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
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!
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
"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
"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
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
"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
"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!
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
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
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
"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.
A short, courteous bow. "I am Silas Mahanian, her highness'
personal aide and chief public affairs manager, your humble servant,
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
"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
"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
"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
"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?"
"Good. I expect you and your ship back and at full operational
readiness within seven days."
"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
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.
"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
"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
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
"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
"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
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
"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
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
"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