THE HANDMAIDEN'S STORY by Linda T


No matter how much discipline Ezra used to keep his feelings and thoughts in check, the commander of the Cordoba base could not deny that the presence of the Sith Lord, Darth Vader still made him nervous. Vader was staring out the window of what passed for the command centre on this small outpost. The base was built on a hill overlooking the city and though the view was hardly spectacular, those who had chosen the location had done so because they would be able to observe most things taking place in the community. There had been times when Ezra himself had taken up the same position next to the window, watching the people going about their business as they meandered through the maze of streets, alleys and passages in Cordoba City. There were very few faces that were a staple since most of Cordoba's inhabitants were usually travelers going from one place to the next. Those who chose to live here would only do so for as long as the visitors kept coming.

Ezra had been aiding Vader go through the passenger records of everyone who had come through port authorities in the past few days and so far, it had yielded nothing of value. Whomever the Sith Lord was expecting to arrive with Princess Leia Organa had yet to arrive on Cordoba and Ezra hoped that thanks to the warning he had issued the Rebel Alliance through Inez, he hoped that they would not be so foolish to make the attempt. The Executor was the flagship of the Imperial fleet and the only super star destroyer in existence. If a ship could be built to suit the personality of its commander, then the Executor was very much Vader's ship. It was the most powerful vessel of its kind and there was very little that could stand up to it in battle. Even though Ezra had much faith in Mary Travis' abilities to command, there was no way she could win in fight with the Executor, not to mention Vader himself.

"I am certain they are biding their time Lord Vader. We will have them soon enough," Ezra found himself saying, if not for the purpose of simply breaking this silence that seemed to have stretched forever it felt. Vader was not a man who liked to talk. There was no self importance attached to what Vader did for the Emperor, just a feeling of servitude that was almost unwillingness on his part. It was as if he were locked onto a path from which he had resigned himself to follow, no matter what his personal wishes might be on the subject. It was strange to say this of a man that could kill him on sight, whose persona was so dark and foreboding that looking upon him was enough to reduce most men to gibberish but Ezra sensed a deep sadness about Darth Vader. He could not see the man's face but he was certain of it.

"You were seen going into a tavern yesterday," Vader responded. "Care to tell me what you were doing there?" The accusation in his voice was obvious.

"No," Ezra said icily, maintaining everything he knew about keeping his emotions and thoughts shielded from the Jedi. If Vader suspected, even for a moment, that he might be lying, then he was finished. "It's a personal matter."

"I decide what is personal Captain." The helmeted figure looked over his shoulder long enough to catch Ezra's gaze to impart the threat there was in that voice. "Why were you there."

"It has nothing to do with our present situation," Ezra shrugged. "However, since your tone more than indicates that it is necessary for me to reveal the truth, I suppose there is no harm in permitting you access to my privacy."

"How accommodating of you," Vader sneered.

"I have an association with the lady who runs the establishment," Ezra said uncomfortably, hoping he was bringing no grief to Inez by creating this life. However, this was a far more acceptable reason for his being at the Four Corners Tavern other than the complete truth, that she was a rebel sympathizer. "When time permits, I go there to enjoy her company. I apologize for not being more forthcoming with this information but I felt it to be no one's business but my one."

"Spare me the claims of your wounded pride Captain," Vader returned sharply as if believing not a word of what he was saying. "I sense duplicity in you and I am not blind to your efforts to hide the truth from me. If I had the time or the patience I might be inclined to chip away at this facade you're displaying for my benefit, just to see what it is you're hiding."

Ezra guessed immediately that Vader was attempting to shake his resolve, to create uncertainty that would crack the intimacies of his thoughts wide open but refused to let the dark lord have that kind of power over him. His life depended on maintaining his control. "That is your prerogative," Ezra answered coolly. "I have nothing to hide."

Vader was about to respond when one of the officers behind one of the stations on the bridge suddenly rose to his feet and caught the eye of both Vader and Ezra. "Captain Standish, Lord Vader. We've just received transmission from Zhar."

Vader swept past Ezra even before Lieutenant Grish finished speaking, his black cloak billowing slightly behind him as he walked. In seconds he was standing before the young ensign who swallowed visibly at having Vader's attention fixed wholly on him.

"A transmission Ensign?" Vader asked with a voice that broke no delay in any explanation that was coming to him.

"Yes Sir," Grish nodded and shifted his gaze towards Ezra. "As you requested Captain, we've been monitoring all the immediately surrounding systems for any unusual reports."

At that Vader turned to Ezra in question. With Darth Vader here, Ezra was unable to ignore the situation as he liked and knew that if he was not appearing to do something about the kidnapping, Vader's suspicions about him would deepen even further and that was not in Ezra's best interests at all. "With our lack of success monitoring incoming ships into Cordoban space, I thought that perhaps the kidnappers may have abandoned the plan to use Cordoba as an exchange point for the child."

"And why would you think that Captain?" Vader accused. "The rebels would have no reason to change their plans unless they were alerted to our presence."

"If you forgive me Lord Vader," Ezra returned, more than prepared for the question already. "It is unreasonable to assume that the rebels do not have affiliates planet side since most of their business is conducted on Cordoba. If that is the case as I believe it to be, then the minute your ship entered Cordoban space, they would abandoned any plans to approach this system. Nothing they have is any match for a super star destroyer and since the Executor is the only one of its kind, they would suspect that there could be no reason for you to be here unless it was a matter of the utmost importance."

Vader did not say anything for a moment and Ezra guessed that he was considering what was said with deep scrutiny. Ezra hoped that this would put to rest the notion of his complicity in the Rebellion as far as Vader was concerned, even though he strongly suspected that once the dark lord thought ill of you, it was impossible to change his mind, just delay it with a stronger lure. "Impressive Captain," Vader responded. "Most impressive. Perhaps I was wrong about you."

No you weren't, Ezra thought silently to himself, and you don't think you are either.

However, he crushed the thought mercilessly before Vader had too much chance to hone in on it. Instead, the Emperor's henchman turned to the ensign who had precipitated this and demanded. "What of the report from Zhar?"

"Well according to port authorities on Zhar, a freighter captain named Worthu was stopped at the checkpoint attempting to smuggle Nala-Tree frogs to Zhar. Nala-Tree frogs are considered contraband and captain and the passenger attempting to bring them into Zharian space were arrested for smuggling. In exchange for amnesty Worthu claimed one of his passengers was a woman with a small child, a little girl who bears a striking resemblance to Princess Leia of Alderaan. Port authorities conducted a search of the ship but the woman and the child were already gone."

"They must have departed the ship anticipating trouble," Ezra finished off. There was no reason not to make that statement since he would not be making any astonishing revelation that Vader himself would not have reached on his own. "Chances are they will be attempting to find passage off Zhar."

"We must move quickly," Vader stated. "You will inform my ship that I will be arriving shortly to proceed to Zhar."

"Yes Lord Vader," Ezra answered automatically, glad to see the end of the dark lord. Vader was already moving across the room, his presence a dark shadow moving out of proximity from their midst. He had almost reached the door when he paused long enough to add.

"Once you have informed my ship that I will be arriving shortly. You will take a shuttle and join me on the Executor," Vader answered and Ezra swore that he was smiling behind that mask.

"Excuse me Lord Vader?" Ezra almost stuttered.

"I have decided that yours is an intellect too sharp to be allowed to languish during this important mission. I want you on the Executor with me, where the full measure of your insight can benefit the retrieval of the young princess," Vader concluded before he resumed walking out of the room, giving Ezra no chance to protest.

Ezra watched him go and felt a chill within his innards. Unfortunately, there was nothing he could do about it. He could not refuse to go to Zhar, nor could he make the trip on his own. Vader held all the cards at the moment and it looked like Ezra was just going to have to play the hand as it stood.

He just hoped it wasn't his last.

Vin Tanner was a novice when it came to the Force.

For as long as he could remember, the Force was nothing more than some fairy tale told by parents wanting their children to behave or something to which they could drift off to sleep with pleasant dreams. It was nothing that Vin considered real, not by any means. Despite his lack of belief however, there was always something tickling at the back of his mind that whispered perhaps it was not quite so fictitious as it seemed, that there was more to it than he could possibly imagine. Years of bitter experience had forced Vin to discard the notion that anyone would willingly die in the service of something good even if the Order of the Jedi Knights seemed to epitomize this idealistic notion. To Vin, the Jedi was just as spectral as the Force itself. He could associate none of this with himself even though everything he relied upon as a bounty hunter

It was until he had met Chris Larabee did he learn the truth about himself, that in all probability one of his parents were Jedi Knights if not extremely force adept. Chris said that the Force was very strong in him, even if at this point it was untapped. Vin did not think he could endure the discipline required to become a Jedi and the truth was he did not wish to become one. However, knowing where he had come from had been enough to see him abandon his whole life to follow Chris on the idealistic crusade to help the Rebel Alliance in its fight against the Emperor. He was a loner and had been for most of his life and the notion of being surrounded by people who relied upon him was rather odious to one who had lived for himself only but being in the Alliance had tapped an unspoken need within him. It was a need he had always refused to acknowledge because it was an ultimate sign of weakness but it existed nonetheless, exiled to the fringes of its consciousness where everything else he did not wish to face was consigned.

It was probably a day or so after he had returned from the mission at Doldur that he first realised that he was considered a rebel. They patted him on the back, called him by name, and offered him a commission in their ranks, which he had been at the time to astonished to except. He found himself surrounded by people, not just Chris. There was Buck, Nathan, JD and Josiah, even Ezra whom they saw later on, was part of the new faces that had impressed themselves upon his existence. The astonishing thing through all this was that they considered him one of them and awakened inside of him the need to belong. He had never admitted he was lonely but suddenly people who were more than willing to risk their lives for him surrounded him and he soon came to understand that it would be no sacrifice to do the same for them as well.

His relationship with Chris Larabee however, was clearly set apart from the others. Perhaps it was because that Chris was a Jedi that made all the difference. In the beginning, it was easy to sense Chris' emotions and thoughts because the Jedi had made no effort to hide them. When Vin had stumbled upon him in the Four Corners Tavern, Chris has been waiting to die and not caring who found him. However, with Vin's arrival, the Rebel Alliance and Vin suspected secretly, the presence of Mary Travis, the Jedi had been resurrected and since their arrival at the rebel base, Chris had been resuming his Jedi exercises and was back to full power, so to speak. Now Vin sensed only slight emotions from Chris even though what he considered slight was actually intense emotions that were seeping through the Jedi's carefully erected barriers and were always cause for concern.

Like now.

From the moment they had set foot on the planet Zhar with its amber skies and high platforms, Vin had sensed something that could only be interpreted as uneasiness emanating from the Jedi. The former bounty hunter was at a loss to understand why. Zhar was hardly a remarkable place. The entire city had been built on a huge mountain rock face, overlooking a vast expanse of land that was partially submerged in the water that drained from the cascade that originated from the city. Though the landscape was partially flooded, it was home to a multitude of life and was subject to the frequent rainstorms that suddenly appeared out of nowhere. It was its wet and humid climate that made it one of the worlds that was under the influence of the Hutt gangsters.

As far as Vin knew, Chris had never been to Zhar and yet his reaction as the ship landed on the high platform that the Zharians had assigned them as the temporary berth during their stay, indicated otherwise. Chris emerged from the Rogue and stared at the place with a long, sweeping gaze and that tremor of emotion that he would normally be able to hide from Vin passed very clearly to the bounty hunter, much to his surprise. The others were oblivious to the Jedi's state of mind; even Buck who was his oldest friend. Of course Buck's concerns were with JD who had been silent and slightly morose since his dazzling display of gunnery skills during their escape from Bespin. Josiah was still smoldering from the almighty argument he had just had with his niece Casey who was not at all happy to be left behind in the ship to look after her aunt Nettie, when she was eager to share in the mission of rescuing Princess Leia Organa.

According to the data they had received prior to their arrival on Zhar, the young princess and her guardian were presently seeking refuge in one of the safe houses that the Alliance had established here. Although the Hutts controlled Zhar, even they knew better than to impede the Empire when it came to the question of the Rebel Alliance. The Hutt gang lords were forced to concede a begrudging admiration for Palpatine's ruthlessness even though in secret, they feared it as well. The Emperor's dislike for non-human species was known and should he feel so inclined, would lose no sleep about taking Zhar and all the Hutt controlled worlds should they give him the excuse to. Thus as the new arrivals moved through Oblai City, they could see the evidence of the search being undertaken by the Empire.

"She was right," Nathan mused as they moved cautiously through the streets, trying not to attract attention. Fortunately, there were so many people on the streets of Oblai City that they did not have to worry about being inconspicuous. There were so many different species going about their business that six humans hardly seemed eye catching as the Imperial troops continued their search through the various establishments in the community for their quarry.

"Who was right?" Buck asked off handedly, his eyes were just as focussed on the stormtroopers as the rest of his companions.

"Leia's bodyguard," Nathan answered as they shifted their gazes away from the commotion of the stormtroopers search and continued on their way. "She figured the freighter captain who brought them here might serve her up as an effort to save his skin, when he got stopped at port authorities."

"Well," Buck frowned, disliking the fact that someone in his profession could be so lacking in personal honor. "I suppose a man will do strange things if he wants to stay alive."

"I know," Nathan frowned. "Just didn't think that meant sacrificing a woman and a child."

"You are an idealist Brother Nathan," Josiah smiled patting the dark man on his shoulder. "An admirable trait but one that is more often than not, a compass to disappointment."

"There is good in everybody. It's just a matter of whether or not it can be drawn out," Chris remarked as they left the stormtroopers behind them and turned into an alley. The alley was narrow enough to ensure that beyond the first few feet into its confines, the level of natural light dropped dramatically and was virtually in darkness. It looked like nothing more than a dead end, certainly not a good hiding place for it led nowhere in particular and was too narrow for any long term use. At the mouth of it was a beggar cloaked in gray, holding a gnarled wooden bowl. Only Nathan dropped a credit into it as they entered it, while Chris held the beggars gaze for any longer than an instant.

"So what's the plan?" Vin asked tautly, sensing something that immediately made his hand moved silently towards his blaster. As the darkness surrounded them, he hoped Nathan knew where he was going because their present location would make for a very bad venue for close quarter combat. There was almost no place to run if this was a trap and the vulnerability of their position was not lost upon him as he saw the walls on either side of him.

"Well they're hiding with one of our people here on Zhar. He's an old ground stopper from Republic days, good man. He's mostly retired these days, living off his military pension and does a few speeder repairs on the side. Name's Yosemite," Nathan explained.

"So you trust him," Buck inquired.

"As much as I trust you," Nathan returned.

"Then you are a fool," a decidedly female voice said behind them.

"And the fun continues," Vin muttered sarcastically as they turned around slowly and noted the beggar they had seen earlier. Her stance was clearly as adversarial as was the gun she had pointed in their direction. Her face was partially covered by the hood of her cloak and the way the material glided over slender shoulders told them much about the person hidden within its folds.

"Who are you?" Nathan asked first, remembering what she had called him and feeling annoyed enough to demand an answer.

"I'll ask the questions," she returned. "Who are you?"

"We are no one you should be afraid of," Chris suddenly responded. He could sense who she was and knew the situation could be diffused because the woman, though disciplined and well trained, was also riding the ragged edge of exhaustion and paranoia. He had no doubt that her journey here had been fraught with danger and she was at the stage where she was willing to shoot first and ask questions later. "I believe you came in search of me."

"And who are you?" she retorted with a more than skeptical sneer to her voice. The weapon in her hand did not waver.

"I am Chris Larabee." Chris stepped forward. "I am the Jedi you seek."

"I seek no Jedi," the woman responded faster than she should have, unwilling to risk any chance that this could be an attempt at subterfuge.

"Yes you did," Chris returned immediately. They had to settle this matter quickly. They needed to leave Zhar as soon as possible. If the Empire was searching the city for her and the child then it was very likely that Vader knew that this as well and would most likely be on his way. "I am whom you sought when you chose to leave Alderaan."

"What's going on?" Buck demanded his confusion plain.

"She was trying to reach me," Chris explained as best he could without going into specifics. "The Organas have always had close ties with the Jedi, she knew that if anyone could protect Leia, it would be me."

Rayne stared at the man believing that he was speaking the truth because a real Jedi would know that her mission to see him was not something that could be spoken about to just anyone, even if he trusted them. "I believe you are who you say you are," she answered a visible note of relief in her voice. She lowered the hood and allowed herself to be seen.

"Well hello there ma'am," Buck's voice immediately responded, oozing charm as always and was promptly followed by a groan from the rest of the gallery. He stepped forward with a grin, always ready to step to the fore when a lady was present.

"Subtle Buck," Vin drawled. "Real subtle."

Nathan however, was even faster on his feet than Buck, having strode forward to demand a few explanations of his own from the lady. "Exactly what do you think you're doing by staying out here in the open for all to see? Do you know that this city is crawling with Imperial troops?" Nathan demanded angrily. "You should be at the Princess' side, not waiting out here for them to find you."

"I have a better understanding of what the little Princess needs," Rayne said hotly as she strode past the Rebel officer, hiding her annoyance as his presumptuous demands. "I have been guarding her since the day she was born."

"Where is she?" Chris asked, falling into stride with her as she brushed past Nathan leaving her behind.

"She's with Yosemite," Rayne responded. "I believe she is safe with him for the moment."

"Not safe enough," Nathan retorted. "If the Empire know that you're here, you can bet Vader does too."

"Vader?" Rayne stopped short in her tracks and looked at Chris anxiously. "Where is he?"

"Last we heard, he was waiting for you on Cordoba," Josiah explained.

"He's been tracking us since Alderaan," Rayne explained as they continued up the passageway. "He intends to take the Princess as hostage in order to force her father to cast his vote favoring Palpatine's segregation policy."

"I really don't think Organa has any chance of stopping the Emperor on this anyway," Josiah added. He had followed the politics of this quite closely like all the members of the Republic Senator who were now fugitives. "Palpatine stuck most of his puppets in the Imperial Senates, when the time comes he will have the votes, no matter what Bail chooses to do."

"Then why this kidnapping?" Buck asked. "Seems like a waste of time to me."

"Bail Organa is a strong voice in the Senate, even if Alderaan is a pacifistic world. Remember, since the destruction of the Caamasi people, Alderaan is now one of the oldest and most long-standing member of hte Old Republic that values freedom to all sentients no matter what the species. Bail could become a rallying point for all dissatisfied peoples in the Empire. If he casts his vote with the Emperor, he would lose all that popular support," Josiah sighed.

"Kidnapping his daughter would be a good way to do that," Buck retorted, disgusted at the thought of using a child in such a fashion. "So this whole kidnapping was to throw the Emperor of your scent to knowing what he was planning?"

"More or less," Rayne answered as they reached the end of the passageway to be confronted by a heavy steel door that had no visible means of opening, except from the inside. She tapped three times on the rusted steel surface and the sound echoed down the alley, dissipating before it reached the mouth that led to the street. "Vader was coming and we knew he would take Leia if we did not think of something fast. If we hid her away then Palpatine would have all the proof he needs to claim that Bail had spies in Coruscant that warned him of the Emperor's plans. We had to think of a way to remove the Princess from the threat as well as ensure that Emperor had no proof that we were warned of his intentions."

"But if you bring her back after the voting is done, won't he guess anyway?" JD asked.

"He may suspect but he won't have the proof," Josiah answered before Rayne could. "To arrest someone like Bail Organa, he needs proof. It's one thing to arrest a member of the Old Republic Council but something else to bring charges against a member of the Imperial Senate, not to mention the planetary head of state Alderaan, a core world, not to mention a very political powerful planet."

"We hope that once the voting is over, we will pretend that a ransom was paid and the Princess was released," Rayne replied as they heard footsteps approaching the door from the other side.

"That's a hell of a gamble," Nathan pointed out.

"It is," Rayne agreed, prepared to concede with him on that point. "But we have no other choice."

Suddenly, Chris stopped short in his tracks, much to the confusion of those around him except Vin. Vin was standing just as still but appeared visibly distressed. The bounty hunter had never felt like this before and he had experienced some pretty odd things since he had come into Chris Larabee's company. He felt cold inside as if slivers of ice had burrowed past his skin and was currently taking a joy ride through his veins, filling everything inside him with tendrils of cold. His heart contracted in his chest and he shuddered visibly.

"Chris," Vin spoke out softly as the others stared at both of them. "What is it?"

"Vader's not on Cordoba, not any more," Chris answered shortly, his eyes glazed and very far away. "He's here."

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