Tenel Ka sensed the hole in the Force the instant she entered the bedchamber. It was lurking in the black depths of the corner farthest from the entrance, a void so subtle she recognized it only by the surrounding stillness. She moved quickly through the doorway, her spine tingling with a ripple of danger sense so delicate it made her blood race.
Before her lady-in-waiting could enter the room behind her, she looked back over her shoulder and called, “That will be all, Lady Aros. Ask DeDeToo to lock down the nursery.”
“Lock it down, Majesty?” Aros stopped at the threshold, a slender silhouette still holding the evening gown Tenel Ka had just removed. “Is there something I need to—”
“Just a precaution,” Tenel Ka interrupted. Her robe was still hanging inside her refresher suite, so she was standing in her underclothes. “I know our embassy should be secure, but this is Coruscant.”
“Of course . . .” Aros dipped her chin. “The terrorists. This rach warren of a planet is absolutely teeming with them.”
“Let’s not be too disparaging, shall we?” Tenel Ka chided. She casually reached down and unfastened the thigh holster where she carried her lightsaber. “We did have to call on Colonel Solo to dispose of a few raches of our own recently.”
“I didn’t mean anything negative about the colonel,” Aros said, practically cooing the reference to Jacen. After his recent heroics defending Tenel Ka against the traitors trying to usurp her throne, he had become something of a sex symbol to half the women in the Hapes Consortium . . . Tenel Ka included. “Quite the opposite. If not for Colonel Solo, I’m sure Coruscant would have sunk into anarchy by now.”
“No doubt,” Tenel Ka said, casually shifting her grasp on the holster so that she held her lightsaber by its hilt. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I believe I can turn down my own sheets tonight.”
Aros acknowledged the order with a bow and withdrew into the anteroom. Tenel Ka used her elbow to depress a tap pad on the wall. Half a dozen wall sconces glimmered to life, revealing a chamber as ridiculously opulent as the rest of the embassy’s Royal Wing. There were three separate seating areas, a life-sized HoloNet transceiver, and a huge hamogoni wood desk stocked with stacks of flimsiplast bearing the Hapan Royal Crest. On the far side of the chamber, a dreamsilk canopy shimmered above a float-rest bed large enough to sleep Tenel Ka and her ten closest friends.
Despite the two sconces flanking it, the room’s farthest corner—the one near her refresher suite—remained ominously dark. Tenel Ka could not sense any sort of optical field keeping it that way, but then again, the only thing she could sense was . . . well, nothing. She reached out with the Force to make certain Aros was not eavesdropping from the other side of the door, then ignited her lightsaber and took a few steps toward the corner.
“You would be wise to show yourself,” Tenel Ka said. “I have no patience for voyeurs . . . as you should well know by now.”
“I’m a slow learner.” The darkness melted away, revealing a tall, shadow-eyed figure with a melancholy echo of his father’s famous lopsided grin. He was dressed in black GAG utilities and smelled faintly of hyperdrive fuel, as though he had come to her straight from a space hangar. “And I don’t usually get caught. My camouflage powers must be slipping.”
“No, Jacen. I am just growing better at sensing your presence.” Tenel Ka deactivated her lightsaber and tossed it on the bed, then smiled warmly and opened her arms to him. “I was hoping you would find time to call.”
Jacen cocked his brow, then let his gaze slide down her body. “So I see.”
“Well?” Tenel Ka asked. “Are you just going to stand there gawking? Or are you going to do something about it?”
Jacen chuckled, then stepped out of the corner and crossed to her. His Force presence remained undetectable—he was so accustomed to concealing himself that he did so even around Tenel Ka—but she could tell by the shine in his eyes how happy he was to see her. She slipped a hand behind his neck and drew his mouth to hers.
Jacen obliged, but his kiss was warm rather than hot, and she could tell that tonight his heart was not entirely hers. She stepped back, embarrassed to realize how insensitive she was being.
“Forgive me if I seem too joyful,” she said, able to perceive now the sadness that tinged his hard eyes, the grief that tainted his clenched jaw. “Tomorrow is Mara’s funeral. Of course you have other things on your mind.”
Jacen’s snort was so gentle that Tenel Ka almost did not hear it.
“It’s okay.” He took her hand, but the softness had vanished from his face, leaving in its place only the stoic, unreadable mask that he had worn since his escape from the Yuuzhan Vong. “I wasn’t thinking about Mara.”
Tenel Ka eyed him doubtfully.
“Well, not exclusively,” Jacen admitted. “I’m happy to see you, too.”
“Thank you, but I’m not offended,” Tenel Ka said. “Our thoughts should be on your aunt tonight. Have you found her killer yet?”
Jacen’s face flickered with emotion—whether it was anger or resentment was impossible to say—and something like guilt flashed through the Force so quickly that Tenel Ka was still trying to identify it when Jacen closed down again.
“We’re still working on that.” Jacen’s tone was defensive, and his gaze slid away in . . . could that be shame? “We don’t have many leads, and I don’t like the direction they’re going.”
“That is very cryptic,” Tenel Ka observed. “Can you—”
“Not yet,” Jacen said, shaking his head. “It’s still early in the investigation, and I don’t want to taint anyone’s reputation.”
Tenel Ka frowned at the implication. “You think it was someone inside the GA?”
Jacen flashed a mock scowl. “Did I say that?”
“Yes.” Tenel Ka looped her hand through the elbow of his black utilities and changed the subject. “But it was thoughtless of me to ask about the investigation, especially with the funeral tomorrow. I hope you’ll—”
“Don’t apologize.” Jacen detached himself and moved to the nearest couch, then sat on the arm. “The truth is, I haven’t been doing very much to find her killer. The Alliance has higher priorities at the moment.”
Jacen nodded. “I’m sure you’re receiving the military’s briefing holos.”
“Of course.” In fact, the holos had been arriving twice a day for nearly a week now, along with urgent requests for Hapan reinforcements, which Tenel Ka could not provide. “Don’t tell me that Admiral Niathal has prevailed on you to talk me out of my last fleet?”
Instead of answering, Jacen slipped over the couch arm onto a cushion, then sat staring into the flame tube that was the focal point of the seating area.
“I see,” Tenel Ka said, astonished that Jacen would agree to even attempt such a thing. He knew as well as she did that granting the Alliance request would place both their daughter and her throne in profound danger. “There is nothing to send, Jacen. As it is, the Home Fleet is barely enough to secure the Consortium from my own nobles.”
“You still need to hear this.” Jacen continued to stare into the swirling tongues of blue inside the flame tube. “You’re aware that Corellia and Bothawui are moving against Kuat, right?”
Tenel Ka nodded. “While the Hutts and Commenor make preparations to attack Balmorra.” She retrieved her dressing gown from inside the refresher, then added, “I do watch those holos they keep sending me.”
“Sorry—just making sure,” Jacen said. “But what the briefings don’t say—what they can’t say—is that after the battle at Balmorra, the Confederation is going to mass its fleets at Kuat. Whoever wins there wins the war.”
“Military planners always think the next big space battle will end the war.” Tenel Ka slipped the dressing gown over her shoulders and returned to the seating area. “They’re usually wrong.”
“This doesn’t come from the planners,” Jacen said. “I’ve seen it . . . in the Force.”
“Oh.” Tenel Ka dropped into a chair adjacent to Jacen’s, stunned by the implications of what she had just heard. If Jacen’s Force-vision was accurate—and she knew enough about his Force powers to think it would be—the Confederation would soon have a massive force in position to threaten Coruscant herself. “I see why you are worried.”
“Worried might be an understatement,” Jacen replied. “So would terrified. The Alliance just doesn’t have the strength to stop them yet.”
“Yet?” Tenel Ka asked. “Are you telling me that Thrackan Sal-Solo wasn’t the only one building secret fleets?”
Jacen shook his head. “Sorry. I’m talking about the Wookiees. Kashyyyk is certain to assign their assault fleet to our command, and that will tip the balance back in the Alliance’s favor.”
“I doubt the Confederation is going to wait that long,” Tenel Ka said, almost bitterly. Alliance holochannels were filled with impatient speculation about the endless debate on Kashyyyk, with the commentary ranging from simple impatience to accusations of cowardice. “Are you telling me the public reports are misdirection?”
“Not a bad idea, but no,” Jacen said. “I’m telling you that our agents assure us it’s a matter of when, not if.”
“In this instance, when is if,” Tenel Ka said. “Wookiees are very stubborn. By the time they finish their deliberations, the Confederation will be storming Coruscant.”
“I hope you’re wrong.” Jacen tore his eyes from the flame tube, then met Tenel Ka’s gaze. For once, she could sense his emotions through the Force, could feel how frightened and worried he truly was. “But I just don’t know.”
“I see,” Tenel Ka said, finally starting to realize what Jacen was trying to tell her. “And you didn’t come to ask for the Home Fleet?”
Jacen shook his head. “Not really.”
“I was afraid of that.” Tenel Ka sank back in her chair, calling on the Force to keep her heart rate under control, her thoughts focused. “So you only came to warn me that the Galactic Alliance is about to collapse.”
“Well, that’s not the only reason.” Jacen grinned and cocked an eyebrow.
Tenel Ka groaned. “This is no time for jokes, Jacen. Your timing is worse than when we were teenagers.”
“Okay, then I could use some advice instead,” Jacen said, accepting the rebuff as gracefully as he had when they were younger. “Have any?”
Tenel Ka’s answer was immediate. “The Jedi could do something. Perhaps they could launch a StealthX raid, or perhaps Master Skywalker could speak to—”
“I asked for advice, not wishful thinking.” Jacen’s voice was suddenly sharp. “The Jedi won’t lift a finger to help us. They’re practically traitors themselves.”
“Jacen, that’s not true,” Tenel Ka said, refusing to be intimidated. “The Jedi have supported the Galactic Alliance since its inception, and Master Skywalker is on the same side you are. If the Alliance is to be saved, you two must put aside your differences and work together.”
A flash of fear flickered through Jacen’s eyes, then he looked away, reminding Tenel Ka of some petulant courtier refusing to acknowledge a rebuke.
“And if we can’t?” he asked.
“Can you stop the enemy’s advance without the Jedi?”
Jacen shook his head. “Not at the moment—and maybe not with them.”
“Then what choice is there?” Tenel Ka made the question a command. “The Jedi Council is unhappy about your coup, but the Masters will not stand idle while the Alliance falls—especially not if you grant concessions.”
Jacen fell silent a moment, then turned to face Tenel Ka. “It’s more complicated than that. Luke hasn’t been himself since Mara died.” His dark brows arched in concern. “He barely talks to anyone, and he’s drawn in on himself so far he’s practically cut off from the Force.”
“Surely you don’t expect him to remain unaffected by his wife’s death?”
“It’s more than grief,” Jacen said. “You heard about Lumiya?”
“I heard that he truly killed her this time.” Tenel Ka’s answer was cautious, for the ’Net had been full of reports linking Lumiya’s death to Mara’s—until the Jedi Council had issued a terse statement asserting that Lumiya’s demise involved other matters. “It’s hard to believe the timing was purely coincidental.”
“It wasn’t,” Jacen said. “I’m afraid it was a vengeance killing.”
“A vengeance killing?” Tenel Ka shook her head in disbelief. “Even if Master Skywalker would do such a thing, it doesn’t make sense. The Jedi Council itself said that Lumiya had nothing to do with Mara’s death.”
“Luke didn’t discover that until after he killed Lumiya—and that’s when he began to draw in on himself.” Jacen leaned forward, propping his elbows on his knees and staring at the polished larmalstone between his boots. “I think he’s having a crisis of confidence, Tenel Ka. I think he’s stopped trusting himself . . . and the Force.”
Tenel Ka frowned. She had the feeling that Jacen was forcing his emotions; that he was merely trying to be concerned while secretly relishing his uncle’s mistake. And who could blame him? Master Skywalker had accused Jacen of some fairly terrible things lately—such as collaborating with a Sith and staging an illegal coup—so it would only be natural to gloat when his denouncer did something even worse.
After a moment, she said, “Perhaps you’re right, Jacen. That would explain why Master Sebatyne turned me away when I tried to call on your uncle.”
“Luke wouldn’t see you?” Jacen was incredulous. “Then matters are worse than I thought. He can’t be up to his duties.”
“That is more than understandable.” While it saddened Tenel Ka to think of Master Skywalker’s pain—and Ben’s—she shared Jacen’s alarm. Now was a disastrous time for the Alliance to be without its Jedi. “But Master Skywalker is not the only member of the Jedi Council. You can still ask for their help.”
“I can try,” Jacen countered. “But I’ve already reached out to individual Masters.”
“They’re all against me.” Jacen spoke matter-of-factly, merely reporting the truth as he saw it. “They think I’m trying to take advantage of the situation. Until I have Luke’s support, I can talk myself breathless. The Jedi are not going to cooperate.”
Excerpted from Inferno: Star Wars (Legacy of the Force) by Troy Denning. Copyright © 2007 by Troy Denning. Excerpted by permission of LucasBooks, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.