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Out of the Dark Valley

Chapter Text


I must be the devil's daughter
What a dark father to dwell in me
I must be the devil's daughter
Such a dark father to dwell in me [x]


 

 

 The Falcon touched down just outside of Bestine, near the garrison that overlooked the city. Leia, still thrumming with energy from the debacle at Jabba’s palace, marched down the gangplank with a determined stride, thoughts and plans and worries all storming through her brain.

 Solo hung back, and she turned her head, saying, “Are you coming? I don’t have much time but if you want any sort of reward now is your opportunity to negotiate it.”

 “Not a big fan of Bestine,” said Solo, looking around uneasily. “Too many Imps.”

 She stopped and pivoted around, uttering a short, surprised laugh. “Well you did realize that you’d have to deal with Imperials to get paid, didn’t you?”

 Chewbacca shrugged and nodded, saying something that she imagined was in agreement with her.

 “Right, course I did,” said Solo, “but walking right into the garrison… gives me a bad feeling.”

 “Well, stay or go, it doesn’t matter to me,” Leia told him, and continued walking towards the fort. He grumbled something and started after her.

 They were met at the gate by Captain Jasha, the Imperial officer in charge. If Admiral Ozzel had done his job and followed her orders, he should already be apprised of the situation, so she approached and said, without formalities, “Captain, are your men ready?”

 “Your Highness,” he said with a slight bow, just as he had greeted her earlier when Mayor Visalis was showing her around, “I am glad to see you alive and well. The reports we received from the Hutt’s stronghold—”

 “Are they ready, Captain?”

 “Um, yes, about that,” he said, indicating with one outstretched arm that she should follow him, “ I did receive word from the Admiral that you wished to use my men to storm the citadel… but really I must caution against this endeavor.”

 “You haven’t done anything to prepare, have you?”

 “Well, I wanted to speak with you first, You Highness—”

 “Why? Were the orders Ozzel relayed unclear?”

 “No, but I felt that as the commanding officer stationed on Tatooine it was my duty to offer you some advice on this matter, before any action is taken.”

 They were walking side by side into the base, Solo and Chewbacca following behind them, but when they got to the gate one of the stormtroopers guarding it said, “Halt!” and they leveled their blasters at her new companions.

 “Hey, we’re with her,” Solo objected, though he put his hands up.

 Leia paused and looked back. “Oh, yes, these two assisted in my, uh, departure from the palace,” she said. “They’re hoping for a reward before they go on their way.”

 Captain Jasha looked both of them up and down, his mustache twitching with indignation, and Leia could sense the objections coming before he sputtered, “A reward? I think not. These two criminals are clearly part of Jabba’s gang and are simply looking to exploit the situation. The only reward I see fit for them is a pair of shackles!”

 Chewbacca roared a warning to stay away, backing up, and Leia noticed Solo’s right arm drifting a little downward, as if he were thinking about going for his blaster.

 She rolled her eyes. “Captain Jasha,” she said, tilting her head to the side as she looked up at him, “I know you are not accustomed to taking orders, since you are what passes for Imperial rule on this planet, but I am the highest ranking person you will ever have the pleasure of meeting. These two, ruffians and scoundrels though they may be, are with me. I have decided to authorize a monetary reward as thanks for their actions and you will make sure they are paid and sent safely on their way. Do I make myself clear?”

 Jasha shot the pilot and the wookiee a disdainful glare, but said, “Yes, Your Highness. Understood. How much do you wish me to pay them?”

 Leia hesitated for a moment. She had not thought about any specific amount. “I don’t know, Captain, how much do you think saving the Crown Princess’s life is worth? What sort of number value do you place on my survival?”

 Jasha swallowed nervously, then licked his lips and said, in a high voice, “3,750 credits?”

 “That’s it?” she scoffed.

 He laughed and tugged at his collar, even though Leia wasn’t doing a thing to him. “We’re a small garrison, Your Highness. Tatooine is a distant outpost, you must understand, we don’t have a large store of funds on hand…”

 “Fifteen thousand,” she said sharply. “And that’s a low number. I’m sure you have it.” She turned back to the smuggler and asked, “Happy?”

 Solo shrugged and turned one corner of his mouth up in a smile. “Well I was hoping for twenty, but whatever Your Majesty thinks is fair.”

 “Fine. Make it twenty,” she said, just to annoy Jasha. “I think I’m worth at least that much, don’t you, Captain?”

 He was very annoyed, to her satisfaction, but he knew better than to answer her question with anything more than a curt, “Yes, milady.”

 “Now,” said Leia, as they entered the small fort, “when will we be ready to march on Jabba?”

 Jasha straightened his shoulders and answered, “Your Highness, I do not think it wise for you to return to the Hutt’s enclave after what happened there today. Clearly, the fact that we are entertaining the notion of paying these criminals just for saving your life is indication that you must not go back there.”

 “I fail to see why we are talking about this,” Leia said, her tone bored. “The Emperor has already signed off on this mission. Jabba’s insolence in attempting to kill me must not go unpunished.”

 “Yes, of course, but I do not think you understand that Jabba’s palace cannot be stormed by our small garrison,” Jasha explained, his agitation increasing. “Why do you think we allow the gangster’s presence here? If we were capable of—”

 “The Hutts and other crime syndicates are tolerated by the Empire because it is beneficial for us to do so,” Leia snapped. “But Jabba has overstepped his bounds and a message must be sent that our indulgence for the criminal element only extends so far.”

 Jasha looked over at Solo and Chewbacca pointedly but Leia ignored it.

 “I do not disagree that the Hutt must be dealt with.” said Jasha. “I merely think that such an endeavor must not be taken likely. It should be spearheaded by a military commander, not the Princess, and it will require far more troops than I have at my disposal. I only have stormtroopers. I must ask why the Executor, which is stationed in orbit above, is not being used to help us.”

 Leia gritted her teeth together. This pompous ass clearly thought of her as a stupid child playing a game. She could not explain to this man why she needed to be the one leading the attack on Jabba and she could not explain why more of the Empire’s forces could not be used. The reason for both of these things tied back into the Emperor’s hold over her, and her need to avoid punishment for any perceived failure to carry out her mission, because the punishment would fall upon the Organas, not her. She had to expend as few troops as possible to get it done, since every resource the Empire lost on this mission would be her direct responsibility.

 Instead of trying to come up with some other line of reasoning, she simply said, “You, sir, do not need to approve of this course of action. You only need to follow my orders. If you cannot do that, I will have to find someone who can to take your place.”

 He got the message. “Very well,” he said, clicking his heels together, saluting. “I will prepare for our departure.”

 “Good.”

 “Lieutenant Barnes!” he shouted, clearly relishing the ability to exert some authority, “Pay this man and this… thing… a sum of twenty thousand credits and then escort them off the base.” He turned back to Leia. “Lady Vestre, would you like to wait inside?”

 “No,” said Leia, despite the blistering suns beating down overhead. “Get to work, Captain. I am impatient.”

 He saluted again and then rushed off to oversee preparations.

 With nothing else to do in the meantime, Leia wandered back over towards the smugglers. They were standing about awkwardly while they waited for their payment, squinting suspiciously around the Imperial fort as if expecting an ambush.

 “Well,” said Leia, “are you going to thank me for my generosity?”

 “You know,” Solo replied, “that Imp does have a point. We just got you out of that mess at Jabba’s. A shame for you to go back and get yourself killed anyway.”

 “What do you care?” she asked. “You got your reward. I doubt anyone will hunt you down for a refund.”

 “They might,” said Solo with a brusque laugh. “But I’m not worried. It’s Chewie here who cares. He’s got a soft spot for you.”

 She shook her head, smiling despite herself. “Thanks, Chewie. But I can take care of myself. I was doing just fine back there, anyway. Remember? I was running towards Jabba’s palace, not away from it.”

 “Only because he blew up your shuttle with a rocket launcher,” Solo pointed out.

 “Details,” she said, with a wave of her hand. “My numbers may be small, but that is of no concern to me. I have the Force on my side.”

 “Oh boy, the Force,” said Solo, rolling his eyes.

 “You don’t believe in the Force?”

 “Not on your life. Whole lotta nonsense,” he told her. “Don’t get me wrong, a few magic tricks can come in handy, sometimes. But it’s not something I’d bet my life on. There’s a reason the Jedi all kicked it when I was a kid… but that was probably before you were born so I can see why you’d think a couple of lightsabers makes you invincible.”

 “Not all the Jedi died,” Leia said. “I learned the ways of the Force from my father, who was a Jedi once.”

 “How’s that working out for him these days?”

 Leia was taken aback. She just stared at him, speechless, not really sure how to respond. Vaguely, in the back of her mind, she knew that she was not supposed to care about what had happened to her father. Not publicly. Not for a pair of smugglers from the Outer Rim to see. But still, the question shook her.

 Chewie said something and Solo had the decency to look abashed for a moment.

 “Well. Anyway. I’m sure you’ve got this whole attack under control,” he said, not even sounding sarcastic for once. “Princess With No Fear.”

 “Don’t call me that.”

 “I was just… I mean, when I was kid, I remember following the news on the HoloNet, and that’s what—”

 “I know, and that’s why I don’t want you to call me that. My father is a traitor to the Empire,” she said mechanically. “Was a traitor. I do not speak of him.”

 “Hey you brought it up.”

 “Did I? Old habits. The Emperor is my true father now and I trust in the power of the Dark Side of the Force, not the trifling ways of the Jedi. You were right, they are extinct and their pathetic tricks could not save them.” She said it just a little too loud, as if announcing it to the whole garrison.

 He held up one hand. “Alright, I won’t argue with that, Your Dark Majesty. But. You know,” he said, getting ready to offer more advice that she didn’t need, “you didn’t have to save Max Rebo’s band back there. You coulda just let Jabba feed ‘em to the rancor and your whole negotiation process would’ve gone smooth as silk.”

 “Your point?”

 “When you march on Jabba’s palace you’re gonna get a lot of people killed. Probably the band too, if Jabba hasn’t killed them already. He liked that band, but you know, I’m sure you left him in a very bad mood.”

 Leia sighed and looked away. “Are you lecturing me? I’d think you’d have figured out by now that I don’t like being lectured.”

 “No. You do whatever you have to do, Princess. You just don’t strike me as the kind of person who—”

 “Don’t try to figure me out,” she warned him.

 He shrugged and said, in a lowered voice, “You seem like you’re in a tight spot. Just thought I’d let you know that me and Chewie could use some Alliance credits to go with these Imperials ones, in case you feel like ditching this rock after all.”

 She laughed, but looked around covertly before replying, “That would be quite the double payday for you, wouldn’t it? It’s a tempting offer, but, my place is by the Emperor’s side.”

 Before he could say any more, Lieutenant Barnes came stepping brusquely towards them, carrying a suitcase in one hand. He opened it up and showed them the array of gold credit ingots inside. “Twenty thousand,” he said stiffly, then snapped it shut again. “The Empire thanks you for protecting its most prized Crown Princess.”

 Solo smirked and nodded, reaching out to take the proffered suitcase. “Think about it,” he said, turning to go. He glanced at the Lieutenant before telling her, “We’ll be at Chalmun’s cantina in Mos Eisley if you want to say ‘goodbye’ after you’re done storming the palace.” He gave her a small mock salute that turned into a wave as he left.

 Chewbacca roared and lifted his arm in farewell, following Solo to their spaceship.

 “Insolent fool,” Barnes said once they were out of ear range. “As if the Princess of the Empire would seek out a pair of ruffians in a dirty little cantina. Mos Eisley is—”

 “Forgot about them,” Leia cut him off. “We have a Hutt to execute.”

 


 

The twin suns of Tatooine were setting as Leia marched up the road to Jabba’s palace with an entire regiment of stormtroopers at her back. The sky and the earth was a deep, blood red and the wind whipped at her cloak. She had changed out of her formal dress, no longer there to negotiate, and wore an athletic black ensemble underneath her robe.

 A squadron of TIE fighters sent down from the star destroyer in orbit arced overheard, their ominous whine the only sound in the desert evening. The only sound, that is, besides the crisp march of the stormtroopers’ boots against rock.

 Jasha had convinced her to call down the TIE fighters for assistance, since the blaster cannon Jabba had on one of the parapets of his palace was a formidable obstacle for a ground attack. Leia, though loathe to take the Captain’s advice, had to agree that taking out the palace’s outer defenses with an air strike was the wisest option.

 The cannon fired at the TIEs above, taking one out in an explosion that, for a moment, created a third sun in the sky above. But only one lonely anti-aircraft weapon was no match for the entire Storm Squadron, and the TIEs wove around in tight formation, blasting the palace with all their might.

 Leia marched up the heavy entrance door amid blaster fire from thugs stationed around the palace. She let her stormtroopers take care of that. They formed a tight semi-circle around her as she plunged both of her lightsabers into the door. In a matter of moments, she had carved a large opening into the door, and she and her troops flooded into the palace.

 The stormtroopers had strict orders not to shoot anyone who was unarmed or surrendering. Leia had given them a speech about how the Empire was mighty and just, a beacon of law and order in a disorderly world. She made it clear that they were there to take out Jabba, not to indiscriminately slaughter. But what she drove home most of all was that disobeying her, going against her orders, displeasing her, was the gravest sin they could commit and would be met with swift and decisive punishment.

 She held her head high as she stalked through the palace, hunting the Hutt. She thought about Solo’s words, his warning that attacking the Palace would just result in the deaths of those beings she had tried to save. We’ll see about that, she thought. She was a better commander than that. She hoped the Bestine troops were more disciplined than that.

 Leia found Jabba the Hutt attempting to escape aboard a large sail barge. She walked out into an inner courtyard where the barge was docked—where, she supposed, the Millennium Falcon had been docked earlier that day—and saw the oversized slug creeping towards his escape vessel.

 Without hesitation she reached out and seized him by the throat from across the courtyard, dragging him backwards towards her as she advanced, the troopers fanning out around her and returning blaster fire from the various guards and thugs.

 The Hutt was choking and sputtering, as he had done earlier, trying to slither towards the barge. But Leia’s hold on him through the Force was tighter than a titanium clamp. She became oblivious to everything else now that she had her quarry. She jumped on his back, climbing up his tail like his body was a hill and the head a mountain peak, then she lifted her twin sabers high and drove them through the base of the Hutt’s skull.

 Leia had never before felt so powerful. So in control. She took deep breaths as she stood over the fallen Hutt, inhaling the scorching smell of blaster fire in the desert night.

 It was all over very quickly after that. Seeing the Hutt’s quivering body go still took a great deal of the fight out of his cronies. Many of them surrendered, though a few still fought to the bitter end. Those that did met either blaster fire from the stormtroopers or the heat of Leia’s blades.

 She felt flush with triumph as she swept through the palace, rounding up stragglers. She made her way down to the prison cells and found the hapless members of the Max Rebo band, and the dancers, locked away with an assortment of other beings that had made Jabba angry at one point or another. He could only feed the rancor so much in one go, they said. The prison cells were like the rancor’s pantry. They fell to their knees (those that had knees) thanking her profusely for saving them.

 She felt even better when she found Threepio in the droid reclamation room. He had been fitted with a restraining bolt, but was otherwise in good condition. “Leia! Thank the maker, you’re alright! I knew you would come back,” he exclaimed, forgetting in that moment that he was supposed to address her as “Mistress Vestre”. She didn’t correct him.

 “Round everyone up,” she told Captain Jasha, as she stood with her hands on her hips, surveying the stormtroopers standing guard over the vanquished. “I hope your prison in Bestine has enough room for everyone here. After we’ve got this place cleared out I want you to torch it. Light it up and let it burn like a beacon for kilometers around.”

 “Yes, milady,” Jasha said, bowing.

 “Oh, but before you do, have your troops gather up any weapon caches they find and have them delivered up to the Executor,” she said. “That’s what I came here for, after all.”

 


 

A few kilometers away, atop a mesa, Han Solo lay on his stomach on the rocky ground and lifted a pair of electrobinoculars to his eyes. He looked across the desert at the blazing ruins of what had recently been Jabba the Hutt’s stronghold.

 “That girl is crazier than a bag of baby rathtars,” he muttered.

 “She did exactly what she said she would,” Chewbacca replied in shyriiwook from where he crouched beside Han.

 Han grunted, training the binocs on the parade of prisoners that were being led aboard the Imperial transports. Not all the refugees from the burning palace appeared to be prisoners, though. The girl—Vestre or Leia or whatever her true name really was—had managed to separate out the beings in the palace who had been slaves or prisoners of the Hutt, and they were unshackled, clearly being shown deferential treatment. The members of Max Rebo’s band were no slaves, Han knew that for sure, but they were all playing the victim (even sly old Sy Snootles, who’d been in no danger of being tossed into the rancor pit) because they could recognize the soft, mushy center beneath all the bluster. No one in their right mind went up against Jabba, and no one who had a strong sense of self-preservation went up against him just to save a bunch of musicians, so Han was convinced the girl had delusions of heroic grandeur if not a death wish.

 Of course, the blazing remains of Jabba’s citadel retreat proved that maybe she wasn’t entirely delusional. She had the might of the Empire to back her up. They had firebombed what remained of the palace after the fight, and Han was glad he and Chewie had chosen the right side. Sometimes you make a lucky call, he thought, and deciding to back the girl had been both lucrative and life-saving.

 He trained the binocs on her, where she stood far away surveying the destruction she had wrought. She looked very satisfied with herself. Just as he thought this, she turned her head, and looked up and away, straight into his eyes. As if she saw him watching her. That was impossible and ridiculous, though, since he was too far away for anyone to see with the naked eye. Especially not in the dark… But she stared into the electrobinoculars for a moment, and he held his breath, thinking absurdly that she would open her mouth, say something to him and he might hear it, beyond all reason.

 She turned her head away, gesturing and shouting to the stormtroopers who carried crates of weapons and goods across the sands to load onto the transports.

 “Well I’ve seen enough,” said Han, lowering the binocs and getting to his feet. “Guess an ‘I told you so’ isn’t in order after all. We better get out of here before someone decides to round us up, too.”

 “Do you think she’ll come looking for us?”

 “Not on your life,” Han scoffed.

 “I’m telling you, the Alliance wants her back. And she wants to go back there, too.”

 “No, she doesn’t. You heard her, and you see her down there; she’s the one in charge. That’s no damsel in distress in need of a rescue.”

 “The Alliance would still pay to have her back.”

 “But who's gonna make her come with us? You?” Han snorted and shook his head. “Not unless you want a lightsaber between the eyes.”

 “She likes me.”

 “I wouldn’t try your luck. C’mon buddy, you gotta learn to quit while you’re ahead.”

 “Hey, it was your idea to go back for her in the first place. Remember?”

 “Yeah, and I’m such a nice guy I let you take all the credit. Anyway, we’re not bounty hunters, Chewie. The only passengers that come aboard the Falcon are the ones who want to be there.”

 Chewie shrugged and just made a noncommittal noise that wasn’t even a word in shyriiwook. At least not one that Han knew.

 “Hey, look at what the Empire did to Jabba,” Han insisted, sweeping an arm back towards the red and orange glow lighting up the night. “I’m not sure it’d be such a good idea to cross them even if the girl did want a ride to the nearest Alliance base.”

 “The Empire didn’t do that; Leia Skywalker did that,” Chewie pointed out.

 “Vestre Palpatine,” Han corrected. “Princess Vestre.”

 Chewie wagged his head as he boarded the ship. “Whatever you say.”

 


 

Leia walked casually into Chalmun’s cantina, pausing to survey the dim interior for a moment. A few beings turned to look at her, but turned away again, seeing nothing remarkable. And that was just as she wanted it.

 She was dressed in the dingey, well-worn garb of a bounty hunter, pieced together from the bodies of different fallen foes at Jabba’s palace. Her face was covered by a mask that concealed her identity completely.

 She had come from Bestine, from her guest room in the home of Mayor Visalis. She was staying there for a day or two, ostensibly enjoying the hospitality of Visalis as she awaited news from the Emperor telling her where her next rendezvous with the Hutts was to take place. If another rendezvous with the Hutts was even going to take place, that is. There was still a chance that they would reject the Empire completely and declare war because of had happened to Jabba.

 Leia hated waiting to find out.

 The Imperials thought she was still in Bestine, in the guest room, but it was really just Threepio there now. She’d given him instructions not to let anyone in her room and to tell any visitors that she was in a deep sleep and did not wish to be disturbed. She’d stolen a speederbike by using a mind trick on its owner and had taken it all the way to Mos Eisley.

 At first she doubted that Solo and Chewbacca would actually be there, like they’d said they would, but then she caught sight of the wookiee at the bar. She walked over to him, keeping her stride steady and unconcerned. She nodded briefly to a pig faced humanoid and leaned against the bar near Chewbacca.

 “Looking for work?” she asked, her voice coming out mechanical and gravelly.

 He responded with a shrug and a caged growl.

 “I’ve been told that you and your associate are available for a job,” she said.

 He cocked his head to the side with an inquisitive air and said something that sounded like a question.

 “Han Solo,” she said. “He told me you’d be here.”

 She could see it in the wookiee’s eyes as it dawned on him who she was beneath the mask. He nodded and motioned for her to follow him away from the bar.

 They went over to a relatively secluded table in the corner, where the pilot was lounging against the wall, looking around the cantina with a disinterested air.

 Chewbacca sat down and spoke with Solo. The pilot sat up, eyeing her suspiciously. “That’s a new look for you,” he said.

 “It does the trick,” she responded. “You don’t think I’d walk in here with a pair of stormtroopers playing ‘Glory of the Empire’ on trumpets, did you?”

 “I didn’t think you’d walk in here at all, to be honest.”

 “You’ll find I’m full of surprises.”

 “I can see that. Well, does this mean you’re looking for a ride off this rock?” he asked. “Our fares are reasonable, aren’t they, Chewie? Cash on delivery.”

 She shook her head. “No. Nothing’s changed. I’m not leaving… with you, at least. But I have a different job for you, if you’re interested.”

 He sat back and gazed at her, eyes half-lidded. “I’m listening.”

 She placed her hand on the table, laying it down casually, so that anyone looking their way might think she was simply resting it there. Concealed in her palm was a datastick. She turned her hand ever so slightly so that Solo could catch a glimpse of it.

 “I’ve got something I want delivered to a certain someone,” she said. “Discreetly. Shouldn’t be too hard for a man in your line of work, should it?”

 “Depends on the certain someone,” he said, his eyes flickering to her hand and then away again.

 “His name is Luke,” she told him.

 “I see. And where do I find this… Luke?”

 “I don’t know.”

 He laughed. “That’s an important bit of information.”

 “You’ll have to find him.”

 “Oh, sure. We’re not exactly bounty hunters, you know,” said Solo, seeming more interested in picking at the molding along the wall than talking to her. “And a first name isn’t much to go on. Lots of Lukes in this galaxy.”

 “If you know my name, you know his.” She had no intention of speaking the name Skywalker out loud in a place like this.

 He nodded thoughtfully. “Alright. Well… where’s the last place you saw this guy?”

 She thought back. “Vohai,” she said. “But that was six years ago.”

 He laughed again, shaking his head. Another protest was forthcoming, but she cut him off, saying, “He travels in the company of…” and here she leaned in, glancing around, although the mask made it difficult to see, “a man named Kenobi. They have been known to visit certain bases.”

 “Certain bases,” he echoed. “I don’t suppose you know where any of these bases are?”

 “No. I’ve never been privileged with that information.”

 “Is there anything you do know?” he asked, his tone rife with derision, and she bristled.

 “I know that you’re a resourceful man,” she said, her voice deadly calm through the mask. He couldn’t see how her eyes flashed. “But if you don’t think you’re up to the task, then don’t allow me to waste any more of your time.”

 She started to stand up, but Chewie reached out a hand and said something that sounded conciliatory, or at least, like he wanted her to stay. He leaned in close to Han and they conferred while Leia sat back down, as regally as possible given her disguise.

 “What’s the payment?” Solo finally asked. “My offer was contingent on a reward from certain factions upon your arrival.”

 “I can’t pay you in advance,” said Leia. It was true enough. She couldn’t very well commandeer more Imperial credits without the Emperor noticing and becoming suspicious. She was already hoping that he didn’t receive word of the payment she’d forced Captain Jasha to deal out. “But once you deliver this to Luke, he’ll pay you.”

 “And how do you know that? How do you know he has any money, much less enough to make this worth my while?”

 “He can get the funds from his mother,” she said, her voice measured, hoping that it betrayed none of the uncertainty she felt.

 “I dunno, this is a lot less of a sure thing that just going to her direct,” said Solo. “Why don’t I take it to her and her friends?”

 “You’d never get close enough to her to deliver it,” said Leia. “She’s a very important person with a sizeable bounty on her head. Even if you could find your way onto a base do you think her friends would allow just anyone to walk up to her with a ‘special delivery’? Not likely.”

 He nodded. “Alright. But let’s say I find the elusive Luke, wherever he is… how do I know I’ve found the right person? And how does he know that you sent me?”

 She tapped the datastick against the table lightly. “That’s the easy part,” she said. “When you find him you just have to tell him this one thing, and he’ll know I sent you….”

 “What one thing?” Solo asked, raising an eyebrow.

 Leia looked around the cantina surreptitiously. No one seemed to be paying them any mind, and the loud music and chatter drown out their conversation well enough that it seemed like it should be safe just to speak the message out loud. But Leia didn’t want to take any chances. She slid around the table to sit directly next to Solo on the bench against the wall. He smelled sharply of motor oil, that old familiar mechanic’s grunge, as if he had just come from working on his spaceship.

 She slipped the mask up so that she could whisper into his ear, “Ask him if he remembers who his favorite teacher was.”

 Solo shifted away from her, seeming very uncomfortable. Perhaps he feared she was using a Jedi mind trick on him. He asked, “And what’s the answer?”

 “Miss Ognoyn,” she said. “He had a terrible crush on her. You can tell him that I’ll never let it go. Not ever.”

 “Fine. And how do I know that he’ll pay me?”

 “He’ll pay you,” she said, leaning away from him and repositioning her mask. “I’m going to give you a bit of information to ensure it.”

 “Which is?”

 “The data is encrypted,” she said. “No one can access the message without entering the proper code. I’m giving you half the code. Once you get paid you can give it to him, and he’ll be able to figure out the other half based on what you give him. If he wants to crack the code and see the message, he’ll make sure you get paid. Simple.”

 “And you’re sure he’s gonna want it bad enough?”

 She clenched her fist around the datastick, but then relaxed, breathing out a long slow breath that made the mask crackle. Of course Luke would want a message from her.

 “I’m sure.”

 Solo looked past her to Chewbacca, and for a moment it was as if they were speaking telepathically. Solo raised his eyebrow and Chewie shrugged in response, prompting an exaggerated eye roll from Solo.

 “Alright,” he said. “Why not. I want another twenty thousand for this job. Just like the last one.”

 “Seems fair,” Leia remarked, hoping that Luke could figure out a way to come with that much money, or that he had a way to get it from Mother.

 “So what’s my part of the code?” Solo asked, leaning towards her.

 She put out her free hand to push him back. “No need to whisper,” she said dryly, the vocal distortion from the mask making the words into a buzz like an annoyed bug. “It’s R2-D2.”

 “Got it,” he said, then held out his hand. “Pleasure doing business with you.”

 She shook his hand, sealing their deal and transferring the datastick into his palm. Chewie made a soft noise and nodded to her, signaling his agreement as well.

 Leia pushed past Solo and got up to leave. She didn’t say goodbye to either of them. She didn’t even look back.

 


 

There was something immensely satisfying about the way the next Hutt she met bowed and scraped and ceded to all her wishes.

 From Tatooine she traveled directly to Nal Hutta, the homeworld of the Hutts, and met with Gardulla Besadii the Elder. This was the very same Hutt who had once owned her father and grandmother, and the irony was not lost on Leia. She wondered if the Emperor was testing her once more by sending her to Gardulla, instead of any other member of the Hutt Council. Perhaps he wanted to see if Leia would complete her original mission or would be unable to resist the opportunity to obliterate Gardulla as she had done Jabba.

 Leia could not deny that it was tempting.

 Gardulla did not give her an opportunity or an excuse, though. The Hutt was officious and deferential, apologizing for Jabba’s “selfish, renegade actions” and swearing that she would see to it that the Empire was satisfied with the outcome of this second meeting. If she remembered that she had once owned Anakin and Shmi Skywalker, she made no mention of it.

 Leia knew that the Hutt was afraid: she could feel fear radiate off of her, along with hate, and a smell she had come to realize was a uniquely Hutt odor. She wondered if her father could see them now, and if he was pleased that his former master now bowed and scraped and feared for her life like the miserable slug she was. Leia was often certain, somehow, that her father could see her, that he was watching over her. She sometimes thought that she could hear his voice, but she could barely make out the words, and she was certain that however he was trying to communicate with her was taking all of his strength in the Force. Strength he should be using to hold on to life inside that tank until she could get him out.

 Leia came away from Gardulla with an arms supply deal that was completely in the Empire’s favor, with the tacit agreement that the Hutts would accept whatever payment the Empire thought fit, and that all Imperial ships would travel unmolested through Hutt space.

 Leia was tempted to go further, to make even more demands, the ones she personally saw fit, but unfortunately those went against the interests of the Empire and she could not think of a way to excuse it to the Emperor later. Part of the deal struck with the Hutts was the unofficial, official agreement that the Empire would continue to look the other way in regards to many of the Hutt Cartel’s criminal doings throughout the Outer Rim. This included slavery and spice running, two things Leia thought should be eradicated from the galaxy.

 Technically, slavery was against the law, just as it had been in the days of the Republic. But now, besides being unable or unwilling to crack down on slavery on worlds outside their jurisdiction, the government was actively participating in it. It was not called slavery when the Empire did it, though. They used terms like conscription, mandatory labor, or required service to the Empire.

 Smuggling was another matter altogether. A person could be considered a smuggler for merely transporting any type of marketable good between planets without paying the requisite intergalactic taxes and tariffs. Or they could be someone, like Solo and Chewbacca, who worked for a crime cartel such as the Hutts to regularly move illicit goods between star systems.

 Leia wondered what sorts of things her unlikely new friends smuggled. Weapons, drugs, living beings? For some reason she wanted to think of them as the sorts who had a limit to what depth of criminal depravity they would reach, but she knew that was an irrational, unreasonable thought. They had been in the employ of Jabba, welcomed and at home in his criminal headquarters, until she had happened along and firebombed the place. Just because they had helped her did not mean they were on the side of good.

 She herself was not on the side of good. She kept having to remind herself of that. Anyone who allied with her was allying with the Emperor’s heir, Vestre Palpatine… the girl who had renounced her parents and everything that they stood for.

 People who wanted to make friends with that girl were not to be trusted.

 And yet, she did. She trusted them. She realized it even as her rational thoughts declared otherwise. She trusted that they would get the job done and would not betray her to the Empire for a bigger payday. She didn’t know why she knew this, for certain, but she had felt a curious instinct drawing her to them, pushing her to go to the cantina with her message for Luke. Perhaps it was the Force giving her a glimpse of direction, of certainty. At any rate, it was done and she could not continue to dwell on whether or not she had made the right choice. As with every move she made these days, she just had to do it, trust in the Force, and hope for the best.

 


 

From Nal Hutta, Leia returned once more to Coruscant, where the Emperor awaited her.

 She mentally prepared herself to defend her actions on Tatooine. Her story was still that Jabba had decided to attempt an assassination seemingly out of the blue, and that she strongly suspected him to have been paid off by the Rebel Alliance to do it. The idea that a Hutt would do such a thing didn’t seem all that much of a stretch to Leia. After all, the Empire’s tolerance for the Hutt’s was in large part due to the continued struggled with the Alliance...once the Empire dealt with the Rebellion once and for all, they would crack down far harder on the crime cartels. It was in the Hutts’ interest to keep the war between the Empire and the Alliance going, neither side winning, and to play them both.

 Convincing him that the Alliance wanted her dead was a little trickier, since even she didn’t think that her mother would outright want her dead. The fact that there was no posted bounty for her safe return to her family was… troubling…. But it didn’t mean anything. Did it? At any rate, she had to convince the Emperor that she believed them capable of assassinating her. The Hutts’ supposed renegade actions made no sense, otherwise.

 “You have done well, my dear,” said the Emperor, welcoming her back. She knelt on one knee before his throne in the Imperial Palace, her head bowed. “You have shown adaptability and ruthlessness in your dealings with the Hutts. I am most pleased, most pleased.”

 “Thank you, master,” she said to the floor.

 “You have earned a reward,” he proclaimed. “You will have a break from your training, tonight. I have arranged a gala in your honor. Of course we cannot publicize our dealings with the Hutts—such tawdry business as dealing with crime lords is not fit to be celebrated here—but who really needs an excuse to throw a ball in honor of a Princess, hm?”

 She looked up. He wasn’t even questioning her about what had gone down on Tatooine. This unsettled her. Yes, they had spoken of it briefly over a comlink, but he had not seemed altogether satisfied with her story, then, and there had been the promise of more discussion to come. She wondered if it was too optimistic to think that he just didn’t care anymore, because she had successfully rebounded from that failure.

 “Thank you,” she said. “May I go prepare for the event?”

 “Yes,” he said, smiling benevolently. “Go on.”

 Leia walked away, feeling a little lightheaded. Had she really gotten away with it? Had she really succeeded with no dire consequences? Why did she still have such a bad feeling coursing through her?

 She put these doubts aside and went to her personal chambers to wash and change. She had sent Threepio there ahead of her, not wanting to tempt the Emperor by having him at her side when she went before him to make her report on her meeting with Gardulla the Hutt. Even when she was alone with just Threepio, she said nothing to him about the real reason the negotiations with Jabba had gone south, and he knew better than to say anything to her about it. Her chambers, though spacious and opulent as befitting a royal Princess, were over glorified prison cells, complete with round the chrono security cameras and microphones.

 There were handmaidens assigned serve her, and usually she barely tolerated their presence, preferring to only have Threepio allowed in her private chambers. But tonight she allowed them to assist her with dressing, hair, and makeup simply because she was preparing for a politically significant party and knew she had to look her best, her most grand and important.

 The Emperor would expect no less. This gala was supposedly in her honor, a reward for her success, but she knew that its true purpose to was to show her off to the Imperial elite.

 If she showed up looking slovenly or even just less than impressive, he would consider it insubordination.

 She entered the grand ballroom when the party in her honor was already in full swing, pausing at the top of a long staircase to survey the Imperial elite gathered below. There were senators and nobility gathered around, trying to outshine each other, along with high ranking officials—Governors and Moffs and Admirals—rubbing shoulders with high class business people and gangsters who knew how to put on a decent face for the public. There were also faux intellectuals—professors at the Coruscanti universities who had no trouble teaching the propaganda of the Empire as history, along with fawning artists, musicians, popular authors, famous HoloDrama stars and the like. None of these people meant anything to her, and she meant nothing to them besides an excuse to gather together and revel in how the Empire had benefited them while crushing the rest of the galaxy under its boot.

 Leia glided down the staircase, drawing the eyes of all who gathered below. Her gown was made of shimmering black satin, and draped across one shoulder was a cape made of many layers of rippling, sheer black silk that fluttered around her like the gossamer wings of a moth as she walked. Her arms and legs, and the bodice of her gown, were adorned with a swirling pattern of dark feathers. She wore a matching headpiece of shining black metal that lifted her hair up above her head in a crown of braids. Her face and neck was painted the deathly white of the Naboo queens and she wore the scar of remembrance on her bottom lip—but tonight it was black, not red.

 The Emperor was seated on a throne backdropped by floor to ceiling transparisteel windows. The glittering, ever moving Coruscant cityscape flickered and shimmered behind him. Leia swept past the Imperial elite, barely sparing them a glance, until she reached the Emperor’s side.

 “You are a stunning sight for this old eyes, my dear,” he said, as she knelt before him. He reached out a hand adorned by a gaudy silver ring set with a deep maroon stone, and Leia kissed the proffered gem before rising to take a seat beside him. She hoped, beyond hope, that she would not be required to make a speech tonight, or dance with some idiot fool who dreamed that they could rise up to the Emperor’s side by way of marriage to his Heir. The last time she’d been to one of these galas, the one thrown to celebrate the announcement of her joining sides with the Empire, several beings had tried (laughably) to sweep her off her feet and charm their way into an alliance.

 The Emperor raised his hands, and the entire room went quiet. Everyone turned to him as he stood.

 “My friends,” he said. “Tonight I have a special treat for you. In honor of Princess Vestre, I have commissioned a special performance from a renowned musical group who (I am told) are highly sought after on many planets across the Outer Rim, but have been hitherto undiscovered here on Coruscant. This band is a particular favorite of the Princess. With that in mind, it is with great pleasure that I present to you, the Max Rebo Band.”

 The room erupted in applause as a curtain was swept aside to reveal the band already set up and ready to go on stage. As soon as the lights hit them, they began to perform a raucous dance rendition of “Glory of the Empire.” The dancing trio was front and center, kicking up their legs and saluting in a row.

 Leia clenched the arms of her chair and could feel the blood draining from her face, till the skin underneath the makeup was likely as pale as the paint on top. She dared not look at the Emperor, though she could hear his pleased laughter as he also applauded the band before retaking his seat.

 “Well, my dear girl, are you not surprised?” Palpatine asked.

 Leia turned to him reluctantly, to see him watching her from underneath his hood with sharp eyes and a sharper smile.

 “Perplexed,” she said. “I have no special affinity for this band. Whoever told you that they were a favorite of mine was mistaken, I’m afraid.”

 “I find them charming. In a crass, backwater saloon sort of way,” he said, turning slowly back to look at the stage.

 She smiled weakly, but dared not say anymore. He was up to something. Was bringing the band here his way of telling her that he knew just how exactly she had messed up the negotiations with Jabba? How else would he even know of their existence?

 The prisoners from Jabba’s must have said something… perhaps Captain Jasha had interrogated them back in Bestine while she was meeting with the smugglers and then traveling to Nal Hutta. The Captain didn’t like her, didn’t like her ordering him around and using his troops to storm Jabba’s palace. Of course he would have sought a way to undermine her with the Emperor! How could she have been so stupid, she thought. How could she have thought that leaving so many witnesses to her mistakes would result in anything short of disaster?

 She could barely stay sitting as the band played on, as the room full of Coruscanti elite smirked and gave each other sidelong glances, as the Emperor chuckled softly into the velvet folds of his cloak. She could barely breathe.

 What would happen to Astreia and Winter? She had come back successful; she had returned triumphant with the cooperation of the Hutts secured. What did it matter that she’d had a misstep along the way? What was he going to do about it? It wasn’t fair. Surely fixing a mistake was more important than making one in the first place… she would have to make him understand.

 The band finished their song and the curtain fell back into place as the audience cheered and clapped… more out of respect for the Emperor and his Princess than appreciation for the performance, Leia was sure.

 The muted strains of violin music started up again as the guests returned to their usual behavior, mulling about and sipping drinks or eating delicate finger foods as they congratulated each other on being so important. Leia dared not say a word, though a multitude of excuses and justifications rushed through her mind.

 “You seemed troubled,” said Palpatine. “Perhaps you should join our guests, meet your future subjects, rather than sit up here in silence with an old man.”

 For once, Leia was glad to get up and mingle with the Imperial citizenry. She stood up without a word and swept down the steps, away from the Emperor on his throne.

 The rest of the night was a blur of sycophants flocking to her, trying to stand out from the crowd or ingratiate themselves with her. She danced and she allowed herself to be flattered and flaunted. She drank the finest champagnes and brandies imported from Corellia and allowed herself to be served platters of fancy foods, like shrimp dipped in Felucian spice sauce or shuura fruit tarts from Naboo. She listened to insufferable fools talk down to her about the state of the galaxy as they bent to kiss her hand.

 The entire time her mind was on the dark shadow that loomed above them all. The Emperor sat on his throne, watching, with his aids and his guards gathered round him. Leia wondered how everyone could behave so carelessly, as if they were not oppressed by a great evil, as if they could not sense the darkness that Palpatine exuded. She wondered if it really was only her who felt it.

 She waited for the other shoe to drop, for her master to reveal a new surprise, for him to let her know that all was not fine and dandy. She carried her heart in her throat and the fine foods and liquors sat like rocks and molten metals in her stomach.

 Finally, the Emperor rose from his seat and bid his guests good night. Then he walked down the steps, flanked by his guards, and lifted a hand to beckon Leia to his side. She went, obediently, head down, and offered him her arm. He liked to appear as a frail old man who needed to lean on his young heir, in public. Her arm felt cold where his hand lay upon it.

 “Come with me, my dear,” he said quietly, as the crowd parted for them, the Coruscanti elite bowing and scraping like the slugs they were. “I have something to show you.”

 She swallowed thickly and said, “Yes, master,” dreading what she would see.

 The Emperor lead her down a few levels until they came to a section of the palace she had never before been allowed to visit. The Palace was rebuilt from the ruins of the old Jedi Temple, and so it was a vast place, with many rooms, many levels, many ancient passageways.

 They went to stand before a window of darkened transparisteel, and at the lifting of the Emperor’s hand, the darkness dissipated to reveal Winter and Astreia Organa seated together on a cushion. Leia drew a sharp intake of breath, and a smile curled across Sidious’s face.

 “I thought you might like to see your friends,” he said. “To know that they are well.”

 The Organas looked frightened, but otherwise unharmed, nor did they looked particularly unhealthy. They were dressed in simple garments but did not appear malnourished or bruised or scarred, and for that, Leia was only slightly relieved. They were still prisoners of the Empire and she knew that many hurts could be invisible.

 “Can I speak with them?” she asked.

 “Perhaps. First, we have some business to attend to.”

 “What business?”

 “Oh, I think you know. The business on Tatooine is unfinished.” He turned, his hand still on her arm, and led her to another similarly shaded window. As the opaque shield lifted, it revealed the members if the Max Rebo band. They were milling about their room, all looking quite nervous… those whose expressions she could read, anyway. There were twelve members of the band in full, and the room seemed small with all those beings gathered inside.

 “What are you going to do with them?” she asked, not bothering to ask how he knew. He knew everything, she thought, dully. It had been foolish to think she could hide anything from him. She wondered if he knew about her secret dealings with the smugglers, too. She wondered if she would be soon led to a third window where she would see Solo and Chewbacca, as well.

 “Their fate is up to you, my dear,” Sidious cooed. “You took such an interest in them, jeopardizing your mission to spare them from Jabba’s whims, that I think it only fitting you should continue to hold their lives in your hands.”

 Leia turned to him, forcing herself to look fully into his face. “They are of no consequence. I suffered a momentary weakness at Jabba’s and I fixed the mistake, as you know.”

 “We all have our moments of weakness,” Sidious replied, his expression one of insincere understanding. “I expect such weakness from you, Darth Vestre. You are still a child, after all, and you were raised to value compassion and selflessness as virtues… do not think I am so deluded into thinking that you can throw off your mother’s teachings so easily. No. What I do not expect, however, is for you to think that you can lie to me without effort.”

 “I’m sorry. It won’t happen again.”

 “You claimed that Jabba attacked you unprovoked. Well, we both know that is not how it happened. You should have confessed your mistake.”

 “I know. I was… I was not thinking clearly. I didn’t want to disappoint you.”

 He laughed. “You feared punishment,” he said. “As well you should have. But do not fear. I am merciful, too. I am pleased with your destruction of Jabba the Hutt, with your swift action to remedy your initial failure. But I remain very displeased with your dishonesty, Vestre. Very displeased.”

 “What are you going to do?”

 He patted her arm before releasing his grip. “I will not punish you, my dear. This is my reward for your success in cleaning up your own mess. However, this is also a learning opportunity. You only partially cleaned up after yourself. You killed Jabba and the ones who stood against you, but you left too many alive. You tried to be treacherous and yet left witnesses to your treachery. This will not do. This is far too sloppy.”

 She lowered her head. His words were confusing. Was he angry that she had lied to him, or angry that she had not done a good job covering her tracks?

 “I have already instructed Captain Jasha to execute all of the prisoners you left in his care,” Sidious said. “And I have issued a bounty on the two smugglers who assisted in your initial escape from Jabba. You should have killed them as soon as you reached Bestine, and you should have slaughtered every living being you found at Jabba’s palace.”

 Leia stepped away from him. “I told you before,” she said, “that I would never be a Sith in my heart. I killed those I had to in order to complete my mission. I did what you asked of me and nothing more.”

 “But that isn’t good enough, my dear. Not good enough, at all. Besides, this is hardly a simple matter of Sith doctrine. It is pragmatism. Even a Jedi would deem your decision making to be poor. If you had wanted your lie to be unshakeable, you should have killed any and all witnesses to it. Everyone who was in Jabba’s palace to see your moment of weakness needed to die. You had a choice, my dear, to be honest and forthright with me or seek to deceive me. You chose deceit but did a very bad job of it.”

 “It would be a waste,” Leia said, her shoulders slumping. “I saved them from the rancor pit, what sense would there be in killing them myself?”

 “All the sense, Vestre. I told you that failure would result in the death of one of your friends.” He waved one hand towards the room where Astreia and Winter were kept. “You knew that Jabba had to die in order to ensure no negative repercussions, but you stopped short of doing what you knew needed to be done. You didn’t have the stomach to kill the others.”

 “Please,” she said, unable to keep her voice from shaking, “I completed the mission as you asked. I secured the alliance with the Hutts. Please do not kill my friends. I succeeded.”

 “Yes, yes,” he said, reaching out to pat her arm again. “Didn’t I tell you that there would be no punishment?”

 She breathed out. “Yes.”

 “And there won’t be. The girls will be fine, just fine. But—”

 Her breath caught in her throat.

 “You must finish what you started.” He turned her towards the window through which the band and the dancers could be seen. “They have been waiting for their payment for tonight’s performance. They are getting impatient, as it has been several hours since they were ushered into this room to await their reward. I think it is time for you to go and give it to them.”

 “But—”

 “Unless you would like the Organa sisters to receive the payment instead?”

 Leia closed her eyes. She felt him take her hand and turn the palm upward, then felt the cold weight of her lightsabers being placed there.

 “I had them brought down from your room,” he said, with a slithering kindness. “Your gown is really quite lovely tonight, my dear, but you should consider keeping your sabers with you at all times, even special gala occasions. You never know when you might need them.”

 “Yes, master,” she said. She took her white saber in her right hand and the red saber in her left, and with heavy footsteps, followed one of the Imperial guards to the door leading into the room where the musicians awaited her.

 There’s no way around it, she told herself, trying to still the shaking in her hands. She could not refuse to do this without sealing Winter and Astreia’s fate.

 I will make it swift and merciful, she thought as slow steps carried her forward. Surely this was better than the fate Jabba had intended. Death by the lightsaber blade was preferable to being devoured alive by a rancor. She would not toy with them or make them suffer. It would be quick. It would be painless.

 It would be a mercy.

 12… 11… 10… 9… 8… 7… 6… 5… 4… 3… 2… 1…

 When it was done, when she stood alone over the fallen alien bodies, she looked at the blank wall that concealed the one-way window, knowing that Sidious watched her from the other side.

 Another window lightened, to her left, and she looked over to see the adjacent room, where Winter and Astreia were huddled together. She stared at them for a moment, fearing some other instruction from Sidious, his bloodlust unquenched, but nothing happened.

 Then, Winter looked up. She looked at Leia. Her eyes showed recognition.

 Leia realized that the window was not a one way view this time. She could see them. They could see her.

 Winter stood up. Astreia looked up in confusion for a moment before she also noticed Leia on the other side. She drew back even as Winter took a few steps towards the window.

 Leia remained rooted in her spot. She held her lightsabers down at her sides and she turned off the blades, but it was too late. Winter had seen them.

 Winter saw everything. The bodies. Leia at the center, white and red sabers in her hands.

 They stared at one another for a long moment.

 Then the transparisteel darkened again. The door to the hall swooshed open and Leia staggered out.

 “Well done, my dear,” said Sidious. “You were swift and decisive. Very good.”

 She remained silent. There were no words to say. Her head felt empty and light on her shoulders. The lightsabers in her hands were impossibly heavy.

 “I noticed a curious thing, however. Perhaps you can help me to understand. You prefer to use two lightsabers, but for this task you only used one of the blades.”

 “Did I,” Leia said, staring past him at nothing. Her voice sounded flat and distant to her own ears.

 “Yes.” He motioned to her left hand. “You only used the red blade, though both were ignited. It would have, in fact, gone a little smoother for you if you had used both. You would not have had to chase them around the room quite so much, I think.”

 “I didn’t realize,” she said, and that was a lie.

 “Well,” he remarked, cheerfully, “no matter. You are still learning. You have done very well tonight. Very well indeed. Come, let us rejoin the party. There is still much to celebrate.”