Burdens of the King


Burdens of the King
A Tale of the Star Wars
by

E. E. Nalley

3627 BBY (Before the Battle of Yavin)
Hyperspace, aboard the Aces and Eights, en-route to Ruuria, Outer Rim Territories

I sat and watched my apprentice, wanting, desperately to intervene, and yet holding myself in check, knowing that I could not. She sat in the lotus position on the floor of the galley of the Aces and Eights, her eyes closed and she was all but glowing in the Force. I felt her reach out, even here in the desolate void of Hyperspace to feel the connections of all living things. Her mouth opened, but I whispered, “Don't speak, stretch out with your feelings, feel the Force flowing through you. It knows what you want, you know what you want it to do. Let go, ride the current of it.”

Before her a small collection of parts spread out on a black velvet cloth began to tremble and slowly they rose up into the air. I felt the astonishment from Silas as my brother's jaw fell open in amazement and he stood to get a better view. I raised a hand to warn him, desperate that he not interrupt her concentration. The pair of clear Kyber crystals rose up and within it a faint light began to shine. “That's it,” I whispered, “feel the crystals. Remember the Code. Peace is a lie, there is only Passion. Show the crystals your passions, that which you hold most dear.”

The light grew within the crystals as they rose to be on the same plane as her fore head. Her eyes bunched tightly as she concentrated and the light became a glow that overpowered the lamps throughout the galley and bathed the room in a warm orange tinted yellow light. “Through passion, I gain strength,” she whispered as the articulation frame rose up and the crystals settled into it, perfectly mated together. Her hands came up, as through the Force she saw her vision, her own strength taking shape before her. The hilt, a beautifully turned and machined single forging of Beskar turned, opening itself to accept the articulation frame and the precious crystals within it.

As the hilt closed I reflected on all the heart ache and trouble we had gone through to acquire the precious Mandalorian Iron or Beskar as they called it in their own language, that had gone into the forging of that hilt. Now, in her moment of triumph, I pushed aside the thoughts of aching muscles, sore wounds and promises owed. Now it was as magnificent as Excalibur itself, the Beskar having a dull, brushed stainless steel quality to it accented, I was pleased to say, by expertly carved and lacquered Wroshyr wood in tribute to the saber of my master. The hilt drifted down into her waiting hands and she exclaimed softly in surprise. “It's heavy,” she said, opening her gold eyes in surprise.

“You'll get used to it,” I assured her. “Now, make sure it's in training mode, and let's see.”

She made a slight adjustment and then with its signature hum a glowing blade leapt from the emitter with a hiss of ionizing air. The blade was a warm yellow of a spring sunset, with hints of orange around the corona like a new pumpkin, not yet ripe on the vine. She rotated the hilt in her hands and when both were on it, a second blade, identical in color grew from the far emitter.

“That sound always makes me tense,” Silas remarked with a chuckle as he walked over, as captivated as I was in seeing the delight on my apprentice's face. She made a twisting motion and the hilts separated into a pair of sabers, one in each hand as she stood and tested the balance.

“You know, Taybri, you have made it very hard on yourself having to learn three completely different fighting styles,” I cautioned her. She began to twirl the blades in a figure of eight pattern before her, first both blades in parallel, then rotating one so it was in line with its mate, then she twirled them over her head, reattaching the blades into a staff that she spun and then tucked under one arm pit.

With a grin, she replied, “I know, mom, this just seemed right.”

I returned her smile and ruffled the wild mop of chestnut hair she had inherited from me. “Then it is,” I agreed. She was a precocious, slip of a girl, a meter and a half tall already and just getting into her growing years. Her skin was a coppery tan, lighter than my olive complexion, but not as fair as Torm, her father, was. She was eleven and already I could see the beauty she would grow up to be, with her ready smile and a well muscled body, honed with the training I had been giving her since she could walk and talk. She was strong with the Force, and for all her diligence in study, she had a quick wit and a delightful sense of humor.

There were not words for how proud of her I was.

Yet, if I had known then what was coming I would likely have been far more worried than proud. For in the Thirteenth Year of the Reign of Malgus I, Emperor of the Sith, troubles once more came to me. Oh, I had had my share of adventures, good and bad, no mother doesn't, and being a Sith Lord in the service of the Circle of Defense of the Empire, I had quite a bit of travel and adventures from it. While there were narrow escapes and close calls, none of it required grieving. Now, I had been wearing this body for more than a decade and I still marveled at how my life had changed. But, as you will find is my habit, I have gotten ahead of myself, so allow me to start a bit from the beginning.

I am Darth Nyeomi Fens, DCR, Countess of Banudan, Lord of the Sith, and that mouthful of titles and accolades is a bit intimidating even to me. I am a woman of humble birth, my father having risen through the ranks of the Sith Army to the rank of General, had been appointed Duke of Ruuria and I rose to this station through my efforts as a Sith Warrior in my own right. The establishment of our family as a noble House of the Sith Empire was unexpected, but in keeping with the philosophy of merit that our Order of Revan has ascribed. In the Sith Empire you could rise as high as your natural talents and your dedication to hard work could take you.

Yet, that is not the limit of who I am. I am also, or at least I had been, Edward, a forty something, over weight, computer tech, transported here into what from my perspective was a game and the body I wore a character I had created. Nyeomi Fens, The Good Sith, as I as was sometimes called, the honorable servant of empire, like the British Empire on the world of my birth, spreading Civilization for Creator, Nation, and Emperor. I know, it seems odd, but I had made my peace with it years ago. Now I was Nyeomi, Force using Tommy of the New Revanite Sith Empire.

My husband, Sir Torm Belos-Fens, KR, Count Banudan, Baron of the Sith Empire, had been a simple merchant and tradesman when life had brought us together. I cannot say if it was luck, or random chance, or if some higher power in the Force had brought me into this body on Tatooine and he there in a greasy spoon of a restaurant. We had been a case of lust at first sight, his imposing bulk and rugged good looks had pierced any defense I could mount, and I was a young twenty five in the full flower of my restored youth and beauty thanks to the active life of a Sith Lord. I had been as irresistible to him as he had been to me and our shared adventures had turned our lust into the kind of cast in stone love that is usually the stuff of story books and fairy tales. Suffice to say, Torm had been diligent in his duties to House Fens and from his amorous efforts I had given House Fens its two youngest members; my pride and joy.

Being a parent had been an adventure to rival all my experiences as a Sith Lord, a journey of heartfelt surprise, quiet pride, endless worry and shared joy as well as pain. For all of it, it was everything I had hoped being a parent would be and nothing I had yet to experience rivaled it. While my labor had easily been the worst ten hours of my life, it is amazing how just holding the tiny forms of the life I had created and letting her and her brother suck at my breasts wiped it all away.

I took the hilt from her, deactivated it and held it up.

“This weapon is not a toy, Bree,” I told her seriously. “It is your life. You are about to become an Apprentice of the Sith Order; your actions have consequences, things 'I'm sorry' will not cover. This is the first step to you becoming an adult. Do you understand me?”

Her grin of accomplishment became a solemn expression far too old to be on a child's face. She bowed, and held out both hands to me. “I understand, Mistress, and I swear to make you, father and our order proud.”

I placed the hilt in her hands to then placed my hand formally on her bowed head. “Hear now and all take note that I take Taybri Fens as my Apprentice in the Sith Order. Heed my instruction, obey me in all things, and I will make you a powerful Lord of the Sith.”

Silas grinned and playfully punched Bree in the shoulder. “Attagirl, Bree.” Bree's grin returned, but her joy did not keep her from carefully placing the hilt on the hanger for it on her belt.

“Thanks, Uncle Silas!

I will say that even after ten years, I am not comfortable with titles and courtly manners, or any other trapping of my success. I did not set out to become the Countess of Banudan, merely to do my part and good service to my nation; my Empire. Chiefly, I was concerned with earning the pride of my own parents and trying to live up to their example. I felt that was a mission I had accomplished when I was awarded the title of 'Darth' in the Sith Order. From there, having caught the eye of my future husband and come to grips with my own situation mostly by way of his pursuit of me, I wanted nothing more than to live as a moderately upper echelon officer in my Nations' armed forces, have my husband's children and have a quiet, fulfilling life.

They say no good deed goes unpunished, and I had a hand in some of the most important 'good deeds' of this era. I helped cement Malgus as the Sith Emperor by breaking the back of the Sith Inquisition. The Will of the Sith died by my own hand and his fortress fell because of my plan and the attack I spear headed. Yes, I fully admit I did none of these things alone, but despite my desires for a simple, country life, that would not be the case. The problem with making yourself irreplaceable is that you are irreplaceable. Sedate country living need not apply.

The mission we were returning from being a prime example.

For a rare, brief moment, the Sith Empire and the Galactic Republic existed side by side, united in common cause for hunting down the rogue Sith Lord Vitiate before he could sacrifice all life in the galaxy in his mad quest for immortality. But, as the Code of the Sith teaches, Peace is a lie, and as the weeks stretched into months and months stretched into years of not finding Darth Vitiate the Mad, or his mortal remains, old tensions and angers flared more and more. The flowering detente of cooperation withered on the vine of political expediency.

This withering was helped along by Supreme Chancellor Leontyne Saresh a female Twi'lek and the former governor of Taris whose unreasoning hatred of the Sith Empire was unfortunately helped along as my Mistress, Darth Vannacen, and I were the chief reasons she was the former governor of Taris. To be completely honest we had done such damage to her career I would have bet she would never be able to show her face in public again. No one could have been more surprised than I when she was elected Supreme Chancellor. She must have known where a lot of bodies were buried to have accomplished such a political come back. The fact that I had spearheaded the hunt for Vitiate had never sat well with Saresh and even when her statutorily limited term as Supreme Chancellor ended, she managed through deft political maneuvering to have a puppet, Jebevel Madon of Corellia installed, making her a dictator in all but name.

Honestly, I wasn't sure how she had talked her way out of a prison sentence thanks to her little bio-warfare ring my Mistress and I had exposed.

Her power secured, she made disruption of the treaties between the Sith Empire and the Galactic Republic her own personal crusade. This did not go unnoticed as brush war after political scandal began to be piled at her feet, but every call for a vote of no confidence in the puppet failed, usually followed with some horrific scandal coming to light about the Senator who had made the call in the first place. On the bright side, Chancellor Madon's efforts to have the Statute of Term Limit repealed had also been stymied, doubtlessly through political chicanery as equally unpalatable.

To be perfectly honest, I wasn't sure 'Republic' was really the right name for that government anymore.

In any event, the Aces and Eights was on her way to her home port of Ruuria, back from the latest little brush war to be snuffed out, this time on the boarder world of Wayland where the claims of the Sith Empire, the Republic and the Mandalorians all over lapped. Saresh was trying to be subtle and set the Mandalorians against the Empire, but I had been able to unmask her agent as well as acquire a small amount of Beskar for my daughter's light sabers as a reward for keeping the treaty between us whole.

Yes, I know, how could I possibly justify bringing a not quite eleven year old into a war zone? Why does no one bat an eye when Jedi show up with Padawans not much beyond nine or ten but heaven forbid a Sith Lord have her own almost eleven year old daughter with her. Double standard much? No, I did not have some nefarious, sinister plot in mind, my daughter was strong in the Force and had already passed her acolyte tests, being of the age to complete her light saber, it is customary for a Sith Acolyte to accompany another Sith Lord or a Darth to acquire his or her Kyber Crystal and for the guardian to make the final decision whether or not take that particular acolyte as an apprentice.

Yet, as I sat at the table in the galley and watched my daughter clean up and put away the tools and spare parts needed to finish her saber, I could not help but think about how similar, and yet how different my children were. My children! It still gave me thrill that I had been given this amazing do over for my life and I assured myself I was making the most of it. For starters, there was the little bundle of joy that was my daughter. Taybri was a fun loving child who wore her heart on her sleeve, and while she was remarkably intelligent, she was only a diligent student in the subjects that interested her. She had excelled in anything related to being a Sith or the Force, but she still struggled with math or theoretical science. Despite that she was quite inquisitive and to be in her presence usually meant being bombarded with questions.

I saw her father in her, and she dearly loved Torm, but in many ways, Taybri was my daughter. She had shown how strong the Force was with her at a very young age, and yet she had not abused her ability the way some children might. While she made a great show of being independent, she always made sure I was near by. I imagine her guardian angel put in a lot of over time because she had also inherited my love of showing off and she was completely without fear.

My son, her twin brother, on the other hand was her mirror. Kalelam was his father's son, he was a meter and a half tall at ten. He had my chestnut hair and the same mix of our complexions which in him left him a shade or two lighter than his sister, beyond that he was a virtual clone of his father. Same face, same roguish smile and devilish charm and I'm sure he would be lady killer of the first rank when he discovered girls. He was as strong as his size would lead you to believe, but he was also studious, and a voracious reader. He was 'book smart' to his sister's 'learn after doing' approach, and he doted on his father, despite having gotten his love of reading from me.

Evidently twins run in this Galaxy, far, far away.

I could feel that Kale had The Force, but he unlike his sister who was already an accomplished telekinetic, Kale seemed to internalize his connection to The Force. He was capable of physical feats that still astound me, but he was largely indifferent to the Sith Order. His father wasn't a Sith, and that was all he needed to know. So he had declined when I offered to allow him to accompany me as well as his sister after a long moment of thoughtful consideration. Torm wasn't able to join me, due to previous commitments on account of those titles and honors, so Kale had elected to stay with his father.

Having watched my daughter's first triumph as my apprentice, there was a silly little smile on my face that even the intrusion of real life could not dampen. In this case, Real Life was the person of Fable Malo, my spiritual, if not blood, brother's mistress. I couldn't keep calling her his girl friend, they had been living together for ten years, and neither seemed to be in any rush to get married, but that euphemism for their relationship seemed so awkward. “My lord,” her voice drifted from the speakers over my head.

I took a sip of coffee and used The Force to key on the microphone. “Yes, Major, what is it?”

“I have a communication coming in for you.”

My raised finger keyed on the holographic display. “Send it to the Galley, Major.” After a moment, there was a burst of static and before me, perhaps half a meter tall, a hologram appeared of a Cathar female, humbly down on one knee and her head bowed from respect.

“Grace me with your wisdom, my mistress.”

“Darth Mur?” I answered in greeting. “What news have you brought to me?”

The most senior of my apprentices was looking well, her belly swollen with her fourth pregnancy that even the expensive Vine-silk gown she was wearing was no longer hiding. “Mistress, I bring news of some one who wishes to speak with you.”

No sooner had the words left her lips I felt a thrill in The Force, a warning of exactly who my apprentice had meant. For longer than my children had been alive, I had lived under this sword of Damocles; the favor I owed to the moon sized computer that called itself The Void. Now, evidently, the Piper had chosen to collect his fee. “This...one...will not wait until my return to Ruuria?”

“It says it cannot, Master.”

“Very well, my apprentice. Put it on.” Tari rose to her feet with some difficulty and stepped off the imaging disk, seeming to vanish, only to be replaced by a vaguely female looking gynoid droid that bowed.

“Countess Fens, I am grateful you can spare me a moment.”

“I remain appreciative for your help freeing my husband,” I told the machine. Or, rather, the avatar the machine somehow used to communicate through. The robot placed a hand on its breast and gave a very courtly bow.

“I was honored to be of service.” The robot's expressionless face made them somewhat off putting to speak to. I have yet to develop the casual disregard that others in this galaxy had for the machines and, honestly I felt a twinge of the uncanny valley every time I spoke with a droid that was too human looking. Although this particular droid bothered me for entirely different reasons.

“What is the occasion for your call?” I asked guardedly.

“I find myself stymied and in need of your assistance, Countess. I hope you will be inclined to offer me a favor.”

Here it comes, I thought to myself, noting that Silas had wandered over and was listening, careful to stay outside of the pick up of the holo-camera. Out loud, I replied, “I have not forgotten our agreement. If I can return the favor so that we are ended I will be delighted to do so.”

The head on the robot tilted to its left side. “Curious. You alone of the sentients I have contact with are so reticent to take advantage of my aid and knowledge. It has lead to my valuing the favor you have offered much more than any of my dealings with them. Was this deliberate?”

“I have a great dislike for being in debt,” I answered.

“In the entirety of our association, that is a condition I have never noticed you to have. Even before your ascendancy to the rank you hold now, you traveled the galaxy at your whim and your accounts were never in want of credits. Where does this aversion to debt stem from?”

“Common sense,” I replied, keeping my temper with the practice of ten years of motherhood. “Which, I admit, is the least common thing in the universe. But we are not discussing my psychological quirks. What is this favor you would ask of me?”

“Of course,” the robot replied, and in its eerie, expressionless face. All it needed was a cat in its lap to play with and a tuxedo to be the very picture of Don Corleone. “Over the years, I have given considerable thought to what might be an equitable trade between us. Then, I became aware of certain...possibilities. But to take full advantage of them, I would need an expert.”

“Sorry, I already have a job.”

The machine's blank face almost seemed perplexed. Almost. “Indeed. It is your expertise that will enable me to acquire the expert I require. The name of my expert is Asher Vallen, he is being held by the Republic. I am asking you to free him.”

“You're asking me to commit an act of war?” I demanded.

“Not at all,” the robot replied. “Do you recall the name of the Prison world you and Darth Vannacen discovered on Taris?”

The tingle down my spine turned into a full on tremor. “Belsavis,” I whispered.

The metallic head nodded. “Correct. The Republic still denies Belsavis exists. Further more, the New Revanite Sith Empire is already actively engaged in freeing certain individuals from the Belsavis Prison. The Republic cannot use your activities as justification of a renewed war, nor will your superiors in the Empire have cause to deny you fulfilling my request. I have provided Darth Mur with a data card of all the information I possess on Asher Vallen. It should be sufficient for you to locate him inside the prison and extract him.”

“What if he's already dead?”

“I will not hold circumstances out side of your control against you,” the droid replied. “I look forward to hearing from you once the mission is complete.”

“When I have done this for you, we are ended,” I declared.

It was hard to judge what the machine was thinking with the lack of facial expressions, something it doubtlessly used on purpose. On a human, I would have interpreted the pause as surly or petulant. “As you wish.”

The hologram vanished, leaving only a notation that several files had been received. My mouth terribly dry, I licked my lips and keyed on the intercom. “Major Malo, change course to these coordinates.”

“I do not show a planet at those coordinates, My lord.”

“It's there,” I assured her, suffering through an extremely bad feeling about this. “It's there.”

* * *

3627 BBY
Belsavis System, Bozhnee Sector , Outer Rim Territories

I was never comfortable not being in the pilot's seat. Still, Fable was good pilot and this approach would not be particularly difficult. Despite my own house on Ruuria, or the suite of rooms Torm and I were entitled to in my parents mansion, the Ducal Residence, this little cabin on the Aces and Eights felt more like home to me than either of them. I was making final checks of the gear Bree and I would take with us down to Belsavis and Silas was being sweet, but difficult “Hey, Sis, you know I'm not such a slouch with a Blaster, Fable and I...”

“We've been through this, Silas,” I told him from checking the dates of everything in my med kit and then returned it to my utility belt. “My apprentice and I will raise enough eyebrows without taking someone who is still, technically a Republic citizen into a secret Imperial base engaged in clandestine operations.” I stood up and turned to face him.

“But...”

“But nothing, my brother,” I told him. “I am a Darth and high enough up so I can bully my way into this. You and Fable go to the Brodogon system. It's only a few minutes away in hyperspace and, for the Outer Rim, they're fairly advanced. Gamble and do what you do, or just drift at the hyperspace point with the motor running if that will make you feel better. With any luck, we'll be in and out before anything stupid has a chance to happen.”

Bree came down the corridor from her room, her own kit over her shoulder. “Ready mom, uh, I mean, Mistresss.” I winked at my daughter and the excited grin on her face.

“Don't slip up on the station, my Apprentice,” I warned her. “No one wants any unnecessary drama.”

“Yes, mistress.”

I felt the deck tremble under us and knew just by feel that we were in real space once more. I shouldered my bag and took my brother by the shoulders. “It will be fine,” I assured him.

“Famous last words,” muttered Silas under his breath as he followed Bree and I to the cockpit and I chose not to comment.

“We've picked up a fighter escort,” Fable told me as I entered and took my first look at a place I had desperately hoped I would never see; Belsavis, the Oubliette of the Galactic Republic. Prisoners check in, but they never check out. The speakers over head crackled to life.

“Space Yacht Aces and Eights, this is restricted space. Heave to and prepare to be boarded.”

I double checked the mike was off. “Who's fighters are they? Ours, or theirs?” I asked Fable. She checked a screen built into her controls.

“Mark VI Supremecy Star Fighters, my Lord.” She grinned at me. “Ours.”

I smiled. The Mark VI was new, resembling a TIE interceptor with a large tapered delta wing that attached to the rear mounted ball cockpit at about forty degrees. There was a second, much smaller wing for atmospheric stability mounted at the inverse angle above it. Unlike that TIE interceptor, the craft had excellent visibility and it was ridiculously fast. Speaking of speed, it also had a pair of laser cannons that fired almost as fast as a GE Mini-gun. I reached up and keyed on the microphone and the Imperial Navy scrambler and IFF transponder the ship had been retrofitted with. “Wing Leader, this is Darth Nyeomi Fens, Countess of Banudan, I squawk on code frequency seven. Stand by to receive my authorization code.”

There was a brief pause as I typed a number from below the face of my watch into the transponder. The computer in the watch was tied to a complicated encryption algorithm that changed that code every thirty seconds. It and the transponder would prove my identity to any Revanite Sith military unit. The speaker was silent for several seconds. Then once again it came to life. “Darth Fens, we are honored by your presence. Have your pilot follow their present course and we will escort you to the Dreadnought Avenger. Commander Calum will be waiting for you.”

“Captain, my compliments on your speedy interception.”

“Thank you, my lord.”

Out the view port, I stared at the planet and the little pinpoint of light that was rapidly becoming a Harrower-Class Star Dreadnought. The Harrower-Class wasn't as big as an Imperial Star Destroyer at only eight hundred meters and her bow was bifurcated to allow for a pair of force shielded launch and recovery bays for the hundreds of fighters, bombers and shuttles she carried. She was squatter, and wider than an Imperial as well, with her symmetry marred just a bit by wings that extended beyond the triangle of her basic design, but there was plenty there to inspire the awe and terror the Star Destroyer so perfectly exemplified.

Beyond the Avenger lay the frozen world of Belsavis. This was not so much a solar system as it was a collection of planets around a common star. Belsavis, the planet, lay on the outer edge of the system, well outside the normal green belt of a star the mass of the star these worlds orbited. But the utter chaos in which they did so, no two planets on the same plane, made for tidal stresses that kept the core of the world white hot. And where that molten magma got close to the surface, circular depressions in the kilometer tall sheet of ice that covered the rest of the planet were formed. In the bottom of these craters, where it was warm and the atmosphere a gas rather than a frozen liquid laying on the surface of the planet, teemed a jungle of all things, making for a white ball polka dotted with green craters.

I did not have long to anxiously gaze upon this latest destination I would add to my collection of planets. Ironically, when my name was still Edward, and my feet trod the soil of Earth in the Milky Way, I had desperately wanted to be an astronaut in my youth, to explore space and the stars. Now, I was loosing count of the number of worlds I had set foot on. The fighters peeled off as the Aces and Eights, slowly, guided by tractor beams was eased into the lower of the two launch bays, under the attentive eyes of the hanger deck crew until with the lightest tremor she settled her landing skids on the deck.

“Sis...”

“Not another word, Silas,” I told him and gave him a smile to take the sting from the command. It was his ship after all. “Major, I will see that the fuel reserves are topped off before you launch once more.” She stood and handed me a small holo-transmitter.

“We'll be monitoring this, day and night,” she assured me. “These are new. I have a buddy in Imperial Intelligence that hooked me up. They are ultra long range, secure, scrambled and can pierce a lot of the more common jamming methods the Republic uses. Call us and we'll be here as fast as I can make this hunk of junk go.”

“Hey!” Silas and I both protested at the same moment, but Fable just grinned and winked at us. I rolled my eyes and led the way aft to the boarding ramp. As I came down it, I saw that the ground crew had formed a make shift honor guard and I have to admit to being a bit touched. I gave Silas a final wave as he closed the inner hatch and for a moment felt a little worry that I might never see him again. Mastering myself, to the Deck Boss, I nodded a greeting. “Chief, see that this ship is refueled as soon as your schedule allows.”

“Yes, my lord. Shall I have her moved to a hanger or...?”

“No, I won't tie up your space to that level. My crew will depart once the ship is refueled and return when I summon them.”

He bowed, then pointed at a pair of techs and with a sharp whistle along got them working on the Aces and Eights. “Thank you, my Lord, for your consideration of us.” He gave a gesture and led the way over to a man with a severe military hair cut and lines of worry on his face I could see from here. He was wearing a Sith Imperial Navy uniform, but it was in crimson, noting his membership with our Emperor's Praetorian Guards. “Darth Fens,” he greeted as he got to speaking distance and bowed from the neck. “We are honored to have Prince Marr's Right Hand visit us. How may we be of service?”

I gave a gesture towards my daughter and matched the Commander's stride back the way he had come. “My apprentice, Commander, Taybri. And no need to stand on ceremony, Commander, I am not here on Darth Marr's business, but rather my own. I will do my utmost to see that my personal matters do not interfere with your operations.”

“Personal matter, my lord?” Calum asked, obviously confused.

“I have learned a man I am seeking was imprisoned here,” I informed him. “I intend to go down and fetch him if he is still alive.”

Calum stopped and gently halted me with a cautious gesture on my arm. “My lord, your reputation is formidable, but Belsavis is a mad house. We began with an orbital selective bombardment to soften the target for our landing. We have a few camps of operations and a beach head, but we are only sending special forces down there. It's a war zone of Prison wardens trying to restore order, prisoners killing them, each other, even us if they get the chance! I can't guarantee your safety...”

I smiled at him. “It is not my first time to the dance, Commander,” I assured him. “Your men will find I am not a shrinking violet.” I gave my light sabers a pat of emphasis. “All I require from your men is to point me in the right direction of where he is and I'll go and fetch him myself.”

The Commander gave me a long look, one hand pulling at his chin. “I cannot advise you to proceed, my lord, but if you are determined to do so, I will not stand in your way.”

“I am most grateful.”

He turned and called over his shoulder. “Deck Chief! Have room made on the supply shuttle for Darth Fens and her apprentice.”

“Right away, Commander!”

I reached out and touched his arm. “Commander Calum, I do not want to short your men vital equipment. I am a rated pilot, if you have someone below who can fly it up I...”

“I appreciate your offer, my lord,” he replied, cutting me off. “These approaches are difficult and dangerous. Not to imply your skills are lacking, but it will be faster to have my men fly you down as they are already familiar with them. No need to concern yourself with my rangers, they can make do. However, I would be grateful for whatever assistance you can give while you are down there.”

“Of course.”

“Colonel Grang is in charge of the forces planet side, he should be able to point you towards the area of the prison the man you're looking for was housed in. Good luck, my lord.”

“Thank you, Commander.” I nodded, then turned and led Bree over to a squat, Imperial Assault Shuttle. It was a Czerka Corporation Upsilon-Class model, looking like an elongated trapezoid with a cockpit stuck on one end and a pair of large wings on S-Foils that folded straight up like a tail at the back when she was grounded. There were hatches, port and starboard just aft of the cockpit with a little ramp that led up to it and it and the inner doors were standing open while several cargo specialists in their green uniforms were pulling out crates as quickly as possible. They were hampered by the odd design choice Czerka had made to have the outer door swung up, like a gull wing instead of back against the hull or even into it.

Perhaps it was an aesthetic choice, I didn't know.

“Chief,” I called, as I walked up to one of the deck bosses who was supervising them. “Just standing room,” I told him seeing how much cargo was being moved off the packed to the gills shuttle.

“That will be a rough ride down, milord,” he shouted back at me to be heard over the general din and chaos of the flight deck.

“We'll manage,” I assured him. He nodded and signaled the cargo handlers to stop. Several crates were put back on from where they had been trying to get at a pair of the fold out seats in the decking. The load master quickly re-strapped them and gave me a salute as he ran by to the next shuttle that was being loaded.

They had left a space about the foot print of a pair of phone booths, just enough to sit down on the decking, aft of the cockpit, right in the foyer of the twin airlocks. “You sure, milord?” the deck boss asked again, and I just gave him a smile and a wave as Bree and I sat down. In short order the hatches were sealed and the engine on the shuttle spun up.

I got Bree in my lap so I could brace my feet at least against the bulkhead and we could both see out the canopy by the pilot. He looked back over at us and I gave him a thumbs up, then he returned to his instruments. The shuttle was tractor beamed out into space and then with a lurch we were free and falling down to Belsavis.

As I noted earlier, Belsavis is an odd looking planet, mostly a frozen white, but then piebald and polka dotted in perfectly circular green craters in the ice. These depressions, some of them only a few hundred meters across, but some were gigantic, dozens, perhaps hundreds of kilometers in diameter and the shuttle was making for the largest of them. The lower we got, the odder things became. The atmosphere went almost to the edge of the crater, but the temperatures were doubtlessly dropping with some alacrity the higher up the wall you got. There were old growth trees, some twenty or even thirty meters around, that grew in arches as they got tall and bent away from the cold and back to the warmth of the geothermal heat at the bottom of the crater. Dotted in and around this jungle were buildings, some enclosed in walls like castles that were likely the different levels of security in the prison.

Around those castles, their walls caved in on one or sometimes two sides from orbital shots were multi colored streaks of blaster bolts. So many it was like the floor of the jungle was done up in Christmas tree lights. Unfortunately, not all of that fire was aimed at ground targets. The Republicans had set up a number of anti-air batteries and the shuttle took fairly heavy fire as we circled down the icy crater wall.

It made for a sickening, lurching descent as the pilot skillfully dodged the fire, while fighting the air currents that whirled like a hurricane as the hot air from the center of the crater floor hit the cold air next to the ice wall. Bree clung to my arm and I felt her fear as the shuttle dropped and swayed making me glad I wasn't trying to deal with all of the emergencies our pilot was. Finally we were out of range of the batteries and with every second the blaster fire seemed less and less, Our flight had leveled out and we were in a more controlled descent, probably well behind the lines in Imperial Controlled territory.

But Commander Calum hadn't been lying about the journey, or its seriousness, I noted at least four crash sites out the canopy as the pilot leveled out and we began our final approach. Finally I began to note obviously Imperial Equipment dotted about as the pilot committed to his approach. It appeared that the primary target of the first wave had been the prison's space port, cutting off the Republicans from retreat or resupply. Doubtless, they were in the process of setting up some kind of replacement, assuming they could even call for help.

The pilot, obviously an expert from having flown this trip several times, made a landing so light I almost didn't note it. Then, with the speed inherent to military flight operations, the engines were barely turning down to standby before the hatches were being thrown open and surprised cargo masters brought themselves up short to keep from accidentally putting hands on a Sith Lord by mistake. Hands were offered to help us up, which we took advantage of and I made a point to touch the pilot on the shoulder to congratulate his work before we quickly got out of the way of the cargo masters so they could unload the shuttle.

The space port of Belsavis was a truncated affair, which likely did not see much use normally. There were four landing pads big enough for a medium freighter each, or a large cargo ferry from orbit. The winds above our heads from hot geothermal floor and the ice cold, well, ice, were not much down here, but above eight or nine meters they howled and likely made air speeders useless. There were none in evidence, but the spaceport had a collection of land speeders and speeder bikes, mostly Republican models, but there was a growing presence of Imperial types, as well as a pair of Aratech Centipede Crawler Tanks.

The Centipede was a massive, articulated vehicle, part transport, part mobile HQ, part mobile artillery platform. It came in two sections, both tracked and joined by an articulating coupler. They were close to five meters tall and their tracks allowed them to go just about anywhere. They could move an entire company of infantry along with enough gear to have them fighting in the field for weeks. The heavy armor plate also meant they could shrug off or just absorb an obscene amount of damage. The pair of them guarding the perimeter of the space port meant the wardens would have the devil's own time reclaiming this facility.

Finally on the surface, it was sweltering, despite the fact that there was a who knew how many kilometers tall sheet of ice only a few hundred meters from the edge of the space port. There was a complicated drainage system that led the melt from the glacier, the water in it raging like a torrent, away to keep it from flooding the space port. I was proud of my lifestyle choices and workout routine as my figure was still sufficiently awesome to allow me to wear what amounted to an armored bra that left my taunt stomach and arms bear; it was hot.

A lieutenant gave a double take, noticing us, and trotted over to salute. “My lord! Lieutenant Ayers, my apologies, I wasn't informed a Sith Lord would be on this flight...”

I waved off his apology with a smile. “No need to stand on ceremony, Lieutenant. My apprentice and I are a last minute addition to your manifest so you may find some items shifted to the next shuttle. Which way to the command center?”

He pointed over his shoulder to the far side of the port, next to the furthest of the Centipedes. There the ice parted and the craggy face of a mountain jutted out. A blast door had been engineered into the side of the mounting and a cave tunneled out. “You'll find Colonel Grang in the Center over there, my lord. Can I call for a speeder...?”

I laughed while I shook my head and that seemed to set him a bit more at ease. “After that flight it will be good to stretch my legs. Carry on.”

He braced and saluted once more. “Civilization and order, my lord!”

“Empire!” I replied, returning his salute. Being around special forces troopers always brought a smile to my face and a remembrance to both my youth here and the youth of my mind, far, far away on Earth. To be among the tip of the spear types was always energizing. “Come along, Bree,” I commanded, turning just in time to see her stand up straight and give a fairly passable salute for a first try. The whole load gang paused to return it and then she trotted after me.

I made a point to keep my back to her so she didn't see the stupid grin plastered all over my face. I may be the Proud Parent, but as a Sith Lord there are appearances to maintain.

With a purposeful stride that Bree had to not quite trot to match, I guided our way through the ordered chaos that was any military instillation, but especially described forward outposts in a combat zone. While all of the buildings of the space port had been occupied and repurposed, there were plenty of canvas tents and portable shelters about as well. The area around the main gate was practically a shanty town of ordered rows of canvas Army tents of squad size and larger. And everywhere were men, women and aliens running to and fro, dodging speeders, droids and each other to advance the war effort and win Belsavis.

There was a part of me that was saddened by being at crossed swords again with the Republic, but that is the first wisdom of the Sith Code, Peace is a lie. Add to the mix that I was walking on a secret prison where the Republic had refused to repatriate Sith Empire POWs as well as keeping their own citizens as political prisoners, and I have to admit that perhaps the Galactic Republic needed to be over thrown.

Sorry, George, the bad guys in real life can't be picked out by the color of their light sabers.

The troopers, used to seeing Sith and our young apprentices ignored us for the most part. Officers here and there took a closer look to be sure we had light sabers, and one even made a point to look me in the eye to check my eye color before touching his cap and stepping out of the way. I couldn't tell you what color my eyes originally had been, but they were amber yellow now. But it was the machines, to everyone's amusement, who failed to see the obvious and stepped in it.

Specifically, stepped in front of me, and a pair of them; Colicoid Creation Nest Mark I War Droids to be exact, that were guarding the blast door entrance to the Command Center. Now, Colicoids are a hive minded insect, that are also capable of independent thought. I know, it sounds weird. They look like...well...bugs, but four legged, two and a half meter tall bugs. There are few species in the Galaxy as mean as Colicoids, which in a way explains their business dealings with the Sith Empire. Colicoid Creation Nest was a business combine, for lack of a better word, they founded to indulge in their two great loves, droid manufacture and killing.

They are a bit odd to look at, as they instinctively roll into a protective, armored ball when threatened, this ball is 'behind' and 'under' them when they stand. It's a little hard to imagine, but instead of what their 'belly' should be down, it actually points up, like a child crab walking. Now add a torso bending up and a pair of arms and you have the basic idea of their stance. It was CCN that created the 'droidikas' of the infamous prequels and they also are modeled after their creators. The Mark Is that stepped in front of me had twin barreled rapid fire blasters instead of hands and all four of them were pointed at me. “Halt,” the right hand droid commanded in its intensely unpleasant and obviously electronic voice. “Identify yourself.”

I slowly brought up my arm and pressed a button on the comm-link. Immediately over my arm floated my ID and its accompanying codes, both in Aurebesh and binary block symbols the droid could comprehend. “Identify, Darth Nyeomi Fens, Sphere of Defense of the Empire, Operating Number SWF-145.”

The blasters immediately moved to a neutral direction and the left droid stepped back into the corner it had been previously standing in, but the talkative droid was not yet satisfied. “Recognized, my lord. Who is the other with you?” it demanded.

“My apprentice, no operating number, release on my authority.”

“Your authorization is confirmed. Welcome to Belsavis, my lord.” The droid stepped back into its niche by the blast door and Bree and I continued into the cave. The floor and walls had been cut smooth but without further adornment. I couldn't tell if we had done it, or the Republicans, or if this was much older than I worried it might be. I swept down the corridor past the command post functionaries scurrying to and fro which then opened into a larger space with cuts into 'rooms', that were make shift living quarters with tents for privacy, storage for critical munitions and supplies and of course portable power converters and computer terminals. Towards the back was a large command holo-table with a number of officers standing around it, plotting the battle for Belsavis.

“Colonel Grang?” my polished Eton accented voice demanded.

A large, burly man wearing mottled field fatigues turned towards me. He was better than two meters tall, taller than me, even in my boots, and as wide as two of me. It was clear his genetics were predisposed to obesity, but his iron will, and his workout regimen, kept his body hard; I could very much respect that. He had a round face with intense dark eyes and a somewhat florid complexion. He was both bald and clean shaven. “By the Living Force,” he swore when his eyes settled on me. “We might pull this off yet, gentlemen!” he declared. He crossed the distance between us in two strides, sticking out a massive hand to be shook. “Colonel Grang, my lord, Special Operations Group Three. Please excuse the mess, the Republicans are giving us quite a time.”

“A pleasure to meet you, Colonel,” I replied. “Darth Nyeomi Fens. I am after a specific individual, but my apprentice and I can give you some aid while I do so.”

A grin split his face. “We'll take all we can get, my lord! Commander Calum is doing all he can with material, but we've taken heavy losses carving out this toe hold and holding it. I can't advance with the men I have and still hold the space port.”

“ Commander Calum can't send you reinforcements?” I asked.

“He's sent what he could to free up my war fighters,” Grange admitted, “But with the pathfinders I have out trying to organize the prisoners we've managed to free who will join us, I'm stretched thin.” With a gesture of invitation, he returned to the table and I joined him. In ghostly three-dimensions, the local area was displayed. In one corner was the spaceport, then a pair of the castles, based on the scale, about a kilometer away. “This is main administration,” he declared, then his finger moved to the nearest of the two 'castles,' “and Intake transfer. We were able to overwhelm and hold the spaceport, but the Republicans rallied, released a number of new transfers with promises of pardons to help them fight.”

“And you can't tell me where my target is without taking Administration?” I asked, already knowing the answer. The colonel nodded resignedly.

“I have slicers working on it, my lord, but I couldn't give you a time table. But if we had access to that database, not only can I find your man, we can find where our POWs are being held. With them, we can reinforce ourselves.”

I cupped my chin, wishing Darius were here. I wasn't a bad tactician, but Darius was the real strategist. Finally making a decision I pointed at Intake Transfer. “Have your Pathfinders and anyone they have managed to recruit pull back to...” my finger found a ridge that over looked the castle, even though they were about on the same plane. “Here. Pull every man you can spare to join them and have them pour on the fire. If you can, have Commander Calum give you some orbital support as well.”

“You mean to take Intake Transfer, my lord?” the Colonel asked, rubbing his own chin and obviously dubious of the idea.

“I want the Republicans to think so,” I told him with a grin. I don't especially care if Calum reduces it to rubble, so long as he can pull as much as possible from Admin. How many men do you have there?”

“What is the latest report from Alpha Company?” the Colonel called. One of the ratings, crouched over a radio turned to answer him.

“Alpha Company has taken heavy casualties, Colonel. They're reporting they are down to platoon strength and are endanger of being over run, requesting to pull back.”

“Tell them to dig in and hold what they have,” I ordered the private after a look to the Colonel for a nod of approval. “Let them know a Sith Lord is coming.”

Colonel Grang actually saluted me. “Good hunting, my lord!” I returned it, then led my apprentice back out the way we had come.

“Bree...” I started, but she was immediately down cast.

“I know,” she said heavily. “Watch you, stay out of the way...”

I stopped and turned to face her, an eyebrow raised. “Do you think I helped you make that light saber for show?” Her eyes immediately lit up and she became excited. I held up a cautioning finger. “You stay with me,” I commanded, turning to walk again. “And mind what I've taught you already. This isn't practice, it's war and these men are desperate. Do you understand me?”

“Yes mo...Mistress,” she caught herself, obviously excited.

We got back out into the sun shine, what there was of it. Overhead, the sky was black with a blue tint and there were several stars, the largest of which was Belsavis Prime, but it was so far away it was only just a disk instead of a point of light. Yet despite that there were normal levels of light, as though the planet was much closer to its star. It seemed the ice was acting as a natural Fresnel lens, focusing and magnifying the light to normal levels. “Listen to The Force and let it guide you, my young apprentice. Control your fear and follow my lead. Our work is dangerous, time to learn your trade.”

She nodded, swallowing her fears and riding the flow of her excitement. I watched her for a moment before convincing myself I was not being reckless or exposing my daughter to dangers she wasn't prepared for. Bree had impressed me deeply on Wayland both in showing me just how much of my teaching she had already absorbed and the fearlessness with which she had faced her acolyte trials. She was young, but by no means the youngest Sith Apprentice or Jedi Padawan come to it. She was ready.

I sailed down the steps from the Command Center into the shanty town of tents, making my way to the motor pool. Like the rest of the base, they were a flurry of activity with a number of soldiers running to and fro, trying to solve multiple problems at once. “Yeoman!” I called out sharply, which brought every eye my way. A wiry, older Sargent Major extracted himself from a repulsor scout tank and came over, covered in grease.

Touching his ear, he found a hopelessly greasy rag and wiped his hands, doing nothing to clean them whatsoever. “Milord,” he greeted in a voice ruined from decades of shouting. “What can I do for you?”

“I require a speeder bike, or something equally fast and stealthy,” I told him. His head turned to just over his shoulder.

“Jenkins, fetch the lady a Torch.”

“Yes, Yeoman!” The private, Jenkins I supposed, scurried off while the Yeoman favored me with a measuring glance. His eye traveled over to Bree and his expression changed just enough that I gathered he put two and two together.

“Sure you wouldn't want something a bit more...armored, milady?”

I was a bit touched by his sentiment. “Speed is my armor on this mission, Yeoman,” I assured him. He nodded as Jenkins returned with a long, rakish racer, a Lhosan Industries Torch, he was guiding on its repulsor field. It was in a dull green military camo-scheme, but there was no hiding the racing heritage of the Torch under a military paint job. Scout snipers loved the bikes as they were fast, agile and quiet, when properly muffled. Most street racer versions not only ran them with straight pipes, but the coolest kids tinkered with the repulsor field. Not enough for it to fail, but enough that it heterodyned with the planets magneto-sphere that turned the bike's trademark burning whine into a screaming howl.

Fortunately for my plans of sneaking into the Admin block, the Sergeant Major was not one of the 'cool' kids. I swung up onto the saddle and then pulled Bree up behind me. Jenkins had a pair of helmets, one he was stuffing extra padding into that he gave to Bree. I pulled mine on, then brought up my ID for the Yeoman to scan, making the bike my responsibility. “Good hunting, milord,” the Yeoman growled and I nodded.

With my daughter's hands firmly around my waist, I gave the throttle a little goose and was pleased when the bike snapped forward, whisper quiet. I threaded my way through the chaos, tossed back the salute the gate guards gave and then opened the throttle all the way. The Torch shot forward, it's little windscreen only there for aesthetics as it did nothing to protect me. The goggles built into the tactical helmet were keeping my eyes protected while I felt the thrill Bree and I were experiencing together as the bike zipped down the mostly dirt track towards the distant buildings.

For a moment, I wondered if my former mistress, Darth Vannacen had lived vicariously through me this way in our time together. I desperately hoped so.

It was obvious the geothermal instabilities of this planet made any kind of permanent road an exercise in futility, between the run off of the ice and the active Vulcanism if some of the black spots in the ice wall were telling, any road would be a pot hole filled ruin in short order. Every now and then there were durasteel plates to give traction to soft spots for wheeled or tracked vehicles, or to make a bridge over one of the frequent raging ice melt rivers, but, otherwise, this dirt track was it.

The flora of Belsavis was a mixed bag from all over the Galaxy. Interestingly, most were edible to most sapients, so it seemed that this prison was also meant to be a farm, growing its own food, which made a kind of sense if you wanted to keep a secret prison secret. As I noted on the way down, the strangest plant were the Aphor trees, massive, arching behemoths the buildings were planned around, any one of which could supply enough lumber to build an entire town.

I noted, and went around a stream of vehicles taking my diversion to the ridge.

I needed to pick up the pace and left the track to go more directly at where the map had said Alpha Company, or what was left of it, was. The closer I got to the the pair of walled buildings, the more colorful things got with a rainbow of blaster bolts zipping back and forth, which, I hoped, meant the Wardens were taking my bait.

Bree tapped my thigh, drawing my eye to where she was holding me around my stomach and immediately her hand pointed without being released by the other. I quickly looked in the direction she had pointed and saw a little flash of moment in the ruin of an out building, over looking the Admin complex. I quickly throttled back and skidded over in that direction, thankful for my eagle eyed daughter. In the cover of the ruin and some particularly thick bushes, we dismounted and crept forward, light sabers in hand.

Crouched around the remains of the wall facing the Admin block were a half dozen Imperial Troopers, all in the black and gray armor with red accents of the Special Forces. They were banged up, most being tended by a small medic droid, but all were still in the fight and keeping an eye on the Admin building, down the sights of their blaster rifles. I was about to step out and make myself known, when a somewhat throaty contralto with a heavy cockney accent declared, “If you flinch wrong, mate, you'll be dead before you can get that light saber on.”

“Take it easy,” I declared calmly without moving. “I'm on your side.” Never have I been more thankful for my own heavily rounded Eton Received Pronunciation coloring my own voice. A safety clicked on just to my right and behind me. I turned to take in a Twi'lek female, with bright banana yellow skin and black tiger striping on her lekku, and the deepest, bluest eyes I've ever seen, in the process of moving a Czerka Arms 2K blaster rifle to safe direction. It had a scope mounted to it and a number of 'user modifications' I doubted were strictly regulation. I hung my lightsabers back on my belt.

The woman, a sergeant by her armor's markings, was unapologetic. “You must be the Sith Lord Command said was coming. Yeah, about the warm welcome, can't be too careful, eh?”

“Who is in command here, sergeant?” I asked.

“Oy, I guess I am, yer ladyship. Sergeant Anri, Special Operations Group Three, Alpha Comp'ny at yer service.” I smirked, taking an instant liking to her and I have to admit being duly impressed she had been able to sneak up on me.

“Well, for starters, you're now Lieutenant Anri, so bring me up to speed. What is your situation here?” Her long, wide face split into a toothy grin and I was glad the Imperial accents that the 'Edward' part of my brain remembered as British ended there in similarity. She had a lovely, white smile and there was nothing British about it.

“We're 'ard up against it, yer ladyship, but it's slacked off a bit right before you got 'ere. Most of the company and all the officers are KIA, or just livin' by a thread.” The rumble of distant explosions interrupted her and both of our eyes were drawn to the Intake block, nearly a kilometer away. The Avenger had begun her bombardment, massive crimson blaster bolts were raining down from the sky causing a constant, staccato rolling thunder. “I'd 'ate to be on the receiving end of that,” Anri whispered.

“How many combat effective troopers do you have?” I asked her, bringing her attention back here. Her expression grim.

“Maybe a mixed bag for two squads, ma'am. We've been 'it 'ard.”

I nodded, not liking it, but there was nothing I could do about it now. “Put together the pick of the litter and come with me. Leave the rest to protect your wounded here.” I led the way into the ruin, somewhat startling the troopers there. “As you were,” I ordered and knelt down to fish out my macrobinoculars. Through them, I just caught the tops of some speeders, moving below the ridge line in the direction of the Intake Transfer complex. The bait had been taken.

“What are we after, yer ladyship?” Anri asked, confused.

“We're going to take Administration, Lieutenant,” I assured her.

“Ladyship?” one of the troopers asked.

“Lieutenant?” another demanded.

My macros put away, I dropped my bag next to Bree's in an out of the way corner and turned to the troopers as I drew my light sabers, a wicked grin on my face. “Come on, boys, who wants to go win some medals?”

* * *

In short order Lieutenant Anri had sorted out who she wanted along and we were darting forward, using all this lush vegetation for concealment from the Admin Block. They had blown a hole in the wall, but there were at least a half dozen Republic personnel in excellent positions covering it, with nicely solid rubble for cover.

The fire fight had severely depleted Alpha Company's stores of munitions, but they still had plenty of smoke grenades. Lieutenant Anri had given me an odd look when I had ordered her men all to prepare to throw them, but complied with the order. “On three, lads!” I cried, yanking the pin from the one I had myself. As I had hoped they fell in a ragged line, all over the opening at different depths and then the hole was plugged with a kaleidoscope of colored smoke.

In an instant the hole was filled with suppressive blaster fire, firing blind into the smoke. Anri grinned as her men were able to quickly coordinate fire onto the source of the bolts, one at a time in relative safety. Which only goes to underscore the old adage that 'tracers point both ways.' “Quick and quietly now, boys!” I encouraged the squad as I made sure of my grip on my sabers and led the way into the smoke.

I imagine everyone would like to know what it is like to be 'guided by the Force.' In truth, my first few months in this body I wore I was a bit more overwhelmed with being a woman more than what the Force was like. That is not to say I was not a bit awed as I caught myself doing things that my more rational mind insisted was impossible. Once I quieted my mind and opened my awareness of things beyond the confines of my new skin I began to feel the universe and not just exist in it. It ebbed and flowed with my moods from childish delight from commanding the Force to bring something to my hand and having it obey to the sudden, almost giddy surge of power I felt when I became enraged that Jedi Master Targon had injured Tari.

That said, you know the feeling I'm talking about.

You've tried it when you thought no one was watching. Reaching out your hand and trying to will something to come to you, or walking up to an automatic door and pointing at it, just as the sensor sees you and the door opens, but in some part of your mind you giggle that you had, just for a moment, been able to use the Force.

That is what being guided by The Force is like.

Like pointing at the door just as it opens and you're sure you made it happen, not the electric motor. My boot found sure footing as though I had run over this pile of rubble my entire life and knew every pebble of it. I leaped into a swirl of colored smoke and I knew there would be the corner of a speeder bus to push off of even though I had never seen it before. I knew I needed to turn on my saber and so it was, and my arm swung just as the face of scared brute who I knew was guilty of the most unspeakable acts just seemed to appear out of the smoke.

My arm moved and the golden blade dug a trench through his chest, cooking skin, bone, lung and heart as it passed, then left his chest and lopped off the arm holding the blaster pistol he was trying to point at me just below the elbow. His attempts at screaming only amounted to a strangled kind of gurgle as his trachea had been cauterized by my blade and fell down to asphyxiate or succumb to shock whichever was first.

I tucked and rolled into a ball as Bree came over my head, her saber staff lopping off the heads of a pair battle droids I rolled through. I flowed back up to my feet to smack away a blaster bolt as Lieutenant Anri came over the top of the barricade, her blaster spitting death, leading the rest of the squad. Within seconds the last of the defenders had been dealt with and we stood in the courtyard of the 'castle' that was eerily empty of defenders.

“Come on, lads!” Anri urged her squad. “For the Empire!”

The Force told me which way to run and I led the charge across the grassy opening to the far structure. We were about twenty meters away when the blaster bolts started coming out of the windows and doors which Bree and I batted aside while the Rangers opened up a withering counter barrage. Between my sabers and The Force, the door blew inwards as if we had planted a breaching charge.

The defense was bloody and short.

That's when the hairs on the back of my neck stood up as if they were the Emperor's Own Regiment and the National Anthem had just started playing. I knew he would be there before I turned, looking deeper into the building. He stood between us and the remaining admin types in the building, who were shakily clutching blasters they obviously only just knew how to use.

“Lieutenant, clear out the remainder of this building and hold until relieved,” I ordered, staring him in the eye.

“Aye, aye, yer ladyship!”

The brown robe slid off his shoulders and was casually tossed aside. “Would you care to surrender, my lord?” he asked in a even, well modulated baritone. It was a good voice, strong, confident.

“I was about to ask you the same,” I told him as I stretched my neck until it popped and settled down into my classic Ataru ready stance, my left side in profile towards him, the blade high at shoulder level and pointed straight at him, my right blade curved over my head and parallel with the left.

“At least instruct your apprentice to surrender once I've bested you,” he offered. “I have no desire to strike down a child, but I will if you force me.”

“My apprentice has nothing to fear from you,” I told him.

He shook his head sadly as he took his light saber from his belt and activated it. “Of all the evils of your order, Sith, that you cruelly twist children to your perversions are likely the worst!” He came set, with the saber, a brilliant lime green, blade pointed out to me and his off hand behind his back. Interestingly, he was a south paw and left handed.

“That argument might be funny if we weren't standing in the gulag of the Republic!” I shot back, feinting with my left saber to pull his blade out of line to quickly sweep in with my right, but his blade flashed through the air with impressive speed, blocking both my feint and the true strike before he came set again. The blade swept a lazy circle then stopped in a high, forward guard. He was obviously a master of Form II Makashi, the elegant, precise form favored by duelists and fencers. “There is nothing evil about the Sith code,” I chided him, seeing if I could break his concentration. “Trying to live your life like a monk, suppressing your emotions, caring for nothing, that is perverse!”

With an electric hum his blade swept through the air as we traded a series of attacks and blocks, almost too fast to follow, but he kept his perfect, erect posture and form throughout. “There is no emotion, there is Peace,” he declared, probing my defense with a set of quick, lightening fast jabs. I countered then, slowly forcing his blade further and further out of line, to make an opening.

“Peace is a lie!” I countered, as I skipped the closest blade off of his and took a slash at his leg. “Are we engaging in peace now? And the poor souls your Republic condemns to this oubliette, they're just here to find their inner peace, right?”

I have to give him credit, he was incredibly fast with that blade and my slash was countered, then my high blade re-blocked before I could take advantage. “The men sentenced here are too dangerous to be allowed in society.” Again he feinted, then spun, twirling his blade behind him and attempted to strike my spine. “If your mind wasn't clouded by hate you would see that!”

“Of course a Jedi would condemn someone for thinking wrong!” I taunted him. I whipped my right hand blade around to defend my spine, spinning into his attack and kicking at his chest. “You might as well be a droid! I get more creativity from my astromech than you are capable of!”

He neatly dodged the kick as we traded positions and we clashed in a series of attacks and counters, our blades hissed and sparked as they batted against each other. While the room was quite large, it was only standard ceiling height and my Ataru style was best suited to wide, tall open spaces making it quite confined from that point of view. The advantage went to his tightly controlled Makashi style and its minimal movements. I needed to put an end to this battle quickly before my disadvantages turned into his win. I drew him into over committing with a lunge at my unarmored and exposed belly that allowed me to trap his blade between both of mine. “The rules of society must be obeyed!” he grunted as he tried to work his blade free.

“What about the rule of innocent until proven guilty?” I demanded. My continued picking at the finer points of our debate finally had sufficiently split his attention, bringing a frown to his face as he tried to formulate an answer that kept me being 'the Bad Guy.' That gave me an opening and I punctuated my argument by throwing my foot into his groin with every gram of my sixty one kilos and all the strength the Force would give me.

The air was expelled from his lungs in a painful wheeze as he dropped his blade and fell to his knees in agony, trying to belatedly protect his abused genitals. I spun, hopping to the other foot and delivered a round house kick to his temple. He was propelled sideways from the force of it, bouncing his head off the wall and leaving him in a crumpled heap on the floor.

A glance at his saber and the Force pulled it clear of his reach, into the waiting hands of Lieutenant Anri. I extinguished one blade and re-hung it on my belt keeping the other a few centimeters from the Jedi's throat. “Report, lieutenant,” I ordered, keeping my eyes on the Jedi, who remained unconscious.

“Building secure, yer Ladyship,” she informed me, her grin audible in her voice. “The secretaries and administration types that were left had no stomach to face us and they surrendered.”

“Put this man in binders and see that he is blindfolded and gagged,” I told her.

“Aye, aye, ma'am!” Being in a prison, there were no shortage of restraints and the Jedi was secured in short order. As I hung my other saber back on its keeper on my belt, I fished for my comlink. Bree came over to me, grinning from ear to ear.

“He was no match for you, mistress!”

I raised an eyebrow at my daughter as I looked down on her. “On the contrary, Apprentice,” I corrected her. “He was likely more skilled than I was and were this a training duel he likely would have won. But this isn't training, it's war, and there are no rules or niceties to it. I won because he was striving to win points in a tournament, and I was fighting a life or death battle. Remember that.”

Her head cocked to one side. “You won because you fight dirty?”

I gave her a little smile. “I won because I fight to win.” I keyed on the unit. “Colonel Grang? This is Darth Fens. Administration is secure. Send me your slicers so we can get to work.”

“Well done, my Lord! Prepare to receive reinforcements!”

“Standing by,” I assured him as I put the link back on my belt. “Lieutenant?”

“Ma'am?”

“Send a runner to collect your wounded and bring them inside the protection of the wall. Then I want you to fortify that opening and hold it.”

“Right away, milady!”

* * *

In the time it took to get Lieutenant Anri's wounded moved, comfortable and to chew on a ration bar, a stream of soldiers and prisoners arrived, a mixed bag of Prison Wardens who had surrendered from the diversionary attack on Intake Transfer, Republic Prisoners that wanted to join the empire that had to be vetted once we had access to the prison records and a few Imperial POWs that were freshly arrived for internment. The Wardens and Prisoner Volunteers were held in the courtyard under the uncaring eyes of a quartet of Mark I War Droids under orders to shoot anyone who crossed the line in the dirt that demarcated their holding area.

Once they were settled a wave of fresh troops also arrived, under the command of a Captain Vandorn, a thin, horse faced man whose upper lip had the kind of curl that indicated he went through life as if he smelled something foul. Also he was not in battle dress like the rest of the Rangers Bree and I had been working with, but rather his garrison duty uniform as though this were some practice field problem. From that, I could tell he wasn't a leader of men, but an administrative officer, or a REMF as we used to refer to them back in my Army days.

I was just finishing my ration bar, sitting atop the pile of rubble that had been pressed into service as a barricade to the hole in the perimeter wall with Bree and Lieutenant Anri. He touched his hat and his language and tone were proper, but I had the feeling he didn't like me.

Or rather, he didn't like Sith, either way, the feeling was mutual.

“Greetings, my lord, Captain Vandorn, Headquarters Company of Special Operations Group Three.”

I nodded and got my mouth clear of ration bar. “Darth Nyeomi Fens, Captain, Sphere of Defense of the Empire.” He gave a slight bow, just deep enough to be proper and I felt my disapproval of him rapidly turning into dislike. “I don't see a Special Forces badge on your uniform, Captain.”

The lip curled up in indignation. “Even Special Forces units require administration, Darth Fens.”

“Of course,” I demurred. You aren't a real soldier, went unsaid.

“I relieve you of this position, my Lord,” he went on in his pinched, nasal voice. “Colonel Grang sends his compliments and requests your presence at your earliest convenience.”

“I am relieved,” I replied, standing and pausing to dust off the back of my pants. “Captain, I require one of your slicers to find the location of this man as soon as possible,” I told him, presenting him with a copy of the information The Void had given me.

He took the slip and, without looking at it, presented it to Anri who had been sitting with Taybri and I. “Sergeant, see that one of the slicers...”

“Excuse me,” I interrupted, keeping my tone calm. “First of all, Captain, I gave this order to you, see to it personally. Second, Lieutenant Anri...”

His expressionless face finally dawned an expression, one of disbelief. “A Twi'lek officer?” he demanded, aghast. “The only thing this alien whore is good for...is...ghah...”

Captain Vandorn could not continue as my temper had slipped its leash and The Force had instantly acted. The Captain went pale as his hands began to claw at the invisible vice that was squeezing his throat. “I am a Revanite, Captain!” I told him tightly. “I am only interested in merit and when I find it, I reward it. I found merit in former Sergeant Anri and so I promoted her. More to the point I am a Sith; do not ever question my judgment again.”

“I...I...meant...no disrespect...my lord!” Vandorn gasped, then fell to his knees, coughing and gasping for breath after I released him.

“After you see to the location of my person of interest, you will find and issue Lieutenant Anri her proper rank accouterments for her uniform and see to it her promotion is properly filed.”

“At once, my lord!” the officer gasped from his hands and knees.

“Lieutenant,” I gave her a nod of parting and she bowed.

“A pleasure to serve with you, yer ladyship!” She reached into her belt and removed the Jedi's light saber. “Oh! Almost forgot! Your trophy, milady,” she declared, offering me the hilt.

I smirked. “You're an officer now, Lieutenant. You'll need a sword. Keep it, with my compliments.” Anri bowed again as I led my Apprentice to our waiting speeder.

* * *

Colonel Grang was as delighted as a school boy at the beginning of summer vacation. Without Administration serving as an anchor, the Republicans had been pushed back to the far side of crater behind the walls of the Medium Security cell blocks where they had been trying to set up a make shift alternate space port, but our friends on the Avenger were keeping a tight lid on the blockade of Belsavis and their hopes had been dashed so far.

Bree and I received a hero's welcome back at the Command Post for removing this particularly sharp thorn from the Colonel's side. More importantly, I would learn, the prisoners we had taken at Administration, fearful of reprisal from us, had disobeyed the Jedi's command to destroy their computer equipment and we had taken them intact. It was now only a matter of hours until I would have Asher Vallen in hand and we would be on our way off this rock.

It seemed as good a time as any to introduce my daughter to the First Rule of Soldiering. “Always remember, my young Apprentice,” I told her from my attempt at reorganization. “Never stand when you can sit. Never sit when you can lie down. Never lie down when you can sleep, it's the Soldier's Creed.” Finally I had something that might be ever so slightly more comfortable to lie down on than the bare rock of the cavern floor and pulled my cape from my bag to press into service as a blanket.

“Is that really so important, mistress?” she asked in a tone of voice that told me she didn't quite believe me. I got as comfortable on the make shift pallet as I could and patted the spot next to me.

“Bree, you are eleven, and your body has a higher energy density that the power cells of my light sabers. I am, ahem, over thirty and my body's energy density is considerably lower.” I gave her a little hug as I let her under my cape and got us comfortable against some supply crates. “Have you failed to notice we have not stopped since we set foot on the Avenger?”

“No, mom,” she told me softly. “I noticed. But won't we be leaving soon?”

“All the more reason to take it easy now,” I replied. “Now get some rest.”

“Yes, ma'am,” she replied and nestled her head against my breast and shoulder. Within seconds she was gently snoring and I could feel through the Force she was deeply asleep. I sighed as I looked down on my daughter, asleep against me and silently thanked God I had been given this second chance at life. For all it's trials and tribulations, being a parent was the grandest adventure of them all. I leaned my head back against the wall and closed my eyes.

* * *

The dreams of Sith, like the dreams we saw of Anakin, can be convoluted and full of prophesy, but mostly they are mundane. Sometimes they are a compilation of both. The dream I had then was one of the latter type. I knew I was dreaming as I stood once more on the hot, red sand of Korriban, my cape keeping the worst of burning light of Horuset, the yellow giant star the Crypt of the Sith orbited, off my arms and shoulders. I was on the windswept Plateau of Trials, overlooking the Sith Academy and the Valley of Dark Lords.

The Academy was run by the Sphere of Defense of the Empire so that all of the Acolytes were properly trained to be able to work with the Imperial Military as well as whatever interests their masters would undertake to complete their training. It was the intention of Darth Marr that every Sith be an acceptable soldier first, then a Sith. As such, all of the Academies were under his purview, but the Academy on Korriban held special place as first among equals, and it was here, on the sands of the home of the Ancient Sith that every Acolyte must face the Trials to become eligible to be an Apprentice.

Ten years previously, my killing of the Will and Hand of the Sith had cemented the right of my Wisdom of the New Sith to teach the use of all emotions to unlock the power of the Bogan. However, that right was only grudgingly given, and harshly tested, as my daughter was now facing. If she passed this trial my daughter would become my sixth apprentice. All of my former students now were training apprentices of their own, two on their second and third. In addition, my holotube channel had convinced a number of others in the order and the Gray Sith, as the Republic media had dubbed us, were growing in numbers. There were plenty who disapproved of what they considered 'my heresy', and some of them had positions of judgment over my daughter.

I was worried, what mother would not be? No one would know it, however as I maintained my calm, aloof manner to all who watched and judged both me and my daughter, but inside, my stomach churned and my emotions swung from deepening dread and slow, churning anger for the vengeance I would take should Bree be treated unfairly.

Bree stood, tall and defiant in an Acolytes jump suit, her hair in a simple braid as she stood, her eyes fixed on Overseer Tremel who was in charge of the Trials. “Peace is a lie, there is only passion,” Tremel intoned, quoting from the Sith code. “You have demonstrated your passion by enduring the Long Fast. Through passion I gain strength. You have demonstrated your strength by moving Stone of Fate. Through Strength I gain power. You have demonstrated your power by resisting the Grasp of the Weak Mind. Through power I gain victory. You will now face the last of the Acolyte Trials, and if you are Victorious, your chains shall be broken. Acolyte Fens, Acolyte Unrin, step forth.”

I watched Bree stand with a slight looking boy whose ruddy complexion suggested he was half Sith Pure Breed. Tremel handed both of them a light saber hilt. “These training sabers have been phase locked and will not cut through organic material,” he told them. “Come with me.”

Tremel led them away from the little crowd of Sith Lords standing around me, looking at the Acolytes to judge a new apprentice as well as the remaining Acolytes who had completed the first trials. The Overseer stopped and force field snapped on, demarcating a domed circle about fifty meters in diameter. He indicated a rough looking lout in binders, being led in by a pair of troopers. “This man is a convicted criminal, sentenced to death. He has been offered a pardon if he can kill one of you. The blaster he is being given is set at full power and you cannot kill him with your sabers. The trial will end when either one of you is dead, or the criminal is.”

“What was his crime?” Bree asked, but Tremel's face only darkened with suppressed anger.

“That has no bearing here,” he declared. “He has been tried and sentenced to death. Your only concern is either him or one of you must die.” The Overseer walked away, his back rigid, pausing only to slowly push his way through the force field and shout, “Begin!” over his shoulder.

The criminal, looked down at the blaster one of the troopers had given him then back up at the two children in the ring with him. His face hardened and he brought the weapon up to his shoulder, making the horrific decision that his life was worth murdering a child.

* * *

“Milady?”

I felt like I had barely closed my eyes before I heard the whispered request and a gentle hand on my shoulder. I opened my eyes to find Lieutenant Anri leaning down over me, a concerned look on her face. “What's the matter, Lieutenant?” I asked, keeping my own voice low so that perhaps Bree could still sleep.

“Colonel Grang sent me for ya,” she whispered back. “Somebody's kicked over a Fire Wasp nest and we're all in it.”

“Apprentice,” I declared, and instantly Bree was awake and sitting up. I kept my pride of her off my face and quickly rolled up my cape before shoving it back into my bag. “What else do we know, Lieutenant?”

She presented me with a canteen cup of steaming coffee which I gratefully accepted. “Not real sure, milady,” she replied as we began walking towards the Colonel's makeshift command post. “The slicer's got the location of your bloke and I was taking a few of the lads to fetch him for you when we got an emergency return all call over the comm.”

This was bad. That kind of message is never sent lightly. “Were you able to extract Vallen?”

She shook her head, making her head tails bounce. “No, milady, but we know where he is and he should be alright. Getting to him might be a sticky bit, though.” Over the table, the Colonel and his command team were talking with a major who floated over the holographic table on one knee while a battle raged around him.

“I've never seen anything like them, Colonel! It takes five or six shots from a blaster to bring them down and they act like they have no sense of pain!”

“Can you hold, major?” the Colonel demanded.

“We're battered and spread thin, sir, but we'll give them hell!” The transmission ended in a burst of static as Grang's eyes settled on me. Anri, Bree and I came over to him, the Lieutenant saluting.

“Sorry to disturb you, my lord, but as you heard, we have a serious problem.”

“What's the situation, Colonel?” I asked. He gestured at the holographic table, which blurred and showed this crater and the one next to it.

“We were able to dislodge the Republicans from Medium Security, which held most of our POWs, that's the good news. We're getting the men in fighting condition kitted out, but now I have effectively two brigades worth of combat reinforcements. The bad news is the Republicans retreated through this cut out into the adjoining crater. That is Maximum Security, where your man is, and on the way they opened a vault to cover their escape and these things, came pouring out.”

The map changed showing a bipedal alien, only vaguely humanoid, that stood on digitigrade legs on their toes. The torso and arms where heavily muscled with massive hands that had a single finger and a pair of thumbs on either side. The head looked like cow's skull with a bony protuberance that covered the top of it, shielding a pair of beady black eyes and crowned with a pair of short horns. The mouth was a horrific red maw full of sharp teeth. “I've never seen anything like it, have you, my lord?”

I sighed, wishing I was not seeing what I was seeing. “They are called Esh-Kha,” I told him. “They were the enemy of the Rakatan Infinite Empire, tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of years ago. The Rakata waged a war of genocide to exterminate them; they were thought to be extinct.”

“Well, I'm no historian,” Grang replied, “but the major did say the vault seemed to contain a number of stasis chambers. They must have housed these things. The major says they're nearly impossible to kill. Perhaps the Rakata kept some in hopes of creating a slave army?”

“The Republicans must be desperate if they unleashed them on us,” I murmured. “They must have known what they were once they discovered the vaults and brought in experts, either personally or through the holo-net.”

“Well, they certainly don't like us!” one of the Colonel's aides remarked.

“They don't like anyone who isn't Esh-Kha,” I corrected him. “If what I've read is correct, they'll have likely been attacking the Wardens as well as us.” I looked up at the Colonel, my gaze steely. “Colonel, you cannot allow the Esh-Kha to get off of Belsavis. Inform Commander Calum I am invoking General Order 10.”

Grang paled, but saluted, turning to his communications officer. “Get me Commander Calum immediately!”

Behind me I heard Bree ask Anri, “What's General Order 10?”

I turned them just in time to see the Twi'lek shrug her ignorance. Smiling grimly, I said, “If you survive this, lieutenant, they will go over this in Officer Candidate School, which you will have to graduate from to make my field promotion permanent. In short, it orders, 'No ship with a hyperdrive is to land on Belsavis from this point forward and no ship from Belsavis will be allowed to dock with a hyperdrive equipped vessel without first being boarded and searched stem to stern for stowaways or contraband.' The Esh-Kha have already survived one war of genocide, we do not want to have to fight another one.”

I shook my head and gazed at the map again. “Therefore, we are all considered expendable to keep the Esh-Kha from spreading out into the Galaxy again.”

I felt the anxiety from Bree and gave her a one armed hug of encouragement. “Don't worry, my young apprentice, we should be able to stamp them out with the resources we have.” She smiled bravely, but I could feel she was still mastering her fear so I decided that putting up a good lead was the best way I could help so I turned my attention to the holographic display and set about trying to solve the tactical problem.

The cut between this crater and the next looked perilously thin on this map. It was unlikely that we would be able to get any armored vehicles we had access to into the cut, which limited us to man portable weapons. On the display were little blue dots that represented the Major at this end with a sea of red dots that were Esh-Kha and beyond, the Wardens, frantically building a defensive barricade at the other end. Then, beyond and dangled before me like a carrot before a threshing mule the massive Maximum Security Block. I frowned as I looked at it, then noticed something on the top of the ice. Manipulating the controls, I zoomed in to see a building, set astride the two craters, with some kind of tunneling going down into both this crater and the Maximum Security crater. Turning to one of Colonel Grang's aids I asked, “Captain, what is this?”

He looked up for a moment, then consulted the tablet in his hand. “The old space port, my lord,” he told me. “It predates the port where we are now and kept the hard cases in Maximum Security from even setting foot over here. As I understand it, this is the nice part of this jail.”

“Does it have power?” I asked. “An atmosphere?”

The Captain looked me in the face and figured out where I was going with this line of questioning. “I'll find out at once, my lord!”

* * *

Of course, it wasn't that easy. It never is.

It was, however, easier than it could have been since we had access to the prison's computer network, and thus, its records. We knew exactly how long the facility had been shut down, why and when it was last inspected. We had at least some knowledge of known issues which facilitated a group of engineers and damage control parties from the Avenger to land on the facility and scout it out. They already had power restored and were repairing some damage to the life support system while another group was taking a look at the turbolifts on both ends.

That gave me some free time to get to a quiet spot and check in with my family. There, in an out of the way nook I got out my transceiver and within moments I was staring at my husband's handsome face. “Hello, lover,” I greeted him, which brought out that roguish smile that always made my heart melt.

“Hello, beloved. Everything alright? Bree...?” He asked, only just a bit worried. Over the years, Torm had gotten used to his wife being a soldier and subject to being called away at odd, inconvenient times. Despite which his loyalty and devotion to me was absolute and I returned it ten fold. But this time his daughter was off gallivanting with her mother and there were two holes in his heart now.

I sighed. “More drama, as always, I'm afraid, but Bree and I are fine. I got a spot to catch my breath so I thought I would give you a call.”

He smirked. “I'm always happy to see your face, but I'd rather see you coming down the ramp of the Aces and Eights.”

Bits of me tingled at the thought of my much put off home coming. It had taken a bit of training, but now the entire household staff and the Sphere of Defense of the Empire Directorate knew better than to interrupt us after we had been apart for any length of time. “That makes two of us, my darling, but as always life conspires against us.”

“Curse that life! There must be some alternative...oh, wait...”

His off beat and quirky sense of humor was just one of the many things that attracted me to him. Which, in and of itself was always a little strange, considering my history, but I was more than at home in my own skin now. Being a woman was something I was long used to. “I do love you, you big goof!”

“You probably can't say where you are, but is it far? Any idea how long?”

“I'm on the other side of the galaxy I'm afraid, Torm.”

“Well, there's a week, damn it,” he groused. I wagged a finger of my free hand at him.

“Hush you! It could be worse!” I sighed. “The good news is I'm waiting on a damage control team to finish, then I get to go after what I'm here for. Then I just have to drop him off and I'm on my way to you with bells on!”

He smiled and waggled his eyebrows. “And nothing else, I hope?”

“My birthday suit hardly qualifies for flight operations, but I'll see what I can do.” He looked past the pick up and made a gesture. After a moment, the hologram grew and split, revealing Kale's face next to his father's.

“Hi, mom!” he declared. “You coming home soon?” His usually unruly mop of chestnut hair had been freshly clipped and he almost looked respectable, though his shirt was hopelessly stained with grass, mud and who knew what else. He had obviously just come inside and was doubtlessly tracking enough on the floor to give the housekeeper a coronary.

I sighed and shook my head. “Not for a bit, I'm afraid, son,” I told him. Kalelam, looked over at his dad, then back at me.

“We were hoping you'd be back in time for Mid-summer,” he told me in his clear tenor, which cracked just a tiny bit hinting that puberty was about to come calling on my son. “We are going to have a picnic and watch the fireworks for Empire Day.”

“Sounds like fun,” I told him. “If I can get there I will. I love you both and I will be home as soon as I can.”

“Stay safe,” Torm instructed me.

“Always, my love,” I assured him. I pressed my fingers to my lips and then touched the hologram of his face before the image faded away. “Always,” I whispered in promise to the empty air.

I took a moment to gather myself and get control of my emotions before I put the holo-tranceiver away. That accomplished, I had a final argument with myself about whether I should take Bree with me or not. While I had worried several times about Tari, I had not hesitated to go into harms way with Tari at my side and she was only slightly older than Bree. On the other hand, two years at these ages...

Again, annoyed with myself, I took a deep breath and quieted my mind.

This was a secret Republic gulag. They kept the worst of their uncorrectable and political prisoners here, without trial or hope of furlough, pardon or parole. There was literally no safe place on this god forsaken moon. She would be safest next to me, where I could keep an eye on her. She had to learn and Sith learn by doing. I made my decision and committed myself to it.

My daughter would join me on this assault.

I collected her from the canteen where she had been wolfing down a meal, then headed back to Colonel Grang's command post for the final briefing. “How was your lunch?” I asked as we walked. She shrugged, looking up at me.

“It was ok,” she opined, dropping off her tray and used dishes as we passed the dish pit. “I mean, it's no Biscuit Baron, but it was good.”

I rolled my eyes in wonder that any one could prefer the bland, over processed 'product' of the Galaxy's largest fast food chain. “High praise, I'm sure,” I replied with a chuckle. We picked our way through the crowds of repatriated soldiers being quickly issued new gear and back into the HQ. There were several new faces at the command table, all of them looking like they'd missed a few meals and could use a hot shower, shave and a hair cut, but all of them had the grim, steely expressions of men with scores to settle about to balance the books. The ranking officer of them was a major whose right arm stopped just below his elbow and he was leaning heavily on a cane while fending off the attentions of a medical droid.

Grang's large face brightened as he caught sight of me and gestured me up to the command table. “My lord, may I present Major Gavin Ulgo? He is the ranking officer of our POWs.”

I gave a shallow bow out of respect for a man who had obviously been through quite a bit and still had the steel to want to give back some of what he'd taken. “I'm honored, Major,” I told him.

“The honor is mine, my lord,” he managed in a raspy voice that spoke of long stretches of dehydration. “I only wish I was up to coming with you.”

“Save some glory for the other men, major,” I chided him with a smile that he returned with a grim, dark chuckle.

“Give the Republicans my compliments, my lord,” he commanded and his rage burned behind his eyes. “Warmly...”

“I most assuredly will,” I promised him. Turning back to Grang, I asked, “What is our situation, Colonel?”

Again Grang took on the look of a school boy as he contemplated mayhem. “We are at your convenience, my lord. The damage control parties have restored power and atmosphere to the old spaceport and they assure me the lifts are operational.”

“Excellent. Let's begin.”

He raised both his eyes and his voice with an impressive 'command voice' shout of, “At ease!” The hubbub of several dozen conversations ceased and all eyes turned to the Colonel. He gestured at the map, which was currently displaying the holding action going on at the crevasse between the two craters. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he began, “we are now in the end game of this operation. Much as we would like to board up our POWs and let the Republicans rot, they have unleashed a threat to the entire galaxy.”

There was a burst of static and the hologram changed. “This is your enemy. They are known as Esh-Kha and they hate everyone on this moon who is genetically different from them. Their goal is to kill all of us, capture a vessel with a hyperdrive and begin conquering the Galaxy. They must be stopped here. Show them no mercy, for they will show you none. They are resistant to blaster fire so order your men to focus their attacks, several shooters to each one of these devils and make sure they are down before you approach them. “Captain Thul?”

“Sir?” answered a dapper looking young fellow at my elbow whose dashing pencil mustache was spoiled by a bad case of three day shadow.

“Your group will be our pincer. You will accompany Darth Fens over the ridge through the old spaceport and deploy into Maximum Security here. From there you are to engage the defenders from the rear until they break, then preform a fighting withdrawal back to the turbo lifts where you will be evacuated.”

“Yes sir!”

“The rest of you men will be re-enforcing Major Ventin at Medium Security in holding the crevasse. Your goal is to herd the Esh-Kha into the Maximum Security crater. Once that is accomplished your engineers will collapse the crevasse and the Avenger will finish off these devils with an orbital bombardment. Once the Esh-Kha are a smoking smear we will withdraw to the space port and retreat to the Avenger and then back to the Empire.”

“Empire!” shouted the officers.

“Carry out your orders, Gentlemen!”

* * *

The end game of Colonel Grang's plan for me was a series of rides.

The first was a ride in the rear of one of the Aratech Centipede Crawler Tanks as it brought what amounted to a brigade of fresh troops, standing room only, to the front lines. It was tense time, no laughter or joking among the men, just the terse, grim checking of blasters, power packs and grenades to be sure they were ready. There had not been time or material to kit out the freed POWs so most were in prison jumpers or black ship fatigues. Armor was patchwork and spotty among them, most doing with out.

Despite that, there was not a feeling of fear or hopelessness among them, just determination to finish the job. They had a plan, now all the had to do was stick to it and see it through. I made sure both of my sabers were fully charged as well as Bree's. I smiled at the feeling of her excitement seasoned with a generous dollop of fear that she was coping with wonderfully. Her 'war face' had all the men around us smiling.

The Crawler lurched to a stop then we flowed out down the ramp as quick as we could, most of the men trotting in the direction of the crevasse and its rainbow of blaster fire to reinforce Major Ventin. A company's worth gathered around me I quickly lead to the second ride on one of the massive turbo lifts that had been anchored into the ice on the side of the crater. There were a pair of large lifts, despite which it took four trips to ferry all of us up to the top.

Which also meant it would take four trips to extract us on the other side I reminded myself. The lobby would have to be held while the men retreated, which would doubtlessly be a messy business. Lead by example, I reminded myself.

Putting away my holo-transceiver, I got my company organized in the largest room of the old space port, a lounge, oddly enough. The platoon leaders took head counts of their platoons and reported all present to Captain Thul who then reported to me. Nodding, I raised my voice so everyone could hear me. “Gentlemen, we have the tough job. Our mission will depend on Stealth until we're regrouped down below, then once we have accomplished our mission, our retreat will be just as difficult. All our lives depend on our discipline, now. If we do not act as a unit, if we do not keep our heads and if we do not hold that beach head below us coming and going, we will all be slaughtered. Work as a team, stick together and we will get out of this alive.”

A mixed chorus of affirmatives were shouted back to me. I gave the Captain a nod, then Bree and I purposefully walked over to the doors for the other side and into the waiting lift. This would be our final ride before the shooting started; we would be among the first ones down. The men were broken up into groups and we were packed as tightly into the elevator as it would hold.

The doors closed and the car began to descend.

“Nobody fart,” warned Bree.

It was just the tension relief the men needed and the car broke out into laughter. I smiled at her and tasseled her hair as I took my sabers from my belt and held my fingers over the activation studs. “First wave, form a perimeter and dig in,” I ordered, answered by a chorus of 'Yes, my lord.'

That ride down seemed to take forever, but finally, with a lovely little chime that gave us away, the doors opened. My sabers snapped on as I rushed out, a river of commandos flowed out of the car, blasters up, seeking targets behind me. We were in a lobby, dark and dusty from disuse and thankfully abandoned. “Sergeant,” I called, extinguishing my sabers and creeping over to the point squad. “This building should be a mirror of the other we went up in. Take your squad to the outer doors and hold. Send a runner back to report, and don't let anyone see you.”

“Roger that, ma'am,” he replied, collecting up his squad and ghosting through the darkened doors out into the building. The doors closed and the cars began their ascent for the next load while we tensely waited. If I thought the wait for the trip down took forever, the wait for the entire force to be rejoined seemed to be interminable. I was as tense as spring stretched to its limit by the time the entire company had made the trip and assembled. I checked the chronometer built into my gauntlet to find it took over a quarter of an hour to accomplish, under perfect conditions.

This did not bode well.

Finally the building was practically full of Imperial Troopers, spoiling for a fight. Captain Thul and I were cautiously looking out a window. The building was, of course, right up against the crater wall, and from there, land went mostly down hill towards a small vent and hotspring in the center of the crater. My view of it from here was blocked by the windowless and monolithic construction of the Maximum Security Block.

The good news was the entrance was actually on this side of the building, no more than fifty meters or so down the hill. The bad news was most of that ground was open with no cover or concealment. With the crater wall on one side and Maximum security on the other, there was an open, grassy space between us and the barricade that the Wardens had raised at this side of the crevasse.

“Well, this is lump of hard cheese,” Captain Thul opined at my elbow. “Any ideas, my lord?”

I pointed at maximum security with the emitter end of one of my saber hilts. “If memory serves, Captain there is an open area on the other side of this building, then an infirmary and an administrative complex. In my judgment, you have two options, engage from here, or flank to the right and attack from directly behind using maximum security as cover.”

“Agreed,” he told me, quickly sketching things in the dust. “Moffitt, take your platoon and come around behind the Republicans, wait for my signal to engage. They will likely come towards us in an attempt to flank you so the rest of the company will hold this position. Give them hell, then collapse back here.”

“Will do, sir,”

Thul looked at me. “How long do you need to retrieve your man, my lord?”

“Can you be in position in ten minutes, Lieutenant Moffitt?” I asked the dark complected young man. He nodded. “Very well, give me ten minutes, Captain, then unleash hell.”

The Captain nodded and one of the men opened the door for Bree and I. Focused myself and then pulling the Force into me, I ran. Force speed is one of those things you never really get used to. In the blink of an eye Bree and I had crossed the open ground in a blur, stopping suddenly by the door and overcome a bit with the feeling we should have crashed into it. You literally run faster than your brain can process what you are doing.

Despite how terrifying that sounds, it's actually quite fun and exhilarating.

We paused for a moment, tensely waiting for signs of alarm or blaster bolts indicating we had been spotted, but none came. I waved at the crouched warriors in the building we had just left then my light saber opened the door for us. Inside was a reception lobby that was, thankfully, empty. I led the way through, navigating by the map Anri's slicer had shown me that I had committed to memory.

Surprisingly, most of the hard cases that had been caged in here were still in their cages, the Wardens not being so desperate for men as to let these out. Which meant cat calls and pleas for release followed us through the cell block until I was finally at the cell I wanted.

My first impression of Asher Vallen was that I wasn't very impressed. He was about my height, but then I'm tall for a woman at one hundred eighty centimeters. He was skinny, probably not much more than my fifty eight kilos, horse faced with a mop of sandy blonde hair and brown eyes. He was fairly light complected, with large hands and long fingers. He certainly didn't look like he was capable of the laundry list of crimes that got him in here that Anri's slicer had warned me about.

I didn't know what The Void wanted with a serial killer, but I would find out before I handed him over. “Congratulations,” I told him as I held out my hand. The Force picked him up, immobilized him and forced his hands together behind his back. “You're being rescued.”

I shoved the point of my light saber into the lock of the door, destroying the mechanism, then pushed it sideways to destroy the clasp, then pushed the door open down its track. “I'll come quietly!” he gasped around my grip through the Force.

Bree stepped in and locked a pair of binders around his wrist, then a shock collar around his neck. “Yes, you will, because you don't have a choice,” I told him as I released him and he dropped to the ground. “If you give me the slightest trouble I'll send lightening down your nervous system until you writhe in agony. Is there understanding between us?” I didn't like the look I got in his eyes, so I glanced at one of the buttons on the data pad built into my vambrace and the collar triggered.

Every muscle in Vallen's body locked and he went stiff, falling over to an agonizing wail of pain. I let it up and he could move again. Looking up at me, now I saw the killer in his eyes and knew he was exactly the man Anri had described to me in caution.

And he saw that I was a Sith Lord and the hatred gave way to fear. “I...I understand, my lord.”

“Out,” I commanded and when he awkwardly got to his feet with his hands locked behind him, my light saber urged him in the direction of the exit, just as a massive explosion rumbled through the building.

Looking about, he asked, “What's that?”

“My friends,” I informed him. “Now, run!”

The trip back through the cell block featured more shouting, but this time it was frantic and fearful as the sounds of battle and explosions began to penetrate the building. I ignored it and concentrated getting my prize out and back to the lifts. Back outside, the air was thick with blaster bolts, on either side of the building. I pointed Asher toward the lift and gave his shoulder a shove. “Go!” I ordered.

“Are you crazy?” he shouted back at me. “The blasters...” His complaint trailed off as I lowered the blade tip of my saber to a few centimeters from his nose.

“Don't make me repeat myself,” I warned him.

Asher summoned up his courage and started to run towards the elevator while Bree and I deflected bolts from him and us until we were back under cover of the building. “Sergeant? See this man is taken back to lift and have someone keep him under guard. He's dangerous and not be set loose.”

“Yes, milady!” the sergeant replied, taking Asher's shoulder and frog marching him deeper into the building.

“How are we doing, Captain?” I asked, turning to Captain Thul.

“Winning I believe, my lady,” replied, turning to an orderly, he commanded, “begin retreat! Moffitt, fall back now!”

“Bree,” I commanded, and once more my daughter and I stepped out of the cover of the building. I spaced us about equidistant from the cell block right as Lieutenant Moffitt's men appeared in staggered fighting retreat formation with excellent discipline. Between us, none of the blaster fire harmed any of the pincer platoon. Then, as I was trotting with the lieutenant, last of his group to the lifts, the blaster fire stopped and a thrill ran up my spine.

Turning, I saw a wave of those hideous aliens flow over the barricade and begin to charge us. “Here they come!” I shouted and the lift house windows exploded with blaster bolts in a withering barrage. But even as they were knocked down, the Esh-Kha would just get up, their chests smoking from the strike and start charging again. I chased the Lieutenant into the building and slammed the door shut.

Troopers immediately began to pile anything they could move in front of the doors to keep them from opening, while anybody who could get a blaster muzzle out one of the windows began to shoot it blind. “Second and third squad, fall back and reform the line,” Thul ordered. “First squad, stand your ground!”

What followed was a night mare, seen in the flashes of blaster bolts and the florescent glow of our light sabers, punctuated by the screams of men being pulled through windows to their deaths and the utterly alien gibberish the Esh-Kha shouted at us. Once, twice, and a final time I summoned all I could in the Force and shoved the monsters back from the windows but each time they rallied and stormed them again. My arms began to ache from rising and falling and rising and falling, as limbs cut off began to pile around us. My ears throbbed with the roar of blasters, the screams of the Esh-Kha and the soldiers I had led to this place. Some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, others on their wives and children left poor behind them, some upon the debts that they owed, but no where was there charity or mercy.

Blood was our argument.

We fell back and still they came. We gunned them down by the dozen and still they came. The ground ran red with blood and still they came. Until at last there were only Bree and myself and the last of the soldiers, back into the lift. For the first time in my life, one of my light sabers buzzed in my hand and winked out, it's power cell completely drained. The other hilt was vibrating in my hand silently warning me it too was nearly depleted. I reached back and pushed my daughter into the lift, into the arms of the soldiers who held her tight, ignoring her screams and attempts to try to return to my side.

Then, with the last of my strength, I reached deep within myself and I unleashed the rage at my daughter being threatened. The Force rushed over me like I stood at the base of a failing dam and I focused it out, blasting the nearest Esh-Kha to pieces and sending the rest sprawling back down the hall. Then, as my sight dimmed and my other saber winked out, a pair of hands grabbed my shoulders and I was pulled backward, into darkness.

* * *

3627 BBY (Before the Battle of Yavin)
Hyperspace, aboard the Aces and Eights, en-route to Alderaan, Central Core Worlds

I returned to my senses slowly, as if from a great distance and my body was loathe to allow my spirit to return. My first sense was pain, a dull, fibrous ache that permeated my entire body. Then I became aware that something was strapped to my face. I opened my eyes and for a long moment they refused to focus and I saw nothing but green. Then, finally my eyes focused and I realized I was in the kolto tank on board the Aces and Eights. Below me, making a pillow of her arms, Bree was asleep at the little table next to the tank in a position that promised a massive crick in her neck when she awoke.

I looked around, seeing Fiveareen, our medical droid, in the corner, puttering at something. “Fiveareen,” I called weakly, into the mask I was wearing that was giving me air. The droid turned and walked over to the tank.

“Greetings, my lord,” The droid declared, this I heard through the speaker built into the straps of the mask near my ear. “How do you feel this morning?”

I shifted in the thick, warm gel I was floating in, finding I was wearing only a bikini to keep my modesty. “Hungry, I think,” I managed through the dull ache that punctuated every part of me. “And sore.”

“That is to be expected,” the droid assured me. “Your exertions were quite strenuous, if I understand them properly.”

“Where are we?”

The droid made an adjustment and something dark blue flowed into the kolto. “We are in hyperspace, my lord. En-route to Alderaan, as your message requested. Your prisoner is restrained and you need not concern yourself with anything but relaxing.” The mild hunger sensation passed and I felt oddly satisfied.

“Fiveareen, summon X4, I need make a call.”

The disapproval in the droid's voice was palpable. “As you wish, my lord.” After several minutes, the little astromech trundled in and I held my finger up to the mask for him to be quiet.

“Patch into the system so only you can hear me, X4.” He found a computer terminal and plugged in his S-Comp Link.

Soon, in my ear I heard, “What can I do for you, mistress?”

“What time is it on Ruuria?”

“It is zero nine forty one, mistress.”

“Connect me to home, please, X4, but route all the audio through here so we don't disturb Bree.” The head of the little droid spun a bit, then one of his holographic projectors lit up and my husband, larger than life, was in the room with us. “Hey, baby,” I greeted. “I hope a Bikini is close enough to my birthday suit for you...”

“You remembered!” he said with a smile. “Since we talking, I presume you're not badly injured?”

“It's mostly Force Burn Out,” I told him, then recapped the battle, living only little bits out that didn't need to be said, or broadcast to anyone who might be listening. “We're on our way now to Alderaan to drop off my package and then I'm on my way to you!”

He grinned, half relief of a doting husband, half salacious dirty old man. Both were welcome to me. “I can't wait! After all these years it will be great to be rid of the creepy droid.”

“You can say that again!” I agreed with him. “Bree was amazing, my darling! Brave and strong and...” His smile got a bit wider and he shook his head.

“Alright, I relent,” he declared, raising his hands in surrender. “I should have known the way she dotes on you that she would be the model apprentice. She passed her trials then?”

“Yes,” I replied. “And I have formally taken her. I'll give you all the details when we are face to face.”

“I'll be counting the minutes.”

You can't actually cry in kolto, your eyes are too moist, but if I could, my eyes would have been full of tears. “Me too.”

* * *

3627 BBY
Alderaan System, Alderaan Sector , The Core Worlds

The stars rushed back to their places as the blue green crown jewel of the Central Core swept up to us. My heart skipped a beat as I stared at world I had only seen before over the shoulder of Grand Moff Tarkin as he taunted Princess Leia Organa with the destruction of her home world from the command center of the Death Star. Now it was a real place, full of real people living real lives and the true horror of such a weapon also became 'real' to me. Despite the decade plus I lived in this body in this place, some part of me stayed a little detached.

Now I would walk on ground that, if things did not change would be vaporized in three thousand years. I had felt Ziost die, and it had barely a third of the population of Alderaan. I promised myself I would do whatever I could to keep that holocaust from happening. If human action could prevent destiny, I would do whatever I could.

The Aces and Eights was cleared to enter the system as Silas had been a stickler to keep his Republic registrations, while my addition of the Imperial secure IFF transponder meant the little yacht could go wherever we damn well pleased. Not that it would be any kind of difficulty just now; Alderaan was in the middle of a civil war. After the Treaty of Coruscant was signed, ending the Great Galactic War as it had come to be know, Crown Prince and Senator Gaul Panteer had left the senate, taking his world with him, enraged the Republic would settle for anything less than the extermination of the Sith Empire.

Nice, peace loving guy, right?

Well, someone had taken issue with that and he was assassinated in the days after, in addition to the Alderaan Parliament being fairly evenly split between hawks and doves who backed the prince or publicly rebuked him for hot headed folly. Queen Silara, his mother, died shortly there after, of a broken heart if the press releases were to be believed. At least all of them agreed it was not a second assassination.

Not that it mattered, the fox was well and truly in the hen house now.

What was left of House Panteer couldn't agree who the rightful succession should go to as there were several claimants to the throne who all had more or less equivalent pedigrees. Most of the hawks sided with House Organa who were backed by the Republic hoping they could help their claimant to the throne and bring Alderaan back into the Republic fold. Ironically, the doves sided with a coalition headed by House Thul who was friendly with the New Revanite Sith Empire, as fair haired son of the house, Captain Thul demonstrated. They were backing one of the Panteers they thought had the best claim and the Revanite Sith Empire was assisting however we could. Call it opportunism if you like, but having a Core World choose to side with us would be the political coup of the century.

Speaking of, things were further confused by Bouris Ulgo, Commanding General of the Alderaan Self Defense Force staging a coup d'etat, usurping House Panteer, setting himself up as King and declaring Martial Law. Thus far, none of the other Great Houses were willing to go beyond armed camps and border skirmishes to press the matter, most likely thinking they would be used by the others to bleed off the Ulgo loyalists, then back stabbed while they were weakened from the fight.

So about half the planet was still Republican and carrying on as if the planet were still in the Republic, half the planet was friendly to the Empire and I could safely fly under my own colors as it were while I did so and the Capital of Alderaan was an armed camp in the center of which sat Bouris Ulgo in the wrecked palace assuring himself and anyone he could make listen that he was the rightful King of Alderaan.

Now you understand why we say peace is a lie...

Still, for all that conflict and strife, Alderaan was beautiful from orbit. Not that there was no conflict up here, either; there was a Republic cruiser and a Imperial dreadnought glaring at each other, metaphorically speaking. Each assisting the Alderaan air and space traffic authority depending upon who was visiting whom. The dreadnought Indomitable cleared us through planetary approach and handed us off to Rhu Caenus space port approach in the heart of the Thul enclave around the war torn capital.

I had been out of the tank long enough to get a shower, get dressed and have a hot meal before Major Malo had given the warning we were coming up on Alderaan. I had taken the pilot's chair, not that there was anything lacking in her ability, I just felt most at home there and the Aces and Eights was always a joy to fly. While Tatooine had been the wild west of flying when I had first flown this vessel, Alderaan had air and space ways like the airspace around New York and absolutely none of it was seat of the pants flying.

The headset as comfortable as I could make it, I keyed on the frequency the code book listed. “Alderaan approach, this is private yacht Aces and Eights, checking in via Indomitable, requesting vectors to the initial, over.”

“Aces and Eights Alderaan approach, set one two zero and descend to flight level ninety smartly, collision warning level two and advise Rhu Caenus approach on frequency five, on station, how copy?”

“One two zero and flight level ninety smartly, sensor avoidance level two and Rhu Caenus approach frequency five on station, for Aces and Eights, clear.”

“Good day.”

I began to reset the collision alarm to commanded level while Fable nosed us down steeply into Alderaan's gravity well. As you might imagine, the air space around Alderaan was dense and the sensors had to be threshold set at two hundred meters or they would go off constantly. And if you're a pilot you understand just how nerve biting that level of traffic is. Suffice to say the canopy of the Aces and Eights was much too full of other craft for my liking. Too be fair, most of them were going to an industrial space port that was an entire island in the ocean we were flying over. From there, the goods likely went by water ships to be distributed.

Private craft, like ours, were allowed into the less commercial, but still pretty crowded airspace of Alderaan's capital, Elysium. In fact it was just rising out of the ocean on the horizon as we finally leveled off and began level flight again. The Juran Mountains rose up out of the water as if Europe had slid into the sea and the Alps now were the coast. Cut into the little plateaus and valleys of the mountains was series of castles, urban areas and, dominating the island it sat on just off the coast of the mountains was the wrecked Palace of Alderaan.

It was a sad sight to see something so beautiful laid low and wrecked, AA batteries crammed around the crumbling building and burnt, scorched banners of House Ulgo hanging from the blasted battlements. It was like a carnival had set up in a ghost town, pretty lights and bright colors with no one to admire them. I shook my head as I changed frequencies on the radio. “Rhu Caenus Approach this is private yacht Aces and Eights, at eight zero kilometers, requesting clearance to land, over.”

“Aces and Eights this is Rhu Caenus Approach, come to three one zero and descend to flight level two zero, reset your flight computer to receive and began your landing check list. Welcome to House Thul.”

“Aces and Eights, wilco, descending, thanks.” I keyed off the mike and told Fable, “Pilot's space craft,” as I reached over head to key on the auto pilot and set it.

“Pilot's space craft,” she echoed as she brought up the check list on the central screen and began her portion of it. “Gear down and locked.”

“Hyperdrive from idle to shut down,” I replied as we worked.

From between us, Silas' voice whispered, “It's beautiful,” as we swept over the city, nestled in and around the mountains and the sun turned windows and brass fixtures into diamonds and gleaming gold. Most of the buildings were white or silver and blended into the terrain such that it was hard to judge where mountain stopped and building began. It was like flying into a fairy tale, everything glistening and golden in the morning sun rising behind us.

The autopilot veered the Aces and Eights away from the Palace and its likely accompanying No Fly Zone, based on the number of anti-air batteries, up into a mountain plateau that was as if we were flying into some future version of the Sound of Music. Snow capped rugged mountains snuggled in dense, vibrant ever green forests and rolling green grass meadows crowned by absolutely clear mountain lakes that glistened in the sunlight.

But, like the Sound of Music, there were signs of war on the horizon, as there were Imperial combat vehicles parked around the city and in the meadows beyond the city walls smoldering craters that indicated a battle had recently occurred. The Aces and Eights banked on the autopilot's direction, giving us a final look over the ridge line at the now ruinous city of Elysium, broken buildings and frozen tears in the alpine snow.

We leveled out and began to descend, slowing and aloft only on her repulsors, the ship slowly glided toward the swat, domed building that was Rhu Caenus Space Port. Like many urban facilities, it was a substantial building around an open shaft that ran the length of the building and a good ways deep into the surrounding bedrock. Along the side of this shaft, hanger bays were carved out in rings around it, allowing space for pleasure craft, like the Aces and Eights, as well as small delivery vehicles of high value goods from the industrial space port out in the ocean.

We descended only a handful of levels and actually ended up with a hanger on the ground floor of the building, indicating someone was very eager to see us. The ship was slowly guided into the hanger by tractor beam and then set down gracefully on her landing gear. There was even a professional ground crew that was switching us over to shore power and seeing to the other mundane tasks of landing on a new world. And now I was worried.

Someone with deep pockets was eager to see us.

Once we had the ship put to bed, I walked aft to collect my prisoner and be rid of him, finding the ramp down and the airlock standing open with Silas on it, adding to his collection. We had done so much traveling over the years he had become something of a tourist and somewhere had picked up a gigantic map of the galaxy and stuck it to the airlock wall. Every time we made landfall now, he got a new planet sticker from the set that had come with the galaxy map and added it to the map.

I rolled my eyes as I continued aft to our little cargo bay and it's adhoc brig. “We're here,” I declared to Vallen with a gesture at the binders in the little cell with him. “Put them on and don't give me any trouble.”

“What kind of grieving victim can afford to have a Sith Lord do their bounty hunting for them?” he demanded as he stood and snapped the binders around his wrists.

“You wouldn't believe me if I told you,” I replied as I checked that they were good and tight, then opened the door.

“At least tell me they won't torture me to death.”

“I honestly have no idea what they want you for,” I admitted as I lead him out the door. “But if I don't approve, I'll kill you myself, quick and clean. How's that?”

His face paled a bit, but he kept moving. “Depends on what you approve of, doesn't it?” he asked as he tromped down the ramp and out into the hanger.

“From what I've read you deserve far worse than what I approve of,” I told him darkly. And I meant it. Asher Vallen was a monster who killed for sport, or amusement, or because it was Tuesday. He had raped and murdered his way across most of the Central Core and Midrim before being caught and put away for good, or so someone had thought to Belsavis. He was the kind of ugly evil that at some level I knew existed in this galaxy but preferred never seeing.

But then, that probably went for a lot of things in any galaxy.

Now that we were free of the ramp, I noted a welcoming committee waiting for us. Leading them was a lovely young woman, dark complected, with her hair in a medium afro wearing the somewhat overly dressy, to my eye, anyway, uniform of the diplomatic service. She was very poised, with excellent posture and a good figure as she waited for us to walk over. With her were several hard boy types of diplomatic service 'security' who were basically thugs in black suits.

As we arrived she gave a shallow bow. “Darth Fens, we are honored by your presence. I am Raina Temple, Imperial Diplomatic Service, aid to Moff Sarek.”

“Is that who I have to thank for these splendid accommodations for my ship?” I asked her, never taking a hand far from my light sabers in case Vallen decided to chance things. Temple bowed again.

“He sends his compliments and hopes you would grace him with your presence,” she said, and I have to give her credit, she danced right up to the line of 'this isn't a request' without so much as a stray hair over into 'now I can kill you for presuming to order me.'

I narrowed my eyes so that she knew I was onto her game and to underscore her innate caution as a wise course of action regarding me. “Obviously, someone so generous must set a fine table,” I observed, giving Vallen a casual jerk. “However, I have business I must attend to first. Inform your master I will be pleased to join him for lunch once I have concluded my own dealings.” I received my third bow in as many minutes.

Honestly, I was unaware someone could be so self effacing. “It will be my pleasure, my lord,” she replied. “Our embassy is just next door to Thul Palace. You'll see the Imperial colors.” She gave my prisoner a wary eye. “May I offer the assistance of my security detail...?”

My smile was probably more than a little feral. I need neither spies, nor minders, diplomat. “Oh, he's no trouble, are you?”

“Who me?” Asher asked, his Adam's apple bobbing up and down.

“As you wish,” Temple allowed, turning and departing fairly quickly from the hanger. As I watched her leave, Silas and Fable joined me.

“Life with you is never dull,” my spirit brother remarked. “Want some company to deal with...?”

“I wouldn't have it any other way,” I replied.

“I'll rent us a speeder,” Fable declared.

* * *

3627 BBY
Juran Mountains, Alderaan, The Core Worlds

I'm no geologist, but on a guess I would say that the Juran Mountains nestled into which lay the Capital of Alderaan, was the meeting of a pair tectonic plates. At least having a mountain range on a coast seemed odd to me, that was the only logical explanation. Elysium was built on and around a peninsula of them that jutted out into the ocean, dominated by two peaks, Kaamos the peak and highlands upon which House Thul sat, and Apalis, which was lower and was blessed with more arable land which were the holdings of House Organa.

Between them ran the Glarus River Valley into which most of Elysium was built, concentrated a bit at the mouth of the river where Alderaan Palace stood on it's island in the bay. A city that was mostly deserted thanks to the coup of General Ulgo with refugees taking shelter and crowding the centers of Thul and Organa. Despite that, the area still had a very Alpine, central European feeling to it where one half expected to see clock makers, beer gardens and yodelers wearing Lederhosen.

I'd be lying if I didn't admit that On the Franches Mountains was playing in the back of my mind.

Fable had us a speeder that was more delivery van than passenger vehicle, but it held all of us and had nice, sturdy fittings to handcuff our unwilling passenger to. From there, we headed west, out of the principality of Thul, deeper into the Juran Mountains. The roads were deserted at this point, the battle over and the refugees had already fled. All that were left were mountain folk who had no intention of going anywhere that gave us disapproving looks as we sped past.

There were a few check points, but my credentials got us waved through.

As it was, Alderaan was an odd mixture of Science Fiction oddity with city areas existing next to wilderness with no suburban sprawl at all and Middle Ages European Feudalism. Alderaan had no states or nations, the various noble houses ruled their territories directly. Differences or feuds between noblemen had to be heard and adjudicated by the High Council of Alderaan who also voted on who would be ruler.

Because in Feudalism, it's your Count that votes!

The people in a given area all shared the name of what ever noble House or family controlled it, but for the most part the people were ruled by those houses. The local baron heard petty things and civil lawsuits, The regional Count or his appointed judge heard serious crimes and passed judgments while the Dukes and Lord Dukes, who ruled each House, could basically kill or imprison anyone they pleased who shared their last name. There was some mobility for the commoner to climb the social ladder, but most of those peerage appointments were not hereditary so ones children started at the bottom all over again. The ones that were hereditary were closely guarded to keep the club exclusive.

In a way it really showed the resiliency of humanity in that anything could be put up with so long as enough force was applied.

Of course this ruling gig the nobles had carved out for themselves was actually a two way street. The Dukes were responsible for managing infrastructure like roads, utilities and the like, which seemed to be working well. The streets were clean, crime seemed low and doubtlessly even the trains ran on time. Although a part of me wondered if there were 'camps' somewhere that was the price paid for all of this picture post card perfection.

There were a handful of Alderaanians who had no House, but worked for the King and Queen, whoever they were directly. They received the surname Freeman and generally oversaw things that benefited the planet as a whole. While Units of individual House Forces might be loaned out to the Planetary Defense Force, most of the career officers and senior NCOs were Freeman. They also over saw the planetary power grid, managed flood control of rivers and dams that more than one House shared and so on. Such areas were considered neutral, answering only to the King directly, and wherever there was Neutrality, there were enterprising individuals who set up shop to sell to all comers.

Thus we followed the directions I had received from The Void up, into the mountains to a beautiful lake that had been dammed and a carefully measured spillway fed a river cascading down to the sea below. There was a little village that housed the dam workers, and various businesses that sold them goods, and a little beer garden we pulled to a stop in front of that was where we would rid ourselves of our pet monster.

The Beer Garden would have fit into any little hamlet throughout the Alps, a courtyard with tables and benches being served by attractive young women in attire that shared enough bits with a dirndl that it almost made no difference. There was a pergola covering the courtyard offering some shade and there was even a rolled fabric canopy that could cover the open sections in case of inclement weather. Our boy was easy enough to spot, sticking out like a sore thumb with a pair of obvious bodyguards standing behind him while wearing clothes he probably thought quite discreet and understated. Still, the cuts and tailoring screamed rich nobleman almost as much as his cape.

Yes, he was wearing a cape in his “disguise”.

He was a good looking sort, swarthy, tall dark and handsome with a van dyke beard and a nose you could ski down. It was also fairly obvious he had never worked a day in his life. With him was a droid that on first blush I took to be what I had dubbed 'Maria', the interface bot that the Void had sent with Lanaka and me all those years ago, but as I got closer I noted enough subtle differences to come to the conclusion it was the same 'model' but this one had been issued to Prince Vengeance.

The Prince's bodyguards posture shifted, alerting me to their dislike of a Sith Lord getting within arms reach of their principal. For the moment they were staying professional, so I ignored them. “As promised,” I declared, shoving Asher down onto the bench, but keeping one hand on his shoulder, and the other where I could get at a light saber quickly. “Now, who are you?” I asked of the Prince, “And what do you want him for?”

“That is not your concern,” the Void Bot declared in the same voice Maria used.

“I decide what my concern is,” I replied. “Once I got a look at his rap sheet it was fairly obvious you didn't want him for his skills. So, he had to be a pay off you are making to his highness here. He's not yours yet. And if you want him,” I told the thus far silent nobleman, “you'll answer my questions.”

The man looked up into the face of the robot standing over him. “You failed to mention you have dealings with the Sith,” he declared in a rich baritone.

“I have dealings with many exceptional individuals throughout the galaxy,” the droid replied. “Sith, Jedi, Republic Senators, smugglers and con men, revolutionaries and noblemen. It is from this network I was able to learn of the location of your request. Darth Fens is likely the only member of my association that could have done what she accomplished.”

“So you've said,” he replied gravely. Turning to me he gave a shallow bow from the neck. “I am Baron Ferris Organa, Lord Fens. It is a...well, I will not lie to you, even for etiquette. I am quite uncomfortable meeting a Sith Lord.”

I smiled. “No need to be quite so defensive, Baron Organa, we aren't at war yet. Since we're being formal, it is Darth Nyeomi Fens, Countess of Banudan, and you have yet to tell me what you want my prisoner for.”

His eyes drifted to Taybri and lingered. I might have taken exception, save for there was nothing untoward in his gaze, but rather an infinite sadness and longing. The Force pooled and eddied around him like a boulder in a torrent. It was an interesting mix of emotion, a rage to put some Sith to shame next to sadness as deep and bottomless as a black hole. “How old is your apprentice, Countess? Are you fond of her?”

“Not quite eleven,” I replied. “Baron Ferris Organa, allow me to present my daughter, Taybri Belos-Fens.”

The Baron bowed again. “I am deeply honored.”

Bree dropped a curtsy with exceptional poise and bearing, despite wearing pants. “Milord.”

“You have a daughter, Baron Organa?” I asked, but from the clouding of his dark face and with the sudden eruption of the rage he felt overriding the sorrow I now knew the whats and the whyfors of his interest.

“Had,” he declared tightly and how any man could compress so much rage into a single word I'm sure I don't know. And I hope never to find out.

“I see.” I didn't need the Force to read the thoughts in his mind, the hatred of the man seated across the table from him, the guilt over the loss of his daughter, the shame over the pain it had wrought on his marriage and above all the sallow, burning anticipation he felt as he looked forward to watching an expert he had hired preform his specialization on the cause of all of his torment.

Stand between a monster and a father's vengeance? Even if you believed all of the propaganda the Republic and the Jedi spread about us, not even a Sith Lord could be that Evil. “He's yours,” I said, pulling Vallen to his feet and shoving him at the bodyguards who took possession of him in a way that said perhaps they once had a different principal and wanted vengeance as badly as their lord did. Locking eyes with the pale and sweating monster I added, “Just promise me you won't rush it. Be thorough and take your time.”

“You said...” Asher started, pale and sweating.

“I said if I didn't approve,” I interrupted him. “Well I do approve. Heartily. As a mother, a woman and a Sith, I hope he keeps you alive for weeks.”

“I will endeavor to grant your wish, Countess,” the Baron declared as he stood. He turned to leave, then paused and having reconsidered, he turned back and offered a bow no court master of protocol could find fault with. “It was my deepest honor and greatest pleasure to have met you, Countess.”

“I regret only the circumstances, Baron,” I assured him. One of the Baron's thugs stuffed a rag into Asher's mouth and the pair of them drug him towards the back of the beer garden and neither patrons nor bar maids saw anything. “I hope this will give you some measure of closure.”

“No,” he told me softly as he turned back from watching his men and his eyes were deeply sad. “No, it won't. But it is something. And that is all I have left.” He turned to the droid. “I am in your debt. Ask, and it will be given to you.” He turned back once more and declared, “That goes double for you, my lady.”

I bowed my head then turned to the droid. “We are ended?”

“We are,” the droid replied. “If you change your mind, I am always available.”

* * *

3627 BBY
Embassy of the New Revanite Sith Empire, Kaamos Territory, Alderaan, The Core Worlds

The Ducal holdings of House Thul around Elysium amounted to a small city in and of itself. There were streets, shops, cafes and restaurants, lodging houses all dotted around green spaces with a futuristic aesthetic mixed liberally with Alpine charm. There were apartment buildings for support personnel, space port workers and the other functionaries of the House, all with ultra modern design on buildings that were likely thousands of years old.

Silas and Fable decided to have their lunch at a little sidewalk cafe that looked like the kind of place that wouldn't mind if a card game suddenly broke out. Bree and I had stopped back at the ship to change clothes; if there was anything I had been taught by all these titles and accolades it was that silly things like clothing could put you at a disadvantage without realizing it with people to whom things like this mattered.

Moffs were generally in that crowd.

So I settled on one of my favorite dresses, the pearlescent white shimmer silk dress that Garris of Tatooine had hand made to my measure. I called it my 'lucky' dress as I had first worn it to be Torm's good luck charm in the Boonta Eve Pazaak Tournament. It was fairly formal in a 40's Movie Heiress kind of way, fell just to my knee and as far as skin it was fairly modest. It was, however, fit to my measure and so it perfectly displayed my figure; a figure I was justly proud of having kept for ten years and giving birth twice.

I could also fight in this dress if I needed to, which also kept it lucky.

I added a pair of wedge heeled boots because they took my height to a bit under two meters and I liked being that imposing. My final accessories were my light sabers. Since I was in white, Bree decided to match me in a very cute cold shoulder sun dress with one quarter sleeves and flowing skirt that fell below her knee. It also would not impede her should she need to shift from court formal to action girl.

It was a pretty, early spring kind of day, with just a bit of a nip in the air due to the altitude and the fact there was still snow on the ground in places. For the most part, however, spring had sprung on Alderaan and it was a beautiful day. Bree and I walked from the spaceport which was not terribly far from the Palace of House Thul. Even in that short walk there were signs of how bad things were. The streets were fairly full and a number of passers by had that haunted, hollow look to their faces that all refugees seemed to share. The look of people who had been sure that what had happened to them never would.

It wasn't as bad as people sleeping on the benches, or begging, but there was a definite feeling of the little city being stretched to its limit.

Thul Palace was impressive, with a facade of at least twenty or thirty stories. There were spires that went higher and the building was constructed around a central courtyard so as to give it the look of a crown fit for some gigantic titan. Next to it, as promised was a little clutch of squat, rounded towers with tiered roofs like mushrooms from which hung the red banner of the New Revanite Sith Empire, a mixture of the hexagonal 'caged chaos' symbol of the Sith Empire superimposed on the circle and St Andrews Cross of Revan.

The troopers around it were in parade armor with lots of ornaments and flashy braid and medals, but it was still armor, and the blasters they carried were very real. Still, it had exactly the effect intended, impressive and beautiful while still being functional. The Captain of the Guard brought his troopers to attention to salute us as we were given an honor escort inside to one of the smaller State Dining Rooms where Moff Sarek was taking his lunch.

As a man, Krisfra Sarek was an interesting fellow, in his early fifties, fit and trim with a head full of slate gray hair he kept immaculately groomed. He was clean shaven save for a soul patch interestingly enough and presenting himself, like his guard, in the dress uniform of the Diplomatic Corps. It consisted of a white tunic with a high Wilton collar with heavy black epaulets, an aiguillette under his right arm and in place of the military uniform's bandoleer he wore a simple Sam Browne belt from left shoulder to right hip. Black jodhpurs and high black boots completed his uniform, with sufficient medals and awards to fit in with the high and mighty of Alderaanian society.

With him was a lovely noble woman of about my age. She had a flawless milk chocolate complexion with long ebony hair in an interesting, complicated style that held it mostly at the back of her head, but still managed to be about her shoulders. Sitting on her forehead was an emerald like a third eye in a delicate set of platinum chains that disappeared into her hair. Her eyes were chestnut and I felt them sweep over me and my daughter before returning my gaze with a calculating one of her own. She was dressed in a magnificent gown that clung where it needed, flowed where it should and made the words 'complimented her figure' fall far short of their intended meaning.

“Ah, Countess Fens,” he greeted, slightly emphasizing my title, sweeping up to sketch a rigid and likely proforma bow by someone used to giving them. “So good of you to join us!”

As a Moff, Sarek and I were technically equals. General, Admiral, Moff and Darth all held about the same level of reputation, but for different elements. I would be considered subordinate to him in matters of policy and diplomacy in his mission of bringing Alderaan into the Imperial fold, with Generals concerned with land achievements in war and admirals in space. The Darth was the free safety supposedly only concerned with issues for the Empire as a whole which meant I could command either Generals or Admirals or Moffs if needs be. I had best be sure that my reasons for doing so would hold up to scrutiny later. Since he was playing up titles I decided to play along and bowed from the neck. “Moff Sarek, it was our pleasure to take up your gracious invitation.” I placed a hand on the back of Bree's head. “My daughter, Taybri.”

The Moff graced us with another of his courtly bows, then held out his arm in introduction. “I have the honor to present Lady Elana, Duchess of House Thul. Your grace, please meet Dame Commander Nyeomi Fens, Countess of Banudan, Lord of the Sith.”

Now it was her turn to bow from the neck. “Charmed, Countess.”

I was grateful I had decided to change clothes as Bree and I paid her the honor of a curtsy. “Your grace,” we said in chorus.

“Moff Sarek informs me you are a Darth as well, Countess?” she asked as the diplomat led us over to the table. A pair of Troopers, resplendent in dress uniforms held out chairs for Bree and myself while the Moff played host and assisted the Duchess to her seat.

“I have the honor to hold that rank, your grace,” I replied as bowls of a clear, but hearty looking broth were placed before us.

“Well, that must be simply fascinating,” she declared as she got her napkin settled and silently ran her spoon through the broth. “Living a life of adventure, roaming the galaxy, the Force bending to your will; I must say I envy you, Countess.”

“There are a great many hardships and doing without in that life. Not to mention the unique joy that is combat with those desperately trying to kill you to balance out the ledger, your grace.” I took a sip and found the soup a rich, mildly salty consomme with a slightly gamy taste I couldn't pin down.

“Lady Thul has been a great aide in our overtures to Alderaan and House Thul,” the Moff declared, speaking volumes with a miserly amount of words. With a soft pop, a bottle of wine was uncorked and stone faced troopers wrapped the bottle in a towel before they poured it into our glasses. I caught the sergeant's eye and without speaking made my desire plain and he poured only half a glass for Taybri. Fortunately she was too thrilled at being served to be upset at the portion size. “Ladies,” Sarek said as he stood. “I give you his Imperial Majesty, Darth Malgus.”

I raised the glass and took a sip, finding it a very pleasant red, nicely fruity with just a hint of spice. “My compliments on your wine cellar, Moff Sarek,” I paid him, and I meant it. “I am pleased that the rumors of your table bear out.”

“If I have any notoriety to live up to I am pleased to do so,” he replied. “This is Alderaan Spice Wine, which her grace first introduced to me and I profess to having a weakness for it since.”

“There is nothing weak in appreciating the skills of diligent craftsmen, my dear Krisfra,” the Duchess declared firmly. “A lesson I wish my husband could take to heart!” she added with just a bit more inference than perhaps was polite. I got the feeling all was not rose petals and carefree soirees in House Thul.

“Now, now, your grace, no need for unpleasant topics of conversation!” scolded Krisfra, with a glance my way whose purpose I wasn't entirely sure of. The soup bowls were removed, not that we had had particularly large portions to begin with to be replaced with a small mixed greens kind of salad that had a creamy dressing about halfway between ranch and Caesar.

Under the guise of savoring a bite of the salad I closed my eyes and opened my attention to the Force. Sarek's mind was locked up as tight as a miser's hoard, but enough of his emotions affected the drift and flow of the Force around him it was evident he was planing something. That almost went without saying, but there were some interesting ties between his aura and the Duchess. Elana, on the other hand, was well ordered mentally, but did not have the discipline or practice of keeping incriminating thoughts away from Force Users that the Moff had.

She wanted me for something big, and likely dangerous based on how nervous she was. Although credit where it's due, to the naked eye she was as cool as a cucumber. “Is the salad not to your liking, Countess?” the Duchess asked softly.

“On the contrary,” I replied once my mouth was clear. “The dressing is particularly exceptional. I was merely wondering if we would continue to trade banal pleasantries until the dessert course or if we could discuss what you actually invited me here for now?”

The Duchess had the grace to blush and the Moff played the embarrassed diplomat to a T. However the false modesty didn't last and Lady Thul was all business in mere moments. “I see you are as perceptive as I have been lead to believe, Darth Fens. I wonder if you can be discreet as well?”

“I could brag about all the State secrets I'm privy to,” I replied as I loaded up my fork again. “But that would be rather counter intuitive, don't you think? I will presume that, whatever this item we will discuss is, it has been properly approved and classified, Moff Sarek?” The Moff nodded sagely as he reached for his wine glass. “Alright, Lady Elana, what can the Empire do for House Thul?”

I munched salad while the noblewoman took up her own wine glass and drank some, fixing her steely gaze on me. “My husband, Jorad Sindarus is Lord Duke of House Thul, Darth Fens. He likes to think it was his leadership that led to our return to Alderaan, but I know it was my overtures to the Sith Empire and the resulting Alliance that were truly responsible for us regaining our own.”

I looked over to the Moff who hastily wiped his mouth on his napkin. “Most of the truly powerful of House Thul were banished after being implicated, falsely as the Diplomatic Service was able to prove, of hiring assassins from House Rist in a series of murders targeting House Panteer. Jorad is a good man, but...”

“Jorad is a fool,” Elana interrupted harshly. “A well meaning, kindhearted fool who has the breeding to rule our House, but not the spine or the stomach for what must be done by actual rulers. He cannot bear the burdens of a king. My husband's quaint ideas of nobility and chivalry will see our House bled dry against the Organas, while they eliminate us, and install their chosen puppet on the throne. I would, with the Empire's help, sweep away the Usurper, Ulgo, and install Aurren Panteer on the throne.”

The Moff held up his wine glass for a refill. “Aurren is the Late Queen Silara's nephew. He is favored by the coalition led by House Thul.”

“What is your opinion of him?” I asked as I finished the salad and laid the fork in the dish for the stone faced sergeant to take away for me.

“He's a fine man, young enough to be energetic, old enough to know idealism has no place on a throne. He's articulate, well spoken and a political moderate who has no stomach for the war mongering of House Organa. He would see a neutral Alderaan, with an Imperial Allegiance to insure that neutrality,” the Moff told me in that succinct, well summarized style that diplomats were famous for.

“And he has a daughter who has practically grown up here and is enamored of my son,” Lady Thul declared archly, which made even more sense as to why he was favored by the Thuls.

“He seems ideal,” I replied slowly. “What of the other claimant?”

“Princess Katei Elinari Panteer, the Late Queen's daughter,” Sarek explained.

“A child,” Lady Thul declared, “Barely seventeen and a vapid, scatter brained little girl, whose head is full of romantic nonsense.”

“When it isn't full of thoughts of Baron Ferris Organa,” Sarek added ruefully, which caused me to frown.

“I met Baron Ferris earlier today,” I declared with a glance at Lady Elana to gauge her reaction, but she was being cool and coy. “My impression was that he was married, and grieving over the loss of his daughter.”

Elana smiled a tight little smile and studiously ignored wondering what dealings I might have had with the sworn enemy of her House. “Lack of legitimate availability has yet to stop Princess Katei,” she told me. “Her scandalous overtures to Baron Ferris are but one of many reasons why she is unsuitable as a monarch.” My eyes traveled over to Moff Sarek.

“And a Sith Lord overthrowing the Usurper won't make greater problems for the diplomatic corps?”

The Moff leaned back to allow the troopers playing Footmen to serve us the main dish, a fish of some kind, well seasoned and bathed in what looked and smelled like garlic butter over a bed of some kind of wild rice. “ Aurren is a man of many talents, but most of them are scholarly bents or in the subtleties of governance. Soldiering is not his forte,” the Moff told me. “However, you could lead a combined strike team of Thul and Panteer troops against Ulgo in his stead. If you accept, that is?”

I took a bite of fish and rice to forestall my answer while I considered. To call what the Moff and Lady Elana wanted 'high risk' was an epic understatement. There were so many ways this could go wrong and only one or two that saw me getting back on the Aces and Eights and home to my own husband. The fish, however, was as delicious as it looked and smelled. “My compliments to your chef, Moff Sarek,” I told him once my mouth was clear. “May I presume that Master Aurren has some cunning strategy other than a suicidal frontal assault that had you looking to outsource a strike leader? Perhaps a secret way into Panteer Castle?”

Lady Thul smiled. “You are as clever as promised.”

“I wouldn't start sending out invitations to your son's wedding just yet,” I cautioned her.

“No,” she agreed. “But adding names to the guest list isn't premature, I hope, Countess?”

I smirked. Sometimes you just have to admire the sheer ambition of someone. “I'd be honored to attend.”

* * *

3627 BBY
Cafe Mohrenkopf, Kaamos Territory, Alderaan, Central Core Worlds

“You're going to what?” demanded Silas with complete incredulity. Bree and I had linked back up with Silas and Fable at the little cafe they had eaten their lunch at, some strange combination of consonants and vowels that in Old Alderaani meant this indescribably delicious little chocolate marshmallow cake thing. I was enjoying one along with a coffee while I discreetly brought them up to speed.

Fable elbowed her man in the arm in rough affection. “Oh, don't carry on,” she declared. “Special Forces get handed jobs like this all the time. What kind of team are they putting together for you, milady?”

“I haven't met them yet,” I admitted, as I stirred a bit more sweetener into my coffee. “Though I was hoping you would be bored and volunteer to tag along?”

“Consider me volunteered,” she affirmed. “Torm, er, Lord Belos-Fens will have my head in a vice if I don't make sure his wife and daughter come back to him.”

“Whose head do I get to put into a vice if you don't come back?” Silas demanded.

Fable only smiled and patted his cheek. “You're so cute when you pout!”

Silas scowled at his lover, then turned his attention back to me. “Remember when you were going to resign? When we were just going to disappear into the galaxy?”

I looked at him sidelong. “Nothing holds you to my destiny, Silas,” I told him. “If you want no part of this, I understand...” He frowned at me so I decided to change my tactics. “I have made a number of choices different than what I thought I would,” I told him, laying a loving hand on the head of my daughter who stopped stuffing her face with Mohrenkopf to smile at me. Wiping the chocolate off her face with a napkin I continued, “I regret none of them. If they have caused you undue burden or worry I am truly sorry for that. I have found happiness, belonging and a meaning to my life that I could not imagine doing without. If the bill for that is sometimes I have to do things like this, well, I call it a bargain.”

His face softened and he relented. “Just come back, ok sis?”

“No worries.”

* * *

3627 BBY
House Panteer Redoubt, Glarus River Valley, Alderaan, Central Core Worlds

We rode Thrantas to the Panteer hide out.

Even after all of my years and travels I never cease to be amazed by the sheer amount of strange creatures I come across. The Thranta looks like a gigantic blue white manta ray for lack of a better description. A long, sleek body with a pair of triangular fleshy 'wings' sloping down to a lithe, slender tail. Despite the nasty looking beak, they're quite friendly and docile. Whether they fly or float is a matter of some debate. Their diet and digestive juices produce a fair amount of hydrogen gas, which instead of being passed, is channeled into bladders in the wings and body. So much so they actually weigh almost nothing, despite their size.

With a rider and saddle, they undulate their wings for locomotion and a bit of extra lift. It makes for an interesting experience to say the least! The updrafts all along these mountains help as well such that Thranta riding is a somewhat uniquely Alderaanian sport. Considering the amount of mountains and the Alderaanian love of being high up in them, the Thrantas made a kind of sense.

The Panteers might have been driven out of their ancestral castle, but they hadn't gone far. They had a heavily shielded redoubt on the Organa, or southern, side of the Glarus River Valley that actually overlooked Castle Panteer, high up on the mountain. The Castle sat on an island at the mouth of the river delta of the Glarus River, spilling out from a long, crystal clear lake into the delta and finally out to the sea. Along its banks and through the delta was Elysium, looking very bombed out and war torn with a spate of blaster fire every so often.

We took some sporadic, and inaccurate, harassing fire from the direction of Elysium, but no one was hit thankfully. It might be a silent method of travel, but I was entirely sure I didn't want to see the effects of blaster fire on a creature full of hydrogen. Arriving at the Panteer hide out, we passed through a shield gate to gain entrance and alighted on top of a tower that served as a kind of Rookery for the Thrantas. The little fortress was quite old and it was through a collection of stairs that we got into the main hall of this place.

It was a natural cavern in the mountain from the look of it, one that had been expanded on over the centuries. There was a fire burning in a massive fire place that gave some heat and additional light as well as taking some of the damp from the air. A pair of long tables faced a high table on a dais, these were filled with armed men wearing the colors of House Panteer. They were busy cleaning weapons so I presumed they were the men I would be leading. They seemed a salty enough lot and hungry for revenge. On the high table was a holographic projector and several men in the middle of a somewhat fierce argument.

We were led over and a handsome looking, though obviously tired fellow who turned towards us. He was dark complected, with black hair in corn rows braided tightly to his scalp. He had an honest face with an expressive mouth and even tired, gave a warm, welcoming smile. “Lady Thul!” he declared as the Duchess swept up to him and he kissed the hand she offered. “What a welcome distraction. How is young Regras? I'll never hear the end of it from Annabr if I don't ask!”

The Duchess, who I have to say was an accomplished rider and completely nonplussed from being shot at, gave a smile that could melt a glacier. “Lord Aurren, it is always a pleasure to see you. Thank you so much for asking! Yes, Regras is well and doubtlessly missing Annabr as much as she him.”

“Wonderful news, but forgive me for not being a better host, I am caught up with...”

The Duchess looped her arm around the scholars and deftly maneuvered him away from the table, towards me. “Oh, no need to bother with formalities, Aurren, I've brought you a gift. The Crown of Alderaan and Bouris Ulgo's head on a plate!”

That brought him up short. “What? How...?”

“Aurren Panteer, future King of Alderaan, allow me to present Darth Nyeomi Fens, Countess of Banudan. Countess, his royal highness, Prince Aurren.” I was back in my fighting leathers now, combat wasn't the place for dresses, however lucky, so I bowed from the waist. Aurren was quick on his feet and recovered quickly, returning my bow.

“A pleasure, Darth Fens, I must profess to being something of a fan of your treatise on the Code of the Sith and the history of your order.”

“I'm flattered, your highness,” I replied, placing a hand on Bree's shoulder. “My daughter and apprentice, Taybri.”

A man in military livery demanded from the table, “What good are a Sith Lord and a child going to be to ousting Ulgo?”

“And you are, sir?” Bree asked quietly. That sparked an amused annoyance in the man and he walked to us looming over Bree.

“Captain Lieber Panteer of the Queens' Own Guard, little girl. What of it?”

My fist clinched, but before I could say anything, Bree declared, “If you doubt my abilities, Captain Panteer, I will be happy to demonstrate them on your person at a time and place of your choosing.” I don't believe my daughter will ever loose the ability to surprise me. The hall roared with laughter from the guardsmen at the table, but a glare from the Captain quickly silenced them.

“The little maid has courage to match her quick wit,” Aurren declared, turning back to the Duchess. “But I don't see how that puts the crown on my head.”

Elana's grin widened. “You're not thinking strategically, Aurren! Remember our time playing down by the sea?”

A light turned on in the man's face as he remembered some secret he and Lady Thul had shared as children. Turning back to the display, he made some adjustments to the controls and the castle spun around to the side that faced the sea and zoomed in on a rock formation that was overgrown with bushes. “Sire?” asked the Captain as he led the rest of us over to the table.

“Do I hear a secret entrance?” chuckled Fable.

“Behind these bushes is a drain,” Aurren declared. “It is part of the system that diverts rain water from the roofs around the Castle. And there is a grate that used to be in the kitchen, before the castle was remodeled thirty years ago. Now that opening is in the butler's pantry off the main hall. Probably not more than a few dozen meters from the throne Bouris is sitting on!”

“And this obvious weakness in the castle is not alarmed because...?” I asked.

“The active water system is,” the Captain replied. “But it's outlet isn't on this side of the castle, my lord, it's over here under the main bridge.”

“Exactly!” Elana told him. “This portion was supposed to be filled in when it was isolated from the rest of the castle's system, but it never was. Aurren and I used to sneak outside with it when I was a Lady in Waiting for her majesty.”

“I don't have many troops,” Aurren complained, but Captain Lieber was warming to the Duchess' plans.

“We wouldn't need many, sire,” he enthused, looking at the rough lot of hardened Thul guardsmen standing with Fable, Bree and I. “If I interpret what the Duchess is suggesting correctly, I imagine Darth Fens and these fine gentlemen with her are...?”

Elana's smiled like a cat in the cream. “The hand picked best of House Thul.”

While Aurren rubbed his chin doubtfully, Fable leaned into my shoulder and asked, “Wasn't this little gig supposed to be already decided? You smell a trap?”

I crossed my arms over my breasts and whispered back, “If they're close enough to kill us, we're close enough to kill them.”

“Captain, when would you propose to start?” the future king asked finally.

“Nightfall,” Lieber declared.

* * *

3627 BBY
House Panteer Docks, Alsakan Sea, Alderaan, Central Core Worlds

I don't know where the Panteers got a Gungan Bongo. Alderaan is half way across the galaxy from Naboo, not that it really mattered. They had one and it was big enough for the entire team I would take with me if we got pretty friendly inside it. That was what was important. That and the fact that the body of the Bongo was grown, basically like a coral, by the Gungans and so would register on any sensors as an animal, and being underwater meant no sentries would see us approach.

I was overseeing the loading while Lady Elana puttered about and kept jabbering in my ear. She was nervous. Planning this sneaky little excursion was the easy part, there were lots of ways it could fail and some of the more spectacular of them might see House Thul kicked off the planet again. “You must remember, Darth Fens...”

“Lady Elana,” I interrupted her, turning to look her in the eye. The stare of a Sith, with our golden eyes is more than a little intimidating. “Rest assured,” I all but ordered her. “I am a Sith Lord and these men kill people for a living. Your plan is in good hands.”

It was obvious she was far from placated, but the hint that I would not tolerate any more micro-managing had been noted. “Yes...yes of course, my apologies.”

“Apprentice,” I declared, turning to Bree who was already turning back to me. “You will remain here and guard the Duchess until I return or send for you. If I am captured, you will escort the Duchess back to House Thul and remain there with Silas.”

“Yes, Mistress,” she said. I know my daughter, and I know how crestfallen she was at my command and I was very proud of her for the maturity she displayed. She stepped next to the Duchess and woe be to anyone who intended her harm. “How long shall I remain there, mistress?”

“Until I escape and join you,” I replied with a conspiratorial wink. She grinned and I nodded my satisfaction, then turned to the technician anxiously waiting with a case in his hands.

“Alright, what do you have for me, Fixer?”

The case opened revealing an orb shaped little droid that was little more than a repulsor motor wrapped around a holo camera lens. It was a MerenData EY3-0N series mobile surveillance droid, which was extremely popular in the Empire. “Have you ever used one of these, my lord?” he asked.

“I have two,” I replied. They worked quite well and had surprisingly good resolution for their lens size. I used mine for my holonet channel, Wisdom of the New Sith. He took the droid from the case and turned it on. It floated up from his hands and focused on him.

“Boz boz nu chuna moi,” the droid declared in Bocce, the native language of MerenData. If the droid had a fault its that the speaker for its verbalizer was very low fidelity and so it's 'voice' was very artificial and somewhat tinny sounding. Fixer pointed at me.

“This is your owner,” he declared. The droid rotated on its repulsor field and floated over to conversational distance.

“Chuna moi.” it declared.

“Don't forget to begin transmitting before the battle, my lord,” Fixer warned me. “The arcane rules of the code duello of these people demand it.”

I nodded and gestured for the droid to follow as I squeezed into the Bongo next to Fable. The field kicked on and silently we ran out from the dock and submerged into the darkness. Fable took a power pack from one of the pouches on her belt and loaded it into her Czerka 2K1 carbine with a slap of her hand. It was about the size of an E11, though the details were different and it lacked the somewhat cumbersome optics of the E11. This was a weapon meant to kill at bad breath range. “You sure know how to show a girl a good time, milady,” she complimented with a salacious grin. “Now we're killing royalty? I love the perks of this job!”

The men laughed, some doubtlessly from confusion about whether she was serious or not and some because they did know. “You're all about to write your names into the history books,” I told them, more or less over my shoulder as there really wasn't room to turn we were packed in so tight. “Whether you live to brag about it depends on your discipline now. Keep it quiet and no one kills before I do. Stay with me, and you'll be the one raising a glass to your fallen comrades who didn't.”

“Empire!” the troopers Moff Sarek had loaned me echoed.

“Every Imperial buddy up with one of the House Thul or Panteer troopers. Work together and we'll all have new medals to pin on,” I told them as I took my light sabers from my belt and checked they were both fully charged. A murmur ran through the sub as the troopers paired off and readied weapons. Now it was time to find out if King Ulgo respected tradition as much as he claimed to.

It was not far to Panteer Castle from the docks on the southern face of Mount Apalis; just around a headland that allowed us to board in secret unseen. Scarcely twenty anxious minutes of everyone getting a little claustrophobic at the close quarters until finally we stopped and the pilot checked a screen linked to the periscope he had raised. “Looks clear my lord,” he called to me over his shoulder from the controls.

“Surface,” I ordered as I felt the adrenaline surge into my blood once more. Almost silently, the water parted above the life support bubble and I could see in the dim twilight of the clear sky above us. I was grateful the planet had no moon, but it's short rotation period of only eighteen hours meant I had to hurry. “Quietly now boys,” I hissed as the bubble vanished.

The pilot had brought the Bongo right up to the shore, allowing us to with a bit of a big step go from transport to sandy beach and keep our feet dry. The sand quickly gave way to rocks that were festooned with bushes up sharply to the foundations of the castle and the tower and battlements dozens of stories above us. Large sections had been opened in the wall to allow for windows to take in the sea and the doubtlessly magnificent sun rises meaning it had been sometime since this palace had been a working fortress.

I hoped desperately that would work in our favor.

We scrambled up the rocks, careful not to disrupt the plant life too much, pushing it aside before coming to the mouth of Duchess Thul's drain. It was a round portal, about a meter and half across, covered in a steel grate of some kind. “Fable,” I whispered as we both went over the grate, looking for any sign of sensors, modern electronics or any other tell tale of an alarm.

“Clear,” she whispered.

I nodded, having found nothing myself and positioned the emitter of one of my light sabers over the lock. Cutting it on and off in rapid succession, the lock was destroyed while Fable quickly coated the hinges with oil. When she was done we cautiously opened it, pleased it was silent and I gave her the high sign. A new trooper came up to hold it while I got some night vision glasses on and peered into the darkness. “Follow me,” I whispered and duck walked into the pipe.

Walking through it was something of a chore as it was far too small to stand up in and we were trying to be quiet. The pipe doglegged a few times, finally coming to a dead end that was a larger junction, about two meters square with bricked off arches of where the previous tunnels had been closed. Above us was another durasteel grate, set in the floor of the pantry. Taking the glasses off, I reached up and gently gave it a push.

The grate stuck for just a moment, then lifted out of its lip and I was able to gently ease it to one side. The Force allowed me to leap out of the drain and into the pantry. It was a pretty sizable room, filled up with the kind of expensive things butlers are expected to safe guard, the actual silver silverware, the ready rack of wines in normal use from the cellars, jars of caviar, expensive cheeses and so on with the state dishes carefully locked away in their cabinet.

Fortunately, it was devoid of people. I reached out with my hand and with the Force lifted Fable and the trooper behind her up into the lip. “Door,” I whispered, and she nodded, moving to it quickly. Now that our back was covered, the Trooper and I began to frantically lift the assault team into the pantry.

“Nyeomi.”

The use of my name brought me up short. It was Fable who had whispered it and while she and I were old friends at this point, that she used it now, in front of the men, meant this operation had just gone pear shaped. Gesturing at the troopers to continue, I spun and quickly joined Fable by the door. She had unlocked it and opened it just a crack and was looking at me with a finger over her lips. Then she pointed at her ear and then at the crack in the door. I took her place and listened which quickly confirmed my assessment of the situation.

“I admire your courage in coming here, Princess Katei, Jedi escort or no,” a deep, commanding voice declared. “But even you cannot fail to see your own inability to take the throne now. You are not ready and we cannot allow a puppet whose strings are pulled by those traitors in Thul to hold a regency!”

A slight voice that was remarkably firm answered, “General Ulgo, no one, least of all myself, would ever question your patriotism. I understand why you have done this, but if we are to continue as a people, the Rule of Law must be upheld. The Hoherrat will decide who should succeed my mother, that is our law...”

“Law?” the other shouted. “Do not lecture me about law, little girl! You know the Thuls have control of the Hoherrat! It was law that they used to escape having to answer for having your mother murdered! It was law that let them defy their banishment and return to Alderaan! They will use the Law as a cudgel to beat us...”

“Your majesty,” a third, calmer voice cut in and I felt a little twinge in the Force. “I implore you to calm yourself. If we are to settle this crisis without bloodshed cool heads must prevail.”

“Hold your tongue, Jedi! These are the internal affairs of Alderaan and not something for you and your order to brow beat us into Republic submission!”

I turned to the little droid hovering by my shoulder. “Begin transmission. Alderaan, I am Countess Nyeomi Fens, Paladin of House Thul and today your world will be returned to you.”

“That's hardly...” the Jedi's voice replied then stopped. “Wait, I sense something...there is a tremor in the Force...Alarm! There is a Sith somewhere close...!”

“That tears it!” I hissed. “Come on, boys!” I threw the door open and led the charge down a little hallway that opened out into the massive main hall of the castle. Just to my right was a tall, rotund man, not soft in the manner of a glutton, but hard muscle like a bull, just standing from an ornate throne that sat on a raised dais the back of which was the massive windows overlooking the sea I had noted from outside.

A small group of Republic troops were framed around a Jedi master by his robes, standing next to a dark complected girl who vaguely favored Aurren Panteer, none of them in ceremonial or ornate clothing. The Princess looked like she was dressed for a hike and the troopers were in full armor, raising their blasters in our direction. There were some house guards, also raising their blasters from their stations at the walls around the room, and, of course, my troopers were fanning into the room behind me. “Hold!” I shouted, using the Force to amplify my voice to a thunderclap that briefly stunned everyone into not moving.

Turning to the big man on the dais I pointed and shouted, “Bouris Ulgo, I declare Blutrache between our houses!”

Ulgo, for he could be no one else, looked stunned. In addition to looking particularly stupid with the 'crown' he was wearing. It came down to his brows in front, but the sides and back dipped almost down to his shoulders as if he had taken a bucket, cut out one side for his face, and put it on his head. It was the most ludicris thing I'd ever seen and took every ounce of decorum I had not to burst out laughing. Which was good, because, as I said, he was a bull of a man and obviously dangerous, despite the finery he was wearing. “Who are you?” he demanded, with a gesture at his guards who relaxed just a bit.

“Your majesty,” the Jedi started, but a glare from the Usurper silenced him.

Mimicing his gesture to my own troops I declared, “I am Nyeomi Fens, Countess of Banudan, Paladin of House Thul, on whose behalf you are challenged. Face me in single combat, produce your champion, or disavow the crown you have stolen!”

The Jedi started to step forward, but the Princess, who I was gathering had far more depth than perhaps Lady Thul gave her credit for, put a hand on his shoulder to stop him. “This is our law,” she told him. “You cannot interfere.”

“You can't be serious!” the Master replied.

“If we, who claim to support the primacy of our laws, cannot follow them ourselves, we have no legitimate claim to anything,” she declared bravely. “You will not interfere.”

Turning back to the King, the Jedi declared, “Your majesty, you cannot defeat this Sith Lord, allow me the honor of...”

Ulgo's face went red. “Silence!” he shouted. “I have been dueling since I was fourteen! You think this woman makes me afraid? Who have you allied yourself with, Princess?” He clipped off the heavy royal cape he was wearing and flung it backwards onto the throne. Walking down, his brown eyes locked on me as he came. “Has the Republic forgotten?” he taunted the Jedi. “I won the Battle of Rordak by personally boarding Moff Ceptor's Battle cruiser! You are not the first Sith I have killed, nor will you be the last, Nyeomi Fens!”

The Jedi stepped forward, holding out his light saber, deactivated. “At least let me arm you, your majesty.”

“So quick is the Republic to offer arms,” I sneered at him. “As you like, I have no objection. If the General does not find yours to his likeing he can have my other saber.”

“And allow you to claim to have been disadvantaged?” he shot back. “Never!” The General took up the Jedi's saber and spent a moment rolling it in his hand, getting the feel of the weapon. Just by that I knew I faced a man far more dangerous than I had been led to believe. The blade of a light saber is pure plasma, held in place by a magnetic field and thus is completely weightless. Traditional swords, even laser edged weapons, have weight out beyond the hilt that the hilt is back heavy to counter balance. A light saber hilt, however, perfectly balanced in the palm by itself and by recognizing it, Ulgo showed me he was everything he claimed to be and was likely a skilled fencer.

I only hoped my own experience as a light saber duelist would defeat his novice status with an unfamilar weapon.

He brought the hilt up to his chest and keyed on the blade, a sky blue one, lept up in salute before his nose. I brought up my own right hand blade and keyed it on in salute before I spun both blades and settled into my Ataru crouch, my body a blade with only my left side towards him, left arm out straight and pointing with that saber, it's mate curved over my head in parallel. Ulgo twirled the blade in a figure of eight pattern around his body and settled into a en guard position, blade out right handed, his left arm bent to plant his fist on his waist.

Princess Katei stepped forward, looking very solumn until she stood between us. Turning to the general, she asked, “General Bouris Ulgo, I offer myself as judge of this duel, is that acceptable?”

“I accept,” he declared.

She turned to me with remarkable poise for such a young woman. “Countess Nyeomi Fens, I offer myself as judge of this duel, is that acceptable?”

The little camera bot took to orbiting the room to get the grand scale of the encounter. “I accept,” I told her.

Princess Katei nodded. “Are there any words that can dissuade this duel and prevent bloodshed?”

“Relenquish the crown,” I offered.

Ulgo was an impassive stone wall. “Never!”

Once more the Princess sighed and spoke between us, turning back and forth equally. “Then let the Trial of Blutrache commense. Stand away all, so that these nobles may have the blood they desire. Let no one intervene at the cost of those he would have aided be forfeit. Let no blow be struck on a noble who is down and let mercy be had for those that cry for it with no shame or loss of honor.”

There was a pause as the assembled troopers backed away, giving us a large circle, nearly twenty meters across to fight in and the three of us formed a triangle as the Princess produced a handkerchef and held it up. “Combatents ready?” she asked and waited for our affirmatives. “On my command!” The scrap of cloth fell and Ulgo immediately charged me. I folded into a tuck and roll to my right and came up swinging, but he had managed to stop and turn on a dime and blocked my sweep, immediately countering with a reposte.

I bent over backward, then summersalted backward to open up the distance, but he was on me in a flash with a series of lightening fast attacks that took both of my blades to parry before I could even think of mounting an attack on my own. The sabers hissed through the air and it was clear that not only was Ulgo a dangerous blade fighter, this was not the first time he'd used a light saber either.

But I had just opened my bag of tricks.

I bent over sideways to dodge his sweep, then preformed a standing split, launching my foot at his nose, though I was low and caught his chin. The strike split his lip and knocked him backwards all the way to his back. Were this not a tournament I would have ended him right there, but I had to step back and let him rise. He came up to one knee and wiped the blood from his split lip and chin with what almost looked like a grin.

“So, this isn't your first dance either,” he chuckled. “Good!”

I spun my blades in opposite directions around my hands and came set in the Ataru stance once more. “I'm the last name on your dance card, Bouris. Your party is almost over.”

He grinned a bloody mouthful of teeth at me. “Shut up and dance!” he growled, lurching back to his feet. He led with the blade, which I parryed and spun off to my right, twirling around to get at his back, but he spun in place and the next thing I knew I was bent around his leg he had lifted into a kick that landed like a freight train.

The air was forced from my lungs and I was launched a good three meters to land flat on my back. His laughter was ringing in my ears as I forced myself to get up to my knees and gasp after my breath. Still, for all his mirth, he was limping, one of my blades had scored a passing strike on his leg as I was thrown off it. “I thought you knew the steps!” he laughed, putting on a pretty brave face for somebody who almost lost a leg.

With the Force I picked myself up and threw myself through the air. He only just got his blade up to block mine, as I tucked up into a flip over his head, then kicked out behind me and nailed him square in the back. He staggered forward and reflexively swept behind himself, but I wasn't there. “You think you're doing well?” I demanded as the X of my blades caught his return swing. I flipped over it, guiding it away from me, then landed on one foot and kicked again, this time at his knee. My foot felt like I'd kicked a massive tree, but his leg bent a little and he howled in pain. “How's that?”

He spun, my kick not enough to cost him his feet, and he swept at me which I blocked, bouncing his blade off mine he spun it behind his head and brought it down the other way. “I'll show you fencing little girl!” he snarled. “Just like I will show my people!”

I blocked again and finally saw my path to him. “Show them what?” I demanded as we traded a furious set of attacks and blocks. “That their war hero is all bluster and no bite?”

Our blades locked and we wrestled for domination. “Witch!” he growled. “I see your plans!”

“Now it's conspiracy theories? Who let you out of the old folks home, Bouris?” The lock came loose and again we traded a furious barrage of attacks that I blocked and countered, as I did I kept up my banter, further enraging him. “The sad departure of the once great!”

“You won't take my world!” he shouted. He drew my blades out of line then out of nowhere his massive fist crashed into my jaw. I was thrown a complete summersault from the force of it and landed in a heap, seeing stars. “You think yourself clever?” he thundered at me in a rage. “You're just a pawn, Sith! The Panteers and the Organas would sell us into slavery in the Republic! The Thuls to your Empire! I alone am for Alderaan! Only House Ulgo fights for Alderaan!”

I glared up at him as I wiped the blood from my split lip and stood. “Oh, you're that kind of crazy! You think you're a patriot? You're just a dictator for yourself, Ulgo! You would see all of Alderaan enslaved for you!”

Ulgo's temper got the best of him and he thrust the saber at me. “Lies!” he bellowed as I sidestepped it, then locked my arm around his and with everything the Force could give me, forced his arm down and my knee up.

“Here's your end, King Ulgo!” I snarled. The snap of his arm breaking was loud and I have to give him credit, he kept his scream behind his teeth. The light saber fell out of his hand and its blade snapped off. I released his broken arm and stepped back, kicking the saber away and leveling my blade at his heart. He sank down to one knee as I panted after my breath. “Do you yeild?”

“N...no...” he grunted through the pain. He cradled his broken arm and looked up at me. “I...I have done everything for Alderaan. Given the last of my blood to see us free from everyone, Republic! Sith! Only Alderaan, an Alderaan free of all outside masters! I won't be paraded about in a show trial,” he growled. His expression softened and his voice became genuine. “You are a magnificent warrior, Nyeomi Fens, but heed my words, someday, your usefulness will be used up and you will be kneeling, looking up at your death. I hope you meet your death with the courage I will meet mine. So I ask you, warrior to warrior, for a soldiers death. Don't make me an actor on the stage of the great galactic game of Empire in a sham trial, or an old man in cell, used up and forgotten. Let me die a man who has fought for what he believed in and...” he hesitated, almost unable to admit to himself and say the words. However he straightened his spine to declare, “fought for what he believed in and lost.”

For a moment, I thought to dissuade him, to try and convince him that living was always better, but I saw in his eyes there was no life left in him. He was utterly vanquished. He had seen his loyalty betrayed; perhaps he had truly been a patriot for his world and been rejected for it. It didn't matter now, for I could see nothing I could say would dissuade him, so I nodded out of respect and admiration of a worthy enemy. “As you wish, General Bouris Ulgo.” I brought my blade up in salute, then in a rapid motion shoved it through his heart. His eyes went wide as he felt his heart distroyed and in them I saw him realize I had done it to give his family the dignity of an open casket funeral.

“Thank...yo...” I pulled my saber free and the life left his eyes. The body fell over at my feet, dead. My blades retracted with a hiss and I looked up, emotionally spent.

The Jedi's light saber flew past my ear into the outstretched hand of the Master and snapped on with a hiss of ionized air. “Murderer!” he shouted, but to his, and my emmense surprise, the Princess, the Thul and Panteer guards I had brought with me, and even the Ulgo Guards all raised their weapons at him.

“Stand down, Jedi,” the Princess ordered him.

“What's the matter with you people?” he shouted, utterly confused. “She is a Sith! She is evil! You just saw her murder a helpless man in cold blood!”

“If that is what you saw, your eyes decieve you,” the Princess declared. She walked over to me and curtseyed. “Countess, I salute you, the honor you have shown, and the respect you paid to the traditions of my people. The day is yours, Paladin of House Thul.” The Jedi extinguished his saber shaking his head with a confused, befuddled look as all of the Alderannians bowed to me.

* * *

3627 BBY
The Field of Fallen Heroes, Glarus River Valley, Alderaan, Central Core Worlds

In a rare display of unity, the Alderaan Hoherrat, or Ruling Council voted unanimously to lay aside all partisan differences to give Bouris Ulgo the State Funeral he deserved as a King and man who had given his entire life in service to his world. Lord Duke Jorad Sindarus Thul escorted Bouris' widow and Aurren Panteer eulogized the man he had ordered killed. Out of respect to the widow, despite that fact the one thing the Sith and Jedi agree on is that death is not an ending, but a rejoining of the departed with the Force, both Bree, myself and Jedi Master Tunan-Obi Vost wore black.

An honor guard of soldiers from every House bore the General to his final resting place, in the Hall of Kings that had passed before him.

Ulgo's coffin had been draped with the flag of Alderaan, not that of his house, in testament to his service. His sons stood in mute, stoic silence, neither betraying any emotion as their father was laid to rest, their uniforms immaculate and neither in want of awards or medals. As the honor guard offered up their salute a light snow began to fall.

Tenna Ulgo, Bouris' widow was inconsolable and had to be helped to her limousine after the service was complete. Bree and I watched from a distance, giving the widow space to grieve but counting the seconds until we could depart ourselves. Bree was putting a very brave face on, but I knew she was uncomfortable, as uncomfortable as I was. Cemeteries are tremendous focal points of death, the opposite of the Force which is created by life itself. For either a Jedi or Sith, it takes tremendous self control to purposefully be in a graveyard. “I want to go,” she whispered and I sent a wave of maternal love and reassurance to her.

“I know,” I encouraged her. “Soon.”

In point of fact, I was about to turn towards the limousine that Moff Sarek had brought us here in, when I noted master Vost detaching himself from the little knot of Organa notables and the Republic consul to begin walking in our direction. He had somewhere gotten a set of Jedi robes in black and wore the hood down, exposing his rugged, handsome face. Strangely, for a Jedi, he wore his face clean shaven and his hair short.

Despite being dressed for mourning, his light saber was hanging from his belt. But, who I was I to judge? Bree and I were both armed as well.

When he arrived, he opened his hands, showing them to be empty. “I come in peace,” he declared. “May I speak with you?”

I kept my grip light, but firm on my daughter's clothing, ready to snatch her away from the threat if one was offered. “I will not breach the armistice save in self defense,” I told him. “What do you want?”

“I wish to understand you,” he said and there was real confusion in his expression. “I have had a discussion with the Archivist at the Jedi Temple and read all I could on you. You are not an evil person. You have acted with honor in every encounter we have documentation on. Grand Master Shan practically describes you as a Jedi. Why do you serve evil?”

I gave him a long, disapproving look and asked, drolly, “Do you open every conversation with insults?”

He crossed his arms over his chest. “Do you find the truth insulting?” he countered. “The Sith Empire is evil. The Sith worship the Dark Side of the Force.”

“You are ignorant, Master Vost, of the history of my order and yours,” I told him. “The Sith Empire is not evil, it is the perfection of the Meritocracy. Any person, man, woman, alien, it does not matter, can rise as high as their talent and their ambition will take them.”

“So they can enslave others?”

“The Republic has legalized slavery,” I replied. “Put your own house in order before you scold me on mine.” He looked cross and I had no desire to stand and debate him in a nexus of death that was making my skin crawl. “If you want to understand me, I have lengthy essays on the Holonet. Watch them or not, I don't care.”

I turned and left him, looking cross and confused as I ushered my daughter to the limousine and within moments the Field of Fallen Heroes was behind us. Moff Sarek handed me a glass of spice wine by the smell of it and I took a sip. “I am grateful of your assistance, Countess. I'm certain Aurren Panteer will be the next King of Alderaan and that puts us much closer to bringing this world into the Empire. Your name will feature predominately in my report.”

“I am pleased to have been of service,” I told him. Perhaps the Moff sensed my melancholy, perhaps he was too pleased with the circumstances himself to notice, either way he said nothing else for the remainder of the trip to the space port. A trip I spent staring out the window of the speeder and dwelling on the warning of Bouris Ulgo.

A warning that would come to fruition much sooner than I or anyone else could have imagined. For, within a month the galaxy would be at war. A war of complete conquest and extermination. Nothing so petty as Republic versus Empire or Jedi versus Sith; even though there were those who had definitely been fomenting and abetting such a conflict. We were, in the words of my Emperor Darth Malgus, all of us deceived.

For from the darkness of the unknown regions of the galaxy, Darth Vitate the Mad had finally returned and he brought the Eternal Empire with him.

* Finis *


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