It was a peculiarity of procedure that they placed each prisoner before a mirror before what was commonly referred to as "the exit interview." She did not know what the origin of the tradition was—perhaps some aggrieved and indignant noblewoman had demanded to go out looking her best—but it made one thing perfectly clear. While every person in this stylized hell had entered the same way and would meet death with the same model of military-issue blaster, they chose their last moments individually upon looking at the skeleton in that mirror.

The exit interview was equal parts fairy tale and horror holo. There were whispers among the condemned that they gave each person a single moment in which redemption was an option. In the midst of the gut-wrenching 'questionings' and the periodic beatings that lasted an indeterminate amount of time before they tired of screams or silence, they would ask a single question that would make all of the difference. One simply had to know how to answer.

In theory, that mirror forced every prisoner to decide if they would respond when they reached that moment. They would look on the sunken eyes, the hollowed cheeks and half-healed fractures and consider what they had done to earn this. They would stare into the hollows of their eye sockets, perhaps press a hand to the spot over their still-beating heart and decide whether or not they wanted to come back from this grave.

She did not know how many exit interviews would be conducted today. Sometimes, they would lose their fellows one at a time and would only notice that the person who met their gaze at roll call had disappeared. At other times, there were entire groups missing and those who remained would wonder whether they would replace those long gone. The alternative was unthinkable, but they all silently recognized the possibility that one day there would be no others to stand between them and death.

As it was, the walk from the cell to the interrogation was as solitary as the prisoners' day-to-day confinement. There were no guards visible in that long corridor, but there did not have to be any. There was no discernible way out and there was no way of knowing if there was something worth living for if they did manage to escape.

At the end of the corridor, a door was opened on silent, old-fashioned hinges by a single guard and she entered the utilitarian 'fresher. The guard closed the door and stood just as silently, for once not making any move to restrain her or command her time. She had already withstood the morning's chemical bath, so there was nothing to clean. Several grooming implements, such as a straight-edge razor and a hairbrush were provided, but nothing in the way of concealing agents or eyepaints. Perhaps it was too much that in a prison with only seven women, they might consider their minority population.

Once upon a lifetime, she would have had all the energy she needed to summon her vanity or find dignity in what she could do here. It was unlikely that they had anything that could restore her to some form of beauty. Her hair, once a dark coppery red, was instead brittle and dull. Even if she could part her cracked and ulcerated lips to smile, there would be no beauty in her decayed teeth. None of the lotions could cover the raw and peeling parts of her skin. Even her figure was brittle and shrunken, hunched inwards around the distension of her abdomen.

The best she could hope for was to be so silent that the interrogators lost interest quickly. Mercy was an unlikely possibility, but death would be the only cruel and welcome mercy that they knew of.

Instead of seeking comfort in concealment, she stared into the mirror, looking for something familiar there. When she found nothing, she continued to look, wondering if she would look just as haunted at the moment that the appointed guard pulled the trigger as she did now.

One thing was absolutely certain: she would remain silent until then.

She turned sluggishly away from her reflection and nodded at the guard with what was supposed to be an imperious expression rather than a slack look of resignation. He opened the door on the other side and let her pass.

She knew exactly what she could have expected under normal circumstances. She had been seized so many times upon entering this room so many times that the brutality of the gesture would have been both commonplace and tiring. After the first few times, she had forgotten to struggle. The guards would have thrown her into her place nonetheless, hoping that she would cower and beg for mercy in exchange for information. She had earned regular beatings for the simple fact that she was never sufficiently frightened for their tastes.

Today, she found her own way to the middle of the room and sat in the straight-backed chair that had caught her blood, sweat and tears on more than a few occasions. A pair of painful heartbeats later, the interrogator entered through the same door through which she had entered. Perhaps he had been curious as to what she had done to prepare herself for this.

She stared straight ahead, seeing nothing and knowing the first question. It was always the first question.

"Do you think he will come for you today?"

Chapter 1

It took a concerted effort to look this good. She had allowed ample time for the preparations, but even with all of the time in the world, she could sabotage her own efforts. With an unsteady hand at the lips or eyelashes, she might suffer a setback and today was hardly a day when she could afford one of those.

She had fostered a keen sense of concentration over the years, but this was different. Her mother was torturing her hair into cooperative ringlets, her hand was trembling with adrenaline and her younger sister was pestering her with questions.

"When was the last time you saw him, Mne?" Valeria demanded.

"A month after Father's appointment," Amne Selrieen reported dutifully as she considered the eyepaints available. "You recall. He came to visit at the Spring Equinox festival."

"But that was forever ago!"

Amne supposed that, to an eleven-year-old, four months was "forever ago."

"How do you know you still like him?" Valeria asked, sprawling on Amne's bed with her chin propped on her elbows.

This was a variation of her original objection, voiced to her mother when she was a year younger and more naïve. Valeria could be forgiven for it, since she was half Amne's age and of a much more whimsical temperament.

Vali had also never heard Mother's lecture on the reasons that courtship had nothing to do with love. Taia willing, Vali would never need to.

"I have high regard for him," she said honestly, "and he is a very kind man."

"And he's proved himself worthy of any person's respect," Mother added.

"And you sound like you're one of his political campaigns," Vali muttered. "I don't think you love him at all."

Usually, this was when Mother stepped in to explain the ambiguous meaning of the word 'love' or to change topics before Amne could decide that love mattered a great deal. Twenty-two years of being her mother's daughter had broken her of the habit, but Mother still tended to worry.

Instead, this time, she remained silent, clearly anticipating that Amne would recite the familiar lecture on her behalf. Amne set down her jar of eyepaint and turned her narrow chin as much as she could without disturbing Mother's work.

"I care for him and I believe in his principles," she said quietly, reaching for her only sister's hand. "I believe that it will become love someday."

"Fine," Vali sulked. "Marry him then."

"Valeria!" Mother said sharply.

Valeria did not look apologetic at the sharp retort, but stood and yanked her hand out of her sister's grasp. "I have to get changed," she said petulantly.

"Yes, miya," Mother sighed. "The ivory one that Ilse laid out for you."

A moment later, Vali had escaped to her room, leaving Amne alone with her Mother and a few dozen hair fastenings. The woman was still trying to pin her curls up into an elegant coif rather than letting them tumble loose as was Amne's habit. She glanced up to admire her work and instead found Amne meeting her gaze with a slightly wry smile.

"Sometimes I miss the days when I was young enough to be your miya," Amne confessed.

At that, Mother finally smiled and the woman who had raised her was once more recognizable under the mask of tension that she had worn for the last few years. She bent in mid-work, kissing the crown of Amne's head gently as if she were miya—my little one.

"As do I," she murmured.

She straightened, going back to pinning as Amne dusted her freckled cheekbones with a light layer of powder. There was a change, though. Mother was not as perfunctory and intense as she had been a few moments ago and preened as if she were grooming a favorite doll.

"He'll be pleased with you," she said quietly. "No man could think otherwise of my daughter."

"I hope so," Amne said in like tones. "I believe he is a good man and do not wish to displease him."

Mother's hands, finally finished with the tedious work of styling her daughter's hair, rested instead on the younger woman's shoulders.

"I may have spoken too strictly," Mother apologized, meeting her gaze in the mirror again. "I wish you to marry him because he is a good man and he will give you a good life, but I want you to find your own reasons for being happy at his side."

"As you did," Amne observed.

"Yes," Mother confirmed. "It was quite easy for me to fall in love with the man that my father had chosen. I did not wish an arrangement for you, but…"

"I know," Amne said. "It's not so much an arrangement as suggesting a mutually beneficial agreement."

Mother grimaced in a heartfelt manner. "Yes, if you want to think like your merchant father," she sniffed.

"Father means well, even if he sometimes thinks of me as a valuable collector's item," Amne teased.

"Well," Mother mused, "you are that as well."

She felt heat rise in her cheeks and she glanced down, busying herself with searching through her jewelry box for a suitable pair of earrings. Finally, she found teardrop pearl earrings that Father had given her upon graduating from the Academy and settled them in her earlobes.

"Do you really think marriage will come up tonight?" she asked nervously.

"Not if you don't want it to," Mother assured her. "I'll make sure of that."

Without further comment, Mother stepped away, moving to the wardrobe where her gowns were kept. She returned in a moment with the one they had chosen by mutual consent the night before. A deep blue, it was elegant enough to befit her station, but short enough that the newly-minted Ambassador's daughter would not make a fool of herself. It was the same color that she had often seen on members of the Senate and Mother had suggested it because her suitor would admire how well she suited power.

Amne preferred the gown because it was simply designed and not too low-cut or tight-clinging to embarrass her. It was also made of a heavy velvet, perfect for the winter storms that had been assaulting Crevasse City for the last four days.

Amne carefully stepped into the dress and let Mother tightly lace up the back. Her reflection in the mirror suggested that she was calm and composed and elegantly dressed. In truth, one out of three wasn't bad.

"Perfect," Mother murmured in her ear as she settled a strand of pearls in Amne's hair.

Before Amne could respond, there was a knock on the door. She sighed, pulling back and smoothing the skirt of her dress.

"Come in."

Anselim, her father's manservant entered and bowed slightly. "Milady," he addressed her, "Senator Palpatine is awaiting your convenience."