The churning water which separated the two yachts decreased; Leia could see desperation etched upon Lisben's features. My friend, I'm afraid it's I who brought you to this. He might damn you as a traitor, but it's me whom he hates.
She stepped to Han's side, slipping an arm around him. If Lisben seemed the incarnation of the sea, her husband was that of the sky, as clean and as sharp, a brightness against the now-leaden overhang of clouds. She rested her head against him, her eyes still on the approaching ship. "I love you," she said softly.
Han's arm tightened briefly.
Lisben's hand tightened on the tiller. "We're not going to make it," he said softly.
He was right. The intersect was too close. The small figures on the deck of Hareboun's yacht grew larger. Leia could see the High Ruler himself standing at the prow. Smiling.
"Can we try to tack around again?" She spoke very quietly.
Han shook his head. "Too close." He slipped out of her embrace long enough to retrieve his blaster from the dry compartment in which he had placed it earlier. "You did your best, Lisben," he told the Freyussian.
The other man shook his head. "Wasn't good enough, was it?"
Han handed him a weapon. "It was a damn sight better than I could have done. Now stop shouldering the blame and get ready for them."
Smiling faintly, Lisben accepted the weapon. "I told you he was a good sailor."
"I knew he had to be good at something." Han checked over the weapon, flicking off the safety. "I've been waitin' years to find out what it is." He glanced down at Leia. "Maybe you'd better keep your blaster hidden, sweetheart. Might be nice to have a reserve."
She nodded, patting the weapon hidden under her skirt. The other ship was very close now. She could even pick out the red thread interwoven through the lines running up the mast.
The hulls scraped together raucously, setting her teeth at edge. Han leveled his blaster. The scene was frozen, as a drama before the actors are cued.
The figure at the prow stepped forward from the shadow cast by the flying jib. Surrounding him were a mass of the half-metal beings known as the finest killers in the galaxy. "I wouldn't do that, my dear Captain, unless you are aching for a massacre." High Ruler Hareboun smiled unpleasantly. "Of course, if you are, I'd be only too happy to oblige."
Han lowered his arm, dropping the blaster. A moment later, Rowa's weapon clattered to the deck.
Nonchalantly, Hareboun stepped over the small space separating the two decks. "Rowa, you arebecoming skillful. I'm so pleased. Perhaps"--he took the Freyussian's chin almost tenderly in one hand--"if you're really good, I'll let you crew on my yacht. That is, if you're still alive."
He released Rowa's chin, turning to Leia. She stepped forward defiantly, ignoring Han's small, instinctive move to protect her. She loved Han, but she wouldn't cower behind anyone. Raising her chin, she glared into Hareboun's gloating face, apparently oblivious to her rumpled clothing and ratted hair. "No titles," I said, and meant it. But in the end, if it comes to that, I'm still a princess of Alderaan.
"Princess." Hareboun's hand smoothed back the hair from her haggard face. "Princess, I fear you are becoming an annoyance to me."
"Oh?" She reached under her skirt for the blaster.
Han raised one eyebrow, gazing down at where Leia sat huddled against the plastiglass of a fish tank. "I can understand himacting like the villain in a third-rate melodrama, but I have a little harder time comprehending why youhad to enter the competition."
Leia shrugged, fixing her own gaze on the tank to Han's left. "I just got carried away."
"Carried away?" His voice echoed off the darkened tanks all down the corridor. "I'll say you got carried away. I told you to keep that thing in reserve! I thought you were going to challenge him to a duel, the way you were waving that thing around. What was it going to be, Leia? Mini-blasters at dawn? Or maybe you intended to shiv him with that dumb knife Luke gave you?"
"I was sick. I was tired. Leave me alone." She slumped further down the cool surface of the tank, protectively crossing her arms before her.
"She was sick." Han addressed the row of tanks, his voice dripping with sarcasm. "She was tired. So she challenges a guy with a boatload of ganks. A perfect way to get some rest. Good for the stomach, too."
"Well, I didn't see youdoing anything, flyboy!" She scrambled to her feet, standing on tiptoe in a vain attempt to reach his height. "Couldn't you have levitated him overboard or put an idea into his head or something? He's certainly weak-minded enough as far as I can see."
Han's eyes shifted swiftly to a deep, angry green. A lot of their arguments ended up here, with the same effect on Han's temper. "I-AM-NOT-A-JEDI!"
"You don't have to yell," she said loftily. "Besides, that's not what Master Yoda says."
"I don't care what that little green creep says." The words emerged through clenched teeth. "I. Am. Not. A. Jedi."
"But Yoda said..."
"He's dead. I'm not going to let the ghost of some little green creep tell me what I am. He can come float around every night for the next ten years as far as I'm concerned, but that doesn't make me a Jedi. So I don't want to hear any more of this Force crap."
Han raised an admonishing finger. "Not one more word."
The shadow surrounding one of the tanks shifted as Lisben Rowa turned over. He had, Leia realized guiltily, been trying to get some sleep. "Don't you two have anything better to do than fight?" the Freyussian asked.
Han looked puzzled. "Well, yeah, but isn't it a little public for that?"
Leia covered her mouth with one hand, trying vainly to stifle a giggle. Han grinned at her, well pleased with his sally. They were perfectly at peace with one another again.
Lisben sat up. "Frankly, I don't carewhat you two do, so long as you do it quietly." He looked disgruntled. Any reverence he held for the former Alliance leader had apparently dissipated at some point during an extremely noisy night. He pointed down the dimly-lit corridor. "There's a nice squid tank down there you can get behind." He slid to the floor again, the lids of his blue eyes drooping sleepily. "Have fun. The squid will love it."
Unfortunately, his remarks set off another train of thought in Leia's mind. "Wonder why Hareboun is using the Aquarium as a hideout?" Her eyes shifted to meet Han's. "Do you think the Mon Calimari have anything to do with this?" Ever since Admiral Ackbar had turned out to be a traitor, she had never trusted those fish,not a drop.
"Leia," Han said patiently, "They're amphibians.And just because Ackbar worked for the Empire is no reason to think the whole race..." They had covered this territory before.
Lisben opened his eyes again. Wearily. "I think Hareboun's using this place because it's so obvious no one would think to look for him here. It's been under 'repairs' for several months, now, so I guess he's been using it for some time. He must have bribed someone in the city government to arrange it." He shrugged. "It's a convenient place to stay until he's triumphantly reinstated."
"I always thought he was a trifle fishy," muttered Leia.
Rowa winced. "Can't you do something about your wife?"
"I'm working on it. I'm working on it." Han took her arm. "Let's go look at the squid."
They all froze at the sound of a door sliding open in the distance. The near-empty building amplified sound beautifully, echoing up to them clearly the sound of footsteps. Many footsteps. Heavy footsteps.
"Hareboun," whispered Rowa.
Han nodded. "Andhis ganks. Something tells me this isn't going to be just a social visit." He turned his head. "Hey, where are you going?"
Leia was already half a corridor away. "I don't know about you, but I'm not waiting for them. We might not be able to get out, but at least we can meet them on territory of our own choosing. Come on, Anne." Flapping her stubby wings, the zeeeka managed, not without difficultly, to gain her usual perch on Leia's shoulder. Zeeekas were not designed for extensive flying.
She was two floors up, amongst tanks illustrating a coral reef, when they finally caught up with her. Han grabbed her arm. "Do you have a destination in mind or are we just in this for the exercise?"
Leia pointed to a plastiglass door a few meters away. The inner surface was covered with a fine layer of condensed moisture. "That's a special habitat in there, isn't it?"
Rowa nodded. "It approximates the tropical environment found close to our equator."
"Lots of trees and undergrowth and such?"
Han took Leia's arm, pulling them both in front of the door's sensor. "You do have your moments, Your Worship. Not many, but you do have them." A blast of hot, stiflingly humid air just inside the door halted him in his tracks. "On the other hand..."
"Hey, it's better than ganks." She pulled him onto the moving walkway which led deeper into the rain forest.
"Not much." His thin knit shirt began to show perspiration marks. Beads of moisture trickled down his face.
Lisben wiped his forehead. "I knew there was a reason I always skipped this part of the tour."
Leia stepped off the walkway, glancing around. The rain forest made up the top floor of the Aquarium, the durasteel and plastiglass addition capping the structure with a sort of pyramidal greenhouse. Soft lights hidden amongst the undergrowth furnished a faint illumination, supplemented by the three moons, now risen and at their fullest stages.
Han and Lisben took off their shirts again. Leia sincerely wished she could emulate their example. She shrugged one shoulder, acutely conscious of a hot, heavy little burden. "Anne, would you like to find yourself a nice perch?" Chittering sullenly, the creature found itself a place in a stunted but leafy tree. "And be quiet."
Meanwhile, her husband searched out the lay of the land. "Well, there's plenty of cover, anyway." He scanned the clumps of tropical trees and bushes, well interwoven by various species of creeping and clinging vines. The jungle environment was pierced only by paths placed for the convenience of tourists searching for an experience rich in misery.
Leia scratched under her silk shirt. They must have even imported blood-biters from the tropical regions of Freyuss. What a treat.
"They'll be coming this way before long, so we'd better get ourselves into position." Han indicated a spot near where Anne perched. "That shirt of yours ought to blend right in there. "And don't"--he gave her a stern look--"come out until I give you the signal. No more heroics."
Muttering under her breath, Leia crawled into the spot indicated. Some other creature had been there before her. She couldn't determine quite what, but from the smell, she knew she didn't want to meet it. Actually, it smells a lot like Hareboun.Peering between the leaves, she watched Lisben shimmy up a tree capped by a bunch of leafy fronds interspersed with nuts the size of a small person's head. She smiled. Give him something to amuse himself with.Han climbed a smaller tree nearby.
With a faint swoosh the door to the habitat opened. "My friends," Hareboun called out, "must you have come up here? It's so very hot. And it won't do you a bit of good."
The walkway chugged, as with the effort of carrying a number of heavy bodies. In her hiding place under the plants, Leia tensed, her coiled muscles begging for action. No heroics. Damn you, Solo.She didn't have much choice, though; if Hareboun didn't kill her, Han would. She huddled lower. Following instructions, sir.
Footsteps echoed, the plastiglass canopy of the rain forest giving the huge room the effect of an amphitheater. It sounded more like a hundred ganks than a dozen.
"You might as well come out, my dear. I willsearch this place, leaf by leaf, until I find you." The echo effect doubled and redoubled his words, giving them ominous weight. "It is time that you and I parted ways, Your Highness, don't you agree? Only with you gone can I complete my takeover of my lovely home planet and close my system to your horrid Republic, once and for all." He paused, letting the echoes die. "Thinking back on it, I do believe I liked the Empire better."
He does talk like a villain in a third-rate melodrama.Unfortunately, that didn't make him any less dangerous.
The ganks stalked methodically through the dense undergrowth, thrusting at the bushes with their energy rifles. Adrenalin pumped through her system, demanding her to act. No, Han knows what he's doing. I won't...She gritted her teeth as Hareboun came within a meter of her, his scruffy sandals on a level with her eyes. I'll be good. I'll be very good. You'd better appreciate this, Han.
Less than a meter from her side perched Anne. A slight rustle of leaves brought her presence forcibly back to Leia's mind. Sweet Deheri, she hates Hareboun! Be quiet, Anne, be quiet.The rustle of leaves became louder. What am I going to do?The sandaled feet turned, as if he sought out the source of the sound. Only one thing to do. Sorry, Han.
The strength of thousands of years of Organa command entered her voice. "Bite him, Anne!"
The order crashed up to the clear ceiling, reverberating down again until it appeared that the galaxy's voices spoke as one, urging the little zeeka to use her teeth.
Anne flapped up from her perch, chittering raucously, the shrill sound bouncing off the plastiglass with truly horrifying effect. Leia clapped her hands over her ears. Her own shrieks of encouragement added to the din.
Anne swooped down on the High Ruler, stubby wings outstretched for balance. Wrapping her long tail firmly about Hareboun's neck, she dug needle-sharp teeth into his flabby, red-veined cheek.
"Attagirl, Anne!" Han's voice rose above even Hareboun's scream of pain. "I knew you'd come through someday!"
Hareboun spun around blindly, trying to claw the zeeeka from his neck. The ganks stood frozen in place, apparently dumbfounded by the proceedings. "Will one of you idiots get this thing off me?" the High Ruler shrieked.
A gank lumbered forward, his path crossing directly under Lisben's perch. The Freyussian dropped onto the gank's shoulders like a stone through thin air--as straight and as heavily.
The gank grunted from the impact, but didn't even stumble. Lisben wound his legs around the creature's broad chest, clinging as tightly as a water-leecra. He placed his strong hands on either side of the gank's massive skull. The hands tightened.
Lisben, the thing's half-metal. You can't! Even through the din, Leia could hear the beginnings of a slight crunch. Guess he can, at that.
Leaping lightly from his own perch, Han picked up the creature's fallen energy rifle. He leveled it at Hareboun. "And now..." The words were nearly swallowed by the noise level of the enclosed rain forest. Han raised his voice. "AND NOW..."
Hareboun leapt across the small space separating him from Leia, seizing her around the neck with one arm. The High Ruler was stronger than he looked. Pulling on those lines on his yacht, I suppose.
"And now, Captain Solo, I have your wife. So I suggest you drop that energy rifle."
Slowly, the weapon dropped from her husband's hands.
"Very good, Solo. I'm glad to see you can sometimes follow instructions." He glanced down at Leia, hatred obvious in his faded blue eyes. The arm around her neck tightened. "Call off your pet, Princess." The pressure on her windpipe decreased enough for her to speak. "Now."
The zeeeka unfastened her teeth and tail. Flopping her body awkwardly off that of the High Ruler, she chittered her disappointment loudly.
Hareboun spun her around to face the eleven remaining ganks. He motioned them forward with his head. "I want you to take care of my friend, the princess, for me, my fine beings. I want you to take very good care of her."
I'm going to die.She swallowed hard, watching the ganks advance. Her breathing became shallow. Funny that at this moment all she could think of was...I love you, Han. I've always loved you.She wondered if he could sense her thoughts, here at the end.
The ganks were very close now. One reached out a massive hand. It glittered in the half-light provided by the moons. I just wish I could feel more resigned about this.
"Hey, you ganks!"
Leia started at the sound. It was Han's voice, but curiously cool and expressionless in tone, not really like his voice at all. "He's not going to pay you, you know."
The gank lowered his hand. Its russet eyes glazed.
"My dear Captain, what are you talking about? Of course I'm going to pay these fine beings." Hareboun sounded only slightly annoyed.
"He's not going to pay you," Han repeated. Leia had never heard his voice sound so strange.
"I don't know what you're trying to do, Solo, but..." Hareboun's voice died. The gank had raised his hand again, but too high for Leia. He was going for the High Ruler's throat.
Hareboun paled. "What...?!" His grasp slackened fractionally. Leia slipped out from the confining band of his arm and ran lightly to Han's side. The High Ruler didn't seem to even notice.
"There." Her voice trembled. "I told you that you were a Jedi."
"Shut up, sweetheart; I'm concentrating." Han stood very still, his eyes closed, his breathing shallow.
Leia shut up.
For perhaps a moment, there was almost dead silence, only the quiet cheep of the imported insects breaking the oppressive stillness. The other ganks advanced with horrid slowness to join their comrade. The High Ruler seemed too terrified to speak. His eyes literally bulged with horror.
The swooshheralding the opening of the habitat door sounded unnaturally loud as it broke the expectant hush. The walkway cranked into life, carrying an unknown burden toward them, then quieted again as it deposited its cargo at the first path. Leia placed one hand at her breast; she hardly breathed.
"Leia, are you here?"
The voice was quiet, demure--and familiar. As the footsteps advanced, even the ganks froze in place, waiting.
An unimpressive figure emerged, standing silhouetted against the greenery, her long dark braids swinging as she cocked her head uncertainly. As always, the uniform of a New Republic general seemed incongruous on her thin body, like a child playing dress-up. She removed her tinted glasses, as if only now remembering them to be unnecessary, and took in the scene. "Uh, Leia, do you need some help?" She stepped back quickly, obviously startled by the echo.
Leia nodded shakily. "It would be nice."
Kayka Amnnssu pressed a switch on her wrist unit. "Rieekan, Chewie, bring the troops up to the tropics." She raised the blaster in her hand as though puzzled as to where to point it. There are a lot of choices,Leia admitted inwardly.
"Kayka." Hareboun whispered his former subordinate's name hoarsely. His voice strengthened then, became silky, pleading. "Kayka, my love, these ganks are trying to kill me."
Damn his lying, smooth tongue.Her friend was notoriously soft-hearted. Kayka wouldn't hurt a...
"Oh." A long silence ensued. General Amnnssu examined Hareboun thoughtfully. "It certainly is a tough galaxy, isn't it, Hareboun?" Her voice was bland.
Hareboun, former High Ruler of Freyuss, blanched.
Leia propped her elbows on the Falcon'sgaming table, sipping at her fifth glass of novida. She felt pleasantly blasted and she had every intention of becoming still more so as the evening wore on. "I knew you wouldn't do it, Kayka."
General Amnnssu hunched her thin shoulders, acknowledging the jibe. "Yeah, but I sure had him scared for a few minutes there." She was only on her second glass but, her alcohol tolerances being what they were, was in about the same state as Leia.
"You could have at least let Rowa crush his head." Leia addressed her glass at least equally with Kayka. "He never gets to have any fun."
"Listen, Leia..." Kayka spoke slowly and distinctly, only stumbling over a few of the longer words. "I spent the entire Rebellion trying to break Lisben of that habit. It's socially un-ac-cept-ab-le." She nodded solemnly, terribly proud of her accomplishment.
"I guess," Leia admitted, pouring them both another round. "But it seems so tame. I did want to watch Hareboun get his head crushed in. Fun." She brooded darkly for a few minutes, then fixed her friend with a stern look. Kayka stared back solemnly, the cabin lights reflecting off her tinted lenses.
"My husband," Leia announced, "is a Jedi."
Kayka drew herself up, hands clutching the lapels of her uniform. "Myhusband is a general."She blinked at her solemnly, only letting go of her lapel long enough to reach for her glass. It slipped from her grasp, splashing novida over a considerable portion of the gaming table. "Oops, sorry." She mopped at the table with the sleeve of her uniform.
Leia attempted to aid her, using her bare arm.
The hatchway unsealed, revealing the two husbands in question. Leia struggled to her feet, dripping novida. "Han!" She walked unsteadily over to him. "Love you," she said indistinctly.
She put one hand to her head. Something very odd is happening to this room...
Han caught his unconscious wife in his arms, carrying her back to the curved couch. "Leave her alone for a few hours to clean up some business and..."
"Yes," agreed Rieekan. "I know what you mean." he crouched down to examine his own lady, who appeared to cling to consciousness, if only marginally.
"General,"he said stubbornly. Having gotten that off her mind, she slithered quietly to the floor. She lay quite still, her glasses tilted crazily.
Rieekan looked at Han. "Well," he remarked dryly, "I'm glad she remains properly aware of rank, whatever her situation." He raised an eyebrow. "Leia's had a rough few days, but I'm not sure what Kayka's excuse is."
"Seeing Hareboun again," Han suggested. "That would do it to anyone."
"True. I thought we'd take him back to the Core, perhaps turn him over to... Well, I think you know her, Han. The lady with indigo eyes?" The woman in question knew a hundred ways of killing a man and wasn't adverse to using any of them.
"She commanded the base with the water rats, didn't she?" Han asked.
"Good place for him."
Silence fell, broken only by the sonorous breathing of the two unconscious women. Han poured out glasses of novida, carefully avoiding the mad zeeeka stretched out on the table. She regarded Han with loving, if bleary, blue eyes.
"She only likes me when she's drunk," he informed Rieekan.
Rieekan swished the liquor around in his glass, not bothering to answer. He rather hesitated to bring up the subject foremost in his mind. The rumors had flown everywhere at the end of the war, of course, but Rieekan hadn't really believed them. The Corellian always seemed such a matter-of-fact type. He cleared his throat. "About you stopping those ganks, Han...I wondered..."
Solo looked at him over the rim of the novida glass. His eyes were cold as steel. "I. Am. Not. A. Jedi."
Their gazes locked for a long moment. "Ahem. Of course not, Han." He tried to appear nonchalant. "Hokey religions and ancient weapons, right?"
"Right," agreed Han stonily.
"Well," Rieekan said brightly. "Then everything is taken care of on this end. Hareboun will come with us. Lisben Rowa believes the religious fanaticism will die down once the High Ruler's gone, and with men like Rowa around, Freyuss should eventually get back on course. Perhaps my wife"--he eyed her prone form doubtfully--"can keep an eye on the situation."
He hesitated. "There's just one little detail. It's about these ganks..."
Han's eyes shifted to steel-grey.
Rieekan held up his hand placatingly. "No, nothing to do with Jedi. It's just that...well, we didn't get all the ganks."
Han stared at him wordlessly.
Rieekan shifted uncomfortably. "Actually, Han, I'm not sure. I'm just going by what Hareboun says, which Force alone knows is probably not too accurate. He claims that there are five ganks still on the loose." He examined his glass with great care.
"And ganks are damned scrupulous when it comes to contracts." Han swallowed his glass in one gulp. "I know."
Leia Organa-Solo chose that extremely inopportune moment to regain consciousness. She struggled to her feet. "Ganks? After us?" She looked wildly around the room, a blurry challenge alight in her eyes. "I'll get them, Han." She swayed on her feet. "I think I'll do it in the morning."
Han stood just in time to catch her again. "Great," he muttered. "Just great. We'll have to take off first thing in the morning or she'll be down on the docks looking for them." He hefted her into his arms. "She's heavy for such a little thing." Han swayed toward the sleeping cabins with his burden.
At Rieekan's feet, his slumbering wife stirred. "Something wrong?" she mumbled.
General Rieekan reached down to pat the dark hair reassuringly. "Nothing at all wrong, Kayka." He pulled her to her feet. They'd better get back to their ship. He didn't really trust anyone to watch Hareboun but himself. And Kayka would be better off passed out in her own bed.
He placed a steadying hand on her shoulder, guiding her out into the night. "It's just that you were right all along, Kayka. It's a very tough galaxy, indeed."
Pulling her closer, he paused to look up at the star-studded sky. "But sometimes, my love"--he grinned at her inanimate body--"it's a hell of a lot of fun."