THE HANDMAIDEN'S STORY by Linda T


When Inez contacted the rebel base and informed Mary Travis of the curious message she had received from Ezra Standish prior to the departure of the Avenger from Cordoban space, it was enough to send the rebel leader barking orders for the preparation of the Purgatory to leave orbit. Inez herself had been uncertain of what the message meant but to Mary who had been keeping a close eye on the movements of the super star destroyer that had kept vigil around Cordoba in anticipation of the arrival of Princess Leia and her keeper, it made perfect sense.

"It's odd," Inez had remarked as they communicated over the scrambled frequency the bartender used for communications with the rebel base. "I supposed he had to tell them something about why he keeps coming here."

"It's a good cover," Mary retorted, wondering how much of Ezra's deception in allowing his Imperial comrades to believe that Inez was the reason for his frequent visits to the Four Corners was an effort to evade discovery rather than wishful thinking. Mary had certainly seen the attraction between the two to know that it was mutual even though she doubted that the affections between them were true love. "At least I assume it is a cover." She gave Inez a look of mischief over the com screen through which they were conversing.

"It is for now," Inez smiled coyly. "However, should he decide to actually ask me out, I wouldn't mind."

"You really go for the uniforms don't you?" Mary teased.

"You've been listening to Buck," the lady frowned.

"You know," Mary eased back into her chair, enjoying her talks with Inez whenever the opportunity allowed for it. "There is something oddly cliched about an Imperial officer carrying on a relationship with a rebel sympathizer."

"It sounds like something out of a bad romance novel," Inez agreed as they both chuckled. "Still, this message he send me says that he won't be able to make our date as he is going to be away for at least two days."

"And you made no date," Mary remarked, her mind swirling around Ezra's message. "When did it come in?"

Inez told her off the time and immediately, Mary knew what had been Ezra Standish' purpose in contacting Inez with this innocuous message. "He's on the Avenger." She sat up in realization. "He contacted you so that you would tell us that he had to leave with the Avenger."

"Why?" Inez asked bewildered and feeling a sliver of fear knowing that Ezra was keeping company with no less than Darth Vader. "There was no other message...."

"There doesn't have to be a message," Mary retorted. "He just wanted us to know because it was important that we piece it together. It was his way of letting us know that wherever the Avenger was going had to do with us."

"You don't think that they might have guessed where Buck and the others are?" Inez exclaimed, horror seeping into her face as understanding dawned in her eyes.

"There couldn't be any other reason." Mary rose from her chair. "Vader would not have broken orbit without good reason and I can't think of any other that might suffice. Inez, I'll talk to you later." Mary did not wait for a response before she terminated the channel between them. She had little time as it was to act and she was not even sure they would make it to be of any help to the Rogue. Still, they had to try. Flicking another switch, Lieutenant Commander Chano's face appeared before her on the screen.

"Commander," he greeted officiously.

"Prepare the Purgatory for immediate departure," Mary said quickly. "I'll be on board within the next thirty minutes."

"Yes Sir," he answered. "Where are we going?"

"We're going to Zhar," Mary replied, preparing herself to hear debate on this matter.

"Forgive me Commander," Chano predicted response escaped his lips. "I thought the Avenger was in the Zharian Star System."

"It is," she answered shortly. "Our people on Zhar have been compromised. We need to get there to help them."

"But we're no match for a super star destroyer, not by any means," he protested.

"Don't upset yourself," Mary returned mercurially. "We won't be remaining long enough to get into a fight with them. Just long enough to get our people out."

"But....," he started to argue.

"This isn't a democracy Lieutenant," Mary said smoothly. "Prepare for my arrival. We will launch as soon as I am on board." The tone of her voice was clear that this was as much discussion she was permitting on the subject.

"Yes Sir," Chano nodded. "We'll be ready."

Mary hoped they would only need to be ready enough to be able to aid in the escape of the Rogue from under the star destroyer's clutches because under no circumstances did she want to have to go toe to toe with the Sith Lord.

"There is a Jedi on Zhar." Darth Vader stated as he stood on the bridge of the Avenger, overlooking the planet.

"A Jedi," Ezra exclaimed, trying to hide his surprise even though he knew there could only be one Jedi in this area and that was Chris Larabee. He immediately kept his thoughts guarded, knowing such random rumination could seep through his defenses and doom not only himself but the friends who were undoubtedly on Zhar. He had hoped the message he had sent to the Alliance through Inez would be sufficient to warn any rebels who were still on Zhar to vacate the premises but supposed that the time factor had always been against him. "I didn't think there were any left."

"There are a few," Vader remarked, his heavy breathing becoming silent now as if the Sith Lord were holding his breath.

"Are you sure?" Ezra asked coming along side Vader even though it unsettled him to be next to the man. It was not just the black armor but rather a sense of something dark beyond his understanding. Ezra had not much faith in the Force, he did not know it as Chris and Vin did but the Jedi were no myth even if they were fast becoming extinct. He was certain that the sinister energies swirling around Darth Vader was just as tangible and had no wish to be caught in its web.

"I sense him," Vader responded neutrally. "The Force is strong within him and the other he is with."

Ezra forced himself not to of think Vin when Vader said that. "Do you think he might be responsible for the Princess' kidnapping?"

"The Jedi do not kidnap," Vader retorted, with almost a hint of outrage at the suggestion. "He has purpose here but it is not for harming the princess."

"Are you able to find him, since you can sense his presence?" Ezra asked tentatively.

Vader's turned his helmeted head towards Ezra. "Do you know this Jedi?"

"I assure you," Ezra replied, guessing that Vader was attempt to break through his barriers once again by the unexpected question. "I know no Jedis. I have difficulty believing that they even exist."

"Strange coincidence that you should feel this way," Vader accused. "When there was a Jedi in residence of Cordoba prior to your arrival there."

"There were rumors," Ezra answered with his best poker face. "But I have yet to encounter one yet. Was there any truth to the stories? Was there a Jedi on Cordoba?"

"Larabee." Vader faced front once more, deciding he was not going to waste time trying to penetrate this man's shields when he had a more pressing issue to deal with at presence of a Jedi on Zhar, who had no doubt some connection to the young Princess. "Chris Larabee. In his time, he was one of the heroes of the Clone Wars."

"You knew him," Ezra stated. It was not a question.

"I knew of him," Vader responded. "We never met but he was a friend of someone I once knew."

Vader did not reveal that Larabee had once been friend to Obi-Wan Kenobi, his teacher. Memories of Obi-Wan inevitably brought other images and took Vader's memory to places it did not want to go. Almost against his will, the image of Padme flashed before his eyes, though in truth it was the part of him that was still Anakin Skywalker that felt the potency of her resurgence most in his mind. When he had learned of her death, it was the first time in almost too long that Anakin's feelings had been so powerful that Vader was unable to suppress the agony of its toll upon his heart. Curiously, he kept thinking of the first time he beheld her, knowing from the moment he had looked into her beautiful face that his life would be changed forever, even though he was a child and slave on Tatooine. She had been his angel and of all the things that had to be sacrificed for the power of the dark side it was the loss of her that ached the most.

Her and his son.

He was out there, somewhere. Vader knew it. He could almost sense the boy sometimes, although lately he had come to think of it as imagination rather than anything real. What did Padme name the boy? Did she name her son after his father? He supposed not. No doubt, Padme would wish to expunge any part of Anakin Skywalker from their son. Who protected him now that she was gone? Obi-Wan? It was possible, the Jedi had not been seen for almost two years and that date seemed too coincidental with the age of his son to be dismissed. Wherever his son was, Obi-Wan was guarding him and in that, Vader was capable of taking some comfort knowing that the boy was safe. Safer than the Princess would be against Larabee's keeping, Vader thought ruefully, returning his mind to the present. Of course, he should never be too confident. After all, Obi-Wan held Larabee in high esteem and had even told Anakin that Larabee was someone in whom he could confide.

Confide........

Did he know? The thought shouted so loudly in Vader's head, he was surprised that the Captain next to him did not hear it. Could Larabee know about his son? The possibility once introduced, quickly insinuated itself upon Vader's psyche. Obi-Wan seldom left things to chance and it made sense that he might reveal his plans to someone, just so they could safe guard his interests while he was in isolation. Vader closed his eyes and reached out, focussing on Larabee's mind presently hiding on Zhar. As anticipated, he could sense the mind but not the information for as soon as he attempted to probe too deeply, he was met with the solid wall of Larabee's mental shields, the shields he was also using to guard the mind of the other he was with. Vader suddenly changed tact and began shifting his attention to the other mind with Larabee and was immediately rewarded with one word through the crumbling wall.

Skywalker.

"Chris!" Vin shouted, blood running rivulets from his nose. "I can't keep him out!" he cried out desperately as he felt that darkness overcome his mind, chipping away at his defenses.

Chris knew that already. Ever since Vader's presence had touched his mind, the Jedi was trying his hardest to keep Vader out of his mind and that of Vin Tanner's. If was not so strong in the Force, Chris might have succeeded but Vin was an untapped source of power waiting for the right spark to set it a light and Vader's probing had the incendiary effects upon it that Chris had feared. He knew what Vader had heard in Vin's mind and knew that any chance of protecting Vin was destroyed with that one word.

Suddenly, without warning, Rayne slammed her elbow into the back of the bounty hunter's head with enough force to render him completely unconscious. Vin went down on the floor of Yosemite's shop without uttering so much as a cry of pain. He dropped to his knees and fell on the floor, face first amidst the astonishment of everyone around him. Chris let out a soft gasp as Vin became unconscious and immediately strengthened his own barriers against Vader's brutal invasion. Josiah and Buck on the other hand, moved in on the woman who had attacked their friend.

"What did you do?" Buck demanded as his hand gripped Rayne's elbow while staring at Vin's unconscious form. "Is he alright Nathan?" the pilot asked frantically, turning away from Rayne briefly, confident that Josiah would shoot her if she made another move like the one she had just inflicted upon Vin.

"He's alright," Nathan said after a precursory examination. He stared at Rayne and knew that she could not possibly be a spy. Fate would not be that cruel to him. "Just knocked out cold."

"You let the lady go." Yosemite, a grizzled old man with white hair and stubble grunted from the room he had entered after allowing them entrance into the store. "She had good reason for she done, I know it." Yosemite was carrying a little girl not more than two years old who was stretching her small arms towards Rayne upon catching sight of her nurse.

"Rayne!" Little Leia cried out. Her plea threatening to turn into a cry if she was not given to her nurse.

"Let her go Buck," Chris also declared once he was in complete mastery over his mind and capable of blocking all of Vader's attempts to read his thoughts. "She did the right thing."

"How did she do the right thing?" Buck asked outraged. "She knocked Vin senseless! Hell any harder, and she might have killed him!"

"If I was going to kill him, he would be dead," Rayne said coolly and broke her arm free of Buck as she stepped forward to claim Leia. No one who saw the happiness in the child's face could imagine Rayne to be anything more than a she wolf protecting her child when they saw Leia wrapped her arms around Rayne's neck.

"You did it to stop him didn't you?" Nathan guessed accurately, knowing something of the Jedi and having realised after she had knocked Vin cold why she had done what she had. He was starting to respect this beautiful young woman a great deal even though she looked at him like a naive kid. "To keep Vader from getting what was inside his head?"

Rayne's eyes widened in surprise, as if she had not thought him capable of such insight. "Yes," she nodded. "Vader was in his mind. Your friend could have unwittingly told him how to find us. I had to stop him before he doomed us all."

"It's worse than that." Chris looked at her. "He knows."

Rayne's eyes shifted to his sharply. "The whole truth?" she demanded. "He knows the whole truth?"

"All of it," Chris swallowed.

"How could you allow him to know!" Rayne fairly shouted. "Do you know what you have done?"

"Know what?" Nathan asked, becoming even more confused.

"Nothing that need concern you," she barked shortly before turning to Chris again. "I brought Leia here because I thought you could protect her but all you've done is made things worse than they ever were!"

"Vader only has a name," Chris defended himself but the truth was, he was accountable for this disaster. "He knows nothing else."

"And how will your friend keep him out indefinitely?" Rayne glared at him. "We cannot leave Zhar now. There are Imperial troops everywhere! We have to wait here until it is safe. Vader will stop at nothing to find us now that he knows what your friend has inside his head! How long do you think we can keep your friend unconscious?"

"Chris, what the hell is going on?" Buck cut in, feeling like he had walked in on the last act of a very bizarre play.

"We have to get him off world, right this minute," Rayne stated. "That is the only way. The matter has superseded the immediate situation of Leia's safety."

"Why?" Nathan stared at Chris for an answer. "What does Vin know?"

Chris was breathing hard, rebuking himself a dozen times over for not listening to Vin when the young man had demanded some form of Jedi training. If Chris had acted to the request then perhaps Vin might have been able to block Vader's probes from his mind. "You have a ship." He looked at Yosemite. It was not a question, he had seen it inside the man's thoughts.

"A little fighter," the old man replied, not even bothering to ask how Chris knew about the small Belion fighter he had been working on as a pet project and had recently completed. "It will take two but it doesn't have much of a range and she's pretty tough to handle."

"Buck you can fly anything." Chris stared at his old friend. "You're going to have to take Vin off planet immediately. I'll keep Vin out for as long as it takes for you to make the jump to hyperspace."

"Goddamn it why?" Buck cried out in frustration. It felt like he was flying blind.

"Because that's how it's gotta be!" Chris fairly shouted in exasperation. "I can't tell you why! To tell you would be to risk the future. If you care anything for what the rebellion stands for Buck, you'll get Vin as far away from here as possible!"

Buck was taken back by the intensity of Chris' words but whether or not an explanation was provided, the urgency of it sunk in and registered. "Alright," Buck nodded. "I'll take him. I don't why but I'll take him."

"Thank you Buck," Chris let out a sigh and turned to Yosemite. "Can you get them past the Imperial troops to your ship?"

Yosemite nodded mutely. "Yeah I think I can."

"Good," Chris nodded and faced Buck once more. "You need to take Vin to the Dagobah system."

Buck stared at Chris. "The Dagobah system? Chris, there's nothing there."

Chris glanced at the faces around him and knew that Yoda's secret would be safe with them. "There is a Jedi Master on Dagobah that will keep Vin safe and perhaps help him keep people like Vader out of his head. Take him there Buck."

"How do I find this guy?" Buck said skeptically. Nothing about this made any sense except the fact that Chris was afraid and Chris was never afraid without good reason. If the Jedi believed the future of the galaxy was at stake by his agreeing to take Vin to Dagobah, then there was no question of what he would do. He trusted Chris like a brother and if Chris said this had to be done, then it would be.

"You don't have to find him," Chris replied quietly. "He'll find you."

The link was broken.

He could only sense Larabee's mind now and what secrets that may have lay hidden behind it was now closed to him because the Jedi was not weak like his companion but rather one who might have been a Master himself if not for the slaughter of the Jedi Order. The mind of the other was silent and dark as if it existed in a state of limbo. The reality was perhaps not so vague, no doubt someone must have rendered him unconscious, perhaps Larabee himself had carried out the deed. Whatever the truth, it did not matter any more, he had learned enough. Larabee knew something about his son. Of this Vader was absolutely certain.

Ezra did not know what had happened in few minutes he had stood next to Vader as he continued his vigil on Zhar, like a dark god keeping watch from the heavens but clearly something earth shattering had occurred. Suddenly, Vader was on the move, no longer content to let his minions conduct the search for the Princess and her supposed abductor. Without even saying a word, Ezra knew that Vader's sweeping departure from the bridge had a darker intent now and it was no longer about retrieving a lost little girl.

"Lord Vader," Ezra asked as he forced himself to run after the Sith Lord, risking death because the man did not take intrusion into his affairs kindly. "What has happened?"

"It is none of your concern," Vader said sharply, wondering why this nonentity was still following him.

"If it pertains to our mission to retrieve the Princess then I am afraid it is very much my concern," Ezra wondered briefly when was the exact moment he had lost his mind.

Vader paused and looked at him, probably wondering the same thing. "I must confront the Jedi alone. You will remain here."

"Lord Vader," Ezra spoke boldly, "you are endangering our mission by going to Zhar. If you can sense him then it is almost certain that the Jedi can sense you. If his purpose is entwined with the Princess in some way, then our element of our surprise is compromised if you go after him." In truth, Ezra was trying to keep Vader away from Chris Larabee but masking the reason with this excuse was a good way to save his own skin as well.

"I did not ask for your opinion Captain," Vader returned menacingly. His voice emphasizing the word Captain explicitly. "The Jedi is my concern not yours." With that, Vader resumed his forceful strides towards the landing bay where his shuttle was being prepared for him even as they argued the matter in this corridor.

"Darth, you're throwing away the one chance we have of getting the Princess!" Ezra cried out desperately, unaware of what reasoning had made him think he could refer to Darth Vader by his first name, like they were friends or even acquaintances.

Vader paused but did not answer. Instead, Ezra felt himself flung backwards by some invisible force. He slammed against the floor hard, almost feeling as if bones had snapped upon landing. The pain flared through his body as he saw Vader's receding figure in the distance. However, Ezra was not about to let him go. Nathan was most likely down there and no way was Ezra going to let his best friend in the galaxy be harmed by this creature. "Is that the best you can do?" Ezra demanded furiously as he struggled to his feet, his voice full of defiance.

Vader turned around and looked over his shoulder. His metallic breath moving in low, languid strokes as he regarded Ezra. "Your stubbornness is astonishing," the Sith Lord remarked. "But dangerous."

Suddenly, something that felt like fingers started enclosing icy tendrils around his throat. He felt the unseen grip clench around his skin and felt his Adam's apple being pressed up against his esophagus. He struggled to breathe, fighting the overwhelming need to succumb to Vader's attempt to intimidate him. He raised his eyes to meet the dark lord's and refused to relent until he had forced the words of out of his mouth.

"If....you're going to....do this thing.....let....me....come with you!" Ezra gasped forcing the words out when he ought to be conserving whatever oxygen remained in his lungs.

Vader released his hold and Ezra dropped to his hands and knees at the ability to breathe again. He spent a few seconds on the floor, gasping for air as he replenished the supply in his lungs. His breathing was for a moment, almost as hoarse as Vader's himself. When he raised his eyes to the dark lord, Ezra noted that Vader was walking back to him.

"I do not trust you Captain," Vader declared slowly. "I sense great duplicity in you and yet, you are refreshingly brave. I am uncertain whether or not it is to your credit."

"Thank you," Ezra answered never one to be at a disadvantage, even in his present condition. "Will you let me come with you? If you are going to face this Jedi then at least allow me to salvage the situation by retrieving the Princess."

"The Emperor's interests must be guarded," Vader conceded finally, resuming his journey to the landing bay once more by the flounce of his billowing cloak as he turned away. "Very well, you may accompany me."

Ezra let out a sigh of relief as he saw Vader's departing figure, wondering what in the hell he was thinking by embarking on this suicidal course and then realizing that it was not a matter of suicide by rather one of survival.

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