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

Part Two

The last hours of his shift seemed to stretch unbearably into half an eternity, although he was more than busy developing a new drill schedule for his troopers and running all the routine paperwork for Kaskalon. The lieutenant notoriously hated desk duty, preferring to exercise with the platoon in the gym and on the firing range instead. He really worked his men hard and himself even harder, Marik thought, while slowly and painstakingly filling out requests for supplies and ammunition, but their readiness status spoke for itself. Apart from that frelling disaster with the blaster cannon, he thought. I will have to watch Sergeant Breel closer. He has been gambling a little too much with some of the engineering chiefs lately. If it turns out he is neglecting his tactical drills, I need to have a serious word with him.

Finally, with a heartfelt sigh, he punched the "print" button for the last report form, then cast his datapad aside.

Returning to his cabin, he changed quickly into grey gym fatigues and running shoes before spending an exhausting one and a half hours on the jogging grav-pad and at some of the weightlifting machines in the gym. Half an hour of target practice on one of the pistol ranges completed his required daily training. Emerging from the showers in the Cadet's quarters afterwards refreshed and invigorated, but with a growing nervousness, he dried and combed his buzz-cut reddish hair and began to change into a clean standard-issue Navy Trooper uniform, which was black instead of the ubiquitious olive-drab cloth that the Fleet and Army officers wore. The uniform was much more comfortable than the starched and ironed dress uniform he had worn the night before, consisting of a tight undershirt, a padded jacket with black buttons and tight, elastic cuffs, a set of loose-fitting trousers and combat boots instead of the tall jackboots, the trouser legs being suspended above the boots with metal braces. His forage cap would normally have completed the outfit, yet now he was also required to wear his gun belt, still being the official security detail leader, so he donned this as well and checked that his personal blaster was fully charged.

Being done and completely dressed, he made for the officers' deck and arrived at the princess' cabin door, where two troopers were still standing guard. When he returned their salute and palmed the door contact, the nervous feeling in his stomach had multiplied.

Stop behaving like a frelling teenager, he mentally admonished himself, it's just an invitation for dinner. To help her pass by the time. Something that would be expected from a good security detail leader, no more, no less. She is a princess and you are a Cadet.

In that moment, the door slid open, and he entered the room to the sound of her soft, warm laughter. Surprised, he saw her resting comfortably on the small sofa that decorated one corner of the cabin, while Mahanian had occupied a padded armchair and was holding a crystal glass with an amber-coloured liquid. An open bottle was standing on the wooden table next to him. Obviously, he had just said something funny, but when he noticed Marik, his face immediately turned grave, and he gave him a stiff nod for a welcome. "Cadet Duranges."

"Syndic Mahanian." Two could play this game.

The princess nearly jumped off the sofa to greet him, crossing the space between them with quick steps that she only slowed directly in front of him, as if remembering only at the last second that she should be acting rather formally. She was dressed in a comfortable, dark blue overall that sported whites stripes on shoulders and hips and wore soft canvas shoes. Her hair was done in the same ponytail he had seen her with the first time.

"Cadet Duranges!" From her, the words really sounded like she was happy to see him. Her smile and the look in her sparkling eyes made the feeling in his stomach return with a vengeance. "It is good to see you!"

"It is good to see you, too, your highness," he managed. "I beg your pardon if I interrupted your conversation."

"You didn't. Silas was just telling me about how he gloriously turned the battle of Tanaab single-handedly." She laughed. "You know, Silas, someday I might tell a few friends in high places about this."

"Please don't do anything like that, your highness," he said, laughing out and raising both hands in a gesture of surrender. "Somebody has done that before, and they got ideas!"

Then she turned her eyes back to Marik, getting up from the sofa. "Forgive the delay, Cadet. Should we go, perhaps?"

"If you are ready, your highness?" He nearly jumped up as well, leading her out of the cabin and into the corridor. The last thing he caught from Mahanian was a deeply disapproving look.

The Cadet's Mess was almost empty, four Navy ensigns and two Flight Cadets from the ship's fighter squadron being the only other persons present at this point of the day, all of whom were known to Marik only from casual encounters. The looks they gave him and the princess were both curious and a little jealous, something that made him feel immensely proud, if a little uneasy. There would be barrack rumors, for sure, and if those rumours reached the Captain or Bjarnesson... . To subdue the unease in his stomach, he focused on the girl, finding her a table in a far corner and pulling back the chair for her, which she accepted with a thankful nod and one of her stunning smiles when he sat down opposite her. Up close, he could smell her sweet perfume again. In her blue overalls, she looked much more relaxed and at ease than she had the night before, and it also accentuated her slender figure, something he silently appreciated. It was, he realized, the first time he had seen her in casual clothes. He said so, which produced more humorous laughter.

"Did you think I would do all my hyperspace traveling wearing a shimmersilk dress?"

That made him laugh out as well. "You are right. I should have thought of that, your highness."

"Risha."

"What?"

"My name. Risha. Stop calling me 'your highness', for stars' sake. Etiquette or not, it sounds like I was fifty years old. While we're in private, Risha will do fine."

"As you wish, your... . Risha," he replied. For a second, he had been completely taken aback, but she looked as though she meant it, so he went along.

"Marik." He stretched out his hand, which she shook. For the first time, they touched. Her skin was soft, warm and dry to the touch, and the sensation of it against his own redoubled the excitement in his stomach. And apparently she held the contact a second longer than normal, only breaking it when a steward droid approached their table.

The order she placed was the next surprise to him. He had expected her to ask for wine or something equally posh, but she quickly opted for Forvian ale instead. The longer he spent in the company of this girl, he realized, the more he found that she did not in the least resemble the cliché of a high-born, aristo Core princess that he had expected from his first impression of her.

"Your parents," he finally said to break the silence that had lingered for several seconds after the droid had left. "Won't they be worried about you, with all the delay, I mean?"

"Right, they normally would be." She shrugged. "My mother especially, she would turn over the entire galaxy single-handedly to find me. You know how mothers can be sometimes." They shared knowing smiles.

"Fortunately, Silas has thought of that. With the help of your Captain, he has despatched a communiqué to Calabria Prime to apprise them of our situation. We haven´t yet received an answer, but I am sure my mother will be greatly relieved to hear that we are all right and well."

"Captain Markas has permitted you to use the comms to inform your family?" That was something of a first to Marik. The long-range ship comms were usually reserved for encrypted military traffic only, the transmission of personal messages absolutely unthinkable with both Markas and Bjarnesson being the very devils on security matters.

"It took a great deal of convincing your First Officer, but Silas can be very persuasive sometimes, and after all, we needed to inform the court in order to have all the appointments and schedules adjusted for our delay, so we had kind of an official reason." She winked at him conspiratoriously, but he was rather amazed at how she made the words sound, so calm and everyday, as if getting lost in space and being rescued from the hands of a marauding Rebel fleet by the Imperial Navy in the nick of time was no more than a minor displeasure to her, something that made you... adjust the schedules. At that, a question occurred to him. "So, what is it like, being a princess?"

"Why did I know you would be asking me this sooner or later?" Laughing, she shook her head and brushed back a strand of golden hair. "Sorry to disappoint you, but it is not really that much to tell about. Stiff and boring, most of the time, lots of formalities and etiquette, you know, with all kinds of ugly people you have to put up with on a daily basis. Would you believe that I have already turned down thirty-seven marriage proposals?"

"No." he managed, taken aback.

"The first came when I was sixteen years old, and almost all have come from men who are stinking rich, vastly powerful and at least old enough to be my father. Not to mention a few really obese ones."

"You're joking!"

"I'm serious! And I am just Vice-Princess, second-born, not even in line for the throne. You can imagine what it must be like for my older sister. I think she stopped counting somewhere beyond a hundred turn-downs."

"But what do your parents say about such... such offers?!"

"Marik, what do you expect?" she replied, suddenly serious. "Things like these are commonplace among the Houses of Calabria. Marriages are usually arranged between the most powerful industrial Cartels, sometimes even while the persons in question are but children still. Father gives my sister and me some liberty of choice in that matter, but he can afford us to be so picky only because our family is the Royal House, by ancient edict, and therefore the most influental of all Cartels. My mother, on the other hand, is very much into tradition, and she would have liked to see us married years ago. Her own marriage to my father was arranged when she was nineteen."

He paused, lost for words. The very thought of it was so utterly alien to him, so debase, so in contradiction to everything he had been brought up to believe, it beggared belief. It seemed like a relict from the corrupt and decadent days of the Republic.

That's why she is so deadpan about returning to her family, he suddenly realized. It doesn't feel like coming home, it must feel like... going back to business.

"Now, let's talk about you."

He was grateful for the sudden change in topic, seeing that she was clearly being haunted by memories.

"How comes you ended up pointing a blaster at me?"

"Ah, yes, I promised to tell you." He leaned back comfortably in his chair. "Okay, long story short, I was born in a little farming community on Crestheris, in the Outer Rim, almost the other side of the galaxy. Middle of nowhere, basically. My parents ran a store, selling supplies and consumables to the local farmers, so I grew up around fields, grain and grazing Nerfs. Now, that's me, the guy from out of the backwoods." A sheepish smile accompanied his last words.

"Place can't be so bad if it produces handsome types like you." Tilting her head to one side, she gave him a look that made his stomach leap once more, and he felt himself beginning to blush violently. He searched her face for a sign that she was just teasing him, yet found none, which irritated him immensely.

"Problem was," he continued, trying hard to focus on the story again, "with the place being so backwater, it was bound to attract smugglers in search for a safe haven. At the beginning, only a few ships would appear on occasion to land far outside the village at nighttime, and sometimes the pilots and crews even bought some food from us, downed a few drinks in the local inn or traded some off-world goods that people needed. But over the time, more and more ships came, and with the ships came the bandits, the mercs, the cutthroats, gamblers and bounty hunters, and scores of them. There were even rumours that Rebels were operating out of the place, and that really got us scared. Sure enough, we soon saw the first brawls, then it quickly came to beatings and rapes. Then we had the first murder." He slammed his fist into the palm of his other hand. "A girl I knew, a little older than me, from my immediate neighborhood. She sometimes used to help my mother in the store. She was barely recognizable when they pulled her out of the pond."

She had fallen silent, her face serious, compassionate. "Then what?" Her tone was hushed.

"We had a marshal in the village, and his deputy. No need for more, you see - up to that point. They went to the smuggler camp and demanded to conduct an inquiry. They got beaten within an inch of their lives." He felt an echo of his own anger and frustration return along with the memory. "That night, an outlying farm burned to the ground. It was a message they wanted us to clearly understand: 'Stay away!'"

"And did you?"

"Stars, no, we didn't even think about it!" he replied with conviction. "We were afraid, sure, but we wouldn`t bow to some offworld, sub-human scum. Not us, not our village. We applied to the planetary governor and requested militia. But what we got instead was more than we had hoped for."

"What happened?"

"Imperial justice happened. Stormtroopers, Walkers, armour, a multi-platoon operation. They swept the place clean in the space of one night, smoked out the alien filth once and for all. I remember staying up all night, watching the flashes of weapons and the firelight beyond the treeline as the camp burned. The next morning, the Stormtroopers marched the few surviving smugglers and Rebels through our village, in chains and manacles, while our people lined the streets. The cheers were deafening."

"I believe that. You see, I grew up around palace guards and security advisors, but I have seen my share of assassination attempts - aimed both at myself and others - to know mortal fear. Being rid of such a threat to your village surely is a cause for celebration."

He nodded. "Then you understand why we felt we owed the Empire. After the public execution of some smugglers and Rebels in the main market square, an Imperial officer spoke out to us in public. He said that law and order had been restored and that we were now under the Empire`s protection. I was only a child back then, barely twelve years old, and I didn't understand everything of what he said, but it was like something from the holovids to me. You know, he was the hero that had arrived to save us, and now the evil men were gone and we would be safe, the kind of thing that a child would believe. Of course, I later learnt that this also meant they would leave behind a garrison and start collecting tithes, but that was just fine with us villagers. For us kids, it was even great fun. We would dare each other to sneak up on the gate guards, or play 'Troopers and Rebels' out in the fields."

Now it was her turn to smile again. "I bet you were the menace of your neighbourhood."

"To be honest, I was the menace of the village!" He burst into laughter, which she joined. "And I bet you were an awfully good girl."

"I was. Until I learned to walk. Then I truly became the menace of the palace!"

"You? Not a chance I would ever believe that!" This time, it was his turn to tease her. "Surely you were mother's little darling, pampered and spoiled."

"Ah, well, yes, to be honest, I was," she replied with badly faked seriousness, smirking. "But I´m trying hard to make up for that now."

"Don`t try anything on my watch!" he grinned. "I would hate having to hurt such a good-looking lady."

"Hurt me? You and which army? And don't try softening me up with false compliments, unless you are really out for some trouble, handsome!"

"I`m not joking," he said, serious, looking straight into her eyes. "You are the most beautiful woman I ever met."

"And you are a shameless liar." Despite her words, she was clearly taken aback by his confession, averting her gaze, blushing, but quickly caught herself. "I believe your story isn`t over yet?"

"Of course." He was momentarily unsure at the too-sudden change of topic, wondering if he had gone too far. Cadet and Princess, remember?

"The thing that truly left a lasting impression on me didn't happen until a few years later. You see, our garrison troops were rarely granted any downtime, but when they were, they usually hit the inn, and that was where I got talking to some of the young conscripts. Nothing special, just the usual. Where you from, what's service like, how's payment? That stuff."

"I see." She nodded, the smile having miraculously returned to her lips, to his immense relief. "What boys talk about before they start drinking, singing and courting pretty maidens."

"Right. Turned out, these particular conscripts had come not from one of the neighbouring planets, not even from a neighbouring system, as I had originally expected. They had been recruited practically on the other side of the galaxy and had seen training in a facility in another entirely different corner of the Empire, just to end up posted here, light years away from their home, protecting people in a place they hadn't even heard of before. That was when I started realizing." He touched the circular imperial badge on his upper left arm to emphasize the point. "It's about the Empire, the bigger picture, it's about dedicating yourself to a cause that is greater than yourself, about making a difference. It's about belief." He looked her straight in the eyes now, searching for a reaction. "The Empire is such a cause. It stands for law and order in the galaxy, for a peaceful coexistence, for civilization and progress. For everything the corrupt Republic and their Jedi were unable to provide. That's what I spoke about earlier, a cause that is worth fighting for. That is worth being sent to a place on the other side of inhabited space to protect people you have never seen before. That is worth risking your life in a TIE cockpit, on a Star Destroyer or wearing only a Stormtrooper armor."

He slammed his hand on the table. "You see, that is what the Rebels took from us when they threw the galaxy into war and riot, and that is what we are fighting to reclaim. That is why I am here. That is why I serve, hoping to see us victorious, to see peace and order restored to the Empire one day."

He inhaled deeply. "Now, that's me. The Empire's man. Over the stars and far away."

When he had finished, she was silent for a long while, leaning back into her chair, clearly considering his words. She had yet to speak again when the drinks were served. Both of them reaching for their glasses at the same time, their hands brushed. Gazes meeting as at an unspoken command, their fingers interlocked. And stayed that way. He could have fallen into her eyes, the look she gave him. Finally, she spoke.

"Where have you been all my life?"

It was hours later, halfway through the night cycle, after they had finished their meal, several more drinks and hushed, familiar conversation, that he led her, wordlessly, into a cavernous chamber directly below the cruiser's outer hull, just a few decks lower than the bridge, a chamber overarched by a dome-like cupola of polished transparisteel. Beyond it, the twirling, distorted light-stripes of hyperspace were visible, filling the room with their unreal, distant glow. She stood in the middle of the chamber, just below the peak of the dome, bathed in the ethereal half-light. "What is this place?" Her voice was husky, awed.

"The auxiliary navigation observatory. The only place from which you can see the stars with your naked eye while we're in realspace. I sometimes come here when I need to be alone. Reminds me of home."

He moved up behind her, following her gaze upwards to the streaming starfield. Taking heart, he carefully laid his hands on her arms that were hanging loosely by her side. She turned towards him, mirroring the touch, looking up to him, her eyes now reflecting the distant starlight. There were those dancing sparks again. He was suddenly very aware of her perfume, of the warmth she radiated, of her heartbeat he could feel against his chest when they pulled closer into the embrace.

"I love you." The phrase suddenly hanging in the air, he was unsure of who had spoken it. Maybe him, maybe her, maybe both of them at the same time. It did not matter.

The kiss came. And lasted.

* * *

He finally let her go a corridor's bend away from her quarters, holding on to her hands until the last possible moment. The ship's artificial night period had drawn to an end and he had to be back in time for the morning roll call, lest he wanted to be up for disciplinary and punishment duty. She had promised to visit him on his home world during his next shore leave, and already now he desperately yearned for the time to pass until then. He had not slept a single moment, but right then he wasn't in the least tired, last night's adrenaline rush still lingering on. When Kaskalon detailed him for another round of pointless and unnerving paperwork, he couldn't have cared less. All he could think of was her.

Hours later, when an audible change in the ceaseless background noise of the titanic engines and a sudden lurch in artificial gravitation announced their return to realspace, he left his desk, heading for her quarters. He knew she was going to depart aboard her own ship as soon as the Crate reached her destination, and he wanted to see her at least once more before she left, look into her eyes, kiss her goodbye, tell her he loved her. And to frell with Mahanian and any objections he might throw up.

In the corridor, meters from her door, he stopped in mid-step, frozen, suddenly alert.

The sentries were gone.

Trouble. All his instincts immediately screamed alarm. Drawing his pistol, he carefully edged forward, palmed the lock and rushed the room with trained and practiced efficiency while the door was still hissing open, surveying the scene across his swivelling gun sights. It had barely taken the space of a breath.

The two troopers were sprawled on the floor, unmoving, unconscious, bleeding. Pieces of the chair with which they had obviously been struck were scattered all over the room, broken to matchwood. Both blasters were gone. A quick check revealed the adjoining bedrooms to be empty, as he had expected them to be.

He swore viciously, the icy knot in his stomach doubling its size.

Mahanian, this has to be his work! Apparently, the man had finally lost his nerve and decided to make a run for it, whatever his motives might be or what dark secrets he hoped to conceal by this act of treachery, thus nevertheless betraying himself for what he truly was. Rogue. Mercenary. Bandit. Rebel scum even.

And Risha? Great Stars, he must have taken her hostage!

Now, naked fear truly gripped his bowels, deeply sickening him. Markas won`t negotiate! If that madman tries to play her as his trump card to facilitate his escape aboard the yacht, he`ll get himself - and her! - reduced to scrap soon as the turbos get a lock-on!

For a second, he was tempted to call the bridge and raise the alarm. Within seconds, the ship would be swarming with Troopers, and -

No way, he decided. Who knows what Mahanian is capable of when he gets cornered. He might even be desperate enough to turn on her!

Quickly, he checked the life signs on both men, finding them stable, although bruises, a smashed nose and a split lip indicated they had not gone down without a fight. Even while he did so, a plan was beginning to form in his head, his mind racing.

Mahanian has to be stopped before he can reach the fighter bay, before he can get on board the yacht. I can`t trigger the alarm, I don`t even have the time to call Lieutenant Kaskalon and ask for reinforcements. I`m the only person with a chance to do something. I even have an advantage - I know the layout of the ship, and Mahanian will have to avoid the main corridors, lest he attract too much attention. It`s up to me now, and me alone... .

While that last thought was still crossing his mind, realization hitting him with the force of a sledgehammer, he was already running.

* * *

He turned the last corner before the hangar bay doors just in time to see Mahanian emerge from a side passageway. He seemed tense and worried, alarmed, looking around every few seconds. In one hand he was holding a blaster, using the other one to violently drag Risha along by his side. She looked frightened and shaken and seemed to be struggling to keep up with his pace, but was apparently unharmed, to Marik's limitless relief.

Better yet, if he intervened now, he could cut off Mahanian's way to the hangar. Breathing deeply, he waited for another second, then turned the corner, placing himself right in the middle of the corridor, feet planted firmly on the floor, back straight, pistol in both hands, a textbook firing range pose. His sights came to rest squarely over the loathed face of his opponent at a distance of no more than three meters. "Freeze!"

Mahanian was clearly taken by surprise at his sudden appearance, the pointed gun and the roared command, but regained his composure in a heartbeat. The blaster carbine in his hand came up halfway, mostly by reflex, then he seemed to think the better and halted the motion, although he immediately placed himself between Marik and Risha, so as not to have her obscuring his field of fire. He clearly had nerve, Marik had grudgingly to admit, staring into the man's impassive, hard-eyed sabacc face, their eyes locking in a contest of wills.

"Drop your weapon!"

"Brave move, boy." Calm, casual, smooth, as if he was chatting over drinks, as if he didn't even care about the pointed gun. "But you have no idea who you are up against. This is a size too big for you!"

"You are not in the position to boast, mercenary scum! Drop that blaster and release the princess!"

"And why should I do that? Because you say so, hero?" The voice was dripping with sarcasm.

"Because you wouldn't get far even if you made it past me, which I sincerely doubt you could. If you surrender now, I promise I will put in a word for you at your trial. It might spare you from the firing squad."

"And then what, young one? The Spice mines of Kessel? The Hellsreach Penal moon? There's no way you'll ever see me going there!"

"You're not going anywhere at all while the tractor beams are powered up!"

"Well, thanks for sharing that information, kid!" The words carried a hint of triumph, underlined by a thin, mocking smile.

Stupid! Marik bit his lip, cursing himself for his outburst. He realized Mahanian had been provoking him for a reason, and he had been naive enough to fall for it. He wavered for a second, struggling to regain the initiative.

"Drop. Your. Weapon!" He emphasized every single word in turn, putting as much menace into each as he could muster. "I won't tell you again!"

After a second of consideration, or perhaps of judging Marik's determination from the look in his eyes, Mahanian threw the clattering blaster on the floor and half-raised his hands, although the gesture seemed to betray both reluctance and disgust. Was there a bead of sweat on the dark skin of his forehead?

Reinforcing his grip on the blaster pistol, Marik nodded. "Very well. Now step aside and release your hostage!"

Again, the older man reluctantly did as he was told, moving a step to the side, yet never taking his eyes from the gun muzzle pointed at his head.

"Risha, come to me, quickly."

She looked at him, clearly unsure, fear still written all over her beautiful face. Slowly, hesitantly, she took one step forward, then one more, then stopped, not daring to cross the deathzone between Marik's weapon and her former aide.

"It's okay, Risha." He tried to smile encouragingly. "I got him covered. Just come over here."

"Marik, I... " Her eyes were wide, mouth agape. She was shivering.

"Risha. Come here."

"Marik, I... I am sorry." Slowly, she shook her head. And took a step backwards.

It was then that realization struck him, painful, mind-numbing and with icy clarity. He felt like he had been hit by a point-blank stun-blast, yet merciful unconsciousness would not come, leaving him alone with the hurt. It was all he could do to to keep his composure. Even so, he staggered, shaking his head to clear his blurring vision.

"No...." he finally managed. "That is not true... Not you too... !"

"Marik, please let me explain... ."

"You used me!" The words tasted like ash when he spat them out at her, shaking with rage, the feeling of betrayal and disillusionment almost more than he could stand. His finger around the trigger tightened, but he wasn't so sure any more at whom his weapon was pointed. "Was it fun playing me for a fool? Softening me up so you two could make your escape all the easier?!" He was almost screaming now, everything he had felt for her turning into cold hatred by the second.

"Marik, please listen..." There was a note of desperation to her voice now that he could have found touching if he wouldn't have known it to be false. If it weren't for that killing rage he felt.

"No more of your lies, Risha! If that is really your name. I should have known better than to trust you! Whose idea was this anyway? Your own? Or yours, Mahanian? Did you set her on me? Well, doesn't matter, anyway. Both of you are finished right here and now!"

His pistol swivelled between the two of them once more.

"Boy, don't make a mistake now!" Mahanian cut in sharply, the same second that Risha took two quick steps past him, raising her hands in a placating gesture. "Marik, I swear to you... ."

She gave a shriek when Mahanian pushed her forward hard. She stumbled, almost fell against Marik. Instinctively, he lowered his weapon, extending both hands to catch her.

Before he had even time to react, the tall man had crossed the distance, moving with a speed and grace that Marik had not thought him capable of.

A thunderous right blow to the temple laid the young Cadet out on the deck.

* * *

Concluded in Part Three

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