They left as shift workers began crowding into the restaurant. Air traffic was the same level as busy, which Skywalker sighed over. “I like Coruscant, but I miss being on a planet that follows a diurnal schedule.”
Mara shifted in the passenger seat to watch his profile. “I don’t think your sister would want you staying close to her if it makes you miserable.”
“It’s not just staying close to Leia, Han, and the twins. I’m not miserable, but I probably need a vacation from the population.” He maneuvered the airspeeder into the skylane heading straight to the Imperial Palace.
“So where’s the first off-planet archive you’re headed to?”
“Obroa-skai had a Jedi Academy at one time. Maybe some cross-references still exists in their surviving archives. I was told an early Empire rumor that Arkinnea had a Jedi Temple and it’s in undisputed New Republic territory. I also want to go to Dorin, but that’ll have to wait until the military or the diplomatic corps wants me to go.”
“Never been to Arkinnea. Do let me know if it’s nice.” She stretched out her legs, too much sitting today and her muscles felt tight.
His larynx bobbed as he swallowed. “You’re welcome to come with me.”
How was it that more people did not take advantage of Skywalker’s generous to a fault nature? “I have to work and your X-Wing doesn’t seat two.”
“When you’re ready to abandon the committee to their fates, I’ll find something roomier for us to travel in.”
“Abandon?” Her smile felt wicked. “Karrde or your sister will probably pay you to drag me off because I’m dropping the committee into the nearest black hole. Actually, I should find out who’s supposed to ratify the contract, black hole the committee, and tell them everything has been worked out.”
He grinned. “They’ll be missed.”
“Small price to pay for normalized shipping.”
“How about disappearing them where they won’t be crushed to death? Echo Base on Hoth is mostly in one piece.”
“Weren’t you almost eaten on Hoth? Or was that something the entertainment industry dreamed up?”
“They didn’t exaggerate it much. One wampa not two and it was eating my tauntaun instead of fighting over me when I got my lightsaber and cut myself free. I don’t know if I even killed it while I got away. Han said the finding me delirious in the snow scene was the most accurate thing he’s seen in all the stupid holodramas about me. I guess they didn’t feel the need to improve that.”
“What did the committee do to you that makes you want to put them on an ice-covered rock where you almost died?”
He pulled the airspeeder into one of the residential hangar bays inside the Imperial Palace. “Is 900 too early for you? I have the gymnasium in my residential section to myself from then until early afternoon.”
“That’s fine. I’ll meet you there.” She left him with the hassle of returning the borrowed speeder and headed to the lifts. He had chosen the hangar bay closest to her section. Maybe after that large of a sandwich, he felt the need to walk. She didn’t question her good fortune in the short ride and walk through the hallways to her provided quarters. It wasn’t in the same section as the permanent residents but it was on a different level and side from the one the New Republic had put her under house arrest in after Thrawn’s kidnapping attempt of the Solo twins. She was glad for the change of scenery. It meant someone in the New Republic was sensitive to how she would perceive the same view out the window. One of the walls in the parlor of the apartment was covered in fijisi wood paneling, so she didn’t even have to give up that. Its fragrance wafted to greet her at the main door as she entered her rooms.
She shrugged off her jacket and hung it in the coat closet inside the foyer while she gazed at the view out the parlor windows. Nothing tempted her to move further into that room and nothing leapt to her gaze as a security concern. She double checked the locks on her door and headed to bed.
* * *
Straps around her wrists, forearms, biceps and shoulders fastened her outstretched arms to a pole of scarlet greel wood. Cables at both ends, out of reach of her flexing fingers, suspended the pole from the ceiling at a height where her feet couldn’t touch the floor. Energy cuffs circled her ankles and she could feel the heat from the beam that held her stretched-apart legs to the floor. Syntherope cinched around the base of each breast and wrapped around her throat so moving her head tugged the restrained tissue. Her red-gold hair spiraled around her head in a version of the Alderaan crown hairstyle. Her eyes were uncovered and her mouth not gagged.
The spotlight focused down on her nude body and obscured the rest of the room in shadows. One of Anor’s parties with her as decoration and entertainment, no doubt. She heard the murmur of out-of-earshot conversation and the clinking of silverware over her ragged breathing. No music, because Anor claimed it distracted attention from the true entertainment.
She knew the routine: give them the performance that they coaxed from her body, enjoy what felt good, ignore what hurt. Being exactly what Anor desired was something her Master wanted her to learn. The training was almost over. Her ability to project submission and how she could reverse the tactic to dominate the other slaves when he commanded her to captivated Anor. She could assume any role her Master needed her to take. No seduction technique or demand was beyond her capabilities. What else did she need to learn?
A party guest stepped into the light. Mara recoiled from the red uniform she saw first, but there was nothing for her to push back against. Ysanne Isard stroked Mara’s cheek. Mara dangled in the air eye-level with the taller woman. “I can’t delve into your mind for what I want.” Two fingers of Isard’s other hand penetrated Mara’s slit. “But I can delve here for everything.” The red eye and blue eye gleamed as Isard’s cruel smile grew wider.
“No!” Mara screamed as she thrashed. The movement did nothing to dislodge Isard’s hand.
A lash tore across Mara’s back, followed by another one against her buttocks, against her shoulders, her back again, straight down her spine. It wasn’t Anor’s primitive leather whip; someone was using a neuronic whip on her. The screams tore out of her throat. The lashes stopped and Isard pressed her thumb onto Mara’s clit. Her scream became a wail.
Anor pressed up against her back, resting his chin on the pole right next to her neck. “Naughty kriff-toy, you said the bad word. You make Him unhappy when you say the bad word.”
Mara twisted her head away from Isard’s smirk and Anor’s hot breath. A pair of yellow eyes gleamed in the shadows, the eyes she knew so well, the eyes she wanted to make gleam with pride not malice. “Master, please!”
“Please punish you more, kriff-toy?” Anor said. More hands grabbed her, pinching and pulling. “Of course, we’ll punish you until you never say no again.” The lash hit her again, sending waves of pain crashing against the hands tearing her flesh. She swayed with their tugs and tried to heave more momentum into the movement. Escape, she had to escape. Safety was somewhere in the galaxy away from those malicious yellow eyes.
She heaved again and wrenched herself upright in her bed. All she could hear was her heartbeat thudding in her ears and her pants that didn’t fill her lungs. Sweat glued her pajamas and sheets to her skin. She stared out the bedroom window at the streaks of lights driving in the skylanes.
Ysanne Isard, what the hells was Iceheart doing in her dream? Mara pressed a hand against her chest to slow her breathing. Isard had never attended any of Anor’s soirees; she had considered them debauch compared to what she could brainwash out of prisoners. As well Mara knew having experienced the Lusankya’s hospitality after the Emperor’s death. And it didn’t matter in the slightest because the schutta was dead. At the last celebration, Mara had bought the Rogue Squadron a round of drinks for whatever the New Republic flyboys did to Isard that was still classified. Her subconscious had to stop inviting dead people to parties it insisted on recreating and twisting into nightmares.
And it really needed to get over the training Bendak Anor had provided. Really, these nightmares were becoming as big a nuisance as he had been in person. She knew from experience there would be no more sleep tonight. If she tried, there would only be a different variation of immobility and violation waiting for her once she fell asleep. The windows let in enough of the Coruscant night lights that she didn’t bother to illuminate the bedroom as she tore away the clingy bed linens and stomped her way into the kitchen.
Bendak Anor, the coward, had fled Coruscant when the New Republic conquered it. Isard was dead. Just because Mara was slightly stressed by the unending committee meeting was no reason for her subconscious to focus on training that was finished thirteen years ago. The caf distiller happily accepted her stabbed-in directions and gurgled as she put her back against the nanowave stove and watched the doors of her quarters. Shavit, her subconscious really didn’t need to add Iceheart to the mix. What’s next, the damn committee knotting rope around her entire body? Skywalker—she sliced through that thought with a mental lightsaber. She had had enough nightmares of Luke Skywalker to last her the rest of her life. No point giving her subconscious ideas.
Caf, followed by a shower to wash the phantom hands off her skin, and then more caf with what food she could force down. This routine was getting far too much practice for her liking.
Luke’s meditation this morning didn’t have him plunging into the deep end of the Force, as Han put it. Sunlight streamed into the lofty room through the wall of transparisteel and through the variety of exercise equipment lined up in front of it to give the users a view while they exercised. The large floor mat filled the corner between the window and the mirrored interior wall. The warmth of the light brushed against the sleeveless undertunic on his back.
He was well aware that his lack of concentration was due to constant thoughts of Mara Jade. Eventually, he accepted them as he sat cross-legged on the mat while he waited for her to arrive in the gymnasium. He hadn’t wanted to make a nuisance of himself. After all, she was dealing with big adjustments with revelations on her personal history and professionally. Karrde’s organization and its cobbled-together alliance and the New Republic’s demands over shipping both put so many responsibilities on her. Not fighting Wedge’s promotion to leading the Rogue Squadron and hiding in Ben’s hut on Tatooine after learning the truth about his father was the only equivalent he found in his own life, and it didn’t compare nearly as well as to how Mara was handling her own upheaval.
So he had hung back, seen her at award functions and celebrations they had both been invited to, let her decide when she was ready for more training. And let himself dream up some erroneous conclusions. He shouldn’t have taken neither her nor Leia’s lack of time personally, not after Leia snapped at him that she didn’t even have time to breastfeed her babies. His closed eyes winced at the memory of that conversation.
But the not pushing had worked. Dinner last night had reminded him of the better parts of Wayland and rescuing Karrde from the Chimera. What surprised him was how much he had missed Mara over the past six months. He liked her. She was smart and resourceful, with a mental and emotional toughness he could rely on, plus she had a sharp humor and irreverence that made for a refreshing contrast with the automatic and unthinking awe too many people held him in these days. She was strong and capable in the Force, and didn’t consider his abilities wrong. He admired her tenacity. And now that the lies the Emperor had told her were exposed and she didn’t feel a compulsion to tell everyone how she was going to kill him, friendship wasn’t so impossible. She could use more friends, instead of co-workers and committee members she wanted to strangle.
He felt her approach down the hall, but something felt off. He opened his eyes when she opened the door and recognized all the signs as she skirted around the exercise equipment to the open space next to the window. Circles under her eyes, jittery from far too much caf, and a scowling frown already twisting her face. He had seen it on countless faces over his years of active service. “I don’t want to talk about it,” Mara snarled as she approached the large tumbling mat.
“Nightmares?” He set aside his plans to show her escape techniques today. If she hadn’t slept at all, it would hurt more. He also set aside how pleased he felt to see the lightsaber he had gifted her hanging from her belt.
“Does not wanting to talk about it mean keep digging for information on Tatooine, or did you learn it somewhere else?”
“I wasn’t asking for details. I have a technique I use when my nightmares keep me from sleeping. You can’t rely on it forever, eventually you have to sleep, but it works to get me past the nightmare trigger. If it’s nightmares for you, we can work on that today.”
Her green eyes tried to focus on him but it was a fight. “You get nightmares?”
“Saving the galaxy from evil is no guarantee against nightmares.” And he was not telling Mara that the image of her writhing in pain from C’baoth’s Force Lightning had been added to his catalog. She’d probably demand that he erase it somehow.
She shook her head as she toed off her shoes. “Sorry. I assumed and I shouldn’t have. But the only time I have ever seen you rattled was when you woke up on Myrkr. And that lasted all of five minutes.” She sank gracefully to the mat with crossed legs. “So what do you suggest, that hibernation trance you use during hyperspace jumps?”
“From experience, you don’t dream in a hibernation trance but they’ll wait for you until you try to sleep normally again.” He had freaked out Leia, Han, and Chewie experimenting with that right after Bakura. “What I stumbled upon was removing the body’s fatigue with the Force while I meditate.”
“So it’s not something one of your Jedi mentors taught you?”
“Master Yoda taught me to remove fatigue from specific muscles during a battle or when you need to keep a certain level of physical exertion. But I realized fatigue was also caused by lack of sleep and I had to be at my best before we flew again and since I wasn’t sleeping why not meditate while I tried to remove fatigue from my whole body. Not only did I not drown myself in caf the next morning, the nightmare cycle interrupted and I slept without dreaming the next night.”
Mara slowly blinked at him. “Right now, that sounds more useful to me than lifting rocks. I can’t be stupid because of no sleep meeting with Tevv and the committee. Show me.”
Luke smiled. “Meditate and then I’ll form the training bond.” Her freckled nose wrinkled, but she shut her eyes and evened out her breathing. She was so close to utter exhaustion that if he delayed, she’d probably fall over into sleep and into the clutches of her nightmares. He set his hands on his thighs, closed his eyes, and reached out to her with the tendril of the training bond. It latched into place in Mara’s mind as easily as the ones he had made on Wayland had. Her questioning presence waited and then followed as he demonstrated the technique on her right foot. She faltered a bit on her left foot but by the time they reached her low back, Luke didn’t have to correct any mistakes. He stayed present and answered her questions as the Force re-energized her tired muscles climbing up her body.
The same way on my brain? It’s not a muscle. She hesitated pushing up from her neck.
The same way; the Force knows the difference. I’ll let you go alone now. He retreated back to his own self and dissolved the training bond. He didn’t want to share his nightmares and Mara had flatly said she didn’t want to talk about hers. He opened his eyes.
The circles were less pronounced under her fluttering eyelashes. She breathed in deep before slowly opening her eyes. “It feels like I just woke up.” She sounded amazed by that and Luke wondered just how long a good night’s sleep had been eluding her.
It wouldn’t do any good to harp on that. “I’m glad we’ve confirmed it works and it isn’t a weird coping strategy I came up with. I usually drop into it right after a nightmare has woken me up.”
“And stay in meditation all night?” She stretched her arms over her head.
He shook his head. “Mine tend to hit after midnight before dawn, so a few hours of meditation. And meditation is important to strengthen your connection to the Force.”
“Right. You’ve probably saved a bunch of politicians’ lives today by getting me off the edge. I won’t tell them if you won’t.”
“You’re not going to kill your committee. They can’t suffer on Hoth if you kill them.”
“You seem to be under the impression that I care about their suffering, Skywalker. I care about how they’re impeding my work.” She twisted and looked at the chronometer mounted above the door. “I have to go so I can make the meeting with Tevv.”
He rolled to his feet, the loose workout trousers making the move easy. “Mara, have you considered making yourself less available to the committee?”
She uncurled her legs and stretched them out in front of her. “Do you want me to skip out on my responsibilities to learn more Force skills from you?”
“Yes and no.”
“It can’t be both, Farmboy.” She moved to the mat’s edge next to her shoes.
“No, I don’t want you to skip out on your responsibilities. You should tell the committee to stop stalling like a Jawa who can’t crank the sandcrawler engine because you have other things to do with your time.”
“Like learn the Force from you.”
“That’s the yes part. There’s more for you to learn and I’d like for you to teach me your mental shielding techniques. But as far as goading the committee into actually finishing its job, you could take up planetary couriering for Karrde instead.”
She stopped pulling on her shoes. “You want to learn from me?”
Luke paused, unsure about the note in her voice. “Yes. Haven’t I told you how good your mental shielding is?”
“You’ve neglected to mention it until now. When did you notice my mental shielding?”
“After you got me off Jomark. You didn’t want to talk unless it was the plan to get Karrde out, so I didn’t mention it.” She had threatened to restrain him and put the ysalamir in his lap if he didn’t stay out of the cockpit. He had complied, needing time and space to think about his disaster with C’baoth.
“I was wrapped up so tight then.” She snorted before standing up. “That’s not what I thought you’d make a trade about, and it’s still pretty uneven in what I’m learning from you.”
“It’s not uneven; I’m learning how to teach from you too.” It wasn’t just a trade of information, but he felt a warning in the Force. Mara wasn’t ready to hear friendship, not between them. He reached down for his own shoes. “I don’t like tracking who owes what. Just think about the offer and the goading. I don’t know the committee like you do. It might not work.”
“Your opinion might work on Dyarron, the Mon Calamari,” she said thoughtfully. “But Tav Breil’lya hasn’t given me the impression that he cares what humans much less Jedi think.”
A story Leia had told him sprang forward in his mind. “He’s one of Fey’lya’s aides. He’s been giving you trouble?”
“I haven’t had an idea he likes yet and I have no idea why.”
“Fey’lya wants to punish Karrde and you’re one of Karrde’s people. Leia told me Karrde twisted the Councilor’s arm to get paid to destroy Mount Tantiss before they chased after us. Karrde didn’t tell you?”
Her pink lips curled up and Luke wasn’t sure who to feel sorry for: Breil’lya or Karrde. “No, he didn’t. I can use that. I’ll comm you later if a new schedule goes through.”
“Okay.” She vanished through the door before he finished pulling on his boots. Did she just agree to more training? Why else comm him later? He grinned. Taking her out last night had been the best idea he had in a long time.