ABOARD THE JADE SHADOW
Ben wondered if he'd be his father's age before things started going right for him on any basis other than what appeared to be happy accidents.
Then he wondered if he'd be older than his dad.
True, he'd had a couple of uneventful years after the war. But then his father got arrested and exiled for a decade. Jedi who had spent formative years on Shelter in the Maw-and yes, Ben was among that number, how reassuring was that little fact-started going crazy. Ben and Luke had learned about some creepy powerful being with dark slithery mental tendrils of need who was probably responsible for the crazy Jedi, and had been going to pay her a visit inside the Maw when they abducted a Sith. One that was definitely easy on the eyes, but who was nonetheless a Sith, from a whole planetload of them, no less. A Sith who was still with them right now, standing and smirking at them while nearly a dozen frigates crammed with her pals surrounded them.
Yeah. He would definitely be older than his dad.
Luke had followed the instructions given by the unnamed, unseen Sith commander of the Black Wave, placing the Shadow in a parking orbit around Dathomir. There was no other choice, not with eleven ChaseMaster frigates ready to open fire.
"A wise decision," Vestara said. "I'm fond of my own life, so I'm glad you're cooperating, but if you had attempted to flee they most certainly would have destroyed you."
Luke eyed her thoughtfully. Clearly, he wasn't so sure.
"So," Ben continued, "what are they going to do with us? Are we going to be the main attraction at some kind of Sith ritual party?"
"I've no idea," Vestara said. She might be lying through her teeth. She might be telling the truth. Ben simply couldn't be sure.
"Your cooperation is appreciated, Master Skywalker," came the voice that had first hailed them. Ben and Luke exchanged puzzled glances. Of course, Vestara had told them who was holding her captive, but why the courtesy and respectful title?
"I am High Lord Sarasu Taalon, commander of this force," the voice continued. "Your reputation precedes you. We have studied you, and your son, a great deal."
"I wish I could say the same," Luke said. "I know nothing about you and your people, High Lord Taalon."
"No, you don't. But I am prepared for that to change . . . somewhat. Your vessel carries a Z-95 Headhunter."
"It does," Luke said. "I presume you're about to ask me to come over to your flagship and chat over a nice glass of something."
"You and Vestara, yes," Taalon said. "You will have to turn her back over to us, of course. But there is no reason we can't be civilized about this."
"No thanks," Luke said. "Anything you have to say to me can be said at a distance. Vestara isn't the worst companion I've ever traveled with. I think I'll let her stay here with us for a while longer."
Ben looked again at the Sith girl. His father was right. She wasn't the worst companion he'd ever traveled with.
"Let us revisit that subject in a moment," came Taalon's reply. "As I'm sure you know by now, Apprentice Vestara Khai has done a commendable job of keeping us informed of what has transpired. We are aware that you are having . . . difficulty with certain Jedi who were fostered inside the Maw. We believe this is due to the intervention of a being known to us as Abeloth, whom Vestara encountered. Many of our own apprentices are displaying the same symptoms as your younger Jedi."
"Your younger Sith were in the Maw as well?"
"No. But such identical displays of aberrant behavior cannot be attributed to anything else."
Ben was skeptical. But there was so much they didn't know yet. His father's blue eyes met his and he shrugged slightly. It was possible.
"We are many. You are only three," Taalon continued. The third to whom he referred was Dyon Stad a Force-sensitive human who had joined Ben and Luke on Dathomir and was currently aboard his own Suieb Soro yacht "We have a common cause."
"Are-are you proposing a formal alliance?" Luke was so surprised he didn't even bother to hide it. Ben, too, literally gaped for a moment. Vestara seemed more shocked than any of them, judging by her expression and her feeling in the Force.
Luke started to laugh. "I'm sorry, but that doesn't sound like a very Sith thing to say."
The voice was cold when Taalon spoke again. "This creature, this . . . Abeloth . . . has the audacity to reach out and harm our apprentices. Our tyros. To toy with the Tribe-the Sith. The insult cannot be borne. It will not be borne. We are going into the Maw and teach her a lesson."
Ben glanced at his father. "That, however, is a very Sith thing to say."
Luke nodded. To Taalon, he said, "It may be that we do not need to teach her a lesson, as it were. We may simply need to find out why she is doing this."
"And ask her nicely to please stop?" Ben thought Han Solo could learn a thing or two from this Sith about infusing one's voice with sarcasm.
"You just asked me nicely to help you out. Clearly you're capable of good manners," Luke replied, unruffled. "If it accomplishes the goal with fewer or perhaps no casualties, how is that not the best solution?"
There was silence. "It is possible she may not be amenable to . . . polite conversation. What then, Master Skywalker?"
"I will do whatever is necessary to free the ill Jedi from her control," Luke said. "I assure you of that." His voice was not harsh, but there was a tone in it Ben recognized. The deed was almost as good as done when Luke Skywalker spoke like that.
"You agree, then?" Taalon asked.
Luke didn't answer at once. Ben knew what he was struggling with. And he was surprised that it was even a struggle for the Grand Master. Luke was a Jedi. These were Sith. There couldn't possibly be an alliance. Everyone would constantly be watching their own backs.
But then again . . . He glanced at Vestara. She came from an entire culture of Sith. They couldn't be backstabbing one another constantly- they'd have become extinct long ago. Somehow this flavor of Sith had learned how to cooperate. Vestara had proved it was possible. She had worked with Ben and his father before, on Dathomir, and that cooperation had saved Luke Skywalker's life.
"We do have a common goal," Luke said at last. "It would be better to work toward it together rather than getting in each other's way. But don't think that I will not be expecting treachery at every turn. There are fewer enmities more ancient than that of Sith and Jedi."
A sigh. "This thing we both fight might be older than that," Taalon said. "Well, I did not expect this to be a particularly comradely union. Very well. You deliver Vestara Khai. Together, in an alliance not seen since this galaxy was new, Sith and Jedi will confront and defeat their mutual foe-one way or the other. And after that . . . well, let us see where we stand then, shall we?"
"Vestara stays here."
The Sith girl froze. There was a long silence.
"I cannot permit that."
"Then we have no alliance." Another long silence.
"She has information we require. She comes with us, or there is no deal."
"Information about how to reach and confront our mutual foe?" Luke said, turning Taalon's own flowery words back on him. "That, I do not object to permitting her to share. That was the information you were talking about, wasn't it?"
"She will come to no harm while entrusted in your . . . care," said Taalon. "None. Or we will attack and destroy you down to your marrow and obliterate your very cells."
"Provided you keep your bargain, she's perfectly safe. Jedi aren't in the habit of torturing children."
Vestara frowned at being referred to as a child. Ben started to smile a little, despite the situation, then realized that she was the same age as he was. He shot his dad a disappointed glance.
"Then I believe we have an agreement," Taalon said.
"Not just yet. We need to decide who is going to be in charge of this alliance first."
"I would suggest we command as a pair, you and I," Taalon said. "No Sith will take orders solely from a Jedi. And I am sure you would bridle at being told what to do by a Sith High Lord."
"I would indeed. And I would suggest we begin this joint command by sharing information. You first."
"Ah, but Master Skywalker, you have our source of information right there with you. Start with her. We will be prepared to depart within a half hour."
"So will we. I'll be in touch. Jade Shadow out."
"Dad," Ben said the second the communication was terminated. "You just agreed to help the Sith."
Luke shook his head. "No, son. I agreed to let the Sith help us."
Ben regarded him, incredulity mixed with curiosity. "You trust them to keep their word?"
"I trust them to do what is best for them. And as long as what is best for them is best for us, then we'll be fine."
"And when it's not?"
"Like Taalon said . . . we'll see where we stand then. I'm prepared for that. There are two old sayings, Ben: 'The enemy of my enemy is my friend' and 'keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.' "
Luke pointedly turned to Vestara, who stood straight with her hands clasped behind her back. "Now," he said, "High Lord Taalon assures me you know everything they do."
She lifted a small information chip. "Most of it's here," she said.
"And what's not there?" Luke asked.
Vestara smiled slightly and tapped her temple. "And this is where it will stay until it is necessary. We have a card game on my world. It is called Mahaa'i Shuur, which means Ultimate Success in the tongue of the natives. The rules are complicated, but the goal is simple. The winner is the one who never, ever has to play his last card."
Luke Skywalker watched Vestara Khai the way, long ago, a bartender named Wuher had watched him at the Mos Eisley cantina-coldly, expecting the unexpected, and looking for an excuse to cease being civil. Her back was to him, hands on her hips, her long brown hair hanging loose. She was looking out over the gathering of Sith vessels that were starting to fall into formation in preparation for departure, and he didn't have to sense her in the Force to make a damn good guess as to what she might be thinking. As soon as he had the thought Luke amended it.
She was Sith. So were they. In Luke's mind, that automatically meant they could not be trusted. Even if they were sincere in this desire to unite forces and approach the Maw with a lot more firepower than the Jade Shadow would have mustered alone, there had to be a trick, or a trap. They were Sith. Deception was a keystone of their culture.
Vestara Khai was Sith. But she was also a girl who seemed to have at least a few virtues along with her vices, something Luke found unexpected and disconcerting. No doubt she was contemplating treachery. But he was willing to admit that she also might just be missing her people. A soft sigh escaped her, as if confirming his thoughts.
He had assigned Ben the job of being the first to read through the information Vestara had given them, thinking the task would distract his son from the admittedly attractive female his own age who was going to be living in such close quarters with them. He was not worried for Ben's state of mind regarding the Force. Ben had been through more things in his short life than most beings had in century- long ones. He wasn't likely to be tempted by offers of power or greatness, the usual tools those who tried to corrupt Jedi liked to employ.
But it was, Luke realized, entirely possible that Ben might get a little confused now and then. Vestara was strikingly attractive, and had presumably been through things comparable to what Ben had undergone. And she was extremely, in fact exceptionally, strong in the Force. It was a combination that might make any father at least a little anxious for his Jedi son's well-being.
The Shadow was quiet, the air heavy with all the "not talking" that was taking place. The only sound was Vestara's single, almost inaudible sigh and the occasional sounds of Ben shifting position in his chair as he read and occasionally cross-referenced data.
The sudden noise alerting them to an incoming message therefore sounded especially loud. No one actually jumped, but a sense of surprise rippled through them all. Luke glanced at the screen and frowned slightly. Three words flashed.
vestara khai. personal.
As far as Luke was concerned, they might as well have been emergency incoming attack.
"Who's it from, Dad?"
"I don't know. But it's for our guest. Do you know who might want to contact you, Vestara?"
Vestara actually looked surprised. Luke felt the faintest flicker of worry, like an echo of a whisper, in the Force. "I've no idea," and it sounded genuine. "Is there a place where I can-"
"I can't let you receive a private message, especially from someone who won't identify him- or herself," Luke said matter-of-factly.
Vestara nodded. "Of course not. If I were in your position, I would take similar precautions."
Luke flipped a switch. "This is the Jade Shadow to the anonymous sender of the previous message directed at Vestara Khai. You must understand I cannot permit her to receive a private missive."
There was a long silence. Luke could feel young ears straining. Then another message appeared, addressed to luke skywalker.
the message may be publicly viewed.
"Well, a reasonable Sith, what next," Luke muttered, and touched another button on the console.
A small holographic figure took shape. It was a human male, wearing the traditional Sith black robes. A lightsaber of antique-looking design was clipped to his belt. His long dark hair was pulled up in a topknot. His face was chiseled and handsome.
Vestara's startled gasp revealed her emotions, but the Force did so even more prominently. There was a rush of warm, affectionate feelings, quickly clamped down, as if a lid had been put on a pot. Luke's eyes flickered to the girl, then back to the hologram. Both images appeared to be trying hard not to smile, although Vestara often looked as though she were smiling when she wasn't due to the little scar on her mouth.
Copyright © 2010 by Christie Golden. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.