The nightmare was familiar, yet still terrifying.
She is eight years old again, a young girl huddled in the corner of the small hut she shares with her father. Outside, beyond the tattered curtain that serves as their door, her father sits by the fire, calmly stirring a boiling pot.
He's ordered her to stay inside, hidden from view, until the visitor leaves. She can see him through tiny holes worn in the curtain, looming over their camp. He's big. Taller and thicker than her father. His head is shaved; his clothes and armor are black. She knows he's one of the Sith. She can see that he's dying.
That's why he's here. Caleb is a great healer. Her father could save this man:but he doesn't want to.
The man doesn't speak. He can't. Poison has swollen his tongue. But what he needs is clear.
"I know what you are," her father tells the man. "I will not help you."
The big man's hand drops to the hilt of his lightsaber and he takes a half step forward.
"I am not afraid to die," Caleb tells him. "You may torture me if you want."
Without warning, her father plunges his own hand into the boiling pot over the fire. Expressionless, he lets the flesh blister and cook before withdrawing it.
"Pain means nothing to me."
She can see the Sith is confused. He is a brute, a man who uses violence and intimidation to get what he wants. These things won't work on her father.
The big man's head turns slowly toward her. Terrified, she can feel her heart pounding. She squeezes her eyes shut, trying not to breathe.
Her eyes snap open as she is swept off her feet by a terrible, unseen power. It lifts her into the air and carries her outside. Upside down, she is suspended by an invisible hand above the boiling cooking pot. Helpless, trembling, she can feel wisps of hot steam rising up to crawl across her cheeks.
"Daddy," she whimpers. "Help me."
The expression in Caleb's eyes is one she has never seen in her father before-fear.
"All right," he mutters, defeated. "You win. You will have your cure." Serra woke with a start, wiping away the tears running down her cheeks. Even now, twenty years later, the dream still filled her with terror. But her tears weren't those of fear.
The first rays of the morning sun were streaming through the palace window. Knowing she wouldn't be able to fall back asleep, Serra kicked aside the shimmersilk sheets and got up.
The memory of the confrontation always filled her with shame and humiliation. Her father had been a strong man-a man of indomitable will and courage. It was she who was weak. If not for her, he could have defied the dark man who had come to them.
If she had been stronger, he wouldn't have had to send her away.
"The dark man will return one day," her father had warned her on her sixteenth birthday. "He must not find you. You must go. Leave this place. Change your name. Change your identity. Never think of me again."
That was impossible, of course. Caleb had been her entire world. Everything she knew about the healing arts-and about disease, illness, and poisons-she had learned at his knee.
Crossing the room to her wardrobe, she began to sift through her vast collection of clothes, trying to decide what to wear. Her entire childhood had been spent wearing simple, functional clothing; discarding it only when it became too threadbare and worn to be mended. Now she could go an entire month without wearing the same outfit twice.
She didn't dream about the dark man every night. For a while, in the first year of her marriage, she had hardly dreamed about him at all. Over the past few months, however, the dream had come more frequently:and with it, the ever-growing desire to learn the fate of her father.
Caleb had sent her away out of love. Serra understood that. She knew her father had only wanted what was best for her; that was why she had honored his request and never gone back to see him. But she missed him. She missed the feeling of his strong, callused hands ruffling her hair. She missed the sound of his quiet but firm voice reciting the lessons of his trade; the sweet scent of healing herbs that had always wafted up from his shirt when he hugged her.
Most of all she missed the sense of safety and security she felt whenever he was around. Now, more than ever, she needed to hear him tell her everything was going to be okay. But that could never be. Instead she had to cling to the memory of the last words he ever spoke to her.
"It is a terrible thing, when a father cannot be there for his child. For this, I am sorry. But there is no other way. Please know that I will always love you, and whatever happens you will always be my daughter."
I am Caleb's daughter, she thought to herself, still idly flipping through the hangers of her wardrobe. I am strong, just like my father.
She finally selected a pair of dark pants and a blue top, emblazoned with the insignia of the Doan royal family:a gift from her husband. She missed him, too, though it was different than it was with her father. Caleb had sent her away, but Gerran had been taken from her by the rebels.
As she dressed, Serra tried not to think of her crown prince. The pain was too sharp, his assassination too recent. The miners responsible for the attack were still out there:but not for much longer, she hoped.
A soft knock at the door interrupted her train of thought.
"Come in," she called out, knowing only one person could be at the door of her private chambers this early in the morning.
Her personal bodyguard, Lucia, entered the room. At first glance the soldier was unremarkable: a fit, dark-skinned woman in her early forties with short, curly black hair. But beneath the fabric of her Royal Guard uniform it was possible to catch glimpses of hard, well-defined muscles, and there was an intensity in her eyes that warned she was not someone to be taken lightly.
Serra knew that Lucia had fought during the New Sith Wars twenty years ago. A sniper in the famed Gloom Walkers unit, she had actually served on the side of the Brotherhood of Darkness, the army that fought against the Republic. But as Caleb had explained to his daughter on many occasions, the soldiers who served in the conflict were far different from their Sith Masters.
The Sith and Jedi were fighting an eternal war over philosophical ideals, a war her father had wanted no part of. For the average soldiers who made up the bulk of the armies, however, the war was about something else. Those who rallied to the Sith cause-men and women like Lucia-did so out of the belief that the Republic had turned its back on them. Disenfranchised by the Galactic Senate, they had fought a war to free themselves from what they saw as the tyrannical rule of the Republic.
They were ordinary people who became victims of forces beyond their control; expendable pawns to be slaughtered in battles waged by those who believed themselves to be great and powerful.
"How did you sleep?" Lucia asked, stepping into the room and shutting the door behind her to ensure their privacy.
"Not well," Serra admitted.
There was no point in lying to the woman who had been her near-constant companion for the past seven years. Lucia would see right through it.
"The nightmares again?"
The princess nodded, but didn't say any more. She had never revealed the content of her nightmares-or her true identity-to Lucia, and the older woman respected her enough not to ask about it. They both had dark times in their past that they preferred not to talk about; it was one of the things that had drawn them together.
"The king wishes to speak with you," Lucia informed her.
For the king to send for her so early, it had to be important news.
"What does he want?"
"I think it has something to do with the terrorists who killed your husband," her bodyguard replied, picking up a delicate black veil from its stand in the corner of the room.
Serra's heart jumped, and her fingers fumbled over the last button on her top. Then she regained control of her emotions, and stood perfectly still as the older woman placed the veil atop her head. According to Doan custom, Serra was required to wear the mourning shroud for a full year following her husband's death:or until her beloved was avenged.
Lucia moved with practiced precision, quickly tying up Serra's long black hair and pinning it in place under the veil. The soldier was only average height-slightly shorter than her mistress-so Serra bent slightly to accommodate her.
"You're a princess," Lucia chided her. "Stand up straight."
Serra couldn't help but smile. Over the past seven years, Lucia had become like the mother she'd never had-assuming her mother had served as a sniper with the fabled Gloom Walkers during the Sith Wars.
Lucia finished adjusting the veil and stepped back to give her charge one final inspection.
"Stunning, as always," she pronounced.
Escorted by her bodyguard, Serra made her way through the palace to the throne room, where the king was waiting for them.
* * *
As they marched down the castle halls, Lucia fell into her customary position, one step behind and to the left of the princess. Because most people were right-handed, being on Serra's left side gave her the best chance to interpose her own body between a blade or blaster fired by a would-be assassin approaching from head-on. Not that there was much chance of anyone attempting anything here in the walls of the Royal Manse, but Lucia was always ready and willing to give her life for the sake of her charge.
With the collapse of the Brotherhood of Darkness two decades ago, Lucia-like many of her comrades who had served in the Sith armies-had become a prisoner of war. For six months she had been incarcerated on a work planet, welding and repairing ships until the Senate granted a universal pardon to all those who had served in the rank and file of the Brotherhood's armies.
Over the next thirteen years Lucia had worked as a hired bodyguard, a freelance mercenary, and finally a bounty hunter. That was how she had first met Serra:and how she had earned the long, angry scar that ran from her navel all the way up to her rib cage.
She had been tracking down Salto Zendar, one of four Meerian brothers who had come up with the shortsighted plan to kidnap a high-ranking Muun official from the InterGalactic Banking Clan head office and hold him for ransom. The miserably ill-fated venture had resulted in two of the brothers being killed by security forces when they tried to break into the IBC offices on Muunilinst. A third was captured alive while the fourth-Salto-managed to escape despite being critically wounded by security forces.
The reward put out for his capture by the IBC was big enough to attract bounty hunters from as far away as the Mid Rim, and Lucia had been no exception. Using contacts from her days in the Gloom Walkers, she tracked Salto to a hospital on the nearby world of Bandomeer where he was being treated for his wounds.
However, when Lucia tried to take him into custody, a young human working at the hospital as a healer had stepped between her and her quarry. Despite the arsenal of weapons on Lucia's back, the tall, dark-haired woman had refused to back down, claiming she wouldn't let the patient be moved while he was still in critical condition.
The healer had shown no fear, even when Lucia had drawn her blaster and ordered her to step aside. She had simply shook her head and held her ground.
It might have ended right there; Lucia wasn't willing to shoot an innocent woman just to collect the price on Salto's head. Unfortunately, she wasn't the only bounty hunter at the hospital that day: Salto had been as bad at covering his tracks as he was at kidnapping.
While she and Serra were locked in their confrontation, a Twi'lek had burst into the room, blasters drawn. Lucia turned just in time to get shot point-blank in the stomach, her weapon falling from her hand as she slumped to the floor.
When Serra tried to stop the Twi'lek from taking Salto, he had slammed the butt of his pistol against the side of her skull, knocking her aside then yanking Salto out of bed and dragging the moaning prisoner away.
Ignoring the hole in her gut, Lucia crawled after them. She saw the Twi'lek get halfway down the hall before he was shot in the back by another bounty hunter looking to claim the reward. And then she blacked out.
Official reports put the number of bounty hunters at the hospital that day at somewhere between six and ten. Unlike Lucia, most of them had no qualms about killing innocent civilians-or one another-to claim their prize. By the time the bloodbath was over Salto was dead, along with two other patients, one member of the hospital nursing staff, three security guards, and four bounty hunters.
The only reason Lucia's name wasn't on the list of casualties was because of Serra. The healer had dragged her back into the room and performed emergency surgery while the gun battle raged outside. She managed to save Lucia's life despite being freshly pistol-whipped:and despite the fact that Lucia had stuck a gun in her face only minutes earlier.
Lucia owed her life to the young healer, and from that day forward she had vowed to keep Serra safe, no matter where she went or what she did. It wasn't easy. Before marrying Gerran, Serra had moved around a lot. Never content to stay in the same place, she seemed to travel to a different world every few weeks. It was as if she was searching for something she could never find, or running from something she could never escape.
At first the healer had been reluctant to have someone constantly watching over her, but she couldn't stop Lucia from following her as she moved from planet to planet. Eventually, she came to appreciate the value of having a trained bodyguard on hand. Serra was willing to go anywhere and try to help anybody, and the Outer Rim could be a violent and dangerous place.
Over the years, however, Lucia had become more than just the princess's protector: she was her confidante and friend. And when Gerran had proposed to Serra, she accepted his offer only on the condition that Lucia still be allowed to serve at her side.
The king hadn't liked it, but in the end he had relented and made Lucia an official member of the Doan Royal Guard. But though she had sworn an oath to protect and serve the king and all his family, her true loyalty would always be to Serra.
That was why she was so nervous as they approached the throne room. Though she hadn't admitted anything to the princess, she had a pretty good idea of why the king wanted to see them.
When they reached the entrance Lucia was required to hand over her blaster; by custom only the king's personal guard could possess weapons in his presence. Though she did so without comment or protest, she always felt uneasy when she didn't have a weapon within easy reach.
She had accompanied the princess to enough audiences with the king to become accustomed to the magnificent blue-and-gold decorations of the throne room. But it looked different this morning: larger and more imposing. The typical crowd of retainers, servants, dignitaries, and honored guests were nowhere to be found. Except for Serra's father-in-law and four of his personal guards, the room was empty-what was said in this meeting was not meant to go beyond these walls.
If the yawning chasm of the strangely empty throne room bothered Serra, she gave no outward sign as she approached the raised dais where the king was seated on his throne. Lucia followed a respectful three steps behind.
Physically, the king resembled an older version of his dead son-tall and broad-shouldered, with strong features, golden shoulder-length hair, and a closely trimmed beard that was slightly darker in color. But while Lucia had come to know Gerran during his marriage o Serra, she knew little of his father's personality. She only saw him from a distance at official functions, and in these settings he had always been formal and reserved.
At the foot of the blue-carpeted stairs Serra stopped and dropped to one knee, bowing her head. Lucia remained standing at attention behind her.
"You sent for me, Your Majesty?"
"The terrorists who orchestrated the attack on my son's airspeeder were killed last night."
"Are you certain?" she asked, looking up at the king seated in his throne above her.
"A security patrol responding to an anonymous tip found their bodies this morning in an old cave they were using for their headquarters."
"This is glorious news," Serra exclaimed, her face lighting up as she rose to her feet.
She took a half step toward the throne, perhaps to embrace the king. But her father-in-law stayed in his seat, unmoving. Puzzled, Serra pulled back as his guards glared at her with suspicion.
Seeing the king's reaction toward the princess, Lucia felt her stomach twist into a knot. She hoped none of the others could sense her anxiety.
"Is there something you're not telling me, Sire?" the princess asked. "Is something wrong? Are they sure it was Gelba?"
"They've positively identified her body. Two of her bodyguards and three of her top lieutenants were also killed:along with a Cerean named Medd Tandar."
"He was a Jedi."
Serra shook her head, unable to make sense of the information. "What was a Jedi doing on Doan?"
"A member of the Council contacted me and asked that I allow one of their people to make contact with the rebels," the king informed her. "I agreed to their request."
The princess blinked in surprise. Still standing rigidly at attention, Lucia gave no outward reaction, though she was just as stunned as her mistress.
"We've always tried to keep the Jedi and the Senate out of our business on Doan," Serra protested.
"The politics of our world are under attack," the king explained. "Support for the rebels is building within the galactic community. We need allies if we want to preserve the Doan way of life. Working with the Jedi will make them and the Senate less willing to take action against us."
"What did he come here for?" Serra demanded, her voice cold.
The king scowled; Lucia realized he didn't like being interrogated in his own throne room. But, possibly out of respect for his lost son, he didn't take the princess to task.
"The Jedi had news that the rebels may have uncovered a cache of ancient talismans-objects imbued with the power of the dark side. The Cerean was sent to investigate these claims and, if true, bring the talismans back to the Jedi Temple on Coruscant where they could do no harm."
Lucia could see the logic behind the king's decision to grant the Jedi leave for their mission on Doan. The last thing the nobility wanted was for their enemies to gain possession of potentially devastating weapons. If the reports were true, the best way to nullify the threat would be to have the Jedi deal with it. Unfortunately, the death of the Cerean was not part of the plan.
"You think the Jedi will blame you for Medd's death," the princess noted, her sharp mind putting all the pieces together. "You knew he was making contact with the rebels; it will look like you hired the assassin to follow him to their hideout."
The king gave a solemn nod.
"Gelba's death has dealt a great blow to our enemy, but others will surely rise to take her place. Terrorists breed like insects, and our war with them is far from over.
"So far the Senate has not interfered in our efforts to cleanse our world of these criminals. But if they believe I used the Jedi to further my personal desire for vengeance, they will not sit idly by."
The king rose from his throne, standing up to his full height. He towered over Serra where she stood on the steps below the dais.
"But this assassin was not acting on my orders!" he pronounced in a voice that echoed off the throne room walls. "This was done without my knowledge or consent:a clear violation of Doan law that may cost us everything!"
"Is that why you brought me here, Sire?" Serra asked, refusing to be cowed by his anger. "To accuse me of betraying you?"
There was a long silence as they stared at each other before the king spoke again.
"When my son first declared his intention to marry you, I opposed the union," he replied. He was speaking casually now, almost as if they were chatting over a meal. But Lucia could see his eyes were fixed on the princess, studying her intently. "Yes, Sire," Serra answered, giving away no hint of emotion. "He told me as much."
"You have secrets," the king continued. "All my efforts to learn about your parents or your family turned up nothing. Your past is well hidden."
"My past is of no consequence, Sire. Your son accepted that."
"I have watched you these past three years," the king admitted. "I could see that you loved my son. I could see you were devastated by his death."
Serra didn't say anything, but Lucia could see moist tears beginning to form in her eyes as she thought back on memories of her husband.
"Over the years I have come to appreciate those qualities my son saw in you. Your strength. Your intelligence. Your loyalty to our House.
"But now my son is dead, and I cannot help but wonder where your true loyalties lie."
"I swore an oath to serve the Crown when I married Gerran," Serra told him, her voice firm despite the tears in her eyes. "Even though he is gone, I would not dishonor his memory by abandoning my duties."
"I believe you," the king said after several seconds, his voice suddenly weary. "Though this brings me no closer to finding out who was behind the attack."
Silently, Lucia let out the breath she hadn't even been aware she was holding.
The king sat back down on his throne, his expression troubled by doubt and lingering grief over his son. Serra stepped forward and knelt by her father-in-law, close enough to put a comforting hand on his arm, ignoring his guards as they took a menacing step forward.
"Your son was beloved by all the nobles of Doan," she said. "And the rebels are universally despised. Anyone could have hired the assassin, with no knowledge whatsoever that the Jedi would be there. The Cerean's death was an unfortunate accident, not some sinister plot."
"I fear the Jedi may not be so easily convinced," the king replied.
"Then let me speak to them," Serra offered. "Send me to Coruscant. I will make them understand that you had no part in this."
"I have seen you in the halls these past months," the king told her. "I know the pain you still carryover my son's loss. I cannot ask you to do this while you are still mourning his death."
"That is why I must be the one to go," Serra countered. "The Jedi will be more willing to show compassion to a grieving widow. Let me do this for you, Sire. It's what Gerran would have wanted."
The king considered her offer briefly before nodding.
Serra rose and took her leave with a bow. Lucia fell into step behind her as she left the throne room, only pausing at the doors long enough to collect her weapons.
Only when they were back in the privacy of the princess's chamber with the door closed carefully behind them did either of them dare to speak.
"Take this somewhere and burn it," Serra spat as she ripped the mourning veil from her head and cast it down to the floor. "I never want to see it again."
"I have something to confess," Lucia said as she scooped the discarded garment up from the floor.
Serra turned to look at her, but Lucia couldn't read the expression on her face.
"I'm the one who hired the assassin that killed Gelba," she said, speaking quickly to get the words out.
She wanted to say so much more. She wanted to explain that she had known nothing about the Jedi being on Doan. She needed Serra to understand that she had done it only for her sake.
Lucia had always sensed a darkness in the healer, a shadow on her spirit. With Gerran's death that shadow had grown. She had seen her friend slipping into bleak despair as the weeks turned to months, listlessly wandering the halls of the castle in her black mourning garb like some tormented ghost.
All she wanted was to try to ease the princess's suffering. She thought that maybe if those responsible for Gerran's death were made to pay, Serra could find closure, could move on and come out from the shadow that had fallen over her.
She wanted to say all this, but she couldn't. She was just a soldier; she wasn't any good with words.
Serra stepped forward and wrapped her arms around her in a long, gentle hug.
"When the king spoke of someone hiring an assassin to avenge Gerran's death, I thought it might be you," she whispered. "Thank you."
And Lucia knew she didn't have to tell the princess all the things she wanted to say. Her friend already knew.
"I think you should tell the king," Lucia said when the princess finally broke off her embrace.
"He'd have you arrested," Serra said with a firm shake of her head. "Or at the very least dismissed from your post. I can't have that. I need you at my side when I go to Coruscant."
"You still plan to speak with the Jedi?" she asked, mildly surprised. "What are you going to tell them?"
"Medd's death was an accident. The king was not involved. That is all they need to know."
Lucia had her doubts, but she knew the princess well enough to realize that arguing the point would be a waste of time. Serra had no intention of turning her in to either the king or the Jedi, But she couldn't just let it go at that.
"I never meant to cause any trouble for you. Or the king. I'm sorry."
"Don't ever apologize for this!" Serra shot back. "Gelba and her followers got exactly what they deserved. My only regret is that I wasn't there to see it myself."
The venom in her words-the raw anger and hatred-caught Lucia off guard. Instinctively, she took a step back, recoiling from her friend. But then Serra smiled, and the awkward moment was gone.
"We need to leave as soon as possible," the princess noted. "It won't do to keep the Council waiting."
"I'll make the arrangements," Lucia replied, though she knew it would be several days before their actual departure. As the princess, it wasn't easy for Serra to simply leave Doan-there were diplomatic protocols and bureaucratic procedures that had to be followed.
"This will all work out," Serra reassured her, coming over to place a comforting hand on Lucia's arm. "Gelba is dead. My husband is avenged. A quick meeting with one of the Jedi Masters and this whole incident will be behind us."
Lucia nodded, but she knew it wouldn't be that simple. This wasn't just going to go away. The death of the Jedi had set in motion a chain of events-one she feared might end very badly for both of them.