Nomad City, Nkllon 9 ABY
Darkness rippled outside Nomad City in layers of creeping shadow. Luke’s thoughts mirrored the gloom’s mercurial restlessness. Fragments of recent memory, Intelligence reports, and intuition ghosted through his mind, refusing to coalesce into anything useful.
Steps rang on the deck plates behind him. “I know you’re not up here for the view,” Han said gruffly, stopping beside him. He folded his arms across his chest, eyes flickering over Luke’s reflection in the thick, cloudy transparisteel of the converted Dreadnaught’s small viewports.
“I can’t go with her.” Luke sighed, raising a hand to his eyes. He rubbed with his middle finger and thumb, trying to ease their tired sting. “I know you want me to. I know she wants me to. I want to. But I can’t.”
“Chewie will take care of her,” Han replied with bravado neither of them felt. “Once he gets her to Kashyyyk, the whole damn population will protect her.”
Luke accepted that for the form of forgiveness it was. “I know.”
“Where will you go?” He turned his head this time, examining Luke directly.
“Where?” Han frowned, his brow furrowing.
“According to Wedge, it’s where all the rumors put the mysterious Jedi Master everyone’s suddenly talking about.” Luke dropped his hand and finally met his friend’s gaze. “It’s not a coincidence, Han. The attacks on you, me, and Leia. The Empire suddenly rallying this year, regaining ground. Rumors of an old Master appearing from nowhere.” He gestured, a short, sharp jerk of his hand. “It’s connected – I know it is, I just don’t know how. Jomark is the only lead I have to figure it out.”
“Sure you should go chasin’ that down alone?” Han rubbed his chin. “Lando and I can —.”
“You have your own responsibilities,” Luke interrupted, shaking his head firmly. “Finding that smuggler has to be your top priority.” He’d never heard of Talon Karrde before but both Han and Lando believed he could be the NR’s ticket to getting the cargo runners it needed so badly. Luke trusted their judgment. “Besides, Jomark might end up being nothing more than a wild bantha chase.” He forced a smile. “I’ll be all right.”
“Yeah.” Han didn’t sound convinced. His lips pursed. “The Force isn’t helpin’ you any more than it is Leia, huh?” He rolled a hand in a circular motion. “As far as seein’ what’s comin’, I mean.”
Luke snorted, managing to keep the sound just the wry side of bitter. “Fey’lya’s been running his mouth again, I take it.”
Han grunted. “He is pretty stuck on his idea of you as a visionary, these days. I know it doesn’t work that way,” he groused. “I do. Hell, half the war would have gone different if it did. I just —,” he spread his hands in frustration. “You’re doin’ everything right. So’s Leia, and now there’s the twins…” He sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “Just doesn’t seem right that the Force is so damn quiet when it's supposed to be an ally.”
“We’re all servants of the Force,” Luke lifted one shoulder and dropped it in a resigned shrug. “It could be worse.” He gave Han a half-smile. “We’ll have lots of bedtime stories to tell the twins when they’re older.”
“Only if you live to tell them,” Han said pointedly, narrowing his eyes. “So don’t do anything stupid, Kid.”
“Hey,” Han’s mouth quirked into a crooked grin. “It’s me.”
Talon Karrde’s Estate, Iloh
Mara came back to her senses slowly, the world taking shape around her in disjointed bits. Scents registered first, as they always inexplicably did. Her scattered mind translated the citrus-salt breeze and thick amber aroma of expensive floor polish to safety and welcome back.
Touch was more sluggish to return but eventually she parsed the cool body-wood floor beneath her cheek and a warm, dearly loved weight on her left shoulder blade.
A soft click near her head made her scrape open gritty eyes. The golden light of the planet’s binary suns was gone, the diffuse artificial lighting of the studio gentle on her raw senses. Her sight resolved on a crystal goblet half full of naiana, just settling on the floor before her. The rich, ruby-hued wine rippled slightly as long, elegant fingers released their hold on the glass.
Mara wriggled her fingers, testing her bodily control, then inched a leaden arm out. “How long?” The words scratched out of her sore throat.
“Sixteen hours,” Karrde answered, stepping out of her limited line of sight.
Mara scrunched her nose in disgust when her hand came into view. It was streaked in chalk and charcoal. All the usual suspects were accounted for - inky black, firebird red, Imperial blue. There were traces of white near her wrist, at least. That was promising.
“Our Informant was quite effusive.”
Something in her chest tightened. “You didn’t -?”
“The fugue broke naturally.”
Relief hit her like the crest of a wave, leaving her lightheaded and dizzy. He hadn’t intervened. She hadn’t failed. Her fingertips connected with the cold, faceted base of the goblet, re-centering her, but she knew better than to try to move the glass yet.
A large, strong hand touched the back of her head - rested just an instant on her sweat-matted hair. “You did very well, Mara.”
Her insides went liquid, the hot rush of approval rightfully earned better than any drug. The feeling lingered as Karrde removed his hand, the rustle of fabric and the steady cadence of his steps marking his departure from the room. Mara let herself lay still, soaking in the high of it until the weight on her back shifted. Small pricks moved up her back as Minion walked from her left shoulder blade to the nape of her neck, his claws poking through the thin weave of her adesote tunic. His small snout prodded behind her right ear and he huffed expectantly, his breath tickling the delicate skin. Mara’s lips curved up.
“Impatient, iom unu?”
The little orange lizard wiggled and butted his head against her affectionately, a delighted cackle-purr starting in his belly at the sound of her voice.
Sixteen hours. He was probably starving. Withdrawing her fingers from the goblet, Mara cautiously pushed her weary body upright until she could fold her stiff legs beneath her.
Minion adjusted with her, scuttling over to nestle happily in his customary spot on her left shoulder. She curled her left hand up to scratch the bony ridges that flared at the back of his head as she carefully picked up and tipped back the dram of wine with her right. It had a sharp, invigorating bite that spread down her chest as she swallowed, making her feel brighter, more alert.
With that alertness, habit kicked in. Setting the goblet back down - one of the cleaning droids would come for it - she skimmed her gaze over the clari-crystalline walls and partitions scattered throughout the airy, high-ceilinged room. Wildly sketched diagrams and sprawling, uneven Aurebesh letters and numbers were plastered across every available surface. Karrde hadn’t been exaggerating about the Force’s effusiveness.
An old combination of curiosity, dread and hope shot through her, jitteriness blossoming under her skin like she’d downed too many stim pills. Reggie would be cleaning up the recordings already. Waiting for her with files and questions. There were patterns to find, research to do. The thought kicked any remaining sluggishness out of her body faster than an entire pot of high-test caf.
“Come on,” she said to Minion, pushing determinedly to her feet. “Time to work.”