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Poisoned rain speared from an acid sky. The hunter scuttled, stumbled a dozen yards before throwing himself under shelter again. A building, he thought—hoped—though for a second’s blinding terror the curved shape lifted, writhing, into a toothed maw of terror from which darkness flowed out like the vomited stench of rotting bones. Serpents—tentacles—twisting arms reached down for him with what he would have sworn were tiny cobalt-blue hands … but the burning rain was searing holes in his flesh, so he closed his eyes and flung himself among them. Then for a clear moment his mind registered that they were blue-flowered vines.
Though the stink of his own flesh charring still choked his nostrils and the fire scorched his hands, when he looked down at them his hands were whole, untouched. Realities shuffled in his mind like cards in a deck. Should those hands be stripped away to bone? Or should they sport a half dozen rings of andurite stone and a thin scrim of engine grease around the nails?
In what reality were those fingers limber, and where did he get the notion a moment later that they were twisted like blighted roots and adorned with hooked nails like a rancor’s claws?
He didn’t know. The sane times were fewer and fewer; it was hard to remember from one to the next.
Prey. Quarry. There was someone he had to find.
He had been a hunter all those years in shrieking darkness. He had killed, torn, eaten of bleeding flesh. Now he had to find … He had to find …
Why did he think the one he sought would be in this … this place that kept changing from toothed screaming rock mouths to graceful walls, curving buildings, vine-curtained towers—and then falling back again to nightmares, as all things always fell back?
He fumbled in the pocket of his coverall and found the dirty sheet of yellow-green flimsiplast on which someone—himself?—had written:
THE TIME OF MEETING
“Have you seen it before?”
Leaning one shoulder on the curved oval of the window, Han Solo shook his head. “I went to one of the Meetings out in deepspace, halfway from the Pits of Plooma to the Galactic Rim,” he said. “All I cared about was sneaking in under the Ithorians’ detection screens, handing off about a hundred kilos of rock ivory to Grambo the Worrt and getting out of there before the Imperials caught up with me, and it was still the most … I dunno.” He made a small gesture, slightly embarrassed, as if she’d caught him out in a sentimental deed of kindness. “ ‘Impressive’ isn’t the right word.”
No. Leia Organa Solo rose from the comm terminal to join her husband, the white silk of her tabard billowing in her wake in a single flawless line. “Impressive” to the smuggler he’d been in those days, navigationally if nothing else: She’d seen the Ithorian star herds gather, the city-huge ships maneuvering among one another’s deflector fields with the living ease of a school of shining fish. Linking without any more hesitation than the fingers of the right hand have about linking with the fingers of the left.
But this today was more than that.
Watching the Meeting here, above the green jungles of Ithor itself, the only word that came to her mind was “Force-full”: alive with, drenched in, moving to the breath of the Force.
And beautiful beyond words.
The high, thick masses of raincloud were breaking. Slanting torrents of light played on the jungle canopy only meters below the lowest-riding cities, sparkled on the stone and plaster and marble, the dozen shades of yellows and pinks and ochers of the buildings, the flashing, angled reflections of the antigrav generators and the tasseled gardens of blueleaf, tremmin, fiddleheaded bull-ferns. Bridges stretched from city to city, dozens of linked antigrav platforms on which thin streams of Ithorians could be seen moving, flowerlike in their brilliant robes. Banners of crimson and lapis fluttered like sails, and every carved balcony, every mast and stairway and stabilizer, even the wicker harvest baskets dangling like roots beneath the vast aerial islands were thick with Ithorians.
“You?” Han asked.
Leia looked up quickly at the man by her side. Here above the endless jungles of Bafforr trees the warm air was fresh, sweet with breezes and wondrous with the scents of greenness and flowers. Ithorian residences were open, like the airy skeletons of coral; she and Han stood surrounded by flowers and light.
“When I was little—five, maybe six years old—Father came to the Time of Meeting here to represent the Imperial Senate,” she said. “He thought it was something I should see.”
She was silent a moment, remembering that puppyfat child with pearls twined in her thick braids; remembering the smiling man whom she’d never ceased to think of as her father. Kindly, when it sometimes didn’t pay to be kind; wise in the days when even the greatest wisdom didn’t suffice. Bail Organa, the last Prince of the House of Alderaan.
Han put his arm around her shoulders. “And here you are.”
She smiled wryly, touched the pearls braided in her long chestnut hair. “Here I am.”
Behind her the comm terminal whistled, signaling the receipt of the daily reports from Coruscant. Leia glanced at the water clock with its bobbing amazement of glass spheres and trickling fountains, and figured she’d have time to at least see what was happening in the New Republic’s capital. Even when embarked on a diplomatic tour that was three-quarters vacation, as Chief of State she could never quite release her finger from the Republic’s pulse. From bitter experience she had learned that small anomalies could be the forerunners of disaster.
Or, she thought—scrolling through the capsule summaries of reports, items of interest, minor events—they could be small anomalies.
“So how’d the Dreadnaughts do in last night’s game?” Han went to the wardrobe to don his jacket of sober dark-green wool. It fit close, its crimson-and-white piping emphasizing the width of his shoulders, the slight ranginess of his body, suggesting power and sleekness without being military. From the corner of her eye Leia saw him pose a little in front of the mirror, and carefully tucked away her smile.
“You think Intelligence is going to put the smashball scores ahead of interplanetary crises and the latest movements of the Imperial warlords?” She was already flipping through to the end, where Intelligence usually put them.
“Sure,” said Solo cheerfully. “They don’t have any money riding on interplanetary crises.”
“The Infuriated Savages beat them nine to two.”
“The Infuriated …! The Infuriated Savages are a bunch of pantywaists!”
“Had a bet with Lando on the Dreadnaughts?” She grinned across at him, then frowned, seeing the small item directly above the scores. “Stinna Draesinge Sha was assassinated.”
“She used to teach at the Magrody Institute—she was one of Nasdra Magrody’s pupils. She was Cray Mingla’s teacher.”
“Luke’s student Cray?” Han came over to her side. “The blonde with the legs?”
Leia elbowed him hard in the ribs. “ ‘The blonde with the legs’ happens to be the most brilliant innovator in artificial intelligence to come along in the past decade.”
He reached down past her shoulder to key for secondary information. “Well, Cray’s still a blonde and she’s still got legs.… That’s weird.”
“That anybody would assassinate a retired theoretician in droid programming?”
“That anybody would hire Phlygas Grynne to assassinate a retired theoretician.” He’d flipped the highlight bar down to Suspected Perpetrator. “Phlygas Grynne’s one of the top assassins in the Core Worlds. He gets a hundred thousand credits a hit. Who’d hate a programmer that much?”
Leia pushed her chair away and rose, the chance words catching her like an accidental blow. “Depends on what she programmed.”
Han straightened up, but said nothing, seeing the change in her eyes.
“Her name wasn’t on any of the lists,” he said as Leia walked, with the careful appearance of casualness, to the wardrobe mirror to put on her earrings.
“She was one of Magrody’s pupils.”
“So were about a hundred and fifty other people,” Han pointed out gently. He could feel the tension radiating from her like gamma rays from a black hole. “Nasdra Magrody happened to be teaching at a time when the Emperor was building the Death Star. He and his pupils were the best around. Who else was Palpatine gonna hire?”
“They’re still saying I was behind Magrody’s disappearance, you know.” Leia turned to face him, her mouth flexed in a line of bitter irony.
“Not to my face, of course,” she added, seeing Who says? spring to her husband’s lips and hot anger to his eyes. “Don’t you think I have to make it my business to know what people whisper? Since that was back before I held any power in the Alliance they say I got my ‘smuggler friends’ to kill him and his family and hide the bodies so they were never found.”
“People always say that about rulers.” Han’s voice was rough with anger, seeing the pain behind the armor of her calm. “It was true about Palpatine.”
Leia said nothing—her eyes returned for a moment to the mirror, to readjust the hang of her tabard, the braided loops of her hair. As she moved toward the doorway Han caught her arms, turning her to face him, small and slender and beautiful and not quite thirty: the Rebel Princess who’d turned into the leader of the New Republic.
He didn’t know what he wanted to say to her, or could say to her to ease the weight of what he saw behind her eyes. So he only brought her to him and kissed her, much more gently than he had first meant to do.
“The awful thing is,” said Leia softly, “that a day doesn’t go by that I don’t think about doing it.”
She half turned in his grip, her lips set in that cold expression that he knew hid pain she could not show even to him. The years of enforced self-reliance, of not giving way in front of anyone, had left their mark on her.