Luke dismounted and, handing the reins to Mara, walked back to his stupefied friends.
"There's nothing to be frightened of, really," he assured them. "It's just a form of transportation for us."
"No way that be a boat. It'd sink like a rock, fer sure," Hiley muttered, his eyes narrowing as he studied the strange contrivance. "But there be no wheels or runners. How does it go?"
"Hmmm ..." Luke cast a glance at Jaco, who had yet to utter a word. "Why don't we take a closer look, and I'll explain as much as I can." He stepped back a pace, waiting while the two villagers slid off their drobbins and tied the animals to nearby trees.
Mara was already hauling their belongings toward the B-wing's storage hold when the others approached. One hand resting lightly on her hip, she held out the coveted stabilizer rod to Luke. "You gonna do the honors, or do you want me to give it a shot?"
Luke took the metal piece from her without hesitation. "I'll put it in. Just give me a moment." Once more faced with how much to reveal, he turned to his friends. "You're right, Hiley. This isn't a boat or a wagon or a sleigh. We call it a ship, but it doesn't travel on water."
"If it ...," Jaco began, finding his tongue, "if it travels by neither sea nor land, then ... how ...?"
"We journey by air," Luke said simply, not feeling it necessary to explain about the vacuum of space.
"Like a bird?" Hiley asked. Both his and Jaco's gazes went from the ship to the sky and back again to the ship.
"In a way, yes."
"That be impossible." Jaco's skeptical frown emphasized his words.
Luke extended his hand and the stabilizer rod rose into the air, floating of its own accord. "This is impossible, and yet it is happening."
Hiley squinted, trying to unravel the mystery. "So ye float yer ... ship ... in the air with yer magic?"
Luke bit his lip, ignoring Mara's amused chuckle in the background. "Bad example, I guess. No, not with magic. Not my kind of magic, at any rate." His hand closed back around the rod. "The ship has an engine to power it." He smiled at the quizzical looks he received. "Come," he said, motioning them forward.
His natural curiosity toward anything mechanical overcoming any fear of the unknown, Hiley quickly followed Luke toward the baffling vehicle. He glanced back at his reluctant companion. "Come along, Jaco, me friend. It won't bite ye." He looked back at Luke. "Will it?"
Luke laughed and shook his head. "No."
Mara watched with detached interest as Luke proceeded to explain, in the simplest layman's terms he could think of, the workings of the immense Quadex Kyromaster engine. The villagers were listening with the same rapt attention that Mara had witnessed numerous times in Rogue Squadron's maintenance bay. Men and their machines, she thought to herself. Some things never change, no matter where one lands in the galaxy.
Moving to an access hatch in the cockpit section of the fighter, Luke began to install the new stabilizer component. Hiley and Jaco were quick to lend a hand, following Luke's directions with enthusiasm and diligence.
Mara, meanwhile, busied herself with digging through the luggage they had left behind in the ship. She wasn't about to travel the rest of the way to Lorrd in the same clothes she'd been wearing for over two days, and Force knew Luke needed new attire. She paused, though, as she pulled his satchel forward and popped it open. These were his personal belongings – his carefully folded black Jedi uniform, his underclothes, his toiletries. Luke was her husband now; there was no reason to feel invasive about rummaging through his possessions. So why did she?
Quickly selecting a thin one-piece jumpsuit and appropriate undergarments, Mara snapped the case shut. She smiled, wondering briefly if they would be packing their clothes together for their next trip. Just one of the things that would be changing in their lives, things that she and Luke would both have to get used to – going home to the same apartment, sharing the same bedchamber, traveling in the same ship to the same places, finding a decent-sized ship that they could afford. Sure, they'd had a taste of some of these experiences while in Zembuhl. But knowing that she and Luke would be together forever brought a sense of peace to Mara's heart. She was a wife now. Someday she would be a Jedi Knight. Mara fixed her gaze on Luke as he closed the hatch to the gyro-stabilization system. Someday, she would be known as the wife of a Jedi Master.
"Well, lad, 'tis an amazin' contraption ye've got here, to be sure," Hiley complimented as the men finished the repair work. "But I still canno' be believin' it'll rise into the air like a scudbird."
"Aye," Jaco said. "I can hardly wait to see yer ship floatin' through the sky." He looked toward the foothills of the nearby mountain range. "Do ye have to go further than the Magnes Mountains to reach Corey-sant?"
"Much, much further," Luke answered with a laugh.
"So where be yer Corey-sant?" Hiley inquired.
Luke laid the servodriver he'd been holding into a tool tray. Hands on his hips, he looked up into the dusky heavens. "You can't see it from here; the distance is too great. But it would be just about ..." he pointed to an invisible spot in the wintry sky, "there."
Hiley and Jaco followed the direction he indicated with unbelieving stares.
"Ye're goin' ... there?" Jaco murmured, his eyes glued upward.
"No, we're not."
All three men shifted their attention as Mara joined in the conversation.
"First, we're detouring to about ... there." Mara's arm extended upward at a sixty degree angle to where Luke's hand had pointed.
"That settles it." Luke came forward and wrapped one arm around Mara's waist. "From now on, you're in charge of navigation."
"I accept. But before climbing into a cockpit with me, you need to climb into some fresh, and spaceworthy, clothes." She held out a bundle of clothing, including a spare flightsuit she'd found in the storage hold.
Luke stepped back a pace, finally recognizing that Mara had already changed into a new flightsuit. "Oh, right." He glanced down at his torn and dirty garments and smiled sheepishly. "If you'll excuse me, I'll ... uh ..." He looked at Mara, wondering where she'd changed without any of them noticing.
"Behind any tree, Skywalker."
Luke grinned as he ambled behind the nearest grove of evergreens. Left alone with the two amiable villagers, Mara fielded their continuous barrage of questions as best she could – "No, this is definitely NOT typical of the kind of ship our people travel in." "Yes, there are ships that can hold more than two people." "Yes, there are ships big enough that people can live in them." Mara refrained from pointing out that there existed ships so big that a hundred villages the size of Zembuhl could fit into them.
Within minutes Luke returned, looking and feeling clean and refreshed. He assured Mara that his wound had not reopened and his bandages did not need changing. After storing the last of their gear into the B-wing, Luke and Mara agreed it was time for their departure. For the second time in two days, therefore, they said goodbye to their new friends.
Mara was the first to clamber into the double cockpit, her eyes routinely scanning the controls as she slid into her seat. Luke soon followed, after giving Hiley and Jaco final handshakes and directions on how far back to stand during liftoff. They both donned their helmets as the canopy sealed with a barely audible hiss.
"I think they were actually anxious to see us go," Luke commented as he began the start-up sequence.
"Yeah. The anticipation of seeing this 'metal contraption' sail through the air seemed to outweigh any pangs of regret over our departure."
"I'm sure you're exaggerating."
"Who, me?" Luke returned with a laugh.
Despite its cumbersome appearance, the B-wing rose gracefully on its repulsers, the main landing strut folding back into its slot. Luke let a sigh of relief escape as the large primary wing swung down and locked into place, confirming that his repair job had been successful. Giving a final wave to the two tiny figures below them on the ground, they angled their ascent toward the distant clouds.
"Did Hiley and Jaco understand anything you were telling them about the B-wing's operation?" Mara asked as they soared into the upper atmosphere.
"Hmm ... vaguely. From the mechanical work I saw in Hiley's shop, I believe their generation isn't far from devising some kind of steam-powered engine."
"Do you think they'll tell everyone about our ship?"
"I got the impression they were going to discuss that very question on their way back," Luke replied. "It may depend on whether Efam and the Prudens witnessed our take-off. I left the running lights off, and there's a chance they may not have heard the thrusters."
"Always the optimist." Mara's light chuckle filled the cramped cockpit. "Got an ETA for Lorrd?"
"Is that datapad on the mission up there?" Luke returned her question with one of his own. Mara tossed the small device over her shoulder, and Luke began scrolling through the screens. "Looks like we should arrive around seventeen-hundred on the second day of Lorrd's standard week, which will be the tenth day since I sent them the message."
"That soon? What kind of shortcut are you planning?"
"You're the navigator, remember?" Luke settled lower into his padded seat. "And the pilot."
"What?" Mara made a futile attempt to turn around and look at him. "I can't pilot from up here. The controls are disabled."
"Not anymore. I hooked them back up when I fixed the hyperdrive."
Mara made a renewed study of her instruments. He'd actually defied the New Republic military to allow her control of the ship, and had done so before their relationship had taken the drastic turn that it did.
"I trust you," he answered her unspoken question. "The ship's log has a record of our flight in through the nebula. You can program up to two jumps at a time in the navicomputer. All you have to do is backtrack our way out. Four or five microjumps should get us back to the asteroid field."
"But ..." Mara began scrolling through the log, her mind already calculating their route.
"I'm going into a healing trance," Luke murmured, closing his eyes. "Wake me when we're in orbit above Lorrd."
"You're going to sleep all the way to Lorrd?"
"You've been nagging me to go into a trance since I got shot."
"But, Luke ..." Mara repeated.
"You can handle things," he assured her. "The microjumps will keep you busy, then you can meditate during the last leg."
"Yes, Master." Only a hint of sarcasm was evident in Mara's tone.
"Goodnight, my beautiful apprentice." He sent a warm sensation of love through the Force, which was quickly reciprocated.
"Sleep well, Master."
Luke gave a small snort of satisfaction, then fell silent. Mara could sense him immersing himself deep into the Force, his breathing low and steady.
Quickly and carefully familiarizing herself with the B-wing's controls, Mara pulled back on the hyperdrive lever for their first short hop. "Hold on to your seat, my love," she called quietly over her shoulder. "Next stop, the planet Lorrd."
Leia Organa was fit to be tied. She'd spent all afternoon in the New Republic administrative hanger, current berth of the Millennium Falcon. Han, along with Chewbacca, was crouched under the belly of his beloved ship, while Lando was relaying instrument readings via comlink from the cockpit. Leia didn't think the string of complaints, excuses, and curses flowing between the two locations would ever end.
"Are you three boneheads ever going to finish!"
Han squatted down and peered out from under the ship. His gaze fell on a pair of diminutive fists planted on slim hips and a tiny booted foot impatiently tapping the ferrocrete floor.
Leia ducked low enough to glare at the lagging repairmen. "Well? We should have been halfway to Lorrd by now."
"Keep your tiara on, your worship. I just have to tighten down this one ... last ... bolt. Ah-ha." Leaving Chewie to reattach the outer hull plating, Han joined his lady near the boarding ramp. "See, Leia. We'll be on our way before you know it."
"And meanwhile Luke could be—"
"Luke's a big boy. Maybe we should let him get out of trouble on his own for once."
"Han!" Leia's big brown eyes flashed with irritation.
"Get on board, hon." Han wrapped one grease-stained arm around the princess's shoulders. "We got us a Jedi to rescue."
Less than an hour later, the Falcon was navigating its way into Coruscant's upper atmosphere.
"How long—?" Leia began, peering over Han's shoulder at his cockpit readings.
"We'll be landing on Lorrd in thirty-four hours," Lando supplied, sitting beside her in the seldom-used navigator's chair.
"Luke may already be there by then." Leia bit her lower lip nervously. That Jade woman could be plying all sorts of subversive atrocities on her brother.
"Probably will." Han gave her a helpless shrug. "That'll have us making planetfall eleven days after he sent his message."
"Han, I can't go thirty-four hours without knowing if he's even made it."
Chewie uttered a low rumble.
"Right." Han glanced behind him. "We'll have to come out of hyperspace about halfway there to make a course correction around an asteroid field. You can comm the Lorrdian authorities then, or even try comming Luke directly if you want."
"All right." Somewhat mollified, Leia sat back, making sure her seat harness was secure.
"Hold on to your seats, everyone," Han called out as he watched the countdown, then pulled back on the hyperdrive lever. The stars elongated into strings of diamonds as the ship surged forward. "Next stop, the planet Lorrd."
Raise your hand if you think Han and Leia may be right about Mara Jade. Luke is way too trusting, you know.
TO BE CONCLUDED IN "A JOURNEY OF DISCOVERY – BOOK THREE: PRISM"
See you all in Lorrd!