Luke reached out to the nearest curved bar and felt the stun field energy before he touched it. The headache from yesterday was still there, despite the hours of sleep he had gotten after Anor—Mara had named him Anor—fed Luke and left the windowless room, and it made meditation harder as it throbbed with the buzzing of the cage. He looked above his head. The top of the cage was a seamless piece of metal, the same as the floor. The stun field generator was probably above—it made more sense for the repulsorlift to be underneath—but without his lightsaber or any other tools, he couldn’t sabotage it. His captor had removed his comlink and his belt while Luke had been stunned, and left them on the table next to the holoprojector. He reached out to grab them with the Force. The buzz slammed harder against his head. He stopped with a ragged sigh. Whoever had designed this cage had done an insidious job. Myrkr had made him feel blind, but at least it hadn’t hurt.
Mara was closer now, even if he couldn’t concentrate and get a fix on her location. Of course, she wouldn’t turn around just because he said so. Worry gnawed his gut and he couldn’t release it into the Force, not yet. She had arrived. And given how she loved to share details of her past with anyone, she hadn’t brought reinforcements. Shavit, she didn’t need to fling herself into pain to spare him. He could put up with Anor’s spikes of lust as long as the man didn’t act on it.
He reached out, ignoring the cage’s increasing hum, to feel her. To his personal north, her shields barricaded her thoughts and emotions. But Anor’s lust-tinged glee sang triumphantly before Luke pulled back with a gasp. He rubbed the tense muscles cording the back of his neck as worry transmuted to dread.
The door slid open before Anor and he tugged the red-haired woman inside with a length of chain. And the dreadful knowing that Luke was right didn’t stop the surge of anger that pushed him to his feet when he saw the metal slaving collar around Mara’s pale throat. “E chu ta.” Luke didn’t even recognize the voice coming from his mouth. “Let her go.”
Anor stopped near the chair and tilted his head as he stared at Luke. “Well, maybe that explains it.” He glanced back at Mara before returning his gaze to Luke. Once the older man’s head turned, she rolled her brilliant green eyes. “What’s wrong, Jedi? I thought you wanted to see my art.”
Luke curled his fists against his sides. He hadn’t felt this angry when Leia was chained to Jabba’s throne. He had to control it.
Anor’s lips curled into a grin inside his white beard. “Oh what shall we show him, kriff-toy?” Luke clenched his teeth together while Anor gazed at him. The older man turned and leered over Mara’s still dressed body. “How well you balance on a ball until you’re dancing in the air? He gets so upset at the idea of you hurt; he probably won’t be able to handle a noose around your neck.”
It didn’t feel like Luke was breathing now, but Mara had her don’t-waste-my-time expression on. “Since when do you fulfill requests from the audience?” she asked.
Her bored tone ignited Anor’s rage. He jerked the chain, forcing her upper body down. “That is not how you speak to your master!” He yanked the chain again while she forced her head up to stare at him. “I will beat that disrespect out of you again. I have a bacta tank. It’s up to you how long you spend in it.”
“Let her go.” Luke repeated and put the Force behind the words. The buzzing of the cage increase and Mara winced.
Anor turned back to the cage. “Stop that or you’ll wake up bound and gagged! You have no power here, rebel scum.” Luke eased off the flow of the Force and his headache receded slightly. Anor jerked Mara’s chain again before he looked at her. “On your knees and address me properly, kriff-toy.”
Luke’s fists tightened.
Mara yanked her head back. “No.”
Anor’s thin eyebrows lowered and drew together forming a yirt in wrinkles above his nose. His lips drew back from his teeth as his nostrils flared. “You know where he is now so you dare to be defiant with me?” He seized the smaller woman’s arm and pulled it along with the chain. His pivot aimed slamming Mara face first into the cage. Luke pushed back with the Force ignoring the pounding in his skull and the hum of the cage. Her body jolted to a stop centimeters away from the stun field. Anor let go of the chain and grabbed Mara’s braid, pulling her head back as he stepped closer behind her. “You are in enough trouble for ignoring your master for years.”
The lights of the room flickered. Luke stared down at Mara’s up-turned face. She grinned like a predator without a trace of fear in her expression. His eyes widened and his jaw dropped slightly.
Mara’s gleeful eyes met Luke’s. “You were never the one who held me enslaved, Anor.”
“I’m the one who will hold you now and forever.” His grip tightened on her hair. “The Emperor Reborn will not take you from me.”
The lights in the ceiling switched off.
“You forgot what else I was trained for,” Mara said. The blows hit a body unprepared for it and an expulsion of air almost had a groan in it. The meaty thwacks stopped when a body hit the wood-covered floor. Tiny snapping sounds filled the silence next.
The scream that followed was masculine but moving into a higher register with the pain. “My hand!” Anor screamed again.
“That’s what one must do when one must stop someone from activating stun fields or shock collars.” Mara said before Luke heard the rustle of clothing. “One remote, two remotes, thank you,” she added. A snap-hiss sounded over the inhaling sob and the blue lightsaber lit up the torture chamber.
Anor was on the floor, cradling his right hand to his torso and scooting away from Mara toward the wall between two of the torture devices. He inhaled raggedly. “This is how you show your loyalty now?”
She pointed to the cage with the lightsaber. “He’s earned my loyalty; all you ever did was use me.” Luke blinked, stunned that she claimed loyalty to him. She strode to the cage, raised her lightsaber over her head, and Luke was mesmerized by how the gold highlights in her hair reflected the blue-white light. “Duck, Skywalker.”
He stepped back and shielded his face as she brought the lightsaber down through the top and bottom of the cage cutting three of the restraint bars free. The power and repulsorlift generators sparked and died, taking the headache-inducing hum with them.
“That was a gift!” Anor screamed.
“And now it’s scrap,” Mara answered. “Would you like me to cut it into smaller pieces?” The main lights flicked back on and she deactivated the lightsaber and then slid the hilt into a compartment in the back of her battered leather jacket.
Luke hopped to the floor and met her critically appraising gaze. “I’m fine.” She nodded curtly before adjusting her jacket sleeve over her forearm holster. He headed to the table with the holoprojector and picked up his belt. Everything that he remembered having was still present. So Anor was highly unstable but not interested in stealing credit chips. All he needed was his lightsaber back. His headache was easing now that the hum was gone and he felt stronger and more aware than he had been just a few minutes ago.
Anor leaned against the wall and glared at Mara. “Did Iceheart scrape out fidelity and replace it with this?” Luke stiffened as he turned to see Mara’s iced-over expression. Anor’s sharp eyes caught Luke’s reaction. “She didn’t tell you about Isard. What other secrets are you keeping from the Jedi, kriff-toy?” He smirked.
Mara’s alarm and pain blared over the bond, even though she revealed nothing on her face. Luke’s anger surged again. He seized the holoprojector with the Force. It crashed against the tall, padded bench to Anor’s right. “Use her name!”
The gray-haired man raised his head from the crouch he went into and stared at Luke. Luke refused to break the gaze. Mara squeezed his forearm. “He’s not worth it, Luke,” she said softly as she pushed composure to him through the bond.
He accepted it as he exhaled, releasing his anger to the Force. “You are free. You don’t belong to anyone.”
“Now,” she said softly.
He glanced at her about to ask what the next step was when the torture chamber’s door slid open and two uniformed men brandishing blaster pistols entered. “Nardolin Enforcement. What’s going on here?”
Mara’s panic gave way to aggravation aimed at Artoo. Her face betrayed nothing Luke felt through the bond as she turned to the enforcement officials. “My master,” her hand fluttered at the collar and chain around her throat before pointing to Anor, “kidnapped this man.” She pointed to Luke and now her shields dropped a bit to slam his still tender head. For Force sake, do not give them your real name! She took a shuddering breath. “I had to. Master didn’t buy him.”
“Wait,” the black-haired man narrowed his monolid eyes. “You are his slave?” Neither of them had relaxed their stances as they jerked their attention between Anor, Mara, Luke, and the wreckage in the room.
“That’s what he has always called me,” she said in a soft, close to breaking voice.
The enforcement officials exchanged glances with each other. “Slavery is illegal on Columex,” the younger man with a dark brown complexion said.
The planet wrote on Mara’s wall, Luke remembered. “That’s where I am?” He blurted out.
The enforcement officials exchanged glances again. “Yes, you are on Columex,” the older official answered. Anor chuckled darkly and drew their attention again. “Do you have anything to say about these allegations, sir?”
Anor stared at Mara. “If I can’t have you, kriff-toy….” He shoved his left hand up his sleeve. Luke’s danger sense burst to his attention. His left arm wrapped around her to pull her out of the way. His hand met Mara’s as they both went for her hidden lightsaber. Anor pulled out a holdout blaster and jammed it under his chin. It fired before the officials finished yelling to put down the weapon.
Mara squeezed Luke’s hand behind her back. He rubbed his thumb against her skin before letting go and taking a step back.
The older enforcement official knelt next to Anor and checked his vitals. He sighed and holstered his blaster when he stood again. “He’s dead.” Mara pressed her hand over her mouth and made a choked sound. “Ma’am,” he said it softly and gestured at his partner. The younger man holstered his blaster. “Is there anyone else he’s keeping prisoner here?”
“He had a little girl with him on Gromas 16.” Luke let the officials focus on him while he searched for her in the Force. She was close to this room and he pointed Mara’s awareness in the right direction. “Kid was in trouble, I went to help her, and got jumped. Woke up here.” Best to leave out the droideka.
Mara took the lead. “He’s kept me out of….” She let her voice trail away as she led them out of the torture chamber.
The younger official considered Luke. “You’re a citizen of Gromas 16, Master?”
“Darklighter, no, I was there to set up a trade deal with one of the miners.”
The storage room was on the other side of a door leading outside, and contained a human-sized, powered box on the floor. Puzzlement came from the two officials and Luke didn’t recognize it either. Mara knelt next to the control panel on the side. “Wait,” the older official grabbed her shoulder, “what is that?”
“A sed-box,” she looked up at him with widened eyes. “Sellers use them when they don’t trust the cargo handlers. Keeps the shipment sedated.”
“And the shipment is a slave.” He let her go with disgust thickening his voice. He set his hand on his holstered blaster. “All right, open it up.”
Mara pressed the buttons quickly and the top of the box released with a hiss. She pushed the lid out of the way and Luke craned his neck along with the officials to see inside. It was the same little girl from the fight with the battle droids, unharmed physically as far as he could tell through the Force. Her chest rose and fell with her breathing before tiny fists rose and rubbed at her eyes. Her large brown eyes blinked as she looked up at the adults, sleepily trying to work out who they were, until her gaze ended on Mara. Joy lit up her round face and her pearly teeth shone against her russet lips. “Mommy!” She leaped out of the box and wrapped her brown arms around Mara’s neck and her legs in ragged trousers around Mara’s waist. Relief pulsed through the Force from her as her face burrowed into Mara’s neck.
“Merdo,” the younger official said, “he was going to sell your daughter?”
Mara’s arms wrapped around the child before she froze, but in her shock her mental shielding cracked. A wave of alarmed panic washed over Luke centering on the very idea of mother. Be what they expect to see. Only let them see what they expect. Be what they expect to see. Her rock-hard posture and the face he couldn’t see wouldn’t give away any turmoil; she was too good for that.
Luke projected calmness to her through the bond. What’s the next step to your plan?
Oh, now you want to use the tactical advantage. Mara’s sarcasm lost none of its bite for being non-verbal. We have to get out before these guys decide to run IDs. Mara rose to her feet gracefully, even with the added weight of the child. I didn’t calculate on law enforcement’s presence.
The older official was trying to peer at the little girl’s hidden face. “I’m glad he did us the favor of not wasting resources incarcerating him.”
Luke probably did owe her an explanation as to why he tried to keep her from coming here alone. But now wasn’t the time. We’ll figure out who she belongs to from New Republic space and get her back home. Unless you think Anor kidnapped her from this planet.
Anor bought her. I doubt Columex has slave markets with the reactions these two natives are having.
Luke nodded and shifted clear of the door. “Gentlebeings, you were called here to investigate a suicide.” He put the Force behind his words.
The enforcement officials stared at him. “We were called out for a suicide,” the older one repeated.
Mara slipped behind them and out the storage room’s door. Luke continued. “You found no one else here.”
“No one else was here,” the younger official repeated.
“You better see to identifying the body.” The two men turned and headed down the hallway back to the torture chamber. Luke headed the opposite way. Mara waited in a central hallway with a staircase and turbolift. He followed her into a foyer before the outdoor. “Wait,” he said softly.
“For the evidence not to match what you told them with the mind trick?” She hissed as she whirled to face him.
He gently tugged the collar so the latch was no longer underneath the child and unclasped it. “Better. You don’t need to wear that around the city.” He dropped it and the chain on the floor.
Her expression was incredulous as she hurried through the outer door. Artoo was spinning circles in the pavement of the driveway, keeping the gate open. The droid trilled happily when he saw Luke, and Luke patted the blue and silver dome. “Head across the street to the mass transit station,” Mara said in a low voice as she shifted her hold on the child who still hadn’t let go. How traumatized had she been by Anor that latching onto Mara’s stiff body was comfort?
Luke liked the look of this city on Columex. The inhabitants had incorporated a lot of plant life into this neighborhood at least, but he followed Mara’s trotting pace under the shade trees and through the pedestrian walk-through. A passenger maglev train finished pulling into the station as they entered. He didn’t want to draw attention by asking why this method rather than a rented airspeeder when she used a prepaid authorization for their passage back to the spaceport and Mara’s urgency compelled him not to ask her mentally either. He was glad he hadn’t worn his black tabard over his tunic and trousers; he didn’t stand out from the other passengers boarding the train. She finally relaxed onto a short bench seat in the car and he settled on the one facing her. Artoo blocked anyone from joining their little alcove, though the amount of passengers let everyone spread out in the available seats. Mara’s relaxation ended when she glanced at him again and he felt the slow crawl of trepidation over the bond. He didn’t detect any unwanted attention from anyone else. “Are you all right?” he asked as the train left the station.
“Shouldn’t I be asking you that?” The child shifted on Mara’s lap and concern for what should be spoken in front of her spiked over the trepidation. Artoo warbled and she focused on him. “I’m never working with your droid again. It doesn’t stick to the plan.”
He grinned at her. “Can’t blame that on me; he’s been like that since we’ve met. I think it’s a factory setting.”
Artoo responded with a series of whistles that ended with a electronic squawk. Mara dug for her belt under the child’s leg.
Luke frowned at the droid. “I can’t believe you just said that.”
Mara snorted as she read her datapad. “Okay, I agree with that.” Her green eyes met his. “You do have a bad habit of leaving your enemies alive.”
“I have to give them a chance to accept help, preservation of life is important. It doesn’t always turn out bad.” He gestured at her before he sighed. “I did what I could. He didn’t want to listen when I warned him to leave you alone.” Her concern washed over him and it felt good, even if she didn’t need to worry about him. The train stopped at the next station. He paused until the passengers settled and the train began again. “I’m fine, really. Just hungry and grubby. Did you get my case from my ship on Gromas 16?”
She shook her head above the messy mass of black curls jammed under her chin. “Your ship was not docked at the coordinates I was given.”
“I docked in the spaceport. Do we have time to go shopping? I’m sure you don’t have anything stored on board for the cute mynock on you right now either.”
The child spoke with a trace of indignation. “I’m not a mynock.” Her limbs loosened around Mara and she aimed her scowl at Luke without letting go fully.
“You’re clinging like a mynock and I don’t know your name, so—”
The child whirled in Mara’s lap, causing Mara’s arms to spring open. She tucked up into a crouch then leaped across the narrow aisle between the benches. Thankfully, she landed on Luke’s thighs and gripped his black tunic before he could steady her. She put her broad nose to his. “You do too know my name, Daddy.”
“Something you forgot to tell everyone?” Mara asked with her pink lips quirking
“None of my relationships have lasted long enough for children.” The little girl pulled back and he saw her lower lip trembling. He didn’t want to add to her fear, which he felt lurking underneath her relief. Maybe they were the first people to treat her kindly in so long, she was equating them with parents. “I don’t remember your name. Tell me again.” He put a hand on her back so she wouldn’t fall.
“Korora,” she said softly and her irritation bled into confusion.
“Korora,” he repeated. “I won’t forget now.”
Korora let go of his tunic and jumped towards Mara. The woman caught her and Korora plopped down, her legs dangling off Mara’s lap and leaning the side of her body into Mara’s torso. “Are we going to the green place with all the falling water?”
“Is that home?” Luke asked softly.
Korora shook her head and Mara shot him a look. We are on an Imperial sympathetic planet and your four-day-old stubble is a lousy disguise. Save the interrogation.
Fine, it can wait until we get off planet.
“We’re going shopping.” Mara contorted to manipulate the datapad she wanted to read without dumping Korora off her lap. “Let’s see if Karrde has any recommendations for a store that won’t remember us.”
Luke smirked. Of course Mara got intel; she wouldn’t have come without intel. The train paused at another station, but it still wasn’t their stop. His smirk shifted to a smile as he regarded her intense focus on the datapad and Korora straining to look at it too. She relaxed now that she had something to plan. She looked good with a child on her lap. She always looked beautiful no matter what, but still he was surprised by how much he wanted to lean across and kiss her right now.
Mara’s head jerked up and she stared at him. Shavit, he had projected that. He raised his mental shields as his face heated. Her puzzled frown looked more pronounced at his embarrassment. “Sorry,” he muttered. “It’s just you’re beautiful—” His brain’s stop message got to his mouth in time because Mara did not like the idea of motherhood and he’d do no one in their group any favors by reminding her. “In that tunic.” Mara and Korora both looked at the plain green tunic under Mara’s brown jacket. “Matches your eyes,” he finished. That sounded just as stupid out of his mouth as it did from various holodrama characters.
Korora looked up and grinned while Mara looked down at her tunic. Mara smiled back before glancing back up at Luke. “Yes, colors are pretty, Farmboy. You should wear more of them.”
Mara cut him off by raising three fingers. “Black, orange, and brown. And technically black isn’t a color.”
Korora giggled at them both. He sighed. He had heard that before from various friends. Hell, Lando had offered to take him shopping after they got back from Wayland to get him into something besides black. Colors had meanings on Tatooine and he didn’t want to shake off what he had been raised with. The shade of green Mara wore was commonly used to wrap a new baby in, especially during a naming ceremony. Black meant freedom and that’s why he wore it often. But Mara was raised on Coruscant, and they didn’t feel the same way about colors.
“This is our stop.” Mara put away her datapad as the train slowed and looked at Korora. “Are you going to walk?”
Korora shook her head as she wrapped her arms around Mara’s neck again. “No.”
“At least she warned me this time.” Mara settled Korora’s legs around her hip as she stood up. Her be what they expect mental mantra was so loud, she was projecting it. Luke considered offering to carry Korora, but with the way the child gripped Mara’s jacket, he doubt it would go over well.
Luke and Artoo followed Mara further into the spaceport. She stopped outside a mid-sized storefront that had a crowd browsing the merchandise already.”What credits do you have?” she asked.
He grimaced. “Nern resh.” She grimaced right back at him. “I’ll pay you back,” he said quickly.
“Yes, you will. And you’ll take some of your assets and set up your own account with the InterGalactic Banking Clan to avoid this in the future.” She carried Korora into the store, heading straight for the children’s clothing section.
Artoo whistled at him. “Yeah, I remember Lando telling me to do that too. I just never got around to it.” He headed to the men’s section and Artoo rolled after him. A couple of sets of basics and socks, the only trousers the store had in his size were black, but there was a plethora of colors in his size of tunics. He paused at the blue one. Leia and Winter always wanted him in blue. Blue the color of water, life, joy, renewal, thanksgiving, and weddings. Aunt Beru always wore something blue because Uncle Owen loved to see her in it. And now Mara asked to see him in a new color.
He glanced across the store. Mara was trying to get Korora to let go so she could size her better. He couldn’t spend all day making a decision. Fine, he’d wear the blue because his relationship with Mara was changing, for the better he hoped. He added the blue tunic to the pile draped over his arm and put a gray one over it. He grabbed a toiletries travel kit and joined Mara.
She passed two travel duffel bags to him. “We’re both here, nobody will yank you away, now can you get down and try on this jacket?”
Korora craned her neck to see Luke before nodding and loosening her hold.
Mara slid her down to the floor and helped her arms into a lavender jacket. The woman sighed in relief at the fit. “Okay, now we know her size. Watch her while I get some outfits.” She helped the jacket back off and turned back to the racks.
Korora turned to Luke and held up her arms. “Up.”
He made sure he had a grip on all the items before he knelt and scooped her up with his free arm. She grabbed his shoulder as he stood up. “High enough?” She nodded with a grin. Her gaze landed on a stack of stuffed toys just beyond the clothing racks and her eyes widened. He moved them closer. It was a pile of shaggy banthas though better groomed than any he had seen on Tatooine. A quick glance around to confirm that no one was watching them, and then he lifted one over to Korora. She gasped but grabbed it in a one-arm hug. “It wants to leave with you,” Luke said before chuckling at Korora’s reaction.
Mara returned to them with two pairs of small boots. “That’s not a necessity.” She compared the boots in hand to the ones on Korora’s feet.
“Of course it is, every child should have a toy. I was given toys; I’m sure you were too.” Mara remained silent and Luke found himself irked by how Palpatine had raised her. Really would a simple birthday gift ruin an assassin? “We can put weapons on the list of things given to you,” he added.
“Weapons are tools not toys,” she snapped back. “I had a falling-star globe when I was small.” She looked at Korora squashing the bantha’s horn under her chin. “Were you punished for taking your toys apart?”
He shook his head. “I think by the time I started that Uncle Owen was teaching me how to repair things.”
Mara nodded. “Your area of expertise then. Let’s pay for this stuff and get to the ship.” Luke frowned but followed her to the bored clerk manning the sales desk.