“So,” Emperor Palpatine said, his eyes glinting from the shadows beneath the peak of his hood. “It is as I suspected. Moff Glovstoak is a traitor.”
“He’s at least an embezzler, my lord,” Mara said. “I don’t yet know whether or not he’s committed actual treason.”
“I consider theft of Imperial funds to be treason,” the Emperor countered. “Your part in this is now ended, my child–others will carry on from here. You have done well.”
“Thank you,” Mara said, feeling the warmth of his approval ﬂow through her. “Then unless there’s something more urgent pending, I’d like permission to do an investigation of the six artworks I found in Glovstoak’s safe. The ones I examined appear to be from a batch of ten that were stolen from a gallery ﬁve years ago during an attack on a Rebel cell on Krintrino.”
The Emperor’s face darkened. “So as well as being an embezzler, Glovstoak may also be connected with the Rebel Alliance?”
“Or he may have a connection with the Imperial forces who carried out the attack,” Mara pointed out, a little cautiously. The Emperor was a wise and good man, but he had an odd tendency sometimes to see Rebels and Rebel conspiracies where they might not actually exist. “Or it could have been pirates or thieves who simply took advantage of the attack’s chaos to grab and run. The interesting point is that Glovstoak apparently bought them through an auction house, which suggests he and the seller wanted a stamp of legitimacy put on the transfer.”
“You said ten were stolen,” the Emperor said. “Yet only six were in Glovstoak’s safe?”
“Yes,” Mara conﬁrmed. “And
all six were apparently bought at the same time about eighteen months ago.”
“Where are the other four?”
“As far as I know, they’re still missing,” Mara said. “That’s one of the questions I’d like an answer to. Another is why the original owner suddenly decided he needed such a large inﬂux of cash a year and a half ago.”
For a minute the Emperor remained silent, and Mara felt a ﬂicker of satisfaction. Private transfers of valuable objects happened all the time across the Empire, for any number of legitimate or borderline-shady reasons. Such questions coming from many of the Emperor’s other advisers and assistants would likely have been dismissed out of hand as irrelevant.
But Mara was the Emperor’s Hand, recruited and trained personally by him, and he trusted her instincts. “The loss of the Death Star was a great shock to even my strongest supporters,” he said at last. “Some, perhaps, might be wondering if my Empire is indeed the likely winner in this conﬂict with the Rebel Alliance.”
“Of course it is,” Mara said automatically.
The Emperor gave her another thin smile. “Indeed,” he agreed. “But not everyone sees things as clearly as you and I. If Glovstoak is not connected to the Rebellion, perhaps one of our wealthier citizens has decided to play both sides. Tell me, what is the current Rebel presence in Shelsha sector?”
“I don’t know yet,” Mara said. “I was planning to comm Shelkonwa and ask Governor Choard’s ofﬁce to prepare a summary for me.”
“Don’t,” the Emperor said, the corners of his lips turning down with contempt. “Barshnis Choard is a competent administrator, but he has far too many ties with the wealthy and powerful of his sector. He might leak news of your investigation to the very people you seek. No, you will instead use my personal library for your research.”
Mara bowed her head. “Thank you, my lord.”
The Emperor held out his hand to her. “Go,” he said.
Mara stepped forward and took his outstretched hand, feeling a fresh wave of warmth and strength ﬂow into her, then stepped back again. “One other thing, my lord,” she said. “When you have Moff Glovstoak and his administration arrested, I would ask that a member of his staff, General Deerian, be exempted from punishment.”
The Emperor regarded her thoughtfully. “You believe him to be innocent of Glovstoak’s treason?”
“I’m certain of it,” Mara said. “He’s also an honest and honorable man. I don’t wish to see the Empire deprived of his service.”
The other’s lip may have twitched slightly at the word honorable.
But he merely nodded. “As you wish, my child,” he said. “I will have General Deerian transferred immediately to a position here on Imperial Center, where he will remain untouched by Glovstoak’s imminent destruction.”
“Thank you,” Mara said. Turning, she strode across the expanse of the throne room, passed between the silent red-robed Royal Guards, and stepped into the turbolift.
The Emperor’s library was a large and very private place, used only by a few of his top people, and only with his express permission. Normally, there were a handful of attendants on hand to assist, but as Mara walked between the tall stacks of data card ﬁle cabinets toward the retrieval stations at the center she was struck by the unusual silence. Apparently all the attendants had suddenly found a need to be elsewhere.
As she rounded the last cabinet she discovered the reason for their absence. Seated alone at one of the three computer stations was Darth Vader.
“Lord Vader,” she said politely as she stepped past, her eyes ﬂicking automatically to the display screen in front of him.
His arm came up, just high enough to block her view. “Emperor’s Hand,” he greeted her in turn, his voice deep and stiff and darker even than usual. “What do you want?”
“I was given permission to do some research,” Mara said, continuing past him and seating herself at one of the other stations.
But even as she turned on the console and started keying for her data search, she could sense his brooding attention switch from his research to Mara herself. Vader had always been polite enough, but even without Mara’s Force sensitivity it would have been abundantly clear that he didn’t like her.
She’d never ﬁgured out why that was. Certainly their goals were the same: service to the Emperor and his New Order. Perhaps he thought her training had taken too much of the Emperor’s time and attention, or perhaps he suspected her of trying to supplant him in the great man’s eyes.
Both thoughts were ridiculous, of course. Mara had her work to do, and Vader had his, and there was no point trying to second-guess the Emperor’s wisdom in the way he employed either of them.
But she had yet to ﬁnd a way to get that message through to Vader.
“You seek information on the Rebels,” Vader said.
“Don’t we all?” Mara said drily. “Speciﬁcally, I’m interested in the ones in Shelsha sector. Would you happen to know anything about that?”
“There are no known or suspected bases in the sector,” the Dark Lord rumbled. “The single major listening post was raided and destroyed a few days ago. I suspect there to also be some important supply lines running through the sector, but that has yet to be veriﬁed.”
“Any important sympathizers?”
The sense of coldness around him deepened. “There are sympathizers everywhere,” he said. “As well as others who conspire to overthrow their superiors.”
Mara felt an unpleasant trickle run through her. “Lord Vader, rest assured that I have no intention–”
“Good day, Emperor’s Hand,” Vader cut her off. With a swirl of black cloak, he stood, turning off the console as he did so. Turning his back, he strode away.
“Thank you for your assistance, Lord Vader,” Mara called after him.
The other didn’t reply, the sense of coldness fading as he departed. The door slid open at his gesture, and he strode from the library.
Mara took a deep breath, let it out in a weary sigh. What was
he worried about, anyway? Loyalty was, after all, one of the Emperor’s greatest qualities; loyalty to all who were loyal to him. How could Vader even think his Master would push him aside for anyone else? Especially for someone as young and inexperienced as Mara?
Shaking her head, she turned back to her console, forcing her mind back to her job. So the Rebels had supply lines through Shelsha sector. That was good to know. She ﬁnished keying in her request for general Rebel data, then added a search for major and minor trafﬁc lanes, out-ofthe-way spaceports, and any known centers of smuggling or other criminal activity.
The computer set to work, and Mara sat back to wait . . . and as she hunched her tired shoulders, her eyes drifted over to Vader’s console. The Dark Lord was never very pleasant, but as she thought back on their brief encounter it seemed to her that he’d been even more on edge than usual.
Maybe she could ﬁnd out why.
She glanced toward the exit as she stood up and went to the other console, wondering brieﬂy what Vader would do if he caught her at this. But it was too good an opportunity to pass up. Sitting down, she turned on the machine. There was a computer trick the Dark Lord might not know how to block . . .
He didn’t. Punching in the proper code, Mara pulled up the last ﬁle that had been accessed from that terminal.
It was a search program. A highly sophisticated one, too, that had been busily sifting through the personnel records of hundreds of star systems when Vader had interrupted its work and shut it down.
And not just the personnel records, but also movement and sighting reports, ﬁnancial proﬁles, travel permits, and every other means the Empire had at its disposal for locating or tracking one of its citizens.
She scrolled up to the top, looking for the target list of names. If Vader was trying to track down Prince Xizor’s Black Sun connections again, the Emperor was going to be very annoyed with him.
But to her mild surprise, there was only one name on the list. Luke Skywalker.
Mara frowned, searching her memory. Had she ever heard that name before?
She didn’t think so. But then, she was barely eighteen, and new to the Imperial court.
In the meantime, she had her own work to do. Filing away the name for future reference, she shut down the console and returned to her own search.
To Han’s complete lack of surprise, the rendezvous turned out to be like all the rest of the little hidey-holes General Rieekan seemed to have stashed around the Empire. It was quiet, reasonably private, and about as sorry an excuse for a military base as he’d ever seen.
Still, it did have one redeeming value. Leia was there.
“Han,” she greeted him with her usual ofﬁcial smile as he strode down the Falcon
’s ramp. “Sounds like you had something of a close call.”
“Not really,” he assured her, smiling back. The cool formality of her smile didn’t fool him for a minute, of course. “Everyone else get through okay?”
“Mostly,” she said, a hint of a frown crossing her face. “Chivkyrie still hasn’t shown up.”
Han glanced over his shoulder to where Luke and Chewbacca were helping the techs pull their equipment out of the Falcon
’s holds. “You want Chewie and me to go ﬁnd him?”
“I’m afraid it’s not that kind of problem,” she said ruefully. “We’re having some problems with his whole organization.”
“Ah–politics,” Han said, nodding. “In that case, you can leave me out of it.”
“Yes, I thought as much,” Leia said. “By the way, Mon Mothma wants to see all of us–you, Luke, and me–in the command center.”
“Mon Mothma?” Leia repeated patiently. “The Alliance Supreme Commander?”
“Oh,” Han said as the memory of the name ﬁnally surfaced. “Her.”
” Leia said. “She has a job for us.”
Han suppressed a grimace. There it was again: everyone just assuming he and Chewbacca were ofﬁcially aboard this leaky ship. “Fine,” he said. “We’ll be there when we’re ﬁnished.”
Leia raised her eyebrows slightly, and for a second he thought she was going to remind him of his place. But maybe she remembered in time that he didn’t really have one. “We’ll see you then,” she said, and moved off.
“Trouble?” Luke asked from behind him.
Han turned to see the kid walking toward him. “No more than usual,” he said. “Why?”
“Leia looked like she was worried.”
“Her Royal Highness is always
worried,” Han growled, annoyed in spite of himself. Ever since they’d pulled the Princess off the Death Star, Luke had been mooning over her, and ever since Yavin he’d fancied they had the kind of deep spiritual connection where he could sense her moods and feelings.
Or maybe it was part of this whole Jedi Knight kick he’d gotten on. Sometimes it was hard for Han to ﬁgure out which part of Luke’s personality was the most annoying.
Still, the kid was mostly okay. Better than a lot of the people Han had had to deal with over the years.
“She’s got a lot of responsibility,” Luke reminded him quietly. “And Alderaan wasn’t all that long ago.”
Han grimaced. The kid was right, of course. Leia had been too busy right then to react much, but ever since Yavin she’d had more than enough time for the grief and horror of her world’s destruction to start weighing in.
And if it came to that, Luke had had a couple of recent kicks in the teeth, too, what with ﬁrst losing his aunt and uncle and then watching old man Kenobi get killed right in front of him. The least Han could do was cut them some slack. Both of them. “Yeah, I know,” he said. “By the way, our glorious Supreme Commander wants us in the command center when we have time.”
“Great,” Luke said, visibly brightening at the prospect of another assignment. “Let’s go. Chewie can direct the rest of the unloading.” Jump when ordered.
The old military adage ran through Han’s mind. Ask “how high?” on the way up.
Whatever reservations Han might still have about this Rebellion, Luke had clearly jumped in with both feet.
Had jumped, was on his way up, and wasn’t even bothering to ask how high. Cut them some slack,
Han reminded himself ﬁrmly. Lots of slack.
“Sure,” he said. “Let’s see what Her Highest Highness wants.”
Mon Mothma was a regal-looking woman with short auburn hair and pale greenish blue eyes. She wore a simple white robe decorated only by a medallion of some sort around her neck. Seated at the head of the plotting table, ﬂanked by General Rieekan on her right and Leia on her left, she was exactly what Luke would expect to ﬁnd as the head of the Rebel Alliance: warm, strong, and determined.
“Thank you for your time here today, Captain Solo; Master Sky-walker,” she said, nodding gravely to each of them in turn. “Both of you have served the Rebellion bravely, and the entire galaxy owes you a great debt. Now I’ve come here to ask you to perform yet another service for us.”
Glancing at Han, Luke saw the wary look in his eye and the slight curl to his lip. “We’d be delighted–” he began.
“We’re listening,” Han cut him off.
Luke winced. But Mon Mothma either didn’t notice the brusqueness or else chose to ignore it. “As you know, the Rebel Alliance is made up of many groups that once fought their own individual wars against Emperor Palpatine’s tyranny,” she said. “It was only when we began uniting and coordinating our efforts–”
“We know the history,” Han interrupted again. “What’s the mission?”
Beside Mon Mothma, Leia stirred in her chair, glaring at Han in silent warning. But again, if Mon Mothma was irritated or insulted, she gave no sign.
“One of our member groups, the Republic Redux, is led by an Adarian named Yeeru Chivkyrie,” the older woman said. “He has a proposal that he believes will give a strong boost to the Rebellion.”
“Boosts are good,” Han said. “What’s the problem?”
“The problem,” Mon Mothma said, “is that the leaders of two of the sector’s other groups are as strongly opposed to the project as Chivkyrie is in favor of it.”
“How strongly?” Han asked.
Mon Mothma’s lips compressed brieﬂy. “They’re threatening to pull out if Chivkyrie’s plan is accepted.”
“Are they worth keeping?” Han asked.
Luke looked at him in disbelief. “What kind of question is that?”
“A perfectly good one,” Han said, sounding a little defensive. “I thought the reason we pulled the Teardrop listening post out was because the Alliance didn’t have much of anything going on in Shelsha.”
“Actually, Skywalker, it is
a good question,” Rieekan said. “We’ve had trouble getting a real foothold in the sector, partly because of cultural problems, partly because of inﬁghting like this.”
“If you go strictly by numbers, Chivkyrie’s group is the smallest of the three we’re discussing here,” Leia added.
“Adarians have a strict social tier system, which means Chivkyrie’s recruited almost exclusively from second-tier people like himself. The rest of the populace doesn’t seem interested in ﬁghting against the Empire.”
“I thought everyone was supposed to give up this kind of inﬁghting when they joined the Alliance,” Luke said.
“That was the agreement,” Rieekan said. “But Adarians are a stubborn people. Once they’ve made up their minds, it’s almost impossible to change them.” He shifted his gaze to Leia. “Unless
whoever has the alternative idea is from a higher tier, which is why we’re sending Princess Leia to try to mediate.”
“I take it you don’t think much of Chivkyrie’s scheme?” Luke asked.
“Actually, we have no idea what it is,” Rieekan said. “He refuses to discuss the matter via HoloNet, not even with encrypted transmissions. The only way we’re going to ﬁnd out about it is for you to go to Shelsha sector and talk to him.”
It took Luke a second to notice the pronoun. Han, typically, caught it right away. “For us
to go?” he asked pointedly.
“Yes,” Rieekan said, looking him square in the eye. “I’d like you and Skywalker to accompany the Princess.”
Luke felt his heartbeat pick up a little. Another mission for the Rebellion–and he’d get to spend time with Leia, too?
“We want to keep the whole thing as low-proﬁle as possible,” Leia explained. “That means no Alliance ships, and no obvious Alliance personnel.”
Alliance personnel?” Han echoed.
Luke frowned at him. What was eating Han, anyway? “She just means we don’t have any ofﬁcial rank or status yet,” he explained, trying to be helpful.
It was, apparently, the wrong thing to say. Han ﬂashed him an almost glare, then turned back to Rieekan. “Where exactly would we be going?”
“As the Princess said, we all want to keep it low-key, Chivkyrie included,” the general said. “He lives in Makrin City, the government seat on the capital world of Shelkonwa, but you’ll actually be rendezvousing in an uninhabited system a few hours’ ﬂight time away.”
“We don’t know if the Empire’s monitoring his movements,” Leia added, “but if so, he should be able to sneak away that long without triggering any alerts.”
“Assuming you can sort out the inﬁghting without a week of discussion,” Han said.
“She’ll sort it out,” Mon Mothma said, quietly conﬁdent. “Are you willing to accompany her?”
“I am,” Luke said ﬁrmly, daring to send a small smile in Leia’s direction. His reward was an equally subtle smile in return.
“Yeah, I suppose,” Han said, his tone far more reluctant. “When do we leave?”
“Not for another few days,” Rieekan said. “We need to get some details arranged ﬁrst with Chivkyrie and the other leaders.”
“Like what shape the conference table should be?” Han suggested.
Leia and Rieekan exchanged glances. “We’ll let you know the schedule as soon as we have it,” the general said.“Thank you for coming.”
“And once again, the Alliance is in your debt,” Mon Mothma said.
“Right,” Han said. Standing up, he strode out of the room. Luke watched him go, wondering what exactly was going on.
It was, apparently, a universal question. “What’s bothering him
?” Rieekan asked.
“I don’t know,” Luke said. “He was like this on the way back from Teardrop, too.”
“I’ll go talk to him,” Leia volunteered, standing up. “Thank you for your time, Mon Mothma; General Rieekan.”
” Mon Mothma said gravely.
“Let me know if there’s anything I can do regarding Solo,” Rieekan said. “We need all the good people we can get.”
“You really think there’s a good person under all that?” Leia asked drily.
“Of course there is.” Rieekan shrugged. “Somewhere.”
Leia caught up with Han at the Falcon
just as the techs were carting off the last of the Teardrop equipment. “Han,” she greeted him gravely.
“Your Worshipfulness,” he countered, inclining his head to her.
With an effort, she bit down on the retort that wanted to come out. Why did he do
that? He knew
she hated that kind of sarcasm.
Or maybe that was why he did it. “You were a little abrupt in there,” she said instead. “And
Han’s lip twitched. “I didn’t mean it that way,” he said. “I don’t
disrespect them. Well, not Rieekan, anyway–I’ve seen enough bad ofﬁcers to know a good one when I see him.”
“Well, if it wasn’t disrespect, it was a pretty good imitation,” Leia said.
Han turned his back on her and started ﬁddling with a piece of equipment on the Falcon
’s underside. “I just don’t like politics,” he said over his shoulder.
“This isn’t about politics, Han,” she said. “This is about survival against–”
“Of course it’s about politics,” he interrupted, turning back to glare at her. “It’s always
about politics. One Rebel leader pushes to get what he wants, the other leaders try to keep him from grabbing all the credit, and you and Mon Mothma and Rieekan try to soothe everyone’s rufﬂed feathers. That’s not survival, Princess. That’s politics.”
what’s bothering you?” Leia asked, sifting rapidly through his tirade as she hunted for clues. “You’re not getting enough credit?”
“Of course I’m getting enough credit,” he said. “Don’t you remember that shiny medal you hung around my neck?”
Leia felt her cheeks burning. “My apologies, Captain Solo,” she ground out with more acid than she’d really intended. “I’m just trying to understand you.”
For the briefest fraction of a second she thought she saw something almost vulnerable in his eyes. But the moment passed, and the mask of cynical indifference dropped back into place. “Don’t bother,” he advised. “Even if you did, you wouldn’t believe it.”
He turned away again, his hands and eyes pretending to busy themselves with random bits of the Falcon
’s equipment. Leia remained where she was for a few seconds, until it was clear the conversation was over. Spinning around, she strode back across the hangar ﬂoor, her cheeks still warm. Never in her life had she met a man whose strengths she so admired while at the same time wanting to strangle him with her bare hands.
Luke was waiting just outside the hangar door. “Anything?” he asked.
“Just the usual bluster,” Leia said with a sigh. “Maybe you can get something out of him.”
Luke’s eyes ﬂicked over her shoulder. “Probably better to wait until he cools down.”
“I just wish I knew what had stirred him up in the ﬁrst place,” Leia said. “He talked about politics, but I know that’s not the whole story.”
“Meanwhile, we have to get to Shelsha sector,” Luke said. “I hope General Rieekan’s got a backup plan for transport.”
“I’m sure he does,” Leia said. “But we’ve got a few days. Maybe we can bring Han around.”
“Yeah,” Luke said doubtfully. “Maybe.”
Copyright © 2007 by Timothy Zahn. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.