Heirs to the Rebellion - Part 1

and for all it's worth, but that was when i ruled the world 

Part  1: Lady of the Empire

Jagged Fel straightened his uniform one last time. The Imperial guards didn’t seem to acknowledge his presence, their crimson robes as still as they had been the only previous time he’d been summoned to appear before the Emperor. That summons had turned into a joyous event, as the Emperor had promoted him to colonel and assigned him to head Coruscant’s starfighter contingent.

Then, as now, though, he’d fought down the anxiety of appearing before the Emperor. He’d spent the time between the summons and the appearance trying to decide if he’d done something to displease the most powerful man in the galaxy.

Few escaped the Emperor’s wrath.

He nodded to the guard, and a crimson suited hand triggered the door. It slid upwards automatically, and Jag fell into the steady march he’d learned in flight school automatically as he strode into the throne room.

He knelt before the dais that held the Imperial throne. “My lord, you commanded my presence.”

The chair rotated from the window, but Jag kept his gaze fixed on the floor in front of him. The dark boots and cape were still visible in his peripheral vision, and the mechanical voice wheezed out from the black mask. “You may rise, Colonel.”

Jag stood. He could see the reflection of his face in the eyes of the Emperor’s mask. “How may I serve the Empire, my lord Vader?”

“You have done an excellent job of reshaping Coruscant’s starfighter squadrons,” Vader rumbled. “The 181st has regained the prestige it once held under your father’s command.”

Jag felt his chest expand with pride. “Thank you, my lord!”

“You have done this with a deft hand and a minimum of upset. None of the Coruscanti nobles have complained about your methods,” Vader continued. If the Emperor’s voice had not been regulated, Jag wondered if he might have heard a note of humor in the statement. “Is your second-in-command similarly adept at handling military politics?”

“Commander Nuruodo has rapidly adjusted to Imperial methods,” Jag stated. He was glad too—though Shawnkyr’s uncle had been a grand admiral and the Supreme Commander of the Imperial fleet for many years, it was only when Vader had ascended to the throne after the Rebel destruction of the Death Star that women and aliens had been permitted to take advanced positions in the fleet. Shawnkyr was female and alien both, and she had used her Chiss heritage to claw her way up the Imperial ranks faster than anyone other than Jag’s own uncle.

The memory of his uncle panged at his heart. Wedge Antilles had been father to him after the Death Star’s destruction. The Rebel attack on the Death Star had killed a great many people—the former Emperor Palpatine, Lord Vader’s own son, Luke, and Jag’s father, Soontir, had all been among the casualties. Wedge had helped raise his sister’s children as his own—Jag had been the second-youngest—until his TIE had been destroyed in a surprise attack. The 181st had tracked down and destroyed the Rebel squadron that had killed his uncle. Jag had personally shot down Tycho Celchu, the top Rebel pilot who had Wedge’s TIE painted on the side of his X-wing. It hadn’t healed the wound in his family, though. Syal Antilles Fel had never truly recovered from the death of her husband and then she had lost her brother—and then her eldest sons within months of one another. Jag and Cherith had watched their mother begin to fade away. The Rebels had a lot to answer for.

“Your loyalty and determination are impressive,” Vader said softly, and Jag realized that the quiet had stretched far too long. But the Emperor had looked into his thoughts with his powers and had not been displeased with what he’d seen. “I believe you will be most appropriate for the task I have set for you—that of protecting the Empire’s greatest treasure.”

The Empire’s greatest treasure? Was Coruscant not already the crown jewel of the Empire? He waited as Vader pressed a button on the arm of the throne. “Send her in.”

A door a the side of the throne room opened and Jag found himself staring as a woman entered, gliding across the floor to Vader’s side. Her white gown made a sharp contrast with the black of Vader’s suit. She bowed gently before him before planting a kiss on the side of Vader’s mask. Raising a hand, she used her sleeve to wipe the imprint of her lips from the black. “Grandfather. Is this him?”

“Indeed,” Vader rumbled. “Colonel Jagged Fel.” His mask turned back towards Jag. “The Lady Jaina.”

Jag bowed deeply to show his respect for the Imperial Lady. Vader continued as he straightened. “I have planned a celebration for a month from now,” he said. “Lady Jaina will be officially named as my heir and successor to the throne of the Empire. She will be Empress.”

“Congratulations, my lady,” Jag said respectfully. “Your leadership is already legendary. You will undoubtedly lead the Empire as deftly as my lord.”

The lady laughed. “Thank you, Colonel. I appreciate your flattery.”

Vader interrupted before Jag could insist that it wasn’t flattery. “This announcement has not been entirely unexpected in quarters of the Empire. But as always, there are threats to myself and my family. Therefore, Colonel Fel, I am charging you with the personal safety of Lady Jaina until we have announced that she will ascend the throne.”

Only long practice kept Jag’s mouth from dropping open. “My lord, you honor me. I will protect the Lady Jaina with my life.”

“Yes,” the Emperor said. “You will.”

***

“So you’re the legendary Colonel Fel,” Lady Jaina said, strolling down one of the large thoroughfares through the Imperial palace. As one of the royal family, officers and other diplomats should have stopped and bowed to her as she passed, but since she was part of the Empire’s diplomatic corps, her presence was noted, but not necessarily acknowledged. The ch’hala trees changed color as she passed by.

“I’m uncertain that legendary is an appropriate adjective, my lady,” Jag answered.

She raised an eyebrow. “Colonel Jagged Fel. You spent several years with our allies in the Unknown Territories and served with distinction during the Yuuzhan Vong war. In fact, several people credit you with discovering how to destroy dovin basals with stutter shots.”

“It was a fortunate accident,” he said, his voice low. The memories of the brief Yuuzhan Vong war were still raw in his mind—the outsiders had been responsible for the death of his brother Chak, and though the Vong had not encroached far into Imperial territory, the destruction had still been immense, especially for his adopted people, the Chiss.

“You were reprimanded for disobeying orders in order to save your squadron,” Jaina continued. “In return, you were reassigned to Coruscant, which some would see as a step up, but assigned to the 181st starfighter squadron, where you have also served with distinction in our ongoing conflict with the Rebels, and then were put in charge of Coruscant’s entire starfighter contingent. Your mother is Wynessa Starflare the actress, and you are descended from a line of distinguished pilots on both sides. Your sister is preparing to make her theatrical debut, and she and your mother live on your estate on Corellia which you inherited along with your title of Baron of the Empire, as well as on Coruscant with you.” she finished.

“The lady has my history down better than I do myself,” Jag said.

Jaina laughed. “When Grandfather informed me of his intentions, I insisted on being given an opportunity to review the candidates for my personal protector. Your name was on the short list Grandfather provided, and my father speaks very highly of yours.”

“Your father?” Jag said, confused.

“My father was at the Academy on Carida with yours,” she said, turning down another hall. “He says that Soontir Fel was one of the finest pilots he’d ever seen, with the possible exception of your uncle. He also said that any man with both of those influences was a man I could trust with my life.”

“My family has always striven to serve the Empire,” Jag said diplomatically.

Two guards opened a door for Jaina and she strode through. Jag followed her into the large chamber that he recognized as a senatorial office, and he remembered that Jaina represented Coruscant in the Senate. “Yes, they have,” she said, taking a seat behind the expansive desk. Behind her, the windows showed a false image of the Coruscant skyline. “But that’s not why I chose you to be my bodyguard for this short amount of time.” She gestured at the chairs in front of the desk, and he took a seat. “You disobeyed orders in order to save your squadron. You not only succeeded in saving your squadron, but changed the course of that battle.” She looked him directly in the eye, and he was struck by the brown color. “Grandfather insists that one of my particular weaknesses is to move ahead without taking any outside advice into account. So I specifically need someone to who will keep my best interests in mind, not necessarily what I want done. I think that’s you.”

“As I told the Emperor,” Jag said, “I will protect you with my life.”

She smiled again. “Hopefully, that will not be necessary. As we will undoubtedly be spending some time together, I want you to feel perfectly free to address any issues with me, including any questions you might have.”

“I have no questions, my lady, other than a wish to review your current security arrangements,” Jag said.

He suddenly felt pinned to his chair by the brandy-brown gaze. “That’s not entirely true,” Jaina said softly. “You forget that I have inherited my grandfather’s power, Colonel. I sense many questions in you.”

He hesitated before answering. “You have explained why me, my lady. I am curious—why you?”

She sat back in her chair, seemingly pleased at his question. “Had my uncle not been killed on the Death Star when Palpatine was, he would have been heir,” she said. “My mother prefers to stay out of the public eye.”

“Your father is a most capable general, though,” Jag said. “General Solo’s reputation as a tactician is well known.”

“Yes,” Jaina said. “But my father has no sensitivity to the Force, and my grandfather insists that to rule the Empire, the ability to touch the Force is a skill the Emperor or Empress cannot do without.”

“You have two brothers, though,” Jag said. “I have no doubt in your abilities, my lady, but many in the Empire would prefer to see a male on the throne.”

“Jacen has no taste for politics,” she said. “He prefers his plants and animals. He will likely take over the chair of the Coruscant Xenological Center.” She paused. “Anakin—is my grandfather’s Hand.”

The shiver went down Jag’s spine before he could control it. He had met Palpatine’s former Hand once, and Lady Mara had terrified him. Her exploits had been legendary, and the hushed stories of the things that the Emperor’s Hands had done across the galaxy struck fear into everyone but the most foolhardy. But to enlist one’s own grandson into that service—

“As Coruscant’s senator, I have had a unique position,” Jaina said. “Grandfather believes I will be the most capable of making the kinds of hard decisions necessary to rule the Empire.”

“Begging your pardon, my lady, but you have lived what most would consider a rather luxurious lifestyle,” he said with typical pilot rashness. “What does a member of the royal family know about hard decisions?”

Her eyes narrowed, and Jag realized that he’d spoken out of turn. Memories of stories of Vader’s temper flashed through his mind, and he hoped that Jaina had not inherited that particular tendency. But the anger that had appeared in her face disappeared, leaving only a weariness that he suspected few saw. “More than you would imagine, Colonel Fel,” she said.

He sat there in silence, appropriately chastised for his comment. Jaina finally broke the silence. “Don’t beat yourself up for your comment, Colonel. It was an appropriate question, and as I said, I want you to feel free to speak your mind.” She spread her hands across her desk. “Now, I am certain that you have duties to attend to in transferring command of the 181st and questions you wish to ask of my security detail. It is my intention to dine in my quarters this evening. I would like you to join me there with your plans for my security.”

Jag stood to attention. “As you command, my lady.”

Her smile reappeared, reaching all the way to her eyes. “Dismissed, Colonel.”

***

Jag sighed as he looked down at the plans for the new arrangements for Lady Jaina’s security, not because of the logistics involved, but because of the voice coming through the comlink sitting on his desk. “Honestly, Jagged, this is the third time this week. You don’t get home until well after Mother goes to bed, if you come home at all, and then you’re gone before she wakes up. We’ve been trying to spend some time together as a family, and if I can schedule my rehearsals around so someone can spend some time with Mom, you can certainly do the same.”

Drawing on the self-discipline he’d learned in the Unknown Regions, Jag bit back the retort he wanted to make. He was certainly regretting having leased an apartment that was large enough for the three of them; sometimes it seemed that Coruscant itself wasn’t big enough for the three of them. “Cherith, it’s not that I don’t want to be home. But I was given a new assignment today, and it has to be taken care of now. I have to do my duty and you know—“

“Screw your duty,” Cherith said harshly. “What has duty ever done for this family other than tear it apart? One assignment after another, all of them the same, all of them going to get you killed—”

“Cherith!” Jag finally exploded. “The Emperor gave me this assignment himself. Do you have any idea what that means? It means that I can’t afford to let anything get in the way of doing my duty. I may not see very much of you or mother for the next month or so.”

His sister was silent for a moment. “Are you leaving again?” she finally asked in a low voice.

“No,” he said. “Not that I know of, anyway.”

“You were going to take leave to make sure you were here for opening night,” she said, her voice losing the angry tone and turning uncertain. “Are you still going to be able to do that?”

Jag sighed again, making a note on his datapad. “Probably not. But I swear, Cherith, if it’s at all possible, I will be there. I promise you.”

“All right,” she said, and he could see her face in his mind, her feature so like their mother’s, etched in the kind of disapproval and long-suffering that Syal never showed. “I’ll tell Mother. But I swear, Jag, when this is over, you are taking leave. I don’t care if I have to go the Emperor himself to arrange it.”

He snorted. “I’ll talk to you later, Cherith.”

“Right, later,” she said, and the comlink clicked off.

Jag refocused on the datapad in front of him, trying to shake off the guilt his sister had suddenly put on his shoulders. He knew good and well that it was the third time they’d had to reschedule dinner this week. But he also knew that this could very well be the most important assignment of his life—not just because of the implications for his career, but because failure was not an option.

That was fine. He’d learned that particular lesson at the academy on Csilla. His uncle had used his connections to ensure that after Chak, Davin, and Jagged had decided to follow the family tradition of military service that they were enrolled in the elite academy run by the Chiss.

It was holding in his emotions that was harder. Though the Chiss had hammered in an insistence on proper public behavior, Jag was still full-blooded Corellian. In private, his emotions came out too strongly in response. He rubbed his forehead and reminded himself to apologize to Cherith when he next spoke to her.

The annunciator to his office rang, and Jag wondered if he was ever going to get the security details finished. “Come in.”

Shawnkyr marched in, her black uniform an image of perfection. “Colonel,” she said, standing at attention, her glowing red eyes fixed on a point over his head.

“At ease, Commander,” Jag said. He retrieved another datapad from his desk, idly remembering the days when he’d sent more time in a cockpit than he did pushing papers. “Your new orders.”

A crease briefly appeared in her forehead. “New orders, sir?”

He couldn’t help the twitch of a smile. “Congratulations, Commander. For the next month, you’ll be the commanding officer of the 181st.”

Anyone unfamiliar with the Chiss would have missed the expression of surprise. “You have been transferred, Colonel?”

“Temporarily,” Jag said. “It’s an excellent time for you to display your leadership skills. I intend to recommend you for promotion to Colonel when you return, with the rights and privileges such a rank requires.”

Shawnkyr took the datapad from him. “Thank you, sir.”

He dropped the commanding officer routine and looked at his friend. “Shawnkyr, you’re not going to be sticking around here. The 181st has been deployed with the Chimaera. The Rebellion has apparently established a new base on Derra IV, and Admiral Pellaeon is taking his task force to deal with them.”

Her glowing eyes revealed little. “I’m surprised you didn’t request this assignment. Your father was responsible for the first Imperial victory at Derra IV, correct?”

“He was,” Jag said. He refrained from mentioning that at during the battle, Syal had been at home with a toddler and preparing to give birth to another child. He didn’t mention that his father had barely been home for the five years between Derra IV and the travesty that had been the failure of the Imperial fleet at the destruction of the Death Star or that the same reasons Cherith had just cited had been some of the reasons he’d resented the man who had given him his name. “My other assignment takes precendence, and I have every confidence in your abilities, Shawnkyr. You’ll do the Ascendancy proud. Not to mention your father.”

The straightening of her spine reminded him that he wasn’t the only person with a legacy to live up to. “Thank you, sir. Will that be all?”

He stood to attention and saluted her. “Dismissed, Commander. And good luck.”

***

Jag arrived at Lady Jaina’s quarters a handful of seconds after the appointed hour. He’d had a brief horrified realization on his way from his office that he was still dressed in his day uniform, and had no idea if such attire was appropriate for dining with the heiress to the Empire. Reflecting that he had little choice in the matter, since he didn’t dare call home to ask his mother about the proper etiquette and changing would require he be late, he straightened his tunic.

The guards stationed at the door gave him little scrutiny, a fact that would be changing in a matter of a few hours, he reflected grimly as he was admitted into Jaina’s personal quarters.

He was first struck by the spareness of the quarters—though luxuriously appointed, there were few personal items present. The main living area looked like no one had bothered to live in it, and the only touch he could see was a rotating holo on one of the tables.

Jag felt a sense of relief as Jaina appeared out of one of the secondary rooms in her suite, her attire much less formal than it had been earlier in the day; she was dressed in a simple tunic and pants. “Colonel,” she said. “Please, come in. And I do mean in—I only save this room for official reasons.”

“Thank you, my lady,” he said, following her into the apartment. “I thought it seemed perhaps a bit bare.”

“Please,” she said, “I get enough of the ‘my lady’ in court. In private, I prefer to simply be Jaina.”

“As you wish,” he said, emerging into a room that resembled organized chaos. He stopped in the doorway, surveying the future empress’ quarters. The furniture looked comfortably worn, and there were stacks of datacards on the end tables. A small dining area was set up off the kitchenette, but the kitchen seemed to have been used for anything but its intended purpose, as mechanical items in various states of disassembly littered the counter. Jaina laughed as he stared at the technological morass. “You’ve stumbled onto my hobby, Colonel.”

“Jag, please, my lady,” he said. “I would feel uncomfortable addressing you by your name otherwise.”

“Please, sit down,” she said, gesturing carelessly towards the sofa. “Whyren’s?”

His eyebrows raised; the lady—Jaina—was certainly full of surprises, but she was also half-Corellian, he reflected. Whyren’s and surprise were both trademarks of their native homeworld. “Yes, thank you,” he managed, though his knees stubbornly locked and refused to take her hospitality. “What are you working on?”

“I usually have my hands in more than one project,” she said, pouring the whiskey into a glass. “I’ve been restoring that astromech in my spare time. According to Grandfather, that R2 unit belonged to my grandmother before the Clone Wars.” The little droid was powered off in the corner. “He’s had quite a few upgrades—and downgrades—since then.” She handed him the glass, and he took a sip to bolster his flagging courage. “My main priority has been working on my lightsaber. One of the crystals has become misaligned, and I think it may have a chip.” She picked up the half-assembled silver cylinder and displayed it. The red crystal seemed intact. “I had considered using an amethyst, but Grandfather suggested the synth-crystal instead.” She sighed, putting the hilt of the lightsaber back on the counter. “My original plan may have been more appropriate.”

“I’m afraid I can’t offer advice in regard to a lightsaber,” Jag said. “My expertise lies towards more conventional weapons.” He paused, recognizing a chance to segue into the discussion of her security. “Do you have another weapon you can keep with you at all times?”

A practiced flick of her wrist caused a small holdout blaster to appear in her hand. There was a twinkle in her eye at his sudden start. “Lady Mara was in charge of my self-defense lessons,” she said. “And with the Force, I am never unarmed.” She refastened her blaster into the sleeve holster, moving into the kitchen. Jag finally noticed two containers sitting on the counter. “You probably eat Corellian food more often than I do,” she said, pulling the lids off the containers, “but I can never pass up an excuse for endwa.”

Jag couldn’t help but grin as she pulled the lid off a ryshcate. Lady Jaina Solo was nothing if not surprising.  

***

Jag hadn’t bothered to pack much when he’d temporarily moved into the security quarters across the hall from Lady Jaina, just the contents of his pilot’s bag, moved from the squadron headquarters to the Imperial Palace. Jaina’s former security guard hadn’t been happy to be kicked out of his quarters, but he had understood. The fact that Jag had arranged other accommodations for the man already had definitely eliminated some of the ire involved. The security office was attached to the quarters, and there was a second station off Jaina’s senator’s office.

Having finally finished the arrangements, Jag had taken the opportunity to begin a more comprehensive examination of the threats Imperial Intelligence had intercepted. Many of them he was able to discard on the basis of Intelligence’s recommendation. His setup would protect Jaina from most general threats; Intelligence, he hoped, would provide him with specific ones in advance, allowing him to shore up those parts of Jaina’s protection before someone could take advantage of them.

Jaina had requested his presence at his convenience. Setting one of the reports aside, Jag straightened his uniform to cross the hall. Two Chiss officers were stationed in the hall—he’d already passed them with his id to get to his quarters, and two more were standing guard duty outside Jaina’s quarters. All of Jaina’s new guards were Chiss, and Jag had personally selected them for their service and unquestioning loyalty. He had even temporarily replaced the servants who brought her food and

He had wanted to employ some of Vader and Thrawn’s preferred bodyguards, but that had been the only aspect of Jaina’s security where the lady had disagreed. He knew Jaina was not xenophobic; otherwise, she never would have agreed to have Chiss serve as security, but her insistence on not using the Noghri had been final. Jag had noted it in his files, knowing that her objections would do little to alleviate any punishment he might receive if she came to harm.

The Chiss outside the door gave him a quick once-over before lifting his comlink to communicate with the apartment’s interior. “Colonel Fel to see you, my lady.”

The door was already opening. Jag nodded to the Chiss officer in approval of his propriety as Jaina appeared. “Colonel Fel, please, come in.”

He immediately noticed that her living room was not nearly as bare as it had been before. An older man in an Imperial uniform stood there, and Jag felt his spine straighten to attention out of reflex. “General Solo, sir.”

“At ease, Colonel,” the general said, setting a glass down on the table. Jaina gave a little sigh, rescuing the table with a coaster. “You’re in charge of Jaina’s security now?”

“Yes, sir,” Jag said. “I take my responsibility very seriously.”

“Force help you if you didn’t,” the general said, his tone surprisingly unthreatening as he studied Jag’s face. “You’re almost the spitting image of Soontir, except for the eyes.”

“Antilles heritage, sir,” Jag answered.

Solo snorted. “And I suppose you think you’re the best pilot in the galaxy, then, with Soontir on one side and Wedge on the other?”

“No, sir,” Jag said. “I know I am.”

He saw Jaina’s eyebrows raise in amusement as Solo let out a bark of laughter. “No doubt about it, you’re definitely Soontir’s.” The general looked back over his shoulder. “You protect my little girl, hear me?”

“Dad,” Jaina said, but her tone held nothing but affection as she wound an arm around her father’s waist in a hug.

“Yes, sir,” Jag said.

“Good,” Solo said, planting a kiss on his daughter’s cheek. “Because let me tell you something, Colonel. If something happens to Jaina, my father-in-law is the least of your worries.”

“Understood, sir,” Jag said as Jaina rolled her eyes and ushered her father out of her quarters.

“I’m sorry about that,” she said, as the door shut behind the general. She scooped up the glass he’d left behind and retreated for the part of the suite she used. Jag followed her. “Sometimes I think my family enjoys intimidating people.”

“I look at it as an opportunity to learn from the best,” Jag said. “It gives me an example to follow the next time Cherith brings home another actor.”

Jaina laughed. “I’m sure that you instill the appropriate sense of fear in her potential suitors.”

“I try,” he said. It had been easier the first time she’d brought a boyfriend home. It had been a fortunate turn of events for the Fels. Jag had just returned from the Academy, Davin had been stationed on Coruscant, and Wedge had arranged for leave for both he and Chak. They’d overridden Syal’s objections—which had been half-hearted at best, because the actress had an appreciation for comedy—and dressed in their best uniforms. Chak swore that the young man had nearly lost control of his bodily functions when he had been confronted with Cherith’s big brothers and uncle, all of them identically dressed in their black uniforms and their arms folded across their chests in identical expressions of disapproval.

Cherith had refused to speak to any of them for two days, but the four men had derived an enormous amount of enjoyment out of that incident, enjoyment that they had needed when the Yuuzhan Vong had invaded only a few months later.

Shaking those memories from his head, Jag returned his attention to Jaina. “You had requested my presence?”

“Yes,” Jaina said, retrieving a datapad from the large desk that occupied a corner of the room. “I suppose you’ve heard of Borsk Fey’lya?”

“Only people living under rocks haven’t heard of Fey’lya,” Jag said. “Large rocks.”

“I suppose that’s true,” Jaina said. “The new Combined Clans Building in Drev’starn is being named after Fey’lya, and as if that wasn’t enough to ensure the news cycle would mention him, I was invited to attend the ceremonies.”

“Surely that’s not important enough for you to make the trip,” Jag said.

“Normally, no,” Jaina said. “But I need Fey’lya’s support for this bill I’ve been trying to push through the budget committee for financial support for the families of the men and women we lost in the war against the Yuuzhan Vong.”

“How can he not give his support to that bill?” Jag asked.

“You’d think everyone would see it that as that straightforward. But with so much money going to rebuilding the fleet and to reconstruction for the planets affected by the war, some of my colleagues think that we should give those families the pensions from their loved ones and move on," she answered.

“Which is fine if you live on an Outer Rim world,” Jag said grimly. He knew exactly what the pensions were. “But if you live in the Core, that’s not about to cover basic living expenses.”

Jaina shook her head. “Especially not when you consider the turnover in our forces.” She met his gaze. “You fought in the war, Colonel, and you know we suffered more casualties than most people are aware of. So many of those people had only been in the military for a short amount of time and didn’t have time to build up anything beyond the basic pension either.”

“If you’ll forgive me asking,” Jag said, briefly hesitating before plunging ahead, “but it seems to me that you might simply overrule them by taking your case directly to the Emperor himself.”

She sighed, turning away from him, and Jag was given a moment to simply study her profile. Jaina resembled her mother in many ways, from the color of her intricately woven hair to the delicateness of her features, and the senatorial robes she still wore hung from her slim shoulders. “The Empire has brought order to a galaxy of chaos,” she began hesitantly. “It allowed us to present a unified and strong defense to the Yuuzhan Vong. There are undeniable benefits to the galaxy with this form of government.”

“But?” Jag asked, finding a seat on the arm of one of the chairs.

“But I have a harder time sacrificing proper legislative form for the purpose of political expediency,” she finished. “The Empire is built on a strong centralized government, but to completely ignore the duly elected representatives of the people the Empire serves?” She shrugged. “It’s very easy to tighten the grasp on the government. It’s much harder to loosen that grip.”

“And that’s not how you want to preface what will hopefully be a long and fruitful reign as Empress,” Jag said.

Jaina seemed to sag in relief. “You understand, then. A trip to Bothawui is a small price to pay for Fey’lya’s support in pushing this bill through.”

“Absolutely,” Jag said, taking a look at the datapad. The date scrolled down the screen and he felt his heart sink.

“What’s wrong?” Jaina said, her forehead abruptly wrinkling in concern.

Jag shook his head. “Nothing, my lady.” Still, he cringed internally. Cherith was going to kill him.

The datapad lowered under the pressure of her fingertips, and Jag looked up to see Jaina standing directly in front of him, concern in her brown eyes. “Jagged. Something is wrong. I can sense it. What is it?”

“It’s just a personal matter,” he said, feeling the heat rise to his face in embarrassment. “It’s nothing that you should worry about.”

Her smile was gentle. “You’re worried about it, Colonel. Therefore I’m worried about it, even if it is a personal matter.” She peered at the screen. “Something about the date?”

Jag took a breath, not quite able to believe that he was preparing to express this problem to the soon-to-be Imperial Princess. “My sister’s theatrical debut. Opening night. She’s in Uhl Eharl Khoehng at the Imperial Opera House. The Edjian prince’s daughter.”

Jaina’s eyes lit up. “Of course. You promised you’d be there.”

“I promised I would come if I was able,” he corrected. “Cherith has lived in a military family too long to know that it was a certainty. I will make my apologies to her—“

“Nonsense,” Jaina said. “We were only leaving early enough to attend some of those ridiculous functions Fey’lya had planned, and to be honest, I’d much rather attend a good production of Uhl Eharl Khoehng than have to deal with him.” Her expression turned pensive for a moment. “I think Grandfather still has a box at the Imperial Opera.” She turned back to him. “If you don’t mind me accompanying you?”

Jag’s eyes widened in surprise. “You are more than welcome, my lady. Cherith had already reserved tickets for myself and my mother—“

“Oh, I am intruding,” Jaina said. “I do that sometimes—“

“No, not at all,” Jag said. “I just didn’t want to leave my mother by herself—“

“Grandfather’s box has plenty of room,” Jaina said. “I didn’t mean for you to leave your mother behind, not at all. I would love to meet her—unless I really am intruding. I get ahead of myself sometimes and—“

He couldn’t help it, reacting the same way he did when Cherith started talking too fast, reaching out and covering her mouth. “Jaina! I would be honored to join you in your box, and so would Mother.” He realized what he’d done, and dropped his hand away, standing stiffly and hoping that she didn’t take offense.

She hadn’t. Her eyes were dancing with excitement. “Then I look forward to it, Jag. Thank you for letting me come.”

“I should be thanking you,” Jag said. “It’s your box.”

She smiled. “I’ll let Fey’lya know that we’ll be a day late.”

***

It was only for Cherith that he would subject himself to his dress uniform, he thought, putting the last shine on his boots before pulling them on. He double-checked his appearance in the mirror, making sure that his ribbons were straight.

Actually, it wasn’t for Cherith, because if they’d been in their regular seats, he’d have worn the regular suit his mother had bought him. Escorting Lady Jaina required the dress uniform, and knowing the number of reporters that would be present at the opening of the play—Garik Loran had come out of his retirement to play Uhl Eharl Khoehng, the daughter of Wynessa Starflare and Hero of the Empire Soontir Fel as the Edjian princess—the play attended by Wynessa Starflare herself, and by the Emperor’s granddaughter, Lady Jaina. Jag had managed to keep Jaina’s scheduled appearance out of most of the news feeds. He’d sent over a team of technicians to sweep the theatre, and they were being accompanied by a squad of stormtroopers in plain clothing, though they would be far too visible to the experienced eye.

He fastened his holster to his leg and checked his charric before holstering it.

“Is that really necessary?” Syal asked from behind him. Jag turned to see his mother standing there. She had prepared for the evening at the palace, and Jag smiled to see his mother dressed in her finery. The blue gown swept the floor, and the sleeves were wide at the wrists, all contributing to the illusion that Syal was not so much walking as gliding across the floor. Her blond hair helped to hide the gray she’d accumulated. Jag distinctly remembered the rare occasions when Syal had dressed so during his childhood. She had only rarely acted when he was a child, having mostly retired after Soontir Fel’s death. The few roles she had selected had been extraordinary ones, and almost all of them had garnered critical acclaim for her. Chak had escorted her to the last awards ceremony she’d attended, fresh from the Academy in his flight officer’s uniform. It had been hard to determine who had been more proud that night, mother or son.

“I would much rather have it and not need it than need it and not have it,” he said, finally deciding that his appearance was as good as it was going to get. He leaned over to kiss Syal’s cheek. “You look lovely, Mother.”

“Thank you, Jagged,” she said, smoothing her hands over the skirt of the dress. “You look rather handsome this evening yourself.”

He grinned in spite of himself, pleased with his mother’s approval. He placed her wrap around her shoulders before leading her to the door.

Outside Jaina’s quarters, two Chiss officers stood. One announced them, and Jag ushered his mother into Jaina’s quarters. “My lady?”

“Here I am,” Jaina said, emerging from back of the apartment. She was dressed in a coral gown that fastened behind her neck and left her shoulders bare, and her hair was piled on top of her head in a fashion that accentuated her similarly bare back. Gems dangled from her ears, and a simple cuff adorned her wrist.

A brief nudge in the side from his mother reminded Jag of the propriety involved. “My lady, I would like to introduce you to my mother, the Baroness Fel. Mother, the Lady Jaina.”

Syal dropped a curtsy to Jaina. “My lady, I am honored to be invited to your box this evening and that you are attending my daughter’s play.”

Jaina laughed, touching Syal’s hands in a gesture that indicated the baroness did not need to show such genuflection. “On the contrary, Baroness, I am honored that you have allowed me to join a family outing. I am very much looking forward to the play tonight.”

The beep from his comlink caused Jag to interrupt. “I believe the speeder has arrived, my lady. Shall we go?”

“Yes, of course,” Jaina said, collecting her purse and wrap. Jag deftly took the wrap from her, holding it out so she could collect herself into it and was pleased to see a faint blush color her cheeks. He held out his arm to her in his best court manner, a gesture that caused his mother to smile with barely contained amusement, and escorted them to the speeder.

***

If Jag had wondered if things might be awkward during the ride to the opera house, he’d forgotten both his mother’s charm and grace and Jaina’s instinctive ability to make friends of almost anyone she met. He was just grateful that they hadn’t decided they needed to exchange stories of his childhood.

“I thought Cherith was going to faint when Jag told her that you were coming,” Syal said. “She was quite excited.”

“Mother is understating it a bit,” Jag said. “Cherith was flailing.”

Jaina bit her lower lip to keep from laughing. “Oh goodness, I didn’t realize that I was just going to make this more stressful for her.”

“Nonsense,” Syal said. “It’s a lesson every actress has to learn if she’s going to be on the stage. Better to go ahead and work through that at the beginning. I speak from experience.”

The speeder slowed to a halt, and Jag’s attention was diverted from the conversation to the route to the door. It was covered—a concession the opera house had been too happy to make when they’d received word that Jaina was coming to the performance, and Coruscant security officers and the stormtrooper guard he’d interspersed with them lined the carpet. “My lady,” he said, “you have your holdout blaster with you?”

Syal stared at her son in surprise, but Jaina simply opened her purse and held it out for inspection. The tiny blaster was hidden inside. “Always, Colonel. I would have preferred my lightsaber, but—“ she shook her head.

“That’s all right. I just wanted to make sure you were armed,” he said, waiting for the nod outside the speeder from Eprill.

“Are we expecting trouble?” Syal asked, looking from her son to Jaina.

“No one ever expects trouble, Mother,” Jag said as Eprill opened the speeder door. “That’s why it’s best to be prepared.” He stepped out of the speeder and extended a hand to his mother, ignoring the flashing of the holocameras around them. Syal’s expression transformed from one of concern to a public face with a bright smile, and Jag was once again reminded of why his mother was considered one of the greatest actresses of the Empire. She stepped forward, heading towards the door, and Jag held out his hand once again, helping Jaina step out of the speeder.

The gasps and renewed flashes of the holocameras told Jag that he had succeeded in ensuring few knew Jaina was making an appearance at the opera that night. He smoothly transferred her hand to his arm as the speeder moved away.

Jaina waved to the reporters, but did as Jag had requested of her earlier in the evening and did not stop to answer questions. It took only a minute to get inside the opera house, but it was a minute in which he felt far too vulnerable.

The grand architecture of the Opera House surrounded them, and Jaina moved smoothly through the mass of people, greeting nobles of her acquaintance. Syal knew many of the people Jaina was speaking with, but Jag felt somewhat out of place. Despite the fact that his parents and uncle were well known in these circles and that Jag had inherited his father’s baronetcy, he couldn’t help but feel that his military heritage made him too rough for such a place. Glancing at the courtiers who were fawning over Jaina, he felt decidedly unworthy.

“Trust me, Colonel,” Jaina said in a low voice. “You are a far better man than these sycophants.”

He looked at her in surprise, but she was already moving on to greet others. Bolstered by Jaina’s vote of confidence, at least one of the butterflies that had been fluttering in his stomach settled.

***

The opera was fantastic. Cherith had been in the finest form. Though the daughter of the Edjian prince had traditionally been a soprano, Cherith’s alto had rung richer and with more emotion than anything the other female singers could manage. Jag had barely noticed any of the rest of the opera, having spent most of the time until Cherith’s performance nervously expecting it and the time after it reflecting with a fierce brotherly pride in her. Jaina had leaned over to him to whisper in his ear. “She is extraordinary, Jag. Truly extraordinary.”

The reflection hadn’t stopped the chill that went down his spine at the final famous line, uttered in a strangled cry as the Edjian prince fell to his knees before Garik Loran’s frightening Uhl Eharl Khoehng: “Long—live—the king!”

“Absolutely fantastic,” Jaina proclaimed, rising to her feet to applaud. “I’ve never seen it done better—present company excepted, Baroness.”

“There is no need to except my performance from your critique, my lady,” Syal said. “Cherith has outperformed me, and no mother can ask for more.”

“I would very much like to congratulate your sister in person, Colonel,” Jaina said.

“I think that can be arranged,” Jag said, gesturing for Eprill. The Chiss woman nodded to his instructions and hurried to carry them out. “Eprill will have Cherith meet us out in the hall.”

“Lovely,” Jaina said, letting him put her wrap around her again.

They only had to wait a few moments before Cherith appeared. She’d changed from her costume into a dress faster than Jag had ever known his sister to be able to change outfits, and hurried up to them, her face flushed. “My lady,” she said breathlessly, curtsying before Jaina. “Thank you for honoring us with your presence—“

“I was honored to be able to be here tonight,” Jaina said with a smile. “Your performance was astonishing. I am so pleased I could be here.”

Cherith’s smile was infectious. “I must thank you again, my lady. Jag told me that you postponed your plans to be here tonight and to allow him to make it. It means so much to me.”

Jaina immediately divined the tear that was appearing in Cherith’s eyes, and held out her arms, enfolding Jag’s sister in a hug. “I know how important family is, Cherith. I would not have dreamed of keeping your brother away.”

Jag was next to give his sister a hug as she recovered from the shock of Jaina’s embrace. “Nice job, short one. You did good,” he said gruffly. “I’m proud of you.”

“Thanks, Crashdown,” Cherith said, her face buried in her brother’s tunic.

“Enough,” Syal said. “It’s my turn.” Jag laughed, letting his sister go to his mother.

“Crashdown?” Jaina asked, raising an eyebrow. Jag gestured to the scar running into his scalp. Syal spoke softly to Cherith, while Jaina waved to more acquaintances, before Cherith curtseyed once more to Jaina, thanked her again, and had to run to greet some of the opera’s sponsors.

Jag turned to Jaina. “Are you ready to return to the palace, my lady?”

“I—“ she stopped mid-sentence, and Jag frowned. “My lady?”

“I sense danger,” she said. “Nearby. Very nearby.”

Jag turned to Eprill. “Have Stent bring the speeder around to the back. We’ll go out that way.” The Chiss officer turned, speaking rapidly into her comlink. Jag stepped in front of Jaina, surveying the rapidly dispersing crowd for possible dangers. Nothing stuck out to him, but Jaina had said she sensed danger.

Unwilling to risk Jaina’s life on his own ability to spot danger, he ushered the lady and his mother towards a side corridor, Eprill bringing up the rear. “This way,” he said. “My lady, have your blaster ready, just in case.”

“Already done,” Jaina said, and the small holdout blaster was indeed in her hand. Syal kept moving down the hall with them, despite her obvious alarm.

The shout from the main corridor alerted them. They halted for a moment, and Jag heard the quick report over Eprill’s comlink. “Ktah,” he spat. “Eprill, rear guard. Jaina, quickly.”

“What is it?” Syal asked as Jag hurried them down the hall.

“Assassin,” he said shortly. “Take a left.”

Jaina ducked down the hallway, and the blaster bolt nearly singed Jag’s uniform. “Damn it. Eprill?”

“Got one,” the warrior bit out. “Looks like a whole team and they’re good. I will attempt to hold them off. Get to the speeder.”

Jag didn’t argue. “Go. Take the stairs, go one level down.”

With a determination he would admire later, Jaina dropped her wrap and purse, grabbed Syal’s hand and began dragging his mother down the hallway towards the stairwell. “This way,” she said.

Jag had his comlink out. “Eprill? Eprill!”

If they had taken Eprill down, then they were indeed good. He followed Jaina down the stairs and onto the next level. Here, the opera house lost all of its grandeur, simply duracrete walls with doors in them leading to various maintenance sections. The stairwell door slammed hard, and he heard footsteps following them. “We’re not going to make it,” Jaina said. “But Eprill got two of them. There’s only one coming down the stairwell.”

Jag wasn’t about to ask how she knew, but she’d been right so far. He started hitting the door panels of the maintenance doors. One opened, and he pushed his mother inside. “Jaina, inside.”

“No,” she said. “I’ve got an idea.”

She took off for the end of the hallway, and Jag stood back in the recess the open door had created. Jaina stood at the end of the hall, waiting.

The assassin around the corner. One arm was held against him. Eprill had gotten at least one shot at him. Jaina ducked out of sight, but the assassin had already seen her. Barreling down the hall, the man never noticed the open door.

Jag stepped out of the doorway, raised his charric and fired.

The man dropped to the floor. Jag’s shot had been gruesomely accurate and at short range, a shot to the head didn’t leave much. Jaina reappeared, her blaster still out and ready.

He heard his mother choking behind him. “Mother, are you all right?” he asked.

Syal couldn’t seem to avert her eyes from the sight in the floor. “You killed him. Why did you kill him?”

“Charrics don’t have stun settings,” Jag said, turning back to the body. He starting rifling through the pockets—Syal wasn’t injured, and while the shock of seeing a dead body was horrible, she would recover.

“Rebel?” Jaina asked, stepping around to Syal, putting a hand on the older woman’s back in comfort.

“I don’t think so,” Jag said, pulling out identification cards. He held them up. “A Rebel assassin team wouldn’t carry these. Whatever else they may be, Rebels are still professionals.”

Bootsteps ran out, and a group of stormtroopers finally arrived, one of the Chiss officers leading them. Jag stood, relieved at the support—but dread still settled into his stomach as the adrenaline began to fade away. Someone was going to have to report this to the Emperor, and Jag was the only person who could.

***

Kneeling before the Emperor, a second rush of adrenaline ran through Jag as he waited for the Emperor to acknowledge his presence. Vader finally turned. The backdrop of the Coruscant night sky served to make his presence more forbidding, though morning would not be far off. “An incident. Report your incident, Colonel.”

Jag outlined the evening for the emperor, never allowing his gaze to rise above Vader’s boots. “Two officers were killed, and one was transported to the medical center. Her prognosis is good. The preliminary investigation points to a group of Coruscanti natives affiliated with an extremist group.”

“Extremists, not Rebels?” Vader questioned.

“Yes, my lord,” Jag said. “They were well trained, but not professionals. A review of the surveillance footage indicated that they were allowed into the Opera House by two Coruscant Security officers. Those officers have been taken into custody and are being questioned right now.”

“You reviewed the Intelligence reports?” Vader asked.

“Yes, my lord,” Jag said. “There were no indications that this group had any sort of event planned, much less an operation of this kind.”

Vader was silent for a moment, and Jag felt the pressure of the Emperor’s stare on him. “You did well, Colonel. My granddaughter did not come to harm. You need not fear for your life. Even had I been displeased, my granddaughter has interceded on your behalf.”

“Thank you, my lord,” Jag said, the sudden rush of relief running through him.

“I expect that you will continue to exercise your duty as well on Bothawui as you did here. Dismissed, Colonel.”

***

Jaina opened the door to her quarters before Jag could even nod to the Chiss officer outside. She was still attired in the gown from the evening as she ushered him into her quarters.

Jag saw no sign of his mother as Jaina led him into the back of the apartment. “Did my mother go home?”

“No,” Jaina said. “She’s settled down in the guest quarters down the hallway. The medical droid gave her a sedative. I called your sister. She was almost out of the opera house when the shooting started and had been frantic. She made her excuses to the opera directors and went home. I had a unit of stormtroopers go over to your apartment building very quietly. I didn’t want to alarm her, but I thought it might be best.”

“It probably wasn’t necessary, but I appreciate it. Thank you,” he said, releasing the top button to his uniform. The material had felt constricting all through the play and especially during his interview with the Emperor. Strictly speaking, he should have left it alone while in Jaina’s presence, but he was too tired to care about propriety.

“You look like you could use a drink,” she said. “Sit down, I’ll get you a glass of Whyren’s.”

He didn’t argue with her, sitting down on the hoversofa. He heard ice clink in the glass, and he looked over at Jaina as she poured the whiskey. The Emperor’s words echoed in his head. “The Emperor said you interceded on my behalf.”

Jaina sat down beside him, tucking her feet underneath her, and handed him the glass. He took a sip and let the liquid burn down his throat. He was finally regaining feeling out of the numbness of the drive to discover what happened. “My grandfather’s temper is legendary. I just wanted to make sure that you were able to get a fair hearing. He’s not unreasonable, so long as he listens.”

He covered her hand with his own, meeting her gaze. “Thank you,” he said. “Not just for that, but for taking care of my mother.”

She squeezed his hand. “It was the least I could do. And she’ll be all right, Jag. She didn’t mean what she said.”

Jag closed his eyes, leaning his head against the back of the hoversofa. He’d briefly blocked out his mother’s words. He knew that Syal hadn’t meant what she said, knew it intellectually, but deep in his chest, the raw wound she’d inflicted remained. “It’s my job,” he said softly. “My father, my uncle, my brothers. Every one of us an ace. The silhouettes on my fighter aren’t for droids I’ve destroyed.”

He rose, the anger bubbling back to the surface. Holding the glass to his forehead, he let the cold seep into his skin. “Force, does she think it’s easy for me? That I don’t know that every person I’ve shot down has a family? Maybe has someone depending on them? Even the Vong had lives outside of fighting.” He took in a deep breath.

“You haven’t had to kill outside of a fighter very often,” Jaina said softly.

Jag stared into the amber liquid in his glass. “Not since the war, no.” He paused, tossing back the rest of the liquor and grimaced as he set the glass aside. "Sometimes I wonder if it’s worth it.”

“What do you mean?” she asked.

He sighed, sitting back down, resting his elbows on his knees. “I do what I do because I believe it’s right. Because I believe in the order that the Empire offers, and the protection that it gives its citizens. I went to the Academy on Csilla. I know what else is out in the Unknown Regions.” He rubbed his face with a hand, feeling stubble. “The Rebellion does what it does because they believe it’s right. Because they believe—in something other than the Empire. And so we kill them, and they kill us, and what do we end up with? The Empire has done things that I know are evil. No one could call what happened to Alderaan right. But the Empire has also done a great deal of good. We’ve eliminated slavery in the worlds we control, we’ve spread medical service and education.” He sighed. “I suppose, when it comes down to it, I want to know if all that good that the Empire does and that I do—does it make up for the evil?”

Jaina cradled his face in her hands, turning it until he looked her in the eye. Her voice was strong and serious. “You are not an evil man, Jag. An evil man would not ask that kind of question. He wouldn’t even suffer a crisis of conscience. I know one thing, Jagged Fel, and that is that you are a good man.”

He covered her hand with his. “Thank you. Again.”

“You acted in defense of my life,” she said softly. “I should thank you.”

Jag shook his head. “You don’t need to thank me—“

Her fingers covered his mouth, cutting off his words. “I know I don’t,” she said. “That’s why I want to.”

Her fingers fell away from his mouth, and she leaned forward. Her lips met his tentatively, kissing him softly before she pulled back to look at him.

His heart was beating so hard he thought she could hear it. Hesitantly, as if he couldn’t quite believe it was allowed, he gently tucked a strand of her silky hair behind her ear. “Me?” he asked softly.

“You’re a good man,” she said, outlining his lips with her fingers. She leaned in again until they were breathing the same air. “And from what I understand, good men are hard to find.”

***

Stepping onto Bothawui, Jag was somewhat astonished to find that Jaina was not only awake, but able to be polite to the fawning delegation sent to meet them. Jag was used to going without sleep for long periods of time; he’d functioned for long stretches on only minimal amounts of sleep during the war, but now he was alert only through the benefit of the kind of caf that even the most hardened pilot in the 181st wouldn’t touch. He knew Jaina had been up just as long as he had.

Jag thought it was probably a good thing that Jaina was the one dealing with the Bothan delegation. He had little patience for the kind of maneuvering needed for dealing with the furry humanoids, and from what he understood, Fey’lya was one who perpetuated the stereotype most people in the Empire associated with Bothans. Arranging security for Jaina had been an exercise in patience, but he’d finally managed to get his way with the Bothan security forces through a combination of patience, persistence, and veiled threats.

His gaze fell on Jaina as she shook Fey’lya’s hand and posed for the holos. Jag knew that he was letting emotion start to influence him, but after the night at the opera, he was more determined than ever to protect Jaina. Taking a moment to analyze his feelings, Jag felt fairly certain that it had not only been their run from the assassins, but the hour he’d spent in Jaina’s quarters afterwards.

He’d left as dawn was arriving on Coruscant, knowing that as loyal as the Chiss were, they still gossiped. After looking in on his mother, he’d gone back to his quarters with the intention of napping for an hour. Instead, he’d laid on his bed, his mind racing, alternating between the memories of Jaina’s kisses and worrying about the repercussions of whatever his relationship with Jaina—if he could call it that—could be for both of them. He’d finally given up on sleep and started the preflight check on Jaina’s transport early.

His anxiety had eased when Jaina had embarked and offered him a gentle smile. Jag piloted them into hyperspace before spending the majority of his time on the ship briefing the security teams and double-checking their arrangements. Jaina had similarly spent the time in meetings with political advisors.

They were guided to the hotel in the middle of Drev’starn’s biggest plaza—it was a gigantic building, and Jag followed Jaina into her suite after a few quiet words in the hallway with his security officers. The porters left her bags, carrying Jag’s through to the accompanying smaller suite reserved for security before leaving. Jaina dismissed her attendants, leaving the two of them alone.

Jag pulled out a small device from his pocket. Thumbing the switch, he made a circuit around the suite through all the rooms, effectively shorting out any listening devices. It was a genius bit of Imperial design, guaranteed to give Jaina privacy. A protective barrier over the windows allowed light to enter, but blocked any outside view from surrounding buildings.

“One reception, one dedication, another reception, and then we can go home,” she said, taking a seat on the hoversofa, and her weariness finally appeared. “I’ve never liked Bothawui. There’s always an undercurrent of deception that sets me on edge.”

“Understandable,” Jag said. He paused, hesitating before broaching this subject. “Jaina, I have to ask you not to go anywhere without a security escort while we’re here. Not even the refresher—Sheril or Ilani can go with you.”

Jaina’s eyes narrowed. “I thought you said the event on Coruscant was a one time event—that we wouldn’t have to deal with such an event here.”

He sat down beside her on the hoversofa. “Yes, but I also have to think of two things. One is that such crimes can often precipitate copycats. The other is that there are a number of connections between Bothan citizens and the Rebellion. They may take this as an opportunity. You’re not a person the Empire can afford to lose.”

She looked away from him, her eyes looking out at an invisible object across the room. “I suppose not,” she said absently, and Jag felt that for a moment she no longer saw their surroundings, lost in her own thoughts, perhaps even another time and space. But then she turned back to him and smiled. “You’re right, of course. I’ll do as you ask.”

He put a finger under her chin and gently turned her face towards him. “You’re not a person I can afford to lose either.”

She scooted over closer to him, and he lifted his arm to let her tuck herself into his side. “You know we can’t associate outside tonight.” The note of wistfulness in her voice was all too evident. “Sometimes—I wish I’d been born as a normal person. There would be none of these social strictures, none of these responsibilities. That you and I could meet and not have to worry about the propriety of things.”

Jag leaned his head against hers, gently stroking her dark hair. “Maybe, but think about this—if you and I had been normal people, would we have ever met? And think about all the good that you’ve done for Coruscant and for the galaxy at large. Can you guarantee that anyone else would have been able to do that?”

“No,” Jaina said. “I can’t. I suppose I just wished that I could dance with you at the reception tonight.”

“Well, there’s no music or dance floor,” Jag said, rising from his seat. He faced her and gave her a deep bow. “But I would be honored to dance with you, my lady.”

She took his outstretched hand and let him pull her in. Clasping one of her hands in his, his other hand came around to rest on her back. They stood there, simply swaying to an unheard tempo. Jaina finally looked up at him. “How do you know to do these things?” she asked softly.

He laughed. “I’ve watched too many of my mother’s holodramas.”

Her laughter rang out. “That’s certainly the most honest answer I’ve ever heard.”

He grinned, dipping her briefly then bringing her back up. Her dark eyes were shining, and he couldn’t help himself, lowering his head to kiss her.

When they finally broke apart, he gently caressed her face. “Get some rest before the reception.”

She nodded. “I’ll need it if I’m going to be able to be civil to Fey’lya.” She lifted her face to him for one more kiss. “You get some sleep too.”

“I will,” he promised, reluctantly letting go of her. “If you need anything—“

“I know where you are,” she said with a smile, and Jag retreated to his accompanying suite. He took a moment to walk around his rooms with the sweeping device, set the alarm, and sprawled out onto the bed. Within seconds, he was asleep.


Part 2