Twelve X-wing snubfighters roared down into the clouds, positioned in a dagger-like formation around the Corellian Corvette Tantive IV.
Breaking out of the clouds, the descending starfighters found themselves faced with the glorious spectacle of the city-planet of Coruscant, glimmering in the rain. Strobe lights from the tallest buildings picked out the vague shapes of great towers and huge domed citadels, lines of air traffic whizzing between them. An Eruption storm swept across the city, and electricity sparked from the energy collectors that swarmed across the surface of each building like spikes. Flashes of lightning swept down buildings, the energy slowly evaporating before it struck the surface.
The commanding officer of the squadron, hovering at the dead centre of the dagger’s hilt, tried not to stare too widely at the planet below. No matter how many holos she had seen of this place, no matter how many stories she heard, it was still hard to believe it actually existed. A whole planet encased in a metal carapace, nothing but steel and concrete from one pole to the other. There were no farmlands, no forests, nothing natural except for the artificial Western Sea and the imposing mountains that towered high above the Imperial Palace. This place had once been the jewel of the Republic, the centre of freedom and liberty; now it was the dark, rotten heart of the Empire. She shook her head.
A message appeared on the screen in front of her, translated from the mechanoid bleeping of her R4 unit. She forced her attention back to the mission at hand. Reading the message once, twice, she quickly keyed the comm unit to the blockade runner in front.
“Tantive IV, this is Rogue Leader.”
A moment of silence, then:
“Captain Antilles.What can I do for you Commander?”
“Captain, we’ve got seven Tie Interceptors in tight formation headed our way.”
“That will be our escort, Commander Skywalker.”
That wasn’t the Captain’s voice. “What is going on Mother?”
”We’re on a mission, Commander
. Let’s try and follow protocol, shall we?.”
Leia Skywalker winced. Why does she always do that?
. May I ask why I wasn’t informed that we were expecting an Imperial escort?”
Her mother’s voice was clipped. “That information was on a need to know basis, Commander.”
“Just keep your men in line, Commander. I don’t want some hotshot with an itchy trigger finger ending this conference before it has even begun. Is that understood, Commander?” her mother demanded.
“Yes, Ambassador,” Leia said through gritted teeth.
The comm clicked off. Leia seethed. Her mother and her would be having words later on, she would make sure of that. Why didn’t she tell me?
Leia realised she shouldn’t have been surprised. Things had been tense between the two of them since Leia passed the Trials. Leia couldn’t decide if it was because her mother was disappointed her daughter had not followed in her footsteps as a diplomat or simply because Leia had chosen to become a Jedi. She married two Jedi, by the Force. You would think she would be used to them by now.
They had descended down out of the atmosphere now, and the Rogues followed the directions being pumped into their flight computer by the Imperial Comm Net. Leia glanced down at the huge pipes that were racing along beneath them, zigzagging between buildings and across huge roadways, bridging the great chasms leading down to the lower levels. The pipes were used to pump water, energy and even food from the processing plants and they all met in a single location.
She followed them with her eyes as she nudged her X-wing into a sharp turn, keeping just out of range of the ion drive that lit up the back of the blockade runner. Though they vanished between two domed buildings a little further in front, they appeared again further on and slithered right across the surface to the looming Manarai Mountains – and in front of that Imperial Palace.
Somewhere between a pyramid and a cathedral, Imperial Palace covered the equivalent of a whole city district. Glowing grey-green rock and mirrored crystals created a constant glow around the structure. Leia knew that it had been built especially for the Emperor - it was a warren of ballrooms, suites and innumerable throne rooms. It even contained training rooms for the Emperor’s guards and specially designed chambers where the Emperor trained his own Hands. Legends abounded of Jedi artefacts hidden in treasure chambers, and that a secret transport system linked the Palace to every other site on Coruscant. Even from such a distance, the Palace seemed to exude a dark presence, as if the Dark Side of the Force had taken on shape and form. It seemed to be beating like a heart.
It made Leia’s skin crawl. What are we doing here? We should be attacking that place, not coming here to talk.
Her comm system crackled, and she heard a droning robotic voice instructing the Tantive IV to follow the ‘escort’ to a landing area. The escort itself was by now visible, the fighters’ bent, arrow-shaped wings recognisable even from almost twenty klicks away. Leia couldn’t help but tense and reach for the laser controls on her command stick, but she forced her hand down, trying a few breathing exercises her Master had taught her.
Following her orders, the Rogues dropped back slightly from the blockade runner and allowed the interceptors to form up around the ship. Still, they followed at a safe distance – even if she had given a direct order, Leia doubted she could have made any of her pilots abandon the Ambassador to these imperial squints.
The interceptors led the Alliance flight group to a large landing pad about fifty klicks from the Palace. The Rogues waited for the Tantive to land, the landing struts taking the weight comfortably, before descending themselves. As her own X-wing settled on the pad, Leia felt her heart drop. The sound of her metal landing gear on the concrete sounded too much like a trap snapping shut.
The pilots all climbed down from their cockpits as technicians from the Tantive rushed across the tarmac to see to any maintenance. Leia clambered down the step ladder, jumping the last metre, and was just tugging off her helmet when Biggs Darklighter, her second in command, stepped to her side.
“What the hell was all that about?” Biggs asked, worry creasing his scarred face.
“I don’t know.” Leia tried to keep the bitterness from her voice. A Jedi knows only calm. Mind your feelings.
“And what was that about a conference? I thought this was simply a prisoner exchange, like on Dantooine.”
Leia shrugged. “Don’t look at me.”
The rest of the pilots were out of their ships by now, pulling off helmets and flight jackets. Leia could see the worry clearly painted on their faces – none of them had been expecting this. All of them were peering around at the landing pad, back at the tower strewn city behind them, and over at the ominous shadow of the Palace to the north. She could sense their anxiety through the Force. She tried reaching out to sooth their fears, but her own worries kept getting in the way. She could almost hear her Master’s voice in her mind: How you ever completed the Trials I shall never know?
“Looks like they want you,” Biggs said, nudging Leia in the ribs.
She looked up in time to see Captain Antilles motioning her over. He was stood in the middle of a circle of Alliance guards, every single one with eyes fixed on the imperial cortege rapidly approaching. Stood next to the Captain were five figures. When she saw the tall male figure in the white formal uniform of an Alderaani prince, she tensed.
“What is he doing here?” she muttered to herself.
“Who?” Biggs asked.
Leia shook her head. Antilles’ gestures were becoming more and more insistent, so Leia instructed her XO to make sure that the men didn’t stray from the safety of the landing pad, then forced herself to walk across the tarmac to where the diplomatic corps were waiting.
“Commander Skywalker. Glad you could join us,” said Padme Amidala, eyes flashing.
“Just making sure the men know their orders, Ambassador.”
“And what orders would those be, Commander?”
Leia tried to focus on her mother and not let her eyes stray to the impeccably groomed Alderaani prince beside her. Lance Organa sensed her discomfort and smiled ruefully. Leia felt her cheeks burn. Lance had always had that effect on her, even before they were formally engaged. She favoured him with a cold smile. You could have told me you would be here.
He seemed to sense her thoughts, but only shrugged.
Leia finally turned her attention to her mother. Padme Amidala Kenobi had been described as a striking woman her whole life. Leia could remember sitting on her mother’s bed as a girl, just watching her brush out her long hair. That hair now sat held in a tight bun behind her face. She frowned at her daughter, and Leia felt a surge of sorrow through the Force. Why?
she asked herself. How have I disappointed you so badly, Mother?
Unable to hold her mother’s glance, she looked at the one member of the diplomatic corps she didn’t know. Taller than the others, he wore the black trousers and red shirt of a Corellian diplomat. His hair, unlike Lance’s, was a mess, yet he still held himself with all of the regal self-confidence of royalty. He caught her eye and winked at her. Winked! At me!
She fought back a scowl. I’m a Jedi Knight, dammit, not some flighty princess at a ball.
Realising she had yet to answer her mother’s question, Leia flinched slightly. Feeling her cheeks flush, she bowed her head.
“As you instructed, milady. They’ve been told to stay by the ships and wait for your return.”
Leia would have sworn she saw a smile tug at her mother’s lips.
“Thank you Commander. May I introduce the neutral party in these negotiations? Prince Han Solo of Corellia.”
Solo... This is the Crown Prince of Corellia?
He looks like a nerf-herder. Still, she had to admit, he had a nice smile. Banishing the thought, she nodded to him curtly, then turned to Antilles.
“You needed me, Captain?”
“Yes.” Captain Antilles nodded for Leia to follow him. He led her away from her mother and the two diplomats, who were only just making the introductions with the Imperial representatives. He leant in close enough so that he could whisper in the young Jedi’s ear. “I know you weren’t expecting any of this, Leia, but I asked for you personally. What with the rumours of this new offensive, the Order could little afford to lose you, but I need a Jedi at my back. These Sith make me nervous.”
Leia cast a wary eye at the Imperial representatives who were rapidly approaching. Two of them wore the long white robes fringed in black that identified a Sith. Mind your feelings
, she heard her Master’s voice in her ear. She reached out, trying to sense any disturbances in the Force. Nothing. Scowling in frustration, she looked back at Antilles.
“What exactly is going on here, Captain?”
“You will receive a full briefing tonight from Commander Horth. In a nut shell, three months ago the Emperor requested a new set of negotiations to replace the Corellia Accords. He has promised new borders and improved conditions for the Unclaimed Territories. This conference is with the Emperor and all of his Moffs. He has claimed no Sith will be present at the meetings themselves, but… Well, that’s why I need someone at my side I can trust.”
Leia nodded, though her mind was abuzz. The Emperor himself!
“I hope you do. A lot is riding on these talks, Commander. Your mother believes they may be our best last chance at peace.”
My mother believes a lot of things.
Leia nodded. “I’ll be careful.”
“I know you will.” He smiled at her fondly. “You’ve come a long way, Leia. A very long way. I meant it when I said I requested you personally. Now take care of your men, get them settled in and be onboard the Tantive at 2300.”
Now that that was settled, Antilles straightened up and walked back to the dignitaries, leaving Leia to stare after him. She wondered what exactly her mother was getting them into. No Jedi had ever been so close to the Emperor since Master Yoda fell at the end of the Clone Wars... Why didn’t Master Windu tell me?
As she followed Antilles, her eyes fell on Solo again. The initial meeting seemed to have broken up – her mother and Lance were following a group of white-robed servants towards the Palace. Solo was studying her carefully, and as soon as he realised she was looking at him, he grinned and winked at her again.
She felt a helpless urge to smile back. Calling on all of her reserves of Jedi training, she forced her feelings elsewhere. Pretending something was wrong with her cloak, she turned away, fussing with it.
When she turned back, Solo had gone. Leia breathed a sigh of relief. Focus
, her master’s voice echoed in her mind. She needed to stay focused. This might be just the opportunity she had been waiting for. A chance to wander the streets of the capital, to see the Jedi Temple… To catch a glimpse of where her father had once lived.
Determined to make the most of it, she headed towards the other pilots. Business first. Then... Then she would have a little fun.