From the rear of Lorell Hall on Hapes, Leia was a bright white speck against the blue-black of the night sky, visible through the towering panoramic windows at her back. Rising at a sharp angle from the ramparts of the sandstone bluff that dominated the capital city, the assembly hall enjoyed a breathtaking view of the Transitory Mists and, just now, four of the planet's seven moons. So seamless was the illusion that people seated in the lower-tier seats might have easily imagined themselves aboard a space vessel, advancing on the star that was Ambassador Organa Solo.
"Esteemed representatives of the Hapes Consortium of worlds," she began in a voice that surrendered none of its resolve even in the farthest reaches of the hall. "Eighteen years ago, following the New Republic's conquest of Imperial Center, I came before you to solicit financial support for a fledgling government bankrupted by war and plagued by an insidious virus that was killing thousands of nonhumans with each passing day.
"That visit unlocked a gateway between our respective regions of space that had been sealed for the previous three thousand years but has remained open ever since. In fact, not long after my initial visit, the Consortium graced Coruscant with a stay, during which you bestowed upon us treasures we had scarcely dreamed existed -- rainbow gems, thought puzzles, and trees of wisdom, along with a dozen Star Destroyers you had captured from Imperial warlords who had sought to intrude on your domain.
"It was thought then that the New Republic and the Consortium might enter into an alliance through matrimony -- though destiny had other unions in store for the would-be partners in that marriage."
Gracious laughter and hushed exchanges swept through the audience, and scattered clapping modulated to extended applause.
Leia took the opportunity to glance behind and to the right, where Prince Isolder was leaning forward in expectation of just such an acknowledgment. Beside him, also smiling and elegantly attired, sat his wife, Queen Mother Teneniel Djo of Dathomir, her fingers sparkling with lava node rings and her auburn hair bound by a dazzling tiara of rainbow gems, dawnstars, and ice moons.
Alongside Teneniel sat her mother-in-law, Ta'a Chume, her gray hair elaborately coifed and only her eyes visible above a scarlet veil. Behind them sat several dignitaries and officials, including the Consortium's ambassador to the New Republic.
Coruscant's ambassador to Hapes was seated to the left of the podium, also among sundry dignitaries and officials, though beside her sat the Jedi daughter of Isolder and Teneniel, Tenel Ka. The biceps of her truncated left arm -- severed above the elbow years earlier in a lightsaber training match with Jacen -- was adorned with bands of electrum, and a lightsaber dangled from the narrow belt that cinched her robe.
In the wings stood C-3PO, newly polished, and Olmahk, incensed at having been made to wear piped leggings, a dress tunic, and a tight-fitting cap.
"My friends," Leia continued as the applause was dying down, "the New Republic and the Consortium have never been anything but allies. But I come before you tonight with a request that is sure to test the bonds of that alliance. And in place of gifts I bring only an urgent warning."
A guarded silence fell over the gathering.
"Speaking for the New Republic, I respect the high value you have long placed on isolation." Without looking, she gestured broadly at the panoramic window behind her. "Were Coruscant blessed with a heavenly phenomenon as majestic as the Transitory Mists, the New Republic, too, might have chosen a more introspective, self-nurturing course. But sadly that is not the case.
"A great shadow has been cast on the galaxy, eclipsing many New Republic member worlds, and a call to arms has been issued far and wide. Though Hapes, Charubah, Maires, Gallinore, Arabanth, and the other worlds that make up the Consortium have yet to be thrown into darkness, that circumstance is unlikely to endure. For so grim is this shadow, so monstrous and so far-reaching, it may well have the power to extinguish all light."
Leia paused and remained silent until the agitated murmuring quieted. "The source of this shadow lies outside the confines of our galaxy, but the intention of those who cast it is clear: conquest -- unequivocal and thorough. They are called the Yuuzhan Vong, and as I speak they are poised to invade the Colonies and the Core."
Again, Leia waited for the murmuring to exhaust itself.
"Peaceful coexistence is not an option, for the Yuuzhan Vong seek nothing less than to remake the galaxy in their own image -- to have all of us swear allegiance to the gods they worship and in whose name they launched their campaign. To avoid conflict, some worlds have already surrendered. And given what the Yuuzhan Vong have done to worlds that resisted, one can hardly fault anyone for capitulating. But the New Republic will neither bargain nor surrender. The invasion must be halted, and that can be effected only through a unified effort on the part of those worlds that choose freedom over enslavement."
Leia planted her hands flat on the podium and let her gaze roam the audience.
"I won't mince words. New Republic Senator Elegos A'Kla tried to sue for peace and was brutally murdered. The New Republic Defense Force tried and failed to save Ithor, Obroa-skai, and scores of other worlds. The Hutts have apparently struck a deal with the Yuuzhan Vong that allows the invaders to occupy and utilize Hutt worlds for resources essential to the invasion.
"Now I ask the Consortium to decide which course it will pursue.
"I do not make this request lightly, for there's a chance, however remote, that the Yuuzhan Vong will leave the Hapes Cluster undisturbed, in which case you will be fighting for a cause rather than for survival. If forced, the New Republic will wage this battle alone, but the odds of victory will be greatly enhanced by military support from the Consortium."
She took a breath and showed the palms of her hands. "I can promise nothing in return for such support, for the future is uncertain. But I urge all of you to consider carefully whom you wish to have as galactic neighbors, and as well to recall what Emperor Palpatine was able to achieve by dimming the light of so many worlds with his own shadow.
"I thank you all for attending to one forced to resort to words to express what her heart contains."
The hall couldn't have been more silent if it had been catapulted into deep space.
"Delegate Miilarta," Ta'a Chume said, "Ambassador Organa Solo. Ambassador Solo, Lol Miilarta of Terephon."
Leia extended her hand with practiced graciousness, and Miilarta shook it. "Charmed, Ambassador," she said, then lowered her voice to add, "I can assure you that Terephon will vote to render aid."
Leia smiled with her eyes. "The New Republic thanks you."
Miilarta bowed smartly and moved down the reception line. In the formal way that typified such functions, Leia introduced her to the New Republic's Ambassador to the Consortium, then turned back to Ta'a Chume, who introduced the equally beautiful female delegate from Ut, the world that had sent a song on the occasion of the Consortium's visit to Coruscant.
Standing behind Leia, C-3PO whispered into her right ear, "Delegate Miilarta brings the count to thirty-one worlds, Mistress. You are effectively halfway to completion."
Leia glanced down the reception line, which--with husbands, wives, mistresses, and children--wound nearly to the grand entrance of the Fountain Palace, home to the Hapes royal family.
"Tiring of the formalities, Ambassador?" Ta'a Chume asked from behind her veil.
Leia turned slightly to regard her. "Not at all."
"You mean to say that you don't find the process somewhat -- how shall I put it? -- antiquated?"
"Actually, it makes me think of Alderaan."
"Alderaan? You surprise me, Leia. Equating a former cynosure of democracy to a matriarchy founded by pirates. What can you be thinking?"
Leia smiled to herself. "In the interest of getting things done, the New Republic has dispensed with ceremony. But I sometimes miss the pomp and circumstance of the Old Republic, and Hapes feels like a fond memory frozen in time."
The scarlet half-veil kept secret Ta'a Chume's expression, but her tone of voice belied a bemused grin. "Why, how sweet of you to reduce our way of life to mere nostalgia."
"You mistake my meaning, Ta'a Chume -- with purpose, I think." Leia swept her eyes over the reception room. "This might have been my life, if not for the Empire. The grandeur, the propriety...the intrigues."
Ta'a Chume's eyes narrowed. "Ah, but it could easily have been yours, my dear. It was you who chose Han Solo over my son."
Leia looked at Chume'da Isolder, who stood tall, impeccably dressed, and incurably handsome at the head of the reception line. Yes, she told herself, I chose a two-fisted rogue without a credit to his name over a scion of pirates with pockets deep enough to finance his own war. And thank the stars for that. Childhood memories were one thing, but examined in the light of middle age they surrendered some of their charm. Leia could no more imagine herself a proper princess than she could an actress or an entrepreneur. She glanced over at Teneniel Djo -- hands folded in front of her and chin lifted in regal deportment -- and shuddered at the thought of standing in Teneniel's thousand-credit slippers.
And yet even while she was thinking it, apprehension nibbled at her contentment. With Han off on his own, distant in more ways than one, the future they forged had grown formless and clouded. She hated having to worry about him, but in fact, she missed him terribly, and the trappings of royalty, the glance down a path not taken, left her feeling cold and alienated.
"Archon Thane," Ta'a Chume was saying, "Ambassador Organa Solo. Ambassador Solo, Archon Beed Thane of Vergill."
Robust, fully bearded, head and shoulders taller than Leia, Thane was one of the Consortium's few male delegates. He glowered as he stepped in front of her. "Ambassador Solo," he said, slurring his words. "The infamous Jedi."
Ta'a Chume stiffened. "I would caution you to keep a civil tongue, Archon. Or have we perhaps sipped too freely of the drink we provided?"
Thane nodded in a bow. "Your pardon, Most Revered Ereneda," he said, using the title reserved for Hapan queen mothers, past or present. "You generosity has certainly undone me."
Leia reached out with her feelings. Thane wasn't drunk; he was merely acting drunk. "I am not a Jedi, Archon," she told him. "As to my infamy -- it is certainly your prerogative to think what you will."
He swung to her. "Spoken like a Jedi: calmly, in full possession. A statement weaker minds might be inclined to embrace as the full truth."
"Careful, Archon," Ta'a Chume seethed under her breath. "I'm certain you don't wish to cause a scene."
Leia folded her arms across her chest. "A scene is precisely his wish, Ta'a Chume. Why deny him his fun?"
Thane vouchsafed a thin smile. "I happened to be on Coruscant when you went before the senate to deliver the same speech you made us sit through tonight. How it must have vexed your Jedi nature to be ignored."
"Perhaps you didn't hear me the first time, Archon -- "
"If he has a problem with the Jedi, he can address his concerns to me."
Tenel Ka was suddenly standing alongside Leia, her hand resting lightly on the rancor-tooth-inlaid grip of her lightsaber. Querulous and stubborn by nature, Tenel Ka had always been quick to take on a fight, and just now her gray eyes were boring into Thane's.
But the archon stood his ground, smiling nastily. "Why, it's the Dathomiri who rejects her Hapan heritage, yet deigned to save the royal family from the machinations of the Ambassador Yfra." His gaze moved up and down the reception line. "Isn't this the happy group."
A crown had begun to form around Thane, and conversations throughout the vast room began to subside. Out of the corner of her eye Leia saw Prince Isolder making a direct line for the center of the commotion.
"We have only the ambassador's word that the Yuuzhan Vong can't be dealt with," Thane was telling everyone within earshot. "And if what she says about forming a united front is true, why is the New Republic divided about where to deploy its fleets and to which systems it should render aid?" He turned through a circle as he spoke. "Is this what we want for the Consortium -- a factioned leadership? As archon of Vergill I say we remain neutral until such time as the invaders make certain their plans for the Consortium, either by word or force of arms."
He gestured toward Leia. "She comes to us, asking a favor and bringing only the gift of a warning. Why not the gift of the quick-recharge turbolaser technology the New Republic has withheld for so many years?"
"That'll be enough, Thane," Isolder said angrily. "This isn't the time or place for a political debate. If you can't abide by the rules of decorum -- "
"You'll toss me out of your palace?" Thane cut him off. "You'd sooner host the descendants of those Jedi who killed your ancestors than someone who dares speak the truth in your presence?"
"Enough," Isolder snapped.
But Thane was far from finished; he played to the crowd once more. "He prefers the company of a daughter who has denounced her Hapan heritage..."
Tenel Ka took a forward step, only to be blocked by her father.
"...and a speaker of half-truths like Ambassador Solo -- "
Demonstrating uncanny speed and precision, Isolder backhanded Thane across the face, knocking him into the crowd and drawing blood from his lower lip. Instantly Isolder's longtime friend and former bodyguard Captain Astarta was at his side, flinging a thick braid of red hair over her shoulder and positioning her hands to parry or strike, as need be.
Two of Thane's supporters had rushed to take him by the arms and stand him on his feet, but now he threw them aside, wiped his hand across his mouth, and snorted a laugh at Isolder.
"The spurned suitor to the rescue."
Leia's heart sank. She could feel Isolder battling to control his rage. As angry as she was at him for allowing himself to be provoked, she couldn't help but dread Thane's next move.
"My seconds will call on you in the morning, Chume'da Isolder," the archon of Vergill said with complete sobriety.
Isolder returned a formal nod of assent. "My seconds will be waiting to greet them."
"Thus begins the schism," Ta'a Chume said in a sad, quiet voice as Thane and his supporters headed for the door.