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Evening had come to Unity Green, and the first hawk-bats were already out, dipping down to pluck yammal-jells and coufee eels from the rolling whitecaps on Liberation Lake. On the far shore, the yorik coral bluffs that marked the edge of the park had grown purple and shadowed. Beyond them, the durasteel skeletons of the rising skytowers gleamed crimson in the setting sun. The planet remained as much Yuuzhan’tar as Coruscant, and in many ways that would never change. But it was at peace. For the first time in Luke Skywalker’s life, the galaxy was truly not at war—and that counted for everything.
There were still problems, of course. There always would be, and today several senior Masters were struggling to address the chaos that Jaina and four other young Jedi Knights had caused by abruptly abandoning their duties and departing for the Unknown Regions.
“Lowbacca was the only one who completely understood the biomechanics of the Maledoth,” Corran Horn was saying in his throaty voice. “So, as you can see, the Ramoan relocation project has ground to a complete standstill.”
Luke reluctantly shifted his gaze from the viewport to the council room’s speaking circle, where Corran stood using a laser- wand to highlight the holographic projection of a huge Yuuzhan Vong slaveship. The Jedi order had been hoping to use the vessel to evacuate the population of a dying world.
Corran flicked the laserwand, and the holograph switched to the image of blast-pocked asteroid miner. “The situation in the Maltorian mining belt is deteriorating as well. Without Zekk there to lead the hunt, Three-Eye’s pirates have the run of the system. Raw material shipments have fallen by fifty percent, and RePlanetHab is trying to buy them off.”
“That’s one circuit we need to kill now,” Mara said. Seated in the chair next to Luke’s, she was—as usual—the first to cut to the heart of the matter. That was one of the things Luke most admired about her; in a time when the smallest decision carried ramifications that even a Columi dejarik champion could not predict, his wife’s instincts remained steady and true. “If rehab conglomerates start buying off pirates, we’ll have marauders popping up all over the Core.”
The other Masters voiced their agreement.
“Fine,” Corran said. “Where do we find a replacement for Zekk?”
No one rushed to answer. The Jedi were spread too thin already, with most Jedi Knights—and even some apprentices—already assigned three tasks. And as the ranks of the greedy and the selfish grew ever more adept at manipulating the Galactic Alliance Senate, the situation seemed increasingly desperate.
Finally, Kyp Durron said, “The Solos should be finished on Borao soon.” Dressed in threadbare cape and tunic, wearing his brown hair long and shaggy, Kyp looked as though he had just come in from a long mission. He always looked like that. “Maybe RePlanetHab will be patient if they know they’re the Solos’ next assignment.”
The silence this time was even longer than the last. Strictly speaking, the Solos were not available for assignments. Han wasn’t even a Jedi, and Leia’s status was completely informal. The council just kept asking them to help out, they just kept doing it, and every Master in the room knew the order had been exploiting the Solos’ selfless natures for far too long.
“Someone else needs to contact them,” Mara finally said. “It’s getting so bad that Leia cringes whenever she sees Luke’s face on the holocomm.”
“I can do it,” Kyp offered. “I’m used to making Leia cringe.”
“That takes care of Maltoria,” Corran said. “Now, what about the Bothan ar’krai? Alema’s last report suggested that Reh’mwa and his fundamentalists had a line on Zonama Sekot’s location. They were provisioning the Avengeance for a scouting mission into the Unknown Regions.”
A subtle eddy in the Force drew Luke’s attention toward the entrance. He raised a hand to stop the discussion.
“Excuse me.” He turned toward the foyer and immersed his mind completely in the Force until he recognized one of the presences coming toward them, then said, “Perhaps we should continue this later. We don’t want Chief Omas to know how concerned we are about Jaina’s departure.”
“No.” Luke rose and started toward the door. “Especially not when he’s bringing Chiss.”
Luke stopped in the foyer area, where a simple wooden bench and two empty stone vases sat opposite the door, arranged to subtly calm visitors and make them feel welcome. Barely a moment passed before the door hissed open and a young apprentice came to a surprised halt directly in front of Luke.
“M-master S-skywalker!” the young Rodian stammered. He turned and raised a spindly-fingered hand toward the door. “Chief Omas and—”
“I know, Twool. Thank you.”
Luke nudged the youth back into the corridor with the other apprentice, then stepped into the doorway and found himself looking at Chief of State Cal Omas and a trio of blue-skinned Chiss. With a wrinkled face and sagging jowls, the Chiss in front was probably the oldest Luke had ever seen. The two in the rear were clearly bodyguards—tall, strong, alert, and dressed in the black uniforms of the Chiss Expansionary Defense Fleet.
“Chief Omas,” Luke said. The strains of Omas’s office showed in his hollow cheeks and ashen complexion. “Welcome.”
“You’re expecting us.” Omas cast a pointed glance into the conference room. “Good.”
Luke ignored the hint and bowed to the elderly Chiss.
“And Aristocra . . .” It took a moment for the name to rise to the top of Omas’s mind, where Luke could sense it without being overly intrusive. “Mitt’swe’kleoni. It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
The Chiss’s red eyes narrowed to crimson lines. “Very impressive. It’s not easy to gather identity files on Chiss aristocracy.”
“We haven’t.” Luke smiled and continued to block the door. “You and your bodyguards are welcome to come inside, once you have removed your hidden weapons.”
Omas cringed visibly, but Luke did not move. Even had he not perceived the concealed weapons through the Force, he still would have made the request. These were Chiss, after all.
“As you know,” Luke continued, “the only weapons allowed in the Jedi Temple are lightsabers.”
Mitt’swe’kleoni smiled like an old man caught sipping something against his doctor’s orders, then pulled a small hold-out blaster from his boot and passed it to a bodyguard.
“My bodyguards will wait in the corridor,” he said. “I can see they wouldn’t be of much use in a room full of Jedi.”
“There would be no need.” Luke stepped aside and waved the two statesmen toward the conference circle. “Please join us.”
As they crossed the room, Mitt’swe’kleoni kept sneaking glances at its appointments—the automated service kitchen, the small forest of rare trebala plants, the flowform chairs—and the arrogance vanished from his demeanor. It was not a reaction Luke liked to see. The new Temple had been a gift from the Galactic Alliance, pressed on the Jedi when—in a desperate attempt to manufacture a symbol of progress—the faltering Reconstruction Authority had moved the seat of government back to Coruscant. In most regards, the relocation had failed as spectacularly as it had deserved. But the Temple, a stone-and-transparisteel pyramid designed to harmonize with the new face of postwar Coruscant, never failed to impress with its regal scale and Rebirth architecture. It also served as a constant reminder to Luke of his greatest fear, that the Jedi would start to perceive themselves through the eyes of others and become little more than the guardians of a grateful Galactic Alliance.
At the conference area, the Jedi Masters rose to greet their guests.
“Everyone knows Chief Omas, I think.” Luke motioned Omas into a chair, then took Mitt’swe’kleoni by the elbow and guided him into the sunken speaking circle. “This is Aristocra Mitt’swe’kleoni from the Chiss empire.”
“Please use my core name, Tswek,” the Aristocra instructed. “It will be much easier for you to pronounce correctly.”
“Of course,” Luke said, continuing to look at the council. “Tswek has some disturbing news for us, I believe.”
Tswek’s wrinkled brow rose, but he no longer seemed surprised by Luke’s “intuition.” “Then you know the purpose of my visit?”
“We can sense your apprehension through the Force,” Luke said, avoiding a direct answer. “I assume it concerns our Jedi in the Unknown Regions.”
“Indeed it does,” he said. “The Chiss Ascendancy requires an explanation.”
“An explanation?” Corran was not quite able to conceal his indignation. “Of what?”
Tswek pointedly ignored Corran and continued to stare at Luke.
“The Jedi have many voices, Aristocra,” Luke said. “But we speak as one.”
Tswek considered this a moment, then nodded. “Very well.” He turned to Corran. “We demand an explanation of your actions, of course. What happens on our frontier is no concern of yours.”
Despite the wave of confusion and doubt that rippled through the Force, the Jedi Masters remained outwardly composed.
“The Chisz frontier, Aristocra?” Saba Sebatyne, one of the newest Jedi Masters, asked.
“Of course.” Tswek turned to the Barabel, his brow furrowed in thought. “You don’t know what your Jedi Knights have been doing, do you?”
“All of our Jedi are well trained,” Luke said to Tswek. “And the five under discussion are very experienced. We’re confident they have good reason for any action they’ve undertaken.”
A glint of suspicion showed in Tswek’s crimson eyes. “So far, we have identified seven Jedi.” He turned to Omas. “It appears I have no business here after all. Obviously, the Jedi involved in this matter are acting on their own.”
“Involved in what matter?” Kyp asked.
“That is of no concern to the Galactic Alliance,” Tswek said. He bowed to the council at large. “My apologies for taking so much of your time.”
“No apologies are necessary,” Luke said. He considered dropping the name of Chaf’orm’bintrani, an Aristocra he and Mara had met on a mission some years earlier, but it was impossible to know how this would be received. Chiss politics were as volatile as they were secretive, and for all Luke knew Formbi’s had been one of the five ruling families that had mysteriously disappeared while the rest of the galaxy fought the Yuuzhan Vong. “Anything in which our Jedi Knights involve themselves concerns this council.”
“Then I suggest you do a better job supervising them in the future,” Tswek said. When Luke did not step out of his way, he turned to Omas. “I’m quite finished here, Chief.”
“Of course.” Omas shot Luke a look imploring him to stand aside, then said, “An escort will meet you at the Temple entrance. I believe I need to have a word with these Jedi.”
“In that case, I’ll thank you for your hospitality now.” Tswek bowed to the Chief, then started for the door. “I’ll be returning to the Ascendancy within the hour.”
Omas waited until the Aristocra was gone, then scowled at Luke. “Well?”
Luke spread his hands. “At this point, Chief Omas, you know more than we do.”
“I was afraid of that,” Omas growled. “Apparently, a team of Jedi have involved themselves in a border dispute with the Chiss.”
“How can that be?” Mara asked. Luke knew that she meant the question literally. Before departing, Jaina had sent the council a set of destination coordinates that she and the others had calculated by triangulating the direction from which the mysterious call had come. An astronomical reconnaissance had revealed not even a star in the area, and certainly no indication that the coordinates would be of interest to the Chiss. “Their destination was over a hundred light-years from Ascendancy space.”
“Then our Jedi are out there,” Omas said. “What in the blazes for? We can’t spare one Jedi at the moment, much less seven.”
Mara’s green eyes looked ready to loose a stream of blaster bolts. “Our Jedi, Chief Omas?”
“Forgive me.” The Chief’s voice was more placating than apologetic; Luke knew that, in his heart, Omas considered the Jedi as much servants of the Galactic Alliance as he was. “I didn’t mean to imply anything.”
“Of course not,” Mara said, in a tone that suggested he had better be serious. She turned to the rest of the council. “Mitt’swe’kleoni said seven Jedi. What do we make of that?”
“This one only countz five.” Saba lifted her hand and began to raise her taloned fingers. “Jaina, Alema, Zekk, Lowbacca, and Tesar.”
Kyp added two fingers. “Tekli and Tahiri?”
Omas frowned. “How could you know that? I thought they were with Zonama Sekot in the Unknown Regions.”
“They’re supposed to be,” Corran said. “But, like the others, they’re also Myrkr survivors.”
“I don’t understand,” Omas said. “What does this have to do with the Myrkr mission?”
“I wish we knew,” Luke said. Undertaken in the middle of the war with the Yuuzhan Vong, the Myrkr mission had been as costly as it had been successful. Anakin Solo and his strike team had destroyed the enemy’s Jedi-killing voxyn. But six young Jedi Knights had died in the process—including Anakin himself—and another was missing and presumed lost. “All I can tell you is that for several weeks, Jaina and the other survivors of that mission reported feeling a ‘call’ from the Unknown Regions. On the day they left, that call became a cry for help.”
“And since we know Tenel Ka is still on Hapes,” Mara explained, “it seems likely the extra Jedi are Tekli and Tahiri.”
Nobody suggested that Jaina’s brother, Jacen, might be one of the extras. The last anyone had heard, he had been somewhere on the far side of the galaxy, sequestered with the Fallanassi.
“What about Zonama Sekot?” Omas asked. Zonama Sekot was the living planet that had agreed to serve as home to the defeated Yuuzhan Vong. “Could the call have come from it?”
Luke shook his head. “Zonama Sekot would have contacted me directly if it needed our help. I’m convinced this has something to do with the mission to Myrkr.”
Omas stayed silent, waiting for more of an explanation, but that was all Luke knew.
Instead, Luke asked, “What did Mitt’swe’kleoni tell you?”
Omas shrugged. “He demanded to know why the Galactic Alliance had sent its Jedi—his words—to interfere in a Chiss border dispute. When he saw how surprised I was, he demanded to speak to you.”
“This is bad,” Mara said. “Very bad.”
“I agree,” Omas said. “Either he thinks we’re all lying—”
“Or he believez our Jedi Knightz have gone rogue,” Saba finished. “In either case, the result will be the same.”
“They’ll try to solve the problem themselves,” Omas said. He ran a hand through his thinning hair. “How hard will this be on them?”
“Our Jedi Knights can take care of themselves,” Luke said.
“I know that!” Omas snapped. “I’m asking about the Chiss.”
Luke felt Mara’s ire rise, but she chose to overlook Omas’s tone and remain silent. Now was a poor time to remind him that the Jedi did not expect to be addressed as though they were unruly subordinates.
“If the Chiss take action against them, Jaina and the others will attempt to defuse the situation . . . for a time,” Luke said. “After that, it depends on the nature of the conflict.”
“But they won’t hesitate to meet force with force,” Mara clari- fied. “Nor would we ask them to. If the Chiss push things, sooner or later Jaina is going to bloody their noses.”
Omas paled and turned to Luke. “You need to put a stop to this, and soon. We can’t let it come to killing.”
Luke nodded. “We’ll certainly send someone to—”
“No, I mean you personally.” Omas turned to the others. “I know the Jedi have their own way of doing things. But with Jaina Solo leading those young Jedi Knights, Luke is the only one who can be sure of bringing them home. That young woman is as headstrong as her father.”
For once, nobody argued.