Queen of Kuat: Chapter 5 – Loyalty

Murlesson cameo! Yay! (I plan to try writing more of his story after I’m done QoK)

There’s a bit in the middle I MIGHT edit; it’s too wordy and repetitious and doesn’t quite have the right tone. I can’t figure out how to fix it yet though. Maybe in another 6 months. If you can identify the spot, you get an internet cookie. : P

Some parts of this chapter refer to things that happened in the past, but that I haven’t written about yet. I’m planning to put them in when I write Rise of the Hutt Cartel or something. Also, the Twosong is the same name that I’ve used for my smuggler character’s ship since I was about 10 years old! : D

Chapter 4: Focus

 

Chapter 5: Loyalty

And then it was over. He turned to look, saw billowing fire rising where the warehouse had been, and when it had passed it revealed a flame-edged pit filled with tangled struts. He fell to one knee, hugging Akuliina’s unconscious body close to him, panting and shaking slightly. She wasn’t dead, his master, his wife, his

His possessiveness surprised him, and he drew back a moment. Was this how she felt about him? What a pair they made. Still. Mine. Mine mine mine. She’s safe now. With me.

She looked so fragile, her silky white hair flowing over the dark sleeves of his tunic, so small in his arms, and he pressed her close again, regardless of the fact that the Twi’lek and the Zabrak could see him. Though, he noticed, they were still watching the burning building. Tu’sienni whooped in exhilaration, punching the air.

Akuliina was going to need a medical facility. She was still out cold, probably drugged in addition to the unspecified torture, and only a proper scan would reveal how much internal damage had been done. But did they trust the facilities of this city? He’d brought the doctors to learn what had been done to her, but could they trust them to tell the truth? Did they have a choice?

He shook himself mentally and gestured to Pierce, silently requesting that he take Akuliina. His shoulder was burning in agony and he couldn’t carry her any farther. As Pierce lifted her, he stood again, rounding on the doctors. “What was done to her?” he asked in a low, dangerous voice.

The helpful one flailed a little and began to babble. “Lecepanine tranquilizer – too strong a dose, she was supposed to be more resistant to chemical influence, we nearly had to resuscitate her, Lord Kadolan told us she would be- but after stabilization she was kept docile with, ahhh, Conergin and Ikricedonene. Perhaps still too strong a dose, but we couldn’t risk her breaking loose!”

“Then why torture her!?”

“L-Lord Kadolan wished to – to punish her, since he wasn’t p-planning to kill her just yet…”

“Electric shock,” said the other, wringing his hands. “None of the sedatives were also anaesthetics…”

“I know,” he snapped. He had Conergin in his field kit, it was relatively mild on its own and good as a sleep aid in small doses. He’d used it back before Akuliina succeeded in seducing him, though she herself always refused such things even when in his opinion she could have really used them. But to induce such a strong electric current that she screamed like that while being drugged out of her skull… He felt his lip curl and he turned away abruptly. “Is there a medical facility here?” he asked Captain Tu’sienni, who was still getting her breath back. He was afraid that if he kept talking to the doctors he would find it impossible to refrain from shooting them.

The Twi’lek nodded, winding her tentacles around her neck to regain some semblance of poise. “Yeah, there is. It’s not a big place, but we keep it well stocked with donations from some of our… cargo, so it should be able to fix her right up.”

“Oh, thank goodness,” Vette said. “It’s… so awful seeing her like this.”

Tu’sienni raised an eyebrow, looking at the unconscious woman in Pierce’s arms, but said nothing, shrugged, and turned to lead the way. A few moments later Risha and the farmboy materialized out of the darkness, smiling gleefully. Risha gave Vette a noogie, and both women giggled, the sort of giddy sound that came from cheating death.

He wondered how they saw Akuliina now, if they still saw her as the apex predator of a Sith from the news holos, the one who bathed in fire and blood, even when she was so broken. If they wondered how Vette of all people could prefer her that way. They hadn’t seen Akuliina’s charisma when she was at her most confident, her most arrogant – or, that charisma hadn’t worked on their Republic mindset. He had to wonder, too, what Akuliina would think when she awoke.

He turned on the doctors. “Get out of here before I shoot you.” They fled into the darkness.

 

She was still and silent as the doctors at the hospital began the detoxifying process – an antidote for the Ikricedonene for one – and except for the too-slow rise and fall of her chest she looked dead. Vette had cleaned off her ruined make-up and she looked more defenceless than ever, a young girl with a haggard face. One of the doctors noticed his discomfort in his arm and shoulder, and he accepted treatment on the condition that he didn’t have to leave Akuliina’s room.

When they had judged that she would have no long-term ill effects from the drugging, they called him over to tell him she would need immersion in kolto for twelve to twenty hours to ensure no lasting damage from the electricity. He agreed, but wouldn’t let them touch her again as he and Vette prepared her for immersion. He wasn’t a doctor, but he had substantial field medic training, he knew what he was doing. The kolto tank on the Fury had seen use more than once.

She seemed to regain some consciousness when he began to lower her into the tank, and tried to fight back, clawing at his arms. “It will be all right,” he soothed her. “I’m right here. It’s only kolto. I will be here when you are done.” His voice seemed to reassure her, but she still didn’t know where she was and she still fought him until finally she was ensconced in the tank and he let go. She banged feebly on the wall of the tank, and he was worried for a moment she might try to tear out the breathing apparatus and drown on the thick green liquid.

But her strength failed her, and she once again fell unconscious, floating peacefully, resting properly for the first time since they’d crashed on this horrible planet.

Vette had grabbed Akuliina’s personal effects at some point during the chaos of the rescue, for which he was grateful; she wouldn’t be happy without her lightsabers, one of which was a family heirloom, he was given to understand. They were now in a locker beside her tank, along with her sweat-soaked clothes, gloves, boots, her wedding ring, her circlet. Vette would bring a fresh change of clothes tomorrow.

He withdrew to the observation room, watching her in parade rest. He’d decided: if she never regained the Force, if none of the Sith knew of a way to restore it, he was going to resign his commission and follow her. If lightsabers were no longer a viable option for her, he would teach her to shoot. Even if she remained as she had been the past couple weeks for the rest of her days, a depressed husk of her former self, he couldn’t live without her. She could try to escape him, but he had tracked down cleverer targets than her, and he would beg her on his knees until she relented and allowed him to stay with her. For he had a feeling that she wanted him near, too, and her patriotic wish to see him return to the Empire would surely falter in the face of both their desires.

When the others came to talk to him, he sent them back to the house they’d claimed to get some rest. They wouldn’t be able to remain on the planet for very long, but he doubted very much that Kadolan would waste resources leaving a ship here of all places, and it would take time for him to send one. So between that and Akuliina’s kolto treatment, they had time for a bit of a rest.

Captain Tu’sienni lingered, though, stepping into the observation room with him. All else in the hospital was quiet; it was late at night now. “You should follow your crew’s example, Commodore. You fought harder than anyone today.”

“Later.” And he planned to sleep on one of the benches in the room, no matter who or what else had used them before him. He wasn’t going to leave Akuliina alone here.

“You’re really loyal, huh,” Tu’sienni said, seating herself on one of the benches in a slouch with legs crossed. “Perfect soldier and all that. I have to say, it’s pretty weird seeing the Empire- seeing Imperials like this. Normally you guys are either colossal jerkwads, or tyrannical lunatics – actually, wait, that’s the same thing – or corrupt and/or gullible sods. But you’re really not that different from Republic military types.”

“I think I’m insulted,” Quinn said mildly. “The Republic military is inefficient and often incompetent. We are nothing like that.” At least not now that Moff Broysc was gone.

“Sure, except with Sith playing power games messing you up. But you worry about each other, take care of each other; that’s not something most non-Imps get to see. You’re just guys and gals like everyone else.” Only human, was a phrase that sprang to mind, but of course a non-human wouldn’t use such a term. “Or you can be. When you want.”

He frowned slightly, but it didn’t seem like an interrogation, only small talk. “Should you not be resting as well, Captain? What is it you want from me?”

The Twi’lek snorted and shrugged. “Is it so wrong to want to talk to an Imperial in the rare circumstance I’m not trying to sneak contraband past them, or get them into bed? Not that I’d mind doing the do with you, but I’m pretty sure that ship has launched and is in kolto right now.”

“I’m afraid you’re mistaken,” he answered stiffly. “I have no romantic interest at the moment, nor do I wish to.” Sometimes, if a woman was particularly stubborn about pursuing him, he’d tell her that he preferred men – but somehow he guessed Tu’sienni wouldn’t be fooled by that.

She rolled her eyes at him. “I may be dense at strats, but I’m not blind or stupid, Commodore. I saw the rings. And if you’re not hitched, your devotion and attentiveness to your young hot master is a bit on the creepy side.”

It was like ice water down his spine. When had she seen his ring? …When he’d removed his uniform jacket to allow Vette to treat his wound, he’d had to remove his gloves. He hadn’t even thought about it at the time. “If you knew our history, you would understand the strength of my dedication. She saved me from exile, shame, and death.”

“Colour me unconvinced. With rings that just happen to match?”

He grimaced and shut his eyes for a moment. There wasn’t much he could protest. Lying would be both dishonourable and futile.

“If you want to keep it a secret, I won’t blab – not without some hefty financial persuasion, anyway – but you’re going to have to be a bit more careful about that.”

He glanced at her cautiously. “Do you require… pre-emptive financial persuasion?”

She waved a hand dismissively. “It was a joke. I’m not an ass, honey. And, politically speaking, I’d guess you’re a stabilizing influence on her, and Vette says she’s a stabilizing influence on the Empire, so that makes you real important to the galaxy. I’m not jeopardizing that.”

He thought about that. “I suppose you have a point.” He had no choice but to trust her.

“Anyway, this is just meandering away from what I actually wanted to talk about, which is Vette.” She waited for some response, but he kept his eyes on Akuliina. “You don’t treat her as lesser. You don’t dismiss her or unjustly fault her or overburden her. And she’s not even in your military. She’s just a girl who travels with you as far as I can tell.”

“Vette has proven herself,” he said. “In a perfect galaxy, the Empire would truly be a meritocracy, with the most powerful ruling and the most capable aiding them.” In a perfect galaxy, Broysc would never have achieved any rank whatsoever.

“Regardless of race? You really think so?” Tu’sienni sounded skeptical.

“Only a fool dismisses ability simply because it does not come in the form he expects or hopes for. Otherwise I would have shot Lieutenant Pierce a long time ago.” She chuckled at that. “Certainly, by that metric the Empire is full of fools, though it is hard to admit… but so is the Republic, only they pretend otherwise.”

“We’ve also got more qualified non-humans in positions of leadership. You’ve got, like, one Zabrak on your Dark Council? And only because he killed the previous seat-warmer? Who was a male human like 80% of the rest of the Council?” Tu’sienni made a face. “I’ll take the Republic’s equal-opportunity corruption any day.”

It was like debating with a more mature Vette. How bothersome. “I must point out, if you are so keen to discuss racial inequality between humans and Sith and all the other races in the Empire, a disproportionate number of aliens do engage in criminal activity. If one of them proves themself trustworthy and competent, I will not dismiss them based on their species – but if one of them does not, it is hardly a surprise.”

Violet eyes narrowed. “Just when I thought you were an open-minded sort.”

“You yourself are a smuggler, you have all but stated.” Vette was a criminal, too, come to think of it. He just forgot since she served Akuliina so well.

“Yeah, well, I like playing tag with the law.” She grinned cheekily at his sour look. “And I don’t think it’s because I’m an alien. I mean, I have a respectable job, I ship cargo, and it pays well enough. I’d just never fit into your society and I’m an ordinary gal. I hate folks telling me what to do, and I like one-upping stupid laws and uptight bureaucrats. But a Sith I ain’t, so I get my kicks from things other than fear and violence. Though violence seems to follow me around anyway…”

“You… are…” He deflated. Smugglers could be a problem, but they were hardly ‘everything wrong with the galaxy today’. “Have you considered more legal sources of excitement, such as deep-space exploration, or…” His mind blanked on more options.

“Aww, you tryin’ to keep me out of trouble in the new galactic order? That’s sweet of you, honey, but I’m happy where I’m at. Besides, exploration sounds boring, proper privateering is too exciting, and frequently unfair to other folks just like me, and mercenary work needs too much ‘discipline’. And is way more dangerous.”

“I suppose I should be grateful that you’re not a terrorist.”

She sketched a mock bow. “How generous of you, what a high bar you set for me, a poor non-human.”

“I didn’t even say anything about… never mind. In any case, Vette is well-cared for, and she has earned my respect.”

“And if she decided she wanted to leave?”

“…That would be up to Lord Akuliina, and the circumstances.”

“Oh?”

“If Vette suddenly decided in the middle of a direct conflict that she wished to support the Republic, it would not go over well. If her actions directly caused harm to Lord Akuliina, she probably would not survive. Though the same goes for all of us who serve the Empire, of course, regardless of personal attachment. However, if she simply one day requested to return to Nar Shaddaa to spend her life with her friends there, Lord Akuliina would be… regretful, but I doubt she would bar her path.” She had almost set him free, when her flirting had pushed him to the breaking point. It would have been the biggest mistake of his life, but she would have done it, to try to make him happy. Even though Vette’s long association with Akuliian would make her a target, were she to leave her, she wasn’t a very obvious one.

“I’ll accept that. Risha’ll sleep easier knowing that, at least.” She stood and stretched. “And on that note, I’d better get some sleep too, like you said. Don’t you forget either, mmkay? You look half-way to becoming a zombie.”

“Good night, captain.”

“Night night, Commodore.”

 

The hospital staff woke him from his bench next morning so that he could help remove Akuliina from the kolto; by the time she was out, standing on her own two feet and wrapped, shivering, in a towel, Vette had arrived with new clothes for her and helped her to dress. He could hear the girl chattering away through the cloth divider giving them privacy; Vette was telling her about Risha and the rescue, with Akuliina occasionally asking a brief, quiet question.

When she was ready, they were shown to a recovery room, where she began to pace, restless. Fatigue and pain still showed in her movements, as well as a great deal of emotional weariness. Vette left to get food, and he began to explain more thoroughly the events of the past day. It was hard to believe it was only a day. She paced, and he maintained parade rest. Even though he wanted to embrace her, he knew she wanted distance, independence.

“Finally, the captain has offered us passage off this planet. I have provisionally accepted, but it is of course up to you.”

“I see. And what would you recommend?”

“I recommend we take the offer. She is an emotional creature, and she is emotionally invested in our well-being to some extent. I do not believe she will betray us.”

“What does it matter?” she murmured. “Kadolan’s ploys are getting better. Even if I’d had the Force, I would still have been helpless.”

“You would have felt the danger,” he said. “And there is still a chance it can be healed, isn’t there? You cannot give up now, when we are so close to freedom.”

“Freedom…” She snorted gently. “Then I must speak with Murlesson as soon as may be. He may know of or be able to research a solution. I must summon the Golden Conqueror, since the Fury is destroyed… Discover what the Trandoshan – no, the galactic situation is, and if it is not resolved, find someone to take my responsibilities there if no one has done so…”

Her heart wasn’t in it, he could tell. “If you don’t wish to return…”

“I don’t know what I wish,” she said, flinging her hands in the air. “I can’t decide on a future until I know if the Force is lost to me irrevocably or not.”

“If it is, have no fear. I will follow you wherever you go.”

She turned to glare at him. “No you shall not. That would be a waste.”

“My service has much less meaning without you. I will not say none, but it would be torture to know that you are away from me, alone, and that I cannot help you. Perhaps I cannot help much, but if something happened that I could have prevented…” It sounded incredibly selfish, but he had no intention of backing down. He stepped towards her, standing over her – he wouldn’t dream of trying to intimidate her, he only meant to convince her of his sincerity. “I will beg you, plead with you, quarrel with you, make love to you until you permit me to remain with you.”

Her glare grew fiercer, and his hope grew stronger. “Commodore Malavai Quinn…! Sometimes I hate you. Very well! I shall return with you to the Empire, and meet with a swift demise, if it will get you back to work.”

“That won’t happen,” he said, restraining a triumphant smile. “Let me take care of everything.”

“I don’t want you to take care of everything,” she pouted, flopping to sit on the side of the bed with her arms crossed vehemently. She was being stubborn and irrational again. Which meant she was feeling better. “I’m Akuliina Volkova. I can take care of myself. Where can I meet with this spacer captain? I’ll need a holonet terminal and a scrambler as well.”

Someone knocked on the door, and Vette entered with two trays filled with terrible cafeteria breakfast food. “Did I miss anything?”

“Absolutely nothing,” Akuliina said, jumping up and seizing a sweetbun ravenously.

 

Things moved as rapidly as he could compel them to after that. She met with Captain Tu’sienni, and though still not quite back to her old confidence, selected Nar Shaddaa as a destination. That settled, she and he went to a holonet cafe to gather what news they could, and to make some calls.

The news was several days old, and was not amazing. The conflict on Kuat was dragging on, slowing fleet production and sapping the planet’s strength; Republic ships had been spotted taking a surreptitious look at the situation. The Trandoshan rebellion was not resolved, although Lord Aristheron had stepped in, taking command of the task force and bringing ships of his own to bolster Captain Cheyomar.

That news relieved her. He knew she didn’t like Darth Aristheron, but she trusted him to act with the Empire’s best interests in mind. “If he weren’t already there, I’d probably have asked him to take over in any case,” she said, softly so the other patrons didn’t overhear her. “He might negotiate a surrender rather than seizing a surrender, but he will restore order eventually.”

“It is good that things are under control with Trandosha, as your forces on Dromund Kaas are not faring as well. Lord Falthiir is attempting to absorb your base, but Lord Kadolan has issued a claim as well. Your parents have said that without absolute proof of your death, no one has the authority to claim your possessions, but they are powerless in their current position, and most write them off as biased.”

“Which they are, even though they are correct,” she said. “Though my enemies would hurry to claim my holdings for themselves to deny them to me when I return. What of Broonmark?”

“He is not mentioned.”

“No, I suppose not. And Vowrawn and Murlesson would not be foolish enough to risk themselves openly defending my holdings when I might truly be dead for all they know. I think… I shall not contact Vowrawn yet. There is no need for him to know of my- I will call Murlesson.”

“Yes, my lady.” One of the valuable items hastily brought from the wreckage of the Fury was a field communications unit with a scrambler. While it had been useless at transmitting a message off-world, the scrambler would still be useful to block interception of the message sent now from this public terminal, at least temporarily.

As soon as she began attempting to make contact with Lord Murlesson’s freqency, the holonet cafe operator hurried up to them. “Sorry, ma’am, sir, we only allow text communication – voice and holo takes up too much bandwidth.”

“I’ll pay for it,” she said shortly, not looking at him.

“I’m sorry, ma’am, rules are rules…”

She turned to glare at him, her lightsabers clinking as she did so. “I said I’ll pay for it, one way… or another.”

Quinn leaned in to whisper. “It might actually be more secure to use text-based communication, my lady.” No one would be able to eavesdrop if she wasn’t speaking. Of course, sending and receiving text messages took longer, and lacked nuance. But if anyone could pick nuance out of a text message, it was Lord Murlesson.

She withdrew from intimidating the cafe operator, slowly, not breaking eye contact even as she switched off the attempted call. The portly man breathed a sigh of relief and left them.

“He was right,” she agreed to Quinn in a low voice. “The bandwidth in this place is ludicrously bad. I can’t wait to return to a real planet.”

Lord Murlesson sounded vaguely surprised but not vastly shocked at her survival, and though he was a history student who never stopped reading, his informal typing was atrocious as always. Quinn knew he could spell correctly, he simply chose not to under most circumstances. After a short negotiation, he agreed to meet with them in confidentiality on Nar Shaddaa in six days, and to bring Broonmark. They themselves would arrive in four days, but it was longer to Dromund Kaas.

“Will you not also contact Captain Cheyomar, my lady?”

She frowned. “I do not see a reason to until I know for certain I am returning to duty. And I’m not calling the Golden Conqueror away from action just to pick up Pierce.”

“If the cure for your affliction is easily had, you will wish to return to action as soon as possible, will you not?”

She hesitated. “A good point. But if the Conqueror’s movement signals my return to the galaxy for those who are watching…”

“I will return with him until the situation on Trandosha is resolved and I am free to return to you unscrutinized.”

“I suppose it will be good enough. Here, you message him then.” So he messaged Captain Cheyomar as well, telling him to arrive at Nar Shaddaa in a minimum of seven days. The captain’s response was genial, and he inquired as to her lordship’s status. Her lordship almost smiled and said that it was classified.

 

When they boarded Captain Tu’sienni’s ship, the Twosong, they were met in the cluttered common area by the captain and her crew. “Welcome aboard the Twosong! She’s not the biggest or most comfortable, but she’s fast and slippery. From bad guys, I mean. Not that you’ll slip. Unless you spill booze in the mess. Make yourselves comfortable- What, Lenn?”

The handsome, naive-looking man beside her pointed with considerable alarm. “You made a deal with Imperials?” Quinn frowned. The accent was strongly Alderaanian, upper-class. Odd to hear on a rough spacer’s ship.

Corso Riggs scuffed a dirty boot on the deck grating sullenly. “I knew the others wouldn’t like it, I don’t know why you made me promise not to say anything…”

“More than Imperials! Even without the Force, I can tell. Those girls are-” the fish-head in the back began to say, then stopped abruptly and ran away down the corridor. Risha gave Tu’sienni an ‘I told you so‘ look. The Wookiee was quiet and impassive and Quinn didn’t like it. Akaavi simply stared unblinking at them all.

Pierce returned from stowing the speeder bikes in the cargo bay, dusting his hands together. “Are you lot looking for a fight? When we’ve already paid?”

Tu’sienni sighed. “Okay, yes, I did make a deal with Imps, but hey, they’re paying, and they’re actually not terrible people? Just relax. Risha, can you go tell Tuna-Fish to chill out, please?”

“My sweet, this is a very bad idea,” the Alderaanian said to Tu’sienni. “What about your other connections?”

“Honey,” Tu’sienni began, but Akuliina, her patience worn to the breaking point, stepped forward aggressively.

“Lenn, wasn’t it?” she said quietly, bitingly. “Lenn of House Terann of Alderaan, if I’m not mistaken? Staunch supporter of the Republic, both in your house and in your personal beliefs, clearly. But now you’re slumming it, abandoning your rank, your house, your duty to your planet and your side in the war, unless you really think you’re making more of a difference in the anonymity of space than with the responsibilities the rank of your birth gave you. If you want to oppose me, either get your cowardly guts together and fight me, or go home and rally your Republic against my Empire harder! But don’t whine sanctimoniously about this being a bad idea when the deal has already been made.” She paused for breath, the Alderaanian falling back a step in shock, the captain with a raised eyebrow. It wasn’t actually going to come to a fight, was it? After everything? “You’re not the only one put out by this arrangement. Believe me, I’m not thrilled at this entire situation from its point of origin on Victory Day. So sit down, shut up, and listen to your captain.”

Tu’sienni blinked. “Whew. Okay. Don’t antagonize the nice lady, honey. It’s just business. Honest. I’m not gonna let you all die.”

“Right,” said the farmboy, seemingly torn. “I mean… Yeah.”

“What’s his problem?” Jaesa asked.

“Riggs has issues,” Akaavi said. “Don’t ask, you won’t like the answer.”

“Hey, I don’t have issues!”

“You have so many issues, kid,” Tu’sienni said. “Anyway, as I was trying to say before, make yourselves at home. It’s a bit snug, but we’ve got enough cots set up, we’ve got lots of food, and we’ve got lots of caf and alcohol. Maybe not up to your standards, but better’n nothing. If you need anything, just ask me or Risha.”

“Or me,” Akaavi Spar said.

“I’m gonna get us lifted off now,” Tu’sienni said. “Don’t want to get pinned down by last-minute bureaucracy… or your ex-boyfriend sending ships to blow us out of the sky. Not that they could. Anyway.” She disappeared down the corridor that Quinn assumed led to the cockpit. Politely, Risha stepped forward and turned the holoprojector on, displaying their location against the planet.

The intercomm hissed with static briefly, then Tu’sienni’s voice came across. “All hands strap in for lift-off and stuff.” The Zabrak shook her head, but said nothing as they all moved to seats.

Lift-off was surprisingly smooth; the Twosong’s engines must have been well-tuned. Almost as well-tuned as the Fury’s had been. Quinn felt a momentary pang that their own beautiful ship was utterly destroyed… but he forced it down. It was only a ship. They’d get another, better.

They had just cleared the thermosphere when he felt Akuliina grow very very still, beside him. He glanced at her, trying not to draw attention to her, suddenly very aware of the warmth of her arm and her leg. Had she actually grown warmer?

Apparently she didn’t care about surreptitious, because suddenly she flung out a hand and a disposable cup sitting on a crate began to float in the air. She stared at it, and he stared at it, and they all stared at it. Then suddenly she clenched her fist, the cup crumpled into a little ball, and she tore off the safety harness and stormed away down the corridor, an aura of frustration following her like a black cloud.

“My lady!” he stammered, throwing off his own harness and following her. He hardly heard Jaesa making her own exclamations or Vette trying to calm her down, hardly noticed the holoprojector showing a fairly large ship dropping out of hyperspace near their location.

He found her in the engine room, lurking high up in the back, hardly noticeable except for her glaring golden eyes. “My lady?”

“It’s back,” she whispered. A hydrospanner from the neatly-sorted tool rack behind him whipped from its place and into her hand, where she examined it.

“Yes.” Why did that seem to upset her? He would have thought she would be overjoyed. They wouldn’t have to speak to Lord Murlesson. She could return to active duty immediately, they all could. Whether that meant Kuat or Trandosha hardly mattered yet.

She must have heard his thoughts. “There’s… no meaning here. I accomplished nothing to achieve this. No effort, it was simply… there again. I… I don’t understand.”

He didn’t understand either, but that was all right. He didn’t care. She was herself again. Even if she seemed so disturbed that he couldn’t even smile at her reassuringly. There was a wall between them again, as thick and firm as when she’d lost her connection to the Force the first time.

He needed to exercise patience. She’d let him in eventually. She always did.

“Hyperspace coming up,” Captain Tu’sienni said over the intercomm. “We’ll outrun that guy easily, he’s pretty late to the party.”

“Evryn sent someone to check, did he?” Akuliina muttered. “I can’t deal with him now.”

He needed to strap in, but he didn’t want to leave her. He took hold of the safety railing and braced himself.

She glanced at him. “Don’t worry. I can protect you again.” Suddenly he was immobile, unable to move, unable even to breathe.

She held him steady until the g-forces of lightspeed subsided.

 

She spent the rest of the trip to Nar Shaddaa away from the others, lurking in shadows. It was so uncharacteristic of her, and he had no idea what was going through her head. Her power was back and she was brooding more than she ever had before. Was it the lack of control over her situation? She was only a passenger here, not the lord and master, and it would take quite the emergency to force her to even bend her word. She had nothing to do besides brood. All he could do was remain near her, in the engine room, in the cargo bay, and she didn’t force him away. Although, she hardly acknowledged his presence, either.

He missed her.

The other crew all gave her a wide birth, with the exception of the Zabrak Mandalorian, Akaavi Spar, who didn’t seem to care who they were. The air in the ship was strained, as if the Republicans were just waiting for Akuliina to snap. Hardly anyone spoke, to them or to each other, and the Wookiee and the Mon Calamari glared at them constantly. For their part, Pierce spent a lot of time polishing his rifle, and Jaesa paced the common area constantly. It was perhaps the most awkward four days he’d ever experienced.

The only one who was really happy was Vette, who spent most of her time with Risha, gossiping and giggling. One time Akuliina, hearing her down the corridor, said softly: “Maybe she should stay here.”

“My lady?”

But she didn’t elaborate on that.

 

On the last day, she sent Quinn away for a while and asked to speak to Vette. Vette entered the cargo bay cautiously, picking her away around the speeder bikes and various miscellaneous packages. “Lina? Am I in trouble?”

Akuliina was hunched on a crate near the back, her back against the bulkhead and her knees drawn up in front of her. “No, why would you think that?”

“You wanted to talk, that means someone’s in trouble.”

“In the chain of command, perhaps, sometimes. Not you.”

“Also you look kinda scary right now, and you’ve been acting weird.”

Akuliina looked away. “I know. But it does not reflect on you. Nor will I take it out on you. You know I only lash out at proven culprits.”

Vette plonked herself down on a crate near her with a big smile. “Whew! Okay, what did you want to talk about, then?”

Akuliina was silent for a while. “Vette, have you considered staying with your friend?”

“With Risha? Sure! But I decided not to.”

She’d already decided? “Why so?”

“Well…” Vette began examining her blue fingers as if they’d give her the words. “I was super tempted, of course. It’s been so long, and we still get along really well. And if I stay with you, then I can’t really keep in touch with her easily – Captain Tu’sienni is really pro-Republic, and me and Risha talking would make her look bad to the Republic and you look bad to the Empire. But… if I go with Risha, then it looks like I’m betraying you and I know how much Sith place in appearances.”

“Not untrue.”

Vette hung her head. “Also I know that if our paths crossed again, if Risha and I were doing something anti-Empire when you met us, you’d have to kill me and I don’t think either of us wants that, but Sith are so dramatic.”

“It is a possibility. But then why so loyal to me? I know your heart, Vette – while you love who I am, you don’t love what I am.” Vette seemed so much more relaxed than usual, even around her.

“Yeah. I really don’t. You’re more sensible than other Sith, and I love when you’re taking charge and bossing around people who need to be bossed, but you still do terrible, cruel things to people who don’t really deserve-”

“Vette.” She wasn’t changing just because Vette didn’t like it, and Vette knew it, so why was she even mentioning it?

“Um! I mean- Well, anyway, I don’t feel like my part in your journey is over yet, you know? I feel like I shouldn’t just bail when you’re in the middle of fighting Lord Kadolan. Maybe when you defeat him? Have some closure?”

Akuliina raised an eyebrow. “So you’d rather remain with me, a so-called ‘terrible person’, with other people you don’t particularly like, heading into mortal danger, for a cause you don’t believe in, than remain with folk who clearly welcome you with open arms, who engage in slightly less dangerous pastimes?”

Vette pouted. “I don’t not like Quinn, he’s a giant dork once you get to know him. Do you want to get rid of me, Lina? Am I being a burden?”

“No, not at all. I simply want to be sure you realize your insanity.”

“Well, then…” Vette scooted closer to Akuliina and touched her glove gently. “Yeah, I would love to stay with Risha, or Taunt. If it was about danger, even Tivva would be less dangerous than staying with you. Oh, that’s right! If I leave you, it’ll be harder for me to talk to Tivva, with her Moff and all, that too. Anyway, well, maybe one part of it is… yeah, people call you a terrible person, but… you’re still a person. And I know you have Quinn and all, but you don’t really have a lot of friends, do you? It must be lonely sometimes… I know you trust me as much as you can, and you were my only friend in a really bad time for me… so I want to stay with you a little longer.” Vette smiled sheepishly. “Listen to me ramble! Maybe I do really have Stockholm Syndrome.”

“Probably, since I don’t seem to recall complaining about my tragic dearth of friends,” Akuliina said, and Vette giggled.

“Okay, but you like me around, right?”

“I do.” She was awfully fond of the girl and her antics. It was more difficult now to observe them, when she was the Emperor’s Wrath and commanding a fleet and holding sway at the Sith Sanctum, but Vette’s absence would leech a little bit of interest from her life. “If you would like to stay until Kadolan is dead, I would be happy to keep you on.” Perhaps sending her on vacation more frequently would be a good idea. There were places in the Empire where people could be considered ‘normal’, with fewer Sith and military affairs to distress the girl. Akuliina had no interest in them herself, but it was her responsibility to look after her underlings to some extent, and Vette was a special case.

Vette smiled broadly. “That’s good! And I will be able to keep in touch with Risha without people accusing everyone of treason – we’ll use Taunt as a go-between! Which means I have another excuse to talk to Taunt, too!”

“You have too many sisters,” Akuliina commented, and Vette laughed.

 

She stalked into the Slippery Slope, a terrible name for an alcoholic establishment, and headed for the back rooms. Murlesson’s pilot was hanging around the door of one, and nodded to her with a slight leer as she entered. She ignored him entirely.

The teenage Zabrak was sprawled on a couch in an entirely uncomfortable-looking position, reading his omnipresent datapad. She could sense his quietly seething black aura, faint and veiled as usual, but it reassured her as to the continuance of her power. His baleful red-yellow eyes flicked up as she entered. “You finally got here.”

“I’ve been here for two days,” she retorted; those days had not done much to restore her mood. “Broonmark?”

He waved over at the corner, and the Talz shambled forward, burbling grammatically primitive declarations of violent loyalty and relief at her survival. “Yes, yes, Sith are talking, hush.”

“What did you need me for?” Murlesson drawled, looking back at his datapad. “The Viper isn’t a taxi service, certainly not for mere minions.”

She put her hands on her hips, curbing her irritation. Sometimes it amazed her that this boy was on the Dark Council. It was lucky for him that he was clever. “What do you know of a planet called Myrkr?”

That got his attention, and he actually sat up. “Myrkr? Frak, no wonder you were out of contact. Even in all my holocrons, Myrkr is only a whisper.”

She frowned. “It’s not on any major trade routes, but surely it’s not that obscure to the galaxy in general.”

“The galaxy in general doesn’t use the Force,” Murlesson countered. “Who cares what pirates and smugglers know about it? Besides law enforcement. But they don’t know anything relevant to this. The important thing is that the planet blocks the Force. And no one knows why.”

“That matches perfectly with my experience there,” she murmured.

He nodded. “No Force-user, Jedi or Sith, goes there voluntarily, or at least hasn’t written about it if they have. If you care to share any details…”

“I felt the Force when we docked with the refueling station. We were shot down shortly afterwards, and I was knocked unconscious during the descent. When I recovered, we were on the planet’s surface and I could feel nothing. Everything was… it’s all different without the Force.” She gave him a sardonic look. “It was terrifying. I don’t recommend it. Except to my enemies.”

“We’re Sith,” he drawled, and she snorted, taking his point.

“Perhaps I should invite Evryn down there. If he performs as well in combat as he ever did in bed, I’ll wipe the floor with him even with my handicap. At any rate, when we left the planet nearly a week ago, we had only just left the atmosphere when it came back to me, all at once. Quinn may have noted a more precise altitude.”

He poked his datapad. “Anything else?”

“I… There is one thing. There are wild beasts in the forests there, carnivores, and they almost exclusively attacked me, and sometimes Jaesa.”

He frowned. “That is odd. How would they know, if the Force is blocked there?”

“I have no idea. Perhaps they are the ones blocking it?”

“They’d have ridiculous amounts of power if that were the case. That seems unlikely.” He dug in his pocket for his commlink. “’Shara. …Yeah, it’s me. Can you start a search on Myrkr? …The planet. …Yeah, anything you can find. …Okay. Bye.” He didn’t even glance at her as he hung up the call and poked his datapad some more. “I’m assuming when you called me you thought you were going to have to go get ‘cured’ to use the Force again, and so I’m further assuming you don’t actually need me as urgently you did when you called.”

“No. That is all correct.”

“It wasn’t a total waste of time, but I have to get back to work now. Oh, and your apartment’s fine, you’re welcome.”

She smirked. “I thought you might pull some strings in secret. I’ll count that a small favour.”

“Only a small one?”

She waved as she turned to leave, her white-furred bodyguard looming at her heels. “Ta. Have fun in your library.”

“Have fun killing your ex.”

“I will.”

 

She arrived alone in her own private quarters on the Golden Conquerer, her flagship. She’d called her parents, called Vowrawn, called Aristheron, not to highly publicize her return yet, but her closest allies ought to know. Especially her parents, who had scolded her for being caught out in the first place.

Quinn was still on the bridge, seeing to the course and the crew. Broonmark had accompanied her to her door, taking up his place in his little guard-station. He was ideal for the job, and never tried to invade her privacy. Sometimes he growled at Quinn… but Broonmark knew Akuliina would be angry if he stopped him.

At any rate, she had some pressing concerns of her own, and summoned her personal med droid from its closet, requesting a full medical exam.

She was so tired still. Her physical cuts and bruises had healed, even the electrical burns had faded thanks to the kolto. The Force flowed through her as strongly as ever, and she’d mostly come to terms with its strange, unsatisfying return. All that Murlesson’s sparse knowledge of it had told her was that planet was cursed.

She’d felt like she was going insane on the Twosong, trapped in her head and in unfamiliar surroundings, and though Murlesson had been a breath of familiarity, Nar Shaddaa hadn’t been much better. Without a ship of her own, she wasn’t truly free. The moment she arrived on the Golden Conqueror, she immediately felt more like herself, back in her own domain where she was the lord and ruler. She’d had a full hour-long sparring session with Jaesa, had tested her rage against Evryn on some hapless sparring dummies.

Evryn. He was at least part of her problem. She hated him, hated his handsome face and dry charm that had seduced her when she was sixteen, violently loathed him for his betrayal. He’d used her; every look, every word, every caress had been an act to get close to another woman. And then he’d left her so suddenly she’d thought him assassinated at first. But that, too, had all been an act. She’d behaved so poorly once she figured out the truth that her parents had to discipline her, temporarily exiling her to her own holding to teach her the value of work as a balm to a wounded heart.

And yet… there was some part of her, deep down, that didn’t hate him, that had thrilled when she heard his voice again. She’d almost loved him – not like she loved Quinn, but… he would have been a good match for her, if he hadn’t been a duplicitous vermin. Strong, confident, clever, charming, the first to show her that physical love didn’t have to be painful… If only he’d had honour! And the fact that this little pocket of tenderness still existed, that he’d played her so well she still felt it, only made her hate him all the more.

But even her hatred of Evryn was only a distraction from her present concern. She should not feel this way, she was technically well-rested. Her shoulders and feet should not ache as if she’d overstressed them, not after a mere hour or so of exercise after several days of rest. She was well-trained. She knew how to avoid muscle strain and repetitive motion injury. The Force was being irritatingly unforthcoming on her condition. So what was it?

“Greetings, my lord. I’m so glad you have need of me for once. That closet is so dreadfully boring…”

“Shut up and get on with it, you pile of bolts.”

“My lord is unkind as usual. Very well… I will fulfill your command, and then be banished back into that cramped, dark space…”

She sat impatiently through the droid’s scrutiny and sample gathering, through the needles and lights and scans, and skimmed through the results on a datapad.

Impossible. That answer was wholly, entirely impossible.

And she reached inside herself to check, and froze, as if suddenly turned to stone. Impossible.

Not impossible, now that she thought of it, and allowed herself a short, mirthless, incredulous laugh.

She tapped the comm and contacted the bridge. “Commodore. I’d like a word with you in my quarters immediately.”

“Yes, my lady.”

As the door slid open, his stoic mask melted into an expression of concern. “What’s wrong, my- Akuliina?”

She stared at him for a long moment, unable to move or speak with the sheer insanity of the situation, then shoved the datapad at him abruptly. He took it and read it, frowning, until he came to the section she’d come to, and his face slackened in surprise; she felt the uncurbed shock wash through him. He looked up at her, mouth falling open. “This…”

“I’m pregnant,” she said in a small voice, still staring at him intently, as if he could help her make sense of this. That would explain why she was late, after he’d given her his monthly gift of Alderaanian peppernotes – she’d almost forgotten that she hadn’t been bleeding and racked with pain for three days, that she’d been vaguely concerned about it at the time before she’d forgotten it in favour of more pressing issues.

“I don’t understand,” he said, blinking. “How? When?”

“It must have been on that planet,” she said. “When I didn’t have the Force… I forgot.” He was still staring back at her, and she went on rather hurriedly. “It wouldn’t normally be an issue, except-”

“Except?”

“Th-there’s a heartbeat,” she whispered, and his eyes grew wider. “Tiny… fragile… but there. I couldn’t just… So… I… thought I should ask your opinion. On what to do with it.”

She knew what his answer would be even before a strange look of hopeful joy blossomed over his face and in his spirit. That was not a look she was accustomed to seeing on him. “If you’re willing, Akuliina… I… we should keep it.” He’d long had a secret wish to be a father, she knew, and she’d partly crushed his hopes before. To see him so elated now, she wasn’t going to take that away from him. Sith weren’t – oughtn’t to be cruel without purpose.

She nodded once. “Very well. You realize it will make this battle more difficult.”

“I know.” His expression didn’t change.

“You realize I’ll have to take time off afterwards, until the child is birthed and weaned. It will be suspicious.”

“I know.” She knew he had made plans against this event.

“You realize it will be difficult to raise it ourselves without raising immense vulnerabilities.” She still hadn’t forgotten Grathan’s wife and son, and it haunted her more than ever now. She supposed it was already a miracle she hadn’t miscarried after the torture she’d been through.

Now his gaze faltered. “I… Yes.”

She let her sternness fall away, making an effort to let down the barriers she’d raised in fear. Out of fear of what, she wasn’t quite sure. But it wasn’t fair to him to keep him out, when she’d asked him to help make this decision. “I will keep it. …You’ll be a father at last.”

His face lit up in the most glad smile she’d ever seen, and he stepped forward to gather her into his arms. “Thank you. I love you.”

She couldn’t say the words back, but she relaxed into his arms, completely, trustingly, sliding her hands up his back to his shoulders, and he held her tighter, stroking her hair. He was so happy, able to put aside his other worries for a while and just enjoy this moment. She wished she could do the same. But embraces were helping immensely.

Kisses helped more.

 

Chapter 6 – Slaughter

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