Luke wrapped his arms around Mara, pulling her compliant body to his side. The splashing from the fountain drowned out the sounds of Coruscanti traffic, or maybe it had actually stopped for once. They were safe on the veranda reclining on the sofa, far away from the pain of Byss. Mara, pain free and healthy, slid astride his lap, trapping his thighs between her knees. They were safe. She felt the same as he did and in the low light she looked like she was made of opal. His heart swelled. Could she feel this through the bond? Could she see how beautiful she was through his eyes?
He tilted his head to kiss her, and Leia’s voice said clearly. “Kest, at least I got to you before you got Mara Jade naked on your lap.”
Mara vanished from his lap far more silently than he knew she would ever do. The veranda on Coruscant was visible again, but the details were hazy. Leia stood on the airspeeder dock beyond the fountain, bright and shining against the indistinct Coruscant night sky. They just got away; why was Leia here? “Leia?”
“Wake up, Luke! It is harder than it normally is to speak to your mind.” Her snap had the old chain of command bidding to it, and Luke found himself blinking bleary-eyed at Mara’s braided red hair. Still on Byss, still in danger, still helpless while the galaxy was under attack. He eased away from Mara’s sleeping form and pushed back his despair. His head throbbed, but ignoring that he felt Leia’s presence brighter than everything else he could sense.
He rolled out of bed, grabbed the datapad with the Citadel’s schematics on it, and settled in the armchair against the outside wall. He drew on the Force and reached out to his twin. Leia?
That’s better. The throb created by the Force dampeners lessened between them and he could sense his sister’s vexation. I have been losing sleep worrying about what they were doing to you and you’re— Her embarrassment overwhelmed their conversation.
Remembering Mara’s predicament squashed his joy at reaching his sister. They’re torturing Mara. I love her and they’re torturing her. Leia’s concern subdued her pique. Threatened me and Korora to get her to agree to surrogate Palpatine’s clone, he continued.
He reached me first when I reached out to you. Luke’s concern spiked with her disgust. He agreed to a meeting; Han will not like that development.
A meeting with you alone? Luke didn’t project disapproval, and when Leia affirmed, he felt hope strengthen in him. This could work. Have Han and Chewie rendezvous with Mara. She knows how to blow this Citadel into orbit. Get a datapad. He opened his to the Citadel’s schematics and when Leia had a blank file open, he seized her hand to follow his as he traced the route from the hangar bays to their prison room.
Pleasure bloomed from her as the map took shape. Giving those two something to demolish will smooth that over. Palpatine only mentioned you as a prisoner. I guess he thought I wouldn’t come looking for Mara. Our estimated time of arrival is a few hours. I have to go talk to Han; don’t do anything stupid, Luke.
I’ll wait until you get here to share the fun. Leia’s presence withdrew before it vanished. He had expected that, but he still missed her.
Mara stirred on the bed and realized he was gone. “Luke?” She lifted up, finding him in the room only lit by the refracted light from the polluted clouds. “What is it?”
“Leia’s in the system. She’s on her way here.” He moved back to his side of the bed, so their talking wouldn’t wake Korora.
Mara rolled over to face him. “Is she bringing the New Republic Navy?”
“What is with your family not wanting a proper-sized force to deal with a threat?”
“No one wants to thwart your fun of blowing this place up.” He leaned over and kissed her softly. “Are you up for it?”
“I will be.” Her eyelids dropped again.
“Go back to sleep; I’ll pack what we need to take with us.” Dawn wasn’t that far off and Korora always woke early, he might as well stay awake. Mara’s breathing evened out again and he headed to the closet. He packed all of Korora’s clothes Mara had bought and the Imperials had given them. They didn’t have anything stored on the Falcon in her size. Korora would get on the freighter, but he’d have to leave it in Mara’s capable hands. The Force felt like his part of the battle was away from the woman and child he had come to love so much. He left out the lavender jumpsuit and jacket for Korora to wear today.
He packed less for Mara, just the clothes he remembered her buying to replace her destroyed wardrobe. Though in a round about way, the Imperials owed Mara clothes. But packing lighter gave her less to carry. If they made it off Byss, he was gifting her with a fancy dress for the opera. No matter how much the price made him choke. He set out Mara’s jumpsuit next. It looked roomy enough in the torso. He glanced at her sleeping form as worry crept into his thoughts. The fetus was dying and taking its toll on her body. He knew what she was capable of, better than anyone else in the galaxy, but she was hurting so much. Han and Chewie will keep her safe. They had to.
He didn’t need any of the black trousers and tunics the Imperials had given him—Han had demanded Luke keep spare clothing in the Falcon during the war and he hadn’t stopped—but he considered the blue tunic Mara had bought him. She had liked how he had looked in blue, and she had bought it. No point leaving it behind when it meant something to both of them. He got dressed in it.
Korora woke up and headed straight to the ‘fresher while he was cooking breakfast. She saw the packed duffel bags when she exited. “Are we leaving today?” She ran straight to Luke and jumped up and down. “We’re leaving?”
He caught her and set her on the stool. “Listen to me very carefully. We’re leaving today, but the Imperials are going to try to stop us. And they’ll separate us.”
Her brown eyes widened. “They gonna put you in a box again?”
Box? Oh, she meant the zero-g holding cell that held him on the four-day ride to Byss. “I’m not going to let them put me in the box again, okay?” She nodded, still looking concerned. “Don’t worry about that. You’re going to stay with Mommy and stay with whoever she tells you to go with if she has to leave. You’ll be safe and you’ll leave Byss with whoever we tell you to go with, okay?”
Luke kissed her forehead. “Breakfast, Akku, then you get dressed.”
“Save some for me.” Mara eased out of the bed and headed to the table. “I’m starving this morning.”
“How are you feeling?” Luke set the eggs and sausage in front of Korora before reaching for a second plate.
“Functional.” She glanced at the medical droid next to the bed. “And the sensor readings are normal.”
Functional was a step above the vomiting she had done yesterday. And the slicing Artoo had done to the sensors kept the medical droid from sounding the alarm. She looked wan under her freckles, but her glare threatened him if he brought that up. “Good.” He passed her the filled plate.
Korora stared at Mara’s hair. “Fix my hair like yours, Mommy.”
“Daddy did this. Have fun. What’s the plan?”
Luke sat down with his breakfast. “You’re in charge of Han and Chewie while Leia and I distract Sidious.”
“Do they know I’m in charge?”
“I’m sure it won’t take them long to figure it out.” He grinned. “I have one request.” She raised her red-gold eyebrows. “Don’t forget to rescue Kam,” he said.
“He gets a ride as long as he makes himself useful.”
Korora finished eating first and didn’t complain about the jumpsuit he left out. After she was dressed, she sat patiently while Luke worked the hair oil through her black curls. “It’s not going to look exactly like Mommy’s. Your hair’s not long enough.”
“Can we make it longer?”
“It has to grow.”
Mara left the ‘fresher moving easily in the snug jumpsuit. She sat down at the table again, and smiled. If the Force was with them all, she would smile at future domestic scenarios. He tied off Korora’s short braid and wiped his hands clean on a towel when the room’s door slid open. An Imperial Sovereign Protector stepped inside while his partner waited in the corridor. “Come with us, Jedi Skywalker.”
“Just a moment.” He kissed Korora’s cheek before he lifted Mara from the chair. So they’ll report you’re still bedridden, he explained through the bond.
Say hi to your sister for me.
Artoo came around the bed whistling quickly as Luke set Mara down on it. The droid wanted Luke armed; Luke got that much. “It’s all right, Artoo. I have the Force.” Artoo buzzed disrespectfully at him. “Stay with Mara.”
The droid moaned as Luke left the room.
The Imperial Sovereign Protectors escorted Luke to the throne room, and Leia’s bright presence grew stronger the closer he moved toward her. Two humans stood on the main floor not far from one of the deactivated spherical cages inside the throne room. Who was it waiting for, him or Leia? She turned when they entered, wearing a white jumpsuit similar to the one she wore back on Hoth, but with a brown leather jacket over it. The other man present was older, in his forties probably. His red hair had a touch of gray at the temples. His youth did not disguise his malignant darkness in the Force. Sidious had told Mara of moving to multiple bodies when he wore them out. His Force signature certainly felt the same.
Luke headed to his sister but registered that the Imperial Sovereign Protectors did not follow him inside the throne room. “Hello Leia, welcome to Byss. Wore another body out already, your Highness?”
The younger Palpatine brought his hand up as if to shoot Force Lightning, but changed the gesture to a dismissive wave. “See, your insolent brother alive and well. Though I make no promises of his continuing good health if he persists in speaking.”
Leia nodded. “How’s Mara, Luke?”
“On bed rest, thanks to the Emperor’s experiment. She says hello too.”
“Your concern for my agent is touching, but misguided. Much like your Rebellion.” Sidious turned his back on them, heading to the stairs up to the throne.
“The more you tighten your grip, the more systems will slip through your fingers.” Sidious’ black robe swished in the cavernous throne room but the sound was drowned out by Leia’s impassioned tone as he turned. “Tarkin didn’t understand that either. You continue on this path and all you will rule is a galaxy of bones and ashes.”
“Such a gift for words. Your mother was quite the orator as well.” Leia’s political mask cracked, and her hunger for more information about their birth mother was evident in her excitement. Sidious pounced on it. “Ah, the Jedi didn’t bother sharing information about your mother with you, either of you. Only concerned with Anakin’s legacy. I knew her well. She was a protégé of mine during the Old Republic.”
It was the same trap he had sprang on Luke in that first meeting, and it ached worse because he had no stories of Padmé to fill the void. “And why should we trust anything you have to say about our mother, your Highness?”
“Because I am the one who lied to you both your entire lives. Of course, you shouldn’t trust me.” Sidious strode up the stairs to the throne.
But the spell was broke and Leia sent gratitude to Luke. “That’s not what I’m here for,” she began.
“No, you’re only here to sue for peace and your brother’s release,” Sidious sneered as his sunken eyes gleamed. “And while you’re hoping to distract me, your forces are waging war below with X-1 Viper droids.” He settled onto the throne and pressed one of the armrest controls. The viewscreen to Luke’s left changed from the false window showing a sky view to a city street view at the base of the Citadel. The curved bodied droids resembled a giant Kubindi sun-beetle, but the machines lumbered quickly on their rear legs. The middle appendages ended in blaster cannons that sprayed the street defenses with returning fire. Blasts that hit them didn’t make a dint in the armor.
Leia glanced at Luke. He wasn’t supposed to be ready for that.
“Let’s see how they fare against my chrysalis rancors.” Sidious pressed the comm channel. “General, unleash the countermeasure against the Rebel forces.”