A holographic representation of the galaxy filled the entire chamber, the slowly-revolving suns and satellites casting an eerie glow upon the sallow skin of the room's single occupant. To a casual observer he might have appeared as a god, albeit a noticeably dissipated deity, wandering amongst the planets and suns of his dominions.
If the nonexistent observer added "dethroned" to the description, he might not have been so very far off.
The being who had been a god--a minor one, to be sure, but still a god--stared wistfully at the blue-green orb of his home world. The exiled High Ruler of Freyuss had not seen his world in many years and now he probably never would. He sighed. And he hadbeen so looking forward to despoiling it...
Peace,Hareboun thought, is not all it's cracked up to be.
Hareboun continued to rove amongst the glowing illusion of the holomap, the traditional white robes of the High Ruler and Deity of the Freyussian people swirling about him as he walked. Like the Freyussian people's attitude toward their hereditary ruler, the robes were somewhat soiled.
Ingrates,thought Hareboun viciously. After all those years I spent wandering homeless around the galaxy, fighting tirelessly for their freedom.
Hareboun conveniently dismissed the fact that he had spent most, if not all of that period gleefully dividing his time between whoring and devising devious, if not generally successful, political double-crosses, continually obstructing the attempts of his harried commander-in-chief to make the Freyussian People's Grand Freedom imperative actually function.
And then, to advance the cause we all hold dear, I joined my freedom fighters to those in the Princess Leia Organa's gallant Alliance.Again, the exiled High Ruler somehow ignored that the joining of the Freyussians to the Alliance had not been altogether his own choice, but rather the result of a double-cross that failed. So how does the Princess Leia repay me? She turns my own people against me!
Hareboun would never in all his days forget the sight of his demure, reserved Grand Commander-in-Chief--by then general in the Alliance/New Republic forces--walking firmly to the podium of the Freyussian World Congress and quietly and demurely recommending that the monarchy not be reinstituted. She then quietly and demurely furnished enough evidence of what she termed his incompetence and untrustworthiness to fill several computer banks.
The princess had arranged for him to witness the whole proceedings--via holovision.
And they believed her! The fact that General Kayka Amnnssu was consort to the military leader of the new galactic government hadn't hurt her credibility at all. That's Organa's fault, too.General Rieekan was one of the princess's oldest and closest friends and it was no secret at all in Alliance circles that she had promoted the match between the two generals.
After all I've done for Kayka...Even he had a hard time believing that. His mind turned again to the woman who had urged his erring general on. Princess Leia Organa!he thought in loathing. The reason for all his troubles. The reason he was in exile from his far-from-loving people. Mentally, he threw a string of curses to wherever she was.
Wherever she was.
Interesting question, that: where was Leia Organa? After the Alliance's final victory, she had traveled to the former Imperial capitol of Malebolge, assisting in setting up the New Republic government. Everyone had expected her to be unanimously elected as the president of the reconstituted Senate. Instead, she suddenly had dropped out of sight. Since neither Skywalker nor Rieekan had appeared concerned, he assumed she was simply in retirement somewhere or another. He certainly wasn't going to worry his head about herwhereabouts!
Suddenly, however, the question interested High Ruler Hareboun more than he could express. While the malort's away...
A slow smile spread over Hareboun's dissipated face, revealing a set of yellowed teeth.
...the erkins will play.
Yes,thought Hareboun slowly. Kayka's so disgustingly happy with that general of hers she wouldn't notice a sandcrawler in front of her nose...unless it were taking up room in her bed. She's not concerned with Freyuss right now...and, apparently, neither is Leia Organa.
There were still beings on Freyuss who regarded their High Ruler as god. My faithful friends.Hareboun breathed softly. A small number, to be sure, but religious fanatics were so...willful. Worth twice their actual numbers, without a doubt.
He would have to gather more help, but with the Empire destroyed, surely there were any number of beings, unemployed from their former unsavory professions, who would be only too glad to... Yes,thought Hareboun. Now there's a possibility.All he had to do was round up some... The High Ruler smiled again, his expression more feral than ever.
The distance Han Solo had come from Mos Eisley Spaceport sometimes seemed more apparent than real. Light-years away from Tatooine as Freyuss's Port Altimor might be in both space and style, he couldn't help but feel, as he inconspicuously loosened his blaster from its snug spot in the worn holster, that he had but come full circle, ending up in the same old place.
Of course,he thought complacently, I've managed to pick up a few things along the way.
As for example, the lady seated beside him.
The lady was one of his better acquisitions. He couldn't say the same about the creature perched on the lady's shoulder. Although Han deplored the fact that the other bar patrons kept directing curious glances in their direction--he could have gone without the attention--he couldn't exactly blame them for their interest. Mad zeeekas were rare anywhere in the galaxy and few indeed were seen in the RimWorlds.
Several beings edged conspicuously away from Han and his companion. Few beings wantedto see a mad zeeeka--or its teeth--at close quarters, either. Han would have counted himself among their number, but one shouldn't grudge a lady her pet.
Han rubbed a healing wound on his hand. Besides, zeeekas were notoriously loyal. Somehow--damned bite itches--he doubted that he could separate his lady and her pet.
The little blue creature shifted uneasily on the lady's shoulder, wrapping its long tail around her neck and chittering nervously in her ear.
"This place makes Anne nervous," the lady said in an undertone.
"Her and me both," Han replied wryly.
There was nothing of the sleazy Mos Eisley cantina in the luxurious appointments of Space-lights, modishly perched on the top floor of Altimor Port's best hotel, the Freyussian Regent. The couches and chairs scattered tastefully about the penthouse bar were elegant, the music quiet and tasteful, the panoramic view over Altimor's fabled Inner Harbor breathtaking.
But there was something here that put Han Solo forcibly in mind of a hive of scum and villainy. Maybe it has something to do with the guy we're here to meet, whoever he is. Anyone who's buying a cargo like that, these days...
The elegant crowd surrounding the music synthesizer shifted restively as a newcomer arrived. These were uneasy times on Freyuss, with vague rumors flying from port to port of some religious upheaval.
Which was, in a manner of speaking, why Captain Han Solo and his lady friend sat in this luxurious lounge, hardly touching their exotic drinks. Trouble was her business and she followed it everywhere. Han Solo had his own business to consider, but part of it involved seeing she emerged from whatever trouble she got into, and remained relatively intact in the process.
After all, she washis wife.
She leaned over to him, her dark braid brushing against the collar of his shirt. "When's your contact showing up? You're sure he'll come?"
"He'll come if he wants that shipment of guns. Not too many sources of heavy weaponry these days." Han's eyes followed the movement around the synthesizer. This could be him.
"Are you sure those weapons...?" As if in response to his companion's nervousness, the zeeeka's tail tightened around her neck.
Han nodded. A being emerged from the crowd, moving toward them. "I'm sure they look operational. Don't you think Rieekan knows his work?" He rose smoothly to his feet, motioning his companion to remain in the shadowed area on the couch. "Looks like this is him now."
The other being moved into the narrow beam of light focused about the low table that held their drinks, raising his hand in the signal which was to start their negotiations.
Shit,thought Han. Hell of all worlds. Gods-be...He stopped, for it was useless. Even if he used his considerable store of profanity, culled from the thousands of systems stretching from Rim to Core, he'd never even begin to cover the territory of his disgust and dismay. Just what we needed. Just what we godsbedamned needed. I knew there was a reason I had a bad feeling about this place.He stared in frustrated rage at the being before him.
Recognition flared in the other's face, giving way almost instantly to a slimy, pleased smile. "Captain Solo," he purred, "how niceto see you once again."
Maybe if I close my eyes, he'll go away,Han thought. Trouble is, I wouldn't close my eyes--or turn my back--on him for a second.Han nodded a notably unenthusiastic greeting. "Hareboun." He noted that the lady behind him was--for her--unusually silent. Good,he thought. Just stay that way till we find out what's happening.
High Ruler Hareboun appeared undaunted by Han's less-than-eager salutation. "I should have known it would be you, Captain." The Freyussian's voice was as silky as ever. "You're so very good at...um...less than legal occupations." Ignoring the cool look in the Corellian's eyes, he talked on, his smile growing reminiscent. "I remember the first time we met--Ord Mantell, was it not?--when you..."
"I was working for the Alliance," Han reminded him.
"Ah, yes...but then that was less than legal then, was it not?" he said smoothly. "Ah, yes, Ord Mantell. Such times we had there. I remember..."
"You tried to sell me to a bounty hunter." Han's eyes shifted to the cool, silver shade of gun metal. "I remember it well."
Hareboun coughed uncomfortably. "Uh, yes...well, dear Captain, let us let bygones be bygones, true? We have business to transact."
"Right." The fingers on Han's right hand rubbed against its parent palm reflectively. The guns he was supplying might be fake, but the credits he received in return would be very real. Hareboun of Freyuss, too, was one being he didn't mind rooking. Not at all. It was all well and good for his wife to be altruistic--it was in her blood, after all. But Han Solo had a wife and a Wookiee to support. He was in this for the money.
However, his wife expected him to help her, as well, and if he didn't, she'd probably be up off that blue velvet couch in two seconds flat. "Just what are these guns for, Hareboun?"
A reflective gleam entered Hareboun's watery blue eyes. "Let's just say it has to do with a religious ceremony, my dear Captain Solo."
Well, that settled it; Hareboun was involved in the trouble here on Freyuss. Not that Han had doubted that for a moment. "Religious?" he snorted skeptically. "Never seemed to me you cared for anything to do with religion."
Hareboun's smile widened fractionally. "Well, that depends, dear Captain, on just...who...is being worshiped." His eyes focused again, coming back from whatever far country of greed he had been wandering. "Oh, Captain, I see you have a companion, just as I would expect." The bloodshot eyes swept over the shapely female figure, half-hidden in the shadows. "And who is your lady friend this time? I remember that back on Ord Mantell you had..."
Hareboun's voice died as Han's companion rose gracefully and stepped forward into the mellow pool of light. It amused Han to see the slimy villain at a loss for once. The Freyussian's jaw literally dropped--Han had always thought that just a figure of speech. But it dropped, all right, and the High Ruler's mouth gaped open for a long moment, before he finally recovered use of his muscles and his vocal cords.
"Princess Leia...!" His voice died again. The pale, mottled skin turned decidedly green.
Leia Organa-Solo appeared to enjoy the High Ruler's dismay just as fully as did her husband. She smiled, one hand describing an expansive arc through the hazy air of the bar. "No titles, Hareboun," the last princess of Alderaan told him. "I'm..."--the eyes that meshed with her husband's held the hint of a tender gleam--"...'Just Leia' now."
Hareboun's eyes skimmed incredulously over her. "My dear, you look...different." For a brief moment, the High Ruler's manner appeared almost genuine. "I almost wouldn't have recognized you."
Han grinned appreciatively. As a matter of fact, if Hareboun hadn't spent so much time on various bases--under close watch--he probably wouldn'thave recognized Leia Organa-Solo. Most beings didn't. Not that she wasn't receiving plenty of glances--from beings of the male persuasion--but that decidedly wasn'tbecause she was recognized as being a leader of the late Rebellion.
After all, wouldthe cool young senator from Alderaan wear a black velvet skirt split up to her...? Seems unlikely.Han's grin widened. Not to mention that it barely covered her shapely knees in the first place. And when had the symbol of the Rebel Alliance been seen in anything like that skimpy silk blouse? It was a particularly sultry shade of dusky green,for the gods' sake!--not white at all--and moreover bore a pattern of large wine-red flowers of improbable configuration.
Yeah, the Princess Leia Organa had decidedly changed since the Rebellion ended and since he... Better drop that line of thought, Solo. We're here on business.
Which his wife appeared to still have her mind firmly on. Han dragged his attention back to the conversation at hand.
"...exile, Hareboun. When I left the Core you'd been exiled from Freyuss. So what the hell are you doing here? And just why are you trying to purchase weapons?" Perched as she was on very high, elegantly slender heels, Leia was able to look the far-from-towering High Ruler straight in his watery eyes. He seemed to find it a disconcerting experience.
Huh, you should've been around the first time she did it to Luke. Blew the kid's mind.Trouble was, being tall tended to go to her head. Like now, when she apparently had spontaneously decided to abandon diplomacy for verbal bludgeoning. That she was contemplating passing considerably past the verbal stage was obvious by the way her hand strayed under the tan vest, where her slim blaster lay hidden.
Getting a little above yourself, Leia,he thought. Resignedly, he rechecked his own blaster. When she was in a mood like this, trouble was bound to follow. It was just a matter of time.
Not that he blamed her a bit. The idea of blowing off the High Ruler's head held considerable appeal, if only from an aesthetic point of view. The galaxy would be a distinctly more attractive environment without it.
"But, my dear Leia," protested Hareboun to some remark that Han had missed, "don't you believe in religious freedom?"
Leia's face reddened alarmingly, an interesting contrast to the blue of her zeeeka's tail, still wrapped firmly about her neck. Anne, ever sensitive to her mistress's moods, growled warningly at the Freyussian.
Hareboun glanced, almost furtively, at the entrance to the bar. A gleam entered his eyes, a gleam which Han developed a profound dislike to instantly. His own gaze traveled in the direction from which Hareboun's had come.
"My friendsbelieve in religious freedom," Hareboun continued silkily. "My friends..."
If Hareboun managed to complete his sentence, no one either heard nor heeded. Halfway through the High Ruler's oration, Han methodically began blasting the light controls conveniently located behind the bartender--a proceeding which shook up the 'tender considerably and didn't seem to please anyone else much, either.
Always did hate noisy bars.Han grabbed Leia's arm, shouting to compete with the screams of the bar patrons. "Ganks.Let's get out of here."
It was easier said than done. Even in the dim illumination leaking upward from the harbor, Han could see more than a dozen ganks, massive even in the semi-darkness, the metallic sections of their cybernetic bodies catching the faint light from below. Ganks were ugly, Han thought. Ganks were mean. Ganks were ruthless.
Ganks were also blocking the only obvious exit from the bar.
The thing to do is find another way out.That wasn't so easy, either. As the ganks pushed inward from the door, the elegant crowd peopling the penthouse bar panicked still more, some even being stupid enough to push back at the ganks. Their anguished shrieks added another note to the general confusion. Han and his companion, instead of making their way toward a probable exit, found themselves shoved against the wall of windows fronting the harbor.
Trying to push back was something remarkably akin to flying with a tractor beam on; it didn't work too well. Despite the wounds Leia inflicted with her stiletto heels and Anne with her sharp little teeth, the crowd remained a rigid barrier to their attempts at exiting the premises.
"Too bad we can't go through the window," Han muttered in her ear. "We'd be in great shape."
Even in the dimness Han could catch a gleam forming in his wife's brown eyes. "Hey, great idea, flyboy!"
He eyed the plastiglass doubtfully. "It would be, but I don't think the stuff breaks." Flipping out his blaster, he struck the window smartly with the butt. It remained stubbornly intact.
Leia fumbled under the slit of her skirt, and drew out a small metal handle with a tiny knob set into one side. "No, but maybe it can be cut." She pressed the knob and a glowing laser beam emerged.
"Hey," protested Han. "Where'd you get that? Laser knives haven't been seen since..." Han sighed. Trust Leia to weasel something like that out of the kid! The thing was damned antique; it belonged in a museum behind a case, not under his erring wife's skirt. "Hokey religions and ancient weapons..." he began.
"...sometimes come in handy." The hole in the plastiglass grew. "Good thing the frequencies on this thing could be set for non-Jedi." She finished her task, grasping the edge of the glass to prevent being shoved outside by the press of the crowd. "Now call a taxi, flyboy."
Han stuck his head out above twenty floors of nothingness and whistled. An open hover-cab, heading toward the regular entrance, waved as though confused, then swerved obediently, gliding to a graceful halt in front of the despoiled window.
Han crawled through the jagged opening, with difficulty gaining the nearly flat surface of the cab. Leia slithered out behind him, with Anne holding on to her shoulder for dear life. From the pained expression on her face, Han gathered that, in the excitement, Anne had wrapped her tail around Leia's neck a bit too tightly for the Alderaani's taste.
What is it that Leia's friend is always saying? Oh yeah..."It's a tough galaxy, Leia." He fed a Freyussian ten-credit piece into the cab, punching up a location code. The cab pulled smoothly away from the beings trying to push through the hole and hitch a ride.
Leia ignored the clamoring horde with all the aplomb to be expected of one of Alderaan's World Family. "Thanks," she replied drily. "But if I want two-credit philosophy, I'll go straight to Kayka for it. What I want right now is to discuss what we're going to do next."
The shrieks and yells of the mob faded into the distance. Han slowed the taxi to a crawling pace, so that the craft seemed to almost float through the still night air. Altimor's Inner Harbor lay spread out below them, its glowing lights and gently lapping waters bestowing a dream-like beauty on the scene.
"Good idea." He adjusted the autopilot, setting the taxi on a slow, swooping descent toward a low building situated on the opposite side of the water. Tiny, barely-discernable figures sat scattered at the tables on the rooftop, clutching miniature glasses and mugs. "We'll go over there--" he pointed at the restaurant/cantina "--for our long-neglected drink and talk."
His wife slanted him a quizzical glance. "Shouldn't we be getting back to the Falcon?"
Han pulled Leia back against the low seat and slipped one arm around her shoulders, ignoring the zeeeka's warning hiss. "Leia." He sunk his voice seductively. "The breeze is high, the moons are full, gentle waves are lapping against the docks below, and there's a beautiful woman, just millimeters away. I don'twant to go back to the Falconand play holochess with Chewie."
"You've got a point there."
Leia leaned back into his arms, releasing a long, contented sigh. Gently, he rubbed his cheek against her smoother one. It was a beautiful, quiet night, Anne's nervous chittering the only sound to be heard.
A feeling of tranquillity seeped through him as he lazily scanned the scene below. "Nice view, huh?" He gathered his wife still closer.
"Ummmm," answered his dutiful spouse.
Strangely enough, however, neither one of them even glanced at the view again or, indeed, looked up from their pleasant diversion until, a considerable period of time later, the taxi settled gently to the ground.
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