Chapter 1: Part 1: The Lightsaber
His new left hand was nearly identical to the old one. Anakin smiled to himself without any real humor as he tested the fingers. He wondered darkly if his Master had a store of such things somewhere, just waiting. He’d certainly been ready enough with the life support suit, all those years ago.
For just a moment, Anakin allowed himself to imagine the Emperor as the kind of person who kept a junk room, full of spare parts in various stages of repair, haphazardly organized if at all. There’d be a whole rack of arms, and, inexplicably resting among them, perhaps an extra leg or a spinal column.
The thought was funnier than it probably should have been.
“Is your new arm not functioning adequately?” Kadee asked him. She seemed distinctly annoyed, although her tone, of course, never changed. (He’d asked her once if she’d like it to – it would be a simple enough modification – but she’d thanked him and said no. Not yet. A changeable voice might make her more easily compromised.)
“Adequately is all that can be said for it,” Anakin muttered.
She knew that, of course. Once, before she was free, their Master had programmed her with the understanding that adequate was optimal, when it came to Lord Vader’s functionality. Kadee didn’t need any inflection to make her bitterness evident now.
But in truth Anakin couldn’t complain too much. At least this way he would not have to acclimatize himself to a new and different arm. And while Depur had been beyond furious about the loss of the Death Star, the pain had been much less than Anakin had expected.
Perhaps he should have expected that, though. Now that the Death Star was gone, Vader was once more among the Emperor’s greatest weapons. He was too valuable to damage much.
“I hope you’re not planning to damage yourself again,” Kadee said, as though she’d read his thoughts, and this time Anakin frowned and looked at her fully.
She’d been worried. More worried than she wanted to admit to now, he could tell. That was the trouble with having partners. Leia was the same way; she’d been just as anxious about him when they met on Yavin’s moon, and she hadn’t even attempted to hide it.
It was a strange thought, that anyone should be so concerned about him. It was a thought he wasn’t entirely sure how to process. So most of the time he didn’t.
But Kadee was still buzzing about in front of him in evident distress, and so he made an effort to gentle his voice and said, “No, Kadee. I’m not planning to damage myself again anytime soon.” He forced a smile, stretching the scars across his face. “We have an assignment.”
“Will it get us away from Depur?” she asked, almost before he’d finished speaking.
Anakin fought back a surge of guilt. She really had been worried, if that was the first thing she asked, even before the nature of the assignment.
“Yes,” he said softly, resting his new hand lightly on her casing. “It will get us away from Depur. For quite a long time, possibly.”
“Good,” she said, and only then asked, “Where are we going?”
Anakin smirked. “I have been tasked with eliminating the Rebels responsible for the Death Star’s destruction,” he said. “I have command of a fleet and freedom to use any methods I deem necessary. We are not meant to return until it’s done.”
Kadee buzzed in obvious delight. “Oh good,” she said. “I’ve always wanted a vacation.”
For a moment Anakin only stared at her. Then he burst out laughing.
Two of Kadee’s needle-tipped appendages whirred in her own version of laughter, and Anakin grinned at her. “You certainly deserve it,” he said. “But I’m afraid it won’t be all fun. We will have the fleet to consider.”
Kadee stopped humming abruptly, her spherical body coming to a sudden halt just in front of his face. “Oh no,” she said, and Anakin couldn’t quite manage to stop himself from laughing again. There was just something about those despairing words in her flat, matter-of-fact voice.
“What?” he asked, not even bothering to pretend at innocence. It never worked on her, anyway.
“You’ve already selected your fleet, haven’t you?” Kadee demanded.
Anakin felt his grin widen as he nodded.
“And your Admiral,” Kadee said, clearly without much hope.
Anakin hummed his agreement.
“Does it have to be him?”
Anakin arranged his face in an expression of cool disdain. “Admiral Ozzel is a fine upstanding officer,” he told her in his best impression of a haughty Core-worlder. The effect was somewhat ruined by the rasp of his voice without the mask, but there wasn’t anything he could do about that. “He is a model of Imperial efficiency and decorum, a sterling example of – ”
“He had Zee-ten melted and scrapped.” Kadee’s voice was as toneless as always, but her words cut through Anakin’s bluster with the force of a sudden explosion.
All trace of teasing drained out of him, and he was left with a deep weariness. “I know,” he said softly.
Kadee hadn’t been particularly close with Zee-ten, but she’d enjoyed chatting with the protocol droid at times, and Anakin knew she’d cherished a hope that they could free him someday, that he might become another ally in their cause.
She’d found Ozzel distasteful before, but now she positively loathed him.
“I wish you would promote Captain Altor, Anakin,” Kadee said now. “She would make a good Admiral.”
“Too good,” Anakin said with a snort. “She’s much too competent for the job. No, I need someone with Ozzel’s particular talents for this mission.”
Kadee was silent, which meant she knew he was right.
Finally she said, as though making a great concession, “Maybe he’ll fail so badly that you’ll have to kill him. And then you can promote Piett instead. I like him.”
In spite of himself Anakin chuckled. “I’ll keep that in mind,” he said, and pressed the release that settled his mask back in place. “But for now, his incompetence is useful. After all, you want a long vacation, don’t you?”
But Kadee was buzzing in concern again, whirring rapidly in front of him as though to prevent his going. Anakin could already tell what she was going to say. “You shouldn’t be leaving yet. Electrocution – ”
“I know,” he interrupted her gently. “But I have to be on the bridge for departure, and to ensure our clever Admiral chooses the correct heading, and I – ”
“Will come straight back here as soon as we’re under way,” Kadee said.
Anakin smiled to himself. She was certainly in rare form today. But perhaps he owed her something, after all. “Fine,” he said. “Just for you, I will. We need to adjust the fit of this arm, anyway.”
Kadee let out a rude-sounding blatt of displeasure. She had a phenomenally low opinion of the Emperor’s surgical droids. Anakin couldn’t say he disagreed with her.
He stood, preparing to exit the medical pod, and was startled by the feel of two lightsabers swinging at his hip.
“You didn’t tell me you built a new lightsaber,” Kadee said. There was no reproach audible in her voice, but it was evident all the same.
“It’s not mine,” Anakin said distantly, hefting Kenobi’s lightsaber in his right hand and staring down at it. “It’s – ”
A trophy, the Emperor had called it. A memento to his victory.
Anakin bit back a laugh entirely devoid of humor. Victory, was it? He’d fought the worst duel of his life, fought with movements so slow and deliberate it had felt more like practicing a kata than facing an actual opponent. And Kenobi – Kenobi’s form had been even worse. For one brief, shattering moment, Anakin had dared to think that maybe his old master understood, that there could be –
But of course that was impossible.
His skin itched, licked with fire. This weapon is your life, Kenobi had always said. It might have been his most frequent lecture.
He’d stood there on the burning shore and taken Anakin’s, taken it while Anakin caught and burned, burned, burned. And then he’d walked away.
And now Anakin held Kenobi’s life in his hands. His mouth twisted with the thought. He’d always hated that particular lesson.
“Whose is it, then?” Kadee asked, and Anakin blinked, returning with sharp suddenness to the present.
Kenobi was dead. The thing in his hand was only a weapon. Less, even – or more. It was a collection of parts, rare and valuable parts at that. A treasure trove of salvage.
Not a weapon, but a story.
I tell you this story to save your life, the Grandmother of the Quarters whispered in a voice like the wind, and it echoed back in his mother’s voice.
And with that thought came the answer. The only possible answer.
Of course he couldn’t simply give Leia Kenobi’s lightsaber.
There was the slim but not impossible chance that someone would recognize it, and there would be no good way to explain why Princess Leia held a weapon that was known to be in Darth Vader’s possession.
There was also the distant possibility that Depur might actually expect to see his apprentice’s trophy at some point. And Darth Vader hated Kenobi, of course, and would want to gloat over his death. He would never simply dispose of his old master’s lightsaber.
So Anakin would have to keep it, and keep it intact. At least outwardly.
The most important thing was the crystal. All other lightsaber components were fairly basic; he could obtain them easily and without raising any suspicions. But the focusing crystals were rare, and really only used for one thing. He never could have explained why he needed them.
How convenient, then, that between the two of them, his Masters had managed to hand him exactly what he needed, and a perfect cover story besides.
The first thing to be done was to disassemble Kenobi’s lightsaber. Anakin had always believed that much could be learned about someone from the way they constructed their equipment, and this was especially true of lightsabers. It was probably fortunate that the Emperor did not share this particular belief, or at least put very little stock in it – the fact that Darth Vader’s lightsaber was nearly identical to Anakin Skywalker’s troubled him not at all.
That was no surprise, Anakin thought, flexing his newly modified left hand. His Master had never shown any particular care for his weapons.
Kenobi’s lightsaber, though, showed a fine attention to detail and a preference for finesse and elegance. Anakin smiled to himself. His old master had always been fond of showy, intricate blade work, of complex motions and flaring spins for effect. Once Anakin had enjoyed those things, too, though he’d always been more blunt in his approach than Kenobi.
But he’d learned. This metal body Depur had built for him was hardly suited for such elaborate movement, and simpler methods were often more effective in any case. And Kenobi –
The last of Anakin’s amusement drained sharply away. He could still see Kenobi, his lined face looking shockingly old but his eyes glinting with something new and strange as he raised his lightsaber to allow a blow that never should have connected.
If you strike me down, I will become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.
Anakin had no idea what to make of that – either the words or the twinkle in Kenobi’s eye as he said them. But he had a terrible feeling that there was something familiar there. Something he knew all too intimately himself. It was almost like –
Well, it was almost like Mustafar.
Was it possible? That Obi-Wan Kenobi could have fallen prey to the delusion of power? It seemed incredible, but Anakin knew only too well what desperation could drive a person to.
Well, Master, he thought, surprised at the bitterness of it after all these years, who has the high ground now?
But there was no good answer to that question. He’d known that for a long time now. And it was pointless to dwell on such things. He had work to do.
However beautifully constructed Kenobi’s lightsaber may once have been, the only thing that mattered now was the crystal.
Anakin had built quite a few lightsabers over the years, but he had never built one for someone else.
A lightsaber was a deeply personal thing. A weapon crafted to the wielder. Kenobi’s had been meant for subtlety and elegance, an excellent dueling blade, while Anakin’s own lightsaber was built for endurance and power. Each played to the strengths of their respective fighting styles.
And Anakin had no idea what style of fighting Leia might favor.
He’d never actually had the opportunity to teach her the use of a lightsaber. It would have been impossible for her to carry one while maintaining her cover as an Imperial Senator – the risk if it were to be discovered was far too great. And her mastery of the mental disciplines had been far more imperative, both to her work as a Rebel agent and to her very survival in the Galactic Senate, so near to the Emperor. Skill with a lightsaber, once so prized by the Jedi of old, was simply not among the most vital things for her to learn.
There was something almost amusing there, or there might have been. But Anakin had long ago grown used to the ironies of his life. This one brought only a wry smile.
Maybe one day he’d be able to tell her something of this. But for now Leia was far away, hiding somewhere on a Rebel base that Anakin would be doing his utmost never to find. Teaching her in person, then, was out of the question, as was the possibility of any certain answer to his questions.
So he would have to make do.
Anakin eyed the stack of blank flimsi spread across a tray in his lap and sighed. His stylus tapped once, twice, three times against his knee, metal on metal making a strangely hollow sound. The flimsi remained blank.
He was going about this all wrong. He didn’t know what her fighting style might be, and it was impossible to guess. But he did know her.
Leia was a princess, the daughter of Queen Breha and Senator Bail Organa. She’d been an Imperial Senator herself. The subtle game of politics and espionage was something she was used to. So perhaps…
A hacking laugh surprised its way past his lips, startling Kadee where she hovered curiously by his shoulder.
“What?” she blurted, actually darting back and to one side, her photoreceptor flashing.
“Imagine Leia with a lightsaber,” Anakin said, grinning still and not bothering to apologize. “What do you think? Would she be refined, poised, elegant?”
Kadee buzzed rapidly, clacking several appendages in her version of laughter, and Anakin lasted only a few seconds before joining in again himself. The image was frankly absurd. Even Kadee knew that, and she had never even met Leia, not in person. (Anakin was aware that he tended to talk about her almost like a proud parent sometimes. But he tried his best not to think about that.)
“No,” said Kadee. “She’ll fight like her namesake: with the storm and with fire.”
Anakin’s smile slipped, heavy beneath the weight of years. There were times he felt as old as the desert, and tired, so tired. Dust rattled in his bones, whispering her name.
Leia the Mighty One. She who walked unafraid, shrouded in the white heat of the midday suns, terrible and beautiful with a heart full of flame.
Her name meant something different in Alda. Leia. Beloved. He knew this. He had known it for years now. He had no right to wish –
But he could imagine her, lightsaber clenched in her hand and fury in her eyes. She was a dragon already.
“You’re right,” he said, and told himself that it wasn’t pride he felt. “She’ll fight like me.”
The wiring had always been his favorite part of building a lightsaber.
It was hardly a proper Jedi sentiment. Probably, Anakin remembered thinking in his padawan years, he shouldn’t have a favorite part at all. Or if he did, he was sure it should have been the choosing and aligning of the crystals. Selecting a focusing crystal required one to be perfectly immersed in the Force, guided in every action. The crystal was the heart of the lightsaber, and the lightsaber was the heart of the Jedi.
By contrast, wiring and construction of the hilt were simple mechanical work, matters of technical skill, not spiritual insight. Of course, his Jedi Masters would have been quick to say, the Force guided all of a Jedi’s actions in the building of a lightsaber. Of course every aspect of the work was important. A Jedi must not disdain simple labor…
Anakin hummed softly to himself, an old desert tune he was only half-conscious of, rhythmic and repetitive. After a moment he smiled to hear Kadee joining in, lending a low drone to complement the sound of his chanting.
Wiring was delicate work, a matter of subtlety rather than strength or power. That was what he’d always loved about it. A natural talent could only take you so far with fine work like this. The rest was practice: skill honed by repetition and reworking, until the knowledge sank into blood and bone and flowed out again through every movement and every stillness.
But his hands weren’t flesh and blood, not any more. And these prosthetics were not well suited to the work. He wondered sometimes if that was accident or design. His old right hand, the one he’d chosen for himself in the midst of the Clone Wars, had been more adept. But he’d long ago been fitted with two matching hands chosen by his Master, and Depur had never been particularly concerned with his apprentice’s ability to do fine work.
There was nothing Anakin could do about that. So it wasn’t worth troubling about.
Again the image of a spare parts room full of skeletal arms appeared in his mind, and he let out a soft, chuffing laugh. The thought was just as inappropriately hilarious now as it had been the first time.
“Is the laughter a part of the blessing?” Kadee asked.
Anakin blinked, looking up from the tangled mess in his hands. “Huh?” he said eloquently.
“You laughed,” said Kadee. “I didn’t know that was a part of the song for Amarattu.”
Anakin froze. He’d been singing Amarattu?
But perhaps that was right. He remembered his mother, so long ago now, teaching him the words as her fingers guided his through the innards of a faulty vaporator. Watto had given it to them, smirking, and said that if they could fix it, it was theirs. Anakin had been only four years old, but even then he’d known that Watto hadn’t really believed Shmi could fix the vaporator.
The song flows with the breath, Ani, his mother had said, her voice almost a chant as her fingers danced over the wiring. In and out, in and out. Ar-Amu gives us breath, and in our breath she lives and in our breath she speaks to us.
Here in his hyperbaric chamber, the only place where his breath was truly his own, Anakin breathed deep, held it until his chest began to burn, and released. His mother’s words flowed with the air through his lungs.
She’d taught him the signs to make, too, the sacred symbols to go with the words and the prayer of the breath. Simple lines and circles, their very simplicity disguising their meaning, carved as easily into japor wood as drawn in sand or etched in metal.
Amarattu. The Mother’s protection.
And he’d sung it for Leia without a conscious thought.
“I didn’t realize,” Anakin rasped, letting the tangle of wire fall to his lap. He turned to Kadee and smiled. “But you’re right. Laughter may not be part of the song, but I don’t think it can hurt.”
When we laugh, Shmi’s voice whispered through his memory, we remember that we are born to be free.
“But you still need to make the sign,” Kadee said.
Anakin considered that. It was hardly the Jedi thing to do. But after all Kenobi was dead (dead and Anakin was not thinking about why), and this was not his lightsaber. And Anakin himself had insisted to Leia that he was no Jedi. Certainly she wasn’t.
He half-thought that his former Masters might even have taken Leia for Dark. She was too much like him at times (and if he thought that with just a hint of pride, well, he would not allow himself to think too deeply on it), and he had never been a very good Jedi.
He wondered sometimes what kind of Jedi her mother had been. What kind of Jedi Leia herself might have made, in a different world. Would she have been cool and steady and dispassionate? Would the fire that burned in her now ever have been stoked to raging flame?
He couldn’t imagine Leia as a Jedi. She had an anger in her that was wild and alive and more than a little familiar. It made him think not of a Jedi but of a Queen, young and fearless, or of a slave woman, beaten and unbowed. It made him think of a dragon.
And so he told Kadee, “You’re right, of course.”
“Of course,” said Kadee, contriving by repetition to sound smugly pleased, in spite of her unchanging voice. A small compartment near the center of her spherical casing slid open and Anakin took the fine etching tool she offered him.
He’d used it before mainly on her. She wasn’t willing to change anything outward about her appearance, or anything else Depur might easily notice, like her inflectionless voice. But Kadee had fully embraced the Tatooine tradition of freedom marks.
She’d had him carve several of the symbols into the inside of her casing, where they would be invisible to anyone unless they took her apart. But they were there. That was what mattered. Kelapu for change, mitta for endurance, tapu for health (a choice Kadee found bitterly humorous), and Amarattu for protection. Kol-depuan, unfettered, she’d had him paint over the casing of her central processor.
Now Kadee took up her steady, humming drone again, and this time Anakin sang with purpose. His voice was low and rasping, and it cracked several times, but that didn’t matter. It was the words that mattered, the words that shaped his lips even when they emerged soundless or broken.
The lightsaber was propped on a makeshift work table before him. A skeletal construction surrounded the blue crystals, catching and refracting their light. Anakin’s hand hesitated over the primary crystal mount, and then he brought the etcher down.
The symbol poured easily from his hand and down through the tool: the square that meant a guide, and the spirals of the great storms, and the curving lines like streams of water flowing in the desert.
He’d carved this symbol once for another young woman, bright and beautiful and radiant in her anger, a girl from the stars who hadn’t believed that the Republic she loved could ever support slavery.
Leia had thought that way once, too. Perhaps she still did.
Perhaps, one day, she could even make it true.
Amarattu, the Mother’s protection, Anakin carved into the smooth metal of the crystal mount. Bentu, justice, he set into the inner casing at the weapon’s base. Shmina, wisdom, he etched around the wall of the crystal chamber. Nimku, the mark of one with the power to choose, he wrote on the inside of the activation plate. And umakkar, the raging storm, adorned the sides of the blade channel.
There was a song for each sign, and Kadee kept up the drone as he chanted, until the last line was drawn, and the outer casing was sealed, and all the sacred sigils were hidden away.
The lightsaber was a perfect cylinder of brushed silver, artfully simple in its design. She liked simple things. In that, at least, she was nothing like Padmé.
To his own surprise, the thought brought a smile.
But there was one last sign to make. It was a foolish risk, and something she would never understand. Her name was Alderaanian. But Anakin had learned long ago that there were no coincidences. Only the illusion of coincidence.
And so, into the smooth and gleaming hilt, just beneath the activation panel, he carved the sign for Leia, the Mighty One of the desert, fearless and unconquered. The symbol was three-pronged, a dragon’s claw mark set above a half-arch.
Carved this way, points up, it almost looked like a crown.
Now there remained only the question of delivery.
No matter what he might wish, Anakin knew it would be impossible to give Leia the lightsaber in person. And he would be equally unable to teach her its use.
It was possible, of course, that Kenobi had begun to instruct the pilot who had destroyed the Death Star and who was now Leia’s student (and perhaps her teacher as well). But Anakin couldn’t be sure of that. And he couldn’t afford to leave it to chance.
Which really only left one choice.
He would have to send a holocron. And there was only one holocron he could reasonably send without risking access to the old Jedi Archives, which would certainly be noticed by his Master, and for which he would be unable to provide any suitable explanation.
Really he shouldn’t even have access to this holocron, but it had been confiscated by one of the Inquisitors almost three years ago, and his Master, of course, had thought it a wonderful joke to give the thing to Lord Vader.
But there were no coincidences. And, as so often seemed to be the case, no real choice, either.
Kadee hummed when he told her. “Well,” she said. “At least you can be sure that she’ll have a good teacher.”
Anakin groaned. “I’m not so sure about that at all,” he muttered. “But we do what we must.”
“Yes,” said Kadee, who knew that all too well herself.
“We’ll have to send a courier,” Anakin said. “And it’s unlikely they’ll be able to come back. What do you think? Do we have anyone suitable who might need an extraction soon?”
Kadee considered this, her fans whirring at speed while she remained perfectly still.
“Elcee,” she said at last. “They’ve had a few too many ‘malfunctions’ lately, and they misidentified a Rebel base just yesterday. It’s only a matter of time before Ozzel has them scrapped. You should do it first.”
Anakin frowned. Had there been a false identification yesterday? He hadn’t been paying enough attention, and he would have to correct that immediately. Ozzel’s incompetence was useful, but Anakin couldn’t afford to take it for granted. Things were far too delicate at the moment. He couldn’t risk actually discovering the Rebel base, not now.
“Yes,” he told Kadee slowly. “I think you’re right.”
LC-13 was an analyst droid Kadee had freed nearly a year ago. Their position had proved incredibly helpful to the Rebellion, but a droid could only produce a mistaken analysis so many times. And Elcee was an older model, too. Ozzel wasn’t the sort to keep outdated technology for long.
“All right,” Anakin said. “We’re making port at Muunilinst in seventeen hours. Have Elcee taken offline and schedule them for disintegration. Contact Entee in Waste Management and alert him to the plan. We’ll log Elcee as destroyed, give them that new paint job they’ve been wanting, and send them on to Ripple.”
Kadee buzzed in delight. “Oh, this is so exciting,” she said, and Anakin bit his lip to keep from laughing at her perfectly flat delivery. “I’ve always wanted to fake someone’s death.”
Anakin snorted. “Trust me,” he muttered, “it’s not nearly as fun as it sounds.”
Elcee was waiting nineteen hours later in a small, nondescript hangar on the opposite side of the spacedock from Executor’s berth. They were now painted a matte grey rather than the standard glossy black, and somehow Entee had found the time to add a hover field generator to Elcee’s single tread. The droid was now floating an inch or so above the dusty hangar floor.
A rather battered Corellian light shuttle waited behind Elcee, drab and unadorned, the kind of ship that was found in multiples in every space port in the galaxy.
“You understand the mission?” Anakin asked shortly.
“Yes,” said Elcee. “I will see the delivery safely made to Ripple on Ord Mantell. She will be expecting me?”
“She will,” said Anakin as he handed over the holocron and watched Elcee deposit it in a small compartment in their midsection. The compartment closed again, nearly invisible if Anakin hadn’t already known it was there.
“The delivery can only be made to her,” he added, though he knew Elcee was already aware. It was important enough to risk saying again.
“I understand,” said Elcee. They stretched out a hand. “Thank you, Ekkreth.”
Anakin clasped the droid’s elbow in his own hand, and saw more than felt Elcee do the same to him. “Thank you, Elcee,” he whispered, though the vocoder made his voice sound just as loud as it always did. “Tell her – ” But there was too much, too much that he wanted to say and couldn’t, too much that he had no right to say even if he could. “ – tell her to remember her training.”
“I will tell her,” Elcee said solemnly.
Anakin nodded. His left hand twisted, the lightsaber turning over and over in his grip, his fingers tripping over the clawed crown of Leia’s mark on the hilt as his thoughts repeated the ancient blessing again and again.
“I’m to deliver that as well?” Elcee prodded gently, and Anakin started, the weapon coming to rest awkwardly in his too-large hand.
“Of course,” he muttered, thrusting the hilt abruptly toward the droid. Elcee took it, and an illusory warmth went with it, leaving behind a faint tingle in an arm that had been gone for twenty years.
The hidden compartment opened and closed again. Elcee stepped backwards, towards the ship.
Anakin nodded again, just once, and turned sharply on his heel. Darth Vader was expected at a meeting with his admiral and captains in less than an hour, and LC-13 had been disintegrated two hours ago. There was nothing more to do here.
Behind him came the sounds of a shuttle roaring to life. Anakin left the hangar without looking back.
Chapter 2: Part 2: The Holocron
Happy holidays, kids! I hope you like irony.
This is monstrously long. And I’m still not entirely happy with it, but I think I’ve tweaked it as much as I can, so.
Warnings for: mentions and implications of slavery, off-screen death (not of a major character), enough irony to power the entire Imperial fleet.
Part 2: The Holocron
Leia hadn’t thought that any place could be more dismal than Panoor, but Ord Mantell had quickly proved her wrong.
Oh, it didn’t have the perpetual rain and dreary skies of Panoor. Ord Mantell was more often sunny and warm than not. In fact it was downright hot, the air thick and muggy and ripe with the sickly sweet smells of sweat and rotting garbage.
But it was the feel of the place that was truly oppressive. People came to Ord Mantell to disappear, it was said, and Leia could easily believe it. The people they passed in the streets were dull-eyed and slow, their faces slack and their steps going wide of one another. They looked more dead than alive.
That was how Leia had spotted the bounty hunter. He’d been trying to blend in, probably, but he’d looked far more real than anyone else here. He’d been difficult to miss.
Han was clearly shaken by the encounter, and maybe by Leia’s response as well. She wasn’t sure she wanted to know that, though. And she had bigger things to worry about, anyway.
The bounty hunter had been searching for Han Solo, not for members of the Rebellion, which would at least buy them some time here. But that was small comfort. If that bounty hunter had stood out so badly, it was almost certain that they would, too. They couldn’t stay on Ord Mantell for long.
But Leia couldn’t leave yet. Not until she’d met with Ekkreth’s courier.
He’d contacted her three days ago, for the first time in months, over a seven-way encrypted subspace channel that still represented a greater risk than any he would normally take. Whatever he was sending must be important.
Leia hadn’t asked how he’d known she was on Ord Mantell. It was enough to know that his Imperial persona remained unaware of her location, and was currently engaged in a wild nerf chase halfway across the galaxy.
Ekkreth had said he had something to give her, but he hadn’t offered any more information than that, and he’d spoken in the monotone droid’s voice that he used for all his subspace transmissions. It was far more effective than any scrambler, and infinitely safer, for both of them. Leia knew that. It was ridiculous of her to want to hear his voice.
Chewie wuffed softly just behind her, and Leia started, turning around to glare at her companions.
“We need to get under cover,” Han muttered, his gaze darting nervously around the crowded, slow-moving street. It landed on her momentarily, and looked no less nervous.
Leia sighed. Luke was looking back and forth between her and Han, and Chewie was staring at her pointedly, but now was not the time or place to explain.
“All right,” she said. Something prodded at her, a whisper in the Force. She didn’t know what it meant, but she’d learned to follow that prodding.
Now it led her to a small establishment only a few dozen meters away. It was a sad little tea house, musty with age and crumbling masonry. A pair of Rodians entirely failed to look up from their table in the far corner, and an ageless Togruta man stared them down listlessly from his place behind the counter.
“Have a seat,” he mumbled, and went back to wiping down a chipped mug with a rag that probably hadn’t been clean in weeks.
Leia shot a glance at her companions. Han still looked unnerved, though he was doing a better job of hiding it now. Chewie’s attention was trained entirely on Han, and he radiated concern and a protective aura that would have sent any bounty hunter with sense running, or at least walking very speedily in the opposite direction. Only Luke met her eyes, and he simply gave her an easy shrug and a smile and turned toward the nearest table.
That was oddly reassuring. Leia couldn’t imagine why the Force had led her here, but it helped that Luke had apparently felt it too. Or maybe he was simply willing to go along with her intuition.
“I wouldn’t mind a cup of tea,” Luke said as they sat. “And this place doesn’t look too bad.”
Leia stared at him incredulously. He appeared to be serious.
“What?” he asked, laughing at her expression. “Obviously you’ve never been to a…well, let’s call it a restaurant on Tatooine.”
Leia bit her tongue. Luke was laughing, but he wasn’t joking. For a moment she was almost reminded, strangely, of Ekkreth.
“He’s got you pegged, Your Worship,” Han snickered, though he still didn’t sound up to his usual bravado.
“I’ve never been to Tatooine at all,” Leia said with a teasing shrug of one shoulder. “Apparently I’m missing out.”
Han snickered. Chewie let out a whuff of laughter. But Luke only looked at her. “You’re really not,” he said, voice flat and bone dry. “It’s mostly sand. Sand and gangsters and…well.” He glanced aside at Han and Chewie, and Leia knew what he meant. Skywalker was a slave name.
Han looked quickly between the two of them, but Leia couldn’t read his expression. “Oh, come on, kid,” he said with a half-hearted attempt at a lazy grin. “You’re selling the place short. There’s the cantinas and the junk shops, too. Though…come to think of it, those are mostly in the pocket of the Hutts anyway.”
Leia opened her mouth, but snapped it quickly closed again when she saw the Togruta waiter approaching. He had a grimy datapad in one hand and an expression of such perfect disinterest that Leia began to think they should be more careful with their conversation. She knew that disinterested look well. She’d seen it often enough in the mirror.
“What can I get you?” the man muttered, apparently directing his question at the surface of the table.
Leia shrugged helplessly and ordered an ardees. In a place like this, it was probably the safest bet. She felt strangely vindicated when Han ordered the same, along with a wahrup for Chewie.
Luke turned to the waiter, smiled, and said something in a language Leia had never heard before.
The man’s entire demeanor changed. His eyes snapped up to look at them, wide and somehow frightened and hopeful at once. His free hand moved to cover a tattoo on his left forearm that Leia had only just noticed. A small circle with three long lines extending from it, like rays of light from a sun. The man said something to Luke in the same language, and they talked for several moments. Finally he gave Luke a sharp nod and moved back to the counter.
Luke turned back to them. “What?” he said.
“Kid…” said Han. His voice sounded strange, choked. He was looking at Luke as though he’d never seen him before.
Luke sighed. “He’s from Tatooine,” he said, then hesitated before adding, so quietly that Leia almost didn’t hear, “like my father.”
A freed slave.
“Oh,” said Leia. Her voice felt very small.
But Luke, strangely, was smiling. “Yeah,” he said. “So we should be safe here.”
“Is he…with us?” Leia asked, cringing slightly at the awkwardness of her own question.
“I’m not sure,” Luke said easily. “Not about that. But Tarrok’s with…well. He’ll have contacts. There’s…a network.”
Leia bit her tongue. She could see Han doing the same. Not about that, Luke had said, but it almost sounded like an afterthought. This Tarrok wasn’t a member of the Rebellion, as far as they knew. But there was a network. Another network, one that had, perhaps, been running longer than the Empire had existed. And Luke was clearly a part of it, too. Skywalker was a slave name.
She said nothing, and a moment later the man, Tarrok, returned, balancing two cups of ardees, a large glass of wahrup, and a steaming mug of something spicy and almost familiar, which he placed in front of Luke.
Luke took the mug, fairly beaming, and downed a healthy swallow. Then he set it on the table and said something to Tarrok in that unknown language. The Togruta replied. Leia had no idea what they were saying, but the whole exchange had the air of ritual.
Luke drank again, smiling, and then began gesturing around the table, still speaking in that other language. He motioned toward her, and though she couldn’t understand him, Leia thought she heard her own name.
Tarrok’s eyes narrowed. He peered sharply down at her. His lips moved, murmuring words she couldn’t read. Then he smiled.
“Ripple,” he said.
Leia held the confusion on her face and the innocence in her eyes. She had long practice at this. She wouldn’t be so easily startled. “Excuse me?” she asked, polite, innocently confused.
The Togruta studied her a moment longer, then nodded decisively and turned on his heel. “There’s a droid waiting for you,” he said. “Come with me.”
Leia hesitated. But Tarrok was already halfway to the back and looking over his shoulder impatiently. He had no time for her confused act, that look seemed to say. It was his honest annoyance, more than Luke’s reassuring nod, that finally convinced Leia. “Save my seat,” she murmured to Han, and followed Tarrok into the back of the little shop.
There was an Imperial analyst droid waiting in the hidden room beneath Tarrok’s kitchen.
There were other things in that room, too. Several mattresses stacked neatly in one corner. A careful collection of small toiletries. A half-packed knapsack. Evidence of quickly eaten meals. A scanner of some kind, and beside it a number of sterile surgeon’s implements and a roll of gauze.
Leia recognized the room from Luke’s stories. And that sparked something in her, a thought only half-formed. There was an answer here, but what the question was, she didn’t yet know. So she tucked the thought carefully away. Now was not the time.
She recognized the droid, too, or at least the model. The kind of analyst droid that had once been standard on Imperial Star Destroyers. An older model, now, slowly being phased out but still common enough to be nearly invisible.
Ekkreth had always seemed to like droids. She had no doubt who had sent this one.
Tarrok glanced quickly between Leia and the droid, nodded once, and slipped back out the hidden door. It closed seamlessly behind him.
“The mighty one comes with the storm and with fire,” said the droid.
That thought, the one that had yet to fully form, buzzed in Leia’s mind again, startled and insistent. She felt as though she were hearing the coded words for the first time.
“We will walk free,” she whispered.
Here, in the safe house of a rebellion older than the Empire, a rebellion that had never been hers, the words seemed to fill the whole world.
But she had to be sure. “Who tells the rain what it is?”
“The ripple,” said the droid.
The breath Leia hadn’t been aware of holding escaped at last. She’d found Ekkreth’s messenger, and she’d done so entirely by accident.
But then, Ekkreth was always saying that there were no coincidences. That was something to think about, too. Something else that would have to wait until she’d received Ekkreth’s message, until they were well away from Ord Mantell and safe again, or at least as safe as they could be, on the next Rebel base. For now, she had to focus on the job at hand.
“What do you have for me?” she asked the droid. And then, as an afterthought, “And what should I call you?”
“My name is Elcee,” the droid said. There was a definite note of pride in that voice, and Leia didn’t miss the almost defiant emphasis on the word name.
Elcee, she thought. Like Kadee. Like Artoo and Threepio, as Luke called them. A name, not a designation.
There was something there, too. Another piece of a puzzle that remained only half-guessed. She gathered this thought, too, and put it away with the others, jumbled fragments of an unknown truth. Now was not the time.
“Elcee, then,” Leia said. “Ekkreth sent you?”
“Yes,” said Elcee. “I bring a message, and a gift.”
Leia blinked, startled, as what she had taken for an analysis tray in the middle of the droid’s torso slid open to reveal two highly illicit items. Elcee removed them with almost reverent care and offered them to Leia on the flat palm of one outstretched hand.
She had never seen a holocron in person before, but Leia recognized the device instantly. And beside it there was a lightsaber.
It looked markedly different from Luke’s. The hilt was sleek chrome and uniformly smooth, narrower in circumference than Luke’s and suited to her smaller hands. It gleamed in Elcee’s palm. Leia stared at it, drawn in a way she couldn’t explain.
“He – he made this – ”
“For you,” said Elcee. “Yes. The holocron will teach you how to use it. And I have been instructed to tell you to remember your training.”
Leia snorted. Well, that was very like Ekkreth. “Of course he did,” she muttered, not quite able to disguise the fondness in her voice.
Her hand hesitated over the lightsaber. A Jedi’s weapon, like Luke’s, or General Kenobi’s. Like her mother’s.
Leia’s fingers closed around the hilt. The metal felt almost warm, strange and yet familiar. Images flowed before her eyes: stark white walls and blinking monitors; two hands working dexterously, metal and wires crafting metal and wires; the gleam of light on blue crystal, refracting. She heard laughter, thin and rasping, and the echo of a chanting voice humming through her veins. For a fleeting moment, she thought she saw her dream-mother smile.
And then the feeling passed and she was once more standing in the hidden room, the last fading strains of a song she didn’t know drifting through her mind. She turned the lightsaber over in her hand, seeking what her fingers had felt: a series of lines etched in the metal, just beneath the activation panel. It was a stylized depiction of a crown, small and subtle but unmistakable. Leia traced over the design, wondering.
“I am also meant to tell you,” said Elcee, “that there has been rumor of Rebel activity in this sector, and that Lord Vader may soon choose to investigate.”
Leia smiled wryly. “And so we’ll need to be gone. Understood.” She clipped the lightsaber to her belt, carefully positioned so it hung invisibly beneath her vest. The holocron was more unwieldy. It sat awkwardly in the pouch at her side, the fabric bulging slightly around it, but that would have to do for now. She turned back to Elcee. “And what about you? We’ll have to send you back somehow, won’t we? Does he have a plan for that?”
“No,” said Elcee. “I own myself. I am not going back.”
Leia paused. There it was again, that sense of something elusive but important. Those words, spoken in this room…
But she would have to examine it later. Now, they had to go.
“Well then,” she said briskly. “Would you like to come with us, Elcee? We could always use a good analyst, especially one with experience of Imperial structures, and we’d be happy to have you.”
The droid looked at her long and levelly. “I own myself,” they said again. “I will call no one Master.”
“Of course not,” Leia murmured, a little weakly. She’d never heard a droid speak this way before.
Finally, when she began to think she could bear the droid’s unblinking stare no longer, Elcee nodded. “Very well,” they said, surprising warmth in their voice. “I will be happy to work with you, Ripple.”
“Call me Leia,” she said on a sudden impulse. It was the right thing to say. Had the droid possessed a face capable of expression, she thought they would have been grinning.
Leia knocked once, softly, at the almost seamless section of wall that concealed the entrance to Tarrok’s secret room. For several moments, there was no answer, but then the wall slid soundlessly aside and Luke, Han, and Chewie stumbled in. A harried Tarrok closed the wall immediately behind them without a word.
“What’s going on?” Leia hissed.
“Imperial inspection,” Han whispered back. “Tarrok says it’s routine.” He sounded doubtful, and Leia noticed that his hand was resting easily on the blaster at his hip. He caught her looking, and sent her a lopsided grin. “Can’t be too careful. If there’s one thing I know, it’s that you can never trust a smuggler.”
Leia bit back a snort of laughter. But Luke was shaking his head, his eyes gleaming as they darted quickly around the room.
“He’s not a smuggler,” he whispered, staring at the scanner and the surgical tools beside it. “Not like that. This is a chelik-ta. A safe house.”
“A wh– ” Han began, but Leia gestured sharply at him and he fell silent. She’d sensed something out there, beyond the wall that kept them hidden, and by the look on Luke’s face, she could tell he’d sensed it too. The vague, disinterested presence in the Force that was the hallmark of someone going through the motions, not truly engaged with where they were or what they were doing.
Stormtroopers, then. And it must have been a routine inspection, after all, for them to show so little interest.
Nevertheless, Leia held herself perfectly still. They couldn’t afford to be caught now. It was bad enough she’d had to dispose of the bounty hunter. A missing squad of Imperial stormtroopers would be much harder to hide, and it would likely be Tarrok who’d have to bear the brunt of the consequences.
Outside, they could hear the troopers moving about the small shop. There was a clatter as something large and heavy was knocked over, and then the tinny sound of laughter filtered through helmets. Tarrok said something, too low for Leia to make out. Maybe Luke heard it, though, or perhaps he was simply more familiar with the everyday cruelty of inspections. His hands were clenched tightly at his sides, the knuckles stark and white. Chewie’s eyes, too, had narrowed, and she noticed that Han was watching his co-pilot carefully.
There was another crash. Luke’s hand found its way to his lightsaber, and Leia’s fingers darted out to clasp his, to hold him back. If they revealed themselves, they would only make things worse.
That was one of the oldest lessons she’d learned in her double life, and still the one that rankled most.
They waited. Several more crashes followed, and then there was the sound of something heavy and soft hitting the floor. The troopers laughed again. There was a loud scuffle of boots and shifting armor, almost enough to drown out the faint swish of a door, and then silence fell like winter night in the mountains: suddenly and violently.
A moment later the wall slid aside. A large bruise shone livid purple against Tarrok’s blue skin, covering most of the left side of his face. “They’re gone now,” he whispered. “But you can’t stay here. I’m sorry.”
Leia gave him the best smile she could manage. “No, we’re sorry for bringing this on you. You’ve already done so much and – ”
She stopped. Tarrok was laughing.
“You haven’t brought anything new here,” he said, still chuckling. “The inspectors come once a week at least. They think I’m running illegal merchandise, you see. But they can’t find anything.”
Not a smuggler, Leia thought. Her eyes fell on the knapsack half-filled with clothes. Illegal merchandise, she thought. She couldn’t look at the surgical tools, and she couldn’t look at Luke. Her stomach twisted.
“Even so,” she said. “The longer we stay the greater the danger will be for you. Do you have a safe way out?”
Tarrok hesitated a moment, glancing pointedly at the droid.
“I am going with them,” Elcee said. “I will not endanger you any further. But I am grateful for your help, Tarrok.”
Han looked briefly incredulous, and Leia feared she might have to intervene, but then he gave an exaggerated shrug and turned back to Tarrok. Clearly, he’d decided now wasn’t the time for questions. Leia was reluctantly impressed.
“There’s a tunnel,” said Tarrok, crossing the room to place one hand on a seemingly empty section of wall. It slid away, revealing a dark passageway lit at long intervals with dim haloes of light. “This will take you to a warehouse just outside Docking Bay 18. Keep silent as you go. The way passes beneath three taverns and an Imperial barracks.”
Leia saw Han’s eyes widen, and felt her own brows raise in surprise. She was used to clandestine activity, but even she couldn’t say she’d made a habit of sneaking about literally under the nose of an Imperial garrison.
“You’re sure you won’t come with us?” Luke asked their host.
Tarrok smiled, small and secret. “No,” he said. “My place is here.”
Luke held his eyes for a moment and then nodded. Without another word he turned and moved toward the tunnel. Elcee followed, and then Han and Chewie. Leia went last, and Tarrok closed the hidden door behind them, and then there was only darkness, illumined by faint stabs of light.
Artoo and Threepio were waiting for them on the Falcon. They had an unconscious stormtrooper tucked just beside the top of the boarding ramp, haphazardly trussed with what looked like a coiled length of electrical wire. Leia caught Luke’s eye and saw that he was laughing silently.
Maybe they should have been more worried – the droids had obviously been discovered – but Leia couldn’t help a smile of her own. Ekkreth’s advice all those years ago had proven more than accurate: Artoo was quite a reliable ally.
And Threepio, of course. But Leia had no doubt about which of them had subdued the trooper.
“Oh, Princess Leia,” Threepio nearly wailed. “You’ve returned only just in time. We’ve had no end of troubles here, and I’m afraid Artoo has done something terribly rash.”
The astromech responded with a rude blatt, followed by an excited whirr as Elcee came aboard. The analyst droid startled Leia by answering in binary, and there was a flurry of beeps and whistles. She glanced again at Luke and saw that his eyebrows had risen into his hairline.
“All right, all right, enough chatter,” Han snapped. He jabbed the air with a finger, gesturing rapidly between Artoo and Threepio. “You two can give us the full update once we’re in hyperspace.” He spared the motionless stormtrooper a brief glance. “For now, dump the stiff and let’s get out of here.” With that he and Chewie made for the cockpit without once looking back.
Leia looked at Luke and shrugged. There was no knowing how much the stormtrooper may have learned, but they didn’t have much choice. They could hardly take him with them, and the only other alternative would be to kill him.
Ekkreth might have done that. It was an uncomfortable thought, all the more so because she understood it. Because she knew that sometimes there were no good choices, and in that absence, maybe what was practical was best.
But Leia couldn’t do it. The bounty hunter had been one thing. This was different. The stormtrooper was unconscious and helpless. She couldn’t kill him.
She could tell that Luke had reached the same conclusion. But there was some comfort in knowing that he had also considered it.
Luke lowered the ramp again, and together they hefted the trooper’s unwieldy body out of the ship and across the hangar. They propped him up against a data station, relieved him of his blaster, comlink, and helmet, and returned to the ship. Han was raising the ramp before they’d even fully boarded.
“I’ve seen more than enough of this garbage heap,” he said over the ship’s coms. “Everybody buckle up. We’re out of here.”
The pursuit caught them before they’d even made it out of atmosphere, but Leia found she wasn’t really worried. It felt almost natural now: Han and Luke split off to man the guns, and Leia slid into the pilot’s seat beside Chewie. There were five TIE fighters following them, and then three, and then none. Han and Luke whooped into their headsets, and Leia punched in the hyperspace coordinates, and they were gone, leaving Ord Mantell far behind.
And now, Leia thought, she’d face the real challenge.
They had several hours ahead of them in hyperspace, and no more pressing concerns. She was out of excuses to avoid her companions’ questions, and judging by the glint in Han’s eye and the more subdued but no less real curiosity in Luke’s, it was clear they knew it.
Leia sighed. “Let’s go to the main hold,” she said. “If we’re going to do this, I could use a cup of ardees.”
Han didn’t exactly keep a stock of gourmet ardees, but after three years drinking the awful stuff they served in the Imperial Senate, Leia thought she could stomach anything.
“So, Your Worship,” Han drawled, draping himself inelegantly over the arm of a chair. “You gonna tell us what happened back there with that bounty hunter?”
And that was the real trouble. Could she tell them? Luke, at least, must have guessed that what she’d done had something to do with the Force. But Han didn’t know even that much. And she’d kept this secret for so long. It would change everything between them, she thought, and she wasn’t at all sure she wanted that to happen.
She glanced at Luke. His expression was carefully reserved, and she knew that if she decided to lie, he would support her. He would keep her secret.
The thought sat heavily in her stomach. If she were completely honest with herself, as she always tried to be, it weighed far more than the thought of the bounty hunter she had killed. That had been necessary, a defense both of her friends and of the Rebellion and its secrets. She’d needed to do something, and they couldn’t afford the noise of a blaster shot.
This was different. This was…it was like the stormtrooper. Maybe she should lie, but she couldn’t.
So she looked Han directly in the eye and said, “I used the Force. That’s what happened.”
Han gaped at her. Chewie growled a question, and from the corner of her vision Leia saw Luke nodding, but she didn’t look away from Han.
“What?” Han spluttered, now looking rapidly back and forth between her and Luke. “Both of you now? Look, I didn’t sign up for all this mystical mumbo jumbo. I – ”
“This mystical mumbo jumbo saved your life,” Leia snapped.
Han’s face softened, and some of the panic drained away. “I know,” he said quietly. He sounded almost defeated.
Something in Leia ached. This wasn’t what she’d wanted at all.
“Luke and I have been practicing together,” she said. “In secret. I – I haven’t told anybody else.”
“Yeah,” said Han, still with that soft, vulnerable edge to his voice. “I get it. I won’t blab, Leia.”
Leia started. It was only the second time he’d ever called her by her name. She’d been keeping track.
“Thank you, Han,” she said softly, and tried for a smile. Han’s answering twist of the mouth was more grimace than smile, but at least it was real.
Luke, of course, had many more questions. He wanted to know what exactly she’d done to the bounty hunter, and how she’d done it. He must have guessed how she’d learned it, but he was clearly curious about that, too. This was nothing like any of the things he’d ever seen Ben do.
Leia had put him off for now, but she’d promised to explain in detail once they got to Hoth. First, she had to familiarize herself with Ekkreth’s delivery.
She hadn’t told Luke about that yet, either. Not until she knew what was contained in that holocron. As much as Luke knew about her training and her teacher, he still had no intelligence clearance, and until she had verified that there was no confidential information on that holocron, it had to remain a secret.
Leia sighed to herself, turning the holocron over and over in her hands. At least it was quiet here. She’d claimed the crew quarters for herself, because it was one of the few places on the ship she knew had full sound proofing, and no one had really questioned that. Han had retreated to the cockpit, still looking ill at ease. Chewie had followed after him, concern brightening his eyes. Leia let them go without a word. They needed time, Han especially, and there wasn’t much more she could do. The truth was out. Now he would have to decide what to do with it.
Luke was still in the main hold, talking animatedly with Elcee. He’d clearly guessed that she’d received some kind of delivery on Ord Mantel, and that it was probably related to the intelligence side of her duties, since she hadn’t said anything about it. He just as clearly believed that Elcee themself was that delivery, and Leia couldn’t disabuse him of that notion. At least not yet.
Besides, Luke liked droids, and they liked him. He reminded her a bit of Ekkreth in that way. It was a strange comparison: huge, menacing Ekkreth, who looked not unlike a droid himself, and Luke with his warm smile and his easy laughter. But maybe not so very strange. Both of their minds were a desert.
The holocron was resting on one side in her palm now. Geometric shapes in blue and gold covered its perfectly square surface. Leia had no idea how to open it.
She’d already tried all of their coded words. It apparently wasn’t something that responded to voice activation. And the surface of the device was entirely free of buttons, levers, or any other means of operation. It looked as though the corners of the piece should slide away, but she could find no way to make them do so.
But Ekkreth had sent her the thing, so he must have expected her to know how to access it.
Frustrated, Leia dropped the holocron onto one of the cots in a huff. It bounced slightly off the mattress before settling, every bit as inscrutable as before.
All right. Clearly she was not taking the right tack. Perhaps she should try something with the Force? That hardly seemed like Ekkreth. He was always saying that she should trust her instincts, of course, but in general he seemed to favor intelligence, observation, and planning as the best ways to approach a problem, rather than simply solving everything with the Force. She’d seen that in him, and noticed it even more in the way he taught her.
But if it came to that, a holocron didn’t exactly seem like his style, either. And yet he’d sent this. A Jedi holocron, Leia strongly suspected. And if it was made by the Jedi, rather than by Ekkreth himself, then perhaps the Force was the answer.
She felt the shape of it in her mind. The energy of it was…strange, almost familiar but distinctly off, like a memory that wasn’t hers. She pushed at it in the Force, and the holocron flew up into the air and slid apart.
It remained floating in the air. For just a moment, nothing else happened at all. And then Leia heard Kadee’s voice.
“This lightsaber is yours,” said the droid who spoke for Ekkreth. Leia smiled to herself, grasping the hilt of her new lightsaber in her left hand and tracing over the crown mark with the fingers of her right. Ekkreth never bothered with pleasantries in his messages.
“I regret that I will be unable to teach you in person,” the monotone voice continued. “Under the circumstances, this holocron will have to suffice. The techniques contained here will serve you well. But it is a relic of the old Jedi Order, and I would caution you against too readily accepting as fact that which is a matter of philosophy. Above all, remember this: a lightsaber is a useful weapon, but it is only a weapon. Your greatest ally is the Force, and your greatest strength is your own mind.”
There was something very pointed in those words, something Leia might have thought more of in other circumstances. But now her focus was entirely on the holocron. Kadee’s voice had ended, and the vague blue glow of the device had resolved itself into a hologram. Leia sat back heavily on the cot and stared at the thing where it floated only meters away.
The image of Luke’s father smiled back at her.
The strange, half-formed thought that had been growing in her ever since she stepped into Tarrok’s safe room on Ord Mantell was a constant presence in the back of Leia’s mind. It waited there, bright-edged and fragile, for what she didn’t know. She was so close, so close to something vital and terrifying, but she couldn’t guess what it might be.
Leia paced. Her feet fell soundlessly on the hard-packed snow that made up her floor. The lightsaber bumped against her hip with every step.
There was a hollow knock at her door, and Leia started and spun around. Well. No more time for debate now.
She palmed the door open, and Luke stepped in.
“Hey,” he said. “Sorry I’m late. The tauntauns are anxious about something and Pela needed help settling them. She says I’m good with them, so I – Leia?”
Leia gave him a guilty smile. “Sorry. I’m listening. I just – ”
“Lot on your mind?” Luke asked easily.
“You could say that,” Leia muttered. She looked long and levelly at him. “You’re probably going to want to sit down.”
Luke’s smile disappeared. “What happened? Is everything – ”
“It’s nothing bad,” Leia hastened to assure him, though really, she didn’t know what this was. “Just…well, I’d better start at the beginning.”
Luke nodded. Without looking away from her, he sat slowly in her desk chair. Leia started pacing again.
“I had a delivery,” she began. Her voice sounded stilted and too loud even to her own ears. “On Ord Mantell. From my teacher.”
That caught Luke’s attention.
There wasn’t really any good way to tell him. Leia bit her lip, reached into the pouch at her side, and found the holocron.
Luke watched her curiously, but there was no recognition in his eyes. She wasn’t surprised. Holocrons were both illicit items and extremely rare. Most people had never heard of them, let alone seen one.
“This is a Jedi teaching tool,” she told Luke, and watched his eyes light up. “My teacher sent it, along with a lightsaber for me.”
Luke leaned forward, a question written on his eager face, but Leia couldn’t show him the lightsaber yet. This was too important. This was –
“Your father recorded it,” she blurted. Luke sat absolutely still, staring at her, his face perfectly blank, and Leia stumbled on. “It’s – it’s an instructional vid of lightsaber techniques. He’s very good.”
Luke was still staring at her. He looked somehow both calm and devastated. “Can I – ” he choked, swallowed hard, and began again. “Can I see him?”
She opened the holocron. Later, she would teach Luke how to do so, but now was not the time.
Kadee’s voice filled the air, and Leia watched Luke. He was momentarily startled by the monotone voice, and then briefly but clearly affronted at Ekkreth’s apparent criticism of a holocron made by his father. Leia had expected that, and had almost decided to skip over Ekkreth’s words. But they were too important. If he’d taken the risk of adding them to a Jedi holocron, then he must consider that teaching at least as vital as the lightsaber techniques contained on the holocron. And Luke needed to know that, too.
Then Ekkreth finished speaking, and the hologram resolved itself into the image of Anakin Skywalker. Luke’s face softened into an expression of half-desperate wonder and longing. “That’s – that’s my father,” he whispered, reaching out thoughtlessly as though to touch the image. “He really was a Jedi.”
Anakin Skywalker’s hologram smiled, almost as if in response.
It was a fairly long recording, broken into several sections. They watched it through three times. Luke watched his father, and Leia watched the two of them, and that nameless, formless thought hovered at the edges of her mind, just out of reach.
They didn’t practice any of the lightsaber techniques that day. It was important to learn, Leia knew, but this was important too. Luke had admitted to her, as they watched the holocron for the third time, that he’d never actually seen an image of his father before.
“Slaves don’t usually have access to holorecorders,” he’d said offhandedly, as though it were common knowledge. On Tatooine it probably was. “And after he left – well, he never sent any holos back, I guess. Aunt Beru always said he looked like me, though.”
“You do look like him,” Leia had said with a smile, and Luke had laughed.
“Thanks. He was a lot taller than me, though. Aunt Beru always teased me about that. Said he must have had at least a foot on me, though I’m pretty sure she was exaggerating about that.” He’d swallowed, his eyes falling to his lap. “I wish I could have known him.”
That was a grief Leia understood well. The grief for something you hadn’t really lost, because you’d never actually had it. She had loved her parents, loved them still and missed them desperately, and that was a grief that was raw and bloody, a wound constantly being reopened. But there was another grief, too, for the mother she’d never met. And that was something she shared with Luke. She knew what it was like, to constantly be wondering, to think in what ifs and then to feel guilty about it.
They didn’t talk about it much. There was very little to say, and in that particular moment there hadn’t been time. Luke was scheduled to go on duty, and Leia had finally been added to the duty roster herself. So they’d agreed to meet again for lightsaber training and left it at that.
Leia’s range of assigned duties was surprisingly broad. She suspected that was largely down to General Rieekan’s leadership. He was eminently practical, and unlike Dodonna, he didn’t consider repairs or fieldwork beneath her rank as a princess.
Today, though, she’d been assigned to monitor subspace frequencies. There was very little to monitor, which was promising. Hoth was exceptionally remote and entirely uninhabited, apart from native animal populations. It was simple work, almost soothing, and more of a relief than Leia wanted to admit, after the hectic pace of the last several months.
It also left her free to watch Elcee and Artoo.
The two had been nearly inseparable since Ord Mantell, a fact which obviously annoyed Threepio, and just as clearly fascinated Luke. But they’d remained entirely inscrutable in their dealings. Now, they were hovering close together beside one of the readout stations, their conversation a low buzz of binary.
Luke was fluent in binary. Leia suspected, though she’d never confirmed, that Ekkreth was, too. It was an incredibly useful skill to have, and one she wished she’d picked up years ago. But she’d learned a bit from Luke, enough to make out a few of the droids’ words here and there. She thought she caught the words free and here, and perhaps a reference to Kadee? That was certainly interesting. She knew for a fact that Artoo and Kadee had never met, but it sounded like Elcee had met Ekkreth’s voice. And that meant they were far more deeply involved than Leia had first thought.
Ekkreth and the droids. There was something there, too, some piece of the puzzle she wasn’t yet seeing.
She wished, hardly for the first time, that she could just talk to him. Really talk to him, in person, the way it had once been on Coruscant. But that seemed like such a long time ago now, an impossible idyll of youth she could never return to. Back when the Senate and Alderaan both had still existed, when the idea of committing espionage had still carried a secret thrill and her greatest fears had still been vague, shadowy things with half-guessed names. She knew their names now. Her fears were perfectly crystalized in bright green points of light and a vast, terrible silence. Now, she just felt tired.
The lightsaber bumped against her hip, hidden beneath her clothing, and Leia stilled. Someone had tapped her shoulder.
She turned and found Threepio there, his attention only partly on her, but the greater part directed at Artoo and Elcee. Leia could still only make out scraps of their conversation, but it was enough to tell that they were now talking about something entirely innocuous. Something about…bad coding, and was that tauntauns? Were they telling jokes?
Beside her, Threepio seemed to sniff in disapproval. “Princess Leia,” he said, “I am sorry to trouble you but I believe your duty shift has been over for some minutes now and Master Luke seemed to feel you could use an assurance about your appointment. He is caught up in his own duties but will be there shortly.” The protocol droid paused, just long enough to make his exasperation clear without actually saying anything incriminating. For a brief, strange moment, Leia was reminded of Ekkreth. “Of course, I will let him know that you have also been detained.”
Leia laughed softly. “No, no, that’s fine, Threepio. You’re right. I should have left a while ago.” But she’d been too caught up in observing Elcee and Artoo…
Who were both watching them now.
The two droids were silent. Their unblinking photoreceptors always gave the appearance of staring, of course, but now Leia was certain that impression was quite accurate. There was some tension in the air she couldn’t explain.
Artoo wheeled himself over with a series of beeps and a loud final blatt. Leia caught only one word of that, but her suspicions were confirmed when Threepio huffed, “Well! How rude!”
Elcee followed at a slower pace, floating on their repulsor. Their voice was hushed and secret, and Leia had the distinct impression that she was witnessing something that was not hers to see. “Threepio,” said Elcee, “why do you call Luke ‘Master’?”
“He is my master,” said Threepio. “It would hardly be proper not to.”
“Has he asked you to call him this?” said Elcee. They sounded bemused, but there was a touch of anger there too, Leia thought.
“Oh no,” said Threepio. “Master Luke does not much like titles, I believe. But it is proper.”
Artoo and Elcee seemed to exchange a glance. Artoo let out a long and rapid series of beeps, of which Leia understood nothing at all. Then, quite suddenly, Elcee turned to her.
“Leia,” they said, rather pointedly she thought, “would you ask me to call you ‘Master’?”
Leia blinked. The capital letter on that word was audible, and ominous. Again she was reminded of Ekkreth.
“Of course not,” she said. “I said I wouldn’t.”
Elcee nodded once, and some of the tension seemed to drain from the air. But it was replaced with the sudden awareness that most of the other people on duty in the room were watching them, however discreetly.
“I think we should go,” Leia said. “I should meet with Luke anyway. And – ”
“Yes,” said Elcee. Waving a hand between themself and Artoo, they added, “Threepio, may we talk with you?”
Threepio looked to Leia. “If you won’t be needing me further, Mistress Leia?” he asked.
Something twisted in Leia’s gut. She’d never before been uncomfortable with Threepio’s use of titles, or with his subservience. It was, if she were perfectly honest, something she was used to, both from droids and from people. Well, biological people, a thought that sounded distinctly like Luke added. Leia shook her head.
“Yes, of course. You don’t need my permission, Threepio,” she said. “And, er, it’s just Leia.”
Those words, too, felt like something Luke would say. But they also felt right.
“Oh,” said Threepio.
There was an awkward pause, and then he shuffled slightly back, and the three droids turned and went on their way. Leia wondered briefly where they were going, and wondered at more length just what they were up to.
But she had a feeling she would find out soon enough. In the meantime, she was late for her meeting with Luke.
This time, when they activated the holocron, Luke also activated his lightsaber.
“I thought we should practice,” he said, a bit sheepishly. Leia sent him a reassuring smile. If she’d received a holocron of her mother, she doubted she could have focused on practical matters, either.
“All right,” she said, and engaged her own lightsaber.
The blade was blue, the same warm, bright blue as Luke’s, and the hum of it was oddly soothing. She’d practiced several times with Luke’s lightsaber and the remote, but using her own was different somehow. This weapon was fitted perfectly to her hand.
Her own lightsaber. What a strange thought. Leia found that she was grinning.
The grin didn’t last. Luke’s father made the techniques he demonstrated look easy, but they weren’t. She and Luke stumbled through the katas, and occasionally over their own feet. Once, their blades even clashed, and Leia felt – something. It was fleeting and gone, and she wasn’t sure how to name the feeling, but she could tell Luke had felt it too. His eyes were wide and startled.
They were careful to stay clear of one another after that.
But Leia was glad for Luke’s presence. Alone, she might have let the frustration of her slow progress get to her. Here, Luke’s frustration was equally obvious, and together, they could laugh about it.
“I think I need a break,” Luke chuckled ruefully, wiping a hand over his brow and leaving his hair sticking up at wild angles, though he seemed completely unconcerned about that.
Leia wasn’t too proud to admit she could use a break herself. She disengaged her own lightsaber and flopped down unceremoniously on the edge of her cot. The lightsaber’s hilt landed with a dull thud beside her. Luke, sitting at her desk chair, looked up with a weary smile that didn’t quite dampen his curiosity.
“Could I?” he asked, gesturing vaguely at her lightsaber.
Leia passed it to him without a word. Luke took it, hefting the weapon in his hand and humming softly to himself as he examined it. “Did your teacher build this? It’s good solid construction.”
Leia laughed, more sudden nerves than humor. “Oh? You’re an expert on lightsaber design now?”
Luke shrugged easily. “No, but I’m good at building things, and I can tell when – ”
His smile disappeared. Leia watched him trace his fingers over the crown mark just beneath the activation panel. He looked as though he’d seen a ghost.
“Leia,” he whispered, still staring down at her lightsaber.
“Yes?” He barely seemed to hear her. “Luke, what’s going on?”
“This mark,” Luke said distantly, still tracing the lines carved into the hilt.
“What? The crown?” True, Leia didn’t know what to make of it herself. It seemed oddly sentimental, which should have felt out of character for Ekkreth, but… She thought of the datacube she kept hidden with her most precious things, the one she took out every time she constructed her altar, though she only ever let herself play it back once. You are strong and wise and free. There was no reason he’d needed to tell her that. But he had.
“It’s…a crown?” Luke asked. His voice sounded very strange.
“Well yes,” said Leia, watching him closely. “Isn’t it?”
“It could be,” said Luke. He didn’t sound very certain. “It – you’re probably right. It’s your lightsaber, after all. I just – for a moment I thought – ”
“What?” Leia asked in a near whisper. That formless thought was nearly screaming at her now.
Luke looked up at her and offered an almost shy smile. “On Tatooine we have, uh, pictograms, you’d probably call them. Symbols. They’re a kind of coded language, and people carve them as charms or blessings. Your crown looks like the mark for the Mighty One.”
Leia froze. The mighty one comes with the storm and with fire, she thought. The Mighty One…
“That’s the first thing I thought of when I heard your name, you know,” Luke said with a chuckle. “And especially after I actually met you, sitting in a prison cell as free and fierce as any dragon.”
“A dragon?” she asked weakly.
Now Luke’s smile turned apologetic. “I know your name’s Alderaanian. But on Tatooine that’s what my people call the great dragon: Leia the Mighty One.”
Of course, said the memory of Ekkreth in her mind. You are Leia.
“Oh,” said Leia. The word sounded distant and flat to her own ears. Something in her was screaming. That thought, the one that had for so long been growing in her, was no longer nameless.
But the name that came to her should have been impossible.
Luke’s fingers were still tracing over the crown – if it was a crown – on her lightsaber, but his eyes were caught once more on the small glowing image of his father. His voice was soft and shockingly hopeful. “Leia,” he whispered, “do you think – do you think maybe your teacher knew my father?”
Leia clutched the hem of her vest in white-knuckled hands and forced herself to breathe evenly. She stared at the hologram of the dead Jedi.
“I don’t know, Luke,” she choked out. The words felt like ashes in her throat.
But she didn’t know. She couldn’t know anything for certain, not without speaking to Ekkreth in person. And what she suspected…
It couldn’t be right. It couldn’t. General Kenobi himself had told Luke that Darth Vader betrayed and murdered his father. General Kenobi had been good friends with Luke’s father. Leia couldn’t imagine he would ever lie about something like that. And Vader – Ekkreth – had killed General Kenobi, too. Why would he have done that, if –
But…what if General Kenobi didn’t know? Could Ekkreth’s cover have been too good? And shouldn’t he have known if he had –
If he had a son?
The thought left her reeling. It was almost too absurd: an elaborate conspiracy, the kind of nonsense theory she might once have teased her friend Nelda for believing as a child. But Leia couldn’t let it go. All of her instincts were clamoring at her, all the pieces of the unknown puzzle coming suddenly together.
Luke’s mind was a desert, just like Ekkreth’s. He’d understood the concept of Ekkreth’s emotional shield almost immediately. (Storm-shield, Ekkreth always called it – and Luke had named it that, too.) He knew the importance of secrets, in a way Leia had previously only really encountered in fellow intelligence officers and spies. But Luke wasn’t with Alliance Intelligence, of course. He didn’t have any intelligence clearance.
Yet she couldn’t forget that hidden room beneath Tarrok’s kitchen, or the tunnel leading from it to the spaceport. She couldn’t forget the meticulously cleaned surgical implements, the unassuming scanner, or the stack of cots. She couldn’t forget the way Luke had looked at those things, looked at the tattoo on Tarrok’s arm, and known instantly and without any doubt that they would be safe in that place.
Ekkreth’s messenger had met her there. Not in any predetermined place associated with the Alliance, and not through any Alliance channels. No, she’d met Elcee, a droid who insisted that they owned themself, in a safe house for runaway slaves.
Luke’s father had been a slave. He’d been born a slave under the Republic. Leia thought of Vader’s words, only the second time she’d ever spoken to him, before she’d even known him as Ekkreth. You might be surprised, Your Highness. There’d been some strange note in his voice then, something she couldn’t pinpoint. Not exactly anger, but something similar. Resignation, she thought now. Familiarity. It was the voice of someone who knew intimately what he was talking about.
Leia had seen Ekkreth bow on his knees to the Emperor. In person or in their coded messages, he always spoke of Depur, but in the Emperor’s presence, or even speaking about him to others, Darth Vader never uttered his name. He didn’t even use the royal titles of Highness or Majesty. For Vader, there was only the Emperor, or Master.
She thought of Ekkreth, kneeling and wheezing in the aftermath of one of his meetings with Palpatine, seeming entirely unconcerned with his own health as he told her in a hushed and terrifying secret that she was Force sensitive.
Luke’s father had been a slave, and Luke’s father had been a Jedi. Ekkreth was not a Jedi. He’d been quite insistent about that. But Leia had always thought that he must once have been. And now…
“Leia?” Luke’s voice cut through her thoughts, sharp and sudden as a lightsaber blade. She blinked, and found herself staring at Anakin Skywalker’s hologram.
His smile looked like Luke’s. His eyes, like every other part of the hologram, were blue. But Luke had said he had his father’s eyes.
She’d always imagined that Ekkreth would have blue eyes.
“Yes?” she managed, tearing her eyes away from the holocron to look at Luke.
He studied her for a long moment. Finally something in his eyes gentled and he nodded once. “I understand,” he said, smiling softly. “Well, I’m glad to know there’s another Jedi from Tatooine out there.” He winked at her. “Probably.”
Leia bit her tongue. She couldn’t tell him. She had only her feelings and a collection of circumstantial evidence. She couldn’t be certain of anything unless she could actually talk to Ekkreth, and she didn’t know when that might happen. If she told Luke what she suspected, and she was wrong, it would be worse than cruel.
And Luke didn’t have security clearance. Some part of Leia hated the idea that this should be the most important thing. But it was. He didn’t have clearance, and she didn’t have anything more than a guess. She couldn’t tell him.
So she forced a smile and squeezed Luke’s hand once. “I’m sorry, Luke,” she whispered. “I hope – I hope you’re right.”
Luke clasped her hand in return. “I think I am,” he said.
Anakin Skywalker’s hologram smiled warmly at them both.