Twenty-three Days Earlier
Mara Jade couldn't recall a time when she had ever been happier to ever leave a meeting. She walked as rapidly as she could through the stone-coated hallway from the wood-lined, small assembly chamber. She turned a corner and the hallway ended in the main thoroughfare corridor. It soared up over her head for three stories. The lifts that led higher and lower in the Senate Executive Building were at opposite ends.
How did the New Republic manage to accomplish any governing whatsoever? Shavit, she was so tired of the multiple gravitational pulls from the different personalities. Rowana Dyarron, the Mon Calamari delegate, would not stop poking holes in every concession the group managed to knit together, wanting to prevent all opportunities for criminal behavior before any planetary government or industry shipped with the Smugglers' Alliance. Councilor Sian Tevv supported every idea Mara brought to the table while Tav Breil'lya, the Bothan delegate, objected to them. Lefie Yearvu, the Gran delegate, spent all day today trying to restore the peace that Mazzic managed to upend by showing up yesterday to ask the New Republic negotiators why there wasn't any work ready to go yet. Grand Admiral Thrawn had died six months ago and financial opportunities were being wasted. As if Mara hadn't been stressing that to the committee starting about eight weeks ago.
That reminded her to send a text comm to Mazzic's bodyguard and promise the woman anything to keep Mazzic away from the meetings until they got a signed contract. Karrde would back her up as long as the bribe wasn't too outrageous. Her walk slowed as she focused on that task.
She felt a familiar warmth in the Force and looked further down the corridor she was about to travel through. Luke Skywalker leaned against the wall near the lifts. He wore a black tunic with brown trousers that she hadn't seen on him before, and even though he stood out against the white stone with blue veins, the beings congregating for the lifts ignored him. Her green eyes narrowed. Why was he here? His sister was a reason for him to be inside the Senate Executive Building, but she honestly hoped that Leia Organa Solo went home to her family at a reasonable hour. Not to mention that her office wasn't on this floor of meeting rooms, so Skywalker must be waiting for Mara. She didn't want to be ambushed tonight. She wanted to find food now—the Gran had insisted on working through lunch and the ration bar she had found in her jacket pocket digested hours ago—and to crawl into bed and not come out until the next damn meeting with these beings. Which was only tomorrow afternoon, not nearly far enough away.
She extended a light probe at him, just strong enough to confirm her suspicions and hopefully weak enough to not draw his attention. Eagerness flooded her senses; he was doing a good job with his stoic Jedi expression, but he did in fact want something from her and was excited about it. That probably meant he found some new Jedi thing to share. Mara didn't know whether to sigh or curse. A day of bickering power brokers topped by a guilt trip that she's not learning what all she was capable of. What the Emperor lied and said she wasn't capable of. When she took this job and the lightsaber, she had figured by now work would be organizing shipments and handing out assignments. Instead, they were still working out the contract, so free time to learn Force skills currently didn't exist. Skywalker would just have to accept that.
"Trader Jade?" She turned back in the direction she had come from. Councilor Tevv reached her. "Oh good, I caught up with you. Though I suspect you'd rather be anywhere else in the galaxy than in our meeting room."
"Not that far away, and I should have found a way to keep Trader Mazzic away from the negotiations." Not that she had any idea how she could have managed that, but Tevv was on her side and she needed to keep him there.
"I understand his frustration. It matches the frustration of my constituents who need ships for their cargo." The Sullustan looked down at her with his round, black eyes and grinned under his heavy jowls. "As I see it, the remaining obstacle is Dyarron and her cultural attitude."
Mara kept her weary slump internal along with a small scream of frustration. Dyarron needed dealing with but she wasn't at her best to strategize right now. She didn't dare show that weakness. "I don't disagree with that observation, Councilor Tevv."
She must have leaked some of her frustration through the Force, because she felt Skywalker's mind brush against hers. Bad time? he asked mentally.
"Shall we compare observations over a meal? I feel we are close to a breakthrough."
No more politics, she could not deal with any more politics. Get me out of this and I'll listen to whatever Force woo you found now, she sent to Skywalker while giving Tevv a pleasant smile. "I'd love to, but I'm afraid I have a prior engagement tonight."
Tevv blinked. "A prior engagement? Oh, I hope I haven't delayed you badly."
"Nothing unforgivable yet."
"And I know politicians haven't met a schedule yet they can't destroy," Skywalker said as he joined them. "Hello Mara, Councilor Tevv."
"Jedi Skywalker!" Tevv clasped Skywalker's hand. "I hope you are well. How goes your archive search?"
"Surprisingly unproductive. I'll be heading to other planets with offered archives before much longer. Are you two done discussing things for the night?"
Mara slipped her arm around Skywalker's, linking their elbows. He didn't jump or turn to her in wide-eyed astonishment at the contact, which was perfect since she wanted Tevv to suffer all the curiosity about her and Skywalker's relationship. She had no idea if it would give her an advantage in the negotiations, but Tevv beamed and felt like Karrde did when he had arranged for something that made one of his employees happy. "We're scheduled to resume tomorrow afternoon." She explained to Luke so hopefully Tevv would pick up her unsaid leave my morning alone demand. "How about meeting for lunch before to compare observations?"
"And we'll be sure to fortify ourselves in case Delegate Yearvu wants to keep going through another meal." Tevv nodded. "Meet at my offices at 1200 hours? Excellent," he answered to Mara's nod. "Enjoy your evening." He waved at them as he moved to the lifts.
Skywalker waited until Tevv was out of Sullustan hearing range. "I was going to offer dinner when I saw you. Is that okay?"
"If you want coherent responses from me in the next hour or so, I need food. Make it good food and I might make it back up to pleasant." Her stomach clenched and she ignored it.
He steered them to the lifts and didn't let go of her arm. "I know a place in CoCo Town. The politicians haven't found it yet. I take it you're done with political conversations for the day."
"Yes, I am. Let's get out of here before one of the others finds me." The crowd leaving for the day had thinned out, so she and Skywalker got a lift headed down to the traffic terminal level all to themselves. She breathed easier now that they couldn't ambush her.
"Did you decide to try a hunger strike to make them sign the contract quicker?" He smiled down at her.
"No, and now nobody will suggest that after the Gran made us work through lunch."
"The reason why Leia's so good at projective telepathy." She didn't bother hiding her confused face and he explained. "They have two stomachs and sometimes go days without eating. She was negotiating with them about their entry into the New Republic and got really good at calling to me to bring her food."
"Wish I had thought about that." She should stop leaning on his arm, but today had been so long and she wasn't sure if she wanted to try standing without support right now. He had more muscle tone than she had expected. Supporting so much of her weight didn't shift his arm at all. "Not that I have anyone to deliver me anything."
"Karrde left it up to my discretion if I needed anybody else. It has been faster for me to depend on myself for what we want out of the contract."
Skywalker made no attempt to take his arm back. "I'd deliver to you."
"I'll hold you to that." The lift opened on the traffic terminal level and she moved with Skywalker to the area set aside for personal airspeeder docking. He opened the passenger door on a closed-top airspeeder. She slipped inside wondering if the vehicle belonged to him or if he rented it for the trip and she didn't care enough to ask as he took the driver's seat. She knew she was in no condition to fight with Coruscant traffic tonight.
"Of course, you'll need to rely on Force woo to ask for anything." Skywalker's tone wasn't quite disapproving, but it wasn't thrilled with what she had said either.
"You're lucky I was that polite," she said with a smirk.
He brought her to a platform large enough for landing strips to act like a two-way surface road for the airspeeders. Smaller buildings were built on platforms like this to take advantage of the elevation without the costs of one of the massive skyscrapers. This platform held a couple of manufacturing plants, office buildings, and two economy class hotels on either end of the platform. The one and two story structures lining the road were lit with neon gas signs proclaiming they were various restaurants. He brought the airspeeder to a free space next to a one-story structure built in the ancient Med'soto style. She followed him to the doors that slid open before them. "Seat yourselves," an older blonde woman called out from the pastry display built into the long bar separating the dining floor from the kitchen.
Neither one had to consult the other before they headed to the last booth next to the kitchen door. Skywalker even let Mara have the front door view. She focused on the transparent data display of the menu. Everything sounded good, which was probably the most obvious sign of how far she'd let herself go. She would pack more ration bars for tomorrow just in case. "Spicy Gargon gumbo and the fried Endorian chicken plate," she told the WA-9 droid that rolled up to their booth.
"I'll have the Gargon gumbo too with a Shawada club sandwich. Better bring us a pot of regular caf and some water, thank you."
The WA-9 droid rolled off on its uni wheel and Mara focused on Skywalker. "What do you have to show me?"
He shook his head. "Not until after you've eaten. It's safer that way."
The droid deposited a carafe of caf, two mugs, and two tall glasses of water before rolling away again. Mara didn't respond until she had a full mug of the hot liquid, inhaled its hint of lemongrass fragrance under the char, and let the swallow jolt her more alert. "I wasn't serious about that."
"No? And here I was thinking lessons in keeping the Wookiee fed applied to more species." He grinned when her eyes locked onto his. "It's not a life, death, or fate of the galaxy thing, just something I found and would like your opinion on. It can wait a bit."
"Something you found in the archives? Why are you digging through archives?" She asked after he nodded. It was common enough knowledge that Councilor Tevv felt safe commenting on it, but she realized she didn't know what Skywalker did with most of his days.
Skywalker gained time by sipping on his caf. "I'm looking for more information on the Jedi. My teachers gave me the bare minimum, focusing on fighting." His right hand tightened on the mug before he set it down. "I found more information on Dathomir, but it's all the basics every Jedi padawan was taught. Filled in some gaps of what I know, but what about the history, the lore, the artifacts? Who would even guess that the Imperial Palace was the Jedi Temple before the Purge if Coruscant residents hadn't confirmed it? I figured we'd eventually find a room full of Jedi stuff that Palpatine kept as trophies. He kept my hand after all."
"If he did keep anything as trophies," and Mara couldn't deny that sounded like something Palpatine would have done, "he moved them out by the time I moved into the Palace. Nothing Jedi has turned up at Mount Tantiss?"
"Nothing yet. The Noghri and Garv Debble all know to look out for anything connected to the Jedi. Doesn't change the problem though. Different Jedi specialized in different things; that's clear from unpurged history. And I don't know what the next level of training is."
"No wonder you're worried about teaching your niece and nephew." The WA-9 slid the soup bowls in front of them without sloshing the contents. Her first spoonful blended the promised spice with the smoky broth. The vegetables, meat, and grains had soaked up the seasoning spices but hadn't been over-cooked.
"Now that they're actually here put a target lock on that problem. Teaching you and Leia isn't as troubling. Both of you will challenge me if you think I'm wrong."
Mara paused before scooping another spoonful. "I thought I'd be back to that before now." She steeled herself for the incoming lecture.
"I'm glad you still want to learn." He focused on the gumbo in his bowl.
She used eating another bite to study him. His farm boy earnestness made reading him easy when he wasn't hiding behind Jedi stoicism. "You think my non-existent free time is a reflection on your teaching skills?"
Now his gaze went to the window beside the booth. "Leia doesn't have any time to learn either."
"Wow. Way to dismiss the duties of the New Republic's Minister of State and Liaison to the Smugglers' Alliance."
"I know it's not fair. That's why I was trying not to bring it up." He huffed and looked back at her smirk. "I know you both have different priorities right now, and they're important. I just need to trust the Force, be patient, and stop worrying that I'm the only Jedi."
"Or you could just ask. Hey Jade, I'm feeling a little insecure about my teaching skills. How would you rate them? I learned more from you during a twelve-day hike on Wayland compared to the years Palpatine raised me and taught me what few tricks I could learn." She jabbed the spoon into the remains of the gumbo in her bowl. "Your teaching is fine; don't worry about it."
"He lied to you about that. You are strong in the Force."
She swallowed another spoonful. "I know but that's not the point. You're a good teacher, Farmboy, only you have way too much time on your hands right now."
"Maybe I should help your negotiation so the contract will get done faster." He dipped his spoon back into his bowl of gumbo.
"I'm not talking about that contract for the rest of the night." Mara scraped the bottom of the bowl for the last spoonful. "My mood is better now, so let's not ruin it."
He smirked. "You sure you don't want me practicing Jedi bargaining?"
"How often does your sister ask for your Jedi bargaining?" He chuckled. "I mean it, Skywalker, stay away." She pointed her licked-clean spoon at him. "I have spent all day soothing all the feelings Mazzic deliberately ruffled. Stay away."
The serving droid returned and delivered their entrees. Skywalker bit back a delighted smile. "What's my absence worth to you?"
"What is this, blackmail? Isn't that against the Jedi code?"
"Not blackmail, blending in with another culture. Everything is for sale in smuggler culture and nearly everything is negotiable. So what's my absence worth to you?" He divided the sandwich that filled the plate in half and picked up the smaller portion.
Mara cut into the breaded with pom seed flour and fried boneless meat. "I'm eating a meal with you."
"You agreed to that when I supported whatever you told Councilor Tevv."
That was true. She followed her bite of chicken with a forkful of mashed orange tuber. What did she have to offer compared to the coffers of the New Republic and what they were willing to pay out to their only Jedi Knight? No favors to be cashed in at a later date, those always came back to bite you in the ass at the most inopportune times. And she wanted something out of this too. "Okay, I can give you my free morning, the one I just pried out of those diligent, hard-working bureaucrats on the committee for tomorrow, to teach me more Force skills. I was planning to book a massage at a spa, so you better make it worth my while."
The intent hadn't been to shock him, so it was a nice bonus to see his head jerk up and his blue eyes widen. And she felt the wave of delight that the she wants more training shock turned into before he tightened his mental shielding. "That's an acceptable trade."
"Good." She speared the steamed vegetable that looked like a miniature tree with her fork. "Now, I think I have eaten enough to forestall a Wookiee rampage, so what do you have to show me?"
He pulled a datapad from a pouch on his belt and slid it across the table to her after he opened the file he wanted. It showed the image of an ancient—aged to a tan color—flimsi with torn edges and holes. She didn't recognize the language that was written in faded ink and a splotch of ink obscured the words at the bottom. A translation of the flimsi was provided under the image.
[words too faded to make out]
[words missing thanks to flimsi damage] created
a bond beyond all bonds.
Kum Nagma left Above the Clouds
And still the bond endured
[words untranslatable] Fovi Vaggil
No matter the distance.
[words too faded to make out]
All the [word untranslatable]
[words missing thanks to flimsi damage]
All the emotions
All the knowledge
Shared between the two Jedi
This bond lasted until
Kum Nagma [words missing thanks to flimsi damage]
Fovi Vaggil never formed another.
"You haven't found another reference to 'a bond beyond all bonds' in what else you've collected?" she asked.
"No." Skywalker wiped his hands on his napkin. "Plenty of references to training bonds, but this sounds like something beyond that."
Mara thoughtfully chewed on the first bite of her third piece of chicken. "It sounds like a training bond with that bit of 'all knowledge shared.' Where did you find it?"
"In a collection of folklore compiled before the Clone Wars. The author did consult the Jedi Order's Chief Librarian at the time, a Jocasta Nu. She said it was probably a training bond or telepathy that the poet exaggerated."
She cut her remaining chicken. "That may be the simplest answer."
He poured himself another mug of caf. "I know, but I have a feeling there's more to it than that."
"What does Leia say about it?"
"I haven't shown it to her yet. I wanted your opinion first." He squirmed slightly under her gaze. "I've taught Leia everything she knows."
"But the Force may offer her an insight it doesn't give you."
"I know. We're having dinner in two nights; I'm showing her then."
Okay if he really wanted the opinion of a Force user not trained only by him, she would give it to him. "No, it doesn't describe the leash the Emperor implanted in my mind. He hid things from me. This sounds like information is a dual connection."
He flinched from her cool tone. "That wasn't what I was thinking. It wasn't. I was hoping that maybe he or my father discussed it with you or around you." His voice trailed off before he shook his head. "And this is when you tear my optimism apart."
She could be kind about it. "It wasn't like that, growing up in the Palace. The Emperor was the only one who taught me anything about the Force, and always paired with with how I wasn't strong enough but he could work his power through me. Vader detested me and we spent as much time as we could avoiding each other."
"And while Palpatine was disdaining what you are capable of, he didn't bother teaching any of the control skills that would have made—"
"Me a better assassin?" Her interruption stopped Skywalker's defense of her past self before he worked up indignity over what Palpatine had done. It was so strange, he didn't approve of her killing people but he was always more upset that her training had been tampered with. Tonight wasn't the night to figure out what prompted Skywalker's oddities. "What do you mean by control skills?"
It never took much prompting to get him to share. "Force skills are divided into control, sense, alter, and combinations of those three. Control over one's inner Force, mastery of the body, and harmony with nature. Sense the Force in other things beyond your body, feel the bonds that connect all living things, and understand how all is interconnected. Alter the distribution and nature of the Force, move things with your mind, help others control their own Force, or change the Force in your own body." He picked up his mug. "Palpatine skipped over nearly everything in one section."
"To keep me weaker." She hadn't meant to say that, but it was most likely true. "The past is done, I can only move forward now." She pushed the datapad back across the table. "That doesn't give you any ideas on how to make 'a bond beyond all bonds'."
"No, but I'd settle for telepathy that stretches across the galaxy."
"With the way you get in over your head, I can see the appeal." He gave her smirk a look of disdain. "Is it a difference between Sith and Jedi?"
"Not with the basics. Master Yoda explained that there are some skills that are automatically evil if you use them. Everything else depends on your motives. Healing trance on yourself isn't automatically evil but I can't see a Sith not learning it for their own benefit."
"Healing trance? Didn't you put me into one after Wayland?" He nodded. She frowned as she considered that. "Neither the Emperor or Vader ever tried to heal me."
"Bacta is quicker."
"But you don't always have bacta."
"Exactly." He broke off to smile at the older human woman approaching their booth. "Yes?"
The woman who had greeted them when they entered the restaurant smiled apologetically. "The Delron factory is about to let out. If you're not interested in dessert, I really need your table for the rush."
Skywalker glanced at his chrono while Mara did the same. "Lost track of time. Do you want dessert?" Mara shook her head when he looked up and reached for her credit chip. "Okay, I'll pay for both meals. Least I can do for keeping you out so late." Mara let him; it would make her story that Skywalker asked her to dinner better, not that she expected anyone to check that closely.