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Love, Chance and a Galaxy at War
by Emperor's Fury

DISCLAIMER: The Characters, Ships and Places mentioned in this story belong to George Lucas and Timothy Zahn. In using them for this narrative purpose, no plagiarism or malevolent violation of copyright laws is intended.

ON THE MAIN bridge viewscreen, before the background of the distant, glittering stars, fighters danced, fired and dived, and death danced among them. From his command chair, Captain Dren Markas watched with affection as an A-Wing starfighter dueled with two TIE Interceptors, exploding one and crippling the other, then made a dash for the breach in the Imperial fighter formation it had created, thrusters flaring brightly. Despite himself, Captain Markas found himself wishing that such a skilled and daring pilot might make it and survive to fight another day, but barely scant seconds later, two more TIEs gave pursuit und shredded the A-Wing and its brave pilot apart in an avenging blizzard of lasercannon fire.

Elsewhere, a trio of Y-Wings attempted a death-or-glory torpedo attack run on an Imperial Lancer class frigate that was met by a devastating barrage from the ship's quad laser turrets. Caught in a scything crossfire, the bomber crafts fireballed in rapid succession, the pitifully few torpedoes they had managed to launch hardly causing a flicker in the frigate's shields.

The Rebel carrier ship reeled as it desperately fired its engines in a vain attempt to escape the squadrons of TIE bombers that were relentlessly hammering its squat, triangular hull, its shields gone minutes ago, its two escorting Corvettes and a troop transport already ablaze and drifting. The Rebels were putting up quite a fight, Markas thought, you had to give them that, if nothing else. Still, several laser defense turrets were greeting the strafing TIE waves, but it was only a matter of time until, with its escorting fighters and bombers gone, the carrier had to succumb to the inevitable. In a distance, he could see the massive shape of the Chimaera hanging motionlessly in space, blocking out the stars. Grand Admiral Thrawn was holding back his flagship along with the main body of the battle group, obviously not willing to risk unnecessary damage from stray torpedoes or any kamikaze attacks the Rebel pilots might attempt. How the Admiral had once again outguessed the Rebels and managed to spring this trap on one of their carrier groups in the outskirts of this outer rim star system was as yet unknown to Captain Markas, but obviously, it was working out perfectly well. His own Strike Cruiser had yet to fire its first shots of this engagement, too, but that would come once it would be called upon to deliver the killing blow. At this point of the battle, they were merely linebacking, ready to provide heavy fire support if need should arise.

Looks like the TIEs can handle themselves pretty well out there so far, he added thoughtfully, looking at his own nervously idling gun crews in the bridge pit below his elevated chair podium. Fighter jocks going to snatch all of today's glory and brag about it loud enough to hear it on Coruscant.

His line of thought was brought to a sudden end when the intercom in his armrest bleeped insistently. "Yes?"

"Signal from the flagship, Sir!" the hurried voice of a comms crewman crackled out of the tiny speaker. "Encrypted burst transmission, audio only."

"Patch it through!"

"Aye, Sir!" There was a burst of static, then a voice he recognized as that of Chimaera's Captain Pellaeon. "Strike Cruiser Gun Crate, this is the command ship. Desist overwatch operation and investigate contact Bearing Two-Seven-Four Decimal Three, Distance zero point eight light seconds, outbound vector! Chimaera out!"

Markas winced at the mentioning of his ship's name. Gun Crate. Apparently, some minor, frakk-loving Imperial shipyard engineer's sorry attempt at humor and creativity had earned the Strike Cruiser its far-from-glorious name, much to the displeasure of its Captain. Damn the Bureaucrats, he sighed inwardly before straightening up in his chair. "Ah, well, Mister Bjarnesson, you heard it!"

"Yes, Captain!" Commander Thorgram Bjarnesson was standing impassively a few feet behind his Captain's command seat, his back straight as a turbolaser barrel, shoulders square, face a well-controlled mask, olive-greyish fleet uniform spotless and neat, looking every inch the Crate's First Officer. With his massively muscular frame, his short-cropped blonde hair and his brutish, clean-shaven jaw, he seemed more of a Stormtrooper than a Navy man, but he was as able and sound a fleet officer as any one Markas had ever met. When he spoke, his clear, basso voice carried easily across the bridge, cutting through the hushed conversations in the crew pit.

"Heads up, all stations! Helm, come about on course Two-Seven-Zero! Engine control, give me three-quarters sublight, and now! Tactical, the Captain wants a complete status display about anything within a light second that does not squawk friendly transponders, and he wants it inside of two minutes. Let's be at work, gentlemen!"

A chorus of "Aye, Sir!"s answered his curt, precise orders, and Captain Markas felt a sense of paternal pride. Odd name or not, his ship had a well-drilled, motivated and disciplined crew, from his Number One down to the last rating.

The deck below his feet gave a sudden lurch when the powerful main engines kicked in, and the picture on the main screen began to shift sideways as the Strike Cruiser turned its blunt nose away from the scene of a battle that was quickly entering its final stage. The victorious TIE fighters were busily hunting down the few surviving Rebel X-Wings and A-Wings in packs of twos and threes while a pair of Carrack Class light cruisers had bracketed the stricken carrier ship, raking it mercilessly from prow to stern with thundering turbolaser broadsides.

Suddenly, the image on the holoscreen changed to a tactical display that depicted the Crate's immediate surroundings, along with telemetry data and course projection vectors for almost every object larger than a micro-comet. The projection was centered on the lone pale green-blue gas giant that dominated this star system together with its three barren, lifeless moons and a widespread field of lazily drifting asteroids. They were now slowly picking their way past the orbit of the outer moon, moving towards the horizon line that was visible as a bright, multi-colored crescent shape on the surface of the gas planet, all the while edging carefully ever closer insystem. In the rearward sector, behind the icon that stood for the Strike Cruiser itself, the Rebel carrier was a blazing red symbol, the unmoving, powerless remains of its escort ships slowly fading to a dull purple the color of dried blood. In the front sector, though... .

Nothing... . Markas thought, looking closely at the shimmering holographic figures on the screen. Must be the minerals in those frakking asteroids spooking our sensors... . No, wait! There!

A bright blue dot suddenly winked into existence on the screen as the computer began filtering the incoming sensor data, displaying it in a rapid-fire cascade of information next to the icon.

"Cunning chap!" Bjarnesson commented, unbidden. "And a good pilot, too. Riding on the periphery of so dense an asteroid belt ain't easy."

Silently, Captain Markas had to agree. It was a very small ship, he realized now, barely large enough for a pinnace or a yacht, its shields and engines powered down to a minimum, energy signature almost invisible due to interference from the mineral-rich asteroids it was drifting amidst.

"Get us into tractor beam range," he ordered, "but make sure all shields are at full power and have a firing solution ready for the forward turbos. If this turns out to be a disguised Rebel attack ship trying to feed us a few torpedoes, I want it scattered across my viewscreen if it even so much as twitches!"

His First Officer quickly and quietly relayed the orders while Markas stared grimly at the contact on the display, the order to open fire ready on his lips if the energy reading from the ship should unexpectedly spike.

A slight shudder ran through his command chair, a fraction of a second before Bjarnesson's dutiful report: "Contact, Sir! Tractor beam has engaged. No perceptible reaction yet."

"Very well, let us hear their story, then." He keyed the intercom in his armrest. "Comms! Give me a broadband directional transmission, all hailing frequencies!" He waited until a green light glowed calmly on the small keypad, then raised his voice.

"Attention, unknown ship! This is Captain Dren Markas of the Imperial Strike Cruiser Gun Crate! State your identity and intentions immediately! Be advised that any suspicious action on your part will be regarded as a hostile act and will be answered accordingly!"

And given the current circumstances, according to standard Imperial battle dogma almost anything short of unconditional surrender could be considered a suspicious action.

Seconds passed without a reply. He was about to repeat his challenge when the bridge speakers crackled and produced a female voice, almost drowned out by heavy static, sounding very young and very frightened.

"Imperial battleship, Imperial battleship, this is the yacht Peace of Calabria! Please do not fire! We are an unarmed civilian ship and have no hostile intentions. I repeat, please do not fire!"

Simultaneously, the picture on the screen changed again, now showing the three-dimensional image of a small civilian traveling ship, one of the smallest classes to sport a hyperdrive engine. It appeared to be of an older type, maybe even old enough to date back to the days of the Republic, but was obviously well cared-for and lovingly maintained.

Markas cracked a smile and exchanged knowing glances with his Number One before tapping the comms button again.

"Yacht Peace of Calabria, this is the Imperial Strike Cruiser Gun Crate! Disengage your shields and engines and prepare to be towed aboard for inspection. Strike Cruiser Gun Crate out!"

Turning to his right, he looked up to see Bjarnesson raise a quizzical eyebrow.

"I know, I know, Thor, but they do not look big enough to be a q-modified boarding pinnace, and if it were a suicide bait, they could already have rammed us easily enough. Anyway, have all forward ion cannons ready, just in case they try anything stupid. And send Lieutenant Kaskalon and his Trooper detail into the main hangar with full counter-boarding equipment." He leaned back in his chair. "Now... let us see what unexpected guests we found us out here."

* * *

Cadet Marik Duranges nervously threw a hasty look back over his shoulder when the hangar blast doors hissed open and spat out another half dozen black-clad Navy Troopers in dull-black body armor and bowl helmets, blaster carbines held ready in gloved hands. At an imperative gesture from Lieutenant Kaskalon, the men quickly took cover behind cargo containers, ventilation pipes and equipment racks, risking glances and pointing their weapons at the small ship that the main tractor beam had delivered into the brightly-lit cavern of the main hangar bay. Now, the yacht was being held immobile by secondary tractor beams and repulsor fields that were normally used to handle the TIE fighters under full-gravity conditions, but which served this purpose just as well. Short of full-power engine thrusts, nothing would get this ship out of the hangar as long as the fields were activated. The air around it still shimmered from its main drives cooling down, but soon the airlock would open, and then... what?

Can they be anything but Rebels? We just trashed a whole battlefleet of them out there!

Part of him was thrilled at the prospect of what promised to be his first serious firefight, but another menacing, relentless voice was whispering to him that he should be afraid of what might easily be an early end to his career and life. He willed it to be silent. Doubts were the last thing he needed right now. Yet, there was a certain anxiety he could not completely suppress.

To distract himself, he glanced over at the three-man team that was busy setting up a tripod-mounted heavy blaster cannon. To his own displeasure, he found they were still fumbling with the energy coupling and the snaking cables that fed the heavy long-barreled gun. This is taking far too long, he made a mental note, we need to schedule additional support weapon drills once this is over!

He cast an angry glance at the noncom in charge of the gun team, then turned his eyes back to his superior, First Lieutenant Ushgul Kaskalon, just in time to see him break cover and wave his men on. "First Squad with me, fire team spread! Weapons ready! Advance!"

First Squad, that means me too! As the Lieutenant's nominal second-in-command, his place was by Kaskalon's side. "Sergeant Breel, get that frelling gun ready and set up a flanking overwatch position! And do it now!"

Hoping that his voice had not sounded as nervous to the senior noncom as it had to himself, he ignored the feeling in his stomach and left his own cover behind a coolant tank, hurrying to Kaskalon's side, his blaster pistol drawn and ready, yet still pointing at the floor plating.

Behind the Lieutenant and the Cadet, the twelve Troopers of First Squad fanned out into a loose half-moon formation, blasters raised, edging suspiciously forward step by step. Eight or ten meters from the starship, Kaskalon signaled for them to halt and make ready. An uneasy silence followed that made Marik's skin crawl and seemed to last for half an eternity.

When the ship's outer landing ramp lowered with a pneumatic hiss, it almost made him jump. The clatter of plasteel told him of raised blasters. Unbidden, his own pistol had come halfway up, and he forced himself to lower it again. In the reddishly-lit semi-darkness behind the viewport of the outer airlock, something seemed to move, then the pressure hatch parted, and... .

"Oh, how lovely, look at this! An honor formation! That's what I like about those Imperials, always mindful of the proper formalities and etiquette!"

The voice belonged to a young woman that was standing in the open hatch at the top of the ramp, looking down on the assembled Troopers, giving them an enthusiastic wave and a flashing smile. Marik found himself staring open-mouthed at her when she took a few careful steps down the ramp. Obviously, she was very young, twenty-two or twenty-three standard years perhaps, not older than him, and very beautiful. Tall and slim, the elegant red dress she wore perfectly accentuated her athletic figure when she moved towards them, softly suntanned shoulders, neck and arms left bare. When she tilted her head to one side in an aristocratic manner, her long, bright blonde ponytail fell over one shoulder and down her back. On her arms and wrists, gold and jewels reflected the overhead lights. Yet, when she reached the deck and regarded each of the Troopers in turn, her fascinating blue eyes betrayed a hint of fear that her voice had not.

It took a second for him to bring his befuddled mind back into reality, to make the full meaning of what she had just said sink in.

Honor formation? She can't be frelling serious... ! Great Stars, she is mistaking us for a welcome party!

The thought had clearly also registered with the other Troopers, who were giving each other puzzled looks. Lieutenant Kaskalon seemed completely taken aback momentarily.

"I am sure this is not quite what the gentlemen had in mind, your highness." a calm, rich male voice came from the airlock, drawing all attention upon the man standing there, eying the scene below him with mild amusement. He was tall and well-built, with dark skin, black, curly hair, brown eyes and a black, short-trimmed moustache. Dressed in light-blue trousers and jacket over a white shirt, soft leather boots and a beige half-cape over the left shoulder, he had a clean-cut, almost military look about himself and radiated an almost tangible air of self-assurance and charm.

When he caught sight of the heavy, chrome-plated blaster pistol in his hip holster, though, Lieutenant Kaskalon quickly regained his composure. Taking a step forward, he aimed his own handgun at the tall stranger, a gesture that was simultaneously mirrored by the other Troopers. "You! Freeze! Hands away from that Blaster!"

The girl gave a muffled shriek at the sight of the pointed weapons and clasped her hand over her mouth, but the man was not so easily impressed.

"Peace, my friend, peace!" he said in an undaunted voice, raising his hands and taking slow, accentuated steps down the ramp towards the watchful Troopers until he was level with them. "I do not wish to cause any harm to you or your men."

"Who are you?" Kaskelon barked.

Again that unshakable voice, yet now it carried a theatric hint, like that of a well-practiced orator.

"Gentlemen, I have the very honor to introduce to you her highness, the Lady Risha Del Verwellesson, Vice-Princess of the Del Verwellesson Industrial Cartel, the Royal House of Calabria Prime." He made a grandiose gesture that encompassed the girl and half the hangar bay.

"And you?"

A short, courteous bow. "I am Silas Mahanian, her highness' personal aide and chief public affairs manager, your humble servant, sir."

Make that her personal bodyguard, too. Marik thought. Judging from the man's outward appearance and behavior, he was clearly ex-military or mercenary, perhaps even ex-bounty hunter, no amount of politeness and up-price wardrobe could fully conceal that.

Yet, Lieutenant Kaskalon seemed unimpressed. "What are you doing here?" he demanded.

"Your Captain insisted on towing us aboard for inspection."

"No, I mean, what are you doing in this star system?"

"Oh, that... ." He made a gesture that was both dismissive and apologetic. "We dropped out of hyperspace with a defective navigation computer and were unable to localize our precise position, I am embarrassed to admit. Our star charts of this sector appear to be a little outdated, you see? When we detected unknown ships, we thought it better not to take risks in giving away our position. You know, these regions of space are not the safest of places nowadays, with pirates and Rebels and all those kinds of people around. We might have easily gotten into a battle or something if your Imperial Navy had not found us first."

You have no idea... . Marik mused and had to suppress a smile.

"Thinking about it, friend, might you be able to help us out with a technician and a set of precise jump coordinates back to Calabria?"

"I do not think so, Syndic Mahanian!" It was the voice of First Officer Bjarnesson that cut through the hangar bay like a gale. How long he had been following the discussion was uncertain, but now he was striding across the hangar deck towards Kaskalon and the squad of Troopers, who quickly lowered their weapons and snapped to attention. Even unarmed, with his bare hands folded behind his back, Bjarnesson radiated more physical power than the Lieutenant. Paying no heed to the tension in the air and the still pointed pistol, he stepped into the semi-circle and faced Mahanian directly, boring his eyes into the other man's.

"Surrender your weapon!"

After a second of hesitation, the dark-skinned man unbuckled his holster and handed it to one of the Troopers, who stepped forward to take it. Then, suddenly, a smile parted his lips. "Finally, a man of determination. May I introduce to you the Lady Risha."

"My lady!" Bjarnesson bowed a fraction, the formality being answered with a friendly smile and a dignified nod, although his own face and voice remained icily cold. "I am Commander Thorgram Bjarnesson, First Officer of the Imperial Strike Cruiser Gun Crate. I am to inform you that Captain Markas will have word with you personally, come the time. Until then, you will be treated as guests of His Majesty's Imperial Fleet aboard this ship."

Judging from his tone, it would be no use arguing with him on that point, Marik knew. Seeing the way the conversation was taking, he gestured for the Navy Troopers to sling their weapons and stand down. When his gaze returned to the two officers, he suddenly felt the eyes of the girl upon himself.

She was looking at him with a mixture of genuine curiosity and what he took to be female interest, giving him a warm, friendly smile at the same time. For a moment, he felt his ears start to burn and was tempted to return the smile, but by then he had already decided he disliked her posh ways and aloof manners, beautiful or not, so he straightened his back, tilted up his head slightly and gave her his best drill instructor look instead. The smile faded immediately, but she took the full force of his gaze and held it without flinching, and that meant something. During his academy days, he had seen green recruits shaken to tears by the kind of look he was currently giving her. Her bright, sparkling blue eyes held a power he could only begin to guess at, a power that could almost be called magical. Their eyes remained locked for several seconds and despite himself, he felt his stern face slowly corroding into a crooked smile when her companion suddenly made the brave but foolish attempt to argue with Commander Bjarnesson nonetheless.

"Commander, I understand your concerns about military security, but this is... ."

"This is an invitation I intend to accept, Silas." she interrupted sharply, turning her head away from Marik and raising her voice for the first time since she had set foot on the hangar deck. "The good Captain surely does have his reasons, and I would rather continue our journey aboard this powerful vessel until proper repairs are effected to the yacht."

"With your generous permission, that is, Commander." she added quickly when she caught Bjarnesson's venomous stare, a stare that Marik swore could easily have burned through a frigate's shields. The First Officer barely grunted, but her aide deferred to her. "As my Lady wishes."

"Be that as it may, this is a matter for the Captain to decide. Lieutenant Kaskalon will assign you quarters on the officers' deck in the meantime." And with that, he turned on the heel and marched away, his tall black boots ringing out on the steel-plated deck with every step. Marik watched as Kaskalon detailed four Troopers as security escort, then led the way to the quarters deck. When the group left the hangar bay and the strangers were marched around a bend in the corridor, he could have sworn that the last thing he had seen had been the girl's eyes on himself, those magnificent, sparkling blue eyes.

* * *

"They have formally requested what?!"

Captain Markas felt a little uneasy in his chair, and that came only partially from the fact that he had been sitting in it for several hours straight now. The main screen was showing a large-scale image of Grand Admiral Thrawn's head and shoulders, and as usual, those unblinking, glowing red eyes were giving him the creeps. That the Admiral was in a less-than-patient mood only made things worse.

"They have formally and officially requested safe passage back to their home system aboard one of our ships. Apparently, they consider these regions a little unsafe after their nearby encounter with a pack of Rebel ships."

"I take it you are aware of our strategic situation, Captain, and the fact that we can hardly spare an escort ship, let alone a Strike Cruiser?"

As if I were that stupid... . Markas restrained himself from saying. "I absolutely am, Admiral."

"Then what makes you think I would grant their request and dispatch you on that little sidestep?" From the sound of his voice, the Grand Admiral was more than doubtful about Markas' line of reasoning on this issue.

"I know that it is counter to strategic recommendations under the current circumstances, Admiral, but I would suggest we grant them escort to the nearest inhabited star system with access to a major trade route. From there, they could book passage on a commercial starliner or merchant ship for the rest of their journey. From what I have learned from the limited database at my disposal, the Del Verwellesson Cartel holds sizeable industrial and political power in their home sector. They have influence, and we would be in their favor for having safely returned their princess. Also, using a Strike Cruiser for this purpose would, in my opinion, surely send a message of strength to all systems with questionable loyalty and would also be visible proof to our claim that the Imperial Fleet is still able to uphold order in the regions loyal to us."

The Admiral paused for a few seconds and seemed to judge both Captain Markas and his last words. Yet, it was impossible for Markas to read anything in this stern, unemotional blue-skinned face.

"Have you ever read Corsacanius, Captain?" the Admiral suddenly and unexpectedly asked, completely out of topic.

Who? Markas' mind immediately screamed, never having heard of somebody with that name, let alone of anything this person might have written. For a second, he was unsure of what to reply, then he opted for Thrawn's favorite choice: the truth. "No, Sir."

"A Calabrian philosopher, Captain, who lived about two hundred years ago." Thrawn answered, as if having guessed at his unspoken question. "He wrote a few obscure romantic poems, but also several interesting treatises on the nature of commerce in times of war that are still highly respected on his world. Read them when you find the time. What would be the nearest system with a trade route junction?"

To that, Markas had the answer ready. "Seleuthis, Sir, in the Corellia sector. Major space port and Starliner terminal. Three days of hyperspace travel."

Again, Thrawn seemed to consider this bit of information. "Is their story plausible?"

"Our technicians have checked their ship thoroughly. Their navigation computer is an old model Incom Sixty-Six and completely desynchronized. Bad maintenance, so my chief tech says, plus somebody seems to have worked it with the wrong tools and a lousy knowledge of computers. These old Sixty-Sixers have always been a little tricky to handle, if I may add, Sir. We have found no Astromech droids on the ship, only a deactivated C-3 protocol model."

"I understand. Also, I concur with your assessment of the situation." The Grand Admiral paused for several long seconds, thinking. "Very well, Captain, let them know their request is granted. Make best speed for the Seleuthis system and see them safely aboard a starliner or transport. But meanwhile, have them holographed, both of them, and transmit the holos to the Imperial Security Bureau. But make it so they do not notice. If we happened to come across two Rebel infiltrators, I will be happy to arrange their transport to the next Penal Colony. Do you understand?"

"Yes, Sir."

"Good. I expect you and your ship back and at full operational readiness within seven days."

"Understood, Admiral."

"Thrawn out." And with that, the screen went black.

Shaking his head, Markas wondered why he could not lose the feeling he had just caught a babysitting job. His First Officer obviously shared the thought, judging from the expression on his face.

"You heard the Admiral, Thor." Markas said with a hint of sarcasm in his voice. "His Majesty's Imperial Navy is back in the passenger business for obscure planetary worthies. Are our princess and her shining knight comfortably berthed?"

"They have been given spare quarters on the officers' deck, Sir, and there are round-the-clock sentries outside their doors."

"Well done. I will hold a formal dinner in the Flag Suite tonight. Detail a tech team to install a concealed holocam in the dining room well in advance so we can get a few close-up shots. And during the dinner, have them rig the intercoms in our guests' quarters so we are able to... record their conversations."

"You want me to bug their cabins?" Bjarnesson smirked. "As you wish, Captain. Looks like we are also in the Covert Operations business, at that."

That made Markas smile as well. "Right you are. Now, get navigation to plot jump coordinates to the Seleuthis system. Soon want to see these people off my ship."

* * *

Marik wondered why he was so nervous at the prospect of seeing the girl again. So far, they had not spoken a word to each other. She had treated him and his men like toy soldiers, and all he had given her was open hostility. Yet, somehow, she had impressed him, although he could not put his finger onto what especially it was that had left such a lasting effect on him. Her eyes, perhaps, or the inner strength he had sensed in her for a fleeting second. Or maybe her smile.

Mentally chiding himself for letting his mind wander, he checked that his outward appearance was immaculate before the lift arrived at the officers' deck. His black dress uniform was clean and neat, his polished black boots shining and spotless. The Imperial insignia on his black forage cap mirrored the lights, as did the uniform buttons, the rank square and the silver buckle that held his blaster belt. He carried his soft black leather gloves loosely in his left hand. When the lift stopped and the doors hissed open, he stepped out into the corridor. The two Troopers standing guard besides the cabin door and snapping to attention as he approached, had not traded their caps for the usual battlefield-issue bowl helmets, but carried blaster carbines. They threw up a sharp salute, which he returned. "Has it been quiet?"

"Nothing, Sayr!" one of the men slurred in a broad Corellian accent. "'tis been almost as if they weren't there, if ye ask me!"

"We will see to that!" he said firmly and palmed the door signal. A few seconds later, the intercom grille crackled.

"Yes?" The voice of the dark-skinned man.

"I am Cadet Marik Duranges. I have been detailed to escort the princess and you to the Flag Suite. Captain Markas does not bear any delay to a formal dinner." Politeness was good and well, but this should remind them of who was master of this ship.

The door parted and he entered the cabin without waiting for permission, immediately facing the man that had called himself Mahanian. From up close, he was taller than he remembered, and he immediately blocked his path, hands on his hips. He had shed his blue suit and beige cape for white shirt and dark grey trousers that looked comfortable, yet elegant. A grey coat was held on his shoulders with golden clasps linked by a chain below his high collar. His belt was made of interwoven brown leather stripes with a round, heavily engraved buckle. Only the boots had remained the same. And the charming smile Marik quickly came to loathe.

"Are you ready?"

"Patience, friend, patience. Her highness has yet to make final preparations."

As if to contradict his words, the door to the neighboring cabin opened and the girl entered the room. At the sight of her, his jaw dropped once more. She was dressed in an elegant, asymmetrically cut designer piece made of shimmering black silk that reflected the light in flowing waves across her body. Her blonde hair was held up in a bun behind her head by two simple needles, she wore make-up that subtly accentuated her eyes and high cheekbones, and a set of golden earrings and a necklace. The sweet smell of perfume preceded her every step. Her eyes immediately locked on him, but her lips so far refrained from smiling.

Marik gave a formal bow. "Your highness, I am Cadet Marik Duranges, at your service."

"Our chief warden, I take?" Her voice held a note of slight amusement as she took in his uniform, cap and weapon belt.

"Your security detail leader, princess, and your personal liaison in every ship-related issue. If there is anything you should wish, it will be my duty and pleasure to fulfill it."

Finally, her lips produced a smile that made his heart skip a beat. "Well spoken. Now, Silas, let us not make the good Captain wait. Lead the way, if you please, Cadet."

They followed him out of the chamber, the two Troopers falling in behind them. Marik led them into the lift and into the Captain's Flag Suite, where the air already carried the scent of exotic food and Corellian brandy. Captain Markas and Commander Bjarnesson, both in their finest dress uniforms, formally greeted the princess and her aide, then they sat, steward droids brought the first course and Marik was dismissed from the room.

While he waited in the antechamber for the meal to end, a mug of chava in his hands, he wondered what she might be thinking of him. Did she see him only as a uniformed thug, a murderer, as some of the so-called liberal politicians did? A prison guard? Then why did she keep smiling at him? Or did she see the person inside the uniform, the professional, dedicated soldier of the Empire? The true Marik Duranges that he was? Would she even care to find out? Probably not. She was a princess, after all, and he was only a cadet. She might be used to being in the company of generals and planetary governors. Then, there was this man she was traveling with, this Syndic Mahanian. Mentally, he replayed the scene in the fighter bay. He was still unsure about his true nature and intentions. What did he mean to her? And was he just a bureaucrat, as he pretended?

Yeah, sure, and Darth Vader just managed to find himself a fancy black cape and mask to go along with his lightsaber.

He had just decided for himself that he did not trust the man any further than he could throw an AT-AT when the door to the dining room opened. Surprised, he stood, realizing that he had spent almost three hours daydreaming. Putting down the cup a little too quickly, he reached for his gloves.

"Your highness?"

"Cadet Duranges! Have you been waiting for us all this time?"

I don't know what surprises me more. That she remembers my name or that she really seems to care.

"I did as I was ordered, my lady. Now, I will take you back to your quarters, if you wish, or... ."

"Or?" She gave him a genuinely curious look, and that make him take heart and complete what had originally been intended as a rhetorical offer.

"Or I could give you a guided tour of the ship. Some areas would be off limit, but... ."

"It is late, and her highness needs to rest after... ." her companion cut in, but to Marik's surprise she interrupted him again, as she had done before in the hangar, a look of youthful, energetic enterprise suddenly written on her face. "This is just what I would like right now!" And, checking that the door to the Flag Suite was firmly closed, she added in a conspirator's voice: "It would make an interesting change to all the boring formalities I had to put up with until now. Come on, Silas, you can continue to fret over my well-being tomorrow. I am sure I am in the best hands and perfectly safe while Cadet Duranges is with me."

"It shall be as you wish, my lady." Mahanian nodded, but with a look of barely concealed worry that contradicted his neutral voice. "With your permission, I will return to our quarters in the meantime and make a few necessary preparations to hasten the rest of our journey home."

"As usual, you think of everything, Silas. You are dismissed for tonight."

With another courteous bow, he made a step backwards and out into the corridor, the disapproving expression never having left his face. The Troopers that had been waiting there immediately took him between themselves and walked him towards the lift shaft, leaving him alone with the girl. Breathing in deeply, he looked into those magical blue eyes of hers, for the first time from so up close. Was the lighting playing tricks on him, or were there really sparks dancing below those beautiful lashes when she blinked? Now, he also noted that there was a barely perceptible imperfection to her nose, the ridge being very slightly aquiline where it should be straight. And there was a tiny spot on the soft, golden-tanned skin of her left cheek.

"Cadet?" Her voice, half-amused and half-curious, brought him back into reality. Great Stars, what was he doing here, staring at a princess as he would at the flat-pic portrait of a Coruscant holostar? He quickly composed himself, blushing.

"Forgive my distractedness, highness. Should we proceed?"

She followed him through the corridors and hallways of the Cruiser, listening to his monologue about firepower, crew figures, shield strength and fighter capacity, asking pointed, intelligent questions from time to time. From her words, he got the impression that this was her first time aboard as large a starship as the Crate, so he tried to ease the tension a little by telling her anecdotes from his own first week on board of the Cruiser, which prompted soft, humorous laughter from her several times. Yet, when they reached the hangar and she noticed the scorched and blast-scarred hulls of several TIE fighters that were parked next to her yacht, she fell silent, regarding the hustling droves of techs and droids that were tending to the wounded machines. Some of the men briefly paused in their duties to give the late and unusual visitors curious looks.

"Is anything wrong, your highness?"

"It was a battle going on out there, wasn't it? Where you picked us up, I mean." Her voice was strangely hushed, almost afraid.

"Yes." He had moved a step closer to her, telling himself it was only to provide her with his reassuring presence. "We encountered a carrier group of the Rebel alliance."

"I knew it when Silas refused to steer us out of the asteroid field, but did not want to tell me the reason. What happened to them?" she asked, pointing at the nearest TIE Interceptor that was sporting a meter-long burn mark on his forked port wing.

"Our fighters were escorting a wave of TIE bombers and ran foul of some Rebel X-Wings, so I have been told."

She nodded. "Your crews... did they live?"

"Most of them. We lost three fighters out of twelve, three good pilots."

Suddenly, she turned around to him, all cheerfulness wiped from her features. "And the others, those X-Wing pilots?"

"I don't think any of them made it out of there." he replied in a firm voice. "From the reports, I took it that our fighter strengths outnumbered theirs almost three to one."

"You speak of them as though they were only machines, not sentient beings!" Her gaze had fallen to the floor, yet her tone was accusing.

"They knew the risk, and they fought for something in which they believed, most of them at least, I think. A war is a war, and in war, people die so others may live."

Her eyes came up to meet his. "You sound as if you believe that."

"I do!" She was slowly making him furious. "Mine is a dangerous profession, I am aware of that. But there is a cause I have dedicated myself to, and this cause is worth fighting for! That is what I believe with all my heart."

"Is this cause also worth dying for?"

"I know it is, and those pilots and crews and troopers that died out there today, they knew it too."

For a while, she said nothing, a strange look in her eyes. "Will you tell me how you became a soldier?" she finally asked.

"I will, but let us not speak about this tonight. What will you be doing tomorrow evening?"

"Passing by the time, unless your Captain Markas insists on another one of his pointless dinners." With that, some of the old warmth and cheerfulness returned to her face.

"If he does not, would grant me the honor of allowing me to take you out for dinner? For something less formal, say?"

For a second, she paused, face serious, and he nearly panicked. What do you think you are doing here, asking a princess out for dinner?! If she is offended, Bjarnesson will have your rank square for breakfast!

Then one of her fabulous smiles parted her lips. "Your invitation for dinner is accepted, Cadet Duranges."

For a moment, he could not believe his ears. Had she really just accepted? His heart leapt.

"Very well, your highness." he replied, imitating the tone and courteous bow of her aide, which prompted a laugh. "If your highness does not oppose, I will be at your quarters at twenty-hundred hours standard ship time. I hope the Cadet's Mess will be to your liking."

"We shall see, Cadet, we shall see."

With that, they turned and walked back to the officer's deck. When she had dismissed him outside her quarter and he was on the way back to his own cabin several decks below, he nearly broke into a run in the empty corridor.

* * *

Continued in Part Two

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