It didn’t take long for Mara to pick out a couple of jumpsuits, a pair of trousers, a couple of tunics, modest pajamas that would avoid anyone thinking of anything inappropriate, and serviceable basics. The shop inside the Imperial Palace also had travel toiletry kits, so that took care of her most basic needs without denting her credit balance too badly. She had her eye on a stunning sheer green dress that had a plunging neckline both front and back and careful application of shimmering lines of green sequins down the torso to keep it suitable for public. She had wanted to turn all the heads at the contract signing ball or whatever the New Republic would host. Now she had to buy it, she no longer had a back-up dress to wear. Now turning heads was a kriff you to whoever thought Mara Jade could be frightened off by vandalism. Kriff that funtihruo, she was not prey. Everyone who thought she was prey learned how foolish thinking that was. The last thing she picked up in this store was a cheap duffel bag that she packed her purchases into before returning to the residential levels.
Of course the satisfaction of that education was thwarted by not knowing who to focus on. Mara slumped in the otherwise empty turbolift. She was so tired and she wanted to lash back, but she had no clues on who deserved that lashing and no faith that the New Republic security officers she just met would find any clues. She looked down at her wrist comlink to confirm that Karrde hadn’t returned her comm yet. And was Skywalker going to help or hinder? He was indignant on her behalf earlier. But what was she going to owe him for this favor? He didn’t track favors owed, she reminded herself repeating what he had said often enough.
The turbolift doors opened and she disembarked with her cool detached appearance in place. She felt Luke’s presence in this floor’s turbolift lobby and it only grew stronger as she headed down the hall to his quarters. She made sure her mental shields were prepared and strong. No sense disturbing him with more of her chaotic thoughts. The door slid open before she could even press the door annunciator. “You should be more careful. What if I wasn’t alone?” She stepped into the foyer so the door slid shut behind her.
“If you were being used to get to me, you’d be yelling about it with your mind. Every Force Sensitive in the sector would hear you.” Luke’s voice came from the doorway to her left. She followed it and the delicious smells making her stomach rumble. The doorway opened into the kitchen. Luke’s back was to her as he flipped the portions of meat in a skillet and adjusted how it sat on the nanowave burner. He picked up another pan and tossed the contents into the air. He caught the vegetable pieces back in the pan without using the Force. He had taken off his long-sleeved tunic and the black, sleeveless undertunic revealed his arm muscles as he worked. She had seen his arms before, she reminded herself, while they trained. He glanced over his shoulder at her with a smile. “Do you like nerf steaks seasoned the Corellian way?”
“Yes, I do. But you’re cooking?” Of the ways Skywalker could surprise her, cooking never made her list of possibilities.
“Are you saying it like that because no one cooks for you or because it’s me who’s cooking?”
“Both, if we’re excluding people I pay to cook a meal for me.”
His attention returned to the stove. “My aunt insisted if I was going to be underfoot in the kitchen I had to help. If I was going to sneak snacks, I had to work for it. We both need to eat and you do deserve a celebration, but I figured you wouldn’t want to go out now.”
He wasn’t wrong. The emotional upheaval of the past hour or so on top of finally getting the contract signed had left her drained. Going out in public no longer had any appeal. “Thanks for thinking of it. I am hungry.” She wondered what the etiquette for this situation was. No one had ever cooked for her unless it was a mess meal for everyone or a meal she bought at a restaurant. On top of not knowing the etiquette for this; she had never really shared quarters with anyone before. It didn’t feel the same as on base or on a ship, even if he had promised her a room of her own to retreat to.
Luke turned from the sizzling pans to face her. “The guest room is down the hall behind you, second door on the left.” Before Mara turned around, the white and blue astromech rolled into the foyer from the parlor beeping. It turned into the hall. Luke shrugged. “Or just follow Artoo.”
“Okay.” She adjusted the duffel bag strap on her shoulder. The hall was longer than she expected. The first door on the left was a guest ‘fresher and the three doors on the right side of the hall looked like closets. The hall ended in an open door right after the second door on the left.
Artoo turned around in the open door and stopped. It swiveled its radar eye and holographic projector at the second door on the left. Its whistles and beeps were insistent.
Mara frowned. “Let me guess, that’s your master’s room and I’m not to set a foot inside.”
She really had no idea that the droid could make an affirmative beep sound so sarcastic as he rocked on two of his three legs.
“My being here was his bright idea.” She entered the guest bedroom before she said something that would make her sound ungrateful. It had a short hallway which held the door to an attached ‘fresher on the right and a small closet on the left. The bedroom was decorated with beige walls, a darker beige carpet, a gray armchair that matched the gray of the bed’s platform and headboard, a pair of gray bedside tables, white linens covering the bed along with a dark gray extra blanket folded across the foot of the two-sleeper bed, and a color holoimage of the Manarai Mountains hung above the headboard. She recognized the standard decorating style that was meant as a placeholder for the inhabitant’s style. Skywalker hadn’t bothered changing anything in this room. Had he bothered changing anything in his bedroom or the parlor? Or was it nicer than anything he had grown up with or lived with in Rebel bases?
That was uncharitable. No one had encouraged her to redecorate her quarters when she lived in the Palace. She didn’t even realize it was a possibility until her training took her into other people’s private quarters and she saw how they changed things. But she was lucky the habit of not decorating stuck with her. The furniture and decor the vandal just destroyed belonged to the Imperial Palace. Her clothes, that did give her a pang. She had started taking being able to afford nice outfits again, having safe storage for what was hers again for granted. Once she knew who was responsible they were paying for all her dresses. She set her duffel on the bed and transferred the clothes to the closet before they wrinkled more. Starting over again was becoming a habit. She caught herself staring out the transparisteel wall at the view from this side of the Imperial Palace. She stuffed the duffel into the closet and left the room.
Artoo was still guarding Luke’s bedroom. She rolled her eyes and headed back to the kitchen, determined to be polite for this favor and looking for anything else to think about. “So why’d you take a two bedroom quarters?”
“It was a compromise.” Luke bent over and pulled a pan from the oven, completely unconcerned with the view he presented. It complimented his arms, she thought safely behind her shields. “They wanted to give me as many rooms as Leia and Han share but all I needed was one and they wanted to keep people together on certain levels for security reasons, so when we finally got to the level they wanted me on and this was the smallest unit, I took it.” The warm, yeasty smell hit her nostrils as he dumped the fresh baked bread onto a serving platter. “I had planned on turning the second bedroom into a meditation room or an office, but gave that up after the third time I had a drunk Rogue on my hands. I like being able to watch the HoloNet in peace while they’re sleeping off a bender.”
She leaned against the counter next to the doorway not wanting to get in his way. “Didn’t your responsibility for them end when you resigned your commission?” Not that it would really make a difference to him, she knew that. Even she fell under his benevolence, completely unearned as it was.
“I’ve transitioned from their CO to the fun uncle who won’t tattle on them.” He sliced the bread. “Don’t explain it to Janson, though. Wedge and I are trying to see just how long he’ll take KP assignments from me.”
“He actually follows through?”
“I only assign them when he’s earned them.” He carried the serving platter through the opening in the counter that led into the parlor. She saw that section of the larger room had a four-seat table. “And yes, he does.” He chuckled.
She looked over the pans on the stove. “Is there something you want me to do?”
“Pick out a wine to go with the meal. I’m rubbish at that.”
“According to who?” Organa Solo wouldn’t offer a criticism that harshly, Mara thought. Not to her own brother.
“Lando,” he answered. “What I have is in the wine conservator next to the regular—”
“I see it.” The wine conservator was built under the counter between the conservator and a tall cabinet. She bent over to study the contents. “But you don’t drink; we don’t have to have wine.”
“Celebrations call for wine,” he recited. That sounded like his sister. “And I do drink.”
She found a Glova red wine she recognized as strongly tannic, but looked back at him. Then she realized how she was standing and squatted in front of the wine conservator. “I was at the party you sent the bartender into a fit trying to find you hot chocolate.”
He reached into an upper cabinet to the right of the sink opposite the stove for a pair of plates. His embarrassment rose with the memory. “I kept telling him not to bother once I knew he didn’t have any. So all the parties we’ve been to have had the Rogues on the guest list too?”
“Yes, they have been.” A hexagonal-shaped bottle etched with designs she didn’t recognize caught her eye. It was filled with clear liquid. “What is this?” She pulled it out so he could see it and saw the multiples of the same bottle. “And you have a case of it?”
“Starshine, but you don’t drink that with food. We can have it after if you want.”
“I’ve never tried it. But why do you have a case of it?”
“That’s the Rogues’ fault.”
She pulled out the Glova red too and straightened her legs. “I’m sensing a pattern with your stories, Farmboy.” The wine goblets were in the upper cabinet above the counter, so she reached for a pair of them. She didn’t mind talking about that squad of flyboys. Skywalker still had ties with them and they didn’t consider her an Imperial whore.
“I don’t want to make you uncomfortable with Rebellion stories.” Luke set a steak on the top plate.
Because I’m still an Imperial in someone’s eyes, she thought bitterly. She left the starshine on the counter. “That’s something we will have to accept, our pasts make each other uncomfortable. But I think it’s better to spit it out.” Instead of letting it fester until you do malicious vandalism.
“And move on.” He added a serving spoonful of the vegetable pieces to the plate as she moved behind him. She felt his mental brush assessing how comfortable she was with that in practice.
“Right.” You had to keep moving to stay alive. That was probably the last thing Palpatine taught her and Isard reinforced it. She set the goblets down in the two place settings already arranged and opened the wine bottle. “So why did the Rogues get their designated sober flyboy so much liquor?”
Pride tinged with an old sorrow flared through the Force before he strengthened his shields. “I flew exactly one mission as a grunt pilot before I got shoved into the command track.”
“The Death Star, stupidest battle station design ever.”
His eyebrows rose at that as he brought the readied plates to the table. “One piece of advice I was given was limit the fraternization with the pilots under your command. Han was the one who explained that meant no getting drunk with them.” Resignation over what he missed cracked through his shields.
“So you don’t drink around the Rogues.” She poured the red wine into the goblets and sat down where she could see the entryways through the foyer and the kitchen.
“I still don’t drink around the Rogues. So when Gavin Darklighter said he was going back to Tatooine to visit his parents and I gave him credits to pick up a bottle of good starshine and Gavin told the rest of the Rogues ‘wow there is something Skywalker will drink,’ they all pooled their credits and bought me a case.”
Mara’s chuckle surprised her. “That’s a pretty tame prank compared to other stories I’ve heard about them. Or heard from them.”
His grin faded slightly as she felt isolation get thrust aside. “They generally don’t share the ones when the punishment fits. I made them share the first bottle with me. They only made it halfway through it.” He picked up a slice of bread from the serving plate between them. “They know not to order Starshine Surprise now.” Isolation welled up again as he looked down at his plate.
There were more personal touches in his parlor she cataloged as she cut into her steak: a yellow glass sculpture of a rough hewn needle’s eye on a pedestal next to the console, a primitive wooden club decorated with feathers lay on the fireplace mantle, and holoimages of various people she was too far away to identify hung on the walls. So his decorating didn’t extend into the guest bedroom or to buying personalized furniture. The sofa and armchair facing the viewscreen on the wall and functioning as a divider for the room were the same gray as the one in her bedroom. It was more personal touches than she had ever indulged in. She didn’t want to think about how she had decided not to buy the fijisi sculpture since there was so much already in the quarters she had, so she put the bite of steak into her mouth. The tangy sweet spice on the tender meat shocked her taste buds. “This is delicious.”
Her compliment pleased him out of withdrawal, and his smile was soft and warm. “I’m glad you like it.” He focused on his own plate, and so did Mara. The vegetables were a perfect blend of succulence to the crisp cooking had given them. The blue butter melted against the still warm bread, giving it a richness that insta-bread in ration kits just didn’t have.
Perhaps she didn’t need to worry about repaying this favor. He needed company as badly as she needed a place to stay. “What you had with the Rogues, I’ve got now with Karrde’s organization. Barely there six months, and he practically created the liaison position for me and has me over people who have been with him for years.”
He grimaced in sympathy. “Have you gotten a lot of grief about it?”
“Not as much as you’d think.” The wine was easing the tension in her shoulders that she hadn’t realized was that bad. “Once word spread about saving the boss from Imperial interrogation nearly single handedly.” Referring to Karrde made her shoulders tense again. She twisted her arm to look at her comlink. He must be in hyperspace to have not answered her message by now. The next swallow of wine didn’t relax her shoulders.
“You can talk to me,” Luke said quietly. “And you don’t even need a comlink.”
She sighed. “You went to a lot of trouble and I can’t manage to be a decent guest and put this mess aside.”
“Is that what you want to do? I can put on the HoloNet or drag out more embarrassing Rogue Squadron stories. Or I can help.” He speared a green vegetable pod with his fork. “You need to spit it out before you can move on.”
He was right, but she felt relieved at the thought of doing something towards solving it than horrified. Skywalker had proved he had a sound tactical mind with their assault on the Chimera and he knew the personalities involved better than she did. “Of the people who know I was an Imperial, this attack would be easiest accomplished by the ones in the New Republic. Do you think Karrde pissed off Fey’lya enough that he’d hire someone to trash my stuff now that the deal has gone through?”
“It’s not really his style. One of his clan members suddenly becoming a trader and undercutting the Smuggler’s Alliance rates seems more likely.”
“That matches what I know about Fey’lya and Bothans in general. But he could access enough of my sealed records to allude to my dancing background, which is what I’m assuming leaving that outfit behind was for.”
His face reddened and he couldn’t look her in the eye. “Did Palpatine,” he paused, “make you wear dance clothes like that?”
Our pasts make each other uncomfortable indeed. She drained her wine glass. Why did he think that was relevant? She caught a flash of Jabba’s throne room, projected from his memories. Oh, that was the court he grew up with. And she had described her cover in the Imperial Court as decorative froth before. “Palpatine never did, so no my public performance outfits had more fabric in them. Suggested rather than exposed.”
The nightmare version of Anor’s parties rose in her memories behind her shields. She poured herself another glass of wine. Those training performances didn’t count and the dreams ignored how her identity was hidden from the guests thanks to objectifying hoods. She never saw the guests; they only saw a living kriff-toy. It had nothing to do with the pool of suspects and she was not about to upset Skywalker who was all too ready to compare that training to a Hutt’s den of filthy iniquity.
She put the wine bottle down with a thunk. “The Imperial Court knew me as a dancer and possible concubine, but Isard killed most of them in her bid for control and the members who fled haven’t returned.”
He swallowed his bite before speaking. “Did you have private performances? The way you said it sounded like a difference between them.”
“There was, but who I gave private performances to we don’t have to worry about as suspects.” He frowned, but she continued before he objected. “They were targets now neutralized.” She picked up her wine glass again.
He winced. “You don’t have to pretend that you’re okay about this.”
“I’m fine. The funtihruo was too much of a coward to face me. So a smart coward who didn’t want his teeth punched in.” She cut into the steak with a little more force than the tender meat required.
“So someone in the New Republic has decided to harass you off Coruscant, found out about the dancing part of your past, and hired a vandal to wreck your quarters and throw insults and references to your past at you. The vandal left behind the only dancing outfit he has knowledge about.” Luke swallowed his wine and surprise crossed his features. He picked up the wine bottle to check the label. “This tasted awful the last time I tried it.”
“Always pair it with nerf steaks. The dancing outfit is an attempt to make it personal. They should have stuck with my clothes.” She took another slice of bread and ignored her pulse of anger over her destroyed wardrobe.
He sent her a wave of sympathetic energy. “Nothing could be salvaged?” He winced as she shook her head. “I should apologize for my side.”
“Don’t. The only one who owes me anything is the one who orchestrated this mess. And it’s my side too now. In an unofficial liaison capacity only.” She paused before lifting the bread to her mouth. “You are going to let me punish him? Or did I waive all rights to that when I accepted your hospitality?”
“Are you planning to stop short of grievous bodily harm?” He looked serious at her half-shoulder shrug but his blue eyes sparked with anticipation. “We need to know who it is so we can stop them from targeting other former Imperials. Those lessons are better stacked together while the perpetrator is still conscious.”
“The guilty party will not end up in the medcenter on my account.” Sometimes it was just as effective for the target to know that it was a possibility depending entirely on her mercy. “What doesn’t make any sense is telling me to go back to somewhere I’ve never been. Where is Columex even located?”
“Artoo can do a search.” He looked for his droid that still hadn’t returned. “Where?”
“Still protecting your virtue is my guess.”
“What?” He turned back to her.
“He took up a guard position in your bedroom door.”
“Artoo, come here.You do not need to guard my room.” The astromech rolled out of the hall with a series of beeps. “I mean it. You don’t do that when anybody else stays over, and neither of us needs to trip over you if we want to get some water in the middle of the night.” The droid’s warble was reluctant. “Do a search for Columex, please.” Artoo rolled to the console set up in the parlor corner diagonal from the kitchen and plugged into the dataport. Luke turned back to her. “He didn’t try to lock you in, did he?”
She smirked. “That I’d like to see him try.” If the droid was actually better than her skills, there was always her lightsaber. Focusing on the astrogation and the droid’s antics alleviated some of the powerlessness she had felt about today.
Artoo beeped happily and pulled the information up on the viewscreen mounted on the wall between the console and the fireplace. Columex was in the Vorzyd sector in the Outer Rim Territories on the Perlemian Trade Route and Salin Corridor. Mara shook her head. “I have never been there.”
“Not since I started working for him. I’ll ask him if it means something to him when he comms me.”
Artoo whistled and called up another sector map. With Columex clearly marked, it expanded to show the planet was in an area of space labeled the Borderlands. “The Empire and the New Republic are both trying to gain systems in that area. No battles, but they’re stuck in the middle between us and the Pentastar Alignment.” Luke shook his head. “If it’s supposed to be a message for you to go back to the Empire, why not name a planet in the middle of the Alignment?”
“Maybe they didn’t have a map of all the current boundaries.” She drained her goblet again.
“There’s not enough evidence to guess. But we don’t all feel that way. You have friends in the New Republic.” His blue eyes bored into her before he turned back to Artoo. “Thanks, Artoo.”
“You should ask him to look up the real estate listings. I have no idea what the price range is on this planet. I never had to learn that information.”
Luke steeled himself for a revelation. The Force confirmed what his stiff shoulders told her. She felt her own spine stiffen. “I have an apartment.”
“Look, I’m not sharing a room with a drunk Rogue so this arrangement is temporary at best.” Her spine relaxed and she finished her last bite of vegetables.
“No, I own an apartment building on Coruscant. The penthouse unit in it is empty.” He reached over for her empty plate. “Do you want to look at it first?”
A cold thought settled in her stomach. “I thought the New Republic didn't appropriate private property when you took over.” The Old Republic was corrupt, the Empire took whatever it wanted but the New Republic had claimed to be so much better than previous governments.
He nearly dropped the dirty dishes as he stood. “They didn't,” he said quickly. “Let me get the starshine.” He carried the dishes into the kitchen and came back with the hexagonal-shaped bottle in one hand and a pair of short glasses in the other. He poured each about half full, and handed her one glass. “It’s recommended new drinkers sip starshine. I did not give the Rogues that warning.” He sat and focused on his glass. “I inherited the building from my father.”
“Vader owned an apartment building on Coruscant? That doesn’t make any sense. When he was on planet, he lived in the Imperial Palace.”
“Nearly all the property in the estate are fortresses on different planets, most still under Imperial control. The only non-military buildings are the apartment building in the Senate District and an island mansion on Naboo.” He stared at the clear liquid in his glass and took a swallow. “I tried to sell the building back to the former owner—she had stayed on as building manager—but she refused. She liked someone else dealing with the finances so she could concentrate on personalities. But per my father’s orders, the penthouse was locked up and not rented out since the Emperor took control.”
She felt his qualms, but couldn’t pinpoint what the unease was caused by: Vader’s secrets, her reaction, or something internal to him? She lifted the short glass to her nose first. She caught a vegetable odor, not bad just unidentifiable. Her sip burned, stronger than whiskey. The aftertaste was sweeter than she had anticipated. “So why aren’t you living there? Or your sister?”
“Leia has never wanted anything to do with the inheritance. I tried to share it with her. She finally agreed to let me donate to the New Alderaan project for reparations. It took a while to establish me as the legal heir of his will.” Artoo beeped softly in the background. Luke swallowed again and she was amazed that he could handle that much starshine in one swallow. “And I let myself be too busy to go exploring the real estate I can access alone.”
She could understand that. It matched how she had felt about going back to Mount Tantiss. She supposed if the fate of the galaxy depended on getting into that apartment, he would go but why deal with secrets the monster father who alienated your sister was hiding if you didn’t have to? She sipped again and this swallow didn’t burn as hard. She tasted the vegetable in this sip, but it wasn’t bad. “Okay, I'm game to check it out and be ready to comm someone to deal with all of Vader's war trophies.”
“He never brought anything like that back to the Palace. He must have stashed them somewhere else.”
“Or maybe he didn’t keep any.”
She tentatively took a larger swallow and it went down smooth. “Or he had to give them all to Palpatine. But there’s something he’s hiding there. Rather was hiding there. I didn’t know anything about it and I had to find out about everyone.”
“Palpatine didn’t trust anyone he surrounded himself with.” He tilted his head slightly as he drank and she had to tear her eyes away from following the swallow down his throat.
“It was less orders and more survival strategy. I don’t want anyone thinking I’m weak and wrecking my clothes, but that’s child’s play compared to the Imperial Court intrigues.”
“Just because you’re used to worse doesn’t make it right.”
She ran her finger along the rim of the glass. He cared so hard about how she had been treated, how she was treated now. That’s why he came running to her quarters. “It’s not so bad this time. I still have my job and no killing commands have been crammed into my head. So I start over in a new apartment with more alarms.”
“That’s one way to look at it.” He grimaced with his next swallow. “They made you feel unsafe.” He set down his glass.
“Don’t let them know that, Luke.” She chided as she picked up her glass again. “Then they’ll think they’ve won and there’s no strategic advantage to that right now. Look for the funtihruo gnashing his teeth that his plan failed to send me fleeing to the Empire. Stupid funtihruo deserves the stupid remnants. How can they still call themselves an Empire when nobody is the Emperor?” She blinked at the glass in her hand. “What the hells? This is actually getting me drunk.”
Luke tried to swallow his chuckle and it looked like that hurt him. He couldn’t asphyxiate until she knew what was going on.
“I am not tipsy after that much Corellian whiskey. Even with the wine. And you actually finished yours!” She pointed to his empty short glass. “Are you using the Force to not be drunk?” She carefully set her glass on the table and pushed the remains away from her. In case she didn’t remember and decided to finish it off. Luke grinned and tried to hide it behind his hand. “Stop laughing at me. I need to know that one. Do you know how many smugglers think it’s a good idea to drink me under the table? Karrde says I’m not friendly when I turn down drinks.”
“I’m not using the Force. I grew up drinking starshine. Only Biggs could afford anything imported and buying speeder and skyhopper parts was more important. Let me get you some water.”
She seized another slice of bread and munched on it until he returned with a large glass of the promised water. “Thank you.” She gulped it down. The last thing tomorrow needed was a hangover.
“I wasn’t trying to get you drunk.”
She blinked at his contrite face. “You’re safe to be drunk around and I still know ten ways to stop you, five lethal ways with just my hands. It’s higher if we add improvised weapons.”
He sat down. “You care what Karrde thinks of you?”
“Yes. He doesn’t use me or hate me for being different. He cares about my ideas and what I can do and me. Do you understand?”
He nodded. “He’s the first one who has.” He looked a little sad. Didn’t he understand that Karrde caring about her was a good thing? He leaned forward making sure she focused on his serious face. “I care about you too.”
“Because you’re nice. You care about everyone, even us that don’t deserve it.” The conversation was slipping dangerously into something she couldn’t identify. Best to stop now before she said something to hurt him, because she didn’t want to hurt him not after he had been so nice to her since Myrkr really. Telling him about Isard and Anor would hurt him. Sleep was a better choice. “I’m so tired.”
“Can you still walk?”
She stood up slowly, but her legs still functioned. “Yes, I can make it. Good night, Skywalker.”
“Sleep well, Mara.”
She made it all the way to her room without falling down. She also managed to not start stripping until after the bedroom door was shut. She promised to pick up her trail of clothing in the morning as she slipped between the cool sheets and buried her face into the pillow.