Leia almost died when she was six years old.
Well, that was what her mother said anyway. Leia thought it was an unreasonable exaggeration, considering she’d only broken her ankle. The whole incident wasn’t really even her fault. Yes, her governess said the twisted, mossy staircase that ran down from the palace wall was off-limits. And yes, her mother had said exactly the same thing, and so had the chief of the palace guard. But it wasn’t Leia’s fault that the staircase was so interesting. That was where she could see the ghosts. If her governess, her mother, and the chief of the palace guard really didn’t want her there, they should’ve kept a better eye on her. Not that Leia was easy to keep an eye on. That was a point of pride.
One night, when everyone was distracted by a banquet, she climbed up the steps and went to talk to the ghosts. There were two of them, sort of blue and wibbly, like the transmission on the holophone when an ion storm passed overhead. One was a man and one was a woman, but both had long ponytails and wore almost identical robes. Leia was certain they would have such excellent stories, if only she could get close enough to speak with them.
But her governess had caught up to her by now. The old woman was standing at the foot of the stairs, shrieking for her to come down. Leia wanted to ignore her. The stairs weren’t that dangerous. But if she didn’t obey, she wouldn’t get dessert tonight. Maybe not even for the rest of the week. With a regretful sigh, she started backing down the steps, keeping her eyes on the blue ghosts above her. Really, she ought to have watched where she was going. Her foot slipped, and suddenly she was tumbling down down down.
Suddenly there were voices in her head, a man and a woman’s. “Use the Force!” they said. “You can do it!” Leia didn’t know what that meant, but she reached out for something, not with her hands but with her mind -- and she stopped, just like that. Right before she rolled over a big sharp stone.
Later, while the med-droid patched up her ankle, she told her mother and her governess about the ghosts. Her mother’s eyes widened and her face went pale as milk. Then her governess, who was from the Outer Rim, launched into a story about evil creatures who lured little girls away in the night, never to be heard from again.
Evil seemed like a bit of an overkill to Leia. After all, if not for the ghosts, she would never have gotten to ride in a medi-copter, and she’d wanted to do that for as long as she could remember. Still, she decided to stay away from the stairs just in case.
What happened was this: as soon as she saw the Grand Moff, she felt like tentaculous eel worms were crawling all over her. And she knew exactly what that felt like, because she’d gone swimming in the channel even though her mother, her governess, and the chief of the palace guard had forbidden it. For her trouble, she’d gotten several exotic parasites, and she had concluded that swimming in the channel was officially Not Worth It. For the past year, she had been violating every rule she could, and she’d been keeping a list in her diary: Worth It and Not Worth It. But that wasn’t the point. The point was, when she said Grand Moff Tarkin made her feel like tentaculous eel worms were crawling all over her, she knew what she was talking about.
He greeted her at the head of the receiving line. His skin was taut and translucent, and bones jutted out at odd angles, just like the body she’d seen pulled from Lake Aldera. (Watching body retrieval operations was also against the rules, but it was Worth It, partly because she’d never gotten caught.) She tried to curtsy so she wouldn’t have to touch him, but he caught her hand in his. Eel worms slithered down her spine.
“What a pretty little girl,” he said, patting her hand.
“I’m not little,” Leia said through gritted teeth, fighting back the urge to snatch her hand away. Being rude at diplomatic occasions was Not Worth It.
When he smiled, his face looked like a skull. “No,” he said thoughtfully, “I suppose not.” His gaze slithered down her body, lingering over the two small buds on her chest and the spot where her hips had just begun to curve. Not ripe yet, but in a few years… The words echoed in her mind, and Leia pulled her hand back with a startled gasp. How had she heard that?
But no, he must have said it aloud, because her mother placed her hands firmly on Leia’s shoulders. “Excuse me, Wilhuff, but my daughter and I must speak to the Count.” When she and Leia were out of earshot, she knelt and whispered, “Nasty man. Keep away from him.”
At dinner, Leia sat at the end of the table with the six Tarkin sons. Disgusting, she thought, surveying their skeletal faces. A woman had had sex with the Grand Moff six times? Even from a distance, she could see all the tendons sticking out from his spindly hands as he gripped the fork and knife. She shuddered.
Then she turned to the Moff’s sons. “You all have different mothers, right?” she asked conversationally. Six different women had slept with the Moff one time, she decided. That made much more sense.
Nobody answered her question, and none of the sons spoke with her for the rest of the meal. That meant she had definitely been rude at a diplomatic occasion, but Leia thought this time was Worth It -- if her parents even noticed, which they probably didn’t. Both of them seemed completely engrossed in their discussion with the Moff. Leia strained her ears toward the adults’ conversation, which she hoped was more interesting than whatever the sons were saying about their hunting trip.
“Surely the Empire has no use for so many weapons?” her mother was saying. “Development programs would pacify the Outer Rim better than the largest fleet ever could.”
“That’s terribly naive of you, Breha, don’t you think?” The Moff paused to study the mountains and the lake through the banquet hall’s picture windows. “Of course, living in a place like this, I can see how you might fall out of touch with the realities of the Empire.”
Suddenly he noticed Leia listening to them, and his beady eyes locked on her face. “Young Leia seems to have taken quite the interest in the proceedings.” He smiled, and his face turned into a skull again. “Do come join us. Never too young to learn.”
Her father shook his head infinitesimally. Leia knew what she was supposed to say: oh, but Wilmott hasn’t finished telling me about his rathtar hunting expedition! But the Moff had already snapped his fingers for the butler to pull up an extra chair beside him, and anyway, Leia could hear something else, like a transmission skipping in and out. Placate them for a few years longer...planet like this could never hope to resist… She wanted to know what it was, so she stuck out her chin and sat down next to the man who reminded her of dead bodies and eel worms.
“Allow me to catch you up on the conversation, Princess. Emperor Palpatine has invested rather a lot into building the Imperial Navy. Your parents feel these credits could be better spent on developmental aid to the Outer Rim. In truth, they fear the Empire, but as I keep trying to tell them, a peaceful planet such as Alderaan has no basis for concern.” Leia thought the Moff was speaking to her parents, but his gaze remained fixed on her. “Tell me, young princess, what do you think?”
Leia drew in a breath. So did her parents. She knew she was being tested, and she looked straight into the Moff’s eyes. Suddenly the transmission -- or whatever it was -- leaped into her mind with startling clarity.
“You’re lying,” she said, slowly and clearly. “You think that if the Core Worlds can be placated for long enough, the Emperor will be too strong to resist. And you think Alderaan will be the first to fall.”
The conversation fell silent. A knife scraped across a plate, and someone took a long, nervous gulp of wine. Leia had honed in on something else -- something about a weapon maybe -- but her concentration faded as soon as she felt the weight of the table’s attention on her.
“Forgive our daughter,” her father murmured. “She is young, and she has recently been ill.”
Leia opened her mouth to protest that she wasn’t sick and she knew exactly what she was talking about, but the terror on her mother’s face stopped the words in her throat.
The Moff looked pleased, triumphant even. “Your daughter is quite unusual, Bail. I look forward to seeing her in court. I will let the Emperor know she is one to watch.”
“Leia, you fear nothing, and I am immensely proud of that,” she said. The ghost of a smile crept across her face. “All your life, you have taken risks, and every time, you’ve come out ahead. Do you remember when you were six, and you fell down that staircase? You stopped just before you hit the rock that might have ended your life.”
Leia nodded, even though she barely remembered the fall. It was only one of a long string of escapes and misadventures.
Her mother sighed. “Perhaps it didn’t make as large an impression on you as it did me. You barely remember it, because you’ve always had this luck. I can’t count how many times I thought you were about to fall and break your neck, and you stopped just in time.”
On another day, Leia would have rolled her eyes. Today, though, her mother’s unease permeated the room. Leia drew her knees up to her chest and waited to hear whatever came next.
Her mother scooted in closer and lay a hand on Leia’s knee. “Leia, some things -- some people -- you have to be afraid of.”
Leia swallowed. “The Grand Moff?” she asked, remembering the cold eyes in his skeletal face.
Her mother nodded. “What he said about the Emperor watching you is true. Promise me you’ll be more careful. If something happened to you --”
“What would happen?” Leia asked, her curiosity flaring.
“Not an adventure,” her mother snapped, rising to her feet. Now she loomed over Leia, her eyes more intense than she’d ever seen. “People who defy the Emperor the way you did die. And before they die, they’re tortured. They rot in prison for years and no one knows what happened to them. Do you have any idea what that would do to me, if that happened to you?”
Leia shivered, even though a warm breeze blew through the open window. Her mother’s desperation billowed through the room, even though Leia couldn’t say how she felt it. It took a long time for her to find her voice.
“I promise,” she said, and her mother hugged her for a very long time.
Afterward, she tossed and turned in her bed. Endlessly testing the rules seemed childish now, and she deleted the list of Worth It and Not Worth It from her diary. Still, she couldn’t sleep. Grand Moff Tarkin was scary because he did bad things. Didn’t that mean it was important to disobey him? And if nobody defied the Empire, then what would happen to Alderaan? She lay awake until the sun’s first rays pierced the sky.
After the incident with the Grand Moff, she started hearing more things that people hadn’t said. Sometimes it was useful. She’d gotten quite good at gift-giving, and slipping away from the palace guard got easier every day. But she was sure listening to people’s thoughts was against the rules. Not the stupid ones that she used to break just for fun, but real rules, like not peering in people’s bedroom windows in the middle of the night. Worse, she was sure nobody else could do it.
Or maybe everyone could. Maybe it was like getting her period, a coming-of-age nuisance she’d have to get used to if she wanted to call herself a woman. Perhaps it happened to every girl around her thirteenth birthday, and all she had to do was tell her mother, and then she’d get way more information than she’d ever wanted. Hopefully without anatomical diagrams this time.
“Leia, you’ve drifted off again,” her mother said, and Leia sat up straighter in her chair. Her official debut into public life was coming soon, so she steeled herself for a reminder about table manners. Instead her mother peered at her with concern. “You’ve seemed distracted lately. Are you alright?”
“Sometimes I think I can hear people’s thoughts,” she blurted.
Her parents’ eyes met over the table, and Leia felt a blush creeping along her cheekbones. If this was girl business, she shouldn’t have brought it up in front of her father. She stole a glance at him and got a stray thought. Kenobi said this could happen. What in the heavens did that mean?
She almost asked, but then her mother cleared her throat. “Sometimes our brains process information so quickly we’re not conscious of it. You are very adept at reading body language and facial expressions. I’m not surprised you feel as if you can sense people’s thoughts.”
Leia wanted to believe that explanation, but she couldn’t. Even though her mother looked perfectly calm, Leia knew she didn’t feel that way on the inside. “If that’s true, how do I know you’re frightened now?” she asked.
Her mother’s silverware trembled in her hands for a moment. Then she flexed her fingers and took a shaky breath. “If you must know, Leia, a great many frightening things have happened in our galaxy of late. You will be ready to hear about them soon I think, but not yet.”
Leia felt some of the tension draining out of her shoulders. Her parents were worried. She’d noticed. That was all. Then her mother squeezed her hand, and Leia got another fragment. Goddess, please don’t ever let Vader find her. She looked up sharply, but her mother had already turned back to her plate.
Maybe that was why her father had a book about mental illness in his library. She curled up in a chair and started to read. Onset is characterized by delusions of grandeur or persecution. The subject may believe they possess special powers, or that they are being pursued by a fantastical adversary. It sounded just like her. She closed the data file hastily and sank into her father’s leather chair, trying to breathe slowly. In and out, count to ten, just like her mother did every time she caught Leia some place she wasn’t supposed to be.
It didn’t work. The more she concentrated, the louder the world got. The cook was worried about tomorrow’s feast, the gardener felt underappreciated, the chief of the palace guard wondered if her father’s steward could ever love him.
Her mother found her in the library late that night, slumped over the data pad in her father’s leather chair. Her head was pounding, and a decidedly un-princess-like bit of drool had escaped from her lips, just like when she’d stolen all that honey-wine at the last feast.
Her mother tugged the data pad out of her grasp before Leia could stop her. She arched her perfectly manicured eyebrows, looking every inch the queen. “You are not insane,” she said, crossing her arms over her chest.
“I know,” Leia said. She stuck out her chin, bracing for a good argument. “I can hear people’s thoughts. I was concentrating, and I heard the gardener think -- “
“Think what?” her mother snapped.
Leia licked her lips. The afternoon felt like a dream already. “She thinks we take her for granted,” she said. It sounded awfully anticlimactic, even to her.
“And you have seen or heard nothing in the past week that would cause you to believe that?” her mother asked. Her perfect eyebrows arched even higher.
Leia looked down at the floor. “I might have seen the budget memo where she asked for a raise. But that doesn’t matter,” she continued defiantly. “I also happen to know the cook is worried about the feast.”
“A revelation for the ages, I am sure.” Her mother settled into the chair next to Leia. “What else? Dazzle me with your clairvoyance.”
Leia decided not to mention the love affair between the steward and the chief of the palace guard. It seemed private, and anyway, she didn’t care for where this conversation was going.
“Look me in the eye,” her mother demanded, and Leia dragged her gaze from the floor. “You are not insane. Neither do you have special powers. But you are becoming spoiled.”
“I am not!” Her cheeks felt hot, and worse, she felt tears prickling at the corners of her eyes. Spoiled was her mother’s gravest insult, the worst thing a princess could possibly be.
“You most certainly are,” her mother said firmly. “You lead a life of great wealth and privilege, yet you must insist you have magical powers as well? I am disappointed in you, Leia. You are far too old for such childish fantasies.”
“So Darth Vader isn’t looking for me?” she asked, feeling oddly deflated. Darting around the galaxy and trying to evade Imperial patrols would have been such a good adventure, now that she thought about it.
“He doesn’t even know you exist,” her mother said matter-of-factly. “Though if you continue with these outlandish mind reading tales, I am certain he would take an interest.”
I hate doing this, but one day she will understand why I had to. The words echoed in Leia’s head, just as loudly as if her mother had spoken them. She felt like she was standing on the edge of some great revelation, and if she just pushed a little harder -- but no, there was nothing else to know. She wasn’t a genius or a wizard; she just knew that her mother didn’t like speaking to her so harshly.
Leia nodded dumbly as shame washed over her. She was very lucky already; she didn’t need to ask for more.
Her mother’s face softened, and she squeezed Leia’s hand. “Your compassion will make you an excellent ruler, Leia - and more than that, a good person. It is a gift, even if it’s not the kind you thought it was.”
Leia brightened. “Can I set Father’s steward up with the chief of the palace guard?”
“Absolutely not,” her mother said, looking alarmed. Then she sighed. “But I suppose you’ll only do it anyway, so tell me what you have in mind and I’ll help you make it at least ten times more subtle.”
She could count what she knew about them on one hand: one, her mother loved her very much. Two, she died shortly after Leia was born. Three, the father wasn’t “in the picture” for reasons her parents insisted were excellent but wouldn’t specify. After that, the facts got sketchy. Number four was that her mother had curly brown hair and dark eyes, but Leia only saw that in her dreams, so she wasn’t sure if it counted as a fact or not. Five was that her mother was very sad, but Leia wasn’t sure how she knew that, and she never told anyone in case it constituted childish delusions of grandeur.
She had made other attempts to learn more, of course. She was seven the first time she remembered seriously asking. At her eleventh birthday party, she’d caused an awkward public scene. When she was thirteen, she tried bribing her father with his favorite cakes and getting the steward to pour him too much wine. None of it had worked. Her parents usually turned the conversation to a discussion of how even smart, accomplished women could ruin their lives by getting involved with the wrong man. She had many data files and pamphlets warning her about the early signs of jealousy, obsession, and abusive behavior. She also had very little interest in romance, though she swore to herself and her parents it was because she was too busy with the Rebellion.
Now that she was seventeen, a member of the Imperial Senate, and a rebel spy, she was finished letting her parents change the subject. She was old enough, and she had a right to know.
There was just one problem: on the day she planned to confront her parents, she was in jail.
Or, in the parlance of the Empire, a secure but comfortable holding facility. She’d known it was going to happen, of course. It was Cassian Andor’s plan. Mon Mothma called in an anonymous tip during an innocuous diplomatic mission. Storm troopers dragged her off in handcuffs, public outrage swelled, and meanwhile, there was no evidence to find. Now the Empire would be afraid to arrest her again, even if they had genuine suspicions. It was an excellent plan, if only it hadn’t come to fruition on the one day of the month she’d been able to schedule a quiet dinner with both her parents.
Three days later, she was sitting next to her father in his study on the Tantive IV. They were both a little drunk on Corellian brandy. It wasn’t the first time, but the equality still dazzled her. He’d thrown an arm around her, proud that she’d survived four days of fifteen-hour interrogations without letting anything slip. She drew back to look at him.
“Have I earned the knowledge of my birth parents yet?” she burst out, the words coming out more caustically than she’d meant them.
Her father’s face paled. “It’s not a question of earning, Leia --”
“Then what is it?” she snapped, all the exhaustion and frustration of the last four days bubbling to the surface. “I am a member of the Senate, a rebel operative, capable of withstanding interrogation --” She cut herself off, took a deep breath, and squeezed her father’s hand. “I know the truth is terrible. It has to be, if you haven’t told me. But I can handle it.”
Her father took her by the shoulders. “Do you trust me with your life?”
“That’s not even a question,” Leia said, her anger vanishing suddenly. What she and her parents did for the Rebellion risked each other’s lives every day; none of it would have been possible without trust.
Her father’s mouth opened and closed. Diplomatic training notwithstanding, he was struggling for words. “Then however hard it must be, I must ask you to trust me. What you want to know - it would risk your life. More than you could even imagine. I can’t do that, Leia.”
Leia’s head spun. If her father was dangerous, that meant he was alive. And if he could pose a danger to her, that meant he was someone she could come into contact with. Someone she already had come into contact with, maybe. Bile rose in her throat. She squeezed her hand more tightly around her shot glass, willing the trembling to stop.
“It’s Grand Moff Tarkin, isn’t it?” she said when she thought her voice would be steady. She remembered the way she’d felt when she’d seen him for the first time, like eel worms were slithering across her skin. How terrified her mother had been that she would antagonize him -- suddenly it all made sense. She swallowed a shot and looked back at her father. Her true father.
“I can take it,” she said. “You can tell me.”
His lips twitched once, then again. His face turned red. Leia promised herself she wouldn’t vomit when she heard the truth. And then her father began to laugh. Really laugh, so hard he nearly doubled over.
“I swear to you, Leia, Wilhuff Tarkin is not your father,” he said when he recovered enough to speak.
“Don’t lie to me,” Leia snapped. “I’ll get a DNA sample.”
That brought her father up short. “Promise me right now you will never do anything to put yourself in contact with that man’s DNA.”
Leia felt herself blushing down to the roots of her hair. “I wasn’t going to have sex with him,” she sputtered. “What were you thinking?”
Her father only shook his head and poured them each another drink. Leia could keep pushing the topic, she knew. She might even get an answer -- but she’d have to erase the grin still playing around the edges of her father’s lips and the laughter lingering in the air. Being together like this was rare, and for once, she didn’t want to fight.
Anyway, there would be time for questions after the war.
This was more than just wishful thinking, she was sure. Meeting Luke made something tug at her mind, like an itch that had to be scratched. No, worse than that. It was an itch that she couldn’t scratch, because she had no idea where or how to start.
Right now, she was lying on her stomach on the Falcon’s deck, watching Han work in the maintenance...hatch? Pit? She didn’t know what you called an opening in the floor of a malfunctioning freighter. It was yet another question for her new life as a rebel soldier. A few hours ago, she had awakened to alarms wailing, Chewie howling, and Han pounding on her door.
“We need all hands on deck for this one, princess, so skip the hair and makeup routine!”
Leia had flung open the door wearing the tight shorts thin t-shirt she’d been sleeping in. Han had wasted at least ten precious seconds ogling her before he spit out a stream of technical jargon that she translated roughly as the ship is broken and we’re about to die.
Now the emergency had passed, and she had nothing to do but hand tools to Han when he asked for them. It gave her a lot of time to think -- something she’d been trying to avoid since the Death Star. What she was thinking about was so ridiculous she could barely admit it to herself.
Luke was a Jedi, and so was Obi-Wan Kenobi. When she was thirteen and convinced she could read minds, her father had looked at her and thought Kenobi warned me this could happen. Maybe it hadn’t been a childish fantasy. Maybe she was a Jedi too. It was such a thin sliver of evidence to go on, but somehow it fit -- and anyway, what would be the harm in testing it?
She eyed the hydrospanner on the floor, just outside her reach. Could she make it come to her? Was there a special gesture, a secret incantation? Feeling silly, she stretched her open hand toward it. She tried to reach out with her mind too, the way she had all those times when she was about to fall. Nothing happened, except that she jumped when Han popped out of the maintenance hatch to ask if she’d hand him the spanner already.
He smirked. “What’s the holdup, princess? Trying to summon it with the power of your mind?”
Heat flushed across Leia’s face. “Of course not,” she said, handing him the wrench carefully. Their fingers brushed together, sending a fresh wave of warmth through Leia’s body.
Han smirked harder, which she hadn’t known was possible. “Don’t you think being a princess and a Jedi is asking the galaxy for a little much, Your Highness?”
Leia blurted the first thing that came to mind to cover her embarrassment. “If you must know, I was thinking about my parents. My biological parents.” It wasn’t really a lie. They were the only people who could answer the questions swirling through her mind.
She wasn’t prepared for the way Han’s face softened. “You alright, Princess?”
“For a given value of the word, I suppose.” She hadn’t murdered anyone or surrendered to a bottomless pit of despair, even though she wanted to do both.
Han swallowed. “If you need to talk --”
He nodded once, quick and sharp. After an awkward beat, he disappeared into the maintenance hatch again. Leia peered down after him, tapping her fingers on the metal decking.
“Han, where are your parents?” she asked. She wouldn’t have asked if his face weren’t half-obscured by a tangle of wires, but she wanted to know. Everyone came from somewhere, but Han never spoke about his past. It was as if he’d sprung into being fully formed.
He didn’t look up from his work. “Same as yours, princess. Died when I was young.”
Adopted, she thought. Maybe she and Han had something in common after all.
“Who raised you?” she asked. Chewie, maybe? She’d never been sure who adopted whom.
Han glanced up with a shrug. “Nobody. The streets. Anything else you wanna know?”
Questions flooded Leia’s mind: How old were you? What did you eat? Where did you sleep? But she knew better than to ask.
“No,” she said, and Han went back to fiddling with his wires. “Well, yes,” she amended, and he looked up with a sigh.
“Alright, what?” he asked, holding his hands out expansively. Leia took a moment to appreciate exactly how uncomfortable he was, and he was still doing this for her.
“Were there -- I mean, are there -- questions you wish you could ask? If they were here now?” Now it was her turn to look away and fiddle with a piece of wire.
“No.” Han popped up from the maintenance hatch again, and Leia decided to be brave and meet his gaze. “Take it from someone who’s been there, princess, don’t go asking questions too many questions. You might not like the answers.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” she snapped, an angry flush spreading across her cheekbones.
“I don’t know.” He drew all the syllables out, long and exasperated. “All I’m saying is, two people who loved you took you in. That’s more than a lot of us get. Maybe you don’t need to know more than that.”
He disappeared into the maintenance hatch again, leaving her alone to toy with her wire. No one in the galaxy could be more different from her mother than Han Solo -- but here he was, giving her exactly the same advice. Two people who wanted a child gave her a home. Before they died, the taught her that family didn’t have to be defined by blood. Han was right; that was as much as she needed to know.
“You sure you’re alright, Princess?” he asked, peering out to grab yet another mysterious tool.
For the first time in ages, she felt a smile tugging at the corner of her mouth.
“Thank you,” she said, and she leaned down to kiss him on the cheek.