“Welcome to the Jade’s Escape.” Mara punched the code that opened the entry ramp that descended from the rear of the YT-1760. Luke’s gaze seemed to rove over the engines admiringly. She was a good ship despite the flaws in the interior. He carried Korora up the ramp. Mara pointed out the features as they moved through the ship. “Cargo hold and ladder to the quad guns.” She pointed to the ladder directly across from the entry ramp on the other side of the hold.
“Don’t play on that,” Luke said to Korora.
Mara made sure the entry ramp closed up behind them before leading the way to the upper left wall of the half-circle shaped hold. The door slid open into a wedge-shaped compartment filled with an autochef and built-in storage drawers for the food and dishes. “The galley is open to the crew lounge. Watch the deck plating here.” The lounge wedge was wider than the galley. A viewscreen squared off the corner next to the galley and a padded bench hugged the wall and corner between the forward doorway and the door on the right. “That’s the ‘fresher through there.” She pointed to the door on the right.
“No playing in there either,” Luke said to Korora as he set her on her feet. She patted the table secured in front of the bench.
“The crew cabin is in here.” Mara headed through the forward door and stopped in the hallway in the neck of the ship between two doors. Storage cabinets lined the wall on the left and double bunks were set into the bulkheads on the right. “Cockpit through there.” Mara jerked her thumb at the door behind her as she turned to face her passengers. “You can’t play in there either.”
Korora nodded solemnly, clutching her bantha.
“So I’ve got my choice of the top bunks?” Luke looked at the built-in compartments at head level. “Korora will be safer closer to the deck.”
“Okay. You take the first turn through the ‘fresher while I comm Karrde and tell him an extraction isn’t necessary.” Mara shrugged off her jacket and hung it into her clothes storage cabinet. She slipped the lightsaber back out and hooked it to her belt.
He didn’t hide his expression of relief as he deposited Korora’s bag on the unoccupied bottom bunk. “You did ask for help.”
“Of course, I did. I had no idea if Anor would pull out the droideka again. And you were being less than helpful.”
He winced sheepishly about that. “Sorry, I wasn’t thinking tactically at the time.” She leveled her best tell-me-what-I-don’t-know stare at him, and it worked just as well on Luke as it did on Karrde’s other employees. “He kept ranting about owning you like he was a Hutt.” She could feel Luke’s compassionate anger stirring through the bond and didn’t know how to explain what Anor got a thrill out of sexually in Korora’s presence. Luke sighed and reined in his anger. “My grandmother and father were both slaves on Tatooine. Everyone swore that he didn’t gild her chains for jewelry when Uncle Owen’s father freed and then married her. My father won his freedom in a pod race, left Tatooine, became a Jedi, fell, and became enslaved again by Palpatine.”
“I didn’t know that about your family,” she said softly. Korora’s head kept turning between them.
He shrugged. “My grandmother died before the Clone Wars started. I’m sure no one considers it pertinent information about me.” He glanced at her, earnest forthrightness plain on his face. “You’re proud of the life you have now with your jobs and your friends. All Anor wanted was power over you and that’s the last thing you want from anyone.” He swallowed. “I understand what you wanted on Wayland better now and why.”
“Anor was hardly in the same class as C’baoth.”
“Yes, C’baoth was worse, but it was really the same end of the gaffi stick. Coercion, no autonomy, just the Imperial way.” He opened the storage locker near the door, leaving one free between hers and it, and slung the duffel bag with his purchases inside.
Disgust simmered as he unpacked them. They had never talked about what had happened between him and C’baoth on Jomark, but now the Imperial plot was her fault. “Don’t bottle up how you feel about Imperials. No need to spare my feelings.”
His hands stilled as he stared into the storage locker. “I don’t consider you an Imperial,” he said quietly. “Since you’ve had choices, you have never sided with them.”
Something twisted inside her, but she stayed calm for the child who hugged her stuffed bantha between them. “I had choices then; I told Anor no countless times.”
Luke’s anger rose again as he turned out of the locker. “Of course you did, once Palpatine decided you were finished suffering under Anor’s tutelage.”
“It was training not torture,” she began trying to find the words to explain what was enjoyable that wouldn’t scar either Korora or Luke.
But his sympathetic grimace stole the words away. “But you were never free to choose who to learn—” He faltered glancing down at Korora’s huge brown eyes and reddened slightly. “What Anor taught you. Nobody ever sat you down with a list of ways you could serve the Empire and asked what would you like to do, not once he decided you were going to be his Hand.”
“That doesn’t excuse service to evil, the pride I felt in my well-done jobs.” She wanted to curl in and shield herself, but she deserved striking down so she’d stand and take the blows.
“Not an excuse, an incentive to make better choices than the ones that were forced on you.” A smile eased away his grimace. “You know the difference now.”
His smile helped ease the twist away. “I have something to compare my experiences to now. Go take a shower. We have the whole trip to compare notes.” Mara looked down at Korora. “Don’t press any buttons in the cockpit.” The little girl nodded and took her hand before they went through the cockpit door.
That had been surprisingly judgment-free from Luke. Mara hit Karrde’s comcode and settled into the chair. She had wanted to please Palpatine and he had told her to cooperate with and learn from Anor. “Be exactly what he desires,” the Emperor had told her. She wrinkled her freckled nose. She may have performed that too well judging by Anor’s obsession. It was time to move on from her past, to make better choices that redressed her part in evil done in Palpatine’s name. The comm unit connected to Karrde’s message center again. She sighed and recorded. “I just can’t seem to catch up with you. No need to send resources to Columex, I got Skywalker out.”
Korora whacked her with the stuffed bantha as she tried to clamber into Mara’s lap. Mara lifted her up and addressed the holorecorder. “Skywalker plus one, but I’ll explain everything later. We’ll head to Gromas 16 so Skywalker can pick up his X-wing before returning to Coruscant. I should have some down time to catch up then. Oh and Anor mentioned an Emperor Reborn. Probably another pretender to the throne, but have fun looking into it. Jade out.” She ended the comm and tried not to think about how Karrde was going to react to the explanation. At least it was a skill set he wouldn’t ask her to utilize.
“Is it okay to talk now?” Korora peered up at the console.
Mara checked for any waiting messages. Nothing new, that was surprising. Then she looked down at Korora. “No one told you not to talk.”
“The men with the blasters and the chains said to shut up. You and Daddy weren’t talking much after the store so I thought they were closer and we were sneaking.” She squeezed the bantha.
Mara turned the chair slightly and set the nav computer to calculate for Gromas 16 again. “The men with blasters, did they wear white armor?”
“Their armor was all colors but most of them just had clothes.”
Great, Mara thought, an armed group kidnapped her first.
“How come you press the buttons?”
“Because I’m the pilot.”
“When can I pilot?”
“When you’re bigger.”
“I am a big girl.” Korora’s scowl scrunched her entire face.
“When you sit in a chair and your feet reach the floor, then you’re big enough to be a pilot.” Korora looked down at the deck. Mara swung her out of her lap. “Come on, the computer’s calculating and I need to ask the droid something.”
The little girl followed obediently through the narrow cabin. Artoo had settled in the lounge blocking the access to the gun well ladder. The barrel-shaped droid was taller and wider than Korora and would listen to Luke if the quad guns needing manning. “Artoo, did you download data from Anor’s home computer?”
The droid beeped affirmatively.
Korora clapped her hands without dropping the bantha. “You talk too!”
“Did you find anything about his recent slave purchases?”
The processor indicator light flashed blue and red. She set her datapad on the table in front of the bench. The refresher door slid open and Luke stepped out, adjusting his belt around his waist. The new black trousers looked the same as his others, but the tunic was the same shade of blue as Artoo’s panels. She hadn’t paid any attention to what he had picked out, but seeing that he had actually listened to her advice shot warmth through her.
He felt it through the bond and jerked his head up to stare at her. The blue made his eyes even brighter. His chin continued up in defense of teasing.
The warmth in her consolidated on her cheeks, and her gaze dropped away before she realized she was smiling. Awkward uncertainty and warmth echoed through the bond until he tightened his own shields.
He cleared his throat. “Comm unit is in the cockpit?”
“Yes.” She looked back up in time to see his flushed cheek as he turned into the cabin. Those new trousers did fit just like his old ones. She looked down at Korora. “Time to get you clean.” She tried not to fret that she had never cleaned a small child before.
The worry was premature. Korora kept looking for a water faucet in the sonic shower but she remained inside long enough to get clean. She accepted the new basics and the red jumpsuit that looked comfortable enough to sleep in. However the sonic vibrations that lifted dirt and sweat did nothing for the mats and knots that a week or longer without combing had developed in the child’s natural curly black hair.
Luke returned to the lounge to see Mara wielding a comb and detangling solution like weapons and Korora standing between Mara’s knees and digging one hand into the woman’s thigh as Mara worked on a hair knot that didn’t budge. “The solution has to sit in the hair for awhile,” he said helpfully.
“So you’re also your sister’s hairdresser? Did she start chewing you out over the comm?” Mara set the comb on the table and filled her palm with more of the solution.
“I have been on occasion, but I had to leave a message on her personal comm. No one answered at her office or at their apartment.”
“Maybe they were asleep.” Mara worked the solution into Korora’s hair and the child lifted her fingers out of Mara’s thigh.
“Threepio usually answers the comm in that case.” He shrugged, but the concern still lurked in him and she felt it in the bond. “The nav computer finished while I was in there. Thanks for thinking about my X-wing.”
“We’re closer, might as well pick it up.” She finished massaging Korora’s hair and wiped her hands on a towel. The little girl fled to the other side of the table. “Cutting all your hair off and starting over is an option.”
“No cutting, Mommy.” She wrapped herself around Luke’s leg.
He smirked. “Mentioned that a few times already?”
“Just for that, you can have the next hair combing session. Secure yourselves and I’ll start take-off.”
Korora let go of Luke’s leg and lifted her hands to him, but crossed her wrists. He recognized the gesture first and sympathy and revulsion slammed into Mara’s mind before she realized the child expected to be restrained. He knelt in front of Korora, gently lowering her arms, and nothing but kind sadness on his face. “No chains, no one will chain you ever again. We’re going to sit on the bench and buckle on crash restraints; that’s what Mommy means.”
She blinked at him, threw her arms around his neck and slapped his back with the bantha. He held her close until her full body shudders calmed.
“Skywalker,” Mara said softly and didn’t know what she wanted to warn him about. He wasn’t stupid; he knew not to form an attachment with a child that wasn’t his.
“Do you need me in the cockpit?”
“No. Just don’t take long to strap in.” Luke nodded and scooped up Korora as he stood. Mara headed to the cockpit.
Columex’s spaceport didn’t have any reason to delay their takeoff, but Mara didn’t relax until the mottled lines of hyperspace filled the cockpit viewport. She heard Luke’s voice as she moved into the cabin. “We’re in hyperspace now. You can tell because the sublight engines have powered down and the hyperdrive has a different hum. When you hear that, it’s safe to get out of your crash restraints.”
“This button?” Korora asked.
“That’s right.” Luke glanced up at Mara as she entered the lounge. “She’s got her serious look on. You want to tackle it now?”
“Would you rather her blurt out something on Coruscant and the news get a hold of it?” She sat on the other end of the semi-circle bench so Korora was between them. She looked up at Mara. “Korora, you know we’re not your mother and father. Why are you calling us that?”
“I saw you. We were in the green grass and water falling around place having a picnic. Are we going there now?”
“Sorry, Gromas 16 is red not green,” Mara said.
“You saw us,” Luke said with a note in his voice that Mara couldn’t place, “when you were sleeping in the box?”
Korora nodded. “And the other ship that the men with blasters put us on.” She squeezed the bantha and buried her face in its synthetic fur.
“You’re safe now; it’s okay.” Luke lay his hand on her curly black hair. He looked up at Mara. “Force visions, she had Force visions of us.”
“That doesn’t make us parents,” Mara said. Korora inhaled deeply and looked up again. Luke drew his hand back. “How did the men with the blasters get you on their ship?” Mara tried to make her question gentle, but given the look Luke hit her with, it wasn’t a successful attempt.
Korora stared at the table. “It was nighttime and blaster shooting and screaming started outside. Momma told me to hide and I went under my bed. Then the door blew up and Momma yelled and shooting in the house and the man with the blaster threw my bed across the room and grabbed me. He put me on his shoulder like this.” She propped the bantha on her shoulder. “Momma was on the floor. She was burned here.” She moved to Mara and patted Mara’s sternum above her breasts. “Momma was gone.” She crawled into Mara’s lap and wrapped her arms around Mara’s neck again.
“I’m sorry,” Mara said softly. “We had to ask. We won’t talk about it any more.”
Artoo beeped at them, long and complicated. Mara understood that he finished her data request, but she didn’t understand the Binary for what he had found. And she couldn’t reach her datapad without pressing Korora into the table.
Luke frowned at his droid, and his anger was dulled by sadness. “Krill senth cresh, are you sure?” Artoo beeped affirmatively. Luke rubbed a hand over his face. “Artoo downloaded a bill of sale for a four-year-old human girl from the Karazak Slavers Cooperative.” He all but sneered at her confused frown. “Don’t tell me you’ve never heard of them; you’ve actually left the Core.”
“I thought the stories were exaggerated to make themselves more dangerous or successful. Karrde doesn’t do business with anyone connected to them.”
“They don’t have to exaggerate much unless enslaving whole villages at a time without the might of the Imperial military is something you think every criminal organization should be able to do.” He pushed off the bench and paced in the small space. “We can’t return her; there’s no one left to return her to even if we knew her home planet.”
Artoo whistled mournfully.
“Of course, they didn’t list her home planet. That’s standard practice.” He stopped and gazed at Mara and Korora, his expression shifting to regret. “A Force Sensitive child and no way to see if her home planet has any more.”
Korora did have the Force; Mara sensed it for herself. And the odds against finding anyone related to Korora were incalculable as she well knew from her own dead end records. But that didn’t mean the track of Luke’s thoughts should go through unchallenged. “So you’re going to adopt your future students instead of snatching them?”
His focus returned to her and Korora. “Hey, don’t put all the responsibility on raising her on me, Mommy.”
That tease coupled with the knowledge that there was no birth mother to return Korora to sparked the same anxiety Mara first felt when the child leapt out of the sed-box. Skywalker didn’t understand how vulnerable Korora was because he would never hurt or twist a child. But Anor didn’t buy her for his own use, so that meant the Emperor Reborn Anor mentioned wanted to recreate a Force user assassin, to lie to her about her purpose. Was he as big a monster as Palpatine who used his final moments to send her a lie so she would murder an innocent man in revenge? The child clutching Mara’s neck was too young, too frail to be twisted into a ruthless killer like Mara had been. Her blood-stained hands continued to rub Korora’s back. This was an awful cosmic joke. How could she protect Korora without turning the child into the same ruthless killer she was?
Luke squeezed her shoulder, jolting her physically and mentally out of her thoughts. “You are more than what he made you into.” He smiled down at her. “Korora’s not afraid of you.”
“She hasn’t seen me at my worst.”
“I’m not afraid of you either.”
“Yes, but your lack of a self-preservation instinct is quantifiable.”
Luke squeezed her shoulder again and chuckled. “I’ll make some food. Everything will look better after we’ve eaten.” He headed into the galley.
Korora spoke up from her burrow against Mara’s chest. “What’s gonna happen to the men with blasters?”
“It’s up to the New Republic to fight them. It’s not feasible for a smaller military force to try.”
Korora unwrapped from Mara’s neck to look at the woman’s face. “What does that mean?”
“It’s not practical,” Mara offered, but Korora’s confusion didn’t clear. “It’s best to make sure you can win the fight before you get into one.”
Luke moved into the galley doorway. “What about not fighting?”
“If she becomes a Jedi like you, how likely is that?”
“Oh!” Korora slid off Mara’s lap. “If you’re not ready for the fight, the bad droids throw you in a cage.”
“That was an ambush,” Luke called back. Korora seemed unconcerned with that distinction as she patted Artoo and called him good droid. “Mara, what did you do to this autochef?” Luke called out.
She jumped up from the table, hurried to the galley, and tripped hard on the warped deck plate. Her hands pushed out to hit the deck first instead of her face, but found cloth-covered muscles. Luke’s arms tightened around her and pulled her against his chest. She didn’t push away. And then they both froze in place.
Being held like this was a vulnerability she never allowed herself. Her heart pounded and the want she had managed to ignore until now screamed to tilt her head back and look at him. She didn’t move. She knew how to live with self denial. She had no idea how to live with the disappointment if he didn’t cover her lips with his own.
His heart thundered under her ear. He was shielding just as tightly as she was, but shavit, she was probably embarrassing the hell out of him. Her cheeks began to burn. But it felt good to be held like this, better than she ever imagined. His hands seared her back through her tunic and the throbbing want returned with the thought of those hands caressing her body.
She couldn’t unleash this desire on him now, not when he had only treated her as a friend, not right after Anor had exposed him to what he found degrading. He only caught her so he didn’t have to pick her up off the deck. Now he was stuck because she was being weak and not extracting herself. This couldn’t last; they needed to eat. At this point he was expecting a withering retort about this, but not too cutting. He had been subjected to enough thanks to her.
“If you wanted to put your arms around me, all you had to do was take me dancing.” That wasn’t too bad, and if it gave him future ideas, well good.
His breathing went off-kilter momentarily. He inhaled again before shifting his arms, abashment leaking through his mental shields. “Won’t be much fun for you, moving all around the stage while I’m standing there like a dewback sunning itself on a rock.” He made sure her feet were underneath her before releasing his grip. He whirled back to the autochef and pressed buttons on its control panel before she saw his face.
“I was talking about ballroom dancing. I was trained in both exhibition and ballroom, but I’m so long out of practice I wouldn’t audition for any performances.”
“I can’t dance that way either.”
She smirked at the back of his head. “Tell that to someone who hasn’t seen you fight, Farmboy.”
“Those skills are not transferable.” He waved a hand at the control panel. “Why are all the settings turned up to the maximum?”
“The first package I put in there came out raw; the second burnt to a crisp. The ration bars I’m storing in this cabinet.” She turned to the wall of cabinets and reached for the door of the one she wanted.
“Mara Jade,” he said in mock reverence, “can’t cook.”
“Whatever. I feed myself.”
“With ration bars. Go on, I know how to work the arcane autochef.” He shooed her toward the door. She left the galley. He would pay for that crack, after supper. About ten minutes later, he carried two steaming plates into the lounge with the third floating in the air before him.
“Frivolous use of the Force, don’t you think?” Mara cleared off the table.
He shrugged. “I didn’t want you to trip again.”
Korora circled around Luke with wide-open mouth and eyes. “You’re making it fly.” She crawled onto the bench before staring at the tray lowering itself to the table. “How are you making it fly?”
“With the Force,” he answered. Mara accepted the tray he handed her before opening Korora’s tray for her.
Korora knelt on the bench facing her food. “Can I fly with the Force?”
Artoo hooted emphatically against that idea with a long explanation. Mara looked at Luke. “Did you drop him?”
“During training. Come on, Artoo, that was years ago.”
The droid continued to berate his human. Mara looked at Korora. “No flying with the Force in the ship. I don’t have any cushions on board.”
Korora pouted but stirred the purple gravy into her pale mashed tubers.
Luke stopped arguing with Artoo. “So what did Karrde have to say about this Emperor Reborn person?”
“You know Karrde will make you pay for that information.”
“I’m asking you, but I’ll make sure Intelligence covers the bill.”
Mara cut into her meat patty with her fork. “As it happens, I had to leave a message. We’ll have to wait on news about that. Unless Anor told you something else?”
He used chewing and drinking to stall for time. “He said I wouldn’t be able to protect you from the Emperor Reborn, not like he could.”
“Anor was planning to trade you to keep me. A Jedi Knight is worth an Emperor’s Hand.” She shook her head and pulled apart the roll of insta-bread. “Good thing I don’t need protection from the latest pretender to the throne.”
“I don’t know.” Luke’s gaze shifted and she was sure he wasn’t seeing the bulkhead he stared at. “It feels different from the other pretenders to the throne.”
“Warning from the Force?”
He blinked at her sharp tone. “Nothing that concrete. I’ll meditate on it later.”
“What’s the Force?” Korora asked and smeared purple gravy across her cheek as she turned to Luke.
Mara finished her meal while he found a theological metaphor with wind that the four-year-old understood. She cleared the trays and flatware from the table and let him wipe Korora’s face clean. He still intercepted her before she made it into the galley. She handed over the trash and headed to the entertainment viewscreen. She was still in the menu of choices when he returned. “You have anything stored that’s kid appropriate to watch?” he asked.
“I’m picking an audio file.” She made her selection and the beginning notes of a minor Alderaanian waltz filled the lounge. Luke recognized it—it had been performed at every New Republic ball she had attended—and his blue eyes widened in dismay. “Dancing lesson, Farmboy.” She swayed toward him.
“This is a horrible idea.”
She smirked at him. “Cheap entertainment for the kid.”
Korora clapped her hands. “Dance, dance!”
“Really, Mara. Both Leia and Winter wrote me off as unteachable,” he continued.
“Only because they’ve both been in dancing lessons and attending balls since they were Korora’s age and don’t remember how hard it was in the beginning.” She took his left hand up with her right as she closed in on him.
“So have you!”
She shook her head and guided his right hand to her hip. “But I’ve also taught dance to provincials who never heard a waltz before their Academy education began.” His dismayed expression didn’t change. “Did either Leia or Winter have to soak their feet in bacta after dancing with you?”
“Then you’re already better than my worst dancing experience.” She shook his arms. “Relax, I don’t bite.”
That broke through his dismay. “We both know that isn’t true.”
She grinned at his sarcastic edge, the one he tried to bury under the stoic Jedi. Before she pressed the advantage of his mood change, an alarm from the cockpit ripped through the graceful notes from the recorded string instruments.