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On the Edge of the Devil's Backbone

Chapter Text

Ten years ago
Zardossa Stix, Outer Rim Territories

Hera Syndulla woke to chaos.

The colony’s emergency alarm was blaring, streaks of light flashing through the fluttering curtains over the room’s window. All of that came secondary to her little cousin Xiaan, who was sitting on Hera’s chest and pulling at the front of her nightshirt, shouting, “Hera, Hera, Hera!” at the top of her lungs. Mixed with the sound of someone else screaming and the baby crying, it was nearly enough to drown out the klaxon.

Hera scrambled upright, lifting Xiaan off her chest. She took in the rest of the room with a glance – Koyi pushed into a corner with his arms over his head, wailing uncontrollably, Ojeda silent but terrified as she tried to coax the baby into silence, Doriah somehow still asleep. Hera’s other two cousins were nowhere in sight.

Xiaan paused to breathe, then opened her mouth again, getting “Her –” out before Hera said, “I’m up, Xi!” as if that wasn’t obvious. “Where’s your brother?”

“Don’t know,” Xiaan said, then tried to hide her face in Hera’s stomach.

Hera wrestled her off and flung the blankets aside. The eight children in the Syndulla household – her, her aunt Seku’s Nury and Xiaan, her aunt Aleema’s three, and her aunt Clotho’s Doriah and baby Lika – had all been sleeping in one room, sharing the beds and blankets the way Hera vaguely remembered doing years earlier during the Separatist occupation of Ryloth. Only the Separatists were no more and they weren’t on Ryloth, they were in the Twi’lek colony on Zardossa Stix, and there shouldn’t have been an enemy.

Hera more or less fell out of bed, but that was where she wanted to be anyway. She dragged the blaster case out from under the bed, her fingers steady as she worked the combination on the lock. It snapped open and she pulled out the two blaster pistols inside, which made Xiaan squeak a little in worry.

“It’ll be all right,” Hera said automatically, scrambling to her feet with a pistol held in each hand. “Stay here. I’m going to find out what’s going on.”

The tiled floor was cool under her bare feet as she made her way to the doorway, which was blocked off from the atrium with a beaded curtain. Her mother and her aunts, wherever they were, couldn’t have missed the racket the cousins were making, even with the emergency alarm going off. Hera thrust the curtain aside and stepped out into the atrium, glancing down at the blasters in her hands to make sure that the safeties were still on.

“Mama?” she yelled. “Auntie Seku? Auntie Aleema?”

When there was no response, she ran to the front door, pulling it open to peer out into the street. People were running past, some of them carrying hand blasters and rifles, others children or possessions. Lights passed over the street, and Hera looked up automatically, squinting against the unexpected brightness to make out the shape of several Imperial gunships passing by overhead. They were shining searchlights down into the colony, and –

The sound of blasterfire made her jump back, her hands tightening on her blaster grips. Hera couldn’t see where the shooting was coming from, but she could hear it even over the sound of the klaxon, the rat-a-tat-tat of a repeating blaster that she hadn’t heard since the Separatist occupation during the Clone Wars.

“Hera!”

She spun, starting to raise her blasters before she recognized the speaker. Her aunt slammed the door shut with a hand over Hera’s shoulder; Hera stepped hastily aside so that she could bolt it. “Auntie, what’s –”

“Go get your cousins,” Aleema Syndulla said. She was a small, deceptively delicate Twi’lek woman with the same orange skin as her brother, Hera’s father; she had one blind eye from a Separatist concussion grenade during the Clone Wars. She also had a blaster rifle slung over her shoulder.

“Where’s Mama?”

“With Seku getting the speeder. Go get your cousins, Hera!”

Hera didn’t need to be told a third time. She turned and ran back to the bedroom, which wasn’t any more or less chaotic than it had been the last time she had seen it, save that Xiaan was now draped over Doriah’s still-sleeping frame and shouting his name instead of Hera’s. Doriah had rolled over onto his stomach, his face buried in his pillow.

Hera shoved one of her blasters through the band of her thin sleeping pants, then scooped Xiaan up off him with her free hand and set her aside before kicking Doriah in the ribs. “Get up!”

“Go ‘way,” he muttered. He was the next oldest of the Syndulla cousins after Hera; suddenly all the jokes she had made about his being able to sleep through anything seemed a lot less funny.

Four-year-old Koyi finally stopped screaming as Aleema followed Hera into the room. He flung himself towards her, nearly bowling over his sister and the baby in his single-minded approach, and wrapped himself around her leg. “Mama!”

Ojeda, carrying the baby, followed him more sedately. Her pale blue face was almost ashen with terror, but her voice was mostly steady as she said, “Mama, I can’t find Ilar –”

Doriah finally condescended to open his eyes as Hera kicked him again, then either saw the blaster in her hand or heard the alarm. “What the –” He scrambled to his feet, staring around before Hera shoved one of her blasters at him. He took it automatically, looking between Hera and Aleema.

“Get your cousins out through the back,” Aleema snapped, disentangling her son from her leg. “Ilar and Nury are with Seku and your mother, Hera –”

Blasterfire sounded, too near for comfort, and Koyi and the baby both screamed in piercing symphony. Still blinking back sleep, Doriah shoved his blaster through the band of his sleeping pants and leaned down to scoop up his baby sister from Ojeda’s arms, holding her against his shoulder. Xiaan grabbed at his free hand.

“Aren’t you coming, Mama?” Ojeda asked, her voice tight from strain.

“I’ll be right behind you,” Aleema promised. She stooped to hug Ojeda and Koyi briefly, then pulled her rifle off her shoulder. “Go!”

Ojeda caught her brother’s hand and pulled him after her, following Doriah out into the atrium and through the connecting rooms to the door at the back of the house. Hera brought up the rear, glancing back over her shoulder at her aunt, who was standing by the front window with her rifle held in both hands. The house in the colony was nowhere near the size of the Lessu townhouse or the Syndulla villa in the Rylothean countryside; from the back door you could see straight through the kitchen to the atrium.

“Hera, come on!” Doriah said.

She shook her head. “I’ll be right behind you. Doriah, take the others and run!”

He looked like he was about to protest. “Hera, you’re crazy!” he said, then shook his head and added, “Come on!” to the younger cousins, herding them in front of him out into the little kitchen garden.

Hera waited until they were all out of the house, then pulled the door shut and bolted it. She ran back through the house to the atrium, where her aunt jerked around in surprise at the sound of her footsteps.

“What are you doing here?”

“Whatever you’re doing, Auntie, you’re not doing it alone,” Hera said determinedly. She clicked the safety off her blaster, surprised to find that her hands weren’t shaking. “That’s not how we do things in this family.”

“Gods, you sound so much like your father sometimes –”

Blasterfire sounded so close to the house that Hera flinched, flashing through the curtain over the window. Aleema spun, just as something came flying through the window and bounced off the back wall.

Hera stared at it blankly, not understanding, and was still staring when Aleema caught her around the waist and threw her down, covering Hera’s body with her own as the thing exploded.

The world went white.

Hera didn’t know if she screamed or not, but she felt the tear in her throat as if she had. Her aunt was a heavy weight on top of her, unmoving, and Hera gasped her name, or tried to, but she couldn’t hear the words, even though she could feel them vibrate in her throat. She could see sparks dancing in her vision, flashing in and out, but after a moment she was able to make out the scuffed tile floor in front of her. It was dotted with red and Hera stared at it blankly, not understanding where that had come from; none of the floors in the house were painted or decorated with mosaic tiles the way they would have been back on Ryloth. Then another spot of red appeared, and another; Hera could feel something hot and went trickling down over the curve of her skull, down one of her lekku. Blood.

Her aunt still hadn’t moved.

Hera managed to squirm out from beneath her, smearing blood across the tiles as she did so. She put a hand automatically to her forehead, searching for its source, but she didn’t seem to be hurt. Getting up on her knees, she grabbed at Aleema’s shoulder, but her aunt’s head flopped limply back and forth as Hera shook her – then Hera saw the glittering fragments of metal embedded in her back, in her skull, blood staining the nightshirt she was wearing, running down over her lekku to pool on the tile.

“Aunt Aleema?” Hera said blankly, the words humming in her throat. She shook her aunt’s shoulder. “Auntie!”

She felt rather than saw the front door explode, ducking and covering her head as light flashed before her eyes. Without thinking, she dove for the blaster she had dropped when her aunt had thrown her down, grabbing for it with both hands, but before she could do more than that the first stormtrooper appeared in the doorway. Hera fired, but the shot went wild, blackening the wall by his head. He kicked the blaster out of her hands, and Hera yelled and leapt at him, her fingers curved to rake across his armor before he slammed his blaster rifle across her face.

Hera screamed, or thought she did; she hit the floor with a thud that she could feel in her bones, pain splitting her face. She could taste blood in her mouth, her vision and hearing going in and out.

“We’ve got a live one!” the stormtrooper shouted over his shoulder. He looked down at her, nudging her with one boot, and Hera groaned and tried to push herself upright. His foot came down hard on her stomach, holding her in place, and she wrapped her hands around his ankle, snarling a curse at him. “It’s a little girl!”

More stormtroopers poured through the door, moving through the house with their blasters raised. The last one in had the colored shoulder pauldron of an officer; she came over and toed Aleema’s body, rolling her over so that her one good eye stared sightlessly up at the ceiling. “This one’s dead,” the officer observed. She pulled a datapad out of her belt and glanced at it, then at Aleema again. “Aleema Syndulla. Blast!”

“What are you doing here?” Hera gasped as the officer came over to look down at her. “This colony is peaceful! The Empire has no grounds –”

“And you must be Hera.” The officer leaned down, grabbed one of Hera’s lekku, and hauled her to her feet as the stormtrooper standing on top of her stepped back quickly. Hera screamed in mingled pain and outrage, clawing at the woman’s armored arm before the stormtrooper backhanded her. There was a sharp explosion of pain and an audible crunch; a moment later, blinking back tears of agony, Hera felt blood on her upper lip.

The officer gripped her by the chin, some of Hera’s blood dripping onto her white knuckle plate. “You belong to the Empire, little tailhead,” she said. “And the Empire will do as it pleases to whom it pleases.”

She released Hera with a jerk and said to the other stormtrooper, “Cuff her and put her with the others on the list.”

*

Hera was hauled out into the street with her arms jerked painfully around her back, binders on her wrists. She could feel blood running down her face where her forehead had been cut open by the blaster barrel and from her nose; the desert sand was cool against her bare feet and she kept stumbling.

Everywhere she looked, there were bodies – some stormtroopers, but mostly Twi’leks, their brilliant skin tones muted in the shadows of night. Blasterfire sounded both near and fire, and Hera smelled smoke – some of the houses were burning. Twi’lek vision was sharp, and Hera didn’t need the lights on the ends of the stormtroopers’ blaster barrels or from the gunships passing by overhead to see the faces of some of the dead Twi’leks. She didn’t know everyone in the colony, but she knew everyone who lived on her street, and she recognized some of them among the dead.

Her head was pounding and her broken nose ached badly, blood clotting on her lips, mouth, and chin until Hera couldn’t taste anything but iron. The stormtroopers holding her shoved her along, past other Twi’leks in custody. She could hear screaming, a man keening grief and women’s voices rising in agitation, children crying frantically. Hera was resisting the urge to do the same.

She was marched into the colony forum, where there were a number of other Twi’leks sitting or kneeling on the pavement. The stormtroopers pushed her down and Hera fell rather than sat, trying and failing to catch herself with her cuffed hands. She hit the ground so hard that it jarred her from head to toe, scraping painfully across her shoulder and knees.

For a moment she just lay there, blinking back tears of pain. Something in the colony was burning, but she couldn’t tell what; she could just see the flames licking at the sky, drifting smoke blotting out the other moons and the curve of the massive planet around which Zardossa Stix – itself a moon – orbited.

Mama got away, she told herself. Alecto Syndulla and her sister-in-law Seku must have gotten away with Doriah and the other cousins. They had gotten away, and they would go back to Ryloth and get Hera’s father. Cham Syndulla would never allow this to go unpunished. He would show the Empire what it meant to tangle with the Syndullas, with Ryloth –

Someone caught at her shoulder. Hera flinched reflexively, then heard a half-familiar voice say in Twi’leki, “Here, child, easy – Mother of Mountains, it’s Syndulla’s daughter!”

“Hera,” she said through her teeth as the man who had spoken helped her to a sitting position. He was a red-skinned Twi’lek male whom she knew she had seen before, either at the salutatio in her father’s house back on Ryloth or at her mother’s here in the colony. He had a rapidly darkening black eye, but unlike Hera’s, his hands were cuffed in front of him.

“Hera,” he repeated. “I’m Janon.”

“Nice to meet you,” Hera said, because she didn’t know what else to say. “Are you –” She looked around at the other prisoners in the forum, all Twi’leks, all in binders. Some of them had heard Janon’s cry of surprise and were looking over at her. Many of them, Hera realized with dismay, she knew – clients of her father’s, members of other curial families, a few more distant Syndulla cousins. “Why are we all here?”

“I don’t know,” Janon admitted. He looked at her with concern. “Where are your mother and your aunts?”

Hera swallowed. “Aunt Aleema’s dead. I don’t know where my mother and Aunt Seku are. I think they got away. I hope they got away.” She braced her hands behind her on the pavement and drew her knees up, leaning her forehead against them. Her head and nose were still throbbing, but Hera didn’t think that there was a single part of her body that didn’t hurt right now.

It wasn’t the first time that anyone had ever hurt her, but the other times had all been playground fights – she had never been struck by an adult before. And Aunt Aleema – she didn’t want to think about Aunt Aleema.

She didn’t know how long she sat there, watching stormtroopers bring other handcuffed Twi’leks into the forum and deposit them there under the watchful eyes of the guards and the walker stationed near the marketplace. The sky was just beginning to lighten to dawn when Hera heard someone shout her name.

Hera raised her head, her lekku slipping back over her shoulder, and saw her mother.

Alecto Syndulla was being escorted between two stormtroopers, her hands in binders in front of her. There was a scorch mark in her sleeve from a too-close blaster bolt, but otherwise she looked unhurt. Behind her, more stormtroopers were bringing her sister-in-law Seku Syndulla and Hera’s cousins into the forum. Even the little ones were in binders.

There was a low, rising murmur of dismay from the other Twi’leks in the forum.

“Mama,” she whispered.

Her mother said something to the stormtroopers that Hera couldn’t make out; they looked at each other for a moment, then turned to bring her and the others towards Hera, instead of just depositing them at the nearest edge of the group. They released Alecto with a shove and she dropped down to the ground next to Hera, reaching for her with her cuffed hands.

“Mama,” Hera gasped, and leaned against her, shuddering. She couldn’t hug her, not with her hands in binders behind her, but she could do this, at least.

“Hera, baby –” Her mother stroked her hands over Hera’s lekku, soothing, then said, “You’re hurt. Are you –”

“Auntie Aleema’s dead,” Hera mumbled. “There was – she tried to protect me.”

“Mama’s dead?” Ojeda whispered, settling gingerly onto the pavement beside them. Her brothers huddled beside her, the way Nury and Xiaan were doing with their mother. Doriah sat a little ways away from them, alone. His face was set in lines of shock and grief.

“How?” Seku asked in her soft voice. She didn’t look much like her sister, a little too angular to be pretty the way that Aleema was – had been. Like Hera, her hands had been cuffed behind her back; there was blood on her face.

“Does it matter?” Alecto said sharply.

“There was a fragmentation grenade,” Hera said. Shock seemed to have wiped all the emotion from her voice; it sounded tinny and distant to her ears, like a holotransmission. A bad one. “She knocked me down, she –”

“Oh,” Seku said after a moment, her voice utterly blank. She put her head down, her shoulders shaking. Xiaan leaned heavily against her, her head against her mother’s shoulder.

Hera wanted to do the same with her mother, but she was the oldest of the cousins, and there was someone missing. “Where’s the baby?” she asked Doriah. “Where’s Lika?”

She felt her mother tense against her. “Hera –”

“She’s dead,” Doriah said without looking up. “They killed her. They – they said it wasn’t worth wasting a blaster bolt on a baby, so they just –” He caught his breath on a sob. “What am I going to tell my mother?”

Hera’s aunt, Alecto’s sister Clotho, had stayed behind on Ryloth with Cham Syndulla’s freedom fighters. She was clan, but she wasn’t in Cham’s immediate family; he couldn’t make her go to the colony the way he had his sisters and his wife.

“It’s not your fault,” Alecto told him firmly. She closed her hands on Hera’s shoulder, pulling Hera against her. Hera looked away from Doriah and closed her eyes, breathing in her mother’s familiar scent.

“Feels like it,” she heard Doriah say.

They all sat there in silence. Hera felt the sun rise eventually, a slight wash of heat warming the cold night air. The sound of blasterfire had died to nothing, but she was aware of gunships going by overhead, walkers clunking through the streets. She didn’t look up; she didn’t want to see.

A little while later, she heard her mother’s soft gasp and finally opened her eyes.

It was full dawn now. In the daylight the damage to the colony was more obvious, carbon scoring from blaster hits on walls and columns, smoke rising from several places. Hera could see walkers towering over the one-story buildings that made up most of the colony, still making their slow, deliberate way around. Stormtroopers were all around the forum, watching the prisoners with their hands on their blasters. At least there weren’t any bodies here – or at least, none that Hera could see from where she was sitting.

And there was a monster standing in front of them.

Hera didn’t know how else to describe what she saw. He was a massive figure in black armor, a heavy cloak hanging from his shoulders and a mask and helmet that completely covered his face. Hera stared at him, unable to look away, because as grotesque as he was, there was something mesmerizing about him – terrifying, but mesmerizing.

“Darth Vader,” Aunt Seku said softly. “What’s he doing here?”

Alecto turned her head slightly to frown at her sister-in-law, but didn’t respond.

There were two other Imperial officers with Vader, the female stormtrooper officer who had hit Hera back in the house and a man wearing a gray ISB uniform. While Vader stood still, considering them silently, the ISB agent walked back and forth in front of the seated prisoners, his gaze skating across them. He paused near Hera and her family, his gaze heavy on Hera, then moved on. After a few minutes of this he returned to Vader’s side.

“You know why you are here,” Vader said. He had a deep, somewhat mechanical voice that was made even more horrifying by the fact that it didn’t, quite, sound completely unnatural. “You know who is at fault.”

Alecto’s glare could have cut through solid durasteel. “This is a peaceful colony, settled under the parameters laid out by the Imperial Senate two years ago,” she said; Vader’s head swung around towards her. “No one here has violated any Imperial law. What do you think we’ve done, my lord, for the Empire to treat its own citizens so poorly?”

There was a mocking note to her voice that made Hera shift uncomfortably on the ground beside her. She knew that her parents – before they had argued and her father had sent the family away – had opposed the Empire’s increasingly authoritarian actions on Ryloth, but then it had just been politics, long hours in the Curia and late night holocalls to Senator Taa on Coruscant and Cham Syndulla’s other offworld contacts. Hera had walked in on her parents arguing about it more than once. But the Imperial presence on Ryloth wasn’t like the Clone Wars had been; there hadn’t been battle droids kicking down doors and dragging people out of their homes or star destroyers firebombing villages from orbit. They were just there.

“You are not citizens of the Empire,” said the female officer. She had taken her helmet off, revealing light brown skin and short-cropped black hair. “You are subjects. Disloyal subjects.”

“We have rights!” Hera blurted out. She pushed herself upright, the motion awkward with her hands still cuffed behind her. Vader’s gaze went to her, or at least Hera thought that it did; it was hard to tell without being able to see his eyes, but somehow she could still feel the pressure of his stare. “We’re Imperial citizens. The Empire can’t just barge into a settlement and do – all this – without cause.”

“You are mistaken,” said Darth Vader, making her flinch. “What is your name, child?”

Hera’s breath was coming hard and fast, and she was painfully aware of the blood on her face. But she straightened her back and raised her chin, squaring her shoulders before she said, “I’m Hera Syndulla.”

His voice low, the ISB agent said to Vader, “That’s Cham Syndulla’s daughter. I’ve recommended her for Project Nemesis; I believe she’s an excellent candidate.”

“Do you.” Vader studied Hera, or at least she thought that he did. She swallowed, feeling the weight of his attention as though someone had dropped a load of bricks on her shoulders.

“You are here, Hera Syndulla,” he said at last, “because your father Cham Syndulla attempted to assassinate the Emperor Palpatine.”

“What?” Hera gasped; she heard her mother curse and her aunt hiss, “Damn you, Cham!” But the idea seemed utterly preposterous; her father had fought against the Separatists during the Clone Wars, but that had been the Seppies. This was the Empire – this was their own government. Cham Syndulla was a member of the Curia, Ryloth’s ruling body; he wasn’t some kind of terrorist. “You’re lying!”

“Attempted,” Vader repeated, “and failed. Remember that, Hera Syndulla.” He tiled his head a little in the ISB agent’s direction. “You want the girl?” he said. “Take her now.”

“What?” Hera repeated blankly, then his meaning registered and she flinched back. “No!”

There were stormtroopers already moving forward. Two of them grabbed her by either arm and Hera screamed, too startled to do anything else. Her mother let out a sharp cry of dismay and threw herself forwards, shouldering hard into the nearest stormtrooper’s legs and sending him crashing backwards. Doriah leapt on him immediately, driving an elbow down onto the vulnerable place on his neck beneath his helmet. Hera managed to pull free as Seku swept a leg out to catch the other stormtrooper off his feet, but there were already other stormtroopers rushing in.

One of them grabbed her around the waist and lifted her off the ground. Hera screamed, struggling in vain as she tried to get free. There was shouting all across the forum, Twi’leks yelling and surging upright; Hera saw the stormtroopers leveling their blaster rifles and screamed even louder as she was carried away.

She finally managed to squirm free of the stormtrooper’s grip, dropping heavily to the ground as he grabbed for her. Hera tried to scramble upright, with no clear plan other than to get away, and saw the ISB agent coming towards her with his blaster upraised.

The last thing she heard before the stun blast hit her in the chest was her mother screaming her name.

*

Present day
Somewhere in the Outer Rim Territories

What seemed like a thousand years ago the Forlorn Hope had been a Separatist frigate, but in the fifteen years following the end of the Clone Wars it had passed through the hands of a dozen different owners and experienced at least as many refits. Nearly all of them had been improvements; during the Clone Wars the frigates had been moderately capable warships, but afterwards they suffered from the fact that they had been constructed to be crewed entirely by droids, rather than organics. Most had been scrapped along with their crews, but a few had made it onto the black market despite the Empire’s prohibition on privately-owned capital warships. That Cham Syndulla had been able to buy this one at all had been a combination of several minor miracles, his wife’s connections in her old pod-racing circles, and the bulk of the credits in the Syndulla family’s offworld accounts.

A decade and a half ago the ship might well have been one of the Separatist ships in the blockade around Ryloth; now it was the only home that remained to what was left of the Free Ryloth movement. Cham and his people were many light years away from Ryloth now.

He was on the bridge with Mishaan Secura, the Forlorn Hope’s captain, and his cousin by marriage Sinthya Syndulla, who had just come back from Nal Hutta on a supply run, when one of the ship’s watch-standers called, “Captain, a ship just came out of hyperspace – a hunter-killer, no transponder signal.”

Mishaan’s scarred mouth settled into a frown as she and Cham exchanged wary looks. Hunter-killers was the general term for a type of small starship often used by bounty hunters; there was a standing bounty on Cham and any members of Free Ryloth.

“Hail it –” she began.

“We’re being hailed!” said the communications watch, nearly at the same time she had spoken. He turned in his chair to add, “It’s masked, but they’re asking for you, General.”

“Patch it through to my comlink,” Cham said. He waited for the watch-stander to give him a thumbs up before taking the comlink off his belt and saying, “This is Syndulla.”

“This is Fulcrum, clearance code 510223. Permission to come aboard?”

Mishaan said, “Scan that ship for life forms.”

“Just one, Captain.”

“This is unexpected,” Cham said into the comlink.

“Something’s come up; there wasn’t time to set up a meeting.”

“Landing bay two is open,” Mishaan said, after a glance at Cham to confirm.

Cham repeated that to Fulcrum, who confirmed it. He could see the hunter-killer through the viewport now, flanked by a pair of the V-19 Torrents Free Ryloth used in lieu of any starfighters actually built in the past decade. The hunter-killer banked around the curve of the Forlorn Hope’s hull, heading for landing bay two and out of sight now.

“Clear everyone out of the bay,” Cham said to Mishaan; he and Fulcrum had met in person before, but no one else in Free Ryloth had. This was the first time she had ever come to the Forlorn Hope, rather than setting up a meeting elsewhere.

“Do you want company, Cham?” Sinthya asked.

“Not this time.”

Despite the frigate’s size, it didn’t take him long to get down to the landing bay, which true to word had been cleared of all the usual personnel who would normally be there – deck crew, fighter and transport pilots, children and other family members. The latter technically speaking weren’t supposed to be in an active landing bay, but they somehow always snuck in anyway.

Cham arrived just as the hunter-killer landed in the bay, folding its triangular wings up on either side of its wedge-shaped body. The rear hatch opened, a short ramp sliding out, and a cloaked figure appeared in the opening. She had a cloth tugged up over her nose, only her eyes and the tops of her montrals visible, but she pulled it down with one gloved hand so that Cham could see her face.

“You’d better come inside,” Ahsoka Tano said. “Sorry about the entrance.”

“You always did know how to make one,” Cham said, following her inside the ship.

It was sparsely decorated but comfortable, with a few crates fixed in magnetic clamps along one wall. Without a hold, the airlock led immediately into a tiny galley-cum-lounge, where a crescent-shaped bench had been built into a bulkhead. Ahsoka nodded at it as she unwound her headscarf, saying, “Sit down.”

“I take it that if the fleet was in danger, you would have led with that?” Cham asked, doing so.

Ahsoka slid into a seat on the other end of the bench, reaching into the layers of her robes and putting a small holoprojector on the table between them. “Of course. This is personal – I think.”

Cham frowned, not understanding. “Personal?”

“It’s probably better if I don’t say anything else.” She tapped a finger against the holoprojector. “Just watch it.”

That didn’t sound particularly encouraging, but pointing it out wouldn’t accomplish anything, so Cham just nodded. Ahsoka flicked the projector on, then sat back, her gaze fixed on him rather than the image.

The hologram showed a courtyard that Cham didn’t recognize; stormtroopers were unloading crates off the back of a troop transport. He frowned, wondering what about this had stood out to Ahsoka, then saw the door of the nearest building slide open and heard a buzz of voices – a woman and a man. The first one through, turned so sharply that he was practically walking backwards, was a man in the rich dress of a Core World government official. He gestured wildly with one hand as he spoke.

“I don’t know what else you want me to do!” he said. “I was under the impression that the Emperor had dispatched you here in order to take care of this problem, surely –”

“This ‘problem,’ as you call it, Governor, will not be solved if you keep hindering us at every opportunity,” the woman snapped, finishing the sentence just as she followed the man out into the courtyard.

To say that she wasn’t what Cham had been expecting would have been an understatement. She was a young green-skinned Twi’lek woman in a gray ISB field agent’s uniform, with a matching headwrap from which her ear-cones and her lekku protruded. Over her uniform jacket she was wearing a shaped metal cuirass, her rank indicated by colored squares over her left breast; she had a sidearm holstered on her right hip. She was followed by a human man that Cham didn’t recognize, wearing dark leathers and pieces of black armor – a chest plate and shoulder plates with the Imperial symbol painted on them. Cham glanced at him, then blinked and looked again, seeing the lightsaber on his belt this time.

“An Inquisitor?” he said to Ahsoka; he couldn’t remember ever having seen a human Inquisitor before, though he was hardly familiar with all of them.

“He’s my problem,” she said.

Cham looked back at the Twi’lek woman. The first man, the one she had addressed as governor, had come to a halt, his gaze flickering from her to the Inquisitor. “Hindering you?” he repeated. “Inquisitor – Agent Syndulla – you know I’ve been doing nothing of the sort! I’ve offered you all the aid that you’ve asked for –”

Syndulla.

“If you were at all interested in doing your job, then there would not be mad bombers running around Thyferra destroying the Emperor’s property!” the woman said. “My team and I were sent here because you are incapable of doing so. However, instead of accomplishing my very simple orders, you have continually overridden them.”

“What you asked for isn’t possible, Agent!” said the governor. “You don’t understand how things work on Thyferra –”

“And I think that you don’t understand how things work in the Empire, Governor,” said the woman. “The Emperor is not pleased with your handling of this affair. He’s requested your personal presence on Coruscant.”

“My –” The governor stared at her, his eyes huge and horrified. “I’ve done nothing wrong!”

“You’ve done everything wrong,” said the Inquisitor, speaking for the first time.

The governor turned towards him, falling a step back. Even the stormtroopers, who had previously been pretending that there was nothing happening, stopped what they were doing.

If Cham had run into the Inquisitor in a cantina, he didn’t think he would have looked twice at the man. He had warm amber skin, dark brown hair tied back from his face in a ponytail, a short beard, and a scarred notch in one ear; Cham didn’t think he was much older than his late twenties. There was something about the heavy-looking layers of his uniform that made Cham think of the Jedi he had known during the Clone Wars, though he couldn’t think what it was apart from the tabards that extended nearly to his knees. Maybe it was just the lightsaber; he was the only Inquisitor Cham had seen who carried what looked like a regular single-bladed one, rather than the round-hilted ones all the others had.

He had the saddest eyes that Cham had ever seen and the kind of face that looked like it would have been more comfortable smiling, but he wasn’t smiling now, and even through the hologram he radiated threat.

“You’re lucky,” he said, “that I wasn’t ordered to deal with you personally.”

The Twi’lek woman turned her head slightly to watch him. Her lekku swayed with the movement, and Cham saw for the first time the circular white markings decorating them.

He stopped breathing.

Though some were born with unusual markings or colorings, most Twi’leks didn’t decorate their lekku. On Ryloth only Twi’leks from the curial caste, Cham’s caste, did so, and by the time Ryloth fell it had gone out of fashion as an old-fashioned habit from the planet’s violent and uncivilized past. Cham’s lekku were decorated. So had been his daughter’s.

Agent Syndulla, the governor of Thyferra had said.

Cham watched as the man fell back another step. The Inquisitor leaned forward slightly, apparently as intent on him as a nexu on its prey; the Twi’lek woman laid a hand on his wrist and he stopped abruptly.

“The Emperor,” she said to the governor, “is saving that particular pleasure for himself. But in case you’re thinking about running before your shuttle leaves in the morning, I’ll remind you that we’re more than capable of dealing with treason on our own when given the opportunity.”

“I –” The governor’s gaze moved from her to the Inquisitor, who was watching him with an unblinking gaze. “I – I serve at the Emperor’s pleasure, of course.”

“Of course,” the woman echoed, her mouth twisting slightly. “Don’t forget that, Governor. And don’t worry. By the time you return – if you return – my team and I will have taken care of your little rebel problem.”

She closed her fingers around the Inquisitor’s wrist and tugged slightly; he finally took his attention off the governor and turned towards her, his expression softening for the first time. The two of them went back inside the building, leaving the governor standing in the courtyard with the stormtroopers, who had long since stopped pretending they weren’t listening.

A moment later the hologram blinked out.

Cham stared at the place where it had been for a few moments, then raised his gaze to Ahsoka. She was watching him with an expression that he couldn’t read.

“One of my contacts on Thyferra sent this to me a few hours ago,” she said. “It was recorded yesterday.”

When Cham didn’t say anything, she added gently, “It’s her, isn’t it?”

Cham swallowed. “Do you have a close-up image?”

Ahsoka nodded, turning the holoprojector back on. She cycled through several different holograms, including a close-up of the human Inquisitor with the sad eyes. The next image was of the Twi’lek woman.

She was in her early twenties and undeniably beautiful, with a narrow face, pointed chin, and green eyes. The marks on her lekku were clearer here than they had been in the other hologram, though Cham didn’t need them to recognize his own child.

“That’s her,” he told Ahsoka, the words catching in his throat. “That’s Hera. That’s my daughter.”

*

Ahsoka had passed the holoprojector to him, and Cham couldn’t stop looking at it, at the image of his beautiful daughter grown to adulthood in his absence. The last time he had seen her, Hera Syndulla had been a gangly teenager, all knees and elbows. They hadn’t parted on good terms; neither she nor Alecto had wanted to leave Ryloth, but Cham had insisted, and Hera had left him without so much as a goodbye, walking onto the passenger transport without looking back at him.

“When things began to get bad on Ryloth,” he said finally to Ahsoka, who had been sitting quietly and waiting for him to speak, “when the Empire began to tighten its fist, I sent Hera and Alecto away with my sisters. The colony on Zardossa Stix was founded years ago, after the Separatist occupation ended – you remember?”

Ahsoka nodded a little. She had been one of the Jedi sent by the Republic to liberate the planet, then a fourteen-year-old apprentice with more guts than good sense. Cham had only met her briefly then; true to Mace Windu’s word, the Republic had not stayed long once it had accomplished its work.

The Republic had never returned. It was the Empire that had come back.

“Ryloth has never been a rich world, not like Naboo or Chandrila. We have – we had – riches beneath our soil, yes, but we cannot eat ryll, our children cannot survive on spice alone. The Separatists destroyed many villages and farms on Ryloth; without the food they produced, my people came very close to starving. Many of them left Ryloth for colonies offworld, as has been done countless times in the past. The colony on Zardossa Stix was a new one, not an old one. I invested heavily in it when my client Amiel first brought the idea to me, and it was made up largely of members of my clan or those who had fought alongside me in the Resistance.” Cham knotted his fingers together, looking down at Hera’s unsmiling face. Blue lines flickered in the hologram, moving from bottom to top.

“I never resented them for looking elsewhere after fighting for Ryloth’s freedom,” Cham said, though Ahsoka hadn’t said anything of the sort. “I love Ryloth, but Ryloth has not always loved its children, and it is a harsh parent. Many, many times in the past Twi’leks have left Ryloth because there was no other way for them to survive. And it was useful for me to have such close ties with an offworld colony, especially one so distant from the rest of the Republic as the one on Zardossa Stix. The Republic, and then the Empire. I thought it far beyond the Empire’s reach.”

“But it wasn’t,” Ahsoka said quietly.

“No.” Cham raised his gaze from the hologram, looking at the scarred bulkhead behind Ahsoka’s head. “I saw under the Separatists what an armed occupation could do to Ryloth, to my people – I knew that while Ryloth has always survived in the past, many of my people would die. When they came at first the Empire preached peace – but they came with soldiers. I sent my wife and my child away before the violence began, along with any of my people that wanted to go. Both my sisters went, along with their children.” He rubbed a hand over his chin. “All told, the colony was about ten thousand souls – including my family. They were supposed to be safe!” he said with sudden violence. “I didn’t think that the Empire even knew that they had left Ryloth, let alone where they were. After the attack on the Emperor, I knew that there would be reprisals, but I assumed that they would come on Ryloth. I never dreamed that the Emperor would look offworld.”

Cham rubbed at his forehead again. “They came while Ryloth was still under an Imperial blockade and communications blackout. Alecto tells me that they had no warning – none at all. One moment they were safe in their beds, the next – you know how it is, Ahsoka.”

“I do,” Ahsoka said. “I know very well.”

“The Empire left the dead in the streets to rot,” Cham said. “When I came there, after I was told, you could still see where they had lain. Scavengers had devoured their flesh and scattered their bones, but you could tell.” His sister Aleema had been among the dead. His other sister, Seku, had died in Imperial custody. His little nieces and nephews had been scattered to the four corners of the galaxy; of the seven of them, only two had ever made their way back to eventually join the remnants of Free Ryloth, years later. The others were as vanished as Hera.

As Hera had been, until now.

Cham looked back down at the hologram. Hera would be about twenty-four now, nearly twenty-five. Almost half a lifetime gone, and Cham had no idea how she had spent it. Had she been happy? Had she been hurt? Why would an Empire which hated nonhumans put a Twi’lek woman in an Imperial uniform?

For a moment he wondered if it could possibly be a trick, then he remembered the sharp, confident way that Hera had spoken, the way that every Imperial he had ever met had. She hadn’t affected a Core accent, the way Imperials often did, but there hadn’t been any trace of her Rylothean accent remaining. Hera had had the nothing accent common to the Mid Rim, which wouldn’t raise an eyebrow anywhere from Wild Space to the Deep Core.

They had even taken his daughter’s voice from her, Cham thought, and clenched a fist tightly enough that his sharpened nails dug into the soft flesh of his palm.

Ahsoka was watching him with dark, concerned eyes. Cham knew that she had seen the ruin that the Empire left of settlements it unleashed its might before; he had, and knew that Zardossa Stix was virtually identical to all of the others.

“Alecto told me,” he said at last, “that the Imperials had a list. There was an ISB agent present when the colony fell, and he had a list – about three hundred names, people connected to me, to Free Ryloth, other curial families. Alecto was on that list. So were Hera, and my sisters, and their children…” He let his voice trail off, thinking. He had heard this story from Alecto and from the other survivors of the colony. Of the ten thousand Twi’leks that had been in the colony, fewer than a hundred had ever returned. Cham was lucky that Alecto had been among them. “They were separated from the others, held elsewhere while my people were taken away and the colony burned around them. Then – Darth Vader came.”

Ahsoka stilled. “Vader himself? You’re certain?”

“I saw him on Ryloth ten years ago,” Cham said. “The description I was given – I can’t see who else it would be. He is…memorable.”

“So I’ve been told,” Ahsoka said darkly. “Vader took Hera?”

Cham shook his head a little. “He was there when she was taken, but I don’t know –” He closed his eyes, trying to remember how it had been put by the handful of survivors, then looked up at Ahsoka. “She was taken. That was the last anyone from the colony ever saw of her.” He stared at the hologram. “That was ten years ago. I haven’t seen her in eleven – almost twelve now.”

“How old is she now?”

“Twenty-four.” Cham ran a hand back over his head, over the tops of his lekku and partway down their length before stopping. “She would be twenty-four.”

He took a breath, bracing himself before he continued. “After I heard what happened on Zardossa Stix, after – Ryloth – I looked for her. I looked for all of them. But the Empire is vast and once it has what it wants in its grasp, it never lets go. I guessed – I knew – that she was still alive, but…” He shook his head. “Finding one being in the galaxy is nearly impossible. And – you know what the Empire does to its prisoners.”

“Yes.”

Especially to young Twi’lek women, Cham thought, but didn’t say the words; Ahsoka knew that as well as he did. Togruta hardly fared any better than Twi’leks. “I’ve never stopped looking,” he said. “For her, for any of my people. I’ve found a few. But most of them are gone. I thought –” He looked back down at the hologram, at the Imperial uniform Hera was wearing. “I never expected this.”

“Nobody could have,” Ahsoka said gently. She stretched out a hand over the table to touch the back of his palm very gently, her gloved fingers dark against his own pale orange skin. “Aside from the Inquisitors, I wasn’t aware that there were any nonhumans in the Imperial service that were in the field. The Empire generally prefers to hide the fact that everyone in a uniform isn’t quite human; they keep us locked up in little rooms on Coruscant slicing databases and making weapons.” She gave him a slim smile; Cham couldn’t bring himself to return it.

After a moment Ahsoka’s smile faded. She said, “At least you know she’s alive now.”

Cham looked up from the hologram. “That’s no small thing,” he said. He reached out a finger, very gently, but touched the base of holoprojector rather than the image itself. After a moment he made himself ask, “What about the Inquisitor with her? Do you know anything about him?”

Ahsoka let go of him and reached for the holoprojector; Cham let it slip out from beneath his fingers, and Ahsoka flipped the image back to that of the Inquisitor. She looked at it for a few seconds before saying, “No, I don’t know anything about him. I’ve got a contact that I’ll set up a meeting with after I leave here – they should know something about him, but whether or not they’ll be willing to share…” She shrugged. “I’ll find out, I guess. There have been human Inquisitors in the past, but not many of them. Not that that means much. I’ve never even been able to find out how many Inquisitors there are.”

“I’ve never met one in person,” Cham said; anything to keep from thinking about Hera in that uniform, with that sharp Imperial bite to her voice. “Is it – normal – to find one with an ISB agent like this?”

Ahsoka looked up at him. “No,” she said. “No, it’s not. I’ve seen Inquisitors and ISB agents work together before, but usually they’re at each other’s throats the entire time. The Inquisition and the ISB don’t exactly get along.” She rubbed at her forehead, along the base of her montrals. “The terrorists they’re investigating on Thyferra are locals, no offworld connections. My contact in the Imperial Complex says that they aren’t rebels worth trying to set up a meeting with – it’s some kind of infighting between the cartels, but it’s impacting Imperial bacta production. Thus –” She gestured at the holoprojector. “They’ve been there for almost two weeks now.”

“Thyferra,” Cham said slowly. It was a world in the Inner Rim, the place where bacta had been discovered. There were other suppliers in the galaxy, but the best bacta still came from Thyferra. Anything that threatened the Empire’s use of the drug would undoubtedly be met with overwhelming force – or the best and most reliable tool for the job.

She can’t be, he thought, sick at heart, but he couldn’t see the Empire sending someone that they didn’t trust absolutely to the source of one of their most precious resources, even with an Inquisitor in tow. Perhaps especially with an Inquisitor in tow.

“Is this all there is?” he asked Ahsoka. “Just this hologram?”

“It’s the only one with sound,” she replied. “The others are much shorter, from security cams, not personal recordings.”

“Show me.”

“There isn’t much to see,” she said, but she took the holoprojector back and fiddled with it for a few moments before setting it on the table again.

The hologram that appeared had clearly been taken at a distance. There was no color in it, just the blue common to low-grade security holos. It showed part of a street lined with shops; Hera was standing in the center of it, gesturing with one outstretched arm to a squadron of stormtroopers. The image jerked and began to loop as they trotted off in the direction indicated.

Ahsoka glanced up at him, waiting for Cham to nod before she toggled it to the next one, which showed a corridor, probably from somewhere in the Imperial Complex – all Imperial buildings looked the same. Hera and the Inquisitor appeared at the end of the corridor, apparently speaking to each other. The Inquisitor said something that made Hera laugh, a smile spreading across her face; she chucked a finger under his chin and he grinned back at her, comfortable and easy. Both of them seemed lighter, happier; the Inquisitor less terrifying and Hera less severe. Then Hera curved her hand around the back of the Inquisitor’s head and pulled him down into a kiss, and Cham felt as though he had been punched in the gut.

He must have made some indication of surprise, because Ahsoka leaned forward hastily to shut off the holoprojector, but even before she touched it the hologram began to loop.

Cham stared at the place it had been, his mouth dry and his hands clenched into fists. Conscious thought and cool evaluation had vanished in the face of pure emotion; all Cham wanted to do was to hit something.

“Cham?” Ahsoka said.

After a moment he dragged his gaze up towards her. She was leaning forward across the table, one hand slightly extended, as if she had started to reach for him before thinking better of it.

He felt his lekku shift as he moved his head, unable to shake the image of Hera reaching for the Inquisitor, smiling at him, her body curving in towards his with familiar invitation. An Inquisitor.

He said, “I’m going to kill him.”

“Cham, you can’t kill an Inquisitor,” Ahsoka said quickly.

Cham bared his teeth, aware of the filed-sharp points in a way that he normally wasn’t. “Watch me.”

“You will mostly likely die,” Ahsoka articulated clearly. “Hera won’t thank you for getting yourself killed in a vain gesture. Neither will your people.” She made a gesture with one hand, encompassing the Forlorn Hope and the other ships in the Free Ryloth’s small fleet.

“Are you planning on stopping me, Ahsoka?” Cham said, spreading his hands slightly.

She sighed. “It’s your decision to make. But we don’t know anything yet; it would be rash to take action before we have any more information. Right now you know that Hera is alive. That’s more than you knew an hour ago and that’s what you should concentrate on right now. The rest is just details.”

“Rather important details, I think,” Cham said sharply. “My daughter, the Imperial agent? And her –” He couldn’t think of a word he wanted to use. “– the Inquisitor?”

“And we can find out those details,” Ahsoka said quickly. “Trust me, Cham. You and I both have sources in the Imperial service. Someone, somewhere, knows something. An ISB agent and an Inquisitor don’t just appear from nowhere without a record.”

“You want me to leave my daughter –”

“Exactly where she’s been for the past ten years!” Ahsoka said. She leaned forward, her expression earnest. “I know it’s difficult, Cham. But a few more days – a few more weeks – it won’t make a difference for her. Let me find out what happened between Zardossa Stix and now. I’m not telling you not to think about her –”

“Really,” Cham said. “Because that’s what it sounds like.”

She rubbed at her forehead. “That’s not what I meant, then.”

Cham closed his eyes, lacing his fingers together to keep from hitting something. Even after two wars he didn’t think of himself as a violent man, but this was his child

After a moment he made himself look up. “I know that the Empire can be very persuasive,” he said. “Under – under the right circumstances. I could believe that Hera – that Hera could be convinced to serve the Empire if they made her think that it was right, but she would never be some man’s – some man’s –” He couldn’t say the words, bile rising in his throat. It was the fate that he had spent the past decade convinced that his daughter had been forced into, but it seemed unimaginably cruel to have it come hand in hand with the uniform she was wearing.

Ahsoka’s mouth tightened. “You don’t know that that’s what it is,” she said.

“What else could it be?”

“The Empire has had her for ten years, Cham,” Ahsoka said, her voice gentle. “She’s not the person you remember her being. She’s not the child you used to know.”

“But she is my child, Ahsoka!” Cham said sharply. “She is still my child!”

“Of course she is! But she isn’t a child.” Her gaze slid towards the holoprojector. “I’ll do whatever I can to help you get her back. But it may not be as simple as you want it to be.”

Cham flattened his hands against the table top. “Whatever has been done to her,” he said. “Whatever the Empire – whatever that Inquisitor – has done to her, she is still my daughter. I will not leave her there.” He met Ahsoka’s concerned gaze.

“I never suggested that you do,” she said quietly.

He shook his head and stood up. “I’m going to find my daughter,” he said. “I’m going to bring her back to her people. And I’m going to kill the Inquisitor who did this to her.”

*

When Cham left the landing bay a few minutes later, having watched Ahsoka’s hunter-killer depart and jump to hyperspace once it was safely clear of the Forlorn Hope, he found a number of people lingering around in the corridor outside. One of them was Sinthya, who had brought a half-dozen members of her crew, all heavily-muscled Twi’lek men and women wearing conspicuous blasters. Gobi was there too, his arms crossed over his chest as he looked everywhere but at the hatch to the landing bay.

And, unsurprisingly, Cham’s wife Alecto Syndulla was leaning against the opposite wall, a smudge of engine grease on her nose and somehow smeared across both lekku; she must have been in one of the other landing bays when she had heard about Fulcrum’s arrival.

As he emerged from the bay she raised her head to meet his eyes, pushing away from the wall. She was a tall Twi’lek woman with green skin a little darker than Hera’s, dressed in a long-sleeved shirt open over a tank top and utility pants. There was a long, ragged scar that traced down the right side of her face, beginning somewhere beneath her brown leather headwrap and ending beneath her chin. Alecto hadn’t had it when she had left Ryloth eleven years earlier.

“You can send your men away,” Cham said to Sinthya. “They’re not necessary.”

She shrugged. “Better safe than sorry.”

“Fulcrum isn’t a threat to us.”

Sinthya shrugged again, but she jerked her chin at her second-in-command, who gathered the others with a glance and took off down the corridor. Sinthya herself didn’t move.

The deck chief, a small pink-skinned Twi’lek woman with elaborate tattoos on her arms and lekku, looked inquisitively at Cham; he nodded to let her know that the landing bay was clear and that she and the deck crew could return. As she hauled the hatch open and they began to file back in, Cham finally turned to Alecto.

“Trouble?” she asked.

“That is not an inaccurate assessment,” Cham had to allow.

“Should I get Mishaan?” Gobi asked.

“No. This is a family matter, not something that affects the fleet.”

Alecto’s lekku had lifted a little when Cham said family, and Sinthya leaned in quickly. The Syndulla clan was disproportionately represented both at the vanished Zardossa Stix colony and in the fleet; “family” could mean anything from fifth and sixth cousins with barely a drop of Syndulla blood to long time clients of the direct line. Or it could mean something more immediate.

Alecto looked at Cham, her gaze searching and a little desperate. He put a hand on her shoulder, squeezing slightly, and said, “Let’s go somewhere more private.”

Sinthya and Gobi fell in with them as they started down the corridor. Cham hesitated for a moment, wondering whether to send them away or not, then finally decided against it. Sinthya was family; Gobi was clan. It was as simple as that.

Despite its size, the Forlorn Hope was crowded with various crew members and their families. Cham had to go all the way back to his stateroom before he could find anywhere that he was certain of not being overheard. Only after the hatch was shut behind him and Alecto and Gobi were seated on the narrow couch, Sinthya perched on the arm with one leg dangling free, did Cham say, “Fulcrum found Hera.”

Alecto jerked as though she had been shot. “She’s alive?” she said, her voice sharp. “She’s safe?”

Sinthya reached over to grip her cousin’s shoulder with one lilac hand. She and Alecto were from another branch of the Syndulla family, not the main line, and except for the color of their skin looked alike enough to be sisters. “Where is she?” she asked Cham.

Cham took a deep breath. “Right now,” he said, “Thyferra.”

“Why are we still here, then?” Alecto said, starting to rise. “Let’s go get her –”

“It’s not that simple,” Cham made himself say. He took the holodisc Ahsoka had given him out of his pocket and slid it into the holoprojector on the low coffee table in front of the couch, which was currently cluttered with datapads and flimsiplasts. The head-and-shoulders hologram of Hera appeared in nearly life-size, rather than the miniature that Ahsoka’s smaller holoprojector had displayed.

Alecto leaned forward towards it, starting to stretch out one hand as though to touch Hera’s face before she curled her fingers into a fist. Her expression was longing; Cham looked at her and then away, studying the worn carpet beneath his boots.

“That’s an Imperial – that’s an ISB uniform,” Sinthya said.

Cham raised his gaze.

Alecto looked up at him. “She’s an ISB agent?” she said. “That’s – what did they do to her?”

“I don’t know,” Cham said. “Fulcrum didn’t know either – that’s why this was brought to my attention. Fulcrum wasn’t sure if it was Hera or someone else from the clan.”

“Fulcrum knew that she was a Syndulla?” Gobi asked, looking surprised. Most people in the clan didn’t share the surname outside of the main line, though Alecto’s and Sinthya’s families both did.

“There’s a vid.”

“I want to see it,” Alecto said immediately. When Cham hesitated, she added, “She’s my daughter too, Cham. She was taken from me. I need to see it, no matter what’s on it.”

Cham didn’t have a good objection to that, but before he could reach for the holoprojector again, Alecto added, “Whatever it is, I’ve seen worse.”

Cham didn’t have anything to say in response to that, either.

He leaned down and toggled the holoprojector to the next file, and the hologram of the Thyferran Imperial Complex courtyard appeared in miniature, spreading out across the surface of the cluttered coffee table. The four of them watched in silence, Gobi flinching when the Inquisitor spoke and Alecto fisting one hand against her mouth at Hera’s easy threats. When the holovid ended, no one said anything for a few moments.

Finally, Sinthya said quietly, “She sounds like an Imperial.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Alecto said without looking up. “She’s still our Hera.”

“What does the Inquisitor have to do with her?” Gobi asked. “Is it just coincidence that there’s an Inquisitor there? They’re not…” He let the words trail off, then finally finished, “This doesn’t seem like the sort of situation that calls for an Inquisitor.”

“They seem to be…involved,” Cham had to say. Even thinking the words made him uncomfortable, remembering the easy way his daughter had pulled the Inquisitor down to her. The Inquisitors were monsters in Imperial uniforms. Everyone knew that.

Alecto’s brows narrowed. “Involved?” she said. “What do you mean –” She got his meaning abruptly and her face twisted into a snarl. “I’ll kill him.”

She pushed herself to her feet, throwing off Sinthya’s hand, and took a few restless steps around the coffee table, coming to a stop in front of Cham. “We’re going to get her,” she said. As he started to speak, she thumped a closed fist lightly into his chest. “I don’t care what they did to her, what they made her think, what they made her do. Our daughter isn’t spending one more minute in Imperial custody. We’re going to get her now, Cham.”