Chapter Five

The Emperor strode into the main room of his personal suite and then stopped, looking around him in some amazement. For the first time since their wedding he and Shelarne had an open evening in their own chambers, their schedule for once not occupied with a state banquet, reception, dinner party, or some other engagement that could not be avoided. Although he probably would not have admitted it even to himself, Kezler had been looking forward to spending some time alone with his wife. From the moment he left their private quarters in the morning until he returned late in the evening, a thousand and one different details clamored for his attention, and ever since he had assigned Shelarne the task of working with Admiral Pellaeon he had seen very little of her, save for the evening hours when they attended social functions together. He had gotten the impression that she would have liked more time together with him as well, although she handled the unceasing duties and impacted schedule with her usual aplomb.

But now -- his gaze traveled around the room, noting the luxuriant arrangements of exotic blooms that had to have been brought in from the southern hemisphere, as the chill of late autumn already gripped the latitude where Ariston lay. Artfully placed lumas cast a soft indirect glow from beneath some of the floral arrangements, and the air seemed thick with the scent of lilies.

Shelarne stepped forward from where she had been waiting by the table in the dining area, her dark hair lying loose across her bare shoulders. The pale gown she wore seemed to be suspended by nothing by air, until Kezler noticed the telltale gleam of metal against her bare skin and realized the fabric was held up by a series of gossamer-thin chains. The silky material drifted against her flesh, somehow revealing and concealing at the same time. He thought he caught a glimpse of bare leg up to the thigh as she moved toward him, and suddenly the collar of his uniform jacket felt too tight as he took in a quick breath.

"We had to cancel our trip to the Selides Islands," she said. "So I thought I'd try to bring a bit of them here."

"You have many talents, I see." Kezler managed to tear his eyes away from her long enough to notice that the table had been set with the finest tableware Governor Starke's collection could yield. A course of the delicate sweetmeats and pastries that preceded the main formal meal on Lanarsk Prime sent forth their own toothsome aroma, an interesting counterpart to the heavy fragrance of the astarias and flame-lilies that filled the room.

Her tip-tilted gray eyes seemed to laugh at him, and the corners of her mouth curved slightly upward. "Well, I have to admit that Jonti helped me. For someone who's not even from this planet, he has a most definite knack for finding the best florists." She turned toward the table, then bent slightly and poured a glass of soft red wine and held it out to him.

What he really wanted was to set the glass aside and take her into the sleeping chamber -- but there would be time for that later. If only he could simply enjoy this evening, enjoy being with her for a while. But the matter that had delayed him at his offices almost a standard hour past the time he wished to depart could not be ignored.

He took the wine and gave it a cursory sip. Of course it was excellent. He had expected no less. Shelarne was watching him, obviously expecting a comment, so he said, "It's very good."

"What's wrong, Arik?" Her expression never changed, but he could see the slight alteration in her posture as she studied him.

It still pleased him to hear his name on her lips; sometimes he wondered how difficult it had been for her to force herself to that familiarity...among others. "Nothing is wrong. In fact, something could be very right -- if we handle the situation correctly."

Instantly she shed the semi-seductive pose. She straightened, the correct military posture in sharp contrast to her provocative gown and loosened hair. "Tell me."

In answer he pulled out a chair for her and she sat, while he followed suit. He noticed that she had poured a glass of wine for herself but apparently hadn't yet touched it. "Have you heard of a world called Danoshar?"

She shook her head. A lock of heavy dark hair slipped down over her shoulder and trailed into the shadowy hollow between her breasts, and Kezler felt again a stab of desire for her.

Damn it -- who would have ever thought he'd be so distracted by his own wife? Forcing his eyes back up to hers, he replied, "There's no reason that you should have. It's a mining world in the Mid Rim. Their chief export is duranium, the critical alloy in the production of durasteel. They've just expressed interest in joining the Empire."

Shelarne made no reply, but she nodded. Of course he did not have to explain to her just how important it would be to the Imperial cause to gain control over that sort of commodity.

"I just spoke at length with one of their representatives. They are willing to open negotiations -- as long as they can deal directly with you."

Her eyes widened slightly. "With me?"

"Yes," he replied. "Apparently Danosharan society is highly matriarchal. They feel it would be a show of respect toward their government if the Empire sent its Empress to handle the talks."

"Arik, I'm no diplomat -- "

That isn't exactly true, he thought. She had no formal political training, no schooling in the formal rhetoric used in those sorts of negotiations, but over the past few days he had watched her skillfully handle warring governor's wives, contentious planetary council members, and members of Lanarsk Prime's high society whose feuds went so far back no one could recall exactly what had caused them in the first place. And in a situation like this, where the Danosharans were already half in hand, Shelarne's mere presence on their world would probably be far more effective than any carefully constructed diplomatic speeches.

"Even better," he said, interrupting her protests. "Since they know you aren't a career politican, they're far more likely to trust you."

At that comment she lifted an eyebrow, took a sip from her wine glass, and remarked, "Careful, Arik. A few more statements like that and someone's liable to think you're getting jaded."

He couldn't help but smile at her words. Certainly it couldn't hurt, alone here with his wife, to show that he was capable of amusement. "Possibly," he replied. "But it is the truth, and you know it. Know also that if Danoshar enters the Empire the political benefits may very well outstrip whatever economic gains we might achieve from having control over the planet's duranium. It's the most populated and affluent planet in its sector, and if it comes over to us, there's a very good chance that the rest of the sector will follow."

His words struck home, he could tell. Shelarne remained silent for a long moment, her expertly manicured fingers tapping slightly against the stem of the wine glass as she thought it through. Watching her, he knew that he would not have to waste any further persuasion on convincing her of the importance of this mission. She would do what she had always done -- whatever was necessary for the success of the Empire. Some small part of him wished that he didn't have to send her away so soon after their wedding, but he knew that was foolishness. This was only the start of many years together, after all, and the interests of the Empire had to come first.

"When do I leave?" she asked quietly.

"Tomorrow morning," he answered. "Most of the necessary arrangements have already been made -- ships, security, and so forth -- but of course you should let your personal staff know of your departure. I assume you will take Jonti and Lady Noresh with you." Indra Noresh was Shelarne's personal secretary, a formidable product of Lanarsk Prime's upper echelons whose family's fading fortunes had required her to seek employment in the Imperial household. But not for one moment did she forget that she could trace her bloodlines back to the First Landing -- and she made sure no one else around her forgot, either. Kezler often wondered who the scrawny little Balosar stylist was more afraid of -- Indra Noresh or himself, the Emperor -- and had decided that most days it was probably Indra, simply because Jonti had had so many more run-ins with her.

"Naturally," Shelarne said, and Kezler thought he caught a wicked twinkle in her eyes. On such a trip, Jonti was indispensable, and Indra Noresh probably was not, but the Empress certainly knew that if she left Lady Noresh behind she would never hear the end of it. Then she sobered, and gave him a sidelong look, a glance that sent a sudden flicker of heat through his veins. "If I'm leaving tomorrow," she went on, "then I suppose we should make the most of tonight."

He needed no further encouragement. Her passion had surprised him at first -- after her treatment by Commodore Matteson, Kezler had wondered whether she would be all that eager to engage in physical relations. But their wedding night had certainly disproved that theory, as had the nights that followed. Women he'd known before, of course -- women he had used to satisfy his physical needs, even as they had used him for some imagined advancement. Those relationships -- if one could even call them that -- had never lasted; he'd never intended them to. He could have dealt with a cold wife if necessary, as long as she provided him with heirs. Shelarne, however, was far from cold. Quit the opposite, in fact. Good thing he hadn't known quite how hot her blood ran, or he would have had an even more difficult time waiting for the wedding night.

For now it was enough to lose himself in her, to feel her body move against his, and to know that it would be his name that she cried out at the very end...

"Captain Solo! Haven't seen you around here in a while!"

Han looked up from his freshly poured mug of Corellian ale and managed a weary smile. So much for catching a few quiet minutes alone with his drink...

"Been kinda busy, Khani," he replied, watching as the Twi'lek settled in on the bar stool next to him.

"Ah," said Khani Zhen, with a sage wink and a knowing glance toward Han's barely touched mug of ale. He gestured toward the 'tender droid. "Yurp, please."

Han watched as the bar droid poured a glass of thick yellowish-green liquid and barely avoided making a face. Once he'd lost a bet and had to take a swallow of the stuff. Maybe it was better than drinking pure reactor fluid -- but not by much. Still, to each his own. Probably his own mug of ale would taste just as bad to the Twi'lek.

Khani took a long pull at his glass, reddish eyes closing briefly as he appeared to savor the viscous swill inside. "Ah...that does the trick." Then he glanced over at Han, who had taken a drink of his own ale, mainly in an attempt to wipe out the memory of the yurp's taste. "So what brings you back to the Depot, Han? Slumming?"

Den's Depot was a middle-sized cantina on the edge of CoCo Town. Nothing about it distinguished the place from any other cantina on the middle levels of Coruscant, except that its situation made it easy to get to from the senatorial district where his and Leia's apartments were located, and it wasn't far from the nearest spaceport as well. Lately he'd found it somehow comforting to slide into the Depot, order a drink, and watch the world go by. Leia spent most of her waking hours in endless meetings, and Threepio took his nanny duties so seriously that Han found it difficult to pry the children away from him long enough so that he could actually spend any time being a father.

When he was a boy back on Corellia, Han's parents had taken him to the zoo -- a zoo with real animals, not the holographic substitutions they had here on Coruscant. One of the animals that had fascinated him had been the sleek sand panther, and the zoo had an entire family on display, complete with cubs as adorable as they were deadly. But what had struck him the most was the bored expression on the male sand panther's face. Locked up in that transparisteel-framed pen, all it had to do was lie around and eat. Its main purpose -- to hunt and protect its family unit -- had been taken away.

These days, Han thought he knew just how that sand panther must have felt.

Oh, Leia tried, she really did -- thought up things for him and the kids to do, consulted him whenever the current Senatorial round was driving her nuts and she needed to hear "the voice of reason," as she put it. But none of that could hide the fact that he wasn't much more than a glorified house husband. Consort of the Chief of State. If someone had asked him ten years ago where he thought he'd end up, he would have put "gigolo" pretty far down on the list.

So his comment to Khani Zhen that he'd been "pretty busy" was basically an outright lie, and Zhen probably knew that and much more. Back in the days of the Empire, the Twi'lek had been a spice smuggler, same as Han, but after the fall of Palpatine Khani had set up shop on Coruscant as a sort of informal information broker. Somehow he'd managed to survive Isard's regime and all the various cataclysms that had rocked the former Imperial Center over the past decade. You never really saw him do anything, but he managed to keep his finger on the pulse of the myriad undercurrents that coursed through the various streams of Coruscanti society, from which senator's wife was carrying on a torrid affair to which underworld swoop gangs had just formed an alliance -- and why.

Han hadn't seen Zhen in The Depot before this, which meant absolutely nothing. The Twi'lek tended to keep circulating, and if word had gotten to him that the Chief of State's husband had started to make regular appearances in the cantina, well, then, it didn't take a super-computer to calculate the odds on the info seller showing up in that same locale in the near future.

"Slumming?" Han repeated. "Nah...just having a quiet drink."

Zhen took a meditative pull at his bile-colored beverage. "Taking time out from your busy schedule?"

"Something like that."

"Ah." The Twi'lek was silent for a few seconds, then said, "I'm hearing things."

"Better get your ears checked," Han remarked amiably, before helping himself to a healthy swallow of ale.

Zhen appeared to take no offense. He stared off into the darker corners of the cantina, where the patrons nursed drinks or spoke in low tones to one another. Since it was midday, the cantina wasn't as crowded as it would be in a few hours, but at least half the tables were occupied. Because of The Depot's proximity to the spaceport, one saw a greater proportion of aliens there than in many other sectors of the planet. Han had spotted a couple of Duros, a pair of Gotals, and a Devaronian before he taken his own place at the bar. The one thing all the denizens of the cantina seemed to have in common was a complete lack of interest in the plainly dressed human male and his blue-robed Twi'lek companion.

"Things of possible concern," Zhen said at length. "Imperial matters, as it so happens."

"That a fact?" Han scooped up a handful of liki nuts from the bowl that sat in front of them and popped them in his mouth. The smoky flavor made a great accompaniment to the rich, earthy taste of his ale. Of course he knew that the Empire's growing strength had been a matter of great concern to Leia, but he wasn't about to tell Zhen that.

"They're taking bets, you know," the Twi'lek went on. "Down at Fortunaria's. Right now Danoshar's the odds-on favorite as to which planet's going to go Imperial next. Three to one, I believe."

"Are you trying to get me to place a bet, Zhen?" Han inquired. "I didn't think you'd become a bookie. Or are you just trying to get some inside information before you make your own wager?"

Zhen smiled thinly, showing several rows of pointed teeth. "Hardly. I know enough to stay out of that sort of thing. The house always wins in the end, after all... No, let's just say that I'm curious as to what the Chief of State thinks of the current situation."

I'll bet, Han thought, but he merely scooped up a handful of nuts and munched away without replying. "The Chief of State," he said once he was done chewing, all the while thinking it still felt odd to refer to Leia that way, "makes her opinions known in her daily remarks on 'Net channel 765. Maybe you should try tuning in once in a while."

"Han, you wound me," remarked Zhen, who then gathered up some of the liki nuts, gave them a quizzical look, then shrugged and ate them anyway. "And after I saved your ass at Abregado-rae -- "

"Hey," Han cut in. "I was handling myself just fine -- "

"Against ten of Hirth's goons? Bad odds even for you, my friend."

Never tell me the odds, Han thought, but he didn't bother to argue. That had been a tight one, no doubt about it, and without Zhen's intervention he very well could have ended up in a dumpster behind the LoBue Cantina. Still, although he had to admit that he owed Zhen one, he wasn't about to start spilling state secrets. Not that he even had any to spill.

Leia was more worried about the current situation with the Empire than even she wanted to admit, and Han could see why. The defection of ten worlds in less than six standard months was unprecedented, and things didn't seem to be getting much better. True, it had all happened peaceably enough -- the New Republic couldn't force worlds to remain members, after all, or it would be just as bad as the Empire. But if they were laying bets in the casinos to see which world went next, well, even Han had to admit that wasn't a good sign.

He'd been almost as startled as Leia to discover that Shelarne Viraess planned to marry this new Emperor, the man who had once been her superior. After all, Han had been there on Kessel and had seen the woman cradling the body of a man she had loved, and then, less than two standard weeks later, Leia had told him that Viraess was to become the Empire's first Empress. He'd had a hard time wrapping his brain around that concept but had finally just chalked it up to yet another example of women's inexplicable natures. Just when you thought you had them figured out, bam! they would pull some kind of maneuver that just left you scratching your head.

Whether or not Viraess' connection to the Emperor, this Kezler character, had anything to do with the Empire's surging fortunes, he couldn't be certain. And when you looked at it logically, sure, ten systems weren't that big a deal when you compared them to the countless thousands that still numbered themselves among the New Republic. But as Leia had once said when referring to the growth of the Rebellion, the greatest of floods could start with just a trickle.

"Danoshar, huh?" he said at last. "Go figure. Well, it's a free galaxy."

Zhen gave him a narrow glance, rolling one of the liki nuts over and over between two of his long, spindly fingers. "But for how long, my friend?" he asked. He placed the nut down on the bar next to his empty glass, then stood. "For how long?" With a shake of his head, he turned and strode out, his lean form briefly silhouetted against the glaring brightness of the day outside as he passed through the doorway and disappeared.

There were a few mouthfuls of ale left in the mug, but Han found he'd just lost his taste for it. With a sigh, he pushed the drink away and signaled the 'tender droid, pushing a few credits across the bar top. "I'm done here," he said, and made his own way to the front door. Zhen of course was nowhere in sight -- the guy knew how to disappear when he wanted to.

The Twi'lek's words seemed to ring unpleasantly in Han's ears, even as he pulled his jacket closer around him against the chilly rising wind. Of course, things weren't really that bad...were they?

Somehow Han didn't think he really wanted to know the answer.

Senator Lem Sedaris took the call in his private apartments, on a line he'd had secured by the best specialists his substantial wealth could buy. He'd been expecting it, but all the same he could barely contain a flash of irritation as his father's features resolved themselves in the holographic display. Fifty-three standard years old, and yet the elder Sedaris still acted as if his son couldn't manage to cross the street by himself.

"Disturbing news," said Fenrus Sedaris, watery brown eyes narrowing. Then he scowled further. "You're certain this a secure channel?"

"Absolutely," replied the senator. "Zeta-three encryption, sent in a subspace packet routed through an independent relay. No one's getting in."

Of course Fenrus would never display any sort of outward approval of his son's methods, but the older man seemed to relax slightly, the downward droop of his thin mouth easing just a fraction. "All right, then. Operatives in Imperial space have just informed me that the Empress herself is traveling to Danoshar to handle the negotiations."

"Disturbing news" seemed an understatement. The Emperor must be terribly eager to make sure this jewel didn't slip out of his grasp. Otherwise, Lem felt sure this Palaptine II would never risk so valuable a personage as his own wife to undertake a journey to a Mid-Rim world far from the Empire's secure center. On the other hand, the Empress' vulnerability would present some interesting possibilities.

"We can't have the Empire putting the squeeze on our duranium supplies," said the elder Sedaris. "Our margins are slipping as it is -- not as much demand, more competition. If our materials costs go up much more, then we'll have a situation on our hands."

In Fenrus Sedaris' world, a "situation" invariably involved something that needed to be resolved immediately...and bad luck for anyone who happened to be in the way. Not that Lem necessarily disagreed with his father's methods. For all his lack of interpersonal skills, Fenrus had a knack for capitalizing on current events and increasing the prestige and wealth of the Fondor shipyards so that now they had almost surpassed the glory days of the Empire, when orders for ships and weapons had flowed in at an astounding rate. But their ever-expanding wealth could come to a grinding halt if the necessary supplies suddenly doubled in price -- or became completely unavailable.

"So what do you want me to do?" Lem asked, although he already knew the answer.

"Get rid of her," his father replied immediately. "Her death will provide two benefits -- first, the Emperor will blame the Danosharans for any lapse in security that led to her demise; and second, he'll be sure to think the New Republic had something to do with it, so that will increase hostilities between the two governments. Our orders are bound to increase."

The old man's eyes twinkled with baleful glee. Nothing seemed to make Fenrus Sedaris happier than the thought of increasing profits -- especially if they could be gained through someone else's pain.

Lem thought he had never hated his father so much as he did at that moment. Not from any altruistic desire to save the Empress from an undeserved death, of course. Millions of beings died every day, so what difference would one more make? No, he simply had had enough of Fenrus Sedaris' endless manipulations, which of course included his own family. Even Lem's own election to the Senate had come about because of his father's maneuverings. "About time we had one of our own inside," he'd said, and Lem, as the eldest, had been the most likely candidate. Add to that the fact that he'd just gone through a messy divorce -- his ex-wife had had one too many run-ins with Fenrus and decided Lem wasn't worth the effort, thus making him free to move to Coruscant to advance the cause of the Fondor shipyards.

This whole situation left a bad taste in his mouth, but he'd do what had to be done. The old man had to die some day, after all, and then Lem would control everything his father had built up. It was worth a little pain now to reap the benefits later.

"We'll have to hit her in the Danoshar system," he said, thinking quickly. "We don't have anything that can go up against an Imperial capital ship, which I assume is what she'll be traveling on. But she'll have to take some sort of shuttle to the planet's surface, so that's the best time to attack."

"You'll coordinate?" asked Fenrus, his tone clearly indicating that he wasn't sure Lem was up to the task.

"I have some connections that will do nicely," Lem replied. Besides his public appearances at Senate meetings and the official round of his duties, he'd spent the bulk of his time on Coruscant cultivating the sorts of relationships that would prove valuable in situations such as these. Of course he'd never met any of these less than savory characters directly, but he knew people who knew people. It was the only way to get anything done and still escape detection. And his family's wealth worked wonders in lubricating these sorts of negotiations.

"She'll be at Danoshar two standard days from now. Get it done."

Nothing like working under pressure, thought Lem. It would be tight, but with the added incentive of a bonus to accommodate the narrow timeframe, it could be managed. "Consider it handled," he said aloud, wishing it were possible to reach through the holographic projector and throttle the person on the other side.

"Hmph," was all his father said, but Lem knew from bitter experience he wouldn't receive any more words of approval than that. "Get back to me when it's all over."

Anything for you, daddy dearest, Lem thought. "The Empress won't know what hit her."

"I hope for all our sakes that your right," responded Fenrus immediately. "Because if anyone finds out who was behind her death, it's going right on your head and ending there. Fondor won't get dragged into this." With those ominous words the transmission ended abruptly, and Lem was left staring into the blank space that had held his father's image only seconds before.

Risking someone else's neck for his own profit was signature Fenrus Sedaris, and Lem hadn't expected anything else. He had two younger brothers who could step into his place if necessary, and no doubt Fenrus considered Lem expendable. When this is over, old man, he thought, I'm going to kill you myself. And then I'll finally get to relax and enjoy the wealth you've held over my head my entire life.

Scowling, he turned from the holo-console and began planning the death of the Empress.