Lipstick. Hera hated the stuff, but tonight it was necessary. Certain aspects of conventional beauty were expected at events like this one, after all. She stepped back to admire the effect of her face-painting in the mirror: she wasn’t unrecognizable, but neither did she look like herself. And that was the point, wasn’t it?
She adjusted the drape of the jeweled fabric covering her lekku and smiled flirtatiously at her reflection. Yes, that would do nicely. She turned sideways and her dark green gown swirled elegantly with her movements. It had been years since she’d worn something so lovely. It fit her perfectly, to the credit of that tailor on Bakka Prime. The fabric draped delicately over her breasts, left her back bare, and clung to her slender waist. Though most of her skin was covered, it was easily the most revealing garment she’d ever worn. And that could work to their advantage, of course.
This should be reasonably fun, if all went as planned. They’d discussed their cover story thoroughly. They’d planned for multiple contingencies. Their faked event invitations and ID codes were vacuum-tight, even with the presence of Imperial security forces.
She turned to look at her reflection over her shoulder. The view from the back was rather lovely as well. The shoes might be a problem by the end of the evening, though. Boots were much more her style than these little slips of jeweled synthplas. Once more she lamented the fact that there was nowhere to hide a weapon. It was rare that they embarked on an operation without blasters, but they doubted they could get them past security anyway.
She turned back to face the mirror once more. It was almost time, and she’d somehow managed to be ready before Kanan. She crossed the corridor to stand in the doorway of Kanan’s small room on the Ghost. He was leaning close to the mirror to frown at his reflection, and she had to bite her lip to keep herself from grinning. He looked — well, not like himself at all.
The jacket he wore was ornately decorated with ribbons and medals, and it was a rather outlandish shade of crimson. Flamboyant as it was, the cut of the jacket was flattering, accentuating the breadth of his shoulders and tapering down to a gold-braided edge at his waist. Her gaze drifted downward to the line of the black trousers over his backside, quite a lot tighter than the ones he usually wore. She tilted her head appreciatively.
Kanan tugged at the frilly collar of his shirt and grimaced. “I have a bad feeling about this.”
She’d never been able to sneak up on him. She assumed it was a Jedi thing, though she’d never asked. “It’s going to be fine, love.”
“I don’t thi—” He turned to face her and stopped mid-word, mouth hanging open. His eyes went almost comically wide.
She waited a full second before canting out one hip and smirking at him. “Something wrong?”
He blinked, swallowed visibly, and seemed to be trying very hard to keep his focus on her face. “No, I… you look… wow.”
She grinned at him. “Thanks. So do you.” She crossed to admire the jacket, unable to stop herself from trailing her fingers across the collection of medals on the chest. “I wonder whose grandfather these belonged to.”
“I suppose I can say my own, if someone notices some of them are from before I was born.”
She stepped back and tapped a finger on her chin. “I have to say, this is a good look for you. But this has to go.” She moved behind him to tug the leather tie from his hair. It fell to his shoulders, and he stood patiently while she combed it smooth with her fingers. She let herself linger there for a moment, the strands sliding over her skin. It was such a strange, soft texture.
“Having fun?” She could hear the teasing smile in his tone.
“Hair is so weird. I’ve always found it fascinating. Do you really have it all over?”
“You’re welcome to find out for yourself,” he quipped in response.
An image sprang unbidden into her mind: Kanan stripped naked, on his knees, staring up at her with that expression he only had when he thought she wasn’t looking. She allowed herself a private grin before pushing the thought away again. “I walked right into that one, didn’t I? Here, turn around.”
He turned to face her, immediately plastering on the most ridiculously charming smile she’d ever seen on his face. And that was saying quite a lot. “Do I look the part?”
“Absolutely. Do I?”
His expression softened. “You look like a princess.” At her raised eyebrow, he flushed slightly and looked away. “Or a baroness, I suppose. Ready?”
She nodded. “Let’s go.”
The hovercab dropped them off at the entrance of what appeared to be an ancient palace in the city’s center. Sharply dressed beings milled about the exterior, some clearly holo-journalists waiting to catch a glimpse of someone important. A long purple carpet had been laid out from the street across the lush grounds to the entry doors, in front of which stood a pair of stormtroopers in dress armor.
Hera slipped her arm through Kanan’s and smiled broadly. “Here we go.”
They walked along the purple carpet, beaming at everyone around them. Happily, the holo-journalists didn’t pay them any attention.
One of the troopers at the door held out an armored hand. “Identification.”
Kanan smiled and reached into his jacket. “Would you like to see the invitation as well?”
“Just your identification.” The voice was female, and even modulated, sounded annoyed.
Kanan shrugged. “We should have left it at home, then. She loves to put these sorts of things in a scrapbook, you know.”
Hera batted her eyelids at him. “I do! Be careful not to crumple it, darling.”
“I’ll do my best, dearest. Though that may put a bit of a crimp in my dancing this evening.” He winked at the trooper’s blank mask. Predictably, there was no response. “Our identification,” Kanan said, holding out a small data chip.
The trooper inserted it into her datapad and tapped at the screen. Hera held her breath while the trooper studied the display. If this didn’t work, they could at least still make a quick escape. She looked up at Kanan, who winked at her — the signal that he was ready for the escape plan, if needed.
“You’re on the list. Proceed.” The trooper handed the data chip back and stepped aside as the door swung open.
Kanan and Hera beamed at each other and strolled through into the building’s large foyer. It was difficult not to gape at the exquisitely decorated interior— Hera hadn’t seen anything quite so excessive in her entire life. The purple carpet continued through the foyer towards the open doors of a large ballroom on the opposite side. Opulently dressed people milled about, many holding drinks in delicate crystal goblets.
“Shall we?” Kanan nodded toward the ballroom.
They passed through the weapons-detection portal and then were stopped in the doorway by a pale human man in Imperial dress uniform. “Welcome to the Empire Day Grand Gala. Identification?”
Kanan held out the chip. “Lots of security tonight, isn’t there?”
“One can never be too careful, sir.” The man inserted the chip into his data pad and nodded. He held up a small commlink and said, “The Baron and Baroness Khlikia of Lo’Uran.” Hera flinched at the sound of his amplified voice — they hadn’t planned to make such a dramatic entrance — but as they stepped forward into the entryway spotlight, no one in the cavernous room bothered to pause their conversation. In fact, the officer’s voice barely made a dent in the din of hundreds of voices.
Kanan took her hand and squeezed it, then led her through the crowd towards the room’s central bar.
“I told you the ID would check out,” she whispered into his ear.
He put an arm around her waist and pulled her against him, smiling blandly at the people who were looking their way. “You were right.”
She leaned in to brush her lips against his cheek. “I do love hearing you say that.”
“Would you care for a drink, dearest?” he asked, more loudly. His eyes sparkled with something she hadn’t seen in them before, and it made her feel slightly giddy.
She traced her fingertip around the largest medal on his chest and looked up at him through painted eyelashes. “Something bubbly, my love. And expensive, please. You know how cheap wine always gives me a headache.”
Following the minutest of eyerolls, he let go her hand and wound his way to the bar. She took the opportunity to scan the nearby revelers. The attendees were an interesting combination of Imperial officers, politicians, royalty from dozens of systems, and even a few celebrities. In fact, the man smiling lasciviously at her right now was a face she recognized from holovids she’d loved in years past.
He seemed to interpret her eye contact as an invitation and crossed to stand beside her. “This is quite an event, isn’t it?” His gaze roamed down her body and back up again before settling on her eyes.
“It’s terribly exciting, yes.”
“Can I offer you a drink?” He stepped even closer, far closer than was proper.
She gestured toward the bar. “My husband has just gone to get me one, actually.”
“What a careless man he is to leave such a lovely creature as you all alone.” These words were spoken directly to her breasts.
She cleared her throat and he looked up again, completely unembarrassed about being caught. She smiled sweetly at him, calculating. Obnoxious as he was, his prurient interest in her might prove to be of use this evening. It certainly wouldn’t hurt to cultivate the possibility. But first, perhaps a bit of fun.
She tilted her head and frowned slightly. “You look familiar. Have we met before?”
His eyes smoldered just as they had in that vid series where he’d played the dashing hero. “I’m sure I would remember meeting someone as delicious as you. I’m Kel Yolo.” His lips twisted into a smug smile. Or, would have done if not for the excessive surgery he’d clearly had in an attempt to reclaim his once youthful appearance.
“Pleasure to meet you, Mr Yolo.”
“Please, call me Kel.”
“Kel,” she repeated carefully, as if making a mental note of it. “Are you a senator?”
His expression fell for a moment before he caught himself and plastered on a charming smile once again. “Ah, no. I stay far away from politics, my dear. I am an actor.” There was a dramatic emphasis on the last syllable. “Perhaps you’ve seen my work? I was the star of the Adventures on Kelis Prime trilogy and Rogue Jedi: Sith Legends. But of course, you are probably most familiar with my award-winning performance in The Dacken Supernova.”
Hera gasped in mock surprise. “Oh, yes! My mother loved those vids! She was always such a big fan of yours, ever since she was very young.”
Kel struggled to maintain his smile. “How wonderful.”
“In fact,” she continued, practically beaming at him now, “I think I had a toy of your Rogue Jedi character when I was a little girl.”
“Really?” Kel’s expression was perfectly blank.
“Here you are, darling,” Kanan said as he joined them with drinks in hand. His gaze fixed on Kel and, though his expression appeared friendly, Hera could see the tension underneath it. “It was the most expensive wine they had.”
She took the proffered glass and winked at Kel. “My dear husband always knows just what I like.”
“I imagine he does.” Kel’s gaze had shifted to Kanan now, and Hera couldn’t help noticing it burned with the same degree of interest he’d shown in her. He held out his hand. “Kel Yolo.” He paused and smiled, smarmily. “Yes, the Kel Yolo.”
Kanan shook Kel’s hand and, to his credit, didn’t even flinch. “What a pleasure.”
“It certainly could be,” Kel replied, his tone fairly dripping with innuendo. “What a lovely pair you make. Are you visiting the planet for long?”
Hera took Kana’s arm and leaned into him slightly. “We’re leaving in the morning, I’m afraid. We’ve so many duties back home to attend to. It was difficult for my husband to make room in his schedule even for this.”
“If you’ve no plans for later this evening, perhaps you would consider joining me for a drink in my suite?” Kel looked at each of them in turn. “I assure you, I could show you a very good time.”
Kanan was, for once, completely speechless.
Hera took a measured sip from her glass and giggled. “How kind of you, Kel. Isn’t he ever so charming?”
“You could say that,” Kanan replied.
There was a buzzing sound, and Kel frowned and reached into his pocket. “I must apologize. I’m being summoned by my assistant.” He held up a commlink. “I’m starting a new project next week, and there are so many last-minute details to settle. If you’ll excuse me for a moment.” He gave them both a sly smile and walked away.
“That was unexpected,” Kanan said once he was out of earshot. “Never thought I’d ever meet one of the Rogue Jedi.”
“Or that he’d invite you to his bed?” Hera nudged him with an elbow.
Kanan snorted. “I think he invited both of us.” He tucked his arm around her waist and pulled her close enough to whisper in a way that would appear romantic to anyone watching. “Have you seen anything yet?”
“Nothing,” she replied, reaching up to comb his hair away from his face with her fingers. “Perhaps we should walk around?”
He nuzzled her cheek with his nose. “Should we split up?”
“Not yet.” She closed her eyes against the sensation of warm breath against the sensitive skin of her lekku. “It will look more natural for us to be watching the crowd if we’re together, I think.”
He took her hand again and they wound their way through the crowded bar area towards the far side of the ballroom. She recalled the details of the face of their target from the information they’d gathered over the last few weeks: human, tall, pale-skinned, sparse orange hair, middle-aged, and with a long thin nose. She’d yet to see anyone that matched the image in the files they’d acquired.
They strolled hand-in-hand, smiling at everyone they passed, and kept their observations quick and casual. She found herself on the receiving end of appreciative looks at every turn. Perhaps wearing this gown had been a mistake — she hadn’t intended to attract this much attention.
Kanan stopped then, so suddenly that his hand pulled away from hers. Hera turned to look at him. His gaze had gone unfocused in a way she’d only seen a few times before. He blinked, and then turned ninety degrees to the left, staring out into the crowd.
Hera followed his gaze. There were two men standing not far away, absorbed in conversation. Hera gasped: one of them was Artis Tinian, the most successful and influential weapons designer in the Empire — and just the man they were looking for. “There he is,” she whispered, nudging Kanan with her elbow.
Kanan blinked. “Who?”
“Tinian,” she whispered, frowning. If he hadn’t spotted Tinian, then what had caught his attention? She turned to look again.
The man Tinian was talking with was dressed similarly to Kanan, in the sort of military garb generally preferred by aristocrats. His rust-colored hair was shoulder-length and wavy, and his beard was trimmed in an intricate swirled pattern. Standing behind him was a girl. She was human, ten or eleven years old, and dressed in a floor-length gossamer blue gown. Her dark hair was intricately arranged into a design that must have taken hours to complete — wealthy, here with parents, but clearly comfortable at this sort of function. Perhaps one of these men was her father?
Hera looked at Kanan again. “The girl?”
“Yes. She’s about to… do something.”
The girl glanced around casually and then, very carefully and with practiced ease, slipped a small device into the pocket of Tinian’s conversation partner. She cast one more glance up at him to make sure he hadn’t seen and smiled, and then looked up. The moment she made eye contact with Kanan was startlingly clear. She stared back at him with an expression of confusion for several seconds, then seemed to force herself to look away. She turned into the crowd and disappeared.
Kanan started after her immediately.
Hera caught his hand. “What are you doing? That’s him. This is our chance!”
Kanan shook his head. “Stay here and keep an eye on him. I’ve got to find out what just happened.”
“Why?” Hera asked, but he was already too far away to hear. She swore under her breath as he vanished into the crowd. She waited, sipping her drink slowly and watching the two men talk. They seemed to know each other, and to be engaged in a very intense conversation. She edged her way toward them as casually as she could manage, trying to catch a bit of what they were saying. The room was still quite loud, though, and they were talking quietly. She wouldn’t be able to get much closer without appearing suspicious.
She had drained her glass by the time the men shook hands and parted ways. She hesitated a moment before carefully trailing Tinian as he moved through the ballroom. He stopped to talk to a few more people, though the conversation was clearly light and social, nothing like the earlier one she’d observed. He moved on again. She tried to follow, but was stopped by a woman who admired her dress and felt compelled to tell her so, at length. By the time Hera was able to disentangle herself, she’d lost Tinian.
Damn. She crossed to the far wall, hoping to catch a glimpse of him. The crowd had only grown larger in the time they’d been there. She frowned, frustrated.
“A pretty face like yours should be smiling!” a passing man said, giving her a lascivious wink. She reached for her blaster out of habit, and then remembered she was supposed to be the Baroness of Lo’Uran. She plastered on a smile.
“There you are, dearest,” she heard, and turned to see Kanan walking towards her.
“Where have you been, darling? I was all alone for minutes. It was horrid.” All of this was said through clenched teeth.
Kanan’s eyes widened fractionally. “I’m terribly sorry, love. It couldn’t be helped.”
Enough of this ridiculous facade. She shot him a mild glare. “I lost him.”
“We’ll find him again.” Kanan stepped closer, but didn’t put his arm around her this time.
She gripped his hand tightly enough that he grimaced. “Where the hell were you?”
“I wanted to find out what that girl was doing.”
“I… can’t explain.” His expression was guarded now.
Hera sighed in exasperation. “So what did you find out?”
“If you’re that curious, you need only ask,” they heard.
They both turned to see the girl standing right behind them.
“All right,” Kanan said, staring at her intently. “I’m asking. What did you slip in that man’s pocket?”
The girl crossed her arms over her chest. “First, tell me why you’re interested in Tinian.”
Hera smiled as warmly as she could manage. “We’re interested in bringing him to our planet to supervise the development of our defense systems. The Outer Rim is quite a dangerous place, you know.”
The girl’s eyes narrowed at Hera. “Which planet?”
“My dear, we are the Baron and Baroness of Lo’Uran.”
The girl’s eyebrows rose slightly, making her look far older than she was. “Lo’Uran doesn’t have an aristocracy. It’s been a representative democracy more more than a century. Luckily for you, few people around here know their galactic history.”
Hera steeled her smile. “Isn’t it getting close to your bedtime, darling child?”
The girl rolled her eyes and turned to Kanan. “So obviously you’re not who you say you are, which means you falsified your identification in order to attend this event. Why would you go to all of that trouble just to attend a party? The only reasonable conclusion is that you’re here doing recon of some sort.”
Hera’s jaw clenched: if a ten-year-old child could work out their plan through simple observation alone, they should probably leave while they could.
To her surprise, Kanan chuckled. “Very good. Now tell us something we don’t know.”
The girl’s lips quirked up slightly at the praise. “Tinian isn’t the one you should be interested in. You should focus on Maltho.”
Hera and Kanan exchanged a glance. Maltho: the name that had come up in the files they’d downloaded from their recent raid on a weapons facility. They’d assumed it was a code for a top secret project. It hadn’t occurred to Hera that it might be the name of a person.
If Kanan had possessed headtails, they would have been quivering now. “Who is Maltho?”
“He’s the money. He’s here to recruit Tinian, and based on what I’ve heard so far—” She patted the tiny purse that was slung over her shoulder. “—I’m guessing he made quite a lucrative offer.”
“You bugged him.” Kanan shook his head admiringly. “So what are you after, then?”
The girl smirked. “I’m doing a school project, of course.”
“Right.” Kanan pursed his lips. “Any chance we can get a copy of that project when it’s done?”
“Interested in intergalactic geopolitical affairs, are you?”
“Absolutely.” Kanan smiled roguishly, and the girl, astonishingly, grinned at him. Hera suppressed the urge to roll her eyes.
“I’ll consider it,” the girl continued. “Do you have a secure holonet ID or a skimmer address? Scramble only. I don’t do anon.”
Hera gaped at her. This girl was far more knowledgeable than she first appeared.
“We do,” Kanan replied. “Do you have a pen?”
“I’ll remember it,” she said, the corner of her mouth turning up slightly.
Ordinarily, Hera would have assumed they were being brushed off, but something about this girl made her think they would be hearing from her again. Kanan quietly told her the skimmer address, and she nodded.
“What else can you tell us about Maltho?” Hera asked.
The girl pursed her lips and looked past their shoulders before lowering her voice to a near-whisper. “He has a hand in nearly all of the big weapons projects in the Empire. He has a seemingly endless supply of credits to finance it all, too. I don’t know where he’s getting it all, but there must be laundering going on. That’s what we’re—” She paled slightly and cleared her throat. “That’s the thesis of my project, anyway. Think I’ll get good marks?”
“Kid, I think you’re heading to the top of the class.” Kanan grinned, and Hera had the distinct impression he’s only barely restrained himself from ruffling her perfect hair.
The girl looked past their shoulders again. “I’ve got to go. Mother’s looking for me. I’ll be in touch.”
Hera held out her hand. “Thank you.”
The girl shook it firmly and smiled. She looked up at Kanan and held out her hand to shake his as well, but instead he took it and lifted it to his lips. The girl’s cheeks flushed pink. She stared at him a moment longer and then dashed away. Kanan stared after her as she crossed to a woman in an ornate ball gown standing not far away. The woman looked back at them once before turning her daughter towards the doorway.
Hera sighed and slid an arm around his waist. “Trying to make me jealous with a younger woman, are you, dearest?”
Kanan blinked and turned to look at her, confused. “No, I just… That was… interesting.” He trailed his fingers up her bare skin of Hera’s back almost absently.
She shivered at the touch. “Interesting how?”
“I’ll tell you later.” He stared back at her for a long moment. There was longing in his eyes — real longing, not the act they’d been playing all evening. She let herself drown in his eyes for a moment, let herself be drawn closer.
This was a terrible idea, and she’d promised herself she wouldn’t go down this path with him. It would complicate matters unnecessarily. The work they were doing was important, the sworn focus of her life. If she knew they could just be casual lovers, it would be different. Kanan loved her, though, and if they crossed that line, there would be no turning back.
He closed his eyes and she realized how near he was. She should step away, turn her head. She should definitely not press her mouth against his and—
“Oh, sorry to interrupt.”
They stepped apart and turned to see Kel Yolo leering at them.
“Still interested in that drink tonight?” He leaned in close, and it was clear he’d already had quite a few.
Hera took a step backward and gasped. “Is that Beyond the Stars they’re playing? Oh darling, it’s our song!”
“So it is,” Kanan said, slipping smoothly into character again. “Forgive us, Kel, but I promised my beautiful wife back on our wedding day that I would always dance with her whenever we heard this one.”
“Of course,” Kel said, gesturing broadly towards the dance floor. “I’ll get us a round of drinks, shall I?”
Kanan held out his hand. His eyes sparkled with humor and a touch of regret, and his cheeks were flushed. “Ready, my love?”
Hera felt something twist deep inside her, and pleasantly so. She smiled and took his hand. “Always.”
To her surprise, he actually led her to the dance floor. She gave him a panicked look when he turned to face her, arms outstretched.
“I don’t know how to do this dance.”
“I do. Just follow.” He stepped forward and pulled her into his arms.
Two extremely awkward minutes later, they made a quiet exit from the building. The hovercab driver they’d hired earlier was waiting around the corner, as expected. They spent most of the ride back to the spaceport in silence.
“I’ll be glad to get out of this dress,” Hera said at last. She glanced at Kanan, and he quickly looked away. “It’s not really my style.”
“I suppose not,” he replied, staring out the window. He seemed lost in thought — or was he avoiding looking at her after the aborted kiss?
Hera sighed and watched his profile for a long moment. He was so dear to her, so important in her life and work. She cared about him as much as she’d ever cared about anyone. She was undeniably, painfully attracted to him. But was she in love with him? She pressed her lips together. He was her best friend, her partner, her confidante, her compatriot. He was everything to her, and the thought of possibly ruining what they had by taking it a step further was terrifying.
She exhaled, calming her suddenly racing heart. “Do you really think the girl will contact us?”
Kanan smiled and stroked his beard with the tips of his fingers. “I do.”
“If she doesn’t, I think we can find her. Did you get a good look at her mother?”
Kanan turned to her, his face blank. He shook his head.
“I can’t be certain, but her mother looked very much like the Queen of Alderaan.”
Kanan pursed his lips. “Easy to find, but almost impossible to contact, then.”
“Yeah, I’m thinking her parents might find it a bit odd that a man your age is so keen on talking to their very young daughter.”
“Which is why you would do all the talking, dearest.”
“I always do the talking, darling.”
Kanan grinned. “In the meantime, we’ve got some work to do.”
“Maltho,” Hera said, and turned to look out the window. The lights of the city streaked past in a swirl of yellow and white and blue.