Columex was a bustling planet on the intersection of the Perlemian Trade Route and the Salin Corridor hyperspace routes. The starport control didn’t bother asking for a reason for her visit, just rattled off the docking fees the Jade’s Escape would incur and warning that any deviation from the assigned flight plan would be met with hostile force to protect other ships after she confirmed her destination. Landing in Nardolin’s spaceport presented no difficulties and no unwelcome surprises. She authorized the transfer of fees, recorded a message to Karrde—he must be in hyperspace—telling him if he didn’t have a follow-up message from her within twenty-four hours she would need an extraction with firepower to repel droideka, checked that she had all the data Karrde had provided on the planet, and headed out of the docking bay with Artoo at her heels.
The spaceport included a public-access library for the convenience of travelers. Mara sat in a chair provided for the personal console and scooted away to make room for the astromech. “Skywalker’s always bragging on your skills, so have at it. All the information you can find on Bendak Anor: besh, esk, nern, dorn, aurek, krill, aurek, nern, osk, resh. Current age,” she paused to do the math, “late sixties, sixty-seven if I have his birth year right.”
Artoo beeped as he extended his scomp link into the dataport of the terminal. Mara leaned back and opened up the information Karrde had complied on Columex on her datapad. She had read it before on her flight to Balamak, but without a reason for why the planet had been named in reference to her, the reading had ended up more exercise in Talon Karrde’s information gathering and presentation of those facts. The man had a brief history of the planet, drilled down to more localized history and tidbits, and finally details that could aid a fringe operation on the planet. And then there were the strictly Karrde touches. The restaurants were ranked by food quality and privacy considerations. Not that she planned to remain on planet long enough to take Luke to the number one contender. Neither of them had the clothing required for it, and she should save her Isk Besh Cresh credits for the mission.
She opened up the map of Nardolin—City had been dropped from the capital’s name when the planet’s name changed to Columex—and began to familiarize herself with the city layout. The major thoroughfares and public transportation routes created circles around the city segmented by routes deeper into the city and further out. The spaceport took up an entire segment between two mass transit routes. Visitors to the planet were prohibited from renting landspeeders as a protection for local driving companies. She frowned, that snag could impact escape back to the ship.
The droid whistled quietly and opened a file on the console screen. She lifted her eyes from the datapad and glared at Anor’s planetary identification record. “That’s him. Where does he live? He’s holding Luke there; the man will not leave his comforts if he can help it.”
The image on the console screen changed to a landspeeder view of the address. A medium-sized, three-story stone house was set back from the tree and bush lined paved street. It was separated from the neighboring houses of similar size and the landscaped vegetation provided useful cover. Residential areas had always been the easiest for her to work in: disable the alarm system, neutralize the target, and rearm the alarm system once outside the residence again. She shifted in her seat as something collided like asteroids in her stomach. Luke wouldn’t want her to kill to rescue him. In Mara’s experience, it was never a good idea to leave a living enemy behind, and she had been right about C’baoth. But Luke had still tried his damnedest to save the crazy clone.
Would she feel safe in a galaxy where she let Anor go free, even if she terrorized him against coming after her ever again? She honestly didn’t know. She never would have suspected him of having enough nerve to attack a Jedi. Get Luke free and then worry about what to do with Anor.
The surveillance image shifted a view of the city map. The house was near the center of the city, but on the north side. A line of the mass transit system ran from spaceport through that neighborhood with a station across from the house. That was convenient for arrival and exit as long as both of them came out of the house presentable to the public. The street front beyond the station was compacted with businesses and apartment buildings, more witnesses. She didn’t want to leave Luke a prisoner any longer than necessary, but further surveillance may be necessary.
Artoo switched the map view to a text document. She leaned in to read what it had highlighted in the planetary legal code. “That is a harsh local penalty for slavery; what of it?”
“We can contact the local authorities and let them process the extraction,” the datapad helpfully displayed from the droid’s low-toned chirps.
Mara shook her head and glanced around the public-access library. They were still the only customers and the attendant droid at the door was ignoring them. She still dropped her voice. “No, we really cannot do that. His sister wants this handled quietly. Otherwise, she would have mustered the flyboys Luke still doesn’t drink around to come get him.”
“Princess Leia made no such request and Columex is an independent planet.”
“Do you have any idea how close we are to the Pentastar Alignment? Of course you do, you’re an astromech.” She rubbed her nose briefly. “They are independent now, but they were staunch Imperialists not too long ago. And the Pentastar Alignment is much closer than the New Republic. Columex will turn him over quick to maintain their independence. It’s up to us to get Luke so his sister doesn’t have a mess to explain to the rest her coworkers.”
“You gave Karrde the contingency plan of extraction.” Artoo beeped accusatory.
“Karrde knows how to be discreet. The local authorities won’t be. Pull up everything you can about Anor’s house.”
Artoo put the street view of the house back on the terminal without a whistle, and Mara studied the details. Lots of windows, but no clear sight-lines into those windows. She didn’t have to know the floor plan going in, but it always made the mission easier. The droid replaced the image with details from a real estate listing. “The house central computer was manufactured by TaggeCo. I am well adept in slicing into that mainframe.”
“Even if Anor’s upgraded it?” She frowned, having not considering bringing the droid along for this portion.
“I have kept my system skills upgraded on Coruscant.”
She glanced at the miffed droid. “Don’t fry your circuits. It doesn’t do us any good if we managed to get you in there and you can’t slice into the computer. Not that I have any idea how to get you in there.”
“Luke gave us as gifts to Jabba.”
“The only way you’re worth as much as a droideka is if I tell Anor your complete designation and who owns you. And that won’t leave you free to interface with the house computer.” She mulled over Anor’s habits that she remembered. “Does he still have his shopping shipped to him? See if any stores have weekly standing orders for that.”
The scomp link twisted in the data port. A file with a commercial logo filled the terminal screen. “A weekly standing order, due to ship out today at 1500 local time.”
That was plenty of time to reach the business and bribe them to leave behind some extra cargo in the shape of an astromech droid, but there was only one way to insure Anor ignored Artoo so the droid could sabotage the house. “So I’m the distraction. I’ll keep Anor distracted and find out where Luke is and drop Anor once you’ve locked down the security features and the illumination.” Artoo beeped in agreement. “One more thing, you space me over this, mistime until I’m locked down in restraints and you’ll be the one who wrecked Luke’s chance at getting out of this.”
The blue dome swiveled until the photoreceptor tilted up at her face. The whistle and beeps were long and subdued. “I want Luke back, but if you betray him, I will slag you myself.”
“Check your memory banks. I haven’t betrayed him since I met him, now have I?” That silenced the droid and she nodded at the terminal. “I’ve got the address to the store. Scrub the search and let’s go.”
There was a lovely bench under the shade of a mature tree that gave Mara the perfect vantage point to watch Anor’s house and the arrival of the delivery landspeeder. She braided her hair while she waited. Anor had always preferred her hair made into another leverage point. Let him see that, let it lull him into believing that she was cooperating. Once her fingers wrapped the hair tie around the end of the plait, she pulled out her datapad and composed an update to Karrde, giving Anor’s local address and the bare outline of her plan, and sent it back to the Jade’s Escape. She doubted he’d need to come rescue her and Skywalker, but he would demand an explanation for her message that Luke’s kidnapping was her fault. Her follow up messages guaranteed to alight his curiosity once he heard them. Which if that had been her intention, she’d have a plan for paying it off. But she hadn’t planned further ahead than tossing Luke onto the Escape so no one could take him away again.
So honesty with both Karrde and Skywalker with as few details as she could get away with? Maybe she should have both of them in the same room when she explained; they would concentrate on who could be more courteous about her past. Despite the two men’s differences, they both had the same reactions when it came to the training regimen the Emperor had raised her in. She enjoyed working for Karrde more than the other jobs that had kept her alive running from Isard. More enjoyable that meting out justice for Palpatine, if that was truly where her targets had fallen. Karrde encouraged her viewpoint, had from the moment he hired her. He had never threatened consequences if she rejected something. The worst complaint she had about Karrde was his tendency to go unavailable because he was traveling.
Karrde would never send anyone working for him to train under Anor’s tutelage. If Palpatine had truly cared for her the way he always professed that he did, Anor never would have spoken to her much less touched.
It was a little unnerving to feel that so strongly now. The only safety she ever had was what she carved out of the galaxy by her own efforts, so why did she feel like she had something to compare it to? She remembered her body squeezed by soft arms and warm kisses pressed against her forehead and cheeks. Rough, thick fingers ruffled her hair. A woman’s warm voice droned above as a heavy woven blanket held her body down and kept out the sharp cold. The man watching in the doorway, the woman reading from a datapad, she could trust them with her life and love.
But that had never happened! Oh, it was Luke’s childhood. She knew of it now like it was her experience, like he knew her training to earn scraps of affection from Palpatine.
She pushed away the humiliating pity that she had never seen through Palpatine’s performance and that Luke knew that too. Now was too close to a time to act. The house on her left was still and quiet, just like its neighbors on that side of the street. Luke’s presence radiated in the Force in spite of the dampening field around him. She didn’t push through it. It was expedient—rather than petty—to not get into an argument over tactics right now. She extended her Force probe to the rest of the house. Two other humans inside, one brighter than the other. She had no time to ponder what that meant because the delivery landspeeder rounded the curve in the street. She stood up and grabbed the back of her jacket with the Force so it stayed against her back. This jacket had a large padded column down the center of the back the same width of her lightsaber, so she had removed most of the padding for a hidden lightsaber pocket. The metal behind the lining rested against the small of her back.
The minuscule gate slid open with the code the landspeeder transmitted. Mara could have easily jumped the chest-high fence, but it was far less noticeable to stride in alongside the vehicle partially hidden by its tall-walled cargo bed. She tucked her hands in her jacket pockets and strolled towards the front door as the landspeeder moved to a side door towards the rear. The space between the house and the fence had been paved in a decorative pattern with the greenery corralled in beds alongside the fence and planting pots next to the house. She mounted the steps up to the door’s landing and triggered the door annunciator just as the landspeeder’s door slammed. A human hesitated between the two doors and Mara triggered the door annunciator again.
The teal-colored door slid open before she triggered the chime a third time. Bendak Anor’s gray eyes blinked slowly before his thin lips curled up inside his beard. “Kriff-toy,” he breathed out.
Mara only raised her eyebrow at him, ignoring the way his delight and his eyes raking over her made her skin pebble. “You weren’t expecting me? After all the trouble you’ve gone to get my attention?”
“Not so soon,” he said honestly before his anger sparked. “Your attention never should have left me. You’ll relearn that lesson soon enough.” He stepped to the right and gestured for her to enter the house. Mara held herself loose as she crossed the threshold. He grabbed her right forearm as the door slid shut and locked behind her. Her holdout blaster pressed painfully into her flesh. “Still hiding weapons with my techniques? No poison darts in your hair.”
“I save the poison darts for special occasions.”
Anor tightened his grip on her arm and blaster. “Like going to the opera and letting rebel scum and aliens fawn all over you.” He shoved up her jacket sleeve and yanked the blaster out of the holster. “I hope you enjoyed it; it shall be years before you earn public privileges again.” He dropped her arm, rustled his tunic behind her, and squeezed her hips. “But I am so looking forward to your attempts to ingratiate yourself.”
She didn’t twist away from his grip. “I’m here for Skywalker.”
He let go of her hips and circled around to her front, leaning far too close. He had tucked her small blaster into the waistband of his trousers. His hand flicked open the top two fasteners of her tunic so that the swell of her cleavage was exposed. “Miss him that badly? What in Malachor attracts you to him? He’d rather meditate than play.” His finger traced the outline of the tunic along her skin.
Her breath caught in her throat until she got it past her outrage. Let him think it was only a gasp. She gazed at him while her brow furrowed. “You’re not his type. Where is he, Anor?”
His hand rose from her breasts and slapped across her cheek. She jerked with the blow, but turned back to him. “Show respect, kriff-toy. You know what the deal is for Skywalker.”
She kept her eyes on his face. Her gaze had only hit the floor for one man in the galaxy and even he hadn’t deserved the gesture. But Anor had always appreciated the defiance and the excuse it gave him for what he wanted to do. His tongue moistened his lips as his hands came to rest on his hips. The wood-covered floor pressed hard against her knees when she knelt. The majority of it was a light-tan, cut into short strips, and laid at angles to the white walls of the foyer and hall. A darker brown wood was inlaid into a mosaic border close to the walls. But she kept her eyes on Anor’s face, cataloging the state of his arousal which had increased as she sank down. Her back was straight and her chin high. “Time to let him go.”
He reached out and stroked the short hair around her temple and down to her jaw not caught in the braid. “I said I wouldn’t keep him. One Jedi Knight is worth an Emperor’s Hand. Stay.” He left the foyer and Mara had to seize her panic and choke it dead. She had to trust the astromech’s programmed self-preservation and dedication to get it inside and out of sight. But Anor only stepped into a side room and returned just as quickly holding a Thalassian slaving collar with a half-meter of chain attached to it. “But I did promise myself he’d watch your punishment first.”
She took it from him and resisted her urge to slam it right between his gleaming eyes. He had Luke in his playroom, the sooner she made this show of submission, the sooner Anor would take her there for his creative punishments. She kept her gaze on his triumphant face as she fastened the cold metal around her throat.