The door to the Solo apartment buzzed, and Han called out to Threepio, "Get that, will ya, Goldenrod? I'm kinda busy here." Carefully, the blind Corellian returned to changing his daughter's diaper, wishing Chewie would hurry up and get back from the store. How could they possibly be out of diapers already? It was only a few days ago they had hauled what seemed like twenty new diaper boxes into the apartment. Han pressed down the self-sealing strip, and ran his hands over the bulky panties, double checking his work. Then he gently picked Jaina up, and placed her back into the crib with her brother. "There you go, kiddo, all nice and clean." He reached over, lightly running his fingers across his son's face, smiling at the sound of the child softly cooing. His children. He'd survived a year and a half of blindness, gotten married, and become the father of twins. Sometimes, he even amazed himself.
"Master Solo?" Threepio called into the nursery. "There is a visitor at the door asking to speak to you."
Han turned away from the crib and faced the droid. "Who is it?"
"She says her name is Massy Wennit, and she is quite insistent. Shall I tell her to leave? She is waiting in the lobby."
Massy Wennit. For some reason, the name sounded familiar to Han. "No, I'll go talk to her. You stay here and keep your photoreceptors tuned on the twins."
"Most certainly, Master Solo. Although I'm not programmed as a nanny droid, I certainly do appreciate all the trust you place in my abilities to - " The golden droid stopped talking as Han exited the room and walked down the hallway. "How very rude!"
The lobby was an entryway into the Solos' apartment. It was somewhere guests could wait without standing in the public outer hallway, yet they needed to enter a second, locked doorway to actually be inside the spacious apartment. Security cameras recorded those inside this lobby area, so Leia, Chewie or Threepio could view whoever was waiting before unlocking the door. Han didn't have that luxury - he stopped near the closed doorway and hesitated for a second. Chewie would want him to wait until he returned, and Leia wouldn't be happy at all that Han would meet a total stranger without backup. Han hadn't changed that much since his blindness, however. He reached up, pressing the 'open' button, listening as the door slid open, and instantly smelling cloyingly sweet perfume. "Can I help you?"
"So, Captain Solo," a gushing, feminine voice reached his ears. "It's so very nice to finally meet you! I can't tell you how many times I've left messages with your wife at her office, but she's always too busy to return my calls."
The stranger touched Han's arm, and he backed away in reaction to the invasion of his personal space. It was the voice that finally allowed Han to place the name. He'd listened to this woman many times interviewing various high placed politicians, celebrities and sports stars, even long before the fall of the Empire. He could picture what she looked like in his mind. Massy Wennit was in her fifties, with silver-blue hair piled high atop her head; tall and fashionably thin, eyes lined with far too much blue makeup the same shade as her hair, a rather pointy long nose and puffy purple-lined lips. Han could have kicked himself for not placing the name faster. Leia was going to kill him for answering the door.
"Yeah, Leia's been kinda busy," Han said dryly. "Running around the galaxy as a New Republic ambassador keeps her pretty booked."
"Not to mention having six-month old twins!" the woman breathed, moving closer to Solo.
"You're probably wondering why I'm here."
Not really. "I guess."
"I'd so like to interview you and your wife on my holo-program, 'The Movers of the Galaxy, with Massy Wennit'. Have you heard of it? I'm sure you have.. I've interviewed hundreds of important people, and interviewing you and your wife would be a real jewel in my crown, so to speak. Your wife is so beautiful and so very influential, and you... well you are so a story unto yourself, aren't you? So what do you think?"
Actually, Han was wondering about how many times she could insert the word 'so' into a conversation. "If you give me your holo-ID, I'll be sure to pass the message to my beautiful wife."
The woman laughed. "I've heard about your famous sense of humor, Captain. It's so nice to know you haven't lost it."
Famous? "Why would I have lost it?" Han asked smoothly, knowing he was putting the woman on the defensive.
"Ah, um, well, you know.... marriage, babies..." He could hear her shifting on her feet. "The things I'd like to interview you about."
"I'm the only guy in the galaxy that's gotten married and had kids in the past year? Wow, I didn't know I was such an anomaly."
"You don't take any bantha dung, do you Solo?" Wennit replied, her voice changing from a fame-struck fan to pure business. "Let me be more direct. Your life is of vast interest to the citizens of the New Republic. A blind smuggler that marries a Princess, and travels the galaxy with his Jedi brother-in-law looking for Force-sensitives. You are rather unique, and I'd pay you very well for a live holo-interview."
Han wondered how this woman knew about his travels with Luke. For the past six months, since the twins were born, he'd spent most of his time on Coruscant, while Luke was busy training the few Force-sensitives they'd found scattered throughout the galaxy. A grand total of four beings. Han suspected either the old Twi'lek Jedi Oloppa had been mistaken about Han being able to attract Force-sensitives, or Force-sensitives were very few and far between. "I don't need your money, Miss Wennit," Han said, trying to remain polite. "And I don't want to be interviewed, either. Have a nice day." Han started to turn to reenter the apartment.
"I don't give up easily, Captain. You'll be hearing from me again - in some way."
Han heard the outer door open. For a moment he thought Massy Wennit was departing, then he heard a growling wuff - Chewie was returning with the diapers. *Is there a problem here, Han?*
"Nah.... Miss Wennit was just leaving. Right?"
"For the moment."
He could hear her sharp heels clicking as they echoed down the corridor. "My life never gets boring, does it, pal?" Han asked Chewie with a shake of his head.
Luke entered the office of his sister, Ambassador Leia Organa-Solo, and smiled at her as she spoke by holo-comm to a Senator from Nal Hutta. After a while, the Hutt angrily cut the connection, obviously not hearing what he wanted. Leia sighed and leaned back in her chair, looking up at Luke. "This has been one of those days, and it's only lunchtime."
The Jedi sat down in a nerf chair in front of her cluttered desk. "What did you need to see me about?"
"I just heard a rumor from the Imperial Regions, and I thought you might be interested." Leia bit her lower lip nervously. "Apparently, the Empire has new leader."
"Another Moff?" Luke questioned, raising his eyebrow. Moffs seemed to be cropping up on a weekly basis, declaring themselves the new ruler of the Imperial Regions. Fortunately for the New Republic, that resulted in internal bickering, battles and assassinations among the Imperials. If they fought amongst themselves, it left little time to bother the New Republic.
"No, it's a woman."
"A woman?" Luke repeated in surprise. Palpatine had been openly opposed to females in high positions on his staff, as well as having a bias against non-humans.
"According to our sources, she's the new leader. And she's about to declare herself the Empress."
"If you're a Sith, I don't think that matters."
Luke looked up sharply. "A Sith? She's Force-sensitive?"
"That's what I've heard. I hope it's not true, but this comes from one of our most reliable contacts."
"What's the New Republic planning on doing about this?"
"Only a few people know, and they seem to be as confused and worried as you might expect. No one knows what to do."
"Do you know this woman's name?"
"Not yet, but we're working on it," Leia said, standing up. "In the meantime, how about heading back to my apartment for a little lunch?"
Nodding, Luke stood and offered Leia his arm. "Sounds great. I think better on a full stomach," he lied, thinking about how his stomach was churning at the thought of another Sith.
Luke sniffed the air as he entered Leia's apartment. "Lunch smells good."
"I know," Leia said with a dramatic sigh. "Han's cooking is still better than mine." She smiled to herself, thinking back on how many minor disasters Han had experienced in the kitchen as he re-learned to cook without vision. Over-spiced food. Roasts burned a lovely shade of charcoal. Vegetables that turned into slop. He had nearly given up, but with the firm insistence of Leia and the patience of his therapist, Dr. Deckat, eventually he'd regained yet another skill. All the foodstuffs, measuring spoons and spices were now clearly marked with raised letters, and everything was left in a very organized manner, since misplaced objects could only be located with either a great deal of searching on Han's part, or with someone assisting him.
"Master Luke! Mistress Leia!" Threepio called out. "I can report that the children have behaved very nicely today." He looked down at Artoo, rolling in the room behind Luke. "I hope the same can be said of you, Artoo." The little droid made an electronic warble as he moved past the tall droid.
"Hello my little loves," Leia whispered into their sweet smelling hair, as she picked Jacen up out of his playpen. "Have you missed your mommy?"
Luke bent over and retrieved Jaina. "How have you been, Jaina?" He laughed as his niece grabbed at his nose, then watched as his brother-in-law and Chewie came out of the kitchen, carrying trays of warm breads and steaming Corellian meats.
"You two hungry?" Han asked, grinning as he set down the food on the dining room table.
"Famished," Luke admitted, settling down at the table with Jaina on his lap and trying to put thoughts of far away Siths out of his mind.
Chewie woofed his agreement, digging into the generous portions of meats.
"Hey, save some for us," Han protested, knowing full well the voracious appetite of the Wookiee.
*Running around after two tiny humans makes me starved!* Chewie howled in protest. *You would not think they could move so fast just by crawling on all fours.*
"Just wait until they learn how to walk, pal. You think you're tired now," Han said with a smirk.
Luke piled the spicy sweet-meats on a warm roll, and took a big bite. He looked over at his family, trying to feel the same contentment he'd always felt during these moments, but the normal peace and happiness eluded him. Something was stirring in the Force, and Luke could sense trouble in the future. He looked over at his sister, seeing the same worry in her expression.
As the Jedi twins made eye contact, Leia tightened her hold on Jacen, then she looked over at her husband, who was still unaware of this new problem. A fierce sense of protectiveness swept over the Princess as she worried about her family, because whoever this new Empress was, she was undoubtedly a threat to everything Leia loved, and all she held dear.
Carida, Imperial Space
The man entered the room, snapping to attention before his new commander. "Empress, you have summoned me."
The red-headed Empress leaned back on her throne, looking over at the short-haired, green-eyed Corellian. He was Force-sensitive, of that she was certain, but he was unaware of this talent. That would soon change, since she needed a second-in-command. A Force-user less powerful than herself would do nicely, and the Empress knew she could bend this man to her will. He would become her very own Hand - something that was a long time in coming. The Corellian had served the Empire now for quite awhile, and giving him an assignment he enjoyed would cement his loyalty to her.
"I plan on announcing myself to those weaklings that call themselves the New Republic. However, I do think I need some visual aids, just to show them who they are dealing with." Her hard green eyes noted the man's look of confusion. Amused, she continued, "You spent a great deal of time during your service to CorSec searching for criminals and low-life smugglers, didn't you?"
"And one in particular."
The man's face changed slightly as annoyance crossed his features. "One in particular," he acknowledged with a slight nod of his head.
"And that one's name....?"
"Solo. Han Solo."
The Empress gave the man a stunning smile. "Yes - Solo. I wish for you to go to Coruscant and join the New Republic as a pilot. Once you are accepted, you will bring me Solo. Quite alive, of course, since dead he would be of little use to me as bait." Bait for the Jedi Skywalker. She knew he would come for his friend, just as he came to the rescue on Tatooine. If only things had gone differently that day. But if they had, she wouldn't be the Empress, so perhaps the Force had worked events in her favor.
"You wish me feign defection from the Empire?" The words left a sour taste in his mouth. He loved the Empire, especially after his father had been murdered by Rebel scum.
"Ah, my dear Commander, you are such a loyal officer. You will know, in your heart, the truth," the Empress said, thinking about how little this man really knew, since he believed his father had been killed by the Rebels. In reality, the Empire had arranged the CorSec officer's demise, since the older man was beginning to ask too many questions. You didn't ask questions when you served the Empire. If you did, most likely you did not survive to hear the answers to your questions. "You do wish to serve me, don't you?"
"Of course, Empress."
"And bringing Solo to Imperial justice would bring you pleasure, wouldn't it?"
The Corellian smiled, thinking about being finally able to accomplish what he'd tried and failed in the past - making Han Solo pay for his crimes. Bringing him to his new Empress would be very easy, since it was common knowledge the smuggler now lived on Coruscant, and was unable to see. "Very much, my Empress."
"I thought so. Now you will listen very carefully to my plans...."
Coruscant, four days later
Wedge Antilles pushed a second glass of ale toward Han, stopping when the bottom edge of the glass touched the former smuggler's fingertips, and Han grasped the handle. "How'd you get out of taking care of the kids today, Han?" Wedge asked good-naturedly. The men were out for the evening at a popular pub, a rare occurrence for this particular threesome. In fact, the last time Wedge could remember being with both Han and Wes was before the evacuation on Hoth.
"I think Leia was starting to feel sorry for me," Han replied with a lopsided smile. "Actually her an' Winter took the kids shopping. I hated shopping even when I could see, so now I get out of it entirely."
"So that explains why you're wearing a spotted pink blouse and striped purple pants," Wes Janson remarked. "Leia's got a great sense of humor, Solo."
Solo's hand moved slightly for his shirt, stopping himself in mid-movement before he realized what Janson was doing - taking advantage of his blindness yet again. His face flushed with embarrassment as Janson burst into laughter, but in a strange way it felt nice that his friends didn't feel the need to walk on eggshells around him. "Funny, Janson. Teasing a blind guy can be dangerous, ya know, especially when the blind guy has a Wookiee watchin' his back."
"Where is the Wook?" Janson asked, not in the least bit concerned about Han's threat.
"He went home to Kashyyyk for a few days. I think he misses his own kid even more now that Jacen and Jaina have been born." Han lifted the mug of ale to his mouth and took a generous swallow, wiping the foam off his lips with the back of his hand.
"Excuse me," an unfamiliar voice spoke from behind Solo. The Imperial had been sitting at a table next to the three men, listening to their friendly banter. It had been extremely easy to locate these Rebels - almost like he'd been drawn by some unseen power to this particular cantina located in the upper levels of Coruscant. He shrugged off the odd notion. It was coincidence, nothing more.
Wedge and Wes both looked up at a well-muscled man with short black hair. "Can we help you?" Wedge asked politely.
"I'm looking for General Wedge Antilles," the man replied, his eyes flicking briefly on the back of Solo's head before returning his gaze to Wedge. "You're wearing a New Republic General uniform, sir. I thought you might know him."
"I'm General Antilles," Wedge answered cautiously, aware that both Han and Wes's hands had dropped beneath the table, undoubtedly to retrieve their blasters.
The stranger nodded. "That's quite fortuitous. My name is Corran Horn, General Antilles. I'm interested in joining the New Republic." Horn hesitated for a second, then continued, "I'm a very good pilot."
"Horn?" Han questioned, frowning as he twisted his body toward the man standing behind him. "Any relation to Hal Horn?"
"He was my father, before he was killed by a smuggler," Horn said sharply, unable to keep the distain from his tone. Of course, Horn knew that wasn't the truth. The truth was his father had been murdered by the Rebels, but since Solo was one of those as well, it hardly mattered. "Isn't that what you used to be, before your accident, Solo? A smuggler?" A Rebel?
"Accident? It was no accident, Horn," Han returned evenly.
"I see you already know Han by reputation," Wedge inserted quickly, wanting to avoid any confrontation. Wedge waved his hand at Wes. "And this is Lieutenant Commander Wes Janson."
"Never mind me. I'm only sitting here quietly basking off the fame and glory of my companions," Wes deadpanned.
Corran Horn laughed uneasily, knowing he shouldn't have been so impolite to the smuggler. He needed to maintain his veneer. The Empress would not be happy with his performance. "I apologize, Captain Solo. I've been on edge since leaving Carida. Guess I'm used to being the hunter, not the hunted."
"You were with the Empire until recently?" Wedge asked, indicating Horn should take a seat.
Reluctantly, Horn sat down next to Solo. It was uncomfortable being in such close quarters with his enemies. "Yes, I was a Captain in the Navy."
"Why are you leaving them and joining us?" Han asked, taking another sip of his drink.
Us. Horn wanted to spit in the smuggler's face. Since when did legitimate governments embrace criminals like Solo? Since when did a princess marry worthless scum like Solo? Then again, they all were criminals, having worked in unison to overthrow a fair and just Empire - princesses and smugglers alike. Rebel scum, one and all. Murderers. "The Empire is worthless," Horn lied smoothly. "Nothing but in-fighting and petty bickering. I finally see that it's corrupt to the very core, and I'd like to help finish it off."
"Or you'd just rather be on the winning side?" Han shot back.
Horn clenched his fists under the table. It would feel very good to be on the winning side for a change. He couldn't wait to bring this smuggler before his Empress. "A new ruler is about to rise up in the ranks of the Empire. I'm not sure what the winning side will be when the dust settles, but I guarantee that you're going to need all the good pilots you can get once she takes charge."
"She?" Wes asked, raising his eyebrows. "The new Emperor is a woman?"
"Empress," Horn corrected. "Empress Jade will give the New Republic everything they can handle, and then some."
The next day.
"Mara Jade. At least we finally have a name," Leia said, pacing the living room while Han sat on the floor with the babies, rolling a large soft ball toward the children to amuse them.
"If we can trust this Horn guy. I got the idea he doesn't care too much for me."
"You'll grow on him, dear," Leia said, looking down at her husband with fond amusement. "First impressions aren't your strong suit."
"Nice," Han groused, listening as his brother-in-law chuckled. The ball that Han rolled toward his son suddenly bounced off his forehead. "Hey!" He reached up, touching his head in surprise. "Did Jacen do that?"
Luke laughed harder. "He used the Force, Han. Your kids are amazingly strong in the Force."
"Lucky me," Han remarked, groping around for the errant ball. The Jedi gave it a Force-nudge, and it rolled back over to Han.
"Corran Horn is undergoing intense briefings by Intelligence," Leia informed both men. "I think they'll be able to tell if he's being honest and upfront."
"And I'll talk to him later myself," Luke assured Han. "He won't be able to hide the truth from a Jedi."
"I hope not," Han commented. "The last thing we need is some Imp spy on the inside of the New Republic."
Later that night....
Han gave a groan as he lay down next to his wife after checking on the children one last time. "I hope that's it for the night. I'd sure like to get some sleep for a change."
The Princess rolled over and rubbed her hand across Han's chest. "Are you ever planning to tell me about your little conversation with Massy Wennit?"
"Chewie told me before he left."
"Ah. That traitor."
"Just the usual," Han said with a sigh. "She wants to interview us."
"Us? Or you?"
"She said both."
"And what did you tell her?" Leia prodded her reluctant mate.
"That we weren't interested. I think I annoyed her."
"That's what you're best at, Han. Annoying people."
"Wait a minute," Han protested. "I'm good at something else. I think you might even call it my strong suit."
"What would that be?" she questioned, pressing closer.
His arms snaked around her waist and he rolled over, pressing her down on the mattress. "I'd rather show you than tell you." His lips and teeth nibbled at her neck and shoulders.
Leia gave a blissful moan and shut her eyes. "I thought you wanted to get some sleep."
"I'm suddenly wide awake," he whispered into her long tresses.
And just as suddenly, so was Leia.
Luke entered the small conference room and stuck his hand out to the former Imperial, watching carefully as Corran Horn returned his grip. A tell-tale Force-tingle echoed through Luke's senses. The man was Force-sensitive, but he didn't appear to be conscious of that fact. For the moment, the Jedi decided not to enlighten the man about his abilities. "Thank you for meeting with me," Luke told the newcomer.
"It's not a problem," Horn returned calmly. "I've already passed all my lie-detection tests. I figure this is just one more."
Most people were unaware when Luke gently probed their levels of truthfulness, only a few could detect the mild intrusion. His brother-in-law was one of those few, probably because of his constant exposure to the Force, as well as his own strong sense of self-will. No one could accuse Han of being weak-minded. "You are quite perceptive, Captain Horn."
"It's served me well over the years."
"I'm sure joining the New Republic was due to that quality," Luke remarked. "There truly is a huge difference between the Empire and the New Republic."
"I'll bet," he replied, his face neutral.
The Jedi hesitated in his questioning. He could feel no duplicity from Horn. In fact, he could barely sense anything at all in the man's comments. Horn was a natural when it came to shielding his emotions. "Can you tell me anything additional about Empress Jade?"
"I think I've already told your High Council everything I know."
"I'm more concerned about her abilities as a Sith," Luke clarified.
"I know very little about Mara Jade. I've never met her personally."
Something didn't quite ring true about that sentence, but Luke's feelings weren't strong enough to tell, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that it was a lie.
After a moment of uncomfortable silence, Luke stood up. "Thank you for your time, Captain Horn. I have a feeling we'll be seeing quite a lot of each other."
"I think so, too, Jedi Skywalker."
Massy Wennit slid a flimsy across the table at the pretty young woman. Chauncy Cesna was an aspiring holo-actress, now approaching her late twenties. If she didn't get noticed soon, it would be too late. Name recognition was everything, and Chauncy was becoming desperate for fame and fortune. Massy looked at the dark-haired beauty with big blue eyes. Men would fall in love with Chauncy just because of those eyes. "Do you know who this is?"
Chauncy looked at the picture, pursing her glossy lips. "Han Solo. I think everyone knows who he is."
"Of course they do. He's quite famous, and he doesn't even want that fame. Ironic, isn't it?"
"What?" she asked, frowning in confusion.
The reporter sighed quietly. Sometimes it was so difficult dealing with vapid holo-stars. But if the actress was overly bright, she wouldn't be easily manipulated. It was a trade-off. "You need name and face recognition, my dear. I'm the one that can get you that recognition, but first you have to help me, if you want me to help you."
The young woman leaned forward eagerly. "Anything you want, Ms. Wennit."
"Lando Calrissian is throwing a big lifeday party for himself in two weeks here on Coruscant. Crass, I know, but that's Calrissian for you."
"A friend of Han Solo's," Massy explained with strained patience. "I've arranged to get you an invitation. Calrissian likes pretty women, so it wasn't too hard."
"You want me to flirt with Calrissian?"
"No," Wennit snapped, thinking it was lucky Ms. Cesna was born beautiful, since she lacked any intelligence. "Just listen, and don't assume. Solo will be there, and I want you to get close to him. Very, very close."
"But he's married!"
Massy wanted to strangle this dimwit. "Do you want to become rich and famous, or not?"
"More than anything," she said breathlessly.
"Then you'd better learn to act and pay attention to directions!"
Empress Jade toured the Iron Fist with great interest, then turned to Warlord Zsinj. "I'm impressed," she acknowledged. "With our combined talents, the New Republic should be on its knees in less than six months."
"Absolutely," he agreed, unable to take his eyes off the beautiful Empress. "I always knew there was an Imperial worthy of leading us into the future."
The man was annoying her, but she needed his firepower, so she remained polite. Of all the rogue Warlords, Zsinj was the only one that had inflicted substantial damage on the New Republic, and remained at large. His troops were disciplined and well trained. Empress Jade wanted this man on her side. "How have you stayed hidden so long from the Rebel forces?"
"We are headquartered on a little known system called Dathomir. It's a bit out of the way, and the Emperor was, shall we say, unsettled by the inhabitants, so he put a strongly fortified base there and made certain the natives did not have the means to leave."
Jade arched her eyebrow at the chubby man. The veiled insult to her mentor did not go unnoticed, but it still bothered her Palpatine had not confided in her about this planet. "Really? Why is that?"
"The witches that live there are powerful in ways I don't quite understand."
Witches. Now that was an interesting term. "Tell me more."
"The native women have certain powers, not unlike Sith, or Jedi."
"Just the women?"
"Yes, there are very few native men, and those seem to be weak and sickly. I'm surmising there must have been some plague that attacked only men, and wiped most of them out. Those that still live are used as slave laborers, or breeders, if they are fertile."
"Are these witches peaceful?"
"No, not at all," Zsinj replied, shaking his jowls, and dabbing at his damp forehead. "The various tribes are at constant war with each other, stealing each other's men and trying to kill each other. Our troops have strict orders to remain inside the compound and stay far away from the witches." He gave a wicked smile. "Of course, our compound also houses prisoners, so they come in handy sometimes, as well."
The Empress folded her arms and waited, knowing he'd continue without her prodding.
"The human men prisoners are used as trade to the Nightsisters - that's the name of the tribe we deal with. They protect the compound, and keep other tribes from attacking us." He laughed, stroking his chin thoughtfully. "Some of the men we trade away beg us to kill them - they'd rather be dead than live as courtesans to the Dark witches. I've heard they're rather brutal to slaves that resist their... advances."
"Too bad for the slaves," Jade said harshly.
"My thoughts, exactly."
"I think we can do business, Warlord Zsinj," the Empress said. "We seem to have a lot in common."
Coruscant, ten days later
Luke leaned back and rubbed his tired eyes. He'd spent the better part of the last two weeks digging through Imperial records for anything regarding Mara Jade. Her name had finally turned up days ago, but the records were sealed and encrypted. Breaking the code was proving to be difficult and time consuming. He looked over at Artoo, who suddenly began whistling, then rocking back and forth on his 'foot'. "What is it, little guy?" Luke questioned, tilting his chair forward. A scroll of information flipped across the viewscreen. "Slow it down, Artoo. I can't read that fast."
The stream of words in Basic slowed, and Luke was able to read what Artoo managed to unlock in the Emperor's private files. Mara Jade, Emperor's Hand. Assassin. Parents - executed in the Standard year 6903 by Palpatine while subject watched. Memory of event erased. Current Age in 6924 - approx. 21 Standard. A holo of the woman came up. Luke found himself staring at the red-headed woman. 6903. That meant she was only one year old at the time of her parents' murder, and she would now be 23. "She's beautiful," he whispered to himself, then Artoo gave an indignant beep. Luke checked out the astromech's comment on the viewer, then laughed. "I know, I know.. I said the same thing when you first showed me Leia. How many sisters could I have?"
"She's not my sister, Artoo. Quit worrying." The Jedi continued to read. Force-sensitive. Training must be kept to the bare essentials - shielding, mind-contact with Master. Note - Potential problems if dark side is tapped. Do not allow subject freedom to ask questions. Obedience must be complete.
"He twisted and used her," Luke said softly. "Just like he twisted and used my father."
"I hate Lando's parties," Han groused, pulling on his boots. "What kind of person throws himself a lifeday party, anyway? Does he really need a couple hundred more flashy capes?" Han thought about how lucky Chewie was, getting to stay in the apartment, and watch holo-vids while the kids slept. Why did the Wookiee always get out of these things?
"He's your friend, not mine," Leia called from inside the refresher.
"Only 'cuz you made me be nice to him after Bespin."
Leia stepped into the bedroom, smiling at her grumpy husband. "Quit complaining. You'll have fun."
The fragrance of her expensive perfume drifted over to the Corellian. "You smell nice," Han commented, standing up and walking over to Leia. "I wish I could see what you're wearing." An instant later, the Princess projected an image of herself into her husband's mind, granting Han's wish. Luke had kept his promise to Leia, and taught her how to use the Force to show Han visuals. Despite his blindness, Han knew what his children looked like, as well as the layout of rooms. It came in handy when they entered new places, since it allowed Han to get his bearings with a quick view of the area from either Luke or Leia. They could also project moving images into Han's mind, but that required far more concentration, and was also far more invasive for the recipient. The twins seldom did that type of Force projecting, and only with Han's express permission beforehand. "You're gorgeous," Han whispered, the picture of her wearing a powder blue and cream gown now firmly embedded in his mind. He took her into his arms. "Let's stay home."
Laughing, Leia pulled out of Han's embrace. With her fingers, she smoothed his unruly hair, and then tugged at his hand. "Nice try, nerfherder. Come on, or we'll be late."
Coruscant Grand Ballroom
Luke made his way over to Wedge through the crowded room. "Enjoying yourself, General?"
Antilles lifted his glass up, and gave a wavy salute. It appeared he was a bit tipsy. "I luv a good par'dy, don't you?"
"Sure," the Jedi agreed, looking around. "Did Corran Horn make it to the party?"
"Nah," Wedge slurred out. "He'sha great pilot, tho.... one of da best we got. He's make a greash addit'n to th' Rogues."
"He's Force-sensitive, Wedge," Luke said, his voice low as he confided in his friend. "Only I haven't told him yet."
"Ahhh.. not fair. Makes ush reg'lar guys look bad, that Force shuff."
"I wouldn't be too concerned," Luke said with a laugh. "You and the other Rogues seem be doing okay, considering you're just 'regular guys'."
"Thansh'a lot, Luke," Wedge replied, swaying slightly. "Oh, look.... der's Iella... I tink I'll go talk to 'er."
Luke watched as Wedge staggered over to the woman, and found himself wishing Corran Horn had come to the party so he could observe the man and his reactions. Although Luke could not say for certain he didn't trust Horn, his Force-sense was warning him that something was not quite right with the man's intentions.
Corran Horn made his way around the outside of the Millennium Falcon, knowing it was unlikely he would be caught snooping since everyone of importance would be at Baron Calrissian's party. Empress Jade was right, the New Republic was nothing but weak fools. They'd trusted him far too quickly, and now they would pay the price. Even the great Jedi Skywalker had been easy to fool. Naïve weaklings.
The Wookiee friend of Solo's had just gotten back from Kashyyyk the night before, and now the ship sat silent and dark. Horn looked up at the old freighter, appraising it. He'd heard it was fast, even though it looked like a candidate for the junkyard. More importantly, the smuggler often came here, even if he was seldom alone. Usually the Wookiee was with Solo, but that wouldn't be a problem. Horn hoped he could incapacitate the Wookiee without killing it. Unnecessary killing always bothered him, and Wookiees were supposedly honorable creatures. Lifedebt or not, how Chewbacca ended up as Solo's guardian was a mystery to Horn. Solo wasn't worthy of a Wookiee lifedebt. He'd be doing Chewbacca a favor in the long run by relieving him of that burden.
"Hello, Princess," a pitchy voice said from behind Leia as the Princess sat across a table from Captain Talon Karrde discussing his recent conversion from smuggler to a legitimate shipper for the New Republic.
Leia turned in her chair and looked up - instantly her hostility level jumped several notches. Massy Wennit stood there in a green sequined gown, looking smug, her trademark silver-blue hair piled high in an impressive tower above her narrow face. "I wasn't aware Lando invited you," Leia said, her tone icy. It seemed that wherever Leia went lately, this woman was on her tail, annoying her. Was it going to take a court order to make the woman leave her and Han alone?
"I get invited to all the important events on Coruscant, my dear." She looked around. "Where's your handsome husband?"
"I'm sure he's with Lando or Luke... or someone."
"Someone. Yes, I'm quite certain I saw him with someone a few minutes ago," she said, smirking.
"What does that mean?"
"It means you should keep your husband on a shorter leash, honey." With that remark, she turned and hurried away, leaving behind a fuming Leia.
"Don't pay much attention to her, Princess," Karrde remarked. "That woman loves to stir up trouble, just to get a reaction."
"I just wish she'd find someone else to bother, and leave us alone," Leia mumbled, suddenly wondering, Where is Han, anyway?
Han was standing outside on a balcony, thinking about how much he hated parties, and when it would be polite to leave. There once was a time that Han wouldn't have cared one bit about politeness, but once you married an ambassador, those days were gone. The noise that Lando considered music, the constant chatter, and the packed room with hot bodies crushed together made his head hurt. Escaping to balconies always seemed to work for him during stuffy political dinners, and it was working here, too. He was about to take a sip of his whiskey - Lando did manage to supply the good stuff - when a woman's breathy voice spoke from behind him.
"I just love Coruscant at night, don't you?"
Han turned to face the speaker. "To be honest, there's not much difference between night and day to me."
"Oh... that's right. You can't see." The woman giggled, a reaction that surprised Han. Maybe she was drunk, since people usually didn't consider his blindness amusing. Then she asked a question that surprised him again. "Can I have a sip of your drink? I'm just so very hot from all that dancing."
"My drink?" He heard the woman step closer, but since he was already leaning on the rail, Han had nowhere to go to move away.
"You don't mind, do you?" she asked, now standing so close he could feel her breath against his neck.
"Who are you?"
"Oh... that's right! I haven't even introduced myself. I can be so silly. My name is Chauncy Cesna, but my friends call me CeeCee. Silly CeeCee." She giggled again, before asking hopefully, "Have you heard of me?"
What was with all these people that assumed Han knew them? "Sorry. Can't say I have."
"Oh." She sounded disappointed, then asked, "How about that drink?"
Han shoved his glass at her. "Here, just take it." He tried to maneuver away from her, moving toward the entryway to the ballroom. A second later, liquid poured down his shirt, and the glass crashed to the floor.
"Oh! Silly, me! I spilled the drink all over you," Chauncy gasped, then giggled. "Let me clean you up."
"No... that's okay..." Han felt her hand brushing against his shirt, then moving lower. He stopped her downward progress by grabbing her wrist. "What are you doing?" he hissed out indignantly.
Everything happened at once. Chauncy threw her free arm around his neck, pulling his face down and kissing him hard on the lips - the sound of a hovercraft roared up, stopping directly next to the balcony - the door to the ballroom slid open, and he heard Leia's shocked voice asking, "What are you doing?"
Han pushed the woman away, listening as she stumbled backwards. "Leia!"
"Oh, dear me!" Chauncy yelled loudly. "Your wife caught us!"
"Caught us?" Han spluttered out. "What are you talking about?" The hovercraft sped away, but Han didn't have time to wonder about why it had stopped there in the first place.
"I'm terribly sorry, Princess," the young woman said, sidling into the ballroom, noting everyone near the balcony was now watching with keen interest. "We never meant for you to... I'm so sorry!" She turned and fled, wailing loudly as she left the room.
"What the hell are you talking about?" Han repeated, his head spinning at this turn of events.
"I think you'd better find your own way home tonight, Han," Leia snapped out, furious. How could he? She'd trusted him, and all this time... was that some easy female he'd known from before they married? "Or better yet, find somewhere else to sleep."
"Leia, will you let me - " He stopped as he heard her angry footsteps leaving in the now surprisingly quiet ballroom.
"Han, I'll take you home," Luke said, coming up to the doorway.
"I can get home by myself," Han spat out. "I don't need your help. I don't need anyone's help." He pushed past, barely paying attention to the guide sensor on his belt as he headed out the main double doors, and into the hallway. How could she not have allowed him to explain? How could this happen? He entered the lift, and pressed the 'up' button, deciding to spend the night on the Falcon. He'd be damned if he groveled and apologized for something that wasn't his fault. This time, he was the one that deserved an apology.
Lando watched in dismay as his expensive party dissolved in front of his eyes, then made his way over to Luke. "Han isn't unfaithful to Leia," the gambler told the Jedi. "I'd bet my life on it."
"I agree. I'm going to talk to Leia about this right now, before things get worse." Luke looked at his friend. "Will you make sure Han's safe?"
"I'll have one of my security guards follow him."
"Of course discreetly."
Luke followed his sister to her apartment, but halfway to her apartment the Force pushed him to turn around and run back toward the direction of the docking bay.
How could he?How could he?How could he? The words seemed to echo like an unbroken loop in her brain as she rode the lift down several levels to her apartment floor. Then it hit her like a cold splash of water. How often was Han ever alone? Only on very rare occasions, like when he met Chewie at the Falcon. Not only didn't he cheat on her, he would never have had the opportunity. And he wouldn't be unfaithful, even if he did have the opportunity, Leia realized in sudden shame. Massy Wennit's face entered her mind, and the Princess wondered if the holo-reporter was behind whatever had happened on that balcony. Why did I over-react like that? The answer was simple - the woman kissing Han was beautiful. Stunningly beautiful, and Leia had felt anger and jealousy overwhelm her common sense, driving out all reason. Two dark side emotions that Luke would surely lecture her about tomorrow.
The lift came to a halt at her floor and Leia started to step out, then stopped. She no longer wanted to go home, she wanted to go find Han. Tell him how sorry she was. Show him how sorry she was. Leia pressed the button to take her to the upper floor, where the Falcon was docked, determined to make things right.
The Imperial spy was genuinely surprised when he saw Han Solo stalking toward the battered old freighter. He smiled to himself - this was much sooner, and much easier than he'd anticipated. Not only was Solo headed toward the Falcon, the Wookiee was nowhere to be seen. A movement caught his eye. Someone, a NR guard judging by the uniform, was following the smuggler, trying not to be seen. That was a bit puzzling, but still not a huge problem. Horn slid his blaster out of his belt, and set the controls to stun.
Han's mind was in turmoil. How could she accuse him of cheating? He loved Leia, more than his own life. He'd never, never cheat! It was those thoughts that filled his mind, making his heart ache, as he palmed open the hatch to his ship. The sound of a blaster shot filled the large hanger, then a dull thud - was that the sound of a body hitting the duracrete? Han started to turn, his fingers reaching for his own blaster when he felt a sharp jab in his side.
"Don't do anything stupid, Solo, if that's possible."
Solo recognized the voice immediately. Why did they put such unearned trust in an ex-Imp so quickly? "I knew there was something about your story that smelled like a dead gundark."
"I've waited for years to bring you to Imperial justice," Horn said in a deadly quiet tone. "Get up the ramp."
Solo started to move toward the ship, then made a quick twist, reaching around to push Horn's weapon away. The last thing he was aware of was the pain of a stun bolt hitting him in his back.
"Han!" Leia gasped, dropping to her knees just as the door to the lift slid open.
Luke stood outside the lift, and quickly reached his sister's side. "Leia?"
"Han... he's been hurt."
The Jedi raised his comlink to his lips. "Lando?"
"Han's been hurt. Can you contact the guard you sent to follow him?"
"Wait a minute..."
Leia struggled to her feet. "We need to get to the Falcon," she urged her brother. Together, they started to run toward the hanger that held the old ship.
"Luke? The guard isn't answering."
"We're on the way to the Falcon," Luke replied. "Send us some backup."
"We'll be there in a minute."
As they entered the hanger, Luke nearly stumbled over the prone body of the NR guard, his body stretched across the open doorway. He could sense the man was still alive, but he was unconscious. Leia gasped, and pointed up. The Falcon had already lifted, its glowing engines growing fainter by the second, the mandibles pointed toward the night sky.
"Luke, we have to stop it from leaving!"
"It's too late," Luke whispered. "If we use the Force, we might make it crash." Innocent people could die. Han could die. There was nothing they could do.
Just like on Bespin, Leia could only watch in helpless horror as the man she loved was carried away to an unknown fate.
Han groaned, and tried to reach for his throbbing head, but his wrists jerked to a stop - he was chained down. Taking a deep breath, Han focused on the sound and smell of his surroundings. Lubricant, and a familiar rumbling - he was on the Falcon. A second later, he remembered what had transpired. "Horn," he said aloud.
"Your ship is more impressive than it appears, Solo."
The man's voice startled Han, but he tried not to show it. "Where are you taking me?"
"To Carida, so you can have a nice visit with the new Imperial leader, Empress Jade," Horn said, sounding well pleased. "I can't tell you how long I've wanted to bring you to justice, Solo."
"How did you fool all the lie detection tests, not to mention Luke?" Han asked, truly interested. There weren't too many people that Luke couldn't sense their deception.
"Those types of tests are easy to bluff my way through. Always have been, for some reason. Maybe Skywalker isn't as much a Jedi as he likes to believe."
"Don't underestimate Luke," Han snapped.
"I think Skywalker better not underestimate Empress Jade. She wants him dead, and you're just the first step in her goal."
So it was going to be like Bespin all over. Han was going to be the bait, and Luke would face another Sith in his attempt to rescue him. "You Imperials are all alike," Han sneered. "Sadistic creeps, that just love to get your thrills watching other beings suffer."
"Empress Jade is not sadistic," Horn returned evenly. "If you suffer, it will be the end result of your crimes."
"Go ahead and try to justify it to yourself, Horn. You're going to be the one that gets it in the end, just like Vader and Palpatine got theirs." Han listened as Horn angrily stomped out of the room, locking the door behind him. It was going to be a long trip to Carida.
The next day.
Leia sat at her desk, rubbing her tired eyes. She hadn't sleep at all since Han was taken, and she hadn't wanted to come in to her office, but Chewie and Winter both insisted, claiming it would help her relax. Nothing could be done until the NR spy network could give them some leads where Horn was taking her husband, although Leia suspected it was probably Carida. How in the galaxy would they be able to rescue Han from there? It would be a task a thousand times more dangerous than the rescue operation from Jabba's palace. Han had been right - they should never have trusted the man so quickly, and Luke was blaming himself for not sensing the man's intentions.
There was no possible way Leia could relax. Her husband was gone, and thanks to her foolish jealousy, the last words she had spoken to him were words of angry accusations. Untrue accusations. Although the holo-news hadn't yet gotten word of Han's kidnapping, it was only a matter of time. Leia was not looking forward to the increased pressure when that information was made public. The buzzer on her desk sounded. "Yes?"
"Ambassador, there is a woman here to see you, and she insists it's very important."
"Who is it?"
Leia felt like screaming in frustration. The nerve of that woman, to bother her again. She was the last person the Princess wanted to see. "Send her away."
"Princess," Massy's smarmy voice came over the speaker, "I have information about your husband. Turning me away is not a good idea."
Gritting her teeth, Leia snapped into the speaker. "Show her in." A moment later, her aide entered, looking sheepish, and followed by a smug looking Wennit. "I'm sorry, she just pushed me aside..."
"I understand," Leia said briskly, then pointed to the chair in front of her desk. "Have a seat, Ms. Wennit."
"Would you like some refreshments?" the aide asked meekly.
"No, she won't be staying long enough," Leia replied, glaring at the holo-reporter. The aide quietly left the room, but Massy Wennit refused to be seated. Instead she looked down at the Princess, a look of victory on her face. "What is it you want?" Leia asked.
"The same thing as before. An interview with you and your husband."
Leia could sense the woman was telling the truth, which could only mean she had no involvement with Han's kidnapping. Princess Leia had no intentions of enlightening the reporter about Han. "And we've already told you - "
"That was before, this is now."
"The difference being?"
"The difference being Chauncy Cesna."
"Who, may I ask, is Chauncy Cesna?"
"That pretty little actress that was lip locked with your husband last night," Wennit supplied gleefully. "I've managed to get her to agree to an interview about her sordid affair with Han Solo." She watched as Leia's face flushed a deep red. "Of course, I could just get your side of the story, instead."
"This whole thing is a set-up ... by you," Leia said tightly.
"Ah, my dear, such nasty accusations. I hope you don't intend to make those words public, or I might be forced to see you in court for libel."
"If you interview Ms. Cesna accusing my husband of being unfaithful, you'll be the one sued for libel."
"Do you really think so? After such a public display of affection between the two of them? I must tell you, I managed to get my lucky hands on a holo-recording of their liaison, as well. Solid proof of my truthfulness, wouldn't you agree? If you were a lawyer and a jury, that is?"
Leia jumped to her feet, pointing at the door. "If you and your little actress friend don't leave me and my husband alone, you're going to be sorry. Get out - now!"
"Is that a threat? All right, I'm leaving. Don't say I didn't give you a chance, dearie." As Massy walked out of the office, she gave the tiny recorder in her pocket a little pat, and smiled.
Empress Jade smiled as the Millennium Falcon landed gracefully atop the Imperial landing pad. The past few weeks of trying to be nice and pleasant to Warlord Zsinj had irritated her to no end. The man obviously found her attractive, and she'd used that, and the Force, to manipulate him into agreeing to become her Grand Admiral. He'd liked the sound of that - Grand Admiral Zsinj.
Now that Horn was back, things would rapidly change. She would start his training as her Hand immediately. And, of course, show the New Republic who they were dealing with. Destroying Skywalker was high on her list of priorities. The ramp lowered, and Commander Horn exited, pushing a bound Han Solo in front of him.
Flanked by her red-robed guards, she stepped forward, nodding at her new Hand. "Welcome back, Commander. You have accomplished your first assignment exactly as ordered, and in a very timely manner. I commend you."
Horn bowed his head. "Thank you, my Empress."
"Ah, the Imps. I've missed the displays of fawning servitude toward self-proclaimed royalty," Han sneered in her direction. A second later, a rifle butt from a guard struck Han's side, sending him reeling to the ground.
"You will learn the true meaning of groveling and servitude, Solo," the woman's silky voice said in harsh amusement as she watched the smuggler gasping in pain. "Guards, take him to his new home." She addressed Han again as he was pulled to his feet by Stormtroopers. "I would strongly suggest you enjoy your stay on Carida. This is only a temporary stop for you. Your next home will be far more interesting, I can promise you that."
Horn and the Empress watched as the Stormtroopers dragged the Corellian away. "His next home?" the man asked his Empress, puzzled. She didn't intend to keep Solo imprisoned on Carida?
"Nothing that concerns you, my dear Horn. It's time you learned about your powers, and what it means to be a Hand."
"Powers? Hand? I don't understand," he asked, growing even more confused. The Empress's display of Force power had always impressed Corran. Surely she didn't mean he had those same abilities.
"You will understand, my Hand. You will."
Han rubbed his wrists, trying to get his circulation back after the troopers had removed the binders, then, far more gingerly, touched his aching side where the weapon had struck him. His side throbbed painfully, and he wondered if they'd cracked his ribs.
Of course, Horn had taken his sensor long before he'd regained awareness back on the Falcon. During the trip, Han had tried baiting the Imperial with taunts, but Horn only ignored the sarcastic comments. Han had been fed, allowed to move around, even though he'd been kept in binders the entire trip. Horn had not been cruel, either by action or words. By the end of the trip, Han was wondering why the man was an Imperial, and asked him outright. The information that Hal Horn had been killed by a Rebel ambush didn't really surprise Han. It had been a long, bloody war, and while the Imperials had killed many Rebels, the same could be said of the Rebels. Imperials were the enemy, and when you couldn't capture them, you killed them. War was never pretty and peaceful.
He made his way around the small cell, feeling the length of the walls, placing the sink, toilet, and cot. Reaching up, he was able to touch the ceiling with little effort. The only seams in the room were for the door. It was a small cell, perhaps eight by eight, but it smelled clean enough. Han sat on the bunk, knowing he was in for a long stretch of boredom. When you were a prisoner, boredom was the easy part to deal with. When they came for you, that's when things got interesting - and usually painful.
Thoughts of Leia drifted into his mind, their last words to each other. It couldn't end like that for them. It just couldn't.
Coruscant, three weeks later.
"I'm sure you've heard rumors about me," Empress Mara Jade spoke through the galaxy-wide holo-net. Dressed in a flowing green gown, she looked regal and sure of herself as she sat on her ornate throne. "The rumors are true. I am the new Empress, the ruler of the Imperial Regions. If you wish to avoid a new and deadly war, you will disband the travesty you call a government and allow me to return to my rightful place on Coruscant." The red-headed Empress turned her head, watching as the Imperial Corran Horn entered the viewer, shoving forward a disheveled looking Han Solo, his mouth taped shut. Red robed guards stepped forward, roughly pushing Han to his knees.
Luke looked at his exhausted sister. There were dark circles under her brown eyes, tears streaming down her face. He put his arm around her, and they continued to listen in silence.
"You see," Jade continued, her face smirking. "Even the husband of Princess Leia Organa bows before my power. You have ten days to turn over your government to me, or if you resist, you will all learn a hard lesson. The choice is simple... accept me, Empress Mara Jade, as your ruler, or die."
The viewer went dark, and Luke spoke softly, "At least we know he's alive, and where he's being held. It doesn't look like he's been badly hurt."
"I have to rescue him," Leia whispered.
"No. You have to stay with your babies. They need the protection of their Jedi mother. I'll rescue Han."
"It will be so dangerous." Leia looked down, wrapping her arms tightly across her chest. She could lose them both, her husband and her brother.
"We've faced the worse, sister," Luke tried to reassure her. "I can handle this Empress. We have to have faith in the Force."
Leia looked up, meeting Luke's eyes. "I'm sure Empress Jade has faith in the Force, too."
Empress Jade sat back on her throne, looking down at Han Solo, who was still on his knees before her. "He will come for you, Solo. Now that he knows exactly where you are, he will come to Carida and meet his executioner - me. Too bad that when Skywalker arrives, you'll be making your exit." She threw her head back, laughing. "It'll be soon time for you to go to your new home, Solo. Time for you to learn how to grovel to stay alive."
Han had a very, very bad feeling about this.
Corran Horn, now Darth Incuse, parried the Empress with his new orange-hued lightsaber, surprised at his abilities with the ancient weapon. He had learned so much during these past three weeks. Now he finally understood why he was different. Why he could do things, or see things, that other people could not; he was Force-sensitive. The Jedi Skywalker undoubtedly could tell, but had not said anything. The only reason he could fathom why Skywalker had not mentioned his Force-sensitivity was because he, Darth Incuse, was stronger than Skywalker. The Jedi had feared him, and with good cause. He would soon become a full-fledged Sith, and spend his life serving his Empress. Incuse suspected he was falling in love with her. Did Siths fall in love? Perhaps not, but Incuse knew he would do anything for Empress Jade. He would gladly die serving her cause. He stepped back, lowering his blade.
"You shouldn't let your guard down, Darth Incuse," Jade instructed, giving him a humorless smile. "I could kill you in less time than it would take for your mind to register your death." Jade had decided it was time to give Commander Horn a promotion, thus his new title of "Darth." It was so much more appropriate to serve her as a Dark Lord, rather than just another Imperial commander.
"But you won't," Incuse replied.
Jade turned off her weapon. "Something is bothering you?"
"Nothing is bothering me. I am only curious."
"Where are you planning on sending Solo?" Incuse asked suddenly.
The Empress smiled, watching his face closely, knowing full well the effect she had on men. "Have you changed your mind about Solo getting his due punishment?"
"No, my Empress. I apologize for questioning - "
"I've told you about Grand Admiral Zsinj?" Jade asked abruptly.
"Yes, you have." Incuse didn't like the Warlord. He didn't trust the man, or his motives. And Incuse certainly didn't like the way Zsinj looked at his Empress, with undisguised lust in his sweaty, pudgy face.
"The Emperor kept a prison compound on Dathomir, where Zsinj has his base. Solo will be taken there." She smiled, thinking about what Zsinj told her about the dark witches. Yes, Solo would be punished. He would learn about servitude to darksiders.
There was something the Empress wasn't telling him, but it wasn't his business to question her. "Then, when Skywalker arrives, you will kill the Jedi."
"Play with him, then kill him," she agreed smoothly. "Luke Skywalker thinks everyone can be turned away from the dark side, that everyone wants to be saved from the dark side. I will allow him to think that it's possible to turn me, too. His desire for this foolish goal will be his downfall."
"I see," Incuse replied, feeling another flash of jealousy. What, exactly, would this involve, playing with Skywalker?
Empress Jade studied Darth Incuse's expression, feeling his jealousy clearly through the Force. She reached up, touching his face. "Embrace your feelings, my dear Darth Incuse. Jealousy is of the dark side, and the dark side is strong." Leaning over, she kissed his lips, then drew back. "While we are destroying Skywalker, the combined powers of our troops and Zsinj's troops will launch an all-out assault on Coruscant. Our goal during that attack will be to kill as many people on the surface of the planet as possible. Their first lesson in defying me."
"Coruscant is heavily guarded," Incuse reminded her.
"But they don't have our secret weapon, do they?"
"We have a secret weapon?"
"Palpatine was a very busy man, my dear Incuse. It's time I showed you Palpatine's last project - the Sun Crusher."
Chewie howled his protest as he watched Luke Skywalker and Lando Calrissian start to enter the Lady Luck, along with the two trusty droids.
"I know you want to come with us," Luke said with a sigh. "You can't help on Carida, Chewie. Stay here, and help Leia protect the babies. Han would want you to do that."
"I would gladly stay behind and help with the children," Threepio moaned. "I don't mind being a nanny droid... truly I don't."
Leia stepped forward and hugged Luke, ignoring the protocol droid. "Be careful. That woman looks dangerous."
"I'll be careful. And I'll bring Han back home, I promise."
"I'm holding you to both of those promises."
"Nobody ever worries about me," Lando grumbled under his breath as he waved goodbye and walked up the ramp.
"Me, either!" Threepio concurred unhappily. Baron Calrissian was a human he could begin to comprehend.
For the second time in two days, Han Solo was put in binders, and dragged out of his cell. He mentally braced himself for a torture session, but to his surprise he was hauled onto a shuttle, then strapped to a seat. He could tell he was being watched, but waited for the other person to speak first.
Finally, a man's voice carried across the small space. "Welcome to my Star Destroyer, Solo. It's called the Iron Fist. I'm sure you've heard of it."
"Zsinj." The Warlord that Wedge and the Rogues had chased from one end of the New Republic to the other, unsuccessfully trying to stop his deadly strikes on New Republic territories.
"So you have heard of me? I'm honored."
"Don't be. You have a reputation of being nothing more than a terrorist."
Zsinj gave a hearty laugh. "The terror hasn't even begun, Solo. Too bad you won't be around to see it." He paused, then continued, sounding amused, "Of course, you don't see much these days, do you?"
"You don't score too many points for your comedy skills, pal."
"It doesn't matter if you can't see," Zsinj said thoughtfully. "Your new job doesn't require eyesight, anyway."
"Job? What the hell does that mean?"
Zsinj refused to answer, preferring to let Han wonder about the future instead.
Massy Wennit watched the young woman trounce around her office in a fit of self-righteous anger. "You told me I'd get an exclusive interview!" Chauncy hissed out. "You promised to make me famous!"
"And I would have," the holo-reporter explained tightly. "Except for the small detail that Solo has been taken hostage by the Imperials. If we do an interview now, it will backfire. People love Princess Leia, they are feeling sorry for her, and her missing husband. Telling the galaxy he had an affair at this point will just look mean and petty." Not to mention, a death sentence for my career.
"I don't care! I want what you promised me," she cried out, blowing her nose loudly.
"I'll tell you what," Massy said, trying to stay in control. "If Solo gets safely rescued, we'll do the interview right away. That way you can get your precious publicity." And, hopefully, fade into oblivion.
"No?" Massy couldn't believe this snippy little bubblehead was defying her authority.
"No. We do it now. You promised. If you don't, I'll find someone else to interview me, and I'll tell them what you had me do to Solo out on that balcony. I'll get my fame, and you'll get a trashed career."
"You wouldn't dare," Massy growled out.
"Watch me." Chauncy Cesna turned and started for the door.
Stopping, the beautiful brunette turned and smiled. "Having second thoughts, Massy?"
"I'm Madam Wennit to you."
"So, what's your answer?"
"We'll do the interview as planned."
"Thank you, Massy." Chauncy gave a tinkling laugh, and left the office.
The Iron Fist sat hidden behind an outer asteroid, waiting for word to leave the system. "Why can't we leave now?" General Melvar, his second in command, snapped out as he stared out into the inky blackness of space.
"The Empress insists we wait until the Jedi arrives," Zsinj replied calmly. "Apparently, she thinks the Jedi will be able to sense if Solo is too far away, and then might jump back into hyperspace."
"Force. Jedi. It's all nonsense." The tall man looked down at his durasteel implanted fingernails. "Why we are throwing our support behind this female is beyond me."
"The power displayed by the witches of Dathomir is quite real, General Melvar. Don't doubt, just because you cannot see it with your own eyes."
"I think that's the problem. You are seeing a beautiful woman, and not thinking clearly."
Zsinj's jaw clenched. "I am thinking clearly. Very clearly. If you don't appreciate my talents, perhaps you should consider finding another job."
Melvar inclined his head. "My apologies, Grand Admiral. I should not have criticized. I was out of line."
"You were." Zsinj forced himself to remain calm. "But you are right, she is beautiful. If I play my hand correctly..." He trailed off, thinking of the beautiful Empress in his arms, and in his bed.
The General could see exactly where Zsinj's thoughts were taking him. "She would be a fool to turn you down, Admiral."
"Yes, she would."
Onboard the Lady Luck
"Carida," Lando whispered as his ship came out of hyperspace. He felt a cold chill run down his spine. This was like the moment he first looked at the Death Star. The odds were strongly against them that time, too. He looked over at Luke, sitting silently in the co-pilot's seat. "Han's down there, right?"
"He's close." But down on the surface? Luke wasn't positive, and he didn't want to reach out with the Force. If the Empress was a Sith, she would be able to sense his arrival if he used the Force to trace Han's whereabouts. Still, Luke couldn't shake off the same feelings he'd experienced arriving on Bespin not so long ago. The Force was warning him this was a trap.
"Good," Lando said, nodding. "So let's go pull off a rescue of a certain Corellian that can't stay out of trouble."
Lando keyed in the Imperial codes that the NR spies had supplied, and held his breath.
Darth Incuse looked up sharply from the control board. "The Rebels are here, requesting landing clearance with the code we supplied them. Skywalker is here."
"I know," Mara Jade replied. She shut her eyes, feeling Skywalker's powerful Force presence wash over her. It made Darth Incuse seem insignificant in comparison. "Allow them to land, then contact the Iron Fist and tell them it's time to take Solo to Dathomir."
Everything was working out perfectly.
At the exact moment the Lady Luck landed, the Iron Fist went into hyperspace, taking its prisoner far away from Carida and his would-be rescuers.
The landing dock was eerily deserted, and Lando looked around nervously. "Where are all the stormtroopers? This is too easy, Luke."
"Stormtroopers?" Threepio wailed loudly. "Why would you want to see stormtroopers?"
Luke looked down at the little droid. "Artoo, let's find a terminal and locate Han's cell. The sooner we find him, the sooner we can leave."
"Yes," Threepio agreed, trying to push the little droid forward. "Leaving soon sounds wonderful."
"I am not rushing you! Hurry!"
After they entered the grim looking gray building, the four used the lift to go up one floor, to the deserted landing tower overlooking the landing platform. Artoo rolled up to the nearby wall, quickly locating the proper plug and inserted his 'arm'. A few moments later, he warbled and cooed his instructions.
"What's he saying, Threepio?" Lando asked, his eyes flickering around the empty corridor. Where were all the humans? This was the main Imperial base - it should be swarming with stormtroopers, officers, and various civilian contractors. They had landed under the guise that they were contractors bringing supplies to the base. The New Republic had stocked the Luck with some inexpensive computer chips as further cover, in case they were expected to actually unload these 'supplies'. It didn't look like they'd need to waste time unloading those chips, after all.
"He has located Captain Solo. The detention building is two miles north, and Captain Solo is on level twenty-one, cell four thousand nineteen." He turned his glowing eyes to Luke. "Artoo and I won't be required to go along to this prison facility, will we?"
"No," Luke replied, shaking his head. "You'll slow us down."
"Thank the Maker! Artoo and I will just go wait in Master Calrissian's - "
"No, Threepio, you can't wait on the ship. Artoo has to stay close to a control plug, in case we need your help." Luke shoved a comlink at the worried droid. "Come on Lando. I'll use the Force to shield us from visual sight. As long as I keep the Force bubble close to us, the Empress shouldn't be able to sense we're here."
"You two will wait right here, and stay out of sight," Lando informed the droids.
"Out of sight. I do wish sometimes I could use the Force and become invisible," Threepio said despairingly as he watched the two humans leave.
Darth Incuse stood beside his Empress. His Empress. He could sense her interest in Skywalker. Why? Wasn't he good enough? He'd do anything for her, couldn't she see that? He clenched his fists, trying not to show any outward display of rage.
"You will capture Calrissian, while I engage the Jedi."
"Capture? What do we need with the gambler?"
"Are you questioning me?" she asked, her voice sharp, her green eyes flashing in anger.
"No, my Empress. I was just... wondering."
"Skywalker will be easier to manipulate if we hold one of his friends hostage. He won't attempt to escape as long as Calrissian is still alive."
"But he'll believe Solo is still here."
"Only until he opens that cell door. I'm very glad we have security cameras set up to capture his expression." She smiled, thinking how stunned the Jedi would be. "Skywalker thinks he's being careful by not using the Force to reach out for Solo's sense. He is a fool."
"And he will soon be a dead fool," Darth Incuse replied.
Jade gave a sideways glance over at her servant, refusing to answer. She wanted to accomplish what Vader and Palpatine had not - she wanted to turn Luke Skywalker to the dark side.
Chauncy Cesna danced the night away. Tomorrow was her live holo-interview with the famous reporter, Massy Wennit. She had all of her lines memorized, all of her expressions down perfectly. The fact that she might be destroying a marriage didn't even enter her mind. This was her ticket to fame and fortune. Besides, Solo might not even be alive, so what difference did it make if she claimed to have slept with him? Everyone would know why, anyway. She was so much more beautiful than Princess Leia. The fact that Solo couldn't see what she looked like didn't enter her mind, either. Not much entered her mind, except the size of her jewelry, the price of her designer clothes and who she would have escort her to the next holo-awards show. Yes, CeeCee was on her way to the top, and no one could stop her now.
The actress decided to call it a night. Putting on her expensive cloak, she exited the nightclub, not noticing the tall being that followed her outside. She staggered over to her hovercraft, slightly drunk, then fumbled with the lock.
The last thing she was ever aware of was a pair of powerful hands around her neck, and a sharp crack as her windpipe and vertebrae were crushed.
Luke shook his head, putting his hand out to stop Lando from entering the prison building. "Something is wrong."
"I think I told you that already," Lando snapped back. "Even if you're shielding us with the Force, it's still been too easy."
"I'm not sure what to do," Luke said, his voice betraying his uncertainty. "We can't just turn back now. If I we go back to Coruscant without Han...."
"I know. I know." Lando gave a weary sigh. "We go on, Luke. Even if we both have bad feelings about this."
The men made their way inside the compound, finally meeting some resistance.
"What are you doing here?" the muffled voice of a stormtrooper barked out from inside the control room. The second trooper stood up, clearly showing them he was holding a blaster.
"Is this the Grand Imperial Licensing Bureau for Renewing Sub-Contractor and Civilian Landing Permits?" Lando asked, looking down at a flimsy. "They told us to make a sharp right at building twenty-four, and then go six traffic lanes over."
"They? Who are they?"
"The bureaucrats over at the Sovereign Ministry of Transitional Supplies Regarding Loading and Unloading Procedures Department."
"I've never heard of that department," the stormtrooper replied, looking over at his partner. The other trooper shrugged his shoulders. "This is the wrong building. Go away."
"I knew those people didn't know what they were talking about!" Lando said indignantly. "Well, can you direct us to the right building? We can't leave unless we renew our permits, or we'll get fired by our supervisor!"
"If you do not leave immediately, your supervisor will be the least of your problems."
Lando gave a helpless look at the calm Jedi, then yanked a blaster out from under his cloak. Han could say whatever he wanted, these capes came in handy at times. The first stormtrooper fired his weapon, but the bolt was easily deflected by Luke. He then made the fatal mistake of looking directly into the barrel of his weapon, as if he could see what caused it to misfire, while Luke used the Force to depress the firing pin. The trooper dropped, killed by his own blaster. Lando easily took out the second guard, and suddenly they were inside the prison compound. "Level twenty-one!" Lando yelled as Luke hurried over to the lift. "I'll stay here and try to hold off the reinforcements."
"I'll be back in a minute," Luke yelled back as he entered the lift and pressed the button.
"Make it seconds, please," Lando pleaded just as the doors shut.
It felt like an eternity, but in reality Luke was at the proper floor in fifteen seconds, checking out the numbers on the cell blocks. 4019 was to the left, and Luke rushed down the dark corridors until he reached the correct number, then hit the 'open' button next to the door. The door slid open obediently. The cell was empty.
The outer door to the detention ward opened, and Lando instantly starting firing at the new threat. A snap hiss sounded, then an orange lightsaber parried Lando's fire. Shocked, Lando stopped firing just as a man stepped out of the darkness, and into the building. Dressed all in black, with a flowing black cape, the shorter man with dark hair and green eyes smiled humorlessly at him. "Welcome to Carida, Baron Calrissian. I'm glad you found your own way to the prison, since it saves us some time. I hope you find your stay with us enjoyable."
"W..who are you?" Lando asked, as dozens of stormtroopers appeared behind the Imperial. Knowing he was beat by overwhelming numbers, Lando tossed his blaster down and raised his hands above his head.
"Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Darth Incuse, second-in-command to Empress Jade."
"Did I surprise you, Jedi?" a woman's voice said from down the narrow corridor.
Luke spun around, turning on his lightsaber. Standing a dozen cells away was Empress Jade. Luke took in her appearance. She wasn't dressed in black, but in a blood red body suit with knee high boots. Like Luke, she held a lightsaber, although it wasn't turned on. Her hair was pulled tightly back in a long braid, and she leaned casually against the wall, an amused expression on her face.
"What have you done with Han?"
Mara shrugged her shoulders. "He's alive, although he's no longer on Carida. Surely you don't expect me to tell you where I've sent him, do you?"
"Mara Jade, I can help you," Luke said quietly, while using the Force to try and locate Han's sense. Jade wasn't lying - Han was no longer nearby. "You don't have to allow your life to be consumed by the dark side."
That comment made her laugh. "But I like the dark side," she replied, her green eyes flashing. "Maybe I can help you, Jedi Skywalker. Maybe you'd enjoy the dark side, if you gave it a chance."
"The Emperor had you fooled, Mara Jade. He's used you, and you don't even know he used you."
"The Emperor was like my father, and you killed him, Skywalker. You killed my family."
"No, I didn't. Palpatine killed your family, and I have the Imperial records back on Coruscant to prove it."
"You lie," she hissed out, turning on her purple saber. "You killed my Master... you and that traitor Vader." She was about to move forward when the lift behind her opened, and Horn pushed a bound and gagged Calrissian into the hallway, followed by six stormtroopers. "You see, Skywalker, I'll give you one last chance to allow yourself to embrace the dark side and join me in my quest to rule the galaxy. Or you'll watch as my servant, Darth Incuse, very slowly uses his lightsaber to strip the flesh from Calrissian's bones. Let's see how your precious light side allows you to witness your friend's death. Let's see if you can tune out his screams of agony."
Four stormtroopers wrestled Calrissian to the floor, holding him firmly, their blasters pointed at the gambler's back. The other two stormtroopers stood behind Corran Horn, aiming rifles down the corridor at Luke. The lift opened a second time, an additional six stormtroopers rushed out into the corridor, awaiting orders. The two Siths stood between Luke and Lando, waiting, watching for his reaction. Luke gauged his odds, deciding they were fairly slim. Mara's eyes flicked back at Horn, or the man she now referred to as Darth Incuse. "Begin."
Luke watched in helpless horror as the orange blade sliced a deep cut down the back of Lando's calf from knee to ankle - even through his gag, Lando screamed in agony. The smell of charred flesh filled the narrow corridor. "Stop!" Luke shouted, trembling in fear - far more for Lando than himself. "Let Lando leave Carida, and I'll stay here." He looked into the Empress's hard emerald eyes, knowing he had to think of something to bargain with, something she might desire more than watching Lando die. "I know you haven't had much formal training, other than shielding and some lightsaber skills. I'll teach you what I know about the Force .... if you allow him to leave."
"Drop your lightsaber, and push it over to me," Jade instructed the Jedi.
Quickly, Luke obeyed. He could see the fear and disbelief in Lando's eyes, feel the pain radiating from the gambler's leg. He couldn't watch as Lando was sliced into pieces, and he needed time to deal with the Empress in order to find out where she'd sent Han. Trading his freedom for Lando's life seemed like the only possibility at this point.
Jade picked up Luke's saber, never taking her eyes off the Jedi. "He's telling us the truth, Darth Incuse. I think I'd enjoy having him show me what he knows."
"But," Incuse started to object, then stopped himself. Once again, Jade was proving herself to be unpredictable. "You wish me to allow Calrissian to leave Carida?"
"It won't matter," the Empress replied evenly. "The New Republic won't have time to try and rescue their precious Jedi. They'll soon be far too busy, I can promise you that."
When the stormtroopers hustled a badly limping Lando Calrissian toward the Lady Luck, Threepio threw up his hands in despair. "They caught them, Artoo!" he wailed miserably, looking down at the scene. "Where is Master Luke? Perhaps he has ceased functioning!"
Artoo gave a warning warble at his noisy partner.
"Be quiet? How can I be quiet? We're doomed, I tell you... doomed!"
With a soft coo, the astromech droid watched from their vantage point overlooking the docking bay. Lando was unbound, then pushed roughly into the Lady Luck. Several minutes later, the Lady Luck roared to life, lifting off and disappearing into the dark sky.
"Doomed," Threepio repeated gloomily as he watched the ship leave.
The little droid, still plugged into the terminal, gave a long series of beeps and whistles. Threepio tilted his head. "Master Luke is being taken to a private suite? He's not deceased? Thank the maker! But... why wouldn't he be kept in the prison compound?"
"I am well aware of the fact you are not omnipotent, Artoo. Don't be rude."
"What? You've located the Millennium Falcon? Why didn't you say so!" The protocol droid watched as his partner unplugged his 'arm' and started moving out of the control room. "Where are you going?" Some more whistles from the little droid. "What do you mean, we have to rescue Master Luke? How are we going to do that? We're just droids... we're not programmed for rescue operations... it's not even fair," the tall droid protested as he followed Artoo out, heading into what was hopefully a safer hiding place until they could come up with a plan to rescue their Master.