Caught Between a Rock and a Hard Place
The Princess was lying on a hard cot, taking a short nap when the ship lurched unexpectedly, causing her to tumble onto the hard floor. Quickly she jumped up, ignoring the bruise on her hip bone, and rushed into the cockpit. The blackness of space and the sharpness of the stars indicated they were no longer in hyperspace. "What happened? We're not scheduled to arrive for three more timeparts!"
Han frowned down at the coordinates. "Magnetic force-field... it ripped us out of hyper. I'm tryin' to figure out exactly where we're at."
The Princess shook her head. "You probably programmed the jump wrong."
Indignant, the Corellian spared a second to glare at the petite Princess. "What? I've never put wrong coordinates in the navi-computer in my life. Not once!"
"Maybe that's because Chewie is usually along to fix your mistakes behind your back," Leia shot back.
"I don't make mistakes, sister," Han argued, pointing at his chest. "An' you're the one that insisted on takin' Chewie's place as co-pilot."
"General Dodonna said our contacts insisted that only humans arrive for negotiations. No Wookiees... no droids. It wasn't my idea to spend all this quality time alone with you, Captain."
"He should've told those contacts to take a hyper-space jump into an asteroid. If they're biased toward non-humans, who needs 'em?" Han turned his attention back to the controls. "The force-field must've been some freak space phenomenon." He pointed out the viewport. "Maybe the nebula is causing it."
"They have supplies of bacta," Leia said, feeling the need to defend the Alliance's position. It was, in fact, the reason they were flying a Alliance-owned modified freighter to their destination instead of Solo's ship. Bacta had to be stored in special containers, at just the right temperature in order to keep the healing properties intact and uncontaminated. While this boxy freighter didn't have the firepower or the speed of the Millennium Falcon, it did have the tanks necessary for proper bacta storage. "Do you know how hard it is to find off-market bacta? The Empire's grip on supplies is getting tighter and tighter." When Solo didn't respond, she added, "Well, we just need to reprogram the navi-computer and keep going. Our contacts won't like it if we're late."
"Hyperdrive system got fried when we got pulled," he informed her, shaking his head negatively. "I'll need to make repairs before we can go anywhere, Your Highnessness."
The Corellian shrugged. "The worst part is we need to land, and I don't see any planet near here."
Ignoring the pilot, Leia checked her controls, and then pointed at the screen. "I see a planet. It's hidden behind the nebula."
Han nodded in agreement. "Great. I hope it has breathable oxygen. I hate working in grav-suits." He angled his controls to loop around the interference, and the ship tilted slightly and headed toward the planet.
While Han concentrated on flying, Leia tried sending a short-range message. "We're only picking up static."
"Probably the nebula," Han said. "We'll have to get closer."
"That planet looks odd," Leia said as the round orb grew larger in the viewport.
Han spared a glance before returning his attention to the controls. "Odd? Why?"
"Look at the land mass," she pointed out. "There's just one continent, wrapping around equator like a thick belt, with green sections above and below the equator, separated by a band of brown."
"So... it's just strange looking. I've never seen anything quite like it."
Han stared at the planet for a moment, and had to admit the Princess had a point, but he wasn't about to agree with her, just on principle. "Well, sweetheart, the galaxy is a strange place. Once, I was drinking in a bar - "
"Why am I not surprised how this story is starting out?"
The Corellian glared at her before continuing. "And some crazy, wild-haired old lady was tellin' these weird stories. One of 'em was about a planet that moved around the galaxy on its own will, and she claimed it talked! Can you beat that one? A talking planet that plays hide an' seek?"
"I think there must have been some hallucinate in that booze you were drinking, Solo."
Ignoring her, Han kept talking. "Then she went on and on about a giant gold blob that swallows people..."
"Too bad it doesn't find you."
"And then there was the story about a ghost ship that's haunted by the spirit of a beautiful woman, and she lures pilots to their deaths' with ghostly promises of sweet bliss."
"And you're not out looking for her? What a shock."
"You just freeze men to death with your icy demeanor, huh, Your Highnessness?" Han grinned and turned his attention back to the rapidly approaching planet. "You pickin' up any life-signs or life-support capabilities yet?"
"I'm not picking up any life signs... or signals. No one is responding to my hail."
"Maybe the comm is broken."
Leia shot him an exasperated look. "This isn't the Falcon."
"Hey... I resent - " His words were cut off as a blast shook the small ship, and it bucked violently. "What the..."
"Incoming from port," Leia reported. "Small fighters... unidentified origins."
The Alliance ship shook again, and Han swore under his breath as he tried to maneuver away from the planet. "More fighters, coming from the stern. It looks like they're shooting at us, too."
Leia studied the readouts, puzzled at what she was seeing. "Now they're starting to fire at each other."
"Great," Han muttered. "And we're caught in the crossfire." The ship shook again, and this time sparks flew from the panel. "Shields are losing power... one more hit..." They promptly took another hit, and the lights blinked out for a moment before the emergency power cut back on.
"One more hit, and what?" Leia asked, worried.
"We lost all shields," Han said tightly. "We've gotta get outta here, or we're dead."
"What do you suggest? We can't make it past that space battle without taking another strike."
"We head down, away from the fight," Han replied, sending the ship in a tight spiral down toward the planet.
"Which green space should we aim for?" Leia asked, adjusting her own controls.
"Aim?" Han laughed. "Princess... this is what we call a barely-controlled crash-landing. We'll be lucky to survive the impact, much less have a choice of where we die."
"I love your optimism, Solo."
Leia groaned and pushed herself back from the crash webbing, aware her body was pressed forward. The cockpit was dimly lit by the soft emergency lighting, and the viewport was cracked in a fine network of lines. She couldn't see out the window, since the nose was obviously buried deep in the planet's surface. Leia remembered the last thing Han said to her - "I hope that's sand, sweetheart,, and not rock we're headin' toward..."
Han! Looking to her left, she could see the pilot hanging limply against his restraints, his arms dangling loosely at his sides. Reaching over, Leia gave him a shake, and noticed his face was covered with sticky blood. "Han!" When he didn't respond, she could feel herself growing cold with fear. As much as she fought and argued with him, Leia still considered the rough-acting Corellian her friend. "HAN?"
He raised his hand weakly, waving off her shaking. "'S too early... go away..."
Relief flooded her body. "Solo! This isn't a hangover you're feeling. We crashed... remember?' She watched as he forced his eyes open, wiping blood from his forehead. "You're hurt," she said, pointing out the obvious.
"Just a cut," Han replied, waving his hand dismissively. His head hurt like hell, and he could guess the Princess was feeling the effects of the crash, too. If she could pretend she was fine, so could he.
Han gazed around the destroyed cockpit. "I don't think this ship is gonna be takin' back bacta to your Rebels, Princess." Squinting, he freed himself, and awkwardly got down on his hands and knees on the sharply angled floor of the cockpit, then started prying open a panel.
Surely he couldn't think he could fix this mess? "What are you doing?"
"Emergency supplies," he grunted, pulling out several packages. He turned over a small device, and then flipped a switch. "Short range scanner."
Leia leaned closer. "Are you picking anything up?"
"Yeah... one life sign, directly east. About human-sized, but that don't mean it is."
"I wonder why the ship's scanners didn't see anything," Leia mused aloud.
"They were blocking us," Han said, still rummaging around in the small hold. "I was gonna tell you the signal cleared as we got closer, but I was kinda busy tryin' not to die."
"Those weren't Imperial ships shooting up there," Leia said, straining to recall what the combatants' fighters looked like. "Those ships were... odd looking."
"Odd looking?" Han gave her a cocky grin. "You seem to be using that term a lot lately."
The Princess shook her head, trying to remember the details. "Those first ships slightly resembled X-Wings, but the noses were longer and curved down. And then those second fighters...." She shut her eyes. "That second wave of ships were two round orbs attached by a center bar."
Han grunted as he struggled toward the cockpit door with the supplies. "They sure packed enough firepower. I just don't get why they started firing at each other after they attacked us."
"Maybe we were in the wrong place at the wrong time," Leia suggested as she followed the Corellian out into the main corridor.
"I don't believe that. It's too coincidental, sweetheart. Those first strikes were directed at us, and don't fool yourself."
As she watched Solo check out the long-range emergency signal, Leia couldn't disagree. As she replayed the battle in her mind, she realized both groups of fighters approached them from opposite directions, intent on firing at them. The only thing that saved them was they seemed distracted by each others appearance. "Maybe there are two opposing factions on this system. A civil war?"
"Could be," Han conceded. He gave a frustrated hiss between his lips. "Long range sensors are fried. It's gonna be a while before the High Command gets worried and sends someone looking for us." He glanced back over his shoulder at the worried Princess. "If we landed on a planet in the middle of a civil war, the question is... which side do we pick to ask for help? Both of them seemed to want us dead."
"It's probably more complicated than picking a side, Solo," Leia informed him. "Politics usually are."
"That's why I hate politics." The hatch cycled open, letting in a blast of hot air, blinding sun, and gritty sand. "And this is why I hate deserts."
Checking their water supply and sunblock, they set out in the direction of the life-sign, hoping they'd find someone friendly when they arrived.
Leia stopped walking, taking a long draw of the tepid water. Her clothing was soaked with perspiration, and she felt light-headed from the waves of heat that roiled off the ground.
"Careful with that water," Han ordered. "We don't know how long we'll have to be out in this."
The Princess replaced the cap on the bulb before glaring at Solo. "Don't tell me what to do, Captain. This is my mission, and I'm the one in charge."
Leaning down and putting his hands on his knees, Han took a few breaths before responding. "Glad to hear you're takin' responsibility for this mess we're in."
"This is not my fault," Leia declared hotly, belatedly realizing that was one of the Corellian's favorite lines. "We wouldn't have been shot down if you were a better pilot."
That comment managed to work up Han's ire, and he took a step toward her, pointing his finger in her face. "In the first place, sister, it was your job to keep an eye on the scanners for other ships. And in the second place, if that worthless piece of kest you Rebels call a ship had decent shields and even half-way decent maneuvering, we wouldn't have been shot down. And in the third place - "
"Those ships came from around the backside of the planet," Leia interrupted. "Between the planet-side jamming and the nebula, the sensors didn't pick them up until they were on top of us!"
"In the third place," Han continued, narrowing his eyes at her, "I am the best damn pilot you'll ever meet, so shut up."
"Don't you dare tell me to shut up. Luke's a better pilot that you are," Leia returned. "And so is Wedge."
"Then why didn't you have Luke or Wedge pilot you in that damned Alliance piece of kest?"
"They're busy! They both actually have a job flying for the Rogue Squadron."
"Since when is it my job to cart your holy rear all over the galaxy?"
"That's a joke. What would you know about jobs, Solo? You haven't had a single day of real responsibility in your entire life!"
"How would you know?" Han responded in a low tone, his face darkening. Then he turned and started walking in long strides, forcing the Princess to hurry to keep pace.
"Slow down," she ordered.
"You're impossible," Leia said, gasping in the heat. She staggered to a stop, watching as he continued his pace. Without thinking, she threw the heavy, durasteel water bulb at his back. Things seemed to happen in slow motion for the next several seconds. The water container went higher than she intended, and Solo started to turn around at the same time. "WATCH - " she started to yell... but the bulb struck the Corellian's temple before the last word left her mouth. The water bulb ricocheted away, and the smuggler dropped in his tracks. "Oh, Sith."
Leia hurried over, and sank to her knees, supporting Han's head behind his neck. "Solo? Come on... wake up. That was an accident." When his eyes remained shut, she fumbled for the water, her hands shaking as she drizzled the liquid over his face. "Wake up..."
The man coughed, and slowly opened his eyes. "If you wanted to kill me, a blaster would've worked better," he croaked out.
"It was an accident."
"An accident?" He pushed himself up on his elbows. "You tellin' me that water bulb suddenly took off, and beaned me on my head on its own?"
"Well, no. I threw it, but I only meant to hit you in the back. You shouldn't have turned around right then."
Han reached up, wincing as he touched the newest sore spot on his temple. "So this is my fault, too?"
"You shouldn't have walked so fast," Leia said defensively, physically drawing away from the impossible Corellian. "So, yes, it's your fault."
"I can't believe I'm hearing this," Han yelled. "Is anything not my fault?"
Any response from the Princess was cut off as a shadow fell over the bickering pair. They focused on a cloaked, solitary dark figure against the white sand and washed-out pink sky. And that figure was pointing a long, wicked-looking blaster in their direction.
"Uh..." Han muttered, lifting his hands away from his blaster and exchanging worried looks with the Princess. "We mean you no harm."
"He's pointing his weapon at us, Captain," Leia grumbled under her breath. "Not the other way around."
Annoyed, Han flicked his fingers toward the silent being. "You're the diplomat. Do something diplomatic. Amaze me with your job skills, sweetheart."
"Maybe I will," Leia huffed out. "You could use a lesson in diplomacy."
Leia forced a smile on her face, turning to their captor. "Hello. Do you speak Basic? My name is - "
"Vykk," Han interrupted. "My name if Vykk Starkiller, and this is my....my sister. Yeah. My sister, Maddie Starkiller. We're from Tralus... you ever heard of it?"
When the figure remained silent, Leia turned her stare at Han. "See? He doesn't speak Basic."
"I speak Basic," a muffled, heavily accented voice replied. "I should not speak directly to Zevder."
Han shot Leia a confused look. "We sorta crashed on your planet," he explained. "Do you have a town nearby? We need to send a message to our friends to come get us. Our ship is pretty much trashed."
"Off-world communication is forbidden."
"Forbidden?" Leia asked, surprised. "Why?"
"There can be no interference by off-worlders. Off-worlders are executed."
Han swallowed hard. "Executed?" He eyed the nasty weapon. "By who? You?"
"No. I am a Hunted One." The being tentatively reached up, pulling back the head covering of the cloak. A tired-looking, older woman with braided, long blonde hair stared at Leia, refusing to look at Han. "They have tracked your ship. They will find you, unless we hurry and leave the ship far behind."
"You're offering to help us?" Leia asked, surprised. "Why?"
"Because." She paused, her face twisting in sadness. "I am lonely, and you are a Zevder and a Lizger, working side by side. You speak to one another in public, and that is forbidden." She covered her face, then turned and started to hurry away. After a few moments of indecision, Han and Leia followed her.
"This is considered public?" Han whispered to Leia, looking around at the endless miles of vast wasteland.
Leia moved to walk beside the woman. "What's your name?"
"Does this planet have a name?"
"What's a Zevder and a Lizger?"
"A Zevder is a male-dominate, and a Lizger is a female-dominate."
"Could you explain in a bit more detail?" Han asked, his long strides bringing him beside the two women. "We're sorta new here."
Amani hesitated, then replied, "I am a Lizder. Speaking to males is forbidden."
"You have a lot of rules on this planet, huh?" Han questioned with a snort.
"Our planet has been at war for generations," she said quietly. "Many, many years ago, two cultures developed, and a mutual hatred began. The Northworld, which is owned by the Zevders, and the Southworld, which is owned by the Lizgers. The Zevders own Lizders, and the Lizgers own Zevgers. The Northworld and Southworld are divided by the Deathlands, which is where you are now. The old tales claim this division was created by the gods and goddesses, to try and make their own kind happy."
"Well," Han drawled out. "I'm confused."
"I think I understand." Leia leaned closer to Amani and mock-whispered, "He can be dim sometimes. Zevders are men, and Lizgers are women. Right?"
"Females and males, yes," Amani agreed.
"And in the Northland, where the men rule, woman are called Lizders, and they're slaves?"
"And it's just the opposite in the Southland," Han said, catching on.
"Yes. You are correct, except I have never heard the word 'slave' before."
"A slave is someone that has to obey another, and they have no choice in the matter."
"Lizders must obey Zevders," Amani agreed.
Leia bit her lip, thinking. "If you're a Lizder, that means you're a slave. And if you're being Hunted..."
"I have escaped the Northland, and am trying to seek my way to the Southland. Then, perhaps, I will become a Lizger. If they accept me." Her voice trembled. "Life is harsh among the Lizders. The Zevders do not allow us to speak to anyone but the one that controls us. We are frequently beaten, and cannot leave our homes except to shop. We must be covered completely, and always look at the ground. A Zevder can kill a Lizder for any reason, and we cannot speak in our defense if we are accused of wrongdoing."
"That sounds terrible," Leia exclaimed in dismay. "No wonder you ran away."
"Only a few try, and most fail." Amani sighed. "The Deathlands are merciless, and vast. Most die of thirst or heat, and it is a twenty-cycle walk from the Northland to the Southland."
"Twenty?" Han said, his voice rising. "We don't have water to last twenty days!"
"We are very close to the Southland now. Only three more cycles. If we are not attacked by Tennerds, we should make it."
"I hate to ask, but what's a Tennerd?" Leia asked anyway.
"It is a giant, shaggy creature with great fangs. It slumbers during the daylight, but hunts at night, when it is cooler. Zevders tell their Lizders this, to scare them into trying to leave."
"Well, we've got blasters," Han pointed out. "And you've got that nasty weapon, too."
"My weapon is empty of charges," Amani informed them. "I am lucky to have found you when I did."
They walked in silence for a long time. Finally Leia spoke again. "Amani.... how are Zevgers - the males in the female-dominate society - treated by Lizgers?"
"Yeah," Han muttered under his breath. "I was sorta thinkin' about that myself."
"I have heard from my Zevder that Zevgers are treated like chattel. That causes a great deal of rage among the Zevders. They do not like the idea of Zevgers being treated badly, although they do not stop to consider how they treat us Lizders. That is why there is constant war. The Zevders attack the Lizgers, because they are offended how they treat their Zevgers, and the Lizgers attack the Zevders because they are offended how the Lizders are treated."
"Has it ever occurred to anyone that if no one had slaves, everyone could be happy and live in peace?" Leia suggested.
"The Zevders reject this idea. They claim it is their divine right to control Lizders, and they will never stop trying to kill all the Lizgers for offending the gods."
"And I'll bet the Lizgers claim it's their divine right to control the men, and the Zevders are offending the goddesses," Han added, disgusted.
"That is true," Amani agreed. "It is too bad Maddie is not your Lizger, Vykk Starkiller."
"Amani," Leia said, giving Han a warning glare. It was obvious this woman would have no idea who they really were. "My name is really Leia Organa, and this is Han Solo. He didn't want to give you are real names, in case you weren't friendly."
"And I'm not his sister, either."
Amani stopped walking, holding up her hand. "It is growing dark. We must start digging."
"Digging?" Han said.
"We must sleep in a pit in the sand. It makes it harder for the Tennerds to see us in the darkness."
Leia and Han shared their ration bars with Amani, who had run out of food days before. Han noted the woman seemed very reluctant to show her face in front of him, but relaxed a bit as time passed. They were careful to drink only enough water to wash the dry rations down their throats, and they discovered that night fell quickly in the desert and temperatures dropped dramatically. Soon, they were shivering in the small, sandy pit.
"Amani?" Leia said softly.
"Can you tell us more about your Zevliz? Do you know why our ship was pulled out of hyperspace?"
"Both Northland and Southland cultures have space-worthy vessels."
"We could see that," Han pointed out. "But why did they attack us?"
"As much as the two sides hate each other, they do not wish to change. Outside interference might force that change. Your ship must have entered the Protection Zone, and signaled the Zevders and Lizgers to send up ships to prevent you from seeing our world, and leaving to tell others. Scientists have figured out ways to make the naturally occurring nebula work to cause harm to outside ships venturing too close."
"But once they shot at us, they started shooting at each other," Leia said.
"That is not unusual. The two sides cannot stand each other, even when working for a mutual goal. Each side attacks the other with only the slightest provocation. Each side claims credit for all inventions."
"You said the Lizgers might not accept you," Leia said. "Why would they not?"
"If they perceive me to be a burden, I will not be accepted. I was one of the fortunate ones... my Zevder allowed me to read and write without punishment. I hope that ability proves my worth, and the Lizgers will not turn me away. Ignorance is not acceptable to Lizgers."
"Was your Zevder was cruel to you?" Han asked, his voice angry.
"Less so than other Zevders are cruel to their Lizders I bore him two sons, so he favored me above his other Lizders."
"You mean the men own more than one woman... I mean the Zevders control more than one Lizder?" Leia asked indignantly. This was sounding worse all the time.
"You said the men, the Zevgers, are not treated well by the Lizgers. Can you explain better?" Leia asked. "I think we might have trouble disguising Han as a female, but I can picture him in a nice pair of high-heels and a wig."
"Funny. Real funny," the Corellian muttered, glaring at the Princess.
Amani had no idea what Leia was talking about. "I have overheard Zevders speaking about how Lizgers treat Zevgers." She flushed and looked down. "The Zevders claim it is to make them look bad, and prove they can humiliate males."
"How could it be worse than how Lizders are treated in the Northland?"
"Not worse... different," she mumbled, scooping up sand with her fingers and letting it trickle down.
"This is makin' me get nervous, Princess," Han groused. "Tell us, Amani... what can I expect when we get there?"
"You are overdressed, Han Solo," she whispered.
"How much overdressed?"
"Zevgers are not allowed clothing at all."
"WHAT?" Han roared, standing up.
"Just great," Leia moaned with a sigh. "This trip is getting better and better all the time."
"Get down," Amani hissed out. "The creatures will see you!"
Han sat down, noting that Leia was not making eye contact with him. "So, let me get this straight," Han spat out. "Because the men in the Northlands force women to cover up from head to toe, and never speak to men, the women in the Southland get even for that treatment by making men walk around butt naked."
"Yes," Amani replied, sounding breathless. "I have never seen a naked man before."
"You just said you gave your owner two sons," Leia pointed out.
"Lizders cannot look upon the unclothed body of a Zevder, or touch them, even during... um, the task of creating life. It is forbidden."
"Well, that sounds like a ton of fun for all concerned," Han said sarcastically.
"The Zevders I heard speaking claim it is the exact opposite in the Southland. All Lizgers are allowed to touch Zevgers. In public, too," she said, sounding shocked. "I would never have tried to come to the Southland, except for the fact a neighbor falsely accused me of spying on him through his window. My Zevder would have killed me when the sun rose, so I had to either run away, or face execution. I stole my Zevder's blaster rifle, and took what water and food I could carry, then left under the cover of darkness. I am afraid of the Southland and the Deathlands, but I am more afraid of execution, and that was a certainty."
"I'm surprised it was that easy to escape," Han commented.
"Escape is considered that same as execution," Amani explained. "Zevders do not pursue the few that flee, knowing they will not last long. The goddesses have been kind to me, and I have only had one encounter with Tennards, but that one time drained by blaster."
A distant hissing sound could be heard over the darkened hills. "What's that noise?" Leia asked.
"It is tennerds. They have gotten our scent."
Han pulled out his blaster, making sure it was set to 'kill.' "Let me see," he mused. "Get eaten by giant lizards, or become Leia's naked slave. Decisions, decisions..."
"What makes you think I want you for my slave?" Leia shot back hotly, holding her own blaster tightly. "Maybe I'll sell you to a Lizger for a younger man."
"Fine," Han responded lightly. "Amani... if Leia doesn't want me, will you be my Lizger?"
"I... I don't know," Amani replied, obviously confused at this conversation. "Why would Leia Organa not want you?"
"I hate you, Solo," Leia said tightly.
"That's only 'cuz you haven't seen my naked butt yet."
"Maybe you should head toward the Northlands, and let us keep going south," Leia returned evenly. "You'd fit right in with those control-freaks."
"Me?" Han asked, incredulously. "I'm not a control freak... you're the control freak!"
"You're right, laserbrains," Leia snapped back. "You're just a plain freak!"
"Could you two stop arguing for a short time?" Amani pleaded. "The tennards are almost here."
Tennards were beasts that resembled lizards except for the long, sand-colored hair that covered their bodies. The fact that they had hair kept them buried deep down where the sand was cool during the day, and when the sun set, their long claws dug out of their burrow, and they sought out food. Nearly as long as a bantha, they traveled in packs of eight to ten. If they smelled something warm-blooded, the pack would circle the prey, and then move in for the kill.
Raising their heads, with their long tongues flicking, the pack smelled dinner nearby. Moving with amazing speed, they quickly spread out, their snake-like bodies skimming the ground. Then they moved in tandem, closing in on the meal.
The three humans weren't very interested in becoming a meal. Cautiously, Han raised his head above the pit, squinting into the darkness. Leia stuck her head up, peering in the opposite direction.
"Do you see anything?" Han whispered.
Then the red eyes of a tennard appeared, almost within touching distance from Han's face. "LEIA!" His blaster fired, and he heard Amani scream and Leia fire her blaster.
"We're surrounded," Leia shouted, her head whipping around, and firing again. It was impossible to see the beasts until they were almost on top of them. Another creature was suddenly towering over the Princess, its talons poised to impale her, and she stumbled back, avoiding the claws and firing at the lizard's throat. The mortally wounded lizard twisted its head as something pulled it away.
The Corellian fired rapidly into the dark in a semi-circle, while Leia covered her half. Loud squeals of pain could be heard, and the stench of burned flesh filled their nostrils.
The small group listened as the lizards moved away, the hissing sounds growing fainter and fainter, until they were gone completely.
"Do you think they'll come back?" Han questioned.
It was Amani that replied. "No. They will have dragged the dead and wounded tennards away, and they will eat them. We are safe for tonight."
Exhausted, Han slumped down. "I still think we should take turns sleeping."
For a change, Leia agreed, and took the first watch as Amani and Han slept.
Morning, two nights later
As they crested the top of yet another huge sand dune, Han raised the water bulb to his parched lips, and the last dribble wet his tongue. "That's the last of my water," he whispered, only because his dry throat didn't allow for anything louder.
The Princess rattled her bulb, and listened as the few drops splashed back and forth. "If we don't find water soon, we won't last another day." She looked back at the older woman, as Amani struggled to keep pace. Despite the heat, she refused to shed her full-length robes.
Amani stopped, then lifted her arm and pointed. "There."
They followed her finger, and saw in the distance a line of dark ground, stretching from one side of the horizon to the other. "What's that?" Leia asked.
"The Divide. A field of rocks line the Deathlands on either side. On the far side of the rocks, the grasslands begin, and then after that, where the air becomes cool and moist, the Southland."
"How far is the rock field?" Han asked.
"Not far... perhaps several miles, but it is hard walking. The good part is that as the air becomes cooler, we may locate pools of water."
"A pool? I could use a refreshing swim. And we could skinny-dip," Han suggested, leering at Leia.
"I sure hope we find water," Leia said hopefully, ignoring the smuggler's comment. The first day and night, Han's constant sarcastic remarks had made her want to feed him to a tennard, but by the second night even the Corellian's dubious wit has disappeared in the haze of heat and exhaustion. It had worried Leia a bit that Han was losing hope, so any flippant remarks were now a welcome distraction.
"There should be," Amani agreed. "What does skinny-dip mean?"
"Just ignore him, Amani," Leia grumbled. "I do."
With Han in the lead, the three kept walking, finally reaching the rocks. After spending two days trudging through sand, the dramatic change in footing was difficult, and the small group frequently slipped and fell as they traveled over the rough terrain.
Finally, the native woman sank to her knees. "I cannot go any further. I wish you luck in your quest, Han Solo and Leia Organa." She looked up, and gave a smile through her cracked lips. "You have allowed me to die with the knowledge that a Zevder and a Lizger can live in harmony. I thank you for that."
"Harmony?" Han asked in surprise. "You think me an' Leia get along? All we do is argue and disagree."
Amani gave a small laugh. "What you call argue and disagree sounds like music to my ears, Han Solo. I have spent years in almost silence. I am not even allowed to speak to my own male off-spring without my Zevder's permission."
Leia approached the woman. "We're not leaving you, Amani. We'll rest until you're strong enough to walk, and then we'll find some water."
"You are too kind. But I am finished."
"No, you're not," Han grumbled. "I'll carry you if I have to."
"Please, do not be foolish. I will prevent you from surviving."
"You're the reason we're still alive," Leia returned, sitting down beside the woman while Han kept scanning the horizon. "You can't give up, Amani. You said the rock divide was only a few miles in length."
"I think I see something," Han informed them. "Ships... heading this way..."
Leia and Amani quickly stood, squinting into the distance. "They have found us," the older woman said nervously. "And they may very well kill us, you know."
In moments, the two sleek ships landed next to them, and three women dressed in shiny, loose-fitting skirts and silky, rainbow-hued sleeveless tops exited each ship, holding blasters. They sized up the three dirt-covered interlopers, then quickly took their weapons. Then they snapped questions in a language neither Leia nor Han understood. But Amani understood, and quickly replied, waving her hand as she explained in great length her story. Leia could only hope that Amani could plead their case convincingly enough to prevent them from ending up dead. Finally, one woman spoke briefly to Amani, and waved her blaster at one of the ships.
Amani turned to Leia. "They do not speak Basic, but have indicated they will take us before the Ruling Council of Lizger the Twelve. It is the Council that will decide our fates, but Han Solo cannot go before the Council of Twelve. He will be taken to a prison, because they believe he is a Zevder. An enemy."
"Did you tell them where we came from?" Han asked, not wanting to get thrown in prison, and especially not wanting to get separated from the Princess.
"I told them you are off-worlders," Amani said. "That is considered no better."
One of the Lizgers spoke loudly, and the others nodded in agreement.
"Now what?" Leia asked.
Amani flushed red. "They demand the Zevder remove all his clothing before taking him to the Southland."
"What if I refuse?" Han asked, angry.
"They will kill us all," Amani mumbled, staring at the ground and wringing her hands together.
The guards pointed all their weapons at Han, and he frowned at the Princess. "If we ever make it back to the Rebel Base alive, you'd better never, ever tell this part of the story, or I swear I'll - "
"Hurry up, before they shoot us," Leia whispered, looking away as the Corellian disrobed.
If Han thought the trip inside the ship was embarrassing and uncomfortable, being forced to walk under heavy guard completely naked save for a pair of sandals, through the well-maintained and picturesque streets of a Southland town was even worse. While the women all conducted business in elegant, airy attire, or drove around in fancy hovercars, most of the men seemed content to carry packages, open doors, and generally seeing to the needs of their owner. Amani had been correct - all the men were completely nude with the exception of a pair of sandals on their feet, and seemingly completely oblivious to their nakedness. The youngest boys, however, were allowed a small loincloth, which seemed to be removed at puberty. Han was a bit comforted by the fact none of the males seemed bruised or frightened in their unorthodox lifestyles, just a bit... dim-witted? Was that the word? Why else were they all smiling and happy-looking? A few here and there, Han could understand, but this was more than that. It was all the men, and all the time. It was very strange.
The guard grabbed his arm, pushing him into a cheery-looking building, dragged him up a flight of stairs, and then pointed toward a door. Sighing, Han resigned himself to spending the next day inside a small cell, and was surprised when the door opened, and a tidy, comfortable room greeted his tired gaze. Although not large, it was certainly as nice as most hotel rooms, with plush carpeting, a soft, inviting bed - and most importantly, a clean refresher unit with a shower.
He was pushed inside, and the door slammed shut, leaving him alone. Without hesitating, Han headed for the refresher, intent on a long, cool shower.
Leia and Amani had been ushered into the second ship, which both worried Leia and at the same time, made her grateful she didn't have to sit inside a relatively small ship with a nude Han Solo. When her ship landed, Amani had been escorted away, and Leia was taken in the opposite direction. Exiting the hanger, Leia swallowed hard, and tried not to stare at the dozens of naked male bodies, from the young to the very old, that were walking in all directions as they hurried beside well-to-do, and well-dressed, women of every age. It was probably worse for Amani, Leia thought, glancing over at the older woman. To her surprise, Amani wasn't looking at the ground, but opening gaping at the people on the street.
The Princess wondered if Han was being mistreated. Knowing the Corellian, he probably was busy bragging to any woman that would listen what a catch he was. She hoped he didn't get himself shot before she had a chance to negotiate his freedom.
Her escort took her inside a nice building, but the buildings were all quite nice, Leia decided. Then another woman, slightly older than Leia and with dark hair pinned up tightly, approached her. "My name is Ette. I am to be your guide, temporarily, since I speak Basic. If you would follow me, I will show you to your room, and you may get cleaned up and dressed. Then you will have an opportunity to eat and rest before meeting the Council in the morning."
"Thank you," Leia said politely as she followed the woman into a turbolift. "Do you have any idea what's going to happen to us?"
"My pilot and myself. And Amani, of course. If not for her, Captain Solo and I would have died out in the desert."
"Amani will be reconditioned, of course. She will need to make adjustments to her new station as a Lizger. All Lizgers welcome Lizders strong enough to escape the evil Zevders."
"And what about Captain Solo and me?" Leia questioned as the lift doors parted, and they exited into a wide corridor.
Ette eyed Leia as she opened a door, showing her inside a large apartment. "You are an off-worlder. Your fate is up to you. The Council will tell you more tomorrow. Tonight, you will rest. Your trip was difficult."
"Is Han alright?" Leia persisted, although why she was so concerned about Solo was a mystery to her.
"The Zevder that came with you?"
"Captain Solo not a Zevder. He's my friend," Leia said, glad the pilot wasn't around to hear that description, even if it was the truth.
"Your... friend is unharmed. Do not worry about him. His fate is still undecided." The woman turned and left, and Leia heard the distinct click of a lock as the door shut.
Now wearing a pretty dress made from the softest material Leia had ever felt, the Princess was escorted by Ette into a large, very fancy building, and taken to a large chamber. Twelve bejeweled, elderly women sat in a line facing a single chair, and Leia was ordered to sit in that chair.
"Your name," the woman furthest to the left asked.
"Why did you come to Zevliz?" the next woman questioned forcefully.
"We didn't...our ship was pulled out of hyperspace by a force-field. Then we were shot down. All we - "
"Why should we accept you as a Lizger?" the third woman interrupted.
Leia felt confused. "I don't want to become a Lizger."
"Then you wish to become a Lizder?" another woman asked, her eyes wide with horror.
"I should hope not. Then answer the question... why should we accept you as a Lizger?"
"I.. we, I mean, only want to send a distress signal to our people, and have them come pick us up..."
"That is unacceptable."
"I beg your pardon?"
"I should hope so," the woman seated in the middle sniffed. "You cannot think we will allow any outside contact. You are here, and here you shall stay."
"That... that's not acceptable, either," Leia protested, standing up. "You can't keep us against our will!"
"Of course not," one of the Twelve replied. "You may leave the Southland at any time. But you will not survive long in the Deathlands."
Leia took a deep breath. "Are you telling me that you won't allow us to contact our people?"
"Yes. That is correct."
"And if we don't accept your rules, and live as you see fit, you'll force us back into the desert?"
"You must be assimilated into our society, or leave. We are not barbarians, like the Zevders," the woman on the right informed her. "The Zevders would execute you. Off-worlders are hated by the Zevders."
"You don't seem fond of them, either," Leia said dryly.
"You are human, and when we shot at your ship, we were unaware of that fact," the tenth woman stated. "Non-humans are unacceptable for assimilation, even by our standards."
"What would you like, Leia Organa?" the first woman asked, leaning forward. "You must decide now. Either you stay as a Lizger, or you must leave the Southland before the sun sets."
"What about Han?" Leia asked, shutting her eyes in despair. If she agreed to these terms, it might be possible to send out a distress signal later, and hope they didn't get caught. Or that the rescue team didn't get captured... or shot down. Things were looking pretty gloomy, all things considered.
"He can accept becoming your Zevger, or another Lizger's Zevger. Or he can leave the Southland. We will take you to him, and you can explain this. Zevgers need a firm, but gentle hand to guide them down the correct path."
"And if he becomes my Zevger," Leia said with a sigh. "What are the rules?"
"Yes. I'm sure he'll have to follow a lot of rules, since he'll be a slave."
"Slave? There are no slaves in the Southland. You mostly will decide his rules, Lizger Leia," the fourth Council member said. "Some Lizgers do not like their Zevgers to speak to other Lizgers without permission, or openly stare at other Lizgers, either. But that is your choice. Keep in mind, though, if he offends another Lizger by what he speaks, or by staring, the offended Lizger can demand financial compensation for the insult."
"Well," Leia muttered under her breath. "If I have to pay money every time Han offends someone, I'm going to be in major debt in a week."
"What? We did not hear you."
"I said... can he wear clothes, if I want him to?"
This caused all Twelve to looked shocked. "Adult Zevgers do not wear clothes. Ever. That is one rule you cannot decide."
"The children wear something," Leia pointed out.
"Of course," number five answered, as if they thought Leia was stupid. "They are not allowed to display their maleness until the Ceremony."
"The bonding Ceremony," the same woman said in annoyance. "Do you know nothing at all?"
"No, I guess I don't," Leia snapped back. "I don't understand why men aren't allowed clothing."
"Zevgers must be naked, as punishment for the crimes of Zevders against Lizders. When the Zevders give all Lizders freedom, then and only then will Zevgers be allowed their modesty," the first Lizger explained.
The Princess rubbed her eyes. "Do you think that will ever happen?"
"It has not happened for three thousand planet cycles, and it is unlikely to ever happen in our lifetimes. But we can only hope, for the sake of our poor sisters in the Northlands."
"It will take more than hope," Leia argued. "It will take long, hard negotiations."
"Zevders do not speak to Lizgers... unfortunately," the first Council woman said. "Negotiations will not bring this about. Only war. And both sides are tired of war, so we live in uneasy peace. If the Northland does not bother us, we do not bother them."
"Maybe if you allowed off-worlders to bring both sides..."
"NO!" the group shouted all at once.
The first woman shook her head. "We will not be contaminated by off-world aliens. It is the one thing both Lizgers and Zevders will always agree upon. No aliens. Ever."
Leia couldn't see much hope for this stubborn society.
As she followed behind Ette, Leia kept her eyes down, since it was easier than accidentally looking at the wrong part of the male anatomy, and kept thinking about the long meeting with the Council of Twelve. The more they explained, the more hopeless the situation seemed. In the end, she agreed to their terms, and accepted their hospitality. What choice did she have? Leia knew they wouldn't survive another trek through the desert, and where would they go if they left the Southland?
Her escort frowned at her charge. "Is something wrong with your neck, Lizger Leia?"
"No." Leia tried to look up, and flushed as she observed the daily routine of the Lizgers and Zevgers. Some males were standing in small groups, having normal conversations, while the ones walking with women had neutral or, stranger still, pleasant looks on their faces. "Don't the Zevgers resent being slaves?"
"Controlled by the women, um, Lizgers?" Leia amended. It was all too easy to forget these people didn't consider what they did to men was slavery, just like Amani didn't consider herself a slave to the men of the Northland, even though outsiders would consider both the North and South guilty of trafficking in slavery.
"They are promised as children to another female Lizger, for a dowry paid to the Zevger's family by the Lizger's family. This dowry is paid by the Birth-Lizger upon the completion of the Ceremony, when the bonded Zevger is fully revealed to his Lizger."
"That sounds like one bizarre wedding ceremony," Leia commented. "Doesn't the mother care about her son... her male off-spring? Or is he sold to the highest bidder?"
"Usually the two families know each other well, and all sides try to make a good match for both the Lizger and the Zevger. Birth-Lizgers do not wish their off-spring a poor choice mates, whether they are male or female. We want our off-spring to be happy. Unfortunately, the birth-ratio for Lizgers is twice as that of Zevgers, so many Lizgers never have the opportunity to bond with a Zevger, and that is why Zevgers are so valuable. I hear it is the same situation in the Northlands, which is why the Zevders can control more than one Lizder."
"Do you have a Zevger?" Leia asked, avoiding the word 'own.'
"Of course," Ette replied proudly. "He is shopping for food right now." She smiled and leaned toward Leia, mock-whispering, "My Zevger is very well-endowed. Other Lizgers are jealous, I think."
Leia coughed, trying not to become even more embarrassed. "Oh. So that's something Lizgers like?"
That made Ette laugh. "Of course. I hear Zevders like their Lizders to have large mammaries. Is it any different?"
"I guess not."
"I have seen your Zevger," Ette continued. "He is very impressive, too. In a short while, when you become accustomed to this society, you will be proud to display your Zevger to other Lizgers."
"I'm not sure I'll ever become used to this society," Leia said with a sigh. "And I'm sure as the stars number in the billions that I'll never get used to seeing Han Solo without clothes."
"Certainly you will," Ette said dismissively. "You do not wish another Lizger to take your Zevger, do you?
"Uh..no?" Leia said in confusion. Han could be given to another woman? It shouldn't bother me, she thought. So then why does it?
Ette smiled. "I did not think so. Remember, since he arrived with you and Amani, you will have first Right to claim him, and Amani second Right. If both of you reject him, he will be sold to a Lizger close to his age without a bond Zevger, as it is decided by the Council of Twelve. I'm sure many Lizgers will compete for him."
That sounded worrisome. "Compete?"
"It is not what you think. Decisions like that are based upon the financial ability to support a Zevger, and the standing of your Birth-family."
"I see," Leia said, frowning. "If Han hasn't been bonded yet, why isn't he allowed to cover up?"
"He is an adult," Ette said, rolling her eyes. "It would be even worse for him to walk around in a cover-cloth, than to be naked. When your people have very young off-spring, do they not put something around them to keep them clean of bodily waste, and also something to keep the food from falling onto them?"
"Diapers and bibs," Leia supplied.
"Diapers and bibs," Ette repeated. "Having Zevger Han walk around with a cover-cloth would be like having him wear a diaper and bib."
"How am I supposed to support myself and Han... if I keep him, that is."
"The Council will find use for your talents, Lizger Leia," Ette said. "Do not worry about finances."
Leia didn't know if that was a relief, or another thing to be concerned about.
"Here is the building," Ette informed Leia, waving her hand at yet another vine-covered building with flower boxes and a carved wooden entryway.
"What building is this?"
"This is a sort of a prison, and your Zevger is upstairs. He was locked inside for his own safety, until you had a chance to understand the situation." Ette indicated they should enter the building, and Leia followed her inside. "You will find him in room twenty. I will wait here until you explain things to him, and then I will take you both to your home."
"How am I going to explain any of this to Han?" Leia asked, looking up the staircase. "He's going to explode."
Ette shrugged. "He can always leave the Southland."
The Princess remembered her earlier conversation all too well. "He can leave, but without clothes, or a weapon. That's the same as condemning him to death."
"He would be given food and water. If he was lucky, he could survive to reach the Northlands."
"But the Northland Zevders hate off-worlders, and he'd be executed," Leia argued.
"True. It would be in his best interests for him to remain here, as your Zevger, or, if you don't want him, as another Lizger's Zevger. I hope you can make him see this, but ultimately, the choice to stay or go is his."
"Do any Zevgers leave the Southland? Ever?"
"I have heard of two. Both Zevgers were considered, um, mentally unstable. But we did not keep them against their will, Lizger Leia. They could, and did, leave. I remember their Birth-Lizger and their Bond-Lizger being very upset, but they could do little other than try and talk sense into them."
"What happened to them?"
"Our scout ships found one dead, mostly consumed by the tennerds. The other Zevger came back a few days later, begging to be allowed to return."
"Was he allowed?"
Ette gave an exasperated sigh. "Of course. We are not like the Zevders. They would kill their Lizders before allowing them to leave, or execute them if they did run away, and returned."
"Do they ever complain about not being allowed to wear clothes?"
"Why should they?" Ette shot back, annoyed. "It is not cold in the Southland. Bonded Zevgers are only too happy to shed their small infant cloth and be considered an adult Zevger. I'm sure they would dislike the sensation if they were told to wear something." She pointed up the staircase. "You go now, and talk to your Zevger. Make him see reason. It would be a wasteful pity for him to die out in the hot desert."
Leia trudged reluctantly up the stairs, wondering how in the galaxy she would be able to make the most stubborn man alive see reason, especially when she couldn't see any sanity in this society herself.
There were two Lizgers guarding the door, but when they saw Leia, they nodded and walked away, leaving her alone. Knocking first, Leia spoke through the door. "Han?"
A muffled, "Yeah?"
"Are you alright?"
"I'm fine. Are you okay?"
"Fine." Leia shifted uncomfortably on her feet, which were encased in the softest leather shoes she'd ever felt. "Can I come in?"
"Well, if you can get the door open. Where are the guards that were out there?"
"They left when I showed up."
She tried the handle, and the door opened easily from the exterior. "I'm coming in."
"Gotta warn you... I ain't 'xactly decent."
Keeping her eyes downcast as she had nearly all day, Leia walked in the small, but well-appointed room. "None of the men are."
"You noticed, huh?" Han said, amusement coloring his voice.
Leia risked a quick glance up, and saw that Han was sitting in bed, his back leaning up against the headboard. A small, lacy pink throw-pillow was strategically placed on his lap. "You could've put a towel or sheet around your waist."
"I could," Han agreed. "But the towels are too small, and I kept tripping over the sheet."
"Did you negotiate our release?" Han asked eagerly. "Get them to send out a distress signal? Get them to give me my clothes back, and my blaster-rig?"
"No? NO?" He restrained himself from leaping up. "What did you accomplish?"
"Well, they said we can leave, but we'd have to go back into the Deathlands. And you wouldn't be allowed your clothes back, even then. And if, by some miracle, we'd make it across the Deathlands to the Northland, the men would execute us because they hate off-worlders."
"Maybe they're lyin'," Han argued, his face desperate. "Maybe the Northlands are ... normal. And these people here are the nut cases."
"I might be inclined to consider than possibility, if not for Amani," Leia said with a sigh, plopping down on the edge of the bed. ""She wasn't lying to us, Han. I've spent too much time as a politician, and I know when people are lying. Actually, I don't think any of these women are lying, either."
"So what are we gonna do?"
Leia took a deep breath, trying to look Han in the face. It was hard, since he was so ... bare. Except for the idiotic looking pink pillow. "I think we need to try and fit in - "
"Listen to me," she hissed, lowering her voice. "I can't see any other alternative right now. If we tell them we agree to their living conditions, eventually, maybe, we can locate their military base. And we can either steal a ship, or at the very least, rig some way to send out a distress signal to the Alliance."
"Maybe. Eventually," Han said, his teeth clenched. "In the meantime, I have to be your slave?"
"I guess. But they don't consider the men their slaves."
"They sure look like slaves to me. Naked slaves!"
"They have bonding ceremonies, Han," Leia explained. "They don't pick and choose who they spend their lives with... their mothers do that when they're born. The young women give a dowry to the families of the boys they bond with, and they spend the rest of their lives together. It's sort of like they're married, in a very, very weird way."
"It still sounds like slavery to me, since the boys are sold, and don't have any say so. Do we have to get bonded?" Han asked suspiciously.
"I...don't know," Leia admitted unhappily. "It sounds like it."
"I think you want to stay here, just so you can admire my body, and make me your love-slave," Han said, smirking.
Leia stood up, her face flushing not with embarrassment, but with anger. "I'd rather look at a Hutt, and be his love-slave!"
"That figures... those slugs are naked, too."
It took a great deal of willpower not to smack the smart-mouthed Corellian across his head. "Amani doesn't have a Zevger, and she's next in line. Do you want me to ask her to take you off my hands?"
"You're bluffing, sweetheart," Han said, standing up and keeping the pillow in place. "You can't wait to get your hands on me." With a great flourish, he removed the pillow, tossing it on the bed and holding out his arms.
"I never realized you were so undersized, Solo," Leia said, trying - and failing - to force herself to look directly at him. "Compared to all the other men I've seen in the past day, you're positively tiny." Of course Leia had seen enough to know it was a blatant lie, but she wasn't about to allow Han to get the better of her.
Han's mouth dropped open. "I am not!" He glanced down, suddenly unsure of his attributes, and tried to cover himself with his hands.
"Etta, our guide, is waiting in the lobby," Leia continued, her eyes focused on the wall. She hoped wasn't blushing too hard. "You can follow me like a good Zevger, or you can ask to be released back into the Deathlands. Right now, I don't care which one you pick." Leia spun on her toe and headed out the door.
For a long moment, Han stood still and speechless. Then he grabbed the lacy pillow and his sandals, and hurried after the Princess.
Ette nodded in approval as Han followed Leia into the lobby. "So he's decided to become your Zevger?"
"Like I have a choice," Han grumbled, still trying to maintain his modesty with the frilly cushion.
"He'll cooperate," Leia said, shooting a warning glare back at Han. Watching Han's discomfort, and Ette's appreciative appraisal of Solo's body, Leia wasn't sure if she was amused, or jealous.
"Why are you holding a pillow?" Ette asked in confusion. "The keeper, Lizger Wynn, will not like her decorations removed."
"I don't like my decorations displayed," Han argued. "What kind of prisons have decorations, anyway?" Han looked around at the dainty lobby. "It figures a jail run by women would have lace curtains on the windows, and embroidered hand towels in the fresher."
"Well, we have little need for actual prisons, and this is really a hotel. Please, put down the pillow and follow me."
"Put it down, Solo," Leia whispered. "We don't need to make trouble."
Reluctantly, Han placed the pillow on the smooth counter-top, then headed out into the open. "I guess I'm about to get an all-over tan," Han mused, squinting in the bright sunshine. "Although, I don't much care for the idea of a sunburn on certain parts of my anatomy."
"Where are we going?" Leia asked, wishing Han would shut up. Her heart was hammering in her ears, and her palms felt sweaty. It surely wasn't Solo, standing beside her, nude, that was causing this reaction. Was she getting some local flu? She'd walked past hundreds of naked men in the past day, and they hadn't affected her like this. No... she was probably coming down with something fatal, she decided. And the way things were going, maybe it was a blessing.
"It is midday, so it is time for food," Ette explained. "We will go to a nice restaurant, and I will treat you both to a meal. I will try and answer any more questions during that time, as well."
Leia noticed the Zevger-less Lizgers openly admiring Han as they walked past, and again she felt another spike of jealousy. Why should she care if they noticed him? She didn't, and that was all there was to it. Of course, Solo was undoubtedly enjoying all this unwarranted attention, she thought, miffed at her tumult emotions. Glancing over, she could see the Corellian looked decidedly unhappy, and guilt replaced the jealousy.
After a fifteen minute walk, Ette guided them into a pleasant pub-like restaurant, which was quite crowded. To Leia's surprise, Amani was already seated at a large table, and she stood, giving Leia a warm hug. "Amani... I wasn't expecting to see you here." The older woman's entire demeanor had changed dramatically in one day. Dressed like a Lizger, in a pretty, silky dress, and her hair cut to shoulder length, she looked a good ten years younger than the fifty years Leia had assumed before.
"Ette asked me to dine with you. I hope you don't mind."
"Of course not."
Amani's eyes took in Han's appearance, and she was completely unabashed in her gaze. Apparently, the past day of mingling with Zevgers had a attitude-altering effect on Amani. "If I thought you were handsome before, Han Solo, you look even better, now."
"Um, thanks," Han muttered, pulling out Leia's chair so she'd sit quickly, and then he could, too.
"What is the name of the planet you are from?"
"Oh. Are all males on Corellia so ... male?"
"Nope. Just me," Han retorted, ignoring the Princess's snort of derisiveness as she finally took her seat.
A pretty, young Lizger wearing a uniform scooted over to their table. She spoke in the native language, and frequently smiled in Han's direction. Ette placed their orders, and the girl left.
"All the waitresses are female," Leia noted. "Just like all the shopkeepers and merchants."
"Zevgers do not work," Ette said. "Their job is to keep their Lizger happy, and tend the home and off-spring. Besides, most of the Lizgers with outside jobs do not have a Zevger, anyway."
"Why's that?" Han questioned, leaning back in his seat. He felt a bit more at ease with his lap hidden under the flowered table-cloth."
"Mostly because the Lizgers that have bonded are the..." Ette frowned, searching for the correct term, "..are the upper class. The wealthy."
"So about half the women never bond, or have off-spring, because their families aren't wealthy enough?" Leia asked. "That doesn't seem fair."
"Like I said before, the female-male ratio is two to one." Ette shrugged as the waitress brought over three glasses filled with a golden liquid. "But that does not mean they go without off-spring. If she sees a Zevger they admire, she can ask his Lizger if she can purchase his seed. Lizgers with nice-looking Zevgers can make quite a tidy sum that way." She smiled broadly at Han, who was tasting the ale. "If you are so inclined, you will earn Lizger Leia a nice extra income."
The Corellian coughed, spraying the liquid on the table in surprise. "You mean... prostitute myself?"
Leia cleared her throat nervously. "That's what we call sentients that rent out their bodies for, err, pleasure. Most societies have outlawed it."
"What is wrong with pleasure?" Ette asked, frowning in confusion. "Pleasure is one of life's enjoyments, as are the off-spring that result."
"Zevders say that only males can have pleasure, and Lizders are forbidden from that enjoyment," Amani informed the group. She looked at Leia. "Are you performing the Ceremony with Zevger Han?"
"It would be foolish not to," Ette said briskly. "You do not wish another Lizger to challenge you for the Right to bond with him."
"They can do that?"
"Of course," Ette answered. "You need to have a Priestess perform the Ceremony. I will arrange that, and then you can meet with the Council to discuss your method of income. Once you have an income, you can become a Birth-Lizger, which will keep your Zevger occupied and content."
"You expect me to have Solo's babies?" Leia asked, eyes wide.
"I just can't see myself as a House-husband," Han grumbled, taking a swallow of the drink. It was tingly and brisk, and he found that he liked it quite a bit. He drank some more.
"Neither can I," Leia rejoined.
"You will change your mind," Ette said, grinning as the waitress returned with heaping plates of steaming food. "Now... enjoy your meal. The off-spring can wait for a little while."
By the end of the meal, Han was very... happy. There was no other word to describe it. The food had been excellent, and the waitress very attentive. He took another swallow of the ale, and felt his spirits - as well as another part of his body - lift even further.
"Are we done?" Ette asked, watching as the waitress cleared the table and paused to rub Han's shoulder.
Han grinned up at her, a dopey grin plastered on his face. "You're the best waitress in the galaxy, sugar."
"Sugar?" Leia snapped. She seemed to be getting more and more upset as the meal proceeded, noticing every tiny glance any woman sent Han's direction. The touchy-feely waitress was getting the short-end of her patience by this point.
"Yeah," Han drawled out. "She's been real sweet to me. You could take some lessons."
"I'll give you a lesson you won't forget, Solo."
As Ette and Amani stood up, and Leia threw her napkin down. "Come on, Solo. We can't spend all day here."
"I can't leave yet," Han said, giggling.
Giggling? Han was giggling? "What in the nine hells is wrong with you?" Leia hissed. "You didn't have more to drink than I did, and I'm not drunk."
"No... I'm not drunk," Han agreed easily, picking up the tablecloth and staring under it. "I'm... uh..." He wiggled his finger at Leia, and she leaned over to listen. "I'm turned-on," he whispered. "We gotta wait. Maybe for a real, real long time. Since I'm Corellian, and all."
Shocked, Leia drew back. "What?"
"You wanna take a peek?" Han offered, lifting the table-cloth edge further, only to have Leia slap his arm - hard.
"What seems to be the matter?" Ette asked, glancing at her wrist chrono. "I need to get you back to your apartment, and then I will go make arrangements with the Priestess."
Leia jumped up from the table, eager to put distance between herself and the Corellian. Could this day get any worse? Could she live through even more embarrassment? "Solo's... aroused right now," she whispered in the woman's ear.
"Aroused?" Ette asked loudly. Then comprehension dawned. "Oh. Well, that happens a lot to Zevgers in public, Lizger Leia. We call it becoming Interested. If you wouldn't have been staring at the ground all day, you'd have seen that many Zevgers walk around Interested." She waved her hand at Solo. "Come, Zevger Han. I'd like to see if you're as impressive as my Zevger. His name is Sheen, and you'll meet him soon, after your bonding Ceremony."
"As long as you asked nicely," Han said, laughing loudly and causing all the patrons to turn and notice them. "Sure."
As Han stood up, and Leia once again averted her eyes, the Lizgers in the restaurant all broke into applause.
"I hate you," Leia mumbled out of the side of her mouth as they exited the pub, while Han was happily waving and taking bows.
"That's cuz you ain't lookin' where it's interesting, sweetheart."
No sooner had Leia slammed the door to the apartment shut, then she spun around to face Han, her face red with rage. The entire walk back to the apartment, Han had been loudly singing off-color Corellian drinking songs at the top of his lungs, causing people to point and laugh at them. Like this ordeal wasn't humiliating enough! And Ette and Amani had laughed and encouraged the idiot to keep singing, too. "What is wrong with you? Have you lost your kriffing mind?"
"Me?" Han grinned broadly, pointing at his chest. "I'm just in a good mood."
"A good mood? A GOOD MOOD?" Leia pushed past the Corellian, then entered her bedroom. Quickly, she ripped off the bedspread, and stalked back into the living area, throwing the dainty spread at Solo. "Cover yourself up."
Han looked crestfallen. "You don't like me."
"All these other women like me a lot, and you don't like me," he said, sounding like a petulant child. "It's not fair."
"Yeah. Fair. If you don't like me, maybe you should give me to someone that appreciates me," he replied, pouting.
First he was giggling, and now he was pouting!"I'm going to go use the refresher, and when I come back, you'd better be wrapped up in the bedspread, and sobered up," Leia threatened as she turned away. She'd seen him drunk before, and he never acted like this. Maybe that flu she thought she had was catching, and they were both going to end up dead. If that wasn't the case, she'd probably end up killing Solo, anyway, at this rate.
When she exited the fresher a few moments later, she didn't see the Corellian in the living room. Leia checked the kitchen and the library, and felt herself start to panic. Had he run off? Maybe he had finally snapped. Hurrying to the bedroom, Leia felt a profound sense of relief when she saw Solo's prone body across the bed, lying on his stomach and sound asleep. She took the quilt and covered him up, then left the room. If he slept the rest of the day and night away, she wondered if the sofa was uncomfortable, since that's where she'd be spending the night.
Ette bowed her head as she approached the Lizger, known as Council Lizger Three. "Council Lizger, I have done as you requested."
"And how did the off-worlders react?"
"The female was unaffected by the mele-juice."
"That is good," Three nodded. "And the male?"
"He quickly became Interested, and extremely happy," Ette reported. "It had a stronger effect than I anticipated."
"Will the off-worlder female want to bond with him?"
"She would be foolish not to," Ette said. "He's very pleasing to look at. I have already arranged for the Ceremony to take place with Priestess Minva this evening."
"If he resists, then make certain he is given more mele-juice beforehand."
"Of course, Council Lizger, but I don't think that will be a problem. The male seems to care a great deal for Lizger Leia, even though she resists his advances."
"Resists? Off-worlders are strange."
"Even so, I could see she did not appreciate other Lizgers looking at the male. I believe she will go through with the Ceremony."
"If she does not, you must bond him with another Lizger, as soon as possible. We cannot have unbonded Zevgers wandering around. It would cause disharmony among the unbonded Lizgers."
"I know. He will be bonded before tomorrow arrives."
"Good. Tomorrow, then, bring me Lizger Leia," the Council Lizger ordered. "She seems highly intelligent, and I would like to have her as my Security Aide. I think, perhaps, she understands how Zevders think, and she also understands the off-world threats. She may be of great help to us in protecting ourselves from our enemies. I will also be able to keep a close watch on her if she is under my care during the day. We would not like for her to make trouble, and attempt to contact more off-worlders."
"That is a wise idea," Ette said. "She was concerned about income, so I think she will quickly agree to your offer."
"Did you tell her about selling her Zevger's seed?"
"They both seemed offended by that idea, for some reason."
"Off-worlders are strange," the Council Lizger repeated, shaking her head.
Rebel Base, Hoth
Luke looked up at the blaring sirens signaling the evacuation of the most recent Rebel Base, and nearly collided with Wedge as he rounded a corner. "Hey, Wedge!"
"Luke, how are you feeling?" Wedge Antilles asked in concern. "Are you sure you should be heading out so soon to take on those Walkers?"
"I feel great, thanks to you," Luke said, once again feeling gratitude toward his friend.
"Someone had to go rescue you out in that blizzard," Wedge laughed. "And since Han wasn't around to pull your farmer backside out of trouble, it just fell to the next Corellian in line."
"You could have died, Wedge. I won't forget it, either." There was a moment's awkward silence between the two men. "Has anyone heard from Han or Leia yet?"
"No, and General Rieekan is getting worried. The contact on Ayin said they never arrived, and they should have arrived two days ago. The General has also tried contacting their ship, and all he gets is silence. We don't think their comm panel is working."
"Maybe they ran into some Imperials, and had to lay low for a while," Luke said hopefully. "It wouldn't be the first time."
"Yeah, you're right. Solo knows how to get out of tight spots, and Princess Leia can handle herself, too," Wedge agreed. "Still, Chewie is one worried Wookiee."
"Chewie's coming along with us to the next base, right?"
"Sure, but he's concerned that the Imperials will still be hanging around when Solo and the Princess get back. Not to mention, Princess Leia will have to spend weeks tracking us down. It's not like we can just leave a forwarding address."
The warning siren sounded again, and Wedge nodded. "We'd better get going."
"Yes," Luke said. "Take care out there, Wedge."
"May the Force be with you, Luke."
When Han woke up, it felt like the room was spinning, and he sat up, confused. "Where am I?"
"On Zevliz," Leia said impatiently. "You've napped long enough. Ette is waiting for us."
Rubbing his hand over his face, he looked up at the Princess. "What for?"
"Our bonding Ceremony," Leia said tightly. "I know we're both looking forward to that."
"Okay," Han replied, staggering out of bed. "Where's the 'fresher?"
"That way." Leia pointed. "I always thought you held your liquor better than that."
"Me, too," Han mumbled distractedly. He remembered the last few hours very clearly, another weird side-effect of a hang-over. He also knew that during the walk back from the pub, he hadn't felt in the least bit ashamed of his nakedness; it felt natural and normal. Even his arousal hadn't embarrassed him after a few moments. "I don't have a normal type of hangover, though. Do you think my drink was drugged?"
That possibility had already occurred to the Princess. "I suppose so. But why would they drug you, and not me?"
"I haven't got a clue, Your Worshipfulness," Han griped, heading toward the fresher. "Nothing about this place makes sense to me."
Leia headed out into the living area where Ette and Amani were waiting. "Han's getting ready."
"That is good," Ette said. "It is not wise to keep the Priestess waiting."
"What does this bonding Ceremony involve?" Leia asked nervously.
"It is not difficult," Ette told her. "Do not worry. Normally, however, there would be the Birth-Lizgers present from both sides to witness the Ceremony, but since that is not possible, Amani and I will bear witness."
"It is exactly the opposite in the Northlands," Amani informed them. "There is no formal ceremony to bond the Zevder and Lizder, only a Zevder Judge, who orders the Lizders to sign away their freedom. Lizders cannot object to this."
"What happens if they do?" Leia asked.
"They are beaten and starved until they agree."
"And what happens here, if the Zevger doesn't want to go through with the Ceremony?" Leia addressed Ette.
"Not go through with it? That has never happened, to my knowledge. Zevgers are eager to become bonded."
Han came into the living area, once again looking a bit uncomfortable about his naked body. "Okay. I'm as ready as I'll ever be."
"I think you were more ready, after our meal," Ette said, laughing. "Come... you will enjoy the Ceremony, Zevger Han."
This time, the group climbed into a landspeeder, with Ette driving and Amani seated beside her. Reluctantly, Leia sat beside Han in the backseat. They watched as they headed out of town, and down a long, winding road.
"How far is this Priestess?" Han questioned, watching the rolling green hills pass by.
"Not far," Ette said.
"How many towns does the Southland have?" Leia asked.
"Thousands," Ette replied. "The Southland is divided into twelve parts, each ruled by one Council Lizger. We live in the Third Ward, which is mostly agricultural. Other Wards have industry, or commerce, or places to relax, like beaches. Our town is called Yequliz Bost, which roughly translates to the Green Hills in Basic."
"And the unbonded Lizgers work as farmers and factory workers?"
"Lizgers do not perform hard labor. That is for the machines you call droids, and Lizgers supervise."
"You have droids here?" Han asked, surprised. "I haven't seen any."
"No, they are not roaming about, but they work in the fields and do the manual, tedious tasks. The richer Lizgers own the factories and the farmland." Ette smiled over her shoulder at Leia. "I almost forgot to tell you the good news. Council Lizger Three has requested you become her Aide, Lizger Leia. That is a great honor, and it will pay well."
"An Aide? What will I be doing?"
"Offering her your valuable advice, especially when it comes to ways of protecting ourselves from Zevders and off-worlders. During your interview, you indicated you had much knowledge in government and military workings."
The hovercraft pulled onto a smaller street, and headed up a steep incline. Soon, a huge blue and white home came into view, with tall spirals with white flags set on each pinnacle, flapping gently in the breeze.
"Here is the home of our local Priestess. After the Ceremony, there is normally a party with family and friends," Ette said. "But you know so few, that afterwards, I thought maybe you'd like to come to my home and meet my family. My Zevger Sheen is making a nice bonding feast for you, and my off-spring are excited to meet off-worlders."
"We'd love to meet your family," Leia said politely. "I didn't know you had off-spring."
"Three," Ette said proudly. "Two females, and one male. I have already made good matches for all of them."
"How old are they?" Han asked.
"My eldest female, Kerre, is now five. Then there is Gertel... she is two. And lastly is my male, Teg. He is six months."
"And they already know who they're gonna marry?"
"Well, Kerre and Gertel have met their future bond Zevgers, but Teg is too young yet to understand such matters."
"Huh," Han said, for lack of a better response.
The landspeeder stopped, and Leia took a deep breath. "Here goes nothing," she muttered.
"Nothing? Most women are excited on their wedding day, Princess," Han teased.
"Most women get to pick who they want to marry, and actually love the man they marry," Leia returned sharply.
The teasing smile faded, and a hurt look appeared briefly in Han's eyes before he turned away, and climbed out of the speeder without another word.
"Now, remember," Ette said, leading the group up the wide marbled steps, "the Priestess Minva does not speak Basic, and you cannot interrupt the Ceremony with questions. She will tell you exactly what to do, and when, and I will interpret." She stopped before a double door that stretched up three times Han's height, and pressed a buzzer.
"Why won't you tell us what this ceremony entails?" Han prodded. "Knives? Fire? Blood?"
Ette just laughed as the door opened, and a young, dark-haired women in her early thirties appeared, dipping her head in greeting, and speaking in the local language.
"This is the Priestess's Aide, Ubbet," Ette said by way of introduction. "Come, we are already late."
As they entered the grand foyer, for the first time since their arrival, Leia saw a small mouse-droid, busy sweeping the sparkling floor, which was pale blue and so shiny it looked like a translucent pond. They followed Ubbet up the wide, curving staircase, gazing around in wonder at the stained-glass windows that sent colorful rainbows throughout the building.
"This place is beautiful," Leia commented truthfully.
"Yes, the Priestesses always lives in the best homes in the Ward, and their are only six Priestesses in the entire Southland."
"Does she have a Zevger?" Amani asked tentatively.
"Of course," Ette replied. "And usually the Priestess has a female off-spring that takes her place upon her death. Unfortunately, Priestess Minva never could bear any off-spring, and it is a terrible tragedy that she has been unable to locate a Lizger capable of taking her place."
Ubbet opened a door, and indicated the group should enter. Inside the huge chamber sat a regal, very old woman, dressed in a dark purple gown and holding a large gold staff set with jewels. Her long hair was pure white, and her skin looked liked cracked, ancient flimsy. Her deep-set dark eyes were heavily lined with black makeup.
There were no windows in this room, only yards and yards of red and purple silken cloth draped along the walls. Ubbet walked up to the woman, bowing deeply and speaking softly. Then she turned and hurried away, while Ette approached the Priestess, and dropped to her knees. She too, spoke softly for a moment, and finally the Priestess replied at great length.
Ette rose and hurried over to Han, Leia and Amani. "She says she is ready to begin. Remember, do exactly what she orders, and do not speak directly to her. This is a very formal occasion."
"I understand," Leia replied, then glared at Han. "Do you, laserbrain?"
"I guess," Han groused. "But I don't wanna get married."
"Well, neither do I," Leia responded. "Especially to you."
"You can still refuse," Ette pointed out. "But you must decide now, and I will have to ensure you leave the Southland by nightfall."
"No," Han said lightly. "We've come this far, and Sheen has bothered fixin' us that nice wedding feast. Hate to disappoint the chef, you know."
"Good," Ette said, breathing a sigh of relief. "Now, Lizger Leia... remove your clothing and approach the Priestess with Zevger Han."
"About time," Han crowed happily. "I was wondering when I'd get my turn to see your naked butt."
"I won't do this!"
"If that is true, then Amani can take your place," Ette said, sighing. What was with these off-worlders, and all their prudish behavior?
"I can?" Amani said, excited at the possibility.
"Oh, I see," Han taunted the Princess. "It's perfectly okay to make me fit in with the local customs, but if you have to do something distasteful, then forget it - all bets are off. You're a two-faced hypocrite, sweetheart."
"I can't imagine anything more distasteful than marrying you, Solo!"
"Fine. Then don't."
"I will," Amani agreed, and started to remove her dress.
Leia opened her mouth to object, but never got the opportunity. The Priestess stood up, and spoke in a loud voice, waving her wand, while Amani and Ette backed up, their eyes wide.
"What's goin' on now?" Han whispered out of the side of his mouth to Leia.
"I don't have any idea."
"The Priestess will only bond together the off-worlders," Ette said, her voice quivering. "She claims the Goddesses demand this union."
"You mean, because we're both off-worlders, and Amani isn't?" Leia asked softly.
Ette looked at Leia fearfully. "No... that's not it. She says you must stay here, in her home, after your Ceremony, and train as her apprentice. You are a Gifted One, and a Gifted One must have a bond Zevger."
"A gifted one?" Leia asked, growing confused.
"Yes. One that has the Power, and foretells the Future. You are to become the next Priestess."
"What about her job as the Council Lizger's Aide?" Han questioned. "Won't that tick Her Royal Councilerness off?"
"A Council Lizger would never, ever, question the will of a Priestess."
"Priestesses outrank the Council of the Twelve?" Leia asked.
"Yes, of course," Ette said, truly in awe of Leia at this point. "You will bond with Zevger Han, and you will become Apprentice Lizger Leia to Priestess Minva. She has ordained this, and it cannot be changed."
"I guess this means you're gonna have to take off your clothes, Your Holiness," Han said, smirking.
Some days, and the two days had been among them, Leia hated her life. Blushing furiously, Leia removed her clothes, then walked with Solo to the platform where the Priestess stood. The old woman signaled for Ette, and then starting speaking in a chanting voice.
"Face Zevger Han, and repeat these words, Lizger Leia," Ette said quietly when the Priestess paused. "'I am a Lizger, now and for all time.'"
"I am a Lizger, now and for all time," Leia repeated as she and Han stood facing each other.
"'I will give my life and spirit for the Southland, should the Southland be attacked.'"
"I will give my life and spirit for the Southland, should the Southland be attacked."
"'I will take care of my Zevger, and never abuse him.'"
"I will take care of my Zevger, and never abuse him."
"'I will take my pleasure only from my Zevger, and no other.'"
Leia took a deep breath. "I will take my pleasure only from my Zevger, and no other."
"Now it is Zevger Han's turn," Ette said. "Zevger Han, please repeat. 'I am a Zevger, now and for all time.'"
"I am a Zevger, now and for all time."
"'My body and spirit belong to my Lizger, and they are hers to command.'"
Han's eyes hardened, but he proceeded. "My body and spirit belong to my Lizger, and they are hers to command."
"I will take care of my Lizger, and my off-spring, and never question her authority over me."
"I will take care of my Lizger, and my off-spring, and never question her authority over me," Han repeated, his voice grating against the words.
Ette smiled, and nodded at the Priestess, who reached inside her robes and handed Ette two small, crystal bottles. Ette then handed one bottle to Leia, and the other to Han. "These are the oils that you must rub on each other." Leia's eyes widened, but Ette put her finger up to her lips. "No speaking. Just do as you are told."
Leia took the bottle and opened it. A sweet scent drifted up, and she dribbled a bit on her hand, then shut her eyes and rubbed it on Han's chest. In a few seconds, she felt his calloused hand rubbing oil on her shoulders, slowly working his way down. Fortunately, the oil in the small bottle only covered their upper bodies, and Ette and Priestess Minva seemed pleased enough with that.
"Normally, at this point," Ette informed them, "the Birth-Lizgers would leave and the Priestess Minva would give instructions to the newly bonded ones in the fine arts of intimacy while your Zevger sealed his bond by placing his seeds inside you - "
"What?" Leia gasped, feeling light-headed, and vaguely nauseated.
"But since you are both well into adulthood, and she believes Zevger Han must already be well-trained by now, she has decided to omit this step, and allow you to join in privacy."
The relief Leia felt was immediate and immense. "Thank the Priestess for me."
Ette gave a sad sigh. "I am sorry you will not meet my family, Lizger Leia and Zevger Han."
"Why can't we?" Han asked, frowning.
"Lizger Leia is now Apprentice Lizger Leia," Ette said. "You cannot leave this place, unless the Council of Twelve requests the audience of a Priestess. And since you are now her bonded Zevger, you will stay here, too."
The Priestess clapped her hands, and pulled back a curtain that was hanging from the ceiling. Behind the veil was a large vat filled with bubbling water, and she spoke again in her language.
"You will now stand in the water, and the Priestess will wash the oil from you," Ette said. "Then you will put on the red robes of the Apprentice. Apprentices are to always wear red, you know."
"No, I didn't know. How can I train as her apprentice, if I can't understand her?" Leia asked as Ette ushered her to the tub.
Ette relayed this question, and the Priestess replied very briefly, dipping a cup into the warm water and pouring it over Leia's head.
"Amani is to stay on as your Aide," Ette replied.
"Truly?" Amani asked, shocked. "I am to live in this beautiful place, forever?"
"Yes." Ette pushed Han toward the vat as well. "You will all stay here - forever."
"Forever. Don't you just hate it when total strangers decide your life for you?" Han grumbled as water was dumped over his head.
Ette hugged Leia and Han, promising them she'd come and visit, if the Priestess allowed her. Then she drove off, and Ubbet escorted Han and Leia to their new quarters, and they were left alone as Amani and Ubbet hurried down the hallway, chattering away in the native dialect.
Now dressed in a sparkling, long red gown, Leia walked around the apartment, peering out the tall window that overlooked a scenic wooded hillside and a distant lake. "At least you won't have to walk around in naked public anymore," she remarked. "And if you stay inside this room, you can cover up with a blanket." Leia pointed at a quilt that was draped over a chair.
Sighing, Han wrapped the long blanket around his waist. "Aren't we supposed to be having some pleasure about now?"
"In your dreams, flyboy," Leia shot back.
"Hey!" Han held up his hands. "Technically, we're married now, you know."
"Yes. And that's the way it's going to remain. A technicality."
"You're no fun at all, Your Chilliness." He wandered over to the drink station, inspecting the bottles. "Here's some more of this happy juice."
"Don't drink any of it, please," Leia begged. "I didn't care for the effect it had on you."
"No? Not at all?" Han said, feigning innocence. "I could've sworn you were jealous of all the admiring looks I was gettin' this afternoon."
"It was the juice and your wild imagination, Solo. I'm not jealous of you."
"Really?" Han flung himself down on the huge, soft bed. "You're not foolin' me a bit. You love the idea of being Mrs. Han Solo."
Leia gave Han a wicked grin. "But I'm not Mrs. Han Solo. You're Mr. Leia Organa."
"Kest." He slapped his forehead. "You're right."
"Of course I'm right. Now, as my first order... get off that bed. You're sleeping on the sofa."
"What about that vow of not abusing me?"
"What about your vow of obeying my commands, and never questioning my authority over you?" Leia returned.
"If you order me to kiss you, I'll obey that command."
"I'd rather kiss a Wookiee."
Han snapped his fingers. "Too bad Chewie's not around."
"You're impossible," Leia shot back.
"I hope they have marriage counselors on this planet, sweetheart, 'cuz we're gonna be needing one."
Leia tossed and turned in the big bed, trying to get to sleep. Occasionally, she'd glance over at Han's covered form on the couch. Shutting her eyes, she tried to get him out of her mind, but after everything that had happened, it was impossible. Leia found herself wondering what it would be like to kiss him...
Her eyes snapped open, heart pounding. "Why aren't you asleep?"
"This damned couch is too uncomfortable," he answered in the semi-darkness of their bedroom. "Why are you tossing around like there are bugs in that bed?"
"I was just thinking."
"What the Priestess meant by me having some magical powers. I don't have anything like that... Luke does. Not me."
"Luke." By his tone, Leia could tell Han wasn't happy she'd mentioned the young Jedi.
"I bet you wish you'd crash-landed here with the kid, not me," he muttered. "You'd be happy to be married to Luke."
"Luke would have died if he'd have been forced to live through the last two days," Leia said, laughing softly.
His using her name surprised her. "Yes?"
"Have you ever been in love?"
"Once. At least I thought it was love." Now, I'm not so sure, she thought, her mind refusing to erase the image of the bonding Ceremony.
"Who was he?"
"An Alderaanian Duke. He was my age, and I think he was intending to propose to me, before..."
"Before the Death Star."
"Yes," she said quietly.
"What was his name?"
"Lord Bryon Reeden."
"A real Lord, huh?"
"Did you and him ever... um, you know..."
"No, I don't know," Leia said tightly.
"That's none of your business."
"Well, I figured that since I'm your husband of sorts now..."
"This is only temporary, Solo. We're just playing along with these people until we can escape this planet."
"Ending up stranded on some freaky world, and kinda married to a loser like me is a real let-down." Han didn't sound like he was joking at this.
"I've never... you're not a loser, Han. You've been a great help to the Rebellion."
"That's what I always like to hear," he responded, the sarcasm back in his voice.
"I think of you as my friend, Han. Even if we fight all the time."
"A good friend," Leia amended.
"Goodnight, Your Worshipfulness," he said brusquely.
Amani and Ubbet had come early to their room, and left Han alone with his breakfast. Leia was escorted to dine with the Priestess, and she entered an impressive dining room, set with iridescent plates and crystal goblets. The Priestess nodded, and all three women sat down.
A server droid entered, and food was brought in. Fruit, breads, and something warm that resembled scrambled eggs. They ate in silence, waiting until the Priestess finally spoke.
Amani was quick to interpret, happy with her new job. "She wants to know if your Zevger pleased you last night."
Flushing, Leia pushed her eggs around her plate. "Yes. Tell her he was fine."
The Priestess listened to Amani, then replied. "She says you should not lie to her. She can tell if someone is lying, just like you can."
Leia looked up, startled. "I'm just a good judge of character. I can't really tell if someone is lying to me, or not. Tell her that."
After a short conversation, Ubbet laughed, and Amani smiled at Leia. "Priestess Minva says you do not understand your talent, but she will teach you. And she also said your relationship with your bond Zevger is your choice, but she thinks you are foolish for not using his talents."
Priestess Minva spoke at length, then nodded at Amani. "She also says that Zevger Han will grow restless and bored, unless you give him off-spring to raise. She was unable to bear off-spring and her Zevger is only happy because of the mele-berries she keeps him well supplied with. If you do not use Zevger Han as nature intended, then she highly suggests having him consume much mele-juice."
"What, exactly, is mele-juice?"
"I believe Ette told me that is what we were drinking yesterday, at the pub. It supposed to make Zevgers happy and Interested. I think it works well on Zevger Han."
"So it is a drug!" Leia said softly. "That's why the Zevgers all look so happy and content. They're doped up!"
"I do not know what 'doped up' is," Amani said apologetically.
"That's okay," Leia said quickly, dropping the subject of the juice. "Ask Priestess Minva if I'm allowed outside. Or if Han is allowed outside."
She relayed that, then turned back to Leia. "You are both allowed outside, but you cannot go into towns or cities without an entourage provided by the Council. Priestesses must maintain distance from the Lizgers and Zevgers."
"Why is that?"
"They are considered Gifted, and the commoners are frightened of the Gifted Ones. They believe if a Gifted One becomes angry at them, they will die."
"That's stu... silly," Leia argued.
"But it is," Amani relayed back to Leia. "The Priestess wishes to start your training tomorrow. She recommends you spend the day with your Zevger, and reconsider your reluctance to use him as he is intended to be used."
Leia nodded, trying to look agreeable and pleasant. It wasn't easy.
Han glanced at himself in a mirror he passed in the wide hallway, mentally cringing. He had on a sheet, wrapped around his waist and pulled up between his legs. It truly did look like a giant-sized diaper he was wearing.
He made his way carefully down the stairs, listening for voices. As far as he could tell, the Priestess and her Aide, Ubbet were the only two residents in this huge palace. Even with the addition of Amani, Leia and himself, the place had an eerie, empty quality to it. The Corellian hadn't liked the Priestess one bit - she gave him the creeps, and reminded him of someone, but he couldn't quite put his finger on who.
Easing around another corner, Han made his way down, trying to locate the computer terminal. If he could find it, he thought he might be able to jury-rig up some way to send out a distress signal to the Alliance. If he was caught... well, he didn't want to consider those consequences. Dying of thirst in a broiling hot desert sounded bad, just as bad as being torn apart by tennards. He wiggled a door handle, frowning when it refused to open.
A young voice spoke in the native language behind him, and Han spun around, heart pounding. A little girl stood there, smiling with her front tooth missing. Han guessed she might have been around seven, but he wasn't a good judge of children's ages.
She continued to smile, obviously unable to understand him, then tugged at the sheet around his waist, looking bemused.
"What's your name? Mine's Han Solo."
She laughed, and unexpectedly did a cartwheel down the hallway, then skipped back over to him.
Han sighed, hoping she'd go away. To his pleasant surprise, she turned and ran away, disappearing around the corner. Apparently, the palace wasn't quite as empty as he'd thought. Han turned back to the locked door, twisting the handle sharply. It still refused to budge.
Then another voice spoke from behind him, making him jump again. The little girl was back, this time with a tall, silver droid with a sharply pointed head and one large, square 'eye'.
"I suppose you're her nanny," Han surmised sarcastically. "Do you speak Basic?"
"Actually, I am Chinet's tutor droid, and my designation is TuTo, as translated into Basic," the droid replied primly. "I also am fluent in over three million languages."
"That's three less than Threepio," Han muttered.
"Who is Threepio?"
"A protocol droid," Han replied. "Who's the kid belong to?"
"Chinet is the off-spring of Birth-Lizger Ubbet and Seed-Zevger Kalin. This is Zevger Kalin's room you are trying to get inside. It would not be wise to disturb him."
"Kalin? I didn't think Ubbet had a Zevger."
"She does not. Zevger Kalin belongs to Priestess Minva, but she allowed her Aide to use Zevger Kalin as her Seed-Zevger. I do believe Priestess Minva was hoping Chinet would be a Gifted One, but, alas, it did not turn out that way. Still, she makes Birth-Ubbet happy."
The little girl pulled at Han's sheet again, speaking in her language. "Lizger Chinet wishes to know why you are wearing a sheet. You are male, and should not be covered."
"Yeah, well, I'm an off-worlder. So we do things different."
The droid tilted his bullet-shaped head, trying to absorb that information. "I see."
"Is there a computer room around here?" Han asked.
"Why would you need a computer?"
"I'm bored. I want to play computer games. Don't tell me this planet doesn't have computer games," Han said in a whiney voice, pretending to act shocked.
"Games? Of course we have computer games. Lizger Chinet loves computer games."
"Well? Can you take me there?"
"Sir, who are you?"
"My name's Han Solo, and I'm gonna be living here. My Lizger is gonna be the new Apprentice to Her Scariness Minva."
"A new apprentice?" TuTo said, sounding happy and surprised. "That is very good news, indeed."
"Great. So... since my Lizger's an important person, your job is to make me happy, right?"
"My job? I do believe my job is to tutor Chinet."
"The kid's gotta play sometime," Han argued. "Does she have friends her age living here?"
"What about her dad...err, Seed Zevger. Does he spend lots of time with her?"
"No. Zevger Kalin is quite elderly. He sleeps a great deal, and does not wish to be bothered with an off-spring. It is sad, actually. All off-spring should have Seed-Zevgers that care for them."
"You tell Chinet I'll play computer games with her, if you show me the computer room," Han ordered. When the droid remained uncertain, Han poked his finger against the metal chest-plate. "Do you want me to tell my Lizger you're makin' me unhappy, Pointy-head? She'll have you melted down and made into hydro-spanners."
"No, I would not like that. I will take you and Lizger Chinet to the computer room, and you can play games."
"Good," Han said, grinning. "I like a cooperative droid."
"Han?" Leia called out as she entered their apartment. "Where are you?"
When he didn't reply, she immediately checked the bedroom, worried that he might have gotten into the mele-berry juice and was passed out. He wasn't in the bedroom, or the refresher, or the small kitchen, or the exercise room. Which meant he'd left the apartment. But where did he go? Standing with her hands on her hips, Leia bit her lip, trying to decide what to do. Hands grabbed her shoulders, and she immediately grasped the attacker's wrist, twisting around and pulling the arm away from her, while driving her knee up.
Han Solo barely managed to jump out of her range in time. "Hey! It's me!"
"Why did you sneak up behind me? Where were you?" Leia backed up, trying to calm her racing pulse. "You look stupid wearing that sheet."
"It's this or nothing," Han said defensively. "And since you don't like me wearing nothing..."
"Where were you?" she repeated, annoyed.
"I found the computer room that runs this house," he replied triumphantly. "And I think I can rig up something to send a distress signal, if I can spend enough time in there without getting caught."
"That's great," Leia said. "How did you manage to find it?"
"I'm good," he said, smirking. "Plus, I had a little help."
"What kind of help?"
"There's a little girl living here," Han told the Princess. "Her name is Chinet, and she's Ubbet's daughter. She doesn't speak Basic, but she has a tutor droid tagging after her that is - get this - fluent in over three million forms of communication. So I got TuTo - that's the droid - to show me the computer room by conning him into believing I just wanted to play games."
"But Ubbet isn't bonded..."
"Don't forget, that doesn't seem to matter here. Ubbet 'borrowed' Priestess Minva's Zevger. TuTo referred to the guy as Chinet's 'Seed-Zevger'. It must mean 'father.'"
"Ubbet made a baby with Priestess Minva's Zevger?" Leia asked, appalled. "If he's as old as Minva..."
"I know," Han said, making a face. "It's not a pretty mental image, is it?"
"I don't think letting a droid know you wanted into the computer room was a brilliant idea, Solo," Leia chastised. "If he tells anyone, we'll both be in hot water. Or hot sand, depending on how you look at it."
"You worry too much," Han said dismissively. "I told Chinet I liked computer games, and that's what we did for about an hour - played stupid games so I'd have an excuse for wanting to go there."
"Did you meet her Seed-Zevger?"
"His name is Kalin, and no, I didn't," Han said. "What did you do all morning?"
"Listen to Priestess Minva and Ubbet tell me I need to have your babies." Before Han could comment, she hurriedly continued. "Also, I found out about some local fruit called mele-berries, and the effect it has on men."
"It was in that juice we were drinking yesterday," Leia explained. "It makes the native men very happy and content. And, err, aroused."
Han had to grace to look embarrassed. "It must work on off-worlders, too."
"Obviously. So I'm warning you not to drink anymore of it, unless you enjoy the results."
"It wasn't all bad," Han said, grinning. "So, you gonna train to become the next head wand-waver and bonder? I can just picture you givin' out instructions to newlyweds on how to do it."
"I'm sure that's a job you'd love to have," Leia shot back. "Unfortunately, Priestess Minva is convinced I have The Gift, as she calls it. I don't know what it is about her, but she makes me uneasy."
"Maybe because she's a voyeur?" Han ventured to guess. "I agree, she's odd. Well, odder than most of these women, and that's sayin' a lot. When do your lessons start?"
"Tomorrow. I'm supposed to spend the day with you, and, quote, 'use him as he is intended to be used', unquote."
Han laughed. "I'm perfectly agreeable to that plan. You're gonna need some personal experience to pass on to future generations, or you'll be responsible for a dramatic decline in the Southland's birthrate."
Unable to come up with a suitable retort, Leia looked out the window. "It's beautiful outside. Let's go for a walk."
"Is something wrong with that idea?"
"No." He eyed the bedroom. "But I can think of a better way to get exercise."
"We're going for a walk," Leia said firmly, walking toward the outer door and wondering if the mele-berry had a cousin with the exact opposite effect on males. She'd gladly force it down Solo's throat at this point.
"Should I wear my sheet, or..."
"Wear the sheet."
"What if we get caught? I think it's illegal for me to wear clothes," Han said.
"That's not clothing. It's a sheet. We'll take the risk."
Priestess Minva and Ubbet watched the off-worlders as they wandered around the centuries-old gardens from a window high above the grounds. "He looks ridiculous in that sheet," the Priestess said, annoyed.
"I do not understand off-worlders," Ubbet agreed. "Zevger Han is extremely pleasant to look upon. I wish he could have been my Seed-Zevger."
"We must add dried mele-fruit to all his food," the Priestess decided, ignoring the veiled insult to her Zevger. "He will become happy, and more at ease with his body, then."
"I think the problem may also be Lizger Leia. For some reason, she finds looking at him unpleasant."
"Get me a large supply of takkat nuts, and some sessil seeds," the older woman ordered. "I shall make a potion to add to my apprentice's food."
"What will this potion do?"
"It amplifies emotions, and it is a potion only Priestesses are aware exists. It is the way we control the Council of Twelve, while allowing them to believe they control us." She gave a mocking laugh. "Some females have a low desire to Join with their bond Zevgers. This potion amplifies desire, but it will not create desire where there is none to begin with. It amplifies jealousy, but will not create jealousy if none exist. It amplifies anger, but will not create anger if none exists. If Lizger Leia has no feelings for Zevger Han, then the potion will have no effect at all."
"Do you think Lizger Leia has no feelings for her Zevger?"
"I strongly suspect she has great feelings for him, but she is too stubborn to act on them."
"Lizger Leia is very stubborn," Ubbet agreed. "She may need a large dose, unless it amplifies stubbornness."
"I suppose it could do that," the Priestess mused. "But is her emotion of stubbornness greater than her repressed physical desire for the Zevger? We shall find out."
"I think she will Join with her Zevger tonight," Ubbet told her boss.
Priestess Minva nodded. "The sooner she becomes swollen with a new life, the better off everyone will be."
Leia answered the soft rap on the door, and smiled at Amani. "Hello. Come in."
"No, I am only here to inform you that you and Zevger Han are expected to dinner immediately." Amani shifted nervously. "You must also be certain Zevger Han does not wear that sheet. Priestess Minva saw you in the gardens, and was not happy."
The Princess sighed. "We won't be late."
"Thank you," Amani said, giving a quick bow and leaving.
Turning toward the main room, Leia looked over at the Corellian, his long legs stretched out in front of his sheet-draped body, ankles crossed on a foot-rest. He was watching some type of local talk-show on the holo, but since they didn't understand the language, it was rather pointless. "That was Amani..."
"I heard," he said curtly.
"We have to go."
"Fine. I guess it will alleviate the boredom." He stood up. "I hate this planet. I'm gonna try and get back into that computer room tomorrow. The sooner I can get a distress signal heading to Hoth, the sooner we'll get off this cracker farm."
"I agree," Leia said. "But don't do something rash and get caught. This might be our only chance, and we can't ruin it."
Han yanked the sheet off his hips, grinning slightly as Leia quickly averted her eyes. "If this doesn't work, I'm finding out where the shipyards are, and we're gonna steal a ship and make a run for it."
"Fine," Leia mumbled. "But first, let's go to dinner."
In the Hoth System
"We have captured the Millennium Falcon, my Lord," Admiral Ozzel said, quite pleased, as he stood at attention on the shiny black deck of the Imperial Star Destroyer, waving at the captured ship. "The ship was disabled, and we were able to lock our tractor beam, and take it into our hanger."
Darth Vader looked up at the battered freighter, nodding his approval. "Who was onboard?"
"Only a Wookiee, and an ancient protocol droid," Ozzel replied briskly. "We have subdued the animal, and deactivated the droid."
The Dark Lord clenched his fist in frustration. "Is that all? Only a Wookiee and a useless droid?"
"Medical supplies," Ozzel added. "The ship was stocked with Rebel medical supplies. I think the Wookiee was probably stealing them to sell on the black market." When Vader didn't respond, the Imperial Admiral continued, aware he was babbling, but unable to stop himself. "The Rebel Base was completely destroyed, as per your orders, Sir. The Rebels won't be able to salvage anything at all. It's all been crushed beneath tons of ice."
"The majority of the Rebels escaped, Admiral. Your troops were ill prepared to stop them."
The man nervously cleared his throat. "But... we were focused on the smuggler ship. As per your orders." When the silence became unbearable, the man asked, "Should I execute the Wookiee?"
"No, Admiral. I think I shall execute you, instead."
The crew of the Destroyer watched nervously as Ozzel grasped his throat, his face turning purple. Then he dropped to the floor - dead.
"Admiral Piett," Vader hissed out, instantly promoting the Executor's Captain.
"Yes?" Piett asked, snapping to attention.
"Executing the Wookiee would be a waste of slave labor," Vader said. "Send the beast to Kessel, and send the droid and this rusty excuse for a ship to the salvage yards in the Corellia System."
The new Imperial Admiral saluted. "Yes, My Lord. Immediately."
The salvage yards were actually a containment field in a sector of space which held hundreds of thousands of ships. Most of the old ships floating lifelessly in this field were damaged beyond repair, their hulls breached, their hyperdrive systems ripped out. Over time, they were slowly dismantled for parts.
It was there that the Millennium Falcon, and C-3PO would spend decades, their solitude only interrupted when scavengers would board the ship wearing a space-vac suit, seeking out rare and discontinued parts for their own battered ships. If Threepio was aware of his fate, he would cry out that he was doomed - and he would finally be correct.