"Anni Capstan was precious and unique!" Jaina screamed at the figure speaking to her from the shadows. "So was Ulaha Kore! So was…" Jaina stopped as a name caught in her throat and didn't allow itself to be uttered, let alone understood.
"What of them?" the figure asked incredulously. "They served their purpose to the possible best end."
"How dare you say that?" Jaina's eyes smoldered angrily. "They were my friends!"
Jaina's surroundings were dark and she couldn't make out anything beyond the darkness. Light cascaded down on her, but it had no visible source. The figure she was addressing stepped into the light and Jaina could finally see him.
Standing over two full meters in height, the young man had close cropped brown hair and eyes of bright blue. He wore a black outer cloak over an old Jedi Tunic of dark brown and accented with a black leather outer tunic. Jaina glared at him, though his face was an impassive mask. Under other circumstances Jaina might have found the young man quite attractive, but something seemed wrong to her about that thought.
"There are heroes in the Galaxy, Jaina," he began slowly, "and heroes are oft made by stepping over the bodies of their fellows. It is what sets them apart." Jaina spun and turned her back on him but it did not stop his words. "That willingness to proceed, even when you have strong evidence of the likelihood of death, is what sets heroes apart."
"And what if I don't want that?" Jaina screeched as she turned back to face him.
"Your wishes are of no concern."
"Master Luke has told us we're to find our own place!"
The young man's features became wistful for a moment. "Yes, Luke would say something like that."
"Who are you to question him?" Jaina accused.
"Someone who knows better than he," came the simple answer. "He could not fight his destiny any more than you can fight yours."
Jaina almost spoke again but she stopped herself. Fear, cold and hard, filled her heart. She did not want to know the answer to the question she was almost foolish enough to ask.
The man smiled knowingly. "You can not hide from your destiny, Jaina." Reaching for the lightsaber Jaina now noticed was hanging from his belt, the young man took it in his hand. Snaphiss, the blade that emerged shimmered a startling blue. As he held it in his hands, she recognized the weapon as one she was very familiar with since it normally hung from the belt of her Master, Mara Jade- Skywalker.
Jaina shook her head. "No," she began weakly, but his strong voice cut her off.
"You are the Sword of the Jedi," he declared. "You will survive as those you love die around you. And your duty will keep you from all you may have loved without its undertaking. Sadly, you will never know peace, for peace is impossible when you are bathed in the blood of not only your enemies but your friends as well."
"Jaina," she heard as she felt herself being shaken. "Wake up."
Jaina's eyes sprung open to see Anni sitting on the bed near her. She still had her hands on Jaina's shoulders but had stopped shaking her. The images and words of her dreams still rattled around in Jaina's mind as she tried to banish them.
Jaina managed a weak smile and sat up. "Good morning."
"Good morning?" Anni asked, surprised. "It didn't sound like one from the next room. Are you all right?"
"Fine," she answered, not very convincingly.
"Well, I could hear you from my room. So, that's not gonna hold any water, Sticks," Anni retorted.
Jaina sighed. "Okay, okay. I just had a nightmare. No big deal."
Anni looked at her skeptically for a moment. Jaina began to worry that her friend wasn't going to let it drop. It was just a dream, Jaina thought. Not everything that appears when I close my eyes is a vision from the Force.
Finally, Anni smiled. "Well, not exactly my ideal wake-up call, but it's probably about time we got up anyway."
Jaina nodded and rolled out of bed. From there, the two women got dressed and ready to begin their day. After about an hour, Lord ji Rytt arrived with two of his pilots and began to go over the itinerary for the day. It didn't take more than a moment for Jaina to realize that they were being given the royal treatment.
The day's activities would lead them all over the city and surrounding area. They would be touring military bases, ship construction facilities and government offices ending with a cursory stop to inspect the loading of the concussion missiles and proton torpedoes they were tasked to bring back. Though neither really wanted to spend the first day of their visit this way, they knew they couldn't really decline.
So Anni and Jaina were led through a rather boring day that lasted much longer than either of them expected. The only plus was that it appeared that things were going well with the shipment and it might even be completed ahead of schedule. As the sun began to set, they were escorted back to their quarters to prepare for their last official function for the evening.
Before leaving the Rogues' quarters, Lord ji Rytt informed Jaina and Anni that a banquet was being held to honor their visit and give them an opportunity to meet the Perator, Balass ke Teldan. Checking the chrono, the two women discovered that they had only about two hours until the banquet and they would need every second of it to get ready. First, they selected appropriate formal clothes from the array their hosts had provided and then spent much of the time figuring out how to don it correctly. With that dilemma and doing their hair and make-up, they had barely managed to be ready when Hassiss returned.
"Can we get this underway?" Anni asked him as her hands dropped to rub her stomach. "I am starving."
The Adumari pilot took a moment to look at their clothing and accessories. Both wore elaborate tunics and breeches, accented with many straps and buckles. Jaina's consisted of a garish green and gold pattern with golden buckles and black straps. On her belt hung a blaster, her lightsaber, and a strange device that consisted of a small hemispherical device with a handle. The flat side of it was crossed with vents, and the round side held the handle and an intake vent. A small motor drew air through the intake and pushed it out through the vents.
When she noticed Hassiss appraising her, Jaina let her hand drop to the strange device that she had found already hanging from the belt she had chosen to wear with her outfit. Tapping it with her finger, she asked, "What is this?"
"A comfan is a personal comfort device courtiers use to keep themselves cool during long, official functions," the Adumari Lord began. He went on to explain that within the courts of Adumar, handling of a comfan was considered an art and even the slightest of motions could convey a hidden meaning.
Jaina decided to keep the comfan on her belt as an accessory to complete her outfit. However, she just as quickly came to the conclusion it would stay right there for the duration of the evening. The Force only knows what I could accidentally say or imply, she thought.
Anni was dressed in a dark crimson tunic with thick black leather straps and silver buckles. A shimmering black long cloak flowed from her shoulders and from her belt hung an archaic Adumari blaster pistol and a blastsword. The whole outfit clashed with her natural red hair and blue eyes. But, the clashing combinations seemed to only accent the fashion in the eyes of the Adumari.
"You look wonderful," Hassiss commented finally after taking a few more moments to appraise them both. "And I would be honored to escort you to the banquet and your awaiting dinners."
As Hassiss turned to exit, Anni rolled her eyes at Jaina and smirked. A giggle emerged first from Jaina then Anni but, if he noticed, Lord ji Rytt did not comment. Within a few moments, they found themselves in a speeder making their way through the streets in the direction of the Court of the Royal Residence.
The speeder slowed to a stop in front of the giant building that was lit up like the Koornacht Cluster. In the light breeze that blew, elaborate banners flapped majestically from various positions on the building's facade. Guards in ceremonial uniform moved to them, offering a hand to help them from the speeder and gesturing to the staircase leading into the seat of the Perator of Cartann.
Upon entering, they walked through a very short corridor that led into a huge ballroom. Even Jaina couldn't help standing a bit agape as Anni nearly fell over in shock. The beauty and majesty of the room was indescribable, surpassing even Coruscant's Grand Ballroom and rivaling the tales Jaina had heard of the opulence of Palpatine's era.
"It is a pleasure to meet you," a young woman greeted them politely after waiting a few moments for the new arrivals to take everything in. She was attired in a sharp looking dueling tunic and breeches. As well, she wore a blastsword and a blaster pistol on either hip. "My mates and I would love to speak with you on your battles and kills," she added, gesturing to a group of three, two men and one woman, off to the side. They all wore similar clothing but each had a few different medals and ribbons indicating they were all from different nations.
Jaina offered a warm but polite smile and Anni shrugged as they walked over to the group. The Adumari Union pilots were soon encouraging them to divulge details of every conflict they had ever been involved in. At first, stories concerning the Vong dominated their conversation. But eventually, Jaina turned to stories from her time at the Jedi Praxeum while Anni delved into her many adventures during her short term as a freighter pilot. As their tales continued, more and more people gathered around the two New Republic pilots. There seemed to be no waning of their audience's interest even as Jaina and Anni ran out of tales to tell.
Much to the disappointment of those gathered, Jaina and Anni eventually excused themselves. When they walked off, they each breathed a sigh of relief. "I don't think I've ever had anyone that interested in what I had to say," Anni sighed.
Jaina shook her head. "Nor I."
Anni cocked her head and shot Jaina a doubtful look. "Now, why do I doubt that?" She placed a hand on Jaina's shoulder and made a wide sweeping gesture with her other hand. "Jaina Solo, the future of the New Republic. The daughter made of one of the most romantic unions ever told in modern-day tales. Jaina Solo, fighter pilot and Jedi extraordinaire!"
Jaina blushed and grabbed Anni's arm as a few people turned to see why she was shouting. "Give me a break, will you?" Jaina pleaded. The two women broke down and chuckled. They made their way over to sample the culinary delights meant as appetizers. Most of the food was a little too spicy for Jaina's tastes, but Anni loved it and sampled so many Jaina doubted she would be able to eat her dinner. If it's served before the Sith Hells freeze over, that is, Jaina mused.
Almost two hours passed as they waited for the Perator to arrive. Jaina and Anni spent their time discussing everything they could possibly think of about piloting, including many things they had never even considered, with a number of groups of Adumari pilots. Jaina and Anni had just broken away from the group they were speaking to and found a table where no one was pestering them when a hush fell over the crowd.
A row of guards moved to flank the entrance that led from deeper in the royal palace. They wore exquisite uniforms and held ornate blastswords in their hands. A moment later, a man in a uniform that bore a strong resemblance to the Cartann military uniform, but was a hundred times more extravagant, walked in. He appeared to be in his early forties and wore his gray hair cropped close to his scalp. Although it seemed he may have once been in excellent shape, he was now thickening a bit in the middle.
He waved regally and the crowd broke into a boisterous cheer. Anni and Jaina quickly joined in and applauded but not with the enthusiasm of the Perator's subjects. He made his way to the throne at the back wall and a herd of courtiers and advisors made their way with him. As soon as he was seated, rows of waiters carrying huge trays of food began to make their way through the room serving dinner to the Perator's guests.
The two women did their best to eat slowly despite their ravenous hunger that the appetizers had done little to curb. As they ate, they observed the ruler of Cartann from across the room as he attended to the concerns of those with him. The aides all spoke animatedly and though they could not hear their words from so far away, it was easy to tell that the speakers considered them to be of world shattering proportions.
"What do you think they are talking about?" Anni leaned over to whisper.
"Not the foggiest idea," Jaina admitted. "But, from their body language and the Perator's, I think they believe the world is about to end and the Perator knows better and is simply placating them."
Anni chuckled. "Now I know why you dread politics so."
Jaina looked at her indignantly. "I don't dread it. Politics has its place. It's just that it can be…"
"Annoying?" Anni interjected. "Boring? Self-righteous?"
Jaina laughed. "Yes."
Laughing together, they cut their banter short as they saw one of the Perator's advisors coming over to them. "Lieutenant Solo?"
Anni's features blossomed in a wide smile when it occurred to her that the Perator might only be looking for Jaina. "That's her," she said, gesturing to Jaina. She glanced around and used the opportunity to escape, calling out as she walked off, "I'll catch up with you later, Sticks. I believe there is a seat at a Sabacc table somewhere around here with my name on it."
Jaina sat there shocked but couldn't really fault Anni for her rapid escape. I'll get you later, don't you worry, she thought with joking malice before returning her attention to the advisor. "Yes, I am Lieutenant Solo."
"The Perator wishes to invite you to approach so that you might speak with him," he said, gesturing towards the throne and the gaggle of people standing near it.
Jaina bowed her head slightly. "I am honored by his request and humbly accept." Standing slowly, she stepped away from the table and what little remained of her dinner.
The advisor led Jaina toward the throne and, at her approach, the crowd parted slightly to allow her to pass. She walked with her head held high and an air of royalty she inherited from her mother. She came to a halt a few paces from the dais the throne sat upon and offered a deep bow to the figure seated upon it.
"Welcome to Adumar and to Cartann, Lieutenant," Perator ke Teldan said, his voice low but commanding. "It is a pleasure to meet you."
Raising her gaze to look at him, Jaina smiled with practiced grace. "It pleases me greatly to be here, Perator. Thank you for the honor of greeting me personally."
Balass ke Teldan turned and whispered to the aide standing to his right. As he did, he extended his closed right hand to point at Jaina and from his fist, he extended his fingers to point at her with his middle and ring fingers. Gasps followed by hushed mutterings accompanied his gesture. That worried Jaina, not because she had any clue what the gesture meant, but due to the response it received from the people in the room. Without another word, Balass dropped his hand, stood and exited the room accompanied by his guards.
Jaina looked about but no one would meet her gaze. Through the Force, she could feel a mix of emotions radiating from them. She could feel jealousy, contempt, and even fear but had no idea why they felt what they did. The aide the Perator had spoken to walked over to stand beside her and gestured for Jaina to follow him. Not knowing what had occurred, Jaina was wary. But, if there had been some misstep, she needed to try and remedy it or else they might be denied the crucial shipment they were there to retrieve. She followed the aide.
The advisor led her out of the giant ballroom into an equally grand hallway. After many twists and turns, Jaina was shown through an ornate gold door into a small sitting room. A fire burned brightly in a fireplace within one of the walls. There were three plush chairs arranged in a circle and a large bed against the opposite wall. Hanging about the room, covering almost every bare bit of wall, were a number of beautiful and elaborate paintings. They seemed to detail the life of someone, that someone she presumed was Perator Balass ke Teldan. The scenes showed gigantic air battles, blastsword duels and even one that appeared to be a council meeting.
As Jaina looked at it, she saw people ringed about a huge wooden table. Next to the Perator stood a figure that looked very much like…
"You didn't know I had met your mother, did you?"
Spinning around and stifling a gasp, Jaina saw Balass ke Teldan standing near the door, which he reached to close. He was dressed the same but he now wore an ornate mask of black velvet and gold that obscured most of his face. Moving to sit in one of the chairs, he motioned for Jaina to sit in the one across from him.
"I didn't, in fact," Jaina replied as she sat.
"I'm very happy we could take this little bit of time away. I have a couple of matters I wished to discuss with you."
Jaina only nodded but she couldn't keep her eyes from his mask. It was very distracting.
"With my mask on, I do not see with the Perator's eyes. So, we may speak casually," he explained. "It also serves another purpose in the ritual I used to invite you here."
Well, that is what they were muttering about, Jaina thought. Now, the only question is what that ritual entails?
As if he had been able to hear Jaina's question, Balass answered, "I bestowed the great honor upon you of inviting you to share my bed. But, because I am married, it can't be as myself the Perator but only as myself the man. And, of course, it deals with any matters that might arise if you were to carry away one of my heirs. Since I am not the Perator with this mask, any child would not be in the line of succession for my throne. "
It took all of Jaina's willpower to keep her jaw from hitting the floor. A spike of fear ran through her and she had no idea how to handle the situation. She knew that as a man of honor he would not force her, and even if he tried, she was a Jedi after all. But she needed to move cautiously to avoid diplomatic problems a refusal might create.
"You heard the mutterings, I'm sure," the older man continued. "Unlike my father, who invoked this rite fairly regularly, this is the first time I ever have." He chuckled softly.
"What made you this time?" Jaina asked in a measured tone, her heart seeming to have lodged itself in her throat.
"It was really the only way to speak with you completely alone." A wide grin came to his face. "Though, I think I will have a lot of explaining to do to my wife when I see her later this eve."
"Well, I am honored," Jaina began, her tone more than a little nervous. "It's just that…"
He interrupted her with a boisterous laugh, lowering his head as he laughed for several moments. At first, Jaina was a bit unnerved by it, but she quickly realized the laughter was far from maniacal and was more joyous or amused.
He shook his head and looked to her again as his laughter slowed. "You misunderstand. As I said, I wished to speak to you alone. That is all. Speak."
A blush rose to the young woman's cheeks. "Oh. Oh, my. I'm sorry… I just…"
Balass waved a hand at her. "No, no. No need for apologies. I should have been clearer. I simply wished to be able to speak with you as myself, not with the restrictions placed upon me by my station. Especially those binding me while in the view of my subjects."
Since he had made it clear he did not want an apology, Jaina simply nodded. Balass reached into his uniform coat to the inside pocket and pulled out a datapad. "First, I would like to ask if you would be willing to deliver this to General Antilles for me?"
Jaina took the data pad with a smile as he extended it to her. "Of course, I would be happy to."
"There are many things I wished to say to him, that I could not on the day he left." The older man sighed heavily. "At the time your esteemed Rogues left my world, there were many binding traditions that made the Perator unlike any normal man. And, I am sad to say, many of those traditions still exist today."
The mantle of responsibility and duty seemed to weigh heavily on the man sitting before Jaina. At the moment it seemed to her that the weight might crush him, a smile returned to his face. "But that is not what I wanted to discuss with you. As the old adage goes: The more things change, the more they stay the same."
A bemused smirk came to Jaina's lips. "I gather you got that from Major Klivian?"
"Yes, though I didn't realize it was exclusive to him."
"It isn't but from what I know, of the people who visited you, that sounds most likely to be something he would tell you."
Jaina and Balass paused, both seemingly lost in their own thoughts. Jaina broke the silence several moments later. "I will gladly deliver the message. Though, if I may be so bold, I take it the message was not the only reason you wished to speak with me."
"I believe some of your mother, the diplomat, is showing through in you," he responded with a good-natured laugh. "Suggesting boldness, but showing none at all and only suggesting such an idea so your listener could presume such himself." The comment made Jaina think for a moment, not sure she knew exactly what he was getting at. Though, before she had a chance to finish mulling it over, he continued, "But despite your diplomatic phrasing, I will answer you directly. Yes, you are correct."
"There are many on my world who yearn to meet this new found enemy of the New Republic," he said with a heavy sigh. "I wish I could say that it was due to their love for their fellow citizens but most of them are the hard-liners from before Adumar embraced the idea of a world government."
"Well, Perator, I wish I could say that the New Republic was in a position to accept or reject help based on the reasons behind it being offered." Jaina's features hardened with the thoughts of the battles she had seen and the people they had lost. "But, we are not. We need all the help we can get, and more. In fact, at this point, we have even accepted aid from the Imperial Remnant." The Perator could not hide his surprise. "There are many who wore that same expression when they heard," Jaina said with a smirk.
"I had heard rumors but I immediately discounted them." His expression turned pensive. "From all I had learned from my many meetings with the officials of the New Republic, not one of them ever thought there would be any cooperation between the two governments - ever, for any reason."
Jaina offered a shrug. "Not one of them could have imagined an enemy like the Yuuzhan Vong."
Perator Balass ke Teldan steepled his hands with the tips of his middle fingers lightly resting just below his nose. "Well, that is all the more reason we will need to involve ourselves in this. And, I mean more than just supplying munitions."
"I am glad to hear that," Jaina replied, waiting to see what else he would add.
"Though, we must be careful as to how we choose to involve ourselves. I will consider this in the days to come," Balass affirmed. "But before we get to the other reason I asked you here, there is one more small matter I need to see to."
Jaina watched him stand and make his way over to a nearby table she hadn't noticed before. Upon it sat a few bottles and other trinkets along with a beautiful red flower and a small branch of thorns. He picked up the twig of thorns and made his way back to Jaina. He slowly reached out to pin it to Jaina's lapel. "There. Now let us move to the Council Chamber."
As he exited the room, Jaina stood to follow and considered asking him about why he had pinned thorns to her lapel. Her curiosity quickly melted away as the Perator got back to the topic of why he had really brought her back here.
"As I am sure you are now well aware of, my world has a great respect for fighter pilots. In fact, some of the qualities that make them merely tolerated in the polite society of our New Republic are what endear them to my people."
"I'm not sure I understand," Jaina answered slowly.
"Well, pilots are often very frank, bordering on rude. They tell it like it is and offer no apology. And that is exactly what I need from you in the next few minutes." They came to the door of the Council Chamber and Balass stopped. " I need you to explain everything you can about the Yuuzhan Vong to the people seated in this room."
Jaina swallowed heavily as she began to realize what she was being asked to do.
"Just tell them the truth," Balass continued. "Do not speak of glory or honor. Speak of the horrors of combat with the Yuuzhan Vong and what threat they really pose to the Galaxy. If you can do this for me, I can promise I can supply a far better force to the conflict at hand."
Jaina nodded solemnly. "I will do my best, for all our sakes."
With a resolute nod, he pulled the mask from his face and once again became the revered ruler. Then the Perator of Cartann led Jaina through the door into the elaborately decorated room beyond, which was dominated by a huge round table. Though there were many seats, most were empty and eighteen people sat around the table all dressed in uniforms of varying styles. From the data she had read during her flight, Jaina recognized most of them as members of the various nations of the Adumari Union Council.
The Perator of Cartann led her directly to a podium set a few paces
back from the table. Jaina paused briefly and steeled herself
before she spoke. Then she began, first introducing herself
including her station and merits before enlightening the gathered
leaders exactly as she had been asked to do.
Continued in Part Six