Lord of the Day
by MJ Mink
It was exactly as he had expected; for a moment, he wondered wildly if his imagination had brought about reality. But no: Castle Vader had existed long before he'd been born. It had been the dream of Darth Vader, and dreams could not be inherited. The similarity was a simple coincidence, then.
He paused and shook his head as though the movement would pitch away his doubts. He was Luke Skywalker, an identity of its own; he was more than the son of Vader. He was also the sum total of Anakin Skywalker and his still unknown mother, the result of generations of Skywalkers. That had to count for something, too.
You are your ancestors; you are my Lord Vader.
Thus had Telen Janus declared him, prostrating himself on the cold floor of the hangar bay, offering his life to his new master. Out of all the Alliance pilots, flight crew and techs, Janus had picked him without hesitation. The tall man with the proud military bearing had risked death to tear away from the group of captured officers and bow at Luke's feet. Luke had felt a flicker of recognition; not for the man himself, for they had never met, but for the feeling, for the obeisance.
My Lord Vader.
Days of baking under the Tatooine suns, time passing quickly when Owen was absent and Luke able to dream. He'd seen such things, imagined such glories: soldiers and servants, loyal and gallant, his to command. My Lord, they would say to him, My Prince. And to them, he was always honorable, firm but gentle, gracious yet determined. In his daydreaming, he was truly a prince; now he wondered if others had dreamt of him. Was this how Janus had recognized him, disguised as he'd been in a dirty orange flightsuit, his face still half-concealed by the helmet?
Do you know me from your dreams? he'd wanted to ask. But Janus had been dragged away while Luke watched, not yet ready to take the step to save him. Bright eyes had watched him, and a satisfied half-smile had formed on a face with lines set by years of discipline. Luke had allowed a small nod of acknowledgment and heard a sharp inhalation as, beside him, Wedge Antilles stifled his shock and confusion.
Time then, to leave the Alliance, to find his history. His new sister and his dearest friend were safe with each other; here no one needed him. But somewhere in the galaxy, he was wanted, longed for, necessary. His people were lost, grieving the demise of Lord Vader, waiting for him to--
I'm Luke Skywalker. I'm here to rescue you.
He smiled into the sky. There was no longer a hangar bay thick with fumes and noise, no longer was there murder to be done and lives to shatter. Here the air was fragrant and light, warm and breeze-driven. The sunlight was brilliant and glowing, the grasses verdant, the foliage lush. Here Darth Vader had made a home, a castle carved into the rocky side of a mountain, accessible only by pack animals or the oldest form of transportation, one's own legs.
Luke paused, turning away from the castle to study the panorama. It was almost as he'd dreamed on Tatooine: bright skies and steep mountains that clashed into one another with a furor of pink and white clouds. Only the river was different: rich, muddy crimson instead of the deep blue he'd envisioned. It hurtled over rocks far below, hurrying to join the dark, roiling ocean he'd seen on his flyover. The violence of the water had hinted at storms below the surface, subterranean quakes perhaps, or unexpected winds that churned the sea-gods' homes and wakened their fury. He'd seen no seagoing vessels on the choppy surface, but the rocky shore had been littered with the broken shells of small creatures that had lost their lives when they were torn from their home.
Home. He faced the castle. Castle Skywalker now, for he would not take its name, and lord and castle should be one and the same.
It had changed since his first glimpse of stone turrets. Black it had been when seen from the sky, dark and forbidding. Now, walk closer, Luke, and see... the rocks are alive with moss and ivy, crawling with tiny lifeforms. Flowering vines creep over the weather-smoothed surfaces to peer into windows that have been slashed deep into the stone. Sunlight sets the rocks a-glistening as though they are freshly borne from the sea. Birds dash frantically from trees upon my approach, and from inside I hear a single, sweet female voice trilling in song. Darkness one moment, light the next. An enigma he wanted to understand and live within.
Anakin or Darth? he whispered into the wind. Which one were you? Which am I, Luke or ...? Did you have another name for me? Did you know me? Did you call me 'child' in your heart? Did you call me Luke?
The men behind him waited patiently, wordlessly, and he knew that they understood his hunger and curiosity. They had been his father's men; as that, they knew him equally well and accepted him without question. Politics meant nothing, loyalty meant all. Luke looked over his shoulder and met the leader's calm gaze. The man inclined his head. "Thank you for your assistance," Luke said simply and walked to the set of doors that were twice his height and ten times his width.
They parted at his approach. He entered, his vision blurring as it adjusted to the darkness within. He had brief impressions: Janus, captive no longer, now his personal ... what? servant? advisor?...master? Two rows of household staff, bowing and curtsying. A stone pedestal holding an empty circular platform, strange centerpiece to the cool elegance. Proud youngsters offering him flowers from his own gardens. Men with military shoulders and critical eyes wearing their plain garments like uniforms and staring at him with both hope and hopelessness in their gazes.
So many expectations. Luke felt his heart falter.
At the end of the neat rows, a single figure stood squarely in his path. A man perhaps a few years younger than himself, tall and slender, his posture proud, his expression haughty. Luke looked at his face, studying emerald eyes that flamed with anger and fear, lips that trembled and then were tightly compressed. Dark hair, unfettered and wildly curled, tumbled around the shoulders of an elegant golden vest. The Prince, Luke thought with a momentary pang. Me and not me.
"I'm Luke Skywalker," he said. I'm here to--
"I'm Ronin," the youth replied.
"Vader," Ronin added. "I am his son. This castle is mine."
* * *
"I will see that he does not speak to you in such a manner again," Janus assured him, big hands trembling nervously as he poured himself a drink as directed.
Luke crossed his legs and stared across the stone hearth into the fire. The afternoon had turned unexpectedly cool. He raised his hands to the warmth; the fire was so hot that his fingers appeared translucent, outlined in red like a child's drawing.
"Who is he really?" He gestured for Janus to sit opposite him, instinctively knowing that this man had received honored treatment from Vader.
"No one knows. Your father took him in. Fed him, clothed him--"
"Treated him as a son?"
Silver-grey hair glowed in the flickering light. "Almost as a son," Janus acknowledged. "He gave Ronin his name, but never promised him anything."
Never loved him, Luke completed silently, wondering if Vader would have treated him as coldly.
If you had, he told his father, I would still be lost...as I am now.
"I shall have him moved out. Would Your Lordship be willing to allow him to remain in the village, perhaps with a small pension--"
"Let him stay here. I am not yet ready to question my father's wishes." A lie. He had questioned his father's wish to live in Darkness, and what had that done but kill him? Nearly killed them both.
And now that he'd killed his father, he had an obligation to his father's world to protect and complete it. To allow it to continue unmolested whether he stayed or left.
If I stay, what will I do with this world?
If I leave... what will I do with my life?
Questions. Never before had he questioned his future; rather, he'd existed by simply accepting what occurred, never attempting to change direction, going always where events led him.
Just as he'd come here.
And who will lead me now? Janus or....
"What is the purpose of the pedestal in the main hall? Does it normally hold something?"
"Nothing." Janus's gaze remained even. "It is a place for celebration."
Luke stifled a sigh. There was something hidden here, but he was too tired to delve into more strangeness. "If there's nothing else for awhile...."
"Of course." Janus hesitated. "There is a celebration tonight, if you are not too travel-weary to attend. Your return--I apologize, My Lord, your arrival coincides with the village's annual appreciation for the harvest. There is an outdoor feast for which you give the Thanks to the Force, then entertainment in--"
"Thanks to the Force?" Luke repeated. "Do you...worship the Force?"
"Of course!" Janus was plainly taken aback. "Do you not-- Surely, My Lord--you are the Force's vessel, Its expression of existence--you must worship It!"
Use it, admire it, question it--but worship? "I have not done so," he whispered, and wondered if that was why the Force was sometimes unreachable. "Did my father worship It?"
"Yes, My Lord. The Force is... Religion. It is All. It is Everything. It exists everywhere, in all of us, even the most unworthy. It is in every stone, every tree, every animal, every drop of water, and--" Janus paused, his expression changing rapidly from disbelief to speculation to pity. "You were raised without It," he said finally. "If Lord Vader had known...."
"If Lord Vader had known I was raised without the Force," Luke finished slowly. "So he knew of my existence?"
Lids lowered over the grey eyes as if they had become too heavy to remain lifted. "Yes, My Lord."
And raised another in my place. Luke flinched and turned his head away. "Leave me."
"My Lord, I.... The celebration? You will attend?"
"I will be there."
The door was closed quietly, and he was alone in the great chamber that had belonged to Darth Vader. "You chose another," he whispered to the spirit that must surely inhabit this castle. "You gave me your blood, a name you repudiated, and left me to live in ignorance. Why?"
Castle Vader/Skywalker. His home.
Me and Not-me.
"Why two?" he asked. "Two names, two sons. And neither of us whole...."
Dampness touched his cheeks, and he didn't brush it away, instead allowing it dry in the heat of the flames. He shifted deeper into the curves permanently impressed on the chair's cushions. My father's backside, he thought irreverently, and the idea granted him a smile as he drifted into exhausted slumber.
* * *
He awoke an hour before the celebration--or inspection, he suspected. It was probably something dreamed up by Vader's followers to observe and assess the new lord of the manor. He rose and stretched and headed for a shower.
When he returned to the room, clothes were laid out for him on the bed. Black, simply cut yet elegant. He fingered the pants; they were quilted in a fine mesh design very similar to Vader's intimidating uniform. The vest was the same, but the shirt was soft and very fine. He had never felt such fabric and laid it against his cheek. It was as gentle as Leia's kiss: sweet and tender, without strength or substance. A floor-length sleeveless robe, rich velvet with heavy silver embroidery, was meant to go over the outfit. Restlessly, Luke put it aside and opened a mirrored door, suspecting a closet.
It was filled with his father's clothes.
Fascinated, he touched them, ran his fingers down folds of spun silk and velvet so warm it felt alive. He pulled out a formal evening cloak, dark as night and lined in midnight blue. The bulk of it overwhelmed him, but he pulled it around his shoulders and dragged its weight to the mirror.
He looked like what he was: a child playing in daddy's wardrobe. He lifted the hem and crossed it over his body, letting it rest on one outstretched arm. The hood crumpled around his neck, black and sapphire glowing against his skin. "Father?" he asked, for if Vader's Jedi spirit lived anywhere, it should be in this house, in this room, in these clothes.
"It suits you, though it does not quite fit."
He jumped, startled despite his conviction, and turned quickly.
Telen Janus smiled at him. "Pardon, My Lord, I did not mean to disturb you. It is almost time for the celebration. Do you require any assistance?"
"No," he murmured, disappointed he hadn't conjured Vader's presence. He faced the mirror again, this time watching Janus's reflection. There had been a momentary something on the face--but it was gone now, and the expression was guileless. Luke slipped out of the cloak, nearly staggering under its weight as he replaced it in the closet. "I will dress now."
"Of course." Janus approached and lifted the shirt, holding its sleeves ready. "The tailor will call on your tomorrow for your measurements. I apologize that I could only have a few changes of clothing available."
"That's all right. I..I will dress myself," Luke added after an uncertain pause. "You may wait outside. I'll call if I need you."
"Very well, My Lord." Well-trained, indeed, to show no surprise or disapproval. Janus bowed and withdrew.
Luke sighed. He would never have Leia's regal bearing, her certainty and arrogance, but at least she had served as a model of how a nobleperson should behave.
He would need to know that. If he stayed.
He dressed quickly and was pleased with his resulting appearance. Gauntlets of soft leather finished the ensemble; he was all darkness now, but for his head.
And your soul and your mind, he reminded himself. You are light.
Remember who you are, Luke Skywalker. Remember who it is the Jedi intend you to be.
* * *
It was a feast he was not expected to join, Janus had instructed him. All Luke had to do was perform the Blessing, then they would return to the castle for a private banquet.
"What kind of blessing?" he asked, nerves fluttering against his throat. I want to do this right, I don't want to fail. I can't fail.
"The Force will guide you," Janus said with a complacency that frustrated Luke.
But he held his tongue and his irritation as they arrived at the festival grounds. It was a meadow that lay far below the castle and bordered the village, and it was protected from the deepening twilight by torches flickering on the ends of long sticks pushed deep into the red soil. There were no tables, only colorful blankets that dotted the grass. From them, people rose when he approached. Women and girls, men and boys, babes in their parents' arms. Their chatter quieted, and they stared at him expectantly.
There was a movement on his left. Ronin approached and stood in front of him. He lowered himself onto one knee, though his eyes sparked with defiance.
"My Lord," Ronin said, his voice tight. "We, your people, ask that you Bless this harvest in the name of the Force." He rose, his golden clothes glittering in the light of the flames. He looked like a vengeful god of the sun, and Luke could not help but admire his vitality and sense of style.
Lord of the manor. You look the way I should.
But Luke Skywalker wore Sith Lord black. He looked like his father; he saw that in Janus's proud gaze. He nodded to Ronin and instinctively took several paces forward to distance himself from his courtiers. He closed his eyes and raised his arms, opening himself to the Force.
It's stronger here, was the only coherent thought he had before he was overwhelmed in sensations. Power rippled through his body, radiated from thousands of nerve endings brought alive. He was overflowing with power, and he shared with the valley, the mountains, the castle above and the people below. He had no choice; he was the Force's slave, and It claimed him as Its mouthpiece.
He had no idea what he said. When he regained his senses, he was surprised to find himself still standing. Everyone else was on the ground, on their knees, their faces lifted to him, awed and intent.
His shadow fell across grass as lights swayed behind him. A row of figures appeared, all hidden in dark cloaks that covered their faces. They held long, flaming tapers as they passed into the crowd. They halted and stood silently among the villagers like ghosts among the living, and Luke shivered.
An arm came around his shoulder. "Come, My Lord," Janus whispered into the quiet. "You have done more than was expected."
But what have I done? Looking up, he caught Ronin's gaze. He saw envy and fear, rage and adoration. You looked at vader this way, Luke mused silently, and wondered if Ronin understood his wordless message because he blinked and lowered his eyes. He turned toward the crowd and was at once swept in among them.
Sir Ronin, people called with love in their voices, and Luke was violently jealous.
My people, he raged silently, not yours. These people belong to the son of the Dark Lord.
"Come, My Lord," Janus urged again. "You must preside over the banquet and entertainment. Indoors. Come."
His limbs were weak, and he would have stumbled but for the man's support. He stopped and turned back. His people's voices were raised, and food was being passed. But the dark sentinels stood motionless, mysterious and...threatening or protecting? He wasn't sure.
Ronin raised his head and met Luke's eyes.
"Sit with me at dinner," Luke commanded with a desperation that he hoped was not reflected in his voice.
The youth bit his lower lip and frowned. "Very well," he said ungraciously.
He quelled Janus's protest with a savage glance and pulled himself straight.
Yes--I am your Lord.
* * *
He drank too much wine.
It tasted good; he felt good. He was a prince, he was heady with relief that he had acted properly. He was in his castle, his home. He had no family, but these people offered him everything else he could want. And tonight, for one night, what he wanted was to be young and free.
Even though the majority of guests were older and eyed him warily.
The music was excellent, but very loud and disorienting. The troupe of entertainers contained no delicate ballerinas; instead, athletic men shouted chants and performed rousing dances, clever and clattering in heavy shoes. The stamping was distinctly militaristic and faintly erotic in its unashamed, savage worship of brawn and power. Luke was roused, wanted to rush to war, to fight and conquer, to ravage and spoil. He raised one gauntled fist and, for the first time, understood the gesture Vader had made to him. This was the glory of Power, he was bursting with it, lusting to taste it. This was not a simple Dark Side--this was Man and the Force, this was the universe itself.
Multi-colored lights flashed in erratic accompaniment to the crashing music and the dancing that rattled the very rafters over their heads. Breathless and dizzy, Luke tossed down the last of his wine and threw back his head, laughing. Dainty fingers laid on his right thigh, and he glanced at the woman through half-lowered lashes. She was older, but very beautiful and very knowing. Her eyes hinted that she wanted to bed him, and her fingers made the promise explicit. He laughed again and pushed her hand away. When there were so many, why should he choose the first one? Particularly when she'd been deliberately seated next to him, a parcel waiting his unwrapping.
A wave of anger swept through him. How dare they try to manipulate him so blatantly.
He leaned across her, his forearm pressing against her breasts. "Your idea, Janus?" he asked the man on her right.
Janus sent him a puzzled look, but the woman understood. She pushed back her chair and left without a word.
A crash of music startled him--cymbals and drums. The room darkened, pinpoints of light appeared above the raised stage. Men again, dressed in black, marching. Luke shivered as a lead figure swung into view: clad in black leather, a dark satin cloak swirling, and a half-mask that covered the eyes and continued back over the head.
The dancer was an eerie replica of Darth Vader.
Luke watched, unable to turn away his gaze. The dance was a history: power, victory, loss, death. And power rising again. Which of them did the performance honor--Darth Vader or his son?
He felt nausea rising in his throat and swallowed it down. A paean to the Dark Lord. How could a farmboy-fighter pilot meet the expectations these people had for him? Jedi or not, he wasn't prepared for the responsibilities.
The performance ended. Instead of applause, there was silence. The lead dancer bowed and remained bent. Luke brought his hands together once. Then again and again. The room of people broke into applause, and he wondered just exactly what he had condoned.
His head spun as he turned it toward the speaker. The black mask peered over the table and into his face.
"Be careful," it hissed.
"Why should it matter to you?" he asked carelessly, but unexpectedly cut himself on the words.
"I don't know." Ronin pulled off the mask and ran one hand through his sweat-slicked hair. "My...our father had discipline. There is danger here. There are those who wish to...to hurt you. You must be cautious."
His defenses crumbled. The wine, he told himself. The wine spins me out of control. But: "I'm scared," he whispered, more to himself than to Ronin.
"So am I" came a reply that took him by surprise.
Luke rose, determined to leave while he could still walk unattended, before the unnamed terror betrayed him. "Good evening," he told the room in general, though only a few heard him above the sounds of revelry. With a gesture, he stopped Janus from accompanying him, and he wandered through the dark halls for the sanctuary of Lord Vader's chamber.
Heart pounding, he leaned against the door to close it behind him. The room was full of shadows cast by the firelight. He moved cautiously, sensing a presence.
She looked up at him from the confines of a winged chair.
"Who are you?" he asked hoarsely.
"Lady Nyacinth." She smiled, eyes narrowing. "I have always tended the Dark Lord."
He tried not to speculate on the meaning of her words. "The Dark Lord is dead, madam."
Her laughter was low and throaty. "And who do you think you are, Lord Skywalker, if not the Dark Lord?" She gave him an openly speculative look.
He hesitated, torn between embarrassment and curiosity. "Did you...know Lord Vader for very long?"
"All my life," she said impassively. "Indeed, I knew him intimately."
Luke interwove his fingers behind his back, clenching them together tightly. He studied her pale oval of a face, the thick chestnut hair that was lightly brushed with silver, was reminded of Leia, and asked the unthinkable: "Are you my mother?"
She stood slowly and smoothed the folds of her heavy skirt. Approaching him, she framed his face between her hands. He froze, hypnotized by her gaze and the touch of her warmth on his too-cold flesh. "Perhaps you should better ask if I am the mother of Lord Vader's son. But then--" She laid her mouth against his lips. "--I wouldn't know how to answer you."
He jerked back, trembling. "Please leave, Lady Nyacinth."
"As you wish, My Lord." Her skirts swept the floor as she curtsied, and he suspected mockery behind the gesture. "Another night."
Facing the fire, he listened to her departure, dismayed by his reactions. He didn't trust her. Yet what were these interested quivers that ran through his body? There had been few opportunities during the War; despite his age, he was still unsophisticated in the warfare of love. But there had been several young noblewomen at the banquet; why had he noticed only Nyacinth?
She would tend me as she did my father/she could be my mother....
No--if she were my mother, I would know, I would recognize her--
the way I recognized Leia? It was lust I felt for her, not brotherly affection.
Luke stumbled to the bed, telling himself that the room's wild spinning was caused only by the wine.
* * *
"Who is she really?" he asked Janus for a second time, wondering if he should demand biographies for everyone in the castle. Who are you really, Telen Janus?
"Your father's lover." There was a cool note to Janus's voice.
He turned from the one of the narrow windows that slanted light into the dark study. "Is she my mother?"
"I do not know, My Lord. My duties have often taken me away from the castle for long periods." He paused, obviously debating with himself whether to say more. "She was not...his property."
Luke waved his hand impatiently. "Could she be Ronin's mother?"
Janus frowned. "Even if she were, it would have no meaning. You are Lord Vader's legal heir."
"Legal?" Luke interrupted. "Are there others who feel they are--"
"There is your sister," Janus said sharply. "However, women are not allowed to inherit. Only male offspring are eligible. You are Lord Vader's only acknowledged male offspring. My Lord, you should not concern yourself with this matter. You have more important duties."
"Have I?" Luke wondered aloud. "And what might they be?"
"The Vader holdings, the financial investments, manufacturing--but the Force is your primary inheritance."
"Indeed." He was tired of being reminded of the Force--by everyone. Leia had done it... Yoda, Ben, even Vader. And Janus had called him "the Force's vessel" as though he had no worth of his own. As though he were a symbol, not a man.
In truth, could that be all he meant to these people? Janus rarely looked at him in the way one looked at another man. His glances were sideways, his eyes frequently lowered. What Luke had originally taken for respect--was it awe? Or fear?
Or something else entirely. Could Janus be trusted?
Could anyone? He had no friends here; he longed for Han's bluntness and Leia's support. If he sent for them--
Could he do nothing on his own? Must he always be turning to friends? Hanging from the bottom of Cloud City, he'd called first for Ben Kenobi, then Leia. On the Death Star, he begged for his father to save him. On Jabba's sailbarge, it had been the Force to his rescue. Always someone or something else, never him.
"I'm going out," he said abruptly, stalking from the room before Janus could form any considered protests.
* * *
He wandered the castle's inner perimeter. There was a stable, and he studied the domesticated creatures within it. They were small and sleek and had nothing in common with the banthas of home except that they were quadrupeds. They were covered with short white hair and seemed too tiny and fragile to carry the weight of a man. Beasts of burden, he supposed, but saw no keeper he could ask.
The massive garage was more to his understanding. There were swoops and speeders, traditional models. An attendant bowed as he entered.
Luke studied the speederbikes. They were all well-kept, but some had more accessories than others, and one was oversized-- his father's, he realized. He pointed to another, a highly polished '32 model.
"Is that ready to go?"
"Yes, My Lord, certainly." The middle-aged man hastened to bring the bike forward. "I apologize, My Lord. Had I known that you wished to ride, I would not have allowed Sir Ronin to take the '34."
Sir Ronin? Luke swallowed his instinctive protest. Maybe Ronin was Vader's son, in which case the title was not out of place.
It reminded him of Threepio, and he grinned self-consciously. "That's quite all right. Did you see which way he went?"
"He always travels to the hills, My Lord. Drives too fast, does Sir Ronin." The man shook his greying head, but his smile was fond.
Look at me that way. Someday, look at me. See me, Luke Skywalker, not the nameless son of your dark lord, the unwanted inheritor of his lands and his peoples.
Wordlessly, he straddled the bike and pulled the proffered helmet onto his head. He tightened the strap around his chin with a jerk that betrayed his frustration. The man backed away, but Luke was not in a mood to reassure him. He switched on the ignition and gunned the motor, satisfied to hear the immediate, high-pitched whine of a finely tuned engine and to feel the vibrating rumble between his thighs.
He stomped on the accelerator pedal, and the bike took off with stunning speed. Skillfully, he avoided several small children playing in the garage yard and whirled in a dusty circle, wheeling the bike toward the hills that rose in a gentle slope behind the castle.
Landscape blurred through his goggles and the wind shook the flesh on his face, giving him the illusion of freedom. At this moment, he could have been anywhere--another planet, Endor, Tatooine, flying through forests or over deserts. He could have been free again, free of his inheritance, free of the Force.
He'd thought the Force had made him special after a youthful life of mediocrity--and it had. But the Force was responsible for his father's fall, for him and Leia being torn from their family, for the deaths of Owen and Beru, for everything that had happened since the two droids had arrived on Tatooine.
And now the Force had given him a huge responsibility, one that he both wanted and didn't want. Was not prepared to accept.
An age-old dilemma, he told himself.
Imagine that your father is here, the voice inside him whispered. Imagine he's always been here, raising you as a prince, guiding and teaching you.
An alien blur appeared at the side of his vision, then a flash of red--laser fire?--and he pulled the bike to the left, spinning as he braked. A screech of metal shocked him out of the last of his reverie, and he winced at the crunching sounds of another speederbike flipping over and tossing its rider onto the rough terrain.
Luke leaped from his bike and ran toward the sprawled form that lay still on the grass. Before he arrived, it moved slightly and propped itself onto elbows.
"Shit," Ronin said succinctly. "Who the hell--?" He sat up and pulled off his helmet, glaring. "Oh. It's you."
Luke dropped to the ground and removed his own helmet. "Are you all right?" Instinctively, he felt Ronin's knees, checking for breaks in the legs.
"I'm fine, no thanks to you! Get your hands off me!" Ronin batted at him irritably.
It struck Luke as funny, and he chuckled aloud. "Yes, My Lord," he mimicked with a wicked grin.
Ronin shot him a venomous look. "You could have killed us both!"
"Me? You were going just as fast as I was!"
"Yeah, well...you're the Dark Lord," Ronin muttered, "and you're supposed to be responsible."
"I think someone shot at you. Or me." He glanced around, squinting at the trees that could provide cover for a sniper, but saw nothing.
Ronin snorted. "Why would anyone shoot at me?"
He shrugged. "Me, then. And I'm not a Dark Lord," he said mildly. "I'm a Jedi."
Luke halted, wondering at the total disbelief in the other youth's tone. "I am a Jedi," he said defensively.
Ronin was brushing off leaves from his clothing. "I've never met a Jedi," he said as he twisted around to check over his shoulder for stray vegetation, "but from what I've heard about them, I don't think you're one."
"What've you heard? Only what Vader told you, I'll wager."
Ronin bent over the wreckage of his bike and groaned. "Damn! Look at this, will you?"
Luke shrugged. "I'll buy you a new one," he said expansively, for the first time relishing the monetary aspect of his inheritance.
"You'll be buying yourself one," Ronin said dryly. "Everything here belongs to you." His shoulders slumped, and he looked around disconsolately. "Don't you have a life of your own? Why'd you come here and take mine?"
"I'm not taking your life," Luke snapped. "If anything, it's the other way around. You took my place. I should have been raised here, with my father. This is all mine!"
"This is supposed to be my reward for all those years, all that work." Ronin picked up the bike and let it go again. "Damn you," he said softly. "It's not fair. If I'd had any Force powers, he never would have reclaimed you. He never would have searched for you-- He never would have died saving you."
Luke turned away and retrieved his own bike. He bent over it, checking the exterior hoses and couplings. "You think I don't care that he died?"
"You didn't even know him," Ronin said bitterly. "Why should you care?"
"Maybe that's the very reason," he replied slowly. "I only knew a part of him, only caught a glimpse. We had a Force connection, we were bound by that for a short while, but...I never knew him as a man or a father. There's no way I can ever recover that loss, no matter how much I may want to. I hope, by coming here, that I can come to understand him."
"With my help?" Ronin asked stiffly.
Luke met the other's eyes. "Yes."
Ronin held his gaze for a moment, then looked away with a harsh laugh. "I have no options, do I? Either I stay here, help you and depend on your generosity, or I leave and try to make my own way in the galaxy without any skills or training."
"Have you no trade? What have you been doing with your life, Ronin?" he asked irritably. "Playing heir to the estate, spending your time in leisure and merriment?"
"Merriment?" Ronin glared at him. "And I did not give you leave to address me by my given name! You're as crazy as they say!"
"Give me leave?" Luke repeated softly, hearing the dangerous edge to his voice. "I do not need your permission--Ronin. And tell me, who dares label me 'crazy'?"
Ronin's gaze faltered. "No one, My Lord. I beg your pardon."
"Good," he whispered. "I do not believe anyone here would think such a thing."
"No one does." Ronin reached for his bike again. "I'll take this back to the garage, My Lord."
"Leave it. Ride with me. Show me where you were going in such a hurry."
The young man hesitated. "You're very much like your father."
For the first time, Luke accepted the glimmer of pride that he'd tried to hide when others said those words. "Was he crazy, too?" he asked lightly.
Ronin paled. "No, My Lord. He...he was my master. But you are my master now."
The evil familiarity of the words washed over him. He is your master now. From one master to the next-- "I'm not your master...Sir Ronin," he said soberly, pride forbidding him to make further apology.
"Just... Ronin," the other man said awkwardly.
Luke smiled. "Very well. Now, how about that guided tour of the countryside?"
"Of course. As long as I can drive."
He laughed at the surprise of Ronin's impudent grin and marveled at the other's resilient spirit. Had he been chastised so, he would have sulked for hours. Once, in anger, Han had declared him immature; then, he had disagreed. Now, Luke accepted that perhaps there was some truth in the accusation.
* * *
His initial euphoria about using his position to rebuke Ronin gradually faded and left him with a sick feeling. It reminded him of Tatooine and his reckless display of power and arrogance in Jabba's palace. It hadn't been until later, alone in his x-wing, headed for Dagobah, that he had mulled over his words and actions and regretted them.
Despite Yoda's training, Luke still hadn't learned humility.
The real problem, he mused, is that I don't want to humble.
His Forcesight turned inward, and he had a vision of himself: Dark Lord, draped in black like his father, all-powerful, worshiped, feared.
Instead of revolting him, the image was pleasing. Instead of fear, he felt lust.
He blinked, and reality returned. He released his hold around Ronin's waist, dismounted from the speederbike and looked around. They were stopped on a windy precipice. The castle was a dark spot on the distant landscape, the village was a chaotic cluster of rooftops and colors.
Ronin waited patiently, and it struck Luke that he must have thus stood by Vader.
"Please call me Luke," he murmured.
"Yes, My.... Yes, Luke."
Ronin made the name sound like a title. Luke sighed in resignation. "This is beautiful," he said dutifully.
The other man beamed with pleasure. "Yes, it's the most wonderful planet in the galaxy."
"Have you been to many others?"
"Several. I've even been to Imperial Center," he said boastfully.
"Coruscant," Luke corrected.
"Whatever." Ronin shrugged.
They stared at the view for a few silent minutes. "Does all this land belong to the estate?" Luke asked finally.
Ronin shot him an incredulous look. "The entire planet belongs to... to the Lord Vader. To you."
He was too overwhelmed to correct the designation. "The planet? That's absurd! Was the entire population enslaved to Vader?"
"Enslaved?" Indignation flared to life in the green eyes. "We're not enslaved--we're honored--or at least we were--to belong to Lord Vader. He is--was--you are our guardian, the one who ensures justice, that no one goes without food even when the harvest is poor, that--"
"Darth Vader was your god," Luke said heavily. "And I'm expected to replace him."
"The Force is our god." Ronin's voice firmed. "The Dark Lord is the Vessel of the Force, and you are he. We depend on Lord Vader to stand between us and It, to share Its benefits but protect us from Its wrath."
"But before my father became Darth Vader--"
"There was no before. There has always been a Lord Vader."
"There can't have been," Luke insisted. "My father was Anakin Skywalker before he... before he was turned to the Dark Side."
Ronin made an impatient gesture with one hand, then pointed toward the castle. "There has always been a Castle Vader. There has always been a Lord Vader. Skywalker is an assumed name. HE said you blindly believed what Jedi told you. Are you so easy to deceive?"
Yes, he thought, but couldn't afford to say it aloud. He turned again in the direction of the castle. More mysteries to ponder, more deceptions to sift through. Was the truth so terrifying that Ben and Yoda had deemed it wisest to leave him unprepared?
"The people are afraid of you after what happened at the Harvest Blessing," Ronin said slowly. "If you intend to be Dark Lord, you must reassure them. If you desert us...."
"What happened at the Harvest Blessing?" Luke asked reluctantly, ignoring the threat implicit in the other's words.
Ronin shook his head. "You don't remember?"
"I don't know." He tried to explain: "The Force...took over. I don't know what happened, I don't know what I said or did."
Ronin's face was pale. "You...called on the Elements," he said in a hushed tone. "Lightning."
Palpatine, blue bolts blazing from his fingertips. Palpatine had called for the weapon of Luke's destruction, and the force had answered him. Vader had called on the force to betray the emperor and save his son.
Cannon fire on Hoth. The ground-shaking thuds of the imperial walker as it moved toward him. The instant when he stared up at the giant foot, the instant when he'd almost died. Almost--but he'd leaped out of the way with inhuman agility. The force had answered his fears and given him strength. Saved him.
High above Bespin, terrified and disillusioned, tears torn from his eyes by the vicious gale that buffeted his limbs and threatened to rip him from his fragile perch. He called for help, called for Leia... and the force had answered and saved him.
He owed the Force his life several times over.
And It was calling in his debt.
"To the village next," Ronin said with forced cheer.
Luke refocused his attention, trying to banish the Darkness that lurked on this planet and whispered promises to him. "Is there only one town on this planet? Why do you keep saying 'the village'? Doesn't it have a name?"
Ronin grinned. "It's the village, the one belonging to Castle Vader. There are many settlements, but this is the most important."
He mounted the bike behind Ronin and fastened the helmet strap under his chin. "Because it's near the castle?" he called over the sound of the engine.
"It's the birth place of the First Dark Lord." Ronin's head turned. "My Lord, you must learn to control the Force. Before the next Blessing."
"When is the next harvest? A year?"
"No. I mean--yes, but--" Abruptly, the taller man slid off the bike and raised the helmet visor. "My Lor-- Luke, the next Blessing is for the First Planting. Then, you must call on the Force again. You must be stronger."
Luke's heart leaped, pounding in his throat. On Tatooine, First Planting had been a ritual performed by each family's first son, a simple--and useless--ceremony. But there was fear in Ronin's voice. "Why?"
The green eyes shifted to the side, downward, then finally up again. "The Force is...overwhelming here. Even someone like me, with no Force gift, can feel it. You will grow much stronger because you are Its vessel. If you cannot channel It, control It... I do not know what might happen. Another storm or worse--destruction."
The panic was contagious. If only he knew more. "I won't make a blessing. That should avert any--"
"You have to Bless the Planting!" Ronin shouted. "Do you understand nothing?"
"Next to nothing," Luke admitted. "I'm a stranger here."
Ronin turned away, visibly controlling another outburst. "I'd forgotten," he said finally, staring across the valley. "You Bless the First Planting. You guide the Force, and It ensures good weather and bountiful crops. Without the Blessing, we would be ruined."
Luke raised his own visor and stared at Ronin's back. "What did you do when my father was away?" he asked softly.
"He always returned for the First Planting and Harvest Blessings." Ronin didn't turn. "But for once. It was long ago--I was newly born. Few speak of it now, but... there were no crops. There was hardship, starvation... terrible storms caused by the vengeance of the Force."
Vengeance? Ensuring? These people believed the Force was an entity. It seemed an alien concept...yet how had Ben and Yoda described the Force? All powerful, controlling destiny, in everything and everyone. Had they been trying to tell him, to explain? Had he misunderstood the nature of the Force?
Or was everyone on this planet wrong?
Ronin was correct about one thing--the Force was exceptionally strong here. He had felt Its power--more, he'd been controlled by It. Used by It. Fool that he was, he had thought he had been using It.
He was the Force's tool. Nothing more.
The implications were staggering. He couldn't begin to comprehend all that it meant. How had his father coped with the responsibility--by running away, into space, into Palpatine's servitude?
Perhaps Palpatine had been an easier master to serve than the Force.
...the force is with you, young Skywalker, but you are not--
--then I am
--a Jedi yet!
--no, one thing remains...you must confront Vader.
He had, hadn't he? So he was a Jedi, wasn't he?
But what was a Jedi? A priest of another religion of the Force, another sect?
Where was the righteous power of nature that Yoda had described? Had it been simply another lie?
Or had Yoda not known the true nature of the Force?
...only now, at the end, do you understand....
If that were true, then he was nearing the end, because he was beginning to understand.
There was another Vader he had always refused to confront. Himself.
He started at the sound of Ronin's voice. "Y-yes, of course. This time I'm driving," he added with forced mischief.
Ronin shrugged. "Suit yourself."
The village was closer than he'd realized as he followed Ronin's directions. There were shortcuts, it seemed, paths disguised by thickets and weeds, barely wide enough for the bike to pass through. Branches snapped at Luke's boots. Along with his passenger, he ducked as the bike sped under lowered tree limbs. Luke pushed the speed higher, glorying in the adrenalin rush, remembering Endor, chasing the Imperials, watching the fireballs as they crashed, feeling the thuds of the explosions reverberating in his chest--
"Slow down, you fool! There's a cliff--"
He braked marginally, throwing the bike into a skid, skipping along the edge of the precipice. Laughing, Luke steered the bike into the outskirts of the small town, finally stopping by the park-like square in the center of the village. He looked around curiously at the shops and people. It was as crowded as Mos Eisley, as small as Anchorhead. And prettier than both. The narrow lanes were tree-lined and shaded, and colorful flower baskets hung on posts beside each merchant's door.
"Sir Ronin!" The call was echoed by adults and squealed by children. A small crowd gathered around them as Ronin dismounted and waved. A little boy tugged at his tunic.
Ronin grinned. "Yes, little one?"
The child was imp-faced, with fiery red hair that curled around his neck. "C'n I have a surprise?"
"A surprise?" Ronin squatted in front of the boy. "I'm not sure I have any surprises with me today."
"You do!" the child declared boldly. "In your pocket!"
"This pocket? Or this one?"
The boy giggled and pointed. A gaily wrapped candy was his reward. Ronin held out a handful of treats for the other children, and they swarmed him.
With a smile, Luke removed his helmet and swung his leg over the bike. First he heard gasps; but as he stood, there was only dead silence. The adults bowed and curtsied, as did the older children.
"Hello," he said with a nod.
Indistinct murmurs answered him, but no one moved. They didn't want to be in his presence, Luke realized, but they were reluctant to leave Ronin. What had the younger...Vader done to win so many hearts?
Luke smiled at the red-haired boy. "What's your name, young fellow?"
A woman made a cry that was half a sob and half a stifled scream. Luke looked up quickly, but saw no reason for her distress.
"Let's go," Ronin said through clenched teeth.
Anger battled with confusion. "Wait," he commanded. "What's going on here?" A quick appraisal of the growing crowd gave him no answers, but only left a vague feeling of fear in his mind.
"Now," Ronin insisted.
He looked down at the child who was now clinging to the long skirt of the woman who had screamed. The boy smiled hesitantly. "Jonet," he said softly.
"Jonet. That's a good, strong name. There was once a Corellian hero called Jonet."
The woman burst into tears and lifted her son into her arms. "My Lord, please--" she begged Luke, though he had no idea what she wanted.
"Damn you," Ronin muttered under his breath. "I--" He raised his voice. "We have to leave. Thank you for greeting us." He shot the sobbing woman a helpless glance, then nudged Luke's elbow.
This time he obeyed. Thoroughly confused, he allowed Ronin to drive them a short distance from the village. When they stopped at the foot of the path to the castle, he demanded: "What the hell was that all about?"
Ronin jumped off the bike and glared at him. "You shouldn't have named him! Why did you do it?"
The other paced like a caged animal, sunlight listening across his black hair. "Oh, Jedi hell and damnation! Didn't Janus tell you anything? You shouldn't be out of the castle if you don't know how to behave!"
He felt like a countrified fool again--exposed as the Tatooine farmer he was under his Jedi trappings. "I don't understand."
"That much is obvious," Ronin said coldly, drawing himself up very straight. "You've named the boy as the First Planting sacrifice. He is too young and not prepared."
"Sacrifice?" Luke echoed, incredulous. "You don't mean--not his life?"
Ronin sent him a scornful look. "Of course, his life. What would be the point of a sacrifice otherwise? We honor the Force in this way, and the Force ensures us a bountiful harvest."
"No." Luke held up his hand. "While I'm around, there'll be no human sacrifices."
Not waiting for an agreement, he stalked away, heading up the steep path.
"Well, maybe you won't be around," Ronin muttered.
Luke gave no indication that he heard the words, but he tucked them into his memory.
* * *
First Planting was two moons away, but preparations were already underway. Luke noticed the increased activity around the household first. The food larders were filled to bursting with the profits of the rich Harvest added to exotic delicacies imported from other worlds. It must have required enormous wealth to procure such a vast feast and, Luke realized with a self-deprecating chuckle, it all came out of Lord Vader-Skywalker's deep pockets.
The time until First Planting dragged. There was little for Luke to do. Managers ran the estate and the farms, a household staff ran the workings of the castle, and Janus supervised everything. It was considered ill form, Janus chastised him once, for the Lord to interfere with the daily workings of man, beast or equipment. Luke wondered what his father had done here--then wondered if boredom had driven Vader into space and the Imperial Navy. Only his most superficial questions about Vader were ever answered, and he'd given up asking the things he really wanted to know, the why's that might resolve the mystery of his father.
Without a purpose, Luke found himself awake every night, wandering in the highest turrets of the Castle Vader, leaning out the slotted windows and gazing at the stars. Somewhere out there were his friends and compatriots. Somewhere they were fighting for the freedom of planets still enslaved by the remnants of the Imperial government. Somewhere were the very things Yoda had warned him against: adventure and excitement.
Well, here he was, no adventure, no excitement--was THIS the life Yoda had foreseen for him?
I'm a wandering soul, he serenaded himself silently, remembering an old sailing tune that Han liked to sing when he drunk. Which reminded him how much he missed Han and Leia and Wedge--even Crix Madine and Mon Mothma. They had become his family in a way that he suspected the residents of Castle Vader never would.
While his nights were spent in contemplation, his days were spent in exploration. He traveled every path he could find, then blazed his own. He roamed the hills and mountains. He wandered through every cranny of the castle, carefully avoiding the private quarters of his staff. Lady Nyacinth lived in the moon-wing, and he often wondered about her status. She was neither staff nor family; she was treated as a member of permanently visiting nobility. Had she no home of her own?
Or had Castle Vader always been her home, had her place always been in Darth Vader's bed?
She probably would have told him had he asked, but he avoided her out of a fear that he preferred not to identify. He also avoided Janus as much as possible; something about the way the man watched him made him distrustful.
All in all, he concluded ruefully, life as the lord of the manor was not what he'd expected.
* * *
The morning of First Planting dawned with a display of fiery red and purple streaks across the sky. It reminded Luke of Tatooine and the mornings of the time of year the natives had, in their ignorance, labeled 'winter'. On Hoth, he'd learned what winter meant--layers of clothing to protect a body that could turn black and crumble, icy air that could sear lungs and bring tears to anyone's eyes, and miles and miles of pristine whiteness.
He turned away from the window and dismissed the manservant who wished to dress him. Formal garments were laid on the big bed, the fabric finer than any he'd ever worn. The outfit was, of course, all black. Silvery gemstones dotted the quilted vest and acted as the only adornment except for a pendant that contained the family crest carved in stone, set in metal.
Luke dressed slowly, pulling on high black boots, flipping the long black cloak over his shoulders, sliding black gauntlets over his hands. The first time he'd dressed similarly, he'd felt a peculiar thrill of power and pride. Now the fabric felt as if it were made of chains; it pulled him down, trapped him in a life he didn't enjoy but accepted as his responsibility.
Downstairs, the antechamber inside the main entrance of the castle was decorated with flowers. They even encircled the basin that stood in the center of the room, resting on a thick pedestal.
In the center of the basin lay a dagger with a long, highly polished blade.
Luke turned to Janus who waited, his expressive impassive. "No sacrifices," he snapped as he had so many times in the last weeks.
The man inclined his head slightly. "Blood must be spilled to complete the Blessing."
Again, the same answer he'd heard over and over. He stared at the round platform. "An animal, then. A sheirpa, so that the meat will not be wasted."
"Human." Janus folded his hands in front of him and stood like a statue, implacable and immovable. "If you do not wish to sacrifice the child Jonet, then perhaps...yourself?"
Luke turned to the man. From the corner of one eye, he saw a red shimmer run across the underside of the basin and threw himself aside. There was another quick movement from Janus--then Ronin was there, tackling Janus and throwing him to the floor.
The basin and its column exploded. Automatically, Luke threw a Force-shield across himself and the other two men, and the rock pieces fell harmlessly, shattering into powder on the tiled floor. He rose quickly, knelt again beside Janus, prying the weapon out of his tightly clenched fist.
It was an Aggorean laser-dart, and he knew that the tip of the needle would be filled with the deadly poison drawn from trees particular to Aggorea.
He remained crouched, ignoring the guardsmen who clattered into the hall, and looked into Janus's ruthless gaze. There was no repentance and no surrender in them. "Why?" Luke asked.
He was surprised to receive an answer. "For my son," Janus said fiercely. "Everything for my child. These lands, the people, the harvest--it all belongs to him."
Ronin's arms remained locked around Janus, but he slumped back as though he'd been struck. "I'm your son?" he whispered.
"No," another voice said smoothly.
From the top of the staircase, Lady Nyacinth smiled at them. She glided down the steps, her long gown trailing behind her. "Ronin is not your son."
The three men stared at her. She preened under their attention and idly wound one heavy curl around her jeweled finger.
"What the hell do you mean? Of course he is," Janus muttered distractedly.
"You are so easily fooled," she answered complacently. "I knew you wanted the estate for yourself. You would have killed Ronin years ago if you'd known the truth--that he is Vader's son."
Ronin's face paled, and Luke felt a stab of pity for him. "So I am Vader's son. And... yours?" he asked the woman.
She nodded. "It was only the eventual promise of his son inheriting the estate that kept Janus from murdering you. As Vader's Force-blind child, you would have been helpless to fight him, and Vader could not protect you during his absences. So...." She shrugged. "When I knew I was pregnant, I took Janus to bed. An old trick," she added with a note of scorn.
"Did Vader know?" Ronin asked dully.
Nyacinth smiled. "Vader knew everything."
Not quite, luke thought, fascinated by the irony. Despite what Janus hinted, Vader didn't know about me.
He cleared his throat and took control of the family drama. "I will not execute you," he told Janus, though the idea of sacrificing him as part of the Blessing held some appeal. "But you will be banished. There is a new penal colony on Sullust. You may live out your life there."
He turned to Nyacinth. "And you, Lady, may join him, your punishment for the deception and pain you have caused."
"My Lord." Ronin released Janus to the guards and stood, pulling his tunic straight. "Please... I ask for mercy for my Lady Mother."
"She doesn't deserve your compassion."
Ronin held his gaze. "She's my mother," he said simply.
Luke hid his pleased smile. He had hoped Ronin would interfere and demonstrate his integrity. "As you request. And now--" He turned to a guardsman. "Bring me a sheirpa."
* * *
He was loaded with gifts for Leia, even a few things for Han, Chewie and his other friends. The shuttle was waiting to fly him to the transport; from there, he would find the New Alliance's troops and rejoin them.
Ronin stood beside him. "Are you sure you want to do this? I don't have the Force, I can't do what you do. You'll have to come back twice a year for the Harvest and First Planting Blessings."
"I will," Luke promised. He gazed across the valley and the small village. He felt a kinship with these people; in a way, it would always be his home. "You don't need the Force to govern, Ronin. You have honor--that's all you need. And I'm a wanderer. I want adventure," he admitted with a grin and a silent apology to Yoda. "With any luck, I'll find other Force sensitives. Maybe I can help them learn about the Force--and they can help me."
"You'll need more than luck for that," Ronin said shrewdly. "May the Force be with you."
"And with you." He clasped the proffered hand and they shook formally. Then Luke pulled him into a hug. "I'll be back for Harvest, Brother."
Ronin grinned. "Bring your friends along. I'd like to meet your princess."
Your sister, Luke thought, but that was a revelation that could wait until another time.
The time when he brought Leia home.
With a final wave, he climbed aboard the shuttle and watched as Ronin
and castle grew smaller and smaller, finally vanishing into his memory
like a dream banished by the morning sun.