AOH :: ARCADIA3.TXT|
Star Wars: Arcadia_part3
ARCADIA: PART 3
The necklace glistened on Danah's glove. She examined it as
the droid unfastened her mantle. "A pretty thing," she said. "The gems
are particularly fine."
Castra smiled. "Yes; you can see why I was eager to find it
quickly. The clasp must have slipped. But surely nothing's happened to
Bail, or why have you come to Belconnen?"
"Bail is quite well." She shrugged the mantle from her
shoulders, extending her free hand for its glove to be unbuttoned. "I
find it curious that such fine work would not extend to the clasp. I
do not recall this piece from your dowry, nor was it one of mine. A
"Surely you didn't come all this way to turn over my
trinkets. Why are you here?"
"To ask you the same question. Why are *you* here?" As Castra
snatched for the chain, Danah removed her glove, dropping the necklace
into the inverted palm. She relinquished the tentacular pouch to the
droid. "Activate your welding module."
Castra folded her skirts around her as she sat, green eyes
suddenly vivid. "Whatever for?"
"We can't have you losing your new toys. I am having the clasp
sealed around your neck. Now, where did you get it?" She took a cup of
tisane from the waiting tray, watching her daughter-in-law watch her
over the steaming rim.
"Your mouth seems dry," Danah said. "Have some tisane."
She pressed her hands against her lips, as if praying. "I
can't. I'll be ill." Behind her, the droid finished its work, fanning
the fused metal before settling it back against her skin.
"One lump or two?"
"What do you want from me?" Castra whispered.
Danah considered for a moment, then dropped two lumps of
sweetening into Castra's cup. Setting it before her, she took her own
chair. "The truth, I think, would do nicely. Do you love my son?"
Castra could find no answer. "If not," Danah continued, "I
believe both of us would be happier with the very amicable terms that
could be settled on you. Leave him now, and no reprisals will
fall. But if you delay your decision too long, I will decide for
you. I did not survive twenty years of feuding only to have my son
"Well, you needn't fear *that*," Castra snapped without
Danah's cup shattered its saucer. "Pray continue. How long
have you known?"
"Longer than you, I think." She permitted herself to smile,
and touched the gems at her throat.
"I see," Danah said slowly. "Bail always was a thoughtful
"It's time you stopped treating him that way."
"Evidently so." She rose, brushing crumbs of porcelain from
her lap. "Well, I mustn't tire you, and I ought to prepare for today's
session in Senate."
"Do you intend to take my seat from me?"
With unaccustomed weariness, Danah said, "It is Bail's seat,
not yours. Do you realize the enmity you've inspired within the Senate
in his place? I do not want you to take any chances with your health
or your child's; in the interval, I shall do the best I can to salvage
Alderaan's standing in the Republic." She regarded the necklace once
more, its topazes gazing back from the heart of the filigreed
web. "This is quite lovely. Bail had a fine sense of irony to
commission a Coruscanti jeweler for the piece," she said, and
withdrew, leaving Castra staring uncertainly after her.
* * *
The defenders fled down the corridor until they reached
another set of blast doors. General Kenobi staggered through, one hand
pressing down on his wounded thigh, the other hand around Anakin's
shoulders. He limped to a wall and leaned heavily against it. As soon
as the last member of the group had crossed the doorway, Anakin leapt
for the control panel, then swore with great enthusiasm. "They're
jammed!" he shouted.
An engineer ran from the other side of the chamber. "Doors in
back're jammed too. Must be the power coupler for this section. If we
can move one set, we can move them both, but neither's budging now."
Anakin quickly scanned the walls. He jabbed a thumb at a
black-panelled hatch. "What about that?"
The engineer shook his head. "Access to the asteroid
surface. No good without pressure suits."
"We could blow this room into vacuum with a thermal charge,
"I didn't mean with us in it," he snapped. "They couldn't
reach us beyond. What's behind those other doors?"
A small information droid snaked around the engineer's leg. It
extended a speech orb and recited, "Space in question is hangar bay
B-3-21, sealed off for repairs. Magnetic seals are faulty; outer
access has been blocked with metal panels to maintain atmospheric
"Can you clear the power coupler?"
An explosion echoed down the corridor. Both men ducked back
down as the Nechti troops rounded the corner ahead; the droid scurried
behind the engineer. "Not unless someone can hold them off," the
engineer answered. He glanced at the brown-clad woman beside
"Just don't fire at them from behind me. I don't want to
bounce anything back into us." Lisel stepped into the narrow doorway,
lightsaber in hand. The sunset-glow blade seemed to block the plasma
bolts of its own volition, moving the woman's body with it. The Nechti
stayed some ten meters away; evidently, previous encounters with Jedi
had taught them to keep out of lightsaber range, and they were taking
no chances. Behind her, the engineer passed a scanner over the
panel. Several droids clustered about him, beeping frantically.
"Right," Anakin said. He lowered his voice. "Get those thermal
charges ready-- who's got them? Rouvel? Thessa? Set the timers to two
minutes, but don't start them yet. Just under the access hatch, got
Farther back, Arcadia leaned over General Kenobi, who was
waving a second healer aside. He had slid down the wall to the
floor. "Never saw the bolt," he muttered, inhaling sharply as she
probed his wound. "But then, those are the ones that always get you."
Cautiously crossing behind Lisel, Anakin returned to Kenobi's
side. "Can you heal him?"
"Yes, but not yet. If you're setting those charges, we'll have
to move out of this airlock as soon as the doors are unjammed." She
glanced up at the open doorway; the engineer was slapping down one
droid's outstretched pincer. "And if they can't be unjammed... even a
Jedi can't hold them off forever, and there's no use in my healing
anyone if the Nechti kill us all."
Kenobi snorted. "They'd prefer to take us alive, if we let
them. I don't know what they want, but it isn't conquest. Otherwise,
they'd've taken the border systems and held them, not destroyed them
and passed on."
Anakin shook his head. "Then what in hell's name do they
As if to corroborate Kenobi, the Nechti commander halted her
troop's fire. She was an imposing figure in her green and white
uniform, the Nechti new-moon crescent ablaze at her throat. "We have
no wish to destroy you," she called. "Will you surrender and join
Lisel stared levelly back. "You've forced yourself into our
borders for three years now. Why should we make your invasion any
easier for you?" Behind her, Anakin and the other warriors slid their
blasters from their belts.
The Nechti commander beamed. "Invasion? Certainly not. We only
seek to extend our friendship and goodwill to you."
"We mean to explore this territory for natural resources. It
will be easiest for all of us if you cooperate. But if you don't, our
explorations will still continue." The Nechti flicked her gaze over
Lisel, then the assorted group behind the defiant Jedi: some
battle-ready warriors, like Anakin and Kenobi; others, untried cadets
and noncombatants, like the engineer still pounding at the control
panel. The droids, depending on their function, clustered around the
engineer or toward the back of the room. Arcadia finished bandaging
Kenobi's leg and looked toward the doorway.
"Other members of your Republic have already joined our
confederation," the Nechti continued. "Will you not do so?"
Lisel did not move. "Nerf spit," she said.
The Nechti smiled. "If you insist." She stepped back; her hand
was a flash of silver as she gestured. A spinning blizzard of plasma
bolts converged upon the doorway. At first, Lisel was able to block
them all, but soon bolts began to slip past her guard.
Over the noise of impact and ricochet, the engineer called
over his shoulder, "The coupler's unjammed. Can you open the rear
blast doors?" The rear doors slid smoothly open.
"Get moving," Anakin barked. "Thessa, set those things up and
start them. Come on, move!" He extended one hand toward Kenobi, but
the older man gestured sharply.
"Make sure that hangar's secure first," Kenobi
ordered. "Better to lose me than lead all of us into a trap." Anakin
hesitated, then advanced into the hangar's entrance corridor; the rest
of the group, human and droid alike, bolted alongside and ahead of
him. Arcadia, on the verge of following, froze an instant before
another plasma bolt spattered against the wall, one pace before
her. In the same instant, the engineer cried out.
"Rannis?" Lisel looked behind her. The engineer fell to the
ground, his back smouldering. He did not get up. Five more plasma
bolts plunged through the distracted Lisel. Her lightsaber dropped and
rolled away, extinguished.
Having scanned the hangar, Anakin returned to the corridor
junction to retrieve Kenobi. Both men saw Arcadia step over Lisel's
body into the path of the Nechti charge. Before either could cry out
to her, she took up her own saber in a flare of blue light. Over her
shoulder, she said, "Anakin, please take those two and General Kenobi
into the hangar. The door won't last long, once shut; the Nechti are
setting up a small assault cannon."
His face pale, Kenobi said, "Dia, are you certain you want to
She was already parrying the Nechti barrage. "Yes. Please
hurry. We haven't much time."
"Are both of you crazy?" Anakin looked from one to the other
in disbelief. "She's asking for her death, and you're going to let
"Permission is hardly the issue." Kenobi struggled to his
feet. "We've less than a minute left. Get those two into the hangar; I
can still move on my own." He lurched toward the unblocked doorway and
nearly fell, but cuffed Anakin away. "I can get there myself, damn
it-- Lisel and Rannis can't."
By the time Kenobi had limped five paces, Anakin had already
dragged Lisel and Rannis into the hangar. He ran back and pulled
Kenobi past the blast doors, eyeing the charge timers as he did
so. "Arcadia!" he shouted. "We're all through now; come on!"
Her soft voice was somehow able to penetrate the noise of the
Nechti attack. "I can't reach the control panel. Can someone cover my
"What do you mean, someone?" Blaster in hand, Anakin raced
across as Arcadia darted out of the doorway. He shot at the assault
cannon as the Nechti began preparations to fire. Two Nechti troopers
fell, but his blaster had little effect on the weapon's armor
plating. Even as Arcadia pressed the controls, they could see an
ominous glow begin to erupt from the cannon's mouth.
Anakin scooped one arm around her waist and hauled her away,
already running. He extended his blaster across her body and shot the
doors' control array as soon as the blast panels met. In the same
instant, the cannon struck the other side, spraying a fine mist of
sparks through the crevices.
"Fifteen seconds to detonation," the charge timer intoned.
A second volley hit the doors as Arcadia looked
back. White-hot fragments shivered off like snow from a shaken branch.
"Come *on*, Dia--" As he charged into the hangar, Anakin
pulled her off her feet again. Backhanding the controls, he leaned
against the doors as they closed; Lisel's dead saber flashed into
Arcadia's hand through the gap. The last sound they heard through the
narrowing sliver was the Nechti assault cannon completely destroying
the far side of the antechamber. The machinery at their backs ground
to a halt, latched, and sealed shut. Only a soft *whump* was audible
as the thermal charges detonated, but the vibrations shivered through
their bodies and the heavy sheet metal of the floor.
* * *
Anakin opened his eyes in the hangar's entrance alcove, grimly
surprised that he was still alive. "Of all the stupid, suicidal--do
all of you Alderaani have death wishes, or is it just you and Kenobi?"
"Do you really think I wanted to do that?" She deactivated the
still-glowing lightsaber. "If there had been any other choice, I would
have gone into the hangar with the rest."
"There were other Jedi who could've--"
Kenobi levered himself away from the wall. He had been
standing near the door controls, ready to activate them, but Anakin
had simply swept him out of the way. "Who did you have in mind? I was
in no condition to hold them off. Lisel certainly couldn't, and Nisca
had duties here." He indicated Lisel and Rannis, crumpled on the
hangar floor. The other healer, a stocky bearded man crouched beside
them, glanced up at his name before returning to his work.
Arcadia simply batted Anakin's face. "Finish scolding me
later, please. I've work to do." She knelt beside Nisca, clipping the
lightsabers to her belt as medical droids extended sensors all around
them. "Do you need my help?"
"Take Rannis, would you?" Nisca spoke without lifting his
hands or eyes from Lisel. The woman's limbs were lightly jerking, as
if in restless sleep, but her body was charred through.
Rannis moaned as Arcadia probed the wound through his
chest. The bolt had torn through his torso, entering at the base of
his spine and angling up through his left lung. The wound made a
ghastly susurrus as he tried to breathe.
"Aren't you going to anesthetize him?" Anakin asked from
Tearing open Rannis' uniform, she shook her head. "His life
signs are too erratic. If the droids give him an anesthetic spray, he
may stop breathing."
She extended her hands for one droid to wash with an
astringent mist; working quickly, she dried them in another droid's
air-jet and plunged her fingers straight into the blackened cavity of
the lung. The man feebly cried out and tried to curl onto his side,
but Anakin dropped to his knees and held him down. In the wound, she
swiftly rotated her wrist in a gesture like someone washing the inside
of a cup, and pulled her hand back out. The new flesh boiled up behind
her touch, nearly closing over her fingertips.
Touching Anakin's wrist, she edged him away so she could turn
Rannis over and heal his back: first reconnecting the severed loops of
intestine, then bridging the gap in his lower back, both vertebrae and
spinal cord. The repairs showed as dark rippled scars, without the
smooth finesse she usually employed. She leaned forward, nearly
fainting. "I can't... do more right now.... When he wakes, tell him--
tell him I'll check the nerve connections when I can." Taking several
deep breaths, she sat up again, swaying. To the side, she could hear
Nisca begin to unwind a long skein of expletives. Lisel was dead.
One medical droid nosed up against her, proffering a sleek
needled appendage and another mist nozzle. She used the latter to wash
the blood and char from her hands. "Yes, you can give Rannis a
sedative now. Massive antibiotics into his abdominal cavity too, and
osmotic regulators-- no, I don't need a stimshot. At least--" She
looked around for Anakin. He had paced away some distance but came
back beside her. "Is anyone else still badly hurt? I think I can
Even as Arcadia began to move toward the others, Anakin pulled
her back. "They'll live. If you keep pushing yourself this hard, you
won't. And you're going to rest if I have to sit on you to make you
lie still. Now do I have to sit on you, or are you done?" His voice
had softened somewhat, and she looked up at him with surprise.
"If there're no other serious injuries, but surely--"
"Except for these two, we left all of the badly wounded behind
in our retreat. They're in the hands of the Nechti now." He met her
eyes steadily. "There was nothing else we could do."
Without responding, she crossed over to Nisca, who was still
staring down at his failure. Taking Lisel's saber handle from her
belt, she cupped the dead hands around it. Anakin steadied her as she
stood up; when she leaned on his arm, he tightened his jaw, but said
nothing. Nevertheless, she pulled back and apologized.
"It's nothing," Anakin said, steering her into the main
hangar. "This can wait 'til later."
"I didn't know you were shot; when--"
"You nicked me with your saber when I was pulling you into the
She closed her eyes in horror. "You mean I wounded you myself?
The Healer's Code--"
"I'm sure the Nechti would have done a more thorough job." He
slapped her careful hands away. "Don't you dare heal me until you've
The main body of the hangar contained several ships trapped by
the magnetic seal dysfunction. Anakin's cadets and the other personnel
were entering these in search of supplies; he relieved one cadet of a
scavenged blanket and wrapped it around Arcadia's
shoulders. "Damesta-- is there a cot set up, somewhere quiet?"
"No cots, but one of the research vessels had Jidaf-style
officers' quarters just inside; try the ramp access of the
Under the ministrations of another medical group, General
Kenobi watched Anakin guide Arcadia into the _Perceptor_. Halfway up
the ramp, her feet gave way and she began to fall, but Anakin caught
her up and carried her into the ship. Kenobi smiled broadly, then
winced as a droid stuck another needle into his leg.
* * *
Inside the ship, it was dark and quiet. The heavy bulkhead
screened out the echoes from the hangar: orders snapping to and fro,
calls for comrades and family members, the grating sound of supply
crates being dragged across the floor. With Arcadia folded over one
shoulder, Anakin groped forward with his empty arm for a light
dial. He closed his eyes against the sudden brilliance from the
corridor panels. Arcadia's lids had already drifted down.
The room Damesta had mentioned was beyond the first
doorway. Instead of cots, it had been furnished with a hollow of
bedding inlaid into the floor. One high storage shelf still held a few
cushions, out of reach of previous scavengers or simply
overlooked. Anakin looked up at them, his long shadow falling over
much of the room. "If I put you back down, can you keep your balance?"
She shifted her weight, evaluating her condition. "No." When
he lowered her into the dusty bedding, she made no attempt to catch
herself, landing on her back like a dropped bundle of carpet. The
blanket around her unrolled as she sneezed, spreading the puff of dust
higher. With a muted groan, she lifted one arm to her head and coaxed
out her hair fasteners, dropping them onto the elevated floor. She
pulled the blanket around her again, then let her arm drop over her
Having retrieved the cushions, Anakin lifted her head and slid
one under it. She felt the bedding sag as he sat down. "You know,"
she said, "I could have been sleeping at the same time you were."
He made an inquisitive noise.
"For the past two days, I mean. You can't be certain I was
awake the entire time."
This time, his noise was sheepish.
"Unless you were too," she concluded, and opened one eye to
look under the curve of her elbow. His expression matched his most
recent sound. He looked up at the doorway, his chagrin intensifying.
General Kenobi's cheerful voice sounded from the corridor,
behind Arcadia. "I thought as much. You go to sleep too, Skywalker--
and that's an order, mind you. If you disobey this time, I'll have Dia
carve you up. Have you seen any monofilament coils in here?" He limped
in and began to examine the walls.
With a sigh, Anakin pulled off his boots, but remained sitting
up, an arm's length away from Arcadia. "I knew you could fend off a
remote with your lightsaber," he finally said. "But I didn't think you
could manage that many live opponents."
She had both eyes closed again, or at least the one he could
see. "There's nothing so special about it; any Jedi could have done
the same. Better, more likely-- healers have only minimal training
with the saber."
His voice reached new heights of incredulity. "Minimal?"
Kenobi emerged from a cupboard with a bundle of wiring. "You
know that's not so, Dia," he said mildly. "At the very least, you've
made more of basic training than others could. Your father's blood, no
Arcadia lifted one eyebrow in Kenobi's direction without
actually opening her eyes again.
"So why didn't you train as a Jedi Knight?" Anakin asked her.
She threaded her hands into her hair and began to unravel her
unpinned braid. "I try to minimize contact with them, lest it appear
I'm following my mother's precedent. Entering their training program
would not have helped."
Anakin gave Kenobi a questioning look. "Oh, I'm a special
case," Kenobi said. He began to loop the lengths of monofilament
around his arm. "Her Highness of Alderaan knows me too well to expect
political interference from me."
"But-- your mother? You're Liane Antilles' daughter?"
He exhaled slowly. "So that's why your family records are
classified. Is that why Denis took your father's name? Why didn't
"Denis was forced into the Colton name this year, when he left
the Academy. He forfeited his citizenship when he requested transfer
to Ikatya; if Danah wants no Alderaani to bear arms outside the
sector, you can imagine her opinion on a member of House Antilles
doing so. As for me--" She sighed. "Matters could become
unnecessarily complex were I to assume my father's family name."
"Oh, but surely-- wouldn't it reassure the old girl that
you've no interest in Alderaani politics?"
"If her surveillance is any good, she should know that
Kenobi broke in smoothly. "Danah doesn't want House Antilles
to end with her, I imagine. Besides, there's the matter of the
succession. Now go to sleep, children." He knotted up the monofilament
ends and left, closing the door behind him.
* * *
In the darkness, Anakin could hear Arcadia breathing
quietly. "But surely the Alderaani succession was settled by the
Senate, years ago," he offered.
"It was, for the most part." The direction of her voice
shifted as she curled onto her side toward him. "The arbitrators
decided that the Organas had precedence, but that the Antilles were in
fact the next house in line. That was nearly the death warrant for all
of House Organa, until Danah married Prince Davit to merge their
"Where does your branch of the family come in?"
She sighed. "My grandmother was Helice Antilles, Danah's twin
sister. There was no clear seniority between them; naturally, each
considered herself to be the leader of the house. When Danah made her
alliance, Helice vowed to kill her and the Organas, or to die
trying. She had to settle for the latter."
"And Liane was Helice's daughter."
"After she married into House Colton, my mother swore a pledge
of political neutrality modelled after the Jedi oath. Danah honored
it. It was a bad decision for her, but a worse one for Prince Davit."
"And you're the last member of House Antilles."
"Unless Denis reclaims the name. But Danah would have to
reinstate his citizenship to allow that." She yawned. "Which is one
reason why I have to keep the Antilles name, in case the succession
ever does come to me-- which I hope it doesn't."
"It doesn't sound all that undesirable to me."
"Danah would marry me off to one of her court officials at
once. In fact, she may do so within the next few years, if Prince Bail
has no children. Believe me, I have no desire to become an ornamental
consort-- but if I'm to play any role on Alderaan, that's all I'll be
Anakin burrowed a little deeper into the bedding. "Why not
rule in your own right?"
She laughed sleepily. "With Princess Danah still at court?
Besides, I have no political experience."
The conversation lapsed into silence, until Arcadia spoke up
in faintly accusing tones. "You're shivering, aren't you?"
"Well, I wouldn't call it shivering..." said Anakin, folding
his arms more tightly around himself.
"Are you cold?"
"A bit cool, perhaps-- but I'll be fine."
"Don't be silly. There's enough blanket for both of us."
"Are you sure-- I mean, I don't think we ought to--"
In a fluid motion, she brought her body next to his, curving
her blanket-fledged arm around him. "Hush," she murmured, brushing her
fingertips over his mouth.
He lay in the dark with his eyes wide open. "Arcadia?" She
made some soft sound, nestling her head against his shoulder. He could
feel her unbound hair spilling over his throat, cutting his breath
short like a silken garrotte. "Arcadia...."
She was asleep. "Damn," he said softly, and did his best to
follow her lead.
* * *
He woke instantly when she turned about in his arms. "Is it
morning?" she asked drowsily.
"No way to tell in here. But my chrono says it is, barely."
"Ah." She made a soft purry sound in her throat as she sat up
and stretched. The blanket clung to her clothing for a moment, held
by friction, before falling to a puddle of fabric around her waist. If
he concentrated, Anakin could make out the outlines of her body, more
by kinesthetic intuition than the dim light seeping around the
door. He told himself to stop concentrating.
"Well," he said softly, "when did you learn where I came from?
Did Kenobi tell you, or did you check my personal files?"
"Mmm? Neither; I don't know at all. Why?"
"Are you certain you don't?"
She drew her hair over her shoulder to finish braiding
it. "Yes, I'm quite certain. Does it matter? Now where did I put my
"It might matter. On Leucothea, we'd be married now."
Arcadia sat very still for several moments before pulling the
filigree pins from her hair and setting them back down. "Leucothea's
"Not any more. But I was born there." As she continued to
stare at him-- or so he gathered from her frozen silhouette-- he
added, "I take it last night's events weren't deliberate, then? I
wasn't certain, after that talk of your aunt Danah marrying you off."
"Danah," she whispered. "Princess Danah will be livid. Even if
we escape the Nechti, she'll have us killed."
He touched her wrist. "Arcadia, the situation isn't
irretrievable. There weren't any witnesses to what you did, and I
won't hold you to it unwillingly. Drawing me under your covers is a
pledge of marriage on Leucothea, but without the heart of the
ceremony, it has no legal force. It's like... you Alderaani give
jewelry to one another at weddings, don't you? What are they,
"Well, it's like that. Without the proper actions and intent,
a ring alone means nothing. I suppose the same is true of us here, if
you wish." He looked away. "It was foolish of me to expect anything
"If Danah weren't a threat, I--" Her outburst was over as
quickly as it had begun. "Oh, Anakin," she simply said, and bent to
Although astonished to the point of stupefaction, Anakin was
still able to observe his body operating on pure reflex. At least, his
conscious mind was too dazed to send any orders about. But his arms
wrapped around her waist and pulled her down.
"Ouch," he murmured into her mouth.
She started guiltily, still holding him. "The wound on your
arm-- does it need healing?"
"To hell with my arm," he said.
* * *
The vortex of light touched the hangar floor in a silent
explosion, blinding Rouvel. Blood-tinted veils fluttered across her
vision as she saw what the vortex had left behind: a stumbling
humanoid form. Her voice shook as she drew her blaster. "Who goes
The shadowy figure caught its balance and looked up at
her. "Who are you?"
"I'll ask the questions, Nechti," she snarled, gaining
confidence. "Now lie down and put your hands over your head."
"I'm not a Nechti, damn it-- is General Kenobi here?"
"Yes," Kenobi said from behind Rouvel. "What's it to you?"
"Where's Dia?" As the figure stepped cautiously forward, the
dim hangar lights revealed the fine-drawn Alderaani features of Denis
Colton, born to House Antilles.
"Denis?" Kenobi stared at him before recalling
himself. "Rouvel, he's one of us. Continue sentry duty." As the
dismissed cadet walked away, uneasily glancing back, Kenobi walked
partway around Denis, reassuring himself the boy was not a
hologram. "How in Dandenong's name did you get in here?"
"The Nechti took our ship and captured us. They've teleported
me in to ask for your surrender. Since you've trapped yourself in
here, they can bring you out in two ways. They can port you out, if
you'll agree to join them afterwards. If not, they'll wait for you to
run out of food and air, and collect your bodies after."
"So we can starve, smother, or defect."
Denis grimaced, making an indefinite gesture that encompassed
his torn, blood-stained uniform and the bruises shadowing much of his
face. "I didn't exactly embrace their cause, sir. And it does seem
Kenobi stared at the frost-furred blast doors, his eyes
bleak. "When did you meet the Nechti? Did they overcome the entire
"The reports of Nechti activity near Aricia-- they were
right. The Nechti took the _Dovecote_, and I think they got the Aldea
"They did. Ikatya base lowered shields when _La Belle Dame_
hailed us." Kenobi turned back to Denis. "Where're the other
"It depends. But all the casualties are headed for cyborg
conversion." Denis kept his eyes steady on the general's as he
continued. "The Nechti don't waste anything-- stripped ion engines,
salvaged corpses. So even if you choose decompression, your body will
still fight for them in the end."
"So that's how they've been reinforcing their fleet," Kenobi
breathed. "They haven't been bringing in more Nechti from their home
"From what I've overheard, the teleporters are only used for
intrafleet transport. I don't know if the Nechti even have a home
system or sector; when they need more troops, they just... make more."
"From our dead."
"Or their own. It doesn't matter to them, as long as they have
enough mechanical parts to fit the cyborgs with. But what message do
you want me to carry back?"
"Carry back?" Kenobi repeated. "They'll teleport you back out
of here, then?"
"They've given me two hours to get your decision. We don't
have much time. I'd like to see Arcadia, if-- is she here, or...?"
"She's in the _Perceptor_." Kenobi nodded at the research
frigate. "Commander Skywalker is with her, if you'd like to fetch them
both out. I need to confer with the senior officers about this, and
the two of them should certainly be included."
* * *
When he began to shift his weight off her body, she locked her
ankles together behind his knees. "Caught you," she murmured with a
drowsy laugh. "I'm not letting you go now."
He kissed her again, taking his time. "I don't want to escape;
I just didn't want to crush you."
"I'll be fine if I can just get some air...." Sliding her hand
up from his back, she moved her tumbled hair off her face, and tucked
her chin above his shoulder.
"Why didn't you say anything before?"
Her laughter rippled up again, floating around them like
petals on a pond. "About air? We were a bit too occupied for
Anakin could feel the blood rushing to his
face. "Um. Actually, I meant--"
"Yes, I know." Her body briefly tensed. "I didn't want to
bring you into Danah's web. I still don't."
"I can protect myself. I'll do the same for you, if--"
Stung, he drew back from her a little. "You don't believe I
"I don't believe you understand Danah's resources." She traced
the curve of his neck with her fingertips, feeling the pulse beat
under his skin. "Believe me, if we wed, each of us will stand in far
more danger from her than I now do alone."
"Aren't you carrying this to extremes? You're leading an
ordinary life; what grounds does she have to reproach you?"
"None. But she may not know that."
He reached behind him and pulled one of her ankles free,
preparing to lever himself over it and out of her warm embrace. "If
you don't want to wed me, just say so."
"You're right. I don't think we should."
"Oh? Any particular reason?"
Her soft reply came just as he was beginning to move
away. "Because I love you."
Utterly disarmed, he let his shoulders slump back down. "You
Alderaanis must have very peculiar ideas about marriage."
"It's not that; it's--"
"Yes, I know. It's Princess Danah." He sighed and rested his
head against hers. "If that's the way you want it, then. But if you
ever change your mind--"
He was interrupted by a harsh whine and a burst of light from
the opening door. "Damn it, my blaster," Anakin whispered. His sidearm
was well out of reach, buried somewhere in a heap of discarded
The dark shape in the doorway looked about, scanning the room
at eye level. "Dia, are you in here?"
"Denis?" Arcadia struggled up to her elbows, despite Anakin's
motionless weight. "I'm down here, on the floor."
Denis moved aside, shifting his shadow off her. After a
moment, he said, "Er, yes. Among other things."
"I am not a thing," Anakin muttered.
"Well, General Kenobi and I need to speak with you and
Commander Skywalker-- that is you, sir, isn't it?"
"--As soon as it's convenient for both of you, that is," Denis
finished. "It is an urgent matter, though. I'll just leave the door
open so you can see."
Anakin remained staring at the empty doorway after Denis
left. With an abrupt motion, he turned back to Arcadia. "If you meant
everything you said about Danah and myself, then as you value your
life, don't tell anyone what you did last night."
She had already wormed her way out from under him and was
pulling her tunic on. When her head emerged from the neck opening, she
said, "But you said the declaration of marriage was invalid without
the legal component."
"Right. You don't know what that is either?"
"No, but..." Her voice faded as suspicion grew.
"Consummation. Before witnesses." He donned his uniform
swiftly, saying, "You can say whatever you want about marriage,
Arcadia, but from this point on, I swear to protect you as best I
can. I'll try to be discreet about it, but--" He lowered his second
boot with a thump, settling his heel into it.
She did not look at him. Instead, she took his injured arm and
cradled it, cupping one hand around the wound. Heat rippled just under
the surface of his skin. "If Denis has gained access to the hangar,
the news is either very good or very bad. We'd better go."
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