The Trandoshan bounty hunter lounged in his chair, tallow-colored eyes half-lidded. He was clearly at ease - or at least good at giving the impression that he was. In any case, he didn't seem terribly impressed with the small, middle-aged woman who had just joined him in the bar's dimly lit alcove, despite her confident air and the blaster at her hip.
So much the better, thought Leia, though she had a bad feeling he wasn't alone. Where could his flunky be lurking? Behind one of those wall-hangings would be her guess. For once, she wished she'd spent just a little more time training in the ways of the Force with her brother - or that Luke was here, instead of who-knows-where. Aloud she said, "You had better be Klarshh."
The Trandoshan flicked the air with his forked tongue. "That depends."
"I'm Merin. I'm told Klarshh has something of mine."
With a languid gesture, he indicated the chair opposite his, but Leia had no patience for these games and she shook her head. "Do you have what I'm looking for or not?"
At her sharp tone, his eyes narrowed. "You said 'mine,'" he hissed. "I wouldn't use that word as long a what you're looking for is in my possession." He paused, no doubt anticipating a retort. Though Leia felt the anger building in her, she kept her mouth shut, instead breathing in deeply through her nose and letting it out slowly, just as Luke had taught her. With a shrug, Klarshh continued, "Now that we've established that, are you still willing you pay for it?"
"Him," Leia said in a tight voice. "And we haven't established anything until I have proof not only that you have him, but that he's alive."
She tensed, her hand close to her blaster, as Klarshh reached into one of his many pockets. But all he withdrew was a small metal disc, which he dropped without ceremony onto the table, and pressed a button. Instantly, the tiny, ghostly image of a man appeared: he was on his knees, with his wrists bound in front of him; his head was bowed, but Leia recognized him anyway. Tearing her gaze from the hologram, she said in an even tone to Klarshh, "That's not proof. I want to see him."
A pointed tooth appeared as Klarshh smiled. Then he snapped what sounded like an order in Dosh. Leia heard a scuffle, a snarl, and then, just as she'd suspected, the heavy gray curtain behind Klarshh twitched aside to reveal a second Trandoshan. He had Poe Dameron in a firm grip, with the muzzle of a blaster pressed hard against his jugular vein. Leia struggled not to react as her eyes swept over her top pilot, but the anger twisted in her gut: Poe's face was bruised; his pupils were unfocused; his hair, the corner of his lips, and his wrists were crusted with blood; in the alcove's dim lighting, and with Klarshh and the table between them, Leia couldn't tell if he was standing on his own, or if the Trandoshan was holding him up.
Leia's hand hovered over her blaster.
No, she thought. Not anger. That won't help. Stick to the plan. He's alive. He's alive. You talked your way into Jabba's palace to get Han. You can talk your way through this.
She turned back to Klarshh. "He's hurt," she said accusingly.
"He was like that when I found him on Jakku. Blame the slavers who sold him to us. Or are you telling me you think he's worth less because he's damaged? We agreed upon a price. If you've changed your mind, I'm sure there are others who'll pay what I ask. Perhaps someone in the First Order…"
Leia sucked in a breath, and the lizard-eyes lit up.
"Yes," Klarshh went on thoughtfully, as if the idea had just occurred to him when Leia was suddenly sure that he had planned it this way all along, "I think that is what I'll do. The two of you reek of Resistance. The First Order will pay handsomely for you and whatever information you might have." He started to rise.
"No," Leia said.
"Draw your blaster," Klarshh warned, "or call for help, and he dies."
Poe moaned faintly.
Leia closed her eyes. Calm, she told herself. Push away anger. No, that wasn't how Luke had instructed her. Acknowledge anger. It's a feeling that exists. But let it go. Opening her eyes, she said softly but clearly, "You will put your blaster down. You will release this man, and let us both walk away freely. You won't pursue us."
Klarshh and his flunky looked at her like she'd gone mad.
Leia tried again. She had never liked this move. The idea of controlling someone, even an enemy, was antithetical to everything she believed in. Still. Unless Wexley or Pava decided to disobey orders and run in, guns blazing, this was the only way out that she could see. She acknowledged her anger and fear. One was hot as flame, the other ice-cold. They both licked at her, but she moved past them, reaching out with other, less base emotions.
She looked the Trandoshans in the eye and said, "You will put your blaster down. You will release this man, and let us both walk away freely. You won't pursue us."
Slowly, as though in a daze, Klarshh's flunky lowered his blaster and loosened his grip on Poe, who immediately stumbled. Leia caught him by the front of his shirt before he hit the floor. She looped one arm around his waist, hitching him close and bearing as much of his weight as she was able, and struggled toward the exit. It would have been easier if his wrists weren't bound. Or, she mused sourly, if she were twenty-one instead of … well, never mind that.
Poe was at least trying to make his legs work, albeit with only minimal success. He breathed harshly against Leia's ear. Between the noise of the bar and her own labored breaths, it took her a few minutes to figure out what he was trying to say:
"What happened to Finn?"
"Finn. Did he … make it?"
"I don't know who you're talking about." She was curious, but whoever this Finn was, he was the least of her worries just then. Though the bar's sparse patrons weren't paying her much attention, she had no idea how long the effects of the Jedi mind trick were supposed to last. How much time did she have before the Trandoshans snapped out of their trance and came after her and Poe, furious at being swindled and hungry for revenge?
Poe interrupted her train of thought with a groan that was equal parts despair and pain.
"Almost there," she muttered to him.
He shook his head. "I failed. I lost BB-8 and the map. I let Lor San Tekka die. Stormtroopers … sacked the whole village. I couldn't stop them. And Kylo Ren, he knows--"
Hearing her son's name - his new name - was like fingers ruthlessly probing at a wound that had never, and would never close. Leia gritted her teeth and pushed past it, though she knew that, unlike her anger, the anguish of losing Ben would always be there, crouching in the shadows at the back of her mind.
"It's not your fault," she said to Poe, her much more immediate concern. "When we're back on D'Qar, remind me to tell you about the time I tried hiding information from the Empire." Her tone was glib, but she didn't smile at the memory.
Three more labored strides, and they were out in the city's noxious night air. Leia refrained from breathing deeply in relief; she would do that, she told herself, when they were aboard the shuttle and on their way out of this system. Instead, she braced her shoulder against the bar's outer wall and fumbled in her trouser pocket for the small knife she always carried. "Let's get these off you," she mumbled to Poe, slashing through the tight cords that bound his wrists. He grimaced as the blood came rushing back to his starved fingers.
"How're you doing?" asked Leia. Not that it really mattered, since there was little she could do until they were on the shuttle, but she wanted to hear his voice again, to make sure he was still with her mentally.
His answer was slow and slurred, difficult to hear above the noise of the street: "... had ... better ... days."
She decided that was a good sign.
Leia looked up sharply, her free hand reaching instinctively for her blaster, even as her brain told her that she knew that voice. A moment later, Temmin Wexley was beside her, carefully taking Poe's arm and looping it over his own broad shoulders, relieving her of her burden.
"I told you to wait with the shuttle," said Leia, straightening her back and shoulders, wincing as her muscles spasmed. Oh, she was getting too old for these sorts of heroics. She missed politics. Before Ben, Han used to joke that it was the quickest path to the Dark Side, but it was a lot easier on the joints. "But I'm glad you came. Just tell me Pava listened to my orders at least."
"Pava's on the shuttle. C'mon."
Poe raised his head a fraction, squinting at Wexley. "Snap?" he said, sounding faintly incredulous.
Wexley grinned. "Hey, there, Commander."
"You all came."
"I don't leave my boys behind," said Leia.
Poe's eyelids drooped and, for the first time, his cracked lips curved in what was almost a smile. "You need a pilot."
Wexley snorted. "You wanna fly us out of here? I let go, and you go splat. You realize that, right? Exactly how many times did the Trandoshans hit you in the head?" Though his words were mocking, his tone sounded frayed.
Poe heard it, and wisely held his tongue. Either that, thought Leia, eyeing him more closely, or he'd finally slipped into unconsciousness. Just as well: they might move a little faster if Wexley simply carried him.
"Time to get out of here," she said.
* * * *
"And the map?" Statura inquired, once Leia had assured him that Poe's injuries, though extensive, were not immediately life-threatening.
"With the droid, BB-8," said Leia. Now that it was over, or nearly, and she was finally truly calm, she could appreciate the familiarity of the situation. At least this time there was no Death Star involved … yet. "So far as we know, it was able to avoid capture when the First Order sacked Tuanul." When my son sacked Tuanul. So much for calm.
Statura nodded. "According to our spies, the First Order is still looking for it."
"That's good. Now we just have to find it first."
"You don't sound optimistic."
"This is just my normal voice. But I am optimistic. It's a big galaxy, but…"
"'But,' General?" Statura prompted her after a moment's silence.
"But history repeats itself," said Leia softly, almost to herself. "Have our spies mentioned anything about someone called Finn?"
"Finn? No. Who is--?"
"I don't know," Leia said. "Dameron mentioned the name and he seemed concerned. I wonder if this Finn helped him while he was on Jakku. I'll ask him when he's awake again. In the meantime…"
"I'll contact our spies, tell them to be on the lookout."
"It could be a lead."
After closing the connection with Statura, Leia walked toward the front of the shuttle. She paused by the cot where Poe Dameron lay sleeping and looked down at him thoughtfully. He seemed so young. Strange to think that he was actually more than ten years older than she'd been when she was captured, tortured, and then rescued.
You all came, he had said with justified astonishment, for she'd warned him, before he'd agreed to this mission, that she would be forced to disavow him if he failed. She would not have had a choice.
And still he'd agreed.
And in the end, for good or ill, she'd decided that she did have a choice. Rather, she'd decided that there were things she could live with, and things she could not.
She brushed his matted black curls with her fingertips and felt no regret for her actions. Maybe she was getting sentimental in her old age, but she supposed that there were worse things to be. For whom did they fight, if not their children? And she'd known both of Poe's parents. A lifetime ago, it often seemed.
This one, Temmin Wexley, Jessika Pava, Leia thought. All her pilots: they all looked so frighteningly young.
And her son was just their age. How long had it been since someone - anyone - had shown him even the least bit of kindness? How long since it was possible for an act of kindness to have touched whatever light still existed inside him? Not knowing the answer to either question broke her heart.
I don't leave my boys behind.
But there was nothing she could do about it just then. She had to find BB-8, and the map, and her brother - who could be anywhere in this vast galaxy.
At least she'd gotten back one of her missing pieces.