Where we really love, we often dread more than we desire
the solemn moment that exchanges hope for certainty.
--Mme. De Stael, Corinne VIII.iv.
"...Following serious consideration of Princess Leia Organa's request, on behalf of the Alliance to restore the Republic, we at Lacostia Consolidated have chosen to extend our support to the rebellion. In light of your organization's recent successes against the Empire, and your very reasonable precautions to ensure our own anonymity, we feel that our assistance at this time could prove instrumental in dethroning the Emperor and restoring a healthy and prosperous Republic. We have various options available and would like to propose them to Princess Organa at her earliest convenience. We are prepared to schedule a conference on the space station of Ord Mantell, at our expense, to guarantee the safety of both parties. Due to Ord Mantellian policy regarding nonresident docking procedures, we will also arrange a transport shuttle to conduct a deep space docking and transfer; this will doubly serve to maintain the integrity of your base security. We await your response, at which time we may proceed with setting the time and coordinates for the rendezvous..."
"Well," General Dodonna sighed as he finished reading aloud. He laid the printed communiqué on the table before him. His blue eyes, framed by the deep wrinkles of age and war, cooly scanned the other members of the Rebel Alliance military and intelligence staff. They were assembled around the oval table that dominated the HQ conference room of the hidden base on Argus. "Any initial thoughts?"
There was a ripple of motion around the table as personnel shifted in their seats, but no one spoke out. Princess Leia Organa took advantage of the lull and rose to her feet. "If I may, General, I would like a moment to explain the background of this transmission for the benefit of those not familiar with my previous efforts to contact Lacostia Consolidated."
"Of course, Your Highness," Dodonna agreed with a gracious wave. He took his seat.
Leia, sure of her mission and of its eventual success, warmed to her subject. "Most of you are aware that my father was very active in discovering and developing financial support for the Alliance, particularly in the private sector. While tutoring me in this aspect of the rebellion, he provided me with the names of contacts who he felt would eventually lend support if properly motivated. Naturally, most of them have been reluctant to offer any sort of assistance for fear of Imperial reprisals. I contacted Lacostia Consolidated while still serving within the Imperial Senate in the hopes that they could be persuaded to join us. Until yesterday my proposal had gone unanswered. This communiqué," Leia said while bending slightly to pick up the hard copy printout, "is at long last a positive response--a major breakthrough that may signal the beginning of the end of the Empire. Other peoples, corporations, and organizations will begin to realize that tyranny can no longer be tolerated, and that the only way to defeat the Emperor is to make a stand. Disgust for the Empire and sentiment for the rebellion will grow with each atrocity the Empire commits."
Apparently realizing that she was in full speech mode and quite capable of holding the floor for hours, Dodonna held up one hand to silence her. She bristled at the interruption but held her tongue as he glanced around the room at the other rebel decision-makers. One of them gestured for his attention and Dodonna nodded in acknowledgment. "Commander Fairhome?"
Fairhome, nearly as old and more portly than Dodonna, stood and said, "Pardon me, Your Highness, but has Lacostia indicated exactly how they intend to lend assistance? I realize that they're a major pharmaceutical distributor. Can we expect medical supplies? Bacta or painkillers, for instance?"
Leia shook her head as she watched Fairhome settle back into his seat. "That's what I'll negotiate for, although at this point I'm afraid we're in no position to be picky. They've assumed an enormous risk by answering my original overture, and I intend to encourage them in every way. If that means settling for a less overt donation, we should be no less grateful."
General Dodonna chose that moment to bring up another matter Leia'd hoped wouldn't occur to the overprotective general. "There is also the question of your personal involvement on this mission, Your Highness. Considering the satellite's clientele, there's a possibility that you'll be recognized. Perhaps another representative should attend--someone anonymous, preferably from Intelligence."
"I don't think that sending a substitute at this point is a viable option, for several reasons. First of all, I made the initial contact and they clearly expect me to attend. Sending someone else at the last moment would only cause hesitation on the part of Lacostia. Second, I've visited Ord Mantell several times and gained valuable experience and knowledge of the customs and layout of the resort. Third, Ord Mantell is neutral territory. Being familiar with the type of people who frequent the place, I feel safe in saying they would rather look the other way than become involved in a dispute that doesn't concern them and could disrupt their lifestyle. And finally, since I personally monitor supplies and acquisitions, I have an extensive knowledge of our available stores, contacts, and smugglers. I know what we have, I know what we need, and I know how to get it here. I'm in the perfect position from which to negotiate."
Dodonna remained silent for a long moment, clearly unable to refute the princess's logic. "Your insistence on conducting this mission is noted, and your reasons are sound. As you pointed out, however, your value to the rebellion is great, far beyond the symbolism. The risk--"
"Dodonna," General Rieekan interrupted, his eyes going briefly to Leia before he continued, "we're all at risk at this very moment by simply being here, and if her father had chosen to listen to such cautionary advice when beginning this rebellion, we wouldn't be having this discussion now."
"Her father was an optimist," General Dodonna responded in a tighter tone.
"So am I," Leia stated, proud of the comparison. She sent Rieekan a quick look of thanks. He'd been a military advisor of her father's, had known her since her infancy, and was probably her strongest ally within High Command. Her posture straightened in determination; she'd faced stiffer necks than Dodonna while serving in the Imperial Senate. When it came to a duel of wills, her combat skills were well honed.
There was a tense silence as Dodonna seemed to scan the room for support before capitulating. "Very well, Your Highness. You have clearance to meet the Lacostia representatives, but on one condition."
She had a feeling what was coming next.
"I insist you have an escort for your own safety. We want your stay on Ord Mantell to be safe and successful."
"Of course, General. I'll make the proper arrangements."
"In that case, I'll wish you good luck and may the Force be with you."
The mess was nearly empty, typical for the long periods between shift changes. Leia was engrossed in studying several data hard copies that had won a short and decisive battle against her food tray for prime tabletop space. She didn't notice Captain Solo's approach and jumped when he set a steaming cup of kaffe down and slid into the bench across from her.
"Hi, beautiful. How come you're always hiding back here in the corner?"
Leia glanced around in case there were witnesses to his loud and vexing greeting, then gave him a tired look before reburying her thoughts in her paperwork. "Go away, Han. I'm trying to eat."
"Yeah, I can see that," Han muttered, waving a hand at the inventory printouts spread out between them. "Paperwork does wonders for my digestion, too. Not to intrude on your downtime, Princess, but I've been looking for you. The scuttlebutt around here is that you need an escort to Ord Mantell."
Solo now had her full attention, and her expression was not a pleasant one. "How did you hear about my mission?" she queried in a tight whisper.
"Oh, you know." Han made another vague gesture in the air.
"No, I don'tknow. This was supposed to be kept quiet."
"Well, Ididn't tell anyone."
"That's not what I meant, Solo. And I'm notin need of an escort, so your dubious source is wrong on any account. Luke's already agreed to accompany me."
"That's what I wanted to talk to you about."
Leia sighed in sudden comprehension, then shook her head in disgust--not at Luke's inability to keep his mouth shut, but at Han's probable interrogation for details from the hapless youth. "Luke told you, didn't he?"
Ignoring the rhetorical question, he gave her an almost credible look of disappointment. "Why Luke?"
"And what's wrong with Luke?" she asked in a monotone, already knowing where the conversation was heading.
"Oh, there's nothing wrong with him, except he's got his hands full with Rogue Flight and he doesn't know the first thing about Ord Mantell."
"And I suppose you do?" Leia suggested as she gathered up her loose papers and tapped them on the tabletop until they were in a neat stack.
"As a matter of fact, yes."
"Really." Her voice was as dry as Tatooine at midday.
"Really. I was there when construction began--I've even seen the original blueprints. And I made quite a few runs out there with some high-priced commodities before the Spacer's Guild was disbanded and the Imperial Shipping Coalition took over. I'm more than capable of being an armed escort and I'll make sure that you get your job done with plenty of time to spare."
Leia found herself at a momentary loss for words. She hadn't expected a resumé of such relevant experience. She'd be a fool not to recognize how valuable Han could be as a partner on this mission. Then again, it wasn't his ability as a partner that she questioned. "If you're so familiar with Ord Mantell, then you'd know that all energy weapons are banned."
"Technicality," he dismissed with a wave of his hand. "I'm not exactly helpless without a blaster, Princess. Besides, what's the kid gonna do without that lightsaber flopping at his side?"
She didn't care for his sarcasm, but she did have to agree. Gods, she hated it when he was right! Having a companion who knew the station as well as she did would ensure a successful mission. She'd also come to trust Han's skills at protecting them both. He'd had plenty of opportunities to demonstrate his expertise since that fateful day in the smoke-clogged, laser-ridden hallways of the Death Star. His judgement almost always proved sound, no matter how crazy it might've seemed at the time--and when judgment wasn't enough, his insane inspirations still managed to get them safely through whatever mishap befell them.
He was absolutely right. And his skill was without question. What made her hesitate now was his suspicious eagerness to go on this mission. "Care to tell me why you're so anxious to replace Luke?"
To Han's credit, he only squirmed in his seat for an instant. "Obviously it's a matter of security. Maintaining the well-being of the rebellion and all."
She was proud of the fact that she didn't choke on her kaffe. "I appreciate your sudden concern for the well-being of the rebellion. Anything else?"
Han frowned. He'd clearly believed that this would be a little easier. "Look, Your Worship." He held up a hand and began ticking off the reasons on his fingers. "Your contacts need reassurance that their identities will remain anonymous, andyou'll have enough to worry about without having to watch your back... You can't go without an escort... I've got nothing better to do for another week... I know Ord Mantell... And Luke can't keep running off on these missions if he wants to stay in command of Rogue Flight. It's that simple. Take it or leave it."
Leia could do little more than stare. He possessed an unfailing ability to confound her. And he was right--again.
Let me get this straight. You're going on an all-expenses-paid trip to Ord Mantell with Han Solo--Ord Mantellwith Han Solo!--and you're wearing that?!" Lieutenant Kristin Aldritch, rebel, comtech, and Leia's confidante, didn't bother hiding her disdain as she pointed at the ensemble the princess held up for review. She gave the princess a pitiful gaze. "Oh, Leia. That's a terrible price to pay to gain their sympathy vote."
"Very funny," Leia answered dryly as she allowed the outfit to drop back into the storage chest beside her bunk. "Care to give me directions to the nearest fashion boutique?"
"Hmmm. Point taken."
"Besides, this does involve more important matters than high fashion."
Kristin shrugged. "Sure, but Ord Mantell isn't exactly a front line trench, either."
Hands on her hips, Leia stared down at her belongings, lost for a moment in thought. She'd met Kristin during the relocation and assimilation of the rebel cell on Yavin IV into the rebel forces on Findior. She'd been in desperate need of clothing following her unanticipated arrival, and Kristin had been one of the few on base who shared her petite size. Nearly two years and one more evacuated base later, her rather limited selection of secondhand clothing was still a sore point. Although she'd adjusted to the hardships, restrictions, and shortages that accompanied her new life underground, she missed her royal wardrobe, especially now.
"I wonder if I'll have any time to do a little personal shopping before the meeting," Leia mused. There was a need to blend in with the clientele on Ord Mantell and her collection of camouflage fatigues and grease-stained coveralls wouldn't do. The satellite was considered neutral territory, but wealth favored wealth and walking around in obvious military issue would invite unwanted attention. Besides, this wasOrd Mantell they were dealing with, not some local watering hole. She'd be meeting with a very powerful and influential group; gaining their respect was imperative and her first impression would be critical. "What I need is something savvy, yet not extravagant."
"I agree." Seated beside the small aluminum-shelled suitcase that lay open on Leia's bunk, Kristin leaned backwards to prop herself on her outstretched arms and peered in at what the princess had already packed. "Still, you must have something a little more...you know, spicy."She punctuated the suggestion with a provocative wiggle of her shoulders.
Leia directed an exasperated look at her friend, then bent over the storage chest again. "Are you going to help me pack or not?"
"I'm trying,I'm trying.In fact--" Kristin reached into the small duffel bag she'd brought with her, shuffled around inside it for a moment, then pulled out a small box made of carved wood. "You can borrow this if you'd like."
Curious, Leia stopped her rummaging and stepped closer to accept the box. She appreciated the fine example of rustic craftsmanship, but was a little puzzled until she opened it. She was stunned by what was inside. "Oh, Kristin. It's beautiful." She reached inside the box to touch the delicate necklace. It was composed of finely woven threads of gold, intricate of pattern yet simple of design. She knew jewelry well enough, from her days as a noblewoman, to recognize "expensive" when she saw it. "I can't use this."
"Sure you can."
Leia was still doubtful as she glanced back down at the exquisite necklace.
"I trust you to take care of it. Besides, it's for a good cause."
"For the rebellion?" Leia asked, giving her friend a dubious look. She expected another reason and wasn't disappointed.
"In a roundabout way, yes." Kristin grinned. "I think we've been fighting this war so long that we've forgotten how to look sexy."
The princess opted to keep her silence on that issue. She closed the box, then smiled. "Despite your ulterior motives, I'd like to borrow this for the trip. You're sure it's all right?"
"I'm sure. It's not as if I get to wear it that often anymore."
"I really appreciate this." Leia placed it in her open suitcase, then moved back to the large crate holding her personal effects. "I have this feeling that everything's going to go better than any of us expect, contrary to Dodonna's opinion." She began digging through her trunk again. "The only thing I'm not happy about is his insistence that I have an escort. I'm perfectly capable of taking care of myself, but he would've denied clearance if I'd refused."
"And so you asked Han."
"I didn'task Han. He invited himself."
"Ohhh." Kristin wisely cut her chuckle short as Leia shot her a dirty look.
"If you find him so entertaining, why don't you ask him to stay here with you?"
Kristin was nonchalant. "Han's not my type and I'm already taken. Besides, it's not me he's after."
"Don't start that again. It's no wonder where all those absurd rumors start." Leia resumed her futile search through the storage trunk. "Han and I are friends and business associates, and that's all there is to it."
"You mean that's all you'll let it be," Kristin said in a softer tone.
"I see no difference."
"Then you aren't looking close enough."
At an impasse, Leia sighed. She let the lid to the chest fall closed, then stood. Walking over to the collapsible desk behind her, she reached beneath it to pull out another storage carton. "Ord Mantell may be a playground for the rich and famous, but this isn't a vacation. I've worked hard to follow up on this lead and now--finally--all that work may pay off. This mission's my creation and it's my chance to demonstrate once and for all that I'm not just some royal brat or politician who needs pampering. I'm fully capable of pulling my own weight around here and this will proveit." She popped open the seal on the carton and stared at the contents, her mind elsewhere now.
"Come on, Leia. No one here thinks you're not doing your part. If anything, it's exactly the opposite. You're working too hard and they're worried you'll burn yourself out." Her elder paused, causing Leia to glance over her shoulder. "If you don't believe me, ask anyone, including Commander Skywalker, or even Solo. Nobody doubts your ability."
"Just my judgement," she concluded sourly.
"I didn't say that," Kristin corrected, a scowl touching her older features. "Everybody here hates the Empire and they're willing to sacrifice everything to see it collapse. But they also know their own limitations. The first lesson they learn is that they can't do it alone--anyone who doesn't learn that doesn't last very long. It's a team effort."
"So, what are you saying?"
"I'm saying that maybe you need to delegate a little more--do what you cando, and then let the next person in line worry about the minor details. That's what they're there for."
Leia's first instinct was to deny the suggestion and defend herself. A more rational part of her, however, recognized the constructive criticism for what it was. The friendship developing between them seemed hinged on brutal honesty, something she found refreshing despite the occasional sting. Drawing a deep breath, she asked, "Are you suggesting I send someone else to Ord Mantell?"
Kristin shook her head. "No, I didn't say that either. I think you need this trip. It'll get you off the base and away from your paperwork for a few days. Do whatever work is necessary, then enjoy the rest of your time away from the war. Relax and look forward to short-circuiting Dodonna's logic capacitators when your mission works."
Leia couldn't help but grin. "This mission isgoing to work, you know."
"Of course. You just need to learn to enjoy the results. I mean, what's the point of working so hard if you never take the time to bask in your success?"
Leia let out a derisive little snort. "Now you sound like Han."
"He must be a smart man." Kristin smirked. "Speaking of Han, any idea what he's packing?" She paused a moment, then laughed, clearly amused by her double entendre.
Leia rolled her eyes toward the prefab ceiling of her quarters. Kristin was trustworthy and a fount of experience and wise information, but aggravating at times. "You just don't give up, do you?"
The lieutenant shook her head. "Never surrender."
Sighing, Leia turned her back to her companion, sat on her haunches, and absently fingered the hem on the old white satin dress someone--probably Kristin, although she couldn't even remember the exchange--had given her for the awards ceremony on Yavin. It was hard to believe that nearly two years had passed since the destruction of her home world, the celebration of the rebellion's first major victory, and the entrance into her life of Luke Skywalker and Han Solo. The elegant gown had revealed more than she'd been accustomed to at the time, but in a way it had served to usher her into her new role as an outlaw and freedom fighter. Those days of refinement and propriety had long since given way to the brutal realities of war.
She halfheartedly pawed through the articles of clothing in the carton. "I visited the satellite several times when my father would take me along during his lobbying efforts. I wasn't really old enough to appreciate most of the entertainment." A wistful grin brightened her face as she reminisced. "But I do remember the food."
"I envy you. What I wouldn't give for a real meal instead of these field rations and rejected surplus foodstuffs."
Leia nodded in agreement. "There was this little pastry shop, on one of the inner levels... I never realized until now just how much I've missed those little things."
Leia turned around to see that Kristin had been sifting through the contents of the suitcase; she held up the corner of a folded dress. The jet black fabric shimmered, even in the unflattering overhead lights of her quarters. She got to her feet and unfurled the garment to get a better look. "Oh yes, now thisis definitely more like it."
Leia watched as Kristin held the obviously expensive dress up to herself and sashayed. It was light-years away from the tame, white, hooded gown Leia had worn so long ago. Tailored to be tight and flattering, the dress had practically nonexistent shoulder straps, a provocative bodice that would reveal a generous amount of cleavage, and a back scoop that dipped even lower. The hem was high, about mid-thigh. She'd worn it once--briefly--when she'd tried it on for curiosity's sake. The sensuous transformation had conjured up ideas that still haunted her mind. Although almost a year old now, the dress managed to stand up to the latest Central Core fashions, no doubt due to its simple design.
Leia sighed, trying to think of a way to explain without revealing too much. "It was a Majority gift."
"A Majority gift?" Kristin repeated in awe. "It's stunning! I dare you to make an inspection tour of the base in this.It'd give the boys a reminder of what they're fighting for."
"People are always giving me things they think I need--advice,for instance."
Kristin smelled blood now; Leia could tell by the way her eyebrows arched. "Wait, then it had to have been a gift from somebody here. Just how many hopeful lovers do you have on base?"
"Hopeful--? I don't have any!" Leia hated it when she sputtered, mainly because it was a dead giveaway that she was riled and it made her even more self-conscious.
Kristin looked back down at the dress and seemed to purr in sensual appreciation before replacing it in the suitcase. Meant to escort the princess into the majority of her life upon her twenty-first birth anniversary, the garment was a blatant symbol of sexuality. "Whoever bought it put a lot of thought into it. It's even your size."
Leia didn't bother answering. Giving up her search, she resealed the storage chest and straightened up. She kicked the case back under her desk and smoothed the wrinkles from her khaki fatigues. "Well, I've got three appropriate outfits. If I need more, I'll buy something there."
Kristin groaned and settled back on the bunk. "Excellent food, the best shopping in the galaxy, and a handsome escort. This isn't fair, you know."
"It's a sacrifice I'm willing to make in the name of the rebellion." Leia's deadpan made them both smile in mutual understanding.
Kristin glanced at the suitcase, seeming to make one last cursory inspection. "I have this feeling you'll be glad Han's coming along on your trip. Maybe now you'll get the chance to knowhim better. Really, I can't figure out what you're waiting for. It can't be that he's not attractive enough--I've seen how you look at him. I mean, you act like a virgin or..."
An uncomfortable silence settled over the tiny room. Leia tried to ignore the telltale flush that heated her cheeks and the look of delayed comprehension that crossed her friend's face. She walked over to the bunk and flipped her suitcase closed before Kristin could utter another word. She sealed it and moved it to the floor near the door of her quarters. Only then did she dare to meet her companion's eyes. "Go ahead. Say it."
"Oh, no." Kristin help up her hands in meek submission. "I've said enough already. I'm sorry, Princess. I guess I...I just figured, considering your time in the Senate and everything..."
"What? That I slept my way to the top? Or that I was only there for my looks? Or maybe I was just too young to have gotten so far on merit alone?...I've heard them all." Rather than anger, Leia felt resignation. There was no point in denying her inexperience; her blush had told all there was to tell.
"No, I just assumed you'd had at least had a few affairs. All those powerful and rich men, all those grand parties and receptions--fooling around just seemed part of the deal."
"It was for some." Leia stared down at the tops of her boots, confused by her urge to get it all out of her system now. Keeping secrets had been so ingrained that the sensation of revealing the truth seemed foreign, yet cathartic. "I suppose eventually that might have happened." After another moment, Leia stepped back over to the bunk and sat down beside Kristin, her hands folded in her lap. "I wasvery young--I thought there were more noble ways. I still want to believe that."
"I understand....So there was nobody you just wantedto be with?"
"Of course. But there were always obstacles and consequences I couldn't ignore, and...and maybe sometimes I was too practical for my own good. I expectedmore, from them and myself. And I couldn't believe they were interested in anything but my name. I didn't want to become an object in someone's power play or, worse yet, the latest scandal in the tabloid news. It would only have provided ammunition for my opponents"
Kristin was silent for a moment, chewing the inside of her cheek as she seemed to consider Leia's revelation. "There's nothing wrong with caution. It's good to have some standards--so long as you have a solid and realistic idea of what you arelooking for. And I guess now you need to decide if those worries are still valid."
"As for Han...?" Kristin prompted.
Leia sighed, bent forward to rest her elbows on her knees, and rubbed her temples. "What about Han?"
Leia heard a groan and glanced up in time to see Kristin roll her eyes with impatience. "That coyness may work on the boys, but we both know better. At least the interest seems mutual. That's a definite plus."
Leia shook her head, feeling overwhelmed. Why hadn't anyone ever prepared her for normal life? She knew how to handle the sharpest barb from a fellow politician, and yet she found herself at a loss with how to deal with such a natural and everyday circumstance.
"Well, there'll never be a better time to test him out than while you're wearing that dress. If I were you," Kristin elaborated, her tone gentle and encouraging, "I'd take advantage of that fact. Hewould."
Leia didn't know whether to be shocked, insulted, or inspired by her friend's proposal; the concept was too much to contemplate at the moment. "Just what I needed: The Kristin Aldritch Guide to Incorrigible Men. Hasn't it occurred to you that I'm allowing Captain Solo to accompany me for reasons other than seduction--his ormine?"
"Sure it has. Briefly." Kristin shrugged. "Let's face it, he can't be sticking around here for the pay or stimulating conversation. He's probably waiting for you to give the right signal."
"'The right signal,'" Leia echoed, trying not to laugh at the notion. "Well, in that case he can keep on waiting. I'm not allowing any such nonsense to interfere with my mission. This means too much to me."
Home | Back to Author's List | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4
Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10