Mara waited for more music or acknowledgment. It had felt so good to let her body dance again, and her execution had been technically flawless. How long had it been since she last danced, Jabba’s Palace? She could dance all night if she had to; the Force had eased her fatigue and she was calm and she was willing. Her opposition to everything else was buried deep in her mind along with her connection to Luke.
Luke seemed no worse from his imprisonment as far as she could discern. Had he enjoyed her performance? She gave herself a mental slap. She had to stay calm and focused on pleasing the monster who locked Luke in that awful containment unit or Luke and she would die.
“My Hand, approach,” Palpatine said.
She rose from the metal floor. Luke’s cheeks were flushed, but otherwise his stoic expression hid his apprehension. Korora’s wonderment fled when Palpatine spoke. She scrunched her face and tucked closer into Luke’s side. Mara didn’t react as she climbed the metal staircase. Her dance slippers were silent on the treads. She felt Luke’s eyes on her back as she crossed the security platform and reached the throne’s dais. She stopped in front of the throne and knelt on one knee. The hard part continued here: keeping this Palpatine out of certain places in her mind with the tricks the original taught her to hide plans from Vader without letting him know there was any place of denied access. “Master.”
“Your talents have not atrophied in your absence, my Hand,” he said aloud. You have tonight to seduce Skywalker by whatever means you deem best, he ordered telepathically.
“Thank you, Master. I practiced when I could.” The warmth created by his sporadic praise filled her, just like it used to before Endor. It brushed against the shield hiding her anger and turned into a mass of confusion. How could she like it after she was abandoned, lied to, and now coerced? She shunted that feeling to his telepathic orders. Seduce the Jedi?
Sex is love to him, and love is his weakness that will bind him to me just like his father. I trust you have kept those skills in practice as well.
I have forgotten nothing. Something deep in Mara ached. Karrde would never ask this of her. She shoved it into one of her hidden mental compartments. I will seduce him, Master.
“Tomorrow the procedure begins.” Mara felt her insides hollow out as she stared at the metal floor. “Rest well, my Hand,” Palpatine said. She lowered her head more before rising to her feet. The throne room door slid open revealing two more of the Imperial Sovereign Protectors in red and black. Palpatine had not summoned them with the comm, but he addressed them as Mara descended the stairs. “Show my Hand and her entourage to her suite.” Luke broke off his glare at Palpatine, picked up Korora, and joined Mara’s side as they crossed the empty throne room floor.
One Protector took the lead and the second took the rear. Luke and Korora continued at her side as they walked the corridors. Luke broke the silence mentally. Mara, what’s going on?
Her body threatened to quiver. Not now. It’s not safe and we can’t upset Korora. She as a child had Palpatine’s protection that he was the only one who disciplined her. Korora had no such safeguard. You don’t know how hard it was to get her calm before.
Did Palpatine threaten her? Anger mixed with the worry in the bond
I didn’t want to take a chance he might consider her an impediment to my performing my duties. She curled her hands into fists at her sides to hide the tremor. I will debrief you, just not now, when we’re under guard!
Luke glanced sharply at the Protector leading them and tightened his grip on Korora.
Her physical reactions remained under control, Palpatine remained withdrawn, Luke remained unhappy but subdued through their bond, so she peeked at the hurt that had manifested.
Karrde maintained romantic hopes, like she and Luke were characters of a holodrama. What had he told her after she woke up on the journey from Wayland? ‘You harbor strong emotions for the man, Mara. Now that they’re no longer of the murderous variety, there is no harm in exploring them.’ But it was her choice, never an order. This Palpatine was no different from the original who had sent her to Anor instead of protecting her from him. How she felt never mattered, regardless of her devotion, service, or love.
And he dragged Luke into the middle of this loyalty display. Did he run out of Imperial officers to bribe with her sexual favors? But instead of facing a nameless body who wouldn’t matter before, during, and after, he tossed her the desires of her dreams. The one man in the galaxy she wanted but only if he wanted too. He never would; the Emperor, Anor, and this Emperor Reborn made sure of that.
They were loaded into a turbolift and reached another floor two-hundred levels away before she made her decision. She would not seduce Luke. She would not beguile him with all the tricks she had been taught. She would give this Palpatine a believable scenario of how Luke refused to break Jedi celibacy with an Imperial. There was no way he could make her punishment worse because of that.
She glanced at Luke and Korora. By the Force, she better be right about that.
They turned down another corridor and the buzzing she hadn’t felt since they disembarked the Eclipse returned. Korora whined and pressed her head down on Luke’s shoulder. “I know; I don’t like it either,” he said.
The Protector finally stopped and keyed open a door. Luke entered first and the locks were reengaged after Mara stepped inside. The foyer had an open closet door on the right and the door open to the refresher on the left. Luke continued through the short hallway into the larger room, stopped short, but stepped aside so Mara could enter. For a minute, all they could do was blink. Everything was contained in the one room, like a courier ship without a cockpit, and Imperial base standard decor. A kitchen the size of a galley was on the right with a small table, two chairs, and a stool set in front of the cabinets. A storage unit stood on the right. A bed just barely large enough for two adults sat in the center of the room between the doorway and the transparisteel window and their luggage bags and more clothing had been heaped on top of it. Two armchairs and a side table were pushed up against the window and a terminal console occupied the corner between the window and the wall. The astromech was already linked to it.
This suite was a calculated insult. True, she had lived in worse hovels than this while running from Isard, but this was beneath her status as the Emperor’s Hand without considering stuffing Korora and Luke in here too. Just in case she was harboring any doubts about the punishment.
“This will be cozy,” Luke said.
Artoo detached from the console in the corner with a happy trill. He rolled around the bed and bumped into Luke’s leg. He continued to chide his human in Binary.
“Is it okay to talk now?” Korora asked over Artoo. Mara stepped up to the bed. The clothes were arranged in three distinct piles at least.
The droid paused to answer that. “Artoo says we’re not under surveillance,” Luke interpreted. Artoo beeped affirmatively and then began his tirade again. “Artoo, I’m fine. I’m glad to see you too, but you are fussing worse than Threepio.” The droid made a sound like a human unvoiced linguolabial trill and rolled back to the console. “How long did it take us to get here?”
“Forever!” Korora flung her arms around Luke’s neck and smacked her lips against his cheek. “Ow, your face is scratchy, Daddy.”
“Sorry, Korora. They didn’t let me shave.” He set the girl down on the floor and looked at Mara.
“Four days,” she answered. She picked up Korora’s pile, uncovering the stuffed bantha, and carried the clothes to the closet. The rods and drawers were empty but extra blankets were stacked on the highest shelf.
“I’m hungry,” Korora said.
Mara heard Luke opening the cabinets against the closet wall. “They did give us food. Can I clean my face and then cook?”
“Okay.” Korora went around the bed. “My bed.” She climbed onto something lower than the bed.
Luke dug his toiletries bag out of the pile of his stuff on the bed. “I won’t take long and then we can eat.”
She nodded at him and picked up more clothes. Now she saw Korora was on a low cot with a sleeping roll and pillow and the toy bantha. At least they didn’t have to fit three people on the bed. She continued to put the clothes away while her mind focused on what he had missed during those four days. No one had told him about the bloodbath in Coruscant space. He didn’t know what task the Emperor Reborn was punishing her with. She was going to start referring to him as Sidious; double vowels sounded stupid. Sidious hadn’t given Luke the whole insane spiel she had gotten. She finished with the clothes but continued to stare at the open closet. Luke was going to hate this debrief and do something stupid she couldn’t save him from. She felt cold and the buzzing reverberated louder closer to the main corridor. She brought her hands to her biceps to warm them with friction.
The refresher door slid open. She wasn’t blocking the way into the main room, so it was fine for her to take a few minutes to figure things out before putting on a soothing face for Korora. After four days of pretending nothing was disastrously wrong, she needed more time to compose it.
“You’re shivering,” Luke said softly. He settled a blanket on her bare shoulders and pulled the ends around to her front. She grabbed hold of the edges to keep it on and twisted in his arms to lean against his chest. He tightened his arms around her. It felt good how the physical matched the emotional. His arms did feel like his protectiveness did.
He tucked his head down to her ear.”It’s bad, isn’t it?”
“Later. I don’t want to frighten Korora,” she answered in a whisper.
“Of course.” He squeezed her again before ushering her into the main room and seating her at the small table. She watched as Luke cooked and drew Korora into helping with the domestic tasks: setting the table and fetching ingredients from the slim conservator built into the cabinets. She could easily transport this scene to his quarters or to her apartment. Korora prattled about the Imperial hair stylist that finally got the knots out of her hair. He snorted as he stirred the contents of the pot. “Star Destroyers have hair stylists? As an actual position?”
“What is so funny about that?” Mara asked. “You don’t want the Imperial Navy officers and crew looking scruffy when they reach their destination. Might send the wrong message.”
“In the Alliance, we had to go without, find someone who made a hobby of it on base, or take a chance finding a professional who wouldn’t sell you to the Imperials.”
“That explains why you always looked like you needed a haircut on all your wanted notices.” Mara liked this domestic simplicity that Luke generated by his presence. It had been the same way when she stayed in his guest room. She grew annoyed again. They should be on Coruscant right now doing this! But no, Sidious had to crawl out of hiding with an invasion force that he wasn’t even managing properly. Not to mention his mission for her. Her mouth filled with a hot sour taste that she barely swallowed down.
“I didn’t know you took my hairstyle so personally.” He set down a bowl in front of her. She blinked, realized she was scowling, stopped that, and looked down at the predominantly blue sauce covering fat noodles. Korora was already shoveling it into her mouth with a spoon, so Mara’s confused expression continued across the table to Luke. “Nobody gave you cheesy noodles as a child either?”
“No.” She stirred it with her spoon. There were also chunks of meat and small vegetables in the mixture too. “People eat this?”
“It tastes better than a ration bar, trust me.”
She did trust him and put some in her mouth. Too bad she didn’t have much of an appetite to appreciate it right now. “Most of the ingredients in here are for quick meals,” he explained between his own bites. “Are we allowed to make a grocery list? Or is there a mess that offers delivered meals?”
“There probably is, but nobody gave me any instructions. Make a grocery list and we’ll see if anyone takes it.”
“Is the buzzing getting to you?” He waved his hand in the air to indicate the room. She could feel his concern despite the buzzing. “Stuffing the neighboring rooms with those cages seems like overkill given the amount of Force users they have here.”
“Force dampeners,” she said at the same time Artoo whistled. “They surrounded our cabin on the Eclipse with them too. Artoo said he couldn’t affect them.”
Artoo added more to that commentary. “Individual control rather than centralized, right,” Luke said. “Keep looking for the specs anyway, Artoo.”
“How many Force users did you feel?” Mara frowned. She should have paid attention to that, but this planet hurt even before they got back to the headache-inducing buzzing. “I know there are more than just those two Adepts. The white-haired one talked about meeting with the others before he got shushed.” She was never special in that regard, was she? All this had been kept from her.
“It’s a larger concentration of the Dark Side, much larger than what I felt on the second Death Star. The guards that brought us have some sensitivity.”
“Imperial Sovereign Protectors. Upgrade everything seems to be a common theme here on Byss. Upgrade and survive.” She had managed to eat half her meal, and she nudged the bowl away. “The New Republic has regrouped near or in Hutt Space. The coalition of Imperial forces sent to conquer Coruscant turned on each other instead of pressing their advantage. Sidious was laughing about it when we were brought to him. ‘Whoever wins will be worthy to lead my military for a while.’ ”
“You were stressing useful resources,” he said softly.
“I’m glad it worked.” Mara glanced at Korora. The little girl had placed the bantha on the table and pillowed her head with her eyes closed. “She’s asleep.”
Luke picked Korora up from the stool and balanced her against his shoulder. “Do you want her in the bed with you?”
“You won’t fit on that cot.”
“I’ve slept on worse.”
“Give your martyr complex a rest and give her the cot.” Mara gathered the used dishes and put them in the cleaning unit.
Luke returned to the table at the same time she did and let her have the chair with the view of the doorway again. “What’s going on? Why is your life on the line?”
She stared at the tabletop, gray dappled with darker gray spots. “My working theory: Force users are not meant to be cloned.”
“A clone of Palpatine hidden here in case he died.” Luke’s chair creaked as he shifted.
“Sidious admitted to that readily enough. But before you think that makes him saner than C’baoth, he says he transferred his soul and all his power from Endor to the clone bodies.”
“Apparently, he’s running through them too fast. Premature aging is what his doctor called it. Maybe it’s the universe’s way of balancing out seemingly unending magical powers by having any clones you make from Force users end up insane. You should put that in your charter right after the no kidnapping babies rule.”
Luke leaned against the table. “That explains why it felt like Palpatine in your mind, in Sidious’ presence.” His voice firmed. “What procedure is tomorrow?”
“Implanting a clone fetus into me so I can gestate it like a regular birth. I finally know what’s really special about me, a viable uterus.” She glanced up at him. His face paled under his tan and his jaw dropped. Denial screamed along the bond. She dropped her eyes back to the table. “The theory on that plan is a natural birth will anchor the clone better in the Force and stop the premature aging. Between that, decimating his military, and C’baoth’s fine example, no cloning Force users.”
Denial was giving way to outrage. “The whole reason cloning tanks were invented was because the process didn’t work reliably in bodies!” He kept his voice low, but the anger was palpable. “He has to know that.”
“Probably, but it’s what he wants.”
Luke’s hands curled into fists on the tabletop. “Who cares what he wants. He has no right to use your body like a clone tank.”
“It buys us time.” That didn’t cut through Luke’s angry indignation. “The doctor in charge of the experiment doesn’t think it will work.” She focused on the tabletop again. “You can do something about complications, Sidious will believe we’re neutralized and entertaining his whims, and we’ll undermine his plans from here.”
“A complication can kill you, Mara. One almost killed Aunt Beru when I was a kid. You should not have agreed to this.”
How dare he judge her! “What choice do you think there was? Let you die, go to my execution knowing they’ll raise Korora just like I was? Agreeing has us safe and together and looking for a way to blow this up in their collective faces.” She jerked her thumb back towards his astromech and then regathered the blanket around herself. Her hands were shaking. The whole planet seemed to be echoing ‘trapped’ with her own despair. She couldn’t give into that. This was a good plan, the best one of their circumstances, and she would make it work. With or without his help, she would make it work.
“Sabotage.” She felt a vindictive surge from Luke over that. She understood, but her glee over destroying Sidious’ plans was so far away right now. But worry soon replaced his thrill. “It’s so big a risk, Mara.”
“To the alternative? I don’t want to die, Farmboy, and I don’t want to see you executed either.”
What a change in tune that was from her, but Luke didn’t comment on that. “There has to be another way.”
“If you spotted an escape hatch I missed, I’m open to taking it.” Despair flooded over her flat quip. There was no hope of it succeeding at all if he didn’t help the least bit by keeping her well during this surrogacy. The shaking had her whole body now.
She heard his chair move, but before she looked up, he pulled her out of hers and against his chest. That was better. Her hands didn’t shake as they rested on his chest. “Don’t,” he said as pressed his cheek against her head. “I’ll keep you healthy; don’t worry about that.” His arms tightened around her. “I’m upset with Sidious, not you. Of course I’ll help burn this down.”
“Just like that?”
“I trust you, Mara. This is your territory. Just don’t forget you’re not alone.”
“Same goes for you.” She eased her arms around him and squeezed.
He swallowed and she felt his throat move with it. “I’m sorry I drew attention to you and green. I didn’t know the Emperor forced you to wear it.”
“He never cared about what I wore; same seems to be true for Sidious. You said I was—” she broke off as her heart hammered in her chest. “I picked it for you.” She tilted her head back to look up at him despite the abnormal reaction her heart was having. “I was dancing for you.”
The voice that answered her was huskier than anything else she had ever heard Luke say. “I couldn’t take my eyes off you.” His head dipped down and his mouth enveloped hers.
The surge of lust, delight, and happiness overwhelmed all her thought processes and she tightened her grip on him. She stood on her toes as she pushed into her return kiss. This was what they had denied themselves twelve days ago on the veranda and it was going to both their heads like an aged whiskey. She wasn’t sure which of them supplied a new sensory image—a gray headboard and their bodies twining together on white sheets—but it made her core pulse with want. Luke’s hands found her ass and pulled her closer to his erection.
That familiar move helped the screaming in her mind cut through the haze of lust. This is what Sidious wants! She jerked her head back. “No!”
He immediately tried to release her and step back. Her arms remaining locked around his chest made it a futile gesture. The blanket cascaded to the floor. Shame colored the air and bond between them. “I’m sorry, I thought you wanted, I’m sorry.”
“No, I do want!” Her hands gripped his tunic. Flushed befuddlement should not look so adorable on a person. “But Sidious wants me to seduce you, gain a much better position to kill you later. No, not you, I won’t seduce you, I’m not killing you.” She should let him go, but she wasn’t ready to. She ducked her head to his chest.
His chest expanded with a deep inhale. “Gestate a clone, seduce me, show off your dancing skills; what else did Sidious order you to do? Kill me when my guard was sufficiently lowered?”
“He didn’t order that one yet.” Her voice felt like it was scraping out of her throat. “He will, it always follows, and it so damn easy to kill a person post-coitus.” Her breathing shuddered. “I wasn’t trying to seduce you, not you.”
His warm hands settled on her bare back again. “Was there anyone for you who wasn’t a target?” He ached in his voice and in the Force. “Anor’s training doesn’t count.”
“Something real? No,” she whispered. “Not everyone died, some were rewarded with me from the Emperor.” Luke’s anger pulsed and she cringed, but forged on. He deserved answers. “Real relationships would have compromised my service to Palpatine. I didn’t question it at the time. Shavit, bad enough to create this new service to torture me, but to torture with the old?”
His anger ebbed into remorse. “Palpatine took so much from you.”
And poisoned everything else, she thought bitterly. Something was squeezing her lungs and her heart continued to hammer. “Just real for once, no victims. Just once. I know I don’t deserve anything, but that doesn’t change the wanting.” She let him go so he could pull away.
“Mara,” he said softly.
And she screwed her eyes shut and waited for the inevitable of course she deserved it and would get it one day when the right person came along speech.
“Sweetheart,” he added. Her eyes flew open as his hands gently tilted her head back up. She had never seen such a look of tenderness given to her. “Feel the bond. This is real.” His thumb wiped away wetness on her cheek. “I love you. I want to be your choice.”
The bond was complicated right now. Lust was an old familiar emotion, a tool she had used countless times. Affection was one she had gotten used to in Luke and Karrde’s presences. Faith, trust, and caring were all equals parts adding up to something more, matching something in her as well, something that made her twine her arms around his neck and attack his lips again. Luke tangled his fingers into her hair to hold her there.
His hand didn’t shift when he pulled his lips back. “Am I your choice, sweetheart? If we were safe on Coruscant right now or Karrde’s base—”
“Yes,” she breathed out. “No one but you.”
They met for another kiss, too brief in her opinion when Luke pulled back again. “I want you, don’t think I don’t want you, but I don’t want to get you in trouble before the procedure.”
“I won’t get into trouble.” She ran her fingers into the hair coming down over his neck. His erection was pressing against her again and there were far too many layers between it and where she wanted it. “Sidious gave me permission for tonight.”
“How magnanimous of him.”
She was wet from the earlier revelations, but sharing his sarcasm and the face he pulled at having to be beholden to an enemy for any favor, damn, how much more tingly could she get? It didn’t feel like he had any doubts, but she wanted to assuage them regardless. “There is no competition.” Her fingers traced over the faint scars on his face as his eyebrows drew together. “There is no comparison.” She pushed up for another kiss.
His hands trailed down her exposed back, delicate against her skin. He gripped the straps around her back and yanked them free. The sheer fabric at the sides tore but not enough judging from his growl. “How the blazes does it come off?”
She giggled against his neck because this was real and she was happy instead of having to pretend and they were taking this moment in the war for themselves. She giggled again as she stepped back from him heading for the foyer. Once out of his reach, she undid the fasteners behind her neck and let the bodice fall to her hips. He looked like she hit him with a stunner. She shimmied the dancing outfit and her remaining basic off her hips and down her legs as she backed into the ‘fresher. And then Luke was there before she completely stepped out of the garments, wrapping his arms around her and lifting her up as he kissed her again.
He set her on the basin counter between the sani and the shower unit. “You are so beautiful.” He peppered her neck with kisses as his hands squeezed her breasts.
“So are you, especially in blue.” Her nimble fingers found the fasteners on his tunic and worked them loose. The compliment pleased him and the color was important, but less important than his mouth working back up her neck and his fingers rolling her nipples. Pleasure jolted through her and she lost track of her task.
“Just rip it open.”
She shook her head and found the last fasteners. “I bought it. You are wearing it again.” The last fastener parted and she ran her hands along his chest and abs as he shrugged it off. His muscles were strong and firm and trembled slightly under her touch.
He ran his hands up her thighs as he moved closer. She leaned back as his fingers found her slit and she braced herself as her hips rocked. “Mara, are you ready? Do you need more?”
His finger stroked inside of her and she managed to speak through the pleasure aiming for her brain. “Kriff me now.” That withdrew his hand speedily but before she had time to realize it, his cock was sliding into her. She wrapped her legs around his bare hips. His arms wrapped around her, holding her tight as he thrust into her. She clung to his shoulders, rode the spiraling pleasure, and clamped her lips around her cries of pleasure. Luke had a better idea for muffling and kissed her to swallow her cries. She shared her climax through the bond. Luke’s orgasm followed shortly and the echoes of his pleasure in the bond teetered her right over the edge again.
They propped each other up afterward while they remembered how to breathe. “Was that too rough?” Luke finally asked between pants.
“Nothing broken; you, me, or the fixtures.” She indulged in running her fingers through his sweaty hair. “So it was just right.” She pulled him closer and kissed his shoulder. “It was real.”
He trailed his fingers up and down her spine. “This is real,” he said before kissing her neck. Embarrassment grabbed hold of him, which seemed odd considering what they had just done. “You have more experience than me, and I want it to be good for you.”
“You are good to me, far more than I deserve.” And she was determined to enjoy it as long as it lasted. But that wasn’t the answer he wanted, though his displeasure was aimed at himself. “Luke? Is this about my training?”
His fingers stilled and he tightened his embrace. “What sense memories I got from Anor’s torture chamber were confusing.” He kissed her on the lips before pulling back to see her face. “That’s all. Do you want to shower with me?”
“Yes.” That was far too eager an answer, but he grinned back at her. Still the specter of what disturbed him needed dismissing. “We don’t have any of that paraphernalia here to bother you.”
“It doesn’t matter.” He stepped back from her and realized his trousers were caught around his calves. “That’s a first.”
“First time in a ‘fresher or first time without getting your boots off?”
“Okay, two firsts.” He finished undressing before stepping over to the shower unit and turning the water on. Once he was satisfied with the water temperature, he lifted her off the basin counter, set her inside, and shut the door as he joined her. She leaned back against him and shut her eyes as the warm water cascaded over her face. He put his arms around her torso and cradled her while projecting his second-guessing of his audacity to keep touching her.
His second-guessing was tied into her earlier wrong answers. She put her hands on his holding them in place on her stomach. “I want this with you.” His hands twitched. She twisted in his arms and looked up at him. “I want everything that makes this real with you.” She wrapped her arms around his neck, pressing against his water-slick skin. “Am I doing it wrong?”
His eyes widened and he tightened his embrace. “No! You’re not doing anything wrong. I just want to make sure you’re enjoying sex with me without the stuff you liked before—” Embarrassment clung to him and cut off his words.
He nodded. “I felt your memories of what you liked while he had me. Mara, if you want that—”
“The kinky games? To be honest, I never used them much after training. Some things felt good, others didn’t, and it all ended up being the surest way to manipulate Anor. The deluded twit never took ‘no’ for an answer, so I couldn’t trust him.”
“And you have to trust your partner in those games.”
“Right.” She stretched up and brushed her lips against his. “When we get off Byss, do you want to explore what kinky games we both like together?”
“Yes,” was said before she finished asking the question. He gently tilted her head back, tucking a wet lock of hair behind her ear. “I’d like that a lot.” His mouth came down hard on hers, but Mara didn’t care as she clung to him.