Take My Hand
Feeling the slight trickle of moisture on her forehead, the dancer lifted her hand to her head, grimacing with distaste when her hand came away wet with the faint sheen of her perspiration as she cursed under her breath at the oppressive heat of the dual Tatooine suns.
Damn, Force forsaken planet! she thought again for what seemed like the hundredth time.
Even the dim lighting and gently blowing breeze in the throne room of Jabba's palace, a daily concession to the intense heat of the early-afternoon Tatooine suns, was not enough to reduce the temperature to a more comfortable level. At least her costume was not a problem. She was dressed – if it could be called that – in a tight, black fishnet costume, with blue silk accents, strategically placed over her breasts and hanging from her hips, giving the suggestion of hedonistic sensuality. It did not leave much to the imagination.
Not for the first time, she wondered how he – or anyone for that matter – could have lived in this oven for the first eighteen years of his life.
She sighed and leaned back against the wall, slightly perturbed at the necessity of waiting for something to happen. Normally she would not allow herself the luxury of such a lapse of discipline while on a mission, but in this case she knew it would only help her cover – the dancer she was portraying was not known for her steel nerves and boundless patience. The dancer was an entertainer extraordinaire, a sensual goddess, although a little down on her luck as evidenced by her willingness to work in this sandy hole.
She snorted softly at the thought of someone actually working here of their own free will, wondering who in their right mind would want to work for a Hutt if they were not desperate. She glanced around briefly, knowing there were dancers here who had worked for the Hutt for many years and enjoyed the notoriety and luxury – not to mention the money – which Jabba provided for them. Jabba did look after his dancers in his way, but to her way of thinking it was simply not enough to counterbalance all the negatives this job carried, not to mention the consequences of displeasing the bloated crime lord.
She was seated with some of the other dancers on a bench against the wall, left of Jabba's enormous throne. The throne room was quiet, almost peaceful for the moment, a change from its normal raucous atmosphere, where the gangster's henchmen all seemed determined to outdo each other with their carousing, boasting and tales of their own brutality. The tranquility, however, was not to last, as Jabba normally awoke from his afternoon nap at about this hour, ready for an evening of music, entertainment and stuffing himself full of his favorite foods. Around the darkened confines of the throne room she could see his guards, thugs and sycophants as they lounged around, most copying their master's practice of napping during the early afternoon hours, although a few were talking together in low voices.
She glanced over at the throne, to where the massive, bulbous form of Jabba the Hutt lay dozing, the chain of his favorite slave held tightly in one meaty hand. Not for the first time she found herself thanking the Force that Jabba did not seem to go for redheads – he had not paid her any special attention, reserving his interest for his favorites. He seemed to prefer his many Twi-leks, Rodians, Yarna D'al Gargan his six-breasted Askajian dancer, or the occasional dark-haired human. She had found herself largely shunted to the side, called on to do little more than dance with the rest of the troupe – never having to be the center of the Hutt's lecherous attentions – a good thing considering being a favorite of the crime lord entailed little more than slavery. Though Jabba enjoyed their dancing and seemed to be almost aroused at times, she could not help but wonder what he thought he could do with them, their physiological differences making any sort of dalliance problematic at best.
She shuddered at the thought of any sort of physical relationship with the monstrous slug.
Determined to remove from her mind the images assaulting her senses, she focused on Jabba's current favorite, who lounged back against Jabba, constrained as she was by the heavy chain attached to the collar around her neck. She was merely a slave, not a dancer, and her arrival here had been both unconventional and unfortunate for the young woman. She had read the woman's entire dossier several times over – the woman was one of the Master's most hated and implacable enemies, one of the leaders of the rebellion and former Princess of the now destroyed world of Alderaan.
She firmly held her thoughts of the destruction of Alderaan at arms length, aware that if the Emperor ever discovered what she thought of the whole Alderaan mess, he would consider them traitorous. She focused instead on the petite, pretty woman lying in the clutches of the vile gangster. The woman was nothing if not brave and audacious. Her ill-fated rescue attempt of her rumored paramour from the previous night had been ill-conceived in its conception and poorly carried out – if she herself had been so careless and reckless in her missions, she would long ago have become an ex-assassin. Still, the woman had spunk and she could not but admire her for it.
As she sat contemplating the other woman, the slave suddenly glanced in her direction. As their eyes met, something passed between them – something she could not put a name to, but she was certain in that instant that the other had seen more in her than she had been willing to reveal. She was suddenly aware that the other was a very dangerous woman, one who had been fighting for her very survival for most of her adult life.
Unnerved by the woman's piercing stare but unwilling to show any reaction at all, she casually looked away, closing her eyes and concentrating on the Force. Her training was patchy and incomplete – her Master had only taught her the things he felt necessary for her to perform her duties – but she knew and had learned enough on her own to know the Force was strangely amplified and vibrant. The air was charged with expectation, and a whisper of excitement tickled her senses – a portent in the Force that something was about to happen. She was certain it was.
He was on his way. If there was one thing her files had been clear on, it was that the man was loyal to his friends to a fault. He would not leave them to rot in Jabba's palace; in fact, the woman's infiltration of the gangster's den may have simply been a prelude to the Jedi's arrival, though why they would send her in to be caught by Jabba was beyond her comprehension.
No, he was coming and soon. Whether he actually had the skill to release his friends in the face of the gangster's vile minions was another story. The Emperor had been adamant about this man's danger to the Empire, but privately, she was unconvinced of his importance. The Jedi were gone – there was no one left to help him and whatever his delusions of grandeur were, she was certain that he could only have taught himself so much. In her master, and to a lesser extent his lackey, she had been witness to a true mastery of the Force. He could not have become such an all-consuming threat in such a short period of time with no one to teach him.
In light of this, she was willing to bide her time, watching from the background, studying her enemy from a distance and if the Hutt managed to dispose of her adversary for her, so much the better. Her anonymity would be protected and extraction from the Hutt's operations would be much easier. If he turned out to be more than expected, she could take a more active role in his elimination.
With these thoughts running through her mind, she allowed her consciousness to wander along with the flow of the Force, feeling its currents and eddies, drifting, floating in its embrace. As she had noted earlier, the Force was more alive than she had ever before experienced, allowing her greater access and understanding in turn. She sensed the inhabitants of the immediate area – Jabba's minions – as well as the sparse life forms which clung to existence in the harsh environment of the desert planet. The desert life she took no notice of; the gangsters, little more. The woman restrained in front of the monstrous Hutt glowed in the Force, although she was not believed to be Force sensitive, while her companions were only slightly less visible.
As she cast her senses higher over the landscape of the planet, she was immediately drawn to another Force presence – one the like of which she had never before experienced. It was a beacon, calling her, whispering to her of things of which she had no comprehension, beckoning her with images of her past, promises for the future.
Her eyes snapped open and she stared sightlessly across the room. He was almost here and she immediately felt her body tense up with trepidation as well as a certain anticipation.
Calming herself, she forced herself to consider him in a coldly analytical fashion. His Force presence was bright and pure, shining with the intensity of the suns beating down on the planet's surface. She had never come into contact with a presence so distinctive, so compelling; she wondered at the effect he would have on her when he was actually in the same room.
Putting his disturbing presence aside for the moment, she forced herself to compare him with the others of her acquaintance. By contrast to his brilliance, her Master's presence was dark – black as onyx and cold as a Hoth Blizzard. As for the only other Force sensitive of her acquaintance – her Master's henchman – his presence, while dark was also shot through with flickering flames and tiny bursts of light. In short, neither was anything like the presence she had just experienced. The only other experience on which she could draw was a Jedi which they had hunted several years previously. This woman had been one of the last Jedi to be uncovered, as she recalled, and her Master had insisted on her accompanying his lackey, much to the black giant's displeasure. The woman they had caught up with and eventually killed had also had a signature steeped in the light, but nothing compared with the nova which was even now approaching the throne room.
Painfully aware she may have made a mistake in dismissing this man's competence and potential danger, she considered her options. Simply shooting him the moment he entered the throne room was out of the question – if he was any kind of Jedi at all, he would sense her hostile intentions and have his lightsaber out in an instant; she would lose any semblance of control of the situation if that happened. But if she left it too long, he might escape with his friends from Jabba's palace, leaving her to return to her Master and admit to her humiliating failure. She had never failed before and had no intention of experiencing the sensation now.
There simply did not appear to be a better option than her original plan. She was certain Jabba had something planned for the Jedi if he ever dared show his face, but short of dropping him into the rancor pit – something she was certain he would be ready for – she now doubted the gangster's minions would be up to the task. She would simply have to bide her time, look for an opportunity and when it presented itself, which she was certain it would, she would act to remove the troublesome pest. She would do her duty.
A commotion from the entrance to the chamber drew her attention and her stomach clenched with anticipation of the arrival of her quarry. As he walked into the room, her gaze latched on to him and never wavered. He was not a large man, standing a little less than average height, with a slender, almost slight build. He was dressed completely in black – from the knee-high boots, tunic and pants of an unremarkable cut to the rough cloak about his shoulders. He had the hood drawn up over his head, completely obscuring his features, and as he walked into the room, he murmured something to the Hutt's major domo, extending also a tendril of the Force toward the weak-minded Twi'lek, nudging the unfortunate in the direction of his choosing.
In spite of his unremarkable appearance, she was again struck with the force of his presence, his bearing and the light of his Force aura – which was even more bright and commanding than it had been from a distance. This was a very dangerous man – more dangerous than she had ever believed possible.
In that instant, whether by chance or some other means, his gaze suddenly shifted and she found herself staring into his eyes as his attention was immediately drawn to her presence. Where before she had thought his physical appearance unexceptional, she once again found herself forced to reconsider as she looked into his eyes. They were blue and piercing and although she knew intellectually he could not know who she was, she felt suddenly uncomfortable – exposed and laid bare to his judgment. She stood staring at him, unwilling and unable to break the connection, aware that he continued to return her gaze, neither able to wrench their eyes away from the other. Something indescribable passed between them – something she was unable, or unwilling, to identify. But on some level she knew they had communed with one another; their souls had made a connection in that instant and whatever was to happen, she had been forever altered as his presence had made an imprint upon hers.
Finally he broke the connection and turned his attention on the gangster, freeing her from captivity. Taking a deep breath, she closed her eyes and struggled to regain her equilibrium which had been so completely torn from her. She had always been cool and calm in the performance of her duties in the past, never affected by her targets – even those with whom she had come in contact before actually carrying out her mission. But this man had managed, simply with his presence and a mere look, to throw her balance off and leave her adrift.
Summoning all her training, she opened her eyes and sought her quarry once again, willing herself to consider him once again with the eyes of a hunter. Looking at him as he conversed with the Hutt, she thought back to the day she had been given the assignment. Her Master had been adamant of the danger of his continued existence and she had been able to feel the waves of his implacable hatred for this man, greater than anything she had ever witnessed from her Master before. She tried to remember her Master's hatred as it had washed over her, tried to make it her own – to give her a line to latch onto, to harden her for what she knew she had to do.
But it was no use. Hatred was the province of her Master and no matter how much she had tried to emulate him, to feel what he felt, judge as he judged, she had never been able to replicate it in herself. She had never been able to hate her targets, least of all this man. She was left with nothing more than her obedience to her Master's will and her duty to him. This man must die because her Master had decreed it – her own feelings in the matter, if any such existed, were irrelevant.
She would do her duty and carry out her mission, knowing all the while that something undefined would be lost when his life ended. In other circumstances, in another time, had the battle lines not been drawn, the outcome of their meeting could have been different – just how different she would never know. A sense of sorrow lanced through her, though for what she could not say. But she forced it down and returned to her study of the Jedi.
Her demeanor turned predatory once again, her former distress forgotten and filed away in the back of her mind. She watched intently as he spoke with Jabba, her mind worked through plans and machinations, calculating how best to end his life.
The reality was what it was – no amount of wishing or daydreaming would change the situation or who they were.
He was Luke Skywalker, self-styled Jedi Knight and traitor to the Empire.
She was Mara Jade, Emperor's Hand and instrument of her Master's will.
Here, she would end his life.