With the flow of returning Royal Guards and pilots finally dwindling, Koril released a long, tired sigh as he looked up and watched a few lumbering transports leave the Dalon Main Spaceport and return to their home hangars scattered about the city. He had traveled from Demmar to Paneau and back countless times already in the past few hours, on each trip supervising the return of Paneau's disabled fighters to the Royal Navy hangar nearby for repair. Having recovered and accounted for all of them, he was at last able to stay on Paneau soil for more than a few minutes. His Admirals and Generals were convening at the command center beside the spaceport for a meeting, and though he knew the outcome of the battle at Madiro had been costly for his fleet, he was glad he would be getting somewhat positive reports.
A group of Elite Guards led by Captain Aurin Jax met him at the Celestia's rear ramp, bringing his attention back down into the hangar. They were prepared to escort him next door, even though he hadn't requested them, but he had spent a lot of time over the past few days with the captain and couldn't deny him involvement in the closing procedures. Though the guards remained silent for the few minutes it took to reach the command center, Captain Jax took up stride beside Koril as they both nodded, expressing unspoken respect for each other. An odd kind of relief was evident on Jax's face, Koril noticed, as though something else entirely was on his mind, but since he remained quiet, Koril decided he'd ask about it after the meeting.
The command center was bustling with activity, as usual, but his officers all dutifully paused to salute him as he walked by, and he reciprocated it to return them to their jobs. Though the Royal Guard had been organized and well-prepared to defend its cities, Paneau had remained untouched throughout the whole ordeal with the Huxnel, and those guards and pilots that had been mobilized to Demmar and later to Madiro had performed admirably, as he had expected them. He couldn't have asked much more of his men, and passing dozens on his way to the conference room, he couldn't help but smile with pride. Jax noticed his expression, and just before he opened the door in front of them, he stopped briefly, turning to face him.
"You have the complete loyalty of the entirety of the Royal Forces, High Commander," Jax told him quietly. "You know that."
"I do," Koril agreed, glancing back at his officers who had resumed their work. "And the day I take that for granted," he continued solemnly as he returned to Jax, "...is the day Paneau falls."
Taking a moment to appreciate the gravity of his statement, Jax nodded respectfully and pressed the panel at the door to open it, leading him inside to the oval table where his Royal Guard and Royal Navy leaders awaited him.
More than ten officers stood and saluted when he entered the room, and after returning it and sitting at the head of the table, they, too, sat back down, looking expectantly at him. His two Admirals, Mik Sokol and Jahn Radaly, sat to his right with a few Majors remaining standing behind them, and to his left were his Generals, Alec Kareu and Tenak Erro, also flanked by a handful of Corporals. Just as Koril was about to invite General Kareu to begin his report, though, the elder Admiral spoke up first.
"High Commander," Radaly began, "have you been evaluated by our medics since you've returned?"
Briefly taken aback by the question, Koril shook his head, glancing at the four. "Not yet, but...I will later today. My health is not an issue right now, understood?"
The officers nodded, and though it was not the way he had hoped to begin the meeting, he released a short breath to clear his mind and returned to Kareu. "General, your report, please."
Kareu nodded and sat forward, subconsciously tapping the table in front of him as he thought. "Of the two hundred guards mobilized in the first wave on Demmar, four were injured and two were killed in the shuttle blasts, and two were killed by Huxnel agents near the platform, as you recall, High Commander. The thousand that arrived later with Captain Jax and myself were quickly dispersed about the city but were unable to find any other trace of the Huxnel within Wray. Salastryn's General Magri reported that his men recovered First Regent Onndo where your Lt. Brader reported seeing him, but the injuries he sustained at the hands of those Huxnel agents...claimed him about an hour ago."
Stunned, Koril sat motionless for a moment before he leaned forward and rested one forearm on the table and rubbed his face with his other hand, dismayed. Onndo had been the reason for all of their troubles with the Huxnel, having essentially arranged the first invasion in exchange for a deadly weapon schematic, but more than anything, Koril wanted answers out of the villainous crook. How had he known Paneau's secret? What plans did he have for that fleet of drones armed with the ship-disabling ion pulses? How deep did his corruption go within Demmar's elected officials? With Onndo gone, it seemed that none of his questions would be answered, unless his cohorts confessed to their involvement. But considering how many years Demmar had been embroiled in scandal, he sighed frustratedly with the realization that any further inquiries would most likely be useless and nothing but a waste of his time.
As Kareu continued, Koril leaned back in his chair to listen. "Second Regent Edeben Edlu is assuming command of their forces, but I've been told that there is a possibility that he was in on the scheme with Onndo, and the Demmar are aware of it, as well. They're asking for Sado Qi as their First Regent."
Koril nodded. "That's good. She seemed...genuine, unlike the rest of Onndo's staff."
His interest piqued, General Erro tilted his head slightly and spoke up for the first time. "Isn't she the one who found Mand Natiyr?"
Again, Koril nodded, and earning curious looks from the rest of his officers, he elaborated. "Mrs. Natiyr took it upon herself to find Onndo to make him explain his involvement in what was happening. Instead, she encountered Ms. Qi, wounded by the five Huxnel agents who had Onndo as their prisoner. She protected the Regional Regent when one of the agents attacked, and after a portion of the ceiling collapsed on top of her, Ms. Qi found us nearby and brought us to her so we could rescue her. Without Ms. Qi's help, we might not have found her in time."
"Do we know where those agents went, High Commander?"
General Kareu's question was immediately answered by Sokol. "They left aboard a shuttle, Sir."
Nodding, Koril looked to Sokol. "I know. I sent Lt. Brader after them."
Sokol's expression fell as he continued. "Just after you left with the fleet for Madiro...we lost track of both the shuttle and Lt. Brader's fighter outside the city. We haven't been able to find either."
After releasing a short breath in his compounding distress, Koril lowered his head. He had personally ordered Brader to follow the Huxnel shuttle, trusting the Edgepoint's skills in the cockpit to serve him well, so how could he not feel responsible?
"Searches are ongoing, Sir," Sokol continued quietly. "If he's still on Demmar, we'll find him."
Koril nodded solemnly, but intent on keeping the meeting going instead of dwelling on the missing lieutenant, he neutralized his expression and looked back up at Sokol. "Your report, Admiral?"
Sokol picked up a datapad on the table in front of him and quickly looked it over. "Two Valors, four Eclipses, and six Edgepoints were disabled, but all were returned safely to the Mazari Hangar. Preliminarily, it seems that most should be salvageable, but some will require the exchanging of their entire internal circuitry. When we get a better estimate of the damage in each fighter, we can make a more informed choice on repair or replacement. As it stands, our squadrons are operating at fifty-two percent, but on a positive note...we didn't lose any pilots over Madiro. Commander Cal Jax was a close call, again, but this time only his fighter's engines were damaged. Even the Edgepoints you sent to the disabled Valiance returned unscathed. The Royal Navy operated very well against the Huxnel drones, Sir, alongside Salastryn's squadrons. We couldn't have asked for a better outcome against that Destroyer."
Though weighted down with the earlier reports, Koril felt his mood lighten somewhat, exceptionally proud of his pilots. He nodded in agreement, and about to add his own remarks, he heard footsteps coming around the corner from the room's second entrance that stopped him. A pair of Royal Guards led Jedi Master Amina Kanomin and Commander Joshua Redgrave into the room, and though they surprised him, he stood, as did the rest of the room, to show them respect. Standing at the table's edge opposite Koril, Master Kanomin quickly waved them to sit as Joshua slowly lowered himself into a chair beside her, looking fatigued.
"Master Kanomin, Commander Redgrave," Koril addressed them as he sat, "I thought you would have returned to Coruscant by now."
The Jedi Master smiled with a light laugh. "On what ship, dear? Your Edgepoints were absolutely brilliant at getting the Valiance to come back to life briefly, but...the trip ahead of us is quite a bit longer than that, I'm afraid." Shaking her head to dismiss his awkward grin, she continued. "Commander Redgrave and I decided it best we remain here until the subspace network has been restored and you are reconnected with the rest of the galaxy. I was able to get a message out to the New Republic a few hours ago, and they are very eager to send whatever supplies are needed. Other than the obvious necessity of new transceivers, I told them you might be in need of some new fighters."
Though surprised, Koril shook his head immediately. "Master, I appreciate the aid, but it's really not neces--"
"Koril," she interrupted more forcefully though she pleaded gently, "...please. Allow us to repay you for your losses. When I told them what might have befallen Coruscant and what did happen here...they couldn't offer replacement fighters fast enough."
But Koril continued to refuse, determined. "Master, honestly... At least over Madiro, we didn't lose anything we can't replace or repair."
With their gazes locked together, Master Kanomin also stood her ground, her eyes intense. "Then we can provide you with the equipment and parts." After a moment, she smiled kindly, though, her blue eyes lightening. "You know me, Koril. I won't take no for an answer."
Resigning with a light sigh and a smile, he nodded, recalling her unwavering resolve in their past encounters. When he first met the strong-headed Jedi Master a year and a half prior, she had rescued him from near death at the hands of bounty hunters and then hid him in the safety of the Jedi Temple without hearing his protests. She took care of him while everyone else thought him killed, but with almost every interaction they had, she always exerted her will while somehow managing to honestly convince him to agree to her plan. Everything she did for him helped him while the investigation went on, and it didn't take him long to learn to go along with her requests. Once again disarmed by her charm, he looked at her with a defeated expression.
"Salastryn will receive supplies, as well?"
Master Kanomin nodded firmly. "Salastryn will receive supplies, as well. We'd even like to extend aid to Demmar, as soon as they can get themselves sorted out."
General Kareu arched an eyebrow. "That will take some time..."
Undaunted, she continued. "We won't ignore the needs of the Demmar because of the wrongs of their leaders. Everyone will get assistance."
"Speaking of," Koril transitioned, "is there anything we can do to accommodate your crew, Master, Commander Redgrave?"
With a brief glance down at Joshua seated beside her, she smiled again. "Lodging will do for now. Thank you."
Koril nodded. "Admiral Radaly, please make the necessary arrangements for the Valiance crew and for the Rallyes. Admiral Sokol, get me that report on the status of the fighters as soon as you can, and send a few Valors out to greet our New Republic supply ship. I want to know as soon as it arrives, and I want to be kept up to date on the search for Lt. Brader, as well. General Erro, maintain contact with Salastryn's General Magri on their progress and on any needs that arise. And General Kareu, see what kind of...assistance we can offer to Regional Regent Qi."
Getting acknowledgements from his officers, he stood and returned their salutes to send them to their tasks. Joshua slowly stood with help from Master Kanomin, and he, too, left with the others, aided by a Paneau guard for stability. Though Koril watched him with concern as he left, Master Kanomin stepped up beside him, speaking softly.
"He'll be alright, Koril. He's just a little...short on energy right now."
Koril suppressed a laugh. "I know how that feels."
Looking up at him, Master Kanomin smiled appreciatively. "Your Edgepoints saved his life." After a brief pause, she shrugged. "Well, I suppose they saved all our lives," she mused lightly. "They certainly know their trade."
Returning the smile, he nodded. "They wouldn't be Edgepoints if they didn't."
Though she nodded in agreement, her expression fell as she glanced out the conference room's east-facing window, looking out onto a calm dusk that was rapidly approaching Dalon. "Koril," she began more solemnly, "...Elena tells me that one of the Huxnel was a Dark Jedi."
He nodded reluctantly. "He attacked Mand."
"...is she okay?"
Though he opened his mouth to respond, he stopped himself just in time as he realized he couldn't. He hadn't heard any word of her condition since wrapping up the offensive over Madiro, nor did he know where she or Rech were. Surely they had returned to Paneau from Demmar already, but he couldn't be sure. He sighed, confessing his ignorance. "To be honest, I don't know. After the Dark Jedi brought down a ceiling on top of her...I don't know how she could be. But Rech's been with her, and she single-handedly saved our mission to Madiro. We weren't going to get anywhere with five of those drones tailing our fleet as we left Demmar, but she stopped them. We didn't lose any craft."
Hardly looking surprised, she nodded, sighing lightly as she tucked a stray curl of her brown hair from her face. "I should probably stay with Joshua for the time being. Let me know how she's doing?"
Getting another nod from him, she smiled softly and touched his arm as she passed him to leave. Stopping at the door, though, she turned back to him, her expression light. "And before I leave, I'm going to have to see that adorable son of yours again. I didn't get near enough time with him at your reception." With another kind smile, she left, leaving him alone in the room with Capt. Jax.
Finally settled in a bed in one of the larger first floor rooms of the Rys'tihn Manor, Mand kept her eyes closed in the dim lighting though she knew she wouldn't sleep. Her lingering headache was mostly pacified by the darkness, though the soft beeping of her monitors behind her didn't help. She heard the nurse shuffling around beside her, but as long as she didn't make any sudden, loud noises, she didn't mind.
Rech had been in and out since he had gotten her home from Demmar nearly four hours ago, but even his lengthy healing sessions did little to alleviate the pounding headache. He had mended her cracked skull, but she still had a decent recovery ahead of her if she couldn't shake the remaining pain. She idly thought that maybe she was preventing her own healing, left alone to brood over the past few days' events. Even if she hadn't been wounded so seriously, she suspected she might have been reduced to laying weakly in bed all day anyway, her grief and conflict manifesting physically as severe fatigue.
The door to her room quietly opened beside her, and she was glad to be facing away from the bright but brief light from the doorway. Though drained of energy, she was still able to tell that her visitor was not her husband, and she remained still until she heard the nurse speak up softly.
"High Commander, you should come back later. She's sleeping."
Surprised that Koril was her visitor, Mand slowly turned her head toward them, releasing a slow breath as she opened her eyes minimally to see them. Koril was dressed in one of his nicer uniforms, a simple deep indigo suit with a bold golden stripe crossing his chest diagonally and ornamented only by his rank badge below his shoulder. She had seen him in it at official functions, but not around his own home. He must have stopped by before going on to something more important. Unsure of the reason for his visit, she managed to find her voice.
"It's okay," she directed at the nurse, wincing lightly at the roughness of her words. Both looked surprised to see her alert, but the nurse still seemed reluctant. After a moment of thought, she returned to Koril as she sighed softly.
"Just a few minutes, High Commander," she told him. "She needs to stay relaxed."
Though Koril looked hesitant, as well, he nodded. "Very well. Thank you."
With a small bow, the nurse quietly stepped out of the room, leaving Koril to approach Mand with a slow gait as he carefully tugged a chair to her side. His expression was hard to read, but as he met her gaze, his eyes lightened with an apologetic smile.
"I didn't mean to wake you."
"You didn't," she whispered, "I was just resting."
Again his expression went unreadable, but the concern in his voice was noticeable. "How are you feeling?"
She took in a slow breath to combat the worsening aching. "My head still hurts, but...at least I can see again. Rech's been hard at work."
Koril furrowed his brows as he glanced behind himself at the empty room. "Where is he now?"
"I think he went upstairs to...relieve the nannies for a few minutes," she managed with a small smile. "He's been wanting to hold Cordira ever since..."
She couldn't bring herself to say it; she couldn't even control the breath that froze in her chest. Her eyes blurred involuntarily, so she closed them and called on the Force to calm her nerves and release the tension... She felt Koril's warm hand on her arm ease some of her stress, and looking back up at him to see his features entirely saturated with compassion, she nodded her thanks as she released a shaky breath. She needed something else to focus on, and without further questions from him, she reached underneath the light sheet that lay on top of her and unclipped Elena's saber that still hung on her belt. Her guilt and embarrassment for taking the weapon from her best friend without permission kept her gaze firmly fixed on the hefty silver hilt in her hand as she extended it to him, unable to look at his face.
"I assume you came to retrieve this?"
He took it from her grip slowly, looking it over absentmindedly as he thought. As his gaze returned to her, though, she was surprised to see sympathy in his eyes, nothing more.
"You know she would have given it to you if you had asked, Mand."
Though ashamed, she nodded, biting her lower lip anxiously. She knew, but her actions had been so...brash, impulsive, and irresponsible. She hadn't been in the right mindset at the time, and looking back on it, she wanted nothing more than to forget it. Thankfully he didn't dwell on it long, though, keeping his voice low as he moved on.
"I'll take it to her, but that's not why I came. I wanted to talk to you." He waited for her eyes to meet his once more before he continued. "Swip told me what you did, what happened to you. That was...an unbelievable sacrifice."
She blinked, her voice weak. "I had to."
"If you hadn't," he shook his head, "we would have never left Demmar, and we would have lost everything. You have made such an enormous impact throughout all of this, despite what had happened to you." He paused briefly to gently grip her hand at her side, his eyes soft but genuine. "As your Head of Security, and as your friend...I can't thank you enough."
Though she knew she didn't deserve his praise, she nodded after a long moment for his sake. She felt like nothing but a failure, having lost in a duel to Lucien, letting him and the other Huxnel escape. Her own body wouldn't allow her to nurture a tiny, innocent life because of what the experimentation had done to her years ago, and she knew she was nothing but disappointing to Rech for the way she cut him off from her feelings in the aftermath of her loss. She had almost begun to remind Koril of her unforgivable mistakes when he spoke up first instead, though his tone was much more subdued than before.
"I also wanted to talk to you...to apologize for the way I treated you on Salastryn."
Dumbfounded, Mand furrowed her brows as she struggled to understand his logic. Just after the security summit had closed in Amavelle on Salastryn and was being moved to Demmar, she had let slip that she had been involved in the theft of the painting belonging to Tarin and Jaala Scorne, and Koril had pieced together that it coincided with his Aunt Jaala's death... In his shock and disbelief, he left her behind without a second thought, and she deserved it.
Looking at him again, she shook her head, hardly able to find her voice. "You don't owe me an apology, Koril. You had every right to be upset with me; you still do."
But Koril shook his head, too, his expression resolute. "I overreacted. You were trying to explain, but I wasn't even listening." Though he said nothing more, his eyes encouraged her to tell her story, and despite wanting nothing more than to bury it with her dark Huxnel past, she felt oddly compelled to explain. It wouldn't exonerate her from her contribution to Jaala's death, but perhaps it would at least put his mind at rest.
She sighed shakily, pulling her thoughts together as she recalled what she could. He tightened his grasp around her hand just slightly, though whether for his comfort or hers, she didn't know. After allowing the silence to linger for a moment more, she rolled her head away from him to stare at the ceiling as she spoke.
"It was supposed to have been a clean operation. We were to be in and out and gone before anyone noticed what had happened..." Swallowing hard to calm her quivering voice, she slowly continued. "She wasn't supposed to die...no one was.
"My partner and I were assigned to...acquire the painting not long after Onndo hired the Huxnel for it. I was simply the extractor; my partner spent more than six months getting himself into the Scornes' shipping business and working his way up through the ranks to get a better survey of their security. He got close to Jaala, though...closer than he was supposed to. But he did his part; he got all the intel we needed.
"It only took us a few days to devise a plan to circumvent all the trips and triggers in the vault where Tarin kept the painting. We had everything under control: we knew when the guards would be changing, when certain key hallways would be empty, what the security codes would be for that day... We were almost ready, a mere three hours before we'd set our intricate plan into motion...when everything changed.
"Somehow, another group of pirates caught wind of the painting's secret, and they wanted it. Jaala was just coming back from a trip off-planet, and he would have been with her when I took it if we had been able to wait, so as to keep suspicion away from him, but we had to start ahead of schedule, and he raced to meet her ship to escort her home while I began the extraction before the pirates arrived.
"I had gotten to the painting unnoticed, had tucked it away in a durable canister, and was on my way out when I found myself in the one tunnel that hadn't been cleared. In his haste to get to Jaala, my partner had left one last security trigger on...and I tripped it. I was sealed inside, and the only way I was going to get out alive was if he came back and somehow carved through the ice rock to get me out before it imploded.
"He could have let me die. The painting would have survived the blast just fine, and he could have simply recovered it later. He didn't have to come back for me...but he left Jaala vulnerable instead. He got through the wall somehow and pulled me out just as it collapsed, and even though we were both injured by the pressure escaping from the hole he had created, we were both still alive... As we were leaving, we could only watch as the pirates destroyed Jaala's shuttle before she could even reach her home hangar.
"He was never the same after that. He blamed himself for the choice he had made, but I still don't understand it. I don't know if at that point in my life that I would have done the same for him...but I guess with both Tarin and Jaala gone, it didn't matter if anyone knew who had taken the painting. We had been successful, and that was all that mattered to our superiors."
Postponing meeting his gaze again, she glanced about the room wherever he wasn't, her voice shaking even more. "I should've told you."
Surprising her, Koril's voice sounded more curious than critical. "How long have you known?"
"About a year," she answered quietly. "Elena was telling me about the first time you went to Hoth together...to get Jaala's things. That's when I knew."
Another tense silence hung between them for what felt like an eternity, but Mand was unprepared for his next question.
"Your partner... It was Horatio Sheridan, wasn't it?"
The stunned, terrified look on her face was almost immediate. She had yet to even tell Rech of her ties with Horatio, and she wasn't sure if she had the stomach to after all the trouble he had caused them recently; it would only open more wounds, and she didn't think she could handle any further distress.
Koril seemed to expect her reaction, though, sighing lightly as he explained. "He mentioned having worked with her, and that they had been close enough for her to have confided family information to him. That's why we met him, for what he knew about Jaala's research on a Rys'tihn ancestor."
Though desperate to formulate a response, her mind was blank. He now knew that it was her former partner that had both saved his life and nearly killed him just months ago, that she and Horatio had a long, intricate history together, and she hadn't yet told any of her closest friends who had encountered him. Would he expose her for her lies and her undisclosed past in retaliation for the death sentence she had inadvertently handed to his aunt?
But amazingly, Koril's eyes never showed anger of any kind. He looked saddened at times and at others unsure, but as he looked at her once more, his expression couldn't have been any further from angry.
"Mand," he began softly, "it's done. It has long since been over. Nine years is a long time to bring about change in someone. It sounds to me like his choice began to change you, too. He based his decision on what he thought was right, and if you think about it, that's how you operate, as well. You don't understand it because it's such an innate part of you, your mind can't even make sense of it. You just do it, you don't have to mull it over.
"I know you won't believe me," he paused as he looked down briefly, "but...now that I know, I am glad that he went back for you. I can't even begin to imagine what the last seven years would have been like if you hadn't first come to Paneau...intent to destroy us. But you did the right thing: you chose a friendship over your orders. You didn't even have to think about it.
"And likewise, I don't have to think about this, either: it was not your fault, and I do not want this to change our friendship. I have nothing but the utmost faith in you, and I always will." A small smile formed at the corners of his mouth as he continued. "Do you think you can accept that?"
Though she had been trying to hold back tears for fear of making her headache worse, a few escaped as she nodded shakily and offered a small smile of her own in return. Even without the energy to, she somehow managed to slowly raise herself up from her bed to meet his warm, comforting embrace, feeling her heart lift the longer he held her.